Birthday Present (part two)
Loving the giddy fake complicity of the mall, Hampstead passed the Abercrombie storefront, apotheosis of all-knowing pubescence. Clothes homeless-shabby by winking design. Do they also stink? But the teen models worthy of Praxiteles. The kind of Wasp kids you only see on fraternity row, Yale to U.C.L.A., aspiring to careers with exciting firms like J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs. Boys suddenly sexier than the girls and a lot more concerned about their figures. Girls know now they're on the ascending curve while males, especially the white ones, are fighting to stay in place, which makes one edgy. Will they someday consume us after impregnation? But we and the night are young, alas, so spend Daddy's money while it lasts, the crummy, low-achieving, homophobic bastard.
Hampstead approached a group of more garden-variety teen-agers, some with vestiges of Gothic -- isn't that passé yet? It seemed this year to be so on his campus, admittedly square for California -- a boy, fifteen or sixteen, with one side of his head shaved, the other bearing greasy dreadlocks. Retro-Gothic? It was hopeful to see the hair on the right side, ha-ha. Bifurcated youth. Ridiculing/coveting the bod-merchandising enhancements in the nail-me-if-can Victoria's Secret window. Torn by revolt and convention, in equal parts. Rage against the machine they subconsciously adore. But capable of real malice because they only care for number one. Being unconventional in Hampstead's boyhood had been following Red Ryder instead of Jack Armstrong, buying Royal Crown cola. Pressure of the ethos so much greater now, because it's electronically inescapable. What's it all about, Nike? Lowest Common Decapitator. Hampstead was in his early teens before TV came into homes. He knew evenings of reverie, quiet walks with his dog, books actually for enjoyment, sports as friendly competition, fun, not as a ticket to college or that Abercrombie/Guess/Calvin Klein chick-scoring physique cum attitude. Hell, dissipation was more honored than corporeal narcissism. Bogie. Pumping iron was for weirdoes, guys who shaved their chests. Bodily decorations were for savages. Yet, fortunately, once parenthood-inducing hormones took over, the similarities grew. Who can resist the appeal of the young in love? Anticipation is happiness. Being young and in love is anticipation par excellence. While that other classic case of anticipation, the gambler, is most often thwarted in his seeking, the lover is most often rewarded. If the loved one is there, needs are generally reciprocal. Lovers are truly happy, until things start to sour, which they so often do. After requited love, happiness can be scooping up that jackpot, scratching an itch literal or figurative, having a hot-fudge sundae set before one, hearing once again an adored song or, in Hampstead's case, the score of Evita con Madonna; seeing a movie idol on the screen (Deborah Kerr for our Fifties-seared hero), reading yet another book that changes your view on what this is all about, closing on the home of your dreams, maybe more a femme thing, reaching Friday at five p.m. in your twenties and having some money to spend, seeing your boy get a big hit!!, buying a present for a loved one. Scrub my last? All weighed against the ceaseless, remorseless reverse. For most, happiness is simply a lack of torment, a neutral condition. And the Hokey Pokey ain't enough. Worldwide, a state of misery and endless travail is the rule. Ordinarily, only the wealthy among humans go beyond a transitory state of happiness into bliss, state of protracted enjoyment. Monthlong vacations with perfect erotic mechanics and some guy to shine your shoes. Mystics who lay claim to bliss need others to take out the trash. Drugs one part whoopee, twenty parts hell. Money is the bliss producer, unless one follows the Cynics, or Mark's Jesus, lo mismo,abjuring the material, hammering down expectations. But, for virtually all persons on this planet, banality, care and worse are the lot, survival the end.
He started his car and headed back out to the freeway, the present beside him a bundle of joy, fending off evil. So, okay, Hampstead, what do you really think? After almost seventy years of semi-successful bliss-hunting. What is this all about? He hadn't asked himself in a long time, maybe three weeks. One, for starters, the world is a commonsense world. This was the first time the word had occurred to him in this context and it pleased him: his thought was losing flab. There is nothing ultimately mysterious, mystical nor miraculous. Farewell to any anthropic principle -- and don't bring up the quantum, okay? Things are as they seem to reasonably educated Western adults. We know next to nothing but, Kant notwithstanding, all is ultimately, theoretically susceptible to rationality. Two -- it is a world of mindless chaos, with the exception of the modicum of order that animals, man included, can create to advance their own interests. Three -- there is no importance or meaning except insofar as animals can discern such within their own doings. And other than heading the food chain, man has no priority over ants, or dandelions. Being humans, of course, we ascribe priority to human interests over those of ants or dandelions. Four? Yeah, four -- at the deepest level, things happen because they have to happen. He remembered Herbert Spencer from undergraduate days: We do as we choose, but we do not choose as we choose. Moving to hard determinism yet? Paradox: What we choose makes us the persons we are, and from this (contingent?) platform we do in fact choose. Five, this was a duh but needed reiterating -- humans act in accordance with their values. Values are subjective. Right and wrong are subjective (which, he hastens to add, is not the same as cultural relativity, but that's another matter). Six, the biggie -- the universe is a random occurrence, okay, wholly determined by the chaotic (of course, indubitably non-teleological) play of energy. The solar system is a random occurrence. Life, animals and humans are likewise random. When entropy destroys our solar system, it will not be missed, nor will man. Sob. Six-B, perhaps -- religion may have been useful when humans lived solely in a state of fear, need and peril. Today it is contra-utilitarian, when it is not a plague. Six-C -- liberal democracies, while not suppressing religion, always counterproductive, ought more and more to demonstrate disdain toward religion and promulgate information to attack its errors. W. sure not helpful with this item. Governments must clearly posit humanity as the highest value for humans, with membership in the human race the fundamental factor to elicit respect from one's fellow man. We should truly love our neighbor -- morality, choice of athletic shoes notwithstanding. Wow, it was breakout day. Six-D -- International borders are slowly falling away, willy-nilly. For an extended period, free permanent movement globally must be restricted to prevent destitute populations from overrunning the developed world and thus suffocating the golden goose. As national borders more and more become imaginary, wholly free movements of populations, goods and capital must inevitably result. But geopolitics was ultimately as boring as the stock market. But, ye gods, can civilization stand without property rights?
Hampstead came down the hilly street toward his daughter's house. He clicked mentally on Save in his personal philosophy file. He had covered his important bases, a self-indulgent housekeeping task. Like balancing his checkbook. As a more or less political conservative, Six-D had truly surprised him. But he saw it rose with uncompromised logic from the former. A one-worlder, after all. That mean I gotta vote Democratic next time? Isn't George The Great moving that way anyway with his Holy Roamin' Empire?
Expectedly, the street was filled with parked cars and he had to park two blocks away, down a slight hill and in front of the playground of the neighborhood elementary school, with an open-space canyon on the other side. The night was chilly, even in a tweed sportcoat, as he got out of his car and he knew he would need a drink as soon as he arrived. Fran's liquor cabinet was always well stocked. He started up the dimly lit street, his doll box under one arm, and immediately saw two young men, heavily coated and wearing caps, heading his way on the same side of the street. Instinctively, he began to cross to the other side and they immediately did the same, angling toward him. His street smarts told him he was in trouble. No time to use the cellphone in his coat pocket. The closest house was fifty yards away. The boys, teenagers apparently, with long black overcoats and long hair, weren't big, but even in his okay shape he could never handle two. They'd be nasty, like in "Clockwork Orange." Twenty feet away, one spoke.
"Gramps, can you let us have a little money? We got a big problem we gotta handle."
The two were separating to get better attack angles.
"Sure," he said. "How much do you need?"
"How much you got on you?"
"Don't know. Maybe thirty bucks." Up Shit Creek with these punks, sure as God made --
"You got more than that."
"I'll check. And you can have every penny I have on me. But, please, fellas, don't try any wise stuff. Those things you always end up regretting. You see, I got this heart condition."
"Save the advice, Gramps. That's your problem, not mine."
The kid's face was in shadow but Hampstead could see he was young, wan, hatchet-faced. He was about eight feet away and had an object in his hand. It was a small handgun.
"Your wallet. And your car keys. And we'll take that package you're carrying, too."
Hampstead's mind churned. Seventeen maybe. Stupid. Probably as gutless as I am. Bluff 'em. What the fuck.
"My name is Corleone and I'm a member of the Mafia, boys. I'll give you every penny I have. No problem there. I've needed money before and I know what it's like. But I'm keeping my wallet. And my car keys." He stopped, looked down at the package and spoke with the best imitation of gravity he could muster. "This package I happen to be delivering to an old business acquaintance and it's got a bomb in it. Pure nitroglycerin, like the terrorists use, you know. If you open it, you squeeze it the wrong way, you drop it, it'll blow you and everybody within fifty feet to kingdom come. You don't want this."
"A-a-ah, you're fulla shit." But he backed off a step. The other kid was in back now but at a respectable distance.
"Here," Hampstead said, holding out the package. "Take it."
"Fuck the package," the kid in front said. "Toss me your wallet."
Hampstead took out his wallet and stuck it under the ribbon tie. "Here, take 'em both."
"You telling me you got a goddam bomb in that package, is that right, mister?"
"No, chum, to be honest it's a baby doll. No problem at all."
"Put the fucking package on the ground and come over here with the wallet." And he pointed and waved the gun at Hampstead. Hampstead could feel his nerve wearing thin. Kids killed people all the time, even in the best neighborhoods.
"Do what he says," the fellow in back said with a B-minus effort toward menace. The voice was reedy and uncertain.
"I'm counting to ten." Hampstead knew he was on a crazy roll now. "Then I'm tossing this bomb at you, kid. I'm going to get messed up a lot but you're going to be dead."
The kid's jaw dropped. His eyes strained wide, unused to calculations, Hampstead thought. Moments in life both tender and risible began to sashay drunkenly before the Hampstead cyclorama. Then the kid's program clicked back in, "Fuck that shit, mister. FUCK IT, Y'HEAR! Toss me your wallet or you're dead right now." He was aiming the gun. Behind him, a fingernail moon shone feebly over a double-crossed telephone pole. Was that Cross of Lorraine? No, Patriarchal Cross with the two at top. Is that good luck for a patriarch? The nearest street lamp was half-a-block away. Not another soul, not even a distant moving automobile could be seen.
What am I doing this for? Hampstead thought. That gun ought to scare me more. I got maybe a hundred bucks in my wallet but half-a-dozen credit cards, wedding picture with Ev, Social Security, Medicare card, Triple-A Gold Card. Yeah, but the doll is Gretchen's. Goddam if they're getting that. Little bastards.
"ONE," Hampstead heard himself say, the word ominous as the J. Arthur Rank gong. This was your life, Walt Hampstead. Was I finished letting my life race before my eyes? That's goddam serious! What about Mackenzie being born after that eternity of labor. Wally's birthmark. Frannie getting lost at the beach. Cheryl's miscarriage! Now he felt himself shaking, his heart very palpably pounding.
"I'm warning you, mister." The kid took another step back. The pip-squeak was off even farther now.
"Two," Walter said.
The kid stepped back. "You motherfucker."
The kid was uncertain now, too. Fake gun! That was it. A goddam fake.
"Three." And Hampstead raised the package to chest level.
The kid stepped back again.
He kid started moving away. Then he fired the gun, an orange flare and a sharp report. And he ran, his accomplice following. Hampstead's adrenaline was so high he thought of nothing for several seconds. He watched them run to the end of the block and turn right. A lousy shot, the little punk shit. Then he saw the package in front was caved in. Oh, my God. Shot. And this isn't Shiloh. Or even Baghdad. The bullet had entered the box, he saw. And had not exited! The box was only flimsy cardboard. Of course! The bullet, probably only a .22, had been stopped by the doll. Give me a frigging break!
He stood in the street for several minutes, calming down, slowly, slowly, calming down. Breathing deep, letting his mind relax. Suddenly he felt fine, even exhilarated. In fact, he was enjoying an unsurpassed high, a majestic high. But how stupid can you be.
I'll have to get the child another doll. Evelyn will want this one. He took out his cellphone and tried to remember what the number was for police. Oh -- how could he forget! It was the first time he'd ever dialed nine-one-one.
Last week: part one.
About the author:
J. C. Frampton lives and writes in Southern California. His stories and efforts at humor can be found online at Pig Iron Malt, Eclectica, Comrades, Sweet Fancy Moses, White Shoe Irregular, Paumanok Review, Aileron, and The Sidewalk's End. His roses, especially the Dolly Partons and the White Lightnin's, are cuter than yours.