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Smashing the Light


ISSUE:  Summer 2000

Now look at your map of Ashton. Locate the big cemetery on Harriet Avenue—the cemetery is that big green box approximately in the middle of the city. Now, about dead in the middle (no pun intended) of the north side, find Altar Street. You notice that Altar Street runs north-south. Your map doesn’t show this, but Altar Street runs one-way north, away from the cemetery. It has run one-way north at least 15 years. No one comes south on Altar Street to turn onto Harriet Avenue; no one has been coming down there for 15 years. On the other side of Harriet Avenue, no one comes out of the cemetery to cross Harriet Avenue.

Your map doesn’t show this either, but a traffic light has guarded that very intersection all that time, all those 15 years. Every few seconds, the traffic traveling east and west on Harriet Avenue must stop, to allow no one to come out of the cemetery, and no one to come south out of Altar Street. For 15 years.

This light is the logic of Ashton, Pennsylvania.

Now look: on a Saturday night in May 1970, here comes Jerry Waters, known sardonically as Cheerful because he is not, riding shotgun on his last night home before flying back to Arizona. Cheerful rides in a noble old jalopy owned by Buddy six weeks now, and driven by Buddy. A big mechanism hidden inside a military green metal box, mounted on a utility pole at head level, goes ger-chunk and the light turns red.

Jerry, Cheerful, glances upward as he and Buddy sit alone in the cool night air, and Cheerful raises an index toward the light. “And the light shined in the darkness. It was the light that numbs mankind.”

The light turns green and Buddy shifts into low. “Well, on to the Flamingo Lounge anyway. I need 10 or 14 tall ones. I got my 1-A two weeks ago you know.”

“Aha,” Cheerful replies. “Whoever thinks bureaucracies are inefficient has never dealt with the Draft Board. I’ve been home two days and you’ve kept this from me.”

“It just didn’t come up.”

“Well this is news Buddy, big news. We gotta plot and conspire— you gotta tell me who’s slipped you letters of support for your appeal. You schmuck. You let Father Ferrari dump on me when you had somebody lined up on your own.”

“No I didn’t.”

Cheerful waits for more word, but Buddy gives none, and the tightness of Buddy’s mouth these two days deepens. Cheerful breaks the silence: “You, ah, you are writing an appeal aren’t you?”

“I guess so,” Buddy says.

“Well step on it Buddy. This isn’t a term paper—”

“It’s easy for you to talk; you’ve wrapped your motorcycle around a tree and busted yourself all to hell. Now you have six months to think about it.”

“It wasn’t my motorcycle. It was a friend’s.”

“I gather he has a little money and very little sense.”

“For lending it to me you mean?”

Buddy grins. Cheerful grins, even as a deep sadness settles on him: he knows that Buddy is going to let them take his warm body, and Cheerful can’t stop it. He understands: it’s really not easy to say to Old Glory, “You suck!” Nixon, Spirochete Anew and the Right House Gang, it’s very easy to tell; but the country itself resembles a whoring brother for whom you still have affection, and hopes.

So Cheerful and Buddy proceed to the Cheerful’s first foray into the Pink Flamingo Lounge on Main Street, a place famed for serving underage people, and known as far away as California—yes, somebody in Santa B who picked up Cheerful Waters hitch-hiking asked if he had ever snuck 10 or 14 tall ones down at the Pink Flamingo Lounge. But no 14-year-olds are in evidence tonight. . .which slightly annoys Cheerful now that he’s of legal age. The Lounge holds other disappointments: the interior shows no evidence at all of cheer. The floor is wood rubbed raw. The walls are dingy white. The pink flamingoes’ pink feathers are cracked and tattered plastic. So, having penetrated at last another mystery of life, Jerry finds this one also cheap and tacky.

Buddy and Jerry slurp Pabst Blue Ribbon, right from the bottle. One, two, three within the first hour. The remnants of Cheerfull’s concussion, from the motorcycle accident, is giving him a really cheap drunk.

Cheerful doesn’t press the business about appealing. He holds his waters. . .or rather, grows aware that he has been holding them for some time. He explores then the men’s room, and finds when he returns that Buddy has been joined by a knot of other old friends, including Dean Gallagher.

“Deaner!” Jerry says cheerfully as he limps back to the table. With his left hand he grasps his right wrist and holds out his right hand, offering a shake.

“What’s this?” Dean asks as he takes the hand.

“Little nerve damage in the shoulder. Motorcycle accident.”

“Borrowed motorcycle,” Buddy says. “Keep your keys in your pockets—not only that, Jerry didn’t bother to let his doctor release him from the hospital: he just walked out the side door.”

“I hate those half-nudie pajamas,” Jerry chirped. “I mean, I’d rather show them full-frontal glory. So whattaya say fellas? How ‘bout if we drive by the high school, and all moon it at once? I always wanted to show my ass to that place with a whole squad.”

Deaner laughs his quiet reserved laugh. Something in its sound makes Cheerful think Dean was remembering something distant, such as his own room back home. But Buddy points a finger at Cheerful and as he begins to say these words Dean joins in: “He’s Cheerful Waters all right; I’d recognize a thought like that anywhere.”

For the better part of an hour then this group passes talk back and forth over the table. It is another rite of passage in Ashton, Cheerful Waters’ first beers with a childhood friend. Dean and Jerry Waters shot each other ten or 12 times every day after school, in a vacant lot behind a set of billboards overlooking Main Street, across the street from the beginning of the coal strippings. Later Dean went to a different junior high school, and emerged as a high school basketball star. Dean had wonderful hands; he could throw the ball through the hoop with either hand, falling away, without looking. He grew tall, almost 6′2″, and from the stands Jerry watched Dean, remembering their attenuated friendship and puzzling himself on how time changes the shape of things that have no shape.

But now they feel hearty and glad to see each other. Dean and Jerry tells stories of their travels—drinking and nights under bridges (Cheerful); drinking, hobos and hospital stories (Deaner).

At the punch line of a good tale offered by Dean, Cheerful reaches out and slaps Deaner merrily on the knee. Instead of skin however, his fingers encounter something unyielding; his hand recoils as though he were shocked.

“What’s the matter?” Deaner laughs nervously.

“Don’t you like my new leg?” “What do you mean, “your new leg?”“

Dean raps his knuckles smartly on his leg, just above the kneecap: plik plik! The report is of plastic. “My new leg,” he says. “How do you think I met all those guys in hospitals?”

“I. . . I thought maybe you were doing alternative service.”

“How would I be doing alternative service?” Dean wonders. Dean was always a good kid, intelligent, obedient, loved by the nuns. Pictures of men in uniform fixed his living room.

Jerry instantly sees, not that Dean isn’t sophisticated enough to argue himself into a deferment—but that he would never try.

“I was a tail gunner in a chopper,” Dean says. “My ship went down and I lost my leg.”

“Oh Dean,” Jerry says in a tiny voice, “you were a tail gunner?”

Sure, Dean nods.

Jerry’s eyes fall. The way the scene has played, he hopes, if he doesn’t say another word, it will sound as though he feels only shock and sympathy for his old friend—and of course he feels shock and sympathy. But at the same time, he’s repelled at the thought of Deaner with those good hands that could drill baskets from 25 feet away with hundreds of people screaming in the stands, standing in a chopper door using the same skill to throw his strings of death around at dots below, and Jerry’s skin crawls with the realization that, like an organism being taken by an alien form, the corporate being of himself and his friends is becoming the enemy.

Cheerful and Buddy leave a little after midnight. Jerry’s mission has not been accomplished; he is still firmly on his feet. He is sober with rage. Main Street is quiet and deserted. A few cars drive up or down the four lanes of traffic without even seeming to be there. Up the block, a bank alarm rings wildly in the night, but no action seems to be stirred by it. After looking in that direction a long minute or two, Cheerful and Buddy shrug and get into Buddy’s car.

In a few minutes they are approaching again the Light of Waste, the Beacon of Mindlessness. As though to greet them, it turns red. Buddy stops dutifully.

“I don’t know how many times I’ve felt like smashing this damn traffic light,” Cheerful says.

“Do you want to?” Buddy says,

They look at each other. Jerry really didn’t expect this from Buddy—they’re both good boys after all, not vandals. But every so often, Buddy catches Jerry bluffing. Every so often, Buddy shows a flair for madness, the kind that will have him jumping out of airplanes.

The light turns green, but Buddy refuses to move. Instead he cocks a thumb up Altar Street. “You know, they demolished the old Altar Street School a couple years ago; there’s a lot of bricks and rubble laying around. They said they tore it down to save money—I heard it cost them fifty thousand bucks to do it.”

Altar Street School! Ashton’s high school, circa 1912! Adorned in its halls with a plaster copy of the frieze from the Parthenon, a full-sized plaster copy of Athena—bare breast and everything! Torn down in order to save it—Ashton is Vietnam: it is being destroyed in order to save it! “Let’s do it,” Cheerful Waters says. “Let’s smash this damn light.”

So Buddy pulls on the wheel, cruising through the light that is now red.

Buddy proceeds to the site, and as Cheerful picks through the rubble, he comes on the remains of Athena, first the brow, then a chunk of breast. These chunks take place in Cheerful’s arm with common pieces of brick. In less than five minutes, Buddy has circled back to the traffic light. He parks just a little before the light. There are three sets of three.

“I’ll wait in the car,” Buddy says.

“Good enough,” says Cheerful. He steps forth. He limps up to the first light over the sidewalk, about eight feet up. He feels very good inside, very good: this light is the genius of Ashton, and he has a few things to settle with the person of this light.

This is the physics teacher who scolded him for hanging the one-kilo weight on the one-kilo spring.

This is the language lab which Jerry’s classes used four times in three years of language study.

This is the geometry teacher who couldn’t figure out this one: all blue-eyed people have blond hair; John has blond hair; conclusion: John has blue eyes—true or false. And that teacher, boys and girls, was head of the math and science department.

This is the downtown of Ashton that is being torn down in the name of urban renewal.

This is the Church that forbids birth control in a world of billions:

This is gushing saccharine, cloving prayer for Mary, the Forty Hours and the Stations of the Cross and the Novenas and every empty devotion that he forced himself through without feeling. This is the stanzas of the rosary—the sorrowful mysteries the joyful mysteries and the nauseating mystery of why does the Church condemn the condom which did not condemn the Nazis?

This is Vietnam.

This is Pleiku and Khe Sanh and Cam Ranh Bay and Saigon and the Iron Triangle and Hanoi and the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the Mekong Delta; this is the Tonkin Gulf incident and Operation Rolling Thunder and Dewey Canyon and the Demilitarized Zone and the Tet Offensive and Winning Hearts and Minds and the invasion of Cambodia and the First Air Cavalry and the Big Red One.

This is Abbie and Jerry and Timothy and flag-burners and bombers, Weatherman, Students for Democratic Society, Progressive Labor, Young Americans for Freedom, and Young Republicans.

This is the President’s Secret Plan to end an undeclared war supported by a Great Silent Majority.

This is the school designed to discover and kill intelligence, independence, creativity. This is the school and the Church and country that teaches forgery, fakery, evasion, coverup, greed, grab, shut up, sit down, go along, don’t make trouble.

This is the people not willing to avoid wrong, not caring to search for justice. This is Cheerful’s friends who shrug, who fake, who accept, who go along, who will not resist, who will not shout, who feel no rage, who become from their very first steps and who are becoming at this hour as they sleep and with every day that they will not change, what must be changed. This is the pernicious insidious corruption that soaks into the souls of people like a sponge lying in thin blood.

This is the light at the end of the tunnel

“Is everything OK?” Buddy calls from the car.

Cheerful looks over his shoulder. “I was just listing my intentions, “he says, like the good altar boy he was once, directing the indulgence attached to a prayer or devotion to the spiritual account of so-and-so and so-and-so. Buddy smirks. Cheerful selects the breast—no, the brow—of Athena. He swings the fragment in the hand hanging from his partly-paralyzed shoulder, because it’s the hand he’s always used, and looks upward. He has never noticed how large these lights are—they must be nine or 12 inches across, large and inviting. He widens the arc of his swing, slings the chunk upward with everything he can force out of his shoulder. The chunk flies like a hand grenade, dead to the middle of the lowest, green light.

Plik! Clunk! The brick bounces off the glass harmlessly, richochets under the metal visor, falls to a sewer grating, and rolls glump! into the smelly regions underground, swallowed whole by the viscous turdy fluid. Cheerful regards the sewer grate grinning at him below, the light winking overhead. It turns red, amid a noisy clunk! He sets his mouth and slings another chunk upward, with even more force. This glances off the perimeter of the glass and rattles loudly in the metal hood, then falls.

Cheerful spends the rest of his armload to break the green light and the yellow above it. Their breaking satisfies him greatly, but this doesn’t finish the job. He gathers up what chunks he can find at his feet—others seem to have been swallowed by the sewer—and succeeds in hitting the red light, which stands above him at an angle difficult to hit. But the red refuses to break. The best he can manage is to crack it. Smoke or steam issues from its red glare into the night as it stupidly goes through its cycle, chunk, long pause, chunk, doing nothing with unswerving obedience.

So a second, and then a third time, they return to the old school, with Buddy joining in the strenuous work of destruction. Buddy parks his car up Altar Street and around the first corner, among a line of other cars lining the curb. By the time they finish sending the last high red light into darkness, standing side by side firing long salvos, the intersection is littered from corner to corner with stones.

They walk just halfway up the short block to Buddy’s car, when Buddy begins running. Cheerful says, “Hey, don’t run—be proud!” and demonstrates by swaggering . . .until he looks over his shoulder to see a police car sitting in the middle of the intersection with its little cherry top spinning.

And then Jerry finds that he can run on his injured leg. Buddy now is nowhere in sight. But even drunk, and even as he runs, he still thinks or least he clearly sees: don’t lead the cops to Buddy!, so he stays on a straight line up Altar Street, turning his head to see Buddy sitting in his driver’s seat with the door open, looking backward for Cheerful Waters, and Cheerful Waters says “Keep down, Buddy, it’s the cops,” and proceeds to the third house on the next block of Altar Street, where he runs into the narrow walkway between two duplexes all the way to the back. He fumbles a second to find the gate latch, and then lets himself into the long back yard.

And so with the angry red light of the cruiser flashing in the spaces between houses, Cheerful Waters makes his way home over his native turf, the backyard passages of his childhood. The fences of old-fashioned wire or splintery wooden slats, the grape arbors—even those sneaky little piles of dog shit like land mines in the shadows—he finds these things completely familiar in his night. He strains his bad knee, twists it, finds himself much diminished in strength already from his boyhood, from which he’s just barely emerged.

On his father’s porch he inserts the old-fashioned key into the old brass keylock as the police cruiser buzzes down the street by the cemetery. They don’t see him. With satisfaction he pushes open the door and climbs into bed at 2:17 . . . .

. . . to wake the next morning for his flight out and, as his mother drives him by the traffic light at 6:45—not even five hours later—a crew is replacing the glass and bulbs and restoring the light to fully functional uselessness and he knows the Revolution is doomed, humanity itself is doomed—but most definitely, most dreadfully, he himself will never find a place in the world; he himself is doomed always to dance enthralled in the darkness of his own reflection . . .

. . . and he travels out to the airport to fly away in a cocoon of pain within which he ceaselessly chews, thinking back, looking down at the little hills, the little houses, the little streets acrawl with pismire cars and trucks which burn gas and spew exhaust and struggle but do not move, and he flies to another place where nothing he can say makes any house or street large, any person alive.

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