Discover more from Homo Vitruvius by A. Jay Adler
A form of memory
I exist eyes in a container. The container is a body. The body is me, buoyant, bobbing: an ocean of feeling, fantasy, fear. I pain. The pain comes in pings, against the container, leaving no trace but the inner recoil. The world’s messaging. In the container — the body — that is me, the temperature rises and falls. The eyes look around. They watch.
Robert forms a mouth. Fast mouth on a small boy. He’s what people call a leader. Kids are always around him. Robert is short. I am tall. We are both 10 years old. Robert has read Catch 22. Yossarian is his hero, he says, because he sees how absurd it all is. He shares this thought with the school cafeteria worker, a black man, who doesn’t really respond but keeps arranging the chairs at the tables. Many of the students in our school are black. Many are Jewish, like Robert and me. Many are Italian and Irish and Polish and all sorts of things. Where I moved from a few months ago everyone was Jewish. A lot of the kids don’t like me yet. They think I’m a showoff because I raise my hand in class and answer the questions. They trip me in the aisles. They push me. You think you’re so smart.
Kenny makes a fist. His last name is Larsen. He’s a Swede. His father is the super of the red brick apartment building we all live in. He’s 12. Kenny has been to a Six Hundred School. What’s a Six Hundred School? It’s a Reform School for kids who get in trouble. Kenny walks with a bop, like some of the older black guys with do-rags: he flexes a knee, throws his shoulder forward as he walks, bops up, coming down straight on the opposite knee, the shoulder there dipping down, one arm reaching out, the other trailing behind to finish. It’s cool to walk with a bop, though mostly only black guys do it. It would look stupid if a white kid did it, though not if he’s a tough kid like Kenny. Kenny’s got white-blond hair he tosses back up on his head with a flick of his neck. In the playground beside our building, he teaches me how to rap out boss beats on the bench wood. He offers me a Marlboro. Smoke? he says. I shake my head.
Kenny punches me in the mouth, bloodies my lip. Twice. My parents don’t want me to play with him. They tell me not to. He’s bad. I stop. I start again. They don’t like Robert either. He’s a fast talker. I don’t know why I’m friends with them. I won’t understand for a long time. I’m soft and Kenny isn’t. I’m timid and Robert isn’t. People trip me in the aisles, push me, punch me in the mouth. People don’t listen to me when I talk. They don’t do anything when I talk.
A stiletto is different from a switchblade. A switchblade has a button that makes the blade shoot straight out of the handle. A stiletto opens from the side. You flick your wrist – like this – and the blade opens fast, slicing an arc in the air. It’s cool when you flick things. Kenny keeps showing me. I try it a few times. You’ll get the hang of it.
We walk to Central Avenue. This is in Far Rockaway. It’s like the main street of our distant part of New York City near the beach. It’s a called a peninsula. There are stores, businesses, movie theaters, a pizza place and a Jewish deli. The library and post office. It’s like a small town in New York City. But on the way there, we pass some rundown streets with old buildings. Some of the buildings are vacant. Where we lived before, somewhere else in Queens, it was much greener, grass and trees. The buildings and stores were all kind of new, like the garden apartments we lived in, the nearby houses of people with more money. It was almost a suburb. Here, it’s sandy, from the beach, with grass growing out of the sand sometimes, and those empty rundown streets with small old bungalows and vacant brick buildings, like the one we live in. They make me think. They make me feel, more. People used to live in them the way we live in ours, work there. Different people. Things happened in the buildings and on those streets, which once were busy, maybe, in a different time. And that time is gone. Those people, where are they, the lives? When you enter a vacant building it’s like the lives are almost speaking in the shadows but they’re not. It makes me sad to imagine. Like weak winter light, late in the day. My mother calls it melancholy.
On Central Avenue, Kenny and I wander around, check things out, see what’s happening. We go places we shouldn’t. We enter an office building. It has two floors. They’re called stories. That’s funny. Like what we tell each other. We go up the stairs and Kenny says, let’s go to the roof, and we do. From the roof we can look down on Central Avenue, watch the traffic and the people walking, the tops of their heads, from above. We switch over to the Mott Avenue side, where the library is, across the street and to our right at the corner. We lean over the low brick wall that’s like a barrier so we won’t fall off. We look down. We see the top of a cop’s cap. He’s standing against the wall of the building watching the street. Kenny comes back away from the wall and slides the stiletto out of his pocket. He flicks it and turns it, this way, that. I watch. He leans back over the wall and I follow, looking down, then sideways at Kenny. He holds the knife just beyond the edge of the roof, into the air, dangles it by his fingers over the cop’s head. I look at it, look at Kenny, look at Kenny’s hand. He lets the stiletto drop.
We run. Mad dash. Down a different stairway than we came. I never ran so fast. I’ve never been so scared, never done such a thing, clunking down the stairs, turning, clunking, out the door into an alleyway. We don’t look back. We run, fast, down old and empty streets, a car passing, running where people used to live, do live, their lives in the air you run through.
It’s always an adventure. It could be the haunted house on the corner, right next to our building, there’s always a haunted house in old neighborhoods, where children are afraid to go. It’s four stories, with so many rooms and windows, Victorian, someone said, and it’s dark, the wood and in the windows. Someone lives there but no one has ever seen anyone come or go.
But it’s not the haunted house today. Today we’re looking for the clubhouse. The clubhouse is a rumor. Other kids say it exists. Kenny says it exists. Robert says let’s find it. The rumor is that some older kids built it, but nobody’s ever found it, it can’t be found, because they built it underground. We’ll find it, Robert says. We’ll be the ones. Where? Kenny says. Robert thinks. The empty lot, he says. It’s the only place that makes sense.
There’s a line of houses across the street from our building. But there’s one vacant lot in the middle of the block. Makes sense, Robert says. Things have to make sense. That’s what I try, to make sense.
In the lot we scrape around, kick at dirt and branches, turn over stones with our feet. We stomp. We walk across and around the grounds in different directions separately. Then Kenny feels something under his foot. He bends and digs his fingers in, under something, and pulls at a thin sheet of metal. It’s got wrinkles in it. Robert and I run over. We start to brush earth and branches away. More metal sheets. We pull away the first one, and we see it, in front of us in the ground — the clubhouse, with a ladder leading down. Wow. This is it. I knew it! I knew it! We found it.
We climb down, Kenny first, then Robert, then me. It’s just a big hole in the ground. It’s no clubhouse. There’s nothing in it. It’s maybe six feet deep. None of us are that tall, wo we can stand up straight. A tall adult could lie down in both directions, a little more. That’s it. There isn’t anything there to do. There isn’t any light except coming down through the entrance with the ladder. But they — whoever — built it. They made it last. Maybe they forgot about it. Who were those “older kids”?
We look around, make comments, and then it’s over. Nothing to do but climb back up and out, another adventure. Kenny goes first, then Robert, then me. But when I near the top, Kenny puts his hand on my chest and pushes me back down. I fall off the ladder to the earthen floor of the hole in the ground. I’m stunned, on my back, and Kenny has grabbed a big spindly network of branches off the ground and stuffed it down the entrance hole. Give me more branches, he says to Robert, and the branches appear and they’re shoving them down into the clubhouse. I try to reach the ladder but Kenny lights matches and flings them at me, and into the branches, trying to light them on fire. Then he tosses a firecracker down into the hole, and another, crackling and banging around me. I back to the far corner. More branches, more matches. Smoke starts to fill the clubhouse. A hint of flame in the branches.
Do I cry out? I don’t remember. Do I protest and plead? I don’t know. Do I whimper and wail. I don’t think so. I don’t know, I don’t know. I’m struck dumb by it. It, what is it? What are they doing? maybe I question. What is this? What is this? maybe I’m thinking, watching what’s happening in front of me, to me, watching, watching, and the smoke spreading, choking the air, and my standing watching, and my recession, in the corner, into the earth.
Hands hurriedly scraping then, digging at the side of the roof, the wall, under a sheet of metal around the corner from the entrance, desperately pulling the dirt back, drawing it away, frantically digging and pulling it to open an escape as the kindling begins to flame, and I’m at the opening, through the branches and the smoke, grasping Robert’s hand and clambering up out of the hole.
I don’t talk to or look at him. I don’t look back at Kenny. I walk immediately, furiously, determinedly away. What just happened? I’m walking. What is this? I’m walking. Who are they, that they did this to me? What is this world, that it did this to me? I’m walking. And Robert is following, keeping up, trying to catch me, trying to talk to me. He’s saying something to me.
I won’t remember what he says, what the words are that he’s nattering in my ear. I'll forget them as I live. But I’ll know what he tells me as he follows at my shoulder. It's explanatory, it's exculpatory. It's historical, narratological, epistemological. He's whispering it in my ear, buzzing there his talk. All the time I stride quickly away, urgent and distraught, carrying the fumes of the smoke, the hint of fire, in my hair and on my clothes — what I reek of when I pass through the door home to my parents — Robert follows behind and beside me, down the slope of the vacant lot to the sidewalk, along the path to the corner and across the street, turning back, past the haunted house, homeward, leaning into my ear, buzzing and whispering there, as I close fast on the entrance to the red brick building where we live, and which will one day be old and empty of the lives that passed there, until finally Robert falls behind me, receding back and away.
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