When Sylvester first saw the Buddha in the shop window, it was marked at $200. With his right hand he fingered the felt-like softness of a worn five-dollar bill in his pocket, and with his left he held on to a wriggling younger sister of five. Her brown curls bounced as she stomped impatiently at being kept in the empty parking lot. She was not interested in the old and dusty statuettes, or the smiling fat man who sat on his rump and was as bald as an onion. She clutched a tousled Barbie to her chest and skipped impatiently on feet clad in clean white loafers — she wanted to go home.
“Five more minutes, Ruth,” he said, without taking his eyes off the display. Stout painted kittens waved their paws in endless homage, and red-blue dragons arched their scaly, snake-like bodies. The Buddha, however, was king. His golden stomach, as round as a pumpkin, radiated opulence, and his ears hung down as if they were weighted with heavy jewels. His eyes slanted like moons and his mouth was open in laughter. Sylvester’s chest tightened with desire.
His parents brushed his request aside.
“Do we really need it?” asked his father, sitting in his paisley armchair and not looking up from his copy of the Times. Sylvester pressed further — they hadn’t gotten him a birthday present this year, but Ruth had gotten a Barbie.
The ends of his father’s moustache turned down and he seemed to think for a moment. Then he ruffed Sylvester’s mouse-brown hair and said, “Ask your mother.”
“No space,” said his mother from beneath a criss-crossed curtain of leaves. He saw only a mass of frizzy brown hair, a plaid shirt, faded jeans. She was bent, snipping at leaves, and her rump stuck up in the air. The fern would need repotting soon, and there were some new sprouts. And her dahlias — they were incredibly successful this year, red-purple-yellow bursts blooming under her care. She was estimating that by next month all the ledges and corners of the house would be occupied, and under the windows too.
Ruth got the Barbie, he pointed out once more.
“Mm.” Leaves rustled uncomfortably. “Could you pass the shears, honey?”
He turned on his heel and stomped away.
Ruth refused to hold his hand the next day on the way home from school. Instead she trailed behind him, jerking the doll’s stiff legs like chopsticks along the curb. Sylvester sat cross-legged under the store window, where the Buddha smiled benevolently at him over its golden belly. There were seven dollars in his pocket, and his stomach growled for its missed lunch.
When he came home, his mother was sitting on newspapers, between piles of dirt and mulch. He couldn’t see an inch of carpet in his family room between the dirt, the papers, and the plants. “Well!” said his mother. “This will all get cleaned up soon.” She cupped a baby dahlia in her hands and beamed at him. “How was school?”
He asked her once more for the Buddha — slowly, in his best grown-up tone. I’m serious, it implied. I mean business.
His mother looked up and wrinkled her nose at him. Both of their eyes were almond shaped and almond colored, but his nose was sharper and mouth tighter. Were it not for his small face, weak chin, and baby skin, he could have had the older face. He was so severe, she thought. Except for the pleading in his eyes, which would have moved a machine, he was too old for his age.
“If you’re good, I think Santa will get it for you for Christmas,” she said, and winced to herself. Once again she had failed at saying the right thing.
“That’s too late!” His lower lip pulled downwards, showing his bottom teeth. “You never give me anything!” He spat these words like venom, left the room. His mother eased the baby dahlia into the flowerpot and tucked it gently into the soil.
It was getting harder and harder for Sylvester to get to the front door. An army of newly potted plants crowded the walkway and Sylvester needed to push past a few ferns before he could see the doorknob.
“Goodbye, dear!” his mother’s muffled voice came from somewhere upstairs. “Watch the plants!”
When he rounded the corner on his way to school each day, the sun would still be low in the sky, glaring orange off the shop window. He had followed the fate of the glass case’s inhabitants since July. They came in with the rich luster and exotic breath of the Orient. Then slowly, as summer wore into fall and fall into winter, they lost their shine, grew dusty. Their price tags became slashed with red ink, and each bore the humiliation of mark-downs until one day they disappeared, borne off in the arms of some pitying stranger. This fate awaited his Buddha, and he resolved to interpose on its behalf.
Under the sun the statue glowed bright and incandescent — a golden orb nestled in the store window. Ruth swayed sleepily by his side, her plastic pink backpack clashing with the store’s warm, Oriental tones. She took her Barbie with her everywhere. Its ice blonde hair and skinny rubber legs irritated him immensely when it chanced to venture near enough to the window for him to see both it and the Buddha at the same time. When his five minutes was up Sylvester would squeeze his eyes shut and pivot himself away in one brisk motion, walking with quick, knee-locked strides. He only allowed himself five minutes in the mornings.
His curious walk, and the constant companionship of his little sister, put him at the mercy of blacktop bullies like Jim Burkle and Big Joey.
“It’s Sylvester the Cat! Is Tweety-bird chasing you?”
“Why is he always doing that with his eyes? He must a eaten something sour!”
Ruth latched both hands in the crook of his arm, and the closer she clung to him the louder the voices would scoff. Sylvester kept his hands in his pockets and his shoulders scrunched high up to his earlobes. Today a raspberry flecked spit onto his neck, but he walked straight up to Big Joey.
“I’ll do your homework for you if you give me a dollar,” he said. The bully narrowed his mean, beady eyes at him, but Sylvester didn’t flinch.
Big Joey had the nose of a pig. He wrinkled this at Sylvester. “One dollar?”
Jim Burkle overhead this and shouted it to the whole blacktop. “Sylvie the Cat here says he’ll do your homework for a dollar!” A crowd of boys gathered instantly around him and Ruth.
“I want in, too!”
“Do mine, I’ll give you two dollars!”
He stayed after school for three more hours, finishing the math problems of all the boys in the fifth grade. He was shrewd and auctioned positions in line, and he collected the money up front. That night he walked home by himself (he had told Ruth to leave on her own), and his tired hand was closed tightly and tenderly around a wad of thirty-four dollars.
The parking lot was empty as usual. His eyes caught the red smudge immediately. The Buddha had been marked down to $150 — a shiver of excitement tickled his bones.
His mother tried to scold him for letting Ruth walk by herself, but she could barely be heard from behind a thick layer of palm leaves. He nearly tripped over a geranium going into the kitchen, but he caught himself on a chair. “Oops, son,” said his father, and Sylvester looked at the chair with surprise. Indeed his father was sitting in it, with a bonsai plant on his lap. Sylvester squinted to see him more clearly — he didn’t look quite right. Ruth was playing on the kitchen floor. Barbie’s clothes were beginning to fray, and the dirt clumped up in her synthetic hair.
When Sylvester went upstairs for bed, treading carefully over cactus bulbs, he found his room jammed with azaleas, Chamaedoreas, hyacinths, and ponytail palms. His pillow was wedged between a potted gardenia and a bluebell plant, whose drooping flowers hung over his head like teardrops. “They’ll only be there for a bit,” his mother assured him. “They can keep you company when you sleep.” Sylvester turned onto his side — the look of the blue flowers made his temples hurt.
“Sylvester, I can’t sleep.” Her small voice came from the doorway. Her pink flannel shirt was much too big for her and draped over her shoulders, and the tips of her toes were pink from cold. He felt sorry for her, clutching her Barbie and forever playing on dirty floors. She shifted over and she climbed into his bed, wriggling her small body against his frail frame. He hadn’t eaten lunch for two weeks. He felt a matted tuft of hair brush against his arm, and looked down to see Barbie staring at him with unnaturally large and blue eyes.
“Get that away from me.” He pushed it off the bed. Ruth began to quiver and to cry.
“In the land of Buddha…” he began quietly. They played this game nightly. He cradled her head in the crook of his arm as a means of apology, and as he talked, he began to doze, so that he half spoke, half dreamed of forests, temples, and cloud-ringed mountains coated with gold. The crying ceased, and the two lay side by side in sleep, like two tadpoles among the lilies and the reeds.
He began to feel a sense of urgency. At $100, it was a steal. He wished the shop window were made of lead, so that no passing stranger could witness its discounted shame. Someone would realize it was beautiful, someone would take it away. He had exactly fifty dollars.
He had stayed after school until dark this time, adding and multiplying in the woods behind school property for roughly four dollars an assignment. He changed his handwriting after each sheet, stopping only when he could no longer see his pencil in the dark. Counting up his revenue, he had made fifty-eight dollars, and had fifty more in his pocket. It was enough.
He ran from school down four blocks to the store, as quickly as his jerking gait would take him. Paranoia nipped at his ankles. Thirty feet away a terrible thought-vision came to him. An old woman was hobbling past the shop, and chanced to turn her head. Twenty feet — she looks at the Buddha, and she takes a liking to its grinning face. Ten feet — the lady is inquiring within. What would Sylvester do now, if a stranger snatched the prize from his grasp? He paled at the possibility. His backpack bounced up and down his back, as if to hurry him along.
The setting sun glared red off the store window, and there was no old lady in sight. In fact, the store was closed — 6pm closing time on Fridays. He pressed his face to the window, his breath coming in shallow gasps — it was there, it was still there. The Buddha looked back at him, lazy eyelids drooping over its smiling eyes. Tomorrow was Saturday; he could buy it first thing in the morning. It would be his by this time tomorrow.
When he reached home he saw that vines had crept up the sides of his house to an alarming extent. He could not find the door, so he climbed in through the living room window. His mother lay stomach down on the ground on matted palm leaves, untying two bickering vines with her fingers. A young, yellow vine snuck impudently up her wrist and she slapped it off lightly. She didn’t seem to hear him tumble in. Sylvester bent and kissed her cheek. It was soft and mossy.
That night he stuffed one hundred bills in his coat pocket — wadded it tightly and pressed it down as far as his pocket extended. He spoke breathlessly and squeezed Ruth’s hand. “In the land of Buddha…” he said, and could hardly contain himself. “In the land of Buddha, there was a little boy with glasses. He was the wisest boy in all the kingdom...” Whispered words slipped from his mouth like pearls. He spoke quickly and quietly late into the night.
“Good morning sleepyhead.” Ruth came into his room, her white loafers dancing from side to side. For the first time, she had risen earlier than he had. She stopped in the doorway when she saw him flinging clothes and sheets over his shoulder with violent motions. A white shirt flopped disconsolately at her feet.
His fingers were raking ferociously at the sheets, at the vines, at the insides of his pockets, which he already knew were empty. It was there last night, a definitive lump of bills against his stomach, the thick wad of his after school labors and hunger pangs stuffed in his coat. Where was it now? Had his mother cleaned? Impossible—there wasn’t an inch of furniture to be seen beneath the room’s layer of plant-life.
“Good mo-orning, I said!” Ruth planted herself in front of him and pointed her freckled chin at his chest. “What are you doing?”
Sylvester’s eyes riveted upon the Barbie in her hand. Its clothes were strangely new — an outfit of a matching green and gray. George Washington gazed back at him from the front of its shirt.
He grabbed her by the shoulders, fingers clamping on either side of her small frame.
“What have you done?” His voice was high. Her eyes grew wide with an uncomprehending fear.
“Sylvester, you’re hurting me.”
He shook her until her teeth rattled. “Why is your Barbie wearing my money?”
She squealed and started crying, the sound bouncing up and down in her throat. “It’s not my fault,” she whined between jumping sobs. She said over and over that it wasn’t her fault.
In the next room he found dollar bills strewn all over the ground. Some had been cut up, and one missed a chunk in the shape of a boot. Another crawled slowly across the floor, being pulled into the overgrown carpet by one curling vine. He caught it and tugged it out viciously. What he could salvage came to exactly thirteen dollars. It wasn’t fit to buy the Buddha’s left foot.
She didn’t understand what she had done. Sniffling and smoothing out her Barbie’s new skirt, she couldn’t understand why he looked at her so, eyes like black beetles in a thinning face.
Tuesday was a rainy day. No sun hit the store window, and Sylvester stood for a quarter of an hour under the elements regarding the spot where the Buddha had been. Someone had bought it on Monday, because it was no longer there when he came back from school. Perhaps now it sat in a forgotten corner of an old lady’s house, where her Pekingese took leaks in its lap. A rickety Chinese temple stood there now, made of painted straw and rice paper.
“You can ask Mom for that. It’s almost Christmas.” Ruth said in her plastic lime-colored raincoat. She looked up at him meekly. Even their mother finally moved the pots and groomed the vines to let daylight back into the rooms, but his eyes had remained beetle-black. She had the feeling that she had done something very wrong that day, so she tried to say something that would please him.
He considered the item, but realized he didn’t want it that much. “Let’s go.” He took his sister’s hand and directed their umbrella homeward.
“We never play that game anymore,” chirped Ruth, opening her stride to keep sync with his brisk step. “In the land of Buddha.”
Their reflections slid in and out of view as they stepped over puddles and pavement.
“So—” She drew out the O in a long and dipping pout. When she received no response, she began: “In the land of Buddha, there was once a beautiful princess—”
He cut her off irritably. That game is over, he said. Ruth was hurt, and she clamped her mouth shut and jerked her hand out of his. They walked for a while in silence — a slouching fifth grade boy with one hand stuffed in his pocket and his kid sister in an insolent lime green. The rain beat dirt off the rooftops and ran in oily rivers into the gutters. After one block Ruth had already forgotten all offense, and she skipped and scuffed her rain boots ahead of him. Her fingers slipped back into Sylvester’s hand like a small, wet fish, and he let her pull him home.