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