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I recently had the enviable task of reading nearly every story Richard Matheson ever wrote and selecting 33 tales to be included in Penguin Classics’ The Best of Richard Matheson. This turned out to be like stepping into a time machine, transported back to the age when I started reading him. I was fourteen. The year was 1986. My introduction to his fiction, his short novel I Am Legend, was one of the first books that made me run-up to my friends and tackle them so they’d all
If you haven’t read it (what Suppose hell is wrong with you?), it manages to be a work of. In that case, science fiction, a vampire story, a progenitor of the “biological plague” apocalyptic novel, and an excellent thriller. All that is about 160 pages. I had to find out more. I dove into The Shrinking Man (the film added “Incredible”) and Hell House, and wow. I wish I had a more sophisticated way to describe my reaction to the seismic effect of Richard Matheson on my young mind, but “wow” gets at the raw, awestruck nature of things. And then I came to find out the man had written short stories. I tracked them down with gusto, with glee. And with time, I began to relate to the man’s writing in a way that seemed damn near mystical.
I want to explain precisely what I mean by that.
There’s a lot I need to say about Matheson, and the importance of his fiction, the reasons why this collection is so vital and worthwhile, but I can’t get to that directly. I will go there eventually. But first I have to tell you about my Matheson moment. I don’t mean that I met the man. I mean, I stepped into a story he could’ve written. I have to tell you about Cedric and his mother.
My mother made good when I turned fourteen.
At least that’s how she saw it when she moved us out of an apartment in one part of Queens and took us to a house she’d bought in another. The woman emigrated from Uganda in her twenties, and now, in her forties, she’d worked like a machine to stop renting and start owning. From a two-bedroom to a two-story home, damn right, my mother felt proud. I, my sister, and my grandmother were the grateful tagalongs.
We moved in over the summer, and when September rolled around, I started going to school. The local public school was Springfield Gardens High, and just before I arrived, the place had been outfitted with the latest technology: mentors. And with good reason. This was 1986, the Crack Era, and as old news reports will tell you, some people had a propensity to shoot guns wildly in places where teens gathered. My mother took one look at the school where she was meant to send her child, and she made changes posthaste. This woman was not about to have her kid ushered through those contraptions every morning before heading to homeroom. More to the point, she didn’t want to get some phone call about how I’d been caught by Stray Bullet Syndrome while standing around outside. She found a private school out on Long Island, and before I could say “where the hell is Nassau County,” she’d gotten me enrolled on a scholarship. My mom was no joke.
My mom also wasn’t a car owner.
She got to work and back by taking a bus to the Long Island Rail Road and the train into Manhattan. Suffice to say; there weren’t any such choices at Woodmere Academy. People either got dropped off by their parents (Mercedes, BMW, Audi) or took a school bus. Mom enrolled me in the pickup service, and every morning, around 7:45, I’d go out and stand on the corner of 229th Street and 145th Avenue, and there I’d wait for one of those long yellow buses to pick me up.
I waited in front of a single-family home with yellow aluminum siding. One morning, maybe around November or December, when the chill weather set in heavy, the front window of that house slipped up, and a kid my age stuck his head out the window and called to me.
[quotes quotes_style=”bpull” quotes_pos=”left”]“Aye,” he called. “Cheese bus.”[/quotes]
I turned, baffled. He had an enormous round head and a close haircut. This gave him a kind of Charlie Brown look. A brown Charlie Brown. He wore a white tank top. He was, by no definition, a skinny kid.
“Cheese Bus,” he said again, and I realized he’d given me a nickname. Before I could speak, he reached one meaty hand out of the window and waved me away.
“Go stand down the block,” he said. “Your bus is fucking up my vibe.”
“You don’t own the sidewalk,” I said. Citing fundamental property law was the best I could do.
“You sound like a herb,” he said. “Cheese, are you a herb?”
“Well, how come you’re not getting ready for school?” I said. What kind of kid treats cutting school like an insult? This one. And with that, I cemented my herb status.
“I would try to help you,” he said. “But I can’t even guess where I’d start.”
I walked up to the chain-link fencing at the edge of his parents’ property and leaned my elbows on it so that I was posed just like him.