Sept. 1, 1997


Josh Becker

        Mrs. Cuttleman wandered slowly along the aisle between the desks handing back report papers along with various comments:
        "Betsy, just barely acceptable; Harold, first half is good, the second half is ridiculous; Sally, nice job; Bill, an inspired bit of lunacy . . . "
        Mrs. Cuttleman arrived at Brian's desk, paused until she forced eye contact with the supremely bored fourteen year old. The teacher handed Brian his paper, holding it out with two fingers like a soiled diaper.
        "See me after class."
        This being the one and only comment of its nature, everyone in the freshman high school English class turned and looked at Brian disdainfully. Someone mumbled, "Loser." Brian shrugged, rolling his eyes. Nevertheless, it stung.
        Brian slouched as he stood in front of Mrs. Cuttleman's desk after class, looking severely uninterested, his hands jammed into his pockets, his long, dirty blond hair hanging in his face. The teacher slowly finished reading something, then glanced up at Brian.
        "Well, Brian, you've managed to blow every single assignment this semester. If you blow this next, 10-page, biographical paper off, too, you'll flunk. Got it? So, you had better do at least a minimally acceptable job or be prepared to attend summer school. Am I getting through to you?"
        Brian sighed painfully, then nodded and said, "Yeah." To himself he said, "There's no way in hell I'm spending the summer taking English again, not a fuckin' chance!"
        Mrs. Cuttleman turned away, her point made.
        Brian got off the school bus down at the end of a lonely rural road -- the very last stop: the end of the line -- nowhereville. Home of the losers.
        "How the fuck did I get here?" asked Brian aloud to no one. Of course, how he got there was no mystery at all. His dad lost his job with GM, then his cousin, Sid, got him a job here in Ishpeming, Michigan, in the post office. That was a year ago. Eternity. The kids in this town were the squarest, most-unhip group of kids in the whole fucking country. There wasn't one person in the entire town that Brian gave the tinniest little shit about. Back in Detroit he had all kinds of friends: Jim and Stan and Laura and Steve, the whole gang. Here, nada. Nothin'. Dick. Now he was a loser in Nowhereville.
        Brian dug a mashed pack of Camel filters out of his pocket, lit up a crooked cig and coughed heartily. Ah, sweet freedom. None of these kids even smoked cigarettes, for Christ sake! If he pulled out a joint at a party these people would have a heart attack. If he had a joint. As he wandered along the road he passed the one other mailbox out here in Nowhereville, "J. Dexter," it said in faded chipping paint on the rusty metal mailbox, the red flag rusted right off, the wooden post lopsided. Wads of old junk mail hung from the box and sat in decomposing lumps on the ground around it.
        Brian flicked his ash disdainfully toward the mailbox. "Huh? Who the hell is J. Dexter, anyway?"
        The next day in English class everyone had piles of books on their desks, and was busily writing their biographical papers -- everyone except Brian that is. Instead, he doodled lethargically in the margins of blank paper, staring longingly out the window.
        Brian slowly turned back inside and found Mrs. Cuttleman staring right at him, shaking her head. Brian somehow managed to slouch even lower in his seat.
        Brian walked down the far hall near the gym. This was where the glass cases of sports trophies and photos were. Brian had passed all this junk a hundred times and could really give a shit less about sports, organized activities of any kind, and particularly anything with physical contact. Brian's favorite sport was smoking. He chuckled at the thought, then glanced up into the glass case and saw an old black and white photo of a handsome football player named Jake Dexter.
        Within Brian's supremely bored mind a connection was made.
        "That couldn't be the same person that lives across the street, could it?"
        Brian kept looking and there was Jake Dexter's name on several other trophies and plaques -- the guy was obviously some hotshit athlete in 1965, 1966 and 1967. Hmmm?
        As Brian got off the bus and fished around in his pocket for his cigs, his eyes strayed to the crooked mailbox with "J. Dexter" on it. He lit up and slowly wandered toward the mailbox and wooded driveway.
        Brian could just barely see the rundown little house, set 20 yards back up a rutted, overgrown driveway. He could see no further than that when a big nearby dog started to bark. Brian hastily high-tailed it in the other direction.
        At dinner that night Brian brought it up. "Anyone ever seen J. Dexter from across the road?"
        His mother, father, and three younger sisters all looked back at him blankly.
        Brian kept going, waving his fork for emphasis, "Across the street, with the crooked mailbox and the junk mail all over the place."
        "He's a crazy man," offered Trish, his 11-year old sister.
        "Have you seen him?"
        "No," said Trish, "but I've heard . . ."
        "Heard what?"
        "Well . . ." Trish continued, "he collects garbage at night. In an old red pickup truck."
        Brian's dad pointed his finger. "I've seen that pickup truck late at night when I'm coming home from work. The guy that drives it is some sort of long-haired hippy freak."
        "He was wounded in the war," added Brian's mother.
        "Which war?" asked Brian's father.
        His mother shrugged. "I'm not sure. Vietnam, I suppose. I think he's too young to've fought in World War Two."
        Information began to boil up to the surface of Brian's bored brain that he didn't even know he knew. "It must be Vietnam, if he was in high school in 1965, 66, and 67. World War Two ended in 1945." Brian looked around, unsure of whose voice had just said these things. His whole family was surprised, too. Brian asked his mother, "How did you know he was wounded?"
        "Harriet told me. She grew up here."
        "Harriet Stover," snorted dad. "I'm sure she started the story with,'I'm not one to talk,' then told you everything she'd ever heard in her whole life."
        Mom waved her hand. "All right, enough. Just lay off Harriet, she's my friend."
        "Fine," said dad, "then let's pick on Brian instead." Dad pulled a school progress report out of his shirt pocket and tossed it in front of Brian. "Wanna explain that?"
        All eyes were on Brian. "Uh, I'm having trouble in English."
        Dad nodded, "You're telling me. If you fail the next assignment then you flunk, right?"
        "Uh . . . Yeah."
        "Then I'd say you'd better not fail your next assignment, otherwise, whatever the school does to you will look like nothin' when I'm done. You readin' me loud and clear, mister?"
        Brian stared down at the floor. "Yeah. I'm readin you."
        Standing in the school library, Brian stared blankly at the shelves of biographies, unable to focus on a single title. Then, like magic, he found himself at another shelf entirely, the shelf of old school yearbooks. Brian pulled out the 1965 volume, sat down and leafed through it. All the photgraphs were in black and white, many people wore thick black eyeglass frames, crew cuts, tall hairdos on the girls with waves and flips, all pretty silly-looking, he thought. His eyes then stopped on the freshman photo of Jake Dexter -- no question about it, a handsome guy. And there he was in 1966 and 1967. As a senior he was captain of both the football and baseball teams, as well captain of the debate team, a member of the science club, and a member of the model railroad and computer club.
        "And now he collects garbage at night and doesn't take in his mail," thought Brian, "and everyone thinks he's a crazy man. That must've been a bad wound he got in Vietnam. In the head, I bet."
        The bus pulled past Brian revealing the lopsided mailbox. Brian lit a bent cig, walking slowly toward the mailbox. This time he not only got to the mailbox, but several steps past it before big dogs began barking. Brian froze. Two big German shepards came running up the rutted driveway directly at Brian. Heopened his mouth, but no sound came out. He couldn't move. He had become a pillar of salt; an inanimate object. Both dogs jumped up on Brian and licked him heartily. Finally able to swallow, Brian reached out his shaking hands petting both dogs.
        "Nice doggies," he croaked.
        A tall woman wearing worn blue jeans, untied army boots, and carrying a deer rifle came striding up.
        "Can I help you?" she asked, the rifle aimed down at the ground.
        Brian coughed, he hadn't expected that Jake Dexter might have a wife. "I, uh, I'm your neighbor." He pointed to his right.
        Well," said Brian, "I was wondering if Mr. Jake Dexter was home?"
        "Mr. Jake Dexter?" she repeated, sounding amused.
        "That's who lives here, isn't it?"
        "Yep. He sure does. Come on." She turned and walked quickly back toward the house, the two dogs right behind her. Brian looked around, then helplessly followed along, circumstances suddenly taking control.
        As Brian neared the small, run-down house, he also entered a never-neverland of junk: ten lawnmowers in various states of disrepair, eight motorcycles all missing parts, a row of vacuum cleaners, maybe 20 bicycles, big rusty machine parts, furniture, tools, a multitude of car tires, on and on. It almost made Brian's head spin -- an amusement park of refuse.
        The woman turned to him as she stepped up on the porch. "If you ever need a bicycle or a vacuum cleaner or anything else, let me know, OK? You can't beat the prices."
        "How much for a ten-speed bicycle?" asked Brian eagerly.
        "Twenty bucks for a good one; ten bucks for a broken one."
        Brian nodded, that was a good deal.
        The woman opened the door for him, ushering him inside. Brian paused for a brief moment, considering that he might be entering the house of a mass-murderer, then shrugged and went inside. The woman followed after.
        Inside the house was very much like the outside the house, only darker. There were rows upon rows of cool junk: twenty-five electric guitars, stereo turntables, amplifiers, and speakers, cameras of every shape and size. Amazing!
        The woman went into the kitchen, setting aside the deer rifle.
        "Want something to drink?" she asked.
        "You like wine?"
        "Uh . . . Sure," said Brian, thinking to himself, "maybe I'm starting to look old for fourteen."
        "I make it myself," said the woman. She pulled the cork out of a wine bottle with no label, filled two jelly jars with red wine and handed one to Brian.
        Brian took a sip and to his uninitiated palette it seemed rather dry, but certainly not bad.
        "It's good," he said.
        The woman took a tiny little sip, swished it around in her mouth, then frowned. "Too much oak, I think. What do you think?"
        Brian took another sip, a smaller one this time, swished it around in his mouth, swallowed, then nodded. "Maybe a little."
        The woman nodded, too, seriously noting his comment. Brian was surprised that the opinion of a 14-year old should mean anything to an adult, particularly about wine.
        Brian took a hearty slug of his wine and could feel a buzz beginning to warm the ends of his extremities. Cool. "So, uh, so you expect Mr. Dexter soon?"
        The woman smiled. "I'm Mr. Dexter." She put out her large hand. "Jake Dexter, nice to meet you."
        Brian's mouth dropped open in shock. "But you're a woman." Slowly, Brian's hand came forward and the woman shook it firmly.
        "Not technically," said Jake Dexter.
        Brian took his hand back, suddenly not knowing what to do with it, like it was covered with grease. "What does that mean?"
        "Technically, I'm still a man."
        Brian's 14-year old mind could not comprehend the possibilities of what any of this might mean. "Are you a homosexual?"
        "No," said Dexter, shaking his head. "I'm not."
        "Are you a transvestite?"
        Jake smiled. "I'm not wearing women's clothes, am I?"
        "Are you crazy?" asked Brian, suddenly kind of frightened.
        Jake shook his head in surprise, smiling. "You really don't know?" Brian shook his head. Jake sighed. "Huh. I thought everyone knew." Jake got up, walked over to a pile of stereo receivers and retrieved a red fruitcake tin with Santa Claus on it. "You smoke pot?"
        Brian was astounded. The question he'd been dying to hear for almost a year. "Yeah, I do."
        "Cool," said Jake, sitting back down, opening the tin and revealing a big bag of weed. "I grow it myself." Jake began rolling a joint.
        "Thought everybody knew what?" prompted Brian.
        Jake rolled a big fatty and torched it up. He took a monster hit and passed it to Brian.
        "Well . . . " he blew out his hit and made smoke-rings. "I got my balls and most of dick shot off in Vietnam. May 7th, 1968 in a firefight outside Da Nang. I'd been in-country eleven fuckin' months. 28 days and a wake-up and I was outta there. Well, I got outta the shit 28 days early, but missing some vital parts." Jake took a big gulp of wine.
        Brian took several savory hits in a row. This combined with the wine made him loose enough to ask, "So, like, how do you pee?"
        Jake chuckled sadly, "They rebuilt my dick with skin they took from my thigh. I can pee, but that's it."
        "Then you turned into a woman?"
        "Basically. When I stopped taking the hormone pills is when it really happened. You know, testosterone, which your balls produce." Jake slugged back his glass of wine, got up and went for another. "You want some more?"
        Brian threw back his glass as well, handing the empty to Jake. "Actually, that's pretty darn good wine."
        "Thanks." Jake took the glasses to the kitchen and filled them both. Jake handed Brian his glass back, then sat down and crossed his leg in a distinctly feminine way. "Anything else you wanna know?"
        "Well . . ." Brian considered the question. "Will you sell me some weed?"
        "No," Jake stated flatly.
        "Oh. Sorry. I didn't mean anything, man, I mean . . . I don't know what I mean."
        Jake handed Brian the fruitcake tin. "You can have some, though. Take as much as you want. But don't tell anyone I gave it to you or I'll get in trouble."
        Brian couldn't believe it. "You're kiddin'! I can take as much as I want?"
        Jake smiled. "Within reason, on the condition you keep your mouth shut." Jake went to the kitchen and returned with a baggy. "Here."
        Brian wanted to take a half ounce, but instead took about an eighth of an ounce -- a handful. "Can I have a couple of papers, too?"
        "Sure. Go ahead."
        "Thanks." Brian took three rolling papers, put them in the baggy with the weed and shoved the bag in his pocket. Brian stood up, wobbling slightly. "Well, I guess I better go."
        "Yeah. Sure. OK."
        "It was nice meeting you."
        "It was nice meeting you, too. What's your name?"
        "Well, Brian. Nobody has ever bothered to wander back here before in all the years I've lived here. If you feel like wandering back here again, go ahead and do it, OK?"
        Brian stepped toward the door, then turned and put out his hand. "Thank you, Jake. I think I might."
        Jake smiled. "I hope you do. And if you or anyone you know needs a bike or a guitar or a vacuum or whatever, just let me know."
        Brian grinned. "OK. I will."
        Brian stepped out the front door. The two German shepards came up and snuffled him playfully.
        Jake said, "That's Max and that's Vinny. They're vicious killers."
        Brian petted them both, then started up the rutted driveway with the dogs following along.
        As Brian negotiated the muddy ruts, wonderfully buzzed from the wine and pot, he said to himself in awe, "Oh, man! And I think I've got troubles. Jesus! I don't know what troubles are." He instinctively reached down and grabbed his balls. Yep, still there, thank God.
        When Brian reached the end of the driveway and the road, a choice presented itself: turn left and go home, possibly running into his mother or his father, either of whom might detect he was zoned and give him a world of shit, or turn right, heading into town and play some video games.
        As Brian boogied up the road toward town, feeling as good as he'd felt in a whole year, he thought about Jake Dexter. He thought specifically,"this guy will make a great biographical report paper. Nobody in that whole dumb class'll have a paper as good. How could they?" Then another part of Brian's brain that he generally ignored kicked into use, "'68, Da Nang, in-country, 28 days and a wake-up, part of his thigh." Research. Then yet another part of his brain came into use. "But he said I had to keep my mouth shut. Hmmm?"
        It was a half mile into town, then a half mile back and he had to be home for dinner in about an hour. He'd walk off the buzz and nobody would know nothin'. He felt the bag of weed in his pocket and grinned. Cool.
        "Aw, fuck him. What's the difference? He's just some crazy nut living in a pile of junk."
        As Brian decimated a gaggle of alien spaceships, he thought, "Well, shit, he'll never know about it. What does he care if I write a school paper about him?"
        That night, following a nap after dinner, Brian sat at the desk in he and his sister's room. He had a pencil poised over a piece of blank paper. "68, Na Dang . . . outland or something, and they used part of his thigh to rebuild his dick. Shit!" The facts were fading fast, he could feel it, just like sand leaking out of a bag. 'Course, he could easily just go back there and ask Jake, he'd probably tell him all this shit again. Hell, he only lived across the street. And he had homegrown pot, and homemade wine, and guitars, and stereos, and everything else under the sun, including kitchen sinks, no doubt. And he didn't seem to notice that Brian was fourteen. Nor did he seem to think that Brian was a loser.
        Poor fuck. Hiding there, driving around at night collecting junk, doesn't know if he's a man or a woman.
        Brian put the pencil in his mouth and began flicking it with his finger, rattling his teeth.
        "After everyone's asleep I can sneak out and smoke a joint. Cool." He felt the bag in his pocket, grinning deviously. Then another cool thought shot through his head. "Maybe Jake's up and I'll burn one with him?"
        Mrs. Cuttleman entered the classroom, set her purse and some books on the desk, then seated herself. Today was the day the reports were due. A serious air sat over the assembly.
        "I've decided that we will read our reports aloud."
        A general moan arose amongst the masses.
        Mrs. Cuttleman smiled. "It's not as bad as all that. I mean, not if you did your work, that is. That having been openly stated, let's go right to the heart of the issue." She pointed directly at Brian. "Brian, stand and read your report, please."
        Brian reluctantly stood, all eyes are trained on him, the expectation rather high that he'd blow the whole deal. Brian retrieved several crumpled-up pieces of paper from his pocket -- the same pocket where his bag of weed was -- unfolded the paper, coughed, then began to read:
        "Thomas Edison. Thomas Edison was born in Milan, Ohio in 1847, but he spent most of his early life right here in Michigan, in Port Huron . . ."


--Josh Becker