‘Nice pogo-stick,’ she heard herself saying.
‘Thanks,’ he smirked, bouncing up and down in front of her. ‘Climb on and I’ll give you a ride.’
To clutch his leather-clad chest and lean her head against his broad shoulders as they hunched over his mighty machine and guided it capably through long lazy leaping parabolas, to spring off who knew where and never look back … it must be the closest thing to flying … For a moment she surrendered herself to the daydream, but it could not be.
‘I don’t think my boyfriend would like that,’ she quivered.
‘I ain’t asking him.’ Bouncing in place hands-free, he took out a comb and used it to primp both his hair and his sneer.
‘What she means,’ volunteered Rita shrilly, ‘is that a straight-A student and treasurer of the Junior Committee to Fry the Rosenbergs cannot go about with an uncouth pogo stick hoodlum!’
Johnny popped gum at her insolently, boinging about. He circled them a while, pinning Nancy with his dangerous dark eyes; then, with a negligent wave, acknowledged the impatient calls and derisive whistles of the rest of the pogo-pack jumping up and down like a panful of popcorn on the other side of the street, and with a final smouldering glance, bounded off.
‘That boy is pure riff-raff,’ said Rita, tilting her nose primly. ‘But I must admit he has something,’ she conceded in a grudging undertone.
As she watched him springing away down the street like some impossibly graceful kangaroo, Nancy knew exactly what it was Johnny had. Johnny had bounce.
Rita was right, she supposed. The adolescent pogo gangs were abhorred by all decent people. Everyone had come to dread the menacing boings and sinister squeaks of their approach as they leapt through town like a plague of grasshoppers. They would bounce right through drug stores knocking things off shelves, or snatch people’s hats and put them on high ledges only they could reach. At the drive-in, they would stand at the back and pogo up and down so their bobbing heads cast shadows on the screen. The chamber of commerce had censured them, and it was said that the town of Normal would shortly become the first municipality to outlaw pogoing within the city limits.
Reverend Stone had denounced pogo sticks as the devil’s work—and Khruschev’s. ‘This infernal machine is undermining our youth! It agitates the loins and its rhythm is the rhythm of fornication! Surely it is written: “Ye shalt go upon the ground, one foot before the other, and your height above the ground shall be constant. Ye shalt not spring up and down like a jackass. Burn ye as witches they that seem to levitate, though it be but for a second, for no good can come from it and it is the stuff of Communism.”‘ Nancy suspected the pastor of having made up most of these scriptures.
And of all the disaffected youth springing free on the margins of the law, Johnny was the jumpiest of them all. They said there was nothing he couldn’t do with that long hard tireless third leg of his. They said he had learned to pogo from a blind negro master, who had himself sold his soul to the devil for his talents. They said he maintained his leadership of the pack by seeing off challengers in games of chicken, pogoing across the railway bridge over the river at midnight, when a freight train was due and where one wrong hop could send you plummeting to your doom …
Deep down he had the soul of a poet, she knew. In a series of mumbled conversations that summer, he overcame his truculent inarticulacy long enough to try to teach her the Zen of Pogo, that for every up there was a down and vice versa. He said that a man at one with his stick was master of the universe, and need fear nothing but gratings and low doorways.
The pole cats had their own inventive hep-talk, and said things like ‘Later, oscillator’ and ‘Always be nice to people on the way up.’ They just wanted to be wild and high, however briefly. Some girls were drawn to them. She had seen them clinging to their bouncing backs with a pang of envy. It was even said they did the deed on pogo sticks, thereby joining something known as the Three Feet High Club.
But that gypsy life was not for such as her. What could life be like with him? He was never parted from his stick and probably slept clinging to it like a sloth to a branch. What future could there be with a boy like that?
Things finally came to a head when he bounced round to her house one night after school.
‘Get off my lawn, you bum!’ her father cried. ‘You’re leaving divots.’
Privately, Nancy thought there was something strangely sensual about the steamhammer way he was pounding the turf.
‘Don’t burst a vessel, pops,’ he drawled. ‘Hey Nancy! Will you come to the hop with me?’
‘Johnny, forget about me! I’m going steady with Brad! I can never see you, ever!’
He looked at her, hurt welling in his eyes, then assumed a mask of surly indifference and pogoed forlornly off. Some of the spring had gone out of him and he barely made it over the white picket fence.
Up on McKinley Bluff, Nancy watched the sunset from the front seat of Brad’s safe, boring V8 hotrod.
‘Isn’t it wonderful?’ she sighed as the solar orb slid below the horizon, distant hills and the miniaturised town laid out neatly beneath them.
Brad nodded. ‘It’s like a giant fried egg dripping over a meatloaf,’ he said fondly, salivating a little. ‘We should eat soon.’ He took a contented swig from a flask of his father’s liquor and again tried to force it on her. The mayor’s spoiled son and the captain of the football team, his hulking physique was already running to seed from several forms of self-indulgence. She tried to picture him perched on a pogo and had an image of it crumpling beneath him or being driven into the ground like a shooting stick. The only springs he was interested in exercising were the ones in his car’s suspension, if she gave him the chance.
She extricated herself from his enveloping arm and slid further along the seat in irritation. ‘Don’t you ever think about anything but your appetites?’
‘Loosen up, babe. I got you a present.’ He opened a little box that had a dull gleam inside, cheaper and nastier than the one in his eye. ‘I want to give you this.’
‘Brad! Are you trying to—’
‘It’s a Maybe ring. It means you’re my girl so long as you put out and no one better shows up. Think of it as a kind of first-refusal sticker.’
Nancy gasped and slapped him ringingly. ‘Of all the conceited nerve—’
All of a sudden Brad was a wild animal, seizing her and shaking her and pinning her to the seat beneath his pressing weight. She averted her face from his stench of booze as he crushed his slobbering mouth to hers.
‘Let go of me!’
‘You stuck-up broad! Who are you saving it up for? No one holds out on Brad Terwilliker!’
Slapping and clawing, Nancy knew a moment of terror as her dress began to tear beneath his fumbling paws.
‘The lady said no.’
The voice out of the night was calm, collected, but unmistakably menacing.
It was Johnny Wild, all lean and lithe six feet, nine feet, six feet, nine feet of him as he bounced up and down, taut, dangerous, and springy in the twilight.
Brad looked up in rage. ‘You! Get out of here, punk, if you know what’s good for you.’
‘Why don’t you try and plant a kiss on me, Brad, I’m nearer your size.’
Nancy shouted a warning. ‘Johnny, be careful, he’s mean as a snake and drunk as a skunk.’
‘Siding with him, are you?’ Mouth twitching and eyes bloodshot with fury as he took in her treachery, Brad wrenched open the door and hurled her sprawling to the ground. ‘Go, then! Go with your beatnik jumping jack, you pogo-whore!’
Johnny stopped hopping and helped her up. She clung to him, trembling, her heart pogoing as he laid a protective arm around her. A wordless look passed between them, rudely interrupted by a roar of engines and screech of tyres. They were framed by blazing headlamps. Brad had reversed his hotrod and slewed it round until it faced them head on. He grinned malevolently as he gunned the engine and floored the accelerator.
‘I’ll give you both a kiss you won’t forget!’
Johnny yanked her out of the way and the car flew narrowly past. He scooped her up under one arm and in three long springs had deposited her in the safety of the treeline. Then he bounced back dauntlessly to face their tormentor, and she could only watch, helplessly wringing her hands as the deadly duel began.
‘Come on then, Brad. You and me, mano a mano.’
Brad had already spun the car around for another pass. Johnny sprang aside at the last possible moment; Brad skidded around, snarling, and lost control of his car for a second, sending up plumes of grit and dust. In the arena of the little plateau, Nancy saw a drama like a bullfight being enacted, Brad’s car the thundering taurine, Johnny the taunting torero planting his banderilla, time and again darting in to stand in the way of onrushing destruction, facing down its charge, dancing away again with an inch to spare. Brad had the face of a maddened bull now; Johnny’s had attained to the almost yogi-like serenity of a man completely at one with his stick, absorbed almost mystically in its quivering vibrations.
But if he made just one mistake …
Then it happened. Johnny seemed to hesitate fatally and then Brad had him boxed in on a little jut of ground at the lip of the cliff edge, no time to escape, no place left to bounce, frozen like a rabbit in the headlights, a jackrabbit come to earth at last, Brad hollering triumphantly as the car rushed towards him … Then Johnny was leaping like Nijinsky, a vertical take-off reaching almost five feet into the air from a standing start, and before her gaping eyes was spinning in a graceful somersault, Brad’s mouth sagging as the pogo flew above him, Johnny’s eyes unpitying as the car shot beneath …
Headlights lanced the sky crazily for a moment as the hotrod shot off the clifftop. Far below, there was a sickening crunch, an explosion and a bloom of orange flame.
‘Johnny!’ She threw herself against him, shuddering with relief. Holding her, he gazed down grimly at the burning pyre of his defeated adversary.
‘There’s no going back for us now,’ he said. ‘Normal’s too hot to hold us. Will you come with me?’
She nodded wordlessly, gazing into his eyes, which held hers steadily, and then somewhat less steadily as he started to bounce again.
‘Then get on. We’ve got the whole world to choose from. We can head out to California, maybe. We could find work jumping up and down on wine grapes, or Communists. We can go anywhere we damn well please.’
She climbed on his back and sunk her sighing head against his leather shoulders as she clung. Together they took off for the open road and freedom, heading for the distant horizon, one hop at a time.