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Werewolves in Their Youth

Michael Chabon

  Werewolves in Their Youth


  Michael Chabon

  To Ayelet


  Werewolves in Their Youth

  House Hunting

  Son of the Wolfman

  Green’s Book

  Mrs. Box


  The Harris Fetko Story

  That Was Me

  In the Black Mill

  A Biography of Michael Chabon

  Werewolves in Their Youth

  I HAD KNOWN HIM as a bulldozer, as a samurai, as an android programmed to kill, as Plastic Man and Titanium Man and Matter-Eater Lad, as a Buick Electra, as a Peterbilt truck, and even, for a week, as the Mackinac Bridge, but it was as a werewolf that Timothy Stokes finally went too far. I wasn’t there when it happened. I was down in the ravine at the edge of the schoolyard, founding a capital for an empire of ants. “Now, of course, this right here, this lovely structure, is the Temple of El-bok,” I explained to the ants, adopting the tone my mother employed to ease newly-weds through the emptied-out rooms of the depressed housing market in which she spent her days. I pointed to a pyramid of red clay at the center of a plaza paved with the crazy cross-hatching of my handprints. “And this, naturally, is the Palace of the Ant Emperor. But, ha ha, you knew that, of course. Okay, and over here”—I pointed to a sort of circular corral I’d formed by poking a row of sharpened twigs into the ground—“all of this is for keeping your ant slaves. Isn’t that nice? And over here’s where you milk your little aphids.” On the heights above my city stood the mound of an ordinary antville. All around me the cold red earth was stitched with a black embroidery of ants. By dint of forced transport and at the cost of not a few severed abdomens and thoraxes I succeeded in getting some of the ants to follow the Imperial Formic Highway, a broad groove in the clay running out the main gates of the city, up the steep slope of the ravine, and thence out into the tremendousness of the world. With my store of snapped-off ant body parts I pearled the black eyes of El-bok the Pitiless, an ant-shaped idol molded into the apex of the pyramid. I had just begun to describe, to myself and to the ants, the complicated rites sacred to the god whose worship I was imposing on them when I heard the first screams from the playground.

  “Oh, no,” I said, rising to my feet. “Timothy Stokes.” The girls screamed at Timothy the same way every time he came after them—in unison and with a trill that sounded almost like delight, as if they were watching the family cat trot past with something bloody in its jaws. I scrambled up the side of the ravine and emerged as Timothy, shoulders hunched, arms outstretched, growled realistically and declared that he was hungry for the throats of puny humans. Timothy said this or something like it every time he turned into a werewolf, and I would not have been too concerned if, in the course of his last transformation, he hadn’t actually gone and bitten Virginia Pease on the neck. It was common knowledge around school that Virginia’s parents had since written a letter to the principal, and that the next time Timothy Stokes hurt somebody he was going to be expelled. Timothy was, in our teacher Mrs. Gladfelter’s words, one strike away from an out, and there was a widespread if unarticulated hope among his classmates, their parents, and all of the teachers at Copland Fork Elementary that one day soon he would provide the authorities with the excuse they needed to pack him off to Special School. I stood there awhile, above my little city, rolling a particle of ant between my fingers, watching Timothy pursue a snarling, lupine course along the hopscotch crosses. I knew that someone ought to do something to calm him down, but I was the only person in our school who could have any reason to want to save Timothy Stokes from expulsion, and I hated him with all my heart.

  “I have been cursed for three hundred years!” he declaimed. He was wearing his standard uniform of white dungarees and a plain white undershirt, even though it was a chilly afternoon in October and all the rest of us had long since been bundled up for autumn in corduroy and down. Among the odd traits of the alien race from which Timothy Stokes was popularly supposed to have sprung was an apparent imperviousness to cold; in the midst of a February snowstorm he would show up on your doorstep, replying to your mother’s questions only when she addressed him as Untivak, full of plans to build igloos and drink seal blood and chew raw blubber, wearing only the usual white jeans and T-shirt, plus a pair of giant black hip boots that must have belonged to his father—an undiscussed victim of the war in Vietnam. Timothy had just turned eleven, but he was already as tall as Mrs. Gladfelter and his bodily strength was famous; earlier that year, in the course of a two-week period during which Timothy believed himself to be an electromagnetic crane, we had on several occasions seen him swing an iron manhole cover straight up over his head.

  “I have been cursed to stalk the night through all eternity,” he went on, his voice orotund, carrying all across the playground. When it came to such favorite subjects as lycanthropy and rotary-wing aircraft, he used big words, and had facts and figures accurately memorized, and sounded like the Brainiac some took him for, but I knew he was not as intelligent as his serious manner and heavy black spectacles led people to believe. His grades were always among the lowest in the class. “I have been searching for prey as lovely as you!”

  He lunged toward the nearest wall of the cage of girls around him. The girls peeled away from him as though sprayed with a hose, bumped shoulders, clung shrieking to each other’s sleeves. Some of them were singing the song we sang about Timothy Stokes,

  Timothy Stokes,

  Timothy Stokes,

  You’re going to the home

  for crazy folks,

  and the one singing the loudest was Virginia Pease herself, in her furry black coat and her bright red tights. She was standing screened by Sheila and Siobhan Fahey, her best friends, dangling one skinny red leg toward Timothy and then jerking it away again when Timothy swiped at it with one of his werewolf paws. Virginia had blond hair, and she was the only girl in the fifth grade with pierced ears and painted fingernails, and Timothy Stokes was in love with her. I knew this because the Stokeses lived next door to us and I was privy to all kinds of secrets about Timothy that I had absolutely no desire to know. I forbade myself, with an almost religious severity, to show Timothy any kindness or regard. I would never let him sit beside me, at lunch or in class, and if he tried to talk to me on the playground I ignored him; it was bad enough that I had to live next door to him.

  It was toward Virginia that Timothy now advanced, a rattling growl in his throat. She drew back behind her girlfriends, and their screaming now grew less melodious, less purely formal. Timothy crouched down on all fours. He rolled his wild white eyes and took a last look around him. That was when he saw me, halfway across the yellow distance of the soccer field. He was looking at me, I thought, as though he hoped I might have something I wanted to tell him. Instantly I dropped flat on my belly, my heart pounding the way it did when I was spotted trying to spy on a baseball game or a birthday party. I slid down into the ravine backward, doing considerable damage to the ramparts of my city, flattening one wing of the imperial palace. All through the ten minutes of growling and alarums that followed I lay there, without moving. I lay with my cheek in the dirt. At first I could hear the girls shouting for Mrs. Gladfelter, and then I heard Mrs. Gladfelter herself, sounding very angry, and then I thought I could hear the voice of Mr. Albert, the P.E. teacher, who always stepped in to break up fights when it was too late, and some bully had already knocked the glasses from your face and sent your books spinning away across the floor of the gym. Then the bell sounded the end of recess, and everything got very quiet, but I just stayed there in the ravine, at the gates of the city of the ants.

  As I tried to repair the
damage I had done to its walls, I told myself that I didn’t feel sorry at all for stupid old Timothy Stokes, but then I would remember the confused look in his eyes as I had abandoned him to his fate, to all the unimaginable things that would be done to him in the fabulous corridors of the Special School. I kept recalling something that I had heard Timothy’s mother say to mine, just a couple of days earlier. I should explain that at this point in my childhood I had acquired the shameful habit of eavesdropping on the conversations of adults, particularly my parents, and, worse, of snooping in their drawers—a pastime or compulsion that in recent months had led me to discover nude photographs of my mother taken with my father’s Polaroid; school documents and physicians’ reports detailing my own learning disability, juvenile obesity, hyperactivity, and loneliness; and, most recently, a letter from my mother’s attorney cheerily explaining that if my father persisted in his current pattern of violent behavior he could be restrained from coming anywhere near my mother ever again—a development for which I had on certain bad evenings prayed to God with desperation, but which, now that it had become an actual possibility, struck me as the most miraculous of all the awful wonders set loose upon the world in the course of the past year. There had been no mention in the lawyer’s letter of whether my father would be allowed to come near me. At any rate, I had been hanging over the banister of the hall stairs the other morning, listening in, when Mrs. Stokes—her name was Althea—came over to retrieve a two-hundred-dollar pair of Zeiss binoculars Timothy had given me the day before in exchange for three tattered Mister Miracle comic books and a 1794 one-dollar coin that he believed to be genuine but that I knew perfectly well to have been a premium my father received several years before on subscribing to American Heritage.

  “You know,” Althea Stokes had told my mother, in that big, sad donkey voice of hers, “your little Paul is Timothy’s only friend.”

  I decided to spend the afternoon in the ravine. The sun started down behind the embankment, and the moon, rising early, emerged from the rooftops of the houses somebody was putting up in front of the school—brand-new split-level houses my mother and her company were having a hard time selling. The moon, I noticed, was not quite full. As I worked to rebuild the ghost town I had made, I felt keenly that my failure to help Timothy was really only the latest chapter in a lifelong history of inadequacy and powerlessness. The very last line of that letter I’d found among my mother’s papers was “I think we should be able to have this thing wrapped up by November fifteenth.” If this was true, then I had less than one month in which to effect a reconciliation between my parents—a goal that, apart from wishing for, I had done nothing at all to bring about. Now it appeared that my father would not even be allowed to come home anymore. My fingers grew stiff and caked with clay, and my nose ran, and I cried for a while and then stopped crying, and still it seemed that my absence from the classroom went unnoticed. I was feeling pretty sorry for myself. After a while I gave up on my city building and just lay there on my back, gazing up at the moon. I didn’t hear the scrape of footsteps until they were just above my head.

  “Paul?” said Mrs. Gladfelter, leaning over the lip of the ravine, hands against her thighs. “Paul Kovel, what on earth are you doing out here?”

  “Nothing,” I said. “I didn’t hear the bell.”

  “Paul,” she said. “Now, listen to me. Paul, I need your help.”

  “With what?” I didn’t think she looked angry, but her face was upside down and it was hard to tell.

  “Well, with Timothy, Paul. I guess he’s just very wound up right now. You know. Well, he’s pretending he’s a werewolf today, and even though that’s fine, and we all know how Timothy is sometimes, we have serious things to discuss with him, and we’d like him to stop pretending for just a little while.”

  “But what if he isn’t pretending, Mrs. Gladfelter?” I said. “What if he really is a werewolf?”

  “Well, maybe he is, Paul, but if you would just come inside and talk to him for a little bit, I think we might be able to persuade him to change back into Timothy. You’re his friend, Paul. I asked him if he’d like to talk to you, and he said yes.”

  “I’m not his friend, Mrs. Gladfelter. I swear to God. I can’t do anything.”

  “Couldn’t you try?”

  I shook my head. I hoped that I didn’t start crying again.

  “Paul, Timothy is in trouble.” All at once her voice grew sharp. “He needs your help, and I need your help, too. Now if you come right this minute, and get up out of that dirt, then I’ll forget that you didn’t come in from recess. If you don’t come back inside, I’ll have to speak to your mother.” She held out her hand. “Now, come on, Paul. Please.”

  And so I took her hand, and let her pull me out of the ravine and across the deserted playground, aware that in doing so I was merely proving the unspoken corollary that my mother had left hanging, the other morning, in the air between her and Mrs. Stokes. There was a song about me, too, I’m afraid—a popular little number that went

  What’s that smell-o?

  Paul Kovel-o

  He’s a big fat hippo Jell-O

  He’s a snoop

  He smells like poop

  He smells like tomato beef

  Alphabet soup

  because at some point in my career I had acquired the reputation, inexplicable to me, for exuding an odor of Campbell’s tomato soup—a reputation that no amount of bathing or studied avoidance of all the brands and varieties of canned soup ever rid me of. As if this were not bad enough, I had to go around with a thick wad of electrician’s tape on the hinge of my eyeglasses and a huge Western-style tooled-leather belt stuffed one and a half times around the loops of my trousers. It had been my father’s belt, and bore his name, Melvin, stamped along its length, in big yellow capital letters set amid bright green cacti, like a cheery frontier invitation for all to come and yank my underpants up into my crack. I sat alone at lunch under an invisible and mysterious hood of tomato smell—a scent dangerously similar to the acrid tang of vomit—walked myself home from school, and figured in all the dramas, ceremonials, and epic struggles of my classmates only in the unlikely but mythologically requisite role of King of the Retards. Timothy Stokes, I knew, as I followed Mrs. Gladfelter down the long, silent hallway to the office, hating him more and more with each step, was my only friend.

  He was sitting in a corner of the office, trapped in an orange vinyl armchair. There was a roman numeral three scratched into his left cheek and his brilliant white shirt and trousers were patterned with a camouflage of grass and dirt and asphalt. His chest swelled and then subsided deeply, swelled and subsided. Mr. Buterbaugh, the principal, was standing over him, arms folded across his chest. He was watching Timothy, looking amazed and skeptical and somehow offended. Mrs. Maloney, the school secretary, who a dozen times a month typed the cruel words “tomato soup” onto the cafeteria menus that my mother cruelly affixed with a magnet to our refrigerator, rose from behind her desk when we came in, and gathered up her purse and sweater.

  “I finally reached Timothy’s mother, Mrs. Gladfelter,” she said. “She was at work, but she said she would be here as soon as she could.” She lowered her voice. “And we called Dr. Schachter, too. His office said he’d call back.” She cleared her throat. “So I’m going to take my break now.”

  At two o’clock every day, I knew, Mrs. Maloney sneaked around to the windowless side of the school building and stood behind the power transformer, smoking an Eve cigarette. I turned, with a sinking heart, and looked at the clock over the door to Mr. Buterbaugh’s office. I hadn’t missed the whole afternoon, after all, lying there in the ditch for what had seemed to me like many hours. There was still another ninety minutes to be gotten through.

  “Well, now, Timothy.” Mrs. Gladfelter took me by the shoulders and maneuvered me around her. “Look who I found,” she said.

  “Hey, Timothy,” I said.

  Timothy didn’t look up. Mrs. Gladfelter gave me
a gentle push toward him, in the small of my back.

  “Why don’t you sit down, Paul?”

  “No.” I stiffened, and pushed the other way.

  “Please sit down, Paul,” said Mr. Buterbaugh, showing me his teeth. Although his last name forced him to adopt a somewhat remote and disciplinarian manner with the other kids at Copland, Mr. Buterbaugh always took pains with me. He made me swap high fives with him and kept up with my grades. At first I had attributed his kindness to the fact that he was a little heavy and had probably been a fat kid, too, but then I kept hearing from my mother about how she had run into Bob Buterbaugh at this singles’ bar or that party and he had said the nicest things about me. I stopped pushing against Mrs. Gladfelter and let myself be steered toward the row of orange chairs. “That’s the way. Sit down and wait with Timothy until his mother gets here.”

  “Mr. B. and I will be sitting right inside his office, Paul.”

  “No!” I didn’t want to be left alone with Timothy, not because I was afraid of him but because I was afraid that somebody would come into the office and see us sitting there, two matching rejects in matching orange chairs.

  “That’s enough now, Paul,” said Mr. Buterbaugh, his friendly smile looking more false than usual. I could see that he was very angry. “Sit down.”

  “It’s all right,” said Mrs. Gladfelter. “You see what you can do about helping Timothy turn back into Timothy. We’re just going to give you a little privacy.” She followed Mr. Buterbaugh into his office and then poked her head back around the door. “I’m going to leave this door open, in case you need us. All right?”

  “This much,” I said, holding my hands six inches apart.

  There were three chairs next to Timothy’s. I took the farthest, and showed him my back, so that anyone passing by the windows of the office would not be able to conclude that he and I were engaged in any sort of conversation at all.