Bellbottom School for Boys

Cows historically have a hard time descending stairwells, so Bobby Tompkins, Louis Frye and Kenny Yates snuck into Bobby’s dad’s cow barn, quietly walked Mayzie the brown cow outside and led her into Bobby’s dad’s trailer.

“The engine on this truck is really loud,” Bobby whispered to the boys, “so we’re gonna have to push it down the driveway.”

Bobby got in the driver’s seat and shifted the truck to neutral while Louis and Kenny got behind each side of the truck to push, and they proceeded to slowly ease their way to the street.

When they reached the street Louis and Kenny climbed into the backseat, Bobby turned on the engine and they began the 45-minute drive from Goodlettsville to Nashville. Louis grabbed the aux cord from the front seat and turned on Demon Days while Kenny unwrapped three vanilla-flavored black and milds, lit each one and handed them out.

“The security guy makes rounds once an hour and spends like thirty minutes total walking through the campus, so we have from like 2:30 to 3:00 to get in and get out. That should be plenty of time.”

“So we’re gonna do either Dobson or Lowry?”

“I think Lowry. There’s a driveway right outside the front door and it has wider stairwells. Mayzie can definitely fit through that door.”

“But Dobson has three stories.”

“Yeah, but it’s in the middle of campus.”

“I mean, we’ll have to walk her through campus, but that shouldn’t be a big deal.”

“I guess not. Dobson works for me.”

“Dobson it is.”

“Sounds good. Bobby dude, your dad’s gonna freak.”

“I don’t care, man. Fuck. I don’t care.”

They turned into the senior parking lot. Bobby and co. parked the truck, tied a rope around Mayzie’s neck and led her into campus proper.

Time slowed to a crawl. Mayzie at their side, they walked by Frederick Williams, who had at least $300 of duct tape that he was wrapping around the math building. Timothy Lee was smearing peanut butter on the statue of Sam Davis. A group of six or seven boys were in the Davis courtyard planting hundreds of state election signs, presumably stolen off people’s front yards. A glass window shattered in the distance. Bimmy Henderson was in the football stadium masturbating on the fifty yard line. Travis Turner and Sam Barkley were throwing gallons of red food dye into the fish pond. Kyle “Lowkey” Hendrix was setting up a DJ booth on the stairs in front of the new dining hall.

1 of 30

Eventually they reached Dobson Hall. It took about ten minutes to get Mayzie to the third floor.

“Does she need water or anything?”

“I have no idea.”

“Alright. This should be fine. Let’s go.”

They released Mayzie and exited Dobson. Outside, DJ Lowkey was blasting BORA BORA and

yelling into a microphone.

“Class of 2027, this is our night! I am taking song requests. Don’t be shy! What a beautiful night!”

They walked back to the truck, climbed in and headed for the exit, which they found to be completely blocked off by five cars strategically parked to prevent any vehicle from entering or exiting the campus. They drove around to a different exit on the other side of campus and found that this exit, too, was blocked off by five carefully positioned cars; so was the third, and so was the fourth, final exit.

“Fuck.”

Bobby parked the truck w/ trailer in his designated parking spot on campus and they walked three miles to Sebastien Park, where they sat on the swingset and chain-smoked Kenny’s black and milds.

“Fuck. What the fuck.”

“Dude it’s okay.”

“I’m fucked!”

“Dude.”

“Dude, I am freaking out.”

“It’s the senior prank man. We’re not gonna get in any trouble.”

“Fuck that. Fuck this shit. What the fuck.”

“Whatever, dude. You’re inconsolable.”

“Fuck you, man! What the fuck!”

“Chill the fuck out Bobby.”

“I am freaking out.”

“Do you want to go get Mayzie?”

“I don’t know. No. Fuck.” He took off his backwards cap and threw it on the ground. “Fuck this.”

“I just texted Leon to see if he can pick us up on his way to school.”

“Fuck, man.”

The boys spent the night at Sebastien Park. After an hour or so Bobby slid out of his swing and went inside the tube slide to cry. Kenny and Frye smoked K2 and manically deliberated their Bangarang Music Festival plans until daybreak.

2 of 30

That morning, Bellbottom maintenance staff member Chaz Aurélio woke up from a dream in which he voluntarily had his penis surgically removed. When he woke up from his surgery he found himself still lying on the operating table. The OR was empty. He sat up and spun his legs to the side of the table to stand up. The moment his feet touched the ground, however, a violent surge of pain and regret jolted through him, from head to toes. He lost his strength and crumpled to the floor. He grabbed the operating table to prop himself back up and limped to the OR exit. The door was locked. He walked to the one-way mirror on the other side of the room and pounded on it with his fists, crying, screaming “give me my penis back!” over and over until he woke up at 5:23am.

Chaz immediately disregarded the dream and got ready for work. He showered, put on clothes and made a vegetable omelette and a bowl of frosted wheats with almond milk. He drank a glass of water. He lived in a small one-bedroom apartment about a mile from Bellbottom. He didn’t have a car or bike, but he enjoyed walking, especially in the morning. He left his apartment around 6:45am and headed for work.

On his walk he was surprised to find, still about half a mile from the school, a traffic jam of enormous proportions. The two lanes headed in the direction of campus were at a complete standstill. Everyone had gotten out of their cars to express their confusion and frustration to the neighboring commuters. Chaz looked straight ahead and continued his walk to campus. A lot of the younger Bellbottom students were getting out of their cars, saying goodbye to their parents and walking the rest of the way to school. After a couple blocks Chaz was surrounded by a flock of two or three dozen panting, hunched-over seventh and eighth graders.

On the very outskirts of campus a dense, incredibly complex web of parked, abandoned cars had formed on the streets, in neighboring yards and driveways. Chaz and his collection of middle schoolers were so preoccupied with weaving their way through the mess they couldn’t bother to register the sight of the campus in the distance. After about fifteen minutes of navigating around countless Dodge Rams and sports cars the group landed at the main entrance in front of Davis courtyard. Their jaws dropped and their eyes filled with wonder, as if they were collectively emerging from a vast cave.

Chaz stood motionless at the head of the courtyard looking across the campus, his mouth open wide, as the group of boys surrounding him broke into hysterics. He stood there for a few minutes and thought for the first time about last night’s dream. Eventually he regained his composure and moved forward.

Someone had taken tens of miles of 2mm red twine and tightly wrapped it around buildings and trees, creating a dense barricade around the perimeter of the school that dramatically obscured anything behind it. He began maneuvering through the twine, stepping over state election lawn signs and hundreds of scattered beer cans. As he made his way he slowly cataloged the rest of the damage as it appeared to him through taut red lines. All the fish in the pond were dead, floating at the surface. The Sam Davis statue was covered by a thick, vibrating layer of ants. Someone had wrapped duct tape around the math building. There was no telling how deep into campus the wall of twine went, and after a few dozen steps Chaz could only see twenty feet in any direction.

3 of 30

It was getting hot. Now completely submerged in the thick pool of twine and with no sense of direction, Chaz, wiping sweat from his brow, suddenly realized how quiet it was. He was completely alone. Classes started in five minutes, and there was no one in sight. His flock of middle schoolers had disappeared. No one else cared to come this far, he thought, and continued moving forward.  

He was right. Practically everyone, teachers, students and administrators, who actually managed to get to campus had simply walked around the perimeter of the campus in astonishment and eventually wandered away. Headmaster Peoria had already walked back home and notified the Bellbottom community via email and telephone that school was cancelled for the day.

Finally Chaz saw a clearing in the distance and sluggishly made his way towards it. He could hear the soft hum of an acoustic guitar featuring sad, hushed male vocals rising from the opening ahead. He could feel sunlight returning to his face as he reached the final and most formidable layer of red twine. After a considerable effort he managed to push his way through the twine and collapse onto the ground on the other side.

He stood up and brushed the dirt from his clothes while his eyes adjusted to the light. He was standing in the Douglas courtyard. A teenage boy was lying down on the steps in front of the dining hall underneath a fold-out table, on top of which sat a computer and turntable that was connected to a generator and two large speakers playing “Say Yes” by Elliott Smith at a sort of ambient level. Chaz turned to the other side of the courtyard and there, standing in front of the Dobson building entrance, was brave, beautiful Mayzie the brown cow, calmly grazing in the middle of it all.

My tits are growing, each nipple having over the course of the past week accumulated what feels like a small, hormonal rock, brimming with sexual vigor and sensitive to touch. Through a sea of boys I am watching former Titans and six-time Pro Bowl center Kevin Mawae firmly reprimand two hungry seventh graders for yelling at each other at the front of the lunch line. At six-foot-four, Kevin Mawae’s presence over the lunch line is commanding, and fills me with calm. I am slowly massaging my breasts after having just been lightly pushed into the shoulder blades of the boy in front of me by the boy creating one hell of a racket directly behind me, sending a stinging sensation through my upper torso like nothing I have felt in my life. I am about thirty boys from the front of the line and there are at least thirty more boys behind me. We are situated in a long, narrow hallway at the end of which lies the cafeteria entrance, where Kevin Mawae stands for two hours every day monitoring students’ behavior and expertly filtering them through the door one-by-one.

4 of 30

Despite exhibiting an impressive level of general administrative and organizational expertise, there is only so much Kevin Mawae can do to keep this lunch line well-behaved. These boys are putting on the performances of their lives, yelling over everyone else at no one in particular and pushing people around for no discernible reason. Due to my physical smallness and emotional neutrality I usually come out of the line unscathed, but this fact does nothing to abate the dread I feel standing in this line every day.

My name is Peter Mullaney. I am a seventh grader at Bellbottom. Before Bellbottom I attended public elementary school, where I was a top student and sort of math prodigy. Last year I competed in and won a math contest held annually at Bellbottom and, because I won, was essentially guaranteed a spot in the Bellbottom Class of 2029. My parents enrolled me and I started school this past August, about three months ago. I quickly realized upon starting classes not that I necessarily had made a mistake in coming here but that I was, without a doubt, way out of my element, my element being: kid who is better than everyone else at everything without trying; Bellbottom’s schtick is basically to assemble the intellectual and social elite of Nashville’s male youth and watch them fight to the death for six years before sending them to their college of choice. In other words, every kid at Bellbottom is better than everyone else at everything without trying, so, in order to succeed here, you have to start trying really hard, so I tanked. Academically, socially, athletically, you name it. “Not trying” proved to be far more important to me than “being better than everyone”.

Because, for all these boys’ seemingly impenetrable and effortless perfection they sure have some truly preposterous inner demons, all of which come unapologetically pouring out of them every day in this lunch line. The pressures applied by various forces onto these seventh grade boys become simply too much to handle while standing hungry and motionless in this confined hallway, a catastrophic amount of stress and ambition taking the form of pure, physical animosity, and who is to blame? Certainly not Kevin Mawae. Certainly not the parents, the teachers, the administration. And certainly not the boys themselves.

Presumably what happened in the lunch line that day: I was standing there sensually rubbing my nipples, staring at Kevin Mawae in the distance and feeling wholly dreadful when the hysterically screaming boy behind me once again, and this time more forcefully, pushed me forward into the shoulder blades of the boy in front of me, but this time I kept falling and sort of dominoed through the boy, rolled off his side and, probably while emitting high-pitched yelps due to the intense, piercing pain rushing through my nipples, crashed into the floor and suffered a serious concussion of some sort. I do not know exactly what happened, however, because the next thing I remember is waking up in my bed the next morning to 96.3 FM softly emanating from my radio alarm clock.

5 of 30

So I blacked out, which is not a totally abnormal thing to happen, and not what’s interesting about the moment anyways. What’s interesting is that I woke up the next morning, my left temple throbbing, looked at myself in the bathroom mirror and walked downstairs to greet my mother and father in the kitchen, who, instead of explaining or at least acknowledging what had happened to me the previous day, were going about their business as usual, obviously unaware of my condition. I actually ended up having a very engaging conversation with my dad about Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s legacy for fifteen minutes before I realized they hadn’t acknowledged the incident, which I then decided not to mention myself. My mother drove me to school in her typical mode of silence that morning, and by the time we arrived at Bellbottom I was convinced no one at school was going to acknowledge the whole thing, either. I was right. All business as usual at Bellbottom. Walking through campus the gravity of my situation slowly began to dawn on me. I realized the type of person (or lack thereof) I had become since attending this school, apparently inconspicuous to the point that I was able to maintain a prolonged blackout state while continuing my day without anyone’s noticing.

Things became more complicated when I sat down at my desk in Miss Lovett’s classroom, thirty minutes before classes began for the day, and opened my backpack. The sight of my notebook sent a chill down my spine. I hadn’t thought of my notebook! I quickly opened it to my last entry and found a series of scribbles, drawings and random phrases spanning fourteen pages, all recorded yesterday afternoon. I was initially floored by the enormous insight these recordings might provide me, but quickly lost confidence as I leafed through the pages. Over the course of about three hours of school I had signed my name in cursive a total of probably 800 times. Surrounding these signatures were various faces, song lyrics, whatever else apparently came to mind. A few bits were very clearly copied from my science teacher’s Powerpoint slides. Instead of providing insight, these doodles increased my bewilderment tenfold.

Certainly somebody would have discovered my concussion if I had been rendered visibly inoperative in any way by the fall. This fact, along with the pages in my notebook, led me to believe I had simply gotten up and assumed my position in the lunch line and gone about the rest of my day doodling in class, practicing soccer, eating dinner with my parents, and going to bed. Without my own memory to confirm the accuracy of these presumptions, however, I quickly became obsessed with the mystery surrounding my blackout. It wasn’t finding out specifically what happened to me in the lunch line or what I did for the rest of the day that interested me so much as determining the complete implications of my circumstances as they currently stood, which took the form of a series of questions. Was I able to speak in my blackout state? Or do I speak so infrequently already that my complete silence should raise none of my teachers’ suspicions? Did I raise my teachers’ suspicions, just not to the point where they felt they should say something? Did they say something? Was I able to hold a conversation with someone, and if so, would I tell them everything was alright? Was my daily routine at Bellbottom already so ingrained in me that through pure instinct I could, quite literally, do it with my eyes closed? And what about the fucking doodles?

6 of 30

These were the questions that consumed the entirety of my brainspace for the remainder of my day, during class, when my mother picked me up after soccer practice, when we ate dinner in the Chick-Fil-A parking lot, when I did my homework at my desk in my room, when I took a shower, and when I climbed into bed and crawled under my thick, white comforter. I spent all of this time silent, eyes pointed forward, left temple pulsating, and that night lying in bed I came to the conclusion that, regardless of whatever happened yesterday, today was only further proof that I could mosey through an entire day as a detached, taciturn shell of a being without raising any eyebrows.

I laid awake in bed all night, racking my brain for a solution to my “dilemma”. I simply could not imagine a point in the future where my manic preoccupation with these past 36 hours (and counting) would subside. I sweat through my bedsheets, and by daybreak my comforter was completely soaked and dripping water onto the floor, but I’d found a solution to my problem, a relief from this overwhelming panic.

There are several hundred loose, clay bricks in my parents’ backyard, still sitting there from a couple years ago when my dad, a professional landscaper, brought them home in the bed of his truck, claiming he had a great idea for a sculpture. He unloaded them in the backyard and for several weeks spent two or three hours every night after work on his project before abruptly abandoning it, leaving behind an esoteric arrangement of two dozen bricks (likely some sort of foundation) laying next to the remaining bricks sitting idly in a large, unorganized pile. Since then the scene has captured the hearts of countless insect colonies and exotic weeds that now fiercely populate the development.

At daybreak, while my parents slept, soaking wet and wearing only boxers I crept outside to the backyard and rifled through my father’s surplus brick pile in search of a brick that would suit my purposes. The November morning air was cold against my bare, sweaty body. After selecting a beige, well-weathered stone and brushing off the dirt and plant matter clinging to it I hurried back inside and into my room, my small breasts lightly throbbing with each step. I took a roll of duct tape, a sharpie, and a bag of sanitizing hand wipes out of my desk drawer. Using several hand wipes I cleaned the surface of my Vecchio brick, then I ripped off a five-inch length of tape and stuck it flat on a single side of the brick. With the sharpie I wrote on the tape in bold, uppercase letters: TAKE THIS!

7 of 30

I set the brick down on my bedside table next to my alarm clock, pulled the sheets off my bed and put them in the washing machine. I walked back into my room, sat on the edge of my mattress and stared through the thin, red curtains covering my window. The curtains absorbed the sunlight coming through the window and converted it to a dull, pinkish glow that evenly distributed itself across my bedroom. I closed my eyes, grabbed the brick off the table and slammed it into my forehead, just above the left temple.

Track and field state championship Saturday morning. Late April. Baby screaming through half-chewed popcorn in the bleachers mother wearing dark sunglasses mouth halfway open holding her child. Boys in detention working the concession stand. Athletes jumping up and down. Athletes on their toes. Stretching. Deep breaths. Drink lots of water. Eight lanes around the track eight runners at the starting line.

You are here, standing alone, away from the crowd of spectators, leaning against a fence. Hot outside probably 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Watching everyone watching everyone. Coach Compton standing at the starting line yelling into a megaphone. This is boys 300 meter hurdle finals.

Compton shoots a cap gun into the air. Stadium noise simultaneously dissolves and amplifies as crowd focus begins to swirl around our eight runners.

Push yourself off the fence and wander away from the event. Yawn. Suddenly feel you have an enormous capacity for loneliness. Smiling to yourself and walking back to the car. Fire up the engine. 2001 Ford Expedition. 11 miles per gallon. Turn on Classical 91.1 and roll down windows. Drive home.

Five minutes from home, a loud crash. A deep sigh. Turn car off and get out to inspect the damage. Just crashed into a red sedan parked on the side of the street. A red sedan parked in front of an old white house. Probably built in the 50’s. Ford Expedition wedged deeply into red sedan. Damage on both sides. Walk to the front door. Thirty-two stair steps up to the door. Knock on the door.

Lady opens. 50 60 or 70 you don’t know. She smiles and says can I help you. Tell her hello you just hit her car outside and you’re sorry. Oh that’s okay why don’t you come inside. She seems nice. Go inside. Notice she kind of tiptoes when she walks. Immediately adopt the same walk. Tiptoe to the kitchen. Sit down at the kitchen table. Refuse her cookies, thank you. Lady sits down across the table.

There’s no need to make a big fuss about the car. It’s an old car.

I can pay for the damages. Or my parents can.

We’ll figure it out.

Ok.

Shifting in her chair and scanning around the room. She seems uncomfortable; is there anything you can do to help?

Oh, no.

Are you sure?

She smiles. I have lived in this house my whole life.

8 of 30

When I was your age most teenagers didn’t have their own cars. Well, I didn’t have a car. But I had a bike. I used to bike everyday to and from school. I loved my bike. I kept it in very good condition. Very clean, working smoothly. I was a free spirit, I liked my independence. Biking was the only way I could convince my mother to let me get around on my own. She was always so paranoid, so afraid of everybody, they’re all out to hurt you, she said. You can’t trust anybody, she used to tell me. I showed her how fast I could get on my bike, though, and she was impressed. I convinced her I could make my way around safely.

Two fraternal twins appear in the door from the hallway. 11 or 12. The lady says hello boys this is, oh what’s your name, honey? Peter. Boys, this is Peter. Peter, this is Cole, and this is Laney, my grandchildren. Oh, and my name is Lou Alice. Boys, why don’t you go outside and play? They nod and exit the back door. The backyard is fenced and on an incline. Cole picks up a deflated basketball and throws it at Laney. She turns to him and frowns. Crosses her arms and sits on the ground. Cole picks up the basketball and starts running in circles around Laney.

What was I saying? Ah, my bike. When I was seventeen I fell in love with a boy named James. James Bridesdale. He also had a bike. After school we used to bike to the creek a couple blocks from my house. We always had the best conversations by that creek. We would hold hands. James was the only boy I ever loved.

He had issues waking up in the morning. He was a very heavy sleeper. His mother had to spend at least thirty minutes every morning sitting at the foot of his bed talking to him before he would snap out of it. Some days it was so bad she’d spend more than an hour there, and if he still hadn’t woken up by then she had no choice but to leave him there in bed and go to work. Like a rock, I’m telling you. I only ever had to wake him up one time. We were sitting by the creek and he fell asleep with his head in my lap. It was getting dark and we both had to be home soon. I tapped his head, but he didn’t move. I took his head out of my lap and put it on the dirt. I put my face right in front of his and yelled “James!” right in his face for ten minutes. By then I thought he was dead. He’d told me about his problem, but I guess I never gave his condition that much thought. He was basically a deadman, lying there. I tried everything. I splashed water on his face, tapped on his head harder, kicked him in the legs, kicked him in the stomach. I was crying at that point. I put my face in front of his face and yelled “James!” again and that time he woke up. That was the happiest moment of my life, watching those eyes open up. He asked me why are you crying and I shook my head. He sat up and said his stomach hurt. A couple months later his mother left him sleeping in bed to go to work after sitting at the foot of his bed for over two hours. That morning the house burned down, and he never woke up. I remember exactly what his mother said at the funeral service:

9 of 30

“I can’t stop telling myself: I should have seen this coming. But things always happen this way. You can’t believe you weren’t expecting it. Some of you may already know this, but when James was first born I used to strap him into a stroller and walk him up the hill on Cromwell Drive, near my house. That’s what we did every morning. It’s a very steep hill. I would pick him up out of bed and tuck him into that stroller and push him. Of course he was asleep during all of this. By the time he was six or seven months old the walk up the hill had already become much more difficult as he grew and grew. By the end of the first year it was the most challenging part of my day, but I kept walking him up that hill every day until his third birthday. I woke up that morning, the morning of his third birthday, walked to his room and stood there in the doorway, and that’s when I decided I can’t do it anymore. The walks had to end. I surprised myself with that. I had no idea what to do for the next hour. I ended up sitting on the floor under his doorway and crying. The next day is when our new morning routine began. I sat down at the foot of his bed and rubbed his feet and talked to him until he opened his eyes. We never grew out of that.

“Sitting at the foot of James’ bed quickly became a very meditative time for me. It gave me a daily opportunity to reflect outwardly. I always had at least thirty minutes to just, let it out. Say whatever was on my mind. I would talk about work, about my plans for the day, about the weather. Love interests. Whatever. It helped that there was someone there, somewhere for me to put my words. And it helped that he wasn’t listening, wasn’t responding.

“As James grew older, though, I began to suspect he wasn’t actually asleep, as I sat there talking. At first I kept my suspicions to myself, and simply continued saying whatever else was on my mind. But this didn’t feel honest, and the longer I said nothing about it the less mindful I became, so I decided to talk to him about it. One morning when he was probably eight or nine years old I sat down and I said, ‘I don’t know if you’re actually asleep or not, James. I don’t know if you’ve been hearing me this whole time, and that scares me a little. Not because I am afraid of anything I’ve said, but because I want you to be comfortable, and if you’ve been sitting here pretending to be asleep this whole time, listening to everything I say, I can’t imagine it’s been very comfortable. There is no need to pretend. You can talk to me if you want. You can sit up and we can talk. Maybe you think I come in here just to wake you up, but it’s more than that. I want to be here just like you. I don’t have to keep talking to myself.’ He didn’t respond in any way to this, just kept on lying there, but I was relieved. It didn’t matter whether he was awake or sleeping because I said what I needed to say. If he was asleep, then it didn’t matter to him that I’d said anything, and if he wanted to keep on pretending to be asleep, I was okay with that, too. The ball was in his court, as it were. I felt a lot better after that.

10 of 30

“Still, I would regularly tell him I knew he was awake. ‘I know you can hear me,’ I would say. I truly believed he was awake!, because he often ‘woke up’ at the perfect time, just when I’d landed on a neat conclusion to some train of thought, once my ideas had settled down into something tangible. If I was talking through some problem, I would have a solution before he woke up. If I was aimlessly rambling, he would wake up before I could fall into treacherous territory. On the days he simply would not wake up, however, I would talk and talk until I had to leave for work. Those days were the hardest, when I felt things were left unresolved. It felt like he was challenging me, pushing me to keep thinking on something. I would spend all day thinking, unable to concentrate on my work. Sometimes this would go on for days until, pop! One morning he would sit up and smile. The sight of those eyes opening in the morning became one of the great joys of my life. The sign of a good day.”

Suddenly Lou Alice paused and tilted her head upwards, as if she’d heard something. We sat there silently for a moment, then we both heard it. There was a shuffling, scratching noise in the next room. Lou’s face turned pale and she began hysterically screaming. She jumped onto the kitchen table and knelt down in the middle of it, knees wrapped against her chest, eye sockets buried into her kneecaps, violently shaking and screaming. I was paralyzed with shock. The scratching noise, meanwhile, drew closer and closer towards the kitchen until suddenly a large, brown spider, probably about two feet in diameter, aggressively slid through the hallway door into the kitchen and charged towards us, legs scratching across the wood floor, fangs, mouth foaming. I stood up reflexively and grabbed a decorative copper pan from the wall. The spider stormed towards me. I squeezed the pan handle, stepped forward and with a high-pitched yelp firmly smashed the pan into the spider’s head, stopping the aggressor in its tracks. From underneath the pan the spider let out a muffled groan of defeat. Its abdomen trembled with desire and its legs, after desperately scratching against the floor for a few more seconds, slowly fell flat to the floor. I picked up the pan and quickly brought it back down into the spider’s abdomen. I threw the pan across the kitchen floor and stood up. The spider’s crumpled body lay there, motionless. Lou Alice was still tucked in a ball on the table, rocking back and forth, crying and screaming into her chest.

“MeeMaw? Are you okay?” Laney and Cole were standing side by side in the doorway, their faces expressionless. We looked at each other. They tiptoed into the kitchen, across the room and disappeared into the hallway. I sat back down in my chair, put my hand on Lou Alice’s left foot, and closed my eyes.

11 of 30

I woke up on the highway in the passenger seat of my mother’s car, a beautiful pink sun setting on our right hand side. I looked at my legs, which were adorned with tennis shoes, long socks and dried sweat. She had just picked me up from soccer practice, and now we were driving home. The tenth, final track of my mother’s Joni Mitchell Blue CD was fading out and a clicking sound could be heard from inside the stereo as the disc looped back to track one, “All I Want”. I ran my fingers over my shaved head and looked at my mother, who was deeply focused on her music. We were about ten minutes from home. I looked back at the sunset, propped my head against the window and felt the calm, humming pulse of the highway run through my head and down my body.   

I had no idea how long I’d been out or what day it was, and my mother, silent as always, was not helping me understand where I now stood. Those ten minutes in the car, awake, I felt completely decontextualized. There was only Joni Mitchell, the sunset and the road. I couldn’t feel any pain and I couldn’t speak.

Once we pulled into the driveway, however, my body began to wrench itself back into the space around me, and a soft ache filled the left side of my head. I shivered, climbed out of the car and walked into my house. The alarm clock in my room informed me that today was, in fact, the same day; I had smashed the brick into my head just this morning. I was only out for about twelve hours. I walked over to my bedside table and picked up the brick. I tossed it back and forth between my hands. After a few minutes I set it back down on the table and took my notebook out of my bag.

I had scribbled through twenty more pages that day. Once again my name, written in cursive, was obsessively scrawled throughout, surrounded by song lyrics and PowerPoint slides copied word-for-word from class. I explored my notes with intense focus, failing to note any bits containing some meaningful insight.

My father came to my room around 8pm to announce dinner. He indicated no concern, nothing along the lines of your teacher called today about your behavior in class, we need to talk. He told me dinner was ready and asked me if I’d heard anything about the Manchester United game. I told him I had not, closed my notebook and followed him to the dining room. My mother had prepared grilled salmon and steamed broccoli, which we ate quietly. After our meal I excused myself from the table, leaving behind my empty plate on the table. I walked upstairs, laid down on my bedroom floor and fell asleep.

Veronica has been here for the past three years.

Lou Alice was still perched on the kitchen table, knees tucked into her chest, but her weeping and shaking had subsided. I sat there, right hand on her foot, eyes closed, as she calmly explained the origins of the now deceased spider.

12 of 30

It was the holiday season. I have never been a religious person but I love celebrating Christmas with the girls. They are both very thoughtful gift-givers. I don’t buy extravagant gifts for them, mostly just fun, dinky little things that I can wrap, because I love gift wrapping. It was early in December, and I was just getting home from the last of my Christmas shopping. I came in through the front door with a load of gifts and wrapping paper and brought it into the living room, that room by the front door. That’s where we put the Christmas tree and all the other fun Christmas decorations I’d acquired over the years. I laid out all the gifts and set up a little wrapping station there on the living room floor, then I sat down and started wrapping. The girls were spending the night at a friend’s house. Aside from coin rolling, gift wrapping is the closest thing to a meditative state I can achieve. It used to be biking, but as you grow older and your body begins to break down, it is important to find new activities, to create little moments that strike the delicate balance between productivity and aimless wonder. Forward motion and inner peace. Wrapping gives me something to do with my hands, time to think, and at the end of all of it I have a bunch of gifts for the tree.

So I quickly became immersed in my wrapping process, sitting there on the living room floor. Eventually it became dark outside, and I was forced to get up and turn on some lights. I flicked some lamps on and walked over to the outlet by our Christmas tree to turn on the tree lights. Before I could reach the tree, however, a thin, piercing hiss came from inside the tree and stopped me in my tracks, a few steps from the tree. The hissing ceased and I stood there staring at the tree. I didn’t blink. After a moment of silence I took another step forward and a pair of hairy fangs, about the size of my fist, slowly emerged through the branches and hissed at me again, this time much more aggressively. I bolted from the room and ran down the hallway into the girls’ bedroom. I slammed the door shut and leaped onto the top bunk, Cole’s bed. I curled up under the sheets and cried until I fell asleep.

The following morning, after only a few hours of fitful sleep I awoke with a deep, fiery courage. Or maybe it was more of a reckless abandon. Anyways, I climbed out of the bed, grabbed the doorknob to the hallway and, after a few deep breaths, I opened the door. The spider was standing at the other end of the hallway, between me and the kitchen. We stood at either side of the hallway, examining one another. She was very large, about the size of an adult cat, you know. While the standoff certainly wasn’t peaceful, there was definitely a sense of recognition between us. We were communicating. She did not hiss at me; she simply stood there, looking at me, breathing. Her beady, black eyes cut deep inside of me, but I was not afraid. We stood like that for probably fifteen minutes, then she quickly broke eye contact and scurried away, back into the living room.

13 of 30

I followed her into the living room and watched as she climbed back into the tree. The message was clear: don’t come near the tree. So I gathered all my wrapping supplies and took them into the kitchen, finished my wrapping and left all the gifts on the table.

When the girls got home that day I told them about the spider. By that point I’d taken the liberty of naming her Veronica. I said, Veronica is a friend of mine and she is going to stay in the living room, so stay out of the living room! And they did. No one has touched that room since.

It’s been three years, and that Christmas tree is still in the living room. It’s completely dead at this point of course, but that was her home. If she went hunting or explored the neighborhood at any point she always did it out of our sight because I never saw her again until today. The girls never saw her at all until today.

Was I supposed to call an exterminator? Was it unsafe to have a large, territorial spider in a house with two young girls? Was I wrong to love her, to let her be? Of course I thought about these things. I thought about them often. But the conclusion I always came to was: she seems harmless, so why bother? Why not let her be? She never hurt any of us. She actually made me us feel safe, in a way. Of course if I ever thought she might attack a visitor like that, I would have done something about it. That just always seemed out of the question.

Lou Alice stepped down from the kitchen table and went to check on the girls in their room. While she talked to them I took the time to clean. Using an entire roll of paper towels I managed to gather Veronica’s remains into a plastic bag and scrub any blood and guts off the wood floor. I buried a small hole in a corner of the backyard, gently placed the bag inside, and covered it with dirt. I allowed myself a brief moment of silence, then went back inside. I carried the Christmas tree out of the house and down to my car and strapped it to the top of my truck with two bungee cords. I walked back into the house, located a broom and dustpan in the hallway closet and began sweeping the brown firs scattered across the living room. My sweeping was slow and methodical as I made sure to gather every needle into a small pile. I brushed the pile into the dustpan and emptied the contents into the kitchen trash can.

Lou Alice, Laney and Coley walked into the kitchen, and I told them I was taking care of the tree. I was going to take it to the dump. Lou Alice thanked me for cleaning up the mess and asked if they could all ride along to the dump, and I said sure, I could use the company.

“Oh, that’s not so bad,” said Lou Alice as we walked down the front stairs to my car, and she inspected the collision for the first time. “It’s just a little dent!”

“I really am sorry,” I said.

“I’m more worried about your truck. Your parents aren’t going to be happy about that.”

“They’ll be alright.”

I unlocked my car doors and climbed into the driver’s seat. Lou Alice sat in the front with me, and Laney and Cole sat in the back.

I looked at the twins in my rearview mirror. “Do you guys like music?”

“No.”

Lou Alice turned to them and smiled, then looked at me with the same smile.

I rolled down the windows, put the Expedition in reverse and dislodged the truck from Lou Alice’s red sedan, then we headed to the dump. The sun was still bright, warm.

14 of 30

Laney and Coley began discussing their bunk bed situation, clearly directing the conversation towards Lou Alice, the executive decision maker, who listened in silence and with deep consideration.

“Just because you were born twelve minutes before me doesn’t mean you automatically get the top bunk forever.”

“The top bunk isn’t even that great.”

“So why won’t you trade with me?”

“Because that’s where I sleep!”

“But you don’t even care!”

“Yes I do. I’m just used to sleeping on top. Why don’t you like the bottom bunk?”

“I do like the bottom bunk.”

“So why do you want to trade?”

“I just don’t get why it’s such a big deal if we trade!”

“I don’t think it’s a big deal. That’s why I don’t want to trade.”

“That doesn’t even make sense. If it’s not a big deal to you then you would just trade with me. If it doesn’t make any difference.”

“I’m not saying it doesn’t make a difference, I’m just saying I don’t care to switch.”

“Which means you think it’s a big deal.”

“No, that’s why I think it’s not a big deal! You are the one who thinks it’s a big deal. You’re the one starting all this drama.”

“No! God! Why are you being so mean?”

“Why are you so unhappy with the bottom bunk?”

“Meemaw!”

Lou Alice turned around. “Why don’t you two play rock paper scissors to see who gets the top bunk?”

The twins spent the rest of the drive arguing about the rules of rock paper scissors. After Laney lost two out of three times he decided rock paper scissors was inherently unfair.

“There’s no strategy,” he said. “It’s totally random who wins and who loses.”

“You’re only saying that because you lost.”

“Okay, if you’re so smart, how about you explain your strategy to me? How did you just beat me at rock paper scissors?”

15 of 30

“Well, you won the first round. You did rock and I did scissors. But the first round is always totally random, as a rule. After the first round, though, rock paper scissors is a game of chances. You did rock the first round, so chances are you wouldn’t do rock in the second round. That would be too obvious. You’re riding off the high of winning the first round, and just assuming I’m going to do paper or rock in round two. You’ve lost your ability to objectively make decisions, so you’re left with paper and scissors. Since paper kills rock, and scissors kills paper, I chose scissors in the second round, because you were most likely not going to do rock two times in a row. If I assume you aren’t going to do rock twice in a row, I have a 50% chance of beating you, a 50% chance of tying you, and a 0% chance of losing.”

“You can’t just assume I won’t do rock twice in a row, though. You don’t know me. You don’t know my life. And also, we tied in the second round. We both did scissors. What do you do with that? Where does your objective, mathematical analysis of rock paper scissors go from there? Kind of seems like you’re back to square one.”

“Please, you two.” Lou Alice turned around and gave them a stern look. “Laney, you lost fair and square. You take the bottom bunk. Cole, the top bunk is yours.”

I looked at them in the rearview mirror to check their response. They both wore the same frustrated yet thankful expression. That is when I realized I had no idea who was Lane and who was Coley, and laughed out loud. Then Laney and Coley were both laughing, then Lou Alice, too, all of us laughing as we pulled into the dump, the sunlight shining clear through the Expedition’s open windows.

I woke up on my bedroom floor to 96.3 FM blasting from my alarm clock. I quickly ran across the room to turn the alarm off and got under my covers in bed. Sitting upright, I felt a wave of dread forming within me as I reassociated with my world. I looked around my room, at my legs under the clean, white comforter, at the thin red curtains in my window, and when my eyes landed on the yellow brick sitting on my bedside table I read its message and nodded to myself. There was nothing left for me to do.

❀ ❀

16 of 30

Nobody to call… your big homie Rob. You know what it is, it’s Rob Markman on Twitter. Send all your hate mail… You know how we do it.

I just took twelve hits of K2 from a homemade water bottle pipe. Leon cut a hole out of the side of a plastic Dasani water bottle, into which he expertly fitted an aluminum foil bowl, poked little holes into the bottom of the foil bowl, then stuffed the bowl with at least 3 grams of synthetic weed. Leon, Louis, Kenny and I are hotboxing Leon’s car in the Bellbottom parking garage during our lunch hour. This is my first time smoking K2. Leon is in the driver’s seat, Kenny in the passenger seat, and I am sitting in the back with Louis. Leon is playing the Wiz Khalifa mixtape Taylor Allderdice that he burned onto a CD and has his car halfway turned on so as to allow the stereo to function without running the engine. The music is apparently only turned to volume 11 on the car stereo, but it still seems incredibly loud.

My skin feels like a thick egg shell. I am sitting behind Leon, the left side of my forehead pressed against the window, eyes locked onto the rows of parked cars outside. I do not know why I am here. I would like to open the car door and walk the seven miles back to my mom’s house or to the nearest hospital, but I believe that if I were to move any muscle in my body I would either projectile vomit onto the window or simply roll over and faint. All four of us have Mr. Brown’s geography class in thirty minutes, but it is becoming clearer and clearer as I inhale more and more residual K2 smoke with each breath that I am not going anywhere for a very long time. I am currently operating under the assumption that I am going to die in this car.

It was fucked up for me to let that drunk girl give me a blow job in the middle of a field, I know that now. But I was drunk, too. And how do you say “no” to somebody who says they really want to blow you? And the whole time I’m getting this blow job it feels so wrong, it feels so bad, but I still let her swallow my come. And we walk back to the bonfire and join the rest of the party and don’t talk to each other for the rest of the night, and a week later I’m being publicly outed on Facebook as a sexual predator and none of the girls in my friend group will talk to me, and even the guys are tip-toeing around me.

Like, I get that she feels weird about the blow job, but I feel weird, too. I also wish it hadn’t happened. Is it because I’m seventeen and she’s fourteen that I’m the responsible party? And, if I’m responsible for all of this, why won’t anyone listen to my side of the story? No one is willing to hear me out except for Louis, and even he doesn’t really seem to be on my side.

17 of 30

My thing is, I didn’t know she was going to walk out of that moment feeling traumatized. I thought she was having fun, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to say I feel traumatized by the whole thing, if I’m remembering that night correctly, I was arguably the more uncomfortable one in that moment. The whole time she was blowing me I was thinking that maybe we were making a mistake, but ultimately, and while she was still blowing me, just as I was about to come in her mouth, I decided to chalk it up to two young people exploring their sexualities in the middle of a field, just having some lighthearted fun. Except I definitely wasn’t having fun, laying there in the grass, spending the duration of the blowjob desperately trying to justify the blowjob to myself, only to form some shred of wimpy rationale as I began to ejaculate down a fourteen year old’s throat. Then to find out a week later that I was right to suspect we were making a huge mistake, given how awful she feels about it now!

My mom is more pissed about the whole thing than anyone else. At the girl, I mean. She wants to sue her family. The sexuality of men and boys is so demonized, she told me at dinner last night. She said I was stupid for getting drunk and hooking up with a stranger, but the girl is just as stupid, and just as responsible. Talking to my mom, I found myself defending the girl, arguing that, well, maybe I am the more responsible one, as the older male, the one with the penis, the one who shoots the come into her mouth. It’s my come, not hers. I don’t have to walk around every day in fear for my personal safety. I haven’t had to live with that my whole life. It makes sense that she was more affected by the whole thing than me. Fuck that, replied my mom, fuck the idea that just because you’re somewhat older and more experienced that you should take full charge of the situation, that you are the only one capable of making a moral decision. The only one who can say no. You’re still a minor! Fuck that girl, and fuck her parents for allowing her to publicly humiliate you like this. Who do you think is going to have the more fucked up sense of sexuality after all of this, you or her? They don’t want you to have a healthy sex life. They don’t want you to have a sex life at all! They want you to be afraid of yourself. Seventeen years old!

I am high beyond comprehension, silently listening to Taylor Allderdice. In the reflection in my window I can see Kenny and Louis coolly arm dancing, bobbing along to the music with their eyes closed. My heart rate is simply astonishing. There is no way the entire Bellbottom campus can’t hear Wiz Khalifa quietly blasting out of these car speakers right now.

18 of 30

I feel like my spirit is worldwide, and we all share the same spirit…

The parking garage was built around ten years ago and is completely underground. Sitting atop the parking garage is a full-size astro turf soccer stadium where the high school varsity soccer team practices and plays. We are parked at the lowest of the three parking levels, probably eighty feet below ground, in Leon’s designated parking spot.

I lost 55,000 of my 450,000 Facebook followers within 24 hours of being exposed as a sexual predator by the girl who sucked my dick in a field. Within 72 hours my label and management had both dropped me, and by this point I was pretty set on just killing myself, or at the very least seriously considering it for the first time in my life. Perhaps the only reason I didn’t kill myself was that I had no sense of control over my life, to the point where suicide almost became a sort of personal Arcadia, the purest and most ideal expression of my autonomy, entirely out of reach. In their eyes, suicide was cowardly, and maybe something I deserved. I couldn’t let them have that. I deleted my Facebook before my follower count could drop below 100,000.

My career as a bedroom producer, singer and rap artist began two years ago when I wrote, recorded and produced a rap song for my sophomore English class. The assignment was to respond creatively to Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, which, aside from the first paragraph, I did not read. I made a song and accompanying music video that I posted on YouTube under the name “Sparknotes”, which I showed to my English class on the day I was to present my “creative response”. The beat was a simple trappish thing, just a bassline, claps and hi-hat, like a London on da Track instrumental filtered through a brick wall, and the lyrics were basically a personal reimagination of the first paragraph of A Tale of Two Cities, featuring two sixteen-bar verses with lines like “don’t wanna be your quiet boy / I don’t wanna talk”, “days move slow / weeks move quick”, “drink a fifth of vodka / take my dog on a walk” etc., and a chorus consisting of the line “Sparknotes that bitch / I got shit to do” repeated eight times, all delivered in a sort of muted, monotone sing-speak in the vein of Earl Sweatshirt or Future at his most emotionally dismissive. The video, filmed beautifully by my younger sister Monty, was a single, 3-minute shot of me standing on the air conditioning unit outside my mom’s house performing the song and pensively arm dancing with my eyes closed, wearing only boxers and white crew socks, while my edition of ATOTC’s back-cover copy synopsis scrolled across the bottom of the screen, from right to left, in all-caps, bright yellow Impact font.

My English teacher made me turn the video off after thirty seconds and told me to sit back down and talk to him after class. At the end of the period after the rest of my classmates were gone he pulled a chair up next to his desk, asked me to sit and, after explaining that he only stopped my presentation short because of the song’s profanity, connected his computer to the projector, and we watched my video on the big screen from start to finish. He told me he loved the video and concept and that I would get an A+ for the assignment, but I would have to come up with a new presentation for the rest of the class within the next week. When I got home that night, I logged into Facebook to find my video had been viewed 134,000 times and shared by thousands of people since I shared it with my English class five hours before.

It feels like someone has pushed a metal wire through my right temple and out the left and is now clutching the wire on both sides of my head like the handles of a bike being guided down a winding hill, each turn subtly shifting the pressure applied onto my brain matter by the wire running through it. Moving any part of my body is not in the cards. I imagine, if Kenny, Louis or Leon were to look over at me they would see a very pale, very sick boy violently shaking and gasping for breath, but really I probably look pretty normal, maybe a little tired. I’m not sure.

19 of 30

It’s a cohesive thing, but the focus is still getting my thing out there, and to have people understand that this is what we’re bringing. This is the world we’re creating, and it doesn’t exist without all of us…

There is a pair of legs descending the ramp from the second floor of the parking garage into the third, bottom level, walking at a steady pace. The top half of the person’s body slowly appears from beneath the ceiling as it makes its way down the ramp. It is dark in here, a dimly lit orange, and I cannot tell who this person is, but I have a good feeling they are coming for us. The whole reason we’re down here in the first place is that no one ever comes down here during the school day.

Every Tuesday, the Bellbottom administration performs drug tests on five randomly selected students, regardless of age, during the thirty-minute break between second and third period. Rather than your standard urine test that catches anything in your system within thirty days, however, they take a hair sample, which can catch trace amounts of substances consumed within ninety days of the test, meaning one is not entirely safe from failing a drug test even if they were to smoke weed on the last day of school at the end of May, as they would be eligible to fail the hair test that following August. This is random, year round monitoring of extracurricular student behavior, though, considering Leon has been tested four times in the current academic year alone, the randomness of the drug testing is entirely debatable. If one is to fail a hair test, he is sent to school counseling once a week and tested every other month for the remainder of his tenure at Bellbottom. If he fails another test, he is suspended and possibly even expelled, though the exact punishment for a second offense is decided on a case-by-case basis. A third offense demands immediate expulsion.

All of which is the only reason I just severely poisoned myself with synthetic marijuana, to be clear. Whether or not I would be smoking actual weed in the school parking garage right now if Bellbottom were to stop randomly drug testing students, and whether or not I would feel as close to death as I do right now were I to be experimenting with actual weed instead of K2, I couldn’t say, but I am pretty sure there are very good reasons why no sane person regularly smokes K2.

I am assuming, considering no one else in the car has said anything about the figure walking down the ramp, that I am the only one who sees him, which is too bad, because I cannot move or speak.

20 of 30

I don’t know how to say it… We don’t have shit. When we start out, we don’t have shit… So we really make do with what we have, and in turn that turns into, like, million dollar corporations. But what labels don’t have is that mind frame, that spark, that makes that million dollars. They know how to manifest that, and make more millions off that, but they don’t have that spark…

Wiz dropped Taylor Allderdice twelve years ago, but it feels more relevant now than ever. It is the sound of an artist completely tapped into his main appeal, that being, for Wiz, catchy, unabashed lyrics about money and weed consumption over impossibly chill beats, all generously and nonchalantly released at no emotional or monetary cost to the listener and demanding (and rewarding) whatever amount of attention one prefers to give it. Lauded by fans and mostly disregarded by critics, it stands as the most consistent release in his catalogue in its ease and transparency. It has the feel of a studio album and sounds like something Wiz could knock out in less than a week. It is in this shameless honesty, of sound and of self, that one can draw meaning, a message beyond major label rap, beyond the art world as a whole, that says: life is as simple as you make it.

While almost every song on here is profound in its own right and could arguably be played on shuffle with little to no loss in value or coherence, what sets Taylor Allderdice apart from its peers and the rest of Wiz’s catalogue is its lofty, unwavering sequencing. When is the last time anyone recorded a weed rap as dark as “T.A.P.”, with its defiant train samples, grimey synth bass, and quiet, crumbling piano melody, much less placed it immediately behind the anthemic, lost-radio bounce of “My Favorite Song”? Not to mention what is possibly the most important seven-song suite of weed rap in recent history that opens up the tape, the septuple-punch of “Amber Ice” through “Nameless”, after which you would almost be content to let the tape end, and actually can’t believe there’s thirty more high-quality minutes left in this mixtape, and really can’t believe you’re, like, really down to hear all of it.

Each track on the tape is bookended by brief excerpts of an interview between Wiz and music journalist Rob Markman, in which Markman effectively prompts Wiz to dive face-first into musings on his career and rise to fame. The snippets offer great insight into the wandering mind of a prolific, self-medicated multi millionaire as he navigates the trappings of the music industry and the maintenance of a meticulously-crafted public persona. Wiz doesn’t hide his anxieties or his flaws, but what shines brighter than anything in his responses is his complete faith in his artistry, his trajectory, and his fans. Placed side-by-side with the best music of his career, it’s hard not to take every frank, calmly spoken word to heart, even when he’s just mindlessly rambling.

21 of 30

Rolling Papers was a learning experience, just like how everything was… And me getting with a label and trying new things, like I say, I’m not a stubborn person, so, I work with different people, I write different records that people may say that they like, you know what I’m saying? You gotta try different things, you gotta do different things. But when you talk about longevity, you can’t base that off one year or six months or eight months or anything like that. So, really I was just speaking to anybody who was riding with me for the long run, and who’s looking for the next thing for me to do…

Take the unbearably cathartic bridge and hook from highlight “Mary 3x”, almost skeletal in its frankness, in which Wiz lays out his principles on weed use in his clearest, most navigable language yet, in essence: weed is all I need. It’s an obvious testimony from an artist who has built an entire career on his prolific weed smoking tendencies, but there is a powerful sense of faith and security in his message here that feels closer to the point he’s making. That is, Wiz knows he doesn’t need to change, so why try to be any other way? Why push someone out of their comfort zone? Why attempt to evaluate the validity of an artist’s career arc within the assumption that every artist is primarily concerned with originality, with “taking it to the next level”? Why not approach an artist’s self-security as the very real, very impressive quality that it is? Why can’t same-y release after same-y release be as profound or “next level” as a Kid A or a Take Care? Why is something so valuable, so desirable, only ever considered to be a form of complacency?

An artist like Wiz Khalifa, though, is only concerned with these questions inasmuch as he’s concerned with anyone who thinks weed is bad, which is not much, which is what makes his identity in today’s current climate such a valuable emotional tool, for fans and critics alike. Let this man be, because you are objectifying him in the name of your broad opinions, because he’s not listening to you anyways. Accept that a celebrity will never ruin your day. Accept that “Mary 3x” is a timeless banger, and that it’s all feeling.

22 of 30

That’s what it’s all about: taking it to the next level, elaborating on what we’ve done. Because a lot of people… they’ve elaborated on what we’ve done…

The figure has now fully descended the ramp at the opposite end of level 3b of the parking garage, turned around a full 180 degrees and proceeded to make a beeline to where we are parked. Even from all the way across the garage he is, I can see it in his posture, visibly disappointed in all four of us. He is a grown man, probably a little over six feet tall, wearing a dress coat, tie and khakis, clearly a member of the Bellbottom staff. I really can’t wait for him to get over here, whoever he is, as my condition is quietly worsening with each breath.

I need the man to see me in this state. The school knows of my burgeoning music career and the subsequent, soul-crushing sexual assault charges made against me on Facebook, and I wouldn’t say they are too impressed with either, and now I need them to see me like this. I need them to understand that nothing that has happened to me in the past two years is part of any sort of master plan of mine to be a shitty Bellbottom student or to poorly represent the school, that all of these moving parts, of which I am mainly just the object, are largely out of my control, and look how I’m handling it at the bottom floor of this parking garage. I hope I look like death. I hope that, upon seeing my paralyzed face pressed against this car window, any disappointment this man feels toward me will be replaced immediately by an overwhelming concern for my health.

Was this a cry for help? I came down here to smoke K2 with these guys knowing fully well there are security cameras all over this garage and knowing fully well that, of all the times and places to smoke K2 for the first time, the middle of lunch period in the parking garage of a school that regularly performs hair tests on its students is probably the actual worst. What was my end game here if not to, rather than beg for mercy, simply demand it in the form of total debasement, a total emasculation of self?

The man is close enough now, about halfway across the garage from us, for me to identify him as Captain Riley.

Captain Riley has short, jet-black hair and beady eyes, the combination of which gives him the same general vibe as that of a bald eagle. He served in the Iraq War, deployed to Baghdad from 2007 to 2011. He graduated from Bellbottom in 2002, and, upon returning from the war, worked as a U.S. history teacher at Bellbottom for several years before being promoted to Director of High School. He is a very easygoing guy, always walking around and waving and smiling at everybody on campus, but also extremely difficult to talk to. He seems to find great difficulty in connecting with hyper-privileged teenagers, which is understandable, given his authority role at the school and his greater life experiences in general. He is an impressively busy dude; I have never seen him standing still, and I cannot even imagine him sitting. I’m not even sure he has an office. Though I have never had a conversation with him myself, I have heard from several of my peers that if he wishes to speak to you about something at length he finds you wherever you are on campus, smilingly points to you with his index finger, and asks to “walk and talk”.

23 of 30

He is walking toward us with great calm, as if he has been in this exact situation countless times. I cannot tell whether he already knows exactly how he is going to handle this situation or if he hasn’t yet thought that far ahead, not fifty feet away from Leon’s car now, instead having complete faith that whatever instinct materializes upon his arrival to the car will be the proper, constructive, wholly effective one.

I am beginning to fade away. My eyes do not shut, but any recognition of self, of my place in Leon’s backseat, of my circumstances, has slipped away and been replaced by a great, weightless cloud. If I could cry I think I would, and maybe I am. Anything that is not pure, euphoric love has been tucked away somewhere deep inside of me to be dealt with at a later time. Mr. Norton makes the final few steps to the driver’s side window of Leon’s car, stops and, grinning madly, peers into the driver’s seat, his face not two inches from the window. He is squinting, formulating meaning, deciding his actions. He cranes his neck to see into the car, shifting his head around nervously, as if the light reflecting off the window is keeping him from getting a good view.

Forget the bald eagle, he looks like any old bird. Any old bird of prey roosted hundreds of feet in the air on some dead tree branch preparing for the next dive back to earth.

He takes a step back and looks directly at me, and we make perfect eye contact. His whole face opens wide and turns blank.

You know, what inspired me back then is the same shit that inspires me now, and it’s just life… You know, like, what I hear, what I see. I’m really sensitive to everything that goes on around me, and I really don’t think too much about shit…

❀ ❀ ❀

24 of 30

“Alright Peter, let me just pull your student profile up on my computer really quick… Mullaney, Mullaney, Mullaney…

“Hm. I can’t find you on here. Let me try something else really fast…

“Okay, here you are.

“Okay! Peter! First, I just want to tell you a little bit about what I’m here for, the role I’ll be playing in your college application process. Basically, I am always here for you if you ever have any questions. We’re going to talk about what you are looking for in your college experience, where in the country you might be interested in going to college, and with all that I will help you come up with hopefully ten to twelve colleges that seem like a good fit for you. I’ll be the one reading all your college essays, providing feedback, yada yada yada. Do you have any colleges in mind already?

“It’s okay if you don’t. I know the whole college application process can be very intimidating, especially if you’re only a sophomore and graduation seems so far away. But let me tell you…

“I went to high school here. I graduated in ‘93, and then I went to UTK. I had a good time in Knoxville, but looking back now I wish I’d found a smaller school outside of the state. The great thing about Bellbottom is that universities all over the country know about us, they know we produce great students, even if you don’t have the best grades you still have a good chance of getting into some pretty great schools, simply by virtue of being a Bellbottom student. College admissions programs know how tough it is here, and they take that into account when considering you and your grades. But I sort of half-assed the whole application process, only applied to three schools, all public universities in Tennessee, and ended up at UTK.

“I don’t mean to bash UTK, or to discourage you from going there if that’s really where you want to go, because in a lot of ways it’s a great place. All I’m saying is that there’s so much more out there and you have a great opportunity here at Bellbottom to find the perfect college for you and I’m sorry, but UTK is not a perfect college. Does that make sense?

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“What I’m trying to say is, this is the most important decision of your life so far. There’s no point in sugarcoating it. This is big.

“It says here your GPA is 3.1… You seem like a bright kid, though. Are you finding your course load difficult to manage? I really want you to try to get that GPA up to at least a 3.5 come senior year.

“I get that you’re maybe shy or anxious or just don’t know what to say, but I really need to know what you’re feeling about all of this…

“I’m sorry, I actually need to take this phone call really quick, my mother’s in the hospital. Nothing too serious. You can sit here, it shouldn’t be too long…

“Hello? This is he. Mhmm. Okay. Okay. No, sir. Okay. Well, I’m pretty tied up until the afternoon, I can make my way over then… Okay. Well, no. Okay. Jeez. Okay. Okay. Well, thanks for calling… I’ll be there around 4… at the latest. Okay. Thank you, sir. Bye.

“Sorry about that. My mom fell down getting out of the shower a couple days ago, hurt her back… She’s getting pretty old. She’s had problems with her hip for a while. Man…

“I’m not sure what role I’m supposed to be playing, as the youngest of four I mean. My older sister takes care of our dad. Changes his diaper twice a day and all that. An incredible amount of time and effort. And my two brothers have always been closer to them. Our parents. I’m not very close to them, never have been, and now they are dying and need our help, I guess, but the other three kids seem to have the whole thing under control. It feels like they include me in all this health stuff with our parents more as a formality than their actually needing me to help in any way. ‘Hey Nick, mom’s in critical condition but no need to come around to see her if you’re busy.’ Along those lines.

My wife tells me it’s a positive feedback loop or some crap like that, about my not giving a shit about my parents and that’s why they never ask me for help. Then I’m upset they don’t ask for help, I distance myself, they assume I don’t want to help, they don’t ask for help and I get upset. Do you want to help, she asks me. Sure I do. Sure I do. Of course I do. It’s my parents. But I guess what she’s saying makes sense.

It all circles around my biggest insecurity, she tells me, the big part of me that I can’t see or comprehend, apparently. That being, everything to me is meaningless and irreparable but I still try to make sense of things. I’m not sure why she calls this an insecurity, or what makes her think this trait is unique to me. Sure I feel that way. Who doesn’t?

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We get into these political talks. Her stance is always very feminist, intersectional, anti-capitalist, you know. I see where she’s coming from, and of course her arguments aren’t wrong, but, and this is always the point I’m trying to make with her, how much of what she’s saying is idealistic? Is putting language to social issues a form of progress, or does it simply transform the problem, sadistically morphing the whole mess into something entirely more monstrous? I think the problem is turning into something mental. Something very alienating. We can’t stop thinking about all of these things, all this shit that’s supposed to be making our lives better. And what is life if we’re just sitting around thinking about our problems? Of course I’m a white male saying all this. Does that make it invalid?

She brought home a dog the other night. I was making dinner and she walked into the kitchen holding this little black puppy literally covered in its own shit napping in her arms. She’d found it on the side of the road. I’m calling it Cooper for now, she said. I thought the dog was cute, sure, but I quickly became annoyed when she started filling up the kitchen sink to give the dog a bath, as if I was not making dinner right there. I was using that sink! There are two bathtubs in the house and you have to use the sink three feet away from our dinner that’s almost ready to clean literal shit off of a homeless dog! I couldn’t help getting angry, while simultaneously recognizing for the millionth time what an incredible woman she is, taking this piece of shit under her wing, giving it a bath, calling various animal rescues for hours after dinner. It was amazing how quickly her life could be thrown in a new direction while simply driving home from work, and how gracefully she welcomed that change.

I was already in bed when she finally got off the phone with the shelters, fixed up a crate for the dog, and climbed next to me under the covers with a deep, tired sigh. She had had a good day. I, on the other hand, was frustrated, so I told her that much. I said I don’t know what’s wrong with me, or if anything is even wrong, but I can’t shake this feeling. She turned to me patiently, waiting. I began to explain, but was unable to articulate my feelings about the dog situation. I kept trying. She sat there next to me, vaguely annoyed, listening to me try to find the words. A word, more precisely. There was a single word I could not remember, one that I use frequently to describe a displaced feeling, when something happens to me and I feel my whole world changing course. Of course it was impossible for me to describe the word without the word itself.

That night in bed was one week ago. After spending at least two hours in bed listening to me loudly attempt various methods of remembering the word my wife, clearly exhausted, went to bed, but I stayed up for four more hours. I would not sleep until I figured it out. By 3am, however, I had exhausted myself, and I too went to sleep.

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Have you heard of Float Nashville? Have you seen Stranger Things? You know the sensory deprivation tank in Stranger Things? So Float Nashville is, basically it’s structured like a massage place, but instead of massage tables they have a sensory deprivation tank, and you float in the tank for 90 minutes, and that’s the whole session. It’s called floatation therapy. I drive by there every day to and from work. When I woke up the next morning to that puppy yapping from the next room I still had not figured out the word, and it was really driving me up the wall. So while I drove to school I decided to stop at Float Nashville and make an appointment, or at least see what they were all about in there. The lady at the counter was very pleasant. I made an appointment for the following morning at 8am, when they open. I was surprised they could fit me in so soon. I spent the rest of my day rather preoccupied with figuring out the word. I spent my two-hour lunch on Thesaurus.com. No luck.

Night Shyamalan’s 2016 psychological thriller Split recently became available for streaming on Netflix. My wife and I had been wanting to watch it, and we finally found the time that night, as we both managed to get home around 5pm. She picked up a pizza on the way home. We opened a bottle of wine and snuggled up on the couch with Cooper and watched Split. James McAvoy plays a man with dissociative identity disorder. He has 23 different, fully-formed personalities between which he alternates regularly. One of his personalities kidnaps three teenage girls to feed to the newest addition to his horde of identities, a 24th personality, referred to by the other 23 as “The Beast”. I don’t want to give too much away, but that’s the general premise. I liked the movie. I thought James McAvoy did a great job with his characters, and I thought it contained a powerful message. It was also a welcome distraction from the word I couldn’t remember.

Then I woke up the next morning and went to my Float Nashville appointment. My floatation therapist was an older woman named Debbie. She laid me down in the tank, put a cloth over my eyes and left the room. The tank was in the middle of the room. The water was warm and salty. My mind was racing, but after about twenty minutes I was basically asleep, but not totally asleep. How do I explain it? I couldn’t feel my body, but I was able to move freely. Everything was very dark but I could also see the room, as though I were sitting upright and looking around.

Suddenly there was an old man standing at the foot of my tank, and he began casually speaking to me. He died in a house fire when he was a teenage boy. His body was badly burnt, and his mother decided to have him cremated, “to finish the job,” the man joked. He told me that behind the Float Nashville building there is an old funeral home, still operating today, where the cremation had been performed almost seventy years ago. His ashes were scattered over a creek bed, but his “essence”, as he put it, belonged to the funeral home.

“They got it all wrong,” he said. “They should have buried my body. Then I would have been able to move about freely. I was badly burnt, blackened all over, but my body was still intact, it was still my home. I could come and go as I pleased. Those few days between the house fire and the cremation can only be described as an immense experience. Or: pure beauty. The feeling of having that freedom stripped away by cremation, however, the absolute horror of it, I would not dare to describe to you. They took everything from me. Now I am weak. I live here out of necessity because I cannot go too far. When Debbie and James built this Float Nashville some twenty years ago I was pleasantly surprised to find I could quite easily communicate with the floaters. It gives me something to do.”

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I was at once shocked and comforted by the candor of this ghost. Clearly he had perfected his little spiel over the years so as to gently ease floaters into conversation without overwhelming them or taking away from their overall Float Nashville experience. He asked me about my day and what brought me into Float Nashville. I spent the remainder of my Float chatting with the man but, indeed, did not feel distracted from my main purpose. The man, in all his selflessness, was an integral part of the Float Nashville experience. He was there for you, you were there for him, he was there for himself, you were there for yourself, all in the name of soul-searching.

I told him about the word I couldn’t remember, expecting him to tell me to stop worrying about such trivial matters. Instead he thoughtfully heeded my concerns, not offering advice or relief so much as listening, really, seriously listening, allowing me to feel as though my problem were very real and important and should be treated as such. He did not make me feel silly. The only way to solve a problem is to follow it to its logical conclusion, to keep your head down, he said. It was clear that he was very lonely, being so above it all. In order to form connections with people he had to let go of his otherworldly pretensions and take floaters at face value, though I imagine he saw much more than he let on. That he was able to briefly suspend those pretensions while simultaneously being defined by them is a testament to his enduring humanity, even after death.

I don’t think I’ll go back to Float Nashville. It’s not that it wasn’t worth my time or money, because it was. I just can’t see myself going back. When Debbie woke me up after my 90 minutes I felt a small-scale version of what I imagine the old man felt when he was cremated: loss. What is there to gather into some tangible meaning, something practical, in the aftermath of such surreal, life-altering moments? This profound sadness, this horrible longing which makes you stronger, which improves you in the long run, which you can only experience as grief, as a complete bottoming out? I don’t want it back. I don’t wish I were still floating. I never want to float again, really. I don’t want anything. But there’s this pain.

At one point, while I recounted to him the entire plot of Split, in saying the whole thing out loud I realized how fucked up that movie is. Like, yes, of course there are the tone-deaf political implications. There’s the overt sexualization of (kidnapped!) teenage girls, the glorification of sexual abuse, the mindless portrayal of mental illness, the heavy-handed zoo imagery at the end of the movie, the list goes on, of, just, shit. But I was more concerned with the basic fact that I watched the movie, and not only did I watch the movie, but now I’m sitting in a sensory deprivation tank talking about it with a fucking ghost! I have a wife, we have a puppy in our house that not 24 hours before was lying on the side of the road covered in its own shit, and the best use of our time was to watch the fucking 2016 M. Night Shyamalan psychological thriller Split? Is the irony of that too obvious to be worth mentioning?

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And anyways, it didn’t help me remember the word, and now I’m sitting here rambling about it to a 15? 16? year old! God! Sorry about that. That phone call really set me off. Now we are running out of time. Everyone’s hearing about this lately. Everyone’s hearing about my problems. I made a friend at Portland Brew the other day, you know the place on 12th South? I was grading tests and she came up to my table and told me she liked my look. We ended up talking for more than an hour and exchanged numbers. Seems like she could be a good friend. We made plans to grab a bite and a drink at Mafiaoza’s. This was two nights ago. After half a glass of wine, there I was, rambling away about this damn word! I started getting really upset. I started talking about the English language as a whole, and what a scam it is. Maybe language as a whole, I don’t know, I only speak English. She started crying, listening to me fruitlessly unpack all this stuff. I don’t know how to be casual with people! I don’t know how to let relationships unfold at a healthy pace! I just vomit whatever’s on my mind. I don’t help people, I just talk and talk about myself. This meeting was supposed to be for you! You’re applying to college, you need my help! And even now I’m still sitting here talking about myself, totally derailing the whole thing…

That’s the word! Derail! To derail. Oh my god, that’s the word…

Do you have anything you want to say?… No? I suppose I understand… You can go if you want. We should reschedule your appointment. Sometime tomorrow morning? I’ll email you tonight…

Jesus, I need to call my wife.

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