Yellow Flags

Conrad’s father had come to visit after an absence of several years, and now sought a way to get close to his son

A Short Story

by Charles Eastman

I REMEMBER LITTLE OF MY FATHER FROM THE time we all lived together in Hollywood, and only a few disturbing moments from that period, including the afternoon when he took out after another car that had in passing splattered ours with muddy water from the gutter. He was suddenly furious, as though he had been injured or insulted. What he planned to do when he caught up with the offender I didn’t know, but I saw that he was all the more determined, fiercer in his pursuit, for my mother’s highpitched objections from the passenger seat—as our car, a Ford sedan, hit the hazardous dips of the cross streets and barreled forward. I think I felt that my mother was overreacting, more fearful than need be, and was feeding my father’s rage, but I did not know about alcohol then and so assumed that she saw the peril more clearly than I, on my feet in the back seat like a charioteer and more entertained than frightened.

I also remember him at a card table in the middle of the living room on Western Avenue. The floor lamp is at his right, out of place, pulled from behind the couch to illuminate the card game he plays with our guests—childless, unfettered friends my parents knew from high school. My father lifts his arm suddenly to thwart some attempt to calm him down, make peace, and the lamp goes over with the gesture. I hear raised voices, conciliatory, then pandering, before an abrupt, intimidated silence. The room is tipped upside down in the spilled light.

Here again it is my mother’s reactions that stay more acutely with me, her keening moan of desperation, her see-what-you’ve-done-now despair. She, who would go to any lengths for the sake of appearances, suddenly surrendered and began wildly overstating her embarrassment, goading my father’s temper, I think, and feeding his penchant for making scenes, on those card-playing nights of the Depression.

Otherwise, my father seemed to be laughing most of the time, or asleep, in the memory I have of him, in the few, brief years before the divorce. I can recall his teasing sense of well-being, his self-satisfaction, fixed on my mother, and the long, heavy hours of sudden, untimely slumber: eventless Sunday afternoons, when after some aborted pastime I was obliged to honor an uncommon, unreasonable quiet.

Then he was gone, his absence hardly noted in the abrupt change in our circumstances. My mother was at work now, and my grandmother was running the house—or the succession of houses—we shared with her and with my working aunts, sometimes my uncle, and finally, for a while, a stepfather.

And then, after several years, he was back.

He was in uniform, in the Army, a sergeant, and he was leaving town. It was early summer and I was not in school. The kids, my brother and sisters, were somewhere, I don’t know where. Perhaps it was not summer vacation but Easter week.

My grandmother let him in and called my mother on the phone. The phone was in the hall, on a small, cluttered desk invariably lacking a pencil, with a chair in front of it, though my grandmother did not sit down. She wore a patterned pinafore apron, blue; it was damp from her interrupted work at the sink or at the tubs on the back porch. I can only think she was torn over how to handle this emergency.

“He’s here and he wants to take Conrad to the beach,” she said to my mother at her office across town. It was gloomy in the hall, as it always was when the bedroom doors were closed. My father stood in the door to the den, taller than anyone I knew, blocking light from that source, too. My grandmother did not turn the light on.

“No, he doesn’t seem like it,” she said.

“Could I speak to her?” my father said.

My grandmother gave him the phone. With her apron she wiped her wrists where suds had climbed when she’d dried her hands.

“I had one beer at lunch,” my father said, as though my mother were being unreasonable. “A beer.”

I sat down on the third step from the bottom of the narrow staircase that led to the rooms above. I knew that some higher order of things regulated my fate now, some jurisdiction where I didn’t belong exclusively to my mother and my grandmother anymore, and where their preferences could be overruled. He was my father, after all, if currently underprivileged and in disgrace, and was thereby entitled to the sympathy and the subordination of my protectors, female. Still, I had the dim hope that my mother might prevail, would say a firm no, from the obstinate streak I knew she possessed.

“But I’m sober and I’ll stay sober while he’s with me,” my father said. My grandmother swatted him with her dish towel, good-naturedly, warningly, and got back on the phone, her job to lighten things up.

“Tell her I’ll behave,” my father said, recognizing an ally. And then, turning to me, addressed the jury: “But I’m leaving for a while and I just thought I might like to go to the beach for once with one of my kids, for Christ’s sake.”

I could not hear my mother on the other end of the line, and yet I have no doubt about what she said: “I’m pretty busy just now. Mama,” as though she recognized my grandmother’s divided loyalty and was feeling outnumbered, overruled. This was not indifference or callous disregard but simply the truth. Our welfare depended on my mother’s salary now. Which we knew, my brother, my sisters, and I. Our mother’s attention during the day, in our larger behalf, was owed elsewhere, even if we did not always temper our emergencies to that priority.

As she listened to my mother, my grandmother looked between my father and me. She said she was sure Edward was a good man and would take good care of me. If she looked as though she doubted her own argument, it was because she understood our conflicting feelings fully, and her heart went out to all three of us.

“But I want him to give Conrad five dollars, in case something happens—right now, in front of you. Mama, so he’ll have money to get home at least, or to phone.”

When my grandmother hung up and repeated this codicil to my father, he said, “For crying out loud.”

AT THE BEACH IT WAS NOT WARM OR CROWDED enough to be summer, and the briny smell, like laundry soap and sulfur, was caustic; the wind was blowing. We for while in father’s bor-

We stayed for a while in my father’s borrowed car and stared at the wind-combed sand. The car belonged to a woman, I suspected. Someone who kept it clean, anyway, who had left a half-peeled roll of Life Savers on the seat. Wint-O-Green.

My father said that maybe we wouldn’t go swimming after all, maybe we’d just walk along the Strand. He asked whether I wanted to see the apartment building where he and my mother honeymooned when they got married. It was called the Ocean Arms. It was right across the street; we didn’t even have to leave the car. He pointed out the very room where he and my mother had stayed.

“She took the afternoon off,” he said. “And I wasn’t working.” He was speaking of their wedding day.

They had liked the Ocean Arms for its Spanish arch over the entrance, for a living-room tapestry of dancing gypsies deep in the woods, held up by iron rings at the top, and for a wrought-iron grille over the front window, which was leaded, with sections of colored glass. (I’d heard about all this before, from my mother, from my grandmother.)

“We lived here two whole months,” my father said, as though it were a lifetime and all anyone could expect of paradise. Then he reached to the heart of his nostalgia: “I had a straw hat that was really quite the thing.”

My mother always spoke of him as “a dresser,”as though looking for something to explain it all, to make some sense of it. Four kids.

I liked the past and didn’t mind this information, but I was not as interested as I was at home in our dining room, when my mother opened her hope chest (the heavy relic of her life with my father and the one off-limits in the house which i respected) and a world before my own emerged in the form of folded scarves and strange lapel pins, beads and thick letters and flaking snapshots, and posed, tinted portrait pictures of remote and unrecollected people, people in their youth looking older than they would today, serious, formal, preliminary people, fixed in receding time and smelling of cedar. In my view the circle had closed, and my father was not entitled to his side of our history anymore; he was dealing in stolen goods when he presumed to speak of our past.

“But the sound of the sea made her nervous,” he said. “She wanted things set—I understand that. I wanted things special. She’d get embarrassed by things, little things. For instance, everyone came down on Sundays because we had the beach. But only tenants could use the showers, which made your mother feel ashamed.”

The building was now painted turquoise. A cardboard sign in the ground-floor front-room window read ROOMS. The wrought-iron grillwork remained, but the leaded patterns and the colored glass were gone.

“You thirsty? Want a Coca-Cola or something?”

A BLOCK FROM THE OCEAN ARMS WAS A FLATfaced market, and before it a dented red refrigerator box with cold drinks. My father opened a Hires for me on the rusty lip of the cap receptacle and went into the market counting his change; he came out with a bottle of Lucky Lager.

He tucked his sergeant’s cap under his belt and put his foot up on a crate half filled with empties. He leaned his elbow on his elevated knee.

“Your mother should have come down with us today,” he said. He held his beer before him thoughtfully, as though his right to it were without question, as if broken promises were inevitable.

“She doesn’t like the beach,” I said, feeling at once that my tone might sound too in-the-know and challenging. My mother was beautiful; she was easygoing, and could, in my experience, be persuaded in almost any direction. But she had positions, out of nowhere and seemingly on small points, and she held to them stubbornly. For example, she hated the beach. It was sandy, too far to go, too much trouble. She burned.

My father took a long swallow of beer. “I guess not,”he said. “She never did.”

He looked up and down the Strand. He nodded then, as though he felt some gesture were required, some conclusion. “Funny,” he said. “It doesn’t seem to have changed all that much.”

I looked up and down the street as well, in case my opinion of the neighborhood was pertinent.

“You get good grades in school?” my father asked.

“Pretty good,” I said, embarrassed for him, his remark so parental, obligatory.

“Just pretty good?”

“I guess.”

My father cleared his throat, looking for the right voice, as if he hadn’t intended to get businesslike but the issue was too important to ignore. “Well, work on your grades and keep them up there,” he said.

In another swallow he had almost finished his beer. “What do you play? Do you play—what? Basketball?”

“They play kick ball at my school,” I said, feeling immediately some deep prevarication in my soul, an effort to cover up, slide by the abyss.

“You play, don’t you?”

We were addressing the mystery of the ball, and I was at a terrible, threatening loss. I shook my head.

“How’s that?” my father asked, baffled but concerned, squinting at me.

“I’m not very good,” I said, recognizing in this admission a glaring want of character.

“Well, that’s the way you get good,” my father said. “By playing.” He seemed relieved to have found what to say to me. “Ball.”

“I don’t like it.” I said. I was down to the foam of my root beer.

“You should play, Conrad,” my father said.

“I put out the yellow flags,” I said.

“The what?”

“They tell when recess is just about over,” I said. “Lunch period. And your time is running out.”

My father said nothing. He might have been wondering what to say next, he might have been through with the conversation, but I felt the interrogation continuing, more pressing for his silence.

“At a quarter to one someone has to put out the yellow flags,” I said. “That tells everyone if they have to go to the bathroom or clean up their area, they have fifteen minutes left.”

“You do that instead of play?” my father said.

I said nothing. I might plead the importance of my charge, but I had my mother’s integrity and would claim no distinction that another failed to grant me freely.

“I was a quarterback when I went to school,” my father said. “That’s how your mother met me.”

“I’ve seen the picture of you,” I said, envisioning the cedar-smelling staged photo of a high school celebrity that my mother had shown me from the chest in the dining room—shown me too often, too pointedly, I thought, trying to do my father justice and make sure I got the image of him that she herself had fallen for. This she did as faithfully as she sent me to Sunday school and to violin lessons, and in the same spirit—for my greater good, else she be charged with bias or neglect.

“She ever talk about me?” my father asked, and I knew that the subject had traveled beyond me, a duty

stop, to the destination it was headed for all along.

I was relieved, of course, that my rank on the playground was no longer being investigated and that I’d slipped past the theosophy of ball without being further disgraced. But I felt awkward, as you do when you have mistaken someone’s waving at you across a distance— when you’ve quickened, perhaps even brightened a little, and lifted your hand to respond—only to see that happy look spear past you to someone behind your back. You feel the fool then, and cheated, as you witness the reunion made in heaven you almost interrupted.

“She said she doesn’t want me to dislike you or anything,” I said. “Or hold anything against you.”

HE HAD BOUGHT A QUART OF WHISKEY, which he left in the paper bag, the bag held tightly around the neck of the bottle, and he drank as we walked along the Strand, his bathing suit wrapped up under his arm. I carried our towels, my grandmother’s reminder at the last minute. I wore my bathing suit under my pants.

Then he said he was tired of walking.

We crossed the sand and sat down by the water.

He saw that the cuffs of his Army pants were filled with sand and he cursed, lightly, to himself, as though I weren’t there. He opened his belt, because the buckle cut into his stomach now, doubled up as we were. He threw his cap aside. He warned me that he might fall asleep, and then he lay back and fell asleep.

A gathering of gulls had settled into the sand upwind, and occasional feathers blew against my father and stuck to his khaki, as though he had been punctured and his stuffing were coming out. Sometimes I reached to pull them off, these soft, curly innards, and sometimes I didn’t.

Every few minutes the surf cracked at my back with the sound of a whip, and when I looked around, I could see a whooping spray thrash backward, like a mane over the breakers. After a while I took the bottle of whiskey by its brown neck; the bag lifted with it. It was heavy enough to be not empty yet, and smelled of khaki and cigarette smoke and moustache and neck. It was, as I knew it would be, warm when I drank, like something that should not be consumed. I put the bottle back where I found it, having tasted my father and my own stale origins.

MY FATHER RAN INTO THE WATER, HIS legs stabbing a fountain of clear fire up over his body. He had awakened with the desire to swim after all, and now he vanished beneath the surf.

I went in only as far as the water wrapped my waist.

The sun had fallen to the horizon, and the surface of the water was blinding. The tide had gone out while my father slept, and the breakers were louder than ever and sudden and shallow, if not fierce. The wind had stopped, though, and the cool evening air on our shoulders made the water seem warm enough.

He came back toward me. “What’s the matter?” he said. “Can’t you swim?”

“I can but I don’t want to,” I said. I stood with one hand held up to my eyes to protect them from the glare of the sun. I could see my father only when a wave broke the reflection and cast a shadow, and then I had to stagger back as the wave hit me. I thought I might return to our towels, but a pair of dark surf fishermen had appeared on the beach, and for some reason I was reluctant to pass them.

My father, riding a wave, surfaced beside me. He lifted me up and carried me farther out, without asking, marching through the crackling edges of incoming water.

“I don’t like it,” I said tightly.

He held me up as a wave pulled under us; we continued out.

“Please.”

“Come on.”

“I don’t want to.”

“Just jump when they—just hold your breath and squat down.”

“I—”

“Don’t be a baby.”

His body was slippery, and I could not hold on. I felt also some other prohibition against my clinging, some manners or taboo.

“Hold your nose!” I heard his wet laughter against my ear. “I said open your eyes for crying out loud!” His whiskey breath was like a muzzle clamped over my nostrils.

“I can’t!”

“I got hold of you!”

“No!”

“This one we’ll jump, and see—”

We did.

“—how easy it is?”

I felt the buoyant lift, the possibility of pleasure, trust.

“See?”

“I want to go back.”

“What fun it is.”

“Yeah, but.”

“You’ll get used to it.”

My teeth were so tightly locked together that I took in no water when the wave hit and I was pushed down and torn from my father’s hands. I bounced against the bottom and hit the top again almost immediately, surprised at my survival and a bit exhilarated, to find the surf suddenly still, covered with a hissing froth that moved in every direction at once. I felt myself riding it, a spinning marble racing away from the disinterested figures on the shore, the surf fishers.

But my father was gone and I had no foothold.

My neck tightened to keep my head above water, and twisted as another sudden locomotion struck me from behind, smashing me like a giant paw. I sprawled into the depths again, feet over head in a black cartwheel; my head struck sand. I fell over on my arm, on my back, and again over and upside down.

I came to the surface crying, put my feet down, and stood. I fell and crawled and staggered up the sand yelling no to my father, who was pursuing me, calling my name and swearing.

He stood over me, his hand on my shoulder. He was breathing loudly. I was shuddering. I felt him quivering in the cold.

“Rip, huh?” one of the surf fishers said. “I seen you out there.”

The other one said, “This time of year.”

WE WALKED, DRESSED NOW, BUT DAMP and sandy underneath our clothes, through the evening light along the surf’s edge, a golden dust rising from the breakers. The sun, which was out of sight, sank in the sand at our feet, the last of the moist dye of day. My father’s strides were long and enthusiastic, and promised You’re going to like this place.

“If it’s still there, that is,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s still even there.”

He was thinking about my mother again.

“Even after we had moved away, we’d come back down for our dinners sometimes,” he said. “To have the best steak and seafood dinners I ever ate. Do you like steak?”

“No.”

“You don’t like steak?”

I didn’t answer.

THE BAR WAS THROUGH AN ARCI1 TO THE right of the door from the beach. I could see a dining room in the back, with a stage at the far end, where tables and chairs were stored under fake palm fronds, beyond a bare, dusty dance floor reflecting the light of a jukebox living there in the dark, a glowing troll. The place was called The Palms and was on the Strand where the pier began; it had an L-shaped counter under a low roof around a large grill.

We took the one booth in the bar section, and when we sat down, I could see, out the windows over my father’s head, the purple sky where the sun had gone. The table wiggled when I put my elbows on it.

“It’s the wrong time of year,” my father said.

He sighed, a blunt, naked statement of his disappointment. “Or early, maybe.” Other than a man in the dining room, we were the only customers. “Me and your mother used to come here all the time.”

Beyond the counter, by the grill, I could see a black man wearing a tall chef’s hat, as if it were New Year’s Eve or Halloween. He hit a flat bell with the palm of his hand as we sat down, as though summoning someone from the dining room, where Hawaiian music was playing.

My father said, “How are the steaks tonight, Cooky?”

The cook said, “Yes, sir, the steaks are real good.” He rang the bell again, smiling vaguely at nothing.

“You wouldn’t kid me, would you, Cooky?”

“The waitress will be right with you, sir, yes, sir.”

My father reached to the counter for a menu, a typed page under clear plastic, ringed in black leatherette. “Do you like a New York steak?” he asked. “Or a Spenser steak, or a filet mignon, which is four dollars.”

Then, “What’s this here steak. Cooky, this here house steak, is that any good?”

The cook said, “Yes, sir, that’s a real good steak.” He rang the bell for the waitress again.

“Why don’t we have two of them house steaks then,” my father said, folding up the menu.

Then, “How do you like your steak? Rare? Medium?”

The cook hit the bell again, sharply. He had been listening to the radio when we came in, and now he turned it down.

“Medium rare or what?”

I looked around to the bar for the waitress. For some reason my father didn’t seem to understand that we needed the waitress before our order was official.

“Or well done? Do you like your steak well done?”

“I guess so,” I said.

“Or medium rare? That’s the way I like mine.”

“I guess,” I said.

“Medium rare,” my father said to the cook. “And we’ll have two shrimp salads—I mean cocktails.”

The waitress came in from the dining room. She was flipping pages in her pad as she approached us. “Salad with my prime rib,” she said over her shoulder to the cook. My father repeated his order to her, adding french fries. “And I’ll have a beer.”

He said to me, “Do you like milk, or what do you have with your dinner at home—Hires root beer, or what?”

“Coca-Cola.”

“Ginger ale,” the waitress said, looking up as two men came in from the Strand.

“They only have ginger ale here,” my father said.

“Ginger ale,” I said, recognizing the new arrivals as the surf fishers we had seen earlier.

“He’ll have milk,” my father said to the waitress, who gave the cook a page from her pad and proceeded toward the surf fishers settling in at the counter, putting their tool kits on the floor by their feet, their poles against the wall. They ordered beers.

One of the surf fishers put a large red thermos onto the counter when the waitress had gone. “You want to fill this with more of that chowder there, Henry?” he said, moving the thermos to within reach of the cook. “Before we go.”

My father was quiet, even when the waitress came back with everyone’s beer. Then, suddenly, loudly, he said to the huddled backs of the fishermen, “Anytime I go out the only thing biting is the goddamn groupers.”

The fishermen looked over from the counter. One nodded, the other shook his head. One was drinking his beer from the bottle, the other slowly pouring his into a tipped glass to regulate the foam. They were both hunched over, leaning as though into a fire; they were pulled from that warmth by the necessity of responding to my father, and I could see that they were eager to return to their comfort.

“And I’m not just only some Sunday fisherman either,” my father said, as the waitress set two silver urns down before us. “I know fishing.”The urns contained chipped ice and clear glass dishes of red sauce, chunks of pale flesh protruding, looking like carnage, something from first-aid class, civil defense.

My father was quiet for some time; then he turned back to me and our meal. He picked up the baby fork sticking out of the ice as though he were already angry at something. He wagged the fork at the backs of the men at the counter, at the cook prodding our steaks on the grill beyond.

“This last time,” he said. “This last time—?”

The men looked around, but only briefly.

“This goddamn manta ray, this goddamn manta ray—?” My father’s mouth was full. “Comes along and takes my line and snaps it right off.”

“You got that chowder, Henry?" one of the surf fishers said, getting to his feet.

Once more my father turned back to me, finishing his shrimp cocktail. “Why aren’t you eating?”

“I’m eating.”

“I don’t see you eating . . .”

I said nothing. I could hear the cook’s radio program.

The other surf fisher got to his feet also as the waitress brought them their full thermos and their check. They finished their beers on their feet.

“They,”my father said to the waitress, extending his empty beer bottle to her. “Buy those two men over there a drink, will ya?”

The surf fishers gave my father a sidelong look. One picked up his tool kit; the other went for their poles.

My father was getting to his feet, reaching for his wallet. “What are you drinking there, boys? Tell this lady here what you’re drinking,”

“Never mind, thanks.” one of the surf fishers said.

“No, come on, I want to buy you one.”

“We’ll catch you another time, soldier,” the other one said.

“If you reach low enough, eh?” my father said, sinking back to the booth again, laughing.

The cook hit the bell on his counter with his heavy fork. I could see that our steaks were ready.

The waitress brought my father another beer.

I watched our plates steaming on the counter.

The waitress lit a cigarette and leaned against a pillar in the back. She did not see our plates. She was taking a rest.

The surf fishers headed for the bar with their check.

“Are those your friends?" I said when they had gone.

IT WAS COLD WALKING DOWN THE STRAND FROM The Palms, back to the car, under the streetlamps painted black for the dimout, and to keep warm I took my arms out of my sleeves and folded them across my chest under my sweater. “You’re going to stretch your sweater that way,” my father said, annoyed at my posture. Or at something, someone—the surf fishers, maybe.

He drove slowly then, very carefully, and said nothing more until we were back in my neighborhood, on my street and parked before our house.

“I don’t think I’ll come in, though,” he said. “Your mother’s probably home by this time and—" The burglar alarm in the poultry shop at the corner rang briefly as the place was being shut up for the night.

“Well, it’s her home,” he said. “She’s probably relaxing and everything. After a hard day’s work and everything. Not looking forward to company or anything—some other time.” As though I had asked him to come in and kept insisting. “You tell her I’ll write her, though, soon as I know where I’m at and can make the allotment a little bit bigger.”

He was quiet for a minute. “Which I think I ought to be able to do.”

Then, “Do you need anything or anything?”

I said no.

“You’re probably cold, so I don’t want to keep you,” he said.

“I’m not so cold,” I said. “Now.”

I returned my arms to my sweater sleeves, the damp of the beach gone. The light from the streetlamp, not painted over this far inland, filtering through the trees, made a pattern on the car, shadows shuddering in a slight breeze. “Where do you guess you’ll go in the war?” I said.

“Well, they don’t tell you that.” I saw the hand of a drowning sailor sinking in the water, his stricken ship in the background. Somebody Talked! I felt un-American for having asked.

“You take care of your mother, though,” my father said.

“I will,” I said. But I was chilled at the possibilities inherent in this request, the prospect of such responsibility.

“Can you think of anything you need?” he said.

“A new notebook for school,” I said. “That’s twentynine cents. The good ones.”I was grateful to have thought of something.

“Well, here’s—fifty cents is all I got right now, I got to get gas.”

He opened the glove compartment and studied his fuel gauge in the light it shed, though with the motor off this was pointless, wasn’t it? “I really meant for you to keep that five dollars,” he said. I had returned it to him, his deposit, when the bill for dinner had come and he was short. “But I don’t want to take it back empty.” He shut the glove compartment. “That wouldn’t be nice.” I wondered who she was, where, waiting impatiently, worried, the owner of the car.

We were quiet, my lap heavy with the damp towel wrapped around my bathing suit.

“I sure wish you could think of something I could do for you,” my father said. “Besides a school notebook.”

Then, “I mean, if there was any problem or anything that you were having.”

“I can’t think of any problems,” I said.

“Well, I’m glad you haven’t got any problems.” In laughter he reached for my knee. I didn’t move, but recoiled just the same. He withdrew his hand.

“Oh, hell, I know I’m going to be all right,” he said. “I’m not the least bit concerned about that part of it.”

Then, “What I mean is, I know I haven’t shown you much in the way of being a father, Conrad.” The amateur living of my parents, I thought. I thought of bad actors in the movies. “I mean, if today was the only chance I had and the last chance, well, I wouldn’t want you to remember me—well, I’m just thankful, that’s all, that I know you’re in good hands. I’m grateful for that. And, I mean, I just hope you had a good time today, that’s all.”

“I had a real good time,” I said.

“Well, good,” he said. “That’s what I wanted to hear.”

“But I guess I better go in.”

“Because if you ever felt like writing any letters to me sometime—” he said. “I sure would like that.”

I was looking down the street, across the dancing light on the car hood. I could see my father in snapshots again, yellowed snapshots, dog-eared and chipped, in woolen trunks and a belt, leaning against the wall of the Ocean Arms with one of his friends from cards and high school, his moustache tilting with his grin. I could see what my mother saw in him, but I could smell the cedar of her hope chest, too, and I knew it was all in the past.

“And tell me about your grades in school and everything, and all your friends.”

“I will,” I said.

“You know, Conrad, what I wish you would do?”

“What?”

“I would take more interest in ball if I were you.”

“In ball?”

“Sports.”

I was silent.

“I’d let someone else take out the yellow flags.”

“I can’t,” I said.

“Yes, you can,” he said. “If you make up your mind.”

“There’s no one else to take them out.”

“There is. That’s foolishness, Conrad.”

“The person who gets a hundred percent in fractions every day for a week takes out the yellow flags,” I said. Then I said, “You get to leave class early and come back late.”

“That’s fine, but—”

“So you got to have mastery in fractions.”

“Mastery?”

“—so only the highest kids.”

HE MADE NO FURTHER ATTEMPT TO touch me, and I got out of the car without touching him, though I felt some awkward debt in that regard.

I looked back once before I opened the door of our white-pillared house. He was still sitting there in the borrowed car, a black silhouette, a lawn between us. I could not be sure if he was looking at me. I was in shadow too. He didn’t wave, I didn’t.

I went into the house and closed the door.