Dad’s supposed to pick me up from school. He told me to wait by the flagpole. The second the bell rings I scramble outside, but there’s no sign of him. The parking lot is mayhem. Kids shrieking, squealing, searching for their parents, a motorcade of minivans and station wagons inching forward in response, red-faced adults blasting their horns, hanging out their windows, crying for their children: “Tyler!” “Natalie!” “Over here, Lance!”
I tear open a Kit Kat. We’re supposed to be selling them for something, some cause. I’ve already eaten like five today. I ate three for lunch.
“Bite me, Mitchell!” someone howls. I’m Mitchell. I look up and the buses are rolling out from behind our school, huge yellow vessels of chaos. Already the drivers are pleading for quiet, screaming for everyone to shut their windows and also their mouths, to keep their limbs, their heads, their God-blessed middle fingers inside the bus.
I’m freezing. Kids are in coats, wool caps. I’m wearing shorts I made this morning. I cut up a pair of blue jeans, but probably I cut a little too much—all day, kids have been calling me Daisy Duke.
I finish my Kit Kat and wipe my hands on my shirt. Aw geez, I wish I hadn’t done that. I have a piano lesson in exactly thirty minutes. After weeks of badgering my mom she finally found someone to teach me how to play.
Dad’s supposed to take me to my lesson, but he’s not here yet. Overhead the American flag whips and pops in the wind. I check the flagpole for boogers. Sure enough, there’s a huge—
“Hey kid!” someone shouts. “Don’t touch that flag.”
It’s a sixth-grader, a boy everybody calls P.J. Awful. He’s marching toward me in a black leather duster jacket.
“Whatever you’re thinking about doing,” he says, “forget it.”
“Shut up,” he tells me. “You’re not gonna touch this flag. My dad’s in the Army.”
I have no idea what the Army has to do with anything. I gaze down at my bare legs, mottled in the cold. P.J. stabs me with his finger.
“Ow,” I say. “You want a Kit Kat?”
“What? Hey yeah. Thanks, kid.”
P.J. Awful is the meanest kid in the universe. One time he snatched Tracey Umberger’s shoe off her foot and flung it through a ceiling tile. Everybody waited for it to come back down, but it never did.
“What are you doing out here?” P.J. asks, chocolate caught in the fuzz of his mustache. His voice is odd, deep. There is a one-hundred-percent chance he has pubic hair.
“I’m waiting for my dad. I’ve got a piano lesson.”
“My dad’s killed people,” P.J. tells me, and I don’t have a reply. P.J. looks away and eats his Kit Kat. He has a zit on his cheek he’s obviously tried to pop. I can’t stop staring at it.
“I like your jacket,” I say.
“What’s with your shorts?”
“I made them myself. It was real easy.”
“Yeah, well, they’re too short,” he says. “I can almost see your nuts.”
I tug on the shorts to make them longer, but there’s only so much material to work with. P.J. finishes the Kit Kat and sails the wrapper into the wind. Abruptly it changes direction, glides up toward the blue March sky, and catches on a power line.
“I got detention again,” he says. “That bitch Mrs. Kuyper hates my guts.”
“What’d you do?”
“Nothin!” he cries. Then a moment later he says, “I called her a fat bitch, but she is a fat bitch.”
God, I think. What happened to P.J. to make him so crazy? You have to be crazy to cuss out an adult.
“Is your dad going to whip you?”
P.J.’s glaring at me like I’m stupid. “I told you he’s in the Army somewhere. He ain’t ever gonna know about it.”
P.J. starts telling me what a war machine his dad is, how he works on tanks and one time mailed a grenade home instead of a child support check. P.J.’s mom called the cops and got an EPO.
“You know what an EPO is?” P.J. asks. “If my dad steps foot anywhere near me or my mom, they’ll throw him in the slammer. That’s what an EPO is.”
That’s crazy too, is what I’m thinking, but I don’t say it.
“He wasn’t ever coming back here anyway,” P.J. tells me, and stares off. He reaches up with two dirty fingers and tries to erupt the red volcano he’s worsening on his cheek.
“It’s not gonna pop,” I say, accidentally.
I keep silent. He shakes his head, dejected.
“Everybody says I’m headed down the wrong path. They say I don’t think things through, but I do.” Then he says, “Hey! You dare me to rip this flag down and toss it in the bushes?”
“You dare me? Dare me to do it.”
Grinning, he begins to untie the rope that leads up to the flag.
“P.J.!” someone shouts.
We turn—it’s Mrs. Kuyper, about thirty-two feet tall, waiting at the top of the steps that lead up to our school. Her face is red as a cherry, furious. P.J. lets go of the rope.
“Thanks, kid. Now I’m gonna get it,” he says, and slouches back up to our school, spirit-crushed.
Meanwhile I’m frozen and kind of have to pee. No sign of my dad. Why is he always late for everything? He’s missed dinner thirteen nights in a row. The other night he got home at one in the morning and the back of his head was split open like somebody had hit him with something. Mom thinks it was a beer bottle. We had to drive him to the ER. Now he just sits out in our backyard all by himself. Mom says he’s hiding. I asked her what he’s hiding from and she said us.
Here come our teachers filtering out of the school, big-haired, well-meaning women with names like Sheryl, Cheryl, Pauline, Caroline, and Carolyn. There’s one in each grade capable of evil—typically the one with the mole—but the rest we like and try not to torment. My teacher’s Mrs. Purtee. She’s settling into her Cadillac when she sees me.
“Mitchell?” she calls out from the parking lot. “Is that you?”
“It’s me, Mrs. Purtee.”
“Are you waiting for someone?”
Mrs. Purtee’s approaching now, cutting through the cold shin-high grass between us in cream-colored heels. She’s swaddled in a white pea coat and has a doll’s sleepy eyes and rosy dimpled cheeks, no moles.
“Why don’t you wait inside, sweetheart? It’s freezing out here.”
“I can’t, Mrs. Purtee. Dad said to wait by the flagpole.”
“Yes, but you’re in shorts, honey. Come inside now.”
She’s offering her hand, but I won’t take it.
“Aren’t you cold?”
“I’m fine,” I lie.
Earlier today Mrs. Purtee called home to speak to my mom. Mom works nights, sleeps during the day—she didn’t answer. Mrs. Purtee gave up calling and penned a note instead, which is now sealed in an envelope in my backpack. I’m supposed to give it to my mom.
“All right, I’ll wait here with you,” Mrs. Purtee tells me. “I’d like to meet your dad. Maybe we’ll have a little chat.”
Where we are under the flag, you can look out over everything. For sure the pandemonium of school letting out is over. A Kit Kat wrapper tumbles through the parking lot, and there’s nobody to stop it. Out on the playground a couple of kids are punching a tetherball, another’s hanging from a basketball net. Also, there’s a boy in an orange coat sprawled out like a snow angel on the shingled roof of the gazebo. Beside him, in baby blue chalk, he’s written the word BALLS.
“Can I ask you something, Mitchell?” Mrs. Purtee asks. “You know how we’ve talked about your daydreaming? And how important it is to focus on things?”
“Yes,” I say. “It’s very important.”
“Right. But when you do lose focus, what’s on your mind? What is it you’re thinking about?”
She says something else, but I don’t hear it. Again I’m thinking about my piano lesson, how the instructor’s probably going to yell at me, and how I’m going to have to bite the inside of my jaw to keep from crying, because I cry too much. I just have to learn which keys to press and where to put my fingers and all that. I just have to learn how to play.
“Mitchell,” says Mrs. Purtee. “You’re doing it, honey. You’re zoned out.”
She has that look on her face adults get when they’re worried about someone else’s kid. I glance down at my wristwatch, one of those with a neon green band and huge digital numbers, the battery good for a week.
“I’ve got a piano lesson in eight minutes,” I say.
Mrs. Purtee checks her own watch and frowns at it. We wait a while for my dad. When I check my watch again, I’m late for my lesson.
“All right, sweetheart. I have to go,” Mrs. Purtee says. “You can’t wait out here.”
“I have to, Mrs. Purtee! My dad said to wait by the flagpole.”
“You won’t miss your dad. All you have to—”
“He’ll be here any minute!”
Mrs. Purtee doesn’t know what to do with me, I can tell. What is she going to do, carry me inside? She surveys the parking lot and seems to take stock of the fact that people are still coming and going. It’s not like I’m alone.
“Can’t I please walk you inside, honey? Where it’s warm?”
“This is where he said to wait, Mrs. Purtee.”
She checks her watch again and shakes her head.
“Bless your little heart,” she tells me. “All right, I’ve got somewhere I have to be. You go inside if he doesn’t come in the next few minutes, Mitchell.”
“Okay, Mrs. Purtee.”
“Do you still have that note I wrote your mom?”
Something inside me sinks.
“Promise me you’ll give it to her.”
“I promise,” I say and give Mrs. Purtee a hug. She waves from her Cadillac on her way out of the parking lot and I wave back. Then I snatch the note out of my backpack and open it.
Dear Mrs. Queen,
I am so sorry to have missed you at the last round of parent-teacher conferences. If possible, I would still very much like to meet and discuss Mitchell’s recent behavior.
I skip down.
…arrived this morning dressed in shorts
I cram the note into my pocket and look everywhere for my dad. I really have to pee now. Like really, really have to. The parking lot’s thinned out—no one’s watching. I put my back to the flagpole, face the school, and unzip my jean shorts. But then I see the school janitor, Cathy, mopping a classroom. I zip up before she notices me.
Cathy’s quiet, overweight, and has creamy purple circles under her eyes, just like my mom. All day long she hobbles up and down the halls, cleaning. She has the keys to everything in our school and knows the secrets of every room and every closet, the way janitors do. Sometimes in the mornings I help her set up the cafeteria tables and in return she gives me quarters for a can of pop. Everybody knows about her son. He’s dead. He died in somebody’s bathroom the night he graduated high school. He drank too much and got sick and the other kids left him in the floor beside the toilet. It was in the newspaper and everything.
Cathy sees me. She opens a window and pokes her head out and asks quietly if everything is all right.
“I’m waiting on my dad,” I tell her. “He’ll be here any minute.”
“Come inside, Mitchell. You’ll be frostbit.”
“I see him,” I lie. “There he is. Bye, Cathy!”
I hurry off like I’m going somewhere, then slowly circle back to the flagpole. Some time passes and I still have to pee. I’m shivering, thinking about my dad sitting out in our backyard. He sits out there in a shed that looks like a little barn. The other day Mom told him, she said, “You’re still here, but you’ve left us.” Dad didn’t respond. Now Mom’s started smoking cigarettes again. She says they’ll kill her, but she can’t help it. She works all night and comes home exhausted, and sometimes she sleeps late into the evening, right up until it’s time to go back. I’m the one who wakes her up. I open her bedroom door and peer into the dark and say, “Mom? It’s time to get up,” and she says, “Thank you, Mitchell,” and then a little bit later I do it again.
I really don’t think my mom will appreciate Mrs. Purtee’s note. I skim back through it and think about marking out some of the words. There’s one part that’s not even true, about how I got caught wandering the halls. I wasn’t wandering the halls—I was trying to get into the music room one day after lunch, but it was locked. That’s all.
But Mrs. Purtee has other concerns:
In my experience, this is an age when a child is particularly prone to slipping through the cracks, hence my alarm when your son arrived this morning dressed in shorts he’d obviously fashioned himself out of a pair of blue jeans. Mrs. Queen, it was twenty-one degrees. When I drove in, it was snowing.
The note goes on in this tone, conveying a message I very much understand: I’m in trouble, but Mom is too. I have never in my life thought of my mom as a bad mom, but I like Mrs. Purtee and that’s what she seems to be saying, that Mom let me wear shorts when I wasn’t supposed to. Except when I got dressed for school this morning, Mom wasn’t even home yet. Dad’s the one who didn’t say a word about my shorts. He didn’t say a word about anything.
I sit down under the flag and make myself small, wrapping my legs in my arms as best I can. I’m eighteen minutes late for my piano lesson. I imagine Dad telling my piano instructor he ran over somebody’s dog and had to bury it—that’s why we’re late. I imagine the instructor’s this British guy, and in a funny accent he asks what kind of dog, and the two of them, my dad and the British guy, start talking. Dad teaches high school English, but he knows all kinds of stuff. I imagine him chatting with my instructor about pianos, like what the foot pedals are for and all that—and then I pinch my bare frozen arm as hard as I possibly can because I’m doing it again.
“Stop it,” I say. “Stop daydreaming.”
“Who are you talking to?” somebody asks.
It’s Jennifer Motley, a girl in my class who, like me, thinks professional wrestling is real. Every Monday morning we rehash the weekend matchups—who won, who lost, who cheated. Jennifer wears red high-top Chuck Taylor’s, stonewashed jeans, has crooked teeth, wavy russet bangs, and is beautiful. Her mom’s a teacher.
“Earth to Mitchell,” she says.
“Who were you talking to?”
“Myself,” I admit.
She plucks Mrs. Purtee’s note out of my hand and reads it. I don’t mind. She smells like strawberries.
“God,” she says, glancing up from the note. “What’s wrong with you?”
“I don’t know,” I tell her, and try again to stretch my shorts. I hope my nuts aren’t showing.
“Where’s your pants?”
“I cut them up.”
“Aren’t you cold?”
My legs are so cold they’re burning, but I tell her I’m okay. Yesterday everybody wore shorts and I wore pants. Today everybody wore pants and I wore shorts. Jennifer hands the note back and says, “You’re the weirdest boy I know, Mitchell.”
I peek down at my knees, ashamed. They’re wind-chapped and trembling.
“Don’t ever try to kiss me,” Jennifer says.
“Don’t ever try it.”
We stare at each other. I can barely see her eyes behind her bangs, all that hair flowing down her forehead, curving into her eyelashes. She bites into her bottom lip.
“There’s a dead turtle behind the gazebo. I know where it is.”
“What happened to it?” I ask.
“I’ll show it to you. Come on.”
I watch for my dad. The parking lot’s almost empty. I still have to pee.
“What are you doing?”
“I can’t go,” I say. “My dad’s going to be here any second.”
“I have a piano lesson.”
“A what?” says Jennifer. She calls me a dork. I look away and see Cathy inside our school hauling her cleaning cart from one classroom to the next. She walks like someone with bad knees, with too much weight on them. “Her son’s dead,” Jennifer says.
“I heard he died with his head in the toilet.”
“Nuh-uh,” I say. “He died in the floor.”
Jennifer inches closer. She reaches out and touches my hair and asks what’s in it.
“Nothing,” I say.
“I like it.”
“You heard me. I like your hair.”
My hair is combed over, slicked stiff with gel. All day I’ve been imagining myself at my piano lesson, handsome, proper, playing something you’d play at a recital. Of course I’ve never actually touched a piano before. I’ve never actually laid my fingers on the keys.
“Hello,” says Jennifer. “Earth to Mitchell, come back in.”
“You want a Kit Kat?”
“Those are for charity.”
“We could do it here,” she says.
Her lips are shiny, coated with strawberry lip balm. She’s licking them.
“Do you think I’m slipping through the cracks?” I ask her.
Mrs. Motley comes hustling down the front steps, calling for her daughter. Jennifer evil-eyes me.
“Now I have to leave. You are so weird,” she says, and off she goes, ponytail kicking behind her, the tips of her perfect ears flushed perfectly in the cold. I feel a deep pang—from having to pee, I assume, but there’s no way I’m leaving the flagpole. The second I leave, Dad will show up and I’ll miss him.
For sure he’s going to be in a mood when he gets here. When he’s in a mood, he’s real quiet. You can ask him if he’s okay, but he won’t answer. It’s like he can’t hear anybody anymore. Mom’s even tried yelling at him, but he just goes outside and sits in the shed. He’s got a typewriter out there. He told Mom he’s writing a play, but I don’t think she knows what he’s really doing. I snuck out there one night and spied on him. I saw him through the only window—his eyes were closed and his face was real calm, and he was leaned way back in his chair listening to a record, somebody playing the piano.
Mom says his life hasn’t worked out the way he wanted but hers hasn’t either and you don’t see her hiding out in the backyard. Somebody has to hold this family together, is what Mom’s always saying, and sometimes I wonder if the somebody’s me.
I’m thirty-one minutes late for my lesson. The last bus rumbles out of the back parking lot filled with the kids who’ve been in detention. I see P.J. Awful’s ghostly face framed in a window, thumb and forefinger still troubling the blemish rising from his cheek. I wave, but he doesn’t wave back. The bus lumbers out onto the road in front of our school, then chugs off into the distance.
All’s quiet now. The playground’s empty, the parking lot silent and still. A gust of wind sweeps through and presses the cold deep into my bones. I try not to cry, but there are parts of my body I can’t feel, other parts that are strange and prickly.
I close my eyes and tell myself Dad’s on his way. He got caught up at work, had to grade papers, something like that. I swear to myself he’s almost here, and in my mind see his car, a rusty blue Chevette speeding down the road, threading through traffic, people honking as it flies past—literally flies past, the Chevette airborne, soaring now like something on TV, having ramped up into the sky. Then boom, it slams back down to earth in the school parking lot. A door kicks open and there’s my dad, sweat raining down his cheeks, a look on his face I haven’t seen in months, like he’s here, he’s present. And what does he say?
He says, “Get in, Mitchell! We’re late!”
I open my eyes and the parking lot’s empty. I realize he’s not coming, that my dad’s forgotten me. My will breaks and I pee down my leg. The pee is warm and horrible, the shame instant.
The second I finish a door creaks open and Cathy steps out. She sees me, my shorts soaked through in the crotch, my right leg glistening, steaming in the cold.
“Oh goodness,” she says. “Oh my goodness.”
Suddenly Cathy’s speed-waddling in my direction, keys jangling on her hip. I’m telling her my dad will be here any minute, I’ve got a piano lesson, but she won’t listen. She scoops me up like you would an infant—in your arms, against your chest. I lose my mind.
“Cathy!” I cry. “You fat bitch! Put me down, you fat bitch!”
“You’re all right,” she whispers. “You’re okay.”
“Put me down!”
She labors up the front steps as I bawl into her shoulder.
“He forgot me,” is what I’m saying now. “He forgot me.”
And Cathy’s going, “Shhh. You’re okay, Mitchell. You’re okay.”
The next fifteen, twenty minutes are a blur, Cathy unlocking a beat-up metal desk where one of our teachers, God bless her, keeps a package of boys underwear for situations like mine. Cathy picking out a pair of sweatpants, a denim jacket from the lost-and-found, trying to call my mom. I taste snot unfreezing, trickling down from my nose. Cathy gives me two quarters for a Dr Pepper, and by the time I make it back from the pop machine, she’s uncrumpling Mrs. Purtee’s note, seeing what it says. I dropped it somewhere.
Now I’m about to cry again. I’m holding on to that Dr Pepper and I just start telling Cathy everything, that my family’s falling apart, that my dad hides out in a shed and I have to learn how to play the piano and then maybe he’ll look at me again. To Cathy this can’t possibly make sense, but I can’t shut up. I tell her I’m in trouble—I’m in trouble for wearing shorts and Mom’s in trouble for letting me, that Mrs. Purtee thinks Mom’s a bad mom, but she isn’t.
Cathy scans over the note, her eyebrows pinched into one.
“Carolyn Purtee? Is this your teacher?”
“I swear, some people. If she was so worried about you being cold, how come she didn’t come down here and get you some pants? Huh? Get you a jacket?” Cathy says. “If she was so worried.”
I don’t know what to say. Cathy folds the note and gives it back to me. I’ve never heard her not calm before. I’ve never seen her angry.
“Why didn’t she help you, Mitchell? You just about froze to death out there,” she says. “Why didn’t anybody help you?”
Cathy’s glaring at me like she needs an answer.
My mom pulls up. She hops out of her car wearing plaid pajama pants and a pink sweatshirt. I dart outside and hug her like I haven’t seen her in months.
“I almost froze to death!” is the first thing I say.
She feels my ears, my face. Makes sure I’m alive.
“What happened? Did you miss your bus?”
“Dad was supposed to pick me up.”
“Oh Christ, that’s right. Your piano lesson. He must have forgot.” Mom looks up at Cathy, who’s followed me outside, and says it again: “His dad forgot him.” She tells Cathy Dad’s having a tough time, that we all are, that she works nights and Dad works days and things get confused. Something got confused, Mom says.
“People were coming and going,” Cathy tells her, “but I don’t guess anybody thought to get him inside. I don’t guess they figured it was their problem, somebody’s child out here in the cold.”
“He’s okay. You’re okay, aren’t you, honey?”
“I’m okay,” I tell Cathy. She wipes something off her cheek. It’s a tear.
“I saw him standing out here, but I thought he’d left. I just thought—”
We wait on Cathy to finish her thought, but she never does.
“Thank this woman for helping you, Mitchell,” Mom says, and I tell Cathy thank you. Cathy tries to smile and Mom tries to smile back. They’ve both got those purple circles under their eyes.
“All right, Mitchell,” Mom says.
It’s time to go. Cathy reaches out and takes Mrs. Purtee’s note out of my hand. She says, “Here, honey, let me throw that away for you,” and wads the note into her fist, and just like that, everything Mrs. Purtee said about my mom and me is headed for the garbage. Maybe some of it my mom needs to hear, but there’s more she doesn’t. She doesn’t need to hear she’s a bad mom. I tell Cathy goodbye and watch her drop the note into a trash bin as she hobbles back up to the school.
Then I turn to my mom.
“Where’s Dad?” I ask, and Mom says, “I have no idea.”
I’m standing in the parking lot in some kid’s oversized sweatpants, in another kid’s denim jacket. I realize I’m not going to make it to my piano lesson. I realize I’m never going to learn how to play, and even if I do, my dad’s never going to hear me. It’s like Mom said: he’s already left us. He’s already gone.
Suddenly I see a future where it’s just my mom and me. Mom wakes me up in the mornings and we eat cereal together and I ride the bus to school and ride the bus home and wake her up in the evenings. We eat spaghetti for dinner, or else something we can warm up, and then Mom goes to work and I watch wrestling and put myself to bed. The fact that there isn’t anyone hiding out in the shed anymore won’t make any difference—we’re going to be okay. The life ahead is the life we’re already living.
“Mitchell?” Mom says. “Mitchell?”
She’s rolled the window down. The car’s running.
“Get in,” she tells me. “Let’s go home.”