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Lauren Baratz-Logsted & Greg Logsted
BACKSTORY: "Fred" is, of course, inspired by "A Boy Named Sue," and we consider it to be our Critter & Cash story because it owes as much to the Little Critter books we were reading to our young daughter at the time we wrote it as it does to the Man in Black.
BUS STOP. NEW SCHOOL. NEW YEAR. I figure I'll arrive there early, check out the lay of the land. I stand there smoking. I look totally cool.
I try leaning against a tree. I'd have preferred a building or a wall, but lush green lawns surround me. Looking cool in the country takes work.
Other kids arrive. Some look cooler than me, some not so much. They all know each other. I know no one.
It's the same every year. My mom keeps moving us to wherever she can find work. Four years ago it was Texas. Eight years ago it was Arkansas. This year it's Connecticut. I guess I'm now a Connecticut Yankee. Lucky me.
The other kids huddle together in two separate circles: the cool and the not-so-much. I know what they're doing. They're trying to decide whether they should talk to me, include me. I smoke my cigarette, look off to the side, pretend I don't care.
I'm thinking style over substance.
I'm doing my best James Dean, working the retro-sexual look. I'm getting a headache. Also, my shoulders are starting to get sore from leaning against this damn tree.
Finally, one guy, who seems to lack both style and substance, asks me if I have an extra smoke. I reach into my pocket, still leaning against the tree. It's a difficult move. I pull it off nicely, maintaining my cool façade. I give him one and he asks my name. This is my big moment, the one I've been waiting for. The spotlight suddenly burns brightly. I imagine a large hushed audience eagerly awaiting my response.
Yes, this is my chance to reinvent myself yet again.
Each year, each new school, I try out a new name, ride that sucker as long as I can. It usually isn't very long, but I'm determined this year will be different. It's my last year of high school. I want to make it count. After this, I'll be out in the real world and it won't matter any more. I'll be able to be who I want to be. But I still just want this one year, to be like everybody else.
I look him in the eye as if this is some kind of contest, as if the first one who blinks loses. Cigarette smoke drifts into my face. I give him my best Clint Eastwood squint. My eyes start to water.
"Jack," I say. "My name's Jack."
I've given this one more thought than usual, since every four years I tend to go all presidential.
Eight years ago, when I was ten, I went with Bill because I didn't want to be Bob, because, you know, Bob's your uncle. But then Bill turned out to be a horndog. Then, four years later, I went with George, because Al was a weird yanker. We all know how that turned out: shocked and awful. Now I sure as shit don't want to be George again, and I've never wanted to be Ralph, but John? There are Johns all over the place. It's such a common name. It's what you piss in. It's also the name given to those pathetic souls that pick up prostitutes. So I've decided to go all retro and sexual, only not as one word this time, back to someone who was a horndog and never lost any respect over it. I'm going to be Jack. If I was five years old this would be a problem, there would be Jacks all over the place because of that stupid movie where that ship went down, like some guy letting some girl he's only known for a couple of days live in his place is such a smart thing to do. Although, maybe that's the way to go, meet a beautiful girl, fall in love, get laid, and die in the middle of a frigid ocean. Hell, I'd rather do that then spend the rest of my life slowly dying in an office cubical or selling life insurance.
"Cool," the guy who bummed one of my smokes says. "I'm John. Why don't you come over here?"
And just like that, I'm in and what did I tell you about there being Johns all over the place.
I have so planned this out. I've covered every damn base. It isn't so much a deception as it is an act of protection or even desperation. Either way, just consider it a condom for the soul. I'm hoping my actions will silence their words.
The week before school started, I showed up for orientation, made sure to introduce myself to every teacher for every class I was going to have. It was like I was running for office, shaking hands to beat the fucking band.
"Hi, I'm Jack. I'm going to be in your calculus class."
"Hi, I'm Jack. I've got you for poli sci."
"Hi, I'm Jack. French is my favorite subject. Now if I could just talk to you for a moment about un peu de side issue?"
And they all understood. Of course they understood. Who wouldn't? After all, they're not sadists. They get Jack.
I look at my schedule, find my way to home room. I have my foot in the door, I'm almost in, and that's when I see the fucking fly in my own ointment. Shit. I tell myself it'll be okay. I tell myself all I have to do is step back out again, wait for the teacher to come along, get her alone, and talk to her in private for one little minute about my little issue.
There is always one thing you miss, I think, no matter how carefully you plan. You don't take DNA into consideration. You ignore the fact there might be a resistance movement on the ground. You forget fucking Florida.
And you talk to every goddamn teacher you're going to have in advance, but you never talk to the home room teacher, BECAUSE THE GODDAMN HOME ROOM TEACHER WASN'T ASSIGNED YET!
But it'll be cool, I tell myself, it'll be fine. I'll just stop the teacher before she goes inside and she'll totally understand. And here she comes now, and she's kind of pretty in her turquoise paisley dress, red hair flaming down her shoulders. I smile my most seductive smile, the one I've practiced in the mirror, hoping I look hot as opposed to terrified.
"Hi, I'm. ..." I start but I get no further.
"Just get in there," she says. "If I'm late, you're late."
I sit there in home room, slouched in my chair, waiting for the fucking world to open up and swallow me whole.
But then I hear Red calling out the names, and I start to think, Hmm. Maybe today will be different; maybe today someone else will be sucked into that humiliating vortex.
There's a Chin from China.
There's a Pepe from France.
One name follows another. Each name is like stepping out further across a frozen lake of thin ice. Each step brings me closer to that fateful fall.
Fuck! There's an Armpit from India. Who does that to their kid?
Doesn't anyone else think this is funny? But Chin they all think is cool. And sure, they razz Pepe a little, but he smiles so wide and takes it all so well, you can tell people are gonna wind up liking him. But come on now, Armpit?
I snigger a little bit but then I realize I'm the only one laughing.
"What an incredibly cool name," says John from the bus stop. "Armpit. It's like your whole name is just one big fuck-you."
Yeah, John, fuck you, too. I suppress an overwhelming compulsion to just turn around and poke him in the eye. Perhaps I should. Maybe his howls of pain would end this roll call of impending doom.
Unfortunately I don't and here it comes, because Armpit's last name is Gandhi, or something like that, so I know it's coming, the ice is popping and snapping around me....
"Sue Garland?" Red says, looking up with that questioning look she's already used like fifteen times. The first several times she used it, I liked the way it made her look. It made me want to fill it, like Bill would've done. Or Jack. Hell, George might've even gone for it, only to pray for forgiveness afterwards. Or maybe he'd just say he did it because God wanted him to. But now I hate that open mouth.
I slouch lower in my seat, thinking that if I can just slouch low enough, maybe I'll become invisible or turn to dust or something and just blow away.
But there's not low enough I can go in this world to hide, thanks to my fucking dad.
Finally, while everyone else is still looking all around the room, trying to figure out which of the girls is Sue Garland, I raise one single finger. I own it.
And that's when everyone starts laughing. Fuckers wouldn't laugh at fucking Armpit, but now they're laughing at me. The ice buckles beneath my feet, then breaks and plunges me into the frozen murky depth below.
"Jack," John laughs, scornfully. "Fucking Jack," he laughs again before turning away.
I really should have poked that asshole in the eye.
And that's it, you know. That's the way it's going to go until fucking June. Guys won't hang out with me because I'm a boy named Sue. Girls won't go out with me because I'm a boy named Sue. It's the way it's always been. Why did I ever think any of that'd change now?
I'll probably die jacking off. Alone.
And so it goes on.
I spend my time at home playing the guitar my dad left behind. I suck at it, but there's nothing else to do, so I play anyway. I also drink a lot of Jack Daniels. Fucking Jack.
At school I spend my time alone, counting. There are 262 days until graduation. I, as the teachers always tell us, do the math. If my calculations are correct, there are 22,636,800 seconds remaining until graduation. I spend my classes counting that number down. One day I get caught up on a new concern: Is there a leap year day coming in February? It throws me off until I can find the answer and when I do, I'm lost and have to recalculate all over again. I don't do so well in my classes. Nobody talks to me, except for teachers and my physics lab partner, and he only talks to me when he absolutely has to. Of course it goes without saying that I'm constantly mocked, mainly in the halls, but sometimes in class. Gym's the worst. I've considered coming to school with a baseball bat. Have myself a little "call me Sue and see what I'll do" hit parade. But that's just my fantasy. I know I'll never do anything remotely like that. It seems that I've got the baseball bat but I lack the balls. Besides, if I can just count down the seconds — how many more seconds are left? — I'll be able to finally graduate. I'll move on with my life. I really will be able to finally reinvent myself.
I spend my time, when I'm not playing guitar, fantasizing about my special baseball league, or counting the seconds, coming up with a list of new possible names.
Autumn in New England. The sky is a hard blue crystal, the clouds are puffy, the leaves are changing on the trees, and the temperature is ninety degrees because, you know, there is no global warming.
I stand outside in cutoff shorts and no shirt, because I can. I can go with no shirt because it's ninety degrees and I can wear cutoffs because, no longer having to worry about looking cool, I can just wear whatever's comfortable, rather than wearing those too-long baggy shorts everyone else wears that just have always looked dorky to me anyway and only wind up making my thighs sweat. There are definitely membership privileges in being the only person no one wants to talk to.
I stand on the cement porch, looking at the day, and that's when I spot the moving van next door.
The moving guy is carrying a red cushiony chair, with a teapot balanced on it, toward the house. He looks so big, his nose almost like a giant horn, it's like he's a big rhinoceros or something there in his overalls. I stand next to the bushes and watch, wondering who's moving in. Piano, Victorian floor lamp, end table that looks like it's made of brown plastic instead of wood, a rolled-up carpet — everything comes down the ramp of the van, across the sidewalk, and into the house. The sun is on the other side of the sky now, the ramp is flipped back up into the van, the van is pulling away.
It's then I finally notice the girl.
She has on striped overalls with a yellow tank top underneath, her breasts straining against the fabric. Her hair is blond, long, straight, with nothing done to it like she doesn't even have to worry about fashion. Her eyes are blue, but real warm like and not the cold you sometimes get, and if she's wearing any makeup I sure can't see it from where I'm standing. She's barefoot, too, just like me.
She looks to be my age and, you know, way better than the old guy who lived there before.
Her smile is open, wide, and she lifts her hand in a friendly wave.
"Hey!" she says.
I think about waving back, even get my hand halfway up. But then my mind jumps ahead to Monday. I see that, no matter whom I introduce myself as now, Monday will come, the bus stop will come, and she'll find out who I really am. Maybe she'll even join the others and mock me too. It seems to be the only sport my school excels at.
I can't take this anymore.
So, instead of waving back, I do what anyone else would do in similar circumstances. Well, I guess anyone else who's become the joke of this town and every other town he's ever lived in; anyone who has to put up with the daily putdowns and snickers behind his back. I do what now comes natural: I turn my back on her and walk away. I try to pretend she's not even there.
I can hear her calling out, "Hey, wait a sec! Where ya goin'?"
This is just getting too damn embarrassing. I really should have just talked to her. I wanted to. I'm such a fucking loser. Loser, loser, loser! I keep walking and she keeps calling out to me. I start walking faster. All I want to do is get around the side of my house and out of sight. She keeps calling out to me. I pretend not to hear her. Finally, mercifully, I manage to walk around the side of my house. My heart is pounding. I'm dizzy. I just want this all to end. My eyes tear up. I take off running. I'm not even sure why or where I'm going. I just want to be gone.
I sprint across my yard, all the way to the picket fence that borders our property with the neighbors on the other side. I hit the fence hard, pull myself up, clear it, crash into the garbage cans on the other side. I'm halfway across the neighbors' yard when I turn around. There's no way, I think, she'll clear that fence, but she does, no problem, doesn't even have the problems I did with the garbage cans. Now I see a dog clear the fence, too. I don't know this dog, but now he's running with us, too, as I take off again.
For fun, let's just call this dog Blue.
Why the fuck is she chasing me? If I'm lucky I'll come across a hole I can crawl inside of ... and die. I'm definitely keeping my eyes open.
I get to the briar patch on the other side of my neighbors' yard and crawl through. I hate the roots digging at my knees, the branches scratching at my back, that stupid blackbird cawing away on top. And I really hate all the bugs that I'm sure must be all around me, even if I can't see or feel any of them.
I'm sure the briar patch will stop her. No way will she struggle through all this.
But I'm on the other side and now I hear a rustling and there's Blue and there's the damn girl, too, wearing a determined expression on her face.
Across from the briar patch, there's an apple orchard and, even though I'm beginning to suspect I may be the weirdest guy who ever lived, I climb it. When I look down, far below me, I see the girl struggling to keep up. The dog's not even attempting this one, just goes straight over to the flat roof of the cider house and scrambles up onto it, like he knows that's where I'm going to land next.
I lower myself from the slender trembling branch onto that flat roof and I'm on the far side when I hear the girl land with a thud.
This is it. It's time to play for all the marbles.
I jump from the roof, hit the ground, and there she is right behind me. I grab onto a long rope, dangling down from one of the trees, and ride it across the rocky stream, Blue dangling off the end, almost pulling me down.
Girls suck at climbing ropes. I know this from twelve years of gym class, twelve years of guys saying, "Sue's the only girl who can climb to the ceiling." I've always figured the reason girls suck at climbing ropes is cause of their breasts. Their breasts get in the way, weigh them down, make their bodies unevenly distributed. Even when they're younger, before they have real breasts, it's like they have shadow breasts, sabotaging their ability to climb.
The girl with the breasts straining against her yellow tank is not slowed down in the slightest.
Blue and I tumble down the grassy hill, landing, my back getting bruised by the rocks, in the rocky stream that snakes around the hill from the other side.
Just as I'm coming up for air, the girl comes tumbling down the hill, landing right on top of me.
There's nowhere for me to go now.
"I like your shorts," she says, breathing hard. "What's your name?"
Why, oh, why, I think, couldn't this be 22,636,800 seconds from now? She's the perfect girl and if this were only 22,636,800 seconds later, I'd be beyond graduation, I'd be free, and this could all work out.
But this isn't 22,636,800 seconds from now. It is now, as in right now, and there is nothing else to do but to tell the truth. Hell, she'd find out on Monday anyway.
"My name is Sue!" I blurt, a touch maniacally.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Literary Cash"
Copyright © 2006 Bob Batchelor.
Excerpted by permission of BenBella Books, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
INTRODUCTION Bob Batchelor,
FRED Lauren Baratz-Logsted & Greg Logsted,
TUMBLING Gayle Brandeis,
THINGS MIGHT HAPPEN Gretchen Moran Laskas,
ONE MORE WRONG THING Russell Rowland,
RENO Tiffany Lee Brown,
JC WAS THE FIRST GOTH KID Steven A. Hoffman,
THE WALLS, TEXAS-1987 Amanda Nowlin-O'Banion,
THE SNOW CHASER Peter Cashwell,
TERMINAL Kyle Duane Hebert,
BEAT BACK THE DROWNING TIDES Emily Reardon,
THE GIRL FROM BOULDER RIDGE Vernell Hackett,
THE TRAIN STOPS Adam-Troy Castro,
DOES IT EVER END? Bob Batchelor,
WALKIN' CONTRADICTION Leigh H. Edwards,
JOHNNY CASH AND C. S. LEWIS Don Cusic,
NOTHIN' SHORT OF DYIN' HALF AS LONESOME AS THE SOUND Laurel Snyder,
RING OF FIRE Alison Stine,
SAUL (AND CASH) ON THE ROAD TO DAMASCUS Edward J. Rielly,
THE MAN IN BLACK ON DVD Robert G. Weiner,
JOHNNY CASH AND THE CRIMINAL MIND Todd M. Callais,