The Dead End
Wood rounded the corner into the cul-de-sac, his long, easy strides mocking the chunky weight of the hiking boots he wore everywhere. His rear boot rose—cleanly, quietly—but somehow a black scuff mark appeared below it on the floor. I heard the door click shut, but I was so focused on the scuff mark that I nearly ran into Wood. He had stopped just inside the mouth of the hall.
Did you see that? he said.
I edged around him. First thing I noticed was that Simon wasn’t there. Then I glimpsed Mme. Deforest scooting into her classroom.
Couldn’t see Deforest for the Wood, I said, smiling.
I think she was smoking in that closet. She was waving her hand, he said, pantomiming a smoker waving his hand to disperse the smoke. Can’t you smell it?
But I was already circling toward Simon’s door, like a kid trying to capture the flag, tortured by the certainty that the enemy lurked somewhere unseen.
I peeked into the classroom. A withered old man sat behind Simon’s desk. A substitute teacher!
I had followed Wood as he pushed through the bottlenecked reception of gunmetal gray lockers on the second floor. Felicity Bunting squeezed by and rising to the occasion I said hey too loudly, like I needed something form her. She was as difficult for me to parse as her name; both seemed to signify something beyond my grasp. She turned her head to show she held her phone to her opposite ear, then abruptly turned back and kept going in the opposite direction, which was odd. She was in Simon’s class with us next period.
The hallway opened up and Wood, somehow unaware of my snubbing, called down ephemeral. It was Thursday. We were supposed to have a vocab quiz.
Short-lived, I said.
Long eye, he said.
I didn’t get it.
Short-liiived, he explained. As in a short life. Smiling, he blurted it again, Short life. He shook his head like how the fuck had he not thought of this before. Like those Salt Life window stickers but for you, he said. Short Life. We need one for your car.
I told him that I had heard that an overactive pituitary drained intelligence.
It should have a rainbow, he said. In the background or something.
Because it’s inclusive. Even short lives matter.
Jesus, I said, and he laughed. I had known Kevin Wood since kindergarten, when, if the photos could be trusted (there were many; our moms were friends), we were about the same height.
And—you blasphemer—the rainbow’s a nice allusion. To the most famous short people. The munchkins under the rainbow.
Over the rainbow.
You should know.
Under the sun, over the rainbow. It’s hard to keep the two stories straight.
I wonder if short life dot com is available, he said.
I told him he’d be a rich man if it was, and he faux-mocked mulling it over as he pushed through the door into the stairwell at the end of the hall. He called up verdure from the switchback landing.
Green…healthy…, I said.
Ehnt! The greenness of growing vegetation.
Simon made us regurgitate word-for-word the definitions he gave us, usually cut-and-pasted from Merriam Webster online. He was a shitty teacher, but a successful wrestling coach, a former heavyweight state champion at our school. We knew from the photos in the trophy case, prominently located in the front entranceway. His classroom, fittingly, was in the constipated bowels of the building, the short dead-end hallway we called the cul-de-sac, where he should have been waiting for us—at bat.
Simon used to do the dumbest thing. He would stand outside his room before class and pretend to swing a baseball bat, his rolled-up attendance notebook. He did it all the time. He’d dig in, find his batter’s stance, then shift his attention to the mouth of the hallway, where an invisible pitcher stood. His arms, corded with veins, strained the bands of his polos. He’d chicken-wing his right elbow just before his eyes began to follow the pitch traveling toward him. Then he would swing and watch the flight of the ball as it travelled out of sight. A homerun every time. I don’t know if it was supposed to be funny or charming or what. He looked ridiculous, crouched in the cul-de-sac, in his fat man’s pants, cinched at the waist, the only pants with legs big enough to accommodate his thighs. He was an enormous man, of massive parts. His head contained geologic formations. His brow jutted like a rock shelf from the broad, creviced escarpment of his forehead, above which grim conditions prevailed. From temple to temple only frazzled scrub took root, but moving back an abrupt change of terrain yielded straight, cornfloss-fine hair. It draped the back of his muscle-girded neck and was meant to hide grotesque molded-clay cauliflower ears. He was a tragicomic colossus of Galahad, hunched over, deformed, middle-aged, earthbound.
Tree… Soup, he would say, standing upright. Because Wood was Wood, and he was tall, Simon called him Tree. He called me Soup. No one knew why. We only knew that he had also given the nickname to Sam Campbell who was in a different section of the same class. Campbell Soup. At least it made sense.
What if I suggest Chicken Noodle? Wood said, laughing at his own joke. You know, so there’s no confusion. Confusion indeed. Sam was blonde, athletic, and very good looking.
No, said the King. Juan Carlos Agualinda, by name and bearing, was the King, darkly regal in our Waspish school. He’s dainty and sometimes refreshing, he said. Like gazpacho.
When Wood finally stopped laughing, he said that Gazpacho was too sophisticated for Simple Simon. But you’re right, he said. Chicken noodle’s too hardy.
Looking me up and down, he asked Agualinda, What are the short noodles called.
There would be no debating the sophistication or obscurity of orzo. I was the short noodle.
You know what the King told me? I said. We had reached the bottom of the stairwell, and Wood pulled open the fire door.
What has his highness been spouting off about now?
I stood next to Agualinda, perched atop the gym bleachers, for his first football pep rally. He watched, without reaction, as our heavy-headed Saxon mascot stomped on its own highly polished likeness at midcourt. Afterward he asked why Anglo had been dropped from the mascot’s name. I laughed, but Wood, evidently dulled by the peppering we had received, channeled school spirit to family pride and laid claim to his Irish-Catholic heritage.
Historically we’ve had it just as hard as the Latinos.
Do you like to be called Paddy? Agualinda asked.
Wood glared at him.
Are you comparing Paddy and Latino? I asked.
Because one’s actually a fucking slur, said Wood.
Latino is a condescending gringo epithet.
Are you kidding? Gringo’s not condescending? said Wood.
No, it’s irreverent.
What about Hispanic? I asked.
The meaning has been diluted over the centuries.
I was fascinated.
Why do you roll your eyes, Wooden?
Because I’m a condescending gringo.
He said, I told Wood, that the men in a Mexican family, the extended family—father, grandfather, uncles—
He said that it was customary—in a family of a certain station—that’s how he put it.
Of course he did.
It was customary to take a boy, the son—
Venga conmigo, mi hijo.
To a prostitute.
No shit? A puta.
Yeah, when he comes of age.
Did he what?
Go to a whore, you dick.
Agualinda had meant a lower station. His father was a career diplomat, now at the Mexican embassy on Pennsylvania Avenue. The King had grown up abroad. He spoke English imperially, German, from his dad’s previous station in Berlin, with a hard, guttural precision, and his French in the last year had become, according to Mme. Deforest, absolutely melodic. Wood and I took Spanish with Señor Archie, whose thin lips and trim graying goatee, speckled with spittle from rolling Rs, reminded me of my grandmother’s spirited Yorkshire Terrier, Mr. Archie. The King’s arrival should have been a boon to our ensayos. Djou mean essay, esé? he asked. His Hispanic gang member wasn’t the least bit convincing, which was the point. He insisted he knew Castilian, the language of Cervantes, from when he lived in Madrid, and was no longer acquainted with the mongrel language we were learning.
You think the assistant to the plenipotentiary is going to take his only son to a brothel in some slum in Mexico City? I asked.
It doesn’t have to be in a slum.
Wood had a point.
Or even in Mexico City. I mean, when was the last time they even lived there?
It had been a while.
How old is of age?
Why do you care so much?
Because, like anyone with a brain, I’m curious.
Just a healthy curiosity.
Fuck off, he said. Then, after a moment, Sixteen?
Nah, fourteen. It’s like a Mexican bar mitzvah.
Toward the end of the summer between middle school and high school my dad sat me down in the den. His suit was overwhelmed by the humidity, and it must have been a Friday because he held a sweating tumbler of gin and cracked ice. He liked to fill his glass with as much of the accumulated shards as he could muster from the bottom of the ice bin. His breath was both acrid and antiseptic.
One morning, he said, you’ll wake up and—I mean if you haven’t already?
I looked at him blankly.
No. Well, in your drawers, there’ll be a—when you wake up—there’ll be a wetness.
I was confused because drawers made me think of my dresser, and wetness was just fucking odd.
He swirled the gin and melting ice uneasily. He took a sip and swallowed. You’re becoming a young man, he said.
Oh shit, I thought.
And when a boy becomes a young man—
Apparently, when a boy becomes a young man he has to listen to the stilted performance of a middle-aged man, who forgoes useful, helpful words, like wet dream, sex, and ejaculate (both as verb and, understandably, noun), instead memorizing phrases like biological processes… hormones coursing through your body… a boy becoming a young man, which he had, no doubt, found Googling how to talk to your son about sex. It was all very sincere and dutiful, or at least sincerely dutiful, if redundant. By the time my dad gave the wetness talk, I had unloaded of myself, both voluntarily and involuntarily, countless times. I frequented websites that were very direct in their depictions. Unfortunately, frequency of release does not necessarily stem frequency of encumbrance. Now there was something that might have been addressed. My thirteen-soon-to-be-fourteen-year-old dick becoming board-hard for any reason or none at all, at any point in the day, but as a rule just before the bell rang to dismiss class, requiring manual redirection via jeans pocket, up and behind the waistband of my, well, drawers before I could stand up from behind my desk.
Wood shook his head, Thirteen, you maven.
Don’t be a dick.
Orzo never reverted to short noodle and the easy dick-size joke it would have encouraged, because Wood was so fucking proud of himself. Until we read Romeo & Juliet aloud in class, even Simon was calling me Orzo.
Surprising no one, he chose Felicity to read the part of Juliet. He seemed to surprise even himself when he pointed at me with a bemused expression and said, Soup, you take Romeo.
Wood laughed (and Agualinda probably raised an eyebrow).
Simon ignored him and read the prologue himself. Then he turned the roles over to the class and paced in front of the whiteboard, listening.
Eventually, as he always will, Romeo entered the play, all mopey and lovelorn.
In sadness, cousin, I do love a woman, I read.
I aim’d so near, when I supposed you loved.
All right, he said, we’re not even through the first scene, and we already know what kind of guy Romeo is.
It was a game Simon liked to play.
Lovelorn? someone ventured.
Obviously, said Simon.
You’re reading ahead, said Simon.
Intemperate’s a better word. And again, not yet.
Simon’s eyes brightened.
Delicate is better. He paused for a moment. And look up effete (soft or delicate from or as if from a pampered existence). Nodding to no one, enchanted by the word, he murmured, But I like sensitive. I like that, Romeo.
Wood snorted, which broke the spell, and Simon became aware of a class-wide drift of confusion. His eyes darted left to right, back and forth, as he beheld Romeo’s imperfect doubling.
Sam Campbell, because of some scheduling conflict—probably athletics related—was sitting in on our class that day. He not I, Soup not Orzo, Romeo but not Romeo, had suggested sensitive. Simon looked from Sam to me with uncertainty, an alien emotion for him. I gave him a commiserating shrug, which seemed to throw a neural switch, opening a more familiar pathway, which he was content (if that’s the word) to take.
Keep reading, he snapped.
He stalked the whiteboard now, a penned-in animal, determined to find a break in the fenceline. It came quickly, at the end of the scene. Because where else would it be?
Farewell: thou canst not teach me to forget.
I’ll pay that doctrine, or else die in debt.
You know what kind of guy Romeo is? Simon said, halting in front of the whiteboard.
Sinister, said Agualinda.
What? Simon barked.
Wood ruddered himself sideways in his too-small desk, trying to contain his laughter.
Sinister. I think he’s sinister.
Agualinda looked right at me, at Orzo-cum-Soup, and said, Romeo, of course.
Unlike, say, a wrestler, whose primed quick-twitch muscles serve an urgent need to annihilate, Agualinda was patient and amenable, his sloe-eyed gaze as exotically serene as a painting of almond blossoms.
Simon shook his head, still looking at me, and said, He’s the type of guy who pees sitting down.
My face burned red. Somehow Simon knew that I regularly sat down to pee and had just told the class I was a pansy for it.
Do you mean considerate? Agualinda said, following a completely different script.
But considerate made perfect sense. I sat on the toilet out of modesty or shyness. I didn’t want someone on the other side of the door to hear my piss splashing in the toilet bowl. I had been on the other side of the door, listening to what sounded like a garden hose. Being modest and shy, I especially didn’t want the kind of attention a piss-splattered toilet bowl might bring. When I did pee standing, I raised the seat and wiped the rim of the bowl dry with toilet paper before flushing. It was less messy to just sit. And if it was considerate to leave a toilet clean, then it was considerate to pee sitting.
My laughter was a spontaneous recognition of understanding and being understood. It was also conspicuous and open to interpretation, and I regretted it instantly.
Simon moved on me like a storm, with swift immensity, his brow darkening. You know what I mean—squatting to piss—don’t you, sport. He stood over me with fierce equine nostrils flaring. I smiled like I was in on the joke, though I knew he wasn’t joking. I just didn’t know what else to do. He grabbed the neck of my desk and slid his other hand under the seat. The molded plastic pressed upward on my ass, and he lifted me, in the desk, off the ground. His trapezius swelled under his collar and the veins in his neck bulged. He had acne craters at his temple. The room rippled quiet.
Don’t you! he thundered.
He held me, suspended for an interminable moment, above the class for everyone to goggle at. Then he dropped me. The desk slammed down. Looming over me, he looked not just capable of more violence but thirsty for it.
Then he opened the door and left. The room was quiet. No one said anything and the bell rang. My dick, for once, was accommodating. I stood, gathered my shit, and went to trig.
Approaching Agualinda and Wood after school, I could tell they were talking about it.
No need to whisper, I said.
Simon might as well have called you a fag in front of the whole class, Wood said. Or a pussy.
Which one? I said. And why the fuck should I give the smallest shit what that retard thinks? He thinks Romeo sits to pee.
That’s not the point, man. You need to stand up for yourself. Otherwise—
What was I supposed to do? Kick his ass?
Don’t be stupid, he said smugly, like I was, predictably, attacking the messenger. The thing about playing the role of truth-teller—and everyone knows this—is that if you do it without offering the possibility of communion or the protection of solidarity, it’s a cruel role to play.
Considerate? I said, turning to Agualinda. He was as impassive, as inscrutable as ever. I forced a smile. Sinister? But repeating those words was like swiping money from your mom’s purse. It didn’t spend well.
For a while I blamed Agualinda. Craven piece of shit that I was. It was my laughter that had set Simon off, the fucking bully. And like a true bully, he spawned a bully. Simon called him Peanut, without irony, because at some point, it stood to reason, he had been a child for whom Peanut might have been a suitable endearment. He was three years older than us, a lither, less paunchy, just as brutal version of Simon. When we were freshman, Peanut took Clayton Whitaker’s milk. I’m not kidding. He grabbed it off the cafeteria table, opened it, and said, I’m really thirsty. You mind?
Clayton was small, even smaller than me, with a high, serious forehead. In the right context he could’ve passed for twelve or forty.
Clayton shook his head. He didn’t mind.
You sure? Peanut asked.
Again Clayton shook his head.
You’re not sure? Peanut said with blunt eyes.
A rictus of confusion and shame opened on Clayton’s face, and Peanut gawked, mocking him. Then he chugged the milk and tossed the empty carton onto the cafeteria table. Apparently, Clayton’s big brain had inconveniently landed him in a sophomore level geometry class where Peanut languished. When he graduated Peanut was exiled to a junior college in a desolate corner of one of the squared states, to hone his football skills and bring up his grades. Within the year he was expelled. He joined the Army. The schadenfreude I experienced was exquisite.
But Wood was impressed. He said that committing to something larger than yourself could be redemptive.
No, said the King. There is nothing to be redeemed by an empty gesture, by a peanut-brain’s grandiosity. And you cannot use a word like commit after he has been dismissed from the pitch.
It’s a field, Linda, Wood said, stressing a short I. We call it a football field.
Tree… Carlyle, Simon would say to my downcast eyes. He never apologized, just started calling me by my surname. I was happy to forget about it. Or pretend to. I dreaded going there each day. But months went by, winter break, the weather began to improve; summer would come, and I knew I got to leave.
Wood rounded the corner. I knew almost immediately that the scuff mark had already been there, left by someone else at some other time, an ordinary thing. But for a moment it was uncanny, a ventriloquist’s trick. Something had made Wood’s boot seem to make the mark appear.
The door to the custodial closet, tucked away at the blind end of the hallway, clicked shut. I nearly ran into Wood, standing just inside the mouth of the cul-de-sac, as still and erect as a fucking lighthouse. Mme. Deforest scooted into her classroom. Her graying bun, forever ready to fall, bobbed loosely behind.
Did you see that? he said.
I couldn’t see DeForest for the Tree.
He ignored me.
I ignored him.
Because Simon was absent and an ancient substitute sat behind his desk.
Wood peered across the hall, and I glided to the back row, where Agualinda was already seated, reading. He had just come from Deforest’s class.
What’s up, Murky Water? I said.
Mange ma grande banane, Orzo.
The room was busy with chatter, phones out. I sat down, on Agualinda’s left. Wood, as always, took the desk on his right.
How was Deforest’s class? Wood asked.
Agualinda closed his book. I hope you will both one day know the pleasure of reading Proust in French.
Agualinda was in high spirits, but Wood ignored him, too.
How was she? he said. Deforest?
We just saw her.
The King shrugged.
And now Simon’s absent.
Something weird’s going on, insisted Wood.
I don’t know. I think something might have happened to Simon.
A heart attack from prolonged use of anabolic steroids? said Agualinda.
I laughed and caught a rheumy glance from the sub.
The bell rang, and the old man leaned forward, to see out the open door. Expecting stragglers? Not to Simon’s class. Then Felicity Bunting walked in, with her phone still to her ear. She was wearing tight jeans, the ones worn to rosy white ovals in the rear.
Jesus Christ, I said in a hushed voice.
Agualinda shook his head.
Something wrong? I asked.
She is—to use your word—a redneck.
You’re such a fucking snob, I said.
Yes, that is well established. As is her reputation as a jism chasm.
Wood and I exploded with laughter, and the old man recoiled. Chasm was one of our vocab words: a wide gap or rift.
Felicity shot a look back. But there was no way she could have heard us.
Fucking King, said Wood.
The door shut. Mme. Deforest stood there with eyes shot and swollen. A strangely exhilarating kind of dramatic force filled the room.
I looked across Agualinda at Wood. He was transfixed.
Mme. Deforest moved from the door past Simon’s desk to the windows, composing both herself and what she would say.
Felicity looked back from the front row again. Wood was standing, trying to see something out the windows. I climbed on to the seat of my desk. It wobbled like a piece of playground equipment. I steadied it and tried to see what Wood was trying to see: if Simon’s rusted-out Toyota was resting, or not, in its assigned parking space. But in that sunken classroom, the hedge outside obscured most of the view, and we could only see a clear blue sky.
Les jeunes hommes…, said Mme. Deforest.
We both sat down.
Last night, Mr. Simon… She took a deliberate breath. Mr. Simon was informed that his son, Corporal Daniel Simon, was killed in the line of duty in Afghanistan.
There was a collective gasp.
Word spread quickly and just as quickly dulled to the drone of listless kids crowding familiar corridors, only to ebb away as the next period approached.
Later we learned that what Mme. Deforest had told us wasn’t, strictly speaking, true. Daniel Simon had died in Afghanistan, in one of only two possible ways in which dying in war is worse than simply being killed in war. He was an in-theater suicide. Simon took a leave of absence, and we never saw him again. Over the years, we heard stories of alcohol, divorce, hospital stays, charity.
I have this vision—I don’t what else to call it. I didn’t deliberately compose it. Images came and coalesced.
Simon is standing hunched up over a toilet. Middle of the night. His flaccid, tame, old-man dick in hand. He needs to piss but can’t. Needs sleep and knows he won’t get any. His besotted mind is awhirl in a darkness teeming with false light. He loses his balance and his aged heft falls hard. His hip breaks on impact with the cheap vinyl flooring laid over concrete slab. His bladder finally releases, and lying in his own piss, he begins to sob and sobs more because he’s sobbing. It’s all he can do. There’s no one there to help. His wife has already left him.
Hilarious, isn’t it?
A turnstile of substitutes sat behind Simon’s desk before the desk was finally pushed aside. Mr. Connell, an English teacher before he became assistant principal, liked to stand behind a lectern, where he read from his notebook. Pretty arid stuff. We didn’t blame him, given the circumstances.
Through the windows, the tattered fingers of a wash of clouds reached for the sun, looking more like a cloud study than clouds and the frail old man, the sub, came to me. Why had he been there that day? At his age? Some enduring belief in community? And an obligation to serve it? The unconquerable, ridiculous arrogance of being the right man for the job, no matter that the stature of each, man and job, had dwindled to the vanishing point. He had just sat there that day drifting between past and future, between absence and oblivion, a eunuch’s existence, not really there at all.
My gaze left the windows and bent slowly downward to Wood’s boots, at rest on the floor.
Christopher Luken is a writer living in Athens, GA. This is his first published story. He is currently—you guessed it—at work on a novel.