Once again, Jeffrey had made sure not to step on any of the cracks in the sidewalk on his way home from school. Concentrating on doing that stopped him from feeling apprehensive. He was sure that avoiding the cracks would work magic. But as usual, he was walking by himself because his mother insisted that he stay away from his third-grade classmates. She warned him that they were too rambunctious - that they horsed around too much and that Jeffrey might get hurt. Or even worse.
"Hello, Jeffrey," his mother said. She was sitting on the stoop in front of their building. Her hands were clasped under her knees, keeping her floral-print dress from billowing up in the warm spring breeze.
Jef-fe-ry: He said the three syllables to himself. He was never just Jeff, not even to his friend, who lived upstairs. Sometimes he wished he had a better name, a stronger-sounding name, like David or Daniel or Mark.
His mother's voice was cheerful this time and she looked pretty. She was wearing red lipstick and had on her special gold earrings. He had gotten a whiff of her perfume from the green cut-glass atomizer that she kept on her dresser - the one his father told him had come all the way from Paris. Jeffrey noticed those things. And he remembered.
"Hi, Mom. Waiting for Dad?"
It was Friday afternoon. His father was the manager of a small kosher market that closed early for shabbos.
"Your father's going to be home soon." She paused and lowered her voice. "You better be a good boy." She patted her hand on the step and Jeffrey sat down in the small space next to her, leaning right up against her.
They watched the people passing by. He glanced at his mother, who looked happy and carefree, but he worried about later on, about dinner time, about tonight. Would there be candle-lighting, then a sip of wine and a slice of challah? And then the soup, the roasted chicken his mother takes off the bone for him, and the potatoes and carrots? He felt his mouth watering. Or would there be cruel words and cursing and then the slam of a door - his father storming out once again? And then sudden silence, except for the sobbing that he could hear through the closed bedroom door?
After a while, he said. "Mom, I'm bored. Let's do something."
His mother turned to him and smiled. "Okay. How about playing 'hit the penny?'"
"Sure, Mom. Can we?" The beginning of a game seemed like the only time, except when they read to him at night, that he wasn't being shushed or scolded or reprimanded.
She got up and fished out a coin - a shiny copper penny - from her pocket. She stepped down and dropped the penny onto the sidewalk. Jeffrey reached into his book bag and pulled out his ball - a scuffed Spaldine, which no amount of scrubbing could make bright pink again. Then they stood three sidewalk slabs apart, facing each other, with the penny midway between them.
"Can I go first, Mom?"
"Okay, Jeffrey. But just make sure I can catch the ball."
He brought the ball up to his eye and aimed at the penny. He threw the ball downwards and it missed by only a few inches. When it bounced up, his mother lunged for the ball, and she fumbled it in her hands before she got hold of it.
His mother's throw bounced a foot away from the penny, but Jeffrey cleanly fielded the ball. Hours by himself, tossing the ball against the schoolyard wall and catching it on the rebound, were paying off.
Now, each time, when the ball bounced up, he caught it smoothly, while his mother always looked so awkward. So far, thankfully, she didn't seem to mind.
When the ball hit the penny, there was a satisfying clink, and sometimes the penny flipped up and over. Despite his accuracy, his mother occasionally missed catching the ball and then she had to chase after it. Once, she made him get down on his knees to reach under a parked car to retrieve the ball.
When Jeffrey was ahead, nine to three - winner gets to keep the penny - he looked up and noticed the beads of sweat on his mother's forehead, and loose strands of hair that had become undone. She didn't look so pretty any more. "Flustered," the word she used so often, popped into his mind. He had to end the game.
He drew the ball back over his head and flung it down so hard that it caromed far out of his mother's reach, and bounced and then rolled down the sidewalk. Jeffrey bolted after the ball.
"What'd you do that for?" she yelled at his back. "You're a meshugenah! A crazy person. Just like your father!"
Jeffrey ran as fast as he could to catch up with the ball and then it rolled into the street. A man reached down and grabbed the ball. It was his father, on his way home from the subway.
Jeffrey stood there, panting.
"You've got to be careful, son. You know you shouldn't ever run into the street without looking."
"I know, Dad. I didn't... I wasn't going to..."
"Just be careful, Jeffrey. That's all I have to say."
While Jeffrey caught his breath, his father clasped his hand tightly in his and they walked up the street together.
In front of the building, Jeffrey bent down to pick up the penny.
This time, his father had a silly grin on his face when he saw her waiting out front, looking a bit disheveled. This time, his mother smoothed down her dress and ran her fingers through her hair just before she stepped forward to embrace him. Jeffrey noticed those things.
And this time, this time, Jeffrey prayed that everything would be okay.
Rev 8 / May 23, 2005; Minor rev / March 28, 2006
March, 2006 Copyright © 2006, Lloyd B. Abrams