The Cartographer of Dreamland

The Cartographer of Dreamland
Francesco Guardi, Fantastic Landscape (c. 1765), from Wikimedia Commons.

This is me at twelve years old, running for all I’m worth up Classon Avenue, bookbag under one arm, with Kevin Lester and three other bullies in close pursuit. They’re mostly bigger than me, and the only reason they haven’t caught me yet is because I had a half-block head start from the Nativity School gate.

This isn’t just about the atlas now; they want to punish me. I don’t want to go home again minus my bookbag, with torn clothes and another bloody nose.

I look back on this scene and I ask myself where the hell all the adults were? Like every other time I’d been chased by bullies, or beat up, or robbed of my lunch money and bus pass, it was on a public street in broad daylight. But in my memory the streetscape is deserted except for me and my pursuers.

I hear their shoes slapping the pavement behind me and fear makes my knees a little wobbly. I can’t outrun them all the way home. There’s an empty, weed-strewn lot on the corner of Quincy Street, and with a gasp of desperation I plunge off the sidewalk and into last year’s dead vegetation, rattling yellow and head-high. I can’t run much further, but maybe I can hide.

I stumble a little on the uneven ground, and thorny vines pull at the legs of my gray school uniform slacks. My mother will be furious if I tear them, but at the moment I’m more afraid of being caught by Kevin and his crew.

When I figure I’ve reached the middle of the lot, I bend over to catch my breath, trying to gasp for air quietly so I don’t give myself away. Probably a vain hope: the lot isn’t that big.

After a minute or two it dawns on me that I don’t hear my pursuers. I don’t hear anything, in fact, except for birds singing nearby and the slight movement of the vegetation in the breeze. There are no traffic sounds, no voices of the other kids getting out of school, no nothing.

My heart begins to slow down. I realize that everything’s much greener here in the middle of the lot. The March weather, iron gray and chill just a few minutes ago, is springlike and warm now. Above my blind of vegetation, the sky is deep blue with a couple of puffy white clouds.

I’m taking this all in when I notice a pair of dark eyes set deep in a furry brown face peering out at me from the foliage. I’m a good kid—I never talk back to adults or use curse words—but now, without meaning to, I say “Holy shit!” right out loud.

The only A I ever got was in Miss Walsh’s sixth grade geography class. I loved Miss Walsh with the intensity and purity of a first schoolboy crush.

I loved her because she was pretty. I loved her because she was kind. She never raised her voice—her worst punishment was a frown of disappointment. I loved her because, in her class, I felt smart for the first time ever.

Her class was the only bright spot in my young life. By that time I’d become expert at telling whether my father was drunk by the sound of his tread on the stairs. We—me, my mother and my father—lived in the second floor apartment of my grandmother’s house. Our apartment was the same as hers, except we had an extra room, my bedroom, over the garage.

My father was a truck driver (“straight jobs,” meaning not tractor-trailers), on short runs between the docks and local warehouses. The job offered him ample time to play the horses, and endless opportunities for petty thievery. We had three restaurant-grade blenders that had “fallen off a truck,” but ate macaroni and beans for supper two nights a week.

Every Friday the same drama would play out: my father would come home from work via Ack’s Tavern and give my mother a handful of bills—some unknown and unknowable part of his salary—and he and my mother would get into it.

She would count the bills then say, “Where’s the rest of it?”

There would be a back and forth: “Don’t worry about it,” and “How am I supposed to pay the rent-electric-butcher?” and “Stop breaking my balls, willya?” until my father would slam out of the apartment to “go buy cigarettes.” Though the candy store was right on the corner of Myrtle Avenue, my father never returned from these errands until long after I was asleep.

He was always short of money. I came to dread hearing “Let me hold that for you.” Birthday money, the envelope for the collection basket at church, the ten dollars from Aunt Mary’s Christmas card, all went into my father’s pocket “until you need it,” never to reappear.

Likewise the watch I “lost” (a first communion present from my grandmother), the TV set (“It’s getting fixed”), and my mother’s earrings (“Don’t ask me—where’d you leave them?”) disappeared to fund my father’s louche lifestyle.

On that March afternoon, it was cold enough so that you could see your breath outside. Miss Walsh handed back the geography quiz—a map of the British Isles on which we had to fill in the names—and mine not only got an A-plus but a gold star for knowing where the Shetland Islands were. I was sitting there in a happy trance when I realized Miss Walsh was calling my name.

“Jerry, come up,” she said, with a happy little hand gesture.

That I didn’t feel so good about. No attention was good attention—to be praised by the teacher meant being bullied in the schoolyard later.

Miss Walsh turned me around to face the class. “Because Jerry has a perfect A average in geography, he wins this month’s prize,” she said. Every month she gave away little prizes for things like best map (I won a pencil with a rubber globe on the eraser end for that one) or most improved spelling.

Miss Walsh then handed me the book she was holding, The Children’s Atlas of People and Places. Little people marched across exotic landscapes on the cover—a beret-wearing Frenchman near the Eiffel Tower, Peruvian peasants in colorful shawls in the Andes, and Asian farmers behind bullocks in emerald-green paddies. As I took the book from her, my heart sank. I really wanted it, but I could tell from the smirks on the faces of Kevin Lester and his friends that the book would end up destroyed (like my globe pencil) or in someone else’s bookbag ten minutes after school let out.

I went back to my seat amidst half-hearted clapping. For the rest of the afternoon I took every opportunity to peek at the book’s contents, sure I wouldn’t get to see any more of it once school let out. But the more I peeked (“Jerry, please close that book and pay attention . . .”), the more I wanted to read it and study all the maps and pictures.

Between geography and religion class, I opened it at random and found myself looking at a map of Vietnam. The Mekong Delta was in the news a lot then, but looking at the map and reading the captions, it was the first time I realized that a delta was where a river spread out to the sea, and that the Mississippi and Mekong Deltas were named after rivers. I was so absorbed that I didn’t realize religion class had started until Sister Agnes swatted me with her horny hand.

At two-forty I thought I had a bit of luck. Just before class was over Sister Agnes noticed that Kevin had drawn something inside the cover of his missal. Sister Agnes took him by the hair and went steaming toward the principal’s office, calling over her shoulder to read quietly to ourselves.

When the bell rang at two-fifty, I grabbed my coat from the back of the room and took the stairs two at a time, hoping to get away before Kevin left the building. When I got to the stop, though, the bus was just pulling away. Knots formed in my stomach. Kevin’s friends would wait for him inside the schoolyard, probably, but there was no way to know how long the principal, Sister Gertrude, would detain him.

Just when the next bus came into sight, Kevin and his toadies came out of the building. I hoped they hadn’t seen me. Rather than wait for the bus, I started walking away from them up Classon Avenue.

I hadn’t gotten very far when I heard Kevin call from behind me, “Hey, Jerky!”—his clever play on my name—“come back here!”

I hesitated. It was probably smarter to just go back and take my medicine—if I made Kevin mad he’d be even meaner. But then, it wasn’t fair—I hadn’t even had a chance to read most of the atlas yet. I kept walking.

“Are you ignoring me, Jerky?” Kevin yelled. The angry disbelief in his voice tightened the knots in my stomach. It took an effort of will not to stop and turn around.

Man!” Mark Franco, one of Kevin’s buddies, said. “You gonna take that?”

I was terrified at defying them—it was the first time I’d ever done so. I also wished I could punch stupid Mark Franco in the face.

Hey!” Kevin yelled. Now I could tell they were walking after me. That’s when I ran.

When I say “Holy shit!” the face disappears in a flash of brown fur and rustle of leaves. I’m frozen by equal parts fear and wonder. What was that? Too small to be a bear (I think), and anyway there aren’t any bears in Brooklyn. I don’t know for sure if there are raccoons in the city, but it didn’t have a bandit’s mask, and it was the wrong color.

Kevin and his crew all are forgotten. The plants around me don’t look anything like the weeds I’m familiar with.

There’s a small clearing just ahead of me, and I pick up my bookbag and press along. The vacant lot has to be larger than I thought. I know—I think—I’m heading northeast into it, since I entered it at Quincy Street on the south and Classon Avenue on the west. The sun is out, and that’s another weird thing: it’s not where it should be in the sky—it seems like morning.

Everything here is green, like it’s summer, and the air smells sweet. There’s a carpet of dead leaves on the path—red and yellow and orange. I go a little further and I’m amid a copse of trees—not grown-up weeds, but actual trees taller than buildings. Some look familiar, like maples or evergreens, but some are trees that I’m sure I’ve never seen before, including one that has three-lobed leaves like oversized shamrocks. The leaves are deep green above and pale, almost yellow, underneath, and they flash like a school of fish in the light breeze.

The weirdness is getting to me now, like a kind of white noise in my brain. I pluck one of the leaves and put it in my bookbag, flat between two pages in my composition book. On the way to the street I walk right into a thorny vine, which leaves a nice four- or five-inch scratch on my face.

I’m on Classon, just crossing Greene Avenue, when I realize that it’s getting dark. My watch says it’s almost a quarter to six—I couldn’t have been in the lot that long. My mother is going to kill me.

“I’ve never seen one like this,” Miss Walsh said, looking at my leaf on Monday. I’d spent the weekend at the Grand Army Plaza library, looking through botany books and field guides to identify the leaf and the tree it came from. There was nothing even close.

“Where did you get this from?”

“The lot down the street,” I said. “It was from a really big tree.”

“Which lot?” She looked perplexed. “The one here on Classon Avenue?”

I nodded. The slight tone of skepticism in her voice made me glad I hadn’t mentioned the animal I’d glimpsed.

She looked at the leaf again. “Do you mind if I hold onto it for a day or so?”

“No.” I shook my head. I really didn’t mind—unlike my father, I knew Miss Walsh wouldn’t say she’d give it back unless she meant it.

“Okay.” She carefully placed the leaf inside the front of her grade book and closed the cover. “I’ll look it up this week.”

Excitement over the lot had almost eclipsed my fear of Kevin and his buddies, who’d had the whole weekend to work themselves up. All day they’d shot me dirty looks—and spitballs—when the teachers weren’t looking. When we’d filed down for lunch, Kevin had caught me in the stairwell and hissed in my ear, “After school, pussy!” while he dug his knuckles into my back.

Now that only religion class stood between me and Kevin’s little band of scumbags, I wasn’t feeling so good. I thought about telling Sister Agnes that I was sick, but they might call my mother to get me, which she wouldn’t like.

Sister Agnes was late, which gave me more time to concentrate on the knots in my stomach. The thought flashed in my mind, I can leave. I had never cut school before. I would get in trouble.

I could leave. I didn’t want to go to the back of the room to get my coat—I’d have to walk past Kevin—but I was wearing my sweater, and it was warmer out than the day before.

Suddenly I was on my feet. I held my bookbag in one hand and walked out the door without looking back. If anyone noticed, they probably thought I was going to the boys’ room.

In the hallway I could hear Sister Agnes coming up the stairs, her footsteps heavy on the steel treads. I dashed around the corner, past the other sixth-grade classroom, and into the back stairwell, careful not to let the heavy door slam behind me.

On the ground floor, I felt conspicuous walking by myself through the lunchroom, but Mrs. LaVeccia, the elderly teacher’s aide, hardly noticed me as I went out the side door.

Once I was on the street I realized I couldn’t go home—my mother would ask me a lot of pointed questions, and she’d check with the school. I headed to the empty lot.

As soon as I was past the raspy perimeter of weeds, there was that sudden rise in temperature again, and the absence of street noise.

As before, the air smelled green and sweet. I followed the path to the shamrock tree. There were more birds this time, brightly colored, like parrots, in the upper branches of the trees. Something about them looked different, but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was.

Again the sun was in the wrong place in the sky—without the fear of Kevin after me, this struck me as deeply strange.

Still, it was hard to feel bad—even with punishment for cutting class hanging over my head. It was a green oasis. It was a mental relief just to have space around me.

“What are you doing in there?” my father would roar through the bathroom door whenever I was in there “too long.” I was always in there because walking on eggshells in that house gave me a bad nervous stomach. He would rattle the knob, making my nervous stomach even worse.

There wasn’t a knob on the door to my room. I’d locked it one day to read a biography of Sir Richard Burton on my bed. I fell asleep in East Africa on Burton’s expedition to find the source of the Nile. I woke disoriented to the crashing sound of my father breaking in the door because I hadn’t responded quickly enough to his pounding.

“Why the hell do you have to lock the door?!” he yelled, his red face a few inches from mine.

I didn’t know. At twelve, I couldn’t have put my need for privacy, for some space, into words. Virginia Woolf was 47 when she wrote A Room of One’s Own. I loved Burton’s Africa not just because it was exotic, but because it seemed so empty.

In the lot, I sat down and took out my notebook and pencil. After thinking about it for a few minutes, I started making a list of all the things that were wrong. The sun’s position. The different weather. The shamrock tree. The birds. What else? There was no litter: not one coke bottle or hubcap or cigarette butt. Like no one else had come in here before. How big was the lot? It was only one block—though a long one—from Classon to Franklin Avenue, wasn’t it?

The path stopped at the shamrock tree. The lot couldn’t go on much more beyond that. I left my bookbag and things at the base of the tree and headed directly away from the way I’d come.

It didn’t take me long to realize that the ground was sloping upward, and that this was more than just a vacant lot. I passed more unfamiliar trees, and the undergrowth changed from grass to patches of ground-hugging plants like ivy, alternating with clumps of dark evergreen bushes hung with violet berries. There were spindly plants with whitish leaves, little blue flowers that nestled close to the ground, and in the leaf litter under the trees several kinds of mushrooms that varied in color from bright yellow to almost blood-colored.

As I walked further, there were more trees in dense copses, and outcroppings of rock poking through the ground cover. The birdsong was louder and more varied now, and it took me a while to realize that I was hearing another sound beneath it—the rush of water.

When I came to the top of a small ridge, I could see the water—a glint of blue through the trees. This was too much. I could see the way I’d come, but now I was now afraid of getting lost.

I looked at my watch, but it had stopped. That was a pain in the ass. I’d needed to know what time to head home so I wouldn’t get in trouble. Reluctantly, I headed back. Aside from being nervous about the time, I wanted to come back to the lot when I had a whole day to explore.

It was dark when I stepped out of the lot. My mother was going to kill me. I looked at my watch from force of habit, and it said 7:15. In the lot it had been stopped at 2:03. None of that made sense.

I jogged all the way home, too anxious to wait for a bus. My mother threw open the apartment door when she heard me on the stairs.

“Where the hell were you?!” she yelled as soon as she saw me.

I had made up an excuse about going to the library after school, but under my mother’s angry glare my head filled with white noise and I couldn’t say anything.

“Get in here,” she said, pulling me into the kitchen. My father was at the table, smoking an unfiltered Camel and looking put out: my disappearance had disrupted his evening routine.

“Where’d you go?” he said.

My mother waved away his question before I could answer. “School called, they said you left before Religion. Where were you?”

“The library,” I stammered.

“Why the hell didn’t you call?” my father said petulantly.

My mother ignored him. “Why did you leave school?”

“Some kids were after me.”

“Some kids? Who?”

Reluctantly I told her about Kevin and the threat in the stairwell.

“Why didn’t you tell the teacher?” my mother asked.

“You gotta learn to stand up for yourself,” my father said. “You gotta whack one of these mutts if they come after you.”

A refrain I’d heard before.

“I asked you a question,” my mother said.

“They wouldn’t do anything.”

“Oh, they damn well will do something.” My mother took her plastic-covered phone book from the junk drawer and opened it to a list of numbers in red ink inside the cover.

She dialed with angry, circular zings. When someone picked up, my mother said in her phone voice, “May I speak to Sister Gertrude, please? This is Mrs. O’Grady.” Pause. “Yes, a pupil in the sixth grade, Jerry.”

My heart sank.

My mother outlined the problem to Sister Gertrude with elaborate politeness, and elocution as phony as a cake in a bakery window. There was a brief conversation, then my mother hung up after offering the principal her brittle thanks and assurances that she would be there after school the next day.

Through the whole performance my father just sat there, smoking and staring into space.

The prospect of the meeting in the principal’s office had me running to the bathroom all day. When I didn’t feel as though I was about to shit my pants, I felt like vomiting.

At two-thirty Sister Gertrude’s secretary, a cheerful, elderly woman with a dowager’s hump, knocked on the classroom door to collect me and Kevin.

The first hint I had of what was in store was when I glanced at Kevin’s taut, sweaty face. Lost as I was in my own fears, the misery in Kevin’s demeanor all day hadn’t sunk in.

My mother and Kevin’s father sat in straight-backed wooden chairs opposite the principal’s scarred desk, their faces like those of boxers squaring off before a match.

Kevin and I weren’t invited to sit.

“Jerry, Sister Agnes said you left school yesterday before her class,” the principal said. “Is that true?”

“Yes, Sister,” I muttered into my collar.

“Speak up!” my mother snapped, “And look at people when they talk to you.”

“Yes, Sister,” I dutifully repeated, looking up, if only as far as the wooden cross that hung on the front her habit.

“Why did you leave school?” she asked.

The last thing I wanted to do was rat on Kevin—I was still afraid he was going to kill me.

“I don’t know,” I said, shrugging a little.

“What?!” my mother yelled, oblivious to Sister Gertrude’s disapproving look. “Tell her what you told me yesterday!”

Caught between a rock and a loud place, I folded. “I was afraid Kevin was going to beat me up.”

“Why did you think that?” Sister Gertrude asked.

“He told me he was going to, on the way to lunch.”

Kevin’s father turned to his son. He wasn’t a big man, and his voice wasn’t loud, but he spoke with a scary intensity. “Is he telling the truth?”

“I was just kidding,” Kevin said, not looking his father in the eye.

Kidding?! Before I could object, though, before I could think, Kevin’s father slapped his son’s face so hard that sweat flew off Kevin and onto me.

Kevin was rocked by the blow, but he didn’t cry out, though his eyes watered up immediately.

“Mr. Lester!” Sister Gertrude said, slapping her hands down on the desktop, “That will be enough!”

“Don’t tell me how to discipline my kid,” he said to the principal with the same quiet intensity. He turned back to Kevin, whose face was bright red where he’d been slapped.

“Say you’re sorry.”

“I’m sorry,” Kevin said quietly, staring at his father’s feet.

“To him,” his father said ominously, nodding at me with a slightly bristly chin.

“I’m sorry,” Kevin said, facing me with eyes still downcast.

I was frozen to the spot, mute. Even my mother had to clear her throat before she could get a word out.

“Shake hands,” she said.

“It’s okay,” I said, shaking his moist palm. Kevin almost met my eyes, and the pathetically terrified expression on his face haunts me to this day.

From that day on, Kevin avoided me. Eventually, without his goading, the others lost interest in the chase. Relieved of my fear, I started to notice Kevin—or things about him that had always been there, but that I’d ignored to concentrate on survival. Maslow’s Pyramid and all.

When he wasn’t teasing some other kid—that had stopped pretty abruptly after our little meeting—Kevin’s eyes were in constant motion, scanning the schoolyard, or the street, or even the classroom. He bit his fingernails raw, and he always wore long-sleeved shirts. He was a nervous kid. My relief at not being his target anymore kept me away from him.

For weeks I couldn’t go to the lot, or anywhere else by myself. My mother took me to and from school, making it clear with scowls and irritated sighs just what a burden I was.

I often asked Miss Walsh about the leaf I’d brought her, but it became obvious that my enthusiasm was wearing on her, as her responses on the subject became more vague and terse. I felt like I’d done something wrong, but I wasn’t sure what.

Summer finally came, and even my mother’s appetite for martyrdom had its limits. Also, right at the end of the school year my father had a big fight with his boss and “quit” the company. His presence around the house soon required my mother’s undivided attention, and by the beginning of July I was off the leash.

I had been planning my expedition all along. My cousin Jimmy’s cast-off backpack held my pocketknife, notebook, pencils and sharpener, Fig Newtons, a compass, an aluminum canteen from the Army-Navy store, and, in a flash of inspiration, a roll of orange plastic tape of the kind used to mark off construction sites (something else that fell off a truck).

From the outside, the lot appeared even more weedy and overgrown. By the time I worked my way to the shamrock tree, I was sweaty and smeared with plant sap and dead bugs.

After I wiped my face and had a few sips of metallic-tasting water, I broke out the roll of orange tape and started cutting off foot-long strips. When I had about twenty of them, I stuffed everything back in my knapsack and headed up the hill.

As usual the sun was in the southeast, just over the trees, and the sky was a hard blue with a few patches of snow-white cloud. The birds were out like crazy, and insects hummed all around me. A bright yellow grasshopper jumped off a stalk right in front of my nose, scaring the bejesus out of me.

The wood was thick with herb smells and dappled green sunlight under the trees. I stopped every fifty paces or so and tied one of my plastic strips to a branch or a bush at eye level, looking back to fix the position of the previous strip in my mind. Every fifth stop I’d take a compass bearing back along my line of march and write it down.

I wanted to time my walk, but again my watch had frozen. Though clouds moved across the sky high and silent, the sun stayed where it was. I was glad for the shade of the increasing number of trees. And what trees they were: some with long, thin leaves that trailed to the ground, others with silvery bark and round, copper-colored leaves that flashed like mirrors in the breeze. Trees with strange fruits that looked like wrinkled purple tennis balls, and others that could almost be miniature palm trees, except the fronds were puffy and covered in fine white hairs.

I had looked through a lot of books that first weekend after discovering the shamrock tree, and more since—field guides, botany books, and dozens of Natural History and National Geographic magazines. Everywhere I looked in the lot, there were strange plants that I was sure existed nowhere else in the world. It wasn’t just that I hadn’t seen these particular plants and trees in the reference stacks—I hadn’t seen anything that looked even remotely related to the greenery around me.

When I reached the water—a broad, slow-moving river about as wide as six lanes of traffic, and heavily wooded on its far side—I was stopped in my tracks. I stood there for five minutes, taking it all in.

I didn’t have the vocabulary then to describe what I felt—a feeling that had been building in me since the first time I set foot across the lot’s border. Looking back I realize it was something akin to religious awe (if you use the word “religious” loosely; I felt much the same thing a few years later when I first saw Mary Wisniewski with her shirt off).

I was a Brooklyn kid. I had been outside of the city once, when I was very young, to my aunt’s bungalow outside Ellenville, New York—a stay I recalled chiefly for the pervasive smell of mildew, and for being crammed on a foldaway bed with three resentful cousins.

But I loved the outdoors. I read every copy of Field & Stream at the library, and all of Tom Brown’s books on woodcraft. I knew, in theory, how to survive in a blizzard, build a fire in the rain, and navigate by compass. And I had a good sense of direction, which is no more than just paying attention to your surroundings, I think—a survival skill I’d had to master on the street for other reasons. On our infrequent trips to Prospect Park and the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens, my mother would reliably get turned around and ask me which way was the carousel or the greenhouses.

This was the first time I was alone in the outdoors with freedom to roam. There was river and forest as far as I could see in every direction. Birds swooped and called over the water, and the air was dense and heady with botanical smells. It was like being in a green church.

I ate some Fig Newtons and drank more water, and then I drew and drew: trees, the river, the shape of the hills, the birds wheeling over the water (they had teeth, I saw, when one lighted on a nearby branch). I drew until my hand cramped.

I checked my stopped wristwatch from force of habit, then the position of the sun. Still in the same place. I didn’t want to leave—I wanted to cross the river. I wanted to see everything. But I knew if I screwed up again I’d be under house arrest all summer—a thought even less appealing because of the constant state of tension between my mother and father.

I packed up my supplies and headed back along the trail I’d blazed. I hardly needed the orange tape: the direction back to the lot’s entrance seemed as obvious to me as a highway.

Close to the edge of the lot, a tree with fluffy bark caught my eye. When I got closer, I could see that the bark was actually shredded in strips from a height of about ten feet or so down. It wasn’t until I took in the strong animal stink that I realized I was looking at claw marks.

I could feel the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Whatever had made those marks was big, and had sharp claws. I thought of the little pocketknife in my knapsack: the three-inch blade would be useless.

I crossed the rest of the distance to the lot’s edge, ears straining, trying to look in every direction at once. I was glad it was still daylight when I stepped onto Classon Avenue—walking home in the dark would have freaked me out.

It was just as well that I had an escape that summer. Potentially lethal animals didn’t deter me from going to the lot every day, rain or shine. I knew something about evading predators, after all, and nothing could be worse than being held hostage to the escalating hostilities between my mother and father.

My father said he was looking for work. What that meant was that he’d leave the house sometime after lunch and return after my bedtime, reeking of booze and C. Howard’s Violet Gum, which was supposed to cover his alcohol breath but instead only broadcast it into the room before he arrived.

The arguments started when my father woke, and continued until he slammed out of the house with my mother yelling “You won’t find any jobs at the bar!” at his retreating back.

Once I woke in the middle of the night to my mother’s screams and the sound of breaking furniture. No one called the police, of course, and in those days it was doubtful the police would do anything but drive my father around the block, unless he was drunk enough to take a poke at one of them.

I became an expert in walking small, even more so than before, to avoid setting one or both of them off. When my Aunt Mary called to find out if I’d gotten my birthday card and check, I said yes rather than give my mother cause to lay into my father about it.

Away from the house I could breathe. As my confidence grew, I roamed further and further afield. I was always alert for animal sign, of which there was plenty. I would occasionally see furred shapes receding ahead of me into the wood, and once something scaly and big rushed by me close aboard like a subway train. I could stand in one big footprint with both feet and leave room all around the edges of my Keds. That encounter left me shaking, but nothing pursued me nor disturbed me.

I knew from the field guides that you weren’t supposed to surprise animals, especially not big ones. In bear country you were supposed to carry a bell on your backpack to make sure you didn’t startle an eight-hundred-pound grizzly. But there were only a very few times, besides the first one, that I actually surprised any animal.

Years later I learned about ecosystems, and why apex predators are necessarily thin on the ground. But even as a kid, I started to notice that in accounts of explorers in wild jungles or pre-colonial America, encounters with big animals, though dramatic, were few and far between.

Birds I saw all the time—including one with a fast, penetrating call that I named the stiletto bird for its needle teeth. And lizards and fish and small, furry tree-climbers that were like reddish-brown squirrels, but with bigger heads and no tails. There were rabbits, almost (they did have tails, and moved almost like little kangaroos), and insects in the zillions. There was something I started calling the maxipede, which was about a yard long and had a head the size of a baseball.

I never saw a snake or a frog or a turtle, but down near the water there were furless animals the size of rats with mottled green skin that lived in holes in the bank.

I started drawing maps as I explored, and it occurred to me that I had to label things to make any sense of my geography. The river became Down River, because I thought of it as flowing down from the hills to the northeast. It had tributaries like the Little Pinky and the Gumbo, where the soft clay bank sucked the sneakers right off my feet. The hills just on the far side of the spot where I’d first encountered the river became the Camelback Range.

At first I thought of the whole place just as “the lot,” but it wasn’t long before I was calling it Dreamland in my head, though it seemed more real to me than the streets. Maybe because I needed it to be so.

I crossed the river, finding fords at gravel shoals and at places where sandstone vees channeled the current deep and fast, but narrow enough for a felled tree to span its width. I climbed trees to draw maps, and worked out crude tricks for myself to estimate distances.

Upstream from the place I first saw the river was a deep, cold lake (Cloud Lake, for the way it reflected the sky like a blue mirror), in which swam something that, from my one brief glimpse of it, I thought must be related to the Loch Ness monster.

I got good at estimating how much time had passed in the real world, and almost as good at estimating how long I could stay away from the house without provoking concern or anger. I was growing tan and strong and I wasn’t bothering my parents—that was enough. Meanwhile I filled composition books with notes, maps and drawings, and began developing an understanding of geography and terrain that you could never get from a book.

I went through one box of pencils, then another and another, alternating between making maps and drawing the landscape and wildlife. I took a job on Sunday mornings, putting together newspapers at the candy store on Myrtle Avenue. I hated the time it took away from my explorations, but I was able to take my pay in drawing pencils and cheap pads and notebooks—things that my father would neither notice nor be able to pawn.

It wasn’t just the empty space that appealed to me. There were no straight lines in Dreamland. In the real world—what’s fashionable to call the “built environment” nowadays—the straight line and the ninety-degree angle rule your line of sight. It’s a visual prison that you don’t know you’re in until someone opens the cell door one day, and you step into a world without edges.

I never got tired, head-tired, of drawing in Dreamland the way I did in the real world. My hands would cramp, and my eyes would get heavy, but I never lost the thrill of getting it exactly right: the meander of a stream across a grassy plain, the way a line of hills humped across the horizon like tree-clad giants bent to some megalithic toil. From the tops of trees and mountains I could capture the face of the landscape. I pushed myself to see what was beyond the next treeline, over the next ridge.

There were always blank spaces at the edge of the map. On those warm, timber-dry days I found myself in the thrill of discovery. I was in the top third of a tall, tall evergreen—if the type had a name in the real world I didn’t know it—just below the point where the branches would bend or break under my weight. The sun shone down from the ten-o’clock position as usual, and there was an east wind high aloft, sending fleecy brigantines racing across the sky. The patches of sun and shadow moving over the ground revealed details of the landscape like God’s X-ray machine, and I mapped the details with a fast hand, anxious to capture every bump of elevation and riparian contour.

September, and the seventh grade, arrived as a grim surprise. One day I was fording a tributary of the Down, the next I was following my mother through the din of the A&S Department Store on Fulton Street, dutifully trying on uniform pants and white shirts for school.

Though I’d grown taller and broader over my summer of exploring, I occasioned no special notice from my teachers nor classmates, maybe because my mother bought all my clothes a size too big. “You’ll grow into them.”

I returned to school with the dread of an escaped convict. Miss Walsh had left—to get married, the girls said. Though I’d long accepted that I wasn’t going to get an answer back about the shamrock leaf, I still felt a pang that she never mentioned it, or said goodbye.

Geography was replaced in the seventh grade by the history of New York state, taught in a monotone by a new teacher, Mrs. Verderami. I’m sure something interesting had happened since Henry Hudson sailed upriver in 1609, but it wasn’t in our textbook, a 600-page murder weapon titled The Empire State.

The only bright spot was art class. Seventh graders could take either art or music on Wednesday afternoons. I was placed in art, not because anyone consulted me about my preferences, but because my last name was in the bottom half of the alphabet. A lucky break.

Art was taught by Father Clement, a tall, bald, potbellied priest who, instead of clerical garb, wore a black turtleneck and jeans to class.

Art, at least the way Father Clem taught it, was the first class in which the students were supposed to have ideas. And mirable dictu, he took our ideas seriously. The first ten minutes of each class was a demonstration of some technique—perspective or shading or foreshortening—then we’d practice the techniques on objects in the room. As the weeks went on we incorporated what we’d learned into pencil sketches and pastels from memory, alternating with exercises in which we copied pictures, or details from pictures, that Father Clem hung on the blackboard.

I liked art. It was the first thing I’d ever done in school that I could really lose myself in. I’d look up at the end of every class, surprised that it was time to go already. Father Clem said I was good at it—though I could already tell that my drawings were better than my classmates’ work. I also eased my frustration at not being able to spend as much time exploring Dreamland by recreating its hills and woods during free-drawing time.

Then, in the first week of November, Father Clem hung a print of Guardi’s Fantastic Landscape in the front of the room. I must have stared at that picture for ten straight minutes without moving a muscle.

“Really speaks to you, huh?” Father Clem said to me when he came up behind me and saw that I hadn’t made a mark on my sketchpad yet.

“Uh-huh,” I nodded.

“The originals are oil on canvas—there are three of them, actually, different landscapes—they’re in the Metropolitan Museum in the city,” he said. “You should get your parents to take you.”

That almost made me laugh. I should get my parents to buy me a sailboat and a pony, too. I couldn’t tell Father Clem the real reason the picture was so riveting: it was Dreamland. Guardi had been there, he had to have been there. Though I’d never seen so much as one stone piled upon another in Dreamland, I recognized Guardi’s scene. I hadn’t been to that exact spot, but I was certain that Fantastic Landscape was a rendering of someplace in Dreamland. The feel of it was too right.

It was both exciting and scary to know someone else had been there. I’d gotten comfortable with the idea that Dreamland was my own private preserve, and while Guardi had obviously loved the place as I did, it worried me that anyone else could go there.

It was the Friday after Thanksgiving when I came home for dinner and found my father just getting off the phone. He gave me a curious look when I came in the door.

“That was your teacher,” he said.

Instant knot in my stomach. It was never a good thing when a teacher called your house.

“Which one?”

“From last year, the geography teacher,” he said.

“Miss Walsh?”

“Yeah, she changed her name.” My father looked intently at me. “She said you gave her a plant that you found in some lot?”

“A leaf,” I shrugged, trying to downplay it. “That was a while ago. What did she say?”

“What lot was you in?”

My stomach gave another twist. “Near school.”

“Where near school?”

“On Quincy,” I said. Was he going to tell me I couldn’t go there anymore? Despite not wanting to pique his curiosity, I asked, “What did she say?”

“Never mind,” he said, raising his voice. “Concentrate on your schoolwork. Never mind the lot.”

My father only brought up schoolwork when he wanted to change the subject of a conversation. I wasn’t sure he knew what grade I was in.

“Don’t say nothing to your mother about this” was all he told me.

The subject of the lot didn’t come up again, and for a while I forgot about the conversation. I could only visit Dreamland a few times in the next month, and the visits were more of a delight than usual because of the contrast with the raw December weather outside.

I had been looking forward to Christmas vacation—school was closed between the 23rd and January 6th. Aunt Mary had finally figured out she needed to send me gifts my father couldn’t spend or sell, and sent a box of Venus colored pencils and several sketch pads for Christmas. On December 26th, excited to use my new supplies, I headed for the lot.

I could see the fence from two blocks away, and I hurried the distance with my heart pounding in my chest. The scene inside the chain-link perimeter was as bad as anything I could have imagined. Nothing was left standing in the lot—it was just a block-long rectangle of brown, scraped-bare earth, seeded here and there with some rocks. Not one piece of greenery survived.

I went to the double gate in the fence and found enough play in the padlocked chain that I could squeeze through. I walked every inch of the lot in a desperate fog, hoping by some miracle for a way into Dreamland.

I don’t know how long I stood there, heartsick. Finally some fat guy in a hard hat pulled up in a step van outside the gate and yelled at me.

“Hey, get outta there!” he said, squeezing himself out of the driver’s seat. He unlocked the gate and gestured to me. “Let’s go, let’s go . . .”

I trudged out. “What are they putting here?”

The fat guy shrugged. “Who knows? City took it over for back taxes. Probably stay like this for another twenty years.”

By the time I got home my father was already off on his daily rounds. If my mother noticed my foul mood, she said nothing about it, and after dinner I flopped into bed with my clothes on.

I woke up sweaty in the middle of the night, and when I got up to undress I saw the kitchen light on. My father was sitting at the table, squinting at the Post the way he did when he was drunk.

“What did Miss Walsh say when she called?” I asked him.

He didn’t look up from the paper. “Who?”

“My teacher from last year, when she called,” I said with exaggerated patience. “What’d she say about the leaf?”

“Oh, yeah,” my father said, dismissively waving his hand. “She said some guy she showed it to thought it might be from a new kind of tree, but when they went back there nobody found nuthin’.”

“When who went back there?” I asked.

“Guy I know, thought maybe there was some money in it if they bought the lot. Turned out to be nuthin’ there.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s just a lot,” my father said. “The city owns it.”

“What was he going to do? Your friend?”

“See who owned it, make them a deal. You can’t deal with the city though. Anyway, they didn’t find no tree there.”

So that was it. My father saw an angle and brought it to some mob wannabe buddy of his. Somehow their interest had poked the bureaucracy to life long enough to bulldoze the lot and put a fence around it.

“Great, just great,” I said.

My father looked up from his paper, squinting at me through a haze of cigarette smoke and alcohol. “What?” His conversation, a little blurry and distracted to that point, became dangerously sharp at the slightest hint of criticism. I could hear the thin ice cracking in the flat tone of that one syllable.

“You’re so stupid!”

His face flushed an even deeper red, and he pushed away from the table, but I was too mad to care.

“The whole thing’s gone!” I yelled. “They tore it all down! Because you told your stupid friend!”

My father was on his feet, toppling the chair over as he got up. “You watch your goddamned mouth,” he said slurrily.

I should’ve shut up, but I was too full of bitter rage.

“You fucked it all up,” I said, shocking myself at my first use of the f-word. “You and your scumbag friend! What did you think—”

But that was all I got out. My father slapped me just as my mother came into the kitchen, woken by all the shouting.

“Stop it!” my mother yelled at him. “What the hell is wrong with you?!”

“Don’t you start,” he said to her. “He has a smart mouth, your son.”

My face was burning, more from humiliation than the slap. I was suddenly caught between my own pain and rage, and the fear that a fight between my parents would escalate horribly.

“Never mind,” I said. “I’m going to bed.”

“What’s going on?” my mother said, grabbing me by my arm. “Why’d he hit you?”

I couldn’t think of anything that wouldn’t make things worse.

“He better learn to watch his mouth,” my father said in a tone that was both petulant and dangerous.

“That’s all you’re good for,” my mother said, rounding on him, “hitting and the bottle.”

“I’ll show you what I’m good for,” he said, pushing me aside roughly.

My mother screamed. “Big man,” she said. “Try that with your friends in the bar!”

My father planted his hand in the middle of my mother’s face and shoved her, making her topple backwards over a chair.

“Stop!” I yelled, helping her back to her feet. “Stop it!”

My father grabbed an iron trivet from the stove and flung it across the room, where it smashed through the glass cabinet front. My mother and I were backed against the sink as he threw the coffeepot and a mug against the wall.

His fury apparently dissipated slightly, my father slammed out of the house, stopping only to snatch his shirt off the floor where it had fallen with the overturned chair.

I turned to my mother, struggling with something to say, but she cut me off.

“See what you did?” she said in her hard, cold voice. “Go to bed.”

In my room I realized that, despite the fury of my father’s eruption, I was unhurt except for a set of marks on my forearm, where my mother’s nails had dug into me.

I was a pill when school started again. The other kids avoided me, and Father Clem asked me twice if I was feeling okay. Far from improving my mood, art class reminded me of what I’d lost. I found out just how angry I was the first Friday after vacation.

I had gone to the bathroom between history and religion, and when I came back to the room I noticed that the other kids were quiet, and the new kid in the class was standing over Kevin Lester’s desk.

The new kid’s name was Roger Rogers. He was taller than everyone else in the class and had bright red hair. He had been left back at St. Finbar’s and had transferred over the break.

Kevin and I had stayed out of each other’s orbits since the principal’s office, though I’d noticed the ongoing changes in him. As the semester passed he became more and more withdrawn. He didn’t seem to know how to be with other kids, if he wasn’t bullying them.

When I walked back into the room I unconsciously registered Roger Rogers’s hostile body language. I was about to slip quietly into my seat when I caught the sick expression on Kevin’s face.

“Hey, pussy lips,” Roger said, “you kiss your mother with that fat mouth?”

Kevin did indeed have a protruding lower lip, and six months before I would have felt glee in seeing him tormented the way he’d tormented me. Now the look of misery on his face reminded me of a beaten animal, and it wrung my heart.

Roger grabbed Kevin’s lower lip between thumb and forefinger and started to drag him out of his seat. Kevin tried ineffectually to pry the bigger boy’s hand away.

“How far does this thing stretch?” Roger taunted.

Without thinking about it, I picked up my hardbound copy of The Empire State in both hands and swung it for all I was worth at the side of Roger’s head.

From a distance I heard the wet crunch of Roger’s ear as the book connected, and the horrified gasp of the other kids. Roger went down on all fours, but I didn’t stop there. The lightning of long-suppressed fury had found a path to ground, and I smashed Roger several more times with the heavy text, until I was yanked bodily backwards by Sister Agnes.

“Stop it, stop it!” she yelled.

What stopped me was the look of fear on her face. Roger was on the floor, a crying, bloody mess. All the other kids, including Kevin, were frozen in wide-eyed shock.

Sister Agnes helped Roger sit up, and from somewhere inside her habit produced a white handkerchief to hold against his bloody face.

“Go to the principal’s office,” Sister Agnes hissed at me. “Tell her we need the nurse. Then stay there!”

I did as I was told. Sister Gertrude and her secretary rushed out, leaving me to sit alone in the empty office. I felt worse with every passing minute, and not just because I was in trouble. I’d never hit anyone else in my life—not seriously—but I’d been hit more than a few times, and I knew how it felt. In an instant Roger had gone from a smirking bully to a scared kid with tears and snot and blood running down his face.

I felt like throwing up, but I didn’t dare leave the office. I tried to hold it down, but at the last second all I had time to do was lunge for the trash can. I was still bent over it when Sister Gertrude came back. She ignored me and went straight to the phone to call Roger’s mother. When she was done she came around the desk and stood in front of me.

“What happened?” she said curtly, her arms folded.

“I, I . . .” That was all I got out before I choked up and my vision started to blur with tears.

“Why are you crying?” the principal asked.

“I didn’t mean to hurt him,” I managed to get out. “Is he okay?”

She looked at me coolly. “I don’t know. His ear is swollen and you cut his head with the book,” she said. “What. Happened.”

“He was picking on Kevin . . .”

“Kevin Lester?”

“Yes,” I nodded. “He grabbed him by the lip—Roger grabbed Kevin by the lip. He was dragging him.”

She gave me a long look, then sighed. “Go wash your face while I call your mother.”

My mother sat tight-lipped through Sister Gertrude’s explanation of events.

“I’m sorry, Sister, he was raised better than that,” my mother said, giving me a malevolent glare.

“I’m sure he was,” the principal said.

My mother’s façade cracked a little—her expression said she was trying to tell whether Sister Gertrude was being sarcastic.

“He’ll be punished for this,” my mother finally said.

Punished. Bad as I was feeling, I almost laughed at the sense of order and normalcy the word implied. My mother didn’t punish me so much as conduct protracted vendettas of scowls and angry silences.

“We’ll have to see how the Rogers boy is before we make any decisions,” Sister Gertrude said. “Until then Jerry should stay home.”

My mother nodded. I could tell from the look on her face she was choking back an argument.

As we were leaving the outer office, the principal’s secretary offered me a sympathetic smile and a piece of hard candy from the bowl on her desk.

“He doesn’t need any!” my mother snapped, grabbing me by the shoulder and propelling me in front of her out of the office.

We walked home, my mother’s shoes making angry clicks on the pavement. Fury flowed off her in waves.

She exploded as soon as we were inside the door. “What’s wrong with you?” she said, snatching off my coat with angry jerks. “What’s going to happen if you get expelled?”

I didn’t know what to say.

Answer me!” she shouted. “Do you want to end up in public school with the niggers? Is that what you want?”

The niggers. That was the trump card—that was what my parents thought of as danger, never mind that the few black kids at the Nativity School were as terrorized by the bullies as I was.

“I didn’t mean to hurt him,” I said. That wasn’t exactly true: in the moment I meant to kill Roger. What I didn’t understand was how the switch had flipped.

“What are you going to do about your schoolwork?” my mother went on, fury unabated. “What if you get left back? Do you know how much I pay for that school?!”

My father walked in during this tirade—apparently sober for a change. “What happened?” he asked when my mother paused for breath.

“Ask your son,” my mother said with a disgusted wave.

But as I started to explain, she couldn’t contain herself.

“He got suspended,” she said, “For fighting in class.”

“With who?” he asked me.

“What difference does it make?” my mother said. “He has a clear head, your son!”

I eventually got the whole story out, as my mother’s vocalizations of outrage tapered off.

“You shoulda minded your own business,” my father said when I was finished, but there was a note of pride in his voice.

Retelling the incident had brought back the pain and fear on Roger’s face as he sat on the floor sobbing.

“You don’t know anything,” I said.

My father jerked his head in surprise at that, but I ignored him and went to my room to take off my school uniform.

It turned out Roger wasn’t seriously hurt. There was another awkward shaking of hands in the principal’s office, and I was allowed to return to class status quo ante bellum.

The incident made me slightly more popular with my classmates, and I no longer had to eat lunch hunched over my sandwich for fear it would be snatched away by some bigger kid.

Kevin had been shedding friends since our meeting in the principal’s office, but now he was alone all the time. I tried talking to him a few times, but he barely acknowledged me, looking strained and nervous whenever I approached. I gave up out of a sense that I was doing more harm than good.

Except for art class, school continued to be enforced tedium. I didn’t have the release of Dreamland to look forward to in the afternoons and weekends, and drawing it from memory was bittersweet at best. Time stood still.

Then in April, Father Clem made an announcement that he was taking both art classes to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a field trip. I handed my mother the permission slip with studied indifference: if she saw that I really wanted to go, she might refuse to sign it as punishment for any offense, ranging from my near-expulsion to mediocre grades to being “just like my father.” She signed the slip hurriedly, barely glancing at it, and I tucked it carefully away in my bookbag.

Our family never owned a car, so even the school bus ride over the Manhattan Bridge and up the east side of Manhattan was a novelty. It was a brilliantly sunny day in late April, and the East River was a sparkling blue ribbon stitched with the foamy white wakes of tugs and powerboats.

But if the ride was enjoyable, I was speechless when we turned off of 85th Street onto Fifth Avenue. The museum is set into the east side of Central Park, facing Fifth Avenue. It has a huge limestone façade with paired columns, and is adorned with medallions, caryatids and gargoyles. The bus hadn’t even stopped moving and I was itching to get out and draw that façade.

There was the usual lining up and being counted by the nervous mothers along as chaperones. Each of us received a little blue metal medallion with a white letter M on its face to clip on our shirts as proof of admission. I still have mine.

After what seemed like an interminable wait but was probably less than five minutes, we met our tour guide, Nancy, a gray-haired woman in slacks and a tweed blazer.

“Who’s been to the museum before?” Nancy asked. I think one hand went up.

“Oh, you’re going to love this!” she said. “This is the best place in the world.”

She wasn’t faking it—you could tell from the relaxed, happy expression on her face. I might be a more religious person today if one priest or nun in my years in the Catholic penal system had shown a fraction of that genuine enthusiasm for matters of the spirit.

In retrospect, Nancy was not only enthusiastic but knew exactly how to pitch art to a mob of easily distracted grade-schoolers. Rather than lectures about provenance and technique, she gave us digestible bits of information that helped us form the beginnings of a context for the works we were looking at.

“The man who made this statue of the Discus Thrower probably died five hundred years before Christ was born,” Nancy said. “It is old. The man who made this might have been a slave—a quarter of the people in Greece then were slaves—and he lived on bread, wine, fruits, vegetables, and maybe some fish. He would eat meat, probably lamb, only on special holidays.”

The second floor of the museum is a rabbit warren of galleries, and I didn’t realize that we were headed for Guardi’s Fantastic Landscape pieces until I was standing in front of one of them. For the first time since we arrived, I completely tuned Nancy out.

Seeing them in person confirmed what I already knew. Francesco Guardi had been to Dreamland, and these paintings were visual records of his travels. I don’t know how long I lost myself in those landscapes; I didn’t come out of my trance until Father Clem put his hand on my shoulder.

“Come on, partner, there’s more to see,” he said gently. I looked around and realized that Nancy and the rest of the group were gone.

I didn’t say anything as I followed him out. I felt like sitting on the floor and crying with homesickness.

The Temple of Dendur is a whole Egyptian temple relocated to New York and rebuilt a stone at a time inside the glass atrium on the first floor of the museum. Nancy ended the tour there, and we all sat around the low stone benches that ringed the temple, resting our tired legs.

You can’t go into the temple itself—red velvet ropes and plexiglas panels block off the interior from the wear of millions of tourists’ feet and oily fingers. I was sitting in the bright greenhouse sunshine opposite the temple’s entrance, feeling sorry for myself. Guardi had again inflamed my ache for Dreamland.

When I caught the first flash of movement inside the temple, I assumed it was a reflection off the plexiglas. It took me a moment to realize that I was somehow looking through the temple and into a landscape beyond, where a cloud drifted across the sky.

I didn’t blink, I didn’t breathe. I was looking into Dreamland. I stood up slowly, afraid that the motion would disturb the vision, but the green hills and high, blue sky stayed right where they were, framed by the temple’s sandstone pillars.

I wasn’t even conscious of stepping over the velvet rope until someone took me by the arm.

“Come on now, boy.” He was a tall, shaven-headed guard with a Caribbean accent. “You’re not supposed to go in there.”

I looked back into the temple—there was Dreamland, just a few tantalizing feet away. But there was no resisting the guard, whose hard muscles were obvious even through the blue polyester uniform.

“You can look from out here now,” he said, gently but firmly steering me back beyond the ropes.

I wanted to scream with frustration. I toyed with the idea of plunging back in as soon as he let my arm go, but he hovered too close, obviously reading my intentions.

I went back to the bench and got out my sketch pad. With shaking fingers I tried to capture every detail I could see through the narrow temple entrance. I was still at it when Father Clem herded us back to the bus, drawing furiously to hold on to Dreamland.

Kevin Lester’s funeral mass was on a Thursday morning. It was supposedly an accident: he’d slipped in front of an oncoming F train at Jay Street. I knew differently. Kevin had finally escaped from whatever was tormenting him.

My father came to the church, miraculously sober and dressed in his one and only suit.

“What are you going for?” my mother said when the note came home about the mass. “You don’t even know the kid.”

“I’m not going for the kid,” he said, mingled pity and contempt for my mother in his voice.

At the church my father sat in the back with the other adults, and he turned to look at me as my class filed in. I was struck by the subdued weariness on his face. To this day I’m not sure whether he attended the funeral mass for my sake or his own.

All the kids in church looked shaken, too, including Roger Rogers, who’d regained some of his status as class joker–slash–bully since our little encounter. He didn’t avoid me, but he didn’t go out of his way to talk to me, either. He could still be mean, especially to some of the smaller kids.

It was strange thinking of Kevin lying in the bronze casket in the center aisle of the church. I wondered if he was messed up from the train, then pushed the image out of my mind. I was sorry he was dead, and felt bad all over again about getting him in trouble.

Kevin’s mother and father sat in the front pew. His mother cried softly through the whole mass. His father sat erect and unmoving, except to kneel and stand as the service required. When they walked out of the church I dared a look at his face, hard and expressionless as a fist.

“Hey partner, whatcha eating?” Father Clem asked, slipping onto the bench opposite me in the lunchroom.

I’d been sitting there, half a salami sandwich in my hand, unable to swallow past the lump of sadness in my throat.

“I feel bad for Kevin,” I blurted out.

“I know,” Father Clem said. “Me too. He was a good kid.”

I wanted to cry. I mean, I knew Kevin wasn’t a “good” kid, not most of time I’d known him since first grade, but I knew what Father Clem meant.

“He was just . . .” I didn’t know what I wanted to say. “It shouldn’t have happened.” I was mortified to realize that tears were starting to run down my face right in the middle of the lunchroom. I took out my handkerchief and blew my nose.

“It’s okay,” Father Clem said. “It’s okay to feel sad. It’s how we let Kevin know we miss him.”

“You think he knows?” I said, my voice shaky.

Father Clem reached across and squeezed my arm. “I think he went to a better place,” he said.

I felt comforted by Father Clem’s hand, warm and firm on my shoulder. Neither of us said anything for a minute or two, then the bell rang.

I looked around to see if the other kids had noticed me crying to Father Clem, but they all seemed wrapped up in their own little worlds that day.

“Do you really think Kevin is in heaven?” I asked as I got up.

Father Clem gave me an odd little smile. “Who said anything about heaven?” he answered as he walked away.

I walked home from school that day, even though it was raining lightly. I wanted to be alone. I was sad, and I didn’t want to be at home, where the anger and tension radiated off my mother and father like X-rays. I kept turning Father Clem’s parting words over and over in my head. Could a priest not believe in heaven? Could he know something about Dreamland? I didn’t even know how to begin to ask those questions of an adult, much less a priest.

I walked over to Bedford Avenue, though it took me out of my way, so that I wouldn’t have to walk past the lot. There was a house on Bedford and Clifton Place that some of the kids called the Addams Family house—a run-down Victorian with an overgrown yard. The house had boards nailed over the windows, and broken glass littered the walkway.

It wasn’t an inviting place, but that day it suited my melancholy mood. I pushed past the broken wrought-iron gate and stood in the front yard. An ancient elm tree leaned against the side of the house—or maybe the house leaned against the tree—under which there was a dry patch carpeted with years’ worth of fallen leaves.

I sat under the tree in a brown study, not particularly thinking of anything, when I realized I could hear birds singing. That was a little strange as it was, in the middle of an afternoon rain shower, but I recognized those calls—they were stiletto birds.

Heart thumping in my chest, I followed the birdsong around to the back of the house. The rear of the property was a riot of overgrown grass, small trees, and shrubbery gone feral. Trying not to get my hopes up, I pushed my way into the middle of the yard, oblivious to the rain and the wet plants soaking my pants.

The birds’ singing seemed to be coming from everywhere, but all I saw ahead of me were more head-high tangles of weeds and bushes. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe they were just ordinary birds. My heart sank with the feeling that it was just a yard. Then I heard the water.

I came out of the bushes about fifty feet away from the Down River. The familiar green landscape rolled away from me to the horizon. As always, the sun was warm and bright in a blue sky.

I sat in the pale green grass, choked up with joy and gratitude. The rich scents of earth and grass and water were like wine. Home.

In the first week of eighth grade I discovered another entrance to Dreamland, through the cellar steps of a shuttered liquor store on Myrtle Avenue. By December I’d discovered two more—always in places abandoned or ignored by other people.

The summer before high school I got a job at a road construction company, running little errands and spending as much time as I could around the surveyors, then dashing out after work to try out new tricks in Dreamland. When I left, one of the boss’s sons, Gene, let me have an old, cracked transit.

I was never home in high school. I discovered the joys of schoolwork from a handful of patient, overworked teachers at Abraham Lincoln, and the real world started to seem a little bigger and brighter. I discovered girls, too, and how little sleep I really needed in balancing school and life and my explorations in Dreamland.

Sometime in my senior year it occurred to me that my parents, especially my father, had been shrinking gradually. His hair was now mostly white, and I was a head taller than him. His smoker’s cough turned into emphysema, then pneumonia, with long stays in the loud, open wards at Coney Island Hospital. I knew he was really sick when they moved him to a private room.

My father’s death, the pathetically small funeral and alcoholic embraces of relatives we hardly knew, seemed to have almost no effect on my mother, other than making her more fantastically determined to wring unhappiness out of life. She will live to be a hundred, every one of her days an acid bath.

This is me at fifty years old, sitting on a hill in Dreamland, capturing the long shadows of the trees on a green meadow. It is no longer morning but four o’clock, I’d say, the sun’s position having moved across the sky in insensible increments over the years.

I make a good living from my art and books, especially An Atlas of Dreamland, a giant coffee-table volume with color plates that costs a shocking amount of money. Over the years I’ve learned not to panic when a door to Dreamland closes or disappears; another one inevitably opens. Every now and again I see a piece of art or read a book that I think must be created by a fellow traveler. I have never seen another living person here.

I don’t know why I have the gift of entering Dreamland when others do not. I don’t think it springs from any special virtue or talent on my part. Over the years I’ve made peace with that mystery, among others.

I sit in my patch of dappled sunlight, surrounded by my hills and plains, absorbed in work I’ve done all my adult life and yet, pleasurably, have infinite room to improve. There will always be blank spaces at the edges of the map.  

            

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    a poem by David Mills
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    a story by Seth Freeman
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    an essay by Sarah Riccio
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