No one requested this story, but here it is anyway.
This is the story of how I was once transformed from a good kid to a bad kid. This is the story of my pubescent metamorphosis from a cooperative krelbourne to a minor player of ill-repute. It's wasn't so much a fall as a dip, but the dip was a doozy.
Please note: this story features strong language and adult situations.
Once upon a time there was a gym teacher with gumption.
This gumption raised her from the narrow streets of a small hometown, and pushed her to excel in a Navy dominated by men's rigid traditions. When her service was complete she acquired her certificate for coaching, and took up teaching physical education at a private all girls school, encouraging the young women there to test their limits, and to fiercely push beyond them. She taught them to swim.
The taxpayer bought her a summer course to upgrade her professional credentials, and she was given the rubber stamp to teach her very own class of so-called "gifted" students in a public school. She would no longer make rich kids sweat: she was going to make special kids run laps with their brains.
I remember the day she showed up in our class. She blew a whistle to get our attention.
To the kids in our class she couldn't have been more foreign if she were an extra-terrestrial, or a Maoist Chinaman. She didn't write her name on the board. She just blew a whistle, and stood at the front of the class with her hands on her hips and her legs shoulder-width apart, as if she were poised to tackle any one of us at a moment's notice, or engage in an impromptu game of tennis. "Grade Six: my name is Pink Iron. You may call me Ms. Iron."
For the two years preceeding this my pupils and I had been captained by a great teacher named Gloria -- a hilarious, mouthy, tempermental, boxy-shouldered powerhouse of an ex-patriot New Yorker with decades of teaching under her belt. We could well imagine what Gloria would've had to say about the likes of Pink Iron!
Ms. Iron pinned her brown hair up. She had grey track pants, and white running shoes. She wore a tight pink polo shirt, and the silver whistle bounced there upon the taut tent of her imperial bosom. "Let's start the day out in the field, do a few quick orienteering exercises to help get to know one another a bit," she announced.
"But we already all know each other," said my best friend Cactus, adjusting his thick glasses with nail-bitten fingers.
"Please raise your hand before you speak," said Ms. Iron. "You all may know one another, Grade Six, but I don't know any of you yet." She was smiling, enticing us to the fun of romping in the field.
"It's cold out," complained Violin, hugging her shoulders.
"Hand, please," reminded Ms. Iron.
A skinny kid obsessed with British comedy raised his pale arm. Ms. Iron nodded. "I didn't bring my outside inhaler today," he wheezed.
Ms. Iron sighed. Her smile faltered. "Don't you kids want to go outside?" she asked.
There was some general mumbling that didn't sound too positive. Myself, I was late. I had just come in the door. I was still in the process of unburdening myself of the multiple layers of jackets and satchels that for some reason I thought I needed when I was in the sixth grade, in order to feel prepared for any contingency. "Oh man, you mean I have to put all of this back on?" I whined.
Ms. Iron shook her head, and sat down at her desk. Gumption or not, switching from gym to gifties was not going to be as easy as she had first imagined. Ms. Iron knew she was in trouble.
I knew I was in trouble the moment she announced that our desks would undergo weekly inspections, to assure that they were organised and tidy. "Desk inspections?" spat Cactus at recess, eyes bugging behind his lenses. "It's fascism!" he said, squinting with contempt. "It's worse than Boy Scouts," he declared.
Unlike Cactus, I did not fail to clean up my desk as a kind of political protest -- I just plain forgot about the whole thing until Desk Inspection Day finally rolled around (a week is a long time when you're in the sixth grade). I did go to Boy Scouts, and I was pretty much used to their breed of fascism: I routinely failed uniform inspections due to an untucked this or a misbuttoned that.
On Desk Inspection Day Ms. Iron went from one cluster of desks to the next, opening their hinged tops and peering inside one by one. When she opened my desk she immediately started shaking her head and clucking her tongue. Not only was my desk messy (including horrors like used sandwich bags and empty tetrapaks being employed to divide stacks of papers between subjects), but it also contained highly questionable things like pornography (a fantasy art graphic novel) and waste paper (sketches of robots and spaceships I had drawn). "I think I need to have a conference with your parents," said Ms. Iron.
When my mom came home from the conference she seemed a bit confused. "Well honey, Ms. Iron is quite concerned about you. She says your desk is sloppy and disorganised, and that you don't listen to her while she's teaching. She says you just draw all the time."
"Of course I listen," I retorted, rolling my eyes. "Otherwise how could I do the assignments?"
"That's what confuses me," said my mom. "She said your marks are very good."
"So what's the problem?"
Nobody was quite sure. But as the months went by it became more acute. Ms. Iron was convinced that I needed to be saved from myself before it was too late. What my mother could not be convinced of was that Ms. Iron had this salvation hard-on for many students in my class. It was easy to know which kids earned her pathos: the ones she pitied for being too weird.
Weirdness frightened Pink Iron, but she had a ready solution: the warmth and security of conformity!
What she could not appreciate was that some bright kids are naturally weird. I mean Cactus was really weird, and he was smarter than any of us. Cactus memorised books of nonsense verse, and recited it backward when he was feeling pressured; he was also known to hold his arms at ninety-degree angles and declare "I am a cactus!" at intervals. Darlek and Britcom were weird -- they played chess against one another without using boards or pieces; they performed as different characters, and played in correspondingly different styles. Tadpole was weird -- he came into class every day just after the building was unlocked, so he could screw around with the class camcorder in privacy for a couple of hours, because he was obsessed with time-lapse videography. Labcoat was especially weird -- he invented an economy for the lives of small, rubber insects dubbed Slurfies which he sold to the class at a tidy profit, including cotton clothes, papier-mache cars and cardboard apartment buildings. And on and on. These kids weren't acting out, or rebelling. They were experimenting with expression and personas. It was creative thinking and inspired play. They were finding ways to cope with themselves, and with the overzealous brains they had been born into.
But that didn't cut the mustard for Ms. Iron. She wanted her nerds to be conservative, predictable and focused like academic laser beams.
One day she tripped over Tadpole's celebrated masterwork of cardboard architecture, the Slurfie Arms Hotel, decimating the east wing with her running shoe and hitting her hip on Britcom's desk. That pretty much spelled the end for all of Slurfie City, the infrastructure of which she complained was "clogging" the classroom. "But Gloria let us have Slurfworks everywhere!" argued Labcoat.
"That was Grade Five," said Ms. Iron. "This is Grade Six. It's time to grow up a bit."
Naturally enough, the bottom fell out of the Slurfie stock market. Everybody's Slurfiebucks -- small squares of coloured tissue paper with the letter S written on them -- became worthless overnight.
Myself, I was struggling with math. I worked hard, and I almost passed the first term, but I failed by 2% after Ms. Iron deducted 5% for having cartoon drawings in the margins of my workbook. I stopped trying in the second term.
I was forbidden to draw during classroom time, so I stopped paying attention to her teaching. Without the external stimulus of the picture, I dropped away inside my mind to have adventures there, instead. Without being pegged to the outside world, her lectures washed over me without effect.
I was usually jarred back to reality by the harsh screech of her silver gymnasium whistle. "CheeseburgerBrown!" she'd bellow. "Your attention, please."
"Yes, Ms. Iron. Sorry."
One day during the lunch hour I went with a bunch of my classmates to visit Gloria, at our old school. "We miss you!" we shouted in ragged chorus, as the girls had choreographed outside on the sidewalk. We had jumped into Gloria's empty classroom, where she eating soup at her desk and looking over papers.
"Oh, Children: how wondaful!" Gloria beamed, starting to stand up from her seat with some effort, but sitting down again as we crowded around her desk. "Whaddaya doing hea, Children? What a saprise!"
"We came to visit you!"
"We hate Ms. Iron!"
"We miss you, Gloria!"
We told her all about Pink Iron's jogging suits and silver whistle, and about how she kept spelling things wrong and getting irritated when Cactus corrected her. Gloria nearly busted a gut laughing. "A gym teacher? You're kidding me!"
"She's from the Navy and she thinks we have no discipline!"
"She wants to bounce quarters off our desks, and make us run laps!"
Gloria waved her hand to stop us, stifling another guffaw. "That's enough, that's enough aready," she said, smiling. "It takes oll kinds of people to make up the world, Children. Oll different kinds, with oll different idears. And though she sounds like a bit of a goof-ball to me, I don't think she's evil, Cactus. It's good to learn how to get used to different people."
Gloria was right that Pink Iron wasn't evil, but she was wrong to underestimate the danger.
Slurfies were eventually banned from the classroom altogether. A girl called Paws was quashed in her campaign to have a class pet (first choice turtles, second choice rats). Labcoat and I had been knitting a video game (BASIC coding by Labcoat, looping sprites and backgrounds by wee CheeseburgerBrown), but this project was deemed to be hogging the resources of the class computer, and was killed. Ms. Iron thought that Labcoat and I should run keyboarding tutorials, instead, because she said we didn't type the proper way.
Over time, the congeniality of the relationship between Ms. Iron and I began to suffer.
Before the term was out she would confer with my mother again, and use the power of her opinion as an authority to convince my mother that the regular school system -- even with classes for the gifted -- was not what would serve me best.
She told my mother that I was more artistic than academic; she said that though my marks were good now, they would likely flag in the future; she opined that I was due for serious struggles ahead, and that my resistance to her rectifying influence was a sure symptom of a basic incompatibility between the system and I.
And so Pink Iron recommended to my mother that I be sent to Alternative School.
Alt Dot School
The original idea behind the Gifted Programme in Ontario was to provide alternative styles of learning to bright students. The feeling was that by directing the learning process themselves, laterally-minded thinkers could harness the full potential of their unorthodox brains without too much interference from educators. Over time, however, it became simply a programme for intelligent students to learn more sophisticated subject matter.
The founding philosophy of many alternative schools was similar: to provide unfettered learning resources for bright but unusual youth. These schools were founded by hippies and idealists, and over time most of them decayed into under-funded mungholes were students who had been expelled from better schools went. They attracted dim flakes with behaviour problems, who had no where else to turn. They became a last waystation before dropping out of the system altogether.
By pink decree, I was moved from the first institution to the second. My mother bought Ms. Iron's misinformed notion that alternative schools were bastions of open-ended learning populated by self-starters and free-thinkers. (I was eleven years old, and my contrary opinion didn't count for much.) Desperate for better students, the alternative schools put on a good show at Open House, trotting out their least destructive rapscallions to curtsy and impress.
As I said, most of the alternative schools in the city had been founded by hippies, so they all had nutty names like Horizon and Quest and Tribe, instead of being named after streets like normal schools. I was enrolled in a local alternative school called Spectrum, located on the disused third storey of the ancient and nearly condemned Eglinton Public School, a red brick and wood job with an asphalt field located on a busy midtown corner.
The wooden chairs were a hundred years old, and there weren't enough of them. Instead of fluorescent lighting we had dingy icandescents, hanging in dusty and ornate lamps on long, yellowed cables. The walls were stuffed with asbestos and painted with lead.
The floors were wood, and they did not creak so much as complain. Like petulant tropical birds.
There were roughly seventy students enrolled at Spectrum when I first arrived. This diminutive student body was served by three full-time teachers, one part-time teacher and one part-time secretary. Our third-storey school was comprised of an open hall with a skylight as a central hub, with several doorways leading off to the various classrooms: one for each full-time teacher (with cloak-hooked anterooms the teachers used as offices), one dedicated to the purpose of Meetings & Discussions (a big room full of old couches and bean-bag chairs), and one dedicated to secretarial kipple and files.
The washrooms had been designed as long, grand galleries stretching opposite one another from the central skylight hub, but the founding hippies of Spectrum had economised by dividing half of each of the washrooms up for metal lockers. Thus, there was a so-called Girls' Wing of Lockers and a Boys' Wing, and both of them smelled like decades of child-pee.
(The administration office had been converted from being a faculty washroom, so it didn't smell too peachy either. But I wouldn't find that out until later.)
At Spectrum, we started every morning in the Meeting Room. Those who got there early got the best couches. Those who got there on time found pillows. Those who got there late stood around the edges of the room, along every wall except the windows.
When a reasonable majority had assembled we would be addressed by Dome, a tall, sharp-jawed bald man with a very shiny head who would occasionally shock us with the jocularity of suspenders. He never wore a tie. His adam's apple was the size of a fist. "How's everybody feeling today?" he'd ask us. "Let's review the schedule." Dome taught History, Geography and Mathematics.
Next to speak would be Ghetto Love, the life-affirming street-cred "you can talk to me about anything" teacher. His round black face was always broken in a toothy smile. Ghetto Love's opening remarks were uniformly without content. Ghetto Love taught Science and ran Discussion Periods.
When Ghetto Love sat his ample self down again it was the time for the final word from one of the school's surviving founding hippies: Moonchild would stand up slowly, and her face would appear out of her mass of black, tangled hippie hair. "Cool," she'd say. "Really cool morning, everybody. I feel good energies in here today." She wore tie-dyed pants, and blouses made by Guatemalan peasants she knew by name. Moonchild taught English and Art.
The secretary didn't show up for Morning Meeting naturally enough, and neither did the toadish French teacher, Hoda. (Listen, I know I usually make up names for people in stories like this, but I just couldn't top her actual given name -- the sound of it sums up the very essence of her!)
It was in Hoda's French class that I first met Cowboy.
Cowboy was from Texas. He was confident and easygoing with strangers. He had a Superman-like lick of dark hair across his brow, and he smiled a lot. It was Cowboy who came up with the idea of everyone in the class (all twelve of us) moving our desks a few inches to the left, every time Hoda left the room for whatever reason (which she was frequently doing, possibly to abuse herself somehow -- despite layers of thick make-up, Hoda always looked like she'd been in a traffic accident). Hoda only caught on to the stunt when we'd collectively moved our desks three feet toward the windows, and could no longer stifle our giggles.
"Qu'est que c'est ca?" she demanded, nose crinkling with a kind of bewilderment mixed with disgust. Then, inexplicably, she started to cry. Hoda fled the classroom.
There was a kind of awed silence afterward. We were only twelve after all and I, for one, wasn't used to seeing adults behave so unpredictably.
"Well," said Cowboy. "How do you like that? It looks like we have ourselves a spare."
We went to hang around in the Meeting Room, where Cowboy confessed to me that he had just been blowing hot air: he hadn't really expected everyone to move their desks, he was just making a joke. But then I had moved mine, and started a chain reaction. I, in turn, confessed to Cowboy that I had only moved my desk for fear of being the only one who didn't. "Mayhem by mistake!" Cowboy called it. "Not quite your fault, not quite mine."
Mayhem by mistake. It wouldn't be the last time. And it would only get worse.
The Company of Spaniels
An autumn party was arranged by the senior students, and everyone was invited. Even me. Cowboy and I were dropped off by my mom outside of a large house. It looked benign and quiet. "There won't be any drinking, will there?" my mother asked anxiously.
"Not by us, Mrs Brown," replied Cowboy.
My mom liked Cowboy. She liked his square-featured good looks, and the confident way he spoke. She liked his manners, too. She gave us a nod, and we climbed out of the car. My mother drove away, leaving us at the curb.
Cowboy and I crossed the street. I'm not sure what the street was called, but it may have been Styx.
Cardboard signs directed us to the backyard. The long yard was crowded, and crowned by a roof of gold and red leaves. The sun was setting, and it was just beginning to get cool. Someone was setting up torches on sticks, planting them in the garden at intervals. A barbecue was going, and kids were lining up for hot dogs and hamburgers.
(So far, it just seemed like a really big birthday party. But this was merely the first circle.)
Cowboy and I found a group of other seventh graders we'd gotten to know over the past few weeks, most of whom were grumbling about how their parents were coming to pick them up soon. "I have to leave at ten," sighed a girl named Rabbit, who was cute despite her lupine teeth. "I'm lucky I could convince my dad to let me come at all."
"When do you guys have to leave?" asked RockStar. RockStar was a good natured, smiling and round-featured blonde kid with a kind of goofy innocence about him. I liked him right away. (Seventeen years later I still see him from time to time, whenever I'm working at the cool kids downtown animation studio I've mentioned before. RockStar was not yet a rock star back then, but we'll call him that for the sake of consistency.)
"Uh...I've never been out to a party before," I admitted. "I'm not sure we really got all that specific about the terms."
"When does the subway close?" asked Cowboy.
Nobody knew. None of us twelve year olds had ever challenged the late end of the transit schedule before.
I started to wonder whether I should feel pleased that my mother had been so lenient, or frightened that she clearly didn't understand what kind of an event I was attending. Should she have been more worried? I wondered.
I would not have to wonder long.
By ten thirty there were very few junior students left. Torches lit the garden, where a ghetto blaster played pop music and a couple of couples danced in the shadows. Cowboy and I were sitting on the wooden steps of the deck, chatting with two affable seniors called Punky and Whitey. A bucket of cold bottles of beer was passed around, and Cowboy and I each took one. The seniors didn't. "We both have to be up on set tomorrow," explained Whitey.
They explained that they acted on the show Degrassi Junior High, and that they went to Spectrum because it offered the flexibility they needed to shift their school workload around the production schedule of the show. "It's really cool," gushed Whitey; "we do workshops with the writers, so that they really know how kids think and we get a chance to be a part of the creative process."
"Yeah," said Punky.
"Who the hell came up with the term broomhead?" I asked.
"They did," said Punky.
"We all did together," said Whitey.
When Punky and Whitey left, Cowboy and I were a little lost for a while, sitting on the stoop and peeling the wet paper off of our barely sipped beer bottles. I wasn't too impressed with this wild party. The music was louder now, and some kids who had drunk several beers were becoming a bit obnoxious, but it was a pretty lame show. "It's getting cold," Cowboy complained.
"Why don't you go back inside?" someone suggested.
"You guys haven't been inside yet?"
We went inside. Dining room: second ring. A game of spin-the-bottle was going on, with lots of giggling. Someone kicked over a drink, which caused a brief ruckus. Cowboy and I wandered through like explorers on the Moon, clutching our undrunk beers as totems.
The livingroom was dark, a mine field of hazy forms on couches and even on the floor. Slow music throbbed from the stereo. Some of the shadows were moaning. Very creepy. Cowboy and I stepped carefully over them, and pushed through to the hall.
At the staircase we chose up, instead of down. We stepped over a cluster of kids drinking and laughing and smoking on the landing. The upstairs hall was empty, so we wandered into a bedroom from which we could hear voices.
Inside, a boy named CheeseburgerFox was sprawled across the queen sized bed, violently vomiting into a plastic bowl proffered by a girl. Another girl mopped his brow with a damp cloth. The only light came from the open door of the ensuite washroom. "Oh shit, are you sick, man?" I asked.
"He's fine, he's just drunk," said one of the girls.
A third siren materialized out of the ensuite bearing a glass of water. "See if you can sip some of this, CheeseburgerFox," she cooed, sitting on the edge of the bed.
CheeseburgerFox was a handsome boy with clear blue eyes and shoulder-length brown hair. When he smiled, he looked like he should be on TV. He was prettier than the kids from Degrassi. But tonight he looked half-dead, pale and blue in the feeble light, his breathing ragged. "I hope he doesn't have alcohol poisoning, 'cause that happened to some guy I knew once," said one of CheeseburgerFox's nightingales.
"I'm okay," whispered CheeseburgerFox. "I'm cool," he assured them.
"What was he drinking?" I asked, looking at my beer in alarm.
"Vodka. Want some?"
The sound and smell of his chundering was making me queasy, so I poked Cowboy until he stood up and we both drifted out. "Fuck damn it CheeseburgerBrown, I was flirting with those girls!" he chastised me in the hall.
"Dude, that guy was barfing. It was gross."
I felt my argument was pretty air-tight, but Cowboy was still grumpy. He turned his back on me and led us into the next bedroom brusquely, snapping open the door without hesitation. I followed at his heels, and ran into his shoulder when he stopped short.
"Pardon me," was all I could think to say.
A squadron of clothed girls were helping two naked girls out of the second exit of the ensuite washroom, wrapping them in towels and walking them toward the bed. One of the girls, Li'l Orphan, was accepting this complacently. But the other girl, a tiny Asian minx known as Sailor Mercury, was squirming and kicking while she screeched and laughed. She fell to the floor, naked and slick from the shower. She rolled onto all fours and retched up bile.
"Poor Sailor Mercury!" sang the cadre of girls, gathering her up and ushering her into the bed.
"Hi Cowboy!" called Sailor Mercury, spying us from between the lank, dripping strands of her inky hair. "Hi other guy!" she gibbered at me, smiling.
The nursing girls turned around, spotting Cowboy and I. We were quickly ushered out. "We're taking care of them!" hissed a frowning girl, slamming the door.
"Jesus, those girls were naked!" exclaimed Cowboy.
"Does being naked help you sober up?" I asked.
"Maybe," he shrugged. "But I never heard of that in Texas."
The last bedroom was locked, so we went back down the staircase. We could see into the livingroom, where someone was in a rage. A beefy senior boy who looked like he should have been in highschool was kicking a hole in the wall, yelling incoherently. Several people were urging him to "chill out" from a safe distance. Hysterical laughter and the sound of shattering dishes could be heard from the kitchen. Alarmed, Cowboy and I continued straight on down the stairs to the basement.
"These people are animals," I said to Cowboy. "They're dogs," I said.
"They're spaniels," added Cowboy jauntily.
"An evening in the company of spaniels," I sighed. "What next?"
In the dark basement we found a bunch of kids watching some kind of nutty movie about a guy cutting off his own nipples. The kids were lying on the floor for the most part, though some were gathered on dingy couches. A few of them were waving their hands in front of their own eyes in slow-motion, or tracking the flame of a lit lighter. "What're y'all up to?" asked Cowboy.
"Floyd," croaked someone in the first row of bodies. "The Wall."
We tried to watch the movie for a while, but it seemed a bit disjointed. "I think that flower is fucking that other flower," I observed, but Cowboy had found a bowl of pretzels and was caught up throwing them at the television.
"Whoa," said someone from the floor dreamily. "The screen is like exploding or something."
They brushed at themselves distractedly as bits of broken pretzel rained down on them. "This is fun!" said Cowboy, handing me the bowl. So, I threw some pretzels at the TV, too.
Despite the fact that we were standing at the back of the basement, no one seemed to be able to figure out where the mysterious projectiles were coming from. They looked around, but for some reason they could not see us in the shadows. One guy stared right at me, and then whispered to the girl next to him, "Is there somebody standing right there, or am I tripping?"
The girl squinted at my knees. "You're just tripping."
Then they both blinked and swore as more salt and broken pretzel peppered down on their faces. Cowboy fell against the wall, laughing. "I think they're on drugs," he said. "I think they're tripping out on LSD, fuck damn it."
"Holy shit!" I said. LSD was what hippies took, I'd heard.
Someone called out "Stop talking, man!" so we unleashed another volley of pretzels at the screen, emptying the bowl.
"Oh no -- they're bugs!" yelled Cowboy, and the floor erupted in a flurry of panicked brushing and wiping, squirming and not a little screaming. Holding our guts to contain our laughter, we scampered back up the stairs, between two red-faced boys having an argument in the kitchen, and straight out into the backyard.
"Bugs! That was inspired," I told Cowboy, patting him on the back.
As we caught our breath we observed that the yard was not quite abandoned. Someone was throwing up in the bushes, and a couple was making out by the tree. Other than that I saw only garbage littering the lawn until another form condensed out of the shadows, sitting on the deck right next to us. "Good evening," he said. "Having fun?"
"Sure," said Cowboy, shrugging.
"I'm CheeseburgerBrown, and this is Cowboy. Have you seen what's going on in there?"
"I have indeed," said the stranger. "That's why I'm out here, waiting for my ride, as far away from that Hieronymus Bosch-style phantasmagoria of Technicolor sin as I can possibly get. By the way," he said, "my name is K."
"You're in Group B," recalled Cowboy.
"Right," said K. He looked at his watch slowly, his long, awkward arm bobbing before his face in the dark. "Time to go," he said, and shambled off.
"Pleasure to meet you," I called.
Cowboy and I ran around with the garden torches in hand for a while, lighting up couples making out or passed out in the shadows and crying "Virginity Patrol!" but this got old quickly, even for brats like us. We got bored, and eventually wandered off to the bus-stop. We threw our warm, half-sipped beers off of a bridge, and they disappeared into the trees with a pair of low, windy clangs.
It wasn't even that late. How long could we be expected to amuse ourselves? I mean, we didn't drink or smoke or fuck -- we were only twelve years old.
It was different for the seniors. They were thirteen.
A Beaker to Bunsons
Winter came, and with it the school's annual pot-luck banquet, Winterfest. We pitched in to clean up the classrooms, and volunteers painted seasonal images and slogans all over the windows. I painted a massive head of Kris Kringle, and Cowboy contributed what were intended to be sprigs of holly but ended up looking like splatters of blood. Rabbit, the cute girl with the buck teeth, attempted to fix them up with splotches of green. "Maybe we should make them into balls," she sighed. "You know, like ornaments?"
So, Kringle ended up being orbited by a halo of muddy splotches that looked like potatoes. Merry merry!
The Degrassi kids headed up the effort to put together a pageant for the collected parents. Cowboy and I did a magic act (Cowboy was a mime magician who dealt principally with levitating mime objects, and yours truly was the narrator; K. sat in back behind us, flipping through a magazine throughout the sketch as a sort of post-modern touch), and there were a number of wretched musical acts. Then Cowboy went on stage with Li'l Orphan and they carolled, surprising everyone.
Cowboy's voice was transcendant. The hairs stood up on the back of people's necks as they listened, hypnotised. His song filled the downstairs auditorium of Eglinton Public School, loaned to us for the occasion. His song silenced every whispered conversation. This was a voice that had survived puberty's cracks and become even stronger. His voice was neither child nor man, but warm and alien and unreal and comforting all at the same time.
It was magic.
"I didn't know you could sing like that!" I told him when he came off stage. "Wow!"
"I was in the choir in Texas," he said, shrugging it off as if it were nothing. And maybe it was, because a quarter hour later it didn't seem possible that it had happened at all.
My mom got to chat with all of my teachers, and they assured her that I was an exemplary pupil -- though they failed mention against which benchmark this was measured. It was easy to be an exemplary pupil when most kids in the class seemed to have a hard time reading simple sentences. It was easy as pie when actually handing in a completed assignment, regardless of its quality, was an act that made me academically elite.
Cowboy's parents didn't show up. "Too busy," he said.
I lost track of him as the evening progressed. I ended up sitting in the Meeting Room with Rabbit, holding hands. The overhead lamps were off, and the streetlights were shining through the painted windows, casting streaky and colourful glows across the wall and across us. We were mostly quiet. "I think I like you more-than-a-friend," Rabbit told me.
"Yeah," I said. "Me too."
Later, in a kids' schoolyard playhouse near my dad's place Rabbit and I would share our first kiss. "I was hoping you'd kiss me that night, at school," she said. I'd never had a girlfriend before, but I wasn't an idiot: I could take a hint.
There was no tongue, and we bumped our teeth together a lot. Still, we both felt pretty positive about it. "Let's do that more often," I suggested.
K. and I became better friends, too. He was a missing element in my life. I had spent years happily playing second fiddle to geniuses -- a Beaker to Bunsons -- and there had been no one to succeed Cactus and Labcoat until K. revealed his true grit when he loaned me a book one day. "It's called Euthyphro, and it's a dialogue by Plato."
"Play-doh?" I echoed, like an idiot.
K. and I were sitting on the fence, watching better coordinated kids play Four-Square. "He was an Ancient Greek philosopher," explained K. "Plato was a student of Socrates and a teacher of Aristotle."
I told K. I'd check the book out, though I wasn't very enthusiastic. Cowboy was my real schoolyard chum now, and he didn't read books about anything. I was still playing second fiddle, but no longer in accompaniment to a superior brain -- it was confidence, poise and humour that Cowboy inoffensively lorded over me. I was eager to learn any lesson, to become more like him.
I would read Euthyphro and I did love it -- the methodical logic, the merciless redunctionalism, the civility of homoerotic friends -- and K. would go on to lend me more dialogues by Plato. I would always be very taken with the Apology dialogue, in which Socrates fails to acquit himself in a trial against his character before the Athenian elite. "He's Christ before Christ," I exclaimed.
"There have been dozens of Christs before Christ," K. pointed out patiently. "What about Siddhartha Gautama?"
"Oh -- that guy." I shrugged. "I don't know much about him."
"Here," said K., handing me a copy of Herman Hesse's Siddhartha from his knapsack. "It's fictional, but informative."
Winter became spring. Rabbit and I broke up, because I got bored (even though when we were making out she let me touch her breast beneath her sweater) and didn't know what else to do with her. We remained friends, though I would continue to secretly pity her for being so upset about being dumped (this would remain a mystery until I was dumped myself, later on). Next I dated a skinny, bitter girl with nice eyes and Cowboy dated her voluptuous blonde friend with a slight body odour problem. A few months later, we traded. He ended up with the grump, and I ended up with the frump. They dumped us both before the term was out.
"Girls are weird," observed Cowboy, as we ate slices of pizza at lunch.
"Did you ever get to touch her boobs?" I asked.
"She didn't have any," said Cowboy sadly.
Spectrum had a long-standing educational tradition called Wednesday Independent Field Trips: each Wednesday afternoon, students in groups of no less than two would go on unsupervised field trips to wherever they liked. We were expected to debrief the rest of the class on Thursday mornings, but this rarely happened -- partly because it was lost in the chaos, but mostly because it was next to impossible to separate the true accounts from the unadulterated fiction.
"We went to the Royal Ontario Museum," an illiterate thug might say.
"Yeah, it was cool," his partner might add.
"What exhibits did you see?" Moonchild would ask.
"I dunno...mummies and stuff," the thug would reply. And so on.
Like most junior students, Cowboy and I made an earnest effort to go on suitable trips at first. We went to the Ontario Science Centre, or Casa Loma, or Spadina House. Later, stretching it a bit, we went up the CN Tower or rode kiddie-rides on Centre Island. Even later, we took to just going back to my house to screw around with my camcorder or watch TV.
Sometimes we hooked up with RockStar to work on the school anti-paper, a self-published satirical rag called The National Asker. Our targets were usually the teachers, with headlines like DOME IS ACTUALLY LUX LUTHOR IN HIDING and MOONCHILD FACES MASSIVE ACID FLASHBACK AND LIVES TO TELL THE TALE. RockStar decorated these stories with clip-art laid out in Newsmaster for DOS, and we photocopied them at the offices of his dad, a former mayor of the city and an outspoken leftist activist. "Underground newspaper publishing is a great idea," he told us. "You should try to be more like these guys, son."
"Actually, the paper was my idea," RockStar pointed out, but the busy ex-mayor wasn't listening anymore.
We took an end-of-term school trip to Quebec, but that is another story and shall be told another time. During the summer Cowboy joined my sailing team at the Queen City Yacht Club and we learned how to race dinghies together -- also another story, and for another time. Autumn grew close again, and so did the start of our year as senior students at Spectrum.
"This year we pull out all the stops," said Cowboy. "We'll be teenagers," he said.
The new semester dawned with a dour meeting. There were only forty us now, and that was just the beginning of our problems. Because teaching staff were allocated in ratio to the number of students, the plunging enrollment meant the school was entitled to only 2.5 teachers. The original idea had been for the two full-time positions to go to Dome and Ghetto Love, while a pregnant Moonchild would fill in the part-time position until her baby was due.
But Ghetto Love was dying of AIDS.
Over the summer he had shrunk, and become willowy. His hair was like fluff, and his cheeks were cavernous. Because he was afflicted with double pneumonia, his breathing was a pitiful, wet weeze. His rich brown skin had turned a sad shade of purple. "I'm sorry," he told us; "but I don't think I'm going to be able to be your teacher this year."
He tried to smile, then, but the effect was brief and ghastly.
What this meant was that one of our teachers would instead be a supply-teacher, rotated into position as they became available. This teacher would change every few weeks as the Board of Education shuffled resources, or when the teachers refused to come to Spectrum anymore because of how out of control the students were.
And it was true. We were fucking monsters.
There weren't enough kids in the eighth grade to make a full class, so we were peppered in with the new seventh graders -- and the quality of seventh graders Spectrum had managed to attract this time around was truly dismal. A great faction of them had recently come from South America. They didn't speak much English, and they considered being in school at all an irreconcilable inconvenience. "This school fugging sucks, mang," they said.
The South Americans quickly figured out that with enough disruption they could impede the work of any teacher. They knew as well as anyone else that Spectrum would not dare expel them, for fear of losing what few resources the school still had. So they embarked on a mission to systematically drive away every supply-teacher we were granted. A science teacher who stuck with us for almost three months broke down and started crying in front of us one day, confessing how the stress was tearing her marriage apart. "I go home from here every day to my husband and we end up fighting," she wept.
Someone blew a loud raspberry, and she left the room. We never saw her again.
Cowboy was intrigued by the South Americans. He wanted to impress them. At lunch time they would prowl the underground garages of midtown, using ceramic spark-plugs to smash the windows of cars and rip out their stereos. They didn't have cars of their own, so more often than not they just smashed the stereos before we went back to class.
Cowboy and I weren't willing to go that far. But we didn't want to look like pussies, either, so we made a hobby of breaking off fancy hood-ornaments and displaying them in our shared locker as a kind of shrine to delinquency.
One day Cowboy and I were screwing around at Spectrum, kicking a soccer ball around inside of the school. I accidentally kicked it through the central skylight, which smashed to the floor all around us with a terrifying amount of noise. "Holy shit!" cried Cowboy. "Run!"
Nobody caught us, but the incident did attract the attention of the teachers. Dome, who looked increasingly tired and hopeless, decided that drastic action was needed to bring the student body under control. So he swung a deal with the principal downstairs, the principal of Eglinton Public School. From now on, our discipline problems would be sent down to his attention, to free-up Spectrum's teachers to try to keep teaching.
I remember the first time I was sent down to see him, though I don't remember what I'd done. The principal was a swarthy Greek named Poopoolopolis, whose undershirts could always be clearly discerned against the matted black hair of his chest and shoulders beneath his thin button-down shirts. He wore a tie, and a scowl. When I sat down in his office he ignored me for several minutes, pretending to look through papers on his desk. "Mr CheeseburgerBrown," he said at last. "You know why you're here."
"Yessir," I said. A trickle of sweat ran down my side. "It was an accident, though, and I'm really sorry."
"Spectrum is full of troublemakers, Mr Brown. Very bad characters, some of them. You're not one of the worst. That's why it's such a pity to have to see you here." He leaned forward. "Frankly, I don't think the school can be saved. I think it should be shut down."
"I see," I mumbled.
"No back-talk!" snapped Poopoolopolis. "It's students like you that are ruining it. Most of those kids are lost causes. They're losers, and they'll probably grow up to be criminals if they aren't already. But you have a choice."
"What kind of a choice?" I asked, breaking a pregnant pause and half-expecting to be rebuked for speaking again.
"You're bright enough to know how to act sensibly. And if Spectrum can't count on the students like you to choose to do the right thing, how can it count on anybody?"
"I don't know," I admitted.
"Don't interrupt!" snapped Poopoolopolis. "This is your first and last warning, CheeseburgerBrown. Do you understand? If I have to see you in this office again, I assure you there will be serious consequences to pay."
"Don't give me that arrogant smirk!" he shouted, startling me. I hadn't been aware of any smirking. "You're getting off easy this time, but don't think it means you're scot-free. You're on my list, mister, and I'm going to keep my eye on you."
Another pause. "Understood, sir. Thank you, sir," I replied in what I hoped would be taken as a sincere tone. It did seem to satisfy him, and Poopoolopolis dismissed me with a brusque nod as he returned his attention to his desk.
A major theft by unknown parties cleaned out the supply closet, depriving us of paper, pens, chalk, erasers and just about anything else necessary to run a school. An evening meeting was held between the parents and Spectrum's poor beleaguered teachers. Two things happened: everyone agreed that the school could only be saved through a serious private fundraising effort, and simultaneously, most of the parents of the good students opted to have them transferred to better schools.
"It won't be the same Asker without you," I told RockStar sadly.
"My dad says you can still use his photocopier," he said. "Remember: keep it silly, man," he added with a sigh, getting in his mom's car. I wouldn't see him again for years.
So, among other things we lost our right to have a secretary. This meant that no one was answering Spectrum's telephone to field calls from new prospective students. So Dome came up with the bright idea of having the students man the phone in shifts, hoping it would help to involve us in the solution. This turned out, rather predictably, to be a tragically bad idea.
I remember my shift with K. and Cowboy. The phone never rang. The administration office smelled like faeces and disinfectant, and in the corner it still bore a non-functional toilet attached to the wall. K. and I had been drawing a comic together to pass the time in class while Dome yelled at the bad kids, so K. hauled it out and we set to cross-hatching. It was called Green Clovers and I'm not quite sure what it was about -- it concerned the surreal misadventures of a pompous, retired general named Pops and his hapless, toque-wearing son Junior. "I'm bored," declared Cowboy, pacing around the office.
K. and I looked up from our labours when we heard Cowboy pry open the office window. "Hey, we can get on the roof!" he called. I climbed out with him, and kicked around the gravel and garbage amid the lost tennis balls and seagulls. We threw empty pop cans down onto Eglinton Avenue in pairs, contesting to see whose can would be run flat by a passing car first. (This was a game I used to play with Tadpole years before, hanging off the edge of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind bridge that spanned Bayview Avenue -- the same bridge I would later enscribe with the flaming word PENIS, but that is another story and has already been told.)
When we got bored and clamboured back inside, K. was still cross-hatching. "I think Pops and Junior should become drug overlords," said K.
"Okay. What drug should they push?"
I began to work out the details with K. while Cowboy played with the phone. "Who are you calling?" asked K.
"It's called The Party Line. People hang out and chat."
"Isn't that a 1-900 number?"
"Doesn't that cost money?"
Cowboy shrugged, cradling the earpiece to his head. "Probably," he said.
K. looked uncomfortable. "I'm not sure I feel too positively about contributing to the downfall of the school so concretely."
The solution was simple: Cowboy didn't ask K. to sign-up with him for office duty again. He asked me the next time it came around, but I was working on a project for art class. So Cowboy did his next administrative tour of duty with a couple of the South Americans.
The South Americans loved The Party Line. They couldn't get enough of it. They found Spanish-speaking friends, and chatted with them endlessly. They chatted with them so much that it wasn't long before somebody noticed the coincidence between the unusual school spirit being demonstrated and the first shocking telephone bill. Dome blew a fucking gasket. He turned red, and screamed at us all in the next morning's meeting. "You all know this is going on, and yet you do nothing?" he asked, eyes wide and incredulous. "It's like you want to destroy the school!"
The South Americans shrugged. "We're fugging sorry, mang," they claimed.
Three of them were expelled. Cowboy was never fingered.
But the remaining South Americans were unwilling to be parted from their beloved Party Line. One day they came back from lunch and told Cowboy that they'd found a disused swimming pool behind one of the nearby apartment buildings, and that they could see a telephone inside of the locked poolhouse. "Jou got to help us break in, mang," they told Cowboy.
So, Cowboy and I went to take a look. Despite the violent attempts of the South Americans the heavy metal door of the small concrete shack could not be budged, and even they were smart enough to realise that smashing the window wouldn't do. "Anybody know how to pick a lock, mang?"
We didn't. But I took it as a personal challenge. "How hard can it be?" I said.
So Cowboy and I hit the Leaside Public Library on our next independent field-trip and checked out a stack of volumes on locksmithing. When we had learned enough, we approached a local smith and told him that we were working on a school project. Would he be willing to show us the ropes a bit, and perhaps submit to a brief interview? He was willing indeed. Cowboy and I looked like nice kids.
Most locks are pretty simple affairs, composed of two linked metal cylinders, one inside of the other. The inner cylinder accepts the key, and the outer cylinder rotates the lock when the teeth of the key are aligned with the tumblers between the cylinders. We were disappointed to learn that the tool we'd read about in detective novels -- the famous lock-pick -- was little more than a length of wire studded with random teeth, which was sawed back and forth in hopes of scoring a favoured junction with the unknown combination of tumblers inside. It took patience, and care. It was not, as we'd been led to believe, something that could be accomplished in seconds.
But we had time.
And on the third day, the poolhouse was opened. It was a pretty crappy lock. I received a wide round of applause, and a lot of enthusiastic claps on the back. We bustled inside and the South Americans pounced on the telephone. "We have a dial tone, mang!" they cheered. A thick medical band-aid was applied to the bolt to keep the door from locking again, and The Party resumed.
The South Americans sat down to enjoy themselves. They pulled out a glass juice bottle, and one of them put a dime inside and began tapping the bottle against the heel of his shoe in a swinging, spiralling motion. In a few seconds the dime popped through the side of the bottle near the bottom, leaving a neat little hole. I watched with fascination as the South Americans lit cigarettes, and picked up little pieces of black tar off of their smokes packs by dabbing the cherry of their cigarettes against them. Then they inserted the cigarette into the open bottle, and titled it so that most of the thin grey tobacco smoke ran out the top.
A heavier, bluer smoke collected inside of the bottle, swimming along the bottom in graceful curls.
"What's that?" I asked.
"Hash," they told me.
"Hashish? Like, drugs?" I echoed, like an idiot.
"Yeah, mang," someone snapped. "Like fugging drugs."
I watched as they each sucked back a bottle, placing their lips half-off the top in order to also inhale outside air to cool the smoke as they drew it in. They closed their eyes and held their breath, and then blew it out in a cloudy plume. "Perfecto," they said.
Cowboy took a hit next. The bottle was offered to me but I just said, "No thank you."
Their eyes became glazed and bloodshot. They began to giggle, and to trail off in the middle of speaking. "I can't remember what I'm saying every time I start to...to something..." said Cowboy, bursting into a fit of laughter. The South Americans guffawed. "This is good shit, mang," they told us. "From Afghanistan."
"Can I have another?" asked Cowboy.
"Not unless jou pitch in," they shook their heads. "This shit costs money, mang."
The Fin of Sharkey
"We need jobs, man," Cowboy told me the next day. "I've been thinking about it, and I bet my dad will give us jobs."
"He just opened a gourmet food shop...downtown," he rushed ahead. "I know he fired some shit-for-brains last week, so maybe there could be an opening for us. Then we'd have our own money, and we could buy our own hash."
I shrugged. "If you want to. It's true that I wouldn't mind having a little money."
"I'm going to ask him tonight," promised Cowboy. And he did, and Cowboy's dad agreed. My mother was less enthusiastic, partly because she didn't know Cowboy's father but mostly because she wasn't crazy about the idea of me being downtown at night.
"Toronto is the safest city of its size on the planet!" I pointed out.
"Still..." she said, chewing the inside of her cheek. "I'd feel a lot better about it if you and Cowboy took some self-defense lessons, first."
"Hey honey, it's either that or no working downtown. Your decision."
Unfortunately, crash-courses in self-defense for thirteen year old boys are not easy to come by. But my mom talked with Cowboy's dad on the phone, and they both figured that we would do just as well to take women's self-defense classes. "It's cheap, and the courses are offered everywhere," declared my mom despite my protests.
And so Cowboy and were signed-up for a three-week women's self-defense course at the YWCA taught by an ex-cop named Sharkey. With her usual persistence, my mother got Sharkey to agree to let us boys into the class. (By the way, his name really was Sharkey.)
Sharkey came up to my nose. He was a compact barrel of muscle with a look on his face that somehow bridged the gap between amusement and a scowl. He wore tight little jogging pants and a polo shirt, but he lacked Pink Iron's shiny metal whistle. Cowboy and I sat in a room full of dozens of women or all ages and types, who hung on the charismatic Sharkey's every word. "Lesson number one: always carry a pencil. A sharpened pencil will remove a perp's eye before he knows what hit him. You got that, ladies? Never leave the house without a pencil."
The moves he taught were simplified versions of Judo tosses, designed to give a woman enough time to over-power an attacker and run away. We learned how to check our hips to the side when grabbed from behind, so that we could drive a pencil into a man's groin. We learned how to shatter a man's foot with a high-heeled shoe, and how to turn a grab for the neck into a crushed trachea on the part of the assailant.
It was Sharkey's guarantee that any of these moves could be performed by any size of woman against any size of attacker. "Weight is not the issue, and neither is strength," he claimed.
If this was true, it was hard to tell.
When Cowboy and I were cast as attackers, the women tended to struggle fruitlessly to worm out of our grasp. They lay under us and strained, or bucked pointlessly at us from behind. When we grabbed their necks, they were helpless to break our hold.
Sharkey tried not to show his chagrin, despite the fact that he was being inadvertently made a fool of by two thirteen year old boys. "That's why the pencil is the key!" he declared brightly. "Pencils make all the difference in the world, ladies."
Still, we graduated and got a little diploma, just like everybody else. According to these credentials, Cowboy and I were now women no one should dare fuck with. Super.
Work started the next week. Cowboy and I rode the subway down to College Station after school, and dutifully turned up at a small shop called Delices: Gourmet-To-Go on Wellesley Street, across from the old CBC building. Cowboy's father was waiting for us inside.
Beard was a large man: not just fat (which he was), but tall and thick, too. He was almost completely bald, but sported a stylishly cropped beard. He was dressed in chef's whites, and he shook my hand firmly. "Nice to finally meet y'all, CheeseburgerBrown," he said jovially, his little eyes twinkling. "You can call me Beard."
(I liked him right away. He reminded me of my own father, who was also fat and jolly.)
With a flourish he introduced us to the rest of the staff: a giant black chef from the Caribbean who spoke a French patois better than he spoke English, and a skinny retarded kid named GretzkyBoy who had been hired for the tax-break the government offered for employing the disabled. "Em GretzkyBoy! Ah love you!" he introduced himself, hugging us.
"Beard, is we have run out from having olives!" said the Caribbean in a low, rumbling voice like thunder. "Where do my olives? Fuck fuck, I kill you, Beard -- I have no any the olives!"
"Cowboy, run to the store and get Calypso some olives," Beard said, laughing, and Cowboy scurried off.
"I kill Beard," grinned Calypso.
Beard whispered to me: "I'm never quite sure how seriously to take him." I looked shocked, so Beard smiled. "I'm just pulling your leg. He's a lamb."
"Fuck fuck I kill you," said Calypso, turning back to his work.
My duties were outlined to me: I would be paid the student minimum wage to work the till, heating up pre-cooked gourmet snacks for clients and answering questions about the ingredients. "If there are no customers, don't worry -- there's always something you can be doing. Sweep the floor, wash the windows, clean the counter, or help GretzkyBoy do the dishes. If you can't find anything to do, ask."
"Yessir," I replied.
"I told you, call me Beard."
"Okay, Beard. Sorry."
And so work began. Cowboy and I spent our days in a broken school and our nights serving Quiche Lorraine to tired-looking broadcast journalists from the CBC. After our first two weeks, Beard didn't show up anymore, trusting us to do our jobs without supervision. I received my first paycheque, and opened up a bank account for the purposes of cashing it.
I bought a subscription to Heavy Metal magazine, an illustrated fantasy periodical featuring cool graphic novellas from all around the world, and Cowboy bought a lump of Afghani hash.
If it had stopped there, we would've been fine.
But the ingredients had lined themselves up in Cowboy's mind: we had money, but not very much; we had a beginner's knowledge of locksmithing, and a penchant for tomfoolery; we had great scads of unsupervised time, especially on Wednesdays, and Cowboy had some kind of an itch to scratch that I was too immature to recognise.
When all the pieces were assembled in his mind, a nefarious plot took shape.
And I followed him. Too far.
Plotting while Bobbing
A cold wind blew out of the north. I shivered, letting the wind remind me of the winter to come. I smelled snow.
At my feet were mounds of crispy autumn leaves raked into high, twin banks in the gutters of the street. I was pushing lazily through the bank on one side of the street, and Cowboy was pushing through the bank on the other, both of us casting little explosions of spinning disorder behind us as we undid what some weekend chore had done, wading carelessly through what had been carefully made. We enjoyed the noise best -- swish, swish, swish.
Cowboy was pulling an empty wagon. It had contained slim crates of oranges and grapefruit, but Cowboy had dumped them into a ravine. He had been complaining a lot about how heavy the wagon was, but now he whistled.
Everybody at Spectrum was selling citrus to raise money for the school. The idea was this: we went door to door in pairs and asked people to pledge money for the school. In return, we were to come back and deliver a crate of complimentary fruit Moonchild had acquired from a sympathetic wholesaler. So, you could either look at it as paying up front for cheap produce, or getting a gift for your donation. Either way, Cowboy decided that pulling the wagon around was too steep a price to pay. "We already have their money," Cowboy said. "What's the point of busting our asses now?"
I told him I'd be willing to pull for a while, but he vetoed this idea by suddenly overturning the wagon at the side of the road. We both watched the crates bounce open and spill little parades of rolling fruit down the hill and into the bushes. "Nobody pulls," he declared. "Problem solved."
We went to Cowboy's place to fart around for a few hours before work. He lived in a condominium that had a swimming pool in the basement nobody ever used, and Sleepy, the friendly security guard who lived at the front desk always gave Cowboy and I the key even though we weren't being supervised by an adult. The key opened the door to the swimming pool, and every door in between. Sleepy was supposed to escort people to the pool if they didn't have their own building keys, but he was too lazy. He was an older man with a red nose and whispy grey hair, pink and blue watery eyes and a chin that looked like wet paper. He told us he was from Russia.
"In Rossia," he told us, "there are never pools in the building. And if there are, they have no water."
So, we had a swim in the pool. It had plenty of refreshingly cool water, and even a small hot tub. We drifted on our backs with noodle floaters under our arms and legs. "So, when's the next episode of Deity due?" asked Cowboy lazily. "Are you working on it yet? Because I've finished the last one already."
Cowboy was asking about a series of stories I was writing about a snarky, time-travelling adolescent hero granted a gamut of supernatural powers with which to battle the forces of evil by an otherworldly organisation contracted out by modern deities to see their earthly matters done. The series was called The Deity of Utter Coolness and it was unadulterated bat guano from stem to stern, the puerile fantasies of a pop-saturated thirteen year old nerd who thought he could ape Douglas Adams.
But Cowboy ate the stories up like they were candy.
The style and some of the content was highly derivative of Harry Harrison's The Stainless Steel Rat, as well, a series of pulpy sci-fi novels following the misadventures of master criminal James Bolivar DiGriz. This air of homage was called upon whenever our teen godlet was required to be sneaky, or nefarious, or forced to take extra- or counter-legal measures. It was these parts that fascinated Cowboy in particular.
So I wrote more, influenced by Cowboy's encouragements or apathy. He became the reader in my mind, and the stories took on the shape of his tastes. More fights, more killing, more criminality and rebellion. Less detail about the layouts of spaceships, or theories about the shape of the universe. More sassy quips and making out with chicks. More explosions.
But as we floated in the forgotten pool promises of more to come weren't enough to satisfy Cowboy. He wanted spoilers.
I drifted around and looked at the dancing caustic reflections on the ceiling, making it up as I went along. "I'm thinking about a kind of Robin Hood routine, where Agent Cheeseburger steals from the rich to give to the poor. Lots of lock-picking and alarm disarmamement and, like, spy stuff."
"That sounds really cool," came Cowboy's echoey, disembodied voice. "Is that redhead really dead?"
"Yeah, she's really dead."
"So Cheeseburger will need a new girl," suggested Cowboy.
"Sure," I said.
"Maybe a blonde."
"Okay," I agreed.
I heard Cowboy swim to the side of the pool and splish halfway out. He was checking his watch. "Fuck damn it, Brown -- we're late for work!"
Beard yelled at Cowboy when we got there. Beard had someplace else to be and we'd made him late. He unleashed a torrent of shame and cruelty at Cowboy as I stood there beside him, Cowboy absorbing it silently while I prayed Beard wouldn't so much as look at me. His face turned white, then red. He'd been grouching at everybody else until we'd arrived, so everyone was in a pissy mood. "I kill Beard!" promised Calypso.
"You bad man," commented GretzkyBoy as he scrubbed the pots sullenly in the corner. "Ah don't love you anymore, Beard! Ah don't!"
"Shut up," said Beard as he gathered his things and sped out the back door. A red Ferrari with tinted windows was waiting there. Beard climbed in the passenger seat and the car roared away, screeching as it turned out of the alley.
The screeching scared GretzkyBoy. He started violently and smashed a dish, backing away from the sink and beginning to sob. "Em sorry, Beard!" he cried pitifully, twisting his apron in his hands. "Ah still love you. Em sorry ah was mean to you!" the poor retard wailed. He always thought everything was his fault.
"It's not your fault, GretzkyBoy," we all moaned at once.
There weren't any catering deliveries tonight, so it wasn't long before Calypso and GretzkyBoy went home for the day. As soon as they were gone Cowboy gave up all pretense of working. "I just don't feel like working tonight," he said as he shrugged, kicking a piece of paper around the floor. "Let's go next door and play videogames."
"But what if somebody comes to the shop, Cowboy?"
He shrugged again, and started to leave. "It's not a very busy night."
"Still..." I hovered at my post behind the counter.
"Let 'em eat McDonald's. Fuck 'em. My dad'll never know."
I sighed, and untied my apron.
The Unbidden Confession
Cowboy wasn't at school the next day. Or the day after.
When I went to work that night Beard told me that Cowboy wasn't feeling well. I had to walk to the back of the shop to find anyone. Beard was standing at the back door, talking to a fussy-looking thin bearded man in a suit. "This is my friend The Asker," introduced Beard. "Asker, this is Cowboy's friend CheeseburgerBrown."
"How nice to finally meet you after hearing so much," said the bearded me in a friendly, quiet voice. He gave me a tight little smile.
Beard explained that The Asker was going to help us out on a big catering job tonight -- a gala was being held at the CBC in honour of country crooner Tommy Hunter, and being one set of hands short was a critical loss. Even Calypso would be leaving his post in the kitchen to help ferry heated trays from the cars to the studio. But he wasn't happy about it. "This no me propa work, Beard," said Calypso grumpily. "Fuck fuck I kill you."
GretzkyBoy showed me how to light the little gas burners under the metal serving trays. "Caful!" he admonished me when I moved too quickly; "fire is hot, always be caful. Hot fire."
"Thanks, Gretzkyboy. I think I have it now."
"Okay, ah love you!"
Tommy Hunter was very nice, and even asked my name after declaring that I had exemplary manners "for a young person." I had been explaining to him what was in each of the mini-quiches, and describing at his behest how we glazed the danishs with egg-whites. He was also quite taken with GretzkyBoy, who had taken to dancing spasmodically in front of the giant speakers that were piping in canned country music. "Look at that boy go!" Tommy said with a whistle.
It was late by the time we'd finished, so Beard offered to drive me home. Staring intently at the red stoplight before us he tapped on the steering wheel and told me that I had by now no doubt noticed how his shelves back at the condo were filled with books about being homosexual.
I hadn't, actually. But I said, "Yeah."
"That's because I'm gay," Beard said, accelerating through the intersection and keeping his eyes locked dead ahead. "That man you met tonight, The Asker, he's my partner. He's my boyfriend."
"I see," I said. It was raining outside.
"I'm telling you this because I think Cowboy is embarrassed, and he's trying to fix it so that you don't find out." Beard snapped on the windshield wipers and turned onto the Bayview Extension North. "I don't like to play games," he claimed. "That's why I'm just coming out and telling you now."
"Thank you," I said, feeling a bit dumb about it. Outside, dark trees whipped by.
"Does that make you feel uncomfortable?" he asked after a pause. I wondered if he meant his telling me he was gay (which did) or his being gay (which didn't). I opted for the second interpretation.
"Not at all," I said. "I don't mean to be rude, but why should I even care?"
"Well, Cowboy cares," said Beard.
I didn't know what came next but we weren't quite at my house yet, so I went out on a limb and simply said, "I understand."
(I understand. It's a useful phrase. Even when you don't.)
Beard seemed satisfied. I gave him the next chapter of The Deity of Utter Coolness from my bag, and he promised he'd give it to Cowboy. We pulled into my mother's driveway. "It's not about Devil worship, is it?" he challenged suddenly and fiercely. "You're not giving my boy ideas now, are you?" he demanded, eyes wide and hostile.
I drew back, startled. Beard guffawed. "I'm just pulling you leg, son. Relax," he said. I tried to smile as I opened the door to get out. Beard continued to laugh.
"Thanks for the ride," I said. "And don't worry: it's not about Devil worship."
"Aw, forget it," said Beard, switching into reverse. "Nobody ever got a bad idea out of a book that wasn't already in their own head, anyway."
The Plan: Phase I
The telephone rang. It was Cowboy. "I just finished reading Deity," he gushed ahead; "and it gave me the best idea!"
I was sitting at the kitchen table at my dad's house, painting a watercolour picture of a cool spaceship. I was eating pretzels. So, I laboured to crunch up my current mouthful before mumbling, "Thanksph." I swallowed painfully, then added: "What idea?"
"Okay, well you know how when Agent Cheeseburger was breaking into those warehouses his whole thing was like 'make sure they never know you were there' and all that? How the best way to avoid being caught is making sure the victim doesn't know they're a victim at all? That's what I think we should do."
"You think we should break into warehouses?"
"No, stupid. Into apartments. And nobody would ever know we were there."
"How?" I asked, scoffing.
Cowboy explained. He'd given the matter a lot of thought. The Plan was very complicated in its preparatory stages, and in my opinion held a high likelihood of falling apart before it was even well underway. It was on this basis that I agreed to entertain Cowboy's notion -- it was my firm belief that, like when he suggested we collectively migrate our desks across Hoda's classroom -- it was all talk.
Cowboy wanted to entertain a fantasy of advanced criminality. So what? I thought.
Besides, being sneaky is fun. "When do we begin Phase I?" I asked.
Wednesday came and Cowboy and I set off on our Independent Field-Trip to his building. "Can we swim today, Sleepy?" we asked. Sleepy produced the usual key. "We have to make a video for school about water safety," Cowboy told Sleepy. "Wanna come help us?"
"I can't," sighed Sleepy. "I can't leave my desk for too long. I have to hold down the fort, ha ha."
"Is it okay for me to use the camera in there?" I asked, showing him the camcorder in my knapsack.
"Yeah sure, who cares?" shrugged Sleepy, yawning. He rasped his hand along the stubble on his chin, his eyes flitting to the drawer of his desk. On the PC in front of him a game of cards was on display, paused mid-play in glowing green on black. "You boys get going," he said.
I swam, but Cowboy didn't. He sat on the side and pretended to be filming me with the camcorder, just in case Sleepy happened to glance at one of his security monitors. There were no audio feeds, however, so we felt safe to talk about The Plan.
We didn't return the key to Sleepy. That was a part of The Plan. We took the service elevator back up to Cowboy's place, and when it was time for me to go home I took the stairs down and exited out back.
After school the next day we returned. We had a crisis, we explained to Sleepy. Our footage had not come out, and our project was due the next day: we urgently needed to reshoot our video. "You never brought back to me the key!" accused Sleepy.
"Aw shit!" swore Cowboy.
"I forgot it at my house," I sighed. "I'm an idiot!"
"What are we going to do?" wailed Cowboy.
Actually, we knew exactly what would happen. In the ten months we had been enjoying the pool off and on we had already forgotten to return the key once: Sleepy simply loaned us the key's big brother -- the famous Master Key. While the usual key opened every common door in the building, the master key opened every private door as well. As expected, Sleepy produced the master key and then gave us the same speech he'd given us last time: "You bring this back to me in five minutes. When you want to leave the pool you buzz the security intercom. You don't show this to anyone. You boys understand?"
"Yessir," we said.
It took less than one minute to get downstairs and open the doors leading to the pool area when we took it at a run. Then, in the changing room, we did as our friendly neighbourhood locksmith had so willingly demonstrated for us: we took a wax mold of the master key. Two molds, actually, just in case one was imperfect. One impression went in Cowboy's bag, and one went in mine. Then Cowboy propped the doors open while I scampered back to the lobby to return the key to Sleepy. "That was fast!" he commented, stowing a silver flask in his lap.
I promised to return the forgotten common door key the next day, which I did.
The Plan: Phase II
I admit it: I tried to sabotage Phase II. I put my mold in the microwave for a few seconds, watching it soften through the window. When I took it out the impression was still there but the edges were rounded and blurry. I was fairly pleased with myself. "I don't know how it happened, Cowboy!" I rehearsed.
I was even more pleased when Cowboy mournfully showed me his mold, which had cracked in two. "I don't know how it happened," he said. "But I think we can fix it."
We were sitting on the gravel and tar roof of the Pizza Pizza overlooking Yonge and Eglinton, idly picking sequins off of the massive orange sign and watching them twinkle down to the sidewalk below. Cowboy spit on someone, and then dug into his knapsack and pulled out a stack of office supplies including carbon paper and a sheaf of letterhead for the Toronto Board of Education. The sheaf had been purloined while Cowboy was doing the secretarial shift at school. "Here's the paper."
I shoved it away. "I'll do the letter tonight. Our appointment is for two o'clock tomorrow."
"I'll fix the mold after school," Cowboy nodded.
The next afternoon we went to the locksmith's. He was cutting house-keys for some old lady so we loitered around for a while. When the smith could see us he wanted to know how our project was coming along, or whether or not it had already been handed in. "It's due really soon, actually," said Cowboy, looking worried.
"We were pretty much done," I added; "but the thing is now we've seen some of the other kids' presentations, and they were really awesome. Now we feel like ours might be kinda boring, in comparison."
"I see," said the smith, nodding sympathetically. "You need to add some wow."
"Exactly," smiled Cowboy.
"What have you got in mind?"
So we explained. We explained how we thought we could wow everyone by reproducing a key to the school itself, and using it in a school door before their very eyes. Intrigued, the smith leaned in closer. We had acquired permission to attempt just such a stunt, in fact, and the faculty was excited to see if the smith's art could meet the challenge. However, due to the potential security concerns involved the smith had to sign a letter from the Board of Education swearing to make only a single key from the wax mold, and that the mold would be destroyed afterward. That single key would ultimately end up in the possession of the faculty, the letter assured. No one wanted a key to the school falling into the wrong hands, the letter warned. "It's kind of a big deal," I apologised. "You know how adults are."
The letter was accompanied by another letter, a thank you letter, which expressed the appreciation of the students and faculty for the smith's generosity in sharing his time, resources and experience in the name of education. This was printed on school letterhead, and signed by Cowboy and I under various pseudonyms.
That's the letter the smith put up on his wall, next to the first dollar he'd earned when he came to Canada.
The other letter, of course, he signed. We kept the original and gave him the carbon. It was all very businesslike. "Now let's see that mold!" the smith crowed. His face fell when he saw it. "It's been broken!" he knew instantly. Still, he was a man who loved a challenge. He rubbed his hands together. "Let's see what we can do!"
The first key produced did not work. Cowboy tried it on his own front door.
The second did not work either. When we went back to the smith's he told us regretfully that he would try just one time more. He would have to admit defeat in the challenge, he sighed, on account of a faulty mold. "I haven't made a key from a wax impression in years," he confessed. "This is probably as good as it gets."
That night the telephone rang, late. My mother grumbled. I picked it up. Cowboy was whispering. "CheeseburgerBrown, it works! It works, fuck damn it, it actually works!"
"The key, stupid!"
"Ooh. You tried it on your door?" I asked, leaning into the receiver and training the phone extension as far away from my mom as I could.
"No. I tried it on somebody else's door."
"I don't know. I'm in their apartment now."
"No you're not."
"Seriously, I am. I'm using their phone."
"Holy shit! What are you doing?"
"I'm just looking around, and stuff. It's really cool. You have to try this."
"I don't know, man..." I said apprehensively. "I think you should probably get out of there."
"You pussy. I'm going to go check out another place. Talk to ya later." He hung up. I was leaning against the sink in my mother's kitchen, staring at the tiles on the floor. Was Cowboy shitting me?
I swallowed. I shivered. I felt weird. I was too young to recognise the smell of shit creek...and besides, I thought I had a paddle.
The Plan: Phase III
One of Sleepy's jobs was to keep track of which residents at Cowboy's building were away when, and to collect their mail and newspapers for them. Oftentimes he used little pink sticky notes for this purpose, but during the holiday season he was forced to manage the schedule using the PC on his desk. It had a calendar programme.
When Sleepy left his desk or was off duty he used a little snub-nosed key to lock the keyboard out of the system, thereby crippling access to the computer.
This was a function built-in to many PCs at that time, including the one my step-father kept in the basement at home. My step-father would lock out the keyboard when computer privileges had been suspended for one reason or another, because me or one of my four siblings had broken a rule and were being punished. It was usually my brother Isosceles Cat. When I sat down at the computer to add to the chronicles of The Deity of Utter Coolness I usually found the keyboard dead and had to roll my eyes and ask my brother what he'd done. "Nothing," he'd claim. "It was so unfair." Then I'd go ask my step-father for the key to unlock the PC.
One day when Isosceles Cat was being punished for raising hell and my step-father wasn't home I opened up the PC and figured out which wire to disconnect to cut the locking control out of the loop and regain access to the keyboard. It wasn't hard. I don't know anything about electronics. There were only two wires to choose from.
I applied this knowledge to Sleepy's PC one afternoon, when Cowboy made Sleepy get up to see a mysterious pool of blood in the pool changing room. (It was fake blood, costing about two bucks at the joke shop. It was a very small pool.) Sleepy returned and called the janitor.
Later that night Cowboy stole down to the PC which Sleepy had "locked" with a by-passed lock. The little icon of a padlock lit up alright, but the keyboard still worked. Cowboy jotted down the schedule for penthouse residents who would be away over the holidays and then turned the computer off again.
"Why just the penthouses?" I asked out of curiosity.
"Rob from the rich to give to the poor," said Cowboy. "Just like Agent Cheeseburger Beer, in the story."
"But we're not poor," I pointed out. "Our parents have money and besides we both have jobs."
Cowboy shrugged, lighting up a cigarette. "I never have any money," he said. He was still new to cigarette smoking, so he did a lot of coughing. "Fuck damn it," he said. "I almost threw up."
I think I almost threw up, too. We were on Cowboy's balcony, shivering in the late autumn wind. His dad was at the shop. The sun was setting behind buildings, without fanfare or colour. In just a short time I would be expected to follow Cowboy -- into other people's homes.
I had tried closing my eyes and hoping it would go away, but it wouldn't. Here I was, living on the cusp of the final phase. I shivered.
The Plan: Phase IV
Cowboy unlocked the door and I stepped through after him. Inside was dark. The door closed behind me. Cowboy turned on a lamp. Wordlessly, we began to wander around the stranger's penthouse.
Of course, he wasn't a total stranger. We knew his name, and that he would be away in France until January. By invading his home we learned that he collected fine art in the way of sculpture. He enjoyed oriental cooking, but also kept gourmet hamburger patties in the freezer. Cowboy and I each took some crackers and brie to munch on as we split up.
I felt like I was in a museum. I tried not to touch anything.
It also felt very, very wrong. I already felt bad for this guy, and we hadn't even taken anything. Just being there, violating his space, was grievous.
"Hey, Brown!" Cowboy called me into the bedroom. He had opened the bedside table and found a stack of wallets, each filled with the paper and plastic currency of a different country. The United States, Hong Kong, Taiwan, England, the United Kingdom, Australia, Italy, Chile, Canada...
Cowboy grabbed the Canadian and American wallets. "No way," I shook my head. "That's not a light touch. You think he won't notice his Canadian wallet missing when he comes home to Canada?"
"So...what?" asked Cowboy.
"Take half the cash from every wallet except Canada. We'll have it changed."
"We need credit cards."
"Take one American credit card."
We put everything back the way we'd found it. We turned off the lights and slipped out of the penthouse. "Which one next?" prompted Cowboy.
"Are you nuts? We just lifted thousands of dollars. Why the hell would we need to hit another place?" I shook my head again. "We should quit while we're ahead. Anything could go wrong anytime. Let's get the fuck out of here now."
"Just one more place," he said, walking down the hall and opening another door.
In the next penthouse he took a gold watch, and a picture of a woman that he said was "hot." I bargained him down to just these two items, but once outside he wanted to see another penthouse. "No fucking way!" I told him.
"Okay, you go back to my place. I'm going to check out a few more places and then I'll meet up with you."
So I did. I wandered along the shelves in Cowboy's livingroom, this time noting the running theme along the spines of his father's books. Gay indeed, I noted. I was nervous. I was giddy. I was sure the next sign I would hear would be trouble. I stashed our stash under Cowboy's bed, just in case I was confronted.
But twenty minutes later he came back, grinning. "Holy shit!" he exclaimed. "The last place I was in somebody was there!"
"Jesus! Did they see you?"
"No, this chick was sleeping. I didn't see her. I sat down on the edge of the bed and she moved and I was like 'holy shit!' and I got the fuck out."
"I know, eh?" he laughed.
"You know what this means? It means we can't trust the list," I said, pointing to the folded holiday schedule teefed from the PCs innards, lying carelessly on Cowboy's desk.
His face fell. "Why?"
"Because obviously people loan their keys out to friends. We can't risk it. We quit while we're ahead. Isn't that what Cheeseburger Beer did? That's what we agreed to do. We quit while we're ahead."
Cowboy didn't respond. I got up and grabbed his lighter. I lit the holiday schedule on fire and then stuffed it out the window. Then I threw the copy of the master key out of the window, too. "What the fuck?" Cowboy screeched, surging to his feet. He punched me in the arm, hard. "What the fuck!" he repeated.
I eventually calmed him down by showing him the scads of foreign currency we had. We sorted it into piles by origin and denomination. "We'll hit one money changer per currency, and tell them each we've just come back from a trip to wherever the money's from."
"How much do you think we have?" he asked, squinting at the Italian lire.
"Loads," I said. When we did change the money it turned out we had just over four thousand dollars Canadian. The credit card had a five thousand dollar limit. We typed up a note from our "father" explaining how we, his sons, had been granted the use of his card to do our holiday shopping. The signature on the back of the card was faded, so we drew a new one on and then copied that signature onto the letter. "What now?" I asked.
"Now," smiled Cowboy, "comes the Great Cowboy and CheeseburgerBrown Shopping Spree."
The Great Cowboy and CheeseburgerBrown Shopping Spree
The next day was a Saturday. I took the subway down to Cowboy's building and then we took a taxicab to the long glass atrium of the Eaton Centre at Yonge and Dundas. We bought remote control cars, and then batteries. We put the batteries in the remote control cars and then raced them around the mall until the security guards told us to stop. Then we raced them into traffic, to see whose car could J-walk Yonge Street the most times. Both our cars were creamed on the first green light.
"Fuck damn it!" exclaimed Cowboy. "Now we're going to need new cars."
So, we bought two more. They were reduced to shards of plastic and spinning bits of breadboard on the Dundas Street trolley tracks, little rubber wheels bouncing off into the gutter. "Cool!" we cheered.
We drove remote control cars off of high buildings, and we tried to drive them across the raised highway of the Gardiner Expressway. We raced them down the pier and into the harbour. We put our last set of cars on the subway tracks, then boarded the last car on the train; as we pulled out of the station we tried to see how far the cars could keep up with us. They were quickly lost to the tunnel darkness, the indicators on our remote control handsets fading to black. So, we threw them in the garbage at the next station.
We actually did some legitimate Christmas shopping, too. Or at least I did. I looked at my bank passbook to find out how much money my job at the gourmet shop had earned me to date, divided the number by the number of family gifts I wanted to buy, and thus decided how much of our loot to spend in order to keep my cover story -- that I spent all my earnings on gifts -- within the realm of credulity. I bought my dad-parents a multi-disc ghetto blaster and I bought my mom-parents a fancy packaged collection of Bach recordings. I bought toys for my host of siblings, and matching striped scarves and mittens for everyone.
Cowboy bought himself a bunch of cool movies on VHS tape, like Aliens and Predator. He also bought himself a Sony Discman, fancy earphones marketed to black boys and about a dozen CDs. He was fond of the soundtrack to The Rocky Horror Picture Show so he bought three different versions -- two screen, one stage.
We ate dinner at Mr Greenjeans. We played out a neat sketch for the waitress in which we asked her guiltily whether or not she thought we should use our father's credit card to eat since technically we were only supposed to shop. "But we've been Christmas shopping all day and we're really hungry," said Cowboy sadly.
"I'm sure your dad won't be mad," said the waitress sympathetically. "He doesn't expect you so starve, after all, does he?"
"No," I admitted. "I guess not."
After dinner I sat on a bench and ate a chocolate bar while Cowboy wandered through the crowd at Dundas and Yonge mouthing the word "hash" with exaggerated sussurusing. It wasn't long before a skinny black guy caught his eye and they both walked over to the stairs to the subway. They disappeared. Cowboy emerged a moment later with a grin of satisfaction on his face. "Got it," he told me. "Are you going to try it with me this time?"
"I'm not sure," I said.
We took a cab up to the liquor store at Summerhill and then loitered in the parking lot looking for someone to get beer for us (an activity known as "shoulder tapping"). Cowboy had shoulder tapped before, but I had not. I let him do the talking. We were turned down three or four times until Cowboy sweetened the deal by offering a fifty dollar bill and inviting the shoulder tappee to keep the change. That worked. In ten minutes we had a case of twelve cold beer. We hailed another cab and rode it to the park by Cowboy's condominium. We went into a nearby underground garage to get out of the bitter autumn wind.
We cracked open a beer each and began to drink. Cowboy pounded his down by chugging and opened another. After he did this a third time he threw up a torrent of watery orange curd in the stairwell were we sat. "I drank too fast," he chuckled. So, we were obliged to move to a new squat. I chose a narrow alley between two flat-tired cars covered in a thick layer of dust, unlikely in my opinion to be disturbed tonight of all nights. Cowboy burped.
He took out the little lump of blackish-brown tar and began to rub it between his fingers to soften it. Then he tore off a series of flat specks and arrayed them along the top of the beer case, which we were using as a sort of table. He dropped a dime into the juice bottle he'd bought after pouring the juice out. Then he set to whacking the bottle against the sole of his shoe in a swinging, circular motion.
The bottle shattered. "Fuck damn it," said Cowboy.
The second attempt worked, the dime popping through to form a neat hole near the base. Cowboy lit a cigarette and blew on the tip until it was pointed and orange. Then he dabbed at the specks of hash until one stuck to the cigarette. He inserted it into the bottle and tilted it to the magic angle, the tobacco smoke running out the open top while the hashish smoke collected heavily at the bottom.
Cowboy offered me the first one. I took a swig of my beer and then a deep breath. I nodded and he put the bottle to my lips. I sucked.
Nothing much happened, although I coughed. "It takes a lot the first time," said Cowboy as he patiently brewed up more. He took his and then gave me another. We opened new beers and had a third and fourth round of smoke, too.
"I still don't think I feel anything..." I said, but trailed off. I was feeling a bit strange. My voice seemed partially out of my control, like I was listening to someone else decide what to say. "But I do feel a little funny, I guess," I finished and then started to giggle.
Cowboy giggled, too. "Sometimes it's hard to remember what you're saying," he said.
"...What?" I asked.
"I don't remember," he confessed, cooking up more specks of hash.
And the world became weird. It became smaller without claustrophobia -- the objects around us became somehow more intimate. I lost myself in the details of random bits of gravel on the faded asphalt, and it felt like a million years before Cowboy called me back, offering me another bottle of hazy smoke. I sucked it back and my attention was swallowed by a series of dirty yellow stripes on the wall. "Everything is capturing me," I said dreamily.
"What?" asked Cowboy.
"I don't know what I just said," I said. We both laughed.
Eventually I became concerned about the time. I thought it was midnight. I thought we had been crouching over the beer case between the two abandoned cars in that quiet lot for hours upon hours, executing the same circular ritual of brew and smoke and laugh. "It's only been half an hour," snickered Cowboy as he consulted his watch. "Time slows down when you're stoned."
"That's impossible -- maybe your watch is fucked up," I suggested.
"If we'd been out here longer we'd be freezing. Are you freezing?"
I felt my right arm with my left hand. "I guess not."
"Hashish magic!" declared Cowboy, opening another beer. And the ritual resumed. When we finally did become cold it took us a long time to figure out all the steps necessary to leave. When we did leave we had to go back for the forgotten case of beer.
Our journey down the block and across the street to Cowboy's building was a trek of many chapters, spanning hours of mental time as we fought to make sense of the mundane. "This sidewalk goes on forever," noted Cowboy. Forever was a common theme. The Don't Walk sign took forever to change to Walk, too. It took us forever to carefully ford the road, rows of growling and (obviously) menacing cars crouching in wait to maim us. I looked at the faces of the (clearly) blood-thirsty drivers waiting behind the wheels. "Everybody knows we're stoned," I squeaked.
"No they don't," said Cowboy. "Come on. Hurry up."
And on and on. School was out for the holidays and our shopping spree continued Monday among the Christmas crowds. I bought a library of Isaac Asimov science-fiction whodunnit? novels, and a grey fedora. Cowboy bought a leather belt and boots and a cowboy hat. We bought ridiculous nosewarmers for everyone we knew. Cowboy bought a Zippo lighter and a cigarette case, and I bought a hobby kit model of the Millennium Falcon. Cowboy bought a hunting knife. I bought new long-life batteries for my camcorder. Cowboy bought a giant hologram of a wolf spider, and I bought a black cherry ice cream cone.
At work on Tuesday night Cowboy started flipping through the Yellow Pages. "We've got to find cooler stores," he informed me brusquely. "I'm sick of fucking malls. What do you say, Brown?"
I put my hands in my pockets and looked at my shoes. "I think we're ahead."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean I think we're really ahead now, and it's time to quit."
He looked at me as if I were insane. "Are you fucking serious?"
He scoffed, and turned his attention back to the Yellow Pages. "Whatever," he said.
"Something's going to go wrong. We're going to get caught."
He looked up at me with cold eyes. "Fine. You do what you want. Give me the fucking money." His tone was challenging and his pose was suddenly aggressive.
I pulled out my wallet and handed him the remaining cash and my family membership pass for the local video store, stripe-side up. He accepted them without question and stuffed them into his front pocket in a wad.
"Happy now?" he spat.
"I guess," I said.
Cowboy was working the back, and I was supposed to be working the front. So I wandered back out front and took a seat by the till. I ate a small blueberry danish pensively. Then I took the stolen credit card out of my wallet and folded it back and forth until it broke into several warped, discoloured shards. Then I ate a small quiche.
I pulled my fedora down over my eyes and sighed, slouching at the counter.
Crime and Punishment
No event is an island.
Like in a story, one thing leads to another -- but not always the way you'd think. The causal apparatus is a web, not a chain. Sometimes the threads find strange intersections, and realise a fate by stage left rather than stage right. When the only direction to go is down, however, it ceases to matter: it all unweaves toward a common end.
Cowboy's life contained many leaks and sooner or later somebody was bound to notice the pool. It was just a matter of how, and when.
Christmas came and went, and with it most of my ill-gotten loot in the form of gifts. My family was touched that I would liquidate all my hard earned wages for them, which made me feel uncomfortable. I changed the subject. My hard earned wages were still in the bank. The remaining treasures I began to show to my parents, letting a week or so go by between each one. Nobody disputed that I deserved to buy myself a few toys with my paycheques. "That's fantastic!" my dad said when he saw the assembled and painted Millennium Falcon model. "I love the laser blasts and scorch marks -- it's all in the details."
It is all in the details. That's hard to deny. But I wasn't privy to the details that mattered, at first.
One February afternoon I was sitting in the basement watching Cowboy's copy of Aliens. My mother was at work and the nanny was upstairs feeding my siblings lunch. I was not at school because I had been suspended for three days because of an incident involving a giant spider-web made out of masquing tape, but that is another story and has already been told, as it is unrelated to the meat this story save to say that it was Poopoolopolis' way of making good on his threat to deliver me some real consequences for acting up. "Next time it will be a lot more than a suspension," he barked at me; "and there had better not be a next time, CheeseburgerBrown. Do you understand?"
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
The telephone rang. I looked at the time and groaned -- the afternoon had waned and I was already late for work! I picked it up. It was Cowboy. "I know, I know -- I'm on my way!" I put in quickly.
"Brown, dude -- he knows. My dad knows."
"About the thieving, about everything..." His tone was pitiable. "They got your name out of me, I'm sorry -- I tried not to...but The Asker got it out of me. I'm so fucking sorry, man."
"Oh, shit," I said numbly. "What should I do?"
"Come to work," Cowboy said grimly and hung up.
What had happened was this: it turned out that Cowboy had never handed in our money from the citrus drive. He had pocketed it. Before Moonchild left on maternity leave the last thing she did was pedal through all the paperwork and figure out who had come up short -- among them, Cowboy and I. Since Cowboy had been the one to sign-in our money and sign-out our fruit, it was he who was questioned at school by Poopoolopolis. Poopoolopolis decided to call Cowboy's father, Beard. Beard had rushed home from the gourmet shop with the idea that he could search Cowboy's room for the missing money. Instead, he found thousands of dollars of loot.
But I didn't know any of this as I rode the subway downtown. As a self-defense mechanism my mind kept drifting off to la-la land, but every few minutes I'd remember what awaited me at work and then I'd break out into a cold sweat. Caught! We're caught! "He knows. My dad knows." I gripped the pole too tight. Smoothing over being suspended with my parents had taken all my powers of persuasion -- getting into this kind of trouble was a depth of dutch I strained to even contemplate.
I could feel my heart beat in my brain. My scalp felt like it was pulsing.
But I was still basically a good kid. If someone called me out to take my lumps, I showed up.
So I arrived at the gourmet shop. Beard was waiting outside, a bulky parka tossed over his chef's whites. His fingers and knuckles looked pink and swollen from cold. His expression was hard but blank. "Come with me," he said, ambling briskly down the street through the slush. I followed wordlessly.
We sat down in a small greasy-spoon diner. "You should order something. It's on me," said Beard inscrutably. I declined, but Beard ordered a cheeseburger.
It arrived quickly. He opened the cheeseburger up and began to meticulously paw over the condiments, arranging them on the patty and bun just so. As he did this he began to quietly speak.
"Obviously this situation has to be dealt with. I am going to arrange to pay the money back anonymously, through my lawyer. Then you and Cowboy are going to work off your debt to me."
He sliced his own pickle and laid out the little circles of green over the cheese.
"I don't see any reason to involve the authorities at this point."
I felt only a miniscule twinge of relief. No police was good, but I was seriously spooked out by Beard's behaviour. He was disturbed but methodical, bristling with some kind of energy but restrained, moving deliberately and slowly, speaking evenly and without emotion. It was creepy. He would arrange to give back the money anonymously? Our punishment was to be working off our debt? Nothing more? It was too weird to be true.
Beard put his cheeseburger back together and then mechanically ate it, eyes on his plate. "You shouldn't blame Cowboy for ratting you out," he told me. "He's very concerned about your being upset with him."
"I never blamed him," I croaked.
"Good. The Asker got it out of him, you understand that? Did Cowboy ever tell you what The Asker does for a living?"
"He interviews people."
"Like on the radio?"
"No. He interviews people on behalf of Revenue Canada. People suspected of tax evasion. He is very good at asking just the right questions." The cheeseburger was already gone, and Beard dabbed at his lips with a paper serviette. "You can't lie to The Asker."
When he'd paid the bill we left and went back to the shop. Cowboy wasn't there. Beard asked me to tally up my hours for the week, which I did. He took the card from me and turned red before he'd even had time to read it, screeching, "Explain to me what the hell all this is about!"
"All what?" I stammered, frightened by his sudden ferocity. He pushed the card in my face and stabbed at my wage with a bandaged index finger. "That's my wage," I rushed to say.
"No it isn't!" he bellowed, throwing the card and standing up to his full, intimidating height. "You've been ripping me off!"
"No I haven't -- what do you mean? You pay me four fifteen per hour, you always have!"
"Bullshit! I pay you four oh five an hour -- you've been stealing from me!" he yelled, and then suddenly turned his back on me. He took a few deep breaths. "So now you'll have to pay me back that money, too," he continued quietly. "Do you understand?"
I was very scared. I said, "Yes beard."
He was not rational. I would say anything to avoid setting him off again. I breathed a sigh of relief when he left the shop. "Beard kill you?" asked Calypso timidly, peering around the wall from the kitchen.
"Yup," I nodded.
"Fuck fuck," said Calypso sympathetically.
The Mad Texan
Now this is where things start to get weird.
Cowboy didn't return to school for the next two days. He called me early in the morning on Valentine's Day, whispering: "Brown -- come over to my place today, okay? Don't go to school, okay?"
I was having breakfast with my family. I pushed my oatmeal around in my bowl, trying to appear casual. "Okay, see you later," I said, and hung up.
My mother frowned, her spidey-sense tingling. "What was that about, honey?"
"Cowboy's sick. He wants me to bring him stuff from school."
So I didn't get off the bus at the stop for Spectrum. I went straight on to Eglinton Station and then south to the waterfront condominiums. I walked from the streetcar to his lobby through a heavy, cold sleet. Cowboy buzzed me up. The door to his place was open, and I slipped in. Cowboy was kneeling on the floor of his room with his back to me, industriously packing clothes into a set of knapsacks. "I'm moving to my mom's house," he said. "Can you help?"
"Yeah," I said. "Sure. What should I do?"
"Carry shit with me on the subway," he said, turning around and giving me a melancholy smile. His face was patched with yellow and purple -- the suburbs of big bruises. One eye was still swollen partly shut. "I can't stay here anymore," he said, shrugging and looking down.
"Did your dad do that to you?"
"Yeah," he said quickly, zipping closed one of the knapsacks. "I'm almost ready to go," he mumbled, looking around the room distractedly. "I don't think I forgot anything that I give a shit about."
"Maybe we should call the police, man," I said. Freezing rain was hissing against the window.
"Been through all that in Texas. Won't do it again," he said, avoiding my eye. "Besides, my dad said that if I tell anyone, he'll turn us in -- for the thieving. So you can't fucking say anything to anyone, okay?" He turned around to hand me one of the knapsacks and a small cardboard box. "That's The Deity of Utter Coolness in there, so try to tape the top closed or something, will you? I don't want it to get wet."
"Yeah," I said. "Sure."
When we got on the streetcar the driver looked at Cowboy's face and said, "I'd hate to see the other guy!" He thought he was being funny, but he wasn't. We transferred to the subway, and then on to a bus. Cowboy's mom lived on the other side of the city. We didn't talk much. It was a long ride.
At one point I noticed a red Ferrari cruising alongside the bus. The Asker? Nonsense! My addled brain was rolling over to paranoia.
Cowboy didn't want me to come inside the house, so I put the box and the knapsack down on the porch. "I'm sorry I fucked everything up, Brown," he said, touching my shoulder. Then he went inside. (I wouldn't see him again for more than a year. But that's another story, and shall be told another time.)
I rode the bus back, swallowing tears.
I got off Mount Pleasant and walked in to Spectrum. In the stairwell I met K. "They're looking for you, CheeseburgerBrown," he told me. "If you don't want to get caught, I'd suggest you turn around."
"Naw," I sighed. "I'd rather get caught, I think." I trudged up the steps past him. "Thanks for the heads-up, though."
"Anytime," said K.
At the top of the stairs I turned into the boys' gallery of lockers. My locker was already open, and standing in front of it were Poopoolopolis and Beard. They were extracting the kipple from the locker item by item, beginning with the hood ornaments and ending with a few little vials of wax. "This could be narcotics," Poopoolopolis was saying as they noticed me. "Ah-ha, CheeseburgerBrown."
"You understand that when you share a locker with someone you forfeit some of your right to privacy," Poopoolopolis lectured. "Cowboy's father has the right to access Cowboy's locker, and so by extension your locker, too."
"Uh-huh," I said.
"I'm sorry, CheeseburgerBrown, but my hands are tied..." Poopoolopolis continued lamely.
"I don't really care," I assured him.
"When you're done," Poopoolopolis said crispy, turning to Beard, "why don't you come down to my office and we can discuss this." Beard nodded and Poopoolopolis left the locker gallery.
I hovered there for a moment, uncertain what to do, or where to go.
Beard looked up at me and spoke, his tone chilling and low: "You will never see my son again." He stared into my eyes fixedly, and then startled me by snarling more loudly: "Never. Again. Do you get that?"
I held his beady eye. "I understand," I told him. Then I walked out.
In no mood to handle class -- even Spectrum's version thereof -- I walked straight back outside again. At the curb: the red Ferrari. The door opened and The Asker stepped out, wiping his moustache fussily. "I want to have a word with you," he said, his voice almost lost to the sound of Eglinton's traffic.
I started to walk the other way.
"Hey!" he called. I turned around and saw him walking down the sidewalk after me, so I bolted into the Pizza Pizza and out the back exit I knew well, through the dingy alley and out to Mount Pleasant. I was just catching my breath when the red Ferrari swung around the corner from Eglinton.
I cut through another alley and then jumped the fences of a few backyards. From a haven behind a shrub I saw the red Ferrari drive down a residential block, so I doubled back to Mount Pleasant and jogged behind a coffee shop to the far bus stop, emerging from the shelter of the shop only as I saw the bus approach.
I sat on the bus, rattled. I looked out the windows but The Asker had disappeared. I couldn't imagine that he meant to do me physical harm, but I'm sure he wanted to ask me a few questions. And the idea of being questioned by The Asker was enough to freak me out. Who only knew what tricks of the interrogator's art he was privy to?
It was The Asker's job to gather information and report back to Beard, and he did. And that's when Beard was transformed into the Mad Texan. Like a Japanimation monster with a second layer of destructive powers, Beard was re-awakened in a new and more savage form when he learned that Cowboy had escaped to his mom's house and that The Asker had seen me helping him ferry his belongings there. Like on Battle of the Planets he became a fiery phoenix of wrath.
I learned this when he began pounding on the front door of my mother's house in the late afternoon, bellowing that I had turned his son against him. "You little shit!" he screamed, kicking the door. "You took him away from me you dumb fucker! Come on out here NOW!"
I did not come out. I made sure every door was locked, and then watched him from an upstairs window. He left just five minutes before our Jamaican nanny got home with my brothers and sisters. My mom came home a quarter hour later. "You look pale, honey," she told me. "Are you okay?"
But I wasn't. I had barely slept at all when my father called me at seven o'clock in the morning. "I just had a very strange phone call from Cowboy's dad," my dad told me. "What in the hell is going on, CheeseburgerBrown?"
Okay. Now I was caught.
It became one of those rare occasions when my mother and father would stand in the same room together. My dad dropped by and my mom hung back from work. I sat on the couch and drank a cup of tea, my hair wet from the shower. My father had arrived while I was washing, so my mother and he had held a private conference in my absence.
I awaited the result.
They began to explain.
"It's obvious that Beard is mentally ill," said my dad. "I mean, he kept interrupting himself to accuse me of recording the phone conversation. It was bizarre. And the things he said...well, he just ranted and raved. He didn't make any sense at all."
"He thinks you convinced Cowboy to go live with his mom," said my mom.
"He said you stole hundreds of dollars from the till at work," said my dad.
"I didn't do either of those things," I told them evenly. "Quite honestly: Cowboy and I have done some bad things, that's true. But I never stole from work, and it was all Cowboy's idea to go to his mom's."
"Why would he want to do that, honey?" my mom asked.
"Because Beard beat him up. Pretty bad. I saw him today and his face is all bruised." I hesitated. "It's happened before, too."
I took a deep breath. I was now prepared to tell my parents the story of what had happened, hoping to build a defensible angle for myself as I went along. But before I could start they both decided that Beard was a nutcase and that his accusations were meaningless raving. They dismissed him as a total crank. I literally had my mouth open to confess as they sighed with relief and started talking about how to deal with the threat of Beard. "Has he ever been to the house?" asked my mom.
"Uh, yeah. He came here yesterday, bashing on the door, yelling."
My mother looked stricken. "Oh honey, why didn't you tell me?"
It was decided that my mother would drive me to school. At the curb on Eglinton she saw me startle at a sight outside of the car. "What is it?" she asked.
I pointed to the red Ferrari. "Beard's boyfriend."
"What's he doing here?"
I got out of the car and started walking down the block. I wanted to draw The Asker out. (I was emboldened by the close proximity of my mommy.)
My mother followed me. When I came into plain view at the front of the school the door of the red Ferrari opened and The Asker stepped out. "CheeseburgerBrown!" he called. "I want to talk to you."
"You stay away from my son!" cried my mother, startling him. He got back into his car and drove away.
"That was really strange," said my mom, furrowing her brow. Yeah, I had the willies, too. "I'm coming in with you. I want to see your principal about this. This is serious, Cheeseburger honey."
When Poopoolopolis and my mom came out of his office I saw the look of satisfaction on his face and I knew that something bad had happened. "CheeseburgerBrown, your mother and I have come to a decision that is for your own good," he said with ill-concealed glee. "We think that given the volatility of this situation with Cowboy's father it would be best for all concerned if you left Spectrum."
My mother said nothing but she nodded, her lips tight.
Poopoolopolis continued, "Now I don't know who stole what licence plates or hood ornaments, but I do know that you and Cowboy were probably up to worse things than vandalism. The point is that I don't know exactly what's happened here, but I do know that you do seem to be at some risk right now. And we can't have that. That's why moving you to another school is the only real option."
"I don't want to move to another school," I said quietly.
"It isn't a decision you're being asked to make," smiled Poopoolopolis.
"It's for your own good, honey," said my mom.
"I'm being expelled for being stalked?" I asked incredulously.
"Try to think of it like a witness protection programme," suggested Poopoolopolis.
He was a sweet guy. Later, it would turn out that he'd been misdirecting inquiring telephone calls, paperwork and funds in a sustained effort to force Spectrum to shut down. He would receive an official reprimand from the union.
But that was in the future. For the time being my mother was convinced that he had only my best interests in mind. "But it makes no sense, mom!" I argued. "Beard knows where I live -- what difference will changing schools make?"
"It's really all for the best," mantraed my mom.
I said good-bye to K. and Rabbit. We had lunch together at Swiss Chalet...with my mom. I collected a few books from my locker, and bid Spectrum adieu. I shuffled down the old, rounded stairs and flopped into my mother's car. "Did you and Cowboy really steal hood ornaments?" my mom asked me.
"Yeah," I said, sighing. "Stupid, eh?"
"Pretty stupid," she agreed, pulling the car into traffic. "But I guess it could've been worse. Some kids experimenting with crime get into real trouble."
"I can only imagine," I said.
Yes, and I once again hopped through all the standard hoops, WRAT-R and WISC-R and the like, to see if my brain had been enfeebled by time in the mangy world outside of the Gifted Programme. They wouldn't let in without an interview this time. I was thirteen, and they wanted to glimpse what kind of a boy I was.
They gave me a retarded questionnaire to fill out beforehand, presenting a series of inane leading questions like "What sorts of TV shows do you prefer? (eg, Sports/Sit-Coms/Sophisticated Educational Programming)" and "What kinds of hobbies do you enjoy? (eg, Sports/Puzzles/Arts & Crafts/Chemistry)"
Oh yeah, I thought, this will weed out the unworthy for sure.
Next came the interview itself. Three old people sat behind a small, friendly school table on orange plastic chairs. There was a woman, a fat man, and a man with a Van Dyke beard. Like all people used to dealing with children or great apes, they made sure to smile a lot so I wouldn't be intimidated. "It's nice to meet you, CheeseburgerBrown," they said. "Please sit down."
Van Dyke flipped through a thin dossier -- my test scores, my completed questionnaire. Then the examiners asked me about including writing among my listed hobbies. "Do you have any writing we can see?" they asked.
"Okay," I said. I piled three fat binders on the desk. "This is The Deity of Utter Coolness. It's a series of adventures about a boy named Cheeseburger Beer with mystical powers who saves the world a lot."
Van Dyke nodded to himself as he flipped through a few pages of the first tome. "Oookay," he concluded. "You're gifted."
The woman dabbed a rubber stamp gingerly into a small ink pad and then slugged it firmly on to my application. She smiled.
"Great," I said. "Uh. Thanks."
Fatty shook my hand.
My new class was a bit like my old class: pretty small, and most of the students had been together for years and years. Trekkie the cute Korean girl made friends with me on the first day, and so did a sweaty, overweight physics buff named Sundae. I met two bulemics with blonde hair, who threw up their lunch. There was Orsino the handsome Greek and Set the mathman and Anastasia the pert and bouncy. Nice kids, nice bunch.
I didn't quite feel that I fit in the way I used to, though.
On Wednesday afternoons we had a period called Study Hall in which we were to sit in the library, doing our homework. A pinch-faced bibliowench checked in on us from time to time, to make sure that nobody was talking or doing something forbidden like listening to headphones. Many other things were forbidden, too. Drawing, for one. Reading non-school books, for another.
One day in spring when the bibliowench was out of sight I opened up the library window. My classmates gasped. "You can't just open that without asking I think," warned Sundae, looking worried. "The heating is still on I think. The building is temperature controlled."
"It's a beautiful day outside," I mentioned.
The bibliowench had just scolded me for reading Isaac Asimov's The Stars, Like Dust during Study Hall. It didn't matter that my homework was finished, and that I didn't have any school books to read. The rule mattered.
And there was a time when I would submit to that kind of authority easily. I wanted authorities to like me. I still did, really. But I was not sufficiently intimidated to bow to literal oafs like the bibliowench -- not when there was a beautiful day to be drenched in outside. Not anymore.
Acting without bounds is a narcotic.
So, I climbed out the window. It was a ground-floor window, so I climbed into a bush. The bush was lush, and I judged it good.
My fellow nerds had come to the window and were standing around the ledge in disbelief. The new kid was not only going to play hookey, but he wasn't even going to use a door to do it. Their attention annoyed me. It wasn't a stunt. I just wanted to be free.
"Temperature controlled," whinnied Sundae from inside. That cinched it.
The world was wider and creepier and rougher that I used to imagine. Being bad was more seductive than I'd imagined, too. I liked being sneaky and patting myself on the back for being clever. I enjoyed being stoned, too. But nobody had to get beaten, and nobody had to get robbed. They were all part of choices I made, in a web of causality I watched unfold.
Willingly, voluntarily, uncoerced.
For a time the great state of Texas of those famous United States enacted an experiment in which the custody of children in divorce cases could be decided by the children themselves. And so it was that Cowboy chose to live with his dad when his mother divorced Beard for beating the boy. (Cowboy's little sister chose her mommy.) Beard moved to Canada, and Cowboy's mother followed.
Over subsequent years Cowboy would repeatedly choose to leave his mother's house in favour of his father's. Most often this ended with a beating. One time when Cowboy couldn't live with either of his parents he came to live with me at my house. But that is another story and shall be told another time.
In my late teens I told my parents a fuller version of these events than that with which they had previously been furnished. If my parents are reading this story they may now consider themselves to be wholly filled in. Hi Mom. Hi Dad.
Eglinton Public School was torn down, and a new school erected in its place. The sign outside says that Spectrum is still there, in one form or another.
Ultimately, Degrassi Junior High was cancelled.
What Art Is | The Wrap Party | Famously Sweaty | Brat Punk Discordia
||IF YOU HAVE ENJOYED READING THIS STORY, PLEASE CONSIDER LEAVING A SMALL TIP. A PAYPAL ACCOUNT IS NOT REQUIRED. THANK YOU VERY MUCH. YOURS TRULY, C. BROWN.