“Yeah, everybody’s got a talent. I can memorize things. And you can . . . ?”
“Um, I know a lot of people’s last words.” It was an indulgence, learning last words. Other people had chocolate; I had dying declarations.
“I like Henrik Ibsen’s. He was a playwright.” I knew a lot about Ibsen, but I’d never read any of his plays. I didn’t like reading plays. I liked reading biographies.
“Yeah, I know who he was,” said Chip.
“Right, well, he’d been sick for a while and his nurse said to him, ‘You seem to be feeling better this morning,’ and Ibsen looked at her and said, ‘On the contrary,’ and then he died.”
Chip laughed. “That’s morbid. But I like it.”
He told me he was in his third year at Culver Creek. He had started in ninth grade, the first year at the school, and was now a junior like me. A scholarship kid, he said. Got a full ride. He’d heard it was the best school in Alabama, so he wrote his application essay about how he wanted to go to a school where he could read long books. The problem, he said in the essay, was that his dad would always hit him with the books in his house, so Chip kept his books short and paperback for his own safety. His parents got divorced his sophomore year. He liked “the Creek,” as he called it, but “You have to be careful here, with students and with teachers. And I do hate being careful.” He smirked. I hated being careful, too—or wanted to, at least.
He told me this while ripping through his duffel bag, throwing clothes into drawers with reckless abandon. Chip did not believe in having a sock drawer or a T-shirt drawer. He believed that all drawers were created equal and filled each with whatever fit. My mother would have died.
As soon as he finished “unpacking,” Chip hit me roughly on the shoulder, said, “I hope you’re stronger than you look,” and walked out the door, leaving it open behind him. He peeked his head back in a few seconds later and saw me standing still. “Well, come on, Miles To Go Halter. We got shit to do.”
We made our way to the TV room, which according to Chip contained the only cable TV on campus. Over the summer, it served as a storage unit. Packed nearly to the ceiling with couches, fridges, and rolled-up carpets, the TV room undulated with kids trying to find and haul away their stuff. Chip said hello to a few people but didn’t introduce me. As he wandered through the couch-stocked maze, I stood near the room’s entrance, trying my best not to block pairs of roommates as they maneuvered furniture through the narrow front door.
It took ten minutes for Chip to find his stuff, and an hour more for us to make four trips back and forth across the dorm circle between the TV room and Room 43. By the end, I wanted to crawl into Chip’s minifridge and sleep for a thousand years, but Chip seemed immune to both fatigue and heatstroke. I sat down on his couch.
“I found it lying on a curb in my neighborhood a couple years ago,” he said of the couch as he worked on setting up my PlayStation 2 on top of his footlocker. “I know the leather’s got some cracks, but come on. That’s a damn nice couch.” The leather had more than a few cracks—it was about 30 percent baby blue faux leather and 70 percent foam—but it felt damn good to me anyway.
“All right,” he said. “We’re about done.” He walked over to his desk and pulled a roll of duct tape from a drawer. “We just need your trunk.”
I got up, pulled the trunk out from under the bed, and Chip situated it between the couch and the PlayStation 2 and started tearing off thin strips of duct tape. He applied them to the trunk so that they spelled out COFFEE TABLE.
“There,” he said. He sat down and put his feet up on the, uh, coffee table. “Done.”
I sat down next to him, and he looked over at me and suddenly said, “Listen. I’m not going to be your entrée to Culver Creek social life.”
“Uh, okay,” I said, but I could hear the words catch in my throat. I’d just carried this guy’s couch beneath a white-hot sun and now he didn’t like me?
“Basically you’ve got two groups here,” he explained, speaking with increasing urgency. “You’ve got the regular boarders, like me, and then you’ve got the Weekday Warriors; they board here, but they’re all rich kids who live in Birmingham and go home to their parents’ air-conditioned mansions every weekend. Those are the cool kids. I don’t like them, and they don’t like me, and so if you came here thinking that you were hot shit at public school so you’ll be hot shit here, you’d best not be seen with me. You did go to public school, didn’t you?”
“Uh . . .” I said. Absentmindedly, I began picking at the cracks in the couch’s leather, digging my fingers into the foamy whiteness.
“Right, you did, probably, because if you had gone to a private school your freakin’ shorts would fit.” He laughed.
I wore my shorts just below my hips, which I thought was cool. Finally I said, “Yeah, I went to public school. But I wasn’t hot shit there, Chip. I was regular shit.”
“Ha! That’s good. And don’t call me Chip. Call me the Colonel.”
I stifled a laugh. “The Colonel?”
“Yeah. The Colonel. And we’ll call you . . . hmm. Pudge.”
“Pudge,” the Colonel said. “Because you’re skinny. It’s called irony, Pudge. Heard of it? Now, let’s go get some cigarettes and start this year off right.”
He walked out of the room, again just assuming I’d follow, and this time I did. Mercifully, the sun was descending toward the horizon. We walked five doors down to Room 48. A dry-erase board was taped to the door using duct tape. In blue marker, it read: Alaska has a single!
The Colonel explained to me that 1. this was Alaska’s room, and that 2. she had a single room because the girl who was supposed to be her roommate got kicked out at the end of last year, and that 3. Alaska had cigarettes, although the Colonel neglected to ask whether 4. I smoked, which 5. I didn’t.
He knocked once, loudly. Through the door, a voice screamed, “Oh my God come in you short little man because I have the best story.”
We walked in. I turned to close the door behind me, and the Colonel shook his head and said, “After seven, you have to leave the door open if you’re in a girl’s room,” but I barely heard him because the hottest girl in all of human history was standing before me in cutoff jeans and a peach tank top. And she was talking over the Colonel, talking loud and fast.
“So first day of summer, I’m in grand old Vine Station with this boy named Justin and we’re at his house watching TV on the couch—and mind you, I’m already dating Jake—actually I’m still dating him, miraculously enough, but Justin is a friend of mine from when I was a kid and so we’re watching TV and literally chatting about the SATs or something, and Justin puts his arm around me and I think, Oh that’s nice, we’ve been friends for so long and this is totally comfortable, and we’re just chatting and then I’m in the middle of a sentence about analogies or something and like a hawk he reaches down and he honks my boob. HONK. A much-too-firm, two- to three-second HONK. And the first thing I thought was Okay, how do I extricate this claw from my boob before it leaves permanent marks? and the second thing I thought was God, I can’t wait to tell Takumi and the Colonel.”
The Colonel laughed. I stared, stunned partly by the force of the voice emanating from the petite (but God, curvy) girl and partly by the gigantic stacks of books that lined her walls. Her library filled her bookshelves and then overflowed into waist-high stacks of books everywhere, piled haphazardly against the walls. If just one of them moved, I thought, the domino effect could engulf the three of us in an asphyxiating mass of literature.
“Who’s the guy that’s not laughing at my very funny story?” she asked.
“Oh, right. Alaska, this is Pudge. Pudge memorizes people’s last words. Pudge, this is Alaska. She got her boob honked over the summer.” She walked over to me with her hand extended, then made a quick move downward at the last moment and pulled down my shorts.
“Those are the biggest shorts in the state of Alabama!”
“I like them baggy,” I said, embarrassed, and pulled them up. They had been cool back home in Florida.
“So far in our relationship, Pudge, I’ve seen your chicken legs entirely too often,” the Colonel deadpanned. “So, Alaska. Sell us some cigarettes.” And then somehow, the Colonel talked me into paying five dollars for a pack of Marlboro Lights I had no intention of ever smoking. He asked Alaska to join us, but she said, “I have to find Takumi and tell him about The Honk.” She turned to me and asked, “Have you seen him?” I had no idea whether I’d seen Takumi, since I had no idea who he was. I just shook my head.
“All right. Meet ya at the lake in a few minutes, then.” The Colonel nodded.
At the edge of the lake, just before the sandy (and, the Colonel told me, fake) beach, we sat down in an Adirondack swing. I made the obligatory joke: “Don’t grab my boob.” The Colonel gave an obligatory laugh, then asked, “Want a smoke?” I had never smoked a cigarette, but when in Rome . . .
“Is it safe here?”
“Not really,” he said, then lit a cigarette and handed it to me. I inhaled. Coughed. Wheezed. Gasped for breath. Coughed again. Considered vomiting. Grabbed the swinging bench, head spinning, and threw the cigarette to the ground and stomped on it, convinced my Great Perhaps did not involve cigarettes.
“Smoke much?” He laughed, then pointed to a white speck across the lake and said, “See that?”
“Yeah,” I said. “What is that? A bird?”
“It’s the swan,” he said.
“Wow. A school with a swan. Wow.”
“That swan is the spawn of Satan. Never get closer to it than we are now.”
“It has some issues with people. It was abused or something. It’ll rip you to pieces. The Eagle put it there to keep us from walking around the lake to smoke.”
“Mr. Starnes. Code name: the Eagle. The dean of students. Most of the teachers live on campus, and they’ll all bust you. But only the Eagle lives in the dorm circle, and he sees all. He can smell a cigarette from like five miles.”
“Isn’t his house back there?” I asked, pointing to it. I could see the house quite clearly despite the darkness, so it followed he could probably see us.
“Yeah, but he doesn’t really go into blitzkrieg mode until classes start,” Chip said nonchalantly.
“God, if I get in trouble my parents will kill me,” I said.
“I suspect you’re exaggerating. But look, you’re going to get in trouble. Ninety-nine percent of the time, your parents never have to know, though. The school doesn’t want your parents to think you became a fuckup here any more than you want your parents to think you’re a fuckup.” He blew a thin stream of smoke forcefully toward the lake. I had to admit: He looked cool doing it. Taller, somehow. “Anyway, when you get in trouble, just don’t tell on anyone. I mean, I hate the rich snots here with a fervent passion I usually reserve only for dental work and my father. But that doesn’t mean I would rat them out. Pretty much the only important thing is never never never never rat.”
“Okay,” I said, although I wondered: If someone punches me in the face, I’m supposed to insist that I ran into a door? It seemed a little stupid. How do you deal with bullies and assholes if you can’t get them into trouble? I didn’t ask Chip, though.
“All right, Pudge. We have reached the point in the evening when I’m obliged to go and find my girlfriend. So give me a few of those cigarettes you’ll never smoke anyway, and I’ll see you later.”
I decided to hang out on the swing for a while, half because the heat had finally dissipated into a pleasant, if muggy, eighty-something, and half because I thought Alaska might show up. But almost as soon as the Colonel left, the bugs encroached: no-see-ums (which, for the record, you can see) and mosquitoes hovered around me in such numbers that the tiny noise of their rubbing wings sounded cacophonous. And then I decided to smoke.
Now, I did think, The smoke will drive the bugs away. And, to some degree, it did. I’d be lying, though, if I claimed I became a smoker to ward off insects. I became a smoker because 1. I was on an Adirondack swing by myself, and 2. I had cigarettes, and 3. I figured that if everyone else could smoke a cigarette without coughing, I could damn well, too. In short, I didn’t have a very good reason. So yeah, let’s just say that 4. it was the bugs.
I made it through three entire drags before I felt nauseous and dizzy and only semipleasantly buzzed. I got up to leave. As I stood, a voice behind me said:
“So do you really memorize last words?”
She ran up beside me and grabbed my shoulder and pushed me back onto the porch swing.
“Yeah,” I said. And then hesitantly, I added, “You want to quiz me?”
“JFK,” she said.
“That’s obvious,” I answered.
“Oh, is it now?” she asked.
“No. Those were his last words. Someone said, ‘Mr. President, you can’t say Dallas doesn’t love you,’ and then he said, ‘That’s obvious, ’ and then he got shot.”
She laughed. “God, that’s awful. I shouldn’t laugh. But I will,” and then she laughed again. “Okay, Mr. Famous Last Words Boy. I have one for you.” She reached into her overstuffed backpack and pulled out a book. “Gabriel GarcIa Márquez. The General in His Labyrinth. Absolutely one of my favorites. It’s about SimOn BolIvar.” I didn’t know who SimOn BolIvar was, but she didn’t give me time to ask. “It’s a historical novel, so I don’t know if this is true, but in the book, do you know what his last words are? No, you don’t. But I am about to tell you, Señor Parting Remarks.”