The flags of the boats in the bay whipped in the wind and the gulls wheeled for snapshots and the sound of bicycle bells fell through the leaves of the chestnut trees and down the cobbled streets, and, on warm afternoons, on the porch of her summer home, Mrs. Harlan Case would often be heard to say, “I would have sown them like beautiful flowers,” for she had wanted many children. It was a resort town, rich and glossy, and the Case house had the dignity of age and wealthy tenants. It was a restored Colonial with elms and widow’s walks, a tiny front yard bordering a brick sidewalk and masses of roses in the rear. There was a portrait of Winthrop in the ball and the rooms were stuffed with antiques and long mirrors guarded by eagles. Martinis chilled all day long. The driveway held a Mercedes, and, when the husband drove down from the city for the weekend, a new Porsche. A brace of Yorkshire terriers lolled on the grass. The Case’s had surrounded themselves with taste and various forms of beauty, the most precious being their only child, their son, Jefferson.
He was a beautiful child. With impeccable manners. Tucked demurely into rattan, one slender finger constantly circling the rim of her glass, Mrs. Case would speak as much in pride as in sorrow, for her single creation was (all the neighbors agreed) perfect. The other pretty freckled children with slim bodies and damp hair, with white but slanting teeth, were common as grasses or bright air beside Jefferson who, in neat white shorts and small white tennis jersey, passed the crackers and made polite and precious conversation.
Upstairs in the bathroom of his father’s house, on the morning of his birthday eve, on the last day that he would be five, Jefferson, beautiful solemn child, hair blond to the color of tinsel, eyes large and grey, small swim trunks bunched round his knees, peed into a jelly jar.
He pushed his trunks all the way to his ankles and stepped from them carefully. They lay there, two blue eyes, the green tile of the floor their pupils. He set the jar on the sink and clambered onto a chair where he admired himself in the mirror. The beautiful growth below his belly. Between his legs. White and perfect as a northern peach. He thought it was the finest thing he had ever seen, much finer than his father’s which was raw and dark, surrounded with harsh hair. He patted it fondly. To an only child to whom everything is private, everything one’s own, this was his most prized possession. He scrubbed his hands and face, combed his hair and brushed his teeth. He dipped his finger into the jar and sniffed.
His father used colognes and dusting powder. There was a splashy odor of lime and alcohol about him. His mother drenched herself with wide swaths of perfume which Jefferson did not care for. There was a curious texture to her lipstick which he also did not like, for when she kissed him, her lips fell greasily away from his cheek like a spoonful of cake batter. He did not like to be kissed by his mother. He did not like to be touched at all. His body would feel stained and uncomfortable—blurred like a watercolor, no longer entirely his own. He politely endured his mother’s caresses although he did not understand them. She handled him as though he were one of the stuffed animals of his room even though he had never felt a desire to hug his own toys, not even as a baby. She had feared that he would chew them in his crib and she had taken away their eyes, snipped off the buttons, the goggling plastic from the clowns and bears and ponies—but he had shown little interest in toys or objects. Occasionally he would touch them very carefully, respecting their furred or shining faces. When he grew older, their eyes had been restored and they stared at Jefferson admiringly from the shelf. When he rearranged them, the buttons swiveled wildly in their sockets.
“Jeffie,” he said to the face in the mirror, “is going to do something special for you today.” He smiled. The vision in the mirror smiled. He crooned at it, opened his mouth still wider and grinned. He thought again of the whale and of his own wonderful idea, pleased that something so eminently his own could be put to such good and fragrant use.
His father had told him about the whales, traveling in herds like cattle through the sea—about the boats a hundred years ago that had sailed from Nantucket and their own summer island. They walked together hand in hand along the shore, Jefferson blinking uneasily with the knowledge. He thought all fish to be ugly unnecessary things, especially the scup and blues which his father brought in from the bay and cleaned on the chopping board behind the house and which he, Jefferson, pushed around his plate at supper, in and out of the peas and white sauce. He thought Ahab a fool to lose his leg for casks of oil from a useless whale. Jefferson thought the whole operation to be unclean and he found the stories boring. As with his mother, however, he was polite and silent, nodding his lovely head, smiling kindly. While his father told him about spars and quadrants, squaring the yards and sounding, Jefferson slapped his feet against the sand and felt the sun beat through his shirt onto his shoulders. He never went out without some protection for his skin. His father would laugh at his grim caution.
“Jeffie,” he once said, “sailors don’t cover themselves up. They let the sun burn them the color of leather. Out on their boats they’re dark as Indians.”
Jefferson winced at the vision. “I don’t care,” he said, and then, later, stroking his shoulders, smooth, warm, the color of honey—“I’m not a sailor.”
“No precious,” his father had said. “You’re a little boy. You’re my beautiful son.”
It was the ambergris that fascinated Jefferson. The sweetness in the bowels. The basis for all perfumes. He was appalled and then entranced. His father went on to other things—gunwales, harpoons, the black towering sea—Harlan Case being a devotee of the past and the islands, cheerful in the enormity of his information—but the child, while the white sun poured down onto his hair, thought only of the wonder of the body. He had a new respect for whales who were able to create from their own diseased and private parts exquisite fragrances. If such beasts could make something extraordinary, he could make something divine. Jefferson had walked along the beach, his arms folded across his chest, pleased with the dreams of his own possibilities. He was beautiful and capable of anything. His parents told him that he was beautiful—the mirror—the people he saw every day, those who spoke and those who did not, the last telling him how perfect he was with their own imperfections—with their moles, stray hairs and swellings, with their pimples, bad teeth, pale lips and large noses. Everything reflected Jefferson’s beauty. He was confident. He spoke softly to himself—his only friend.
In the bathroom on the day before he was six, he dipped his fingers into the jar of his urine and slid them through his hair, repeating this until his head was damp. He took the comb and slicked his hair down neatly. He daubed himself on the forehead, behind his ears, on his chest and under his arms. He did this until the jar was empty. An amber drop slipped down his cheek and hovered on his chin. He swept it away, put his trunks on and trotted down the stairs.
Up the street roared the butterscotch Porsche, slipping from one gear into another with a sound tidy as ripping canvas. The pride of Harlan Case, it was a beautiful car, throbbing purely, gliding around corners, glinting in the sunlight like a shining coin. On the luxurious leather of the passenger seat, mingled with packages in candy-bright wrappings, lay a stack of cards and letters. The car swung into the driveway just as Jefferson was kissing his mother good-bye. She pulled her fork away from a soft-boiled egg as though she had wounded it.
“Darling,” she said, “you smell funny.”
Jefferson tugged away from her. “No, I couldn’t,” he said and picked up a sand pail and shovel from behind the door. A pirate straddled the sides of the bucket, guarding a chest of gold. The shovel was grey and jagged where the paint had worn off.
She placed her fork in the middle of the egg again. “It’s probably something gone bad under the sink.”
Harlan Case bounded into the kitchen followed by the two terriers who flung themselves against Jefferson’s legs and started licking him. He pushed them away and looked at the presents in his father’s arms. He couldn’t think of a thing that he wanted for his birthday. His father grinned extravagantly, his teeth white as candles. “You can’t see them yet,” he said. “You’ll have to wait until tomorrow.” Jefferson nodded and turned the shovel around in the pail.
His mother’s face was pink and vague. “You shouldn’t tease him like that, Harlan. You can open them all now if you want to, sweetie,” she said to Jefferson. “There’ll be more tomorrow.”
“Of course there’ll be more,” his father yelped indignantly.
“He’ll be unwrapping presents all day long!”
“That’s all right,” Jefferson said. “I think I’d rather wait.” Overcome with tenderness, Mrs. Case’s face went soft as custard. Her jaw sagged into caricature. God love him, she mouthed to her husband.
“What aplomb,” his father said. “What a patient little man!” He put the presents into the closet and handed Jefferson the stack of birthday cards. There was a shade of disappointment in his voice. “At least you can look at these.”
Jefferson sat obediently at the kitchen table and opened each envelope with a knife. When he had opened all the envelopes, he systematically thumbed through the cards, looking up only once to glare at the dogs who were snuffling and panting on the floor. Under his gaze they closed their pink happy mouths slowly—their eyes puce and puzzled, their small white teeth protruding evenly beneath their whiskers. When Jefferson looked away, they resumed their ragged exuberant panting.
There were clowns and cowboys, a Ferris wheel of dimes. Happy days leaped at him from fans and coiled springs and one card had a mirror inside of dented foil. Jefferson’s face against the aluminum spread out like oil on water, his eyes running into his mouth, his nose mottled, a lump of punched clay. He placed it with the envelopes. “That’s a silly card,” he said. “I think I’ll go to the beach now.”
His mother’s voice drifted to him from the other room where she was propping the cards on the fireplace mantle. “You have so many friends, Jeffie. You’re a very lucky little boy.” And then, absently, to her husband, “You must wash the dogs today, Harlan. They look so darling after they’ve been washed and brushed.”
Outside, Jefferson wandered around the Porsche, touching it with his small palm, rippling his fingers across the engine vents. His father had waxed it so often that the metal felt pure as smooth skin. There were no scratches anywhere. The daylight fell away from it in moons of brightness. Jefferson’s face reflected wide and orange from the car, his eyes long as knives, his fluttering fingers broad and shiny as birds’ wings. He opened his mouth and a pearl of spittle dropped onto the hood. He rubbed it in with his finger until there was a dull greasy spot the size of a half dollar on the finish. He looked towards the house and began walking towards the beach, his towel trailing along the ground.
The sea was high and green and starfish dangled in the shallows by the jetties and the children, their feet sunk into sand, played by the lip of water. They were very brown and the sun had singed the top of their dark hair so that it was the color of lemons. They had cut Chlorox bottles into scoops and were shoveling water at each other, and their laughter, shrill as terns screaming, followed Jefferson as he walked far away from them, up the beach. He settled himself in solitude by some pilings. The beach sped lumpily with hundreds of tiny prints towards the waves. A grapefruit turned from black to pink as the flies flew away. Jefferson looked at it and climbed over the pilings to the other side where he set down his sand bucket and spread out his towel.
The wind blew strongly against his face. He put his hand to his hair and found that it was dry. He could no longer smell himself and he rumpled his hair angrily and then rubbed his eyes. It was going to be his birthday and he had not accomplished anything. It was coming tomorrow and there was nothing that anyone could give him that would be as valuable as himself. Jefferson walked to the water and waded in until the tail of his shirt grew wet. He seldom went in above his knees. He did not like to get his face wet and he didn’t like to swim. He sometimes enjoyed splashing the water on his arms and legs and drying himself in the sun. Then he would lick the salt off with his tongue. He enjoyed the taste of that. In the clear shallow water where the sand was very smooth and clean, he saw a thin wavering line ending in a small depression where a hermit crab had tucked himself. He reached down and picked up the faded and shell-encrusted whelk that it had adopted and brought it back to his towel. The crab had sucked itself so far backwards that the mollusk seemed empty. Jefferson set the shell down, its hollow facing him, and lay down himself very quietly and watched it. After a few moments the crab waved a grey and delicate claw in the air, then another, then two antennae and the slim and tragic eyestalks. It ducked back into the shell but reappeared almost immediately, this time extending and spreading its soft coiled body into an arch as it tossed the whelk forward on its back and began to make its way towards the sea. The crab crept about a foot before Jefferson scooped it up and put it close to him again. It disappeared soundlessly into its whirl of shell.
In his mind, the child saw pictures only of Jefferson. They galloped and grazed across his eyes—sweet pretty animals of self. They overcame all externals. The crab was very ugly and Jefferson was very handsome and the crab was very timid and Jefferson was afraid of nothing and no one at all, but Jefferson envied the crab’s home and concealment and wished it for himself. In his father’s house, he constantly had to depend upon objects which did not reflect him—the white porcelain and the soft bed, the ceiling and the fork. Even his clothes, clean and pressed in the drawers of his room, the small suits hanging, the shoes in boxes, were only momentarily his—then they were removed, his scent and form scrubbed from them, and replaced again in stacks and layers and rows. They were very expensive clothes, always new, never mended or soiled and Jefferson was proud of them. At the same time they seemed menacing to him. They could have belonged to anyone.
The crab crept away from the towel and Jefferson brought it back. There was a soft nicker of sand as it fled far inside its shell. Jefferson stretched and nuzzled his face against the soft gauze of hair on his arms. He wished that he had a home like the crab or like the conch whose form was his home, who spun out his surroundings with his life. He wished he was some marvelous creature that could dine upon itself—lunching on flesh that would return—pure and tasty mushroom self.
He turned on his back and humming and patting his face, he looked at the sky. He wished that he could provide all things for himself, but he knew that he could not. He knew that he would have to eat food and sleep in his father’s house and allow his mother to bathe and dress him in clothes that could not be his own. Looking up at the sky, the clouds bounding huge as ships, he knew that he would have to suffer all these things. He stared solemnly upwards. Everything was very large and deep and he was possessor of it all. But not master... He was not even master of his own body which he was sure wandered away at night while he was asleep—performing odd and wonderful things, living a life of its own while he lay bereft under the sheets, dreaming and lost. Though he treated it well, though it was the only thing he loved, he did not feel as though it were faithful to him.
He closed his eyes and the blue of the sky followed behind his lids. It was not faithful to him because he was not careful enough with it. It did not serve him always because he did not protect it against the encroachment of other, bigger bodies. Some morning he would wake to find that it had not returned to him and he would never be able to go out into the world again. He would lie there uselessly—blank as air, a stain upon the sheets. Beauty would leave him then too—because he had not defended it. It would abandon him and enter other things which would be admired and blessed, and he, Jefferson, would be lost forever. He saw all objects, all his possessions as crafty and living things, plotting among themselves, making their own alliances. He saw them after beauty had deserted him—raging like soldiers, clamoring over his gone and wasted self.
He would have to be cautious. He would have to be strong. If he were kind to it, his loveliness, if he were always alert to danger and threat, it would stay forever and his body would remain with him because it would be useless to go elsewhere and all things would come to him, to Jefferson. He would be the most beautiful thing in the world and would absorb all other beauties and all things would obey him and nothing would be necessary but himself. If he were patient... if he were clever...
He leapt upwards and hurled the crab as far as he could. It turned through the air and hit the sand with a dull smack. By the time Jefferson had reached his home, the crab had gained the water, and eternal, returned, without memory or design, loosed a stream of gentle bubbles and settled beneath the sand.
Jefferson ate a frankfurt and a dish of lemon sherbet and then lay on his bed. The room was dim and cool and the wind from the sea moved the curtains back and forth. When his mother came to wake him two hours later, he had not yet gone to sleep. He took a bath. The soap formed grey and listless bubbles and the water grew cold. He dressed and played Authors with his father until the guests began to come.
There were always guests coming to the house. The walls seemed to exist only to enclose parties. They celebrated his birthday, his father arriving for the weekend, his mother’s new dress with an excitement which Jefferson thought mad. They would sail through the house—tall tanned people—stroking his head and picking him up, feeding pecans to the dogs, leaving glasses and ashtrays on the floor and lawn. The child would sit on the stairs in his pajamas and watch the crab meat salad disappear into mouths—the bright dresses and jackets sway through the smoke, the music and words hanging stark as balloons in the air. He would close one eye and peer through the bannister railings and watch the guests move in noisy colorful coffins of space.
That night they brought him presents—miniature bears carved from cryptomeria wood, books, a cranberry-colored jacket, a toy boat with intricate rigging and nylon sails. He stood on the lawn and accepted them all with great grace. They stayed outside until it grew dark—the chiffon of the women’s skirts brushing past Jefferson’s face, the men clustered admiringly around the new car. The terriers ricocheted through legs and around bushes like croquet balls. They were black and tan—the color of used pipe cleaners. When they approached Jefferson, he would clap his hands at them and they would fly away in another direction.
“Quite a piece of cake, eh Harlan,” a man said from the driver’s seat of the Porsche. He was fingering the wood-rimmed steering wheel, slipping the shift dryly through the gears.
Harlan Case squatted by the open door. “O-60 in seven seconds,” he said. “Five speed, all syncro gearbox. Disc brakes.” He smiled. “Finest piece of machinery I’ve ever owned.”
“Ah like that lil’ strip of teak thar,” a woman with bright eyes and long wet lashes said. “Ah like the appointments!” She plunged her head inside and dropped a potato chip on the seat. She picked it up daintily, popped it into her mouth and licked her fingers. “Ah think thar elegant.”
Harlan had slipped behind the wheel and turned on the ignition. The needles of the dials swung forward as he revved the engine to 5000 r.p.m. where it wailed like a long high note on a jazz saxophone. He dropped it to a gentle idle and it throbbed perfectly without dip or miss.
“Your daddy has a beautiful car there, Jefferson,” one of the men said.
Jefferson smiled and stroked the fender.
“In a few years the girls are going to be crying in their diaries over you, Jefferson,” the same man said. It was growing dark. Harlan turned off the engine and helped Jefferson gather up his presents. The people began to go inside and mill about the buffet. Jefferson sat in a corner, eating an artichoke and dropping the leaves into a napkin in his lap. His mother kissed him and straightened his tie. Someone gave him a sip of whiskey and put a rosebud in the paws of one of the carved bears. He regarded the party with large calm eyes. Before long, his father came and picked him up and carried him upstairs. Jefferson allowed himself to be hugged, undressed and put to bed. Through the closed door of his room, he could still hear the sounds of the party.
When he woke, it was still dark and the house was very quiet. He knew that everyone had gone home and that his parents were asleep but he did not know if it was his birthday yet. He lay on the bed until he could make out the dim outlines of objects in his room, and then he got up and opened the door. Downstairs, the rooms smelled of smoke and creamed cheese. Jefferson picked up a cracker from a dish and ate it. He was not sleepy at all. He felt very old and wise and determined. He picked up a handful of crackers and nibbled them slowly. He thought of all the presents, the giddy dogs, the way his face spread in the shine of the car. He thought of all the foolish things that his mother praised and his father liked. He felt everything holding its breath, waiting for him to prove himself, and he felt the comfortable presence of his own body and knew that it had not yet deserted him.
He rubbed the salt of the crackers against his pajamas and walked through the kitchen to the outside. The sky was not so dark as his room had been, and the moon shone whiteley upon his bare feet. The sand bucket lay where he had dropped it that afternoon—by the water spigot at the side of the house—and he picked it up now and righted it, ferocious painted pirate with an earring and sand upon his leggings, and he grasped the shovel, carefully, by its handle, because the edge of the scoop was rough and sharp, a blade of snagged metal. The night was very quiet and there was no wind. The house loomed tall and white and the Porsche rested sleekly in the driveway and the child hesitated between the two. He was beautiful. He was proud. He was Jefferson and in the world alone.
He walked over to the car and brushed the shovel lightly across the hood. The first tear in the coat of baked enamel rang through his fingertips. He pressed down harder on the blade and it ploughed crookedly forward with a soft and brittle hiss. He rubbed his finger over the ridge and turned the shovel over flat and swept it scrapingly down the length of the hood. He stood on the balls of his feet, a matador, and plunged the shovel down again and again upon the Porsche, scarring every part of the car that he could touch. He opened the door, climbed inside and closed the door again against discovery and the silence outside, and delicate, sincere—as though he were offering a blessing—he knelt on the seat and rapped each of the gauges until the glass shattered and the needles fell twisted. By the time that he had finished, the darkness had receded and his face was pale in the greyness before dawn.
He got out of the car and replaced the shovel in the sand bucket. It was still very quiet but there was a fine mist rising and he could hear the birds moving about in the bushes. He brushed the flakings of paint from his pajamas and went into the house and softly closed the door. There was a small cut on his finger. One of the terriers brushed drowsily against his leg and Jefferson reached down and touched the rough head and the dog craned upwards and licked his hand. The child stood bent, listening, and then picked up a stool and walked to the sink. He climbed onto the sideboard, adjusted the plug and began to run the water. The faucet opened with a rattle and Jefferson, scowling at it and shaking his fist, turned it down to a slender, almost silent stream. While the basin was filling, he coaxed the terrier up onto the stool and then grasped its front legs and pulled it into his lap. The dog, wriggling happily, pressed its cold nose against his neck and then wobbled uncertainly from the boy’s lap and bent its head to lap the water. Jefferson slipped his hand beneath the collar and rubbed the dog’s ears. It was necessary that he protect himself.