The checker-playing grandchild grows up almost convincing himself that those story-telling sessions with his grandpa never really happened. The visions of long-dead relatives in faraway places are his imaginings, not someone else's memories. Real becomes difficult to discern.
Lonny-Donny's own recollections become impossible to separate from the fictions that salve and haunt his days and nights.
Especially the nights. Stories he tells himself, his own memories, and those he recalls for someone else stream randomly, indistinguishably.
One shard of Lonny-Donny's memory refuses to be imagined away. He's nine, pecking out "Dominique" on the piano at his Uncle Frank's house. Aunt Bunny, Uncle Frank's wife, is on the phone with Mavis Laffingstock asking, "Is it okay if Lonny-Donny stays with us for a day or two?"
Lonny-Donny anxiously awaits her reply. The prospect of returning home fills him with dread. There ain't no monsters at Uncle Frank's house. At Uncle Frank's house, he closes his eyes at night to go to sleep, and when he opens them, it's morning. That doesn't happen when he's home.
At home, Lonny-Donny closes his eyes at night and the trouble starts. Incomprehensible trouble. Indescribable trouble. Trouble without a name.
Lonny-Donny's escape to Uncle Frank's house is temporary. When he returns home two days later his father is waiting to give him a message. Lonny-Donny doesn't remember getting the message. The evidence is right there, five feet up the living room wall: a big chip in the paint.
A little touch-up for the wall and Lonny-Donny's brief career as an aviator fades into Laffingstock family mythology, the stuff of whispers. The Laffingstock children respond to their father's message in the usual way: they throw a backyard carnival to fleece the neighbor kids.
Everyone participates, except Betsy. Ever the social climber, she had finagled a month up north at the summer cottage of a rich classmate.
Margie fills their father's wheelbarrow with water, writes numbers on the bottom of toy teacups, and lets kids try to pick a matching pair. A penny a guess, a chintzy prize if they guess right, which they never do because there's only one pair among the twenty floating teacups.
Every now and then Margie awards a prize just to break up the monotony. They're "prizes" only in the sense that they don't cost you anything. Mostly they're just colorful scraps or shiny pieces that used to be part of something: half a Christmas ornament, the clip off a wagonwheel. The carnival-goers don't show much interest in the prizes anyway. They get their penny's worth just splashing the cups around in the water.
Grody and Ahmet convert an abandoned boat trailer into a big teeter-totter. For a penny the neighbor kids get to risk getting pulverized. The kids hold on for dear life as the brothers stand at either end of the rusty trailer and take turns violently bouncing it up and down. The last rider to fall off gets to go again for free, unless he or she is able to sneak away before getting grabbed and thrown back on. After the paying customers thin out Grody and Ahmet entertain the fair-goers by trying to bounce each other off the teetering trailer.
In a corner of the carnival yard is Chuck Jr.'s Boy Scout pup tent. A crayon-on-cardboard sign outside reads "The Misterius Maddam Ruanda." Inside Ruanda sits on a milk crate, most of her head wrapped in a colorful beach towel. She gazes intently at a cracked, leaky snow globe.
The neighborhood kids sucker enough to give her a penny for a reading leave the tent dumbstruck and trembling about their horrific future. According to Ruanda's visions, not a child in East Dogbone would live to see seventeen, nor pass over with a full complement of body parts.
The centerpiece of the Laffingstock backyard carnival is the "House of Horers," which every other day is a ramshackle, junk-filled garage. Inside, the only light is whatever gets past the blanket-covered windows or seeps through the cracks and holes in the garage's wooden walls. The "horers" are pokes, water balloons, and insults hurled by Chuck and his crones from behind water-stained boxes and stacks of worn tires.
Since he couldn't count on word-of-mouth for new business, Chuck made one trip through the House of Horers mandatory for all carnival-goers.
David Zona lives in parallelizing fear that he tries to hide with arrogance. He's the only kid on the block whose parents have any money. Every day David Zona's mother buys him a new toy, and every day the Laffingstock tribe destroys it. David Zona doesn't even pretend to mind. He knows it's the only way the Laffingstocks will play with him, and they're the only game around. Besides, his mother buys the worst toys.
David Zona is drawn to the Laffingstock backyard carnival even though the festivities induce in him actual physical spasms of desperation. The carnival-goers pay no attention to David Zona or his spasms until he runs screaming out of the House of Horers a step ahead of the bees.
Soon after Chuck Jr. throws him bodily into the garage David Zona is poked and prodded hard enough to dislodge a beehive from the rafters. The bees swarm wildly inside the near-pitch-black garage. The horer-inflicters and their victims run in panic toward the only working door. Somehow David Zona manages to beat them all out the door, a cloud of bees orbiting his head like electrons zipping around a howling nucleus.
Soon the entire back yard is buzzing. Children scatter, scream, laugh. Chuck Jr. thinks, the only thing missing is water. On goes the hose. Lonny-Donny takes refuge under the half-built back porch. Not a bee in earshot. Face less swollen, head less pounding, heart less breaking. He's not even fazed by the occasional spray of water finding its way through cracks in the porch steps. Slowly, the sounds outside recede.
Then the parents arrive, and the volume picks up all over again, except nobody's laughing. Chuck Jr. appears to have vanished. Nice trick.
David Zona is the day's only casualty: a bee sting on the tip of his nose. He expects the swelling to go down, but it never does entirely. For the rest of his unimportant life, each time he looks in a mirror, David Zona sees the lumpy remnant of the sting at the tip of his nose and thinks of Chuck Jr.
Under the porch, Lonny-Donny listens for silence. He doesn't smell dinner cooking. He doesn't know why Margie reaches in and takes his hand. Margie walks Lonny-Donny into the kitchen. Their mother puts a bowl of spaghetti on the table. Lonny-Donny sits down and picks up his fork.
Not for the first time, not for the last time, Lonny-Donny seeks refuge in one of his grandpa's stories. A big, dark church. Flowery smoke.
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