Rich man, poor man
Beggar man, thief,
Rich man, poor man
“Thief!” a voice shouted.
Helen lost her rhythm and stepped on her jump rope. Billy Mackey's grinning face appeared at the top of the fence between their yards.
“You're gonna marry a thief!” he cackled.
Helen wished she could be more clever in her retort, but there was something about Billy Mackey recently that could leave her feeling flustered and unsure of herself. Sure, he was two and a half years older and two grades ahead and had taken to acting like that suddenly made him smarter and wiser than she, but she'd turned thirteen last week, and his annoying teases shouldn't be able to get to her so. There'd been a timeâmost of their friendship, actuallyâwhen he hadn't been such a tease, when they'd run across lawns and roller skated down sidewalks and tumbled in leaves and snowbanks together like twins. His brother Lloyd, who was her age and in her class at school, always
had taunts and practical jokes at the ready, but Billy had been different.
Billy had lots of pals, but he had never minded spending time with Helen. When they were littler, he had unashamedly hunkered down and made mud pies with her, and even nowadays when he spied her sitting in the shade reading, he'd still sometimes come plop down beside her and spread out model airplane plans to study.
He had once confided to Helen that he liked it that she wasn't too “girly,” by which she supposed he meant she wasn't above putting worms in her pocket or getting dirty. So, why, lately, had he been treating her as if she
too girly? She hadn't been behaving differently, at least not around him. She had a new habit of evaluating herself in mirrors, but he didn't know about that.
The golden curls of Helen's younger years had mutated into waves the color of clover honey, a regrettable change, she'd decided. She had her father's serious brown eyes and thick eyebrows, her mother's straight nose and wide mouth. Her grandmother said she had a strong face and that she would grow into it and be a beautiful woman, but Helen couldn't see it. What did Billy see? Was wondering that too girly?
“It doesn't count if someone makes you miss,” she protested.
“Okay, do it again. I'll keep quiet.”
Billy had put on a sober expression, but his hazel green eyes twinkled with warning. Helen wound up her rope.
“I don't feel like it,” she said.
“Don't you want to know what kind of man you're gonna marry?”
“It's just a game.”
Jumping rope was beginning to feel like a mortifying thing to have been caught at.
“Say, maybe one of your grandma's spooks will jerk the rope
and make you miss when you get to the right answer,” he said, laughing.
Righteous anger welled up in Helen. Now he had truly trespassed. No one was allowed to make fun of Nanny and her seances. She gave him a scorching stare. Pride made him hold his smile, but his eyes, by which she always knew his true feelings, spoke remorse. She held his gaze until she saw his brave grin waver, then she spun on her heel and marched away.
“Hey, Helen,” he called, “I didn't mean it. C'mon back. I've got some nougats.”
She looked over her shoulder. He was holding up a small white paper sack.
“Whadâya do, steal 'em?” she said fiercely. “Or did your bum father send them to you?”
She ran to the house. He wouldn't call after her again. Because now she had trespassed, too. As soon as she'd hurled the barb, she was sorry. She knew how worried the whole Mackey family was about Mr. Mackey, who had been riding the rails for nearly four years, having left the family when the youngest, Linda, was still a baby, so that it would be easier for them to collect relief. She knew Billy feared his father would never come back. Now she'd taken that fear and twisted it into a weapon. She didn't understand how such meanness could have sprung up in her, even considering his provocation.
Hearing the voices of her mother and grandmother in the kitchen, Helen wheeled upstairs to her room. She was too dangerously close to tears to meet anyone. She honestly could not have told them why she was upset, anyway. The bare facts might seem sufficient, but she had a gnawing sense that they really weren't and that trying to explain would only prove another kind of trespass.
Her room was stuffy, but she didn't open the window. She lay on her bed and stared out into the thick foliage of the large
sugar maple in the backyard. She wondered if Billy were still standing by the fence, as surprised by her outburst as she was. Most likely he was furious. He'd be blind to her presence next time they met. If she apologized, he'd act as if what she'd said hadn't touched him. He didn't often get mad at her, but when he did that was how he handled it. Coolness, then a turning aside of her efforts to talk, then after a pause of a few days, an unblinking resumption of easy commerce. Those first reconciled exchanges always left her feeling a little sick to her stomach, as if she were telling a lie.
A squirrel ran down one branch of the maple and leapt to another, shaking the leaves along his path. Helen was sure she heard the leaves rustle, though with the windows shut, it had to be her imagination. Her mother said she had a good imagination.
Perhaps, Helen thought, she'd imagine herself apologizing to Mr. Mackey. She'd insulted him as much as she'd injured Billy. Helen knew full well that Mr. Mackey was not a bum, but a hobo. Her father had carefully explained the difference once when they saw a man on the street wearing a sign saying “I will work for food.” While both bums and hobos hitchhiked or hopped trains, hobos were looking for work, while bums lived by begging.
If Mr. Mackey were here, it would be an awful trial to apologize to him, not because he was intimidating but because she'd have to admit her cruelty. But once it was done, she could face Billy more freely. Yes, apologizing to Mr. Mackey would definitely make her feel better. And if she couldn't do it in person, she'd do it in her mind. Nanny had said the mind was like a box of magic tricks, and that if you believed hard enough in something, it was like it was real.
Helen shut her eyes and pictured Mr. Mackey, his red hair and freckled forearms, his pants that were always a little too
short and showed a flash of white socks. In her mind's eye, Mr. Mackey appeared in a plaid woolen shirt, but the last time she'd seen him, he was wearing a brown jacket and a brown hat and carrying a small cardboard suitcase. It was that image she was trying to bring up, Mr. Mackey standing in front of his house looking it up and down, right before he turned and walked away. Yet there he was in her imagination wearing a plaid shirt. Actually, it was draped over his shoulders, wrapped around him as if he were cold. She could see he had another plain shirt underneath, with dirt smudges on it. Helen decided to go ahead no matter how he was dressed.
“Mr. Mackey,” she said aloud, her eyes still closed, “I said something terrible about you today, and I'm sorry.”
She wondered if she ought to be specific. Should she say she'd accused him of being a thief? That wasn't precisely accurate. Should she explain she only called him a bum because his Billy had made fun of her grandmother? Or would that detract from the purity of her repentance?
As she was pondering this impasse, Helen heard again the distinct rustle of leaves. She opened her eyes and looked out the window. No squirrel in sight, but the leaves were moving. Wind, she guessed.
Then she smelled smoke. It wasn't a cooking smell. And it wasn't smoke from someone's trash fire, either. It was stronger than that, blacker and denser, she somehow knew, though she didn't see even one wisp in the air outside.
Suddenly, Helen sat up, her heart pounding. It was Mr. Mackey. Mr. Mackey was in a fire. She was as sure as if the flames were roaring up right before her. She was gripped by terror, both because of Mr. Mackey's peril and because her knowledge was so absolute. She rushed to the door of her room. She had to find Mama or Nanny. Her hand on the knob, she stopped and tried to calm herself. If she went to them hysterical,
they'd just think it had been a bad dream. As she stood there, a new certainty came over her. Mr. Mackey was not in the fire anymore. He was safe. Someone was taking care of him. He was going to be all right.
She went to the window and pushed up the sash. A soft breeze entered, bringing no smell of smoke. Despite the warm air, Helen shivered. Seeing Mr. Mackey was not a completely new experience. There'd been other times when a phrase or a picture had appeared unexpectedly in her mind like a stray puppy nosing insistently at a screen door. These words or sights were invariably meaningless to her and fleeting. They'd slip out of her awareness as cleanly as they'd entered. She'd never given them much notice. But this time was different.
“It never came so strong before,” she murmured. “Never so strong before.”