E. G. Fabricant
|From Matters Familiar. Adrift in his own life and desperate for a belief system, a young man finds direction and purpose from a surprising source.|
The teen-aged Volvo, a kaleidoscope of rust, gray primer, and gloss red, wheezed into a ground-floor space in the Twelfth Street garage. Marie Kohlfeldt snapped off the ignition and glared.
“For Christ’s sake, Don. Do you have to do that with the kid in the car? And today, of all days?”
Her husband of nine months pinched the roach delicately and sucked the last life out of its glowing coal. “Jesus, honey, cut me some slack. Ronald Reagan’s been in charge for five months and the band hasn’t played so much as a toilet in six weeks. I’m having enough trouble dealing with another Catholic in the house.”
Marie sighed, climbed out, and forced the rear door open. She leaned into the back seat and lifted the baby into his christening blanket. “If we get through this, it’ll be the first promise to me you’ve kept since our wedding day!”
Don’s ponytail trembled lazily while he held in the last of the smoke. He exhaled with more force than necessary. “Go ahead?I’ll be along.”
Marie tried to kick the door shut but it stopped halfway with a rusty croak. She slumped into it until it latched. Good thing there’ll be a priest present. Otherwise, I’d have to confess to breaking the Sixth Commandment. Cooing and bubbling saliva brought her out of it. She smiled at the tiny, swaddled face as she emerged from the garage’s darkness and headed up the alley toward the Cathedral’s front steps. The bluff of its doeskin-colored stone protected the momentary peace.
Still absorbed as she made the corner, her vague sense of a physical presence was confirmed by sharp odors and a near-collision. She saw his boots first, shoulder-width apart?buckles and smooth, black leather up the calf; early aviator, maybe, but for the moldy cracks and dilapidation. His trousers featured sidelong stripes of hand-applied yellow material. For the effect, they might have been cavalry jodhpurs, rather than black Slim-fit jeans long ago consigned to thrift. The filthy fatigue jacket was anonymous. Its name-and-rank identifiers had been torn away and replaced with an amalgam of patches, pins, and bric-a-brac that added up to a busted-back and grounded starship commander from a nearby galaxy. A Jamaican-flag, knit cap, and greasy dreadlocks framed a stubbled face, inches from hers, that revealed nothing but wear. The eyes were masked by heavy wraparounds. The utter calm in the sound that emerged from between his unexpectedly sturdy teeth nipped her shock and fear.
“What’s his name?”
A dirty index finger touched the infant’s downy cheek. “Beautiful.”
With that, he spun around and took the handlebars of an old bicycle festooned with street flotsam?improvised reflectors, foil-and-hanger antennae, and miscellaneous logos?and draped with makeshift saddlebags crammed with repossessions. He guided its flaccid tires away from her, up the K Street Mall.
Don loped up behind her. “What was that all about?”
“Nothing, I guess,” she said, as she watched the figure recede.
Inside, Marie pulled the blanket away from the infant, which roused him enough to mewl a little.
The priest nodded toward her. “And what name do you give this child?”
The priest winced slightly. “‘Halston’?”
“Just Halston,” she said, beaming into the little pink face. “Halston Kohlfeldt.”
Fading leaves brushing against the canted classroom windows was the only sound after Halston finished his question.
Perched on the edge of his desk, Brother Ambrose folded his arms and frowned. “Mr. Kohlfeldt, The Celestine Prophecy is not on the study list for sophomore religion here at Christian Brothers. Your search for spiritual meaning will be guided by Scripture and accepted theology?just like everyone else’s. What you read outside class is your business.”
Halston sighed, slung his backpack, and headed for the door, dogged by the usual exchanges of nudges and murmurs. Adrianna Wong caught him by the elbow in the hallway. “Hey, Aristotle! Gonna pick up from last year and start ’97 as the designated deep-thinker of the Class of ’99?”
His wan smile breached the embarrassment. “Yeah?I guess.”
“So,” she said as they merged into the stream of hallway bodies. “Will I see you at ‘Christians in Action’ tonight?”
“Dunno,” he said hesitantly. “I’m kinda leaning toward Philosophy Club this year.”
She covered her disappointment some with playfulness. “Oh, I get it. A big talker, but not much at putting beliefs into action.”
“It’s hard when they’re not fully formed yet.” He looked a little wounded, and Adrianna was sorry. He was oblivious. “You wanna get some coffee or something after school? I don’t start at Jasper’s ’til next week.”
“Can’t,” she said. “I’ve got Band and Chorus all afternoon, then piano practice. Back here for CIA, then dinner late and homework. Ugh.”
“Is Rich going to do Chorus again this year?”
“That’s what he says. He’s also thinking about Debate and Chess Club. Wants to”?she posted digital quotation marks in the air?”’round out his vocal skills and network more.'”
“Wow–he’s becoming quite the resumé-builder. His future as a freak is in serious jeopardy. Okay, tonight’s out. What about lunch? I’ll see if I can round up Rich and Eugenio.”
She fondled his arm and made him look at her. “I’ll be there.”
The first meeting of the Philosophy Club ran long. Opinions were loose and immoderate, pushed along by general ignorance and the usual adolescent hormones and insecurities. Brother Ambrose presided, tolerantly and ineffectively. Halston was lucky to catch Rich after Chorus and traded the price of a coffee for a ride to midtown. Nineteenth and L Streets wasn’t exactly an easy freeway exit between Oak Park and the Pocket, but it was only five blocks from the upstairs apartment Halston shared with his mother.
A reclaimed firehouse, New Helvetia’s bakery, caffeine, and conversation attracted the post-elementary demographic city-wide, as well as neighbors who had graduated and acquired sufficient possessions to be aspiring Metrosexuals. He ran in, paid for two large lattés, and delivered one to Rich at the curb, bidding him good-bye. He looked at his watch. Shit–It’s after seven, he thought. Mom will be waiting dinner. Pulling out his paperback copy of The Celestine Prophecy, he combined reading and sipping as he strode south on 19th Street in the failing light.
Sodium vapor was sputtering awake in places as he stepped off the curb into N Street, lost in the text. A black Explorer shattered his concentration. Time tolled as he processed the cell phone, the raised eyes, and the bright, blue grille medallion. Its legibility indicated that panicked braking had barely begun. The blackout Halston anticipated was overwhelmed by a force, cold but brighter than burning magnesium, that struck him in the back and propelled him to the opposite curb. It loosened its grip and he fell. Halston had no sense of how long he lay there, just of sequence. He stared upward, heard the SUV’s wailing tires, and saw a face floating over his.
“Buddy? BUDDY! You okay? Jesus Christ! Where’d you come from? Where’s your board?”
“Your board, man. Hell of a move, to get out of my way like that. You hurt?”
“Don’t know?Don’t think so.”
“Can you move?”
Halston tested his extremities. He sat up.
“Wow. Good,” said the driver, who came out of his crouch and started back-pedaling as he looked nervously around. “Look–if you’re all right, I’ll just–I’m late, okay?” He bounded away and was gone.
Halston looked at his feet. The white toecaps of his Chuck Taylor sneakers bore dark abrasions. Nothing else on him was so much as disturbed. His backpack was in place and his book and half-consumed coffee were at his side. He snagged them after struggling to his feet, and looked around. A block east on N, he detected a figure, barely revealed by surrounding shadows. It seemed to watch him, then pivoted slowly, throwing a glint of reflected light from dark eyeglasses. He watched it move away, pushing something with wheels.
Halston dropped his things on the kitchen table.
“In the bedroom, Hal. I’m getting in the shower. Check the meat in a few minutes, will you?”
“Yeah–okay.” He studied his stuff, wanting her to help him understand what had just happened. Not now, I guess. He shrugged, straddled one of the mismatched vinyl dinette chairs, and retreated into his book.
“Honey, I’ve got to cover Gina’s shift tonight, so–”
Marie arrived in the kitchen, in her second waitress’s uniform and drying her hair, just about the time that smoke began to curl from the oven. “Goddamn it!” She raced to it and tore the door open. Smoke billowed out. Impulsively, she barehanded the pan onto the counter. It clattered a foot or two while she cursed and fanned her hands. She wheeled, hands now on hips, to find Halston still in his seat, gaping.
“Halston Kohlfeldt, I swear to God–sometimes you’re as useless as that ex-husband of mine!” She saw she’d stunned and hurt him, and softened. “Aw, Christ, honey–I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. Really. Here–” She reached into the freezer and shoved a frozen entreé onto the counter. “Heat this up, then clean up and get on that homework.” She crossed to him, hugged his head to her abdomen and kissed his cowlick. “Don’t wait up, okay?”
Halston nodded without looking at her. He heard her receding footfalls, her key cycling the distant deadbolt–then nothing.
Its baccalaureate over, the Christian Brothers Class of 1999 spilled from the Cathedral onto its paving-stone plaza. Whoops filled the air, half-open royal-blue gowns billowed, and matching mortarboards flew into the bright, midday sky from all directions.
Halston found Adrianna first and kissed her longingly. She reciprocated.
“Get a room, you cheap–!”
Eugenio and Rich skipped over, arms draped over shoulders. They all traded hugs and high-fives.
“WHOOOO!” shrieked Rich. “Four down and two to go!” He pointed his fingers like six-guns at his friends. “I’m off to Sac City College. Who’s coming with me?”
Adrianna was perplexed. “YOU? Community college? With your father’s money and influence? Me, I mean, I’m poor–”
“It’s the grades, stupid,” Rich replied. “And there’s the character-building factor. I guess Pops wants to assure himself I won’t be as big a fuck-off in the second four years as the last. How about you, Eugenio?”
“Yup?me, too. My grades and scores were okay but being the class clown didn’t leave a lot of time for anything else. Besides, my folks are still paying tuition for three behind me.”
The trio looked at Halston. “Me? Yeah, all of the above. I’ll be there in the fall, I guess.”
Rich shook his head and raised his right arm, palm out.
They all leaned in, grinning, and wrapped their upraised hands around his. “All for us–and nothing for anyone else!” they bellowed.
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