Friday, November 14, 2008

Friday Fiction Fix: "Leopard"

Here in the House of Georges we're all about mixes. When we attend our Tradition contests, we mix it up: one game includes the wives, the other's just for the boys. We always mix up our menus for the occasions, as well as our attire: at Arrowhead it's brats and (Roland) Baileys; at InVesCo we'll do Johnsons and brisket. And there're random mixes. Cecil and his wife mix up which distilled spirits they'll spike everyone's water bottles with, and Old No. Seven is sure to be on point with his "best ever tailgating mix tape," which almost always comes with the succinct dissertation on how "Thunderstruck" is the best tailgating song of all time. Next month, however, we plan on making him keep his boom box in the personal shitter, which he has assured us, he will bring. The point of this feature, however, isn't really much different than our now nationally famous "My Sports Life is a Rock Song." There we mix sports and music; here, we simply subsitute the music for some good ol' fashioned reading, which, if you've ever heard Seven's tailgate mix, you know will come in handy in the parking-lot commode. Speaking of the mixmaster himself, he once, in mid-tailgate jam, shared with me some random thoughts on Norv Turner, and how inconceivable it is that this man is still a coach in the National Football League.

"Norv Turner," he said, "is like that Best Buy salesman -- the one you don't want to help you -- that helps you, and boasts illustriously, guaranteeing that the product you want is the best, and that it's certainly, most definitely in stock. Then, when you settle on something," he continued, "he goes in back, finds out that they're out of it and steps out to smoke a cigarette, conjure up a story he'll feed you for why they're out of it." It's an odd and long-winded simile, but a funny one that I still appreciate/ruin every time I try to tell it.

This week we're going back to the New Yorker magazine for our fix, and this one comes at us via the November 10 issue. Author Wells Tower tackles the second person point of view, something I haven't tried since high school, I don't think. I've always found this choice sinisterly admirable, a challenge to do something different, yet attain and sustain reader interest with equal intensity. This story of his does just that while telling the tale of a frustrated boy, one who's unhappy with his surroundings. Tower is a contributing editor for the Washington Post magazine. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, his debut collection of short stories, will be released on St. Patrick's Day.

"Good morning.

You have not slept well. Don't open your eyes. Stick out your tongue. Search for the little sore above your upper lip. Pray that it healed in the night."

Tower's character, Yancy, has hit puberty. He is awkward, ridiculed, and virtually uncomfortable wherever he goes. The sore has been called a fungal infection by his mother, one that "resembles a tiny hamburger...perfectly centered in the little flute area between your septum and upper lip. Yesterday, in the cafeteria, Josh Mohorn pointed out the similarity before a table of your friends. A painful thing, considering how much you would like to be Josh Mohorn. He turned to you and said, 'Hey, Yancy, do me a favor.'

'What's up?' you said, excited by the rare pleasure of Josh's attention.

'Could you take that seat down there?' he said, gesturing toward the far end of the table. 'I can't eat my lunch with your fucking burger in my face.'"

Yancy, still groggy from lack of sleep, yesterday's embarrassment, feigns illness to his mother, and gets permission to stay home from school, a choice he quickly regrets as his mother must leave for work and leave him at home with his evil stepfather.

"Your stepfather fancies himself a kind of socialist frontiersman, and he doesn't have a normal job...He values hard work above everything, and every time you turn around your stepfather is there, putting a broom in your hand, or giving you a load of wet laundry to hang up, or telling you to fetch firewood, or scrub the sink, or dig a hole...'I have a job for you' is your stepfather's catchphrase...If you say no to your stepfather, this known as 'lip.' 'I'm sick of your lip,' he says, or 'I've had it with your fucking lip.'...He has slapped you a few times...

...At twelve-thirty, you hear the front door creak and slap...Your stepfather comes in, trailing a rich vegetable aroma. 'Feeling better?' he asks."

Yancy tells his evil stepfather that he's not, and a mini-Q&A ensues, wherein Yancy tries to convince his stepfather that he really is sick, but it is of little avail.

"'You should get some fresh air,' your stepfather says. 'How about you go get the mail?'

This is not fair. The driveway is a half mile of rutted gravel that takes fifteen minutes to walk, and as far as your stepfather knows, you're sick...It is a hot autumn day...You've already lost your summer calluses, and the driveway gravel is sharp, causing you to walk with a jouncing, like a bird trying to take flight. You blame your stepfather for the unpleasantness of the gravel...

...You open the mailbox...There must be fifteen pounds of mail, a sliding load that no sick person should have to carry. On the top of the heap, something catches your eye. It is a handmade flyer with a Xeroxed photograph of what appears to be a leopard. 'Lost pet,' reads the flyer, with a phone number below. A breeze starts down your neck. You turn and look into the woods, though the leaves have not yet fallen and you can't see twenty feet...your heart beats a little harder knowing that it might be out there, moving in the dull pine wastes near your home...

...It is nearly one o'clock, the hour that your mother comes home for lunch. You do not want to be alone in the house with your stepfather.

It still angers you that he has sent you down the driveway on your sick day, your special day of rest. You take a dozen steps, and then a plan suggests itself...When your mother's car swings into the drive, she will find you there...She'll come to you crying and concerned. You'll let her coax it out of you, the story of how your stepfather made you get the mail."

Yancy, however, is visited by another guest.

"'Whoa, buddy -- hey, hey." It's a man's voice, high and nervous. A hand nudges your shoulder. Come on, now, pal.' The man draws halting breaths. It startles you when warm fingers find the side of your neck...

'Take it easy, now,' he says. 'Let's just take it easy.'...

...You have not had your first kiss, but you are already worried about sex. Just two grades ahead of you, kids are having it already...

...'I should probably get going. My dad's probably wondering where I am.' You pull the door handle. It's locked.

'Oh, you ain't (going) anywhere...,' he tells you with a stern fondness that makes you uneasy... don't move. You don't want to. The sun slips behind a cloud. Something -- you don't know what -- is about to happen."

The tale is one of intrigue and mystery, and those interested enough can get their pre-order action of Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned on here.