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Friday, August 24, 2012

Epitaph: My mothers eulogy


       
   When I was sixteen I told my mama I wanted to make something in my life that people would remember me for well after I was gone.  I longed to leave my impression on history.  She smiled at me and told me a story about a time that she went with a group of friends to Hilton Head and a boy carved her name into a rock.  A distant look clouded her face.  Then she said that was probably the only thing that would carry her name long after she was gone.

That look and the reverberation of that statement made me mad, and stuck with me.  Today it still burns inside of me to think of a boy, who is not sitting her today, could control the memory of my mother by scraping her name into a cold weathered rock.

The man I have become could only exist with the guidance of my mother.  As a woman I never caught a glimpse or found one speck of jealousy in her heart because she taught me that in this world we all have to make our own way.  And even though she always thanked God for the blessings in her life she showed me that regret was a losing game because in the end we judge ourselves more harshly than God would ever judge.  We hold our mistakes as talismans because what anyone with half a heart perceived as mistakes are the lynchpins of their character.

I understand that not everyone thinks of my mother as a saint or an angel as I do.  She had her flaws as a person, but none of those flaws outshined the beauty of her heart.  My mama never found an injustice she was too scared to speak against, just as she never found someone who was truly in need that she would not help.  She was never disparaging to any person or any group of people.  She made enemies based on how much hate people inflicted upon other people, and even then her ability for forgiveness and to recognize the flaws of our humanity was a resounding inspiration. 

As much as I strive to be my own person and to form my own opinions, I am nothing but a copy of my mother’s philosophy because my mother taught that nothing good existed in this world without love.  She lived her life by loving every bit and person she could.  She led by example and showed me that although the love you tried to show the world would not always be returned, all I could do was give it everything I had and be thankful when it came back to me.

People rarely agree with my opinions, and people rarely understand what I strive to do with my life.  That’s okay, because those people were not raised by my mama.  People don’t understand that we endlessly give and only hope to receive.  That’s why I hope to be half as good as my mama.  That’s why it burns my pride to think some nameless boy frozen in the past would be the one person to be privileged enough to etch my mother’s name into the future.

For years I have lived by my mama’s philosophy, but the night she died I held her hand and I carved her epitaph in my heart, and I ask you all to do the same.  Love your lives, and the people in it, with everything you can muster.  Help me carve her name into this earth with the love that she has shown all of you.  And when you receive some of it back smile and think of her and she will always be remembered.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Reading in Hell



Halloween is coming.  It is my favorite holiday.  Summer is finally over and the dark is creeping in.  Good fiction comes in the winter, and I’m ready for the blankets.


A Good and Happy Child by Justin Evans
George can’t hold his newborn.  In fact he runs out on the child and the mother.  He’s afraid, and for a good reason. His long dead father was plagued by demons and so is George.  He doesn’t want his child to be affected.  This story has just as much heart ache as terror.  What starts out as eerie but normal quickly dissolves into madness, and we don’t know who to trust.


Damned by Chuck Palahniuk
Are you there Madison, it’s me sexual frustration?  Madison can’t remember how she died when she wakes up in hell.  She thinks it was a marijuana overdose and her cynical twelve year old perspective floats seamlessly between growing up with high status parents to the features of hell.  This book shows a mixture of old style with a few new tricks that help move the plot along.  The details and style are high, but the ending is very much Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder.


After the Paperman Comes by Heywood Steele
A retired detective sits on a bar stool trying to turn down a case as a Grim Reaper clocks into to his 9 to 5.  Both men are friends to death, but can they face what happens after the paper man comes?  Some scenes are a little campy, but the dialogue is classic.  It’s the baby book Joe Lansdale and Raymond Chandler wanted to make.  When you run across the burly smartass bartender give him a nod for me.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Prologue


          
          Flakes of bread crust were scattered around the dinner plates.  Spaghetti sauce hardened on the forks by the minute, and the high glossy sheen of the oak veneered dinner table was dulled by the messy hands of a two-year-old.
            These facts were all I thought about because I had rather smoked a cigarette, and got my kitchen clean, than being fucked right then.  The soft lilt of Elmo’s laugh came from the back bedroom as my son Dusty watched TV.  I didn’t dislike having sex with Reece.  He picked times that were inconvenient, and truth be told, not when I would have enjoyed it most.  But I knew our arrangement as well as the response I would get if I denied him.
            Reece grabbed the hunk of my blonde hair splayed out of the blood red scrunci.  My eyes leveled with the bathroom mirror, and Reece’s knuckles tensed white as his small pointy hip bones rammed into my behind.
            I wouldn’t call it romantic.  Reece wore his shirt smeared with grease, and every time his stroke went a little long his back would hit the glass of the shower door.  Not exactly the music of love but the banging of necessity. 
            Reece was about to come.  His stubbly chin moved toward the ceiling as his body tensed up, and his eyes squinted like he was about to sneeze.  “Oh God” he said.  Then he grabbed my shoulders and thrust as if he were trying to lift me off the floor.
            When he finished he lowered his head, with his eyes shut, and stood there.  I glanced at his face.  From this angle there wasn’t much I could do until he pulled out of me.
            “Are you finished honey” I asked.  The position was tiresome when I had nothing to concentrate on.
            “Yeah.  Yeah.  I just got a little light headed.”
            He stumbled back into the shower doors, and I grabbed the hand towel.  Since the towel was set out that morning, it felt soft and plush against the inside of my thighs.  I rubbed my wrist against my breast.  The nipples were sore from being scrapped repeatedly on the lip of the sink.
            “I’m goin to the Yard for a few hours.”  Reece said.  “I’ll be back in time to watch our shows together.”
            His voice was flat and deadpan like he spoke to no one in particular.  I nodded.  Anything to get him out the door a little faster.  As the remnants of our after dinner soiree soaked into the cotton towel, I wanted to get dressed and an inch closer to my personal time of the day.
            Reece tucked in his shirt and kissed me on the forehead.  He was already out the door by the time I put my panties on.  In front of the mirror I watched myself pull my jeans up to my hips.  My nipples were hard and red from the agitation of the counter and sink.  A few stretch marks bubbled over my stomach.  The supple body of my teens was now marred from a line of bad decisions.  My left nipple moved upward as I pulled up on the skin under my armpit.  Before I had my shirt on I turned the light off and heard Elmo laugh down the hall.

I hated to waste this scene.  It is cut out of a novel I am currently working on.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Big Mix and The Raspberry Hickeys (part 3 of 3)



Perry Correctional inmates sat in the small plastic chairs lined up in the middle of the gym.  They resembled some of the dumb kids with full beards in my classes that had failed too many grades.  Their leg shackles caused them to shuffle to the podium, and the speakers amplified the sound of their handcuffs hitting the wood when they slouched over to talk into the microphone.
I thought I recognized the one speaking as my mother's ex-boyfriend.  His hair was longer, and dirtier, but his voice sounded the same.  He told his sob story about how he didn't really commit a crime.  He claimed he was asleep in the car as his friends robbed a gas station.  I had used a version of that lie before, and, like him, I wasn't spared any mercy.
"I hung around with people who I thought were my friends.  Guys who thought the rules didn't apply to them, and didn't care who they hurt in the process."  Said the inmate whose name I thought was Junior.
I also wasn't fooled by the hard talk of the other inmates.  I looked around at my classmates to see who all was buying into this scared straight business.  Everyone had their eyes glued to these dummies and the red marks covered my classmates necks like a village hit by the plague.
By spring break Paul and I had reached our goal and covered over half of the eighth grade.  It wasn't very hard to prod someone to make fun of Big Mix since most of my classmates had been at it for the last couple of years.  I wasn't even sure if my actions mattered much because some of the people who showed up with the mark were out of my circle of influence.  Sure, I set a few things in motion, like burning her book bag with the JV boys that went to the highschool to play football.  The art club and I did a great job with a mural of the Big Mix mascot on her locker.
Every school day a new group came in trying to cover up a fresh mark, including a good many of the girls.  I was proud of myself for bringing people down to my level.  The one thing that bothered me was Neil, Aaron's cousin.  When I walked out of the lunch line every day I cut my eyes at him since he sat in my old seat.  His neck was slightly tanned, and I could picture the biggest, nastiest, raspberry stain set on top of a small mole on his neck. Neil was hard to get now that Aaron didn't talk to me anymore.  Paul and I had been watching Aaron’s new gang build.
Neil had become my primary target now that Paul and I had finished our main goal.  I tried a couple of times to lure the beast to him but Big Mix never took the bait.  I could see her in the assembly, at the bottom of the bleachers.  She leaned forward and her dirty mushroom cloud of hair covered most of her face.  Every seat around her was empty like someone farted and didn't want to claim it.
"When I was first locked up I blamed everyone else for my problems.  But in prison a person has plenty of time to think.  Because in prison you have no friends.  It's just you and your rage all locked up in a cell, and then you get marked for the rest of your life just for making one stupid decision." 
He finally sat down.  The fat cop came back up to the podium.  His dirty blonde mustache was thick and neat like a straw broom.  He preached his usual Officer Friendly talk about staying in school, like someone gave us a choice.
When the principal dismissed us everyone stood up but me and Big Mix.  The bleachers vibrated from all the footsteps like train tracks before the roar of the cars passed by.  Inmate Junior locked his eyes on me.  I smiled and picked up my books.  All of the kids swarmed out into the hall like gnats chasing rays of sunlight.  Big Mix waited until almost everyone left, and then I filed in behind her.  Junior's head turned to follow me out the door.
"We need to talk."  I said as she and I were the last ones in the hall.
"About what?"  She said over her shoulder.  Her voice was cracking like a teenage boy.  I never realized she was taller than me.  I gained a few steps then slowed to her pace when I pulled up beside her.
“That kid, Neil.  He has been saying some really mean stuff about you lately.  He said you were a Hermorphoditiy.  Hermorphidike.  Something like that.”
She stopped and turned to me.  Her knuckles hung down low enough to touch her knees.  I kept waiting for her to crouch and take her natural position like a gorilla.  Her mouth clamped tight and she shook her head at me.
“Do you ever stop Brandon?”
I gave her the smile I give to Social Services.
“You’ve gotten almost everyone else in school.”  I said.  “What’s one more?  You think I didn’t push everybody to mess with you?  Just one more and I will leave you alone.  Forever.  Honest Injun.”
She walked off without a word.  My fists clenched, and I could picture how David hit Goliath with a rock.  She turned into a classroom, away from my line of sight.

I wore my best shirt.  The one I usually wore for court appearances.  It bunched up in the shoulders around my t-shirt and came up a little short on the wrist.  I was very early.  Most of the lights weren’t even on in the front office were I was sitting. Principal Skelton stumbled in carrying his briefcase, a bag, and a huge binder.  He shuffled everything to one arm and the tip of his tongue stood sentry in the corner of his mouth.
“What is it Brandon?  You haven’t had time to be sent to the office yet.”
“I know sir.  I have been sitting here since yesterday.”
He didn’t laugh.  He turned the key in the knob and held the door open for me.  I sat quietly in my usual spot until Mr. Skelton got his stuff arranged.  When he finally sat down I saw that his tie wasn’t tightened all the way.  His family smiled at me from their picture on the desk, and Mr. Skelton joined his fists together on the oak like one big potato.
“I haven’t had my coffee yet, so make this quick son.”
I had been so concentrated on getting here and winning that I didn’t think about what I was going to say.  I rode over early this morning with my step-dad on his way to work and I never really thought the whole thing over. I wondered what beginning would look best for me, but I decided to cut to the chase since Mr. Skelton seemed to be out of patience.
“Well.  This rash that’s been going around the school.  Like this one.”  I pulled my collar to the side and twisted my neck.  “It ain’t a rash.”
He leaned back in his chair and covered his mouth with his hand.  I let go of my collar and opened my eyes wider.
“This is a hickey.  That girl Laneece is going around giving one to everybody.  It’s not some rash going around from the insulation.  She’s crazy.  Anybody that gets in her way she goes after.”
Mr. Skelton didn’t move.  Heels ticked on the floor outside the door. 
“Does this look like any kind of rash you have ever seen?”  I asked.
“Brandon, the county engineers say this building has got asbestos in the ceiling.  Some kind of mold is in almost all the walls.  Mr. Thompson the gym teacher has got the rash.  Along with Mrs. Kirksey the French teacher and Mr. Jeter the history teacher.  Most of the eighth grade class, and half of the seventh graders has got this rash.  I may even have a lawsuit on my hands.  And you’re trying to tell me one little girl is going around doing all of this?”
“We might argue about her being a girl, but I win if you want to call her little.”  I said.  “Nobody wants to talk about it because who wants to admit that thing gave them a hickey.  We never called it a rash.  Someone else did and everyone played along.”
The tick ended at the door with a curt knock.  I leaned forward with my elbows on my knees when the door opened.  The secretary scowled me as she set some papers on the desk.  I had spent some time staring at her in my three years at this school and her attitude toward me hadn’t changed since I stole my Walkman back from her desk.
“Thank you Shelia.”  Principle Skelton said.  He had turned his chair to stare at her until she shut the door.  Her heels clicked off around the office when he turned his attention back on me.
“One little girl?  It’s hard to believe but it would save me a lot of trouble.  Do you have any proof?”
“What kind of proof would you need?”  I asked.

I missed tug-of-war.  I missed the balloon pop, and the three-legged race.  In fact I had missed all the field day events.  A bead of sweat slipped down the furrow in my brow, and near the entrance to the gym I could see Spurgeon pacing and stretching out the turn-around.
This should have been over by now.  Big Mix sat on the ground pulling up grass and tearing it into little pieces.  I watched her all morning as Aaron scanned the crowd and walked around looking for his cousin.  I didn’t know how much longer Paul and Spurgeon could hold off.  It wouldn’t be long before lunch and then my last chance would be ruined.
Then she stood.  I held my breath with hope.  She wiped off the back of her shorts and slowly lumbered toward the gym.  I waved my hands to signal Spurgeon and he instantly straightened up and shot through the door as planned.
I didn’t think I was going to make it in time.  I sat myself at the top of a small hill to watch her make her trip to the bathroom, but my spot was a little too far away.  As she waddled to the door I had a hard time running.  My foot was asleep, and every time it hit the ground it tingled and felt numb.
I wasn’t making good time so I cut across the field during the potato sack race.  The kid in front gripped the hem of his bag like it was the handholds in a roller coaster.  He was in the lead, so I guess that was why he had a goofy grin.  I shoved him out of the way and a teacher’s whistle screamed.
I caught the door to the gym as it was about to close behind her.  Her feet scraped and squeaked on the gym floor as she walked to the locker room.  I waited until she got around the corner before I followed her farther.  It felt like my heart stopped beating for a few seconds when I entered the girls’ bathroom.  I looked underneath the doors and I could see Big Mix’s hams, and Spurgeon’s shoes.  I entered and locked the stall door beside Big Mix.
My hands shook as I opened my backpack.  The brown bottle of chocolate syrup was warm from being outside all day.  I stood on the toilet seat and as I rose over the flimsy wall’s edge, I could see Spurgeon’s tall high-top above the partition like a black bush.  I nodded to him and then he climbed down.  When the slide from his stall lock snapped open I stared down at Big Mix.  Her shorts and panties gathered in wrinkles on the tops of her tennis shoes, and the elastic waistband stretched to their limits around her legs.  I pulled open the top of the bottle and turned it upside down with a big squeeze.  The syrup was so thin by the heat that it poured like water.
Big Mix yelled and looked up at me.  I grinned and squeezed harder until I could feel the insides of the bottle touch each other.  When she tried to get out Spurgeon held his weight against the door.  Big Mix pushed hard on the door with her shorts around her ankles.  The pale white skin of her butt bunched up and looked like the bumpy heads of cauliflower.  When I let the pressure off the bottle is sucked in air at a loud rush.
I threw down the bottle on top of her and jumped off the toilet seat.  From inside my backpack I pulled out a ziplock bag of her gym clothes I had found inside her hijacked locker.  She had pushed her way out at the same time I came out of my stall.  There was murder in her eyes. Chocolate sauce covered her from head to toe, and it looked like she had been playing in a sewer.  I held the bag of her clothes pinched in my fingers and dangled it like treats for a dog.
“Do you want to negotiate?”  I asked?  “Do you want to see things my way?”
She huffed.  Her hands clinched into balls of meat.
“No one will ever believe it.  You can clearly see it is chocolate.”  She said
“But who’s going to taste it to find out?  Plus my story is better.  I got Neil waiting and ready in the boy’s bathroom.  You go give him a big kiss and I give you these nice clean clothes.  We all win.”
I threw the bag of clothes to Spurgeon who nodded and walked off to make sure Paul hadn’t freaked out and Neil hadn’t escaped the duct tape.  When the door closed Big Mix lowered her shoulders in defeat.  Her eyes steadied into mine and then a slow grin grew on her face.
“I can take that off you know.”  She said.
“No way.”  I said as I rubbed my neck.  “How could you get rid of this, it never goes away.”
“I gave it to you didn’t I?  I can get rid of it if you let me.  If you ask.”
I didn’t know what to do.  I was afraid if I let her try I would get an even bigger spot.  But what if she could get rid of it?  I turned my head and stared at my reflection in a far off mirror near the sinks.  I would be the kid without the mark.  The exception to the rule.  Big Mix’s grin had moved to a wide smile when I looked up at her.
“You still have to kiss Neil.”  I said
She nodded and I sighed at what might be a bad decision.
“Would you please take this thing off of me?” I asked.
“There.  Now that wasn’t so hard was it?”
The way she walked up, grabbed my hair, and leeched on to my neck was the way I had seen in old vampire movies.  A clamped my eyes shut and the sting on my neck started instantly.  It wasn’t the burning of last time, but, instead, the way a needle feels in skin after it has been numbed.  The lips wiggled and tickled below my ear lobe.  I made the mistake of opening my eyes and I could see her clothes and hair covered in thick lines of chocolate sauce like puff paint.  What caught me off guard was the smell of her.  It wasn’t chocolate, but flowers.  Honeysuckle after you pinched the end and pulled out the nectar. 
She pulled away from me and my neck had that cool wet feeling like when you rub a cold coke can on your head after a hard day.  I could see myself in the mirror.  The raspberry hickey was just the red of irritation.
“Thank you.”  I said, and she gave me a genuine smile.
“You ready to go get your clothes and meet Neil.”  I said.
I rubbed my hands together and Big Mix lost her smile.
“You will never change Brandon.  You’ll always have that hard heart.”
I held the door open for her as we walked out.  The boy’s locker room was just on the other side of a concrete divider.
“Why is it that when you tell people you’re a bad person they act surprised when you do something bad?”  I asked.  “Maybe you shouldn’t expect anything more from people than what they are.”
Behind the door of the boy’s bathroom we saw Spurgeon and Paul standing by the door like guards.  I grabbed Big Mix by the elbow and led her to the stall.  Neil sat on the toilet testing the square knot of his restraints. Part of the duct tape around his mouth had peeled from spit. 
“Let him loose when you get done.  Have a good summer.”  I said.
I could hear Neil’s muffled screams like my mother when she cries into the mattress.  I walked out of the bathroom with Spurgeon and Paul right behind me.  When we got back outside we all went separate ways.  I walked around the corner to the principal’s office and laughed as I rubbed where the spot on my neck had been.
I didn’t even bother stopping at the secretary’s desk as I walked into the office.  I strolled right up to Principle Skelton’s door and opened it without a knock. Some other teachers sat in the visitor’s chair laughing and talking.
“You might want to check out the boy’s bathroom in the gym.  What you needed from the other day might be in there.”  I said.
He jumped up out of his chair and jogged away from the office.  I didn’t get to see what happened but there were rumors.  In the last few days of school I saw Neil around school with the raspberry hickey, but Big Mix had been expelled.  She never showed up at the high school either.
I walked in the first day of high school expecting to be the king of my class, but I got more strange stares since my hickey was gone. Nothing got better or worse for me. I was just forgotten.  I watched all of the people I went to school with, and they can hardly remember my name. But I remember them all.  Stupid people would describe all of the success my classmates had as overcoming diversity.  Supreme court justices, writers, and rocks stars all stopped by the gas station I worked at on their way to visit their old hometown.  They never hid their flaws, and over time the old raspberry turned to the deep color of garnet.  I could see how they were more humble, and it makes me wonder if I would have had a better life if I had a flaw. 



Sunday, August 7, 2011

Backstory


If you want to hear good stories then listen to my dad.  Watch the way his frozen blue eyes narrow like he is telling you a secret you can’t wait to hear.  Listen to the way the inflection in his voice changes whenever he gets to the good part.  When you’re rolling on the floor he’ll cross then uncross his legs and give a little laugh with a snort.
Any childhood friend I have ever had can remember any story my Dad every told them.  The set-up is that great.  I have bumped into people I haven’t seen in fifteen years and they still can tell you almost verbatim one of the many stories he tells.  Some of the lines he comes up with would send Elmore Leonard looking for a pen.
As a writer I want people to remember my stories like that.  It’s the goal.  I want my kid to be haunted by my words from someone they have never even met. 
My Dad is not a writer.  If I asked him what a plot device was he would try to tell me what aisle it’s located at in Home Depot.  He doesn’t know the difference between telling and showing, but his stories float by.  When he starts to tell a yarn he could give you backstory for a few generations, and while that works great on the front porch it will get you rejections slips if you sent it to the rags in that formation.
A new generation of writing has emerged.  Trust me, I have read it.  Those days when “it was the best of times, and it was the worst of times” is over now.  If your first paragraph is all details of physical descriptions of surroundings soaring in on a bird’s eye view, then you’re going to crash.
I am not saying backstory is bad.  I think it’s very appropriate at the right time.   I just want to see that turmoil.   I want to know what makes him feel icky on the insides and why.  But I want my cake and I want to eat it to.
If I pick up a book or scroll through a blog and the first thing a story starts out with is:

It was the first day of spring.  Butterflies danced around the pasture as the cows bellowed in the field.  Grandma said it was going to be a good planting season.  Of course she couldn’t see with the milky white cataracts over her eyes, but she could still feel the sun on her face.  In fact she hadn’t been able to see in years.  When my brother was a baby she would have to sit in the chair before my mother would let her hold him….

Who cares?  Myself, I like a good knife fight, or a car wreck.  The backstory is important but give it a little time.  In short stories you have very little time to get where you want to go but in a novel you have time to build those relationships.  I like minimalist like Cormac McCarthy and Hemmingway, but give me Ron Rash or Steinbeck any day.
The point is I don’t mind a little extra set-up if the payoff is worth it but you better keep my attention in the scene.  So when you write your beginnings remember to watch out for backstory because it bogs you down.


Friday, July 22, 2011

Please stand by


My computer crashed Wednesday.  It holds all my work for the last six months, and the end of the Big Mix story.  My computer guy says he can extract it for me next week.  For all of you following the Big Mix story, I am sorry.  I hope to have the ending up next week


Monday, July 18, 2011

Big Mix and The Raspberry Hickeys (part 2 of 3)


I could smell my gym shorts before I opened my locker.  The sweat had soured, and when I pinched the waistband between my thumb and forefinger I could feel the moldy dampness where wrinkles had set in.
Paul pulled his shirt down from his neck.  His small bird chest was so white it glistened like it had been rubbed down with baby oil.  His skinny legs dangled from the bench between the rows of lockers like a small kid.
“Spurgeon cut off her lock and replaced it with a new one yesterday.  She missed some homework assignments, but other than that I don’t know what Aaron has done, or what Big Mix done to you guys.”  He said.
Paul’s consonants clacked together with his Yankee accent.  That must be what made him so good at school work, but slow between classes.  Aaron told everyone that Amanda Pine had given both of us the hickeys and Paul accepted it without solving for y. 
I rubbed the spot on my neck.  This morning, in front of the bathroom mirror the dark red glowed brighter that when it was fresh.  I caught Paul staring at it and he jerked his head away when our eyes made contact.
“Have you got a copy of her class schedule yet?”  I asked
“In our stash locker.  I put a copy there this morning in an old Punisher comic.  I thought that might give you something to read.”
Paul’s goofy grin covered his face.  His new eyeglasses were too big for his narrow head.  It made him look like a girl.  He turned his head in those huge frames and image gave me a flash of a young Sally Jesse Raphael.
“If I start reading books then what will I need you for?”
I cut my eyes at Paul when I said this.  He sat quiet as I pulled my shorts up on my waist.  The dampness crept into my underwear and the whole effect felt like reusing yesterday’s towel.
Paul and I walked out on the gym floor.  Big Mix sat in the first row of bleachers.  Her blank cow eyes seemed to follow me everywhere without moving at all.  She wasn’t dressed out for gym, and as she leaned forward to rest her arms on her knees her fat rolls congealed down her chest and stomach.  Her tight brown t-shirt wrapped each fat loaf, and the combined effect made her look like a segmented worm.
Mr. Thompson strolled into the gym twirling his whistle around his first two fingers.  He walked like my grandfather after hemorrhoid surgery with the heel barely behind in distance from the toes.  The point of his destination always faced the side of his feet like he was trying to keep his butt cheeks together when he walked.  No one really paid him attention.  Tennis shoes squeaked on the floor as people stood around talking.
“Mrs. Shlevic.  You're not joining us for class today?”
Kids called him coach even though the school had no sports teams.
“You don’t have your pretty little outfit on.”  Mr. Thompson said.
The girls covered their mouths when they giggled.  Their ponytails bounced on the monosyllabic laugh.  Mr. Thompson hitched his thumbs in the waistband of his tracksuit and winked at whatever cute girl would accept it.
“That’s okay.  You can keep score for the boys as they play basketball.  All right, let’s exercise.”
Mr. Thompson clapped his hands once.  It was barely audible with the whistle string binding his fingers.  The girls chatted as they walked to the volleyball net, and their long legs held my attention without me knowing why.
Under the net we separated the teams.  Tall kids got picked fast, and when they called my name, an idea hit me.  Big Mix scooted across the row she sat on to our side of the goal.  I could hear her butt scrape the plastic as she barely lifted up her body from the bench
 “Let’s make this more interesting.”  I said.
Kevin Stokes tried to spin the ball on the end of his finger.
“What do you mean?” He asked.
“A goal, as usual, is worth one point, but if you hit Big Mix you score two.  A big fat bonus.”
Kevin snickered.  “The bison is worth double.”  He yelled “We get the ball first.”
The ball hit the floor and made a sound like a shoe being used as a hammer.  Everyone separated trying to get Kevin’s attention, and the ball.  At first the other boys acted scared and threw at the net.  Finally, when the ball was passed back to Kevin, he made a run for the side of the court.  This confused the boy who was covering him, but when the ball smacked big Mix on the leg everyone laughed.
“Two points.”  Kevin yelled out.
I never cared for basketball because it felt like dancing.  But after Kevin shot the ball at Big Mix a frenzy started that I couldn’t help but enjoy.  No one tried for the basket anymore.  Big Mix ducked, twisted, and cowered behind her raised arms to block herself from direct shots.  Red spots, where she had been hit, colored like a rash.  The harder shots were raspberry like my own.
Mr. Thompson stopped watching the girls jump and jiggle long enough to turn his concentration on us.  Air balls landed in the bleachers that missed Big Mix, and we made her retrieve them. 
"Hurry up we haven't got all day.  Gym will be over in a few more minutes." Kevin yelled at her. 
She became a moving target since the ball would be thrown again before she made it back to her spot.  Soon the whole gym watched our game of Duck Hunt.  Most times the ball would roll down the bleachers after it hit her.  No one even cared about playing defense.
The other strange kids stood at the back wall.  After a good hard shot socked Big Mix on top of the head one of the girls walked up to Mr. Thompson.  She whispered in his ear and the whistle stopped spinning.
“Okay boys, let’s rap it up.”
The girls walked off to the locker room in pairs.  Big Mix threw the basketball back onto the court, and it hit Paul’s foot as it reduced to a roll.  Paul picked it up and I grabbed his shirt sleeve.  We stood until the gym had mostly cleared.  The odd kids kept looking over their shoulder like my mom when she steals make-up in Kmart.
“Do it.”  I said to Paul.
Big Mix sat back in her spot, beside her mud stained backpack.
“Do what?”  He held the basketball against his ribs with his forearm, and when his eyes widened it was magnified by his glasses.
“Throw the ball.”  I said through clenched teeth.  I tilted my head back towards Big Mix.  “Hit her with it.”
“You do it.”
“Go ahead you wuss.  We gotta be unified.”
“Unified on what?”  Paul asked.
“Just throw the ball.”
He turned and threw it.  If I didn’t know any better I would have thought the sentiment was aimed at me the way his skin curled under his lips, and the way one eye strained, like in a snarl.  Paul hadn’t even aimed.  The ball arched through the air slowly spinning backward like Fall Guy backpedaling when he falls off a building. 
I don’t think he meant to hit her.  It smacked her in the fat of her upper arm.  When the ball landed, wedged between her foot and her book bag, she didn’t even flinch.  Her blank stare seemed to travel no further than the end of her nose.
“Come on lets go.”  Paul said, making the o’s a little too long.
After Paul walked off I stood there and watched her.  My arms were crossed and I shifted from foot to foot.  A big wide grin grew on her face and her paw rubbed at her neck, mocking me. 
*

The simultaneous talking of eighty middle school kids can sound like a wind tunnel.  One word is spoken louder than the one before it and pretty soon all the words are all in competition with one another like my mother and the volume of the TV during my new stepdad’s football game.  I guess that’s what makes an orchestra so loud, one sound lying on top of another.
Paul walked up to the lunch table near the end of the lunch period.  He leaned forward in his backpack like he was hiking up a mountain.
“Amanda Pine didn’t give you guys those hickey’s.”  Paul said. 
He didn't bother looking at anyone else but me.  I was amazed at how clear he cut through the chatter.  A few tables around us quieted down because Paul’s tone was the type used right before a fight.  Aaron jumped up, cupped his hand around Paul’s shoulder, and turned him to the hallway. 
As they weaved through the lunch tables to the main door I tried to catch up.  When I made it outside the lunch room door clicked shut and the voices stopped instantly.  I stood there for a minute trying to figure out where they went.  An arm shot out from the side of a portable, and when I got around the building I found Aaron holding Paul’s chin up to examine the deep red centered below the ear on Paul’s neckline.
“When did she get you?  I’ve been around you all day.” I said.
Aaron lowered Paul’s face so Paul wasn’t struggling to be an inch taller.  Paul sniffled like he was on the verge of crying.
“Why didn’t you guys tell me about this?  I could have avoided this whole thing.  I joined up with you guys so I wouldn’t be picked on so much, and maybe be left alone by high school.”  Paul said.
“Relax.  It’s just a hickey.  It will go away in a few days.”  Aaron said.
I touched my own out of habit.  Yesterday marked a week and mine has gotten brighter instead of fade.
“Tell everyone Amanda Pine gave it to you like we did.  Won’t nobody question it none.  Probably even get you a few points in the challenge classes.  I’ll meet up with her tomorrow morning, every things going to be okay.”  Aaron said.
The bell rang for the end of lunch.  All of the noise from inside the cafeteria spilled out as it emptied. 
“What’s going on?”  Neil asked.  He had snuck around the building.
“Nothing.”  Aaron said.  He let go of Paul, and picked his book bag off the ground.
*
The next morning the locker room in gym class was almost empty.  Light leaked into the dirty windows high above me like it was strained through cotton.  A locker clanged shut somewhere in the back, and I looked at the clock to make sure I wasn’t late because the second bell hadn’t rang. 
I pulled my freshly washed gym clothes out of my book bag and changed without having to look at a dozen half naked boys.  The gym was empty as well when I got there, and I sat on the first row of bleachers by myself.  Girls trickled in wearing their regular clothes, and when the bell did ring a few groups of the boys rushed in as well.  There must have been fifteen of us before I realized I was the only one who was dressed out. 
Mr. Thompson walked out of his office a little faster than normal.  His nose dammed up the roll of meat in his weird under bite frown.  When he faced the bleachers I could see it.  The raspberry blotch spilled like a red wine on wheat carpet. 
“Due to a rash that’s spreading through the school on one is required to dress out for the next few days.”  Mr. Thompson said.  His hand cocked into a gun and pointed at me.  “Sorry Brandon.”
Kevin’s crew came in and sat high in the bleachers on the other side of the gym.  Everyone had isolated me.  If I had paint I could have made a quarantine line.  I didn't have anything to keep me entertained for an hour and Paul never showed up.  Big Mix sat on the other side of the gym smiling and chewing on the collar of her shirt.  I waited a few more minutes and weathered the cold shoulder of my classmates.  The ones who knew didn’t want to talk about it, and the ones who weren’t branded didn’t want to know.  I got the point and went back to my locker.
The rest of the day was more of the same.  The kids with hickeys didn’t want to talk to me and everyone else didn’t want a rash.  The clock slowed until lunch, and when everyone showed up at the table they didn’t say much.  Spurgeon’s new hickey stuck out more on his black skin.  Neil was the only one unmarked.  We all sat silent without food in front of us, and leaned back in our chairs.
“Paul’s mother called the school and complained about a rash.”  Aaron said.
“We all know that ain’t true.”  Spurgeon said.  “Some of us knew it before others and could have warned everyone.”
“I know you’re mad, but how were we to know she would go after the school.  We thought we were getting vengeance for a stunt she pulled on us.”
“What are you guys talking about?”  Neil asked.
Spurgeon’s eyes wrinkled like an adult when he narrowed his gaze on Neil.  The expression was comical in his purple basketball jersey and green jeans.  His shoulder blades rested against the top of the plastic chair as he slouched.
“So what do we do?”  I asked.
“We cut our losses and leave the mongoloid alone.”  Aaron said.  “It’s still the beginning of the year.  These things will fade and be forgotten by the time report cards come out.  If we pester it then we may have more undesirable consequences next year when we go to high school, and none of us want that.”
“I don’t like that option.”  I spat out.
“I don’t ether.”  Spurgeon said.
“I say we leave it alone.  This will go away, and we’ll forget about it.  Let’s not make it into a big deal.”
“You do realize I am the only black kid whose neck lights up like ET’s finger.”  Spurgeon said.
“And I have had this thing for over a week and a half and it keeps getting brighter.”  I said.
“IT WILL GO AWAY.”
Spurgeon jumped up and grabbed a handful of Aaron's shirt.  I tried to break it up and get between them, but as I did I elbowed Neil in the nose.  He must have stood up at the same time I did and when I lifted my arm I knocked him a good one in the face.  He hit the floor whimpering and Aaron stared me down.
If we would have had guns their might have been a standoff.  No one doubted Aaron was the leader since he was the better fighter, but I doubted he could have taken me and Spurgeon both.  My guts felt like something was climbing through them.  The smell of plastic rectangular pizza’s nauseated me.
"Go on.  If you want to handle it on your own then go on."  Aaron said.
*

Paul quit wearing the bandage over his hickey once it got cold enough to put on a jacket.  His new winter clothes consisted of high collars and turtlenecks.  He said the doctor told him he had a port wine stain that must have been underdeveloped until he got a little too much sun.
I laughed because that’s what you do at a joke.  My spot was till there and the color was as deep as liver.  Occasionally someone else would show up with a fresh mark, but the teachers and principle claimed the rash was contained.
“What's you plan?”  I asked Paul
We were outside walking to our last class.  Each line of buildings was identical and sectioned off like barracks.  Paul was the only one of the group that still hung around me.  The group split up after the lunchroom argument.  Paul and I were left to fend for ourselves since Aaron put together his new gang.
"Everyone looks at us like we have some fatal disease."  Paul said.  "None of my classmates will talk to me, except for the few that have the mark on their neck."
"Well, what can we do about it?  I have tried everything I know to get this thing off of me and nothing works.  Neosporin, bleach, teeth whitening gel.  It's all useless."  I said.
"I know.  My mother has bought every type of skin bleaching product she can find.  All the products don't do anything.  In fact the spot keeps getting brighter, and if we don't do something now things are only going to get worse next year in high school.  Then nobody will talk to us."
"Tell me something I don't know."
"I was thinking that maybe we are going about it the wrong way."
"What do you mean?"  I asked.
The last bell rang.  We were late standing in the hallway when all of the classroom doors closed.
"Well we can't make people stop ostracizing us, but maybe we can level the playing field."
"Which means?"  I asked.
"If everyone has something then no one is a reject.  We all would be equal again if everyone had a red mark, and then no one would call us names."
What Paul said made sense
"How do we get Big Mix to go after everybody?"
"It doesn't take much to push her buttons.  Maybe we could work on one student at a time.  We don't have to get everybody.  If we got over half I think my theory would work."

cover image by Robert Ingle

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Big Mix and The Raspberry Hickeys (part 1 of 3)



            Big Mix’s tears blended with the raindrops falling out of her saturated hair.  Her new pink jams were ruined from the mud puddle I had pushed her in, and her books swelled from the weight of all the water they absorbed.  The whole social studies class stared at her from their chairs.
            The pond under her seat looked like a flash flood with her butt as the big rain cloud.  From the back row I beamed at my accomplishment.  The bell rang and Mrs. Harris stood at the door, arms crossed with hands under elbows.  Her lips pouted like she was holding back something she wanted to say.
            I didn’t plan to push Big Mix in the mud puddle, but the opportunity presented itself.  The shortcut between the gym and the next pod of classrooms required that students leave from behind the bleachers through the back door.  Most people avoided the shortcut on days like today when it was raining.  But I saw Big Mix cut away from the herd trying to fit into the hallway.  The dim bulbs in the old gym hung so high the light got lost before it hit the ground.  When the door to the outside opened the rainy haze was enough to slice through the gym’s shadows.
            I veered from the line and took the exit myself.  Big Mix was no farther than I could throw a paper airplane.  A steady waterfall fell from the overhang of the doorway and I pulled my backpack straps to tighten my books against me for a good run.   I felt myself slipping in the spots where the grass had died out.  The cracked dirt from the first week of school quickly turned to soup after this week’s rain. 
My momentum was going by the time I caught up with her.  I don’t think I could have stopped if I had wanted to.  When I yanked down on her book bag a look of pure terror and surprise flashed across her face as she fell down in the mud.  When she landed the mud splashed up thick.  Its color looked like tomato soup made with milk.  I kept running.  I didn’t see her wallow on her side trying to get up.  But, in the classroom, I saw the red mud layered on her so wide it could have been put on with a paint roller.  Mrs. Harris shut the door and went to her desk without uttering a word.
Brandon.  Go to the principal’s office.” Mrs. Harris said as she ripped a piece of paper off of her notepad.
"But I haven't done anything?"  I protested
She looked at Big Mix and then at me.  She shook the paper in her hand like a tambourine.  I stood up to leave.
“Take your books.  You won’t be coming back today.”

*
The clacking sound of the lunch trays couldn’t be distinguished from the girl table’s laughter.  I left the principle’s office after the bell rang and arrived at my lunch table to find someone in my seat.  Aaron, my best friend, stared at me as I held my full tray above the intruder’s head.  The watery spaghetti and snot covered apples would have made a mess, and I was hungry, so I kicked the chair leg instead.
“You’re in my seat.”  I said.
The kid turned around like a spring and hugged the top of the chair.  His eyebrows almost bumped and his eyes narrowed as a response to the threat.
“Relax Brandon.  This is my cousin, Neil, and he didn’t know whose seat it was.”  Aaron said.
Aaron nodded to his cousin, who got up and moved to the other end of the table.  I sat down my tray and sighed as I placed myself in the seat.
“So what did you get?”  Paul asked as I scooted up my chair.
“Principal Skelton seemed to not know what happened when he called me in his office.  I don’t think Big Mix said anything because he never accused me of nothin.  I think he figured, with my past, whatever I had done was worth two days of in-school suspension.”
“Did you do it?” Spurgeon asked.
His light caramel eyes steadied themselves on me.  I had all of the boy’s rapt attention.  Metal forks hung above everyone's next bite of food as they waited to hear the next juicy piece of gossip.  I tore my ration of toast in half and bit into the buttery middle.  Paul pushed his glasses higher up the bridge of his nose.  I swallowed and sucked down the toast with the anxious need to tell every detail until it landed like a pat on the back.
“Yeah.  I did it.  How can you pass up an opportunity like that?”
Everyone nodded their head, understanding the temptation, except for the new kid Neil.
“What is a Big Mix?”  Neil asked.  Dark freckles sprinkled his face like termite holes in birch wood.
“Big Mix is that fat girl Lanece in the seventh grade.  She has that big pig head with hair like a peacock, and the round body of a hippopotamus.  Not quite human, and not all beast.  She is a mixed breed like that new cereal animal on that commercial they show all the time on Saturday morning cartoons.”  Aaron said.
“She also snorts like that thing when she laughs.”  Spurgeon added. “Somebody to mess with when there is nothing else to do.  Well except for Paul.”  Spurgeon laughed.
“Shut up.  Shut up or I won’t finish you math homework.” Paul muttered under his breath.
*

Since it was so close to the beginning of the school year I was the only prisoner in in-school suspension.  The sounds of laughter and chatter passed by during class changes like crows resting in a field.  There wasn’t much homework to do, and after lunch my head gravitated toward the desk as I pretended to read my social studies book.
The last time I remembered being fully conscious Mr. Wofford said he was running an errand to the office.  I wearily nodded, then laid my head on the desk when the door was shut.
When I drifted back to the surface of consciousness spittle stuck to the corner of my mouth like a glob of mayonnaise.  Something warm and moist slithered across my neck. When I tried to raise my head a giant hand palmed my head and held me to the desk.  I flung my arms trying to tag whatever was holding me.  Purple streaks flashed across the gray walls as I strained to get up.
“Help me!”  I yelled as the wet wiggling thing on my neck heated up.  I could only imagine it as someone’s tongue, the tip swirled counter clockwise and the suction of lips molded my flesh into a painful pinch.
“Oh God.”  My voice cracked from the pain.
My skin felt like it was melting.  The tongue stopped swirling and it pressed, relaxed and flat, against the burned flesh.  When it pulled away from my neck there was a loud pop.  I turned, rubbed my wound, and watched as Big Mix backed away from me.
“What are you doing you stupid cow?  I’m not a salt lick.”
Big Mix licked her lips and slurped in the juices.  The bad lighting rested on the girth of her hump.  I rubbed the side of my neck and waited for a response.  The stare she held on me was a different one from the look of fear or humiliation she usually carried.  I was a little scared.  As she dragged the back of her paw across her lips she reminded me of Sylvester the cat after he ate a bird.  Eyes all wide and glowing with a smile.
“I’ll get you back for this.  When I get done with you they’ll hang your bones beside the elephant man.  When I get done with you they’ll stuff your hide and use you to scare away other beasts.”
Big Mix turned around and walked to the door.  Her calves were so big it looked like someone shoved hams into her shoes.  The sound of the handle to the door clicked like the loading of a gun, and the stream of fresh air was sealed shut when the door closed behind her.  The spot on my neck felt raised.  Heat radiated from the assaulted patch of skin.  Not being able to see what it looked like drove me crazy.  I felt like I had been jabbed with a branding iron.
“Everything okay?”  Mr. Wofford asked when he walked back into the classroom.
“Yeah.  Everything is great.”
*
Aaron was at the bus stop with his thumbs hitched into the straps of his book bag.  He stood off by himself while other kids buzzed like bees back and forth to their friends.  A group of boys crowded around the brick wall, pressing on each others throats, playing the blackout game.  Buses herded into the parking lot from the elementary school, and Aaron just stood there, talking to no one.
When I walked closer I saw a bead of sweat roll out of his sideburns and down his cheek.  He had to be burning up in his black Ghostbusters t-shirt and dark jeans in this late summer heat.  The shagged mop of hair came off his head at all directions, and his clothes hung loose around his body because they were accustomed to his older brother.
“You alright?”  I asked.
The way he crunched his face together I couldn’t tell if he was hurt, angry, or had too much sun in his face.
“Yeah.”  He spat out.
“You’re not going to believe what happened to me today.” I said.
I threw my book bag to the ground and got my hands got in on the story.  I showed Aaron how Big Mix held me down, and how I fought.  He could see the spot on my neck.  It waved like a flag when I moved my jaw or tilted my head.  Classmates I had passed since the incident didn’t stare at me as hard as Aaron did.  With his arms still crossed he leaned in on me like he was studying graffiti on the bathroom wall.  His nostril flared when he leaned back.
“When did this happen?”
“Today during in-school.  Right after fourth period.”
When he turned his head I finally saw the spot on his neck, and it was bigger than mine.  The redness wasn’t the color of hickeys my mom had come home with, but more like the deep crimson of an old burn.  The border was a pink sear and the body of the wound looked like it would have stained my fingers just by touching it.
I didn’t know what to say to him.  The way he bared his neck at me reminded me of my dog when he was too scared to play with me anymore.  Aaron was so guarded, and tough, proven by the amount of scars on his knuckles, and I couldn’t believe she got him too.
“I was in the boiler room after lunch waiting on Amanda Pine to show up so we could make out.  I don’t know how long I waited, but when I was about to leave Big Mix bum-rushed me as I stepped through the door to head to class.
“She pinned me to the wall, and no matter how hard I kicked or punched she took it.  She took it, and leeched on to my neck.  It was like being burned with a car cigarette lighter.”
Aaron touched his neck and covered the spot with his palm.
“I know I had to hit her with two solid shots to the gut and she took it without so much as a whimper.” He said.
He shook his head then plumed his eyes to the ground.  The parking lot emptied as the buses filled up, and when Aaron’s bus rolled in the brakes sneezed.  Aaron hopped to shift the weight of his book bag.
“Who have you told?”  I asked
“You.  Nobody else dared to ask.  Why?  What are you thinking?”


Cover Art by Robert Ingle