Inclusion and Exclusion in Our Daily Lives PART III: ADOLESCENCE
R. DEAN JOHNSON
The first day of school and it's one of those cold ones where the sky looks like it came right out of a black & white movie. We're still unpacking and the box with all my jackets is who knows where. So it's either my winter coat, which even I know would look ridiculous in Southern California, or my dad's old work jacket—a navy blue, sharp-collared, cut-tight-at-the-bottom-so-it-doesn't-get-sucked-into-machinery, machinist's jacket. I go with the work jacket even though it fits saggy in the shoulders and so long in the sleeves I have to cuff them just so my hands can make it out far enough to carry my backpack. And on top of all that, there's a patch over the heart with my dad's nickname on it, "Packy."
My mom says it will be okay, that making new friends will be tough for my little brother and sister too. But Brendan and Colleen are still in grade school, and little kids don't care what you're wearing or how you do your hair. Not like junior high, where everybody notices everything. Especially when you're new. That's why it would be a lot easier if I had my Paterson All-Stars jacket, because then the guys would all see I can play ball, and they'd probably like me right away.
When I get to school, I don't stuff the jacket in my locker like I would have back home. In Southern California, everything is outside. Instead of hallways, there's breezeways, which is a nice way of saying tunnel. And you might not think it can get all that cold in California, but on a cloudy day you can keep ice cream from melting in one of those breezeways.
Right before lunch, this guy comes up to my locker and says, "Hey Packy, where you from?"
He isn't real big, but he's bigger than me, so I try to be cool about it. "Jersey."
"Jersey?" he says. "Isn't New Jersey where all the fags hang out?"
"You'd know," I say.
It's barely out of my mouth before he's got me by the collar. "I know only a faggot would wear a jacket like this."
People around the lockers stop what they're doing and look at me like maybe I'm supposed to have some big reaction. Then someone behind me says in a real casual voice, "Knock it off, Jaime."
As this Jaime guy lets my collar go and steps back, some big guy with his hair perfectly combed so it looks kind of messed up steps around me. His shirt is this nerdy, checkered button-up that's hanging out everywhere except by the back pocket where his yellow, Velcro wallet is sticking out. You can tell it's that way on purpose, like a gun holster, like he could whip out his money real fast in case of an emergency.
He looks around at everybody, then says, "So you met Jaime, already. I'm Garrett." He reaches out and flicks the patch on my jacket. "And you're Packy?"
"Not really," I say. "My name's Reece."
"Reece?" he says. "What kind of name is that?"
Everybody laughs and I'm thinking maybe he's setting me up. "The kind my dad would give me, I guess."
Garrett gets this smirk and looks me over. "Cool jacket, man."
"You bustin' my chops?"
"Bustin' your chops?" He glances around like maybe Jaime or somebody can explain what that means, only nobody says anything. "You mean razzin' you?"
"Yeah, I guess."
"No, man. It's Fonzie cool."
"Yeah?," I say, looking around to see who's grinning and about to laugh at me. "I think it's about that old, too."
"Maybe," he says and laughs, and when Garrett laughs, everybody else starts laughing. "You're quick," he says. "You should hang with us."
"Totally," Jaime says and slaps my shoulder the way your buddies do when you make a great catch. "Sit at our table for lunch, Reece."
And just like that, I'm one of the guys. But just to be safe, I wear my dad's jacket to school every day.
Looking at Clifford Matlin, you'd think he could be one of the guys too. He's as big as Garrett, but he doesn't know how to use it for sports or anything. All it does is make him easier to spot in a crowd and see how weird he is. You see his head over everyone else's at assemblies, his hair hanging down in his eyes and every two seconds him pushing it over the rim of his glasses or tucking it behind his ears. Sometimes, he shows up to school wearing jeans that are too long and cuffed like it's the fifties. Other times, he wears this big, fluffy, turtleneck sweater with a patch that says, 1980 Olympic Winter Games, Lake Placid. The patch is cool, you know, kind of sporty, but everyone makes fun of the sweater because who wears turtlenecks in Southern California? And no matter how hot it is, he's always got this red windbreaker with him, sometimes on, sometimes tied around his waist or stuffed in his backpack, but always there, like his mom won't let him out of the house without it.
One day, Clifford brings this glass jar to Pre-Algebra and hunches over it the whole time with both hands on the lid. Every couple of minutes he reaches a hand out into the air and pinches his fingers together like he's caught something. Then he unscrews the lid of the jar, flicks whatever it is inside, and screws the lid back on. When I ask him what he's doing he whispers, "Catching atoms for an experiment." Then he grins like it's some funny joke.
I don't razz Clifford or anything when he tells me. Who is it going to hurt if he catches a few atoms? That doesn't stop other people though. The girl in front of me starts telling everyone around us and in five minutes you can see people on the other side of the room whispering and then looking over at Clifford and giggling. By the time the bell rings, he looks kind of mad and mumbles something about Albert Einstein's teachers not understanding his genius. "Maybe his accent was too thick," somebody says, and a bunch of people laugh. Then they tell the people who haven't heard, and before you know it everyone is laughing their way out the door and not listening to a thing Clifford says.
At lunch, Jaime can't stop looking around for Clifford, wanting to see if he still has the jar. I try to act like that's stupid and we should play basketball or something like we always do, but when the guys spot Clifford sitting over by the tennis courts with the jar right next to him in the grass, they take off to razz him. And it's not like I join in or anything. I just hang back and watch him take it until Garrett says to back off because it's too easy and what's the point of that?
When baseball season starts, I get drafted onto Garrett's team—the best team in the league. Our coach tells us second place is just a coward's way to say you lost, and he swears he'll bench anyone, even Garrett, if you miss practice for anything besides dying. But that's okay, because we can't get enough baseball. Every day at lunch Garrett gets some guys together to play pickle, and since I'm on his team, I'm always one of the guys.
About a week before summer vacation, we're playing pickle and Jaime launches the ball past me like a missile. It skips across the grass all the way over to the fence by the tennis courts. I run after it, and as I get closer I see the ball has wiped out Clifford's apple juice. He's got the ball in his hand, staring at it like it's a meteorite or something. Then he looks at me through his hair, his eyes squinty because of the sun. "I think you owe me an apple juice."
I tell him it was an accident but he shakes his head no and grips the ball with both hands. Everyone is waiting, so I say, "It's not even my ball, Cliff. It's Jaime's. If you don't give it back, he's going to get pretty mad."
Clifford ignores me and stuffs the ball in his backpack, his windbreaker all around it like a nest. He zips everything up, and just like that all the guys come over.
Jaime gets in Clifford's face, and just as he's about to rip the backpack away Garrett stops him. Garrett doesn't stick his hand out or anything; he just says, "Come on, Clifford, lunch is almost over. Give us the ball."
Clifford stares at the grass, shakes his head and mumbles, "N-no."
People who weren't even playing start coming over then, everyone making this half circle behind Garrett. Garrett asks Clifford for the ball again and gets another No, and you might think he's expecting that the way he lets his head drop slow and relaxed, bobbing a little on the way down, almost like he's nodding. He stares at the spot in the grass Clifford's staring at, then raises his head back up. "You're gonna need to give that back, Cliff. Unless you're feeling lucky." Garrett crosses his arms and they look kind of big all coiled together. "You feeling lucky, Cliff?"
We all laugh and Garrett could let it die right there, but he has the crowd. "If you can't see a ball rolling toward you, those glasses aren't doing you much good. Maybe you need a haircut. Or a guide dog."
Everybody busts up at that, even me, but it doesn't matter. Clifford still has the ball in his backpack and both hands wrapped around one of the straps. And without looking at anyone except Garrett, he says as clear as anything, "At least I don't use a pound of grease to keep my hair out of my eyes."
It's not exactly the best comeback ever, but Garrett looks pretty shocked anything came out of Clifford's mouth. "Give me the ball, Clifford. Give me the ball right now, man, say you're sorry for that little comment, and you'll get to keep existing."
Clifford shakes his head and pulls tighter on the straps of his backpack.
"Poor guy's having a meltdown," Garrett says, except nobody's laughing anymore. So with his finger an inch from Clifford's nose, Garrett says, "If you don't want to spend the rest of your life dead, you'll give me that ball right now."
"I don't want to have to fight you over this, man."
Clifford looks around at everybody and says, "Why? Are you scared of me?"
Garrett isn't scared. He can't be. But it seems like forever before he finally throws up his hands and says, "Fine, today after school. Behind the bleachers." His face is glowing, and he looks Clifford over one more time. "You better be ready," he says, then walks away.
Everyone runs out to the far edge of the football field as soon as school lets out. I'm one of the first people around the backside of the bleachers, and Clifford is there just like he said he'd be. In about a minute, a circle two or three people deep forms around him and a bunch of other people climb to the top of the bleachers to look over the back.
When Garrett finally slips through the crowd, he slaps my shoulder and says, "This will probably only take a second." He looks at me real confident, then tosses his backpack to Jaime and steps inside the circle.
Garrett lets it quiet down, looking around and taking in all the faces before stopping at Clifford's. "This is your last chance, man. Just give me the ball, say you're sorry, and we'll be cool. You won't get hurt."
Clifford stands there, his face totally blank and his hands hanging by his sides, all bunched up into fists. He stares straight ahead into nothing, and you can't tell if he's even listening.
"Well," Garrett shakes his head, "at least take off your glasses."
Clifford snatches his glasses with one hand and tosses them backwards without looking. It's amazing because the glasses don't crash down in the grass like you'd expect; they land on top of his backpack all gentle—as if he planned it that way. The one thing Clifford ever got right, and he doesn't even notice. He walks to the middle of the circle, stops, tucks some hair behind his ears, bends his knees, and brings his fists up near his eyes the way guys on TV do. It looks ridiculous because you know the only way a guy's going to win a fight with a stance like that is if he's the star of the show.
Garrett shuffles forward, steady, and puts his fists out in front of his chest. I've never seen him fight, but he sure looks like he knows what he's doing. Everyone starts cheering, calling out Garrett's name and rooting him on. But me, I don't make a sound; I just push forward a little and get on my tiptoes to see everything.
They start circling each other, waiting to see who's going to throw the first punch. Garrett looks sharp, but Clifford doesn't look scared like you'd expect, just focused. Then Garrett swings low, splitting Clifford's arms and catching him square in the stomach. Clifford's eyes open real wide, like he's surprised, and his hands drop. He winds up to counter-punch, but Garrett connects solid on his cheek, and he falls.
The circle explodes in cheers and guys like Jaime pump their fist the way you do when a guy hits a home run. We all know it's over because Clifford doesn't try to get up. He just lays there, doubled-over on the ground. Garrett waits a few seconds, to make sure, then he goes over to Clifford's backpack and pulls the ball out. Half of Clifford's jacket comes out too, like it didn't want to let go, and his glasses fall to the side. You might think Garret would hold the ball up all victorious, but he just sets Clifford's glasses back on top of the backpack, then walks to the edge of the circle real fast, tosses the ball to Jaime, and keeps going right through the crowd. Everyone goes after him and slaps him on the back and congratulates him like he's some kind of hero.
I wait to see if Clifford will get up, and after the last few people clear out, he does. He's holding his stomach as he walks over to gather up his stuff, and when he kneels down I see the tears streaming from his eyes. But he isn't crying. He just pulls his jacket all the way out and wipes his face with the soft, cotton part in the lining. And though you can already see the red mark where Garrett connected, Clifford doesn't make a sound. It takes him both hands to fit his glasses over his ears and then he looks up at me through that stupid hair. I want to say something, to tell him it was a good try or a lucky punch, but all I do is stare at him a few seconds until I hear someone calling my name.
Garrett's halfway across the field now, stopped and looking back at me. We're teammates, so I guess he's wondering why I'm not there congratulating him like everyone else. He calls my name again and it sounds like a question, "Reece?" All the other people shut up then and stare. I look back at Clifford who's standing now, a few feet away. I really want to say something, but I know I have the crowd, so I reach my hand out a little ways, pinch my fingers together like I've caught an atom, and put it in my pocket. From so far away, I figure no one else can see that, but as I take off to catch up to Garrett, a few people cheer like it's the best joke ever. Like I've razzed Clifford. I don't know if Clifford understands that I don't mean it like that; I just know I've got to leave him standing there all alone.
When I get home, I go straight upstairs to my room. My chest feels tight and full and I sit down heavy on my bed. Laying back only makes it worse, like everything is overflowing into my head. So I sit up, and a little at a time I let my face go, my mouth stretching into a frown, then relaxing, then doing it again. It keeps going like this, quicker and quicker, until my eyes go squinty and the tears leak out, fast down my face and hot. It's so stupid because I'm a teenager now and I should be through with things like crying. But I can't stop. My chest pushes the tears out in heaves and with each one I make this hiss, like a tea kettle right before it starts whistling. And though I hardly make a sound, I'm bawling like a baby.
By the time my mom comes into the room to find out why I haven't gone to baseball practice, my chest is empty and sore and I've stopped crying. Still, she can tell, and she keeps at me, wanting to know what happened. It takes me half the night to convince both my parents that it wasn't me who'd gotten beat up. And even though they finally say okay, I don't think they believe me.
Who is this story about?
Who is its hero?
Where do you feel that Reece had choices that he himself didn't seem aware of?
Why does he cry at the end? Are his tears a way of accepting responsibility for his own actions or evading them?
Would you want him as your friend?
Like most boys, I think, I witnessed a fair number of playground fights all through school. Years later, there was one fight that stuck with me because it was one of the least likely boys in school fighting with one of the most popular boys. The disparity struck me then and as an adult, with that event still lodged in my mind, I found myself needing to explore it through writing.
Once I began writing the story, the characters—based on real people I had not seen or spoken to in years—almost immediately began to round out into the characters they are now rather than versions of the people who inspired them. As the characters grew more independent, however, the story became more real to me. Initially, I was exploring an event I did not truly understand, but in having to get to know the entire world of the story, my growing understanding of it made it feel more and more real because the emotions going through the characters are genuine to the characters and not simply convenient to serve the plot.
In the world of this story, Reece’s perception is that inclusion is everything. And in a way, it is. He gets the social protection of being friends with the right people, but even within this group Reece is an outsider and he knows it. He is too young and naïve a narrator to realize what a positive thing it is that he craves independence—independence in thought throughout the piece and independence in action at the end as he lingers with Clifford and catches some atoms. Reece is being suffocated by the safety of his inclusion while Clifford, not exactly triumphant and no more aware than Reece, is free by his exclusion. But with social and hierarchal pressures acting on everyone, no one is entirely comfortable in their situation. That’s why Jared, who seems the most socially privileged, attempts to subvert the role handed to him by his status. In some ways, the situation is what you make of it, good or bad, but generally speaking, middle schoolers, and even many adults, are not equipped with the self-confidence to make their situation work well for them.
What I found with Clifford and with Reece, and to a lesser degree Jared, was that I’m fine with my characters surprising me—doing things I had not expected or, even, refusing to do things I try to force upon them. In one draft, I had Jared toss his backpack to Reece to hold during the fight. But no matter how I wrote it, Reece would not hold the backpack. It was supposed to be a minor detail in the story, to show the contrast between Clifford having no one to hold his things and keep them off the ground and Jared having, essentially, valets to attend his every need. But with Reece refusing to hold it, I either had to account for this, a confrontation that took the scene in a distracting direction, or have Jared toss his backpack to someone else. In the end, he tosses it to Jaime because, as I revised, Jaime was asking for the backpack so he could further validate his own position within the group.
R DEAN JOHNSON teaches in the Brief-Residency MFA program at Eastern Kentucky University. His essays and stories have appeared in, among others, Ascent, Natural Bridge, New Orleans Review, Santa Clara Review, Slice, and TheSouthern Review. He lives in Richmond, KY, with his wife (the writer, Julie Hensley) and their son, Boyd Padraig. “Catching Atoms” originally appeared in Ruminate and is part of a manuscript of linked stories, Delicate Men.