by Eric Puchner
When I was 15 I wrote a short story for Ms. Nowinski’s English class called “The Infants’ Masada.” I’d found the word “Masada” while flipping through the encyclopedia, in search of a title, and it was love at first sight. Right away I knew it would lend the necessary gravitas to my story, which was told from the perspective of a newborn on a premature baby ward. Inexplicably, the preemie had a full vocabulary. He also had a precocious attraction to his favorite nurse, Ingrid, who sang to him every night in a “plaintive voice.” Late one night, awake in his incubator, the preemie watches Ingrid get raped by one of the doctors at the hospital. He lies there helpless as she struggles, unable to intervene. Afterward, he decides he would rather freeze to death than face such a cruel and predatory world. The preemie makes a fist and, summoning all his strength, punches through the glass case of his incubator. Inspired by this brave act of protest, the other preemies on the ward punch through their incubators as well, a forest of tiny arms. This is the denouement.
Ms. Nowinski gave me an A+ and wrote in her comments that my story was “a poignant expression of human cruelty as well as a brilliant retelling of Jewish history.” This last part stumped me—I wasn’t Jewish and had nearly failed World History—but the rest I could relate to. I was all about poignant expressions of human cruelty, especially if they appealed to women. Until then, the nicest comment I’d gotten at school was from Mr. Gerbino, my Earth Science teacher, who’d said that I showed “a firm grasp of weather systems.”
My father, too, was impressed by the story—so impressed, in fact, that he decided to send me to arts camp. This turned out to be a summer camp for “artistically inclined youth.” It was not in California, where we lived, but in Massachusetts.
“I don’t want to be an artist,” I said. I associated artists with the sorts of kids my mother described as “interesting.” Plus I had a girlfriend, my first, and I’d been making some slow but promising headway with her on the trampoline in her backyard. The summer stretched before me like a vista of erotic suffering.
“Writers feed off experience,” my father said. He’d been a French literature major in college and sometimes said things like this. “It nourishes their imagination.”
My sister laughed, her mouth full of cornflakes. She was jealous because she didn’t have a talent of her own. “For Christ’s sake. He’s fifteen years old.”
“Rimbaud wrote his first immortal poem at fifteen,” my father said.
“I want to be immortal at home,” I said.
My father sighed.
“Mom and Dad want to go to Europe,” my sister explained. “They’re sending me off to Mexico for a month to help orphans.”
So I ended up in Massachusetts, at a camp for artists. As it turned out, the camp was not really a camp at all, but a boarding school in the middle of nowhere that doubled in the summers as a place to dump your kids. My roommate was a boy named Chet Turnblad. I’d never met a Chet before and was impressed to discover he fulfilled all my expectations for the name. He had red hair and bad skin and one of those haircuts that looked like he’d sprinkled weed killer on the top and let the rest grow down to his shoulders. He’d moved into the dorm the day before and had decorated the wall over his bed with a poster of Miles Davis in an ascot, sitting backward in a chair with one leg slung insolently over the top. I knew a bit about jazz—my father had a stash of old records—but I’d never met anyone my age who listened to it on purpose. Facing the door, where everyone would see it as they came in, was another poster: a heavy metal band scowling at the camera, their hair permed into Louis XIV curls.
I decided Chet was from Kansas or Mississippi or somewhere else where they might send you away for listening to devil music. As it turned out, he lived in town. I was surprised. Riding the van in from the airport, I hadn’t seen much of anything: farms, a few motels, then the lonely spire of a church and some deserted-looking shops hawking school souvenirs.
“You live nearby?” I asked.
“On Lincoln Road,” he said. His voice was startling, too deep for his skinny frame, as if it had been dubbed from another language. “Near the lake.”
“Don’t you have your own room?”
He blushed, turning to the neat stacks of cassette tapes he’d arranged alphabetically on the bookcase. It made no sense to me that he would want to live in a dorm instead of his own house, particularly when it smelled like mouse turds and there was no air-conditioning and the humidity was making me leave skeletal footprints when I walked. I felt like my eyeballs might slide out of their sockets. I couldn’t help thinking of my friends back in California, hanging out at the beach, basking in the cool ocean breeze before they hurled themselves deliciously into the water. This led me to my girlfriend: how her mouth tasted like the Diet Cokes she always drank, cold enough to numb my lips, each snowy kiss leaving a metallic sweetness on my tongue. Her name was Sylvana. It sounded like a country to me, some beautiful place I was perpetually on the verge of discovering. So far I’d only managed to glimpse the shore. Alone on the trampoline, her parents gone for the evening, we would kiss and grope and grind, dry-humping until I felt like crying.
After I’d unpacked my duffel bag in the miserable heat, Chet and I went to dinner. He was wearing a Red Sox cap that looked as if it had come right out of the box, stiff as plastic, his red hair fluffing out the back like the tail of a squirrel. I didn’t really want to be seen with him, but I also didn’t want to insult him on our first day together, seeing as how we’d be living together all summer. The dinner was an orientation thing: everyone was given a painting, a little postcard, and you were supposed to sit at the table that had your painting on it. My postcard was of an old man staring adoringly into a kid’s eyes. The man’s nose was covered in revolting warty bumps, like one of those gourds people put out for Halloween. I was dispirited to see that Chet had the same painting. We got some Sloppy Joes from the buffet line and found our table in the far corner of the dining hall, a blow-up of the man with the deformed nose clipped to an easel beside it. I glanced at the table next to us, who were dining in the company of a naked woman braiding her hair.
“What’s wrong with his nose?” I said, laying my fork down. The Sloppy Joes—or maybe the hall itself—smelled like an old retainer. “It’s grossing me out.”
“It’s a famous painting,” said the boy sitting across from me. He had long black bangs grazing his eyelids and a smile that pushed his lips into a dolphiny beak. His nametag said ETHAN. “By Ghirlandaio.”
“You think he would have left out the warts.”
“Actually it’s a skin condition,” Ethan said. “They’re little tumors.”
“When I was nine I had this big tumor grow out of my back,” said the girl next to me, whose glasses made her eyes float in front of her face. She’d stacked four bun bottoms on top of each other, layering them with several strata of orange glop, so that her Sloppy Joe resembled a wedding cake. “They did surgery and took it out and found human hair and teeth in it. It’s called a teratoma. Sometimes they even have toes or fingers!”
“Wow,” I said.
I glanced at Chet, who widened his eyes at me. I widened mine back. Already, I’d stopped caring so much what people thought of him. I glanced around the sweltering dining hall and saw an assortment of artistically inclined youth hunched over their Sloppy Joes, some of them dressed in black, a jumble of sweaty, homesick faces that looked no more interesting than I did. I suspected we were all here because our parents had preyed on our vanity in order to get us out of their hair. Beyond the condiment station, standing near the door, were two policemen sweating miserably in their uniforms.
“What’s up with the cops?” I asked.
“The long arm of the law?” Ethan said. “Didn’t you get the notice?”
I shook my head.
“The Dorm Room Prowler. Someone’s been stealing things out of students’ rooms. Early arrivals—foreigners, mostly. Preying on the weak and the German.”
“We’re supposed to lock our doors even when we go to the bathroom,” the girl with the glasses explained.
“Who is it?”
Ethan shrugged, flipping the bangs from his eyes. “Some townie, I guess.”
I looked at Chet, who was staring at his plate, eating peas by impaling one on each tine of his fork. Of the four of us, he was the only one who’d asked for a vegetable. On the way back to our room, Chet and I sweated across the quad while crickets trilled all around us, like a ten-speed singing downhill. The sun was going down and the air had begun to pulse with tiny specks of light. I’d never seen fireflies before, and it took me a minute to realize what they were. I had to admit it was a beautiful campus. The buildings were much older than anything we had at home, red-brick and stately and taller than the pulsing lights, and the clock tower looming above the quad seemed to take on the last gleam of sunlight. The air smelled thicker than I was used to, heavy with the scent of grass and leafiness and sour dishwater escaping from the open door of the kitchen. We passed the gym, and I felt the silence of the trees behind it, the same darkening woods that bordered our dorm; beyond it lay the town of Dumbarton and its souvenir shops and the lake I hadn’t seen from the van and somewhere nearby the Turnblads’ house itself, all lit up inside except for Chet’s room.
That night before bed, I gave Chet “Infants’ Masada” to read—the same copy, thorny with checkmarks, that I’d given Ms. Nowinski. Chet’s expression as he flipped the pages was blank. If he recognized its brilliance, he was keeping it to himself. When he finished, he put the story down and gave me a funny look, as if I’d confessed to being a werewolf.
“I like it,” he said unconvincingly. “Is it supposed to be realistic?”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m just wondering if a preemie would be able to break through an incubator,” he said. “Even if it was mad.”
My face turned hot. “I took some artistic license.”
“Also, I think newborns are pretty much blind.”
“It’s a retelling of Jewish history.”
“Oh,” he said thoughtfully. “They’re, like, symbolic?”
I nodded, too angry to speak. A musician—a trombonist, of all things. What did he know about literature? I asked for the story back and stuck it on my desk, folding it over to the last page so that Ms. Nowinski’s grade was showing. Chet’s trombone case stood in the corner like the foot of an elephant. Its presumptuous claim to the room pissed me off.
“Let’s hear you play that thing,” I said, pointing.
Chet walked over to the boom box on top of the bookshelf and slipped in a tape from his collection. Probably he wasn’t talented enough to play without accompaniment. The music started with a sad horn and brush of drums, the slow bleed of a ballad. I waited for him to take his trombone out, but he stood there with his head cocked like a bird’s.
“Aren’t you going to play?” I said.
“This is the band I’m in,” he said. “My solo’s coming up.”
I listened more carefully, wondering how the hell a trombone was going to fart its way into a ballad. The saxophone that had been playing feathered out and then there it was, the clumsy blat of a trombone, except that it wasn’t clumsy at all but steady and beautiful and full of tenderness. It was like a walrus in mourning. Then the mournful sound built to something else, mounting slowly as if climbing a ladder, working up to a boozy swinging wail that seemed graceful and unhinged at the same time. Beneath the groans and snorts the melody was always there, holding on for dear life. I understood that this was talent. It might have been the first time I’d come face to face with it. When the song was over, I put my story in my desk and then went to brush my teeth, unable to look Chet in the eye.
* * *
That night I couldn’t sleep. My sheets were a tangle of sweat, and the rotating fan that Chet had brought blew humid gusts of wind on my face. I kept thinking about Sylvana: the weekend before I left I’d convinced her to let me take her shirt off, and now the image that hung before me in the dark was the pale shivering secret of her breasts. The police were patrolling campus for the Dorm Room Prowler, and I could hear the intercom on a squad car squawking in the distance, warning students to keep their rooms locked. I was soaked with sweat, I couldn’t get comfortable, I wanted to strip out of my skin and wring it like a towel. Above me, Chet’s bunk was silent as a grave. I started to touch myself. I had no choice. I did it as quietly as I could, trying not to betray myself, slow as a dream I didn’t want to disturb, and then I heard a sound above me too, a quiet rustling, and for a second I thought Chet had joined in—a weird queasy thrill rising in my chest— but then the rustling grew louder, a voice in the dark, the sound of a boy crying softly above me.
That first week at camp, aside from the mornings when I was in class and Chet was doing his music, we were pretty much inseparable. There was the sense that we’d met a long time ago, in a previous life, and had fallen into some old friendship we didn’t need to begin. At lunch, we’d take our trays to an empty table far from the dragon blasts of the kitchen, where the walls were peeling paint and a steel fan blew strong as a gale over our heads, long threads of dust waving from it like seaweed, and wait patiently for prey. We liked the acting students the best, because they were generally not the sharpest pencils in the box. Chet and I would leaf through the phone book in our room beforehand and come armed with the most absurd names we could find.
“What did you think of Dallendoerfer’s last film?”
“I’ve heard four people here tell me he’s uninspired.”
“Well, I don’t know.”
“Greatest actor of our generation. That’s a tall order.” Chet or I would lower our voices, as if ashamed of our sacrilege. “I mean, who would you choose? Dallendoerfer or Funkhouse? If you had to pick.”
Amazingly, we’d hold off laughing till later, repeating the best responses to ourselves and brandishing them throughout the day to crack each other up. I loved making Chet laugh because his stern-looking face would open like a fist, his mouth so wide I could see the trembling pink loogie of his uvula. It was a look of total, flat-out joy. He’d bray like a hyena. Certainly you would never guess that he cried himself to sleep. It was the same thing every night: the small sound you might mistake for something else until a human voice emerged, sniffling and helpless. I never mentioned it to Chet. Partly this was because it seemed like a private thing, and partly it was because I was making my own sounds I didn’t want to talk about. I never mentioned that he cried, and he never mentioned that I jerked off. Somehow the two things had become weirdly linked in my mind.
The weekend after we arrived, Chet invited me to his house for dinner. We’d already had Sloppy Joes twice that week, and so I was happy to take him up on his offer. Also, I’d begun to romanticize him and wanted to see where he lived. In my imaginings, the house near the lake had turned into a backwoods trailer, presided over by an alcoholic dad, someplace where the redemptive genius of his trombone playing would save him from a life of petty crime. I’d already begun a novel about him for my creative writing class called The Cry of the Trombone. He let me use his bike, an old BMX, and led the way on his skateboard.
“My sister will be there, too,” Chet said, kicking up a hill.
“She’s my twin.”
I stopped the BMX. “You have a twin?”
“She’s a girl,” he explained. “We’re not identical.”
I was disappointed: I’d assumed he was an only child, companionless except for his music. I was disappointed in the house as well. It was not a trailer at all but a normal-looking house on a leafy street, complete with painted shutters on the windows. A bit small, perhaps, but no smaller than the other places on the block. There was even a tree house perched in a big oak shading the lawn. We walked around the side of the porch and through Chet’s overgrown backyard, past dandelion clocks as big as baby heads, and wiped our feet on a doormat that had a chipmunk eating an acorn on it. Beneath the chipmunk were the words WELCOME TO THE NUT HOUSE.
His mom greeted me with a hug. She smelled like chewing gum. Maybe it was the gum, but I was shocked by how young she looked. I could see Chet’s face in hers, surprised to discover that it was not unattractive.
“Chet’s told me so much about you,” she said. “How’s the Great American Novel coming?”
“Copacetically,” I said.
“Actually, it’s more of an antinovel. I’m exposing the underbelly of the American dream.” I glanced at Chet, who was staring at me. I had no idea why I was speaking like this.
“Wow. Sounds like it’s really something.” His mother smiled vaguely, then plucked a hank of red hair from her face. “You like meatloaf, I hope. I was going to make pork chops, but then I remembered about your, um, heritage.”
She reached behind her waist and retied the apron she was wearing, tugging it more firmly around her breasts. I’m ashamed to say that I imagined her in nothing but this apron. After the surprise of Chet’s mother, dinner itself was disappointing: I was hoping for something I could use for my novel, but Chet seemed to get along well with his parents and no dark, pitiable secrets were revealed. His father owned a landscaping company, a promising development, except he turned out to be a nice guy with excellent manners who not only approved of Chet’s trombone playing but seemed to be well versed in jazz himself, asking him about the new Lee Morgan tune he was adding to his repertoire. As for Chet’s sister, I still hadn’t met her: she wasn’t feeling well—“a little off,” Chet’s mom put it—and had confined herself to her room. Her mother insisted on setting a place for her in case she felt well enough to eat.
“I wish you wouldn’t waste food,” Chet’s dad said, referring to the slice of meatloaf growing cold on her plate. “We can make her a new one if she’s hungry.”
“She might get her appetite back,” Chet’s mom said. “It’s unpredictable.”
“It’s not a normal way to have dinner.”
“Sure it is,” she said brightly. She turned to me. “Jason, don’t you do that for Seder? Put out an extra setting?”
“I might have my holidays mixed up.”
I nodded. Chet’s dad frowned and continued his meal, glancing at the uneaten slice of meatloaf every now and then and averting his eyes. Finally he stood up in mid-chew and grabbed the dish and walked it to the kitchen, where he stuck it in the fridge. The screen door wheezed open, then snicked shut. Chet’s mother stopped smiling and turned pink. I glanced at Chet, who was plowing through his dinner as if this were typical behavior.
“I think your sister would appreciate it if you said hello,” Chet’s mother said finally, once he’d finished. “I know she’s missed you.”
His sister’s room was on the other side of the house, abutting the garage, but rather than knock on her door we walked through the backyard to surprise her at the window. I had the feeling Chet had done this before. The giant dandelions swayed in the breeze, parachutes shooting from them like sparks. The air was even muggier than before, and it smelled like rain. “He likes to go for walks after dinner” was all Chet said when I asked him where his dad had gone. When we reached his sister’s window, Chet approached quietly and we stood there for a minute spying through the open curtains. She was lying in bed and watching TV. Surprisingly, her hair wasn’t red but a beautiful sandy brown. It was curly, too, long coils hanging to her shoulders. Beside her, stationed on the bedside table, was some kind of intercom: a white box with a call button on it. The window was open, and I could smell the stuffy warmth of the room even in the rain-scented breeze, a smell like the sour head of a baby.
I waited for Chet to say hello, but he just stared at her without speaking. His face was pale and rigid and there was a strange smile on it that did not seem to have anything to do with smiling. I began to feel frightened. The longer he stood there, the weirder I felt. Someone screamed on the TV. Just when I thought he was going to say something Chet made a face, a terrible mean thing I’ve never seen before: he bared his clenched teeth and forced his tongue through them as slowly as he could. It was like watching something squeeze out of one of those Play-Doh machines. Then he turned and ran away, startling his sister, who looked up from the TV and saw me standing at her window. She switched the sound off and slid gently out of bed so that she was standing at the window too, right there in front of me.
“Are you Chet’s friend?”
I nodded. She was wearing plaid pajamas that she seemed to have outgrown a little bit. Below the cuffs of her pants I could see her ankles, pale and bony, and the long, slender blades of her feet. Her toenails were painted purple.
“Chet ran away,” I said stupidly.
She clutched the neck of her pajama top, as if she were cold. “Mom says he’s regressed. It was her idea to send him to summer school.”
“Are you sick?”
She looked away. “No. I just hate meatloaf.”
“Me too,” I lied.
She smiled. There was something about it—not the smile itself but the effort to keep it on her face—that seemed to make her unhappy. She shut her eyes. A breeze swept the yard and blew a flurry of dandelion seeds into her room, swirling them like the snow in a snow globe. One of them landed in her hair. I reached through the window and picked it from her curls. I handed the bit of fluff to her—I don’t know why—and our fingers touched, gentle as ants.
She blushed. My heart was pounding in my chest. A stronger wind gusted through the window and a corner of her pajama top flipped up, revealing a tattoo under her belly button. A cross, it looked like. She tugged her top back down. For a moment I couldn’t speak.
“It’s going to rain,” I said. “You should close the window.”
“I like to keep it open.”
She looked at me, one eye squinched up. “In case of visitors.”
I turned from her window and walked back through the giant dandelions toward the front yard. When I found Chet again, sitting on his porch, he refused to talk about his sister. He didn’t mention the terrible face he’d made at her, and I didn’t mention our fingers touching through the window. It was like it had never happened. We said goodbye to his parents and rode home, me on the skateboard this time. He biked fast, and I had to struggle to keep up. We mounted the last long hill before campus, the clock tower rising into view like the turret of a castle, darkened by rain that hadn’t reached us yet, but I was panting too hard to appreciate it. Thunder, loud and exotic to me, rumbled nearby. When I caught up with Chet, he wouldn’t meet my eye, gazing instead at the rain-blurred campus trapped, it seemed, at the bottom of a well.
“Copacetically,” Chet said, when I asked him how he was doing.
* * *
Whatever had happened back at Chet’s house—and whatever strange grudge he was holding against me—seemed forgotten the next day. We went back to our daily routine of meals and girl-talk and conspiratorial ridicule, though something strange had entered our friendship, a kind of embarrassment I wasn’t sure which of us was the source of. At night, in the sauna-like heat of our room, my fantasies about Sylvana were replaced by Chet’s sister: the brown swish of her curls, the way the wind had pushed her pajama top up her stomach. The touch of her fingers that seemed now like a kiss. Mostly I thought about that cross below her belly button: how it tortured me, the image of that holy thing in such an unholy place! What kind of girl would get a tattoo like that? In my fantasies, I stepped through the window and ripped her pajama top open with both hands before pressing my lips to her stomach, following the cross’s spine to her panties. We did it, in every way I could think up: in her bed, on the floor, in the backyard with dandelion seeds swirling around us. She was more experienced than me but not so experienced she would make me feel stupid, only grateful to be in her tutelage. We went at it all night and then I left at dawn before Chet’s parents got up, before Chet himself was awake, sliding back into bed without anyone noticing.
Obviously, I did not share my fantasies with Chet. Instead, I continued to work on The Cry of the Trombone, adding a character modeled on Chet’s sister. I named her Miranda. She was sexy and troubled and estranged from her twin brother, the trombone-playing protagonist, because of her religious conversion but also because she was in love with the protagonist’s best friend, Blake. The best friend looked like me, except that he had a “rakish scar” under one eye and had lost his virginity at age ten to his depressed babysitter even though she was engaged to be married. We’d just read “The Country Husband” by John Cheever in my fiction writing class, and it had made a deep impression on me, not just the troubled and beautiful Anne Murchison but the way that Cheever managed to make everything sound better than it was in real life, as if the thing he was describing had died somehow and he was speaking at its funeral. The image of the girl seemed to put him into a relationship to the world that was mysterious and enthralling. This was the sentence that I’d highlighted in neon yellow, because the story had done the same thing to me: put me into a relationship to the world that was mysterious and enthralling. It was what I wanted for The Cry of the Trombone. I didn’t know if my novel was “enthralling” or not, but it did have a mystery: that expression on the protagonist’s face when he saw Miranda through the window. It became, in my vision of the book, the clue to everything. Why did he hate her so much? What was the meaning of that hideous tongue squishing through his teeth, slow as butter? It was the first time I’d thought of writing this way, as the probing of a mystery. It had never occurred to me that there was the world you lived in and then the one you wrote about, lurking beneath the surface. When I showed the first chapter to my writing class, the teacher proclaimed it “ambitious.”
“You might give it a bit more detail,” Ethan, of the dolphiny smirk, said. We were walking back from class together. He was working on a trilogy about the life of Karl Marx, and I was impressed by the size of his vocabulary. If his characters were strolling up a hill, he’d use the word “gradient” instead. As for my novel, he’d said the first chapter was filled with “lapidary prose.” I had no idea what “lapidary” meant, but I knew from the way he’d massaged the word on his tongue that it was a good thing. “Like the girl’s blanket. What kind is it?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s just a blanket.”
“Is it an afghan? Fleece? Virgin wool?” he said, winking.
I shrugged. It didn’t seem important to the story, but he clearly knew more about writing than I did. “I never thought about it.”
“Anyway, I like how it’s a roman à clef,” he said kindly.
“Thanks,” I said. It sounded even better than an antinovel.
“I mean, the protagonist. He’s so clearly your roommate Chet.”
I shook my head, feigning bafflement.
“Come on! He has long red hair, and wears a Red Sox cap just like Chet does. Plus he’s a trombone player.”
“Well, he might have been an inspiration,” I said, waving some no-see-ums away from my face. “Subconsciously.”
“You’re not worried about his feelings, I hope?”
I shook my head again. It hadn’t occurred to me to worry. Anyway, I was still bitter about what Chet had said about “The Infants’ Masada.” We crossed the main quad, where some creative anachronists were dressed up as knights and rehearsing a swordfight while some girls in lace-up frocks swooned from the sideline.
“Real writers,” Ethan insisted, “love sentences more than people.” He stopped to toss the bangs from his eyes. “Tolstoy wrote about everyone he knew. He destroyed people’s lives. But nobody wishes he’d been nicer, that War and Peace didn’t exist.”
I hadn’t read War and Peace and had no opinions about it, but I liked thinking of myself as being exempt from the same rules as everyone else. At dinner, I sat with Ethan in the front of the dining hall, not far from the policeman standing by the door. They were still looking for the Dorm Room Prowler—recently a stereo had gone missing from Crofton, a couple of twelve-speeds from Trimble. Eventually, Chet found us and sat down with his tray. I could tell that he was surprised to see me eating with someone else, though he did his best to disguise the fact by digging into his breaded veal patty. I felt a tug of remorse. Ethan made me feel high on myself—like we were special people, anointed by talent—but I didn’t particularly like being around him. I would have rather been hanging out with Chet in the corner, rolling our eyes at the kids in black and cracking ourselves up. Ethan started talking about the short stories we were reading for class, how “pedestrian” they seemed. Many of these stories—like “The Country Husband”—I had loved. “If there’s anything that bores me to tears,” he said, “it’s domestic fiction.”
“What kind of fiction do you like?” Chet said.
“Literature. That embraces the world.”
“Like James Michener?”
Ethan snorted. “No! God. I said literature.”
Something strange was happening: Chet blushed, and it was as if I’d blushed too. It was like I was watching Ethan through Chet’s eyes. I leaned over my plate, waiting for Chet to retaliate. That’s what the protagonist in The Cry of the Trombone would have done. “What do you think of Lichtenberger then?” he would have said, nudging Blake under the table. “Is his best work behind him?” He would have set the bait and then pounced. There would have been revenge, humiliation, the thrill of confrontation. Watching Chet saw through his veal patty, I had a weird sense I could make this happen. When it didn’t—when he just sat there, frowning at his plate—I was disappointed.
* * *
That evening, back in our room, I flipped through my teacher’s copy of The Cry of the Trombone and read her comments. She seemed to agree with Ethan that the chapter lacked detail. What does he look like? she wrote on page two, then What does he LOOK like? on page five, and then on page eleven: WHAT DOES HE LOOK LIKE? I put down the manuscript and stared at Chet. He was sitting at his desk, listening to his headphones and leafing through a Mad magazine he’d brought from home. Absently, he tugged at one of his eyelids with two fingers, out and in, out and in, making a kind of squishy eyeball sound. I could hear these faint little clicks. I recognized the gesture somehow—must have seen him perform it before—but had never taken the time to notice it.
“Why are you staring at me?” he said finally, putting down his magazine.
I blushed. “I wasn’t.”
“Quit it. You’re creeping me out.”
That week, I dove into the next chapter of The Cry of the Trombone, trying my best to be as detailed as possible. I wrote a scene in which the protagonist finds his mother crying in the kitchen because his father threw a glass ashtray at her head at a Christmas party. There’s a winter storm watch, and the father, drunk, is passed out in the car. “I’m going to leave him out there till he freezes to death!” the mother says. The protagonist has to go pull his father out of the car himself. This was something that had happened to Sylvana in Colorado, before her parents’ divorce, which I’d promised not to tell anybody. In fact, she’d made me take an oath. I felt a little sick about this, but I was supposed to write as if everyone I knew was dead. Even our teacher had said that, issuing it to us like a command: Write as if everyone you know is dead. At some point, surrounded by corpses, I began to refer to the protagonist of my novel as Chet; it was an accident at first—the name just slipped out—but he felt sturdier that way, more convincing, and I couldn’t bring myself to change it back.
The problem was Miranda, Chet’s sister. She wouldn’t come to life. I couldn’t figure out why she was lying in bed in the middle of the day, or—the central mystery, the book’s dark heart—why Chet had made such an awful face at her. Finally I couldn’t take it anymore and set down my pen in despair.
“When did your sister get that tattoo?” I asked.
“What are you talking about?” Chet was cleaning the mouthpiece of his trombone, which lay in pieces on his desk. Seeing it that way—in a sad mess of parts—made his talent seem even more implausible.
“You know. That cross on her stomach.”
He stared at the mouthpiece, screwing it with a little brush shaped like a Christmas tree. “That’s not a tattoo.”
“What is it?”
“It’s not a tattoo. She’s sick.”
“She told me she wasn’t,” I said, as if I knew more about his sister than he did.
“Are you soft in the head? She has neuroblastoma. It’s for the radiation—to show them where to do it.”
I blushed again, mortified at my own stupidity. I didn’t know what neuroblastoma was, but it sounded bad.
“Why do you think I’m here?” Chet said. “My mom’s on the road half the week, driving her to Dana-Farber.”
He went back to cleaning his trombone, picking up a long metal swab and threading a rag through an eye at one end of it. I came over to help him, and he looked at me in surprise. I held the trombone slide—or half of it, at least—while he cleaned the inside of it. Then we did the other half, and I helped him put the twin Us of the slide back together again. I felt real affection for him, and sadness about his sister, but there was also a strange bubble of excitement in my chest. It had to do with the word “neuroblastoma,” which floated in front of me as if on a page.
Later, lying in my bunk after Chet had gone to sleep—there were no sounds of crying, as if I’d forced him into silence—I felt the same bubble of excitement. My heart began to pound, buoyed by the dramatic possibilities of his sister’s illness. A dying girl. Her brother’s hatred. The struggles of a family beset by illness. I was trapped in a daze. This had never happened to me before, doing nothing but lying in bed. I had the feeling of being very close to something, something better than I was though it came from my own brain; if I leaned an inch further, I could touch it. If I didn’t touch it soon, or try to, it would disappear.
I climbed out of bed and slipped on my clothes and shoes as quietly as possible. Then I lifted Chet’s silver BMX Mongoose bike with 12-inch mag wheels from its hook on the wall, set it on the floor without so much as a clink, and wheeled it out the door. I hopped on Chet’s Mongoose and began to ride. The whole campus seemed to be asleep, quiet except for the chirp of crickets, and as I passed the silent bell tower, lit up against the lonesome vault of the sky, I shivered with longing. I jumped the moonlit curb and then mounted the gradient toward Chet’s house. I stopped at the top, staring at the dead-end streets of Dumbarton. Now, there is a certain kind of neighborhood one sees in small New England towns where each house has a TV playing during dinner, and the lawns look small and lonely in the fading light of dusk, and the thin spaces between the homes make you think of the thin, precious distance between you and death. Where the Turnblads called home was just such a neighborhood. Everything looked different in the dark, but I must have known my way well enough, because I coasted into town and turned on a familiar-looking street and soon the small house with its overgrown yard and shabby treehouse loomed out of the dark, the curtains of its windows drawn, concealing the tragic spectacle within.
I sat there for a minute, waiting for my chest to stop heaving. Then I left the bike at the curb and unlatched the gate as quietly as I could and rounded the side of the house to the backyard, which was even more verdurous than I remembered it. Probably the Turnblads’ lawn mower had broken and they had no money to replace it. The giant dandelion clocks, taller than they had been two weeks ago, towered over the grass. Time, that subtle thief, I thought. I crept through them and stopped in the middle of the yard. My face was saturated with sweat. At first I thought the back windows of the house were as dark as the front’s, but then one of them flickered and changed color, and my heart palpitated. Chet’s sister’s room. I could hear the sound of a TV set wafting through the open window.
She’d left it open for me, like an appeal for love.
I crept through the dandelions. She was lying in bed with an umber Pendleton blanket made of 84% wool pulled up to her waist. I could smell it from here, a scent like sheep. Trepidatiously, I knocked on her window with my right hand. She did not seem surprised to see me. She muted the TV, then got up and hobbled to the window. She had deteriorated since I last saw her: she was losing her hair, and I could see the cruel ladder of her ribs through the pajama top she was wearing. The purple polish on her toenails, once so new and shiny, was old and chipped.
“I’m dying, Blake,” she said angrily.
“I lied to you before.”
“Youth is a lie,” I said.
She nodded, like the dandelion clocks in the breeze. I stared at one of them. A breeze picked up and blew all the seeds away.
“Why did Chet make a terrible face at you?” I asked at length.
“I don’t know, Blake. Perhaps he blames me for our father, what he’s had to become.”
I wanted to say something true, even lapidary, but I didn’t know what. “What has he become?”
“Shhhh,” she said, covering her lips with a finger and pointing to the intercom with the pointer finger of her other hand.
Suddenly, I listened. There were voices wafting through it, a man’s and a woman’s. I realized with a shock that they were coming from another room. Had they forgotten the device was on? Chet’s sister and I watched each other while the voices filled the room, unbeknownst to their owners.
Janet, I’m a landscaper.
Just three more bikes. They’ll never suspect one of the campers’ fathers.
Janet, I’m a landscaper. I’m not a thief.
Do you want her to see Christmas? Your own daughter?
I’ll go to prison. What if they catch me?
They haven’t yet.
She’s just a girl, Janet! A girl! Can’t we find a cheaper hospital?
Nothing’s cheap in America. Especially dying.
* * *
The first thing was a note taped to the door of our dorm room: KLEPTO, it said, scrawled in Magic Marker. Then, while Chet and I were walking to the student lounge, I saw some creative anachronists dressed in breastplates and lacrosse gloves glance at Chet and whisper to each other. This was a few days after we’d workshopped the newest installment of The Cry of the Trombone in class. I didn’t make the connection at first, but then it began to sink in: Somehow, what I’d written for the book had turned into a rumor, a gossipy allegation, except it wasn’t Chet’s father who was the Dorm Room Prowler but Chet himself. He’d been stealing people’s stuff and sneaking it back to his house. Since he was the only townie in the camp—as far as I knew—this wasn’t so hard to believe. Where would anyone else put the bikes and stereos they’d plundered? It only made sense if it was someone who lived nearby. I wondered, in amazement, whether the police were going to knock on our door and ask to speak with him.
That evening, I went to dinner before Chet got back from Jazz Theory and sat with Ethan and a girl from our writing class who’d turned in a short story told from the perspective of a toaster. (Ethan had been scathing about it to me in private—a Pop-Tartist, he’d called her—so it surprised me when he praised her “experimental impulse” at dinner.) Chet didn’t come up, but when I saw him enter the Commons, looking for a place to sit with his tray of turkey Tetrazini, a current of electric silence spread through the tables. It was as if a celebrity had walked into the place. Chet didn’t look up from the floor, which relieved me of the burden of waving him over. He sat by himself at an empty table, near the restrooms where no one usually ate. The Bog Table, we called it. I could see some drama kids at the next table talking about him, leaning in so he couldn’t hear what they said. I felt guilt, yes, but also something else. A lift of power. I’d caused this to happen. It was amazing to me, that some sentences I’d made up had wandered into the world and done anything at all—had exiled Chet to the Bog Table, while I was stuck having lunch with some people I didn’t really like.
* * *
After dinner, I went to the Pop-Tartist’s dorm, where they were throwing a birthday party for her RA. Chet was asleep in the top bunk when I got back to our room, and then again when I woke up the next day for class. I climbed the ladder to look at him, feeling as lonely as I’d felt all summer. His face in the depths of sleep looked dreamy and remote, like a stranger’s. When I got home that afternoon, Chet was packing up his cassette tapes, pulling them from his bookcase and tossing them into a box without bothering to keep them alphabetized.
“What are you doing?” I said.
“But camp isn’t over for two more weeks.”
“I’m moving home early. I can bike to campus.”
The hair squirreling out the back of his Red Sox cap was greasy, as if he hadn’t showered in a while. I watched him pack up his things. Chet ripped his heavy metal poster down without bothering to pry out the thumbtacks, leaving four little right triangles on the wall. When he started on his books, I knelt down to help him, yanking them from the bookcase and tossing them on top of his tapes.
“Do you think this is Hinkenbottom’s best work?” I asked, holding up a copy of Roget’s Thesaurus. I’d seen the name in a real estate ad and had been saving it for two days. He ignored me, folding up the flaps of the box. I went to put the thesaurus back and saw my laboriously typed copy of The Cry of the Trombone, Chapters 1-5, fanned out on Chet’s desk. I felt sick inside. I wondered if Ethan’s theory about “real writers” extended beyond geniuses. How good of a writer would you have to be? And how would you know if what you were writing was worth it—if people would remember you as a novelist or a jerk?
“I’m sorry I used your life,” I said.
Chet laughed. “What do you know about my life?”
“I said I was sorry.”
“What about this? Right now? Is it going to show up in your antinovel?”
“Tolstoy wrote about everyone he knew.”
“Tolstoy?” he said incredulously.
My eyes burned. I picked up The Cry of the Trombone and assembled it back into a pile, smacking it on Chet’s desk.
“Ethan likes my writing,” I said.
Chet laughed. “He says that to everybody. At least when they’re around.”
I’d begun to suspect this myself, which made me even angrier. Chet turned away and began to pack up his trombone, taking the slide apart and then kneeling to place it in the case as if it were God’s gift to trombones. He laid the bell on top of it, cradling it like a sleeping baby. I wanted to hurl the precious thing out the window.
“At least I have friends,” I said.
Chet looked at me. It occurred to me that he didn’t really want to move back home, that he was waiting for me to tell him to stay. He’d had all morning to pack—Friday was his rehearsal day, no classes— but had waited for me to get home. All I had to do was say Sorry or Please don’t go home or You’re the only kid I like here, and he would sigh and pretend to give in and call his mother to tell her not to come. But I didn’t. I turned my back and did something egregious. I began to whistle. “Walking on Sunshine,” a song I knew he hated. Chet buckled his case and stood up.
“You’re right,” he said, hefting it one hand. “I don’t have any friends here.”
* * *
Soon after Chet moved out, they caught the Dorm Room Prowler sneaking into Crofton Hall in the middle of the night. It was an ex-teacher, an artist from New York, who’d been fired for “inappropriate behavior.” Apparently, he hadn’t sold any of his plunder, but had been keeping it in a storage unit outside of town and sleeping there at night. There was some question as to whether he was a drug addict. The most amazing part was his name: Schuesslefahrt. I laughed when I heard, but without Chet there it wasn’t nearly as funny.
The last week of camp, I found out Chet was playing a concert as part of his jazz class, and I went to the auditorium on the south side of campus to see it. Ethan and I went there together. There were eight people in the band—the Octamerous Octet, they called themselves— seven of whom were dressed like waiters in matching black shirts and pants. The eighth was Chet, wearing one of those ties with cartoon notes on it. Ethan found this very funny, nudging my ribs and smirking his dolphin smirk. The smirk had started to annoy me, but I forgot about it when the band began to play—forgot, in fact, that Ethan was even there. It was strange to see kids our age do something so well. They were fleet and telepathic, smooth as a machine, swinging in perfect sync before one of the horn players stepped forward for a blazing solo. If they’d unzipped their bodies and some men in pork pie hats had stepped out, I wouldn’t have been too surprised. Each of the band members had written a song, which they introduced beforehand. When it was Chet’s turn, he leaned into the microphone and spoke in a nervous voice, gripping his trombone with two hands. The song was called “Blastoma.” The band launched into the theme, which was stark and brooding, the horns tiptoeing through broken glass. It was beautiful, in an eerie kind of way. Eventually Chet stepped forward for his solo, but when he put the trombone to his lips nothing came out. He just stood there without playing a note. Or at least I didn’t hear one. Judging from the looks on everyone’s faces, the fidgeting and nervous giggles, no one else heard one either. Finally Chet put the trombone down and stepped back from the mic. He had not managed a sound, and yet when the theme returned he joined the rest of the horns without a hitch, his trombone pitched in the air like a cannon.
At the time, it seemed to me like a terrible thing, to have frozen up like that. I said this to Ethan, who joked that Chet’s tie must have sucked up all the notes in the room. It never occurred to us—to me—that he hadn’t played anything on purpose.
“Anyway,” Ethan said, “no great loss.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve seen him play before. At rehearsal.” Ethan leaned into me, as if to let me in on a secret. “He’s not untalented, but hopelessly prosaic.”
* * *
Chet Turnblad. Of course, that wasn’t his name. I just like the sound of it. Chet Turnblad. I’ve searched his real name on the Web, but nobody who resembles him comes up. So I’m forced to imagine it, his Facebook page: a picture of him with his two daughters, both redheads, smiling into the camera while their hair flames to one side in the wind. They’re wearing hiking boots, perched atop some rocky peak somewhere. His face is sunburned, half-hidden by one of those big Viking beards. He’s taken over his dad’s business, which is called Evergreen Landscape Services. His older daughter, Cassie, is an honors student. He’s founded the Dumbarton for Cancer Bike Tour in memory of his sister. As far as I can tell, he doesn’t play music anymore. He doesn’t look capable of laughing like a hyena or crying himself to sleep or making a grown man want to apologize, thirty years later, for his failures of imagination. He just looks like a guy. I can see him perfectly, the first gray flashes in his beard. Because I’m not writing as if he’s dead. I’m writing as if he’s alive.
* * *
I did run into him one last time, the day after camp ended. My parents had flown out to get me—looking tan and refreshed from their European travels—and we were walking around the quaint part of Dumbarton, where the old church overlooked the river. It was a beautiful day, seasoned with a pleasant funk from the brewery nearby, and you might have thought—despite the number of teenagers strolling around in all black—that no one living there could really be unhappy. Passing a sandwich shop, I looked in the window and saw Chet sitting there with his twin sister, just the two of them. She was slouched in a booth, not nearly as skinny as I’d imagined her in my book, wearing one of those concert T-shirts with the long white sleeves. If she’d lost any hair, I couldn’t tell from the sidewalk. They had food in front of them—soup, it looked like—but they weren’t eating it. They were making faces at each other, flaring their nostrils and baring their teeth in gleeful configurations of ugliness. Some kind of game. The Ugliest Face, maybe, or I’m Scarier Than You. It had the intimacy of a joke, one of those things you dream up as kids and never outgrow. Chet’s sister reached up and flipped her eyelids inside out, exposing little red half-suns of skin. Her lashes stuck straight up in the air. Chet burst out laughing. I ducked my head and continued down the street, before they could see me.
“So what did you learn in your writing class?” my father asked, and I recited a bunch of words: show don’t tell. Write what you know. Be patient—some stories take years and you never get them right.