Clarence Wheedle, Webern’s childhood best friend, was the one major character from the stories who never made it into the novel. I’m not sure why, as even now I find his contented, unselfconscious weirdness endearing and even heroic. Perhaps it was just too difficult to synthesize his intense and intractable squirrel fetish with the other themes of the book.
Come play with me;
Why should you run
Through the shaking tree
As though I’d a gun
To strike you dead?
When all I would do
Is to scratch your head
And let you go.
–William Butler Yeats, “To A Squirrel At Kyle-Na-No”
Clarence Wheedle looked down at his feet and smiled. It was always an auspicious sign when he could see them. He exhaled, and the white moon of his belly eclipsed the penny loafers once again. Then he sank to the ground beside the chain-link fence and leaned against it until the wires moaned and yielded, molding to the shape of his back. Clarence opened his lunchbox, a briefcase-sized affair made of folded vinyl emblazoned with industrious, chubby-cheeked squirrels. Inside lay the remains of his mother’s latest cocktail party: wee sandwiches plumped with pate, bacon wrapped scallops skewered on toothpicks, a jar of round olives bobbing in brine. Clarence slurped from his thermos. Virgin Roy Rogers, on the rocks.
About fifteen feet down the fence, Webern Bell watched enviously. Webern was, in part, jealous of the exotic delicacies – once he’d stared in utter amazement as Clarence cracked open a lobster claw, scraped it clean, and then manipulated it like a finger puppet for the rest of recess – but he was more jealous of Clarence’s seamless, methodical calm as he smacked his lips and unscrewed his thermos. Clarence gave the impression that his isolation was freely chosen; leaning against that leper’s fence, he could have been lounging by the beach. Webern often stared at the pale red diamonds of fence rust tattooed on the back of Clarence’s white dress shirts, and tried to figure him out.
Clarence drew squirrels in class, fat and sleek with half-shut, contented eyes. The only squirrels Webern had ever imagined were fierce and spindly, with sharp, square teeth that gnawed at his insides.
Webern opened his lunchbox, a small pressed-tin model. The comic book hero Space Ace Grin McCase soared up its lid, shooting a pillar of white exhaust from his jet pack. Webern longed for a jet pack. He tried to imagine how Clarence Wheedle would react if he, Webern, blasted into the sky and returned munching mouthfuls of cotton candy cloud. The daydream was not satisfying. Clarence probably wouldn’t even notice.
Webern often imagined rivalries of this sort with classmates, but they never escalated, mainly because he never talked to anyone. Unlike Clarence, who was a Fat Boy and therefore a known quantity, excluded but understood, like the junior high’s Village Idiot or Town Drunk, Webern was a Hunchback, putting him more in line with Vampires, Frankenstein, and the Phantom of the Opera (not to mention a particular Frenchman in Notre Dame). He spooked the other kids. They didn’t even tease him much anymore, though recently Gap McLewan had rubbed the bumped-up shoulder before a history test “for luck.” Webern feared this might start a trend.
Webern bit into his sandwich. Bologna and a limp leaf of iceberg lettuce. The white bread stuck to the roof of his mouth. As he worked it loose with his tongue, he heard the hula hoopers coming up the hill.
The hula hoopers announced themselves with the splashing of their can-can skirts. These ruffled silks, layered sometimes six at once, splurged beneath their bell-shaped poodle skirts like the ocean itself. As the girls swiveled over the crest of the hill, the breathy lilt of their voices joined the rustling. They were counting their hoops’ rotations.
“Forty-one, forty-two, forty-three,” they sang. Their voices curled in midair, beckoning like invisible fingers. The girls posed on the thick waves of green grass. Their hula hoops overlapped as they swung, like Venn diagrams from math class. With their constant swaying, the girls seemed to swim, and Virginia completed this illusion by pinching her nose and dipping low, one arm raised like a scuba diver’s breathing tube.
“Forty-eight, forty-nine, fifty…”
The girls, Linda, Linda, and Virginia, wore monogrammed pink angora sweaters – sweaters that had been subject to the urgent, confused glances of classmates for many months. Unlike the other pink sweaters in the seventh grade room, Linda, Linda, and Virginia’s had, ever since last summer, surged and swelled outward with the unstoppable force of a tidal wave.
The hoops swung nearer; the girls swished fluidly. Their brimming sweaters rippled. Webern had heard once that the human body was ninety percent water, but he hadn’t believed it until now.
“Fifty-five, fifty-six, fifty-seven…”
Webern hugged his legs to his chest. He picked at a scab on one knee. His face burned. But why should he be embarrassed? They were the ones shimmying like imbeciles. Down the fence, Clarence methodically replaced his treats and closed his lunch box.
Again, Webern longed for a jet pack. But Clarence just rolled to his feet, brushed off the seat of his pants, and rubbed his hands together, utterly composed. Webern thought hard. What did this boy know that he didn’t? Surely there was a lesson here for him. Sometimes it seemed like every other kid in school took a class he didn’t, a class in how to get through the day.
As Webern squinted at the white moon of the other boy’s dress shirt, glowing brilliant in the noon sunshine, Clarence did something startling. He looked at Webern. And his face, though unsmiling, was respectfully businesslike as he uttered the words that Webern would later realize had begun his first friendship.
“C’mon Bernie,” said Clarence. “Let’s get ’em.”
“Aha,” said Principal Tripp. He pointed his forefinger like a gun. “So now poor Linda’s hoop is in pieces. What do you think of that?”
Principal Tripp was a narrow pencil of a man, with a pink bald head like an eraser. Webern had never been in his office before. The bookcase was filled not with books, but with cobwebbed trophies, and a coonskin cap lay on his desk – a cheap synthetic one, from the look of it. He’d probably confiscated it from a student, but Webern pictured him wearing it like a wig. Sometime during the long pause, Webern realized that Principal Tripp was waiting for one of them to speak.
“We didn’t mean to,” Webern said. This was true for him, anyway; the shrieking, the clattering hoops, the angora elbows still whirled around him. He glanced quickly at Clarence. When the Fat Boy had spoken to him earlier, it had been a bolt of lightning, a call from God that he couldn’t even question, but now Clarence seemed through with giving orders. “We just wanted them – to leave us alone.”
“Yeah.” Clarence smacked his palm with a closed fist, agreeing. “We was eatin’ lunch.”
Principal Tripp nodded slowly. “But you do realize, boys,” he said – almost whispered – “you scared the beejesus out of those girls? You need to realize that when you – er – when those girls saw you charging towards them, they must’ve – well, what I mean to say is, you need to learn your own –”
Clarence stuck out his jaw like a bull dog. Webern folded his arms across his chest.
“—strength,” Tripp concluded weakly.
After some more silence, Principal Tripp decided that the boys would sit in the library for the rest of the afternoon, where they could think quietly about how frightening they were. He sent them on their way unattended.
Alone in the big hall with Clarence, Webern didn’t know what to say. The Fat Boy waddled fast, swinging his arms. Webern had to shuffle to keep up.
“So,” Webern offered after a minute, “we sure showed those girls, huh?”
“They’re floozies,” Clarence said authoritatively. “They had it comin’.” He snorted, then glanced sharply at Webern’s uneven, clumsy feet scrabbling over the chalky hall tiles. “Step on a crack, break your mama’s back.”
Webern’s cheeks burned red. He slowed down, shamefaced, and with each step, carefully placed his foot within the confines of a new beige square. He didn’t bother explaining that his mother was already dead. Clarence, far ahead of him by now, disappeared into the library.
As Webern stepped inside from the hallway’s staccato tiles, his footfalls fell silent instantly. The library, brown and dusty with four large octagonal tables, was the only carpeted room in the building. Clarence stationed himself at a table near the open window, pulled a notebook from his back pocket, and clicked a pen. Webern cautiously chose a spot at the same table, directly across from the Fat Boy, so the entire diameter of the table stretched between them. Clarence bent his head over the paper and began peacefully drawing squirrels. The Venetian blinds tapped gently against the window frame. Webern opened his mouth once or twice, but he was no good at making conversation.
After about ten minutes, Webern gave up. He walked across the room and picked up a book on space from one of the library’s shelves. Maybe he was supposed to sit still and think about his sins, but he didn’t really care. No librarian was on duty, and even if a teacher walked in, what was the worst she could do? Punish him for reading? Getting in trouble was different when you didn’t have a mother. There was no one they could call, no quick heels to click down the tile floor to the principal’s office, no tight grip on the upper arm, no narrow, disappointed crease between the plucked and penciled brows. Webern didn’t go out of his way to get in trouble, but when it happened now, it was like falling in zero gravity: an illusion easily corrected by a change in perspective. Webern flipped through the book. It was a volume on the moon that he’d checked out many times before, and he knew some favorite passages by heart, including one about the plastic domed crater-homes spacemen would build and live in one day. This time, though, he turned to a section he’d neglected in past readings. HOW WE USE THE MOON. He skimmed the page.
“Primitive tribes believed the moon was a great lamp hung in the sky by the Sun God when he went to rest each night. It was also believed for a long time that Luna’s rays were harmful and would strike people with madness. We know today that these beliefs are wrong, but we still use the word lunacy (insanity).”
Webern wondered if the same people who believed in the Sun God believed that the moon caused insanity. If so, they would have to believe that their god was a kind of mad scientist, zapping people crazy with his giant night light. Then again, maybe any God character necessarily had a dash of the mad scientist. Webern was wondering if this left hunchbacks better or worse off when, from across the room, he heard a quiet, persistent mewing, like a hungry kitten’s. He cocked his head, then slowly turned. Clarence Wheedle was crying.
Webern carefully set down the book. Though boys sometimes still cried in the seventh grade, it was generally after a sports injury or a fistfight; this kind of unabashed sadness was slightly surreal, like a clock with no hands, or with four of them. Webern walked back over to the octagon al table and perched on his chair.
Clarence continued to cry. Heavy, round tears plunked onto the squirrels, drenching their ballpoint faces. Would Clarence be more embarrassed if Webern spoke? Or if he didn’t? Webern folded his hands and looked at them. He decided to take a chance.
“If you’re worried your mom’ll be mad,” Webern said, “I don’t think –”
“I hate Mama,” Clarence spat. But he kept mewing.
Stunned, Webern sat back in his seat. Hate his mother? How could anyone hate his mother? Webern remembered his own mother, her girlish handwriting- i’s dotted with hearts, c’s curled like snail shells- and her high heels, which pressed little round craters into the carpet when she vacuumed. Clarence’s mother had to be another species entirely, foreign, frightening, and unimaginable. How could Webern stop this alien spawn’s tears? He couldn’t even picture its home planet. Then Webern remembered Linda, Linda, and Virginia, and the desire to please Clarence surged up again. Even if they didn’t have mother-hatred in common, they still had hula-hatred, and that was more than he shared with anyone else.
“You know, I think those girls really are floozy,” Webern said. He wasn’t quite sure what the word meant, though he had heard it bandied around the locker room after gym.
Clarence ignored him; if anything, his mews got louder.
Webern raised his voice. “Did you see the way they were hula-ing? I don’t know what’s wrong with them. If they keep that up, they’re gonna get hit with a dodge ball or something. Or worse. Bonk!”
Clarence whimpered in reply. Webern looked back down at his folded hands, but his pulse buzzed in his ears – an idea churned in his mind. Should he? Shouldn’t he? He glanced around the room, then suddenly, he scrambled on top of the octagonal table. Clarence stared up at him, tears dripping down his cheeks. Webern looked down. He had the feeling he was making a huge mistake, but it was too late for second thoughts.
“I mean, they were like this,” said Webern. He began swinging his hips; his uneven body sashayed around the table, and his voice came out a breathy lisp. “Thirtyone, thirty-two, thirty-three…”
Clarence’s mouth fell open in astonishment. Webern kept up the impersonation, but added rippling arm movements and batted his eyes. “Thirty-five, thirty-six …”
Clarence stopped crying. His lips twitched, and the mountains of his cheeks and chest started to quake.
Webern pinched his nose; he dipped like a scuba diver. Clarence’s laughter erupted in the quiet library, and Webern, hips still swinging, spun around and bowed.
Clarence nicknamed Webern “Bump Chuckles, comedian” and made him a business card densely patterned with squirrels. He invited him to come over after school.
“You can meet my squirrels. They’re like you, Bump. They’re funny as all get-out and they don’t give a damn.”
“Okay,” Webern said, holding his new business-card by one edge, fanning it in the air like a Polaroid to dry the ballpoint pen ink. Some of the squirrels Clarence drew had little hunchbacks and checkered vaudeville jackets.
After the bells rang and the initial flood of kids gushed from the building, the boys sauntered out together, swinging their lunchboxes. Webern hoped that Clarence didn’t expect him to act funny all the time – the hula dance had been a rare moment of inspiration – but Clarence seemed content just to walk side-by-side in silence, as if they were two gray horses pulling the same cart. They unshackled their bikes from the metal rack.
“That your sister’s?” Clarence asked, raising an eyebrow at the streamers dangling from Webern’s handlebars.
“Nah, it’s just – for laughs, you know.” Webern avoided Clarence’s eyes as he guided his bike out from between the metal slats. He and his mother had picked it out together at the toy store years ago, and despite the teasing, he hadn’t had the heart to retire it. Since it was blue, he’d assumed at the time it was a boy’s.
Clarence lived in an old neighborhood. Trees arched up like cathedral walls on either side of the street. As they biked, the light spilled down pale green on them, as if filtered through stained glass windows. Webern hadn’t been to church since his mother’s funeral, and he’d almost forgotten this kind of hush. He could hear the leaves whispering.
Clarence’s house was an old shoe of a place, brown and creased, with ivy laced up tight around its crumbling walls. Clarence leaned his bike against the gnarled oak in the front yard; Webern left his lying in the long grass. He followed Clarence through the front door and stopped to pull off his dirty sneakers. Clarence stared at him.
“What are you, a Jap or somethin’?” he demanded. Webern stopped, awkwardly holding one sneaker in his hand. He did indeed feel like a foreigner.
“I just always take them off at home.” He pulled the shoe back on. “They scuff the floors.”
“Guess I should’ve expected somethin’ funny from you, Bump.”
Webern followed Clarence through the house. The splintery wood floors squeaked underfoot, and paint scrolled at the tops of the walls. They passed a living room full of upside-down furniture and spilled ashtrays. Half-empty glasses and little plates perched everywhere Webern looked- the stairs, the bookcases, even the bench of the player piano that tinkled eerily in the cluttered dining room. Why, Webern wondered, did a player piano need a bench? Clarence plodded ahead; the floor screamed under his feet.
The kitchen was at the back of the house. French doors opened onto the backyard, and a kidney-shaped swimming pool glistened outside. A breeze blew in through the open windows, ruffling the nicotine-yellow curtains. At the dinette table, a blowsy woman wearing a red kimono sat chain-smoking and doodling on a newspaper. Several half-empty bottles sat on the table in front of her; their contents glowed amber and gold, like trapped sunlight. A bunch of billiard balls rolled on the linoleum near her feet.
“Hi, hon,” she said without looking up. “Brought a little friend, huh?”
Clarence folded his arms defiantly. His mother twisted her pen into the nest of her hair. She glanced at him sharply.
“I said, did you bring a little friend over?”
Clarence stuck out his lower lip. “He’s right there. Why don’t you ask him?”
“Honestly, Clarence. Well, speak up, then. I’m Clarisse. What’s your name, dear? Are you a friend of my son’s?”
Webern hugged his books to his chest. Motes of dust twinkled in the yellow light. Clarence glared at him.
”I’m Bump Chuckles,” Webern said.
On the windowsill, a squirrel snickered. Clarisse reached down, spun around, and hurled a billiard ball at it. The squirrel ducked and wagged its tail. It held an orange marshmallow shaped like a peanut.
“Goddamn it, Clarence. I told you to stop feeding those vermin. They scare away the birds.”
“Careful what you say, Mama. Bump here’s practically a squirrel too.”
Clarisse snorted smoke from her nose. She stubbed out her cigarette on the table and poured a drink from one of the remaining bottles into a coffee cup. “That so, Bump? You a little squirrelly?”
Webern didn’t know what to say. He felt like a character in someone else’s dream. “I guess so, Mrs. Wheedle.”
Clarisse swallowed and slammed the coffee cup down on the table. “Well, don’t that beat all. You’re a good match for my son. Now, run along, boys. I’m very busy.”
“C’mon, Bump. I’ll show you my room.” Clarence opened a door in the kitchen
wall and disappeared up a dark spiral staircase. Webern followed him. He held the handrail with both hands.
The staircase came out in an upstairs hallway with a worn blue rug running down the middle of the wood floor. Clarence shambled ahead, then turned into one of the white-doored rooms on his right.
“This way, slowpoke.”
Webern stepped gingerly inside. His hand rested on the knuckly cut-glass doorknob, and his mouth fell open. An elaborate system of pulleys, baskets, and ropes webbed the room. They stretched like cable car lines between cardboard box buildings that perched on the bookshelf, the chest of drawers, the windowsill, and the narrow cluttered desk. These boxes, painted to look like a general store, a bank, a school, and a church, had little doors cut out and left ajar tantalizingly. The ropes also connected to the four bed posts, on top of which sat nests woven from twigs and pine needles, pillowed with orange peanut-shaped marshmallows.
“It’s for squirrels,” Clarence explained. “I built ’em a city, but so far, the ones I’ve got up in here’ve been too scared to use it.” He pointed at his bed. A red tail stuck out under the dust ruffle, twitching.
“C’mon , Bump,” Clarence pleaded. “You mimic good. I saw.”
Webern stared into the Fat Boy’s closet. Beside a row of crisp white dress shirts hung a homemade squirrel suit. Sewn from bright brown terrycloth, with attached feet, it resembled a young child’s pajamas. An unwieldy tail, like a tennis racket covered with fur, dangled from its posterior.
“I don’t think they’ll fall for it,” Webern argued weakly.
“Sure they will. Just give it a try.” Clarence pushed Webern into the closet and quickly shut him inside. Webern peeked through the door’s narrow slats, a curious prisoner.
”I’m no good at this,” Webern protested. The closet, dark and hot, squeezed him like the black void of space. He imagined rays of lunacy shooting through him on their way down to earth, and he rattled the door knob. ”I’m really not an actor.”
“You don’t hafta act. Mama said you were squirrelly, didn’t she?” Clarence’s pudgy palms pressed against the door slats.
There was no other way out. Webern shucked off his red corduroys, kicking them, tangled and inside-out, into a comer of the closet. Then, more gingerly, as if cutting away a cast, he pulled off his red and yellow striped T-shirt.
“You got it on yet?” The door knob began to turn.
Webern’s hand smacked down over his hump protectively. He backed into the row of starchy shirts. “No! Don’t open the door.”
Webern unzipped the squirrel suit and took it off the hanger. The tail flip-flopped as he slid his feet down the narrow leg tubes; the sleeves hugged his arms. The metal zipper stuck, then click-click-clicked up to his chm.
“OK, you can let me out now,” Webern called meekly.
Clarence flung open the door. The full moon of his white dress shirt almost blinded Webern, who cowered back into the dark closet, terrycloth knees knocking.
“What do you think?” Webern asked. He felt naked in the squirrel suit, or maybe even worse than naked. Humiliation was inevitable. How had he gotten himself into this fix?
Clarence stroked his chin, scrutinizing his new friend’s rodent masquerade. Then he suddenly snapped his fingers.
“Hold on,” he said. “Don’t move.”
Webern stood awkwardly in the closet doorway as Clarence trundled out of the room. Webern pictured the Fat Boy returning with the entire seventh-grade class or, worse yet, Mrs. Wheedle. What would Bump Chuckles do in this situation? Webern swung the squirrel tail over one arm, affecting jauntiness; he twirled it casually in the air.
Clarence returned alone, with a handful of white Chiclets.
“Open wide,” he said. He stuck two of them like caps over Webern’s front teeth. Webern touched them gingerly. They protruded out over his lower lip.
“So, now wha?”
“Just show ’em how the city works.” Clarence gestured vaguely. “Show ’em how it’s safe.”
Webern nodded. He walked over to the bed and nudged the dust ruffle with his toe. “Hey vere,” he mumbled through the Chiclet fangs.
Clarence groaned, flinging his arms in the air. “Bump! Squirrels can’t talk!”
Webern sank to his hands and knees, as if prostrating himself before a higher power. He nudged his face under the bed. A family of three unhappy squirrels trembled beneath a canopy of sagging mattress. The baby, shriveled and hairless as an old man, squeezed its shut eyes in Webern’s direction. The mother chittered.
“Ti-ti-ti-ti,” Webern whispered back. “Tccchrrr.”
The father squirrel flicked its tail, shaking loose cobwebs. Maybe it was waving. Webern pulled his own plush tail under the bed and waved back. The squirrels scurried even farther away. Webern wedged his head and shoulders under the bed frame; he felt the splintery wood bite through his costume.
“Don’t touch ’em with your hands,” Clarence warned. He sounded very far away. “If you touch ’em, they’ll smell funny, and the other squirrels won’t know who they are.”
“Chuh-chuh-chuk, chuh-chuh-chuk,” Webern muttered, pulling himself forward on his elbows. The father squirrel hissed. It flicked its tail again, shaking loose more dust, and this time the furry appendage brushed Webern’s nose. Webern’s face wrinkled up, then relaxed. He crawled a little closer.
“Rrr, rrr, ch-ch-ch,” Webern growled. The father squirrel wagged its tail menacingly. Its wife and child hid behind it.
“Are they coming out? Are they?” Clarence demanded.
Webern lunged forward on his elbows just as the fluffy extremity slashed toward him again. A dust bunny exploded, and the father squirrel’s tail deftly whisked just under his nose.
“Ah – ah – ah –” Webern pinched his nostrils, hard, just in time. Dust clouded over his glasses and clung to his wet Chiclet teeth. The parent-squirrels exchanged glances. They chuckled, and Webern’s face darkened.
“Bump!” Clarence complained. “You gotta sound like a squirrel.”
Webern ignored him. He knew what he was doing now. Dust still hovered in the air as he slowly released his nose. The mother squirrel scrambled behind its mate; the father squirrel stared straight at its human adversary, rage and terror contorting its pointed rat’s face. But Webern felt no remorse. The little fella brought this upon himself.
Webern inhaled sharply. “Ah – ah – ah –”
The sneeze exploded out of Webern like a gale, like a cyclone, and the squirrels blew out from under the bed in a swirl of dust and twisting tails. Webern scrambled after them, wild as a werewolf in his garb of fur and fang.
As Clarence reeled back against the wall, Webern chased the furry family through the cardboard city: from the general store, to the bank, to the school, to the church. The terrified vermin slid across the tight ropes, dropped down in basket elevators, and finally, shaking and shrieking, skittered into one of the bedpost nests, and stopped there, shivering.
Webern, panting, plopped down on the floor. His hands pressed hard into the rough rug. He felt dizzy and ashamed. He was supposed to win the little guys’ trust, but instead, he scared the beejesus out of them. Girls or squirrels, it didn’t seem to matter: he was a monster in everyone’s eyes. He couldn’t even bring himself to look at Clarence, who leaned against the wall, holding his belly with both hands, blinking in amazement.
“Well. Bump,” Clarence finally said, “you may be funny, but you sure get the job done.”
Webern glanced up in surprise as Clarence leaned over, offering his hand to shake. Webern took the Fat Boy’s pink paw, and his new friend pumped his arm vigorously, transferring something between their palms as he did so. Webern stood up, staring at the new treasure in his hand. It was a tinfoil sheriff’s star.
A week later, the boys drifted in Clarence’s swimming pool, sipping Shirley Temples, their donut-shaped inner tubes tangent. When Webern looked straight up, he felt like he was floating not in the chlorinated water, but the cloudless blue of the sky. It was that kind of dreamy day. The world was alive.
Webern squeezed his eyes tight shut and stared at the amorphous blobs, blue and orange. that glowed on the inside of his lids. Since their first meeting, Webern had remained surprised and grateful for the blissful improbability of this, his first friendship. After all, Clarence was his social superior in many ways. Clarence’s mother was divorced; Webern’s was dead. Clarence’s bump was on his stomach, not his shoulder, and, unlike Webern’s, it could shrink in time. Clarence had a farmer’s tan; Webern had no tan at all. But these differences hadn’t mattered; Webern had become this Fat Boy’s friend anyway. Thinking about that filled him with hope.
Webern slurped his Shirley Temple, swirling the straw through the bright, sweet grenadine. From the top of Clarence’s fence, two squirrels stared down at them, tchrring.