Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Boy Who Drew Dirty | Part One: A Paperboy Hero | Chapter Seven

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 Ive 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. Its got an isthmus and a peninsula and Ive created a flag for each country. Theres a compass and a scale (1 inch = 250 miles) and it looks absolutely authentic.
            Clarence walks in: “Whatcha doing?
            “Seen an ashtray?”
            “Theres one over there.”
            He picks it up. “Can I see what youre 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 didnt show him for fear hed think I was stupid. Of course, Clarence isn't like The Others.
            01. He takes you to movies no one else would: “Id 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. Tonights 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 Ive 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 artists 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.” Ill never draw another unnecessary porthole my whole life long.
            04. Hes voting for Stevenson: For the first time, the national conventions are going to be televised. Clarence says that will change everything. “Still,” he complains, “Americas afraid of intellectuals, so he hasnt 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 dont 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 dont understand any of it. But I feel so lucky to hear it.
            06. What he knows is more interesting than what Dad knows:Modigliani doesnt paint nudes,” he says. “Modigliani paints naked women.” Were driving to the paper station early Sunday morning, Im half asleep and its hard to pay attention to what Clarence is saying but he seems to enjoy talking whether anyones listening or not. When we arrive at the station, Clarence is finishing his lecture: “...which is why Modern Art ultimately fails, and why––as Ill explain later––the thirteenth is the greatest of centuries...”
            I enter the station and Mr. Briggs asks if my brothers 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 “Ill have him fill these out. Its 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 Ive met studied there. Listen, I want you to fill out these papers and take this test. Youre 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? Its 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; hes been reading with the interior lights on, making it impossible to see through the windows. “What are you talking about?”
            “You didnt see it? Oh, shoot! You didnt, did you.”
            So I tell him what Ive seen. 
            But hes unimpressed and tells me to calm down. He doesnt understand how big it was, how bright and amazing! Later, on our way home, he continues: “Look, Im no astronomy major, Im in theology, and though we both study the Heavens,” he jokes, “its 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, its probable, no, certain, that its no bigger than a thimble, at best a baseball...”
            Clarence can say whatever he wants, but this time hes 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 didnt see it?” Our familys in the park (except for Cliff, whos run off, who knows where), we're on on a blanket eating dinner, the suns setting and were 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 couldnt see out,” I answer Howard.
            “Dont argue,” my mother snaps, as she fills my cup with Kool-Aid. 
            But I cant 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, its obvious what happened.” 
            “What do you mean?” Howard and I ask.
            Dad looks surprised; hes always amazed when we give him attention, pleased whenever he gets it without force. “You know what Im 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. Its an optical illusion.”
            “Illusion,” Clarence interrupts (hes the only one allowed to interrupt Dad), “is at best what we see of this world. Think about perspective: objects dont actually get smaller as we move away, they just appear to. The world is not as we see it! Its different and at the same time, much, much more. But were not equipped to perceive all thats 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 cant 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.”
            Theres 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 didnt recognize the g-g-gold in front of them, the fields of g-g-grain stretching from horizon to horizon! Their horses didnt starve, though; they had horse sense. So when we go looking for t-t-talent, lets not overlook whats right in front of our eyes. We dont 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 guys 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. Shes got dark black hair and eyes, and when she dances onto the stage its 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. Heres what she does: she acts like shes singing but theres actually a record playing backstage. Still, the way she moves her mouth youd 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 theres 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, “Isnt that the girl you walk to school?” Which surprises me, because I didn't know she knew; but Im bothered, too, because the crowd is looking at them as if theyre criminals and how will people know that Molly's not a hood?
            But everyone turns back because theres 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 its not Mom but Molly whos been pulling on my clothes. Shes smiling: “Hi, Michael," and my father and my brothers are looking at her as if they cant figure out why any girl would want to talk to me.
            “Hi, Molly,” I answer.
            Then I turn back, but too late: Rose Annes already left the stage.
            When the prizes have been awarded (the Trainor Twins take first as usual, Judy Forneau gets second, and Rose Anne doesnt even place) we fold our blankets and start for home. Moms 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 Im 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 shes doesn't really live in the nicer house?

*     *     *

            Later that night, I mosey into Clarences room, where hes 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, whats wrong?” he asks.
            And it just comes spilling out: “Rose Anne Jankowski shouldve won first prize.”
            “Whos 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 its 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...”
            “Im not lying. I saw it. It was huge!”
            “Okay-okay, sure. Its not a big deal. Whatever you say.”
            It's obvious he doesnt believe me, so I shut up. I listen to his music until Im 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 shootinstar,” Mrs. Gilliphan says, as I hand her the paper, “but Ive 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 ‘starI saw on Sunday morning was a real one. It was huge, from outer space––special!”
            “And Lady Day wasnt special?” she asks, one eyebrow raised. Mrs. Gilliphan begins singing to herself, eyes shut. “Wait a minute,” she interrupts herself, “Ive 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."
            Ive spent time listening to Mrs. Gilliphan's records before and its made me late. Besides, Ive listened to all her stories; isnt it time she listen to one of mine? And another thing: if she was such a star, whys 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!”
            “Thats nice,” he says, and he continues cutting the fat mans hair. 
            “It was huge!” I add.
            Mr. Finelli squints his eyes, smiles, and I get the message: I'm not supposed to interrupt when hes 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 Im still running up to give her the details as she closes the door in my face.
            No ones interested in my story.
            Approaching the Forneaus house, I see Judy in her bathing suit, surrounded by car washing stuff––hose, bucket, polish, rags. Judys still singing in the Children’s Choir which is stupid because shes 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, “Youd 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. “Youre a fine young man. And I notice youre 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.

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