It was the New Year. Zack was made to understand by certain veiled and enigmatic remarks of his mother’s that there would be a surprise for him, soon.
“Better than Christmas. Much better!”
Much had been made of Christmas at school. Now in the New Year much was made of 1963. All first-graders had to learn to spell JANUARY not forgetting the U. Stony-faced Zacharias Jones drummed his fingers on his desk top lost in a trance of invisible notes, chords. Or, if his teacher scolded him, he folded his arms tight across his chest and depressed his fingers secretly, compulsively. Scales, formula patterns, contrary motions, arpeggio root positions and inversions. He didn’t know the names for these exercises, he simply played them. So vividly did he hear the notes in his head, he always heard a misstrike. When he made a mistake, he was obliged to return to the very beginning of the exercise and start over. Mr. Sarrantini was an invisible presence in the first-grade classroom. Out of Miss Humphrey’s sallow-skinned face emerged the fattish flushed face of the piano teacher. Neither Miss Humphrey nor Mr. Sarrantini was more than grudging in their praise of Zacharias Jones. Clearly, Mr. Sarrantini disliked his youngest pupil. No matter how fluently Zack executed his weekly lesson, always there was something less-than-perfect. This new scale, F minor with four flats. After only a day of intensive practicing Zack could play it as fluently as he played the scale of C major with no sharps or flats. Yet he knew beforehand that Mr. Sarrantini would make the wet chiding sound with his lips.
Smirking Here’s little Wolfgang. Eh!
Miss Humphrey was nicer than Mr. Sarrantini. Mostly she was nicer. Though sometimes she became exasperated and snapped her fingers under Zack’s nose to wake him causing the other children to giggle. She had not liked it when the entire class was instructed to make construction-paper Santa Claus figures and paste silky white fluff on them as “hair” and Zack had been clumsy-purposefully, Miss Humphrey believed-with scissors, paper, glue. She had told the child’s anxious mother that Zack read at the sixth grade level and his math skills were even better but Your son has problems of deportment, attitude. Social skills. Either he’s restless and can’t sit still or he goes into a trance and doesn’t seem to hear me.
He was six years old. Already the knowledge lodged in him sharp as a sliver in flesh that if people don’t like you it doesn’t matter how smart, how talented you are. Doesn’t seem to hear me was the charge.
Mrs. Jones apologized for her son. Promised he would “try harder” in the New Year.
In the New Year it was bitter cold. Minus-twenty degrees Fahrenheit “warming” to a high of minus-five if the sun appeared through layers of sullen cloud. At such times Hazel was practical-minded, uncomplaining. Laughed at the radio forecaster’s dour tone. It was comical, how the local radio station played the brightest, most cheerful music-“Sunny Side of the Street,” “Blue Skies,” “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?”-on the darkest winter mornings.
Heavy mugs of steaming hot chocolate Mommy prepared for Zack and herself. It was the principle of the thermos bottle, Mommy said: hot liquid in your tummy, you’ll be kept warm until you get to where you’re going.
On blizzard days, no one was expected to go anywhere. What happiness! Zack was allowed to stay home from school luxuriating in snowy quiet and Hazel could stay home from the Bay Palace Theater. No need to make up her face like a movie poster or brush-brush-brush her hair till it gleamed like fire. Singing slyly under her breath Savin‘ all my love for you! glancing sidelong at her son so fiercely absorbed in piano practice at the kitchen table. On those blindingly sunny mornings that often followed blizzards, Mommy would bundle Zack up in long woollen itchy underwear, shirt and two sweaters, zip him into his stiff new sheepskin jacket from Sears, pull his woollen cap down low on his head and wrap a woollen muffler ’round and ‘round his neck covering his mouth as well so that if Zack breathed through his mouth outdoors, and not his nose, which he couldn’t help doing, the wool dampened, and smelled bad. Two pairs of winter socks inside his rubber boots, also newly purchased at Sears. And two pairs of mittens forced on his hands, the outer pair made of fake leather lined with fake fur. “Your precious fingers, Zack! Your little toes can freeze and fall off, honey, but not your fingers. These fingers will be worth a fortune someday.”
Laughing at what she called Zack’s pickle-puss, and kissing him wetly on the nose.