Though I tried to clear my head of the effects of the fat, resiny doobie I’d polished off an hour before, things were still fuzzy as I stumbled into senior counselor Jeff DeMouy’s office. I had learned the hard way that Mrs. Schmidt, my physics teacher, was less naive than her Laura Ashley wardrobe suggested. I made the mistake of arriving in her class sporting quartersized pupils and a British Sterling–drenched blue jean jacket. In a random sweep of her classroom, she paused at my desk, sniffed, ordered me to remove my sunglasses, then filled out the forms necessary to land me here.
Wakefield High’s powers that be, having exhausted all other options in their losing war against us stoners (including locker-by-locker searches, drug-sniffing dogs, and Untouchables-style police raids), were now playing hardball. By order of the principal, I was shuffled off to DeMouy, a UC Berkeley product reputed to be an earth goddess–worshipping, bee pollen–eating, swimming-with-the-dolphins New Age flake. I braced for descent into a touchy-feely hell presided over by a lisping sage who would suggest I give myself a big hug. “Go ahead,” I could already hear him saying. “You deserve your share of happiness.”
To DeMouy’s credit, his office contained no posters of grumpy bulldogs or gorillas with “I hate Mondays” slogans on them. In this respect he had already exceeded the expectations I had for most educators. His office had more of a comfy, oolong-scented seventies feel: lots of plants and a humidifier purring away on top of a file cabinet. One of those environmental sound-effects recordings was evidently being played; I could make out the sounds of waves breaking on the beach, and we were a good three miles from the ocean. All in all, a grand spot to ride out the rest of my high. Through my pleasant dizziness and a potted cactus on his desk, I could see only the back of a manila folder labeled YORK, STEVEN R.
“Tea, Mr. York?” DeMouy asked as he lowered the folder. “It might help you come down a bit.”
DeMouy looked nothing like I had imagined from the reports I had received from my brethren. This was our new hippie counselor? Surfer confidant? The man before me wore a woolly, regimental-striped tie with a teed-up golf ball monogram.
“No,” I said, trying to look impatient. “Just put me in detention. I’ll try to get in touch with my feelings there.”
“Humor me for a few minutes.”
“Okeydokey,” I said, slouching a bit further down in my chair and staring unmistakably at the clock above him. DeMouy sipped an obscure Asian blend from a Far Side mug and read from my folder.
“You don’t much care for school, do you?”
I deadpanned concern. “Is it obvious?”
“Well, let’s see here,” he said, thumbing through my portfolio. “In less than a semester you’ve tallied one in possession and three under the influences. This is doubly impressive when one considers the nine days of class you’ve missed… ostensibly for health reasons.”
He paused to see if I had a reaction. I didn’t.
“And then there are the comments on your report card: ‘lacks motivation,’ ‘doesn’t turn in homework,’ ‘falls asleep in class.’”
“Look, this is helping me out quite a bit, but could you just get to the punishment part? We’re at the end of World War Two in history, and I can’t wait to find out who wins.”
DeMouy shook his head. “You’re not in my office because you’re high, Steve. For that they just keep sticking you in detention until you see the error of your ways. What I’m interested in is how this is possible.”
He threw an envelope across his desk. I eyed it cautiously.
The letter was addressed generically to Guidance Counselor, Wakefield High School; the return address said National Testing Service. It was a press release identifying two of Wakefield’s finest as National Merit finalists, some Allison Kimble as well as one presently detained pothead.
“Those results could be your ticket into an Ivy League school, but the C’s you’re making in the classes you still bother to show up for around here aren’t helping your case any,” DeMouy said.
“Four years without any activities might not have them scrambling for their acceptance forms either,” I suggested, though I was busy picturing myself with a sweater tied around my neck, sailing with Kennedys, desecrating human remains in some arcane Skull and Bones initiation rite.
“What happened in Texas?”
“What do you mean?” I stalled, startled by the new direction of his questioning.
“When this came in I was so sure they had the wrong Steve York that I did some checking into your records. According to your transcripts, you had a 4.0 through your first five semesters of high school. Near-perfect attendance. Then, the last semester of your junior year, it just falls apart. You even failed English III. Do you mind telling me how someone who makes a 760 verbal on his SAT fails English?”
“I couldn’t make it all the way through The Outsiders again,” I said. Suddenly I wasn’t very comfortable in DeMouy’s office.
DeMouy continued digging through my folder. “Your father is Alan York the astronaut.”
“Is that a question?”
“Was he the third or fourth man to walk on the moon?” he said. “That is a question.”
“I’ll have to go home and check the trophy case. Though if you hear him tell the story, you’d swear he was first. This third or fourth thing may come as a big disappointment to him.”
“You sound like you resent him.”
“I don’t anything him.”
“Do you still think of Texas as home?” DeMouy asked.
I had moved to San Diego from Houston at the beginning of the summer. The astronaut had fought desperately for custody of me at the divorce hearing four years before. Sarah, my younger sister, was free to move with Mom to California, but the old man thought my future too important to trust to any non-hero. I was his heir. As such, I would be disciplined. I would study hard, excel in sports, choose my friends carefully, choose my college even more carefully. In short, bring glory to the York name.
I relocated to California after taking the last final exam of my junior year. I didn’t go home or ask permission. I walked out of class, got in my El Camino, and drove twenty-seven hours nonstop until I reached the Pacific Ocean. The astronaut didn’t even put up much of a fight when Mom called and told him I planned on staying. I imagine he had already seen his best laid plans turn to shit. My move allowed him the consolation of getting to share the blame.
“Where is home?”
I couldn’t help it. I saw Dub’s bedroom: the floor covered with jeans, T-shirts, and bras; the corkboard south wall supporting hundreds of tacked-on photographs, poems, and matchbooks from every club and roadside attraction Dub visited; her milk-crate-and-plywood desk supporting her prized PC; and most importantly, the door leading to her backyard. Always accessible, day or night—home.
“Wherever I lay my hat,” I answered.
DeMouy glanced up from my file, but he kept his composure. I was certain the teen-hating, self-important, petty bureaucrat trapped inside the bodies of all educational administrators would soon appear. He scribbled something on a yellow legal pad.
“Do you realize you will be one English credit short at the end of the semester?” DeMouy asked.
“Yeah,” I said casually, though I had been dreading that particular hurdle since transferring.
“Maybe we could work something out that would allow you to graduate on time,” DeMouy said.
“Such as… ?”
I assumed he would want me to sign some sort of contract, something on official-looking stationery promising I wouldn’t show up to school stoned. I’d sign it. I’d sign a contract promising not to breathe until graduation if it meant getting out of summer school.
“I want you to write a paper.”
“How long does it have to be?”
“One hundred pages—”
“That’s one hundred typewritten pages. You do have a choice. Summer school would probably be easier.”
“You don’t want a paper; you want a novel.”
“You get to choose the topic,” DeMouy continued. “It can be fiction or nonfiction, an action adventure, a tale of teen angst and neglected cries for help. Though I would suggest you choose a topic you know something about.”
“Who’s going to grade this? If it’s Mrs. Croslin, it can be a grocery list as long as I punctuate it correctly.”
“You’ll turn pages in to me, five to ten at a time,” DeMouy said.
“Are you sure you’re qualified? I mean, did all those years spent probing the teen mind leave any room for a true appreciation of literature?”
“I can manage. My first six years out of college I taught English. Now, I’ve never worked with a prodigy before, so you’ll excuse me if I occasionally fail to grasp some of your especially esoteric passages.”
Mrs. Martin, the school’s human pumpkin of an attendance secretary, marched in without knocking. I could hear her panty hose–encased thighs rub together as she moved past me to hand a note to DeMouy. Through the open door I could see Sarah. Now if the principal were at all fearful of me, the bad seed, he should have been doubly so of Sarah. Ranked number one in her class and the first junior to be elected student council president, my sister wasn’t satisfied with the ritual duties and perks her office bestowed upon her. Under her leadership, the student council no longer hung spirit posters or sold M&M’s to pay for homecoming decorations. Earlier in the year she organized a walkout to call attention to the asbestos-laden dust being stirred up by the contractors who were charged with removing the offending tiles. Sixty percent of the student body didn’t return after lunch. CNN even did a forty-five-second piece on it that included a fifteen-second soundbite from Sarah. That particular episode resulted in a call from the astronaut warning her that prestigious colleges didn’t accept radicals. I think he was embarrassed because they identified her as his daughter.
Sarah spotted me in DeMouy’s office and rolled her eyes. She rubbed one extended index finger across the other. Everything the astronaut wanted in his son had been inherited by his daughter, but the old man was too dumb to notice it. If another York were destined to walk on the moon, it was Sarah, not me.
“You’ll be the only one who’ll read it?” I asked DeMouy. My quick return to the subject at hand, I realized, was a potentially ruinous deviation from thrust-and-parry protocol involved in negotiations with adults.
“Promise,” he assured.
“I’ll think about it,” I said coolly, picking myself up out of the chair and heading for the door.
“Don’t think about it for too long. It’s a limited time offer.”
• • •
No one was around when I arrived home after school. This was the norm. Sis was out harassing school board members… something about vegetarian lunches in the cafeteria. Mother could have been anywhere in the hemisphere. Her marriage three years ago to a pilot for Delta had been a nonstop honeymoon. The fact that she married a commercial pilot impressed me as Mom’s ultimate slap in the astronaut’s face. I mean, talk about a giant leap down the scale of aeronautic nobility just to make a point. But month after month of weekend trips to Aspen or Acapulco had convinced Sarah and me there was more to her choosing this new husband, this “Chuck,” than simply the revenge factor. I was lucky. I had only been constant witness to the past five months of the union. Sarah said during the first year she couldn’t go anywhere with them—let alone have friends over—for fear the two would play tongue hockey in front of everyone.
I have always been, with the exception of students who failed a grade, the oldest in my class by at least a month. That may help explain, in part, why I’m so anxious to get out of high school. I’m nearly two years older than Sarah, though she’s only one grade behind me. See, the astronaut thought I needed to be held back so that I would be more competitive in sports. Had I any interest in sports, I might be grateful; but as it stands, it will take me an extra year to get on with my life. Besides, I’ve hardly “filled out,” as adults say of teen girls who get their breasts and boys whose arms, legs, and torso gain definition and sprout hair. Au contraire… sleek, lean, rangy all describe this physique, that is if you’re kind. Skinny, bony, scrawny, gawky will work if you’re not. Other than my pronounced lack of heft, I’m pretty nondescript: five-eleven, longish wavy brown hair, acne declining, wispy traces of headbanger mustache long since shaved off.
I’m “gifted.” I know this because I was tested in junior high. Twelve of us so designated were isolated in separate classes, taught Latin phrases, allowed to use expensive telescopes, taken on field trips to ballets, and labeled complete geeks by our classmates. I’m sure the mental picture I’m creating is quite flattering: “Property of the Borg” T-shirt, overstuffed book bag. Am I close? I admit I’ve never been the dream date of anyone’s homeroom, but it’s not like I was the leading object of ridicule.
My ears are pierced, both of them. This in itself can be offered as explanation for the astronaut’s failure to put up a fight when I moved west. The first earring was a bit trendy, I admit, but in constantly looking for ways to exist outside the mainstream, I was quick to take Dub up on her offer to complete the set, which she did one night with a leather stitching needle, two ice cubes, a potato, and bottle of hydrogen peroxide. There are those males who merely fill ear holes with tiny stones hardly big enough to offend a marine. Not me. Most days I wear big hoops. When I combine the look with a doo rag, I’m a regular pirate.
I grabbed a sleeve of Lorna Doones from the pantry and made my way upstairs to my room. Switching on the Macintosh I had received for my thirteenth birthday in lieu of the CD player I had requested, I sat down at my desk. Ninety minutes later I was staring at the fireworks screen saver that kicks in after five minutes of inactivity.
My one explosion of insanely brilliant creativity came in the form of a title for a story about a young bohemian relishing his first taste of life on the highway.
A novel by Steve York
After that, little came to me. I tried to imagine my first night driving off into nowhere. Who would I meet? What would they look like? More important, what rudely formed yet priceless gems of wisdom would pass from these people of the earth to the wing-footed young traveler? I struggled with several opening sentences. I immediately deleted, with one exception, each attempt. Though it pains me to do this, I’ll offer one passage describing the “feel of the highway” that I saved for the comic-first-efforts preface to the posthumously issued Collected Works of Steve York.
He had been down roads to nowhere and alleys of sin. He had taken the high road and seen the light at the end of the tunnel, but only one stretch of pavement beckoned without respite—the one leading away from home.
Another thirty minutes passed.
Needing inspiration, I opened the dictionary, determined to begin my story with whatever word my finger landed on. I flipped to the middle and stabbed a page.
Oviparous: adj. Producing eggs that hatch outside the body.
Definitely time to give up. Reaching behind my Mac to switch it off, I remembered what DeMouy said before I left his office: Write about what I know. I’ve been told that a hundred times before. Sky said I needed to tattoo it to my right hand, so I would remember it every time I picked up a pen. “Science fiction,” he would say, “is the only genre open to you imaginationalists”—a term he used to define the school of writing he said I was pioneering. If anyone knew I wouldn’t have the stomach to write about spacemen, it was Sky.
Luke “Sky” Waters was the teacher of the creative writing elective I took the year before in Houston. In a way, Sky was more responsible than the astronaut for my relocation to California. He was Dub’s teacher, too.
Sky had also maintained that all “true” writers had had their hearts broken. According to Sky’s definition, I could become a writer now. My heart had been run through frappe, puree, and liquefy on a love blender. Dub had seen to that. Maybe I did have a topic capable of delivering me from summer school. I hoped DeMouy would appreciate what I was about to do. In order to bypass summer school, I was set to open wounds that had never really healed.
I began to type.
When Mom and the astronaut called Sarah and me into our Cocoa Beach, Florida (see I Dream of Jeannie), dining room to tell us they were getting a divorce, I admit I was shocked. I suppose I should have seen it coming, but the warning signs had been such a part of the status quo. I don’t remember them ever being affectionate. Fights were a rarity, though had Mom gotten her way, I’m sure there would have been more. Peace prevailed outwardly because the astronaut was concerned about public appearances and would concede anything to avoid a confrontation in front of strangers. From my bedroom, I once eavesdropped on a battle royale. By pressing my ear to the air duct, I could hear them arguing about my future in Little League baseball. Mom fought hard to get me out of a third season of humiliation. The astronaut thought the experience would teach me important lessons about “stick-to-itiveness,” teamwork, and self-confidence.
“Alan,” she yelled at him, “you can’t turn him into you.”
But his mind was made up, and the two hadn’t exactly set up their marriage as a democracy. I spent my third and final year of Little League alternating between right field (the least skill-intensive position and frequent spaz-repository) and the bench. Hearing Bobby Patton, our shortstop and cleanup hitter, beg the coach to bench me in an important game taught me volumes about self-confidence and teamwork.
Sarah, twelve at the time of the divorce conference, patted her father on the back (Mom actually did all the speaking. Alan was there to simulate a united front), and told him everything would work out for the best. I don’t understand why her empathy was wasted on that barely animate statue.
The astronaut and I moved to Houston a few weeks after the divorce was final, but only forty-eight hours before my first day of high school. Houston was home base of NASA, and I had lived there before, back when he was still reveling in the celebrity he scored for doing the slow-motion moon hop, but I was too young to remember much about it. Besides, learning about Houston proper would have done little to prepare me for life in the tony suburb of Clear Lake, where we actually settled.
Most of the children of NASA lived in the area. The only black kid at Grace High was the son of one of the space shuttle pilots. Ours was a world of sports cars, designer clothes, fifteen-acre malls, million-dollar homes, cruising Westheimer on weekends, Galveston beach homes, and private tennis coaches.
• • •
My freshman year came and went, as freshman years tend to do, like a half-assed nightmare whose chief horror was endless, brain-rotting boredom rather than the expected Blackboard Jungle scenes in which brutal, leather-jacketed seniors would smash me against my locker and terrorize me:
“Hey, Rocco, I smell somethin’ bad. Waddya think it is?”
“I dunno, Paulie, dead fish maybe?”
“Nah, dis fish ain’t dead—but he’s gonna be!”
Nope. Nothing that exciting. I almost wish there had been.
Grace High School, “Home of the Buccaneers,” dwarfed the junior high I’d attended the year before in Cocoa Beach. The school, only eight years old, still shined: no graffiti, no evidence of wear and tear. Freshmen were herded to the large gym to pick up schedules. Inside, booths had been constructed by every group conceivable, from the mundane (student council, glee club, future teachers) to the exotic (fantasy war gamers, Russian club, falconry club). There must have been fifty organizations there competing for freshman patronage.
The biggest relief upon receiving my schedule was knowing I would no longer be skimmed into special “think tank” classes. Nope, there it was in carbon—regular English, algebra, biology, etc. I’d be just one of the white, upper-middle class, spoiled, straight-toothed, Mazda Miata–driving wannabes. I’d fit right in.
As I made my way back through the throng (I had to begin searching for the English complex) I spotted perhaps the strangest of group structures—plywood supported by clumsily nailed two-by-fours arcing upward in nearly a 90-degree angle resembling an elongated U. At a table in front of this calamity of carpentry sat a refugee from a 1970s southern rock band—long straight blond hair, bangs hanging in front of his eyes, blue jean jacket, plain white T-shirt (not the designer Gap variety—the actual three-to-a-pack classic). He was, I noted with some surprise, reading. His book was called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Zen and the Art of Woodworking would have been a wiser selection, I thought.
There was no prominently displayed sign demanding that we freshmen, like lemmings, line up to join whatever group this was.
“Is this where I sign up for wood shop?” I asked.
“Skate or Die,” the Gregg Allman clone said.
“Right,” I said, as if his response made perfect sense to me. “So what is this thing, anyway?”
Once questioned about the purpose of his structure, “Gregg” felt obliged to demonstrate. He kicked a skateboard out from under the table and began doing things on that ramp—flipping the board, spinning on his hand—I had only seen executed in rock videos. Soon I found myself at the epicenter of a hemisphere of gaping fourteen-year-olds. They were all new recruits for Skate or Die (which was, I learned, a club—Grace’s purveyors of skateboard and diehard thrash-punk culture). Gregg, actually a fellow named Doug Chappell, had signed them up to replace alumni who had received their driver’s licenses over the summer.
Although I never officially joined Skate or Die, on a social level I might as well have. Doug, the president and founder, became the nearest thing I had to a best friend, at least until I met Dub. Doug had formed Skate or Die because only recognized clubs got their pictures in the yearbook, and the school constitution required every officially recognized club to include fifteen members. He wouldn’t have given a rat’s ass about this had it not been for his annual five-hundred-dollar bet with his old man that Doug wouldn’t get his picture in the book. Like the astronaut, Doug’s parents fretted over their son’s lack of popularity as well as his reluctance to participate in a high school social life they undoubtedly equated with malt shops and drive-ins. They had been, of course, joiners when they were his age. And though Doug won the yearbook bet, I’d be willing to make my own wager at the level of delight his parents took in his choice of peers. The Skate or Die club picture, which I’m certain the yearbook staff intentionally placed on the back side of a pizza coupon, featured sixteen scabby-kneed, male, potential “other cuts” models. I never set foot on a board, but I would follow them on a bike and hang out by the drainage ditch as they practiced maneuvers up and down its sides.
I didn’t pose for the group picture or sign up on the roll that Doug had to turn in to the office. For almost exactly the same reasons Doug needed to be in the yearbook, I wanted to be excluded. I had a goal in mind—no activities would appear by my name in the yearbook.
My freshman year was rounded out by the landing of my first job—concessionaire extraordinaire at the Clear Lake Cineplex. There were so many things I loved about my job; where to start? Let’s see, the red-and-white vertically striped shirt, the white paper Beetle Bailey cap, the button saying STEVE AT YOUR SERVICE, or possibly the opportunity to pour rancid, fluorescent-hued nacho cheese for classmates who pretended not to know me.
• • •
The most telling thing I can think of to say about the man who sired me is this: He walked three miles to school, uphill, both ways. With other adults, this would be hyperbole, but in the astronaut’s case, it’s true. He would walk to school at the highest point of Yakima, Washington (his birthplace, verifiable by the weathered BIRTHPLACE OF ALAN YORK legend on the “Now Entering” sign), then he would take a school bus down into the valley where he would pick grapes with the migrant workers before walking another three miles back home, uphill.
He might have stayed in Yakima his entire life if not for the first in a series of classic Alan York adventures. In a rare social excursion, he and a couple of friends went tubing down the Yakima River, which runs for thirty miles along the bottom of Kittitas Canyon. The river is notoriously dangerous, and given the number of drunken college students from nearby Central Washington University who float it, it’s a wonder more don’t drown than the annual average of two or three. To the point: Young Alan, in a feat that would today be re-created as an episode of Rescue 911, pulled some wasted college freshman out of the water and saved her life by administering CPR. Her uncle was an aide to the Republican senator from Washington who recommended the young dogooder for the Air Force Academy. As if it could get any cheesier, the woman he saved was my mother. They dated most of my father’s senior year in high school, married in the summer, and moved to Colorado in the fall of 1959.
Alan had had no time for sports and school hadn’t challenged him. That changed at the academy. His scholarship gave him his first modest ration of free time, and rather than spend it with his new bride, he went out for the football team. Never mind that he’d played only sandlot ball, he had tenacity and spunk. He played quarterback or cornerback. One of those.
If you compare pictures of the astronaut from his last year of high school with ones from his first couple of years at the academy, it’s as if he went through a second puberty that corrected all the shortcomings left by the first. He was as skinny as me in high school. Wiry, though. Hauling around grape crates had given him biceps. Other than girth, the change can be seen in his eyes. Though his expression doesn’t change much over a fifty-five-year series of pictures (I defy you to find one where he’s smiling), the images from his Yakima days suggest resignation, as if he’s accepted a life of manual labor and debt. But over the next couple of years, he acquires two items indispensable for heroes: a glint and a chin. I can’t explain where he got either, but he breezed up the ladder of military rank as a result. All this success landed him—now a captain—in Vietnam where he flew more than sixty bombing missions. He performed this task well enough to be decorated several times. Apparently his bombs killed more people than anyone else’s bombs. Don’t even get him started on Vietnam. He’s of the we’d-have-won-if-they’d-only-let-us school of thought. He returned, became a test pilot, and then was asked to join the space program. The rest, as they say, is history, though in this particular case, it is literally so. If you want to read more, visit your local library. They’ll be glad to help you.
DeMouy’s office was empty when I arrived Monday morning. He caught me, a few minutes later, on tiptoes peeking over the top shelves of his fern-covered file cabinet trying to discover from whence today’s sounds of the jungle were emanating.
“Aren’t you supposed to be somewhere, Steve?” he said.
“Anatomy. But I’ve got something for you.” I held up the fern I had bought on the way to school once I knew I was going to be late. “This one raised his leafy arm and asked me to bring him to fern heaven.”
“Bribery, the last recourse of the desperate,” DeMouy said, taking the plant from me. The counselor found a spot on a bookshelf behind his desk for the latest addition to his floricultural collection.
“You offend me, sir; this is just my way of saying thanks. This technique you call literotherapy—it’s the only thing keeping me off the hard stuff.” Somewhere a macaw screamed. “So, tell me, which parts have you liked best?”
I wanted to know if he was really reading it or if he was another one of those grade-by-weighters.
“There have been so many good parts, where can I begin?” he answered. I viewed this as evasion.
“Did you like the part about me wanting to join the circus?” I asked.
“Yeah, that would have to be my favorite part,” DeMouy said.
“Relax, Mr. York. I read it.” He opened a drawer and tossed me the five-page printout. I could see comments written in green ink throughout the text. Green ink: The counselor knows his ed psych. We students subconsciously view red ink as aggressive and critical. Green ink comments merely represent advice from a kindly friend. Yoda would write in green ink.
I was gratified to learn DeMouy had a playful side and pleased I had overcome my initial qualms about planting a ganja seed in his fern. He wouldn’t, however, write me a note excusing my tardiness to class.
In what would become an annual event, Sarah and I traded locales for the summer. Most of my time in San Diego I spent as my alter ego, Yard Boy. I mowed lawns, pruned trees, and weeded flower beds for the rental properties that Mom’s real estate office managed. While it was grueling work, it did pay significantly better than peddling Junior Mints. I needed the money, as it was the only way I was going to get a car of my own. I had rejected the astronaut’s less-than-attractive alternative method.
His offer: I play football; he buys me car. Now, to hear him tell it, the greatest moments of his life were not spent bouncing around the lunar landscape; rather they were those brief instances in which he heard air rushing out of lungs as he separated Army pukes from pigskins. Football, he told me, required time and effort. It was almost impossible for a young man to devote the amount of time required by the sport and still hold down a job. Therefore, if I were to go out for the football team, he would understand how I might not have time for a job, and he knew how we teens needed to have a few dollars in our pockets.
Incidentally, when the astronaut said he would buy me a car, he was talking serious automobiliage, here. I could have been parking right up there in Miata row. Of course, mangled corpses can’t really enjoy the fuel-injected madness a hot little sports coupe offers. I hoped the old fella’s desire to see me in cleats and pads simply meant he didn’t know what football players are like in a large Texas high school: one eye in the center of the forehead, hair on their backs, fangs.
By the end of June I had saved almost thirteen hundred dollars. After weeks of circling potential Yorkmobiles, I found one that I knew I had to make mine. The initial attraction may have been our similar ages. We were both sixteen, the 1975 El Camino and I. She had a metallic purple paint job, an eight-track deck, and shag carpeting. Like a Transformer, she was half car, half truck. I spent twelve hundred dollars on the car and another hundred dollars on eight tracks at a used music store on the beach called Play It Again Sam’s.
At the end of the summer, Mom decided she would ride to Texas with me to visit a friend (also a former Bride of NASA) for a couple days and then fly back to San Diego with Sarah. Thanks to overexposure to films like Duel, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Easy Rider, she had been appalled by the idea of her soon-to-be sophomore son driving solo across a region peopled by cult murderers, gunslinging crackers, and homicidal truck drivers. The drive should have given the former Mrs. York and me some “quality time,” but she was engrossed in some Danielle Steel novel. Driving was so thrilling to me, especially in new terrain, that I didn’t mind the silence.
What I did mind was the astronaut’s absence when we pulled into Château Sparse. When we’d called from San Antonio, Sarah had said he was there, but when we arrived in Houston four hours later he had vanished. He had been married to the woman for over thirty years, but he couldn’t even stick around to say hello to her.
Sarah made some feeble excuse for the old man. He really wanted to see Mom, she said, but he got called into work. Mom stayed at the Hyatt for the next couple days, but the astronaut wasn’t able to fit her into his remarkably hectic schedule. I drove Mom and Sarah to the airport, so his avoidance of his ex-wife was complete.
Funny thing, the man was looking good; his skin was bronze—a hue I didn’t believe we York males were capable of attaining. In a futile effort at making the house more of a home, Sarah had magneted to the fridge several photos she shot during father-daughter weekend boating trips. Before returning to California, she gave the astronaut and me framed enlargements of her two favorite prints. The one she gave her father was of a salamander. The poor reptile had the misfortune of choosing our boat as a spot to sun itself. Sarah had tried to catch it and ended up pulling its tail off. (The shot of the disembodied salamander tail was displayed appetizingly on the refrigerator.) The twenty-four- by thirty-six-inch print given to the astronaut features the panicked lizard pressing itself to the glass in desperate hopes of avoiding the madwoman with the camera. My print was of a swan, wings stretched back, breaking the placid green of the lake. It was the only thing I hung up in my room.
Three girls arrived at the house to see Sarah off. One of them I recognized from school, the others I guessed were older. I had been in California for three months and had barely spoken to anyone my age. Sarah et al. hugged, wept, exchanged addresses.
The colonial home in which the astronaut and I coexisted had five bedrooms. Keep in mind, only the two of us lived there. We never actually finished unpacking either. We unpacked only as necessity dictated. In other words, toilet paper was out first and things like artwork, photographs, and knickknacks probably remain in their boxes to this day. Imagine a house with nothing on its walls save a small photograph above the astronaut’s desk of himself with President Nixon. No plants, no wall hangings—in short, nothing even remotely nonutilitarian. As a result, the house looked only temporarily occupied for the entire three years I slept there.
Initially we had eaten together and made feeble attempts at conversation. I had yet to meet anyone and couldn’t think of any place else to be, and he hadn’t been assigned to a project that could justify his working late. We settled into a more comfortable routine soon enough. He would leave for work before I woke but would provide a list of chores by the kitchen sink, paper-clipped to a ten-dollar bill, which was to provide me both lunch and dinner
This was the routine we fell into again when I got back from California. He did make one comment that surprised me. He said my time in California had begun to make a man out of me. I guess he was referring to my now recognizably male, if not Herculean, physique that had developed in some modest form due to the paces my summer employment put me through. In the mirror I could see the faint outline of a chest. Returning to form, however, he made his displeasure known about my choice of vehicle. An “eyesore,” he called the El Camino. He also fondled my pierced earlobe, grimaced, and said he thought he had made it clear before I left Texas that I was to no longer wear an earring. That hole, he said, would have closed up had his edict been obeyed. I never wore an earring in his presence.
I returned to my low-paying yet leisurely job at the Clear Lake Cineplex; my enthusiasm delivering vertical movement within the company. I became the newest projectionist. This meant two things: I earned an extra quarter an hour and I got to watch movies. I only saw them in ten- to fifteen-minute slices, but with most of Hollywood’s offerings, this was enough for me to adequately deduce the remaining seventy minutes.
A few days after I returned, the astronaut’s morning note included two Houston Astros tickets along with the ten-dollar bill. “Be ready to leave for the game by six,” the note said. The astronaut and I had never gone to a game—save my Little League efforts—together. Baseball I could comprehend if not play with distinction. The only sport I truly detested was football, and that was as much for the adulation bestowed upon its athletes in Texas as for the sport itself. Watching a baseball game in the oddly hermetic Astrodome would be fun regardless of my company.
As I could have predicted, the astronaut’s seats provided a close-up view of jockstrap cup realignment, tobacco juice drool, and celebrity hobnobbing. George Bush sat three rows in front of us. He even gave the astronaut a little wave. George Strait was one section over, directly behind home plate. Charlie Sheen, a good buddy of one of the Astros infielders, sat a row in front of the former president between two savory Victoria’s Secret models. The astronaut and I didn’t have much to say but alternated trips to the concession stand and both whooped when Craig Biggio broke a tie with a sixth inning home run. All in all it was the closest thing to bonding we had done since our last fishing trip when I was nine (there the silence didn’t seem so awkward). The public service announcer helped me clear my head of the damp, pastel-hued haze of sentiment during the seventh inning stretch.
“Ladies and gentlemen, please give a warm round of applause to astronauts Daniel Gary, Frederick March, and Alan York, who are here with their sons tonight as guests of the Houston Astros. Gentlemen, please stand and be recognized.”
In the row behind us I saw two father-son teams stand in unison. I felt the astronaut get up beside me, and I heard the polite applause of twenty thousand baseball fans, but I, for one, wasn’t going to function as the ceremonial family member trotted out to appease the apple pie set. I had seen Mom do it for too many years. I remained seated and ignored the “Steves” issuing from behind the astronaut’s clenched teeth. We didn’t speak a word to each other on the ride home from the game.
They showed my school mug shot on the morning video announcements today as one of Wakefield’s two Merit finalists. I was so stoned when that picture was taken. I had a bandanna pulled low over my sleepy eyes, and, in a dead giveaway, I was out of focus. My fellow anatomy students roared when the announcement was read. A couple smokers gave me the thumbs-up sign. Mr. Reyes shook his head resignedly.
Reyes was happy to get rid of me when a reporter from the Wakefield Picayune asked permission to interview me later in the period. The reporter, a nervous freshman named Henry, was working on his first “real” assignment. Before landing this exclusive, he had been in charge of the student opinion polls and school calendar listings. He led me down Wakefield’s dreary, dimly lit corridors to the library where the other finalist sat waiting for us.
I waited for the journalist to introduce us, but he sat down and began fumbling through his notes.
“I’m Steve York,” I said to my co-finalist, who was cuter than the picture they showed of her on TV.
“I know. I saw you on Wake Up, Wakefield.” That was the name of the morning announcement/news show, but I’d never heard anyone refer to it so formally. “I’m Allison Kimble.”
“Oh… I missed it this morning.”
Henry began questioning us in a manner common, I’m sure, to staff writers for illustrious periodicals like Teen Beat and 16. He wanted to know such vital data as favorite places to study and noteworthy hobbies. The brain-locked frosh asked no follow-up questions. Rather, he plowed heedlessly through his scripted line of inquiry, paying little if any attention to our responses.
“Steve, were there any major turning points in your life?”
“Let’s see, Henry. I guess when I knocked over that liquor store in seventh grade….”
“And your favorite subject?”
The legitimate biographical information he garnered in our twenty-minute interview would have fit nicely onto the back of a National Merit finalist trading card. Allison said her favorite author was J. D. Salinger. (How teenaged of her.) I said mine was Gore Vidal. (How deviant of me.) Allison said her hero was her father. I said my hero was also, coincidentally, Allison’s father. Allison rolled her eyes.
When Henry asked Allison what she wanted to be when she grew up, my intellectual rival lost her patience with the cub reporter. She snatched Henry’s notebook, scanned the list of remaining questions, then swiveled toward me to complete the interview herself. I adopted a countenance that suggested a renewed interest in the proceedings.
Clearing her throat, she managed to replicate Henry’s grave tone. “If you could be any barnyard animal, what barnyard animal would you be?”
“Rooster,” I answered, resisting my urge to use a synonym.
“Uh-huh… and the sum of two and two is?” She held up two fingers on each hand to help me out.
“Four?” I replied, letting my voice register a shred of hope.
Henry clued in. “Hey, I’ve gotta get this stuff. Even if you think it’s stupid.” He looked as if he might sob. Allison and I glanced at each other. She bit her lower lip and lowered her head like a frequently backhanded mutt. I likewise tried to appear repentant.
“Go ahead, Henry. We’re sorry,” Allison offered.
Henry composed himself, reshuffled his notes, and, in his dinky freshman falsetto, continued. “Where do you plan on going to college?”
Allison: “Stanford, Northwestern, maybe Princeton.”
Steve: “San Diego Community College.”
Allison’s trading card was filling up much quicker than mine. She had been on the Academic Decathlon team, was an officer for the Latin Club, and a founder of the Wakefield SADD chapter.
“And what about you, Steve?” Henry asked, number-two pencil poised.
“I just transferred here this year.”
“What did you belong to at your old school?”
“GOD,” I said.
Doug and I had gotten our driver’s licenses within a week of each other. Though he was a grade ahead of me, I was four days older. Upon returning to town I called to find out what he had in store for Skate or Die. First of all, I asked, did we really want to be seen with freshmen?
“I don’t really want to be seen with sophomores,” was Doug’s sardonic reply.
The thought of sneaking cases of Busch down into the suburban waterway system to share in malodorous, centipede-infested darkness with fourteen cast alternates from River’s Edge inspired us to seek a new direction. But figuring out an alternative proved difficult.
“Remind me again why the League of Women Voters won’t grant us a chapter,” Doug said. He was still pissed that his original idea, though brilliant in concept, wasn’t going to reach fruition.
“I called their office. They said the founders of any chapter had to be registered voters, and, as surprising as this may sound, women.”
Doug had seen the LWV as a surefire way to meet girls, and not just girls of our ilk—no, genuine letter-jacket-wearing, pep-rally-attending, rosy-cheeked “gals.” What mangy, head-banging Doug and I would do with these gals once we met them was a question we left unanswered. We had already rejected the Pete Best Fan Club (“too retro”) and the Sons of the Cold War (“too political”).
Losing faith in our ability to come up with anything inspired, Doug decided to raid his parents’ stock of Red Stripe, a Jamaican beer they had developed a taste for on one of their frequent escapes from Doug and his older brother, Stan, Jr. As we walked into the house I caught the familiar lime-green neon glow of Doug’s skateboard sticking out of a slab of seashell-laced concrete.
“What’s this?” I said, pointing to what used to be my friend’s sole means of transportation.
“Art,” he said.
“Sort of a Tomb of the Unknown Skater?”
“More like Headstone of the Unknown Skater,” Doug said, pausing to take a look at the juxtaposition. “It’s nothing, really. I broke my board a couple weeks ago when I was working on the Hawthorne pool. (Doug worked for his parents at Clear Lake Pools and Spas.) We were pouring stepping-stones for a walkway, and I just stuck half the board into the concrete before it set. Voilà. C’est fantastique.” Doug had taken French while I was in typing.
“You’re a real dadaist,” I said.
“A dadaist,” I repeated. “We studied them in my egghead classes in Florida. They were painters, writers, sculptors in the twenties who believed in art without coherent meaning. Nothing they did had to be justified. The more abstract, the weirder something was, the better.”
“So if you, as the art critic, were to say my masterpiece here represented the death of a subculture or a man putting away childish things, I, as the artist, would say…”
“Sod off, wanker. It’s a skateboard in concrete,” I concluded for him in my best Sid Vicious cockney snarl.
“I love it! Art for the masses.”
Doug and I watched with equal measures of wistfulness and bemusement as the crowd of freshmen gathered in front of the skateboard ramp we had willed to Junior Cassidy. We couldn’t see much from our spot across the gym—only Junior’s head as he spun at the top of each run—but we heard the requisite “oohs” from Grace High’s newest fodder.
“We might be making a mistake,” I said to Doug. We were wearing our homemade T-shirts freshly emblazoned with our club slogan, GO WITH GOD. Like I’M WITH STUPID shirts, our uniforms included arrows. My arrow pointed toward Doug, assuming I could keep him on my left; Doug’s pointed down toward… well, hell is where he said, though I think most of us would agree his crotch was the first whistle-stop on that journey.
GOD was the name Doug coined for our new club, the Grace Order of Dadaists. No one had yet ventured over to our table. Several frightened ninth graders had stood at a safe distance and pointed at the artwork Doug and I displayed. The first was the original skateboard tombstone. The second, our pièce de résistance, was what I believed was scaring everyone. On a television monitor we ran a video Doug and I had produced. By editing together half-second clips of happy teenagers garnered from fast food, soda, and jeans commercials then splicing in machete, arrow, and axe mutilation scenes from Stan’s collection of teen slasher films and scoring it with Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” we had created a grotesque and mystifying barrage of images. I was glad we, as dadaists, were not obliged to explain it.
When freshman orientation ended we had yet to hand out any of our brochures, let alone sign up one member. Skate or Die, on the other hand, had swelled its membership to twenty-plus. Junior wouldn’t be back the next day for the registration of the rest of the student body. GOD would be.
During the first couple hours of nonfreshmen orientation, events proceeded not unlike the day before. We were fortunate the larger crowds forced more students nearer our booth; it wasn’t long before plucky individualists hovered long enough to pick up our brochures. Doug and I had had our first philosophical argument concerning GOD four days earlier when he suggested I produce a brochure on my Mac. I argued that true dadaists would never produce sensical prose in hopes of increasing their numbers. Their art, I insisted, would serve as their calling card. He maintained, and rightly so I discovered later, that the original dadaists, our spiritual forefathers, had written at great length about their contribution to the art world. Because we were dealing with his five-hundred-dollar bet and he had already checked out and read Dada: In Theory, in Practice, I relented.
On the opening fold of the brochure I placed a black-and-white photo of the intellectual founder of dadaism, Tristan Tzara, above the headline, GOD ISN’T FOR EVERYONE. Inside, Doug drew his own crude rendition of Marcel Duchamp’s bicycle wheel installations above lists of relatively famous dadaist painters, sculptors, authors, and performance artists. Doug and I collaborated on the inside copy, which read:
DADAISM IS NOT DEAD!
• DID YOUR SECOND-GRADE TEACHER SCOLD YOU FOR COLORING AN APPLE PURPLE AND THE SKY RED, THUS DESTROYING YOUR ARTISTIC URGES? IF SO, GO WITH GOD.
• DO PAINTINGS OF MEDIEVAL NOBLEMEN OR DREAMY RENAISSANCE-ERA PANORAMAS OF EUROPEAN COUNTRYSIDES ALL BEGIN TO LOOK THE SAME TO YOU? IF SO, GO WITH GOD.
• DO PREDICTABLE, MUNDANE, ORDINARY, COMMON, AND ROUTINE SOUND LIKE BAD WORDS TO YOU? IF SO, GO WITH GOD.
THE QUESTION ALL OF US SHOULD BE ASKING OURSELVES IS NOT WHY, BUT RATHER, WHY NOT?
I left my post for a few minutes to pick up my sophomore schedule. Upon returning, I was surprised to see a fair-sized crowd of potential dadaists clustered around our booth. Doug was in the process of explaining dadaist doctrine to three girls.
“What’s the point?” the shortest of the three said. I was sure I recognized her from somewhere, but I couldn’t place her.
“Exactly!” Doug answered. The conversation sounded remarkably like Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” skit.
“So, what you’re saying is this video, this skateboard thing, there’s no meaning behind them?” She was trying to understand. “Are they even supposed to evoke a certain reaction?”
“Not a certain reaction,” Doug said, “just a reaction.”
Then it happened. Doug was set upon by the president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. With fists clenched around the GOD brochure, he began shouting before he reached our booth.
“Did you write this? Did you write this?” he ranted, slapping the brochure across his left hand. “God is for everyone. Everyone!”
I was suddenly happy Doug was the de facto leader of this group and I was merely an unofficial member. Predictably, Doug made the most of the spotlight.
“You’re wrong, brother.” My comrade matched his accuser’s volume as he quoted an early draft of our brochure. “‘GOD is not for fascists, clones, wannabes, television junkies, spirit heads, or for that matter, zealots.’”
“Atheist,” the FCA president croaked.
“No,” Doug said, “dadaist.”
Most of the crowd didn’t know what to make of the exchange, but the FCA faculty adviser confiscated our brochures and made Doug and me take off our shirts and wear them inside out.
“I guess that’s what you mean by a reaction,” said the short girl who had been questioning Doug. I finally remembered where I had seen her. She was one of the girls who’d said good-bye to my sister when she left Texas.
She signed her name, Wanda Varner, on our club membership roll; her two friends signed up after her. They beat the rush. Doug’s eloquence convinced fourteen of what I assumed to be the school’s disenfranchised to join up. Fourteen, however, was the number I dreaded most. We needed fifteen members, and the onus was on me to provide the last signature. As we walked to the office to apply for our charter, I told Doug I would relent and sign. “Don’t worry,” he said. “It’s taken care of.” He took out the list and signed “Tom Pittman” at the bottom.
“Who’s that?” I asked.
“The president of the FCA,” he answered.
• • •
Wanda Varner sat in front of me in geometry. Of course, everyone sat in front of me in geometry. My punctuality on the first day of classes was owed completely to my desire to sit in the back of the classroom. Luckily, my last name usually protected me from anal-retentive teachers who insisted on alphabetical-order seating charts. I liked it when it took a teacher nearly a semester to learn my name. Not speaking, not volunteering answers, not turning in especially brilliant homework—I should market my anonymity strategy. I remember my mother coming home angry from a mandatory, early-morning, parent-teacher conference because my teacher couldn’t, for the life of her, remember who I was despite the A I was making in her class.
Teachers all call me Steven. They do this because I don’t correct them on the first day of school when all the Jonathans change to Jacks and the Roberts become Bobs. On the first day of geometry, Wanda became Dub. When she said it, Mrs. Lanigan flinched.
“Did you say ‘Bud,’ honey, as in ‘Rosebud’?”
“No. I said ‘Dub,’ as in ‘rub-a-dub-dub.’”
Most of the class turned to look at this strange girl. If she were pretty, she did her best to hide it. Her hair was black, but it was the jet black that indicated the original color was smothered in dye. She wore no makeup. She dressed in men’s blue jeans a couple sizes too big and a Rice (Houston’s Harvard of the South) sweatshirt—also oversized. At the risk of sounding redundant, her mouth, too, was uniquely large, but she had those puffy, Uma Thurman lips which, judging from recent Sassy cover models, was the current standard of beauty. What else? Green eyes, B cup, small feet, no jewelry, Whole Earth backpack—the kind favored by outdoorophiles or the studious, as its capacity is sufficient to store the complete Encyclopedia Britannica.
Seven days later she spoke to me.
“So, you’re not really an asshole?”
I scanned my active snappy-comeback file but came up empty. I looked like a goob, standing in the doorway of Mrs. Lanigan’s class, mouth open, saying nothing.
“Speak boy, speak,” Dub beckoned. She even patted her thighs encouragingly. She was pleased with how our initial conversation was proceeding.
“Who said I was an asshole?” I managed.
“I just sort of deduced it,” Dub answered. “We’ve seen plenty of each other. The first time I saw you, you looked like you wanted to kill somebody—you were taking Sarah to the airport. Then, you didn’t say anything to me when I joined your club. And now you’ve sat behind me for a week, and you still don’t say a word. I’m like, who does the boy think he is—Sting?”
“What made you decide now that I’m not so bad?” It occurred to me she hadn’t spoken to me on any of these occasions, either.
Dub began walking to her next class, and I followed though it was the wrong direction. “I told Sarah in a letter what an egomaniac I assumed you were. She wrote back that you weren’t all that bad. She said you just don’t say much.”
“Oh.” (Good ol’ Sis.) “Wait a minute. I’ve been meaning to ask. Why do you call yourself Dub if your name is Wanda?”
“With a name like Wanda, my only career options were running point for a roller derby team or waitressing at a truck stop.”
“But why ‘Dub’?” I said, realizing I was going to be late to world history.
“I started signing all my papers ‘W. Varner.’ People began calling me ‘W.’ It just got shortened to ‘Dub,’” she said. “So, when are we going to have our first meeting?”
“Meeting of what?”
“GOD, dork,” she said. I didn’t know if I liked a stranger establishing pet names this early in a relationship. “We are planning on entering a float in the homecoming parade, aren’t we? Every other club, except Skate or Die, is.”
The bell rang, and I realized I was standing in Dub’s amused English class. Dub, on first meeting, had already subjected me to public humiliation and a tardy slip. I should have recognized the omen. On the bright side, the bell prevented me from answering the question. I mean, could you see me working on a homecoming float?
• • •
“She wants to do what?” Doug said between cheese Tater Tots. We had been hitting the Sonic Drive-in daily for lunch. We parked on the “nerd” side and made fun of the socials who sat in the sun on the “cool” side.
“She thinks we ought to enter a float in the homecoming parade,” I answered.
“I tell you. The chick is wigging. I mean, imagine it: a big banner across a flatbed truck with you and me sitting on a couple bales of hay, smiling and shouting ‘Beat the Mustangs!’” Doug was waving food around the El Camino. “Tell her to join the Buccaneer Babes if she wants to bake cupcakes for football players.” Doug paused. “On the other hand, tell her we think her idea is keen or boss or rad—”
He could have gone on, but I interrupted. “You’re the pope. You tell her.”
“Better yet, we’ll call a meeting. We’ll explain true dadaist canon to the acolytes.”
Calling a meeting—we hadn’t done this before; it presented new challenges. With Skate or Die, the skaters just hung out in the same places they always had. Fund-raising had involved emptying everyone’s pockets of excess lunch money to pay for beer or spray paint. Neither of us had contemplated anything but the inception of GOD. Responsibility, we sensed, loomed.
“How do other clubs call meetings?” Doug asked in the dejected manner of a visionary asked to pay for his program.
“They make morning announcements. Generally, they shoot for cuteness, like ‘The chess club will hold its monthly board meeting today at lunch’ or ‘The Grace Thespians will get their act together after school in the theater.’ A witty, yet newsy, directive.”
Though I remained a nonmember, Doug put me in charge of publicity. The following day I acquired an announcement form from an insanely pleasant receptionist. The real chore, though, was composing suitably dadaistic prose. The end product, approved by Doug, read: “Avalanche the ghost roper! Defy Mother Nature and her minions. Dadaists unite in secular purgatory, Pizza Hut, tomorrow night at 6.”
The principal in charge of reading announcements required several attempts before completing the announcement. The only two words he enunciated clearly were Pizza and Hut.
Dub looked back at me as the announcement was completed. “So when did avalanche become a verb?” she asked.
Pizza Hut, with its uniform, vinyl, mansard-roofed architecture, might not have seemed the most felicitous setting for the birth of a society bent on the overthrow of convention. “All You Can Eat” was a powerful draw, however, and we were sans the faculty advisor who could secure us classroom space for a meeting on campus. I didn’t really expect people to show. If Doug and I hadn’t foreseen GOD being an active club, why would anyone else? So I was surprised to see our complete roster, with the expected exception of FCA prez, Tom Pittman, at the meeting. Nine girls, five guys—six if you included me—the times they were a-changing.
As this was the first assembly of GOD, few of the members knew one another. Chitchat reached the din we associate with spearfishing Eskimos or cloistered monks. Still, I felt antsy. I had this awful vision of Doug standing and clinking his glass with his spoon to get everyone’s attention. If we weren’t careful we had the potential to slip into mainstream high school participatory bullshit. We’d be following Robert’s Rules of Order and exchanging friendship gifts with GOD squads from rival schools at halftimes of basketball games before we knew what hit us. But, I reminded myself, that’s why we had called this meeting—to nip any thoughts of activism in the bud. The contradiction was easy to spot, though; we were having a meeting to let members know we wouldn’t be meeting.
Without standing and without raising his voice, Doug began what I imagined would be the first and last meeting of the Grace Order of Dadaists.
“Welcome to Cabaret Voltaire,” Doug said, confusing everyone. Cabaret Voltaire was the name of the club Tristan Tzara had contributed work to in Zurich in the twenties, a haven for fellow dadaist painters, poets, and performance artists. “My name is Doug Chappell and I’m an alcoholic.” He got a laugh. The standard conventioneer icebreaking opening joke. Would he follow with the one about the traveling salesman? “I thought we needed to get together to talk about the goals we have for GOD.” Goals? Doug scanned the table. “GOD, as you probably already know, is not for everyone. Like our artistic forefathers, we are concerned with the destruction of established mediums. In other words, our goals should include nonparticipation in anything established society—in our case, school—presents. Dances, canned food drives, campus cleanups”—Doug looked right at Dub— “parades—these are anathema to the true dadaist.”
“I suppose dadaists wouldn’t pose for yearbook photos either,” Dub said.
“I know about your bet with your parents. I have friends in Skate or Die. I respect the lengths you’ll go to to win, I really do, but don’t sermonize about the rules of dadaism when your motives are impure.”
I was floored by the onslaught. Doug handled it gracefully.
“A yearbook photo is different from a parade. We’re subverting the system by appearing in a book they want exclusively for homecoming queens and football stars. A float only serves as further glorification of the status quo.” Doug shook his head in a most fatherly no as he spoke his last sentence. He mistakenly thought he was having the final say.
“Wrongo,” Dub said. Dub sat at one end of the tables we had pushed together. Doug sat at the other. The rest of us were forced to rotate our heads in tennis spectator fashion in order to follow the action. “You are assuming our float would be like the floats of the student council and the Key Club and the German Club. That’s where you’re mistaken. We wouldn’t put a giant buccaneer on the float. We wouldn’t sit up there and grin like idiots. Our float would be a giant rolling sample of dadaistic art. We would be subverting the system. Think about it—a giant rolling carrot or maybe just a flatbed truck with nothing on it but a six-pack of generic cola.”
“Or how about the word ‘elbow’ spelled out in carnations?” said one of the males of the group sitting next to me.
“Or maybe we could get a bunch of people lined up on the float dressed and acting like they were watching a parade,” offered one of Dub’s friends. “That way the people watching the parade could see how ridiculous they look.” I could tell we had a budding performance artist.
“That would be more surreal than dadaistic,” Dub suggested to her friend. Dub turned her attention back to Doug. “Anyway, there are a million good ideas for the float, but my overall point here is this: We should participate in every cheesy event the school lobs up to us. But every time they do, we put our own spin on it. I don’t want to be in a club just to get my picture in the yearbook; we should produce dadaistic art. We should open our own Cabaret Voltaire where we exhibit our art, and anyone else’s for that matter. We should lead the cultural revolution at Grace.”
Dub had accomplished with Doug what it had been infinitely easier to do to me: She left him speechless.
Doug and I discussed the ramifications of the meeting on the ride home from the Hut.
“That sure didn’t go the way I planned it,” Doug said.
“I must say I admire how you took control in there,” I said. “Now, which committee did Dub put you on? Are you in charge of refreshments?”
Doug was missing the humor. “Maybe I should resign.”
“Shut up! You are such a big wuss. What’s bothering you the most here? That she was right? Or was it that she took charge?” Sometimes Doug’s need to lead got the better of him.
For the twelfth time during the last hour, Doug took off his John Deere cap, removed the rubber band from his long blond ponytail, and shook his hair out, letting it fall in front of his face; pulled his hair tightly back into a ponytail, re-rubber-banded it; and weaved it above the adjustable straps of his cap.
“Either that or laziness. Do you want to spend your free time working on a float?” he said.
“With nine girls? Yeah, I do.” It was an easy decision for me. “Look, you’re an idea man. You haven’t lost control of the club; you just need to rethink your goals a bit.”
“That girl is something else, isn’t she?” Doug said.
As my chemistry teacher lectured, I began casually changing the Styrofoam and Tinkertoy water molecule models on display along the back wall into kryptonite (the formula and structure were revealed in Superman #178). An office aide relieved the monotony by requesting my presence in the counselor’s office.
If you knew what you were looking for in DeMouy’s office, you could spot the eight-inch-high nonfern easily. I’ll say this for marijuana: Given plenty of light, nutrient-primed soil, and consistent watering, it will shoot up like, well… a weed. DeMouy stood peering into the top drawer of his desk as I entered. His long sigh at seeing me indicated my visit was business, not pleasure.
“Sometimes, Steve,” he began, “we sow seeds born of desperation and rage that, as older and wiser souls, we eventually regret.”
So this is where this is heading, I thought.
“This idea is planted in our head—we can walk away without minding the crop, but unless that crop is harvested, the reaper will indeed be grim,” DeMouy continued his allegorical lecture. He ended by looking me straight in the eye. “Capisce, Grasshopper?”
If I was reading his sermon correctly, I knew what I needed to do.
“Look! I think I see a troubled teenager considering self-destructive behavior,” I said, gesturing toward the window.
DeMouy obliged me by turning around. I quickly stepped around his desk and pulled the ganja out by its roots.
“Grasshopper,” DeMouy said, still facing the other direction.
“Yes, honorable master?” I said, stuffing the offending plant up my sleeve.
“Leave it in the wastebasket.”
With the exception of its leader, GOD’s members were exhibiting an esprit de corps I had never experienced firsthand. We spent two to three hours each Monday through Thursday in the porta-barn owned by the parents of the Whiteside brothers, Bill and Matt. Beverly Shoaf’s parents bred horses, and she was able to talk them out of their flatbed trailer for the last two weeks of September through the mid-October homecoming game. I probably could have asked for the Apollo 3 spacecraft had I told the astronaut I was working on a homecoming float. Instead I explained my late hours by saying I was filling in for a vacationing co-worker at the ’Plex.
Initially I assumed my fellow dadaists had joined the group for the same wiseass reasons Doug and I had founded it, but as I got to know my comrades, I learned their motivations were as varied as the members themselves. Possibly the sole thing we had in common was a need to be challenged. Let’s face it, outwitting school officials doesn’t require more than ten or twelve brain cells. To be the cleverest member of GOD, though, now that would be a big deal.
Because you can’t tell your nihilist without your program…
Rhonda Smith: Dub friend number one. Rhonda consistently dressed two days behind Dub (i.e., Dub wears peasant dress Monday; Rhonda wears peasant dress Wednesday). Has resisted urge to dye her red hair black, however. Tardy but eventual participant in all activities Dub-borne.
Missy Carmical: Dub friend number two. Missy offered the Pizza Hut idea of peopling the float with faux parade spectators. If Rhonda represented Dub’s superego, Missy was the id. Nothing was too radical for Missy: seethrough dresses with black bras, experimental drug use. Rumored to have lost virginity as sophomore to member of Material Issue after show at Fitzgerald’s.
Beverly Shoaf: Daughter of Unitarian ministers, she was inspired by Doug’s showdown with Tom Pittman, who she had always considered an ass. Spoke little, but was right on the money when she did. Least hip member of group. She dressed in early dowdy.
Zipper: No one ever took the time to explain the difference between punk and new wave to Zipper. She worshipped both Richard Hell and Robert Smith. She wore only black and shot for a complexion just on the eggshell side of pale. Bandied about the word “conformist” like she was getting paid for each usage.
Virginia Cole: Like Zipper, Virginia joined GOD hoping it would serve as an “anticlub”—a club for social misfits and badge-flashing losers. Saw everything as “us versus them,” the haves versus the have-nots. Of course, when your house borders the fifth fairway of the Clear Lake Country Club golf course, as hers did, feigning populism doesn’t get you far.
Holly Cooper: One of three seniors in the group, Holly was the editor of the Grace Gazette, the school’s newspaper. She was also in the running for valedictorian, but needed to beat out fellow GOD member and debate partner, Samantha Ellis.
Samantha Ellis: Though I never saw the two of them in action, I’ve heard they dismantled opponents in such ruthless fashion that they often broke into finals without having to win a match: rival debate teams saw Ellis/Cooper as their draw and simply scratched. Samantha, along with Dub, represented the active feminist segment of GOD. Male members learned quickly to call our female members “women” lest we be called “boy” in withering tones.
Lynnette Sirls: Mistook us for the art club, but gamely stuck with GOD through the first semester despite never quite grasping the notion of dadaistic expression. We lost her to the cute shortstop of the JV baseball team, but not before Lynnette completed, at the coaxing of Doug, a papier-mâché Rabbit in Punchbowl which we installed in the Cabaret Voltaire display case.
Veg: Ben Kempler (aka Veg) refused to eat meat strictly on moralistic grounds. Some said, though I never witnessed this, that he apologized to vegetables before downing them. Before his conversion, Veg had been a chicken-fried-steak-a-day man and had the spare tire that often accompanies such a diet. By the time I met him, he could have been sharing clothes with Ghandi. Veg split his free time between GOD and the Houston chapter of Greenpeace.
Bill Whiteside: Bill was the Renaissance man of GOD. He had disassembled his pickup’s engine and put it back together, for fun. His forte was physics, but he hadn’t limited his knowledge to the sciences. Bill played guitar, was an assistant editor of Buried Treasure, the Grace literary magazine, and had the lead in the school play.
Matt Whiteside: As a rule, my interest in nonmain-stream sexuality runs no deeper than your standard state trooper’s, but I always found it hard not to stare at Matt Whiteside, a Chippendale-without-portfolio who was quite possibly the best-looking guy in school. He wasn’t, however, the Mr. Everything his brother was. He was smart, but in Doug’s and my opinion, he wasted too much of his energy worrying about grades. By the end of the year Doug was calling him “Ivy,” as in “Ivy-League bound.” I think Matt liked the nickname, though I’m quite certain Doug hadn’t meant it as a compliment.
Trey Collier: Our one athlete, Mike Collier was the designated gunner on the varsity basketball team. “Trey” stemmed from his marksmanship beyond the nineteen-foot, nine-inch, three-point arc. Trey hadn’t joined GOD as any form of antiestablishment protest. Au contraire, the boy dated a Buccaneer Babe, listened to Bon Jovi, and drove a Camaro. Trey was, in a sense, the only “pure” member of GOD. He joined because he was fascinated with dadaistic art. No one needed to explain the work of Duchamp to him. Trey took art three periods a day if you include the period he was Mr. Harley’s aide.
While he may have been disgruntled, Doug wasn’t pouting. He put himself in charge of bureaucratic concerns—applying for a float permit, attending the drawing of parade order, picking up the list of rules, supplying the thirty-dollar registration fee. Fifty-dollar prizes would be awarded in three categories: grand champion, most spirited, and most original.
We had no doubt the float we were constructing would be the most original, but as members of GOD, we harbored little hope of winning the cash. What would the judges think of our entry? We discussed at length what direction we wanted to go with the float before critiquing the sketches offered by Dub (man-sized numerals arranged in the order of a phone number drawn at random from the Houston phone book), Samantha (a giant football player dressed in Grace’s blue and gold; the hitch?—the linebacker was pushing a baby carriage), and Lynnette (the standard Grace Buccaneer broncobusting a Memorial Mustang—she was still unclear on the tenets of dadaism). We settled on Trey’s sketch of a carpenter’s claw hammer long enough to extend from the rear of the trailer and have its head positioned directly above the cab of the truck. The sketch evoked different reactions in all who observed it. Given its angle and red handle, I likened it to the hammer and sickle of the old Soviet Communist Party. Missy was struck by the “raw sexual energy,” Zipper the violence, and Lynnette the notion Grace would hammer the Mustangs. Holly, with perception nearest the artist’s intentions, liked the clean lines.
Bill converted the naysayers by offering to modify the concept a bit.
“You know,” he said, holding the sketch in both hands, “with a lawn mower engine and a couple bicycle gears, I could make this hammer swing up and down like it’s bashing in the cab of the truck.”
As if any of us needed more reason to feel superior, the speed, efficiency, skill, artistic vision, and wit with which our float proceeded only served to cement our hubris. But our newfound loyalty to GOD didn’t owe primarily to the quality of the project. I think what we experienced was one part Amish barn-raising enthusiasm and one part Chicano gang member group reliance. We went to lunch with fellow dadaists. We waved at each other in the halls. We sat next to each other in classes we shared.
As I abandoned my initial aloofness, Dub and I began an ongoing game in geometry. We took turns foretelling the futures of our classmates. These ran from standard hipster slagging, “She’ll be the first woman to actually give birth to 2.2 children,” to epics nearly always ending in slapstick death. Dub killed off an especially perky front rower with invading laser-toting Neptunians who regarded hand-raising as a hostile act. Normally, the trouble with becoming acquainted through the taunting ritual is that you’re forced to temper your pithiness lest you A) reveal yourself as a stone-hearted asshole or B) accidentally offend your cohort. Dub would have none of that dewy-eyed compassion shit. She went for blood.
I no longer feared Dub (okay, not as much); she was a kindred spirit. Rhonda, however, intimidated the hell out of me. She was sending out signals I was not too green to interpret: I would catch her staring at me; she would stand in my very American-sized personal space when speaking to me; she kept finding reasons to touch me, whether it was to try on one of my earrings, rub my shoulder to get my attention, or once, to pull my wallet out of my back pocket to get money for extra paint. Before I could say anything, she pulled out a five and announced that I didn’t believe in safe sex.
The Wakefield Picayune came out today. Among other things, it said that, “York, an active member of a church group at his previous school in Texas, plans to attend a local community college. He sees a career in high school counseling in his future.”
Friday and Saturday nights were normally sacrosanct. Doug had arranged our float work schedule so as to allow social lives, or in my case, enable me to supplement my meager, by Clear Lake standards, allowance. But with a week remaining before the parade, it was obvious we needed the weekend to complete Get Hammered—which had become the working title of our rolling tribute to dadaism. I finagled the Saturday off.
The mechanics of the basher assembly had proven more intricate than Bill had originally envisioned, but eventually we had the chicken-wire-and-wooden-dowel hammer frame smacking the roof of the cab every six seconds. The first of the weekend nights my comrades spent papier-mâchéing the hammer; the second night we painted. We completed the job by midnight. Seven of us were there to see the GOD float project reach fruition: the Whitesides, Dub, Missy, Rhonda, Doug, and I. The rest we lost to fatigue, weekend jobs, dates, and, in Holly’s case, the following morning’s administration of the SATs. The Dub Club came prepared for the grand finale. As Bill brushed the final layer of silver paint across the hammer’s claw, Missy pulled three bottles of champagne out of Dub’s black hole of a backpack. Dub dug further into the sack and emerged with plastic champagne glasses—the kind in which the stem snaps into the bowl.
“El Presidénte”—Dub curtsied and handed the bottle to Doug—“would you do the honors?”
“Ah, but yes, fair maiden,” said Doug as he relieved Dub of the bubbly, purloined earlier from Missy’s parental liquor cabinet. Doug’s cavalier demeanor was quickly replaced by that of a sea dog. When the cork, once shucked of its foil and wire binding, didn’t give way to nimble tugs, our leader stuffed the bottle top in his mouth, growled, and pulled the offending cork out with his teeth.
“How boorish,” Missy observed.
“Très gauche,” added Dub.
Our glasses wouldn’t give us the onomatopoeic satisfaction of a clink, but toasts abounded nonetheless. We christened Get Hammered in the name of Marcel Duchamp, Stanley Hardware, Inc., and GOD almighty. We all sat on the float and began to get hammered ourselves. After downing the first bottle, Missy, who was sitting next to me, suggested we play a drinking game called “I Never” she had learned at a Rice party.
“It’s easy,” she said. “Whoever’s turn it is makes a statement that begins with the words ‘I Never.’ If you’ve never done whatever that person says, you don’t have to drink. But if you have done it, you drink.”
“Give an example,” Matt said.
Missy sat back on her heels, happy to be in charge. “Okay. Let’s say it’s my turn. I could say, ‘I never made out with Johnny Ludden behind the junior high gym.’ Now everyone who can honestly say they’ve never made out with Johnny behind the junior high gym can refrain from drinking. Rhonda, on the other hand, better make like a fish.”
Rhonda turned red and buried her face in her hands, and for a moment I was sure she had quit breathing. Dub laughed so hard champagne spewed out her nose and down her EXPOSE YOURSELF TO ART T-shirt.
“I always thought Johnny was lying when he told us about all the chicks he nailed back there,” Doug said, torturing poor Rhonda further.
Over the next hour I learned much about my allies. It turns out Doug and Missy had kissed in elementary school. Dub had caught her parents getting stoned on a camping trip. Matt was the only one among us who had had sex with the editor of a high school newspaper. (The rest of us were forced to admit we were still lousy with virginity. Missy had contemplated groupiehood in Material Issue’s Econo Lodge room, but the bass player in question passed out before any deflowering had taken place.) I was surprised to learn Doug had tried out for, and been cut from, his junior high football team.
Dub upped the ante a bit with her next probe.
“I’ve never masturbated,” she said, arching her eyebrows at her male comrades.
None of the girls drank; they just stared wide-eyed, lips pursed in tight little prunes of giddy anticipation. They broke into hysterics when Doug slugged down his André with gusto. Bill and I followed a bit more reluctantly. Noticing his little brother wasn’t drinking, Bill levied his wrath against his sibling.
“Boy, I know how long you spend in the bathroom. You best start drinking.” He said this in a tone I thought reserved for the chastising of black children by their parents on television sitcoms.
Matt bashfully raised his plastic chalice, and in a flash of bravado, said “Cheers” before sipping.
He was rewarded with polite, if sarcastic, golf tournament applause from the women. Doug’s turn was next, and I thought surely he would settle the score with the girls. Instead, he blindsided me.
“I’ve never not kissed someone of the opposite sex in my life,” he said.
“What kind of ass-backwards English is that?” I said. “Does that mean you have kissed every girl you’ve chanced upon during the past sixteen years?”
“I think what he means is that he has kissed a girl at least once in his life,” Rhonda said, picking perhaps the most inopportune time to find her voice.
“Bingo,” said Doug proudly.
No one was drinking. This was embarrassing. I turned to look out the barn door and tried to sneak a shot, but it was hopeless. I was snagged.
“Just as I suspected!” Doug bellowed. “My boy! From this day forward, your Indian warrior name is No Lips.”
I wanted to explain that I had had opportunities to kiss girls. In eighth grade, Charlene “the Holstein” Sanders towed me into a closet during my first boy/girl party, hoisted her arms over my shoulders, and tried to initiate me; but in the dark, my dodge-and-parry skills overwhelmed her power-smooch strategy. In California, a youngish receptionist at my mom’s office kissed me at a staff party, but it was in front of a knot of smirking real estate agents. Besides, it was one of those “Isn’t he cute? Won’t he be handsome when he’s a man?” sort of kisses… though it was on the mouth.
“I think it’s sweet,” Missy said, making me feel worse.
“I do too, No Lips,” cooed Doug. I tried to stand but managed only an 80-degree angle before crumpling back into an all-fours stance. My only experience with alcohol had been with beer. A case of Schaeffer Light did you the courtesy of providing a glutted, anesthetized, and somnolent sensation to warn you of oncoming drunkenness. André just snuck up and kicked your ass. My lurching induced a fresh cannonade of laughter. I heard Doug say, “And he’s a lush on top of it.” He sounded as if he were on another planet, as if his voice had to travel three or four seconds to reach my ears.
On my second attempt, I succeeded in standing. I grabbed the remaining bottle and chugged the dregs. Pausing to wipe champagne spittle off my chin, I announced I was leaving.
“Oh no you don’t, No Lips,” Dub said. “You’re not driving anywhere. Give me your keys.”
I’m sure I put up resistance, but not enough, because the next thing I knew, I was in the passenger seat of my car, changing eight tracks at every stoplight. Rhonda was driving, and Dub and Missy were following us to the York villa in Missy’s Land Cruiser.
Don Henley was fervently warning me about life in the fast lane as we pulled into the circular, red-brick drive, but his advice went for naught. Rhonda put the El Camino in park, turned off the engine, grabbed me by the back of my neck, and began probing my larynx with her tongue. I didn’t resist. I tried wiggling my own stamp licker—a chore given the incommodious chamber it was suddenly sharing. I wanted to be able to say I kissed back this time. My eyes, I realized, were wide open. In a Teen Beat “Rate Your Kissing” survey that sixth grader Sarah had read aloud on a car trip, I remembered hearing “eyes open” equated with frigidness. In the light supplied by the Land Cruiser pulling in behind us, I could tell Rhonda’s eyes were closed.
“Call me,” she said after abruptly pulling away. She tossed the keys in my lap and loped back to the idling vehicle.
I bumped into Allison Kimble in the hallway on my way to English this afternoon. She asked me if I had gotten my acceptance to SDCC yet. I told her no.
“Well, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for you,” she said, faking solemnity.
“Nice sweater,” I said, referring to the one tied around her shoulders. I didn’t intend for her to hear. She was entering her classroom.
“Nice earrings,” she said without turning around.
It was rare for the astronaut and me to be home simultaneously, especially on a Sunday morning, but he was in the kitchen nuking Lean Cuisine when I staggered downstairs the following day.
“Why aren’t you golfing?” I asked. Bed gnomes had replaced my blood with battery acid and I was expecting solitude.
“Fine, thank you,” he said. This was as funny as the astronaut got. He fussily pulled the plastic film off his low-cal chicken fettuccine and tossed it in the garbage can.
“Yummy-looking breakfast you got there,” I said.
“I call it lunch. After one in the afternoon, the meal we have is called lunch.”
I had slept until one?
“I’ve already golfed,” he continued. “I shot a seventy-nine. I appreciate your concern.”
The bastard could even golf. He had taken up the sport only three years ago, and, as with most of his passions, he wouldn’t quit until he mastered it. He bought the instructional videotapes. He took lessons, subscribed to Golf Digest, hit balls at the all-night driving range. Why couldn’t he suffer a midlife crisis and buy a Corvette like all the other Clear Lake fathers? Maybe take up cliff diving—something that could really get him hurt.
I stepped around the astronaut, who was eating over the sink—the place where most of our meals were consumed at home—and opened the refrigerator door. I pulled out three tortillas, rolled them up, and devoured them sans toppings. Doug had explained to me once that tortillas, like life rafts on luxury liners, expand exponentially. Once in your stomach they search out loitering alcohol and sop it up into harmless starch mush.
“You’ll never get any bigger eating that way,” the astronaut said, scrutinizing me with the eye of a rancher sizing up soon-to-be-auctioned bulls.
I said nothing and plodded back toward the stairway leading to the sanctuary of my room.
“This letter from your sister has been sitting here a couple days,” he said before I reached safety. I returned and took the envelope from his hand but waited until I made it to my room before opening it.
’sup, bro? [One year in an ethnically diverse school and she thought she was MC Lyte.]
high school = cake, no problemo
u/al… ¿all quiet on the eastern front? [Forgive her, her style, O Lord. We let her read e. e. cummings and listen to Prince as a child.]
wanted 2 send enclosed school mug shot for your wallet… feel free 2 tell buddies i’m babe you scored in canada on fishing trip w/al… but u must tell me, and get names and phone numbers, if any of them say i’m hot or fine… [On the back of the photo, she had written in the sissified script no male can duplicate, “stevie, u and the trout were biting, you were better”]¿what is it w/high school? i thought every1 would b a bit < asinine… in student council we spent our first meeting deciding the colours [She had mastered pretentiousness] of the streamers for gym decoration… the principal said he’s considering bringing drug dogs on campus and searching our lockers, yet all we can talk about is whether we should go with traditional blue and white or choose something radical like a navy blue-columbia blue combo… please write back with some brotherly advice. [Go with the traditional blue and white, for God’s sake!]
by the way, brother, u seem 2 have charmed a friend o’ mine… i don’t mean to be gossipy, but it appears all your late nights with god (i’ve heard all about it—no thanks 2 u) has 1 of my friends taking down her keanu reeves posters… [I knew where this was heading—Rhonda must have written Sarah about me.] ¿was it your rippling pectorals as you brandished a hammer? ¿could it have been that enchanting spell u cast on defenseless maidens? ¿perhaps your beguiling nordic complexion? [Sarah believes she governs the rotation of the planet with her punctuation. Were she ever to end a sentence with a period, time, as we know it, would freeze—her semicolons, in fact, throw off the atomic clock a smidgen.]
it could be any number of things as far as i’m concerned, stud, but something about you has dub circling prom dates on her calendar
Standing on tiptoes I reached for the rigid blue plastic casing of my Battleship game and pulled it down from the top shelf of my bedroom closet. I snapped open the cover and withdrew the three-inch pipe and sealed Baggie of marijuana stashed in the compartments that once housed aircraft carriers and destroyers. Stuffing the contraband in the front pocket of my cutoffs and throwing on a Dr. Zog’s Sex Wax T-shirt, I traipsed out the back door and followed the trail through the dunes to the surf. I wandered a half mile down the beach, listening to the Afghan Whigs on my Discman, before plopping down on the sand. I stuffed the bowl of the pipe with what little pot I had on hand. I hadn’t been smoking or buying much lately, managing an entire six-week grading period without getting busted at school. Using a trusty Bic disposable, I lit the pipe and took the first hit. Twenty minutes later I was a kite.
Midnight found me torpid, searching the Southern California night sky for a star, any star. Dub and I used to lie naked on the floor of her bedroom and study stars through the glass of her French doors.
I had gone into DeMouy’s office earlier in the day to tell him I was quitting the assignment.
“Fine,” he said.
“I’m serious,” I said. “I really can’t go on.”
“I understand,” he said.
I stood and wiped my eyes with the sand-free portion of my palm. I began walking home, soon I was jogging. By the time I could see the lights of my mother and sister’s house I was sprinting. I vaulted upstairs, flipped on the Macintosh power switch, and wrote.
I don’t think I’ve mentioned I was already in love with Dub—had been since the first day she spoke to me. I know what you’re thinking: mature, true, lasting love isn’t conceived in a six-minute exchange walking from geometry to world history, that what I was experiencing was some puerile infatuation. All I can tell you is that I had never felt this way about a girl before and I doubt I ever will again. The fifty-five-minute span I sat behind her every day in geometry was my primary motivation for breathing. I spent the rest of my cognizant hours conceiving one-liners like some vaudevillian hack, so I could glibly toss them into our conversations (“Mrs. Lanigan’s wearing a turtleneck to cover hickeys”). I memorized her class schedule, which had fallen like the Seventh Seal, unwadded, from her backpack pocket, resulting in a system of trails and choreography that allowed me to give her a rote nod and mouthed “hey” in yet another hallway.
The list only gets longer and increasingly pathetic. Every song on the radio had become “Ode to Us,” complete with mental transference of Steve and Dub into starring roles. Daily wardrobe was screened with Dub’s tastes in mind—vests, beads, bracelets, untucked tie-dyed T-shirts, battered Levi’s, Doc Martens. I drove by her house. I stopped just short of carving our names in an oak tree on the village green.
I had assumed that, in long-running television series fashion, Doug and Dub’s squabbling and competitiveness would escalate in such a way that their only recourse would be choosing a second and dueling or fornicating against the back wall of the gym. But with the arrival of Sarah’s dispatch, I found my love requited—the morning after I’d risked mononucleosis with the object of my desire’s close friend.
• • •
“I suppose if I had given you shit about your never having done heroin, you’d be playing bass for Alice in Chains by now?”
It was Doug. His phone call awakened me. I had gone back to bed immediately after reading Sarah’s letter. I looked at my clock and discovered it was four in the afternoon.
“What are you talking about?” I wedged the receiver between my pillow and exposed ear, enabling me to speak with minimal use of motor skills.
“Don’t be coy with me, Lips,” Doug said.
“Who told you?”
“Who hasn’t would be a better question… Rhonda’s been telling everyone she sees.”
“So I guess you’ll be doing something with your girlfriend tonight?”
“That’s not funny.” My girlfriend? I had hardly ever considered Rhonda, let alone considered her my girlfriend. I was suddenly grateful I had to be at work in an hour. “Come by the theater tonight. I’ll get you into something.”
“That was on the agenda anyway. I’m going with Dub tonight.”
I jerked up and instantly wished I had taken my time. Champagne residue, stirred by the burst of kinetic energy, streamed through capillaries that had believed, in good faith, the evening’s threat was over. Fresh pain in my temples and eye sockets knocked me back down to my pillow.
“Did you ask her out?” I asked.
“No, she called this morning. She asked me.”
I hung up, rolled over onto my stomach, and draped one arm over the side of the bed, brushing my fingers against the marine-cropped white carpet. I surveyed the knobbed and valleyed drywall on the starboard side of my room. I imagined driving an ant-sized jeep up and down the wall’s moguls. The smaller I pictured myself, the easier I disappeared and the more at peace I felt. My uniform was hanging in my closet, and I knew, momentarily, I would need to shower, pull my arms and head through the appropriate holes, and leave; but I couldn’t will my corpse from under the comforter. Immobility, on one hand, was symptomatic of a killer hangover, and on the other, my wrestling match with a virgin emotion. The only experience I’d had with jealousy was secondhand, though I knew, by virtue of literature, jealousy had driven men into the clergy, to murder, to the French Foreign Legion, to the arms of prostitutes.
The only sensation akin to what I was feeling now had occurred when I was twelve. Mom took Sarah and me to see Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. During intermission, Sarah and I waited with the absently milling throng in the chandelier-lit red velvet and marble lobby while our mother went to score Cokes for us and white wine for herself. She returned incensed.
“Some boy grabbed my breasts as I was bringing our drinks back over.” I couldn’t tell if my mom was going to cry or go ballistic. “He had the nerve to say, ‘Thank you, ma’am. The pleasure is mine.’”
I whipped my head about furiously, ready to bring the full force of my 105 pounds to bear on the miscreant.
I visualized strangling the unknown mother fondler, relishing each nanosecond it took to drain his life force. My fantasy came stocked with policemen trying vainly to pry me off the body. With my digits dug so deeply into the monster’s eye sockets, the men in blue are forced to wait until I grow weak from hunger.
I was so wrapped up in my fantasy, I didn’t notice the females of my tribe returning to their seats until Sarah yelled at me from ten yards ahead. My two-dimensional physique aided the body dodging required to catch up. When I’d made the family whole, Mom turned and faced us.
“There he is,” she said, more to Sarah than to me. She flashed her pupils into the top right corner of her eye sockets to indicate the perpetrator was over her shoulder. A group of four tuxedoed prep schoolers had set up camp in the middle of the aisle. Without asking, I knew the guilty party. He was the one holding court; the other three were merely orbiting their leering sun. I told myself I would be the black hole that swallowed his galaxy or the supernova that vaporized him instantly. But I couldn’t act. My personal gravity prevented me.
However, Sarah, keeper of the family testosterone, acted in my stead. She approached the man/boy. Smiling up at him, she interrupted his lewdly conjectural discourse on the rich, mellowed savoriness of older women, seized and extended the waistline of his slacks, and slowly poured her Coke into the gap.
“The pleasure was mine,” she said to him.
Mortified security guards asked Sarah to leave, so Mom and I exited as well, though I’m certain my ten-year-old sister could have fended for herself on Broadway. As we stepped out of the theater and onto the street, Mom knelt down and held Sarah’s elbows.
“Darling… that was the wrong boy.”
“That’s okay, Mom,” Sarah said.
“They all have it coming.” The point of my story is this: I had experienced a branch of jealous rage before. With Mom, though, I’d felt protective; my turf had been invaded. It felt only remotely like what I was suffering now, splayed out in bed considering spying on Doug and Dub from the projection booth at the movie that night.
As it was a Sunday night, odds were good Desdemona and Cassio would be attending one of the seven o’clock features. Narrowing the possibilities was simple. I eliminated both buddy cop flicks, the teen slasher sequel, the Disney rere-leased animated classic, the Saturday Night Live spin-off (Doug and I had seen it twice already), and the latest Sharon Stone effort (management was particularly diligent in enforcing the R rating for this one). That left only the foreign coming-of-age story and a “magical romp” in which souls and bodies get switched around, resulting in hilarity and fresh understanding.
I knew I would have no trouble spotting Doug, and he didn’t disappoint me later that evening. With his blond hair and baseball cap he has a beaconlike quality even without his inherent hamminess. I spied him walking backward down the aisle of the foreign film auditorium, gazing up at the windowettes. When he identified my form behind the glass, he made a cavalier bow, bending low on his left leg while extending his right leg behind him. He held his John Deere cap in his right fist which crossed his body and extended his unbent left arm parallel to the ground. He then morphed quickly from musketeer to Klingon, standing and pounding his chest twice with his fist and saluting the projection booth with his entire hand. I scanned the area behind him for Dub. My heart felt like a transplanted organ trying desperately to appease the surrounding white blood cells. She wasn’t behind him. Maybe she hadn’t come. Maybe she’d called and told him she would wait for me to sow my wild oats. Maybe Doug is the bearer of glad tidings. Maybe…
Nope. There she was.
But I had to laugh at the roster of Doug’s big date. Dub was already seated, and on either side of her were Rhonda and Missy. The three of them turned in their seats to give me mock parade waves with stiff hands and rotating wrists.
Feeling a bit like Lucky, the Lucky Charms spokes-leprechaun, I jigged from projector to projector clicking my heels together. My concerns, my petty jealousies, my hangover—all vanished. A knock on the metal door of my sanctum delayed my rendition of “Danny Boy.”
“Steve?” The voice registered as the door cracked open: It was Rhonda.
I had forgotten one little problem. “Uh, yeah,” I answered. Rhonda slunk all the way into the dimly lit booth and closed the door behind her.
“I wanted to see you, find out how you were feeling today. Doug said you sounded terrible. You had a lot to drink last night.” As she spoke, Rhonda moved closer to me. I turned away and fumbled with a reel, trying desperately to look involved in a crisis centering on this renegade cog. I sat up on one of the high projectionist’s stools and considered improvising a call to Hollywood to lambast some imaginary reel factory schmuck.
“Yeah, I felt like hell all day. I mostly slept,” I said.
“Poor baby,” she said, moving up behind me and juicing my shoulder bone sockets. We continued that way silently for a rugged minute. I felt myself spinning to face her. Damn these rotating stools!
“Let me make you feel better,” she said, placing her knuckles on my thighs and leaning in for the Great Tongue Probe II. With her mouth millimeters away, I turned away. A lusty, yet quickly aborted, cheek kiss followed.
“You’re really not supposed to be in here,” I said flatly.
“And you’re really an asshole,” she said before huffing out.
• • •
As punishment for spurning her friend, Dub treated me like an immigrant from planet Dickhead. My orchestrated waves and nods were met blankly in the halls. My attempts at playing the fortune-teller game were snuffed with shushes and head shaking. On Tuesday of homecoming week, Cassandra Holbrook, the frazzled chief architect of spirit week at Grace High, broke down in class and sobbed, “People don’t understand! It’s hard being popular!” I waited for Dub’s sickle wit to hew her asunder, but she didn’t even smirk. On Wednesday I wore a tie to school—a hideous, five-inch-wide expanse of liver-colored quilted polyester emblazoned with images of soulful-eyed Great Danes. I heightened the effect with a Masonic tie tack and chain. This attracted guffaws, stares, whistles, looks of contempt from Skate or Diers. From Dub I garnered the once-over a casting agent gives to “Man Hailing Cab #147.” On Friday I finally scored my first points of the week when I leaned forward and whispered in her ear, “Boy, I hope we win the big game tomorrow.”
She said nothing, but from behind I saw her shoulders vibrating. She was trying to keep from laughing. Rhonda had also avoided me like the JC Penney’s Young Miss fall collection, but that neglect could continue ad infinitum for all I cared.
• • •
Trey Collier had arranged his three art classes sequentially so that only a lunch period interrupted his studies. With the permission of his guru, Mr. Harley, he spent the available three-and-a-half-hour stretch in the Whiteside barn, putting finishing touches on Get Hammered. Most of that time was spent gluing Life Savers on the overhanging cardboard eaves we had tacked along the bed part of the flatbed truck. Those of us with no artistic training were put in charge of organizing the candies by color. We knew we wanted the Life Savers to spell out “Grace Order of Dadaists say… ,” but there had been lively tête-à-têtes about what the final word would be. Late on Thursday night Trey reached an executive decision, and, relying on the menu from his Chinese takeout, completed the slogan with the Chinese symbol for pork.
Beverly as truck owner and Trey as chief designer earned the coveted Get Hammered driver and navigator positions. The rest of us would watch the parade together. On homecoming day, Doug moved through the lines of floats with all the arrogance of a jockey set to ride Secretariat. The sponsor of the student council used a bullhorn to tell the drivers to start their engines. As we were wishing Beverly and Trey luck, Tom Pittman approached Doug.
“What does that say?” he said, pointing at the Chinese word for pork. He was concerned, presumably, because we had used three times the number of Life Savers—and orange rather than lime ones at that—on the initials of our group’s name. Hence, the slogan “Grace Order of Dadaists says Pork” read more like “GOD says X.”
Our leader answered without hesitation, “Beat the Mustangs.”
Within twenty minutes, the dozen remaining members of GOD had carved out a two-row-by-six-seat section of prime parade viewing turf in the football grandstands. Those who could separate me from Dub had successfully done so. I sat on the aisle in row two; she took the innermost seat of row one. Even Rhonda was willing to sit one seat closer to me, immediately to Dub’s left. I had begun to lose faith in Sarah’s letter. What if she had meant to write Rhonda’s name and absentmindedly substituted Dub’s?
Doug, sitting beside me, chin in hand, grunted.
“Can’t they do any better than that?” he said, pointing to the first row where a full score of Skate or Diers were holding newspapers, upside down, in front of their faces in showy indifference to the parade beginning to take shape on the track before them. Though I was confident Doug harbored no regrets about the direction GOD had taken, part of him longed for the abject loathing Skate or Die inspired. He knew the satire we intended with Get Hammered would pass harmlessly over the heads of most of his peers.
As organizers of the parade, the student council was automatically given lead position, and I admit I was impressed, from a strictly aesthetic point of view, with their float. Given the demographics of the community who gravitated to student government, it was hardly surprising that they found it within their quasi-pontifical reach to obtain a genuine yacht. They had affixed a Styrofoam shell to the outside and painted it a mottled greenish brown, approximating the scabby, barnacled look of a pirate ship. A skull-and-crossbones-emblazoned sail hung from the mast, and a legion of blond, Soloflex-buffed pirates with eyepatches, bandannas, and stuffed parrots wired to their shoulders manned battle stations. The boat was skirted by a patch of ocean blue-painted plywood. A horse head (which, for me at least, evoked The Godfather more readily than our gridiron rivals) stuck out of the ersatz sea. As the float rounded the curve and came into full view of the student body, the band broke into “Bucs Fight.” The Buccaneer Babes began their synchronized Rockette routine in the stands, and the cheerleaders kicked their heels backward and jabbed pompoms heavenward each time the band paused for a shouted chorus of “Bucs Fight! Bucs Fight! Yay, Bucs Fight!” The game jersey-clad football players slouched in folding chairs facing the student body on the inside of the track. The deities-in-waiting feigned aplomb, succeeding only in looking as bored as the Skate or Diers whose asses they were silently vowing to kick Monday at school.
Doug had drawn number 16 in the parade order lottery, which meant Get Hammered represented the midpoint of the parade. For a group that took special pride in its skepticism, we young GODs were certainly being blatantly unblasé waiting for our entry to arrive, sniping at the more garish efforts of our competitors (except for Lynnette, who apparently expected the Second Coming to occur on one of the passing flatbed trucks) and trying to top each other with the most fatuously generic cheer. Veg won that battle, based at least partially on the way his voice cracked and went falsetto when he stood during a lull between floats to howl with insane gusto, “Go, team!” Doug kept standing to bellow, “Pork!” Virginia and Zipper sat below me trying to decide who was the cutest of the mohawked Skate and Diers, a discussion that I yearned not to overhear.
Matt Whiteside, still enough of a Boy Scout to bring binoculars, was the first to spot the pride of GOD as it turned off Spruce Terrace onto Buccaneer Boulevard.
“Thar she blows!” he announced, getting his nautical allusions mixed up.
“Is the hammer working?” his concerned brother asked.
For perhaps the only time, GOD followed the lead of Lynnette, who was the first of our group to stand as our dadaistic masterpiece passed in front of the student body. We applauded every bit as madly as the Key Club had for their “Buccaneer Slaying Mustang,” the Future Farmers for their “Buccaneer Slaying Mustang,” the French Club for their “Boucanier Massacre le Cheval” or the PETA group for their “Buccaneer Domesticating Mustang.” Trey, riding shotgun, gave a thumbs-up to our delirious section. In my euphoria, I failed, momentarily, to monitor the reaction of the homecoming crowd. But I quickly realized that the stunned reception Get Hammered was reaping justified every sweltering, Life-Saver-gluing minute spent in the Whiteside barn.
The band, section by section, simply quit playing. Dancing cheerleaders, puzzled by the silence, turned to face Get Hammered. Several dropped their pom-poms. Skate or Diers lowered their newspapers. Administrators stood transfixed by the motorized contraption before them. Waves of students and teachers turned to stare at our bantam cheering section, effectively cowing us into silence. After what seemed like an hour, the hush was unexpectedly broken by a lone bass drum, which began to boom in time with the downward stroke of our hammer. Again and again the drummer punctuated the hammer’s “impact,” providing a slow but ominous-sounding rhythm. Then, one of the football players began clapping with the beat. He was joined by the rest of the team, and soon the entire grandstand had fallen in line, giving the pep rally the aura of a Celtic funeral march. Our float had passed completely from view before the drum major whistled the band back into the Grace fight song to accompany the Ski Club’s “Buccaneer Slaying Mustang”—modified by their radical substitution of a ski pole for the traditional cutlass.
I got my third letter from Doug today. If I don’t start writing back I’m sure I’ll lose all contact with Texas. That might not be a bad thing. I’m always afraid to open his letters for fear I will learn fresh details of her life. I guess that since I’ve been writing for DeMouy, and I’ve had to type her name regularly, I’ve grown a bit more accustomed to it. But all my information is old. I don’t want to know what she’s up to now, unless maybe it’s something tragic.
Forget everything you’ve read. It’s still possible to have sex in college. Cheap, tawdry, meaningless, fleeting, dirty, anonymous sex. You can’t have it with anyone, but no one stops you from taking matters into your own hand.
You ought to come here for college. Austin has to be the coolest city in Texas. Even the frat boys recycle. After my Friday Chem II class, our T.A. takes us out and buys us pitchers of Shiner Bock at The Crown and Anchor. [Shiner Bock is like water in Austin.]
I’m drumming for a band now. I answered an ad that was tacked up in the student union building. It was the only band that didn’t want to play lame-ass white funk/rap. Get this… we’re called the Originals and we play only 1970s guitar rock. Just as you always predicted, I’m out there resurrecting “Sweet Home Alabama.” We’ve been opening up on weeknights at the perfectly named Hole in the Wall. It’s right here on the Drag. We’ve started drawing pretty well, and we’ve been promised a weekend night pretty soon.
Hang in there, buddy. Remember, the thighs of Texas are upon you.
Hook ’em! (God, I’m spirited.)
The school official who dictated that our fifty-dollar prize for most original float was to be deposited directly into our school account displayed a wisdom rare among his ilk, as I’m sure the loot would have been squandered on beer had we received cash in hand. When Principal B. J. Stokes stammered “The Grace Order of Dadaists” as winner of the “most original” category, its cynical membership reacted with all the reserve associated with English soccer fans. We hugged; we pumped our fists in Jimmy-Connors-march-to-the-U.S.-Open-semis fashion; we screamed, “Pork!”
In the melee I found myself pushed next to Dub. We studied each other for a pregnant few seconds. I would have stood there with a Gomer Pyle expression on my face for days, but she spread her arms, inviting me within. I stepped forward and wrapped my arms farther around her than celebratory etiquette allows, gaining the opposite side of her back with each hand. As she turned her head sideways and pressed her ear against my collarbone, I felt sure Sarah’s letter had been accurate: Dub felt something for me, maybe a fraction of what I felt for her, but in some form, we had connected.
Suddenly I felt a Viking slap on my back. I withdrew from the hug and turned to find Doug ripe for manly celebrating. His fists were clenched overhead in a V for victory sign, and he was crooning the opening lines of “We Are the Champions.” Immediately aware of the creature from the blue jean lagoon testing the metal of my zipper, I jammed my fists into my pockets and joined in. We didn’t get very far before the band struck up the alma mater. This put me in the awkward position of trying to decide whether or not to take my hands out of my pockets to put my arms around my neighbors, as convention dictated for the rendering of the song. Doug was similarly perplexed for dissimilar reasons: Meekly joining in this maudlin tribute to an institution for which he acknowledged no fealty whatever was just too hypocritical to contemplate. Evidently misconstruing my woody-concealment gesture as a show of defiance, he also stuck his hands in his pockets, and the two of us finished off the Queen song to the tune of “Hail Grace High.”
Toby the Party, so named for his talent for knowing the location of every kegger in Greater San Diego, offered me a couple shots of tequila on my way in from the parking lot after lunch. Toby had served as sort of the stoner Welcome Wagon when I first arrived in town. I wouldn’t exactly call him a friend, but we had cut plenty of classes together.
“You got the new Mudhoney CD yet?” T. P. inquired as he pulled a lime out of his glove box. I shook my head no. Toby’s big dream, practically the only thing he talked about, was moving to Seattle once he got out of school, growing his hair down to his knees, and playing in the grungiest band he could find.
I took the second shot he offered out of guilt for not seeing much of Toby lately. Despite feeling a bit sloppy afterward, I stopped by DeMouy’s office. The evening before I had found a used cassette called Spooky Sounds and Naughty Noises at Play It Again Sam’s. I thought DeMouy could probably punch it in on Halloween. Besides, it only cost me a buck.
Allison Kimble, however, occupied my all-but-branded chair. On her lap she held open a massive organizer/planner. I scanned it from the doorway. Every day appeared to have four or five entries. DeMouy was sifting through files, gathering materials Allison must have requested.
“Have you gotten the application from ITT Tech that I asked for?” I asked in my Clear Lake–honed Thurston Howell voice. DeMouy didn’t respond, but he smiled slightly without looking up from the files.
Allison swiveled. “Well, if it isn’t Bandanna Man.”
And it occurred to me, What the hell am I doing here? Can’t I see all the disturbing parallels? Without thinking of an appropriate exit line, I closed the door, walked out to my car, and drove to the beach. I had enough school for the day.
Stan Jr., Doug’s nearly legal-aged older brother, proved to be the hero of the night. It took him only three 7-Elevens to find a convenience store lackey willing to sell him a case of Busch.
“I’m just glad I could do something to help American kids,” he said, dropping Doug and me off at the Whiteside barn. We were compelled to meet on Homecoming Eve to dismantle Get Hammered; Beverly’s parents needed the truck the following day. Doug and I weren’t the only two who thought demolition work could only improve with beer. Most of the members showed up with smuggled bottles stuck in baggy jeans pockets, hidden in purses, tucked in boots.
Veg brought his parents’ video camcorder and recorded the evening’s merriment. Matt started up the hammer and all of us climbed aboard the float. Veg set the camera on the hood of Zipper’s convertible Rabbitt and joined us in the shot. We replaced the standard teeth-revealing “cheese” with the less gummy, but more germane, “Pork.” Later Doug suggested Veg shoot Matt and me forcing him like a prisoner, in affected slow motion, to the spot near the truck’s cab where the hammer struck regularly. Veg, sensing his president’s intentions, stopped the tape just before Doug pulled his head out of the killing zone. Doug took the camera out of Veg’s hands and shot a couple of seconds from the vantage point of the truck cab as the hammer swung toward him. Handing the camera back to Veg, he ran across the barn to the shelf where we had stored our leftover tempera paint. He grabbed a bottle of the red we used on the handle, unscrewed the top, and poured it across the cab of the truck, letting it spill down the back in rivulets. Then he positioned Veg in his original taping spot.
“Okay, Veg. When I say action, you start recording.” Doug motioned for Matt and me to rejoin him. He pulled his sweatshirt up so his head was covered, then instructed us to grab him by the arms. He positioned himself so that his back blocked the still-runny red paint from the camera. As the hammer began its descent, Doug shouted action.
When the hammer struck, Doug flailed his headless body backward revealing the faux blood stain where, through the magic of video, there had once been a skull. He then plowed through a half case, or “twack” (our contraction of “twelve pack”), while watching his videotaped execution over and over again. Consequently, he wasn’t much help in taking apart the float. (Of course, even if he’d been sober, Doug probably still wouldn’t have been much help.)
We left the retained heat of the barn for the woven-rubber-tubing lawn chairs scattered randomly outside the huge swinging doors. A cool, but clammy, Gulf breeze rewarded us for the completion of our project.
Rhonda’s attention to Matt Whiteside in the ensuing hours was so blatant I was a bit embarrassed to be sitting four lawn chairs away. Matt didn’t appear to be aware of her fawning, or at least he didn’t mind it. If she were stalking Matt in hopes of provoking me, she was succeeding only in easing whatever residual guilt I felt over… well, over letting her kiss me, I guess. Dub must have been equally aware of Rhonda’s translucence, because when Rhonda said she wanted to see Matt’s aquarium-confined tarantula, Dub hacked up the swig of Busch she had just taken.
Bill was stretched out on a deck chair with Holly curled across his lap. Her arm was around his neck and his hand rested on her hip. The two were representing the Grace Jesters Drama Club and the journalism department, respectively, in the following night’s homecoming court festivities. Lynnette, skittish as usual, was interrogating the couple about the event, which was, by then, only twenty hours away.
“But won’t y’all just freak if they call your names? What if one of you wins and has to dance with someone else, won’t you just freak? Does the gym really look like a tropical paradise? Do you know what you’re going to wear?” Lynnette catechized rapid-fire with visions of Cinderella in her head.
Holly did her best to respond patiently before Lynnette interrupted with her next question. I was glad Doug had passed out. Had he been sentient, I’m afraid he would have excommunicated Lynnette for such unabashed false convention-worshipping.
“All they do to turn the gym into a tropical paradise is put up three or four fake palm trees, bring in a little tiki hut to serve punch out of, and, oh yeah, they give you plastic leis as you walk in the door,” Holly said.
“Imagine how long boys can joke about ‘getting lei-ed’ at the door,” Missy added.
“I want to go,” Dub said, startling those assembled, Lynnette excepted.
“I think you should go.” All the heads that had turned to stare at Ms. Varner swiveled toward Samantha, who was speaking. “Well, why not? You can’t really just sit back and laugh at teenagers in their natural habitat your whole life unless you’ve done some clinical research.”
“Sure you can,” Missy said. “That’s why we have John Hughes movies—so we don’t actually have to go to high school dances.”
Dub jutted out her lower lip and blew her hair out of her eyes before explaining.
“It’s not that I need to see kids puking in the parking lot or middle-aged teachers in kimonos hosing down couples on the dance floor to be able to laugh at them,” Dub explained. “I just want to go to at least one dance, see what it feels like to get dressed up, maybe wear makeup, introduce a boy to my parents, watch him fidget on my front porch. I want the whole Hallmark-Card-Norman-Rockwell-American-rite-of-passage thing. It’s a life experience I’ve never had. And it sucks to realize I probably never will.”
I wondered briefly how much Dub had had to drink but was restored to the present from my mental score-carding of the night’s consumption by sharp taps on my Doc Martens. Samantha, sitting perpendicular to me, was signaling me by kicking my foot. I tried to read the senior’s face, but her back was to the open barn doors. All I saw was silhouette.
“Double U, sometimes I don’t understand you,” Missy said. “Getting your wisdom teeth out is a ‘life experience,’”—Missy made the international quote mark sign with her fingers—“but you don’t see people paying a cover charge to get into the dentist’s office. I swear, you are the only person I know who makes decisions based on what will provide the best material for a diary.”
“It’s too late to care about it now, anyway. Shockingly enough, nobody’s asked me to go with them,” Dub said.
Veg, Zipper, and Virginia left together shortly after midnight in Veg’s Volkswagen bus. I asked them for a ride, as both Doug and I were carless, but Dub volunteered to take us home. The move elicited a lip-parted head swivel from Rhonda and a smirk from Missy, who’d had surprisingly little to say all evening. Missy, though, was the driver and I accepted the offer despite the prospect of occupying close quarters with the doubly spurned Rhonda.
Matt, Missy, Bill, and I served as pallbearers for the comatose Doug Chappell. As we carried his limp body to the cargo space of Missy’s Land Cruiser, Dub followed, genuflecting, sprinkling warm spittle from a Busch empty, and speaking in near-Latin, “In nominee padre, et fille…”
As it turned out, Rhonda ended up riding home with Lynnette. I climbed in the backseat of Missy’s forest-green status symbol, and Missy and Dub got in front. We pulled out of the private road leading up to the Whiteside ranch and onto Farm Road 1212. Missy cracked her window open electronically and punched in her cigarette lighter.
“Deary,” Dub said, “smoking is so eighth grade.”
Ignoring Dub, Missy tapped a Merit out of a pack in her purse. “So, Barney, how are we going to get Otis here safely into bed?”
I glanced behind me. A drool puddle had formed under Doug’s mouth. “We can’t really count on Doug helping us out. I need to get ahold of Stan Jr. He could take care of him. I won’t be able to deactivate their home security alarm.”
Missy reached into the glove box, pulled out a cellular phone, and waved it blindly into the backseat. “If this doesn’t work, I say we just leave the video he made tonight on their front doorstep with a note saying, ‘I asked for a kidney-shaped pool, damn it!’”
I dialed the Chappell “children’s line.” Thankfully, twenty-year-old Stan Jr., answered, though he spoke a language understood only by those awakened from a deep sleep.
“Gorrdom ssshh bagror?” he said. His inflection rose at the end of his greeting, so I was pretty sure he meant it as a question.
“Stan, it’s Steve. Can you meet me at your front door in about ten minutes? Doug is pretty messed up.”
“Doog gnik cufeb rette bsiht,” he grumbled before hanging up.
Pulling up in front of the Chappells’ red-clay-shingled Spanish-style hacienda, I was relieved to find Stan had at least partially understood my plea. Doug’s sibling was spread-eagled on his back on the front lawn, asleep. His robe was untied, revealing a pair of Mickey Mouse–adorned boxers. A pubic hair exhibition was visible through the open fly of his shorts.
“Now, this is classy,” Missy said as she turned off the engine. “Kind of kindles all my maternal fires.”
I hopped out and closed Stan’s robe before shaking his shoulder. Stan struggled to stand up.
“What happened to Boy Wonder?” Stan slurred, though he was looking at the two unfamiliar girls dragging his sibling out of the Land Cruiser.
“Twack attack,” I answered.
Stan scratched his blond stomach hair and grinned. “Did he ever tell you about the drum set he got when he was thirteen?” I shook my head. “He played it every Saturday morning. Mom was happy that he showed so much dedication. What she didn’t know was that the son of a bitch was only playing because he knew I’d come in wasted the night before.” Stan walked over to where Dub and Missy had propped up Doug against Stan’s Toyota. He took Doug’s chin in his hand and used his thumb and index finger to force a lunatic smile on his brother’s face. “Tomorrow your ass is mine, little brother.”
Stan, as ventriloquist, nodded Doug’s head and manipulated his lips.
“Yes, sir,” my automated friend responded.
Stan then supplanted Dub on Doug’s right side. I moved to take Missy’s place, but she waved me off. “Think how it will horrify him if I can describe the inside of his room. Maybe I’ll leave my purse and act offended when he can’t remember me being there.”
Wrapping Doug’s arms around their necks, Missy and Stan made slow progress toward the house. As they disappeared inside, I realized I was alone with Dub.
“Tomorrow will be a day Doug will remember,” Dub said, breaking the silence that I perceived as awkward within seconds of our companions’ departure. Dub was still looking in the direction of the open front door. I took the liberty of staring at her profile. I knew before looking that she wasn’t beautiful. Her face had a cartoon puggishness to it, like an animated character smacked with a frying pan—the eyes huge and splayed at dolphin width. Separately her features would have seemed comical; together they gave her a funkiness that caught your attention like a log cabin in Genericwood Estates. Though I could see only one eyebrow from my angle, I had often noted how they harmonized her stray features. They were dark brown, her original hair color, and they arched and descended like a designer’s French curve—striking and perfect.
Dub’s body was an enigma. All of her clothes seemed purchased with an all-star wrestler in mind. A voyeur would have a better chance of spying Dub’s mystery flesh through the gaping arm holes of one of her short-sleeved shirts than other traditional cleavage opportunities. Dub shunned more feminine garments neither out of a need to hide weight nor latent lesbian masculinity. “Comfort” was the one-word answer she would give to explain her fashion sense, but I think she was savvy enough to oblige the masses to deal with her on her own terms. Spiral perm her and dress her at the Limited and she would have evaporated in the halls of Grace.
I saw the light in Doug’s upstairs room come on. Belatedly and poetically, I realized why Samantha had been kicking me earlier. She had seen Dub and me hugging. She knew Dub wanted to go to the homecoming dance. Steve, thy name is rube.
I frantically rummaged my wit for suitably ambiguous, noncommittal (read, “safe”) methods of asking Dub to the homecoming dance—avenues that offered retreat and reduced the risk of rejection, double entendres like “I can’t tell you how much fun the homecoming dance sounds” or “Imagine not going to the dance.” I considered tossing out “I’ve got tomorrow night off and nothing to do,” like a bucketful of fish innards on a shark safari.
My best move would have been to drink my share of the beer at the Whiteside barn, but that was an option no longer open to me. My inhibitions were still cruelly intact, and my tongue felt like a two-dollar hunk of salted beef jerky.
Instead, with each frittered second, I confirmed my wusshood. My palms were swamps and my heart that of a speed freak. When at last I had chosen words, I found I was unable to speak. I had to relinquish control of my motor skills to my spinal column. My brain became merely a terrified observer. The sound I made, however, didn’t come out in the form of a sentence; I squeaked.
Dub heard, though, and turned around to face me. “Did you say something?” she asked.
I could only listen in horror as my fearless reflexive system assumed control.
“Are you looking for someone to take you to the dance tomorrow night?” my mouth asked.
“You are pathetic,” she said, emphasizing all three words. “What the hell does that mean—‘Are you looking for someone to take you to the dance?’” Dub paused and shook her head slowly before driving home another stake. “Is that your coy way of asking me out, or are you wondering if we should have Missy drop me off somewhere on Westheimer to go on a manhunt?”
“Forget it,” I said. Missy was bounding out of the house, but she hesitated when she sensed the contention.
“No. Tell me what you meant. I mean, I already confessed to wanting to go. Were you making sure I wasn’t lying?”
By now I was embarrassed and wanted to bail, but Dub had blocked my retreat. I stood there with my head bowed. This should have been easy. I couldn’t even ask a girl to a dance who had not only said she desired to attend, but had also spoken affectionately of me.
“Look, can we talk about this some other time?” I said after lengthy silence assured me Dub wasn’t about to let me off the hook just because we had an audience.
“No time like the present,” she said.
I contemplated the likely postrejection results of this encounter. I would abandon all hope of a life colored by passion or meaning. I would melt into the blue-and-gold-painted halls of Grace, trade up to an invisible Accord, join the Future Teachers. No one would ever see me again. But now I would face my destiny like a man. I raised my head and spoke evenly.
“Dub, please go to the homecoming dance with me.”
Missy raised her eyebrows, unaware this had been the theme. For one of the two times I would ever witness, Dub seemed unsure of herself. She glanced snappishly about. It occurred to me: She had expected me to back out. In fact, I think she tried to push me to it. Relief hit me even before she responded. The balance had shifted in my favor. I had made Dub nervous.
Guess what. There was an ugly scene at the dinner table caused by one of the York children tonight, and I wasn’t involved in it at all. I didn’t say a word during the entire exchange.
Mom and Chuck cooked together. This was one of their less gross joint pursuits. Believe me, in my book, it ranked way above jogging together in matching sweat suits or French-kissing in public. This night they prepared a barbecued salmon and corn on the cob. After three years of microwaving my own meals, I tried not to miss much home cooking. I think I’m even starting to put on some significant weight. Anyway, we sat down to eat at the picnic table on the deck, and as with most discussions at home, Sarah and Mom did most, if not all, of the talking. Sarah had a new boyfriend and Mom was curious.
“But why haven’t we met him?” she asked.
“He’s got an internship at KPIX. He wants to get into radio after he graduates. He’s always working,” Sarah answered.
“Well, he must make quite a bit of money as much as he works.”
“It’s an internship, Mom. You don’t make money at an internship; you work for free. It’s the only way you can get experience in radio.”
“When do you ever get to see him?”
“That’s something I wanted to talk to you about.”
Chuck snuck in a request for the butter, which I was happy to provide.
Sarah continued. “Danny’s asked me to the Pearl Jam concert next month. He got free tickets through work.”
“That’s terrific. Pearl Jam’s huge,” said my mother, indicating the band must have made the cover of People.
“Yeah, but the concert’s in LA. At the Forum. And nobody wants to try to drive home afterward. The plan is to get a hotel room and crash, then drive back in the morning. There are eight of us going.”
“Were you planning on asking permission?”
“That’s what I’m doing now.”
“You expect me to let you get a hotel room with a boy? A boy I’ve never even met? I don’t think so. Sometimes I think you think you’re much older than you really are.”
Chuck and I continued eating, heads down.
“God, Mom, you make it sound like we’d be acting out Caligula in the room. There’d be eight of us in there. I don’t think anybody will be parading around naked. We’ll leave the vibrators and goats here at home.”
“Don’t talk to me like I’m being a frump about this. Do parents today normally let their children go to concerts in the big city and stay in hotel rooms afterward?”
“No, Mom… just the smart ones.”
I sensed Sarah had just crossed some line with this one.
“Watch it, young lady.”
“It is smarter. Would you rather we drive back sleepy? Some people in the group might be drinking. It’s just better that we stay in Los Angeles.”
“Will you be one of the ones drinking?”
“Mooommm, puhleeease! You wouldn’t keep Steve from going… and he’s been known to”—long pause—“drink occasionally.”
“He’s eighteen, honey, and, besides, we’re not talking about Steve right now.” Mom turned toward her husband. She touched his forearm. “Chuck, do you think this sounds like a good idea?”
Chuck looked up reluctantly. He wearily faced his stepdaughter. “Sarah, I think your mother has a point. It doesn’t sound very proper to me.”
“Who cares what you think?” Sarah said. “You aren’t my father.” My sister threw her napkin on her plate, left the table, and stormed out the front door. We listened to her Subaru squeal out onto Shoreline Drive.
“Is she going to eat that?” I said, pointing to her salmon.
Dub never did tell me yes. She just said to pick her up at nine. Neither of us spoke on the drive to my house. The silence forced me to consider what I had done. For the first time in my life, I had asked a girl on a date, a real date, none of this, “My friends will be there. Why don’t you and your friends show up?” scammy bullshit. In doing so, I committed myself to attend a semiformal high school dance, one that, four hours ago, I had no desire to attend… and for good reason.
First of all, I don’t dance. Outside of a couple feeble Club MTV imitations in front of the sliding mirror doors of my closet, I was lacking practical boogie experience. More important, to my employer, I was supposed to work homecoming night at the Cineplex. I had already alienated the other two projectionists by requesting so many nights off to work on Get Hammered. Third, I had not worn my suit since eighth grade. Sarah and I had been roughly the same size back then; I towered over her now. Fourth, the astronaut was home most Saturday nights, a six-hour gap each week he had, so far, been unable to fill. His married friends were locked into bridge leagues, family nights, and whatnot. Dub may want classic dating rites, but I could do without the beaming old man slipping me a fiver while imparting fatherly dos and don’ts. Last, the El Camino was sufficient for tooling around, getting my books and me to school, and transporting me to work, but not for taking a girl, presumably in a dress, to a semiformal dance. As we turned left on Briar Cove, Missy broke the silence.
“Oh boy. You two should be the life of the party tomorrow,” Missy said. Still, neither of us spoke. She continued a bit more sympathetically. “From what I hear, no one stays at the dance very long. They show up. They get their pictures taken. That way they can prove to their parents that they made it and that all the money they had demanded was necessary. Then they go to parties where everyone does the cocaine and X they bought with embezzled mum and limo money.”
Missy stopped at the same spot in my driveway where she and Dub had viewed the seduction of Steve a week ago. I hoped the same image didn’t flash in Dub’s head. I reached for the door handle, prepared to depart without further notice, but Dub turned in her seat and told me her phone number.
“Call me tomorrow,” she told me. “Do you think you can remember the number? Do you want me to write it down?”
But of course I knew it by heart.
I found a postcard worthy of a missive to Doug at a trashy beachfront souvenir shop. The shop is next door to my latest haunt, Cap’s. Cap’s has cashed in on America’s java mania. The hand-painted driftwood sign that hangs outside depicts a squinting, pipe-smoking coffee bean wearing a skipper’s cap and a yellow rain slicker. I’m not sure if “Cap” is a diminutive of cappuccino or an extension of the seafarin’ motif established by the cartoon. A hybrid, I suppose.
I generally hit Cap’s right after school. I see no one from school there. That’s essential.
It’s good for me to be out of the local misdemeanor-level drug ring in the late afternoon. More of us get high, or make plans to get high, at that time than any other. School just provides a convenient meeting ground. DeMouy must have made a mistake in assigning me all this writing. Instead of coming to terms with what happened back in Texas, I’m realizing how sorry my life is here. Or was this his intention? I’m more a hermit now than ever. I have to start being honest with myself. I have no friends in San Diego. I have people I party with… it’s not the same thing.
Most of my afternoon co-sippers at Cap’s are either professionals or grad students from UCSD. I made the mistake of coming in one night after ten. I was run out by college sophomores smoking clove cigarettes, strumming out-of-tune acoustic guitars, and reading free verse poetry heavy with metaphorical digressions.
I’m still a novice at my newest vice, coffee. I swallow three or four gulps of it, straight and black, barely hiding my grimace. Then I douse it with cream and thicken it with sugar. I do this when I believe no one is looking. The bottom of my mug becomes a tan sludge. Caffeine gives me such a different buzz than dope. By what factor I used to return home more mellow, I can’t even begin to guess.
Anyway, back to the postcard I bought for Doug. Jason Priestley graced its front side. He looked into the camera earnestly. His chest was bare and glycerin spritzed, and his thumbs were hooked inside the waistband of his jeans. I felt dirty buying it, like I was picking up my monthly copy of Sizzlin’ Sir Loins from Pleasure Tyme Newsstand. I didn’t wuss out, though. I didn’t tell the checkout guy that it was for my little sister or that it was a joke or anything like that. I modified the card by adding a balloon aimed at Priestley’s thin lips. “Doug, we’ll always have Lubbock,” Jason confessed. On the back I wrote . .
Ma mere n’est pas morte.
[We had both read Camus’ The Stranger in Sky’s class.]
And neither am I.
Texas is just a big black hole that I haven’t allowed myself to get sucked back into. Unfortunately, you’re not far from ground zero.
I’m glad to hear you’re drumming. I hope Neil Young will remember, southern men don’t need him around, anyhow.
The astronaut and I had effectively negated the preservational role of “family”—food gathering, predator thwarting, values establishing, weather dancing. As best as we could, we interacted through Post-it notes and paper-clipped currency. We didn’t sink to the clichéd line painted down the middle of the house, preferring to utilize a complicated schedule decreeing when the house could be considered our own. The elder York was welcome to the pre-8 A.M. hours. He had my blessing to lord over the manor then as he saw fit. On school days my alarm clock jolt coincided with the old man’s motorized bicycle chain wrenching open the garage doors to emancipate his Lincoln. Of course, I didn’t get up with the first static/grunge of KTRU, Rice’s weak-signaled alternative radio station. I allowed myself two blissful snooze button slaps.
Monday through Friday were so masterfully executed that we had managed complete five-day stretches without a single nonpenned word passing between us. Weekends were normally sticky; football season made it worse. The astronaut could park himself on one of our two practical chairs and watch State U battle Other State Tech all day. He would sit there with a bowl of grapes and a liter bottle of Evian, unconcerned with who was playing. There was a time I can remember when Saturday mornings meant a comfy denful of jet fighter pilots, swilling Budweiser and wolfing down fatty toothpicked hors d’oeuvres served by Mom. The room would erupt from time to time and I would spot the patriarch laughing and backslapping almost like he was human.
When the alarm buzzed for the third time, I made it up—8:30 on a Saturday morning, an hour that I hadn’t experienced in a vertical position since Christmas morning sometime in the mid-eighties. I showered, didn’t shave (it wasn’t a full moon), and sat down at my desk with a notepad and pen. I jotted down a twenty-eight-item Things to Do list, before adding as the twenty-ninth, call Dub and cancel. Then I crumpled up the list. I rocked back in my folding chair, tapping my nose with the pen cap suctioned to my tongue, and reconsidered. I could scratch dance lessons—not enough time. Eliminating hot-wire convertible Beamer was probably also a wise move from both a penal and scheduling perspective. Flattening the crumpled legal sheet, I rescanned my list and found more nonessential steps I could cross out.
• BUY PIZZA-SIZED MUM WITH “Steve and Wanda” SPELLED IN GLUE AND GLITTER DOWN THE HANGING STREAMERS.
• SIPHON GASOLINE TO “NOT QUITE ENOUGH TO GET HOME” LEVEL.
• GET HAIR “DONE.”
Soon I had the list pared down to the bare necessities.
• WAKE UP DOUG AND GIVE HIM SHIT.
• LIE TO ASTRONAUT.
• GET OFF WORK.
• AVOID DANCE FLOOR.
• SQUEEZE ZITS.
I figured I’d give Doug a reprieve and start with item two. I wrapped a bathrobe around me, depressed a bit by the olympic-ring-sized loops left after tying the belt. I padded downstairs. The astronaut sat in the stage-right chair. His feet were on the glass coffee table and the Houston Chronicle was on the rug beside the chair in neatly folded sections. On the screen, two Ivy League schools simulated a football game. The astronaut was dressed in his Saturday play clothes: khaki slacks, black knit golf shirt, brown Top-Siders. He was, naturally, showered and dressed for the day. He didn’t look surprised to see me, though he did glance at his watch.
“Are you planning to go to the game tonight?” the astronaut asked, and I don’t think I’m mistaken in adding the adverb hopefully.
“Which game?” I asked, genuinely confused. I pulled wet bangs out of my eyes.
“Grace and Memorial… your homecoming game,” the astronaut said before switching his attention back to the set. He began flipping through the channels that might be carrying meaningful contests.
“Oh, that’s right,” I said, trying to sound interested. “I can’t. I’ve got to work.” I walked over and occupied the other chair. I also kept my attention on the television. “Do you think I can borrow the Lincoln tonight? My car is making some funky noise.”
“If you could have waited until you got back to Texas, we could have found you something more reliable,” the astronaut said.
I knew I would be subjecting myself to this lecture, but I also figured that, while gloating, his mood would be such that he would relent enough to loan me his supertanker. We sat there for a few minutes, silently playing a patience game. Finally he instructed me to fill the Lincoln with gas before I brought it home. I thanked him, then counted to one hundred before excusing myself and leaving him alone in front of the television.
I spent the next hour in front of my bathroom mirror on a blackhead search and destroy mission. The assignment was treacherous. Squeeze one before it’s properly aged and you end up with a pinball stuck just inside your cheek. Allow one to fester and you learn on a midnight trip to the men’s room that your face resembles Pompeii. Concluding the job with a Q-Tip and alcohol rubdown, I skipped the standard intermission for the red pinchy marks on my face to return to uniform paleness, confident I would run into neither Winona Ryder nor Dub before I regained an unscourged look.
Next I rummaged through my closet, eventually emerging with a tweed, elbow-patched sports coat bought either before I had a say in clothing or under a mistaken impression that girls went for academics. I tried it on nevertheless. My forearms emerged like loaves of French bread from the sleeves—passable if I wanted to sing for a slightly bookish rockabilly band. Sighing, I examined my assembled footwear: one size nine purple Chuck Taylor, one green size ten (Doug had a pair just like it), my Docs, and a stiff pair of Mom-purchased Hush Puppies. I heard the phone ring but decided to let the astronaut answer it. The only person I could imagine calling me was comatose. Moving from shoes to shirts, I perused the three-item collection of long-sleeved pin-striped dress shirts. All had been bought predivorce. The astronaut and I didn’t go malling together very often. Just then, the old man barked.
“Steve,” he shouted as if addressing a private. He made my name seem shorter than its lone syllable.
“I’ll get it up here,” I yelled back. I picked up the body of the phone in my left hand and held the receiver to my mouth with my right still posing in the mirror.
“So what are you going to wear?” It was my sister, the psychic.
“How’d you know?” I began, though it was a stupid question.
“I just got off the phone with her. You really shocked her last night. She didn’t think you would ever come around. Not a very romantic way to—”
“Wait a minute,” I said. There had been a considerable delay between the time the phone rang and the time I was told to pick it up. “You didn’t tell the astronaut about the dance, did you?”
“No, but what’s wrong with telling him? It would make his whole month. He probably thinks you’re gay.”
I thought about that for a second. The Astronaut and His Gay Son—I liked the sound of it. If I could get my hands on some blatantly deviant skin mags, Bone Homme or something like that, leave them poorly hidden around the house, I just might earn that disinheritance.
“Let him fret. I’m not sure introducing him to Dub would change his mind, anyway.”
“Okay, back to the original question: What are you going to wear?”
“I’ve got some ideas, nothing definite,” I said semitruthfully. This was Sarah’s cue. She instructed me to get a pen and paper and proceeded to tell me exactly what to buy and at which stores.
“Where are all these places?” I asked.
“In the mall… where you work… where everything is in Clear Lake… where Grace returns to spawn….”
“Oh.” I had only entered Clear Lake Mall through the outdoor access of the Cineplex. “Is this your idea or did Dub tell you to call me? Is she afraid I might show up in a loincloth?”
“What were you considering wearing?” Sarah asked, a bit peeved. I scrutinized my Hanes and tweed ensemble in the mirror.
“It doesn’t matter. I’ll go shopping.”
After receiving some final accessorizing tips as well as a mini-dating/etiquette lesson, I clicked the phone’s flash button and got a new dial tone. This would be the one part of the morning I would enjoy. After seven rings, Doug answered.
“Stewart Copeland residence,” he exhaled into the phone.
I could hear the irregular thwacking of a novice drummer coming from behind him. “Mornin’, Sunshine,” I intoned. “You hanging a bit?”
“This is not a joke. I will pay you one million dollars to terminate my brother. Let me repeat, just so you don’t misunderstand: This is solicitation for murder. You will receive payment in small bills, some coins, and pool cleaning equipment when I see the body.”
I answered in a Marlon-Brando-as-Godfather-marbles-in-cheeks accent. “I will do this for you, but one day I will ask from you a favor.”
I could almost hear him smile. “Tell me everything I did last night. Was I charming? Amusing? Did I puke on anyone?”
“Oh, it was a night of love for we young GODs,” I began. “I watched our nicknamed comrades Zipper and Veg play footsie right in front of me. My spurned lady threw herself at wee Matt. Oh, yeah, and I asked Dub to the homecoming dance.”
I sat at my desk, sorting through the day’s bounty of letters from schools entreating recently recognized swami Steven Richard York to grace their “campi.” (Had I mentioned my middle name reflects the astronaut’s endorsement of a certain president who had resigned?) I separated them according to their proximity to the Pacific Ocean. Any school more than fifty miles away from a beach was tossed. I held on to the Harvard application on a lark.
“Steve?” Sarah tapped on my door.
“Can I come in?”
I hadn’t received many visitors in my chambers, but I gave my sister permission to enter. Reflexively I scanned the room for drug paraphernalia, soiled underwear, stray condoms. (This was a completely gratuitous search, but I’m sure I’m not the only eighteen-year-old who can’t help himself.) Sarah sat on my made bed, her only option save the floor and the chair I was sitting in.
“Mother is insane.”
It wasn’t a claim I necessarily agreed with, but I thought I should concur. We were in new territory here. Historically, we had only discussed my assorted neuroses. Sarah had never come to me with her problems. Hell, I never thought she had any. “She has moments of temporary insanity. She usually gets over it.”
“I’m going to go see Pearl Jam whether she lets me or not.” I didn’t believe this for a second. Sarah bent down and began thumbing through my collegiate discard pile. “You’re trashing Columbia… Cornell… ?”
“Anything that begins with C,” I said quickly.
“I don’t own a winter coat. Have you been to New Hampshire in January?”
“Will you talk to Mom for me?”
“She’s pretty pissed—mainly about what you said to Chuck. You were pretty hard on him.”
“Remind me to tell you a story about Chuck someday. I don’t really care what Chuck thinks is proper. Besides, on the short list of those who shouldn’t talk about being hard on people…”
I think she was referring to me.
“I’ll talk to Mom.”
“Thanks, Bro.” She walked to the door but turned before leaving. “I’m sorry for dragging you into the battle the other night. You seem like you’re doing a lot better lately.”
I left home at four o’clock dressed in my ridiculous work uniform, made a show of saying good-bye to the old man still camped in front of the television, then wished I hadn’t. My acknowledgment of his presence was an anomaly that I hoped wouldn’t give me away. I had surreptitiously phoned Dub from my bedroom an hour earlier. Our call had included zero frivolity. Watches were synchronized, plans drawn. No observer would have accused us of flirting. Honestly, I was relieved she remembered we were going out.
I zoomed to Doug’s, not out of anxiety, but because I was unable to master the Lincoln’s innate horsepower. Grazing the accelerator with my toe created a g force I felt certain was mussing up my exhaustively styled hair. The Lincoln seemed ideal for an important date. Given the vastness of the interior, however, witch doctors sacrificing chickens in the backseat would have gone unnoticed.
I was greeted at the Chappell residence by Doug’s good-natured mother, Frieda. She told me Doug was upstairs practicing. I could already hear him drumming, but the way she said “practicing” made it sound like he would be auditioning for the Met the following week. I found Doug on his trap set wearing headphones. On his bedstand I counted four empty packets of Alka-Seltzer. He stopped when he saw me. He put down his sticks and took off his headphones.
“I’ll say this for you, Lippy, you go to the dance dressed like that, and you’ve got more balls than me.”
I had to leave my house early to convince the astronaut I was heading to work, but even with a shopping trip to break up the monotony, the five-hour intermission prior to picking up Dub was excruciatingly slow in passing. Doug found a copy of This Is Spinal Tap in the debris winning the battle for the closet doorway. He slipped it into the VCR in his room. We both had the dialogue memorized, but my fidgeting and pacing kept us from enjoying it one more time. After my eleventh pilgrimage to the window to check on the Lincoln, Doug paused the movie with the remote control, got off his bed, and staggered into the bathroom he shared with Stan. He motioned me to follow. There he lifted the top off the commode and withdrew a dripping Red Stripe. He held it away from his body with his thumb and index finger, not quite ready, himself, for the hair of the dog.
“Take this and calm down. Be a man.”
I drank a pair, and by the time I got dressed, I was sufficiently composed. I had stashed my new dress clothes, all $211 worth, at Doug’s place. I needed five attempts to get my $40—Sarah had insisted on silk—tie from obscuring my crotch or exposing my belly à la Carpet Salesman’s Quarterly, but upon successful completion, I confess to feeling a bit splashy.
“Maybe after the dance, you can do my taxes,” Doug said, appraising my new look somewhat more critically. He took a stick of Wrigley’s out of a pack on the floor and handed it to me. “Beer breath, a dating no when meeting parents.”
I checked my watch. It was 8:38, time to go. I returned to the bathroom and rechecked my teeth for gunk, then, nodding to my friend, departed. I arrived at Dub’s at 8:56, a decidedly uncool four minutes early. Her house was plantation style with four white wooden pillars supporting a porch that circled the house. The slave quarters, I assumed, were out back. I considered driving around the block for the next ten minutes, but decided that since my Speed Stick was still at full strength, it would behoove me to make my appearance now. I switched off the ignition, put the keys in my pocket, a bit concerned about the lump they made in my slacks, and forced myself to walk deliberately to the door.
I secretly wished a Varner female would answer the door, or better yet, Dub would dash out and say, “Quick, let’s make a break for your car before you have to meet my parents.” I got neither. A brick of a man I assumed was Dub’s father appeared in the doorway.
“You must be Steve,” he said, offering me his hand. “Come in. Come in.” I had dried my hands on the back of my slacks nonstop from the car to the door, yet I still felt like I was handing the Dub père a slice of Spam. He stepped out of the doorframe, revealing his wife. “I’m Francis and this is Maureen.”
I moistened Maureen’s hand as well. My preconceptions of the couple had been based solely on my “I Never” knowledge of their marijuana dabbling. I realized as I met them that I had expected a VW bus in the driveway, a bearded Francis, and a bell-bottomed Maureen. Instead, Francis was balding, an inch shorter than me and a hundred pounds heavier. Maureen’s straight black hair appeared natural, unlike her daughter’s. Maureen had the camera. My “likewise pleased to meet you” response sounded like an audition for the Vienna Boys’ Choir.
I had envisioned a grand stairway down which Dub would make her entrance. I also assumed she would need to be beckoned, but she appeared from somewhere in the back of the house, saving me from prolonged chitchatting with the adults.
“You look nice,” she said, stealing what should have been my opening line.
“So do you,” I eeped. Dub’s hair was up, held by a magical clip that allowed the excess to cascade in hot iron-curled shoots down the back of her neck. Wisps of bangs had been purposely freed from the clip, and they hung down to Dub’s lovely eyebrows. She had obviously coordinated the green vintage dress she wore with her eyes. White gloves covered her arms up to her elbows. The Varners beamed. Maureen pushed us together, stepped back and clicked off a half dozen frames.
From what I understood, the small gym was the perennial home of the homecoming dance while the prom alternated between the parallel lavishness of the Four Seasons and Ritz Carlton. We drove to Grace, making mirthless small talk about how we hoped we’d see Bill and Holly, how outdated and mainstream we imagined the music would be, the fluky nippishness of Clear Lake’s early cold season. Dub sat so far away from me that I wasn’t able to see her in my peripheral vision when I drove.
As Sarah had instructed, I parked the Lincoln and raced around to the other side to open Dub’s door, but the car was so huge I couldn’t circumnavigate it in time. She exited the craft unassisted. We joined the procession bound for tropical paradise. At the door Dub opened her purse as if we were going Dutch on the admission. I magnanimously refused her money. The bowels of the darkened gym were, as Holly had described to Lynnette, all construction paper and cheese. We sat across from each other in molded plastic chairs at a long cafeteria table that had been covered gloriously with white butcher paper. It was quickly obvious that we were operating on sophomore time; the football game wasn’t even over yet. A half-dozen ten-galloned couples shuffled around the jump ball circle to the yodeling of Garth Brooks. After an hour notable for stretches of staring at the dance floor by Dub, staring at the exit sign by me, separate and extended trips to the rest room, the playing of the love theme from Beauty and the Beast, and a deliberation on what our friends were doing that evening, a whooping and delirious throng seemed to instantly take over the gym in an orgy of bloodlust and school spirit. Dub leaned over to me.
“Looks like we kicked a whole bunch of ass tonight.”
Dub and I spotted Bill and Holly at the same time. We both stood and waved our arms frantically to get their attention. They acted surprised to see us. They pulled up two chairs on Dub’s side of the table and sat close to each other, underscoring the distance between Dub and me. Holly challenged Bill to join the football players who were slam-dunking some unfortunate girl’s mum in a crepe-papered rim. Bill pretended to get up to join the fray, but Holly pulled him back down and kissed his cheek.
The DJ played a five-year-old Peter Gabriel song, and Holly grabbed Bill’s hand to pull him on the dance floor. I noticed with some annoyance that he didn’t appear nearly reluctant enough. Dub looked imploringly at me.
“I, uh, don’t dance,” I said, making it sound like I was a member of some cult that forbade it.
“If you don’t want to dance, it’s fine with me, but do you mind if I dance with Bill and Holly?”
“Yeah. Go ahead.” I slouched in my chair and watched as the trio edged out onto the floor. Bill and Holly danced, as did most students there, like speed skaters pushing off their opposite leg with each beat, celebrating each successful stomp with an intermittent clap, whereas Dub created her own dance microcosm. Dub’s hands stretched high above her head where they seemed to be kneading an invisible lump of dough. Her feet were stationary, but her knees, hips, and shoulders swung hypnotically. She kept her eyes shut, and her ear rested against one of her upraised shoulders. In her queer dance I grasped, for the first time, the difference between sensuality and some athletic Fly Girl’s simulated banging.
When Dub returned to the table, she sat next to me instead of across from me. I couldn’t help but think that was a good sign. In the refracted squares of light supplied by the tropical paradise mirror ball, I could see Dub glistening, looking happier. Cassandra Holbrook seized the mike and interrupted a Madonna song to announce importantly that the coronation ceremony was about to begin. Now, ordinarily, this would have been a proclamation either Dub or I would have mocked (“Ooh, should we move closer?” “God! I can’t watch!”), but in the presence of two nominees who happened to be our friends, we kept our sarcasm internal.
Within fifteen minutes Bill and Holly were sitting back next to us, looking no worse for their loss to a toothy Buc Babe and cement-truck-looking fullback. Missy had been right about the time most people spent at the dance. After the royalty ceremony, people who came in an hour after us were already splitting. The DJ, not oblivious of the exodus, shifted into his one-to-one, then two-to-one, slow-song-to-fast-song ratio. Slow dancing interested me. There didn’t seem to be much to it. Partners locked themselves into a first-round wrestling clinch and spun, taking thirty to forty-five seconds to complete a rotation. I tried watching feet, looking for some mystery step that would reveal me as a slow dancing impostor if I were to get out on the floor. I saw none. Though our tension had eased with the camaraderie and Dub’s foray onto the dance floor, the two of us still weren’t saying much. When I saw her mouthing the words to “With or Without You,” I worked up my nerve.
“Would you like to dance?” Dance seemed like a funny word. No one was dancing—they were mauling and groping. In essence, I had just asked Dub if she wouldn’t mind following me out to the middle of a crowded room where I would proceed to affix myself to her. I wish I could have managed something cooler, a “Care to join me?” with my crooked elbow accepting only yes as an answer.
“Sure,” she said, and she took my hand, palm to palm, and led me out onto the floor of the gym.
I can’t say I remember much about the rest of the U2 song. I was too concerned with sliding my feet and putting my hands in the proper lower back loci. I watched other couples rather than Dub, factoring their rotation, sway, body separation, and tried to adjust my own accordingly. When the song ended, I relaxed, congratulated myself for going undetected, and headed for base—our table. But Dub held me firm, and as one of those drearier English bands equated love and death, she took over leading duties. First, she closed the distance between us. Then, using her hands, she positioned my head so that I was looking at her. She squeezed me and rocked us in time to the music. I hadn’t realized before that slow songs had a beat. I became aware of Dub, her smell, the way she felt, her breath on my neck. I know it’s a cliché, but I really did notice the curve of her back. For the first time since asking her to the dance, I was happy I had. All that time in geometry, wishing I were with her, wishing I were touching her, and here I was. I had been a rap song away from completely missing the experience.
We returned to our table holding hands (fingers interlocked). Dub had taken my hand, but I think I might have made the move had she not. Neither of us let go when we sat down.
“I am very happy right now,” I said like a dork.
“You’re not thinking of getting us a room, are you?” Dub said, eyes widening in facetious anticipation.
“Already booked. And tell me now if you’re not planning on putting out, because I know plenty of women who will.”
“Probably all friends of mine,” she said, winning the exchange. We grinned, and for the first time since Holly and Bill joined us, we were oblivious to them.
Matching blue envelopes lay on the bar that divided the kitchen from the family room when I got home from Cap’s today. One was addressed to Sarah, the other to me. I knew they were from the astronaut without reading the name. How many other people use an American flag icon on their return mail stickers? Given the dimensions and sameness of the envelopes, I guessed them to be invitations of some sort.
I nuked a hot dog and tortilla. I ate at the counter without disturbing the letter.
• • •
The next day—for the second time in less than a week—Sarah came into my bedroom. It was starting to feel like a Who concert in here. In her right hand was the blue envelope I had ignored the previous day. The left hand clutched her letter, already ripped open.
“Read it,” she ordered.
“What is it? Let me guess. He wants us to show up dressed like a gentleman and young lady to the Space Travelers Logrolling Convention? Houston Bigwig Elbow-Rubbing Seminar? Senator Ass-Kissing Competition?”
Sarah didn’t think I was funny. “Just open it.”
I slid my index finger under the envelope flap and carefully peeled it open. I found, as expected, an invitation inside.
I’ll be damned. The astronaut’s getting married.
Dub sat in the same area code with me in the Lincoln front seat on the way home. Trey had stopped by our table and invited the four of us to a party at the Ritz Carlton that a bunch of his jock friends were having. What a guy! I couldn’t accept, though, because I had to arrive home before 1 A.M.—my standard home-from-work time, lest the astronaut get suspicious about the Lincoln. Dub was going through the old man’s somewhat limited tape collection.
“Put in the Goo Goo Dolls,” I said, aware of the actual selection.
“No Goo Goo Dolls. But can I interest you in Hank Williams’s Greatest Hits, Improving Your Putting with Ben Crenshaw, or some tape with the all the letters worn off?”
“Put that one in.” I knew it to be Neil Diamond’s Hot August Night. When we were kids, Sarah and I used to beg the astronaut to play it on long trips. Of course, I wasn’t about to admit this to Dub.
“I don’t know,” Dub said weighing the tapes in her hands. “My putting completely sucks.”
She put the Neil Diamond cassette in, nevertheless. Lush sounds of Spanish guitars and violins glided out of the speakers.
Right mood/wrong generation. If I were taking a middle-aged woman home, I’d have to pull the car over right now to be ravaged. My future with Dub was less certain. My stomach threatened to convulse with each block nearer we drew to her front door.
As I docked the Lincoln in the Varner driveway I checked the windows of the house to see which had lights still on: two upstairs… downstairs was dark save the porch light. This time I managed to make it around the car in time to open the door for Dub. As she got out, I stupidly put my hands in my pockets. She took hold of my biceps anyway. I tried to flex very slowly, so she wouldn’t notice me doing it. When we made it to the door, she spoke.
“Thanks for taking me to the dance. I know I’ve been kind of a bitch all week. You didn’t deserve that. It’s just sort of a girl solidarity thing.”
I wanted to say, “You’re right. And now that you’re my woman, don’t let it happen again or I may just cut you loose.” But what I said was, “It was my fault.”
“No, it wasn’t. It wasn’t your fault, and if you want to know the truth, I wasn’t acting that way because I was sticking up for Rhonda. I think I was just being jealous.”
After I said it, she just looked at me. Three or four seconds maybe. She was savoring the moment. I don’t think it mattered to her one way or the other whether I tried to kiss her. She was a scientist measuring my response. She smiled as she reached up for the front door handle. I’m not sure where I found the nerve, but I grabbed her hand. We quickly weaved our fingers together. I reached out for her shoulder with my other hand and leaned in toward her mouth. Her empty left hand came in under my arm and intercepted my head. At first I thought she was going to stop me. Instead, she held my chin softly and guided me toward her lips. I had snuck quick lip licks on the walk to the porch, but I was afraid her staredown had allowed them to dry and crack. It didn’t matter; hers were wet enough for both of us. She kissed me softly. Slowly she moved from my lower to upper lip. Her hand let go of my chin. She brought it up to the back of my neck, running her fingers through my hair and leaving her thumb on my ear. Then she backed away. She looked at me and tried to stifle a laugh. I think I was smiling pretty big.
Though an electric fan rotated methodically and a lone window was open as far as the crank-controlled school sort allow, the stench left no doubt that someone had puked in DeMouy’s office. The buzz of the fluorescent lighting punctuated the fact that DeMouy wasn’t, for the first time since I had been sent to him, jamming to the sounds of Mother Nature. The man himself looked disconsolate. Slouched in his chair, DeMouy rested his cheek against the back of his overlapping hands, which in turn covered a disorganized pile of memos and forms on the desk. The counselor had lost his trademark crispness. The routine Japanese precision of his hair part had given way to a three-day-hike-in-a-stocking cap matting. A line of blood was beading up across the visible side of his neck. His creased tie hung from his desk lamp, and black coffee replaced herbal tea in his Far Side mug.
“Rough day?” I asked.
I could see DeMouy focusing on me. I decided I should try to help.
“DeMouy,” I queried, “did you have a happy childhood? Do you remember not getting something you always wanted for Christmas and really hating your parents because of it? Was going into education a way to get even with them?”
“I sent for you yesterday,” he answered coldly.
I thought about returning when he was in a better mood. Whatever he needed me for could wait. I finished scanning the office: trash basket on its side, fern branches broken, mop bucket filled with detergent-blue water.
“Did I miss a fight?”
“And somebody puked?”
He nodded again. He raised his torso, and I saw that his button-down featured a wet spot roughly the size and shape of Connecticut. He began halfheartedly sorting through the papers on his desk.
“You’ve never had to break up a fight before, have you?”
DeMouy found the college info he had been searching for and handed it across his desk to me.
“I’m thirty today,” he said.
“Kids,” I said, shaking my head.
Rats Saw God
Houston, sophomore year: Steve is on top of the world. He and his friends are the talk of the school. He’s in love with a terrific girl. He can even deal with “the astronaut”—a world-famous hero who happens to be his father.
San Diego, senior year: Steve is bummed out, drugged out, flunking out. A no-nonsense counselor says he can graduate if he writes a 100-page paper. So Steve starts writing, and as the paper becomes more and more personal, he reveals how a National Merit Scholar has become an under-achieving stoner. And in telling how he got to where he is, Steve discovers how to get to where he wants to be.
- Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers |
- 224 pages |
- ISBN 9781442457386 |
- March 2013 |
- Grades 7 and up |
- Lexile ® 900L
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