School started again in the fall, my tan faded, I trudged into Saint Andrew the Apostle with scissors, Elmer’s Glue, a pencil case and brand new textbooks with pages that were blurry yet vivid to the touch, I looked down at my feet, they were there and they weren’t, in my head, or from a passing car, 10cc’s “The Things We Do For Love” was playing.
At home, an open notebook on a desk, James Dean on the wall, siblings in the hall, half-there, half-invisible, I’d look out my bedroom window at dusk and see half-world, half-me, before I learned the term “rack focus,” the world, back to me, the world, back to me, the world, back to me, below, kids walked to homes I’d never see, though I’d imagine them. In my head, or from a passing car, Cheap Trick’s “Dream Police” was playing.
Born of an Italian-American mathematician and a German-American nurse into the lime-green cradle of the suburbs, fifth of six kids, Patty Hearst on TIME and the fall of Saigon, windows onto a troubling landscape, early lessons in magic at the Wheaton Rec Center and bike rides into and out of woods that promised solitude and necking couples—I really wanted to steal the origin story of my younger brother, who at age one was holding himself up onto the stereo cabinet in the living room watching a record go around—it was Sinatra or Wes Montgomery or Paul Revere and the Raiders—when he turned and for the first time in his life walked upright, beaming, a song behind him.
The 45 twelve-pack from Korvette’s spun in rotation on the family stereo and Sweet’s “Little Willy” became as real as my real friends, until the day my older brother sat on the record on the living room couch, cracking the single for good, and then I learned the sadness of broken records—F. Scott Fitzgerald compared his nervous breakdown to a cracked dinner plate; I’ll call adolescent sadness a cracked 45, irreparable, for-good gone, and the analog era of snapped tape and busted 8-tracks and torn album covers crept forward, and all of the kitchen Scotch tape in all of Wheaton could not splice together the Dart Drug cassettes lost to mean feet or indifference or random tosses down the basement steps.
I began in the basement, playing with the chemistry set, today’s adventures in science creating tomorrow’s America, beakers and purple fizzy liquids and the smell of rotten eggs, squeezing my eyes shut and wishing hard that I could create a new element, number 104! 105! something new on the bottom rows that would come into being through forces I couldn’t comprehend, something unnatural, boy-made, plus puberty was coming and I craved order, orderly rows, a periodic table of lust and mystery, so I poured this powder into that liquid, surveyed sorrowfully the next day the half-inch of white crust at the bottoms of the test tubes, the metal case basement-cold to my touch, the crew-cut boy on the front of the chemistry set already light-years ahead of me, nothing happening, little materializing but anti-epiphany: these ingredients don’t mix.
I don’t remember when I saw the blood, I know only that it came from my brother’s mouth—he’d broken a tooth—and dripped onto the basement step, a kind of suburban aesthetic, red blood on a yellow cinder block, cooling in the conditioned air, found art in the toy-strewn underground, and the blood stayed there for years, may still be there, a thin tongue, and has stayed inside me as images will do, in this case as the wild of the body against the foundation of home, and later when I started looking for art and studying art history I remembered Blood in the Basement, the little cry against suburbia, the body’s impasto, the way an image (as Ezra Pound said) can present an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time, seeing that blood in paintings in text books, galleries, and museums, in movies and on TV, an accident of the mouth anointing an ordinary basement step, a confusing stay against confusion for a kid too young to know about artful rendering.
At the A&P with my mom when I separate from her somewhere, probably heading toward the candy aisle (are there baseball cards here) or the toy aisle, small among the other moms pushing their carts, shyly glancing at other kids, some in pairs, the air-conditioning against the humid outside cooling me but also generating a sadness that I can’t name—an intuition toward the artificial and the fluorescent as stays against something—I find myself in the cleaning supplies aisle inexplicably alone, and look at the looming shelves above me and I see pine-scented Lysol, I like pine trees, I saw them in the World Book article about Arkansas where I’ve decided I want to live (there or Iceland), and I make sure no one’s looking and I pull down a bottle and unscrew the top and lean in to take a heady whiff of pine—my sinuses instantly assaulted by the ammonia scourge, chemistry’s attack, and with my eyes watering and desperately fighting dizziness and nausea and the white noise in my head I manage to put back the bottle and stagger down the aisle, fighting a melancholy that says: There’s your future.
I’m ten or eleven and it’s a Saturday morning and once again 10cc’s “The Things We Do For Love” is on the radio, in my bedroom or in my head, it’s playing somewhere everywhere that bright suburban day and now it’s become for me the aural equivalent of sun and warm afternoons not yet embittered by dusks, of June allowance walks and bike rides and woods swallowing me in the dark with a playground at the other end—and accompanying the song is Saturday’s olfactory mascot, lemon Pledge, the sounding start of my mom’s workday cleaning a house of eight people and a shedding dog, and now 10cc and lemon Pledge are entwined forever, nothing less than knowledge of adolescent freedom, nostalgia!—but if I think a little harder: the rue of sentimentality, of blitheness, of the dangers of trusting a mawkish memory of a boy lying in bed waking up to a buoyant pop song and a striped t-shirt in the drawer and a limegreenyellow world where drudgery and thanklessness evaporate and leave no trace, no clues yet to sorrow.
In the summer I may have been cooled in the basement by the central a/c but my imagination was feverish as “Crazy On You” spilled in all of its wildness from the radios at the public pool and from the stereo in our rec room, though I was young and didn’t get the sex of the refrain or feel the tensions tightening in the majestic move from the verses to that sex in the refrain, but the song got in me and stayed, was working to amp up my fever without my knowing, and it’s been there at a kind of low boil ever since, and I see my sister getting ready to go out with friends, she’s young that summer too, only fifteen, but her fever’s ahead of mine, leading her from our house to other houses and to unfamiliar cars and to groups of girls and I imagined it all that summer, her curves, her distance, her smile, her glances not at me but at others, her talent at the pool table in the basement training for something strangely adult, and I wonder whether any of this is true, that is, whether any of this is true of her or whether I’ve imagined for her this wildness that the song so achingly scores—outside of her closed bedroom door, the magnetic pull toward boys, the memory of what happened as I happened—whether too feverish, too romantic, too nostalgic for reality to corroborate, but beautiful feverish “Crazy On You” sings its own story of bodies unable to stop colliding, and there she was and here I am, and well, there it is.
We lived behind Our Lady of Good Counsel High School, and while I was still at St. Andrew’s I’d sometimes walk over on weekends, liking the solitude, the evaporating blacktop politics, the ghosts of kids, sometimes I’d take a walk around the track, play pretend on the fields, or sit in the empty bleachers that sat beneath the towering wooden poles that held banks of lights—the lights that lit the football games on Friday nights where a few years later we’d show up to make appearances among corroborating friends and then cut out, walking along Georgia Avenue toward Country Boy where we’d hope against hope that someone would buy us a twelve-pack of Mickey’s wide-mouths and we could disappear into the dark woods behind Equitable Bank, a block from my house, and drink and laugh in the dark and learn intoxication while the game roared in a surreal muffle behind us. Once at Good Counsel’s track, emboldened by something vague yet urgent, I made sure that no one was around to yell at me (it was a Saturday afternoon) and carefully grabbed a metal spike on one of those wooden poles holding the bank of lights, a poor-man’s ladder, and hoisted myself up and started climbing, my small chest all cold, my palms wet and my legs trembling, I climbed spike-by-spike until I was towering over the track and I looked, barely able inside my roaring nerves to crane my neck downward, and could see my house, tiny and inconsequential, a missing piece in a used board game, the roof so foreign, the yard hidden by tops of trees, the station wagon and the sky-blue Karmann Ghia like die-cast toys with bad paint jobs and now I was really trembling, terrified that I’d climbed too high, sick with mistake and from the height and the distance I’d craved from the world.
At Saint Andrew’s the bells ring first for those with bikes—it’s 2:50—and I vault across the playground to the rack and swiftly pull my ten-speed and hop on and head southwest to the exit and hang a sharp right onto Arcola Avenue and here’s the first hill in the sun past the woods on the right and I pump hard and climb toward the energy-leveling-off point that I must keep for the mile home the woods on the right blur and at the crest I smile because the first downhill comes now zooming past houses and quick looks right and left fly over Orebaugh past the sign for the Wheaton Regional Park district and I know behind there, back there is Lee Middle School, but I can’t think of girls now I’m head-down and pumping as Arcola levels out and it’s a pretty straight shot past the weird color-block mod Goodman homes on the right and the sun’s pretty hot now and I’m sweating and shooting past Channing Drive and the trees begin to shade a little and Nairn Road approaches and the cool dark of the Wheaton Regional woods, the swallowing dark, but I can’t think of that now because the second and biggest the mythic hill the Mythic Hill approaches now at the intersection of Arcola and Nairn and here’s where the bit of danger comes though I don’t think of the word “danger” just a cold splash in my chest and I shoot a quick glance left and man I hope there are no cars I’ve got a record to beat and Arcola’s clear so I swing the bike across the street and back onto the sidewalk to take on the hill and I pump and pump head down and hit the top leg-tired and huffing past Susan J’s house but I can’t think about her now because I’m almost home and best of all? I’m at the top of The Hill and now it’s a fast glide down to the bottom past the weird garage mechanic’s house with the half-assembled cars out front but I can’t think about that because at the level-out I’ve got a little more to go and there I swing a hard left onto Amherst and it’s one two three four houses and I’m home and down goes the bike in the front and I run into the air-conditioned cool, dash into the kitchen, check the clock—2:58, not bad—and it’s downstairs for Captain 20 and cartoons and here really is where it all begins.
Spying on a teenaged couple making out in the woods, I lost control of my ten-speed and went careening off the path and in my hot memory the couple turns toward me mouthing curses that I’ve willfully mistranslated down the years, and that other time, walking up Amherst to the 7-Eleven staring hungrily at the girl in shorts atop her ten-speed I ran into a parking meter and saw stars and bruised the bridge of my nose, a story I’ve told elsewhere but that lingers like a poor-boy’s myth, the way it dissolves, always dissolves into the yellow afternoon when my brother was trying to take a hill in his bike and he couldn’t make it to the top and lost control and slid down to the bottom, and the jeers and laughter from the other kids there—girls and bikes, and woods, and watching, and boys’ hoots and a boy’s submission.
A boy is walking home—from school, from the mall, from his friend’s house. It doesn’t matter from where. Let’s follow him via Google Maps. Use Street View. There he is, his head bent down a bit, his fists lightly tapping a beat against his thighs. He’s dreaming of girls, bike rides, heroics, a new past, a different future, another house, cousins he undresses, friends he swears at, bullies he pushes over, nuns he warms to, priests he fears, parties he attends, parks he kisses girls in, being taller, being different, dirty books, being true. . . Right now the sun in sweeping rays renders him invisible. When he arrives home, he walks through the front door and into the kitchen outwardly unchanged. The lives that became truths, the wishes dramatized, the reality only in his head—how is that not also his truth? And what of the man who remembers him now?
That night after homework, and maybe a little Monday Night Football, he’s in bed and the buses rush past outside and the cold of late fall sneaks in through the window and into his head, wrapping his daydreams in a kind of protective gauze, and there is a feeling, a sensibility, an intuition, a foreign language—murmuring, really, in something that feels like language but may be fever or another dream or a fantasy, an outlined grown-up with a familiar face but a silent mouth moving, talking at him, a kind of knowledge just beyond his fingers—as soon as the glimmer arrives it goes, and he’s back to the waking life.