A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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Chapter One Of A Novel-In-Progress
Theophilus Neutron was a generational transvestite. That is, he was capable of slipping from one peer mode into another with all the deceptive ease of a West Villager trading jockey shorts for lace panties. As near as he could tell, this behavioral quirk began twittering at exactly the same moment as he did — he was conceived at the precise moment the bomb landed on Hiroshima. Though few physical conclusions can be derived from that fact, it was, as Theophilus said about everything that happened to him, a remarkable coincidence; for moments after the bombay fingers opened and the cargo parachuted lazily earthward, an electron-size gap was split open between the generation of the War Babies and the generation of the Post War Boom Babies, and Theophilus Neutron was condemned to a lifetime of confusion in the middle. He was half the product of the despair of war and half the product of the hope for peace — yet it was his War Baby side that hoped and his Boom Baby side that despaired. The residual generics of the terms War Baby/Boom Baby labelled him into a lifelong condition of infancy (known in more sophisticated jargon as innocent, idealistic and naive) while the transitional war boom (reverberations from the bomb) jolted him out of so many historical wombs he felt like a metaphysical vagabond. Half of him viewed social revolutions as events that transpired leisurely over eras, centuries and decades, while the other half watched society revolve at rates relative only to each other and the speed of light. And he never could figure out whether it was man or God that rolled an oversized marble into Sisyphus’s life cycle.
Theophilus’s first home was in a village of temporary structures that had sprouted up instantly in what had been a meadowland. The village was erected to meet a sudden need for places to house veterans returning from World War II and so it was called “The Veteran’s Village.” Years later, he often reflected on this phenomenon while trying to put himself to sleep at night. He wondered where all those veterans had lived before the war and what had happened to all the places vacated by the dead. The only hard information he had to work with was that once there had been one world which got together and fought a war and then after the war was over they began building another world. Something, he concluded, must have been destroyed. But he could never figure out who “they” were, just like in the Sisyphus problem. For the sake of sleep, he finally narrowed “them” down to two possibilities: either the ghosts of a past he could partially see, because the walls hadn’t been nailed to the framework of the present yet, or the pilots guiding the earth rocket into a future no one seemed quite certain would ever take place because once they were nailed up, the walls would probably fall down.
When he reached walking age he was released into the wild wonderland of the twenty-foot square backyard. Though this territory was vast and new to him, he wasn’t the first to explore it. His older war baby sister had preceded him by an eternal two years and by the time he arrived the landscape had been thoroughly investigated. As a War Baby, his sister was much less secure of herself but infinitely more secure with her surroundings.
A railroad track ran along the rear of the house, just beyond a forbidden strip of jungle. To a three-year-old the jungle was vast and impenetrable, but Theophilus’s five-year-old sister had already discovered its ten-foot limits. Wanting to share her discovery, and bravado, she encouraged a safari to the train tracks. Theophilus didn’t exactly agree, but he went along. About halfway through the wilderness, a terrifying screaming screeching whistling thunder of rolling noise swept him up and washed him back to the safe shores of the house’s rear doorsteps. He vowed that he would never again directly confront the massive steel locomotive of time. At least not while it was moving.
He did, however, attempt a solo safari in another direction. He was found wandering through the bullrushes, near the river, in what was left of the meadows. When they discovered him, he was toddling tearfully through grass taller than he, either running away from the train or toward the river. He was crying because he was lost, or because the meadows were lost, or because he was found before he reached the river.
The family moved temporarily to a more permanent location during Theophilus’s fourth year. That’s when the nightmares began, although, typically enough, they weren’t really nightmares. They were more real than dreams. He actually saw things — right there in the dark, emitting their own light. He wasn’t asleep; he was fully awake, staring off into the black at a carnival array of phosphorescent images.
In the beginning the images took a variety of forms, starting with a crib full of fish. But by the time his father’s prosperity graduated him to a bed, one particular recurring image dominated the nightly side show. Every night, as soon as the lights went out, an enormous bear visited the foot of his bed and stood there with a frying pan poised over its head like an ax. Not just every so often, but every night — anytime his eyes peered across the border of darkness.
The images seemed like echoes from an oppositional world, one whose constant bacchanals became manifest only at night and only to those whose vision could filter their forms from the darkness in the same way shadows could be filtered from the daylight.
During one of these “visits” Theophilus experienced his first epiphany. (Later, they would flutter through his mind like swarming butterflies and get in the way of his homework.) The bear, as usual, had taken its position at the end of the bed but instead of, as usual, hiding under the covers, Theophilus turned and looked over the side of the bed. He was looking at the floor hoping he would find a plain old normal voided patch of pure darkness, but instead he found something even better. There, glimmering by his bedside, was a detailed miniature version of a glowing fantasy world more wonderful than even a child’s mind could have thought possible. It was centered by a castle that made Snow White’s flat seem like the Black Hole of Calcutta. It had an existence of its own that transcended substance, as if the curtains of time and space had been drawn back to reveal an incomprehensible world where the known was feared and the unknown welcomed with delight.
Theophilus was a precocious kid and he drew a remarkable conclusion from this incident. He decided that if looking into the darkness could evoke both bears with frying pans and wonderful fantasy worlds, then it was all a matter of the manner in which he went about looking that determined what would confront him. He was still scared of the dark so he limited his looking to moments of strong neurotic necessity, but the vision had been so powerful he never again seriously considered brick and mortar as being in any way, shape or form representational of reality.
At the age of six Theophilus moved to a new town that was still sort of old except for people like him and his family. They had built their house on a street where the other houses already were, and had been for some time. Behind the house was a woods and beyond the woods a meadowland. Soon after he moved in, the meadowland sprouted houses and was thereafter known as the “new” development. (One of Theophilus’s first lessons on the relative relationship between mass and time was when he discovered that people who arrived after the development was completed didn’t call it new at all, while those who had arrived before its construction would call it new as long as the houses remained standing.) So instead of flying kites in a country cow pasture, he spent his first grade off-hours waving flags from atop the two-by-four frame skeletons of arriving houses.
During the first week of school in this new town he was known as “the new kid.” The next week he passed the title on to someone else and, as the development filled, the title was subsequently passed on until, by the last day of school, nearly half the class had at one time been known during the year as “the new kid.” He and the other new kids eventually received a more collected and permanent identification, lumped together as a geographically ethnocentric race of beings from “the other side of the highway.” Small as the town was, it was divided by a highway that was as sociologically vast as an ocean. School was Theophilus’s first encounter with the “town” side of the highway and he soon discovered that being from the “other side” might as well have meant he was a visitor from another planet. The side of the highway he wasn’t from was indeed a different place — a rooted, established small town culture to whom he was a foreigner who had been extended a visa solely for the purpose of attending school. From the town side, the sleepy little hamlet had watched, in order, the coming of the highway, the going of the war and coming of the baby boom. To the parents of the children who lived on the town side of the highway, Theophilus represented a vague asset known as progress but a very tangible liability called higher school taxes.
The noise of construction underlined his education to the point where saws and hammers and bulldozers were as much a background to his thought processes as the lapping of waves to a sailor. In kindergarten, he couldn’t sleep at nap time because a new addition was being built on the school. In fifth grade, his classroom was in the library while another new addition went up. In his junior year in high school, he shared half-day sessions at the brand new junior high because the high school itself was undergoing construction of a massive new addition. He spent his first two years of college crammed three to a closet in the old dorms while the new ones were being readied for check-in.
Of course schools, and houses, and taxes weren’t all that were going up. First a cop, then a traffic light, then an overpass were installed to shuffle children from the other side of the highway to school. The farms along the highway became shopping centers and TV entered to help make the people in the houses want the things the shopping centers sold. A farm was always something you would have seen “if you’d only been here yesterday” and a shopping center was something that would be “serving you tomorrow.” TV strained to be radio with pictures and Theophilus’s early entertainment inputs covered a full multi media spectrum. On Saturdays he woke up to Big John and Little Sparky’s teddy bear radio picnic, ate lunch with TV’s Crusader Rabbit, spent the afternoon at the movies Hopalonging through the old west, gathered at his grandparents at night to remember mama and then went home to bed with Robert Louis Stevenson.
A new system of ethics had to be constructed too, to go along with the new children, and houses, and schools and traffic lights. But suburban ethics were something of a problem. Previously, ethics had evolved out of the needs of the environment — organic space in the country and concrete goals in the city. But, environmentally speaking, suburbia was not collectively focused. It was neither a homogeneous nor heterogeneous society, but, rather, a homogenized society. It molded its ethics out of the only communally available material its environment provided: plastic.
One day, people started talking a lot about atom bombs and how the whole pin ball would be reduced to a radioactive isotope when the flip-out button was pushed. They said it would be the fault of the people on the other side of the Atlantic highway. Theophilus’s earliest impressions of the bomb came in vague flashes — visions of titanic earth-eating mushrooms — usually appearing from across a body of water or desert, followed by a feeling that Theophilus imagined to be much like the way he’d felt when the ether had been stuffed in his face just prior to his tonsils dismembered. The verbal associations always seemed to be represented by words like “Babylon” or simply “end” along with related phrases like “air raid,” “in case of atomic attack” or “this has only been a test, were this the actual destruction of the earth you would have been instructed to switch to another channel.” Of course, everything was preceded by the most terrifying sound of all — the air raid scream — and followed by something even more terrifying than that: silence. He was always told you wouldn’t hear the bomb. Silence is a very eerie way for something as explosive as a bomb to arrive.
As a schoolchild, however, Theophilus had the benefit of bomb survival training. The procedure went something like this: as soon as you heard that there was a bomb coming, you were supposed to walk out into the hallway of the school (if not in school, any handy windowless basement would do), sit with your back against the wall and stick your head between your knees. Then you had to maintain absolute silence. If you talked the spell would be broken and the bomb would somehow find its way into your hall. Anyone who talked would be blamed for the death of the entire school. You were supposed to wait, silently, for further instructions.
The siren signalling the drill electrified Theophilus’s nerves, and those long silent moments, sitting in the hall with his head between his knees waiting for instructions to begin living again, seemed like a trip to limbo. If it had been a bomb, who would be around to give further instructions? Though it proved to be good yoga training, the whole process struck Theophilus as being superstitious and primitive, though not nearly as aesthetically attractive as dancing in circles and chanting ohhmms. It was as if the Civil Defense priests were totally lacking in mystical powers, to say nothing of imagination, yet you were forced to trust them with your death. The net effect was a hallway full of terrified kids sitting with their heads between their knees, staring at their own lost asses and meditating on the meaning of a world that was willing to blow the whole new addition clear out of orbit just because someone couldn’t keep his finger off the button.
But these were the days before an individual bomb had been manufactured for every man, woman, child and goldfish on earth, so selected survival did seem possible. Suburbia, as usual, offered a sort of compromise survival. While the city faced instant destruction and country folks had a chance at complete safety, suburbia had fallout to contend with. The answer, therefore, for anyone who could afford it, was to build a bomb shelter. Bomb shelter building became a business boom and owning one a status symbol. Economy, Large and Family Size models went on display at all the shopping centers.
The War Babies seemed to cling to the idea that the bomb could be prevented. The Boom Babies said it was inevitable, if not the bomb then something else, and began thinking an awful lot in the present tense. Theophilus wondered why anyone would want to build a shelter for bombs and began looking for an escape route. Throughout his life, the back of his mind was always occupied with learning and memorizing his escape route.
Theophilus lived half in a world that was being torn down and half in one that was being built, his own life forming an intersection between the processes. His War Baby sister grew up in a small town. She had been there yesterday and seen the farms. His younger Boom Baby brother grew up in a suburban sprawl and was served by tomorrow’s shopping centers. His sister came to feel that the suburban sprawl was a way of building a better life for everyone and his brother said it was dehumanizing and disclaimed responsibility. Theophilus got a good grasp of paradox and made up his own world.