Deborah Wiless "Moves the Symphony True," a novel for young readers, is being published by The Boston Globe over eight consecutive Tuesdays. Teachers wishing to receive copies of the paper on those days, as well as curriculum materials developed for the story, should contact the Globes Newspaper in Education Office at 617-929-2639.
The story so far: In the small town of Mabel, Miss., Finesse Schotz, fresh from a year away at boarding school, is trying to organize a school pageant with all the children in town. Many of the boys have an important baseball game the same day, though, and dont want to be in the pageant. Inspired by a book he found at the home of an elderly man who died recently, House Jackson proposes a compromise: The group will stage the pageant and play baseball at the same time.
House did not tell his father of the note from Mr. Norwood Boyd, or of his treasure, ''Leaves of Grass." After the strangest baseball practice on the face of the earth, during which several old team members threatened to quit and other new members were giddy with joy, House came home weary, ate hardly any supper, and went to bed early on the sleeping porch. He read ''Leaves of Grass" until he fell asleep. The book was entirely poems. He didn't need to understand them, he just needed to read them. He felt closer to the world, closer to his mother:
''I celebrate myself; And what I assume you shall assume;
For every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you."
He read all the marked passages. Had his mother marked them? Had Mr. Norwood Boyd marked them? It didn't matter. What mattered was that his mother had had these words, and now he had them. Now he understood, even if he couldn't tell himself just what it was he understood. He knew it, somehow.
All night, a steady, soft rain cooled the summer air. The next morning, House brought ''Leaves of Grass" to pageant practice. He also brought a recalcitrant baseball team, its new members, and a list, which he handed to Finesse.
''We met yesterday after ball practice," he said. ''We need these things."
''We need good sense more than anything," muttered Cleebo. He glared at House.
''You're gonna play, Cleebo," said House.
''Yeah. Me and every fruitcake in the county! No way are we gonna win this game. You got Blind Boy Wilkie Collins at umpire."
''I ain't blind!" cried Wilkie. ''I just got thick glasses!"
''You got Ruby Lavender catching, and you got that sorry excuse for a dog fielding foul balls!"
''I'm a better catcher than you'll ever be, Cleebo Wilson!" yelled Ruby.
''You-doggie is not sorry!" said Honey. She kissed the dog's wrinkled head.
Finesse, still dressed in black, had her own problems.
''You left us with half a pageant yesterday," she said to the ballplayers. ''We did the best we could without you. We had to assign parts as we had a need for them. Some of you won't be happy with your assignments, but that's life. C'est la vie!"
She took the list from House and read out loud the baseball team's requests:
9 baseball uniforms, or at least baseball shirts
4 real bases and a pitcher's mound
2 new bats (ours are cracked)
6 new baseballs (some of us hit lots of foul balls)
a catcher's mask and knee pads
a cooler with lots of water in it
1 pair of tap shoes, size 6
Honey clapped at the mention of tap shoes. Eudora Welty, wearing her white tutu, snorted next to Honey and wagged her stumpy tail.
''These things cost a lot of money," said Finesse.
''I thought your uncle was giving us money," said House.
''Surely you don't expect us -- all of us! -- to actually play a game of baseball?" Finesse had lost her French. She was quickly losing her temper.
''It's the American game!" said House. ''For an American town! On the American holiday: Fourth of July! We'll beat the pants off those Redbugs with all this talent."
Cleebo hooted. House ignored him.
''We can certainly honor baseball," said Finesse. ''But we have a brand-new stage being installed almost as we speak! We will not be playing baseball on it! We will be dancing!"
''We don't dance," said Cleebo flatly.
''Yes, we do," said House.
''You're crazy," said Cleebo.
''I dance!" said Honey.
''We all dance," said House. ''It's a symphony. A symphony true. We'll do it all at the same time." Kids looked at House as if they were looking at Aurora County's first official alien being, as if they had never before met him.
''And how do you propose we do that?" Finesse asked, crossing her arms in front of her. Melba followed suit.
House held up ''Leaves of Grass." A skitter of nervousness raced across the back of his shoulders. He made himself speak.
''This book explains it." He opened it. Would he dare? Yes, he would. ''Here's a piece of it."
The crowd buzzed. Cleebo -- who had had enough -- sneered. ''You gonna read us a book, House?"
Several ballplayers guffawed along with Cleebo. House tried to ignore them. He found the page he wanted.
''I know that book!" shouted Cleebo. ''I saw it yestidy! It's a bunch of poems!"
House's knees wobbled. He could clobber Cleebo later. But he had come this far and he wouldn't stop now. He called on his mother and he called on Mr. Norwood Boyd, he straightened his shoulders, and he took the plunge. He read the poem, which was also his note. ''After the Dazzle of Day" was its title:
''After the dazzle of day is gone,
Only the dark, dark night shows to my eyes the stars.
After the clangor of organ majestic, or chorus, or perfect band,
Silent, athwart my soul, moves the symphony true."
''There ain't nothin' about no baseball game in there," said Cleebo, ''nor no pageant. And we ain't got us a organ or a chorus or a band. We just got a crazy ball team captain. I vote for a new captain. Who's with me?" The ball team murmured sounds of approval.
''Don't you see?" said House. He took a breath -- and in that moment, House changed. He became more than he had been. ''It don't matter if we have a game or a pageant or both, we're all gonna be as dead as door nails one day. As dead as Mr. Norwood Boyd, and then what? He looked at Finesse. She had a stunned look on her face. ''And what's worth the trouble of living? Or dying? That's the symphony true!"
''You don't make no sense!" said Cleebo. His face was a vengeful red.
''Where'd you get that book, please?" asked Dove, pencil poised over her notebook.
''I can tell you where he got it!" said Cleebo. ''He got it from Mean Man Boyd! He's been goin' over there every day for more than a year! He read him books! Cookbooks! He's been helping Mean Man cook all them kidnapped children he's had cut up in the freezer for years!"
No one spoke. Cleebo looked triumphant for three seconds and then knew he had overstepped. He looked at House for help, but he had burned his last bridge with House. Seventeen children and one old dog breathed under the chinaberry tree and waited to see what would happen next.
House was center-stage and he took it.
''Mr. Norwood Boyd was a friend of my family. I never met him until last year. And I was scared to go to his house -- just like y'all. I heard the stories! But it ain't like that. Mr. Norwood Boyd liked people. Sometimes his mailbox would be full with letters from the folks he kept up with all over the world."
House was short of breath. He spoke faster. ''He never ate nobody. He liked books. He was real old. My daddy asked me to go over there and -- and read to him. And I did. We read 'The Grapes of Wrath' and 'The Reivers' and 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' and lots more."
By now his heart beat so fast he could hardly breathe. So he held up a hand and stopped to catch his breath. It took awhile. No one moved. When he could breathe again he said, ''And I don't care what y'all think about all that. I liked it. And I liked Mr. Norwood Boyd."
In that moment, as he spoke those words, House knew that Pip had been right. He had loved Mr. Norwood Boyd.
Dove stopped scribbling in her notebook. Melba's mouth hung open. Ruby blinked and wiped her hair out of her eyes. Finesse held her handkerchief to her mouth. For once her tears seemed real.
In the stunned silence, Cleebo kicked at a rock and kids began to breathe again. They looked at one another with nothing to say. So House said more. ''And he loved baseball." He looked at Finesse. ''Used to be, not everybody could play baseball," he said. ''Put that in your history of Aurora County -- your American history -- Frances."
He was done. All those words.
''I don't know you no more," said Cleebo. He spit into the dirt.
''Yes, you do," said House. He looked Cleebo square in the face. ''I'm somebody who keeps his word."
Cleebo wiped sweat from his face with his hand and sat down with a thump.
Finesse dabbed at her eyes and cleared her throat.
''That's an inspiring speech, House Jackson," she said. ''I'm sure that if we could play a real baseball game, we would."
''Well, I'm playing ball," announced Ruby, rising to her feet. She looked at House with admiration.
''Me, too," said every other kid in the crowd, as everyone stood up and faced Finesse. Melba Jane looked horrified and nearly nauseous.
House took a deep breath.
''What about our plans from yesterday?" Finesse asked. ''Those of you who stayed for pageant practice -- what about the Sawmill Samba we worked on? What about the Pine Lake Prance and the Silvery Moon Skit?"
Defeat crossed Finesse's face, and when it did, House saw a glimmer of softness underneath, but Finesse would let no one see it for long. Instead, she arched an eyebrow.
''Mes amis? Must we vote, then?"
Wait," said House, as he realized that Finesse was about to vote herself out of a job. But Finesse would not wait.
''Must we vote on the ballgame -- baseball outdoors on a buggy empty lot -- or the lovely pageant indoors on the bright new stage?"
''I got an idea," said House, but Finesse had her own ideas. Don Quixote directed her Sancho Panza to take the vote.
''How many for the pageant?" asked Melba, pencil poised over the clipboard. Not a hand was raised.
''Listen!" said House, but Finesse would not listen.
Melba took a long breath and asked the defining question: ''How many for the -- game?"
Every hand shot into the air.
''Very well," said Finesse. Her lips trembled. ''Très bien! I know when I have been defeated!" She held up the list that House had given her. ''We have no budget for a ballgame. We do not need this list."
Theatrically, Finesse tore House's list in half and let the pieces flutter to the ground around her.
House took off his cap, smoothed back his hair, and shoved the cap back on his head.
''Mes amis," said Finesse, trying to control her temper. ''You could have had my expertise -- you should have seen my contributions to theater at the Lanyard School last year! Oh, what a production we could have had! But I will not be a party to this mockery of our wonderful American pageant! And so, mes amis, I tender you my adieu!"
Finesse snatched off her hat-with-feathers and veil. Her eyes were volcanic. She slapped the headgear at Melba, who bobbled the feathers and the veil along with her clipboard.
''Here are my last words, mes ami," spit Finesse. ''I quit! Je quitte!"
She stalked across the empty field toward Main Street. Melba raced after her, feathers bouncing against the dirt and stirring up dust.
''Stay here!" said House to everyone else. He took off after Finesse. He caught up with her as she reached the barber pole outside of Pip's shop on Main Street.
''Stop, already!" he shouted.
Finesse stopped but kept her back to House.
''I can tell you how to make this work!" said House.
''I'm not interested!" said Finesse. She spun to face House. Tears ran down her cheeks. ''Girls at the Lanyard School tried to tell me how to make things work, too! Then they laughed at me behind my back! Do you know what it's like to be laughed at all year? Do you?"
House shook his head slowly, fascinated.
''You've embarrassed me in front of all those people!" said Finesse. ''I can never go back!"
House licked his lips, trying to think of something to say. All that would come out was, ''We need you."
Finesse blinked through her tears. Melba Jane plastered herself against the barber shop's plate-glass window where she wouldn't miss a word.
''Look," said House. ''There will be plenty of other times to use the stage. Miss Mattie -- and most of the mothers in town -- will skin us alive if we don't have a pageant. So we'll play some and we'll dance some. I can't do the play stuff. You need to do it." He took off his hat and scratched his head. ''And someone needs to teach Honey how to tap dance."
Finesse gingerly took her veil and hat with feathers from Melba. As she affixed them to her head, she said, ''My uncle will not stand for it and neither will Aurora County citizens. It's not done! It's not professional!" But she was intrigued, House could tell.
''It's real," said House. ''It's the way it is sometimes. We each get some of what we want. Everyone who wants to play can play. Everyone who wants to dance can dance. Everybody gets a part! It's organic. Finesse." He almost got a smile out of her. ''It's. . ."
Finesse finished for him. ''Imaginative. Creative. In the spirit of the American theater."
''Yes!" said House. ''Will you help?"
Another standoff. And then came another voice, another opinion:
''It will never work!" It was a deep, sonorous, basso-profondo voice. All three children whirled to face it.
''Uncle Jim-Bob!" cried Finesse.
Dr. Dan Deavers filled the doorway of the barber shop with his legendary presence.