Mr. Gill smells like soap. Not in a bad way, you understand; Mr. Gill does not smell like soap in the same way a public bathroom does. Rather, he smells like one of those expensive bars of soap, the kind that comes in a little packet and feels like a chunk of soft ivory when you squeeze it in between your fingers, so firm in your grip that it’s hard to believe something like lukewarm bathwater could ever make it dissolve. I like to imagine Mr. Gill smells so much like soap because he goes through a bar every week, fastidiously scrubbing his entire body, wrinkles and all, once every morning and again every evening till he’s perfectly clean. His skin certainly looks clean, anyway; it is the deep brown color of a roasted chestnut and shines like diorite when struck by the sun.

“Mr. Gill,” I say as he slides into the driver seat of his old SAAB beside me, “where are we going today?”

“That depends,” he replies with that plangent voice of his, “on how you did on that math test this morning.”

“My dad told you?”

He nods slyly. Because my parents work late on Friday afternoons, Mr. Gill, our next door neighbor, looks after me.  “I’m old enough that I’ve got nothing better to do on Friday night,” he told me once, making the wrinkles around his eyes ripple like a basset hound’s, “and besides, I like the company.

            “I got a B,” I tell him honestly. Lying to Mr. Gill is impossible. He says he can smell lies on the air and, frankly, I believe him.

“A B, huh?” He strokes his chin and nods thoughtfully. “You got a B, huh? Well, a B is better than a C which is a helluva’ lot better than an F. When I was in fourth grade like you, all I ever got was C’s. So, boy, I figure I’ll let you call the shots today. You point and I’ll drive.”

“We can go anywhere?”

“I’ve got half a tank of gas.” He taps the dashboard. “We can go as far as that’ll get us.”

I consider my options and point decisively. “Ice cream,” I announce. “Let’s get ice cream.”

“Ice cream,” he mutters. “Boy can go anywhere in the world and he goes straight to ice cream.”

“You don’t like ice cream?”

He smiles sadly. “When you’ve got diabetes, you’re not allowed to like anything anymore. ‘Specially ice cream.”

With a thrumming purr, Mr. Gill brings the old SAAB to life and drives slowly away from the Wightwood School, his big hands circumnavigating the wheel with the dexterous instinct of a man who has been piloting the same car for nearly three decades. His car, like him, smells sweetly of soap.

We cruise along through the rural countryside of central Connecticut, clumps of houses and bosks of elms gradually tapering away into meadows, horse paddocks, barley fields, and sunflower patches that coruscate brilliantly in the afternoon sun. Spring wanes into summer all around us and grackles alight on the telephone wires above, dotting the lines at steep angles like musical notes along a staff.

“Ugly birds,” Mr. Gill mutters. “Ugly, ugly, ugly. Look like they’ve been soaked in oil.”

“Are they pests?”

“Pests?” He scoffs. “I never had a bird bother me ‘cept seagulls. Park anywhere near the beach and they shi-” He catches himself and laughs, winking at me. “They’ll treat your car like their own personal Porta-John, is all I mean. Lorie used to be real fond of birds, boy. You remember Lorie?”

I do not, but I nod anyway.

He laughs. “She died before you were even born.” Lies on the air.

“Well,” I offer, “I like to pretend I can remember her from all the things you’ve told me.”

“That’s fine, boy, just fine.” He smiles at me. His teeth may be fake but I can’t help but admire them. “Nice thing of you to say. Sure, she used to be real fond of birds. You know that rusty old birdfeeder behind my house?”

“Sure I do.”

“Well, every morning, rain or shine, even in three foot of snow, swear to God, that woman would trudge out there and fill that feeder up with suet like it was her job. And, I’ll tell you, she used to talk about it like it was her job, too. She’d sit by the picture window lookin’ out at the feeder and say, We’re getting traffic, today. Traffic. You believe that? And if the birds were pretty that day, cardinals and finches and whatnot, she’d sometimes even go back out and refill the feeder.”

“What about grackles, Mr. Gill?”

“Hell no!” He slaps the steering wheel with the palm of his hand and shakes his head vigorously. “The way she talked about grackles and jays and pigeons, you’d think they were her mortal enemies. But she still fed ’em, all the same. Imagine that.”

“Why don’t you feed ’em anymore?” I demand. I have never seen Mr. Gill do anything in his backyard except play horseshoes.

He shrugs. “Lorie used to get up early in the morning and do it. By the time I get my old ass out of bed, I’m already playing catchup with the whole day, no time for no damn birds.”

I scowl and fold my arms. “I think you should. Those birds are probably wondering what happened to all that food. They’ll go hungry.”

“That right?” He laughs huskily. “Well, you tell your mommy she’s got plenty of space in her backyard to keep those pests fed. Now, where do you want ice cream from? Rose’s Orchard or the Stop and Shop?”

“Rose’s Orchard smells like llamas,” I tell him, wrinkling my nose.

“Stop and Shop it is,” he sings. “I gotta’ pick up my medicine anyway. You want to know how you really know when you’re old, boy?”

“Sure I do.”

“When your pharmacist knows you by name, that’s how you know when you’re old.”

The SAAB speeds along through the sun soaked world shimmering with the amber hues of stalks of barley and wheat till at last we round a bend and our local Super Stop&Shop comes into view. To the residents of any small town, the local grocery store is about as familiar and cathartic a sight as it gets: the squat beige building, the garish red letters, the shopping carts scattered across the parking lot and the unfortunate young man in the green vest chasing them all down. Today, however, something is different. Something is off. A throng of people has gathered outside the store, right in the spot the girl scouts and the boy scouts usually compete to sell their treats. But these are no girls selling cookies.

“They look like ghosts,” I muse. And so they do: long white robes, masks with eyeholes cut shoddily in the fabric, tall conical hats. Some are holding signs, some are shaking their fists. Whatever it is they are doing, they seem excited to be doing it.

“Ghosts, boy?” Mr. Gill scowls. “You know who they are. You learned about them in your history class. It ain’t Halloween.”

He’s right. Their costumes are all too familiar. Suddenly, I am frightened. “What are they doing?” I ask.

“Who knows? Demonstrating, I imagine.”

“Demonstrating what?”

“Whatever they please, boy. I can’t imagine it’s very friendly.”

“Mr. Gill,” I plead, “let’s just go to Rose’s.”

“What about the llama smell?”

I grasp his arm and shake it. I’m frightened of those men in the white hats, frightened of what they’ll do when they see Mr. Gill, of what they’ll do to mewhen they see me with him. I am ashamed for feeling like that but I cannot help it. “I don’t care about the llamas!” I insist. “Please, I don’t want to go here.”

He parks the car in a handicap spot, unbuckles his seatbelt, and turns to me. His eyes seem to bulge out of his head. I can’t tell if he’s angry or frightened. “What you got to be scared of? I’m right here with you. They ain’t gonna hurt a little white boy. Hell, they ain’t gonna hurt anybody. This is Connecticut, son, not Alabama. They’re just a bunch of nutjobs blowing off steam.”

“They don’t like black people, Mr. Gill,” I say.

“No, they don’t. Do you like black people?”

“You’re the only one I know.”

“And do you like me?”

“Sure I do. You know that. But they won’t. We should call the police, Mr. Gill. They aren’t allowed to–”

“I’ll tell you what, boy,” he says sharply, “they sure as hell areallowed to.”

“Being racist is wrong,” I tell him.

“Wrong, maybe. But it ain’t against the law. Never should be, neither.”

“It should be.”

“Should be?” He laughs wryly and pokes me in the forehead. “Don’t they teach you anything at that school? Man’s got a right to believe and say whatever he pleases, so long as he don’t lay his hands on anybody. You think a black man needs special laws saying nobody can say nothing mean to him?”

“I don’t know.”

“Let me tell you. We don’t.”

“They’re evil,” I mutter.

“Sure, maybe they are. Do I think they’re a bunch of piece-of-shit, God-fearing, racist assholes? Sure I do. But they ain’t breaking any laws and neither are we. You understand that, boy? We’re gonna go in, get us some ice cream and medicine, and come right back out again. Just like that.”

Without waiting for an answer, he unbuckles my seatbelt and shews me out of the car. He takes my hand and we walk towards the store together. “Why do they wear masks, Mr. Gill?”

“Why do you think? They’re embarrassed, of course.”

“Won’t they say something terrible?”

“I doubt it.”

“What if they do?”

“Well, then we’ll say something right back. It’s our right the same as it is theirs.”

“What will we say?”

He squeezes my hand. “You decide. No cursing.”

My mind races. I am at a loss, panicking, afraid of letting Mr. Gill down. But, as we pass the ghosts, they don’t seem to even notice us. They are busy listening to a man yelling into a bullhorn. Soon, we are inside. Mr. Gill buys his medicine and two ice cream cones, one for each of us, he says, although I am positive he will offer me at least half of his.

When we emerge from the store, the ghosts have moved off down the road. They are marching past the package store, now. “And you were frightened,” Mr. Gill teases me. “Hey, you want the rest of my cone?”

We drive back to Mr. Gill’s house. The trip is long and silent. I cannot tell he is angry, frightened, or proud. The car smells of leather and Mr. Gill smells of soap.

I wait for my parents in his fusty old parlor, staring out the picture window, imagining Mrs. Gill, Lorie, trudging outside every morning to fill the feeder up with suet. Across the room, ensconced in his easy chair, Mr. Gill glances up from his newspaper and sees me staring. “What’re you looking at, boy?”

“The birdfeeder. No traffic.”

He looks at his watch. “We got about a half hour before your folks arrive.”

“Can we?” I am delighted.

Soon, we’re outside. Methodically, he unscrews the rusted feeder from its pole. I hold an old sack of suet while he scoops some of the seed in.

We watch from afar, camouflaged by the rhododendrons, as birds swoop down from the eaves above to feed. “Traffic,” I announce proudly. “What kind are they?”

“Red one’s a cardinal.” He points a long, chestnut finger. “Yellow ones are goldfinches. And there’s starlings, of course, and a titmouse, and a big old blue jay, they’re real mean, and, hell, even a couple grackles. How’s that song go? All God’s creatures, a place in the choir. Grackles. Imagine that.”

Evan DeCarlo’s story “A Place in the Choir” won second prize in the Fourth Annual School of Visual Arts Writing Program Contest. Evan’s story “The Faraway” won first prize in the spring of 2014. He is a senior in the Screenwriting Program at SVA, and is the author of the Children of Noah trilogy of young adult novels. You can find out more about his work at www.evandecarlo.com