The suicides didn’t surprise me. I’d vaguely listened to the news that morning. Some kids had locked a garage door, freebased and let the Pinto run. I didn’t know anything about the departed until my mom called, asking, Did you hear? Did you know H and W from town? I knew them, recalled their pimply, not yet man faces from middle school. Wasn’t friends with them, I told her, they ran with a different crowd. I tapped on the counter, staring at the clock until she finished talking. It was my freshman year of college. I had to do library research before meeting underage friends for margaritas. I didn’t care about dead boys who, while living, had humiliated me. I wanted to get her off the phone.
“It’s a shame. Their parents must be reeling.” She sighed.
“They must be,” I agreed. Then I lied, told her the library would close soon so I had to go. We hung up and I sat for a moment, remembering W’s shaggy hair, ripped jeans and muddy combat boots. Part of me wanted to remember more, the rest of me didn’t. I stuffed my folders into my backpack and left.
The next day between classes I ran out on 7th Avenue to grab coffee at a newsstand. The suicides made cover stories, with images of people weeping in the streets, rapt with grief and confusion. I took my coffee with two of the papers and left exact change on the counter. I stood alone under an awning, skimming the stories before my next class. I stopped reading for a moment, trying to remember something. Taxis whizzed past, sirens screamed downtown. I watched the heat rising off my coffee. It made a tiny tornado in the February cold. I tried to relax, concentrate, but the thought wouldn’t surface.
One of the deceased, H, sat next to me in 6th grade math. Most afternoons he would lean way over the side of his desk. He’d get so close I could smell the hamburger with cheap cafeteria ketchup he had for lunch. He’d stare, then growl at me like a dog. Other days he’d sniff me. A few times he feigned a bite and shake, like he was mimicking a feisty dog biting into a rag toy shaking its head in fury, disorienting its inanimate prey. His friend, W, sat on the opposite side of the room. W would step onto his chair and squat. He’d bounce and cackle like a monkey, chortling and pointing at me, entertained by H’s antics.
In winter we’d put on our coats before dismissal from math. My coat was down, puffy, and dirt brown. Sixth grade was not haute couture for me. Really no year was. I didn’t give much thought to fashion, or simply looking pretty. I was a late bloomer. I didn’t care much for girly stuff until high school. I’d shopped for the coat with mom, combing the aisles of Burlington Coat Factory, sweaty and cranky after pulling on 20 parkas.
“Oh! This one will be warm for your walks to school,” Mom said. She took the puffy brown coat off the rack and handed it to me.
“Uh, okay,” I agreed. I tried it on, but didn’t bother to pose in a mirror. I’d already picked out a bunch of coats. Each one I wanted to buy, mom would ask, Are you sure? Of course I was sure, I picked them. She always did that, doubted my decisions. A few rounds of her questioning my certainties and I really wasn’t sure which coat I wanted. Eventually I only wanted to leave the coat graveyard, go home and play Atari.
“Are you sure?” She took the coat from me and held it up.
I shrugged. “I guess.”
She bought it and we drove home.
That coat was hideous. I can’t imagine what she was thinking. It made me look like a burnt sausage about to pop from the casing. Or a linebacker. I’d never considered how unattractive it was until H pulled another afternoon lean-in.
“Big. Ugly. Brown. Coat,” H hissed in my ear, blowing his burger breath. “She wears a Big. Ugly. Brown. Coat.”
It went like this almost every day. It never occurred to me to tell the teacher, Mr. A, a puny, plaid-shirted guy who got so excited explaining algebraic equations he’d leap onto his desk making his lesson plans fly into the front row. I thought of telling him off, but H had an entourage, a bunch of greasy-haired boys in skull and cross bone T-shirts who stayed out late and got caught playing hooky. I couldn’t be sure if they’d retaliate. I should’ve asked to have my seat changed, but I was a spacey kid; there was plenty never crossed my mind.
My face burned with embarrassment. Thirty seconds until the bell. I turned my back to H. Now I faced D, whose brow furrowed when he looked at H, who had reverted to sniffing.
“You should tell the principal.” D suggested. “Why do you let him do that to you?”
D was a calm boy, real tiny for his age and a kick ass gymnast. He liked the drawings I made in the margins of my homework; told me one day at lunch I should be an artist. I promised him I’d be an artist if he promised to try out for the Olympics. We made a deal.
Truth was, I didn’t know why I let H or W treat me that way. Maybe I didn’t know any better. Back then, anti-bullying wasn’t a national campaign. Intimidators got away with all kinds of transgressions, the intimidated endured them. But I’d heard of worse offenses. Like the year before, when J picked up a bunch of those spiky ball things that had fallen from a sweet gum tree and threw them in C’s face. C got stitches across his eyelids and had to wear an eye patch for months. H and W harassed me for sure, but they only went so far.
D shook his head at H. We both looked at the clock. Three seconds. I raced out the door before the bell finished clanging.
W sat next to me in 8th grade English. On the first day of class he picked up where H left off, leaning in and sniffing. Mr. G was burly with a crooked nose, like he’d taken a few in the ring and traded in the gloves for a sports jacket and spectacles. Mr. G knew how to keep a class in line; he told W to stay away from me and mind his own damn business. W, relentless, still taunted me when Mr. G’s back was turned, or when we had a sub. Sniffing was his favorite, though his repertoire included staring, and yanking my ponytail if he was fast enough to reach it. He tried that ponytail shit with me one day when I had PMS. Mr. G was writing on the blackboard, white chalk tapping fast and hard to spell out the homework before the bell. I whipped around, glared at W dead on. I didn’t flinch. The girl in front of W, sweetheart to one of his crew, was watching.
“Dude,” she warned W, “knock it off, man. She ain’t fooling.” For a second I thought she was sarcastic. Her soberness surprised me, but I didn’t let on. I held W’s stormy distrustful eyes. Mr. G turned around, asked W what he thought he was doing. W turned to the front of the room. I kept staring. Mr. G didn’t tell me to stop.
The homework had been to write a restaurant review. I wrote about an out-of-the-way German place my parents had wanted to try. I described the polite waiter, the salty potatoes and the sauerbraten. Mr. G returned the papers and it was a good day. W was absent and I got an A on my review. I swooned over the encouraging notes in red pen: Great job! You’ve pointed out the pros and cons and that made the review balanced! Whispers crawled across the classroom after Mr. G handed everything back: Lucky! Cool! Oh no, I forgot to write about that. Then: Did you hear? I didn’t know what I was supposed to have heard. D told me on the blacktop after school.
“W didn’t do the homework right,” D told me, swinging his backpack over his small shoulder.
“What, he made a bunch of mistakes?” I asked absently, looking for my friend E in the crowd. I wasn’t interested in W’s minutiae. In fact, I had been secretly plotting a way to leave water on W’s chair the day he’d return to school. I wanted to make it look like he’d pissed his torn up Levi’s, but I couldn’t pull it off without getting caught. I waved at E to wait up.
“No, not mistakes,” D explained. “W got suspended. He never wrote the review. He wrote an essay about what it would be like to drop dead.”
Sun shot through my window one April, an angelic glow corrupted by the dust colonies of my neglected room. I was fifteen or sixteen, bored with my still life sketches, heartthrob posters and Teen Beat magazines. It had been a punishing winter, snow so high and stubborn we’d had to dig just to walk out the damn door. I wanted to be outside. I called D.
“I’m gonna walk to that sandwich place behind the billiards. Wanna come?”
“Yeah,” D said, “I want to go but I have a meet.” D was competing now, flipping on parallel bars, holding steady on the still rings. “I’ll be back by two. Can you wait?”
The parking lot behind the billiards was almost empty, the annual church carnival attracting throngs to the other side of town. I showed up early to window shop before D, E and a couple of other friends showed up for sandwiches. I strolled in the quiet, until I heard the yelling.
“Stupid son of a bitch! What have I told you? What have I told you, you fucking idiot!”
I scanned the lot, my heart pounding.
I saw their feet from behind a pickup truck a few yards away. I knew better than to step closer, but I did it anyway. Behind the truck, bawling, eyes wide with terror, was H, with a man who couldn’t have been his father.
“Answer me you idiot!” The man yelled before backhanding H across the face. H cowered. The screaming man shoved H into the cab of the pickup truck, jumped behind the wheel, backed out and screeched past me. I froze. It happened so fast I wondered if it had happened at all. Are you sure? I could hear my mother ask. I was sure of only one thing: the look on H’s face as the pickup roared past. The desperate wanting in his eyes a breathless begging whisper: Please don’t tell.
I never did.
I didn’t see much of H and W in high school. By junior year W had disappeared. Sometimes I’d see H in the hall between classes, hands tucked into the front pockets of faded jeans, metal head jacket over broad shoulders, something wild buried in his eyes. Some might’ve thought him gorgeous. His clothes fell easy over his 6-foot tall frame, and he was no longer pimply. His pool blue eyes and shock of blonde hair were arresting. But he had an emptiness. H never said hello, never smiled. I used to think he’d corner me in the hall, lean in like his 6th grade self and growl at me. He was beyond that, beyond flirting with the lip-glossed cheerleaders in their miniskirts, disinterested in the class clowns telling dirty jokes at their lockers. He disconcerted the toughest jocks on the football team just by sauntering around a corner in a mob of other kids.
Once, in 12th grade, we passed each other, just us two on the senior staircase. I had a hall pass to use the bathroom; who knows where H was headed. He looked straight at me, something he hadn’t done since 6th grade math. I don’t know what the look was, but I knew there was no malice. I wondered if, after that day in the parking lot, we had come to a silent understanding. But I wasn’t sure.
The last time I remember seeing H alive, he was walking down the hall that led to the sidewalk on the south side of the school. He lit a cigarette as he eased the door open with his shoulder. He slipped out with the other burnouts to smoke Camels by the curb in the herd Grateful Dead and AC/DC jackets until the bell rang. He looked out at nothing on the skyline, vacant, like he was already gone.
After we found our first Real Jobs, E came over to whine about work and the end of college. We reminisced: How we rode our banana seat bikes for hours unattended, how we took the bus to the mall and threw pennies in the fountain. We doubled over howling about the sleepovers in high school when we played turnstile records and sang loud and off key. Remember how we blasted Donna Summer and The Police, but no matter the song, V only knew how to do Russian dancing? Remember our big hair? We pulled the yearbook down from my cramped shelf, ready to mock the awkward school pictures of our younger selves, hair frozen high with Aqua Net.
We flung it open, dust flying in our faces, the articles I’d clipped falling out onto the carpet, flattened and sepia. I’d forgotten that I’d folded up the stories about the suicides and stuffed them into the front of my yearbook.
E gasped. “You saved these?” She asked, eyes wide, accusatory. “Why would you save these?” Suddenly she didn’t know me, our shared history of untroubled youth annulled by aging newsprint.
“I… I don’t know why,” I stammered. “I guess I …wanted to know what happened. I forgot I even had these.” I quickly resented myself for trying to explain.
E glared at me, incredulous. I felt guilty under E’s shock, like I’d committed some form of emotional rape by stashing some clippings about people we once knew. I told myself it didn’t matter why I’d saved them. Even I didn’t know the answer. Maybe I wanted to remember, or figure something out. At least I was willing to commit them to memory. E seemed like she preferred to forget.
I was groggy from the night before. It had been a stolen night out at a yokels bar with moms craving an escape from potty training and the clownish puppetry of preschool entertainment. Leaves crackled and spun around my kids’ ankles in the late October wind. I sipped my coffee.
“Look at my, look at my!” My son declared, insisting via erroneous pronoun that I look at him.
“I’m hungry, can we get a snack?” my daughter asked before my son’s last syllable ended. Her needs will not be upstaged by her 3-year-old brother.
“Soon, baby doll,” I said, too lazy to peel myself off the cold stone steps. Besides, I had racing thoughts to quell.
The evening’s conversation bespoke the joys of finishing breastfeeding, the isolation of at-home motherhood and guilty desires for second careers. And people we knew from school.
“H’s mom finally moved out of that house,” V said, shaking her head, eyes on her vodka and tonic. H’s mother had lived in same house long after the suicides. She stayed out of necessity. Her husband had left her long before the Pinto’s carbon monoxide would snuff her older boy, but not before he had beaten her bloody—V knew, they had been neighbors—claiming two teeth with one of his closed fist blows, in front of her sons. She’d had a string of boyfriends since he abandoned them. She did shift work at a book binding factory until her younger boy took off for Alaska.
I remembered that spring day in the billiard’s parking lot. H’s beating likely at the hand of one of his mother’s random trysts. Another beau, another beating, I thought without humor. E nervously twirled the ice in her glass and took a swig. She was ruffled by talk of the tragedy. I had not forgotten her disgust the day she discovered my clippings. I couldn’t help but smirk inwardly. See, I wanted to say, don’t get your trousers in a twist; other people remember it, too.
“Do you know what happened with W’s family?” I asked V, “Didn’t they also live near you?”
“Yes, yes.” She took a sip of her drink. “His mom was never home to begin with. She worked two jobs for a long time, she had to because they had 4 kids and a mortgage. The dad was on the road. He only came home every few days.”
W’s dad had been a truck driver doing long distance hauls, returning home drunk and incendiary. The neighborhood knew he would beat his kids with a brass buckled belt over nothing more than a dirty sock in the living room. He’d thunder in after one of his hauls, hurling and shattering plates against the walls for reasons no one figured out.
My butt was frozen flat on the bluestone. The kids jumped in crunchy leaf mounds while I sorted through my hangover and the histories of my former tormentors. I imagined W coming home with his restaurant review homework. His mom was probably at work, his 3 younger siblings huddled in a corner, trembling. I could hear his combat boots crunching on a carpet of dinnerware shards installed by his father’s bourbon-induced rage. I bet he had his English notebook under one arm, and as he looked around, flung it on the table and thought, Fuck it.
I wondered how their lives might have been different—extended—had they known other things. Like if they’d known a dad who’d rush home from work to drive his kid to gymnastics because he knew a diminutive boy would need an edge in life; or if they’d known a mother who would rifle through store racks for a solid coat, however ugly, with good intentions.
I was relieved I’d never found a way to pour water on W’s chair in 8th grade. Things were hard enough.
The wind kicked up. My daughter jumped up and down to keep warm. Or maybe she just liked the crackling sound her sneakers made on top of expired leaves.
“I want snacks! I want snacks! I want snacks!” She chanted.
I sipped my coffee, but it had gotten too cold. I straightened out my stiff legs and started to walk in the house to find her some graham crackers.
My son pulled his flimsy jacket hood up, shivering.
“Mama! I cold. Big coat now?” He asked.
I smiled at his funny speech. “Yes, doodlebug. Anything you want.”
Michelle DeLiso is a former reference librarian and magazine research editor. She is now a stay-at-home mother who runs a writing workshop for children. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and two sons. This is her first piece of published fiction.