“Look who it is, everyone. It is love’s Al Capone,” Grr said as she stepped off the bus and we walked across the street. Every kid in the city had the same bus stop. We all were dropped off in town, X a little out of town, and Grr looked at me as we walked toward my house.
“Love’s criminal, Joe? That is what you are, the Al Capone of love?”
“I’m Clyde,” I said with a smile. “She is Bonnie.”
“Yeah right,” she barked. “She will not break laws with you in the world of love, Joe. You have the wrong girl. Ruffle knows what all of us need to learn, what I am teaching the entire school.”
“What are you teaching us all, oh master of love?”
“I prefer mistress, but I’ll take it. There are rules for a reason, Joe. You gotta learn them.”
“Love is supposed to be spontaneous and exciting.” I looked at the sky and spread my arms. “Love is about screaming to the heavens and tearing down walls.”
“First girlfriend and he is telling me about love. G.I. Joe, don’t think to tell me about love. I created it,” Grr said.
“What do you mean?”
“We are in middle school, Joe. Middle school. Love is hell for us. We have no idea what we are doing and we are messing it all up. Look at Jeep. I have had to break up with him five times to get him trained right.”
“Why do you keep going back?”
“Because I decided he is cute. That is why, and what I say goes. Jeep is the cutest boy in school.”
“Why do you call him Jeep?”
“The kid likes Jeeps. Look, it’s not important. What is important is that you have a lot to learn. Come to my house, your parents aren’t even home. I will give you your first lesson.” She grabbed my arm as Artist got lost staring at a cloud he thought looked like Ruffle’s ear. “Come on, we are on a clock. You have until half an hour after sunset. We have to move.”
“What am I doing a half an hour after sunset?”
“Calling your girlfriend,” Grr said rolling her eyes. “Man, you’re work.”
Four different ways to fold a letter. Because there were four different letters I could send. There was the love letter. I swore I would only need that one, but Grr slapped my arm and said, “Be serious here, Joe. I am trying to teach you how to communicate. What is this?”
She held up the next folded piece of paper. “That is a comedy letter,” I said.
“Right, and it better be funny.” Grr rolled her eyes and sighed. “Jeep’s never are, but he is a chore. What about this letter?”
“This is the ‘I’m bored and writing you’ letter.”
“Exactly. This is where you come to ramble. Just sit down and write without thinking.”
Artist smiled at her. “I never think when I write.”
“Yeah whatever. Listen, what is this?”
“That is the break up letter,” I said.
“Yes, and this is where you will be if you don’t learn the rules.”
“Fine. Can I go call her now?”
“Here is her number, but I don’t trust you, so I will call you to tell you to call her. Until you hear from me, don’t call anyone. And if X tries to call you after I do, he is being an ass. He knows when you ought to be on the phone and when you shouldn’t. If he calls you after sunset, he is trying to get you in trouble.”
She picked up the break up fold. “Trouble.”
Grr called. I hung up and made my first phone call to a girl. My heart was pounding. My chest trembling. I couldn’t breathe. I for sure couldn’t talk, and I just stood staring at the phone.
Artist took the phone from me. If he hadn’t, I would still be there, in Allenton, rooted to that spot, too terrified to call her. Artist called her and, when she answered, he sighed.
“Don’t talk yet,” he said. “If this is Ruffle, push a button.”
“Okay,” she said with a chuckle. She pushed a button.
“Thank God. I don’t want to talk to you here,” he said.
“Out here in the open in the kitchen where a prying ear can hear and a loose tongue can wag. I want what I say to you to be ours, no one else’s, so I am going to find a way to be alone with you. Give me one moment. I will do whatever it takes to be with you and just you.”
He looked around, saw the room beside the kitchen, and he ducked in. He closed the door as much as he could then he sighed. “I have you now.”
“Where are you? Are you in your room?”
“My room is upstairs.”
“Well, where are you?”
“Do you want the truth or do you want me to lie to you?”
“The truth, of course.”
“Fine, I will tell you, but first the lie.”
“First the lie. It will tell you what I am thinking. Not the reality. I find the thought is the more important of the two.”
“Okay then, lie to me I guess.” She laughed.
“I dug a den.”
“You did what?”
“I dug a den, in my backyard, a wolves’ den, to curl up in a dark place and be with just you.”
“So you’re a wolf, huh?”
“And what about X, is he with you? He is part of your pack, right?”
“X is a werewolf howling at the moon and ripping a path of destruction in his wake.”
She laughed. “Did he bite you yet?”
“That is why I am hiding from the moon in this den. If the moonlight hits me, I have to run, run off into the world and howl with my packmate.”
“And what about me? Will I run with you out into the moonlight?”
“Don’t be silly. You’re not a wolf at all.”
“I can’t be a wolf with you?” She had a bit of a whine to her voice but I thought that might be okay.
“You are too beautiful a creature to ever be a wolf.”
“Creature? Did you just call me a creature?”
“I’m not a creature. I can tell you that.”
“You are. You are a mythical creature. Not a unicorn, they are too commonplace and boring. They are nothing to be at all. You are more magical than a unicorn.”
She went silent. “What is more magical than a unicorn?” She could not breathe. She gripped the phone on the other end waiting.
“You are a Pegasus.”
“A winged horse. It is a powerful creature, and it is for the air, for the world above man, where only dreams and magic roll and the clouds hold back the tears of the night.” Artist sighed. “You are wild. Untamed as the wind. Unattainable and breathtaking.”
She sighed. “What the hell?” she whispered.
“Do you want the truth now?” Artist said.
“Do you want the truth? Do you want to know where I went to be alone with you?”
“Not really. But sure.”
“I am in the dark in my bathroom. I crawled in the dry tub so that I could be with you. A hard place for a soft heart.”
“Oh my God,” she said.
Ruffle had just fallen in love with Artist. But it was a doomed love. For no woman but the woman can call to rest the heart of Smear, Lord of Ire. And Ruffle was not the woman.
Back in school, the first two hours were hell. Palkstad had taken to calling me up to the front of the class to work a math problem. When I tried to work it like I had been taught by Liechin, he laughed and told me to do it his way. The boys all laughed. Ruffle cried with me. Other girls steamed. When I failed to do the problem the way he wanted me to, he laughed at me, told me I was dumb, then sent me to my desk. Then he taught us how to do the problem.
See, everyone knew it was unfair. They all knew that when I was called forward, he had not taught the lesson yet. They knew that no matter what I did, I would end up crying. But Palkstad did not even start class until I was crying. Ever.
After class, I was embarrassed and could not face Ruffle. I left, and Island met me at Jenkins’ door.
“You ought to talk to her,” she said around a snapping mouth full of gum.
“I can’t right now,” I said as I hid from Ruffle. My girlfriend would look around, dejected, before going to her next class.
“You’re going to lose her,” Island said. “She will walk away.”
I shook my head. “I can’t lose her, she is all there is.”
“Then you need to talk to her,” Island said.
“Phone doesn’t count,” she said as she walked away to disappear into the crowd. I slunk into Jenkins’ class for the next part.
Off with the jacket, folded and set lovingly on the desk. Back of the room where I had finally learned to write while I stood.
One day we took a test on the countries of the world. There was a map with a list of about sixty countries and we had to number where they were. Jenkins was handing back the tests when Palkstad came over to play. See, Palkstad was a wandering teacher. He would give his students busy work, and leave. Usually he walked across the hall to interrupt Jenkins’ class.
“Oh, and look here, the tests are back. We get to see who passed and who failed,” Palkstad said.
Jenkins pointed at him. “Can we talk in the hall?”
“How did the idiot do?” Palkstad said. “Does he even know where Vietnam is?”
“Can we talk outside?” Jenkins whispered.
“Tell him in here,” Shadow said. “Tell your good buddy what grade I got. Or should I tell him?” Shadow waved the page before their eyes. Palkstad looked mad. Jenkins looked embarrassed. “Tell him or I will.”
But Shadow never would have. If Palkstad wanted to know, he would have to ask Jenkins. Shadow secretly hoped Palkstad would walk out so Jenkins had to tell him in secret. A bit of knowledge held by only them that they would have to look at every time they spoke about me behind my back.
“He got one hundred percent on the test.”
“That’s only because he didn’t give me my extra credit,” Shadow said. And there he was. The raised middle finger. The curse in the air. The slight whiff of gasoline.
“What extra credit?” a kid asked. She looked at her test and back up at me. I pointed to my sheet where I had drawn in the old borders of Prussia.
“I wrote in Prussia,” I said. “Mr. Liechin taught me about that when he taught me about all of these other nations. How did the other kids do with your teaching?” Shadow asked. He was furious now. “Who got the second highest grade?”
“That is enough!” Jenkins said.
“Then send me to the office,” I said, stepping into the middle of the room. I patted my jacket as I stepped out to meet them, and Jenkins pointed his finger at me and to the hall. “Out, now.”
“I got 94,” a girl said. “That is as high as I could get, and I studied.” She looked at Jenkins then to the rest of the class. She was tired of crying for the boy who was being abused in front of everyone. “Did anybody beat me?” she said.
“I want you to walk out of my class and into the hall right now, Teller, or I am going to fail you,” Jenkins said. “This can always get worse.”
I walked into the hall. I had played this game before. I had been called out to the hall to be yelled at before, by a better man. I could handle these two.
But I couldn’t. Because out here, they didn’t have to be civil. Out here, in this little knot of hallway, they didn’t have to play it nice for the other kids.
They told me I was a piece of shit. Said that I was what was wrong with this nation. They said if they could reach out and wipe me off the world they would. See, the two of them had friends who had died in ’Nam. And they hated my guts.
Let’s put a pin in that. We will come back to that.
“You’re blowing it, Joe,” Grr said. She stood outside my locker and I looked at her and sighed.
“What did I do wrong this time?”
“Well, Ruffle is almost in tears.”
“Well, you never gave X your locker combination.”
I touched my fingertips to my temple and closed my eyes. I fought really hard to try to make sense of what she was saying before I gave up. “X is a criminal. I’m no better, but I don’t want him to know my locker combination. It would be too tempting. Why am I wrong?” I got my stuff out of my locker and stuffed it in my bag. I was headed to fourth hour. Mrs. Galvin was finally up. And I needed her so badly.
“If you don’t give X your locker combination, then he can’t give it to me.”
“He wouldn’t,” I yelled. “He would give it to everyone else. We know how this went last time.”
Grr scowled at me before she laughed. “Yeah, he would, wouldn’t he?”
“Why am I giving anyone my locker combination?”
“You give it to X and he gives it to me and then I give it to Ruffle and she trashes your locker.”
I slammed my head against the locker and roared. “You are telling me what now?”
“Look, if you want her to stop crying, you have to give X your locker combination so he can give it to me so she can do this for you.”
“Do this for me?”
“Where is my Bonnie?”
“She doesn’t exist, Joe. You get what you get. You happen to have Ruffle. You want to keep her, you play by the rules.”
“Here,” I pulled out a slip of paper, scribbled on it, and handed it to her. “Here is my combination. Please give it to Ruffle and tell her I said this exactly—”
“No, no more breathtaking messages that I will get wrong anyway. I don’t know what you are talking about half the time. And I am not taking that. You have to give it to X. There are rules.”
“Can I give it to Island?”
“I’m not giving this to X,” I said.
“Do whatever you want, but don’t come to school Wednesday without her chain.”
I ran and grabbed Grr.
She shrugged me off. “Hands off.”
“Wednesday is your one-month anniversary so you have to give her a chain. It has to be golden and fragile so she has to try not to break it. She will give you your chain the next day as a thank you,” Grr said. “Now, you can get the chain at the hardware store in Allenton. They have everything. Don’t be a dick and get the long chain because then it would be nicer than the one I got from Jeep.” She shook her head and growled. “He is so infuriating. But he is all I have, so what can I do? Short, golden chain by Wednesday.”
“How about early and surprise her?”
“No surprises, Joe. There is a system for a reason.”
I tried to get Island to give my locker combination to Grr, but she wouldn’t even touch it.
I gave it to X in the end because Ruffle was actually crying when I got to lunch. He said he was charging me a candy bar tax. If there wasn’t a fresh candy bar in my locker for him to steal every Friday, he was going to give my locker combination to everyone he knew.
I called him an ass, and every week, I paid my tax.
She was the most well-read woman I have ever known. The walls of Mrs. Galvin’s room were lined with bookshelves. Every inch of her wall was a shelf and every shelf was full. And she had read them all. It was a big room. Big enough for all our desks, her desk up front, her desk in the back, and a big round table where she gave her little tests.
They were voluntary. She would give you one when you finished a book. Any book. She said if it was a book she didn’t know, that she had never read, then she would give me credit anyway. I told her I would get her one day.
“No one ever has, Jesse. Not one student has ever brought in a book that I have not read. But I invite you to try.”
This was a fight I was ready for.
All told, I brought that woman forty-two books. I brought her books from all walks of life. Every book from every nook I could find. I brought in a car repair manual once and she had read it. Every time, she would page through it real fast to catch up and then ask me detailed questions. I would answer them, and she would give me a star. When I had ten stars, I would get a free pizza at Pizza Hut. It was their Book It program.
The only thing wrong with that was that my stepfather worked for a different pizza restaurant, so I had to throw them all away. I didn’t care. I was not reading them for pizza. I just wanted time with her.
Galvin is one of the truly bright, truly loving things about this world. She saved my life with her kind words and her awe-inspiring intellect. She made me feel smart, and that hardly ever happened. She laughed with me and she hugged me every time I came into her class. She didn’t do that with the other kids.
I would find out that all the teachers knew. They knew about the darkness of Slinger Middle School but were helpless to do anything about it.
You are the most well-read woman who has ever walked this earth, Mrs. Galvin, so it is possible you are reading this right now. If you are, please know that I love you. I will always love you. You saved my life one day when the knife was calling for a wrist. Your kindness and your willingness to love a broken boy saved his life. You will always live with me. And I think of you every time I pick up a book.
Please be well. And if you do read this book, get in touch with me and I can quiz you to make sure. I might even give you a star.