FRIDAY, DECEMBER 9
IF IT WAS GOING TO HAPPEN—AND IT WAS GOING TO HAPPEN—it had to start sometime. That morning looked as good as any other. A day earlier or a day later wouldn’t have made any difference.
Or so I thought.
I looked at the list for the ten thousandth time.
Four lines in my best half-cursive, half-printed scrawl. It wasn’t much, but it took a week to get the wording right, another week figuring out how to work it. And then a month of doing what I did every day, sitting in my room, looking at the list.
It was all there.
Everything I needed was right there in my room.
The physical stuff, anyway.
The mental stuff?
I put on the shirt I had bought the day before at the Salvation Army store across the street from where I had gotten the haircut. The shirt was red and cost me all of fifty cents, but it fit okay as long as I left the top button undone. I had had shirts like it when I was a kid, but since then it had all been tees and flannels. They’d give me grief about it, I could bet on that. It was different. And different didn’t go over good.
I added the last touch—another thrift store bargain—then looked at myself in the mirror. I hardly recognized the guy looking back.
But that was the point, wasn’t it?
I stuck the list in my wallet, grabbed my coat, and headed to school.
It was time.
I SPOTTED THE sub at the door of my fourth period math class and kept walking. With Mr. Tait out, it would be nothing but quiet time and dittoed worksheets, and I wasn’t in the mood for that. I glanced into the room as I went by. A few jocks on probation, the exchange student from Sweden, the usual teacher’s-pet wannabes. Either half the class was sick or they were doing what I was doing, finding someplace better to spend the next forty-seven minutes. There was a rule about not being in the hall without a pass, but in my four years at the school no one had ever asked to see one. There were kids getting high in the parking lot. Nobody was going to worry about a stupid hall pass.
I rounded the corner and headed to the cafeteria.
Now if I was really following the list, I’d have gone to an art gallery or a pool hall or down to the lake to watch the waves roll in—any place different from where I usually went. But I was already at school and I didn’t have a car and it was really cold that morning. Other than the library or the smoking lounge, there wasn’t anywhere to go. It was second lunch, and the cafeteria was where the bangers would be. For reasons known only to the office gods, I had third lunch, and that meant I’d been spending a lot less of my day hanging out with the bangers and more time alone. And that meant more time thinking about all the things in my life that needed to change. Like me.
I walked into the cafeteria and headed for the back of the room.
Dan-O was suspended and Vicki never came to school on a Friday, but most of the regulars were there, with Tony—empty quart of Mountain Dew bouncing in his hands—doing the talking. As usual. For a moment I was tempted to turn around and go back to class, but old habits die hard. And—I’ll admit it—I wanted a reaction.
They didn’t disappoint.
I leaned a chair against the wall and balanced back and waited. It took a second or two for it to sink in, then Tony pointed at me and said, “What the hell you got on?”
I glanced down at my ensemble, then looked back at Tony. “It’s called a shirt and tie.”
“No shit, Sherlock. Why you wearing it? You lose a bet?” That made OP laugh, but OP laughed at anything Tony said, so it didn’t count.
Jay looked up from the science homework he was copying. “He looks like an asshole.”
“Or a narc,” Tony said. “Nerds don’t even dress like that. What’s the matter, Mommy forget to wash your real clothes?”
“Check out his stupid sneakers,” OP said, laughing, of course. To make it easy for them, I swung a foot up onto the table, dropping it down with a thud.
A new pair of white Chuck Taylor All-Stars, colored in, checkerboard style, with a marker.
A green marker.
While they stared at the sneaker, I looked around the table. Nothing but flannels and band T-shirts, every guy a slight variation of the last, the Levi’s and work boots as interchangeable as the shaggy haircuts. That made me smile. My journey had begun.
“You’re an idiot,” Tony said.
I let the smile roll into a smirk. It was a small gesture, easy to miss if you weren’t paying attention. But Tony was, and I knew that my smirk had pissed him off. I swung my foot back down. Mission accomplished.
But Tony couldn’t let it drop and had to say something. I assumed it would be more about my clothes—they hadn’t even noticed the haircut—but he surprised me and said, “You don’t know shit about football.”
That wasn’t true.
I knew how the game was played, I knew the names of the NFL teams or at least the cities they played for, I knew some of the current players and some of the legends, and living where we did in New York State—a thirty-minute bike ride from Lake Ontario and an hour by car from Niagara Falls—I knew enough about the Buffalo Bills to not sound completely ignorant. Tony was wrong, I did know shit about football.
I just didn’t give a shit about football.
“Check this out,” Tony said, backhanding the sleeve of the Roach’s smoke-saturated jean jacket. “Nick thinks the Bills are going to beat the Jets this week.”
The Roach looked at Tony, then at me, then back at Tony. “Bill who?”
“The Buffalo Bills, dickhead. Nick thinks they’re actually gonna beat the New York Jets.”
The Roach said nothing but kept his red-rimmed eyes on Tony.
“It’s football,” Jay said without looking up. “He’s talking about football.”
“Oh, right,” the Roach said, the two words taking forever to fall out.