Before reading this, please go to chapter one: here.
Scribbling in the blue of the oceans makes the continents stand out. Having done that, I add the names: the Arinos Ocean on the left, Rostrok on the right. I push my chair back from the table to get a better look: The Continent of Lemurska. This is the sixty-ninth map I’ve drawn (thirty-one more to go). It has six countries, four rivers, three lakes, a mountain range, a desert, and an ocean on each side. It’s got an isthmus and a peninsula and I’ve created a flag for each country. There’s a compass and a scale (1 inch = 250 miles) and it looks absolutely authentic.
Clarence walks in: “Whatcha doing?”
“Seen an ashtray?”
“There’s one over there.”
He picks it up. “Can I see what you’re drawing?”
“Guess so,” I say, and I show him my map.
“Looks pretty authentic,” he says, and he walks out of the room.
Authentic! He used the same word I used! And to think I almost didn’t show him for fear he’d think I was stupid. Of course, Clarence isn't like The Others.
01. He takes you to movies no one else would: “I’d like an ashtray big enough to hold a comfortable chair so I could drop my ashes anywhere.” Clarence is telling this to his friend Albert while the three of us walk to the movies. Tonight’s attraction: “Invasion of the Body-Snatchers.”
02. He takes you booking: “The basement holds all the good ones,” he explains, as I follow him down the narrow wooden stairs. The bookstore smells of mildew but Clarence reaches into the dusty shelves and pulls out book after book like none I’ve ever seen. “Created by The Roycrofters,” he explains. “Hand-tooled spine, hand-made paper, letterpress printing: feel the type.” I touch the page. “And hand-illuminated illustrations, meaning someone colored them in by hand. And we know who that person was because his signature is here, in the colophon.” I picture myself making Clarence proud, sitting at the artist’s desk, illuminating illustrations, unfinished books on my left, finished on my right.
03. He helps you with your drawing: “Let me see,” he says. I show him my three-headlight cars. “Sleek,” he says, "good proportions, but can I suggest something? The portholes on the side of the hood? Unnecessary. Both a good drawing and a good car are simple. And clean.” I’ll never draw another unnecessary porthole my whole life long.
04. He’s voting for Stevenson: For the first time, the national conventions are going to be televised. Clarence says that will change everything. “Still,” he complains, “America’s afraid of intellectuals, so he hasn’t got a chance.” I don’t think Dad's an intellectual, I don't think we know any intellectuals––still, Dad changes his vote to Stevenson. And I would, too, if I could vote.
05. He teaches you weird things: My parents are fighting so Clarence suggests, “Why don’t you and I go for a walk?” On the sidewalk he lights a cigarette and as we walk through the twilight, he tells me, “I've been reading this Buddhist teacher,” he says, “name is D. T. Suzuki, number one Zen scholar in America, and this is a question he poses: Why is a mouse that spins? Know the answer? It's: the fewer, the higher.” Clarence laughs. “Now, what kind of answer is that, you might fairly ask. Well, let me explain: first, the question is called a koan, and second...” We walk through the dark, his cigarette glowing red above me, his voice droning on and on, and I don’t understand any of it. But I feel so lucky to hear it.
06. What he knows is more interesting than what Dad knows: “Modigliani doesn’t paint nudes,” he says. “Modigliani paints naked women.” We’re driving to the paper station early Sunday morning, I’m half asleep and it’s hard to pay attention to what Clarence is saying but he seems to enjoy talking whether anyone’s listening or not. When we arrive at the station, Clarence is finishing his lecture: “...which is why Modern Art ultimately fails, and why––as I’ll explain later––the thirteenth is the greatest of centuries...”
I enter the station and Mr. Briggs asks if my brother’s out in the car. “Go get him,” he says and when I do, he hands some papers to Clarence. “Ever heard of this?”
Clarence looks at the papers. “Exeter? One of the best prep schools back east.”
“What do you think about Michael taking the test?” asks Mr. Briggs.
“Oh, I think he should. Yes, certainly,” Clarence answers, smiling. And he folds up the papers, saying “I’ll have him fill these out. It’s an excellent idea. Thanks.”
Back in the car, Clarence says, “Seems the publisher of your newspaper has funded a scholarship for Exeter––a great prep school! The most educated guys I’ve met studied there. Listen, I want you to fill out these papers and take this test. You’re intelligent. This might be a way for you to escape this place.”
* * *
I start delivery on Ogden. Overhead the sky is filled with stars and as I turn the corner at the Boulevard, I hear a gigantic wooooosh! and look up to see a meteor as big as a car––no, as big as a truck!––tearing across the sky, burning up the atmosphere, lighting trees, lawns and the fronts of houses. My body casts a shadow (in the middle of the night!) and I stand there, transfixed (like the shepherds in Bethlehem). But is it a shooting star? It’s too big. Perhaps it's a rocket. Or a flying saucer! I stand, dumb, for an instant, then run back to the car as fast as I can.
“Did you see it?” I yell. “Did you see it?”
Clarence looks up from the paper and squints; he’s been reading with the interior lights on, making it impossible to see through the windows. “What are you talking about?”
“You didn’t see it? Oh, shoot! You didn’t, did you.”
So I tell him what I’ve seen.
But he’s unimpressed and tells me to calm down. He doesn’t understand how big it was, how bright and amazing! Later, on our way home, he continues: “Look, I’m no astronomy major, I’m in theology, and though we both study the Heavens,” he jokes, “it’s just not the same. Still, I have heard a thing or two from that direction and I recall that no matter how big or bright this meteor appeared, it’s probable, no, certain, that it’s no bigger than a thimble, at best a baseball...”
Clarence can say whatever he wants, but this time he’s wrong. What I saw was huge. A rocket. Or a flying saucer. And I saw it.
* * *
“If this thing was so big,” Howard asks, pulling catsup from the cooler, “how come Clarence didn’t see it?” Our family’s in the park (except for Cliff, who’s run off, who knows where), we're on on a blanket eating dinner, the sun’s setting and we’re part of the crowd that's come to see The Talent Wagon. Glitter on the curtains twinkles like stars and makes it look like a real stage instead of the flatbed truck it actually is. And the p.a. system hardly echoes at all.
“Clarence had the interior lights lit, so he couldn’t see out,” I answer Howard.
“Don’t argue,” my mother snaps, as she fills my cup with Kool-Aid.
But I can’t stop.
“He was a block away,” I insist, “behind the trees. Reading the paper. And I already told you the thing flew low, just above the tree tops.”
“If it was above the tree tops, Clarence would have seen it,” Howard smirks.
Dad interrupts: “Your mother said stop it. Anyway, it’s obvious what happened.”
“What do you mean?” Howard and I ask.
Dad looks surprised; he’s always amazed when we give him attention, pleased whenever he gets it without force. “You know what I’m talking about,” he says. “When the full moon rises over the horizon, it looks huge––three, four times larger than normal, but as it climbs higher it seems to shrink back to normal. It’s an optical illusion.”
“Illusion,” Clarence interrupts (he’s the only one allowed to interrupt Dad), “is at best what we see of this world. Think about perspective: objects don’t actually get smaller as we move away, they just appear to. The world is not as we see it! It’s different and at the same time, much, much more. But we’re not equipped to perceive all that’s there.”
Howard gives me a look: does anyone ever understand Clarence? Or care?
“No,” Clarence continues, helping himself to more potato salad. “What we perceive is only the smallest part of reality. Imagine the world as a dog with his acute sense of smell perceives it, or a bat with his ability to detect sonar. Their senses reveal a world much larger than ours. We simply can’t detect them with our limited, human means.” He stuffs a forkful of beans into his mouth.
“Does that mean you believe what I saw might be something...significant?” I ask.
“Be quiet, all of you,” my mother scoffs. “Watch the show and stop talking nonsense.”
There’s a screech from the loudspeakers as Piggly-Wiggly Lowry waddles into the spotlight: “When C-c-cabeza de Vaca came through this area searching for the Seven Cities of Cibola,” he begins, “his men starved." The audience ignores him, talking among themselves and laughing. “And why? B-b-because they didn’t recognize the g-g-gold in front of them, the fields of g-g-grain stretching from horizon to horizon! Their horses didn’t starve, though; they had horse sense. So when we go looking for t-t-talent, let’s not overlook what’s right in front of our eyes. We don’t need New York to tell us what t-t-talent is. Or real art. We know it when we see it, right here in North Omaha!”
Piggly-Wiggly finishes and the show starts. Most of the acts are dumb, some okay, a few great: the Trainor Twins are terrific on Steel Guitar Rag and the Spinharney Sisters do a swell version of Skylark on twin saws. Judy Forneau does a terrible job; she sings Rock-around-the-Clock, which is a guy’s song so why would she choose such a thing? But one act really gets me: Rose Anne Jankowski, whose costume is as glittery as the curtains. She’s got dark black hair and eyes, and when she dances onto the stage it’s hard to open your own eyes wide enough. Each time she twirls from one side of the stage to the other, she tips her head to the side, finger under her chin, and flutters her eyes in a way that makes you feel funny. Here’s what she does: she acts like she’s singing but there’s actually a record playing backstage. Still, the way she moves her mouth you’d think it really was Teresa Brewer singing, right here in Omaha.
“So, put another nickel in,
In the nickelodeon,
All I want is loving you and music, music, music!”
Suddenly there’s a barrroooom and everyone turns to watch as a black, souped-up ‘53 Chevy careens up and over the curb, skidding to a stop in the grass. Out climb a half-dozen hoodlum types, all guys except one: Molly. Mom asks, “Isn’t that the girl you walk to school?” Which surprises me, because I didn't know she knew; but I’m bothered, too, because the crowd is looking at them as if they’re criminals and how will people know that Molly's not a hood?
But everyone turns back because there’s a recorded fanfare signaling time to vote for the winners. As they bring out each performer, I keep silent, saving all my applause for Rose Anne Jankowski. When she finally appears I clap with all my might and though I can feel Mom pulling at my shirt to quiet me, I go on and on––finally turning to find it’s not Mom but Molly who’s been pulling on my clothes. She’s smiling: “Hi, Michael," and my father and my brothers are looking at her as if they can’t figure out why any girl would want to talk to me.
“Hi, Molly,” I answer.
Then I turn back, but too late: Rose Anne’s already left the stage.
When the prizes have been awarded (the Trainor Twins take first as usual, Judy Forneau gets second, and Rose Anne doesn’t even place) we fold our blankets and start for home. Mom’s talking nice to Molly and Dad seems almost too interested. Me, I keep searching the crowd for Rose Anne. I want to see her once more before we leave because I’m worried I might have imagined her. Which reminds me of my meteorite and that makes me feel crummy all over again. Mom insists we give Molly a ride home and Molly accepts. But when we get to her street, she walks up to the house next to hers, turns and waves good-bye. Does everyone know she’s doesn't really live in the nicer house?
* * *
Later that night, I mosey into Clarence’s room, where he’s listening to records.
“Whatcha need, kid?” he asks.
“Nothing, but can I listen to your records with you?”
“Sure. What do you want to hear?”
“Got any Teresa Brewer?”
“Sorry, kid, I don’t. How about jazz?" He puts on Dizzy Gilespi, returns to his chair, pulls the brace off his leg, and lights up. “So, what’s wrong?” he asks.
And it just comes spilling out: “Rose Anne Jankowski should’ve won first prize.”
“Who’s Rose Anne Jankowski?”
“The girl who mimed the nickelodeon song.”
“Not sure I remember her.”
“What do you mean? She was great! But they didn't even give her a prize."
“Well, you know what Kierkegaard said: A crowd is untruth.” Then he laughs.
“I guess so,” I say. And because it’s usually safe to say anything in front of Clarence, I add, “But the other thing that bothers me is no one believes how big my meteorite was.”
“Well, it is kind of hard to imagine that no one else would have seen such a big...”
“I’m not lying. I saw it. It was huge!”
“Okay-okay, sure. It’s not a big deal. Whatever you say.”
It's obvious he doesn’t believe me, so I shut up. I listen to his music until I’m sleepy, then go to bed, and under the covers I push down my underpants and touch my peeper and fall asleep thinking of Rose Anne Jankowski. And something else, too: my shooting star: could it have been something just for me, something only I was supposed to see? A sign of some kind?
* * *
“Well, I don’t know nothing about no shootin’ star,” Mrs. Gilliphan says, as I hand her the paper, “but I’ve known me some stars. Jimmy Lunceford, Artie Shaw––once I even met Billie Holiday!” Mrs. Gilliphan shifts her weight in the wheelchair and adjusts her blouse (a plain one, not something outlandish for a change).
“I don’t think you understand,” I interrupt. “The ‘star’ I saw on Sunday morning was a real one. It was huge, from outer space––special!”
“And Lady Day wasn’t special?” she asks, one eyebrow raised. Mrs. Gilliphan begins singing to herself, eyes shut. “Wait a minute,” she interrupts herself, “I’ve got the record here somewhere. Push me to my record player and let me fix you some tea.”
I take a deep breath. “Sorry, I gotta deliver my papers."
I’ve spent time listening to Mrs. Gilliphan's records before and it’s made me late. Besides, I’ve listened to all her stories; isn’t it time she listen to one of mine? And another thing: if she was such a star, why’s she living like she is: no money, no friends, nobody paying any attention. It makes me think she never was anybody.
I finish Fort Street and stop at the barbershop for the rest of my papers.
“Know what?” I say to Mr. Finelli. “I saw a meteor Sunday morning, a big one!”
“That’s nice,” he says, and he continues cutting the fat man’s hair.
“It was huge!” I add.
Mr. Finelli squints his eyes, smiles, and I get the message: I'm not supposed to interrupt when he’s working. So I pick up my bag and trudge out the door.
“Mrs. Richardson!” I yell, catching her coming out on the porch to get the paper. “Did you see the meteor?” She looks up and searches the sky. “Not now,” I complain, hurrying up the sidewalk to explain. “Sunday, about four a.m.” She smiles and waves, and I’m still running up to give her the details as she closes the door in my face.
No one’s interested in my story.
Approaching the Forneaus’ house, I see Judy in her bathing suit, surrounded by car washing stuff––hose, bucket, polish, rags. Judy’s still singing in the Children’s Choir which is stupid because she’s taller and older than the other kids. And of course her Rock-around-the-Clock was so dumb. I try to throw the paper onto her porch without talking but she reaches up to protect herself, as if I was trying to hit her. She screams, “You’d better not!” and though I try to ignore her, she picks up the hose and chases me, squirting. I make it to the next house, out of her reach, but as I turn to make a face, I wonder if I should tell her about my star. But, no. You gotta pick your audience.
Back on the Boulevard, a car pulls up and the driver waves: Mr. Oliver, the artist from the perfect house. “Delivered my paper yet?” I nod. “Oh, well, just trying to save you time.” As I walk away, he asks, “How you doing?” And I wonder: should I tell him about the meteor? But remembering Howard's warning, I just smile and wave good-bye. “Well, keep up the good work,” he says. “You’re a fine young man. And I notice you’re growing bigger everyday!”
Perhaps I should have told him. He seems so nice.
From there to the end of the route, I try telling everyone––the Byrds, the lady with elephantiasis, even the rich people in the big brick house––but nobody except Mrs. Andriessen pays any attention. And she'd listen to anybody about anything.