R oots pushed away beneath the city of Menasha’s big trees in summer, extending and swelling with all the slow nonchalance of inexorable power, here putting a little more buckle between the concrete bricks of a basement wall, there raising the edge of a sidewalk slab just a bit higher. Overhead, the oak and elm, ash and maple interlaced in a nearly continuous canopy that stopped the midday sunlight high above and deflected the sultry winds streaming in from a hundred miles of sun-warmed Central Wisconsin cornfields to the west.
On through the summer, the boughs above the streets and walks would sink beneath the growing weight of leaves until their foliage brushed the pedestrian’s hair, and children racing down the street on bicycles could reach up and tear a green handful from every tree they passed. Once Grandma Pashaw had stopped, on one of her short walks up the block when the little blue and white house where she lived was too hot, to gaze at the knobbed and contorted trunk of the oak by Mr. Dumbrowski’s driveway. She was silent a long time before the living sculpture, lost in some serene rumination until Clair became impatient. He looked from her face to the tree and wondered what it was that he couldn’t see.
“Grandma?” he said.
“Gnarled,” Grandma said thoughtfully, “Isn’t that a wonderful word? Gnarled.”
Grandma did not bother to explain the word. But she had taught Clair that old trees were full of magic, and he sensed that the word was part of it.
At the cottage up north near Rice Lake, Clair had been alone in the sun- sprinkled woods, heard the many strange sounds and small voices. These were the demon meridianum, Grandma had said, the noonday specters. She told of how her immigrant mother, walking alone in the forests of Lower Saxony, had heard the sound of hunters, their shouting and blowing of horns, the baying of hounds and the galloping of horses, at first in the distance and then close around her and gone. Then a solitary horseman appeared and asked her if she had seen a stag pass by. He was dressed in a forester’s garb of five hundred years ago, and carried a bow slung on his back. She looked around her to see if there were others. When she looked back, the horseman was no longer there.
Grandma read poems to Clair and told him countless stories, filling his mind with voices and pictures that she sometimes said were only pretend. Clair had believed this particular story, however, because he thought Grandma believed it, though he saw it as real only in its faraway setting. He never expected to see a ghost among the trees of his neighborhood in the daytime, alive as it was with familiar people who spoke his name without irony and smiled when they said hello. Outside his neighborhood, daytime had no need of supernatural demons because of the rough boys, whom Grandma called trash.
When Clair walked home along the railroad tracks from special education class, he passed back yards and streets where they lived. Some of them he recognized, though he did not know their names; most of them he was sure he had never seen. Yet they raised a shout of “Clair,” yelled things he did not understand, aped the way he walked and the awkward, nasal sound of his speech, made fun of how he wore his pants high on his corpulent midsection, called him “Baby Huey” and laughed. Girls, too, would join in the jeering. Objects flew at him, sometimes hitting him and, though he was thirteen and big for his age, making him cry.
Now and then smaller children would make a game of running close to taunt Clair or goad him with sticks like Indians counting coup. When he chased them, sometimes playfully and sometimes in anger, they would scatter in a delirium of noisy excitement. One very unpleasant day he ran amongst a bursting covey of them and caught a little blonde girl; he stood in someone’s back yard, holding her by a long, dirty arm in complete befuddlement, for he did not recall her having been among the tormentors. She was crying, and the older boys came with sticks and curses. A screen door slammed and a man ran up and pushed Clair to the ground, made him stay there amid the glowering children and staring adults until the police came to take him home. That was the time when Dad shouted at him and Mom cried, when they said he might have to go away, and he went and saw the lady doctor.
But it wasn’t Clair’s fault. Grandma told him it was all over and not to worry; she blamed it on the trash, whom she made the mistake of calling demons. Clair, confused, began to think they were something other than human.
Only late at night, when the children had been called in and put away and Clair could ride his bicycle for blocks without a passing car, did he go abroad with a chance of peace. Then the trees turned the streets into dim caverns and the sidewalks into passageways, divided the yards and driveways into a black and chambered labyrinth. Clair sailed like a phantom along the cavern floors, up a driveway onto the sidewalk, down a driveway back into the street, through the yellow pools of streetlight where his shadow rushed beneath and ahead of him back into the secret darkness. But even there, he sometimes heard them coming for him, calling from far away, “Clair. We’re comin’ to get you, Clair.”
Clair would see the demons on bicycles speeding toward him beneath a distant streetlight, and he would wheel around and flee through the flutter of shadows. Too far from home one night, he was overtaken by four boys who came up on both sides of him and in front of him, circled him and made him stop, stood around him on the side of the street, straddling the crossbars of their bicycles.
“Hi, Clair,” they said, joking as though he were their good friend. “How ya doin’, Clair?”
“Hi,” Clair said.
“Where you goin’, Clair?” one asked.
“Nowhere,” he said, inspecting the twisted metal basket on the front of his handlebars. He tugged at one of its displaced wires.
“You making some repairs there, Clair?” one asked, and they all laughed.
“No,” Clair said.
“Clair, do John Wayne,” one of them said.
“John Wayne?” another one said dubiously.
“Yeah, you gotta see it to believe it. Go on, Clair, show him.”
“I can’t right now,” Clair said.
“You peeking in people’s windows tonight, Clair?”
“Judy Meyer lives near here,” said another. “She your girlfriend?”
At the unfamiliar name, Clair looked up.
“Judy told me she saw you peeking in her window and then you came in and raped her.”
The boys sniggered and watched expectantly, but Clair was silent. They asked him smirkingly about his family and then tired, suddenly, of their game. The clever tone left their voices, and they spoke in a friendlier way, trying to elicit conversation, but Clair did not know how to make conversation. His answers seemed to bore them. Yet talking with him on the street, they no longer seemed like demons.
When finally they let him go, waving and saying, “Take her easy, Clair,” and “See ya, Clair,” though the irony had returned to their voices and he heard them talking excitedly among themselves and laughing as they rode away, he felt almost close to them. Then he was alone on his bicycle, gliding home through the night, and what had just happened seemed like a dream, the boys once again distant, alien and cruel.
Only one rough boy was kind to Clair, and that was Jim, a big, blond, grinning boy in the seventh grade at Butte Des Morts Junior High School. A year earlier, Clair had moved from his old special education group at Banta Elementary School to a new class at Butte Des Morts, a block away. The new class was segregated in a single classroom near the gymnasium, where the rough boys gathered and made Clair marvel at how much larger they had grown since Banta Elementary. There Jim had struck up Clair’s acquaintance.
Clair would see Jim now and then at the Riverside Congregational Church where their parents took them on Sunday mornings. Jim told Clair he was his friend. Except for the neighbors, Jim was the only person who came to Clair’s tiny house.
Jim had other friends, though, and Clair saw them grouped around him in the halls at Butte Des Morts. Sometimes when they passed the special ed room, or were on their way to the bathroom down the hall, or in the cafeteria where the special class ate at a corner table, Jim would make Clair feel welcome among his friends. “Clair, old buddy,” he’d call him, and the other boys would smile. They would make jokes at him, but Clair didn’t mind because he’d never had a crowd of friends before. They loved it when Clair did his voices. Clair loved it too, because the voices were smart and did his thinking for him; the nasal sound left his voice and his words no longer slurred. He was no longer slow, fat Clair, but someone wonderful.
“High astride these massive cliffs of the mountain fortress known as Masada, Hebrew zealots fought the doomed but heroic battle that was to lead to two thousand years of diaspora,” Clair would say with the postures and intonations of Walter Cronkite in the National Geographic special he’d seen with his parents months before.
Clair enjoyed the boys’ amazement as they watched and listened and shouted with glee and disbelieving laughter. Once he tensed suddenly and swelled into the image of John Wayne climbing onto a bulldozer beneath the palm trees, while machine guns chattered and oil dump explosions sent black plumes overhead; this was in one of the movies Dad had taken him to before Clair grew too large, before Dad became ashamed and began to take him fishing at the dam instead.
“I got a little Christmas present,” Clair drawled, “for Tojo’s bug-eyed monkeys.”
That became Jim’s favorite, and Clair would do it for him often, but only when they were alone. Something in the other boys’ voices, an ugly eagerness in the way they took to the John Wayne imitation and badgered him to repeat it, paralyzed his tongue.
Clair was sometimes angry, but he willed himself not to hate. Grandma had told him sternly that hatred was wicked and made the Lord disapprove. Dad called hatred counterproductive, though he had several times telephoned parents with sharp words about the behavior of their children. Once he went to a house on the next block and came back with his shirt torn.
That was in March, when the rough boys made a newspaper and spread it around at school. Each copy of the paper was a single sheet of white Neenah Bond that had been run through a “Working Toy” printing press. Across the top ran the title, “The Pashaw Post,” in big letters that looked like the ones on a real newspaper. Just below it in the center was a cartoon of a little man shouting through a megaphone, and below that were several smaller headlines topping one- to three-sentence stories. “Extra!” said a headline. “Gladys Pours Acid in Her Eyes and Fred Goes Crazy.”
“ ‘My eyes, my eyes,’ Gladys shrieks,” read the story. “Fred takes immediate command of situation. ‘Shut the hell up in there,’ he yells.”
Clair’s Mom and Dad were Gladys and Fred. Gladys poured rubbing alcohol in her eyes one night when Clair and Jim were shooting toy army men with thick rubber bands that Dad had brought home from the mill.
Jim was laughing as Clair metamorphosed into the Duke and delivered his line, “I got a little Christmas present for Tojo’s bug-eyed monkeys,” and heavy rubber bands swept like grapeshot through the swarm of toy soldiers on the other side of the living room. The boys were shouting with martial frenzy, and each time a rubber band knocked a soldier from the shelves of the bookcase against the wall, they would make the scream for him as he fell. Standing inside the open door of the bathroom just off the living room, Gladys cried out, “My eyes! My eyes!” but her words were unintelligible in the bedlam. Dad shouted from the kitchen, “Shut the hell up in there!”
Mom had raised the plastic bottle of rubbing alcohol she thought was empty and tilted it to look in, but she held it too high, spilling alcohol into her eyes. With her hands on her face, she ran against the bathroom door with a shriek and a loud bang that brought Dad in a hurry. Dad forced her head into the sink, splashing water into her face with such energy that it landed on the floor with heavy splats, and he shouted for her to open her eyes to the water while she screamed back in pain and confused protest. Jim snorted and put his hand over his mouth. He turned away, hunkered on the floor with his back to the bathroom and his head bent down, shoulders shaking. Jim was polite and sympathetic when Dad sent him home so they could take Mom to the doctor.
Then everyone was laughing at Clair in the hall at school, and a girl who looked to Clair like a fairy princess read the little newspaper in a television announcer’s voice and made them laugh harder.
“Clair, you’re famous,” she said.
“Clair, will you marry me?” said another girl, turning away to a giggling huddle of her friends.
The paper had other things she read, things about the dirt in Clair’s ears and about Dad grunting on the toilet. Clair found a copy of the paper in his lunch box with something written on it in pen, but he didn’t know how to read. Dad read it aloud, his hands shaking with rage, when Clair brought the paper home.
“In the future, Clair, you better watch your step,” it said, “because, as you see, we can mass-produce these.”
This was supposed to be funny, Dad said in a tone of menace that Clair sensed was not directed at him. That was when Dad went to the next block to see Jim’s father, who taught English and coached the soccer team at the junior college. Clair didn’t know what had happened and didn’t think to ask, but the way Dad talked about Jim when he came back made Clair afraid.
When Clair was cutting across the city baseball fields on the way home from school the next day, he saw Jim coming after him. Clair ran in a dark-blue twilight below the cloud cover of the February afternoon and did not see the puddles on the baseball diamond, where his feet slid and picked up heavy snowshoes of mud. Jim caught him and put him in a headlock and made him walk across the fields bent over with his head stuck between Jim’s arm and the side of his coat, while Jim said awful things about Mom and Dad.
Clair wanted to make Jim understand so he would let him go. He saw himself again with his parents in the lady doctor’s office; he spoke in the doctor’s thin, soft voice.
“. . . the savant syndrome,” she was saying.
“You’ve heard the term idiot savant?” Then Clair shook his head under Jim’s arm just as his mother had shaken hers, his face puzzled like hers.
Jim walked him across the last baseball diamond into the tennis courts, where the hedges along the cyclone fences protected them from the cold wash of a wet wind.
“The savant syndrome is a psychiatric category, very rare, in which a person of severe intellectual disability has some very narrow but extremely pronounced area of genius.”
Clair made a blowing of disgust through his lips, just as his father had done at the word “genius.” Clair tripped on the edge of the blacktop court, and Jim jerked him up, choking him.
“What are you talking like a woman for, you goddamn dummy?” Jim asked.
“Clair is in that category,” Clair said in the doctor’s feminine voice from beneath Jim’s arm, and Jim stopped walking. “His savant syndrome manifests itself in a way that I really haven’t been able to find any parallel for in the literature, a photographic memory for any specific character, an ability to become that character. He simply absorbs people and reproduces them, their poses and motions, the sounds of their voices and the words they speak, the light in their eyes, the subtleties in the placement of a foot or the quiver of a cheek. . . .”
Lost for a moment in the wonder of what she was trying to describe, the doctor put her hand thoughtfully to her delicate jaw, but Clair’s hand bumped against Jim’s arm.
“Almost like a myna bird,” Clair said in the doctor’s voice, “he reproduces without really understanding anything beneath the surface. He can even carry on a conversation as one of his characters if he knows them well enough — his parents, for example, and apparently his grandmother. But of course, to anyone else it doesn’t sound right because Clair’s part of the conversation is simply a sort of programmed response, a reproduction of some particular scrap of remembered dialogue in response to key words in what the other person says.”
Clair liked to do the doctor’s speech, because the excitement and fascination in her voice made him feel like the possessor of some priceless treasure. His father’s response had a less pleasing sound, however, so he did not perform it for Jim when it came, in its turn, into his head.
“You’re pretty much telling us what we already know,” Dad said, dismally. “You can put all the psychiatrical window dressing on it you want, but it’s still a matter of insanity on top of severe retardation. He’s got an IQ of 47 and he’s nuts to boot. I never know what the hell he’s going to do next.”
“Don’t talk like that in front of him,” Mom pleaded softly, as though she thought Clair couldn’t hear her.
“He can’t understand what we’re talking about,” Dad said. He looked at Clair, and Clair saw that he was sad.
“What’s the matter?” Clair asked sympathetically.
“What do you think’s the matter, you fat suck?” Jim demanded, looking down on his prisoner. “Do you know what kind of trouble your old man got me into? What do you think I should do with you, huh? Maybe I should kill you, would you like that? I got a knife in my pocket.” Jim pointed to a higher cyclone fence beyond those surrounding the tennis courts. It was topped by barbed wire. “I could bury you over there behind that fence and nobody would ever find you.”
Beyond the fence were mountain ranges of railroad ties and rusting iron scrap on a wet and matted field of last year’s mud-brown grasses. Old machinery and cast-off industrial boilers clustered on the other side of the field along the high, galvanized aluminum wall of the iron works.
Jim took Clair to a place where the fence was loose, and let him go. When Clair straightened up, the blood rushed from his face, and he saw a million swarming water bugs. Jim lifted the bottom of the wire mesh and told Clair to crawl under. Clair knew that Jim was stronger than he, but that wasn’t why he obeyed him. Clair had never disobeyed anyone, and he had found a way of making himself unafraid.
Tommy Gamow, Clair’s friend from special ed, had been born with no legs, and he heard a sharp, ringing noise that no one else could hear. Sometimes it made him grab his head in pain and struggle. He wore a helmet because, once in a great while, he would fall out of his wheelchair. Tommy was as smart as the other twelve-year-olds in the junior high school, but they called him “Bart Starr” and made fun of him. Tommy was good to Clair, talking to him as though Clair were smart too, and Clair tried to be like him.
In the previous November, on a day when the sun had melted the first, light snowfall and filled the air outside the windows with a lucent vapor, Tommy had edged his wheelchair close to Clair during free time to tell him, in a low voice, that he had found how to get at his father’s gun and bullets. “Interesting, eh?” Tommy asked Clair, as if he’d uncovered an amusing secret. Tommy told Clair goodbye and said he was going to kill himself, and that weekend he did.
Clair didn’t know how he might kill himself, but didn’t worry about it. Tommy had shown him that escape was possible, and the conviction kept him company like a comforting friend. He no longer felt trapped in his life. I can do it when I want, he told himself, and was enlarged with a feeling of invulnerability. His fear of all things had been replaced by a great curiosity, and now he went into the field of rusting iron with wonder and anticipation.
“Over here,” Jim said, leading him into shadow at the base of a wall of railroad ties. “Stand here.”
Clair felt his shoes making imprints in the mud, breathed in the fragrance of the grass and wet earth and creosote. “It smells good,” he said.
“Shut up,” Jim said, pushing Clair’s shoulder. “Who the hell do you think you’re talking to?”
The dark blue light had slipped away. Clair could not see Jim’s face and wondered if someone different were there now. “Are you a demon?” he asked.
Jim leaned forward ominously.
“I’m Satan,” he hissed. “Welcome to hell.”
“In hell, the devil has a big iron griddle fifty miles square,” Clair said, suddenly a frail old woman speaking with slow and emphatic precision, “with the hellfires burning beneath it. He takes a whole cage full of evil people and spills it across the griddle, and the people fall down into it and then, for a few seconds, you hear such a screaming as you’ve never heard before. Then everything quiets down, and there’s nothing but a nasty crackle, sizzle, spit.”
Jim was silent, far streetlights spindling like stars around the black void of his head, when he tilted slightly, as though he were listening for a sound he had missed to repeat itself. “Grandma Pashaw,” he said.
“And the split second that everybody is dead,” Grandma went on, “the devil brings them back to life in the cage above the griddle and gives them a few minutes to think about the last time before he dumps them, kicking and bawling, back onto the griddle. He does this over and over, forever.”
“Aw, shut up,” Jim said. He sighed and reached into his pocket.
“Will it hurt?” Clair asked.
“What?” Jim asked. He pulled something out of his coat and held it in his hand, and Clair heard the rattle of paper.
“The knife,” Clair said, and saw that Jim had a Snickers bar.
Jim broke the Snickers bar in two, put one piece in his mouth and handed the other to Clair.
“What’s the matter with you, Clair?” he asked. “You can’t really be that dumb.”
Jim’s implied question held a curiosity that seemed, around its edges, to give forth faint glimmerings of friendly interest. Clair pulled the clod of cold chocolate into his cheek and smiled. “I’m dumb,” he admitted, amused at the fact.
“You can’t be dumb and say those things you do,” Jim insisted.
“I’m dumb,” Clair said.
“That’s for sure,” Jim said, leaning now with one arm on the ties beside Clair’s head. Clair could see the lights and shadows of only half his face, and even that was lost in thought. “But sometimes you’re a fuckin’ genius.”
“Genius, pure genius,” Clair said, his dad had said, somewhere.
“You don’t SOUND like a dummy when you do that,” Jim said as though trying to convince someone.
“Are you my friend?” Clair asked.
“Now you sound like a dunce.”
“A dunce, a dog, and a hickory tree, the better you beat ’em, the better they be,” Clair sing-songed, as the big girl with the mean face had done on the beach at Rice Lake, he did not recall how long ago.
Jim laughed. “Where,” he said, “in the . . . hell do you get these things?” He slouched in perfect admiration. “I gotta take a whiz,” he said, turning to stand close against the wall of ties.
Clair joined him. “I have to go home,” he said, trying to keep his balance while he peed.
“Me too,” said Jim. “I’m cold.” A warning came into his voice. “Don’t you tell anybody we came out here or that I. . . . Can you remember not to tell?”
“Yes,” Clair said.
Jim ignored Clair after that, but the rough boys had no single face, nor any faces that Clair could look at and understand. On the last day before Easter, when Clair was walking toward the tall double doors of the school’s main entrance, his arms full of pictures he had drawn and was now taking home to show his parents, a passing boy rammed suddenly against him. The pictures spilled across the floor. The boy helped retrieve them while his two companions continued walking and then stopped at a distance, watching with ill-disguised enjoyment.
Clair picked up some of his papers and the boy picked up the rest, tucking them into the pile in Clair’s hands.
“Here,” he said, his face flustered with irritation and apology. “Sorry about that. Somebody pushed me.”
“Thanks,” Clair said. He held out his hand as Dad had taught him. “I’m Clair.”
The boy glanced at his companions, still grinning from down the hall, and turned reluctantly back to Clair. He shook Clair’s hand.
“I’m Paul,” he said.
“Hey Paul,” they called, snickering. “Who’s your buddy?”
“Don’t mind them,” Paul said confidingly as he moved away. “They’re idiots.”
After Easter, a girl turned from talking to a friend as she rounded the corner of the hall that led to the bathroom, and looked right into Clair’s face as they collided. Startled, she jumped back and screamed like the women in the movies, as though a monster had attacked her, much to the delight of the throng around them. But Clair looked at the faces a second time and saw that only some were laughing, while others met his eyes with embarrassment and regret.
Clair watched more closely as the days lost their chill, and he began to think that many in the junior high school bore more resemblance to grownups than to children. Sometimes boys and girls held each other the way Mom and Dad did. The girl who had screamed said hello to him in the hall one day, with no trace of mockery. The sea of faces began to resolve itself into separate entities, into characters, and he began listening to and absorbing their distinct voices. He saw that some of them, like himself, did not move with a group. Once he saw a fight, and once he saw a girl, in tears, shove a boy and say things about him and another girl.
Clair tried to explain all this to Mom and Dad, but they seemed unable to see exactly what he was getting at. It did seem to please them, however.
“Making friends is one of the most important things a person learns to do in life,” Mom told him hopefully. “Show them your sunny side.”
After that all was confusion, in Clair’s mind, until summer. Grandma died in May. Clair knew that things died and people died, yet she was still alive with the immediacy of a thousand voices in his head. When Mom and Dad took him to the funeral, he looked at her face in the coffin, asleep without relaxation, and heard the myriad voices babbling and whispering like the woods at Rice Lake, Grandma rising, demon meridianum in the unbalanced light of a Sunday afternoon.
One day, a boy in the cafeteria stuck out his foot and Clair tripped. He fell hard on his tray and the fork went into his left eye. Rolling on his side, and then on his back, he gasped for air that would not come, suffocating from the pain and groping around the fork at his eye. What his other eye saw through a curtain of tears did not, for the moment, make its way into his consciousness. But he would later remember his ankles being trampled and an upward vision of Jim driving someone down against the long table’s edge with his fists, his elbows flying up and jerking down in rapid turn like the mechanism of some runaway machine.
Trouble followed, trouble with parents and trouble with the school, which saw the end of its term without Clair. At home with a bandage the size of a softball covering the left side of his face, Clair heard Mom try to explain that when his eye healed, the rest of it would have to come out. A policeman came to visit, asking Clair hard questions that he did his best to answer. A man in a suit with a briefcase also came to talk with Clair, but he asked more questions of Mom and Dad. Another man in a suit came, but Dad wouldn’t let him in the back door, driving him away with angry shouts instead. Dad told Mom that “they” were going to “pay dearly,” and he didn’t care if “they” had to wind up eating sawdust and wearing gunny sacks.
It was a funny picture, Clair thought, the rough boys squatting with bare legs and arms sticking from their gunny sacks by the basement workbench, raising handfuls of sawdust from the pile on the floor, their open mouths already full of sawdust and straining wide, a desperation of atonement in their eyes.
But the picture felt right and good. Beyond the eye, Clair felt a larger wound that showed no sign of healing, a sense of irreparable loss. A wonderful balance and clarity, almost within his grasp when Grandma died, had been toppled and smeared.
Grandma had had that balance, knowing right and wrong with a certainty that dispelled all hesitation from her life. Clair remembered when Grandma had taken in hand a neighbor boy, a teenager whose dog had ruined her garden and who had sassed her back when she spoke to him. He towered above her; she had to reach up to grab him by the ear. But she held on, as feisty as a squirrel that Clair once cornered on the porch and tried to catch in his hands, a tiny thing of fur leaping at him with an impossible rasping screech that made him fall over backward in terror. Grandma had led the boy struggling and swearing up the street to his house, at the head of a parade of laughing neighborhood children.
Clair began riding his bicycle in the summer daytime. The road looked funny and far away, through only one eye, and he couldn’t see the trees as well, but it seemed of little consequence. When children jeered him now, it merely struck him as odd, a curious and foolish noise like the barking of dogs, and the cries of “Baby Huey” came less frequently as the world eased itself down into the warm bath of summer.
Only in the anonymity of darkness did the torment continue and worsen in a pattern of behavior ingrained and sanctioned by its own repetition. The rough boys pursued him with the increasing frequency of those who have warmed to a sport. Clair rode away at first with more irritation than fear. But almost nightly now, even ranging only a block or two from home, he would find himself hunted. Grandma’s voice murmured “demons” and turned the irritation to anger; “trash,” said her voice from the rustle of the leaves and the roar of the dam.
The dam was the only real destination of his daytime bicycle excursions. Several times a week, he took his fishing pole and tackle and rode more than a mile between the paper mills, over the long bridge, and down to the little park with the dam where he had fished with Dad. Here the sheet of water from Lake Winnebago, narrowed by the bay and funneled into the beginning of the Fox River, bent down suddenly across the smooth arc of the concrete spillway and dove below the boil of white water at the bottom of the dam. It rolled out through the depths and filled the river with drifting eddies and upwellings, as it surged against the paper mill that Menasha Woodenware Corporation had built out into the river. Most of it flowed out and turned downstream, but the rest washed back along the seawall, to the dam and down again.
Clair spent the long June afternoons fishing in the great, slow whirlpool: with heavy sinkers to carry his worms to the bottom for catfish, rock bass, and the huge carp that fought like big-shouldered dogs lunging against the leash; with lures for the fast fish that swam above the bottom, striped bass and sunfish, perch and crappie. He absorbed the manners and conversations of the men who came with their hip waders and buckets of minnows, smoked pipes, drank beer, listened to radios, and asked him, “Catchin’ anything?” He watched the boys climbing out on crossbars among the pilings of the mill to reach places where they believed the white bass passed by. He saw a seagull one day, inadvertently caught by a fisherman’s hook. The fisherman pulled the bird to shore in hopes of freeing it, but it flapped away from him and flew up into the trees where the line tangled in its wings, making it hang upside down, the branches bobbing with its weight as it thrashed. No one could get it down, and the fisherman cut his line.
Men and boys, to dispel their boredom when the fishing was slow, would climb on the concrete wall above the spillway, cast large treble hooks of stainless steel out along the base of the dam and pull them back through the foam with great jerks, snagging the heavy suckers that thronged there to feed on the spillway’s streaming green mane of moss.
Trash fish, they called suckers, but easy to get on the hook, and here at least was a fight with a fish. The chest-high chemical storage drums that now, painted orange, served as garbage cans along the seawall, were filled with suckers like the holds of a commercial fishing vessel, often with one or two of the fish on top still flipping. Clair saw Jim snagging suckers one day when he rode up.
“I’ve seen you down here,” Jim said.
Clair’s hand went up to scratch an itch but was stopped by the bandage. He was watching Jim’s line. It had tensed. Jim pulled the rod up and reeled quickly. A sucker flopped above the white water and disappeared again, then rose on Jim’s line nearer the wall below them. Jim pulled it up.
“My dad says the police will arrest you if you fish like that,” Clair said.
Jim shook his head. “Supposedly, they can fine you,” he said. “But everybody does it. Every trash fish you pull out is one less in the water. They’re not native, they don’t belong here. They ruin the water for the game fish — just like some people,” he added. The sucker thrashed horribly as he tore the hook from its belly with his pliers. He threw the fish into the garbage drum, where it banged three times on the metal sides and then lay still except for the working of its gills.
“That’s just the way they are,” Jim said. He was watching Clair with concern. He asked about the eye and grimaced when Clair told him it had to come out. “The kid who did that is in deep shit,” he told Clair, “but it’s not deep enough to suit me. I’m real sorry that happened.”
“Thanks,” said Clair. He did not even know who it was that had tripped him. He could remember only the generic face of the rough boys.
“The kids that tripped you were some real scum,” Jim said.
“Demons,” said Clair.
Jim laughed. “Trash fish,” he said.
That came back to Clair when the rough boys chased him again on a night ride, and he looked up at the moonlit clouds through the gauze of young leaves rushing across them, whispering in Grandma’s voice, “trash.” He turned his head and shouted back at them, something he had never done before, “Trash fish!”
They came after him with renewed energy, closing the distance until he bounced up his own driveway and escaped around the back of the house. They circled in the street, calling for “Baby Huey,” challenging him to come out. Clair leaned his bicycle against the wall of the garage and ran to the back door, pausing to yell again, “Trash fish!” before he went inside. He heard their derisive replies and his father bellowing out the front door, “What the hell is this? Get out of here!”
The next morning, his bicycle was gone. A neighbor brought it back from where he’d found it up the block. The spokes had been stomped out of the wheels and the fenders torn off. The frame was bent, a total loss. The bicycle Dad bought to replace it could not fill the void that Clair now felt, and the operation, just after the Fourth of July, that left him with an even larger bandage on his eye, made the emptiness grow deeper. Grandma’s voices grew in consequence and, when he took the new bicycle out for the first time at night, he answered her and made her speak in reply. “Gnarled,” she said. “Isn’t that a lovely word?”
“They won’t leave me alone,” Clair said, an unfamiliar sharpness in the tone of his clumsy speech.
Grandma spoke again to the neighbor boy whom she had taken prisoner by the ear. “Do you think you can mock me and just walk away grinning? I’ll make you think twice, by God.”
Clair’s mind was a ferment of forks and bandages, broken bicycles and demons in multitude, relentless and implacable, surrounding him and closing upon him. In the midst of it, the peaceful expanse of the park by the dam spread like a radiance around the vision of a seagull, tangled and thrashing among branches.
Clair’s bicycle turned and he raced for home, churning the pedals madly in the heat of a great inspiration. Kneeling on the basement’s rough concrete floor, he pulled clear nylon line from his fishing reel, hand over hand in his eagerness, onto the floor where it convulsed into a tangle of curls. He extracted an arm’s length of line and cut it, pulled out another arm’s length and cut it, repeating the process again and again. He tied on treble hooks until there were no more, and then stuck the hooks on a piece of cardboard. With his free hand, he lifted the high stool from in front of Dad’s workbench and carried his load quietly up the stairs. He paused in the back entry and listened long enough to hear Mom and Dad laughing at the loud television, then crept outside, easing the screen door shut behind him.
The Pashaws’ ancient elm cast its clustering branches out over the intersecting sidewalks of Lisbon and Pacific streets. Beneath them, the corner of the lawn was thin and yellow with a band of earth worn nearly bare by the tires of shortcutting bicycles and the feet of lazy pedestrians. Yellow fluid oozed down from the first bifurcation of the elm tree’s trunk, hardened and sticky along its side, the running sore of Dutch elm disease in its early stages. But the leaves of the ancient tree had never been thicker. They formed over the ruined grass a dark alcove that seemed even darker in contrast with the intersection lit by a streetlamp.
Clair climbed on the stool beneath these branches that the streetlight could not penetrate and tied the free end of each invisible fishing line to whatever he could reach above his head. He froze as a car passed, and when it was gone, resumed his work until the alcove hung with treble hooks, shiny in sunlight, unseen in the darkness, gently, slightly swinging. He climbed down, put his hand out before him and felt a sting, raised it and pulled it delicately away. Then he went out on his bicycle and brought back the demons.
They strung out behind him, streaming around the corner like professional bicycle racers as he led them into Lisbon Street, then bunching into a silent pack. When he looked back, Clair saw a straggler shoot around the corner behind them, heard him railing after him with some unintelligible demand. Clair slowed and they closed as he finished the block, bounded up Grandma’s driveway onto the sidewalk, skirted the shadows of the Pashaw elm, turned back onto the lawn behind it, and rattled around the back of the house. He laid the bike down and peered back the way he had come.
The pack too had gone wide around the elm, bouncing and clanging down the curb onto Pacific Street and sweeping by. Another bicycle’s rattling fenders pulled Clair’s attention back to the front of the house just as the straggler shot into view, a black silhouette passing beneath the elm and shouting something that stopped suddenly as he went backward off the seat. He sank, and the branches above him hissed and bowed low. He rolled to the side and came to his feet, legs collapsing and thrusting up again, silhouette hands open and groping in the air, grappling at silhouette head and chest, as the tree made a noise like a thicket full of wounded sparrows fluttering and crying.
Clair ran his bicycle around the other side of the house and took to the street. He pedaled directly away from the corner of Lisbon and Pacific, the house and the elm and the thing that was thrashing in its branches and making the unhuman sounds. Over his shoulder he could see rough boys running to the tree with frantic shouts and others peddling up the street behind him.
Before he turned the first corner, he heard his mother screaming far away and, closer, the baying of the pack. Then the windless night had no sounds except for the rapid blowing of his own breath, the soft grinding of pedals and chain, and the whir of rubber tread on blacktop. Then he heard them again, and their voices flitted behind him through the shadowed streets, down a broad and brilliant thoroughfare, over the long bridge and down to the dam.
They caught up to him there, throwing their bicycles down and pinioning him in their many hands. Jim was suddenly among them, trying to pull them away and shouting, “Knock it off! Leave him alone!” They turned on Jim with a fury that sent him sprawling across the gravel at the top of the high concrete wall.
Clair reeled against their force as they wrestled him to the brink and threw him down onto the spillway. He struck it with a loud crack and pain that stunned him like an electrical shock and drove the air from his lungs. The racing water burst cold against him and hurled him down through the white water and into the depths. The current scraped him across the bottom, lifted him, pulled him back to the spillway and plunged him down, pulled him up and plunged him again, and then he was rolling. In the faint light that came and went, bubbles roiled across his open eyes with a transient vision of Jim diving from the wall, calling his name, then disappearing. Clair realized vaguely that he was going to die. “Interesting, eh?” he said with a secret smile, though his tongue was numb and his lips moved only slightly around the water that filled his open mouth.
At the funeral, Clair’s bier stood where Grandma’s had been, at the head of Riverside Congregational’s center aisle just below the blue velvet stairs that led up to the altar, pulpit, and choir benches. But this time, the pews of the church were full, and people were standing in the back. Clair’s Aunt Carol, Uncle Claude’s wife, was seated with Mom and Dad, as were Aunt Kathy and Uncle Gus and all the cousins. Clair’s special ed teacher, Bill Grese, sat in the third row with his wife. All the neighbors from Lisbon Street and Pacific Street had come, and so had many others Clair could not remember. Among the sea of solemn and anguished faces could be seen many of the rough boys and their parents. Jim appeared above the casket, looking down, his face unreadable, then took a seat far to the side as Reverend Hanson eulogized Clair in almost the same words he had used for Grandma.
“Harriet Pashaw came among us with special gifts of her own,” he had intoned. “She brought a brightness to those of us who knew her in the church, through her good cheer and strong feelings of fellowship as she worshipped and celebrated with us, as she taught two generations of Sunday school classes, worked shoulder to shoulder with us in the kitchen and cafeteria for the Martha’s Market bake sales she so loved on Saturday mornings.”
“Not only was Clair a beloved and familiar figure at Martha’s Market, where he would come with his grandmother, our late friend Harriet Pashaw,” Reverend Hanson continued, “he was enthusiastic in the sharing of every charity effort, educational program, and other church activity that offered itself, happy to make what contributions he could, because he so enjoyed the fellowship of others.”
Reverend Hanson seemed to Jim to be imitating himself, or perhaps farther back, someone else from whom he had learned his ways of thinking. Jim imagined how Clair would absorb the reverend, his contemplative posture with arms straight and angling down before him, hands locked on the sides of the pulpit’s lectern, moving his body suddenly with the introduction of each new passionately felt idea; how Clair, after witnessing the reverend at Grandma Pashaw’s funeral, might be up there even now, his hands on the lectern, the reverend’s voice coming from his mouth in deliverance of this very sermon.
Clair’s Aunt Kathy alternately daubed her eyes with a pink tissue, sniffled, and raised her face with the same saintly forbearance she had shown at Grandma’s funeral. Uncle Gus sat as before like an impassive buddha, his fat neck bulging and florid at the tight collar of his suit, and their little son Lowell seemed transfixed once again by the early afternoon sunlight streaming in the Biblical scenes of stained-glass that filled the tall, arched windows.
Afterward, when the people filed past Clair’s casket for the final viewing and moved slowly along the line of Clair’s family, the words were the echoes of countless other funerals, old in formula, new only in permutation, applied like interchangeable parts to the template of somber faces and keening organ pipes. Even the conversations among those awaiting, among the pews and aisles, their turn at condolence, and loitering in the vestibule outside, fell upon Jim’s ears as from a repertoire of voices less elegant than Clair’s.
“It’s terrible, isn’t it? He was such a nice kid.”
“You up for some golf next Saturday?”
“You ever hear him do imitations? Pretty amazing.”
“Long time no see.”
“Workin’ hard or hardly workin’?”
Clair was no different from anyone else, it occurred to Jim, except that their voices were so agile and so many that they ran together in an illusory surface of confidence and control. Only if one listened closely could one hear the occasional gap. Only then could one see the pale pseudopod of confusion extend from the chaos that lay beneath, Clair rising, demon meridianum on a Sunday afternoon.
Such, at least, was the story that constructed itself in Clair’s mind during the long years after he was sent away to the white hospital on the rolling patchwork hills. It came to him not in the analytical language of words but in blurred imaginings and small fragments of understanding that time sharpened with detail into memories of appalling clarity, and he lost track of where reality left off and fiction began. He fled to the dam. Jim tried to save him. He died, and there was weeping at his funeral, where Jim thought wise, good things about Clair, as Clair knew he would.
The story formed itself like a protective pearl around the rage of the rough boys, the despair and anguish of his parents, the red and blue flashes of squad car lights, and the ambulance attendants at work beneath the Pashaw elm — around what Clair might otherwise have remembered of the noise the straggler was making as he rode into the fishhooks.
“Knock it off! Leave him alo . . . !” the straggler was shouting when the unseen talons jerked him back, and Clair watched with buckling knees, and Mom screamed from the front porch as Jim writhed beneath the thrashing branches with feeble, birdlike cries.