The Barcalounger was the biggest toy in the house when my older brother, Ben, and I were kids. “Heavy as lead,” Dad had complained after he and the neighbor lugged it into place. “A naugahyde monstrosity,” said my mother about the way it bunched and creased along the arms and edges. But in our minds, it was sleek and streamlined. Just one flick of that handle on the side transformed it into Batman’s car, and with another flick—stretching it to its full length—it became Batman’s boat cutting the waves. With a pair of windbreakers from Dad’s closet wrapped across our shoulder, we changed just as easily: caped crusaders squeezed together in the seat.
Football helmets on our heads and the Barcalounger became a Plymouth Superbird, the most famous stock car in the world. “Number 43’s coming around the last lap!” Ben shouted, leaning us hard to the right as the g-force pressed against us, me thrilled and giggling. Camo shorts and we were soldiers on a dangerous mission, our tank steering across enemy lines. Sometimes we became truckers on the long haul, racking up mile after mile as we munched popcorn and watched TV or just stared through the sliding glass doors of the living room across a landscape that somehow became more than brick patio and thin backyard, more than that blue plastic pool and that clothesline and the plowed field that edged our backyard—one of Dad’s fields, a farmer by trade.
After getting bored with Around the World in 80 Days on Channel 9’s Saturday Matinee, we even tried a hot air balloon ride.
“See how small they look from here,” Ben said, peering over the arm of the chair, pointing toward the carpet—the Matchbox cars that littered the floor, our Fisher Price men posed and waiting.
“The people are bigger than the cars,” I told him.
“Strange, isn’t it?” he agreed.
“What an imagination you boys have,” Mom told us regularly. She would emphasize later that she meant me too—even years afterwards, “The things you think up, Sammy”—but really it had always been my brother with the ideas.
One afternoon when I was 7, Ben and I were alone in the living room. A storm was brewing, and Mom had just told us to turn off the TV before she headed to the kitchen to make dinner. Dad was in the bathroom cleaning up, or maybe out in the garage. Neither of them was more than a room away, but I have the sense even now that they’d vanished briefly, departed somewhere further off. Memory leaves me that, and the fact is that I alone remember this.
Black clouds crept in from the far horizon, and the sky had that surreal feeling that comes with sudden late afternoon storms, when darkness falls too quickly, too early on the day. The wind picked up sharply, short gusts shaking the pines, and little waves of sheet lightning trembled here and there, so quick and diffuse that you could almost miss it.
“Something’s coming,” said Ben suddenly, wedged beside me in the Barcalounger.
“What?” I asked, excited for a new game, a scary one this time. But he didn’t answer, just frowned slightly, staring ahead. Through those sliding glass doors, I could see the top edge of our blue pool shivering a little and the cords of the clothesline bouncing lightly and a clutter of shadows: baseball gear and our bikes and a Big Wheel I’d outgrown.
“We’re in a Buick,” he said, his voice suddenly older. “We’re out in the country.”
“We live in the country,” I laughed, nervous for reasons I couldn’t grasp. “Dad’s got a Buick.”
“A country road,” he went on. “A little two-lane, a tunnel of trees, an opening ahead. There’s a light.” As he said light, another tremor of lightning shimmered across the horizon and died. “And a sound.” But that word didn’t make any difference: Nothing but silence from the TV, no clattering of pots in the kitchen, nothing but that wind.
“Are we policemen?” I asked. “Are we bootleggers?” One of Dad’s words there. Old bootleggers he called the fastest stock-car racers, the coolest ones.
Just the slightest shake of Ben’s head. “We’re out of gas. You forgot to fill us up.” And then under his breath, a ripple of loss, a hint of panic: “You should’ve filled us up.”
The power twitched. The lights flickered and then went off. I waited for a “darn it” from the kitchen or a “damn” from Dad. I waited for my brother’s “Boo!” or his own whispered “damn” the way he’d begun venturing into cursing. But he stayed quiet. Outside, the world seemed sepia—darkening skies, muted colors. The field was clouded in mist. The patio jutted into nowhere. Trees arched and ached, branches fell. A clatter of leaves, some animal’s yelp.
“What is it?” I asked, straining to see his expression in the room’s dimness. Soon his eyes would shift, soon that same old grin would appear. “Frankenstein? A UFO? The bogeyman?”
But that grin never came, and I remembered suddenly that this was how he looked right after Ginger, our collie, was hit by the neighbor’s car.
Later that night we were told that Ben had suffered an artery blockage. “An air bubble,” the doctor said, “an embolism”—a word that conjured darker magic, fiercer monsters.
But that afternoon, I just tried to match his expression—my older brother, fearless, stoic—even as my left hand clutched his forearm and as the fingers of my right dug into the folds of the naugahyde and as that heavy-as-lead Barcalounger, I’ll swear to it today, began to groan deep in its insides and then lifted light as air and started its journey toward those sliding doors, across that patio, and into the darkness beyond.