Donny sat in Ms. Trisler’s 4th grade class and drew the things he wanted most for Christmas.
Each classmate took their turn in front of a cloudy chalkboard, construction paper in hand. They smiled and held their color-penciled wants to their chests like Honor Roll certificates. A Nintendo. A pink and yellow Pogo ball. A Nintendo. The Brave Little Toaster on VHS. Double Dribble for Nintendo. A Sony Walkman. The class clapped and wooed for all twenty. And when Ms. Trisler asked Donny what he wanted for Christmas, he held up his sheet of construction paper and heard the leaky faucet at the corner of the classroom.
On his sheet, his mother raised a jackpot-winning California Lotto ticket to the sky. And he clutched the holiest rock album he had ever heard about: an original mono pressing of the Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. Imported from the UK. A clean copy sold before it even hit the racks of an L.A. record shop, and Aron’s Records employees claimed it was the band’s most laborious effort. That the Beatles huddled around a mixing desk for hours and perfected the mono mix of each track with their producer and engineers before they moved on to the next. And that John, Paul, George, and Ringo were absent for most of the stereo mix.
Donny’s mother said she believed them, but if they bought the album, it would mean no dinner for a week. So in Ms. Trisler’s class, Donny drew his mother, his body and Sgt. Pepper a few tugs of an eraser away from disappearing.
Ms. Trisler clapped. “How considerate, Donny,” she said. And then she asked the other question everyone else answered: “Why do you want that for Christmas?”
“I—Because,” he said. Ms. Trisler’s lips parted and her eyes seemed to wait for more words, but the lunch bell rang. Girls and boys shuffled out the classroom door and Donny followed. He tri-folded and half-folded his drawing until it was pocket-sized.
Donny heard his mother’s keychain clink against their front door. She pushed it open. Her purse and backpack drooped from one arm, and a shopping bag dangled from her wrist.
“Fresh trout from Brad in 3A!” she said.
She closed the door with her heel and dropped her things onto the living room floor.
“Everything good?” She said.
“Super, Ma,” Donny said. “Super.”
His mother kicked off her shoes near the kitchen counter and yawned.
“Here’s a dollar for lemons,” she said.
Donny heard coins clink onto the counter.
His mother ignited the oven and stove, pulled out a bag of rigatoni from the cupboard.
He scooped the change into a sandwich bag and sighed.
She tilted her head and raised it again.
“Yeah,” she said. “But when I finish school, things will be different.”
A piece of paper scotch-taped to the fridge fell to their feet. His mother’s first lotto ticket. A losing ticket that fell to the floor daily. She reached for it and said, “the lotto’s doubling this weekend.”
His mother purchased two tickets weekly, ever since the markets started selling them. Spending two dollars a week, winning no more than three or four dollars a year. When those magic white balls rolled out of the lotto machine on TV, she penciled their numbers into her notebook, always uttering the same words: “When we win, things will get better.”
Donny tucked the bag of money into his jacket pocket. He grabbed his bicycle from his room and wheeled it across the outskirts of their kitchen.
“Bring back the three hardest lemons Von’s has and don’t forget the leftover change,” she said. “And I want you at the table by 5:30—no later.”
“But it’s Friday, Ma. 6:00?”
She turned on the stove’s overhead fan.
“5:45?” he said over the grating of the fan..
His mother poured the remainder of an olive oil can into a bowl and dug her fingers into a jar marked OREGANO. The leaves fell from her fingertips and onto the oil. She pulled a slice of dry bread apart and dipped it into the bowl.
“How about 5:25?” his mother said.
Her pupils expanded, the smile of the eyes. She turned her back to him and rinsed her hands in the kitchen sink.
He grabbed a plastic fruit bag from an open drawer and shoved it down his pants.
“And be super careful,” she said. “The streets are damp.”
After he hand-picked and bagged the three hardest lemons he could find from a neighbor’s tree, he backtracked down Covina Hills Road and headed towards Hot Rocks Records on Rowland Avenue so he could buy a Beatles sticker with the bag of money in his pocket. He rode his bicycle through the damp streets of his new neighborhood. Dimes, nickels, and pennies composed metallic rhythms inside his jacket pocket. He zig-zagged passed blinking Christmas trees behind windows and tried not to disturb the worms on the sidewalks.
And then Donny slammed a foot on his pedal brake.
A streetlight casted a golden patch over a leather wallet and an In-N-Out paper bag off the side of the road, both damp from the rain. He pushed the crumpled bag away with his shoe and the distant hum of the 10 West pressed against his ears. He dried the wallet on the arm of his jacket, and opened and fingered its insides. No photos, no money. Something blue that looked like a stickless lollipop. Trojan, it read. From the drivers license sleeve, he pulled at what he thought was the backside of a business card. But it was a weathered photo of a teenaged boy, shirtless with oversized football pads on his shoulders. He pulled the drivers license out of the wallet. Ned Palmer. 42 years-old. Black hair. Green eyes. Donny knew of him.
Ned lived in a house off Covina Hills Road. Donny and his mother lived in a two-room apartment down and up a few hills from his place. On weekdays, Ned drove up Grand Avenue at around 5pm and the rumble of his ‘67 Shelby rattled their apartment windows as his mother prepared dinner. Ned had lived most of his life inside that ranch-style home, and sometimes spent weekends up North at his other place near San Francisco. Donny knew this because the landlady of his apartment complex called herself a “Ned Head.” She’d followed Ned’s football career at Ketchum High in the late-60’s religiously, fangirl-style.
“His mother gave me the jersey he wore during the injury game,” the landlady once said as she exhaled her cigarette through her nostrils. “And I gotta autographed Pee-Chee folder on the bathroom wall. She left him sitting pretty when she passed. He doesn’t have a worry in the world.”
Donny’s hands quivered as he tucked everything back into the wallet.
“Three minutes early,” Donny’s mother said when he dropped into his seat at the kitchen table.
A plate of baked trout and rigatoni sat before him, both drenched in olive oil and oregano. He ripped open the bag of lemons inside his jacket and placed each one at the center of the table. Before he could even swallow his first mouthful of rigatoni, his mother had washed and sliced a lemon. She double-fisted each piece over her plate until the fish lay in a puddle of juice and seeds.
“Fantastic!” she said, placing the flat of her hands onto the table.
“The guy at Von’s had to move tons just to reach those, Ma. Tons!”
Donny’s fingers dug into his knee as he waited for an opportunity to unveil Ned’s wallet. His mother ate as if she undertook a silent critique of her own cooking, took in whatever a corner of her mouth could handle and nodded. He shoved whatever he could fit into his mouth and felt Ned’s wallet inch its way up his briefs as he chewed. One corner jabbed his belly-button until he swallowed the last of his meal.
He pulled out the wallet and rubbed it against his thigh.
“I found Ned Palmer’s wallet” he said. “In the street.”
“Where is it?”
He placed it at the center of the table.
“Where—when did you find it?”
He told her and she pressed her lips with a napkin.
She grabbed the wallet and said, “Feels like snakeskin.” She slid two fingers into the money sleeve as if she was checking its pulse. Her eyes didn’t blink until she removed the picture and the drivers license.
“That guy,” she said. “Some of the ladies around here sure go on and on about him.”
“He should give us a reward,” Donny said. “He’s got two houses.”
“We’re not accepting anything. It belongs to him. I’ll give it to the landlady.”
“But I found it.”
“She talks to him more than anyone around here.”
“But I found it, Ma.”
She nibbled on her lower lip and leaned back in her chair.
“Then, go” she said.
“Pedal your little butt up to his front door and give it to him.”
Donny pointed out Ned’s house to his mother. A heavily-lighted house with seven windows and one tree. A garage bigger than their apartment. At the top of the driveway, Ned’s Shelby sat with its headlights and tires facing Donny. Two empty clay planters guarded the front door.
“All that for one guy,” Donny said. “He has to give us something.”
“Want to go back home?” she said.
“No, but look at that.”
His mother hooked her car into the driveway and lifted her emergency brake, in no rush.
“What does he do with all that?” he said.
“Maybe nothing. Those planters. I would liven them up with a few palms. And that hill along the driveway. Anything’s better than dirt.”
“I would put a house in that tree,” Donny said. “And a swing under it would be so cool.”
“Take a long look, Donny. This is why we . . . ”
His mother’s chest rose and she eyed the silvery clouds above Ned’s house. Donny heard her hands squeeze the steering wheel.
“Why what?” he said.
“Stay in the car,” she said.
“But I found it.”
His mother got out and shut the door, and peered at him through the windshield.
He closed his eyes and tried to untie the knot in his chest. Opening them, he saw his mother in the middle of Ned’s driveway. Her pogo-stick legs made the short climb in seconds. She pressed the doorbell and fish and rigatoni crept up his chest.
Ned’s front door opened. Donny climbed into the driver’s seat and gripped the steering wheel, saw and hid from the man who shook his mother’s hand. Ned wore a blue ankle-length bathrobe over gold pajamas, Ketchum High colors. A wall-mounted lamp next to the door made his pajama top shimmer. Donny chewed the innards of his mouth when he heard laughter. He rolled down the window to make out their words and heard nothing. With a tight throat, he opened the door and watched his mother dig into her purse and exchange something with Ned, and almost lost his footing. Slamming the door shut, he saw his mother scuttle down the driveway.
She ignited the car and they pulled away from Ned’s house. After a quarter-mile of silence, Donny took the last stick of Wrigley’s gum from the glove compartment.
“Did he give us a reward?” he said.
“He’s not the kind of guy I thought he was,” his mother said.
“What do you mean?”
“He seemed . . . humble. Generous.”
“He gave us something, then?”
“My lord,” she said and straightened her spine. “After I told him how you found his wallet, he reached down into his pocket—“
“He must’ve had our month’s rent attached to his money-clip. Four, five hundred.”
“I told ya.”
“Don’t talk like that.”
“I told you.”
“Well . . . he placed a fifty into my hand.”
“But I couldn’t. I gave it right back.”
Donny rolled down his window and let the night air cool his face. He tried to say something twice but spat out air.
“It didn’t feel right,” she said.
The last Friday of Christmas break, Donny sat on the couch with the window blinds open. He read his handwritten Beatles lyrics from a spiral notebook and watched the sun dip behind clusters of apartments and office buildings. When the sun was almost gone, his mother bumped the front door open. A Capri Deli paper bag tucked into one arm, she let her purse and backpack slide down the other.
“Did you win something?” Donny said.
“Fill up the big pot with water,” his mother said. She dropped the paper bag onto the counter, and pulled out two small white boxes of rigatoni. A plastic bag of spicy Italian sausage she would only buy for Easter and Christmas.
“Can I cut open the sausages?” he asked.
His mother twisted a knob on the stove, one on the oven.
He filled the pot with water and realized they never had sausage and rigatoni twice in one month, and he’d never seen two boxes of rigatoni in his mother’s hands before.
She handed him cooking scissors and slid him a deep glass dish. He cut the sausage bag seal and placed each link into the dish. Rigatoni in boiling water, his mother scooted the sausage into the oven.
“Put something nice on the player” she said. “Something I can cook to.”
Donny lay face-up on the couch listening to one of his mother’s Otis Redding albums, and his eyes got lost in the popcorn ceiling above him as she cooked. Her bedroom door shut. Her closet door screeched open, so he super-slinked into the kitchen and got a spoonful of her tomato sauce. Going down, it reminded him of a warm hug. If it wasn’t red, anyone would forget it was made of tomato. “Just add oregano and fresh garlic to a bottle of Ragu,” his mother said to anyone who asked. But he knew she was lying because he never got heartburn.
His mother’s bedroom door dragged across the carpet. Donny slipped his spoon in with the dirty dishes and grabbed the nearest cup he could find.
She wore her church clothes, a blue open-knit cardigan over a black wrap dress, and made short controlled poses in front of the hallway mirror. With her head over one shoulder, she tried to get a look at her backside.
The doorbell rang before Donny’s thoughts could piece themselves together. They got lost in the click of his mother’s high heels as she made way for the front door. He tugged lightly at her dress as she adjusted the red clips in her hair.
Before he could ask his mother why she had that outfit on, she pulled a red rose from the largest fingers he’d ever seen. She dipped her face into the flower and a man said, “Somethin’ smells even more amazing inside.”
“Come—it’s cold,” she said to the man outside.
Black hair. The blackest beard Donny’d ever seen. Green eyes, the kind that never dilate.
“There he is,” the man said in a voice that made Donny straighten his posture. “There’s the little guy! I’m Ned.”
Donny reached out to shake Ned’s hand but could only get his around a few fingers.
Donny eyed Ned’s beard as his mother ushered them to the kitchen table. It looked crispier in person.
Ned surveyed the living room as if he was scanning a football field, looking out the corner of his eyes for opportunities to make a completion.
The television and VCR on the four-legged stool in the living room.
The portable record player on the floor.
Ned ran his fingers through his beard and it crackled.
“I know that smell!” he said. “Italian sausage and meatballs.”
“Just sausage,” Donny said.
“I always have the Capri girls throw a few on a roll with grilled peppers and onion. Some of that provolone cheese. They call it ‘The Ned.’”
Donny fingernailed the table. “Well, there’s no peppers and rolls tonight, Ned.”
“But there’s rigatoni,” his mother said. She sampled her sauce from a long wooden spoon.
“Rigatoni?” Ned asked.
“It’s Donny’s favorite pasta.”
“Ah, pasta,” Ned said. “It’s kinda all the same, ain’t it? I love it all.”
“But they’re all different,” Donny said. “And the ones we got are high quality. Mom says her sauce sticks to them better than the other stuff.”
“Donny,” she said. “Clean up so you can eat.”
From the bathroom, Donny heard his mother tell Ned about some math formula she couldn’t memorize. He rolled a bar of soap around his fingers, dropped it into the sink when his mother laughed and said “Ned.” His insides felt warm and mushy like the soap bar in the sink bowl. He blew on an ant near the hot water knob. It treaded water, staying in place.
Donny plopped into his seat at the dining table, head down, Beatles lyrics notebook in hand. He read the first few lines of “Hey Jude.”
“Ned’s finishing up a story about his record-breaking season,” Donny’s mother said from behind the counter.
Eyes raised, he saw Ned sitting across from him.
“She talked me into it,” Ned said.
“The first and last one I’ll ever ask for.”
Ned’s eyebrows propped up and he smiled.
“I promise,” she said.
Ned continued his story. The wood floor creaked beneath him as he pulled his arm back into a throwing position, and Donny caught something he had missed when Ned first walked in the door. A hand with no pinky finger. Donny remembered the “injury game” jersey the landlady received from Ned’s mother, and he envisioned and replayed the moment of injury in his mind.
Donny leaned forward, and Ned threw an invisible ball at him.
“My receiver caught it in the end-zone with one hand,” Ned said. “Locked it right into his armpit.”
“Oh my,” Donny’s mother said.
“Up by four” Ned said. “Point eight seconds left on the—”
A crash of dishes interrupted Ned.
Donny twisted his body around towards his mother. She spread the dishes across the countertop.
“That must’ve been something,” she said. “There isn’t much you can do with point eight seconds.”
“Final score 38-34,” Ned said.
“And this was for the CIA Championship everyone’s always talking about?”
Donny’s mother placed a plate in front of Ned.
Donny grabbed the plate his mother slid to him.
“I heard some of the biggest colleges flew hundreds of miles just to see you throw a ball,” Donny said.
Ned’s head sunk.
Donny caught his mother grimacing at him as she sat down at the table.
Ned snapped a sausage in half with his fork and shoved a chunk into his mouth.
Donny toed his mother’s knee and made eyes at his empty glass. She scooted off her chair and mosied towards the fridge.
“Enough about me,” Ned said. “Your mother told me you’re into music.”
Donny stabbed a forkful of rigatoni.
“And not that glam circus the kids are listening to.”
“The Beatles,” Donny said. “They’re the best.”
“He loves them more than he loves me,” his mother said.
“I got some Beatles records,” Ned said. “I prefer the Stones myself but my mother, bless her heart, passed down quite a few. Got’em on her European trips in the 60’s.”
“Did she give you a mono Sgt. Pepper?” Donny said.
Ned let out a throaty laugh and said a few words about Sgt. Pepper Donny couldn’t make out.
“They say it’s the only way to listen to it,” Donny said. “The Beatles spent hours and hours mixing it. They worked really really hard on it.”
“Excuse my son,” his mother said. She placed a small bowl of grated parmesan near Ned’s plate. “I’ve been dragging him with me to just about every record store in L.A. for years. He’s beginning to get more hip to things than some of the guys at Aron’s are.”
“I got two mono copies,” Ned said.
Donny’s toes curled towards the floor.
“One sealed since ‘67,” Ned said. “The other gets a needle on it once in a while.”
“Does it still have all of the cutout things inside?” Donny asked. “The mustache? The badges? The sergeant stripes?”
Donny followed Ned’s eyes to his mother and felt him fist-tap his shoulder.
“I’ll play it for ya, one day,” Ned said.
Donny pressed Ned’s doorbell. His mother tried to finger-scrape something off the shoulder of his jacket as he watched grey clouds roll across the moon.
“We don’t have an umbrella so we can’t stay too long,” he said.
“Or we can wait until the rain stops,” she said.
Ned’s front door swung open. The smell of In-N-Out french fries and coffee greeted them before he did.
“Hey, neighbors!” he said. “Hope the week was mighty fine.”
Ned shut the door behind them and raised his arm at a long dining table next to the kitchen. “Coffee?” he asked from behind the counter. He chomped on fries from an In-N-Out paper bag like the one Donny’d seen when he found the wallet. “Hot chocolate for the little guy?”
Donny and his mother sipped hot chocolate while Ned guided them down a hallway. The neighbors called it a suburban palace and Donny now agreed with them. It had high white ceilings like the ones his mother always ogled at while flipping through the home mags at Thrifty’s. Red and gold-trimmed rugs underneath wooden tables. Oil paintings on blue walls. Ned spoke of his mother as they passed each room. He pointed out a Turkish rug in one room, animal taxidermy on the walls of another. All given to her by the men she met on her travels.
“Where’s your records?” Donny said.
They passed a room with a sleigh bed, the only room Ned ignored. Donny spotted a blue Ketchum football helmet on the wall above the headboard, a blue jersey tucked into grass-stained football pants. He hooked a finger into one of his mother’s belt loops and blocked out Ned’s voice.
“Did you hear?” Donny’s mother said.
His mother aimed her eyes at a woven basket near Ned’s feet.
“There’s no shoes allowed in this room,” she said.
“New, white carpet,” Ned said and unlocked a black door. “Let me take your cups to the kitchen.”
They placed their shoes into the basket. When Ned returned, he opened the black door and flipped a light switch.
White walls and two long shelves filled with archival boxes surrounded them. A Rolling Stones logo the size of Donny engulfed one wall. A black oversized bean bag sat crumpled at the tip of the logo’s red tongue, as if in worship. Donny’s feet sunk into the white carpet.
“The music room!” Ned said. “Told ya I was a Stones man.”
“The Rolling Stones didn’t make anything as good as the Beatles,” Donny said.
“They did plenty as good—and better.”
“Tell me, who’s the better dancer—Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger?”
“Ringo,” Donny said.
“Who’s a better guitarist—Keith Richards or John Lennon?”
Donny looked up at his mother and she rubbed ChapStick on her lips.
With a toothy smile, Ned nodded his head and shook a finger in the air. “Tell me, who’s the better drummer? Charlie Watts or Ringo Starr? See! The Stones are the greatest rock n’ roll band in the world!”
“No way. Never.”
“I don’t lean either way,” Donny’s mother said. “Same era, different sound. Love them both.”
Ned pulled at one of the archival boxes on a high-shelf, the same kind Donny saw in libraries, and set it next to a stereo system with more lights than a Christmas tree. Red. Blue. Green. And speakers as tall as Donny.
Ned flipped the box open, and Donny saw mustached Beatles in regal outfits. Green, blue, red, and pink. He eyed the band’s name in red flowers as Ned pulled out the album.
“This is my listening copy of Pepper,” Ned said.
A plastic jacket protected the album cover. Ned dragged the psychedelic-pink inner sleeve out and inched the record into his palm. Donny eyed the black and yellow Parlophone label and tried to suck in his smile. Horrified that the LP itself wasn’t protected by the rice paper sleeves they sold at Aron’s, Donny inspected the record’s surface more than Ned did.
“You shouldn’t touch it like that,” Donny said. “You’ll get fingerprints all over the grooves. It’ll sound scratchy one day.”
“Just enjoy the sounds,” his mother said.
Donny shot a look at her.
Ned tilted the album into the light and inspected its grooves. “Clean enough,” he said. He looked up at Donny’s mother, and back down at Donny. “Here ya go,” he said and handed Donny the album cover.
Donny’s hands quivered.
“The plastic sleeve stays on,” Ned said with a wide grin that made his eyes look like coin slots. “And keep everything inside the cover.”
Before Donny could ingest the artwork, he heard audience chatter spill out of the speakers. An orchestra tuned their instruments.
“No talking until Side One is finished,” Donny said to Ned and his mother. He watched the album spin on the turntable. The arm and needle cartridge hovered over it like a robotic snake. When the crunch of guitar and drums hit, Donny wanted to stomp his feet but he just dropped to the floor cross-legged. The instruments flowed through one channel instead of two, and hung together like links on a chain. He dissected them, convinced the album should only be heard in mono.
Ned played air guitar, plucked away at the hem of his jean pocket until Paul’s vocals cut through his speakers. Mid-way through the song, Ned pulled the album cover away from Donny and read the lyrics on the backside.
Nothing else existed when Donny fell into “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” He tucked his head into his arms until the outside world went black. When the song finished, he remembered the first time he heard the album. The first time he heard the Beatles. The week his mother said his father wasn’t coming back. He was playing with his Star Wars toys when bass guitar and drums beat his bedroom wall. He flumped to the floor with Darth Vader and listened to the sounds jutting from the record player in his mother’s room. He inched her door open. She sat on her bed with eyes closed, one arm wrapped around her waist, the other over her shoulder. So deep into “Fixing A Hole” that Donny believed she was asleep. A speaker cut out and he could only hear vocals. His mother tapped one side of the record player and the instruments returned, then cut out again.
Donny opened his eyes when “Fixing a Hole” staccatoed out of Ned’s speakers. He propped up his body to an empty room. He wanted his mother to hear her favorite Sgt. Pepper track in mono. One half of him sauntered over to the door while the other pulled him back into the music.
Donny heard Ned’s voice in the hallway. His mother’s rapid-fire chuckle. They came from the room with the football gear on the walls. He pushed that door open, and a thick shadow on the Ketchum High jersey on the wall broke in two. Donny chugged into the room and saw Ned’s pinkyless hand leave his mother’s waist.
“It’s going to finish,” Donny said.
His mother whispered something to herself and yanked her purse from the floor.
“Side One is almost finished,” he said.
“We should leave,” his mother said.
Ned squeezed his hands into his jean pockets and relaxed his shoulders. “The other side’s pretty great, too,” he said.
“We better,” Donny said to his mother.
Donny reached for her wrist but got scratched by one of the rings on her fingers.
“Don’t forget your shoes,” Ned said.
Rain rapped the windshield and Donny’s mother smelled like Ned. Like the Drakkar cologne samples handed out at the Eastland Mall during the holidays. Thoughts of Ned’s hand on his mother’s waist pummeled his brain, and he waited for her to say anything, but her attention was with the road.
“Tonight’s lotto was pretty big,” she said. “No one won the last drawing.”
He looked her way but avoided eye contact. Searched for words to say and watched the damp streets change the same color as the traffic lights they passed.
“But we had to drive to Ned’s,” she said.
Donny looked out the passenger window and pretended to look at a corner gas station. His stomach grumbled, and he tried to suppress it by holding his breath.
“It cost a dollar to drive to Ned’s?” Donny said.
“We drove there twice this week. Two round trips. The food too—you know I never missed a drawing?”
He watched his mother as they passed an intersection. Rain and streetlights flecked shadows onto her face.
“You’ll understand,” she said. “One day—”
His muscles twitched and he held that word as if it was a newborn baby.
“What do you mean?” he said.
His mother glided into the parking lot of their apartment complex and squeezed into their spot.
“One day, you’ll need things,” she said and turned off the car.
Donny closed his eyes. Rain drops tapped the windshield and soothed him. His chest loosened, neck and shoulders, and he pulled his mother’s hand from the steering wheel. Pressed his fingers through the webs of her hand. His mother seemed to inhale the world as their hands locked, and when it was spat back out, she cackled. There was a lull, and Donny chuckled and tightened his grip. His mother pulled him into her cheek, and laughed so hard she cried.