THE BOOK OF SAMUEL
By Erik Raschke
St. Martin's Griffin Copyright © 2009 Erik Raschke
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-312-37969-8
Chapter One On the day
that I finally reached heaven, no one was watching, which is what my mom said always happened with great achievements. I pedaled over to Jonathon and Jesse. They were looking away from me, toward the far end of the bike jumps, eyebrows dipped into unibrows.
"Did you see me?" I said. "Made it to heaven. I touched the bottom branch."
"That's not heaven anymore," Jesse said over his shoulder. "Heaven's the third branch."
"I thought Ms. Universe's underpants was the third branch."
"You weren't here yesterday. Heaven now comes after Ms. Universe's underpants. The first branch isn't anything, but in order for it to count, you have to touch it and say 'Olivia Newton-John' three times. Also, both wheels have to be in the air. Then you can try for Ms. Universe's underpants."
The rules were always changing, but usually I got a vote in how. The day before, unfortunately, I had to straighten up my room, clean the bathroom, and mow the back lawn with our stupid push mower.
"Them." Jonathon nodded toward the distance. "They're why we changed the rules."
I pushed between Jonathon and Jesse and scanned the drainage gulch below. A group of Mexicans were standing on the opposite hill, on Tina Turner's Tabletop. Tina Turner's Tabletop was more of a ridge, made flat by the weight of a busted yellow bulldozer that had been there before even Tina Turner was born. It was the steepest side of the gulch, therefore the best starting point for the jumps.
Since the Mexicans were all standing in a row, the difference in their sizes and widths was more noticeable. Some were as tall as Jesse and me, and others were as short as third graders. They all had different haircuts or T-shirts and different-colored shoes or jackets but the same light brown skin.
"They were here yesterday," Jesse grumbled. "Them and their Huffys."
I couldn't think of a single white kid who would ride a Huffy within a mile of the jumps. In fact, I knew of only two white kids who owned Huffys, Orson Meyer and Carletta Mure, but no one took them seriously because they were Mormons.
"Look at 'em." Jonathon scowled, the freckles on his forehead coming together.
"They should get their own jumps," Jesse added.
"Look at 'em."
The three of us watched now as the oldest-looking Mexican crossed himself, started running, leaped on his Huffy, and plowed into the first jump. Before his front wheel even left the ground, his feet came off the pedals, and he crashed. Jonathon cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled, "Burrito bikers!"
"Stupid, stupid," Jesse muttered.
The shortest Mexican went next. He got a good start, barreled full speed into the first jump, flipped, and landed on his face. Jonathon and Jesse belted out, "HA-HA, HARDY HAR HAR HAR!"
A third Mexican attempted the jumps, but crashed so bad that he writhed around on the ground for several minutes. There was blood coming out of his knee, and we were all silent, waiting to see if he would die.
"HA-HA, HARDY HAR HAR HAR!"
That was when the Mexicans picked up rocks and sticks and started marching in our direction.
"See?" Jesse said. "They have no respect."
We offered the Mexicans our middle finger and rode away.
* * *
At the Dolly Madison Ice Cream Parlor they had the only double-decker, double chocolate-dipped Deuteronomy Delights in all of Denver. The owners, Gretchen and Clara, had hearing aids the size of car stereos and matching buttons that said MY BOSS IS A JEWISH CARPENTER. Jonathon, Jesse, and I plopped down on our regular vinyl stools as if we had just worked an eight-hour shift moving pianos.
"Soldier of Fortune!"
Jonathon headed toward a full rack of Highlights and Rocky Mountain Hunter magazines. Since he was skinnier than Jesse and me, he slid between the counter and the stools and reached for the magazine. Strands of his big old fluffy red hair got in my face.
"You got lice as big as mice."
We ordered three Deuteronomy Delights and went through the entire issue of Soldier of Fortune. Jesse and Jonathon went through it once more, just in case they had missed any hunting knives or submachine guns.
"What does this mean?" Jesse asked, studying the headline on the cover. "'S.O.F. Fires Up Russians in Afghanistan.'"
Below the headline was a photo of an American on the back of a camel. He was wearing Arabian clothes and holding an assault rifle in the air while a group of Arab-looking soldiers cheered him on.
"That guy," Jonathon said, tapping his finger against the American on the camel, "is helping those guys"-he circled his finger over the cheering Arab guys-"kill Russians."
"Cool times two."
Jonathon asked Clara, in his loudest voice, if he could have the Soldier of Fortune to use for a class project. She told him to be her guest. He rolled it up and stuffed it in his back pocket.
I ate my Deuteronomy Delight and said, "Nerd lichyth evol."
"Samuel's speaking pig Latin."
I pointed to the golden plaque on the wall behind me reflecting "Love Thy Children" onto the mirror behind the counter. Jonathon and Jesse began repeating "Nerd lichyth evol" until Gretchen brought us three plastic cups of water and we downed them like outlaws at a whiskey bar.
* * *
People were always dumping half-full bottles of scotch, eight-track tapes, Polaroids, lottery tickets, and old televisions right behind the YMCA, which was a short ride from the Dolly Madison.
"There should be laws," Jonathon said as we rode. "No Mexicans allowed on bike jumps."
"That's why we changed the order of the branches," Jesse told me. "We made it impossible to get to heaven if you're on a Huffy."
"Heaven on a Huffy." It sounded so funny. "Heaven on a Huffy. Huffy Heaven."
When we got to the big pile of trash behind the YMCA, I found a mud-covered lighter, wiped it off, and put it in my pocket. Jesse found a cowboy boot with no heel. Jonathon found a mixing bowl.
I tried to ignite three damp bundles of old towels in the YMCA Dumpster, holding my new lighter against them until it ran out of gas. Then I held my arms out and balanced on the yellow parking lines, one foot following the other. If I fell I'd be dead.
Jonathon and Jesse started throwing lit matches at each other. When they ran out of matches, Jesse threw a rock at Jonathon. Then Jonathon threw a handful of gravel.
Mr. Holland appeared from nowhere. Even parents were afraid of Mr. Holland, the YMCA manager, because he was a Korean War vet and sometimes stole tomatoes from people's gardens. A gook had shot off half his nose and now he hocked loogeys the same way Sugar Ray Leonard spit blood.
"It's craaaazzzzzy Chuck Norris!" Jonathon yelled as loudly as he could. "Run. Run. He'll slice our throats with bamboo."
We streaked like Flash Gordons. When I looked over my shoulder to see if Mr. Holland was following us, I saw flames flickering through the metal lids of the Dumpster. Mr. Holland was standing next to the Dumpster, shaking a black Wiffle ball bat in our direction.
Jonathon, Jesse, and I scaled the fence, leaped onto a dirt path, and clambered through the gulch reeds, across the water, over the bike jumps, and up onto Tina Turner's Tabletop, far on the other side of the drainage gulch. From there, we could safely see the plumes of smoke rising from the towels in the Dumpster.
"Who lit the Dumpster on fire?" Jesse asked.
"I'm not afraid of you!" Jesse yelled at Mr. Holland, now that we were a million thousand miles away.
We sat down on two half-sunken tires and caught our breath. There were sparrows flying everywhere. They were making more noise than Mr. Holland.
After a while, Jesse pointed in the direction of the YMCA and murmured, "No ..."
The Mexicans had appeared at the top of the hill, just behind Mr. Holland. Mr. Holland, who was now pouring buckets of water into the Dumpster, had his back to the Mexicans, so he couldn't see them waving at us.
"If they do ..."
"What?" I asked. "What? What?"
The Mexicans leaned their Huffys against the wall of the YMCA and inspected our unlocked bikes. Jonathon whistled through his teeth.
"No, no, no ..."
"They're gonna steal our bikes!" I said, standing.
"It's Mr. Obvious."
The Mexicans started laughing. And the three of us watched as they rode away on our super-expensive, ultralight, professional BMX bikes, leaving us with three stupid Huffys.
* * *
My mother said that our street, Cleaver, was named after Eldridge Cleaver, the famous black activist, while my dad claimed the name was from the Cleaver family on Leave It to Beaver. Our mailman, Mr. McElvoney, whose bottles of schnapps scented our bills mint and peach, said "Cleaver" was derived from the tools of a notorious Denver butcher who minced adolescent boys.
"If he's so smart," my mom said when I repeated Mr. McElvoney's Cleaver version, "why does he always mix our mail with the Bernards'?"
The Bernards were two brothers, seven houses down, who drove Datsuns that spewed flames from the tailpipes. They also owned a whole gang of Rottweilers. They were never home and the dogs were always outside.
I rode back from the YMCA, along Cleaver, on one of the Huffys the Mexicans had left behind. The rear rim had a flat spot that thumped the ground, and the handlebars were so loose that they easily flopped backward or forward, depending on which way you leaned.
I stopped in front of the Bernards' house. The Rottweilers approached.
"I'm not scared of you," I said, leaning close to the fence.
The dogs began barking and growling and foaming at the mouth. I was so close I could smell their bad breath.
One of the dogs started digging at the ground, tunneling toward me. It would take him years, and by that time I'd be at home eating a granola bar. I picked up a stick and slid it between the slats of the fence. The dogs yanked and shredded it in seconds.
"That's nothing. Meet my fists and they'll do worse to you."
They growled. I growled back.
"I know where you live."
As I pedaled away on the busted Huffy, the dogs continued to bark and shake the fence. I rode slowly, just to prove I wasn't scared.
Chapter Two Ever since my father
quit his job as a psychology professor at the University of Denver, he spent his days sitting in our canvas army tent.
When I got home I threw down the Mexican's Huffy as hard as I could, but that didn't crack the frame or break a spoke; instead, the right pedal chipped out a piece of our cement driveway. I threw open the backyard gate and marched straight into my father's tent. Even though it was designed to be big enough for two people, he took up more than half the space inside.
My dad was wearing a DÜSSELDORF! T-shirt and Wrangler jeans that were rolled up at the bottom. His Bible was open and he was writing something in my old sixth-grade notebook. I flopped down next to him so that my right eye was at the same level as his canvas belt.
"Hey," he said, messing my hair. "Hard day?"
"I'm using your notebook. Mind?"
I shrugged again.
"I'm going to read you something." He tapped the Bible.
I shrugged a third time.
"The LORD kills and brings to life." He paused here and scribbled in my notebook before continuing, "The LORD makes poor and makes rich; he brings low and he also exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor." He glanced over at me. "It's interesting. The words. The language. The inherent understanding of democracy. Don't you think?"
My father had always had hobbies-French cooking, model trains, maps-but he usually drifted away from them after a while. And my father had always read parts of the Bible as a bedtime story, tucking me in, licking his index finger, and leafing through the thin pages until he found a particular passage that more interested him than me. However, studying the Bible night and day, like he was doing now, as if it were a map to Treasure Island, was a hobby that my mom said had been around "too uncomfortably long."
My father shifted suddenly and the tent trembled with his weight. He stretched his left leg, out past the door flaps, and touched his bare heel to the grass.
"He raises up the poor from the dust. He lifts the needy from the ash heap to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. I can't stop thinking about that. That line." He scratched the side of his nose. "Hannah couldn't have children. And she watched her husband's other wife just pop them out, one by one. Imagine. It's terrible. Feeling as if she didn't have a purpose. She went to the temple every day and prayed like a crazy woman. Eli said to her, 'How long will you go on being drunk?' and shooed her away with the promise that God would give her a child." My father paused, but the gears were still rolling. "And just think about how Hannah's story would be viewed today. Think what Judith Plaskow or even"-he chuckled, the exhalation sounding rat-atat-"Nancy Chodorow or even those New Body Feminists your mother hung out with in college would say. A woman praying for a child?" He nodded toward the Bible in his lap. "It's Hannah. Her desolation. The emptiness she must have felt inside, That's what's real. Desperation giving birth to something remarkable."
I ran my fingernail against the canvas. My dad started writing again. I glanced at my old notebook. He had scribbled over the front and back covers and in the margins. He had even written upside down.
Hannah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Samuel, for she said, "I have asked for him from the LORD."
It was weird to imagine that there was some bearded man thousands of years ago who had the same name as me. It was easier to see a connection with myself, Samuel Francis Gerard, to, say, the actor Gil Gerard, who played Buck Rogers.
My father's pen scratched the paper. The wrinkles on the side of his eyes deepened, and his mouth opened only enough for me to glimpse the pink sides of his tongue.
"Can anyone go to heaven? Even someone evil?"
"What about Ronald Reagan? You know. Ronald Reagan. Ronald Reagan."
Ronald Reagan's name rolled off the tongue like the curl on his forehead.
"I'm aware of who our president is."
My dad looked up. I had made him smile.
"I believe you are referring to how your mother feels about him. But when she says he's 'evil,' she's just being figurative. The question you should ask is, What is evil? Plenty of people tell you what evil is. Evil is Gorbachev. Evil is Ararat. Evil is Castro."
"There's nothing in the Bible about what really constitutes evil. Evil in the twenty-first century, eh. But"-he tapped the notebook-"that's what I've been doing the last few weeks. Putting together a guidebook using scripture from the Bible. Getting to the root of what 'evil' is."
"Did you know that in 1975, Evel Knievel once jumped fourteen Greyhound buses?"
Father clicked the point of the ballpoint pen in and out, and in and out. I turned on my side and put my head in his lap. My father took long, deep breaths, exhaling through his nose. After a while he began taking more notes. The sun went behind a cloud and the color inside the tent went from the color of cash to February gray.
I closed my eyes and imagined that I was Evel, dressed in a slick white suit, blue and red arm tassels flapping as I sped along the motorway on my motorcycle. As the ramp got closer and closer, I focused my stare, cranked the accelerator, and gritted my teeth.
* * *
I woke up an hour later, head in my dad's lap, hungry enough to eat an entire Chinese buffet. He was reading. I rolled out of the tent and went inside to make some popcorn. My grandmother was watching The Jeffersons and shaking her head every time the canned audience laughed.
"I did laundry too," she said, nodding toward the television. "It's not difficult."
"Do you want popcorn?"
"No thank you," she said. Then she turned to the television again. "Look at them. Look at those wretched people. Well, at least you're a good boy. Can you bring me a glass of warm water?"
Excerpted from THE BOOK OF SAMUEL by Erik Raschke Copyright © 2009 by Erik Raschke. Excerpted by permission.
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