The way I handle the summer down here is to surrender completely to its narcotic spell. The brief morning shadows, the eternal afternoon haze, the glowing clouds at sunset, the galaxy of fireflies at night--I let these lull me into an illusion of simplicity. I dream that life might forever invite me on slow evening walks, that time might offer nothing more than the nostalgic contemplation of each day as it saunters along.
Into such dreams, the other weekend, sauntered Bobby Smooth, slicked out for display on some city sidewalk, an apparition of unassailable coolness in my rumpled country household. I would like to say that this encounter--the journeyman dude visits his friend, the aspiring rustic--produced some mutual enlightenment. But Bobby's visit disturbed me; and when he left, I found my summer shrunken.
Bobby Smooth (not exactly his real name) became my colleague of sorts six years ago, when he was 11 and I was 25. We lived within a mile of each other in New Jersey, not far from Trenton, and were "matched" by a social program dedicated to helping kids. Bobby and I had almost nothing in common. He was tall and haughty. I was short and wishy-washy. He was into slam dunks, fast cars, heavy black disco, comic-book violence and electronic toys. I was into pensive strolls, soothing jazz, the countryside and long conversations over dinner.
Bobby Smooth would have been happy living in a karate movie. I would have felt more at home in an 18th century novel. But I think I see a link in these very extremes. Both of us, sensing that we lived in a fallen world, cultivated fantasies. And we continue to do so. In fact, since the world seems to have fallen even further--toward more pain, more confusion, more danger, more likelihood of victimization--we have elaborated and deepened our respective myths. I now nurture visions of communal enterprise, the extinction of institutionalized greed and the shuddering advent of something like brotherhood. Bobby Smooth, meanwhile, has thrown his imagination into cars, clothes, sex and the Marines: infinite wealth and infinite power.
I had hoped that, during this weekend visit, the Southern Maryland summer would seduce Bobby Smooth just a little bit. He would be intrigued by the sight of tobacco growing or by the rabbits that graze on my garden. He would be curious to see the 17th century farm created down the road by the St. Mary's City Commission. He would ask to spend a day crabbing.
I didn't let myself hope too hard, of course. In the car on the way down from the train station in Washington on Friday night, Bobby "cooled out," reclining as far back as the seat would let him and closing his eyes with satisfaction--the satisfaction, I thought, of knowing that, even when flat on his back, he could keep his cap at a perfect angle and cock his head so as to show off his earring.
On Saturday, he slept until past noon, having shut out all wordly noise by placing a fan directly beside his ear.
Bobby Smooth's interest in Southern Maryland centered chiefly on whether it had any good automobile junkyards. Although he won't get his driver's license until next fall, he has bought a 1968 Camaro and wants to fix it up. He needs windows, for one thing. He also wants as many mirrors, decals and shiny lengths of exhaust pipe as possible. The ultimate achievement would be to "blow away a Trans Am"--whether in speed or style I'm not sure.
We didn't go to any junkyards, but we did manage to amuse ourselves. We made it to an auto supply store. We played some basketball. And we bought Bobby Smooth two new hats. He has a talent for wearing hats. "Maybe I'm a hat man," he said.
At my request Bobby Smooth discoursed on fashion, slipping through the pages of his Gentlemen's Quarterly (he carries one whenever he travels) to illustrate his points. He also showed me how you're supposed to stand when you hang out in Trenton--arms crossed, hands tucked into armpits, thumbs out and pointing up. There is a Trenton style of dress, too, I learned: blue suede Pumas, laced loosely so they flop; black Lee denims; ripped sweatshirt; sunshades; hat; and plenty of jewelry. Trenton, I could see, gave Bobby a thrill; it represented a point of arrival.
And yet he concluded with a comment I thought was revealing. "Trenton's a wanna-be," he said. "It wants to be New York. New York is."
That evening we went to the drive-in. It's not much of a place, just a dusty clearing in the trees, with humped earthen rows--like long ritual mounds--where the cars can park and tilt up toward the screen. While we were waiting for it to get dark, Bobby Smooth confided in me.
"Check this out, man," he said--his way of prefacing an earnest and significant remark. "I don't really know what my true personality is. I'm, like, trying to find one. So when I see a movie with someone I like, I take a little bit of that person into me. I even begin to act like him."
I asked Bobby which movie heroes he had appropriated in this way. "A little bit of Darth Vader's in there," he answered, "and a little Burt Reynolds, and some John Wayne, too. Hey, did you see that movie where he gets shot in the back and just rides away like nothing happened?"
The movies exhausted me. After previews for two soft-porn frolics ("Break" and "Porky's") and a violent fantasy adventure ("Conan the Barbarian"), we watched a Richard Gere double feature: "Breathless" and "An Officer and a Gentleman." For four hours we sat, confined in the car, huddled among other cars within that circle of trees, where the fireflies lit and swerved all night, ringing us around with their minuscule signals, while overhead the listless summer sky hung out its stars.
In that time, I felt my summer begin to go stale. The screen, with its giant pictures and electronic sounds, cast a spell more captivating than that of the lightning bugs. Never mind that the two films offered very different views of our sex-laden, power-hungry culture--that one was a kind of critique, the other a blind endorsement. The four hours left a single overwhelming impression: that life's mysterious yearning and pleasure is composed entirely of such things as good looks, slick clothes, smooth lines, flashy cars, deft punches and hot sex, and that these gifts somehow come automatically, in one great effortless package, to those who carry themselves with a certain style.
The officer candidate and the devotee of the Silver Surfer--they heeded the call of "Wanna-be" and found their answers in perfect strength, perfect cool, perfect sex. It doesn't matter that one fulfilled himself only in death, while the other reached glory. Both lived out their fantasies thoroughly; and the fantasies of both were just as crude as the story of Conan.
Bobby Smooth and I drove home in silence, still possessed by the movies, our minds still attuned to the flickering of the screen. When we got out of the car, we stopped to stretch. We marveled at the fireflies in the trees, and we looked up at the stars.
"There's the Big Dipper," I said.
"Man, I can see a lot of things."
Then we went inside. Before going to bed, Bobby Smooth finished off a bag of potato chips.