As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
Winner of the 2011 BOMB Fiction Prize,
Judged by Rivka Galchen
It was Wednesday, I guess. Dwid was in the garage sawing the head off Frank Johnson’s dead cat and I was keeping a lookout for Dwid’s mother, Myra, who hates Frank Johnson—but not that much. Frank Johnson and Myra own opposite sides of a duplex. It’s like a before-and-after photo: Myra’s side being the made-over half and Frank Johnson’s being one step from condemnation. Whatever; Dwid had the carcass pinned beneath his high-top sneaker as he chopped at its neck with a hacksaw.
“Almost got it,” he said.
On the last heave, the neck bone split and the saw’s blade ground the cement floor. “Got it,” he said, but the cat’s head lay askew next to its body, still attached by sinews and fur.
There was hardly any blood.
“Damn cat,” Dwid said.
The cat we’re talking about here is Label. Named after Black Label, a beer Frank Johnson drinks. So not to confuse his beer and his cat, Frank refers to his beers as Carlings. “Nothing like a Carling,” he says. Shoot, I’d even helped search for Label one day after I delivered Frank’s newspaper and found him shirtlessly ambling his small patch of the duplex’s lawn. He was scratching his beard—which is the same gray shade as Label—and I’d never seen him step off his porch before. He’s got some tic about never meandering too far into the world. “Gone, just like that,” Frank snapped his fingers. “If you see Label out there, tell him to come home,” and I kept an eye out as I biked back to my route.
Label always was a scrawny, skittish feline—what living thing wouldn’t be if it scrounged at Frank Johnson’s side? Where the paint is peeling, and at any time of day, we can see Frank in his underwear, tossing empty Carlings and rattling the newspaper.
Dwid and Myra’s side is spotless aluminum, stern white brick. Their half of the lawn is trimmed to where the drainage pipe runs down the front of the house. Inside, Dwid’s place looks like an art museum. No carpet. Just gleaming hardwood floors, black leather chairs, and paintings on the walls that make no sense to me—probably don’t to anyone else in Dearborn, Michigan, either.
Inside his garage Wednesday, Dwid clasped Label’s head, telling me to “Just hold it by the legs and pull.”
“I’m supposed to keep a lookout,” I said. “That’s it.”
“You puss, let’s get this over with.”
Label had been dead a couple days, drying up in the skunk trap behind Dwid’s garage. Still, I expected blood. I can’t get over the lack of it.
I was going back and forth between wanting to bolt from the scene and wanting to go helter-skelter on Label’s body, to shove Dwid aside and rip the thing in two so he’d shut his hole. Evil, I thought. We’re doing evil. But getting a hold of a real skull was supposed to do something for our status as crazy mother-effers once we brought it to school.
Here’s the thing: Dwid was bent because earlier that day Mohamed Mohamed choked him against a locker and told him he was a fughin’ pusshey whiteboy. The Arabs at school call us whiteboys and we call them A-rabs. Or, we call them Rabs. They talk shit freely but we only talk ours among ourselves. In the hallways of Stout Junior High there are Lebanese, and Yemenis, and Palestinians. And Iraqis—the ones we worry about most. Especially since Desert Storm and all that. Patriots and Scuds. Oil fires reeling across the desert.
Teachers are always telling us how Dearborn has more Arabs than anywhere outside the Middle East. Every year the district buses more Arabs to our West End schools because the East End schools are overcrowded. This year, all the boaters—the kids who don’t speak English—wound up on our bus. Every day in the news and every day in school, it’s East and West sides. There doesn’t seem to be tension in the city at large.
The Arabs hardly bother with the West Side. They keep clean, precise East End businesses and there’s a new mosque going up on Shaefer Road. Sometimes the AKMED HAMMOUD FOR MAYOR advertisements on the bus stop benches are tagged with slurs, but other than that—nothing obvious.
Here at school, it’s different. The Arabs are tough. Many are older, like four years behind in their classes on account of having a late start. Hassen Alegibari has a full beard and I caught a glimpse of his cock in the gym showers. His Zubra—bigger than my dad’s. One morning, from the school-bus windows, we saw him pull up to our junior high in a Ford Tempo.
“Check it out,” Dwid pointed—and there was Hassen, popping the clutch.
As for Arabs being tough, I mean it like this: Kevin Fretner’s the toughest whiteboy in school. He steals. Scars up his arms with safety pins and ballpoint ink, calling the scabbed patterns tats. He bench presses weights in the gym, huge plates stuck to the ends of a bar. We heard he clobbered a high-school kid with a skateboard. When Fretner asks to borrow my heavy-metal cassettes, I don’t even care if he gives them back. I just like it when he says, Badass, man.
But there’re about ten Arabs at school who could maim Kevin Fretner, and he knows it. So, he’s conflicted, because he’s like our great white hope. We say, “Fretner could kick Mohamed Mohamed’s ass,” but we know it’s not true. Mohamed Mohamed is resident Zeus, all veins and light-brown muscle. The Arabs have a gang: East End Boyz. Contorted hands flash signs in the halls. If you aren’t from Dearborn, you wouldn’t understand. My mom says the Arabs chose Dearborn for the Ford auto plants, the Rouge Steel mill. That kind of thing.
Anyway, on Wednesday, after Mohamed Mohamed told Dwid he’d better be there—behind the school—to get killed after the last bell, Dwid threw down his backpack and scrammed out of the building.
“Kessemmak,” Mohamed said, flicking a finger, like that’s all it was gonna take to knock Dwid’s block off. “Betta fughin’ be there.”
Dwid wasn’t there.
I found him in the garage with Label after the bus dropped me off.
“Goddamn,” he was saying. “Pull the fricken legs.”
I pinched Label’s cold, stiffened legs between my fingertips. They felt like the dyed-pink rabbit’s-foot key chains at the party store where Dwid and I browse rock-and-roll magazines. As I pulled, the skin and grime from Label’s neck stretched longer than you’d imagine; elastic knots of gristle, cords of flesh that wouldn’t tear. There was a rotten mulch and motor oil smell. Label didn’t really smell at all.
I extended my arms so they ebbed and flowed with Dwid’s pull, because I didn’t really want to see Label’s head finally detach. Then Dwid tugged hard. The rabbity hooves slipped from my fingers and the corpse slung onto Dwid’s thighs.
“Sickening,” he said.
Just like that, we looked beyond the garage to see Myra’s Toyota yawing down the street. Dwid lunged and smacked the button, sending the garage door clattering down, pinching out the sun.
That one-car garage has no windows. We were silent in the dark. Label’s body was somewhere beneath us, and I didn’t move as the Toyota pulled up. The engine’s rattle died. The car door. Footsteps.
“Hey, guys.” Myra said. “I saw ya in there.”
“Get out of here, Mom. We’re working on stuff.”
“Yeah, yeah,” she said, “whatever.”
Dwid and his mom had squabbled over that garage before. Few weeks earlier, I’d coasted by on my paper route to find Dwid shouting, “You better ask nice or you’re not getting out,” conking the door with a hockey stick. Trapped inside the garage, Myra yelled, “Open up right now or your ass is grass.”
On Wednesday, she just walked into the duplex; the screen door thwacked shut. She didn’t want to deal with us. Didn’t even want to know.
“All right,” Dwid said. “We’ve gotta hide it.”
My eyes adjusted to the darkness. Dwid kicked Label’s body until it was behind a lawn mower. He threw the saw to the ground.
“We’ll finish tomorrow,” he said, and once the door shuddered open, I headed home to saddle my bike and deliver the newspapers.
You know, it’s not like we hate Arabs. But we didn’t want them on our bus when the routes changed this year. Used to be everyone got his own seat and could sprawl across the vinyl cushions and chatter about Beth Coppo’s nipples, or the new heavy-metal band we’d discovered that was heavier than all the rest.
With the Arabs onboard, we’re ass to ass with one another on the seats and we watch what we say because heavy metal is fagghut shit. The Arab girls took over the back of the bus since they get picked up first. We don’t even think about telling them to move. We’re not supposed to look at them or their brothers and cousins will pound us.
“Wulla, you even look at my sister and you’re dead.” Wulla means god, or something.
I’m not dying to sneak a peep, anyway. Most Arab girls are wrapped head to toe in cloth and scarves—dark eyebrows, olive faces peering out. Anyone could be inside those cloaks.
The Arabs look the whitegirls up and down, though. They pull them close, hands on hips, in the gym during school dances. We deal with it. There’s nothing we can do, and I don’t care because earlier this year Beth Coppo asked me to slow dance and told me I was the only blond she’s ever thought was cute. I gauge whether people like me or not by whether they think my hair is blond or red. Some of the Arabs, like Morad, call me cinnamon stick. Some of the white kids, too.
Fucking blond, I say, it just goes reddish in the winter.
Morad dances with all the girls. Even the best-looking lady teacher, Ms. Pippen, shuffles with him. His black coif, wet with gel—it’s like this gleaming helmet. He wears velvety slacks with pleats and rivets furrowed across the thighs and a Raiders cap, studded with rhinestones that twinkle in classroom fluorescence. Myra bought Dwid one just like it. I want one for my birthday. The Arabs don’t celebrate birthdays, and when you ask how old they are, some gape down the hallway and shrug.
First couple weeks of school, I was in with Morad. I dubbed him a rap tape called 2 Live Crew and he brought me a tin of chewing tobacco he’d swiped from his dad’s gas station. Dip—that’s what we call it.
After that, all the whiteboys wanted dip. So, Morad stole it and I hocked it. Skoal Mint, long cut. Us whiteboys spit in cola bottles on the bus rides home, or in woodshop. I’d collect money, slide Morad the bills. Felt real serious. Wickedly illicit. Morad would ask if I had any heat and I’d say, All clear, no heat, as he passed off the tins before gym.
But one day in the locker room, it went bad; he wouldn’t look at me. “What’s up? You got the handoff?” I said, and he went, “Get da fugh outta here.”
I was pulling on my sweatpants, saying, “Is there heat?” He took off his shirt and his back was thrashed, welted mauve. “My father caught me. So get the fugh outta here.”
Morad blamed me. That’s what I think, because he took a run at me during basketball, butting the palm of his hand into my nose and shoving me to the floor of the court. My eyes watered. Everyone in gym thought I was bawling.
“Fughin’ baby,” someone said.
Even the boaters laughed. I’m pretty sure Dwid told Beth Coppo I cried in gym, but he wasn’t even there.
Things got worse when I brought in a cartoon of a camel with its testicles strewn across a stump and a missile wedged in its mouth, aimed at the sky. Running at the stump was a turbaned man, about to bring down a mallet on the camel’s nuts.
Caption: Iraqi Scud Missile Launcher.
Mohamed Mohamed tracked me down in the boys’ room. He eyed me into the corner, demanding I admit George Bush was a pussy. And I said it, as many times as he wanted. I mean, Mohamed has a moustache growing in. His chest looks like body armor.
“Saddam can kick his pusshey ass,” Mohamed said, banging my head off the tiles before he left.
My retainer went crooked, wires crunched around my molars. As the school nurse pried it from my mouth and swabbed blood from my gums, I was thinking I got off easy. Easier than the dweebs who showed up wearing those WE CAME, WE SAW, WE KICKED ASS Desert Storm T-shirts. I heard one of them nearly got nixed in the gym swimming pool.
As for Dwid—he really crossed Mohamed Mohamed. You know, I’m surprised he isn’t deceased already. It all started a couple weeks back, when Myra ordered us into her Toyota and drove us to the East End after she’d heard us saying, A-rabs, fuckin’ Rabs.
She parked outside a restaurant with a sign lit up in bizarre symbols, all these neon hieroglyphics.
“Amazing food,” she said. “You two need to learn about other cultures. Understanding people is the only way to solve problems.”
Inside, dark-haired men at tables stared at us like we’d wandered onto the wrong continent. I couldn’t make a bit of sense of the menu.
Dwid cussed under his breath, but Myra let him pout.
“Try the lamb,” she said. “Delicious.”
No way in hell was I going to eat sheep. I wanted fries, a burger. Something with ketchup and a logo on the wrapper.
“What’ll you have?” she asked me.
“They got chicken nuggets?”
The waiter came. Real slick, with this dastardly sidekick kinda grin.
“They want chicken,” Myra said. “I’ll have the lamb kofta. And carrot juice for them. All these kids drink is sugar.”
Dwid picked at a scab on his elbow until the waiter brought an entire roasted chicken and set it before us.
“Chicken,” the waiter said. “And kofta for you, miss.”
“Hell is this, Thanksgiving?” Dwid said.
“Eat it,” Myra said.
We knifed at the bird’s slippery meat, jabbing at its ribcage. Myra finally slapped the utensil from Dwid and said, “Haven’t I taught you anything?”
I hardly sipped the carrot juice. Fricken orange blood. Bits of earth floating in the glass, as though it were still alive. I like drinks that are smooth, syrupy. My thing is to walk up to the self-serve soda fountains in fast-food joints and spray every flavor into my cup. Firewater, Dwid calls it.
After we’d gnawed the chicken, Myra paid the bill and drove down Shaefer Road, past the East End steel and auto plants. The smell in the air—she said it was sulfur, not rotten eggs. There were colossal machines, barbed wire, and concrete everywhere. Like giant blowtorches, blue flames shot up from the towers of Rouge Steel. The aluminum sided houses looked dusted in soot.
“Some of the kids at your school live down here, so try to understand where they’re coming from,” Myra said. “You two don’t have it so bad.”
She steered the Toyota down a street with milk crates nailed to trees instead of basketball hoops. Young Arabs tossed layups at the trunks. Cloaked women floated down the sidewalks and the place seemed tidy and filthy all at once. I was worried the East End Boyz might catch us on their turf.
When we got home, Dwid called over some whiteboys for a football game in the lot behind the duplex. Frank Johnson peered out his window and we hiccuped like cartoon drunks until he lurked away. At the edge of the lot, a beehive hung in a thicket, and whenever someone carried the ball near it, the players did their best to shove the charging opponent into the hive. Dwid knocked the wind out of me just before I scored the winning goal.
But we all left unstung.
The next day, Dwid told Beth Coppo that Mohamed Mohamed lived in a shithole. That’s what I heard. And I knew he was in for it. Me too, I thought. I might be in for it too.
Once the bus drops us off, I usually screw off for an hour before I deliver the newspapers. Dwid and I listen to heavy metal and shoot his bow and arrow. We never aim for the sun or anything; we fire straight up, to see whose arrow soars the highest.
My arms tremble as I cock the bow, then I let go before Dwid notices. Once, one of my arrows sailed over the backyard fence to nearly skewer a sunbathing woman. Swear, I heard it sizzle through the air just before it pierced the earth. We hid in Dwid’s garage and never heard a thing about it, not even as we hopped the fence and pulled it from the ground.
Last winter, Dwid and I were banned from the bus. Made us feel tough, seventh graders and all. The driver, Rich—Rich the Bitch—refused to let us aboard after I’d poured a sack of my dog Halen’s frozen turds down the aisle one morning. Huhhda—that’s what Arabs say for shit. But this was before the Arabs were onboard, so it was just whitegirls shrieking, icy logs rolling beneath the seats. Principal Cotter and my parents had a meeting. They talked about therapy, but it never happened. Dwid was banned, too, just for saying Rich the Bitch one time too many.
Yet we made it home faster than the bus. We sprinted once the last bell rang, straight out the back doors, two miles or so, cheering as we crossed the highway overpass, the halfway mark. Our backpacks humping against our spines, noses drooling from the cold. Then we’d lie in the middle of the street; or, if it was trash day, set up a garbage can barricade. Behind the wheel, Rich honked and shouted as the brake lines creaked, and if there was a war between him and us, we were winning.
We were at an impasse.
There’s a new bus driver this year, and with the Arabs onboard, it’s a quiet ride. Quiet, like a fight about to happen. But once we get dropped off, it’s my favorite time to be alive. Even more than the weekends, when Dad’s home and I have to hide my cassettes under my bed and stand at attention to shovel Halen’s dookie or to nail shingles to the roof.
That hour, before I do the newspapers, is our time.
Things seemed to change earlier this week. Monday, I guess it was. We walked up Dwid’s driveway and he dropped his backpack in a way that said something tremendous was happening.
“A skunk,” he said. “A skunk in the trap.”
He ran to the backyard and kicked the steel box that sat next the garage, out of view from Frank Johnson’s back window. The trap’s door had slid shut, which meant it had a culprit.
“Don’t kick it, man. It’ll spray.”
Inside the trap, something yowled.
“Holy shit,” Dwid said, kicking it again.
The Michigan air had that end-of-summer feeling. When the first tongue of autumn dabs the skin on my arms, I love the way it feels. Even more if my elbows are dirty, my hands black with newsprint.
Dwid paced the skunk trap, jolting it with the heel of his sneaker, going on about how much he hated that cat.
I didn’t get it. I like cats just fine. I like most animals, even the mangy terrier that gnashed my calf on my paper route. I bring a couple of Halen’s Milk-Bones with me now, just in case. Lying in bed at night, I throw my arm across Halen, feeling his ribs rise and collapse—even after I’ve shoveled and bagged his muck.
Dwid kept saying, “I’m gonna fuck this thing up.”
A faint whine came from inside the steel. We’d yet to know for sure whose cat was in the trap, but we could guess. Dwid walked to the garage and returned wearing Myra’s floral-print gardening gloves.
“You open the trap when I say,” he said. “Just hold it open. Don’t wuss.”
I felt like I do when I cock his bow and arrow. Or just before I toss a lit match into the grocery store Dumpster, once the lighter fluid is wilting the leftover newspapers. Feeling like I’m not really there. Never wanting Dwid to see my hands jitter, once the flames begin to rise.
I knelt beside the trap as Dwid sprinted across the backyard: Fast. Even faster than when we’d raced the bus home. Dirt kicked up behind his sneakers. He reached the thicket and wrestled with it. Rushing back, he held the beehive between his hands like he was carrying the Earth and the water might spill from its depths if he didn’t make it in time. Frank Johnson might have gazed out his window, guzzling a Carling, unable to believe what he was seeing.
Dwid’s head was cocked sideways, to spare his face. A few bees sputtered from the combs.
“Open it,” he yelled. “Fuckin’ open it.”
I pulled the latch and slid up the steel door, just in time for him to stuff the hive inside and slap it shut again.
Dwid says it’s old news, but Beth Coppo called my house after we’d slow danced. I still think about how I answered and said, Hang on, running to the basement to plug in an old rotary phone so we could talk privately. Sometimes I imagine I’m still sitting on my dad’s rusted weight bench, listening to Beth as Mom’s spin cycle clicks and swishes.
“You should come to Kendra’s after school tomorrow,” she said, and my nerves came alive, like certain bodily molecules had been released from gravity.
“I want to see you,” Beth said, and I knew it meant something other than see me, because she sees me every day in biology.
With my bare foot, I rolled a dumbbell back and forth on the cement floor, the plates clacking as I talked low. Then, from above, I heard my dad’s steps and told Beth, Sorry, gotta go.
“Thought I heard weights down here,” Dad said, seeing the phone on my lap, “should’ve known better.” But it was worth it, because the next afternoon Beth and I tag-teamed on video games in Kendra’s family room. We thwacked the controls, ganging up on street thugs who came up on the screen with knives and baseball bats. Beth sat cross-legged, her knee pressing into mine. She giggled every time we wasted a villain. Dwid and Kendra reclined in La-Z-Boys. After a while, Beth grabbed my wrist and said she wanted to show me something.
“That’s Kendra’s dad. That’s her brother, he’s a freak,” she pointed to photos, once we were inside Kendra’s pink bedroom.
Holding my hand, she led me to Kendra’s bed. We sat for a minute, and I didn’t even think about biting a hickey on her neck or goosing her boobs or anything like that.
“Oh, screw it,” she said.
Her lips pried open my mouth and her tongue licked mine. I’d heard about French kissing, but I’d never hugged a girl. I’d seen magazines with bronzy, naked women cranking open their legs, but I could barely figure how to slide my tongue beneath Beth’s. All I remember feeling is her teeth, my tongue somehow caught between them. I’m not sure teeth have anything to do with French kissing, but that’s what I loved about it as I walked home: her teeth, how sharp they felt.
Vampiric, like a metal song.
I was scheming about what to get Beth for her birthday, for Christmas, wondering if we’d go to the movies. But the next day she said, “Hi, you,” and kept walking, hovering beyond reach no matter how I tried to get near her.
The day after that, she was going steady with Hassen. Hassen, who drives his father’s car. Hassen with the huge zubra, who’s the fastest kid in school and runs the two-mile, sprinting the whole thing like a madman as the coach says, “He’s got no technique but he wins every goddamn time.”
By Thursday, all our friends had heard we had a skull—a real skull. Dwid managed to evade Mohamed Mohamed all week, and maybe it’s because Mohamed, too, heard about our evildoings: heard that we’re crazy, sinister badasses who’d skin him alive as we blare heavy metal. When Kevin Fretner asked me if it was true, I said, Yeah, man, and I could have never called him man before.
“No way,” he said. “That’s nuts. Tomorrow. I wanna see it tomorrow.”
But yesterday afternoon, I didn’t go over to Dwid’s after the bus let me off. I gathered the newspapers to start my route early and by the time I got to Dwid’s street, he was waiting on the porch, tapping a foot to his blaring headphones.
“Wanna check it out?” he said.
I followed him, straddling my bike, to the edge of the garage. From a garbage bag, Dwid hoisted a family-size mayonnaise jar. The logo was scuffed away but a gluey residue streaked across the glass. The lid was blue: Hellmann’s. Bring Out the Best. Classic Taste.
There was something inside: A gray lump. A mossy, meteoric debris.
“What is it?”
“The fricken skull,” he said.
“Look,” he turned the jar, “there’s the eye.”
Sure enough, there was Label’s cinched eyelid, squeezed so tight it might have been trying to wince away every moment it lived inside Frank Johnson’s.
“Ah, sick.” It wasn’t a skull—the gleaming white, bony grimace I’d thought we’d reveal to Kevin Fretner. It was nothing like the covers of my cassette tapes with illustrated knives driven into the eyes of the dead, flames surrounding ghastly skeletal remains. It was truer than that. Something that was once alive had become grotesque, and no matter how I tried to think of undoing it, Label wasn’t coming back.
I headed back to my route, where the next paper to deliver was Frank Johnson’s. I chucked it at his screen door and biked fast up the street, but that might’ve been my chance to confess. Frank’s one of my best customers. He pulls linty coins from his jeans to tip when I collect each month. It’s less than people whose houses aren’t split in half cough up, but he doesn’t have much. At least that’s how it looks when I peer into his living room. Just beer cans and a dinner tray and a woodpaneled television. And Label.
Sometimes, it’s almost like Frank is one of us whiteboys. He once caught us in the backyard spraying fireballs at his shrubs, and all he did was yell from his window, “What the shit you doin’?” I’d raised my lighter to a canister of aerosol bug spray to let loose a gassy fireball, because since when did Frank care about his yard?
“Woo-hee,” he yelled. “You redheads are always crazy.”
Dwid saluted him, and Frank said, “Just don’t burn down the fucking house, eh?” as he vanished behind the glass.
I’d always figured that Dwid liked Frank. When Frank and Myra scream at each other about their shared lawn, Dwid eavesdrops from his bedroom window. When Myra’s at work, he’ll sit on Frank’s porch, sipping the old man’s Carlings as I do my route.
Label had always been there, too, slinking between their ankles.
This morning, I met Dwid at the bus stop like I do every Friday, but I didn’t want to ask. Dwid’s backpack looked fit to burst, but no more than usual. His hair was gelled, slicked back just like Morad’s. We weren’t talking. The air was moist and you could see the webs from the spiders that crawled across the trees during the night. The oak leaves, just starting to speckle with yellow. I’d had a hunch I should’ve stayed in bed all day, and you can bet I’m wishing I had. Next time I get that feeling, I’m staying put.
I glimpsed Beth Coppo before the first bell. She had an arm around Hassen—he’s so much taller than her and he wasn’t smiling. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen him smile, but I’m betting he’s licked her teeth a hundred times.
Come lunchtime, I was hardly even thinking about Label. Until Kevin Fretner asked, “So, where is it?” and I told him Dwid had it because the heat is on me for selling dip.
“You pussies don’t have a skull,” he said, grinding his thumb into my ham sandwich. After lunch, locker doors crashed in the hallways. Hormones awakened from their Friday-morning slump by sugary colas and a lust for the weekend. The whitegirls squawking, Oh my God, about who knows what as guys with broad shoulders strutted, ready to knock aside anyone smaller. Arab girls fluttered, whispering. Protected. Untouchable. And through it all, Dwid came rushing with his backpack strapped across his chest like an explosive. “Take it now. Take it take it take it,” he said, and shoved the backpack into my locker. “They’re on to me.”
Fricken biology class began and I watched Beth giggle as she scrawled in a notebook. I’m betting it says Beth Loves Hassen 4 Ever, again and again. Mr. Meyers started talking and we stared through him. It’s never that quiet in his class, so he appeared stunned as he spouted the lesson.
Then, the kid next to me said, “Dude, Fretner says he saw it. It fucked him up.”
And I said, “What?” As if I didn’t know.
“Says you sickos got a dead cat. Everyone knows, man.”
“Come on, guys, we’re doing good,” Mr. Meyers said. “Eyes up here.”
That’s when everything started going wrong. All at once regions of my body that aren’t supposed to sweat began to leak, like when I come home to find my bedroom trashed and a Playboy sitting amid smashed cassettes, and I know that whenever I see my dad, it’s going to hurt.
While Mr. Meyers scrawled molecular structures on the blackboard, I was inventing trapdoors, escape hatches, emergency rip cords. I’m good at it. You get to be, with a dad like mine. You lie and smile, even as he pulls the tin of dip from his pocket and says, Then why was this in your coat?
The kid next to me was going, “Yeah, a bunch of dudes saw it. That one-eyed boater looked like he was gonna cry,” and I raised my hand.
“Sir?” Mr. Meyers said.
“I gotta use the bathroom.”
Walking the hallways, I knew I was being watched. I’ll bet this place has spies, radioing your every step to headquarters. I slurped from the drinking fountain. Inside my locker, Label’s skull might have come back to life—wailing, longing for its body. I could just about see Label’s fangs piercing the Hellmann’s cap, its head twirling beyond the speed of sight inside the jar. A blurry sphere of guts and teeth ready to gobble to bits the next person who nears it.
Morad rounded the corner. His back might have healed. His father has restocked the tobacco shelves but still, in his eyes, I can tell he wants me to suffer some part of what he already has.
I waved to him and opened my locker, saying, “Can you help me?”
“What did I tell you?” he said—cool, his rhinestoned Raiders cap hanging from a belt loop.
“Take this backpack and put it in your locker?”
“You got heat?”
“Big heat,” I said. “They’re watching.”
“You gonna give me a cut when you’re done?”
“Yeah,” I said, “just bring it to me after school.”
“Mohamed Mohamed,” Morad said, clicking his tongue. “He knows what you said about his house. Wulla, he does.”
I ducked into the boys’ room, imagining my head being mashed into the tiles, nothing left to identify me but my retainer. I thought about how when Dwid finally opened the skunk trap, Label had been inside for two days, turning over, nudging the gate with its pink nose. Waiting for Frank to rise from a drunken sleep and nestle it in his blotchy arms. As the latch lifted, Label was curled on its side, skinnier than ever. The hive seemed to have crumbled; a few dried bees lay in the debris.
I’ll never be sure whether Label was stung to death or if it just gave up waiting for Frank. I couldn’t tell. Dwid poked inside with a hockey stick and swept the body and a few dusty bees onto the grass.
I guess that’s just about all I know, when it comes to this mess.
I was summoned here to Principal Cotter’s office during last period, and they’ve kept me sitting a good 20 minutes—that’s one of their scare tactics. Dwid’s in the quiet room, a cubicle of soundproofing and glass adjacent to where I’m sitting. We’ve both stared at every inch of that cell. I look up at him for the first time and he’s staring right at me. Probably has been all the while. We’re nodding our heads. I know he’ll never tell; he knows the same about me. Even as they hold Label’s head above us and shake it, we’ll deny everything. We’ll make them believe it’s not really there.
And I’d better get my story straight, because here’s Principal Cotter, hobbling in to have a word with me like he’s done a hundred times.
“What’s this about a dead cat?” he says.
So, I let it rip: “Dwid’s got a plastic rat? Coulda been his toy rat?”
“Your buddy said it was a sponge from the janitor’s closet,” Principal Cotter says.
“Could be,” I say. “That sounds about right.”
And, son of a bitch, the vice principal makes himself known in the doorway. Mr. Fudlalah—he speaks Arabic to the Arabs and never says anything to us, so he’s just glaring. Principal Cotter is ancient and prune-eyed and always says, You two are smart kids who are wasting my time more and more every year, even though once we leave Stout Junior High we’ll have only been here two years. Today, his breath smells like coffee and toothpaste.
“So, where’s this jar then?”
“Like, a cookie jar?” I could keep going all afternoon.
“All right,” Principal Cotter says; his teeth are yellow. “Let’s go to the lockers.”
He releases Dwid from the quiet room. The principal and the assistant principal usher us through the hallways. Cotter and Fudlalah, banded in a crackdown. Dwid goes first and there’s nothing in his locker but busted pencils.
“Where’s your bag then?”
“At home,” Dwid says, like he’s annoyed—that’s his style.
“A scholar,” Principal Cotter says.
Headed for my locker, I don’t even wonder what Dwid’s thinking. He’s too calm to be trusted and I just have to believe Label is still there, cringing in a swarm of bees. The skull. The whole damn body. I can hardly bear to look as I rattle open the door.
“And where’s your bag?” Principal Cotter says.
“In your office,” I say, and it shouldn’t be this easy. It’s as if the whole thing is a hoax, like no one cares to go deep when it comes to Frank Johnson and his cat. It ain’t even worth an in-school suspension.
“All right, numbskulls,” Cotter says. “You’re wasting my time.”
The assistant principal stares, his dark eyes insinuating that if they don’t get us this time, well, sooner or later.
In school terms, Friday’s almost over, and a purgatorial drear has overcome me, shackling me to my evilness. I’ve gone over it so many times that the truth about what we’ve done being uncovered hardly matters anymore. Everyone knows, even if they can’t prove it—especially Frank Johnson. When the final bell rings, pouring us into the hallways, I don’t even care about seeing Beth Coppo kissing Hassen, his hand swiping her fruity behind. Couldn’t care less.
“I know what’s in there,” Morad says, as he hands me Dwid’s backpack behind the school, amid kids tromping toward their buses.
Morad clicks his tongue, tugs on the brim of his Raiders cap. He seems to understand he’s giving me something I deserve, that he need not tell a soul about what he’s seen.
“I owe you one,” I say, and he says, “You and me got no more business.”
Idle buses rumble and kids are chattering.
I heave Dwid’s backpack over my shoulder and now there’s one on each of my arms: mine and his. I walk past the buses, toward the street. Our new bus driver sees me and tries to wave me in, but I keep going, down the streets we used to run last year when we blasted home even faster than the buses. Today, I walk slowly across the highway overpass, then a stretch of curb where there is no sidewalk.
When I get back to the neighborhood, Dwid is sitting on his porch.
We don’t say much as he digs the hole in the backyard. We’re just out of sight of Frank’s back window, and he might be at the sill, scanning the grass for Label’s arching spine.
The backpacks are hooked on my shoulders.
“Deep enough?” Dwid says.
“A little deeper.”
He leaves and comes back with a garbage bag, Label’s body nestled in a sagging corner. He tosses it into the pit, and I unzip his backpack. The mayonnaise jar feels cool in my hand, but I don’t look at it. I roll it off my palm; it smacks on top of the garbage bag. Dwid shovels the dirt and weeds back into the pit. I try to help by kicking at the earth. And now, I’m beginning to understand. I’ve got this feeling like the skull belongs to me. Yes, it was my part in all this; it was mine to give away.
The body was Dwid’s doing, but the skull—
As the hole is filled, the dirt flattened, smothered by branches and mulch, I’m pretty sure it’s true.
Sean Madigan Hoen was raised in Dearborn, Michigan, and currently lives in Brooklyn. Label is his first publication. He is at work on a memoir and a collection of short fiction. BOMB Congratulates the 2011 Fiction Prize Runners-Up: Richard Weber, for Thirteens, and Naomi Williams, for The Man-Moth.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.