Thursday, January 17, 2008

I wrote this whole thing listening to the soundtrack to Once. And the soundtrack to Elf.

This is the blurb I submitted with the story:
You can look at high school in a few different ways. It's either a meat grinder, chewing up already-fragile adolescents and spitting them into a society that's equally ready to eat them alive. It may be a condensed evolutionary test, pushing us along diverging paths of success or failure. Or it could be a big, no-stress party scene, full of good times and good lovin. The last view is wrong. Adolescence is hard, and we grasp at invisible branches to help us pull through, not noticing the scars these thorny limbs have inflicted until much, much later. If at all.

And here's the story, posted in two parts, because nobody would read the whole thing if I posted a 5k word story, admit it. And don't feel bad if you don't wanna read it. I probably wouldn't, because I like my internets short, sweet and satisfying. Not long, sour and shallow. Which would be a wading pool full of lemon-juice flavored cross-country skis. Anyway.

Working title: How I Got Better in Shop

The kids in Mr. Moffet’s class would’ve called him a fag or something like that if he’d been any other teacher, because he acted like a girl. He had thick glasses and a high, gravelly voice. But in shop, when he ran the Skil saw or helped us sort through the scrap pile, it was different. He was still careful and kind of prissy, but not really. I mean, it was like watching an old nurse take your blood pressure. Slow and sure. Plus, well, it’s hard to make fun of someone who can run huge sawing machines. Maybe sometimes it was frustrating waiting behind him in the cafeteria line, but I think most kids liked him. I did.

The thing was, he was a lot like my dad. It would come to me at times, like when I’d get stuck behind Mr. Moffet going up the bleachers before a football game. Dad was the same way at home. Picture me waiting for him to find something on TV or to finish washing a pan so I could dry it. It was a drag, but he had a way of setting the table on Sunday evenings after church. I had to stop pouring water and watch. The way he placed his fingertips in the top corner of the cloth rectangle and moved it down, just so, and folded each paper napkin square and set the fork and spoon next to each other, spaced equally up and down, side to side, on the napkin.

He must’ve always been like that, careful and slow. My dad was the guy who graded the wood at the lumberyard. Like This piece is for a desk, This piece cut up and make into toilet paper. I don’t know how it works, but they say he was the best. They say guys have to go to school and get certified for that kind of thing now, but Dad never went to college or trade school or anything. When I was little I always imagined him sitting at a giant desk with piles of boards and logs in front of him, like a teacher grading tests. So I guess he and Mr. Moffet had that in common.

Kelso is a logging town. Everyone’s dad or uncle or next door neighbor either logs or works at the mill. I signed up for wood shop sophomore year because of Jeff Kent. He was a burnout, and hung out on the smoking dock with the rest of them, but he was also my neighbor and had caught me changing out of my training bra the summer before 10th grade. I was on the back patio, in the middle of mowing the grass. I had just been to Bernice’s for a hair cut, and all that grass and dust and sweat and splinters of fresh-cut hair were making me itch, so I tried to do the bra trick my mom did at the Y, but it was too hot and sticky, and I couldn’t figure out what I was doing, and before I knew it, Jeff was coming around the corner from the side gate and I was standing facing the sliding door with my shirt up around my shoulders and my elbows and wrists trapped in the elastic and polyester of my dirty old training bra. I saw him in the reflection. He stopped and put his hands in the pockets of his dirty jeans and laughed, I guess waiting to see what I was going to do next.

I should have been more embarrassed, but it was just dumb Jeff from next door, and as far as I was concerned he was just being a big jackass. I tried to hunker over a little and shoot him a dirty look over my shoulder, but he stopped laughing and rubbed the back of his neck. I wriggled around some more, trying to get it all back on. I stretched and pulled, sweating more, and in the window I could see him take his other hand out of his pocket and walk to me, looking at my back. I told him Get out of here!, but he pulled my arms up and held them together with one hand, then pinched the bra together somewhere behind me. I felt the clasp come apart (the part I’d forgotten), and I pulled my arms down fast, adjusting my t-shirt around myself. I didn’t look back, and went inside to get the damn bra off in private.

In the downstairs bathroom I pulled off my shirt and bra, shivering in the chill of the basement air. I hugged my arms to my chest, and I could smell the faint tang of cigarettes on my arms where he’d held them. Later that night in bed I played the scene again and again, hugging my stuffed seal between my legs. That look on his face.

So when I didn’t get signed up for choir in time, I told the guidance counselor I wanted shop instead. I knew it’d be full of burnouts, and I’d have to make some excuse about it to Michelle and Bethany and the rest, but at night when I was trying to sleep, I relived the scene on my patio over and over. Sometimes I’d even wear my bra to bed, with the clasp undone in the back, to remember that feeling, like fingertips on my skin. His hands, his face, that smell. I never saw him at school, and he was hardly ever home, so I’d have to settle for shop.

That’s how I met Mr. Moffet. Our first project was a lamp. I was to shape a piece of wood into something interesting, glue it to another piece of wood and then screw in a metal rod and the chord and some other pieces and end up with a lamp. It was hopeless. I was ridiculous. The belt sander scared the crap out of me, and my puppy, traced onto a block of wood and cut with some giant machine I forget the name of, looked like cauliflower, and then the whole electrical part was a complete mystery. So I had to stay after twice a week to get help. So I wouldn’t flunk shop. You just don’t flunk shop in Kelso.

The first day was a Tuesday, and I only had an hour because I had volleyball practice. Mr. Moffet showed me how to used the big sander. He stood next to me, showed me where to put my fingertips so as to guide the wood slowly towards the spinning machine. As I was working on the edges of the lamp base he left for a moment and came back holding a new pair of safety goggles. He motioned me to turn off the machine and pulled my enormous scratched pair off my face and handed me the new ones. They were fresh out of the box and smelled like plastic, and when he slid them on I could see everything with a slight yellow tint. Mr. Moffet’s green sweater looked like fresh cut grass. He smiled and I smiled.

The next class was Thursday, and Jeff Kent was gone, again. He showed up about once a week and worked on a cabinet that looked as if it might go above a bathroom sink. It was his independent study project, and Mr. Moffet left him to it, unless he needed help choosing wood. It was going to be nice, even I could see that. The wood was light and freckly, and it was going to have glass in the door. Jeff Kent ignored me whenever he was in class or if I saw him in school, and I pretended that I didn’t care. But I know that day, the one when I got my yellow glasses, I know he looked at me twice, because later when I was helping my mom unload groceries in our driveway he stopped next to me in the road. He leaned out the window of his little truck and asked me How’s your ugly lamp? I told him to shut up and turned away. My face was hot for an hour.

Jeff Kent hadn’t always been a burnout. His brother was a football player and went to some little college in Montana to play. Whatever Barry did was big news in Kelso, and everyone knew it when he screwed up his shoulder in his second college game and couldn’t play any more. He quit school and moved back to work with his dad at one of the pulp mills. He worked shift and had just that summer moved out of the Kents’ house over to Longview. Everyone expected Jeff to be like Barry, and he was until Barry left for college. Then Jeff quit everything and spent lunch and study breaks on the smoking dock with the burnouts.

My dad used to be a big fan of Barry’s, but just kind of put up with Jeff. Jeff never offered to help my mom carry groceries like Barry used to, and even if Jeff had played football, he never would have started. But now we never talked about either of the Kent brothers any more. My brother Kevin was between the two of them in school, and at least he was taking classes at the local community college, even if his grades sucked and he mostly partied with Shane and Willis all week. That seemed to be okay.

After that day, the Thursday when I had the new glasses, Jeff would say hi to me in class. He’d say something mean about my project and poke my arm or tug on my hair. And Mr. Moffet would ask me to come in after school to work on my lamp. I was sometimes playing varsity in volleyball, surprise surprise, and it seemed like a lot was going on. So my dad’s announcement that he had prostate cancer just came and went. I knew what it was, of course, and cancer was that big scary word, but everyone recovered from prostate cancer. It was a jokey kind of thing, getting your prostate checked. I didn’t even tell Michelle. My mom went to work, my dad went to work, Kevin did or didn’t go to class and got drunk with Shane. And Jeff asked me to go to the movies on the Saturday after Homecoming.

I didn’t tell my parents. No way would that go over just fine. It was drizzling, and I rode my bike to Michelle’s and he picked me up there at seven. He was playing some metal and it was too loud to talk on the way to the mall. I couldn’t have anyway. I was nervous. I didn’t want to say anything stupid or act like a dork. We just drove and I watched the windshield wiper drag a leaf back and forth, back and forth. I imagined I could hear it scratch over the screeching of the guitars.

The night ended with us driving back to Michelle’s with the music still blaring. We’d barely talked the whole evening. Whole evening being three hours. He stopped across the street, in front of the Wilson’s, and put the car in park. I smiled at him and said Thanks for the movie. He laughed kind of, because I’d had to yell over the noise, and then he leaned in suddenly and grabbed my shoulder, pulling me towards him. It was wet, tonguey, hard. His teeth bashed my lip, and I didn’t know what to do with my hands. After a minute I felt his hand pushing up the corduroy of my thigh and I flinched when he touched my zipper. Not a bad flinch, but he jerked back anyway. His eyes were big, but then he frowned, and moved across the seat to me, this time putting his hand directly on my zipper. The music was so loud and he tasted of popcorn and old cigarettes. He worked both hands inside my clothes, and I was pressed back against my door. As he pushed towards me harder my seat belt strap rubbed my neck and I said Ow. He pulled back again, realizing I was trapped in my seat belt and he reached down between us to press the button. When the belt loosened I reached behind me and opened the door to the rain, but not really wanting to get out. But I think I was supposed to get out then.

I stood next to the truck with the door open and leaned in to tell him Thanks again. He had scooted back behind the wheel and was putting the car in gear. He leaned over to pick up the baseball hat that had fallen on the floor on the passenger side, and when he looked up at me, his dark eyebrows pulled together and his wet lips shining under the street lamp, it was something. It was an unforgettable something. He pulled his hat down low, raised a hand and said See ya and drove off. I wanted to run after his little truck, to let him do whatever it was he was going to do with his hands inside my clothes, but there was that feeling in my stomach. I wasn’t sure if it was good or bad.

So I went back to school on Monday, my guts all knotted up, hoping I would see him at his locker, at his car, through the back door windows, hanging out on the smoking dock, but he wasn’t any of those places. And he wasn’t in shop on Tuesday. So after wasting half the class sanding the edges of my puppy with a dull piece of sandpaper, I told Mr. Moffet I was ready to get started on the electrical bits of the project. He showed me on the handout he’d given us on the first day of class the supplies I’d need, and where the electrical parts were in the cabinet in the back of class. He drew me a picture, his hand curved around his mechanical pencil, like lefties do, and labeled the parts A, B, C and such. I was trying to figure out how to cut the power cable off a big spool in the cabinet, when I smelled Jeff’s breath. He was standing behind me, and when I turned he looked away. I said Hey. He said Hey, Whatcha doin? I shrugged and he nodded and wandered off.

Mr. Moffet brought me a pair of snippers and helped me get the metal leads hooked up to the other lamp parts, and when the bell rang, I realized Jeff was already gone. Earlier in the day I’d imagined he would walk me to my locker, but then he didn’t and I was relieved. Some kids made out at their lockers and what if he’d wanted to do that? I didn’t know if we were going out, or what. I don’t think you’re supposed to ask things like that.

Anyway, it didn’t matter. When I got out of volleyball practice, he was waiting. I could hear the music as soon as I walked out the side door, by the gym. Shelby, this girl on varsity, started laughing and said There’s your burnout. I pretended like it was no big deal and said My mom asked him to drive me to youth group. Only she didn’t know he didn’t go to our church and that it wasn’t youth group night. We went and parked by the dike next to Liberty Lanes.

8 Comments:

Blogger Orange said...

Wow! This is good. You've nailed your narrator's teenager voice and perspective. Am waiting for Part 2!

1/17/2008 10:04 PM  
Blogger meno said...

The trouble with starting something like this, is that you then get hooked.

Curse you.

1/18/2008 10:35 AM  
Blogger Mamalujo said...

OK, I'm in.

1/18/2008 12:57 PM  
Anonymous Anastasia "alto" Beaverhausen said...

Dang! So good. I was in choir, Mignon. Now shop seems like it could have been a better option for me. One more regret to add to my long, long list. Damn your eyes!

1/19/2008 7:09 AM  
Blogger Bob said...

ummmm. can't wait for part 2. great start.

1/19/2008 7:05 PM  
Blogger V-Grrrl said...

I remember my first kiss. The tonguey, teeth banging thang. Thank God there were no hands inside of clothes...

I like your burnout. And the chick who burns for him.

1/21/2008 5:56 AM  
Anonymous Nancy said...

This is great, Mignon. Can't wait to see where it goes next.

1/22/2008 12:06 PM  
Blogger Tink said...

As if you'd write junk. Pfft. This is AWESOME.

2/07/2008 12:50 PM  

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