Normally when someone asks where I’m from, I tell them very plainly that I’m from Chicago. “Why don’t you have an accent?” is usually the silly reply. Because Al Capone isn’t from here, right?
Really I’m far from Chicago, originally. I’m rather from the southern woodlands. As the crow flies across the breezy, central plains with their broad swaths of dancing wheat fields, swerving just so to avoid Starving Rock and the Illinwe River, finally resting in the dewy branches of the frightening and gloomy forest that surrounds Kort.
In the misty gloom one can barely fathom the passage of time. The fog seems to form grasping tendrils of space itself. Swirling about to wrap around every branch and watery leaf.
Here we can barely hear the groan of local critters as they bellow out to the stars above, and to one another in the eternal gasp of life. Together they wrap tentacles about an unconscious universe, which sleeps in the void beyond our gravitational pull.
It’s almost terrifying if you think about it too much. That’s why I sit here listening to the radio in front of my computer. Studying general insurance application so I can be an insurance agent some day, like my Dad.
Minding my own business like teenagers do, even when they’re not disinterested with the world around them. I mean we’re trying to figure things out, right? We don’t have time for much else. It’s busy and complicated work. That and the difference between morbidity and mortality, or the last brief glimpse of Dad’s charger pulling away one final time so many years ago.
My thoughts are broken by Mom poking her head around the doorpost like a slightly terrifying mime, her smile intentionally nightmarish. Good job, Mom. “There’s a girl on the telephone in the kitchen”, she says.
I turn to look at my Tandy, my vision zooming in on the time display. “Ugh”
“Forget your date?” Mom asks, perpetually amused with my perpetual schedule of female interactions.
I grab my cap and slip past her to get to the phone, precariously balanced on the edge of the table across from the wall, it’s chord making a barrier to the side door beyond. I pick it up and can hear the familiar sound of several basketballs bouncing on hardwood floors, echoing through the airwaves from my destination beyond the phone wires.
“Hello” I simply say.
“Did you forget something, silly?” came Heather’s voice. I can instantly see with my mind’s eye the last time I saw her, standing in the field by the school. Smiling with those mega arched eyebrows.
“Oh, I thought it was just basketball practice, tonight”.
Heather laughs through her reply. “Liar! When are you getting here?”
“I will leave now. Sorry, Heather”. I hang up the phone and turn to see my Mom watching me through the living room doorway, her silhouette against the television there. Madaline Kahn in a white turbine. Oh, Mother. Young Frankenstein again!? “What?”
“What?” she replies. And then she smiles. “Have fun at practice”, she says. She steps forward into the kitchen, reaching around to hug my shoulders.
“I’m just there for support”, I say. Reaching around her back to hug her… back. I lean over and give Mom a kiss on the cheek, which makes her smile like a wolf. I guess. I mean I’ve never seen one.
Then I’m off! Running like a circus clown to my bike, and speeding toward the school gymnasium just down the street. I think I can already hear the thrumming of whatever tune they play there, like some arcane ritual come alive again. Pulsating. In my imagination, shaking the windows of the homes I pass on the way there. Can the music really be that loud? Shame! The principal will show up by the time I get there, I’m sure of it.
At the corner of Warren and Blaire I pause and rest a foot on the pavement at the 4 way stop. Looking both ways just like the educational film at school taught me to do as a kid. A younger kid, I mean. My mind jumps to Charlie Brown and Winnie the Pooh. Friday afternoon faire at Clark Elementary, also on the portable movie screen. I can almost see him bouncing around with a jug of honey, a smile upon his face. What on earth?
I thought I saw a blond kid in the window there, just now. Mom says Dad grew up there, the house being in the family for generations. A Latino family lives there now, and they really fixed the place up. I notice Tomasa standing to the side of the porch, watering the peonies. She smiles and waves hesitantly. I wave back generously.
Tomasa loves to make enchiladas for everyone in the neighborhood. We ask her not to, but she insists. I nod with the biggest smile I can, and look both ways one more time before crossing to speed off down the way again.
I glance back one more time at the upstairs window, and see nothing. Just the shadow of a figment of my imagination. Something I inserted from a related memory. I think of the photo of my Dad’s little brother. Well, technically his older brother, who also went missing. Only he disappeared a much longer time before, and right here in Kort. Scary.
Finally at Kort High, I nearly spring from my seat with renewed purpose, shaking off the oddities of a murky, Friday sundown.
Carefully selected harvest tones of the 1970s still adorn the school banners that lift in a weak breeze as though pulled by strings.
It turns out the pounding tempo I noticed earlier was not my imagination; the sound coming from inside may as well be outside. Clearly it is oldies, as the locals are apt to play. Is it the Crystals, or the Ronettes playing on the loudspeaker? The drumbeat indicates the later. Like rumbling thunder!
Or is that actual thunder in the distance? I do not have time to look to the bluff, where a gap in the trees would allow a glimpse of the sky. But I can almost feel a charge to the air. The leaves on the bushes around the school entrance turn slightly, telling me what I suppose I already know. There is indeed rain on the way. Good for the farmers next town over.
Inside I walk through darkened, spooky halls, gravitating to the lit gymnasium doorway. Itself a photographic negative of shadow as light in the shape of it’s portal. Huddled near the entrance are the twins, Jason and Justin, known by friends as the goths for their unusual interests. They seem to entertain half the cheer leading squad with some gadget in Jason’s hand.
“Oh, here comes Turtle”, one of them says. Holly it sounds like. Holly is nice, but can be a little naive. When someone insults me, she thinks it’s just cute fun. Like ‘Turtle’.
I suffer a mild case of one side being longer than the other. Basically regular sports activities feel like murder on my joints. I function just fine, though. To find me a place and show team spirit, Heather talks me into joining the cheer leading squad. It will get me lots of attention, she says.
So there I am to stoke the anger of our team. Laughing, smiling, dancing with everyone’s girlfriend. It’s like a music video they can’t be part of, thus I am hated. At least no one hurts me, and it seems to help win. All that mean energy. I feel like an evil space wizard on his throne. ‘Good. Gooood. Use your aggression!’
“Hey, Andy”, says Heather. Heather is one of those people who can make an entire social network her own. She is also the best friend I have ever had. I know what that sounds like, and I’ve learned to not care.
Heather wraps her arm around mine and parades like a Hampton flapper chick. She really likes to amuse herself this way. Americana infects her like a carefully tuned commercial, possessing whatever mind is open to translate it’s brainwaves and assimilate it through the glass screen. Oh, Heather. At least she enjoys herself, and helps me enjoy myself also.
I smile like an idiot at her other hand, splayed as it rakes the air. We both look into the small gathering where the twins are crouched over their device. It seems to whisper in a low, computer tone at them. And those around it whisper in response to each other and giggle nervously.
We get to the team and start warming up while I chat to her about what I have learned today, and we also talk about how stupid music sounds right now. “I can’t wait for that synthesizer music to go away,” she says. It’s just a fad, we agree.
Before I know it we practice forming a pyramid. The girls at the far corner, who previously ignored us, run over to hold up the capstone. Today this happens to be Becky.
We’re pretty dang proud of how swiftly we can get everyone in place, and we take micro steps to spin the pyramid. Becky showing off her shaved armpits, looking like some archaic, painted statue. I can’t see her teeth, but I still feel like I need to squint. Just kidding. Thinking of her smile makes me smile.
Overhead Elvis sings; his enchanting voice bellows out from the speakers. We turn just so and see the principal finally made it, but he’s not running over to the sound board. All is well.
I glance at the windows and see a flash of lightening, and try not to count ‘Mississippi’, as I may lose my focus.
The principal and Mrs King the music teacher are sharing a laugh, just as a clumsy basketball swishes through one of the gaps in our pyramid. The guys at the far side of the room shout triumphantly for a brief moment.
As we watch in a kind of distracted horror the ball lands extra hard, slams into the neatly folded retractable bleachers, and ricochets back at us, knocking someone flat in the belly.
“HOLD!” Heather warns everyone, but the warbling is instantly noticeable.
A few frightened issues of support and fear are heard as a few of the team try to disassemble and support others as they leap down, but it’s too chaotic.
Someone steps on my face, then hurriedly my neck and chest, apologizing on the way to the matted floor. Another lands directly in front of us with a sickly sound, and out of the corner of my eye I see the ball bounce like a drifting smart missile toward Mrs King’s face.
If life were a comedy, the look on her face as the rubberized gas bag approached her would be a key moment in the story timeline. The ball’s energy spent, bouncing to the slow rhythm of a pendulum, predictably like a curious animal to her direction. If it had a face I imagine it would almost be smiling in anticipation.
At the last second, the principal smacks the ball away, where it knocks Jason’s funny little electronic box out of his hand… sending it to crash into the floor where it scatters like greasy meatloaf across the synthetic tiles.
Finally Becky screams. Not because she’s about to fall, but because she already has, and is holding her nose. I wish I could say it was ketchup on the backside of her hand.
Mrs King rushes over and asks Becky if she’s okay, telling her she is going for the first aid kit. Heather says she thinks a first aid kit isn’t going to help, but that bleach may be needed later. The principal says this part of the gym is made of wood, and that might damage it.
Becky is trying not to cry as she is apparently already having trouble breathing, and someone asks the principal to just call an ambulance. He starts to look nervous and mentions the school isn’t up to date on it’s insurance payments, then hustles away toward the hall with an angry expression on his face.
Jason and Justin are trying to find all the pieces to their weird little contraption, while the girls usher Becky to the ladies room. Becky disappears inside while the girls stand around nervously eating their fingers.
Someone turns Elvis off “You’re the D…”, a strange crackling sound can be heard as the track cuts off. An electronic buzzing takes over before also cutting out with a loud flick of a switch.
Copyright 2021 Matt Schmidt