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Look Out! (Pink Elephants on Parade)

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There was a kind of vertigo that came, on dull speechless afternoons or deep smoke-punctuated nights, from looking down at Joe's pages.

Like the scene was much, much bigger than it looked, like if Sammy leant further in he was in danger of toppling forward and falling all the way to that sketchy pavement. The knowledge that these words and shapes would work their way through the eyes and minds of the juvenile reading public was something he took as a matter of course until, in moments like this, it made the soles of his feet itch.

It was the knowledge that this fantastic city, a fever dream stamped on paper, folded cleverly around the steel and concrete of New York so that on the best days you could almost believe it possible to turn a corner like a page, to step out under the defiant blue skies of that world where every problem was a keyhole with a corresponding key, was in his hands. He felt it more than ever that day, pacing the office, looking out at the pale September streets and trying with all his might to come up with something worthy of his cousin's pen.

Tracy Bacon, naturally, chose that moment to burst in on him and demand that they go and do something. 'Come on,' he said, with his unerring ability to sense Sammy's dissatisfaction and turn it around; 'what's the use in sitting up here writing about the people of Empire City unless you get out and live their lives? Doing things normal people do, that's practically research.’

'And what do normal people do?'

'They go to the pictures. Come on, there's a matinee of Dumbo at the Broadway.'

'No,' said Sammy. 'Absolutely not. Anything but Dumbo.'

But as usual, he could have said anything: Bacon was unswayable.

The film was charming, even Sammy had to admit. He was uncertain about Disney; the undeniable magic of its animators’ pens impeded by the embarrassment of talking animals and sentimental ever-afters. Fantasia had frustrated him, its wonderful marriage of color and sound indentured in service to self-absorbed centaurs and Mickey goddamn Mouse. But Dumbo’s eponymous pachyderm was hard to dislike, and the sound and motion of the circus was faultless. True, he had only half his attention on the movie, half on the wonder of Tracy Bacon’s presence, the sudden weight of the other’s hand over his own on the worn-out armrest between them.

The papers were to largely agree with Sammy’s assessment, although some would go on to deny any enjoyment of the sequence that, heralded by the toppling of a bottle of champagne into a barrel of water, was now unfolding on the screen. Perhaps if the young elephant had learned that drunkenness was a terrible ordeal, his hallucinatory adventure would have been forgiven; instead it was volatile but exuberantly so, intoxicating in its own right, and – worst of all – rewarded with self-discovery.

‘Ah,’ huffed Bacon suddenly, raising one finger in a that-reminds-me attitude.

He took his other hand away from Sammy’s and slid it theatrically into his coat. In the cartoon shadows cast by the screen he looked a little like an extension of the movie, a sideshow trickster ready to produce something impossible. Sammy very nearly expected a full course meal on gleaming platters pulled prestidigitator-like from his pockets and spread surreally on their knees, on the arms and backs of chairs, but when Bacon withdrew his hand it held a darkly glinting champagne bottle.

'You're a madman,' Sammy whispered, as Bacon furrowed his brow and tugged at the cork. It came away quietly - had he worked it free in his pocket beforehand?

'But you can't say I don't know how to treat a boy,' he whispered back, and Sammy's heart swooped.

They had been careful, to a fault, in what they said to one another, never wholly confronting nor avoiding the matter, the protective sheeting of gaiety thrown over any conversation that veered close; a sham of surprise when, on finding themselves secluded, hands or lips happened to meet. Tracy Bacon's particular talent was to flirt so offhandedly that it was hard to be alarmed – it was natural to be enchanted by him; everybody was.

But not everybody found themselves in the back row of the Broadway, on a bleak September afternoon, being handed an improbably cool bottle of champagne by a Tracy Bacon apparently intent on turning his companion to jelly. Sammy’s good judgment, which had been teetering tightrope-like ever since their fingers had touched, overbalanced, and he took a too-fast sip that set him coughing. His good fortune was to have timed this perfectly to coincide with a billow of laughter across the floor, as the jacketed mouse on screen floated skywards, embracing a resiliently elastic bubble. Dumbo, realizing that the stuff of reality was suddenly pliant, blew a square bubble, and then one that wobbled and spiked into the shape of an elephant.

The crowd was in raptures. Bacon retrieved the bottle and took an easy draught, then put his free hand over Sammy’s shoulder.

His words from earlier swam in Sammy's head: things normal people do.

It was Bacon, always Bacon, who was the first to leap into these moments, pulling Sammy with him. Sammy had thought - insofar as he had ever allowed himself to think about it - that if he were ever the one to take the plunge it would have to be a million miles from anyone, somewhere impossible to find, perhaps in space. Here, now, they were surrounded by people - young men and women, children - and Sammy peered around to see if anyone was looking at them. He could make out the shapes of heads and shoulders, indistinct arrangements in some places that could have been someone leaning their head on another's shoulder - and he realised that he and Bacon must be, might be, he hoped - god, he hoped - similarly indistinguishable.

And so, in the dark, surrounded by people on every side, as ghostly pink elephants marched in step towards them, and with another swig of champagne fizzing in his mouth, Sammy turned, leaned up, and kissed Bacon on the mouth and did not stop until what felt like years later. He sat wondering as, on screen, a pair of tangerine elephants shook in gaudy rhythm, plucking electricity from the air and refashioning it into a lightning boa.

Everything, he suddenly felt, was going to be just fine.