In 1954, my mother knew the layout of my psyche better than I know anything. Even with my enviable genius—I was the golden boy of the Tolcombe clan, the Great Boy-Einstein of Newark, A+ in all subjects from KinderCare onward, leaping over three whole grades because of the sheer thrust of my intellect—she could easily sense the slightest variation in my temperament. Even constipation was no secret. I would come home from school having suffered through another bag lunch of chopped liver on bread only to plop down on the couch and have my mother rush in with a bowl of dried fruits to loosen me up. Me, the golden boy, treated like a convalescent with a sour tummy. She'd sit there next to me on our old tweed couch and say to me, "My dear sweet boy, what's this about your tummy? Is it the pressure of school? Eat some fiber. Sweet boy, you must be better to yourself." And I'd have to polish off the whole bowl because leaving just one raisin would mean my sweet golden tummy might cease to work. "And what would a mother do without her sweet boy? What would I tell your father? That sweet Seymour didn't finish his dried fruit bowl and, so plumped with #2, expired, leaving behind a stinking little sweet boy body for a funeral where all of Jaffa Street had to wear clothes pins on their noses?" Ad infinitum—all my problems were her problems, deadly problems, attempts at staining our people. Why? Because she had invented me, she had made me into her boy, and being so I must produce. "Because, Seymour, if you were in Europe years ago, you'd have been cooked, gassed, killed in a variety of awful ways. You need to do more, Seymour. Who do you think will repair the world? A boy with his tummy aching?"
The first time I saw the ad it was on the back of my father's morning paper: WALT DISNEY NEEDS YOU. I was thirteen and beckoned by an ill-fated contest, one that would mark the opening of Disneyland—DESIGN YOUR VERY OWN TOMORROWLAND! That goyische enterprise of goy princes and princesses and goy dragons and goy dwarves! I entered that contest. Even as a rising star of Israel, David incarnate, I was already halfway out the door, my eyes twinkling with cartoon heroics, Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dahs, stars to wish upon, everyone with blonde hair, and the dream of a perfectly just fantasy world! It was a fascination I had to keep under deep cover—the thought of a son like me having interest in such WASP-y culture was cause for deep concern on the part of any upstanding Jewish family. Noah, a school acquaintance and Jaffa Street hangabout with a killer Donald Duck impression, was overheard one afternoon cackling duckishly by one Mr. Patimkin, a gray man with short-cropped hair who had always looked ancient. He marched out of Patimkin's Hardware, looking insulted with a stub of a cigarette hung from his lip, and cast fistfuls of hex bolts at us to initiate our dispersal. The next day, Noah arrived in homeroom looking hollow-eyed. Patimkin had called his mother. We got the story out of him at recess as Noah craned his neck to peer skyward, possibly for a sign from God.
Word spread. Later that evening, I overheard my mother on the phone: "Rose, I just couldn't believe. My sweet boy would never. Seymour understands."
In our elders there was a ferocious need for retraction, for quashing all notions of anything un-Jewish in an effort to glorify our kin and story in the New New World.
In our elders there was a ferocious need for retraction, for quashing all notions of anything un-Jewish in an effort to glorify our kin and story in the New New World. Us kids, the future, those bound to inherit the earth, had to be sworn protectors, or else. Tikkun olam—Repair the World—was whispered to each of us, at bedtime or as a parting word in the morning, less as a hope than a dictum for we lived in the age of Jewish possibility, ascendance—damn all others. I envied Dumbo his incarcerated mother. If I were to fly via magic feather it would not be in the name of primogenital salvation.
"Oh sweet boy," I can hear her say, "We're not like them. We're not like them. And for good reason." But Mother, when Mickey does a loose-limbed shimmy and fucks up nobly with a task too large for himself and yet suffers no real consequences to speak of, is that not in fact an all important lesson of man? Is that not a beautiful, wholesome message of a beautiful, wholesome world where wooden liars become realized, the animal kingdom singsongs in congress, and a young wizard, buried beneath the deluge of his own mistake, is pardoned? Br'er Rabbit, that acclaimed trickster, escapes once again, hollering "I was born n' bred in a briar patch," as he sits safely, beyond the reach of the larger carnivores, in his prickly home?
I developed strategies: Volume all the way down on the television, hand on the channel knob, my eyes following Mickey with his hands on his hips, gyrating playfully in black and white.
And I wonder why I am the way I am.
I might as well pack up and wheel myself down to the closest merchant marine station, run away to sea on some freighter with a blue knit cap on, all my jacket buttons done up, collar stood to my earlobes, looking back off the stern as the propellers seethe away below me. Thick white letters spell out the honorific of my transport to inner peace: The Jew Trader, out of Port Elizabeth, NJ.
And when this appears in my mind like a film about my life, my mother is cast as a greenish apparition, hovering over me in the diesel fumes, saying "Why didn't you kiss your father goodbye? From you it would have been everything. Out there driving that bus through that part of town, and with his back, chasing fare jumpers all day long. You know that neighborhood. You know how they are." She's even in my fantasies, kvetching about the blacks. The #41 line that goes down Main Street where all of them lived huddled together on street corners and stoops, trying not to be arrested for vagrancy. And the worst thing is that my father's back got sore because he sat on his ass all day in a driver's seat. His passengers without a nickel for fare. You would think she'd learn something in death, but no, she must spend her time in preparation for the World to Come pestering me because, God forbid, I didn't kiss my father. I didn't do as a good Jewish boy should. And I ask, Mother, is that kiss of sonship what is important here? Will it solve us?
Tikkun olam. Repair the world. I had designs—my Tomorrowland. But even now, I have this vision of my mother, weeping in some imagined room of my past, Rabbi Segal standing in the poorly lit background nodding his head solemnly, my child-self bedridden, heartsick with the shedding of my faith, my identity. But Mickey, I say, it was Mickey! Mickey did it! He didn't have a mother to tell him what was right and wrong! He didn't have a kind and caring mother to read the constipation on his face and administer an entire bowl of dates to loosen him up! And she sobs heavily, moaning at each mention of his name—Mic-KEY, Mic-KEY!—kneading my palm in supplication, the very same palm that would again betray her, would walk me down the masturbatory aisle, hand-in-putz, to strike an eternal union, 'til winky death does us part.
And for who else would I give it up but that unspeakably sexual harasser of that very sleepy blonde princess. That horned, pale beauty with shiksa goy magic. That Maleficent. I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine.
Movie theaters are good for being dark and empty at 1 pm on a Thursday. I knew that at thirteen. And so there I was, in the Palace on the outskirts of our neighborhood, sat in the middle seat of the middle row, translating the brunt of the cinematic effort into a raw, yet effective pummeling of my genitals. My first jerk. To Disney, publicly, on the liminal edge of my own Jewish ghetto! I could probably tell you each variation of the movie poster I saw in the month leading up: Maleficent always off to a side in the background, glowering at the back of Sleeping Beauty's flaxen mane; her fingers, clawed; her bosom and cheek bones, pointy.
Maleficent, on screen, dazed in green fog, and there I was, sunk down in my seat, banging away at myself.
And then she happened, Maleficent, on screen, dazed in green fog, and there I was, sunk down in my seat, banging away at myself, a molten batch of kiddy brew, glowing closer and closer to the surface, 1000 unused erections shoved up into my waistband come home for supper on the final dusk of my childhood years. I stared my thousand-yard stare out past the western most limit of child, my American ripening freshly broke on the horizon. The triangle on my sex porch jangled like a loon. Feed sprinkled the rusty metal gutters. And there came a knock-kneed stud in a cowboy hat riding. Graduated from deputy to the law itself as slide whistles sillied themselves heavenward in Big Sky Country, the clarity of electric blue. I was rung like the Liberty Bell. Cracked open. Symbolic.
I remember sauntering out of the theater that day with great pomp, the oppressive humidity of a Jersey summer afternoon—glad, easy, without bother, my body a baron in its own kind of Industrial Revolution: Seymour Talcombe Cornering the Market on Goo With Brand New Goo Factory! And then, it began to rain in humongous drops, spread out like they are at the beginning of a front, and so fat and slow that I made a game of dodging them as they fell, side-stepping, twirling, dancing in the goddamn rain.
But then, wham! I spied a Jewish mom I knew, more importantly one my mother knew—one Mrs. Goodis, coming fatly out of a butcher's shop. Of course, a Jewish mother carrying a piece of chopped, cold meat, waiting to be wolfed down through a lipsticked mom gob, a dad mouth, a me hole. My shame announced itself in capital letters. I raced down 11th Avenue, depositing scraps of movie ticket in four separate trashcans, bathing in a gas station sink, scrubbing the day's work away. Finally at home, soaking wet, I was immediately placed under suspicion of having the early stages of a cold and so was given several evil-tasting spoonfuls of fish oil.
I had to get away. It's not surprising I was propelled to throw my wily charms into the pot of boy and girl dreamers everywhere. "Help design Tomorrowland, an imagined World's Fair set in the year 2000! Ten finalists will win an all-expenses paid trip to Anaheim, California! Final to be judged by Walt himself! As a part of the ABC TV Special on Disneyland's Opening Day!" I knew I could win. Me, the Great Boy-Einstein of Newark. All the trouble of finding an excuse to shuttle off to Anaheim for a long weekend well worth it. I could fake a kidnapping. I could stage a horrific injury and claim an amnesiac episode. Hell, for Thee Walt and Thee Mickey, I'd steal the family Studebaker and gun down police at each state border.
My project came to me that afternoon, rainsoaked and carrying fish oil in my mouth. A thing of absolute beauty: mist, subtle lighting, an oil painting of a girl—a future girl. A race-less heroine, with short-cropped hair in a silver jumpsuit, muscular, tit-less, with a jaw. Oh that jaw! I can still remember its geometry, the deep-set obtuse angle, sharp enough to cut through humanity's piggish ancestry, the root of Hate! And guess what our princess was riding on? A motorcycle that ran on nukes! A metal steed that converted the very world destroying power of an atom bomb into road fury, the fun of highway time and wind in your short race-less brown-black semi-curly hairdo! Atomic fun! A pure and true vision of a hopeful future, one in which the greatest barriers of the modern age are torn down brick-by-brick and transformed into a tower of good will in just 45 ½ years. '61, the end of sickness; '67, the end of discrimination; '73, one world governance; '76, peaceful contact with intelligent alien life; '85, communion; '90, the year of giving; '97, everyone is happy; 2000, a metal-clad babe rockets through Mid-America on a nuclear hog.
I knew enough to understand that Walt could not appreciate this at face value, or at least not in the public eye on the opening day of his latest venture, with a middle-aged boner pressing the starch out of his slacks. The dream vision was merely inspiration for the real thing: the racial qualities stuck (the lightest caramel possible), the metal jumpsuit was present (somewhat more princess-casual), the motorcycle turned into a sleeker more palatable machine (a scepter with a few thumb-buttons for the kinder recycling of World Shakers). She was homage to the Disney style, kid-friendly, beautiful, accessible. I imagined, with each stroke, Walt's mustache twitching with excitement, the airline attendants buckling in my first time flyer's lap as a dotted line sprouts out of the fuselage, California growing larger, the palm trees becoming individuated until the fronds themselves visibly sway in a laconic beach breeze. I sent the thing off labeled with a false return address in my building and under—a stroke of genius—a false name, one Jonathan Gumport.
What else could I do? What else could I say? Mom, Dad, I had this ferocious wet dream about a dark-skinned androgyne, painted a picture of her in our building's basement amongst the trash cans and old rusting bicycles, and sent it to Walt Disney with a short essay about my hopes for race relations and nuclear disarmament! I needed an alias. I needed misdirection. And would some Disney tribunal select a Newark Jew named Seymour Tolcombe? I thought not.
would some Disney tribunal select a Newark Jew named Seymour Tolcombe?
For months, I ran home from school to check the mail, eyed the corridors for spies. And then there it was, the letter itself atop the mail slots, a corner of white hung over the edge. I ripped the thing open—"We are pleased to invite one Johnny Gumport…Johnny's astounding attention to detail…his infinite hope." And it was signed, with an actual pen, with the actual classic W and its tiny areola, spun on the paper like the twitchy incantation of Mickey's broom-hungry wand.
Overcome, the letter stuffed down the front of my pants, I hurried inside up to 14D, taking the steps delicately so as to diminish rustling, inserting my key one quiet tooth at a time. "Seymour?" my mother called from the kitchen, a meat supper smell in the air. I stood stock-still, lowered my armload of books in front of my crotch.
"Lots of homework!" I keened.
Mother's head appeared around the corner. She eyed me, her gaze lit with suspicion.
"I have a surprise," I said, "for you and Pop. At dinner."
"Oh yeah?" She cocked her head, lowered her eyes to my books. Then—a godsend—the phone rang. It was some other mother, Mrs. Rothschild I think, waiting on her child to arrive home from school and in need of verbal contact to alleviate the day. Fate bought me time.
In my room, I pulled out our old Remington Junior and thirty minutes later I was putting the final touches on an invitation from the Cohen Foundation for Gifted Young People, half of which was in praise of the fine parents who had raised me to be such a delight and gem of the Jewish people, and could I come to a very special Saturday retreat in Miami Beach for a gathering of likeminded children in order to play such intellectually stimulating and socially important games as "Knesset Meeting" and "New Jew In Town?"
Over the pot roast steaming on our plates, my parents needled me. "What is this big secret?" they said and so I laid it on them. You should have seen their tears. My parents paraded me door-to-door in our apartment building and down the 5000 block of Jaffa Street, presenting the letter and me in unison, yelling with almost Pavlovian fury when a neighbor appeared, "Look at what Seymour's done!" We didn't even eat first.
Two days later, it had become a matter so important as to warrant, not only mention in Synagogue, but also its own separate massing of our people, a full-blown tribesman's party, with cake and me in a tie and oversized sport coat. Rabbi Segal himself presided over a special blessing ceremony, dousing me in Hebrew as I stood front and center, and then I was carried around the room, down every aisle and into each cranny of that hallowed place of worship, solemnly, like the Torah itself, in order to get all the blessing I could get, even if it were hiding in the back corner where the extra foldable chairs were stored.
And I know what you are thinking—where was mother in all this? How had she failed to notice all this depravity, all this prying up of the floorboards of truth and goodness? The woman who could distinguish between my gloom and my sulk didn't see the fresh glint in my eye? But therein lies the vortex of familio-Newarkian history, the what-happeneds of 1954's early summer, where we became celebrated figures in the community. My father and mother's raising of me became more and more a secretive and magical process—"Oh, I just let him do what he does," Mother'd say, hiding the basic facts of her most basic rules where the regulation of everything down to body temperature was mandate. That family, what a family! With X doing his Y, and Z slaving away in her F, and little G, oh just little G! And my mother gladly became one with this new celebrity, focused primarily on the upkeep of our family lore, made social hour appearances, received house call upon house call from jealous families from blocks around. She was crazed, manic, absolutely drained of all her regular Mom powers, yet happy. And in conjunction with this sweet bit of synchronicity, I began to wear make-up ever so lightly below my eyes, and to practice a personal brand of facial rigor, to obscure my truest feelings and bodily tics, and thus hid in mother's plain sight.
Newark International's Departure curb the morning I was to leave. The freshly washed Studebaker slowed to an idle, all of us inside of it dressed in commemorative finery. "Well," I said as I kicked the back of my mother's chair with my Oxfords and reached for the door latch. My father looked back at me, his arms up in disbelief and tears in the corners of his red eyes, hunched over in the driver's seat, the look of a man who didn't expect to be killed by a loved one. A dad caught somewhere in the interstice of fear, surprise, and Shakespearian tragedy. My goodbye a stroke too casual. My mother was swiveled and gaping, too, horrorstricken, unbelieving. I could see the alarm in their eyes—What if I, Father Tolcombe, were to perish in my bus seat, my heart exploding as I neared my 50,000th J-line stop and Freddy Legs hopped fare again? What if I, Mother Tolcombe, choked on a piece of dry toast at the kitchen table at 11AM, without a Seymour in sight to knock me on the back with his savior fists? And all I was trying to do: leave the car, enter through the doors of the airport alone, slap a ticket on a desk where a pretty lady stood, and say my fake name—"Jonathan Gumport"—with legitimate adult vim and officially get away with it all.
So I ran, ran, inside. There weren't any child locks in those days, even a baby's hand would every once in a while find the lock and with a pudgy hand force the bolt upwards. I had already passed through the spinning doors when I heard old Mom and Pop collectively gasp, "Oh, God." But I was away and so easily camouflaged amongst the other travelers dressed to the 9's! A prospecting, boy Buddha beyond the manse walls! Johnny Gumport here, reporting for duty in the American air, 600 mph and off, bucking like a phantom horse on the way to Anaheim, CA on Flight 3822. I'm going to Disneyland, I said. Johnny Gumport's the name, I said, babbling to anyone who made eye contact, Johnny Gumport, Johnny Gumport. Before takeoff a dainty young stewardess approached me. "Did you need help, little boy?" "Oh, why, yes, I do. What are these thingies?" I asked, holding the seatbelt ends in my hands, smiling like a pro. And she buckled me in, and cinched me down, leaning in over me, working with her hands, those surgeons of love, that then occupied my mind across an entire continent. In my mind they attained a kind of saintly glow. The lucky boy genius snapped his sticky fingers and conjured a dream. All had become possible.
A dream, another masturbatory dream.
Out the airplane window, below me all the green of north Jersey, Pennsylvania, the wiry trail of the Delaware in its verdant crib. When up so high it's natural to marvel at all the matter, the science kind, all the macro made of all the micro, trees and homes and people that out of probability were made. What could have been a rock became a man because the correct elements aligned—how? Some fission and stirring way out there in the quake of a star? Then a fixing of whatnots within the brew and out pops a white, a black, a Jew? And in the smoke-filled cabin, the unlimited highball craze of bored business people drinking, leggy, 120-pound-maximum air girls hand out postcards decorated with the veal cutlet and peas to be served in flight that steamed with what might have been the obscuring wavelike jelly of a dream vision, nocturnal emissions of the good life cut from the clouds, the puffy sheet that tucked in the world.
There was something in the air that day that stripped away my luck, as if it were a coating I'd worn all my life, as if instead of sitting comfortably engulfed by fuselage with my lap pleasantly buckled, I had been tied to the nose of the plane and sandblasted with the tiniest particles of "no" "uh-uh" "not" "gonna" "happen." Because when I trotted down the stairs at the airport in Orange County, my bag slapping me on the calf, I saw in the shade of the tarmac's lone pavilion The Billys and Sallys. All white, all contestants just like me, and behind them, standing together as if for protection were Mei Ling, Carter, and Joseph: a Chinese girl, a flat-topped black boy, and a Jew with ringlets sprouting out from under a yamulke. A yamulke. I came to a halt immediately. Joseph's eyes locked on mine. Yids. My hair and my complexion and my nose, right there in front of me. The off-boarding passengers parted around me and scattered, leaving me alone in the sun.
No one spoke. They all faced me in silence with day-bags strewn at their feet. Johnny Gumport didn't come flying out of my mouth so easily.
"Johnny?" A smiley, blonde 25-year-old stepped forward with a clipboard and distinct summer camp candor, even in tailored pants and shiny shoes—Gunnarson. "Hi, Johnny!" he keyed and took me by the arm. He herded us together. "Everyone, this is Johnny." I smiled dumbly. Two of the Billys exchanged a knowing look, a product I imagine of having witnessed in each other something congenial. One Sally with a blue barrette keeping bangs clamped to crown stared off glassily into the California day. Mei Ling and Carter were holding hands. Joseph continued, quite possibly without blinking, to cast an eyeball.
"How about a picture?" Gunnarson asked rhetorically, lifting a tri-lensed camera to his eye, his ever-brimming smile framed below. He directed us with a hand, calling out shirt and dress patterns until we were all configured in two rows, five and five, one foregrounded on a knee before the other. I so happened to find myself standing—at the end of the line albeit, but standing. Below—and, does this surprise?—were Mei Ling, Carter, and Joseph. When the time came to say cheese, I said, "Johnny!" distinctly enough for the Sally with the velvet dress beside me to turn and gawk with her blue eyes.
"Three-piece suit," Gunnarson called, eye still to the camera, "you will have to get closer."
It was the boy beside Mei Ling. All smiles, he lifted halfheartedly and settled in the same spot. Mei Ling reddened. "Look at all these smiling faces," Gunnarson said and took one step to the side, I suppose to close the gap between Mei Ling and Three-Piece with perspective. He snapped the photo. "These are the new faces of Disney," he said. Imagine the newsletter to the stakeholders, the write-up in the LA Times, this picture printed over and over again as a sign of progressive mixings! New Faces. The bulb flash in my blinking eyes elongated, became my mother's downturned mouth, her voice breathless, "With goyim?" she croaks. "With—?" Her fingertip tracing Mei Ling's delicate, round face.
Gunnarson called for us to get going. Three-Piece jumped up, dusted himself at the knees, and leapt clear over the bag pile to his clasped doctor's bag. He charged ahead, back through Mei Ling, Carter, and of course, Joseph, who instinctively bared his arms and one leg up as defense in the universal pose of "don't hurt me." Gunnarson walked in front in full, lithe collegiate strides, all the Billys and Sallys shuffling quickly behind, one-by-one surging to gain the front—a rumbling little cloud. Off to Tomorrowland to champion the future. The three minorities followed in the back of the train (and to see them!) with their heads down in weary resignation like they had been invited for some kind of Idiot's Ball, brought to Anaheim for some light joshing or that it was a pity thing. If you looked close enough you could see them wondering, knowing that they were token. Bring these kids to California, the execs said, we'll lambast them on national television, they said, make them cry by lighting their projects on fire and pissing on them, the flames hissing at the ends of our urinal streams. The Disney gang can hand dance in the background! Two steps right! Two steps left! Waggle the outward facing palms!
Carter was holding Mei Ling's hand, furiously relocating his grip. Joseph worried a bottle of sunscreen in his hand, undoubtedly something his mother had ordered him to apply, perhaps even to tell Gunnarson about, so he could chaperone Joseph's applications and keep him honest. Token. In-the-know. But maybe they didn't care? The land of Disney beckoned. Right then, I, being one with subtle feeling, was furious for them, for me, for our being implicated as pawns in the Disneyland World's Fair 2000 game. I could hear my mother's voice gonging, rising in timbre from the subsonic—Seeyyyyymour, Seyyyyyyymour—like all motherly siren songs, a call to come home. I wished badly to be sick on my wing-tipped Oxfords. Splash the whirring feet of Three-Piece and Blue Barrette in the process, drench their heels. Where had the meeting occurred? Who was involved? Was Walt there, signing documents, asking for numbers? "There's at least one black kid, right guys? This is a business we're running! And black kids are business!" My throat rippled. Molecule-by-molecule Johnny Gumport unclenched. My wing-tipped Oxfords slowed until I was all the way in the back. I turned to Joseph and asked him what his project was all about, but he was silent, preoccupied. He offered me his sunscreen. I looked right at him. "My God," I said and almost reached out for a curl. So, there I was, attached as usual with the unfit, watching as the hep kids in front of us slowly began to emerge from their individual cotton sheaths (pressed this very morn by their own Mrs. Mommy Homemaker!) and coalesce into a singular entity of "neatos" and "wowzers" and "my dad's a doctor."
Let go of my anger toward these people? Holdfast before the onrush of psycho-emotional healing? But wasn't I, at only thirteen, painting pictures of an ideal race-less world? Hell, even then, I was experimenting with advanced forms of empathy. But that day tested me. The heat! And the traffic.
wasn't I, at only thirteen, painting pictures of an ideal race-less world? Hell, even then, I was experimenting with advanced forms of empathy.
Orange County Airport is just fourteen miles from the entrance to the park, where, Gunnarson told us, we'd have a brief orientation, and yet we didn't arrive for four hours. This was at noon, with the sun at its zenith in a thin blue 100-degree sky—biblically hot for LA, even in June. The Billy and Sallys buddied up in seats at the front, having arrived first to the bus. Me and the rest affixed ourselves to the back—Carter with Mei Ling, me and Joseph, who I felt protective over, in need of some kind of communion, which manifested mostly in long stares at the side of his face, eyes tracing his profile. We moved so slowly, though in our excitement for the Disneying to come, there was camaraderie. At first, waves of glee shook our little bus every ten minutes, when we would creep forward enough to see a new part of the park, a humungous Goofy with six arms pointing the way to Garage A, B, and C, or a set of distinct cartoon ears poking over the high stucco walls. It was torture for us, strapped into the slowest moving ride possible with the real deal towering in the semi-distance, pristine, never-before-rollered-or-coastered. We whined and prattled, sang poorly, and made a game of asking "are we there, yet?"—"Are we hair, yet?" "Are we there, pet?" Gunnarson communicated chirpy business tones into his enormous walkie-talkie, scribbled on clipboard, relayed new instructions to the black driver of the mini-bus, poor man, who continually intimated that he understood clearly what was being asked of him even though it was changed over and over again until finally he refused to listen to Gunnarson at all—"Look, man, my manager told me drive from the airport to the gates and nowhere else," he said, sweating profusely, dripping down like the grease on a set of well-barbecued ribs. Gunnarson blinked at him coolly and then, without taking his eyes off the driver, reported the insubordination to his supervisors amidst radio crackle.
Blue Barrette turned in her seat, the front most, and posed her long birdlike body. She scanned her small crowd, holding each kid's eyes long enough to indicate a dialogue was to be brokered. "My future thing will change everything, my daddy says," she sang, upward and with authority. "How are you a finalist?" Her gaze swept across the left side and back up the right. It was a question for everyone.
"Mine is a million dollar idea," a boy in a seersucker sports coat said.
Three-Piece sprang from his seat, leaned into a running stance, and took off for the back of the bus. He spun a half step before the aisle's end, his loafers softly clattering. He ran back, sliding on his insteps like an ice skater. "Mine is something about that!" The Billy Three-Piece had buddied with clapped his approval. I imagined them side-by-side, canoodling, whispering softly of their projects and pedigrees. I looked at Joseph who was leaned forward, head on seatback, hands tented over his eyes. His ears were sweating. A thing I did not believe until then to be medically possible.
A girl, front-most, in a tartan dress started singing in a beautiful, tiny voice the Mickey Mouse Club Theme Song. By the second chorus, everyone had joined in. "How about a flying car!" another boy called. "Oh yea!" someone agreed. "Everyone knows about flying cars," another cut in dryly. There was a brief scuffle between seat partners, the fuzzy crowns of their heads brimming the seat top with each sortie, until one of them yelped and began to lightly, though theatrically sob. We sang Mickey Mouse Club again.
"Who's the leader of the club,
That's made for you and me?
Hey there! Hi there! Ho there!
You're as welcome as can be"
Again and then again, again.
The California heat was getting to us. The sun streamed through the driver's side windows with so much force that we all bunched onto the shady side's seats. The bus leaned at a crazy angle with our weight to one side. Joseph was the only one left in the sun, his body outlined in fire, a regular Elijah in his burning chariot. He stuck it out—for who knows what—and liberally applied sun lotion, the white scum of it refusing to settle on his slick arms and face. People turned and looked at him sleepily through the irradiated shiver of the bus air.
I called to him, but he was UV-zapped and couldn't hear. I shuffled out of my seat and reached my hand into the slant of light to touch his arm. He finally turned. "Come," I said and took him into the shade.
As we crossed the aisle onto the shady side of the bus, the whole vehicle groaned, canted perceptibly one final degree. The wheelwell lowered onto the rear tire with Joseph's and my weight. The bus screeched and shuddered when we tried to move forward, the driver attempting the gas with a heavier and heavier foot.
Gunnarson threw a wet elbow over his seatback. "Volunteers?" he asked lazily, expecting a timely and effective dispersal of weight. No one spoke up. The bus driver tried it again and we bucked. Gunnarson spun fully, his knees on his seat and arms spread the length of the seatback. "You!" he yelled. "Get the hell over."
"You" being Mei Ling, Carter, and Joseph, definitely. And me? Me?
The three of them crossed over, but it wasn't enough. Something below us in the machinery had seized up with more seriousness than three child bodies could restore. The line of cars in front of us had moved slowly, but steadily onward. A two-to-three bus-length gap grew before us. Behind, a car horn blared.
All six of the beefy corn-fed American Whites thick with milk and sausages only sat there, and Gunnarson, with his big Nordic eyes, stared at me with cold, pale malevolence. I watched him work things over in his mind.
"Why don't you go," a sandy blonde in a striped button down said to me. And each one of the Billys and Sallys turned and looked to the back of the bus, to me.
I tried to start everyone back up into a fifth rendition of the Mickey Mouse Club theme song, but Gunnarson's radio cut me off. "Now, Mark. Now! Get those kids here pronto. Over."
Then imagine this tableau: Mei Ling and Carter sitting straight forward, beads of sweat running down the backs of their necks, dutiful, not participating at all in the gang-up, and Joseph, out of sight, so red with the heat and sun that he had retired to the floor below me with his knees clasped to his chest, trying to hug his sunburn away. Gunnarson hovering next to the driver, saying "goddamn" and "Christ," and fanning words away with the clipboard. The Billys' and Sallys' eyes, glowing like ice water, still lingered on me. The whine of distant car horns was picking up in the background, cascading towards us along the road. I watched a Plymouth convertible family-full begin to edge around our back bumper when Gunnarson appeared next to me. I felt the pressure loading on my arm before I saw his hand—flaking, mustard colored nails, their half-moons of cuticles torn I expect with teeth, which despite their sickliness were home on a square hand with the vascular topography of the mountain countries of N. Europe. All this in a moment: I was airborne, flung by my arm. Time fell apart for me, midair. The interior overlaid steel sheets that always appeared so thin—cuttable, shreddable even, yet held seam-to-seam on their rivets—looked especially lineated and divided. Looked as if the sun were forcing its way into all things, the effect of which would be to pull the bus apart, piecemeal, and atomize each of us into kid gas, driver gas, Nordic prick gas. The world, blown—a direct response to the surprise of it all. Perhaps a cosmic foreshadowing of the catastrophic bonk I then received, back-of-head to window panel—entropy, thermo-happenings were afoot.
Gunnarson went on a child-throwing tear, lunging down the aisle with his clipboard shoved into the back of his pants like a flat, rectangular gun.More boys flew—Billys. Thirteen-year-old girl shrieks bounced around the bare metal insides of the bus, pinged it into a high, endless tone that rendered me and my capacities fuzzed. Ears popping wetly. Eyeballs holding onto only scribble—vague, morphing pictures of the world like a show on late night broadcast from too far away, peopled yet burning and burning and burning in rings from the center outward.
The driver threw the bus into gear and pinned it, trying idiotically to get away from us. Behind him, we were yanked here and there by the invisible forces of road and accelerator pedal. I righted myself and found Joseph sprawled in the seat behind me. Other heads in front popped into view. Everyone wriggled constantly to limit contact with the sun-hot faux-leather. We were in flight through a green and manicured world, going maybe 35, at ease by everyday standards though our afternoon it seemed magnetic, uncomfortable. The beige stucco of Disney's outer bulwark blurred past. Somehow we had broken off from the traffic. We were alone on the road.
"What was that about?" Inarticulate yelping. "Mr. Gunnarson!" "You kids be quiet now" "But you threw us!" "I did no such thing." "You ripped my shirt! Look!" "My father's going to hear about this, Mr. Gunnarson." "Mine, too!" "We're almost here." "Mine's a lawyer!" Girl shriek. "Mine is, too!" "You're about to meet Walt Disney! Pull yourselves together!"
Disney! Disney! We froze like we were hypnotized!
Disney! Disney! We froze like we were hypnotized! Gunnarson knew the game. "Look," he said, ducking his head to peer out the side windows, index aloft and signaling. Above the crest of the wall was the upper deck of an old timey Mississippi River boat. An Indian Chief stood stalwart on the bow as if surveying the magnificence of Fantasyland below. He puffed an actual cigar and waved to us. Out of the park came the unmistakable roar of a big cat in defense of his territory, monkey calls, the furious bass of a large and intimidating herbivore who despite her slow, moronic worrying of foliage could easily dispatch a man if threatened. All the creatures in harmonious union living somewhere on the interior of the park, their overseer a Choctaw boat lord. Three-Piece, ahead of me on the sunny side and cupping one of his ears cautiously, yelped. He was looking out the opposite window. Gliding above us was an airborne train of Donald Duck white and blue, each passenger's head adorned with a Mickey Mouse hat. Kids and parents alike hung their heads over the sides and gesticulated their awe in limb and laughter at those things parkside that we were hearing. Several of us gasped at the sight of it. "I told you!" someone yelled. "Flying cars!" Hope was once again possible it seemed, to me, to us, I imagine.
Gunnarson reported our movements into his walky-talky. "Ten minutes to stage." We began tucking things back in, straightening ourselves up. Mei Ling and Carter turned to each other and helped to refresh each other's sweaty hairdos. Joseph reached forward and offered me his handkerchief. "To dry off with," he said, mock-patting his forehead. I took it. I patted.
The bus had just been stuck in 100-degree heat on stinking fresh black tar asphalt for hours. We had cowered below this blonde college grad's violence, one by one, like we were on a conveyor belt of brutality. Yet there we were, still taking orders, all in the name of cartoons like a gaggle of ditsy automatons, readying ourselves to shine when—Mickey's smiling sickle-moon mouth cut precisely into the grass, the line of ticket cabanas off a short distance—the main entrance.
It was aswarm with invitees, grown men in houndstooth jackets, women with shawls thrown over one shoulder, clutches in hand, big wigs of Cartoon Hollywood, TV crews, ticket takers in green vests, trash men, and nuclear families trailing big sisters or brothers, some of them crying and running, pulling too hard on their baby siblings' arms out of sheer crippling glee while policemen looked on at the mobbed lines. Everyone awaited fun and momentousness with the awful baggage of expectant children, eyeballed those lucky enough to have found shade, ankle deep in the cables that ran every which way underfoot. I was dumfounded, drained of all righteous anger, scared and quiet. Gunnarson shepherded us off the bus. We were handed over to Lucy, a pretty, red-haired girl in heels and a yellow empire dress, who, with her face all pinched in effort to smile, threaded us hand-in-hand in a Red Rover-style child chain gang. Gunnarson leapt into the throng without so much as a goodbye or a "be silent or die" finger to his lips.
Then we were in a goddamn hurry. Through a crowd that walked at a terribly slow pace on the newly laid concrete of Main Street USA, newly laid as in it sucked at your shoe soles, trapped women in heels. Abandoned stilettoes dotted the landscape, tripped people without relent as they crawled zombie-speed through Baby Walt's idyllic 1906 replica of small town Missour-ah. The palms and flag posts and new lines of curb and building and souvenir cart, this well-oiled logic of fantasy and needs unknown until advertised. All, blanketed with the faint scent of vanilla and fudge, cigarette smoke and human musk. Lucy elbowed people aside. "Excuse us, excuse us, excuse me, excuse us," she jingled. Us kids were quickly subsumed, stepped on. Our chain gang stretched and compressed as we serpentined, but we held on to each other without fail. Somehow we remained one. Through the throng, I saw a high school marching band staggering under wool uniforms, hot brass in their hands. At the front, atop a wagon pulled by feather-headed horses in regalia, was Mickey, Goofy, the gang, waving and swiveling, covering their frontal sweep with happy. Around us, fathers held their smaller children aloft. The eldest and grown pleaded, attempted to mount those around them despite the obvious physical impossibility, the slipperiness of every sweaty hand-hold, and the human distaste for being used as a ladder. Out of a line of families came a polka-dotted woman, twenty-something, her mouth spastic under cat eye glasses, shrieking, "William! William!" She stepped forward, took Lucy by the shoulders, halting us, and bellowed, "William!" Lucy yelled about our timetable, turned and pointed wildly back over our heads, her face a streak of tears and sweat, brackish rivers of makeup dregs. The William woman would not let go. She refused to diverge from her one word vocabulary. "William!" she shouted once again. Lucy shoved past her onto the street where the crowd was bulging towards a stage abuzz with action on its far side. An amplified voice, deep and resonant, boomed forth from the stage's speakers, "Ladies and gentleman! Dreamers! Welcome to Tomorrowland! Innoventions to be unveiled in just a matter of minutes!" People shoved forward. Those at the bulge's edge crouched back on their heels to impede the flow of bodies. The band's drummers were still advancing in the street. Everyone pressed together, converged. Then, I saw it. Above us loomed the castle of Sleeping Beauty, its empty parapets, red flags drooped in the dead air. Hands on either side yanked me off balance, but my eyes were glued, tracing balustrades, the arrow-slitted merlons, searching fruitlessly for castle people, at least some kind of animatronic humanoid, an anthropomorphized King Bull, a sign of life. Below, at its gate, I saw her. Maleficent. I searched her up and down, seeking any suggestion of what lay below her dark and purple gown for some reminder of my mission, that afternoon in the theater, the last and final straw that had set me on my course. Her face, so green. Her arms raised, angled in a V from hand-to-shoulder-to-shoulder-to-hand in which she grasped a scepter of power that swung almost methodically, its head of glowing crystals indicating downward with all vehemence towards something. Something of great import. Great meaning. With her free hand she pointed. Beside her, a bejeweled painter's bucket sat, stuck with a plume of commemorative, ½-sized scepters with considerably less glow to their witchy emerald—$5 a pop. Gazing so intently, for a moment I was carried aloft. The ground lifted me as if erupting, up and up until it gave way under my feet as if quick sand—the very earth had grown capable of elastic motion and, more surprisingly, noise. "William!" it shouted. Below me I found the polka-dotted woman, lain on her stomach in the unsettled oils of the asphalt. Her glasses were gone. One of my Oxfords was hooked below her armpit, the other pressed squarely between her shoulder blades. I, too, confusedly cried out for her William. Each step I made in an attempt to dismount was muddled by the hands that yanked me about, the crowd pressing in—my heel on her C7 and T1 vertebrae. "Will!" she squeaked out. I wanted to stop everyone and everything. Scream in a voice so loud all would reach spastically for their ears, anything to let the surging people know that help was needed. Instead, my first and most powerfully unavoidable instinct was to go limp, and so I did. My body gone slack, I placed all my weight into the hands of those in line before and after me, which, feeling the sudden pull of Johnny Gumport's corpse-like mass, began to yank me by the wrists. The yanking hands to my left and right—Joseph's and Carter's—pulled me along the length of her flattened body in emphatic tugs so that, seeing her dress' polka dots, my weary mind imagined I was in space, my engines burning out their final burps of liquid hydrogen as the sound of feet shuffling without notice all around me played in the background like the echo of the most dreadful and cold planet turning forever in its sun-appointed place. The poor woman cried out below me high alto sobs of William, higher even as someone's saddle shoe pressed down on the index and middle knuckles of her right hand and left behind a waffle-patterned scum of tar. By the time I regained my feet and wobbled on my buoyant heels, black spots were dodging and burning in my vision. I saw her once more, just barely, as the bulge blanketed her. Us kids, Lucy, carried along with the crowd beckoned onward to Tomorrowland, gained the street where we met with the teenage rhythm section whose drumming petered out amidst the onrush, snares twittered on their rims, leaving only a singular bass to beat wildly alone with affect, flebile. Then I was released—Joseph rearranged his yarmulke, Carter fanned his body at the shirtfront, the scaffolding of the understage yawned its trapped heat beside me. We had arrived.
There he was, the Emperor of Childhood, the Dreamweaver. He stood stalwart in front of a camera, puffing at a cigarette with violent stabs of his mouth, as people busied up to him and then slunk away, shriveling at his presence, his utter thereness, that told them, Mr. Disney is not to be disturbed from his angry tobacco smoking. "Late. Late. Late," the production assistants said, circling us, rushing us to our spots behind Walt, arranging us in a semi-circle, our projects behind us—cardboard prototypes, papier mache doohickeys—every last one of us, silent, nauseous, and dehydrated, that feeling of a large bubble rising from you and popping just above your head, over and over.
Perhaps it's physiological after all. Maybe that day something popped out of gear, shuddered and jumped sprocket, or the tungsten finally went, crackled itself out in the dark. The bus, the heat, such pressure, it's no wonder the body gave in. The lone smoking gun of ruin, all I became—my dilapidated self, internal mechanisms kaput. This chair, with its 24-inch rear wheels powering the carbon fiber frame, its tiny directional wheels spinning at a greater RPM, warbles uncontrollably on slick floors. Skid marks trail behind me, an oversized and shell-less gastropodal mollusk.
Reduction. I want badly to be reduced, to hold my life steady at the center of my mind so as to examine its wasting promise.
Reduction. I want badly to be reduced, to hold my life steady at the center of my mind so as to examine its wasting promise. The game I play. "What's wrong with you, Seymour?" my father asked the day I returned. "What's wrong with my dear sweet baby boy?" my mother asked. The two of them sitting at the bedside of their sweat drenched baby boy, their Prince affected and leeched by some shapeless spectral mass. "Seek the Rabbi. Moloch has him!" My mother's eyes searched the ceiling and greater beyond, turned to implore me—"Where has our boy gone?" Tikkun Olam, Mother. Gutless despite the actual thriving wrongness of the world. Despite its apparent beauty, too, and the rest waiting in the wings for its cue. And if that's so trite, why is there a part of me that wants to let go, to shrug and wheel myself off into a smaller, easier world without the fuss over the best human traditions, unity, to be and understand, all the other simple human wishes? As my mother stood at the end of two long, parallel bars at rehab, she cooed, so lovingly, so wanting for me in health, "Baby steps, my sweet boy," as I thrashed about and huffed trying to reach her, remembering with each painful lunge that even in all my awareness, my awareness of my awareness, the sounds and sights.
"WELCOME TO TOMORROWLAND! THE LAND OF TOMORROW! AN EXPLORATION OF THE THINGS TO COME, IMAGINED BY OUR IMAGINEERS, THE BRIGHTEST OF BRIGHT MINDS, AND THESE WONDERFUL CHILDREN. Little Evan Chulick with his little circular robot. What does it do, Evan?" "It cleans your home, sir. By itself, sir." "Wow! That is something, am I right? What do you guys say? Here's little Courtney Wittles and what's this, Courtney?" "It's my Wash-o-matic." "Well, say, what does it do, Miss Wittles?" "You press this button and it washes the whole kitchen with these brushes." "Oh my, that is something. I bet Mrs. Disney would love one of those." Little Courney Wittles giggles. Crowd goes wild. Smiling Blue Barrette shuffled ever so slightly once or twice, her humungous three-part poster board towering over her, which at the top read: MILLIONAIRE SCHOOL. Domestic appliances, helpful little knick-knacks for reaching the high cupboards, for dressing-down the bathroom sink, each child standing at attention next to their prototype, beaming up there on stage with their hands clasped behind their backs, deadly cute, winning. Carter, Mei Ling, and Joseph were on the opposite periphery their projects backlit into oblivion by a ridiculous sun. At center stage Three-Piece stepped gingerly, yet proudly in his white Chuck Taylors modified with cardboard wings attached at the lace grommets. Fishing lines square-knotted to the wingtips led to Three-Piece's index fingers so when he wiggled them, his shoes flew.
And then me.
"And this, ladies and gentlemen, is Johnny Gumport. Johnny, what have you made?" I looked up at Walt. My muted and watered down dream that was born out of so much love and pains taken in the basement, in hope. Walt's face was close to mine, his eyes, nose, ears, nostrils, cheekbone, and creases, dug into me, took root in a 10-second marathon of silent live television through which he, the master of ceremonies, waited patiently, crouched over me with a hand on his knee, his face and my face and a microphone, his breath on me, in me, in my goddamn mouth. And I, abandoning the decorum, the ethics, the surprising letdown of this competition, said loudly, very loudly, a slim decibel below yelling, the word, a single nonsense word, "?"
Graham Todd grew up in the tiny Pennsylvania town of Royersford and now lives and works in the San Francisco Bay area. He studied lit and creative writing at Stanford and recently received his MFA from Bowling Green. His writing has appeared twice in The Gettysburg Review, Isthmus, and is forthcoming in Bayou. He's also a mentor in The Adroit Journal's program for high schoolers. He's currently at work on a novel.