Read an Excerpt
Down and Out in Cosgrove County
It's only midafternoon and already the whole day is a bust. I may only be a sixteen-year-old girl, but I'm an experienced gambler and so I believe in probability, not luck. But on days like this, you really have to wonder.
The air is hot and still and feels like a weight up against my chest. I push down hard on the pedals of my bike because I'm so aggravated. Who does that cheapskate Mr. Exner think he is, trying to give me fifty cents apiece for Titleist golf balls that were hit twice at most? Balls I can clearly see he's repackaging as new and hawking for twelve bucks a dozen. Meantime I'm the one with leeches all over my ass after dredging the swamp otherwise known as the Municipal Golf Course. Grown-ups love to chisel teenagers because they figure we don't really need the money, that we're only going to blow it on concerts and incense. And then they wonder why we start packing automatic weapons in our lunch boxes.
However, I decide to conserve my anger for this afternoon's soccer game. Our opponents, the Timpany Tigers, are a ferocious team-tall, mean, yellow-eyed, and all elbows. They live atop one of Ohio's thirty-eight hazardous waste sites, and obviously more than a few drums of toxic chemicals have seeped into their drinking water.
It's almost two o'clock when the school parking lot comes into view. Only thoughts are churning in my head like an out-of-control slot machine, so I forget to look before hanging a Louie and therefore don't notice the handicapped school bus creeping along behind me. Fade to blacktop.
I regain muscle movement in a hailstorm. The hard white golf balls clunking against my skull have acquired the velocity of flying soup cans. Bloody gravel-flecked road pizza now decorates my palms. And though my wrists are only bruised, it feels as if I've just arm-wrestled a security guard. Both elbows of my sweater are torn, and even though this outfit can't exactly be classified as women's better sportswear, Mom will be mad that it's headed for the trash instead of her beloved hand-me-down bin.
The driver of the bus, a middle-aged man in full Mr. Rogers cardigan and khakis regalia, dashes over with a look of awestruck terror-fearful of a lawsuit, yet secretly thrilled by the job security of another rider for his specially ramp-equipped vehicle.
"Are you all right?" His radio is poised, ready to call 911.
"I'm okay. My fault." Gradually I rise and check to ascertain whether all my limbs are still attached and look around to make sure I'm not seeing double. Only I'm seeing spots. Eighty-two white spots bouncing across the blacktop and into the gully, almost fifty bucks' worth of golf balls. Do I chase after them? No. I'll miss the last class and won't be allowed to play in the soc- cer game.
After adjusting the handlebars I remount my bike. The bus driver slowly follows me into the school parking lot. Part of me wishes he would just gun it and finish me off like a lame horse. The sunny September afternoon only serves to make the dark gray cinder-block building appear even more flat and gruesome than usual, if that's possible.
Aside from this particular architectural monstrosity the town is okay looking-stately old buildings like the courthouse and the public library with pitched roofs, a couple of white pillars out front, and stone carvings of people in togas with some leaves stuck in their hair. But Patrick Henry High School was built much later. Before that the district wasn't big enough to have its own public school. And when the Town Council finally did get around to building one they apparently hired an escaped mental patient who thought it would be a terrific idea to combine the steel and glass construction of a smelting plant with the concrete block design of a maximum-security prison. Walking through the metal doors, you basically expect someone in a warden's uniform to throw a pile of license plates, a brush, and a can of black paint your way and bark start stenciling. The institution certainly brings to mind the three R's-ropes, revolvers, and razor blades.
When I enter the building a bell alerts me that the next period starts in exactly two minutes. There's barely enough time to stop at my locker. As I grab my social studies notebook another bell heralds the start of the final class of the day.
It's not as if social studies is any great party I don't want to miss out on. But Mr. Graves, my teacher, also happens to be the soccer coach. And if he discovers that I wasn't in the brig all day he won't let me play. The other slow self-starters are busy trying to blend into the laminated Mercator projection world map covering most of the back wall. There's one chair left in the last row in front of New Zealand.
On his pudgy round face Mr. Graves wears square-shaped glasses with black plastic frames that double as bulletproof shields. They make his pupils appear to be contracting and expanding as he shifts his eyeballs from left to right, and so behind his back the kids call him Old Fish Eyes. He's chalked a list of the original thirteen colonies on the blackboard along with the names of the companies or individuals that founded them, in what year, when they received a charter, and their status in 1775. He could have distributed photocopies of this list. But no, he's worried that life is too cushy for us, what with EraserMate pens and word processors. Back when he was in school kids probably had to hunt pterodactyls in order to make ink out of the blood.
With all the best intentions I carefully scribe Hallie Palmer, Grade 11 S.S. at the top of a clean white page with delicate aquamarine lines horizontally traversing it. However, the paper presents an opportunity to perform a few calculations of my own. With approximately twenty-one hundred dollars in the bank and the birthday money from my folks, if everything goes exactly according to plan, then a used car should be within reach in two more weeks. Though if I'd taken Cheap Old Mr. Exner's offer of forty-one bucks for the stupid golf balls rather than insisted on waiting to shop them to Mr. Burke down at the hardware store, I wouldn't have wasted an entire morning's work.
Leaning my head back against the Tasman Sea on the smooth vinyl map, I nod off. The school may teach a lot about history, but somehow they missed the advent of the window shade. It's about a hundred degrees near the outside wall. And I'd been up most of the night before handicapping tomorrow's horse races. A couple other kids are also slowly losing consciousness, as if fairy dust has been sprinkled, and eyelids simultaneously droop to Mr. Graves's hypnotic buzz: Pine-forested Georgia, with the harbor of Savannah nourishing its chief settlement, was formally founded in 1733.
When the ten-minute bell clangs like a fire alarm from out of the speaker above the round Seth Thomas wall clock, all the covert dozers, myself included, are jarred awake. The gaze of the entire class automatically drifts upward in the direction of the clock, which briefly shivers from the vibra- tion, the second hand practically moving backward until the clattering subsides. Mr. Graves continues like an icebreaker crushing through the North Atlantic, but to no avail. It's Friday afternoon of homecoming weekend and the room is whirring with the sound of closing notebooks, giggling girls, crumpling papers, and the rasps of metal chairs scraping across the floor. For Mr. Graves to go on is like trying to halt sailors heading down the gangplank for a long-awaited shore leave. A boy in the second row hurls a softball-sized rubber band ball directly above Mr. Graves's head. It goes thwack just inches away from the top of his skull and bounces back into the fast hands of another student. Mr. Graves turns quickly (at least quickly for him) in an attempt to catch the perpetrator in the act. As he scans the classroom we all work hard at looking angelically innocent.
The end-of-class bell finally rings. As I follow the chattering crowd toward the hallway and freedom, I hear Mr. Graves intone "Hallie Palmer" as if he's about to begin the Reading of the Will. Pausing in front of his nicked-up wooden desk, I automatically scan the work surface to determine if he's in possession of any incriminating documents-referrals, bad test papers, unsigned permission slips. But there's nothing. Maybe I'm just getting busted for the catnap. Mr. Graves is so affectless that he never gives himself away. In fact, he'd make an excellent draw-poker player. You wouldn't be able to tell if he was bluffing, had a royal flush, or if he'd passed away from acute angina at some point during the hand. However, my own heart sinks when he opens with "I didn't see you at the pep rally this morning."
"Oh, yeah," I say, "I went to the library to catch up on-"
"The office sends me a copy of the absentee list every afternoon," he interrupts. "Do you think you can fool me by showing up for the last class of the day with torn clothes, fresh scrapes on your hands, and a sunburn?" he says as passionately as if he's reading aloud from a VCR manual. "You're off the team."
There's no point arguing. In his three centuries of teaching, Old Fish Eyes has heard it all-alien abductions, teen amnesia, seeing the Virgin Mary in your Bunsen burner during a chemistry lab and having her tell you to rush to the mall.
I nod my head and walk toward the door. I'm a firm believer in the convicts' code: Don't do the crime if you can't do the time.
"I'm sorry," he adds, with not a hint of remorse. "You're a good halfback. But if you're hurt on the field your parents' lawyer will sue the school district. And if you're not here for at least half the day, then the insurance company won't accept the liability."
And that's when I make my decision. They can't throw me off the team. Because I quit! And not only do I quit soccer, but I quit school, too. I'm outta here! 2
Count Me Out
. The first benefit of being a dropout is more satisfying than holding a trio of deuces in a game of low-ball poker. I'll no longer have to navigate the porn auditions in the hallways after school-couples leaning against institutional green lockers making out as if they might die over the weekend while playing Quake III on their computers and never cop another feel again as long as they live. Aside from the sex-starved, the only other kids left are those staying for sports, band, student government, or detention.
The bell rings to announce that if your butt is assigned to detention then that's where it had better be or else you've just upgraded yourself to in-school suspension. I automatically glance up at the aluminum framed clock bolted to the ceiling in the middle of the hallway. The entire student body is robotic in that we all involuntarily search for the nearest timepiece as soon as we hear a bell, even if it's just an oven timer at home.
Out of the corner of my eye I catch someone peering around the corner at the far end of the hallway. For a split second I think it might be Craig Larkin and my stomach does an involuntary flip. Another look, however, reveals a skinny ferretlike boy who is the complete opposite of Craig.
Creeping in my direction is fifteen-year-old Brandt Shaeffer. He skipped first grade after a teacher discovered him doing long division during the shoe-tying part of the program and so now he's in eleventh grade even though he's a year younger than everyone else. It makes a person wonder how such a stupid older sister like Sheryl could possibly have a smart younger brother like Brandt. I guess genes are a lot like poker and sometimes it's just the luck of the draw.
I walk in the opposite direction so as to dump all my notebooks into the oversized garbage pail by the stairwell, only Brandt darts in front of me, hunched over his enormous pile of books like a nervous chipmunk sneaking off with an overly large nut that he fears will be expropriated by a flying squirrel.
"Hi, Hallie," he croaks in that ever-shifting contralto voice which sounds as if permanent orange juice mucus is lodged in his throat.
"Hi, Branch," I reply. This is what everyone calls him since he's tall and reed thin and runs on the cross-country team when the wind isn't strong enough to blow him over.
"What's new in your galaxy?" he asks.
"I've been kicked off the soccer team and I'm dropping out of school," I reply.
Obviously he thinks I'm joking or the comment doesn't even register. Most likely the latter, since it appears as if something heavy is on his mind, like he's just discovered that Einstein may have taken a wrong turn somewhere with that relativity stuff.
It's worth noting that Branch is drawn to me because I am also good in math. Only while he was the darling of the elementary school for his problem-solving prowess I was simultaneously being accused of cheating for getting the answers without showing my work. Brandt used his innate ability with numbers to analyze the universe, like with his science project on the Big Bang Theory that blew up half the classroom. I, on the other hand, became an enthusiast of probability theory, starting with crazy eights in kindergarten and working my way up to seven-card stud by the end of sixth grade. This was with the help of a private tutorial from Mr. Simmons, the elementary school janitor, who harbored no ethical dilemma when it came to taking lunch money off an eight-year-old.
Anyway, Brandt's always had this twisted notion that because we're both freaks we should stick together, or worse, that there exists a cosmic force in the universe that has destined us for each other.
"Ahem." He rearranges the phlegm in his throat. "I was wondering if you wanted to go to the homecoming dance."
Perfect opportunity for total high school cruelty. I think, Yeah, Branch, I'd love to go to the homecoming dance. Only not with you. Ha ha!
"Thanks, Branch, but I have to baby-sit my little brothers and sisters."
"Oh, okay, well then maybe-"
I'm rescued by the sight of Jane coming down the stairs. "Oh, there she is!" I say as if I've been eagerly waiting for Jane and fly over to my best friend, who is rushing toward the front door, outfitted in her customary running shorts, T-shirt, and softball spikes.
"I didn't want to intrude," Jane says sarcastically as I follow her outside. The Branch Crush has become a running joke. "You two make such a cute couple."
"Cut it out," I say and playfully push her on the shoulder.
She eyes the bacon rasher scrapes on my hands and knees and says, "Looks like social studies was interactive today."
We walk to the curb where my other friend Gwen is busy unloading a box of crepe paper and a big heap of pastel-colored tissues folded and then tied with green twist-ties to look like flowers.
"Oh, Hallie!" exclaims the clothing-conscious Gwen upon seeing my torn and bloodstained attire.
"What are you doing with all this junk?" I change the subject.
"Decorating the junior class float for the homecoming parade," says Jane. "Why don't you help us? We'll be in the parking lot right next to the football players." She gives me a knowing nudge, since my heartthrob Craig Larkin will of course be practicing with the team.
"I'd love to, but I have this incredible allergy to crepe paper."
"Then meet us at the pizza parlor later," says Gwen. "We'll save you some ribbons for your hair." She starts wrapping my head mummy-style with a bright pink streamer and I quickly ride off. 3
< Saturday morning I awaken to the aroma of frying bacon and my fourteen-year-old sister Louise's annoying red and black pom-poms scraping against my face. It's definitely a game day.
"The superintendent called and Hallie's going to end up in R-E-F-O-R-M S-C-H-O-O-L." Louise spells out the final words in cheerleader style as if it's the name of the home team.
"Umm," I say sleepily and turn over.
At that moment the twins, Darlene and Davy, still in their flannel footsy pajamas with the trap doors, come twirling helter-skelter into our bedroom like uncontainable wildfire-six years old and a blur of bright red hair with orange freckles in flame-red pajamas.
"Mom and Dad want everyone downstairs right now," Davy exclaims breathlessly.
"They have thomething important to tell uth," Darlene lisps with excitement.
"I'll bet we're getting a puppy," concludes Davy.
A puppy. Yeah, right. Dream on. With nine people in this house there isn't room for a frigging fishbowl. "I wouldn't get too excited," I say. "Last time they called a meeting it was to announce that showers were being limited to three minutes and that if we didn't stop using the telephone so much Dad would install a pay phone."
In the kitchen we all take our places around the long wooden table, Dad sitting at one end, underneath the black metal plaque with grace etched onto it in gold letters, just in case anyone needs a prompter, and Mom at the opposite end, next to Francie, the baby, who is perched in her high chair with a fresh rope of snot dangling from her nose. Francie is almost three and so technically she's no longer a baby. But that's all anyone ever calls her, The Baby. If you have six older brothers and sisters I suppose that's all you'll ever be, even when you're fifty-five. Personally, I like my position as number two, since it's easy to vanish. Dad is working all of that jock stuff out of his system with firstborn Eric, and Mom is always busy propelling a youngster through potty training.
On the weekends breakfast is usually okay-scrambled eggs and bacon or pancakes. During the week it's crappy generic cereal with milk or instant oatmeal. Only by Wednesday the milk has usually run out and so we drink powdered cow, which tastes like watered-down baking soda. Usually I just skip breakfast at home and buy chocolate donuts on the way to school.
When we all finish eating-total chewing time about two minutes-Dad clears his throat and yells at Teddy to either eat his bacon strips or leave them on the plate, but to stop pretending they're worms and twisting them around the rungs of his fork.
Then Dad swipes at his mouth with a crumpled napkin and cheerily announces, "Your mother and I have some exciting news." I can deduce by my mom's nervous laughter that this is not "exciting" in the sense that we're all going to Disneyland or moving into a desperately needed larger house. "You're going to have a new little brother or sister," he says as if we can now begin the applause.
Davy and Darlene screech with delight and enthusiastically wriggle in their seats. And why not? It's someone brand-new for them to torture, the same way Eric and Louise and I used to hold their heads over the toilet bowl and flush it again and again while Mom and Dad were out bowling. Teddy looks blankly from Mom to Dad as if to say, "If you want to go to the store and buy another baby, what's that got to do with my baseball cards?" Teddy is ten, towheaded, skinny as a straw, and his only concern in life is to meet a Cleveland Indians baseball player and become the team water boy. I've helpfully suggested that he concentrate more on the mascot end of things.
Across the table square-shouldered Eric is hunched over his plate and certainly doesn't appear to be overly "excited." In fact, I know he's running the numbers to determine if there's any chance he'll have to triple up on a room. There isn't. But Eric has never been what one would call the Human Abacus, even when it comes to one-digit equations. We'd all better pray nothing happens to his right arm that would prevent him from making those long accurate passes out on the football field. When Eric finally does succeed in combining the birthrate with the existing architecture a look of great relief washes over his face like the sun emerging from behind the clouds, followed by a smile. "Congratulations," he says. "That's terrific, Mom." He kisses her on the cheek and excuses himself in order to get to the Astroturf. What a suck-up.
Eric truly has nothing to worry about. The baby probably arrives next April or May. By then he'll have a football scholarship to Indiana University and by the middle of August be out of here for good in order to start practice. The Hoosier coach has been covering his every move like an old lady playing ten bingo cards. Eric's got it made in the shade of the stadium and the electronic scoreboard.
Louise and I lock eyes across the table. If this is anything like Francie's arrival then we're going to get stuck making lunches, doing laundry, cleaning the house, and baby-sitting the twin terrors. And if it's a girl they'll move Darlene in with us. Sixteen is too old to be sleeping in Furby-infested bunk beds. Thank God I'll be long gone to Nevada by then. Dad catches our exchanged glances of horror and says in a gruff manner indicating that it would not be a good idea to be anything but very, very pleased, "Aren't you girls thrilled for your mother?"
"Of course," Louise manages to say with forced cheer.
Not able to make myself play the game, I bob my head while gulping down some watery orange juice made from concentrate. Mom purposely waters down all our juice to "stretch it." Likewise she mixes crushed oats into the ground chuck to make that go further. At this rate, make that birthrate, she's going to be mixing vats of wood pulp into our food after the new baby is born.
"Okay, everyone get ready for the big game." Dad claps his hands as if he's already applauding one of Eric's miraculous passes. Mom scrapes Francie's face with a spoon and then shoves the twice-eaten gruel back into her mush.
"Hallie, remain at the table, please," Dad says and then clears his throat, which he automatically does before ripping into any of us kids.
The twins instantly and simultaneously begin to chant, "Hallie's a turnip!"
"Shut up, you little twerps!" I swat Davy on the backside with my spoon as he escapes by climbing underneath the table and between the chair legs.
"It's not turnip, dear, it's truant," Mom patiently corrects as they exit.
"Mr. Collier from your school came over to the house yesterday," Dad sternly informs me.
"Honey, what's the matter?" Mom interrupts him. "Why won't you attend school? Why won't you tell us what's wrong? They've tested you for dyslexia, attention deficit disorder, and even hearing loss."
"What?" I ask, unable to help myself. But the joke flies right over her head.
"For hearing loss," she repeats in a louder and more modulated voice. "They've tested you for everything and the bottom line is that you're not a stupid girl, Hallie. Do you think you need glasses? Is something at school bothering you?"
Yeah, something there is bothering me all right. Basically everything.
"Listen, I was in school all day," I lie. "I just missed homeroom and was accidentally marked absent." It's a pathetic story. Last year I concocted phenomenal excuses involving microtwisters and even saving the entire town from an attack by killer bees. Life has reached an all-time low. I've lost my will to con.
"Don't lie to me, young lady!" Dad's face turns dark red as he pushes back his chair from the head of the table and says the word lady as if he means anything but. Ever since Francie was born he no longer has the stamina to smack us, thank God. Younger brothers and sisters have no idea the shit their older siblings endure while wearing down youthful energetic parents. By the time this new baby is a teenager it can just yank out Dad's oxygen tube or hide his hearing aid whenever he gets annoying.
But now Dad just shakes his head and paces the kitchen floor, occasionally striking the countertop with the palm of his hand in order to make me jump. To remind me that he can whack kids, that it's in his contract.
And as soon as he gets a decent night's sleep, he just might do it, too. Dad is tall, clean-shaven, and broad-shouldered and you can tell that he played ball in high school and college. Whatever kind of ball-he played it. He's even got the bad knees to prove it. In the springtime he walks as if lean- ing into a strong wind. And you never want to ask him for money when it rains.
"First, you're grounded until I receive a report card that demonstrates to me that you've caught up on your schoolwork."
So much for the final three weeks of the racetrack.
"And second, your mother and I aren't giving you the money to put toward a car. If your school reports are good, then we'll revisit the finances this summer." Revisit the finances is Dad's favorite expression after Who's going to pay for that?
"What?" The money toward the car was my birthday present. It didn't have to do with good grades or bad behavior. "But Dad! The summer is nine months away! The summer just ended! And what about Eric? He got a car when he turned sixteen!"
"Your brother Eric goes to school, plays three sports a year, and works part-time at the Star-Mart." Dad ticks these items off on his right hand as if I might need a visual aid. "Eric is using that car to make something of himself, to get ahead in this world."
The translation here is of course that I would use a car to drive to the
racetrack, pool hall, and Indian casino, and thus it would only serve as a motorized accessory to my inevitable downfall. My face quivers with ap- proaching tears, but I refuse to give them the satisfaction. Last year I'd read this book The Light in the Forest about a white boy raised by Leni-Lenape Indians from the time he was four years old and I'd decided to also stand pain stoically like an Indian, and a good poker player, and to never show my emotions.
"What if I pay for the car myself?" I ask to gauge exactly how bad the situation is.
Dad looks at Mom, who is loading breakfast plates into the dishwasher, but she only gives the I agree with whatever you decide maternal shrug. Mom is fortunate that with her perfect complexion, wavy light brown hair, and hazel eyes she looks attractive without any makeup, because I don't know that she's going to find time to put any on ever again. As it is she's doing four barrels of wash and two truckloads of dishes per day. Once when I saw her wedding photos it was like, Who is that?
"Pay for it yourself? I suppose that's fine," Dad says. "So long as you can cover the running costs. And earning the money better not interfere with your schoolwork."
Obviously it upsets Mom that at least one of her children isn't going to attend college. Just wait until she discovers she's given birth to a high school dropout. In her maternal playbook truancy is just one pearl away from shoplifting on the add-a-bead necklace of life. From there it's off to mend fences at the women's prison farm outside of Lima, Ohio. I wish I were at the women's prison farm. Anywhere would be better than this house. In fact, solitary confinement would be a treat.
From the Trade Paperback edition.