A journal of narrative writing.

Once the first morning had come and he'd put on top-to-bottom new things and made his hair a Vitalis perfection and set out walking toward the gas station where the bus would stop, Ed Randall buzzed with a hunger nothing brought but school. He loved the smells, the rituals and hierarchies, the fat clocks, the books - dog-eared readers, each with a list of names and years inside the front cover, social studies books with slick color maps and charts and diagrams, math books so new from the press some of the pages had to be pulled apart. "My Eddie's just a big old bookworm," his grandmother chuckled whenever he showed her an encyclopedia article or one of the almanacs he pored over, amazed at the symmetry, the exotic measurements, the vast quantities of goods exported, imported, piled up as garbage, the lists of dates, points scored, elections won and lost, the names of those who'd done things and when and how well.

He stood apart from the others, kids he'd known all his life, and except for Frank Ruberti's "Yo, Professor," they ignored him, intent on slap-punching and hair-combing and urinating against the rusted-out oil tank in back of the gas station. When the bus came, he was first on, smack in the noise, wedged in a window seat, clasping and unclasping the buckle of the empty briefcase his mother called a valise, a worn, heavy thing a great-uncle had used - pipe, tobacco and lunch in one compartment and whatever an accountant needed in the other. "It looks like you're the family professional, young man," his mother had said as she presented it to him after dinner one night late that summer. "Uncle Al would want this put to good use. Take care of it and it'll last you thirty years, too."

As the bus squealed to a halt at the next stop, Ed opened the briefcase and breathed the aroma of old leather and pipe smoke, remembering what little he could of the one time he'd met the old man, a baggy figure sunk in an armchair, blinking uncontrollably, fuming away on his pipe, waving off food and drink and conversation. Soon he would fill the briefcase with his own papers, hard work well done. He imagined puffing one of Uncle Al's pipes and wondered if his mother had hidden them away for him, too. She made sure everything that meant something got kept till the right time came to pass it down.

His time had come, that he knew for sure. High school at last. No more metal shop or wood shop or mechanical drawing, no more vo-tech anything ever again. He was A-Track, tested, ranked, and ready, ROTC and jet fighters straight ahead, Ace Randall, oh yeah.

The bus rattled along. As each new bunch of kids climbed aboard, Ed waved to the ones he knew and noticed how many he didn't. The route was as unfamiliar as most of the faces, and soon he gave up trying to figure out how they would get where they were going, instead noting what was new and adjusting to this new angle on what wasn't, speculating all the while about what went on in the places they passed. They stopped in front of split-levels in the brand-new subdivision, all sloping lawns and little trees and no sidewalks. They stopped at apartment buildings plunked along the state highway among car dealerships, custard stands, gas stations, diners, places selling carpeting or windows. They picked up every high-schooler in the War Blocks, streets full of identical cement-block cubes with metal awnings over the front doors, home now mostly to riffraff, not the veterans who, according to his parents, got something decent as soon as they were back on their feet, and that was a long time ago.

After they had looped into the countryside to pick up one collection of kids from the chicken farms and another from a trailer court carved out of one end of a cornfield, the bus jounced back into town, swaying at last up the freshly tarred drive of Clementon High. Even before the driver yelled "Everybody off!" as he levered the door open, the whole busload had risen and begun crowding toward the front.

Ed stood up, patting his shirt pocket to make sure his schedule card remained there. Another bus pulled up behind them, its door swinging open and kids spilling out, his best friend Turk among them. Ed stepped into the aisle and pressed toward the door, grabbing the silver post by the front seat and swinging himself down the steps when the way cleared. Turk called "Hey, Brainiac!" and jostled over, all up-to-the-minute style - red hair bushed out, flared pants with fat stripes, desert boots. They slapped hands and bumped shoulders in greeting, compared schedules, yelling to be heard, lunch the same period, same math class, good deal, later, quit-using-that-hair-grease-you-hopeless-dork, quit-calling-me-Brainiac-you-fluorescent-freak.

Then he was moving down the gleaming hallways, lockers banging open and shut, squeals and shouts echoing, him looking up at the numbers over each doorway till one matched the 216 printed on the schedule card he clutched in his free hand. "Art" was stenciled in fresh yellow paint on the door, and as he pushed through it, he smelled wet clay and tempera and the waxed floorboards creaking under the milling crowd of ninth-graders. Face shining, voice squeaky as a cartoon bird's, a blonde woman shaped like a barrel waved her arms about, which somehow helped her new charges find their proper places - him too, sliding onto a stool in front of a slanted desk.

When the girl sitting in front of him spun around, hair bouncing, laughter pealing, everything inside him shivered. Words tumbled from his mouth. She nodded and giggled, made faces, smiled. His own laughter skittered out into the bright, new world, and in this way the two of them hid inside the happy chaos before the first bell rang.

The room quieted, the teacher called roll, and the girl had a name: Olga. Olga Poduslenko. He'd left home slicked-down and scrubbed and black-and-white and had walked into a cartoon all jaunty color and wisecracks. He was Top Cat, imagine that, jammed to the eyeballs with sensation, yet hollow, space-walking outside his own body, each breath filled with invisible, razor-sharp snowflakes.

Thinking back on things later, Ed couldn't tell how long this time had lasted, the time when no plans had to be made, no future mapped out, no answers nailed to one another once and for all. He would try and fail to draw imaginary lines around it, establish the date and hour of every secret word or glance Olga gave him, the precise tone and rhythm of every last thing he'd said to make her laughter pour out.

But for however long their time went on, he'd walk in and see Olga already at her desk, big smile when she saw him and for all the sunny hours it took to reach his seat. She'd grasp her stool with both hands and rock side to side as he said things he forgot as soon as they left his mouth, but everything he said delighted her, and he watched her, smelled her, saw her blouse crumple and smooth as she moved, her skirt barely hiding her knees. They had homeroom and three classes together, the luck of the alphabet placing her in front of him four times a day. When she wore white he could see the tone of her skin, her backbone pushing against the cloth as she bent over her desk. When she wore the turtleneck the precise color of her hair, the translucent strands seemed almost unreal. When she wrote, she lay her head in her left hand, sometimes absently rubbing her earlobe. She held her pencil halfway up the shaft, the script so feathery he had to ask what certain passages said in the notes she slipped him four or five times a day. Walking from one class to the next, they talked nonstop about things he couldn't recall later, but he loved having forgotten, loved the heat in his belly the forgetting left behind.

At home and on the bus, between classes and inside them, eating and falling asleep and waking to the gray light coming through his window, he mouthed her name, paying attention and taking notes and answering questions things some other Ed did; even in geometry, his favorite class, Mr. Jordan booming through a proof or praising the glories of the Word of the Day, everyone well-rounded in his class, two boys seized with love in the third seat, fourth row, one inscribing the beautiful logic, operating the compass and ruler, the other and better one filled with a name.

One October morning, Ed stood talking with Olga at a window in Mr. Jordan's room, neither paying attention to the banging roar out in the hallway, their classmates dropping books on desks, a clump of them oohing over the latest Rolling Stones single, another group playing a quick game of Spit in the corner. As they spoke, they looked at the oak trees lining the sidewalk in front of the school, remarking how the leaves had begun to turn and how big the red squirrels rummaging near the trunks and scooting along the lower branches. Ed puffed his chest out and thumped it, saying how terrific a walk in the woods would be on a day like this, back behind his house to the sand pit where as a little kid he'd sat on his father's shoulders watching a back hoe dump loads of dirt into trucks that rumbled off to where their house stood now, tons of earth turning swamp to yard. Ed loved to take Mike back there to root in the underbrush and fetch sticks and pine cones and investigate the place where briars grew so huge they hung from the pines, and if Olga came over she'd love to go back there, too, and would know why everybody who met Mike wished there were more dogs like him. Olga folded her arms against the chill breeze coming through the window and leaned toward him, ducked her head, brushed his arm with her shoulder. "My father won't let me come over, Eddie, I already told you."

"I know, but can't you bug him about it?"

"Maybe in a little while. He's still getting used to us talking on the phone."

"Talking? We can barely say 'Hi' in the ten minutes he gives you. He's worse than my parents, and that's saying something." She looked away, tucking her hair behind her ear. He tried to tickle her and she moved away, forcing herself to frown, grabbing his wrist to stop him. "OK," he said, catching her gaze and holding it, "but I'm going to keep trying, even if it means learning Russian so your dad and I can talk about Russian football or whatever he talks about when he's not keeping you off the phone." She giggled and waved him off as the bell sounded.

As he slid behind his desk, Turk strolled in the room and over to where Ed sat, nodded to Olga, and said, "Ace. Hoops. Valley Avenue. Be there."

"Can't tonight, man. Too much homework."

Turk smirked, glancing again at Olga, who'd begun re-arranging the contents of her purse. "Sure, Ace. Homework."

"Lay off. If I say homework, it's homework."

"Lay off? Man, it used to be hard to get you anywhere but the library, but anymore you ain't up for nothing. You're as boring as she is."

Before Ed could fire back, Mr. Jordan burst in the room, bellowing "Good morning! Are we ready to be brilliant?" Smelling of the cigarette he'd just smoked in the faculty lounge, dressed as always in a black suit, a perfect triangle of handkerchief arranged in his breast pocket, the teacher stopped dead center in front of the class and glared at anyone not seated, including Turk, who strolled over to his seat as slowly as he could, shaking his head and sighing the whole way.

Once everyone was seated and silent, Jordan went to the board, found a piece of blue chalk, and wrote the Word of the Day in block letters twice the size of his hand. "Consider this word 'kerf,' children." The class groaned. "'Kerf.' A very satisfying word to say." He sounded more British than usual that morning, and Ed wondered if Turk was right that he was the only kid in the history of the world who'd run home to look up why a guy so black he disappeared at night sounded like "M" in "From Russia With Love" - "Man, Ace, why bone up on Jamaica just because that chucker makes a big thing out of the dump?" - Lately, Turk sounded like his father when he'd had a bad day and it was all the fault of traffic or taxes or the wrong thing for dinner or "the coloreds." It was true that Mr. Jordan was the blackest man Ed had ever seen, but so what? He knew his stuff, he didn't try to make friends with his students, and he spoke as if words were stones he loved to polish smooth with his tongue.

Jordan raised both arms like a conductor. "All together now, children, say 'kerf.'"

The class repeated the word three times, as the teacher required during Word of the Day at the start of each class. Ed looked across the room at his friend, slouched in his seat near the door, hands behind his head, saying nothing. Turk had ended up there despite filling in all the wrong answers on the math part of the placement test. At least he claimed to have filled in the wrong answers. He hated what he called "vein-head" classes but could tell you in a few seconds how many hits Johnny Callison needed in how many at bats to end up at .300 for the year. He didn't read books, he devoured them, especially the spy novels he'd narrate to anyone who'd listen, acting out the fight scenes, repeating the hero's juiciest lines over and over. He detailed what he'd do to Modesty Blaise or Pussy Galore if given half a chance, yet thought girls boring and stupid - it would be more exciting to talk to an engine block than to any girl they knew.

"Can anyone tell us what this word means?" Jordan tapped his right foot, holding the chalk as if it were a cigarette cupped against the wind. No one raised a hand. "Anyone?" Jordan turned and jabbed the chalk at the board, a broad smile on his face, the smile that meant he'd soon begin calling on people. Ed looked at Olga sitting rigid in her seat and wanted to touch her shoulder. She was a whiz at English - Mrs. Gianelli was always reading her homework assignments aloud, saying "Why can't the rest of you push yourselves like Olga?" - but she hated being called on, hated having teachers say "Speak up!" every time she opened her mouth, hated this class, at least this part of it, and now Jordan had taken a few steps down the row toward them, preparing once again, Ed felt sure, to pick her as his first victim. The teacher stopped next to Olga's desk, folded his arms, and for a few moments seemed absorbed in something he'd noticed on the map of Asia someone had taped to the back wall of the room. "Miss Poduslenko," he began, his voice even deeper than usual, "where do you think this word 'kerf' comes from? Is it an Anglo-Saxon word or is it a Latin word?"

He'd thrown her a fat one and half the right arms in the room shot up, including Ed's for a split-second before he pulled it back in sympathy for Olga's plight. She sat utterly still, hadn't even turned her head to look at the teacher. Ed glared at her back, willing her to speak - Come on, how many times has he made a big deal over the short words being Anglo-Saxon and the soft, long ones Latin? Guess and you'll probably be right. Come on, guess, just say something and he'll pick on someone else.

"Are you afraid of something, Miss Poduslenko?" Jordan adopted a mournful expression. "If you are afraid of me, you are mistaken." The teacher straightened and swept his gaze around the room. "As I do every day, I have provided a word. I have provided a choice of two possibilities for identifying the source of that word. We have spoken of these two possibilities before, haven't we, Miss Poduslenko? Is this word 'kerf' Anglo-Saxon or is it Latin? Say one or the other. Say what you think, Miss Poduslenko." Olga was trembling now, staring down at her desk. Ed clutched his pencil so hard his fingers ached. He felt hot, imagined leaping up and grabbing Jordan around the neck, screeched silently at Olga to say something, it was simple, this was easy. Come on.

"Anglo-Saxon!" Turk yelled. "Anglo-fucking-Saxon!" Someone tittered, then fell silent. Everyone found something to look at. Ed glanced at his friend, who hadn't shifted position at all, gazing at the floor and bouncing the heel of one shoe on the old wood.

Still smiling broadly, Jordan touched Olga's hand and said, "A knight has ridden to your rescue, Miss Poduslenko, a knight who finds it necessary to utter another Anglo-Saxon word in addition to the one that remains a mystery, and this extra word is the most boring word to come down to us from that strange culture. Children," Jordan said, the smile melting off his face as he surveyed the room, "fear is a habit. Mr. Minor and Miss Poduslenko are both intelligent, but they are both afraid. We are here to examine what the Greeks made out of nothing. If right this moment we materialized in ancient Athens we would die of amazement. They had nothing, children, nothing but their minds and their senses. When I look around this room at the end of this year I will not see children. I will see no one who is afraid of what he thinks." He paused, rivulets of sweat tracing down his temples, and looked down again at Olga. "Or what she thinks, Miss Poduslenko." Olga looked up at him, then back down at her desk, her shoulders slumping a little. "And now, children, Mr. Minor and I must leave for a few moments so we can discuss in private the notion of respect." Turk rose, grabbed his books and banged out the door. Jordan bowed slightly, turned, strode to the board and rapped the Word of the Day with a knuckle. "'Kerf' is the groove a saw makes, or an ax. You might say that each kerf is the signature of what made it." He bowed again and pushed through the door.