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It’s the dawn of the 1970s and everything is changing. The war in Vietnam is winding down. So is the Apollo Space Program. The tiny northwestern city of Spokane is about to host a World’s Fair. But the Watergate Hearings and the re-entry of Skylab and the eruption of Mount Saint Helens are coming … as are killer bees and Ronald Reagan. Enter ‘The Kid,’ a panic-prone, hyper-imaginative boy whose life changes drastically when his father brings home an astronaut-white El Camino. As the car’s deep-seated rumbling becomes a catalyst for the Kid’s curiosity, his ailing, over-protective mother finds herself fending off questions she doesn’t want to answer. But her attempt to redirect him on his birthday only arms him with the tool he needs to penetrate deeper—a pair of novelty X-Ray Specs—and as the Camino muscles them through a decade of economic and cultural turmoil, the Kid comes to believe he can see through metal, clothing, skin—to the center of the universe itself, where he imagines something monstrous growing, spreading, reaching across time and space to threaten his very world. Using the iconography of 20th century trash Americana—drive-in monster movies, cancelled TV shows, vintage comic books—Spitzer has written an unconventional memoir which recalls J.M. Coetzee’s Boyhood and Youth. More than a literal character, ‘The Kid’ is both the child and the adult. By eschewing the technique of traditional autobiography, Spitzer creates a spherical narrative in which the past lives on in an eternal present while retrospection penetrates the edges. X-Ray Rider is not so much a memoir as it is a retro prequel to a postmodern life—a cinematized “reboot” of what Stephen King calls the “fogged out landscape” of youth.
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by Wayne Kyle Spitzer
The Boy Who Fell to Earth: A Novel About Coming of Age
Chronoscope | 1966—1972
I | The Sound of Trouble
II | The Starlight
“THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK: A TRUE STORY” | PLUS CO-HIT! HUGH BEAUMONT “THE MOLE PEOPLE” | ONLY $2 A CARLOAD!
III | Last Kid on the Moon
IV | Dagora-Carcinoma
V | World’s Fair
Greatest illusion of the century! Apparently see bones thru skin, see thru clothes, etc. Amaze and embarrass everyone! | Regular size glasses with built-in optical illusion. | X-RAY VISION SPECS...$1.85 per Pair.
VI | There Might Be Klingons
VII | Shifting Gears
VIII | The Wasps in the Window Well
IX | Catalyst
I | Drag Race
II | The Boy with the X-Ray Eyes
III | The Dead Wasps
IV | Fire Not Flames
V | The Giant Spider Invasion
VI | Behind the Curtain
VII | Drive-in of the Dead
VIII | Dime-store Gazelle
I | Fireworks
II | Kiss
III | Magic Kingdoms
IV | Werewolf
V | Terrified and Alone
VI | The Arm of the Milky Way
VII | The Willows
VIII | The Auto Shop
IX | The Fall
Chronoscope | 1981
Copyright © 2010, 2018 Wayne Kyle Spitzer. All Rights Reserved. Published by Hobb’s End Books, a division of ACME Sprockets & Visions. Cover design Copyright © 2012, 2018 Wayne Kyle Spitzer. Please direct all inquiries to: [email protected]
All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. This book contains material protected under International and Federal Copyright Laws and Treaties. Any unauthorized reprint or use of this book is prohibited. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without express written permission from the author. This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you are reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
HE LIVES in Spokane, Washington, a smudge of town just off the railway, a place rust-brown by day and elm-dark by night, filled with grain elevators and dim orange streetlamps; a place still without a freeway even in the late ‘60s. His immediate family consists of a mother and father, both in their forties, a brother, who is three years older, and himself. Because he is the youngest of seven boys—four from his mother’s first marriage and a still-born between he and his brother—everyone calls him ‘the Kid.’
They have a ritual which begins at the Phillips 66, in the late afternoon or twilight, where his mother buys him and his brother Cokes and candy cigarettes—Cokes in tall, swirly glass bottles, candy cigarettes in delicate cellophane wrappers. Often she buys them comic books—she calls them ‘funny books’—such as Porky Pig and Daffy Duck, picked from a tall newsstand that squeaks when rotated. He is enchanted by their covers, by the slick, glossy paper and vivid colorizations, the pictures between filmy, rough-edged pages that he can follow, and in a sense, ‘read.’ But what affects him the most, what he wants most to know better, are those things he can see and touch and hear but not read—the marks laid out in tidy rows within the body of the pictures; the roll of the cash register’s tumbler as his mother pays for the books; the runes ticking past on the gas pump as his father fills the tank.
“Thirty-six cents a gallon,” his father always says, shaking his head.
“And 10 cents for a funny book!” says his mother.
Then, as father turns the key and they rattle onto the road in the old Chevy work truck, Elvis takes over, singing “Suspicious Minds.”
And they go riding.
THEY RIDE EVERYWHERE, but he can only imagine what goes on in the farmhouses and the office buildings they pass. He imagines that technicians, who work underground in cramped rooms—rooms full of control panels and television screens—operate traffic lights. That they go in and out through manholes and work down there day and night. He imagines them in gray coveralls with patches on the sleeves—three solid circles, red, yellow, and green. He imagines that The Creature from the Black Lagoon was filmed in Spokane’s Manito Park, on a boat in Mirror Lake, across from his grandmother’s house, and that manhole covers steam because the traffic technicians’ rooms—like those of the submarine on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea—are pressurized.
But the ride is not always wonderful. When his parents buy a Ford station wagon in 1970 the family celebrates by going to an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet, where he gorges himself on cheese mussels, which he loves but cannot digest. He christens the new car by vomiting all over its rear storage compartment, the result of which is a carpet of cheese-mussel vomit—drying on the upholstery, and on the groceries, cracking. His mother thinks it is an isolated case of motion sickness, brought on by the excitement of the new car, and by loving cheese mussels too much. They pull over at a Phillips 66 station where she cleans it all up.
Because the wagon has a back seat he starts bringing along his Marx play-sets—Marx's Prehistoric Scenes, Marx's Modern Farm, Marx's Service Station, Marx's Cape Kennedy, all in tin cases with vinyl handles, like attachés. He opens them on his lap, unfolding new worlds—worlds filled with fences and tractors and service stations, but also cycad trees, dinosaurs, Saturn V rockets—four-color comic book worlds of cyan, magenta, yellow, and black.
One afternoon they are riding along Trent Avenue when the light of the setting sun is blocked by an enormous sheet-metal building. The building looks like an aircraft hangar and bears a massive logo high above its daylight windows—sleek yellow letters on a starry black field—like the titles at the beginning of Star Trek.
It is obvious to him that this is where they film the show. He supposes they have the entire ship in there, illuminated by huge lights, supported by lattices of scaffolding. For the first time he thinks of the future—not his future, not tomorrow or the next day or the day after—the future, a future colored Astronaut White, Galaxy Gold, and Re-entry Red. A future his mother and father say will be here before he knows.
HE IS SITTING at the dining room table before a long, low window, building plastic model kits with his brother, when he first hears it—a rumbling and a snarling, coming up the road, coming closer to their house. Out of the corner of his eye he sees a ghostly white blur, a car, swoop into the driveway. Its headlights dazzle his vision as it draws closer to the window. He watches their beams move across the schematics spread over the table—lighting up the U.S.S. Enterprise’s saucer section, still attached to its mold, setting the ship’s cigar-shaped secondary hull on fire, key- lighting its long, tubular warp nacelles. The beams sets the tap water to shimmer in a little porcelain bowl, where strips of red and gold decals float. They glint off the edge of an orange-white tube of Testors glue. Then they’re gone.
He looks out the window, nimbuses of light still imprinted on his eyes. In their place sits the car, headlamps cooling, fading to black, plumes of exhaust rising. It is long and low and Astronaut white. Its driver’s door swings open, as he has seen the hatch of the Apollo spacecraft swing open after splashdown. His father emerges, dressed in his baggy white paint clothes: his hair is greased back, his face tanned; he is wearing aviator glasses—an astronaut returned to earth.
The Kid doesn’t say anything, just watches as his dad’s paint truck swings into the drive behind the car. Out climbs Fast Eddy, also still in his paint clothes. He is smoking a cigarette and carrying a can of Olympia beer. “The man is 40 going on 60,” his mother once described him on the phone, “but is our star employee.” His father says Fast Eddy can double-coat the interior of a medium- sized home in less than a work day, all by himself.
“Hey, Eddy!” shouts his brother. He gets up and hurries out, the screen door banging behind him.
The Kid follows, gluey fingertips sticking to the schematics, causing them to swish from the table, spilling the model’s pieces. There is a click as the bathroom door is unlatched. He pauses at the screen, looking over his shoulder.
His mother stands bolt upright, looking beyond him at the car. She is buttoning her blouse with one hand, holding a small mirror in the other. Her face has been tanned over the summer, her dark-blonde hair bleached gold; still she seems blanched, her expression blank. She reminds him of the astronaut in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Bowman, after passing through the Star Gate—paralyzed, transformed. A man his mother described as having just seen it all, “the beginning, the end, everything.”
She sets the mirror down and steadies herself against the table. Her expression softens. She doesn’t quite shine, as would be typical, but something replaces the mask; something in the eyes only, something akin to her true self—something warm, blush, living.
“Go on ahead,” she says. “I’ll pick that up.”
And she smiles—sweetly, wanly.
THE BOYS RACE out to the car amidst a September sunset—the Kid, now six, and his brother, now nine.
They circle the car in opposite directions as it idles in the pre-twilight, the brother laughing, hollering out, the Kid tentative, silent, speculative.
“S-S!” shouts the brother, “It’s an S-S!”
“Sheldon Spitzer, how about that?” says Fast Eddy.
“Right,” chuckles the brother. “Try Super Sport.”
The Kid completes his circuit, stares at the black-accented grill and the chromed ‘S-S’ indicia centered there. He can’t yet read but recognizes the shapes. S-S. As in U.S.S. As in not just car. As in Enterprise.
His father opens the passenger’s side door, gestures to him like Bob Barker on The Price is Right. “...a brand-new car!”
A big teenager who lives next door lopes across the field, arms swinging. “Just about,” he drawls. Everyone calls him B.B.—because his name is ‘Billy,’ and because he walks like Bigfoot. “1968—five years old. Nice El Camino.”
“El Camino,” repeats the Kid. He steps close and stares in at the cab: at the chromed shifter and radio and the futuristic speedometer and council clock; at the single black bench seat and the flesh-colored carpeting—which rises, in the middle of the floor, to meet the shifter’s rubber baffling. He hardly notices his brother opening the driver’s door and slipping behind the wheel. He hardly notices anything but the carpeted floor and the sumptuous mound, which together form a hammock, almost, beneath the dashboard’s black, enveloping shelter.
“Where the heck is everyone going to sit?” says his brother, rocking the wheel, pretending to drive. The dome light causes a queer play of shadows over his face, teasing out features the Kid, the very mirror of their father, does not possess.
“Oh, I’ll just ride in the back,” drawls B.B.
“There’s plenty of room for everyone,” says his father. “You’re not that big yet.”
“I will be,” says the brother. He pulls a handle under the dash, pops the hood.
The Kid doesn’t say anything, only peers through the rear window at the payload bay, which takes the place of back seats.
His father has purchased a white 1968 El Camino with a black vinyl roof and matching decals, but he sees a spaceship, an aerodynamic domicile: a rocket with twin-domed hood scoops and louvered ports and long, pin-striped rear quarter panels, like warp nacelles, which through an alchemy known to Federation engineers and certain boys and girls can fold space, can warp time.
They huddle around the engine compartment—Fast Eddy, father, Sheldon and B.B.—as he peers between, glimpses something black and chrome and complicated before his brother blocks the view—purposely, it seems. He keeps trying to see as Fast Eddy talks like he paints, fast.
“It’s not the cylinders themselves that move, see. It’s the pistons. Each cylinder has a spark plug, which causes compressed gas to combust and re-combust—bang-bang-bang, like that. The sparks are timed so that they push the pistons down and drive the crankshaft...”
“How many cylinders?” asks the brother.
“Eight,” says his father.
“Hah!” cries B.B. “Explains that!”
“The sound of trouble when you pulled in,” says B.B.
The Kid is on the pavement, crawling between their legs. He figures if he can’t see it from above he’ll see it from below.
Fast Eddy says: “Huh? No, that’s not the sound of trouble. That’s glass packs. The sound of trouble is when something goes wrong.”
The Kid is on his back now. He is reaching up into the purring, whirring compartment, intending to pull himself farther under, when his father grabs him by both ankles, yanks him out.
“Aye, aye, aye!” he shouts. He pulls him to his feet, draws him away from the others. “You don’t ever reach into machinery like that. Not ever, Buddy!”
He looks at his father numbly, feeling foolish beyond words. He knows that Sheldon and Fast Eddy and B.B. are looking at him also, but does not return their gaze.
His father massages his shoulders and points him toward the field, to where his Styrachosaurus model sits like an ornament on the old Ford wagon. “Someone’s going to make off with that,” he says.
He focuses on it, squinting in the setting sun. His father gives him a nudge. He runs after his model.
GRASSHOPPERS SCATTER, ticking and whirring, as he moves through the field. He picks the model up off the hood of the wagon—one of its legs falls off, tumbling into the grass, which is knee-high, golden. He picks it up and examines it. The breeze tosses his hair. He looks past the green, pebble-textured model part—at the old Ford station wagon. Although he rode in it only yesterday, the light- brown car looks as though it has been here forever, merged with the grass and weeds—as though it were already receding from him, from the family. He looks at the new car, at his father and brother and B.B. and Fast Eddy. He opens the driver’s door of the wagon, watching them, and sits in the doorframe.
He tries to fit the Styrachosaur’s leg back onto its body, but discovers that the little plastic knob that holds it in place is broken. The breeze blows and ruffles the grass. He looks at their new house, which is painted white with black accents, like his father’s new car—thinks of his mother holding her hand-mirror. He does not know why he should think of this just now, or why the thought should bother him. His earlier notion of folding space and warping time seems suddenly threatening. There is something beneath the idea, something he can divine but not apprehend, a hidden layer.
His brother shouts, “Can I rev it? Can I rev it just once?”
“Hold on, Buddy,” says their father. “Mary Lee! Let’s go for a ride!”
The Kid fidgets. He waits for her to come out, feeling suddenly queasy, feeling as though she might in fact not come out—the fear is so alien that it seems to rise up in him like bile.
She emerges at last, wearing her fuzzy coat and carrying coats for his brother and himself: new coats, fresh as the paint on the new car, and the new house, and his father’s job-sites—all the schools and grocery stores across Spokane his parents have bid on and won. “The boys have school tomorrow,” she says, adding, “Where’s the Kid?”
She looks around for him, spies him through the weeds. “What are you doing out there? Come join the party.”
He wonders why he can’t stop shaking. Why his stomach bucks and twists; why he’s convinced the earth might suddenly fall away, the sun and moon blink out, the clouds roil black.
“Okay! Give her a rev!” shouts his father. The car’s engine revs and roars.
The Kid leaps to his feet, startled. Something happens—it seems to him the universe itself just ignites and rolls over, right there, under his shoes. He falls down instantly, quaking and dry-heaving.
The car’s engine roars and roars. “That’s enough!” barks his father. Fast Eddy laughs.
The Kid coughs and spits and wipes his mouth. He is shaking uncontrollably. He peers through the grass and weeds, sees his mother hurrying toward him, her tanned face and blonde hair appearing gray in the waning sunlight. He gets up suddenly and runs toward her, his own blonde hair flying.
She has hardly finished stooping when he collides against her breast. “I—I was afraid—Bowman—how you said—I don’t—I don’t want....” He bursts into tears, presses into her coat.
She rocks him back and forth, patting his back. “There, there, Sweetie. Now, now.”
He doesn’t know what to say—what it is that he truly even feels. Something has brushed him, has bruised him.
“Something awful,” he says.
“Shhh,” she says. “There is nothing awful.” She runs her hands over his hair, kisses his forehead. They remain that way for several minutes, saying nothing. At last she turns him away gently. “There’s only that, see?”
She points to the setting sun, to the clouds shot through with red and gold.
He stares at them, sniffling. Suddenly everything seems perfect again—safe, spacious, mild. The air is cool, and fragrant with his mother’s hairspray. He senses that she alone is interested in him; not his father, certainly not his brother—not his Sunday school teachers or the girls across the street. After awhile he says, “What if it goes out? What if—God turns it off?”
She plucks at his hair, straightens it out. “He turns it off every night. And what happens every morning?”
He swipes at his eyes, sniffs.
She retakes his shoulders gently in her hands, turns him back to face her. “What happens every morning?”
“He turns it back on again.”
She smiles. “Which means it never really went out.”
He stares at her as she releases his shoulders—slowly, delicately, as though she was balancing him on a wire. “My favorite Martian,” she says. She tries to smooth his cowlicks, “Sensitive antennae and all.” She laughs. “I don’t know how we’ll get through sometimes.”
The Kid smiles, a bit awkwardly, then turns to look at the sun—sees the station wagon silhouetted against it. “It looks lonely out there,” he says.
“It’s just a car, Sweetie. It can’t feel lonely.” She places a hand on his shoulder, steering him away. “Besides, we have a new one now.”
SHE LEADS HIM by the hand back to the El Camino. “Make room for your brother, Sheldon. Go stand by Ed.”
Sheldon laughs, good-naturedly but not wholly sincere. “Oh, that’s how we’ll fit.”
He goes and stands by Ed.
“I’ll just go on back home, I guess,” drawls B.B.
They form a semi-circle around the engine compartment, the sun dipping below the horizon—the Kid at the driver’s side, standing on tip-toe, hands on the fender; Sheldon and Fast Eddy opposite, Mom and Dad at the grill. The tip of the sun casts long shadows across the pavement and over the engine compartment. Aside from the whirring of the engine and a handful of robins, there is complete silence, as though they are praying.
“What are we looking at?” his mother says softly.
The Kid listens, staring at the humming engine.
“About four years,” says his father. “One-hundred-fifty dollars per month.”
“Well...let’s hope we win the community college bid,” she says.
“We will, Mary Lee,” says his father. He nods at the engine. “Pretty nice, don’t you think? The boys can ride around in the back. And we can back in at the drive-in and put lawn chairs—”
She kisses his father’s cheek, picks at a few locks of his hair. She doesn’t seem to think much of the car, as a car, at all. “I think it will have to last us a long while,” she says.
“She’ll last,” says Fast Eddy. He takes a swig of beer, sucks on his cigarette. “She’s centered properly, see. It’s nothing you can quantify. She’s centered properly somewhere in her guts, so that everything radiating out from that is centered, too.”
His mother sighs. Everybody else listens. They listen because in spite of being a high school drop-out and not having any front teeth, Fast Eddy knows stuff—not things, no details—stuff. Stuff that seems wise.
“What you get without that center is system failure,” he says. “Sort of a Diaspora of parts, none of them connected and none of them functioning properly.” He looks at the Kid suddenly, startling him a little. “But you have to listen for the sound of trouble, and if you hear it, you have to find it. It might be something really simple, something right at the surface, like a loose sparkplug cable. But it might be something deeper. Something you have to dig down to, or look at from another angle. Sometimes you just need some help, a precision instrument, say, like a full diagnostic scan, so you can see through the walls of things. And sometimes—sometimes you just have to cut her open. Cut her open and start peeling back the layers.”
The Kid swallows, uncomfortable beneath his gaze. He looks down and watches the belts spin; smoothly, silkily, winding through cogs like water moccasins. He thinks of starting first grade at Broadway Elementary School the next day and of the summer now passed, and of all the stuff he loves; of hot-buttered popcorn at the Starlight Drive-in Theater, and 7-11 Slurpees in collectible cups—cups themed around muscle cars and sports teams, super heroes, movie monsters. He thinks of the World Trade Center, tallest buildings on earth, completed the previous summer. Of Apollo 14 and Alan Shepard golfing on the moon—Apollo 15 coming up, and the deployment of the lunar rover. He wonders what it will be like to ride with his family across the moon someday.
“Okay, gang,” his mother says, and claps her hands together—causing him to jump. “We’re going to the Starlight. First show only—if it’s okay with Dad.”
“Might be our last chance,” says Dad. “It’s September. They’ll be gone soon, all of them.”
The Kid blinks. He looks up from the humming, whirring perfection of the engine, scans the faces of everyone around it: at Fast Eddy hunched over the opposite fender, cigarette dangling, paint-spattered bangs hanging; at Sheldon, pointing and questioning, interacting with the car and the people, looking and acting nothing like he does, at his mother, uncomfortable in her skin, interested in the car because his father is interested and she’s in love with him; at his father, who pats and rubs her back, who is covered head to toe with multi-colored paint, and is not an astronaut...and back to his mother.
Who looks over at him, the last rays of the sun outlining her hair, and smiles.
GOING TO THE DRIVE-IN is nothing new; the brothers have been going since before they could walk. Riding there, in the back of the El Camino, with wind in their hair—twilit, October wind, carrying hints of musk and smoke, mystery, danger—that’s new. For the Kid, who spends most of the ride lying upon his back, gazing at stars and the wing-lights of airplanes, at the canopies of leaves swishing overhead, it becomes even more—proof of something he has sensed but not seen: a new schema of life altogether, something previously hidden by the roof of the car, by his failure even to look. The world from another angle, as Fast Eddy might say.
The Starlight is surrounded by enormous high-tension towers, which dot the countryside all around it and are threaded with sagging power-lines, like cobwebs. The marquee reads:
The Kid and his brother stand behind the passenger compartment of the Camino, leaning against the rear window, hands spread on the black vinyl roof, as they pull up to the ticket kiosk. He watches a bill move from his father’s hand to the attendant’s—who pushes keys, causing the cash register to chime and its drawer to bang open. The numbers on the register’s bar are a blur until they stop one by one—$2.00. The attendant puts the bill into the tray, bangs down the little metal clip—hands his father three ones. His fingers are dirty with what appears to be engine oil. He bangs shut the little window as his father pulls forward, the Camino’s engine snarling, transaction completed, bang, bang, bang, like that.
The first thing he hears upon their turning into the lot are steel brushes upon cymbals; a stealthy, metallic sound, made more metallic, tinny, by the metal speakers from which it emanates. The sound accompanies them into the nearest aisle, the Camino prowling along in tune while his father looks for an opening. The Kid looks at the screen, 3 stories-tall and long as an ice rink, watches as pink gaseous nebulae transform into Blake Edward’s Pink Panther, who sits coolly on his haunches, holding a cigarette in a long, slim holder, tapping ashes. A saxophone plays Henry Mancini as his father kills the lights and noses the Camino away from the screen, begins backing into slot #29.
The kid turns around, looks across the lot as the rear of the car begins tilting upward. He’s looking at the supple mounds that radiate out in a semi-circle from the screen, “like bench seating in a Greek or Roman amphitheatre,” his mother once said. The mounds are smooth and solid and black. Upon them, all around, big tires crunch to a halt and brakes chirp. All around, wide hoods cant toward twilit screens like missiles.
The first movie image he sees from the back of the El Camino is from The Legend of Boggy Creek—a blonde boy running through a field in which everything is painted redden-gold by the setting sun, which flares off the lens and makes multicolored circles. The boy runs and runs, terrified of something behind him—something in the trees, some-thing which howls—climbing over a barbed wire fence, scrambling over stones.
THEY HIT THE SWINGS RUNNING, depositing rumps in rubber hammocks, grabbing onto chains, pumping pleated-toed sneakers in the sand. The sky swoops in and out of view as they swing, one ascending while the other falls back, and visa-versa. It is intermission.
He catches glimpses of his brother beside him, of his flushed cheeks and glittering eyes, his thick, wavy hair. He catches glimpses of the Camino, too, sees his father dusting off the lawn chairs, and digging amidst the ice chest. He doesn’t see his mother but knows she is probably at the snack bar, ordering pizza or hamburgers or hotdogs in metal foil—like the heat shielding on the lunar lander— knows she’ll come back smelling faintly of grease and hot-buttered popcorn and Aquanet hairspray. Still, it is odd that she has gone rather than their father, who used to use the walk as an excuse to smoke a cigarette, as if everybody didn’t know exactly what he was doing.
He pumps his own feet in the sand, begins catching up to his brother.
“Dunno. She was walking toward the snack bar—there she is.”
The snack bar is a blue and white rancher-style building with a flat roof of corrugated metal, which glows ghostly in the back of the lot. He scans the yellow picnic tables, sees a man in an olive-green military uniform talking to a woman with hair like a beehive, and another man with black hair and thick sideburns playing cards with two children. He sees two women smoking cigarettes—no, one is a man, a “Hippie,” as his father says, like his eldest half-brother. She has already gone in, he thinks. She is somewhere behind the black glass with the muted hints of light, like distant galaxies. And there is the sun! The projector’s beam—exploding from a row of small, uniform windows. The projector’s beam is a white nimbus, a sun flare—an eye too potent and piercing to meet. Next to it, at another yellow picnic table, sits his mother. She is only a silhouette, but he can tell it is her because of her thickly coifed hair and the tilt of her head. He wonders what she is doing, just sitting there. She is watching them, he decides. She is smiling. Smiling at him.
He grips the cold chains of the swing, kicks harder against the sand. He knows she is watching. Watching as if he were a movie star on the drive-in theater screen. He waves at her gleefully. She does not wave back. He waves again—he needs her to wave back. The silhouette with the thickly coifed hair and tilted head does not wave. Why would she not wave? Maybe it is not her. Thinking about this causes him sudden terror. He looks around for his father, finds him hovering in the gloaming behind the Camino—a smudge of white and Khaki in the dark. He waves at him. But his father does not wave back, either. What is he doing back there? At last he says, “Think Dad is lying?”
“About what?” says his brother.
“About not smoking anymore.”
“Duh. Why do you think he’s always going to the snack bar?”
“He didn’t tonight. Mom did.”
The Kid shrugs. He is unconvinced. “But why would he lie?”
“Grownups lie. So Mom won’t worry. So we won’t want to copycat him.”
“He wouldn’t lie.”
Sheldon laughs and imitates their father, “Whew, it sure is smoky in there!”
Now they both laugh, swinging higher and higher, swinging in unison. The Kid imagines he is Spiderman, high above Manhattan, leaping from web-line to web-line. He watches his Keds—now dangling over the sand, now suspended in space—breathes it all in—his brother’s company, his mother and father who are close, though not waving, the world.
THE SECOND MOVIE IMAGE he sees from the back of the El Camino, with everyone chewing and resettling and sipping from straws, is the Universal International logo, the one with a cloudless planet earth spinning slowly in outer space, which seems vaguely frightening to him. The logo is in black and white because the movie it precedes, Virgil W. Vogel’s The Mole People, is in black and white, and is overlaid with the opening strains of the film’s soundtrack, which is full of horns and drums and cymbals.
The Mole People is about a group of archeologists, one of whom is played by Hugh Beaumont, father to the Beaver, who discover a patriarchal society of albinos living beneath the earth; a society that makes human sacrifices of pretty young virgins, and employs a race of mole monsters as laborers. But what makes its mark upon the Kid is the movie’s depiction of an entire underground world—a hollow earth—and how there seems to be a mysterious source of light down there, one powerful enough to illuminate everything, though what this source is they never explain. That and the mole monsters bursting from the ground—grabbing luckless victims with their big, pebbly hands, yanking them below the surface in a swirl of sand, after which, each time, Mom laughs and says, “And awaaay we go!”
HE IS STANDING outside Broadway Elementary, looking for the El Camino.
His first month at school has confirmed what his mother already suspected—he has a talent for artistic expression; but there are signs he will struggle with reading and with arithmetic. His teachers seem to adore him, although he gleefully disregards many of their directives, painting outside the lines whenever it suits him and inserting fanciful creatures and space vessels into what are supposed to be realistic reproductions of his life in Spokane circa 1972. He gets on well with his classmates and even shows signs of becoming ‘popular,’ but only after a catastrophe on the first day when, in a state of terror at his father’s departure, he approached the blackboard, and—in an attempt to master his surroundings—drew a massive illustration of the U.S.S. Enterprise, which evoked not applause but derisive guffaws, and prompted one student, Keith, to shout, “It doesn’t even exist anymore! The show’s been cancelled!”
Nor does he take the bus, the size and noise of which horrifies him, but instead seeks out his father’s El Camino, which stands out, stark white amongst brightly colored Volkswagens and wood-paneled station wagons, like his own colorless hair amongst his peers, and attracts the attention of everyone already aboard the bus, their faces and hands pressed against the glass.
Because the lot directly adjacent to the school is crowded with buses, the parents must park along the opposite side of the street, where they idle until openings present themselves. But when the Kid sees his mother in the passenger seat of the car—unusual since her daycare clients don’t often pick up their children until shortly before dinnertime—he runs directly toward them, oblivious to the oncoming traffic. His father taps the horn once, curtly—but the Kid is already there, climbing into his mother’s open door and over her lap—causing the newspapers spread there to crumple—into the center of the seat.
“How’d it go?” asks his mother.
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