CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
CONJUNCTIONS:45, SECRET LIVES OF CHILDREN :::
On the broken slate under the Epstein’s carport, eight feet in eight canvas shoes made a circle. Inside the circle was a cherry sucker. An air of judgment reigned. The sucker was not ordinary; a confection not purely pink nor purely red; not thoroughly purple but laced with blue. Evie Epstein thought this must be the color of roses. Her parents often compared her to a rose. A rose that bloomed; a rose that lasted. “I think we should divide it,” said Gerald Muncie, squatting down. Gerald made a triangle with his fingers and, moving it here and there above the surface of the sucker, surveyed the territory to see how it would best divide. Gerald always wants to divide, Evie remarked, with pursed lips. He considers himself just, when in fact his solutions make everyone a loser.
It was the largest piece of candy they had ever seen, its sticky face almost the size of Melvin Muncie’s, its white stem long enough to hold with two hands. Melvin squatted down next to his brother. Though only six years old, he knew prophetically that Gerald would not win this battle; he will lose again; lose always. Melvin had been stuck on Gerald’s team his whole life waiting for a win, and yet, cunningly, the Epstein twins always got their way without the use of force. They were girls. Gerald was gentler than girls. He would not claim the sucker as he should, with might.
Melvin wanted it because he had never seen anything like it before; neither had Gerald. Evie claimed that she and Ivy had eaten one at Coney Island—a place the twins talked about with convincing authority, although they had only been there once, with their father, who had taken them when they had finally recovered from a persistent childhood illness.
“I think we should toss a coin,” Evie said. “If we break it into pieces, then no one gets the stick.” Ivy looked toward the house and then the street. She thought that decisions should not be made by children, and she hoped her father would come home from work or Mrs. Muncie would call the boys for dinner, and that the presence of an adult would somehow help the matter settle itself. Ivy did not particularly want the sucker, but she felt she deserved it; she had been the sicker of the two when the twins were young.
Gerald suggested rock-scissor-paper, knowing that Evie’s coin tosses tended to favor Evie. Gerald felt Melvin watching him. The decades-long awe that younger brothers often have for their older brothers had dissipated for Melvin by the age of three. Melvin saw through Gerald, quietly derided him. Prove me wrong, he begged, but Gerald never had.
Gerald would have liked to come out ahead in front of Melvin, but he could not bring himself to cheat or trick the twins. He had known them his entire life and they had been sick as young girls. They deserved fairness. Which of us does the sucker rightfully belong to? Gerald wondered, for it must belong to someone, as things always belong to someone, except perhaps things that grow in nature like grass. But (and his knees buckled; he sat on his bottom; Melvin sat too; the twins stood), but certainly a stick of candy does not grow in nature, and therefore it must belong to someone fairly. Gerald replayed the moment when, like a rainbow, the sucker had quietly come into view. Gwendolyn Brown had walked by in a pink dress. Her face was stained to match. The twins were on their lawn practicing cartwheels. Gerald and Melvin were on their own lawn, reading and pulling out grass, respectively. Every so often Melvin would violently throw a handful of grass at Gerald, and Gerald would ignore him, brush the blades from his hair. When Gwendolyn appeared, Gerald looked up from his book, then restrained himself and looked back down. Gwendolyn often walked the six blocks from her house in order to give or let them borrow something she owned. She owned lovely things. Multi-colored surprises. She was very generous, it seemed. And yet, profoundly, one wished that Gwendolyn would stop coming around.
“I’ve brought you a gift,” Gwendolyn said. The Epstein and Muncie children squinted. “It’s my third best.” She took something out of her purse and laid it in the grass directly on the dividing line between the Muncie’s property and the Epstein’s.
In the past, Gwendolyn had given them marbles and colored pencils, her goldfish and her red bike. With these gifts, she had introduced to their lives new kinds of grief. Envy, for example, when one’s brother or sister had a turn on the bike, or regret, when a marble rolled into the gutter. And one always had an unnameable feeling, a terrible feeling, when the gift was at last used up, lost, or returned. Now, although he would have liked to act properly, to play the hero Melvin longed to be related to, Gerald felt depressed by the sight of the sucker and he wished that it had never appeared.
Melvin was more certain than ever that his brother was soft. Too dumb to outfox the twins, too small to stake a claim. Gerald is eleven, Melvin marveled. The cusp of manhood and look at him there.
“Rock-scissor-paper won’t work,” said Evie, “Me and Ivy always throw the same thing.” To demonstrate, the girls made fists and counted to three. Both threw rock. They did it again. Both threw paper.
Yes, Gerald thought, this is true. He had seen this. The twins sat down; they all sat in a circle. Lawns were being mowed nearby. Maybe no one should get it, Gerald thought. Maybe we should preserve it and plant it with the perennials where our properties meet.
This is dull, Ivy thought, and she took out her jacks for nothing was happening. Children should not make decisions, of this she was sure. Besides they all knew that Evie would have her way, and why not? Perhaps the one who wants most should have. But then, Ivy thought, I was sicker. I have suffered more. Haven’t we known Gerald for a very long time? Ivy mused. Isn’t that nice? She picked up four jacks.
Then, Mrs. Muncie called, “Boys! Dinner!” from her front door. She couldn’t see the boys under the Epstein’s carport, but she knew they were in earshot. That was the rule.
No, Melvin pleaded silently with Gerald, do not go in for dinner, do not humiliate yourself once again. Punch the girls, take the sucker! Kick them in the face, he urged. Ivy picked up three jacks. Evie saw that the sucker would soon be hers. It’s disgusting, she thought, how Gerald pities us and allows us to be cruel. He is the one, after all, who deserves pity. We have a cat. We go to Coney Island. We have a father who comes home every evening and tosses us a ball. “Looks like you boys have to go,” Evie said.
Gerald was tired; Evie will win and why not let her; sometimes Mr. Epstein tossed Gerald a ball too.
“No,” said Melvin, with the force of water bursting from a garden hose. “It’s ours.”
“Says who?” said Evie and Ivy.
“I say.” This, in the terrible high pitch of angry little boys. “And Gerald says.”
“Melvin, stop it,” said Gerald, nervous, a trickle.
“Yeah, stop it,” said the twins. But Melvin did not want to stop it; no, he would not stop it. With the violence of a long-caged creature uncaged, Melvin stood up, crossed the circle—accidentally, not seeing, he stepped on the sucker and cracked it to pieces—and kicked Evie Epstein in the stomach. Then he kicked Ivy. Then he ran shrieking across the Epstein’s lawn, across his own lawn, and into his house where his mother was setting out food.
It is always tempting to place blame, to look for a guilty party. Certainly, that is what the Muncies and the Epsteins did. The obvious scapegoat, of course, was little Melvin Muncie, and the Epsteins unleashed upon him their anger; their venom; the heat with which they always melted the frost that stalked their fragile roses. Violent; aggressive; selfish; incorrigible; a criminal, they said, at six years old. Mrs. Epstein asked Mrs. Muncie if she had considered sending the boy to military school.
Mrs. Muncie was enraged at the slander. She blamed the twins for their spoiled and self-righteous face, for exaggerating their pain, putting it on as they always did. She blamed Mr. and Mrs. Epstein for having girls instead of boys, even sick girls were easier than what she had to raise. She blamed her husband for leaving her (with boys) to face the Epsteins—the two of them against the one of her. But unfortunately, given the cold hard facts, Mrs. Muncie could do nothing but apologize.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “Melvin, apologize to Evie and Ivy.”
Melvin blamed Gerald. Gerald was a coward; a compromiser; too stupid to take candy from stupid, stupid girls. Melvin had saved them from humiliation. He deserved thanks. But he apologized quietly, and then again, loudly, when his mother said to. Then he ran from the room and, for the injustice, for the discrepancy between what he was forced to utter and what he felt in his heart, for the weakness in his family’s blood, he cried.
Evie and Ivy blamed Gerald too, although Melvin was the one who had kicked them. Melvin was just a little boy. He didn’t know better. Gerald was older. Gerald had been their friend for a long time and they had always treated him nicely. They had let him come over and watch Milton Berle. They had let him come over and toss a ball with their father.
Gerald, for his part, agreed that he was to blame for what had gone wrong. He had lost sight of the sucker: circular face, swirl of blushes. He hoped that Gwendolyn Brown would not come by for a little while. There was torture in the way her things lit, lifted, broke down resistance, the way they called out to one’s heart and said: Something is at stake here! Someone be brave!
But Gerald was not brave. He had not saved the thing. He let it crack.