Forty-two: The Real World Again
For us kids, the revelation of Aunt Andersol's trials with her professor were interesting, only in as much as we now understood her anger. That the man had been a creep to her, we understood, but it impacted little on us. And Mother's fury about the whole thing was -- well, it was how she reacted when she was really angry, so although her ferocity was spectacular, it wasn't anything particularly strange. The adults could now be moved to their respective niches, their mysteries solved, their actions explained. We could get on with our lives of growing and trying to figure out where we stood in the world.
The food and the warmth and the cleanliness of the apartment seduced all of The Five into an early and deep sleep. I considered writing for a while, but my bones seemed to turn to an amorphous glob, and I oozed deeper into my sleeping bag.
Around five I awoke, feeling hot and sweaty and grouchy, my sinuses aching, hearing street noise below as early commuters made their way on Filion Street. No one else was awake, though Michel was whimpering and kicking in his sleep, so I made my way to the bathroom and took a twenty minute shower, the mist opening my nose in luxury. Examining my face in the mirror afterwards, I smeared ointment across the red scrape across my face, from right temple, through eyebrow, across the bridge of my nose, and continuing down my cheek. I added a little more to the other scratches, too, deciding that when classmates asked me what had happened, I would tell them that it was a dueling scar, and that my opponent had been merciful simply to cut me and not to kill me. That I had been bested in a duel with a cottonwood branch was not going to be part of the conversation, though it would be true when I said that I had learned much in the battle.
While my siblings quarreled over bathroom and clothing and breakfast, I wrote in my notebook:
Like cosmetic surgeons, we cut upon the trees
Twelve syllables for a first line.
Slimming their trunks in a misty breeze
Nine for the second.
No arms need they, nor joints of knees
Eight for the third.
And while they lie, uniform, as like as each other, we take our ease.
Seventeen for the fourth.
I wrote "12, 9, 8, 17" on the inside of my left wrist with a ballpoint pen, in case I was inspired during school to add a second stanza to the poem, which was unlikely, as I knew there would be a good bit to catch up on, and little slack time.
Nita dropped us off in front of the school complex in the cold and foggy morning. Michel and Kelsa screamed, "Rachel!" and ran forward to meet her where she had been standing by the front gate. Marca jogged ahead, too, while Oesha and I ambled towards her at a more sedate pace.
"Oh, they're just too stupid to duck," Marca was explaining about the weals and cuts on Michel's and my faces. "They didn't get nearly the beatings they deserved."
"Marca just gnawed through the branches before they could hit her," Michel said. "In action she is like one of the city chipping machines. Have you ever met any of the members of their opposing soccer teams? No, well, there it is. That's how they win."
"Petaluma High Tartare," agreed Oesha. "Rachel, good to see you again! Did you have power?"
"Yes, it only went out for a couple hours! I kept going down to the road and looking at the flood and wondering if you were all right -- there are so many poles down in the water!"
"Fortunately, our Grandmother Claire is part penguin on her mother's side," I put in. "We loved bathing in icy spring water and eating cold, raw fish, and the darkness of the Antarctic night is soothing."
Rachel laughed loudly. "Missed you guys!"
We entered the stony gates of the school complex, Michel and Kelsa shearing off to their buildings, the rest of us to ours. Having seen Rachel smile into my eyes and reach up a hand to tentatively touch the scrape across my face had gone a long way towards healing the miserable cold and dark of the past week.
"People don't talk like this," my English teacher said.
I stood beside her desk as she thumbed through my short story from before Fall Break. The assignment had been for students to write a short story based on the people in their family, absolutely totally fictitious, mind you, but based upon real people. I'd written a fiction based upon my aunts, in which they found themselves in possession of a bottle of Trebbiano wine, stolen from the kitchen, and how they disposed of it, feeling the need to accompany it with savory hors d' oeuvres, which they also had to steal from the chef's stores. Wicked and resourceful, the aunts in the story sneak to the door of the room of the grandmother of the house, and put their bottle and dishes onto the tray the grandmother has left in the hall; the chef will not raise an outcry against the aging grandmother, and the wicked aunts pledge to try the same stunt in the near future. The theme was not that crime did not pay, but that in the short term, crime disguised as entertainment was a virtual snare for the unprincipled.
My English teacher was tapping the sentences with her pencil that said, "Shirley put a hand back to keep Anne from barging through the door with the empty plates and bottle. 'Wait,' she said. 'Let's see if your ubiquitous house-staff is patrolling the halls.' She peered around the doorjamb before signaling Anne to come ahead."
"No one uses the word 'ubiquitous'."
"Oh," I mumbled.
"Have you ever, in your life, heard anyone use the word 'ubiquitous' in a sentence? Owen, I know you have a great vocabulary, but really ... "
"Only my mother and my Aunt Sully."
The teacher's eyelids lowered in annoyance. "Give me three examples."
I took a moment to recall words. "Aunt Sully said, 'I can't stand shopping in malls with their ubiquitous stench of overdone perfumes, so I do most of my shopping online.' And then there was my mother saying, 'No matter whether I am at the office or in my dining room, ubiquitous sycophants are constantly trying to climb up my pantleg, currying favors I have no power or inclination to give.' And I remember Aunt Sully complaining about the 'ubiquitous trend of female pop stars showing their armpits on the covers of popular magazines.'"
Her lower jaw moved to give her a false underbite, showing greater annoyance still. "You should be taking the vocabulary of your readers into account."
I should have said, "Yes, thank you, I'll do that in the future," but instead, my mouth blurted, "So I really shouldn't base this assignment on real people, but only people imagined by some semi-literate ... " I realized my faux pas at that point and shut up.
How I hated school. "I'll remember not to use unusual words from now on," I told her.
Pressing her lips together, she nodded. "Keep your characters true to their sources, and don't try to show off when you write. I know you can do better, Owen. I want you to do better. Here's your story. We're going to be studying Dickens' A Christmas Carol for the next few weeks. I want you to look at how Dickens' characters speak, and how they really seem to come alive."
"Okay, I'll do that. Thank you." I escaped from the room with my face blushing red with irritation, knowing that pointing out 'unusual words' in Dickens' work would only get me in deeper trouble. Vocabulary was only to be moderated by the teacher, as extensive vocabulary was obviously a sign of some unhealthy sedition or an elitist movement.
My story had been well-written, I was sure. I had run it past both Aunt Sully and Uncle Bodie before I handed it in. Neither had had a problem with vocabulary or story line. Both had admonished me to make sure that I called it fiction.
Of course, the word 'admonished' would also have been called into suspect had I used it in the composition. Perhaps I should have further scandalized the teacher by including the words "transit" and "wherewithal."
A study hall followed that class, and I wasted it by penning notes for a new story, a horror genre story, using a special symbol to represent her name, a story in which the monster (see special symbol) sucks out the creative spirit of people in order to stay alive. A kind of vampire, as it were. But this vampire is commended by the school board for keeping classes homogenous. In the end, the monster is employed to raise the school's ratings in grade level averages by draining and burying failing students; however, the vampire raids a drunken underage party, swills down too many drunken students, and is arrested by the police in the wee hours of the morning, having lost track of time under the influence of alcohol and ecstasy in the imbibed spirits. Muttering quotes from Dickens and Hemingway, the monster is locked in a room on the psychiatric floor of the hospital. Without the creative juices to feed upon, Special Symbol becomes desperate, leaps upon the attending physician, fills up on Jungian archetypes, and makes an escape from the hospital in the physician's clothing and badge...
"Owen!" A voice hissed at me, making me jump and drop my pencil. It was a girl from my English class, Janet Merck or Moritz or something. I picked the pencil up from the floor, and closed my notebook on my writing, from long habit.
"Are you working on an English assignment?" she whispered.
"Not exactly, more of a corollary project in independent study."
"God, no wonder you get A's. I don't even know what that means."
Immediately I knew I would include Janet in the story, as the result of the vampire's perfidious actions. There was not a chance of me explaining what I meant, as had I said, "I'm writing a story," the news would have spread and I would have had my notebook wrested from me by a student mob only too happy to find an excuse to burn me at the stake. I stuffed the notebook under my geometry text, opening to today's lesson and its attendant list of the day's assignment. "It means the teacher is making sure I write another two thousand words or so pertaining to the last essay we had, and its concomitant results."
Janet giggled. "See, if you do all the work, they just turn around and give you more. Hey, are you and Rachel Owen going together?"
"To where?" I asked, wishing she would just leave me alone.
"You know what I mean," she said. Her eyes got a hard look, as though I was not allowed to tell her to mind her own business without expecting some kind of reprisal.
I pulled open the pocket of my shirt and peered down into it. "Nothing in there of any help." Rummaging in the right pocket of my jeans, I found three quarters and a small wad of lint. I put them on the desk in front of me. I sighed. "Janet, you have the investigatory powers of the greatest sleuths known to humanity. What you see before you is Rachel's dowry. She has bought my affection and my troth."
"For seventy-five cents?" She jeered.
"No." I shook my head, and pocketed the quarters. "Those are from my allowance. But she gave me this lint. Would you like to take it and show your friends? I'm sure they would be in awe." I picked the wad up and held it out to her.
"You're a gross asshole," she said, and with a reddened face, turned away from me.
On a page torn from my notebook, I enshrined the lint on it, drew a circle around it with a pen, and then drew hearts all around it. While the Betrothal Fuzz occupied the front of my desk, Janet would not look at me. I finished the geometry assignment by the time the next bell rang.
The bus was late, and a crowd of students was milling around on the sidewalk. "Rachel," I said, joining her, "I have to confess to you that I have announced our engagement."
"What?" she shouted.
I related to her the events of study hall, and showed her the bluish wad of lint. She laughed hard enough to have to put her backpack down and hold her sides. My sisters and brother joined us, questioning, so we told them the story of the day.
"Owen, you're an idiot," pronounced Oesha.
"When I find someone I like, I'm not going to offer him lint," Kelsa said. "But you're right, we have to think about the future. I'm going to start saving up my split ends."
Michel began to snicker, but was quiet. Marca poked him rudely on the shoulder. "You say one word about my booger collection, and I'll bash you into a grease spot on the sidewalk. Mock me now, but I'm going to marry into really good family some day."
All of us screamed with laughter, not only at the joke, but that Marca was willing to join in.
The bus pulled up, and Rachel walked toward it, with us accompanying her until Nita should get there with the van.
"It's like in the old days," Kelsa said. "Aunt Sully told us that her grandmother used to collect strings and make them into a big ball."
"For what?" Rachel pondered. "From what? Where'd she get the string?"
"Stuff they got from the store used to be wrapped in paper and tied with string. She said her dad remembered that's how they got string for kites and for fishing. And for making stuff."
"Big ball of string," I mused. "So now we know what entranced our great-grandfather.
"Yes," Michel said solemnly. "How the times have changed. Now it's lint."
"Turned my head."
"See you tomorrow? Check your mail if the road gets opened," Rachel bounced off to the bus.
"You know what bugs me, Owen?" Marca muttered as we milled about on the sidewalk, waiting for Nita and the van.
"I like her. I like her enough that I'd like her even if she didn't like you."
"You don't like me, my dear sister. Perhaps if she didn't like me, you'd like her all the more."
"Just warning you. I think she could be a friend even if she wasn't your girlfriend."
"Marca," I sputtered, "why the hell is it that none of the known world can believe she's not my girlfriend? She's not my girlfriend. She's a friend! Is that so freakish?"
"You're gay?" asked a blubber-gutted football junior from behind my elder sisters.
"Why don't you shut the hell up before I break your nose?" Marca snarled at him. "Mind your own fatass business!"
The other four of us froze in momentary terror, but the fatass backed up and held his hands up in defense of his face. Apparently Marca's elementary school exploits had only grown in legend over the years. I appreciated her verve, but knew that in the days to come, I would be saddled with a new sexual orientation based upon gossip and reaction. Just what I needed.
The intimidated fatass got into a waiting pickup truck without another word.
"Thank you all for your support, and please keep up the good work. Next week the school community will most likely be abuzz because I will be an underage victim of a goat rape."
Michel scratched his chin as though he might be about to grow hair and said, "Well, in order to make it factual, we have to know, were you raped by a goat, or did a you drug an older goat in order to make it succumb to your dirty desires?"
I refused to answer, preferring to mentally prepare for planning some perfidy upon him.