From the Archives: The Grown Up (1981)

Fiction by Tom Disch
grown
Courtesy High Times

Always we awake to our metamorphosed condition, to the awareness that the strange body in the bed is our own. Women awake and discover, after centuries of dreaming, that they are men. Worms awaken into birds and music bursts from their astonished throats. An elderly businessman awakes and knows himself to be a plane tree: His leaves reach for the light and swell with growth. Often the amazement is too much to bear, and our awakening is brief. We slip back into being the rudimentary creatures that we were. We become less, and sleep resumes its old sovereignty, until once more, without warning, we awaken.

So it was when Francis awoke, one morning in July. He had gone to bed a 10-year-old; he woke 26 years older. Even before his eyes were open the shock of the transformation had wiped out the particulars of his old identity. He was free, therefore, simply to glory in this enormous fulfillment: the mass of his arms, the breadth of his chest, his sheer immensity. He stood up. He stretched, and touched, with his fingertips, the plaster nubbles of the room’s low ceiling. So big!

And there, in the mirror mounted to the closet door, was the proof of his transformation and its benediction. His, the mustache, the smile, the teeth. His, the legs and arms, the muscled neck, the… His mind, abashed, refused to name it, but it was his as well, with all the rest.

He thought: I must get dressed.

In clothes he was even more amazingly a grown-up. Tying a tie had proved to be beyond him, but there was, in the same drawer as his socks, a single clip-on bow, white polka-dots on maroon. And in the closet, on a shelf, a straw hat.

He clattered down the fire stairs, 20 flights, each flight a full clockwise rotation through the four points of the compass, and arrived in the lobby giddy and out of breath, but still exultant, like a painter on the day of vernissage. Here he was, for all the world to see!

An older man than himself, in the most magnificent of uniforms, approached. His heart poised at the edge of panic, but the man in the uniform was (though curious) entirely deferential.

“Good morning, Mr. Kellerman. Isn’t the elevator working? It was just a moment ago.”

“Oh. Yes, right. The elevator.” He smiled.

His name was Mr. Kellerman!

There were mirrors all over the lobby and as he made his way before them, he couldn’t keep from grinning. The name—his name—repeated itself inside his head like the tune of a solemn but still pretty spirited march.

The man in the uniform slipped round him and opened the plate-glass door.

“Thank you,” he thought to say.

The scalloped edge of the building’s blue marquee brushed his hat as he walked beneath it. Walking along, he could see over the tops of the cars parked on the street. What a difference it made, being tall! His muscles all worked so much harder. He felt like Frankenstein, giant hands swinging like counterweights to the crashing of his feet. He flexed his thick fingers. On the middle finger of his right hand was a ring, a square black chunk of something encased in gold. Smash, crash, smash, crash, he crossed the street, passing a woman being wheeled in a wheelchair by another younger woman. He tipped his hat to them and said, “Good morning, ladies!’ He was thrilled by the resonance of the voice that boomed from his chest.

A grown-up…

One by one, he thought of all the dirty words he knew, but didn’t say them aloud, even in a whisper. He could have, though, any time he wanted to. He could be a dirty old bum, if that’s what he wanted. Was it? he wondered. Probably not.

At first the neighborhood had been nothing but tall brick apartment buildings, but now he was on a block of small businesses. In front of one store was a bench with newspapers on it. He wondered if they’d make any sense to him. They never had, before.

He picked up a paper and took it inside the store, which also sold candy and cigarettes. He must have been a foot taller than the boy behind the counter.

“How much is this?” he asked, holding up the paper.

The boy bent his head sideways, conveying in some indefinable way a sense of unfriendliness. “Quarter.”

He reached into his back pocket, where he had had the foresight to place that most essential item of the clothes that grown-ups wear, his billfold. It was stuffed full of money, more than he could imagine spending all at once. He took out a dollar bill, handed it to the boy behind the counter, and waited for his change. The boy rang the register, took out three quarters, and handed them to him. A shiver went up and down inside his body. He felt as though he’d done something irrevocably adult.

There was a café further down the block, called Lenox Café, where he sat down at a table next to the front window. While he waited for the waitress, he read the newspaper’s headline: CARTER ARRIVES AND ESTABLISHES CONVENTION BASE. AIDES HAVE ALL PREPARATIONS READY FOR A FIRST-BALLOT NOMINATION WEDNESDAY.

He read on a while longer, but it was all the same sort of thing and made no more sense than it ever had. He wasn’t stupid—he knew what the words meant—but he really couldn’t see why grown-ups ever got interested in the things newspapers wrote about. So, in fact, he wasn’t a grown-up, completely.

He was and he wasn’t. It was strange, but he didn’t find it upsetting. After all, lots of things are strange.

When the waitress came from the back of the café, she said, “Hello, Frank!’

“Oh. Hello there.”

“Hello there, Ramona” she insisted.

“What?”

“My name: Ramona. Remember?”

“Oh sure!’

She smiled, in not a nice way. “What’ll it be?”

“Uh.” He knew he didn’t like coffee. “How about a beer?”

“Schaeffer’s. Miller’s. Bud. Heineken.”

“Heineken!’

She raised an eyebrow, tightened and tilted the side of her mouth. “That be all?”

“Yes.”

Now that he’d ordered, he realized he didn’t want to stay in the café, where the waitress seemed to know him and he had to pretend to know her.

She flipped the pink order book closed and put it in the pocket of her apron. Under the apron she was wearing a very short and shimmery black dress with a white collar, and under the dress light stockings that made her legs look black and featureless. In some way he couldn’t put his finger on she seemed all wrong. Yet there wasn’t anything that unusual about her. She looked like almost any other waitress. And very strange.

In fact, all the grown-ups he could see on the sidewalk outside the restaurant looked strange. Uncomfortable and dazed, as though, like him, they were all having to pretend to be grown-ups and didn’t enjoy it. Himself, he loved it. Loved being a grown-up, that is. The pretending wasn’t especially fun. He hadn’t considered that there might be people who knew him, knew his name and maybe more important things, like where he worked. Assuming that he already had some kind of job, the way he already had a name.

Mr. Kellerman. It seemed a reasonable enough name. Mr—he looked inside the wallet again—Francis Kellerman. There it was, spelled out a dozen times: on his MasterCharge card, and on similar cards for different stores; on his Social Security card; on a card that said he was a member of something; and, yes, on a driver’s license!

The waitress, Ramona, came back with a bottle of beer and a glass. She poured some of the beer into the glass and set it down in front of him.

“Thank you, Ramona,’ he said. “Here—” taking it from the billfold “—is a dollar!’

She took the dollar and gave him a funny look. He decided he must have said the wrong thing.

“Keep the change,” he suggested.

“Prick,” she said flatly, and walked to the back of the café.

He tasted the beer, but he couldn’t swallow any. He spit a mouthful of it back into the glass.

“Blaigh!” he said, loud enough for Ramona to hear, and left the restaurant, leaving the worthless newspaper behind. As soon as he was out of the door he got the giggles, and couldn’t stop till he was halfway back to the apartment where Mr. Francis Kellerman lived.

When he got there, though, he couldn’t get in. The big glass door was locked and there was no one in the lobby, so knocking wasn’t any help. He knocked anyhow. No one came. If he’d had a set of keys… But (he looked in all his pockets) he didn’t. He’d forgotten that grown-ups always use keys.

Finally a lady came along who lived in the building, and she let him in. This time he used the elevator. He’d forgotten the apartment number, but he knew where it was along the hall.

The door was open (the way he’d left it probably), which was good, and someone was inside, which wasn’t. A bald man with sunglasses was putting things into a suitcase spread open on the unmade bed.

“Hey!” Francis said.

The man looked up. He was holding stereo headphones.

“Mister, you’re in the wrong apartment.”

What had begun as a cautious rebuke ended up as out-and-out anger. The man was a burglar—he was robbing the apartment!

The man backed away toward the kitchen.

The spiraling wire of the headphones followed, hobbling.

“Hey, you better get out of here. Right now!” His voice boomed incredibly. “Do you hear me—right now!”

The man dropped the headphones and ducked through the open door of the kitchen.

Francis could hear him rummaging around in the silverware. Looking (Francis realized with alarm) for a knife.

He acted quickly. Fighting, after all, is still a natural accomplishment for most boys his age. He unplugged a floor lamp, upended it, and stood poised beside the kitchen door. When the man came out, armed with a butcher knife, Francis let him have it. The lamp base raised a large lump on the man’s bald head, but he hadn’t been cut or, fortunately, killed. Francis didn’t know what he’d have done with a dead body, but this one, which was only unconscious, was no problem. He dragged it out to the stairwell (where there was a second suitcase, packed and ready to go) and left it, the body, on the landing. He brought the suitcase back to his apartment. Then, feeling vengeful and mischievous, he went back, undressed the burglar (even took his underpants), and threw all the clothes down the incinerator chute. Serves him right, he thought.

This time when he left the apartment he didn’t forget to take his keys and to lock the door behind him.

“That son of a bitch,” he said aloud, when he was alone in the elevator. “Trying to steal my things. Son of a bitch.” But he was basically over feeling upset or angry or anything but tickled over the idea of the burglar waking up without his clothes. What would he think? What could he do?

Returning to the breezy freedom of the street, where he could go in any direction he wanted and where no one could tell him what to do or what not to, he began to realize how totally lucky he was, something that most of the other grown-ups around didn’t seem to understand at all as clearly. He would go into stores and buy something, anything at all, just for the fun of spending his money. He bought flowers in a flower shop, and a book called Reassessments. He bought a bottle of perfume, an electric popcorn popper, another ring (for his left hand), a telephone that you could see the insides of, a $150 backgammon set (after the salesman had explained the basic rules), and 20 Marvel comic books. Which was about as much, even with a shopping bag, as he could easily lug around.

Then, as he was going past a church, it occurred to him that God must be behind the whole thing that was happening to him. It was a Catholic church. He didn’t know if he was a Catholic, or what, but it seemed logical that his not knowing that was as much God’s doing as his, so it ought not to matter if he prayed here rather than some other church. The important thing was to stay on God’s good side.

There was no one else inside, so he went right up to the front and knelt down on one of the padded kneelers and started praying. First he thanked God for having made him a grown-up, then asked, with a good deal of feeling, not to be changed back. After that there didn’t seem to be much else to say, since he didn’t have friends or relatives to ask favors for, or enterprises to be concerned about. He did remember to ask to be forgiven for the dirty trick he’d played on the burglar, but he wondered if God would really have been angry with him for that, since, after all, he was a burglar. Before he left he unwrapped the flowers and put them in a vase on the altar. Beside the vase he placed the copy of Reassessments. Even though he wasn’t sure that this was exactly the right offering, it seemed more appropriate than perfume or a popcorn popper or his other purchases (which were all things, moreover, that he’d like to have for himself). Anyhow, God would like the flowers. There were two dozen of them and they were the most expensive kind they’d had in the shop.

He was driving the car he’d rented at Hertz Rent a Car, a bright red ’76 Dodge Charger, driving it slowly and carefully on the least busy streets he’d been able to find. Ten blocks on a one-way street going north, then a right, and another right, and then ten blocks in the other direction. You only had to push the button marked Drive and steer. It was easy. Around and around, in and out of traffic. It was easy, but it wasn’t as much fun as he’d thought it would be beforehand, so after only an hour of practice, he pulled up in front of an army surplus store into a space that didn’t require a lot of complicated parking.

While he was locking the door, one of the girls who’d been leaning against the store window came over and asked him if he wanted to score.

“Hey, cowboy,” she said, “you want to score?”

She’d called him cowboy, because of the hat and boots he was wearing, which he’d bought just after he’d come out of the church that afternoon.

“What?” he said.

She pushed her tangly red hair back from her eyes. “Do you want to fuck?”

He was so astonished he couldn’t think what to say. But, really, why should he be surprised? He was a grown-up, and this was one of the most basic things that grown-ups did.

So why not?

“Why not,” he said.

“It’s twenty bucks,” she said. She was able to talk without quite closing her mouth entirely.

“Fine,” he said.

Her mouth opened a little wider, and her tongue moved forward over her lower teeth, retracted, and came forward again. It seemed strange, but friendly even so.

“Where do we go?” he asked.

“You don’t want to use the car?”

“Oh. Right.” He unlocked the door, and they got in. “Now what?”

She told him where to drive, which was to a kind of parking lot beside the river. On two sides were broad brick buildings without windows. On the way here he’d gone through a red light and nearly run down a pedestrian. The girl had only laughed. She didn’t seem at all concerned about his driving, which was reassuring.

When they were in the parking lot, she opened up his trousers and reached inside his underpants to take hold of his thing. He wondered if he wasn’t supposed to be doing the same to her. He knew girls didn’t have anything there but a crack. The idea was for the man to get his thing inside the woman’s crack, and then to move around until some kind of juice squirted out. He started looking for buttons or a zipper on her shorts.

She wiggled around and in no time her shorts were on the floor of the car.

He bent forward so he could see where her crack was. She spread her legs helpfully. “You like that?” she asked.

“I guess so.” Then, because that didn’t seem adequate, or even polite, “Sure.” But it lacked conviction.

She took hold of his thing again and started tugging at it. It felt quite satisfying, like scratching poison ivy, but somehow it didn’t seem right that he should be making love to this girl who didn’t know the first thing about him. She seemed so nice, and was trying so hard.

“I believe in being honest,” he announced.

“Oh boy.” She let go of his thing and pushed back her hair. “Here we go. What is it?”

“You probably won’t believe this,” he began tentatively, “but I think I should tell you anyhow. I’ve got a kind of… problem, I guess you’d say.”

“Yeah? What’s that?”

“I’m only ten years old.”

“No kidding. Ten years old.”

“I said you wouldn’t believe it, but it’s true. This morning when I woke up I had this grown-up body, but my head, inside, is only ten years old.”

“I believe it.”

“You do?” He couldn’t tell from her tone of voice if that was true, but she seemed no less friendly than before. “It doesn’t bother you?”

“Listen, cowboy, your age doesn’t matter, not to me. What the hell—I’m ten too.”

“You are? Really?”

“Sure. You could say we all are. In a way. You know?”

“No. I mean….”

“Look here, in my eyes!” He looked in her eyes. “You see?”

“What am I supposed to be seeing?”

“Me, age ten.”

“You don’t seem any different, or … Oh.”

“You saw.”

“Maybe. But it wasn’t… what I thought it would be.”

“How’s it different?”

“Sadder, I guess. If that’s what you meant I should be seeing. I mean—I mean it isn’t as though your age is printed there, like a driver’s license.”

“Have you got a driver’s license?” she asked.

“Oh yeah. They wouldn’t let me have this car till I showed it to them.”

“Listen, cowboy, time flies. You want to do something, or don’t you?”

“Sure.” He braced his mind against the words, and said them: “I’d like to fuck you.”

“Then come here.”

He was already beside her, but she scrunched round into a different position and made him do the same.

“Comfortable?” she asked.

“Fine. Sure.”

“Okay. Now just relax. Close your eyes. Now tell me, what does it feel like when I do this?”

“Warm,” he said, after concentrating on the exact sensation. “But not right there. In my stomach, more.”

“Then there’s no problem. Just think about some little girl friend of yours and leave the driving to me. All right?”

“All right.”

The feeling in his stomach started to spread everywhere in his body. There were little bubbles of color fizzing in the darkness of his head. They became faces, faces of women whose names he almost remembered. It started to hurt.

And then he could see the building where he would have to go to work tomorrow—a gigantic office building with gray glass walls. His back bent. His hands flexed in the air. His left boot pressed into the accelerator. His right was up on the seat of the car.

He could see his whole life, clear as day. There was his desk, his telephone, a calendar that showed a single day at a time. And his secretary Miss Appleton. His back bent in the other direction. There was a paper full of numbers, stacks of papers, and he understood them with a persistent clarity that was also a cloudy pain everywhere inside him, a sorrow beyond the reach of his mind, which was now, again, as the child within fell back into its long, long slumber, the mind of a grown-up only.

He came.

Always we awake to our metamorphosed condition, to the awareness that the strange body in the bed is our own. Women awake and discover, after centuries of dreaming, that they are men. Worms awaken into birds and music bursts from their astonished throats. An elderly businessman awakes and knows himself to be a plane tree: His leaves reach for the light and swell with growth. Often the amazement is too much to bear, and our awakening is brief. We slip back into being the rudimentary creatures that we were. We become less, and sleep resumes its old sovereignty.

High Times Magazine, August 1981

Read the full issue here.

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