A journal of narrative writing.
Page 2

The rest of the class passed without incident and without Turk. Acting as if he were taking notes and paying strict attention, Ed wrote and crossed out two pages full of failed apologies to Olga. He wanted to be a stand-up guy, as his father put it, but everything he wrote sounded hollow. He didn't feel sorry, or at least part of him didn't. What could he have done? Gotten booted from the class like Turk? Within minutes of following him out the door, Jordan probably had him slotted in Coach Lesniak's Practical Algebra. Yahoo. What fun that would be. A hero for two minutes, then sit with the droolers the rest of the year.

When the bell rang, Ed shoved his book and homework folder in his briefcase and fastened the latch. By the time he got up, Olga was already up and out of the aisle. Catching up to her just outside the door, he tapped her on the elbow and said, "I'm sorry about what happened in there."

"Me, too, Eddie," she said, looking at the floor.

"I should have...I don't know. I should have done something."

"Like what?" She looked up at him, mouth a straight line.

"Maybe I should have done what Turk did. At least it got Jordan off your back."

"I hate him. I hate all that stuff about the Greeks and the Arabs and the Egyptians and those speeches he makes about us being smart and not afraid. It's a math class. Why does he talk about history? Why does he give us those stupid words every day?"

"He wants us to be well-rounded and - "

"You're defending him? Thanks. Thanks a lot. That freak friend of yours is right. You are boring." She hiked her books up to her neck, turned and stalked off down the hall. He started to call after her but stopped himself. Shutting up was the best thing right now. They had three more classes together, so if he just took it easy, stuck to kidding around, by the time he called her that night things would have cooled down and he could explain himself better, get things back on track.

As he turned up the staircase toward the science labs, Ed spotted his friend leaning against the railing halfway up, and the two lifted chins in greeting, Turk's grin spreading wider the closer Ed came. "Hey man, I'm out of that vein-head class. How about that?"

"Turk, look, I'm - "

"Say no more. I don't have to hear Jordan's bullshit or see you mooning after the chick. I can cruise with the jocks." Turk pressed so close Ed thought their noses would touch. "And thanks for the help, man. I'll never forget it. Have fun in the library the rest of your life." And then he was gone.

* * *

Later that afternoon, having heard Mike squealing as soon as he left the berm, Ed crunched up the long gravel drive, eager to walk off the day and tell the dog every detail, maybe figure out why everything had gotten complicated all of a sudden, why he felt relieved Turk was gone from him, at least for awhile, why he felt more entranced by Olga than ever, despite her disappointment and the boiling in his stomach it caused. Yes, a long walk back in the woods with Mike would be just the thing. Rounding the curve that brought the house into view, Ed caught sight of the silver German Shepherd up on his hind legs, squealing through his shut jaw, ears up, front paws propped on the chain-link fence that marked off his territory. When Ed reached him, Mike flattened his ears and lifted his right paw while the boy whacked him on the chest and scratched his muzzle and told him how good he was. "Mike-boy, the woods, boy, how about it?" The dog grimaced, began yelping, jumped down and feinted around the corner of the house, barking so loudly Ed yelled at him to stop, Mike immediately dropping to the ground.

Ed pounded up the front steps and rang the doorbell. His mother opened the door, a ladle in her free hand and a smudge of flour on her cheek. "Eddie, why do you have to work that dog into a frenzy? Just pet him nice and easy why don't you?"

"He likes it, Ma."

"Well, I don't like it, so don't do it."

"I'm taking him out back, OK?" He set his briefcase on a kitchen chair and realized as he reached into the hanging basket for a banana that his mother had embarked on another food experiment, which meant either a tantrum at the dinner table and a pizza after his father calmed her down, or hard work and a lot of milk for the whole family. The flour sifter lay on its side next to a baking pan holding something topped with what looked like crumbled saltines, eggshells were strewn on the counter, a piece of meat sat under the running faucet.

"No homework tonight?" She plunged the ladle into a huge, gray enamel pot and sloshed the contents this way and that.

"Not much. I'll do it after dinner."

"All right, but be careful, and see if Jack and Molly want to go with you."

He dropped the banana peel in the garbage can, picked up the briefcase, veered up the narrow staircase and saw it. Even though it wasn't possible, something blue lay on the third step up to the attic he shared with his brother. He didn't break stride all the way up the stairs, no, nothing unusual had caught his attention, especially not this thing on the steps he and Jack kept free of books, sneakers, magazines, baseball cards, shoe boxes with the latest school project inside, all of which they could trip over and break their necks, their mother imagining them dying constantly, each time of the smallest misstep or unlocked door, stupid decision, wandering thought. As he snagged the pamphlet on his smooth way up, a chill started from his tailbone: "Adolescence: A Time of Discovery." A smiling boy wearing suit and tie, hands thrust in his pockets, stood in a front yard somewhere.

Ed reached the attic, the pamphlet safe in a back pocket, Jack lying in bed with a book propped on his chest. They waved at each other, said nothing. Ed sat down at his desk, arranged books and papers, slid a drawer open, slipped the pamphlet inside. What now? It wasn't enough his best friend thought him a traitor and a geek and his girlfriend thought he was boring? He hadn't made that big a deal about Olga, had he? So he called her for a few minutes at a time a few times a week. So what? She was a friend. He called other friends, Jack called friends, even Molly called friends. His father had even put a phone in the basement just for the three of them, the Friend Phone, it wasn't that much extra a month, and they were growing up fast, his little platoon getting bigger all the time, the birds and the bees chirping and buzzing any day now, ha-ha-ha.

Like a secret agent, his mother must have put the thing on the steps after Jack had gone up. Maybe she had it in her apron pocket till she heard him with Mike. It didn't matter. What did matter was not taking Mike out back, not with his brother and sister tagging along, not with his mother knowing he would have the thing in his back pocket till Jack and Molly weren't paying any attention and he had time to lean against a tree and read. No, he needed to look the thing over on his own time.

He pulled one of his books toward him and opened it. Grammar. Wonderful. Diagramming sentences was just his speed right now. He took out a blank sheet of lined paper and wrote his name in the top left corner. He put the pencil down and stared at the page of exercises, Jack humming as he always did, reading.

After dinner - no tantrum, beef something, the baked thing, potato soup, lots of milk - Jack and Molly in her room downstairs playing a board game, Ed took the pamphlet from the drawer, alert for any sound near the stairs. He looked at the cover. The boy wore a hat. The smiling boy in the yard wore a Humphrey Bogart hat. Nobody wore hats like that anymore. Ed found the date the pamphlet was published: 1954. 1954? He was one year old in 1954. Did his parents run out and get the thing along with the ribbons and cake and the single candle and the stupid party hat on his baby head in the picture everybody thought looked so cute propped on the TV? Was the thing handed down from older to younger cousins? Everything else in the family seemed to get handed down, but some sort of speech went along with everything else. This thing just appeared. Ed bent to sniff it, met a familiar odor, but faint and for a moment hard to place, but then it came to him: it smelled like the souvenir money in the gift shops at old battlefields. Ed looked once again at the front of the pamphlet. The kid on the cover of the pamphlet wore his suit and tie and hat as if it were a uniform, as if he were a soldier just off the base on furlough, ready for some good, clean fun.

His parents knew. They might as well have been standing there, one on each side of him, saying "All right, son, we know all about it, so just behave yourself." He was a window they could look through any time they chose, nothing his, no matter how deep. They knew about the hair and the erections and the straining to see through blouses and the dimples in girls' knees when they crossed their legs and how he yearned to be Frank Ruberti and slouch in his leather jacket and mash down Nancy Franklin's bright red lips five rows in back of the bus driver with everyone oohing and aahing around them.

He tried to imagine his mother and father young. He'd seen albums full of pictures and heard countless stories and still he couldn't visualize either of them running, laughing, holding hands, tickling each other, nothing at all. He willed himself to imagine them doing the things Ruberti always talked about wanting to do with Nancy, but all he could conjure was an anonymous pair of adults moving against one another in ways he didn't understand, yet he did understand, the mechanics anyway, but that wasn't the point. He had no way to decode the mystery of his parents, let alone what he felt for Olga.

So they thought this boy had things to teach him. This boy wearing a suit and Bogart hat on what looked like an overcast, windy day knew things he needed to know. He began to read. The hair that within a month or two went from strands to a curly thatch in his crotch and armpits? Perfectly natural. So, too, the pain from hip to ankle that sometimes woke him at night. The quick shifts in mood might be confusing, the swoops and squeaks when he spoke might be embarrassing, but they, too, were perfectly natural, part of the larger plan that would lead to love, marriage, children.

He examined the drawing of his own anatomy, traced the path sperm took from testicles to urethra. He examined the drawing of what the pamphlet called "a mature female," his mother's anatomy, how Olga and Molly would eventually look if they were cut in half lengthwise. He had pieced some of this together from lingerie ads, glimpses of his mother's breasts under her blue nightgown, the spy novels Turk smuggled up to his room, the urgent times he waited for Jack to fall asleep so he could play with himself, a secret thrill the pamphlet's "masturbation" didn't come close to describing, no matter the accuracy of the definition. Fallopian tubes, uterus, egg, sperm, ovaries, semen, fertilization, fetus - words and definitions he knew from poking around the dictionary or encyclopedia while the rest of the family watched TV or played cards or did chores, moving around him sometimes unseeing, sometimes annoyed at his absorption.

Now he had the whole story, nothing left out, all of it beautiful - but wait: care had to be taken. The pamphlet told him not to "run away" with himself. Girls were going through changes that were at least as disturbing as those he faced. Many of them would look more grown-up than he did for awhile, but, strangely enough, this meant he had to take greater care with them, couldn't "roughhouse" with them anymore because they could be injured easily now.

He read on. Soon he'd want to date, get to know several girls by taking them out to the movies or for ice cream, walking on the beach or in the park, drinking Cokes and talking on the front porch. In a few years from right now he'd want to be with just one girl who'd become a young woman, who'd become special to him, so special he'd want to get married and start a family. He examined the couple in the final drawing, the new mother holding her baby, the young father leaning against a car an older version of the boy he'd met on the cover. He turned back to the beginning and read the pamphlet a second time, then a third.

Later that evening, after enough time had passed for him to have finished the schoolwork he'd hardly looked at, he went downstairs and found his family unchanged, his father hunched over the work table in the corner tying flies, his mother on the living room couch reading a mystery, his brother and sister watching TV. He joined them for awhile, laughed along with the studio audience. No one gave him a knowing look or hinted around or took him aside for a chat. Nothing.

When the show ended and Molly had begun whining to stay up the extra hour he and Jack were allowed, Ed got up and sauntered toward the basement door, saying as he passed his mother, "Turk got kicked out of geometry today. I think I'll see how he's doing."

Glancing at him over the top of her book, she said, "Turk needs to get kicked more often. God knows his father has plenty of time to straighten the boy out, what with losing jobs like they're spare keys or something. And what's that mother of his thinking, letting him go out all the time looking like some clown?"

"Leave him alone, Ma. He's my friend." The words surprised him, coming fast and loud, loud enough everyone stopped and looked at him, his mother closing the book and swinging herself to her feet in one motion, fixing him with a glare. He looked away, his stomach clenching, tears in his eyes, the blare of a commercial seeming to fill the house. He drew a deep breath, met his mother's eyes, and said, "I just want to see how he's doing. Please."

She nodded slightly. "You just watch your mouth, young man. And don't stay on too long."

Down in the basement, dry-eyed, hot all over but calm, too, Ed pressed his forehead against the post next to the phone table, willing his mother dead, seeing her dead dead dead, the whole family dead. What did they want from him? What did anybody want? Well, he knew what he wanted - Olga, and for things to make sense. To be left alone. Or at least for the meddling and permission-asking and goddamned politeness to end. To laugh and be smart and feel the heat of love all through him. He picked up the receiver and dialed her number, heard a single ring and then "Allo?"

"Hello, Mr. Poduslenko. This is Ed Randall. Is Olga there?"

"Olga can't come, no."

"I just need to talk to her for a minute, sir. Please?"

"Olga can't. You good-bye." The line went dead.