Fiction

Please Don’t Take My Sunshine Away

Frank Conroy

I don’t remember everything about meeting Maurice ... probably we simply faced one another in the middle of the white coral road, hesitating to speak, staring at each other. We were the only boys for miles around. I remember wondering how he could walk on the hot, sharp coral without shoes.

Don’t your feet hurt?”

He shakes his head.

“Do you live around here?” 

“Back there. Around the corner.”

“Hey, that’s great. I live in the new house by the woods.”

“I saw you working on it,” he says.

“We ought to get some wire and a couple of dry-cell batteries and string it up between our houses. We could learn Morse code and send messages.”

He looks up from the road. “You think we could?”

“Sure.”

“Have you got a bike?”

“Yes.” (I had just gotten it.)

“Let’s go swimming. I know a rock pit back in the woods. It’s got an island in the middle.”

“O.K. I’ll have to get my bathing suit.”

“Hell, you don’t need a suit. There’s nobody around.”

“How far is it?”

“A couple of miles. It’s a great place,” he says.

All that summer we were together. My days started with Maurice calling from the road. “Fra-yunk ... hey, Fra-yunk ...” I’d swallow some milk, grab a piece of bread and rush out, the screen door slamming behind me. There he’d be, straddling his bike, bare feet in the white dust, a brown arm waving, beckoning me out into the blinding glare.

We spent most of our time in the woods. The first project was a tree-house built precariously high in a tall pine. The climb was difficult for anyone who didn’t know the secret hand-holds we’d constructed at the hardest parts. Lazing around in the sun we’d glance back to Chula Vista when a car started, or a man on a roof flashed his hammer. (Down would come the arm in dead silence, then, too late, the sharp snap of the blow.) Above, the fat white clouds drifted in the blue. Great sedate clouds, rich and peaceful. We lay on our backs watching them, getting dizzy as they slipped along behind the branches, as if our tree was falling. 

On the ground we built track and field games. Hour after hour our bodies fell like bundles into the softened sand. Maurice once high-jumped his own height. We kept a record in a nickel notebook, carefully noting down our performance and progress.

We had caches of canned food and comic books at different places in the woods. We rarely used them, it was the idea that pleased us.

Best of all was the rock quarry. Down the long white coral road on our bikes, mile after mile into the deserted woods. Leaving the bikes against a tree we walked across the sand. The air buzzed with sun and sleepy insects. If we saw a king snake, all six feet wrapped black and shiny in the shade of a palmetto, we’d break off a pine branch and kill it, smashing the small head till the blood ran. Rabbits were rare, if we saw one we’d throw a stick.

Once we found a dead mule, bones picked almost clean, ants streaming through the eyes. The stench was too much for us and after poking the corpse we ran away, gasping for breath. We talked about that mule for weeks. What was its fascination? Death dramatized, something of unbelievable importance being revealed right in front of us. But something else too. We rambled over a tremendous amount of space every day, over vast areas of silent, empty woods (a pine woods on sandy ground is more like a desert than anything else), rambled over miles of wasteland trying to find the center of it, the heart, the place to be to know it. We sensed the forces around us but they were too thinly spread, too finely drawn over all the miles of the woods for us to grasp them. The forces eluded us. We would run into a clearing knowing that just a moment ago, in that instant before we had arrived, something of importance had happened there. But when we found the dead mule we knew we were close, suddenly very close. Those forces spread like air over the woods had converged here, on this animal the moment he died, and were not yet altogether gone.

We could see the abandoned quarry behind the trees, the tall white island in the center seeming to move as we ran. two black hawks lifted from the pinnacle, swerving away over the water and up into the blue air, their wings beating slowly, synchronized in movement like some double image in a dream. Impossibly still, the water lay against the shining coral shore like brown glass. We ran to the edge, shouting to break the silence.

“Yodela-ay! Yodelay-io”

“Ali-ali-ali-ali-ali-in-free!”

Or just “Yay!”

(We did a lot of shouting ... phrases from childhood games, dirty words, satisfying noises of all kinds. We were afraid, but only a little afraid, of the silence around us. Usually there was enough breeze in the tops of the pines to make a faint rustling noise behind the day, but I remember times, hot, airless days, sitting in the woods alone in perfect silence, paralysis creeping over my limbs, my ears deaf without sound to hear, my eyes frozen without movement to watch. We shouted in joy and fear, sending our voices ahead to animate the bleakness, supremely conscious of ourselves as pinpoints of life in a world of dead things, impurities that sand, coral, water and dead mules were only tolerating.)

It was easy to undress. We wore only bluejeans. I remember a mild shock at the absence of anything bur air against my skin. Running to the edge of the bank we threw ourselves into the water, instantly setting the whole broad surface alive with movement and dappled light. Our legs kicked up thin sheets of water that sparkled in the sun and the slapping of our cupped hands echoed away into the woods. The water was always warm.

Neither one of us knew how to swim properly. We’d simply crash through, with a tremendous amount of wasted movement, towards the island, our progress slow but steady. We never raced, knowing, I suppose, that as bad as we were it was pointless. Halfway across we’d tread water.

“It’s great nobody even knows about it except us.”

“If any kids from Dania find it we can put up signs saying the water is poisoned.”

“Hey, maybe it is!”

We’d laugh.

“You know that big old turtle we saw on the bank?”

“Yes?”

“I bet he could take your peter off in one bite.”

“Jesus Christ!” I’d yell, only half joking, my legs propelling me up in the air. “Jesus Christ!”

At the highest point of the man-made island a bed of soft green moss had grown over the coral. We’d lie with our chins in our hands looking out over the miles of pine woods, the sun hot against our backsides.

“We ought to build a shack out here.”

“Have to carry all the wood.”

“We could build a raft and float the stuff over.”

“Hmm...”

Often we’d fall asleep, tired from the long ride and the swim ... a drowsy, dreamless, half-sleep in the sun. When one awoke the colors of the world had deepened, as if the whole scene had just been created.

Riding back we’d keep an eye out for cars parked in the woods. Two or three times we’d spotted one, and hidden in the tops of nearby trees had watched the gentle rocking motion of the chassis on its greased springs, silent and comically sinister. We were too scared to get close enough to see anything, except a heart-freezing glimpse of a woman’s arm being raised, or the sudden flash of sunlight on a bald pate. We knew what we were watching, but somehow we could never quite believe it. From the safety of the trees we’d whistle and screech till the car drove away. Scrambling down we’d race over toe find the prophylactic, holding it up on the end of a long stick, grimacing with disgust. Neither of us knew exactly what it was, accepting it nevertheless as proof that the unbelievable act had taken place. We hid our ignorance from each other, making oblique wisecracks to cover it up.

 

Running down the wide empty avenue between the barracks. Deserted buildings fall behind as our toes drive into the hot sand, hundreds of dark buildings in long rows folding majestically on the periphery of vision, sealing off escape.

“Yippee!”

“Fuck the armee!”

Rushing through the hot air, ripping it apart with speed, wind cramming our open mouths and ears, racing neck and neck, stride for stride in wild harmonious abandon. At the sweetest moment our legs give out, suddenly trembling, and we fall sliding into the sand, tumbling unnecessarily for the sheer fun of it, rolling like dogs in the crystalline cloud.

I spit the dead grains from my mouth and shake my head. Looking up I see the twin lines of our footprints stretching back into a white glare. Hunched over in rapt absorption, Maurice picks at the calloused soles of his feet. 

Pushing hard. The door swings easily and bangs against the inside wall. An enormous room, empty, the sun streaming in long bars across the wooden floor. My eyes search the corners, expecting something, but the place is bare. “Fuck the army!” My voice resounds marvelously. “Up your mother’s asshole!” I stand as if waiting for an answer. The silence is oppressive and I run to the next building.

A fire extinguisher lies on the floor. I pick it up to throw across the room, but it’s too heavy and all I can do is let it fall a few feet away.

“Hey Fraaaaank!” Maurice calls from another building. I run outside and stand in the center of the avenue. I can’t tell which building his voice is coming from. “Frank!” he calls again, waving from a doorway. “Over here.”

“Find something?”

“Over here.”

He takes me into a building that seems darker than the others. Some of the windows are broken and boarded up.

“Look at this.”

A carving on the wall, lines chipped out with a knife, very elaborate and skillful.

“Wow!” I reach out and touch it. The scene is of a woman, lying with her thighs spread apart and an immense disembodied phallus halfway inside her. She gazes over her breasts and belly at the viewer, eyes popping in a caricature of lust, tongue hanging. The detail is painstaking, down to the fine lines of pubic hair. 

“Holy Mackerel,” says Maurice. “You think we can get it off the wall?”

“We’ll need tools. We can do it tomorrow.”

“Wouldn’t it be great in the tree house.”

“We can get if off there,” I say, taking my hand away.

“It’ll be safe in the tree house.”

“We can’t show it to anybody. Not even Jean.” (His brother.)

“Hell, I wouldn’t show it to him. He’d just take it. It’s ours.”

We step back to let the light fall cleanly against the wall.

“Wow.”

“Holy Mackerel.”

Maurice gives a long, low whistle like some sharpy in the movies and we crack up simultaneously, moving around the room, bent over, laughing and slapping ourselves.

Down the avenue in an easy trot towards the largest building. The sun is gone. Immense clouds from the ocean move swiftly overhead, their tops white and voluptuous, their undersides black with rain. (Florida weather is sudden and dramatic. I once saw a high cloud rain into a lower one, with no effect below.) The air smells peculiar, and in the filtered light, colors fade. Distant thunder as we run into the building. 

An old gym. The hardwood floor had been taken up but the basketball backboards remain, a few strands of webbing hanging limply from the hoops. Our voices echo off the high roof. 

“Find anything?”

“No. It’s been cleaned out.”

In a corner stands an old upright piano. The keys go down under my fingers but there is no sound. I open the top, and standing on a broken-backed chair, peer down into the strings. The hammers are there, like a line of soldiers, and the strings are rusty but taut. Carefully I lower my arm into the piano, get my finger behind one of the hammers and give it a gentle flip. A note sounds weakly.

“It works,” I yell to Maurice. He is shimmying up the basketball pole.

Examining the front of the piano I find a small lever set into the wood. A corroded metal plate is readable after I rub it with spit. It says “Practise-Play.” I push the lever slowly to the Play position and then strike a chord. The room fills with sound.

“LEP-rosy (va-room), eee gods I’ve got Lep-rosy (va-room), there goes my eye-ball (plink), into your high-ball (plink-plink)...

Bump-a-dad, bump-a-dada, bump-a-dad, just the way you look to-night.

Jada ... Jada ... jada jada jing jing jing.”

Maurice sits on the basketball hoop high in the air. He stretches out his arms to show he isn’t holding on. At just that moment an explosion rocks the earth. My chair trembles and the windows rattle in their frames. We wait breathlessly, Maurice with his arms still outstretched, myself motionless at the piano. A wall of water is falling from the sky, growing heavier with every instant of silence, gathering speed to drive deep in the sand. A drop on the drumlike roof. Another. And then, with a roar, the full load crashes down, shaking the building. 

Maurice lowers his tail through the basketball hoop like a man sitting in a garbage pail. He hangs there for a second, then pulls himself up and drops silently to the floor. He yells something I can’t hear.

“What?”

His lips move as he shouts. He wants to go out in the rain. I nod. He knows I’d rather stay with the piano so he doesn’t wait, turning and running to the door which he throws open. Standing there, his body is a dark silhouette against the white lines of rain. He moves through the doorway and the white lines fall behind him like a curtain.

At the window I watch him running down the avenue, his jeans already black and soaking, his bony shoulders shining with epaulets of spray. He trots, slows down, staggers, his arms straight up as if the rain was a rope he could climb. Turning slowly, head lifted and mouth open to catch the drops, his back bends like a smooth, stringless bow.

 

“But darling,” he almost yelled at her, “don’t you see what I mean?”

Mother and Guy were having an argument about Carlton Fredericks, the soap-opera nutritionist, and it was clear that if I waited around for supper I’d miss my ride to the fair. I slipped out of the house on tiptoes, carefully closing the screen door behind me, wincing as the spring creaked.

It was good to be out. It was always good. Their voices faded away as I walked up the moonlit road towards Maurice’s. Every now and then a dog barked... close by, from across the road, from the fringes of the woods. Yard dogs, talking over great distances like telegraphers at sea, waiting, cocking their heads to listen to the silence, haunches trembling for the answering yip of the long, atavistic howl. Steel guitars came from a kitchen radio, slippery tremolos drifting out across the warm air likes low birds. I counted my change in the moonlight. Seventy-three cents.

As Maurice’s house came into view I broke into a run. In a yellow window I could see his mother washing up after dinner, her body rocking gentle back and forth as she shifted her immense weight from one leg to the other. Popeye, the old dog, jogged halfway across the yard to investigate me. Popeye was totally blind so you had to tell him who you were.

“It’s just me ’peye. Just me.”

Maurice’s father was sitting in front of the house, reclining in a tattered deck chair we’d found at the dump. He was drinking from a wine bottle, holding it up in the bright moon after each slug to see how much was left. “Evening boy.”

“Evening sir.” I stood before him for a moment, waiting for him to speak. It was a tradition and he got annoyed if you didn’t honor it. Having seen him mean drunk on more than one occasion, I always did. (The quietest thirteen-year-old boy in the world is the boy who finds a raving, half-blind, red-necked, out-of-work hillbilly house-painter between himself and the door.) 

“You coming with us to the fair?”

“Yes sir. If I can.”

He took a drink and smiled, his mouth stained with wine. “Course you can. Course you can,” he said. “You’re a good boy.”

“Is that Maurice taking a shower?” Someone was in the stall by the outhouse.

“That’s Jean.”

We heard the rattle of a pail and then a splashing sound. “Shee-ut! It’s cold.”

“Jean!” The old man’s voice rose suddenly, like a load of coal dumped in a chute. “Hush up your mouth!”

“Well it’s cold, pa.”

Not bothering to answer he slumped down in the deck chair. “Go on, boy,” he said to me. “Maurice is inside.”

At just that moment the screen door opened and Mrs. Rushing threw out a basin of water. It flashed through the air and struck the ground where the light spilled from the window. A thousand gleaming flies lifted from the greasy sand the instant the water hit, and fell back the instant afterward, like a green blanket.

“Well, look who’s here,” she said, smiling. “Ready to go to the fair?”

“Yes, ma’m.” I followed her into the house, my head down, watching her elephant legs. I smelled cake in the kerosene oven.

“You boys go in the back now so you won’t be underfoot,” she said, wiping the oilcloth table. “I’ve got to get ready.”

“Is the cake for tonight?” I whispered as we pushed through the curtain.

“I think so,” Maurice said.

We sat on Maurice’s bed and played cards in the flickering light. The house was one room, divided by a dark curtain about six feet high strung up on a length of wire stretched from wall to wall. The kitchen, dining table and chairs were on one side, and the beds on the other. There were four beds, taking up almost every inch of space. One had to turn sideways to walk between them. Maurice, his older brothers Jean and Dan, and of course Mr. and Mrs. Rushing all slept there. Their clothes and personal belongings were neatly crammed into open shelves high on the walls. The family shotgun hung on two nails over the only window.

“Gin.”

“Oh shucks. I was almost there.”

“All right now, come out here while I get dressed.” Mrs. Rushing pulled the curtain back and waited. “Just one piece each,” she said. “No snitching when I ain’t looking.”

“Ahh,” Maurice sighed. “Coconut.”

On the round table were two plates with cake, and resting on the stove the mother lode, fresh icing rippling down its sides.

“Ma, you didn’t wash the bowl?”

She laughed from the other side of the curtain. “No, honey. It’s there on the top of the ice-box.”

Jean pushed through the door, dressed in jeans and a freshly laundered shirt. The cuffs were folded back twice to show his muscular forearms. His wet hair was slicked back over his head, revealing a pale white band at the top of his brow. 

“The bowl’s ours!” Maurice said.

“Hell, you’re welcome to it.” he sat down by the old radio (tall, with carved wood, like a miniature cathedral) and fiddled with the dial until he got some music. Then, suddenly impatient, he turned it off and went to the door. “Pa, when are we going! It’s getting late.”

The old man didn’t answer. Maurice and I ate our cake and listened to Mrs. Rushing moving softly on the other side of the curtain.

 

She stood at the side of the road, her plastic purse hanging from folded hands. A small straw hat was placed straight on her head, pinned to her hair with two long needles like antennae. She wore a print dress she’d made from twenty-pound flour sacks. 

The old man, Jean, Dan and myself stood behind the old De Soto, leaning up against it like the victims of a police frisk. “Be sure it’s in second,” Mr. Rushing yelled over the rear fender.

“I know what to do, pa,” Maurice answered from inside.

“And don’t turn the ignition on until we get up some speed!”

“I know, I know,” he said.

“And don’t talk back to your pa!”

Dan, the eldest brother, a big gentle man who always spoke softly, turned to me. “There ain’t too much room back here, Frankie. See if you can get a purchase up there on the doorpost.”

I ran to my position. Through the window Maurice looked absurdly small behind the wheel. He had to crane his neck to see over the hood. His white teeth gleamed in the moonlight as he smiled.

“All right now ... HEAVE!”

The car began to roll immediately, coral crunching under the tires as it picked up speed. Soon I found myself running just to keep up. After twenty or thirty yards the old man yelled, “Now!”

Maurice snapped out the clutch and the car pushed back at me, almost knocking me over. The engine coughed, died, coughed, and caught. I heard him cry “Yippee” as he pulled away in a sudden burst of power, rear tires spinning and engine roaring. In a split second he was far up the road, without lights, shifting into third.

Breathing heavily, I came to a halt. Ten yards behind me the three men stood in the middle of the road, bent over, half-bent, their arms hanging at their sides. And behind them, way back in the distance where we’d started, Mrs. Rushing took a step forward to look after us.

“Where in hell does he think he’s going?” The old man asked, but he wasn’t mad. 

We could barely fit in the car. The springs sank alarmingly as Mrs. Rushing eased herself into the front seat, making the old De Soto look as if it were headed for the center of the earth, but things straightened out as Jean and Dan got in back. Maurice sat on my lap and we were off.

Down Dania Boulevard, the De Soto creaking like a hay wagon, I could see the rusted-out front fender waving in the wind. Every now and then a big Buick or Caddy would rush up behind up, lights flashing, and whip by as if we were standing still. Big, thick-necked men, holding their broads, speeding down to Miami and the dog track and the Fronton. An Olds fish-tailed past as ninety-five and we saw a blond head dip down. Jean opened a bottle of wine. “You just know she’s blowing him,” he said softly to Dan.

Maurice and I watched the taillights disappear in the distance.

“Let me have some,” Maurice whispered, making a grab for the bottle.

Jean held it back. “Well, looky here!” he said in mock surprise.

“Just one. I won’t take much.”

“What’ll you give me?”

“Aw Jean, come on.”

Maurice took the bottle and raised it to his lips. I watched his Adam’s apple moving like a piston, once, twice, three times. Jean reached for the bottle but just at that moment Mrs. Rushing turned around and froze everybody. Quick as a flash she reached back and snatched the bottle, glaring at Jean. “You giving wine to those children?”

There was no escape for Jean, caught between Dan on one side and Maurice and me on the other. He just looked down at his shoes. Mrs. Rushing raised her tree-trunk arm to the roof of the car. Her five fingers were spread like a star. A faint grunt escaped her lips as she drove the whole weighty load straight down on top of Jean’s unsuspecting head. A tremendous blow, traveling down his backbone and compressing the entire back seat with stunning force.

It took a moment for Jean to reorient himself. “Aw, maw,” he said.

Mrs. Rushing rolled down her window and threw out the wine bottle.

“Aw, maw!” he said again, slightly bewildered at the speed with which events had transpired. “It was almost full.”

Mrs. Rushing didn’t answer. She raised her head to watch the road and never looked back. Dan laughed quietly, without a trace of malice.

 

A perpendicular column of blue light descended form the sky to the parking field, striking the earth behind a screen of silhouetted automobiles, spreading a pool of white radiance, a vague open-topped dome of light in the air above us. Insects drifted through like snowflakes, disappearing at the perimeter.

“Now make sure you know where the car is,” Mrs. Rushing said. “We’ll meet here at midnight.” She saw Jean rushing off. “Jean! Did you mind me?” He was gone before she could stop him. “That boy,” she said sadly.

The old man took out his change purse. “How much money you got?”

“Sixty cents,” Maurice answered.

“Frankie?”

“Seventy-three cents, sir.”

He counted some change and held it out to us. “That makes a dollar and a half each. And don’t spend it all in one place.”

“Thank you!” we yelled together.

Dan gave us each a quarter, and just before we took of, Maurice’s mother held out two silver coins. “That’s eating money,” she said. “And you ain’t getting any more so don’t spend it on those bumper cars like last time.”

“We won’t, momma. Thanks.”

“Thank you ma’m.”

“All right boys. Have a good time and stay out of trouble. We’ll see you later.” She moved off on her husband’s arm, smiling, one hand unnecessarily holding down her hat (as if he were sweeping her away in a waltz or a polka, as if only now, at the last moment, could she control her appearance before giving up to the madcap whirl of the evening), her buttocks rolling like ships at sea.

On the fairway Maurice and I darted through the crowd like needles through a tapestry, turning, pausing, deftly insinuating ourselves across the slow movement of the parade.

The bumper cars! Waiting in line we draped ourselves over the wooden railing and surveyed the scene. On the steel floor small cars raced into the distance, took a curve, and raced back, each with a long pole to the shiny roof trailing sparks of power. Most of the drivers were children, but here and there an adult could be seen, or a young couple crammed in together, giggling, trying to avoid collisions. WHOMP! We laughed as a kid in overalls caught a teen-aged girl broadside and spun away before she could retaliate. WHOMP! Someone else hit her. THis time she straightened out and gave it some speed, accelerating nicely.

“That one looks good,” I said. “Number ten. I hope she gets out.” (There were small but crucial differences in the power of the cars. It was important to get the faster ones.)

“Thirty-eight,” Maurice said. “And that blue one, ninety-nine.”

When the boy came around we each bought a ribbon of tickets. The air was full of ozone, a thin, sharp white smell in the back of one’s nose. A whistle blew and the power was cut. All over the floor cars rolled to a stop.

“She’s getting out,” I yelled, as the crowd pushed up behind us. “Number ten! I’ve got number ten!”

“Ninety-nine! In the back.”

As the floor cleared the boy swung open the barrier and stepped to the side. With a tremendous roar fifty kids rushed out onto the steel track, fanning out from the narrow gate in all directions like water from a split hose. Someone was at my side, racing me to number ten, but at the last moment (when he was slowing down) I leapt into the air and landed with both feet in the cockpit, my hands grabbing the pole for support. Laughing, I slithered down into position and watched him run off for another car.

The controls were simple. An accelerator and a steering wheel. I spun the wheel, testing the amount of play. It was fairly tight. Waiting, I tried to find Maurice, but the view was obscured.

At last every kid had a car. The barrier was closed and a whistle sounded. I pressed the accelerator to the floor as somewhere out of the sight the power was turned on. My car began to move. Dozens of cars moved at top speed around the track, dodging in and out as the drivers attempted to get the feel of their vehicles. I bent back my head, sighting up the pole to watch the metal tongue sliding across the roof, sucking power.

Confident, after a few experiments, that my car was one of the best on the floor, I took off to look for Maurice, sideswiping a few kids along the way just for the hell of it. “One Way Only!” said a sign on the wall. “No Head-on Collisions!” Maurice was waiting for me at the edge of the curve. He’d got the car he wanted, the blue one. I pulled up beside him. 

“O.K.?”

“O.K.!”

“Who do we get?”

“Watch it!” Maurice was struck by a giggling girl who made no attempt to control her vehicle. She’d been pushed into Maurice by a fat boy in a Tom Mix tee-shirt. “Him!” Maurice yelled. “Tom Mix!”

Our strategy had been worked out the previous year. The only question was who went first. Maurice took off, and after skirting the helpless girl, I counted to ten under my breath and followed. Elbows out, back curved over the wheel, Maurice pursued the fat boy, slowly closing the gap. We went an entire lap before Tom Mix made his move. He went to the outside, figuring to cut across and catch the giggling girl from behind. Maurice anticipated this and raced down the rail, turning at the last moment to cross paths with plenty of speed. At exactly the same time I aimed for the spot where it seemed to me Tom Mix would end up, collecting maximum speed on the long straight run.

It worked perfectly. Maurice closed in, his head bent down. At the last instant Tom Mix saw him coming and tried to turn away, but it was too late. FA-BOOM! Maurice caught him solidly on the left fender, spinning the car a quarter turn, reversing his wheels and bring him to a halt. Tom Mix spun the steering wheel frantically, trying to straighten himself out and get started again. He’d been prepared for Maurice, but as I barreled in, teeth clenched, straight-armed, I could see he didn’t expect me. His body was loose. Innocent. FA-BAM! A marvelous, straight-on hit, jolting him in his seat, shaking his fat like jello.

We were invincible! Gasping, choking with laughter too wild and sweet to come out, our brains bursting with excitement, we drove off to new conquests.

 

It was getting late. The crowds had thinned out, and along the fairway most of the stalls were closing down for the night. Maurice and I sat on the guard rail of a darkened carousel eating hot dogs, waving away the flies automatically.

“How much have you got left?”

“Thirty-five cents,” I said.

“I’ve got a quarter.”

“I guess it’s almost midnight.”

Maurice jumped down from the fence and ran to ask someone what time it was. Tired, I walked after him.

“Ten of,” he said when I reached him. 

“Well, let’s mosey on down.”

We ambled along the littered promenade in the general direction of the parking field, checking the sandy ground for dropped coins. Maurice bent over and picked up a small felt pennant on a stick. DANIA-FLA. on a background of orange blossoms. “For the tree-house.”

We stopped in front of a freak show to look at the posters. The alligator man. The duck woman. The armless wonder. Special attraction! The man without a face.

“I saw it last year,” Maurice said. “It’s a fake.”

“They say he’s got alligator skin.”

“He’s painted up. He lies around in a pit full of sawdust with these big hunks of raw meat. But he doesn’t touch the meat or anything. It’s a fake.”

“You mean he’s just like us only painted up?”

“Well, no,” Maurice said, pausing. “He don’t have no arms. His hands sort of grow out of his shoulders.”

“What?”

“Like little baby hands. But they’re dead. He can’t move them.”

“Didn’t it make you feel funny to look at him?”

“I didn’t like it. He just lay there in the sawdust, real still, as if he was dead, with his head turned away. And we all walked by. If he’d really been an alligator man, well then O.K., but it was a fake and I didn’t want to look.” He turned away from the poster. “Let’s go.”

 

At the edge of the fair a small booth is still open, its lights shining out into the empty air. A big man in a purple jacket sits on a stool behind the counter drinking a container of coffee. As we approach he pauses momentarily, looks at us over the rim of the container, and then continues drinking as if he hadn’t seen us.

We stop twenty feet away to examine the game. It’s a ring toss. Ten cents a throw and the prizes are on the walls. Pennants, funny hats, candy boxes, two live canaries, china dolls, stuffed animals, canned hams, ukuleles, toasters, radios, silverware. Maurice nudges me. “Look there, on the back wall.” I whistle softly. Mounted on a wooden plaque, with a belt and holster hanging next to it, is the grand prize, a silver revolver. 

“Wow,” Maurice whispers as we move forward.

“It’s beautiful. Look at the carving on the handle.”

“With a holster and everything.”

The big man hasn’t looked at us, or moved a muscle.

“How do you win the gun?” Maurice asks.

“Two out of three tosses on the red peg,” he says expressionlessly.

We look at the back wall. Recessed into a lighted chamber under the pistol is a red peg, angled backwards under a sloping roof. I give Maurice a nickel. “We can both try.”

“O.K. Give me three, please.”

It’s as if the man is blind. He stares fixedly out into the darkness. Bright lights shine behind his head. He leans forward slightly, collects the change with one hand and brings up three rings from under the counter with the other, all in one smooth movement, without looking down or changing position on the stool.

Maurice takes aim and throws a ring. It strikes the wall and falls onto a shelf below. “Too high,” he says, and throws again. The second ring is too low. “Sucks,” Maurice says. “Well, for one I get a radio.” He throws the last ring. It strikes the recessed enclosure straight on, but doesn’t fit and falls away. “Did you see that?” he asks me.

“It won’t go that way. You have to lob it in at an angle so it’ll fit.”

“I’m going to ask momma for another thirty cents. I’ll be right back.” He runs off into the darkness.

I stand for a moment, studying the red peg. My heart beats quickly because of the discovery of throwing at an angle. It’ll still be difficult, the ring must enter the enclosure at exactly the right tilt. Once inside, it must fall on the peg by its own weight. I remind myself to throw softly so it won’t bounce off the back wall.

“I’ll take three.”

Once again he leans forward in the smooth gesture, slapping the rings on the counter near my hands. Behind me, far away, I can hear cars starting up in the parking field.

The edge of the counter presses against my stomach. I toss the first ring, giving a faint flick of the wrist at the last instant to keep it from turning over in the air. It sails into the enclosure as if guided by an invisible hand. I can hardly believe my eyes. It falls slowly towards the peg, strikes, and leans. I duck down my head and shield my eyes from the bright lights. Yes! It covers the top of the peg. Another good toss could knock it over.

Three feet away the man sits absolutely still. I can hear his breathing. He hasn’t looked up, or back at the red peg. It’s as if I’m not there.

Picking up the second ring I know I’m going to win. Nothing can stop it, as if it’s already happened, as if time were running backwards. A peculiar, giddy feeling comes over me. A lightheadedness, strangely familiar. I throw the second ring. It misses and falls away. I shrug, blinking, as if something annoying had happened around me, some minor irritation interrupting my concentration. I feel like asking for the ring back even though I know it makes no different. The third ring is in my hands. I lean forward, aim and throw. It goes into the enclosure, as I had known it would, falls onto the peg, and knocks the other down underneath it. I’ve won. Two rings over the red peg. I look at them for a moment. An immense calm lies over my soul. Then I look up at that revolver.

“I’ve won.”

The man doesn’t move.

“I’ve won. Look.”

He turns around and looks back at the peg. Then he gets off the stool and walks back and takes the rings off the peg and drops them with the others on the shelf. He comes back and stands in front of me, gazing out over my head. “You missed.”

“What?”

He says nothing.

For a moment I don’t know what to do. I stand there looking up at him. His face is white and hard.

“But I won,” I say.

Slowly he lowers his head and looks at me. His eyes are dark under thick black eyebrows. He lifts his arm from behind the counter and extends it to me. As if in a dream I reach out to shake hands.

Gently but firmly he takes my wrist, bends and spreads his knees a fraction of an inch, and slowly rubs my palm under his balls.

 

The arc-light had been turned off, and without a landmark it took me some time to find the car. I wandered around the field for five or ten minutes, not really looking, trying to calm down. Eventually I came on the De Soto. Pausing behind a pick-up truck I wiped my eyes carefully on the sleeve of my shirt and took a couple of deep breaths.

“Hey.” Maurice was sitting on the running board, his chin in his hands.

“Hey.” My voice sounded strange.

“Dan says Jean went off somewhere. With some girl. Pa wants to go without him but momma says we should wait.”

I opened the back door and climbed into the car. Dan was asleep. I sat in the corner and pressed myself against the wall, my eyes closed. 

“I don’t give a hot damn,” the old man said. “I ain’t gonna wait no longer. He’s gone, woman.”

“Well, five minutes more.”

“God-damn woman fussing over every little thing.”

We waited ten minutes, and when Jean still hadn’t appeared the old man started the engine. “Come on, boy,” he said to Maurice. “He ain’t coming back.”

Maurice got in beside me. I kept my eyes closed, pretending I was asleep. Lights flashed across my eyelids as we reached the main road.

Halfway home I opened my eyes to see where we were. Maurice saw me looking out the window. After a minute or two he asked, “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” I said, and settle down as if to go back to sleep.

Chula Vista was dark, but the lights were still on at my house. Mr. Rushing stopped at the corner and let me out.

“See you tomorrow,” Maurice said.

“O.K.” I waved and started for the house. The moon had set and all the stars were out, thousands of them spread over the black sky like lacework. It was a quiet, windless night. 

Their voices carried on the still air. I heard them, arguing away in the same tones as when I’d left, Guy’s slightly hoarse rising sentences, mother’s rich contralto falling sentences, back and forth, back and forth, like animals pacing their cages.

I pushed open the screen door and started for my bed.

“Frank? Is that you?” my mother called from the other side of the curtain.

“Yes.”

“Wash the dishes before you go to bed.”

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