Something Else Finally Happened
Lowell Mick White
Lowell Mick White
Lowell Mick White is the author of two books, That Demon Life (Gival Press) and Long Time Ago Good (Slough Press), a story collection. He has been awarded the Dobie-Paisano Fellowship by the University of Texas at Austin and the Texas Institute of Letters, and until recently he was the NEA writer-in-residence at the federal prison for women in Bryan, Texas. He is currently an Assistant Professor of English at Pittsburg State University. This is his second appearance in Amarillo Bay.
Over the weekend a kid committed suicide. He climbed to the top row of the football stadium—which is a huge stadium, it must be at least eight or ten stories tall—and jumped off on the street side, flying off to the west, falling, and smashing up dead on the sidewalk. The campus paper had a big story about it, which I didn't read, though I did hear my boyfriend talk about it. He said it would've made more sense if the guy had killed himself during football season.
Anyway, the guy died on Saturday. The newspaper story was on Monday. Then on Tuesday my first class was an English class, a writing class, and right away the teacher started talking about the suicide, as if it had just happened.
"When I was here as an undergraduate," the teacher said, "people here used to jump off the tower of the main building." She took a long drink from a cup of coffee and looked out the window. "But now there's a big fence around the observation deck up there, and you can't jump off, so I guess kids are looking for the next best thing."
The teacher, Charlotte Griffin, was a writer, a novelist, though of course I hadn't read any of her books. I never have time to read. School takes up too much time! She was very pretty, though, small and compact with streaks of natural gray though dyed auburn hair. She was from Tennessee or North Carolina or someplace back east, and had a low, slow, strong voice and a deep accent.
"Yes, I remember when I was an undergraduate," Charlotte said slowly. "This would have been 1963 or 64 or so—no, it was 1963, I remember—and someone jumped off the tower. I was here in this building—it may have been this very room, in fact, because we could look out the windows at the mall. And we were sitting here, and we heard a scream, and then this terrible crunching, splattering noise—like if you'd throw a watermelon down at the pavement very hard, but louder—and then a bunch of other people were yelling out there. We all ran to the windows and looked out, and it was a nice spring day, like this, but a little bit later in the year, because the magnolias were blooming."
She held her coffee cup in her hand and stared out the window. I was sitting to her left and followed her gaze outside. We were on the third floor and all you could see were the middle branches of a big magnolia. I wondered how big that tree had been 40 years or so ago.
"Well," she said briskly, looking away from the window and down at her notes. "Okay. What we're going to do today is, we're going to write in class." She looked up and glanced around the room at everyone. "What I want you to do is, I want you to write about a time you were pulling things out of a box."
"A box?" a boy asked.
"Right, a box."
"What kind of box?"
"A box box," Charlotte said. She looked at us all like we were stupid. "The kind of box you pull things out of. A box, okay? Your life, right?" She looked around the table. "The box is a metaphor, okay?"
And nobody asked how a box could be a metaphor. But I don't think anybody knew, either.
Charlotte said, "I want you to focus on the things you're pulling out of the box. Tell us how those things represent the story of your life."
Somebody asked, "What?"
Charlotte repeated the prompt. The box, the things, the life. Okay?
Okay. I got it the first time.
"Okay," Charlotte said. She stood up, holding her coffee cup. "I'll be back in a little bit. You all get to work, now."
She went quickly out the door and the room was silent. The people who were sitting with their backs to the window all looked at the ceiling, and the people who were facing the window all looked out at the magnolia. I only gazed out the window for a moment. I knew what I was going to write about. Only one thing important had ever happened to me that involved a box, only one thing important, only one thing I felt. Though it wasn't a metaphor, it was real. But, anyway, I opened my notebook and began to write.
I was always different from everyone else, I knew it, I could feel it, I walked the halls of my high school and could feel people staring at me because I was different, they all knew somehow. But I didn't know how they knew about me and I didn't even how I knew about me, it was just a feeling that my life had all been made up by somebody else and I didn't even have a vote, nobody asked me anything. I watched my parents closely, and my little brother, I spied on them, and nothing they did gave away the secret, if there was a secret. I was just different, that's all. But I kept on being a spy, I had to find out why I was different. I watched my parents, I went through their papers and pictures, and I finally found out the truth. I found my birth certificate! It was at the bottom of a deep box under a bunch of my baby things, in a packet with some other legal papers, I looked at my birth certificate and at my parent's marriage license, and found that I had been born only four months after my parents were married! I couldn't believe it! I couldn't believe the lie they told me, the lie they told everyone, the lie they lived. I ran downstairs and showed it to my mother and she started to cry, she said it happened while they were watching tv and it didn't mean she loved me any less than my brother, she said it didn't matter, but I know it did. I finally knew why I was different than everybody else, I finally knew why people
Charlotte came back into the room then, carrying another steaming full cup of coffee. She slid into her chair, careful not to spill anything, and set the cup down and looked at her watch.
"Is everybody ready?" she asked. No one said anything, but a couple of people nodded. A few people were still scribbling away. I was watching everybody else. Charlotte said, "Okay, why don't you pass all the papers up to me, and we'll go through them."
I pulled my story from the notebook and handed it to Charlotte—I was sitting right next to her. People began passing their papers up each side of the long table, talking to each other, laughing nervously. I thought of something and looked at Charlotte.
"You're not going to read these out loud, are you?"
"That's the idea," she said. She was stacking the stories in a neat pile.
"I didn't know this stuff was going to get read out loud." Other writing classes I'd had, people choose if they want to read or not. I'd choose not.
Charlotte glanced at me and arched an eyebrow. "It's on the syllabus. On Tuesdays we write in class and discuss our writing."
I opened my mouth to say something but didn't. I'd read the syllabus, of course—I'm not that bad a student. But discussing something is not reading something out loud—and it's really not having the teacher read something out loud. I thought this would be different. I didn't want her to read my story to everyone. Actually, I didn't really even want Charlotte to read it by herself, alone.
I suddenly wondered why I had written it.
"Do you want to read it out loud?" Charlotte asked me.
"No!" I glanced around the room, horrified. I'm sure I looked horrified, too, but Charlotte wasn't paying attention to me.
"Do I have everybody's story?" Charlotte asked the class, loudly. She looked around the table and people nodded. "Great." She looked at the pile of papers. "The first one is John's." She looked up at John, a tall blond guy sitting at the far end of the table.
"Is that okay?" she asked. "Someone's got to be first."
John shrugged and looked embarrassed.
"Great," Charlotte said again. She began reading out loud. It was some story about playing basketball in the state tournament. Actually, it wasn't about playing basketball at all, it was about taking the bus to the state capital to play in the state tournament, and then taking equipment out of a box. I didn't get it.
"This is very fine," Charlotte said. "I like it. I could see a novel starting off like this. You've written things before, haven't you?"
Blond John blushed and nodded.
The next story was by a pretentious girl named Hillary. It was something about getting kicked out of a private school because of some drug thing, and having to go to a public school, and how she was worried about people gossiping about her. Big deal.
"Well, this is okay," Charlotte said. "But only just okay. You kind of get away from the main narrative point there, don't you think?"
Hillary nodded. "I didn't know what to write."
"And where's the box?" Charlotte asked.
Hillary shrugged. The snob. She didn't even write the prompt.
"It'll come," Charlotte said. "Don't worry."
My story was number three. I could see it on top of the pile of papers. I could already feel my face turning red. Don't read it, I thought. We're out of time. Class is over. Please.
"What I'm trying to do," Charlotte said, looking around the room, "is to get you all looking at events as narrative. Something happens, then something else happens, then something else happens—and because of those three things, something else happens. You see? In Hillary's piece too much stuff gets thrown together at once, while John's piece is more orderly and gradual. It builds. You see what I'm talking about?"
A few people nodded. Most people just stared blankly at her. I just stared blankly at her.
"I don't know if any of you have read Karl von Clausewitz, the Prussian military philosopher? Have you?" No one said anything, though a few people jotted down the name in their notebooks. Showoffs. "A lot of the elements of warfare he observed and wrote about in the Napoleonic Wars are applicable to fiction. They work in writing just as well as in war. One of the important things Clausewitz said was that decisions made in war—or, I say, in writing—have results that are entirely and completely unforeseen when the decision is made. When the something else finally happens, the somethings that preceded it will have not necessarily predicted it, you know? The else is a natural and organic outcome of the preceding events. You understand?"
By now everyone was staring at her with totally blank expressions on their faces. Charlotte stared back at us for a moment, and then she gave a little sigh and picked up my paper.
"Okay," Charlotte said, "Amber's story is next. She even has a title. It's called 'My Life.' Very original."
She began reading out loud in her low, harsh, hillbilly voice. I couldn't stand it. Every word pierced me. Every sentence was like a wooden stake being driven into my heart. I've seen the old black and white vampire movies and I know all about wooden stakes, you see, and that's how I felt—like the stake was in my heart, like my flesh was rotting and curling away, my guts boiling off in a mist, my skeleton exposed in a black box. She kept on reading until there wasn't anything left of me but a skeleton in a box. There just wasn't. I hung my head.
Then she stopped reading and I glanced up a little.
"Well," Charlotte said, "this won't do." She was looking at me. "It's not even really a story, you know? I mean, it could be a story, but it's not. It's an anecdote—it's just a bunch of stuff happening. And the subject matter is really pretty banal, isn't it?" Charlotte looked around the class. "I mean, doesn't everyone in high school feel different from everyone else?" A few people nodded. Hillary the bitch nodded. Charlotte frowned.
I thought of my mother on that day I had confronted her. How she cried. She told me about the show they'd been watching: Wheel of Fortune, the stupid game show. It came on after the local news, and my Mom's parents weren't home. I couldn't get her to tell me the words the contestants were trying to spell—I knew she remembered, of course she did, how could she forget?—but she wouldn't say anything about it. I think about that a lot. Wheel of Fortune is still on, and I still watch it every time I can, and nobody else knows why.
Charlotte looked at my paper for a moment longer and then shrugged and frowned and put it face down on the table. She pulled another story from the pile.
"Okay, our next piece is from Kathy. It doesn't have a title."
My focus on the class evaporated, just like my flesh and blood and guts. Now there really wasn't anything left of me. I wanted to get up and run from the room, but I didn't want to draw attention to myself—I guess that's an indication that there really was something left, some sort of pride, something left to be destroyed—but at the time I just felt empty and alone and horribly, horribly naked.
Charlotte kept on reading. I didn't listen. I sat with my head down, waiting for the bell to ring. When it did ring finally, compassionate and gentle, my savior, I stacked my books and bolted from the room. Other classes were getting out, too, of course, and I was lost in a mob of students heading for the stairwell. We went through the big old glass doors—I thought of Charlotte going through the doors years ago, going through them today—and down the worn cupped steps. Then I thought—I have to talk to her. I had to say something—tell Charlotte about the story, about my life, and what it meant. I turned and forced my way back up the stairs, against the tide of kids heading down. I went back through the old doors and stood outside our classroom. Charlotte was still in the room, talking to some people, laughing at something—me, maybe—and there were some kids from the next class milling around out in the hall, looking me over, wondering why I was standing there.
John came out of the classroom carrying his books. He glanced at me and stopped. I don't know, I must have looked pretty bad or something, because he looked concerned.
"Are you okay?" he asked.
"I—I didn't know she was going to read the stories out loud," I said.
"Oh." He looked at me and I wondered what he was thinking. Now he knew things about me. Or thought he did. He said, "It'll be okay."
I shook my head and sniffed. I guess I was crying. I kept looking at Charlotte. John backed away, then turned and went through the doors and down the stairs.
Charlotte came out of the room with the girl named Kathy. They were talking about something and smiling. Charlotte took a look at me and stopped.
"Honey, are you okay?" she asked. Her bitter hillbilly voice—all those long diphthongs and solid hard Rs—sounded suddenly sweet.
"I need to talk to you," I said thickly.
"Bye!" Kathy said from behind me.
Charlotte looked up and nodded and smiled and looked back at me. She had deep brown eyes and they looked warm and kind. I remembered that she had kids—she was somebody's mom.
"Is this about your story?"
"Uh-huh," I sniffed.
"Listen," Charlotte said, "this world's not built for sensitive people. Okay? You can't get all emotional all the time just because someone doesn't like what you've written."
"Yeah, but—I just need to talk to you."
Charlotte sighed. "All right," she said, "but listen, I've got to run into the office real quick. Okay? I'll just be a minute."
"Okay." I sniffled again.
"C'mon, honey." She put her hand on my shoulder and led me across the hall. The department office was two doors down and we went in and she pushed me down into a green plastic-covered chair that was leaking some sort of awful cotton stuffing. "You just wait right here. I'll only be a minute."
Charlotte said hello to the secretary and disappeared into some other room. I sat and watched people in the office go about their work—answering phones, filing stuff. A professor came in and got coffee and went back out. The chairman of the department, an angry-looking bald man, came out of his office and threw down some papers on a table. He glared angrily at me like I'd done something wrong and went back into his office. Some girl came in and talked to the secretary, wanting to drop a class. I could hear Charlotte's voice in the other room, laughing about something. It was plain that she had forgotten about me.
I gathered up my books and left the office and went across the hall and through the big glass doors and down the worn staircase. It was empty now, and quiet. I could hear my footsteps on the marble stairs echo through the stairwell.
Outside I stood for a moment in the shade of the big magnolia tree with some students who were smoking cigarettes. I sniffled and fished around in my purse, looking for some tissue. I tried to stop crying. I realized it was sort of like Charlotte had said: something had happened, then something else, then something else—and because of all that, something else had happened. Something unforeseen. My mom and dad were watching a stupid game show in the basement of my grandparent's house. They had gotten kind of friendly. My mom slid back until she was sprawled out across the sofa in front of the television and my dad was on top of her. While they did it she kept seeing flashes of the tv over his shoulder—the big-headed blonde woman flipping letters, spelling something—something. Then my mom was pregnant, and she quit college and married my dad, and they got jobs and stuff, and had my little brother on purpose. Then I went off to college and made a fool out of myself. It was all a series of decisions with unforeseen results.
I dried my eyes as best I could and walked across the mall, squinting in the bright late winter sunshine—a skeleton, a zombie, somebody dazed and dead and rotted away. I looked up and noticed that the flags in front of the tower were at half-mast, in honor of the student who had committed suicide.