Pelham’s Saturday Morning Frolics
By R. F. Marazas
He stepped naked onto his moon splashed lawn and had the crazy sensation that he would sink and drown. He did not drown. Too many manhattans gurgled in his stomach, keeping him buoyant. He mumbled complaints about the party, same old faces, same conversations, a duplication of the sameness that had begun to smother his life. When had he first noticed that?
A mischievous breeze sifted through his body hair, separating them so each received an equal share of the moon’s light. The grass did not make his feet tingle. He was sad about that. A man should feel something with grass caressing his soles and heels, with moonlight caressing his naked body. He’d been unfeeling for so long. Maybe it was like getting a suntan, you had to do it in stages.
He zigzagged across the lawn, turned too quickly, staggered. Blood sloshing in his head reminded him of manhattans. He swallowed bile, sucked in great gulps of air, steadied himself by focusing on the darkened hulk of his house squatting there. He began counting windows, lost count, counted again, gave up. Behind one, he couldn’t remember which, Joann slept, eyeshade and chinstrap protecting her from the night. Overnight mummification. Another window hid Owen, eleven year old non-boy who’d never learned to smile but watched the adults in his life through hooded eyes. Even little Shirley seemed touched by whatever hovered over the house, her child face and body tense even in sleep. And make no mistake, something hovered over the house, over his life.
Barney Pelham shook his head. Cocktail philosopher, boy I’m goddam brilliant this brilliant middle of the night!
The grotesque oak tree loomed up in front of him, marring the landscape geometry. He grinned at the last bit of chaos in his ordered life. Its massive trunk twisted in the agony of years of struggling growth. Deep ruts crisscrossed the bark, matched by bumps like giant drops of sweat from its growing pains. Branches curled outward in all directions, Medusa’s disheveled snake-hair encrusted in wood. He threw his arms wide in a mock embrace.
How he’d fought Joann for years to keep that tree. A conversation piece Joann, think of what the crowd’ll say when they see that monster in the middle of eighty five thousand dollar acreage, a tree house for our kids Joann, how many kids have a tree house? At some point he’d run out of arguments and withdrew into stubbornness. The tree became important, a necessity, a lifeline to something he couldn’t define.
Barney peered up into the thick lower branches. The rope ladder hung down, barely visible in the tangle, pendulum-swaying in the breeze, its bottom rung clunking against the bark in an unsteady beat. He ducked under the branches and hooked one foot onto the rung and pulled himself up. His weight upset the sway and the ladder jerked back and forth. He clung to the rope, his belly spilling out between the rungs, slamming into the tree, scraping his knuckles and his right shoulder. Dizzy, scared, trapezing through the night, a naked man riveted to a rope ladder halfway between earth and tree house.
He plunged through the curtained opening and lay on the smooth wood floor panting, a light sheen of sweat on his body. Down there on the rope something had shoved him, propelling him upward. He hadn’t stopped to analyze it. Crouching, he hauled the ladder up until it was piled in a tangled heap. The intense bright moon scattered shadows until Barney made out shapes cluttering the inside. He picked up a flashlight, surprised when it clicked alive. The tube of light ricocheted off the walls, illuminating the trophies of his children’s storybook days. Those childhood days seemed brief to him now. He couldn’t remember them.
Too much in here, he thought, too much for any of it to have any value or meaning. Too much for all of us for too long a time, so much that we discard it and sentence it to life in a lonely tree house prison and forget it.
The flashlight pinned a bottle in the corner. He peered at it, shaking his head. A pint of mint gin, almost half gone. Shows how much I know about my family, he thought. Let’s see, no, Joann is out, she makes an Everest climb out of the three steps up to the front porch, she’d never tackle a rope ladder. Shirley? Five years old, now that’s dumb, Pelham, progressive education in kindergarten couldn’t have gone that far. That leaves old wise-eyed Owen.
He flopped down on the floor and dangled his legs out the opening. The moon watched him, wearing its crazy man mask, inviting conversation. So Barney talked to it between slugs of mint gin, talked about the important things, things no one had listened to in years. Barney Pelham, the ad man. He could still twist the slick phrase that sent consumers like stampeding sheep out to buy brand x or y. The mass hypnosis he performed on the buying public was legendary. He’d hypnotized his family too; buy, acquire, collect, discard, buy again. Now he was a communicator who failed to communicate the important things. Truth be told, he hadn’t tried for a long while. So he talked to the moon until its crazy man mask faded in the pearl gray dawn. By the time the first cranky birds began to scold the sun, he knew what he had to do. Get their attention.
At seven nineteen that Saturday morning Barney Pelham started to shoot holes in McAfee’s windows. Owen’s unused air rifle lay steadied across the ledge of the glassless tree house window. Six boxes of pellets and the last of the mint gin. One pellet at a time. Pump pump pump until he couldn’t pull the level back against the stock. Squeeze trigger. Thwock. Good clean holes right down the line. McAfee came charging out across the dewy grass not knowing where he wanted to go. Suddenly aware of his exposed position he half crouched, trying to bunch his body into a ball. His six foot four skeleton frame and hatchet face made a perfect target. Barney painted an imaginary bull’s-eye on his shiny billiard ball skull. He laughed.
“Don’t worry McAfee you bloodless bastard,” he yelled, “you’re too rotten to die!” He swung the rifle right and fired at his own windows. It was one hell of a mess, McAfee swiveling his head trying to locate the voice and the thwacks, McAfee’s wife wailing across the lawn, her tight robe exposing too much thigh and breast. Then Joann the mummy stumbled out the front door blinking, chin strap hanging, eye shade rucked up over protruding curlers, face blotched with patches of cream, a prehistoric creature spewed up from a swamp, mouth working a sleep thick phlegmy voice. “Wha---wha?” Behind her, pajama clad Owen and Shirley.
Barney stood tall and naked in the opening, brandished the gin bottle, threw back his head and yelled. “Ya---hoo!” They stared up in disbelief. He bowed with a flourish.
“Good morning all and welcome to Pelham’s Saturday Morning Frolics! Everyone grab a funny hat and noisemaker and we’ll turn this troubled old world upside down! With my magic zappo wand I’ll turn that creature there into a wife and mother, and those two unsmiling hunks of stone’ll become, believe it or not, real live children! Imagine! We’ll actually speak to each other! Oh the romance of communication and understanding, oh the tug of my heart strings!”
In the sharp silence Barney heard Owen’s teeth grinding. Nasty habit that kid has, he thought.
Joann the mummy thrust her uncorseted flab forward. “Barney you come down here right this minute!”
Barney grinned. “As the guys on my block used to say when they wanted to make a point, Up Yours!”
There was an explosion of movement, McAfee and Joann alternately shouting and pleading, Shirley whining in a machine gun staccato, tromping on the flower bed, Owen hustling to the rock garden, bending and selecting. Barney saw his blurred hand snap down. A rock chunked against the tree inches from his head. Barney scaled the gin bottle sidearm but Owen dodged and bent down again.
“See that,” Barney yelled at Joann, “your son’s probably an alcoholic, among other things!”
Shirley joined her brother in the great fun of trying to brain their father, while McAfee and McAfee’s wife and Joann hurled a barrage of warnings. Barney grabbed the air gun as rocks pinged off the boards and ricocheted off the walls.
I oughtta put a pellet right in that kid’s ass, be the best thing ever happened to him.
Instead he slid to the floor in a corner, huddling his naked gooseflesh, chilled by morning dampness. His joints ached. Hangover fuzz thickened his tongue. A dull throb vise gripped his temples.
Ah what the hell, what was he knocking himself out for, hiding in a tree house wouldn’t change a thing, Joann would be late for the beauty parlor, god knew she couldn’t afford to miss a session, tonight’s party would be off, Owen would probably grow up to be a sensitive boob because of his father’s misdeeds. And what about Monday, how could he convince people that cleaning their toilet bowls was an enriching experience? McAfee must be busting a gut. “If a man doesn’t understand himself he can’t persuade the public to buy what it doesn’t need.” Famous McAfeeism. Well I do understand myself and I understand the public and McAfee, good old boss man McAfee, taught me all I know, taught me to chase that bitch goddess success. Sure I understand, that’s the whole problem.
He cocked his head to the curious silence outside. He edged over to the doorway and peered suspiciously at his lawn. Joann and the kids and McAfee’s wife stood in a tense knot. Paloma and his wife had reinforced the ground troops and McAfee was propping a ladder against the tree. Barney whirled, searching for another weapon. He spotted the bow and arrow set hanging from a nail under the indian headdress. The arrows had suction cup tips. He leaned out the opening just as McAfee stepped onto the third rung. The ladder teetered. Bowstring pulled back taut, twang release, and the arrow whizzed down to a loud splat impact on McAfee’s apple polished skull. He reeled backward, windmilling his arms, and sat on the grass with a strangled oomph, the arrow bobbing back and forth.
“You look like a goddam unicorn!” Barney roared. He fired arrows like some naked Prometheus defying the gods by stealing the fire of knowledge. Below him the unicorn and the furies howled their curses as they danced and dodged his missiles.
Suddenly a rock slammed into his chest.
He dropped the bow, staring in amazement at the broken skin and the blood snaking down toward his navel. He looked up to see Owen watching him with hooded eyes, his mouth set in grim satisfaction. Barney grabbed the rifle and pumped. Owen’s slack body jerked in fear and he dropped the rocks and turned and ran for the house. Barney fired. Owen lurched, grabbed the seat of his pants, sat down hard and rubbed himself against the grass.
“Barney are you insane?” Joann screeched.
“We’ll put a stop to this right now,” McAfee shouted, storming toward his house yanking the arrow from his skull.
Barney leaned against the wall, fingering his puckered wound. The battlefield was quiet again.
Well at least we’re communicating, at least I’m getting a rise out of them, shaking up their sterile lives. Stupid kid, a pellet in his ass, but no tears, not a yell. What kind of kid is he, what kind of people am I living with, what kind of man am I?
He felt rather than heard the thunk. The vibration shivered up through the floor into the soles of his feet, singing through his veins, shooting a sharp pain across his head. He poked his face through the opening. McAfee, red faced and sweating, was swinging an axe. Barney saw a piece of bark arc over the man’s shoulder. Panic stopped his heart for a moment and then he wheeled around and grabbed what he could find. He rained down broken dolls and toy soldiers and ray guns, flung hundreds of bottle caps and thousands of bubble gum baseball cards, hurled jars and bottles that rattled with unknown contents and stacks of comic books, threw rocks and balls of string and hunks of tinfoil and coloring books and cutout doll books and an old sneaker. He threw the rifle and the boxes of pellets and kept throwing long after everyone was out of range, until he couldn’t raise his arm, until there was nothing left to throw. He caught his breath and yelled.
“Touch this tree again with that axe and I’ll jump down on you and kill you!”
He paced the empty tree house, worrying about the tree. His chest throbbed. He touched his wound and stared at his sticky fingers. Was that blood or sap? Was the tree bleeding, dying? Across town the fire horn croaked, sounding noon. Pelham’s Saturday Morning Frolics was over, off the air.
“Barney we called the fire department and the police, you’ll have to come down now!” Was there something strange in Joann’s voice? Emotion, perhaps?
The siren wail alerted him.
Thing is it’s my fault, I made them this way, gave them everything and taught them to value nothing, sold them a life they didn’t need. Pelham the ad man.
The siren was deafening.
What a hassle, cops and firemen, I really chopped up their lives the way McAfee tried to chop down the tree, oh god it’s gotta be here when I get back, they need it to remind them that life is more than hustling and status and things. I need that tree!
The fire engine careened into the driveway and cut across the flowerbeds onto the lawn, followed by the squad car. Over the noise he yelled at Joann to get someone to look at the tree. The lawn became a Mack Sennett movie set, police, firemen, neighbors.
Naked, grinning, Barney Pelham stepped into the doorway and thumbed his nose, waiting.
Published on-line in 2004 at www.sunoasis.com .