The day that I almost killed Mr. Carlson was the third of March. It was raining, and the last of the snow was just trickling away in nasty little rivulets. I guess I don’t have to go into what happened, because most of you were there and saw it. I had the pipe wrench in my back pocket. Carlson called me up to do a problem on the board, and I’ve always hated that-I’m lousy in chemistry. It made me break out in a sweat every time I had to go up to that board.
It was something about weight-stress on an inclined plane, I forget just what, but I fucked it all up. I remember thinking he had his fucking gall, getting me up here in front of everybody to mess around with an inclined-plane deal, which was really a physics problem. He probably had it left over from his last class. And he started to make fun of me. He was asking me if I remembered what two and two made, if I’d ever heard of long division, wonderful invention, he said, ha-ha, a regular Henry Youngman. When I did it wrong for the third time he said, “Well, that’s just woonderful, Charlie. Woooonderful.” He
sounded just like Dicky Ca-ble. He sounded so much like him that I turned around fast to look. He sounded so much like him that I reached for my back pocket where that pipe wrench was tucked away, before I even thought. My stomach was all drawn up tight, and I thought I was just going to lean down and blow my cookies all over the floor.
I hit the back pocket with my hand, and the pipe wrench fell out. It hit the floor and clanged.
Mr. Carlson looked at it. “Now, just what is that?” he asked, and started to reach for it.
“Don’t touch it,” I said, and reached down and grabbed it for myself.
“Let me see it, Charlie.” He put his hand out for it.
I felt as if I were going in twelve different directions at once. Part of my mind was screaming at me-really, actually screaming, like a child in a dark room where there are horrible, grinning boogeymen.
“Don’t,” I said. And everybody was looking at me. All of them staring.
“You can give it to me or you can give it to Mr. Denver,” he said.
And then a funny thing happened to me . . . except, when I think about it, it wasn’t funny at all. There must be a line in all of us, a very clear one, just like the line that divides the light side of a planet from the dark. I think they call that line the terminator. That’s a very good word for it. Because at one moment I was freak-ing out, and at the next I was as cool as a cucumber.
“I’ll give it to you, skinner,” I said, and thumped the socket end into my palm. “Where do you want it?”
He looked at me with his lips pursed. With those heavy tortoiseshell glasses he wore, he looked like some kind of bug. A very stupid kind. The thought made me smile. I thumped the business end of the wrench into my palm again.
“All right, Charlie,” he said. “Give that thing to me and then go up to the of-fice. I’ll come up after class.”
“Eat shit,” I said, and swung the pipe wrench behind me. It thocked against the slate skin of the blackboard, and little chips flew out. There was yellow chalk dust on the socket end, but it didn’t seem any worse for the encounter. Mr. Carl-son, on the other hand, winced as though it had been his mother I’d hit instead of some fucking torture-machine blackboard. It was quite an insight into his char-acter, I can tell you. So I hit the blackboard again. And again.
“It’s a treat . . . to beat your meat . . . on the Mississippi mud,” I sang, whacking the blackboard in time.
Every time I hit it, Mr. Carlson jumped. Every time Mr. Carlson jumped, I felt a little better. Transitional action analysis, baby. Dig it. The Mad Bomber, that poor sad sack from Waterbury, Connecticut, must have been the most well-adjusted American of the last quarter-century.
“Charlie, I’ll see that you’re suspen-”
I turned around and began to whack away at the chalk ledge. I had already made a hell of a hole in the board itself; it wasn’t such a tough board at that, not once you had its number. Erasers and chalk fell on the floor, puffing up dust. I was just on the brink of realizing you could have anybody’s number if you held
a big enough stick when Mr. Carlson grabbed me.
I turned around and hit him. Just once. There was a lot of blood. He fell on the floor, and his tortoiseshell glasses fell off and skated about eight feet. I think that’s what broke the spell, the sight of those glasses sliding across the chalk-dusty floor, leaving his face bare and defenseless, looking the way it must look when he was asleep. I dropped the pipe wrench on the floor and walked out without looking back. I went upstairs and told them what I had done.
Jerry Kesserling picked me up in a patrol car and they sent Mr. Carlson to Cen-tral Maine General Hospital, where an X ray showed that he had a hairline fracture just above the frontal lobe. I understand they picked four splinters of bone out of his brain. A few dozen more, and they could have put them together with airplane glue so they spelled ASSHOLE and given it to him for his birthday with my com-pliments.
There were conferences. Conferences with my father, with good old Tom, with Don Grace, and with every possible combination and permutation of the above. I conferenced with everybody but Mr. Fazio, the janitor. Through it all my father kept admirably calm-my mother would come out of the house and was on tran-quilizers-but every now and then during these civilized conversations, he would turn an icy, speculative eye on me that I knew eventually we would be having our own conference. He could have killed me cheerfully with his bare hands. In a sim-pler time, he might have done it.
There was a very touching apology to a bandage-wrapped, black-eyed Mr. Carl-son and his stony-eyed wife (” . . . distraught . . . haven’t been myself . . . sorrier than I can say . . . “), but I got no apology for being badgered in front of the chemistry class as I stood sweating at the blackboard with all the numbers look-ing like fifth-century Punic. No apology from Dicky Cable or Dana Collette. Or from your Friendly Neighborhood Creaking Thing who told me through tight lips on the way home from the hospital that he wanted to see me out in the garage after I had changed my clothes.
I thought about that as I took off my sport jacket and my best slacks and put on jeans and an old chambray workshirt. I thought about not going-just heading off down the road instead. I thought about just going out and taking it. Something in me rebelled at that. I had been suspended. I had spent five hours in a holding cell in Placerville Center before my father and my hysterical mother (“Why did you do it, Charlie? Why? Why?”) forked over the bail money-the charges, at the joint agreement of the school, the cops, and Mr. Carlson (not his wife; she had been hoping I’d get at least ten years), had been dropped later.
One way or the other, I thought my father and I owed each other something. And so I went out to the garage.
It’s a musty, oil-smelling place, but completely trim. Shipshape. It’s his place, and he keeps it that way. A place for everything, and everything in its place. Yo-ho-ho, matey. The riding lawnmower placed neatly with its nose against the wall. The gardening and landscaping tools neatly hung up on nails. Jar tops nailed to the roof beams so jars of nails could be screwed into them at eye level. Stacks of old magazines neatly tied up with twine-Argosy, Bluebook, True, Saturday Eve-ning Post. The ranch wagon neatly parked facing out.
He was standing there in an old faded pair of twill khakis and a hunting shirt. For the first time, I noticed how old he was starting to look. His belly had always been as flat as a two-by-four, but now it was bulging out a little-too many beers down at Gogan’s. There seemed to be more veins in his nose burst out into little purple deltas under the skin, and the lines around his mouth and eyes were deeper.
“What’s your mother doing?” he asked me.
“Sleeping, ” I said. She had been sleeping a lot, with the help of a Librium pre-scription. Her breath was sour and dry with it. It smelled like dreams gone rancid.