Susan Brooks had put her head down on her desk, the way they used to make us do in kindergarten when it was nap time. She was wearing a powder-blue scarf in her hair. It looked very pretty. My stomach hurt.
I cried out and jerked the pistol around toward the windows. It was a state trooper with a battery-powered bullhorn. Up on the hill, the newsmen were grinding away with their cameras. Just grinding away-Pig Pen hadn’t been so far wrong, at that.
“COME OUT, DECKER, WITH YOUR HANDS UP!”
“Let me be,” I said.
My hands had begun to tremble. My stomach really did hurt. I’ve always had a lousy stomach.
Sometimes I’d get the dry heaves before I went to school in the morning, or when I was taking a girl out for the first time. Once, Joe and I took a couple of girls down to Harrison State Park. It was July, warm and very beautiful. The sky had a dim, very high haze. The girl I was with was named Annmarie. She spelled it all one name. She was very pretty. She wore dark green corduroy shorts and a silk pullover blouse. She had a beach bag. We were going down Route 1 toward Bath, the radio on and playing good rock ‘n’ roll. Brian Wilson, I remem-ber that, Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. And Joe was driving his old blue Mer-cury-he used to call it De Blue Frawwwg and then grin his Joe McKennedy grin. All the vents were open. I got sick to my stomach. It was very bad. Joe was talking to his girl. They were talking about surfing, which was certainly compatible with the Beach Boys on the radio. She was a fine-looking girl. Her name was Rosalynn. She was Annmarie’s sister. I opened my mouth to say I felt sick, and puked all over the floor. Some of it got on Annmarie’s leg, and the look on her face, you couldn’t imagine it. Or maybe you could. They all tried to make light of it, brush it off. I let all my guys puke on me on the first date, ha-ha. I couldn’t go in swim-ming that day. My stomach felt too bad. Annmarie sat on the blanket next to me most of the time and got a burn. The girls had packed a picnic lunch. I drank a soda, but I couldn’t eat any of the sandwiches. I was thinking about Joe’s blue Mere, standing in the sun all day, and how it was going to smell going home. The late Lenny Bruce once said you can’t get snot off a suede jacket, and to that I would add one of the other great home truths: you can’t get the smell of vomit out of a blue Mercury’s upholstery. It’s there for weeks, for months, maybe years. And it smelled just about like I thought it would. Everybody just pretended it wasn’t there. But it was.
“COME ON OUT, DECKER. WE’RE THROUGH FOOLING AROUND WITH YOU!”
“Stop it! Shut up!” Of course they couldn’t hear me. They didn’t want to. This was their game.
“Don’t like it so well when you can’t talk back, do you?” Ted Jones said. “When you can’t play any of your smart games.”
“Leave me alone.” I sounded suspiciously like I was whining.
“They’ll wearya out,” Pig Pen said. It was the voice of doom. I tried to think about the squirrel, and about the way the lawn grew right up to the building, no fucking around. I couldn’t do it. My mind was jackstraws in the wind. The beach that day had been bright and hot. Everybody had a transistor radio, all of them tuned to different stations. Joe and Rosalynn had body-surfed in glass-green waves.
“YOU’VE GOT FIVE MINUTES, DECKER!”
“Go on out,” Ted urged. He was gripping the edge of his desk again. “Go out while you’ve got a chance.”
Sylvia whirled on him. “What have you got to be? Some kind of hero? Why? Why? Shit, that’s all you’ll
be, Ted Jones. I’ll tell them-”
“Don’t tell me what-”
” . . . wearya down, Charlie, grind ya, wait and-”
“Go on out, Charlie . . . ”
” . . . please, can’t you see you’re upsetting him-”
“. . . PTA suppers and all that lousy . . . ”
“. . . cracking up if you’d just let him DECKER! alone grindya wearya down you go Charlie you can’t DON’T WANT TO BE FORCED TO SHOOT until you’re ready leave him be Ted if you know what all of you shut up good for you COMEOUT . . . ”
I swung the pistol up at the windows, holding it in both hands, and pulled the trigger four times. The reports slammed around the room like bowling balls. Win-dow glass blew out in great crackling fistfuls.
The troopers dived down out of sight. The cameramen hit the gravel. The clot of spectators broke and ran in all direc-tions. Broken glass shone and twinkled on the green grass outside like diamonds on show-window velvet, brighter gems than any in Mr. Frankel’s store.
There was no answering fire. They were bluffing. I knew that; it was my stom-ach, my goddamn stomach. What else could they do but bluff?
Ted Jones was not bluffing. He was halfway to the desk before I could bring the pistol around on him.
He froze, and I knew he thought I was going to shoot him. He was looking right past me into darkness.
“Sit down,” I said.
He didn’t move. Every muscle seemed paralyzed.
“Sit down. ”
He began to tremble. It seemed to begin in his legs and spread up his trunk and arms and neck. It reached his mouth, which began to gibber silently. It climbed to his right cheek, which began to twitch.
His eyes stayed steady. I have to give him that, and with admiration. One of the few things my father says when he’s had a few that I agree with is that kids don’t have much balls in this generation. Some of them are trying to start the revolution by bombing U.S. government wash-rooms, but none of them are throwing Molotov cocktails at the Pentagon. But Ted’s eyes, even full of darkness, stayed steady.
“Sit down,” I repeated.
He went and sat down.
Nobody in the room had cried out. Several of them had put their hands over their ears. Now they took them away carefully, sampling the noise level of the air, test-ing it. I looked for my stomach. It was there.
I was in control again.
The man with the bullhorn was shouting, but this time he wasn’t shouting at me. He was telling the people who had been watching from across the road to get out of the area and be snappy about it. They were doing it. Many of them ran hunched over, like Richard Widmark in a World War II epic.
A quiet little breeze riffled in through the two broken windows. It caught a paper on Harmon Jackson’s desk and fluttered it into the aisle. He leaned over and picked it up.
Sandra Cross said, “Tell something else, Charlie.”
I felt a weird smile stretch my lips. I wanted to sing the chorus from that folk song, the one about beautiful, beautiful blue eyes, but I couldn’t remember the words and probably wouldn’t have dared, anyway. I sing like a duck. So I only looked at her and smiled my weird smile. She blushed a little but didn’t drop her eyes. I thought of her married to some slob with five two-button suits and fancy pastel toilet paper in the bathroom. It hurt me with its inevitability. They all find out sooner or later how unchic it is to pop your buttons at the Sadie Hawkins dance, or to crawl into the trunk so you can get into the drive-in for free. They stop eating pizza and plugging dimes into the juke down at Fat Sammy’s. They stop kissing boys in the blueberry patch. And they always seem to end up looking like the Bar-bie doll cutouts in Jack and Jill magazine. Fold in at Slot A, Slot B, and Slot C. Watch Her Grow Old Before Your Very Eyes. For a second I thought I might ac-tually turn on the waterworks, but I avoided that indignity by wondering if she was wearing white panties today.
It was 10:20. I said:
I was twelve when Mom got me the corduroy suit. By that time Dad had pretty much given up on me and I was my mother’s responsibility. I wore the suit to church on Sundays and to Bible meetings on Thursday nights. With my choice of three snap-on bow ties. Rooty-toot.
But I hadn’t expected her to try and make me wear it to that goddamn birthday party. I tried everything.
I reasoned with her. I threatened not to go. I even tried a lie-told her the party was off because Carol had the chickenpox. One call to Carol’s mother set that straight. Nothing worked. Mom let me run pretty much as I pleased most of the time, but when she got an idea solid in her mind, you were stuck with it.