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Dec 19

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“Through the Uprights” by Richard Butner

“I want to kick a field goal,” Robin said. He didn’t say: I want to learn how to kick a field goal. Robin wasn’t process-oriented. He wanted to be the sort of person with the ability to kick field goals. He wanted to do all kinds of extraordinary things, but he had never mentioned football before. We had taken the same P.E. classes: bowling, badminton, ballroom dancing, and fencing. Robin picked them, supposing that they’d have the most favorable female to male ratios. And that the fencing and dancing classes would transform us into a pair of dashing swashbucklers.

I didn’t feel very dashing, writhing in pain on the mat after my Achilles tendon detached, rolled up like a crappy window shade. I remember lying there for what seemed like an hour, tears streaming down my cheeks behind the metal mesh of a fencing mask. I was out of commission for two months, on crutches, with a medical drop that fulfilled my P.E. requirement. Robin stopped attending the class too, in a show of solidarity.

Here are some other things that Robin wanted to do: spray-paint “Fuck Chancellor Digsby” on the World War II memorial at the north end of campus. Break into the campus computers and change his transcript to a perfect 4.0 average. (He didn’t know anything about computers, but he’d seen that movie War Games.) He wanted to sneak on to the roof of the library and have an all-night poker game, ten stories up, from sunset to sunrise.

“And then, just as the sun is rising, we jump off the roof.”

He was going to make parachutes. I was pretty sure that a parachute wouldn’t work at that height.

It didn’t matter, because Robin hadn’t done any of those things. The closest he came was the graffiti, but I convinced him that defacing a monument dedicated to the memory of guys who fought and died while being shot at by Nazis was not cool. He had the spray paint can in his hand, though, shaking it and rattling that little ball.

Here are some things Robin did: he drove his Maverick into the side of the Piggly Wiggly. The car was totaled; the brick wall of the store is still scarred. I wasn’t with him at the time. That was when I was going out with Gretchen.

He read Catch-22 and Catcher in the Rye at least ten times each. Probably closer to twenty. He built most of the furniture in our room, including the big sleeping loft, complete with the spiral staircase. When I was still on crutches, he offered to add on a cradle and pulley system, so I could hoist myself up there to sleep. I crashed on the couch instead, two solid months of ruining my back even as my leg healed.

By then Robin only owned those two books. He’d sold his textbooks halfway through the semester when he stopped attending all of his classes. He obsessively read the school paper, too, and the local paper when someone would leave a copy lying around the snack bar. He had one well-thumbed issue of Penthouse. I don’t think he spent a lot of time reading the in-depth Patti Smith interview, but I could be wrong.

So anyway, to kick a field goal you need a football, which we didn’t have. You also need goalposts, which in our case were surprisingly convenient. Our dorm overlooked the abandoned 1920s football stadium. In fact, it was less than ten feet from our window to the top of the concrete bleachers. We were in the old part of campus, where all the supposedly historic buildings were jammed up against each other. That was Robin’s first project after he stopped going to classes: he built a drawbridge so we could just walk out of our window and into the stadium. He was studying to be an engineer, so even though he’d flunked Statics and Dynamics, I trusted his workmanship enough to stroll out on the drawbridge, two stories up.

The stadium had been slated for destruction since the 1960s, when they built some new monstrosity away from the main campus, but here it was 1989 and it still hadn’t been torn down. The bleachers were just bare concrete with rusted handrails. The field itself was crisscrossed with footpaths. The old field house at one end was used as storage for the campus painters. Every day people in white coveralls drove up, loaded cans into their pickup truck with the university logo on the side, and then sped off to paint a new laboratory, or an old dormitory, or to cover up some graffiti. Robin wouldn’t have had a chance with “Fuck Chancellor Digsby.” We had the best painted campus in the state, except for the old stadium itself, which was cracked and peeling in places where it had been painted silver some years ago. In other places, you could still see the fading numerals pointing fans of decades past to seating sections R101 through S105 or wherever.

And in warm weather, people sunbathed on the far set of bleachers. Because of this, Robin built a telescope. He would sit there, eye fixed on the lenspiece, not moving, silent. Would it have been creepier if he actually had something to say about the blonde in the string bikini, or the redhead who undid her bra straps to get a better tan? I usually went down to the snack bar when he started his telescope meditations.

But of course, when he wasn’t around, I looked through the telescope too.

One set of goalposts, the set near the old field house, was gone. But the other still stood, covered in ivy. Standing in the field, looking through those goalposts, you could see the Bryce Theater framed perfectly. That’s where I was taking Introduction to Stagecraft. It was my free elective.

Bryce Theater really was historic. It was built in 1916, with money from a local timber tycoon. When the university was the cultural center of the town, Bryce Theater was the bullseye. Duke Ellington played there. Vaudeville tours stopped there. But the coolest thing of all was this: Harry Houdini performed there once.

Houdini had to perform somewhere, right? But you never think much about it, it’s not like there would be a sign saying: “In this location in 1923, Harry Houdini was buried alive, but he escaped.” But that’s what happened. I got all this history on the first day of Dr. Newton’s class. He took us out onto the stage to show us the very trapdoor through which Houdini escaped. Nothing much historic happened in the theater anymore, though. Just classes, and the university didn’t even offer a real theater degree, but rather something called “Speech Communications.” Still, they managed to produce four plays a year, always the same categories: a drama, a comedy, a musical, and a Shakespeare. The old trapdoor wasn’t getting used much.

The theater is where I met Lucinda. Lucinda Anne Yates. She’d be the first to point out that her initials are L-A-Y. And woe be unto anyone who tries to call her Cindy. She is Lucinda, all three syllables no matter who’s bleeding or what’s on fire. She wasn’t taking any theater classes; she had already taken them all. She was one of a handful of students who worked in the theater for fun. That was all there was to be had there. Certainly there was no acclaim—the local paper didn’t bother to send their reviewer. The house was never more than half full, except for the nights when they pulled down the big white screen and showed old movies.

I met Lucinda when I was painting flats for You Can’t Take it with You. That’s when I met her, but of course I’d seen her before. Last fall, before the weather turned cold. She was the redhead who undid her bra straps to get a better tan. I mentioned this to Robin and the next night he was over in the scene shop, helping us paint.

Robin turned out to be as good a painter as he was carpenter and tinker. He was absolutely focused on covering each flat with a uniform coat of color. He was meticulous about painting the trim and molding, even though from the audience no one would be able to see if he painted outside the lines. He didn’t talk while he worked, except to ask Lucinda what needed painting next.

I knew he didn’t plan to do anything as straightforward as asking her out. It’s not like I planned to ask her out, either. She was out of our league. Robin’s technique with women, which had been completely unsuccessful as far as I knew, involved stunts. The dance party where he was being beaten up and thrown around by an invisible attacker. The nights he spent out on the drawbridge, tightrope walking along the edges while he tried to strike up a conversation with any woman who wandered the sidewalk beneath. The fire trick, which was why I wasn’t going out with Gretchen anymore.

I spent a lot of nights on the phone, trying to patch it up with Gretchen, but the fire trick was stronger. She said we could get back together if I moved out of the dorm room, or made Robin move out. And neither of those things happened.

At first Lucinda was impressed by Robin’s volunteerism, not realizing then that he’d stopped doing all schoolwork and so had plenty of free time on his hands. After we finished painting that first night we adjourned to the twenty-four-hour breakfast place across from the war memorial. It was called The Breakfast Place. Lucinda recommended the cream cheese omelet, so we all had one each. Robin managed to get back to the dorm before getting violently ill. But we three were friends from then on, and even though he kept up his telescope duties, he never spied on Lucinda again.

Here’s another thing Robin did: he taught me how to hit a golf ball. Lucinda knew about an abandoned driving range east of town. She drove us out there—Robin couldn’t afford to have his car fixed after the crash into the grocery store, and I never had a car. Just past the river we took a right into a dirt driveway. At first it looked like there was nothing there but forest. The closest sign of civilization was an electrical supply warehouse in the distance. But at the edge of the dirt lot was a low chain-link fence. A No Trespassing sign was attached to it with a twisted coat hanger, but there was no gate.

Beyond the fence slumped a plywood shack painted reddish-brown, and beyond that the forest opened up onto a meadow that sloped down to the river, first gently, then precipitously. There were a dozen wooden stalls spaced out, overgrown with weeds. On the other side of the shack the ruins of a miniature golf course remained, cracked cement and bunched up AstroTurf peeking out from the underbrush. Several big pines had fallen, leaning against the concrete giraffes and elephants that would no longer entertain the children whose parents came to knock a few balls into the river.

Robin set down his bag and started sorting out clubs and balls. Lucinda observed that we were going to need more balls than Robin had. She smiled as she said this, though. She decided to break into the shack while I took the opportunity to scout around some more. Back in the woods, next to a pile of garbage, I found a Naugahyde recliner and I dragged it out to where I had a better view of the river, the shack, the gateless fence. It was a bright spring day, but the mosquitoes weren’t out yet. I sat down and flipped up the footrest. The Naugahyde warmed up quickly in the sun.

Robin went to help Lucinda, and after intermittent cursing, he managed to smash the padlock hasp off its crappy hinges. He emerged from the shack with a giant green plastic bucket of golf balls, and a giant splinter in the palm of his hand. He held it up to show us and blood streamed down his arm. Robin was a bleeder. I was used to it by then. As usual, he was waving the injured part around, refusing to stanch the flow. I knew that this would have little effect on Lucinda, and once Robin realized that too, he gave up and went back to setting up the golf equipment. He handed each of us a club. He knocked down the taller weeds in the three closest driving stalls. He poured out little mounds of balls for each of us. Mostly white and cracked, although there were some Day-Glo orange ones too.

Finally, after he’d managed to bleed all over his clubs, the balls, and the grass, he cleaned himself up with a towel and bandages Lucinda brought from her car. She had a well-stocked first aid kit with tweezers and antibiotic ointment, too. He wouldn’t let her touch the splinter, though. He yanked it out with the tweezers, blew off the antibiotic as unnecessary, and taped a wad of gauze into the palm of his hand. And then it was time for golf.

I hated golf. To me, golf was what the asshole rich kids of asshole rich parents did. Robin’s personal mythology was full of golf, but he wasn’t an asshole rich kid. At least, he wasn’t rich—his father was a government clerk, and his mother stayed home. Robin’s two favorite movies were M*A*S*H and Caddyshack. He’d actually been a caddy in high school back in Fairfax, which is how he saved up enough money for the Maverick, the golf clubs, and the carpentry tools. He was convinced that he had been hauling bags for CIA agents and that he had heard secrets which he couldn’t tell anyone.

“I could tell you,” he’d say, “but then I’d have to kill you.”

That bright day, once he’d stopped bleeding, he patiently taught me how to hit a golf ball. How to stand, how to hold the club. The first twenty swings, I couldn’t even hit the ball. I wanted to quit, but he wouldn’t let me. Meanwhile, Lucinda was whacking balls with perfect form. Finally, when I could at least knock the ball off the tee most times, Robin went and began his own driving practice. If his hand hurt him, he didn’t mention it. We didn’t stop swinging until we’d sent all of the balls down the slope, into the tall weeds or into the river.

“All right, Lucinda,” Robin said, drawing out the three syllables of her name. “Let’s go pick them up and start over again.”

“In that underbrush, are you crazy?” Lucinda said. “Our work here is done.”

#

Lucinda wasn’t there, though, the night Robin mentioned field goals, and then said, “We can make a football.” In case it’s not clear already, Robin liked to make things. Our loft was the most sophisticated one on campus. It helped that we were in an old dorm with gigantic rooms and high ceilings. Our sleeping compartments were divided by a wall with built-in shelves and lighting. Of course, Robin’s shelves were empty by then. There was a ladder to get to my side, and the spiral staircase led to Robin’s half. The staircase was all hand-cut two-by-fours; he’d designed it in drafting class. He’d carefully stapled white Christmas lights around all the edges of the loft. Lit up, the structure was an odd kind of runway. He built his own desk, too, but only because he’d sawed up the university-issued one on the night before Halloween. The replacement was far superior. All of this, using just the hand tools he kept in his closet.

So, the football. Robin rummaged and found a roll of duct tape. Fifty cents and one trip to the drink machine later, he started winding the tape around a full can of Coke. Eventually he had something vaguely football shaped, albeit squishier. I told him I’d hold the ball for him, but first I made him swear, holding his hand on the copy of Catch-22, that he wouldn’t kick me.

He opened the window and lowered the drawbridge, and we marched into the crappy silver stadium with our crappy silver football. The field was barely illuminated by one streetlight outside the old field house. At the other end of the field, Robin marked off twenty paces from the goalpost and I set up there, holding the makeshift ball under the tip of my index finger.

It played out much like my day at the driving range: Robin whiffed the first few tries. When he finally got a piece of the ball, he only managed to knock it a few feet, so that it tumbled sadly along the ground. “You’re pushing it down too much,” he said. I didn’t respond, I just held up the ball so he could see it. It was already creased in the place where he’d kicked it. I remembered his patience at the driving range, though, so I dutifully continued to hold the ball, and retrieve the ball, over and over, switching from my right to left side as my legs cramped up. Robin got better, able to get some height on the ball even though I hadn’t changed how I was holding it one bit.

“Let’s get closer,” he said, so I walked half the distance to the goal. He backed up five steps and then ran up and booted the ball solidly. I thought of the full Coke can inside, wondering if it would explode. The ball shot up toward the goalposts, gleaming in the faint light from the other end of the field.

It went through the goalposts, and then it vanished. I don’t mean we couldn’t see it any more. I mean it ceased to exist.

#

We didn’t talk about it until we got back to the room, raised the drawbridge, and shut the window. We had spent a few minutes poking around in what used to be the end zone, which was just a big patch of ivy and bushes on a slope down from the theater. Robin uncovered a storm drain, but the grate on it was much too small to admit our ad hoc football.

“Well, that was weird,” I said, as I flopped onto the couch and as Robin settled into his desk chair.

“Check,” Robin said, signing a V in the air with his index finger. His hand was still swollen and pink, from where the splinter had got infected. “I have now kicked a field goal.”

“That wasn’t weird?”

“Trick of the light,” he said. “We’re going to go out there tomorrow morning and find that ball. And if it’s not there, well, maybe someone will have picked it up in the meantime.”

“Are you practicing for your evaluation for the psych drop?” That was Robin’s big plan. He was going to get a psychological drop to blot this year’s failures from his record. Next fall, he swore, he’d buckle down. Maybe he’d change his major. Either political science, or pre-law.

“You’re the crazy one, believing that something can vanish into thin air,” Robin said.

I knew the ball had vanished. I had seen it vanish. But I didn’t argue with Robin. I just wondered what the next item on his checklist would be.

#

Lucinda didn’t live on campus; she had a studio apartment within walking distance. The theater let her use one of the old dressing rooms as an office and general staging area. Every day she hauled in an army surplus knapsack: pounds of textbooks, bananas and apples (she seemed to exist on fresh fruit and cream cheese omelets), first aid kit, a plaid Thermos full of herbal tea, and several changes of clothes, including her bikini and a beach towel once the weather turned warm.

No spare shoes, though, because Lucinda only ever wore clogs. Which was weird, because I hadn’t seen anyone wearing clogs since I was a kid. And doubly weird because she spent a lot of time on ladders. Extremely tall ladders.

One day, when it had become clear that Robin and I were her new helpers, whether there was course credit involved or not, she and I were sitting in her dressing room, sharing a cup of tea. She had loaned Robin her car for a trip to the hardware store. He loved the hardware store, and could spend hours in there just looking at hinges and pipe and tools. Robin had branched out from just helping with scenery. Now he was filling the theater with custom shelves: in the sound booth, in the scene shop, in the dressing rooms, in the prop closet. In exchange for this, Lucinda let him use the shop tools for his own projects.

Lucinda’s tea tasted like cinnamon and licorice, and I hate licorice.

“How do you do it?” I asked her, gesturing toward her clogs with my cup, sloshing tea onto the floor. “How do you manage not to fall and break your neck wearing those things?”

She crossed her legs and rocked her calf, flipping one clog out so that she held it in the grasp of her big toe.

“Years of practice?”

“I have this vision of you slipping and falling, but your clogs remaining perfectly balanced on the rung of the ladder.”

“I hope you also have a vision of yourself catching me after I slip and fall. Or do you always fantasize about women having terrible accidents?”
“Sorry. Let’s change the subject.”

“No, let’s not. Let’s have you practice wearing clogs.”

That’s what it was like in the theater with Lucinda. You were always learning something new. One day it was how to replace the carbon rods in a spotlight, and the next day it was how to walk in clogs. My feet weren’t that much bigger than hers, so that day I spent fifteen minutes clomping around the stage in her shoes. She knew I’d taken ballroom dancing, so by the end we were waltzing around the stage, and I managed not to tread on her bare feet. I didn’t climb any ladders, though.

#

The day after the field goal Robin and I crawled out of the loft around eight. We raised the window shades to see the poor suckers who were late to their eight o’clock classes scurrying across the field. The bathroom was a hive of activity, so I just brushed my teeth in the sink in the room and pulled on last night’s clothes. Robin did the same. He never bathed in the mornings. He didn’t like to be naked around other people.

“You got any golf balls left?” I asked.

“Yeah, I picked up a box of new ones, on sale.”

“OK, so you stole some golf balls.”

“I liberated these golf balls.”
“We’ll need a few of them, a tee, and a 2-iron.”

We took the more discreet exit from the dorm, down the side stairs and out the door next to the snack bar. Robin spent a few minutes poking through the underbrush with the golf club looking for the silver football, but found nothing. I took up a position at mid-field.

“It’s gone,” I shouted.

Finally, he gave up and walked over.

“I can prove it to you,” I said. “We’ve discovered something of monumental importance, and you’re ignoring it.”

I set a ball on the tee, and ran through a mental checklist of everything Robin had taught me about hitting a golf ball. I caught it squarely on the first try, sending it flying off of the tee, straight toward the uprights, and through them straight up the hill to Bryce Theater, where it smashed through one of the windows in the entrance hall.

“Nice proof,” Robin said, as we hustled back to the dorm. But he knew that something had happened the night before. I went off to classes, and when I got back that afternoon, I found him sitting at his telescope. He was not ogling women in bikinis. He was staring at the goalposts.

#

The next day, Saturday, Robin was back over at the theater. He was spending more time there than I was. Lucinda had even given him a key to the stage door. I guess part of it was, he’d filled our room up with things he’d built, so he needed a new place to construct things. I was in the room studying when the phone rang. It was Robin’s father.

“Hello, Mr. Hardaway,” I said.

“Call me Les,” he said. This was our standard exchange every time we talked on the phone. His real name was Leslie, not Les.

I didn’t like talking to Robin’s father, but it didn’t require much effort. I said “yes” now and then, and faked a laugh, and he kept up the rest of the conversation.

“How’s it hanging?”

“By a thread, Les, by a thread.”

“Is my progeny anywhere to be found? The goddam dryer’s broke. I was hoping he could talk me through fixing it.”

I said, “He’s out. I think he’s working on a class project.”

“Don’t lie to me, I know what he’s doing on a fine Saturday afternoon. He’s out hunting split-tail, isn’t he? Best done by the light of the moon, of course.”

I snorted, which Mr. Hardaway seemed to interpret as a conspiratorial laugh. That wasn’t my problem, was it?

I didn’t mention Lucinda, or the theater. It would only have sent Leslie into another spastic metaphor about picking up women. Actually I wasn’t sure what Robin was working on that day. I was pretty sure he was close to finishing all of the custom shelves. He had left the room early that morning, simply saying that he had an idea for a brand-new project.

“Speaking of hunting,” Mr. Hardaway said, “did I ever tell you about that time we stole a gun?” Mr. Hardaway had gone to school here too, and to hear him tell it, every day of his college career was like a scene out of Animal House.

“Me and the fraternity brothers got liquored up and went on a panty raid. They still have panty raids there, with the coeds?”

“Not that I’m aware of—” I said.

“Damn shame. So we’re on this panty raid, right, standing outside Coleman dorm and yelling to high heaven to see some lingerie. Well, the cop came. Because at that sweet time, there weren’t but one cop on campus, and he made Barney Fife look like a hard-boiled professional. He showed up and asked us to disperse, but instead we just circled up around him. It was dark and his puny flashlight didn’t help alleviate that situation. I got behind him and slipped his gun out of his holster. He went nuts after that, jerking that flashlight beam around and hollering, meanwhile we’re passing his gun around betwixt ourselves like a Chinese fire drill. We finally scattered off in different directions, and he ended up running after the wrong guy, old Archer Finlay, a second-string halfback on the football team.

“Of course the next day there was a big stink rumbling through campus. But he couldn’t identify anyone. We didn’t get any panties that night, but I ended up with the gun. I’ve still got it, too.”

“You’ve got the gun?” I asked. “Are you sure?”

“You bet. It’s in the safe with my other valuables. I’ve never told the wife about it, that’d just be one more nag in an endless list of nags.”

“Les, could you go check on the gun? I want to know what it looks like.”

Mrs. Hardaway was off at Mass, so he humored me. I waited on the line and could hear him as he opened the safe and brought out his holy relic. He described it to me in loving detail, and spun the cylinder so I could hear it. He had the gun. I didn’t have to worry about the gun featuring in one of Robin’s stunts. I didn’t have to worry that he would do something that couldn’t be undone.

“Yeah. You boys try and top that! Can’t do it in this day and age, can you?”

“I guess not, Les,” I said. I was tempted to bring up the fact that his son had discovered some kind of portal to the seventh dimension or whatever, but I figured that would extend our conversation a bit too much for my taste.

“Listen, it’s been good talking to you. You tell that fruit of my loins to call his old man sometime, you hear?”

Robin never, ever called his parents.

“Sure thing, Les,” I said. Then I hung up.

#

That night, You Can’t Take It with You ended after two weekends. The performances had been unremarkable, although on the last night during the big fireworks cue that was normally just a taped sound effect, Robin set off a package of firecrackers backstage.

Afterwards I found him in the scene shop.

“Is Lucinda pissed about the firecrackers?” he asked.

“No, everyone thought it was funny.”

Robin nodded.

“Come here, let me show you this,” he said.

He lifted a tarp off of his latest creation. It was a wooden ladder.

“It’s a ladder,” I said. “You know, we’ve already got plenty of ladders around here.”

“Watch this,” he said.

Robin lifted the ladder up so that it was vertical, then flicked out two support legs. It looked very lightweight considering that it was made of wood. When he sat it down again, it became a staircase held up by the supports. He had painted it silver, but he had added flames running down the stringers. At the top where it hinged together were two pieces of wood that looked like shepherd’s crooks.

“That’s to hook over the crossbar,” Robin said. Then he bent down to the bottom step of the stairs. A coil of rope sat at the bottom, and I saw that it was actually attached to the wood, looped through two holes in the step and then tied off.

“And this is the lifeline,” he said, hefting the rope.

“Are you going to try this out?” I asked.

“I thought you should go first. You’re the one who believes in it.”

Lucinda came in, completely ignoring Robin’s latest construction, and told us that it was time to strike the set. Everyone else had gone to Dr. Newton’s house for the cast party, so the task fell to the three of us. Robin was as good at dismantling things as he was at constructing them, so the work went quickly. We broke down the flats and stacked them up against one wall of the scene shop. We carted the furniture downstairs to the big room underneath the stage that was now used for storage. We pulled all the precious jewel-colored gels out of the lights and stored them in a filing cabinet. Then we were done, and the stage was empty.

“Do you want to go to Newton’s house,” I asked, “or just go to The Breakfast Place?”

Lucinda knew one of the waiters there, so half the time we ate for free.

“Wait a sec, there’s one more thing,” Lucinda said, then she dashed across the stage and downstairs, her clogs rapping against the floor. I could hear her rummaging as Robin and I milled around.

The stage floor made a creaking sound, and then the trapdoor popped up.

“Give me a hand with this,” Lucinda said, and Robin and I lifted the door off of her head and set it aside. She was standing on a stepladder directly underneath the trapdoor. The door wasn’t hinged to the stage; it was just a big square of flooring edged in steel. Lucinda climbed up the last steps of the ladder until she was balanced on the top step. Then she pulled herself up onto the stage, just like getting out of a swimming pool.

Lucinda had us sit in a circle around the trapdoor, holding hands.

“Houdini, who art in oblivion, Harry be thy name,” she said. “Baptize us, through this, your holy trapdoor.”

“I’m pretty sure Houdini was Jewish,” I said. “No baptizing. No holy trapdoors, either.”

“Also, he didn’t believe in the afterlife,” Robin said.

Lucinda didn’t say anything. She had a really strong grip.

“Harry, bless these poor souls with your divine knowledge,” she said.

She asked if I had any requests of Houdini, and I said it would be nice if he helped me pass my Introduction to Probability class. Instead Lucinda called on Houdini to give me courage, then she let go of my hand and gestured to the opening. I stuck my legs through and pawed at the ladder. It teetered a bit, but I steadied myself on the lip of the opening and then climbed down slowly. I hesitated before letting go of the stage to bend down and clutch the ladder. It’s not like it was that high up—the room below the stage was normal-sized, and I’d been up much higher when I was helping Lucinda hang lights. But it felt odd to walk down a ladder I’d never climbed up.

“Be careful, Robin,” I said, once I was safely off the ladder. “There’s a sharp edge on the rim of that top step. You shouldn’t bleed all over Houdini’s holy space.”

Then she sent him down, calling on Houdini to give him wisdom. At first he didn’t want to go through the trapdoor. Lucinda’s hand appeared in the opening, finger pointing, and she said: “The power of Houdini compels you, the power of Houdini compels you,” over and over until her pointing hand was replaced with Robin’s sneaker-shod foot searching for the top of the ladder. I braced the ladder while he climbed down.

“Courage, brains, I guess that leaves heart for me,” Lucinda said.

Then she blessed herself and descended, bouncing down the rungs nimbly. When her feet hit the floor, she said: “There. From this moment on, our lives are going to be a lot better.”

Robin said, “Can we go to the party now?”

#

Newton lived near campus but Lucinda drove us over there anyway. The party had settled into two camps: the students who genuinely cared about theater were in the kitchen with Newton; the others who just liked the fact that Newton had two ice chests full of beer were out in the living room.

Robin got a beer and crammed himself onto one of the living room couches. I recognized the look on his face. He looked truly attentive, as if he cared about the video game being enthusiastically described by the guy who’d played Tony. Robin was waiting to pull a stunt, for his turn in the spotlight. I knew I should’ve stayed out there, but Lucinda grabbed me by the wrist and pulled me into the kitchen. That’s where Newton was talking about the demonstrations in China, and how important they were, and how we should all read the paper every day so we’d know what was happening in the world.

Robin read the paper every chance he got, but it didn’t seem to help him much.

When I went for my second beer, Robin was in charge. He was doing the quarter trick. He could balance a column of quarters on his elbow and then flip his hand down and catch the entire stack. Not just one or two; one night in our room he caught a stack of twenty-five quarters. He had taken up a collection and was going for twenty-one. The video game nut was helping him stack them up.

Back in the kitchen, folks were talking about Panama. I knew there was a canal there, but it’s not like I could point to Panama if you showed me a map of the world. Finally the conversation circled back around to the next play that we were producing.

Pericles,” Dr. Newton said. “Of course, we always cut Shakespeare down from five acts to two, which is tricky. Perhaps your friend will help us—we’ll need to build a ship we can sink three times a night.”

From the living room came a jangly, rattling sound. Probably one of the actors who thought that catching twenty-one quarters stacked up on your forearm was an easy feat. Newton rushed out to see what was going on and we followed. Robin was the culprit, of course. I helped him pick up all the quarters and redistribute them. I didn’t see any permanent damage.

“I’m losing my touch,” he said, crawling on the floor next to me.

“How many beers have you had?”

“Why are you counting? Only losers count. Five, I think. Can you believe that some of these actors don’t know how to shotgun a beer?”

Newton was back in the kitchen and I had convinced Robin to go apologize. He said he was sorry, and blamed the accident on his infected hand. Newton laughed it off and joked with him about designing the ship that they could sink onstage. Robin listened and then asked questions about how big the ship needed to be, and how many actors it needed to hold. So everything was all patched up right until Robin spotted the bottle of 151-proof rum on top of the refrigerator. High proof rum is an essential component of the fire trick.

“Hey, has anybody got a lighter?” he asked.

“No, Robin—”

“I’ll do it outside, it’ll be fun!”

And so, because Dr. Newton wanted to be one of the gang instead of an aloof authority figure, we ended up on the back deck with Robin, who had the bottle of rum in one hand and the lighter in the other. I had insisted that he face the yard, while the rest of us stood in a semicircle behind him.

“The key,” he said, “is to create a fine mist.”

Robin took a mouthful of alcohol and then flicked the lighter. That’s about when Lucinda slipped her hand into mine. Not the death grip, just a playful squeeze. She leaned over and whispered in my ear.

“Feeling courageous?” she asked.

Maybe he saw that movement out of the corner of his eye and couldn’t help but look. Robin’s head turned a bit towards me and Lucinda just as he held up the lighter to his pursed lips and spat out a cloud of fire. It was pretty spectacular. It always was. And this time, despite precautions, he had set my hair on fire.

I don’t think of myself as a brave person, but I don’t recall flinching. I realized that I was on fire, and an instant later, Lucinda was clapping her hand against my head to put it out. Newton went to get some burn ointment, which I didn’t need, and all the other students evacuated to escape the smell. It was just me, and Lucinda, and Robin.

And I’m definitely not a violent person, so I can’t recall thinking about it before my right hand flashed up and punched Robin in the nose. It was the first and only time I’ve ever hit anyone.

Blood began to spill from his nostrils and down over his mouth and chin. He wiped at it with one hand, then took a swig of rum from the bottle.

“I’m sorry,” Robin said, then he gasped as the strength of the rum hit him.

I believed him, and I wish I had said something. Instead, we left him there. I went home with Lucinda—the woman at the other end of the telescope.

#

She laughed for much of the rest of the night, which would’ve been disheartening except she kept reminding me of how cute I was, but also funny-looking because half my hair was burned off.

#

I walked back to campus as the sun was coming up. The world was a very different place at sunrise and I was a different person. A lot happier, at least when I thought about Lucinda. Empty streets, except for this one jogger that blazed past me. Birds calling out to each other, wind in the trees. The door to our dorm building, supposed to be locked after dark, was propped open as usual.

I entered our room as quietly as I could. By the time I got the door locked behind me, though, I knew Robin wasn’t there. The window was open, and the drawbridge was down. I checked his side of the loft, just to make sure. He was gone.

I looked out the window into the silver stadium, and saw the ladder he had built. It was sitting in front of the goalposts, its crooks locked on to the ivy-covered crossbar.

I ran down to the field. The lifeline sat coiled neatly at the bottom of the steps. It was easy to picture him at the top of the ladder, hoisting himself up onto the goalpost. Sitting astride it, and then falling away. Robin had cut himself at one point, probably another splinter, because the ladder was smeared and tracked with his blood. The top step bore the imprint, in red, of one of his size 12 Converse All Stars. I picked up the end of the lifeline and started climbing. When I got to the top, I could see the crossbar itself streaked with blood underneath the ivy. I pulled myself up, just as he had done, turning to sit there.

I looked back out at the field, and up to our room. There, in the window, the first rays of the sun glinted off the fat eye of Robin’s telescope. After all the giving and the helping and the standing-by I had done, I still felt like I owed him something. I had to go bring him back. I looped the lifeline around my waist and tied a bowline knot. Then I turned, and went through the uprights.

And out, and down, and onto the ground behind them. I managed to flip over in the air, purely by chance and not by any acrobatic skill, so that I landed flat on my back. The rope got tangled up and I ended up pulling the ladder over the crossbar too. The rope’s momentum made the ladder travel further, so it missed crashing into me by a few feet. The shock of the fall was slow to translate into physical pain. I lay there, looking up at the goalposts, looking over at the theater.

I tried not to think about Robin, so I thought about Houdini instead. All the things he could do—the escapes, the magic, the daredevil stunts in the water and in the air. I’m sure that Houdini could’ve kicked a field goal on the first try, no problem. (Later I would discover that he hadn’t actually played the Bryce Theater. It had been his brother Theo who toured as Hardeen, doing all of the same tricks as Houdini, who’d traveled through that trapdoor.) After I had lain there for an hour or so, the world coming to life around me, I slipped out of the rope and tried to get up. I hurt, but I didn’t think I’d broken any bones. It felt like my entire back half was one big bruise. I shambled up to the dorm and into the room. I still had some pain pills left from my Achilles tendon injury, and I planned on using them, after I finished some business.

First I pulled up the drawbridge, for the last time. I made my way up Robin’s spiral stairs, slowly. I got his two books and the copy of Penthouse. There was also a stack of paper lying on his bed: plans for a ship that could sink onstage. The plans were extremely detailed, and he had included a complete bill of materials needed. He must’ve been up all night working on them. I left the plans on the bed. I thought about calling Lucinda, but didn’t. That could wait. This was between me and Robin.

I walked out of the dorm, taking the stairs this time. Back on the field, I folded up Robin’s ladder and dragged it into the viney underbrush. I stood out there in front of the goalpost and tossed up Catcher in the Rye. It didn’t fly high enough the first time, so I retrieved it and gave it a brisker throw. It sailed up and over and was gone. Catch-22, the same. The porno magazine was more difficult, an ungainly bird attempting flight. Finally I spun it like a Frisbee and it sailed through, its pages flapping and waving goodbye.

I kept the telescope.


Richard Butner runs the Sycamore Hill Writers Conference. Small Beer Press published his chapbook, Horses Blow Up Dog City and Other Stories. He lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, the City of Oaks.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.electricvelocipede.com/blog/through-the-uprights-by-richard-butner/

2 comments

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  1. John Dancy-Jones

    Harry Houdini is a wonderful vehicle for a "black box" sf feature, and I can't recall a previous use in my reading. Richard Butner gives us Animal House from the perspective of Sturm und Drang. The two protagonists – seemingly one bifurcated character – make creativity the nihilistic escape plan from boring old Life. Nothing boring about the great details throughout for fans of of old Riddick Stadium, the legendary NCSU campus icon that is the setting. The semi-sweet resolution is like taking your internal Holden Caulifield and kicking him over the goal post!

  2. John Klima

    Thanks for the kind words! There's a lot going on in this story, but I felt there was also a lot of subtlety, too.

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