The chrome handle reminds the four-year-old boy of a glimmering star he saw through his bedroom window the night before. The handle is attached to the rear suicide door of his father’s blue ’49 Mercury sport sedan. The boy stares at the handle. It’s there for the jiggling, a shiny temptation not to be denied.
He fiddles with the handle as it reflects his face. He sticks out his tongue and laughs. He wrinkles his nose, which looks long and crooked in the handle’s mirror-like surface. Then he shakes his wavy brown hair. The reflection makes it look as if he has a sea creature’s tentacles jangling from his scalp.
Sitting with him in the back seat, big sister Samantha shakes her head and says, “stop fooling around J.J.” He jiggles the handle again, just because he can. He looks at his sister, hears her sigh heavily and turn away, and he smiles at her reaction.
He runs his finger across the top of the handle. Its arc reminds him of a swan’s neck. At the tip of the handle there are four grooves. He runs his fingernails between the grooves. He imagines small armies of space creatures in each of them. At the point where the handle is attached to the door, there is a circular fitting, etched with three rings, each ring of slightly greater diameter than the last, so that the fitting increases in size the closer it is to the door. It looks like the future to J.J., like something you see on a rocket ship built for intergalactic travel.
His father bought the Mercury just weeks before, used but in “like-new” condition, as all cars were in the gleaming, go-go 1950s. The salesman didn’t use the words “suicide doors”; he said “rear-hinged” instead. He said they offered easier exit and entry, especially convenient for the back passenger compartment, and they were stylish too. He didn’t mention that rear-hinged doors open much easier than front-hinged ones when the car reaches a certain speed. Never give the buyer more information than needed: that was the salesman’s motto.
The car moves along at thirty-five miles per hour in heavy fog and a gray afternoon rain. The rain looks like it will last forever. Through the mist the car approaches an automobile junkyard in a ravine in which Studebakers, Oldsmobiles, and Packards huddle, alone with their thoughts. The boy thinks they look like the giant, rust-red bodies of dead space monsters. Who brought them to earth? What did they want? Why did they die? Are they really dead? Or do they lie in wait for the right moment, to take over the world?
The boy’s mother drives, nervously tapping her fingertips on the steering wheel, which is as large as a bicycle tire. She’s thinking of everything and nothing. She looks at the radio, brightly lit like a jukebox, and turns it off, then on again. She looks at herself in the rearview mirror, runs her slim finger along the lipstick line of her upper lip. Faint creases appear at the sides of her brown eyes when she hears “J.J. won’t stop messing with the door handle, Mom.”
The mother says nothing. Silence as thick as fog.
“Look, I can’t say any more, Jodene. I’m sorry, that’s the way it’s gotta be. I had to make a final decision sooner or later. I needed to let you know right away.”
Bobby Steerforth listens to the silence on the other end of the line. Then he hears a crackle. Is there an electrical storm in the vicinity? The forecast calls for steady rain all day, but no thunder or lightning. He’s surprised at how bad the phone connection is even though it’s a local call. He hears a sniffle.
“But it was so good, Bobby. Didn’t you like those nights at the Snowflake?”
“I just can’t anymore.”
“My God, you call me and say ‘that’s it, over, done, finished!’ Where you calling from, Bobby? You at work?”
“Yeah. I’m in the back office. I can’t talk for long. We got a lot of work today and I’m short one guy. He’s got a cold, or so he says.”
“A year, Bobby. Jesus, a year of my life I spend sneaking around with a guy who runs a Texaco gas station. What kind of chump have I been?”
“Jodene, I have to go. Miriam and the kids will be here soon. They were going to stop by on the way to her mother’s place.”
“You don’t love her, Bobby. Those nights at the Snowflake? A man doesn’t act the way you acted with me if he loves his wife. A woman can tell.”
“It has to be this way. There’s no way out.”
“Make a call, drop the mistress. Like discontinuing a magazine subscription, huh?”
“Jodene, you knew I was having doubts. I told you. You had to know all along I’m not going to get a divorce. I’ve been thinking about it for months. I can’t sleep. I’m drinking too much. I have responsibilities. J.J.’s getting to the age where he needs a father around. He’s smart as a whip, and he’s a handful. And Samantha seems so unhappy, so anxious. A ten-year-old should be happy. I have to be there for my kids.”
“You’re not married to your kids, Bobby. You’re married to her, and you told me you couldn’t stand looking at her some days. You told me you couldn’t stand waking in the same bed with her. You said all that, you poured your guts out, and you said it more than once. I should’ve taken notes and shown you your words. Have you forgotten you said that?”
“And is it still true? Is it Bobby?”
“Jesus.” He raises his hand to his forehead. The throbbing in his temples goes on like the steady rain on the garage roof.
“Look, Bobby, you were both too young. My God, seniors in high school. And she got pregnant. Walk away from it. You can still see your kids. You can work out an arrangement.”
“Bobby, use your thick skull. Do you love her, Bobby? Do you love her?”
“Do you love me, Bobby? Do you love me like you told me you did? Tell me! Or were you lying? Did you just fuck me all those times for the hell of it? Just because you wanted a little snatch? You bastard. Just wait, Bobby, this isn’t the last you’ll hear of Jodene Walsh…”
The click resounds like the backfire of an old Chevy. As if someone had kicked him in the gut, Bobby winces.
The rain falls. It’s the only sound he hears now, along with the beer commercial playing softly from the radio in the garage bay. “From the Land of Sky-Blue Waters.”
He walks into the bay and under the red Oldsmobile up on the hoist. The old oil, sludgy and black, has almost drained into the white receptacle with the tall silver neck and funnel. He has four quarts of new oil lined up on the counter at the back of the garage. All he needs to do is replace the drain plug, let the car down, pour the new honey-colored oil in. Then he’ll start up the Olds, let it run for a few minutes while he writes up a service sticker for the driver’s side doorpost. The sticker has a big green “T” emblazoned on a red star inside a circle outlined in black. Below the logo, small black print: Steerforth Texaco. 3328 Colfax Ave. Benton Harbor, Michigan. Broadway 5-7239. Date: August 2, 1954. Next service: November 2, 1954 or 28,500 miles.
He walks to the open garage door where the overhang stops. He extends his arm, feels the gray rain on the palm of his hand. He’s sweat through his shirt, the humidity is so bad, but the rain feels like ice entering his veins. He thinks of the time he was ten years old and fell through a thin spot on the frozen pond where he and friends skated. When they pulled him out he thought the chill would last a lifetime.
He looks south, down the wide avenue on which Miriam and the kids should be driving up in the Mercury any minute now. He hopes Jodene won’t call back today. He looks up into the sky, then south again. But the Mercury doesn’t come, and he has three more oil changes lined up, and business is good.
Samantha tells J.J. one more time to leave the door handle alone. She thinks of how it was better—it must have been better—before her brother came along. She hates how he runs around and shoots her with his outer space blaster. How he pedals his tricycle around the driveway, not caring if he splashes mud on her yellow Sunday dress. The other day he almost hit her as he rolled past her and squashed a large green caterpillar that squirted its insides all over her favorite pink shorts. She hates how he pokes her in the ribs and runs down the long flight of wooden stairs into the basement, where she’s always afraid to go.
Samantha feels the pressure of knowing and seeing. J.J. is too young and dumb to realize what’s happening. He doesn’t hear his parents’ fights at two in the morning while she covers her head with blankets. How could J.J. sleep through that? He doesn’t hear her creeping out of bed in the middle of the night, tiptoeing to the living room, seeing her father passed out with one foot on the couch, the other on the floor, a bottle of foul-smelling stuff tipped over nearby. J.J. doesn’t see his mom alone in the kitchen, standing at the counter in the middle of the afternoon, dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief, and she hasn’t even been chopping onions.
J.J. should be dead because he is a pest and nothing bothers him and she hates him. She hates her mother and father for not giving her a sister instead. And she hates the world because she wants everything to be okay, and it’s not.
As Miriam Steerforth switches the radio on and off, she thinks of Ron, the man at the shoe store who sold her the black suede flats she’s wearing now. It was the day before yesterday. Ron is wearing a dark blue suit and crisp white shirt with a burgundy tie. He is the assistant manager of the most stylish shoe store in town. Rumor has it he’ll be manager soon because he’s so bright, personable, hard-working. Miriam is smiling as she thinks of their conversation.
“How do those feel Miri? They look great on you. Simple but elegant.”
“Like they were made for me, Ron. But maybe I should try on the brown ones just to make sure.”
“Yup, it’s always a good thing to try on several. Never buy on first impressions, even if the shoe fits like this one does.”
Ron takes both shoes off Miriam’s feet, places them in their box and takes a brown shoe of the identical style from another box. With his right hand he gently cradles her ankle as he slips the shoe on her foot with his left. As he reaches for the other shoe, Miriam admires Ron’s long fingers and remembers how they explored her body her senior year in high school, in the back seat of his father’s Ford. She presses her knees together and feels her face flush.
Having quickly chosen the black shoes, she chats with Ron at the register.
“Everything okay these days, Miri?”
“Really wonderful. Bobby’s business is going well, the kids are growing. My boy will start kindergarten in a few weeks. My girl’s going to need braces. So many things to think about. And you Ron?”
“Just so-so. You heard that Sheila and I broke up. Or did you?”
“I heard. I was so sorry to hear that. You two seemed made for each other. Maybe things will still work out.”
Ron nods. He rings up the sale as Miriam counts out the dollar bills on the counter. She’s proud she can always pay in cash these days. He takes the money, places it in the till, hands Miriam the hand-written receipt. He smells her perfume and is tempted to take her hand in his, if only for a second. No one would notice. The store’s not that busy right now.
He resists, but says, “You know, I still think about us sometime. After all these years.” He closes the till.
“I know,” replies Miriam. “And I—.”
She turns on her heels clutching the shoebox under her arm. “Excuse me, please,” she says as she brushes past a customer entering the store. Suddenly she remembers how Ron tasted, and how different it was with him than with Bobby. In her left eye a small tear forms.
“Mom,” says Samantha very calmly, “J.J. is gone.”
Then, eyes widening in sudden realization, she screams. “Oh my God, Mom, he’s gone! Oh don’t make him gone!”
Miriam’s daydream is cut short as she slams on the brakes.
In the instant in which the door springs open and a whoosh of rain-soaked air rushes into the passenger compartment, J.J. thinks of how his mother reads to him. She doesn’t read kid’s books but good stuff, like Tom Swift. He imagines he’s Swift himself, but without his interstellar lab or backpack rockets. He’s free, soaring. His eyes are wide with what might be mistaken for elation. But his mouth gives him away. His lips are parted and curled downward. His jaw seems three times its normal size as his teeth clench. His neck is drawn tight, like a rubber band pulled to the breaking point. He is on a roller coaster, but the scariest roller coaster ever, the kind that makes it impossible to think.
The gravel shoulder races at his wide-open eyes. He’s never seen the ground move so quickly. He can feel the scrape of a thousand limestone and granite pebbles against the palms of his small hands. He can feel the sharp ends of the pebbles pierce his skin and embed themselves in his body. His hands don’t break his fall, so now it is his face’s turn. For a moment he hears muted sounds, as if he’s underwater. He hears the crack of a wooden bat as it meets a baseball, then the soft, dull thud of the watermelon his mother dropped on the kitchen floor a few days before. He hears a snap and imagines his leg has curled so far back that his toes touch the nape of his neck. Or does he only imagine it? Maybe his leg twisted off and he’d have to go back later to fetch it from the side of the road.
Arms flailing, his body hurdles down the embankment, past milkweed leaves, bright green on the top but silvery green on the underside. He sees Purple Loosestrife, like green spiky sea-creatures rearing purple heads into the gray rain. He sees sumac green edged with red. The embankment turns from green to muddy brown as he rolls toward the bottom of the ravine and the rust-red Studebakers and Chryslers.
In the ravine there is silence except for the light patter of rain on defeated metal hulks. Then J.J. hears a distant tumult, cries and shouts up on the road, strained through the fog. He thinks the noise might be coming from thousands of miles away, from distant galaxies only Tom Swift knows about.
He lies in front of a shattered Pontiac, its engine compartment crushed by some terrible force. The boy looks up into the mist at the car’s Indian head hood ornament. Its chrome is dull and cloudy, pocked with gray and black spots. The amber-colored face is cracked. It looks like it will shatter into dozens of tiny lucite shards at any moment. It’s the most hideous thing J.J. has ever seen, far scarier than unaided space flight; it sends shivers up his spine.
Emerging from the rain, a gray suit with a black fedora comes tumbling through the green of the embankment. J.J. notices mud on the man’s shiny black shoes. He sees beads of rain on the fedora and wonders if the man is his father. But it isn’t his father. J.J. thinks it must be the Good Samaritan from Sunday School. Or maybe he’s a space creature in human disguise, an ally of the rust-red aliens all around him. From under the fedora come the words, “don’t die on me, okay, kid? We’re gonna get help.”
Then fevered movement, first up the embankment, the gray suit struggling, carrying a limp and bloodied body—whose body?—sliding on sloppy ground, profanities, past the milkweed and Purple Loosestrife and red sumac. Then onto the gravel shoulder, where the gray rain will not stop. J.J. hears his mother, thank you, thank you, as she frantically clutches the arm of the Good Samaritan from outer space. Then into an ambulance that seems louder than anything J.J. has ever heard before. Are they joining Tom Swift in his space lab? J.J. thinks he is in a movie at the Sundown Drive-In.
They go through double doors and into an elevator and someone in a white coat looks down at him. All turns black.
He lies in a hospital bed. His head is encased in bandages; so is most of his body. He can’t move his arms, they’re heavy, wrapped in white. He sees a distant leg in a giant white cast suspended from a skinny body. He wiggles the toes: they must be connected to him in some way.
J.J. wonders why the men and women in white suits don’t smile when they look at him. He wonders why, except for those toes far off on the horizon, he can’t move. He senses his mother somewhere nearby but can’t be sure. He can’t be sure of anything except that his eyes see with the precision of Tom Swift’s Ultra-Vision Machine.
Fifty Augusts later and a continent away from the ravine and the Mercury and the Texaco, J.J. remembers how he kept wiggling his toes, and how blue and white and withered his leg looked when it emerged from the plaster cast, and how the doctors and nurses finally smiled when he walked through the hospital’s double doors into October sunshine.
J.J. recalls how for weeks his eyes worked the room. He saw his mother and father come and go. Saw them walk right past one another as if neither existed. Saw his sister, biting her nails, tugging at her hair, twisting inside herself. He remembered his mother sleeping on a small cot in the hospital room. He recalled her crying, and his wishing he could go over and stroke her auburn hair, tell her it’s okay, he’s had an adventure, he’ll be fine.
He understands now how their eyes talked to him. Their eyes said more than silences or words. He saw gray foreclosure, eyes tarnished like the horrific Pontiac ornament atop the crushed hood.
And he recalls how soon he realized the Mercury handle hadn’t opened a door to space ships and intergalactic aliens. It opened the door to a future in need of jiggling. A future not foreclosed but open, not dull but shining someplace far away.