Excerpt from Cool Nation

This is the eighth section from the fourth chapter of the novel. All other excerpts are on the sidebar.

Lives Forming

My older brother was moved to the Wornall Home for Boys that same fall. For fighting. For emotional instability. For the decision on the part of the school counselor that he needed a more controlled environment than they could offer. My parents, at their wits� end, concurred, this having been the third school to reject him.
Jackie had broken some other kid�s nose after being called loony by a ring of tormentors. He had also broken one of his own fingers in the process. The cast he wore, when we went to visit him at the home that Sunday, held the index finger in an upraised position, and laughing he later told me he wished it had been the middle one.
He showed us around the home, the room he shared with several other boys, the mess hall, the basketball court, his counselor. The counselor was a kind man, gentle and young, and he seemed to hold great hope that Jackie was like any of the rest of us, and that he only needed warmth and understanding. This wasn�t so much spoken as implied, but even at that young age I could sense it, and sense also the way my parents took it.
That counselor didn�t know Jackie yet, but he would.
As my parents talked to the man, and as Stephanie and Jean and Allen went over to the stables to look at the horses, Jackie took me for a walk. We went down to the banks along the Blue River, and in the red October grass sat and watched the brownish water curl past. He sat with his arms enfolding his knees, staring at the water, his muscles taut and drawn beneath the t-shirt. I watched him. We sat that way a long time.
�I never wanted to be crazy,� he finally said. “Never.”
His confessions often started with me that way. I don�t know why. He had been closest to Cary because they both had it, but Cary was locked up in St. Joe now. Jackie couldn�t confess to him anymore. Maybe he confessed to me because he thought I was the next best thing to Cary. Or maybe just because he thought I had it too, or one day would. I was too young to understand any of it though, except for the simple fact that he only needed someone to listen.
�You�re not crazy,� I said.
�I am. My mind�s all fucked up and I know it. You know it. So do they.� He jerked his head back, toward the home, the city, society, and everything that had scorned him. �I�m so tired of it. I wish it would just stop.�
But it wouldn�t stop. It would only grow and intensify and finally consume him, and I think he knew even then that that was the truth, and nothing would change it.
�Maybe someday it�ll stop,� I said, since at that age I still believed that anything was possible–as in some ways I still do.
�No.� Violently he shook his head and then looked up at the sky, blinking back his tears. �No, it never will. It never fucking will.� He looked at me with those eyes that never really seemed to see, never comprehend, never love, but that always wanted to. �Come on,� he said. �We might as well go back.�
We walked back up the bank and across the field to where my parents were cautiously listening to the counselor at a picnic table under the trees.
Later we said good-bye to Jackie, each of us hugging him, my mother hugging him especially long, then we drove away in the wagon, he waving to us from the drive.
All the way home Mom and Dad held hands, Mom looking out the window, sniffling, staring at the passing houses, saying not a word.
I heard her crying in their bedroom later. Stephanie and Jean heard her with me, and we listened as Dad talked to her in soothing undertones; tones that already I knew couldn�t change the thing that had happened, or prevent the things that were to come.
As they talked, the girls and I went outside to see the horses, and without speaking we bridled them and mounted and rode out down the drive�Jean and Stephanie on Shasta, I on Nancy. We headed for Indian Valley, and the creek, then the hills. Riding there wouldn�t replace our brother, riding there wouldn�t fix anything, but somehow it always felt as though it would.

�Not on our team,� Hastings said.
�But I don�t have any other team to join.�
�I don�t care. Not on ours.�
�It�s not your call, Hastings,� Seth said. Seth and I were always on the same team, as Hastings knew.
�It is so. I�m captain.�
Seth called then to Mr. Helms. So did Hastings. Helms looked over at us. He was a beer-gutted man, balding, once a football star at some junior college, now the enlightened guide of our school�s gym class�today, flag football. �What?” he said.
�Durrand can�t join our team,� Hastings said. �We�ve already got eleven.�
�We can have one player sit out each set of downs,� Seth said.
Helms looked at us, almost spitting tobacco out of habit, then remembering he couldn�t have any during class. �Durrand,� he said, �get over there with the greens.�
Seth started to go with me.
�Stay where you are, Drummond.�
Seth stayed, I went, going to a different team that already had eleven also but that was primarily made up of klutzes like me; the group of boys who hadn�t quickly enough joined other teams, or who had tried and been rejected. The slow, the weak, the uncertain. We would be slaughtered by Hastings� team, but those boys were being groomed for the school team, and Helms was coach of that too.
On the grassy field, bordered by poplars and overlit by blue sky, we played. The score at hour�s end was what you would expect it to be, and we were laughed and jeered and herded toward the locker room in our bond of inferiority, a bond we each needed as much as we resented.
There was nothing Seth could do to break that bond. He and I knew where he was ranked, and where I was too. It was established early on, and once established you were never allowed to forget it. That was your place, and if you let them they would keep you there always. Those were still the years when I thought they would keep me there always, when I felt I would be branded Loser for life. But life is long, adolescent rank fleeting, and justice if not always swift at least exacting. I would learn this later.
Even so, even now, still there is shock when, in some far away town or perhaps a town near yours or perhaps even your own, one of the weak or rejected is found hanging from a tree, or maybe just fished from some muddy stream. Or worse, when one of the weak and unstable, after a lifetime of being bullied, snaps and takes an automatic and clears out a hallway. Each time there is shock. In a culture that glorifies bullying, slaughter and firepower there is shock.
There was never any shock in that to us. You�d feel sorry for the dead ones, you�d feel sorry for their parents, but you understood the way those kids who�d snapped must have felt. I guess I always will understand it, though you’re not supposed to admit that. Sure I could identify with them; millions of kids can. But I wasn’t one for harming others, or putting a noose around my neck. If I did I�d just have to go through this whole life, and all of its lesson, again. I knew this even then, as I also knew that years of glorious joy awaited me somewhere in the future, if I could just get to them whole, and not let people like Hastings and Helms deter my progress.
Later, in the locker room, amid the clanging of doors and the exchanging of oaths, Helms passed me as I was changing, then he doubled back. I could feel him looking down at me.
�I heard,� he said, �about your brother. I heard he went to The Home.”
The boys around me fell silent, since any mention of Jackie always brought two reactions: first quiet, then fear.
I said nothing.
�It�s too bad. I used to have him, you know. He was good at ball.� Football? Baseball? Basketball? It didn�t matter. For Helms, life always revolved around some kind of ball. To be worthy to him, you had to be good at one of these. There was nothing else. Already he was mourning my brother�s loss, and trying to comprehend the scrawny kid who had taken his place.
I looked up at his blunt, unknowing face, but still said nothing. There was nothing I would ever say to him on the subject of my brother, or to any of them. It was none of their goddamn business.
�Tell him hello for me,� he said. �Tell him he better watch his ass or they�ll have him over there, and that ain�t no game those boys are playing.�
He waddled away on down the line, with urgings of, �All right, boys, all right. Put a move on it. Put a move on it now.�
Seth and I watched him disappear, then finished dressing.

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