Thom sat in class and remembered for a moment an image of being in the vestibule of a Denny’s, momentarily separated from the heat of the restaurant and the cold outside, watching the big rigs on the highway, looking inside of a rack at a USA Today with a picture of Ronald Reagan standing in front of a huge American flag, the boy thinking that his life was so far away from the little histories of the world that appeared every morning in the newspaper.
Thom sat in a short wooden desk in the center of the small, square classroom. He was wearing a collared blue shirt with horizontal white lines and an alligator patch. His dark brown corduroys had holes starting at the knees. He was wearing checkerboard slip-on sneakers.
There were rows and rows of short wooden desks, some still with holes for inkwells, particle board desks with laminated woodgrain that was peeling on the top. Rows of children sat with their short legs bent underneath their desks. The girls with no makeup on, the boys with a visible coat of dirt on their faces. Brown, green, and blue-eyed girls and boys—black, brown, and blond-haired girls and boys—lighter and darker-skinned girls and boys—all with the same vague memories of children born in the late seventies, memories that were square, colorful, and crisp like Polaroids.
They were children who watched the same cartoons, and learned the same things about Columbus. Children whose brains were paint-by-number the same, who only had shirts with different plaids and stripes, different parents, and different memorized addresses and phone numbers.
The children’s silent and patient faces looked sad because children are always smiling in photographs. The children looked blank with soft looks on their faces. Children with the names of youth, four Jennifers, three Jonathans, and two Marks. Children who looked like little men and women, dressed up with hair combed and hair-sprayed by their mothers.
These children spent young lifetimes in small desks. But in the end they knew how to read, they knew about George Washington cutting down a cherry tree as a boy and growing up to throw a silver dollar across the Potomac.
The third-grade classroom had plastic cloth covered walls and posters of Garfield. Miss Maple said that they were waiting for Mrs. Shelby’s class to be ready. “In the meantime, you can read quietly or just sit,” she said.
The boy looked back at the clock. Big hand is on the minutes, no little hand is on the minutes, that means it’s—8:10, Thom thought.
Days like today, the gray days of late January, reminded Thom of his past, not a gloomy past, but the foggy past of his mind looked more like winter ending than spring and summer beginnings.
The youthful, gray days when his mind felt like it was a flower that wouldn’t open for the fog covered sun. It was a new year and he knew he would remember at least two days in 1986, a birthday that would taste like ice cream mixed with cake, and a Christmas of brand new He-Men, but today was just another January twenty-eighth, one of the 363 other days. A year full of days with the same three chores, learning to spell, subtract, and take the garbage to the steel gray trash barrel.
Thom sat thinking of what kind of year all of these days would turn out to be. Every year he wrote a short sentence about his year, and put it in the bottom of the box of the thousand piece Donald Duck puzzle that his mother made every New Year’s Eve. He started writing the little diary in 1984, so the piece of paper couldn’t help him with the mystery of the years starting with 1983 and going backwards. In the boy’s memory, 1983 baseball cards seemed like the distant past, but 1984 baseball cards smelled like yesterday. In-between the wax packs and chalky gum of 1983 and 1984 there was a chasm of time. The chasm was like implacable photographs from ordinary days. Those years were like pictures of normal days taken by parents to fill up the roll: The boy or girl standing in the backyard wearing his father’s or her mother’s shoes, standing in front of the splintering dull brown fence, standing on the sad green grass interwoven with veiny yellow crabgrass.
The memories of his life were often single words. He was born in raw umber 1978—and he was one in lemon yellow 1979—two in maize 1980—three in sea green 1981—four in silver 1982—five in thistle 1983—six in tan 1984—seven in burnt sienna 1985—and eight in 1986, a year that so far looked like cinnamon.
Starting in burnt sienna 1985, his life was clearer. Sitting at the tiny desks, made of the same particle board fiber as the pencils: two hundred and eight times. Sitting on the brown plaid sofa watching television and laughing at cartoon animals: three hundred and sixty-five times. Sitting on the woodframe bed saying prayers for mothers and fathers: three hundred and sixty-five times.
He knew no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t make himself remember this day, because it was just another day, a Tuesday followed by a Wednesday like always, but if he didn’t try to remember it, a feeling from the day might come back in his mind; his memory was like a diary that always flipped open to the shortest entry that almost wasn’t written. Little flashbacks of an individual moment of an individual day, a flash of a moment in his life with emotion and images.
They were comfort memories that came to his brain like a block of sun on the carpeting in mid-morning in America in the mid-1980s on a halcyon stay-at-home-sick day. A warm, constant, and soft feeling in his brain that made his mind create small tears. A warm light that hit his skin and was too bright for his eyes. A sad and sweet memory that became a place to wander back to, through the stick forest of his mind.
Memory was never as specific as firm moments of time, as the boy sat in a comfortably solid desk in the crisp cold of an early morning classroom. Life was only filled with days that are identical and infinite at age eight when it is the winter. The boy doodled little cartoons of Odie on his binder, and when he could remember it, he wrote the day’s date. He would look back at the dates on his folder a few months later. Today he saw 6/3/85 and it felt like lifetimes ago. He didn’t know what happened that day, the date was like a blank newspaper. He could picture himself looking back at today’s date and thinking what a long time ago all of this was. How many little things he had seen but not remembered.
“Mrs. Shelby is almost ready,” Miss Maple said. “Feel free to talk quietly with your neighbors.”
Isobel sat in the desk in front of him and graded his papers when they were passed forward. She had sat in front of him the last few years because their last names started with the same letters. Thom didn’t mind when her hair would fall on his desk. When they played Heads Up 7-up he liked to smell her blond hair.
Isobel was wearing a pencil skirt and a red blouse with white hearts. Her tights were a bright, synthetic white color, a shiny white like the white crayon that can color over anything. Over her tights were a pair of blue Mary Jane jellies.
“Hey Isobel,” Thom said, and she turned around in her desk. “I noticed that you know how to draw little stars when the answer is right.”
“Yeah, my sister taught me,” she said.
“I always draw little asterisks, because when I try to draw the little stars, they end up looking kind of bad.”
“I could try to show you how, it’s pretty simple,” she said.
“Thanks,” he said, and playfully tapped her shoe with his.
“I like your shoes,” she said. “They look easy because you don’t have to tie them.”
“Yeah, that’s another thing,” he said. “I can’t even really tie shoes how you’re supposed to, instead of having the bunny run around the tree, I just make two big bunny ears and tie them together.”
“It looks like you need a lot of help,” she said, giggling.
“Yeah, I would feel bad if I got old and became a millionaire but never really knew how to draw a real star or tie a shoe right.”
She laughed. “You’re silly, then you could just get a star and shoe secretary, if you were a millionaire.”
“Oh yeah,” he laughed. They both looked away for a moment, in the silence of youth that hasn’t become awkward yet.
Thom started, “I know you live around the corner from me, do you want to come over, I don’t really know what my mom is cooking tonight, but….”
“Sure, I never knew why you didn’t want to walk home with me,” she said.
“My mom would want you to come at, like, six o’clock. I’ll bring the Coke if you’ll bring the smile,” he said, thinking that’s what the advertisement said. “We can play Super Mario Bros. I’ve beaten it, found all the warp zones, and the underwater world, but I read in a magazine that there might be a chocolate factory that you can find.”
“That’s pretty cool,” she said. “Just like Willy Wonka.”
“Yeah, I’ve never seen it, but I think it would probably be like a conveyor belt with little bars of chocolate that you could pick up.”
“I hope you can find it,” she said.
Isobel turned back around in her desk and the boy thought about how children all drew stars the same way, but stars in the sky didn’t look like they had five corners. He thought about how all children drew the sun the same way. A yellow circle with rays. Maybe that’s what the sun looks like, he thought, because there’s only that one sun to look up at in the sky, or maybe a kid drew it once and everybody copied.
During science hour the day before, Miss Maple had taught them about the sun, an important part of the water cycle. “But if you look into the sun too long, you’ll go blind,” Miss Maple said. She had shown them the welder’s glass they could use. “Galileo went blind looking at the sun,” she said. “Halley’s Comet is coming in a few months, and there will also be a partial solar eclipse in a few weeks, so you must remember sun safety. There’s going to be a lot of science projects in the sky in the next few months, so you always have to think if you’re doing everything the safest you can.” Miss Maple was talking about how Galileo built his own telescope and found mountains on the moon when the boy behind Thom started singing Queen.
“Gal-i-le-o la la la figaro, magnifico,” he sung.
Miss Maple stopped when she heard the boy and asked, “Yes, Raymond?”
“Do you know the other way you can go blind?” he asked, laughing. “Oh, I mean—how long do you have to look to go blind?”
Miss Maple scowled at him. “I really don’t know,” she said. “Seven seconds, how about that. You have to look for exactly seven seconds, Raymond. But don’t think it’s too fun to sell pencils on the corner for a quarter because you couldn’t do anything else.”
The bell for recess rang, and Miss Maple spoke over it as the children rumpled their papers. “I dismiss you, not the bell. Don’t forget tomorrow, first thing in the morning, we will meet here then walk to the library together. We are going to have a special science hour with Mrs. Shelby’s class. If you all ready know what the special science hour is going to be, don’t ruin it by telling your buddies. You’re dismissed.”
“We will not let you go, let him go,” Raymond sang Queen again as he and Thom walked through the tetherball circles and the foursquare courts.
“Do you know what the surprise is for tomorrow? I want to tell everybody and ruin it for Miss Maple,” Raymond said.
“Nope,” Thom said. He felt his white lie was okay because he was in love with Miss Maple; he thought of her whenever he thought of waffles, pancakes, and bees.
“Once I had this birthday party,” Raymond said. “It was with Ronald McDonald at McDonalds and everybody got a cheeseburger and an orange soda and Ronald came out with a sundae for me and he gave me the sundae and said, ‘What do you say, son?’ and I said, ‘Ram it, clown!’ and everybody was laughing at the clown and I thought his makeup would run because he would start crying.”
While he was talking, Thom was thinking if trees just made syrup, not bees inside of trees, and if bees just made honey.
“I wanted it to be a surprise party for my mom, too,” Raymond added, laughing.
There were hundreds of assorted boys and girls playing on the blacktop at recess. Thom saw the girls and they made him want to buy a Madonna record and ask them to dance. And he saw the girls and they made him want to ask them if they wanted to come over and have a Coca-Cola. The truck had delivered a “new Coke” vending machine a few days before. Thom made sure his mother bought some, and he saved a can of regular Coke so he could offer a girl both. Then he would say he liked the other one better and they could talk about it and maybe trade. That would almost be like kissing, he thought.
“Mrs. Shelby is ready, class,” Miss Maple said. “Thank you for waiting so patiently, boys and girls.”
Thom looked at the clock quickly and saw it was 6:40. That would be earlier than last time, big hand is the hours, little hand is the minutes, so it’s— 8:30, he thought. Miss Maple walked all of the children to the library in a silent, straight, and alphabetized line. Thom sat Indian style and waited on the hard brown carpeting and traced along his legs. When it was 1986 in America and the days consisted of waiting for things to happen in small, square rooms with windows and a television. The ridges of his fingertips ran along the lines of the corduroy material. His fingerprints pulsed with little shocks of pain. The children looked up at the blue screen of the television. Thom looked out of one window in the row of small windows above the shelves of slim children’s books. The window had the rising sun inside of it, but the boy tilted his head backwards and made the sun dip out of view. The window was a square of blue.
The television man’s voice appeared. Thom noticed that all of the children were looking up, silently. The television man said, “Yes, she will be the first teacher in space.”
The television man counted down from ten. There were undulating sounds of the televised crowd chattering. Ten 9 Eight 7 Six 5 Four 3 Two 1.
Simultaneously, the boy counted up to seven, while he stared at the sun. He wanted something to happen, he wanted to do the things that he always saw going on outside of windows or on television. One one-thousand Two one-thousand Three one-thousand Four one-thousand Five one-thousand Six one-thousand Seven one-thousand.
The sun is a bright little painting in a window frame, the boy thought. Thom noticed that the same time took him seven seconds to count and the television man ten seconds. He didn’t know who was right, but he knew he counted the way he was told to, because the space between the number one and two was exactly the time it took to say “one-thousandth.” The boy didn’t know how many seconds of time it took the world. Then he remembered he thought “thousand” instead of “thousandth.” He thought to say “th” seven times and see how long that took, but then he realized he couldn’t count himself while doing it.
He had forgotten to look if there was a rabbit in the sun, like there is a rabbit in the moon, but he didn’t think that the sun had any mountains.
The boy watched the television for a moment, the shuttle rising as the children talked and giggled. The boy watched the window again, dipping his head back to make the sun disappear. When he closed his eyes the sun was still with him, like the afterimage that follows a camera flash. The sun was a small tile on his eyelids that alternated red and blue when he blinked. On his eyelids was painted a black-yellow afterimage and circles floating around in the chromosomal whey of dead red blood cells.
The mission control man said, “Sixty seconds aflight.”
The boy started counting from sixty, he blinked his eyes as the red and blue tile dropped lower and lower on his eyes-closed field of vision. The yellow sun made him see the other two primary colors. Sixty-one brick red Sixty-two midnight blue Sixty-three Indian red Sixty-four navy blue Sixty-five violet red Sixty-six aquamarine Sixty-seven red orange Sixty-eight turquoise blue Sixty-nine orange red Seventy sky blue Seventy-one carnation pink Seventy-Two blue gray. At seventy-three, the children gasped as the boy saw a burned oval on his eyelid, neither red nor blue, but a dot like a pinhole in a paper cup.
The television man said, “That could be, no—that is just the booster rocket that separated, there is a problem, that is not supposed to happen.” Thom turned to the television and saw the plumage of smoke and a booster rocket showing that machines act like chickens when they lose their heads.
Behind Thom, Raymond started singing another Queen song, “Thump—thump— thump—and another one bites the dust,” he hummed.
Behind him, he heard Miss Maple loudly try to whisper to Mrs. Shelby, “What are you supposed to do, Cindy, this was supposed to be a damned civics lesson, where’s the remote?”
The television screen quickly turned to static, then a blue screen, then it flashed off into black.
Thom walked home around the other children whose lives were probably like his: ruled by the sun. Suburban mother got up at sunrise to wake the children. Suburban father said good morning but goodbye for nine hours. Children played until sundown in the streets, and some days Thom would join them. The girls chased and the boys ran, smelling like the sour odor of children before puberty brings sweet-smelling sweat. The sour, simple, after-school world of children under the delirium of candy, soda, and cartoon vitamins. Girls and boys not watching sunsets together, only skipping along and hating the oncoming nightfall in the gray rocky street as the painful orange sun drops behind the farthest thing on the horizon.
Today Thom decided to go directly home, because he would only have three hours to wait until Isobel came. He hadn’t seen her after school, so he hoped that she would remember to come for dinner. After brushing his teeth three times, he sat in the living room with the curtains hanging open to reveal a still day of parked cars and square houses with slightly different shades of paint.
The square room was still, in the calming, almost dark light that dimmed outside. None of the harsh light of midday came in through the window, the light that suggested energy and motion.
There was a coffee table covered by Time, Newsweek, and Life. The covers promised stories on the young men of the New York Stock Exchange, the U.S.S.R., and Michael J. Fox. The View section of the Los Angeles Times was spread out, the date reading January 28th, 1986. The boy looked at the newspaper and sadly thought about what would be the headline of every newspaper in America the next day. He turned on the television and the Nintendo at the same time so he wouldn’t have to see what he thought would be on every channel of the television.
The boy sat on the soft brown carpeting in the off-white room, playing Super Mario Bros. When it was 1986 in America and the nights consisted of waiting for things to happen in small, square rooms with windows and a television. There was the American clutter of sound of fathers coming home grumpy but a little richer and mothers cooking one of eleven different dinners.
Isobel came to the door at exactly six o’clock, dropped off by her mother in an Oldsmobile station wagon. Thom hoped that she liked chicken and rice.
Isobel and Thom sat in the living room with their legs underneath themselves. They sat like children who went to school and church, so they had been trained to sit quietly six days out of the week, silent with unbored minds.
“Do you want to play Super Mario Bros. until dinner is ready?” he asked.
“I like to be Luigi because he’s green. Even his moustache is green,” he said.
They sat just a few inches from the television screen. While Isobel was playing her turn on the game, Thom looked closely at the television, close enough to see the little pixels in the screen. They fit together like the little buds inside an orange slice, the boy thought, but in oranges they are all the same color. Instead of the primary colors from art class, he saw green, red, and blue dancing as the pictures changed. The colors fit together on the television to bring pictures of video game heroes, cartoons, and presidents. He wondered why lemons and the sun were the same color, if they were made up of the same little parts. He had looked at the sun closely today, but not close enough to see its little pieces. He wondered if it was made of red, blue, and yellow, or if all the red and blue had burned up.
Coming from other rooms there was the sound of a briefcase opening and a microwave timer beeping. Thom overheard scattered words between his parents. “Today was like,” his mother said. “JFK… on Interstate 12 with Dad… at Vassar at the time… through those tinny little speakers… pulled to the side, we weren’t the only….”
“Yes, exactly,” his father said. “I was… biscuits and gravy in East Lansing… Jack was the hero for everybody at Pencey… the woman in the booth next to me was… the cook told the waiter who told me that….”
Mario got killed by a Koopa Troopa, and then Luigi ran through all of level 1-1 only to be paused right before he hit the flagpole.
“Do you want something to drink?” Thom asked.
“Sure,” she said.
“We have Coke,” he said. “Both new Coke and Coke Classic, which one do you like?” he asked.
“I’ll have a new Coke.”
“Sure,” he said, walking to the refrigerator, past his father in the dining room and his mother in the kitchen.
“How are you kids doing?” his mother asked. “You’re some quiet ones, aren’t you?”
“Yup,” he said, grabbing the two cold cans.
“What are you kids watching?” she asked. “I hope it’s nothing smutty, do you remember that I said you couldn’t watch ‘The Love Connection?’”
“Yeah, I know, Mom. Thanks for buying the Coke,” he said cheerfully, trying to change the subject.
“You’re welcome, Thomas, but remember, only one per day.”
As he returned to the living room, he asked Isobel, “Why do you like this one more?”
She took the can of new Coke and opened it with a pop, the painful sound of tearing metal. Little droplets flew onto the carpeting. “It’s more sweet, and kinda smoother,” she said.
“Can I try it?” he asked.
“Sure,” she said. He leaned over to trade with her. As he handed the Coke Classic with his left hand and took new Coke with his right, he noticed that she had a droplet of Coke on her lip. Thom kissed Isobel like he had seen on black and white television shows; he kissed her how Ricky kisses Lucy, with closed lips and a pucker sound.
When he kissed her, the cans tipped slightly in his hands, showing the uneasiness of his stomach. He saw himself for a second as the boy inside the window, not the boy looking into the window. “You’re right, it is sweeter,” he said. He liked the mixing of the taste of a girl’s and a boy’s lips, but he didn’t know which part of the taste was girl and which part was cola. His tart lips only tasted the corn syrup of girls and soda.
He pressed the power button and the video game blinked off, replaced by a commercial for the eleven o’clock news. He watched it and was glad that the only bullies in his world were the goofy, overgrown kids, and that his world was usually sheltered from the criminals and tragedies of the eleven o’clock news.
Thom looked at her blushing cheeks and turned around to face the window, and Isobel slid around next to him. Thom thought of how he would grow and have the same mind but he would be an adult, and some day he would marry a woman who was a girl at the same time that he was a boy, and her cheeks would stay pale when he kissed her.
“The sky is a pretty color today,” she said, as he saw her looking out at the gray picture, the street, lightposts, and sky.
“It looks like that gray blue crayon color, a little gray and a little blue, but not really either,” he said then paused. “I wonder if anybody could invent a new color. Like if the explosion today made a new color, you know, like a mix of gray and blue that nobody had invented before.”
“Yeah, you can invent new colors,” she said. “My mother has an old crayon box, and there are only, like, sixty-four colors in it, not seventy-two.”
“Cool. I know I like how green blue and blue green are different colors in the box, one’s a little more blue, and the other’s a little more green. Then, not the Crayola, but the Prang blue green is different too,” he said. “But then I shouldn’t really be telling you things, because didn’t you win the spelling bee and the grammar rodeo?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she said shyly. “My mom makes me study a lot.”
Thom and Isobel sat in the quiet warm hum of a house filled with bodies and a heater. Thom heard the voice of Ronald Reagan come onto the television behind him. Ronald Reagan acting as a pitchman for America, selling truth in the 1980s like he sold Sears collared shirts in the 1950s.
And he spoke firm, soft, unbitter, confident, strong, human, calm, true.
About attention, connection, beauty, journey, influence, death, nature, experience.
How America should believe, hope, know, learn, wonder, desire, suffer.
And Thom and Isobel looked out the window with the words behind them, they looked out at the graying blue sky; he heard the words inside of his eight-year-old head inside of suburban America on a day in the 1980s. The wood on the windowsill was chipping, covered in dirt and dust; they looked through the mesh screen with patched holes, they saw the silence of the street with no cars driving by and no gray-haired couples jogging in sweats.
The boy thought of all of the people sitting sadly on their couches inside of the closed blinds that he could see, listening to Ronald Reagan and thinking of their grandfather whose advice they never took but was comforting, listening in silence surrounded by everything that they owned, the new couches, new televisions with state-of-the-art rabbit ears, and they shared the dreams and the sadness of all of the people on similar couches with similar carpeting and similar wives, husbands, and children, and now they worried about astronauts dying in the sky, along with the other things they were supposed to worry about this week, the stock market falling from the sky, and a country with an Iron Curtain, but at least there were funnymen on the television every night.
The boy turned around for a moment, looking from the gray sky to the president at a huge wooden desk with a flag behind him, the president with his black and gray hair, and Thom thought how the man’s loose face was comforting.
As Isobel left, Thom sat on the brown plaid couch and looked out the window as she walked to her mother’s waiting car, at eight o’clock sharp; he watched the car go around the street, curving out of view like she always curved out of view when she walked home ahead of him. He took out his binder to do his homework and looked at all of the unremembered days. His eyes ran across 2/7/84 4/3/84 5/17/84 6/4/84 9/28/84 12/17/84 1985! 1/11/85 3/20/85 3/28/85 6/3/85 11/13/85 12/9/85 I LOVE MADONNA 1/16/86. He wrote 1/28/86 only on his green lined notebook paper.
He could picture a story about the day in large print in American history books with glossy pages, with pictures of shuttles and people; tomorrow’s school-children would look at pictures of children in schools and in the background there might be girls and boys not paying attention and girls and boys telling jokes, even though they know all the answers but don’t raise their hands, the page would be near the end of the book and it wouldn’t be assigned because summer would come too quickly to finish, but it would be there.
He turned off the television and the picture shrank slowly into a smaller and smaller square, like the pinprick that had slowly disappeared from his eyes, and his mind brought him back to a day that it was raining in America and he looked up to the sky and realized that the drops of rain were falling straight down from a very high place.