A journal of narrative writing.
Page 3

Ed dropped the receiver in its cradle. All right. Fine. It didn't matter. He already knew she didn't mean it when she said he was boring. She knew he was on her side and always would be. The phone was a bad idea anyway. He had things to say too important for the phone, serious but happy things, and she needed to hear them. Once she had, she'd agree, say she'd been thinking the same things, say it urgently, even desperately, not caring if the whole world heard and saw, all with gladness in her eyes and music in her voice.

* * *

That night, long after Jack had fallen asleep, Ed lay in bed, gazing out their small window at the streetlight shining on the TV antenna his father had installed a couple of years before, a thirty-foot Erector set. The certainty he'd felt in the basement had gone. Over and over he worried the details of everything that had happened, and every time he thought he had it all figured, it fell apart again. Maybe he'd made too big a deal out of the whole thing. He was always making something out of nothing, isn't that what his mother told him? Maybe she was right, and Turk, too, constantly telling him to relax, be cool, take it easy, why do you worry so much? He wanted to take it easy. He wanted to sleep. He wanted to go through a normal day, just a common, relaxed day like other people always seemed to have.

Lying there, he recalled an incident from a couple of years before. During recess one day, Frank Ruberti and three of his disciples swaggered up to Ed and Turk as they tossed a tennis ball back and forth. Ruberti had never before taken any notice of either of them, preying instead on the younger kids, the blacks, the rich kids from whom he extracted dollar bills and the occasional five. Yet here they came, the disciples gaping at Ruberti, laughing on cue, apparently unable to speak unless prompted by their leader. The little band stopped within a few feet of where Ed stood mesmerized, the hand with the ball still upraised. Ruberti ran a comb a few times through his piled-up hair, shoved it back in his pocket, and said, "Hey Randall, what's a pussy?"

"What?" He tossed the ball underhand to Turk, gave him a pleading look.

"Not a what, a pussy." The disciples tittered. Turk did his best to seem invisible.

"A pussy?"

Look, ass-wipe, it's a simple question, and you're the big brainiac, but I'll put it another way to make it easy for you, OK? What, Sir Edward, is a cunt?"

The word struck him. He'd heard it before, sure, but not like this, not so loud, not said with such pleasure. He tried to think, to forget the shame and fear choking him and just think. What was the right answer? What did Ruberti want? He didn't want money, that was clear. He didn't want his shoes polished or test answers or the damned tennis ball, either. What, then? And why pick on him?

Other kids were drifting over to see what Ruberti was up to. Ed wished the hoods would just take turns kicking him in the stomach or stomp him in the head with the cleats they nailed into their heels. He almost said, "Just stomp me to death and get it over with," but before he could say anything, Ruberti moved in so close Ed could feel the heat of his breath, and said so everyone in the growing crowd could hear, "Only a cunt doesn't know what a cunt is. Are you a cunt, Brainiac?"

"No, I'm not a cunt."

"Then tell me what a pussy is so we all know you're not a cunt."

Ed smelled the grease in Ruberti's hair, wanted to chew the nose off the hood's face, sensed the crowd that milled around them, and at last his mind came alive again. He had it. As if he were reciting in class, he said, "A pussy is a female dick."

Complete silence. Huge silence, and in that silence the triumph Ed felt bloomed and wilted and dried to a rattling stalk like the flowers in the nature shows his mother watched on Saturday afternoons, for this was an answer that could not have been more right, Ruberti suddenly erupting into howls of derision, looking as if he'd just hit the mother lode of hood-dom, "A female dick! A female dick! A female dick!" He yelled it over and over between gulps of laughter, all the kids who'd heard it telling those who hadn't, everyone chanting it, laughing, bumping into one another, falling down in mock fainting spells, pointing at him, Brainiac thinks a pussy's a female dick!

For a few weeks he'd endured the taunts of what seemed the entire school. People he'd never met or seen before routinely patted his shoulder and said "dick." Clots of girls covered their mouths and giggled as he walked by. He could have sworn the teachers snickered as he passed the faculty lounge each morning. After awhile, it died down, people went on to other things, even Ruberti stopped asking him the question every time he saw him and contented himself with a smirk and "Yo, Dick!" This year they rode the same bus and rarely acknowledged one another.

Cunt. He mouthed the word there in the dark. Olga had one. He could imagine it clearly now. He wanted to do what Ruberti said he did with Nancy - not right away, but he wanted Olga and nobody but Olga and he wanted her to know it. None of this dating business for them. He wanted more than just their morning talks and walking to class and happy waves across the parking lot and phone calls, all the things that had seemed fat with meaning the day before. He wanted what was inside her, all of whatever could be found there, dark and fragile and needing him, only him to keep the secret.

He woke jubilant. The weather had turned much colder overnight, the sky out the window deep blue, the air in the room chilled, scented with the aroma of frying sausage. A thrilling awareness of his own size drenched him. He pulled his right hand from under the covers and gazed at it, thinking, "my hand." Each finger bent and straightened in turn. A stretch overcame him and he luxuriated in it, noticing as it faded Jack already up and pulling on his pants. He sat up, rubbed his face with both hands, and said, "Morning, twit."

"Morning, jerk," Jack smiled, digging a shirt from the bottom dresser drawer. Ed stretched again, slid out of bed and shadow-boxed his brother away from the dresser, up on his toes, left-right, left-right, Eddie "The Cat" Randall, jab-jab-jab, then a pretty uppercut that drove Jack mock-stumbling to the floor. He whooped, "The winner and still champeen!" He was fine. He was big. He was sweet as ice cream.

"Quit that roughhousing and get down here right now!" his mother yelled, banging a fist on the stairwell.

"I'm not dressed yet, Ma," he called, miming the way she shook her fist in the air when she'd "had it." Laughing silently, Jack picked himself up and headed for the stairs.

"Be quick, young man, or you'll go to school hungry."

Smooth, efficient, humming that "When a Man Loves a Woman" song that was all over the radio, Ed chose his favorite cold weather outfit - the bulky white sweater his grandmother had bought him in New York the previous winter and his black corduroys, yes, only the black cords would do today.

What a day. All through breakfast - sausages, scrambled eggs, biscuits, his mother had outdone herself - all through the noisy ride to school, the chaos before the homeroom bell, he felt large, thick, strong. As he'd started down the front steps, his mother had said, "My, you're a handsome young man," and he'd turned to see her holding a hand to one cheek, shaking her head in admiration. He had to agree, oh yes, he was one handsome young man.

As the bell rang, he walked into the art room, catching Olga's eye and grinning. She gave him a little smile and he grew even larger. Reaching his seat, he dropped his briefcase, threw his arms wide, and bowed. Straightening, he looked at her and had to will himself not to reach out and twine his fingers in the fine brown hair that brushed her shoulders. His heart buzzed in the middle of his body. What other evidence could anyone need? He slid onto his stool, announcing, "I want to talk, Olga. At lunch."

"You just talked now, Eddie," she giggled.

"No, I mean really talk," he squeaked, his body choosing the worst possible moment to betray him. He joked about being possessed, then tried again. "I have some things we need to talk about." Only a little static disrupted the words this time, and he felt momentum returning.

She frowned, straightened, placed one hand on her desk. "About yesterday? I wasn't that mad. I'm sorry I said you were boring." She laughed. "My father told me you called, but he didn't say anything about Russian football."

Ed thought how tiny her breasts were. He remembered Nancy Franklin in her red jacket on the bus that morning, remembered the years the pamphlet said it sometimes took for girls to reach womanhood. "No, not about yesterday. About the future. Our future. How I feel about everything." He stopped, shook his head. What was this? The words that had seemed smooth as polished stones as he'd mouthed them off and on all morning sounded like a speech some dork had scribbled on a napkin. He watched Olga stiffen and blush as the silence lengthened. He finally said, "Sorry, Olga. I guess I'm a little out of it. That thing with Jordan messed me up."

"Look, Eddie, it's OK." She brushed his wrist with her hand. "He was mean, not you. Anyway, I stayed up all night reading the dictionary, so I'm ready for anything."

He smiled and shook his head and then came a surge of tenderness and longing so powerful he gasped out a sob, then dropped his head, pressing the heels of his hands against his eyes to stop the tears. After a moment, he looked up to find Olga staring at him, one hand up near her mouth. "It's not...it's not just Jordan," he whispered, painfully aware of how quiet their part of the room had grown. "Turk told me to get lost for the rest of his life and a weird thing happened at home and I needed to talk to you but I couldn't, but it's not any of that, either. I don't know. I don't know what I mean except I needed you and you weren't there and I couldn't get to you and I can't stand it. I hate my family. I hate your family. I never want to be away from you, please, don't go away."

Olga blushed and shrank from him as he spoke, her eyes dull, jaw clenched, the profound words he'd lined up to straighten things out forever now seeming a ridiculous script somebody had forced on him, and he wanted only to climb back into the moment before he'd sat down and drained pleasure from her face. She turned toward the front of the room. The teacher took roll, made the morning announcements, bantered with her favorites, Ed frantically trying to think of a way to save himself. If he could only make her laugh. What had he said on all those mornings to make her laugh? Olga sat rigid in front of him. She didn't imitate the teacher's gestures or make hand puppets or write notes or sit there soaking him up with her eyes or say "See you at lunch, OK?" She was changed, gone, serious as he wanted her to be, but not like that, he hadn't intended that she look away and pretend - she only pretended to listen to the teacher, didn't she? - to pay attention to anything or anyone else in the room but him.

What had he said? He reviewed the handful of words, then doubted his memory. He was sweating ferociously, his skin itching everywhere it touched the sweater. What did he want? To have them both swear allegiance? For her to know what was inside him without his having to say? What had he done that was wrong enough for her to act this way? She wasn't anything like what he thought she was, what she pretended to be. She didn't want him at all, not the real him, not all of him as he wanted all of her. Turk was right. He was a fool, a boring, vein-head, girl-mooning idiot.

The bell rang and Olga gathered her books without looking at him, clutched them to her chest and hurried out of the room. Ed grabbed his briefcase and walked into the hall, watched her rush away, thinking how small she looked with her shoulders collapsed around her like that. As he threaded his way down the hall, he noticed as if for the first time the lockers lining the walls, the thick paint, layers of it, green paint on the walls, black paint on the doors. He smelled it, smelled all the awkward children around him, saw the cross-hatched metal in the window glass on each classroom door, everything and everyone etched into the air, inked lines marking the boundaries.

He walked into geometry, passed Olga stiff in her seat, staring toward the front of the room, back to black-and-white, just another scared girl. He sat down, looked at her pitiful, tiny frame. He hoped Jordan drilled her again today, drilled her every day till she dissolved in front of his eyes. He took things from his briefcase and arranged them on the desk. He noticed the Word of the Day Mr. Jordan had already inscribed in red chalk in the upper left corner of the blackboard: Erstwhile. A Latin word. The teacher would come in any second and boom one of his pet sayings. Afterwards, they'd plod through another proof with its lists of givens and reasons. What would the young man in the pamphlet do about all this? What if he sat right here with his old-fashioned suit and his old-fashioned hat? What would his answer be? Asshole. Son of a bitch. Ed wanted to burn the creep's house down. Maybe that would wipe the smile off his face.

Mr. Jordan strode in, reeking of tobacco as usual. Ed opened his folder and glanced through a few of the proofs and vocabulary words, each with its history of meaning. Parallelogram. Transversal. Omniscient. Isosceles Triangle. Vertigo. Bluff. He had written and drawn these things with the green pencils his father had given him at the start of the year, "the real thing," he'd said, pencils with hard lead and no erasers. He reached into the briefcase his mother called a valise because, well, Ed didn't know why, just because, or maybe that's what Uncle Al had called it when he hadn't died yet and carried it with him everywhere he went and dug into it for what he needed, a goddamned green pencil, say. Ed found the two sharpened pencils he always carried, lay them on the desk for a moment, then picked one up and snapped it in two, dropping the pieces back into the briefcase. He lifted the other to his nose, breathed its resinous odor, imagined driving the point into the desk, into Ruberti, into Olga, Turk, his mother and father, into one of those hands of his that seemed so often someone else's.

The bell rang. Ed tucked the pencil over his right ear and waited for what he knew would come next. They would pronounce the Word of the Day in unison, Jordan almost dancing as he led the chant. They would hear the story - graceful, surprising, somehow inevitable - of what the word meant and how it had come down to them. Then they would do things the ancients had done, proving what had been proven for thousands of years.