Many kids beat a path to Mr. Long's door because his younger brother went to our school. Knowing Timothy meant we got a good deal, two to five cents being good value for a little brown bag full of licorice, shoe strings, Lemonheads, Banana Splits—you name it, he had them all neatly spread out on a single bed in a front room. Mr. Long didn't smile or say very much, but we looked forward to seeing him on school mornings. We grasped at our orders and he dutifully filled the bags. Michael loved candy and that morning ritual brightened the start of each day. How we got the money is a whole other story that I will reserve for later.
We each protected our brown paper bags of candy like gold and back at the house, inside our bedroom, we all had different hiding places which each brother would try and figure out. My hide-out was under the bed or mattress, and I always got busted, but Michael squirreled his away somewhere good because we never did find it. As adults, whenever I reminded him of this, he chuckled at the memory. That is how Michael laughed throughout his life: a combination of a chuckle, a snicker, a giggle; always shy, often self-conscious. Michael loved playing store: he'd create his counter by laying a board across a pile of books, then a tablecloth, and then he'd spread out his candy. This "store" was set up in the doorway to our bedroom, or on the lowest bunk-bed, with him kneeling behind, awaiting orders. We traded with each other, swapping or using change kept from Mr. Long, or from a nickel found in the street.
But Michael was destined to be an entertainer, not a savvy businessman. That seemed obvious when our father challenged him about getting home late from school one afternoon. "Where were you?" asked Joseph.
"I went to get some candy," said Michael.
"How much you pay for it?"
"How much you going to re-sell it for?"
Joseph clipped him around the head. "You don't re-sell something for the same price you bought it!"
Typical Michael: always too fair, never ruthless enough. "Why can't I give it for five cents?" he said, in the bedroom. The logic was lost on him and he was upset over the undeserved whack on the head. I left him on the bed, muttering under his breath as he sorted his candy into piles, no doubt still playing store in his head.
Days later, Joseph found him in the backyard, giving out candy from across the chain-link fence to other kids from the street. The kids who were less fortunate than us—and he was mobbed. "How much you sell 'em for?" Joseph asked. "I didn't. I gave them away for free."
Eighteen hundred miles away, and more than 20 years later, I visited Michael at his ranch, Neverland Valley, in the Santa Ynez region of California. He had spent time and money turning his vast acres into a theme park and the family went to check out his completed world. Neverland has always been portrayed as the outlandish creation of "a wild imagination" with the suggestion that a love of Disney was its sole inspiration. Elements of this may be correct, but the truth runs much deeper, and this was something I knew immediately when I saw with my own eyes what he had built.