"So, why did she chase you out of her bed, Popeye?"
"I wanted to sleep with you."
Three years my junior, fainthearted, and a curly head shorter, Jeremiah stood gloating in a shaft of amber streetlight. On the eve of his eighth birthday, Mother had escorted him into my bedroom. "Your big brother's going to look out for you now, son. Over the years you share this bed, each of you will confide in the other's stories—most of which a mama should never hear."
She turned to me. "Maybe I should have done this sooner, Ethan. Guide and protect your dear brother. It's a dark, old road we travel. God willing, you will always have each other, my young men."
She gently shut our door and padded back across the hallway.
He eyed me warily.
"Look," I cautioned him, "this is my room. Everything in it belongs to me. The cracks in the ceiling even. They all go by titles of the world's great rivers. And there are ghosts in here too. In each corner and under the bed. Most of them are friendly. But they, too, all got names. And I ain't tellin' you 'bout the ones in the closet. You think just my Sunday suit is hanging in there? Well, guess again, Popeye. Also, you hear that tappin' on the window?"
I could always jack up his imagination.
"That one lookin' out over the backyard and the creek. Do you hear it?"
Jeremiah stared at his reflection in the glass.
"You know whose hand that is causin' that rat-tat-tat? Huh?"
Over my bed hung a plastic crucifix that glowed an anemic, neon apple-green in the dark. Sometimes I lifted it off its hook and took it under the covers when I made a tent. I gestured Jeremiah to crawl in next to me.
"Grab ahold of Jesus," I said.
He shook his head like he was afraid.
"Go on. Mama said you were a little man. You a chickenshit instead, Popeye? Grab Jesus, for chrissake." I threw the covers over our heads and brought my face to his. The crucifix radiated in his clutched hand. "On Jesus' name, Popeye, everything that occurs in this here room that Ma says is now yours too stays here. You got it? This is our secret place. We talk to each other about things we could never tell anybody else. Even our own mother. And if you keep your word, nothin' in the corners of the room or under the bed or, God forbid, what's in the big closet, will ever harm you. Even the tapper on the window. But if you violate my trust, the trust of our inner sanctum—"
"What's that, Ethan?" he interrupted.
"It's the breath we share. Like now, in the green light of Jesus. You understand?"
He nodded vigorously.
With that, I tossed the covers off and turned on the reading light that hung on our headboard. The crucifix had begun to fade.
"Give him another shot," I said.
Jeremiah held Christ under the Westinghouse bulb.
I lay back with my arms behind my head.
"You said you were going to tell me who's tappin' on the window, Ethan."
"It's Jimmy Tinsley."
• • •
One Saturday Jimmy—I called him Cricket 'cause of his scratchy voice—and I'd gone up the road to the town dump with our BB guns to shoot rats. There was an abandoned limestone quarry at the end of our road, and the haulers would back up to unload the trash into the quarry ravines. Fires burned nonstop in the massive pit, causing smoke to halo our neighborhood in a toxic haze, plus the site was a breeding ground for rats as huge as alley cats. Depending on the way the wind blew, Ma had to shut all the windows in our bungalow, even during the hottest spell of summer.
Well, Tinsley grew tired of pinging the alley-cat rats with the copper pellets and insisted we climb down one of the mountains of smoldering trash to look for treasures. I resisted and he began calling me "pucker-ass." When I didn't follow him, he started to hurl empty cans at me. Some of them held rusty water. A putrid, sour smell of one laced my shirt. Livid, I dipped a piece of lath wood into a fermenting jar of mayonnaise and flung a glob of the rancid gunk, smacking my friend in the kisser. It oozed across his mouth, nose, and eyes like bilious phlegm.
Tinsley began caterwauling, swearing I blinded him. He raced out of the dump and down our road, toward home, with me in his wake, yelling, "Wait up! I'm sorry!" He choked and coughed all the way before collapsing and retching on the front lawn of a house several up from mine.
I stripped off my T-shirt—gagging all the while—and wiped the stinking mayo off my friend's mug. "You won't tell your ma, please, Cricket. You won't, will you?" He was too sick to be angry at me. I was afraid of being punished, because Tinsley's mother and mine were close friends. "Jesus, I'm sorry. I didn't mean it. Honest to God. You won't tell, will you?"
He didn't answer. But he'd ceased retching.
"You know that gasoline Maytag washing machine motor in my basement," I said. "Well, you and me could build the best cart in all of Hebron with it. We'll take the wheels off my old wagon and go to the junkyard for a steering wheel and—"
Jimmy brightened. "Yeah? Well, I got some wooden crates we could use. And reflectors. And an old bicycle light for night riding."
We were friends again.
• • •
A week later I spied Franco DiNunci's black ambulance. The undertaker's hearse doubled as his meat wagon. A siren that looked like a howitzer shell was stuck on the Packard's roof, screaming. Cricket looked as green as the rancid mayo in the coffin window.
I waved, but my friend stared back accusingly.
Mother sat at the kitchen dinette, looking glum when I arrived home. "I just saw Jimmy in the ambulance, Ma."
"He's got polio," she said. Mrs. Tinsley had already phoned. "They think he contracted it while helping out at Roger's Creamery. He's got a little job there washing returned milk bottles."
That night, as I lay in bed praying for my friend, Ma knocked on my door.
The streetlights had clicked on, and I could see a wedge of illumination bloom across my window. She stood in the threshold, mostly a black outline, with the full ocher light that had fired the hallway window behind her. Ma spoke in barely a whisper.
"Jimmy Tinsley met Jesus tonight, Ethan."
"It's the mayo!" I cried.
• • •
Since his passing, and only after dark—I never knew when he'd show—Tinsley would tap on the window with a lucky stone he'd carried from the grave. I could see his face—bilious, like the salad dressing.
I'd crawl under the covers with the crucifix, trying to ignore his beckoning.
Tap-tap, tap-tap, tap.
Actually, I was relieved that now I had a bed partner. Jeremiah would have to listen to Cricket too.
• • •
The first several nights of our sharing the same bed, I knew Popeye agonized over the ghosts who shared our room. He'd lie paralyzed, his gaze fixed on the ceiling fixture. Also, being a "young man," he realized he could not so easily crawl back into Mama's bed. I admired the scrawny, whey-faced kid, because he had begun to betray the first blush of bravery. So I gave him the first lesson in escaping the demons.
He didn't like that expression.
"Look," I said, "it's simple. Mind over matter. Those cracks in the ceiling plaster I told you about? Well, they are actually rivers. The ones that begin in Mama's room and flow into ours—are the Tigris and Euphrates. Just above the bureau mirror, the Ganges. Alongside it, the Danube. Nearer the bed and snaking above our heads, the Monongahela and Allegheny feeding into the Ohio, which in turn—Popeye, are you watchin', dammit?—roll into the Mississippi. Then, over there by the backyard window, is the Colorado.
"Now, picture them in your head. In Sunday school you hear about the Tigris and Euphrates. Hindus bathe in the Ganges; it purifies them. For Danube, think waltz, old folks dancing. Down under the Washington Street bridge in our town flows the Neshannock, and it rolls into the Allegheny. It and the Monongahela meet up in Pittsburgh to form the Ohio, and one day I'll tell you about Huck and Jim rollin' down the Mississippi in a raft. See how the cracks all kind of hook up? Then they empty into the sea."
"Where's the sea, Ethan?"
"I told you it works! What happened to the ghosts?" He turned dour again.
"Give Christ some more light," I said. Jeremiah turned on the bed lamp and made the crucifix glow bright. "If all else fails, Popeye."
He pulled the covers over our heads and held the crucifix between us. The neon radiance burnished his grin. "Mama never told me about any of this, Ethan. Is it true?"
"Everything we say and do in this room is true. Our world. And when anything goes wrong for you outside of it, Popeye, you can always come back home—in here, I mean—and everything will be made right. Tinsley's never going to break the glass, the ghosts are never going to harm us now that they have a place to go, and what's in the closet? Well, that will have to wait until you're older. But even that, I think, I got under control."
After a month of sleeping together, one night young Jeremiah cuddled, hanging an arm over my neck. I lay staring out the back window, actually able to see the moonlight silver the spit of creek that ran from the quarry, down through the neighbors' and our backyards, coursing toward the dark Neshannock.
"You awake, Ethan?"
"When you took off your jersey that day, to wipe Cricket's face, remember what color it was?"
"Red. The color of bricks in the school yard."
"Uh-huh, and what did you do with it, since it stank so bad?"
"Why do you want to know?"
"You won't tell Ma?"
"Like you said, everything stays here in this room."
"Tossed it in the creek out back."
"Ethan, do you hear Cricket tap-tap-tappin'?"
"I do. And he's wearin' your red jersey."
I couldn't see a thing. "You sure, Popeye?"
"Uh-huh." Like he wasn't frightened.
"Does he look angry, Popeye?"
"Nuh-uh. Just wavin' to us, like he wants us to come out and play down along the creek. It's where he must have washed your jersey, Ethan. Maybe he's got a fort down there, a camp where he lives during the day. Maybe you and me could go see sometime. Okay?"
• • •
Within a year of Jeremiah becoming my roommate, it became apparent that his imagination was more fecund than mine. Or, I should say, he embellished, to a considerable degree, what I expressed to him. The stark realities.
For example, during the night of the first snow, as he and I lay watching the gusting storm, for whatever reason, I happened to envision the billowing curtains in Tinsley's bedroom window the morning after he died. Cricket's window had been left open, and the bedsheet curtains flapped out over their porch roof. His mother, just days earlier, had appliquéd onto the white sheets a pair of heart-red dinghies with navy blue sails.
I'd told my brother about the sailboat bedsheets one evening.
Well, now Popeye saw one of the dinghies in our creek. "It has a bicycle light on its bow," he said. "And a steering wheel from an old Dodge sedan, like Mama's. Cricket's motioning we take a sail in the storm. He says you can steer, Ethan."
"Ain't nothin' down there in the creek," I shot, turning my back to him.
"Jimmy Tinsley says it someday flows into the Ohio, and, from there, to the Mississippi. You still gonna tell me about Huck and Jim?"
"When they get to the sea, Ethan, is that like Heaven?"
"Well, since all these rivers on the ceiling go somewhere and since the quarry creek out back goes somewhere and since you and me are growin' up to go somewhere, are we all headed to the sea that ain't anywhere on our ceiling? Is it somewhere up there like Heaven? Is it when we die, Ethan? Is that the sea?"
"Jesus needs a shine," I said, aiming to change the subject.
I flicked on the bed lamp, and Popeye dutifully took Christ off the hook, bathing Him in the incandescent glow.
"So?" Jeremiah persisted.
"Don't know," I said. "I don't know where the so-called sea is. Maybe it is Heaven. We just don't know."
He looked fearful again, shades of the first night we slept together.
"You won't leave me, will you, Ethan?"
"Of course not."
"I mean, we'll go to sea together, right?"
"Of course. Now go to sleep."
"Not like you abandoned Cricket, right?"
"Tinsley ain't my brother. Good night, Popeye."
He pressed the warm-bodied crucifix against my cheek. "Remember, you promised."
• • •
The following spring and summer, before he entered junior high in the fall, it was Jeremiah who'd awake in the night and claim that Jimmy Tinsley was tapping on the window with the lucky stone. He'd shake me and ask if I couldn't see him too.
"You sure he ain't there?"
"Positive," I said. "Look, they go away after a while if you pretend they aren't there."
But the morning after yet another one of Tinsley's visits, the anguished witness on Popeye's face had settled in. My cure wasn't working.
Barely a week after school let out for summer vacation, our covers kicked off, I awoke one night, yearning for a cool breeze off the backyard creek, only to discover Jeremiah had abandoned our bed.
He's returned to sleep in Mama's room, I thought. I could barely wait until morning to shame him for refusing to grow up. What about all our secrets, Popeye? Our vows. I might as well have shared them with Tinsley too. Moments before I'd fallen back asleep, I heard him padding up the stairway. When he stood alongside our bed—oozing mud lathering his face, bare chest, arms, and hands, his pajama bottoms dripping creek water and puddling the linoleum—Popeye eyed me vacantly aloof.
"You mean you never went sailing with Cricket?" he asked matter-of-factly.
I leaped out of bed. "Christ, you're not going to crawl in next to me with all that shit dripping off you! Get a towel."
He stepped out of his bottoms, climbed back into bed, rolled over, facing the creek window as if nothing had happened.
"Please, I'm spent. You want to know what we did? Come out with us tomorrow night. I won't tell Mama."
I got right in his face and began shaking him.
"Don't fuck with me, Popeye! What the hell happened tonight?"
"Okay, okay," he soothed, leaning up against the headboard. "Jesus, take it easy. What's got into you?"
I don't like surprises. I never did. The moon lay a chalky path across the bottom of our bed.
"I want a cigarette," he said.
When he asked for a smoke, my first instinct was to snigger.
"Come on, Ethan. I know you got a pack of Lucky Strikes hidden in that damn closet."
Almost like he'd returned from the dead. I jammed his soaked pajama bottoms against the crack under our door so the smoke wouldn't alert Mother. I lit up and passed the cigarette to him, watching him take a drag, certain he'd choke. He didn't—nor did he smoke like a daisy.
As if a handful of years had been swallowed this night. Jeremiah was no longer the timorous sibling forever shadowing me.
"Where'd you go, Jeremiah?"
"Cricket sailed me up to the quarry."
"In the boat you told me about? The one with the junked car steering wheel and bicycle light on its prow?"
He inhaled, then blew a ring of smoke into the moonlight.
"Uh-huh. Weird sailing through our neighbors' backyards." Popeye spoke like he was recalling an enchanting dream. "All I could think as we passed the houses, the moonlight bathing their mirrored windows, was, 'Mr. and Mrs. Albertini are sound asleep. Lucy Demborski—a light is on in her bathroom; she must be awake. Pretty redhead, Nadine Lepore—wonder if she's...'" He began chuckling.
"What was Tinsley doin', Jeremiah?"
"Nothin'. Said he had to look out for boulders so we didn't get hung up."
"How did you get so damn muddy?"
"Draggin' the boat into shore at the quarry."
"What'd you two do up there?"
"Talk about you."
That's when I was convinced he had been setting me up.
"What about me, Popeye?"
He shook the cigarette ashes into the cup of his hand, exactly how Cricket once did.
"That you didn't seem to give a shit about him anymore, ignorin' his rappin' on the window. 'Like I died,' he told me, Ethan."
"Well, didn't he?"
Jeremiah sighed, took a deep drag, and leaned over the side of our bed, stubbing his cigarette out on the linoleum. "I'll toss it in the mornin', Ethan. Mama'll never suspect."
• • •
When we awoke the next day, I convinced myself the memory of my brother standing at my bedside, dripping mud and creek water, had never transpired. The pjs were missing. Surely, the hallucination had been triggered by my guilt regarding Tinsley and how, early on, I relished spooking Jeremiah.
Except Popeye quit hanging around me, as he had in the past, stopped asking questions of every sort. He no longer yearned for my attention, and, besides, he'd taken up smoking on the sly. Yet, as far as I was aware, his rendezvous with Cricket ceased. Many the night I'd awaken to see if the kid's bedclothes were dry.
• • •
But after that surreal encounter and classes resumed, one blustery October evening, we were roused by the tapping on the window. I sat up in bed, alarmed, for I now suspected Cricket had, so to speak, been sharing Jeremiah's and my bed. My brother lay awake but didn't stir. The lucky stone alert grew more incessant.
"Popeye, get up. Tinsley's here!" The tapping now faded to a muffled, glass drumbeat.
"Don't worry," he murmured. "He'll go away."
"He's gonna wake Mama, for chrissake!"
"Just ignore him. Lie back down."
I dared to glance at the windowpane. There sat Cricket Tinsley on our back porch roof, his face smashed into the pane, mouthing something. His fleshy lips and tongue pulsed on a watery surface. Soon the glass began to buzz. All like he was speaking from underwater.
You, he seemed to be saying, pointing at our bed. You, you, you.
"He's saying, 'YOU,' Jeremiah. The fucker's crying, 'YOU.'"
Jeremiah lay still.
"What's he mean, Popeye?"
Jeremiah rolled over, sat up, and lifted the barely glowing crucifix off the wall, handing it to me.
"Christ needs a shot of the Westinghouse, Ethan."
"Cut the shit!" I cried.
He switched on our headboard lamp. When the crucifix radiated green, Jeremiah threw the quilt over our heads and, in its sickly glow, shot me a tortured look. "I think it's me," he said.
"You? But why? I don't understand."
Jeremiah gestured upward. "There's a river on our ceiling that we can't see. When Cricket and me sailed up the backyards to the quarry that night, he pointed out an inlet, a narrow passage of water, on its shadowy side and away from the fires—you know, where the limestone walls are so steep, we could never hike down to reach the shore. He said we'd follow it, nobody would miss us. Like nobody missed him. But I wasn't ready. I told him we'd sail it one day, if he took me back home.
"I got to keep my promise, bro. Then I'll come back, tap on the window and draw it for you with my finger. Show you how it wends its way to the sea.
"So you will know how to follow me."
He studied my face in the glimmer of the phosphorescent rood, like he was a seer or a preacher, and watched the fear flooding up inside me. "Oh, don't worry, Ethan. Christ, don't worry. You'll come when you're ready. Doesn't have to be soon. Enough of this now." He jerked the comforter off us and switched out the lamp, carefully hanging Christ back up on the hook.
I glanced over at the creek window. It was smeared, like somebody had signed its condensation with their hand.
"Don't tell Mama, brother," Jeremiah murmured, lying back down, before turning his back to me. "She'd never understand."