Oct/Nov 2020  •   Fiction

Return to Grace

by Richard Risemberg

Public domain street art

Public domain street art

Everything seemed smaller, of course, the way it does when you revisit a place you haven't seen since childhood. In this case I decided to find the apartment house where my friend Brian had lived when we were both in fifth grade. His building was across the street from the school. The school itself took up half a residential block in Los Angeles, and did it without any distinction whatsoever: plain concrete buildings in front, with those tall windows opening only at the very top to let air in but still prevent escape. In back was what seemed to us as youngsters to be a vast asphalt plain, interrupted by "the pavilion," a roof on stilts giving us shade at lunchtime. Its dreary expanse was painted with lines in yellow and white, delineating miniature baseball fields and basketball courts, as well as the incomprehensible zones assigned to the handball courts with their lonely beige walls.

Everything but the asphalt was painted beige, even the benches we sat on to eat. And the asphalt was so dusty with smog, it wasn't even a true black any more. The colors, few that they were, trended towards a center of blandness, and there were no plants except for a pair of drooping trees by the pavilion. A chain-link fence bound the play area on three sides; we could see the barren freedom of the street through it. This was where I had met Brian, and where our lives played out in regulated intervals marked off by shrill schoolyard bells. Since Brian's apartment was across from the schoolyard, he was the first of my childhood friends whose house I visited on my own, without having to be taken in the family car.

He lived downstairs in a weary LA fourplex considered "classic" by the time we grew up, but it was just boring then: two units on each of two floors, with Brian's in the back. His apartment's views were of the open garages behind the building and the driveway on one side. Brian was an only child, living with his mother. His father had run out on them. Of course they never mentioned why, at least not back then. I had to wait a long time to figure it out. The mystery troubled me for years.

My mother readily granted me permission to stay at Brian's apartment after school. Brian himself was a little less forthcoming, and the first time I visited, I understood why: his mother was a sight. She was a tall, scrawny, big-boned woman with untended hair and rather wild eyes, who greeted me with a sort of abstract effusion I interpreted as nervousness. I was what my family referred to as a "nervous" child myself, and my parents were always fighting, which made my nervousness worse if it hadn't caused it to begin with. So I accepted Brian had a "nervous" mother. It wasn't until years, decades later that I realized she was a drunk. I think Brian was relieved his mother didn't scare me. My own parents had shrieking battles regularly, but they never became physical, so I didn't associate conflict with incipient beatings. I was shocked in later adolescence to learn Brian was not so lucky: his father, also a drunk, beat his mother and him both. "He blamed me," Brian told me later, "for Mom's drinking. I told him once, after I knew how things were with people, that he had gotten her pregnant, not me, so it was his fault. He broke my arm that day. But it was worth it, because he stayed away for six months after that. Ran off to Nevada to beat someone else up every night, I guess. I was just glad it wasn't me for a while."

But as a grade school kid, all I knew was Brian's mother was strange, and their house was too quiet and smelled of cabbage. My family never ate cabbage.

Brian didn't have many toys, and while I did, I didn't need much to play. Rolling tiny pot-metal cars down the slope of the driveway was good enough for me, and Brian and I would hold races with the collection of cars and trucks he had managed to gather over some months of saving dimes and trading comic books with other kids, to which I added a favorite I owned and carried in my pocket almost constantly. The apartment buildings were set up above the level of the street, so the driveways and the rudimentary front laws sloped quite steeply. Brian and I, and any other kids who who would brave the occasional sight of Brian's mother to join us, had developed an invariable protocol for our races. One of us had brought over his father's old copies of a sports car magazine, and we read and tried to interpret the race reports. Each set of "heats" was assigned a referee who would not race but wait at the finish line, where the driveway joined the sidewalk, to declare a winner and, not incidentally, to catch the toy cars before they rolled into the street to be squashed by real ones.

At the top of the slope, we would choose our cars and line them up behind a piece of cardboard held vertically. When the referee signaled, whoever was in charge of the starting gate would lift the cardboard, and our champions would roll down the hill. Since the collection was haphazard, the races were highly eclectic, with sedans and a Ferrari racing against a garbage truck and a milkman's van. The garbage truck with its larger wheels was the fastest, at first a greatly distressing departure from verisimilitude, though we learned to prize it. Its great height made it more susceptible to upsets on the rough concrete of the driveway, which had suffered a number of cracks from subsidence of its underlying soil over the decades, so there was sufficient uncertainty to the races to make them real contests. Also, there was the possibility the kid in charge of the starting gate might lift it unevenly, to give his own car a slight advantage. We watched for this diligently, and it sometimes resulted in fights. Brian himself would never fight, though. He wasn't weak or small, but he refused to raise his fists or even yell very much. Most often he and I played alone. Brian's mother didn't frighten us.

I never saw Brian's father, not even once. I realize now the days when Brian didn't want to play or even hang out were probably days when his father was visiting. His parents were Catholic and never divorced—I learned this later, from his ex-girlfriend, Patty, who was part of our crowd in later years. And the father turned up at mysterious intervals, a frightening portent, like comets in the olden days, shrouded in darkness. I heard only slight hints of what these visits meant, things I felt in Brian's tone of voice or in the nervous condescension of the one of his teachers who took an interest in him. I was a naive and distracted child with troubles of my own at home, albeit non-violent ones. But even I understood there was a shadow over Brian's life, an eclipsing of all joy he might have felt. The father, according to Patty, always arrived unannounced and took over the household for a while, trying to impose an order he himself apparently didn't understand, using the only means that could satisfy him—which was physical force.

As Brian grew older and more assertive, the fights became more violent. In those days no one called the cops on family fights, unless they ended in death. Especially not in the sorts of neighborhoods where people prided themselves on "minding their own business." When Brian broke his arm "falling out of a tree," no one questioned there were no climbable trees anywhere near his building, only smooth-skinned, high-branched eucalyptuses. That was not the only time he "fell out of a tree," as Brian himself told me in a rare moment of confidence. Brian, I think, did not want to burden others with his troubles. Which was kind but not wise.

The worst beating came when we graduated from high school.

High school was a liberation for me. Middle school—it was called "junior high school" in those days—middle school was a torment. I was the shy boy with glasses, mocked by bullies and sometimes roughed up. Other boys bragged of dating, though they didn't actually go out with girls; I didn't even know how to brag. The friends I had played with at Brian's house, and Brian himself, went to a different junior high school, and there was not a single soul I knew at mine, except one rough, mocking lout, the son of a cop, no less, who dedicated himself to hounding me since he knew I was no fighter.

That changed in high school, where I endured an inexplicable growth spurt that gave pause to potential attackers, and where I was reunited with several of my friends from childhood, all equally graced by genetics and the passage of time with height and sometimes breadth. Brian was even taller than I was, though, like me, rangy, but it was enough, especially when we were in a group. We didn't take advantage of it; inside, we were still the small, slight kids of our past, but we were left alone. And we liked it.

Then came the days of protest, when skill in polemics came to matter, and those of us of analytical turns of mind, with some grace of language, began to attract admiration. Our time was the '70s and the war against War, a process in which the more liberal teachers joined us, creating a solidarity rare in high school. We marched side by side with our math professors, bearing signs and chanting; it was an exhilarating time. Then came graduation, when Brian wore a peace symbol on his mortarboard. His father attended, saw it, and was outraged. That night, he beat Brian up the way a drunk beats up another drunk in a bar fight. And Brian, who by then could have battered the old man quite handily, ran away from home a few days later.

None of us heard from him for years thereafter—or actually, we never heard from him at all. His parents did not associate with ours, and his girlfriend had broken up with him before graduation, as she would be going to a distant school and felt they wouldn't be able to "maintain" their relationship, as she put it, as if it were a car needing regular tune-ups and tire changes. He faded from our collective memory as we entangled ourselves in college, dating, marriage, jobs, and aspirations. We were too young then to indulge in speculations on lost friends, or maybe just too wound up in our own hopes and fears. So we got on with our lives and forgot him. This is the way things happen, generation after generation. We graduated, found work, and inevitably found love, or thought we did. Children were born, the days fell on us like rain and flowed away. Then, by merest chance, I found Brian—not in real life, but in the simulacrum of existence that has come to dominate our days.

I was watching a lifestyle program on television, when I heard his name announced as the subject of an interview coming up in "just one hour, right here." Brian's family name wasn't unusual, but the photo flashed on the corner of the screen was unmistakably my childhood friend, his face grown leaner and lined, but with the same bones, the same eyes. His hair still cut the same way, which surprised me. I dutifully sat myself back down and waited, watching a flash-bang sequence of trivialities in the depths of my house and my own trivial life. The interview was titled "Architect of Security—or of Doom?" And the interviewer was a woman known for aggressive questioning and an almost predatory insistence on direct answers to her precisely-honed inquiries. I didn't know what Brian was doing with his life by then, of course, but I saw the prefix "Dr." on the crawler text below the photo. I waited, growing heavy-eyed as the glitterati flapped their faces back and forth across the screen in the lead-up, but finally the night hour became late enough for serious journalism, and the interview began.

Brian, it turned out, had achieved a PhD in an obscure branch of chemistry, where it merged with physics, and had been snapped up by a government-sponsored research facility developing experimental weapons. This was immediately shocking to me: Brian, the tormented child who wouldn't raise his fists, the teen who was beaten for wearing a peace symbol on his mortarboard, now helping exaggerate the already-destructive tendencies of our species. The interviewer apparently found it similarly troubling, and had done some homework. After a sort of technical review of his work, or as much of it as he was allowed to detail, she leaned in and began her attack: In your official bio, you describe yourself as a "pacifist." How do you square this with your work in developing weapons of war, specifically, military lasers?

Brian gazed at her with a look of weary indulgence: My work is in defensive technology, designed to destroy incoming missiles. If I can get them to work, the threat of nuclear war will be forever ended.

The interviewer leaned in farther, her bright hair falling around her face: Ah, yes, the weapon that will end all war. Like the machine gun in 1914, like the atom bomb in 1945. They would, it was said, make war too terrible to contemplate. Didn't work, did it?

Brian, calmly: Those were weapons to use against human beings. Mine is a weapon to use against weapons.

The interviewer, assuming a thoughtful expression: And it will destroy an ICBM plummeting through the clouds at hypersonic speeds?

Brian, with a confident smile: Well, the clouds are a problem. But I'm certain we can overcome that.

The interviewer, crouching almost like a cat ready to spring: And if it can do that, can it not also shoot down airplanes?

Brian's face grew wrinkles on the forehead. He didn't speak, and the interviewer continued: And who's to say it can be pointed only at the sky...?

There was a long silence, and then Brian said: You have to trust us.

The interviewer left Brian's words hanging in the dead air while the camera bored in close into his face. I turned off the screen. It had been decades since I'd seen him, and really I shouldn't have cared, but I felt betrayed. I felt a profound dismay whirling in the hollow of my chest like a cold wind in a cave. I didn't know what it meant, and I still don't, but it must mean something.


I shouldn't have been so bothered by Brian's seeming hypocrisy, the pacifist working diligently to make what were in effect the ray guns out of cheap sci-fi novels, nor by his blank-faced insistence that what he was helping bring to light would not make the darkness deeper. But I couldn't let go of it. It reminded me of my own petty hypocrisies, the little lies I told at work or at home to keep the peace, but which festered underneath all our bland manners, to erupt, perhaps, in conflicts, demotions, divorces, years later, when we had almost forgotten them. The brief affair I'd never mentioned, but which I am sure my wife, who had said not a word, must have discerned; and her fling a year or two later, perhaps in revenge, perhaps in pure pursuit of sensation, who knows? We held these memories in hidden stockpiles, like the weapons Brian was dedicated to invalidating. Small things compared to nuclear war, but life, cultures, countries, they're all constructed of an agglomeration of small things. The dishonest atoms packed in our straight-faced selves.

I had to do something, even if it was something essentially meaningless, and so I went back to Brian's old apartment building, easy enough to find across the street from the faded grade school we had gone to. I had no idea who lived there now, and no interest in their circumstances. In my pocket I had my favorite little tin car from those long-gone afternoons, the one I used to race on Brian's driveway. Yes, I had saved it all those years. But I didn't think I deserved it anymore, as I, too, had betrayed the vague hopes of my youth. I looked at the apartment building: the drapes drawn across all the front windows on a warm afternoon, an air conditioner whooshing and dripping from a side window by the driveway. The schoolyard empty, silence drifting from the gray-green crowns of the street trees. No traffic. A dead block. I walked up the slope of patchy lawn to a narrow flowerbed by the front porch. There was a dusty bird-of-paradise plant by the steps. It had been there when I was a child, the damned thing older than I was. More faithful to itself as well. I grubbed with my bare hands in the hard soil around its roots, between the plant and the wall. And there I buried the little car and left it to rust away in the dark. Then I walked away from it and tried to forget myself. Of course, you can't really do that, and my grand gesture was really trivial, as trivial as my life. But I had done what I could, and maybe I would stop thinking about old hopes.

Maybe I will. Maybe I buried them, too, to rot away with the little car. I don't know yet. Ask me when I'm dead.