Scrunched one June night between Helen Clark's screened window and the Clarks' hydrangeas, their deep blue blossoms the size of his buzzed head, fourteen-year-old Wendell Stone watched Helen's nightgown drop. It seemed wrong, somehow, to think of her in ways that he'd been thinking—Helen who, like the Clarks' hydrangeas, had bloomed, too. Until that spring, Wendell had thought of her as an adequate right fielder in neighborhood baseball games, someone who played H-O-R-S-E with him when neither Winky Dinks nor Jack Frary could shoot hoops. She had a decent chest shot.
But that night, as Wendell's eyes involuntarily followed Helen's nightgown to the blue-green shag, the room went dark—Helen's ballerina lamp chain pulled. Chank-chank.
Through the static on Helen's bedside radio, the Everlys sang about crying as Wendell ducked below the sill and snuck behind the hydrangeas, cracking his head on a silent window air conditioner along the way. Head throbbing, he jumped on his Huffy, hidden behind the Clarks' garage, and pedaled home.
"What do you think of Helen?" Wendell asked Winky one night that fall. The two boys had walked to the end of Wendell's street and were nearing the grassy top of Sled Hill—Wendell in front, Winky trailing.
"You mean like—as a girl?" asked Winky.
Turning toward Winky, Wendell saw the lights from their neighborhood, Saint Lawrence Court, below. Beyond that, across the Ohio River from Clarksville, Indiana, the Louisville skyline gleamed. "Sort of," he said.
But before Winky answered, just as they reached the hilltop, they saw what they had come for, shining in the northern sky and arcing east. "There it is!" said Wendell. "Sputnik!"
"The commies put a dog inside," said Winky, right eye twitching in the moonlight. But by the time they started down Sled Hill, the thought of Helen had resumed its orbit inside Wendell's head.
That winter, as the world grew colder, Wendell and his classmates ducked beneath their desks. One morning, from beneath the desk in front of Wendell, his buddy Jack turned toward him and whispered, "Hey, Wendell, my brother Larry's got an idea."
"Silence!" said Miss Berman.
After school that day, Wendell, Jack, and Winky met Larry Frary in the parking lot at the Dairy Barn on Clark Street. Leaning against his yellow Olds, a Super 88 with whitewalls, Larry took a drag from his Camel and said, "You little cats steal stuff. I haul ass to Hock and Shop. After one of you steals five hundred dollars' worth a shit, that fucker's in."
"In what?" asked Winky.
"The Five Hundred Dollar Club, moron!" said Larry, flicking his Camel to the pavement, then grabbing another from between his ear and greased-back hair. "Then he and me split five hundred fifty-fifty."
As far as Wendell could tell, it should be called The Two Hundred Fifty Dollar Club. And it was stealing. But Jack and Winky were cranked. And maybe this is what you did to get an Olds.
"Stick to small stuff," Larry said. "Hock and Shop won't ask no questions."
By June, Jack was only five dollars shy of his five hundred. With Wendell distracting a Western Auto salesclerk in aisle 2 ("Would you recommend a Delco or this Champion spark plug, sir?"), Jack entered the store. Thanks to a Swiss Army knife in aisle 7, Jack was first to enter the club. Two hundred fifty dollars richer, Jack treated Wendell to a chocolate Milkmaid at Dairy Barn for his help.
With Wendell eighty dollars short of his five hundred, Winky was barely halfway there. Winky last tried to snatch the green Sylvania radio from Shangri La, his family's Ohio River camp—a mobile home on stilts. Wendell was at Shangri La that day with Winky, their bikes propped against a sycamore tree, its roots descending down the bank into the river. Standing lookout at the knotty-pine-framed door, Wendell thought that the sycamore leaves looked like green, five-fingered infield gloves, that the sycamore balls hanging from the tree looked like little baseballs, when he felt his sneakers tremble.
"Do you feel that?" asked Wendell, turning toward Winky.
"What?" asked Winky, crossing the kitchen's checkerboard linoleum to the counter, where the green Sylvania stood.
"This shaking, I feel it in my feet."
"That's just you, candy ass," said Winky. But then, as Winky reached across the counter for the plug, all of Shangri La began to shake.
"It's an earthquake!" cried Wendell as the kitchen cabinet doors flung open, a blender blasted off the counter, and a framed photograph of President Eisenhower flew off the wall, missing Winky's head by inches.
"Let's get out of here!" cried Winky, jumping over his father's yellow Naugahyde recliner as it moved from the living room into the kitchen.
After that, Winky lost his nerve.
These bomber wings must be worth ten bucks, thinks Wendell, rummaging through Helen's parents' dresser.
Minutes earlier, he'd eased through Helen's window, intending to snatch her radio. That day at Shangri La had given him the idea. Besides, with the way the Everlys had sounded, she could use a new one. Crummy as her radio is, it would still be worth five dollars. Then, when he joins the club, he could buy her a good one. But standing by her bed, reaching for her Philco, he could not steal from Helen. Still, he might as well have a look around, he thought—starting with her parents' bedroom.
Seventy dollars to go, thinks Wendell as he walks down the hall and returns to Helen's room, her father's Army Air Corps bombardier wings in his right pocket.
Her room is dark. He'd yanked the ballerina's chain after entering Helen's window, so no one could see him snooping. But with the air conditioner in her parents' room rumbling like a B-17, he does not hear the Clarks' DeSoto. He does not hear their kitchen door.
"What a great movie!" a man's voice—Mr. Clark, Wendell figures—booms from somewhere. "Damn—"
"No, Marge, Damn Yankees. Sure glad it was playing at The Moonlight."
"Helen, it's past your bedtime," Helen's mom says.
"It's barely eleven o'clock," whines Helen. "I'm practically fifteen. Gee whiz, Mother."
"Whatever Hel-en wants," sings Mr. Clark.
William Clark, distant relative of Revolutionary War hero and town namesake, George Rogers Clark, had once worn his bombardier wings to a July 4th, neighborhood cookout.
"I was a bomber in the big one, son," he'd told six-year-old Wendell. "When I was stateside, we flew a practice run from our base in Dyersburg to Louisville. When I saw the spires at Churchill, I dialed the altitude, wind, and speed into my sight and caught the airplane plant in crosshairs. Took out four C-46 Commandos," he said, fingering the winged bomb above a splotch of ketchup on his T-shirt. "When we turned back, I had our pilot tip a wing to Marge. Later that year we made Helen. Bombs away!" he shouted, heading for the grill.
For years, Wendell thought the old blowhard had dropped bombs on Louisville—that it had contributed, somehow, to Helen.
"Goodnight, Mother. Goodnight, Daddy."
"Sleep tight, don't let the bedbugs bite!" shouts Mr. Clark as Wendell, who can't believe he shut Helen's window after entering, scurries under Helen's bed.
"Oh, Daddy. Here, Miss Kitty," calls Helen.
At any other time, Wendell would have had visions of Gunsmoke's Miss Kitty. She has a classy chassis. He suspects she offers Marshall Dillon more than drinks. But here beneath Helen's bed, chin on shag, Wendell remembers seeing a calico cat run from Helen's room as he'd eased into her window. Peeking out the space beneath the ruffle, Wendell sees this Miss Kitty trot from the dimly hall into the bedroom on the heels of Helen's Oxford saddles. "There's my good kitty!" says Helen, chanking the ballerina's chain, then lifting Miss Kitty from view.
Between a Rock and a Hard Place? Try Stone! goes Wendell's father's insurance company jingle. The jingle has never made much sense to Wendell. But as Helen's Oxfords turn—heels toward him—and the springs above his head dip slightly, Wendell gets the first part.
"Mommy has to take her shoes off, my little sweet," says Helen. "Does umms want to hear some moosic?"
"Now," meows Miss Kitty.
Wendell has never heard Helen talk like this: baby talk—and to a cat. And he's never heard a cat say, "Now." Nor has he ever been this close to Helen, aside from a fortuitous bump while playing flashlight tag in the Saint Lawrence churchyard. I better hold my breath. She could feel me breathing on her legs, thinks Wendell, staring at the strip of flesh between bobby socks and blue-jean cuffs.
"Helen! Turn that radio off!" yells Mrs. Clark from down the hall.
"But it's Ricky Nelson!" cries Helen.
"I don't care if it's Tennessee Ernie Ford. Time for bed!"
"Just one song, Mother, please," pleads Helen, socked feet swinging from view, leaving only shoes in front of Wendell.
"Okay, one song."
"Hel-en gets," sings Mr. Clark.
With that, Helen jumps onto the floor and blue-jeans puddle around her ankles. Bare ankles! True, with Helen this close to the bed and Wendell confined to the floor, he sees less of her now than at the city pool last week. Part of him is saying, Step away from the bed, while the other part is saying, I should close my eyes. But before she steps away or Wendell closes his eyes, Helen leaps into the air, the box springs sink, and with a chank, her room goes dark.
Earlier tonight, about ten o' clock, Wendell told his parents he was bushed, that he was turning in. "I'm gonna get some shut-eye!" he persisted.
"All right already," his dad said, rocking in his rocker, flipping through Time.
"Let me feel your forehead, hon," said Wendell's mother.
Lying under Helen's bed, Wendell is certain his parents had not heard his bedroom window creak. He'd waited a good five minutes before jumping into the viburnum, sneaking into his garage, and jumping on his bike. His parents wouldn't miss him until morning. With this thought, Wendell lifts his chin from the shag and rests his right cheek on the bridge of his laced fingers. When Helen goes to sleep, he'll slip out. No sweat.
Until then, he might as well get some shut-eye.
"Goo-night, my little," says Helen.
In Wendell's dream, he's falling through the night sky on the bombardier wings in his pocket. Either I've shrunk or the wings are ginormous! thinks Dream Wendell, legs astride the bomb, silver wings on either side. Unflapping. In the darkness, it's impossible for him to gauge how high he is or how quickly he is falling—or where he's headed, breaking through clouds he had not known were there.
From this distance, Dream Wendell can make out three clumps of light. Somehow, he knows the clump to his left is Cincinnati. The clump to his right: Naptown. Straight ahead is home. Dream Wendell hopes he doesn't land in Naptown. Except for the Indy 500, who would want to land there? he thinks, fidgeting atop the bomb. But glancing down at Naptown, he leans to the right, and by gosh he's heading for Naptown! Shining ever brighter as he falls.
With his newfound sense of navigation, he leans to the left. Somewhere in that clump lies Crosley Field. Though he has no way of knowing what time it is (other than nighttime), he suspects Crosley Field might be contributing to the light clump. The Redlegs might be playing. He could land at second base beside Johnny Temple. If these are Bill Clark's actual wings (about two inches from silver tip to tip), no one, not even Johnny, will notice. Unless he hits Johnny Temple. After all, he's still getting the hang of navigation, and these little wings (if they are little) are sharp. And what if the wings are ginormous and he hits Johnny? In fact, if they're ginormous he's more apt to hit Johnny. Aside from Johnny, the Reds are weak at second base. Straightening, then leaning slightly forward on the wings, he heads for home.
Dream Wendell would expect the wind to sound more like whoosh than now. And he'd expect it to sound louder. For that matter, why does he only feel the wind on his left ear? Why not his right ear? Why not his face?
As if in answer to the wind's demand, Louisville separates into a clump of Louisville on one side and a clump of Jeffersonville-Clarksville-New Albany on the other—separated by a barge-lit Ohio River. He leans to the right, toward that clump's center.
Wind-sound increasing, the Jeffersonville-Clarkssville-New Albany light-clump breaks into hundreds. Then, quickly, thousands—the lights of individual houses coming closer. Closer! How is he going to stop this thing? Do I pull up on this? he thinks, gripping the bomb's nose just as Saint Lawrence Court, and, in the center, Saint Lawrence Church, and, in the center of that, the Saint Lawrence Church steeple—way pointier than expected!—looms immediately below.
"Holy moley!" Wendell shouts.
A veteran dreamer, Wendell decides this would be a good time to wake up, what with the annoying wind, looming steeple, and scratchy—sandpaper? sanding his left cheek.
"Here, Miss Kitty," a voice cries from somewhere.
"Helen?" Wendell blurts, eye to cat eye.
Thirty years later, Mr. and Mrs. Wendell Stone, taking a canasta break with Jack Frary and his young wife, Sherry, will reminiscence about that summer night in '58. Only then will Wendell learn that Bill Clark, while taking a walk along the river, had once found a frightened young cat.
"Daddy stepped into a groundhog hole. When he stepped out, out popped Miss Kitty," Helen, a large but still attractive woman, will inform Jack, Sherry, and Wendell. "She always slept under my bed. It was like a hole to her. But that night, there was you-know-who."
"Hi, Wendell," answers teenage Helen from above.
"Wh—, where am I?" asks Wendell, disoriented from his dreamy fall through space.
"Underneath my bed."
"Oh," says Wendell as the springs above his head shift slightly. "What am I doing here?"
"Robbing us, I guess. I know about your stupid club. But why did you yell holy moley?"
"Ouch!" says Wendell. "That hurts!"
"Feels like sandpaper, doesn't it?"
Thanks to Miss Kitty's tongue, Wendell gathers his wits quickly. If he were to tell Helen why he yelled holey moley, he might spill the beans about the wings in his right pocket. "About a grit P80," Wendell says, drawing from his eighth grade, industrial arts instruction. "How do you know about our club?"
But before Helen can answer, from somewhere in the house, the phone rings. "I wonder who that is?" says Helen. "It's after one o'clock."
"Jeez, Louise," says Wendell. "One o'clock!"
"I think you fell asleep. Here, Miss Kitty."
"Helen!" Mr. Clark shouts, opening the bedroom door. "Wake up! The Stone boy's gone missing! Do you know where he is?" he asks as the room outside the ruffle fills with light and Miss Kitty zips from view.
Forty-five-year-old Wendell, dealing out cards and smiling at twenty-nine-year-old Sherry, Jack's third wife, will say, "There I was, under his daughter's bed with his wings in my pocket. Somehow, I knew my future depended on her answer."
"Oh, that's so romantic!" Sherry, patting Wendell's wrist, will say.
"Jennifer! Turn that radio off!" Helen will say to her and Wendell's daughter as music plays from down the hall.
"But it's Bono, Mother."
"I don't care if it's Julio Iglesias. It's time for bed!"
But tonight, with Mr. Clark outside the ruffle and Wendell's future hanging in the balance, Helen says, "Do you know where Wendell is, Miss Kitty?"
"Listen here, young lady, this isn't funny. His mother went in to feel the boy's head and found his bed empty. The Dinks kid's missing, too! If you know anything . . ." Helen's dad says, his pajama bottoms and bare feet—one foot oddly larger than the other—a foot from Wendell's face.
"Sometimes they ride their bikes to Shangri La," says Helen.
"Winky's river camp."
"Oh, yeah. Thanks, honey. Now get to sleep!" Mr. Clark says, his mismatched feet turning toward the door.
"Oh, and have you seen my wings? They're missing from my drawer."
"Have you seen Daddy's wings, my little sweet?"
"Very funny. Marge, the girl says they've gone to Shangri La," Bill Clark yells as his pajamas disappear from view and the bedroom door slams shut.
"Shangri La?" says Marge Clark from a distance.
Now, beneath Helen's bed for almost three hours, Wendell hears a car honk twice. Sounds familiar, he thinks—neck stiff, cheek raw, right thigh sore from lying on the pin behind the wings. "Bombs away!" shouts Mr. Clark.
"Why'd your dad yell that?" asks Wendell, turning onto his back, repositioning the wings inside his pocket.
"He says that when he's going somewhere important."
"Oh," says Wendell. "Where's he going?"
"To Shangri La with your dad, genius—to look for you and Winky, thanks to me. First, they'll pick up Mr. Dinks."
"How do you know all that? You have X-ray eyes or what?" asks Wendell, staring at the springs between slats.
"I recognized your car honk."
"Oh. Well, I guess I'd better be going," says Wendell, scootching through the ruffle with his heels.
"See you later," says Helen as Wendell stands and turns toward her. Sheet up to her shoulders, cat tail around her neck. "Winky," Helen hisses, "if you're in here, you better get out, too. You had your chance."
"Sheesh," a voice says from inside Helen's closet.
Thirty-one years later, forty-six-year-old Wendell Stone will find himself parked in a Chrysler New Yorker at The Moonlight Drive-In, alone, watching Big while waiting for Sherry Frary to arrive in her Ford Fairmont. Early in the movie, twelve-year-old Josh will turn into Tom Hanks, a grown up, and Wendell will think, This is how it works, remembering how one minute Winky's coming out of Helen's closet, right eye twitching in the ballerina light, explaining how Helen happened to tell him she wanted a new radio only her dad had said, "What do you think I am, a money tree?" and how Winky said he might have let The Five Hundred Dollar Club slip out but just so he could help Helen by stealing her old radio when she went to see Damn Yankees, because then her dad might buy her a new Motorola Owl Eyes—where the radio dial looks like one owl eye and the other owl eye is a clock—and the next minute you're parked in the back row of drive-in movie waiting for your old friend's young wife. Up to now, Sherry has only seemed interested in your shoulder, crying on it about how all Jack talks about are horse races and basketball, and how Jack drinks too much, too, "and then he's too tired to, you know, and my looks won't last forever," running her hands down that young, slim body while standing atop first base in the Louisville Slugger museum, one of several places where you've met; the restaurant at The Brown Hotel in Louisville, where you shared a hot brown; Dairy Barn in Clarksville, where you sipped a Milkmaid from two straws.
Just as Robert Loggia joins Tom Hanks on the giant piano keys to play "Heart and Soul," a blood-red Fairmont will pull up to Wendell's New Yorker. Sherry, radiant in The Moonlight's ambient light, will step from her car into his.
But here in Helen's bedroom, listening to Winky explain himself in a whisper, Wendell thinks he's about the happiest guy alive when Winky says, "Jeez, Wendell, I'm here to swipe a radio, not your girl."
"My girl?" says Wendell, turning toward the bed, where Helen's pulled the sheet over both her head and Miss Kitty's. "Is that right, Helen?"
"The swipe a radio part or the my-girl part?" asks Helen.
"The my-girl part, I guess."
"If you say so."
"So," says Wendell, grinning.
"If I were you, I'd pitch a tent in front of the church," Helen says from under her sheet. "Your dad's headlights will shine on you when he comes back from Shangri La and turns onto our street. How much trouble can you get into for camping in a churchyard? Ouch! That hurts, Miss Kitty!"
"Can I keep the wings?" asks Wendell.
"Can I still have your radio?" asks Winky.
Leaping into the Clark's hydrangeas, Wendell can't believe his luck: the bomber wings and Helen. "The tent's in our garage," says Wendell, walking down the street with Winky, who's carrying the old Philco. "I'll get my bike tomorrow."
Now, inside the tent with Winky, waiting to be illuminated by his father's headlights, Wendell has no way of knowing what lies ahead: that someone (a member of a rival club?) will steal his Huffy tonight; that he will feel a pinprick of guilt every time he hears his father-in-law say, "My wings just flew away;" that stepping into Stone Insurance will place him between a rock and a hard place; that life itself is the spot between a rock and a hard place, that spot no more evident than the Corinthian leather seat of a Chrysler New Yorker. Should I stay or should I go? Wendell will think as Sherry—her see-through blouse doing its job; her hips, susurrating on the seat toward him, doing theirs—opens her full, Fairmont-colored lips and says, "Oh, Wendell, now!" and Wendell, reminded of cat, dead for more than twenty years, will touch the good-luck wings in his right pocket and set his sight on Helen, home.