Toby is not afraid of the dark anymore. He used to be, but that was when he was a baby. Now, he is five and a half years old, and his Grandpa says that soon he’ll be old enough to shoot a rifle. Grandpa showed him his rifle the last time he visited, but he did not let him shoot it. He looked up at his Grandpa, who looms over him like a grizzled giant with a shiny, red nose, and he almost pouted like a little girl. He kept his cool, though, because he is a big boy now.
Big Boys do not pout like little girls…
And they are never afraid of the dark.
Toby looks a little like Howdy Doody, but he is Buffalo Bob in his imagination. When he dresses himself, he always chooses his Buffalo Bob cowboy shirt and jeans. The shirt is red fabric with white fringe that forms a V shape over his chest. He had a cowboy hat that went with the outfit, but Bart stole it from him the last time he slept over at Bart’s house. Bart almost takes something from him: Baseball cards, chewing gum, plastic six-shooters, and even his Green Stamps Saver Book. Toby hated to lose the green stamps as much as the cowboy hat. He had been so close to getting the big prize, but what could he do? Grandpa calls Bart a “blockhead,” and perhaps he is, but calling him a name does not diminish the size of his fist.
Toby awakens in front of the Zenith TV set. Most nights, there are only one or two hours of programming: Howdy Doody, Texaco Star Theater, George Burns. Toby is not supposed to watch George Burns. His mama calls him a “dirty Jew.” Toby does not know what that means, except that it is pretty bad. Regardless, Toby usually falls asleep before George and Gracie come on the TV, and when he wakes up there is just screen static. That TV is static most of the time, and Grandpa calls it a “Commie Box” that is “never going to replace the good, old-fashioned radio.” Mama bought a Zenith anyway, and she watches it every night while drinking a bottle of Jack Daniels. Most nights, mama falls asleep before Toby does, and she often spills some of that Jack on the sofa cushion next to her. That cushion stinks like something from a wood barrel.
Toby sits up, and rubs the sleepy out of his eyes. The TV static casts a grayish blue luminescence across the living room. It is like the night Grandpa took Toby to a hospital because mama had fallen flat on her face. Grandpa had to hold his hand, for he was still a little squirt then, but Toby still recalls how everything in that cramped room looked like it had been dyed sickly blue. He had been so scared he had started to cry, and Grandpa had had to take him out to the hall. Toby is pretty sure he would not cry now, because he is no longer a little squirt. Still, the grayish blue light from a static screen bothers him, and he is quick to turn off the TV.
The living room is dark and still. There is a soft glow of moonlight filtering in through the drawn window shutters, but it is barely enough to illuminate a Victorian lampshade on that side of the room. The rest of the room is hidden beneath a murky, cold veil. There are darker shapes that stand out from the blackness. When he was a baby, Toby used to think that they are monsters. He would run past them on his way to bed, so that they could not reach out and snatch him back into the living room. He knows better now. The darker shapes are items of furniture, and if he stares at them long enough he will be able to perceive them for what they are. Grandpa says that all eyes are like babies. Give them some time, and eventually they grow up into big boys like Toby. Then, those eyes can see things they never could have seen before. Like in the Bible Toby has heard in Sunday school: “For once I was blind, but now I can see.”
Toby stands up. He walks passed the sofa on his way to the hall. He can make out his mama. She is seated on the sofa with her feet up on the coffee table. The Jack is all over the cushion beside her, and the empty bottle is on the floor. She is looking down at her waist. She is wearing the same white blouse, flared, pink skirt, and dark shoes she has on every morning when she goes to work. Mama is an operator for Ma Bell. Bart teases Toby relentlessly, because Toby has a mama who has to go to work. Bart likes to say, “Dial 0 for Mama.” That makes all the kids laugh, but what can Toby do? Bart is cruel, but he is right. None of the other kids have mamas who go to work.
Once, Toby asked Grandpa why mama has to be different. All of the others on the block are like June Cleaver. They have pretty hairdos, and wear pearls over their dresses while vacuuming or baking cookies. Bart’s mama puts M&M’s inside each of the chocolate chip cookies she bakes. She calls them “American cookies,” and says if Bart eats all of his “American food” then someday he can go into the Marines like his old man. Bart’s old man is dead. The Marines sent him to another planet in the solar system called Korea, and the aliens over there killed him. Bart says it is like when an alien zaps the hero with a ray gun in the comic books. Toby does not know anything about that, because he is not allowed to read those kinds of books. Grandpa told him they are full of “misinformation,” whatever that means, and promised that someday, when Toby is older, he will give Toby better books he got from “Brother John Birch.”
When Toby asked Grandpa why mama has to be different, Grandpa looked at him a long while and then said, “Some gals marry right, and some are whores.” Toby does not know what a “whore” is, but the way Grandpa said the word it is probably a lot like a “dirty Jew.” Toby is starting to realize that there are bad things in the world that have nothing to do with night monsters and comic book aliens. He knows about these bad things because he is a big boy now. He can handle them, like he can handle the dark. This is what it means to be a cowboy wearing a Buffalo Bob shirt and jeans.
Toby turns back, and looks more closely at his mama. She is very still. Though this is not uncommon, especially when there is no more Jack in the bottle, Toby likes to see that her chest is moving up and down. He recalls watching his mama the same way when Grandpa took him back into the hospital room, after he was done bawling like a little girl. Toby had been mesmerized by her stillness. She looked like a big doll in a toy store, except that dolls do not have bruises all over their face. Toby imagined that he and his Grandpa would just leave her there. It would be like when he leaves a doll behind at a toy store. He never begs his mama or his Grandpa to purchase any of the dolls he sees there, because everyone knows that those dumb things are for little babies and girls. Toby finally saw her breathe. He was relieved, but also a little sad at that moment. He had thought maybe it would be just him and Grandpa from then on.
This time, Toby does not see his mama take a breath. It is possible that mama is breathing very gently. It is very dark, and unless Toby turns on the lamp he cannot tell for sure. If his mama is not breathing right, then he guesses she will be fine in the morning. Back when he was afraid of the dark, his mama used to hold him tight until he stopped crying. She would urge him to go back asleep. She said everything would be fine when the sun came up, and she was always right. Around the time mama had to go to the hospital, she stopped coming into his bedroom and holding him tight. He had to become a big boy, because his mama was no longer there for him. She was on this sofa instead, spilling her Jack on the cushion, and staring into the cold darkness.
Toby turns away from the sofa. He starts down the hall towards his bedroom.
The Zenith TV turns on. Unless mama got off the sofa, and walked all the way over to the TV in the last few seconds, it turned on by itself. Is that possible? Toby is not sure. He recalls reading one of Bart’s comic books during a sleepover. One of the books featured machines that turn themselves on and off. He thought at the time the machines were too scary, but he was careful not to cry. Bart would have beaten him silly if he had caught a whiff of the sissy in him.
Toby turns around, and slowly walks back into the living room. He hears and sees the static on the screen. The living room is cast in grayish blue light like before. He wonders how it is that it does not awaken his mama. He has seen her sleep like a rock before, so maybe that is the reason. He could look over to see if she is breathing already, but he does not. Part of him is too afraid to look, but also part of him is right now so mesmerized by the TV set. It is like the TV set had turned on for him. Maybe, that is what machines do for big boys. So much of life appears to be at your beck and call when you are a heroic gunslinger. Once he saw a cowboy knock over ten Indians with the back of his hand. That was one of the best TV shows, because it showed that a cowboy is pretty much invincible. So while what is happening now is strange, Toby is also excited. He grins as big as when he opened up his birthday presents. He tucks his thumbs into his waistband, like cowboys do, and walks on up to the static screen.
By the time Toby has reached the screen, a test card has replaced the static. It reads in diagonal letters: BIG BOY. This confirms what Toby had surmised. He smiles all the more while fixating on the image.
The test card vanishes. In its place is a man wearing a Buffalo Bob shirt. Toby senses that the man is a much older version of himself. The man is ancient, maybe as old as twenty or something. He has an affable smile. It is the kind of smile grown-ups have when trying to be friends with kids. His eyes are sinister, though. Toby is afraid of those eyes. He drops his grin, and steps back from the screen. He does not turn his face away, since that would be as much a sissy move as running to mama or bawling.
The man lifts his right hand. Toby sees that a puppet string is pulling it up. He looks more closely, and observes that there are puppet strings also behind the head, the shoulders, and the other hand. The man is a grown-up Howdy Doody, except this Howdy Doody has the eyes of an Indian villain or a pirate.
The man waves at Toby with his right hand. Toby waves back, but he cannot smile. He is still too afraid.
While the man begins to shake up and down in a simulation of a dance, there is the Howdy Doody theme song. The lyrics are different, though. Toby listens to the words carefully and starts to mouth with them: “It’s Big Boy Toby Time. It’s Big Boy Toby Time. Mama and Grandpa, too, say Toby-Do to you. Let’s give a rousing cheer, ‘cause Big Boy Toby’s here. It’s time to start the show, so friend let’s go.”
The song is done. The man lowers his hands, and focuses on the scared boy in the living room. The man plasters on a clownish grin. He speaks animatedly, but also slowly, so that the boy can follow every word.
“Howdy-do, Buckaroo!” The man says. “Do you know who I am?”
Toby is speechless, but he is afraid not to answer. He subtly nods his head. He releases pee into his undershorts. Normally, he would be mortified as this little baby behavior, but he is too frightened at the moment to care about anything else. He just stares back at the TV set with rapt attention.
“I’m the Big Boy You!” The man says. “I have my own horse named Boppity-Boo, and a pair of silver six-shooters just brand new!”
Toby smiles. He imagines owning his own horse and a pair of six-shooters. He could kill a whole lot of Indians and Outlaws with those items, and Bart would never again get to mess with him. This old version of himself is better than Roy Rogers and Superman combined.
The man lowers his chin into both of his open palms, and he frowns. There is that cartoonish trombone sound effect: “Wah! Wah! Wah! Wah!”
“But I’m not happy,” the man pouts. “Do you know why?”
Toby does not know. He simply stares back at the TV set.
“I had a bad mama,” the man whines. “She was different. She was not like any of the good mamas on TV.”
Toby frowns. He feels tears sliding down his cheek.
“She told Bart to take away my cowboy hat,” the man cries. “And my baseball cards, my chewing gum, my plastic six-shooters, and my big boy Green Stamps Saver Book. Boo Hoo!”
Toby straightens his frown. His sadness is turning into anger. He wipes away his tears. Does the Lone Ranger cry like a baby when he is mad at one of the Indians?
“My mama told my Grandpa never to let me shoot his rifle,” the man cries out in shame. “She treats me like I’m a little baby or a girl. Wah! Wah!”
Toby feels red-hot fire rushing into his cheeks. He is madder than he has ever been. He hates his mama at that moment.
“Oh, and she drinks every night,” the man continues. “Never tucks me into my bed, or sings me lullabies, or kisses my boo-boos.”
The man lowers his hands. He is no longer sad. He is instead as mad as a hell hornet. Toby has been stung by a hornet before, so he knows what that is like. For a moment, he is frightened of all that anger, but then he feels really good about it. The man is feeling what he is feeling. They are on the same team. In a way, it is like Toby is also an ancient man, maybe as old as twenty or something. Toby feels stronger. If he wanted, he could take on every comic book villain in the universe, including even the ones with super ray guns.
“She is a whore,” the man snarls. “A dirty Jew. Do you know what that is?”
Toby does not know those words, but he knows that they are bad. He knows his mama is bad. She is the worst of the bad guys.
As if the man can read Toby’s thoughts, he articulates with words the vicious, raw anger that is pumping through the big boy’s veins. He speaks the emotions of an ugly beast. He is luring the big boy into a demented vision of manhood for which the boy lacks the experience and the maturity to put into context. The big boy is trapped but feels himself to be deliriously free and empowered.
“I’ll give you the answer,” the man remarks with a smirk. “She is an Indian, an Outlaw, a playground bully ready to hit you in the face.”
The moonlight moves from the Victorian lampshade to the coffee table. Toby looks over and sees a pistol beside his mama’s feet. It glistens in the moonlight. It is the most beautiful thing he has ever seen.
“So what are you going to do about it, big boy?” The man asks.
Toby steps over to the coffee table. He picks up the pistol. It fits his hand just right. He used to fire his plastic six-shooters all the time before Bart stole them, and he has seen a lot of cowboys on the TV fire theirs. He knows what to do, even if he is not yet big enough to target shoot with his Grandpa’s rifle.
Toby is no longer facing the TV screen. The puppet strings pull up and down the man’s head, shoulders, and hands, and he again does the simulated dance. There is that Howdy Doody music with the new lyrics: “It’s Big Boy Toby Time. It’s Big Boy Toby Time. Mama and Grandpa, too, say Toby-Do to you. Let’s give a rousing cheer, ‘cause Big Boy Toby’s here. It’s time to start the show, so friend let’s go.”
While the song plays behind him, Toby stands directly across from his mama. He reaches across the coffee table with both hands on the pistol. He views his mama illuminated by the moonlight. She is breathing, but not for long…
The song echoes in Toby’s mind. His face is a ghoulish contortion of fear and anger. Tears flow down his cheeks, and his whole body shakes; but he is committed to go through with this deed. He is a big boy, a cowboy, and he will not retreat to his bedroom like a baby or a girl in leaky diapers.
Toby pulls back on the hammer with his left hand, and pulls the trigger with his right index finger. He does it just like he has seen it done on the TV, but nothing happens. There is a click, but nothing is fired. There is not even any gun smoke. He fires again, and again, and again, but apart from a click each time the pistol is dead.
Mama awakens. She switches on the lamp beside her. Though she barely can keep her dreamy eyes open, she sees Toby repeatedly firing a plastic toy six-shooter at her chest. Toby’s face is consumed with madness, and the grayish blue light from the TV static behind him has illuminated his flesh into something cold and demonic.
Mama screams in fear, and then gets a hold of her emotions. She snatches the toy pistol out of Toby’s hands. He continues to reach out with both hands and to pull back an invisible trigger. He fires this ghost pistol over and over towards where she had been sitting on the sofa just a moment earlier.
Mama runs over to the TV set. She turns it off. She looks back at her son, who is clearly out of his mind. She comes up to him, gets on her knees, and hugs him very closely from behind. She sobs uncontrollably upon the top of his head. She does not know what this means or what to do, so she will just hold him near until he is done.
Toby does not feel her tears. He just looks blankly ahead and keeps firing.