This is a preview of the young adult novel Anti-Hype. It is a humorous book about zine-making and ADHD. If you like what you read, you can by the eBook on Amazon.
Big Mistakes and Lucky Breaks
I was discharged from the tombs of Marmoset Hospital on a misty Sunday morning in September, and let me tell you, I was damn glad to be out of there. Being hooked up to a heart monitor all the time and sleeping in a sterile hospital bed sucks. I couldn’t stop thinking about the people who had slept there before me. Strangers who had died after a long battle with some incurable disease. I know the attendants changed the sheets and blankets, but there was a lingering spirit in the cloth that gave me the creeps. I woke up in the middle of the night a few times and went down to the emergency room just to get out of there. The hallways were shockingly bright, and someone was always mopping. None of the nurses on the late shift paid attention to me. I’d be half naked in my pink gown and foam slippers, reading the tabloids and watching the madness unfold. There was a constant low and aching moan coming from people who wanted to be seen. It gave me a headache after a while. The bleeders were the ones that got the attention. I was waiting for an EMT to come crashing through the double doors with a gurney, but that never happened. They probably had a separate entrance, come to think of it. The emergency room wasn’t actually very chaotic. When someone came in with an injury, a triage nurse walked out calmly and inspected it. Then they would bring the patient back for some painkillers or wound treatment. Everything seemed like a routine.
The physician, Dr. Ramajani, diagnosed me with ventricular tachycardia, which means my heart was beating extremely fast. But my heart rate had been steady since the day I was admitted, so I wasn’t too worried, even though a pamphlet I read said that it was “potentially life-threatening.” I was unconscious when I arrived at the hospital, so my memory was spotty. One minute I was hanging out with my friend Darryl Humphrey and the next thing I know I’m waking up in a recovery room. I bet my mom was pulling her hair out and smoking menthols on the way over. She only smoked when she was stressed, and I can imagine how terrified she was, rushing to the hospital to see her only son in a bed with an IV in his arm. Teenage heart attacks aren’t very common, so she must have freaked. That would be a cool song title: “Teenage Heart Attack.”
While I pretended to sleep, I overheard the cardiologist tell my mom he wasn’t sure about the diagnosis. It almost made me crack. They’re supposed to be experts, and sometimes they don’t even ask the right questions. I had swallowed a handful of Xeroin pills, my attention-deficit meds. I knew it was a stupid thing to do, but nothing like this had ever happened before. That wasn’t the story I was going to tell my mom, obviously. She would have put me through the ringer, cut off my hands, sent me to boarding school. Maybe that last part was too cliché. But that was where it all began. File it under Life Lessons. Or something corny like that.
– – –
When my mom came to pick me up I knew I was in for a miserable ride. I was still in my gown, and felt the breeze of her fury run down my back. She walked into the clinic and went straight to the nurse’s station, sending a slight glance my way. Her sagging, exhausted eyes said, Finch, I’m locking you in the basement for eternity. That was harsh, Mom. Not that I didn’t deserve it. I brought the punishment upon myself. She spoke to the attendant for a second and signed my release—my release into a world of torture, that is. It was a world I knew quite well, for I was a prince of mischief. At least that’s what they said. They being the school counselors and gym teachers, the scout leaders and hedge-clipping neighbors. There would be much hand-wringing in my future, I was sure of that. She was constantly washing her hands of me. And when I asked her why she couldn’t come up with a better analogy, she pretzeled my arms and hosed me down in the backyard. Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit. But she did, on occasion, dump a glass of water on my head at the dinner table—once she even reached for a container of grape juice. I hated that, and she must have known it, because it usually kept me in line for a fortnight. That’s right. I just said fortnight. I’ve read a few things. Mostly graphic novels and Shock Notes, if those count. If someone called me an idiot, I called them an imbecile or a half-wit. I liked that one. Nimrod, too. But I only used that under special circumstances, like when Brian Boyle jumped out of a moving van to impress Kristi T. and broke both of his arms. Acting like he was a goddamn Green Beret. We were carpooling, for chrissakes. Nimrod.
My mom approached me, shuffling along in her furry boots and looking older than her forty-two years. She shook her head with disapproval and said, “Let’s go.” I noticed the gray creeping into her shaggy brown hair and knew she didn’t want to be tested. At my worst I would have asked her why she hadn’t gone to the salon to get it dyed. But I had screwed up royally, so I was trying to keep the snaps to a minimum.
I followed her to our Swedish station wagon and noticed that a hubcap had fallen off. I didn’t say anything, though. Somewhere in Long Island, a lonely tin saucer was lying on the edge of a highway, crushed and abandoned. As she reached for the door handle, the dispirited woman standing in for my mother turned to me.
“Where are your clothes?” she asked, blunt as a butter knife.
“In my backpack. Can I drive?”
“I think I’m ready,” I said, buckling up—click it or ticket. “Maybe you could sign me up for drivers ed.”
“Why not?” I knew why, of course.
“Lock it up, Chandler. You’re lucky I haven’t strangled you, yet.”
I looked down at my slippers and wiggled my toes. I wondered if she had told my father. He wouldn’t have been surprised. I was constantly the subject of their arguments. For all I knew, I was the reason they got divorced. He was probably happy that my mom had primary custody. We didn’t have much in common. He wore his Giants jersey while watching the Sunday football games on television, which I thought was ridiculous. If I hadn’t thrown like a gimp and bugged out all the time, we would have been closer. That was my take, anyway.
“Where’s Zoe?” To clarify, Zoe was my twelve-year-old sister.
“She’s at a friend’s house.”
“Which friend?” I jiggled the lever on the seat. It wouldn’t budge.
“Chandler, I’m going to turn on the radio now, and I don’t want to hear a peep until we get home. Got it?”
I nodded, heeding her request.
We drove along the expressway as the fog lifted. The same oldies that had been on the radio for my entire life were playing. Mostly Motown and doo-wop. When are we going to get a new batch of classics? That’s what I wanted to know. Music was what I cared about most in the world, though I couldn’t play a lick to save my life. I was tempted to fiddle with the knob, but that would have pissed off the driver even more. I gazed out the window instead, reading license plate numbers and crushing the heads of passengers with my thumb and index finger. The victims were defenseless against my astonishing strength, my killer squeeze. But those tiny people didn’t hold my attention for long. Nothing ever did. So I began to fidget. I kept time with the beat of a Temptations tune, drummed my thighs. When the song ended the DJ cut to a commercial for an auto parts store. Brake pads, mufflers, windshield wipers—they were selling the hell out of ‘em. The ad reminded me that I couldn’t drive, that I would probably be taking the bus until I died. I hated the bus. The regulars smelled like canned tuna, the seats were filthy, and every now and then a bag lady or some nutcase sat down and started talking to me like I was their therapist. What could I do for them? I couldn’t even take care of myself.
While waiting for the music to return, the blinking kicked in. I usually only blinked when I was anxious. It was a real problem at school, especially when the class was staring at me. I couldn’t control it. The pediatrician said it was a side effect of the medication I was on: sustained-release Xeroin DM. Since I had downed about thirty pills a couple days earlier, I was prepared for a blink-heavy week. But preparation didn’t make it any better. There were so many things running through my mind and I couldn’t get them in order. I was stressed about going back to school and worried that I would be disowned by my parents, sent to the kennel to live with the rest of the undeserving maggots. I knew I was in for it, one way or another. As we pulled into the garage, a sense of doom swept over me. When I heard the chain rumbling and the big door came down, the feeling was amplified.
I went quietly into the house, trying not to draw attention to myself. That proved to be impossible. My mom popped out of the car and told me to change my clothes and meet her in the kitchen. The kitchen was better than the living room because the living room was where the serious conversations took place—interventions and discussions about my behavior. We’d had many of those over the years. My father was only allowed to enter the house under such regrettable circumstances. Otherwise he had to honk the horn and wait on the driveway. The two of them didn’t get along very well. Sometimes she referred to him as a manslut, for reasons that don’t need to be explained. I called him El Jefe, because he was a bank manager. I think it made him feel important, too.
After changing into jeans and a black T-shirt, I dragged my feet to the kitchen where my mother was making a pot of coffee. I was careful not to let our eyes meet.
“Can I have a cup?” I asked.
“Grab a mug from the cupboard.”
I picked a mug with a picture of a whale that came from a Mystic Seaport souvenir shop. I was allowed to have coffee in the morning because it helped me concentrate for a couple hours. Without it, I became the most obnoxious student in the universe, blurting out whatever came to mind and running laps around the desks like a jackrabbit on a sugar rush. One cup a day was my limit. If I drank any in the evening I never fell asleep. And I didn’t sleep much, anyway.
“So, are you going to tell me what happened, or do I have to pry it out of your mouth?” my mother asked.
“Do you want the short version or the long?”
“Just tell me the truth. We’ll go from there.”
I took a sip and rewound my memory to the previous Friday. I was at Darryl’s house and we were playing Nuclear Destroyer, a role-playing game where you have to keep a mad scientist from blowing up the planet. It was pretty solid. When we got bored of that we made some prank calls to our teachers, disguising our voices as Super Guido and Heavy Breather. We pretended to be looking for a Brazilian wax. After that we talked about girls we weren’t getting anywhere with. That depressed me, so I asked Darryl if he would dare me to swallow the rest of my Xeroin. He said it was a terrible idea, possibly dangerous. But I laughed at danger, which turned out to be a stupid laugh. I don’t know what my intentions were. I guess I was flexing my ego. Darryl warned me again as I began counting out the capsules. He said he didn’t want to call an ambulance and would kick my ass if I had a seizure. I told him not to worry, I could make myself vomit. He shook his head and I made a smiley face with the pills on the carpet. Then I devoured them, scooping a handful and chasing my prescription snack with swigs of water. Darryl was bug-eyed and gaping at me, bewildered by my unhealthy appetite. A half hour later I felt my heart racing. I began to sweat all over and a sharp pain shot through my chest. Darryl was hovering over me, asking if I was all right, but I couldn’t even speak. So he reached for a phone and dialed 911. That was all I remembered. I blacked out and woke up in the hospital.
I met an old timer named Alfred one night. He smelled like talcum powder and was waiting for a doctor to check out a heart murmur or something like that. I told him there was a problem with my heart, too. We bonded. I tried to give him a pound but he thought I was just showing him my knuckles. We sorted it out, though I was worried about bruising his brittle blue hands with my fist. I asked him if he had osteoporosis and he said, “No, just a heart condition.” He said he had a pacemaker. I had heard of a pacemaker, but I didn’t exactly know what they were or how they worked. I had always pictured a portable device, the size of a cell phone, with a graphic equalizer that flashed along with the boom-bap of your heartbeat’s rhythm. Alfred had a deck of cards and we played gin rummy. I asked him if he brought a deck of cards wherever he went and he said, “Only when I’m going to be counting the hours.” He said he passed the time with Patience. I asked him if it was his job to entertain the hospital’s patients, or if he was a volunteer. He shook his head and told me that Patience was another name for Solitaire. I said, “Oh, I knew that.” But I really didn’t, and I think he could tell that I was lying. He was surprisingly sharp for a senior citizen, and a bit vulgar. Not afraid to drop the F-bomb. He let one slip because everyone else was getting called and he had been waiting forever. I didn’t hang out with his crowd very often—I should give them more credit.
As I was saying, pops was a card shark. He beat me three times in a row before I started to get annoyed. I told him I wanted to let him win because he looked like he’d had a rough day. He said, “Sure kid,” and I knew that he knew I was making an excuse. They finally called Alfred’s name after he’d been waiting there for two hours. He gave me the deck of cards, which were red with paisley patterns on the back and big numbers on the face. His eyesight must have been getting worse. Then again, he wasn’t wearing any glasses. Maybe he had contacts. Or maybe he preferred the big numbers because he was concerned about his opponent’s vision. I guess that’s unlikely. He was his own opponent. The point is, he left me this deck of cards, and it’s not every day that an old timer bestows a gift you can actually use. It doesn’t matter how much it costs. And I liked Solitaire. It settled my mind. I started calling it Loner’s Poker. I doubt I was the first person to come up with that.
“Chandler, are you with me?”
“Sorry, Mom. I was thinking.”
“I’m still waiting.”
I rolled my neck and came up with a white lie.
“It was an accident. I mean, it was my fault, but I didn’t intend for it to happen. It was unfortunate. I was at Darryl’s house doing homework. We were working on a boring project and I got distracted, so we started wrestling for a minute. When we were done, and about to start studying again, I picked up my bottle of pills. I tried to shake one into my mouth, but almost all of them spilled out and I choked. Down they went.” I shrugged to make it seem like gravity was partially to blame. She just folded her arms.
“Hmm. That is, to use your words, unfortunate. How did Darryl react?”
I whiffed the hazelnut aroma and considered this for a moment.
“He did his best to help. He tried to do the Heimlich Maneuver, but I guess he did it wrong. I think he broke one of my ribs, actually. I don’t know what happened after that because I passed out. Almost instantly.”
That sounded fairly believable, I thought.
“Why were you carrying your meds in the first place?”
“I don’t know. In case of an emergency?”
“I can’t think of a single situation where you would need a whole bottle of Xeroin. Can you?”
“I would have brought my pillbox, but I left it somewhere. It’s not coming back.”
She was impatiently tapping her foot. I was ready for steam to whistle out of her ears. I swear that had actually happened before.
“I know there are spares in the bathroom.”
“There are, but I wasn’t planning ahead. That was my bad.”
“Yes, that was your bad. Can you tell me again how every single pill ended up in your stomach? I find it hard to fathom that you weren’t able to spit any out and that you didn’t stick your fingers in your mouth.” Her voice was edgy, close to eruption. I clenched my teeth.
“I told you, it was an accident.” How could it have been an accident? Did the pills jump out of the bottle and force their way down my throat? No. It wasn’t an accident. It was a thoughtless decision.
“Chandler, explain to me—no. On second thought, don’t. I don’t want to hear another explanation. I want you to go to your room and think about how this affects me. You could have died. Do you even realize that? I am so unbelievably upset right now. When are you going to see that your actions have consequences? What am I supposed to do with you? You won’t listen to me, and Lord knows what goes on at your father’s house.” She took a deep breath and went on. “This is what’s going to happen. You’re going to go to your room and I’m going to bring you your lunch and dinner like a prison guard. You’re in solitary confinement until tomorrow. I’ve already taken your laptop, so I suggest you do some homework.”
“I kind of need my computer. I have to write an essay,” I protested.
“Write it by hand.”
“It’s supposed to be typed.”
“In that case, here’s what we’ll do. You will write the assignment in pen, and in the morning I will watch you type it up.”
“That’s going to take hours.”
“Then you’ll get up early. This is the beginning of a new regime, and I am the dictator.”
I was annoyed, but I had to respect her. She was drawing a line in the sand. A line I would find a way to smother.
“March,” she dictated.
Like a good boy, I obeyed her command. I goose-stepped to my room and shut the door behind me. I could have easily knocked out the screen and snuck out the window. In the words of SAT prep, I could have defenestrated myself to freedom. Flee before I became the neighborhood bubble boy. But I wasn’t going to do that. She would have burned me at the stake. I was supposed to be thinking about consequences and repercussions, but does anyone really mull over their wrongdoings when they’re told to? I was well aware of what I’d done, and I knew I had eight more lives. I wasn’t going to waste another on a self-imposed dare—at least not one involving Xeroin. It wasn’t even ten yet, so I had the rest of the day to figure out how I would spin my story when the gossip queens revved up the rumor mill. I was exaggerating about my homework—that was a cake walk. All things considered, I got off easy. I just had to wait it out until I was on parole. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been so optimistic.
The Celebrity Defect
The following morning I awoke at six and prepared to face the paparazzi. I loofahed my armpits, shaved the wisps of peach fuzz with my mom’s pink razor, and donned a flannel shirt that made me look like a respectable hog farmer. I had to pass muster with the boss lady, hence the formality. I even combed my hair, an unruly mop clumped with dandruff. I was fine with bedhead and clothes straight out of the hamper most of the time, but I had to impress some folks, and I never impressed anybody. If we’re talking about first impressions, that’s a different story. I was an ace when it came to blowing those. Once my father introduced me to one of his girlfriends. Her name was Yvonne or Vanna, or something that made me think she frequently called in to the Home Shopping Network. (Tell us about your bedazzled cheese grater, Yvonnevan.) Over a dinner of chicken and biscuits I proceeded to call out every one of Yvonnevan’s apparent faults, starting with the hideous mole on her cheek and ending with the limp-wristed way she held a fork. Suffice it to say, she never returned. Or maybe I was just never invited to swing by when she was around. Whatever. She smelled like a dead pine tree.
I walked into the kitchen and my mom was in a baggy sweatshirt and sweatpants from her alma mater, reading the newspaper. She looked up at me without smiling, her mouth zipped shut. Good morning to you, too, I thought. I opened the cupboard and pulled out a box of English muffins, then snagged a jar of homemade strawberry jam from the fridge. As I unscrewed the lid, sniffing the sweet jelly mold, I paused to plan my next move. If I was going to win her over, I would have to do one of two things: compliment her, or do something that she would think was considerate. Since she was looking like an ex-cheerleader trying to hang on to her youth, I went with the latter.
“Would you like an English muffin?” I asked with my back turned, smirking.
“No, but thank you for offering.” She peeled back the paper. “What’s your angle, Chandler?”
I sliced a muffin and popped the uneven halves in the toaster. My smirk was breaking into a big grin. Some would call it a “shit-eating” grin, for reasons beyond my knowledge.
“Why would I have an angle? Angles are for anglers, and I don’t fish.”
“You’ve got something up your sleeve. I can smell the deceit.”
“I think you’re confusing deceit with singed nooks and crannies. I was just preparing breakfast and thought you might be hungry.”
“Cut the crap and pour me another cup of coffee,” she said, holding out her mug.
I scooped a tablespoon of sugar and refilled her mug. The muffinettes jumped out of the toaster and I slathered them with jam.
“Put them on a plate and sit down. Where’s your essay?”
“Right here.” I flashed the five pages I had scribbled in a frenzy the night before.
“Better get to work. You only have two hours until school starts.”
Monday. It hit me with a left hook.
“It’s all good. I can finish it in first period.”
“Actually, you’re going to get down to it now, and if you don’t finish in time, I’ll escort you to class myself.”
“All right. Where’s my com-poo-ter?”
“It’s on the coffee table.”
I groaned as I got up and fetched my trusty Korean machine. It was decorated with stickers that were worth keeping—Radiohead, Ghostbusters and a local band called Hussy. They didn’t mean anything, but I felt like they belonged.
I powered up Zuzu—who I imagined as the hot daughter of the company’s CEO—and after the ding-dong-ding, I began typing. I wasn’t that fast, but I knew where the keys were, and I was not about to let her drive me to school. She wasn’t afraid of hanging around campus to have conversations with my teachers. She even went as far as auditing my classes a couple times in middle school. It was utterly humiliating. I remember her sitting on a stool in the back of a science lab as we measured amoebas or something. Her eyes were inescapable. It was as if she were a supervillain, striking mortal fear in the hearts of troubled boys in puberty.
My not-so-nimble fingers were dancing around the keyboard when my sister Zoe graced us with her presence. She had straight blond hair, got straight A’s, and walked a straight line. What else can I say? She was basically a perfect daughter, if we’re talking about the Aryan ideal. There were a lot of her kind in Bay Meadows, our hidden town on the border of Queens and Nassau County. They scampered all over Long Island, with their fancy handbags and shiny smiles, every one with ulterior motives. She wasn’t so terrible, though. She usually left me alone.
“Welcome home,” she said sarcastically.
“Shut up. I’m trying to work.”
“Chandler! Don’t speak to your sister like that.”
“Sorry. Good morning, Zoe. How have you been?”
“Do you want to help me out by typing this? I’ll pay you twenty bucks.”
“You don’t have any money,” she said, not missing a beat.
“You’re not getting out of this,” my mother chimed in.
I turned back to the computer screen. Only a paragraph.
I cracked my knuckles and got to work.
– – –
Finishing the homework took longer than expected, and my mom was threatening to take me to school. I bargained with her and she drove me halfway. She didn’t say much along the way, which was better than hearing her nag. But when she dropped me off in front of the branch library, she adjusted the rear-view mirror instead of saying goodbye. I took it as a hint that she was still pissed. A few days of being careful with my words and everything would be boss again. Flattery would help, too. I waved at her and hitched up my backpack.
As long as it wasn’t twenty below, I usually walked a mile and a half through our quaint suburb to get to school. Passing the giant track homes and counting squares in the pavement was meditative. It was the only time of day that my brain wasn’t screaming: faster, Faster, FASTER. My neurons fired on too many cylinders. To keep the wheels from spinning, I recited jokes I had written the night before. I had to practice my snarky comebacks because every lineman and outfielder was going to break out of their huddle and take a shot at me. I predicted the stage whispers as I made my entrance: There’s the kid who overdosed on his own pills. I heard he posted about it on his MetaDiary page as a cry for help. I heard he has Asperger’s. I heard he’s a cannibal. Yeah, I heard that, too. There was no way to avoid such lies. Whenever something tragic or embarrassing happened to a classmate, their life became a game of telephone. I’ll admit that I’d played a part in the past, but I had never been the victim. People say the past is prologue; it wasn’t until that morning that I realized what that old saw meant. It meant that I was going to be the new punch line, the scuttlebutt, a laughingstock—three ingredients in a shitty fast food burrito that I didn’t order.
The first test was the student parking lot. Juniors and Seniors were denting the hoods of the cars their parents had bought them as birthday presents. The stoners indiscreetly hotboxed their compacts and hybrids. Some doors were open to the hilt, and passersby were assaulted with unbearable club rap and canned trance filtered through blown-out stock speakers. And behind tinted windows, the chosen prize winners received graceless handjobs to loosen up for the morning quiz. I wasn’t so lucky. I wasn’t even a contestant. Lip-glossed girls in tights and leather jackets were my weakness, and I had a tendency to blurt out poorly timed observations like:You’re the most beautiful girl in the world, other than supermodels, obviously. That was G-rated compared to the bile that often came out of my mouth.
When I reached the flagpole I lowered my head and tried to summon Saint Bermuda, the venerable patron of invisibility. This method had its flaws, but I made it a minute before the bell and managed to run the gauntlet untouched. Hoodies were a tremendous boon in these situations, and I wore one more often than not. Black, gray or navy. Dark colors helped me blend into crowds, and that was exactly what I needed as I approached the double doors. Nobody was behind me, so I stopped to peek through the little criss-crossed portal. The hall was overlit, locker doors were ajar, and my fellow students were pinned together in circles like the groupies that they were. I held my breath as I yanked the handle and boldly made my way into the fray.
Here’s the thing about being the center of attention: I never wanted to be it. I had spent fifteen years and seven months of my life on the outer circle, the fringe of my community’s vaunted social sphere. The most notoriety I had achieved was after vomiting on the stage of my elementary school auditorium in the semifinals of a geography bee. To this day I still shiver whenever I picture those freaky statues on Easter Island—a mysterious land off the coast of Peru I had confused with Madagascar. That damn movie with jabbering lemurs and sneaky penguins was at fault. One of those animals was voiced by an actor from the Nineties television show “Friends,” and anything related to “Friends” got on my nerves because I was named after the character who was supposed to be the funny one.
Anyway, when I inched into the main hallway and saw heads turn in unison, I was forced to relive the trauma of my post-geography bee infamy. I heard everything from chuckles to gasps, and the reactions were magnified to the nth degree. It was as if we were in an echo chamber in the underworld. Come to think of it, the acoustics really were excellent in that fluorescent corridor—pin drops sounded like jackhammers. But it wasn’t just the sound that struck me; it was also the expressions of my audience. They were awed and amazed, floored and dumbfounded. An alien with a gigantic balloon of a head and a wandering third eye was standing among them. I had morphed into a swamp creature, the most hideous and bizarre mutant they had ever seen, and I clutched the straps of my backpack as I walked into the heart of the crowd. The whispers were real, and as people realized who I was, they moved out of the way. It wasn’t like the parting of the Red Sea, but they were definitely steering clear of me. I think they were afraid to touch me, for fear of catching some incurable disease. When I passed that meathead Brian Boyle, I felt the first twinge of shame.
“Look who they released from the psycho ward,” he said to his teammates, who might as well have been in their shoulder pads, butting heads.
I tried not to look around, but the staring was so evident I couldn’t avoid it. Darryl was at the end of the hall and I quickened my step when I saw him. He was shutting his locker as I was opening mine to grab my books.
“Hey man. You all right?” he asked with the sympathy of someone who cared.
“Yeah. I’m hanging in there.” That was all I could manage.
“I’m glad you made it in today.”
“I’m not, but I guess I have to be here.” I fumbled with my notebook and my palms began to sweat.
“It’ll be fine,” he said. At that moment I wished he would have patted me on the shoulder or done something brotherly. But he didn’t. I guess he was worried about the alien flu, too. Or maybe he was just smart enough to keep a fair amount of distance. It was nice to know I had an ally at least.
“Deal with it,” I said to myself, bowing my head. That probably made me look as crazy as everyone thought I was.
I slammed the rattling locker door as the second bell rang and was freed from torture. Sort of.
– – –
I trudged alone to geometry and found my seat in the back row. Mr. Greenberg was trying to get the magpies to stop yapping by swatting a yard stick against the blackboard. Usually I was one of the last to quiet down, but not this time. I knew I had to endure another daily ritual—the taking of attendance—and I wasdreading it. I wanted to rest my forehead against the cool particle board of my desk because my imaginary fever was spiking. A pillow would have helped. I would have been able to slip into the pillow case and hide my wart-blemished face, fall back asleep to dream this away.
I listened closely to Mr. Greenberg’s robotic voice as he flew through the A’s and B’s and D’s (there were no C’s), called out Engels, Frederickson and Getz, and crash-landed on my surname.
“Chandler Goldfinch,” he said.
“Here,” I responded meekly. There were a couple snickers, but I didn’t raise my head to see who they came from.
I opened my geometry book to page whatever and stared at triangles. We were studying their similarities and differences, complements and opposites. Acute, obtuse, equilateral. If I were a triangle I would surely be an isosceles, narrow and taller than the rest. I found it easy to understand how they added up to an even number. Everything was orderly. Everything made sense. There wasn’t an element of chaos like there was in chemistry. Entropy—that was the word for the chaos of science. The other students were raising their doubtful hands, confused by what I thought was so simple. But I couldn’t concentrate at all. The diagram we were deconstructing was a spiderweb I didn’t have the energy to untangle. I was in some sort of withdrawal. The doctor had suspended my prescription and I felt zapped, unable to learn. I already knew the answers, so I wasn’t falling behind, but I needed a boost. I wanted to be plugged into an outlet and recharged. I shut my eyes for a minute and planted my chin on the waxy stack of paper. Behind my eyelids I glimpsed a shower of yellow comets and shimmering moonbeams. An exploding firestorm of light whisked me away from the present. Suddenly I wasn’t in the classroom any more. I was stargazing in a foreign land, and like mist my troubles evaporated in the night sky. I was floating in space, at one with the cosmos. And then, just as quickly, that world disappeared.
“Mr. Goldfinch, are you with us?”
I heard Mr. Greenberg’s automated voice and raised my head. He was towering over me. I straightened up in the chair and flexed my eye sockets.
“In some ways, yes,” I said.
“You’ve been summoned,” he said, handing me an office pass.
Without another word, I dropped the textbook into my backpack and slung the bag over my shoulder. I shuffled between the rows of desks, waiting for a wisecrack or two. But none came. Probably because there weren’t any meatheads in there.
The hallway was empty except for Donna, the big-boned security guard. She was sitting on a rolling chair inspecting her nails. They were always decorated with extravagant designs, stars and flags and airbrushed portraits of her children. We saw each other frequently—whenever I got called to the office—and every now and then I made her cackle with a joke.
“Where you goin’, Finch?” she asked.
I was grateful that she called me Finch instead of Chandler.
“Where do you think?” I said without stopping.
“Do you want to hear a dirty joke?”
“Maybe when I return.”
I smiled at this. I liked creepy ladies that kept it real.
The office had its familiar smell of soggy cardboard and cheap perfume. The receptionist must have been closing in on eighty. She couldn’t hear a thing, and I was told she refused to believe she was deaf. Not the best person to answer phone calls from hysterical parents, but I guess she got the message through. Maybe she was in a union like the teachers, and the administration couldn’t fire her unless she brought an Uzi to school. But I doubt she had any connections with arms dealers. As she hung up the phone I handed over my blue slip.
“It’s polite to start with a greeting, young man.”
“Good morning, Miss…” I drew a blank and glanced at her name plate. “Wells.”
“That’s better. It says here you’re supposed to meet with Mr. Schwartz.”
“Do you know what it’s about?” Mr. Schwartz was my guidance counselor. We had been thrown together by virtue of where my last initial fell in the alphabet.
“I’m not privy to that information. Go on in and find out for yourself.”
She buzzed Mr. Schwartz and went back to her business. I dragged my feet into his cubbyhole.
“Mr. Schwartz, I was told to come see you.”
“Ah, yes. Master Goldfinch.”
I wasn’t the master of anything, but I nodded in acknowledgment.
“Close the door, please. Have a seat.”
I pulled a chair away from the wall and parked in front of him. His office was decorated with university banners and inspirational posters. One had a boy in short shorts climbing a ladder to the clouds. It said: REACH FOR THE SKY AND YOU WILL ACHIEVE YOUR DREAMS. Unfortunately, not all of us can become supermodels and rock gods. Others want to become serial killers.
“What do you want to talk to me about?” I asked.
“Where to begin? I understand you had an incident over the weekend. And I heard you were hospitalized. Is this true or false?”
“True. Who told you?”
“That’s irrelevant. Would you like to tell me what happened?”
“Fair enough. I’m sure you’re tired of talking about it. But I would like to help you and discuss the matter.”
“Okay.” Here we go again.
Mr. Schwartz sank low in his chair and stroked his mustache like a pervert. He was thinking deeply about the matter at hand. Pretending to be concerned was in his job description.
“I was looking over your record again, Mr. Goldfinch, and I’m not sure what to make of it. Your standardized test scores are high and your GPA is satisfactory, yet last year you spent a fair amount of time in detention.”
“Who logged the most hours in there?”
“That would be Keith Winters.”
“That’s what I thought. He’s got talent. His pranks are like fine art, and his place at the top is well-deserved. Maybe I should strive for that kind of success.” I said this with a thick layer of sarcasm. Mr. Schwartz tapped a pen against his desk and shook his head.
“That’s where you seem to be confused. Your goals are all mixed up. We need to redirect your energies to something more constructive. There’s a pattern to your behavior, Mr. Goldfinch, and it’s nothing new here. Many hustlers and tricksters have come before you. Troublemakers. You don’t want to keep straying down this path. It’s a thorny road, one that spells disaster at every turn. How should I say this? I want you to think of your adolescence as a map. There are streets and turnoffs and mountains and valleys.”
“Are there volcanoes?”
“Yes, sometimes there are volcanoes. But you’re too young for those.”
“Divorce is a volcano.”
“Let’s get back on track. You’re quite good at steering people off topic, aren’t you?”
“I’d be fine with talking about something else. I’m close to veering off a winding mountain road.”
“Watch out for that falling rock!”
“Aaaaaaah! Damn. I crashed. The car went up in a mushroom cloud of flames. Official cause of death: poor map skills.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, Mr. Goldfinch. The driver was at fault. You tried to take a shortcut. Those are dangerous, ill-advised. But enough stalling. Let’s cut to the chase. If you keep following the treacherous road you’re on, you’re going to run into a lot of potholes and safety hazards. And do you know where the downward spiral ends?”
I thought about this for a second before answering.
“Occasionally. Where else do you think it could lead?”
“The drive-thru window at Burgerhaüs? Federal prison? Fame?”
“All possible outcomes. I think you get the gist.”
“The future is bleak,” I said.
“Not necessarily. You’re at a critical juncture. A crossroads, to continue with the cartography metaphors. What we need to do is find your destination. That way we can get you back on track.”
By this point I felt like I was being lectured by a mediocre advice columnist.
“You make it sound so easy.”
“Once you know the objective, all of the bits and pieces will begin to fall into place. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle. First we find the corners and then we work on the border.”
“How many pieces are we talking about? Five hundred? A thousand?”
“Roughly six million.”
“That’s a lot of puzzling.”
“Indeed. And you’re never finished. Sometimes it’s fun and at other times it can be tedious. But you’re just starting out. That’s the best part.” He said this while tossing a breath mint in the air. It landed squarely on his tongue. “So, what are your aspirations, Mr. Goldfinch?”
While I was expecting this question, I hadn’t put much thought into it. Parents are usually the ones to pose this riddle, but mine were too busy with their own affairs to have that living room chat. They had to worry about me making it through high school alive, and I’d given them enough reasons to doubt that my future was bright. Besides, I had no idea what I wanted week after week. I was looking for instant gratification. A ten-year plan was off the radar.
Mr. Schwartz was tapping the pen again, and my head was swimming with darting tadpoles. There were so many images flying by and not one seemed to be connected to the next. I was into comic books and bands, horror movies and tacos, skateboards and magazines. My brain was an attic with bats and cobwebs, and I was the only one allowed inside.
“Any thoughts on the subject?” he asked.
Instead of spouting off any or all of these weird obsessions, I gave him an honest answer.
“I don’t know. I guess I don’t have any aspirations.”
“That’s a shame. I thought you were the creative type?”
“Do you want me to lie?”
“No, but I was hoping for a light bulb.”
“A light bulb?”
“You know, when you’re watching cartoons and the character has a brilliant idea, a moment of discovery.”
“Gotcha.” It clicked.
“Perhaps we can find something you have a knack for and go from there.”
“Sounds like a plan.” I just wanted to get out of there.
“There are dozens of clubs and sports teams you could join.”
“I don’t do athletics.”
“All right then. How about glee club?”
I looked at him like he’d lost his mind.
“Student government? Model United Nations?”
“I’ve got it. Future Fraternity Brothers of America.”
He clapped his hands together and slapped the table. This was easily the worst of his suggestions. I’d heard stories of their subhuman hazing rituals and filthy houses and I wanted no part of that. (I would rather jump buck naked into a pool of blood-sucking leeches.) He probably thought I was considering it because I was in such quiet shock. I had to think fast before he signed me up right then and there, so I improvised.
“What if I came up with my own club? I could recruit members.” I had a few friends. I could count them on the tines of a fork, but they were real. “Would that be cool?”
“Being proactive. I like that. As long as you have a teacher who volunteers to supervise this new club. It would also have to be approved by the Extracurricular Committee, of course. What do you have in mind?”
He threw me another curve, but I knew how to make it up as I went along. I was clever that way. Sometimes.
“I was thinking about some sort of writing club. Like a workshop.” I pulled it out of my ass, but I thought it would impress him.
“Like a diary club?” he asked, folding his hands and tilting his squarish head.
“If the word diary were anywhere in the name of this club, I would rue the day I was born.”
“You’re probably right.”
“Anyway, I haven’t nailed down the details, but I will.”
“That’s proof enough for me.”
Mr. Schwartz began shuffling papers around as if he were searching for something. Then he bent down and crawled underneath the desk until I couldn’t see him anymore. I was totally confused. The staff weren’t supposed to act like raccoons. When he came up, he grunted and unwrapped a breath mint—the packet must have rolled to the floor. He tossed one in the air and again caught it like a seal at a carnival.
“Mr. Schwartz, can I go now?”
“Yes, Mr. Goldfinch. You may be excused. Hit those books. I’ll see you soon. Let’s say next week. How about that?”
He winked at me and I shuddered. The thought of reading made my skull feel like it was being squeezed by a vice clamp. I briefly considered asking him for a pass to the nurse’s office, where I could sleep through the rest of high school. My hair would turn gray and I would wake up in a dark corner of Bay Meadows High, and eventually people would mistake me for a substitute. But in reality, I had no choice. If I wanted to make it through the week, I had to soldier on. Hence, with a polite wave, I turned on my heel and marched back to class.
– – –
Third period was English, and we were reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. I had already breezed through the Shock Notes, so I knew the story, or truth-bearing account of the author, as it were. It takes place in a prison-like labor camp in Russia during Joseph Stalin’s fascist regime. At the beginning of the book, Ivan wakes up in his cell with a fever. The problem is, he can’t just call out for a sick day like the rest of us, but he sleeps in anyway and has to scrub the floors as a punishment. When he goes to the clinic after breakfast he finds out that the doctor is gone, so he has to work like everybody else. Before work, all the inmates have to strip down in the dead of winter to see if they have any contraband. Ivan is clean, but another prisoner is thrown in the hole for wearing a vest. The book takes place over the course of a day, and Ivan has been sentenced to ten years. He works at a power plant, and throughout the day he takes pleasure in small things, like thinking about his wife and hearing stories about the other inmates and their lives before the prison camp. The highlight of the book—as far as there is one—is when Ivan gets a loaf of bread for his hard work at the power plant. That was the author’s reality, as bleak as it sounds. It’s a short book, and definitely not a funny one. I wish I could have made it seem more entertaining, and I hope I didn’t ruin it for you.
I listened to the other students as they read aloud. The boys skipped words and stumbled over phrases; the girls pronounced every syllable clearly. Their voices were soft yet strong. They sounded like they had practiced in front of a mirror the night before. They captured my attention, and I was comforted by their lilting tones. They felt sympathy for the character. When they turned a page, they paused for our classmates to catch up. They were going to be great bedtime storytellers, though they probably wouldn’t be reading Ivan Denisovich to their babies. Even the unfortunately named and newly divorced teacher, Mr. Klowne, appreciated their talents. He stopped calling on the young men altogether after the second bumbled his way through an important scene where Ivan finds a piece of scrap metal to make a knife. Mr. Klowne had been noticeably upset for the past month, since finding out that his wife, another teacher, had been cheating on him with the baseball coach. Their affair became public when they were caught in the locker room. Pants around the ankles would be an apt way to describe how they were found. Neither was fired, but they were transferred to different schools where they could screw up all over again. Pun intended.
If I had to pick a favorite teacher, it would have been Mr. Klowne. And not because I felt sorry for him. He had become a cuckold—that’s what I overheard one afternoon while sitting outside the vice principal’s office. He always played cool music before class, like Elvis Costello and the Clash—songs from the Eighties that were familiar but not overplayed. I often asked him who the artists were and he would tell me the band’s whole history. Sometimes he went on and on until I got bored, and I would tune him out and say “uh huh” every now and then. Mr. Klowne was what some would call conventionally handsome. He had dark, close-cropped hair, sky blue eyes, was just shy of six feet, and had an actor’s smile. A bunch of the girls in my class had a crush on him, and some of the boys did, too. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who had pegged him as a role model.
After the reading. Mr. Klowne led a discussion about the book’s themes until the bell rang. The students stood up almost at once and hurried out. Mr. Klowne turned on his stereo and I shuffled to the lunch room behind the rest, head down, following their voices. We were like cows on our way to the feeding grounds, where we feasted upon cafeteria slop and whatever was left in the vending machines. The whole world seemed to be laughing as I stood in line, and I wondered what the joke was. I bought a personal pizza and a soda and spotted Darryl and Kelvin at the table we had reserved for the next three years.
“What’s up, Finch?” This came from Kelvin, the third wheel on our losermobile. Kelvin Turner was genius smart. He rebuilt a computer when he was eleven and was taking calculus at the nearby junior college. As a sophomore. People resented how smart he was, and he had a hard time communicating with kids his own age without sounding like an android. He also had bad acne. It was worse than pimples. His cheeks and forehead were covered in red mountains with snowy peaks. I understood his plight.
“Nothing much,” I said.
“You have become famous all of a sudden.”
“That’s not a good thing, Kelvin.”
“It depends on how you look at it,” he said, scooping peas and mashed potatoes with a spork.
“Let’s talk about something else,” I said, in complete disagreement with his perspective. “Who are you guys going to homecoming with?” I was joking around. None of us had any prospects in that department.
“What if we all asked the most beautiful girls in school? Maybe one of them would take pity on us and we could get lucky. We could even let them choose who they’d prefer to take. We would make great charity cases.” Darryl was full of harebrained ideas.
“Your plan spells disaster. Who would you ask?”
“Definitely Kristi T. She’s super hot. I’d like to get her in a Jacuzzi.”
“What would you do to her?” I asked, setting a trap. Darryl was my closest friend, but he wasn’t the sharpest pin in the cushion.
“I see you’ve thought this through.” My sarcasm was by no means subtle.
“Smart ass. What would you do?”
“After rocking her narrow-minded world, I would take the opportunity to inform her that her halitosis is out of control, and let her know that the football players call her Dragonbreath.”
“How would I know? I don’t listen to those pricks. I just made that up.”
“Thanks. I try.”
“What about you, Kelvin?” Darryl asked.
“I would ask Sarah Wilcox. She is by far the nicest of the Squeakers, and when she was in elementary school she was quite big. I believe she would be the most likely candidate to fall for such a scheme.”
“Are we actually going to go through with this?” I asked.
“Of course not.” Darryl said this as Kelvin shook his head.
“It was fun while it lasted,” I said, stuffing my mouth with pepperoni pizza.
The lunch room was as loud as ever. I was trying to call upon my powers of superhuman hearing to catch any gossip in which my name was dropped. With the homecoming dance coming up and a game against our rival, there was plenty of excitement. For everyone else, that is.
All the circles were accounted for. The band members were in their blue windbreakers, holding hands and geeking out over show tunes. They traded boyfriends and girlfriends every couple weeks. Their dating cycles were aligned with the phases of the moon. The wanna-be punkers were wearing their bomber jackets and studded belts, looking like they had the hardest lives of anyone. But we all knew where they came from and who their parents were. There were the Filipino and Vietnamese kids, who stuck together, the basketball players, who were always in track suits and were actually mellow guys, and the randoms, who you recognized and sat next to for years but never made an impression on you. And finally, there were the jocks and the Squeakers. They were the ones you had to watch out for. The dudes—and they really were dudes—all thought they were going to be stars at Big East universities. I didn’t think they belonged in college. I’d been in many classes with them over the years, and that’s why I called them meatheads. The Squeakers were so named because they had high-pitched voices and made a big deal about things like mock fashion shows and un-birthdays. They brought each other Mylar balloons and cupcakes and sang in the main hallway. They were also viciously cutthroat. They traveled in a pack and preyed on the unpopular. And like wolves, they were not afraid to abandon one of their own at the first sign of weakness. I tried not to cross them, for fear of being eaten alive.
So where in this noisy room of stereotypes did the three of us stand, or sit, rather? We were on the outskirts, the fringe of our class. It would be safe to say none of us belonged to a club or any social group. Nor did any want us. Nor did we want to be a part of any that would have us. Were we repulsive or just square pegs? Probably a combination of both. We were misunderstood and misplaced. Most of the time I felt comfortable with who I was, but I had gone through some phases. I had tried out for the pothead team, but weed made me paranoid and jam bands bored me. I had gone to the park under the cover of darkness for dunking practice. And I had spent a week streaming style makeovers and so-called high school reality shows. After every one of those failed attempts, I went back to graphic novels and hanging out in the basement with Darryl and Kelvin, because they were in the same boat.
Although I wanted to break out of the Bay Meadows shell, I knew I had to find a way to keep Mr. Schwartz off my back. He had my mom’s number on speed-dial, and every call she received was another black mark in the never-ending saga of Finch versus the Parental Units. As much as I wanted to stay away from school and any sort of commitments, I was getting bored of spending weekend nights playing Nuclear Destroyer, going to see the latest crappy blockbuster, and listening to the same songs on repeat. I was constantly being prodded by my parents to join a club or volunteer for a cause. Be productive! That was their motto. Whenever they started that conversation I told them I would enlist in the merchant marines and sail the high seas, or become a junior member of the Royal Order of Dutiful Caribou, our local lodge of free masons. But my parents didn’t want me to be sent off to the Persian Gulf in the middle of a war and they said the free masons were a cult of retired construction workers. We passed their temple often, with its compass-like symbol above the door. There were no windows, no posters with meeting dates on the wall, and nobody went in or came out. They were like ghosts. Ghosts that knew how to use a nail gun.
“I had to visit Mr. Schwartz this morning,” I said, coming out of my trance.
“Oh yeah? How is old Schwartzy doing?” Mr. Schwartz was also Darryl’s counselor, our last names being adjacent in the alphabet.
“He’s a strange one. He was babbling about how my life is like a map and how I need to find the highway or something.”
“Sounds like Schwartz. I’m about to stop at the gas station right now.” Darryl shifted in his seat and scrunched his nose. “There we go.”
The airspace around our table became polluted with the fumes of cafeteria chili. Darryl’s exhaust smelled worse than canned cat food that had been sitting open in the fridge for a week. He had a serious problem controlling his colon. In my opinion, he needed to see a doctor about it.
“That’s foul,” I said with a laugh. “Anyway, Schwartz said I should get involved in something.”
“He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He told me I should take showers more often and work on my appearance. He even gave me a pamphlet that said, WHAT IS GOOD HYGIENE?”
“Darryl, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that…” I was semi-serious, but playing it off.
“Listen to this guy,” he said, turning to Kelvin.
“What are you going to do?” Kelvin asked.
“I told him I would get some of my friends together and have a powwow.”
“When you say friends, you mean us, right?” Darryl looked at me doubtfully.
“You never miss a beat, brother.”
“How are we going to bail you out this time?”
“I don’t know exactly. I’ll come up with something.”
“You sure call in a lot of favors,” Darryl said.
“I like to keep you on your toes. But this one will definitely get you laid. Mark my words.”
“Your guarantee is as good as—” Darryl racked his brain for a minute. “Well, I can’t think of anything right now, but it’s just about worthless.”
“That’s the indisputable truth,” I said, finishing off the rest of the greasy pizza crust.
While we waited for the bell we played three-handed Screw-the-Dealer with the cards Alfred had given to me. I kept getting jacks, which are like the red-headed stepchildren of the deck. Nobody wins with jacks, unless they’re one-eyed and you’re playing with wilds. The stakes were low—the biggest loser bused the table. Since I’d only won a single hand, I had to clean up. The only trash can on our side of the room was near the kingdom of Squeakers and meatheads, so I was planning my route carefully. Before the clock struck one I strapped on my backpack, pulled up my hood and carried the trays high—the best disguise I could think of. I made my way over, dumped the plates and recycled the cans. Seeing yogurt cups and Styrofoam in the blue bin always bothered me, and once in a while I picked them out. As I was stacking the trays on top of all the others I heard a whistle and a voice I despised.
“Hey, freak show!” It was Brian Boyle, my sworn nemesis. At least that was how I thought of him.
“Finch, you’re supposed to answer when someone calls your name.” He cackled and grunted along with the rest of the cavemen. I started towards the door.
“Wait a second. I just wanted to say I’m sorry,” he said, a little louder.
I turned my head slightly and caught him out of the corner of my eye. He had pale skin, a shock of red hair, freckles all over, and a four-leaf clover tattoo on the back of his neck that his uncle had given him when he turned sixteen. There was no way to miss him. He could be a mile away and my Boyle-sense would raise the tiny hairs on my arms. He was hanging on the shoulder of his sidekick, Nick Rubin.
“That is, I’m sorry they let you out of the hospital. You should have stayed locked up with your psycho buddies!” They thought they were the funniest meatheads in Bay Meadows.
“It was a hospital, not a mental institution. Your ignorance never ceases to amaze me.”
“Eat me, Finch.” That was about the extent of his creativity. I knew how to counter.
“Thanks for offering, but I’m not hungry. I already had breakfast with your mom.”
I had known his mother for years, so I thought this was an appropriate response.
“What did you say, ass muncher?”
“Don’t worry about it. See you later, Boyle.” I whispered nimrod, shoved my way through the crowd and booked out the door to safety. He knew where I lived but I was pretty sure his brain was damaged at birth, enough that he wouldn’t remember what I had said the next day. I said a prayer for him: Oh, Boyle, how I hope there’s a place in this world for your kind. And if you happen to saw your thumbs off in shop, I hope the surgeon sews them on backwards.