Puff the Magic Dragon was being sued for child endangerment. Johnny Paper's mother was crying on TV. Her son had returned home hours past his bedtime with burns on his arms.
On the stand, Johnny said he'd had an accident cooking marshmallows with his friends. But no one believed him because Puff was turning the courtroom into a ball of smoke. It was something with his nerves. I myself was treated for smoke inhalation twice during the proceeding.
I was the court stenographer at the time. I had a black typewriter on a pedestal and tapped out everything I heard before it even registered in my brain. It got to me, documenting all those broken lives. I started to think the world was a mess of betrayal and began walking around angry myself. Still, the job paid for a little apartment with a garden I could think in.
You lived there too, of course. You were working the night shift at a diner downtown. In the morning I'd pack my lunch and kiss you on the cheek. You'd shoo me away from the bed with drowsy hands.
The trial was never going to end. It was the most famous case of the century and the TV cameras were everywhere. Dueling psychologists gave testimonies on either the fundamental importance of imagination and play or of order and responsibility. There were so many experts and witnesses that everyone was given crib notes to keep track. My fingers grew stiff from typing and I had to soak them in a bowl of warm milk during recess.
The century was coming to an end and sometimes it felt like everything was changing. My walk home from court was filled with new shopkeepers and newspapermen who wouldn't look their customers in the eye. Both of our mothers had been laid in the ground. Old friends had blown away like paper bags. The trial ended one day but immediately went to appeals. Puff was found guilty and then innocent and then guilty again. The juries couldn't decide if he was a menace or merely had the appearance of menace, like squirt toys shaped like pistols. In the end they banned him and then banned everything else involved just to be safe.
Johnny Paper never forgave his mother. He flew away to another country and left her weeping on talk shows about those who'd turned her boy against her. This was the way of things. It was an era without forgiveness.
You and I had known each other since we were little children. I remember the day I yanked off your barrettes and you chased me down and kissed me beneath the monkey bars. It was a different time now. The other day I asked you to help me clean the dishes and you blew a cloud of cigarette smoke right into my face.
Lincoln Michel is a co-editor of Gigantic and the books editor of The Faster Times. His work appears in NOON, The Oxford American, The Believer, elimae, and elsewhere. He blogs at lincolnmichel.com.