Dennison of the Deep
So he fixed his gaze on the sidewalk, turned left and scuffed half a block farther to the apartment building, three stories of yellow stucco with an outside staircase. As he climbed to the first landing, he kept his eyes from the gaps between the concrete steps. He refused to look beyond the landing, and he never went up the next flight to the apartment of the woman Sandra.
Quickly he unlocked the door and slipped into the living room, where Venetian blinds covered the picture window. His grandmother spoke of making curtains if they stayed awhile, but Art had no more concern for decoration than his father, who had lived here alone when Art was still with his mother. It was an okay apartment, he supposed, though tiny--a "bachelor pad," his grandmother snorted--with an electric kitchen and a single bedroom to the side. Grandma had the bedroom, leaving Art to share the sofa bed with his father. Opened up, it filled a quarter of the living room.
Grandma was usually home when he arrived, and she was the sort of person who, if you got her started, would talk for an hour about 147 different topics related only in her own mind, her knobby fingers poking the air; but these days she seemed hesitant to begin and Art too had little to say. So he would dig immediately into his homework, which absorbed him till the evening TV shows began.
In this place he had to work on the kitchen table, where Grandma often threatened his papers with butter and gravy. He was fastidious about homework. In this new town, being in seventh grade meant he attended a different class of 30-some students for each subject, in a giant junior high with half a dozen buildings spread across a dusty lot. By doing the work assigned, fulfilling all requirements, he hoped to escape untoward consequences. What those consequences might be--what might happen if he failed, for instance, to complete one night's sheet of math problems--he didn't know and didn't want to find out.
The teachers seemed remote and mysterious even when they joked with their classes. Since Art was scrawny, socially unskilled, and acutely conscious of these traits, the less notice he called to himself the better. Even while sitting up front because of his nearsightedness, he tried to remain inconspicuous. Perhaps that was why he had begun heading his papers "A. Dennison." This was also a private pun, since he had recently read a story about the fabulous Loch Ness monster that called it "a denizen of the deep."
The secret humor helped ease his nerves. So did the comedies on TV to which he devoted himself every night: Ozzie and Harriet, Phil Silvers, Father Knows Best, How to Marry a Millionaire, the Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour. He imagined himself a wisecracker like Phil Silvers, though he had few occasions for smart remarks. He used to like the Danny Thomas show especially, where the family was nutty and the two kids were missing a mother until Danny married Kathy; but it happened that Art was watching Danny on the night things went bad in his own house, and after that the show made him feel dizzy and weird.
Westerns were good also. Bat Masterson, Have Gun Will Travel, Maverick, Gunsmoke. The theme songs jingled through his head for days, and he daydreamed about himself as a lawman rescuing pliant young women.
At Art's bedtime, when Grandma opened the sofa bed, Dad had to move to the kitchen, if he wasn't already there with engineering papers from the office. Dad griped at Grandma if she nudged his papers, complaining that he couldn't be expected to work "in these conditions." The work concerned electronics for new fighter planes that would fly "under the radar," and Dad made oblique references to the "Top Secret" clearance he had earned, implying that his status deserved far more space than a kitchen table. Occasionally Dad would bark "Sonofabitch!" when nobody had provoked him. Though he wasn't an especially big man, his fist made a lot of noise when it slammed the table. At those times Art would shrink into as small a space as possible under the covers and Grandma would retreat to her bedroom. Often Dad stayed late at the office, seeming to avoid the apartment altogether, or else he spent time upstairs with the woman Sandra.
One Sunday Art went with Grandma to the supermarket, and when they returned Dad and Sandra were rising hastily from the couch. Grandma brushed through to the kitchen as Art, laden with groceries, followed two steps behind, pretending not to notice his father and the guest. Sandra wore a red V-neck blouse that showed a lot of damp cleavage, and her pink pedal pushers stretched taut on her thighs. Her dark lipstick had smeared. The room reeked of her cigarettes and Dad's panatellas. On Dad's pale forearms the hair curled in dark whorls.
Art did not exactly blame his father for having a girlfriend, but this was not the kind of love in which Art believed. It wasn't pure. Those moist slopes deep in the V of Sandra's blouse indicated otherwise, and besides, seen from behind in her pedal pushers, Sandra suggested a melting scoop of strawberry ice cream. One day he heard Grandma sniff that "some women should never wear pants."
On the Sunday night of the couch scene, Grandma and Dad had a long talk at the kitchen table after Art supposedly went to sleep. Their furred late-night tones told him he shouldn't be listening. Dad mentioned "a man's needs"; Grandma spoke about a woman's being the "right type" for a family. Then Grandma added--and Art couldn't believe he was hearing this--that a son of hers ought to think about more than what was "between a woman's legs." Dad was sort of apologetic, sort of not. He kept saying how hard this was on him. He was not swearing, though, and after some minutes he suddenly put in that he knew it was difficult for Grandma too, leaving her husband and coming thousands of miles to help him. It was just temporary, he assured her; he hoped to have things "sorted out" soon. He complained that the divorce and "all this business" had cost him a house and car, not to mention thousands in legal and medical expenses.
Shamed, Art tried to make his breathing inaudible. Cramped on his side, covers over his head, he was afraid to give himself away by shifting. He understood one main point--that without him around there'd be less trouble for everybody. Dad could do as he liked between Sandra's legs and Grandma could go home. For his sister, matters were arranged differently; she was back east with his Aunt Betty and Uncle Paul in a family with four other children, where one extra must be less bother (although Art felt Katie would be obnoxious anywhere).
As the conversation wore on, Art concentrated on staying motionless. He imagined dozens of adults--teachers, Sandra, others with loud or jokey voices--parading through the room without knowing he was there. Sometimes when they passed the bed he would tremble--would they hear or smell him or detect bulges in the bedclothes?--but by stifling his breath he saved himself from discovery. It was the same technique used by Nessie, he supposed, the monster who had lived for centuries in Loch Ness uncaptured, unknown. It would be beautiful to live like that always.
The next morning Art wondered how much of this he had dreamed. Had Grandma actually said that? At breakfast, her graying hair in rollers, she looked like a stranger. On the way to school he panicked when his surroundings, too, became unfamiliar. The traffic seemed angrier than usual. A policeman was watching him, he thought, as he hastened back to the last corner, shaded his eyes to study the street sign and guessed at the turn he had missed. When he came to the chain-link fence around the school grounds, he clenched three fingers on its rusty knots.
For weeks he had felt like a foreigner in school, but the teachers had gradually learned his name, and so had a few students. One kid, Ken DiVincenzo, approached him after social studies that day with a comic book Ken had apparently been showing around during class.
"You like Plastic Man?"
"World's screwiest superhero. Got a mouth on him, don't take crap from nobody. This is a classic issue, they don't put these out anymore--careful how you handle it! The guy that drew this died already, shot himself in the head. He was a great artist. He drew for Playboy too."
Art looked at the flimsy magazine with its gaudy colors and improbably shaped figures, couldn't see the appeal, but pretended to be interested. He was more amazed that Ken knew something about art in Playboy.
"Where'd you go last year?" Ken asked. "You weren't at Jefferson."
"School where me and a buncha others came from."
"No. I just moved here."
"So where do you live?"
"It's about, I don't know, ten blocks away, a street called Esplanade."
"Really?" Ken sounded impressed. "You live on the beach?"
That was so ridiculous Art laughed. "No, in an apartment."
Ken laughed too. "You rich or something, got a penthouse?"
"No, it's just a little place."
"How come you knew that date when Mr. Carlson called on you?"
"The date for the Bill of Rights? It's right there in the book."
"Oh," Ken smirked. "In the book. Wow." It was light sarcasm, not enough to hurt Art's feelings.
In the following days he and Ken talked more. Ken was medium height (two inches taller than Art), skinny, with slick dark hair and amazingly flexible limbs (he could sit for long minutes with his legs crossed under him and his arms crossed under his legs). Somewhere Ken had acquired a transistor radio that produced a lot of static and tantalizing fragments of Top 40 songs like "Rock-in Robin" and "Yakety Yak."
Like Art, Ken didn't belong to any of the identifiable groups in the school (athletes, delinquents, surfers, popular girls, Mexicans, etc.), but he spoke occasionally to people from all these elements, which was more than Art could manage. One day, for instance, he saw Ken chatting with Mary Ann Limbaugh, who wore a fuzzy pink sweater that molded itself to each of her breasts individually. Later, as he and Art walked down the hall, Ken whispered, "I could lick her all over. I'd pay for it." Art was startled by both concepts.
Another morning when Art arrived at the school grounds, he saw Ken at the corner of one of the buildings, hanging out with two large boys, delinquents from ninth grade. Ken motioned him over. "We're going out back for a smoke," Ken said. "Come on."
Art was scared to go but equally afraid of refusing, so he tagged along as the boys cut behind the gym and the science lab, through a passageway between two wooden sheds, to a patch of broken asphalt occupied by a small brown tractor. The perimeter fence scratched into view beyond twenty yards of dirt and weeds, where (according to rumor) the school board would soon toss up another building. The older boys pulled out a crumpled pack of cigarettes and lit up, offering one to Ken, who posed for a long moment with the lighter, brows contracted, as if getting the butt lit in just the right way was essential to the experience.
"Nah," Art said to a wave of the pack. "Never mind." He distrusted physical pleasures, especially if they were popular--besides which, he knew he'd embarrass himself with a coughing fit. Also he couldn't believe the boys could get away with this. Any moment, a teacher or administrator would track them down, and Art was terrified of being implicated. He tried to frame the excuses he might use while at the same time hiding his cowardice and his sudden need to pee.
Luckily the older boys didn't seem to mind his abstinence; they scarcely acknowledged his company. Jerry Causwell, the one who'd brought the cigarettes, boasted idly about a game of strip poker with a girl. Then he fished again in his jeans pockets and drew out a folding knife, which he began to toss at a shed wall, trying to make it stick. It made an incredibly loud clunk. Jerry was a tall angular kid with a scar on his chin and a d.a. haircut, a style whose mere name (short for duck's ass) seemed vulgar to Art. Then Jerry's friend, Leo, a shorter kid with a crewcut, large belly and wide hairy arms, offered advice on holding the knife by the point, flipping it so it made a half-turn in the air. Leo borrowed the knife to demonstrate this technique, and Ken (squatting in his typical cross-legged pose on the asphalt) chipped in with appreciative remarks. They agreed this was not the ideal type of weapon--a real throwing knife would balance on your fingers. Leo claimed to have a switchblade that worked much better. "Could stick a guy in the eyeball from 10 feet, easy, but it's better to go for the gut. Then he bends over to grab his stomach and you kick him in the balls." Leo acted out this tactic with an imaginary opponent, and Jerry murmured agreement. Art flinched, though the kick was directed away from him.
When the first bell rang neither of the older boys budged. With offenses that now included the use of a dangerous weapon and damage to school property (the knife slits screamed from the wall), Art knew they'd end up in jail sooner or later. For himself, the pressure in his groin had become desperate, so he whispered his need to Ken and started back around the shed. He made himself walk slowly to conceal his last-ditch hope of avoiding arrest and a late mark. While ostensibly ignoring him, the older boys sighed and groaned, pocketed the knife, flipped their cigarette butts onto the asphalt in plain view and sauntered along behind, languidly exchanging remarks with Ken. Art hoped they weren't joking about his bladder.
After a hurried stop in the lavatory, Art arrived in home room a full two minutes past the final bell but before attendance was taken. A guilty elation mixed with his panic. The rest of the day he had trouble focusing on the teachers. He found himself glancing instead at Trish O'Neal, a redhead who sat across the room from him in home room and again in English and math, a smart girl with freckles and a quick smile as conspicuous as her soft breasts. Certainly she wouldn't play strip poker, but he wondered if she would ever smoke or admire a male who did. He knew the answer was probably yes on these counts, but perhaps he could teach her a truer, nobler way of life. Unfortunately this plan would involve speaking to her. At the end of English class he lingered by his desk, timing his exit so that he and she would reach the door at the same time. He hoped to exchange a significant glance, indicating shared depth of understanding. But at the doorway she turned aside to talk with a friend.
After school a drab light oiled the sidewalk. As Art came up to Esplanade, gray clouds piled in the emptiness across the way, a lumpy mass fringed with wicked orange. In his standard fashion he plodded head down till he reached his building, where he climbed to the landing before a figure swelled over him: that woman Sandra, three steps above. Though he scrunched to the side to let her pass, she hovered overhead, chirping, "Hi, Arthur! Just getting home from school?"
The books and three-ring binder he carried, along with the time of day, made the answer so obvious he saw no need to provide it. Plus, he hated being called by his full name, which made him sound like a stuffed shirt. But he lacked the courage to show his disgust, and when he tried to look up at her the orange sun angled in from the side to smear his vision. He could tell she had a large fixed smile, which unnerved him, centered as it was above the jutting chest that today shone a violent green.
"I hope you enjoy living here with us," she continued. "It's a real nice area, isn't it? I've always loved seaside towns. I know it's tough on you, though, without a mother to look after things."
"My grandmother's here," he shot back, offended on Grandma's behalf. "She's waiting for me now." He fumbled with the lock and shoved the door open.
"Say hi to your grandma for me," Sandra called as he rammed the door behind him. Blinking with relief in the dimness, he listened for Sandra's steps but couldn't tell whether she went up or down.
The episode upset him so much that he was rude to his grandmother when she came out of the bedroom complaining of a headache. Then he tried to apologize by offering to fix her some boiled sugar, which was what he called the extra-sweet tea she drank for indigestion. She declined.
That evening, with Grandma in bed early and Dad at work late, Art had the TV to himself. This was a Danny Thomas night, and there was nothing else good on, so with an odd twist in his stomach he tuned in the show. It was another episode with Uncle Tonoose, the bumbling relative from Lebanon, a hilarious character. But Uncle Tonoose had starred in the last show Art saw, and by the first commercial Art was recalling his mother's odd smile when she bent down to hand him the big pills, claiming they were specially made to ward off the spring colds that were going around.
They'd been living without Dad for over a year by then. Mom had given up on the church where people talked like liquid plastic, and she'd taken a part-time job at a bookstore, dropping Katie at a baby-sitter's on the way. The divorce was becoming final, and Art at last could say the word in his head without the sensation of a sharp blade slicing through meat.
That unremarkable night, absorbed in Danny Thomas, Art noticed as little as usual, but later he found some details fixed in his mind, like the way her mouth bent up on one side but not the other. They would all take this medicine, she murmured, him and her and Katie, so they'd all be protected. She wore a pleated tan skirt and nylons, unusually fancy for her, and she handed him the tablets without touching him. The pills were difficult to swallow, so he choked them down with a large glass of milk and stretched out on the carpet.
Days after, in a hospital bed, it mortified him to learn, from a passing remark by a nurse, that his father thought at his age he should have known better. Maybe none of it would have happened if Art had been smarter. He knew she was still seeing the "emotions" doctor but somehow he never guessed.
It also hurt, in a way, that his mother proved equally incompetent. All of them survived, even her in the bathtub with her slit wrists. (He pictured the blood swirling and clouding the water, but he tried not to imagine the body, naked and limp and disgraceful.) If you're going to do it, Art thought, do it right; don't just make a big mess for the neighbors and police to find. What was it Ken had said about the Plastic Man artist--shot himself in the head? Cleaner, neater.
Afterward, he didn't see his mother or sister, all the arrangements having been made while he recovered in the hospital. He moved briefly to a motel with Grandma, and then to this apartment. His old school, the couple of friends he'd made, his dog Snaps, had vanished.
Some woman from the hospital with long flat hair and a wide red mouth had taken time "just to chat with him," she said, which mostly meant assurances that his mother still loved him and his sister in spite of "what happened that night." He had no argument with that, and he was insulted that she spelled it out for him. He knew Mom had a sickness. All in all, he knew it was right that Mom go away for the "best possible treatment" they said was in store for her.
Thinking about this made him queasy, so he turned off Danny Thomas in the middle and crawled into bed early. He dreamed of being watched by women with fixed, twisted smiles, but he was also in a World War II movie where bombs rained down from a flak-spattered green sky. Walls tumbled, the ceiling cracked and fell. To escape he ran to a muddy field with Snaps. Combining their digging skills, he and Snaps burrowed down, down under the radar, where Art practiced his trick of motionless breathing. Like Nessie, they could stay hidden forever, happy by themselves, if only Snaps would stop her dreadful loud huffs. Art stroked the dog's head and squeezed her muzzle closed, half-wishing she were dead. Would he have to kill the dog? How? His stomach and lungs ached like they had filled up with dirt. Then someone else was coughing out dirt--not Snaps but Dad, who destroyed the hideout by plunging into bed with a strong musky smell of beer and cologne.
The next weekend Dad fulfilled a promise to take Grandma to Tijuana. She was excited by the prospect of cheap glassware and "authentic Mexican baskets," though Art couldn't imagine why she needed a basket or where she would put it. On outings like this Dad tended to be in good temper unless something went wrong with the car, and during the long ride Art managed to stop worrying about the homework due Monday.
Right across the border, as soon as they parked, Dad spotted one of the men who took photos for tourists. Gesturing to them, the Mexican stood in a little plaza with a burro dressed in fancy saddle and halter. "Señor! Señor!" For a buck or two, Art knew, he would seat a child in the saddle, crown him with a sombrero and snap a Polaroid. On a previous trip, when Mom and Dad were still together, Art had climbed up for such a shot, perhaps with this same mustachioed, finger-wiggling huckster. Already then he was too old for such things, and in the resulting print the huge hat and vacant grin made him look like a cartoon. That was one item from the old days he was glad to have lost.
Dad was walking ahead, as always, and he called back loudly, "Hey, Artie, wanta get a souvenir picture?"
This was the other form of his name Art couldn't stand, and it added to the humiliation of Dad's suggestion. Art pretended not to hear, staying in Grandma's wake on the crumbling sidewalk as she aimed her quick little steps at the largest souvenir shop on the main drag.
Packed on the shelves, dangling from the ceiling, jutting into the narrow aisles, an incredible assortment of merchandise flung itself at the public: wallets and purses, flashy jewelry, clay pots of all sizes, basketry, miscellaneous loud shirts, stone statues of animals, wooden statues of angels or saints, strange-looking liquor bottles, plus more inspiring goods such as whips, saddles, pistols and swords. Art tried to separate himself from the swarming tourists, those stupid gringos. After admiring the whips, he found himself gazing down into a glass-topped display case of knives with ominously curved blades and ornamental handles. A salesman in a shiny tight shirt with imitation-pearl buttons stepped over and nodded to him.
"Nice, eh? Thees one's a Bowie knife," the man said, indicating a large specimen. "Like on TV, no?" Art was impressed, remembering the series in which Jim Bowie subdued as many villains with his knife as the other heroes did with six-shooters. The salesman, with his hands clasped delicately at the waist, drew back a couple of paces as if deferring to Art's appreciation of first-class weaponry. "How about this one here?" Art pointed. "Oh yes, señor, fine, very fine," the man said, nodding again. "Thees is for, how you say?" and he made a tossing gesture with his wrist. "How the desperadoes do." "I thought so!" Art declared.
It was a slim, delicately arched model, five inches of blade with an intricate silver handle inlaid with bone. A tiny folding sensation occurred in Art's stomach, a pinch at his rectum. "How much is it?"
With extremely polite gestures, the man offered, just for Art, a special low price, a true bargain. The bills tucked in Art's wallet would cover it, but he worried that he ought to negotiate (his father had warned Grandma that "these people expect you to haggle"). At that moment Dad happened by, a flat brown-paper package under his arm. He asked what Art was looking at and proclaimed the knife "decently made, not bad at all." With expert smoothness the salesman switched his attention to Dad, and soon Dad had paid for the knife himself without debating the amount. "You can save your allowance money, Artie," he smiled. "Now let's see if your grandma has bought the rest of the store."
During the drive home Art tried to forget how he'd lost status in front of the salesman. Sharing the back seat with Dad's package and two useless baskets, he held the knife on his lap to admire it. Its tooled leather sheath ("no extra, I give you free") was also a work of art. He tested its balance and visualized tossing it through an open window into the ears of dumb tourists in passing cars.
At home, Dad unwrapped his own purchase, which turned out to be a painting on black velvet of a nude lady bullfighter. "You didn't buy that!" Grandma exclaimed. "No, I stole it," Dad grinned. "Think it'd look good over the sofa?" Though the broad white paintstrokes were sort of cartoonish, showing the naked woman just in outline, Art was embarrassed to be in the same room with such a thing.
When Monday dawned blustery--windbreaker weather--Art left early with his new treasure tucked in a jacket pocket. As luck would have it, he spotted Ken by the school fence, and his friend was intrigued by Art's whispers. They hurried back of the sheds, where Art tried to demonstrate the knife's virtues. Ken scooted off to fetch Jerry and Leo for a more expert analysis. The older boys tested the knife themselves, got it to stick in the wood a couple of times and pronounced it cool. Jerry handed it back to Art with respect, advising, "Don't let the principal sniff it out, amigo. He'll go apeshit." "Like if you whipped out a boner in assembly," Leo added, and everyone cracked up.
For safekeeping Art stowed the jacket and knife in his locker, and throughout the day he felt that the law of gravity or some such fundamental property had shifted. The long rows of desks rode lightly, sweetly across the floor like foam on a Coke. He imagined that in time he would become famous, the best knife-thrower in the state. He stared almost openly at Trish O'Neal, catching her eye not once but twice, and not blushing about it any more than she did. He watched her neck bend, glistening with light from the window as she turned to whisper to the girl behind her.
In math class, when Mr. Petrie returned last week's test, he muttered to Art, "This is what, your third hundred in a row, Dennison? Guess you're going to college, not like most of these clowns." Art nodded, accepting the compliment as his due. He'd always assumed he'd go to college because his father had, but now the prospect took on the color of an imaginable future. In college he would win mathematics prizes and knife-throwing contests, with Trish O'Neal as his girlfriend. Anyone who insulted her would face the knife. But in an anxious moment he wondered what Mr. Petrie would say if he knew about the weapon.
On the way home Art kept his right hand in his jacket pocket, pulling the fabric tight against the wind and drawing warmth from the magic blade there. With his left hand he balanced a full load of books on his hip, but they seemed smaller and lighter than usual. The shops' neon signs spilled colors he hadn't observed until now. By a record store he heard rock 'n' roll slithering out the door as two girls brushed close to him, sweaters outlining their hips. Again his stomach gave him that folding sensation and he wanted to enter the store but didn't quite know how. A fallen palm frond, flipping in the wind, raked his ankle. A pair of Harleys roared past, scattering dust like raindrops.
At the corner of Esplanade he made a sudden decision, and instead of turning he used the green light to stride on straight, into the crosswalk, past the rumbling nose of a two-tone Ford Fairlane. Today he would discover what lay beyond. At least he would approach the cliff and peer out, see what there was to see. He was going to be a man of the world.
The street was even wider than it looked, however, and despite his quick pace a Pontiac convertible lunged at him before he reached the sidewalk. The driver probably didn't notice a short kid loaded with books, or didn't care, which soured Art's mood. On the other side he found himself alone on the concrete. Wind whipped him harder, and the sneaky sun came out to riddle his glasses with reflections. The traffic belched fumes. He was utterly exposed, with no way to explain what he was doing here, no excuse for the knife in his pocket. If a policeman came along . . .
When he turned toward the emptiness, mottled gray sky filled his vision. Beyond a grassy strip, the land indeed seemed to end. His leg muscles tingled, his knees locked.
Maybe Columbus was wrong, Art joked to himself. But it was weak humor because he was already at the crosswalk again, waiting for the light to change so he could return to the known side of the street. He held his breath as he crossed. His steps were so clumsy his ankles banged together, and he kept his gaze down as he trudged to the apartment stairway. Now his left wrist ached, too, from supporting the books. He wanted to get inside fast, use the bathroom, and lie down.
In this state he didn't detect what lay in wait, so he nearly toppled down the stairs when the voice ambushed him. "Hi, Arthur. What's up? Oh, is something the matter?"
It was her again, giant on the steps above. She must have seen his trip across the street and cowardly scuttle back. Today she blazed a deep violet on top and turquoise below, and her pedal pushers creased tight between her legs. He struggled with his key, dropped it, retrieved it from two steps down while she scrutinized him. Luckily it didn't fall through the spaces between the stairs, but he got woozy reaching for it and his bladder cramped. His knife started to fall out of his jacket pocket and he was ready to wet his pants. He kept his back toward Sandra, his face flaming as he burbled a few words to fend her off.
"I don't bite, you know," she was saying while he worked the door lock. Rushing to the toilet, he found that his underwear was damp. He decided that if he disgraced himself again in front of that woman, he would kill somebody.
He stashed the knife under his T-shirts in the dresser he shared with Dad, concealed but handy. He wondered, if he had to use it on himself, whether he would manage the deed better than his mother had. He was not sure, for example, how to stab the heart without hitting the breastbone. Jerry Causwell would know such a thing.
He noticed then that the blinds on the picture window were open, letting the mucky sky across the street stare in at him. Underneath the clouds was a darker, thicker muck. Art yanked the blinds closed.
That evening he neglected his homework in favor of extra TV. He particularly enjoyed Tales of Wells Fargo, where Jim Hardie and his horse Jubilee took care of bad guys in a neat, quick fashion, no questions asked. In those days everybody knew who was evil, and if he didn't surrender you killed him.
In bed, half awake, Art imagined a land that he himself ruled, where the laws were even simpler than in Westerns: obey Lord Dennison or else. It was a remote island, undiscovered by world powers, that could sink to the bottom of the sea if planes approached. Bells rang and horns sounded like on a submarine, and then the island would disappear beneath the waves, diving way down under the radar to depths where only Nessie lived. In fact there was a special cage for Nessie, who became his pet.
On this island he had slaves such as Jerry Causwell who saw to his every need. Ken DiVincenzo was his right-hand man. But the particularly exciting feature, which kept him tossing in the bed, was the girls. Captured on the mainland, they were chained naked to a wall until he wanted them. Some of them he kissed and made love to. Those in loud-colored pedal pushers, or ones who failed to welcome his advances, he killed with his knife. If they were especially bad he cut off their nipples or stuck the knife between their legs to rip them up. It went in slick and easy. Their blood drained across the floor into specially constructed channels and eventually to the ocean, where the long pink streamers swirled into gooey clouds. This was an awful death, and he felt terrible about it, but it was what they deserved. Trish O'Neal had a choice to be his best girlfriend or endure the knife, and the scene with her played over and over while he waited for her answer. He petted her silky red hair to encourage her. She would not be allowed to kill herself; it would be his decision only. These pictures ended when Dad climbed roughly into bed and yanked most of the covers away, but throughout the night his dreams featured knives and blood and swelling naked body parts.
At 7:20 a.m., rocky and stumbling, Art had no appetite for cereal, and he retched at the breakfast table. "Are you sick?" Grandma asked, but he insisted on going to school and slid out of the apartment with fifteen minutes to spare, finding himself on the sidewalk under another overcast sky. Today the clouds humped in ridges like dark fingers. At the corner he bore left and started across the street again, aiming straight toward those clouds.
He was angry and tired, and his shame had turned into a red flare under his skin. Once he got to school he would suffer for skipping his homework, but in the meantime he would prove he wasn't a total helpless coward. Whatever would happen would happen--like that Doris Day song, que sera sera.
Traffic wasn't bad this early, so he reached the far sidewalk without incident. Still feverish from his dreams, he willed his knees not to wobble as he approached the strip of grass beyond the concrete. When he had crossed it, he could peer over the edge where the land toppled away.
He inched forward. Surprisingly the drop was only 15 feet or so. Down below stretched a belt of sand fringed by white foam. Beyond that, liquid ridges mimicking the ones in the sky rode forward in a long gray line. As they hit the sand and died, new ones came up from the rear.
The ocean. A beach! Why hadn't anyone told him this was across the street from his apartment?
The sand was deserted now. In summer, though, people must come here for swimming and sunbathing. Girls in bikinis would sprawl on the sand. His stomach folded. This radical new vision of his environment dizzied him as much as his original premise of a cliff at the end of the world.
It was thrilling but also sickening. How could he have been so unaware? What else didn't he understand? His father, Grandma, that Sandra woman, not to mention Ken and Jerry and Leo--they must all see things that were beyond him. At his age he should know better, they'd all be snickering. Trish O'Neal would find his ignorance pathetic, or worse, hilarious. And if she ever spied into his bloody dreams . . .
As the shame burned icy hot in his veins, he thought about diving in the water right now to disappear. Someone this weird, this wretched really ought to be down in the depths with Nessie. And it made sense that his life would end in this way, submerged in a huge obvious ocean that he didn't know existed. He looked at the steps leading down to the beach and pictured himself descending.
Yet, as he watched the water suck at the land, he realized that drowning didn't really appeal to him at the moment. Nor did the knife. For one thing, even in his fevered state, these solutions seemed stupidly melodramatic. A rebellious impulse also rose in his throat: It's not my fault I'm hopeless! he yelled to himself.
Maybe he could say the hell with everything, ignore what people thought. If it hurt, let it. Just screw the sonsofbitches, he mumbled, borrowing his father's language.
This attitude gave him an odd sensation of calm, as if nothing much worse could happen. He tried to see himself as a tragic person without illusions, a bearer of awful truths, and he fancied that Trish might appreciate someone like that. Perhaps one day they would walk on the cold winter beach, sharing bitter knowledge and a mug of black coffee.
Clutching that thought, and shoving his ignominy to the bottom of his gut, he turned back across the street and resumed the trudge toward school. A motorcycle howled by. Three girls passed, giggling. A few drops of rain squeezed from the sky and spattered the dry expanse of pavement.
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