By JOHN BRANDON
Copyright © 2010 John Brandon
All right reserved.
Toby took his tacos outside and crouched on a curb. He knocked some sour cream off onto the concrete, devoured the tacos without tasting them, crumpled the wrappers and tossed them over his shoulder. The wind had given out, and there was no way to tell it was wintertime. Toby thought he might still be hungry.
Toby turned. He didn't get up. A little boy had snuck up on him. The boy's mother was still in the car, griping at someone on a cell phone.
"It's true," Toby admitted. "You've caught me in an unlawful act."
"Littering is bad for nature."
"Nature will be okay," Toby said. "Nature always wins in the end."
"You can get a fine. Up to five hundred dollars."
Toby looked up into the boy's face. Something was wrong with one of the boy's eyebrows. "When the time comes, you're going to make one heck of a hall monitor."
The boy looked from Toby to the wrappers. They weren't going anywhere-not the slightest breeze.
"Some people got it, some don't. You saw me gladly minding my own business over here and something about that bothered you."
"Are you going to pick them up?"
"You ever hear of an ice age?"
"Yes," said the boy.
"It might take a long time, but we're headed for another one. When the ice age hits, a couple of taco wrappers won't make much difference."
The boy shrugged. His knuckles were raw, along with his elbows. His T-shirt had a dolphin on it.
Toby stood and brushed his hands together, cleaning them of the gravelly dirt. He touched the boy's shoulder.
"Your mom doesn't love you as much as she used to. She thinks there might be something wrong with you. Is she right? Is there something wrong with you?"
The boy's mouth opened a bit and his funny eyebrow scrunched. He turned back toward his mother.
"You've noticed, haven't you? You've been monitoring her and you've noticed a difference in how she treats you."
The boy stared toward his mother in the car, waiting to state her case into the phone. Her eyes were pressed shut with impatience.
"It's all the bad thoughts you have," Toby said. "On the outside you're a hall monitor, but on the inside you're one sick lad."
Toby stopped at a 7-Eleven for a soda. The clerk was a young guy who wore bifocals and was always ready to harp on something. The counter was his spot in the world. Toby paid him in change. He took every penny from the little bowl near the register, and the clerk decided not to protest. He looked down on Toby through his spectacles as he accepted the payment.
Out in front they had dispensers of free newspapers and magazines. The things were free, but still nobody wanted them. Toby was finally out of the clerk's sight. He set his soda down and removed all the papers, armload by armload, and dropped them in a trash can. The papers belonged in the trash. Toby was only speeding things along. He had to shove the last stack down with all his weight, smudging the newsprint all over his arm.
He walked under billboards for realtors, all smiles and outdated haircuts. He passed power pole after power pole, each smothered in tacked flyers-runaway dogs, stolen ATVs, missing bikes. None of these things would be heard from again. In Citrus County, you couldn't keep anything unless you had a good hiding spot for it.
Toby wouldn't have minded walking all night, clearing his mind of everything. He wished he could skip the next years of his life, skip to the point when he would be his real self, whatever that would be. All the pale fascinations of his classmates-music, drugs, cutting themselves, sex-meant nothing to Toby. Drugs were pathetic. Flirting, degrading. Toby was in the doldrums. He was killing time.
The gas station. Scant light scarring the sky. Toby planted his feet and took a full breath, the air tart with petroleum. He saw the pay phone over near the air and vacuum. He was as weak as ever. Anything could make him weak-the wrong smell, the wrong tint in the sky, thinking about all the dragging afternoons he'd endured in his lifetime and all the afternoons to come. He was addicted to petty hoodlumism. He rested what was left of his soda on the metal sill, picked up the phone, dropped in coins, and dialed a number at random. A man with a Northern accent answered and Toby asked him if he believed his life was worth a damn, if he honestly believed anyone liked him.
"Who is this?" the man said, eager, like he got prank calls all the time.
"Nobody you'd understand," Toby told him.
"Pay phone," the guy said, apparently reading his caller ID.
"At the Citgo," Toby said.
"The Citgo? Tell you what, smart guy. I'm coming up there and I'm going to bash your brains in with a softball bat. How does that sound for a prank?"
"That would kill me, or at least do me grievous harm. That's what my uncle used to say, that he was going to do me grievous harm."
"I wish he had. It might've helped."
"A softball bat?"
"I use it for softball. I guess it's the same as a baseball bat."
"You're just saying you'd do that," Toby said. "You really wouldn't. You wouldn't murder a fourteen-year-old kid."
"I don't know," the guy said. "I think I might this time."
"Trust me, you'd think better of it. You're not like me. An idea strikes me, I'm helpless against it."
"The Citgo on Route 50?"
"That's the one."
The guy hung up. Toby looked at the phone in his hand then let it dangle by its cord. He slurped his soda until it was only ice and left the cup on the ground and walked the woods' edge. He found a spot to enter the tangled trees, angling toward Uncle Neal's property. He was taking the long way, out by the hardwoods, so he could check on the bunker. He wasn't going in. He only went in when he wanted to stay down for a long time. He liked to walk by, to see that the bunker was undisturbed. He didn't know whose property it was on. He'd been through that part of the woods a hundred times before he'd found it, a hundred times walking right past the bunker as he tromped through that hard-duned no-man's-land jumbled kittycorner to Uncle Neal's property. The bunker, with its ancient boards pushed in and cracked by tree roots, with its stench of hands and tarnish, with its muddy, mushroomed hatch door which had opened with a moist whiff and then a deafening silence. The bunker was from some terrible time, maybe not so very long ago but a different terrible time than the one Toby was in, a terrible time that had come to an end, one way or another.
Toby had a folding chair down there that he'd dragged from another part of the woods, and matches and candles and water. When he went down, he did nothing. Toby believed the bunker had a specific purpose for him, and he wasn't going to make a move until he parsed out what that purpose was. He wasn't going to hoard dirty magazines or fireworks or pretend he was camping. He didn't do a thing but sit in the chair and smell the smells. Sometimes he smelled vinegar. Sometimes the scales of fish. And each time he left, each time he finally climbed out, he felt that the bunker was sad to see him go. He felt he was leaving the bunker lonesome. Maybe nothing terrible had happened in Toby's bunker. It was one room, tidy in its way, plain. It could've been used for simple food storage and nothing else, back before refrigerators, back when the Indians were running around. Maybe this was a place for old-timey rednecks to keep their alligator meat away from vultures.
Mr. Hibma had given one of the kiss-asses a stopwatch and deemed her the umpire. Some days Mr. Hibma lectured. Some he allowed his classes to play trivia games. These were the two ways he could stomach teaching: losing himself in a lecture or daydreaming while the kids were absorbed in guessing.
"Mr. Hibma," the kiss-ass called. "Steven keeps saying 'retarded.' He said 'Australia's retarded nephew' for New Zealand."
"It should be noted," said Mr. Hibma. "One could as easily say Australia is the big retarded uncle of New Zealand."
Mr. Hibma knew he could teach for all eternity and it still wouldn't feel natural. He was a geography teacher but he didn't teach the subject of geography. He lectured about whatever he felt like and left the memorizing of topographical terms and state capitals to the kids. They had books. They had exercise manuals. If they were smart and curious they'd end up knowing a lot, and if they were dumb they wouldn't.
"Semifinal round," the kiss-ass announced.
Mr. Hibma listened as a boy named Vince who was known for giving out bubble gum tried to differentiate Asian countries.
"There are a lot of people crammed together," Vince said. "Short people?" He drummed his fingers, searching. "Not the one with the hanging ducks."
The kiss-ass called time up. Today's game was something akin to The $10,000 Pyramid. It was new to the kids. They'd never heard of The $10,000 Pyramid.
Mr. Hibma said, "Let me help. This is a country full of off-white folks who smile funny, eat raw fish, and wear the hippest shoes."
All the kids stared blankly except Shelby Register, who said, "Japan."
"Correct. I wouldn't trade you kids for all the tea in ... Shelby?"
"China," she said.
Mr. Hibma sometimes viewed himself as a character in a novel. At the age of twenty-nine, he'd already experienced three things that mostly only happened in books. (1) As an infant, he'd been stolen from the hospital by a nurse. The duration of the abduction had been six hours and he'd been unharmed, but still. (2) He had unexpectedly inherited money. It was only $190,000 and he'd blown it in two years traveling around Europe, but still. (3) He had chosen his permanent residence by throwing a dart at a map. There hadn't been a town where the dart had stuck, but there weren't many towns in Citrus County, Florida. Citrus County was a couple hours north of St. Petersburg, on what people called the Nature Coast, which Mr. Hibma had gathered was a title of default; there was nature because there were no beaches and no amusement parks and no hotels and no money. There were rednecks and manatees and sinkholes. There were insects, not gentle crickets but creatures with stingers and pincers and scorn in their hearts. There was the smell of vegetation, every plant blooming outrageously or rotting by the minute. There was a swampy lake and a complex of aging villas surrounding that lake, and one of these villas was now Mr. Hibma's home.
Teaching had been the only job available to him, and for a while it was amusing, another lark, but now he'd been doing it a year and a half. It was February. It was Thursday. It was fourth period. Mr. Hibma was sick of skinny, smelly, hormone-dazed kids staring at him and lying to him and asking him questions. He was sick of their clothes, their faces. And the teachers were worse. Mr. Hibma did his best to keep to himself-ate in his classroom, avoided heading clubs or committees, kept all his discipline in-house instead of dealing with the office, and kept away from "7th hour," which was what the younger teachers called meeting at a Mexican restaurant Friday afternoon and getting drunk.
The teacher in the next room, Mrs. Conner, was not young and had likely never been drunk. She was about fifty, a grammar Nazi with bronze-colored hair who wore sandals that were too small and caused her toes to spill out onto the floor. She was an English teacher who refused to assign any literature that was morally corrupt. Poe was morally corrupt. "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson was morally corrupt. Probably the Russians. Certainly the French. Mrs. Conner often informed Mr. Hibma that his shirt was wrinkled. She asked him pointed questions about his lesson plans, about all the games the kids played in his class. She and her husband, a retired cop or fireman or something, owned a mini-storage place. Mrs. Conner's classroom was decorated with posters about life not being a destination but a journey, posters of kittens hanging from ropes, posters of a ship or a whale with one word displayed across the top, like PERSISTENCE. Mr. Hibma often fantasized about murdering this woman. This was her last year of teaching before she retired and lived snidely off her pension and her husband's pension and their mini-storage profits, rising at dawn to greet her open days, getting more heavily involved in her church. The idea of letting her smirk through the last day of her twenty-fifth year as a teacher, loping around in her undersized sandals feeling as if everything she'd ever done was right, of letting her go home and sit on her porch on that warm June evening with her tea, and then, just as she dozed off, sneaking up behind her and ... The idea sustained Mr. Hibma. The little table with the tea on it clattering down the porch steps. The look of disbelief on Mrs. Conner's blanched face when Mr. Hibma, what, slit her throat? He couldn't see himself doing that. He couldn't see himself shooting her, either. That part wasn't worked out. Mostly Mr. Hibma saw the look on her face. If the husband were there Mr. Hibma would have to kill him too. He didn't know what the husband looked like, but he saw him with sandy hair and a polo shirt and white sneakers. Mr. Hibma would put both their bodies in one of their own storage units. Mr. Hibma wondered if killers were born or made. He wondered that a lot. Mr. Hibma was a sad case. It was sad, he knew, to feel so powerless that you sat around idly dreaming of killing an old woman. Fantasies were for children and prisoners. Mr. Hibma did not feel like an adult and he did not feel free.
Despite failing to name their semifinal nation, Vince and his partner had advanced. Their opponents had broken a rule by using hand gestures and had been disqualified. It was Vince's team against Shelby and Toby. Shelby was the smartest student Mr. Hibma had, and Toby, well, smart wasn't the word. Cunning. Maybe he was cunning.
Shelby knew a lot about stand-up comedians. She had memorized the acts of Bill Hicks, Dom Irrera, Richard Belzer-nobody new, just stand-ups from years ago. She knew where these guys had gotten their starts and what jokes they were known for. She knew a lot about a lot of different things-literature, illnesses. Also, Mr. Hibma had noticed, Shelby seemed to want to be a Jew. She used words like meshugana and mensch and had brought matzo ball soup for ethnic food week and the days she missed school with a cold or stomachache were always Jewish holidays. Shelby lived with her father and maybe a sister in a little ranch house a stone's throw from the school. Her mother had died a couple years ago.
And Toby, denizen of detention, breaking rules in a way that seemed meant to reach a quota. There was no joy in his misbehavior, no rage. He didn't have friends but didn't get picked on. Neither of his parents were around. He lived on a big piece of property with his uncle.
Vince and his partner identified Morocco in seven seconds. Shelby and Toby had to beat that. Shelby trained her eyes coolly on the card. When the kiss-ass gave the signal, she said, "Where Bjork is from."
"I've heard of Bjork," said Toby.
"You're not allowed to talk," said the kiss-ass.
"Then how am I supposed to answer?"
"It was named to make people think it wasn't an inviting place to settle," said Shelby.
"You're allowed to guess countries," the kiss-ass told Toby. "You're not allowed to make comments."
"Shitland?" Toby offered. "That doesn't sound inviting."
"Time," blurted the kiss-ass.
Mr. Hibma informed the class that he'd gone to a flea market that past weekend and found a man selling movie posters for a dime each. He'd purchased three hundred. From here on out, these would serve as prizes. He presented Vince with Midnight Run and handed Shelby The Milagro Beanfield War.
"Let me get this straight," Vince said. "First place is a poster and second place is a poster?"
Mr. Hibma picked up a few stubs of chalk and shook them in his hand. "If Vince and Toby were gentlemen, they'd let the ladies keep the prizes."
"I'm not a gentleman," Toby said. "I don't think I've ever even seen a gentleman."
The lunch bell rang, ending the discussion and prompting a swift and sweeping exodus from the room.
"By the way, Toby," Mr. Hibma said. "You've got detention tomorrow afternoon for cursing."
Toby looked toward the ceiling a moment and then gave a dispassionate nod. Detention was a part of his life he'd come to terms with.
Excerpted from CITRUS COUNTY by JOHN BRANDON Copyright © 2010 by John Brandon. Excerpted by permission.
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