I don’t know why she doesn’t buy name brands. Her and the old man both got jobs. He’s in plastics. Blow molding. Making milk jugs. She works a register at Woolworth’s, over at the mall, usually ’til five. She’s been doing that since I started school. She wanted me to go to Catholic school, Blessed Sacrament, same as Don. That place was small as hell. A hundred and twenty-five students total, from kindergarten through eighth grade, the year I graduated. A lot of times there’d be two classes in one room with one teacher. It must’ve cost some, so the old lady got a job. But after eighth, we both had to go to public school. Seems like that’d be cheaper, but she kept right on working. And Don graduated last year, so she must be doing it just to pay for me. Hell, it’s not like we’re poor. It’s not like we’re niggers. They’ll have a fuckin’ Cadillac parked in front of some shithole. At least some big ol’ Pontiac or something. Pontiac. P O N T I A C. Poor Ol’ Nigger Thinks It’s A Cadillac. They’ll live in fuckin’ squalor, but have a clean ride out front. What the hell? I’m glad the old lady still works. Keeps her out of the house. And since Don started working at the Sizzler, I got the place to myself a lot in the afternoon.
Most days, I’ll be kicking back on the couch when the old lady gets home, and she’ll start bitchin’ at me, tell me how lazy I am, say I’m watching shows that are bad for me and shit. She was in the kitchen one time heating up supper, and she heard Trapper tell some guy he was gonna prescribe him a twenty-four hour enema. I’m sure she’s heard ’em telling bedpan jokes too, so now M*A*S*H is “too concerned with the bowels.” It used to be that Hogan’s Heroes was a bad influence ’cause it was “makin’ light of a terrible time.” She said the Germans weren’t stupid like Sergeant Schultz and Colonel Klink. They were pure evil, and so was I if I was just gonna sit there and laugh about the Holocaust. It doesn’t do any good to tell her they’re just comedies. According to her, “they just ought not to make shows like that.” Maybe. But then again, they wouldn’t have made the shows if people her age hadn’t had the wars. I mean, too many people die as it is, whether it’s ’cause of disease, or starving to death, or traffic acciden— Shit. There I go again.
Besides, there’s nothing else to do but watch TV anyway. I got a couple friends at school, but they don’t live around here, so it’s not like I can just go see ’em. I got no wheels to get anywhere. They either got a car or can use their parents’, but I wouldn’t want ’em coming over to this dump anyway, unless it was just to pick me up, and then I’d be out front waiting.
And I don’t always do nothing. I was working on a little project last week—I guess it was Monday or Tuesday, ’cause it was before I went to see Doc—but I ran into a little snag. I found our old bicycle pump in the basement. It’s about a foot-and-a-half tall, got two little footrests at the bottom, one on either side, so it’ll stand up and you can hold it steady while you pump it. I thought it’d make a good bong. That’s the only way to get puffed up if you can do it. I didn’t even know what a bong was ’til last year. Me and Grant used to just smoke joints or hit my bowl. I found that in the old man’s drawer. He must’ve took it off Don, ’cause he sure as hell isn’t cool. I know a guy who says he gets high with his old man, but I don’t know if he’s full of shit or not.
Grant’s parents made him start hanging out with this new kid at school last year, all because him and his family go to the same church as Grant and his folks. I think they’re all Methodist, whatever the hell that is. This guy was kind of dorky looking, short hair, parted on the side. Wade. We called him Swade ’cause he thought he was smooth as hell. All of a sudden, he’d be in the car when Grant’d pick me up, and I’d have to sit in the back. After Swade and his family bought their house, I’d get picked up first, but when they were living in the apartment, after they’d just moved here and were still building their place, Swade lived closer to Grant, so he’d get picked up first.
Grant started dating a lot, so I didn’t get to see him so much. Usually Friday would be his night out, and Saturday he’d hang with the boys. “The boys are back in town, the boys are back in town.” Thin Lizzy’s awesome, man, but the radio pretty much plays only that one song. I don’t get it. What about “Fightin’ My Way Back”? Or “Suicide”? And who the hell gave the DJs on KZL permission to start talking while a song is still playing? They’ll talk right over the intro, right up until the singing starts, and then they’ll start back talking again before the song is even over. Shut the fuck up already. I don’t listen to hear you. I listen for the music. QDR’s DJs never did that. They’d play three or four songs, then maybe come on and tell you the names of ’em—or not—then they’d jam some more. When they did have a commercial, it was usually just the guy telling you to shop at Solomon-Grundy’s or something. I still can’t believe they went country. Who the hell listens to country?
Me and Swade would go it alone Friday night while Grant was out gettin’ some. Swade’s folks would usually go out together and let him use his old lady’s car. His old man’s a smoker, so if we went back over to their place we could get high, then burn some weeds to cover up the smell. My folks aren’t that cool. His old man kept some liquor in the cabinet under the sink too. His old lady’d mark the level on the labels to keep us out of it, but Swade knew that and added water to replace what we took. We’d just slug a little out of each so it didn’t get cut too thin.
This one night over there, we turned out all the lights, stood a flashlight up on its end on the coffee table so that the light was pointing at the ceiling, put on Dark Side of the Moon. We blew our smoke—Swade was blowing exhales from hits he couldn’t kill, but I just blew cigarette smoke—at the beam. When that hit, the shit lit up big as hell, like in a tube. You couldn’t see the smoke at all until it hit the light, then it was all swirly and shit. That was cool.
Swade knew a guy named Monk who lived at the apartments. The guy stayed with just his mother—I think her and her husband split up—and he didn’t even let her come into his room. Him and his friends could sit in there and get high whether she was home or not. Some people, man. Got it made. Monk was a couple years older, a senior, but he liked Swade for some reason, and he let us borrow one of his bongs whenever we wanted. I guess he didn’t use it anymore, ’cause he got a new one, with a dry chamber on the bottom that’d catch all the ash and shit that didn’t burn. It had a plug you could take out, then scrape all that shit loose and smoke it again. There were two tubes running out of that dry chamber that carried the smoke up to the water. I didn’t like it ’cause it got clogged too easy, needed a lot of cleaning. But Monk had his own bathroom right there, so it wasn’t too much of a hassle. The bong he let us use was just straight up and down, about two feet tall, made out of yellow plastic, but still real see-through. The bowl was a little brass one, mounted in a wood sleeve that slipped over the stem. The carburetor was on the back, right where it should be, so you used your thumb on it. I’ve seen some that got the hole on the front and you have to pop it with your finger. Monk’s new one is like that.
First time I hit Old Yeller, it was like I’d never got high before. You’d pack that bowl with some good bud you’d cleaned—so there weren’t any seeds or stems or clumps that’d clog the hole, so it’d burn all the way and the ashes’d pull through the stem—put a lighter to it, toke nice and slow. The water’d bubble while the smoke filtered through, then the smoke’d start creeping up the tube. If you did it right, the chamber’d be full just as the ashes pulled through, and you’d lift your thumb off the carburetor, toke real hard, and BAM, get the whole hit all at once. Hold it in ’til you killed it, so there’d be no smoke left. Man, that was sweet. Shit went right to your head. You could go from being all pissed off about something to not having a care in the world with one pop of your thumb. Two was even better. Three and you couldn’t stop smiling. We’d usually go for ten, but Swade didn’t always make it that far.
We couldn’t always hook up with Monk to get Old Yeller, and then Swade moved and we never saw that guy again, so I’d always wanted a bong of my own. Not like I could buy one though. Swade’d bring a tennis ball can over—he didn’t play, he just smacked balls against a garage door; he was always breaking a glass out of one of those too—and I’d rig that thing up with a stem that was just a Bic pen without the ink cartridge, and use some foil to make a bowl. They’d work, but they sucked. You’d have to stick your whole chin in ’em, and the bowl would fall off or get crushed or the stem would melt. Then I found the bike pump. I took the guts out, which wasn’t easy, ’cause the old man keeps most of his tools at work. I did find an old toolbox on a shelf under the stairs, but it’s got one of those little Master locks on it, so I couldn’t get into it. When I stole that bowl out of the old man’s drawer, there was a key ring in there that had two little Master keys. Bet they go to that toolbox. Have to check that. But all I had to work with was a hammer and a screwdriver. That and a bunch of old nails and screws and shit in a coffee can. Prying the top off that pump was a bitch.
I got the thing apart, emptied it out. After I pulled the hose off, there was just a little nipple thing sticking out near the bottom, with a hole through it, so I pounded a nail in there, one a little bigger than the hole, then poured some water in. It leaked a little, so I worked the nail back out, found a screw a little bit bigger than the nail hole, and forced that in. I about sprained a wrist twisting it, but got it in, and it didn’t leak anymore, so I cleaned the whole thing up, wiped some of the grease and rust out, drove a nail through the back to make a carburetor, used a bigger nail on the front for the stem hole, widened that up with the screwdriver. I found a roll of copper tubing on top of the water heater that’d work for the stem, bent it where I wanted it to break, worked it back and forth ’til it gave. Stuck the screwdriver through and worked it around to straighten the thing out, then used an old hacksaw blade—I couldn’t find the hacksaw—to get the ends flush, stuck the stem in the pump and sealed it with three strips of duct tape, pushed on there real neat like a capital A. Ace. An Ace bong. You'd be an ace if you could take ten hits in one session. Surprised the hell out of me, but the whole thing turned out pretty good. I won’t be able to see the smoke climbing up, or the sparks getting pulled through the stem, but it’s airtight. It tastes rank, but that won’t take long to fix once I start hitting it. Just needs a little seasoning. The snag I ran into was that I couldn’t find anything to use for a bowl. It’s a red pump—well, bong now—so I call it Big Red. Like that new gum, with the commercial with that guy with the deep voice. “Big Red.” I got it stashed behind the furnace.
Damn. Don’t even know what’s going on with Andy. Been out of Catholic school a couple years now. It’s weird, I lived in Burlington all my life, but when I started public school, everybody thought I’d just moved here. Most of them had been going to school together all their lives, and I came out of Blessed Sacrament and dropped in like a fuckin’ moon rock. The guys I knew at good ol’ B.S.S. ended up across town, at Cummings. That’s where the rednecks live. Burlington’s cut in half by the railroad tracks, and everybody on that side goes to Cummings. They’re the ones you’d see dragging Main Street at night in their jacked-up cars if you wanted a laugh. I only live three blocks from Williams, so I go there. The rich kids’ school. But not all of us got money. There’s a bunch of pricks, like the jocks, and there’s a lot of bitches, like the cheerleaders, but there’s cool people too. Some of us definitely know how to party.
Not all of the jocks are assholes. Grant’s cool. And not all of the guys from Blessed Sacrament ended up at Cummings. My best friend there, Tony Griggs, went to Graham. He lived in Graham, so that’s where he went. He was always better than me at everything. I wasn’t a complete dumbass, I usually got the second highest grades out of all the boys—there were only six of us, but still—and only Carolyn Hardy ever did better out of the four girls, but Tony was always number one. He’d win the damn spelling bee most every year, but only ’cause he’d actually study for it. The top two or three kids in each grade were in it, so I’d usually be there too. They’d give us a little booklet with all the words in it, maybe a month in advance, and I’d just try to look ’em over real fast right before going up on the stage in the auditorium in front of the whole fuckin’ school. I forgot the ‘d’ in handkerchief one year. Idiot. And Tony could outrun me, outjump me, outdo me at whatever else we might do at recess too. Nobody else, just him. I was never any better than second at anything. I always lost.
Except that one time, when Peter, the fat kid, had a graduation party at his house after eighth grade. A sleepover in a big tent in his backyard. He was lucky, ’cause his mother was dead and his dad would let him do whatever he wanted. A couple guys from his neighborhood came to the party too, and they brought some beer and pot. I’d drunk beer before—hell, I was fourteen—and I’d puffed a few cigarettes in my time, but I’d never really smoked any dope. That one time a couple years before when I found a pack of Don’s rolling papers, and I was gonna show ’em to the old lady, even though I didn’t know what they were. I just figured he wasn’t supposed to have ’em, and I liked to get him in trouble. He caught me before I had a chance to rat him out, took me to the old Sullivan house, the ragged-out piece of shit on the other side of Mr. Campbell’s field, next to the treehouse, and rolled up a joint, made me light it and take a couple tokes. I didn’t really appreciate it at the time, but he could twist a number in the air pretty damn good. I still have to roll on a table or a book or something to get a joint good and tight. I guess Don figured I wouldn’t tell on him if I’d done the same thing. But at Peter’s graduation party, ol’ Tony pussed out, said he wasn’t gonna smoke any reefer. I jumped right on that shit. I don’t know how many joints we burned that night, but I expected more to happen. I don’t think I got off on it at all, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Tony wouldn’t even drink one damn beer.
You live in Burlington all your life and everybody thought you just moved here. The new kid in town. Everybody staring. Kind of late to be making friends. I sure as hell didn’t fit in with the jocks—except for Grant, since we both got high—’cause Catholic school really didn’t have sports. They started the basketball teams when I was in sixth grade, but they don’t count. The school could only afford one set of uniforms, so the jayvees would play their game, then us guys on the varsity would have to get the sweaty uniforms from them so we could play. I always tried to find somebody who rode the bench. Hell, we didn’t even get those ’til I was in seventh grade, so that first year we just wore dark blue gym shorts and a gold T-shirt with a number sewn on the back. The old lady didn’t sew mine on, she got some iron-on patches and cut the numbers out of that. I felt kind of proud before that first game, when I was in the bathroom putting my uniform on. The numbers hadn’t started to peel off yet, so it looked pretty good. The shorts were some of Don’s old ones, and kind of faded, but the shirt was brand fuckin’ new. It was on a hanger on the towel bar, with the ol’ number 12 staring at me. I liked that number ’cause it was like a quarterback’s. Probably Joe Namath back then. Terry Bradshaw now. The Steelers rule. The shorts were folded up and hanging over the bar beside the shirt. I reached up, grabbed the hanger, and a goddamn roach ran out of the sleeve. Fuckin’ thing scared the shit out of me, and I dropped the shirt on the floor. It got kind of dirty on the front.
Man, we had roaches bad back then. Always did, up until a year or so ago when the old man put some blue powder around the baseboards and killed ’em. I guess they crawled through, it stuck to their nasty asses, then they carried it back to the nest and killed more. Before that, if the old man’d see one, he’d just grab it up with his bare hand and throw it outside. Not me, man. I didn’t want to get near those things, much less touch one. I used to hate having to take a piss at night ’cause I couldn’t turn a light on ’til I got to the bathroom. I’d have to get out of bed and walk across the room, out into the hall—on bare floors too, not traipsing across some plush carpet or anything—then on to the tile in the bathroom in the dark. Those things would bite your damn feet the whole way. Either that or you’d step on ’em and feel ’em crunch. I was safe when I got the light on and they ran for cover. There must’ve been hundreds. Big black things, a couple inches long, some of ’em. After I pissed, I’d just stand there for fuckin’ ever with my hand on the switch.
We used to come in from school and make a glass of chocolate milk with a can of that Hershey’s syrup shit. You opened it with a church-key can opener, punch a couple of triangle holes in the top, one on either side. Then you’d cover it with the yellow plastic lid when you were done. This one afternoon, I pulled the syrup out of the fridge, but Don grabbed it from me, said he was gonna make his first. The stuff was barely dribbling out even though the can had felt pretty full. He finally got enough to make his glass, stirred it up, chugged it down. I couldn’t wait that long. I got out the other can opener, clamped it on the side, twisted it around and took the whole lid off. The shit was full of roaches. I guess the can had been left out open on the table overnight, and the old lady’d covered it up and put it back in the fridge in the morning. I showed that shit to Don. He barely made it to the bathroom sink to puke his guts up. Neither one of us would drink chocolate milk after that, at least not until the old lady started buying that powdered Nestlé’s Quik shit. Hell, I don’t think Don’ll even drink that.
We lost that first basketball game, and every other game that year, and every game the year after. We finally did win one my last year there, but it still wasn’t much of a season. We lost eleven. We got beat a hundred and four to ten once by St. Paul’s in Greensboro. That school’s a hell of a lot bigger than we were though. They even had black guys. Coach took us out to McDonald’s after, so it wasn’t a total loss. I got Tony to swap me the bottom bun on his hamburger—the clean one—for my top bun with all that nasty-ass ketchup and pickles and shit.
First year in public school, ninth grade, everybody in Burlington who was going to Williams or Cummings the following year had to take a bus over to Sellars-Gunn in niggertown. It was kind of cool that we were all the same age, with no older class to fuck with you and no younger class to look down on. We were equals for a year. Except for us Catholic school misfits. We were just kind of sprinkled in. I didn’t have any classes with any of ’em, except for one. Good ol’ Tina Alstead was in my Algebra I class. She was still wearing her silver POW bracelet—I guess maybe Colonel McAbee turned out to be more MIA since he hadn’t come home with the rest of the POWs—but after what she wrote in my notebook at the end of our last year at B.S.S., I didn’t talk to her anymore. I barely ever said two words to her anyway. I told her I loved her once. Tony dared me to, and I did. Tina just looked over at Carolyn and said, “Isn’t that sweet?” Then, at the end of the year, she wrote, “A ring is round and has no end, that’s how long I’ll be your friend.” Friend. What a crock of shit.
I went out for wrestling at Sellars-Gunn, so it’s not like I’ve always had my afternoons free. I had to go to practice every day. I tried out ’cause a guy I used to know when we were kids was on the team, and he said I should. He didn’t go to school with me back then, but went to our church, and we met in Sunday School. Bob Lane. I used to spend the night at his house once in a while. His dad would come downstairs and kiss us all good night on the cheek. Bob—I guess he was Bobby then—his brother Mark, and even me. I remember his chin scratching me ’cause he needed a shave. Their three sisters had a room upstairs. Mr. Lane was always getting them to sit in his lap, tickling ’em half to death. Not so much Pam, the middle girl. You could tell she really didn’t like it. The other two, they’d get to laughing so hard they’d scream. He was a good one for kissing on them too, and not just good night, but all the damn time. Only they’d get it right on the mouth. Hell, we never so much as shook hands at our house. On the rare occasion when the old lady would give me a hug, like if she had to when I was a kid ’cause I was going somewhere and there was somebody there to pick me up who was waiting for me out in their car and watching us up on the porch, she give me the ol’ praying mantis. Hold her arms up like one of those things, kind of lay her hands on top of my shoulders with her elbows pushing on my chest. She’d turn her cheek, touch it to my forehead for a second. We’re just not touchy-feely types. But the Lanes seemed real close.
One time, Mr. Lane took me to his workshop in the basement, let me drill a hole in a board. He ducked into the storage closet like he was scared I was gonna hurt him with the damn thing, closed the door, but left it cracked a little. I could tell he was looking through at me, even though I couldn’t see him. I made the hole, let go of the trigger, but the drill kept running. You had to pull it all the way down first and then let it go to get the thing to go off, but I didn’t know that. I just stood there holding the drill away from me with both hands, looking at the crack in the door for help. But he didn’t come, at least not right off. The drill kept getting heavier, and I got kind of scared. Pussy. When he finally did come out, he’d gotten his zipper stuck somehow, ’cause I remember him trying to pull it up. He just shook his head at me, took the drill, clicked it off easy as hell, set it on the workbench, told me to go on out and play.
Bob was a pretty good wrestler. I got to be a starter, even though I went out for the team late, ’cause I pinned the other two guys in my weight class. They had to be real pussies, ’cause it didn’t take me a minute to beat either one of ’em, and I sure as hell didn’t know what I was doing. But then I only ended up winning two out of eleven matches, which was the same record the team had. We lost the first match seventy-six to three. Bob won a decision. Everybody else lost. I got pinned. Bad. The ref told the guy to take it easy after the fucker picked me up and body-slammed me. That mat’s a lot harder than the ones they use on TV. They didn’t bother mentioning the match over the intercom during the morning announcements.
One of the times I did win, the old man was home when I came in. It was the only time he ever said anything about a match. He asked if you lost again. You said yeah.
We got this certificate at the end of the season, for our “achievement.” They were these fill-in-the-blank things, where Coach wrote our name on ’em with a pen. They had a line for that printed up near the top. Somewhere near the middle, they had “Football” and “Basketball” and “Baseball” printed on there, where I guess you were supposed to circle or underline the sport the thing was being given out for. It didn’t say “Wrestling,” so Coach wrote that in too. He just kind of squeezed it in.
I used to practice in a pair of long johns with gym shorts over them ’cause we didn’t have any tights other than the ones we wore for matches. Coach Martin thought he was cool ’cause he’d call us pussies in practice, maybe say “goddamn” once in a while. I remember we were doing tripod pushups—you keep your legs and arms straight, but bend at the waist ’til you kind of form a triangle with the mat, and you put the tips of your index fingers and the tips of your thumbs together to make a diamond with your hands, then bend your elbows and lower yourself down and stick your nose in the diamond, then push back up. Fuckin’ murder. This heavyweight named Ronald Greene was up front and all of us behind him were laughing ’cause one of his nuts was hanging out of his shorts. Coach yelled, “What are you pussies laughin’ at?” That just made us laugh harder. We had to run extra laps up and down the stairs after practice.
I quit wrestling this year ’cause I had trouble making weight. I’d eat a hard-boiled egg for breakfast during the week and nothing else all day, and I still couldn’t make 136. Coach Ferguson said it probably had something to do with all the beer I was drinking, but that’s bullshit. I’d drink whatever I could get, but that’s still just a couple of beers here and there—once in a while more than that, like last night—but usually just a couple or three beers maybe a couple of nights during the week, and then only if somebody else is buying. But it’s not hard to get somebody to buy a six if you’ve got a little herb, and Don’s been keeping in the green pretty regular since he started working. Yeah, I’d get drunk as shit on the weekends back then, same as I do now, but that had nothing to do with my weight either. You just piss that out. And this senior from the football team decided to join up, in my weight class. He was pretty much shorter than me, but his legs were like fuckin’ tree trunks. I couldn’t beat him. I wasn’t gonna be a starter anymore.
Aw, aw, aw, can’t play no basketball
Mama told me, said son you ain’t that tall
Gotta do what mama say
Gotta do it every day
Aw, aw, aw, can’t play no basketball
Aw, aw, aw, can’t play no football
You gotta be tough, yeah, you know you got to be rough
Gotta do what mama say
She say I can’t play
Aw, aw, aw, can’t play no football
Aw, aw, aw, can’t play no baseball
Can’t swing a stick, you know my glasses too thick
Might fall if you run
Don’t want you hurt, my son
Aw, aw, aw, can’t play no baseball
The Lanes moved away years ago. They moved back in time time for ninth grade, only without their dad. The old lady didn’t like Mrs. Lane anymore ’cause she was divorced. She’d always sit as far away from her as she could at church. She had a dream one night about a snake—I guess she called it a serpent—that had a lamb’s head. The face opened up like a flower and then turned into Mrs. Lane.
The jocks aren’t the only crowd I don’t fit in with at Williams. There wasn’t anything like music class or art class or anything at Catholic school either, so I don’t hang out with anybody into that shit. Not that I’d want to hang out with anybody in the marching band or anything. I’m not talking about those losers. But I’d kind of like to be a real musician, play in a real band. Rock-n-roll, man. But all I can do is to try and write down those lyrics or whatever when they come into my head. It’s not no goddamn poetry.
Man For Hire
Well, I’m a hired man
In a hired band
We travel down the road
In a hired van
Where we’re going to
Where we’re coming from
A town without a name
Where we know no one
When you’re on the road
There ain’t much you can do
The stops are far between
And numbered few
But I’m your man for hire
(Man for hire)
I’ll fill your heart’s desire
Stand in the line of fire
(Line of fire)
’cause I’m your man for hire
(Man for hire)
I’m just a hired man
There’s a shadow
Standing over me
It’s gettin’ dark, babe
Too dark to see
Climb in the back seat
Of the car
And let me hold you
Embrace your heart
You ask me where I been and all I can say
Every time I see you, girl, there’s no new news
And I ask you why you never walk away
You’re my sanctuary, girl, against the blues
Come on let me hear that you wanna stay
Come on, babe, and tell me what you wanna do
There’s no use in going ’less it’s all the way
And I wanna go all of the way with you
We hit the road, yeah
And hit the bars
It’s hard to focus
You wonder who you are
Smoke cigarettes, yeah
And cheap cigars
Beat out the rhythm
And play guitars
Sometimes you tell yourself that it’s gotta end
Your straight and narrow thoughts tend to go astray
You know now all too well you’re not Superman
And you wonder just how long you’ll keep up the pace
But then the lights go down and you start the show
You give it what you’ve got and you walk away
You loosen up your mind and you let it go
And then do it all again on another day
Life’s a gamble
You lose and win
No sooner up and you find
You’re down again
You’re on a rollercoaster
They cut loose the car
It’s feast or famine
Pauper or czar
You never seem to be where you wanna be
You never find the words you intended to
Your eyes they only see what they wanna see
And you’re always lookin’ back, not ahead of you
Can’t you see it doesn’t have to be this way
Don’t you know your line of thought ain’t gonna do
If you think that you can win, might win today
When you think you’re gonna fail, that’s what you do
It’s a rollercoaster
It’s a rollercoaster, baby
It’s a rollercoaster
Catholic school. Religion. Rules. Sit up straight, don’t slump. God, if those nuns could see me now, melting into this couch in front of the tube . . . . Don’t talk unless you’re told to. Don’t chew gum ever. Not that I ever had gum. This cheerleader sits in front of me in Biology. Becky. She always pops in a fresh piece of Bubble Yum right when she sits down, smacks on that wad the whole period. Annoying as hell. Probably pretty damn good though. Don’t come to class without your homework. You pulled that once. Not on purpose. I wrote a story about these two monsters or giants or something who were fighting. I got the idea from the Saturday matinee at the Gallery Theater downtown. They were showing Gargantua, where these two hairy Godzilla-sized monsters were going at it. One was a brown gargantua who lived on the land—the good guy—and he skinned his leg on a rock in the ocean and then a green gargantua who lived in the water—the bad guy—grew from that piece of skin. It took six bottle caps, maybe one Saturday a month or something, if they were from Dr. Pepper bottles or whatever it was that week, to get in and see a movie. The guys at the Esso—OK, fine, Exxon—around the corner would let us dig through the cap catcher hanging on the front of their drink machine. I was actually kind of proud of my story I guess, and after we ate supper I asked the old lady to read it. She set it down on the ironing board, said she’d look at it later. I eventually had to go to bed, then forgot about it in the morning, went to school without it. We all had to stand up, kind of line up against the walls, and read our story out loud. I was one of the last. Just stood there with a blank sheet of paper and tried to remember how it went. Didn’t get far. You were like, “And they kept fightin’ and fightin’ and fightin’” when Sister Laura Ann walked up, looked at the paper, told you to sit down. I think you were crying. Or trying not to. Pussy.
Still probably second or third grade—it had to be, ’cause it was one of those years you had Sister Laura Ann—you couldn’t get that long multiplication shit. Like, a three-digit number times another three-digit number. You’d take the smallest number on the bottom and multiply it times the smallest number on the top ’cause that was easiest. Then you’d go to the next two easiest numbers, and save the hardest for last. Got every answer wrong, and was dumb enough to be surprised about it. Sister Laura Ann though, she was pissed. Called you up to the front of the class, pulled your pants down, gave you a whipping. Right there in front of everybody. She just used her hand, not a belt like you’d get at home, but at home you wouldn’t have had your pants pulled down either. At least she left your underwear up. It worked. I learned how to multiply. Man, I hate math.
What if you had to do that shit with Roman numerals? X V I times X I V equals . . . whatever. Or long division, for Christ’s sake? M C M L X V I goes into . . . . Man. I’d go crazy.
Everything was done by the clock. Starting outside in the morning with the raising of the flag, then the Pledge of Allegiance. We’d say it indoors if it was raining. Then we’d go to our room and pray an Our Father. Later, the teacher would walk the whole class down to the bathroom. Pardon me, the “lavatory.” They’d do that once in the morning and once in the afternoon, at whatever time they had set aside for their class to make the trip. Forget asking to go any other time, ’cause they wouldn’t let you. Angie Thacker was good for pissing in her seat at least once a month. Probably not after fourth grade or something, but before then. We’d line up to go, and she’d be sitting there crying and there’d be a puddle under her desk. That wasn’t as bad as what Donald Sinkey pulled one time in first grade. He shit in his pants, right there in class. We called him Donald Stinkey after that. But the teacher would walk us down the hall to the bathrooms, and we’d go in three at a time ’cause that was how many urinals there were. One time when you were using the middle one, that fat fucker Peter was watching you piss, and he started pointing at your dick and laughing. I didn’t know what the hell was so funny, so I looked over at his, then over to the other side at Tony’s. Neither one of theirs had skin on the head. It was I don’t know how many years later before I ever heard anything about circumcision. Up until then, I just figured mine was fucked up somehow. And even after that, I wondered why the hell mine was different than everybody else’s. We had to take showers after gym class last year—you have to take gym sophomore year—and we had to take showers after wrestling practice too, and I never saw anybody else who wasn’t circumcised. Not that I was really looking. And it’s not like that’s something you could ask the old lady about, or the old man, or even Don. Like, “Hey, Don, your dick got a turtleneck?” Yeah, that’s gonna happen. I had a hard time pissing in the lavatory after that. I’d have to go in one of the stalls. Either that or wait ’til I got home.
We had to do chin-ups in gym class. Not just to do them, but to see how many we could do. They had a guy counting ’em off for us, writing down how many we did. I did twenty-five, figured that was plenty, stopped. He said only seventeen of ’em were good though, wrote that down. That was still the best in our class. It wasn’t the best in the school, there were a few other guys in other gym classes who did more, but they still put my name down on this sheet they had taped up on the side of the lockers. That shit sucked. Like I could only do seventeen chin-ups.
There was that one black guy in the shower whose dick wasn’t cut. Rocky. He was standing at the exit holding it. Man, that thing was huge. He had his hand wrapped around it at the bottom, and there was that much and more—a lot more—hanging out. I’d heard a couple guys squealing, looked over and saw him smacking ’em on the ass with that monster as they ran out of the shower. Fuck that. I walked out, looked him right in the eye, nodded. He just nodded back, waited for the next guy.
I used to wonder why the nuns never did go in the bathroom. Hell, I used to wonder if they even went to the bathroom, if they even had a toilet in their convent, if they were built like regular people under their habits. What a dumb little shit.
We had to wear a dark tie and dark pants, dark socks, dark shoes, a white shirt. Every day. You always got Don’s old clothes when he got new ones. We kept a pair of sneakers in our locker for recess. Those lockers didn’t have a lock on ’em like the ones at Sellars-Gunn or Williams do. I still forget my combination once in a while, like on a Monday morning maybe, and have to think about it, try different numbers ’til I get the damn thing opened. Back then we’d always play soccer. It wasn’t real soccer, ’cause we just had a regular kickball, and maybe five or six guys to a side. The eighth grade against the seventh grade, or whatever. Like when
the classes were so small that there were two to a teacher, with fifth and sixth grade in one room, seventh and eighth in another. The teacher would give one class their assignment, then go to the other side of the room and give the other class theirs. You’d be sitting on your side of the room, trying to concentrate, not being able to help but listen to what was going on with the other class. One of ’em was reading a book about a kid named Pip. What kind of name is that to hang on somebody?
You couldn’t go to recess until you finished your lunch. The teacher would sit in the room with us, check your lunch box when you finished, then let you go outside. Well, I just had a paper bag, not a lunch box. Lots of times I’d have a cold hamburger. Well, a Winn-Dixie patty, whatever the hell that is. They come frozen in a box of twelve. It’d be stuck between two pieces of bread with nothing on it, not even cheese. I never have liked anything other than cheese on my food anyway, but I never even got cheese on those things, and cold definitely ain’t the way to be eating ’em. If it wasn’t one of those pieces of shit, you’d get a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, which was a lot better, even though the jelly’d be all winey and soaked into the bread. I missed a lot of recesses.