PURPLE • by Katherine Peck

Jonathan Crackers dances down our street in an old, patched jacket, singing a song that only he understands, talking to people who aren’t quite there. He’s dressed in purple from head to toe.

“An eggplant,” says Jamie who lives down the street. “Isn’t he, Elliot?

He’s a wonder, I want to say, but don’t.

It is Jamie that gave Jonathan Crackers his name. “Because he’s a nut.”

I wanted to ask him, “Why not call him ‘Jonathan Nuts?’ Or why call him ‘Jonathan’ at all?” But Jamie doesn’t like to be talked back to. If we argue, we’ll get in a fight, and he’ll end up winning. I’ll go home with a bloody nose, and dad will shrug, and tell me that boys will be boys. He’ll promise to teach me to fight back, but never get around to it.

So again, I say nothing.

People say I should be scared of Jonathan Crackers because he walks the streets at all hours of the day, muttering to himself, no destination. But I’m not scared of him.

He lives next to me, in a squat ranch house that’s seen better days. His fence is battered and leaning but beautiful. It was the fence that first made me notice Jonathan Crackers. Every weekend he comes out all dressed up in his purple suit. He carefully hangs his maroon tailcoats on a dry fencepost and begins to paint. He works slowly, board by board. Some weeks the fence is a rainbow, sometimes he paints each post a different shade of green. I’ve never seen him finish a job.

Our fence is peeling and white. I asked dad if I could paint it once, and he said sure, that he would pay me for it too. I told him I wanted to paint it like Jonathan’s and lines appeared on his head as he told me to stay away from that crazy man.

I didn’t. I’m more scared of Jamie than I am of Jonathan Crackers.

I followed Jonathan Crackers once. He came down Pine Street and a minute later so did I. Together we crossed to Spruce Way and out of my neighborhood, through the golf course, and into the park where Jamie had his birthday party once. There was cake and running through the sprinklers in our bathing suits until Jamie saw a bee and pitched a fit.

We walked through the trees until Jonathan held up his hand and pointed up. I looked and saw a heron push through the sky and glide down into the marshland beside us. I watched as the beast stood in the water. It regarded me for a moment with frightening grace, then turned his head and began to preen.

When I finally looked away, Jonathan Crackers was gone.

I only saw him once after that, standing out in his yard. Gone were the purple clothes and the can of paint. He couldn’t stop staring at his new white fence. His sister had come up from the city to look after him and paid my brother good money to do the job because when dad asked if I wanted to do it I gave him such a look. Or so he says.

Jonathan left soon after that. Dad said he walked out of the house while his sister was on the phone and never came back. The sister blamed herself, and I blamed her too. She took away his purple and took away his paint and without that there were only the crazy parts left.

They cut down the trees to fill in the marsh and I never saw the heron again.

I don’t know what makes a heron a heron and I don’t know what makes a Jonathan Crackers a Jonathan Crackers. I do know that when they took away the marsh the heron left and when they took away his purple and paint Jonathan Crackers left too.

By the time school starts again there’s the skeleton of an office building on the old marsh. I walk by it every day to our new school. Jamie is king there, loud and mean. I wish I could be Jonathan Crackers, who could walk alone in his own world and not care what people said.

All he needed was paints and purple. I hope he found them again.

I hope I find mine too.

Katherine Peck currently writes in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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