Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Scapegoatist (sample chapter)

A bleached-blonde kid bumps into me, his spray-on tan bleeding at the edges. "Hey, sorry my man," he stresses every syllable with orthodontically-straightened, chemically-whitened incisors.

"You're over-acting," I tell him before he gets swallowed up.

The hallway flows with fakes- nerds with braces held on with adhesive strips. Girls with pigtails tied in color-treated, gray-removed hair. Full breasts under freshman soccer team shirts, wrapped in gauze and held down.

"What agency are you with," my girlfriend asks through the pink bubble of her gum. She hikes up her skirt, the old tattoo hiding on her stomach, the pom-poms in her hands, crow's feet forming at the corners of her eyes.

"I represent myself."

She scratches under her wig. "Well that's dumb. Everyone needs to be represented by someone."

Kids along the lockers talk loudly, over-projecting with character breakdowns sticking out of their back pockets. Yearbook photos are attached to the sheets and some have lines of dialogue, but most of them, being for extras and bit players, simply say "General Speech."

The Math Club Treasurer says, "We watch it religiously, it's an excellent send-up of modern life in your typical, suburban landscape."

The Class Clown says, "I'm telling you, with the market drowning now's the time to refinance."

The Basketball Forward, recast here as a round guy sharing custody of two kids, says, "Twenty-six. But the Casting Director says I read seventeen."

With her weight shifted to one leg, my girlfriend says, "What school of acting did you study, Method?" Her mouth chewing, chewing, a tuft of too-shiny hair twirled around her finger. I tell her to stick to the script and her face suddenly comes alive. "That's what I'm doing, asshole. My character is supposed to be flirty and distracted." Then she lets the focus drain from her eyes and she's gone.

Here is a remake of the Class of '86, a photocopy that stinks like pancake make-up instead of ozone, a surface-only re-enactment while I keep telling myself I'm Lee Simpson, I'm Lee Simpson, I'm Lee Simpson.

Mister Felner enters stage left, lurching down the hallway in an A-Team t-shirt, working hard to hold the books in his hands and the drink in his head without touching arms. His movements are erratic, his eyes watch feet, and I have to say- he's the most convincing actor in this place.

"Hey, Felner!" I shout. He looks up suddenly. "Did you get fries with that complexion?"

My girlfriend's face says, What the fuck? but the hallway booms with laughter anyway. It's a forced laugh but it still makes me grin, still makes Felner wince, and I realize, watching their glazed, insane faces, that it doesn't matter what I say, that it doesn't have to be the goddamn Canterbury Tales- I'm the Captain of the fucking football team.

Felner looks for an escape as I push kids out of my way, shoulders clanging into lockers saying "hey" and I lock in, going right for him. I knock his books to the ground and say, "Pick them up." He gives me a look, not knowing if I'm serious until I show my clenched fist, and then he swoops down and does it. "So whatcha reading?"

"Nothing."

"You're reading nothing?"

"Y-yeah."

"That's dumb," my girlfriend says, "you can't read nothing."

"Hear that, nerd? She says that's dumb."

"Seriously," she adds. I knock them down again and a guy chuckles. I give him a nod, then tell Felner to pick the books up again.

"This time," I say, "with your teeth."

"Hold on a second, I'm not comfortable with this."

I look at my girlfriend and she flashes that hot smile, and I know she wants it, and I turn back and punch Felner right in his hollow, gummy gut, and everyone goes "Ohhh." Fish-gasping for air, he bends to pick the books up again but I get behind him and pull his tighty-whities up so high he's hanging from a wedgie, screaming nasal, and again everyone is laughing.

"He's so lame," my girlfriend says.

I lay down an assault of spit-smelling wet willies, saying "Whatcha gonna do?" Saying, "Gonna do something, Felner?" I hit him with purple nerples, crotch taps and nose flicks until he's red in the face, but still he takes it. He takes it like a queer, hands in his pockets saying, "Lee, please," and no teachers are here to stop me. No principals are here to drag me into the office and rip me up and call my parents. No hall monitors to save him this time. He's mine. I own him and he's mine, and no one's laughing anymore.

My balls explode.

I fall down holding them, my stomach like burning rope, and everything is quiet. I roll in it, white light behind my eyes as I suck air in Morse. My eyes open to Felner over me, breathing heavy, fingers squeezed, face dark red, and everyone is watching him shocked, silent, and then a screeching roar bursts and everyone is cheering. He looks at them as if they're an alien crowd, but then a recognition fills him and his mouth starts to twist, replacing slowly with a smile. "Good job, Felner," someone pats him and he smiles wider. They pump their fists, clap, hug each other, everything a background player can do to shine through. Felner scans the crowd and takes it in. Then he looks down at me, and the smile is gone.

Then, he starts to kick.

Connecting with my stomach, saying, "who's the queer now," his foot in my side, saying, "who's laughing, you fucking beast, who's laughing now?" The hall is whispering, everyone watching, weighing the gig against their fear of seeing a man beaten to death.

The Trombone Player says, "Should we stop it?"

The Class President says, "Should we leave?"

The Future Leaders of America say, "Will we still get paid?"

Someone clears their throat conspicuously but Felner doesn't hear them, doesn't see them, because right now there's only him and me in this hallway, and not really me at all, just these clothes and what they mean and who wore them and what that person did to a little, oily kid a few decades ago. And still, he's kicking. Through the blows, despite the ribs, I'm proud of him.

When he's had enough, Desmond the butler steps up and stops him, telling him to calm down, waving the actors away. Felner's breathing slows as the crowd files off telling each other how great it was to work together before collecting their checks at a table by the door.

I'm coughing when a hand is put in front of my face. The palm is made of mutilated skin, a knotted twist of flesh. The scars look old and caused by fire and I look up- it's Felner, his arm out offering a lift. I take the hand and feel it soft and waxy against mine as he pulls me to my feet.

"How can I thank you?" His eyes meet mine for the first time.

"With one of those checks."

He looks over at the table, the bored worker handing out envelopes. "You don't want one of those, they're only getting paid scale. I'll write a better one for you."

I feel my ribs and they're barely bruised. "Whatever they're making is fine."

"Suit yourself."

"Is there some place I can change out of these clothes?"

He looks at them with new eyes. "Keep them, they're just clothes." He turns and calls an assistant over, walking down the hallway. He says, "Take out a pen, I'm about to make a million dollars."

Desmond comes over with an envelope. "You're some kinda idiot, aren't you?"

"How did he burn his hands?"

"Him? I told you, he doesn't tell the little people shit. All I know is the rumor, which is something about fireworks." He hands me a bag with my own clothes in it. "I hope you're not planning to use those." He nods to my clothes. "Those belonged to Lee Simpson. They aren't replicas or some shit, they're legit."

"And?"

He steps back as if I should know all this, as if Felner tells us little people shit. "And? Motherfucker died wearing those. It's disgusting."

I watch Felner walk out the front door of the school, leaving it behind. I ask Desmond how long ago Lee Simpson died and he says, "Like twelve years ago."