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HOW I came to be standing in a locker in the unfinished school building,
in the heat of an August night, still and silent and happy and thrilled.
The thrill of danger, the possibility of being caught, wasn’t the only
thrill. Prowling through the unfinished school building had made
me begin to feel a thrilling anticipation of seventh grade that in memory
is so thoroughly mixed with the thrill of danger that I can’t quite tell
My hopes for a new school year had never been greater.
I always felt an anticipatory thrill before a new school year, the anticipation
of novelty. According to what I’d heard from older, bigger, wiser
kids, the novelty of seventh grade was greater than that of any previous
grade. I would find it newer than new, as the advertisements for
soap, cars, television sets, and dog food used to promise in those days.
There was one note of disappointment in all this pleasant anticipation,
though. With the opening of the Purlieu Street School, there would
be room for everyone again, and we would return to normal conditions.
It would be the end of split session. I would be going to school
for a full day, ending at three in the afternoon. I would miss Flo
The building in which I expected to experience all
that thrilling novelty was located just a block from my house, in what
had once been a pleasant field where ragweed and goldenrod grew so high
that my friends and I used to wriggle through it for hours (or for what
in an adult’s memory of a child’s pastime seems like hours), just wriggling
randomly, in sinuous paths, invisible to one another, to see how often
our paths crossed. Like all the other school buildings built during
this period, the heyday of school-building, it was low and rambling, made
of cinder blocks with a veneer of beige brick on the outside, and like
the cars built in the same period, it was bigger than the previous model
and had more gadgets. Among the Purlieu Street School’s gadgets were
a public-address system and amazing folding bleachers worthy of “Fantastic
Contraptions.” Raskol and I began by picking up bits of scrap outside
the building, but one day we found an open window—or perhaps it was a window
that we could open—and from then on we spent more time investigating the
building than we did harvesting scrap.
A building that’s a-building is a greater pleasure
than a building that’s a building: its mysteries are exposed, and yet they
are still intriguing, still complicated, no less mysterious for their being
exposed than a woman is less mysterious naked than dressed. With
Raskol I spent many a late afternoon and Saturday in the school-in-progress,
wandering through its mysteries, our adventures spiced by the presence
of a watchman, something of a mystery himself, who roamed the cavernous
shell apparently at random. His coming was announced by a laughable
clamor—jangling keys, scraping feet, a hacking cough, a pause, a thorough
blowing of his nose—so by the time he arrived we were invisible, hiding
in lockers, in heating ducts, or behind stockpiles of mysterious stuff.
At night this game was even better. The watchman carried a long flashlight
that projected a powerful beam, in which great looming shadows of school
furniture and builders’ supplies arose suddenly from nothing, dashed along
a wall, collapsed, and rose again, a beam that leaped across a corner,
raced toward the place where I hid, hurtled past me, even, as now in memory,
across the very door of this locker, through the louvers and onto my face,
but the watchman missed seeing me, always missed seeing me, and lumbered
on, ignorant of my existence. Hiding from the watchman was a delectable
game, tingling with the possibility of our getting into some real trouble
if he caught us, effervescent with the fact that he never did, that we
always won. As Raskol and I understood this game, we were the only
players. In our minds, we were everything: the center of the contest
and all its area and edges as well. The watchman was just a dupe.
When he had passed and we came out of hiding, we would wink at each other,
deliver ourselves of theatrical sighs, and laugh silently at his ineptitude,
but we never noticed what, with the finer perception memory sometimes supplies,
I hear quite clearly now—the watchman’s jolly chuckle, receding with his
AS IT NEVER WOULD BE after classes started, the whole school was open
to us when we prowled it in secret. From any point of view other
than ours, I suppose, it was closed to us, but because all its parts were
equally closed, once we had penetrated one barrier we had penetrated them
all. We prowled everywhere, visited every classroom, explored the
machinery rooms, knew every closet and storage room, poked around in every
office. As the end of the summer approached, we began to resent the
fact that we were going to lose our exclusive relationship with the building.
On one of our nighttime visits, we discovered that
the entry hall had been laid with terrazzo, the flooring material most
like life. To make a terrazzo floor, chips of marble are scattered
in a soup of cement, like notable moments scattered through a life, and
then, when the conglomerate hardens, the surface is polished so that the
bright chips show to good advantage, glinting against the monotonous ground
as notable moments do in the memory. We knew that on the first day
of school a train of buses would discharge students into this terrazzo
entry, so we wanted to lay claim to it, to walk all over it, cover it as
thoroughly as we could, make certain that we would be the first kids ever
to step on any part of it, mark it as our own before the mob got to it.
We walked, we marched, we hopped, we skated, and
my mind began to wander in a direction that had become habitual—toward
Raskol’s sister, Ariane. She was on my mind more and more often.
When I say that she was on my mind, I mean not only that I pictured her
or heard her voice or cast her as the female lead in certain fantasies,
though I did all of that, but there was something else, too, an accompaniment
to these thoughts of her, something like the background music in a film,
but an accompaniment for all the senses, a set of sensations that I cannot
fully recall or describe, but which, it seems to me, resembled smoke, Scotch,
silk, and saxophones. (This can’t be true, since I hadn’t tasted
Scotch at the time, but it’s as accurate as I can make it now, at the time
of writing.) As a result, I had begun to feel awkward in Raskol’s
company. My awkwardness resulted not only from the fact that I was
preoccupied with his sister, but from my unsettling discovery that the
mere sight of him made me think of her, made the light seem to dim, summoned
the aroma of smoke, the taste of Scotch, the brush of silk, a saxophone’s
I had drifted into one of my reveries of Ariane
while we were gliding around on the terrazzo. This one involved my
being in that very building, that very night, alone with her instead of
Raskol. Ariane and I had been wandering around the building hand
in hand and had come to an open window where the night breeze drifted in,
bringing with it the pale moonlight. Standing there, dreamy-eyed,
Ariane idly fingered the buttons of her blouse. One slipped open,
then another, and—
“Damn!” said Raskol.
“What?” I said, or squeaked. Caught!
Some look must have betrayed my desires. It wouldn’t have surprised
me if Raskol had said, “Damn it, Peter, button my sister’s blouse back
up—right now, this minute.”
Instead he said, “Look at that,” nodding back at
where we’d been. I saw, in a slant of moonlight much like the one
that had illuminated Ariane, footprints of terrazzo dust. Before,
in the dark, we hadn’t realized that a dusty residue from the polishing
remained on the surface. Now we were tracking it through the school.
“Oh,” I said, relieved. “That. Well.
“Nothing?” he said. “It’s evidence.
And we don’t want anyone to know we’ve been here.”
“Oh. Sure. That’s right.”
“Peter,” he said. “Wake up. Snap out
of it. You’ve been in another world. You know that?”
“Huh? Oh. You mean the way I kind of
drifted off? I can explain that—”
“It started while we were skating around on the
terrazzo. You seemed to skate off into—some other place.”
“Yeah. Well. It’s funny you should mention
“I think I know what it is,” he said. “What
makes you drift off like that.”
“Sure,” he said. “It’s that imagination of
yours. Your head’s in the clouds. Not just in the clouds—in
“Heh-heh-heh. I guess you caught me,” said
I, relieved to find that apparently he hadn’t.
“You were probably thinking about—” Or had
“Look, I can explain, Raskol—” I said.
“The moon, right?” he guessed.
“Well, look,” I said, still in the confessional
“What?” I asked, beginning to wake up.
“And the stars,” he said, “and—the whole universe.”
“Gosh,” I said, truly amazed. “I mean—that’s
right. Exactly right. How did you figure that out?”
“Easy,” he said. “It was the moon that got
you going. On the way over here. The full moon.”
“Amazing,” I said.
“Hey, I know how your mind works,” he claimed.
“One little thing gets you going, and you’re off on a train of thought
that makes lots of stops. Any little station that comes along—you’re
liable to get off and take the next train that comes through. No
telling where you’ll wind up. You’ve got a strange mind.”
I thought it might be best to say nothing at all
about this conclusion, though I was relieved that Raskol didn’t know my
mind as well as he thought, and I was flattered to have him think that
I had a strange mind. It was a good time to change the subject.
“We can wipe up the footprints with our shirts,”
“Yeah, but that’s only part of the problem,” said
Raskol. “We’ve left our footsteps in the dust on the terrazzo.
We’re going to have to put it back the way it was.”
“We’re going to have to rearrange the dust,” he
We returned to the entry, got down on our hands
and knees, and, using our hands and puffs of breath, spread the dust around
in a good imitation of its condition when we had arrived. Terrazzo
dust is a demanding medium, fine and unforgiving, choking and dirty.
I hope I never have to work in it again.
That left our footprints, extending down the hall.
When we had finished wiping them up with our shirts, I was ready to call
it a night and go home, but Raskol had noticed something new; “Hey,” he
said. “Look at those tags.”
Looking down the corridor, I saw yellow tags attached
to each locker, folded flaps of paper, like butterflies that had lighted
there. I got up, pinched one, and opened it. On it was printed
the combination of the lock that had been installed in the door.
“Hey,” said Raskol from the other side of the hallway.
“You see what’s on these tags?”
“Yeah,” I said. “The combinations.”
He thought for a minute. “You got any paper
with you?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said. In those days I always carried
a small wirebound notebook.
“Copy these combinations, okay?”
“All of them?”
“Yeah, all of them. Better get them all.”
“That’s going to take some time.”
“Okay, we’ll do them in shifts. You go on
and get some, and when you get tired come back here and I’ll take over.
Be sure to write down the number of the locker, too.”
“Okay,” I said.
I wandered through the school for a while, jotting
down locker combinations until I felt I’d done my share. When I got
back to Raskol, he had one of the locks apart.
“And look at this,” he said, as if I’d been standing
beside him all along. “Just two bolts hold these locks in the door.
See? You can take one off in a few seconds—if you’ve got the door
open. Now watch this. This little cap with the numbers printed
on it fits onto this shaft and over the splines.”
Splines. What a nice word. This
was my first encounter with it. It appealed to me at once.
It seemed inherently poetic, sensual. In fact, it sounded so good
that I could imagine lots of uses for it, none of which was related to
combination locks. Splines could be soft, round, benign creatures,
handy to writers as emblems of hope and calm: “When the storm abated at
last, Cynthia and I emerged from the cave where we’d sought shelter.
A preternatural calm had settled over the sea, and the splines had come
out to sun themselves on the rocks.” Just as easily, they could be
the sort of rich, comforting food that grandmothers specialized in: “Jimmy!
Time to get up now, you hear? Grandma has fixed you your favorite—hot
splines with butter and honey.” My ignorance of the true nature of
splines must have shown, since Raskol went on to deliver an explanation.
“See these little slots inside the cap?” he said.
“They slide onto these ridges on the shaft. Those are the splines.
They make the cap turn the shaft instead of just turning
Ah, splines. What a good idea. What
a nice word. The idea of a splined shaft appealed to me almost as
much as the word. As a device, it demonstrated economy of design.
As a concept, it suggested security. Spline still sounds wonderful
to me. That moment in the empty school building when I first heard
the word has stood out in my memory ever since, and it gives me great pleasure
now to brush aside the dust of the intervening years and let this bright
“I see,” I said, and I wanted to add that I’d seen
splines before, on the shaft of the windup record player, but Raskol rushed
“Well, get this,” he said. “There’s a little
mark here on the shaft that shows where zero is supposed to line up.
“But—when I put the cap back—if I turn it so that
it goes onto the shaft just one spline out of line—like this—see what happens?”
“Yeah,” I said. “The five is where the zero
is supposed to be.”
He just stood there grinning.
“How long do you suppose it would take to change
them all?” I asked.
“Not long,” he said. “But that’s not what
I want to do. Not now.”
This surprised me. It seemed like a great
stunt, the sort of thing that would make us famous.
“Words of wisdom from my father,” said Raskol.
“Keep an ace in the hole. A dollar in your pocket. Never let
them know all you know.” I knew that he really did follow this last
bit of advice. He was wary about letting the teachers know how much
he knew. He always suspected their motives when they questioned him.
“This,” he said, reassembling the lock, “is something
to keep up our sleeves.”