He was a tiny little kid, and with his big nose and that wide grin, he looked like one of those mice in the cartoons.
“Well, Muldoon, I hope you’ll mend your sorry ways.” Miles ticked off Muldoon’s name on the Detention list. That left only Richy Polcari, and then he could go and jog. Miles bounced up and down on the balls of his feet a couple times. Muldoon was taking forever just getting his books together.
“What the hell are you doing, Muldoon?” Miles said, and at once the books slithered from Muldoon’s arms onto the desk and from there to the floor, where the boy began scrambling to pick them up. What a funny kid. What a funny-looking kid.
“How’d you manage to get Detention this early in the year, Muldoon? Are you a mess?”
“Yes, sir. The dog ate my homework” –Muldoon scooped up the last of the books–”and Mr. Douglas didn’t believe me. But she did. Honest.”
“Ah, the exacting Mr. Douglas, with his muse of fire.”
“He didn’t believe me.”
“And what is the name of this excellent dog, Muldoon?”
‘doggina?” Miles laughed out loud. “An Italian dog?”
“No, she’s American, a beagle. My mother’s Italian.”
‘doggina. Well, you’re marvelous, Muldoon. You are a many-splendored thing.” Muldoon stood there, looking at him. “You can take off now,” Miles said, “but if you ever get Detention again, Muldoon, I shall personally flog you to within an inch of your wretched life. Understand?”
Muldoon nodded and waved goodbye. Miles stared after him, fierce-looking, pleased.
Miles was proctoring Detention this week. Every teacher had a proctoring job–in the corridors, the toilets, the study hall, wherever kids could make trouble. Miles didn’t really mind Detention, especially not at this time of year. It was still September, so the good kids hadn’t yet begun to hate everything and the delinquents hadn’t yet got caught. Besides, Detention gave him a chance to see kids on a nice easy basis. They were officially guilty of something, and that meant he could joke around with them or be tough with them or just ignore them while he corrected papers. Sometimes–when the kid was the last one there and one of Miles’ favorites–he might even be personal and friendly. Actually this was a pretty good school, with a lot of nice kids and with very few tough discipline problems–if you didn’t count Deirdre Forster, who was unlike anything Malburn High had ever seen. These were good kids and Miles felt lucky to have this job.
“Hey, Miles, how come he called you sir?”
Miles was still staring after the departed Muldoon, so clearly pleased that Richy Polcari took this as an invitation to chat.
“He called you sir, you know.”
‘do you want to be called sir? I’ll call you sir, if you want.”
“It’d be kind of cool, if you want.”
“You’ve got another half-hour, Richy. Study something, will you, please?”
Polcari was called Polecat by everybody, even by the teachers. Miles called him Richy, and so did a few of the women, but he gave Miles the creeps, frankly.
Miles turned to the window to check out the scrimmage and to put an end to Polcari. The classroom was on the second floor of the building, and the football field was at the bottom of the knoll, but even from this distance Miles could tell by the way the quarterback was running that it was Paul Ciampa. Paul was one of those kids who had everything. He was intelligent, he worked hard, he had 700s in the College Boards, he was captain of the football team. And he was polite, a really great kid. Quiet. Manly. Miles had passed him in the corridor just that morning and thought, If I’d had shoulders like that when I was in high school, I’d be Governor of Massachusetts today. He’d suppressed the thought immediately of course, because you didn’t notice how kids were built ” even if you couldn’t help noticing.
Down on the field, things were at a standstill. Coach was walking back toward the school, lurching from side to side as he went. What a mess he was. The team stood in a sort of loose huddle, just staring after him. Then the student manager blew the whistle and they broke up into two teams for more scrimmage. The manager’s name was Billy Mack and he was one of those spooky kids Miles could never figure out. Miles had taught him English last year, but Billy had never responded. He played dumb, refused to do assignments, worked just hard enough to pass. In class he would stare at Miles with a kind of contempt, as if Miles and the books he taught were a trap. Silent, humorless, basically hostile, he chose to attach himself to a football team he was not big enough to play on. He put up with their ribbing and looked after their equipment and accepted their condescension as the price of belonging. But at least out on the field he kept them all under control, something Coach was never able to do. Every team needed a kid like Billy Mack. And God knows Billy Mack needed that team.
Miles walked back to his desk and began looking over Monday’s assignment. Edwin Arlington Robinson. That was always easy. And fun. The kids liked the fatalism and the gallows humor. They were teenagers, after all, and they knew they would never die.
But he would die, Miles knew. He had no trouble imagining his death. He’d seen his father rot away with cancer, and now his mother and the slow torture of her dying. Death was nothing. He didn’t care about death. It was dying that terrified him–the infinite patience with which God squeezed the life out of you.
Miles shook the thought away and concentrated on tomorrow’s work. He’d start class with a close reading of “Richard Cory” to show them how it’s done. Or ‘miniver Cheevy.” Or both, if he had time. He’d talk about imagery. The voice of the author and the voice of the poem. Irony versus sarcasm; they never got that straight. Ask them to speculate on the reason for Richard Cory’s suicide. Ask about appearances and what they conceal. Ask if we really know our friends or only think we know them. An easy preparation. He went on to ‘miniver Cheevy,” reading the poem slowly, moving his lips, ticking off the lines they’d want to talk about.
He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes.
“What play are you going to do this year, Miles?”
Miles shrugged. In fact, because of the situation with his mother, he wasn’t directing the play this year. He didn’t want to talk about it, certainly not with Polcari.
“I’d like to try out this year. I don’t know if I should, though. I don’t know if I’d be good enough.”
Miles put his glasses on and turned back to ‘miniver Cheevy,” determined to ignore him.
“How come you never became an actor, Miles? You could of, you know?”
“You could have. Not of.”
“You could have. Why didn’t you? I’d love to be an actor. I think you’d be great.”
This is what pissed him off about Polcari: this smarm, this kiss-ass way of playing up to people.
“You still could be,” Polcari said. “In the movies even. I mean, your looks “”
“What are you doing here anyhow, Polcari? How did you manage to get double hours of Detention?”
“I cut gym.”
“I cut it all week.”
“And what else?”
“And most of last week.”
“Jesus, Richy. Gym is part of the curriculum. You’ve got to do it, you know? You know that.” Miles shook his head and went back to his book; he couldn’t stand the creepy way Polcari was looking at him.
Polcari was a mess, and hopeless. He was tall and skinny, which was all right in itself, but he had all those loose feminine gestures, and that voice, and he went around practically begging to be friends. Any kid could see through that. They were scared and insecure; they protected themselves by calling everybody queer or fag, and mostly it didn’t mean anything. But with Polcari, it did. The gossip was that he was a practicing homosexual and had been for years. Even his parents knew.
Polcari was quiet for a while and Miles pretended to concentrate on ‘miniver Cheevy.” He read it through again, but when he looked up at the end, Polcari was still staring at him in that puppy-dog way. It was a look of unabashed longing and Miles saw it for what it was. He felt a blush rising up his neck and then across his face and he felt simultaneously pleased and infuriated.
“Take off, Polecat,” Miles said, slamming his book shut with a deliberate show of disgust. “You’ve suffered enough already today. And, Christ knows, so have I.” He tried not to see the look on Polcari’s face, but he saw it anyway.
Miles shoved his books into his backpack. He wanted to get out of here. He wanted fresh air. He wanted to run and keep on running until he was ready to collapse.
Miles pushed open the door to the faculty locker room and banged into Coach, who was on his way out. Coach stepped back against the wall, confused, and Miles closed the door behind them. The whole place reeked of booze. Coach looked at him woozily and then lifted his finger to his lips. ‘shhh,” he said. “I’m leaving a little early.” His eyes weren’t focusing.
“Jesus!” Miles looked around, but nobody else was there, and so he figured it was up to him. “Listen,” he said. “Are you okay? Are you all right? Do you want me to drive you home?”
“I’m fine,” Coach said. “I’m tip-top,” and turned to go out. He tried to push the door open but it wouldn’t give, so he pushed harder but it still wouldn’t give, and then Miles said to him, “It opens in.” Coach turned and looked at him and there were tears on his face. “Right,” he said, and sat down hard on one of the benches.
Miles took charge. “Give me the keys to your office,” he said, but Coach was bent in two, sobbing quietly, and Miles could see he’d get nowhere this way. He stepped out to the corridor and tried Coach’s door. It was unlocked.
“Come on,” Miles said, and he tapped Coach on the shoulder. “Come on. We’ll go to your office and you can have a little snooze. A little lie-down. And then I’ll drive you home. Okay? Come on.” But Coach wasn’t moving.
Miles tapped him on the shoulder again, and then shook him gently by the arm, and then shook him hard. Suddenly Coach came alive. “What?” he said. “What’s the matter?”
“Take a snooze next door in your office and then I’ll drive you home. Okay?” Coach just looked at him. “You can’t drive like this. You don’t want anybody to see you like this.”
“Right,” Coach said. “Right.” He stood up and started toward the door. Immediately he stumbled against a bench and, trying to get his balance, he crashed into the wall. “Oh,” he said, surprised, childlike.
Miles got one arm around Coach’s waist and hoisted him up, but immediately Coach slumped against him and nearly knocked him over. He pushed Coach away and said, “Jesus. Come on. You’ve got to walk.”
“Right,” Coach said, and got himself together for a moment. His eyes focused and he draped his arm over Miles’ shoulder and they started out of the room. By the time they reached the door, however, he lost interest and began to slump again.
But Miles had a good grip on him by now and there were only a few feet left to go, and he managed to half-carry and half-drag Coach to his office next door. He lowered the body onto the cot and then crouched beside it trying to get his breath. That Coach was one heavy mother. Miles left him there to sleep it off.
The faculty locker room and the boys’ locker room were side by side, and so once he’d locked Coach’s door, Miles took a peek into the boys’ locker room to make sure he hadn’t been seen–disposing of the body, so to speak. The place was empty. So the poor old bastard was saved once again. But, good God, he’d have to get his act together pretty soon.
Miles changed into a sweatshirt and running shorts and sat down on a bench to put on his sneaks–Nike Airs. The damned things had cost him seventy-three bucks. The boozey smell of the place was giving way to the smell of antiseptic filtering in from the boys’ locker room on the other side of the wall. Miles hated that smell. He had always hated gym. He could just imagine what that poor schmuck Polcari went through twice a week. He shrugged and got out of the building, quick.
He did stretching exercises for a couple minutes and then took off down the main drive, away from the football field. The last thing he needed was some smart-ass linebacker whistling at him. And once you got kids in a group, they were capable of anything. When he jogged, Miles always stuck to the back roads as much as possible. He was too thin to be running around in gym shorts, he felt exposed, he just wasn’t comfortable with bodies, his own or anybody else’s. That’s just how it was.
A car honked from behind and he edged over to the right, out of its way. ‘miles!” they shouted, ‘milo!” It was a bunch of kids in a junk convertible and they waved, shouting his name. He grinned and waved back and kept on jogging. Now that was nice. It was really nice. Kids were terrific sometimes. They liked him, the smart ones did, and even the others realized he liked them and wanted to help. He got on well with kids. When you thought about it, he was probably the most popular teacher in the school. Who’d believe it, he said to himself.
He had taught at Malburn High for eleven years and everybody called him Miles or Milo, faculty and students alike. He was popular, he was smart, he was funny. He said outrageous things that all the kids reported later at the dinner table. Parents never complained. Miles was a character, all right, but a wonderful influence on their kids. Even the English faculty, who disagreed about everything, agreed on Miles: he was a little bit eccentric, maybe, and always demanding, but God knows he did his job well. And certainly he loved the place. His wit had turned to irony lately, it was true, but that was because he had home troubles you didn’t even want to think about: a father who had died a couple years back, a mother who’d been dying slowly ever since, and a girlfriend he couldn’t marry until ” well, until his mother finally did it. Died. Milo had it tough. Endicott, the principal, was less quick to find excuses for Miles, with that sharp tongue of his and all that leftish talk, but he was impressed by results and Miles certainly produced them: his students worked hard, they scored high on the College Boards, there were no complaints from parents. All this was very good. Still, in Endicott’s opinion, Miles bore watching. Endicott had been a captain in the Army before he retired and became an educator.
Miles had been jogging for twenty minutes and so far he had not succeeded in taking off. On his best jogs there was always a moment when his conscious mind gave way to his body’s fatigue, and after that he was aware only of the pounding of his heels against the pavement and the shock of each footfall as it carried to his knees and his hips and shoulders; his teeth felt loose in his head and eventually he became immune to the pain, or one with it, and his mind went blank–he just sort of took off into space, above it all–and he could go on and on like this forever. But today he just couldn’t get there.
His mind kept going back to that feeling he’d had all week, that everything was about to break apart. He’d experienced this feeling before, when his father died. And before his mother’s collapse. And when he was first getting involved with Margaret. He felt that any minute his whole life might just break in pieces, crumble into dirt, and then he would look up and see they were all staring at him because he was exposed at last for what he was. But what was that? He didn’t want to know.
He ran faster. From Lowell he turned into Mitchell Park, with its neat jogging trails of packed sand, and here–suddenly, gratefully–he took off. His mind soared. He rose above himself. He was disappearing into warm darkness. He gazed at the path before him and he listened to the sound of his breathing, but he felt nothing and he wanted nothing and there was no fear anywhere in him. He pushed himself hard, mesmerized. He ceased to exist.
He had been running this way for some time, in a kind of trance, his mind blank, when suddenly he heard himself say, “Richy Polcari.” And with the name came the image: those wet brown eyes, the smarmy, adoring look that turned to something else–a look of despair–as Miles called him Polecat.
Polcari filled him with revulsion. He did not want to be loved by somebody like this. And yet he saw himself embrace Polcari, pull that skinny, wretched body to his own, and clutch him tightly, saying, “It’s all right. It’s gonna be all right.”
At once Miles came down hard. He stumbled and then stopped. He spat, trying to get that acid taste out of his mouth. He doubled over, gasping, and then he retched, but nothing came up. He retched again. He felt poisoned, dirty, and there was no way to get this stuff out of him.
He crouched low, one knee on the ground, and breathed deeply. Eventually the image of Polcari left him. He got up and walked for a while, and then he started jogging again, slowly. After a mile or so, he began to hum, deliberately, and then to sing ‘my Girl,” falsetto, like The Temptations, and by the time he reached school, he’d begun to feel pretty good. It was just a crazy phase, a momentary fit, and it was gone now.
He’d have a shower, and then dinner with Margaret, and they’d make wild crazy love, and everything would be terrific again. Terrific, you betcha.
As Miles entered the school basement, Paul Ciampa was coming out. “Hey, Milo,” he said, and gave him a high five.
“Looking good out there,” Miles said.
“Well, we’re still pretty slow.”
They stood for a moment looking at each other, while Miles held the door open, and then he said, “Well, take it slow,” and they sort of nodded at each other and turned away. But Miles recognized that moment: they could have talked, they wanted to talk, if only they’d had something to talk about.
“Terrific,” he said, happy all over again, and as he walked down the corridor to the faculty locker room, he burst into song ” la Merman, “Gotta sing, gotta dance, gotta da da DA da da da.”
A bunch of kids came out of the locker room, slinging their book bags around, shoving one another. ‘do it, Milo baby, do it!” somebody said.
Miles grinned at them, just one of the guys.
He knocked at the door to Coach’s office, but there was no response. A couple more kids came out of the locker room. “He’s gone, Milo,” a kid said, cocking his thumb at Coach’s door. “He’s lonnnng gone.” They laughed and kept going. Miles knocked harder and leaned close, but he could hear no sound at all. He’d try again after he showered and dressed.
There was a lot of laughter coming from the boys’ locker room, the usual stuff. A short harsh shout and then the crashing sound of somebody slamming into a locker. “C’mon, you guys,” somebody said–Billy Mack, no doubt–and then twice as much laughter. Billy was a lot more successful at controlling them out on the field; in the locker room he was always at their mercy.
Miles paused a moment, listening, and then he went into the faculty locker room and closed the door behind him. He took a peek into the shower section to make sure he was alone. He did some leg and back stretches to cool down and then said to hell with it and just sat on a bench for a few minutes with his head in his hands. His heart was racing–from the run and from the encounter with Paul Ciampa and from that despairing look on the face of Polcari. He didn’t know what he ought to feel, but anyhow he felt pretty good.
After a while he became aware of something different around him. He listened and realized that next door in the locker room there was only silence. Not the silence of nobody there, but the hushed silence of movements that were deliberately quiet, of a raised voice and then a hush, the swishing noise of whispers. Drugs, he figured; they’re smoking pot. He should go in there and stop it, but–God–walking in with all those guys, breaking up their fun, turning them in to the office? And they’d all probably be standing around bare-assed. No. He would deliberately not hear them. Some teachers actually used the student showers–Jeff Douglas, and Foley, and the vice-principal–but Miles would rather be tarred and feathered, thank you, than undress in front of kids. He began to get undressed now, singing. He’d let them know he was there, at least. Maybe they’d clear out and go smoke it somewhere else.
He was about to step into the shower when he heard the giggling; loud, silly, a bunch of guys gone high, childlike, harmless. “What the hell,” he said. He turned the shower on full blast and stepped into the freezing water, then after a single penitential minute he turned the dial to Warm and began to soap up. He would spend ten minutes now thinking of Margaret and the great evening they were going to have.
Next door in the boys’ shower room they had killed the pint of Jim Beam that Cosmo had brought to celebrate Hacker’s birthday, and they’d each done a line of coke, and now they had finally convinced Billy Mack to do a line too. This was too funny. They pushed together in a group and watched, giggling.
They were the Roid Boys, the crowd that took steroids and had the great bods. Billy was just a set-up, just for fun.
Billy put the straw to his nose the way the others had, and snorted the white powder with such determination that he was still inhaling when there was nothing left on the mirror. Then he ran his finger across the glass, looked around at the others, and touched his finger to his tongue.
“Aw-right!” they said and clapped him on the back.
Everybody laughed, and Billy let out a high giggle, and they laughed some more.
“We’re all ripped,” Billy said.
“Balls, man,” somebody said, “Old Billy’s got balls,” and so Hacker made a grab at Billy’s crotch.
Billy pulled away from him and said, “Geez, Hacker.”
But Hacker, who towered over him, said very seriously to the others, “I think we gotta take a look at Billy’s balls. I think we gotta do a research project and get those pants off him and check out his katonks.”
Within seconds, Hacker had Billy’s arms pinned behind his back and they had his pants down at his ankles. “Get “em off,” Hacker said, and as Billy kicked and squirmed, Hacker said, “Get the shoes off. The tee-shirt too.” It was so funny. They could barely hold on to him they were laughing so much.
“That’s a mean dick for a little guy like you, Billy,” Hacker said into his ear. “Jack it around, Cosmo, and see if it gets any bigger.”
“You dirty guys,” Billy said, “you motherfuckers.”
“I’m not touching that thing,” Cosmo said. “He’s probably got AIDS or something. Let Tuna do it.”
So Tuna flicked it with one finger.
“Come on, you guys. Bunch of fags.”
“He’s calling us fags but lookit this dick,” and Tuna flicked it again, as it began to grow larger.
“Oooooh,” somebody said. “Billy likes us.”
And Tuna flicked it again as it became more erect.
There were five of them and they were laughing and pushing each other around and it was funny as hell. The harder Billy became, the more they laughed; it was so funny, this little skinny guy with this great big dick sticking up at them and they were taking turns flicking it with their finger and it was getting redder and hotter and they couldn’t stop laughing and even Billy tried to laugh once because all week they’d been promising him they were gonna play Violation on Friday and he figured this was it. But then Hacker said, breaking through the laughter, “As master of ceremonies, ladies and gentlemen “” and they all collapsed at that and Billy almost got loose for a minute, but then they grabbed him again, “” as master of ceremonies, I think it’s time we played–you guessed it–Vi-o-LA-tion.”
They all let go of Billy then, and he crouched on the floor with his knees together, shielding himself. They just stood around him, uncertain themselves what to do next. There was a moment of tense silence and then Billy jumped up and tried to make a break for it. He wriggled between Hacker and Cosmo and nearly made it to the door when Tuna got him by the arm and yanked him back. They stood around him in a circle. They were laughing; it was a game again. Hacker got the broom from the empty locker where it had been standing all week, just waiting, and as Billy sunk to a crouch, Hacker prodded him in the ass with it. They looked from one to another. Billy looked up and said, “What?” Cosmo shook his head and said, ‘shit, I don’t know,” and started to turn away. But then Hacker got the broom handle down between Billy’s legs and was trying to push it in. Billy leaped up suddenly and charged at them, trying to break out of the circle, and then all the guys together, without even thinking, grabbed him and turned him over face down and tried to spread his legs so that Hacker could get it in. “Bend his knees. He’s gotta bend his fucking knees,” Hacker said. Billy was fighting with all his strength, and more. He was frenzied. He was half crazy. He wriggled and kicked and bit Cosmo’s hand as they wrestled him to the cement floor and got him to kneel with his ass in the air so they could get it in.
“I can’t get it in,” Hacker was saying with a kind of panic in his voice, “you fucking guys, hold him. Hold him for Christ’s sake. He doesn’t have any fucking asshole. I gotta get this in.” He pushed and the flesh gave way but still the handle wasn’t going in.
Everybody was angry now. They wanted it over with. They were sick of holding this guy down. ‘do it, for Chrissake,” Tuna said. It wasn’t funny anymore.
“I’m trying,” Hacker said. “I’m trying. Hold him, will you?” And he gave a terrific jab with the handle and Billy let out a cry–not a shout and not a scream but something worse–and at that moment Hacker looked down and saw on the floor between Billy’s legs some stuff that looked like blood or shit, and he thought he’d make just one more try to fuck him in the ass with the broom handle, because after all that’s what they had planned to do, and it was supposed to be a joke, but suddenly all the fun was going out of it and he really would rather have just called it off.
Miles stepped out of the shower and heard the racket next door. There were shouts, and a struggle of some kind was going on, he was sure of that, and it didn’t sound like horseplay. It went on and on. Miles picked up his towel and held it in front of him, listening. After a while there was silence for a minute and then suddenly an awful sound–a cry like a wounded animal’s, he thought–and after that, silence again. He was listening, his head cocked, and there was no sound.
He was toweling off, thinking what a strange thing it is to recognize a sound like the shriek of a wounded animal when you’ve never heard the shriek of a wounded animal, and all of a sudden somebody ran by the door and took off down the corridor. And then somebody else ran by. He wrapped the towel around his waist and opened the door to the corridor. At that moment he saw Cosmo Damiani come out of the boys’ locker room, running. Miles closed the door and waited. He heard two more of them go by. Then there was silence again.
He opened the door and, barefoot, dripping, he edged over to the boys’ locker room and looked in. Nothing. It smelled of sweat and steam and antiseptic. He went all the way inside and looked into the L-shaped area and there on the floor was a body, naked, lying face down. He approached it slowly, as if it might suddenly attack him. As he got close he saw that one leg was pulled up toward the boy’s chest, and he could see the torn scrotum and the circle of black blood slowly spreading on the concrete floor. He moved quickly to the body and bent over it and saw that it was Billy Mack. He put his hand on the boy’s shoulder and whispered, “Billy. Billy?”
The boy lifted his head and turned upon him a look of such hatred that for a second Miles stopped breathing. A pain ran through his chest and he thought he was having a heart attack, but then he said, “I’ll get help, Billy. Just lie there and don’t move.” And at once he was out of the locker room and pounding at Coach’s door.
Miles was still pounding at it, shouting “Coach, Coach,” when the principal came down the corridor, with Cosmo beside him looking terrified.
The principal barely gave Miles a glance. He just said, “Get dressed and go to my office and stay there, Mr. Bannon. Do you hear me? Go to my office. Wait for me there.” And then he followed Cosmo into the locker room as Miles stood in the corridor feeling very sick.