Saturday, March 12, 2016

That's Why

The boy sat in the basement reading his book.  He was in his favorite room in the house, in part because he could stretch out on the old sofa and no one would tell him to get his feet off the couch, but also because the television set in the far corner of the room. 

When his parents had purchased the TV, they hadn't been certain where in the house it should be located.  They didn't want to put it in the living room, where their friends might see it, nor were they completely sure that owning a television was something that families should confess to their neighbors.  Not knowing where to put it, the television had spent the last couple of years in the basement.   The boy liked it down there where he could watch the adventures of Roy Rogers and Trigger, followed by Sky King and his Songbird every Saturday morning. 

Between the two shows, there was simply no contest:  he'd take Sky King any day.  The Songbird was actually a Cessna Bamboo Bomber; he knew this because he had looked it up at the school library.  It had taken a while, but with the help of the librarian, he had finally located it in a large book that showed all the aircraft of the world.

While he really wasn't interested in any of the other television shows, that didn't matter, for the boy had long since learned that if he watched more than about a single hour of television, his mother would yell down the basement stairs that he had to go outside for some "fresh air".  In his opinion, fresh air was overrated.  After all, this was Texas, and the air in summer was hot and humid.  The house wasn't air conditioned, so all the upstairs windows were opened to let out the heat while the basement windows were closed to hold in the cool.  Couldn't the fresh air find its way through those open windows?

He discovered that if he stayed quiet, he could stay in the cool basement and read his book.  (And frankly, the book was more fun than anything else he could think of doing, anyway).  The books were a great way to escape a small town in Texas.  Everybody in the books he read always had great adventures, but nothing ever happened where he lived.  He didn't even know someone who had ever had an adventure.  He'd asked his mother about that one day. 

"Mom?  How come there's never any adventures around here?"

"What kind of adventure?"

"Adventures like the ones in the books I read."

"Oh," his mother answered.  "Well, there's more adventure than you can handle in your own back yard, if you would just look for it."

That was always the kind of answer you got when you asked a parent something.  He had no idea why his parents wouldn't just admit when they didn't know something.  He'd been in the backyard, and there were certainly no adventures there.

There were a lot of things in the books he didn't understand.  When he had read a book about someone named Captain Hornblower, he had learned about sailing ships, and masts, and pirates.  The book had said that the best wood to make masts had come from America, but he didn't understand how.  He'd been thinking about this for a long time and he just didn't understand where the masts could have come from!—or for that matter, where telephone poles come from!  He had spent a lot of time looking at trees and he just didn't understand it.  The biggest tree he could find was a Live Oak tree, and he hadn't seen one yet that had a limb that was straight for more than about three feet.  How could you make a tall mast for a ship from a tree that was twisted like a pretzel?

He had noticed that telephone poles felt and smelled a little burnt.  The only thing he could figure out was that there must be some kind of machine that used heat and rollers to straighten the trees.  He wished he could see one in action.

The latest book he had read was equally confusing.  The Arabian Nights, a book so old that no one even knew who had written it, was certainly exciting and filled with the kind of adventures that he was certain he would never have.  Of course, it would help if his home town had any wizards or genies that inhabited almost every page of the books he read.

He liked the idea of genies.  He especially liked the idea of getting three wishes.  He was pretty sure what he would wish for.  To start, Sky King could teach him how to fly the Songbird.  Then, he might wish up an adventure or two.  None of this was likely to happen in Texas, since while there were still a few ogres around, there was a real shortage of genies.  He wondered why they had left.

The boy thought it might be fun to be a genie.  You would be as tall as a house and could work all kinds of magic, making wishes come true.  The boy was thinking of all the things he could do when the family parakeet, Pretty Baby, chirped from his cage in the corner.

On hot days, his mother moved Pretty Baby's cage to the basement, where it was cooler.  The boy had looked up parakeets in the encyclopedia and discovered that they came from Australia, a place that seemed to be even warmer than Texas.  The boy didn't understand how the bird could survive Australia but might die if it spent an afternoon in the kitchen.  He knew better than to ask his mother, and he really didn't mind sharing the basement with the tiny green bird, anyway.

"What do you think happened to genies," he asked the bird.  Pretty Baby could talk, but all he knew how to say was "Give me a kiss" and "I'm a Baptist", (the latter phrase having been taught to the bird by his church's preacher, who usually came home with his family after church on Sunday for lunch). 

Pretty Baby did not answer the question, but he did give the boy an idea.  Compared to the bird, he was as big as a house.  And he could do things for the bird—he could make wishes come true for the bird.

"Pretty Baby," he said.  "I'm going to be your genie.  I'll give you three wishes.  What do you want first?"

The first wish was fairly easy.  The boy walked over to the cage and opened the tiny wire door, and stepped back.  For almost a minute, the small green bird simply looked at the open door, then he suddenly hopped to the edge of the open door, surveyed the room and flew a few feet away from the cage and landed on the back of a nearby chair.  The parakeet sat there for a few seconds, then flew to the basement window where the morning sun was streaming in, and the bird hopped closer to the glass where it stared out the window.

It didn't take long for the boy to figure out the second wish, either.  Moving slowly so as not to frighten the little green bird, the boy moved to the window and slowly raised it.  A strong wind blew into the basement, carrying the scent of the yard into the house.  The boy could smell the grass and hear the lawnmower where his father was cutting the grass in the front yard.

Suddenly, gust of wind stirred the window curtains and blew dust into the room.  The tiny green bird immediately whirled around on the window sill and flew back to the cage, in through the cage door, and landed on the uppermost perch.  The boy walked over to the cage and, granting the third wish, safely latched the cage door shut.

"Now I understand," said the boy softly to the bird.  "That's why there are no more genies."

1 comment:

  1. Poignant story, Mark. I grew up in Texas too. My grandmother had a basement and I liked to go down there in summer. It was always cool down there with all the old furniture and stuff. She and Grandpa kept the TV upstairs so they could watch "As the World Turns" when he came home from the kitchen cabinet factory on their hour-long lunch break. I always had a book going anyway. For more than half of my childhood, the TV was broken anyway and when it wasn't I, being an Adventist kid, couldn't watch Roy Rogers or Sky King because they were on Saturday morning. The only TV I got was Channel 11's Icky Twerp, an after school "kids" show featuring Popeye cartoons and the Three Stooges, a strange little man with a tiny hat and two guys in gorilla suits named Ajax and Delphinium. Other than that, the Ed Sullivan Show was pretty much it, with a sprinkling of "Bewitched" in my adolescence.

    I started out with Captain Blood from the school library, then Moby Dick and finally I discovered Captain Hornblower. I would take off on weekends on my bicycle and pedal five miles into nearby Cleburne (named for Confederate General Pat Cleburne) to the Carnegie library where I would check out Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and Andre Norton until I'd read every sci-fi novel in the place. I carried home four or five a week then pedal back the next weekend to return them. Finally, I discovered the Sci-Fi book club from which I got two volumes a month for $3, which was most of a week's wages from my paper route. My room, a converted back porch my step-dad built on, had a long shelf of books I read over and over.

    I'm still collecting books I read from the library back then or had on my shelf and then lost. I have the exact edition of "Captain Blood" and Lester Del Rey's "Step to the Stars" and the entire Hornblower series. I've added three bookcases over the years and that's after I was forced to sell over half my collection during a forced move several years ago. Since I've been writing I haven't had time to read for fun much anymore, but my Kindle account already holds hundreds of books in readiness for the end of the world, when I'll be holed up in my bunker. I'm working on a stationary bicycle that generates electricity for my computer while I ride it. I don't have much faith in the electrical grid, what with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton closing in on their parties' nominations. It's like choosing between Hitler and Stalin and I don't fancy we'll do well under either. Oh, well, I'll have plenty to read anyway.