Fred finds the starlight
“With what agonizing facility we can give up a wish, a passion, stemming from the most essential part of ourselves.”- Raoul Vaneigem
Fred had stopped, involuntarily, under the leafless arms of a young maple tree. He’d been walking for several blocks, a familiar scene, though he could have taken the bus right to the intersection; instead, he got off a half-mile back to buy a little time. Now, within sight of the hydrant on the corner, he found could not take another step. From the curb, if he’d stepped off the bus there, one hundred paces would have brought him to the fence and the trellis and the latched gate that opened upon his mother’s front walk. When he’d gone away, this tree he leaned his arm against had been a stick of a thing. What was he doing here, anyway?
It had started with his rabbit and had snowballed from there. He’d spoken at the party as if he knew something; as if there were something to be found here that he needed. Esmeralda, too, had spoken to his wayward bunny, or said she did, but given what he’d been through lately, he was inclined to believe her. Nonetheless, in spite of the rabbit’s hectoring about lost dreams, he was quite sure that seeing his mother was not one of them.
Always, as far back as his short memory took him, he had calculated, added, estimated, saved. Some kids had bikes, wagons, swings, bears—Fred’s favorite things had always been books and his calculator. How many weeks’ allowance would it take to buy a book? How many times to wash the car or mow the lawn to afford a bus ticket to Grandma’s? When she died before he saved enough, which he resented, not so much that gram hadn’t waited or that death was cruel, but that his mother had paid so poorly, and knowing his desire, hadn’t seen fit to help him see her.
His first job, when he was 14, was at a little mom & pop pizza shop up the hill from his house, which job he landed by lying and saying he was 16. The owner didn’t bother to check, nor did he bother with minimum wage. No problem for Fred, who was happy to begin saving his money, such as it was, first for a bike, and after that purchase, for a place of his own. He worked after school, three hours a day, weekends, too. Mr. Delfigio paid him in cash, $84 a week. He was a good worker, and by the time he left there at age 16, he’d learned to do everything, from firing up the huge ovens to throwing pizza, running the cash register and locking up at night. Though by then he had work papers and a job at Eat’n’Park, he lied and said he was 18 when he applied for his first apartment, a nasty little basement studio a mile from his high school. The man who showed him the place was highly skeptical until Fred insisted on paying for the whole year’s rent in advance; the man stopped asking questions. That was the end of living at home and Fred began to evolve his eccentric lifestyle from that tender age. His mother made no effort to retrieve him. He’d known she wouldn’t look for him, or call the police to haul him back, no doubt thinking “Good riddance at long last” and so got on with her life. He was truly grateful, this once at least, for her indifference. He was so used to pretending to be older than he was, and so unusually sophisticated was the manner in which he spoke, that most people accepted whatever he chose to tell them.
At school, he switched from College Prep to Business, determined to get as much knowledge as possible toward some kind of financial work. He excelled, of course, and was given recommendations from his high school teachers right after graduation. Fred went straight out into the working world, foregoing college.
Fred tried to smile, there under the mature yet familiar tree, thinking of how he might make a gesture to break apart the torture machine that had bound these two ill-equipped souls together, a gesture that, no matter how crude and ineffective, might start a revolution in his life. What was called for was a situation, as Debord would say, though he had no idea what such a gesture might be. He found, however, as he thought this over, that he was walking again.
Soon the little white Cape Cod with the slate gray roof came into view, right next to the Buxton’s yellow brick ranch style house with the blue reflective ball sitting in a ring of withered hostas. A blue and white Coldwell Banker sign stood in the midst of his mother’s perfectly fenced, green square of lawn. One leaf only had dared to blow into the immaculate enclosure.
The mailbox beside the door had the name Trapp stenciled on it. That was news; he had no idea what that might mean.
He knocked on the door, waiting, looking in an unfocused way at the cast-iron door knocker. The leaves of the rhododendrons that flanked the front door steps were still glossy green. It seemed to take so long for an answer, that he’d nearly convinced himself she wasn’t home, almost had made the turn to dash away, when he heard the sound of the doorknob turning.
The woman who stood in front of him was an apparition that bore no connection to his long-imagined, vampiric mother. It was stunning really: she looked as if she might be his own age; at least, not old enough to have brought him into the world, which in some ways, considering how young she’d been when he came into her life, was true. Had she always looked this young? This woman, in pressed gray slacks and a cashmere V-neck, her dark hair swept in sculpted waves off her narrow forehead, had flung a hand to either side of the doorway, so that she filled the open space like a barrier.
“Frederick,” she said with careful diction, her eyes narrowed to take him in, the thin lines that bracketed her mouth deepening.
He was trying not to feel anything, to leave the panic unrecognized in his stomach, to hold his ground.
“I scarcely believed you would come. I wrote four months ago.”
“I’m here now. Am I allowed to enter?”
She stood sentinel, still holding to the door frame with one hand, but let him pass into the pale green living room that appeared to be stage-decorated for a middle class Petit Trianon. Either she’d come into a little money or she was obscenely in debt. She sat down and motioned him toward a chair, but he remained standing. They stared at each other as long minutes passed.
“What was it you wanted from me?”
“I?” his mother said with astonishment and a wicked little cut-off laugh. “I want nothing from you. It happens that you left behind a few items when you ran away fourteen years ago that I was good enough to box up for your prodigal return. Now here you are, and I would like you to take them away.”
“In the attic?” He asked glancing toward the ceiling.
“I would hardly have such detritus lying about in my home, I don’t think.”
How low falleth the valedictorian! He wondered if she was still working as a secretary. He looked at her with a piercing hatred, and walked past to gain the stairs. Nothing, nothing about her had changed.
Luckily, she did not follow. Why would she? She no more wanted him in her life than she did in her home. And who was Trapp? Had she, was she married?
He paused on the landing to peek into the room that had once been his. Opening the door a crack, he saw what looked like an office, with a big oak desk, shelves crammed with books, and diplomas on the wall. It smelled stuffy and the curtains were drawn. He had to admit he knew nothing about the person sitting downstairs in the living room, no matter what his relationship to her might once have been.
The attic door was at the end of the hall. He unlatched it and trudged up the hollow, wooden stairs. The air was dusty and close. A little light filtered in though a small window beside the chimney. There were two boxes shoved toward the edge of the stair wall, with the word “FRED” careful written upon them. It was rather astonishing that she’d kept anything that had been his; he hadn’t expected that and had, therefore, carefully taken away all that he had thought would be necessary when he made his final departure.
Fred unzipped the overnight bag he’d brought along, and opened the first box. There on top, tucked in an old rag of a white blanket was his beloved childhood toy, Bun. He’d slept with this stuffed rabbit from his earliest memories, and continued to do so long after he let anyone know he did. A twelve-year-old cuddling a ratty, stuffed bunny? He had been a pimply, unpopular jerk enough as it was. Oh, Bun! How times had forsaken you.
Of course, once, when Fred was still in his crib, Bun had been soft and full-bodied, sleek in his plush white fur. He had worn a pink satin bow at his neck and had matching pink satin lining in his ears. His eyes were shiny black domes and his nose was stitched in pink floss. He lifted Bun from the blanket and held him before his eyes. His head listed to one side and one ear hung limply, the pink lining in tatters. The black eyes were scuffed and the fur all rubbed off, but the little arms still held themselves out from the lumpy body, begging for a hug.
“I still love you, Bun,” Fred said, stroking the dingy, little head. He lifted the white blanket, in even worse shape than Bun, to rewrap him, when recognition hit: here flooded a memory of something earlier than his conscious mind; sunny, light-filled, white painted bars, someone singing, this blanket in his fist and a wet thumb in his mouth. Good God. Blankie.
He was gentle with Blankie and Bun as he folded them together and tucked them in a corner of the bag. His eyes were damp. What else could there be in these boxes, after this?
The going got a little easier with discarded tennis shoes, a deflated basketball, and an old fishbowl. At the bottom, was a stack of books: Winnie the Pooh, Alice in Wonderland, one of the Oz books with the great drawings inside, and a few picture books with their covers falling off. He remembered every one of them, opened each in turn and read it. The last one lay on his knees, a purple-watercolor cover with its title embossed in white, Under Starlight. His breath caught.
Under Starlight had been his favorite book, bar none. He’d handled it so much as a child, his DNA could probably be extracted from it. He almost dared not open it.
The pages were stiff and dusty, but the paintings woke in his memory, became living things. He may still have dreamed of them on those nights when he did not remember anything more than a vague, happy sense of luminosity, for these watercolor paintings of starlit skies and nighttime places were radiant with magic.
The final page showed a little girl with long, wavy hair standing on tiptoe, reaching for a bright star that shone in the band of the Milky Way. Embedded in the star-spangled indigo of a midnight sky, the facing page had these words:
Wish upon the brightest star
Reach as far as you can dream
Whisper softly to the night.
Things are not quite as they seem
Your heart’s desire waits like magic…
Fred was so fixated upon these pages that he didn’t notice at once the thin sheet of wide ruled paper that fluttered to the floor. It was a folded piece of tablet paper he must have wedged in the book for safekeeping, an essay that filled most of the page in large, awkwardly made cursive letters, entitled “What I Want to Be Some Day.” There was a gold star at the top.
Someday, when I am big, I want to be a philanthropist. It is a really good word to know and it means you get to give money away to help sad people get happy again. It’s like being a Dad or Santa Claus, except you are just a usual person. It is probably the best job in the world, but I bet you have to go to college or something. Maybe the homework is hiding money in someone’s pocket and that would be fun. I hope you don’t have to start off rich to be a philanthropist. First off, I’d give my Mom all the money she wants so she can draw pictures and not yell any more. And I’d buy a bike because maybe it is OK sometimes to philanthropist for yourself.
A sharp pain seared through Fred’s chest, constricting his ability to draw breath for a minute. As it subsided, he continued to stare at the little page. He recognized his own sloppy handwriting, was impressed that he’d managed to spell “philanthropist” correctly—three times—but he did not remember the assignment at all, though he remembered the feeling. It was always about helping people—especially his Mom—and it was always about money. What a goofy kid!
He folded the paper and placed it gently back between the wishing pages, shut the book and stashed it with the others in his bag. The other box was full of the clothing he’d left in his drawers and closet when he left: socks, coats, dress shirts, fat ties with angled silver, rust and maroon stripes, corduroy pants with the knees worn out. He had no use for any of that.
He pulled a garbage bag from the outside pocket of his bag and proceeded to fill it with all the old stuff he wasn’t taking, broke down the boxes, hitched the bag with its precious cargo over his shoulder, and carried it all downstairs. He wanted to say something, start a conversation, ask all the questions, but how do you break such an ancient silence?
His mother had picked up a book, but was otherwise as he had left her, perched rather too straight in a Louis XIV bergere chair upholstered in white damask. She looked as if she were sitting for her portrait.
He stopped beside her chair. “Mom?”
She looked up at him expectantly, though the arch of her eyebrows conveyed their customary sardonic disapproval.
Impulsively, he bent over her and touched his lips to her forehead, right at the hairline.
“Thanks,” he whispered.
And then he was out. He stuffed the junk in the trash cans by the garage and crossed to the bus stop up the block. Still too restless when he got there, he kept on walking, back the way he’d come, back home.
It all starts here.