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This is the final of the 6-story series I’ve titled “Fleeting.” Each story is separate, each has its own title, each appeared separately in my first book, THE SOUL IN THERE.
Hey, hey, it stopped raining, the boy exulted, bursting through the doorway and out under the vine covered pergola on the flat roof of the great museum.
Hey hey, and I see some patches of blue, his Uncle Richard shouted in his turn. It’s going to clear up, my boy. The fleet rolling scud rushed past like a thick swarm of insects just above the tallest of the great buildings lining the horizon in the two visible directions, the blue patches as impermanent as a pinprick.
Chris stepped out into a shallow puddle left on the rectangular paving stones and turned his face into the breeze for a moment. Feels good after all that time in there, he said.
Uncle Richard joined him, face turned up and eyes closed as though he were under a shower head. That it does, he said. But you liked it in there, didn’t you? Hearing no answer, he turned and found the boy a dozen paces away at one of the featured artist’s structures, an octagonal dome made of rough narrow rails, raw, unvarnished and untreated, stacked horizontally, their ends resting on each other as on a log home but without notches, leaving several inches between each rail. Chris was peering through an eye-level crack at another structure within, a tower maybe twenty feet high made of smooth round stones one placed atop another, progressively smaller from a large base to what was no more than a large pebble which he could cup in his hand, like a knee, at the top. It’s like a soul in there, he thought. And then he wondered about his thought, skewing his face, as he surveyed the floor littered with ground stones, a loose sheet of paper. Everywhere, on the floor and on the tower, light and shadow played, shifted, modulated as the clouds raced along, thinning in their haste, letting in the sun, teasing it and then shutting it out again.
You like that? his uncle called to him. He hadn’t left the pergola for watching the boy.
Chris turned to him, stepped away from the dome. It’s neat, he said.
You know there’s another one.
He approached his uncle, then turned and saw the second behind the first, identical in size and shape. He rushed over to it, noticing for the first time a few other museum visitors milling around. Stopping between the two domes, his head swiveled from one to another, jerkily measuring their dimensions, shapes, content. They’re the same, he called.
His uncle nodded. They’re called Stone Houses.
Chris walked around the perimeter of each, then wandered onto the planked flooring of the roof as it extended to its southern border. Here he stopped, took a deep breath. His lips separated, his eyes grew as wide as when he first saw Karen’s breasts last month, the last time, out of embarrassment and shame, she had permitted him to see any of her again. But what lay before him now was a substitute equally scintillating, miles of treetops spread out to the south and west against a background of buildings gray and tall and eerily stoic looking, stone solid against the whizzing clouds and the green vitality of the sea of trees.
That’s Central Park down there. It was his Uncle Richard’s rich baritone. He felt a hand on his shoulder.
It looks lile, like . . . um. Broccoli, he asserted triumphantly. Miles and miles of broccoli heads.
You’re right, it does. Uncle Richard seemed excited. And beneath it all is traffic. Cars and buses and motorcycles. People walking and rollerblading. Dogs on leashes.
Uncle Richard looked down at him. He smiled, nodded. Yep. Of course. Lots of them.
In silence Chris raised his hand, and his hand took on a life of its own. It reached out and began to roam over the treetops and Chris’s eyes and his head followed its smooth undulating flight like a bird’s almost brushing the topmost leaves, gliding effortlessly on a current of freshly washed air, a refreshed cosmic sigh. He listened for the sounds down there, heard hums and coughs and sputters, but they probably came from the traffic on the adjoining Fifth Avenue, not from the creatures and vehicles burrowing under the trees of the park. Retrieving his hand, he gazed at it for a moment as if asking something of it, then let it roam again. The treetops seemed so delicate against the hard edges of the gray buildings beyond, but as he scanned the scene even they took on a new appearance, they seemed like guardians, a wall of guardians around the park, each building a skin around its denizens and all of them a skin around the park, with its broccoli tops a living parasol for the creatures thriving beneath. He looked to his side but his uncle was gone. Turning, he saw him on a bench near the pergola, head back, eyes closed, hands folded over his belly, just breathing. Chris’s eyes settled on the domes again, and in them through the tiny horizontal cracks he could make out fragments of the stone inhabitants, the earthy souls. He walked toward them slowly, measuring their growth against his casual approach. There was an evergreen hedge growing in a long planter that served as a rail, and he crouched low and from this perspective saw the dome rise from the greenery as if spawned by it. To the west rose also from the hedge two towers of a massive building far away on Central Park West. The hedge seemed to connect the towers to the dome in a long green passage, and Chris exhaled and held his breath.
Uncle Richard, he called without movement. Uncle Richard. Come here.
Look, Uncle Richard. Crouch down and look, he said breathlessly when he saw a beige pantleg almost touching his side. What does it look like?
My God, Uncle Richard said.
It looks like some cathedral. I’ve seen pictures of a cathedral that looks like this.
The Florence Cathedral.
That’s it. Yeah. Yeah. The Florence Cathedral. I saw pictures of it in my history book at school.
Look at that. You’re right. The dome is the same shape, even the ribs. Except the cathedral has only one tower.
That’s okay, Chris said. Wow.
Uncle Richard returned to his bench. He’d seen all of this before, though not the cathedral illusion. He closed his eyes and was once more interrupted by Chris’s voice, cracking in adolescent excitement. Again he rose and strode over to him, his eyes following the direction of his outstretched arm. He saw a flagless vertical pole against a sky now mostly blue and still, and on the tip of that pole perched a large bird, majestic and motionless, from the top of this monument to civil sentiment, to universal vision and experience, surveying its domain of harnessed woodland, cultivated imitation of the wild with its outcroppings and paved trails and open grasslands and its broccoli trees. Can you believe it, shouted Chris.
How does this happen, Uncle Richard?
What’s that, Chris?
Everything. All of this. His arm, independently alive, swiped over the whole scene. And now the bird.
It’s a red-tailed hawk, Chris.
The red-tailed hawk. And all the rest of this. How does it all happen to come together like this?
Uncle Richard looked down at him. Fate? he said.
You mean God? asked Chris.
I mean Fate. Whatever that is.
It’s either that or Chance, and I much prefer Fate.
He reached around the boy, gripped his shoulder. Chris felt the pressure and liked it. He stood transfixed, then his head began to move slowly, aimlessly, his eyes scanned the stolid buildings now quite glittering in the bright sunshine, the large domes before him, the stone towers inside them, the hawk, the sky, the broccoli trees. He became acutely aware of the sound and feel of his breathing, felt something like a warm bubble swelling his face, his chest. I can do that, he thought.
He stood stone still, all processes cerebral and corporeal in a state of unwitting suspension, only a fine emotion like a soft drizzle touching the edge of his consciousness, until he felt a pat on his shoulder and the abrupt withdrawal of his uncle. I can do that, he repeated to himself. All of it. I can. He raised his hands, gazed at them, gently interlocked the fingers and rested them against his stomach. I can take stuff and make any of this, all of it. Anything. Anything at all. He thought of dirt and bone and the smooth sheen of leaves, of gossamer wisps of hair and the ethereal softness of earlobes scented with the perfume of youth, he thought of shape and form and the exudation of life from wood and boulder, the malleability of flesh. All of this he thought and pictured, and then he walked to his uncle and sat beside him. I can do all that, he said.
All what, my boy?
He held his arms out like a savior and he felt emotion fill his eyes. All that.
Uncle Richard looked out there at all that and then at Chris. He tilted his head and sighed, twisted in his seat and extracted his wallet from his back pocket. He opened the wallet and took out a small piece of paper, unfolded it, said, This is the only thought of mine I ever wrote down. It’s the only thought I ever had that was worth writing down. I’ve always like it. He offered it to Chris, who took it as if it held a mystery. There were two lines:
Life is fleeting, precious
Kiss the moment in art.
Chris read it, did a double take, his head snapped up to see his uncle who was gazing at the hawk, then it swirled leisurely like a curl of smoke along the plane of the sculptures to the buildings beyond, the green green treetops below, and up again to the hawk’s perch and the white patches of clouds, high and starkly white against the forever azure.
I can do all that, he thought.
Note: This is the 5th in the 6-story series I’ve Titled “Fleeting.” In it you’ll see another aspect of Chris’s experience which may explain some ambiguities from earlier stories, such as how the innocent boy in nature (3rd story) is seen as a young thug in the 4th. You might also see the function of the raccoon vignettes as parallels with Chris’s experience.
Behind his house where two garages faced two others at the place where the alley stopped mid-block, Chris hid out in brush thick and high enough to hide a crouching adolescent who could peer out at neighbors in their yards or strangers on the more distant sidewalk but who would not be seen by them if he sat still. Even if he moved he would not be seen by them unless on a windless afternoon or evening after supper they saw the branches tremble and the leaves shiver and they ventured to take a closer look.
Chris spent a lot of hours per week in those low weedy bushes, unplanted and untended, and in the present springtime barren, unflowered. Sometimes he even crouched there unsees, immobile, like a boyish Buddha with a cowlick, host to spiders and ants, friend of twigs and hard soil, while neighborhood boys played basketball in the pocked and cracked apron of the farthest garage and he watched them through tiny openings among the leaves as through a camera obscura, breathing in the bright colors of tee shirts and shorts, tasting the beads of sweat and the slapping hands, listening to the dazzling and chaotic patterns, the dizzying architecture of movement like a skyline during an earthquake.
Chris shifted, prepared to rise, to go to his home and face the music. He owned no timepiece but he knew that supper was served and perhaps already cold and he knew there’d be hell to pay to his mother for being late. He was scared and he had no good excuse to offer for his tardiness other than the truth, and he couldn’t tell her that. How could he? How could he tell her that on this day of days, this the last day of his thirteenth year, his tongue had tasted an earlobe for the first time? No, how could he tell her that his fingers had thrummed soft little toes, felt the sharp edges of nails not his own? No, no . . . and how could he tell her that, most amazing of all, most unforgettably and magically — indeed, how could he tell her? — he was late because in the basement rec room of Karen’s little house his fingertip had for the first time circumscribed something swollen and firm under a soft cotton shirt, something alive and surprisingly pointed and hard as a ginger snap, something his finger could see because his eyes weren’t permitted access despite his pathetic eager puppydog face and his cherubic smile.
Hey Chris, Karen had intoned, her hands sifting his hair. Chris. Her voice was soft but commanding. Hey Christian.
Huh? he breathed. His hand went to her face, traced her jawline.
You’re really some Christian, Mister Christian.
I am? What are you talking about?
You know, you’re leading me right into sin, don’t you Mister Christian? You are one naughty Christian, don’t you know.
He looked directly at her, smiled, rasped in a scratchy voice, Yeah? Well you’re the one dangling this little, um, apple at me, you know.
Uh huh. I’m not giving it to you though. You can’t have it.
I can’t? Not even a little peek?
Okay, he said. Not yet anyway.
How do you explain to an overweight ogre that such clever adolescent repartee with its attendant bursts of mindless giggles entitles you to lateness for supper, that mealtime tardiness or any other for that matter is fully justified by such harmless dabbling in nature’s tender mysteries? Chris struggled up, patted off some of the dirt from the seat of his jeans. You can’t, he thought.
Stretching, taking a deep breath, he mumbled, Gotta go sometime.
Shit, he added.
He walked down the half alley and entered the house he shared with his parents and a young sister, careful to guide the door to a silent close. As he climbed the three stairs to the main floor he heard a chair scrape the kitchen floor, his mother rising. Without hesitation he turned a corner and entered the kitchen, he appraised the scene as he approached his mother; she, large as a truck, standing there, hands on hips, glaring at him, lips tight, little Becky, his sister, already cowering over a plate of beans untouched, some chips, and a half eaten hot dog, an empty plate and a glass of milk, and a space where the old man would be sitting were he home. It didn’t look good.
Where the hell were you?
Out with friends. We didn’t have a watch.
Out with what friends?
You, she said, turning to Becky. Go to your room. The little girl slunk out of her chair and rushed past them and disappeared. Two paces separated Chris from his mother and she eliminated one of them. Before he could prepare for it he felt a blow alongside his head, his ear seemed to rupture like a blown truck tire, and a shrill ring blasted his consciousness. He lost his balance and fell sideways against the refrigerator, bright fractured lights darting across a black void behind his eyeballs, he almost crumpled to the floor but caught himself, righted himself. He opened his eyes, tears were falling involuntarily, and what he saw through their distorting prism was a face crazy and otherworldly, an arm swinging. He ducked but it caught him at the scalp line and he lost his balance again.
She grabbed his shoulders and shook him. You come in here late for supper and you tell me you’re out with friends, she shouted. I ask you what friends and you say just friends, you sassy little son of a bitch, you. Who do you think you are mouthing off to your mother like that, God damn you. She threw him away like a demented wrestler discarding a dummy. Off balance, he bounced off a wall and she caught him and he felt his hair in her hands and then felt the first contact of his head against the unyielding wall.
A chute opens and Chris slides like a torrent into an alternate universe, a universe at once familiar and startling and banal, a universe in which he finds all sensations suddenly and shatteringly indistinguishable, a universe uninhabited by any person but onle force and effect, the force malicious unrelenting and incontestable that fuses power and crushing sound into a furious unity with pain and thrust and imprecation, the whole emanating from a single source like darkness from nothing so that it (the effect) seems to the boy that it’s the universe itself condemning him to hell in an incessant and reverberant propulsion that continues until he picks himself up from the floor and realizes that it was his mother doing all of that.
Now get upstairs to your room and don’t come down until I call you tomorrow morning, you sassy little shit, she bawled, and as he ran past her, mewling, with his arms covering his downturned head, one hand tight upon the other, she added, I’ll teach you to be a smart ass, you little son of a bitch.
The boy tore up the oak stairs, slipping once and banging his shin against a step but recovering quickly enough, he hurled himself the few paces to his room and caromed off the doorframe and dove onto the floor where he struggled to burrow legs first under his bed, his sanctuary for years, his refuge and his strength, his holy abode. When he started using it on such occasions as this, he was small enough to fall asleep and even change positions. Now that he had to squeeze in, his stay was temporary but nevertheless consoling. A sob escaped him and he felt the damp from his eyes and a stream of snot on his arms that his face rested on. From nipple to snot, he thought without mirth. From greenery to musty worn bedroom rug. All in such a short time, he mused. In just minutes, it seemed. He wondered, How does it all happen?
Here is the second appearance of Chris, who’s still twelve years old but showing a different, dark side of himself. The sweet Chris in the third story is almost unrecognizable in this one. The ony similarity is his attention to detail.
The sun is September bright, the shadows of the brick school building and the flagpole crisp and hard edged. The small kids are orderly as they parade behind two adults down the path from their exit to the sidewalk; they’re careful to not step on the sharp yellow grass, as if on orders, and they walk smartly, briskly. They’re cute in their colorful beginning of the year duds and their little backpacks, and they pass without hesitation the two older boys standing on the sidewalk; some of them even chirp a greeting like fragile sngbirds, and they continue until they reach a bus stop halfway down the block. The older kids follow in order and the boys among them, seeing the suspicious strangers, cluster together and as they pass they cast wary sidelong glances at them. Some follow the younger kids and some go the other way. Some engage in group small talk, but not close to the strangers. A few stragglers leave the building separately.
Let’s get this next kid, Jesse says, nodding his head sideways toward a pudgy boy with a stubbled head walking alone. Fucking marine.
They approach him, hands in pockets.
Hey, says Chris. Lend me a buck.
The boy stops. He dips his head a bit, thickens his neck, frowns. He’s taller than Jesse, whom he seems to recognize as he twitches his brow and widens his eyes, but he has to look up to see those of Chris. As soon as he catches sight of them, their coldness, he drops his head again, shifts his gaze back to Jesse.
I ain’t got a buck, he says.
Jesse looks up to Chris and his mouth contorts into an ugly sneer. He returns to the boy, whose head is tilted, eyes diected away, to the side.
He says he wants a fucking dollar. Give him a fucking dollar.
The boy looks from Jesse to Chris and sees his scowl, too hard for a twelve year old, and hears his breathing. He dips his eyelids, his mouth twitches slightly, his shoulders sag almost imperceptibly, but Chris picks up on it and spits. The boy’s right hand reaches into a pocket and fumbles in there and then it slips back out. He holds a wadded up dollar in his open palm and Chris snatches it.
The rest too, he orders. His voice is still pre-adolescent but it’s husky and dim and flat, tough to a younger kid.
That’s all I got, the boy protests.
Jesse extracts a knife from his pocket but doesn’t switch open its six inch blade. The boy’s eyes move toward it and then jump to Chris’s face, as if seeking protection. Chris stares silently at him. In an instant the boy’s hand disappears into his pocket again and reappears with two bills folded into small tight squares which Chris takes with mocking delicacy.
Good boy. He pats a round pink cheek rubs the stubbled head. See you tomorrow.
They turn and walk away and the boy stands there like a pathetic carved toy. A couple of other kids approach him, but no one calls an adult. Chris and Jesse walk on and cross the street, where they’re joined by two others. We hit the jackpot, says one of them, Ronnie, whose voice is changing. Six and a half bucks. Two kids.
And we got, what? Three, adds Jesse.
That’s a start, says Chris.
They walk in the streets of their neighborhood past its neat frame houses from the Depression era, with their screened in porches and painted shutters shaded by blue spruces and oaks. At the edge of their turf they enter a small shopping district and buy sodas at one of the small diners, then tramp through a nearby weedlot approaching a steep railroad bed. At the foot of the overgrown bed, hidden beneath scrub brush and sumacs, is a depression several feet deep that looks like a mass grave abandoned before any interment. Blackened two by six planks, four to six feet long, lie on narrow edges shaped by the hands and haunches of more than one generation of the disaffected and the wandering. Jesse raises a plank and finds a couple of magazines. Hey, a new one, he squeals. He holds one up to show the others the cover photo of a woman squeezing her oversized breasts. Ronnie snatches it from him, takes a seat and opens it, leaving Jesse with the older one. Chris passes around cigarettes and they smoke. Jesse looks up from his magazine.
You see that kid’s face when I pulled the knife? he asks Chris.
You had to pull a knife? Ronnie says. He giving you trouble?
Nah. I just thought I’d let him see it. I didn’t open it. But did you see his face?
He was scared shitless, said Chris. He was playing with a leaf, folding it, running his nails along its veins. His cigarette was dangling from his lips and the smoke was bothering his eyes, so he dropped the butt on the dirt and stamped it out. The look of fear all over his face. Nice to have power, ain’t it.
Damn straight, Jesse says, pleased with himself. He pulls out the knife, swishes it open, tests the blade, admires it.
That could make quite a slice, couldn’t it, the fourth boy, Mickey, observes.
A slice? Jesse slashes the air. Then he penetrates it with a thrust. A fucking puncture.
A puncture? Ronnie laughs.
This blade would have let the air out of that fat little prick back there just like in a fucking cartoon.
Chris’s face changes, his eyes glare. The pudgy boy’s face materializes before them, the fear that tightened up his facial muscles, the slight twitching of his mout, the almost imperceptible slumping of his shoulders, the subtle twinge in his eyebrows that bespoke submission, the deflation of spirit, the sag of defeat.
When we gonna use the blade for something serious? asks Ronnie.
We got plenty of time, man. No hurry, Chris says.