Fiction from NER 42.2 (2021)
he book report could be anything he wanted to read that was not a magazine or an internet article, that had chapters and at least one hundred pages and not too many pictures, and on Monday she would look at everyone’s choices and say whether they could do their report on it, which if they couldn’t she would choose, which would be awful because she chose books about pets or children of farm workers, and if he had to read one more story with a lost goat or anyone named Asunción, Joe would quit fifth grade and become a damn farm worker himself, “damn” being his swear of choice, which he picked a) because it had a little class and b) because if his mother ever heard he had used the F-word, she would forget she was a San Francisco liberal and just stick a bar of soap in his mouth and tell him to bite a chunk off, which sounded just creepy enough that Joe believed she’d do it, so he stuck with “damn” and had a little class. They had four weeks to read the book and then write a report (entitled “You Have to Read This Book!”) with an introductory paragraph, a setting paragraph, a characters paragraph, a main events paragraph, a problem slash conflict paragraph, and a paragraph for the conclusion. Six damn paragraphs or, as far as he could tell, a whole damn book, so why not just write a book, since that was pretty much how long the report was going to be, so he wandered among the stacks and picked something up and put it back, picked up something else, put that one back, too—all too long, some 115, 120 pages, and as he wasn’t getting extra credit for the extra 15 or 20 percent, he spent the ten minutes allotted looking for a book exactly one hundred pages long, something you’d expect wouldn’t be that hard in a damn library, but no, it was surprisingly difficult, and when she told them it was time to go, he still hadn’t found anything and grabbed a narrow-spined something-or-other, did a quick flip to the last page—108, which would have to do—and had it checked out before he looked at the title, May We Keep Him, Poppi?
Joe left the book at the desk and decided he would ask his mom for a trip to the downtown library on Saturday, which would simultaneously earn him points for initiative and give him twenty-four more hours, during which time he’d be able to think longer about what the perfect book might be for himself, besides short. He was not a book kind of guy was the problem, he was more of a mathy skateboard carnivorous plant person. He had recently been given a Venus fly trap for his birthday, and he was doing experiments on it. After waiting a week for it to catch something, he lost patience and fed it one of his boogers. It seemed to be thriving. What book could compete with a plant that ate things? That afternoon he went to Nathan’s house and he and Nathan practiced kickflips on their skateboards in the garage until his sister yelled at them to quit it, it sounded like a fucking construction site, and Nathan whispered that she was on the rag, and Joe said “God,” having a vague and queasy idea what Nathan was talking about, but mainly impressed with his sister’s verbal flourish. They went out and sat on Nathan’s porch. They were there an hour later when Joe’s mom came by to pick him up. Nathan was just about to tell him something about his girlfriend, Amanda, and said he’d tell him later—Nathan always did that, threw out a little cliffhanger, which was never anything, really (Amanda had seen The Rise of Skywalker and said it was terrible), but Joe couldn’t help it, it still drove him crazy waiting to hear, only because the whole phenomenon, “girlfriend,” riveted him. Nathan had a girlfriend. This wasn’t kindergarten anymore. They were eleven. This was getting real. Nathan’s parents had taken Nathan and him, and Amanda and Savannah, to Chevy’s for school spirit night, and he had sat for forty-seven excruciating minutes across from Amanda’s friend, staring pensively at the marlin on the wall across the room behind her and hoping this made him look serious and sad and interesting, and not just incredibly uncomfortable. He could not imagine what it must be like to have a girlfriend, and so every time Nathan said he was going to tell him something about Amanda, Joe couldn’t help it, all other thoughts in his head tumbled like pebbles before a crashing wave, which was why he forgot to mention the library to his mother that Friday night.
Because he’d forgotten Friday night, he forgot Saturday morning, too. When he remembered—Sunday afternoon—there was only an hour left before the library closed. But he was not in San Francisco now, he was in Pacifica, a special trip to the skate park he and Nathan had begged to be taken on, a very hard-won junket, their mothers walking Nathan’s dog on the beach and not due back for at least ninety minutes. It was an arrangement that a moment ago was a little dream come true. He stood there balanced on the coping, the eight-foot drop into the bowl yawning below him, and just before he dropped in, he whispered “Damn,” and then did drop, swooped like an archangel in gorgeous parabolas around the sink, but without bliss, the rush and torque strangely empty of it. He flew around the bowl feeling the book, the report, his teacher, like crows behind him cawing and pecking and all he could do to get away was skate, which wasn’t enough, it was only a matter of time. He said nothing to Nathan for the whole hour and a half. He just rolled and rolled, as if he were in a prison yard.
For a year or more now this kind of thing had been happening, forgetting this or that, having work he was supposed to do that he never got quite right, never finished on time. Watching Nathan, watching everyone else his age get their finished homework out of their tidy desks, open the books which they hadn’t left at home—as if all his friends had suddenly forgotten they were kids and had nothing better to do with their evenings than memorize the names of thirteen colonies and fill out a worksheet on prepositions—it all made him feel like a damned third grader, nothing in front of him but his pencil. Every morning he sat in the warm glow of his shame and cluelessness. What didn’t seem fair to him was that he hadn’t changed. They just kept fiddling with the rules every year. Suddenly you weren’t being reminded about anything anymore, and the books had no pictures. Suddenly you were being told that the least important things in the world—binder checks, permission slips—were things your grade, and therefore your future, depended upon. Spelling. Some very unhappy grownup had sometime come up with the idea that this was worth a damn. And always the books! The stupidest books. About dragons, or child detectives, or some damn rabbit. Sure he was growing up, he wouldn’t want to stay in third grade every year, he wouldn’t want to read Stellaluna over and over again (or, maybe, but still). Something that really was important, though, had drifted away over the last year or two, something they thought he didn’t need anymore, but he did. He did still need it—he missed the kindness, terribly. Teachers were not nice anymore. They were fair, they were funny. But they weren’t nearly as nice.
The whole afternoon the sky looked like cement. The only difference, once their moms got back, was the fog that had started coming in off the ocean smelling like fish, making their shirts stick to their skin. His mother’s smiling wave now gave him a little seizure of guilt and panic. An idea briefly flickered through his head of falling into the skate bowl, breaking his arm. Just a couple weeks out of school. But he just walked to the car with his board under his arm, Nathan beside him still skating along on his, talking about the trick he had landed, which he hadn’t, actually, but as his mom said, what was the use of arguing over something you couldn’t prove? (Though what, they usually asked, was the fun of arguing over something you could?)
In the car Nathan’s dog sat on Joe’s lap to sniff out the window. He was big and clueless and wet, and named Jeff. Nathan’s mom turned and shouted “Off, Jeff!” but Joe didn’t really mind. He scratched him and put his face into his neck, thinking about running off to the mountains, taking Jeff and living off roots and berries, thinking about the deer Jeff would bring down by ripping its hamstring. Imagining this stupid plan was the only way he could keep from crying.
When they got home his mom asked him what the homework situation was, and when he said he was caught up with everything and she asked him if he’d done the spelling worksheet, too, he was almost relieved she had caught something he’d forgotten about. She told him to finish it while she got supper together, and he went into his room and got a wrinkled sheet of paper out of his backpack, something that looked a lot like the paper towel that was also in there wadded around a half-eaten bagel, which he pulled out and quietly dropped in his waste basket on his way back out to the kitchen. He sat at the table and flattened out the spelling worksheet as much as he could, then he just stared at it awhile, began folding down one of the corners that kept standing up from the table, and then he tried to erase a mark he found on another corner until he saw it was from a pen, and for a few blessed minutes he was able to forget about the book completely and just work indignantly on a stupid spelling assignment, as useless as memorizing the colors of birds.
She stared at the book.
“Are you sure?”
Joe said yes, because what else was he going to say, no?
She told him he could read it if he brought a note from home.
Things never let up.
At lunch he said to Nathan, “You really couldn’t find anything shorter?”
“Dude, you called me at nine o’clock.”
“What’s it about? Have you read it?”
“No. It was the shortest book on my dad’s shelf.”
The only things on Nathan’s own shelves were Lemony Snicket and The Hobbit and Curious George. Nathan had terrible tastes. It was embarrassing for the guy. Nathan had suggested Lemony Snicket, and Joe said was that the orphans one and Nathan had said yes, and Joe had said Nathan, why would I want to read a book about orphans first of all, and second of all, I’ve seen the movie and it was stupid, so. And then he asked what else was there in the house.
“I think it’s about . . . ” Nathan stared a second.
“. . . this stranger . . . ,” Joe said.
He decided he’d have his father write the note. His dad slept days and drove a bus at night and in general seemed to understand life’s compromises a little better than his mom.
The book started with “Mother died today” and went downhill fast after that. It was the most boring ten pages Joe had ever read. He flipped to the back after twenty minutes and saw he had 139 pages left and he did a calculation in his head and realized he was going to have to read every day for the next two weeks if he was going to finish on time, which he knew he would not do. He did another calculation, figuring an A+ in math averaged with a C– in English to a B overall wasn’t awful, so he put the book down and got up to check on his Venus fly trap. The leaf with his snot in it was turning black. Joe knew his plant needed real bug meat fast. Nathan had told him it would die in a few weeks because that’s what they always did, and Joe was determined not to let this happen. Every night he imagined bringing a huge plant to school after months of the loving care he’d been giving it, and when someone asked him what it ate he would tell them that he had started out with ants and flies, of course, but that lately it was mice.
He went into the living room, where his dad was watching Hawaii Five-O, and said, “Do we have a butterfly net?”
“Can we get one?”
“Not right now,” his dad said, and Joe went to the kitchen to look for the fly swatter.
He tried not to think about adults too much, but occasionally they would be too obvious to ignore. For instance now, with his father sitting so still in front of the television. He’d get this weird feeling when his dad sat like that that he was actually a replicant. Someday the guy would stumble in the kitchen and cut himself and Joe would see the wires inside. All these years they had lived with a robot. How weird. His real father abducted, and . . . He felt terrible having this thought. It would come over him out of nowhere. How it could occur to him he had no idea. It creeped him out and made him feel strange and guilty.
Adults were just a mystery to him. He honestly couldn’t imagine ever being one. The closest thing to a normal life he ever had with his parents was when they went on a vacation, but on vacation his parents had no idea what they were doing. It was like dogs trying to watch television. They’d all spent a week in the mountains last summer living in a tent, chopping wood, and burning their food. This felt to Joe about right. His dad took them out in a boat a couple of times, they had seen a porcupine—everything was finally making sense. Joe had peed on a bush. His mom and dad, though, did not seem especially happy there. They were miserable, actually. They sat in their camping chairs a lot or brushed things off or argued. His mother was always cooking and his dad was always washing dishes under the camp faucet. If Joe had been in charge, they would have just eaten dry cereal and grapes and an occasional squirrel, and spent the rest of the time climbing or exploring or throwing things, as humans had done for centuries. The saddest part of the last day, folding up the tent, stuffing the sleeping bags into the trunk of the car, was how quickly they did all of it, how relieved his mom and dad both seemed to be getting back to their jobs. They hated their jobs.
His mom asked through the window what he was doing and he said hunting, and she said for what?
Did he have his homework done, she wanted to know, and he said he just had a little math, which was technically true. It was not actually even technically true, but if he didn’t get a bug soon, his plant would die, so.
“Dave, help the poor kid,” he heard her say to his dad, and he heard his dad not answering, just watching his show. His mom said “Dave” again, and then his dad said “What,” and then she said “Your son could use some help. He’s your son. Dave.” And Joe moved further from the window to concentrate on what he was doing.
At Nathan’s house on Friday Nathan said he should sleep over, as if it was something that had just come to him. One of them slept over at the other’s house pretty much every weekend. When Joe called his mom to ask, she wanted to know how his book was coming and he said fine, and she asked what page he was on and he said he wasn’t sure but he was going to finish it in time. She was mad at his dad for signing the note.
Nathan had a computer in his room, and most of the time when they were at his
house they watched skate videos. Or Joe watched skate videos while Nathan worked
on his logo, which was an eye with a bolt of lightning coming down out of it instead
of a tear. Nathan was a talented artist and was designing a line of Tearless! apparel, with the logo on T-shirts and caps and the bottoms of shoes. He wrote it so you at first
thought it said “Fearless,” but then you saw it said “Tearless,” which was the money shot. But the bottom of the shoe thing was also the money shot. Nathan was all about the money. His parents had it, and he would have it, too, someday. Joe had always assumed that, even though his own parents didn’t seem to be all about the
money, he would have enough someday himself to ensure that once he was grown he would not have to live like a regular adult. He would get sponsored by a skateboard company or invent something or in some other way avoid an awful, boring job and, for that matter, anything else that was boring. He would rather be homeless, he really would. His mother looked at him very seriously once, put her fingers through his hair. “Oh, sweetie, don’t say that, not even in fun.” He had not said it in fun at all, but the way she looked at him scared him a little, and he wondered what things about homelessness she was thinking of that hadn’t occurred to him.
Also, Nathan’s parents were always talking to each other. They talked as if they weren’t married but just very good friends. When one would come home from work or back from a trip to the store, the other would say something like, “Hey there, you!” as if it were a pleasant surprise. It was very odd. He couldn’t imagine his own mom and dad acting this way. Greetings in his house were pretty much saved for answering the phone. When his dad woke up half an hour before supper, his mom would have a cup of coffee out on the counter for him, and that was her way of saying hello. He would take it and stand over by the front window, waking up. Nathan’s parents made Joe’s parents seem like they should get a divorce.
“You should have some color,” Joe said, looking down at what Nathan was drawing.
Nathan sat up and looked at his Tearless! eye. He looked around and then got up and got some colored markers out of his desk and sat back down and started coloring the eyeball red. He could go for an hour without a word when he was drawing. Which could be quite a bore. Joe had really been thinking about some yellow for the lightning bolt. The red changed everything. Suddenly it was the eyeball of a satanic underlord, probably the coolest skateboard logo Joe had ever seen.
“You think it’s too evil?”
“Are you kidding?”
They both gazed at the red eye, the streak of light crackling down from it that made it both sad and angry at the same time.
“Damn,” Joe said.
At nine Nathan’s mom said they had to turn off the computer and read for half an hour before going to sleep, and the ridiculous thing was that Nathan just found a book and started reading. Joe sat in front of the black screen. He sat there for maybe three minutes, waiting for Nathan to get bored, but he never did.
Finally he said, “What should I read?”
Nathan didn’t say anything. He was engrossed already. It was a damn shame.
“You have anything? Another book?”
“Where’s the one I already gave you?”
“At home, I guess.”
“Dunno then,” Nathan said without looking up.
“What are you reading?” Joe said.
He went over to Nathan’s shelf, looked at the pickings. At his own house there were mainly his mom’s diet books, and he began to think one of those might not have been such an awful choice in the first place. Nathan had the entire series of Unfortunate Events. He had collected them. On purpose. There was another book at home he’d come across by accident, called Recipe for a Well-Done Marriage. He’d gone into his parents’ room for a pillow, and when he got it he saw the book there, under his mom’s pillow like a tooth.
Nathan said “what.”
“You really don’t have any other books?”
By the following Wednesday, he was on page 14 of The Stranger. The guy in the book was at his mother’s funeral, and they were walking miles and miles through the desert, because apparently the graveyard wasn’t right next to the old folks’ home where she died, which on the one hand kind of made sense since that would be pretty depressing for the old folks, but on the other hand didn’t at all. Especially if you were going to have to walk. Through the desert.
The book report was due in two days. The back of the book said the guy murdered someone, which Joe hoped he’d do pretty soon, or Joe would never finish. Putting the good part at the end was in fact the main reason Joe had such a hard time finishing these things. Writers were always starting books very boringly, as if when the excitement came you’d think, wow, didn’t see that coming, when everyone knew something was coming or why write the damn book, so why not just start with the good part and make the book a lot shorter and better?
He was trying to read it as he set the table, so he only had one hand and was carrying the forks one at a time and then the knives one at a time and the plates one at a time and then the napkins one at a time. His dad was having his coffee and his mom was busy telling his dad about Nathan’s mom’s foot. His dad just stared out the window the way he usually did. He didn’t look like he was listening very hard, or at all, really, though that didn’t seem to matter much to his mom, until he said “Jesus Christ”—not yelling it or anything, just saying it—and walked out the front door. Joe got another napkin. His mom stood there a second without saying anything. Then she said, “Joe, put the book down and just get it done! And get the milk out of the fridge,” and then she stomped out after him.
Finishing the table and getting the milk out didn’t take as long as his parents’ fight. Joe sat in his kitchen seat and read his book while his mom yelled on the porch. The guy was walking through the desert following the hearse that carried his
mother. There was an old, old man who’d been the guy’s mom’s friend or something
at the old folks’ home who was also walking, but he was so old that he was always falling behind, but every once in a while the old guy would find a shortcut across a field or some sand or something and catch up again. Why was it such a curvy road? That was awfully convenient. Joe’s dad started yelling about the same time as something on the stove began to smoke. “I don’t care! I don’t care!” he yelled, over and over.
It would be nice, Joe thought, if they could do it all on the back porch. Or down in the basement. It was embarrassing enough, grownups yelling at each other. He got up to look at the smoking pan. He was pretty sure the meat was burning, but he wasn’t positive since the smoke smelled sweet, like a campfire, and maybe it was just supposed to taste that way. He pushed the meat a little with the spatula. It hissed at him, and then the smoke alarm went off.
“Joe, turn off the stove! Turn it off!”
They had green beans and bread for supper. Hardly anybody said anything the whole time they sat there, except his mom asking him about his spelling. When he told her not to worry about it, his dad got very upset at him and said it was parents’ job to worry about their children and they worried about him constantly, so don’t go telling them how to raise their kids, and Joe decided it probably wasn’t a good night to ask about dessert.
“I’ve had just about enough, Dave, I really have.”
Joe looked down in his lap at his book. The only thing besides the green beans and bread and milk was a bottle of wine his parents were drinking, and his dad poured himself another glass. Joe glanced at the kitchen clock and did a head calculation. He was going to have to read about fifteen pages an hour for four hours tonight and then another fifteen pages for an hour in the morning, if he got up really early. If he read fifteen at lunch tomorrow and another fifteen right after school, he’d have only forty left tomorrow night and would be able write his report after that. Friday morning before breakfast, maybe.
“What are you looking at?” his mom asked.
He moved his finger to the middle pages, and then a little further.
“How much more do you have to read?”
“You should be writing the first draft tonight. You’re never going to finish.”
His dad sipped his wine. “He doesn’t finish, he doesn’t finish. Someday, kid, you’re going to not finish something that matters, and then you’ll—”
“This matters, Dave. What are you saying?”
His dad put down his wine and just sat there a minute. No matter how mad his mom got, Joe was never afraid of her. Or he was, but it was afraid of what he knew was going to happen. With his mom, he always knew what was going to happen.
“I’m not an idiot,” his dad said, drinking the rest of his wine in a couple swallows, “so don’t you be.” He got up from the table and went to their bedroom and slammed the door.
He killed the guy on page 76. It was midnight. Joe had been falling asleep and then waking up and reading more pages for a couple of hours. He really had no idea what was going on. The guy had a girlfriend—the guy who killed the guy—and there was some other guy. The guy who gave the main guy the gun. Apparently he killed the guy because the other guy . . . Joe had no idea. All he knew was that he wasn’t going to finish this book. No damn way. His father was right. Someday he would not finish something that mattered. Joe lay there thinking about that, all the things he wouldn’t get done in his life. He already knew he wouldn’t be a pro skater. He didn’t like getting hurt enough. In fact, he hated getting hurt. And his Venus fly trap was going to die, he knew this, too. He would have to turn his book report in late or would write it without finishing the book, and either way, he would catch it from both his mom and his teacher. He was suddenly so sure about all these things, and the certain, unchangeable averageness of his future, that he wanted to die himself. It sounded so comfortable—just to crawl under a thick blanket and never come out again. He knew, though, that he was too average to carry off anything like suicide.
He was able to read another whole ten pages in the morning before his mom came in to get him up. Somehow even though he still had sixty-plus to go, just having gotten through ten pages so fast felt pretty good. He thought maybe it was a sign. And his mom made him oatmeal, which of course was also a sign. Oatmeal was his favorite breakfast food of all time. There were some things that just lined up like this, and you got an inkling.
“Are you finished, Joe? We’ve got to get going.”
His mom drove him to school on her way to work every day. His dad was always still on his bus when they left. He hadn’t always driven the night shift. Once when Joe was in second grade, his dad had come by in the bus and picked him up for his birthday. The school wasn’t anywhere near the route, but his dad had just turned on the Out of Service sign at the end of his shift and driven out and gotten him. It was the most awesome birthday present Joe had ever had, just the two of them in their own bus. In a bus as big as a bus. He still told people about it. He heard later that his dad had almost gotten fired for it, and he wondered how he would have felt if that had happened. He wondered if his dad had stopped liking him quite as much after that. It could kind of get to you, couldn’t it, something like that? About a year ago, he’d started driving the Owl. There had been some kind of big shakeup, and that was the shift he got. He thought now and then of saying he was sorry if it was because of the birthday thing. He could never figure out a way of bringing something like that up, though.
In the car his mom told him he had to be ready to write his report when he got home, and Joe said okay. She was still in kind of a bad mood from the night before. She usually talked all the way to school, but she was pretty quiet this morning. Even this, though, was working out for him, because it gave him some more time to read. He was going to use all of recess and all of lunch. It was cloudy out. If it rained he’d even get some PE time for his book.
It was just before the last turn.
“Know how much I love you?”
She did this sometimes. It was kind of embarrassing as he got older. His mom made
the turn and they drove another four blocks to his school. She pulled into a driveway a few yards before the snarl of drop-offs, and Joe got out and turned around to get his backpack, and then looked at his mom to say bye.
“Love you,” she said again. “See you this afternoon. Be ready for that report.”
Joe lugged his pack out of the car and shut the door, and he turned toward the school. As he heard his mom’s car back out of the driveway something came up out of nowhere. He was scared and relieved at the same time, which was maybe the oddest thing he’d felt in his whole life, and he walked toward the school with his face down, trying to get a damn grip. All he needed was for Nathan to see him crying, and that would be it for the day.
YOU HAVE TO READ THIS BOOK!
By Albert Camus
(by Joe Tarp)
This book report is aboat “The Stranger”. By Albert Camus. The Stranger is a strange book about a strange man, strangly. It is strange but it is also boring. And I will ex-plain why.
The Stranger’s setting is in the desert for part of it and then a toun, and then a beach. The desert part, the Stranger who I will call Mister X visits his old dying mother in an oldfolks home. The toun part, Mister X go’s to work and go’s out with his girlfiend. The beach part, a terable thing hapens. (See below.) On the beach is what evreyon woold have to agree is the Main Event.
The charachters in “The Strangar”, besides mister X are the mother, the girl-friend, the boss, the nieghbor, and the . . . . . (see below)
The Main Event is that Mister X kills a guy on the beach. So the guy on the beach is also a main charachter, but not for long.
The problem, or I gess you could call it a conflict, is why did mister X kill the guy? That is a problem, alright. I would call it a doozy. My thery is that Mister X did not like the parson posibly becuase he was stealing his towl. I got this by reading betwean the lines.
In conclusian, this book was boring and stupid. I ca’nt think of anything more boring than an oldfolks home and, there’s nothing stupidder then shoting somone for taking your towl.
C+. This book was an impressive choice, Joe. If you’d handed it in in time, you’d have gotten a B. If you’d used spell-check, you’d have gotten a B+. ■