home's the most excellent place
 

Chapter I: It's A New-Born Afternoon

Dry your eyes and take your song out,
it's a new-born afternoon.

September 20, 1956

"We're going to sleep in that?" Danny asked, completely baffled by the commotion that had commenced in the Diamond household.  It had been only two days since Mr. Diamond had picked him up from the courthouse.  He was not yet feeling comfortable and still hadn't gotten used to some of the rules and customs.  Now he was helping Mr. Diamond, Neil, and Harvey put up some kind of makeshift shelter in the backyard.

"Sleep, eat, live," Neil affirmed while holding up a wooden pole to which his father was attaching another wood four-by-four beam.

"It's fun," Harvey added.  While he admittedly hadn't been thrilled by the addition of Danny to his family life, he'd accepted it and was doing his best to make Danny feel welcome.  "And we get to decorate it."

Danny still looked skeptical.

"Think of it like Christmas," Neil explained, "only without the gifts and the commercialism... and more of a harvesty theme."

"Yeah, sounds just like Christmas," Danny agreed sarcastically.

Mr. Diamond smiled at Danny through his dark bushy mustache.  "I think he means in terms of religious significance and the excitement.  Sukkot is much more like Christmas than Channukah."  He fastened another beam, and Harvey and Neil let go of their poles.

The structure was built against the house and was basically a bunch of poles with beams around the top and middle to hold it together, and some angled beams around the bottom for support.  Neil and Harvey both shook it a bit to make sure it wouldn't fall over.  Mr. Diamond nodded his head appreciatively.  "I think we're ready for some walls." 

The Diamonds attached thick canvas to the sides not against the house, leaving a very wide doorway on one side.  Then they carefully placed some large palm fronds across the top, leaving space between them for light to enter.  It hadn't taken more than a few hours for the four of them to construct the shelter. 

Harvey and Mr. Diamond went back in the house to get decorations for the sukkah.  Neil sat cross-legged inside and looked up at the ceiling, such as it was.  Danny felt like a complete outsider.

"Come on in," Neil called out to him. 

Danny shrugged.  "Why not?"  He sauntered over to the sukkah and sat down next to Neil.  It was roomier than it looked from the outside. 

Harvey and Mr. Diamond returned with a box of decorations: dried corn and gourds, some hand-drawn pictures to hang on the walls, various colored homemade streamers and some shiny ornaments.  Danny watched as they decorated the sukkah, but didn't feel comfortable participating, in spite of their trying to include him.  He wandered back inside the house, wondering what Mrs. Diamond had available to snack on. 

Poking his head into the kitchen, he found no one.  Mrs. Diamond had mentioned going out to do some grocery shopping, so he assumed she hadn't come back yet.  He started looking through the cupboards, though he was a bit worried about touching anything.  He'd learned during his first stay with the Diamonds that they kept their kitchen kosher, and he was still nervous about somehow accidentally doing something that didn't meet her high standards.

"Looking for something to nosh?" Neil asked casually from the doorway, startling Danny.  "Let me help."

"Yep.  Your mom usually has something to eat."  Danny felt slightly guilty at getting caught, but reminded himself that he was supposed to act like part of the family.  At least, that's what everyone kept telling him.

Neil grabbed a couple of glasses and some milk from one of the refrigerators.   Then he poked around some more and found some pastries.  The diamond shaped bars were fried like donuts, with some kind of nutty filling.  "Will this do, or are they too sweet?"

"Sweet is good."  Danny grabbed the plate and the milk from him and the two boys sat down at the table to enjoy their find. 

Danny kept going over the other night in his mind; he couldn't seem to stop replaying the mental tape of the dinner conversation from the evening Mr. Diamond brought him to this home.  "Neil?" he asked suddenly.

Neil put down the glass of milk he was drinking and looked inquisitively at Danny.

"You know when you said, the other night, you said I nearly killed Paul.  Or you almost said that... "  Danny let the thought hang in the air; he could see that Neil understood.

"Just a Crystal exaggeration," Neil replied.

Danny met Neil's gaze and knew that Neil had more to say.

Neil sighed.  "Some bruises... and two broken ribs."

Danny nodded and looked down at the table.  "I didn't even realize what I was doing at one point.  I felt so sick and so angry."  He glanced over at Neil, and then continued.  "If I hadn't done it, they would've killed me."  Danny tried to explain, but his thoughts came out jumbled.  "If Luke had just let things go on, I would've stayed.  I already felt like I'd lost so much, and being with the gang, well, it did have its good points.  But Luke had to push it."

Neil's dark eyebrows rose slightly, and he glanced at Danny curiously.  "Luke?"

The boys heard the front door open, interrupting any further conversation.

"It's impossible to talk here," Neil commented.  Standing up, he added, "We ought to go to the library again some time."

Danny nodded at that and got up to follow Neil to the door.  "Yeah, that might help," he agreed.

 

"Help with what?" Mrs. Diamond asked, holding two bags of groceries.

"Going to the library will help Danny get ready for going back to school," Neil replied easily.

Talk continued with much more casual conversation as they both helped Mrs. Diamond with the groceries.



September 24, 1956

Danny chewed the eraser at the end of his pencil, and then carefully marked "B" on the answer sheet. He hated tests, especially math tests. Luckily, that was the last problem. He put the pencil down, picked up all the papers, and walked up to the counselor. "I've finished the tests, Mr. Patterson."

"Great." Mr. Patterson took the papers from Danny. "So, we'll score these right away so we can get you placed in classes tomorrow."

Danny nodded, and then looked at the clock on the wall. It read half past eleven. "What do I do next?"

"So. I've made a tentative schedule for you. It looks like you missed Social Studies from your freshman year, so I put you in the fourth period class for that. You'll go to physical education for fifth period. So, after that, come back here and I'll let you know how you placed in math and English, so we'll be able to figure out the rest of your schedule." Mr. Patterson wrote down the information on a slip of paper and handed it to Danny. "Lunch starts in ten minutes, so you'll need to sit quietly and wait until then."

Danny wondered for a second if Mr. Patterson had coined the phrase "so what" since his dialogue seemed to be scattered with the word "so". Focusing on the other words instead, he took the paper. "Mr. Patterson?"

"Yes?"

"Is it at all possible to take both Social Studies and World History this year? I'd like to make up the year I missed, and I know if I work hard, I can do it."

Mr. Patterson planted a sympathetic smile on his face, but shook his head. "I don't see how that's going to be possible. It's not just Social Studies that you need to make up. You should have already had biology and a year of foreign language. So, have you decided on a language yet?"

"French, I guess." Danny shrugged.

Mr. Patterson nodded and wrote that down. "So, we'll see how you score on these tests. I'll let you know what we can work out after that."

Dismissed, Danny sat back down at the desk and looked out the window, waiting for the lunch bell to ring. It had been a long day of explanations, registration, and testing. He couldn't believe it was only half over. He had been relieved to find that Lincoln High was a public school, though. At first, when Mr. Diamond declared he'd be going to high school with Neil and Harvey, he thought he would have to attend a Jewish school; he was finding it hard enough to adjust to living in a Jewish household.

The lunch bell finally rang, and Danny picked up his notebook and the plain brown lunch bag. He headed slowly to the cafeteria. "Third table from the back," Neil had told him when Neil and Harvey had left Danny and Mr. Diamond at the school office. Danny walked in the double doors and looked around, heading towards the back of the room, away from the lines of students with their trays. He spotted Harvey at the third table, and plopped his notebook and lunch sack down beside him.

Harvey made some space for him by moving his now empty lunch bag out of the way. "How's it going so far?" he asked.

Danny frowned. "So far, it looks like my counselor wants to keep me as a freshman and not let me take any extra classes." He sat down and looked around. "Where's Neil?"

Just then, Neil walked up behind them. He pulled a rolled up place mat out of his lunch bag and placed it on the wooden table, then quietly dropped his own lunch bag on top of that. "I'm here," he announced. "What's this about extra classes?"

"Mr. Patterson hasn't been very encouraging. I want to take extra classes. I want to make up the year I missed. He wants me to be a freshman." Danny opened his lunch bag and took out the pastrami sandwich Mrs. Diamond had made for him.

Neil's dark eyes showed little sympathy. "You did miss over a year of school."

"I know. But I'm older than most of the other freshmen. And I know if I work hard, I can catch up. I always got good grades in school." Danny pulled out the small bottle of apple juice and opened it. He took a long swig and then put the bottle back on the table. "Is there some way I could take classes at night? There has to be a way to catch up."

Neil pulled out his own sandwich, identical to those of Harvey and Danny, and took a bite. When he finished chewing, he responded. "Right now, it may seem like a big deal. But in five years or six years, will it really matter? Stop worrying about what you're not, and concentrate on what you are."

"Hmmm?" Danny mumbled around his own bite.

"You're so concerned about not being a sophomore. There's lots of other things you're not anymore, too. Just be what you are."

Danny scowled. "I'm a freshman," he declared with disgust.

"Nope," Neil answered. "That's not what I meant, and you know it."

"What then?" Danny glanced at his friend, confused, and then took another bite of his lunch.

"Nothing wrong with being a freshman," Harvey piped up.

"I'm a year older than you," Danny retorted. "We shouldn't be in the same grade."

"You're avoiding my question," Neil reminded him.

"You didn't ask a question." Danny was not in a good mood, and his tone of voice showed it. "You made a demand. And you didn't answer my question."

"What then?" Neil echoed, matching Danny's tone of voice from earlier. In his own voice he continued. "My point is, if you hadn't gotten caught stealing that woman's purse, you'd still be on the streets and not in school at all. So get over this whole freshman versus sophomore thing, and just be happy that you are in high school instead of on the streets. Or in jail."

"Yeah, I guess." Danny did not like being lectured to. He finished his lunch in silence, mulling over the older boy's words, as he half-listened to Neil and Harvey talk about some girl that Harvey had a crush on.


Danny chose a seat near the back of the Social Studies room and looked around. A few students turned to look at him and Danny felt even more self-conscious. Then a couple of large guys walked in sporting varsity letters on their sweaters. They took some other seats near the back, and, as if the sweaters hadn't given it away, Danny could tell from their height and build that they were probably juniors, or maybe even seniors. Seeing the older boys there helped him relax.

"You're new here, aren't you?"

The voice hadn't surprised Danny. He'd seen the brown-haired boy come in the door and grab the seat on the other side of him. What surprised him when he turned and looked up to a friendly face smiling at him was the yarmulke on the boy's head. "Yeah, first day," Danny acknowledged, keeping his voice neutral. He made a note to ask Neil and Harvey when and why they wear their yarmulkes, because neither of them were wearing one today.

The boy dropped his satchel under the desk after pulling out the social studies book. "My name's Brandon."

"Danny."

Brandon continued to chatter about the teacher and the school. Danny tried to respond with a friendly tone, but he just really didn't feel very social. He was glad when Mr. Denford started the lesson and he didn't have to listen to small talk anymore.

The fifty minutes of class time passed by quickly in spite of the teacher droning on and on in a boring monotone. Danny found himself trying to read the two chapters he had missed at the beginning of the year instead of taking notes on the current lecture. When the bell rang, he stuffed his books in the locker he'd been assigned earlier and headed to the gym.

It felt weird being part of a crowd in the boys' locker room. For the longest time, the boys' locker room up at Saint Agnes had been a sanctuary: quiet, peaceful, and a place to get away from the streets and the gang for a little bit. Now, in this locker room, the noise of the other students and that unique scent of sweat and soap struck him in an odd way. He couldn't help but think of a time that seemed almost unreal now, when his mom was still alive and he was just another junior-high student at Saint Agnes trying to act rough and tough with the other seventh and eight graders. Those thoughts were soon replaced with the more recent memories of being with the gang and using that same locker room when the school was closed. When he'd go there to shower, or even just to sit and write, the smells of bleach were stronger than the pungent body odor, and it felt cleansing just to be there. Then, for so many months, he didn't have even that.

And here he was back at the beginning again somehow, in a noisy, smelly locker room with a bunch of high school boys roughing it up. The memories turned into an essay in his mind, but he set the words aside for now, knowing he could write them out later, and changed quickly into his gym shorts and t-shirt before heading to the gymnasium.

"Hey! Danny!" Danny panicked momentarily as somebody called his name. He fought back the instinct to duck, and then cautiously looked around. "Danny!" he heard again, allowing him to spot the boy. He recognized him as the brown-haired Jewish kid he'd been sitting next to in his social studies class. Making an effort at friendliness, he waited for the talkative boy to catch up.

"Tough being the new kid, huh?" the boy asked in a friendly tone. "Even if school did just start a few weeks ago," he added.

Danny shrugged; it was a habit he was thinking he really ought to get out of. He glanced at the tall, lanky boy. "I guess so."

"Do you like sports at all?" the boy asked as they continued walking toward the line of boys forming on one side of the gym.

"Sure. What about you?" Danny was still trying to remember the kid's name. It was something unusual. Brad? Bard? Drab?

"Yep," the boy answered. "I'm trying out for baseball in the winter, and I'm on the junior varsity basketball team."

"Baseball sounds neat," Danny admitted.

Drab nodded enthusiastically as the coach blew his whistle. "What about you? You gonna try out for anything?"

"Is there a hockey team?" Danny asked as they joined the line of boys forming quickly. "I'd like to try out for that." If I'm still around. Danny couldn't help adding the pessimistic thought in his mind.


"How was your first day of school?" Mr. Diamond asked that evening.

They were all inside the sukkah, which had been furnished with a table and chairs on one side, and cots for sleeping on the other. Danny wondered how many more nights they would be spending out there, but he had to admit he found it nicer than he thought he would. There was a "camping-out" kind of feel to the evenings, especially since the nights were clear and you could see the stars through the intentionally-left gaps in the roof. The colorful streamers hanging from the roof and walls gave the evenings a festive air. However, the coziness of the sukkah also left no room for privacy, and Danny was a private sort of person.

"Okay, I guess," Danny answered as he placed forks and knives at each place setting. "Tomorrow will be the real first day, since I only went to two classes today."

"True." Mr. Diamond agreed. "There seemed to be too much paperwork to fill out. Now, how did the placement tests go?"

"I did okay on the math. I have to take Algebra One."

"What about English?" Neil reached for the pitcher of water and started walking around the table, filling glasses. "I hate those standardized English tests."

Danny grinned. "Aced it. I get to skip ahead to English Two. AP English Two. So, even though I'm in mostly Freshman classes, I'm in a Sophomore English class." Danny smirked at Harvey's surprised expression. "I'm smarter than you thought, huh?"

"Yeah," Harvey admitted with a grin.

"That's wonderful," Mrs. Diamond came in caring the last platter of food and set it on the table.

Then, she and the others, including Danny, all did the ritual hand-washing. Danny understood that while the Diamond's weren't exactly orthodox, they did observe more of the traditional rituals during the holidays. Danny repeated their ritual with the pitcher on his own hands: two rinses of the right hand, two rinses of the left. Then, while the others raised there hands in the air and said the blessing for bread, he quietly said a prayer of his own. When hands were dry, each person took a bite of bread before conversation resumed. Danny had learned on the first day of Sukkot not to talk before they had all done this.

Mrs. Diamond was the first to break the silence, which Danny had also learned was not surprising. "Take at least two pieces," she whispered to him as she picked up the platter of roast meat and passed it his way. Then in a normal voice she continued, "English is very important. I'm glad to hear you did so well."

"Yeah, that's great," Neil agreed. "And I'm glad you'll at least be a little bit ahead of most Freshmen."

Danny nodded at Neil as he passed him a bowl of peas and carrots. "Thanks. You were right, though. It's not that important, really."

"What about after-school activities?" Mr. Diamond asked. "Do you have any interest in sports or clubs? Universities are always looking at those kinds of things."

"Fencing's fun," Neil mentioned with a grin.

Danny had the feeling if the sukkah had more room, Neil would've started some imaginary sword fighting. "I don't think fencing would be my thing," Danny answered slowly. "I was talking to another kid at school about sports. There are a lot of things to choose from. I was thinking about hockey, though."

"That's fine with me." Mr. Diamond nodded encouragingly. "I'd also like you to start helping out at the store after school."

Danny looked at him, surprised. "That sounds good to me."

"It would be a job. With pay." He smiled kindly at Danny. "Part-time, of course. Just a couple of days a week. You still need time to do school work."

"Yes, sir." Danny didn't even care how many days or how little it would pay. He was simply grateful that Mr. Diamond trusted him, knowing he was just a common thief. He would do what he could to keep that trust.


chapter II: on a distant shore