It was raining. Water occasionally fell from the window awning in sheet-like fragments and a row of holes was forming in the uncovered ground below. The small boy sensed that the rain wasn’t going to stop as he opened the front door and peered outside. The holes were beginning to form a tiny valley paralleling the awning’s edge, and he also noticed that the sky was as flat and gray as the earth below the awning, so he closed the door and turned away from it.
The big people, as his parents and the others seemed to him — different as they were by size and the strange distance of years — were going away for the afternoon, and although he was a very small boy, he was convenient enough to be left home alone. Impatience soared, nurtured by the knowledge that they would soon be gone and he alone would be the big people. Carefully, he remained indifferent until car sounds dissolved into rain. He was marvelously alone.
Running across the room, he became Icarus and soared over the coffee table and into a sea of sofa pillows. Kneeling up, pressing his nose against the window screen, he yelled to the rain, “Sumnabits.” Racing about the house, standing on his head on his mother’s bed, twisting the phone’s dial and listening to its electrical gurgles, rummaging through forbidden drawers, he kept punctuating his joy with the “Sumnabits” of the big kids on the next block and now that he was the big people, nobody would wash his mouth out with soap or tan his hide. “Sumnabits.” It was good.
Arriving in the kitchen with its invitingly smooth vinyl floor, he sat down and pulled off his shoes; now running, then sliding, he shot across the room again and again, each time faster, sliding farther, with shouted “Sumnabits” salutes. Suddenly, slip-snapping legs up, butt down, he thumped the floor, hard. It hurt. His face began quivering so he tightly scrunched up his cheeks and pulling himself up, stood and said “Sumnabits” rather reverently and he knew he had said it without it working so he walked out of the kitchen without looking behind or to either side.
He watched the rain for a while until bored, then turned on the TV and stared at soap operas and stock market reports. He wandered around the house for a long while until, finally, exploring his father’s desk, he found a solid block of smooth white paper. There were also scissors and a ballpoint, pencils and an eraser. Selecting the topmost sheets, the scissors and the ballpoint, he ran back to the living room and spread his new possessions on the carpet. Industriously, he cut the paper into long strips that he patiently halved and on each resulting piece drew with the ballpoint pen, distorted with the clumsiness of the child hand, a man or a woman. Some he made tall, some small, some straight, others crooked, a few fat. Bending the bottom of each strip forward and creasing it, he then stood them upright in a long line. “Sumnabits,” he said with glee.
Hurrying back to the kitchen, he opened the oven door and inadvertently glancing in, paused and imagined himself walking in magical microcosm between those immaculate cathedral walls of galvan gray bathed in the brightness of one small, but intense light. Breaking thought, using the oven’s open door for leverage, he clambered atop the polished range. Opening a cabinet, he extracted a cigarette from a pack within. Sticking the cigarette in his mouth, turning around and standing up straight, he surveyed the kitchen and suddenly realized that he was seeing as the big people see while knowing that was how and what he was seeing and knowing. “Sumnabits.”
Back in the living room, the coffee table, cleared of ashtrays and magazines, became his dominion. Given life and motivated by his flicking finger, the paper people flutteringly ran races, had chases, and bobbed about living life in general. An empty shoebox became town hall cross the street from china vase mountain and around the corner form pillow hill. He married the tallest to the smallest. He made the ugliest, one that had been botched in creation, a villain; and the one he had drawn best was the leader, himself. His favorite toy car, a large red cast-metal thing with rubber wheels, became the official leader’s authority; and while his surrogate self was held on top, the toy auto refueled at salt and pepper gas pump shakers, accompanied by yelled “Sumnabitses” splitting the roar of lusty engine riffs.
The paper people of tabletop town followed his commands, but the cigarette between his lips grew wet and bitter brown as his folded legs became laced with sparkling pinpoints of pain. Outside, the rain slowed as if tiredly awaiting the sun. The game had become diluted by time into mere routine, attenuated by apathetic motion. He was standing and rubbing his legs when concept came — an expedition! The forest had been metaphorically cleared, the citizens collected; this society was now a thing unto itself, so — expansion!
“Sumnabits! Sumnabits, forward march,” shouted the leader as his auto advanced across the carpet. One-by-one-leapfrogged the paper people in pursuit. Onward across the nylon-piled prairie, bobbing and weaving in the soft convolutions of plushed texture, official leader constantly sliding from his high position atop the auto; onward past high buttes of plump hassocks and geometrically rugged mountains of stuffed and cushioned chairs, through timbered regions of varnished limbs foliated with flat seat bottoms encircling a table hovering high above as a Gulliverian aerial isle, onward the adventurers traveled.
Moving his entire group unit by unit repeatedly, patiently, past the dining room forest, the leader brought his expedition to the kitchen. Across the glossy vinyl his procession sped to the oven and range. The boy stopped. He listened. The room quietly vibrated with the whirring, susurrant rhythms of the refrigerator mingling with the droning beat of the rain renewing its attack against the roof above. Thunder lowed from a many-directioned distance, a full but soft sound surrounding and isolating the house in which the boy played. Opening the oven door, he hoisted his people and auto up onto its black-speckled, gray-enameled surface. Along one wall of the glistening oven interior they marched, across the back and under the bright light bulb and then along the other wall they marched, returning to the platform of the open oven door.
“Company halt. Sumnabits,” he commanded. One by one, he then placed his people on the range top, placed them in a ring around one of the larger heating elements; himself — the leader, he placed on the small stamped disk in the center of the heating element, in the center of that large coiled circle of flat tungsten so cold and velvet to his touch.
The toy auto was placed to one side, garaged neatly between two of the range’s control knobs. He then carefully climbed up on top of the range and, monarch of all he surveyed, stood tall and straight and as the big people.
“Sumnabits,” he said reverently, and it worked very well.
Turning, his foot tripping lightly against some protrusion of the range top, he reached in the cabinet and pulled another cigarette from the pack. He stuck the cigarette in his mouth, turned and noticed that himself, the leader, had fallen down; the small strip of paper now lay across the heating element and he noticed that one of the range’s control knobs no longer lined up with the others; and as he was noticing this, himself, the leader, curled and blackened and popped silently into flame as he reached and then thrust himself downward toward it as a curling gray wraith of smoke reached up and greeted him now smashing himself against the range top, crashing himself down upon the open oven door, flopping his now inert self still farther downward and into the floor.
Silence was startling by contrast.
He slowly became aware of the soft breathing of the refrigerator mingling with the gentle beat of the rain. He whimpered as he became aware of the kinetically electric hurt in one elbow and the deep ache in a knee. He whimpered again and realized how suddenly the range, the oven, the floor, the earth itself had struck him. He continued to lie on the floor until the solitude of stillness overcame the comfort of inaction.
After wiping his eyes and blowing his nose and carefully testing his hurt leg, he disposed of the remaining paper people and purged the house of all signs of his afternoon activities. He was asleep on the sofa when his parents returned.
“Wake up, wake up,” commanded his mother as she stared at his shoes nestled comfortably against the fabric of her couch.
“Hey, tiger. Up and at ’em,” laughed his father as he hurriedly walked by, his arms packed with grocery sacks.
The boy got up from the sofa and marveled at the house’s transformation, at the hustle-bustle of his parents, and at the sun shining through the now open windows. He followed his mother into the kitchen.
“Mom, what happens to you when you die?”
“Why, darling, you go to heaven and become an angel. You know that.”
She popped open a geometrically clever styrofoam womb and began plucking eggs from it. Opening the refrigerator door, she then placed the eggs, one by one, into a row of perfectly contoured plastic nests.
“Mom, what … but Mom, how do you know that? How do you know? Mom?”
“What perfectly strange questions you ask.” She slid open a compartment and filled it with meat transparently clutched in cardboard trays by plastic membranes. “Mommy’s busy now, so why don’t you go on outside and play.”
“Okay, Mom.” He turned and walked away.
“Don’t go off the block,” shouted his father from another room.
He opened the door and ran outside.
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now