THE PHOENIX CLIMBS
The dawn of maturity—that critical moment when a boy becomes a man—varies. Taking over the family farm might qualify; going off to war would suffice; and slaying Goliath with a single stone would certainly do the trick. But one’s passage to manhood need not be severe: there is too great a shortage of nine-foot giants or the temerity to go out and slay one. So consider instead the term “rising manhood,” a phrase I found in the cock books I snuck from my dad’s bedroom closet. That an epiphany can come from a cock book is an irony best disregarded, but the flower of revelation should not be crushed when it springs from fetid soil. As I read through those well-fingered, slightly stained books, a light as profound as a burning bush seared itself into my soul. One’s ascension to manhood need not entail more than a generous debut: the instant one’s eyes first linger upon a beautiful, naked woman.
My rite of passage did not take place until well after I turned sixteen. Admittedly, this is a little bit late to claim one’s rise to manhood. But there is much to be said for late bloomers: a seed I might have wasted in the back of a car—in some tacky lover’s lane—had ripened within me until it became a pungent, glowing flower. When it came to the worship of fannies and breasts, Hugh Hefner had nothing on me.
It happened in the summer of ’64, during our annual family foray to Delaware’s Rehoboth Beach. I spotted her while strolling the boardwalk, and instantly fell in love. She was as lean as an eel, as brown as a penny; her long dark hair hung in braids. And her tiny bikini clung to her as though it had been painted on.
She was standing alone at one of those spin art booths, squirting dye onto a whirling paper square. Absorbed in this casual pastime, she did not see me approach her. A mole the size of a thumbprint lay under one of her cheekbones, and I hoped that she considered it a blot upon her beauty. It was that heavy mole, that proverbial damn spot, that gave me the courage to speak.
I almost said, “Gee, you’re pretty,” but I caught myself in time. I did not wish to sound like what I was: a gangly horny kid. So I puffed out my chest and deepened my voice. “Tommy Hemmings at your disposal,” I said in my best James Bond imitation.
She was clutching four tubes of dye so my intrusion was not untimely. But she looked at me noncommittally before handing me three of the tubes. I resisted the urge to squeeze dye onto my fingers and decorate her face. With her prominent cheekbones and shoulder length braids, she looked like an Indian maiden.
“Don’t drop ’em, kid,” she said, and she smiled when I blushed like a berry. Her teeth were white and even, like the keys on a brand new piano.
She squirted the paper several more times then handed me the final tube. “Whaddya think I should call it?” she said, plucking the paper from the wheel.
As I studied the concentric circles, my heart pounded in my ears. The pattern suggested a whirlpool that might pull me to uncharted depths. “’A Siren’s Seduction,’” I offered.
She giggled and patted my cheek. “You’re quite the romantic, aren’t you, kiddo? I think I’ll call it ‘Paint.’”
“Can I have it?” I asked her.
“Kid,” she said. “Your mother know what you’re doing?”
“I’m a spin art collector.”
She laughed. “Don’t feed me that line of crap. You’re trying to pick me up, aren’t cha, sonny?”
Stung by her candor, I reverted to form. “G-gee, you’re pretty,” I stammered.
She handed me the painting and shrugged. “And you’re pretty lamo,” she said. “Guys hit on me all the time, ya know, so you’re going to need some game. A spin art collector—that’s gotta be the most pitiful come-on I’ve heard.”
I folded her artwork meticulously and tucked it into my bathing trunks. “If it’s pity you’re offering, I’ll take it. I’m a pretty needy case.”
“Is that why ya talk like an out-of-work actor? That’s really, like, freaky, ya know?”
At least, I had her attention so I decided to quote some Shakespeare. I’m extremely well-read for a sixteen-year-old kid. At Jefferson High, where I go to school, they put me in a college-level English class. I’m also in the drama club, and I played Prospero in The Tempest.
Looking into her smoke-grey eyes, I gave her a dose of the Bard. “The weight of your kind gaze I must obey.” Damn, if I didn’t sound like a Renaissance man, all I needed was a sword and a cape.
She looked at me incredulously so I paused for further affect. I then bowed like a reed in the wind and hit her with another line. “I never saw true beauty ’til this day.”
When she feigned a yawn and clucked her tongue, my cock shrank to the size of a bean sprout. Had she noticed that I had mixed up Shakespeare’s plays? I prayed she wasn’t a critic.
“Keep that crap for the stage,” she said. “You sound like a total dork.”
“If all the world be a stage,” I replied, “you must be my Juliet.”
She laughed so hard tears dampened her cheeks. “What a loada shit.”
I slapped my chest as though wounded. “I hope it will nourish a rose.”
Her laughter had barely subsided when she gripped my hand in hers. “C’mon,” she said. “Let’s dodge a few waves. You need some cooling off.”
If Finnegans Wake is the most challenging of books, I had much to bring to it. Because I spent that entire summer in Cleo’s magnificent wake. With her, the beach and the boardwalk became as magical as a Joycean rant. Tossing bean bags into baskets was like piercing the Cyclops’ eye; returning the surfer boys’ envious stares was like slaying Penelope’s suitors; and rubbing lotion into her back was like yielding to Circe’s spell. Not that turning men into pigs was a challenge in my case. As my hand roamed between her warm shoulder blades, it was all I could do not to grunt.
Of course, she had a boyfriend; he was in the Army somewhere. Why else would she spend time with the likes of me: a cock-flogging adolescent? Clearly, she regarded me as safe, not sexy—fun yet conveniently harmless. I was suitable only to carry her beach umbrella and rinse off her boogie board. But I accepted my role as her servant with the deepest of gratitude: a reverence befitting a drowning sailor whom a mermaid had plucked from the sea. As we bicycled along the boardwalk, as we bounced among the breakers, a maudlin line from a country tune bespoiled my literary brain. Yes, if I can’t have all of you just give me what you think is fair.
Although I treated her like a princess, she did not have a regal soul. The entertainment magazines she tucked in her beach bag filled the horizon of her mind; top ten songs, like “Ring of Fire,” blared from her portable radio; and clichés like “dork” and “lamo” peppered her conversation. She had no interest in going to college although she’d been offered a gymnastic scholarship. Instead, she planned to attend beauty school and work in a salon.
I told her I was going to major in literature, but I didn’t want to teach it. Instead, I wanted to be like Jack London and take off on adventures. I wanted to pen novels about diving for pearls and sailing the South China Sea. I wanted to be like Hemingway and write about giant marlins.
“So why are you reading Paradise Lost? Ain’t that a little bit lamo?”
She was lying face down on her beach towel, digging her toes into the sand. Even so, she had noticed that dog-eared paperback that I read whenever she napped. Since we were only a passing liaison, the stuff of midsummer dreams, the title of Milton’s worn classic did not seem inappropes.
“I like the Devil in it,” I said. “He’s an independent guy.”
“What are ya tryin’ to tell me, kid?”
“That I’m gonna be my own man.”
“Is that why you’re lugging my bag around and rubbing lotion on my back?”
I shrugged and tickled the arch of her foot. She pushed me away with her toes. “Buy me a hot dog, Satan,” she said. “Go easy on the relish this time.”
Her sense of entitlement was remarkable, but who was I to object? Were she more than a self-absorbed vixen, what use would she have for me? Yes, I was only her lackey, her fawning pitiful page, but the wages of my debasement were as rare as pirated gold.
When I returned with her hot dog, she was lying on her back leafing through Paradise Lost. Her leg was propped on her bended knee, her foot swung like a pendulum. Her eyes did not stray from the book as I handed her the hot dog. Instead, she wrinkled her nose like a rabbit and waved me away from her. Oh, how I envied that lucky frank as she slipped it between her lips.
After another minute, she tossed the book into the sand. “So that’s what gets you off,” she said. “Snakes and fallen angels.”
“Isn’t that kind of obvious?” I said.
“I s’ppose it is,” she replied. She devoured the rest of her hot dog like a seagull gulping a fish. She then rolled back onto her stomach and rested her chin on her forearms. “So many times have ya jacked off to my image, Mister Beelzebub?”
I poured sand onto her ankles and pretended not to hear her. The actual count was forty-six, but she did not need that much information. “I jack by the book,” I said finally, once again parodying Shakespeare.
“The fuck you saying?” she said.
“Your image is not yet complete, my queen—it barely rivals a cock book. I won’t do you so great an honor ’til I see you in the flesh.”
“’Til I contribute to the delinquency of a minor, you mean. Kiddo, I’m not that depraved.”
“Corrupt me,” I begged her. “All it would take is the innocence of Eve.”
She laughed and rubbed my thigh with her foot. “That’s all your gonna get. Now be a good little buccaneer and fetch me a Royal Crown Cola.”
Parting is sugary sorrow, if I can borrow from Shakespeare once more. But humor can fan dying embers and make sunsets brilliant again. Yes, my time with Cleo was dwindling, but why sour it with gloom? It was in this spirit of lively rebellion that I came up with our little game.
I planted my copy of Paradise Lost whenever she wasn’t looking. I slipped it into her beach bag, I rolled it up in her towel, I even tucked it under her feet whenever she was napping. On discovering that mothy paperback, she flung it away like a frisbee. “Tommy, don’t force me to read that,” she’d cry, and we both dissolved into laughter. She got pretty good a flinging the book: her record was thirty feet.
“Why won’t you read it?” I asked her one day. We were sitting on our beach towels, having finished a jaunt on our boogie boards, and we were dipping into a box of animal crackers she had bought at a Seven Eleven.
“Kiddo,” she said as she bit the head off a hippo, “I don’t want smoke in my eyes.”
Her willful insularity was becoming a little bit tiresome. So when I answered her, I did not try to disguise my irritation. “I revere you like Pygmalion. I live to give you a soul.”
“Waddaya talkin’ about, kiddo.”
“This guy carved a woman out of ivory then fell deeply in love with her. One day, Aphrodite took pity on him and brought the statue to life.”
“You’re crazier than Lucy Ricardo,” she said. “And you live in Tommy Land.”
I should have been more amused; I should have kept eating my cookies. What else could I expect from someone who read nothing but The Hollywood Reporter? I felt like a prince whom fortune had doomed to wait upon a goat herder.
“Maybe it’s time you sampled a little forbidden fruit.”
“Like Eve in that goddamn book of yours? You see where she ended up.”
“The Land of Nod,” I said, and I gave her a sporting grin.
Was it the sugar in the animal crackers that animated her scowl? Or were her eyes too muddied by I Love Lucy reruns to handle a bite of culture? Whichever the case, our relationship changed when she threw a giraffe at my head. “Whenever you look at me, Mister Pig Malion, all you see is a pair of tits.”
“What else do you have to offer?” I snapped.
“How about a view of my ass?”
When she packed up her beach bag and strode towards the boardwalk, I should have been heartbroken. But as I looked at her elegant backside, I felt the Phoenix rise. No, it wasn’t because of the oil on her thighs or the wiggle in her butt. It was because she had lost her temper. We had actually had our first fight.
Reconciliation is easy when you’re grateful to be a flunky, when beach umbrellas and boogie boards are more than your heart throb will tote. And since she was staying at a flat next to my family’s beach house, a reunion was all but assured. The following morning, she knocked on my door and I practically fell at her feet.
“Tommy,” she said matter-of-factly. “I’m givin’ you one last chance.”
It was one last chance to carry the beach bag that hung from her slender hand. It was one final chance to haul the umbrella that sheltered her face from the sun. But gone was my independence, forgotten my reckless pride. Laden like a pack mule, I followed her back to the beach.
It was after I put up the beach umbrella, fetched her a taco, and rubbed Coppertone onto her back, that she broke the news to me. She told me her boyfriend was on leave from the Army and that he would show up tomorrow morning. She said they were going to get married in the fall, and he had bought her a diamond engagement ring. After an enormous wedding, which two hundred people would attend, they would honeymoon on a Caribbean cruise and dance to a ballroom band. She was especially looking forward to the smorgasbords because she loved ice sculptures and cold salmon.
I was not upset that our summer was ending; I had long been prepared for that. But the thought of Cleo as an Army wife was something I could not endure. A vampire, yes, a dominatrix for sure, but not a Military spouse.
“I’ll give your marriage a week,” I said. “The honeymoon will probably last longer.”
Removing her sunglasses, she looked at me stonily. “Did I ask for advice from the king of the dreamers?”
“I think you’ve done me one better.”
“Pig Malion,” she said, sitting up on her towel, “that’s a helluva thing to say.”
“You’re my island witch, my Circe. You turned me into a pig. Yet you’re selling yourself to servitude for the sake of a cut-rate cruise.”
“Maybe,” she shrugged. “But don’t lecture me, kid. I bought you much cheaper than that.”
I cleared my throat dramatically then opened up my heart. Balling my fists and fighting back tears, I dared to raise my voice. “Cleo,” I said, “you make me feel like a goddamn teaser stallion.”
“The hell is that?” she muttered.
“A runt horse that hangs around breeding farms and never gets any ass. The breeders use him to excite the mare before they bring in the stud.”
She sighed and rolled onto her stomach. “Seabiscuit,” she muttered, “you’d better go take a swim.”
Later, after I walked her home, she gave me a peck on the mouth. Her lips were chapped, not velvety; her breath smelled of garlic, not spice. Was this to be the blossoming of my cherished ivory girl?
”Kiddo, it’s been real,” she joked as she disappeared into the house.
When Cleo transformed me into a pig, I was not without concessions. Pigs have remarkable hearing; pigs have noses like radar; pigs have a talent to scour and sniff out forbidden fruits.
Did I mention the beach house she stayed in was adjacent to our own? Did I mention that house had an outdoor shower that I could see from my second-story bedroom? It took only the sound of water running to draw me to the bedroom window, to pull my gaze to the courtyard below and spot Cleo showering nude.
I stood like Romeo scorning the east because Juliet was the sun. I stood like Odysseus lashed to the mainmast and drinking the sea maidens’ song. Since the slings of fickle fortune had brought me to this moment, I was ready to pardon Olympus the capriciousness of its ways.
As I watched the spray pucker her nipples, the rivulets caress her brown skin, the shampoo stream from her cascading hair, I managed a stiff salute. But I wished I could erect something more than my Willie—it hardly did her justice. Why not the string of my bathing suit or the towel that lay limp on my bed? Why not the hose in the courtyard below or the very hairs on my head?
She showered for only a minute before vanishing into the house, and I thanked Aphrodite for giving me no more that I could handle. Who was I to ponder Nirvana, to fathom its hillocks and swamps? Who was I to stare into a vision as fiery as the dawn? If I could turn back time to that glorious minute, I would hesitate to do so. I fear such an indiscretion would turn me into stone.
The memory of Cleo haunts me like Banquo’s unsinkable ghost. Thirty years later, I commissioned a painting and hung it in my den. So stark was my recollection of her, so potent my memory, that I described her to the artist as though she were standing before my eyes. She hangs behind my writing desk, a glowing ocean sprite, the spray from the shower forever anointing her shoulders and upturned breasts. “What’s that?” my wife asked when I hung the painting.
“A passing,” I said. “The pyre of my childhood. The day I became a man.”
“The day you became a perve,” she sniffed, and she walked out of the room. She had spoken like an ingrate, she had desecrated a shrine. But I swallowed my indignation and forgave her callous reply.
And where was I in that painting? I was peeping from a window like the Kilroy caricature. That ubiquitous voyeur, that phantomish stray, that mooch at the banquet of life. No, her beauty could not be done justice by the specter at the feast—she deserved a gift as epic as the one she had given me.
I placed a worthier tribute on the corner of my desk. A plaque with a cherry red finish that read: The Phoenix climbs.
James Hanna is a retired probation officer and a former fiction editor of The Sand Hill Review. His stories have appeared in many journals including The Literary Review, Sixfold, and past issues of Red Savina Review. Three of his stories received Pushcart nominations. James’ books, all of which have won awards, are available on Amazon. Readers’ Favorite International Awards gave his book, Call Me Pomeroy, the gold medal in the humous fiction category. Independent Press Awards gave his short story collection, A Second Less Capable Head, the silver medal in the anthology category, Readers’ Favorite International Awards gave his novel, The Siege, the bronze medal in the literary fiction category