© 2016 By Bob Litton
Note to Readers: This short story was written back in the late 1960s (or perhaps the early ’70s); I was in graduate school at the time. With that background, some readers might view it as juvenilia. But I have kept it in my files all these years and took it out today and still like it.
The reason I have not sought to have it published before now is because one of my former professors deflated me by declaring, “You’ve got this kid thinking like a Harvard graduate, Bob!” Today, however, I recalled reading a Life magazine article decades ago about a 10- to 12-year-old boy who was attending science courses at the University of Chicago. When asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, the devout prodigy replied, “Well, right now I want to be a priest, but when I get that old I might feel different.” How mature an insight for a boy that young!
Another element I want to mention: From the time I started to write stories (as an adult) I realized that my efforts were not stories so much as they were essays with characters in them.
Whatever its literary worth, I hope you will gain something from reading “Identity”.
Chuck could tie his own shoes now. He was telling himself that over and over again as he struggled with the laces. “Hurry Chuck!” his mother called from the living room below. At last, they were tied! He stood, looking critically at the closet mirror. He was wearing his red cotton shirt, just like Gene Autry’s shirt, at least as it always appeared in the comic books. His blue jeans, too, were just like Gene Autry’s jeans. If only the shoes were cowboy boots, but his mother had said those would have to wait until Christmas. Chuck lowered his pants’ cuffs over the shoe-tops so that the laces were at least partly covered. When I get my boots I won’t have to bother with laces! he imagined. His appearance was most important today because he was going to the state fair with his mother, going to the fair for the first time in his life.
He hopped down the stairs and found his mother opening and closing her umbrella to make sure it was still reliable. She was very mistrustful of mechanical things.
“Oh Mother, we won’t need that, will we?”
“We might. We’ll be out there all day, and the radio said a squall line is gathering in the north.”
“What’s a squall line?”
“A lot of rain all bunched up.”
The bus Chuck and his mother rode was crowded with young people in sweatshirts and crazy hats. Teenagers, swinging their arms carelessly about and yelling to each other the length of the bus, awed the boy. He knew they were not adults like his mother, who was a large, country-bred woman, yet they were bigger than he; and, although he didn’t know the word, he could sense their competitiveness. Huddling as close to his mother’s side as he could, he observed their antics.
They were unseating each other as an impromptu game. A standee would try to eject a likely victim from his seat. If he was successful, the seat became his own, and it was then up to the new standee to find a weaker opponent to dislodge. Each victim held on to the seat bar with all his might, and it usually took several minutes of straining to pull him loose. Chuck’s mother ignored these frolics, but he watched them fascinated. And so it went until they arrived at the fairgrounds.
Balloons! Pennants! Reds, blues, yellows, polka dots and stripes! A waving, weaving mob of people. It was too great a task for Chuck to keep his attention trained on any single sight; there was too much variety. Here, a little girl, hardly older than Chuck himself, was licking at some pink, fluffy stuff that reminded him of angel hair. There, an old man, gray-grizzly, with a yellow apron on was blowing cacophonous, quasi-music through a silver disc and then bellowing out that the crowd should buy his bits of tin. Now came a bunch of teenagers, six abreast, shuffling along the paper-littered street and carrying large teddy bears and tawdry little chalk figurines. In the distance were elevated machines going round and round high in the air with screaming people in bullet-shaped cars. Beyond those strange machines were tents flapping in the damp wind over farm implements. In another direction were sedate buildings draped with flags, and open air stages where bands were playing.
Suddenly Chuck noticed a tent with posters hanging down its sides, posters like giant comic book covers. On one was a woman with long, frizzled hair who was smiling at the two huge snakes encircling her body. Such sharp teeth she had! In another picture an otherwise human sort of man—who looked depressed to Chuck—had alligator scales all over his body. Chuck paused, heedless of his mother, to gaze at the bizarre posters. They saddened him; but he sensed they weren’t supposed to, so he felt guilty about his sadness. His mother came up to him and gave him a gentle nudge meaning to come along with her, but he didn’t move. Instead, he memorized the heavy, dark lines and the ferocious coloring of the posters.
A man behind a wicker-wire cage with a large roll of tickets was hawking for one show: “Step on in, folks, and satisfy your curiosity. If you hurry you can still catch the famous Crisp family of acrobats. Most talented folks you’ll ever hope to see. Only one dime, ladies and gentlemen, only one dime. Thank ya, lady…thank ya, buddy.”
Chuck’s mother looked down at her son with a teasingly inquisitive smile, “Would you like to go in?”
Chuck hesitated, glancing at the man high above him and then at the lane of sawdust leading through the tent flaps. He nodded affirmatively without looking at his mother. He wasn’t at all sure he wanted to go in there, but he thought his saying “no” would somehow be detected as a sign of fear, and Gene Autry wouldn’t respect a “fraidy-cat”.
“Two, please,” said his mother to the hawker, opening her coin purse and delving for the dimes.
“Thank ya, lady.”
Inside the tent was a fat, hemp rope stretched on short poles cordoning off a sawdust arena. Since there were no seats, the crowd gathered close to the rope, jostling each other, vying for clearer views. Chuck’s mother was tall and sturdy enough and not too feminine to push men around. Her neighbors all agreed she had pushed her husband right into his grave. Now she elbowed her way up to the roped boundary and pulled Chuck up in front of her. The boy grabbed the rope to maintain his equilibrium within the slightly swaying crush of the crowd.
The scene before Chuck made him draw his shoulders in, and his hands moistened as they more tightly gripped the itchy twists of the rope. There were ten small people, about Chuck’s height but with adult-size heads and mature faces, and they were performing acrobatic stunts. The stubbiness of their limbs made the lithe agility of their movements seem all the more incredible than if done by ordinary humans. Chuck had thought such beings existed only in the tunnels and towers of fairy-tale books where they hammered on anvils or spun gold out of straw. Yet here they were in the flesh bouncing through somersaults. Finally they all came together and proceeded to form a human pyramid by standing on one another’s shoulders: the seven males formed the base and middle, and the three females towered on up until the last could almost touch the peak of the tent. When they had successfully completed this stunt, the crowd clapped enthusiastically for them.
Only Chuck remained silent and still. He couldn’t have told why, if anyone had been concerned to ask, but he felt dread welling up within him. He suddenly wanted to leave this tent with its sawdust and ropes and weird denizens. But his mother’s broad body was flush against his back, and there was a thick mass of enchanted spectators around the roped perimeter.
The family of dwarfs broke up the pyramid and were preparing to leave so that the next act could enter, when one of the male dwarfs happened to notice Chuck and, laughing in an increasingly extroverted manner, exclaimed, “Brothers! Sisters! See, he’s like one of us. He’s our brother!” Then the humorous dwarf came up to Chuck and tried to tug him into the arena.
Chuck suddenly realized why he had wanted to escape earlier, why he was repelled by the very sight of these people. Yes, he was like them, for they were all wearing red shirts and blue pants. Two more of the dwarfs recognized the significance of their brother’s allusion and then they, too, pulled gently at Chuck’s sleeves and chimed in with the sing-song cajolery: “Come, little brother, and join our fun! Stand on your head or turn a somersault! We’ll show you how.” But Chuck clung with all his might to the rope and would not be dislodged. The spectators began to titter, cheer, laugh. In a short time the tent became an echo chamber of hilarity. Even Chuck’s mother smiled and tried to encourage her son to go into the ring and play with the dwarfs.
“Go on, Chuck. They won’t hurt you. They just want you to play with them. They’ll show you how to do a somersault.”
But Chuck held to the rope, speechless, practically mindless with the agony of his humiliation, until finally he began to cry out—to squall, “No,! No! Never! I don’t want to be like them. Never! Let me go home!!” The ducts of his eyes opened and a downpour flooded out.
The mob of people, all bunched up, melded by curiosity into a single, monstrous being, gradually ceased to laugh. Its face, just recently so wrinkled with laughter, now took on the bathetic expression of an extravagant tragedian. A multitude of eyes suddenly became blandly solicitous for this odd little boy who apparently didn’t know how to play but would rather cling to the rope as though he were a hundred feet off the ground.
The three dwarfs let go of Chuck’s arms. They were embarrassed that their good-natured camaraderie should bring tears to a child’s eyes. Chuck’s mother looked at them apologetically and was just about to verbalize her feelings when one of them interrupted her: “It’s all right, lady. We didn’t mean to frighten him. Poor kid’s scared to death. Better take him home.”
As he left the tent Chuck suddenly stopped crying. He felt the surprising calm that follows a total cry. But the tears remained on his cheeks, and the cooling twilight air seemed to crystallize them there. With arm crooked, Chuck wiped the freezing tear-drops on to the red cotton of a shirt sleeve. He wondered at the strange calm within him and at some new tempest welling but still submerged. Something had been destroyed; something else was germinating. Peripherally, he was aware that his mother was trying in her own way to console him.
“My goodness, Chucky! What’s wrong? They didn’t mean you any harm. Are you all right now? My goodness! I’ve never been so embarrassed. You did want to see them, didn’t you? Yes, you know you did. Weren’t they wonderful acrobats? We’ll be home soon. Do you want some cotton candy? No? Oh well….”
Chuck twinged at his mother’s obtuseness. All she had seen was that he hadn’t wanted to go into the ring and that he had embarrassed her. She didn’t recognize the meaning of his refusal to identify with the dwarfs─his rejection of them as “brothers”. In that moment some of her authority as interpreter of the external world dissipated.
For the rest of the week Chuck was quiet and reserved. He played unwillingly with other children and brooded much. Even apparel became a matter of indifference to him; he wore whatever his mother laid out, neither exhibiting any preference for the red shirt nor avoiding it. When Christmas arrived at the end of the week he accepted the boots under the tree as indifferently, almost as though he had forgotten about them.
Chuck didn’t forget the dwarfs though. As the sense of injustice against his own self waned he gradually came to accuse himself of acting wrongfully against the dwarfs. Over and over he relived the scene in his mind, trying to imagine a happier outcome. In one daydream he was wearing something other than red and blue, and the dwarfs were oblivious of his presence. In another he dignifiedly but kindly refused to participate and made them feel good by the graciousness of his refusal. His imaginings increased in their romanticism: In the last he was jumping over the rope and tumbling with the dwarfs enthusiastically, brilliantly, so that they begged him to join their troupe. The grotesque contrast between this day-dream and actual fact brought Chuck up short in his imaginings.
It snowed all New Year’s Eve, and nearly a foot of snow had accumulated by the time the sky cleared that night. Chuck put on his coat and boots and went out to stand on the back porch. A full moon glimmered luminously on the snow. Over one of the pecan tree’s crusted limbs was scurrying a shadowy squirrel. Ah, thought Chuck, how great it must be to be simply a squirrel looking for a pecan—a squirrel in all its squirrelness hunting pecans, unconscious, not wishing to be anything else! Why were little boys afflicted with the urge to pretend to be something they are not? Why must they torment themselves pretending they are cowboys—or dwarfs? Ah, to be a squirrel!
And then he laughed. In helpless, boyish giggles did he laugh.