A Storyby Susan Minot
Much later, it was the trees he thought of.
They were so tall and bare. He must have seen them when he’d first gone to the Boston Common when he was eight years old, but he didn’t remember noticing them. Now when he thought of that day in December, he would see the spaced-apart oaks, spidery, reaching into the stark afternoon, leafless, like black skeletons, and how towering they felt above him. He would also think of them from above, looking down past their branches to his fifteen-year-old self, beside the snowbanks and other people teetering around on the paths of the park.
Hockey practice at St. Peter’s had let out early that day because their coach’s wife had finally gone into labor. Mr. D looked freaked, and all the boys laughed and gave him shit when he had to leave and go to the hospital to deal with it.
So Ned had taken an earlier than usual train out of the dinky Concord station. It was a quiet time of afternoon and no one else was getting on but an old lady in a light-blue coat who was so curled over she could barely make it up the stairs. He remembered thinking how bad that would be, to be so old you basically had to stare at your own throat.
It was Christmas vacation but Ned hadn’t been allowed to go home yet; the hockey team still had practice. The dorms were closed, and most of the other boarders on the team stayed with day students in Concord, but Ned was staying with his aunt Elsie, who lived near Harvard Square.
He had to take the train to Boston and then the subway to Cambridge, but once he got to the big house on Craigie Street the food was good. His dad was making him stay there because of everything going on at home, though they hardly ever saw Aunt Elsie, his father’s sister, because she was considered an oddball in the family. But his dad needed her help. Ned thought Aunt Elsie was totally nice, and she fed him giant meals and must have appreciated having another person at the table since Uncle Rob hardly said a word, not that Ned did either, but at least she had another person to listen to her. She had a lot of opinions about Reagan winning and about the hostage crisis. Ned had figured it was better than staying at Mike O’Conner’s house, where he’d been assigned. Word was the O’Conners had a TV ban. That night M*A*S*H would be on, and The Waltons, and he had his own TV at Aunt Elsie’s. He didn’t want to admit it, but he actually liked The Waltons. Everybody really cared about each other in it.
When he got off the train at North Station it too was practically deserted. He walked out of the shaded tracks and into the station, with its polished ocher floor. He was tall for fifteen and thin, with brown corduroys slipping off his hips. He wore a plaid shirt and work boots with the laces undone. His navy-blue parka, unzipped, had an L-shaped patch of hockey tape on the shoulder from when Zeigler ripped it.
Since he had extra time, instead of taking the subway to Cambridge as he had every other stupid day, he decided he’d go walk around. He vaguely knew the Boston Common was sort of near.
He trudged up the hill toward downtown, past shops jammed with crap tied in ribbons and colored lights shaped like bullets and streetlights wound with fake ivy. It was weirdly warm. You could see your breath in the shade, but when you crossed the street, sidewalk gutters were gushing with water and you could feel the sunshine. Sooty mounds of snow along the sidewalk were eroded into peaks. People went by holding square paper bags with red trim or briefcases or kids’ hands. His hands were in his pockets, hunkered down. He had his wallet in one.
He got to the top of the hill where Government Center spread out as a dark pebbled arena with levels and hand railings. He knew the park was somewhere close and turned down a few narrow streets dark as canyons till he miraculously saw at the end of one twisting branches of trees and brown and white earth. In that mysterious place, he would supposedly find someone to sell him pot.
It had been spring when he’d been there before, with his mother and older brother, Matt. They’d come to go to the Swan Boats, all dressed in their Boston clothes, gray flannel shorts with suspenders underneath their sweaters. Matt’s sweater was dark blue and Ned’s dark green; otherwise they were dressed exactly the same. He couldn’t believe they’d worn those things. Ned had never been into the city before just to walk around. They used to drive through on their way to Brookline to visit their grandparents or once, after the Ice Capades, they wove into town along the Common to see the gold dome on the State House, and their mother pointed out the brick building where she’d met their father.
At the Swan Boats Ned remembered they’d bought red-and-white cardboard boxes of popcorn and thrown kernels to the swans and ducks while a man at the front paddled what looked like steps. The boats weren’t really swans the way Ned had imagined it, just wood cutouts that looked like swan silhouettes with wing-tipped tails. Otherwise they were normal boats with red benches. Still, he’d felt it was cool to be in Boston. The three of them went to Schrafft’s for lunch and had sundaes for dessert. His mom was dressed up too, in a pink dress with a matching jacket, and had her pearls on. She was happy watching Matt eat his hot fudge and Ned his butterscotch and stole bites with her spoon. His mother liked treats, but was trying to keep her figure. That was one thing about their mother, she knew what it was like to be a kid. She didn’t try to make them into adults, the way Dad tried, correcting the way you talked, or telling you how you were doing something wrong. It was something he’d liked about his mom then, that she was more like a kid, but now, getting older, he sort of wished she was more like a grown-up.
It was weird being in the city alone. He stood under the tall trees near a trash can and unwrapped a Snickers. A woman loitered nearby. She had slicked hair parted in the middle and rounded into a ball at her neck. She wore a rust-colored leather jacket tied at the waist and narrow blue jeans with a flare. Her sunglasses were tinted brown, which got darker at the top. Each cheek was smudged with a brownish rouge. Siena, he thought, knowing the color from his oil painting art class.
The woman walked by Ned, not meeting his eye. “Pot?” she whispered, holding her lapel with crimson fingernails.
Ned looked around. There was a businessman hurrying to the subway. Three ladies, probably secretaries, walked beside each other in skirts and snow boots. An old woman with a net over her hair. No one was paying them the slightest bit of attention. “Okay,” he said.