he secret of the universe was at the foot of a fenced-off cliff just up the street in a private estate known as Rosedale. Not many secrets, mind you, the secret, the one that explained everything, including how to make ice cream and caramel candy.
Every neighborhood has its misfits. We had three. I was third in the hierarchy because I wore big glasses. I was also the one who believed most in secrets, which, according to the other two, each had shapes and sizes and couldn’t be spoken aloud since to reveal a secret made it go “poof!” – or so said Thierry, the chief misfit. He had soft salamander hands and a face from an illustration in “Winnie the Pooh,” a book I was sure was about a hungry boy and a savage bear but Thierry explained was actually a “tall tale” (like the cliff) that adults used to distract boys from seeking the truth about the moon.
Yes, the moon. In the moon, said Thierry, was the famous “scroll of tusk” which told of boys being better than girls and contained the secret (another one) of how bicycles stood upright when ridden. A copy of the scroll of tusk was located at the base of the cliff, hidden there by ancient civilizations, if only we could leap over the wall and get to it, something Thierry explained would be an act of bluster, a kind of cannon. Thierry’s mother called him “silly,” sometimes aloud, but his followers ignored her, since those who seek the secret of the universe can’t doubt their prophet.
Thierry told us, me principally (he called me his “subject” or “listener”) that the world had two major religions and that one required a reading book about thieves and villages and babies and a place called a manger, where spacecraft full of exotic languages lay in wait, spacecraft which if boarded would take passengers over oceans and finally to the moon (of course), which had sent its truth to earth because it, the mood I guess — by then I’d lost track of both subject and modifier — had grown bored of waiting for real humans to arrive and dig it up. He also told of Greenwich Meal Time, the time when everyone in the world ate, and about how people of other colors hadn’t started that way but decided on their shading after being influenced by storms and bad weather, or by staying out too late at night, when “tranformances” occurred unexpectedly, changing not only skin tone but how people spoke, including languages. (In summer, I’d sometimes sit on the roof of my house after dinner, awaiting a tranformance that never happened).
Thierry said bullies were bullies because of brain waves from another time. Their beat-downs were hints that we, their victims, would not last long on earth unless we learned to resist bad waves and run fast.
One winter Thierry asked me to behave heroically and beyond my “station” and get past the fence to the cliff to fetch the scroll. He would watch me, urge me on, and protect me from falling. I felt honored, and scared, but when I got past the first picket fence I saw only the cliff’s steep slope, to me an infinity of height, so I stopped and began to sob. Thierry motioned to me to come back, and I did, and he said what I had just gone through was the “problem of life,” and that real secret of the universe was that all of us were too afraid to find it, so we had to learn “gumption,” which involved cookies. I stopped crying.
What Thierry said often baffled me, and that was part of why I followed him. I liked being baffled because not to know seemed to me the most perfect kind of knowledge, and made me peaceful. I’d stop worrying about being too skinny.
When Thierry stopped coming to our daily rendezvous one day and then the next, the two of us grew worried. We finally went to his house but no one answered. On the third day, after school, we found his mother, who looked as though she’d been through a transformance. Thierry would not be playing with us any more, she said. He had been sent to a special place where the mind is harvested, then repaired. She used large words we’d never heard before. But that was that. Thierry was gone. He never came back. I imagined him brain-waved by bullies or on the moon. Finally, I stopped imagining him at all, and all memory of that time of my life vanished — until a computer icon went “poof” on a screensaver, with that whooshing sound, and I had my own (indoor) transformance. I traveled back to Rosedale, to Thierry, to Greenwich Meal Time and to the quest for the secret of the universe, as elusive now as then, it occurred to me, “poof!” its only password.