by Jon Berger
Kaleigh was sitting next to me laughing with her friends who I think ran cross-country. Her white teeth looked like a row of pillows when she smiled. They were talking about a party. She was popular and she was starting to drink.
I sat on the corner of the brick bench in the lobby, they sat in the center. Except for shop class I was in the same classroom all day. It was the retarded one, Learning Disabled, in the old part of the school, in back next to the Adult Ed wing, because that was the next step. Our teacher used to be a cop or some shit. And Kaleigh was the only girl I talked to.
I sat with my elbows resting on my knees. Still groggy from the Xanax I’d taken during lunch. Every Friday I sold Zack a zip of the little white bars that broke into four pieces. Zack always gave me a free bar in the cafeteria bathroom where we met to do the deal. We used to be in the same grade, but I got held back in middle school for missing too many days. I was a sophomore. Dan gave me the Xanax to sell. Zack broke them down from bulk and then went into Saginaw on the weekends and sold them to city kids.
Her friends waved goodbye to her as they walked away to go practice running. She stopped trying to include me with her friends. I didn’t like it. “What’re you doing this weekend?” she said, turning to me.
“Um…” I clasped my hands together, rubbing them. “Not sure, actually.”
She crossed her legs. “We’re working on the Homecoming float at my house Saturday if you want to come help. There’ll be food.” She hummed softly, looking at me with raised eyebrows.
“I’ll see what I’m doing,” I said. We both knew I wasn’t going.
“Okay then, just know that you’re always welcome.” She leaned over, resting her chin in her hand while she read her book.
There was a long silence.
“What’re you reading?” I mumbled when I talked to her.
She sighed. “It’s Shakespeare. For English class.”
“It’s a play actually, called Othello.”
“How do you read a play?” She was in all the school plays.
“Well you know… like,” she looked at the ceiling thinking of how to explain. “It’s like words-.”
“-I knew that much,” I said with a smirk.
She laughed and shook her head. “Here,” she handed me the book. It was old with yellow pages and white creases that webbed the paperback cover. “It’s what someone wrote before the play was produced, you know, for the actors to memorize and perform on stage.”
I flipped through the pages, pausing to read certain parts, not believing any of it could ever be memorized. I turned to one of the last pages. She scooted closer and I could smell her and then she pointed into the book.
“See,” she said. “There’s the name, and all this,” she moved her finger across the page, “is lines of dialogue.”
“It’s what the actors are supposed to say on stage.”
She snorted a laugh. “Nooo, ‘Ee-ah-go,’” She tilted her head, grinning, “Iago. He’s the bad guy.”
Something hit me in the face, it was hard and stung the whole side of it, starting at the corner of my eye. I bent my head down in a reflex, dropping the book.
“Nice catch, dick.”
I looked up. Will was standing across the lobby by the hallway. The football that hit me was now lying next to my feet.
“Come on,” he palmed his hands for a catch. “You can do it, buddy.”
I picked it up, uncertain. I knew I was strong but couldn’t throw and never played any sports. I threw it and it wobbled and bounced off the ground and hit Will in the shin. He palmed it with one hand. He was a senior and in the newspapers for sports all the time, going to college, tall and lean, with weight-room muscles.
“Jesus-fuck, yer old-man ever teach you to throw?”
“I don’t play football,” was all I could think of. Tunnel vision was settling in and I had to remind myself to breathe.
He sighed and shook his head. One of his friends was standing behind him giggling. They had on gym shorts and cut-off T-shirts.
“Kaleigh?” he said.
She tilted her head to the side like she does, but her eyes narrowed and it wasn’t a nice tilt.
“You coming to my party this weekend?”
“I don’t know, Will. Why would I?” she said, shaking her head so her long hair waved.
He pointed at her with the nose of the football in his hand, “Just be there, alright.” He casted his pointing football over to me. “You, you’re too big to not throw a fucking football. I don’t like that.” Will and his friend turned and left, going back down the hallway and toward the weight room.
I didn’t say anything, neither did she. I gave her book back. I couldn’t look at her. I was starting to breathe again and I could feel a bruise forming on my face. She was going to his party because everyone went to his parties.
Dan pulled up in his rusted out truck, the corner panels shuddering when it idled. He was inside with his wraparound sunglasses, puffing on a black & mild.
“You can borrow it if you want.” She gestured the book at me.
“Fuck Shakespeare,” I said without looking at her and got up to leave.
“Teague.” She didn’t say it in her normal way. I had the door half open. I turned back around. “He’s just an asshole. Don’t carry it around with you.”
“He’s your friend.”
She put her head down and looked back up and I wished I didn’t say it. “No, he’s not, Teague. A lot of people don’t like him, he just has big parties is all.”
“Have fun with your float.”
I went outside and climbed into Dan’s truck.
Dan never said much. He had a 24 ouncer beer wrapped in a brown paper bag and cradled in his hand. He was red and beat from working in the sun all day. It was fall and the corn was golden with drooping ears for the harvest. Every day was getting colder and we had to finish the roof soon, but this weather was good for doing roofs because it wasn’t too cold or too hot.
“We gotta check the plants before we go see your dad,” he said while taking a drag.
Most guys who did guerrilla grows planted them in the corn fields. Dan didn’t. He grew in young poplar woods out on some state land. Thick with open areas that were concealed by a canopy. Drug helicopters didn’t fly over them like they did the corn fields. Dan went off the farmers’ almanac for planting tomatoes, he taught me that tomatoes and marijuana grow the same way. Those guys planting in corn fields had to take their plants whenever the farmer was going to harvest the corn, so sometimes their plants never grew all the way.
Dan handed me a clipboard and a baggy of weed to roll one on the way. “I need you to take Monday off school so we can finish that roof in Merrill on time.” He drank his beer. He wanted to get all the big outdoor projects done before the opening day of deer season. He floated off that money and his weed money so he could hunt all winter for food. He snowplowed some but it was never steady. He was getting too old for roofing but didn’t want to admit it.
“Alright,” I said licking the joint shut. I wasn’t going to see Kaleigh until Tuesday. I had to think of a way to say sorry. I lit up, took a drag and passed it over.
We parked off the two-track a ways and walked through the pickers to his grow-op. The plants were around six feet tall and branched out a good ways. Dan pulled back the leaves and inspected the sticky green bud, he sniffed it. I checked the buds too, I was high and the fresh stickiness of the buds felt warm on my fingers, some fiery orange hairs were starting to grow on them.
“Teague,” Dan said still looking down at his plants, “We’ll need to harvest tomorrow night. I’ll need you for trimming.”
“Okay,” I didn’t have anything else to do.
The off-road tires on Dan’s truck howled on the highway down to the prison. It was a big split facility downstate, separated into three different security levels. During the summer my dad got moved from a level four to a level two, something with overpopulation. So we could do contact visits now.
“You remember what to say?” He looked serious in the eyes.
“Yeah,” I nodded.
“Tell me what yer supposed to say.”
“That the shipment is ready, McDonald’s bag with a black X on it by the 174 mile marker on M-23. One week from today.”
“Good,” he said pursing his lips. “Don’t forget it.”
Dan’s visitor application got declined so now I had to do this. Dan already got paid by the bikers that my dad was working with on the inside, but he was paranoid and didn’t like keeping that much Xanax longer than he had to. Me and my mom got my Dad’s cut.
I went into the main entrance and down the cement hallway to the visitor room. There wasn’t many people, nobody came on Friday afternoon. I registered with the officer at the front desk, she gave me a visitor badge and gave me a key to put my belongings in a locker. I sat down in the waiting room and watched some game show on the TV for like half an hour. The giant metal door to the bubble clunked open and a guard came through and called me and some other visitors over. Nothing just closes in prison, everything slams, even when it’s opening. I went in and the bubble door shut behind us. I went through the metal detector, took off my shoes and socks and a guard patted me down, shined a flashlight in my mouth and told me to move my tongue before he said I was good. We were like an assembly line being inspected by a doctor that didn’t care if we were sick or got better.
I saw my dad through the wire-meshed glass in his MDOC blues. Hunched at a wooden coffee table that tried to appear normal except that it was bolted to the tile floor. He raised his hand at me through the glass. I nodded back and lined up to exit the bubble and go into the visitor room. The guard let me in. The place was almost like a school cafeteria, only quieter and people talking in private voices.
“How’s the world, son?” I shook his brick hand. He stayed seated.
“It’s the world,” I said.
“I hear that.”
“Did you get that money I put in your Jpay account?” I said.
“Ah, yes. I did. Thank you. Did you and Ma get what you were supposed to?” His arms were honed by the weight pit and lathered in jailhouse tats, the head of a barking and bloodied Pitbull on his right hand. He looked at me in a way that said someone would probably die if me and Mom didn’t get the money we were supposed to. I nodded my head. He gave a small nod back and pointed at the empty chair across from him. I sat down.
“So how’s Ma?”
“She’s doing okay,” I shrugged.
“She still got that cleaning job?”
“Yeah… I guess.” I stretched back and looked away from him, not wanting to talk about her drinking.
“Good,” he said.
I leaned forward again and put my head low and talked into the table, “McDonalds bag with a black X on it by the 174 mile marker on M23, a week fro-.”
My dad clenched his jaw and looked around cautiously and held his hand out in a slicing motion, “Tell Danny-boy to hold off, our gate-pass guy just got released. We got another guy picked out, but we’re gonna have to work em over first,” he spoke lower than I did.
“He ain’t gonna like that,” I said.
“I don’t give a fuck, that’s the way it is,” he shrugged. “He gives you any shit, you tell him and those biker fucks to sell bars at a better price somewhere else.”
“He don’t like sitting on em for too long is all.”
My dad laughed in a quick burst, “He don’t like sitting on it. Tell him to try and sit on it in here,” he shook his head smiling, “I gotta make motherfuckers shove-it-up-their-ass in this bitch.” He made a pushing motion with two fingers and laughed in a way that heaved his shoulders.
I forced a laugh some. I rubbed my chin. “Do you need a cellphone? I mean I could get a pre-pay for my next visit.”
My dad waved his hand in the air. “Fuck all that, I don’t need you getting into trouble trying to bring that shit in. Just… how you been?”
“Don’t go, work for Dan. Get paid, kid.”
“Naw,” I shook my head and looked away. “I gotta get my GED, there’s like laws and shit now.”
“Teague, you know, them people aren’t doing you any favors, right?”
“I don’t know. They’re not all bad. Some are nice.”
“Yeah well,” he rubbed the scruff of his jaw, “I remember when you started school and how upset Mom was when they put you in Special Ed. Saying you had all this shit wrong wit you. Keeping you away from all the other kids don’t do nothing good for you. You get made fun of still?”
“That ain’t nice.” He shook his head, “That’s humiliating.”
“And being in here isn’t?”
“At least I still get to be who I am in here…But yeah… how much longer you got? I mean to graduate or whatever.”
“I’ve only got this year, then two more. Mr. Richards said a diploma looks better than a GED.”
He started to say something but his brow cringed and he turned his head, looking at me, at something. “The fucks that?” He reached over and flicked the bruise on the side of my eye, the weed made it feel more like a sensation than pain.
“Fucking nothing.” I jerked my head back.
“Don’t look like nothing.”
“Some asshole hit me with a football.”
“What’d you do?”
“If I get in another fight I get expelled.”
“Oh, that’s right. You need to get a god-damn diploma.” He leaned forward, putting his elbows on the table and then held up his gnarled pit-bull hand and made a fist. “Well, if you ever do feel like punching someone,” he tapped his two big knuckles, “land these on the edge of their chin, and make sure to punch right through their fucking head. Shuts em off.” He said this looking at me over his fist, with those black dots in his eyes.
It was cold on Saturday night and I wrapped myself in my Carhartt and left home. Mom had asleep on the couch and I covered her with a blanket before leaving. I kept the TV and lights on to make it look like someone was still up. We lived across the street from the corn elevators. Like the town’s own skyscrapers, I thought of them as blue collar monuments. A way to tell people in the future that we lived here.
I walked down the empty street. It was windy and dark out with thin blowing rain. I thought about Kaleigh. How she built the homecoming float all day. Will’s party was probably dying down now, everyone drunk and passed out or hooking up. I thought about how she was a part of all that and how that bothered me.
The bar was cozy and bright inside, with a jukebox in the corner, darts, pool table and mounted deer heads that’d been there since I was a kid. They looked ruffled and some of the fur was starting to fall off. The wood surfaces were heavily varnished with glossy-smooth tables and chairs, the bar and the stools, worn down at the corners from years of drunk hands. The shoulders of Dan and Craig hunched at the end of it. Craig was heavy set and had a lazy eye, he was on something. He would talk real quick and big and then not say anything for a while. We were driving his S-10 because it was quieter than Dan’s truck. I sat on the stool next to Dan and some drunk guy called me a titty baby and started in on me. Dan gave him a look and he got quiet and went away. Misty was bartending, she used to babysit me and had a rose tattoo on her neck, she gave me a hug and a beer even though I was only sixteen.
We drove out to the grow, me cramped in the back of the S-10. We had hack saws, flashlights and blue tarps. I got down and cut the base and the plants timbered down like those family Christmas trees. We were all drunk, but I think it was better to do it that way. Then we dragged them out of the woods and hauled them into the back of the truck and tied the tarps down over them. Back at Dan’s pole barn, we trimmed and hung the plants up on clothespins with garage space heaters meant to dry them out. My hands were sticking together like sap and I was higher than I’d ever been. I went to bed at six am. So stoned colors flashed when I closed my eyes.
We started working at seven in the morning on Monday. The sun was like a big burning bully in the sky. We didn’t have a loader and Dan had a bum leg from when he got shot and he had a slipped disc in his back, so I had to haul the shingles up an old wooden ladder that was leaning on the eave trough of the farmhouse. I balanced on the ladder, climbing with one arm, while cradling the shingles slung over my shoulder. A full bundle was eighty pounds, but I was tearing open the plastic wrapping and pulling out half a bundle for each trip up the ladder. I had learned early on to pace myself so I could make it through the work day. In some ways it was still better than sitting in school. While I worked I just kept thinking about how I was gonna apologize to Kaleigh, like what I was going to say and how I would say it. I thought about trying to learn Shakespeare to show her that I actually thought he was cool.
It had to be getting close to noon and I hadn’t eaten anything all day and we weren’t taking breaks. I wasn’t bringing up shingles fast enough anymore. The heavy cold plates were grinding into my neck. On the way back down I’d hear the sharp poom poom poom of the nail gun as Dan lined them up. I tried to get another bundle up before the nail gun quit but I usually didn’t.
I scrambled up the peak roof and slapped the bundle over it. My back felt like a rubber band about to snap, I bent over trying to stretch it. Dan was straddling the roof, he slapped closed his flip phone and was holding his nail gun in the other hand. “You need to start carrying your fucking weight. I got guys asking me every night at the bar to come out and work, and they can all carry a full bundle of shingles, some of them could probably carry two.”
“But that ladder is all fucked up,” I said pointing at it.
Dan slammed the nail gun down. “Then why don’t yer bitch-ass go buy a new one then! I fucking pay you, don’t I?”
He was still pissed about the Xanax.
Dan struggled to light a cigarette in the wind. “Fuck it, take a break.” He looked out over the flat, gridded-up farm fields of Merrill. All the crops were gone and the fields were giant squares of churned up dirt with houses and patches of woods spaced out in-between.
I sat down on the slanted roof and took out my tin of Grizzly and started to pack it. I put the dip in and felt the fiber glass sink into my lip and relax me.
“Yer buddy Zack just called, he’s on his way to pick up a Quarter Pound. I got the ounces under the backseat of my truck. Make sure he gives you six-fifty for it.”
I hoisted myself to my feet and started making my way down the ladder.
I looked up from climbing down.
“I got some cold cuts in the lunch pail. Make sure you have one before you start working again.”
Zack’s car grumbled down the gravel driveway of the jobsite. Some rusted out four-door Buick. I had the QP packed into a brown paper bag. I had just finished eating my sandwich and got out of Dan’s truck as he pulled up next to where I was standing. Adam was riding shotgun and smoking a cigarette. They were skipping school. I leaned in with my elbows on the window frame, dangling the weed in my hands inside the car. Adam quietly took it and he stuck it under the seat. Zack reached across and handed me the wad of cash. I quickly flipped through the bills, keeping my hands low and inside the car, I made sure it was enough and then pocketed the money.
“How we doing?” I said.
“Good, man. What’s been going on with you?” said Zack.
“Dan’s being an asshole, but what’s new, right?”
Adam looked far off and away from me. “Shitty what happened to Kaleigh, bro,” he said.
“What you talking about?”
Zack and Adam looked at each other. “Fuck, Teague,” said Adam. “We thought you’d know, you know, cause you’re friends and all.”
“What the hell happened?”
“Alright, I’ll tell you, but you gotta promise not to flip the fuck out.”
My chest was starting to tense up. “I’m going to flip out if you don’t tell me.”
“Just don’t, alright, promise,” said Zack.
“Just tell me, Zack. I’m already in a pissed off mood.”
Zack sighed. “Well, this is just what I heard this morning, so nothing is for sure. But I guess she got real drunk at Will’s party, like she couldn’t walk and shit. And Will fucked her. But like, I guess it wasn’t consensual or whatever.”
“What’d you say?”
“Yo, Teague, man.” He made a desperate laugh and put his palm on his chest. “I’m sorry, I’m just the messenger.”
“Where is she?”
“I don’t know, she wasn’t in school. I heard she was moving somewhere new, but that’s all I know.”
“Consensual, that means she didn’t want to do it right?” I realized I was grabbing Adam by his shirt and my face wasn’t too far away from his.
“Dude, she was drunk and got fucking raped, okay. That’s what happened.” Adam was leaning towards Zack trying to pull away. I let go.
“You good?” said Zack.
I tried to do my breathing exercise, but it wasn’t working.
“You have to chill out. It’s bad, but there’s nothing you can do,” said Adam.
“They put the school on lockdown mode after lunch. That’s why we got out of there.”
“Why’d they do that?”
“I don’t know, the school is freaking out, I heard the cops are going to show up and arrest Will at school later today,” said Zack.
“Dude, let’s just go smoke some weed in my garage, we got some booze,” said Adam.
I turned and walked away from them and started up the ladder. My head felt like it was full of metal. I heard the car back out of the driveway as I made it to the top and got to me feet and walked up the slanted roof towards Dan.
“Where are the shingles?”
“What?” He said it with a shake.
“Give me your fucking truck keys,” I held my hand out.
“Fine.” He said it like I had a gun. “You give me the money and I’ll give you the keys.”
I flopped the cash on the roof. He tossed me his keys and I went down the ladder and got into his truck.
I whipped into a parking spot in front of the school, then jumped out of the truck and walked into the lobby and the secretary looked up at me through the office window. I was dressed in dirty and ripped up clothes and I think she knew who I was. She picked up her office phone and began to dial and then hit the buzzer to lock the lobby doors so I couldn’t get into the cafeteria that led to the rest of the school.
The metal double-doors had gym handles. I grabbed the handle and yanked it as hard as I could. The bolted door boomed and the kids eating lunch on the other side of the wire-meshed glass turned and looked at me. I pulled again. The bolt held steady and the wired glass shook some. I leaned back and pulled again, it gave some and I felt stronger than the door. I thought about how weak the doors were, and how my arms felt like impossible machines. I yanked again, the deadbolt boomed and the glass waved with chunks of Styrofoam falling from the ceiling. I could see kids get up and back away from the door. I shot back and pulled it again and again and again and used my legs and it felt like I was moving the whole wall towards me. The center beam tore loose from the top of the frame it was bolted to and the door started to slump. I just kept pulling with my whole body on the handle and I didn’t stop or slow down. All of a sudden the door flung wide like it was made of paper, the shiny deadbolt zinged past my head and rattled against the brick wall on the other side of the lobby. The kids had crowded back by the lunch line and the janitor stood in front of them. I walked past them all and made my way down the hallway towards Will’s locker.
I saw him. He was taller than everyone else and he had his back to me. The halls were always crowded but as I walked people saw me and got out of the way. I couldn’t make out anything, like my head was filled with static, and I had tunnel vision. I saw him turn around and see me and he knew he fucked up.
He dropped his books and held out his hands and tried to say something. I flashed my whole arm forward, punching through. His head shot back and bashed off his locker. His knees gave out and he shut down like a robot as his body jolted backwards, stiff and slumping down to the floor with his eyes rolled in the back of his head. His one arm was sticking straight up, curled at the wrist, his body snoring in air to try and wake his brain back up. I spit on him, turned around and walked out of the school.
Will never played college ball. He had his jaw wired shut and had to relearn some shit. A judge sent me to Juvy for a year where I got my GED. I did better there, nobody fucked with me and I made some friends, no fights. Those guys in there, it’s like they knew how to size me up. Guys in the world, like Will, they only saw that I was in dumb classes and that I didn’t play sports or they saw where I lived and they thought that that was my size.
I don’t know what happened to Kaleigh. After I got out I thought about trying to look her up so we could talk like we used to. But I didn’t know how to do that and kept thinking that it was a bad idea. Maybe she didn’t want to see me. I thought maybe she’d try and visit me in Juvy, but that was stupid. It wasn’t a place for people like her. Besides, I didn’t want the other guys I was in there with to see her and talk about her the way they did other girls. I worried that maybe she didn’t like what I did. I just hope that what happened didn’t stop or change her from being the Kaleigh I knew, the one I remember, and I think the reason I don’t try to contact her is that I’m scared to find out. I don’t know. But I think about all of that sometimes.