La Forza Del Destino
I am not unique in my own religious background. Like most prepubescent Catholic boys, I had once considered the priesthood as a possible calling. I even wrote to a seminary and received, within a week, a pamphlet bulging with photos, depicting the whole organization as a giant, continuous summer camp for boys. But something--an instinct or alarm-signal from the future--made me suspicious of this idyllic Neverland, and I never followed up with the "calling" (although for a few years, I continued to receive seminary propaganda). The experience of a successful correspondence, however, bolstered my confidence in utilizing the United States Postal Service, and led me directly to the realm of the mail-order industry: a means of independence and adventure, without the over-the-shoulder pragmatic badgering of an adult.
I was never much interested in comic books. The stories seemed too ridiculous and the cluttered illustrations made it difficult to read the insipid captions and balloon dialogue. But comic books were the main source of mail-order advertisements, and the advertisements were impossible to resist: Could one really learn the trade secrets of ventriloquists and international spies? Was it possible to purchase real x-ray glasses? And what was the mystery surrounding the frequency of rupture belt ads? Should I get one?
I can't remember which superhero in leotards it was (or perhaps it was the grizzled and battle weary Sergeant Rock of Easy Company), but I can recall in minute detail, one specific advertisement: 204 REVOLUTIONARY WAR SOLDIERS . . . ONLY $1.98 . . . 2 COMPLETE ARMIES . . . EVERY PIECE OF PURE MOLDED PLASTIC--EACH ON ITS OWN BASE UP TO FOUR INCHES LONG . . . HOURS OF FUN FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY!
The colored illustration depicted the opposing armies, frozen in the first volley of battle, standing or kneeling in the straight lines of antiquated warfare--some with sabers drawn; others huddled near the wheels of an active cannon. There were clouds of cannon and musket smoke dotting the rolling field, and the Stars and Stripes and Union Jack waving (impossibly) in opposite directions. The Redcoat's side had a few bare-chested Mohawk Indians--charging with tomahawks--and a front line of what appeared to be Hessians--topped off in their tall hats, reminiscent of Saint Patrick or the Pope. The Americans all wore the traditional three-cornered hat. At the bottom right of the advertisement was a clip-out order form, with bold red letters urging: RUSH COUPON TODAY. Which I did.
I began checking the mail the very next day. I of course realized that my order could not possibly have been received in that interval--let alone shipped--but the mysterious invisibility of the process opened my imagination to the possibility of a miraculous override of the laws governing time and space. Unfortunately, Professor Einstein had his say, and from my "frame of reference" the weeks that followed had an additional fifty-nine minutes added to each hour, and the muffled voices of 204 Revolutionary Soldiers cried out to me from Mail-order Limbo--somewhere between Long Island, New York, and Orange County, California.
On Saturday afternoon of the third week (soldiers still trapped in Limbo), my mother dropped a pair of us off at the Fox Theater to see The Time Machine, starring Rod Taylor. In between the cartoons and feature movie, I nudged my friend, Mitch, to witness a prank, as I took careful aim at the back of a bald man's head, and let fly a pink Good 'N Plenty. The trajectory was off, however, and the candy struck the neck of a girl about my age, who instantly turned around and condemned me with a pair of beautiful green eyes. My cowlick was especially troublesome that day. Add that trait to the twisted grin contorting my features--along with the instant flush of embarrassment--and my appearance must have been something akin to a birthday clown in a nightmare. Mitch gagged on popcorn and laughter. I felt intense shame, and for the longest time I sat frozen in place, barely breathing. The only thing that saved me was the dimming of the theater house lights.
The movie began with the sound and images of ticking clocks floating across a darkened screen. The ticking was subject to the Doppler Effect, as the clocks traveled in and out of the field of vision. In no time at all, my worries were temporarily suspended; my attention was in the custody of George Pal and Technicolor, and my corporeal senses were only vaguely aware of occasional cool gusts of air-conditioning, punctuated by the odor of heavily-buttered popcorn.
There is always a transitional decompression following the ending credits of a movie. To this day I still feel stunned when I leave my theater seat and dive back into the solid world of creatures not made of light. The shock was even greater when I was ten, and as I readjusted to fixed time and space, I moved like a sleepwalker. Nevertheless, I had the presence of mind to avoid the pretty girl with the green eyes--in spite of my attraction to her. Mitch expressed a little empathy, and graciously obliged my neurosis, following me in an extravagant detour. But this trek led us to something even more daunting: Rudy Kohler, a proven bully, with a silver front tooth, and homespun anti-Catholic sentiments.
"Hey, mackerel-snapper," Rudy said, in a posturing pseudo-baritone (like most bullies, he had been held back in school a couple of times).
"Keep walking," I said to Mitch, through a ventriloquist grin. "Keep walking." (I was still recovering from Rudy's attempt to use my forehead to defoliate a small patch of playground, in retaliation to the school cafeteria serving fish-sticks that Friday.)
"Hey, mackerel-snapper--ya deaf?"
I took this as a reasonable suggestion and pretended not to hear. Mitch grimaced at Rudy's face as if it were a math problem. "Don't look at him," I said sotto voce.
Rudy stood near the exit like a silver-toothed mythological creature, guarding the portal of an enchanted palace. "Dumb mackerel-snapper," he growled.
Mitch and I made a wide arc and escaped.
My wife and I like to go on evening walks. As we walk, we discuss (sometimes argue) a wide range of topics, but we often end up comparing childhood experiences. Apparently, we had never lived more than ten miles from each other, yet we somehow didn't meet until we were in our late thirties. We'd tried countless times, in vain, to fix some spot in time where we might have crossed paths. Nothing. Then one evening, as we were walking to a video store to rent The Time Machine, we found the missing link. "I saw The Time Machine at the Fox Theater when it first came out," I said.
My wife slowed to a complete stop. "Me too," she said, looking at me with her green eyes.
"I can remember everything about it," I said.
"Yeah. Me too. I remember some boy hit me with a piece of hard candy or something."
I held out hope for over a year. Every day (except Sundays and holidays), I'd check the mail box, expecting to see a package addressed to me. Eventually, this aroused suspicion in my father.
"Is there a show going on in there?" he said, one Saturday afternoon. "What are you looking for?"
"Nothing," I said.
"Nothing? If you want to look at nothing, you look at your thumb. Or a blank wall." He put his hand on my shoulder. "Come on, now. What are you waiting for--a letter from your girlfriend?"
My face burned. "I don't have a girlfriend," I said.
"Are you still writing that seminary?" (He sounded a little worried.)
I told him what I'd done, what I'd ordered. Maybe it was time for some help.
"You sent them cash?" was his first response. "Oh boy. Give me their address; I'm going to write them a letter."
When I told him I didn't copy the address, my father looked up at the sky to make sure God was getting all this down. He backed off a little when he saw I was on the edge of tears.
"Okay," my father said. "No big deal. It's only a couple of bucks. That's a cheap lesson. What did you learn?"
No matter how dedicated I am when shopping for a gift for my wife, I almost always get sidetracked by something of my own interests. This October I was looking to buy an antique dresser for an anniversary gift when I noticed in one shop window an old Schwinn bicycle that appeared to be the exact model I had ridden as a child. The store was called Retro Rudy's.
I parked in front of the store and was drawn like a magnet to the window. I was right: it was the same model Schwinn--a red and white Hornet, with torpedo headlight, horn tank, and rear rack--mint condition.
I entered the store. It smelled like the den of a chain-smoking grandparent. There were the additional odors of mold and mildew--the probable source being dozens of bins stuffed with hundreds of old comic books. The toys of ancient children were scattered throughout the store, as were movie memorabilia, 50's and 60's furniture, outdated cooking utensils, and hundreds of knickknacks--ranging from quaint to somewhat disturbing. A small portion of the shop was dedicated to old phonograph recordings.
Behind a counter stood the shopkeeper. The wall behind him was decorated with two movie posters of the same title: The Time Machine--one was George Pal's rendition, the other a more recent attempt. The shopkeeper was somewhere in his late fifties--bald on top, with stringy shoulder-length hair falling from the sides of a bulbous head. He was hunched over a classic beer-belly, staring intently at some sporting event flickering from a miniature black and white television. His mouth seemed permanently agape and was missing a front tooth. I had seen his twin in a National Geographic illustration: an early branch of proto-human that didn't quite make the team.
"I used to have a Schwinn just like that," I said, pointing to the bike in the window.
The shopkeeper made no response.
"What're you asking for her?" I said.
He waited thirty seconds before grunting, "Price tag's on it."
"Nice place you have here," I said (now I was trying to annoy him). "You the owner?"
He pointed--as if it were an effort--to a small rack holding business cards. I took a card and read silently: Retro Rudy's/ All Your Vintage Needs/ Open Tues. through Sat. 10 to 6 / Rudy Kohler, Proprietor.
I think I showed nothing on my face. But it didn't matter--he wasn't looking. I held the business card out and down, so it appeared as a plaque under the image of Rudy. Here I smiled. It made sense. This is what a Rudy Kohler would have de-evolved into over this many years. He no longer scared me. In fact, if he were to become violent, I could easily deliver one well-placed punch in the area of his solar plexus, and Rudy would fold into his last heart attack. But as much as I enjoyed the fantasy, I knew nothing like that would happen. I decided to look around the shop for awhile.
I bypassed the Star Wars stuff and GI Joes--these were not the relics of my childhood. I did pause to look at the lead toys from my parent's generation. (Considering the success of that generation, I wondered whether lead really was such a bad thing.) Then I came to a display case that seemed to quiver like a vision. Inside was a small discolored cardboard box, with the writing: 204 Revolutionary War Soldiers. The box illustration was only too familiar--the same as the comic book ad. My heart pounded and I was transported to 1961. All was forgiven; they could come home with me to the future. But then I saw, surrounding the box, the actual soldiers, and my heart sank, as it would have in 1961. The soldiers were tiny; they looked like chewed bubble gum. And they were flat, with an eye on each side, like a guppy. Horrible details--almost no details at all. These were the worst toy soldiers I'd ever seen.
I went back to the front counter. "How much for the Revolutionary soldiers?" I asked.
"You wanna buy 'em?" Rudy asked.
I paused a moment. "I already paid for them," I said.
"Huh?" A sudden knot appeared in his face. He turned sideways to focus me in with one eye. "You look familiar . . ." he said. "What's your name?"
"Rod Taylor," I lied.
The knot remained. "Where'd you go to school?" he asked.
"Tahiti," I said. "I'm from Tahiti. Were you ever in Tahiti?"
He made a sound that probably meant no.
I was about to leave when I noticed something in the counter display case that stopped me in my tracks. There were two gold-plated mouthpieces, the size of which made me think they were either trombone or tuba mouthpieces. "What are those things?" I said, pointing to the objects in question.
Rudy gave a quick glance and said, "Bells. Little gold bells. You gonna buy something?"
Before my wife and I went on our evening walk, I phoned the police to report my suspicions concerning stolen musical instrument accessories for sale in Retro Rudy's. I told the police I wasn't certain the items were stolen, but they looked out of place (I used to play the clarinet in high school, I said, so I knew a little bit about these kinds of things). I said there was also something seedy about the owner. I just thought they'd like to know.
My wife and I decided to walk in a neighborhood we hadn't been through before. It had huge trees and old houses. From one house we heard music. We stopped and listened. It was a low-pitched musical instrument, playing a legato melody--sonorous and otherworldly, like a giant singing an Italian vocalise. We listened for quite a long time.
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