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Banned for Life

An excerpt from a novel by D.R. Haney

State your age
Set the stage
Start a fire for something new
Where’s your energy?
There’s no energy
—Unwound

The first time I ever saw Peewee was shortly after the start of my senior year of high school. Every day I used to get to school early and sit around the cafeteria with a group of my friends, most of them athletes, just sort of shooting the shit and waiting for the day to begin, when one morning a guy named Mark Powell stopped in mid-sentence and started gawking across the room.  And everybody else was gawking, too, and we’d just gotten a fresh batch of freshman girls, so I figured this must be the pick of the litter, but when I turned to see for myself all I saw was a strange little kid turning the lock on his locker.  He was tiny, maybe four foot ten, but he wasn’t just tiny in the short sense, everything about him seemed kind of miniature.  His limbs were small, his neck was small, his head, his hands, his ears.  And yet everything he wore was at least a size too big:  a motorcycle jacket covered with colored pins and baggy pants with the cuffs tucked inside workboots without any laces.  His nose was pug, his jaw was soft, his eyes were black and beady.  And then, to top it all off, his head was shaved.  Nobody shaved his head back then, not even black guys, who were mostly sporting ‘fros. 

Well, we all just sat there staring at him.  In fact, the whole room seemed to come to a halt.  And he kept trying to open his locker and, for some reason, it wouldn’t, so he started slamming it with his tiny fist.  And then he seemed to give up altogether and went walking away, but after a few steps he came running back to kick it.  He kicked it really hard—you could tell by the sound—and I thought for sure he’d hurt himself, but when he walked away again, he wasn’t even limping.  And then he passed our table, and he looked right at us, and he smiled this smile like he knew we’d been watching the entire time and he also knew how funny he was, and he gave a little nod and said, very simply, “Hey.”  And nobody said a word back.  We just watched him go, his boots flopping around, and when he’d gone, Mark Powell turned back around and said, “What the hell was that?”  Which, since that’s what every last one of us had been wondering, cracked us right up.

Now like most high schools, ours had a stringent dress code.  It was khakis and Izod shirts and Oxford button-downs:  if you deviated in any way you were dead and buried, socially.  And this had everything to do with the local university:  a prestigious school mostly attended by affluent Northerners who often liked the town so much they stayed on after graduating.  That’s who most of my friends were:  their children.  Virtually ever elite student at my school had parents affiliated in one way or another with the university, and they set the standard for the entire high school, or at least the white part of it.  They were smart and glib and going places.  Yet they were also incredibly narrow-minded.  Their instinct for class was infallible, so that if you weren’t one of theirs—and they always knew—you were mercilessly excluded.  I was only allowed in because I played sports and took the same collegebound courses.  And, even then, I knew my standing was shaky.

So that’s how it was for a lemming like me.  I’m sure you can guess how it was for Peewee.  He got to that school and people couldn’t stop talking about him.  Even people at other schools were talking about him.  I remember once I was at a party and this guy from way out in the sticks asked if I knew a kid named Bernard Mash.  (That was Peewee’s real name.  I’m the one who started calling him that.)  And I said, “Well, I know who he is.  We don’t hang out or anything.”  And he said, “Yeah, I met him over at Planet Records.  Is he gay or what?”

That’s what a lot of people decided.  He wasn’t effeminate in the slightest, whereas he really was a brain, and supposedly he was Jewish, and he dressed in Fonzie’s clothes, but those weren’t the things he took shit for, it was mostly for being “gay.”  I mean he was weird, right?  Wasn’t that the same as gay?  So the rednecks would call him “faggot,” and usually he’d shrug it off, but sometimes he’d take on kids more than twice his size.  I never saw it myself, but I heard stories and, once, walking down the hall, I passed our principal, Mr. Wright, holding Peewee by the scruff of the neck and pushing him toward his office.  And Peewee’s face was a bloody mess, and he was cursing like a whorehouse parakeet, going, “I’ll kill his fucking ass!  I’ll motherfucking kill him!” And Mr. Wright said, “Alright, that’s another day.  You want to try for the whole week?”  Suspension talk.  That’s what I heard when I found myself under similar circumstances a few months later, but worse.  Much, much worse. 

But the elite kids dealt with freaks differently.  They—or maybe I should make that ‘we’—were a little too sophisticated for outright taunts.  No, our way was to treat freaks like unwitting jesters, though, in Peewee’s case, it wasn’t truly unwitting.  He hated conformity above all things, and considered my group the worst offenders, so in the morning, while we sat in the cafeteria, he’d go to his locker and act as weird as possible just to freak us out.  He’d slam the door shut with a judo kick or a butt of the head soccer-style and, passing by our table, say something completely off-the-wall like, “I love the smell of Nikes in the morning!” or “Things go better with codeine!”  And sometimes we’d laugh, and sometimes we’d glare till he got out of sight and ask each other that was supposed to mean.  Things went better with what?  Was that some kind of drug?  Well, maybe that explained it.  And yet, secretly, I think we all looked forward to those early morning shows.  He was really kind of riveting in a way.  What weird thing would he think of next?

Well, one morning, about a month after he first appeared at school, he walked by our table with his hair dyed red.  Blood red.  And guys just didn’t dye hair back then, and certainly not a color like that, so we weren’t amused in the slightest—in fact, we were all kind of scandalized.  And Mark Powell started calling him to the table, and my girlfriend Megan said, “Mark, don’t.”  She was afraid he’d beat him up or something.  And Mark said, “No, I’m just going to talk to him.”  And he kept on calling Peewee to the table, and Peewee kept ignoring him.  And, finally, he shut his locker and came walking over with this kind of “Yes?” look on his face.  And Mark said, “What’s going on with your hair?”

“My harem?  They’re fine, thanks for asking.”
And that went over most of our heads.  And Mark said, “No, no.  You dyed your hair.”

“You mean my hair is dead?”  And he reached up to feel it.  “Are you sure?  Feels alive to me.”
And at that point Mark got pissed.

“You know what I mean, faggot.  It’s red.” 

“Really?  It’s red?  You don’t think I’ve got a brain tumor or anything, do you?”
And he turned and, mumbling to himself, walked down the hall, still feeling his head as if for tumors.  At the time, I thought that was one of the strangest, sorriest, most pathetic things I’d ever been a witness to, but when I think about it now, when I think about Mark Powell sitting there in a state of exasperation, it puts a great big old smile on my face.

                                                      ******

I didn’t say a word that day.  In fact, I barely spoke to him for most of that year.  Later, after my whole life had pretty much been shattered, I’d finally get to know him, but till then, we had just one semi-lengthy exchange, and that took place on a late fall day in the library.  He was always in the library.  I knew because there was a long balcony that ran above it, and since he didn’t look like anybody else I’d ever seen, he was always very easy to spot.  He was usually reading by himself or slouched near a window that faced the parking lot and, beyond that, a road leading in and out of town.  I saw him there many times, sitting and looking like the loneliest kid in the whole world.  Which, at that time, he may well have been. 

But on this particular day, I was the one sitting by the window.  A few weeks before, I’d torn my Achilles tendon in a big game with our crosstown rival, and I’d been doing so well before then, I’d been Player of the Week and knew for certain I was being scouted by at least one college, and I was badly in need of an athletic scholarship since my parents couldn’t afford to put me through school.  So now I knew it probably wasn’t going to happen, and I was feeling kind of sorry for myself, though, looking back, it was all a pipe dream anyway.  I mean I was pretty good at football, but not that great.  I played with a lot of heart, as they say.  I played to get my aggressions out.  And I had a lot them, too:  the town, the school, that constant status anxiety.  Plus, I was all sexed up with no place to take it, but I’ll get to that later.  And then there were the times themselves.  Because I wanted something to happen, I didn’t know what, and down in North Carolina it was still the seventies and, next to the nineties, those were the dullest damned years I ever lived through.  I mean I was pretty dim in those days and even I knew something was missing.  Yet, for all that, my dream was to head off to college and get a good job and live like all my friends did in a big house with a preppie wife and all the Oxford button-downs money could buy.  I just didn’t want to do it there.  I didn’t care where it was, so long as it wasn’t North Carolina.

So that’s what I thought while I sat by the window.  Not that I remember that exactly, but since that’s all I ever thought about (when I wasn’t thinking about sex), it’s a safe bet I was thinking it then.  It was sixth period study hall, the one “class” I shared with Megan, and she had to write a paper on Freud so she’d gone off to find a book on him, and she stayed so long I started asking everyone that passed me if they knew where she was.  And finally somebody said, “Yeah, she’s back there talking to Bernard Mash.”  (That’s the way he was always referred to him in high school:  always by the first and last name, as if to keep him separate from all the other Bernards, though he was the only one.)  And the second I heard that, I could see the whole scene.  She’d bumped into him and said hello, the same way she said hello to everybody, and he’d taken it for a sign of genuine friendliness, which in a way it was, and now she was stuck talking to him.  It happened all the time.  She didn’t know how to say “Got to run now.”  She had this thing about being liked so that she was nice to everybody, including misfits, and since that’s a pretty rare trait for a cheerleader, she was easily the best-liked girl in the entire school.  It didn’t exactly hurt that, except for a too-high forehead and a slight problem with pimples, she looked just like a Barbie. 

I thought about leaving her back there.  I was always telling her she needed to assert herself—a big word back then:  everybody was always asserting themselves—but she’d still strand herself with people she didn’t like and bitch about it later.  So maybe this time she’d finally learn her lesson.  But then she didn’t come back, and she didn’t come back, and I thought, ‘Alright, let’s go bail her out.  I’m sure she’ll appreciate it.  Maybe she’ll even fuck me for it later on.’  (Fat chance!) 

So I got my crutches and pulled myself up and walked back to the stacks where this kid had said he’d seen her, and, sure enough, there she was, and there was the freak, too, running his rodent mouth a mile a minute.  And Megan’s back was turned, and the closer I got, the more I could make out what the freak was saying and, holy shit, it was a language I’d never quite heard before.  I mean, yes, it was English, but he was talking about Freud, about whom I knew nothing, and sounding almost like a book himself.  It was:  “This whole idea Freud had, that people have to repress parts of themselves in order to function in society, is complete bullshit, in my opinion, because animals have societies and they’re not doing a whole lot of repressing.  I mean, apes, yes, that might be possible.  And dogs—dogs are very similar to people, their brains are virtually the same, apparently.  But a lot of lower animals have societies.  Fish, for instance.  And birds.  And ants.  Now much repressing do you think ants do?”

Now maybe this doesn’t sound all that earth-shattering, but you have to understand it was coming from a sophomore in high school who looked even younger than that.  Plus, there was just this intensity about it.  He looked like a fucking maniac while he stood there, his black eyes like BBs lit from within, his hair like a blood-soaked beanie.  There was a sense of stumbling on a secret, somehow, like you pull up a rug and there’s a door to a lair full of God-knows-what you never knew existed.  And that window in the library was really big, so if it happened to be cloudy outside, it got dark in the library, too, especially back in the stacks.  And it was cloudy that day, so this whole episode took place in shadow.

So what I’m trying to say is there was something spooky about it, something disturbing but fascinating, too.  And then he realized I was standing there, and he broke off, and Megan turned to see me, and I could tell from her eyes she felt the way I did:  Did you hear that?  Can you fucking believe it?  And she moved closer to me and said to Peewee, “Well!  Thank you for that!  That was very…helpful!”  And he gave this kind of “Aw shucks” shrug and turned back to the shelf, and Megan held up the book she’d gone to find as if to say, “Got it!  We can go now!”  And yet I couldn’t move.

Posted at 2pm on 10/15/2005 | comments are closed Filed Under: Fiction

"The sleep of reason
brings forth monsters."






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