|Finalist 2015 Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize|
So not but a week after the funeral and this thing, this crazy thing that happens. I’m trekking through Midtown – no temp job that day – past CBS Headquarters. You know, Black Rock. You’ve seen the pictures: black as a burnt marshmallow, thirty-eight floors of granite, kind of a cross between the Tower of Sauron and that mystery slab of interplanetary licorice got the chimps so ginned up in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
It’s lunch-break at high tide, crowd so thick it tumbles out across the intersection, not in a cascade like spilled rice, but chockablock, in chunks, as if calved off a glacier where it meets the sea. Two years in the city but only now am I beginning to realize that I am not Paganini’s Violin Concerto in A Minor, the lost Rembrandt, the Flambeau a l’Orange garnished with Spears of Cilantro and imported hand-whipped Tangelo Topping. I am not a novel. No. I am a punctuation mark, a bubble, a blip in a crystalline grid. I try to sling the backpack off my shoulder but I’m pinned at the elbows and swept along, pushed up the curb and into that fresh boil of people pouring out the building. Somewhere down here beneath my (bobbing-along-with-the-other-heads) head, down below this sea of shoulders rocking back and forth in the sun, the bottom half of my body surrenders to the tide.
Say you take the state of Texas, shake the cattle loose, and then fold it in half. Then in half again, then again and again however many times till you get all those millions of people stacked up on top of one another –you know, vertically integrated, some billion bullion cubes all pounded down into a hunk of rock you plop, drop into the middle of this river where it meets the sea. That’s Manhattan. A modernified version of the Lone Star State with all the wilderness sucked out of the equation – all them buffalo and jackalope and armadillo sledge-hammered down into a slab of spam, all them cow-pokes and strip clubs and alfalfa silos sucked up into a teaspoon of subatomic niblets, like on the surface of a neutron star. Bracing. Breath-taking. And – since you can pack, per square inch, more tuna into a tin than you can into an ocean – the height of efficiency.
Cowabunga, right? Unless you happen to be the tuna. A fat guy in a pinstripe suit – you know, all buttoned up like a Christmas ham – stops to hail a cab, rocks backward, body-checks me into a pretzel stand. Flash of perfume as I rebound again, as I bump another soft-as-a-blossom secretary, impale myself on the heels she carries to wear at the office, rebound back into the billion-legged crush.
I trip over a cardboard suitcase looped shut with a belt, bumper past the kid on guard above it. Skinny kid, Nigerian or Haitian, slipped like a coat hanger into some kind of skid row polyester Zoot Suit. Bare ankles, beat-up old Oxford Wingtips, packing twine for laces. Smells like a bouquet of wet cardboard. He climbs up onto a fire hydrant to hawk his wares. A head taller than the crowd now, he whips his hands up into the air as if to stir it.
“Um-brel-lah, um-brel-lah, two dollah, two dollah…”
It starts to rain.
“… um-brel-lah, three dollah, three dollah, um-brel-lah…”
I can’t seem to unstick myself from the shoulders of the people around me. Wildebeest stampeding up a riverbank, that’s what we are — I think as I break stride, as I fall back a step — meals on wheels. And that’s when the guy with the clipboard hooks me by the sleeve. You’ve seen the documentary. It’s always the infant, the aged, the injured the croc strikes first. Says he’s got tickets to a show — focus group screening, CBS sitcom, invitation only.
Invitation? For me? Population of a whole village flits by in the second it takes me to scratch my nose. The earth skids on another thousand miles through the black. The odds are astronomical. That I should be the one grain of pollen plucked out of this avalanche and held aloft for all to see, that I should find myself a member of that most exclusive of all clubs, the Random Sample?
“Got your ticket right here.” He tilts the clipboard to show me the goods, slides his thumb back and forth across the CBS logo pressed into the linen bond. “Free.”
The rest of the group he’s already assembled, a dozen or so of the crème de la crème who follow him out the crowd and into this alley, this cut-out between the skyscrapers. Grammy and Pops in the lead, knuckles all a-tremble as they toddle up the curb, as they clack-clack-clack together like a set of salt and pepper shakers; behind them, this Mommy/Baby combo with a hand-woven sling, all cinnamon-twisty-ed together into a tight little pastry; then ground zero, yours truly; then this big block of a guy in work boots and blue khakis, followed by a batch of chub-a-tubby middle-agers, snapped and clipped and velcroed together into swatches and sweats and elasticized fanny packs that vibrate when they walk, then the rearguard, the typical city fare — potpourri of tourists in sunhats and shades and lemon-yellow sneakers, all gaping up at that crust of sky between the rooftops as if Jesus himself were about to jump.
We gather in the shade of the tower.
“Watch your step,” says Clippy, and then: “Oh.” Everybody stops. He glances down at the torn leather jacket slung over my shoulder. “And don’t forget to leave the motorcycle behind.” This gets a laugh.
“I don’t have a motorcycle,” I say.
“Looks like helmet hair to me.” He reconnoiters the fizz, the frozen explosion up over my ears. “My mistake.”
“Bomber jacket,” I say.
“Fifth Avenue. That’s where we park the bombers.”
The group laughs – no. Strike that. Explodes. Brick through a bay window, laugh inside of the center of which I stand. I smile. Clippy pirouettes slowly inside this stir that he’s created, pushes open the wrought iron gate, ushers us inside. I smile. I picture those teddy bear mascots truckers decorate their rigs with. I picture Clippy stripped to his skivvies, bungee-corded to the grill, crispy-crittered right up to his little button eyes with insects and tar bits and random flecks of roadkill. I smile.
As we shuffle down the walk, one of the tourists, lady with dogs on her shirt, friendlies up to me.
“Are you from around hee-er?” The dogs are purebreds, all the top flavors and not cartoon dogs either, but serious, intent, like the presidents on the dollar bills. “You look like you’re from around hee-er.”
Mee-chigan’s where she’s from, land of the squashed e. Into my eyes is where she looks but I look down at the bulldog on her collar, at Winston Churchill there glaring back at me. President Churchill.
“Well, yes. I mean…” I spend so much time alone now I tend to fumble the small talk. Note to self: stop leaving notes to self. “I mean, no.”
“No? Not from hee-er?”
Not the same here, her here and my here. In China they sing-song ten different meanings from out the very same word. It’s all in the pitch. And you gotta warm up first. And God help the tone deaf. The roast shoe. I will have the roast shoe.
“What I mean is, not exactly here.”
“But around hee-er?”
She’s thinking up the hill over yonder by the Mill Pond. At twelve hundred bucks a square foot I’m thinking, just the imprint of my shoelace hee-er would set me back a month’s pay. “No not here, but from the city, sure. Upper West Side.”
“Oh.” She cocks her head to one side and smiles up at me. Too old to flirt now – you know, the big eyes, the head toss, the tumble hair that girls deploy to win the hearts of men – but not too old to work the smile, to squeeze out that last little drop of charm.
“Step it up now,” says Clippy as he unlocks another gate and then plunges us, one by one, through a big brass revolving door and into an empty lobby. Strike that. Lobby filled with air. Black arches booming up and – as in a cathedral – out across the cavern to meet the black granite girders overhead.
“The West Side… ?” She smiles and glances up at the ribs of steel that hold the skylights in place, the chunks of cloud that go skidding by. “The West Side. Which way is that?”
“The Upper West Side.” I lift my hand into the pointing position. Tough to find a landmark when you’ve got no land to mark. We could be in Uruguay for all I know. I turn back to Pedigree, wave in the general direction of the sun. “Up that way. That’s where I live.”
“No, no. A bunch of us share – ”
“You look so young.”
Again she smiles. I redden. I open my mouth to say… what? That I don’t look young? That I’ll try, that I should aim to be… what? More older? I smell the sunblock on her cheeks as she steps closer, count the spikes of gray in her hair. Kind of motherly-looking, verging on grandmotherly, but not so bad to look at probably, back in the day, you know, when her skin fit, when gravity was her friend, when the men would all triangulate her position on the xyz coordinates.
“But that’s okay,” she whispers. She pats me on the sleeve – more like an airbrush than a touch – as she glances up into my eyes. “I think it’s sweet.”
Sweet. Sweet is what girls call you when they pinch you between their thumb and forefinger and dust you off into their cappuccino. Sweet is what motherly women call you when they dab at the whiskey stain on your tie and promise to fix you up with somebody intrepid, the magic word that shrinks you down to HO scale so you can be hot glued onto somebody else’s train set.
“Here,” she says. “You could use this.” She’s holding up a discount card, the kind they stick under hotel doorways. “It’s a two-for-one. You get a dozen bagels. For free.”
“Up by me. Best bagels in town.”
“That’s perfect then.”
“But you should – ”
“No-no. We’re leaving town tomorrow.”
“But you could – ”
“No-no. I want you to have it. You and your friends could – here.”
She cups my hand from underneath, pries the fingers open, presses the card into my palm.
“You and your friends – ”
“We’ll have a bagel party. Thanks.”
I pocket the card, try to picture myself with friends. Sweet she calls me. And they say cattle don’t mind being branded? I know you’re supposed to smile when somebody calls you sweet. I get it. I smile. Smile but on the inside I buzz like a beehive whacked with a stick. Back in second grade again is what I am, propped up on a window ledge outside Miss Conner’s room, varnished in sweat, squirming with chiggers, garnished with Cheeto dust and sandspurs and a speckling of gnats, scab on my knee curling up like a radish peel and, head-to-toe, basted with a hand-dipped mélange of mucilage, play dough, asphalt, pine sap, creosote, Kool-Aid, Six-12, sour milk, fig Newton, chalk dust and snot. Miss Conner reaches up to brush the flecks of candy corn from my hair. “You are just the sweetest boy.”
Spoiled for life. Haunted by the notion that there lives in me a sweetness that I am somehow answerable for. I see it in other people all the time. We’ve all of us got the curse. We are each of us convinced, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that the sweetest piece of real estate in the universe can be found somewhere – if only we could find it – tucked inside of ourselves. And that would be… where, exactly? Childhood gone and nothing to show for it, youth half spent, the moment here gathered in a sieve. Where did the sweetness go?
There’s a jam-up back at the revolving door. Grandma’s got her tote bag stuck between the curve of the glass and the rubber sleeve of the doorframe.
“Stay put,” says Clippy as he hustles out a side door. The crowd stirs. A pudgy little tourist presses through with the hubby in tow. She bobs up out the chop like a buoy, hefty and plush and orbicular, the both of them in their marshmallowy sneaks and pumpkiny jog-togs like bread on the rise, like bumpers, the Bumper Twins, to clear the way for Grandma.
Grandma tugs at the strap. Still got it hooked to her elbow, yanks like she’s snagged it on a folding lawn chair and not a billion ton monolith. There’s this blocky guy in Bermuda shorts, got his hand wedged in the rubbery flap. Grunts. Grunts again. “Don’t touch the door,” he says, cuts through the din with this splintery voice, raw, brass horn with a blown valve. “Don’t push!” Red’s the word for this guy – buzz cut blonde, Rolex the size of a Mayan sundial, fat calf in a quiver up out of that genuine leather moccasin.
Somebody jolts me from behind. Just get a glimpse as he flashes by. Slim guy. Tall. His T-shirt smells of grilled onions and cold beer. He’s got a face like a broken cookie and a strange little hitch to his walk, as if all those years in the sun had warped him right down to the chassis.
“Stand back! Everybody stand back!” says Red, but the tall guy he slides in there, smooth-like, to unravel Grandma’s elbow. He skates her out the way and then fierce – like you crack a whip – yanks the bag free. Whoa. Grandpa drops the umbrella he’s been pointing with. Tall Guy picks it up, swirls it back together with a twist of his fingers, hands Grandma her bag, Grandpa his umbrella. A cocktail umbrella is what they really need, you know – delicate, like a blossom, like they should be floating in a little thumb-sized outrigger at the bottom of a Mai-Tai.
Something about the height of the dome, the emptiness, the echo of the hubbub unsettles me. I skirt the edges, slip out of sight into gap between the pillars, out between the ribs of the dome and into a little anteroom no bigger than a pantry. I slide up onto a metal stool, the only seat. Just room enough for a window, window sill, radiator box – wood-framed and white-washed, all of it, even the glass even, like a sheet of spilled milk. The paint puckers where the sun hits the glass but on the inside, in the chalky light that stirs the shade, it’s cool.
While the others bustle around I drop the pack and slide the bomber jacket up over my shoulders to drape it there… you know, the sleeves empty, my body the hanger. Then, with my hands on the lapels, I slide down into the hollow of the coat itself, just so, like people when it rains, you know, caught out in the open, they pull the jacket like a cowl up over the head? Anybody sees me I pretend, oh, just shaking off the rain is all.
The seams of the leather, rough where the lining used to be, rake up over my cheekbones and, well, raw would be the word it, this stupid jacket. Portable glory is what Dad called it. V-E Day he swapped a Lugar for it. What the Bombardier wanted was a bona fide (beyond the flack in his thighbone) piece of Kraut memorabilia, whereas Dad – having busted his nuts across the hedgerows of Normandy – wanted something more poetical than a hunk of steel. “Besides,” he said as we waited for the bus to steal me off to college, “if you want to be more than a grunt, if you want the girls to picture you, you know…” – he gestured up at the clouds, openhanded sweep like you brush the flanks of a horse – “… you gotta look the part.” Damn straight. Don’t have to fly to look like a flyer is what he meant, is how he pictured himself. All leathery and buff as he rainbows up over the horizon. But that’s my old man for you. Was my old man. Not so big on words, no. Clapped his arm up over my shoulders and, so as not to embarrass me, looked out to where (and for the same reason) I was looking: the burst of red neon up there on the pillar where the buses converge, the leap of the greyhound up out of the gate. Talk about awkward, but hell. Sometimes just not moving, just standing there where you stand, that’d be an action, right? And then the bus came, and then he hesitated, and then – I could tell it was the impulse of the moment – stripped off his jacket. “Don’t worry,” he said as he tossed it up over my head like a serape. “You’ll grow into it.”
The radiator smells like the underside of a pier. I loosen my grip on the jacket, drop it back over my shoulders.
“Restrooms this way,” says Clippy off to the far side, the group at his heels, clipboard clap-clapping his squidgetty hips in a march up the steps to a little mezzanine. “Ten minutes.”
I don’t even notice, at first, that the jacket’s fallen, so lost am I in whatever this is that I’m lost inside of, this little patch of darkness I portage around with me. You wouldn’t know trouble if it pooped in your pocket is what he used to say. Talk about a eulogy. Or on the gravestone, yeah. That would’ve gotten him. He would’ve laughed at that. I press my palms up into my face, palms like a parenthesis, wait for the wave to pass. I reach down for the jacket, and now when I stoop I see, up under the ledge there, where the stone window sill lips out over the radiator box, just room enough to slide a hand, this little packet. I reach in, pinch the edges, pull it out into the light: Chocolate bar the size of a shingle, shiny and smooth and slippery-ed up onto the cover of an old magazine—Dungeons and Dragons, Issue 27. “Top Ten Spells” it says. “Killer Moves.” “Dazzle Your Team.” The cover shot’s a big black and red volcano that bubbles over with a molten gold that, as it spills down the flanks, spells out, “Secrets of the Elvin Horde.”
I’m trying to imagine what kind of old ex-cop security guard would stock the bunker with all this Medieval geekery and, at the same time, a slab of Ghirardelli’s 72% Cacao Twilight Delight Intense Dark Chocolate. Pocket handkerchief guy, I’m guessing. Crispy boutonniere. Sings opera in the shower. Shines up his bullets every night with linseed oil and a clean shammy cloth. And treats himself to… now that’s odd. The bar looks intact, but half the chocolate’s gone. The hollow wrapper’s been nicely – primly, that would be the word – slid back into the sleeve. Not a crease or even a dent in the foil, as if the missing half had – like the mysterious hollow you get sometimes in the center of a malted milk ball – simply evaporated out into the universe at large. Almost magical… I think as I liberate the last of the chocolate, ease the foil back into the wrapper and, just as primly, slip the magazine and the wrapper back into their little crevasse… Like an offering to the gods.
Clippy’s voice echoes out from behind the columns as the herd migrates into my territory, the Bumper Twins in the lead. “… And even though, in the pre-war era, it was radio that dominated the airwaves…”
This must be the ceremonial entrance. Outside around the block, on the other side of the building, the CBSer’s – the people who pump out the product – buzz back and forth en mass through an archway the size of an airport hanger. All that bustle. All that fizz, fizz that fills the airwaves from one end of the continent to the other. Empire of the Air is what they call it.
I gather my pack, slide off the stool, and (gingerly, as if on ice) step back onto the flagstone. Here we are in the still center of the empire, the Westminster Abby of the Broadcasting Imperium. I look for the plaques of bronze upon the walls, the urns of all the old guard stashed underfoot, the bones bricked over. You know, splinters from the cross: toenail clippings from Rin-Tin-Tin; Ed Sullivan baked into a flying buttress; Lassie’s ashes and Lucy’s red locks and Edward R. Murrow finally stubbed out, grinded down into an ashcan no bigger than a coffee mug and stuffed like a potato up under the granite pavers.
“… because here at the CBS family of broadcasting affiliates,” says the disembodied voice of Clippy as they go trip-tropping along the rim. “We’ve always looked upon our little slice of the TV dial as a public trust…”
Nothing. Sleek as a silo but for one thing. All by itself under the dome stands a bust on a pedestal. As the shadows strike it, the face – burnt by the years to a darker bronze – falls away. All but the nose. The nose is gleaming. So many people have touched – keep touching – the nose, that that’s the only part that still shines. Poor bastard, nose up there all aglow like a priest with a couple rum toddies under his belt. Guy spends his whole life mapping the Northwest Passage or nailing the Triple-Lutz in the tucked position, and all we get in the end is the tip of the nose, this little nibble, this little chip of light.
Like back in the days of the vacuum tube, when you’d click on the set and ping, out of the darkness would pop – like the blip that set the big bang in motion – this little chunk of punctuation, this white dot that’d flatten out, squish down, shoot off to the left and to the right in a single line, sharp as a laser, to cut the void in half. The screen would hum. You’d lean in. The line would flutter and then – boom – spring open like a Jack-In-The-Box with a whole new universe inside.
“Please don’t touch the artwork,” Clippy calls out from his perch on the stool I’d just abandoned, the group all gathered around him, his voice a perfect blend of melodious nanny and puppy-peed-on-the-carpet-again fatalism. All eyes on me.
“It looks like – ” My thumb’s already there, so I scratch the itch, give the nose a rub.
“That’s it. Cronkite. Walter Cronkite. Wasn’t he – ”
“Thirty thousand tons of granite went into the construction of this dome,” says Clippy as he turns away and swings hippo-like down from the stool, heavy but at the same time precise, as if he were, one step at a time, embossing the pavement with a sign of his passing. The group looks up as he points to the pillars of sunlight overhead, at this majesty to which I have already contributed my 00.00004371 percent. “The support beams and the cladding, both. Granite, all granite.”
He shoulders through the thick brass door that swings out into the booming lobby. The group sweeps in behind him. “Welcome to CBS.”
As they disappear through the doorway, I glance back at the bust, blink and blink again, try to match the face fixed there with that animated flipbook of Cronkite we’ve all assembled from years of viewing. Like a frozen waterfall, that bust.
I hustle up behind Pedigree as we skirt the edge of the lobby – buzzing with traffic, big enough to berth a dirigible – past a big black reception desk, then on to a black marble elevator marked Employees Only.
I squeeze in just as the door closes. Belly to belly. Up into the clouds we go. Clippy tracks the light as it slowly pings across the numbered squares above us. It is his job to will the machine upwards. He tries to turn so it’s my elbow and not my belly-button rub-a-dub-dubbing up against him, but Grammy and Pops, immovable as stalagmites, hold him in check. He looks down. It wouldn’t be fair to say that Clippy stops smiling. No sign he’s anything less than thrilled to be inhaling the same air as me, but I can’t help but notice he seems to be strangely fixed, not on me, but on the little shards of Twilight Delight rappelling down the snow-colored slopes of my Kmart Ban-Lon double-knit shirt. The clipboard crackles under the pressure of his thumbs. The papers – rosters, carbons, flyers, maps – all warp up into a fat sandwich in the center of which glints the spine of a glossy magazine, red and gold, color of the Elvin King.
The door opens and he pushes past me. Off we go again, past another black marble desk only this time smaller, as if scaled down – a base camp on Everest – to fit the higher altitude. Clippy’s picking up speed but I stay with him, pin myself to his shoulder, down the corridors, offices, cubicles… broom closets and fuse boxes… air ducts and indentations and architectural punctuation marks that continue to shrink as we wind our way in toward the tower’s center, toward the heart of the realm.
At last… a boardroom. Of a sort. Instead of a table there’s a batch of chairs laid out not in rows, but in a grid, like a marching band at parade rest. If rest is the word for it. The whole place has got that reconstruction-of-a-downed-jetliner feel to it: half the paneling shucked away; raw plasterboard mottled with plumbing specs and blueprints; autographed headshots of the old guard – Perry Como, Snooky Lanson, Tommy Leonardi – pitched (cracked frames and all) up onto a pallet of floor tiles in the corner. I glance up at the two survivors (too high to reach without a ladder) that cap the doorway. Arthur Godfrey strumming a ukulele (You are my sunshine, my only sunshine) and Eydie Gorme (Love ya, Kid) taking her bouffant out for a walk, eyes kicked up to high beam, smile singing out with an equal and infinite love for all that she surveys: me and Clippy and the gang, that T-Square rammed down a tube of old wall-paper samples, that paint can petrified shut, that Post-It flaking off the ceiling fixture, those wires shooting up out the floorboards, webbing out in every direction, thick as a wrist, industrial, juice enough to set a casino ablaze.
“Watch your step now – by next week all of this will be fully computerized, top of the line, IBM, everything.”
Half the group’s already surged around him to grab the bucket-style swivel chairs. Nice touch. Homey. Fake leather padding on a plastic frame, snug but not too comfy, like an airport lounge or the lobby of a Volkswagen dealership. So much for the Tiffany Network. The ambiance here? More Happy Hour at a Scranton bowling alley than, say –given the scale of Paley’s estate – high tea with the Archbishop of Canterbury.
I try to scope out a seat down front, but… where is the screen? Here at the top network in the top city in the – from the Mammoth-bone condo to the Lunar Lander – top of the top country that ever was? Where’s the secret revolving wall activated with a flick of 007’s sterling silver lighter, the geometrically arrayed like-the-eyes-of-an-insect multiple monitors, the itty-bitty Jetson-style personal display pods levitating up out of the floorboards?
“Find a seat quickly please.”
Clippy flips aside a bolt of Vis-Queen to reveal what, at first glance, looks like a chunk of mahogany the size of a steamer trunk. He swivels it around to face us. A box TV, smuggled out the lobby of a Holiday Inn or the living room of some upscale Baltimore dentist, about as flashy as a wheel of government cheese.
Not that I’m disappointed. Hey, Genghis Khan slept in a yurt with a goat nibbling at his toes. Enrico Fermi split the atom in a pilfered squash court. Even Neil Armstrong peed in a diaper on his way to the moon.
I scoot up onto a padded leather bistro stool at the back of the room.
Clippy steps up. “That’s my seat.”
“Does it matter?”
I wait for an explanation. Clippy’s eyes land on this patch of plaster behind me, as if it was a map of Gaul, and he was Caesar, and I was a bucket of horseshoes. But I’m getting good at this now. I pause. I wait… just long enough to make him wonder what the code for Security is… then slide off the stool with a look of love in my eyes.
“If it’ll make you happy.”
There’s a seat up there by Tall Guy and Pedigree’s apple dumpling of a husband. And that’s when I first notice it – what I’ve been trying to tell you about. Out of every armrest of every chair sprouts a white cable with a bud on the top, also white, like the bud of a lily. Clippy tells us that, see, inside that bud’s this button you push. You wrap the bud in your fist as you sit in the chair – one bud for the right hand and one bud for the left. Red button in the left fist, green button in the right. Like this – see? Both hands at the ready, now… thumbs up. I hold my fists out in front of me, as if expecting someone else to do the choosing… one potato, two potato, three potato, four.
“So long as you like the show,” whispers Clippy with a hand on my shoulder, “press the green button. Don’t like? Press the red button.”
“Hold it down or just press it, punch it?”
“Hold it down.”
“The whole time.”
“The whole time you’re liking it.”
“Like, starting when?”
“From when you first start to like it.”
“But then when I… ”
“When you stop liking it, then stop pressing down, see? When you don’t like it, whenever you’re not liking it, press down on the red button.”
“But if I’m not sure… ”
“You decide. Red or green.”
“Absolutely. But – ”
He clicks on the video. Flint to the fire. Moonrise over Olduvai Gorge. What gang of chimps ever squatted so still as we do now, waiting in the dark for that glow to begin?
Up comes the opening logo, the big CBS eye. You know they ripped that thing off the Shakers? The Eye of God. Tack it up over your barn door to zap the horseflies. Blast the sinners out from under the rocks, scrub down the righteous with bristles of light. That was back in the day when you couldn’t peel an orange without – you, oops, you pop an earlobe off the Blessed Virgin Mary there glaring up at you from out the pulp. The warble of an angel in the crank of a drill. Holy Ghost on a graham cracker. Jesus God Almighty breaching out the smokehouse chimney, thrashing his way upwards, hand over hand, straight up into that pillar of cloud. Dog paddle. Backstroke. Australian crawl. Believe. Show me that you believe. The Eye of God commands it.
I mash down on the green button.
Tall Guy, he doesn’t miss much. Glances over at my fist, back at the screen, back at me again. The others start to look at their fists, back to Clippy, back to me. Am I breaking the rules? Clippy slides from his stool and makes his way down the aisle.
Now when I mash down on the green, am I telling the universe that yes, this one mouthful of air, this one here, tastes good? Thumbs up? My compliments to the chef? But then the next breath. Do I release the button to vote again or do I… what? Say yes to the breath that I’ve yet to take? I look back at the Eye of God. Does it deserve the green button? Has it earned its place in the great, grand, unscramble-able gumbo of life? So it’s not Joey Heatherton in a white string bikini, Brooks Robinson spearing a line drive, no, but compared to the fleck of guacamole embedded in the beard of Mr. Tourist over there, the cracked yellow toenail of Grandma Moses over here, the empty jacket here I navigate from place to place?
The logo evaporates just as Clippy reaches me. The screen’s dark now. Nice touch. Clears the palette. I give it a green. Then the show begins. Lights, music, titles. Everybody gathers up their buttons, both hands at the ready. Balancing a tray of breakables is what they’re doing. Green. Red. Red. Green. What will it be?
Me? Green. The green party. Go green go.
Funny thing. Don’t recall much about the show itself. Not a bad show. Big Irish-American family. Lots of freckles. Big kitchen. Neighbors popping in, popping out. Incredible, the grooming, everybody – not a zit, not a smudge, not the faintest beetling of an unplucked brow. You’d think they had a whole battalion of people just outside the door to dust the crumbs from off of their Dockers, flick the lint from the fringe of their leg-warmers, pump the hair back up to the maximum recommended PSI.
I try to pick up on the plot. Teenage daughter’s got a crush on the Pope. Or something. Hard to keep it all between the crosshairs what with Clippy just over my shoulder, marinating the air with his invisible ions.
I keep thinking about the difference between the room that we’re in and the room that they – the TV people – are in. In their room, everybody’s all chipper and firm. They know exactly what they want and they’re not afraid to say so. Even when they get angry they do it in a cute way, as in Look at me. Am I not making a spectacle of myself, rascal that I am, carving this turkey with a penknife? And all because the (don’t say a word!) Lumberjack 5000 Electra-Glide Poultry Sword you got me for Christmas just (I am so steamed!) electra-glided clean through its own power cable! This is the kind of anger we like to see. Anger with a punch line, anger you can count on. Not like you’re going to come down in the morning to find the furniture all busted up and spaghetti on the ceiling.
But that’s not all. In their room, every time somebody opens his mouth, there’s laughter. Laughter comes vibrating out the pores of the walls of the room itself. It’s like they’re all living on the inside of some giant percussion instrument somebody keeps striking and striking, over and over again, like a gong.
Okay. So tickle it all, right down to the atoms, but – or so they say – you can’t have the laughter without the tears, sunshine without rain, mammals without 3,000 kiloton asteroid impacts at the tail end of the Cretaceous. So I wait. I lean in. I tilt my head but… so far the only sad things that happen are sad in a cute kind of way. Baby turtle gets flushed down the toilet and goes to heaven. Dad buys a tin of shoe polish to hide the bald spot on the top of his head, but it’s a dye. It’s permanent. And it’s cerulean blue, crest of a cockatiel from the rain forests of Brazil. If only he had a hat like the Pope wears! Again the laughter, but surely there must be a sniffle now, say maybe somewhere just under the surface – sliver of dark chocolate, say, just poking out from under the Crème Brule? Say Grandma gets a boyfriend who dumps her for a younger oldster and she – love on the rebound – decides to hit on a younger man: distinguished, hand-carved mahogany cane, full set of dentures, night watchman down at the fish factory. Who turns out to be gay. Or something. And in love with the Pope. Or something. Bittersweet.
But not here, not now, no. Candles on a cake that’ll never be blown out, that’s what these people are, complete opposite of what you get in the movies nowadays, where like a billion bucks they spend to get the costumes all dustied up, to get that old weathered look, to make it look real. They even pay a costumer to wail away at every stitch of clothing – scuff and tear, scratch and pound, bleach and stain and smear to make the shirt sweat, the pants buckle, the shoes crackle with grit. Professionally distressed is what they call it. And all the while us amateurs out here in the seats, we do it all for free – no camera, no script, no score beyond the sound of our own breathing.
Two handed I’m pressing now, green green as I hunker down, elbows on my knees. Labor of love is what it is, is why we do it. Been wailing away at ourselves for decades now, see, shoes and clothes and teeth and hair – even the bones that hold it all together. And not just Ma and Pa Brittle back there, kiln fired down the years into a pair of porcelain miniatures, no, but all of us. Pedigree all rigid from the strain of smiling as she helps the oldsters press the buttons, eyes bright as candy but the skin, when she squints, crimped at the edges like a cellophane wrapper. And the Bumpers as they lean out over the pair to whisper advice – plumping at the edges, ripening into middle age, oozing out the cracks in their Ken and Barbie exer-wear. As the center of the universe, honeypot at the heart of the piñata, I should be the exception but – cuffed up into the coat of a cow (alas, as they say, no longer with us) – I’m not. And neither is Big Red there as he cocks one fist and then the other Rock’em Sock’em Robot style, right-left, right-right-left as he grips the buttons, as he banks like a skier with the poles tucked, as he burns himself red from the inside out.
From the inside, from the outside, every last one of us we’re burning up, quick like a blaze or slow like a smolder, or cold even, cold like rust, or like fruit, when it ripens, ever so slow, as if there were no end to it, ever, as if nothing that ever ripens will ever die. Clippy pretends otherwise, sure – churns down the aisle to take charge, reaches up to brush a hand through a shock of hair that vanished decades ago, but ripe is what he is, ripe as the pinkish out-of-towers slowly melting into the upholstery, ripe as Tall Guy (Bristlecone pine is what he is), scored by the wind to a twist of iron, all askew, ropey scar down the hollowy cheek. Ripe even as the mother there, buoyant as a plum, rubbing at the crease on her brow as if the palm of her hand were an eraser.
My thumb’s beginning to hurt.
“Sir…” It’s a man’s voice. “Sir…” Clippy leans over to insert this wedge of a word, this sir, straight down into the cleft of my cerebrum. “Sir. You can’t just press down on the green.”
“What do you mean I can’t? I’m doing it.”
“That’s not the way it works.”
“I don’t get to do the button, then?”
“The purpose of the button is to judge the show.”
“Then I get to do the button, then.”
“Yes. But the show…”
I half-point, half-shrug in the direction of the show. But no, the show’s… it’s the screen now, the screen that’s empty but… no. Static. It’s filled with static. Ok. Ok. So I’ve been voting for air.
“I know how the buttons work,” I say.
Clippy’s face flickers on and off in the light of the static. His smile never leaves him but he seems frozen in place, waiting for something to happen, something that involves me. They say you face off against a bear in the woods, you should mirror the bear’s behavior. Or something. Or the opposite maybe. Or maybe I’m the bear and he’s the…
He looks down at my right hand, then back up to meet my gaze.
“Okay. So. So now you have to take your finger off of the button.”
I look down. I’m surprised to discover that I am still pressing the green button. He gives me that raised brow, that toothy smile of his, glaze of a cake in a glass counter, polyurethane all the way. Some people, it’s not enough to smack them. You want everybody to smack them. You wake the family, you sent out the invitations, you catapult the signal flares up over the North Atlantic shipping lanes.
“You see what I’m saying,” he says.
I don’t say a word. I hold up my fist, cable trailing, and stir it in a gentle semi-circle, as if I’d just captured a handful of fireflies and were trying to count them by feel alone.
“You can take your finger off,” he says. “Take your finger off of the button.”
“I just said.”
“But I’m judging the show.”
“But you gotta – here.”
He grabs my fist with both hands. I clench it tighter.
“You gotta…” He tries to pry my thumb loose, but I’m a ballplayer. I do push-ups on my fingertips.
“No. Just let me…” Poor Clippy. The people look up. He’s got one hand around my wrist and the other clawing away at the thumb and they’re all thinking… what? Hillbilly manicure? Finger puppet of the damned? He doesn’t even notice the rest of me now, so intent is he on the thumb. And not a one of us – unless you call rhythmic grunting a conversational gambit – uttering a word.
Even the air itself falls silent. The set hums like a tuning fork. A test pattern pops up on the screen: chief in a headdress smack in the crosshairs of some kind of giant rifle scope, all these other targets sprinkled out around him like consolation prizes. I hear the others creaking up out of their seats, a gasp or two, a woman’s voice in the shape of an oh -– but not a word, a real word anywhere, as if the whole thing’s taking place in this gap between the words, the regular words we use to talk about regular things.
Fist in a bowl of cake batter is what it feels like, Clippy’s fat hands clamped around mine, the hinge of the elbow that hooks me up under the chin, barrel of a belly that presses up into the curve of my spine, bends me like a bow, the both of us twisty-tied up into this little hydraulic mambo.
Like Mama always said – it’s the personal touch that counts, right? And not such a bad-looking guy after all, Clippy, when you get him up close, get a good feel – the brawler’s clinch, the sandpaper kiss – for that face of his, the real one I mean, handsome in a balloonish sort of way, like they took the master and packed it up for shipping and what we got now is the batting – not Elvis the whippet but Elvis at the end, you know, spatula-ed up into that white buckskin jumpsuit with the Liberace tassels and the too-late-by-a-decade Beatle cut. Crisco Elvis.
And like Elvis, alas, calling out to the crowd from under that rhythmic kiloton of ballistic gel, Clippy calls out to me as I burrow my way through the folds of his neck, as I acupressure his spleen with the blade of my elbow, chisel my way up under the buttons of his perma-press blazer and into his secret self, the real Clippy, the cat hair stuck to the tie-clip, the bourbon on the breath, the pierced ear that waits, at the end of the day, for the talisman – paper clip? Golf tee? Cameo singlet of Evel Knievel? – to appear. Clippy, oh Clippy, who waddles home to dream… what? A Zeppelin? A sub? A house in a cloud, a house in a tree, an ancient cedar maybe, tall as a tower, high above a bay where the condor wheels and the water breaks?
The set – the whole room now – flickers like a damp cigar. Tall Guy tries to shuck him loose. And still I keep my fingers locked on the green. The wires rip and the chair pitches over, but to me it’s all about the hand. I think of this cheesy King Kong I saw as a kid. Not the one thumping his chest and smacking fighter planes upside the Empire State Building, no, but a poor man’s Kong, bobbed up one Saturday out of that weekly stew of black and white B-movie chillers on Channel 9’s “Theatre X” – The Deadly Shrew, The Incredible Shrinking Man, The Hand Of… something. Doom maybe. Crazy flick about a chopped-off hand crawling through a mansion turning doorknobs and playing Mozart on the baby grand and throttling all the houseguests. Awesome pics. Every last one. But Son of Kong is the one I’m talking about. Cheap sets. Goofy special effects. And actors you never heard of even, stars who, as the credits unroll, as their fame evaporates in the California sun, veer off into cigarette commercials and puppet theater and Fresno real estate brokerages. But still. In this movie Kong, he never gets off the island, but you still get the girl in the slinky dress, kind of satinish-white, some kind of haute couture jungle jammies, you know, with the nipple-sharp darts, and Kong’s got a hold of her at the end as the island – I don’t remember why, volcano or something – sinks into the sea. He holds her up in his hand, up over his head as the rest of him disappears under the water. Nothing left now but the giant hand with the pretty girl inside it. Hero comes by in a rowboat to rescue her, but it’s Kong, he’s the hero, the dopey ape. He’s drowning but still, still he manages to save her.
Not that I’m exactly thinking all this in the two-point-five seconds it takes Clippy to jujutsu me over his shoulder and into the drywall, but it’s in there somehow, click-snap, like all at once.
Anyway. That’s how it ends. Ka-boom. Clippy all bulldozed up into a heap at the foot of the TV, me in a tangle of wires between the seats, and Tall Guy standing over us, King of the Hill. He’s ripped the collar clean off of Clippy’s shirt and tossed it back into his face. Spray of papers everywhere as the whole gang – even the oldsters – push through the debris to reach me.
“What the hell – ”
“My God – ”
“I saw the guy –”
I break in before they get a chance to turn on Clippy. “It was my fault. I called him a name.”
“Don’t touch me” is all that Clippy says. Sits. Just – slick as a newborn – sits there. Puffy. Scratched. Waxy with sweat and, over and over again, and under his breath don’t touch me, don’t touch me as he blinks out at… well, at nothing. At a screenfull of snow.
Tall Guy hauls me up onto my feet, up into that stubble of his, that slab of burnt toast you scrape the cinders off with a knife. “Get your stuff,” is all he says.
I grab my backpack. Gather the jacket, the shreds of the jacket, everything but the swatch of rawhide welded to Clippy’s fist.
“This way,” he says, says he… and I… hey, what can I say? I follow him. Sometimes you need a straight-line kind of guy – shortest route through a triple half-hitch is the blade of a hatchet… packet of C4 in the fishing tackle… Mr. Padlock, meet Mr. Twelve-Gauge. Even the tattoo on his collarbone says it: an imitation of a wound, a single cut in a cross-hatch black but stippled red in the center, bright as a strawberry, as if the wound were still fresh, the knife still zinging through the air.
I’m thinking if somebody stops us we say… what? That man on the floor over there, clipboard all smacked upside his head, shoe sprung loose, spritz of hair stuck to the glowing screen? Never seen him before. But nobody says a word. We’re out the door without a backward glance. And I’m so busy lugging my backpack, lacing my boot, hop-scotching down the hall to even register how we finally got there, inside the cage, rattling down the freight elevator, striking out across the lobby, out the door, onto the sidewalk.
Not till we hit the curb do I notice my leg blazing up, my fist clenched, my body cantering from side to side. A sprained ankle. We press on through the crowd. No sign of a posse. The usual pillage: Black Rock booming straight up as the people pour out the base, out from under the black facade, out across the granite steps in every direction at once, like it’s a single thing, like it’s a pepper shaker sprung a leak.
I turn back to say something – Adios, Compadre… Semper Fi… Veni, Vidi, Vici… Something rough, bluff, some little sliver of freeze-dried, whiskey-fied, testoster-ized wit to nail down my credentials as a tough guy, but Tall Guy? Pfft. Gone. Back into the gene pool.
The crowd bulldozes me onward. I feel a tightness in my right forearm, the tendons wrench, the burn like a bootlace in a cinch. I look down at my fist. I step out of the crush and into this niche between the buildings. Tree and a trashcan is all. Vest-pocket park. What do you do when your own body won’t obey you? You pry open the fist with the free hand, crowbar up under the fingers to break the seal. And then I remember the reason for the fist. And then my hand cracks open and there it is, embedded in my palm, lozenge the size of a quarter, smooth as Mentos, not a groove or a hook or a loop to link it to anything other than itself: the green button.
Down through the branches the sunlight splinters, strikes me on the back of the hand. I flip the button, somersault it over and over again between my thumb and my fingers. It’s like a wind that fills a kite, what happens next, the smile that rises up inside me. I picture the batch of us there back in the room again, all of us together again, picture after picture, like when you shake a snow globe and all the flakes that fall, the faces in a flurry, and a flake is what I am, yes, but also and at the same time, the sky through which the flake falls. I shake the sky. I fall through the sky that I shake, and here, and as I fall, inside of these snapshots in a shower, sharp like a slideshow is what they are, helter-skelter like an avalanche, like you chunk a rock at a flock of pigeons and they blast up into the air but, inside of a blink, they get this crazy impulse to order, to compose themselves in flight – sift the avalanche, sort the confetti as it falls.
I see Clippy and me sumo wrestling there in the dark. Tall Guy with a hammer-lock on Clippy’s head, the bone of his shoulder in my face, the three of us all muscled up into this monkey’s knuckle of denim studs and splintered wood and shredded polyester. Elbows. Kneecaps. Baby fat. Gristle. Our breathing all braided together here as if it were a single sound, the single note from out the bigger score, the billions all bubble-wrapped round and round the globe, the millions in the city, the dozen here tumbling by. I see Bumper Hubby as he stretches out a pudgy arm to shield his pudgy wife, see them speckled in a glow of static, see the streak of white across her face where the Ray-Bans end and her cheeks have been – like a pair of Easter eggs dipped in red dye just up to the halfway mark – burnt by the sun. I close my eyes and I see them. Bumper He and Bumper She and that old pastry of a lady beside behind them with her glazed hair and the blown glass eyebrows and the pancakey orange cheeks. Who, I ask, will be true to her? The brittle-as-a-dragonfly fingers and the wilting lily tilt of the neck but there – still burning there, and bright as the day she kissed her first boyfriend – the pepper-red of the lips? That would be me. I will be true. True. And true to Pedigree with her bobbed hair dyed and sprayed a color not seen in nature – sunset on Mars maybe, halo slowly hardening to a helmet –Pedigree who wonders if the Geiger Counter still clicks when she walks by, if the men still burn to her touch. Yes I say to her, and yes I say to the bent hands reaching out to pull me up into the light, yes to the heave and the shudder of the body below, to Tall Guy, to Red-face, to Clippy in all his secret glory, to the out-of-towner crew with the fluorescent culottes and tote bags and fanny packs blown as if at random into a single bouquet, to the mother with the Gerber Peach Puree stippled up the front of her cotton shirt, gold on black in a tiny arc, like the hash marks on the face of a clock and yes, yes, even yes to the baby she holds in the sling, the baby who – as fiercely as I grip the green button – grips the cloth that binds him, and squirms in his cocoon and, with open mouth but not a sound, sweeps it all, and all of us with it, into his widening eyes.
by Alan Sincic
Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize