At nine years old, he was Duke
“Where are you going, Mikey?” A note of alarm wormed into Mom’s voice. Three weeks since moving to their new home, he had not ventured out.
“I’m Duke now. Goin’a play.” The conk of wooden bats falling hard on the asphalt, the sweet siren song of boys out in the street.
“Out?” Her cookie–dough hands kneaded each other red. She studied her son: his dumpling chin set, his furry brow knit. “Have fun out there, Duke.” The forced note of cheer for herself more than him. She reached for his ballcap to straighten the bill, was shocked when he jerked his head from her hands.
Thus Duke ventured out.
“Duke,” sneered the leader, a crew–cut called Butch. “You’re like, The Duke of Earl, man?”
Duke chewed Dubble-Bubble, stared up through eyes sheltering deep in dark sockets.
“Don’t you, like, talk, Duke Man?”
“Sure he does.” A blond scarecrow called Skeeter clapped Duke on the arm. “He said his name’s Duke. Like, put up your dukes,” and he made boxing moves.
“Right,” grinned Butch, feinting towards Duke like Sugar Ray Robinson. “You like using your dukes, Duke?”
Duke rooted to the grass, stared in wonder at Butch.
“Weird little troll, tell you that much.”
“You bat first, Duke,” smiled Pee Wee.
Middle of the street, pitch the ball to yourself. Up ball, grab bat, swing bat, miss ball. Again. Again. And then once again, with his tongue sticking out. Boys’ mitts on their heads crowning bursting clown faces.
“It’s, like, a magic wand,” Pee Wee grinned. “Like that guy on Ed Sullivan who kept those balls in the air without touching his wand, like the wand repelled `em.”
Since they grinned, so did Duke.
“What’re you smiling at, dick head?”
“Hello, Duke.” Mom tried her best to make it sound real.
“I’m Dick now.” He compressed jagged lips, scrunched his dark brow intently. She laid down the spatula and reached for her boy. He collapsed within himself, and she held back for fear of causing an eruption.
“I’m don’t think you should play with those boys, Michael!”
Michael broke down and trudged to his room.
She bought him a cowboy hat and a cap gun, a chemistry set, a model T–Bird with a full set of paints, and a World War II battleship. The chemistry set took.
Hour on hour, alone at his desk filling beakers, measuring colored powdered chemicals in tiny plastic spoons, making fizzes, colors, sizzles, stinks. The stink– bomb freaked the dog, who ran wildly in circles. A rubber–band boat propelled by baking soda and vinegar traversed the bathtub and never capsized. The invisible ink was runny but worked. He wrote spy notes to his mother, placed them in the dog’s collar, the dog ferried them to the kitchen. His mom played along: Brownies in ten minutes, hon. He cut her reply into dozens of squares, dissolved them in phosphate, hunkered back down to work.
His dad, in the doorway, was hip to it all. “How’s it goin’ in there, Professor?”
Professor. He turned a jagged grin halfway to his dad, then turned back to his work and conceived a new mission: the launch of a missile from the front lawn. This, however, was an insecure zone: many bad boys—let’s say, Russkies—about. Mission Control postponed the launch. Captain America, Batman, Archie, Mad, lots of tag with the dog. He applied itching powder to the dog’s skin, then washed her off with hose–water and tears. TV days turned to weeks, school days turned to months, then John Glenn flew and the mission was on. He marched to the front–lawn launching pad on a Saturday at cartoon time, the rocket thin and red, the launching pad filled with baking soda and vinegar. The backyard test launches had all been successful. Goggles up, missile in. Three figures on Schwinns soared, roared up the street.
He turtled over the launching pad and heard Butch, Skeeter, Pee Wee whizzing past but he didn’t look up, didn’t see Pee Wee peeling off like a fighter pilot and wheeling towards him in a wide graceful arc up the slope of his lawn.
“Whatcha doin’, man?” A not–unfriendly smile.
Too intent to look up, he said “Missile launch” and added technical mumbles. He prepared to shake up the launching pad, then remembered his dad’s admonitions, told Pee Wee, “You gotta back up.” Pee Wee, who wasn’t wee any longer, just a bit undersized, smiled amiably and backed up his bike. Pleased with his authority, the Professor mumbled an incantation, shook the launching pad, pointed it at the sky. Fizz–whoosh–whizz, and up the missile flew, but not even house–high. Foamy vinegar flowed down Michael’s fist, acrid fumes pinched his nostrils.
“All right,” Pee Wee smiled, respecting the effort and the intent. He rose up on the pedals of his red three–speed and piston–charged into the wild blue yonder.
“Is your name Professor?” they giggled.
All girls were from space, but especially these two: pretty and tall, with inscrutable laughter, and a cryptic conversational code. Did they wish to hug him and call him their mascot, like his sister Jill’s giggly high school friends? Or did they simply think him a jerk?
“I’m … I dunno,” he shrugged.
They laughed even harder, teeth glinting like knives, and pinned him to the hallway wall.
“You told Miss Conners you were the Professor,” the taller one chided with a smile that reminded him of Catwoman.
“I … she said it was a good answer.” And in that unguarded moment of joy, he had proclaimed to the teacher, and all of the class: “They call me Professor.”
“You’re a professor,” snickered the shorter one, who had Barbie–blue eyes, “and you got a C on the earthquakes worksheet?”
He withered beneath their Siamese–cat gazes, but took hope when he saw Pee Wee approaching abreast of two friends. “Hey Pee Wee!” he hailed, desperation amping his voice: the cool kid’s word could set him free.
But Pee Wee was Gordy away from the block. “Pee Wee,” chortled one friend. Pee Wee, here Gordy, flashed rodent teeth. “Hey there, Dick Head.” Gordy punched his pal for laughing at him and raced down the hall.
Solace was found in brownies as warm and soft as his mother, who looked askance when he reached for a second, then softened her look when his eyes pooled with shame. “Have some milk,” she sighed. Milk was good, there was no harm in that. Homework in the kitchen each day after school, with two brownies with milk and no more than two, she’d drawn the line there. He accepted her terms with a sly smile. His belly, face, thighs all rounded like dough. “My Pillsbury Doughboy,” she said with a grin both loving and mocking. She jabbed at his belly, he slapped her hand. She recoiled and he swatted the milk glass, flooding the table and soaking his pants.
The next day the incident went unspoken. Two brownies with milk, and she too ate brownies as he did his homework. They dipped them in milk, compared milk moustaches, blew bubbles with straws, played follow the leader with fingers fast–walking through trails of crumbs. A little more time and she softened, too.
Dad noticed. Stayed mute. And kept it inside, day on week upon month. At last he burst: “What’s with the damn brownies!”
“Michael’s learning to bake,” she lied, panicked. “It’s a good thing, to bake. Cooking’s good for boys. They can use it on cookouts.”
“On cookouts. What cookouts?” They’d never had cookouts. Dad waved her away with the back of his hand, trudged vexed and defeated back to his den—his principle reason for buying the house.
She gazed at her son in silent communion. He scrunched his brow to mirror her gaze, and she burst out laughing. The baking lessons began the next day.
A plump kid at his high school had very few options. Michael’s tenth–grade friends, two, were geeks years before geeks were cool, and they strangled each school day with corrosive jibes at themselves and each other, then scurried relieved to the safety of home. His home reeked of smoke, for his mom was dieting and smoked instead, and exercised, hacking, in front of the tube, compliant with Jack LaLanne’s kindly commands.
“I’m gonna make lamb chops tonight,” he said on the landing of the sunken living room. She sat spread–eagled in her bulging leotards before the TV, gazing with ineffable longing at LaLanne in his snug workout suit, his curly mop and his crinkly smile. “Lamb chops,” he repeated, drooping his head. She turned but did not see and repeated “lamb chops” as if mouthing a prayer she no longer believed. Her blue eyes sparkled beneath pooling tears, and he thought them the most beautiful eyes in the world, and he thought her the most beautiful thing in the world. She blinked, tears cascaded. He wished to run to kiss her face dry, but stood rooted as if at the edge of a pond. She reached out willow–branch arms, but he would not venture in.
He avoided his father whenever he could, not easy to do in a three–bedroom rancher. He craved a TV, Dad exploited the craving: “Tell you what. Bring me A’s in science and math, and it’s yours.” An A in Chem but a B in Geo, and Dad pressed his advantage: “How’s about we finally work off a little of that excess poundage, champ? Lose ten pounds by July, and we’ll get you that tube. Or maybe fifteen.”
He ate Weight Watchers with his mom for a month. They watched TV while snacking on roasted salt mushrooms and whole-wheat toast topped with warmed cottage cheese and cinnamon. One night he folded a chocolate–covered cherry from his secret stash into her hand. She was intent on her program and didn’t notice at first, then she opened her palm and flung the cherry as if it were a spider. “Don’t do that, Michael!” It took three Kool Menthols to calm her down. Two days later, the weigh–in came. He rigged the scale and got the TV.
He watched summer TV reruns and news with his proto–geek friends, one gangly, one plump. They hee–hawed at the world while feasting on treats that he prepared from his birthday cookbook: stuffed mushrooms, steak tartare, deviled eggs. One night, for a tea–party lark, he served white–bread sandwiches with the crusts cut away. He put on British airs, and the room erupted in hysterical cackles that pleased his mom in the living room, but irritated his dad in the den. He was slicing olives for an encore round of tea sandwiches when the gangly one, Ted, flounced to his side and said, in an emergent baritone: “These are just divine, darling.” Michael had to use the back of his hand, still clutching the knife, to wipe the tears that pooled in his eyes. His father appeared, and Ted flew like a leaf back into Michael’s room. Michael looked joyfully up at his dad.
“Your friends are weird, Michael.”
No movement save a tightening of stubby fingers on the slicing knife and a rapid dissolution of his gaze into darkness. “You are,” he said.
The plump one, Eugene, was soft in body and spirit. It was he who remained when summer got long and Ted tired of watching the world on TV: soldiers wading through rice paddies, hippies protesting out on the streets. Ted had ogled comely protesters in fringed leather vests revealing flat bellies, then had set out into the streets with no plan. Eugene and Michael were content to cocoon. They sat on cushions on Michael’s bedroom floor and leaned against the bed like a pair of young rajahs. Sometimes they dozed. “Keep the door open,” Dad advised, “it’s an oven in there.” Or they’d lean against each other, arms melding like cookie dough. “I said open,” Dad snapped before fading away for the rest of the summer.
They sent him to college to broaden himself and divide him from Jill, his rebellious big sister who encouraged his ways. Dad set him up to rush his old fraternity, but he wandered the streets of Berkeley instead: incense, flyers, bookstores, bums. With two days left in Pledge Week, Dad cancelled “a big meeting,” flew up, pressed him into his rental car and drove him in silence to the frat house, then sat in the car watching him trudge all the way up the broad stone steps to make sure he got there. Although forced upon them, although he was short and soft, they tolerated him: for when they’d venture to Telegraph, conspicuously frat boys, he was quick with terse quips to fend off hippie jibes; and when they were drunk and couldn’t count change, he’d figure tips and settle bills neatly. They first called him Doc; then Beaver, then Scuzz, but none of these stuck. Then Keith, a querulous jock and their leader, dubbed him Chuck with a wink over beer. It was senseless but sounded okay, for he didn’t know that act followed name: Late at night, after the first big house party of the year, Keith and some frustrated others drank hard and bitterly out on the deck. Keith pointed his cleft chin at Chuck, and on cue his minions pinioned Chuck’s arms, pulled back his head, pinched his nose and opened his mouth to a river of beer. “One small step for man” joked one when Chuck stood up with the vague idea of walking to the bathroom. Chuck doubled over as if shot, then exploded in puke, then fell barely conscious onto the deck, the vile muck pooling beneath his cheek. One guy placed a laurel wreath on his head, but when the bad guys went in, a sympathetic laggard draped a blanket over him. Three days later Michael, not Chuck, pulled the washer’s discharge tube from the drain pipe before fleeing the house.
Michael took an apartment off campus with an English major who peered at him wryly as if Michael were Raskolnikov. The English major, Robert, was beloved of Noreen, another English major who thought Robert an intellectual giant, though he was simply more assertive than she. They supped on hors d’oeuvres that Michael created, clutched petits fours with their long fingers raised as they supposed they would hold cocktail–party cigarettes one day. They allowed Michael to listen to their erudite chats, and one night, they even allowed him to chime in a few timid remarks beneath Robert’s indulgent gaze and the soft gaze of Noreen, whose long, slender fingers, pale as a veal calf, clutched at Michael’s heart to the point of pain, sending him to the bathroom to hyperventilate. Michael’s desire for Noreen showed in clumsy efforts not to stare, and she intensified his longing with tender looks full of comprehension. Robert comprehended too, called him “Robert Cohn” and “Holden,” and alluded unsubtly while drinking gin, to The Lord of the Flies’ Piggy and to Ratso Rizzo, and then punished Noreen, and Michael, and himself with contrived noisy sex sounds broadcast through the walls to Michael’s room.
Michael took a studio in the flatlands of Oakland and stared at matches burning down to his fingers. There was only a hot–plate and he lost fifteen pounds. Walking through Sproul Plaza at Cal, amid antiwar rallies and civil rights rallies and leaflets and petitions for every left–wing cause, his underdog’s heart drew him to the Young Republicans’ table, where a girl with a bouffant Trisha Nixon–do stood flag–bearer straight while a pack of hissing leftists maligned her. He joined The Young Republicans right away and fell for the girl, who was well groomed and forthright and knew what she wanted, and looked at him with princess eyes that entreated rescue from a lonely castle. He licked envelopes beneath her direction despite the glue’s bitter taste and his distaste for Nixon, which he hid, his puppyish constancy wearing down her resistance. One day she joked that a well–known Democratic politician was a “secret fag,” and he allowed dismay to flood his eyes, and she stared at him as if at a roach.
He disappeared within his studio with matches he let burn down to his fingers, and candles in the dark and matching dark music, and Chef Boyardee eaten cold from the can, two or three cans at once. He studied sometimes, and sometimes he wandered Telegraph as silent as a monk on a vow of silence, with a cryptic grin implying he knew. One midnight, he walked the cold streets of Oakland beneath an overpass as if daring muggers. He returned home disappointed not to have been beaten. His mother called often in a frightened, shrinking voice. He’d search but not find the power to speak. She’d call him again, and he’d watch the match burn, resolved not to blow the flame out until the ringing stopped, but his mom rang and rang, and he burned his fingers. He wrote heartfelt, jagged poetry, struggled through five poor sit–ups that bunched his belly rolls, cut the phone cord with a knife and poured his heart into letters to his mother that he cut up and burned.
His big sister Jill drove down from Oregon and tugged him north. He begged her to drive the long way, through the coast redwoods, and he spoke no further, which was okay with Jill. “Never you mind,” she said with a lilt she’d acquired since leaving home. He stared strangely out the passenger–side window as they wound beneath paternal redwoods that enfolded them in protective shadows. Jill shared a house with four young women studying theater in Ashland, home of Oregon Shakes. She briefed her roommates on her brother’s travails, and they spoke softly when he came out of Jill’s room three days after his arrival, called him “Jill’s famous brother,”“M’lord,” and “Master Michael,” so as not to frighten him . He sank into their soft couch and cradled his hot cider, and they allowed him to be himself, and to partake of them being themselves: hopeful, worried, nurturing, frank. They prodded him at times with kind, curious eyes.
“I need a job,” he squeaked after two weeks of silence. Jill found him a job at a preschool for the kids of university parents. The kids considered him a kid for his shortness and softness, and because he spoke rarely, and because when he did speak, he spoke in a soft, gentle voice, except at story time, when he became a whiny toad and a gruff kindly bear and a know–it–all owl and a flummoxed giraffe, playing all his parts with such conviction that they crawled up close to stare at his lips to see if he really, truly was human. One bold girl padded onto his lap, then the rest of the animals clambered up, too, each forcing another off of his knee. The owner stared down with some apprehension—she’d checked his background, of course; but what to make of a strange, shy creature who smelled of cookie dough and whose baby–elephant cry was so realistic that a boy pressed a tissue to his teary eyes?
Miss Miranda Plum, a future elementary school teacher, was drawn to him too and became his assistant. Head down over his workspace like a boy preparing to launch a toy rocket, he taught her how to make golden wafers encrusted with sugar crystals, and Janey Fingers (after Janey, the owner) and “Michael’s Famous Brownies” (as Miranda called them), all from scratch and all wonderful, though he’d make the brownies just two times a month, for his hips still carried his boyhood excess. To teach her his secrets he had to speak some, but mostly he mimed his instructions, sometimes unfolding in mock comic confusion like Charlie Chaplin mistaken for a baker and pressed into service baking for the king. Pressed on all sides by kids as soft and sweet smelling as cookie dough, he mimed comic surrender and allowed them to crown him with a construction–paper baker’s hat they’d spangled with arts–and–crafts cookies.
On weekends Miranda took him to the woods, a secluded fern dell, a clear river gathering late–summer chill. She pointed toes down and splashed into the water, he followed her in with a splayed foot–first jump that scattered bankside squirrels. His dam burst in hysterics of wild forest howls, her eyes widened to receive him like a vision of nature. She apple–bobbed to him, and they came together and whirled in the water, bobbing, spinning, clinging, squeezing. They enclosed each other, he dove into her essence; fell into her Baby, her baby, her own.