7 Stainless Youth

Carl ran because he didn’t want to fight. To him all the other sports looked like fighting – the football scrimmages at the line, the hard fouls on the basketball court, even the bench-clearing brawls in baseball. In each athletic activity offered at Overlook there was some physical aspect that scared him off, but not participating in any sport was not an option.

Carl had come to Overlook Prep on a scholarship. His mother could not afford the tuition but his public school grades and his parents’ status as former political refugees made him a likely beneficiary of the school’s generous endowment. He didn’t think of himself as a refugee; his family had come from the Czech Republic before he was born, before the republic was born, and his English was better than his Czech. In fact he hated to even think about his parents’ homeland, a place he had only visited once as a child and to which his father had since returned, never to be heard from again. To Carl it was like some lost sea that could only swallow you up if you stared into it; he never spoke of it to his friends. Besides, as his mother had told him his entire life, “Here you can be anyone you want,” which was how Karel became Carl and Carl became a runner.

Overlook was renowned for its sports and theater programs. Located in the outer reaches of Brooklyn, the school was practically in Staten Island. With its bucolic setting and the slightly foreign and forbidding Verrazano Bridge looming in the distance, Overlook seemed a world away from the Sunset Park apartment Carl and his mother inhabited. Once it had been the school of choice for rich mobsters’ children, but times had changed: Now it was wealthy immigrants who sent their children there, but also well-to-do New Yorkers from other boroughs. A good percentage of Overlook graduates went on to Ivy League schools, and the wall-to-wall sports and other extracurricular activities kept the students off the streets. It was not a place to go if you wanted to stand apart from others. Like the rows of ducks that followed each other across the campus’s rolling fields to the pond, Overlook kids walked in lockstep between classes.

“We dropped our dress code,” the woman who had taken them on a tour had said. “Boys are no longer required to wear blazers and ties. We only ask that our students not wear jeans and that the shirts all have collars. Otherwise you’re free to dress as you like.” Watching the students in the hall that day though, Carl had noted the uniform quality of the clothes the kids wore and when he got his letter of acceptance, a fat envelope filled with a confetti of gold stars, the first thing he did was throw out his Old Navy clothes and force his mother to take him shopping at Abercrombie and Fitch.

Upon arriving at the beginning of junior year, Carl joined the track team and the drama club. He didn’t have to pass a test to get into either one, only “show us what you’ve got!” After watching him round the track his coach had said he would need to learn to pace himself. The drama teacher, Mr. Wiseman, was more demanding.

“The words come from within!” he hollered from the back of the theater as Carl stood on the stage, having finished reading a speech from Shakespeare. The rest of club, girls mostly, had sat in the front rows eyeing him with varying levels of interest while Mr. Wiseman, a rather rotund man with owlish spectacles, sat farther back and stroked his moustache. Carl had been mostly concentrating on projecting, throwing the words out into the seats like darts, without giving any thought to what they meant.

“Sebastian is confused, sir! Confused by love but confused by life. His twin lives and he knows her not, for she appears disguised. A woman he knows not wants him for her husband. Love itself sometimes comes in disguises, doesn’t it?”

Mr. Wiseman seemed to be waiting for some response, as Carl stood there alone on the stage, holding the slim volume he had been given. “I guess,” he said finally, which for some reason made all the girls laugh.

There were no girls on his track team; they had their own. And the boys were not the type he found in the drama club, half of who were gay. The runners were thinner and rangier than most of the other athletes he saw but what they lacked in bulk they made up for in machismo. From his first shower he knew he would have to “man up,” as his father had said to him before he left. Carl was eleven the last time he saw him, and was still called Karel at home. He remembered how he cried as his father seemed to be trying to push the tears back in his eyes.

“Here you cannot cry about everything,” he’d said, cupping Carl’s chin in both hands while his thumbs worked like windshield wipers. “You’ve got to learn to man up!” It was an expression he had picked up in America, along with another woman.

Maybe that was why Carl changed his name. “Karel” had followed him home from school when he was little in the form of singsong taunts. He thought of that when he stood in the locker room drying off and the other boys all talked of pussy. It was a subject of which Carl had no firsthand experience.

“Know what the blind man said when he walked by the fish farm?” Leon asked the room as they changed out of their track clothes. “’Evening, ladies!’”

There were a few whoops and high fives from the other boys and at least one false protestation: “Aw man, that is harsh!” Carl had already learned to smile at things he did not understand and much of Leon’s references were lost on him.

If the track team had a leader, Leon would be it. He was one of the few black students at Overlook and at first Carl assumed that he had come on a scholarship as well. Then he learned that Leon’s father was an actor in some police show set in New York. Carl was secretly glad when another boy made the mistake of asking him about his dad.

“What’s it like living with a TV star?” the boy said, as they sat in the grass doing stretches before they ran.

“How would I know?” Leon said. “You probably see him more than I do on TV.”

Carl wanted to say something to Leon in private, something about absent dads. Maybe he would have an opportunity if they ran cross-country together. He could imagine them, loping over some hill, talking casually the way the boys did when they ran sometimes to show that they weren’t winded, that they could go on talking as they ran all day long if they wanted.

Except Carl was soon so much faster than everyone else that he seldom had an opportunity to run side-by-side with anyone. He was good on the sprints and hurdles but it was really on the longer events that he excelled. The first time he ran the 1600 coach clocked him at 4:30, a fact he loudly announced to the other boys on the team.

“Boy runs like somebody’s chasing him,” he said, fingering his whistle, as Carl paced the field. “All you got to do is shave a few seconds off your time and you’ll be ready for the nationals,” he said, as Carl and the other boys headed for the showers.

“All my gal’s got to do is shave a few hairs off her pussy and she’ll be ready for my nationals,” Leon said when they were out of coach’s earshot. Carl laughed as if the comment was directed at him, but so did everyone else.

In fact Leon’s girlfriend was one of the most beautiful girls at the school, and Carl was always surprised by the way he talked about her.

“She’s all right,” he heard him saying one day. “But sometimes she just won’t shut up, you know what I’m sayin’? Sometimes she’ll just start talkin’ and you just want to get up and split.”

“Cell phone!” a boy named Connor said. “Sometimes you gotta be like, ‘Yo, damn! My moms is texting me. I got to take my sis to the dentist.’ They you can just split.”

Everybody tried to sound ghetto when talking to Leon, Carl noticed.

“No, I mean during,” Leon said. “Sometimes she’ll just start asking me questions, you know,” and then he switched to a little falsetto voice: “’Does that feel good, baby? I know what you like.’”

The other boys started busting up and slapping hands and Carl laughed along. Leon all but shouted over them.

“Well, if you know what I like, bitch, why don’t you shut the fuck up?” He looked angry when he said it, as if she was there, talking still.

The laughter subsided into headshakes and oh-mans when Leon spoke again. “Worst thing is when they sing.”

“Sing?”

“I had this one girl, I swear, man, we just finished, you know? And she started singin’.”

“Singin’ what?” someone asked.

“I don’t know, some shit. Does it matter?” Leon finished tying his sneaks, each one in a perfect bow. “I’m like, what is this, American Idol? Am I s’posed to give you a prize now?”

“Oh, I thought you meant she was singin’ while you were bonin’ her,” Connor said and then hit a high note, like a teapot going off as the room collapsed again.

By the end of the semester Carl felt like one of the team. He learned to tie his shoes like Leon and while he didn’t get as far in drama club (in the fall musical he was one of the sailors, belting out “There is Nothing Like a Dame” while his mother watched from the audience), he stuck with it. He had to appear well-rounded to get into a good college.

Heading for the bus one night, just before the winter break, Carl saw Leon kissing his girlfriend in the parking lot. It was already getting dark and their breath made clouds of steam in the night sky. Carl walked past, his hands stuck deep in the pockets of his pea coat, his feet crunching on the gravel, when he heard Leon call him.

“Yo, man!” His girl had disappeared and he was walking casually in Carl’s direction. Carl waited for him to catch up, worried slightly about missing the bus but trying to look cool.

“Wassup?” Leon said as they greeted each other with a fist bump.

“Just headed for the bus, man.” He could see it in the distance, approaching the turnaround by the school’s entrance.

“Cool,” said Leon. “My ride’s here, too.” A Lincoln Town Car was idling at the other end of the lot. Carl wondered if Leon was going to offer him a ride and was torn between wanting to skip the bus for a change and fear of having Leon see where he lived. “What are you doing here?”

Carl shrugged. “Drama club,” he said casually. He thought, being the son of an actor, Leon might relate but instead he made a face and pulled his head away.

“Drama? Oh, man, that stuff’s for pussies.” He punched Carl in the arm and laughed. “Just playin’! There’s some fine lookin’ women in that drama club.”

“True dat,” Carl said, half-hoping Leon hadn’t heard him. He stood casually as Leon ambled to his limousine and then turned back in time to see the bus take off. He thought about what Leon had said, as he walked down the hill to wait for the next bus.

 

In the winter, when it was too cold to run, Carl began to spend more time with the drama club. When the ground began to thaw he had landed a big role in the spring production of Twelfth Night. The competition for the leads was not all that stiff. As Mr. Wiseman said, “For Viola we must believe that she can pass as a boy – ‘between boy and man,’ as Malvolio says. But our men must be men.” And with that he had looked at Carl.

A few of the girls picked him out of the herd as well, but seemed to lose interest once they determined his lack of status. After each stilted conversation Carl would inspect himself in the mirror, searching for spots on his teeth, or breathe harshly into his hand and sniff deeply for some blowback of bad breath. Whatever he had, or didn’t have, was invisible. He wondered what the other kids said about him, or if they said anything at all.

“You’re like the international man of mystery,” a girl named Sofia said to him one day. It was after rehearsal (she played a lady-in-waiting) and they found themselves leaving the auditorium together.

“’International’?” Carl repeated, chewing the word as if it had a bad flavor. He turned away from her and tried to appear hard. “What’s that s’posed to mean?”

“Oh, it’s nothing bad,” she assured him. “We just don’t know anything about you.”

While Carl was pleased to hear that the girls were discussing him in his absence, he was determined not to say anything that would alleviate the mystery. He had been aware of Sofia since the first semester; she always grew quiet and watchful in his presence, assuming a solemn expression that was not at all like the constant frowns and twitches of the other girls, who were forever checking their cell phones and complaining about something. She filled out her Abercrombie outfit quite well, Carl had noticed, though her face was nothing special.

“You’re so pretty,” Carl lied to her, the first time they kissed. They were beneath a dogwood tree near the theater, hiding from the sight of others in the gloaming. The first buds were threatening to show on the branches.

“I’ve got a face like an Eskimo,” she said, smiling a little. But she kissed him again. “You’re nice to lie, though.”

As the days grew longer and warmer they found themselves deeper in the brush and Carl often caught the last bus home. “Rehearsal ran late,” he told his mother as he stood in the kitchen, eating peanut butter out of the jar.

“And now with track starting I will never see you!” she cried from the living room. He could see her from the kitchen, watching the TV. She was rubbing her hands together as if washing them with soap. The apartment was small and there was no place to hide save his room. He studied her while he chewed, the food sticking to the roof of his mouth.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he said at last, drinking from a carton of milk.

Carl did have to juggle track and drama, though, making excuses to both his coach and Mr. Wiseman and squeezing in his time with Sofia. They had not gone public – they didn’t hold hands in the halls, and he checked her Facebook page several times to make sure she hadn’t listed herself as being in a relationship with him. They hadn’t spoken of this understanding, but there was much they hadn’t spoken of. Most of their time together was spent in silent groping: in the trees, behind the scenery and once in the stacks of the school library where they were supposed to be doing research.

“An educational experience,” she’d whispered into his ear while one hand strayed inside his pants.

Leon was the first one to mention her, as the team took laps. The track and the football field it surrounded were new and had cost the school four million dollars, a fact the coach often mentioned. Carl had consciously slowed himself so he could talk with Leon as they ran.

“Hey, man, I saw you with that girl Sofia the other day,” Leon said. He was already panting a little.

Carl frowned as he ran, to show it was no big thing. “She’s all right,” he said after a second.

“You got to be careful, man. Her dad’s like in the Russian mafia or some shit.”

Carl gave him what he thought was a knowing look. “I’m being careful,” he said.

“I heard that,” Leon said. “She got a hot body on her, man. Too bad you have to put a bag over her head.”

The sprinklers on the field shushed them: tut-tut-tut.

Carl snorted. “I know. She got a face like an Eskimo.”

Leon laughed, slowed himself, threw his head back and barked like a dog. “Ha! You heard that?” He turned to face some of the other boys who were trailing them. “Carl here say that girl Sofia got a face like an Eskimo.”

There were a few hoots and Connor said, “That’s cold,” which provoked more general laughter and another boy said, “Me want some Eskimo Pie!” Carl laughed with them when Leon began to sing, in cadence, “I don’t but I been told/Eskimo pussy mighty cold!”

The boys repeated this refrain in the following days, and Carl thought it a sign of wit on Leon’s part until he admitted he had learned it from his dad, who had been in a movie where he played a guy in the Army. Carl caught sight of his father on television one night, when he came home to find his mother bathed in its blue light. He was sitting behind a desk in a uniform and looking at two other actors playing cops. He did not look happy with them. He looked like Leon and even sounded a bit like him, but his voice was deeper and more dismissive.

“Is that all you got for me?” he said.

 

Carl dressed quickly before each performance, donning his tights in a hurry so he could get to the good stuff: the leather jerkin, the puffy shirt. Even the sword looked real.

The play opened on a Friday night and by the end of the weekend most of the kids in the school had seen it, at least those who wanted to. While only a few of Carl’s track mates would admit to going to the theater, they seemed to appreciate that playing Sebastian had made him a star in another world, even if it was one they didn’t care about, and that as a star he would be entitled to more pussy. And indeed, girls he did not know or who certainly had not spoken to him before said hello to him in the halls and sometimes even sent him a friend request on Facebook. If Sofia was jealous it did not show.

“I thought you were very good,” she said during the cast party. The Black Eyed Peas were blasting and she had to shout to be heard.

“Thank you,” Carl shouted back. He was aware of the inadequacy of his response but in truth he still felt as though he didn’t know what the play meant. He had simply memorized his lines.

After a moment of thumping rhythm she added, “And this is the part where you’re supposed to say, ‘I thought you were very good, too.’”

Carl turned away, pointed at her and tapped his chest. “My bad!” he shouted and then they began to move together in time to the music.

She called him that week to say that her uncle Dmitri had invited him to his house for a barbecue on Saturday.

“Your uncle?”

“Yeah, my father’s brother, you’ve heard of that?”

“How does your uncle know about me?”

“I told him.”

“Told him what?”

Her sigh escaped from the phone like steam. “He asked me if I was seeing anybody and I said something about you and he said I should bring you over for this big barbecue he’s doing.” After a second’s silence her voice changed. “Look, you don’t have to come. I just thought you might like it, is all. He’s got this amazing crib.”

“No, that’s cool,” Carl said. He was aware of the butterflies in his stomach. “I just didn’t know you had an uncle is all.”

“Yeah, he kind of looks after me when my father’s gone.”

“Where’s your father?”

“He’s away on business.”

When he told Leon about the conversation later he laughed and said, “Dudes like that are always ‘away on business.’”

His mother drove him to Sofia’s uncle’s place on Staten Island. It was the first warm day of the spring. She was right: the house was a huge, brick mansion with marble pillars, surrounded by terraced lawns and topiary. They both stared up at it, their mouths slightly open. Carl was aware of how much noise his mother’s car was making.

“Fancy,” she said.

He got out quickly and assured her he could find his own way home. He wanted her to leave before somebody saw her car.

Sofia greeted him at the door and kissed him on the cheek. It was the first time she had ever done so in front of others, even if the others consisted mostly of little kids sitting on the stairs and some cats who were hiding under the furniture. She introduced him to some people, only a few of who sounded Russian.

They found her uncle Dmitri out back, manning a massive gas grill as dozens of guests milled around holding drinks and paper plates. He was a big man with hairy arms and when he shook Carl’s hand he saw there was hair on the back of his hands as well.

Sofia slipped away almost immediately and Carl found himself alone with her uncle. “Polish sausage?” Dmitri said, and slipped a wiener inside a split white bun.

“Thanks,” Carl said, though he did not feel hungry.

“Sofia says you are a very good actor,” he said. He did not have much of an accent. “And a track star!”

“I don’t know about ‘star’,” Carl said, biting into the sausage. Hot juices exploded in his mouth.

“I can’t believe how hard you kids work,” he continued. “We didn’t have school like that. My brother and I came here as children with almost nothing. And now our careers have us working all the time.”

Carl felt like he was following a bouncing ball, trying to make the connection between these various facts, as he inhaled the rest of his sausage. It was easy to nod when his mouth was full.

“So what does your father do, Carl?”

Carl had anticipated the question and weighed his answer beforehand. “He’s no longer with us,” he said.

Dmitri set his giant fork down and looked the boy in the eye. “I am sorry to hear that,” he said, sincerely. “And is your mother… okay?”

“He left us with something,” Carl said. The big man nodded and went back to turning the meat.

He met a bunch of other people that afternoon and had trouble keeping their names straight. Most of them asked a few perfunctory questions about school and college and PSATs and went back to ignoring them. They seemed to take it for granted that he was Sofia’s boyfriend and this did not seem like the place and the time to correct them.

 

As the school year ended, everything seemed to happen at once. The drama club was invited to the National Performance Arts Festival that was being held at the LaGuardia School in Manhattan. The festival was a sort of theater marathon where they would compete with other high school drama groups from all around the country. The winners got nothing more than bragging rights, but bragging rights were assigned a value at Overlook.

“How else will we pay for our new theater,” Mr. Wiseman asked rhetorically, “if we can’t show our benefactors what our drama club is worth?”

Unfortunately, the festival fell on the same weekend as a statewide track meet that was being held out on Long Island, and by the time coach announced the meet, Carl had already committed to Mr. Wiseman.

“We all make choices,” the coach had told him, “and I don’t mean to tell you how to run your life.” It seemed to Carl though that this was just what he was trying to do, and he found himself tuning him out as the lecture dragged on. At one point he actually said, “There is no ‘I’ in team,” as Carl struggled to keep a straight face.

Carl could handle his coach’s disapproval. It was the ragging he took from the guys that hurt, not that he blamed them: It wasn’t the same team without him. He told them that he felt bad about it and he’d be with them in spirit but the expressions on their faces said it all. As he left the locker room he heard Leon’s falsetto sing out.

“Wherefore art thou, fuckin’ Romeo?”

That same week he got an excited call from Sofia. Her uncle had asked after him, and wanted to know if he could hire him to water his yard and feed his cats while he took his family to Disney World.

“I don’t know what you said to him,” she said, “but he really likes you.”

Carl did the logistics in his mind. He didn’t have a driver’s license, or even know how to drive, and to get to Staten Island from Sunset Park he would have to take a couple buses across the bridge, or take the subway all the way to the South Ferry station in Manhattan and then take the ferry to Staten Island – and then get his way up the hill to wherever the hell it was that Dmitri lived. He explained all this to her and she listened patiently before offering to pick him up when he got there. Sofia knew how to drive. Her parents were going to give her a new car her senior year, if she kept her grades up.

“I don’t see why it’s such a big deal to you,” he said. He could hear himself pouting.

“Don’t you get it?” she whispered intensely. “There’s like a million beds in that place!”

A million beds! For despite the months of dry humping and suckling and fondling (he had come once, in her hand), they had not actually gone all the way. “I want it to be the right place,” she had said to him once, when he tried to pull her down onto a folded scrim backstage, and he had backed off. Now they had a place, a million places.

It turned out Dmitri had a million plants as well. He gave Carl a guided tour of his house before they left, starting with the alarm system and then the orchids in the living room, which couldn’t handle direct sunlight, and the myriad ferns and bonsai trees in the sunroom that needed to be watered just so. Dmitri was wearing white shorts and a white T-shirt and looked even more like a gorilla than the first time Carl met him, but his movements were precise, even fussy, as he guided the boy through the minutiae of every living thing in his house. The sprinklers outside were on timers, as was the irrigation system that watered the bushes and hedges and topiary that rounded the yard. He made Carl stop and admire the tiny tubes that laced in and out of the flower boxes on his verandah. The boy took copious notes, filling two pages in his calculus binder before they were done.

“And these are my precious babies,” Dmitri said at the tour’s end. They were standing in the sunroom, where they had begun, and at first Carl did not see what he was talking about. But then the cats began to come out of their hiding places, four of them – long haired, short haired, grey and tabby – each with names and personalities Dmitri lovingly described.

“Alex is kind of a loner,” he said, “while Sasha is practically a slut. Don’t be offended if they won’t let you pet them.”

They had a row of cat dishes lined up in the atrium, exposed to the elements. “They like to dine al fresco,” Dmitri said with a wink. “You just have to remember to take their food in and change it if it rains.”  Carl had run out of room on the page and squeezed these final directions into the margins, nodding nervously. Looking after Dmitri’s house was going to be a lot more work than he had envisioned.

But the first day he met Sofia there made it all worthwhile. She followed him around the enormous house as he checked the water levels and soil moisture, plucking at his shirt and occasionally grabbing his ass.

“Stop it!” he said, annoyed at first until he gave in and he collapsed on the window seat with her. That was the first place they had sex. Later, when he went upstairs to check the cacti in the daughter’s room, she followed him and they fucked on the little girl’s bed as well, surrounded by unicorns and stuffed animals.

“Only four or five more beds to go,” she said when they were done. He made a mental note to buy some more condoms.

Their next time was more luxurious – they decided they liked the master bedroom the best with its king-sized bed and plush carpet, but Carl was distracted. In his mind he was checking off the plants and the cats and what work needed to be done for his finals and the theater festival this weekend and the track meet he’d be missing… He felt himself going up and down Sofia’s body in an almost methodical fashion, all the while avoiding her face.

“How come you won’t look at me?” she asked at one point.

“I’m looking at you now,” he said.

They made up in the shower and he made her come again with his hand. When they were done she helped him check all the lights and plants and secure the alarm before they ran outside into a thunderstorm. They huddled inside her car for a moment while sheets of lightning filled the sky and rain fell with an unforgiving intensity.

Then, suddenly, with her head against his chest, she began to sing. Carl recognized the song, it had been on the radio all the time when he was in middle school and he associated it with that time, a time before he was Carl. Sofia did not have a strong voice and she lost the tune, warbling, “Words can’t bring me down” uneasily, but she sang it all the way through, insisting she was beautiful as Carl went rigid and listened.

 

The day of the theater festival Carl IM’d Leon, sending him and the other guys on the team mad props, but he never heard anything back.

“Fuck ‘em,” he said aloud. He was sitting in his bedroom, feeling the closeness of the walls. At his feet was a bag with half his costume; they would be performing some scenes from the play and costumes were encouraged, though not required. He had already decided he would not wear the tights but was bringing the jerkin and the puffy shirt, which would look cool with his jeans. He always wore jeans when he wasn’t at school, the one pair of True Religions his mom could afford.

He hadn’t spoken to Sofia since that afternoon in the car. They were both busy with finals and he hadn’t even laid eyes on her, though he thought he heard her once in the halls. Carl’s mom had given him a ride to Dmitri’s one day, and he ran through all of his duties while she waited in the car. The cats eyed him suspiciously from behind chairs and underneath the piano bench. He was annoyed to see that they hadn’t eaten their food and he did not say a kind word to them when he left. The next day he hadn’t made it over there at all.

He got to LaGuardia on his own steam and found hundreds of kids and their teachers swarming the cafeteria. Mr. Wiseman and about half of the drama club were already there, perched on one end of a table. Sofia did not say hello to him but he didn’t really care. He was feeling nervous about his upcoming performance; he hadn’t looked at his lines since the play ended and he was counting on his memory to pull him through. The news that Mr. Wiseman might be one of his judges provided scant relief (all the teachers and coaches took turns, and sometimes sat on a panel judging their own students). The man could be demanding on the best of days, and this did not seem like the best of days. He looked pink-faced and red-eyed behind his glasses.

Then Carl learned that another troupe there was doing Twelfth Night as well. “What did you expect?” Sofia said, when she finally deigned to speak to him. “Every school in the country does that play.” She was dressed in her maiden’s attire and looked disapprovingly at the jeans he wore with his costume. “Though usually in full gear.”

“He is half the man he was,” Mr. Wiseman said in passing. Carl thought he smelled like wine.

He saw another boy playing Sebastian and Carl felt sick watching him. Where Carl recited his lines, this boy seemed to live them. He couldn’t help but notice the smiles on the face of the judges when they conferred with each other afterwards.

“We’re dead,” Carl said aloud, but no one seemed to hear him.

And then came his scene. The room was half-filled with the curious faces of teens of all races, dressed in everything from Camelot finery to Waiting for Lefty work clothes. The judges were in the back, Mr. Wiseman and two women, one of whom signaled when they were to begin. Carl strode to the front of the room while the girl playing Olivia waited passively for her cue.

“’This is the air,’” he said, “that is the glorious sun; this pearl she gave me’” – and then he blanked. Words clicked through his mind, none of them the right ones. “Aw shit,” he said after a second and the room burst into titters. “Can I start again?”

The lights had been dimmed and he could make out the trio of judges – Mr. Wiseman’s shiny glasses, the short white hair of one of the other teachers – conferring with each other. “If you like,” one of the women said.

This answer annoyed Carl beyond reason. “What do you mean, ‘If you like?’”

“Well, I’m afraid we’ll have to disqualify you for swearing like that,” she said.

There was some whispering among the audience and then Mr. Wiseman’s big voice: “Those are the rules.”

“Fucking cunt.”

Students who had been turned toward the back of the room to regard the judges turned around again to see who had spoken and Carl was tempted to turn himself. Instead he stood mute before the assembly until Mr. Wiseman relieved him of his duties.

“That will be quite enough, Carl.”

He pushed his way out into the hall, pass the slack-jawed students, and found Sofia there, looking at her cell phone. “Very classy,” she said sarcastically. Her face looked to Carl like uncooked dough in the fluorescent light. He tore off his puffy shirt and jerkin until he was standing in only his jeans and T-shirt. He stuffed the costume clothes in his bag and started heading for the exits.

“Tell Mr. Wiseman I’m outta here.” He hoped his words sounded irrevocable.

“Have you even been feeding my uncle’s cats?” She had put her phone aside and was challenging him as kids pushed around them like fish in a stream, oblivious to their argument.

“What’s gonna happen to me if I don’t?” He had spun around to face her but was wounded by the expression of distaste on her face. “Is he gonna shoot me and put me in the trunk of a car?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Everyone knows your family is, like, in the Russian mafia.”

“What are you talking about? My father runs a chain of dry-cleaning stores. My uncle made his money selling games to video arcades.” She pulled her phone out again. “Who told you they were criminals?”

The motion of students around them made him feel like the building was moving. “Leon said.”

Leon?” She looked at her phone as if expecting a translation. “Jesus!”

Moments later he was on the street, headed for the subway, and then on the 1 train, headed for South Ferry. He looked at his reflection in the scratched subway windows and folded his arms.

He left the ferry building on Staten Island and after consulting the map in the terminal started off running. He wasn’t sure how long it would take to get to Dmitri’s house and he wished he were wearing something other than his True Religions, which billowed around his legs like windless sails, but he plodded on tirelessly over each dusty hill. The day had turned hot and humid.

He got to the house in under an hour. A police car had slowed down once to watch him jogging but no one said anything. You better believe the cops would have some questions if it had been Leon running around this neighborhood. Carl imagined them asking him questions. He imagined Leon telling them who his father was and the cops not believing him. For some reason this fantasy made Carl feel good.

The sprinklers on the back lawn were going when he got there. As he stood inside the front door, punching the code in on the keypad, he saw one of the cats peeking at him from the doorway to the sunroom. It was the Russian blue and she narrowed her eyes in disdain when Carl addressed her.

“Hey, come here!” he said as the cat ran off.

One look out the window and he saw the cats’ bowls were just as he had left them, filled with dry cat food. He opened the door to the atrium. “What the fuck!” he yelled and then kicked on the bowls across the slate floor.

He stopped to look at the mess he’d made. The food he had scattered seemed to be moving, and kneeling down he saw there were maggots squirming beneath the dry food, which had been soaked the night of the thunderstorm. He walked back to the other bowls and looked at them closely. Each one was damp and alive with decay.

He brought the bowls into the kitchen and dumped the rotten food in the garbage. Another cat, white and longhaired, emerged to study him has as he did. Carl turned on the hot water and began to scrub the bowls with stainless steel wool, his eyes stinging. Outside the sprinklers were hissing and he listened closely to the sound, trying to find the source of his shame.

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