Every night, they clean their shoes after the fog walks. Webern can hear it from his bed upstairs – the muddy swak-swak of cotton against rubber sole, the tink of a dislodged pebble hitting the wastebasket’s metal rim. Webern knows that if in the morning he could spring from his crumpled bedsheets and hop downstairs, taking the steps two at a time, he would find the white plastic trash bag speckled with flecks of mud, small stones, soiled Q-tips, and toothpicks. The gleaming shoes would sit alongside, sole-grooves deep and lily white.
Even before his accident, Webern’s sisters never invited him on their fog walks and, since his topple from the treehouse, he hasn’t even bothered to ask, although he fumes every night when he hears the screen door slam. Nowadays, Webern privately, furiously blames the accident on his sisters, but when it happened, when his parents found him under the tree, splayed beneath a canopy of leaves, he pointed his finger at nobody to his left. Or so he’s been told, anyway. Webern doesn’t remember what happened, not exactly – when he tries to focus on the accident in his memory, it dims away like a tiny star – but the only nobody he knows is Wags Verder, and Webern can’t imagine accusing him. Wags is his best friend, his blood brother, his partner in crime. At moments of great distress, Webern reminds himself of this, turning for reassurance toward the secret code scribbled onto the faded patches of the wallpaper beside his bed. A triangle equals A; a squiggle equals B. This comforts him. Webern is certain, at least, that they were all three there – Willow, Billow, and Wags – and that’s more than Willow and Billow would ever let him admit to his parents.
Tonight, Wags is in the teevee set, his bucktoothed smile glinting, one among many, in a toothpaste advertisement. Webern listens to the jingle with furious intensity, eager to drown out the inevitable sound of the creaking screen door.
When your feet go walkin’
Your teeth do the talkin’
So, make a good impression
… try somethin’ refreshin’!
“Want to hear a dirty joke?” asks Wags, his tooth dinging, healthy and clean. Webern jerks awake – he’s been dozing all evening, so he has no way to know if his sisters are leaving or corning back. His rocket ship clock reads 12:15, but they walk at a different time every night.
“A pig fell in the mud. Want to hear a clean joke?”
“The pig took a bubble bath.”
Webern laughs. He’s heard worse jokes, dirty and clean, at his parents’ interminable cocktail parties. At the last one before his accident, a foul-smelling man with a single wooly worm of eyebrow insisted on telling him, over and over, what Betty Grable would say to the pope on a desert island. Webern finally cried for his father, who was juggling highball glasses for the guests.
“We men gotta stick together,” his father said, as he ruffled Webern’s crew cut and led him away. Webern ‘s father was in high spirits that evening, singing old army songs as he marched his son to the study. Webern rested his little head on his father’s potbelly for a long time once they got there.
“Ba-boom, ba-boom,” Webern murmured in rhythm with the uncommonly loud pulse he heard behind his father’s dense wall of flesh. “Ba-boom. Daddy, why is your heart down in your stomach?”
“Well, son, I thought I’d tell you later, but I guess tonight you’re man enough to know. Back in the wars, I had to swallow my heart, to hide it from the Krauts.”
“What?” Webern was sleepy; the syllables broke apart on the way to his ears.
“I had to swallow my heart, to hide it. Otherwise they would have cut it out.”
“Daddy, someday, would you hide me with your heartbeat?”
A long throaty chuckle rumbled down to join the heartbeat. ”I’d like nothing more, son.”
With that, Webern fell asleep, and the flesh of the leather sofa encased him, digested him.
But tonight he’s wide awake, using his plastic grabber to turn stiff dials on the black ‘n white teevee as he waits for his sisters to fog walk or clean shoes. The teevee, his only companion, fuzzes out on channel five just when Wags appears, an Indian headdress above his lederhosen, riding bareback toward the Lone Ranger.
A few weeks ago, Webern’s mother brought the teevee up to the rocket ship room without even being asked. And, knowing somehow about his longing for the fog walks, she cut two thick strips of sod from the lawn one misty morning and rubbed the cool grass against Webern’s bare feet as she sang a lullaby.
“It’s like being outside again, Bernie,” she said, smiling shyly. ” ‘Out in the atmosphere, out where the air is clear. . . ‘ ”
But, although the sensation was nice, Webern knew he was missing something. His sisters didn’t soil their shoes on blue-green manicured lawns, after all. They found their way to nature. He tried to smile, but he must not have done a very good job, because after a moment, his mother just stopped and sat there, a sod strip limply dangling from each hand. She reflected Webern’s disappointment back to him on her sad face, and her song faded out.
“Well then,” she said, mustering a frail smile, “better eat some breakfast. Pigs in a blanket, how’s that sound?”
Webern oinked obediently, but it was too late; he knew he’d wounded her. Now the sod strips float forlornly in an aquarium across the room. Two earthworms sink to the bottom of the tank.
“Hey, Webern, why are ghosts so lonely?”
“I don’t know.”
“Cuz they ain’t got no-body, ha-ha.”
Webern turns off the teevee as Wags skips through a hopscotch game on The Little Rascals. Webern half-shuts his eyes, and through his sleepy tears, the rocket ships on the wallpaper drift up up up…
“Jack of all trades.”
“Got it in spades.”
A blinding light mushrooms out of the bulb, and Webern jerks awake. He rubs his eyes in disbelief. His sisters, whom he’s only seen once or twice since the accident, and then only as murky shadows on the attic stairs, are in his room, playing their perpetual card game. It’s their latest passion: they buy deck after deck to replace the cards that go missing on jerky bus rides or under the tables of hamburger joints, and now the backs of the cards – plaids, naked ladies, natural landmarks, and the like – vary more than the markings on their faces.
“Queen takes it,” declares Willow, her long lean fingers grasping an ace with the Sacre Coeur looming on its backside. “Your deal.” The cards slide down the flat front of her white lace dress.
Willow and Billow were born twins, but even then they looked different as twig, kindling-brittle, and sail, west wind bloated. As children, they had loved to seesaw, Willow squealing with delight as she catapulted into a waiting sandbox, Billow, still squatting on the beam, slapping her fat thighs and chuckling: “Hyeuh, hyeuh, hyeuh.”
Willow and Billow were unleashed long before he was born, but Webern has heard these stories all over the neighborhood and doesn’t doubt them for a minute. Such childhood mischief isn’t too far from the girls’ dirty-shoe antics on nights like this one.
Billow, finished forking over cards, sits down heavily on Webern’s bed, and the springs burp. She’s dressed as a swarthy pirate queen, a red bandana knotted on her brow, and she takes a long moment to massage the large gold hoops in her ears before acknowledging his presence.
“Bernie.” she tells him, drawing a long keychain from the deep cleft in her bosom, “we think that it’s time now.”
“So don’t you go whine, now.”
The girls unlock the shackles that, since the accident, have kept Webern from his old habit of rolling out of bed in his sleep. Webern squirms under their hands, bony and padded, cool and warm.
“Where are you taking me?” He’s stiff with fear as they heft him onto their shoulders, careless pallbearers, and it’s not until the screen door slams shut behind them that Webern realizes they’re taking him on a fog walk.
Liquid air bathes Webern before they even get off the porch . Willow and Billow speed swim past the grassy rafts with raspy gasps, and Webern peeks past his bobbing toes to see. The girls hoot nonsense rhymes.
“Tall as a tree!”
“But fatter than me!”
Cards shuffle from pockets and slide underfoot. Wags, dressed as a lawn gnome, tips his hat as Webern floats by.
“It’s Fairyland, dew on grass.”
“Only one fairy here. Move your ass.”
Webern looks up at the stars. He holds up his arm, and the rockets on his pajama sleeve fly through the sky.
The girls make a sharp turn into an alleyway between two houses. Stray cats warble on top of trash cans as Billow blunders forward, holding aloft Webern’s feet. Willow, lugging his shoulders, lags behind and for a moment, Webern feels himself stretching as no little boy should stretch.
Straight ahead, there’s a dead end, or at least it looks like death over the tops of Webern’s feet. It’s a wall of leaves. Tree limbs and weeds poke through rusty chicken wire that barely holds them back. In the tangles, Webern can see all the plants he’s been warned about at school: marijuana and poison ivy and Venus flytraps. Thorn teeth and bud eyes smile out evilly – a dragon face leers. Webern gasps, and his sisters fold beneath him. Suddenly a tunnel through the greenery appears – a hole in the wire fencing. It’s barely wide enough for the girls to worm their way through. Billow drags Webern by his ankles and Willow pushes his shoulders. As the girls slide into the opening on hands and knees, brambles scratch Webern’s upturned face.
“Where are we going?”
“First we go out, then we go in,” Willow says matter-of-factly.
“You said you’d follow, through thick and thin.” Billow the Pirate leers down at him, and, for the first time, he wonders how she got that gold tooth.
“Wags,” Webern whispers, but he can’t find his friend’s face among the weeds.
The forest path swallows them; everywhere they are surrounded by wet leaves that press close to the girls’ faces, then push them on. The girls’ shoes crunch the underbrush as they squat, midget-walking, the way Billow used to in plays they put on for the family.
”I’m a midget, hyeuh, hyeuh ,” she always declared, before Willow came out dressed as a princess to hit her on the head with a cardboard box. Before it was properly explained to him, Webern thought midgets had large, knee-shaped protuberances jutting from their middles.
Now, he thinks that if midgets don’t, maybe goblins do. Willow and Billow yank him over tree roots and sharp stones, never heeding his timid protests. The rockets on his pajamas land nose down in the dirt again and again. Webern remembers watching the older boys at recess practice for Little League, how the y slid into home plate. As he scrapes along the ground, he pretends to be the greatest ballplayer the world has ever seen.
The farther they go, the wilder and darker the forest grows. Tiny spotted mushrooms cluster in the underarms of trees. Insects buzz and tick like clocks. Hours seem to pass. Webern wonders if the bugs sleep – and if so, are they suspended in midair, and if so, why don’t they drop, as he feels about ready to do himself, despite the fact the girls are still dragging him – when Willow grasps a stick like a wand and parts the dripping leaves. They’re in a vacant lot, and the girls lift themselves to their feet, stretching victoriously, without even bothering to pull Webern all the way out of the forest.
“Raise you a dime.”
“Ain’t got the time.”
Discarded candy wrappers, bingo chips, and playing cards flutter down onto Webern , who lies with head and chest between them. His bottom half is still in the thicket, which for some reason makes him very nervous.
“Urn … do you think, maybe…”
“Ace with a club.”
“Ah , there’s the rub!”
Something scrabbles across Webern’s immobile knees. The girls fan their cards. He squeezes his eyes shut, but blobs flash at him menacingly.
“Could you – maybe –”
“The queen of hearts.”
“That’s how it starts.”
A clicking sound and then a slurp echo out from the forest. Webern jams his thumbs in his ears.
“Willow? Billow?” he shouts over his new deafness. “Please move my legs.”
He doesn’t unplug his ears until he’s been tugged several feet away from what is, by day, a scraggly patch of weeds next to the high school. As Webern’s eyes adjust to the candy-colored flashes of a stoplight, he sees that the vacant lot is the one behind Mallard’s Bar & Grill, where the high schoolers go to smoke during lunch. He used to see them here, from the dusty windows of the Studebaker, on afternoons when he went home sick from the first grade. Those afternoons, he usually ended up sitting at the dinette set, robed and slippered, while his mother scooped out half a watermelon. He loved watermelon: the curlicues of fruit tasted sweeter than even ice cream.
“Eat up, little soldier,” his mother always crooned, her smile pained and nervous till he smiled back.
The memory leaves Webern strangely calm until Billow remarks, “It’s a good thing we pulled you out.”
“Yeah, else you’d be in a lizard’s snout.” Willow turns a cartwheel, then grasps Billow ’round the waist. The girls waltz across the vacant lot.
“Lizards?” asks Webern.
“Haven’t we told you about the lizards?”
“They eat your eyes, and eat your gizzards.”
“They’re stronger than the oafs and wizards.”
“Want us to take you to their lair?”
“We’ll take you anyway, we don’t care.”
Before Webern can speak, his sisters have lifted him up onto their shoulders again. The girls sing, soprano and bass, as they sway and twirl their way across the field. The moon shines down like a spotlight, straight into Webern ‘s eyes.
Oh, the lizards are a very good breed
They give you just what you need
If you need a sharp puncture
Right in the head
A lizard won’t poke you,
He’ll leave you for dead!
Oh, the lizard is a very good man
He does just what he can
He can cut a big gash
Right into your head
Or bug ya or drug ya
Or leave ya for dead
Oh, the lizard is a very good man!
Oh, the lizard is a very good man!
Boop boop de doop
Always for de-e-e-ad!
Drug drug de dug
Always for de-e-e-ad! He can!
Oh, the lizard is a very goo-oood man!
Webern is scared so witless that he’s almost relieved when the girls shove him into a length of rusty pipe. It’s like a coffin in there…till they start pounding on the sides. Patta-patta-patta-patta-pow-pow-POW. He clenches his eyelids. Is it Wags who’s sitting on his chest now, squeezing out all the air? Patta-patta-patta-patta-pow pow-POW, POW, POW. Outside, Willow and Billow pound the curved walls into the rhythm of their lizard song.
Oh , the lizard is a very good man !
He can !
“I don’t want to see the lizards!” Webern shouts. His words bounce heavily in the pipe, resonating with a manly authority, and for a moment the girls stop their racket.
“Oh, Bernie,” one sister says with sudden tenderness – their voices have become indistinguishable, here inside the pipe – “you’ve got nothing to fear from the lizards. They don’t hurt their own kind.”
“But I’m not a lizard.”
The girls giggle, and Webern feels a dull lurch in his guts.
“Webern, what happened to your back?” she asks (but which one is it? – for the first time, they sound so alike).
“I fell out of a tree.”
“Your back snapped in half, Bernie.”
“No, it didn’t.”
“It snapped in half. Now you’re never going to be any taller than you are now. One half will grow out your butt cheek, like a tail, and one half will push your shoulder up like Igor’s.”
“No, it won’t.”
“One half will make you a lizard, and one half will make you a cripple.”
“No, it won’t.”
“You’ll teach at the lizard school. That’s what they need you to do.”
“Mommy and Daddy have known all along. Ever wonder why they made you practice scales?”
Suddenly, Webern realizes why they sound so alike, and why they’re not rhyming. The girls are speaking in unison.
“Ever wonder why? Because the lizards are coming, Bernie. The lizards are coming.”
“Daddy said he’d hide me in his heartbeat.” Webern squeezes his eyes shut and hopes to God that it’s true. The pipe contracts around him, and his dread tightens into a terrible certainty. This is how it feels to be born.
The next morning, when Webern wakes up, he cautiously opens one eye, then the other. He’s safe in his room, in the pale light of a cloudy morning, and he’s wearing his rocket ship pajamas, which are clean now- from the smell of them, newly washed.
“Was it a nightmare?” Webern whispers.
No one answers. Wags is gone, and the turned-off teevee stares blankly at him. Across the room, the strips of sod still float in the aquarium. Seven-thirty, reads his rocket ship clock. He’s about to go back to sleep, since his mother doesn’t usually bring him breakfast till nine. Then he sees it, lying on the pillow beside his head – a playing card, a souvenir, with a picture of the Loch Ness Monster on the back. Webern’s hand trembles as he picks it up and turns it over. It’s the joker.