“Do you think it’s really true?” Nathan Under asked his best friend, Joshua Bailey. Nat sat on the edge of the sidewalk that ran down the middle of the huge park in back of their school, legs crossed Indian style.
“I don’t know,” Josh said, bouncing the ball and hollering with joy when he managed to snatch up three jacks. “Your turn.”
“Maybe we should talk to her,” Nat suggested, ignoring Josh‘s last statement. “She looks lonely, Josh.”
Josh raised his eyebrows inquiringly, looking disturbingly like a grownup. He had a ridiculous amount of charm and swagger for a ten-year-old, even a ten-year-old who had spent the first seven years old his life in Virginia with a strict grandmother who thought even little boys should be ‘Southern gentlemen,’ but Nat didn’t mind too much. Josh was rarely a brownnoser, manners or no manners.
“You know, that girl over there. They say her father died.”
“Oh, her? Mamma and Dad were talking about that last night.” Josh shoved the ball into Nat’s hand. “Come on. There can’t be more than a few minutes until the bell rings.”
“I feel like we should do something,” Nat said.
“Like leave her alone?”
“Nah, Josh. I think we should talk to her.”
“But she isn’t talking.”
“Hasn’t said a word since her old man kicked the bucket.”
“Have some respect, Josh.” When Josh wasn’t with ladies, the ‘Southern gentleman’ façade usually dropped.
“All right, since her father passed away. It’s all the same.” Josh gathered up his jacks and removed the ball from Nat’s hand. He stored his away in a little bag which also contained a small collection of marbles, rocks, and his ‘lucky penny,’ though neither of them really believe in luck. “Anyway, she’s been like that for almost two years now. Never a word.”
“That’s so sad,” Nat said.
Josh scowled. “Say, you’re not going soft, are you, Nat?”
“Nope. But you gotta admit it is sad.”
Josh sighed. “Sure, it’s sad.”
The bell rang and everyone jumped up and rushed to line up in front of the door of the school. Maxfield was an uppity private school, sitting right in the middle of the richest portion of the Cincinnati suburbs, and Nat wondered how the girl had gained tuition. She always came to the school looking a bit ratty. Sure, she wore the regulation uniform for girls - plain navy blue skirt, white shirtwaist and stockings - but her hair and clothes, rarely braided or tied back as the dress code stated, were wrinkled and sometimes she even looked dirty. He didn’t know why Headmaster Maverly allowed it.
Nat nudged Josh, who was standing in line just behind him. “What’s her name?”
“Still on that girl?”
“Polly. Polly Farjon.” His irritation caused his accent to show, and he drawled her name: Paaaawly Faah-shjawn. “Now, if you want to talk about girls some more, why don’t you go talk to my cousin Mary? She’d love that.”
Nat laughed. Josh’s cousin Mary, a thirteen-year-old, attended Maxfield too, and she was always teasing Josh about getting a beau. She was joking, of course, but it was still very annoying. “No, thanks, Josh. I don’t want her to bother me instead of you!”
* * * * *
After school, Josh and Nat raced home to the Under house as they did every day since the Baileys lived quite a way from Maxfield. First stop was, of course, the kitchen where they coaxed a couple cookies from Mrs. Anderson, the cook and housekeeper. While they sat at the table munching on these, Josh laid out a battle plan.
“We’ll run down the street to get John and Larry, and then we’ll scout out a good place, and then we’ll divide into teams.”
“Two-men armies?” Nat asked skeptically.
Josh shrugged. “So we’ll pick up a couple others on the way.”
“We don’t have enough friends.”
“So we’ll let some girls in … as long as there are none of ‘em on our team.”
“Ah, I don’t know that they’re so bad, Josh.”
“Who, girls? Are you going soft?”
“No, but Ellen Engall runs almost as fast as me, and she’s only eight!”
“Well, you are a particularly slow runner,” Josh said, gulping down the last of his cookie. “And the Engalls aren’t like other girls. They haven’t a mother; no one to turn ‘em into little ladies.”
“So we’ll get the Engalls. There’s three, right? Belle, Ellen, and Sadie.”
“Right. Belle’s ten like us - she’s in our class, remember? Dark hair and eyes, kinda skinny? - and Ellen’s eight, but Sadie’s hardly three. I hope Belle and Ellen won’t have to watch her.”
“Ah, well, we can do without ‘em. Belle’s a bit too sensitive anyway. We can get the Bradford boys and Manny -”
“No wonder he goes by Manny.”
“It’s French, I think.”
“And then there’s Cade …”
“That‘s an awful name! How come mothers and fathers named their babies things like that?”
“I don’t know. I guess they just like to torture their children.”
“That must be it. We’ve got good names, though.”
“Nathan Under and Joshua Bailey,“ Josh said slowly. “They’re nice, I suppose. When I’m grown up, though, I’ll go by Josh Bailey to everyone except my employees. I’d like to be J.M. Bailey, Old Mister J.M., to them.”
“You gonna have a lot of employees?”
“Well, I got to run the family business, haven’t I?” Josh’s father was the head of a big stockbroker’s firm.
“Sure, sure, and I’m sticking to the coal business,” Nat said. “So, is that enough people?”
“John, Larry, the Bradford boys, Manny, Cade, and Ellen.”
“That leaves us with an uneven number.”
“Well, then … I suppose we’ll have to think of someone else.”
A long silence ensued. Josh swished the last of his milk around the bottom of his glass; Nat fidgeted with his napkin.
“All right then. How about Polly?”
“Oh, come on, Nat! I thought we were over her.”
“There’s nothing wrong with inviting her to play with us.”
“She can’t even talk!”
“Sure, she can talk! She just doesn’t want to, I guess.”
“Who doesn’t want to talk?” Josh asked scornfully.
“Well, not you, for sure,” Nat laughed. “I think sometimes that talking is your most favorite thing in the world. But it isn’t like that for everyone. I don’t mind a little peace and quiet every once and a while myself.”
Josh sighed deeply, like mothers did when the dog tracked mud on the floor or a little stew happened to get spilled on the tablecloth. “All right. But she’s your responsibility. It’s bad enough that I’m letting little Ellen Engall tag along, and we know she’s good at things. Why, this Polly might be just as giggly as Cousin Mary or as squeamish as Belle Engall.”
“Well, you can’t know until you try,” Nat said, almost bouncing on his toes with joy. He restrained this urge, however, and Josh was never the wiser.