Eight o’clock in the morning, his father smacks the back of his head: Get your ass to school.
Art gets up from the couch in his boxer shorts, wadding up the sheet he sleeps on and stuffing it behind the back cushion. His father sits down, turns the TV on.
In the kitchen, his mother hands him a crumpled sleeve of cookies. He eats them whole in the laundry room as he digs around in the piles on the floor for something to wear. Then he goes to the bathroom to piss, brushing his teeth with his finger and the last nugget of toothpaste.
You got money for lunch? his mother asks as he opens the front door.
Yeah, he says, I got it, and he slams the door behind him.
He walks two blocks to school and meets up with Alex, his best friend, outside the front gate.
You stink, bro, Alex says.
Moms is behind on the laundry, Art sighs.
They give their backpacks to the security guard at the entrance before stepping through the metal detector. When Art walks through, the alarm goes off, and he has to walk through again.
It’s my belt, man, he tells the security guard, who slaps at Art’s shorts, feeling for weapons, and then nods for the boys to go through. They see Sandra, a senior, walking down the hall with two of her friends ahead of her, and Art jogs to catch up.
Hey San-druh, he says.
Shut up, Sandra says, putting a piece of gum in her mouth. Her friends giggle.
Dang, I thought you and me were friends.
Who sold you that crack?
Your mom, he says, making a jerk-off motion in the air.
She hisses and keeps walking.
Art stops in the bathroom, smoothing his hair back with water, doing a dance step in front of the mirror. Michael Jackson died last week, and Art thinks, Mike, this one is for you. He grabs his crotch, gets a drink from the faucet.
Sorry I’m late, he says to Mr. Furtman in history.
We’re sorry, too, Mr. Furtman says. Get your book out.
Yes, sir. He gets his book out, except it’s the wrong book, so he has to dig through his backpack for the right one. He stretches out his legs, wiggles his pen between his fingers.
Exam first thing, Mr. Furtman says, handing him a sheet of paper. Art fills in all D’s for the multiple choice. In response to the essay question Describe three key events that led to the end of the Second World War, he draws a picture of a stick figure holding a gas mask with a bubble coming out of his mouth saying, You mean the war is over????!!!! Awesome!!!
From history he goes to English, then to math. Mrs. Beal never looks at him, never calls on him, just scribbles on the blackboard with her fat ass wiggling. Art kicks the chair in front of him, and Hazel, a cheerleader, turns around and frowns.
Knock it off, Art, she says.
He draws a boner in his notebook.
At lunch, Art meets up with Kyle and Alex, and they walk across the street to a McDonald’s.
Snack wraps, here I come, Alex says.
Snack wraps are gay, Kyle says, laughing.
What are you talking about? Art says. Snack wraps are the bomb, they are good and good for you. He bumps fists with Alex.
Girls eat that shit, man. Girls on a diet, Kyle says.
And you eat dick, so shut the hell up, Art replies.
They pour ketchup and mustard and salt on everything. They throw their wrappers under the bench and wipe their hands on their pants.
So what’s up this weekend? Kyle asks.
Kegger at Brian Westley’s, Alex says. No adult supervision, yo.
You know what that means, Alex says, climbing up onto a bike rack and making his hands into guns to shoot down people crossing the street.
Weed! Kyle says.
Pussy! Art says.
Are you going? Kyle asks Art.
Art shrugs. Probably not. I got business.
He shrugs again. The lunch bell rings and Art jumps off the bike rack, and they walk back to school. They have to go through the metal detector again, and Art sets it off, is patted down, is let through.
Art and Alex dress for gym—Alex doesn’t wear a shirt because he’s buff as hell, but Art wears a long-sleeved undershirt and his shorts pulled down.
My stomach hurts, he tells the coach. I can’t run.
Don’t give me that, Art, the coach says, waving his arm for Art to come out on the field. Do your laps.
I’ll puke, man, I’m serious.
I’m serious. Get your butt out here.
Art sighs, jogs a mile, plays basketball. Danny Alvaro steps on his foot on purpose, but the coach doesn’t see, so it’s not a foul.
Fuck you, Danny! Art shouts.
Get over it, faggot, Danny says.
Later in the game, Art dunks on Danny, and everyone laughs and high-fives. Art runs into the bleachers, then back down, his fists up in the air Rocky-style.
You’re fucking hyper, dude, Alex says.
Art collapses on the ground.
Nurse, he groans. Nurse!
The coach hauls him up by his elbow and sends him to the nurse’s office.
What’s the problem? the nurse says, not looking at him but at her phone.
Broken dreams, aborted hopes, futile expectations, Art says, hitching himself up on the paper-covered bench.
Art raises his brows. The sickness unto death?
The nurse thumbs out a text on her Blackberry.
I don’t think you’re going to find the cure on your phone. No offense, he says.
You think you’re dying, she sighs.
We’re all dying, he says. Like, our souls?
The nurse puts her phone down, rubs her eyes, unimpressed. Cut the shit, Art, are you sick or what?
She takes his temperature, reads the thermometer, swats at his arm. Don’t waste my time. Get out of here.
Last class of the day is biology. It’s dissection day, and Art tips his bin and dumps his frog onto the table.
These fuckers stink, Kyle says, breathing into his elbow.
Art frowns at his dissection diagram. Where are the kidneys, man?
Kyle looks down at the paper, then looks at Art’s frog. I think you took them out already.
But I need the kidneys, Art says. He hacks at the frog with the scissors, then lifts it by its leg and touches Kyle’s hand with it.
Help me, he croaks, sliding the frog down over Kyle’s fingers.
Dude, stop it, Kyle says, pulling away, smiling.
Art dumps his frog back into his bin. I’m ready for the guinea pigs, he says. Frogs suck.
There is a gray smear of something on the table, something from the frog, though the frogs are dry and stringy as old chicken.
Do you see that? Art asks.
See what? Kyle frowns.
Frogs don’t have blood, Kyle says, bored. Art turns his head to the side and retches.
Kyle yelps, pushing him in the ribs. What is your deal, man!
Art straightens, looks back at the table. The smear is gone. Shit, he says.
After school, Art and Alex sit with Kyle, who waits for his mom to pick him up. A freshman walks by, handing out fliers for a show.
See you guys there, the freshman says.
House music, what the fuck, Alex says, looking at the flier.
That DJ’s so gay, Art says.
Fucking freshman douchebags, Kyle says, throwing the flier into a bush. They laugh. They’re sitting in the sun, and Art wipes the back of his neck with his shirt.
Do you ever feel like you’re not really you? Art asks.
Kyle shrugs. No, he says.
Art nods like, cool. I gotta go, he says. The ganja is calling.
He gets up from the ground. The boys bump fists.
As soon as he walks in, he heads for the bathroom, groaning.
Don’t stink the place up, his mom yells.
Too late, Moms, he shouts back.
The toilet is empty; nothing will come out. He stares into the mirror for a moment, mouthing help me with his scariest slasher-movie-victim face. He curls up on the couch to sleep before his father comes home: he sweats, he dreams.
When he wakes up, he smokes some weed while his mother makes dinner. His dad walks in, says, Put that shit out, and Art pinches the tip of the joint and rolls it up in a plastic bag for later.
Dinner’s on the table, his mother says. Art follows his father into the kitchen. He sits down, but he doesn’t touch anything, just looks at his plate, his cheek on his fist.
Eat that, his father says.
Nuh-uh, he says.
He doesn’t have to, his mother says.
Something wrong with your mouth? his dad asks.
I’ve been sick all day, Art says. Actually, I’ve been sick my whole life.
I don’t give a fuck, eat your dinner, his dad says.
Art picks up his fork and eats everything on his plate: hamburger mixed with onion and taco seasoning, canned corn, a slice of white bread.
That’s more like it, his father says.
Anything for you, Pops, Art says, and burps. His mother goes to the living room to watch TV, his father goes to the bedroom, and Art does his homework in the kitchen. There’s a sheet hanging between the two rooms, but it doesn’t block out any of the sound from the living room.
Could you turn it down in there? Art yells. It’s too loud when I’m trying to do this math, he says. His mother doesn’t answer. He scribbles zeros all across the page and then throws his pencil and gets up from the table, looks for his jacket.
Where are you going? his mother asks.
Did you do the dishes?
I’ll do them later, Art says, pulling his jacket from behind a couch pillow.
Not later, Art, now, she says.
Moms, take a pill, all right? Art checks his hair in the mirror next to the door.
Don’t be a smart-ass.
You do it if it’s such a big deal, he says into the mirror.
I do enough around here, Artie.
He turns to look at her. Like what?
Everything for you and your father, that’s what, now shut your mouth.
He shakes his head. You can’t even do the freaking laundry, Moms.
Shut your mouth, she says, swatting the air.
Seriously, my clothes reek like shit. You wanna smell? He goes to where his mother is sitting and leans over her. She cries out. His father comes out of the bedroom.
Hey, his father says, grabbing Art’s arm. What the hell is wrong with you?
Art smiles. Nothing.
He’s getting smart with me, his mother says.
No I wasn’t.
He’s cussing me because he doesn’t want to do the dishes.
His father shakes Art’s arm. You’re a big man, huh? You talk to your mother that way?
I wasn’t cussing. I said freaking.
You said shit, his mother says.
Just forget it, Moms.
Shut your mouth! his mother says.
Damn, Art says, pulling his arm away from his father. People need to just chill.
So you’re the big man now, huh? his father says, his eyes wide so that the whites show all around.
No? What are you?
Can I just go already?
I asked you a question.
Art shrugs, all innocence: I’m not anybody. Do I even exist?
Don’t get smart with me. You think you can do whatever you want? The man of the house, you call the fucking shots? His father breathes in his face. You the big man, Artie?
No, Art says, staring back. You are.
I said you’re the big man. You’re the bad-fucking-ass motherfucker, right?
Artie, his mother says, and puts her hand over her eyes.
You can’t help yourself, can you? His father taps Art’s chest with his finger, hard. You have to act like a fucking clown.
I can’t help it if you’re acting like a straight-up bitch.
His father takes him by the throat and pushes him against the front door. You’re asking for it, you little shit, he says.
Fuck it, go ahead, Art says, holding his arms out wide.
His father hits him, below his eye, and Art falls back on his ass.
Yes! he yells, his face wet, laughing.
You bastard, his father says, almost tender, looking down at his son.
Do it again! Art says.
You’re crazy! his mother shouts.
You already said that, Moms, Art says. You have said that before already today.
His father pulls his belt from his pants. That’s it, he says.
Art grins. Hit me! he screams. The belt buckle splits his skin, he feels himself blooming, full, red, the most beautiful flower, the most glorious meat.
MARYSE MEIJERis the author of Heartbreaker: Stories and the forthcoming Northwood. She lives in Chicago.