"Laughter And Early Sorrow"
Sam and I would never have a hard time sneaking out of the backyard because of the way backyards were in those days, and perhaps still are. When, after World War Two, the builders came in and drew up lots, they decided that it wouldn’t do to have a big yard out front and a dinky one in the back, for the garbage and such; so they pitched into it on a grand scale and provided a full acre for the homeowner of the future, who’d gotten a college education and had a longer horizon than his own mom and dad, whose center of gravity was in the cellar. (No cellars in these new houses either. Just crawl space enough for the centipedes.) But once a big yard was there, they had to put a fence around it. Fortunately, they built their fences not for sneaky people, but for the dogs the new residents would inevitably have and put out back. The fences were very good for holding dogs. The only way a dog could get out was to either dig under them or weaken them by the sort of head-butting not all dogs are willing to do unless they want to get out real bad. The dogs we had were diggers. We’d watch an emergent tunnel as Bowser or Marbles lay into the ground with forepaws that were controlled by strict cerebral protocols that allowed, not only for efficient digging, but for a moment’s rest now and then. The hole got big real fast, the dog went underneath it, and we chased him around the next yard until we caught him and brought him back. On a couple of occasions, tragedy struck when a dog found the roadway, after which there was no stopping him—at least by us. The two dogs I lost during those years ran into Pontius Street, the big thoroughfare at the time, and were struck down before they could get across it. They were both alive when I found them, and expired shortly afterwards, disbelieving the fate life had dealt out to them. “Lark Becomes Tragedy” would read the headline in a canine-friendly newspaper.
For humans, these fences were a joke. You got a toehold and you helped yourself over them. In the case of the woven pine boards that connected each yard from the back—some developer’s idea of a superior amenity—it was so easy that you had to create obstacles to make it interesting. We’d make rules about not scaling the fence except with one hand behind your back—or with no hands at all. Then we’d get the hang of it and try something more dangerous, like walking all the way across the yard on the soft rim of the fence itself. You could easily fall when you did this; it was therefore a more honorable way to get over. If you fell more than once, how-ever, you were given a passport to the other side. We were not punitive in our methods, just appropriately rigorous, as befits children of a generation that had saved the world for democracy a second time.
Escape was not the problem during a summer’s sleepover. One night I was at Sam’s house and we were dozing in the backyard, underneath the scaly-bark tree Sam could climb and I couldn’t. We planned to escape at two a.m., which would give us enough time to ride to “the site” within an hour and observe it for a while. Then we’d go in, look around for the desk that was apparently crammed with crinkly old documents whose monetary value could not, at present, be known, and then do what we had to do before it got light out and the jig would be up.
So the oven-mitt imagery got re-enforced, and, when we saw Aldro, Sam’s father, approach the tool-shed, I saw him as a lance corporal about to go into a room full of oven-mitts of various colors, sizes, and undistinguished workmanship. Sam was like that. He kept secrets from you in order to have a certain power, and therefore elevated status, in our body politic of two. I guess I could’ve just gone and looked it up, or asked my mom or dad, but that seemed weak somehow. The knowledge would be transmitted from the proper source when I was ready for it.
We really wanted these antique documents. We were about to subsidize a trip all the way down to Florida and knew we needed scratch to get there. Having arrived, we could, of course, live on the beach, but with any new lifestyle change, you really had to have backup. We figured these papers could get us up to a hundred dollars. That would set us up on the beach for a time period I wasn’t prepared to quantify. It would, however, be long enough for us to be forgotten by parents, friends, teachers, and the police—should they take a keener interest in us than they took, according to Sam, in the average runaway. He said that runaways were so common that the statute of limitations on them was very short. The legalistic gravity of the word “statute”, whooshed up with the dignified polysyllables that gave it extra stability, was enough to assure me that he, Sam, fully understood what we would be up against for a time and how we would be rewarded if we were successful.
Sam’s dad kept on coming out there at half-hour intervals. When it got to be around two o’clock, we thought of calling the whole thing off. Aldro had come out at eleven-thirty, then midnight, but had staggered his next visit till after one. Maybe he’d given up. He was an old guy and, because it was a weekend, he slept in till about nine in the morning. He had to have his rest to piddle about in the yard. At fifty, he was a lot older than the dads I knew by name or reputation. He and Sam’s mom had prudently waited till they’d had kids. Had waited till they got the house and the yard. Then waited, for good measure, a few years beyond that. The sort of caution that characterized a generation we put, in our spending habits as well as procreative enthusiasms, conveniently to rout, was passé to us. Yet it had made the world a better place and we were presumably, if not overtly, grateful.
“Maybe we should call this off,” I said, thinking of the oven-mitts in Aldro’s hand. My parents and Sam’s had an arrangement. And while corporal punishment was something I only pretended to understand, it could be administered by either parent should the infraction be horrible enough to warrant it. There was no immunity here, even for me. That lack of immunity was suddenly a big concern. Aldro was not one to spare the rod—or mitt—if one was necessary. Sam said he didn’t want to brag, but he had welts back there. I always said I believed him, for fear of having the welts produced. Not only did I not care to see him naked, but I thought if I had to see the welts into the bargain, I might be obliged, by some sort of esoteric solidarity, to acquire some of my own.
Aldro tires after midnight,” said Sam, imitating his mother, who liked culture and was always re-doing the house. She had Aldro build a whole new kitchen, which she furnished with homespun decorations and crudely made furniture. It occurred to me that the farm wives and prairie women who had made these things couldn’t afford to have a second kitchen and felt badly for them. All that was left of them were a couple of knickknacks a lady who had never worked glanced at now and then and considered herself “artistic” for having done so. Thinking of these long-dead people and their straitened circumstances made me feel guilty, and a little sad.
All the more reason to want Sam to imitate her, which he did, but only when the mood struck him. I tried to egg him toward protracted routines, in which he had Margaret flush the toilet and say “Ah, how refreshing!” or—my favorite—tell Aldro, as she entered the bedroom with something flimsy on, not to “wave that thing at me, dear!” Most kids wouldn’t readily imagine their parents having sex. Sam didn’t seem to mind the concept at all. Or: he thought it so comical that it protected him against its crude and stark reality. I couldn’t help myself. The image of airy Margaret, with her high-minded talk about period this and authentic that, sighting a tumescent organ tickled me to the point that I frittered away countless hours in English and Math trying not to think about Sam imitating her. Sometimes I had to admit defeat and go off by
myself after the last bell rang and laugh till the tears streamed so prodigally, I didn’t bother, whenever they got as far as my neck, to douse them as they followed gravity into my chest-area. In the midst of such a seizure, I walked home by an unfamiliar route so people wouldn’t see me.
“I know Aldro,” said Sam authoritatively. “One’s his abso-lute limit.”
“Aldro tires?” I asked, hoping to cue him.
“Ah, so refreshing!” was Sam’s comeback. I collapsed intomy sleeping-bag, unable to do anything for five minutes.
“Come on. Come on.” Sam was suddenly nudging me with his foot from on high, as I rolled from side to side. “It’s now or never.”
I took a deep breath, had a final bout of hilarity, and got to my feet. Sam led me across the long yard, which Aldro would cut later on that day. Our bicycles were in a tricky spot: alongside the bus-sized kitchen Aldro had half-built himself, but hired a contractor for the finishing touches—which he could not properly visualize no matter how often his wife came at him with a magazine article and shook it. I did not understand the look on his face until somebody asked me to fix a table. When you sit at one, it doesn’t seem very complicated. When one is wobbling and needs to be placemat-ready in a couple of hours, you might as well be asked to repair a flatscreen TV.
If somebody was in the kitchen, he or she could hear us. Aldro had caught us only once, when he’d turned off all the lights and waited in the dark, with the mitts on, and airy Margaret in the bedroom sleeping after having waved his tumescent organ away. (In my mind, she did this at least once every night.)
After seeing that the coast was clear, Sam waved me toward the bicycles, two dinky little Stingrays we had already out-grown, but were small enough, we rationalized, to get us into places no other bikes would. Once we got to them, we stopped. If Aldro came out, we could make a dash across the front of the house, jump the fence, and reclaim the sleeping-bag area before he could get close enough to start waving—yes, waving—the flashlight around. Sam was incredibly fast on his feet. The coaches at school were always trying to get him to run track, but he had such an aversion to all forms of competition that he managed to squeeze out of any formal commitment, any race that was actually planned. I’d make him run now and then just to show some of my athletic friends what a formidable talent he was. One time I even staged a meet after school. For some reason, Sam didn’t mind the idea and casually whipped the field. I didn’t ask him to show off after that.
Aldro had apparently tired after that last visit. As at school, however, it was hard for me not to think about Margaret flouncing out of the bathroom, so I stood very still trying to hold in the laughter while Sam went around front and checked. Aldro could be there at the front door with his flashlight, waiting. But as Sam came back and shook his head—and I swallowed hard against another pitching bout of hilarity—the heist began. As usual, Sam took off into the night and was nearly a block ahead of me by the time I got the kickstand into position and pushed off. After nearly colliding with the wrought-iron post that was said to hold up the carport, I managed to clear the driveway and achieve a cruising speed that was comparable to that of a lumbering animal amidst a svelte array of trimmer, faster quadrupeds who could hit the road running and not slow down until some guy in a safari outfit plugged them. Sam’s incredible running style had been adapted to the sawed-off little bicycles we would not abandon; the best I could ever do was just keep
him within sight. There were times, however, when I had to guess the course and try to ride along with him mentally. I had no idea why he’d want to maintain such a gratuitous lead; he’d eventually reach our destination and have to wait as I came poking in. Perhaps this was his competitive spirit lashing out in a perfectly non-competitive situation. Sam got there first and that was that. It was a two-man ritual that would be enacted, with certain technologically-oriented variations, endlessly.
The course was hard to manage until senses other than sight could serve you. I was often taken aback, as I entered a pocket of it where a stretch of lights had gone out over Station Road, at how dark total darkness could be. Half a mile past that, I happened to look up at a sky that was hard and dome-like, as if it were designed by somebody who was trying to keep us all in. The stars twinkled dimly, and from a distance that did not make any sense to someone who measured out things by feet and yards. Light years: what were they? I sighted Sam over the brow of a distant hill and pedaled faster. We were going to a place out Pontius Street, which had an assortment of fast-food restaurants and failing appliance stores until it blacked out past a big hotel that had been built on that faraway site in a weak moment, when faith, rather than reason, was in control of men’s investment strategies. It was, however, good to see it there, whenever, on a dry run, I could not see Sam, who was down the road about half a mile. I’d never confronted him about leaving me so far behind, but it got me panicky sometimes, like when you feel you know a place and all sorts of unfamiliar things crop up to unseat your believing self and put a vicious skeptic in its place. At such times your sense of the familiar gets skewed, and then somebody comes out from behind the bushes, or a parked car, and starts up with some ghoulish laughter. Or you think he will.
By the time I got to the big hotel, I was in a panicky condition, complicated by the fact that I couldn’t stop thinking about Margaret refreshing herself. I had that funhouse feeling of being terrified, but mocked for being so, in which case there is no comfort at all. You can’t rely on the terror because the mockery is getting to you even more. It’s the most exquisite kind of torture imaginable. Here was Margaret
saying how refreshed she was from sitting on the toilet on a collision course with the sense of existential abandonment that plagues lost mankind, condemning him to a life of pain and suffering without end. And there was Margaret again. And on and on and on.
Somebody was coming out of the hotel and getting into a big car, such as one saw on TV. A Buick or an Oldsmobile. He was all duded-up and glamorous, like he’d just stepped from one of those luxury car ads, and was about to go off and make more of them. His showroom-fresh car was nice and shiny, he stepped into it like a lord, and he drove off down a swooping driveway to the main road, burning rubber discreetly. I noted that he was driving toward Sam, whom I was following mentally, but whose physical existence had little meaning at that point. As I pedaled furiously, I imagined a scenario in which the man at the wheel, having sighted Sam on the road, slowed down so they would be moving alongside one another and suggested, in the dulcet tones of Laurence Olivier, that he should wait for a friend rather than “do this showy thing you’re doing and leaving that poor fellow in the dust. For all you know,” continued the noble Olivier, “this friend of yours could have a debilitating injury that might be hobbling him up. Be a good fellow and see what’s the matter, why don’t you?” And then Olivier picked up speed and drove off toward Germantown, where he would meet with people of noble birth and ancient lineage. And if such people weren’t available, he could keep on driving.
After the big car had swooped down that long driveway, it got dark enough for me to hear the ghoulish howling that is always audible when you leave a large metropolitan area and go straight to the country—as you could then. At long last, I was able to forget about Margaret in the bathroom and feel like we were insignificant earthlings some super-race would come and enslave the following Monday. I called for Sam in the darkness. Which was not the thing to do. In absolute darkness there is a vacuum, into which infinite space comes and sits around like it has deed and title to the place. So if you say somebody’s name in the dark, and into infinite space, it doesn’t even echo. It happens inside of your own head, where it begets massive nuances and disempowering associations. But I knew the road and, while the only thing I could see was the yellow line that kept the bad traffic away from the good, I stayed the course and found myself near the place whose possible riches would enable us to skip town and live among fishnets and sandflies. Sam knew it better than I did. He’d eyed it hungrily from the road when I was playing baseball or doing homework. Sam was an indifferent student and threw like a girl. He had his fearless nature, his running, and his powers of mimicry. As well as the second sight that allowed him to function, and be sane, in the celestial stadium that was Pontius Street at three in the morning.
When I approached the site and found Sam down below it, between the railroad embankment and some low-lying bushes whose tiny thorns always surprised and disheartened me, I thought of Margaret and started giggling. Sam made a can-it sign, which I obeyed as best I could, and slipped down beside him, dragging the bike into the bushes. Which snagged it, of course.
“Just leave it,” he said, alluding to my bicycle.
The sound of his voice, lowered to a stage whisper, startled me, coming, as it did, out of that vacuum.
I jumped. He jumped me, covering my mouth like people do when they ambush somebody and have a movie contract.
I squirmed without success, and was led to the vantage point we’d selected the last time we’d come out. I looked back at my bicycle, whose handlebars glinted in the moonlight—a visible thing that might lead someone to us. I pointed in that direction while Sam shook me off and continued to manhandle me. Well, it was no longer my problem. If the handlebars gave us away, so be it. Let Sam explain what we were doing to the cops, or to the FBI; we would have those priceless documents and there would be questions.
Our precious archive sat well off the road, behind somewhat denser foliage that was at least unbarbed. There was an old neon sign hanging over the gravel driveway that must’ve led people in pursuit of guilty pleasures to ugly little rooms without proper ventilation (let alone minty chocolates on each pillow). Back in the day when there were cheap hotels, that’s all the atmosphere you got. This had been one of them, but the old rooms had been sheared away, leaving a lonesome-looking outpost with no apparent owner or inhabitants.
After releasing me, Sam motioned me forward. Suddenly
independent, I did as directed.
As he reached the gravel driveway, we saw a car approaching from Pontius and dove into the ditch off the shoulder of the road and hid there until it passed. We’d never run into anyone, but this was just the sort of place people on the run were always finding and hanging out in. We were doing it.
Once the car was out of sight, we ran to the door and pushed it open. It gave way with no sound and we were in.
It was the sort of place I had always loved. Tendrils from a long-standing morning-glory came snorkeling in from a casement window. An old desk piled with receipts, rubber stamps, and fountain pens sat underneath it. Its ornate character was out of step with a sleazy old place dedicated to unsavory trysts and illegal fornications. Moonlight seeped in from the window and made everything bluish, like a photograph in 3-D. Sam motioned for me to follow him. I crept behind with a sense of impending disclosure. This had to be The Place. I’d never been in there and couldn’t know what it looked like—though he’d talked about it enough. He had fed my imagination with tales of a high-class mausoleum filled with forgotten things the like of which nobody had ever seen. And some of these things were redeemable for the cold hard cash that would allow us to live in Florida for the rest of our lives!
It was a bad time to be thinking of Margaret. I thought I’d gotten over her being refreshed by that bout at the toilet, but I remembered some of the other things Sam had her do and couldn’t put them out of my mind. There was the one where she and Aldro are smoking cigarettes in bed. She turns to him and says, “That was the most sublime fucking we have ever done, my darling!” and rolls over with a peace that passeth understanding. I got to thinking of that one and it started to choke me so much I had to stagger out of the place and void the laughter that was in me.
The problem with me was that I didn’t have any cool.
When I was with a bunch of other boys and they were telling lies about finding condoms in special drawers or subjecting a sanitary napkin to an all-out scrutiny that was lacking in neither scientific rigor nor pre-adolescent curiosity about form and function, I was the one to giggle. Even when I felt one of these giggles coming on, I couldn’t stop it once it had a coy beginning in my throat and came up honking through the nose. Nobody who was doing bad stuff ever wanted me around because I’d ruin it by losing my cool. Sam was the only person left. He did daring things and would tolerate me watching or helping. I think he must’ve liked the control, just as he liked keeping secrets.
On the other hand, I disgusted him when I did something like what I was doing now. He had already threatened to give up on me if I didn’t snatch self-control out of dawning hilarity. But whether fate is character, or vice versa, it was my fate never, ever, not to laugh or giggle when there was an opportunity for it. I’d be the one in class who kept giggling when everybody else had shut up. There was no stopping me.
Sam charged out of the place looking for me, like an angry father. I had taken myself away from the scene and was heaving my last beside a gas tank that had rusted so picturesquely that the rust seemed painted-on. Washers and dryers were there, along with a shopping cart from a local grocery store—and some milk-crates stamped with the name of a local dairy that had branched out into ice cream. I’d found an appliance graveyard on which I could spare nothing but a sense of shame. Normally, I’d want to commandeer choice specimens, or at least commune with them for a while.
Sam motioned for me to come along, like the father who couldn’t be angry anymore because he’d seen everything.I pointed to the place I’d relinquished, as if to say: “We’re giving up?”
He marched us along, back to his bicycle, which was underneath the thorny bushes; and mine, which was on top. I noticed he was carrying something, but didn’t think about it at the time. I was too ashamed to be observant. I couldn’t even think of Margaret, whose unclad image had taken me to such heights of unreasoning appreciation. How did he come up with this stuff? And why did I have to think of it right then—just as we were closing in on the stash that would get us down to Florida for the Life of Riley forevermore?
Naturally, I didn’t see Sam after the first leg of our journey home. Now that I knew the route better, it didn’t matter as much. Nor did it seem to take as long to get back as it did to get out there.
We got back at about five o’clock—more than enough time to get settled before the sun came up. There were a couple of unknowns, of course. It was possible that Aldro had gotten a second wind and come out with the flashlight after we’d gone. In which case he’d be sitting up for us, with the light in one hand and an oven-mitt in another. The idea of corporal punishment from a strange and possibly sadistic father began to upset me and I dawdled a bit on Station Road, where our old school was, hoping I might find something (other than returning to that house) to do.
But that was no good. If Sam were there with his father, I’d have to be there with him. I’d watch as he, Sam, got the fiercely unpartisan licks that were coming to him; and then assume the bent-over position to receive mine, with my absentee parents’ blessing, for whom off-site corporal punishment—if it were seen as the appropriate means of rehabilitating me—was perfectly okay.
There were no lights on inside the house as I approached and hit the driveway, which slewed you up it if you were going too fast. I managed to remember this and slowed down before I could hit the family car. I dismounted, wheeled the bike over to the correct spot, parked it there, and waited for a moment just to make sure Aldro wasn’t hiding somewhere in the darkness with his flashlight.
When I was satisfied that the coast was clear, I tiptoed across the backyard over to the sleeping-bag area and found Sam there, apparently dead to the world, with a box of something tucked underneath his arm. I said his name, then shook him a little. Nothing. The box was made of wood and had the name of a cigar-maker on it, with a statuesque woman playing on a harp. I looked at the woman for a moment and wondered what she’d say to her husband if he shook his thing at her and then thought of what Margaret did and, without trying at all, was curled up into a ball shaking with the kind of adrenalated laughter the trip should have drubbed out of me. Perhaps it was the sheer relief of having gotten back, as
it were, without incident. Perhaps it was the phenomenon of laughter itself, which has a life of its own and plays itself out when it’s good and ready. Perhaps it was more than that, or a combination of the two. I don’t know. This time, how- ever, the laughter had gotten all the way down into me and could only be pulled out by doing. Sam stirred after I had spread out a bit in the yard and was releasing jet-like spurts of it as I went. He came over to me and looked, as if I were something he would have to strike over the head for its own good. Then he realized that he had the box and hid it inside of his sleeping bag. I was trying to tell him, I can’t help it, I can’t help it, but couldn’t utter a word. All I had to do was think of Margaret asleep there in the house and I’d sputter out a throaty something I’d never heard myself doing until that moment.
“What’s wrong with you?” was all Sam said to me as he went to meet Aldro, who’d turned on the lights in the over-sized kitchen. He flipped on the light to the back porch as he came out, in a pair of baggy pants he’d obviously thrown over his pajamas. Here was Aldro with the oven-mitts who wouldn’t stop shaking his thing and fucked sublimely. I wanted to say: You know I’d think of these side-splitting images in my spare time and come up with them at the worst possible moment. You know I’m the first to giggle in class when there’s absolute silence, with an absolute premium on shutting up, and with absolute ostracism as the result. You know me and yet you put these thoughts and images into my head!
When Aldro came out I’d composed myself somewhat, but was still laughing. He and Sam studied me as if I were the sort of aberration they’d been warned about, but had not seen before and should approach with caution—or with a stick.
“What’s wrong with him?” asked Aldro.
“I don’t know. We were sleeping and he had this fit.”
“A fit, huh?”
“He’s been doing this for two solid hours.”
Sam’s reading of my situation was accompanied by the sort of head-shaking that occurs when the subject is pronounced hopelessly round-the-bend and is about to be taken away.
“Ever since...maybe three.”
“Three hours like this?”
“He generally tires easily,” said Sam, for my benefit—which brought on another body-shaking volley. Why was he doing this? I would’ve stopped by now. But the sight of Aldro there shaking the flashlight at me—shaking anything—was enough to regenerate the whole gestalt.
“I don’t think he’ll hurt himself,” said Aldro, who fucked sublimely.
“Nah, I wouldn’t think so.”
“You look after him, okay?”
“And try to get some sleep yourself. You’re going to be very tired in the morning.”
“I have. Gotten some sleep, I mean. The mosquitoes, they got me up first. It wasn’t him.”
“’Night, Dad. See you tomorrow.”
Having fucked sublimely all night.
I did stop after a while, and felt extremely tired afterwards. Margaret and her bathroom epiphany no longer stirred me; her pillow talk had no sway; her decorating prowess was merely pitiable. Sam was asleep, with the cigar box next to him. Sam was a very heavy sleeper as a rule, so I realized this was my chance to look inside of the box we’d both gone out to that strange and fascinating place to get. If the crinkly documents were there, we’d go to Florida at an opportune moment after school started and never come back.
Purged of the irresistible hold Margaret and Sam, her spin-doctor, had on me, I went over to look. The box was sitting on a patch of dew-spangled grass, well away from the sleeping bag—an easy trophy if there ever was one. I went over to it and looked inside for the crinkly documents that would save us from a life of tedium in the suburbs and found nothing but a scrap of paper that appeared to be torn from one of the spool-bound notebooks we did our lessons in. I reached in to get it, turned it over, and it said: “How refreshing!”
There was no laughter in me, only the fatigue that comes after a cathartic experience or a somehow disappointing one. Now that the sun was up, I decided to go home. I could come and get the things I’d left later on in the day.
And that’s what I did, except that I took the scrap of paper and wove it through the spokes in Sam’s front tire, like you did with baseball cards if you weren’t serious about collecting them. I think it was the first time I was ever jaded—even if I didn’t know what the word meant and might not have understood it if I did.
As I rode down the deserted streets and watched the sun brighten up all the fudgy areas I’d passed earlier on, I tried to think of Margaret again in the same way, couldn’t, and nearly cried. Something powerful had lost its edge, forfeited meaning, taken the low road in and the high road out. I didn’t want to go to Florida anymore; nor did I want to go home. I wanted to wander around for a while, all by myself, and enjoy the last few days of summer, when life is suspended and waiting: when you’re expected to be someplace, but can let it ride for a day or two and not think about it.