about witches and boy detectives

There is a dream I have – a recurring dream – of a childhood friend. A lonely boy. Sad, unattended. We walk the same route home from school. He turns off Tuckahoe Road before me, though. Left at the four-way intersection just past the squat brown condos with their flat rooftops and brassy door knockers. Some afternoons, I stand on the corner and watch him as he walks down the curving, tree-lined street. There are days when he will turn and wave, grinning.

“Bye, dum dum.”

Our childhood terms of endearment. Bye, dum dum, I will call back.

In my dream, he is older. His blond hair darker, his shoulders broadened. We have not seen each other in years. Not since he moved away, his father stationed in some flat, brown-earthed place, the name of which we forget almost as soon as he tells us, in the playground of the Catholic school. We are standing around a pile of stones we have been collecting.

“It takes twelve hours to drive there,” he tells us. “We have a Winnebago, he says. It’s like a whole house on wheels.”

In the dream, we are alone. We are in the home of his youth, one I never saw as a child, but have dreamed it. Split-level ranch. Gold carpeted steps leading down to a sunken family room. Bulky television in a cabinet of plastic, fashioned to resemble wood. Tan sofa sulking along the wall.

Even as children, we can sense the loneliness in others, can’t we?

The summer after I started high school, I got a part-time job at a day camp, helping the counselors with crafts and snacks. There was a boy, maybe seven or eight. His name was John. Brown hair, parted on the side. Pants a little too short. He was always standing alone, tugging on one ear. But there was something about me that he was drawn to. Perhaps the lonely child in me, still visible. He leaned against me while I showed them how to glue tissue paper squares onto cardboard to look like stained glass. While they ate their snacks – peanut butter on crackers or pretzel rods and apple juice – he told me about the books he was reading. About witches and boy detectives. Even when they broke into pairs to line up for the playground or to assemble for story time, he hovered near me, shoulders sagging, until I offered to take his hand.

We were visiting family friends one Sunday afternoon a few years later and I was walking the neighborhood with Lily, who was home from college, when I saw him – John – sitting on the front steps of a house just down the block from Lily’s house. I ran up to him, effusive.

“John! Hey! Do you remember me? From camp?”

He looked at me for a moment, but then shook his head and ran back inside.  

In the dream, we are sitting on the tan sofa, facing straight ahead, not looking at each other, not touching. We are staring at the television, but it is turned off. In the dream, we sit there, but the room falls away. And scenes – like flashes of memory – flicker all around us.

First we are at the boardwalk, the Jersey shore in late summer. The heat on us, even at night. The tinny sounds of arcade games. The shrieks of children.

Then on the embankment along the highway staring at my old green car, the hood propped up. A gray sky threatening rain.

And then at the cemetery where my mother is buried. Kneeling on the dry grass. One stone in an ocean of gray.

In the dream, like a slide show repeating – the boardwalk, the highway, the cemetery.

What a haunted landscape childhood can be. How we wander there with our ghosts. Lurking through rooms and houses, discovering fear. Swallowing loneliness. Seeking company, comfort in the other hapless wanderers who stumble past. Armed with our bug nets and our walking sticks. Our pencils and our notebooks.

All that we cannot put words to – then, perhaps even now. All that remains unspoken, unwritten.