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Authors: Alvin Orloff

Why Aren't You Smiling?

BOOK: Why Aren't You Smiling?
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Why Aren't You Smiling?

a novel

Alvin Orloff

Manic D Press
San Francisco

To the loving memory of my parents
Edgar and Kathleen Orloff

I am eternally grateful to everyone who provided feedback as I wrote this novel: Dodie Bellamy, Kevin Killian, Nina Schuyler, Peter Orner, Nona Caspers, Maxine Chernoff, Carrie Hall, and all my wonderful, wise classmates from San Francisco State. Also a big thanks to my big brother, Bo, for all his cyber-assistance.

Why Aren't Your Smiling? ©2011 by Alvin Orloff. All rights reserved. Published by Manic D Press. For information, contact Manic D Press, PO Box 410804, San Francisco CA 94141 Printed in the USA

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Orloff, Alvin, 1961-

  Why aren't you smiling? : a novel / Alvin Orloff.

   p. cm.

  ISBN 978-1-933149-58-5 (pbk. original) -- ISBN 978-1-933149-59-2

  1. Teenage boys--Fiction. 2. Nineteen seventies--Fiction. 3. California--
Fiction. I. Title.

  PS3565.R5795W48 2011



A Chance Encounter

ne gloriously warm fall afternoon I found myself strolling through a park near the university on my way home from junior high. I was taking my time, sipping a Slurpee, and making sure the sunshine hit my face, which was supposed to help with my acne. The park was actually a few blocks out of my way, but I was in no hurry. My parents' house offended me with its boring beige-y squareness, its failure to possess even one secret room or hidden staircase. A dull, comfortable, respectable house like ours could never be haunted or contain a hidden portal to an alternate dimension. Nor was I eager to see my parents. They weren't quite as square as the house, but they kept their eccentricities well concealed and I bitterly resented them for it.

The park, on the other hand, fascinated me. Everywhere college-age kids read, debated, flew kites, made out, napped, meditated, and grooved to tiny transistor radios. In an effort to seem part of things, I untucked my dress shirt, mussed my medium long (but, oh, how I wished it were longer) hair, and assumed a rambling gait with long, exaggerated strides… truckin', it was called.

Most of the park consisted of scrubby grass struggling to cover dry, hard earth, but at the east end there grew a thicket of slightly stunted trees and bushes. I was just entering this tiny woodland area when I heard a voice call out, “Hey, guy!” Though, at fourteen, I was more kid than guy, I took a chance this was directed at me and turned. A half-dozen hippies were sprawled around a beach towel, soaking up the sun. “Over here,” called the voice, which I now saw came from a razor-thin man sitting cross-legged in the shade of a pine tree a few yards away from the others. He was somewhere in his early twenties and wore nothing but a pair of faded, patched, and elaborately embroidered blue jeans. His face was clean-shaven, but his long curly chestnut brown hair hung halfway down his back, filling me with awe and envy.

“Hi,” I said, walking over to him.

The man patted the Earth next to him as if it were a comfy sofa. “C'mon and sit down. I'm Rick.”

I felt myself staring, but couldn't stop. Rick's features were perfectly formed, perfectly symmetrical, and weirdly pretty, like the male lead in a sappy romance movie.

“My name's Leonard,” I said, still standing.

Rick said, “Don't be scared, Leonard,” and suddenly I wasn't. The serenity in his warm, brown eyes made it clear he was a Mellow Guy. I sat.

“So, what brings you to the park today?” Rick asked.

My scalp tingled pins and needles, which it did when I was shy or embarrassed in a happy way. “Just walking home. How about you?”

“I'm witnessing,” said Rick.

“Witnessing what?” I asked.

“Witnessing is when you share with others The Truth that you've witnessed.”

I was intrigued. Recently I'd fallen prey to a host of rapid mood swings and intense but mysterious longings. Since nobody had mentioned anything to me about pubescent hormones, I interpreted this as evidence of a deep, spiritual hunger. This conclusion wasn't as far-fetched as it sounds. I lived in a town where bands of Hare Krishnas serenaded the streets and telephone polls were thick with posters advertising classes in Buddhist meditation, Sufism, and astral projection. Alternative spirituality and New Age metaphysics were in the air and everywhere.

“So, what truth did you witness?” I asked.

Rick smiled. “The Truth of Jesus.”

A Jesus Freak. I was disappointed. I considered Christianity depressingly square, more hick than hippie. I also objected to the idea of Hell on theological grounds. It seemed way harsh for anyone short of Hitler.

“I'm a Taoist,” I declared proudly. I'd spent hours scouring the shelves of the public library searching for a religion that was suitably exotic but didn't require any huge leaps of faith or complicated rituals. Taoism fit the bill. I also appreciated the brevity of its holy text, the
Tao Te Ching,
a mere eighty-six pages in length.

“A Taoist, that's cool,” said Rick, still smiling. “What's that all about?”

The words that should've been in my head waiting for this question had wandered off. Finally I managed to stammer, “Taoism is like… going with the flow and, you know, not getting hung up.”

“Huh,” said Rick. “Sounds cool. But you can find peace with Jesus, too, if you want.”

I was surprised. “Isn't that against your religion, being in another religion?”

“Jesus is God, and God is Love. That's my religion. Nothing less, nothing more.” Rick's self-confidence was mesmerizing.

“What about Heaven and Hell and the commandments and all that?” I asked.

Rick waved his hand dismissively. “I leave those to the professors of theology.”

“So I can be a Taoist and a Christian at the same time?”

“Sure. Why not?” Rick smiled. I liked the way he smiled all the time. It seemed real, not like the forced cheerfulness of people on TV or the hollow-eyed Moonies who went door to door asking people to dinner (an invitation I always declined in light of their reputation for kidnapping and brainwashing their guests). There was a pause then Rick gestured towards the hippies around the beach towel. “Me and my family are just passing through town on our way to Oregon. We're going to start an organic farm. Build it ourselves from scratch.”

“That's cool,” I said, casually hiding my 7-11 cup with its offensively plastic straw behind my back.

“Yeah,” said Rick half-heartedly. “Actually, it sounds like a lot of work.” He laughed and lay down on his back. The amber gold skin of his arms and chest were lightly fuzzed with dark curly hair, reminding me of an animal, though I couldn't think what kind.

“You could build windmills for energy,” I suggested, sort of wishing he'd ask me to come along.

“Sure, I guess. The idea is we'll lead simple lives without all the hassles of the city. We'll raise our own food so we won't have to get jobs and we can make our lives Spiritually Whole. Like monks, except we can screw around.”

I was flattered Rick took me for someone adult enough to talk with about screwing around. “How long are you staying in town?” I asked.

“Not long,” said Rick. He sat up and stared into my eyes with his own hypnotic brown orbs. “Leonard, do you know how to Love?”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “I love my parents.” To avoid Rick's piercing gaze I examined the embroidery on his pants, a brightly colored sunset with clouds, birds, and butterflies. It must have taken hours and hours.

“Sure, that's easy, but can you love strangers? Can you love your enemies? Could you love, like, Richard Nixon?”

“I never thought about it,” I admitted.

“That's the kingdom of heaven,” said Rick. “When you can love everyone and everything. Heaven's not some place in the clouds, it's in here.” He patted his chest over his heart.

“Do you love everybody?” I asked.

“I try.” Rick sounded almost sad. “I'm getting better.”

There was a long pause that made me so nervous I began to blather. “Did you ever think that Jesus might have been an ancient astronaut? You know, from outer space? Like the ones who built the pyramids and Stonehenge and left that 10,000 year old battery in the Mesopotamian ruins that could not possibly have been made by actual, you know, Mesopotamians?”

Rick let out a tiny chuckle. “Could be!” He turned solemn again. “Try saying it, Leonard. Try saying, ‘I love everyone'.”

“I love everyone,” I said. Even I could hear that I didn't mean it.

“Hmm. Let's start smaller,” suggested Rick. “Repeat after me. I – love – you.”

This took me off-guard. My scalp tingled fiercely, time stopped, and the universe contracted so that Rick and I were disembodied souls alone in a swirling glittery purple cosmos of togetherness. I stood frozen for a moment trying to re-inhabit my body, which seemed to have become paralyzed by Rick's eyes. When at last I could speak, I heard a vast and unmistakable improvement in my sincerity as I repeated the holy words, “I – love – you.”

Rick laughed. “Getting better! Loving doesn't always come easy, sometimes you have to work at it.”

I felt myself flush and turned away. “I wonder if dolphins love?” I heard myself ask. “I mean, we know they're as intelligent as people now, maybe more. We just don't speak their language yet, though Dr. Lily is learning it. Chimpanzees and some of the higher primates, too. I mean, maybe.”

Rick smiled tolerantly. “You don't hear about dolphins or chimps going to war, or raping or killing. I'm sure they're capable of love.” I felt grateful he wasn't taking advantage of my stupidity to humiliate me as my schoolmates would have.

“And for sure dogs and cats can love,” I added, feeling this point was indisputable.

“You know about Saint Francis?” Rick asked.

I nodded. “They named San Francisco after him.”

“He preached to the birds of the trees and the animals of the forest.” As he spoke, one of Rick's family, a blonde girl with a cold grin on her pretty face, walked over and plopped down next to us. The girl nodded in my direction. With a hint of sarcasm, she asked, “Who's this little angel?”

“This is Leonard,” said Rick. “We've been rapping about Love.”

“I'll bet you have,” the girl sneered.

My throat constricted, which it did when I was shy or embarrassed in an unhappy way. I managed to croak out a weak little “Hi.”

“Pleased to meet you,” said the girl, not sounding pleased at all. “I'm Beth.” She put her arms around Rick and leaned into him.

Feeling an overwhelming desire to flee, I stood up and stammered, “I, I really should go.”

“Peace,” said Rick and Beth at almost the same time.

“Peace,” I said, though I'd never said peace instead of goodbye before.

Walking home from the park, my youth stretched out before me like an eternity in detention. What if I were to run off and join Rick and his family in Oregon, just hitchhike my way north and start over? I saw myself with long, long hair, dressed in tattered denim, planting organic cabbage and feeding chickens. Would I be shirtless, too? Yes, and I wouldn't have acne on my back because of all the healthy food I'd be eating. Rick and I would be good, good friends. Love would shine forth from my heart and I'd have that same cute little smile Rick did.

On getting home I romped around on the front lawn with my dog, Frodo, a hyperactive black and white terrier. Unlike my peers, he found me delightful. After a while I reluctantly tore myself away to do homework. Thoughts of Oregon receded joining the array of fantasies I kept on reserve to occupy myself in dull moments. While waiting for the bus or running errands I might pick one thread (living with the last tribe of wild Indians in a hidden valley of the Rocky Mountains) or another (visiting an alien planet with considerably less gravity, allowing people to get around by jumping). My mind could be pleasantly diverted for hours working out the particulars of life in these alternate universes, though they did have the unhappy effect of making reality pale by comparison. Midway through my report on Benjamin Franklin, I heard my mother call out for me to set the dinner table, her kindly voice as welcome as radio static. I tucked in my shirt, straightened my hair with my fingers, and sullenly tromped into the dining room to perform my duty.

As I did, my father came into the room, his post-work scotch-on-the-rocks tinkling in its highball glass. “How was school today?” He sat at the table and removed the gray tweed jacket he'd started wearing since winning tenure as an English professor at the university.

“Fine,” I said.

“Ah, fine. It's always fine.” This was not exactly addressed to me but rather to the invisible audience for whom my family performed – a sophisticated (if imaginary) crowd that expected our family drama to be enlivened by witty asides.

My mother emerged from the kitchen holding a giant bowl of salad that she set down in the center of the dining room table, and dinner commenced. As I served myself I noticed that on top of the shredded lettuce and sprouts she'd drizzled a green (probably avocado) dressing and… sunflower seeds?

“You put
in the salad?”

“Potassium,” she explained.

My father gave a theatrical shrug and served himself. My mother managed a store for kitchen appliances and cookware and kept up with all the latest gastronomical trends. Lately she'd been sneaking more and more healthy foods into our diet. Though I liked the idea of things being natural in principle, the reality was often disconcerting. I was especially aghast at the invention of “carrot cake,” which flagrantly violated the sacred barrier between vegetable and dessert. My father, on the other hand, would heartily consume anything.

“So, did you hear?” my father asked between bites. “President Ford is picking Nelson Rockefeller for vice president. Very efficient, don't you think? Instead of having robber barons buy the politicians, they can run the government themselves. Cuts out the middleman.”

My mother sighed weightily. “The men in Washington have completely lost touch with their creative, feminine sides.”

I tuned out the conversation and let my mind wander. It immediately found its way to a memory from first or second grade. The kids at the playground were talking about what would happen to someone who didn't believe in God. The consensus: such a person would be struck dead on the spot.

“Nuh-unh,” I'd insisted with a firm shake of my head. I'd heard my parents say that there was no God, and they were still alive.

Melanie, an A student who was generally right about everything, shook her head. “It's true.”

I grew worried. Maybe God just hadn't gotten around to us yet. Fear compelled me to test my luck. “My family doesn't believe in God,” I said, my eyes involuntarily glancing heavenward for signs of divine retribution.

BOOK: Why Aren't You Smiling?
10.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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