by Patrick July 18, 2011
I’m always fascinated by stories that cover the broad sweeps of a person’s life in a very short time because there are so many ways to go about them. When you take this approach, you’re forced to decide what you consider important in a life, or transformative, or educational. Scholes’ tale about a boy who could bend and fall without harming himself is both charming and sad. He discovers — as we all do, sooner or later — that our greatest strengths are often also our greatest weaknesses.
This story originally appeared in Electric Velocipede #19 in Fall 2009.
Patrick Ward, July 18th, 2011
“The Boy Who Could Bend and Fall”
by Ken Scholes
They called him Slinky Boy because he could bend and fall from the top of the stairs all the way to the bottom with no serious injury and much to the amusement of others.
“Amazing,” someone said.
“Look at him go,” another added.
“Yee-haw,” Ninja Bob shouted. Then he and Larry Sue and Longhair Eddie hauled their toy back up to the top of the stairs for another go in that small gap between classes at the end of the day.
Slinky Boy’s real name was Focus Jones; it reflected his parents’ most wishful thinking. They were in real estate and had met (and conceived their son) at a Personal Effectiveness conference while they were both married to other people. Focus showed up nine months later. Fourteen years later, his classmates at Thomas Jefferson High School renamed him in honor of his new exploitable skill.
“Wow,” someone said.
“Look at him go,” another added.
What they liked most about it was that he didn’t seem to mind at all. He went down making only a slight whooshing noise, then lay still at the bottom. The first few times, of course, he’d sprung to his feet with a bit of a flourish. But after that, when he realized that it was going to be an ongoing fete, he just laid there and waited for Ninja Bob and an ever-changing gang to scoop him up and haul him back to the top.
It had been a daily occurrence for as long as he could remember.
“You’re weird,” Angelica told him after the others left for fifth period.
“I know,” he said.
She studied him from behind her thick glasses. “I’ve never seen anyone as weird as you.”
“Me either,” he said. Then, as an afterthought, he shrugged.
Angelica smiled. “Do you want to go to homecoming with me?”
That’s the first time Slinky Boy realized knowing how to bend and fall could come in handy.
The second time was different.
It was fourth period, a year later. He’d been staying on his own for the week—his parents were at a Self Leadership in America Life Skills conference and they had decided he was old enough to stay home alone.
The secretary’s tinny voice summoned him over the intercom accompanied by the snorts and eye-rolls of his classmates.
His uncle Joe and his aunt Margaret waited in the school guidance counselor’s office with the principal, Ms. McPherson. The long tile strip of hallway smelled like lemon floor cleanser.
“I can’t believe you don’t have a real counselor here,” Uncle Joe was saying. Focus noticed right away that his eyes were red from drinking or crying or both. Aunt Margaret’s eyes were red, too, but she was Presbyterian and did not drink.
The guidance counselor shrugged in an apologetic way. So did the principal.
Everyone looked up when Focus walked in. They closed the door. They started to talk in somber, quiet tones.
Slinky Boy didn’t remember much of what they said. He caught bits about the plane crash, about his new home with Uncle Joe the Alcoholic and Aunt Margaret the Pious, but after the first five minutes, he was bending and falling, bending and falling, bending and falling.
“What on earth is that whooshing noise?” Aunt Margaret asked.
“What the hell is he doing?” Uncle Joe added.
“He didn’t learn that here,” the guidance counselor said.
The pain rolled on; Slinky Boy bent and fell around it.
Years later, in the last conversation Focus Jones had with his wife before she left him, she asked him about it.
“Where do you go, Focus?”
Slinky Boy looked up at her. She still tugged at his heart when he looked at her but he’d never quite learned how to say so. “I don’t know,” he said.
Her eyes told him she wanted more. “Someplace else,” he added. “Someplace not here.”
The force of her sigh signaled exasperation, like the last breath slipping out of a love grown old and tired. “I can’t live with you anymore.”
The rest of the conversation faded into whooshing.
When the world reconstituted itself around him, Slinky Boy sat alone in his half-empty house.
At one point, someone suggested therapy might help.
The counselor—a real one, not a guidance one—sat on a comfortable chair and Focus Jones sat on a comfortable couch. It was a simple room with a desk in one corner, mood lighting, and a bookshelf filled with an odd assortment of titles: You CAN Learn to Fly, Bartley’s Guide to Living Well, and Parent-Blaming for Dummies. It smelled like peppermint.
On the third session, she asked about the bending and falling.
“So this started back in high school?” She sipped her tea and waited.
Focus nodded. “Yes.”
“How did you feel about it?” She sipped her tea again and waited.
Focus shrugged. “I didn’t feel anything about it.”
She set down her tea, picked up her pen, wrote something down. She set down her pen, picked up her tea. “Really?”
Focus felt like a child caught playing with his mother’s underwear. It must have shown on his face.
“Do you think maybe this—” she looked at her notes “—bending and falling could be a way of dealing with your parents’ death?”
“I was doing it before they died.”
Down went the tea, up came the pen. “Really?”
“Yes,” he said. But he couldn’t remember exactly when he’d started.
An uncomfortable pause settled in. The counselor watched him and sipped her tea.
“Where do you go, Focus?” the counselor finally asked.
“I’m not sure. I never open my eyes.”
“Why don’t you open your eyes?”
He thought for a moment. When no words drifted up, he shook his head.
“Maybe,” she said, “you’re afraid that if you opened them, you’d see that you were back where you started? That you hadn’t gone anywhere at all?”
He deflated. He melted into the couch. He groaned inwardly.
The counselor smiled. “We’ll come back to that next time. Why don’t we talk a little about your mom?”
Slinky Boy saw her lips moving but all he heard was whoosh as the world spun away.
Speaking of worlds:
The end of the world landed on a Tuesday just a few years later and no one knew to roll out a red carpet by way of greeting. That is to say that it was painfully sudden and terribly unexpected.
This group had bombs. That group had diseases. The other group had airplanes and missiles and multiple payload delivery systems. It was an apocalyptic cluster-fuck of global proportions.
But terribly effective.
Look, up in the sky! Exhaust streaks like fuzzy spaghetti noodles draped over Grandma’s blue quilt. Then a sky the color of amber under rainbow clouds that roiled and twisted and burned the eye. Bacteria rumbling in the thunder; viral rain—at first a sprinkle, then a downpour.
Slinky Boy turned off the news and went out to his yard. Others were gathering to watch it all go, but not him. They turned to him with white and wild eyes.
Whoosh. “Wow,” someone said.
Whoosh. “Look at it go,” someone added.
Eyes tightly shut, he bent and fell.
More silence, oppressive and ominous and safe.
I can do this, he told his eyes.
Slinky Boy forced them open and looked out on a whole new world. Purple trees and lemon skies and peach grass. The smell of the circus and fresh cut lawn. The sound of glass flowers tinkling in the breeze. The taste of chocolate and cinnamon on the air.
He reached back, far back, to find some word to express this latest discovery.
“Yee-haw,” he said to no one in particular at all.