A journal of narrative writing.
Page 2

Now Jackie watched her drop the last of her books into the smoldering can. “Bradbury,” she said. “He writes that science fiction stuff, doesn't he?”

“Not always. He writes all sort of stuff.”

“I never had much use for science fiction. It's just too out of this world.”

“It's supposed to be,” Jackie muttered. He didn't say anything more. It wouldn't do any good. The books were burned and she wasn't about to change her mind.

“Ain't you late for school?” she asked.”

“Yeah, a little. They'll have to start without me, I guess.”

“I'm sure they can manage,” she said.

* * *

Jackie went to Central High. Home Room was at 8:15. He got to school at 8:25 and went to first period. If his name didn't show up on the home room roll, the secretary would assume Mrs. Sharp had forgot to mark him down. Mrs. Sharp had been teaching algebra since Truman was president, and she had a tendency to forget things.

First period was economics with Coach Greegson, whose football team hadn't won ten games in ten years. Jackie had played football until his sophomore year, but he and the Coach hadn't got along. They had argued about offensive formations for one thing. Coach hated the I-formation and loved the single-wing, which had pretty much be rendered useless when Knute Rockne invented the forward pass.

What Coach Greegson loved most of all, much more than football or teaching, was the want-ads. He had a used car lot with his brother-in-law and because he was the brains in the outfit he was always on the lookout for smart buys.

Jackie slipped unnoticed into his seat, opened his economics textbook with the cover facing forward, and pulled his Scribner's paperback copy of A Farewell to Arms from the middle of his stack of books. He was embarrassed by the parts of the story that seemed like Hemingway was working too hard to break your heart. But he would take Catherine seeing herself dead in the rain over Coach Greegson any time.

He was at the section where Frederick was wounded when he realized the class was doing something different from the usual reading aloud from the textbook. Coach Greegson was saying: “The jury will be back today, most likely. We have to hope they stay in prison long enough to figure out that they can move to Russia if they want to live in a communist country. We want it just like it is here, where a man can go out and buy some furniture frames and start up his own upholstery business if he wants to.”

Coach Greegson was talking about the trial of the High Point Four, except he didn't call them the High Point Four—that's what his friend Gary called them.

Jackie got his first real job the summer before. He tailed a rip saw in a furniture factory, which meant he caught the lumber when it came out of the end of a big machine, separated the waste and stacked the freshly cut pieces on a buggy. It was hot, dirty work; by ten o'clock he had handfuls of sweaty sawdust beneath his t-shirt and down his pants, but the pay was a quarter above minimum wage, and he was supposed to be saving for college.

When he first started tailing the saw, Neil Greegson, Coach's son, was running it. Neil was a couple of years older than Jackie and had gone to work at the frame shop right after returning from his graduation beach trip. Neil's ambition was to be a shift supervisor.

On his first day tailing the saw Neil fed the lumber in end to end so that it poured out of Jackie's end of the machine faster than he could stack it. At first Jackie panicked and fought to get back in control of the lumber flowing from the metal conveyor belt. Splinters jammed under his fingernails, and the long sofa pieces would ram his thigh and hips and leave purple bruises.

By the second day he wised up and as soon as he lost control of the flow he jumped back and let the rest tumble to the floor until Neil stopped cramming them in. Then Neil would stand at his end of the saw and yell, “Clean up the mess!” so the supervisor would be sure to notice. The more Neil yelled, the slower Jackie worked. He hoped they would fire him, or give him another job.

On the third morning, Neil wasn't standing at the rip saw when the shift started at seven o'clock. Instead, the operator was a tall black guy Jackie had never seen before. He stood straight and calm while Jackie rolled up his sleeves. Then Jackie nodded his head and the lumber began rolling through in a steady pace. When the lunch horn blew, they had already ripped more lumber than Jackie and Neil had in two days.

Neil was standing by the time clock when Jackie punched out for lunch. “Too bad you got stuck working with the jig,” he said. “I had nothing to do with it. They put me in charge of the drill presses.”

“That's okay, I'll survive,” Jackie said.

Neil cocked his head. “You don't like working with him, do you?”

“No, no, it's horrible, and working with you was so atavistic.”

Neil nodded his head, slowly. His lips moved in a little circular movement as he tried to figure out what Jackie had said. Jackie gave him a friendly pat on the shoulder and walked on.

At lunch Jackie bought the least horrible thing left on the catering truck, usually a grilled cheese, and ate it in the shade of the loading dock.

His new work partner never ate. He sat in his yellow VW with the windows down and smoked cigarettes, blowing blue smoke toward the blue sky. The only other people around during lunch were three women who had been saved the same Wednesday night at the same holy roller meeting. The experience had bonded them so they ate lunch together everyday.

One hot day Jackie finished his sandwich and walked across the parking lot. He was tired of working with someone he'd never had a conversation with. As Jackie approached the VW, he watched Gary tip back the last of a bottled Coke and drop the empty on the seat beside him. He didn't look up until Jackie was standing beside the car.

“Hey, Gary,” Jackie said to the impassive face. Gary's eyes opened a little wider for second. “I got it off your time card, ,your name. You didn't introduce yourself so I found it out on my own. You running from the FBI or something.”

“I might be.”

“Well, if you are you might want to talk to my uncle. They looked for him three years. Never did catch him. He got tired of running and gave himself up. I'm sure he would pass along some tips.”

Gary was staring at him now, a hint of a smile at the corners of his mouth and eyes.

“I don't guess Gary in your real name, then. I'll just keep calling you that. It'll be our secret.”

“You sure talk a lot.”

“Yeah, I know. I'm working on it.” Then Jackie noticed the music coming from the car. It sounded like two, maybe three horns were playing three separate harsh and unrelenting melodies at the same time. It reminded him of how the symphony his fifth-grade class had visited on a field trip sounded when it warmed up.

“Is that an orchestra?”

“That is the greatest horn player to ever live,” Gary said evenly. “And he grew up right here.”

“In High Point?”

“John Coltrane. Right here. And you crackers don't even know it.”

“You seem to be under the impression we crackers are supposed to know everything. I think you need to open your mind some.”