I am unsettled. Sitting again in this restaurant, but there are no corner tables to be found. A few months ago I would have stood distraught in the center of the dining room, turning in slow circles as if the next rotation would magically reveal a previously overlooked empty table. Eventually I would concede defeat, accept that there was no corner for me to hide in, and leave. But I’m better now, at least a little bit. I paced the length of the dining room, then settled at a deuce next to a pillar and only one row from the windows. Notebook, sketchbook, reading material — I’m ready to rock.
Even with medication sometimes I struggle with obsessive compulsive traits.
Even more so I think I have trouble accepting that I have those traits, that I am not who I always thought I was. Acknowledging that I’m a guy who is thrown when his seat is taken in a restaurant requires accepting that I am broken in some way. That way lies nihilism.
It was tough facing my seventh grade classmates following Chuck’s and David’s party. That evening Chuck flatly declared that no one wanted me there, that I had invited myself. He’d held up a mirror and reflected back wasn’t my sister’s cool boyfriend but The New Jan Brady in her afro wig. I had no Mike or Carol to tell me that it’s what is on the inside that counts, and there was no dark corner in which to hide.
Mr. Gregory’s math class was my biggest concern. His was the advanced class, and as such it was comprised almost exclusively of the kids who had been my classmates since the fifth grade. This was the longest I’d ever been with a group of kids. I’d spent two years winning them over only to discover that all I’d really done was invited myself to their daily party. Maybe I looked a little down that day, I don’t know. Maybe Mr. Gregory was just looking for a little kid cred. Regardless, he called me up to his desk when the first bell rang.
“You like music, don’t you?”
“Ever heard of The Eagles?”
“Look at this.” Mr. Gregory flipped his briefcase. Stuck to the side was a patch reading “The Eagles Long Run Tour – Access All Areas.” He smiled broadly beneath his bushy moustache, looking a bit like a bald Doug Henning who just demonstrated that anything is possible in the world of magic. “They’re really nice guys,” he said. “They make a million dollars a week, and not one of them went to college.” The second bell rang. “You better get on to your next class.”
Miss Fryga’s class was more of a mix of kids from the two feeder schools. Some of my old classmates were there: Chuck the Magnificent; Harold; and Amy, who was one of the Untouchables. She touched me once — walked up and ran her hand through my carefully feathered hair. “It just looks so soft,” she said. This was the closest I ever got to one of the Untouchables.
“We’re going to finish up reading the short stories you wrote last week. Lisa, you’re up next.” Lisa’s girlfriends tittered. “What are y’all fussing about?” Miss Fryga asked.
“Lisa is the best writer in the class. She writes the best love stories.” They swooned and giggled and behaved like twelve-year-old girls. I don’t remember Lisa’s story, but it was well received. Everyone loved her – she was invited to the party, so to speak.
I left the room. I didn’t physically leave but I flew into the eaves, craned my neck and watched their faces. They were like little light switches that only flipped on for the chosen few. Chuck the Magnificent read some borderline unintelligible mess about a motocross racer and they hung on every word. Scot performed his three page epic sword and sorcery saga and even Miss Fryga look like she was about to shove a pencil in her eye. Around the room they went, fawning over their favorites and dismissing everyone else with their focused inattention.
Finally it was my turn. I walked to the front of the room with as much apathy as I could muster and began reading to the blank faces. I remember everything and nothing about that short story. It was entitled “Z.Z.’s World,” named for the story’s protagonist and narrator. Z.Z. ran the vacuum at a car wash, which he considered a plum job because he could pocket any loose change he found and he could nap in the back seats of the cars. This was particularly important, as he often was nursing a hangover.
The plot is long gone, though. All that remains is the title, the character, and my memory of reading to those blank, bored faces, or to the tops of the heads of those kids who feigned sleep. What a dreadful feeling, slowly dying in front of a group of kids who didn’t want me there. Then I hit my first punch line and I heard a little snicker. From there the energy built as I read until the whole class was roaring at even the hint of a joke. I sneaked a quick peek at Miss Fryga and even she was laughing. All it took was three hand written pages and for ten minutes they loved me. Anything is possible in the world of magic.
After class Miss Fryga took me outside for a chat. She looked very serious. “Report cards come out tomorrow and I just want you to know that I gave you a B+, and I only gave you that because of your writing. You have got to work harder.” B plus sounded pretty good to me. I didn’t understand why she was so bent out of shape.
Report cards did indeed arrive the next day, and true to her word there was my B+ in English along with B’s in science and history, the easy A in gym, and a C in Mr. Gregory’s math class. My father was not pleased.
“A C? A Goddamned C? You get a C just for showing up. Do you think you can get into the Air Force Academy with a C?”
“I don’t want to go to the Air Force Academy.”
“Don’t you back talk me, boy.” He waved the report card at me. “You’re grounded.”
“No I’m not.”
He looked at me with pure murderous rage, lips drawn tightly, body taut, eyes gleaming. “What did you say?”
“I’m not grounded. I’ve had great grades since kindergarten and you’ve never said anything about them. You can’t suddenly decide to punish me because I brought home a bad grade.”
He vibrated in place, a real-life Yosemite Sam done in by that long-eared galoot. His fists were balled tightly. Internally I braced for it, but outwardly I sat calmly on the couch. I was Z.Z. caught in another nap. The ass whipping never came. My father simply turned and left the room.
The next day Mr. Gregory announced that some of us had been selected to move up to pre-algebra. He explained that this was the first time that our school had offered such a class to seventh graders so only a select few had been chosen, and they and their parents already had been informed. I looked around. All of my classmates were wearing self-congratulatory smiles. I was no longer one of the smart kids.
On the way to Miss Fryga’s class Harold ran up to me and threw his arm around my shoulder.
Woke up this morning with a wine glass in my hand, he sang. I joined in.
Whose wine? What wine? Where the hell did I dine?
Mr. Gregory, Chuck the Magnificent, the Untouchables. Who needed any of them? My pal Hal and I would be our own party.