I’m up to the part about what happened on the corner. If I ever do write your letter, I’ll tell this part very carefully.
I was walking home alone after school, thinking about what to get Annemarie for her birthday
It was cold but not too cold—the boys were standing outside the garage making noise, as usual. They were also throwing potato chips at each other.
Sal’s class must have been dismissed a few minutes before mine—he was walking a little ahead of me. I did not run to catch up.
I watched him pass the boys outside the garage; they said some stuff to him like they sometimes do. I saw a couple of potato chips hit him on the back.
Sal seemed to lose it. He turned and screamed “Shut up!” He was wearing his dark blue knit cap pulled down over his forehead again.
The boys just laughed. My heart started going very fast, but I wasn’t really worried they would hit Sal because it is officially beneath them to hit smaller kids. Torment, yes. Hit, no.
One of them reached out and pushed Sal in the chest—not too hard, but Sal stumbled back a few steps. He yelled, “Jerks!” and the boys all cracked up, but no one else touched him.
Sal pointed himself toward home and started walking again.
Marcus came walking out through the dented metal door next to the garage.
Sal saw Marcus and broke into a run.
Marcus yelled, “Hold up!” and started running after Sal.
I saw the laughing man, across the street on the corner. He was in his nutcracker position, facing us.
Marcus was catching up to Sal, yelling, “Hold up! Wait!”
This is where things got weird: I saw something next to the laughing man, like an old movie that flickered for just a few seconds and then went out. It was between two parked cars, and it looked like a man holding his head in his hands. He was naked. And then he was gone.
Sal kept running. Marcus kept running. I started running.
“Hey! Hey—kid!” Marcus yelled. Naturally he had forgotten Sal’s name.
Sal took one look over his shoulder and started moving faster. He was almost to the corner. Traffic was flying by on Amsterdam Avenue.
“Sal!” I screamed. “Stop!” But he didn’t stop.
“Wait!” Marcus yelled. “I want to—” Then he finally seemed to figure out that Sal was running away from him. He slowed down. “Hey, look out!”
Sal was in the street, still running and looking back over his shoulder.
I caught up to Marcus. I think we both saw the truck at the same time. It was a big truck, moving fast.
“Stop!” Marcus shrieked at Sal. He was pointing at the truck with both hands. “Watch out! Watch out!”
I have no idea what the truck driver was doing—checking his delivery list, maybe, or changing the radio station—but he didn’t see Sal in the middle of the street, and he didn’t slow down.
I started screaming and covered my ears. I always cover my ears when I don’t want something to happen, like if I drop a glass and don’t want it to break. I wonder why I don’t cover my eyes or my mouth. Or try to catch the glass.
I saw Sal’s head start to turn, and I knew the exact moment he registered the truck. It was practically on top of him. Going forward meant getting hit. He was moving too fast to turn back. Stopping on a dime might have saved him, but there was no way he could do it.
My brain boomed inside my head: “Sal is going to die.”
“SAL IS GOING TO DIE.”
Suddenly, the laughing man was in the street, his right leg flying out in a mighty kick.
The laughing man’s foot hit Sal’s body.
Sal flew backward and hit the ground, hard.
The truck hit the laughing man.
Marcus sat down on the ground and started crying like there was no tomorrow. Really sobbing his head off.
I ran over to where Sal was lying very still with his arm tucked underneath him in a way that was not right. “Sal!” I screamed. “Sal!” He looked dead.
The truck made a long screeching noise, and then the driver came running out and shoved me away from Sal.
Someone (I found out later it was Belle) led me past a heap of something awful in the street, saying, “Don’t look don’t look don’t look.” She walked me over to the curb and sort of propped me up next to the mailbox on our corner, and then she ran back to where the truck driver was hunched over Sal, doing something to his body. There was a shoe lying upside down at my feet.
I found myself staring and staring at the shoe. It was a black shoe with a two-inch platform nailed to the bottom. It was Richard’s shoe.
Everything started to spin. I closed my eyes and leaned my head back against the cold metal of the mailbox. When I opened my eyes, I was staring at four words scratched into the blue mailbox paint. They were stacked one on top of another:
“Book,” “Bag,” “Pocket,” “Shoe.” I read the words over and over. And then my brain showed me some pictures. I saw the school-library book with your first note sticking out of it. I saw the tall paper bag full of bread that hid your second note. I saw your third note, pulled out of my coat pocket with last winter’s dirty tissues. And then my brain pointed my eyes at the shoe lying upside down at my feet. The shoe that had been stolen from our apartment.
I reached down, picked it up, and slowly turned it over. Inside was a small square of stiff paper just like the first three:
This is the story I need you to tell. This and everything that has led up to it.
Please deliver your letter by hand. You know where to find me.
My apologies for the terse instructions. The trip is a difficult one; I can carry nothing, and a man can only hold so much paper in his mouth.
I heard Sal cry out, and looked up. The truck driver was on his knees next to Sal, saying, “Thank God, thank God, thank God, it’s a miracle.”
On the other side of the street I saw Marcus, still hunched over on the curb and crying hard. I could see him shaking. Behind him stood the boys from the garage, so still and silent that they looked like a picture of themselves.
Sal was not dead. The laughing man saved his life.
You saved Sal’s life.
You were the laughing man.
You were the heap of something awful.
You are dead.