“Children,” Pig Pen said suddenly. “Children this and children that. They stabbed you in the back, Charlie. Already. Children. Ha. Shit. What do they think is happening? I-”
“He’s saying something about-” Corky began.
“Never mind. Turn it off, ” I said. “This sounds more interesting. ” I fixed the Pen with my best steely gaze. “What seems to be on yore mind, pal?”
Pig Pen jerked his thumb at Irma. “She thinks she’s got it bad,” he said. “Her. Heh. ” He laughed a sudden, erratic laugh. For no particular reason I could make out, he removed a pencil from his breast pocket and looked at it. It was a purple pencil.
“Be-Bop pencil,” Pig Pen said. “Cheapest pencils on the face of the earth, that’s what I think. Can’t sharpen ’em at all. Lead breaks. Every September since I started first grade Ma comes home from the Mammoth Mart with two hundred Be-Bop pencils in a plastic box. And I use ’em, Jesus.”
He snapped his purple pencil between his thumbs and stared at it. To tell the truth, I did think it looked like a pretty cheap pencil. I’ve always used the Eberhard Faber myself.
“Ma, ” Pig Pen said. “That’s Ma for you. Two hundred Be-Bop pencils in a plastic box. You know what her big thing is? Besides all those shitty suppers where they give you a big plate of Hamburger Helper and a paper cup of orange Jell-O full of grated carrots? Huh? She enters contests. That’s her hobby.
Hundreds of contests. All the time. She subscribes to all the women’s magazines and enters the sweepstakes. Why she likes Rinso for all her dainty things in twenty-five words or less. My sister had a
kitten once, and Ma wouldn’t even let her keep it. ”
“She the one who got pregnant?” Corky asked.
“Wouldn’t even let her keep it,” Pig Pen said. “Drownded it in the bathtub when no one would take it.
Lilly begged her to at least take it to the vet so it could have gas, and Ma said four bucks for gas was too much to spend on a worthless kitten. ”
“Oh, poor thing,” Susan Brooks said.
“I swear to God, she did it right in the bathtub. All those goddamn pencils. Will she buy me a new shirt?
Huh? Maybe for my birthday. I say, ‘Ma, you should hear what the kids call me. Ma, for Lord’s sake.’ I don’t even get an allowance, she says she needs it for postage so she can enter her contests. A new shirt for my birthday and a shitload of Be-Bop pencils in a plastic box to take back to school. I tried to get a paper route once, and she put a stop to that. She said there were women of loose virtue who laid in wait for young boys after their husbands went to work. ”
“Oh, my Gawwd!” Sylvia bellowed.
“And contests. And PTA suppers. And chaperoning dances. Grabbing on to everybody. Sucking up to them and grinning.”
He looked at me and smiled the oddest smile I had seen all day. And that was going some.
“You know what she said when Lilly had to go away? She said I’d have to sell my car. That old Dodge my uncle gave me when I got my driver’s license. I said I wouldn’t. I said Uncle Fred gave it to me and I was going to keep it. She said if I wouldn’t sell it, she would. She’d signed all the papers, and legally it was hers. She said I wasn’t going to get any girl pregnant in the back seat. Me. Get a girl pregnant in the back seat. That’s what she said. ”
He brandished a broken pencil half. The lead poked out of the wood like a black bone. “Me. Hah. The last date I had was for the eighth-grade class picnic. I told Ma I wouldn’t sell the Dodge. She said I would. I ended up selling it. I knew I would. I can’t fight her. She always knows what to say. You start giving her a reason why you can’t sell your car, and she says: ‘Then how come you stay in the bathroom so long?’ Right off the wall. You’re talking about the car, and she’s talk-ing about the bathroom. Like you’re doing something dirty in there. She grinds you. ” He stared out the window. Mrs. Dano was no longer in sight. “She grinds and grinds and grinds, and she always beats you. Be-Bop pencils that break every time you try to sharpen them. That’s how she beats you. That’s how she grinds you down. And she’s so mean and stupid, she drownded the kitty, just a little kitty, and she’s so stupid that you know everybody laughs at her behind her back. So what does that make me? Littler and stupider. After a while you feel just like a little kitty that crawled into a plastic box full of Be-Bop pencils and got brought home by mistake.” The room was dead quiet. Pig Pen had center stage. I don’t think he knew it. He looked grubby and pissed off, fists clenched around his bro-ken pencil halves. Outside, a cop had driven a police cruiser onto the lawn. He parked it parallel to the school, and a few more cops ran down behind it, presum-ably to do secret things. They had riot guns in their hands. “I don’t think I’d mind if she snuffed it,” Pig Pen said, grinning a small, horrified grin. “I wish I had your stick, Charlie. If I had your stick, I think I’d kill her myself. ”
“You’re crazy, too,” Ted said worriedly. “God, you’re all going crazy right along with him. ”
“Don’t be such a creep, Ted. ” It was Carol Granger. In a way, it was surprising not to find her on Ted’s
side. I knew he had taken her out a few times before she started with her current steady, and bright establishment types usually stick together. Still, it had been she who had dropped him. To make a very clumsy anal-ogy, I was beginning to suspect that Ted was to my classmates what Eisenhower must always have been to the dedicated liberals of the fifties-you had to like him, that style, that grin, that record, those good intentions, but there was something exasperating and a tiny bit slimy about him. You can see I’m fixated on Ted…
Why not? I’m still trying to figure him out. Sometimes it seems that everything that happened on that long morning is just something I imagined, or some half–baked writer’s fantasy. But it did happen. And sometimes, now, it seems to me that Ted was at the center of it all, not me. It seems that Ted goaded them all into people they were not . . . or into the people they really were. All I know for sure is that Carol was looking at him defiantly, not like a demure valedictorian-to-be due to speak on the problems of the black race. She looked angry and a wee bit cruel.
When I think about the Eisenhower administration, I think about the U-2 inci-dent. When I think about that funny morning, I think about the sweat patches that were slowly spreading under the arms of Ted’s khaki shirt.
“When they drag him off, they won’t find anything but nut cases,” Ted was saying. He looked mistrustfully at Pig Pen, who was glaring sweatily at the halves of his Be-Bop pencil as if they were the only things left in the world. His neck was grimy, but what the hell. Nobody was talking about his neck.
“They grind you down, ” he whispered. He threw the pencil halves on the floor. He looked at them, then looked up at me. His face was strange and grief-stunned. It made me uncomfortable. “They’ll grind you down, too, Charlie. Wait and see if they don’t. ”
There was an uncomfortable silence in the room. I was holding on to the pistol very tightly. Without thinking about it much, I took out the box of shells and put three of them in, filling the magazine again. The handgrip was sweaty. I suddenly realized I had been holding it by the barrel, pointing it at myself, not looking at them. No one had made a break. Ted was sort of hunched over his desk, hands gripping the edge, but he hadn’t moved, except in his head. I suddenly thought that touching his skin would be like touching an alligator handbag. I wondered if Carol had ever kissed him, touched him. Probably had. The thought made me want to puke.
Susan Brooks suddenly burst into tears.
Nobody looked at her. I looked at them, and they looked at me. I had been hold-ing the pistol by the barrel. They knew it. They had seen it.
I moved my feet, and one of them kicked Mrs. Underwood. I looked down at her. She had been wearing a casual tartan coat over a brown cashmere sweater. She was beginning to stiffen. Her skin probably felt like an alligator handbag. Ri-gor, you know. I had left a footmark on her sweater at some point in time. For some reason, that made me think of a picture I had once seen of Ernest Heming-way, standing with one foot on a dead lion and a rifle in his hand and half a dozen grinning black bearers in the background. I suddenly needed to scream. I had taken her life, I had snuffed her, put a bullet in her head and spilled out algebra.