Peter Pan and the Mayfly
by Bill Kowaleski
Author’s Note: In a story by the Spanish author Juan José Millás, Una Carencia Íntima, a boy hides out in a piece of furniture that gets transported to a stranger’s home. However, what happens afterward is completely different from what happens here.
“Gerstner, for chrissakes, you spilled my beer!”
Crazy Wings was much too loud for Gerstner to hear me, what with Rogers throwing that incredible pass that did in the Cowboys. I liked watching the games with these people. Strangers mostly, yes, but we shared a passion for sports, and we felt good, sad, or betrayed together. The wings and nachos weren’t too bad, either.
I shouted at him again and this time Gerstner looked down. His ecstatic expression fell and he said, “Oh no! So sorry, Billyboy. I’ll get you another.”
I’d given up reminding him how much I hated that “Billyboy” crap, but I imagine he just forgot about it, given that I usually only saw him once a week. At first, he had just been a Crazy Wings friend, but now he was more like a personal project. We had a kind of father-son relationship even though we were the same age. Quite frankly, he looked more like an older man than someone my age with his droopy body, his too-white, pasty face, his rumpled, loose jeans and hoodie, and his shuffling, head-down way of walking.
But he definitely played the child to my role as father. It had started with a twenty-dollar bill I had loaned him. After that he was like the bedraggled neighborhood cat you pitied one time and left out some scraps for. He keeps coming back after that.
Things quieted down and, when Gerstner returned with the beer, he leaned in, talking into my ear. “Hey, bud. Think you could front me a twenty? I don’t even have bus fare home.”
As I dug out the money, I sighed, then said, “So, Bud, how are things in your mother’s basement? Finding any job prospects down there?”
He gave me his best hurt look. “Okay, dude, so I’m not like some super-successful, twenty-something, gym-body, babe-magnet executive like you, but we all grow up at different rates. I need to mature a little more, so I can understand who I am, so I can choose the right path.”
“Babe magnet”? Where did Gerstner get that idea? Yes, I’m a bit obsessed with working out and do it at least an hour a day. But I see myself as pretty average-looking. I have dirty blond hair that never stays where I want it; my waist is between sizes 32 and 33, and my legs are too long for my waist size, all of which makes it a pain to order clothes online; and my attempts at growing a stylish beard have mostly evoked laughs from my co-workers, so much so that I’m still unfashionably clean-shaven.
“I thought your six years of college were supposed to be the time when you figured it all out. You’re frigging twenty-six years old for chrissakes!” I said.
“I admit it, I wasted those years on that MFA, thought I could be the next John Cheever or something. But, Billyboy, I do have that novel up on Smashwords, and I just know the right person is gonna see it real soon.”
“Hope is not a strategy, Gerstner. But one thing I don’t get: you’ve been growing up for twenty-six years. Why so long? I grew up in one day.”
Gerstner’s attention had wandered back to the big screen where another game had started, but my comment snapped his head back toward me.
“One day? What are you, a mayfly?” He laughed, thinking we were joking around, but when I just stared at him he got quiet. Then he said, “Okay, one day. What’s with that?”
“What were you planning to eat tonight? Takeout Chinese again?”
“I’ll take you to dinner. Not exactly my idea of the ideal date, but we can go somewhere quiet where I can tell you the whole story.”
We ended up at a place I really did tend to take dates. I like the food, and it’s never noisy, plus eating there is a two-hour commitment, and I was going to need that much time.
* * *
Over appetizers I began. “When I was twelve, I was this scrawny little thing. People thought I was ten, or less. My father bought this furniture store near downtown. It hadn’t been doing well, and he told us that he got it cheap. We lived above it in a tiny apartment. We weren’t doing too well, ourselves. Our only car was a fifteen-year old Escort that my father somehow kept running. We ate a lot of chipped beef on toast.
“I did some odd jobs in the store at times, and then I’d find a nice quiet place to hide and do my homework. There was this huge piece of furniture against one of the walls. They called it an entertainment center, but I called it the ‘cave’, because it had these big spaces I could hide in. I was in there one day, doing math problems by flashlight, when it started moving on me.”
“Like somebody was picking it up?” asked Gerstner. The waiter clumsily plopped my bowl of tomato bisque in front of me, splashing it all over the pristine, white tablecloth. I sighed, shook my head, and continued.
“Exactly. I could hear two of our really big strong workers, Hector and Paco, talking about taking it out to the truck. At first I thought, ‘I gotta get out of here’, but then I had another thought. Let’s see where it goes. Maybe I could see the inside of some rich person’s house. If they weren’t home, maybe I could steal something.”
“I don’t see you stealing something, Billyboy,” said Gerstner. “I always had you pegged—”
“Okay,” I interrupted. “The name is Bill. If you could so kind as—”
“Sorry, sorry, forgot. Please continue. You’ve got my interest. Maybe this could be in my next novel.”
“I was a different person then. A good student, but I also emulated my father, a petty thief if ever there was one. He’d done time twice already when we first got the furniture store. He’d taught me how to pickpocket, a skill ideally suited to a scrawny little kid. I brought him cash, credit cards, fancy wristwatches, you name it.”
Gerstner’s mouth was open, his shock obvious.
“They put the entertainment center in the truck. Wham! Set it down roughly. My head banged hard on the ceiling of that tiny space I was curled up in. Then we bounced around at least a half hour. I had no idea where we were going. But I was excited. It was all just great fun.
“The truck stopped, they opened the doors and dragged the furniture and me out. I could hear Hector talking about what a nice neighborhood it was, how rich everybody was there, what a heavy entertainment center it was.
“Hector was my protector in the store. He would finish sweeping up for me when I got sidetracked, or warn me that my dad would be back soon. I wanted to tell him I was hiding in that piece of furniture, so be more careful, but I was afraid that he’d just pick me up, put me in the truck, and take me back with him. I didn’t want that, because I was thinking about all the cool stuff I was going to steal.
“So I really got jostled around when they took that enormous thing up some stairs, but finally it seemed to be in place. The workers’ voices faded and I got ready to emerge but, thank heavens, I hadn’t yet shown my face, because just then I heard a female voice singing, the song getting louder by the second.
“Damn! Somebody still home. Now I could only hope she didn’t open the doors to my hiding place. She’d probably scream, I’d probably have to make a break for it, then I’d probably get a good beating from my father once she told him what had happened.
“Drawers slid, doors opened and closed, but after two minutes she still hadn’t opened those big double bottom doors where I cowered. Then I got a break, or at least I thought it was a break at the time. I heard a deep, gonging ding-dong. Her footsteps quickly receded. Now was my moment. I pushed the door open and stepped out. At first, I was blinded, so long had I been in the dark, and I rocked a bit on my feet but quickly established my equilibrium.
“I was in a bedroom, one decorated in a decidedly female style. Frilly, pale pink fabric covered the bed. A wall of windows opposite the entertainment center sported the same color on translucent drapes. There were cutesy paintings and photos of cats all over the walls: cats sitting around a table playing cards, a noble, tortoiseshell cat face, pale orange cats apparently telling scary stories around a campfire. The real cats, whose odor revealed their presence, surely knew I was there and were under cover for the moment.”
“Tell me more about those cats around the campfire,” said Gerstner as his main dish arrived. I noticed that it was the lobster and prime rib combo, the most expensive choice on the menu. I sighed again, then continued.
“That cat painting has absolutely nothing to do with the story, Bud. You’re always focusing on trivia. Anyway, I just glanced at it, and I can hardly remember it now.
“All right, from downstairs, I could hear the female voice talking to a very faint male voice. Their voices rose, the woman’s evidently angry. Looking out a door, I saw a dark hallway with just a glimpse of a brighter stairway to my right. Everything was carpeted in a thick, almost-white, very clean shag.
“I walked to the window and searched for an easy escape route. A porch overhang would have been nice, but all I saw was a long drop to a well-manicured garden. Directly below the window was a large flowerbed. I’d do some damage dropping down there, but it couldn’t be avoided. Just as I reached to raise the window, I heard a shot. My father had taken me shooting enough for me to know that sound well. Cold fear erupted. I peed in my pants.”
“Wow!” said Gerstner. “This is definitely going in my next novel. But tell me, what does this have to do with growing up in a day? I can’t stay here all night.”
“Big job interview first thing tomorrow?” I said, not trying to hide the mockery in my voice.
Gerstner was smart enough not to bite the hand that was feeding him. “Sorry, Billyb... uh, Bill. Tell it your way.”
“As I was saying, I heard a shot. Then another, real fast. Then a scream, an incredible scream, like in the best horror movie you ever saw. Now I could hear footsteps on the stairs; footsteps accelerating into a run. Man, I had to get out of there right now! With no need to be subtle, I took a footstool and threw it through the window. I had no idea I was that strong. The window shattered and I jumped right out.
“When you’re a scrawny twelve-year old, you’re so nimble you can jump out of a very high second-story window, hit the ground, and just run. I didn’t know where I was, so I aimed for the street, hoping for a landmark. Coming around to the front of the house, I saw an old Escort parked right in front.
“Despite my fear I stopped. Could it be? No! Impossible. But it was the same faded indistinct color, in the same state of decrepitude. Then I caught motion at the edge of my vision. The front door had opened! I scampered toward the back of the house and then just ran.
“Years later I retraced my steps by car. I ran over ten miles that day, gradually becoming aware of where I was, adjusting my direction, finally charging up the stairs to our little apartment. Nobody was home, and the store was closed. Very odd.
“I sat on our one and only couch, a masterpiece of purple and gold that no customer of ours had ever seriously considered, and mapped out the possibilities. The shooter could have been my father; it seemed the most logical conclusion. But, even though he had been a petty criminal, I didn’t see him resorting to violence.
“Maybe somebody stole our car, drove to that house and shot the woman. That would be quite a coincidence. Maybe it wasn’t our car, but how many faded blue, old Escorts were still around? They were never known for their durability. And then other thoughts intruded. What would become of me if my father were put in prison again? The last two times had been brief, just a few weeks each time. My mother was still alive then, but she was gone now, a victim of early breast cancer.”
“Oh,” interrupted Gerstner. “Sorry to hear that, dude. Downer.”
“Thanks, man. Then another thought rose up. The shooter knew I had been there. No, he didn’t know who I was, hadn’t seen me. At least I didn’t think he’d seen me. But my paranoia was turned all the way up, and I imagined the worst. I was panting, my heart racing, the worst moment for a forceful knock on the door. But there it was. In total panic now, I squeezed under that ugly sofa. Then I heard a muffled voice say, ‘Police. Open up!’
“This is so going into my novel,” said Gerstner. “But I’m still not seeing what it has to do with growing up in a day.”
“Gerstner, you’re a living demonstration of how years of education do not always make someone smart.”
“Hey, what’s that supposed to mean?” That hurt face again. It was the one thing he did consistently well.
“The day I’m telling you about right now, Gerstner: THAT was the day I grew up. Claro, amigo?”
He nodded. Sometimes I felt I was too hard on the poor guy. But he’d been coddled all his life. His mother was fine letting him stay in the basement. She was long divorced, and Gerstner’s brother, ten years his senior, had moved away years ago. He was the only thing between her and emptiness. So she paid for his food, his clothes, his meager entertainment, always with the promise that he’d pay her back with all those book royalties he’d be earning soon.
There was only one person who snapped him back to reality, who poured cold water over his fantasies, who gave him a little tough love. That would be me. I was everything he did and didn’t want to be. I was successful at a young age; that he admired. But how I did it, by starting and now running a small but successful Internet services business, that he hated. It was so inartistic, so crass, so commercial.
Copyright © 2018 by Bill Kowaleski