In fifth period, we learn about Agent Orange. Miss Goldfarb stands at the front of the classroom and shows us slides of festering corpses: their eyes dark, wet pits; their mouths sliding right off the sides of their faces. She tells us in a calm voice, while she plays with a loose thread on the cuff of her sleeve, how she stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and set an effigy of the president on fire after she learned that her boyfriend, Fred Morrow, would never come back from that place.
"Look," she says and points at the slides projected on the whiteboard. There is a map of foreign land. There is a river and a delta and a flat blue sea. I imagine my dad somewhere in that grid of lines, crawling on his stomach and picking through the pockets of the dead, but he was in a different war.
I found a picture in his closet once. It was of a small Iraqi girl and her own father, sitting together, stiffly posed and staring at the camera with frank, wide gazes. They weren't smiling. They hardly looked real. I put it back in the cigar box on the highest shelf, and I thought about their faces for a long time afterward.
Miss Goldfarb sits at her desk and says, "You guys . . ." She sighs. She puts her head facedown on the ink blotter and taps one high-heeled shoe against the metal leg of her chair. She has a beautiful mouth and squinty green eyes, but we cannot see them now. We can see only her hair and the way it falls across her desk. She's a redhead. She's asthmatic. She can never remember our names.
I skip sixth period. No one will notice I'm gone. There's a skinny path on the far side of the track that cuts through the woods to the Jiffy. I break off chunks of bark as I walk along and think of Miss Goldfarb and how the blood rushes to her neck when she talks about Vietnam. I imagine my desk in the back of the classroom, right under the air vent that drips a steady trickle of water all day long, filling the groove of the pencil holder and making me crazy with the sound. There are other kids still stuck in those rooms, hunched over in their chairs, sleeping and drooling and carving their initials into the wooden tops of their desks.
The Jiffy is mostly empty, except for the wino who likes to walk up and down the corner. He sleeps in the giant broken icebox outside when it thunderstorms really bad. I don't know his name, but he always smiles at me and says "Hallo, haallloo" in an accent that seems like it came from nowhere, like maybe he just invented it on the spot.
Horner owns the place and won't call the school if you pay him five bucks or spend some money in the store; so today I buy gum and a pack of cigarettes. I pay with a twenty. He keeps my change.
"Dude," I say.
"Your mom," Horner says. "She owes me some."
Then he laughs and tells me to "step aside, son, step aside" so he may ring up his "next and most loyal customer," who takes my place at the counter. It's Vernon Bellenger. He's seventeen and the older of the two Bellenger brothers who go everywhere together—they're one year apart, each of them tall and serious-looking and somehow famous around here for reasons no one can really remember. Girls are always stalking them. I'm fourteen, but Vernon's only a class ahead of me.
"Hey, man," he says suddenly, and turns to me.
"You want one?" He fans an array of magazines—from soft-core to hard-, cross-legged to spread-eagle—and it seems impossible that Vernon Bellenger is offering to buy me porn on a Thursday afternoon for no apparent reason and when I've never even met him before.
"You should take this one," he says and taps his thumb against a picture of a girl dressed up as the slutty cousin of Princess Leia. There's a dry, cotton feeling in my mouth, like no water ever existed there at all. Vernon grins at me and recommends page seventy-three, because it's pretty fucking awesome, and he wants to know why he's never seen me around before.
"Why don't you hang with us today?" he says, but not like a question.
My parents are not particularly interested in my life, and so not particularly concerned when I come home later that night with a busted hand and a swollen cheek. My dad is sitting on the couch, his legs flapping open and shut like insect wings, obviously tripping, obviously "damaged from the war." (That's how my mother explained it a long time ago when we woke up one night to the sound of him hollering in our backyard. He was running around naked, gun cocked, balls flailing, shooting squirrels in the trees. We knew the neighbors saw.)
"What happened to you?" he asks.
"A fight," I say. My first. My dad rubs his chin and goes, "Huh," but it's a barely audible sound, an exhale of breath, and I'm running my tongue along the inside of my teeth, thinking maybe they're loose, thinking I'm furious because I expected he would have something to say—to tell me how to fight or run or mend my fucking wounds, something profound and serious like that.
"Well, shit," he says. He rolls a plastic sofa button between his fingers. He looks at the TV.
I stand in the middle of the living room for a while, not moving, not looking at anything at all really, but my right hand feels suddenly too huge and heavy to carry. I'm waiting for it to fall off at any second—to come unhinged at the wrist and drop on the shag carpet by his feet.
"C'mere, Jack," my mother calls from the kitchen. She's more tender under the soft light of the overhead fan, dabbing my mouth and setting my hand in a plastic bowl of ice water. She looks at the cuts on my knuckles for a long time—guessing how deep they are and how long they'll take to heal.
"It's OK," she says. "They're not too bad."
She hums and stirs the mashed potatoes on the stove while I let my hand go numb. She's distracted, telling me about my aunt's shitty boyfriend and how my father will lose his job if he doesn't get to work tomorrow. She takes a bite of the potatoes and says, "I think these need more pepper." Her bare feet make soft sounds on the linoleum. I stare at her back—at the long dark braid that hangs between her shoulders and cuts the pattern of her shirt, swinging gently from side to side when she moves. She doesn't ask me what happened. She doesn't ask me who I hit or who hit me or who started what, and I don't know how to begin to tell her. I sit through dinner, lamely trying to eat with my left hand, spilling beans and lumps of mashed potatoes all over my placemat and the floor. My parents argue.
"Did you say ‘straightened arrow'?"
"Yes," my mom says.
"That's the funniest thing I've ever heard."
"Why is that funny?"
"Because there's no such thing," my dad says, and smiles.
"What are you talking about?"
"There isn't any fucking arrow, Tess. There's just the straight and narrow."
"Oh, go to hell."
I listen to them fight and feel my head lift miles above me into a sort of alternate space: I can look down and see the three of us sitting here, each of our heads a brown smudge against the white carpet and yellow table, and I want to know how all of these things fit together and connect to make a family. I am thinking of that wide-open field where I went with the Bellengers and stared at the rows of cars that glinted in the sun like giant jewels, all of their windshields and bumpers sparkling, and what happened next seems like something I read once or saw in a movie—because when you let your head float above you like this you witness everything but don't feel anything. We fought each other in the field. They said it was just for fun. They said, "Practice, that's all," and each of them took turns standing still while the other swung at his face. Then they leaned into me, smiling, and said, "You're up, pussy!" and it seemed impossible not to listen. I hit Greg, the younger one. I felt the whole thing shoot up my arm and go straight to my brain. He spit in the dirt afterward and looked across the field and then laughed and said, "Shit, man. I barely even felt that." We all laughed and kept on laughing even as we hit each other, even though it hurt like hell.
"Don't blame us," my mom says and folds her hands in her lap under the table, but my dad doesn't say anything else. He gets up and goes down the hall into the bathroom, where he locks the door and rolls a joint on the toilet and refuses to speak to my mother through the wall because, as he's said before, as I've heard him tell her over and over in a thousand different ways, she doesn't appreciate what he went through over there. She never ever will.
To read the rest of this story and others from the Summer 2008 issue, click here to purchase it from our online store.