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Fiction #169
(published March 4, 2004)
Dancing Lessons (part 7 of 8)
by William Starr Moake

Chapter 7

I didn't turn into a zombie, but my senior year in high school was pretty depressing. In the first place I was forced to see Pauline every school day and it was embarrassing the way she always averted her eyes when she noticed me looking at her. I didn't try to talk to her, but it was killing me. I considered dropping out of school and hitch-hiking to the west coast to get a job on a cargo ship — until my parents threatened to have me arrested as a runaway. I wouldn't put it past them to do something like that. I didn't want to rot in some stinking jail, so I bided my time and found some diversions to take my mind off Pauline.

Harold and Rudy and I started drinking beer whenever we could persuade a wino to buy us a couple six-packs at a liquor store. I didn't exactly drown my troubles in booze, but I taught them how to swim. I figured if I was accused of being a juvenile delinquent, I might as well start acting like one and enjoy some of the benefits.

We also learned how to make firecrackers and skyrockets, which were illegal in our state unless you were an adult and had a commercial license. It wasn't all that hard to learn. The formulas were in books from the library and you could buy the chemicals in almost any drug store or hardware store. The three of us would get bombed on beer and sneak away to some vacant lot late at night to set off our latest home-made fireworks. Then we'd run like hell, laughing and whooping it up as lights came on all over the neighborhood. It kept us from getting too bored, which was always a problem.

One time we made some real nitroglycerin. I'm not kidding. It wasn't much, a few ounces if I remember, but we knew we had to be damn careful with it. Nitrogylcerin is so sensitive it can explode if you just look at it cross-eyed or something. We took turns carrying it relay-style to a hillside behind the YMCA. That way, we figured only one guy would die if it went off accidentally. Rudy lit the long fuse to the detonator and we all ran like crazy. We must have been a hundred yards away when the explosion knocked us to the ground like a goddamn earthquake. Half of the hillside was gone and we realized that all three of us would have been killed if the nitro had exploded while it was being carried. After that we stuck to firecrackers and skyrockets. I sort of enjoyed being a juvenile delinquent for awhile and doing crazy stuff, but it sure as hell wasn't worth dying for.

One day early in my senior year I found out the school board had fired Mr. McAllister. I wasn't in his class anymore, but I couldn't believe they would fire the best teacher in the high school. I got really mad when I heard all the details. The basketball coach had come to one of Mr. McAllister's classes to pull out a player for early practice. Mr. McAllister told the coach he couldn't take the student until the class was over. When the coach started leading the kid away, Mr. McAllister handed him the keys to his class and went home for the day. The school board considered that a violation of the teacher contract and fired him. The morons sided with the jocks, which was so incredibly wrong it made me sick. No wonder they were called the Bored of Education.

After they fired Mr. McAllister, I sort of lost interest in classes and my grades went to hell in a hand basket. What was the point of learning when any jock was treated as more important than the best teacher I ever had? I wasn't going to college anyway. I didn't want to spend four more years in some moth-eaten institution populated by snobs worse than the ones I had to put up with in high school.

One night I got a little toasted on beer and went to see Mr. McAllister at his house. I was very depressed, but he seemed glad to see me anyway. His wife disappeared into the kitchen like she always did when students visited and Mr. McAllister offered me a Pepsi.

"I'd rather have a beer," I said.

"Don't tell me you've started drinking."

"Just a few beers once in awhile. It's no big deal."

I was afraid he would start lecturing me on the evils of alcohol, but all he did was ask me how I had been doing. I told him not so good and then all of a sudden I started babbling about Pauline and everything that happened between us. I couldn't stop myself, it just came out in a rush of words like a confession or something. By the time I finished I was sort of crying. It was really embarrassing.

Mr. McAllister leaned back in his chair and said: "It seems we both had a bad year."

I felt like a damn fool when I remembered why I had come in the first place. I wanted to find out how he was doing, not burden him with my own problems. I apologized like crazy and asked about his future plans.

"I've already received one offer to teach at a university."

I said that sounded great since he was such a good teacher and all.

"You're the one I'm worried about," he said with this very serious look on his face. I hate it when adults get that look. If their eyebrows sort of clump together, you know they're going to put you on the spot.

"I'll be okay," I said. "I'm just a little upset right now."

"I assume you intend to go to college next fall."

I thought he might bring that up and I tried to dance around the subject without actually lying to him, but it didn't work.

"I want you to do me a personal favor," he said. Then he told me about this bus trip to Michigan State University in a few weeks and how it was sponsored by the high school free to any senior student.

"I don't know. I might be busy that weekend or something."

"As a personal favor to me," he repeated.

He looked so worried I couldn't say no. "I guess it wouldn't hurt to take a look," I said, even though I thought it might.

So I signed up for the trip against my better judgment. We arrived on a Saturday afternoon and I sneaked off alone to the chemistry lab when the chaperone wasn't looking. It was totally empty because everyone was at the football game. MSU was playing Notre Dame or somebody. If I had been a thief, I could have stolen a million bucks worth of lab equipment and chemicals. It was kind of lonely in there, staring at all the retorts and Bunsen burners and everything, so I sort of walked around the campus looking at the buildings. Every so often I could hear a roar from the stadium crowd, like someone on the home team had made a first down or something. I felt really depressed when I thought about all those people going bananas over a first down. I mean, it was only a stupid game, for Chrissakes. It was just like high school. The jocks were more important than remembering to lock up the chemistry lab.

MSU was called a cow college because it was originally set up as an agricultural school or something. If I wanted to get a higher education, I sure as hell wouldn't go to some place known as a cow college. That sounds like it was set up to teach cattle. I know students get treated like cattle in public high schools, but they don't have to pay tuition for it. If you want my opinion, I think most kids go to college so they can feel superior to the ones who can't afford it, not really to learn anything worthwhile. I've known a few college graduates who were as dumb as fence posts. They had good-paying jobs and all, but they didn't know jack about living or getting the most out of life as far as I could tell. They reminded me of ants on a shit pile, struggling to stay on top where it didn't stink so much.

Anyway, the trip to MSU didn't change my mind in the slightest about going to college. I just couldn't picture myself walking around campus with a bunch of books under my arm and joining a fraternity or anything. Girls like Pauline went to college and I'd probably end up falling for one of them and getting dumped again. Who needed it? I didn't tell Mr. McAllister about my decision, though. I knew he would be disappointed and start worrying about me again. I thought he should concentrate on his new teaching job and forget about me for awhile. Maybe some day I'll look him up at the university where he's teaching. I wouldn't mind discussing philosophy with him when I'm older and my life isn't so screwed up.

To make some extra loot, I got this part-time job at the circulation branch office of the Chicago Sun Times. Office was a goddamn joke, though. It was really nothing more than a hole in the wall about as big as a closet and located in a crappy part of town. My job was to count out the newspapers for all the carriers and answer the phone. I wrote down complaints about papers not being delivered and yelled at the guilty carrier the next time I saw him. You had to be tough with those sneaky little bastards or they'd just dump the papers in a trash can and go play with their friends. Once in awhile I had to deliver a whole route myself when one of them got sick or quit. If a route was open, I beat the bushes like crazy for a new carrier so I wouldn't have to keep delivering it.

My boss, Larry Simmons, wouldn't let me use his car to run routes, even though I had my driver's license. I was forced to use a bicycle, which was a pain in the ass when snow was about a mile deep. Simmons was a real jerk to work for. On Friday nights when the carriers got paid he would sucker some of them into tossing quarters against the wall. He almost always won. Some carriers lost their whole week's pay before they wised up. Simmons tried to get me to play poker with him, but I told him to forget it. He made ten times as much as me for doing practically nothing and I wasn't about to hand over any of my hard-earned cash. I'm sure he would have cheated and dealt off the bottom of the deck or something. Simmons was only five years older than me, but he acted like an old miser. When it came to greed, he had his head so far up his ass he was looking at stomach lining.

I had a key to the office and sometimes at night I'd go down there to get away from my parents if they were driving me nuts. It was peaceful and quiet in the empty office and usually I left the light off. I'd sit in the dark and stare through the open blinds to the street outside, watching cars drive by with their headlights on. Pretty soon I'd sort of fall into a trance and start fantasizing about crazy stuff for fun. I'd be this spy waiting for a phone call from my contact who would tell me a secret code or something. But an evil nemesis was hot on my trail, so I had to keep an eye out and be ready to defend myself if a suspicious car stopped outside the office. The car would be black-colored and half a block long and have all these hidden gadgets to knock me off by surprise. Once, a big black car really did park on the street and I almost dropped a load in my shorts. I admit I get a little too carried away with fantasy sometimes. My old man calls it a flaw in my character, which kills me. He wouldn't know character if it bit him in the ass. The truth is, ordinary reality can be pretty boring unless you're a moron. I'm afraid morons will inherit the earth some day since they seem to be coming out of the woodwork wherever I go.

One Saturday night Harold, Rudy and I drove down to the river to do some serious drinking where nobody could see us. We took a whole case of beer and started chugging away. Rudy only drank two beers, claiming he had an upset stomach or something, but Harold and I kept going. After awhile I was feeling no pain and I started jabbering about philosophy and things like that.

"What this world needs is a lot more whimsy. There's too much goddamn premeditation going on. Everything is so planned out and logical it makes me want to puke. Where's the fun in that? I'll tell you where, it's boring."

I was really loaded to the gills and Harold looked like he was ready to pass out. He had his head down on his chest, mumbling to himself. I poked him with my finger.

"Pay attention, goddamn it. Let's go do something whimsical."

"Like what?"

"Rudy can drive. You and me are way too shit-faced."

"Drive where?"

"If I told you, then it wouldn't be whimsical."

I had brought one of our home-made firecrackers, a big one like an M-80, and Rudy drove us to Kathy Kunkel's house. I heard on the school grapevine that Kathy, Pauline and a couple other girls were holding a pajama party that night. Kathy's parents' car was gone when we arrived, like I expected. You can always count on parents to take off when their daughter plans something stupid like a pajama party. They don't want to stick around and listen to all the giggling.

Anyway, we got out of the car and crept around the house to the rear bedroom window. And there they were prancing around the bedroom, laughing like hyenas. Only they weren't wearing pajamas. They were dressed in panties and T-shirts. I lit the fuse and tossed the firecracker behind us. When it exploded, the girls ran to the window and saw us. What happened next was really funny. They reminded me of the Keystone Cops as they scrambled around the room bumping into each other and shrieking while they grabbed things to cover up with — sheets, pillows, stuffed animals, anything. It was like a goddamn Chinese fire drill. Finally, Pauline and Kathy came back to the window and jerked it open.

"What are you doing out there?" Pauline demanded, staring directly at me. "You're not supposed to talk to me, remember?" I wanted to get that in as a sort of dig. Her holy vow to her father and all that crap. But I had to admit she looked pretty good standing there half naked. I could still see one edge of her pink panties she hadn't managed to cover up.

"Rudy Sylvester," Kathy said. "You should be ashamed of yourself."

At that point Rudy and Harold bolted like rabbits. I turned around and strolled away, but I was so drunk I tripped over a lawn sprinkler head in the darkness and fell flat on my face. I don't remember much of the rest of the night. The booze might have had something to do with it. I lost track of how many beers I drank, but it must have been at least eight or nine.

Anyway, when I woke up in bed the next morning, I wanted to die and get it over with. My mouth tasted like a flesh-eating animal had taken a shit in it. My head throbbed and my eyesight was blurry. The bedroom seemed to be slowly rotating. I crawled to the bathroom on my hands and knees and threw up in the commode. I suddenly understood what praying to the porcelain Buddha meant. If this was a hangover, I sure as hell didn't want any more of them.

I cut way down on the booze after that and my old man never found out about the whimsical night. Lucky for me because he would have gone ape. I guess Pauline and the other girls were too embarrassed to tell anyone. We saw them practically nude and I don't think they wanted it to get around school. The whole thing was pretty hilarious when I thought about it later on. Once in awhile you have to do something crazy if you want to keep your sanity. I realize that doesn't make a lot of sense, but it's true anyway.

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The Next Fiction piece (from Issue #170):

Dancing Lessons (part 8 of 8)
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The Last few Fiction pieces (from Issues #168 thru #164):

Dancing Lessons (part 6 of 8)
by William Starr Moake

Dancing Lessons (part 5 of 8)
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Dancing Lessons (part 4 of 8)
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Dancing Lessons (part 3 of 8)
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Dancing Lessons (part 2 of 8)
by William Starr Moake

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