|Jan/Feb 2004 fiction|
The boy giving Eddy Hill the shark-eye that day had the oddest looking ears. No curls, flaps or folds. Like the speakers shouting boarding calls from the station's marble walls. The other boys scuffling, their harsh cries and footwork echoing off those same walls, filling Chicago's Union Station with the noise of fledgling war. A few of the bolder ones brassing past the Burlington Northern employee, a black guy fumbling with a red velvet rope, to peer through the high maw, its metal grille now rising, at the big silver train they would soon be herded onto. Between each maw, big wordy screens, nervously keeping track of arrivals and departures. The St. Louis Flyer on time, fuck the luck.
The train that would rush them through the shortest night on earth to the St. John Bosco Military Academy. Eddy Hill hoping it would blow up in the depot. The boy with the bizarre ears heading his way now. Everything else about him natural as death. Meaty arms, regulation crewcut, grey eyes waterproof as Teflon. Eddy's own eyes (poet's eyes, his mother claimed) oozing with grief, upper arms cheesy, lips red as rape. Why the hell Ear Boy couldn't join the other Nazis, baring teeth, comparing barks, tormenting the black Burlington Northern employee. Why he couldn't simply cling to dear old mom. Eddy wished his own mom had stayed to be clung to. A big-boned woman, round shouldered, with a kisser that would short out an electric chair. Ear Boy would have surely thought twice about attacking, fearing she had a severed head in her purse.
Ear Boy swaggering up close enough for Eddy to smell his breath (stifling as a rubber fire), when the uniformed man finally elbowed his way clear of an elderly bunch of travelers (walkers scudding, outraged brays) in line for the Floridian. At the sight of this behemoth, the mommy-clinging boys gave a unison shudder, their hellion companions snapping to, Ear Boy shooting Eddy one final nailgun-glare, then spinning on his heels and crisply saluting the beefy blue uniform, who, accidentally-on-purpose, had kicked the kid's duffel bag clear across the stone floor, underneath the velvet rope and through the high maw into the sun-threaded darkness of the depot. Eddy praying that the rowdies in the crowd would maintain their good behavior through the night ride ahead. They would if The Colonel knew his fist from his scrotum.
At the interview session in Eddy's doctor's office, the hulking leatherneck had introduced himself to Eddy and his parents as Colonel Jackariah Ashley, U.S.M.C. Medical Corps, Director of Discipline at "ole Johnny B's" (as in "Johnny Be Good"), and had proceeded to wow Mr. and Mrs. Hill with a full-color brochure depicting twelve wooded acres "in America's breadbasket," a stone's throw from downtown Kansas City, complete with regulation gym, newly refurbished rec room and dorm, charming old little white chapel on a hill, and gleaming new medical complex, capable of "surgically reforming" three dozen "incorrigibles" simultaneously, no waiting, in a six-month series of invasive procedures guaranteed to turn "your boy" into a well-adjusted, spit 'n polish, law-abiding but nonetheless manly, albeit hopelessly crippled young man. "We beat the next war to the punch," was their motto.
And indeed, Col. Jack, as he was known among the "re-admittees" (some now in wheelchairs but every bit as asocial), proved himself quite the iron-balled disciplinarian, removing his belt to whip three little bastards smack across the eyes before the crewcut group had even boarded the train, socking several more miscreants for fighting over window-seats, and twisting the dick of a fat kid named Leon for using the can before the train left the station.
Eddy had a weak bladder too, sad to say. They were streaking through the southwest suburbs when a stretch of bad track nearly made him wet his pants. Sunset egged the windows, its ancient alchemy turning bungalows and strip malls to copper. The coach took on a crematory glow before combustion, the neat rows of crewcuts resembling singed wheat. Col. Jack front and center, fists on hips, legs akimbo (would he stand there all night?), eagle eyes hidden by flashing sunglasses.
Eddy raised his hand, was duly recognized. "SIR. Permission to use the facilities. SIR."
The Colonel's Adam's apple tried to loosen his necktie, the fist of God nudging Jesus off the cross. His words emerged in an eerie, split-second delay, like a badly dubbed Godzilla film. "Permission granted, soldier." His deep voice shaking the gelatinous air.
The partitioned cubicle stank of poor fat Leon. Stalling for time, Eddy went girly-style, pants around his ankles, skinny butt twitchy on the cold plastic seat. The towel dirty-dancing from its metal dispenser as they hit another bad stretch of CB&Q track. Eddy rode the toilet like a constipated bronco.
The piss wouldn't come. Moments before, it had nearly turned him yellow, now nothing. Not a drop. Worse, he had frozen, the mere thought of rising and returning to his seat now as hopeless a pipe-dream as rescuing Anne Frank. Not that he was keen on doing that either at the moment. No, only self-protection had a chance to lick the fear. Shattering the frosted-glass window, with his elbow if need be, then squeezing out and landing in a Captain Kirk-style roll, and running—running, running, running—home to Mama.
Or maybe to his Aunts' little room in the Belle Shore Hotel, to which he had been exiled the previous Saturday morning, his parents loath to leave him with his big sister Katy during little sister Junie's umpteenth trip to the hospital, this time for open-heart surgery to repair a congenitally defective aortic valve. During Junie's previous sojourn at St. Francis, for treatment of an acute allergic reaction to peanut butter, Eddy had filled a hot water bottle with orange juice and placed it under the blanket on Katy's Hollywood bed, then waited in the closet for Katy to plop down on her stomach, Princess phone to her ear. Splat, tinkle tinkle. Yes indeed, that had been a choice one.
Not quite as laugh-provoking, though, as the phony slice of Swiss cheese which he and Aunt Alice had concealed in Aunt Marylouise's sandwich that Saturday.
The clever gag purchased with money from M.L.'s own purse, no less. Oh, the ingratitude. Well, wouldn't you just know the little scoundrel would cross Bryn Mawr Avenue to Maxie's Liquor Store (where Alice bought her beer) and clean out the novelty rack (a sideline for Maxie). Goodness only knew what other gags he had in store—All this spoken in good-natured grunts, while the freakishly tall woman, her John Wayne-visage playfully contorted, made exaggerated efforts to gnaw through the "cheese," clutching the rapidly deteriorating sandwich till a slice of tomato (quite real) slid out and landed "plop" on the cheapy green carpet.
"Ooo honey, don't you worry about it," his Aunt Alice said, struggling to control her chesty HAW HAWs, a feature quite at odds with her flat bosom and teased bluish hairdo, with the miniskirt she wore halfway up her chunky thighs.
"You can puke all over that carpet if you like. Hell's bells, it isn't even ours."
Nothing was. Not the blondwood table nor the sailboat pictures on the nubby grey walls. Nor the aquamarine easy chair, its cushions as comfy as attache cases. Nor the stained maroon sofa, nor the daybed (where Eddy slept), nor the twin Murphy bed that his tubby aunts shared. And not—God help us—those dreadful plastic drapes, sashed back now for a view of the banker's-grey Presbyterian church next door. Nor could his aunts stake a reasonable claim to the mid-distant view: the Foster Avenue entrance to the Outer Drive, the high-rises beyond it, Lake Michigan a Rand-McNally-blue in between them. All of this suggestive of places to go, romantic rendezvous, glamorous far away destinies to meet, his aunts going nowhere in their old maid, nine-to-five, TV-watching middle age.
Eddy himself going places in spades. In his mind, he was already there. All he had to do was watch the Jack Paar special that night, the talk show host as neurotic as Eddy but wealthy and famous and showing home movies of his recent Easter jaunt to the Holy Land, his wife Miriam posing in sunbonnet on the veranda of their Jerusalem hotel suite, daughter Randi in a modest blue swimsuit on the beach at the seaport town of Haifa. With only the slightest touch of mental alchemy, Eddy was right there beside them, Foster Avenue Beach his Haifa shoreline, Lake Michigan his Mediterranean, the Belle Shore his Lev Jerusalem Hotel. Alice swilling beer, an avalanche of Screaming Yellow Zonkers spilling all over the carpet that wasn't hers anyway. Marylouise picking pistachio nuts from her teeth, taking ladylike sips of Coke on ice, her monstrous legs showing twin Israeli deserts of nylon stocking, the darker bands up top resembling water-dampened strips of beachfront sand near ocean's edge.
"My soul," said Aunt Alice. "Randi's looking kind of chunky, don'tcha think?"
"Too much high living," said Marylouise.
At bedtime (or bedding-down time, no hard and fast rules about lights-out or sleep here), Alice gave Eddy her usual reserve pair of shorty pajamas to wear, Eddy not minding all that much, truth be told; closest he would ever get to any damn woman.
A muffled racket roused him as the train took a trestle, faucets coughing brownish streams, toilet paper ladled on his left shoe like gravy. The fireboard door shot open, whacked the mirror, Eddy thinking at first blink that the trestle's bad track had simply jarred the lock loose.
Then Ear Boy sauntered in, Eddy farting like a horse, quickly cupping a hand around the family jewels. Ear Boy kicked the cheap door shut behind him, hitched up his pants. "Smells like you've got a dead goat up your ass."
"It's all yours," said Eddy. "I was just about to leave." Forcing a grin, as though they were sharing a joke about the jon's cramped quarters.
"Room enough for two," Ear Boy decided, his own grin not at all forced, revealing a silvered underbite and an eagerness to use it on somebody's jugular. Last rays of sun through the frosted glass window made his malformed ears glow a deep reddish-orange. Ear Boy made a fist the size of a small child's head.
"You like sticking stuff up your ass, do ya, babe?"
"Oh God," Eddy groaned.
So this was what his dad had always meant by "comeuppance." Hell and purgatory were for nobler souls than Eddy. Brimstone and pitchforks reserved for real men. But for mewling little drips such as he, punishment was earthbound, the low humiliation of a face shoved in mud. Simply God's way of saying, "I saw what you did, young man." The Saturday before, he had given God an eyeful.
Alice's pajamas weren't the culprits. Not really. He hadn't brought his own along and could hardly have slept in his underwear, not in that tiny room with two aging women. In shorty pajamas, he was one of the gals. The problem began when he entered the bathroom, ostensibly to brush his teeth (with Alice's toothbrush, smashed to a frazzle) and, having caught a load of himself in the mirror, began posing like his latest heartthrob—the dancer, Joey Heatherton—that time she'd done the boudoir scene on "The Dean Martin Show." He had longed for some time now to enter her body, but not in this way. This was just plain ridiculous. So blatantly silly that he would have burst out laughing had it not been for the high-rise shooting up through Alice's panties, over the elastic horizon, to eclipse his sour little sun of a navel.
He was scaling the high-rise one-handed when his Aunt Alice burst through the door.
They must have been streaking through the outskirts of Naperville because the train was wailing brassily, the last dinosaur on a rampaging search for lovers. Ear Boy's fist held high above his head now, like some kind of pug-faced god. Ear Boy's eyes beseechingly upon it. Asking its forgiveness? For putting it to such perverse ends? Or for guidance in the treacherous incursion to come? Eddy's eyes too on the knuckle-headed idol, blinking in utter disbelief as Ear Boy's fist came smashing down on Ear Boy's own brow, leaving an inch-long sneer of a cut above his left eye. His underbite gnawing at his upper lip now, Ear Boy reeled backwards against the cheap door. Bracing himself for the next one, and the next, the blue-knuckled icon pounding his jaw, breaking off a silver-capped tooth in the front. Ear Boy spat the tooth out, along with half a pint of pretty pink blood, and proceeded to pummel himself in the stomach, gagging and moaning till Eddy thought the kid would puke his guts out in the sink.
Instead, doubled-over now, gasping for breath, Ear Boy gave Eddy an up-from-under scowl. "If anyone... asks... you beat the crap out of me."
Expecting tears down his cheeks, Eddy was surprised at the dryness of his puddle-dark eyes. "Why?" he croaked, his urethra suddenly open, his bladder emptying now like a burst tank at Sea World.
"'Cause otherwise, babe... you wouldn't last two minutes... in that hell hole." After which the bleeding boy collapsed on the floor in a heap of hard muscle and strange little ears.
They were pulling into Urbana when Col. Jack began hollering and pounding on the door. Eddy, ignoring him, pissed himself dizzy. The boy had a lot of body waste to get rid of, and even a dog had the right to piss in peace.