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Excerpt for None of the Above by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

NONE OF THE

ABOVE


A Novel

Michael Cocchiarale


Copyright©2019 Michael Cocchiarale

All Rights Reserved

Published by Unsolicited Press







For Mary Ellen (1939-2015)







Special and abundant thanks to Lisa Cocchiarale, who read and proofread the novel a saintly number of times, and to Jayne Thompson, who provided valuable feedback and reassurance at a key stage in the process.

Rite to Remain

(Fall 1980)



In the near-beginning, there was a classroom—small, colorful, radiator warm, backlit by a bank of windows overlooking Fulton Road. In five straight rows of desks were fourth graders of all shapes and sorts. It was mid-October, so a necklace of construction paper leaves dangled from the ceiling. To the left, the pole with the Stars and Stripes stuck like an errant javelin in the wall; to the right was a laminated map of the world, shiny as a grin. Above the chalkboard, a Jesus tear dropped from the cross.

There was a teacher—new and nervous, with large, pink Rorschach arms and loose, laboring lips.

There was a difficult question—one word: “Whyowa?”—and much stifled laughter.

Miss Chumley lowered the mimeograph from which she had been reading. “Frankie,” she said in a measured tone. “Slow . . . down . . . and say that again.”

“Why,” Frankie McGooken said, counting to three with his fingers. “Iowa? Why, I mean, does Iowa get to say what goes for us?”

Miss Chumley blinked through threatening looks for the one that might put this student in his place. Undaunted, Frankie sat straight as a ruler at his desk. The teacher glanced at her mimeograph and carefully explained again the Iowa Test for Basic Skills, the series of standardized tests they’d be taking the following week.

“Shouldn’t it be the Ohio Test for Basic Skills? Ohio is where we live.” Frankie turned his body to the left and then the right. He grinned nervously, playing his clip-on tie like a silky saxophone.

Miss Chumley had blinked through all her options, and then the eyes just sat there—dark Velcro balls on a pinkish dartboard. “The test was invented in 1935,” she said, trying another tack.

“But . . . my point . . .”

The teacher moved from the desk, intending a dramatic show of authority. However, the tip of her shoe caught on a nail in the hardwood floor, and she pitched forward, hands falling upon the desk of Bethany Hyde, who scrunched her face in horror. The radiator hissed and popped, the rim shot at the end of a joke. Titters bubbled up from the back of the room.

“Frankie, do . . . do you think Sr. Mary Grace would try to tell the Pope that there were really four persons in the Trinity?” She forced a laugh to underscore the absurdity. “Abraham listened to orders. Moses listened to orders. Even Jesus our Lord listened to orders. Tell me, are you better than Jesus?” By the end of her speech, Miss Chumley stood tall again, eyes wide, blotchy arms crossed, lips sewn up with satisfaction.

Frankie said. “I would like to go on record—”

“I know, I know,” Miss Chumley said, patting the air as if it were a pouting toddler’s head. “It’s not fair.” She went on to list a series of grave injustices against humanity: Indian Removal, Jim Crow, the domestic servitude of women, mass murder in Cambodia.

Frankie gave up, folding his hands upon the desktop. And yet, something in the boy’s guileless smile, his perfect posture, suggested a triumph of his own. Miss Chumley just seemed grateful to survive the moment. Taking a deep breath, she ordered students to turn to page twenty-six of their spelling books and “repeat after me.”

Hunched at his desk on the far side of the room, shoulder blades brushing his earlobes, John Alt chewed his fingernails. The word “Whyowa” continued to float miraculously in the air, like the Wright brothers’ primitive plane, which they’d learned about in history the day before. Sr. Regina, proud possessor of her very own pilot’s license, told them about that long ago day at Kitty Hawk, when the contraption tottered twenty feet above the ground, if only for a handful of seconds. “Just imagine,” Sr. Regina said, hand on cheek, and John obeyed. Imagine: The plane could have crashed into the small crowd below; Imagine: It could have exploded like a cherry bomb in the air; Imagine: Orville could have fallen out and split open his head on the ground. As Mom never tired of reminding him, even a slip in the bathtub could be enough to make one dead.

“Authority,” Miss Chumley read with gusto from her book. When she turned for a moment to write a sentence on the board, Dave Baske whispered “Abortion” through fat chapped lips. There was some muffled laughter, but John sat still as a bird. He was deathly afraid of Miss Chumley, who took fierce joy in stashing miscreants in the corner behind the upright piano, where there was nothing to look at but a blank, beige wall. On a dare last Friday, Stinky George Sophronia, desperate to make a better name for himself, crept from his seat to blow his nose on the American flag that sagged from the pole at the front of the room. Just as face touched cloth, Miss Chumley, who’d been next door borrowing chalk from Miss Da Via, reentered the room. Livid, eyes blinking like a TV on the fritz, she dragged the boy to the wall and made him stand there, hands behind his back, straight through recess. Then, despite tears and apologies, she sent him off to the principal’s office. Head bowed at his desk, John listened to the boy’s sad steps into the hallway, the bone snap of the door as it closed. He wondered if George would ever be seen alive in this world again.

Miss Chumley read her sentence: “The Pope’s authority is unquestioned by the faithful.”

The students who were still paying attention—the girls, more studious as a rule; Frankie McGooken, disappointed but dutiful; George Sophronia, now just a smelly little yes man; John Alt, of course—responded with a compliant mumble.

When Dave whispered again, “The Human Abortion,” there was more stifled laughter. Everyone knew he was alluding to Frankie, the nickname a reference to the steel shaft that rose out of the depths of the boy’s Oxford shirt to the metal ring circling his neck like a torture device. A letter describing the boy’s condition had been sent home to parents, and Mom read it, nodding knowingly as if she’d worn her fair share of such braces when a little girl. “It’s just Scoliosis,” she told John. “Everyone has a cross to bear, and if you’re a Catholic, you keep your eyes to yourself.” John shuddered. “Osis” sounded like something that could contaminate—something that might even kill. Afterward, John had to fight the impulse to hold his breath whenever the boy came near.

This time, Frankie must have heard Dave, for he turned quickly, the brace clunking against the back of the chair. The boy was still smiling, but more strenuously than before. His eyes were small—all lashes and wrinkles. He scratched his hair, a black brush smashed against canvas.

Dave shrank in his desk and pointed with a shaky finger. “Aborrrrr-tion,” he mouthed.

“Baggage,” Miss Chumley said, oblivious to the furtive drama.

“Baggage,” the good students echoed.

Dave had despised Frankie since the first day of the school year, when with just a hint of a posh accent he proudly announced, “I was born in London, England, where my father had a lectureship.” This fact—the sheer audacity of having come from not just outside the city limits or across a state line or two, but from the other side of the ocean—amazed everyone. That afternoon, several students huddled by the bright map at the front of the room, chattering excitedly. On the periphery, John tiptoed to observe the island in question. It was small, a mere speck of cosmic dust compared to the Jupiter-like immensity of the United States. But it had the grand allure of elsewhere.

For weeks, Dave wouldn’t leave Frankie’s “born in London” statement alone, repeating it on the playground with bad accents modeled on the Monty Python shows he was allowed to watch on PBS. Each time he used the line he’d add some physical gesture: a tilt of the head, a bat of eyelashes, a flaccid bend of wrist. As weeks went on and it became clear that Frankie was a force to be reckoned with, Dave went on the attack, focusing on the boy’s name. He started with “Hankie” and “Wankie,” before latching onto Frankie’s last name, bursting with fresh possibilities. “Hey Gook!” Dave said to him one morning as they lined up to enter school. The word seemed to slip out by accident, but then, in the midst of the giggles that followed, Dave sniffed major success. He said it again, this time pointing—“Luke! A Gook!” Naturally, Frankie became “Gook” until the name got old, which took a good week. “Gook,” of course, turned into “Chink” turned into “Slant Eye” turned into yesterday, during an afternoon bathroom break, “Ah, Most Honorable AssHo,” complete with praying hands and a ceremonial bow. Frankie stood patiently in front of the door to the lavatory, which was blocked by Tim Sager, Dave’s weedy right-hand man, and said, “You do know I’m Irish.”

“Cowardice,” Miss Chumley said, continuing down the list.

As the insults stumbled and spit from Dave’s fat lips they did not always make much sense, but John, in front of a urinal on the far side of the lavatory, felt them like direct blows from Larry Holmes. He wanted to strike back—scream “Leave Frankie alone!”—but that would do nothing more than make him visible once again. A target. If Dave didn’t simply punch him in the mouth, he might remember John’s given name—Increase—and all the obscene alternatives, which the bully had flung around the year before. No, no, the best John decided he could do was watch and listen, serve as witness.

“David,” Miss Chumley said. It took John a moment to realize that this was not another word on their vocabulary list. “David Baske, go to the wall right now. Do not pass Go. Do not collect two hundred dollars.”

Dave shrugged, stood up, and took short, robotic steps toward his punishment. Some kids risked a smile, but John did not. He might fail to do many things in his life, but he vowed to never, ever, ever find himself out of options, his face against a wall.

*

The following week, the test booklet from Iowa landed on John’s desk like a hydrogen bomb from Russia. By the time he realized he’d been spared incineration, Miss Chumley was half way through the directions. The gravity of her face, the tone of her voice, and now her hair, which had overnight gone from drainpipe brown to frosty, curly blond—all these changes impressed upon him the magnitude of the event.

“Begin,” Miss Chumley commanded, her voice strong and deep, as if she were trying to part a sea. When John broke the seal, a noxious flow of words was released. He closed his eyes and held his breath until his teacher came by to say, “You must get to work!” He placed an index finger under each word of the directions before moving on to the questions. He “carefully and fully” began to fill in the ovals on the answer sheet, imagining all the while a crazy-haired Iowan in a lab coat who would feed these sheets one after the other into some monstrous grading machine, crying out, “You like? You like?” while stroking the thing on its hot steel head. Periodically, the machine would snort and spit out a sheet with too many errors. The man in the lab coat, seeing the smoldering paper on the floor, would cackle maniacally. Before coloring in a bubble, John made triply sure he was right. Once, he changed his mind and tried (as directed) to completely erase the mark. As hard as he scrubbed with the eraser, the gray ghost of his mistake remained. Or perhaps it was the right answer after all. How could he know for sure?

Just as John began to develop some kind of rhythm, Miss Chumley cried “Stop!” He dropped his pencil on the desk, and it rolled, gathering steam, until it plunged to its death on the floor. He looked in horror at the answer sheet. He still had seven questions to go—questions to which he would never be permitted to return. In the middle of the room, Frankie sat rigid and smiling, hands folded and eyes trained on the blackboard, empty except for dust swirls below the word TIME all in CAPS. Hatred for the smug boy shot through John like sweater shock. He tried to sustain the feeling but kept running up against the fact that Frankie was not only nice (he’d give you good clues that could be used to solve your math homework) but also disarmingly candid about his own faults (“I’m such a dope at drawing!”) and idiosyncrasies (“I always dot my Is first thing”).

And yet, and yet—when the next section of the test began, and Frankie began to confidently color his bubbles, John felt he would not be displeased to see The Great and Terrible Osis finish him off for good.

*

At the dinner table that evening, John nervously knocked vegetable mix around his plate. The lima beans—pale, green alien eyes resting in a bed of carrot cubes and forlorn corn—were enough to make him gag.

“How was school?” Dad asked. “How was that test of yours?”

“If he did well,” Mom said, “he’d have said so.” Mom’s brown hair swung pendulum-like on either side of her chin. Her green eyes narrowed, her lips nearly disappearing. She was upset—or suspected she had reason to be—and John would rather face a second helping of aliens than the interrogation that was bound to begin.

“Is it really that important?”

“It’s a test!”

“I mean, it doesn’t really count for—”

“Every test helps to determine your future.”

“That’s true,” Dad said, reaching for another piece of white bread he could margarine to the edges.

Dad was a slight man—bony shoulders, thin wrists, narrow face, hazel eyes like the glass figurines in Grandma Alt’s china cabinet. He was peaceful too, always good for a deferential smile. His job at the faucet company required him to be on the phone for most of the day, so when he got home he wasn’t inclined to make yet another sales pitch. He was, in other words, no match for Mom, especially on the subject of education. A semester short of graduation, she had dropped out of college. There had been some problems—a sharp difference of opinion with her parents, a sudden move from Indiana to be with Dad, a subsequent falling out with nearly all her family members. “I’m a living lesson,” was about all she would say. “A parable.” What she didn’t say lent terrible authority to what she did. John knew not to ask questions.

Dad nibbled the edges of his Wonder Bread. “Well, tomorrow’s another day.”

John glanced at Dad, who flashed a buttery grin. Mom, her fingers dancing like bug legs under her chin, broke into a sigh. On John’s dinner plate, the pale green alien eyes stared, daring him to make a move.

*

Although there was no school the following Friday (a reward, he assumed, for having endured the trauma of those Iowa tests), John rose early, ecstatic at the thought of spending the day with Sandro, his best friend since first grade. Sandro lived on Medina Avenue, all the way across the interstate bridge. It was too far to walk—and “far too dangerous,” Mom insisted—so Dad drove him over on the way to the work.

Mrs. Gismondi answered the door with a bright lipsticked smile. She wore a red and white checkered blouse and linen pants. Her hair was pinned up, face and neck and ears all fabulously revealed. Regardless of the season, she reminded him of the day school let out for the summer. Sandro came into the living room, dark hair still glistening from the shower. In his hand was a huge Lego spaceship, which he landed smoothly on the dark, luxurious shag.

After a pancake breakfast, the boys headed outside to play cops and robbers. Following a time-honored ritual, John counted on the back porch steps and Sandro scrambled off to hide. Usually, he settled on some place obvious—the crotch of the sycamore, the bed of his father’s El Camino. This time, though, John had to search a long time, finding his friend at last under the tarp that covered his father’s fig tree. John kicked at the covering until Sandro cried, “Christ Almighty!” When his friend peeked out, John shoved the muzzle of the Tommy Gun into his face, announcing with as much authority as he could muster: “You have the right to remain silent!”

Typically, Sandro would put up his arms and march willingly to the dirty prison underneath the front porch of the house. Once inside, he would shake the wooden lattice work and growl, “You haven’t heard the last of me,” and they would move on to other things. This time, though, Sandro stood up and batted John’s weapon away with a hand.

“Anything you say can and will be used against you in the court of law,” John said, shocked by his friend’s behavior, but committed to the script.

Sandro’s full, dark eyes blazed. “You gonna hafta kill me, motha sucka!” he screamed, taking off, head low, in a zigzag across the lawn. Before John knew what happened, Sandro was safely in the house.

John let the weapon fall by his side, the sound of the slammed door still ringing in his ears. Cautiously, he approached the house. A few minutes passed. He stepped onto the first cement stair then back down again. He watched two squirrels corkscrew up the tree. The sun went behind a cloud, and John, despite his jacket, was suddenly freezing cold.

Was this part of the game? Should he call out for Sandro? Should he go inside? Stay put? Maybe he would have to just go home. It was a long walk, though, and he’d have to cross the perilous bridge over the interstate. He could do it—he was almost sure—but then Mom would find out because John would tell her, too nervous and guilty to make up a plausible story. Certainly, the punishment would be harsh: no TV for a week, no dessert for the month. John found himself thinking about those harrowing Iowa tests. There were always four choices—A, B, C, or D—and if you really thought about it (if you weren’t, as Dave Baske loved to crack, a “total retard”) you could always eliminate one answer or maybe even two. The problem was that, in the end, you were seldom quite sure of the choice you’d made.

At a loss, John sat down on a pile of damp brown leaves. The tears arrived just as the back door opened, and his friend bounded down the stairs, wielding two cold cans of Faygo.

“What’s wrong?” Sandro said with a hearty laugh. “See a ghost?”

“I thought,” John said, unable to keep a whimper out of his voice. “I thought you were mad or something.”

“Oh.” Sandro glanced back at the house. “It was all part of the game! See, I was the black man, and you were supposed to shoot me dead when I was running away. Bam, Bam,” he said, jerking his head from the recoil of an imaginary gun. “I would’ve died.”

Sandro passed him a can of orange pop. Shoot you dead? John thought. Dead? He heard the word before—of course he did—but this time, for some reason, it poured through him and hardened like the concrete in the patio Uncle Lare put in last week for his parents. John took a long drink, letting the fizzy sweetness burn down his throat to dissolve the terrible mass. He drank again, but the word was still there, a hard, intractable lump. He took a third swallow, but by that point he knew that twelve ounces of pop wasn’t going to make the awful thing disappear.

*

Time spent with the Gismondis was a thrill—not unlike those Choose Your Own Adventure books John loved to devour; time spent at home, though, was something else altogether. It was “quiet.” It was “safe,” perhaps, or “slow”—like Grandpa Alt at the checkerboard, knocking out his pipe while mulling his next obvious move. “Predictable” was yet another way of putting it. Every day during the week, Dad arrived home from work at 5:15. If this routine had to be broken, it was usually in order to do something of great domestic importance, like stop for a jar of spaghetti sauce or a four-pack of toilet paper, in which case Dad would call well in advance of the mission and Mom, deftly making the necessary adjustments, would time the supper for 5:45 instead. Afterward, John would wash the dishes and retreat upstairs to finish his homework or read one of his fantasy novels. Dad, still in white shirt and tie, would stick his nose in Shipwrecks of the Great Lakes, Amazing Wonders of the Earth, or any other of his many tomes of trivia. On the couch across from him, Mom would page through one of her many religious books that she kept around the house: Thomas á Kempis on the coffee table, Francis de Sales on the kitchen counter with the cookbooks, Fulton Sheen on the nightstand on her side of the bed. Each book had been well-thumbed and paper tongued. Recently, though, she’d become especially fond of Thomas Merton, to which Grandma Alt introduced her at Christmas last year with a present of The Seven Storey Mountain. “It’s a book about seeking . . . and finding,” Grandma said, hands pressed together over her heart. Judging by how often Mom placed that one in her lap, there must have been plenty to discover.



At 8 p.m., when he heard the TV go on, John would come downstairs, lie on the floor beside Dad’s straight-backed chair, and watch the sitcoms of the night. He could have a snack—two Chips Ahoy! or a modest bowl of mini pretzels. When nine o’clock came, he’d wave goodnight and go upstairs to bed.

On the weekends, a few wrinkles were added to the routine. Saturdays, depending on the season, there was painting or leaf raking in the morning, patio or living room time in the afternoon, grilled meat for dinner to go with the canned or frozen vegetable du jour. On Sundays, long, quiet mornings before a box of plain cake donuts and The Plain Dealer comics were followed by mass at St. James the Lesser, where Fr. Nadolny gave homilies rivaling the length of the promised life after death. Following the release (“The mass is ended. Go in peace.” “Thanks Be to God!”)—following the equally torturous front step gossip with women Mom only saw once a week—came the long afternoon spent helping Dad with chores (cleaning out the garage, changing the oil or antifreeze) while Mom puttered around the house or fenced-in backyard.

The slightest trouble would make waves through the house for an entire week: Cousin Cynthia taking a round of antibiotics, Cousin William chipping a tooth during a T-ball game, Uncle Lare in another fender bender. These things would be examined, turned about in the light streaming down on their dinner table. Mom would invariably glean stern morals from such events, and John would take in the supper table adages with his family steak and baked potato and a stab or two of gross wax beans.

Events of larger import had a more difficult time slipping through, but like a fly through a screen door, they sometimes did. On most occasions, one parent or the other would just swat the bug to death; sometimes, however, the fly would be quick and persistent and Mom and Dad would just let it ricochet around until it died on its own. A year ago, John had heard the buzz about Dennis Kucinich, Cleveland’s “boy mayor” who let the city tumble into default, a bad thing, whatever it was. And just this past winter, his parents couldn’t stop talking about the United States hockey team, which beat the grim-faced Russians who spoke in deep, Dracula-like tones. The buzz followed him to school, where Denise Abney presented a tray of red, white, and blue cupcakes for the kids to consume. Brian Whittier brought his hockey stick and flipped balls of paper into a tipped over garbage can, throwing up his arms and saying, “Eruzione scores!” Sr. Regina, John’s teacher at the time, hailed it as a triumph of good over evil, which sounded as right as anything to him.

A particularly huge and persistent fly buzzed into the house at the end of October in the form of a presidential debate—the last before the election. From what John gathered, this TV show was going to be an argument between two famous men about a number of problems facing the country. More thrilling—and the thing his parents could not stop marveling about—was that the debate was going to be held in downtown Cleveland, a mere ten minutes from where they lived. In the days leading up to the event, his parents began reading both The Plain Dealer and the Press. After Mom read what she wanted, Dad clipped pictures and articles to paste into a scrapbook—for “posterity’s sake.” John knew little about the two speakers. Ronald Reagan was one, a movie actor from the hard-to-believe days of black and white. With a name like “Raygun,” John thought the man should have come from the future, or, at the very least, a galaxy far, far away; however, he looked like someone from the dawn of recorded time. Jimmy Carter was the other—the peanut farmer, the man with the Billy Beer brother, the current president. From what John gathered, the main knock against him was his inability to free some hostages from that country overseas. This had been a problem for a year now or more. Shortly after the Americans were kidnapped, John and his parents had been eating dessert in front of the local news when Gib Shanley burned that country’s flag right on live TV. Sliding forward in his recliner, hands pressed together as if in prayer, Dad exclaimed: “Good for him!” Mom, just then walking into the room, said, “I thought you were watching the sports.”

John heard little more about the situation until the day before the debate, when Frankie asked Miss Chumley to tell the class something about the people of Iran. Miss Chumley said she wouldn’t waste her breath.

“Why?”

“They’re monsters.”

“They’re people!” Frankie cried.

Miss Chumley narrowed her eyes and wondered aloud if he was trying to be a little Ayatollah. Not to be outdone, Frankie said that, in several important ways, she was not unlike the Shah.

“Go to the principal’s office!” she cried, jabbing at the door. “Do not pass go. Do not collect two hundred dollars!”

“May I—”

“I don’t have time for your little Islamic Revolution. Get out.”

John didn’t know what “Islamic” meant, but he was well acquainted with the word “revolution.” Jefferson, Washington, Adams—from his father, John knew a few neat facts about them all—were heroes, deities almost, who risked their very lives for the great cause of freedom from tyranny. This revolution in Iran—must there have been something “good” about it as well? The question grew in John’s mind like a bubble of gum—poof and poof and pop! Then it was recess, and Sandro brought out Mastermind, his board game of the week. Each tried to outdo the other, cracking codes in five moves, then four, then three.

“Look at the Terminal Tower!” Dad said now, pointing at the screen. As he took a sip of pop, ice clapped excitedly in his glass.

John pushed popcorn into his mouth and studied the building he had seen so often in person now crammed into the small screen in front of them. The skyscraper looked like a rocket ship ready to blast off. If John wanted to, maybe he could reach out, hold on, climb aboard. It was good to know that, should he want it, adventure was a short, sand-colored stretch of carpet away.

So much of the debate soared right over his head. Health care, inflation, national defense, those American hostages again—this was clearly a show for adults. But John continued to watch because it was happening in Cleveland, at the Convention Center, where he and his parents had been just this past February for the Home and Flower Show. Whenever cameras switched from one contestant to the other, John studied the background closely, trying to recognize some part of the building. Even if he had not been standing where these two men were now, he had been close—he had been in a place that might very well be on TV now. That had to count for something.

John dozed off but woke near the end of the debate, when the men offered closing remarks. The Raygun, his loose face giggling with good humor, zapped viewers with the simple question: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” Four years ago, John wasn’t allowed to play in the front yard. Four years ago, if the baseball he bounced off the stairs rolled across the street, he had to go and find Mom or Dad to retrieve it. Four years ago, he had to be in bed—lights out—by 7:30, so early he could still hear his friends on pleasant evenings chasing each other through neighboring yards. Was he better off than four years ago? Without a doubt—YES!

His parents, however, were of a different opinion. Throughout the show, they had murmured affirmatively after almost everything the Raygun said. When Mom went into the kitchen to make another cup of decaf, Dad called out: “There you go again,” and she laughed—which was a rarity, like the two of them leaning toward each other for a morning kiss.

*

The day after Thanksgiving, John was reading a fantasy novel on the living room couch when the telephone rang. He cringed. This was usually about the time Uncle Lare, Dad’s brother, called to apologize for what he’d done and said, three sheets to the wind, at dinner the day before. Mom would be on the phone for a couple of hours, saying things like “um hmm” and “sure” and “of course” and “we all have our failings.” She would be as measured as could be. Afterward, though, she’d always be sharp with John: “Did you make your bed?” “Did you put away those G.I. Joes?” She’d keep grilling him with questions, waiting for the “no” that would justify her anger.

With great trepidation, he answered the phone.

“John,” Mrs. Gismondi said, sniffling like she had a cold. “Be a hun and put your mother on.”

Relieved, he handed the phone to Mom and returned to his novel, which was about a virus spreading through the country that made people move more and more slowly until they froze in place. The only cure, a young brilliant boy had discovered, was to keep doing different good things for people: buy a meal for a homeless person, give a child your coat, even just say hello to an ailing neighbor. Failing to convince parents or teachers of the solution, the young protagonist had to somehow get to the president—before it was too late. Thrilling as the book was, it was difficult to concentrate because from the kitchen Mom kept saying, “I see, I see,” and “Yes, yes, yes, how terrible.” When John looked up at last, the phone was back in its cradle, and Mom was staring at him, glistening green eyes between that pendulum hair.

“You,” she said, her finger a wand of accusation. “You are grounded for the rest of the month!” As John rose to protest, she slapped him across the face. Stunned, savaged by shame, he bolted up the stairs to his room, where he fell on his bed and burst into tears. What in the world had he done?

An hour later, when Dad came home from work, John crept down to peer through the spindles of the staircase railing. In a moment, Mom shuffled from the kitchen, kneading her hands under a black dish towel. Quietly, she said, “He is dead. Dead and gone.”

Still by the door, one leg crossed over the other above the knee, a dress shoe dangling, Dad looked at her and said, “Good grief, who?”

“Frankie McGooken. The boy drowned last night in Brookside Creek.”

Frankie? Dead? Name and concept appeared on opposite sides of John’s brain. He closed his eyes, scrunched his face, tried like mad to move them together. The words, though, stayed exactly where they were, digging in heels like children in a fierce game of tug-o-war.

Mom went on with what she knew, and Dad interrupted with all kinds of questions: What time did it happen? When was he found? How deep is that creek? The one question neither of them asked (and the one that loomed before John like some fat-lipped bully) was: What was it like to be gone—suddenly, and once and for all?

*

Sunday morning, standing with a group of mothers in the vestibule of St. James, Mom said, “Just tell me this: What in the world was Frankie doing out there alone?”

“The parents are divorcing, you know,” Mrs. Hyde said, as if that explained everything.

“He was collecting something for a science project,” Mrs. Frears said. “Frogs maybe?”

“Why? Miss Da Via had the frogs,” Mom said, arms two bars across her chest. “Last week, she ordered a whole habitat.”

Mrs. Gismondi said if she had to bet, God forbid, which one of the parish children would meet an untimely end, she would have put her husband’s paycheck on a boy with a tragic Irish name like Frankie McGooken.

“Lee Ann!” Mrs. Frears said. “What a thing to say!”

But the others, including Mom, nodded in agreement, only slightly embarrassed that the comment could—or did—carry the weight of moral judgment on the mother and father and maybe even the dead boy himself. Sandro was home sick with the mumps, and beautiful Bethany Hyde stood twirling honey blond hair beside her mother. Ignored by everyone, John put a hand to his cheek, feeling the awful sting of his mother’s slap coming back. It was more than enough to keep him in line.

Later that afternoon, John finished his novel, which ended happily with the boy saving the world, receiving a gold medal from the president, and winning the heart of a girl who reminded him of none other than Bethany Hyde. The protagonist acted, took incredible risks, succeeded against all odds. But Frankie was no fictional character. He was a real-life boy who could not stop being curious. He had to challenge every single thing in the world. He pushed his luck; consequently, he paid the ultimate price. Not that he deserved to die. No, no—that’s not what John thought at all.

*

Frankie, of course, did not show up to school that Monday, but that didn’t keep him from being the center of attention. His name was on everyone’s lips, as if he’d done something heroic. The girls were misty eyed, the boys (for the most part) subdued. Dave Baske, much to his delight, was relevant again. With great elation, he unveiled a brand new name—“Frankie McSinken”—and Tim Sager, the weedy boy of few words, followed suit with “McGlubben” and then, even though maybe two kids dared to laugh, Dave added “McDeaden,” which seemed to be the final word on the matter.

But Dave had so much more to say. He was just dying to pass along what he heard, the “startling truth” about what really transpired at Brookside Creek. It was recess, a snow-cloudy day, and the boys gathered by the oak tree in front of the rectory, where Dave sat cross-legged, a Bic lighter cupped in his hands—a little camp fire to set the mood. “Frankie sank and sank,” he said, “his body was turning around down into the, the . . . the depths . . . the murky depths! And, and he was reaching his hand around to the middle of his back cause there was like a keyhole on that metal cage. He was trying to get the point of the key into the hole—”

“They found him in like a foot of water!” Lance Duda said.

Dave narrowed his eyes. “Like Houdini or something, only he couldn’t do it because he wasn’t a magician, he was the one and only—”

“Human abortion!” George Sophronia exclaimed.

“And then, and then, he hit bottom, laid down there, and the minnows swam right through his ears.”

“Sick!” Tim Sager said, which most of the boys understood as “Coolest thing in the world.”

The wake was the following evening. Mom declared that John was “far too young” to attend and sent Dad as the family representative. John tried to kill any thoughts about Frankie by watching Happy Days. When the show went to commercial, there was without warning a long period of silent blackness. John waited. He bit his lip. Suddenly, he found it difficult to breathe. Clutching his throat, he stood up and rasped, “I’m going to die.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Mom said, hand digging into a bag of potato chips.

At that moment, the technical difficulty was resolved and a commercial leapt to the screen. “Reach out and touch someone,” a voice soothingly implored. Bright-toothed people moved around and smiled. All was right with the world again.

Later in bed, though, the fear came snaking back. Frankie is dead. Frankie is dead. John mouthed the statement over and over, and each time name and concept edged a bit closer together in his brain. He slid the sheet up to his neck, pretending it was the cool lid of a coffin. He closed his eyes and pulled the sheet over his head and lay there holding his breath. He lasted eighteen seconds—an unbearably long time. To be successfully dead, though, you had to hold your breath not for eighteen seconds or minutes or months or even years. You had to hold your breath for all eternity. There was no way he’d be able to do it.

“Frankie is dead,” John said aloud, “and I am alive.” His chest went up and down. There was the beautiful sound of breath soaring through his nose. “Ha, ha, HA HA ha,” he said, hand upon swelling breast. Did it sound like he was laughing at Frankie? That’s not what he meant—no, not at all. But the laughter was out there, echoing in the room, mocking his intention. He thought about God in heaven, furrowing his massive brow, crossing his huge, omnipotent arms. Sr. Marie always reminded the kids that the Lord was merciful, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t a hell where some people, by virtue of their crimes, were going to roast forever and ever amen.

Quickly—there was not a moment to lose—John scrambled to his knees and mumbled long apologies toward the cross that jabbed down at him in the dark. He waited, waited, waited for some kind of response, but there was nothing. Either that was a good sign or it wasn’t.

*

A few days later, Denise Abney, fighting back tears, suggested a celebration in honor of what would have been Frankie’s eleventh birthday.

“A celebration?” Miss Chumley said, her eyes rising from the mimeograph she was distributing.

Dave Baske sat up, whispering to no one in particular: “He had his day.”

“A kind of service, with—you know—cake and stuff.”

A joyful murmur made its way around the room. Sandro started a soft little chant: “Cake and stuff, Cake and stuff . . .”

Miss Chumley smiled despite herself. “Yes, yes,” she said. “That is a splendid idea.”

Every day for the rest of that week, time was set aside to prepare for the event. In art class, students were assigned to draw pictures of “life’s abundant sacraments.” For Language Arts, students wrote short poems and observations about their classmate. When the class was sent to Sr. Marie’s room for Religion, they reflected on passages about life after death. In one of the gospels, Jesus said to Martha, the brother of Lazarus: “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me will never die.” Sr. Marie stopped reading, cast her eyes around the room, and said: “Remember: This is what we as Christians believe.” The children nodded. Sr. Marie read about how Jesus told the dead man to come out and so he did, body wraps dangling but pretty much good as new. John thought about Frankie’s body. Perhaps the dead boy was soaring somewhere high above, sloughing off his back brace as if it were so much metal underwear for the hamper. Perhaps he was just now touching down on cozy clouds to begin his very own life everlasting.

But hadn’t he died already? Wasn’t his body in a box in a hole, six dark feet forever from the sun?

*

On the morning of Frankie’s celebration, John arrived early at school with a foiled plate of oatmeal cookies. Immediately, he could tell something was wrong. Everyone looked stricken. Most of the girls and some of the boys were in tears that seemed to indicate some fresher, keener pain. John did a quick head count of his fellow students and was relieved to find no one missing. Miss Chumley was busy writing “IMAGINE” in perfect cursive on the board. After dropping the cookies off on a table in the back of the room, John headed for Sandro, who was playing paper football with a group of boys on the far side of the room.

“My dad says they should hang the guy by his balls,” Lance said.

Dave said, “Maybe you could just suck—”

“Shut up!” Lance—a big boned kid, at least four inches taller than everyone in class— pushed Dave, and Dave, on tiptoes, put his fat chapped lips up in the other boy’s face. They stood like that for a few tense moments, until the smaller boy’s smile tore open like a bag of chips. Lance pushed him again, and Dave, with puckered lips, whistled all the way back to his desk.

“What happened?” John asked.

“You didn’t hear?” Sandro said, wiping his eyes. “John Lennon’s dead!”

The salty snacks and sweets, the heartfelt poems and tears, were supposed to be for Frankie, but John Lennon—the ex-Beatle, the peace freak with the cool round glasses and the long-haired Oriental wife—was dead. Dead and gone forever! Patty Breen, who had not two weeks ago given a report called “John and Yoko: Peace Everyone,” was inconsolable. Denise Abney walked aimlessly around the room, clinging to her ponytail like a fraying rope. She didn’t know who Lennon was but couldn’t stop saying, “I hate his lousy guts!”

When the recess bell rang, Denise opened her desk for the card she made for Frankie. Everyone had to sign it, she announced, before they were allowed to eat anything at all. She encountered no resistance until she approached Dave, who was slouching in his desk, a ball point pen like a snake tongue in his mouth.

“Dead boys get no birthdays,” Dave said, flicking the card out of Denise’s hand.

Denise clutched the hem of her skirt and howled.

“David, David, I saw that,” Miss Chumley said, pointing the knife she’d been using to cut the cake. “Go to the wall this instant. Do not pass go, do not collect—”

“Two hundred dollars—I know. I know!”

“No cookies, no cake. You don’t deserve a thing.”

Dave took slow, dramatic steps to the wall, his second home at school.

The ceremony began in earnest when Sr. Marie appeared, guitar case in hand. She led them in a short prayer about God and love and life everlasting. Then, one by one, the children came up to the front of the class to offer remarks about Frankie. Some read their poems, more than a few of which rhymed “died” and “cried.” Patty Breen started in on a tear-soaked eulogy for John Lennon, and Denise stood up and declared, “Stop that now!” Heedless of her command, the other children rushed out their thoughts. Lance said that “Instant Karma” was the best song ever. Stinky George claimed that Lennon and his wife were “a bunch of nudists.” Bernadette Miller, who always chose with great care her moments to be sassy, declared him “a saint.” Miss Chumley finally restored order with clapping that sounded like gunfire from a tower.

“This is Frankie’s day,” Denise said when it was her turn in front of the class. “It’s Frankie we’re supposed to remember.” She drew her ponytail across runny eyes and began to read her poem, “The Boy Who SO Loved the World.” She tried three times, but couldn’t get past the first line. At last, Miss Chumley escorted her back to her seat, murmuring, “he most definitely did.” When John’s turn came, he read from a folded piece of notebook paper—“Frankie was good at answers”—and rushed back to his chair.

By this time, Sr. Marie had the guitar slung around her neck. After a few tweaks of the tuning knobs, she began to strum and sing “Be Not Afraid.” John felt tears roll down his face; however, since he was not the only boy crying (far from it), he made no move to wipe them away.

After a few short readings, it was time for what all the kids were waiting for. Miss Chumley, standing proudly over twenty-two paper plates of cake, clapped her hands and said:

“Okay everyone, please make a line in the center of the room.”

While the kids went up for cake, Sr. Marie strummed “I Am the Bread of Life.” Instinctively, the kids bowed heads and folded hands. John happened to glance at Dave, who was now facing the room, moving his arms up and down against the wall. He looked like a bird, or an antsy Christ.

“Here you go,” Miss Chumley said to John, thrusting out a plate of cake with a scripted O on top. Out of habit, he mumbled, “Amen.”

Back at their desks, the girls wiped their eyes and blew their noses. Even the boys could only jab half-heartedly at their cake. But soon, sugar worked its miracle, and the children began having the time of their lives. The ceremony had been sad, but John was glad to have been a part of it. The songs, the prayers, the sharing of food—the staples of ritual were so comforting to him, like dinner at 5:15 or communion at 12 o’clock mass. There was something right and true and permanent about the day-in-day-out, the week-in-week-out, the again and again and again—everything like it had been since the beginning of his time, which, of course, was the beginning of all time.

John scraped his plate and let the last of the frosting linger on his tongue. He studied the cut out snowflakes, the crayoned scenes of Christmas, the shoebox dioramas of dinosaurs, of Jesus in the manger. A Kardiac Kids poster made him think of the Browns, 10-4, the Vikings coming up, a chance (Dad had told him) to win the division and go to the playoffs and maybe even the Super Bowl. Red and green lights blinked happily around the back windows. A few real flakes of snow swirled outside, and John, only a little bit itchy in his wool sweater, imagined he was wrapped up in blankets on the couch, munching an iced toaster pastry in front of the first of a long winter morning’s worth of laugh-out-loud cartoons.

Never-to-Be

(Fall 1982-Spring 1983)

Mr. Bishop, the brand new teacher at St. James the Lesser, stood in a charcoal suit at the front of the room, reading from the class roster with the intonation of an epic movie god.

“Ce-leste Aar-on.”

Each mighty syllable shook through John’s bowels. He thought of The Ten Commandments, the grand, gaudy voices of God and Moses beside the flimsy burning bush.

“De-nise Ab-ney.”

As Mr. Bishop crossed to the other side of the room, John felt his desk vibrate with fear. Instinctively, he sat up straight, then worried he’d be too conspicuous. From the hand that dwarfed the roster sprung fingers that on Dad would have easily served as wrists. Mr. Bishop’s eyes, buried in the ruddy cliff side of the face, looked like sinkholes to eternity. Huge pimples of sweat dotted his forehead. Just one of those drops could probably drown John on the spot.

Mr. Bishop put down the roster to remove his jacket. The arms slipped and swung, and Ink flinched as huge shadows seemed to swoop over him. “I’m from Colorado—way up in the mountains,” he explained, taking some of the bass out of his boom. “Still not used to all this humidity.”

John studied the mouth—the powerful lips, teeth the size of headstones—and imagined his new teacher growing up: the first few years in a cabin in the Rocky Mountains, huge hairy feet dangling over a full-sized bed by the time he was three. His mother, fearing for life and livelihood, cast him out when he started to devour whole cows and pigs for dinner, and so with nothing but the clothes on his back he rumbled up and down the mountains with an oak tree for a club, and slept deep in a cave somewhere beside a three-headed something. Sr. Mary Grace, the principal, ever on the hunt for converts, had thrown a rope around his neck and dragged him all the way back to Northeast Ohio. Holding him down with the help of God, she had clipped his bone hard nails, sheared the excess hair, bathed him for a full week in Lake Erie, taught him the language, and stuffed him into this big black suit so he could stand in front of this group of sixth graders and make them fear for their lives.

“In-crease . . . Alt,” Mr. Bishop said, trying too late to hide the incredulous rise in his voice. John splashed his eyes around the room: Bethany Hyde put two fingers over a soft, pink smile; Stinky George Sophronia snorted so hard he had to thumb back snot; Dave Baske, thank God, was slouched at his desk, eyes closed, fat chapped lips mumbling at his dreams. John had had every intention of approaching his new teacher to ask that Increase, his given name, not be spoken aloud for all the class to hear, but when the giant appeared in the doorway, briefcase like a chocolate Graham cracker at his side, he resigned himself to ridicule.

“Is there a boy by the name of Increase on the premises?”

“Actually,” he somehow managed to begin, the second half of that word splintering into high-pitched pieces in the air. “It’s just . . . John.”

“John,” Mr. Bishop repeated, trying the name out, as if it were even stranger than the one on the roster.

“You could call him Ink,” Sandro said, his best friend suggesting a nickname he’d been calling John since the Fourth of July, when the Gismondis had taken him to see a fireworks display. “Ink!” Sandro had cried—a warning about an errant Frisbee bearing down on his skull. “Ink!” he said again, savoring the new name in his mouth. “Oh my God, that’s great. A stroke of genius!” His friend grabbed a raw hot dog from the cooler and, placing it on one of John’s shoulders and then the other, proclaimed: “I dub ye Ink!” Holding hands across camping chairs, Mr. and Mrs. Gismondi laughed heartily. Francesca, Sandro’s moody older sister, offered a grudging, “How cute.” It had been a perfect family moment.

And to think he’d almost not been allowed to go. “Something will happen,” Mom had declared, making a steeple of her arms at the kitchen table. At a celebration last year, there had been a mishap—a near-tragedy: a woman—a pregnant woman no less!—had been struck in the leg by an errant rocket and had to be “rushed” to the hospital. “And besides,” Mom continued, her monologue gathering steam, “Edgewater always draws a hundred thousand people. How can you promise me you wouldn’t get lost? Kidnapped?” Mrs. Gismondi phoned to plead her case, and after considerable time, a compromise was reached. They would go to Lakewood Park, which was safer, and had what Mom determined was a “less threatening” display. At first, John had been disappointed, but things, for once, turned out more than well enough.

Mr. Bishop said, “Hmm, is Ink okay with you?”

Ink gulped. He nodded. He was trying to say it most certainly was.

“Increase is an interesting name.”

“Buttcrease,” a voice like a cool breeze blew in from the back of the room. Eager for the opportunity, the flimsiest excuse, everyone burst out laughing.

Ink turned to see Dave straighten out of his slouch, panicky eyes darting left and right. Someone, to his horror, had beaten him to the punch.

“Oh, we have a funny man—a genuine comedian,” Mr. Bishop said. “What is your name?”

“I’m Macho,” the boy said, standing up to bow.

Mr. Bishop made a “sit down” motion with his hand. Macho obeyed, but only after flashing a broad white smile around the room.

“People,” Mr. Bishop said, clapping to disperse the giggles. “There’s nothing funny about making fun of others. Do you want me to respect you?”

Macho looked at him, devilish smile lingering.

“Because I could just write you off as a troublemaker. I could make your life difficult.”

Macho offered large palms to the sky. “Mr. Bishop sir, I didn’t mean—”

“Please apologize to . . . Ink.”

“Lo siento, mi amigo.”

“In language he can understand.”

For any other student, this would have been a moment of terrible humiliation. For Macho, still grinning away, it was sweet victory, a potent example of both his fearlessness and sensitivity. When he slouched back into his chair, a few girls sighed audibly, the delicious sound of Spanish still tickling at their ears.

*

As the school year went on, Ink wondered why no one made fun of Macho’s name, which was at the very least as ridiculous as his own. When the dark-faced boy appeared the previous fall, why had no one joked about his oversized lips, his gunked up speech? The boy spoke haltingly, sounded like Indians in cowboy movies Grandpa liked to watch; yet from that first day he captivated the boys with his frank talk of sex. He used huge smiles, sensuous eyes, and silky streams of Spanish to dazzle the pretty girls. They were especially in awe of Macho’s singular devotion to Jesus, and swooned every time he kissed the tiny gold cross around his neck before casually dipping it back under his shirt.

His allure was enhanced by the fact that he was an excellent basketball player. He had daily occasion to showcase his skills during recess, toying with the boys, most of whom had little control over their bodies. It was not uncommon for five or six of his classmates—the ones, at least, willing to endure what they convinced themselves was just a little good-natured humiliation—to surround Macho on the blacktop, trying to prevent him from getting to the basket. Flexing his brows, he would start from the top of the circle, dribbling right then left, bouncing the ball between his legs if need be before spinning his body through the flailing defenders to score an easy layup. Sometimes, in frustration, Lance Duda or Kevin O’Meara would just grab Macho’s shirt in an attempt to hold him still, but he’d make the shot anyway. He’d smile and wag a finger at them, as if they were children who should know better.

To Ink, the most impressive thing about Macho was his total freedom from deliberation. No second guessing, no umms and ahhs, no waiting for someone else to do or say. Walking back from sharpening his pencil one morning, Macho told Bethany Hyde, “You look good.” Smiling, her face reddening, she managed to say, “Shut up!” but only long after the boy was back at his seat. By Christmas break, Macho had established himself as both class heartthrob and leader, supplanting Dave Baske, who had no other choice but to remake himself into a brooding loner. Macho’s influence, his rapid rise to power, made Ink seethe. He began to fantasize about the ways the dark boy might be destroyed—with bombs, rayguns, laserbeams and anything else his fantasy novels could help him imagine.

*

Sunday afternoon, the Cavaliers played the Celtics. Earlier, there’d been church and leaf raking, but afterward, Dad suggested they sit down together and watch the end of the game. World B. Free, the only star player for Cleveland, made two jump shots in a row, and the Cavs pulled within six. But then Larry Bird, whom Sandro’s father always called The Very Last of the Great White Hopes, began to go to work. A jump shot here, an assist there, a steal followed by a behind-the-back pass to Kevin McHale, another splendid if less spectacular white guy. Slow, ugly, awkward, Bird was nevertheless a superstar, a millionaire, a world champion. Limitations, the lesson seemed to be, weren’t the end of the world. In ten years, perhaps, he might be really something, but right this minute, Macho was the unquestioned king of the class while Ink, who’d been at St. James since the very beginning, remained a total nobody.

After dinner, he wrote up a book report for school at the dining room table. Dad had his nose in a book called The Complete History of Flight. He’d skip around such obese tomes, uttering cries of appreciation and surprise and meticulously recording his favorite tidbits of information in a small spiral notebook he kept on the end table next to his chair. There were all kinds of categories: “Famous Firsts,” “American History,” “War,” “Out of This World.” When the notebooks were finished, he put them in the bookcase for future reference.

“Laura Ingalls,” Dad said, as if he were announcing the name of a guest at a ball.

Mom glanced up from her crossword puzzle, mouthing a word that might fit into a long train of squares.

“Did you know,” he continued, eyes dipping back into the book to get the details just right. “She holds the record for the longest solo flight by a woman. 17,000 miles!”


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