Previously in Unbound Fiction:
"Be Here Now," by Lisa Zeidner (October 20, 1999)
"The Bell Rope," by M. J. Clement (September 22, 1999)
"Everyone Please Be Careful," by Lucia Nevai (August 25, 1999)
"Fundamentals of Communication," by Thisbe Nissen (July 28, 1999)
"Vigil," by David Gates (June 23, 1999)
"Meredith Toop Evans & His Butty, Ernie the Egg," by Alex Keegan (May 26, 1999)
"Introducing Unbound Fiction," by Katherine Guckenberger (May 26, 1999)
November 17, 1999
was hiding in the bushes one Sunday afternoon when Sucker Boy came running through our courtyard holding up a bag of multi-colored suckers. He had a twisting line of whip-snapping admirers after him, glossy-lipped Pied Piper children with suckers in their eyes. Sucker Boy was plump, with a pinched pastry face and a treacherous smile. He was two years older than me. I never knew his real name. This was about twenty-eight minutes before he would die. I darted out from the bushes and took my place at the end of the line.
Sucker Boy could make us go wherever he wanted with those suckers. He dangled the irresistible bag above his head and led us in and out of the dappled gray groves of eucalyptus trees that grew on the hills behind our complex -- low-income housing that took up half a mile along San Diego's University Avenue; then we followed him down through the arches and halls and lengthening shadows of one apartment building after the next. Each box-like tenement was painted a different color: cinnamon, lemon, peach, lime, plum. All stucco. I was breaking rules, straying too far from home, panting and deranged, almost lost, but the chase was too thrilling to give up.
Sucker Boy pranced around on the long terraces, then gamboled out
back by the laundry, then dashed daringly down the stairs between the
terraces toward the boulevard. Everyone knew you weren't
supposed to go out into the street, but Sucker Boy held up his
jewel-stuffed bag and danced down the stairs into the middle of it.
He didn't see the dark blue car behind him. We all froze and
shouted, arms out, balanced on our toes. The car's back end
swerved around, tires smoking, brake lights blazing. I saw Sucker
boy slip under the wheels, and I jammed my palms against my ears.
The suckers were smashed in a brilliant jangle of shards down the
My grandfather's eyes were a gloppy, Alcatraz gray, and his teeth were burnt brown and stained like the inside of the pipe he smoked. A giant hearing aid strapped to the side of his head squelched and fluttered and squealed. He laughed like a man gargling a jellyfish. He didn't seem to recognize me as an individual with distinct thoughts and emotions, so to keep his attention I had to put on an act, like an organ grinder's monkey. Look, Grampa, watch me disappear under this chair. He had burn scars along his neck and up the insides of his arms (my mother said from the war). The dome of his bald head gleamed like a wet floor, with little lavender map spots and curious moles, bumps, and other symbols.
On his second day with us Grampa took me down the stairs between the two walled terraces that overlooked University Avenue, where we waited for the ice-cream truck. He squeezed my hand in his shiny, burn-scarred palm. The sun blazed over the roof of the Bowl-O-Rama across the street. A tiny piece of red candy glinted out from the gutter, reminding me that this was the same site where Sucker Boy was smashed. I was tempted to tell Grampa about it, but he was too tall and deaf and his gummy gray eyes didn't seem to notice me.
When the ice-cream man stopped I knew what I wanted, a Sidewalk
Sundae or a Drumstick -- the wrapped ice-cream cone with the
chocolate-and-chopped-peanut shell -- but Grampa ordered a
half-gallon of strawberry ice cream instead. There weren't too
many desserts I disliked, but strawberry ice cream was one of them.
It was a long glum trudge back up to the apartment, and the ice cream
was already melting as my mother scooped it into bowls. The
strawberries looked like clots of frozen blood.
I woke up wet in my sheets, disgusted and disappointed with myself. My mother no longer let me wear pajamas. The sun flooded through the windows, and off to the bath I went. My mother stripped the sheets and shook her head, crisp and business-like. She had read the psychiatrists' bed-wetting books and tried all the tricks: no fluids before bed; night-light plugged into the wall; general fears (witches, gorillas, and giant lizards) and resentments (I had to walk to school by myself) discussed. I wanted to bring up the only subject that truly concerned me: the wicked old joker in the green plaid knickers. But this was not appropriate for my age. Besides, I doubted that my mom, or any other power on earth, could do anything about him. She had to take the sheets (and sometimes the blankets) to the coin-operated laundry behind our apartment building.
I walked to school alone. My father had to take the car because he went straight from work to night school. My mother was unable to escort me because she was washing my sheets. I knew she wanted me to grow up, to learn to tie my shoe, to stop sucking my thumb, and especially to stop wetting the bed. The apartment complex and the terraces lay stacked on top of a row of street-level garages. I walked along looking into the garages, filled with mattresses and old boat parts. The square, fruit-colored apartment buildings, with their battlement terraces and Alamo-thick walls, loomed above me one after the next like great desert fortresses.
In San Diego the weather was always hot and dry. The air was scented with sage and eucalyptus; the sky was a sluggish, rainless, enervating blue, and the sidewalks glittery like lizard skin in the crackling sun. In the distance, far beyond the Bowl-O-Rama, sat an aqua-tinted water tank and Darnell Elementary, where I went to school. To get there I had to cross University Avenue and its river of cars blasting back and forth out of nowhere like missiles. WHOOOSH! FRRRRZZZHHH! SLAAASH! My eardrums opened and shut as my head swiveled back and forth. The feeble DON'T WALK sign was a mile away. I held down the cold metal crosswalk button and thought of what it would be like to be ripped to smithereens by slashing missiles. I pictured Sucker Boy splattered in gruesome Technicolor down the sparkling asphalt, mingled forever with his shattered candy. Horror and death were everywhere, like starving blue-eyed tigers roaming the open savanna, and I had no charms against them, no armor, no allies, only sunlight to see them better with, and this puny green sign a hundred feet away that now said WALK.
At school the children did things I couldn't do: dribble the
ball, climb ropes and knock their noodles against the ceiling, color
within the lines, stack blocks into pyramids and castles, hang upside
down. Some of the children even knew how to tell time. They did
somersaults and cartwheels. They could push the paper straw into the
side hole of the little carton of milk without crushing it. They got
stars glued next to their names; with bellies full of milk they
napped well on their name-tagged mats. They tied their own shoes.
They held their hands up eagerly when they needed to go one finger or
two. It was all too much for me. Then there was Mr. Knickers and
getting across that boulevard to worry about.
I sat frozen on the floor against the wall long after the door was closed. Grampa gurgled and chomped on his pipe and looked down upon me contentedly. I wished I could curl up in that dark little compartment under his desk. He banged his pipe into a glass ashtray for a while, then he was smiling at me and holding up a crystal ball filled with snow falling over a little cabin.
I got up and walked over for a closer examination. When the snow settled he shook the ball again. I tried to make a comment about the snow (it looked like detergent flakes), but his big hearing aid started squawking. I watched the pendulum of the clock on the bookcase sweep back and forth as if it were under the ocean. "Who's that man?" I said at last, pointing to the nearest photograph, a tall tanned figure in a military uniform, leaning against an old airplane.
"That's your old grampa with his Spad VII," he said, dipping the bowl of his pipe into his can of tobacco and methodically stuffing the shreds in with the ball of his thumb. "That was in 1917, during the war. World War I." He fastened one gray eye on me. "Do you know anything about that?"
I shook my head.
"Come on up here." He hauled me up in the air and balanced me on his knee, his pipe an inch from my face.
In a rough and phlegmy voice he began to tell me stories. At first, all I could think of was how he smelled like a sour old blanket. I kept peeking over at his tobacco can wondering why there were slices of peeled apple in it. I wondered when my parents would return. Grampa pointed down as he talked. "That's the border between Belgium and France," he said. "Plenty of Huns in the territory. I'll fly her for a while. You man the gun."
He showed me how to swivel and sight my British water-cooled Vicker's machine gun, the rounds feeding in from a canvas belt on my left. Then he pulled the strap tight under my chin and secured my goggles. In an instant we were soaring in an old French fighter plane and shooting down Fokkers and Friedrichschafens and Halberstadts and there were rainbows on our tail and flocks of geese zipping past our windows and great conflagrations and endless shimmering expanses of sea below us. Men in other planes, German aces with Spandaus on their wings, sailed in and out of the clouds and tried to blast us out of the sky.
I heard myself laughing. Grampa's knee suddenly felt like the scooped out seat in a cockpit. Both my fists were clenched around the handles of my machine gun.
"Scouts to port!" he shouted, leaning to the left.
I spun and fired.
Then, "Two bombers aft!" and I sent them tumbling in blazes to their graves in the sea.
"Three Fokkers thirty degrees to starboard!" he cried, tipping hard to the right. "Triplanes. By God, they're red. It's Richtofen!"
I whirled and shot them out of the sky.
"Oh, they've got us," he cried, dipping his knee. "Jump! Bail out!"
I turned around. "What?"
"Flames coming through the windows!" he cried. "Hold on!"
"Where are we?"
"Oh, there goes the port wing! There goes the cowling! There goes the decking!"
Suddenly he flattened his palm across the air, his voice lowered nearly to a whisper. "Now we're floating out in the middle of the icy North Sea, a hundred and seventy miles from the Belgian coast, little fires all around us. And we're scorched head to foot, burning and freezing at the same time."
"Not a boat or a plane in sight," he continued. "Not a trace of our Spad. Sun headed down. Kind of pretty, isn't it? Like being lost in a big blue prairie. Cold prairie."
He paused to light his pipe. I watched the long flame bend and finger into the bowl. "Looks like we're done for, young fella." He shook his head.
I was still gripping the handles of my machine gun and clamped tight to Grampa's knee. I wanted to shoot down some more planes, maybe fly over Belgium one more time. "What are we going to do?"
"Not much we can do," he said, taking a meditative pull from his pipe. "Guess we'll just float for a while. Maybe someone will see us." His hearing aid began to squeal and he reached into his shirt pocket to adjust a knob. "It isn't so bad," he said. "Gives us a chance to get to know one another a little."
I was quiet for a minute.
"Tell me a story," he said. "It'll help pass the time."
I thought of Mr. Popper's Penguins. Then before I knew it I'd blabbed the whole dream of the old green man.
Grampa nodded slowly as he listened, a finger pressed to his hearing aid. When I was finished he reached over and switched on his desk lamp. "Do you know what an impostor is?"
I shook my head.
"It's someone who pretends to be what he isn't. Your little green man with the green sneakers, for instance."
"Right." He poked me in the chest. "But he's not Death. If he was Death, you'd be dead now."
I squinted at him.
"I know Death," he continued. "I met him in 1917. He's seven feet tall." He raised his hand high over his head. "Voice like thunder. Dark as a tunnel. Coal red eyes." He shuddered. "Ghastly looking fellow."
I considered this for a moment.
"What's that out there?" he cried, pointing suddenly. "That light to the east, do you see it?"
"I think so."
"Might be a ship. Looks like it's headed this way. Don't know how we can get her attention."
"We can yell," I suggested.
He chuckled a little, then cupped his big hand over the top of my head.
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Poe Ballantine is forty-four and lives in Mexico. His story "The Blue Devils of Blue River Avenue" appeared in the 1998 edition of The Best American Short Stories.
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.