“Hurry up,” whispered Jesse’s dad. “If you miss Bobby’s performance I’m going to smother you with a pillow in your sleep. Tonight.”
Jesse made his way down the row toward the aisle, squeezing past the knees of parents, grandparents, and siblings like him, all watching his escape with envy. As Jesse left the auditorium, a kid on stage was sawing his way through something lively and obnoxious. An usher standing just inside the door gave Jesse a frown as he passed and Jesse returned it. Then the heavy door swung closed behind him and he was alone in the hallway with a huge bronze statue of a single grape.
He went to the bathroom as a mere formality. He even stood at the urinal with his fly open on the off chance that something would happen. Nothing happened. He zipped up, washed his hands, and contemplated himself in the mirror over the sink while the hand dryer roared behind him. He wondered what he’d look like now if his face had been burned by fireworks or hit with a crowbar when he was a baby.
Jesse exited the bathroom and veered left toward the coat room. It was a warm night so he didn’t expect much of a haul, but it was worth a shot. No stone unturned. He figured it would be a while before his brother played. Probably the very last performance of the youngest group since he was such a prodigy. But if he didn’t make it back in time for Bobby’s performance, well, it’s not like Bobby had been a shining example of good behavior at Jesse’s languages demonstration for the Channel 2 news crew that had come to the house a few weeks before. Jesse had been sitting on the couch looking into the video camera, the boom mic hovering just over his head, reciting poetry in Russian, Japanese, Portuguese, Arabic, and the whole time Bobby was screaming in the background because their dad wouldn’t let him eat an ice cream sandwich he’d dropped on the patio. Bobby’s fit had culminated in him setting fire to the playhouse in the back yard, which had also made the news since the crew was already there.
There were only eight coats in the coat room. Jesse went straight to the one that looked most promising, a short, white woman’s coat with a fur collar. He had a dim memory of his mother wearing a similar coat when he was little, although hers had been more of a reddish brown.
There was nothing in the left pocket of the white coat, but in the right pocket Jesse found a black leather wallet. Knowing from experience not to get too excited until he made sure it contained cash since credit cards were of no use to kids his age, Jesse flipped the wallet open and was confronted by the face of his father scowling up at him from a truly awful driver’s license photo. Jesse almost choked. He stared at the woman’s coat. How had its owner gotten his dad’s wallet? Maybe his dad had dropped it on the ground and this woman had picked it up. That was hard to believe. Maybe she was a pickpocket! The coat took on a new aura of mystery. The coat of a pickpocket! And now he was picking the pocket of a pickpocket. He was getting the better of a real expert. Jesse took his memo book out of his pants pocket, tore out a page, and wrote the words “You lose,” on it in English and nine other languages. Then he put the note in the right pocket of the woman’s coat where his dad’s wallet had been and left the coat room.
Back in the auditorium, Jesse’s dad glared at him as he returned to his seat.
“What?” whispered Jesse. “I made it back before Bobby played, didn’t I?”
“Only because this stupid kid has started over six times.” Jesse’s dad rolled his eyes toward the boy on stage, whose piece was faltering again even as they spoke. “Where were you? Why are you grinning? Are you trying to infuriate me?”
“Dad,” said Jesse. “Look.” He held out the wallet. “Recognize this?”
Jesse’s dad looked him in the eye with an intensity Jesse hadn’t expected. “Where did you get this?”
The woman sitting on the other side of Jesse’s dad said, “Would you mind being quiet, please? You’re being rude to the performer.”
“I’m sorry,” whispered Jesse’s dad. “I’d hate for him to have to start over again. Oh, but it looks like he is. I take full responsibility. The first six times were probably due to his lack of talent and preparation, but this, his seventh time, is certainly my fault.”
The woman’s face flushed red and she pretended to be absorbed in the musical catastrophe occurring on the stage.
Jesse’s dad took his wallet from Jesse and tucked it in the inside pocket of his suit jacket.
“I found it on the floor,” said Jesse. “On my way back from the bathroom.”
“We’ll talk about this later,” said his dad. “Here’s your brother.”
The kid who kept starting over never got to the end of his piece. The instructor who had organized the recital came out and escorted him offstage in defeat, patting the top of his head and making apologetic faces at the audience. A moment later Bobby appeared on stage wearing his little, pale blue tuxedo that grown women swooned over. He played three pieces that he had composed himself and received his customary standing ovation. Jesse remained seated until his dad kicked him in the shin with his heel. And even when he stood up, he didn’t really clap. It was just air-clapping, his hands never quite touching.
Afterward in the reception hall, Jesse, Bobby, and their dad had been standing in a corner drinking punch and curtly accepting compliments for Bobby’s performance for ten minutes when Jesse saw an attractive woman stalking toward them from across the room, her face filled with anger and hurt. She was wearing a white coat with a fur collar. Jesse recognized it immediately and sensed imminent trouble. He glanced up at his dad who had also noticed the approaching woman and suddenly looked very tired.
The woman walked up to the three of them and struck a pose with her hands planted on her slender hips, addressing herself to Jesse’s dad. “Do you think this is funny?” She reached into her coat pocket and handed him the note Jesse had left for her. “You sent your kid to play a joke on me? Or…what? You didn’t want to meet like we arranged, OK, fine, but….” She trailed off, confounded by her attempts to interpret what had happened.
Jesse’s dad glanced at the note and then handed it to Jesse, saying, “This is definitely your work. Found it on the ground, huh? For what it’s worth, I knew you were lying. What’s going on?”
“She picked your pocket!” said Jesse. “I was trying to help!”
“So you’re the little language genius,” said the woman.
“He’s not a genius,” said Bobby, oblivious to the punch sloshing over the rim of his cup and onto his tuxedo.
“Shut up,” said Jesse, shoving Bobby on the forehead.
“Ow!” shouted Bobby. “Dad, Jesse made me spill punch on my tux!”
The woman shook her head in disapproval. Then she turned back to Jesse’s dad and said, “So you didn’t put him up to this? He thought of this nasty little plot all by himself?”
“I have no idea what happened,” said Jesse’s dad. “And I’m starting to think it’s not worth figuring out. I got my wallet, it’s over.”
“But I was worried,” said the woman, her eyes getting misty. “I didn’t know if the wallet was gone and you’d be upset, but then I saw all the different languages on the note, and I thought maybe, you know, it said ‘You lose’ on it, so I didn’t know if you were sending me a message, and it just seemed so cruel, I couldn’t figure out what I’d done wrong…” She started to cry.
“You’re lucky we aren’t calling the cops,” said Jesse, He didn’t understand anything that was happening. He looked up at his dad. “Or are we?”
“No,” said his dad. “The cops are tired of hearing from us.”
“You’re the pickpocket!” said the woman, her voice rising, jabbing her finger at Jesse. “I could call the cops on you! I don’t go through peoples’ pockets! You do!” Angry tears spilled down her face. Young cellists and their parents were watching with ill-concealed interest.
“Dad,” said Bobby. “Why is the pickpocket crying?”
“Because she likes to. She cries to manufacture sympathy. If you’re just gonna dump the rest of that punch on your clothes, throw it out and let’s go home.”
“You’re not even going to punish him?” asked the woman, her voice cracking on the last word.
“Stop embarrassing yourself,” said the boys’ dad in a flat voice. “Or I will lose my temper and tell you exactly what I think about you in the harshest terms I know. And I know some very harsh terms. You won’t take it well, I know you won’t.”
Jesse sneered at the woman and said, “Next time you should pick the pocket of someone who’s as dumb as you.”
“Don’t call me,” said the woman, dabbing at her face with a napkin.
“Why would I?” asked Jesse.
In the car on the way home, Jesse kept expecting his dad to grill him for details concerning how he got his hands on the wallet, but his dad seemed content to avoid the subject entirely.
“Dad,” said Bobby from the back seat. “Is that woman as crazy as mom?”
“It’s probably a tie.”
“Then why isn’t she locked up somewhere?”
“Because,” said the boys’ dad. “That lady’s brand of crazy doesn’t drive grandpa’s pickup truck off a bridge or lock neighbor kids in the shed during a tornado warning.”
Jesse watched the houses get bigger and the lawns get fancier as they drove around the back side of Laurellane Lake. They were almost home. “Mom spanked us a lot too,” said Jesse.
“That wasn’t crazy,” said his dad. “Every time your mom spanked you guys, I felt a little glimmer of hope that maybe she still had some grip on reality after all.”
“Can we stop for ice cream?” asked Bobby.
“No,” said the boys’ dad. “That tux has taken enough abuse.”
The boys’ dad’s cell phone rang. He answered with a cold “What?”
Jesse heard a few seconds of shrill yelping from the other end of the connection and then his dad hung up and dropped the phone into the cup holder next to the driver’s seat.
Jesse felt weird and he didn’t know why. It didn’t make sense that he should feel weird. There was no reason to feel weird. Maybe he’d start teaching himself a new language. He could start tonight. Something old, something difficult, something obscure. He could stay up studying until daylight, Bobby sawing away at his cello down the hall, his dad leaving for work in the morning, and he’d study and study and soon he’d be reading the language and then writing it and then trying it in his mouth, hearing it in his own voice. A whole new language to master. That would put things back in order. And if it didn’t, well, there were lots of other languages. Jesse knew he wouldn’t run out of languages for a long time.
Not for years. Not for decades.