Nonfiction by Daniel Mueller
I. Built into every home was an incinerator. Ours was outside at the back of the house, flush with the bricks, a toaster-sized cast-iron compartment into which I stuffed The Greeley Tribune, old issues of Look and Time, grocery bags, cardboard, and mail, and set it all ablaze with a kitchen match. While I was expected to help my mother load the dishwasher after supper, make my bed every morning, and pick up after myself when I played, incinerating the paper trash was the one chore that never seemed onerous.
Throughout the week tender collected in the breezeway, and on Saturday mornings as my parents slept, after Jonny Quest and Aquaman, I carried it onto the back porch and stacked it on the cement under the cast-iron door, on which was molded in raised lettering:
DETROIT NEW YORK
The inside was thick with soot, and as I filled it with wadded pages, struck the tip of a match against the strip of flint and transferred the flame to a corner of crumpled newsprint, I was careful not to touch the top or sides. A dab of blackness on a fingertip could mean later being told I’d ruined a couch or chair as my mother scrubbed the upholstery with a sponge.
Once started, the fire consumed all that I fed it, at the darting pinnacle of each blue-orange petal a tendril of smoke that coiled with the others into a rope God pulled hand over hand up the flue. These were the souls He’d spared from eternal torment, in the oven, misshapen and buckling, the ones He hadn’t, and as bits of ash floated around me, I thought of them as angels come to spectate, the drama unfolding in my recessed stage so captivating not even God’s minions could turn from it.
When I was through, my father paid me my weekly allowance, usually two quarters but sometimes an Eisenhower fifty-cent piece that I squeezed between my eyebrow and cheek and wore like Colonel Klink’s monocle, thinking myself a comedian.
On Saturdays, I walked with my next-door neighbor David Ratcliff the three blocks to Rexall Drug, where in the toy aisle were novelties we coveted, most priced beyond our means. Oak-handled bullwhips. Model funny cars. Trick playing cards. Silly Putty. But once, rather than blowing our money on comic books and candy as we usually did, we saved our earnings and pooled them together, and at the end of two pay periods we bought a slingshot.
The frame cut in China from substandard plywood, sturdy rubber bands stapled to the prongs, it wasn’t the highest quality slingshot, but as David and I took turns firing stones at targets near and far in the vacant lots across from our houses, we were impressed by its range if not its accuracy. We missed everything at which we aimed except the ground and sky, and we shot at the latter just to marvel at how high and long a stone would soar. Our terrible marksmanship notwithstanding, we understood we possessed a lethal weapon and, by extension, the power to kill, and were careful not to point the slingshot at each other or fire a stone straight up.
When his mother rang the dinner bell, we flipped a coin to see which of us would keep the slingshot overnight. “Heads I win, tails you lose,” David said, a joke that always made us laugh. As the nickel flipped through the air, I called tails and won.
That night I slept with the slingshot under my pillow, a cat’s eye marble clutched in my fist, imagining my left arm straight and level with my shoulder, my ammo pulled back to my ear, and between the uprights the guilty expression of the burglar I was certain would come for my mother’s jewelry, my father’s fly rod, our television set and stereo now that I had the means to apprehend him and bring him to justice. The next morning I dressed in my church clothes and checked to see whether anything had been taken from our sleeping house. Nothing had, and I crept outside through the front door.
On our front stoop, I trained the slingshot at the Fourteenth Street and Seventeenth Avenue street signs that marked our corner lot, pulled back the bands, and watched my cat’s eye marble deflect off a fire hydrant, arc over a teal Chevelle parked crookedly in a neighbor’s driveway, and land in the vacant lots in a wisp of dust. I recovered it in the dirt before the opening to one of many tunnels that led to underground caverns my parents forbade me from entering, afraid earth would collapse around me and bury me alive. Though I burrowed into them regularly without their knowledge, if I did so in my church clothes there’d be hell to pay. So I shot at bags caught in bushes, hearts carved into the trunks of trees, an old refrigerator lying on its back, the door removed so no kids would climb into it and make it their coffin. When no shot hit its mark, I tried to compensate for the weapon’s inaccuracy by firing above and below my targets, to the left and right of them, but there was no accounting for its poor performance. If I fired left, the projectile went right or even farther left. If I fired up, it went down or even farther up.
My marble eventually lost, steam no doubt rising from the silver dollar pancakes my mother prepared for our breakfast before church on Sundays, I started back to the house and was nearly home when, on a lower branch of the big oak I could see from our picture window, a robin sang, its breast puffed. I picked up a stone, placed it in the pouch, pulled back the bands as I’d imagined doing the night before in an act of heroism. When the bird filled the V that rose from my clenched fist, I relaxed my thumb and forefinger and launched the stone into its head. In a flutter of wings it dropped from the tree, and I stood over it disbelieving as blood leaked from its beak into the dirt.
From then on I no longer thought of myself as one of the souls God saved from the flames but one of those He left to burn.
II. The first time it happened was in the parking lot of Cattleman’s Steakhouse on the outskirts of town. We’d gone there to celebrate my fifth birthday, and after supper on the way back to our car, a peppermint candy I’d pilfered from the bowl beside the cash register slithered off the root of my tongue and caught in my throat. I don’t remember gagging or otherwise expressing alarm. Before I could do either, I was hung upside down by my ankles, the covered wagon outside the restaurant jerking up and down as the lozenge dropped from my pharynx onto the roof of my mouth. I flicked it with my tongue and heard it clack on the asphalt.
My father, a doctor, set me down beside the red- and white-striped pinwheel. The size of a nickel and speckled with dirt, it glistened with saliva like something coughed up by the sea.
My mother knelt beside me and put her palm to my forehead. “He started to gag,” my father explained. “What did you expect me to do, Linda?”
“Are you all right?” she asked me.
“I’m fine,” I said, stood up and brushed myself off. “See? Good as new.”
She wrapped her arms around my father and kissed his cheek, and I was pleased to have given him the opportunity to perform an act of valor, but in the car on our way home, he said, “It’s a good thing the candy came out. If it hadn’t, I would’ve had to give you an emergency tracheotomy right there in the parking lot.”
These were the days of hard candies lodging in my windpipe regularly. My favorite was butterscotch, but not one to turn down sugar in any form I choked on grape, cinnamon, strawberry, cherry. Candy jars, made of china or tinted glass, could be found in most living rooms, usually on an end table or coffee table, and when you lifted the lid as you might a bough from a robin’s nest, the hard candies in their metallic wrappers—honey yellow, imperial blue, royal purple—glimmered in the daylight that filtered through drapes and blinds onto drab friezes and abrasive bouclés.
“What’s a tracheotomy?” I asked.
In the rearview mirror I met my father’s eyes, the lenses of his glasses reflecting the numbers of the lit speedometer. In the twilight, the northern Colorado sky was smeared with paint, and even the cattle in their feedlots were infused with indigo, pink, red. “Put your fingers to your throat and find the soft spot where your neck joins your chest. It’ll be just above where your clavicles come together.”
“Jim,” my mother cautioned.
“It’s OK, Linda,” he said. “Did you find it?”
“That’s your trachea, also known as your windpipe. If the candy hadn’t dislodged, I would’ve had to force the casing of a ballpoint pen into your neck at that very spot.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because otherwise you’d suffocate. The candy was obstructing the flow of air to your lungs, and if it hadn’t dislodged, I would’ve had to create an alternate duct.”
At home the next day I unscrewed the upper and lower halves of a ballpoint pen and, peering through the cylinder that tapered to a hole, imagined seeing the hidden world that lay beneath the skin, the trachea that led downward to the lungs, expanding and contracting within a cage of ribs that expanded and contracted to accommodate them, and upward to the larynx, out of which my voice came whenever I spoke, sang, hummed, yelled, cried, or laughed. While I didn’t want one in my trachea, I liked looking through it. Whatever appeared in the opening—the dial of the television set on which my parents and I watched The Ed Sullivan Show, our TV dinners before us on TV trays, or the new robin in the oak that shaded the vacant lots where tunnels, dug into the hard clay by kids who’d come before us, led to caverns into which a kid could snake and vanish from sight—seemed more mysterious when isolated from the things around it.
If ABC, CBS, and NBC each had its own channel, what were the other numbers on the dial for? And if a robin choked on a seed, did it know how to save itself?
III. The Ratcliffs were Mormons, and the day before David Ratcliff’s older brother, Ken, left on a two-year mission to Stockholm, Sweden, his parents threw a backyard potluck. While Mr. Ratcliff barbecued chicken on a grill, four card tables draped with red-checkered tablecloths became bamboo cages into which David and I retreated with our plates heaped high. Above us lay the buffet, and as neighbors helped themselves to three types of potato salad, three types of bean salad, three types of Jell-O salad, and a platter of charred breasts, thighs, wings, and drumsticks, we pretended they were our captors and we POWs like the ones in the Fightin’ Army comic books we hid beneath our mattresses lest our mothers discover reading material they thought “picayune” and “beneath” us. More than once they’d marched us each to the incinerator and made us look on as pages of splendid gore erupted into flames turned jungle green, river blue, desert brown by the ink.
In the gap between tablecloth and grass, the enemy had slipped us rations meant to keep us alive and susceptible to the tortures they had in store for us: firecrackers, taped to our fingers, lit one by one until we “talked,” fishhooks lancing our genitals tugged until we confessed our unit’s coordinates, chopsticks inserted ever deeper into our rectums until we divulged state secrets, our imaginations limitless when devising our own agonies. Not David’s teenage sister, Janice, in her Monkees flip-flops, not my mother’s coral Mary Janes nor my father’s suede cowboy boots could dissuade us from the delusion of our captivity.
“If we can just hold on until nightfall, we’ll be free,” David said and sank his teeth into an ear of corn. “Look, I’ve cut through my shackles.”
“So have I,” I said and raised my wrists and ankles.
“Once everyone’s asleep, we’ll SNAP these prison bars LIKE TWIGS!”
Only plump Mrs. Cosgrove and her wide feet squeezed into mauve slippers embroidered with mustard blossoms interrupted our drama. It wasn’t that we didn’t like her. We did, especially the butterscotch hard candies she kept in a milk glass urn and offered to us whenever she invited us to sit with her in her living room. It was her grandson Jerry who mortified us, and if she was ladling creamed spinach onto a paper plate from the enamel porringer above us, he wasn’t far away. We glanced over our shoulders, and our suspicions were confirmed by his black Keds on the grass behind us, the eyelets free of lacing and tongues akimbo.
“Where are David and Dan?” he asked his grandmother.
“Oh, I’m pretty sure they’re here somewhere,” she replied. To Mrs. Cosgrove Jerry had been entrusted by the State of Colorado for reasons he refused to disclose, though he loved telling us how much better life was “up north” in Cheyenne where his dad worked in the oilfields or “out east” in Brush where his mom waitressed at a truck stop. Only a year older than David and me, Jerry was a third taller than either of us, with sinewy arms and legs that could outperform our undeveloped ones whether we were playing ball or wrestling on the lawn. No matter the contest, he always won, and while our pride suffered, those injuries were nothing compared to the smarting palms left by his fastballs, the stinging nipples left by his spirals, the grass-stained abrasions left by his guillotine chokes and Indian deathlocks.
“We’re not getting out of here anytime soon,” David whispered, invisible bindings marrying his wrists and ankles anew. It was summer solstice, the longest day of the year, and unless we wanted Jerry to remind us of the difference between our scrawny bodies and the rippling ones of PFC Tony Ardino and Lieutenant John Clay, whose muscles bulged from their tattered battledress, we might have to remain in hiding for hours.
I lay on my side. “Guess I’ll get some shuteye,” I said and farted.
“Uh-oh,” David said. “Nerve gas.”
On the grass not twenty feet away, my three-year-old sister, Karen, sat with her back to us. Before her sat Jerry, kneecaps glistening on either side of her, her head a blond ball of twine on which his catlike eyes were fixed. He gnawed on a drumstick, a smile drawing to his cheeks his tear-shaped dimples. “Hand me the binocs, Ardino!” I said, and David passed me the pop-up opera glasses with which his mother identified migrating birds. The collapsible binoculars were the size of a cigarette case, but when a button was pressed on the top of them, lenses sprang up between the panels, and what you held was a lopsided sandwich of vinyl, chrome, and glass. Should Jerry turn on my sister, as he did on us, I would come to her aid.
I put the glasses to my eyes, and Jerry’s wide brow, across which brown bangs hung like matchsticks, his mirthful grin, and his broad, laughing shoulders filled my vision. Though I couldn’t see my sister’s face, from her fluttering elbows I could tell that she was feeding it, and no more afraid of Jerry than she was of me. That’s when I saw the tick, a beige, crescent-shaped garlic clove attached to her right earlobe. Jerry saw it, too, and once his expression had changed from bemusement to curiosity to alarm, he screamed, “Dr. Mueller! Dr. Mueller! Come quick! A giant tick’s got Karen!”
Adults gathered around them, reminding each other of the Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever epidemic we were in. Curling over her like the caring older brother I wasn’t, Jerry gently displayed on the pads of his fingertips my sister’s earlobe and the engorged parasite affixed to it.
“Nice work, Jerry,” my father said as he picked Karen up in his arms. He would drive her to the clinic where he worked and extract the tick himself, careful to remove the head from which a whole new body could sprout.
IV. If left in our house unattended, I might spend the time on my mother’s side of my parents’ closet, and between dresses that retained just a soupçon of the verbena she spritzed onto her wrists and neck swathe myself in fabrics I didn’t dare to remove from their hangers. Or sit before her vanity table, where, having pulled out a pearl-handled drawer, I would delight in necklaces bestrewn across black velvet. Or uncap a lipstick, turn the bottom, and wonder at a blossoming tulip.
No one had told me that what I was doing was wrong. I felt the horror of it in the pit of my stomach as I crept down the hallway to the master bedroom where the treasures were stored, listening for the grumbling of our Volkswagen squareback shutting off in the driveway and the slamming of car doors, my mother’s return from Piggly Wiggly or J. C. Penney. She’d holler at me to help her with her bags, and out I’d run, a smiling Johnny glad to be of service.
One day a dress of turquoise sequins slipped onto the floor, and too short to reach the hanger rod, I laid the garment on the bed, frustrated by my height and furious at my own carelessness. If I could not return the dress to its rightful place, how would I explain to my mother that it had fallen, for what had I been doing in my parents’ closet at all? Still, as I admired how sunlight through the blinds fell in bars across the sequins and the lit ones twinkled back as rose and daffodil, calm rationality overtook me. If my secret vice would be discovered anyway, why not, this once and never again, indulge it?
Soon my shorts, underpants, and t-shirt lay in a little pile at my feet as the hem of the dress yawned above me. I let it drop, and as it enveloped me I felt as if I were diving upward into a swimming pool, even the charmeuse lining water-like and refreshing. A sundress on my mother, falling to her upper thigh, on me was a formal gown. At her vanity table, I applied powder to my face, blush to my cheeks, black eyeliner above and below my lashes and white at the inner corners of my eyes, eye shadow, electric blue wings to match my irises, and to my lips a pale pink hue that I outlined in red pencil the way I’d watched my mother do her own. I slipped onto a wrist a silver charm bracelet from which dangled a wishing well, shamrock, heart, thimble, fish, and horseshoe. Around my neck I draped five strands of faux pearls and to my earlobes clipped gold-plated faux pearl daisies. Unrecognizable to myself in the chalkware mirror, I blew myself a kiss.
In the afternoon when my father returned with his partner, Dr. Cook, from fly-fishing the South Platte River between Cache Le Poudre and Big Thompson Creek, where Dr. Cook owned sixty acres of pasture, I was dancing in the living room to The King and I soundtrack and singing “Getting to Know You” with Deborah Kerr. Waders slung over his shoulder and wicker creel bounding from his hip, my father advanced up the walk toward the front stoop. I saw him through the storm door, but so immersed was I in the menagerie of exotically costumed children I’d traveled to Siam to teach, I’d forgotten I was even wearing my mother’s clothes, makeup, and jewelry or the trepidation with which I’d first put them on.
“Because of all,” I sang, “the beautiful and new, things I’m learning about you . . . da-a-ay by da-a-ay!”
My father entered the living room, his expression a knot of incomprehension, revulsion, and fear. But he balanced his fly rod on top of the television set, unloaded his waders and creel, and went back outside. “Don, something’s come up,” I heard him say.
“I hope nothing’s wrong, Jim.”
Through the storm door I watched him put his arm around Dr. Cook’s shoulders as he walked him back to the station wagon parked curbside. I turned off the record player and stood over three brook trout that, in my father’s haste, had spilled from the creel onto the carpet. Leaves and grass stuck to their speckled blue sides and blood-orange bellies, and the slender fillet knife with which he’d cleaned them lay sheathed among their tails and fins. Though my mother would not like finding fish on Saxony she vacuumed twice a week, I was afraid to touch them.
When my father came back inside, he squatted before the creel, and as he returned the trout to it, he said, “You aren’t a girl. You can’t—I can’t have you dressing like that.” When he looked up, we were eye to eye, and his cheeks were pinstriped. Though I was still the same old Dan he’d known since my birth, it felt as if I were looking at him through the wrong end of a telescope and he was far, far away, even as I smelled the fish on his hands and from the stain they’d left on the carpet. “Do you understand me?” he said.
“It’s a lot to take in for someone your age, I know. But I need you to be a man. I need you to be the man. Your mother has your little sister to look after. You’re going to have to help her, as I would if I were here.”
“But you are here,” I replied.
“I won’t be for long. In six weeks I report for basic training. We’re moving to Fort Hood, Texas. Your mother knows. We’ve been waiting for the right time to tell you.”
“But I like Greeley,” I said.
“I like Greeley, too,” he said. “Now let’s get you cleaned up before your mother and sister return.”
At my father’s command, I raised my arms, and with a whoosh! I was nude, the sundress in his hand as natural there as the chamois with which he wiped beads of water from our car’s finish. He ran a bath for me, scrubbed my face hard with a washcloth, and by the time my mother and sister returned, all evidence of my crime had been expunged.
Even the carpet stain was gone.
V. I didn’t know how to tell David Ratcliff that my family was moving out of state, and in the end I didn’t have to. My mother spoke to his mother, and his mother spoke to him, and the day the Mayflower men parked their van in front of our house, David and I crept through tunnels in the clay to our favorite cavern. “Don’t you just wish the earth would cave in around us and bury us alive?” he said.
To us the vacant lots were a dinosaur burial ground. Our backs rested against walls worn smooth by our visits, and dust hung suspended in two pillars of sunlight that fell from the eye sockets of a stegosaurus, holes that sometimes snagged our feet when we walked above ground. Below it, we were paleontologists surrounded by skeletons that lent architecture to the passageways through which we crawled and the rooms in which we hunkered.
“We’re friends for life, right?” I said. “No matter where we are or where we go, we are each other’s first friend, best friend, last friend. First, best, last, right?” I tried to get him to shake on it as we’d done many times before, but he only drew his knees to his forehead and shut his eyes. “Hey, what do you say we measure our dicks?” I said to cheer him up. For a while, pulling our penises to see how far they’d stretch had been his favorite pastime, but today he only cocked his head and said, “We didn’t bring a ruler.”
“Rulery foolery,” I said. “We can measure them against each other.” I scooted out from my shorts and underwear, felt the coolness of the earth against my buttocks and the air against my privates. “Come on,” I said, “there’s mine. Show me yours.”
He glanced at it with mild amusement. “What’s the point? Tomorrow you’ll be gone, and everything we did together will seem like a dream, a dream that was too good to be true, and in time even it will be forgotten.”
“Nothing will be forgotten,” I said. “And when we’re grown, we’ll buy side-by-side houses, just like we planned.”
“Remember,” he said, “when I saved your life? When you choked on a lemon drop and I slapped your back until it popped onto the lawn?”
“I’ll never forget that.”
“Or when Mrs. Cosgrove sent Jerry after us for scaring her half to death with window rattlers?”
“And we hid from him in this very cavern?”
“And the moon filled it with silvery light?”
“I won’t forget that either.”
“You might not right away. But in six weeks? Two years? Ten years?”
A turkey vulture, its head a drop of blood pricked from the sky, coursed from one eye socket to the other.
“Think of how many times we shook hands on promises. Too many times to count. Which means they’ve all merged into a single handshake, and the actual ones that meant so much to us at the time have already been forgotten. If we can’t even remember those, how will we remember anything once we’re separated by all the miles and time?”
“Pull your pants down,” I told him. When he refused, I said, “If you want our promise to each other to be unforgettable, you’ll pull them down.”
He crinkled his nose, across which a dozen freckles were scattered, as he reluctantly complied.
“Now grab your dick and repeat after me, ‘First, best, last.’” As he did I rolled on top of him and touched my penis to his. “First, best, last,” I said, and he did, too. “First! Best! Last!” I chanted, and he chanted, too, and when I rolled off of him, we were half in shadow, and Jerry’s grinning face filled the aperture above us.
“Gentlemen,” he said, his breath smelling of breakfast sausage, bits of which were caught between his teeth. “Three can play this game.” David jerked to sitting and yanked his pants to his waist, but I took my time with mine. I was moving to Fort Hood, Texas, my father was already there, and while Jerry could hold what he’d seen over David, he couldn’t over me.
“Leave us alone,” David said. “Nobody invited you.”
“Nobody had to invite me,” Jerry replied. “The tunnels belong to everyone.” When blue sky again filled the hole, we knew he was coming after us.
Two passageways led to the cavern. Jerry would take the shorter. “Come on,” I whispered and started crawling through the longer toward light that filtered through the opening that led to the ground.
“He’s got my foot,” David said behind me. “Jerry’s got my foot.” But I kept crawling, and when I rose from the hole, I was by myself, and my mother was calling to me.
“Dan, it’s time to go!”
“Bye,” I said to my friend.