The branch shifted beneath him as he eased forward for a better view. Peering down, he felt comforted by the intense August heat, which enveloped him like a smoldering chrysalis. He had wiled away the afternoon perched high up in his favorite tree, where he could spy conveniently on the adults milling around his parents’ swimming pool. It was a solitary way to kill time, but Buddy was used to being alone. During many a long evening spent barricaded in his bedroom against the shrill intrusion of his sisters, he’d often wonder idly when his parents would be home. He took solace in his toy action figures with their kung fu grip and enticing array of battle-ready accessories – what he wouldn’t give to deploy a flame thrower in his sisters’ direction!
Kerplunk! Splash! Buddy focused his attention on the pool again as a large, gelatinous man belly-flopped off the diving board. Except for the sunburn, he reminded Buddy of a giant plucked chicken.
“Frank, grab some burgers from the kitchen while you’re up?” his mother, Tessie, yelled at Buddy’s father from her lawn chair, where she held court with friends from the neighborhood. Frank, who’d been heading for the makeshift bar stationed on the patio, shot his wife a woeful look before dutifully trudging past the gleaming bottles of Dewers and Seagram’s VO, through the glass doors and into the kitchen.
“Jeez,” his mother sneered in her best stage whisper, “do I have to spell everything out for him? If it were up to shit-for-brains, you’d all be starving!” The blowzy ladies reclining around her tittered in response. Buddy wasn’t sure what annoyed him more, his mother’s deafening demands or his father’s quiet compliance.
Buddy knew most of the guests who were gathered in his backyard that day. His parents threw pool parties for the same old crowd on a regular basis during the summer months. Such events were the only time they bothered going through the motions of a “normal” family. Buddy didn’t have much experience with normalcy, but he knew his home life was a far cry from conventional. The Taylors down the street, however - now they seemed typical in the best sense of the word! Parents who actually made the effort to wake you up for school and talk about your day when you got home. Meals served on a regular basis with everyone flocking to the dinner table. Buddy made a point of observing their large family with scientific precision whenever his friend Ricky invited him over. So alien was all this family togetherness and routine that Buddy sometimes got the uneasy feeling he was visiting a strange planet. At any moment, he half expected the good natured Taylor clan to morph into a pack of hostile life forms like he’d seen Captain Kirk fighting off on TV. They’d lurch toward him, flailing their scarred and scaly limbs. All too soon, they’d close in completely, raking through his flesh with razor-sharp talons. The terror alone would finish him off before he could even bleed to death…
“Hey, Sport, how’s the view up there?”
It took a few seconds for Buddy to wrest himself from the grisly allure of his daydream and pinpoint the source of the disembodied voice. There at the bottom of the tree stood a man flashing the winning grin of a master salesman. Upon closer inspection, however, Buddy decided that his smile was a little too off-kilter for a serious professional type. The man was listing slightly, as if swayed by random gusts of wind. That’s weird, Buddy thought, since the sweltering day had yet to produce even the slightest breeze. Strains of Jefferson Airplane punctured the still air. Someone had turned up the radio by the pool. “When the truth is found to be lies, And all the joy within you dies, Don’t you want somebody to love, don’t you..., Need somebody to love, wouldn’t you..., Love somebody to love, you better..., Find somebody to love,” Grace Slick bleated.
“You must be Buddy, Tessie’s boy,” the man said pleasantly, as if arboreal chats were an everyday occurrence.
“Yep, that’s me,” Buddy replied tentatively.
“Thought I’d sneak away and have a smoke out here,” the man said. “Take a break from all the small talk. You know how the ladies get when they’re comparing notes – it’s a dangerous business!” The man winked.
“Um, I-I really wouldn’t know,” Buddy replied reluctantly. He wasn’t sure if the man actually expected a response.
“The name’s Garrison, Garrison Hand,” the man said smoothly, taking a long, luxuriant drag on his cigarette, then expelling the smoke with palpable relish. “So why the lofty perch? You on some kind of reconnaissance mission? Staking out the Russians?”
Buddy stifled an impulse to giggle. “Yeah, like they’d wanna invade this boring neighborhood.” He snorted his contempt, hoping to sound casual, but strongly suspecting he hadn’t pulled it off.
Garrison didn’t appear to notice Buddy’s misgivings. “You never know what motivates an enemy to infiltrate. Boring surroundings could prove the perfect cover for devious schemes.”
Buddy wasn’t sure what “devious” meant, but it sure sounded cool! Maybe one day he could manage to be devious.
“Speaking of boring,” Garrison continued, his tone increasingly sprightly and conspiratorial. “This party desperately needs galvanizing! How about you and I join forces – come up with a plan to liven things up? What do you say, Sport?”
Buddy squirmed as a warm flush crept up his neck and enveloped his face, already sticky with sweat. He didn’t feel the least bit lively, and certainly no one had ever called upon his party planning skills before. It was bad enough having to wrack his brains to figure out what “galvanizing” meant. Straining to make sense of Garrison’s remarks, Buddy trawled the dank recesses of his mind until he could almost hear the remote whirring of motors. That’s it! He suddenly pictured spark plugs igniting in the school basement where he’d taken that Small Engine Repair class last winter. Buddy was certain his over-taxed brain would implode.
With alarming fluidity, Garrison scooped up the glass he’d rested on a nearby stump. “Don’t talk much, do you, Kid?” He took a gulp and smiled affably.
“Talking’s OK. It’s just the words that, that ruin everything.” Buddy blushed again. Feeling faintly emboldened, however, he pressed on and murmured “Silly String.”
“What?” Garrison asked, leaning against the tree and nearly losing his footing.
“I’ve - got - a - can - of - Silly String,” Buddy replied in the most confident tone he could muster. Besides his Batman Utility Belt, Silly String was the most galvanizing thing he could think of.
Garrison threw his head back and erupted into full-throated laughter. Buddy thought he’d never heard such an infectious - or prolonged - belly laugh.
“OK, Sport,” Garrison finally managed. “I guess this isn’t our day to solve the problems of the world – nor this party, for that matter.” Buddy watched as Garrison turned on his heels and walked away, still chuckling and listing. He felt his chest constrict sharply, as if all the oxygen had been crushed from his small frame. Buddy was too scared to move until the strange feeling passed.
The oppressive heat intensified as the day lingered on, wringing out what was left of Buddy’s energy. He succumbed to a feverish trance as he limply straddled his branch. The afternoon shadows had deepened and lengthened by the time he felt motivated enough to climb down from the tree.
Buddy wandered into his well-manicured backyard with its bright azaleas, fragrant honeysuckles and boxwoods bordering the lawn. His father was a passionate gardener and prided himself on tending their suburban plot as if it were a country estate. An exuberance of trumpet vine trailed over the archway that lead from the pool area to a small, inviting gazebo, shaded and partially hidden by hedges and a large, looming Druid of a maple tree. Buddy made his way past the pool and the now subdued revelers, who’d broken off into intimate groups and were lounging in various stages of torpor. Buddy noticed that his mother’s lawn chair, draped with her tie-dyed cover-up, was vacant. Suddenly desperately thirsty for a soda, he walked over to the cooler on the patio to grab a bottle of Coca-Cola. It was too hot to go into the house, and Buddy looked around for a shady, secluded spot where he could enjoy his cool drink. He certainly didn’t want to bump into that Garrison character again any time soon. Buddy looked around furtively, but couldn’t locate him. Suddenly, a figure striding toward the further recesses of the yard caught Buddy’s eye. (Everyone else had long since been immobilized by an overabundance of sun and libations.) With a start, Buddy realized that the fast-moving figure was his dad and wondered where he was headed so quickly. Hey, wait a minute, Buddy wondered. Why are Mom and Dad both ditching the party?
On impulse, Buddy crept behind his father through the archway leading to the gazebo. He made sure not to be seen. (He and Frank weren’t exactly prone to male bonding anyway.) By the gazebo steps, his dad stopped short, bending over to retrieve an object from the grass. Buddy saw his father gasp and his shoulders heave. The gasping gave way to an even stranger sound. To Buddy’s surprise, his father was crying. Buddy snuck closer. His father was gazing at a lady’s hair comb, turning it over and over in his calloused hands. From its distinctive design, a Mother-of-Pearl elephant, Buddy immediately recognized the trinket - it was his mother’s.
Tessie collected elephant figurines made from exotic materials: jade, ivory, ebony, soapstone, even vines. She enshrined her collection under a gleaming glass display, which she jealously guarded from contamination. Tessie kept dust, smudges and the prying hands of children at bay with the ferocity of a Gestapo.
She also prided herself on her long, luxurious hair, which she often pulled up into thick, raven coils and secured with the very comb his father was staring at. She created her elaborate up-dos with exactitude, the same way she held dominion over her house, collectibles, and family. It struck Buddy as highly unusual that she would misplace any object, let alone one she valued as much as that fancy comb.
Mesmerized by his father’s weeping, Buddy was too preoccupied to remain hidden. His dad stifled his tears and turned his head in Buddy’s direction. Their eyes met, but Frank looked right through his trembling son.
“Careless,” Frank said, and then sighed. “When did she get to be so careless?” His voice was flat, robotic. Buddy took a step forward.
“Not now, son. I’m busy,” Frank said turning away, and Buddy crept back into the gathering shadows.
A novel by Allison P. Basile