It was the tallest of the three, Joseph Neff, who called it an “Irish Car Bomb.” He, followed by Benny Rootling and Gordon Flanks, burst into First Lunch, giggling. Mrs. Matter, today’s lunch monitor, shushed them as they took their table near the dessert shelf, each in his favorite spot-teenagers are creatures of habit didn’t you know?
Watching them (their thin legs snug inside skinny jeans and as their “vintage” tees draped loosely over their hollow chests) I realized that they never seem to eat anything. Instead, they primp. They comb their hair until every strand sits perfectly and file their nails with pink emery boards, careful with every motion. Last year around Homecoming they began to suck on rainbow Tootsie Pops, dozens of them bought from some gay pride website. Principle Gamble banned the things after Mrs. Theroux (our timid, mouse-like Geometry teacher, known for her terrible pre-test inspirational quotes- the most cringe-worthy I can recall being “Once you choose hope, anything is possible!” by Christopher Reeve) asked what flavor they were.
“Well…” Benny (with a grin that complimented his ladylike features- his thin, dainty nose and narrow, plucked eyebrows) took the sucker out of his mouth and studied it, “it tastes…uncircumcised.”
I grimaced, shooing the memory away as if it were a swarm of flies, somewhat ashamed. I like to think of myself as a progressive. My end of term speech in U.S. Government was in defense of gay marriage, much to the annoyance of Mrs. Wagner, the class instructor, and the faculty’s Christian Fellowship Club’s sponsor. Still, the thought of a boy kissing a boy trips my gag reflex. Anything beyond that and I’m struck with the heavy nausea only found on storm-tossed crab boats, or turbulence rocked transatlantic flights. I’ll be sure to bring a barf bag if I ever visit San Francisco.
I looked ahead; Pen and June were still in line, all of us standing before the cafeteria’s peeling Charlie Brown food pyramid mural, waiting to be served spaghetti and green peas. Joseph’s laughter (a shrill, feminine squeal) drowned in a sea of two-hundred other teenage noisemakers and one familiar, high-pitched squawk. Pen was in a mood.
“This sucks!” She was complaining about Mrs. Mamaril, an act that seems as much a part of her lunch break routine as griping about the lack of strawberry milk or recounting the previous day’s choir practice. “I mean holy crap! Now she thinks she’s a English teacher!”
I attempted to appear sympathetic-working my minuscule face muscles into a frown. The effect wasn’t quite what I’d hoped for. Pen winced, looking as if she’d seen a thumb sticking out of my forehead.
“You’ll be fine,” I added. Perhaps I should speak lies instead of showing them.
Yesterday, Pen turned in a particularly bad, error-ridden report on Crohn’s Disease, and today it was returned with a bright red “D-” sprawled near its title. Adding a kick in the stomach to an already bruised ego, Mrs. M carefully marked every grammatical and punctuation error, every run on sentence and dangling participle, with more red ink. The three pages of plain white copy stock looked like a mob hit.
“An English teacher.” June corrected, though her mind was elsewhere. She eyed the line snaking ahead of us, hoping to see that Mrs. Fink (a bloated black woman known for pitying free-lunch kids and giving them extra helpings) was our server. Spaghetti Friday is one of June’s favorite days on the West Greenville School Lunch calendar. Others include Macaroni Pie Day, the second Tuesday of the month; and Roast Beef Day, either the first or third Monday but I can’t remember which. I could ask June (she keeps a copy of the schedule taped to the back of her AP Biology binder with each day annotated with either a smile or frown depending) but it hardly matters. She usually ends up eating both my entrée and side dish, but I defend my 2% with my life. Calcium is a girl’s best friend.
“She may let you do some extra credit,” I said, though the thought of Pen giving an extra ounce of effort to school work seemed as likely as finding water on the Moon. The girl only cares enough to complain. “Mrs. M is good like that.”
“I don’t do extra credit.” Pen sneered. She looked past me to June, hoping for a wingman. But all she found was contempt-a leer that could shape rough diamonds. “Well, mi amigo?”
“You’re lazy,” June grunted, spewing aggravation that could only mean one thing. I looked past her and spotted Ms. Valentine mechanically scooping small, even portions of noodle and sauce onto a student’s plate. If I’d been paying attention, I’m sure I could’ve heard June’s heart hit the floor. And by the look on her Latina face, the slit frown and narrow Korean eyes, that lost hope has been replaced by three pounds of anger. “Why don’t you try at anything? It isn’t hard, just takes balls, huevos. And not big ones either.”
Pen eyed her for a moment, a mangy stray in the headlights, unsure which direction to run. It’s only occasionally that you see fear or genuine hurt in the girl’s eyes. Disgust, irritation, self-pity, and occasional glee are her factory settings. For anything else, you have to get inside and play with the wiring.
“What, no snappy comeback?” June cupped a fat hand over her left ear and leaned in. For all her rough and weathered exterior (poverty has worked June P. Rodriguez over like a bare-knuckle boxer), the girl cares about her grades and nurses her perfect 4.0 GPA as if it were a hungry newborn suckling at one of her huge brown tits. She even received a quarter page blurb in last year’s annual, squaring off a portion of the “Big Brain” section (usually dominated by upper-middle-class whites from Leave It to Beaver families) for herself.
“I do try.” Pen’s words, her slumped shoulders, and downcast eyes, couldn’t fool a blind man. She only wants sympathy the same way a fat man only wants a Tums after his fifth slice of pizza. The girl lives in afterthoughts, ocean wide and ankle deep. “It’s hard.”
June eyed her for a moment, her nose wrinkling in a way that made me want to check my shoes for dog poop. She went to speak but didn’t, catching a bitter adjective an instant before it escaped and swallowing it back down again. Recently, she’s made an extra effort at being cordial, biting her tongue in a way that I’m sure has drawn blood on occasion. Its good to see Grace’s character rubbing off on her. I’ll have to commend them both later.
“What?” Pen asked. She crossed her arms over her chest, defiant as a toddler. It’s funny to think that if her own GPA-last May it was a pitiful 1.7-were a child, it’d be emaciated and covered with both mysterious bruises and the occasional cigarette burn. “Well?”
“I’ll help you out,” I said. Regret suddenly gripped me like angina, squeezing my chest, causing my heart to skip a beat or two. The thought of late nights correcting Pen’s papers while my own require at least ten revisions each to be presentable made my stomach turn. Why help someone who won’t help themselves? This may be June rubbing off on me, or perhaps it’s just my own laziness rearing its ugly. freckled face. “Really, I’m good with reports.” I cringed, fighting the urge to shove my fist in my mouth. For me, kind words are like laugh-farts, there’s no holding them in.
Horrified, I watched Pen’s face lighten. A mischievous smirk crossed the lips where moments before a pencil-thin frown had been. But as she went to speak, she froze, her tongue poised with selfish thoughts.
“What?” I asked.
Her face wrinkled, her cheeks flushing the colour of maraschino cherries. Slowly, her lip parted into a wide yawn, exposing several unfilled cavities. I thought she was about to sneeze.
Looking back now, close to six hours later, it was the smell (that deep, acrid stink pulled from the full bladders and active glands of doe in heat) that saved me. If I hadn’t spent the next hour dry heaving, upchucking air instead of what would’ve been belly warmed 2% had the smell hit us three minutes later, I would’ve thanked Joseph Neff and the others for keeping Pen from jumping at my offer. When rendered an inch, she takes the proverbial mile, and I’m no Indian giver.
“God!” Pen doubled over, covering her mouth and nose with both of her small, white hands. Fear of a brain aneurysm blossomed rose red in my mind, and I half expected to see crimson dripping from between her fingers. Once, when I was seven or eight, I saw a documentary about a girl left retarded after a foul ball struck her temple, bursting a blood vessel. “Jezzz!”
“What?” The word slipped out just as the stench entered my nostrils, striking my olfactory receptors with the force of an open palm slap. “Ugh…”
Pen and June stumbled back (their faces twisting with disgust, June’s eyes bugged in a wild, rabid way) while I stood still. Some instinct opened my mouth, pulling in tentative breaths. The taste was sour and raw. Mrs. Matter, a handful of napkins pressed to her nose, ran to the nearest window. She began tugging on the rusty latch. “Help me!”
I looked at her for a moment, the brown hair and eyes, the breasts too perfect for any girl not to envy or boy not to want. And she’s proportional also, thin where it matters and curvy where it shines. At the seeming dinosaur age of thirty-four boys still clamor to enroll in her chemistry classes. But at that moment, her voice (its high womanly pitch muffled by napkins) sounded deep and masculine. Dizzy, I wondered if she’d recently sprouted a beard and Adam’s apple and I just hadn’t noticed for the past month, if gender is as fluid as some say it is.
“Now, Mable!” Mrs. Matter pulled at the rusty latch one-handed, her fingers white with effort.
I turned and began working the window behind me, scraping my knuckles on the impossibly small handle. “Little f*****…” I mumbled, biting my bottom lip. It budged a half-inch.
Several boys, each with the black and red ball cap and wavy Bieberish hair of a West Greenville jock, reached the windows on either side of me. For them (each slim and toned, the happy product of an overfunded athletic program-screw the arts right?) the quarter inch panes complied quickly. Around me, windows slid closed in a way that made me briefly reconsider my sedentary life, those lazy afternoons devouring Stephen King and Flannery O’Connor and J.K. Rowling. Should I lose the weight and tryout for softball next Spring? Is a fifth rereading of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban worth atrophied muscles and a heavy body the consistency of Play-Doh? My brain, that three pounds of grey matter that reminds me to brush my teeth and to set the parking brake, hurt for a moment. The answer it conjured was vague-Maybe?
From my peripherals I watched the black caps move to other windows, taking the stink of testosterone (or was it criminal amounts of Polo and Nautica?) with them. This smell mixed with the odor that still poured through my window (yes, it will forever be my window- tragedy creates strange bonds doesn’t it?), forming an impossible stink that stung my eyes.
“Move,” I wiped away tears and worked harder. My blood-a generous amount of A+- first slicked the handle then congealed, becoming a protein-based adhesive that gave me a slim ray of hope. “Now-” With one last, painful tug the window slammed down with near hydraulic force. It almost cost me several fingertips.
I turned to Mrs. Matter, waiting for approval-a kind, encouraging word, a thank you. I’m external like that, ever needy, ever wanting, a quirk that’s both my greatest strength and weakness. I am an honor roll student didn’t you know? Give me a nod, and I’ll blush and give you a smile and a giggle.
“Go!” She grunted, her voice several decibels below that of a foghorn. She had the desperate look of a battered wife. Her eyes were red and puffy, and somehow she’d lost a fingernail. She was still working on her first window, and her bloody fingerprints spotted the glass. “Hurry!”
Left with a feeling close to hunger, more like abandonment, I braced myself for the certainty of more damaged digits. But the next window (which those oh so tough boys skipped because it was stained with a sticky something the color of blueberries) slid home in one smooth, delightful motion. “Good girl,” I whispered, suddenly feeling an absurd amount of affection for thirty pounds of plate-glass and aluminum.
“Let them take care of the rest,” Mrs. Matter said, her voice returned to it’s acute, nails-on-chalkboard timbre. She exhaled, looking ready to faint as she pressed the napkins (there must’ve been eight of them) around her left ring finger. Blood seeped through like red dye. Behind her, the red speckled window was sealed shut. “They can have them.”
I listened as the last of what seemed like a hundred windows (later I counted them at twenty-four) thumped shut. June and Pen returned; their eyes were clear, but their faces appeared pinched like they would in a funhouse mirror, like they’d spent the last five minutes sucking on lemons.
“Well?” I asked, rubbing my eyes.
“Well, what?” June snorted. She studied my window, then eyed my bleeding hands. Was that respect I saw in her eyes? “You look f***** up.”
“That’s got to be a sewer line,” Pen said. She took a seat at the nearest table, one still covered with lunch trays of half-eaten spaghetti. The milk cartons (most still unopened, their smiling cow emblems taunting us with poked out tongues) sweated, just like you’d think they would. “I can taste it.”
Mrs. Matter was soon on the Red Phone squawking at Principle Gamble. The Red Phone, an old rotary type placed beside the emergency exit and protected by a clear plastic box, was only for “active shooter” situations, but the words Mrs. Matter was using- “gas line” and “possible rupture”- seemed as loud as the cracks of any pistol. “I need to talk to him! Now Jenny!”
Listening to her bellow at old Jenny Huddle, Mr. Gamble’s secretary, the world finally settled into focus. Memories of CSI and NCIS reruns blurred my vision, and questions sparked in my mind like live wires. Why did we close the windows if there’s gas? Explosions are about pressure, aren’t they? Shouldn’t we be outside?
I looked around, studying reactions.
Some students (pets like Marisha Deville and Jane Krause) hovered around Mrs. Matter. They weighed the possibilities of fiery death, discussing the combustibility of natural gas in the presence of overhead fluorescent lights and hot power outlets. Most others only sat listlessly, rubbing their eyes and playing on their phones. They were reminiscent of the forgettable minor characters of some horror novel (Stephen King’s The Mist came to mind-his shorter works are his best), each waiting to either be rescued or consumed by some hungry pterodactyl-like creature. Nobody touched their food.
“Yes, I’m sure it’s gas!” Mrs. Matter’s words spilled into each other. She curled the phone’s cord (which was absurdly long, the kind Grandma Mimi has because she can’t keep track of any of the wireless handsets Aunt Kat buys her) around her thin wrists. “Please-” Fear, as striking as the stench we’d just shut out and just as unwelcome, entered her voice. I watched her shift from foot to foot, twisting her hands together, peeking around as if every student- there must’ve been two-hundred of us- was a sharp-toothed, long mauled creature ready to devour her.
It occurred to me then (like a flashbulb going off, forming a mental image to file away for future reference) that the majority of adults don’t have a clue about most things. Kids are clueless about everything. During Pre-school I actually believed a giant was living in our backyard playhouse. I named him Charlie, and every night I would read him a story-Oh, The Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss being a favorite- and leave a ham sandwich and a can of Sprite on the back steps. I know now that Butch, the neighborhood stray, was eating the sandwiches. But adults are hardly any better; it’s just that they have a few more years to specialize. Vindication, for them, comes in paper form, both as a diploma to hang on the wall and a paycheck to pay the light bill with.
Resentment bubbled in me. Mrs. Matter and I have a past, even if it’s just me who thinks so. Once, I marveled as she lectured my class about the wonders of the element copernicium. With shining, fan-girl eyes she squeaked out words like “high radioactivity” and “extreme density” as if they were the most enduring qualities any substance, man-made or otherwise, could possess. Apparently, copernicium is the parodic table’s equivalent to Humphrey Bogart in a trench coat and fedora, mischief in his eyes and a Lucky Strike dangling between his thin, dangerous lips. Starry-eyed, I briefly considered the exciting life of an industrial chemist.
Sure, you could work for DuPont, Mrs. Matter said to me after class, appearing young and beautiful and confident. This was during Chemistry I when I was a lonely school experiment: the first Freshman in a class reserved for Juniors and Seniors. She placed her hand over my fat shoulder and squeezed, We need more female scientists, and your grades are excellent.
That night I sat in front my bedroom mirror, pulled my hair up, and attempted to recreate her beautiful braided bun. My fingers worked slowly, often cramping. After two hours I gave up and moped. The Tonight Show came on with pouty-faced Gwyneth Paltrow as the main guest. My mood only lightened when a grinning Robert Downey Jr. made a surprise visit. I was glad neither could see the catastrophe of red tangles my head had become.
Two days later I was heartbroken to watch Mrs. Matter pace the teacher’s parking lot, helpless as Coach Little changed her flat tire. She twisted her hands together then too, seemingly forgetting that those same hands, slim and very pale, would occasionally hold homemade model atoms, each only a confusing mass of red and green gumballs before she explained the differences between protons and neutrons and delved deep into the strange world of ions and the mysteries of the electron cloud.
Other things-her hidden peculiarities that few others noticed- soon began playing on my nerves. There was the bottle of laxatives (Pedia-Lax tablets, the dieting girl’s best friend) she kept in her top desk drawer, ones she chewed like Sweetarts as she taught. It burned me the way she always caught her reflection in windows and mirrors, invariably adjusting her hair, patting down any loose strands. And she’d flirt too, with Coach Gillis, batting her eyes at him while his wife struggled to corral their three kids into a ratty looking Isuzu Rodeo.
It’s not gas. I thought. My certainty would’ve made Elizabeth Stanton and Gloria Steinem proud. That’s not the right smell. Not even close. Mrs. Matter’s voice pawed at my ears, leaving bloodless lacerations of annoyance. I looked her over one last time, studying the quivering pink lips and pale cheeks. Her nails were painted light blue, and at one time in her life, she’d made the mistake of getting a small nautical star tattoo in the nape of her left thumb and forefinger. Why don’t you get it together?
I took a seat beside Pen and waited.
Seconds built to minutes, and minutes to a quarter hour. The rest of First Lunch (mostly 9th Graders gaggled together, their conversations somewhere between meaningless junior high palaver and angst-ridden high school melodrama) shifted impatiently, waiting for Principle Gamble’s promised “all clear.” Some eyed the cobweb-covered intercom intently, biting fingernails and checking their phones for the time. A few slept. Others drifted in strange daydreams. Everyone breathed through their mouths.
June snoozed, her fat head resting flat on the lunch table, a small pool of drool forming at her mouth. Pen leaned against her side, scrolling through her Facebook. Now and then she’d laugh or whisper to herself, shaking her head in a way that was almost sweet.
The two made up from earlier with apologies were dished out in their ordinary way. June asked about the time, Pen gave it and mentioned the weather and, of course, the smell. Theirs is a strange love affair. Injures between them are like paper cuts-momentarily overwhelming yet quickly forgotten.
I looked outside. Through the slanted, watery pane the late morning sun was a dinner plate rising high behind a thin curtain of grey clouds. Everything was the dreamlike hue of very old photographs, the snapshots in my parent’s yearbooks and childhood photo albums. Here’s Mom graduating the Second grade-note her smile, a sweet, hopeful smirk that’s gone the way of the dodo and the Yangtze river dolphin. And there’s Dad at his fifth birthday party, his face red with tears. A clown-a dead ringer for John Wayne Gacy with his crimson lips and ragged nightcap tipped with a black pom-pom- mocks him with a grotesque pantomime.
“Mr. Jones’ out there,” I whispered or perhaps thought- I don’t remember which. Our janitor, who must be considered expendable, strolled between the buildings, checking the gas connections. “He seems bored.”
Someone somewhere laughed. It was Joseph Neff. With the rest of the cafeteria quite his girlish cackle gained resonance. It echoed off the Charlie Brown mural and bounced between the cafeteria walls, becoming a heavy bark that seemed almost masculine. You’d thought he was laughing into an empty barrel.
I looked past Mr. Jones (he was as indifferent to his odd task as he was when trimming the school’s hedges or plunging a tampon out of a girl’s restroom toilet) and into the Senior-Junior parking lot. My van still sat in it’s assigned space, just across from a scratch-built plywood billboard that reminded students to “Buckle-Up!” Underneath it was the photo of student (a Junior from three years ago, his name was Marty Banks) who hadn’t. Two vehicles down was Bitch, Maxwell’s orange Saratoga. She looked forlorn with her missing hubcaps and varied paint job. The hood and passenger side front door were the same primer grey they’d been since Grunge was still big.
I rubbed the water from my eyes and squinted. Bitch’s cab was fogged over, like a bottle of cold coke opened in a warm room, and the black garbage bag Maxwell used to cover the passenger rear window was torn open. An oily vapor poured out from the tear like smoke from a lit cigarette. Several blackbirds were already settling on the hood, appearing hungry but patient.
During study hall, after Mr. Janda stepped out to refill his Greatest Grandpa coffee mug, the phrase “Irish Car Bomb” began floating around. Joseph and Wally Vinson-sitting underneath a massive, wall-mounted tube TV that once broadcast the 9-11 attacks and Columbine Massacre-used the words like two infomercial host desperate to sell food dehydrators, turning it sing-song, lyrical.
“But that’s a drink.” Someone-Martina Headgepath maybe with her frosted tips and contrary nature-said. “I’ve had one.”
Within moments, a half-dozen iPhones appeared, and soon daydreams of the bomb shot tickled the minds of thirty curious teenagers. The recipe is simple: a pint of Guinness stout with a shot of Bailey’s Irish Cream and Jamison dropped in. Everyone’s salivary glands, including my own, buzzed to fruitless life. Several people pulled out energy drinks, and someone passed around a bag of Jolly Ranchers.
“It can be two things,” Joseph said, almost out-of-hand. He sucked on a cherry flavored Rancher, pleased with himself in a way that was both magnetic and repulsive. “It can be anything I want it to be.”