by Ian Donnell Arbuckle
Part 1 and Part 3|
appear in this issue
|part 2 of 3|
“No,” he said, stretching the syllable as if to give me more time to realize what a stupid question it had been. I just kept grinning. The sun slid out from behind a cloud and got me in the eyes, so I squinted them shut. That must have been what did it; Angelo saw his own expression thieved and turned back on him, miniaturized like a third-grader’s stupid hand puppet.
His eyes drifted open, and I could almost see the spark of realization traveling backward along the nerve to his brain. He took one step forward which was enough to put all his weight right across my toes, then he gave me the tiniest shove on the breastbone.
Unable to move my feet to balance myself, I took a quick tumble to the graveled roof and landed in a lobster crawl. I’m not very tall, gravity got me hard enough to scrape the skin off the heels of my hands. I landed right behind a girl and sprayed a couple pebbles across her ankles. I glanced up and saw her legs climbing into the folds of her skirt, and her panties between them. They had hearts on them.
The girl turned and slapped her arms against the sides of her skirt, pinning them down. “Mister Tripp!” she yelled. “He looked up my skirt!”
Mister Tripp gazed over at me between the other students, a bowling ball in one hand and a book in the other. I felt a rush of heat in my face that I would have loved to attribute to having been close to the roof and the radiation caught and reflected from the sun. I would have been all right with Angelo just pushing me down. He always had detention after school, so it wasn’t hard to get away from him; just wait until the bell rings, and then it was freedom in several ways.
Making me look like an idiot in front of Mister Tripp was what really burned. Mister Tripp had been Lucky’s favorite teacher when he was in grade school. The first thing Mister Tripp had said to me, reading attendance on the first day of school, had been, “Now there’s an illustrious last name.” Then he had written “illustrious” on the blackboard, and I knew I was going to like him. When the principal called me away from class to tell me that Lucky had died, Mister Tripp had come with me, and kept his warm hand on the back of my neck for the whole, cold hour.
“I’m sorry,” I said. I pushed myself up to my feet. When I dusted off my hands, little flakes of skin came off.
“Do you need to see the nurse?” asked Mister Tripp.
“It’s okay, Mister Tripp,” said Angelo. “Homos don’t like what they see.” Some people giggled. The girl with the heart-speckled panties blushed.
“Keep your insights to yourself, Angelo,” said Mister Tripp. “I won’t stand for that kind of bigotry in my classroom.”
“It’s all right,” I said.
“We’re not in the classroom,” said Angelo.
“Come here, please,” said Mister Tripp, beckoning to Angelo. The big kid snorted himself into motion like a steam engine. I slipped back to the edge of the group and kicked flat designs in the gravel at my feet. Mister Tripp started up his lecture again but I only tuned in halfway. I was thinking about the thickness of the roof, and wondering how long it would hold our weight. My stomach gave a cold shudder.
“When I say so, drop the ball,” said Mister Tripp. He had given the bowling ball to Angelo, and was holding the book spine-down over the edge. “Three, two—” Angelo heaved the ball over the edge before Mister Tripp got to one. My classmates rushed the edge and peered over, but the drum thump of the ground bending under the impact had already shook up through our ears before they could see what had happened.
“Yes, thank you, Angelo. You’ll be staying after class.” There was an expression of disapproval on Mister Tripp’s face, but Angelo probably couldn’t see it, because he was grinning.
Mister Tripp asked one of the other kids to run downstairs and retrieve the bowling ball. While the kid was gone, Mister Tripp talked about wind resistance and friction. I listened to this part; it made me wonder about how it was down the hole, with all the wind pulling inward, greedy for something instead of slowing its fall. I paid such close attention that I didn’t notice Angelo sneaking up behind me. He wrapped his arms around my shoulders in a bear hug and my stomach tightened up, kinda like being hungry. He smelled like my bedroom in winter when I keep the window shut for whole months.
“Bet you drop faster than a dumb book,” he grunted in my ear. He laughed, loud enough for everyone to hear and to make my head hurt. I kicked my legs to get free, but I couldn’t find purchase. He hauled me over to the edge of the roof and, with one great forward thrust of his hips, shoved me out so that the playground twenty feet down was the only thing underneath me. My sense of the present dropped right out of me, and all I had left was a bunch of imagination, spinning reels of me falling and making a thud like a six-pound bowling ball. Mister Tripp yelled some wordless syllables, and my bladder let go. I caught it before it got too far — I checked afterward, and only saw a tiny stain by the zipper — but it was enough to get my briefs sickly hot and then cold.
Someone yanked hard on Angelo’s shoulders and I heard his shoes trip backward. He let me go. My butt hit the lip of the roof hard; I felt the pain come center on my tailbone. I threw my weight behind me and landed in a crab-walk again. The thing I remember most is that sharp rocks got me right in the places the skin had been scraped off before, and I wondered if it would have been better never to hit the ground.
* * *
That night I only had a little bit of time to play in the forest, since dad had this big plan to take us out to dinner and rent movies. I dashed off the bus before the pneumatic doors had squeaked all the way open, darted into my room and changed out of my damp underwear. With a tossed-off promise to be back in time to wash up, I went out to the garage and dug out one of our camping flashlights before jogging out to the forest.
The slow vacuum of the hole rustled the trees like happens before a good storm. I got down on my knees a good five feet from the edge and approached on my knuckles, trying to keep the dirt out of my scrapes. The suction from the hole pulled all my favorite smells of the forest right past my nostrils: the moss, the wood rot, the creek.
I switched on the flashlight and aimed it down the walls. They were rough, dark brown, and broken open by webs of thick roots that just seemed to stop a few inches out. I shined the light further down, but there was too much dark and not enough battery power. For as far as I could see, the walls looked the same. If you were in a room with those kinds of walls, you’d never be able to tell north from south.
I just kinda lay my head on one hand and propped the light so it shone about as far down the hole as the school’s roof was above the ground. It started to rain, just a little — more a smell than a sensation. My head filled with the sound of the creek, the lap of small waves, and the scent of water.
It made me remember a time a couple years back, when Lucky had taken me to the public pool for a swimming lesson. I was already mad at him that day because earlier he had punched me in the shoulder for standing too long with the refrigerator open. The muscles hurt deep where his fist had landed, and he wanted me to try a butterfly stroke while he leaned against the pool wall, his arms out of the water and crooked back like wings. One of his friends — Michael? Gabe? — was sitting in the lifeguard tower near the deep end chatting with him, white sunblock caked up on his nose.
I did a couple of laps until Lucky stopped watching, and then I practiced swimming as slowly as I could. When you swim slow, you swim quiet, so I played a game where I got as close to Lucky as I could without him knowing it.
Under the water, his skin was pasty and leopard-spotted. His trunks were a dark something, purple or red, like the Cowardly Lion’s robe. I inched closer by degrees, causing too much of a ruckus when I reversed direction, and gradually learning to slip in circles like a submarine.
At my bravest, I got close enough to touch my brother, so I did. I turned my right hand into a torpedo and I got him right under his xylophone ribcage. Through the water in my ears, he sounded like a sick dinosaur. He caught me under the armpits and lifted me right out of the water. The lifeguard was laughing, and Lucky joined in, both of them aiming their mouths at some point away from me so I only caught the reflections.
“That’s good,” said Lucky. “Now you ought to try it over here.”
I hadn’t realized we were so close to the deep end. I breathed in to shriek just as Lucky let me go, and sucked chlorine in my mouth. I coughed, but it was still in there, so I swallowed it down. For a few seconds, bubbles from the surface trailed the zig-zags of my feet and fingers, but then they floated away and it was just pure water, wave-shadows mottled on my skin. I could taste the chemicals high up in my nose and kicked down with both legs. My throat caught on a bubble of something, and I tried to spit it out; it came up as a scream. I felt as if I were spitting all the tones the human body can produce, but all I could hear was a high-pitched, mosquito whine, cutting into my ears.
Lucky’s hands found one elbow and one wrist and I saw his white legs kick out like a fish’s tail. I wanted to bite him, but my head was in the wrong direction. I screamed again, and god I wanted to be more than a mosquito. He kicked again, and I caught a glimpse of his toes, painted dark something like his swim trunks. It took me a couple seconds to realize it when he got me above the surface, because of all the water spilling out my nose and mouth.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” Lucky was saying. “Here, come here. It’s all right.” His skin was warm, and all of the sudden I realized the water was cold. “Grab on, hey. Grab on.” We were at the edge. I put both hands on the concrete lip and hooked my chin between them. “You were just here,” said Lucky. “Okay? Are you all right?” He chuckled through his teeth. “You did all right here, yeah? Put your legs down. Come on, put your legs down.”
I bunched my fists tighter on the concrete; it was warmer than Lucky. I let my legs uncurl, sliding them toes-first down in the wall. “It’s over your head right here,” said Lucky. “See that? You were playing in it.”
I looked up. The lifeguard was leaning forward in his tower, right above me, hiding behind an umbrella shadow and sunglasses. “Yeah,” I said to Lucky.
“Yeah? You were doing all right. Once it’s over your head it doesn’t matter. All right? It’s just water on down.”
The rain was starting to seep through my clothes and puddle on the small of my back. I switched off the flashlight and tried to scrape some new mud off my hands. I hadn’t had a brave face then, at the pool; I hadn’t really known what one looked like. Since then, I had had plenty of time to remember how I should have been, when the water was over my head. Almost everywhere in the pool, it was over my head. I knew what a brave face ought to look like, and sometimes I had myself convinced that I had worn it all the way through the deep end.
Whether I had or not, I put it on to go have dinner with dad. I made him rent a PG-13, which had thematic elements and violence, and during the boring parts I caught him admiring my face in the dull and shifting blue of the screen.
* * *
Somehow it got back to my dad that Angelo had tried to throw me off the school’s roof. He set up a meeting with the principal of the school, and Mister Tripp, and Angelo’s parents. For some reason, he set it for a weekend. I was supposed to go along, but Angelo was there, too, and after a few minutes of sitting in the room with whispers from our parents, Mister Tripp told me I could wait on the playground.
It was weird, playing on the big toy with no one else pushing for space. I sat at the top of the slide and no one yelled at me to hurry up and move. There was a crossbar right above me, built to keep people from shoving the younger kids over, I think, but I used it to swing myself back and forth, building up and then canceling my momentum. After one massive pump of my elbows I let myself go. I kept my arms up in the air as I slid down, and couldn’t help grinning at how the air all got out of my way. I closed my eyes so I couldn’t see the bottom.
The ground came up sooner than I had expected. The soles of my shoes caught at an awkward angle on the unturned dirt and sent me head-over-heels. My eyes snapped open on reflex just about the time my hands went up to shield my face. My skin scraped on the hard-pack, right on the places that hadn’t healed from when Angelo dropped me on the roof.
Copyright © 2006 by Ian Donnell Arbuckle