At the end of his first week of high school, Webern showed up at his friend Clarence’s house, wearing a white jacket with a pink carnation in the lapel and carrying a box of chocolates. Standing there on the porch, he felt uncomfortably like he was picking up a girl for a date. It was the first of September, and the nights still felt as muggy and humid as they had in July, with yellow fireflies careening around in the darkness like drunken stars. Webern sweated slightly, and the starched collar of his dress shirt itched. Trying to make himself more presentable, he leaned his hunchback jauntily against the doorframe, adjusted the package under his arm, and rang the bell again. As the door swung open, Webern glanced down self-consciously at the heart-shaped box in his hand. Clarence had invited him over the last umpteen times, Webern reminded himself. So bringing him a gift was only polite. But now it occurred to Webern that maybe a package of baseball cards would send a better message than a boxful of Venus nipples.”Well, well, well. Clare, your gentleman caller’s here,” Clarence’s mother said, cinching the belt of her red silk kimono. She opened the door but not the screen, and her eyes lingered on Webern as she spoke. A slow cloud of cigarette smoke bloomed between her lips. “Chocolates? For me, mon cherie? Why, how precocious of you.” The smoke enveloped him as, squeaking the screen open, she let him inside.
Mrs. Wheedle’s wet, swollen eyes always made her look like she’d just been crying. She usually lounged around the house in lingerie; tonight, her kimono fell open in a V, exposing the curve of her ample, unbound breasts. As Webern scraped his shoes on the welcome mat, she took the box of chocolates from him, opened it, and popped one in her mouth.
“Mmm, cherry cordial.” She licked her lips slowly. Her red lipstick didn’t smear. Webern opened his mouth to contradict her, then shut it. He had no more desire to say “nipples of Venus” to Mrs. Wheedle than he had to recite the pledge of allegiance in his underpants. Webern had felt awkward enough around Mrs. Wheedle since that afternoon, two weeks ago, when he’d been sitting at her kitchen table with Clarence after school and she’d come in wearing only a bra and a pair of panties. Webern had frozen, a lump of bread and peanut butter half-mashed in his mouth, and Mrs. Wheedle had stopped moving too, but elegantly, posing.
“Sorry, boys,” she had said, smoothly. “Didn’t hear the school bus.”
Standing there with one hand on her hip, she’d looked like a pin-up girl from one of the posters in the gas station. For a second, Webern had even thought it was a swimsuit she had on, not her underwear, and he’d allowed his eyes to linger just a little longer than they should have. Ever since seeing his expression that day, Mrs. Wheedle had been uncommonly nice to him—though maybe nice wasn’t the right word for it. She teased him, smiled at him in a way that reminded him of the lavender lace, like silver filigree, against her milky opal skin, so much that sometimes, when he climbed into bed at night, her soft, pale body appeared unexpectedly on the insides of his eyelids.
Webern blinked as she tapped her cigarette ash onto the Persian rug and set the box of chocolates down on the hall table.
“Chubby’s out in the kitchen,” she said, “no doubt eating us out of house and home. That damn fool doctor keeps talking about fixing his glands, but I think my money’s better spent buying a lock for the refrigerator.”
Webern nodded and followed her mutely down the hallway. Clarence’s house always looked like a party had just stampeded through. Mardi Gras beads crunched under his feet. As they passed the living room, Webern saw a sofa lying upside down, its four legs in the air, like the paws of a dead dog. He looked up at Mrs. Wheedle in surprise.
“A friend and I got carried away, rearranging furniture,” she said, smiling enigmatically. “Sorry about the condition of this place. Bless this mess and all that. Ha!” She stubbed her cigarette out into a faux-Ming vase, one of the many Asian artifacts scattered around the house, including a Japanese screen and a saffron-colored ceramic elephant from India.
Clarence sat at the kitchen table, taunting his pet squirrel Raquel with a pistachio. Raquel flicked her brown tail, her wild eyes glinting, as she poised to pounce on the morsel resting on Clarence’s outstretched palm. But whenever she lunged for it, Clarence closed his hand into a fist. She rammed her furry face against his plump, dimpled knuckles again and again, but to no avail.
“Lookit, Bump,” he said to Webern. “She’s givin’ me kisses.”
Webern pulled up a chair and sat down beside him. “Neat-o,” he said, reaching out a finger to tickle Raquel under the chin. Raquel hissed, and he slowly withdrew his hand.
“I’ve been teachin’ her tricks. You should see what she’ll do for a cashew.” Clarence opened his palm and Raquel snatched the pistachio. She clutched it tight in her paranoid claws, then dashed away, into a hole underneath one of the kitchen cupboards.
“So, what are we doing tonight?” Webern asked, giving Clarence a quick, hopeful once-over. For the last week, Clarence had been insisting that they crash the Back-to-School dance. His reasons for going were vague; the theme was supposed to be Hawaiian Paradise, so maybe he hoped to snag a coconut for Raquel. But tonight, Webern’s portly friend seemed to have forgotten the all-important event. He wore his usual weekend clothes: a drapey expanse of blue denim loosely fashioned into overalls, and a fragrant white undershirt. Seeing his friend’s uncombed hair, Webern felt a surge of relief. Even with Mrs. Wheedle slinking around, he preferred a quiet evening at Clarence’s to any event at the high school. He could picture the night ahead perfectly – a mismatched dinner, gathered from the stockpile of leftover takeout and cocktail garnishes in the refrigerator, followed by a game of Candyland on the living room rug, a scary movie on the teevee, and then perhaps a midnight squirrel hunt in the backyard, with flashlights and butterfly nets. Clarence had been talking about how Raquel needed a friend.
“We’re gonna go to the dance, dummy. I’ll change clothes later.” Clarence pulled a misshapen block of wood out of his pocket and began whittling feverishly with his Swiss army knife. Immediately, the shape of an acorn began to emerge.
“Around here, we don’t dress for dinner,” added Mrs. Wheedle, glancing over her shoulder with a wink. She stood at the counter, sloppily transferring orange goop from a white take-out container into a serving bowl. “Clare, where’d your little pet go? I wish you’d keep those goddamn vermin out of the kitchen.”
“It’s her house, too,” Clarence retorted, setting down his whittling. “Raquel. Hey there, girly girl” He whistled and shook a can of peanuts, but the rodent did not return.
“So, Bernie, how does it feel to be fifteen?” Mrs. Wheedle asked, bringing the bowl of goop over to the table. “Get any presents you liked?”
“The birdfeeder Clarence got me was neat,” Webern said. He pushed a pistachio shell around on the table with his finger. “I put it outside and everything.”
Clarence snorted, picking up his wooden acorn again. “Birdfeeder my ass. Them squirrels’ take one look at it, and it’s goodbye grackles.”
“Watch your mouth,” Mrs. Wheedle said mildly, sliding into a chair. She set the bowl of orange goop on the table, but kept her eyes on Webern.
“Grackle grackle grackle,” Clarence muttered. “Hey, Bump, tell her about the other thing you got. You know.”
“Oh.” Webern cracked the pistachio shell in half. He could still feel Mrs. Wheedle’s gaze on him, but he tried to shrug it off. “My grandma sent me some money, so I got a unicycle.”
“For laughs,” Clarence added. “Bump here’s runnin’ for class clown.”
“Are you.” Mrs. Wheedle lit a new cigarette; she half-puffed, half-laughed. “That’s a noble profession.”
Webern stared down at the broken pistachio shell, like it was an alien egg from which he’d just hatched. Webern liked Clarence, but sometimes he felt like they were on different planets. Clarence didn’t understand about the unicycle at all. When Webern first balanced on its red leather seat, stretching his arms out like hesitant wings, he felt some secret part of himself take flight. He’d tried to explain this to Clarence more than once, but each time, the big guy had just nodded, promised to campaign for him in the “Big Race” – was there even an election for class clown? such a thing seemed inconceivable – and resumed his involved discussion of squirrel training. Apparently, he’d taught Raquel to use the toilet.
“It’s not really like I’m trying to win anything,” Webern told the tablecloth. “I like riding a unicycle, is all.”
“Well, it’s an honor just to be nominated.” Mrs. Wheedle rose from the table once again. “This calls for celebration.” Swinging her hips, she went over to the stove, where a pot of hot water had reached a boil. She lifted the lid, and out of the steam and moiling bubbles, lifted a thin green bottle. “Sake, anyone?”
“Sake?” Webern asked, but Mrs. Wheedle was already getting the glasses. “Try it, you’ll like it.” She strode swiftly back to the table, carrying three jelly jars brimming with the hot clear liquid. One of the jars still had some jelly in it. She handed that one to Clarence. “The samurai drink it before they go into battle, you know. It gets their…strength up.”
“Oh.” Webern nodded and glanced nervously over at Clarence. His friend ignored him, shoveling orange goop out of the communal bowl and onto his plate. Mrs. Wheedle lifted her jelly jar, then raised an eyebrow expectantly. Webern hurriedly picked up his glass too, then, avoiding her gaze, mumbled “cheers,” closed his eyes, and gulped.
The sake tasted strange and guilty, like water tainted somehow, water he wasn’t supposed to drink. A few weeks earlier, Webern and Clarence had gone on a field trip to a huge aquarium, rooms and rooms full of fish with wide, frowny faces and pale, doleful eyes. Webern had watched the spider crabs and seahorses, the piranhas and starfish, all with equal interest, but he’d stopped dead in front of one tank, rooted to the ground as if in a nightmare. In this tank, a Monitor lizard thrashed and wriggled in cloudy water, its movements frantic, like a green child, drowning. As the sake flowed down his throat, Webern thought of warm jungle rivers teeming with webfoot lizards. When he opened his eyes, Clarence and Mrs. Wheedle were staring at him.
“How’d you like it?” asked Clarence. Webern opened his mouth, but before he could speak, Clarence added, “Bump here’s always got somethin’ funny to say.”
“Well, let’s hear it then. I’m quivering with anticipation.” Mrs. Wheedle leaned back, folding her arms, as if she expected to quiver for a long time.
Webern stared down at the glass in his hand. His mouth worked silently. Why did Clarence always do this to him? Webern entertained a brief fantasy in which, firing a spaceman ray gun, he roasted his friend like a pig, then tried to think of something – anything – resembling a joke. The only sound in the room came from Clarence’s lips, smacking contentedly.
“Guess I know why they call it sake,” Webern finally offered miserably. “Cuz it socks you right in the mouth.”
His words hung in the air like dirty laundry. Clarence finally broke the silence.
”Bump here’s a spoof on humankind,” he said contentedly, hunkering down over his food.
“He most certainly is,” Mrs. Wheedle smiled.
Webern’s face burned with shame. Viciously, he spooned the orange goop out onto his plate and took a big bite, grinding down hard with his teeth. But in this house, even the dinner double-crossed him: it was foreign food, little chunks of lamb in a sauce molten and alive with spices. Webern coughed, gasped, then seized up the sake and gulped it again. Mrs. Wheedle watched him with amusement.
“It’s a good thing I bought two bottles,” she said.
“Sometimes I like to just drink my dinner,” said Mrs. Wheedle, hugging the door of her car as she struggled with the lock. Inside, the three of them had finished two bottles of sake; then, while Clarence changed into his party clothes, Mrs. Wheedle had indulged in a martini as well. Unable to make conversation, Webern had watched her sip slowly but continuously, the gin and vermouth sliding away between her lips like a long silk ribbon. “That’s how I keep my figure, boys.”
Unsteady on his feet, Webern leaned hard against the car. He felt like crumpling into a small, moist pile on the ground, but he didn’t dare move. Here in the garage, junk stood in piles all around him, and he didn’t want to imagine what would happen if he started an avalanche. Tiki torches, broken squirrel traps, old jars of dead lightning bugs, and a single rusty wagon wheel cluttered the concrete floor, casting intricate shadows. In the middle of this crouched the Plymouth, black and dented, scarred from use.
“C’mon, Mama,” whined Clarence. “We’ll be late.”
Webern glanced over at him , then quickly looked away again. A muffled groan escaped his lips. He still couldn’t believe what his friend had decided to wear; more importantly, he couldn’t imagine why he’d decided to wear it. Just looking at Clarence made Webern feel like crying. Clarence had squeezed himself into a churchgoing suit that he must have had since childhood. The sleeves of the jacket barely reached his elbows, and between its wide-spread lapels, his belly thrust out importantly, draped in the billowing folds of a brilliantly white dress shirt. Unfortunately, that shirt was the only part of the ensemble that fit: his shorts were even tighter than his jacket. High above his knees, they nearly disappeared into the shadow his belly cast. His plump white legs stood sturdily beneath, gleaming hairless as alabaster columns.
“Mama,” Clarence whined again. “Mama, we’ll be late.”
Mrs. Wheedle finally succeed in unlocking the car door, and with a grand gesture, swung it wide open, knocking over several Tiki torches and a card table.
“Well,” she said, jingling the car keys, “it’s time for a little cowboy driving, then, ain’t it.” Clarence sighed loudly. He got into the front seat beside his mother, and Webern climbed in the back.
Webern hated cars; he’d hated them for years, ever since his mother ‘s accident. Slamming a car door always felt like shutting the lid to his own coffin. But tonight, he felt reckless. Getting into the Plymouth sent a nasty thrill through him, like pulling off a scab. The sake pulsed at his temples, and it occurred to him that maybe this lizard-water had a mind of its own; maybe it wanted his body cracked open on the asphalt just so it could spill out and escape. He shivered as the sedan plowed backwards into the starlit street and began weaving toward the high school.
“Mama, I feel carsick,” whimpered Clarence. “Can’t you drive straight?”
“Clare, you said you wanted me to go fast,” said Mrs. Wheedle, depressing the gas pedal. “Make up your mind, won’t you?”
Outside the windows, the world smeared by, distorted and blurred. Webern watched the houses, which glowed in the darkness like sea creatures with yellow, phosphorescent eyes. The car was a submarine, speeding through enemy waters. He could feel the ocean pressing down.
“So, plan on dancing with a lot of girls tonight, Bernie?” Mrs. Wheedle cranked open her window with one hand as she lit a cigarette with the other. The Plymouth drifted toward the road’s center line, and wind roared by the windows.
“I don’t think so.” Webern’s voice came out so loud, it startled him. Embarrassed, he pressed a hand to his mouth. As the car careened around a curve in the road, he continued, through his fingers, “I mean, I don’t – I don’t know most of the girls.”
“Or squirrels,” grumbled Clarence. “Bump here don’t know a hoary marmot from a Ratufa.”
“Well, it’s never too late to learn,” said Mrs. Wheedle, tapping her ash on the dashboard. She didn’t seem to notice that the car was on the wrong side of the road, or that she’d forgotten to turn on the headlights.
At that moment, a white brilliance illuminated the Plymouth’s interior, and for a few slow seconds, Webern saw everything with intense clarity. He saw the peanut shells on the car’s floor, the dented pumpkin shape of Clarence’s profile, the tom fabric ceiling. the cracked dial of the busted radio. But mostly, he saw Mrs. Wheedle. Half-turned towards him, she shone resplendent as an angel. Stupefied, Webern watched as her cigarette swept through the air, leaving behind pure white clouds. Her hair, soft and tousled, glinted like spun gold. He blinked, then blinked again. The car trembled around him, and he felt his body leaping forward, even as he half-reclined against the ripped upholstery. It was like riding the unicycle, only he was powerless to steer. All he could do was lie back and close his eyes.
The white brilliance disappeared as a station wagon, headlights flashing, horn honking, swerved out of the Plymouth’s path and onto the gravel shoulder. Mrs. Wheedle turned away from Webern to yell out her open window, ”Look where you’re going, goddamn it!”
Sometimes, when Webern couldn’t sleep, he lay in his bed and imagined the high school, dark and peaceful, locked up for the night. He imagined the rows of desks, their wooden tops lacquered with moonlight, and the chalkboards, as dark and square as blacked-out windows on the walls. He imagined the hallways, with their musty scent of pencil lead and eraser dust, stretching calm and uninterrupted, dreaming of the next day’s bustle. Even though he hated school, this image comforted him in a way he couldn’t explain. Maybe Webern just liked the idea of things staying put the way he left them. After his mother had died, he’d returned again and again to her vanity table, where her hand mirror and perfume bottles and jar of cold cream sat side by side, collecting a thin layer of dust.
When Webern stumbled in for the dance that night, though, nothing in the school looked untouched. The halls, dimly glowing in the half-light of an occasional illuminated bulb, throbbed gently with the rhythms of faraway music, and the cafeteria, decked out with white cloths on all the tables, showed the litter of a hastily deserted feast. The school was an enchanted castle, full of invisible revelers. The floors even seemed to shift under Webern’s feet as he and Clarence unsteadily approached the gymnasium. Webern cast a nervous sidelong glance at Clarence, then looked away again just as quickly. His friend was shamelessly adjusting the crotch of his ill-fitting breeches.
“Do we really have to go to the dance?” Webern asked. In a comic book he’d read once, a spaceman, working on the outside of a rocket ship, had accidentally dropped his tether and drifted off, endlessly, into space. The closer they got to the gym, the more Webern felt like he was coming to the end of his tether. Already, his insides swam, loose and unsettled. “I feel sick. Maybe we should go back to your house.”
“You’re a regular oxymoron, Bump,” Clarence observed, waddling ahead. Webern felt he had no choice but to follow.
As the two boys staggered up to the gymnasium’s double doors, a couple burst out, flushed from dancing. When the girl saw Clarence and Webern, she moved a quick manicured hand up to her pink mouth to stifle her giggles. Her hair, curled and piled up on her head, drooped like the enormous chrysanthemum she wore pinned to her dress. She nudged her date, a healthy, sun-burnt halfback who wore a dress shirt and tie under his maroon and gold letter jacket. He glanced at them and let out a startled squawk, half laugh, half-exclamation.
“Fellas,” he declared, his voice rich with incredulity, “it’s a mixer, not a goddamn costume party.”
”Flip,” the girl hissed delightedly, clutching his arm. Beneath her hairdo, her narrow, sharp face looked very small; still, Webern recognized her from his geometry class. “Flip, don’t make fun of the crippled kid.”
Face burning with shame, Webern scrunched down, trying to hide his hunchback, or better yet, sink through the floor. His head ached, and his eyes blurred with tears, as if the lizard water had filled him to overflowing. Why had he let Clarence talk him into this? He wanted to go home, to sleep, to blast off into outer space, to die and go to heaven. If only there were such a place. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to see his mother, the tender, sad smile she’d shine on him at the Pearly Gates. But Mrs. Wheedle appeared instead, smirking up from a bed of brilliant white, her arms and legs splayed, like a child making a snow angel.
“Welcome to paradise,” she said.
Webern shook his head violently to shoo the image away. Beside him, Clarence continued to tug methodically at the crotch of his own tight shorts.
“Bump here’s not in costume,” he explained good-naturedly, “but he’s a joker just the same. Vote Bump Chuckles for class clown.”
“Ha,” said Flip, exchanging an amused glance with his date. “Will do.” Seizing her hand, he led her briskly away. They weren’t out of earshot when they started laughing. Webern half-turned to watch them recede down the dim, locker-lined hall. The girl’s dress rustled: sea foam green.
For the first time, it occurred to Webern that maybe Clarence had brought him here on purpose, just to humiliate him. After all, what else could be the point? Here Clarence was, dressing like a performing monkey, leading his hunchbacked friend around, and making bizarre assertions about him to anyone who would listen. No one, not even Clarence, could be naive enough to believe that this could turn out well. It had to be a cruel joke. Slowly, unsteadily, Webern turned toward his friend.
“Why did you just say that?” Webern demanded. His voice cracked in the middle, and half the question came out falsetto. All the words slurred. Clarence looked at him steadily, with large, clear eyes. “Why did you tell him to elect me class clown? Why do you always have to tell people how funny I am, or how I ride a unicycle or – or how funny I am?” Webern was running out of things to say. He sat down heavily on the floor and glared up at Clarence, whose calm gaze remained fixed on where he’d been standing. From where Webern was sitting, the boy seemed big as a mountain, and just as unmovable.
“Jeez!” Webern exploded. “Who do you think you are, anyway, Clarence, huh?”
“I thought I was your best friend,” the fat boy said. His belly began to jiggle, and his face creased with emotion. “I thought you wanted me to run your campaign. If you don’t want me to, I’ll just – I’ll just –”
“Clarence,” said Webern. He really didn’t want to hear the end of that sentence. He wished he hadn’t spoken, or sat down. It didn’t seem likely that he’d ever be able to get up again. Everything was wrong. The world spun beneath him, like a giant merrygo-round. He covered his face with his hands, but Mrs. Wheedle just appeared again on the insides of his eyelids. This time, she sat in a bubble bath. Water and bright white froth covered her arms and legs, but her shoulders were bare.
“Come on in, the water’s fine,” she smiled mischievously. Then she disappeared under the bubbles, where he couldn’t follow.
Webern blinked hard, then looked up at Clarence, who sniveled and wiped his nose on the sleeve of his dress shirt. Webern felt sick; of course his best friend – his only friend – had never meant him any harm. Webern tried to smile apologetically, and stretched a hand up towards Clarence. “Help me up, will you?”
Clarence didn’t move. Tears rolled down his cheeks.
“Clarence, please?” Webern tugged desperately at the hem of Clarence’s shorts. “Clarence? You can be my campaign manager. Don’t be sore. Clarence?”
Clarence shook his head, slowly. Webern hugged his knees and rocked. It was a long time before either boy spoke.
“Knock knock?” Webern finally offered. “Who’s there,” Clarence sniffled.
“Stop crying and give me a hand already.”
Clarence grinned through his tears. A gleam returned to his eye. “See, Bump? You’re a real clown, just like I said.” He grabbed Webern’s arm and, with affectionate force, yanked him to his feet. Together, the two boys entered the dance.
Clarence immediately made a bee-line for the refreshments table, but Webern stood in his tracks for a long, mesmerized moment. Until that night, he had never really seen the gym; his other senses had always gotten in the way. The smell of the ancient floors, warped with sweat; the rough braid of a climbing robe scratching his arms and legs; the sharp cries and rubber smacks of a particularly terrifying round of dodge-ball; the unexpected, sudden friction of a wrestling mat against his hunchback, and the enforced removal of his glasses during p. e. class had always kept him from stopping to notice the room itself. But tonight, the sheer size of it almost overwhelmed him.
Following Clarence, he waded into a sea of swaying, smiling couples. From the high ceiling rafters, blue green crepe paper swung in long festoons, and against one wall, a cardboard palm tree leaned. But it was the proliferation of construction paper fish that surprised him the most. They swam on all the walls, their faces stretched in knowing, sharky smiles, and Webern had to blink twice to make sure they were really there. It wasn’t until he joined Clarence at a bamboo table strewn with pineapples that he finally remembered: Hawaiian paradise was the theme.
Webern leaned heavily on the shaky bamboo table as Clarence filled his mouth with tropical fruit. Shards of pineapple, like yellow fangs, protruded between Clarence’s moist lips, and he munched intently, focusing his gaze on a basketball hoop above Webern’s head. For the dance, they had replaced its rope basket with a grass hula skirt. As Clarence reached for a papaya, Webern felt a tidal wave of lizard water sake begin to surge in his stomach. He glanced to and fro, up and down, desperate for something, anything that might distract him from the noisy mastication. It was then that he realized what was going on with Clarence ‘s shorts.
Throughout the evening, Clarence had been touching and moving and readjusting the lump that squirmed there, and every time he’d noticed, Webern had quickly averted his eyes, for fear of catching Clarence in a moment of temporary embarrassment. But now, relaxed perhaps by the music or the mangos, Clarence had lost all sense of shame, and his hand, which before had moved quickly, if indiscreetly, was now tenderly, indulgently petting the small creature who lived in his pants. Webern forgot his nausea, forgot his hunchback, forgot Mrs. Wheedle, forgot lizards and sake and school, as before him unfolded a scene in slow motion that he was powerless to stop, or, later, to forget.
As he leaned back against the refreshments table, chewing, Clarence’s eyelids lowered, then shut, but his fingers continued to probe below his belt, sleepily, absentmindedly, and yet purposefully, as if sleepwalking an all-too-familiar route. Webern tried to look away, to pretend he didn’t notice, but then he heard the unmistakable sound: zipper teeth unzipping, click click click, like the ticking of a bomb. Clarence’s hand lingered on the zipper pull for what seemed like hours, as if he thought that, by doing it slowly, he was hardly doing it at all.
At the same time, the doors of the gymnasium burst open, and in came the girl with the chrysanthemum pinned to her dress. She strode swiftly through the sea of swaying couples, her eyes flashing, and moved straight for the refreshments table, as if eager to get a bad taste out of her mouth. Her hair, still piled in elaborate curls, looked even messier than it had a few minutes ago. A moment after her entrance, the doors swung open for Flip, who looked red-faced and breathless, like he’d just finished football practice.
Webern wanted to grab Clarence by the shoulder, to alert him of the approaching danger, but when he turned back toward his friend, his mouth fell open silently in horror and amazement. Between the flaps of Clarence’s fly, the fearful, furry head of Raquel was wriggling its way out. Trying to squeeze through the tight shorts’ zipper hole, she looked desperate and smooshed, like a half-born baby. Webern tried to wrap his mind around what he was seeing – why had Clarence put Raquel there? and why was he taking her out ? – but there was no time for reflection. Chrysanthemum girl was already stepping between him and Clarence, reaching for the ladle in the punch.
When Raquel glimpsed Chrysanthemum’s hairdo, so soft and loose, a wild hope seemed to inflame her already half-crazed expression. Emitting a plaintive chitter – “tchrr!” – she began to thrash and twist loose from the pants with all the violence of a drowning man splashing to the surface of a pool. Clarence, smiling vaguely, did not appear to notice his rodent’s agitation, but Chrysanthemum certainly did. Coolly averting her eyes from Flip, who was still shouldering his way through the crowd of dancers, she gazed first at the bamboo refreshment table, then at the slices of pineapple, then at the construction paper fish, and finally at the chubby boy beside her, lost in his ungodly pleasures. She sized him up with such knowing disdain that Webern almost felt a thrill of satisfaction when she finally glanced down, saw the rodent, scruffy and frantic, emerging from the fly of his pants, and screamed.
Her scream, a blood-curdling horror movie scream with vibrato, echoed off the walls of the gym and stopped the dancers in their tracks, but it did little to protect her. Raquel was not to be deterred. Like her flying relatives, she leapt into the air with effortless grace, arcing from Clarence’s shorts straight into Chrysanthemum’s tumbledown hairdo. Raquel didn’t hesitate; she moved with conviction, with joy, even, as if finally returning to some childhood nest – and once she arrived, she was intent on staying. As Chrysanthemum swung to and fro, screaming, beating herself about the head, Raquel clung on fiercely with her climbing claws.
“Flip!” Chrysanthemum screamed. “Flip!”
All this commotion finally roused Clarence from his reverie. His eyes opened and he rubbed them slowly, uncertainly, as if he couldn’t believe what he saw.
“Raquel?” he asked, befuddled, stepping forward.
“TCHCHHRCHCHRRR!” hissed Raquel, baring her fangs. Her tail bristled like a toilet brush.
“C’mere, girly girl,” said Clarence, waddling forward. But, reaching up to extract his pet from Chrysanthemum’s curls, he lost his balance. Perhaps it was the sake – perhaps it was Chrysanthemum’s wild gyrations – perhaps it was fate – but, just as Flip pushed through the crowd like he was running a touchdown, Clarence fell on top of Chrysanthemum, pinning her to the floor under his massive girth. He rolled back and forth, arms flailing, as he attempted to get up. Beneath him, the girl kept screaming.
“What the hell?!” roared Flip, grabbing Clarence by the shoulders. “Aaah!”
Raquel, skittering around on the ground, leapt at Flip’s face. He knocked her loose and she ran through the parting crowd, moving as only a squirrel can move, like a ripple, like a wave, out the doors of the gymnasium. Flip pulled Clarence to his feet, punched him once, then gripped him in a chokehold. The chubby boy’s face immediately flushed red.
Webern, standing there, holding a cup of punch, felt invisible for the first time since the accident that caused his hunchback. Here he was, surrounded by his peers, but no one was looking at him – no one was teasing him – no one was paying him any attention at all. In the span of a few seconds, he realized that, if he stood by idly and let Clarence get pummeled, no one would notice or care – no one except Clarence, who would probably forgive him in a day or two, because he didn’t have any other friends and because even he couldn’t reasonably expect Webern to save him. After all, who would step into a situation like this? No ordinary person would throw himself into a fight involving a football player, a squirrel, and a portly, inebriated outcast in unzipped shorts: no ordinary person would fight to defend a friend who carried a glorified rat in his pants. And, with all eyes turned away from him, this was Webern’s one chance to be an ordinary person – an onlooker.
Webern realized all this, but, in a flash, he also realized something else: he didn’t want to be ordinary. When he rode his unicycle, when he spread his arms out and felt his own delicate balance like danger in every cell, he wasn’t dreaming of fitting in, of disappearing into a sea of cheerful, identical young people who swayed in unison. He was dreaming of becoming a hero. Webern stared at Clarence, whose face was getting redder by the second. Then he took a deep breath and jumped on Flip’s buck, piggybacking him and drumming his head and shoulders with pale, tiny fists.
“Well, Bump,” said Clarence, “we sure showed them.”
Webern glanced over at his friend in mild surprise. The two boys were straggling along the sidewalk toward Clarence ‘s house. Streetlights and moonshine illuminated their path, and beneath them, the pavement glittered as if inlaid with a million chips of diamond. In this light, Webern could see Clarence’s injuries vividly – the necklace of bruises from Flip’s chokehold, the black eye, the nose still clogged with blood – and he could imagine the way his own wounds looked. His hunchback throbbed from where he’d hit the gym ‘s wooden floor, and he could taste blood on his split lip with his tongue.
But Clarence still plodded on, his arms folded smugly against his chest like a victorious boxer’s.
“That Flipper’s a baby,” Clarence continued. “Did you see it? They carried him off like a little baby.”
“I guess,” said Webern. Principal Stark, a soft-spoken man with shiny white hair, had finally stepped in to end the fight when Flip had both Webern and Clarence writhing helplessly on the floor. Principal Stark had led Flip away, gripping the collar of his letter jacket in a way that looked almost affectionate. As Flip passed through the crowd of dancers, many had applauded him or clapped him on the back, as though he’d just scored a touchdown for the home team, and Principal Stark made no effort to stop them. But at least he had escorted Flip from the dance floor, so maybe that was a small victory, of sorts.
In fact, the more Webern thought about the fight, the more small victories he discovered. Sure, Flip had soundly trounced him and Clarence – that was to be expected. But they’d had the guts to fight him just the same. And wasn’t that what real courage was? Webern had never thought of himself as brave before, but now that he’d gotten the idea into his head, he liked it. Being brave made him a man – almost a hero. It was a first step, anyway. Next to Clarence, he walked a little taller, even though his hunchback prevented him from standing up completely straight.
“Yeah,” he said. “Yeah. We showed ’em, Clarence.”
Clarence swung an arm around Webern’s lumpy, asymmetrical shoulders. It rested there heavily, like a side of ham. As the boys approached Clarence’s porch, which glowed like the lighted deck of a ship in the warm darkness, Webern felt his heart lift a little in his chest. It moved even higher when he saw that Raquel was on the porch, clawing at the door, waiting for them.
“My girl’s come home,” Clarence observed. Releasing Webern, he climbed the steps, then scooped the unhappy rodent up in his arms. Raquel hissed a little, then sank her teeth into the sleeve of his dress shirt. Clarence didn’t seem to mind. Cooing in her tufted ears, he petted her rhythmically, smoothing her red-brown fur. Webern stood awkwardly at the foot of the steps, not sure he should be witnessing this display of affection.
“C’mon,” said Clarence after a few minutes of stroking Raquel. He opened the screen door. “Let’s go inside. You hungry?”
Webern followed him inside. “I guess,” he said. He thought about food, and the lizard water sake stayed put, just a warm puddle in the bottom of his stomach. “Yeah. I could eat something.”
“Go get the leftovers, then. Raquel and me’ll meet you upstairs.” Moving with more energy than he’d displayed all evening, Clarence loped down the hallway and up the dark stairs to his bedroom. Webern heard a high-pitched chitter, almost a purr – tttttchrrrr! –and then they were gone.
Webern walked over Mardi Gras beads and past the overturned sofa. The house was dark, but he could tell when he’d entered the kitchen from the way his shoes squeaked against the linoleum. Afraid of waking Mrs. Wheedle, who was probably sprawled on a chaise lounge somewhere in the house, he sneaked across the room in total blackness. When he opened the door of the refrigerator, the white light inside almost blinded him.
Webern didn’t see the leftovers, or any other food, for that matter, in the refrigerator. The only thing inside was the thin, green sake bottle. He picked it up. It felt light in his hand – almost empty. Shrugging to himself, he unscrewed the cap and took a swig. He was a man now; he was tough. This stuff probably wouldn’t even affect him anymore.
“Getting your strength up?” asked a voice behind him.
Webern whirled around, brandishing the sake bottle like a weapon. But it was only Mrs. Wheedle, posing there in her high heels. She wore a white nightgown with feather trim, like an angel costume.
“Or maybe you already did. Looks like you got in a fight,” she observed, looking at his wounded face. “Does that sake turn you into a kamikaze, Webern? A suicide fighter? Does it make you lose control?”
He shook his head mutely. She stepped towards him, into the white light that spilled like milk from the refrigerator. With one finger, she reached out to touch his split lip. “Want me to kiss it and make it well?”
Webern gulped. “Sure,” he whispered.
As Mrs. Wheedle’s lips pressed against his, Webern had to close his eyes. The light from the refrigerator seemed very bright all of a sudden, bright and dazzling, like a sunburst or an explosion, and he felt lost in the brightness, like pilots must feel when they fly up above the clouds. The feathers on Mrs. Wheedle’s nightgown brushed against him, like wings. For a moment, he felt giddy and exhilarated: now, he was really a man, soaring up by himself to cloud-countries he’d never visited before. But then, too quickly, he felt himself fall. It wasn’t the dizzying or endless, like falling in love; it was lonely and sudden and short. Webern realized suddenly that he wasn’t a pilot in these skies; he wasn’t even a bird. He was a little boy, tossed out of an airplane, falling all alone, and he
wanted his mother to catch him. In his mind, he saw his mother’s vanity table again, its perfume bottles and powder puffs and hand mirror. He imagined them falling to the floor, smashing, releasing plumes of white dust. Gasping, he stumbled backwards, into the refrigerator, and dropped the sake bottle. It rolled across the kitchen floor.
“Mrs. Wheedle,” he panted. “Mrs. Wheedle, I – ”
“Call me Clarisse,” she said, stepping out of her high heels.
But Webern wasn’t listening to her. The refrigerator was closing in around him, and all he could think about was how Raquel must have felt, trapped inside those pants.