In somewhere half secret inside his heart, Frank wished Chris wasn't white. It was embarrassing for a young black man like Frank to have a white boy for a best friend, but the Negro pickings were slim in Bellwether, Connecticut, where Frank was one of five blacks matriculated at The Bellwether High School for Upper Middle Class Caucasians. Nevertheless, Chris was an excellent example of what white people could achieve when they set their minds to it. Chris listened closely and got most of the allusions. Chris could keep up with the pace of the patter and the pain.
The boys set out on the journey to school along Southridge Road. They saw many wondrous phenomena. They saw small children in their jackets, they saw schoolbuses and birds, they saw houses, they saw the paint jobs on houses. High up in the sky, they saw a cloud in the shape of their math teacher. They heard a distant siren and thought of death. They spoke of all and sundry.
The town's commercial center embraced them curtly as they passed through it. They entered a deli and came out with a pair of bright green electrolyte-replenishment sports beverages that God had not created nor intended to create. They passed the magazine store where they saw, on the cover of a well-known music magazine, a photograph of two middle aged rock stars imitating the famous pose they had struck for the same magazine 25 years earlier. Frank and Chris felt that both these rock stars and this magazine had used to mean something, but now merely made reference to the thing they used to mean without actually meaning it any more.
Frank reached into the wilderness of his backpack and came up with a frayed notebook. The words Everything in the World were printed on the cover of the notebook in Frank's almost typographically neat hand. As the boys walked through the prosthetic heart of Bellwether, Frank flipped to the section entitled Things that look like things that you already know what they look like, stopped walking, and wrote a short description of the magazine cover. This section was getting very long. It took up more than half the notebook. That was because, in the estimation of Frank and Chris, the world was weary of itselfhad trod, had trod, had trod, or whatever; now ground out shoddy reproductions of stuff it used to take pride in producing. Trees, shrubs, cats, people, clouds, and stars were now "trees," "shrubs," "cats," "people," "clouds," "stars." The world was just putting in the hours now, biding its time until retirement, when it would cast off its worldliness and return to someplace void and without form.
"Nigger!" a kid in a car going by shouted.
Frank said, "I'm so glad that gentleman reminded me that I am a nigger. I had forgotten."
Chris said, "I'll remind you next time if you want."
Frank stared at his friend, startled. Chris knew he'd misspoken. Whereas an instant before each boy had been half of a two-man friendship, the one now represented a group that would always commit indelicacies against the group represented by the other. Standing in the school parking lot, they continued to stare at one another, rendered speechless by the power of language.
"Sorry," Chris said.
"Ass," said Frank, and went inside the school.
Chris stayed outside, stunned. He had English but now would blow it off. He was supposed to be reading Catcher in the Rye, he thought, or some other Catcher in the Rye-type disservice to teenagers everywhere. Yes, it was Catcher in the Rye. It had to be. They'd long ago crammed Catcher in the Rye down his throat till he puked. Then they'd crammed Catcher in the Rye plus the puke back down his throat and he puked them up and then they crammed down Catcher in the Rye plus his puked puke and by now it was easier just to swallow. This wasn't Catcher in the Rye's fault. It was probably a halfway decent book, if you were from someplace like Bulgaria and had never heard of it; decent for a book, that is, which wasn't saying much. There was no book that was good. There was no school that was good. There was no family that was good. There was no friend that was good. There was no life that was good.
From The Sleeping Father by Matthew Sharpe - pages 3 to 16 and 22-30. Copyright Matthew Sharpe 2004. All rights reserved. No part of this book maybe reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Soft Skull Press.
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