In 1956 the downtown square mile of the city of Orange was a collection of old houses:
craftsman bungalows and tile-roofed Spanish, and here and there an old Queen Anne or a
gingerbread Victorian with geminate windows and steep gables, and sometimes a carriage house
alongside, too small by half to house the lumbering automobiles that the second fifty years of the
century had produced. There were Studebakers at the curbs and Hudsons and Buicks with balloon
tires like the illustrations of moon-aimed rockets on the covers of the pulp magazines.
Times were changing. Science was still a professor with wild hair and a lab coat and with
bubbling apparatus in a cellar; but in a few short years he would walk on the moon — one last ivory
and silver hurrah — and then, as if in an instant, he would grow faceless and featureless and
unpronounceable. There would come the sudden knowledge that Moon Valley wasn’t so very far
away after all, and neither was extinction; that the nation that controlled magnetism, as Diet Smith
would have it, controlled almost nothing at all; and that a score of throbbing bulldozers could
reduce the jungled wilds around Opar and El Dorado to desert sand in a few short, sad years. The
modern automobile suddenly was slick and strange, stretched out and low and with enormous fins
that swept back at the rear above banks of superfluous taillights. They seemed otherwordly at the
time and were alien reminders, it seems to me now, of how provincial we had been, balanced on
the back edge of an age.
The pace of things seemed to be accelerating, and already I could too easily anticipate
stepping out onto my tilted front porch some signifying morning, the wind out of the east, and
seeing stretched out before me not a shaded avenue of overarching trees and root-cracked
sidewalks but the sleek, desertlike technology of a new age, a new suburbia, with robots in vinyl
trousers sweeping fallen leaves into their own open mouths.
There is a plaza in the center of town, with a fountain, and in the autumn — the season when all
of this came to my attention — red-brown leaves from flowering pear trees drift down onto the
sluggish, gurgling water and float there like a centerpiece for a Thanksgiving table. On a starry
evening, one November late in the Seventies, I was out walking in the plaza, thinking, I
remember, that it had already become an artifact, with its quaint benches and granite curbs and
rose garden. Then, shattering the mood of late night nostalgia, there shone in the sky an immense
shooting star, followed by the appearance of a glowing object, which hovered and darted, sailing
earthward until I could make out its shadow against the edge of the moon and then disappearing
in a blink. I shouted and pointed, mostly out of surprise. Strange lights in the sky were nothing
particularly novel; I had been seeing them for almost twenty years. But nothing that happens at
night among the stars can ever become commonplace. At that late hour, though, there was almost
certainly no one around to hear me; or so I thought.
So when she stood up, dropping papers and pencils and a wooden drawing board onto the
concrete walk, I nearly shouted again. She had been sitting in the dim lamplight, hidden to me
beyond the fountain. Dark hair fell across her shoulders in a rush of curl and hid her right eye, and
with a practiced sweep of her hand she pulled it back in a shock and tucked it behind her ear,
where it stayed obediently for about three quarters of a second and then fell seductively into her
face again. Now, years later, for reasons I can’t at all define, the sight of a dark-haired woman
brushing wayward hair out of her eyes recalls without fail that warm autumn night by the
She had that natural, arty, blue-jeans-and-floppy-sweater look of a college girl majoring in
fine arts: embroidered handbag, rhinestone-emerald costume brooch, and translucent plastic shoes
the color of root beer. I remember thinking right off that she had languorous eyes, and the sight
of them reflecting the soft lamplight of the fountain jolted me. But the startled look on her face
implied that she hadn’t admired my shouting like that, not at eleven o’clock at night in the
otherwise deserted plaza.
There was the dark, pouting beauty in her eyes and lips of a woman in a Pre-Raphaelite
painting, a painting that I had stumbled into in my clodlike way, grinning, I thought, like a
half-wit: I too hastily explained the shooting star to her, gesturing too widely at the sky and
mumbling that it hadn’t been an ordinary shooting star. But there was nothing in the sky now
besides the low-hanging moon and a ragtag cloud, and she said offhandedly, not taking any notice
of my discomfort, just what I had been thinking, that there was never anything ordinary about a
I learned that her name was Jane and that she had sketched that fountain a dozen times during
the day, with the blooming flowers behind it and the changing backdrop of people and cars and
weather. I almost asked her whether she hadn’t ever been able to get it quite right, but then, I
could see that that wasn’t the point.
Now she had been sketching it at night, its blue and green and pink lights illuminating the
umbrella of falling water against night-shaded rosebushes and camphor trees and boxwood
It was perfect — straight out of a romantic old film. The hero stumbles out of the rain into an
almost deserted library, and at the desk, with her hair up and spectacles on her nose, is the
librarian who doesn’t know that if she’d just take the glasses off for a moment . . .
I scrabbled around to pick up fallen pencils while she protested that she could just as easily
do it herself. It was surely only the magic of that shooting star that prevented her from gathering
up her papers and going home. As it was, she stayed for a moment to talk, assuming, although
she never said so, that there was something safe and maybe interesting in a fancier of shooting
stars. I felt the same about her and her drawings and her root beer shoes.
She was distracted, never really looking at me. Maybe the image of the fountain was still
sketched across the back of her eyes and she couldn’t see me clearly. It was just a little irritating,
and I would discover later that it was a habit of hers, being distracted was, but on that night there
was something in the air and it didn’t matter. Any number of things don’t matter at first. We
talked, conversation dying and starting and with my mind mostly on going somewhere — my place,
her place — for a drink, for what? There was something, an atmosphere that surrounded her, a
musky sort of sweater and lilacs scent. But she was distant; her work had been interrupted and
she was still half lost in the dream of it. She dragged her hand in the water of the fountain, her
face half in shadow. She was tired out, she said. She didn’t need to be walked home. She could
find her way alone.
But I’ve got ahead of myself. It’s important that I keep it all straight — all the details; without
the details it amounts to nothing. I grew up on Olive Street, southwest of the plaza, and when I
was six, and wearing my Davy Crockett hat and Red Rider shirt, and it was nearly dusk in late
October, I heard the ding-a-linging of an ice cream truck from some distant reach of the
neighborhood. The grass was covered with leaves, I remember, that had been rained on and were
limp and heavy. I was digging for earthworms and dropping them one by one into a corral built of
upright sticks and twigs that was the wall of the native village on Kong Island. The sky was
cloudy, the street empty. There was smoke from a chimney across the way and the cloud-muted
him of a distant airplane lost to view. Light through the living room window shone out across the
The jangling of the ice cream bell drew near, and the truck rounded the distant corner, the
bell cutting off and the truck accelerating as if the driver, anticipating dinner, had given up for the
day and was steering a course for home. It slowed, though, when he saw me, and angled in
toward the curb where I stood holding a handful of gutter-washed earthworms. Clearly he
thought I’d signaled him. There were pictures of frozen concoctions painted on the gloss-white
sides of the panel truck: coconut-covered Neapolitan bars and grape Popsicles, nut and chocolate
drumsticks, and strawberry-swirled vanilla in paper cups with flat paper lids. He laboriously
climbed out of the cab, came around the street side to the back, and confronted me there on the
curb. He smiled and winked and wore a silver foil hat with an astonishing bill, and when he
yanked open the hinged, chrome door there was such a whirling of steam off the dry ice inside
that he utterly vanished behind it, and I caught a quick glimpse of cardboard bins farther back in
the cold fog, stacked one on top of another and dusted with ice crystals.
I didn’t have a dime and wouldn’t be allowed to eat ice cream so close to dinner time
anyway, and I said so, apologizing for having made him stop for nothing. He studied my
earthworms and said that out in space there were planets where earthworms spoke and wore silk
shirts, and that I could fly to those planets in the right sort of ship.
Then he bent into the freezer and after a lot of scraping and peering into boxes found a
paper-wrapped ice cream bar — a FLYING SAUCER BAR, the wrapper said. It was as big
around as a coffee cup saucer and was domed on top and fat with vanilla ice cream coated in
chocolate. He tipped his hat, slammed his door, and drove off. I ate the thing guiltily while
sitting beneath camellia bushes at the side of the house and lobbing sodden pink blooms out onto
the front yard, laying siege to the earthworm fortress and watching the lamps blink on one by one
along the street.
There are those incidents from our past that years later seem to us to be the stuff of dreams:
the wash of shooting stars seen through the rear window of the family car at night in the Utah
desert; the mottled, multilegged sun star, as big as a cartwheel, inching across the sand in the
shallows of a northern California bay; the whale’s eyeball floating in alcohol and encased in a glass
fishing float in a junk store near the waterfront; the remembered but unrecoverable hollow
sensation of new love. The stars vanish in an instant; the starfish slips away into deep water and is
gone; the shop with its fishing float is a misty dream, torn down in some unnumbered year to
make room for a hotel built of steel and smoked glass. Love evaporates into the passing years like
dry ice; you don’t know where it’s gone. The mistake is to think that the details don’t signify — the
flying saucer bars and camellia blooms, rainy autumn streets and lamplight through evening
windows and colored lights playing across the waters of a fountain on a warm November
All the collected pieces of our imagistic memory seem sometimes to be trivial knickknacks
when seen against the roaring of passing time. But without those little water-paint sketches,
awash in remembered color and detail, none of us, despite our airy dreams, amount to more than
an impatient ghost wandering through the revolving years and into an increasingly strange and
I came to know the driver of the ice cream truck. We became acquaintances. He no longer
sold ice cream; there was no living to be made at it. He had got a penny a Popsicle, he said,
and he produced a slip of paper covered with numbers — elaborate calculations of the millions of
Popsicles he’d have to sell over the years just to stay solvent. Taken altogether like that it was
impossible. He had been new to the area then and hadn’t got established yet. All talk of money
aside, he had grown tired of it, of the very idea of driving an ice cream truck — something that
wouldn’t have seemed possible to me on the rainy evening of the flying saucer bar, but which I
understand well enough now.
He had appeared on our front porch, I remember, when I was ten or eleven, selling
wonderful tin toys door-to-door. My mother bought a rocket propelled by compressed air. It
was painted with bright, circus colors, complete with flames swirling around the cylindrical base
of the thing. Looking competent and serious and very much like my ice cream man was a
helmeted pilot painted into a bubblelike vehicle on the top of the rocket, which would pop off,
like a second stage, when the rocket attained the stupendous height of thirty or forty feet. I
immediately lost the bubble craft with its painted astronaut. It shot off, just like it was supposed
to, and never came down. I have to suppose that it’s rusting in the branches of a tree somewhere,
but I have a hazy memory of it simply shooting into the air and disappearing in a blink, hurtling up
through the thin atmosphere toward deep space. Wasted money, my mother said.
Our third meeting was at the Palm Street Market, where I went to buy penny candy that was
a nickel by then. I was thirteen, I suppose, or something near it, which would have made it early
in the Sixties. The clerk being busy, I had strayed over to the magazine shelves and found a copy
of Fate, which I read for the saucer stories, and which, on that afternoon, was the excuse
for my being close enough to the “men’s” magazines to thumb through a couple while the clerk
had his back turned. I had the Fate open to the account of Captain Hooton’s discovery of
an airship near Texarkana, and a copy of something called Slick or Trick or
Flick propped open on the rack behind. I read the saucer article out of apologetic shame
in between thumbing through the pages of photographs, as if my reading it would balance out the
rest, but remembering nothing of what I read until, with a shock of horror that I can still recall as
clearly as anything else in my life, I became aware that the ice cream man, the tin toy salesman,
was standing behind me, reading over my shoulder.
What I read, very slowly and carefully as three fourths of my blood rose into my head, was
Captain Hooton’s contempt for airship design: “There was no bell or bell rope about the
ship that I could discover, like I should think every well-regulated air locomotive should
have.” At the precise moment of my reading that sentence, the clerk’s voice whacked out
of the silence: “Hey, kid!” was what he said. I’d heard it before. It was a weirdly
effective phrase and had such a freezing effect on me that Captain Hooton’s bit of mechanical
outrage has come along through the years with me uninvited, pegged into my memory by the
manufactured shame of that single moment.
Both of us bought a copy of Fate. I had to, of course, although it cost me forty cents
that I couldn’t afford. I remember the ice cream man winking broadly at me there on the sidewalk,
and me being deadly certain that I had become as transparent as a ghost fish. Everyone on Earth
had been on to my little game with the magazine. I couldn’t set foot in that market without a
disguise for a solid five years. And then, blessedly, he was gone, off down the street, and me in
the opposite direction. I stayed clear of the market for a couple of months and then discovered,
passing on the sidewalk, that the witnessing clerk was gone, and that went a long way toward
putting things right, although Captain Hooton, as I said, has stayed with me. In fact, I began from
that day to think of the ice cream man as Captain Hooton, since I had no idea what his name was,
and years later the name would prove strangely appropriate.
In was in the autumn, then, that I first met Jane on that November night in the plaza, and
weeks later when I introduced her to him, to Captain Hooton. She said in her artistic way that
he had a “good face,” although she didn’t mean to make any sort of moral judgment, and
truthfully his face was almost inhumanly long and angular. She said this after the three of us had
chatted for a moment and he had gone on his way. It was as if there were nothing much more she
could say about him that made any difference at all, as if she were distracted.
I remember that it irritated me, although why it should have I don’t know, except that he had
already begun to mean something, to signify, as if our chance meetings over the years, if I could
pluck them out of time and arrange them just so, would make a pattern.
“He dresses pretty awful, doesn’t he?” That’s what she said after he’d gone
along and she could think of nothing more to say about his face.
I hadn’t noticed, and I said so, being friendly about it.
“He’s smelly. What was that, do you think?”
“Tobacco, I guess. I don’t know. Pipe tobacco.” She wasn’t keen on
tobacco, or liquor either. So I didn’t put too fine a point on it because I didn’t want to set her off,
to have to defend his smoking a pipe. It was true that his coat could have used a cleaning, but that
hadn’t occurred to me, actually, until she mentioned it, wrinkling up her nose in that rabbit way of
“I keep thinking that he’s got a fish in his pocket.”
I smiled at her, suddenly feeling as if I were betraying a friend.
“Well . . . ,” I said, trying to affect a dropping-the-subject tone.
She shuddered. “People get like that, especially old people. They forget to take baths
and wash their hair.”
I shrugged, pretending to think that she was merely trying to be amusing.
“He’s not that old,” I said. But she immediately agreed. That was the
problem, wasn’t it? You wouldn’t think. She looked at my own hair very briefly and then set
out down the sidewalk with me following and studying my shadow in the afternoon sun and
keeping my hands away from my hair. It looked neat enough there in the shadow on the sidewalk,
but I knew that shadows couldn’t be trusted, and I was another five minutes worrying about it
before something else happened, it doesn’t matter what, and I forgot about my hair and my
Her own hair had a sort of flyaway look to it, but perfect, if you understand me, and it
shone as if she’d given it the standard hundred strokes that morning. A dark-red ribbon held a
random clutch of it behind her ear, and there was something in the ribbon and in the way she put
her hand on my arm to call my attention to some house or other that made me think of anything
but houses. She had a way of touching you, almost as if accidentally, like a cat sliding past your
leg, rubbing against you, and arching just a little and then continuing on, having abandoned any
interest in you. She stood too close, maybe, for comfort — although comfort is the wrong
word because the sensation was almost ultimately comfortable — and all the while that we were
standing there talking about the lines of the roof, I was conscious only of the static charge of her
presence, her shoulder just grazing my arm, her hip brushing against my thigh, the heavy presence
of her sex suddenly washing away whatever was on the surface of my mind and settling there
musky and soft. There hasn’t been another man in history more indifferent to the lines of a
In the downtown circular plaza each Christmas, there was an enormous Santa Claus built
from wire and twisted paper, lit from within by a spiral of pin lights, and at Halloween, beneath
overcast skies and pending rain, there were parades of schoolchildren dressed as witches and
clowns and bed-sheet ghosts. Then in spring there was a May festival, with city dignitaries riding
in convertible Edsels and waving to people sitting in lawn chairs along the boulevard. One year
the parade was led by a tame ape followed by fezzed Shriners in Mr. Toad cars.
Twice during the two years that Jane studied art, while the town shrank for her and grew
cramped, we watched the parade from a sidewalk table in front of Felix’s Cafe, laughing at the
ape and smiling at the solemn drumming of the marching bands. The second year one of the little
cars caught fire and the parade fizzled out and waited while a half-dozen capering Shriners beat
the fire out with their jackets. It was easy to laugh then, at the ape and the Edsels and the tiny
cars, except that even then I suspected that her laughter was half cynical. Mine wasn’t, and this
difference between us troubled me.
In the summer there was a street fair, and the smoky aroma of sausages and beer and the
sticky-sweet smell of cotton candy. We pushed through the milling crowds and sat for hours
under an ancient tree in the plaza, watching the world revolve around us.
It seems now that I was always wary then that the world in its spinning might tumble me off,
and there was something about the exposed roots of that tree that made you want to touch them,
to sit among them just to see how immovable they were. But the world couldn’t spin half fast
enough for her. You’d have thought that if she could get a dozen paintings out of that fountain,
then there would be enough, even in a provincial little town like this one, to amuse her
Captain Hooton always seemed to be turning up. One year he put on a Santa costume and
wandered through the shops startling children. The following year at Halloween he appeared out
of the doorway of a disused shop, wearing a fright wig and carrying an enormous flashlight like a
lighthouse beacon, on the lens of which was glued a witch cut out of black construction paper. He
climbed into a sycamore tree in front of Watson’s Drugs and shined the witch for a half hour onto
the white stone facade of the bank, and then, refusing to come down unless he was made to, was
finally led away by the police. Jane ought to have admired the trick with the flashlight, but she
had by then developed a permanent dislike for him because, I think, he didn’t seem to take her
seriously, her or her paintings, and she took both of those things very seriously indeed, while
pretending to care for almost nothing at all.
He ate pretty regularly for a time at Rudy’s counter, at the drugstore. It was a place where
milk shakes were still served in enormous metal cylinders and where shopkeepers sat on red
Naugahyde and ate hot turkey sandwiches and mashed potatoes and talked platitudes and weather
and sports, squinting and nodding. Captain Hooton wasn’t much on conversation. He sat alone
usually, smoking and wearing one of those caps that sports car enthusiasts wear, looking as if he
were pondering something, breaking into silent laughter now and then as he watched the autumn
rain fall and the red-brown sycamore leaves scattering along the street in the gusting breeze.
There was something awful about his skin — an odd color, perhaps, too pink and blue and
never any hint of a beard, even in the afternoon.
A balding man from Fergy’s television repair referred to him jokingly as Doctor Loomis,
apparently the name of an alien visitor in a cheap, old science-fiction thriller. I chatted with him
three or four times when Jane wasn’t along, coming to think of him finally as a product of
“the old school,” which, as Dickens said, is no school that ever existed on
There were more sightings of things in the sky — almost always at night, and almost always
they were described in slightly ludicrous terms by astonished citizens, as if each of them had
mugged up those old issues of Fate. The things were egg-shaped, wingless, smooth silver;
they beamed people up through spiraling doors and motored them around the galaxy and then
dropped them off again, in a vacant lot or behind an apartment complex or bowling alley and with
an inexplicable lapse of memory. The City News was full of it.
Once, at the height of the sightings, men in uniforms came from the East and the sightings
mysteriously stopped. Something landed in the upper reaches of my avocado tree one night and
glowed there. Next morning I found a cardboard milk carton smelling of chemicals, the inside
stained the green of a sunlit ocean, lying in the leaves and humus below. It had little wings
fastened with silver duct tape. The bottom of it had been cut out and replaced with a carved
square of pumice, a bored-out carburetor jet glued into the center of it.
It happened that Captain Hooton lived on Pine Street by that time, and so did I. I rented half
of a little bungalow and took walks in the evening when I wasn’t with Jane. His house was
deceptively large. From the street it seemed to be a narrow, gabled Victorian with a three-story
turret in the right front corner, and with maybe a living room, parlor, and kitchen downstairs.
Upstairs there might have been room for a pair of large bedrooms and a library midway up in the
turret. There was a lot of split clinker brick mortared onto the front in an attempt to make the
house look indefinably European, and shutters with shooting stars cut into them that had been
added along the way. Old newspapers piled up regularly on the front porch and walk as if he
were letting them ripen, and the brush-choked flowerbeds were so overgrown that none of the
downstairs windows could have admitted any sunlight.
Jane seemed to see it as being a shame — the mess of weeds and brush, the cobbled-together
house, the yellowing papers. Somehow I held out hope that it would strike her
as — what? — original. Eccentric, maybe. At first I thought that they were too much alike in their
eccentricities. I considered her root beer shoes and her costume jewelry and her very fashionable
and practiced disregard for fashion and her perfectly disarranged hair, and it occurred to me that
she was art, so to speak — artifice, theater. And although she talked about spontaneity, she was a
marvel of regimentation and control, and never more so than when she was being spontaneous.
The two of them couldn’t have been more unalike.
He was vaguely alarming, though. You couldn’t tell what he was thinking; his past and his
future were misty and dim, giving you the sort of feeling you get on cheap haunted-house thrill
rides at carnivals, where you’re never quite sure what colorful, grimacing thing will leap out at
you from behind a plywood partition.
I could see the rear of his house from my backyard, and from there it appeared far larger.
It ran back across the deep lot and was a wonder of dormers, gables, and lean-to closets, all of it
overshadowed by walnut trees and trumpet flower vines on sagging trellises and arbors.
Underneath was a sprawling basement, which at night glowed with lamplight through
aboveground transom windows. The muted ring of small hammers and the hum of lathes sounded
from the cellar at unwholesomely late hours.
The double doors of his garage were fastened with a rusted iron lock as big as a man’s hand,
and he must have had a means by which to enter and leave the garage — and perhaps the house
itself — without using any of the visible doors. I rarely saw him out and about. When I did, he
sometimes seemed hardly to know me, as if distracted, his mind on mysteries.
Once, while I was out walking, I came across him spading up a strip of earth beneath his
kitchen window, breaking the clods apart and pulling iron filings out of them with an enormous
magnet. I recalled our distant meeting behind the ice cream truck, but by now he seemed to
remember it only vaguely. I took him to be the sort of eccentric genius too caught up in his own
meanderings to pay any attention to the mundane world.
He’d started a winter garden there along the side of his house, and a dozen loose heads of
red-leaf lettuce grew in the half-shade of the eaves. We chatted amiably enough, about the
weather, about gardens. He gave me a sidewise squint and asked if I’d seen any of the alleged
“saucers” reported in the newspaper, and I said that I had, or at least that I had
seen some saucer or another months ago. He nodded and frowned as if he’d rather hoped I hadn’t,
as if the two of us might have sneered at the notion of it together.
A spotted butterfly hovered over the lettuce, alighting now and then and finally settling in
“to eat the lettuce alive,” as he put it. He wouldn’t stand for it, he said, and very
quietly he plucked up a wiremesh flyswatter that hung from a nail on the side porch, and he flailed
away at the butterfly until the head of lettuce it had rested on was shredded. He seemed to think it
was funny, particularly so because the butterfly itself had got entirely away, had fluttered off at
the first sign of trouble. It was a joke, an irony, a metaphor of something that I didn’t quite
He gave me a paper sack full of black-eyed peas and disappeared into the house, asking after
the “young lady” but not waiting for an answer, and then shoving back out
through the door to tell me to return the sack when I was through with it, and then laughing and
winking and closing the door, and winking again through the kitchen window so that it was
impossible to say what, entirely, he meant by the display.
There wasn’t much I could have told him about the “young lady.” Much of
what I might have said would already be a reminiscence. The thing that mattered, I suppose, was
that she made me weak in the knees, but I couldn’t say so. And she was entirely without that
clinging, dependent nature that feeds a man’s vanity at first but soon grows tiresome. Jane always
talked as if she had places to go to, people to meet. There was something in the tone of her voice
that made such talk sound like a warning, as if I weren’t invited along, or weren’t up to it, or were
a momentary amusement, like the May parade, perhaps, and would have to suffice while she was
stuck there in that little far-flung corner of the globe.
She wanted to travel to the Orient, to Paris. I wanted to travel, too. It turned out that her
plans didn’t exclude me. I would go along — quit work and go, just like that, spontaneously,
wearing a beret and a knapsack. And that’s just what I did, finally, although without the beret;
I’m not the sort of a man who can wear a hat. I’m too likely to affect the carefree attitude and
then regret the hat, or whatever it is I’m wearing, and then whatever it is I’m not wearing but
should have. It’s a world of regrets, isn’t it? Jane didn’t think so. She hadn’t any regrets, and
said so, and for a while I was foolish enough to admire her saying so. I don’t believe that Captain
Hooton would have understood her saying such a thing, let alone have admired it.
I brought around his paper sack, right enough, two days later, and he took it from me
solemnly, nodding and frowning. At once he blew it up like a balloon — inflated it until it was
almost spherical — and then, waving a finger in order to show me, I suppose, that I hadn’t seen
anything yet, he pulled a slip of silver ribbon out of his vest pocket, looped it around the bunched
paper at the bottom, and tied it off. He lit a kitchen match with his fingernail and held it to the
tails of the ribbon. Immediately the inflated sack began to glow and rocketed away through the
curb trees like a blowfish, the ribbons trailing streams of blue sparks. It angled skyward in a rush
I must have looked astonished, thinking of the milk carton beneath my tree. He pretended
to smoke his pipe with his ear. Then he sighted along the stem as if it were a periscope, and made
whirring and clicking sorts of submarine noises with his tongue. Then waggling his shoulders as if
generally loosening his joints, he blew softly across the reeking pipe bowl, dispersing the smoke
and making a sound uncannily like Peruvian panpipes. He was full of tricks. He suddenly looked
very old — certainly above seventy. His hair, which must have been a transplant, grew in patterns
like hedgerows, and in the sunlight that shone between the racing clouds, his skin was almost
translucent, as if he were a laminated see-through illustration in a modern encyclopedia.
And so one evening late I knocked on the cellar window next to his kitchen door, then stood
back on the dewy lawn and waited for him. He was working down there, tinkering with
something; I could see his head wagging over the bench.
In a moment he opened the door, having come upstairs. He didn’t seem at all surprised to see
me skulking in the yard like that but waved me in impatiently as if he had been waiting for my
arrival, maybe for years, and now I’d finally come and there was no time to waste.
The cellar was impossibly vast, stretching away room after room, a sort of labyrinth of
low-ceilinged, concrete-floored rooms. I couldn’t be certain of my bearings any longer, but it
seemed that the rooms must have been dug beneath the driveway alongside his house as well as
under the house itself — maybe under the house next door; and once I allowed for such a thing, it
occurred to me that his cellars might as easily stretch beneath my own house. I remembered nights
when I had been awakened by noises, by strange creaks and clanks and rattles of the sort that
startle you awake, and you listen, your heart going like sixty, while you tell yourself that it’s the
house “settling,” but you don’t believe it. And all this time it might have been him, muffled beneath
the floor and perhaps a few feet of earth, tapping away at a workbench like a dwarf in his
All of this filled my head when I stood on the edge of his stairs, breathing the musty cellar air.
It was late, after all, and a couple of closets with lights casting the shadows of doorways and
shelves might have accounted for the illusion of vast size. We wandered away through the clutter,
with me in my astonishment only half-listening to him, and despite all the magical debris, what I
remember most, like an inessential but vivid element in a dream, was his head ducking and
ducking under low, rough-sawn ceiling joists that were almost black with age.
I have a confused recollection of partly built contrivances, some of them moving due to
hidden, clockwork mechanisms, some of them sighing and gurgling, hooked up to water pipes
curling out of the walls or to steam pipes running in copper arteries toward a boiler that I can’t
remember seeing but could hear sighing and wheezing somewhere nearby. There were pendulums
and delicate hydraulic gizmos, and on the corner of one bench a gyroscope spun in a little
depression, motivated, apparently, by nothing at all. The walls were strewn with charts and
drawings and shelves of books, and once, when we bent through a doorway and into a room
inhabited by the hovering, slowly rotating hologram of a space vehicle, we surprised a family of
mice at work on the remains of a stale sandwich. What did they make, I wonder, of the ghost of
the spacecraft? Had they tried to inhabit it, to build a nest in it? Would it have mattered to them
that they were inhabiting a dream?
What did I make of it? Here’s Captain Hooton’s airship, I remember thinking.
Where’s the bell rope? But it wasn’t his airship, not exactly; the ship itself was in an
The whole thing was a certainty in an instant — the lights in the sky, the odd debris beneath
the avocado tree, even the weird pallor of his see-through skin. It had all been his doing all these
years. That’s no surprise, I suppose, when it’s taken altogether like this. When all the details are
compressed, the patterns are clear.
He had come from somewhere and was going back again. With the lumber of mechanical
trash spread interminably across bench tops, and the cluttered walls and the mice, and him with his
pipe and hat, he seemed so settled in, so permanent. And yet the continual tinkering and the lights
on at all hours made it clear that he was on the edge of leaving — maybe in a week, maybe in the
morning, maybe right now; that’s what I thought as I stood there looking at the ship.
It was nearly spherical, with four curved appendages that were a hybrid of wings and legs
and that held the craft up off the concrete floor. Circular hatches ringed the ship, each covered
with lapped plates that looked as if they’d spiral open to expose a door or a glassed-over window.
The metal of the thing was polished to the silver shine of a perfect mirror that stretched our
reflections like taffy as I stood listening to him tell me how we were directly under the backyard,
and how he would detonate a charge, and one foggy night the ship would sail up out of the
ground in a rush of smoke and dirt and be gone, affording the city newspapers their last legitimate
I didn’t tell Jane about it. There were a lot of things I couldn’t or wouldn’t tell her. I wanted
some little world of my own, which was removed from the world we had together, but which, of
course, could be implied now and then for effect, but never revealed lest it seem to her to be
amusing. One day soon the papers would be full of it anyway — the noise in the night, the scattered
sightings of the heaven-bound craft, the backyard crater. There would be something then in being
the only one who knew.
And he no doubt wasn’t anxious that the spaceship became general knowledge. There was no
law against it, strictly speaking, but if they’d jailed him for the trick with the flashlight and the
paper witch, or rather for refusing to come down out of a tree, then who could say what they
might do if they got wind of a flying saucer buried in a cellar?
Then there was the chance that I might be aboard. He was willing to take me along. We
talked about it all that night, about the places I’d see and the people I’d meet — a completely
different sort of crowd than Jane and I would run into in our European travels.
It was then, about two years after I’d met Jane, that I gave up the house on Pine Street and
moved in with her. She was free of school at last and was in an expansive, generous mood, which
I’ll admit I took advantage of shamelessly, and when, in early July, she received money from home
and bought a one-way ticket to Rome, I bought one, too, only mine was a round-trip ticket with a
negotiable return date. That should have bothered her, my having doubts, but it didn’t. She didn’t
remark on it at all. From the start it had been my business — another aspect of her modern attitude
toward things, an attitude I could neither share nor condemn out loud.
The rest is inevitable. I returned and she didn’t. Captain Hooton was gone, and there was
a crater with scorched grass around the perimeter of it in the backyard of his empty house. I might
have gone along with him. But I didn’t, and what I get to keep is the memory of it all — the
hologram, so to speak, of the ship and of faded desire, having given up the one for the already
fading dream of the other.
There’s the image in my mind of a card house built of picture postcards pulled from a rusting
wire rack of memories — the sort of thing that even a mouse wouldn’t live in, preferring something
more permanent and substantial. But then, nothing is quite as solid as we’d like it to be, and the
map of our lives, sketched out across our memory, is of a provincial little neighborhood,
crisscrossed with regret and circumscribed by a couple of impassable roads and by splashes of
bright color that have begun to fade even before we have them fixed in our memory.
[ THE END ]
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