“Uh, thanks,” I said. The bell rang, and Takumi and the Colonel were first out the door. Alaska stared at them.
“What?” asked the Colonel. But she just rolled her eyes and started walking. We followed in silence through the dorm circle and then across the soccer field. We ducked into the woods, following the faint path around the lake until we came to a dirt road. The Colonel ran up to Alaska, and they started fighting about something quietly enough that I couldn’t hear the words so much as the mutual annoyance, and I finally asked Takumi where we were headed.
“This road dead-ends into the barn,” he said. “So maybe there. But probably the smoking hole. You’ll see.”
From here, the woods were a totally different creature than from Dr. Hyde’s classroom. The ground was thick with fallen branches, decaying pine needles, and brambly green bushes; the path wound past pine trees sprouting tall and thin, their stubbly needles providing a lace of shade from another sunburned day. And the smaller oak and maple trees, which from Dr. Hyde’s classroom had been invisible beneath the more majestic pines, showed hints of an as-yet-thermally-unforeseeable fall: Their still-green leaves were beginning to droop.
We came to a rickety wooden bridge—just thick plywood laid over a concrete foundation—over Culver Creek, the winding rivulet that doubled back over and over again through the outskirts of campus. On the far side of the bridge, there was a tiny path leading down a steep slope. Not even a path so much as a series of hints—a broken branch here, a patch of stomped-down grass there—that people had come this way before. As we walked down single file, Alaska, the Colonel, and Takumi each held back a thick maple branch for one another, passing it along until I, last in line, let it snap back into place behind me. And there, beneath the bridge, an oasis. A slab of concrete, three feet wide and ten feet long, with blue plastic chairs stolen long ago from some classroom. Cooled by the creek and the shade of the bridge, I felt unhot for the first time in weeks.
The Colonel dispensed the cigarettes. Takumi passed; the rest of us lit up.
“He has no right to condescend to us is all I’m saying,” Alaska said, continuing her conversation with the Colonel. “Pudge is done with staring out the window, and I’m done with going on tirades about it, but he’s a terrible teacher, and you won’t convince me otherwise.”
“Fine,” the Colonel said. “Just don’t make another scene. Christ, you nearly killed the poor old bastard.”
“Seriously, you’ll never win by crossing Hyde,” Takumi said. “He’ll eat you alive, shit you out, and then piss on his dump. Which by the way is what we should be doing to whoever ratted on Marya. Has anyone heard anything?”
“It must have been some Weekday Warrior,” Alaska said. “But apparently they think it was the Colonel. So who knows. Maybe the Eagle just got lucky. She was stupid; she got caught; she got expelled; it’s over. That’s what happens when you’re stupid and you get caught.” Alaska made an O with her lips, moving her mouth like a goldfish eating, trying unsuccessfully to blow smoke rings.
“Wow,” Takumi said, “if I ever get kicked out, remind me to even the score myself, since I sure can’t count on you.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she responded, not angry so much as dismissive. “I don’t understand why you’re so obsessed with figuring out everything that happens here, like we have to unravel every mystery. God, it’s over. Takumi, you gotta stop stealing other people’s problems and get some of your own.” Takumi started up again, but Alaska raised her hand as if to swat the conversation away.
I said nothing—I hadn’t known Marya, and anyway, “listening quietly” was my general social strategy.
“Anyway,” Alaska said to me. “I thought the way he treated you was just awful. I wanted to cry. I just wanted to kiss you and make it better.”
“Shame you didn’t,” I deadpanned, and they laughed.
“You’re adorable,” she said, and I felt the intensity of her eyes on me and looked away nervously. “Too bad I love my boyfriend.” I stared at the knotted roots of the trees on the creek bank, trying hard not to look like I’d just been called adorable.
Takumi couldn’t believe it either, and he walked over to me, tussling my hair with his hand, and started rapping to Alaska. “Yeah, Pudge is adorable / but you want incorrigible / so Jake is more endurable / ’cause he’s so—damn. Damn. I almost had four rhymes on adorable. But all I could think of was unfloorable, which isn’t even a word.”
Alaska laughed. “That made me not be mad at you anymore. God, rapping is sexy. Pudge, did you even know that you’re in the presence of the sickest emcee in Alabama?”
“Drop a beat, Colonel Catastrophe,” Takumi said, and I laughed at the idea that a guy as short and dorky as the Colonel could have a rap name. The Colonel cupped his hands around his mouth and started making some absurd noises that I suppose were intended to be beats. Puh-chi. Puh-puhpuh-chi. Takumi laughed.
“Right here, by the river, you want me to kick it? / If your smoke was a Popsicle, I’d surely lick it / My rhymin’ is old school, sort of like the ancient Romans / The Colonel’s beats is sad like Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman / Sometimes I’m accused of being a showman / ICanRhymeFast and I can rhyme slow, man.”
He paused, took a breath, and then finished.
“Like Emily Dickinson, I ain’t afraid of slant rhyme / And that’s the end of this verse; emcee’s out on a high.”
I didn’t know slant rhyme from regular rhyme, but I was suitably impressed. We gave Takumi a soft round of applause. Alaska finished her cigarette and flicked it into the river.
“Why do you smoke so damn fast?” I asked.
She looked at me and smiled widely, and such a wide smile on her narrow face might have looked goofy were it not for the unimpeachably elegant green in her eyes. She smiled with all the delight of a kid on Christmas morning and said, “Y’all smoke to enjoy it. I smoke to die.”
one hundred nine days before
DINNER IN THE CAFETERIA the next night was meat loaf, one of the rare dishes that didn’t arrive deep-fried, and, perhaps as a result, meat loaf was Maureen’s greatest failure—a stringy, gravy-soaked concoction that did not much resemble a loaf and did not much taste like meat. Although I’d never ridden in it, Alaska apparently had a car, and she offered to drive the Colonel and me to McDonald’s, but the Colonel didn’t have any money, and I didn’t have much either, what with constantly paying for his extravagant cigarette habit.
So instead the Colonel and I reheated two-day-old bufriedos—unlike, say, french fries, a microwaved bufriedo lost nothing of its taste or its satisfying crunch—after which the Colonel insisted on attending the Creek’s first basketball game of the season.
“Basketball in the fall?” I asked the Colonel. “I don’t know much about sports, but isn’t that when you play football?”
“The schools in our league are too small to have football teams, so we play basketball in the fall. Although, man, the Culver Creek football team would be a thing of beauty. Your scrawny ass could probably start at lineman. Anyway, the basketball games are great.”
I hated sports. I hated sports, and I hated people who played them, and I hated people who watched them, and I hated people who didn’t hate people who watched or played them. In third grade—the very last year that one could play T-ball—my mother wanted me to make friends, so she forced me onto the Orlando Pirates. I made friends all right—with a bunch of kindergartners, which didn’t really bolster my social standing with my peers. Primarily because I towered over the rest of the players, I nearly made it onto the T-ball all-star team that year. The kid who beat me, Clay Wurtzel, had one arm. I was an unusually tall third grader with two arms, and I got beat out by kindergartner Clay Wurtzel. And it wasn’t some pity-the-one-armed-kid thing, either. Clay Wurtzel could flat-out hit, whereas I sometimes struck out even with the ball sitting on the tee. One of the things that appealed to me most about Culver Creek was that my dad assured me there was no PE requirement.
“There is only one time when I put aside my passionate hatred for the Weekday Warriors and their country-club bullshit,” the Colonel told me. “And that’s when they pump up the air-conditioning in the gym for a little old-fashioned Culver Creek basketball. You can’t miss the first game of the year.”
As we walked toward the airplane hangar of a gym, which I had seen but never even thought to approach, the Colonel explained to me the most important thing about our basketball team: They were not very good. The “star” of the team, the Colonel said, was a senior named Hank Walsten, who played power forward despite being five-foot-eight. Hank’s primary claim to campus fame, I already knew, was that he always had weed, and the Colonel told me that for four years, Hank started every game without ever once playing sober.
“He loves weed like Alaska loves sex,” the Colonel said. “This is a man who once constructed a bong using only the barrel of an air rifle, a ripe pear, and an eight-by-ten glossy photograph of Anna Kournikova. Not the brightest gem in the jewelry shop, but you’ve got to admire his single-minded dedication to drug abuse.”
From Hank, the Colonel told me, it went downhill until you reached Wilson Carbod, the starting center, who was almost six feet tall. “We’re so bad,” the Colonel said, “we don’t even have a mascot. I call us the Culver Creek Nothings.”
“So they just suck?” I asked. I didn’t quite understand the point of watching your terrible team get walloped, though the air-conditioning was reason enough for me.
“Oh, they suck,” the Colonel replied. “But we always beat the shit out of the deaf-and-blind school.” Apparently, basketball wasn’t a big priority at the Alabama School for the Deaf and Blind, and so we usually came out of the season with a single victory.
When we arrived, the gym was packed with most every Culver Creek student—I noticed, for instance, the Creek’s three goth girls reapplying their eyeliner as they sat on the top row of the gym’s bleachers. I’d never attended a school basketball game back home, but I doubted the crowds there were quite so inclusive. Even so, I was surprised when none other than Kevin Richman sat down on the bleacher directly in front of me while the opposing school’s cheerleading team (their unfortunate school colors were mud-brown and dehydrated-piss-yellow) tried to fire up the small visitors’ section in the crowd. Kevin turned around and stared at the Colonel.
Like most of the other guy Warriors, Kevin dressed preppy, looking like a lawyer-who-enjoys-golfing waiting to happen. And his hair, a blond mop, short on the sides and spiky on top, was always soaked through with so much gel that it looked perennially wet. I didn’t hate him like the Colonel did, of course, because the Colonel hated him on principle, and principled hate is a hell of a lot stronger than “Boy, I wish you hadn’t mummified me and thrown me into the lake” hate. Still, I tried to stare at him intimidatingly as he looked at the Colonel, but it was hard to forget that this guy had seen my skinny ass in nothing but boxers a couple weeks ago.
“You ratted out Paul and Marya. We got you back. Truce?” Kevin asked.
“I didn’t rat them out. Pudge here certainly didn’t rat them out, but you brought him in on your fun. Truce? Hmm, let me take a poll real quick.” The cheerleaders sat down, holding their pom-poms close to their chest as if praying. “Hey, Pudge,” the Colonel said. “What do you think of a truce?”
“It reminds me of when the Germans demanded that the U.S. surrender at the Battle of the Bulge,” I said. “I guess I’d say to this truce offer what General McAuliffe said to that one: Nuts.”
“Why would you try to kill this guy, Kevin? He’s a genius. Nuts to your truce.”
“Come on, dude. I know you ratted them out, and we had to defend our friend, and now it’s over. Let’s end it.” He seemed very sincere, perhaps due to the Colonel’s reputation for pranking.
“I’ll make you a deal. You pick one dead American president. If Pudge doesn’t know that guy’s last words, truce. If he does, you spend the rest of your life lamenting the day you pissed in my shoes.”
“All right, no truce,” the Colonel shot back.
“Fine. Millard Fillmore,” Kevin said. The Colonel looked at me hurriedly, his eyes saying, Was that guy a president? I just smiled.
“When Fillmore was dying, he was super hungry. But his doctor was trying to starve his fever or whatever. Fillmore wouldn’t shut up about wanting to eat, though, so finally the doctor gave him a tiny teaspoon of soup. And all sarcastic, Fillmore said, ‘The nourishment is palatable,’ and then died. No truce.”
Kevin rolled his eyes and walked away, and it occurred to me that I could have made up any last words for Millard Fillmore and Kevin probably would have believed me if I’d used that same tone of voice, the Colonel’s confidence rubbing off on me.
“That was your first badass moment!” The Colonel laughed. “Now, it’s true that I gave you an easy target. But still. Well done.”
Unfortunately for the Culver Creek Nothings, we weren’t playing the deaf-and-blind school. We were playing some Christian school from downtown Birmingham, a team stocked with huge, gargantuan apemen with thick beards and a strong distaste for turning the other cheek.
At the end of the first quarter: 20-4.
And that’s when the fun started. The Colonel led all of the cheers.
“Cornbread!” he screamed.
“CHICKEN!” the crowd responded.