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"Member of Highest Standing"

Short Fiction, The Fourth River Review

by Derek Green


Why did Eddie love his grandmother, his abuelita, so much?  It might have been because she gave him candies and bizcochitos, because she prepared French Toast and other exotic breakfasts whenever he stayed at her house, or because they shared a language---a strange homespun Spanish that even Eddie’s mother had a hard time following.  Abuela’s money helped pay his tu­ition at St. Mary’s Elementary School, where he was member-of-highest-stand­ing in the first grade.  Of this financial arrangement his parents liked to remind him.  Her house smelled of garlic and of clean linen.  In her bedroom she kept the arti­cles of faith: a rosary on the night stand, a bust of the Blessed Virgin on the dresser, a palm frond behind the mirror.  She ground spices in a pilón, crocheted doilies and did other strange things that no one else did.  He was her nenito, a Michi­gan-born Puerto Rican, an unlikely thing to be, her Michorriqueño.  Christmas vacation arrived and it was decided that Eddie would spend his days---the hours during which his parents worked---with his abuelita at her small house downtown. 


In her neighborhood there was a park, a party store and a boy one year older than Eddie called Tom Binsack.  Tom was al­lowed to visit the park alone, he at­tended a school that didn’t require a tie, and his friends all lived right there in the same neighborhood.  When Eddie mentioned St. Mary’s School (not failing to cite his status as member-of-highest-standing) Tom had shrugged and said, “My whole family is athe­ists.”  Eddie had been almost dizzy with ad­miration.  Eddie’s mother was from Puerto Rico. And, yes, it was true that Tom believed this small island to be a city in Mexico.  But that sort of igno­rance was common and it didn’t matter to Eddie.  He was shy and without siblings and it seemed to him that Tom was the perfect companion for sliding down the icy hills at Loomis Park or watching the car­toons on the TV in Abuela’s overheated living room. 


On the third day of Christmas vacation, Eddie dressed himself at home and with eyes still puffy with sleep, followed his mother to the car. A short time later snow was whirling around his feet as he made his way up the icy steps of Abuela’s porch.  Inside, she led him to the sofa where he slept without dreams. 




Some time later—the sun was now in the sky—Eddie heard a thump rattle the front window.  He sat up, and heard the thump again.  His abuela walked to the window, sighing like his mother, and looked through the blinds.  “It’s him,” she said in Spanish.  “Tell him not to throw snow at the windows when he comes here, please.”


Eddie went to open the door; frosty air swirled around him.  IN the front yard, Tom nibbled a snowball.  He wanted to know what Eddie was do­ing.  


“Invite him in to eat if you like,” Abuela said beneath her breath.  She had pulled her sweater tight across her shoulders to look outside.  “But you’re not going out into that re­frigera­tor until you’ve had a breakfast.”


“Tom!” Eddie called.  “You hungry?”


Tom dropped the snowball in the yard.  He began trudging up toward the porch.  “Yeah,” he said.  “I’m always hungry.”


At the kitchen table they ate bowls of hot cornmeal cereal—finickiness was not one of Tom’s faults.  Afterwards, they relaxed for a while in front of the TV in the living room.  But Tom couldn’t think of anything more boring.  Eddie wanted to take the sleds to the park, but Tom pointed at his wet socks and pantlegs; he was tired of sledding.  They brought out board games, they flipped through all fifty-five channels on the TV.   But it was no good.  They were bored.  Eddie’s grand­mother passed by on her way to the base­ment with laundry, but had no ideas for little-boy games. 


They seemed to be out of ideas when Tom said, “I wouldn’t mind going to the store.”


“Then let’s do that,” Eddie said.


“Nah,” Tom said.  “I don’t got any money.”  He glanced over at Eddie.  “I’d ask my Mom, but she won’t give me anything; she hates me.”


And so it was decided that Eddie should ask Abuela for the money.  Eddie knew his grandmother was generous in all things, but she didn’t like to give him money to waste; especially she didn’t like to give him money for running all over creation with that americanito, Tom.  Still, Eddie had to give it a try, so he walked to the top of the basement stairs.  He called down to where Abuela was working on the laundry: “Me puedes prestar dinero?”


 “No,” Abuela said.


No is no in any language, but she went on in Spanish all the same.  “You just ate and I’m not the mother of that child upstairs to be giv­ing you two money for garbage.”


Eddie made his way back into the living room. 


“I heard,” Tom sighed.  “So much for that idea.”


And that should have been that.  But Eddie was a boy who could not stand to disap­point anyone, especially a friend, of which he had few.  He told Tom there was one more hope, and Tom rolled over on his stomach.  “Yeah?  What hope?”


Down­stairs Abuela could be heard humming, shuffling around while she worked.  Eddie turned up the TV and beckoned Tom to follow him upstairs. 


In the top drawer of her dresser, Abuela kept a jar of quarters.  While Eddie removed the lid of the jar, Tom Binsack kept lookout at the door.  Eddie’s heart beat so hard that he heard the blood in his ears.  His hands were sweaty.  He had meant to take a few coins, but these were under a wad of bills and his haste to be done with the theft, he made off with a fist full of bills and change.


Eddie was sure his abuela would be waiting at the bottom of the steps, but when he got to the living room he could still hear her working in the basement.  He called down that he was going to the park with Tom; she said to be care­ful. 


Then they were outside and on their way to the store.


“Doesn’t she speak any English,” Tom said as they walked down the side­walk.  “None?”


“Not much,” Eddie said. 


“She’s a nun, right?” 


“No,” Eddie said.  “My grandpa died.  She lives there alone now is all.”


Tom nodded.  “What are you going to buy, Ed?”


“I don’t know,” he said. “How about you?”


“Candy,” said Tom.  “I am buying candy.”


Eddie thought he would too.


He handed two dollars to Tom, and kept two for himself.  The air smelled cold and felt good on his bare face.  He thought of all the things he could buy with two dollars.  It felt good having two dollars, even considering that he’d stolen them from his own abuelita.




Each night in bed Eddie said prayers.  He didn’t do this so much out of training or even a love of God, but mainly because he feared for his fam­ily’s life.  He had worked out an elaborate and tedious nightly prayer that in­cluded a mention of his entire family by individual name, three Hail Marys, an Our Father, The Creed of the Apostles, an Act of Contrition, and another mention of his family, just for good measure. 


Then he did something he had in­vented.  He squinted at the slats in his bedroom blinds, through which he could see light from a street lamp outside his window.  When he squinted just right, the light expanded before his eyes, and he then gave a portion of this light to his mother and father, and to his abuela and his dead abuelo.  He had used this system for a long time with good success, and it seemed only logical that he should go on appeasing God—who in Eddie’s mind was a cross between the principal at St. Mary’s and a hit man—if he wanted his family to live.


But that night at home in his dark bedroom, Eddie could not get through his prayers.  He tried more than once, but each time it seemed to him that his prayers had turned useless.  He could hear the voices of his parents down­stairs, and he knew that a Christmas tree glowed in the corner of the living room where they sat.  But it seemed to Eddie that he was more a part of the wind that howled through the dead trees outside than with the scene in the living room.  He closed his eyes and tried praying one more time.  But it oc­curred to him that he might actually damage his fam­ily’s repu­tation with God and he finally gave up. 


He fell asleep hoping that his fam­ily could be spared from whatever hot place in hell was waiting for boys like him.




The next morning, Tom arrived at Abuela’s, and Eddie knew he would steal again.  He and Tom waited in the living room, with the TV turned up loud to drown out their crimes. When Abuela was gone from the first floor they made their move on her bedroom.  This time they came away with another couple of dollars and more silver change.  They dragged their sleds behind them to the store, where they spent everything on candy and gum and so­das.  Then with full and upset stomachs, they went to Loomis Park and slid down the hills for a long time.


Much later that afternoon, not long before Eddie’s mother was due to pick him up, his abuela came into the room with his coat in one hand and candy wrappers in the other.  Eddie thought that he’d been discovered.  But when his abuela asked where he’d gotten the money for candy, it was if his lie were sup­plied by the Devil himself, it came to him so quickly—he told her that Tom’s mother had given it to them.


“Yo no sé,” she said, shaking her head.  “Why you want to run around so much with that snow-colored candy-eating little boy all the time, I don’t know.”


That night when his mother asked him what he wanted for Christmas—para la Navidád—he said he wanted nothing and he went alone to his bed­room.  His mother followed him, asking if he felt ill.  He said no. 


When she left, he lay there thinking of his work—the learning of prayers, the timely completion of homework, his rise in first grade to member-in-high­est-standing.  All of this he had thrown away.  He had stolen, he had lied; and yet, even in his wretchedness, he was thinking about the money he would steal the next day.  He wondered how many other Commandments he’d willingly break before he was in the second grade. 


Outside his window the thin branches of a tree scratched the glass like fingers; it was snowing, and no matter how he squinted he couldn’t get the light from across the street to expand into any­thing.  It remained a streetlamp on the corner glowing through the snow.



The next day Tom and Eddie breakfasted on Abuela’s food, and then waited until her daily business took her into some safe part of the house.  Tom followed Eddie up the steps as usual, but this time when Eddie reached into the top drawer of the dresser, he found no jar.  He began to feel hot around the ears and looked through the next drawer and then the next—still no money jar.


Tom licked his lips and asked what was wrong.


“It’s gone,” Eddie said.          


“You’re kidding.”


“It’s not there.”


Tom blinked.  “I think we better leave.”


Downstairs, Eddie suggested they slip away to the park for a while.  But Tom said he thought he should be getting home. 


“Why?” Eddie said.


“Because I think I should, is all.”  Tom was pulling his coat on, and putting his head into his stocking cap.  What could Eddie do?  He stood by the windowpane—through which he felt the cold against his face—and watched his friend walk through the snow toward his safe home.



Eddie expected punishment at any moment.  For the rest of the after­noon, each time his abuela entered the room his heart raced.  He tried to think of pleasant things to say—asking her what she wanted for Christmas, of­fer­ing to help her with the housework.  An hour or so before his mother picked him up he developed a cough.  When Abuela checked to see if he was all right, he said he didn’t know and began coughing so hard he had to stop speaking.  She decided to make chicken soup. She took Eddie to a spare bed­room.  He lay there coughing every now and then, until his mother arrived to pick him up.




The sun was a thin strip of yellow beneath the endless dark when Eddie saw his mother’s car arrive.  He watched her walk up the steps.  Down­stairs the door opened then closed.  Eddie listened to the greet­ings, and the hushed rapid Spanish that followed, the kind they spoke when they didn’t want him to hear what they were saying.  It felt as cold inside the room as the night outside.  Sure enough, Eddie heard footsteps on the stairs.  The door to his room opened.


“Mira, nene,” he heard.  “Estás bien?  Can you come downstairs to where your mother is waiting?”


He pulled himself out of bed.  He followed his abuela, with his hand in hers, down the steps.  He forgot to cough even once on his way down.


In the living room, his mother was sitting on the couch.  On the coffee table Eddie saw the money jar.  A cool wave pass through his stom­ach.  He knew he must be careful or he would begin to cry like a baby.


“Hi, Mamma,” he said.


“How are you feeling?”


Eddie coughed, sniffled a little.  His mouth was turned down and he couldn’t move his gaze from the money jar. 


“You’ve gotten yourself into some trouble, I see.”


Eddie nodded, but still his mouth would not stop lying.  “What trouble, Mamma?”


“Why do you take money from your own abuela?  When all you have to do is ask, why do you steal?”


Eddie shrugged his shoulders.


“Do you know what a terrible thing stealing is?”


Eddie nodded; tears were not a long way off.


“So then you’re the one who stole money?  From your own Abuela’s bed­room.  You did this thing?”


Eddie’s kind-hearted abuela, with a look of great pain, said, “Ana.”  There followed a brief burst of difficult Spanish, from which Eddie gathered that his abuela believed Tom Binsack—el maldito—had put Eddie up to it.


“Is this true?  Your friend put this idea in your head?”


Eddie nodded. 


“Well then you are not to see that boy anymore.  He will not come here, you will not go to his place.  Your grandmother brings him into her house, and this is how she is repaid?  You should be punished for having listened to him.  Do you hear?


Eddie nodded.  But it wasn’t punishment he feared—it was his family’s disapproval of him and the things he’d done. 


Eddie fol­lowed his mother to the car. 


“You cannot let bad people influence you like this Eddie,” she said.  She belted him in the backseat.  “You should always be careful who you choose as friends.”


“I know Mamma,” he said.


“You should not let friends lead you into trouble.”


“I’m sorry, Mamma.”


The car rolled down the street.  Passing Tom’s house, Eddie reflected on what kind of boy he had become.  He wondered what kind of maldito—what kind of little devil—would betray a friend.




That night Eddie didn’t dare offend God with a prayer and sure enough  he had a bad dream.  In this dream his abuela was trapped outside in a bliz­zard, snow flying everywhere.  She was trying to get into her house, but couldn’t get the door open.  Eddie was inside the house, watching this, but for some reason he didn’t get up to help her.  He had sandwiches stacked in front of him on the coffee table, and on the TV he was watching a game show.  When he finally got up to let his abuela in, he opened the door and a small whirl of snow blew in through the door, but his grandmother was gone.  Only then did Eddie realize he was too late.  He woke up from the dream with his heart racing in his chest.  The covers were twisted around him like a snake.  He was too afraid to call out for his mother and father.  For a long time he studied the oddly shaped moon-shadows on his bedroom wall before falling back into his restless sleep. 


The next morning was Friday, the day Eddie’s mother didn’t have to work until nine.  This meant she had time to come in and have coffee with Abuela.  The three of them sat in the living room with their coffee, Abuela in her rocking chair, and Eddie beside his mother on the sofa.  Eddie kept nod­ding off to sleep, he’d had such a dreadful night before. 


“Miralo,” Abuela said.  “Look how tired he is.”


“He has been very busy lately,” his Mamma said, and then Eddie had to endure another discussion of his sins.  He listened, half awake, as his mother reminded him not to play with Tom.  Then she said that she was considering paying a visit to Tom’s mother down the street and telling her what her Tom had done.


Eddie’s head came up; he blinked.  “Don’t do that, Mamma,” he said.


His mother looked at Abuela, back at him.  “Oh, I think I will,” she said.  “Why shouldn’t I?”


“Because,” he said.  “Please, Mamma.”  And then all of the remorse welled up inside him and, like a doorway being opened into a bright room, he realized what he should do.  “I took the money, Mamma.”  He said this in English because he could not bear to have his abuela hear it.  “It was my idea to steal the money.”


“You have a kind heart, Eddie,” she said.  “But you shouldn’t try to protect your little friend.”


Eddie was shocked; his confession was being rejected.  “No, I did it,” he said.  “I made Tom take the money.  It’s me you should be mad at.”


“Please don’t lie, Eddie,” she said.  “Not even for a friend.  Don’t  worry, I won’t tell his mother.”  His Mamma reached out and touched his face again.  “You’re a brave little boy, with a good heart.”


Eddie was about to protest.  But his mother was standing up, saying she would be late if she did not hurry, and with a kiss on his cheek, she blocked his confession once and for all.




After his mother was gone, Abuela asked Eddie what he wanted for break­fast; he said he was not hungry. 


“I heard what you told your mother.  You, not the other boy, took the money?”  Then she said, in her accented English, of which she was very shy:  “You see, I understand some English.”


Eddie nodded.  “Yes, Abuela,” he said.  “After I did these things, I thought God would make you die because of me.”


“Pobrecito!” she said.  She laughed, rolling her eyes.  “You poor little boy.  I hope He should not kill me.” 


She laughed again, and drew him close to tell him a story of something she had heard during her girlhood in Puerto Rico.  It was told of an old woman who in youth, and in her grief at the death of a child, had de­nounced God and the Holy Spirit.  She had spoken madness, blasphemed the names of Christ and the Holy Virgin herself, to the people of the pueblocito in which she lived.  One day this woman was talking against God, when she was visited by Jesus Christ Himself—and not just any Jesus either, but the real thing, the Latin kind with a burning heart, and such com­passion in His eyes that it made the woman’s soul weep. 


Here Abuela raised her bony finger.  “And do you know what He said?  After she had spoken against him, hurt Him daily? All he asked was why she injured Him so. She had no answer except her pain.  And then he created a miracle.  The Lord revealed to her lost child, cloud­ed in brilliant light, and in her time of grief He stayed with her.”


She nodded sadly.  “In this world, these things can happen, little boy.  And do you think this is the God who would let me die because you took money?”

Eddie shook his head.  But he was very tired and soon he was in the spare bedroom taking a nap.




Much later that afternoon he asked to go outside.  He walked to Tom’s house and rang the bell, but ac­cording to his mother, Tom was at the park with his sled. 


Eddie trudged through the snow alone.  He entered the park from the street, high up on a hill, from where he could see Tom playing below.  The slope sparkled in the bright sunlight and Eddie had to squint to see.  He approached the edge of the steep hill, waving to Tom—but suddenly Eddie’s feet slipped out from under him.  The world tipped, then the ground rose up from behind and whacked Eddie in the back of his head like a frozen fist.  Dazed, staring into the blue sky, he began sliding down the hill, turning slowly so that his feet were aiming up toward where he had fallen.  All the way he slid like that, gazing into the sky. 


He lay still for a moment when he stopped at the foot of the hill; then Tom’s face appeared above him.


“Eddie?” he said.  “You okay?”


“I cracked my head,” he said.


“I saw.” Tom helped Eddie to his feet.  “You’re lucky you didn’t knock yourself out.”


“I think I did,” he said.  “My head hurts.”


Tom slung one of Eddie’s arms over his shoulder, and they started back up the hill.  “I’ll help you get home.”


At the top Eddie said, “I’m not supposed to hang around with you any more.”


“Got busted, huh?” Tom said.  “They found out?”


“They found out.”


“They always find out,” he said.  Then he shrugged.  “well, it’ll blow over.  These things always do.”


That night his mother picked him up at eight as usual.  He kissed his abuela on the cheek and walked to the car. There was the smell of exhaust on the cold air and the steady noise of the engine. Snow squeaked under his boots.  On the way home, the dying sun cast orange light on the snow; the homes glowed with festive Christmas light in windows and in trees.  Eddie gathered this light in his eyes and then parceled it out—some for his mother and some for his father, some for Tom Binsack, and some for his abuela, and a portion for the eternal soul of his abuelo.  He even saved a small sliver for himself, so that his family should not be without him in the light. 

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