If Rock and Roll Were a Machine
Chapter 1 Albert Bowden Gives His Word
Bert Bowden is having trouble with the essay. Class is already half over and he’s gone through three introductory paragraphs on three different subjects. The topic Tanneran assigned was “The Worst Thing That Ever Happened to Me,” and Bert said under his breath, “Oh, boy. Have I got material for this.” But that is turning out to be the problem: Bert can’t choose from among all the shitty things that have happened to him in his sixteen, almost seventeen, years. And now he can’t concentrate because his mind is full of the awareness that he’s living through another one of those things right now.
It’s the first day of Bert’s junior year, he’s got the guy everybody says is the best English teacher in school, English is the only class he likes, and now he’s going to flunk the first in-class essay because he can’t focus.
Bert dug into the assignment right away. His grandfather was placed in a rest home last spring, and the old man is always on his mind. Before he finished the introduction, though, Bert realized this wasn’t the worst thing that ever happened to him. It hadn’t happened to him. Bert wasn’t the one who suffered the embarrassment of having to be cleaned up like a baby. Bert wasn’t the one “living,”
as his parents referred to his grandfather’s condition, in the “home,” as they called the place. This is not the worst thing that ever happened to you, Bert thought. This is the worst thing that ever happened to Gramp. And he flipped the sheet in his ring binder and started again.
When sincerity didn’t work, Bert turned to sarcasm. He assumed the voice of an indignant teenager, which he is to a degree, and began describing the 1969 Harley-Davidson Sportster that sits in the window of Shepard’s Classic and Custom Cycles. His parents won’t let him buy it, even though he has the money in the bank. “Motorcycles are too dangerous” is what his father says, and “That money is for college” is his mother’s response. Bert doesn’t have the grades to get into any college worth going to. So since he can’t get into a decent college and faces a bleak future, anyway, he might as well have fun and die young on a beautiful old Harley. But Bert is tired of being sarcastic. He got by on sarcasm and humor in his essays last year, and he doesn’t want to be funny now. He wants to be serious. Don’t be a wiseass, Bert told himself. Don’t resort to that cheap crap anymore. And he flipped the sheet.
Bert thought and thought: What was the worst thing that ever happened to him?
Tanneran looked like he’d been an athlete when he was younger. Maybe he’d be impressed by Bert’s bad luck in sports last year. So Bert began writing about getting mononucleosis and missing varsity baseball tryouts. He entitled it “Mononuked.”
But he scratched it out. It was just more of that cute shit he always resorted to. Besides, there wasn’t a chance in the world he’d have made varsity his sophomore year. And this made him think that maybe the worst thing that ever happened to him was going to a high school with twenty-four hundred students where it was incredibly tough to make the teams, and how if he lived in a smaller town he’d not only make all the teams but probably be a star.
But then he realized this was just more shit. I have to be who I am, he thought, but I don’t have to lie to myself or other people to make me feel better about it. So he flipped the sheet.
And now he looks up at the clock and sees that junior English is over for today. He sees that Tanneran is looking too. The man turns to face the class. “Time’s up,” he says. “That’s all, folks. Make sure your names are on ’em.”
The bell rings, kids rise, voices rise, the youth of America stride forward into the circular flow of another school year.
But Bert Bowden remains seated, writing his name slowly. He will submit this blank sheet. He will add a paper to the pile like everyone else.
Tanneran is sitting on his desk, the pile of papers in his hand, as Bert slides his on top. “I wrote three different introductory paragraphs, but nothing worked,” Bert says. “I want to do the assignment. Can I bring it in tomorrow, Mr. Tanneran?”
Tanneran looks back down at the paper. “Albert Bowden,” he says.
“Actually, I go by Bert,” Bert says. “I just thought I’d present myself formally since myself was all I had to present.”
Tanneran smiles. “Not a bad move in desperation.” He stands and walks toward the door. Bert follows.
“Tell you what, Bert,” Tanneran says in the doorway. “You give me your word you’ll submit an essay tomorrow at the start of class?”
“I give you my word,” Bert replies.