Chuff-chuff go the pulses.
They beat in the cool of the night time.
Chuff-chuff and chuff-chuff...
These heartbeats travel the night a mile
And touch the moon silver at the window
And the bones of the man.
It costs nothing.
Carl Sandburg, "Cornhuskers" (1918)
If Claire knew he was out here she'd have a cow. But Claire's otherwise engaged, which is why he's out here. So screw it.
He has to suck in his breath now to squeeze though the window. Didn't have to last spring, but now he barely fits, and the sloping roof of the back porch isn't quite deep enough anymore; when he crabwalks sideways across the damp shingles and settles down splay-legged with his back against the window screen, his feet hang off the edge. Next year he won't fit at all. Next year. Jesus.
He pulls his knees up and ducks his head low into their shelter to light a cigarette. The wind's blowing just right to push the smoke back through the window. Claire would have a cow about that, too, but she's preoccupied with dodging Warren—or maybe he's dodging her; Billy lifts his head and listens to the shouting, tries to track it through the house. When Warren's winning, Billy's mother's voice jumps from the living room upstairs to the bathroom two windows over, the only door in the house with a lock on it; when Claire's winning, Billy's dad's voice retreats toward the front door because he knows that Claire hates it when he makes a spectacle streetside. Tonight, Claire's in the bathroom, Warren's outside the door. Billy feels the house shudder under his back and sucks another lungful of smoke. Next year, he'll be too big to sit here. Fuck.
Fuck this. His ass is getting soaked.
Even without the streetside spectacle, Joe knows not to bother with the front door, which is why he's down in the yard bitching in a low voice about the blackberry bushes that crowd the narrow path between the Boisy house and the Chan's. "Fuckin rip me to ribbons. Berries. Come back with a machete—" The patter stops at a grunt as he hooks an arm onto the derelict tv antenna and leans way back to eyeball Billy up on the roof. Then the bitching picks up again, punctuated by more grunts until he's standing upright in his black leather coat on the top of the fence, silhouetted against the Richardsons' kitchen window like something out of a B movie. A last grunt makes him lose his cigarette, but he's made it finally onto the roof and flaps a hand at Billy to move over and make room. By the time he's gathered the coat around his legs and slumped down with his shoulder against Billy's, Billy has lit another cigarette off his own and hands it to him. Joe's "Thanks" is a cloud of smoke.
Shoving Billy over again, Joe does a survey of the roof. "This thing getting smaller?"
"Too bad. View's good."
The view he's referring to is Penny Richardson's bedroom window where Penny is a silhouette, too, on her stomach on her bed, one leg waving a half-on slipper while she talks on the phone. It's like a cartoon.
"Humina," Joe says.
Billy snickers. "If you say so."
Two windows over in the locked bathroom, Claire is chanting, "Fuck off, Warren, fuck off, Warren" in a high, thin, sing-songing falsetto. Warren isn't fucking off. He never does, and the roof over the porch just keeps getting smaller.
Billy can feel Joe looking at him. His gaze is heat against the side of Billy's face and Billy sits still as long as he can stand it, like holding his hand over a flame, before he shoots him a sideways glance and mumbles, "Fuck off, Joe."
"Old Warren, he's—"
Joe nods and picks tobacco off his tongue. In Penny Richardson's bedroom, the light goes out. A cat picks its way across the top of the fence and pauses to glare at them before slithering along the rail, under the branches of the blackberry bushes, and out toward the street.
"What you got to do, Billiam," Joe says. He waits for Billy to object to the lecture, but Billy's attention is on the room two doors down, where Claire's given up singing and is repeating, "Who—Who—Who—" in a muddy, hitching voice. "What you need, Bill—" Joe points the stub of his cigarette at him, in case maybe Billy might think he's talking to someone else on the roof. "—is time travel."
Billy rolls his head on his knees so he can see him better. "Yeah? And go where?"
"Doesn't matter. Before. After. Wherever they can't get you." With that, Joe lifts up his hands in front of him like bunny paws and closes his eyes. He goes so still that Billy gets itchy.
"You look like a dork."
"Maybe," Joe answers with his eyes closed. "But I'm not here so your cruel assessment means nothing to me." He goes still again and Billy wonders if it's possible to wear a groove in time. If so, he'd bet that there's a clearly defined escape route there in the shape of Joe Mulgrew. Billy could follow it by feel. "Works in math class, too," Joe adds.
"Oh, is that what you were doing. I thought you were zoning on the thought of Penny's panties."
Joe shrugs out of his time-traveling posture and becomes himself again. "Seen 'em. She wears granny pants."
"You are so full of shit."
"With pink rosettes."
"Rosettes? What do you know from rosettes?"
"I get around."
"Old folks homes, maybe. Rosettes. Fuck, Joe." The house shudders again and Joe's hand clamps down on Billy's knee, his blunt fingers digging into the muscle like a grappling hook.
"Anywhere they can't get you," Joe repeats, his voice just a breath the texture of dust and flavoured with smoke.
Closing his eyes, Billy draws his hands up close to his chest and goes still. Claire is still caught on "Who—" like a bird battering itself on a window, and the wall takes Warren's fist again, radiates the shock through the drywall to Billy's spine. Beside him, his hand still wrapped around Billy's knee, Joe is not-singing under his breath, scat-rattling syllables that haven't become words yet, but Billy can feel them coming closer, resolving like a train at the horizon where the lines of tracks come together. He leans harder against Joe's shoulder and follows the rails. "—your wife a fucking bitch—" Joe breathes and finishes with Claire as her words break free and she shrieks, "Who the hell you think you are?!" The next repetition brings the tune with it. "Who the hell you think you are?" and on the next Billy chimes in, a quarter-tone higher, with the harmony.
By the time Warren's stomped down the stairs and slammed the front door, Joe's got his ratty notebook out and is writing the verses in tidy capital letters with his mini-golf pencil. He has to shift to catch the light from Billy's bedroom, and Billy turns around, too, leans back against him, so that Joe has to loop his arm around him from behind so he can keep writing.
"Thank you very, very, very much," they sing and Billy's swinging legs mark the time.
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