The cafeteria’s gloom paradoxically buoyed my spirit.
The smell of industrially packaged food reheated over the course of seventy-five years of my school’s existence made me think about the past and present and how, if things worked out, the future – period six – would present me with a new life.
The windows, too, no longer appeared restrictive. Covered from the outside with crisscrossed metal, the windows’ patina of dirt, built up from the impossibility of cleaning these fenced panes of glass, looked like a complex study in grey.
The orange tables, a leftover from the freakish last generation, made me think of lollipops. On a mission to free myself I suddenly thought that the glass was half full. I vowed to go on missions more often.
I saw CJ Stark sitting in her Buddha squat up on the stage. The stage, a reminder that once upon a time the cafeteria was the school’s auditorium, now served as a storage site for the wrestling teams rolled up mats.
“No period two?” I asked CJ.
“I have an agreement with Mr. Blok – anytime Mrs. Kerr lectures on the industrial age I may leave.”
“You have a sweet gig. All for not being able to stop crying.”
“Yes Brink, that’s all what it’s about. And you, no responsibility to be anywhere? Can’t you see I’m meditating?”
“I am officially cutting class. For I have a mission.”
“I would like a mission.”
“What about your club?”
“That’s not a mission. That’s politics.”
“Maybe you would like to help with mine?’
“I’d prefer one of my own. What do you have?”
“In about two hours Stanley Wraithe will approach me with outstretched hands expecting $100. I must pay him that amount. Then, approximately two hours later I will leave school with Carrie, buy two bus tickets and head for the city.”
“I saw you sitting with her at a meeting. You know her?”
“I like Carrie Unser. Even though she scowls. You know she was rude to me.”
“She can do rude. You probably deserved it.”
“Why do you say that? What have I done?”
“You ask too many questions. And you sound paranoid. Relax.”
“She’s mysterious. I like that she doesn’t talk. I would like to cultivate silence.”
“Carrie can talk.”
“But she doesn’t. Isn’t that something – to be able to do something that everyone expects you to do, but you choose not to. She must be very sturdy.”
“She’s more than a little scattered.”
“No, Brink, you’re wrong. Carrie Unser is in complete control. I watch her. She has the sense skill of an animal. Animals don’t talk. They just are. I want to be more animal-like.”
“Animals don’t cry.”
“That’s part of my point Brink. You know, Wraithe is enormous and looks dangerous. I would like to hang out with him.”
“No you wouldn’t. He likes guns and he abuses small things.”
“Why are you involved with him?”
“I’m his middle man.”
“For what? What do you think? God, you Stark girls are out to lunch.”
“Hey, don’t say anything bad about my sister. What’s she done to you?”
“Right, right, okay, sorry. What I mean is that you have it made and you don’t even know it.”
“You have the perfect life, the perfect parents, gobs of money and you’re hot and smart.”
“I’m hardly hot and Emma’s the smart one in the family. And we don’t value money. Oh, and I found my Uncle Grant hanging in the downstairs bathroom. Sound like I have everything?”
“That explains the tears.”
“You are a sharp one Brink.”
“You saying something?”
“Come on, knock it off – your mission?”
“Right, Wade Castle is in the hospital and owes me money.”
“I hear that’s a rumor. Word is he made a fool of himself in yesterday’s ball game and he’s too embarrassed to show his face.”
“What did he do?”
“Who cares enough about Wade Castle to know?”
“I do. Besides, Wilkins interrupted Mrs. Kerr’s lecture on tariffs. How could he get it so wrong?”
“Wilkin’s a psychotic idiot.”
“But who did you hear this from?”
“Unimportant. Tell me about your plan for the city.”
“I have no real plan. My share of the profits gets me and Carrie bus tickets, we head to the city and shack up in some dump for a couple of nights. I’d figure out the rest from there. I’m quick on my feet.”
“Running away sounds attractive.”
“Stark, this has nothing to do with attractive. It’s about desperation.”
“Why so desperate?”
“Don’t have the time.”
“Tell me and I’ll contribute to your fund.”
“Got sixty bucks on me. At lunch we can head to Franklin’s and I’ll tap their ATM for the rest.”
“You Starks are made out of gold!”
“Lay off the family stuff! We’re a family, okay; we fart and have moments of extreme hatred towards one another. What do you have that’s so desperate? It better be good, for $200.”
“Mr. Dykstra gave me five bucks. Only need 195.”
“Well, aren’t you an entrepreneur!”
CJ feigned interest in my story. It did stop her from crying, and for that, not my story, she agreed to front me the entire $195.
She would meet me and Carrie at lunch and we’d all walk to Franklin’s and she’d tap the ATM. But that left me $35 short of my obligation to Wraithe. Period two neared its end. I had forty-five minutes to find the rest.
After telling her my story, CJ said “That isn’t so bad.”
She had silenced me. I had no worthy answer. But I am convinced that things are bad. Why was it so bad?
The badness stemmed from a void.
The emptiness was not a consequence of too much abstract thinking. It operated on me like an organ. At times I knowingly sensed it, like my heartbeat, but also like my heartbeat, it thumped on without me realizing it was there. Unlike a heartbeat, it reminded me of things I couldn’t resolve: vague fear, inadequacy, a demand I do things.
The last was particularly problematic.
Books influenced me. Not all in a positive way. Last year Miss Quinsinberry had our class read Ben Franklin’s Autobiography. This guy woke each morning convinced he would improve himself. He kept notes on his progress.
I couldn’t believe how anyone could be so anal. But the whole damn thing had infiltrated me. No, it infected me. I started to perform comparable self-inspections. I felt besieged by a microscopic police state.
My ardor for Carrie began at this point, during one of Quinsinberry’s group discussions. Carrie had transferred to our school two years earlier. She came across as a Marilyn Manson type. I could not believe she would survive one minute at our school, with the likes of Wraithe prowling the halls for a victim.
But she walked about like a mist, right through the abuse, able to disarm bullies, for they only knew how to operate when a victim shrank. Carrie simply glided through. She kept to herself and never spoke. She gained a reputation for being an enigma. Bullies ignored enigmas. Confusion upset them.
Constance Perry led our discussion on Franklin’s list. A perfectly capable moderator, I viewed her bland confidence as a threat. But Constance could not be baited, even when I railed against Franklin’s eleventh virtue.
“Tranquility: Be not disturbed at Trifles, or at Accidents common or unavoidable.” It’s not human to ignore trifles,” I began.
“But they are small,” Constance said. “Why get worked up over small things?”
“Nothing is small. Everything minor is major,” I answered.
“If your ego is so fragile,” Carrie said.
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“You get angry not because of the trifle, but because of your ego.”
“Okay Miss Freud, I’m all ears.”
“If you erased your ego, then you would not become angry.”
“That echoes number nine, moderation,” Gus Vogel announced.
“Oh, does it? Going to enlighten me Gus?”
“Avoid Extremes. Forbear resenting Injuries so much as you think they deserve.” Sounds pretty simple.”
“Simple, yes, I see.”
“Do you? You know you shouldn’t be so hostile. Some of these things make a lot of sense. Take ten - Cleanliness: Tolerate no Uncleanness in Body, Clothes, or Habitation.”
“Gus, you sound ridiculous. He wrote that hundreds of years ago. We’re all clean! It’s the 21st century!”
“Brink, you are so dominating the conversation with unnecessary vitriol. Let’s be productive,” Constance said.
“You want productive? Okay how’s this: Chastity: Rarely use Venery but for Health or Offspring; Never to Dullness, Weakness, or the Injury of your own or another’s Peace or Reputation. Spoken by a man who sired an illegitimate son who fathered his own bastard. Quite a “Father” of our country. Besides, are you telling me Constance, you are against venery?”
“I am preserving myself for my lifetime mate.”
“Good luck with the weirdo you intend to rope in with that dead philosophy.”
I clammed up, trying to practice virtue number two. Carrie smiled at me and rubbed my toe with hers. She had lately transformed herself from the Marilyn Manson look to a pixie. I always thought Tinker Bell was hot.
I asked her which virtue she found repulsive.
“I find all virtues repulsive.”
She hooked me good.
But that Franklin messed me up. I couldn’t shake virtues four and six.
RESOLUTION. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
INDUSTRY. Lose no time; be always employ’d in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
No one wanted to be without resolve, nor to lose time. Who doesn’t hope to be employed in something useful? Teachers should be screamed at for stuffing us with this. Don’t they know what it does to the type of student who doesn’t know what to ‘perform’? And why does it have to be useful?
The one thing I could do with any skill and interest was draw – and they cut the arts. What am I supposed to do that’s useful? Join the football team?
“You’re not the first student to find no purpose at school,” CJ said “You know, don’t you, it was never designed for people like you. It only serves conformists.”
“Are you a conformist?”
“I cry all day.”
“Right. So you’ve accepted it, in your way.”
“Brink, just because I’m crying doesn’t mean I’ve lost my logic. What are you talking about?”
“You listened to Blok, made your club, and established yourself as a presence. My gosh, you’re on stage for all to see! You want to be accepted by these fools. And look – it’s working.”
“Brink, I’m not sure I like what you’re saying.”
“Don’t take it that way Stark. I wish had had something to do – some resolve. Useful? You have a following so somebody finds you useful.”
“You’re a member. What makes you so independent?”
“I’m not Stark, that’s why I’m catching a bus. Look, I am not like Constance Perry who is propelled by what the school offers. I want to reduce the lie of living to doormat status.”
“I’ll wipe my feet. I have to find Carrie. See you for lunch.”
CJ closed her eyes, adjusted her butt, pinched thumbs and forefingers and tried to squeeze back her tears.