"Falling Through Space" is another story that I wrote for my eight grade students. It is about a man who escapes from the King of the Underworld, falls from the moon to his Philadelphia home where he discovers his past and is freed from his conditioning as he desolves into nothingness.
"Falling Through Space"
We are being held captive by the King of the Underworld. We have free run of the grounds, but we can never leave. My brother, Joey, and I sit at a small kitchen table in the corner of a large dining area on the second floor of the King's castle. I'm wondering how we got here and what will happen next. The King and four of his guard enter. He and his flunkies are dressed in black space uniforms. After giving Joey and I the once over, the King turns on his heels and walks out. One of the guards comes forward, removes his helmet, and explains that we will be put to death as soon as the King returns from his journey around the Earth. Although my mother is not in the room, I assume that the sentence applies to her also.
Pacing up and down, I try to come up with some plan for escape. We could dress in disguise and sneak off before he returns," I tell my brother. He bends to brush a speck of lint from his blue gabardine slacks and answers, No... No... That won't work. We don't know where to go."
"We could break a table leg, jump the guards, take their guns.
They'd shoot us down like dogs."
I focus on his forty seven year old pale puffy face, his straight black hair oiled down in an old fashion style that my father use to wear. Shaking my head in anger and disgust, I tell him, "Do you realize what's gonna happen? He's gonna kill us when they get back."
"There's nothing we can do," my brother explains.
An unarmed guard enters and begins serving our evening meal. I catch Joey's eye and make a slight motion with my head that we should jump him. His long black eye lashes flutter as he looks down at a scuffmark on his brown dress shoes
We gotta do something, I keep telling myself wondering how my brother can be so stupid.
I remember that it was Joey who led us through the cellar doors to the 1940's world outside our first floor North Philadelphia apartment. Across the trolley tracks, I followed him to the drug store on 13th where we bought penny candy and watched the older kids play pinball. A block's walk in the other direction led to the yellow enamel painted American Store on Camac and jelly doughnuts, or Mrs. Smith's pies. Soon, we were traveling down Berks pass the shoemaker's shop, the watermelon man's, and the icehouse, all the way to the railroad yard on Sixth Street.
By the time we started school, we were exploring the streets of Philadelphia from one end to the other. Walking north on the safe wide streets of Broad, pass the Blue Bird movie house, beyond the armory with the big brown trucks, and out along the houses with marble steps and wide porches we'd go as far as Hunting Park Avenue. I remember, once we tried to hitch a ride home on 12th Street. A man stopped his car and told us how dangerous that was. He gave us a nickel each and told us to take the trolley car. Of course, we waited until he was well out of sight before we ducked into a corner candy store.
By this time, we had learned that there were certain streets we had to avoid. It wasn't safe to go down 13th between Columbia and Berks. We got stopped there twice by the same three black kids who made us turn out our pockets to show we had no money. The alley behind Temple University wasn't safe either. The coloreds ran in gangs through there. It was white kids on Camac who hassled us and made us cross it off our list.
South on Broad, wed play on the sidewalk campus of Temple University. In the winter, we'd duck inside, sometimes, for a quick ride on the elevators. And, I remember my father's running joke about Temple. "I went through college, there," he'd say and give a dramatic pause. "In the front door and out the back," he'd add with and excited laugh at this own joke.
We didn't always walk. Sometimes we tried hopping trucks when they stopped for the light on 10th Street. But, that was more a game than a means of transportation. More often, for a nickel fare, we'd ride the trolley car to the end of the line at Fairmount Park. Once, I fell into the river and Joey had to pull me out. I was almost dry by the time we got home and got off with a warning to stay away from the water.
It cost a dime to ride the subway. And, we quickly learned that once you were in the system, you could ride back and forth all day. After a dozen or so trips, we discovered that we could crawl under the turnstile without the subway lady catching on. We'd ride south beneath Broad all the way to City Hall. There, under the watchful eye of Willy Penn, we'd play hide and seek in the arches, chase the pigeons, ride up and down the escalators. Or maybe, we'd go east on Market and visit Lit Brothers or Gimbles. Eying up the sales, we'd pretend we were rich and could buy everything in sight.
It's morning, just a minute or two before daybreak. Joey and I are sitting at the small kitchen table. Across the way, in the large dining room, four servants in black jackets and ties are setting a large oak table. I take my coffee to a window above the sink and peek outside. Two stories below, neatly trimmed lawns and hedges form a checkerboard maze as far as the eye can see.
An elderly peasant woman enters the long wide entranceway that leads to the dining area. She wears a spotless starched white apron over a black cotton dress. Behind her in peasant garb, are two women and two men. They bow and curtsey to my brother and I in a very servile manner. This is our last chance. We gotta jump 'em, I tell myself.
And at the same time, but in a different voice, I'm saying, It's the King and his men in disguise.
As the words enter my consciousness, the peasant woman is transformed into the King. Although he still wears his helmet, I can tell that he's pleased at my discovery. However, I'm certain that he would have killed me had I tried to over power him. He and his guard retreat to the dining room and take their chairs at the head of the table.
My mother comes into the hallway and walks to just inside the dining area. Her snow-white hair clings tightly above a face once so highly photogenic, but now pinched with lines of worry and grief. Silently ringing her hands and pursing her lips, she looks from the little kitchen area that holds Joey and I to the King's table and back again. I realize that she can't make up her mind whether to join us, or to take her place at the oak table.
Joey gets up from the table and joins me at the sink. The view from the window is different now. It's as if we were high above the Earth with a panoramic view of its oceans and continents. I point outside to share the miraculous view with my brother. He takes a quick glance, but acts as if he doesn't see. I'm still angry with him for not joining in my plans for escape. I give him a nasty look and move away.
"I'll tell you one thing. That bacon and eggs sure smells good. You may not believe it, Jackie, but this isn't such a bad place.
At least they feed you good," Joey says as he takes a step toward me.
"Don't you realize? He said he's gonna kill us," I declare in an angry whisper.
We don't got to worry bout dat. They never do what they say, he says giving me a playful punch on the arm that knocks me against the stove. Bacon grease splashes on my new Levis and white tennis shoes.
"Look what you done now, you stupid idiot!" I yell at him.
"You're the one that's stupid!" he shouts back with a hurt look in his eyes.
All of a sudden, the King is in the kitchen. "That's enough!" leaps from his mouth as he lifts my brother in the air with two fingers. My mother draws a trembling hand to her mouth. The King leans over the sink and drops Joey from the window. Next thing I know, I'm dangling in the air kicking my feet. Miles and miles below, sunlight reflects off one side of the planet Earth.
That's how he planned it. To have us fight among ourselves, I imagine as he lets go. Expecting a swift plunge to my death, I close my eyes and gasp for breath. When I open them again, I find that I'm floating in black, silent space. Sailing free and easy, I lose all sense of time, all sense of fear and worry; all need for a safety net. We're so high above the Earth that it will take us forever to reach it, I'm telling myself. Then, I realize that it was Joey who tricked the king. We got him so angry at our fighting that he lost his head and let us escape.
Then, all thought is washed away by the vastness; a vastness of space that reduces the mind and body to a finite speck of energy.
After an interminable passage of time, the Earth looms larger and larger and becomes the focal point of my attention. Soon, the silence is joined by a tidal swell of roaring wind. The planet revolves from west to east exposing the polar cap, vast areas of ice, snow, and tundra, high mountains, and stormy seas. Closer still, and the continents begin to take on detailed shape; Europe, Iceland, Greenland. Before long, the Baltic Sea, the Mountains of Norway, and Sweden, the North Sea, and the British Isles come into view. Then, a vast expanse of Atlantic Ocean, which flows into darkness. Silence... silence, everywhere all the boards did shrink.
Silence... silence, everywhere and not a drop to drink.
When I'm at twenty five thousand feet, yellow outlines of cities; New York, Camden, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington D. C. are interspersed amid the blackness. In the northwest, silent flashes of lightening zigzag through mountains of gray-black clouds. My body begins to take on weight.
Then, the mass of light breaks down into millions of separate points. The Delaware River, the Schuylkill River, and Fairmount Park are outlined by long banks of streetlights. Between the lines, heats of headlights race down the turnpikes, across the bridges, and through the city streets.
Sunlight slowly makes its appearance on the eastern horizon. Below the statue of Willy Penn, Market Street runs east and west, Broad runs north and south. Block after block of checkerboard streets are jammed with commuter traffic.
Traveling north over Broad, I recognize familiar scenes; the Mid-City Hotel on 16th and Arch where my father stayed, Girard Avenue where Joey and I made the transfer for Fairmount Park, Columbia Avenue where we spent our Saturday afternoons at the movies, the Baptist Temple on Berks where we attended church and Sunday school.
I'm in an alley a block from our old apartment house at 13th and Berks. Red brick, three story, row house buildings stretch out for block after block in every direction. Certain that the King's men are right behind me, I burst into a cold sweat. The alley, littered with over flowing brown bags of garbage, and a summer's growth of weeds, seems to go on forever and ever. If only I can make it home. If only I can make it home.
I keep telling myself.
Around the corner, I find the empty lot where our apartment house once stood. Poking in the rubble, I search for a trace of something familiar. Footsteps sound in the alley. My heart beats faster and faster.
Joey rushes at me and grabs my hand. "Quick.
Quick," he cries leading me to the flat green double doors that open to the basement of our childhood home. "He'll never find us down here. We can hide behind the furnace," Joey explains as he pulls on the iron handle. I hurry down the wooden steps as Joey pauses to bolt the door behind us. Footsteps vibrate on the closed steel doors. Then, complete silence.
A beam of light comes through a narrow casement window and falls on a short flight of concrete stairs that go up to the front of the cellar. "What's that?" Joey asks pointing to a dozen or more cardboard boxes stacked just a few feet from the furnace. A gigantic rat races across the boxes and dives for the floor. "We'd better get out'a here, Jackie. The King's men are long gone by now."
"No, we'd better wait. If they catch us now, we might never escape again," I say and head for the stairs. Joey follows a step or two behind. At the uneven stack of boxes, I brush off years of dust. Opening the closest one, I find that it is filled with faded photographs. Some, that I've seen; my dad in his boxing trunks and gloves, my mother with pearls and sparkling teeth, Joey and I in our Sunday school suits, grandmother and grandfather standing in an ancient doorway. Others that are new to me; aunts and uncles in stiff poses, and foreign looking people who I don't recognize. Dozens and dozens of photographs; photos from the forties, the thirties, the twenties, the turn of the century.
I look more closely at my father's boxing picture, and see a muscular lightweight with straight black hair and a cocked left jab. On the front of the picture it reads, "Charley Daley, Coal Region Lightweight, Johnny 'Tex' Ballent, Mgr. On the back it says, "Charles Daley, 1009 Brandywine Street, Philadelphia, Penna. Age 24 years. Weight 133 pounds. Height 5 ft. 6 in. Free to go any place in the World on a minutes
As I hold my mother's picture to the light, I see short bobbed hair and a laughing face with all the energy of a twentys flapper. I remember my father saying that he wanted that picture buried with him when he dies. "It was jus' one of those unfortunate things, Jackie .
Your mother and me. It wasn't anyone's fault. Jus' one of those unfortunate things.
The next box is filled with newspaper clippings. "Coal region lightweight Charlie Daley fights in main event." "Daley wins in split decision." "Daley stops Machine Gun Thompson in fifth round." "Coal region lightweight puts fist through wall at local card room after dropping purse in all night poker game."
The memory of a childhood rhyme rings inside my head; "Charlie is a boxer. Charlie is a bum. Charlie went in the kitchen and drank all the rum..." " He can't always help what he's doing. He took to many blows to the head," my mother told her brother, Uncle Lee.
My father told me it was the best part of his life, the fight game. "They called me the Boxing Baker. That was 1924. I was a baker at Horn and Hardart's in New York.
Mostly we fought outa Atlantic City. I was what they call a crowd pleaser. I never backed off no matter how much of a beating I took.
Never knocked out.
And, I remember, as I shadow boxed my way off the assembly line at Fisher Body just a second or two before break, one tough black dude saying, "That old boy should'a been a boxer." Saturday night fights on T.V. before that fights on the radio, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Jersey Joe, Rocky Marchino, Muhammad Ali...
"What's that noise?" Joey asks in a frightened voice. "We shouldn't be down here going through his papers. If he catches us, again, we're in big trouble. Remember what happened when we took the orange soda out'a the landlord's ice box." A gnawing sound comes from beneath the box I'm looking through. "It's there" he tells me pointing at the box. The sound grows louder. "It's a rat's nest, " he screams and breaks for the cellar doors.
Joey pushes open both doors and climbs outside. Two of the King's men are waiting for him. As they lead him away a guard at each arm, one of them says, " Come on now. You don't want to miss your breakfast do you?"
No, I guess not, Joey answers.
I tremble in fear certain that they'll come for me next. Not a sound except for the steady gnawing from the cardboard box. Then, I focus on my hands and realize that I'm dreaming. "It's only a dream.
It's only a dream
." I keep telling myself.
Then, it strikes me that the stairs that lead to our childhood kitchen are just to the right of the furnace. I grope my way to the stairs and find them covered with dust and spider webs, but still intact. At the top, I find the kitchen door. Turning the knob, I step inside and find myself in an electronic workshop that is filled with pinball machines and one-armed bandits. A bald headed teenage girl leads me to a small room. She points to a computer and leaves.
I sit down in front of an old Apple IIe and turn on the drive. As the screen lights up, the palace dining area comes into view. My mother is walking down the long entryway. She wears a yellow mop wig. Her face is painted in minstrel black. Several colored servants with large platters of Southern fried chicken, mashed potatoes, lima beans, and corn bread are dancing around my mother. They jeer and poke at her in a very disrespectful manner. When they see my face on the screen, they all fall into line. My mother straightens her dress, and gives me a nervous smile. "Don't worry, Jackie. Everything happens for the best. It's all for the best. God loves you!" she tells me as the screen goes blank.
I hit escape and the King's helmet covered face fills up the entire console. We glare at each other with an intensity that dissolves the black Plexiglas of the King's mask. I behold the deep green eyes of my father peering into mine. "You're not the creator.
You're not the King of the Underworld. You're nothing but moon dust!" I shriek at him.
Surge after surge of electrical force hits against the T.V. screen. The glass shatters. My image of the King, my image of my father, my image of myself is broken into a hundred million sub-atomic particles. As the electrical balance between my atoms collapses, it's just like professor Paul Hewitt explains in his physics text, I'm blown off my seat and reduced to the size of a pin. Falling backwards, I continue to grow tinnier and tinnier. When I turn to look, I see vast mountains and canyons where the floor should be. In the empty silence, Im sucked into one of its gray walled canyons.
Still shrinking, I see that the canyon floor itself is covered with mountains and deep chasms. When I'm about to hit bottom, I float into an even deeper crevice. The walls are no longer solid. They are nebulous see through veils that wave in and out of each other. Below, now, are gray and back clouds. I continue to shrink as I fall into one of the clouds. And, then, in a wink, I find myself in a place emptier than what one would encounter in falling from the moon. Far in the distance, a streak of light flashes. And, then, nothingness; no thought, no feeling, no sound, no time- space, just the silent energy of an all-encompassing void.