Falling Back to Earth | Feature | Chicago Reader

News & Politics » Feature

Falling Back to Earth

I want to believe the hulking 20-year-old who was plunked down into my junior high is still happily spinning his fantastic tales somewhere. But chances are things didn't turn out that way.


Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

1 comment

The summer before ninth grade, I fell in love with fire. On weekends, when my parents were golfing and my two brothers were holed up in their rooms, I would douse one of my few flawed model cars with gasoline, set it afire, and drag it behind my bike, creating spectacular curbside wrecks. One day in the garage I inadvertently dribbled a bit of gas on the concrete, and when I struck the match to light the model, the flame ran along the floor and set the can on fire. While the flames danced on the can's silver top, the only thing I heard in my head was my father's order, "Save the house, boy." I lifted the can and carried it outside, burning my fingers badly. After my frantic phone call, the hook and ladder came, and a slickered man dusted dead the can in two seconds flat. Later my dad joined a shamed me at the hospital, and we watched white pus pockets billow like pup tents on three finger pads where the can's handle had melted my flesh. Surprise: The hoary little lumps elicited his forgiveness. He was awed by my boneheaded courage. I felt distinguished then, a prince of clowns, wearing a white garden glove on my bad hand.

I couldn't do much with that hand for at least a month. The doctor's orders kept me from doing the dishes, washing the car, weeding the flower beds, or sweeping the garage. I lugged about, garnering my brothers' scorn. Early September, my 13th birthday came and went without a party. Mother said I didn't deserve a celebration, not after what I'd put everyone through. I got winter clothing and acted grateful.

When school started, classmates peppered me for the story. For a few days I held court before the lockers and in homeroom, telling the tale, acting the part. Teachers were the nosiest. And what on earth happened to you?--as if I would confess my stupidity while they handed out work sheets. When they'd pry, I'd say, "My fingers got burned in an accidental fire at home. But I took care of it, and saved the house from destruction. I'm much better, thank you." How often I practiced lying! How well it usually worked!

What annoyed me most were the looks from my classmates. One guy, Craig Reineking, our nattily dressed class president, stared at my hand so long and wagged his head so gloomily that I felt defective. His condemnation seemed to leap telepathically into my head: Only a Neanderthal lights a gas can on fire and then has to pick it up and carry it out of the garage.

As class spectacle, I was glad to be saved in the second week when the hall buzz left me for a new student, a 20-year-old seventh-grader. His name was Orrie Wolf, and we were told up front that he was retarded. (I've changed Orrie's name and the others in this story.) Before he arrived, Mr. Kavanaugh, our vice principal, announced on the PA that "Orrie is a special young, ah, man, who'll make us all a wonderful new friend." One kid wondered aloud whether guys like that weren't supposed to stay in the asylum where they'd be protected by guards, and then we too would be protected--we, the normal ones. "Heavens, no," said my English teacher. "They only lock up the dangerous types and this, ah, boy isn't dangerous. He's different from them; he's only marginally retarded. Mentally lacking, yes, but emotionally deficient? No."

Like Indian scouts, bulwarked by the lockers, we waited for him. And when he appeared, we gawked in disbelief. Orrie was large as a lumberjack, more solid than lumpy, with black-rimmed glasses over projectile eyes. He wore baggy mechanic-gray pants and a skintight, snap-button rayon shirt. The tie was--and would remain, until a teacher finally obliged--half tied. His main unsightliness, though, was his acne. Whereas the pimples came and went for junior high kids, his cheeks were deep pitted and macabre, scarified from constant picking. His head, towering over all of us, was electrically alive; he looked here and there as though we were the sideshow, not him. He was cartoonish, with the sniff-snooping curiosity of Pluto and the good-natured dimness of Goofy. The resemblance to Goofy was uncanny: Orrie's sloped forehead--I swear it's true--had terraced furrows like a bloodhound, the color of lightly toasted bread.

The idea--I learned this later, after the scandal--was to see whether Orrie could join us in a grand experiment of learning together. Word was, Orrie's teachers were to integrate him fully into the classroom, acknowledge his uniqueness but not his difference. Encourage him to speak and let him. We heard that Orrie would wriggle in his seat and raise his hand continually for attention. We quoted him with derision and glee: "I'll clean those beakers, Mr. Stankowitz." "Let me run the projector, please?" "I know what a globe is, silly." He didn't sulk off. Instead, he forced himself on us because he didn't know how else to act. We might have gotten over his oddity. Given time.

Most of us left our burned-brick school fortress for lunch downtown, just a block away. After feasting on pizza and pinball, we hustled back. A few hundred of us would then congregate by the fountain that stood empty of water and littered with trash before the school's front steps. This was where Orrie performed.

In a semicircle, we questioned him like hungry reporters. What was in that big black bag he carried in his arms, not by the handles? You want to see, he'd say, thrilled, and he'd unpack every folder and pencil, eraser and gum wrapper, magazine and skin cream vial, proud as punch that people cared about his belongings. Kavanaugh was up by the double doors, his tweed hat slung low, his gaze wary. Revved up, Orrie would go on to tell us the story of the flying pink elephants.

"In Africa"--he began by clearing his throat and raising his head like General MacArthur--"there once was, oh, a hundred or a thousand greedy game catchers from the zoo who, who took way more animals than they needed." He paused, scratched his face. "Not two by two but, ah, ten by ten even though it was OK to have a few, a few, but not so many that, ah, they'd all be gone. Elephants are the-the-the smartest animals and they can't be caught." He paused and searched the sky, then his words rushed forth all at once. "Never must we forget that all of the lions and tigers and bears were being carried away until oh my, oh my, that's when the elephants flew in. To the rescue." Orrie was now spitting like a washing machine on rinse. "Pink elephants, here they come, big, big elephants, and they were very pink, pinker than pigs, in the morning sun, flapping their great ears," and we all gasped in amazement. Orrie would then flap his arms and we'd hoot with praise. "Before the game catchers could load their guns," he went on, "the pink elephants had freed every one of the animals--"

To punctuate their escape Orrie sounded a feral cry of liberation. "Wrowow-oooooooooooooooooooo!" And we'd all join in: "Wrowow-oooooooooooooooooooo!"

And where did Orrie hear this story, we wanted to know? He'd read it in a book. What book? A book of stories. Was it really true? Of course it was, he'd say. How would the elephants flap their ears, Orrie? Like this, and he'd flap his hands and arms furiously to demonstrate. Again and again, whenever we asked him to, he'd flap. (I remember thinking he might be crazy enough to try to fly.) Could Orrie fly? People can't fly, someone in the crowd called up, because their ears aren't big enough. "I know that, silly," Orrie yelled back.

Another time, someone asked whether Orrie could see these pink elephants himself. I can, he said confidently. The elephants sometimes came in close to rescue him if he got in trouble. Oh yeah, Orrie, what kind of trouble? Well, if he lost his way, all he had to do was start flapping his arms and here they'd come. They'd fly in, catch him up in one of their trunks, and take him back where they lived. Where it was safe. Where is that, Orrie? Under the forest, he said.

Usually, just as we'd loosened Orrie's screws and those black-rimmed glasses had slid halfway down his nose, Kavanaugh would skip down the steps, chuckle like an adult Mouseketeer, and suggest that we "break it up." To which Orrie would say, "But why? They like me, Mr. Kavanaugh, they really do." And we'd nod our heads and say, "Yeah, we do, Mr. Kavanaugh, we really do." And Orrie would say, "See?"

One day I passed Kavanaugh and Orrie talking animatedly in the hallway. They were standing before Mr. K.'s frosted-glass vice-principal's door. It was propped open, and you could read his black-lettered name backward through the glass. Though Kavanaugh's eyes said to me, don't you dare eavesdrop, I listened anyway, walking by very slowly in a crush of bodies, then smacking my head like I'd forgotten something and reversing course.

"I know, I know I can do the work Mr. Abrams wants me to," Orrie was saying. Mr. Abrams was his history teacher.

"He doesn't think so, Orrie," said Kavanaugh.

"But I read the book and I took the notes and I ask the questions. Just like everyone else."

"And you failed the test." Kavanaugh's interlaced fingers had not budged from where they rested below his tie.

"But so did, so did other kids and then they said that the test was too hard."

"The test wasn't too hard," Kavanaugh said, raising his voice.

It was obvious which of Orrie's buttons you could push. Orrie backed down, though he complained again. "Too hard of a test should have been explained. I know I can do it. It just takes me-me-me longer, Mr. Kavanaugh."

Kavanaugh was silent.

It was clear to me why Orrie wanted to be like us, but at the same time I was starting to wonder why anyone would aspire to the interminable sameness of junior high. Orrie's presence was complicating my sense about, well, about Orrie and us. I had him pegged somewhere between not believing himself to be as slow as he truly was and delighting in the imaginative richness that his fellow students, sometimes with cruel intent, were joyfully bringing out of him. While I knew that Orrie could never really be one of us, I secretly hoped he would one day click on to the same smart channel we were on. So when I heard him announce to a teacher one day, "I'm not retarded anymore because I'm in school," I thought he was rising to our level, despite the fact that about junior high I believed the opposite. Bored out of my skull with Mrs. Waag's algebra equations on the board, I felt that school was making me as retarded as Orrie.

Because we had no classes in common, Orrie's escapades came to me secondhand. Most often the stories issued from Randy MoMeyer and Wade Symanski, the two most delinquent and boastful flattopped hoods at Horace Mann Junior High. Randy and Wade duped Orrie into liking them through the sheer amount of attention they gave him. They became Orrie's everyday pals, picking him up in the morning from his group home, taking him back at night. After school they usually stopped at the Y, where during long games of bumper pool they championed Orrie's storytelling prowess. While Orrie performed, Randy would slyly roll one red ball right in front of the hole, so when Orrie finished the elephant tale he could tap the ball in and exclaim delightedly, "There you go squirrel, another nut for the winter."

Coach Bentley had me sweeping the floor of the locker room every day after school, his punishment for my not dressing for gym class. Pushing the broom one day, my garden glove still on, I met Randy and Wade, who were straddling a bench and, as usual, cutting up over Orrie. That is, until they saw me.

"Hey Lars," Wade said. Shit, how I hated that name. It made me sound like a damn Viking. "How did you burn those fingers of yours anyway? Pulling the old crankshaft?" They giggled at each other.

"That's real intelligent, Symanski," I said. "The name's Tom, asshole." My injury made me instantly brave. "Wade, old boy," I said, "I reckon Orrie's dick must be twice as big as your brain." Randy snickered. For good measure, I made the universal masturbation gesture--curved thumb and fingers quick-pumping on peter pipe in midair. All I'd done was to throw his insult right back at him.

Wade looked at me with squinting hatred. He could have hit me; maybe he should have. But he was trying for some witty comeback that wouldn't rise to his lips. He was tongue-tied and he knew it, so I went on, pushing the pile of dirt and Band-Aids and empty jockstrap boxes.

I heard Randy say, "Oh piss on it, Wade. Lars just gave me an idea."

"About what?"

"About, you know, me. And you. And Orrie."

The broom took me up the next set of lockers and out of earshot.

But then nothing involving a setup was hidden in my junior high, and in no time a lunch-hour story sprung loose. The permutation I heard was this: Randy and Wade had asked Orrie whether he ever touched himself. Orrie said, where? Randy said, you know, down there. Orrie, always honest Orrie, said that once or twice he had, why? Did Orrie know that it was OK to touch yourself at school? No, it couldn't be. Well, it wasn't OK just anywhere--gosh no, Orrie, not in the middle of class. (You could just picture Orrie's confusion.) If it was OK, then why hadn't he seen anyone do it? That's because they did it in the dark, Randy said. Oh--but it was never dark in school, Orrie said, certain he had tripped them up. Maybe there'd be one time when no one else would know, said Wade, and he let it go at that.

Soon the entire student body poured into the gym for an assembly. No live policeman or Eagle Scout this time, but a movie called Cheese Country, pure propaganda from the Wisconsin dairy industry. The film featured the cows we saw in the fields every day, the milk products we ate every morning, the dumb-ass, low-paying jobs that we (we?) could look forward to. Because so many of our older brothers were forgoing their senior year for a slaughterhouse job in Milwaukee or enlistment in the army, the civic brass was trying to keep us moored to the local farming economy. As usual, the assembly was donged with fart sounds and moose calls.

That day I positioned myself in the row behind Orrie, who sat between his pals Randy and Wade. When the auditorium got dark, Randy, whom I could see most clearly, distributed the hankies. Wade's whispers must have sounded like this: Orrie, here, cover up with this hankie like I do, during the movie. When it's dark it'll be OK. Then I clearly heard, "No, stop worrying," with Wade suddenly raising his voice like Kavanaugh. "It'll be fine. Me and Randy'll join you."

Once again I imagined the bewilderment on Orrie's face. Surely this was wrong. Surely rules applied. But maybe their friendship was worth the carnal act. When you're told loudly to do it, it's much easier just to do it. Right? So, once Randy and Wade were on their way, hankie-hid peters in hand, Orrie produced his. (Which, said those who claimed to have seen the whole thing, was as big as a hockey trophy.) The next thing I noticed came from the row in front of these three--Pamela Richards, an overripe seventh-grader who was wearing a Mexican fiesta dress, its elastic sleeves teasing out her shoulder tops, kept turning her head and shushing everyone.

So all three idiots--only honest Orrie had his out--pumped their boners through Cheese Country. Amazed, I watched both shows. I recall one part of the film that cut back and forth between dairy workers in dirty smocks and flannel jackets as they puttered about the 56-degree, stainless steel cheese room, and a cheese-swilling family at the table, Mom, Dad, Babs, and Bill, who grinned their shit house grins while the announcer intoned, "Mm-mm. Boy, is that ever good!" No foolin'. And there, a few feet in front of me, surrounded by hundreds of teenagers, Orrie Wolf was rubbing the dipstick for real at the same time that Randy and Wade were pretending to. By the film's end, I felt only an ember of disgust. Orrie's impending humiliation was as fiendish as it was brilliant; I couldn't tell the difference.

When the lights burned on, Pamela turned around and beheld the unspeakable. She immediately stood up and yelled, "Orrie's beating off!" A hundred pairs of eyes scoped him at once while shrieks rained down as though rats had been released in the science lab. (How did Pamela know, I wondered, what beating off was?) Peering over Wade's shoulder, I got a small view of Orrie's hand on his humongous valve, with flashes of brown scrub and pink shine under the hankie--he was sweating, leaning back, palpitating, still at it. Those black-rimmed glasses clung precariously to the tip of his nose. Though Randy and Wade were clutching their sides from laughter, Orrie had gone blissfully beyond junior high. And it was that bliss, a supreme disinterestedness, I remember, that so enthralled his blemished face, remarkable for the lack of shame, remarkable again for ignoring the students' jeers. In fact he didn't even pause; he kept right on going. You might imagine that he would be struck by the ignominy of betrayal, but no. He didn't show it. He was perfectly alone, beatified.

An unseen director yelled, cut! Orrie stopped, stood up, then wedged his bat-hard penis back in his pants, where it bulged like a drum major's baton. Zipping up, he seemed to shrug: I'll finish this later. Kavanaugh and company marched Orrie from the auditorium so roughly that Orrie appeared to go dormant. Any of us would have gone dormant caught in such self-abasement. But we would not have masturbated in public. We knew the rules.

We knew, but then it wasn't exactly wisdom that guided our knowledge. For a long time I've tried to understand this scene, and I now think that what made the awkwardness of the moment bearable was that much-despised junior high sameness we fell into, the pit and protection of we're all alike and he's not. Remembering our numbed reaction after the shock, like a stock-car crowd awed by a fiery rollover, we must have identified with Randy and Wade to forgo the shame of identifying with Orrie. None of us could see ourselves in Orrie's act, not because of what he did (how many of us had secretly, steadily, found the time and the place to practice rapture with our own genitals), but because Orrie could never have done to us what Randy and Wade had done to him. He was clearly better than that, despite himself or maybe because of it.

But I've gotten ahead of myself. Our enthusiasm for the retarded man palled. A day later, we had detached ourselves from Orrie's antics as well as from Randy and Wade's stunt. And then, once Kavanaugh yelled at Orrie--many of us heard the shouting behind the frosted-glass door as we passed--Orrie told Kavanaugh the truth. After that, no one spoke to the poor guy. He was mum. We were mum. His tool was mum, though Pamela Richards screamed every time she saw him in the hallway.

Come the following Monday, Orrie was gone. Where, they didn't tell us. I asked a teacher and she shrugged, looked away. It was absurd. Here the school had gone to all this trouble to bring him in and then they banished him like a man without a country. It seemed that the flurry of his presence and absence sort of crawled into a hole and died. As for Randy and Wade, they went up the Fox River to reform school, where we heard they thrived on the discipline and the insults.

Before I knew it it was October, and my mother took me to the doctor to have my hand examined. When Doctor Joe gently tugged the glove off, the three of us saw that the pus pockets on my fingers had popped and the pup-tent skin had shriveled papery thin. He said, "Let's leave it alone. I think the air'll finish drying it out." Mother sighed gratefully. The air did dry the sores and new skin eventually grew, though I couldn't stop chewing on the edges of the wounds. How happy I was to have my hand rejoin those of my peers, busily taking notes, combing meticulously parted hair, waving in the air with the right answer, or resting quietly on the top of my desk.

Following Orrie's ouster school plodded along until Christmas, when I got new snow skis and then spent Saturdays racing down the slopes of Rib Mountain. My older brother took up John F. Kennedy's call for young people to go on 50-mile hikes. He got to mile 26, but his feet ached so much that he had to quit. I went to my classes, did my homework day in and day out, and through it all tended my sullied fingers. I often recollected the scene--the can burning, my father's voice above me, my fingers reaching for the handle, unable to stop myself. Something like an explosion or me spilling the burning gas onto my legs didn't happen. Instead of feeling thankful that I dodged a bullet, the nearness to much worse pain began to bother me. About Orrie Wolf and the prank--that I had forgotten. I didn't think about him until several months later when the bullet came at me again.

The Wisconsin town of my boyhood where all this happened was Wausau, which in Winnebago means "faraway place." Wausau was the sort of hardscrabble town, with its seven-month winter and mosquito-ridden summer, that some people sought in order to get far away from another place or person or thing they had to escape. While our downtown Hotel Wausau housed countless newlyweds or salesmen from Chicago pushing milk machines, I would often notice the one lonely man in the doorway, smoking a cigarette, a hand in a pocket, looking bewildered and friendless.

It was a rare warm morning in April, and my friend Milton Oldenberg and I were fidgeting madly in Mrs. Waag's algebra class. We were counting down the seconds until the lunch bell rang. For three hours we were headed downtown in our imaginations because we had heard someone had leaped to his death at dawn from the top of the hotel.

Skipping lunch, we hustled down Eighth Street to survey the horror, wondering to ourselves what remained. Heart-pounding approach; white police barricades; a fire truck rolling up its hoses; people in clusters, their backs to the spot. Before we saw it, we smelled it. A carcass smell, moist and putrid, that flies and buzzards love. There was silence, stillness. And then a gust of wind. Nowhere near did a lover weep or a mother wail. We edged down the opposite side of the street, looking up where a few people pointed, above the 12th floor, to the parapet. There an American flag bannered down and swayed in the breeze. He had got on the roof, stood on the building's sill, leaped or fell, then met his end. I expected a softer impact, the street more downy, the body bruised only internally. But no. A smell this foul had to come from a body ripped open when it landed.

A policeman looked away, and we crossed the street.

The air felt magnetic, a force field of neural energy. We crept closer. I studied the building's polished marble wall, the still-wet gutter and sidewalk, the fun house mirror of a car's chromed front bumper--and then Milton was coughing, retreating, running from the noxious odor when I saw, there on the small glass globe of a parking meter, one pinkish, shivering, jellied globule of brain.

I stayed put, stared, educating myself, eyes and nose my apprentices. An unknown wonder filled me. What had happened before he jumped? What had he done that was so awful? Could he not forgive himself? How long had he stood on the ledge? Did he try to flap his arms and, if so, why didn't Orrie's pink elephants come?

Orrie. Why did I think of him? It wasn't Orrie who jumped. It could not have been him. That beatific look on his face in the auditorium would never evolve to this. I knew he didn't show his humiliation, but that didn't mean he had cracked. He went back to the home. Where they cared for him. It wasn't Orrie.

My mind spun while I stood in the terrible air of the strange man's death. Orrie jumping didn't make sense. Suicidal people were tormented by life, and retarded people weren't smart enough to be tormented. Or were they? If Orrie was tormented by his expulsion from the one place where he said he was no longer retarded, I supposed he might not want to live knowing he could never go back. If Orrie had been so gullible as to be tricked into masturbating in public and then had enjoyed it, I suppose someone else might have talked him into suicide. But as quickly as I reasoned this out, I dismissed it. I decided that humiliation could not push people over the edge; only insanity could. Orrie wasn't insane. He was retarded. There was a big difference.

Evenings, for the next few weeks, I stayed in my room, left off watching the Beave or Donna Reed. My mother would knock--she always noticed a change in my demeanor--and I would lie about the loads of schoolwork I had to do. For a time I didn't play around after school; I didn't go to the Y or to the record store to listen to 45s in the booths. Instead I went to the library and looked at books, at the names of writers we were beginning to read in English class--William Blake, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg. And E.A. Robinson. His poem "Richard Cory," about a happy-go-lucky rich man who "glittered when he walked," mystified me, especially the last stanza.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,

And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;

And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,

Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Though I was too nervous to check out any of these books, something told me that they were near to bursting with what I was trying to suppress. The intractibility of death. I had seen it before. It was the tortured expression on Montgomery Clift's face in Raintree County when he lost Elizabeth Taylor. It was the desolation of Sundays and late afternoons. I had been targeted, become someone's aim. The rustle of the wind in a bush whispered to me. I heard my name in an ambulance siren. Adults locked on to my eye as though I knew ancient things. I watched The Twilight Zone in restless awe. After every show, even in the daylight, I felt starry, black space no more than ten feet above my head. Obsessed with the end, I felt my cockiness wane, my zest for the practical joke slip away. The thrill of destroying my models with fire, the thrill of building new ones, was gone.

Then one day at lunch, in front of the school's fountain, someone said he had seen Orrie getting on a church bus. What a surprise! Oh yeah, where was he? Let's get Kavanaugh to bring him back. Was it really Orrie? Many of us thought the person who made the claim was a liar. He was a seventh-grader, forever standing around us uninvited. We interrogated him about the particulars. Black-rimmed glasses? Ridges on his forehead? Carrying a bag in his arms like a grocery sack? He couldn't remember, wasn't sure. If anything, someone said, after what happened, Orrie was locked up tight, manacled to the wall, a drooling fool.

God, was I relieved once this seventh-grader spoke up--I wanted to be sure it

wasn't Orrie who killed himself. But I

wasn't sure. There was no proof. Hearsay only fueled my guilty conscience. Preoccupied with death, I was growing sick with dread that what we had done drove Orrie over the edge. What a horrid setup! Lars just gave me an idea is what Randy had said. I couldn't tell a soul what I feared I had instigated. Somehow a retarded man who didn't know any better was capable of being driven insane. I wondered, pulling the covers up in the dark, what would happen to me if I kept this shame inside.Would my thought crime heal as my fingers had?

I wanted these endless questions to leave me, but they wouldn't. Just when my promotion from ninth grade was over--a beribboned affair, replete with certificates and little gold seals, at which I (we!) happily bade farewell to Horace Mann--I had become morose about mortality. If it wasn't my dying I feared, it was that anyone's dying went unreconciled. That idea kept reappearing in my mind, as predictable as another weekly issue of Life.

For years my parents subscribed to Life magazine, and there was always a pile of back issues either on the coffee table or in a wicker basket by the couch. While waiting for supper one Sunday afternoon, I got them out to look again at the pictures. I discovered an issue with a cover photo of a foreign female movie star, someone I didn't recognize, caught in a seductive pose. I started flipping the pages from the rear; then I saw it--a photograph of a woman lying on top of a car, the car top bent beneath her like a hammock, and she was asleep, no, drugged, no, dead. She had fallen to her death, another suicide.

It was horrifying, a whole body now for what I knew only as an odor. The woman was 21, petite and beautiful, in a black velvet dress with a pearl necklace like my mother sometimes wore, a dainty white hat still bobby-pinned to her hair. Yet the contrast between her sleeping beauty and the indentation that her body made on the roof of the car was unforgettable--a cushion of steel under a robed Cinderella whose every bone had snapped. This time there was no explosion, no obliteration. What there was was this photograph, artful in its defiance of good taste, artless in its serendipity, the sort of shot Life loved to print, one-of-a-kind sensational. Life captured. Or, in this case, the opposite. The caption said that she had leaped because the man she was in love with and wanted to marry refused her.

At supper I ate what I could of mother's chuck roast and boiled potatoes, asked to be excused, then got on my bike, hoping to air out my creepiness with a ride down by the lake. It was a cool evening in early June. Baseball season would start in a week; it would be my best year and also my last. I rode down to the field, looked at the grass, the backstop, the dugouts, the bleachers--all emerald green. Lake Wausau was as blue as the sky. I rode over to a picnic table, sat on top of it, and thought down into myself.

I knew dying was inevitable, but I wanted it to be far less notorious than what I had witnessed. I wanted the peacefulness that I could see in the woman's body, and on her face. After the fall. But the picture had shown her still entrapped in her aliveness, tender, lovely, alluring. That's what bugged me. Beautiful women don't die that way. Their beauty forbids it.

But what of men in love, of men who were guilty like her of wanting something they could not have? Those men jumped, too--a man like that could have been the one who leaped off the hotel. Guilty of no more than what he imagined himself unable to bear.

And then, about 50 yards down the river park, at another picnic site, I saw a large group of people gathered around a man who was standing on a chair and speaking. Was it--I grabbed my bike, rode a few feet, then stopped--was it Orrie? Addressing the crowd, a small multitude of people like him, fresh from the home, chaperoned on a Sunday outing, Orrie, my old friend, telling the tale of the pink elephants to the true believers? How the elephants heard of the animals' abduction, how liberation rose in their mighty trunks and wings of rescue sprouted from their leathery sides, how they flew in the morning sun, curling their great noses round the lions and tigers and bears and sweeping them away before the game catchers knew? And then I saw Orrie flapping his arms and the whole lot start flapping their arms, with him, their leader, flapping the hardest, and no one was stopping him.

I didn't need to go any closer. I knew what I had to do. Forgive me, Orrie, I whispered. Forgive me. My eyes closed. Please, please forgive me, I asked again and again, until my arms were coming away from my body of their own accord, flapping a breeze, and the breeze was pressing me up, helping me hover over the deep-pitted macabre in myself. And there I was--I swear it's true--one of Orrie's disciples. Or maybe one of his equals.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Russ Ando.

Support Independent Chicago Journalism: Join the Reader Revolution

We speak Chicago to Chicagoans, but we couldn’t do it without your help. Every dollar you give helps us continue to explore and report on the diverse happenings of our city. Our reporters scour Chicago in search of what’s new, what’s now, and what’s next. Stay connected to our city’s pulse by joining the Reader Revolution.

Are you in?

  Reader Revolutionary $35/month →  
  Rabble Rouser $25/month →  
  Reader Radical $15/month →  
  Reader Rebel  $5/month  → 

Not ready to commit? Send us what you can!

 One-time donation  →