Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 14 — In the Evening

The ApartmentsContinued from: Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 13 — Here’s Looking at You, Kid

The evening temperature had cooled, but not as quickly as the dinner conversation between Ellen and Cooper before he left the apartment. He never asked her why she wasn’t out there looking for a job, so it came as a bit of a surprise when she brought up the issue with him. “It would give you a chance to get some of the things you’re always talking about that other kids have and we can’t afford,” she said.

He stared into the compartmental frozen dinner—some of the peas were burned while others were still crusted with ice. He was just beginning high school and she wanted him to get a job already? What was that all about? Must have seen something on TV about kids with jobs excelling in other areas of life, or helping to supplement the family income. He thought about all of the romanticized visions of the thirties he’d seen in movies, the years of the Great Depression that commanded an “all for one, and one for all” attitude. Boys quitting school to work in factories and girls never bothering with education in the first place, opting instead to stay home and help take care of younger siblings, or mend clothes and cook what little food the men could muster with their meager earnings. But these weren’t the 1930’s. The economy was still booming, and while the job market was very good, Cooper had no interest in joining the work force. He wasn’t a character in The Grapes of Wrath, and as far as he could tell, the women back in that time worked just as hard as the men. You’re not exactly Ma Fuckin’ Joad, he wanted to say, but didn’t. Such a comment wasn’t worth the aftermath.

He slithered out of the conversation and away from the apartment without acknowledging her suggestion that he think about getting a job.

A thin arc of moonlight bled into the sky as dusk crept steadily forth. Narrow clouds smudged the sunset, brushing the horizon in red streaks. A slight wind picked up, whispering through the treetops. He sat on the curb, eyes closed, listening to the shaking leaves, and he imagined the breeze translated into some other language—a connection between his thoughts and nature. Like the vapory line between consciousness and dream.

Cooper had spent many nights on the curb waiting for darkness to claim the day. He drew from a cigarette most times, just after dinner, purging the residual tastes of frozen dinners and processed desserts. Usually it was Little Debbie cakes or ring dings that followed the main course. Home economics class had taught him the reality of the diet his mother subsided on, and he tried to sneak in a healthy thing or two every now and then to avoid further punishment to his body. Unlike most kids his age, he usually passed over the twizzlers and slush puppies in the school cafeteria in favor of an apple and a spring water. He wasn’t thinking about nutrition, though, as he sat there and sucked on a cigarette and watched its tip glow. The spent match book lay crumpled to his side and he regretted not grabbing more before he left the apartment.

A tangle of voices emerged from the distance. Cooper knew it would be some of the other teenaged residents of The Villas. Although there were plenty of them, he got along with only a few. Most were slackers whose idea of a good time included lighting fires on the run-down tennis courts and throwing rocks at street lights. Monday mornings usually displayed the remnants of those bulbs sprinkled along the edge of the pavement. Many of the teens hung around the parking lot where he now sat, kicking a hacky sack or lighting firecrackers—sometimes sneaking off in pairs to smoke a joint in the shrubs. He steered clear of them for the most part, avoiding their glares or the occasional hazing they offered, their telling him to take his skirt off and join them for a smoke. He had nothing against people who smoked pot, but those kids were loud and obnoxious, hooting into the late night hours and leaving broken glass and candy wrappers strewn in their wake.

He stubbed out his cigarette on the curb but remained seated when they came into view. A fleeting sense of regret passed and he wished he’d retreated to the woods before they’d arrived. The tree-top perch in the woods was a sanctuary, though, and he was cautious to hide it from other people in the days since he built it. The last thing in the world he wanted was for those douche bags to discover his spot and claim it as their own. So he waited out the darkness, considering that he could sit and watch them. It was way better than television.

Three figures approached, one taller than the others. Cooper guessed it was Danny Spade, a three-time high school freshman. Triple crown. It was a wonder that nobody seemed to pick up on the fact that he was a lot older than most of the kds in his grade—that he’d be able to drive them to school if he had enough brains to pass the licensure test. His loud mouth was attached to a pimply face and Cooper heard him called ‘pincushion’ by more than a few of his dead-beat upperclass friends while they gunned the engines of their late model cars and gawked at pretty girls in the high school parking lot. Pincushion Danny always tried to give it right back to them, but usually failed in this endeavor as his mind lacked the creativity to fashion good comebacks. It was usually the old standard “yeah sure, just like your mom”, but occasionally he spouted some gibberish like “whatever sizzle-face. That’s what the mushroom said.” Sadly, the supposed insults were out of context and rarely made any sense—words that sounded like curses but were nothing more than garbled nonsense.

But Danny did have one area of expertise that was amusing. Cooper had seen him in action from a distance one afternoon and it wasn’t clear, at first, just what Pincushion’s intentions were. The main road that led from the island’s center to The Villas had an uptick in traffic most afternoons, so it didn’t seem like a smart thing he was witnessing when he watched Danny run out in the middle of the road, squat down, and then run back toward the spot he came from. Pincushion had done this twice before Cooper got close enough to understand what was going on. The embarrassment flushed on the face of the first guy who stopped, a bread truck driver, squeezed into a uniform that was a bit too small, foretold the fun that could be had. Pincushion Danny left an opened porn magazine in the middle of the road, and then hid behind a bench on the side of the road. When the bread driver pulled to the side of the road, Cooper posted himself against a telephone pole a few hundred feet away. The poor guy waddled out into traffic, an awkward gait that could be paralleled only by the fattest of fat kids on the first day of gym class, and bent to pull the magazine from the pavement. At that point, Pincushion Danny Spade came bolting from behind the bench bellowing, “Pervert. We have a slip-dashin’ pervert, folkie folks.” It was almost the nyuck-nyuck voice of the Three Stooges, only a hell of lot more annoying. “A dissa-disappointed pervert, at that.” He’d brushed the nudie magazine with tar before affixing it to the concrete, preventing the guy from capitalizing on his discovery.

Cooper felt bad for the guy, but reasoned that it was a pretty pathetic maneuver, on his part, to fall into that trap. It also reinforced his opinion that Danny Spade was nobody he would ever call a friend.

When the voices came closer, it appeared that Pincushion Danny was accompanied by Rod Sullivan, a bullish boy with wide shoulders who lived with his grandmother in the building next to Cooper’s. Rod was more well spoken than Pincushion, but he had a few issues of his own which most people probably didn’t know about. In seventh grade, he’d been in math class with Cooper, and when he acquired the chicken pox, Cooper spent a week delivering his assignments from the school. On one of those visits, the kid’s grandmother confided to Cooper that Rod’s spirits were especially down because not only was he sequestered from the world with chicken pox, but also his mother hadn’t made parole at her recent hearing. “Oh, well that’s too bad,” Cooper said, not quite realizing what parole meant. But his own mom filled him in rather quickly on those details that evening. If there was one good thing about his mom it was her vault of television related information. At the time, he figured he owed his knowledge of parole to NYPD Blue or Matlock, two of his mom’s absolute favorites. Rod treated Cooper cooly from that point on, probably figuring that if he avoided giving Cooper a reason to talk with him, then maybe he’d be less apt to talk about him.

Molly Shanahan bobbed like a puppet between her not-so-highly-pedigreed companions. Her giggle sliced through the evening like a bus chortling across a garden on a spring morning. “Nooooo Daaanny,” she squealed before coiling away from him in a pitch of laughter. She latched onto Rod’s arm and Cooper imagined him blushing, a real live girl actually touching him. He wondered if there were scars left on that arm from the outbreak of chicken pox. That sort of thing probably wouldn’t bother Molly though, as her reputation attested to being very comfortable touching people. As an eighth grader she’d been banned from riding the school bus for lifting up her shirt and selling views of her naked boobs for a quarter apiece. She’d become notorious from that point on, referred to as Molly Mounds.

More recently, though, Cooper had been tramping through the woods on the way to his then-unfinished tree perch when he heard that familiar squeal erupting from a thicket of undergrowth. He approached with caution, moving each branch with care, and was rewarded with quite a show. There she was, Molly with her eyes closed, chin dipped toward the sky, and clothes scattered. Cooper didn’t recognize the guy who was fucking her that afternoon, but he didn’t really care. Probably some trashy utility man she lured off a pole or a random pedestrian she passed on her way home from school—he often saw her walking alone as the school bus lumbered past. After a moment of watching from behind a tree, Cooper put a hand in his pocket and was disappointed to feel himself stiffening. He retraced his steps through the undergrowth and found the path toward his tree, climbing it, and, before he even reached his perch, he had his dick in his hands and rubbed one out.

The three of them stopped a few dozen yards from Cooper, Molly sitting down on the paved parking lot while the two boys paced half-circles around her. Pincushion Danny cast a blade-like shadow as the fluorescent parking lot lights illuminated with a hum. Rod lowered to a knee and Cooper watched, waiting to see what he was doing. Was he into plastering the world with dirty pictures like his buddy? Soon it was clear that he was chalking some sort of design into the parking lot. His hands worked busily, one propping his chubby frame while the other worked the chalk back and forth.

“What’ch ya drawing, dickweed?” Pincushion leered.

Rod was not baited by the comment and continued to work. Molly lazed back on her elbows staring up toward the sky, closely resembling her position on the forest floor on that lustful afternoon. Cooper watched her intently, the head swaying back and forth, cut-off jeans riding steep on her thighs. He wondered if he’d ever consider chasing after her or if her reputation would prevent him from allowing himself to get mixed up with her. He imagined kissing her and concluded that it’d be like going out for ice cream with your mother after accidentally seeing her naked. He pulled a fresh cigarette from his breast pocket and stood up and kicked aside the spent match book. A stone fell from the curb where he’d been sitting, inviting all three of them to look up at him.

Pincushion rocked back and forth on his heels and Rod stopped drawing. The two of them looked startled, frozen, and Cooper stared at them—like Danny and Rod were a giraffe and a bear cub awaiting a new visitor in their wild kingdom. Molly pulled her knees toward her chest and when Cooper drew near he noticed the cleavage that spilled over her tank top. She offered him a bubbly smile when he stopped.

“Well, look who came out to play,” Pincushion jeered.

“Hey Cooper. What’s up?” Again, Rod ignored his gawky friend and played the situation cool. Cooper found himself searching for the scars of chicken pox and decided that the lights in the lot were not bright enough.

“What’s happening guys? Molly?” They were all staring at him and he suddenly wished that he hadn’t come over to join them in the first place. But, then again, he needed that light.

“Just chillin’” Rod said. He stared bashfully at the image he’d chalked into the parking lot: a bluish eye with a star shaped iris. A stick figure hunched beneath the eye as if trying to carry it on his back.

“Charles Atlas with a twist,” Cooper said.

“Yeah. Maybe something like that. I need to stick to the chalk for a while since I got busted for tagging a wall down at school. Had to scrub those fucking bricks with a wire brush for three Saturdays in a row.”

Cooper vaguely remembered Rod as an artist but had no idea he was into graffiti. He thought of all the images he’d seen painted in public places around town and wondered if Rod was responsible—the library, the tunnels near the public train, cinder block walls behind the mall, even the sidewalk in front of a church. His favorite had been at the school bus stop: airbrushed people dancing around a campfire, images of psychedelia swirling upward in the flames, beautiful blends of vivid purples and oranges accented with lime green symbols.

“Not bad,” Cooper said. “Sure beats hanging around this place doing nothing,” he finished, glaring at Pincushion. Molly laughed.

“Do you have one for me to smoke, Cooper?” she asked.

Sexual innuendoes sped through his mind but he crunched them away before saying, “Sure thing. As long as you’ve got a light.” He shook one from the soft package and handed it over. She produced a salmon-colored Bic from her pocket and lit him up before lighting herself. He nodded his thanks and stepped away from them. “I’ll be seeing you guys around. Stay outta trouble tonight,” he called over his shoulder.

Dusk had slipped into total darkness and he tightened the straps of his backpack. He still had a few hours before his mom would start worrying.

To Be Continued

Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 13 — Here’s Looking at You, Kid

Map of Mystic IslandContinued from: Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 12— A Little Privacy 

“You did a hell of a job out there today. You’re really getting good, Kid.”

“Dad, do you have to smoke in the car? It makes all my clothes stink. And, will you stop calling me Kid? I’m sixteen now, you know.”

“I mean it. Those girls on the other team were probably shaking in fear.”

“At least roll the window down. My eyes are starting to water.”

“You know any of those other girls? What town was that anyway?”

“Dad. Please. Will you roll down your window?”

Bender rolled his eyes a bit, but hoped she didn’t see him. She seemed just like her mother sometimes, as if nagging was a genetic trait like brown eyes or diabetes. He imagined some doctor slinking into a wating room and saying under his breath, We’re sorry, sir, but she seems to carry the genes for constant whining and extreme bitchiness. Each is untreatable at the present time.

Bender cranked the window down and began laughing. He found it difficult to stop. The image soon expanded, adopting cartoon-like characteristics that aligned Jesse and her mother, each with oversized heads, in an old laboratory. Guys in black smocks raced around monitoring their behavior and then punched numbers into a computer. Mother and daughter sat and stared at the geeky lab techs with bitchy disdane.

“What’s so funny?” Jesse asked, apparently eased by the freshened air.

“Oh nothing, honey. I was just thinking about something that happened at work today.”

“I don’t know what could happen in a guidance office that could be funny,” she sneered.

The word guidance fell from her mouth with distaste. It was the way that he imagined the lawn chair mothers would have spoken, and he wondered if Jesse would grow up to be just like them—scrambling eggs for some prick of a husband before he goes off to his office job and then sitting around scoping through gardening magazines before the afternoon soaps, whipping some sort of dinner-in-a-box together and then after the sit-coms, kissing the kids good night and shuffling off to bed with Mr. Wonderful. What a pitiful fucking existence.

“What was that all about, Jess?”

He was struggling to remain calm.

“What is what all about?”

“Guidance. You say it like I shovel shit for a living. Or sell used cars.”

“Missy Stapleton’s father sells used cars and they have two houses,” she said.

“Missy Stapleton is a little cunt.”

She recoiled, and he instantly regretted speaking the word to his daughter.

He then said, “And who needs two houses? He probably bought two of them so he could live in one and his wife and daughter can live in the other.”

“Is that what you want? To live in a different place, away from me and mommy?”

“No, that’s not what I want. I’m just making a point.”

He threw his cigarette out the window and watched in the side mirror as it bounced in the road, ashes sputtering each time it hit the pavement.

“Why are we even talking about this?” he continued. “And don’t call her mommy. Don’t you think you’re getting a little old for that? Hell, you just told me not to call you kid.”

“Oh, I could think of a few things I’d like to call you.”

The car screeched to a halt. A van traveling behind them swerved and its horn trailed as it sped past them. Bender maneuvered the car slowly to the side of the road and turned off the ignition. Jesse was staring out the passenger side window. The shoulder sloped down into a field that was sewn with potato chip wrappers and crinkled plastic bags. A rusty shopping cart peaked out of the tall weeds a few yards away like a small child playing hide-and-seek. She didn’t look like she was going to budge, but he figured he had all day to wait for her to turn toward him.

He dragged on the butt and exhaled through his nose. It seemed to tame the instinct to strike out at her, the child he had loved, the young woman that was forming and betraying him simultaneously.

“Jess, there are some things that we need to…”

“Let’s just go home,” she said. “I’m not interested in talking about this right now.”

“Not interested,” he whispered.

The cigarette tasted good, like a morsel of grilled meat to a starving man. Heat surged into his fingertips, bucked his knees with tension. His cheeks and forehead flushed the color of fresh brick. Bender flicked the cigarette out the window and then watched the cherry simmer atop the pavement. Gum wrappers and other spent butts adorned the road side and he reasoned that his cigarette would be able to mingle with other butts. Maybe catch up on old times with a friend who got shuffled off to a different carton down at the plant in Winston-Salem. Then he leaned out the window, the wind passing through his hair in invisible ribbons.

“She isn’t interestred in talking about it,” he screamed.

A station wagon passed and the little boy wedged against the backseat window smiled and flipped him the bird. Bender returned the gesture and was pleased by the kid’s scared look.

“Dad, get in the car,” she yelled. “Stop acting like such a retard. Start the car.”

He composed himself and settled back into the driver’s seat. His arms stretched forward, fingers webbed together and he waited for the knuckles to crack.

“I’ve got a better idea, Little Miss Jessica. Little Miss Replica of her mommy. Why don’t you get out of the car? Go ahead,” he whisked the air in front of her with his hand. “I’d hate to have anyone see you riding around with a low life guidance counselor.”

Her arms folded squarely beneath her freshly-formed breasts and she pouted toward the windshield.

“Get out, Kid. You can walk your smart ass right on home.”

She wasn’t budging. Her eyes were closed, her breathing steady.

“Okay,” he said. “Like Bogart said: ‘Here’s looking at you, Kid.’”

Bender yanked the keys from the ignition and stepped out of the Jeep. He lit another cigarette before walking away, wondering if she even knew who the hell Humphrey Bogart was.

If he’d looked back at the Jeep he would have seen the concerned eyes of his daughter watching him retreat from her. He would have seen his Jeep parked on the roadside choked with litter. He would have seen her wanting him to take her with him, or wanting him to come back to drive her home as planned.

But he kept on walking and didn’t look back.

Continued in: Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 14 — In the Evening

Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 12— A Little Privacy

The ApartmentsContinued from: Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 11— The Wolf Den 

Cooper stared at the tub while he slid the grimy jeans down his legs and pulled out of his shirt. A rust-colored stain crowned the porcelain floor and crinkles of dried out hair sprouted through the drain holes. It was strange that his mother was always telling him to take a shower—she seemed awfully concerned with cleanliness for someone who didn’t make much of an effort to sanitize the bathroom, or any other part of the apartment, for that matter. Sometimes he sat on the toilet and ran the shower to give her the impression that he was following through on her instructions. And on other occasions, he’d step into the sprinkling water, penis in hand and stroke himself into the floor of the wet tub. Pangs of guilt would ensue the masturbation but he grew to not care much one way or the other. After all, he figured, the place was already brimming with strangeness. How was a little jizz going to hurt?

He cranked the knob and the faucet squeaked on. When he stepped into the flow, the water chilled his body, rippling goose bumps across his chest and arms. The slimy bar of soap almost slipped out of his hands, but once the water warmed up he began to lather his face and neck. He thought briefly about touching himself, gathering images of Suzy Becker, eyes sealed shut. There she was in the shower with him, her exacting fingers cupping his butt as she rocked from heel to toe in front of him, brushing his lips with her own each time she got close. He imagined the oversized tee shirt draped over her wet body, nipples budding through, inviting his touch. He reached to reel her in, her naked thighs twining with his own, his penis throbbing, hard enough to nail in the safety rails on his tree platform, if need be. She distributed kisses on his face and then on his chest, working her way toward his belly. And at last, she giggled, but the giggle evolved to a cackle and he looked down into her eyes, and it was Mrs. Bradford’s eyes leering up at him. Hellooooooww? Where do you think you’re going young man? The fantasy evaporated and Cooper’s penis quickly shriveled in his hand. He opened his eyes and twitched his head back and forth like a wet dog, trying to shake himself free of the image. The fantasy seemed the nearest thing to sacrilege that he could conjure—Suzy Becker’s supple body with Mrs. Bradford’s bug-eyed, old face attached—like a bag of trash replacing the angel affixed to the top of a Christmas tree.

The water quickly lost its comforting warmth and instead felt repulsive to his skin. He rushed through the routine of shampooing his hair, cropping up thick foam with his hurrying fingers. “Where the fuck am I gonna get a hammer,” he whispered, suddenly thinking about the safety rails on the tree platform. He probably wouldn’t even go out there after dinner, but the problem lingered just the same. It was a weekend job and that gave him a few days to figure out a solution. If there was a man in the house, there’d be a better chance of having some tools around. The closest thing to a tool box in the apartment was a box full of tacks and string and tape. His mom’s unspoken motto seemed to be: “If it can’t be done with the hands alone, then it ain’t getting done . . . call the maintenance man.” Cooper rinsed his hair, took another shot of water to each arm pit and capped the shampoo bottle. Another of his mom’s pet peeves.

“Dinner’s almost ready . . . about three minutes. So hustle up.”

She’d hollered through the paneled door to him. He took a final rinse, thankful that she had respected his privacy enough to leave the door shut. It got to be pretty annoying when, at fifteen, your mother still felt she had the right to come in and brush her teeth while you were in the shower. Or even while you were taking a shit. Maybe she’ll be stopping that, he hoped, shutting down the water.

Continued from: Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 13 — Here’s Looking at You, Kid 

Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 11— The Wolf Den

Mystic Island High SchoolContinued from: Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 10 — Evaluation

The afternoon clouds had burned off, leaving the soccer field glazed in pink light. Bender leaned against his Jeep and smoked a cigarette. The girls on the field darted back and forth, their blue tube socks and uniform shorts marking them against the woods that stretched beyond the field. He watched them through the chain link fence, squinting to locate Jesse. She probably didn’t even know that he would be the one coming to get her and he hoped she wouldn’t be pissed about it. Sadly, he remembered the days, not too long ago, when she had been daddy’s little girl, following him around the yard on weekends and begging to help him with chores. Her favorite activity had been going to the dump, and he’d often rewarded her ethic with a trip to the Softy Serve ice cream stand out near the end of the dump road. In the spring and fall he would kick around the soccer ball with her in the back yard and always cave in when she pleaded for “just two more minutes.” But that had all changed. She was now wrapped in her teen years, and it seemed like any effort to involve himself in her life was greeted with resistance. Instead of hanging out with him on the weekends, she now had her friends, and even seemed to choose her mother over his company. Jesse and her mother were always nose deep in fashion magazines, discussing new trends and feminine issues. He figured that she was striving to become a woman and that she saw little he could offer in that quest.

“Let’s go, Jess,” he shouted.

A few of the soccer moms who adorned the edge of the field in their lawn chairs looked his way. One of them had sunglasses perched on top of her head and a bottle of spring water clutched in her hand. He recognized her from the PTO meetings, her raised hand always sailing back and forth to command attention. She was one who thrived on trivial issues, pointing out that school assemblies needed to have assigned seating to better the supervision, or petitioning for teachers to send home daily progress reports. There were always a few of them cut from the same fabric—father’s who brought motions for new football helmets to replace the old ones that had a few scratches, arguing how it would help to “preserve the integrity of the program.” One particular fall night, there had been a PTO meeting where the mothers of a few cheerleaders propositioned the school committee to make cuts in the art program to provide separate transportation for cheerleaders to away games. “How can we expect our girls to focus when they have all of that testosterone distraction to contend with?” one of them wondered.

Bender realized long ago that most of them were loud-mouths and he accepted their presence at those meetings. He even grew to welcome it as a nice sabbatical from thinking. Just sit back, hands laced behind the head and think about that Sunday’s Patriots game or which movie he might want to catch that weekend. They were like mosquitoes at summer camp, ignored after awhile, but back with equal virility year after year. It wasn’t until the anti-smoking campaign that he actually wanted to swat a few of them.

He stubbed out the cigarette and began to walk over toward the field. When he rounded the fence, a sharp whistle blew and a commotion assembled near mid-field. One of the players was down on her back and many of the mothers craned in their chairs to get a good look at the casualty. Jesse was one of the ones looking on, hands on her hips. He was glad to see that she was one of the kids who was actually in the game, rather than one of the left-outs on the sidelines. Many of the high school kids he encountered in his office developed serious esteem problems as a result of being a part of a team without really feeling useful. It was a debilitative problem that was unfortunately built right into any kind of group activity and it was only worsened when kids were pressured into sports that they had no real passion for.

When the girl who’d been down rose to a knee, many of the mothers applauded briefly before resuming their conversations. He walked a bit closer and stood behind them, their voices pitched low to try to mask the gossip. Jesse still hadn’t spotted him, but that was okay. She’d probably be nicer to him on the way home if she didn’t have time to build up any angst.

“. . . and so then she came home to find the letter from his psychiatrist,” one of the mosquitoes was saying, “Can you believe it? Ten years old and he’s got a psychiatrist.”

“Good Lord. Thankfully, Bob spends so much time with Andrew that he will avoid developing those problems.”

“Oh, Sue. I hope you’re right. They’re such good people and now they have this to deal with. The Watson’s on the other hand are taking another trip to Maui. Saul thinks it’s great, but I have a sneaky feeling that David Watson has a gambling problem. Where else would he be getting all of this new wealth?”

Doesn’t sound like a problem to me, Bender thought. The guy’s going to be rubbing his toes into the beach in Maui and you’re in a lawn chair at the soccer field.

One of the women glared back at him, as if he’d actually voiced his thought, recognizing him as the helpless eavesdropper, and he shrugged his shoulders. He shook a cigarette from his breast pocket and lit it. It felt good to stand there in the crisp fall evening and have a smoke. There was a certain wing of liberation that lifted him above the senseless chatter on the sidelines, and for a moment he felt like he was doing something important. All of the headaches that he inherited from waking up each morning were put on hold, allowing more pleasant thoughts to ripple though his mind—football games and cold beer, for instance. He’d always enjoyed smoking in the fall time as a kid. It sounded trite but it had seemed like a wonderful thing. And the bounty of exciting memories that the habit carried chided him into becoming a “lifer” as his old man had called it. He hunted deer in eastern Maine with his dad while growing up and smoking became a mutual labor of theirs while trudging through the woods in the brittle November dawn. The combination of nature’s tranquility and nicotine’s massage seemed like an intercourse second only to afterlife and heaven. In high school, he felt so cool sitting in his idle T-Bird in front of the school and waiting for all the girls to walk by and see him there. Some had been impressed, and although cigarettes may not have been the attraction, they were part of his “package” by now; as much a piece of his personality as his trademark dirty jokes and hearty laugh.

He’d surely stop someday, hopefully before it killed him. He dreaded the prospect of the doc opening an inner office door where he waited shirtless on the examining table. “I’m sorry, Steve. We’ve got a bit of a problem detected.” Every smokers worst nightmare, but a fate that most of them would surely need to rise up and greet. The big “C”. Steve Bender just needed a reason to stop, and his nagging wife and bratty daughter weren’t strong candidates in the reason department. He’d almost welcome terminal illness as an alternate to terminal marriage.

“Sir, could you please go elsewhere if you are going to smoke?”

The lawn chair women were both glaring at him. Each of them had a sneer twisted onto her face and the one with glasses propped on her head cleared her throat as if she may repeat the request.

“As far as I can tell, this is the smoking section.”

He motioned around to the open space with both of his arms spread like a preacher. Distant trees swayed in the wind and a few other parents were scampering through the parking lot to catch the last moments of the scrimmage.

“It is offensive,” she finally blurted. “And there is plenty of room for you to go and contaminate the air elsewhere.”

“The way I see it, you two are the ones contaminating the air with your noise pollution. ‘Gossip on a beautiful day is like pouring vinegar on chocolate cake’. My mother used to say that. She’s dead now. Smoked too much. With that, ladies, I will do as you request and free your area of further contamination.”

He took a drag and exhaled. Then he farted loudly. One of the women balked in disgust, but he didn’t give her the pleasure of taking notice. He paced slowly up the sideline, locating Jesse with little effort. She was working hard, sweat glistening on her strained face, and pride surged through him. He knew that she was a good kid at heart, and he accepted some responsibility for the ethic she was showing out there. Just because she didn’t want to help him with the chores didn’t mean that she couldn’t retain some of that healthy determination.

“Come on, Kid. Keep your chin up.”

He didn’t know what else to say, but she looked his way and seemed almost glad to see him before her chin dropped. The seconds were ticking away from the oversized electronic clock that towered above the field. It had been a gift of “Wolf Den”, the association of jock parents who rubbed shoulders with one another at sporting events while waiting for their kids to outdo each other. They sent representatives to the school board meetings to bring up issues that usually tempted Bender to step outside for a cigarette. New bats for the baseball team. Extra water jugs for the football sideline. Improved lighting in the locker room showers. One concerned father had wondered aloud about why the school had “wasted” funds on music stands for the jazz band when there were only two volleyball nets in the gym. Several of them had hooted their approval when funds were earmarked for the new scoreboard at the field. It now showed that the scrimmage was only a minute from completion.

Continued: Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 12— A Little Privacy

Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 10 — Evaluation

The ApartmentsContinued from: Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 9 — Guidance

Mitch, leaning against the building and taking a long drag from a cigarette, peeled flecks of dried paint from his fingers. Two new tenants were moving in that weekend, and it was his job to lay a fresh coat of paint in their apartments. It was a job he’d have delegated to Scott under normal circumstances, but in light of Scott’s recent desire for oversized women’s undergarments, Mitch was stuck with the grunt work. One down and one to go.

The descending sun was pulling long shadows across the parking lot and he looked up the access road at a cluster of school kids. He wondered why they were getting home so late. Detention, sports practice, extra help. Or maybe they were just wandering around the island like he did at that age. It’d be nice to have the life of a school kid, he thought as he watched them pass. Get home whenever and have dinner cooked and ready. Take some time to figure out math problems, write a few paragraphs, flirt on the telephone. The fleeting fantasy briefly overran his current problems—the short-handed maintenance unit, a sick dog, and a growing gambling debt.

He flicked away the spent cigarette and made a mental note to get his picks in for that Sunday’s NFL games. He was due for a lucky week.

As Mitch passed one of the apartments, he heard distorted arguing voices—the turned-up-too-loud trailer-trash on a television engaged in heated battle. As the tension climbed, their voices pitched in anger and the words became indistinguishable, but that seemed par for the show as the nearly-identical plot unraveled each afternoon. Misfits of America united onstage to banter back and forth over an issue for which it was obvious from the get-go that there was no resolution. This day’s episode profiled teenage girls with newly grown boobs spilling out of their tanktops. Occasionally a girl rose from her seat on the stage and pranced in front of her obese, tattooed mother. “I make more money in a half hour on my back than you make in a month,” the girl-of-the-moment taunted. She bent toward her shaking mother, the bottoms of her ass cheeks forced beneath the cuffs of her tight shorts for living room America to evaluate.

“But what will you do when you can’t do this any more?” The host of the show looked puzzled. He feigned concern, but it was apparent to even those with little intelligence (the majority of the viewing audience) that he was probably more worried about where he would vacation that winter than with the welfare of this young tramp.

“I have enough . . . .”

Ellen muted the television, cutting off the discourse between the overpaid-host and his under-dressed guest. She turned her attention to the new issue of TV guide that she pulled from the mail box just after lunch. Boredom had set in, as it usually did in the hours between the soaps and the night-time dramas. She rarely had the ambition to read a book and the prospect of searching for a new job seemed to have abandoned her long ago. As long as the government kept helping out, she really saw no incentive to even think about it. Why would anyone want to scrub motel toilets or run a supermarket check out, when an equal-sized check showed up every Wednesday afternoon?

A newly crowned star graced the cover of the squat magazine and she puzzled herself in an attempt to place him. She knew she’d seen him before but couldn’t decide whether his fame derived from sitcoms or dramas. In all probability, she figured, he was a sitcom star. She didn’t watch those types of shows. Instead, she paid attention to the real life “probable” story lines. Her favorites were the hospital dramas that depicted those cute young doctors who needed to balance the conflicts of their personal lives with those that sprung up in the emergency room. The consistent struggle to lead a normal life while coping with external pressure held great appeal for her. But she also enjoyed the glossy shows like Beverly Hills 90210 which explored the petty lives of all of the beautiful people whose dilemmas evolved while they crashed their sports cars, fashioned love triangles with one another, and coped with pending adulthood.

As she explored the television listings for the evening, Ellen heard a key rattle in the door. She shut the magazine, wedged it between the cushions on the couch and waited for Cooper.

He let the door fall shut behind him with caution, hoping that his mother was asleep on the couch. Waking her always proved disappointing, forcing him to stand before her, as if on trial, and field questions ranging from his day at school to his activities following the dismissal bell. This aspect of their relationship had cultivated Cooper’s ability to lie as he usually needed to sculpt an alternate version of the truth in order to satisfy her. As he climbed through adolescence, he found it more difficult to appease his mother. She expected only good things from him and needed to know that he was hanging with the right crowd. It was no matter that she spent afternoons lazing on the couch with a cigarette stuffed between her lips. He was to do something productive with his time.

“Where ya been?” she called toward the closing door.

He didn’t detect anger in her voice, but remained wary just the same. In the past she amazed him by speaking in soft toned questions that proved to be thinly disguised accusations. In short, a “where ya been” from his mother just may be a “you are late and I’m pissed”, or a “have you gotten in any trouble”, or a “why weren’t you here? I needed you to run to the store for me.” But, then again, it could’ve just been a face value “where ya been?”

Cooper walked home from school again that day. The bulge of noise from the overcrowded bus was unappealing in the first place, but he decided to see if there might be an empty seat near the front. On such a hot afternoon, band geeks and blubber-necked girls seemed better than the hooting jocks in the back. He stood at the top of the short stairwell, waiting for the line to crush its way down the thin aisle toward the rear of the bus. The fetid air seemed to grab hold of his windpipe and he imagined it as a glimpse of what it’d be like to ride in the trunk of a car. “Grab a seat,” the driver barked at nobody in particular, pus dribbling from a purple cyst above her lip, and sweat stains the size of dinner plates circling out from her armpits. Cooper then retraced his steps to the sidewalk.

He spent the afternoon wandering through the woods behind The Villas. The platform up in the tree was coming along nicely. Better than expected, in fact. But he was worried about the possibility of falling from up there, tumbling to the ground and then lying in a broken heap with nobody around to hear his cries for help. He once read about a hiker who’d taken a fall from a cliff face and broken both of his legs. The guy had to sit in a dark ravine for over a week before anyone found him, and although he lived, Cooper wanted to avoid competing with his story.

He thought about the misfortunate hiker while he searched for fallen branches that might serve as safety railings. It would be easy to take a saw out there and retrieve some of the lower branches from a few of the oak and pine trees that tangled their way through that part of the woods. But, he didn’t have a saw, and he figured that if the roles were reversed, he wouldn’t want a tree cutting one of his limbs off just to serve its safety needs. His grandpa once told him, Respect for nature is one value that people seem to have forgotten. And it was while he was thinking about the old man, who’d been the only “father” he ever knew, that he came upon the downed beech tree. It lay among a thicket of pricker bushes, its crown disheveled and lifelessly dry. The branches he needed to nail up in his platform snapped away with two or three pulls and he dragged them up into his tree to leave until the weekend when he could fix them in place.

“Just over to Bobby’s for a little basketball,” he told his mother. “He stumped me three games in a row. But that’s okay. I got him pretty good the last time.” He blushed with the embellishment of the lie and now stood before her at the couch. She looked up at him sleepily and he felt like he was now in the clear. There was no friend named Bobby, but how would she know that? She rarely left the couch and when she did, it certainly wasn’t to track him all over town to find out who his friends really were. And for that, he was grateful.

“Well, if you’ve been playing basketball, why don’t you go on and take a shower. I don’t want any Billy goats at the dinner table.”

Continued in: Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 11— The Wolf Den

Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 9 — Guidance

Mystic Island High SchoolContinued from: Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 8 — Sore Knees

Steve Bender propped his feet on the windowsill and stared out at the desolate courtyard. His teeth chiseled a pencil, another nasty habit he picked up as a result of the smoking ban on school property. He longed for the times when he could smoke right there in the office. Exhale out the window to appease anyone who whined about second-hand smoke in the school. That hadn’t been a good enough measure, though, and when some parents had gotten wind of his continued smoking in the office, the administration cracked down on all tobacco use on the premises. “Sets a bad example,” those parents had bitched. He figured it was the same parents who sloshed through two martinis before dinner was finished each night.

A pair of jays darted through the yard like fighter planes swooning toward the ground on a quick mission. He watched as they landed in a large poplar and remained still on one of its limbs. The branch rocked gently in the wind and he wondered if those birds knew just how good they had it. Find a place to chill out. Dig worms or something to survive. Worms dry up or the scene just turns stale, fly the fuck away from there. Winter comes. Skedaddle southward. See old friends in the Everglades. Maybe the Mississippi Delta. He read somewhere that more than half of the birds in the country migrated to Louisiana in the wintertime. Not a bad choice, he supposed. Lots of sun. Cajun delicacies. Mammoth drinks.

And they probably aren’t so anal about the goddamn cigarettes down south, either, he thought.

“Student here to see you Steve.” Dolores popped her head inside the door. She knew he didn’t mind that. They’d grown very close over the years and although he did quite a few things “off the books” in his office, he trusted her with any dirt on him that she picked up along the way.

“Student? Is this an appointment?” Bender began shuffling through the clutter atop his desk. He piled papers neatly to one side and cleared room for the coffee cup that was lodged on the window sill. The pencil made its way from his mouth to the fold behind his ear.

“No appointment. Said he just really wants to see you.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “He looks a little stressed.”

“Okay. I’m real busy,” he smiled. “But I guess I can spare a minute or two.”

Dolores told Cooper he could go into Bender’s office. Cooper stopped in the doorway, standing there for a moment, his hands pressed against the doorframe as if he were keeping it from collapsing. When the guidance counselor swiveled in his chair, Cooper continued into the room and made way for a metal folding chair.

“Here, let me clear a space for you,” Bender said, hoisting one hand outward to prevent Cooper from sitting. “I don’t want you sitting on that old thing. It’s not even fit for my mother-in-law.”

Both of them smiled and Cooper was relieved to see Bender clearing off a padded chair similar to his own. He appreciated the humor with which he was greeted and his mind plunged into a brief fantasy of the two of them sitting there like old pals, cards fanned before there faces and chips scattered across the desk. He imagined Bender with a stogie jammed between his lips and a can of beer resting in the crook of his arm while contemplating his next move. Cooper learned a thing or two about poker from James Blow, a slick-haired jock who rode the school bus with him. But it was all secondary information that he’d been forced to steal by eavesdropping. James Blow didn’t talk poker or anything else to kids who weren’t his jock contemporaries or the cheerleaders who followed them around like mindless lapdogs. But Mr. Bender didn’t feel like any James Blow. He seemed like a normal guy who wasn’t afraid to show his human side. As his poker fantasy evaporated, Cooper clung to the hope that he might learn a thing or two from this guy during his high school experience.

“Now, there you go. That’s a real seat, my friend.” He motioned for Cooper to take the seat. “I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Mr. Bender,” he said, extending a hand. “Or just Bender, if you please. Guidance counselor, extraordinaire!” He smiled and Cooper reciprocated.

“Cooper,” Cooper said, then cleared his throat.

“Cooper? That your last name?”

“No, sir. First name. Cooper.”

“Well, Cooper. What brings you here today?” Bender asked, taking the seat behind his desk. “Everything okay adjusting to the new school year and all?”

“Well…for the most part. There are a few things that have been bothering me, though.”

“Sorry to interrupt…but, which grade are you in, Cooper?”

“Tenth grade, sir. I’m a sophomore.”

Bender was jotting down words on a legal pad while they talked, and suddenly Cooper wished he’d never come in here. What a stupid idea. Attracting even more problems. Come to think of it, he didn’t really have a very good reason for coming down here in the first place, did he? He just didn’t want to deal with class or that bitch Mrs. Bradford or Suzie Becker and her not-so-sore knees or another day of pondering over Pythagoras or his damn measuring of triangles. Maybe everything would be okay if he just stood up and excused himself. Like he’d made some terrible mistake. A wrong turn from the nurse’s office. Perhaps misdirected by that know-it-all secretary, Waltson, in the main office. And now there it all was. Documented. Just like his mother, now he would have his life spilled out onto the page. He imagined coming home from school and the two of them—his mother and Mr. Bender—sitting there on the couch. His mom with tears in her eyes while she leafed through the legal pad and Bender shaking his head in disappointment while cramming another Little Debbie cake into his mouth from the tray that had been set out on the coffee table.

“Sorry to be writing, bud. I just want to get everything straight before we start talking. That should do it.” He set the pad on his desk blotter and inserted the pencil in his mouth. “Okay. Now, what seems to be bothering you?”

Cooper felt trapped for a moment, but decided he’d give this guy a shot. “I guess I’m just losing interest in school. That’s the main thing. You know…the reason I decided to come and see you. I mean, I used to like school. Actually like it. I mean, I was never a math guy, but I could do it. But now, it’s so complicated, and that bitch, Mrs. Bradford… I mean…”

He paused, horrified that he’d referred to Mrs. Bradford as “that bitch.” It was all over now, he thought. The suspension. A letter home. Maybe a conference with his mom. He imagined her on the receiving end of a phone call from the guidance office. Yes, that’s right, ma’m. He walked right out of class and then began to use profanities during his meeting with a counselor. That was it. He’d be forced to submit to more extensive interviewing every time he entered or left the apartment. She might even begin to investigate his friends and discover that they were imaginary. He palmed sweat from his forehead and thought about rising to leave.

But Mr. Bender stood up first.

Cooper watched as he stepped casually toward the door and pushed it shut. When he returned to the seat behind his desk, the previous guise of friendliness remained on his face. He reached into his top desk drawer and pulled out the tin of chewing tobacco. His fingers drummed on its lid, curbing the silence. Finally, he sighed and cleared his throat.

“What do you want to get out of school, Cooper? Why are you here?”

“To learn. And so that I can maybe go to college. Get a good job.” The cliché answers tasted terrible and his tongue felt like a dried-out rug.

Bender did not look impressed. “Is that the real reason? Or is it that you may want to use school just to experience life. You know… the people around you. You can learn just as much from your social interactions as you can from your textbooks. This is nothing new to you, I’m sure.”

Cooper nodded his head as if he was indeed thinking this all along. That Bender was telling him nothing new. He’d thought about these things before, but never in such literal terms. Learning “from social interactions.” He liked that.

“I bet you could tell some great stories about things you’ve observed in other students, in your family, in your teachers. That’s what school is really all about. Making you a strong thinker so that you can make some gains in every aspect of your life.” Bender pinched some chew between his thumb and forefinger, parking it between his cheek and gum. “I know that all sounds kind of corny right now, but, hopefully if you give it some time, it will all fall into place and start making some sense. Now… by the way, you don’t mind if I have a dip here do you. It’s this damn nicotine addiction I’ve developed over the past thirty years of my life. When I was your age I had pink lungs, too.” He smiled.

Cooper thought about all of the cigarettes he’d smoked.

“Oh well,” Bender said. “Now listen. You pointed out that one good reason to come to school is so that you can get a good job later on in life. Sort of a vague concept, wouldn’t you agree?”

Cooper nodded his head, realizing where this was probably going.

“Now, I want to talk specifics. In my position, I see kids throwing out all kinds of possibilities about what they might want to do when they’re adults. They get thrown off from reality a bit because, for some reason, they feel pressure that they need to make up their minds about those things when they are fourteen, fifteen, sixteen years old. Now, I’m not saying it’s a bad idea to start thinking about some of those things—gearing your interests and gauging your motivation. That type of thing. I just think that you shouldn’t try to corner yourself.”

Bender paused, holding a hand up as if to call time-out. He reached under his desk and the hand came back with a tattered Styrofoam cup, its edges pocked by teeth marks. Cooper considered that he hadn’t spoken much, but he was grateful for the fact that Mr. Bender had ignored his remark about Mrs. Bradford. He hated adult lectures, but somehow this didn’t feel like a lecture. It felt more like advice dealt out in a friendly sort of way.

“I’m not gonna bark in your ear for long about this, Cooper. But I just want to get two things straight. I want you to follow your interests without getting sidetracked by anything. Not teachers, students, family, friends. And I don’t want you to feel pressure to choose your track in life at the age of… ?”

“Fifteen.”

“Fifteen. See, when I was in school, I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do. I always thought it would be cool to be a garbage man. They have closure to their job each day. Trash is there. You pick it up. And, wham, it’s gone. I like that. But, I decided the stink was just too much for me, so I decided that I might want to be a painter. Again, you see the work that needs to be done. Do your prep work with scraping. And then slap on the fresh coat of paint. Simple as pie. Or so I thought. You see, I failed to consider the ladder aspect of it. I’m not crazy about heights, and the pain I get in my lower back while standing on a ladder… Have mercy. So, now I leave it up to my wife to give me all my pain.” He laughed.

Cooper grinned, obediently.

Bender said, “Basically, what I’m saying is to leave your options open. Follow the roads that seem important. Trouble with your math teacher? Don’t sweat it. It may really suck for the rest of the year, but then you might have the greatest experience of your life next year. Who knows? In my case, I never did make up my mind about what I wanted to do. So that leaves me here pondering your options instead of my own.”

Bender turned back toward the window and spat into the cup. He looked out into the courtyard and the two of them endured a short silence. One of the jays remained in the tree as the branches swayed in the wind. The leaves reflected sunlight like tiny mirrors.

“Ever watch birds?” Bender asked.

Cooper stood up and walked toward the window. He leaned over and looked out at the jay.

“Birds. Squirrels. Chipmunks. Foxes. You name it,” Bender said. “My favorites are the squirrels. They seem really curious about everything. Although, the birds can fly. I sort of envy them for that, Maybe that’s why I like squirrels better.”

They remained there for a few minutes. Mr. Bender added to the dark pool of saliva in his cup a few times, and Cooper imagined himself up in the tree with that jay, the wind riffling through his hair, reminding him that he was alive.

Soon the jay took flight and Cooper watched as it circled the tree, then soared upward and away from the enclosed yard.

Continued in: Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 10 — Evaluation

Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 8 — Sore Knees

Mystic Island High SchoolContinued from: Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 7 — Housekeeping

“She’s on the line again, Steve. Sounds pretty fired up.”

The guidance secretary stood in the doorway while Steve Bender appraised his telephone. The tiny red bulb affixed to the console was blinking and he imagined his wife—the shrew, his rancid life companion—on the other end. He could almost hear the curses that were challenging the on-hold Muzak. It was the seventh time she’d called that day, and it was only noon. He’d taken just one of the calls, brushing away the rest of them via his secretary, leaving her on hold while he conferred with a student. She had tired of the wait after fifteen minutes and finally hung up.

“Okay, Dolores,” he finally conceded, “I guess I’ll take it.” The secretary managed a smile and it was apparent that she was relieved.

The receiver was cold in his clammy hand and he wedged it into the space between his ear and shoulder. “Steve Bender,” he spoke jovially, almost mocking her by pretending he didn’t know who was calling.

“What are you some sort of goddamn head of state? Why is it so hard to get a hold of you?”

“Oh, why it’s you dear. How nice to speak with you, as well.” His mouth stretched in a grin and he took a pinch of chewing tobacco from the tin that he kept in his top desk drawer.

“Don’t give me that shit, Stephen. I know you’ve been avoiding me. Why is it that you are so conveniently busy every time I call? I need some help over here, too, you know?”

More so than you’d ever admit, he thought. “Well, dear, it just so happens that I have a job and the principal, the superintendent, the entire friggin’ school board . . . none of those people would probably be too excited if I were to spend the entire day on the telephone discussing personal issues. Now, what is it that’s so important this morning?”

He squirted black juices between his teeth and into a ragged Styrofoam cup at the edge of his desk. Teeth marks stared back at him from the rim of the cup while he awaited her response.

“Well, Jesse has a soccer scrimmage tonight at five o’clock, and I have Garden Club with the girls at four-thirty. So, I’m not going to be able to make it to pick her up. I’m wondering if you’ll be out of there on time today so that maybe you can share in some of the responsibility of having a family. Can you pick her up?”

There was a brief silence as he worked up another gob of tobacco juices. Damn shame they keep outlawing public smoking, he thought. I wouldn’t be forced to resort to this bullshit. He picked up the small plastic snow globe on his desktop, gave it a shake and watched fake snow fall onto a fake plastic village.

“Well? You still there? Can you do it?”

“Yeah. I can do that. Will that be all?”

“Yes. That’s all. So you’ll do it. Good. Thanks, babe, I appreciate it.” She turned bubbly in a hurry, reinforcing his previous notion that there was something-not-quite-right with her. He didn’t really have a handle on it, but he had his suspicions that there was no Garden Club meeting that afternoon.

He rehooked the receiver and gave the mini-village another shake. “I’ll find out what’s up when I give a shit,” he said, like God, to the nonexistent villagers.

Bender picked up the phone again and buzzed Dolores. “No more calls, please,” he told her. “Tell them I’m at a meeting, and if they don’t buy that, then tell ’em I’m on the crapper.”

Meanwhile, in another part of the school, Cooper’s eyes chased a runaway fly around the classroom. It sputtered across the teacher’s desk, bouncing from a stack of papers to a folder file before settling on the end of a long pencil. From his desk, only two rows deep, he could read the emblem scrolled on the oversized pencil: “Pobody’s Nerfect”. How fucking stupid, he thought. One look at Mrs. Bradford reinforced his negativity. She was perched at the front of the class in her swivel chair looking as if she were ready to charge from the seat at any moment. Cooper hadn’t liked her from the first day of school when she proclaimed that today’s youth were so apathetic to learning, they alone could even make the absolutes of mathematics a forgotten art. That statement had scribbled “copout” in his mind, and she hadn’t done anything to erase the idea.

“Where is your book, Mr. O’Neil?”

She was standing now and staring at Roy O’Neil, a bubble-headed boy who wore hand-me-downs from his older siblings and looked just plain embarrassed to be alive. He began to tremble, and pulled at the cuff of his Genesis tour tee shirt. Mrs. Bradford stood beside his desk and stared down at him with her bulging, chameleon eyes.

“That will be a zero for the day, Mr. O’Neil. How hard is it to remember a book?”

Roy O’Neil’s embarrassment dissolved and made room for shame. His head hung limply on his shoulders like a lollipop on a broken stick. With hands clasped on the desk, his shoulders shrugged lightly.

Cooper shielded himself behind his own book, and he re-read the graffiti inscribed on the desk for the zillionth time. ‘Suzie Becker has sore knees!’ Cooper stole a glance toward the back of the room at Suzie. She slouched in her desk, fingers busily twisting through her hair. He’d known Suzie since fourth grade and had even danced with her a few times back at the middle school dances. His chin propped on her shoulder, scents of fresh fields of flowers massaging his imagination. Her arms were laced around his shoulders as some sappy Def Leppard power-ballad crackled through the undersized speakers. Soft red light wrapped around them like vapor. He wanted to kiss her. Imagining her plump lips mushed up against his own. But he just didn’t have the balls. What if she backed away and smacked him? Or ran? Could he stand the possibility of humiliation? The song ended. He walked away. Maybe too abruptly. They never quite became friends, but he thought he knew enough about her to know that she wasn’t one of the slutty girls. A bit ditsy, maybe. But not a slut.

Cooper pulled the eraser from his pencil and flattened down its metal holder, creating a tiny blade. Mrs. Bradford sat back down at her desk and he watched her for a moment. She tightened the sweater that draped around her wide shoulders and wheezed like a bulldog. He wondered about her life for a moment: boring, impotent husband, cats mewing about her house, the rote rituals of her daily life to and from school, nights spent with her face buried in math texts. Come to think of it, she actually struck him as a closet literature junkie, the Emily Dickinson type, maybe. He read a few Dickinson poems during his eighth grade English class. ‘There’s a certain Slant of Light’ was the line brought to mind while he imagined Mrs. Bradford’s domestic surroundings—sitting in a rocking chair, faded pictures of her aging children swarming around her in cheap frames, homely cat coiled in her lap as she massages behind its ears.

“ …think that you’re doing? Hellooooo?”

Cooper snapped from his daydream and cringed at the sight of her. He looked briefly down at his own guilty hands, which were busy saving Suzie Becker’s reputation. He’d carved away “has sore knees,” leaving long trenches in their wake. A wrinkle of sweat beaded on his forehead and he felt a flash of anger. Not for getting busted, but for taking the rap for actually undoing the damage somebody else had done. He looked back up at her. Those bulging eyes burning down on him. She’d never believe him if he began with the truth. Just like in football, he thought, the guy who retaliates always gets the flag. Don’t even bother arguing. And so he didn’t. Instead, he stood up and headed for the door.

“Where do you think you’re going now, young man?”

He snapped his glare at her.

She took a step back, and he detected a slight bulging of her already impossibly bulging eyes. Amazingly, the teacher that kids had dubbed “The Bradasauras” looked as if she was momentarily afraid of him.

Cooper looked over at Suzie Becker. Her fingers were still twisting coils into her hair and she didn’t look alarmed to see a confrontation in the front of the classroom. I hope they ain’t sore, Suzie, he thought. After gathering his books, he walked from the room, wondering if Mrs. Bradford was going to read aloud what she assumed he’d written: Suzie Becker.

Continued in: Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 9 — Guidance

Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 7 — Housekeeping

The ApartmentsContinued from: Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 6 — The Counting

Cooper slid the backpack from his shoulder and knelt on the plywood floor. Although the sun had beat down throughout the day, a gusty wind chimed in at times, and a collection of sticks, leaves and pine needles were deposited in his home away from home in the tree. He brushed them away and then sat down to arrange the items he brought from the apartment—a wrestling magazine to wedge into the book shelf between the Poe collection and a brick, plastic utensils sealed up in a zip lock bag, and, as planned, a Tupperware filled with food. He’d scrounged up a box of raisins, a bag of M & M’s, and three packages of Little Debbie Choco-Squares while his mom prepared dinner.

He was surprised that she hadn’t overloaded him with questions about the school day. Usually she was relentless, giving him an impressive inquisition during the three or four minutes it took for the microwave to nuke their meals. He respected her ability to detect any lies he might throw at her. It forced him to be very careful when he did lie. That particular facet of her questioning probably stemmed from watching soap operas where there always seemed to be someone deceiving his lover while leaving some speck of detail that would ensure his discovery. It all depended on the right questions. His mom proved that watching television did have some benefit, after all.

“How did the interview go over?” she asked.

And he told her all about how he stood in front of the class to read the short biography. A lot of other kids had read about their sappy grandmas who knitted sweaters while they waited for death to show up, and a few wrote about little brothers who obsessed over Sony Playstation and McDonald’s Happy Meals. But Cooper’s seemed more real than any of them, which was sort of ironic since his subject didn’t even exist.

“I don’t know if truth is stranger than fiction,” he told his mom while she pealed back the cellophane that covered their dinners, “but it sure seemed that it was more boring.”

A long silence followed and she stirred up his carrots and cut the turkey on his cardboard dinner tray. He hated when she did that. It made him feel like a helpless little kid who needs his mommy to cut up his food for him.

“Mom. I think I can handle that,” he said.

She pushed the tray toward him, looking more embarrassed than he felt. “Sorry. Just trying to help. Old habits,” she sighed. “In the future, maybe you should try to stick to the assignment, Cooper. I’m glad that things went well for you today, but don’t push your luck fudging all of your school assignments. That’ll eventually catch up with you.”

Cooper’s mom liked to talk about things that would eventually catch up with him, and every time she did, he needed to fight the urge to point out that if anyone knew this was true, it was her. She’d been taught by the example of her own life. But he didn’t have the heart for it. She didn’t deserve to be hurt so badly by him and he didn’t even know the extent to which things had caught up to her. It seemed more like they’d caught up to her years ago and had since passed right by and left her standing in the dust.

“Yeah, sure,” he agreed lamely, stirring the processed turkey meat into the gravy that began to congeal.

Things felt a lot freer in the tree. The sun began to set noticeably earlier and he checked the batteries on his flashlight before looping it onto a rusty nail that protruded from the makeshift bookshelf. The sky was bruised over now and stars began to needle through in the distance. It was too dark to read, but the subtlety of the evening was more stimulation than any spooky story or wrestling article could provide. He munched on M & M’s and lay flat on his back, staring up at the sky. It was the closest thing to dreaming while still remaining awake, and the abyss of darkness inspired wonder about the concept of existence. He was glad that he hadn’t borrowed one of his mom’s journals to bring out there because he would’ve missed out on the beauty of the stars germinating above him. The mysteries captured in those pages could wait until he had the chance to read them during the afternoon.

After awhile, the nearly full moon was parked there above the woods, surrounded by the star-speckled blanket of darkness. Cooper remembered nights when he was just a small boy, laying on his grandpa’s lawn up in Maine. The old man would point out all of the constellations for him and try to explain the stages of the moon. “It’s like a big hole that opens a little wider each night till it reaches a certain point. Then it closes a little bit each night till you can hardly see it at all,” he’d say. Cigar smoke always laced the air on those nights, and the old man’s breath usually carried a hint of scotch. But his gravelly voice was always stable while he gave these careful explanations, and it usually put Cooper to sleep, his small head nestled in his grandpa’s lap.

Now, from his perch in the tree fort, he wondered if his grandpa was looking down on him, maybe through the hole that was the moon. It was like a knot of space gouged out of the sky and he imagined soaring up toward it, clinging to rim and poking his head through to the other side. What would he see? Perhaps there would be answers to mysteries that plagued him; the identity of his father, the details of his own future. He wished for a cable to stretch from his plywood platform up there in the tree all the way to that moon. Just one glimpse through the hole would satiate his longing. He felt that life would seem more complete when he let go of the moon and slid back down the cable toward his platform in the tree—like a trapeze artist, shoulders thrown back in confidence, unafraid to rise above the world.

After awhile, the fantasy dissolved and he arranged the bookshelves, stacking the Tupperware of food on top of the bag of utensils. He tightened the straps of his backpack and unhooked the flashlight. He needed it to guide himself down the tree and through the dark woods back to the apartment.

Continued in: Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 8 — Sore Knees

Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 6 — The Counting

The ApartmentsContinued from: Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 5 — After School Not So Special

Mitch rubbed the sleep from his eyes while he looked out the window. The lowering sun gave the afternoon a comforting tint and shadows of trees reached across the parking lot. He watched the boy at the far end of the lot sitting there smoking a cigarette, and it reminded him that he’d like a cigarette of his own. It wasn’t shocking that kids that young would want to smoke, but it did seem a bit peculiar that they’d do it right out in the open. During his own childhood, Mitch smoked and drank anything he could get his hands on, but it would have seemed unnerving to do it in a spot where an adult might observe. But, of course, that was in a different time, on an island where everyone knew everyone else’s business and if anyone saw you up to something, mom and pop would know it before you even stepped through the door to face them. Now, people just don’t seem to give a shit.

The boy crushed out the cigarette and left the butt there beside the curb. He stood and headed for the door to Building 2, adjusted his back pack and pulled open the door. Cooper didn’t see Mitch looking out at him and he was too consumed with hunger to feel the stare. When he passed through the door, he was thinking about getting some dinner and then emptying out his pack only to refill it with the supplies for the tree platform. There were all kinds of secret pockets in the pack; one thin compartment designed for loose change and another for pens or pencils. He imagined that one would be perfect for concealing cigarettes.

Mitch turned back into the cavernous utility room and pulled the string on one of the suspended light bulbs. He’d been having a dream when the voices outside woke him, but he was actually grateful to be stirred from slumber as the “short nap” he’d decided on having that morning turned into a marathon sleep session that would now keep him on the job into a good part of the evening. The blinking red light on the telephone promised a barrage of complaints and requests and he decided on a pot of coffee to prepare himself to face them.

In the dream he was fishing alone on a riverbank. The sky line of the city was visible up-river and the current was racing toward it. The fish just didn’t seem to be biting and this disappointed him as he’d gotten a hot tip that river bass were abundant that day. A mushroom cloud of smog rose above the city after awhile and a sweat broke out, first on his chest, but then spreading up to consume his face. He could feel his cheeks flushing, red and clammy. A voice spoke from behind him: “better save them fish from the filth that lies ahead.” He turned around and noticed Scott, his ex-part timer standing at the top of the bank, a whiskey bottle clutched in one hand and car keys bouncing in the other. Scott was dressed in nothing but an oversized bra and girdle, bunched along one seam and tied to ensure that it wouldn’t fall from his rail-like body. There was a tug on the line then and he nearly lost his fishing rod to the current. Once he recovered, the pull settled a bit and he reeled in a pretty good sized river bass. After it suffocated and he removed it from the line, he slit up its belly to begin gutting. But no blood seeped out and no internal sacs were exposed. The fish was full of rusty screws. They fell out of the opening in a variety of shapes and sizes—some hooked, others straight. “Count ‘em up, Hoss. Go ahead and give ‘em a quick counting before the flies start eatin’ that fish!”

That was when he was shaken from sleep by some commotion outside, but when he looked out there, he saw only the kid. Now Mitch was faced with added disappointment as he stood before the coffee maker. The supply of filters was depleted, and after he emptied out the dried up grounds in the basket, he decided to use a paper towel for the fresh pot. Once he got the coffee dripping, he pulled his clothes from where they were piled beside the cot and stepped into his pants. A collection of bolts jingled in the pocket and he fiddled with them while he listened to the answering machine. There were seven messages.

There would be no counting the bolts.

Continued in: Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 7 — Housekeeping

Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 5 — After School Not So Special

The ApartmentsContinued from: Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 4 — The Gravedigger’s Den

“Well, why don’t you get your own fucking car then?” the lanky man yelled. He struggled for balance and poked around the hood of an old Buick with a cane extended from one arm. The blue paint on the car was faded almost to white and the front bumper angled toward the ground.

“I would if they’d allowed me a license, Harry. Lord knows I’m a better driver than you,” the pudgy little lady retorted, hurt lacing her voice. She bunched the hem of her purple house dress into one fist and eased herself through the passenger door. It shut behind her with a dull thud, the sort of noise a casket might make in one of the old black and white horror flicks.

Harry’s door was still open and he just couldn’t seem to figure out a way to get the cane into the back seat. After three or four fruitless shoves, the backseat’s empty space finally swallowed it up like a fish gobbling up food. Cooper imagined the car’s backseat was big enough to stand up in, or better yet, to roll around in with a girl. The car’s engine turned with a grunt, and as the old couple rolled past him, he heard Harry whine at his wife. “You get enough practice driving Dolores. You’ve driven me fucking crazy for fifty seven years!”

Cooper chuckled, but realized that it wasn’t all that funny. Their relationship was a testament to longevity, but not the type that was depicted on television or in the books that he read. Fictional old folks often became exaggerations of harmless souls who imparted bits of wisdom while they waited around for death. The idea was even extended to retired people in the good guy / bad guy movies, when cops with expired careers were drawn out of the woodwork to help their ambitious, yet inexperienced, successors solve the crime. But not all of the elderly drifted along amicably. And some, like Harry and Mrs. Harry, apparently fed off of one another’s nastiness right up until the end.

“I hope I never end up like those freaks,” Cooper whispered.

He had jumped off the school bus a few stops too early, already tiring of the routine. By October, he figured, he’d know which kid got off at each stop and he’d also recognize who wasn’t riding the bus that day just by appraising the empty seats. Even though they weren’t assigned seats, most kids took the same one every day. It probably just seemed safe that way, he thought.

On the morning commute, he landed pretty close to the back of the bus and noticed that some kids got nauseated back there, unconditioned to having their oxygen supply cut with exhaust fumes. But the status that accompanied riding in the back was worth it to most of them. After school, though, he had some trouble opening his new lock and stood at his locker for more than ten minutes fiddling with the numbered dial. It turned out that he was going left-right-left instead of right-left-right, a common mistake among rookie lock users. This delay made him late for the bus and, consequently, he was forced to take a seat toward the front, sandwiched between a pair of band geeks. Sweat glistened on the chubby neck of a girl across the aisle, and she smiled at him, profiling her braces. Some kids near the back of the bus shouted about a flag football game where some “hotties” might show up, but they were all jocks and he didn’t really fit in with them either. So he jumped off about a mile from home, lit up a cigarette, and tightened the straps on his backpack for the walk ahead.

Now, he sat on a curb in the parking lot of The Villas taking hauls from another cigarette. There was only one more secured beneath the brim of his Sox cap and he hoped his mom would leave a fresh pack lying around so he could sneak a few more to enjoy out in the tree fort after dinner. He’d have headed out there right then, but hunger begged him to wait, and he decided that he’d need to rig up some sort of food supply in the tree. It would need to be something tightly contained to keep the animals from getting to it, but he supposed that one of the empty Tupperware bowls his mom kept stashed in a kitchen cabinet would do the trick. He could fill it up with chips, cookies, and maybe even apples as long as he resupplied on a regular basis. There was nothing worse than biting into a piece of rotten fruit. And, he thought, he’d need to lug a few gallons of water up there and keep them sealed with lids. It would be his own private kitchen.

The idea was exciting.

Cooper looked across the parking lot. Empty spaces mingled between parked cars. Most of the cars were big boats like the Chevy Caprice or the Olds Cutlass that belonged to some of the older folks who lived at The Villas. Almost all of them remained stationary, and when the residents did leave, they were carted away by a big van with Senior-Transit scripted on the side in big blue letters. It took them to many of the shopping centers off island, and even made runs to the city. He wondered why some of those old folks even had cars at all.

The olive-colored maintenance truck was parked illegally at the far end of the lot surrounded by large space that had NO PARKING painted on it. Scabs of rust peeled from around the wheel wells and the bed of the truck was filled with scrap metal and pipes that stood erect like misplaced patches of hair after a long nap. For some reason, he imagined the inside of the truck littered with beer cans and food wrappers. Maybe there was junk mail crumpled on the floor, or even a few nudie magazines stashed beneath the seat. An old dog lay sleeping right behind the rear wheel of the truck and he visualized it standing up in fear, an instant too late as the truck popped into gear and rolled backward. He’d seen possum road kill once, the animal’s guts shot out right through its mouth into a neat pile, just like it’d thrown up and then decided to sleep beside the mess. Cooper wondered if the lazy mutt would endure a similar fate.

He hoped the ol’ boy would wake up soon and hurry in to wherever it belonged. Then he headed inside himself, thinking about dinner. Would it be Hungry Man frozen meatloaf? Gravy, stuffing and imitation turkey? Morton Chicken pot pie? The possibilities seemed endless, each of them more grim than the one before it.

Continued in: Beneath the Weeping Tree: Part 6 — The Counting