From the series: Old, Embarrassing Shit that Lies Dormant on Writer’s Cafe That’s Gonna Get Lost if I Don’t Transplant it Somewhere. So here’s its new home.
During my first two years of high school, I spent my lunch periods sitting at the Knucklehead Table. The Knucklehead Table was where the school’s biggest losers and fuck-ups ate. We sat and usually talked a lot about other kids and our parents and teachers and video games and what new phone we were hoping to buy or steal or trade for. If one of us wore a new band t-shirt or a new or different style or brand of shoes or jacket, we’d wait until he left to discuss whether it and, by proxy, he, was cool or lame. We talked a lot about getting stoned or getting drunk and trying to get laid or about what trouble we had gotten into or narrowly avoided. We talked about the latter with considerable pride….how crafty we comparatively were….how much more I could get away with without getting caught compared to the guy sitting next to me. For example, my buddy Mike was known for randomly sneaking a butterfly knife he’d bought at the flea market into school. We’d each seen it and, given the school’s security and the shitstorm he’d be in if he got caught, it took some balls and cunning to get that thing in there. As a consequence, Mike was kind of a folk hero among us knuckleheads. You see, for us, street wits (or country boy wits, depending on your locale) were an asset. Yet, we were looked down on by all the other kids and most of the faculty for being stupid and lazy and a waste of the school’s resources. We were the kids everybody knew’d flunk out by the end of junior year and be smoking weed or sucking forties all day in our parents’ basements or working at Rally’s while supporting a newborn evacuated from a girl we barely knew.
On the opposite end of the cafeteria was the Brain Table. These were the kids who got all A’s. They didn’t live in our neighborhoods. Their parents drove nicer, newer cars, not loud, bare rimmed or floppy fendered Korean compacts like ours. Their clothes always looked fresh, never faded or frayed, unless it was purposeful, like the punk rockers or skaters. These were the privileged ones who lived for the appearances of their parents…..you know…..like the well groomed dog that can’t be seen as shabby, lest the owner be thought of as poor or neglectful (though the punks and skaters probly got an earned pass on that by wearing down their liberal parents who were too exhausted with their jobs and ex-wives and ex-husbands and parent-teacher conferences and affairs and refinancing mortgages and needing new brakes to give much of a shit anymore). These awkward, pimpled and pampered trophies never talked to us. With their obscure movies and bands and mix of retro and contemporary styles, they were just a bunch of assholes and snobs and creeps to us.
During the summer between my sophomore and junior years, I’d started to reflect on the lot of my friends and myself and our futures. Looking back on it, I think the origin of this existential pang can be pinpointed back to our family reunion that year. Sometime during that thick July afternoon, between mouthfuls of beef heart burgers and vapid conversations between distant relatives about their children and husbands and fiances and ailments and unemployment, I eventually found myself sitting, a bit sequestered from the rest of the mob, with my Uncle Randy, who, from his distance, was mercifully preserving the pristine aroma of simmering, ten-cent hot dogs and lighter fluid from the stench of his obnoxious second-hand cigarette smoke.
I took a seat next to him. I’d never seen Randy wear shorts, no matter the degree of heat nor level of humidity. Truthfully, I’m always curious about the hairiness of a man’s legs. Not in a lascivious sense, but, somehow, however irrational, it reflects in me a sense of his masculinity. I bet Gary had plenty hairy legs and I’d be disappointed to ever discover otherwise. He sweated a lot too. And, there was something in his face that betrayed much sense of easy days. Was it the complexion? The premature lines formed from rugged late nights and brutal early mornings? Was it a dissymmetry of eyes or ears or nose that revealed an ever-so-slightly abnormal genetic? Randy was in his early-thirties and had, thus far, led a life that, at this point, was moderately scandalous within the family caste. However, Randy, hopefully, had many years ahead of him in which to elevate himself from the moderately scandalous to a true legend of misconduct. There was still plenty of time for that, and, truth be told, I was rooting for him.
To date, Randy had been jailed a few times for public drunkenness and fighting and indecent exposure. He had an ex-wife and daughter, who he rarely spoke of. There were stories of guns pulled on one of his ex-wife’s many lovers. There were hints of an inappropriate relationship with an underaged girl and selling out a buddy to the cops after getting caught in possession of some stolen power tools. Rumor had it he was a bit of a deadbeat dad and that he had a new girlfriend who loved pets. The hair on Randy’s sleeveless Ohio State t-shirt offered some clue to that latter rumor’s truth. The shirt itself was even a bit scandalous for another reason entirely. Seems that when Randy graduated from high school, there was some expectation of him enlisting in the Marines, just as his father had enlisted and proudly served. But, at the time, we had a war going on somewhere in the Middle East, which may have given Randy cold feet. So, even though only a mediocre student, he instead enrolled and was accepted into The Ohio State University. As family folklore has it, Randy’s heart wasn’t into college much more than it was into fighting in the desert. So he flunked out after a few semesters, leaving his parents with a sizeable gap in their bank account that affected all the sibling behind him. But, Randy still took pride in having at least once been a student at a respected university. He proclaimed that pride with the day’s attire, all the while knowing that it would lead to whispers and exaggerated expressions of consternation behind his back for having so frivolously drained aunt and uncle or mom and dad or grandma and grampas’ bank account all those years ago. Randy was well aware of all this…..hence, his reputation as a quirky, maverick, irreverent or conceited spirit; depending on the particular scrutinizer of his ethics or psychological makeup.
Randy and I sat together, maybe a hundred feet away from the rest…..as an old couple on a park bench watches the runners and bikers….semi-interested outsiders observing rather than participating.
Randy had an uncanny ability to filter Natural Light through himself like saltwater through any order of marine life. Seems he’d returned to his old standard; as last year he had Bud Light. Maybe he wasn’t prospering as much this year. I was curious about the devolution but before I could enquire…..
“How’s it going, kid?,” he asked in a slightly conspiratorial manner.
You see, at that age, there was an allure for me in Randy. My adulthood was near. I knew I needed to start figuring some shit out and, although he surely didn’t have all the answers, his mischievous mystique and street smarts were most impressionable on me. I remember as a kid seeing him in town revving his lifted ‘93 Crown Vic Interceptor in acknowledgment of me standing on the corner as he drove by with some hot chick in the passenger’s seat. That Vic musta’ had 26 inch rims on those skinny tires. Randy was a cocksman for sure. A few times he’d even picked me up and we cruised around smoking blunts. So we were cool, not like the rest of the family squares. I even remember going to his house where he showed me Metallica and Slayer records, in plastic, and his collection of weird detective magazines whose covers were so amazingly salacious to a boy my age. Yeah, to me, Randy was a pretty rare and awesome dude.
Back at the reunion, he offered me a Marlboro Black, which I declined, knowing the taste of that cut-rate tobacco would linger in my mouth all day, sorta like the smell of socks you think are fresh enough to wear a second day but later realize, they weren’t, after you’re halfway through the day and already fully committed. How did he smoke that crap?
“I’m awright. How about you?”, I asked.
“Good. Want some chips? They’re J Higgs……kettle cooked and sea salt, fresh from Save-a-Lot. I guess we’re real sophisticates this year.”
We both chuckled, sincerely.
“School going okay?”
“You know. It sucks, Dude.” I replied.
“Yeah. I know what you mean.” There was a pause while he toked the Black. “You know what people will never understand about guys like us?”
See, Randy knew that I’d been in a bit of trouble myself too. Like, a few years ago, I got this idea. I’d bought a Batman action figure on clearance at Walmart for like $5. So, I went home and scanned and copied the barcode, cut it out and took it back to the store. I taped it onto the back of a more expensive figure, knowing the cashiers never look at barcodes, right? They just scan, scan, scan………Well, something went wrong. They knew right away. Damn thing wouldn’t scan. Manager came over and they held me in some kind of meeting room until my parents came. Luckily, they didn’t call the cops but word got out about what happened. Of course, nobody in the family brought it up, but I knew that they knew.
Another time, my buddy, Tommy, was working at White Castle. I’d meet him at night after his shift. If he could, while the manager wasn’t paying attention, he’d hand some burgers out the back door for me and him to snack on later. Well, one night, he smuggled out more than either of us really wanted. So, rather than take them home, for whatever stupid reason, we thought it would be funny to throw the extra burgers at cars. Wouldn’t you know, we ended up splattering one on the windshield of an off-duty cop. It exploded like a greasy goose shit with pickles and onions getting smacked at 70 miles an hour. Needless to say, hell broke loose after that.
Anyway, Randy continued….
“Ya know….we’re always seen as the guys on the wrong side of the tracks. The misfits. The losers. Hell, I’m even the black sheep on the wrong side of the tracks. We’re living in a different world. It’s cliche but it’s either predator or prey, Kid, You’re not worrying about how well you’ll perform in the school play….whether you got your lines memorized or not…..you’re out here surrounded by thieves and misfits who are looking for easy prey. Your main concern is not becoming prey. That’s something other kids don’t have to worry about. Or me, I gotta worry about making child support or I go to jail. This year’s return on an IRA is the least of my fucking concerns. Know what I mean?”
“Uh huh.”, I replied, but thinking, “Damn, he must really be fucked up on the Nati Light or bud or Red Bull or some other shit today,” hoping all the while that good old Randy might offer me some of whatever it was.
He rambled on, “We’re like bikers who gotta be totally aware of being in another driver’s blind spot. Most people don’t think or worry about that too much but for a biker it’s necessary…..life or death. In the same way, in our hood, we gotta be aware of a whole lot of shit that the rest of the world doesn’t have to think about. Plus, everybody’s only got so much capacity for their attention. So much of ours is focused on not getting punked or marked while some other kid is worrying about his piano recital or his grade in physics. I gotta worry about getting pinched for possession cause another one’s a felony while some other dude’s worrying whether he should buy a Lexus or BMW. Which one retains its value more. There’s no room in my head for that kinda bullshit. I’m too busy husslin’ and just trying to keep my head above water. It’s a much different world for us, son.”
“Yah, I hear that,” wondering when I’d ever own a car and what it would be.
“So, you wanna take a spin in the Camaro?”
I was pretty sure about what that meant. We were gonna ditch everybody else for a while to go smoke some….maybe weed…maybe meth. I was anxious and curious which it would be.
“Yeah. Looks like a sweet ride.”
I was truly envious. It was a silver 2012 Camaro SS Coupe with over 400 horsepower. I never asked how he got it without a job. If he trusted me enough, maybe someday he’d reveal the secret. He was sorta like a magician that way. Cool shit like cars and motorcycles and girlfriends seemed to appear outta nowhere. Maybe a Siberian tiger would be next. With Randy, you never knew but I always imagined his journey was thrilling, regardless of what the rest of the haters, with all their opinions and polite conversation and deviled eggs and cupcakes thought.
So, we went for that drive. He introduced me to the term ‘catnip’ in its less traditional definition that day. The rest of the afternoon was mostly a blur.
Still, weeks later, some of Randy’s Nati Light soliloque must have taken hold. Throughout that summer my thoughts would return, in bits and pieces, to that time and conversation. Like,whoever was able to look at the stars and piece together images of eagles and crabs and archers, I was struggling to fit the seeds of Randy’s thoughts into a bigger picture of what my future might be like. I was shuffling individual stars, hoping that an image would eventually appear from their random interplay. With enough rolls of the dice, you eventually get the desired number.
As I thought about these things, it became clearer to me that, for the most part, most of my friends’ parents didn’t seem to be doing so well. Many had either been in jail or were on welfare or working in unenviable jobs or were divorced or living with lazy bums or alcoholics or junkies. My friends with older sisters were already uncles while they were still in high school. They rarely went on vacations, rarely had nice Christmases and were never active in anything productive outside of school. Most had already been in trouble for some petty criminal offense or another, or, it was just a matter of time. It occurred to me that most of my knucklehead friends were on the same path set for them by their parents. What was I, then, if the old adage “birds of a feather…..” holds true?
I resolved that when school started again in the spring, I was going to implement a different plan than last year. Instead of sleeping through study hall or wasting it reading dirt bike and my Mom’s celebrity sleaze magazines, I’d actually study. Instead of coming home and watching TV or porno or playing video games, I might actually study. However, I wasn’t so foolish as the boy who jumps into the deep end without testing the temperature first. I’d start off easy, then see how it goes. If all went well, I might raise my F average to a D.
Well, sure enough, after that first semester, my average for that period did raise from the typical F to a D. I was quite proud. Seems I’d learned a valuable lesson…with effort and change comes reward. Plus, I actually learned a thing or two about rectangles and triangles and guys like Harper Lee and Homer.
So, the day after the grades were awarded, I sat at the Knucklehead Table and boasted before all, “I raised my average to a D.”
Then Charles, one of the biggest and dumbest of our group, as if in perfectly rehearsed 4/4 musical timing, retorted, “So what do you want, a fucking gold medal?” It was a slam dunk, accentuated by a belch of Monster Energy Drink that seemed to emanate from his deepest viscera, perhaps even his bowels.
The table burst into laughter. I was instantly humiliated. My pride recoiled like when you search for that thing in the fridge causing the rotten odor, only to take a deep whiff of the least suspicious culprit, to discover that THAT was the one. Fuck!!!! It was like getting stung on the ear by a wasp.
In a rage and without thinking, I threw my hunk of cornbread, hitting Charles in the eye. It exploded like a pigeon hit with a fastball. Yellow spittle flew everywhere, littering Charles’ face and eyebrows and (Abercrombie &) Fitch University shirt, the latter so absurdly appropriate for a guy who’d never attend a real univeristy anyway. The table erupted even more but I still felt like a complete ass. Charles’ smirk, slightly exposing those big, greyish teeth, signified he knew he’d won, so he let the cornbread shot go. Besides, he’d already had enough detention and everybody knew he could crush me like a fly if he really wanted to so there was nothing for him to prove.
After lunch, my thoughts festered through study hall and throughout the night, “Of course those losers won’t recognize my effort. They’re just jealous. No wonder they’ll never go anywhere but jail or the welfare office or divorce court if they can’t support one another.” With that, I resolved to retaliate with an act of defiance the next day.
Lunchtime came and I, in my scuffed, faux Timberlands, walked straight past my normal table, acknowledging noone. Instead, I made my way straight to the Brain Table, where I meekly settled for a seat in the furthest corner, clutching my tray full of fish sandwich and styrofoam fries like the hand of a reassuring parent. Though clothed in my Faded Glory jeans, I still felt exposed and very anxious.
I desperately hoped that this might be where my efforts would be appreciated. Where I might be supported. I threw myself to the whim of the principle of ‘with effort and change comes reward’. I had faith. I resigned myself to allowing fate to orchestrate its own song.
So, I sat. The presence of this stranger distracted a few of the boys from their lunches or books or homework enough to give me a quick, puzzled glance. I could tell they were wondering what the hell I was doing there. A couple of them gave me a slight nod, then went back to whatever they were doing. I rationalized their ignoring me as them being a mostly socially awkward bunch.
After a few minutes, the kid sitting to my left, whose name I didn’t even know, finally acknowledged me.
“What brings you over here? You usually sit with those guys, don’t you?”, he asked with a twitch of his head toward my normal spot.
“Yeah. But I’m getting tired of those lazy, good-for-nothings. They’re going nowhere.”
There were some mumbled affirmations from the table. A couple even nodded, though guardedly. They’d probably had their asses kicked before by a few of my old pals and were skeptical of my presence.
“So what about Nelson’s algebra quiz yesterday? That was a real bitch, wasn’t it?”, I asked the boy on my left.
The kid shrugged his shoulders, “I guess so.”
Another one, wearing glasses, whose name I thought was Craig, injected, “So what’d you get?”
“I got a 66. Nailed a solid D.”
There was stunted snickering and a few smirks at the table.
Craig asked, “Dude, did you even study?”
“Hell yeah. I studied all during study hall.”
This was a lie. I crammed for about 15 minutes.
There was an awkward silence for a few minutes while they went back to their books and homework and lunches.
I knew guys like this didn’t always have the greatest social skills so I tried breaking the ice again.
“So, anybody watch the Ohio State game Saturday? It was dooooope.”
The kid whose name I didn’t know replied, “Nah, I was too busy catching up on Lord of the Flies for Wilson’s English class. Maybe this weekend.”
I was suddenly struck with the irony of how, when we were discussing that novel in class last year, how I’d sat there imagining some of these very Brains as part of Ralph’s more civil clan and our group as most like Jack’s barbarians. Though that recollection flashed through my mind, I kept it to myself for obvious reasons. But, what if, by chance, I was really more like Ralph and these guys were my Piggies? Piggy was the brain. Ralph wasn’t the smartest or strongest, but he was still the hero and leader. Were the stars finally aligning into…..something? Was there a swine constellation? I felt the fuzzy understanding of my future become a bit lest distant in that moment.
“Bro. Let me tell you…..” and, with renewed confidence, I went on to explain some of Saturday’s game highlights. It didn’t seem like anybody was really paying attention though or sharing much of my enthusiasm. Techno twats like this never liked sports anyway.
I continue but, after a while, that asshole Craig piped in again, “Dude. We’re trying to get stuff done. Will you let us focus so we don’t all end up with your D’s.”
Again, snickering, smirks and rolling eyes from the peanut gallery. I shut up. I’d had enough of these clowns. I guess the knuckleheads were right. These faculty darlings were a bunch of stuck-up snobs and prima donnas. I finished my lunch in silence, with the whole ordeal leaving me with an aftertaste of humility worse than the taste of the cafeteria’s lintball pizza.
The next day I had a choice to make. I could swallow my pride and take another shot with the Brains. I could go back to the Knuckleheads and take my lumps or I could go lunch alone.
I decided to go with what I knew best.
I took my old spot. My pals completely ignored me for a full minute or two. They didn’t even look at me. Nothing.
Finally, Charles spoke up, “So, what’s the matter? Not good enough for the Brains?”
This time there was no chuckling, just ugly scowls restraining a whole of lot of funky Frito and Dorito breath behind them.
“Nah, man. You know how we say they’re a bunch of snobs and assholes. I went over there yesterday to see for myself and, guess what…..they are a bunch of snobs and assholes. In fact, they called us a bunch of losers.”
Charles had been prepared to comment about the Brains not being so impressed with my D average either but this last remark baited him in another direction.
“That’s what I thought,” Charles gruffed through a dribbling mouthful of Beanee Weenee. “I ought to go over there and kick their fucking asses NOW!!!!”
“Bro, it’s not worth it. Trust me. Those queens ain’t worth your time.”
Charles calmed down and, with that, I hoped I’d inched my way back into their good graces. Deflecting anger from you onto somebody else always seemed like an easy and effective strategy, especially within our circle and, true to form, it worked magically here.
“Hey, did you watch the Ohio State game Saturday?”, I asked.
“Yeah. That shit was tight, Dawg.”
And, just like that, as if nothing had ever happened, we went back to talking about TV and video games and girls for the rest of the lunch period. All was good and back to normal.
I went home that night and thought about all that had occurred….about the Brains and Knuckleheads and Randy. Was there a lesson to be learned in all this? After deliberating for a few weeks over all the pluses and minuses and possible outcomes of my past and future decisions, I ultimately decided to remain on track with exactly what I was doing. I’d continue to study a little bit while giving myself plenty of time for TV and video games and weed and generally fucking off. After all, my D’s made me look like a genius at that table full of complete knuckleheads. And, seeming like a genius while mostly fucking off felt pretty darned good.