It's September, the first week of school at John Muir Junior High School, and Paolo has a lot on his mind. He's thinking about finding a place of his own with his brother Georgie and his cousin Billy, running away part-time which means they are running away, but still come back home to eat and sleep and read the paper. He's thinking about the upcoming Halloween/All Saints' Day/Mexican Day of the Dead/Chinese Lantern Night carnival, and what booth he, Georgie, and Billy would like to man. He's thinking about Communism and the atom bomb, just like everyone else in Orange Grove, California, in 1951. But most of all, he's thinking about Billy and Veronica, a Chinese girl in his class, who have both become victims of some ofthe community's ignorant but deep-seated ideas about who should be hanging out with whom. And it's this last thought that Paolo, even with Georgie and Billy's help, can't quite figure out.
Suddenly, the boys have a real reason to be running away, and maybe not just part-time.
About the Author
D. James Smith lives in California, where he studied with poet Philip Levine. A recipient of a fellowship in creative writing from the National Endowment for the Arts, his work appears frequently in literary magazines, most recently, The Amherst Review, New Millennium Writings, the Notre Dame Review, and Stand. His previous books include a collection of poems, Prayers for the Dead Ventriloquist, and an adult novel, My Brother's Passion.
His novels for younger readers are Fast Company and his first book about Paolo and friends, The Boys of San Joaquin.
Read an Excerpt
"Okay, sweetheart," Miss Farisi says to Georgie, winding her tape measure back around her hand, "you can step down." Of course, he about faints off that table, going limp, me having to help him to stand. Can't say a thing he's so bug-eyed in love with his teacher. She doesn't seem to notice or else is used to everyone half-mad for her. She hasn't even scolded him for being all ash-sooty.
We are in her kitchen, sitting round a table with a red and white checkered Italian tablecloth. Billy is sitting across from Veronica just looking at her, Luke is sort of watching the both of them, and I'm standing, holding Georgie up, but mostly watching Miss Farisi. She reminds me of a doe I saw one morning in a cornfield stepping high and dainty, nuzzling dew and sunlight from those stalks. Once it saw me it looked at me with its eyes the size of ripe avocados for one long moment, and then it just floated away, legs of smoke, gone. But Miss Farisi is all of her standing there in her loose white blouse and her dungarees and little red canvas shoes and is letting us get as much of her close up as our eyes can hold.
"Okay, boys, can you get that chicken wire I have on the back porch?" she says. Luke and I and Georgie scramble out of there like we are doing a fire drill, smashing one another in the doorway and snatching that roll and fighting to haul it in. Billy doesn't move.
Miss Farisi lifts Georgie back onto the table and starts mashing that chicken wire in all manner of directions, making a cannon of some of it to stick off the square part of it that is supposed to be the tank body part. She has the tip of her tongue bit in her teeth and tiny beads of perspiration forming above her lip. She leaves a slit in the back of the contraption so's he can climb in and out of it once it's all done.
She works; we watch. She says, "Isn't it nice that Veronica came by, boys?"
Sure, we all nod. Who knew they were friends?
"Of course, now you're here, there won't be any more girl talk."
Veronica drops her eyes.
Billy's eyes go down too.
Luke watches them. He looks like he feels sorry for them.
"Miss Farisi," Georgie says, kind of stunned, what with being so close to her. "Once we get the plaster of Paris on this... can we paint it?"
"I certainly would say so. Green. And we'll put a white American star on it too." She smiles at him.
That sends him wobbling round the moon once or twice. I get ready to catch him if he decides to come out of orbit in my direction.
Rufus, who is in the kitchen with us 'cause Miss Farisi is the only adult nice enough to let him come indoors, comes up behind her and sniffs her lavender perfume and then lays himself down, looking up at her, tail thumping the floor.
"Veronica," I think to say, polite, "have you got your costume yet?"
She looks at me. Eyes like night sky with little stars.
Luke speaks for her. "We don't have Halloween. I'm going 'cause you guys are. Sammy Woo goes because he's more American than Chinese."
"Yeah, but Monsignor made the carnival for everybody," I say.
"He made it Chinese Lantern Night since it already was that. We don't have to do trick-or-treating."
"Who'd miss out on that?" I say.
The Jensens, Billy signs like he's trying to tell me it's okay if American-Chinese persons aren't the only ones that might not go trick-or-treating.
Miss Farisi looks at me with her eyebrows raised Mrs. Ogilbee-style, so I know I'm to translate and tell about the Jensens, how we don't think they do Halloween on account they probably can't afford costumes, so I do.
"I think those boys have more worries right now than Halloween," she answers to that, concern in her voice. She and Veronica give a quick look at each other, and I wonder what all they've been talking about.
"You know the Jensens, Miss Farisi?" I ask. "I mean to talk to?"
"They aren't two who are much for talking," she says, her attention back on arranging Georgie in his chicken wire. She has one of her arms in there up to its elbow, sort of stuffing him this way and that, getting the shape of the thing proper and tight. "Maybe it's for the best they aren't going, since you don't get along, anyway." Her lips are mashed thin with concentrating.
My head snaps round at that, over to Billy, back up to Miss Farisi. "You know anything about Edgar and Jeffers we ought to know?" It comes out of me honest and without my thinking, and I see Miss Farisi is a person maybe I trust. We all trust. It occurs to me how all of us are there in her kitchen like family, and I think she is going to be a number one Italian-American mom to somebody someday.
"Well," she says, "I know Jeffers Jensen has an awful crush on Veronica." She lets that sink in some, not looking at anyone or anything except Georgie's cage. "Honestly, he came by my room to ask more questions about girls than he probably has asked about anything in his entire life."
My mouth is dry and drops open as slow as if it's chock-full of peanut butter. Veronica blushes. Billy looks at me as if to be sure he's understood the lips of what Miss Farisi's saying and I nod, Yes, slow, back at him.
"I realize a teacher doesn't go around telling what a student confides in her, but I am doing just that and for a reason. I feel there is a danger for you boys, and I mean all of you, including Jeffers and Edgar. You could get hurt if you all don't put a stop to this nonsense. I didn't like the anger in Jeffers's voice when he spoke to me, and I told him so. Told him when one is hurt by love it doesn't give you the right to hurt anyone else." She pulls her arm out of Georgie's tank skeleton and lays her eyes on me. "Has anyone been hurt?"
I manage to close up my mouth and answer right back out of habit, I guess, like she is a teacher again, not anyone's Italian mom. "Nobody's been hurt."
"Well...that's what Veronica says too." Miss Farisi has some smart-aleck in her voice I never heard before.
Veronica isn't looking at anyone. My mind has started to trot hard and is about to break into a gallop. Is this why the Jensens have been dogging us? I thought they had a problem with Veronica being with Billy 'cause she was Chinese. That don't make sense if Jeffers wants to be Billy and have his girl sweet on himself. Does Miss Farisi know how much has been going on? If she did, she'd be more than just irritated. Does...
"Hey!" Georgie hops sideways on the table. "Ouch!"
"Oh, dear, I'm sorry," says Miss Farisi. It looks as if Georgie's got stuck in the butt with some pointy bit of chicken wire. He's grabbing his cheeks back there. She turns him round to inspect on the area closely, then just yanks his pants and his underpants down in one motion, pushes round with her thumbs, yanks his pants and all back up in one motion, and says, "No blood. No damage. Sorry, kiddo, I am not paying attention to what I am doing."
Georgie is frozen stuck, can't speak or move, except for his eyes that are pointed at the ceiling, tracing back and forth in an arc. It's just more than his brain can process. The whole room is quiet except for Miss Farisi bending chicken wire. Nobody says anything. Then, to rescue him maybe, Miss Farisi asks, "And...and so what exactly is Chinese Lantern Night, Luke?"
Still no one speaks. Miss Farisi whips her head around at us and cocks her head, quizzical.
That's when Veronica's voice comes, soft, "It's a very old tradition," she says.
Luke flicks his eyes over to her, opens his mouth to speak, thinks otherwise. Lets her tell it.
We all look at her. She has her head still partly down and seems to be talking to the table. "The Chinese from around here come from a province that has always celebrated it."
"What're they celebrating?" I ask, my mind needing the story, needing its distraction, needing time to understand all I've learned and am learning, if that's what is happening.
"Well, not really a celebration," Luke says.
"More of a commemoration," Veronica says.
"Commemoratin' what?" I ask, almost listening.
"Long ago there were two...two lovers."
Billy's head goes up, slow.
"Everybody in the town said they didn't belong together because the boy had come from another village. But the two didn't see it that way. They wanted to marry. Everyone was against it and did many things to stop them seeing each other. But they went on."
"How come everyone was so dead against them?" I ask, curious now.
"I don't know. It's a very old story."
"So what's that got to do with lanterns?"
"Well, the two, the two...were heartbroken that they couldn't be together, and one day they went to the sea and stood on a cliff and vowed they could not suffer being apart."
She stops. Miss Farisi stops her work. Everyone listens.
"They held hands and then...jumped." Veronica is looking up now and out of Miss Farisi's kitchen window. It's gotten late and the dusk is swimming around out there. "As they fell toward the sea something wonderful happened: They turned into cranes...and they flew away." Her voice drops away like the beating of wings. "Flew away together."
"Where did they fly to?" Georgie says, all caged and monkey-curious and believing the whole story.
"That's an awfully grown-up tale, Veronica," Miss Farisi says, thoughtful.
"Yeah, and kinda mushy, too, but where do the lanterns figure in?" I ask.
"Well, ever after, on the evening when it happened, the townspeople would make paper lanterns in the shapes of birds, put tiny candles inside them, and set them afloat on the water."
"There's no ocean around here. Chinese just hang a lantern outside their door," Luke says.
"Not...not a very happy story," I say. Though I admit I kind of liked the flying-away part.
"Are you coming with Sammy to the carnival?" Georgie asks Veronica from inside his chicken coop.
"I may be. Or I may be over in Reedley with my grandmother."
"Why's that, Veronica?" asks Miss Farisi.
"No special reason."
"Oh, that's too bad. I thought you might go to the carnival with me."
"Grandma is getting old and needs the help," Luke explains.
"Well, let me know," Miss Farisi says.
"Is it too late for us to make this tank into a bird?" Georgie says. He's been taken with the story.
"Yes, little mister, it certainly is," she says. Then she pokes his rib with her finger through the wire.
He blushes, dark as plums, dumb and blind.
I'm thinking about those Chinese lovebirds. I know no Italian would jump off a cliff for love. They might go to singing and howling and draping themselves around on the furniture, but they ain't going to actually jump off of or out of anything. I have enough Italian aunts to know that. In fact, when Aunt Genevieve wouldn't marry Jimmy DiJemmo on account he quit his job at the butcher shop so's to be a saxophone player, he came round the house with a razor threatening to cut his own throat, but after a lot of commotion he left in time to make it home for his mom's dinner and never came back.
But I ain't the one in love. I look at Billy. He looks okay. And he's 100 percent Appalachian. There is no way ever an Appalachian gets excited like that. I still remember when I was little, listening to my dad and my uncle and my grandpa on that side, who's passed on, sitting out on a summer evening, having conversations:
Five minutes with nobody saying a thing.
Five more minutes.
Five more minutes while I am going out of my mind and getting itchy all over, while they're not twitching one tiny muscle.
"Heard the neighbor woman died."
Five more minutes.
"Say it was on account the water round here is poison."
"You want some of that iced tea now?"
And so on. I have no worries 'bout Billy whatsoever. Well, I don't think I do. Maybe I do. He already is only one of maybe six fifth graders I know that has a girlfriend he hangs with. His mom doesn't care much for him and leaves him to live with us, so who is it that really knows?
Well, Georgie is all done up in chicken wire tank-fashion like he wanted, and Miss Farisi helps him slip out of it. We been there so long it's almost all the way dark.
Miss Farisi takes Georgie's "tank" into another room and comes back to find us all at the table waiting on her next plan for us.
She smiles and looks at us and then at me, I suppose since I'm the oldest, looks at me with a little cat-eye twinkle and a sigh, says, "Well, I suppose since it is getting dark, I could drive you home."
"Oh...well, no, that's okay. We pretty much walk everywhere."
"We don't have to leave yet," Georgie says.
"It's only a five-minute walk," I say.
Luke stands up. "It's time I take Veronica home. My dad is going to be wondering about us. About Veronica."
Veronica looks at him like she's happy he's her brother and looking out for her, and also like the mention of her father has awakened her, as if she's been sleeping and dreaming. I realize she and Luke look a lot alike. She stands up quickly, and Billy, too. The two glance at each other, something passing between them like a quick, dark bird darting from one bush to another, so fast you aren't sure you actually saw it.
"I would rather not travel on an empty stomach," Georgie says. He hasn't budged an inch.
"Well, Georgie, it so happens I have a date tonight, and I will be going out to dinner."
All of us swing our heads toward her. A teacher? A date? With a man?
Georgie looks like he's just ate the tablecloth and is having trouble digesting it, mumbling something to himself and coughing.
I swear none of us can move after that. Miss Farisi is trying to get her mind around what is the matter with us. Then she perks up with an idea and says, "I tell you what, how would you like to take a peek at Saturn, and then I'll have to let you leave?"
Just because you are beautiful doesn't mean you can't have a mind. Not that you'd need one if you looked like Miss Farisi, but apparently she's got one anyway. She takes us through the house, on through her bedroom, done up all frills and pillows and bows and all the typical dust-catching, fire-hazard girly stuff and then out through some French doors to a patio made of red tile. There she's got a good-sized professional-looking telescope. We crowd right round it, and she shows us how to look into this little spot and there, bright and clear as in one of Mrs. Sweeney's books, is Saturn, rings and all.
While everyone is looking, I notice that John Muir Junior High is stenciled on the tripod of that telescope, and I know then it is Mr. Edmund's telescope, and he is the one probably going to dinner with her. But all I can say when I look again is, "Gosh, it looks just like Saturn."
"That's because it is, silly," she says, her perfume and her eyes and her cheek close to mine.
Truth is, that night I lie in bed a long time thinking about Jeffers, about Billy and even Veronica's sky-black eyes. I lie there smelling Miss Farisi's perfume and thinking of her eyes like warm dark chocolate, and imagining Mr. Edmund, who will most likely marry her someday, the two of them just loafing around, looking at the planets whenever they want. I fall asleep awful and slow, awful with some kind of silly, dreaming of all those heavenly bodies that aren't mine.
Copyright © 2008 by D. James Smith
What People are Saying About This
D. James Smith "joins Richard Peck and Bruce Clements in the select company of latter-day YA writers who can be mentioned in the same sentence as Mark Twain." The Washington Post