Brittle as a Bird

Chapter 9

The inner workings of a school are strange. Even though I’d been involved for over ten years, it still never failed to amaze me how the rumor mill works. I guess since I never really acquired friends, I had stayed relatively uninvolved.

When Star and I entered the building, the halls were quiet. Glancing at the clock in the hallway, it was the middle of first period. I thought I’d take a chance on going to class without first getting a pass.

The room was abuzz when I walked in. Mr. Taylor, my economics teacher, was sitting at his desk reading the newspaper. The students were sitting at their desks talking. It was an advanced economic theory class, and we had been assigned a research paper that was due in three weeks. Mr. Taylor expected us to work on it in class, but he didn’t really care as long as it got done and met his rigid expectations. I had been about half way through writing mine when I walked out last week.

A couple of students looked up when I entered, but they quickly returned to their conversations. I waited a few minutes for their barrage of derogatory statements, but I didn’t hear any.

“Can you believe it?” I leaned back and tried to listen to Stacy, the girl sitting behind me. “I heard they’ve been seeing each other for months.”

I soon realized I wasn’t the subject of her conversation. After several minutes, I was finally able to pick up bits and pieces of what had everyone so excited. From what I gathered, Mr. Haywood, a computer science teacher, had been seeing a sophomore girl. The rumors were that he had gotten her pregnant and her mother had called the police to have him arrested.

The same thing happened in my other morning classes. By third period, the rumors had progressed to where Mr. Haywood and Ginger McIntosh, the girl involved, had run away to Mexico. The FBI was trying to track them down somewhere in Tijuana. Personally, I didn’t give a shit. I didn’t know either of them. I’d seen Mr. Haywood in the halls before. He was a middle-aged man with a large belly and a receding hairline. I figured that this Ginger girl had to either be blind or desperate to want to be involved with someone like him.

One thing I was glad of though, no one paid any attention to me. It was as if my sudden disappearance from school had gone unnoticed.

On my way to the cafeteria after third period to meet Star, I was a little nervous because it would be the first time I’d have to confront Ticker after leaving his house suddenly days earlier. After calling him last night, I was confident he wasn’t mad at me. However, I still didn’t want an emotional reunion to occur in the cafeteria.

As I left the north wing and headed to the cafeteria, someone bumped into me, sending my books flying out of my hands and onto the floor.

“Watch out, Faggot.” I looked over and Gene Albright staring angrily at me. His fists were balled tightly as if he was waiting for me to fight him. Again, Barry and another boy were standing behind him trying to instigate him to hit me.

“Fuck him up, Gene,” yelled Barry loudly.

“Hit the queer,” shouted the other boy. Students stopped and waited to see if we were going to fight. Since it was lunch time, they didn’t want to miss any of the short thirty minutes we are allotted. It wasn’t like missing the first few minutes of a class.

Gene looked at me again with apprehension in his eyes. I could tell he didn’t want to fight me, but that he had been pushed into the confrontation we were now facing.

“We still have some unfinished business,” he announced loudly. “I haven’t forgotten, Fag.” He pushed me back, but not hard enough for me to lose my balance. He then nodded at Barry and the other boy and they strode off toward the cafeteria. Barry threw his arm around Gene’s back and patted him several times. I leaned down, picked up my books and headed to the cafeteria.

Star was sitting at a table with Ticker when I entered. Ticker started to stand, but Star put her hand gently on his arm. I walked over and nervously sat down.

Star said, “You’re late.” Ticker looked away and refused to look over at me.

“I ran into a little trouble,” I announced. Ticker looked at me, and I could see the hurt in his eyes.

“Look, Ticker,” I started. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you.” His lip started to quiver and he stood up, trying hard not to break down in front of everyone.

“Not here.” I watched he walked away. I started to get up, but Star stopped me.

“He’s a good friend, Joey,” she said. “He loves you like a brother. You need to talk to him and tell him what’s going on inside.” I nodded and got up from the table. I knew where to find him.

He was sitting on a table overlooking the football stadium. He remained motionless when I sat down beside him. “Ticker,” I began. “We go way back. You’re the best friend, the only friend, I’ve had the past five years.” I looked over and he gave me a brief look. Tears were in the corner of his eyes.

“You know how fucked up my life has been. But through all the shit, I always knew one thing- you were there for me. Always. I love you for that, Man.”

We sat for about a minute without saying anything more as we looked out over the football field. There was a cool breeze blowing, and it felt refreshing. I looked up into the sky and let the warm rays beat down on my face.

Suddenly, Ticker got up and looked at me. A grin appeared on his face as he reached into his pocket and produced a joint. He turned and walked away, heading for the bleachers. I followed for a few feet, and then I ran up beside him. He put his arm around my shoulder and pulled me into his burly body. It felt good to have my best friend back.

We took several drags off the joint before Ticker finally spoke. “Mom’s not mad at you,” he said. “She’s been worried sick. She cried last night after I told her I had talked to you.”

I didn’t know what to say. After all this time, I had assumed that she was mad at me for showing up at her house in a drunken stupor. I still couldn’t forget the look of horror on her face when I came in that afternoon.

As if he had read my mind, Ticker added, “My brother comes home drunk almost every weekend. It just surprised her to see you like that.”

“But,” I started to speak, but Ticker stopped me.

“No buts, Joey,” he said. “She- we- want you to come back home.” He handed me the joint and I took a deep hit. I handed it back and then put my arms around Ticker.

“Thanks, Ticker.” He started to put his arms around me before he stepped back and laughed.

“This is just a little too gay,” he laughed. “I have a reputation to uphold.”

“Yeah,” I agreed.

Just then the bell rang. “We’d better head in.” Ticker said, as he put his hand around my shoulder and led me back into the building.  I guess he really didn’t care too much about his reputation.

I didn’t see Star again until after my fifth period class. She was waiting outside my room when I exited. “Are you busy after school?” She had a desperate look on her face.

“No,” I answered. “Why?”

“I really have to do this report on Wadsworth,” she moaned. “It’s due tomorrow.”

“Sure,” I smiled. “I’ll be glad to help you with Wordsworth.”

“Wadsworth, Wordsworth, whatever,” she replied as she turned and walked down the hall.

She was waiting when I entered the library.  She had her Lit book open and was completely engrossed in her reading to notice me.

“I have walked through wildernesses dreary
And to-day my heart is weary;
Had I now the wings of a Faery,
Up to thee would I fly.

Star looked up from the book she had her head buried in and started laughing hysterically.

“What’s so funny?”

“Did you just call yourself a fairy?” She put her hand over her mouth and continued to laugh.

“No, Smarty Pants,” I responded. “If you had bothered to read the poems, you’d know it was from ‘To a Skylark.’

“Isn’t that a bird?” she asked innocently.

“Oh, God!” I moaned as I sat down and pounded my head on the table. My action got me a stern look from the librarian.

“Just how much have you read?” I could tell by the blank look on her face what the answer was going to be.

“I read, ‘Up Leaps My Heart.”

“Help me, please?” I made a praying motion and looked upward. “It’s, “My Heart Leaps Up.’”


“And it was about?” Again, the ever-present blank stare.

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “It was talking about a heart, I guess.”

I sat and looked dumbfounded at her. “How can someone so pretty and smart be so dumb when it comes to literature?”

“Maybe my mother didn’t read to me when I was a child,” she suggested.

I started laughing. “I don’t think that’s a valid argument.” Again, the librarian gave me a warning glare.

Suddenly, Star stiffened and sat erect. Her eyes narrowed in anger. I turned and saw Barry charging over to our table.

“I thought I told you not to talk to this faggot anymore?”

“Shut up, Barry.” Star stood up and faced her brother. “You don’t tell me who I can and can’t see.”

“I can when you’re talking to this fag.” He looked over at me angrily. “You should have drowned in that river.”

You could hear the slap throughout the library when Star struck her brother on his left cheek. The librarian rushed over and stood between them.

“Young Man!” she shouted at Barry. “I told you last week I didn’t want you in here causing trouble. I want you out of here right now!”

He looked around her and pointed his finger at me. “This isn’t over. Maybe Gene doesn’t have the balls to fight you, but I do.”

The librarian grabbed his arm and started leading him from the library. “I said stay away from my sister.” He shouted over his shoulder as he exited the room. The librarian walked over and got on the phone. She was probably calling security.

Star sat down and began to put her books away. “Sorry,” she said timidly.

“Don’t go,” I pleaded. “If you leave, he wins.” I gave her a serious look, which soon turned to a grin. She tried to suppress a smile, but it began to form in the corner of her mouth. She knew I was reminding her of her argument for me to return back to school.

“Yeah,” she agreed. “He wins.”

We worked for the next hour on her assignment. Or I should say, I worked for the next hour. She sat idly by and pretended she understood what I was saying. I probably would have had more success with a bookshelf understanding what I was talking about than Star. When we finished, I realized I had completely written the report for her.

“Thanks.” She snatched it from my hand and quickly put it in her book bag when she realized I was having second thoughts about giving it to her.

“Don’t you think Mr. Vickers is smart enough to know my writing from yours?”

“I’ll go back over it tonight and rewrite it,” she said. “I’ll be sure and misspell a few words. He’ll never know.”

“I’m not sure about that,” I replied. “For someone who doesn’t know Wordsworth from Wadsworth, this may be a little too well-written.”

“I said I’d misspell some words.” She sounded like that was all she needed to do to make Mr. Vickers believe she had written it. I had to remember the next time to make it appear a student in his regular class had written it, instead of someone in an advanced class.

“Are you going to see Allen tonight?” I asked.

She looked at me and smiled. “Yes. Why don’t you come with me?”

“I really can’t,” I informed her. “I should go to Ticker’s house tonight. We kind of made up at lunch.”

“Good,” she said happily.

“Tell Allen I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“I don’t know,” I responded worriedly. “He seemed mad at me when we left this morning.”

“That’s just Allen,” she assured me. “He has his moods.”

“You’ve said that before,” I laughed. “Anyway, tell him I’m sorry for whatever I did.”

“I will.” She got up and kissed me on the cheek. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

After going to my locker, I left through the side exit nearest the parking lot. I saw Barry and Star heading toward his car. He was holding her arm tightly, and she seemed to be resisting getting into the car with him. I watched for a few minutes as they argued inside the car. He finally started the engine and pulled away.

I couldn’t understand what his problem was. Until I met Star, I couldn’t even remember seeing him around. From what she said, he played on the football and baseball teams. He sat on the bench most of the time and watched Gene play.

On the way to Ticker’s house, my stomach started to tie in knots. By the time I reached his house, I felt physically sick. I knew I had to confront his mother again, and I didn’t want to see the disappointment in her face. She had been nice enough to take me into their home, and I had repaid her by coming in drunk and then running away for several days.

Suddenly, the door opened and Ticker’s little brother, Arthur, came bounding out the door. He nodded at me and hurried on. It appeared that my reappearance at his home wasn’t anything unusual.

I entered the open door and looked around. I thought I should go back out, close the door and then ring the doorbell. Before I had a chance, Ticker’s mother came out of the kitchen drying her hands on her apron.

“Hello, Joey,” she said warmly. There didn’t seem to be any animosity or disgust in her voice. “Ticker is up in his room. Why don’t you go on up. Dinner will be ready in an hour.”

I approached her and started to speak. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Wend..” She abruptly cut me off.

“Dinner will be ready in an hour.” She smiled, turned and headed back into the kitchen, leaving me wondering why she didn’t want to speak to me about what had happened.

Ticker was at his desk chewing on the eraser of a pencil. He looked at me when I entered. “Man, this shit is kicking my ass,” he moaned. “I just can’t get it.”

I looked over and noticed an algebra book lying opened. I immediately felt guilty because I knew last year he was struggling in class but did nothing to help him. I had my own problems, and I didn’t feel it was my duty to tutor him.

“What’s the problem?” I took off my jacket and sat on the edge of his bed.

 He handed me the problem he was working on. It said to evaluate {7-[7-5(5-7)+6]}+4. He looked at me expectantly.

It was a basic algebraic equation, and it only took me a few seconds to figure out the answer. I handed him back the paper and said, “Negative 12.”

“How the hell did you do that?” he asked surprisingly. “You didn’t write anything down.”

I wanted to tell him it was a simple problem, but then I realized it would make him appear dumb. So I got a chair that was sitting nearby and sat down beside him. I spent the next hour explaining to him how to solve similar problems he had been assigned. When we finished, he sat back and smiled at me.

“In an hour I understood this shit better than sitting in a class for two years.” He held the paper up and looked with pride at the problems he had solved. “You should be a teacher,” he said jokingly.

“Yeah, right,” I shot back. “I have a criminal record now.”

“No, you don’t,” he responded. “I thought Mrs. Fulton didn’t press charges against you.”

“You’re right.” I then recalled that Mrs. Fulton had released me to Ticker’s dad and had dropped the charges against me as long as I stayed out of trouble. To my knowledge, she didn’t know about my recent transgressions.

Mrs. Wendelmeier hollered up the stairs, “Dinner is ready, Boys.”

“Let’s go, Teach.” Ticker got up and extended his hand to help me up.

I expected the dinner table mood to be restrained, but as soon as we sat down a lively discussion erupted between Mr. Wendelmeier and Arthur as to which direction computer technology would next advance.

Being a typical teenager, Arthur argued that he thought the future was in video games. His father argued that it would revolutionize the work force. Both made convincing arguments, and I was impressed how intelligent both father and son appeared. I also wondered where Ticker got his lack of mathematical understanding. Even his mother seemed knowledgeable on the subject.

Nothing was said of my sudden disappearance the past few days. By the end of the meal, I was feeling a part of the family and found myself contributing to the debate. Arthur smiled when I tended to agree with him, but added that music and the film industry would also be heavily influenced by a new wave of technology.

As we were clearing our plates off the dinner table, Mr. Wendelmeier asked to speak to me alone. I gave Ticker a questioning look, but he just shrugged his shoulders. I followed his father outside to the backyard patio.

I waited nervously while he lit a cigarette and took a couple of puffs. He looked out onto the yard as if he was assessing the landscape.

“I’ve always given my boys a bit of a loose rope when it came to raising them,” he finally broke the silence. “I try to set a good example and hope that they will follow it.”

Again, there was a long pause before he spoke. “I only get involved when I feel they have crossed the line.” He turned and stared into my eyes. “You crossed that line, Joey.” I hung my head, embarrassed by his words. His words were soft and quiet, but they hurt me more than any verbal assault my father had ever thrown at me.

“I don’t know why you ran off, but I hope it won’t happen again.” Without lifting my head, I could tell he was staring at me. Finally, I looked up and met his eyes.

“It won’t, Sir. I promise.”

“Fine.” He tossed his cigarette into the yard. “Eleanor would shoot me if she saw me do that,” he laughed. He turned and started to walk away. He then stopped suddenly and turned to me.

“One other thing, Joey.” Our eyes met. “I’m a quiet man, but I listen well. If you ever have a problem, don’t be afraid to come to me.”

“I will, Sir,” I responded softly. He turned and I watched as he walked back into the house. I had to fight back the tears that were emerging. Mr. Wendelmeier in his quiet manner had shown more fatherly concern for me than my own father had in seventeen years. I now understood where Ticker received his big heart.

I went back upstairs to Ticker’s room. He and Arthur were engaged in a lively video game battle. I stood and watched them for a minute before I walked over and climbed into the cot. I reached for the phone beside Ticker’s bed and dialed Star’s number.

“Hello?” Star again seemed tired. I guess attending school during the day, working with me after school and then spending the evening with Allen was very exhausting.

“How is everything?” I asked. “Are you home?”

“I just got in,” she told me. “I need to rewrite that paper.”

I smiled thinking about her trying to decide which words to misspell to make it look like it was authentic. “How’s Allen?”

“He was a little tired tonight,” she replied. “I wish he’d take his medication.”

“Did he say anything about me?”

“Should he?” I could tell she was trying to suppress a giggle.

“Come on, Star,” I whined. “Don’t tease me.”

“All right,” she replied. “We’ll talk about this tomorrow. I’m tired and I have to get to bed sometime tonight.”

“All right,” I sighed. There was no use in trying to get any more information. I would have to wait until later to find out what had upset him this morning. “I’ll see you tomorrow then.”

I lay on the bed and closed my eyes as I listened to Ticker and his brother fight a battle over who would be the next emperor of the universe. I figured Arthur must have won when I heard Ticker call him a ‘bratty little fucker.’

“Let’s take a walk.” Ticker was standing over me with a joint in his hand. I got up and followed him outside. We walked to the park and sat on the swing as we passed it back and forth.

“This is some good shit,” I said as I handed him back the joint. After a few puffs, I could feel its effects.

“Only the best,” laughed Ticker as he inhaled deeply and then began coughing. “Good shit.”

We talked for a few minutes and then headed home. When we were about a block from his house, I noticed a familiar car heading our way.

“Don’t Joey,” Ticker pleaded.

“It’s only Ralph,” I assured him. “Besides, I need the money.”

“Joey,” he replied. “Dad will buy you anything you need.”

“I don’t want to be a charity case, Ticker.” I stood and faced him. “It will be all right. It’s only Ralph. I’ll be back in about an hour.” Just then Ralph honked his horn, and I ran over and got in. I looked at Ticker and noticed a disappointed look on his face.

Ralph drove around town looking for a safe spot. We were afraid to go to our usual place behind an abandoned warehouse when we saw a police car slowly cruising the street. We finally ended up pulling over to the curb on an isolated side street. It was only about a block from Shultz Dry Cleaning. Since it was late at night, there were no cars in sight.

“Get me off, Kid,” Ralph said with a sense of urgency. It had been over a week since I had last serviced him, so I knew he was horny. He pulled his cock out, and I leaned over and took it in my mouth.

“Yeah, Kid,” he moaned, “that feels good.”

I continued to rapidly suck Ralph’s cock. I just wanted him to cum so I could collect my money and head back to Ticker’s house.

“Shit!” hollered Ralph. He reached down, grabbed his pants and began pulling them up. “Someone just walked up and saw us.” My heart started pounding. I was afraid that we might have been busted by an undercover cop.

I sat up quickly and looked out the window. Allen’s eyes widened when he saw it was me in the car.