By Mark R. Brand
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"A boy like that, he keeeel your brooother!"
Benny thought "West Side Story" was stupid. At age ten, he could see how maybe it had something to offer a discerning critic of storytelling something to tell his mother about, but at the robust age of twelve and a half, he found the idea of white kids beating up Puerto Rican kids in a parking garage to be pretty lame. His paper wedge football was almost finished. Hopefully the teacher wouldn't mind if he used the study guide to place-kick imaginary field goals through the index finger uprights of his classmates.
The dark windowsills of the classroom played optical tricks that sometimes gave Benny a dizzying headache behind his eye sockets. No matter how dark the room was, the windowsills always looked deeper and darker, frustratingly elusive to his rods and cones.
Early March in New York is as predictable to a twelve-year-old boy as the rotation of celestial bodies to a seasoned astrologer. It was rain. Lots of rain. Rain, and more rain. Raindrops the texture of cold, stinging mist from the shower head of a poorly heated gymnasium locker room. Skies the color of mundane, endless, twilight.
At the corners of the windows, rain pooled in fat, irregularly shaped blobs. The clear drops that slid so easily and refreshingly down the glass panes became furtive collusions of India ink. The latex pain that wouldn't crack under the deluge became a palette of crimson, navy, and indigo pigment.
It occurred to Benny (the way that larger machinations sometimes visit themselves upon the brilliant or colossally-bored) that there was a reason his eyelids wanted to descend over his brown orbs. The classroom was dark, but not dark enough to be relaxing. The movie was playing on a screen that was fuzzy and small, and the sound was tinny. All of his senses were being piqued with a low groan of background stimulus. Just enough to keep him from peaceful, mind-wandering bliss, but not enough to immerse or captivate his attention.
The instant he recognized the flaw of the room's atmosphere, it became all at once acceptable to reject it. He decided with stirring, twelve-year-old, finality that "West Side Story", seventh grade music, and indeed the entire educational institution were a complete waste of time. Hence, he was justified in finishing his football with illustrations from a stolen Bic ballpoint pen, and occasionally snapping quick glances at Pamela Logan, whose budding bust-line threw curvy, fingernail-moon shadows on her cardigan sweater.
Pamela was paying undivided attention to the age-old Jets vs. Sharks debate. Benny had actually read "Romeo and Juliet" at one point (being careful not to let anyone see him), which he knew for a fact was the REAL story. "West Side" was just a cheap rip-off, and it didn't even have any characters as cool as Tybalt.
Benny knew, however, that the girls in the class would all like this version better because the guys could dance and sing, and even though they all looked like suave all-American high-school kids, they dressed in those sissy outfits. Pamela was no exception. Her face darkened with morally-justified outrage at:
"One of your oooooown kind, stick to your ooooooown kind!"
She wasn't as pretty as the unearthly pixies on the modified girl's soccer team. She was sort of heavy, and had a blocky face. But she had cleavage, and as far as Benny was concerned, cleavage was enough.
The little paper triangle was finished, complete with a set of drawn-on laces on its hypotenuse. Basketball season had been winding down for a while, and Benny wouldn't see the real football field for quite some time. Late summer brought back the crunching plastic pads and the innumerable little injuries that he loved so much. But that was two seasons away, or roughly thirty years to a seventh-grader.
Mr. Gulch wasn't paying attention to the movie either. His glasses, which Benny wasn't sure he could see well without, were dangling at his neck. He was staring blankly in the same direction and Benny briefly considered the possibility that his teacher was also appreciating Pamela Logan's burgeoning topography. Mr. Gulch then casually, and as surreptitiously as possible, stuck his finger solidly into his left nostril.
Benny let out a stifled sigh. So much for conspiratorial solidarity. Gulch (and Benny was quite sure the man had the unfortunate first name "Dagwood") was as vacuous a presence in the world of living humans as the Ford Pinto in the world of automobiles.
He leaned forward and kept an eye on his teacher. Benny had learned above all, in order to maintain his status and reputation amongst the other seventh grader socialites, it was best to always keep an eye on the teachers. Most of them, a ready example being Mr. Gulch, were entirely self-absorbed and (unless cornered) usually completely benign.
Some teachers were out to get you.
These were the ones like Mrs. Katerly, who, for lack of her own social outlets, took a measure of satisfaction in lording over the microcosm that was introductory algebra. This woman would give Benny no peace if she felt for an instant that he was thinking or feeling something private or unexplained. So, when Benny was around her, he kept his eyes open to make absolutely certain that she wasn't taking any more than a cursory interest in him.
The last thing Benny's reputation needed was a public conversation with the woman, or worse, compulsion to read aloud any of the half-dozen raucous and sometimes rather obscene notes that he would receive during the endless lectures about the Spring Constant, "n", or the Quadratic Equation. Particularly given that the most common subject matter of these notes consisted of who was rumored to have started "doing it", and colorfully vulgar descriptions of the teachers themselves.
Benny was quite sure he would rather be hit with a yardstick (as they were said to have done in the old days) than be forced to recite the inevitable string of four-letter words in front of an actual adult.
The big white clock, identical to every other clock in the building, clicked softly toward 2:15. It was true that sometimes Benny forgot the birthdays of his parents or the area code of his own home phone number, but 2:15 was a number that every kid, no matter how old or young or fantastically forgetful, new intimately. 2:15 was the line of demarcation between slavery and freedom. Some days it seemed like that magic number
never arrived, but of course it always would. When that last bell rang, the collective din of jubilant freedom for six hundred youngsters rose from the halls of Thomas Jefferson Junior High like the sound of all the triumphant souls returning to heaven from purgatory on Judgment Day.
That, of course, is when the real fun began.
Benny was packed and ready to move by the time the afternoon announcements started honking through the PA system. He hardly heard them. There was a pattern to follow when one was leaving school. Regardless of their station or status, there was always an important series of landmarks to encounter in order to put a successful end to one's day.
The popular kids would make their way slowly out to the waiting
busses, so as to provide ample opportunity for socialization. The unpopular would try to avoid their inevitable battery of tormentors by leaving as quickly and inconspicuously as possible. The athletes would make themselves comfortable and enjoy a few cherished moments of relaxation before they voluntarily bashed their bodies unmercifully in afternoon practice.
One might, at random, come upon a more unusual scene such as a
couple expressing their undying love by openly fondling each other as if
they were the single remaining pair of male and female creatures that still walked the earth. Or, maybe if you were REALLY lucky, you might catch them crying in mid-breakup.
On a few heart-stopping occasions, Benny had been at ground zero of a pretty good fistfight. They were usually over as soon as they had begun, but the red faces and dull, fleshy smacks were the kind of things that wrote themselves indelibly into the history and power structure of Junior high school with a finality that the Declaration of Independence or the Magna Carta couldn't hope to compete with.
The busses all lined up along the sidewalk curb in front of the school, and their rumble overpowered all but the most determined voice. Benny remembered hearing somewhere that carbon monoxide had no scent. Anyone who ever stood in the pooling exhaust fumes of forty yellow Laidlaw school busses could tell you that the people who wrote science books sometimes just had their noses in the wrong place.
Before he took his first step up onto the studded metal stairs and past the sliding-glass door, Benny happened to glance down the line of busses and catch a flicker of white alongside the red brick facade of the school building. He hesitated, not noticing the younger boys waiting behind him. The white thing appeared again, this time tempting him to think it was a person. A person, unlikely enough, dressed in a fluffy white costume.
He felt a jab in his back. The kids behind him were getting
impatient. He whirled on them and provided the nearest with a sturdy shove. The kid was only a fifth-grader, he was lucky to keep his feet and not fall down, instead of just being pushed out of the way. The kid backed off and looked whiningly at the bus driver, but Benny didn't notice. He was still focused on the white thing that was flickering in and out of sight at the far end of the building.
The figure was difficult to distinguish. The costume or coat that covered it was thick and fuzzy. Its thighs dissolved below the knee into a distinctly female set of calves, covered by white leotards. Benny barely caught a glimpse of this as she turned and bolted back out of sight.
There is something base within adolescent boys, which does not allow them to pass up a good chase. This rule is only further reinforced when the chase consists of an adolescent girl, much less one wearing a white costume with thrilling leotards. True to the generations of girl-chasers in his family, Benny was trailing her before his feet realized it.
He was at the corner of the school building in a few seconds, but rewarded only with a disappointingly empty view. There were many places she might have gone. Various doors and nooks adorned this side of the building; the loading and supply doors, a dumpster, stacks of boxes and a few parked cars, dozens of reachable windows. It was the promised land of hide-and-seek.
Benny was about to give up and turn back to the bus when a patch of glinting white caught his eye. He froze, not wanting to startle or alert her. He crept slowly forward, keeping his eyes solidly on the white tuft of fur peeking over an old, discarded file cabinet. He was about to charge up on it, when he realized that this was not the genuine article, but merely a part of the costume left behind.
He picked it up warily, looking around to make sure he wasn't being watched. It was a thin band of metal bent into a headband, and affixed to it were a pair of fluffy velvet rabbit ears. On an impulse, he put them to his face. They smelled distinctly of a woman's hair, and slightly of cinnamon. He folded and pocketed the ears.
From where Benny stood, a second puff of white beckoned. This one, several steps away, proved to be a slipper covered in the same soft white fur. At the place where he found the slipper, a low grated opening had been forced. Fine silver hairs glinted from its rim. It looked like the exit exhaust from the school's ventilation system, but Benny felt no wind or heat from it.
The hole was large enough to climb into, but Benny had the idea that at the furthest end of this steel intestine was at least a fan, and possible also a furnace. The thought of crawling into either of these was decidedly unappealing.
He peeked into the rim and tried to see further in. Another item of the fluffy costume was at the limit of his sight, deep in the barrel of the duct something not quite as dark as the hole itself was lurking. Benny blinked his eyes, trying to see clearer. Between blinks, the white puff disappeared. Benny stared hard.
It's her, he thought.
He was halfway into the vent before his brain could reassert what a bad idea this whole thing was.
The dust was immediate and noxious. It was thick like rat's fur and stuck to his hands. He was sweating already. The dust got under his collar, cloying to his shoulders as if he had been dipped in honey and then tossed like shake-n-bake chicken in a vacuum cleaner bag.
Ten feet ate itself up as he crawled further in. Twenty feet. Thirty. Then Benny realized the light from behind was fading. Darkening slowly, even as the vent became wide enough to stop crawling and begin half-squatting on hands and knees. The dark bothered Benny. He knew he should still be able to see the shaft up ahead of him if he was only thirty feet in.
Then it occurred to him:
Am I only thirty feet in? Did I come further?
All at once, Benny wasn't sure how far he had gone into the duct. He could feel the walls of it against his shoulders, and the ceiling against his head. All he could do was just back out...
Suddenly someone was there.
He could see only darkness, but there were soft, almost-noises in front of him. Whispers of nothing, a hiss of small breath; hot wet air. Like the atmosphere of a rose, blown over Benny's face.
Suddenly a set of small soft hands nestled onto his shoulders, and a set of hot, soft lips placed a kiss on the tip of his nose. The kiss was so sudden and alarming that Benny jolted upward and grasped at the bunnygirl's hands. Something in his subconscious ignored the fact that the duct was only a fraction of an inch above his head. He nearly knocked himself out on the top of the vent. The cold steel became instantly too hot against the back of his head. With the impact, the bunnygirl's hands disappeared and the space in front of Benny was vacant again. Of course, this fact was secondary to the more immediate concern of his grasping hands meeting nothing and pitching him face-first onto the dusty metal floor of the vent.
The taste of the dust-bunnies (which was a looping and somehow funny way to think of the soft filth that he was lying in) and blood wasn't much different than just the blood by itself. A bit gooey-er, but not overwhelming. Benny was an old hat at nosebleeds. He was one of those kids that occasionally horrified his gym class when an offhand soccer ball produced a gruesome puddle of gore. It hardly bothered Benny at all.
Where did she go? He thought. And then, more importantly: She kissed me!
He held perfectly still, but there was nothing. Benny had read adventure novels where the hero, temporarily without his sight, would be struck with a strong and unusually keen sense of hearing. He realized at that moment that some fictions would always remain fictions. The reality was that he remained kneeling in the dark, chasing a girl in a bunny costume who had just given him his first kiss.
He climb-scrambled further into the shaft. It angled upward, upward, downward, upward, straight, straight. Always in three-foot segments banded by pleated metal collars. The vent thumped hollowly as he brought his knees and the palms of his hands down, but appeared solidly built and sturdy enough to hold him. The dust thinned as he drew nearer to the center of the school.
The image of himself crawling like a dot on a radar closer to the center of the school was difficult to shake. He paused for a moment to consider something: He had come at least a hundred and fifty feet now. Maybe more. How far would he have to go before he finally really did meet up with the vent fan or the boiler outflow? The ghost of that kiss, that light and soft kiss, still haunted his face. He resumed his trek down the gullet of his Junior high school.
Benny noted that, at some point along the way, the purple and inky depths of his sightlessness had resolved itself into a solid dark set of shadowy realisms. He couldn't really see the hands in front of his face, but he knew where they, and the walls of the vent, were.
He continued wishing he could see more clearly when, a moment later, he touched another part of the bunny costume. This one was strange, filmy and stretchy and smaller than it's shape suggested it should have been.
The leotard. His mind said, with thrilling (and somehow disquieting) finality.
There was no doubt now that something was seriously wrong with this entire situation. There was a certain amount of intelligence that went with investigating something as purely interesting and unusual as a pretty girl in a white bunny suit, but there was also something else entirely to chasing a naked one down a vent shaft toward the mechanically-unpleasant center of his school.
He continued, the pit of his stomach turning the way it sometimes did when he knew without doubt that he was doing something that couldn't help but get him into serious trouble. At this point, however, the alternative would be to turn around and crawl feet-first back through a hundred yards of dusty, winding ventilation shaft. He had already come so far, how much further could this vent go? How wide was the school building at its widest point?
It occurred to Benny that he hadn't seen any branches or grates that might indicate a classroom or hallway or other indoor location. Shouldn't he have seen one by now?
"Pssst." The sound came. This time it wasn't in front of his face, but a few feet down the dark shaft. He froze. He strained to look down the blackness, to see some sign of where she might be.
Naked! His mind continued to prod.
There was something ahead. Something light, but only slightly lighter than the surrounding gloom.
A part of the costume, maybe?
"Are you staring at my chest?" The voice came again. Suddenly Benny knew what the shape was. He could feel the heat rise to his face. But the voice...
Even at a whisper, it was all wrong. The voice was low and familiar somehow. It came again, this time slightly louder.
Benny snapped awake. The darkness of the vent shaft was gone. He was still sitting in Mr. Gulch's 9th period music class. Pamela was staring at him intently, and evidently he had still been staring at her.
"I said, are you staring at my chest?"
Benny stammered out a reply, hoping urgently that the nose-picking Dagwood Gulch hadn’t heard this little dialogue.
"No... uh... sorry. Just zoned out. This class puts me to sleep."
She frowned, crossed her arms over her generous bosom, and turned back to the movie. Benny sunk even lower into his chair, and pulled his baseball cap down to shield his embarrassed blush.
"I want to live in A-mer-i-ca..."