Dead Last Is a Kind of Second Place
JELL-O Pudding Pops that preserve the wavelike peaked shape of your lips. Little Debbie Fudge Brownies that break in half along a groove in the frosting. Summer sausages like No. 2 pencils, cling-wrapped together on a Styrofoam platter. Strawberry Fruit Wrinkles that scent your fingers if you don’t pour them directly into your mouth. Squares of American cheese sealed so tightly their wrappers show little pale lagoons of trapped air. Chocolate Pop-Tarts sprinkled with shards of something that tastes like sugar but looks like rock salt. Doo Dads floured with cheddar, great masses of leftover peanuts hiding at the bottom of the bag. Little Debbie Nutty Bars, two per wrapper, their sides pasted so lightly together that they separate with the sound bath bubbles make when you whisk through them with your finger. Monster Pops in three different styles—Satan holding a pitchfork, Frankenstein clutching a skull, and Dracula grasping his chest with eight riblike fingers—made with the kind of ice that splits apart in chunks rather than sunbursting loose from the stick in immaculate layers. Blueberry Toaster Strudels with snake trails of sticky icing. Crystal Light powder in frosted plastic tubs. Bon Bons ice cream nuggets in bells of melting chocolate. Capri Sun pouches you can reinflate once they’re empty, squeezing the bottom to launch the stiff little arrow of the straw across the room. Bugles corn treats that you eat in fives—that everyone eats in fives—using them to make lion’s claws or witch’s fingers before you suction them loose with your lips: hwoot, hwoot, hwoot, hwoot, hwoot. Little Debbie Pecan Spinwheels and Little Debbie Swiss Rolls and Little Debbie Star Crunches and Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pies.
Usually Kevin marauds through the snacks as soon as he gets home from seventh grade, stuffing himself in his room, but this afternoon is different. This afternoon he is on a reconnaissance mission. He taps his way slowly through the cabinets and the refrigerator, studying the possibilities box by box. The granola bars. The Fruit Roll-Ups. Someone at school has been stealing people’s lunches from their lockers—including, for the fifth time now, his. He needs a new plan, since obviously the potato chips didn’t work. That was his tactic on Monday, shaking a bunch of Ruffles into a clear plastic sandwich bag and then rigging the packet with a mousetrap, the snap kind, with a hook and a bar and a coil. In the morning, before first period, he tucked the chips into a brown paper sack and used them to booby-trap his locker. By noon, when the bell rang, the sack had fallen over, and there were shards of Ruffles everywhere. Which meant that the thief must have popped the door open, taking Kevin’s lunch by the edges, and “Sweet,” the guy would have thought, and “Score,” but before he could make his getaway, the trap had sprung, showering him with potato chips—a chipsplosion. And out loud he had said, “Holy shit!” And the bar had caught the tip of his finger, and he had panicked and wrenched his hand loose, dropping the sack into Kevin’s locker before he slammed the door shut, gave a quick glance left and right, and went spurting off down the hallway. And for the rest of the day his friends had asked him, “Why do you keep sucking on your finger, man? You look retarded.” And when he showed them the crack in his nail, and the sealed plane of beet-colored blood, they cringed and said, “Ah sweet holy Christ, what’ d a car door get you or something?”
Except that it must not have happened that way. If it had, Kevin’s lunch wouldn’t have been stolen again.
He wrings the last few drops from the fantasy.
That looks gruesome, man.
Dude, you should go to the office with that thing.
Now what did you do to yourself again?
The open refrigerator hums, shudders, and gives off a cut-grass smell. The grapes and the apples, the ketchup and mustard, sit there sharp and bright, throwing their colors out at him, as if it is always noon inside the refrigerator, on April the third, and everything is drenched in sunlight. It is hard for Kevin to tell sometimes whether he is hungry or just plain bored.
A snack equals one Pop-Tart, one Popsicle, or one Dixie Cup full of Doo Dads or Bugles, though occasionally, when no one else is home, he will cheat and have two.
That evening, after TV, he does his geography, then lies on his back clutching Percy to his stomach. After which comes the part where Percy decides whether or not to muscle free. He lowers his ears, rearranges his weight, and stiffens his spine, then jumps a little invisible hurdle and trots from the room purring.
The dishwasher is bathing the dishes. The VCR is playing All My Children. The sound of a car decelerating around the curve in front of the house reminds Kevin of Todd for some odd reason—how, when Todd used to spend the night, Kevin’s mom would drop them off at Breckenridge and they would pocket the money she gave them for the movies, striding off into the yellow-lit darkness to hang out with girls. The shopping center’s walkways were framed with x-shaped wooden beams, and Kevin would lounge in the fork of one looking cool, three feet off the ground, keeping his left leg rigid and letting his right dangle like a cat’s tail, and beneath him Todd would take whichever girl he had picked to be his girlfriend and wrap her in kisses, and the trees would rustle in the wind, and the beetles would pankle against the light bulbs, and it seems to Kevin that he was more grown-up on those chilly Friday nights than he has ever been since. He had a different best friend then, a different school, and though he didn’t know it, he was at the peak of something. Now, no more Todd and Keith for him. No more sixth grade.
Who can say what possesses him, but hardly a minute passes before he is calling Todd to ask if he wants to sleep over on Friday. Why shouldn’t his life turn the other way for once? Why can’t things go backward?
Todd seems guarded, suspicious, as if he is anticipating a prank. “Yeah? What do you want?”
“I was calling to see if maybe you can spend the night this weekend. Maybe Friday? After school?”
A T-shirty, smothered sound, a little hum of noise, and then, “Mom says I have to ask Dad, and Dad’s not home. I’ll let you know tomorrow, good?”
“That’s cool. It’s casual.”
“Yeah. Right. ‘Casual.’ ”
“I thought we could hang out at Breckenridge if you want. You know. ‘See a movie.’ ”
“Or go to the mall.”
“Yeah, look, I’ve gotta go, so—bye.”
Kevin is already singing Chicago’ s “Stay the Night” by the time he hangs up. He fixes his upper lip flat against his teeth, like Peter Cetera, trying for that pulled-taffy voice of his. The words slide right out of him: “No need to hit me with an attitude, because I haven’t got the time.” He has the kind of brain that unearths songs all day long, one after another, harvesting them from books, movies, sermons, lessons, conversations, and announcements. The slightest scrap or echo of a lyric and boom!—there he’ll be, reconstructing some twice-heard melody: verse, chorus, and verse. He does it with so little thought that sometimes he’ll find himself hours deep in a song with no idea where it began. This time, though, the source is unmistakable. Spend the night, so stay the night.
Back in his room he runs his fingers down the rows of his tape box. Chicago is sandwiched between Van Halen and John Cougar Mellencamp. Funny how their titles sound like a quarterback calling hike: 19! 84! 17! Uh! Huh!
More than half of Kevin’s tapes are music club releases, six for the price of one from RCA or eleven for a penny from Columbia House. Every time he resurrects his membership, another big rattling cardboard brick of them will appear in his mailbox. Music club tapes are a bleached-white plastic like candle wax, with a slightly bitter smell, totally unlike the fruit-sugar scent of the tapes he buys from Target or Camelot, the see-through kind with the frosted lettering. He plugs Chicago 17 into his stereo and rewinds it to the beginning. He has just enough time to listen to side one before he has to change for bed.
He goes to sleep with no plans, no ideas, yet locked in his mind the next morning is a strategy for revenge. No one’s going to steal his lunch again. He wakes like an athlete diving into cold water, with the same breath of excitement he remembers experiencing as a kid on Saturdays. There is a deadness to the house, a tingling moon-quiet. He feels as if he is somewhere he has never been, separated from the curving streets and grassy slopes of his neighborhood by light years and miles—whole mountains away, whole galaxies away.
At first he is sorry to disturb the stillness, but then he hears the tick of the water heater as his mom turns on the shower, hears Percy scratching at the litter box, and instantly he is back home again. He pads to the kitchen to begin his work. Step one he makes a bologna and cheese sandwich. Step two he takes the top slice of bread, the undressed slice, into the bathroom, and pinches hold of the corner to douse it in urine. Step three he bakes the bread dry with a hair dryer—it stiffens weirdly in the heat without ever quite toasting. And finally, step four, he writes “I peed on this sandwich” on a scrap of paper and plants it between the cheese and the lettuce.
He bags up the sandwich and takes it to school. The problem is that none of the lockers have real locks, just latches that slide open with a hard steel chock. What they are is unlockers. Take-what-you-wanters. Welcome-on-iners. The idea seems to be that since stealing is unchristian, Christians won’t steal. Some theory. Kevin loads the day’s books into his camera bag, then puts his lunch on the backpack shelf—so long, you, and good luck—and cuts through the gym, aiming for his homeroom. Stretched out behind the basketball court, between the locker rooms, is the stage the school uses for concerts and plays. It’s a strange thing, that stage, able to fire pins and needles into him just by existing. Its curtains bulge and deflate in the air conditioning. The lights turn to fuzz on its polished boards. If his life were a TV show, he thinks, it would be an episode of Amazing Stories, and the twist would be that the stage was actually alive. The stage has plans, he imagines. The stage knows what it wants. It wants to maneuver him up one of its skinny sunken mini-staircases, giving him intangible little bumps and plucks with its intangible little fingers. It wants him to put on a show. Butterflies: that’s the nervous feeling you get in your stomach before a performance. But what do you call it when the performance is entirely in your imagination? Caterpillars maybe. Moths.
The first bell rings while he is still at half court. By the time he reaches class, Todd has already claimed his seat toward the back. Kevin tries to attract his attention, but something else keeps catching Todd’s eye, something just to the right or the left, flea-hopping away whenever Kevin moves to intercept him.
Todd is asking Brian Drewry about a movie they both saw on TV. “Did you watch the Showtime version or the USA version?”
“USA. Why? What’s the difference?”
“R versus PG. You know that massage scene where chick thinks dude’s a girl?”
“You gotta see the Showtime version. That’s all I’m gonna say.”
Todd fiddles with his gold chain, triggering the clasp click click click. Not until Mr. Gates has taken roll does Kevin finally manage to signal him. He mouths “Friday?” and Todd creases his brow and mouths back “What.” Then he makes a revolving-door motion with his finger—turn the other way—and just like that Kevin remembers that they are no longer friends. Of course. He is such a kid. It kills him that their days of kicking the soccer ball around are over, kills him that he never knew how little it would take to smash them. Nothing. Nothing. A split second. A white lie. In his memory he hears Cut it out, guys, and Hey, Kevin, and It’s favorites time. Time for favorites, sees Todd and Keith stalking him across the schoolyard at lunch, and suddenly he feels the blur of heat in his eyes. He hopes no one sees him, though he would bet a hundred dollars people do. Sometimes his feelings run so hard in him he’s sure they must pour from his skin. And sometimes he’s surprised that other people notice him at all.
An hour later, for instance, in English, Miss Vinson reads the class a story, and after “the end” she says. “Show of hands. Who’ s an ant annnnd—who’ s a grasshopper? Kevin! A grasshopper! Why’s that?”
Clearly the ant should have shared his food—that’s what Kevin thinks, and he says so. He has a way of taking an answer and, without hammering or tugging at it, making it sound like an election speech. After he has finished talking, he notices Leslie Miller staring at him from across the circle of desks, slouching so low in her chair that the shoulders of her jacket engulf her neck. She is puzzled enough to ignore the silence of the room and ask, “What’s it about that you’re crying all the time?”
He realizes that he is still sniffing and blinking. “I’m not sure.” The truth is that he always thought he would outgrow it.
“Do you have, like, allergies?”
“No, I mean like pets or dust or pollen.”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
“Are you sick then?”
“Let’s talk about something else.”
“Yes,” Miss Vinson agrees. “Let’s,” and because she laughs, everyone else does, too.
Beyond the classroom door, someone’s footsteps go beating down the hallway like an Indian drum. How it works who knows, but all of a sudden Kevin imagines his locker door springing open with a pop and a shiver. His palms begin to sweat. There are two things happening today—Todd and the sandwich—and if one of them doesn’t go right, he thinks, surely the other will. He spends the next few hours concentrating just hard enough to do his work. After science and before geography, the brown paper bag is right where he left it, but forty-five minutes go by, and when he joins the lunch crowds it is gone—snatched! He gives his locker a triumphant smack. His throat makes a crow-like cackle unlike any sound he has ever heard himself produce. Walking past the classrooms and the bulletin boards, he feels a wonderful lifting sensation, as if space has flip-flopped around him and a whole world of things are rising that should be falling. Someday this is how he will die, he imagines, so full of happiness he will burst from his life a rocket.
He finds a seat next to Eric Carter, who plunges straight into Bill Cosby’s Lone Ranger bit. “Tonto, go to town,” he says, and “Kemosabe, go to Hell,” Kevin answers. It is the best and most foul-mouthed line on the record, and then “All right,” Kevin says, scouting around the lunchroom. He doesn’t want anyone to overhear them. “Listen to this.”
Right away Eric begins struggling against his face. He compresses a smile into the far corner of his mouth, shakes his head, and releases a few cough-like sounds of amusement.
“Dude,” he says at the end of Kevin’s story, “that’s disgusting.”
“Yeah, I’m so proud.”
“Do you think someone actually ate it?”
“Dude,” again, “that’s disgusting. Who do you think it was?”
Christian Gann is unwrapping one of the little square burgers from the vending machine. Russell Gardner is widening his lips around a Funyun. Everyone is a suspect.
“Actually—” The first lunch starts at 11:50, the second at 12:40, with twenty-five minutes of overlapping class time in between. “I bet it was one of the older guys. I’m gonna say it’s still waiting in the bag to be eaten. Just—you know—fuming in there.”
“But not for long.”
The faculty lounge squares out into the lunchroom like an aquarium. The way the teachers drift around behind the flatness of the windows, forming quiet shapes with their mouths, makes it easy to believe they can’t hear anything, but when some ninth graders start jostling one of the snack machines to unsnag a bag of chips, Principal McLaughlin opens the door and says, “Come on now, fellas. Calm down.”
Scrape the skin from his voice and you’ll always find an implied for-Pete’s-sake.
“I can guarantee one thing,” Eric says to Kevin.
“Nobody’ll want to eat your lunch again after today. Not even you.”
“Actually I’m kind of starving.”
Eric slides him a Tupperware bowl of green grapes. “Knock yourself out.” Some of the grapes are still bunched together. Kevin loves the tiny snikt of separation they make as he plucks them loose from their stems.
He is picking a bit of wood from his tongue when Keith Price comes flowing over and drapes an arm around his shoulders. “Kevin my friend! I’ve got a question for you. Why did you ask Todd to spend the night?”
A voice on one side of him and a hand on the other, and instinctively Kevin pivots toward the hand. Todd and his gang are a few tables away, Stephen and Christian and the others, their eyes razoring directly in on him. They look the way people in movies do when their minds belong to someone else—like clones, things from outer space, brainwashees. All this time they must have been wondering what they could force him to say. He can practically recreate the whole scenario: Todd telling them about the phone call, then suggesting, “Do you know what would be hilarious? If we went over and asked guy about it,” and someone else adding, “Oh, I bet he’ll do that blinking thing he does,” and Keith volunteering, “I don’t care. What the hell. I’ll go.”
Now Keith sinks his weight onto Kevin’s arm and says, “Let me rephrase. Why did you call Todd last night? Had him on your mind, did you?”
“I don’t know. Obviously it was a bad idea.”
Suddenly Keith’s tone softens. “Hey there. No need to get upset. We’re just curious, that’s all.”
By some miracle Kevin controls his face. Just like that, though, his hunger dematerializes, and his feeling of victory fades away. He is himself all over again. He stands and says, “Thanks for the grapes, Eric.” The echo of it rises from the other table: Thanks for the grapes, grapes, thanks for the grapes. Who knew that grapes was such a funny word? It is news to him.
Bolting from the lunchroom, Kevin brushes past Sophia Lewis, who is unzipping her jacket in the doorway. If she notices him, it is only as a blur of clothing, some white shoes and some plaid sleeves, the smell of soap or deodorant, whatever it is he smells like. He remembers that time, years ago, at recess, when he accidentally kicked her soccer ball into the street just as a semi came monstering through the intersection, and they all listened as it flattened the ball and then flattened it again in the notch between its immense rear tires. It would never have occurred to him that something could pop more than once.
Last week in science Mr. Gates told them that atoms are mostly empty space—point-99-and-a-bunch-of-repeating-nines worth, nothing but fleeting waves of energy and force attracting and repulsing each other. The universe is a sinkhole, the universe is a tube slide. Today is the kind of day where Kevin feels as if he might slip through the vacuum of the ground and never stop falling.
In SRA, Chad Carger sits behind him poking the back of his head with a pencil, leaving small silver indentations on his scalp. Kevin pretends not to notice, which makes Chad laugh. It is a game, a joke, one they are playing together, as if Kevin’s head is all leather and bone and he has no nerves whatsoever. Mrs. Bussard busies herself at the chalkboard. You can do anything you want in her class as long as you do it quietly. After six or seven thrusts, Kevin hears Chad say, “Michael. Michael. Check this out,” and peck peck peck, he goes. Kevin sits stone still. The crazy part is that he doesn’t mind. He would find it hard to explain why Keith whispering so nicely to him is spiteful while Chad jabbing him with a pencil is friendly, but that’s the situation.
Two bells later and the day is almost over. He sits on the bleachers waiting for PE to start. He can still feel the marks on his skull, exotic darts of sensation that keep sparking off into numbness and then re-erupting. Is he hurt? Are they real? Maybe your skin simply tingles a certain way if you pay enough attention to it. That’s probably it, he decides, because as soon as Coach Daniel blows his whistle to send everyone to the locker room, the twinges seem to stop. Kevin is at the front of the herd, rushing past the seniors benching weights and studying their veins in the mirrors, their skin salts wafting into the hallway. Until now he had no idea how badly he wanted to run, to throw off his clothes and change into his T-shirt and shorts. The last few kids have barely reached the benches, and already he is nearly dressed out. He has been getting faster and faster. These days no one can touch him. Twenty, thirty seconds and wh-shaw!—he is done.
The other coach, Coach Stout, comes roostering through the door to say, “Cease and desist, folks. Class meeting in the weight room. Come on Bozeman, come on Cypert, don’t just stand there lolling around with your arms hanging—hustle!”
Kevin stomps back into his shoes before following the others outside. He is like a magician whose big instantaneous trick is to enter a cabinet wearing one color and exit wearing another. The seniors can scarcely believe it. He isn’t sure which of them says, “Nuh-uh,” and which, “No way. You can’t change that fast. That’s impossible”—only that for a moment, in his tiny way, Kevin is famous.
The class is halfway through its wrestling unit. Yesterday they finished practicing holds and throws, and today my friends, today compadres, they are actually going to fight. The meeting is about the President’s Physical Fitness Test, the results for which have finally arrived, and as soon as it is over and everyone has dressed, they gather at the far wall of the basketball court, where they unstitch the mats from their Velcro bands and heft them onto the floor. They land heavily, sending a great smack of air into the room. With a noise like that, you know something has happened.
In a few weeks, right here in the gym, CAC will be hosting a lock-in. Kevin can’t get over it—how this very space, buzzing with exercise and light, will be blanketed in darkness, filled with hundreds of girls and hundreds of guys swimming in a giant sea of sleeping bags. Turn the lights off and there’s nothing that can’t be different. Maybe Kevin will find a girlfriend. Amy Harris will whisper, “Over here, you.” Nikki Bailey will mistake him for someone else. Stacey Bell will tow him off by the wrist and fall in love with him.
It is time for the lightning tournament, and gradually, two by two, the other featherweights in the class end up clapped together on the mat: Shane Herald and Carey Kilpatrick, Jon Bozeman and Mark Beason, Michael Smithson and Phillip VanWinkle. As soon as one fighter pins another, the coaches call the match with a “Raney!” or an “Akins!” and select the next pair. Name by name the roster dwindles. Michael Loyd. Shane Lind. Russell Gardner. Matthew Berry. Kevin stands on the sidelines watching the Twister-shapes they make out of their bodies. Learon Dalby. Steve Robinson. Walter Carter. John Daniel. And there goes the last of the small kids. Eric Carter. Todd Brown. Bobby Roberts. Aaron Perry. Kevin knows it is going to happen and then it does. A prickling feeling chases itself up his legs, until suddenly he hears Coach Stout say, “Last round. Brockmeier! Glymp! You’re up.”
Of course everyone laughs. Kevin is as thin as a paintbrush, at most eighty-four or eighty-five lubs—why isn’t it pronounced that way?—while Jeff Glymp looks the way his name sounds: swollen to the stitches with muscle.
Ordinarily in PE Kevin tries to mouse around without being noticed. Oh sure, he lets himself flash into view in the locker room, but as soon as the athletic stuff starts, he does his best to vanish again. A few weeks ago, during a game of bombardment, he managed to shrink and fade and hush his way into becoming the last surviving member of his team. Balls have always seemed like missiles to him, flying fast and hard. Not tools. Not playthings. Weapons.
By the ordinary logic of sports Kevin simply doesn’t matter. He is narrow, though—wily—and that day, as the clock ticked out its circles, he was able to dodge throw after throw with a quick twist of his arms or hips. When the other team strung themselves along the line and coordinated their attack—“On the count of three we aim all at once, understood? One, two, three”—he dropped flat and the barrage bounced off the wall above him. There was a popcorn of drumming, and a few of the balls leapt out of bounds. He was so surprised to be alive that he actually laughed out loud.
The trouble is that wrestling takes more than cunning. It takes leverage, muscle, and Kevin is nothing but scrawn, so skinny you could lay his forearm on a table and roll a marble down the tendons.
He decides to treat the match like a joke. Surely that’s what the coaches are expecting. Why else would they pair him with a bulldozer like Jeff Glymp?
Kevin walks to the edge of the mat and gives Jeff the death-finger. Then he rolls his neck until the joints crack. “Neutral positions,” Coach Daniel announces. “Readyyy—” The moment the whistle fweets, Kevin lowers his head and charges at Jeff like a bull. All Jeff has to do is bend at the waist to take Kevin by the ankles, flip him upside down, and drop him on his head.
Coach Stout winces. “All right, Jeff. None of that André the Giant stuff.”
Jeff falls to his knees. His palms staple Kevin’s collarbones to the mat. Kevin bucks his legs, but it is like trying to flip a sack of cement off his shoulders: useless. Coach Daniel counts down the seconds, and then “Match to Glymp!” he says. He gives a muffled clap, as if he is wearing cotton gloves. “Good try. Good try. Shake it off, Kev.”
Kevin would rather have won, he can’t deny it, but losing and losing badly brings with it a perverse feeling of accomplishment. Dead last is better than the middle of the pack. Dead last is a kind of second place. The excitement of the match lingers in his body, a fizz of nervous adrenaline that persists through the final bell and the long car ride over the river.
He doesn’t realize he is sore until he has unlocked the kitchen door and deposited his books on the counter. He writes his name in the condensation on a Big K bottle: K is for Kevin. He feeds Percy a handful of Bonkers: Hello, cat. Then something in his head begins to float, and he crashes onto the sofa. The refrigerator makes a ticking sound. He is so glad to be home. He has sixteen hours until school starts.
Probably he will never know who ate the sandwich.
Probably Todd will never spend the night with him.
But the kitchen is next to the living room, and the bedrooms are lined up one-two-three, and the sunshine paints the shapes of the doors onto the hall. Here beneath these rooms it is solid ground all the way to the bottom of the universe.