Chapter 5

Fishing with the Human Calculator

I

            Mr. Buttworst wrote an equation on the board, something that had more letters in it than numbers.  Except this wasnít English and x and y together donít spell a damn thing to my knowledge.  I could barely keep my eyes open, despite sleeping most of Sunday away.  Johnny was face down on his desk, snoring loud enough that I could hear it.  I rested the side of my face on my right hand for so long that my hand was falling asleep.  "Shooting the shit time" had already taken place earlier in the class, and now the only constant was Mr. Buttworstís voice, deep and scratchy, showing the class with great enthusiasm the mysteries of algebra.  The man actually got excited about the subject, and I could tell by some of his bewildered looks that he couldnít understand why everybody didnít share his enthusiasm.  The man was as serious about his belief in teaching as his conviction in math.  Students respected him for that.  Most of the prison guards were there to put in their time and pick up their paychecks.

            Near the end of class, Mr. Buttworst handed out our quiz from last Friday.  I got a big red flag as was the case most of the time.  I put a "u" next to it before throwing it in the garbage.  The bell rang and I walked for the door, but Mr. Buttworst stopped me.

            "Do you have a second Tony?"

            "Sure."

            Mr. Buttworst took a sip of coffee.  "I talked to Ms. Pertie (sheís my guidance counselor) this morning and it turns out you need this class to graduate."  I turned my head to the side because of his ashtray-coffee breath.

            "I got more than enough credits to graduate," I said.

            "Thatís true, but you need at least four semesters of core math classes."

            "But..."

            "Business Math doesnít count Tony.  Although the name is nice and fancy, it is not considered a core class."

            I shook my head looking down at the floor.

            Mr. Buttworst began again, putting his hand on my shoulder as we walked to the door.  "Look Tony, Iím not trying to be the heavy. I hate this as much as you, and thatís why I wanted to talk to you about it.  I know how important playing college ball is to you, but if youíre going to be here next year, itís going to be hard to play there."

            "Nobodyís on me anyhow.  Theyíre not interested in a five-ten catcher no matter how many guys he throws out, or what his batting average is."

            Mr. Buttworst smiled and wiped his mouth, pushing away the gray strands of hair hanging over his lip.  "Youíre too good of a hitter not to get noticed, Tony.  Itís all about being in the right place at the right time.  Iím confident that place and time will find you.  That is, if you take care of your grades first.  Why donít you ask Roman to help you out with your studying?  I know you two are pretty good friends and believe me, if anyone could explain this stuff to you, it would be him."

            I agreed that Roman could help me.

            I ran into Scotty at the lockers.  He had the one next to me.  Before I could slam my backpack down or rip open my door, Scotty started laughing.

            "What the fuck is so funny?" I said.

            "I was just thinking about Johnny," Scotty responded.

            "What about him?"

            "You didnít hear?"

            "No. What? I just had him in class.  He didnít say anything."

            "I wouldnít say anything if I was him either."

            "Spit it out Jakowski, what the hell?"

            "Okay, Sunday morning when I woke up I went down to the kitchen and Johnny was passed out at the table.  No big deal, happens all the time, right?  But when I woke him up, his jeans were soaking wet from pissing himself."

            I started laughing a little but Scotty could hardly finish the story.  He put his hand on my shoulder so he wouldnít double over from laughing.

            "Thatís not even the best part," he started. "After he cleaned himself up and borrowed some clothes, he came back to the kitchen and took a drink from a Tropicana container that somebody was using for screwdrivers the night before.  He said, ĎGood, itís fullí before he started guzzling it.  Turns out somebody had pissed in it, and I donít mean a couple of drops either.  This thing was filled to the brim with the yellow stuff.  Heíd taken several swallows before he noticed it wasnít orange juice.  He spent at least thirty minutes in my bathroom puking after that."

            I laughed hysterically right along with Scotty but didnít dare tell him who pissed in that container, knowing it would be all over school before fourth hour.  And I really didnít feel like getting my ass beat at lunch by Johnny the Killer.  That little story brightened my day though.

            I noticed at lunch that our little table was growing.  What used to be just me, Roman, and Heather had turned into a table of seven people.  Pick Bryant was back.  Scotty had joined us for the first time.  Sam Peterman, who at first I thought stopped just to give a "whatís up?" spent the entire lunch hour.  One of Heatherís cheerleader friends also joined us.

            Johnny and the boysí attempt at embarrassing Roman with one final nail in the coffin at Homecoming had backfired.  Three days ago the entire student body was either laughing at Roman or taking part in making him suffer.  Today there were no flyers.  No finger-pointing.  No milk being dumped.  People went about their business, awakening slowly from the aftermath of Homecoming and its parties.  All of this because one girl had the balls to step up and go against the crowd. I was beginning to understand why he liked her so much.

            There werenít any stares coming from Johnnyís table.  Even though they had lost a few of their regular members, they seemed to go about business as usual.  I could hear Brunno trying to spit out a story that should have only taken twenty seconds, but it turned out to be a several minute ordeal.  I also heard Jack in the high-pitched whine of his making fun of Johnny pissing himself.  Johnny gave a firm elbow to his ribs stopping the story dead.

            Was Romanís torture over?  Was that all it took, for the Homecoming queen to dance with the janitor.  Rumor was that Heather had finally dumped the Killer.  That sounded great, but Iíve heard those same words a thousand times over the years.  Johnny was quite the laughingstock at school with both of his piss incidents, yet he seemed to be calm.  Even more surprising, he actually came to school.  I watched Heather and Roman talk.  I watched as Roman smiled and even laughed sometimes.  This was how it was supposed to be.  Or was it just the calm before the storm?

           

 

II

            As the days of October rolled by and turned into weeks, the leaves of the trees turned from dark green to light green and then from yellow to bright orange.  Roman informed me that the month October wasnít named after a Roman emperor or god, like so many of its counterparts.  It was also one of the few months that always had thirty-one days.  October didnít have to worry about jealous descendants stealing its days, since it was simply named after the Roman word for eight.  I didnít know or much care about emperors and such, but the time between the leaves being yellow and bright orange was an awesome display.  There were only a couple of weeks, some years only a couple of days, to enjoy the colors.  I wasnít one to stop my car on the side of the road and gawk at a tree with my mouth open or anything like that, but I admit they made the ride to school a little more bearable.   My grandfather once said that central Illinois was one of the few places in the world where you had to use your furnace and your air conditioner in the same day.  I wasnít sure if that was entirely true, especially the part about being one of the few places in the world, but there was one day that I got in my car and it was in the thirties and I turned on the heat on the way to school.  On my way home I turned on the air, and when I passed the digital sign in front of Second National it read eighty-five.  October in our neck of the woods was like the purgatory between seasons, the nexus of summer and winter.

            During that time I spent at least an hour every day after school over at Romanís.  As it happened, Romanís quiet way did not hurt his ability to teach and explain, and even though I was sure that Roman would fit in eating lunch at Harvard with professors and people with numerous letters after their names, he had an uncanny ability to communicate his point to average people, even idiots like myself.  He put it in simple terms.  The equal sign in an equation is no more than a mirror, what shows up on one side has to show up on the other.  "X","y" and any other letter of the alphabet were just symbols in place of what really existed.  Like the three cards buried in the tan envelope in the board game Clue.  They were there the entire time, but until you did some deductions and eliminated some things, you didnít know what they were.  Mr. Plum in the library with a lead pipe.  X equals five, y equals seven, and z equals eight.  Plotting positive points on two planes seems to have more in common with a baseball field than I ever imagined.  The first base line is the x-axis and the third base line the y.  Anything in foul territory would have at least one negative number in it.  Second base would be plotted 90, 90 as it was ninety feet down the first base line and ninety feet up the third line, and if I drew imaginary lines from both first and third they would intersect at second making a diamond, or a square as itís called in geometry.

            Soon the one-legged Aís on my quizzes started to have two legs.  I had never aced anything in the twelve years Iíd been attending school.  Suddenly with Romanís help and even more important his imagination, I was pulling my grade up from the depths of the ocean, was on dry land and beginning to reach for the clouds.

            I knew Roman was special, with a brain that just didnít work like the rest of ours. You could tell that just by spending a few hours with himóbut how special I never knew until one day at his house.  That day hit me like a baserunner barreling me over at home plate.  I was sitting at Romanís kitchen table solving equations.  These equations though had square roots in íem.  Some shit huh, just when I finally start to get a handle on something they throw these in.

            I was plugging away on my two hundred-dollar calculator (which we were allowed to use, thank Jesus and Mary) that Pops got for me.  He was always shelling out the bucks if he thought it would help me in school.  Anyway I was working on a square root when my calculator went dead.

            "You got any batteries?" I yelled into the other room.

            Roman walked in, not looking up from his book, and opened a drawer of the cabinet.  Always with the reading, never enough words, never enough time it seemed.

            "Whatís the problem anyway?" he asked.

            "Calculator went dead.  I need the square root of four eighty-four."

            "Twenty-two," Roman said as he placed the batteries beside me, still reading.

            That was quick.  Did he have that memorized or something?

            I put the batteries in as he started to walk away.  I pushed the square root of four eighty-four in the calculator.  Twenty-two appeared.  He must have had it memorized.  Probably all the geeks in calculus had it memorized.

            "Hey wait a second, how about three eighty-nine times six fifty-four?"

            Roman looked up from his book.  "Two hundred fifty-four thousand, four hundred six."  Roman had a look of bewilderment on his face, not from actually doing the math but from me asking him.  "Arenít those new batteries working?"

            "How about six thousand seven hundred eighty-nine divided by fifty-four?" I responded.  At this point I was just letting my fingers type in whatever they wanted.

            Roman gazed at the wall for about three seconds. "One hundred twenty-five point seven, two repeating."

            My display said the same.

            "Are those batteries working or not?" Roman asked.

            "Theyíre working fine, I just want to know how in the blue fuck you can do that in your head so quick, or do it at all for that matter?"

            Roman put the book down and gave a sigh.  "Iíve always been able to do it.  I donít know how or why, but the numbers just pop in my head some how.  They look so clear, like theyíre on a piece of paper, right in front of my face.  I add them just like everybody else, just in my head."

            "Bullshit like everybody else, thatís fuckiní amazing, you need to get on Letterman or somethiní."

            Roman smiled.  "Thatís all right, thereís enough stupid human tricks out there."

            "Hey, donít forget Thursday I really gotta buckle down, Iíve got a mid-term test over everything weíve had so far.  Youíre gonna help me, right?"

            "Sure," Roman responded. "Iíve got just the thing."

 

III

            Thursday was one of those days that seemed to prove my grandpaís theory; it was colder than a witchís tit on the way to school, but now it was warm.  The sun was out, there were no clouds to be seen, and the leaves on the trees seemed to be emitting light of their own.  I pulled into Romanís driveway, and as I got out of the Pinto, he was walking out the front door.

            Roman wore a smashed-down hat with a flimsy brim all the way around it.  He carried two cane poles in one hand and a tackle box in the other.  He stepped down off the porch and motioned with his head for me to follow him up the driveway.  We walked around the back of the house to a space of dirt about three feet by three feet.  Roman handed me a large Styrofoam cup and grabbed the shovel that was leaning against the back of his house.

            "I watered this pretty good about ten minutes ago.  Letís see what we have."  Roman shoved the blade into the moist brown dirt.  He turned the scooped pile over like he was afraid of hurting it.  What seemed like thousands of night crawlers lay at our feet.  I could tell that Roman was pleased by the look in his wide eyes.  If I hadnít seen him with the fishing poles, I might have thought he was looking at dinner.  Instead of eating them, Roman placed the worms one by one in my Styrofoam container.  When he was pleased with the number, he picked a handful of damp dirt and covered the wigglers with it.

            I wanted to ask what the hell we were doing.  Had Roman forgotten that my future lay in the balance with this test, or what?  He opened the Pintoís hatch and placed the fishing gear inside.  We both got in.

            "Am I missing something here?" I asked with the key in the ignition.

            "What do you mean?" Roman said.

            "Iíve got the test of my life tomorrow.  Did you forget?"

            "No, I didnít forget."  Roman sat with his hands in his lap looking straight ahead waiting for me to start the car and back out.

            "Hello, what in the hell are we doing?" I asked.

            Roman turned with the serious face I had seen so many times before.  "This is part of your lesson, maybe the final lesson.  Do you want my help or not?"

            I shook my head in confusion and started my blue angel.

            About halfway to the lake Roman broke the silence.  "One more thing, once we get to the lake, there is no conversation unless itís about fishing.  Agreed?"

            I nodded a reluctant yes.  What in the name of Christ?  All this time Iíve spent gettiní my grades up and now Iím gonna flush it down the toilet because Roman wants to go fuckiní fishing.  And now we canít talk either.  What is this, Kindergarten naptime?  What could I do though?  Roman had done so much for me, I had to humor him, but I still wasnít thrilled about the idea.

 

IV

            We walked down a path through the woods to a clearing next to the lake.  On the bank sat an old picnic table, close enough to the water that you could still fish while sitting, even with the old cane poles Roman had brought.  I had learned to fish on this very bank with my father and my father from my grandpa and so on.  The picnic table looked as though it been there forever, but it was still sturdy enough for me and Roman to sit on.

            Before I had as much as a nibble on my line, Roman had already caught a small blue gill and a decent-size catfish.  He threw them both back.  I finally got a bite and it was a big one.  Roman had to help me pull it in.  It was a very nice size fish, but it was only a carp.  I got the hook out and began to throw it back.

            "Wait," Roman said. "Put that one in the bucket.  Carl wants it."

            "Carl wants it for what?" I responded. "You canít eat these damn things.  Theyíve got a mud vein in them.  Itíll make ya sick."

            "Carl knows how to clean them.  Just trust me," Roman said back.

            "Let me get this straight, weíre throwing away the good size catfish and blue gill, but weíre keeping these dirty-ass mud fish?"

            "Thatís right.  The lake is overpopulated with them anyway.  By catching them we leave more room for your catfish."

            I gave a sarcastic "Okay" and threw the carp in the bucket of water.

            We sat there silent for hours.  I donít remember even speaking another word.  It was damn peaceful though.  The lake water was becoming calmer every minute it seemed.  The big oaks and maples in their orange and yellow attire stood tall and hung out over the top of us.  They were there for no other reason than to shield us from the clatter of real life, from algebra.  The leaves rustled occasionally, some falling in the water in front of us, and the wind blew slowly, barely touching the tip of my nose.  It smelled dry and clean, like a piece of wood just before it was thrown into the fireplace.  Even though the sun was beginning to set and with it the warmth of the day, I still felt like I could sit there late into the night.

            There wasnít a word spoken.  Not while we packed up the fishing gear and the bucket of carp, not on the walk up the hill back to the car, not even on the ride to take Roman home.  I finally got it, and wasnít about to be the one that ruined it.  Now, there were no hidden algebra meanings in putting a worm on a hook or throwing a line into the lake, but there was a way to relax, a way to escape.  Roman knew I had myself all worked up over the test and wouldnít be worth a shit in that kind of state.  If Roman had simply told me to chill, it would only have made me more flustered.

            It was completely dark by the time we got back to Romanís.  I helped him unload the stuff in the driveway.  He put the poles on the porch and came back for the bucket and tackle box.

            "I was just trying to..." Roman started.

            I put my hand up and stopped him in mid sentence.  "I know.  I get it man.  Thanks."

 

V

            My stomach was in knots on Monday, the day we got our mid-term back.  Iíd already visited the throne room twice before I left for school and would have to leave class for it again if I didnít settle down.  It was kinda funny.  Romanís fishing escapade had calmed me down so much that I wasnít a bit nervous before or during the actual test.  I thought I knew every problem, and when I handed it in I would tell you I didnít miss a single point.  But now, now I was shitting bricks as they say, hoping for a "C".

            Mr. Buttworst got right to the point.  He walked up and down the aisles of desks, flipping through the papers at each individualís desk.  Mr. Buttworst would give the average student a comment or two as he handed out the graded papers.  Students that were your everyday nerds and expected an "A" simply got a smile.  People like me and Johnny usually got neither.  We were lost causes.

            Mr. Buttworst walked over to Johnnyís desk and stood in front of him.  The Killer was face down already asleep with a patch of drool running down his chin.  Mr. Buttworst picked up a book from another desk and slammed it down next to Johnnyís head.  The Killer jumped up like someone had just sent forty-thousand volts through his body.  Mr. Buttworst handed him the test and walked on.  Johnny looked at it briefly and lay his head back down.  You could never tell whether Johnny got an "A" or an "F"; he always had the same expression.

            I was usually right there with Johnny, but not this time.  I had too much riding on it, including my baseball career.  Mr. Buttworst was three desks away.  I was sure that one of two things would happen in my anticipation.  Either the acid in my belly would eat right through the lining of my stomach wall and kill me, or I would shit myself right there in my seat.  Mr. Buttworst got to my desk and held the test up in front of his face.  The thick lenses of his glassed peeked up over the paper.  I swear the same thickness was used for the windows of the space shuttle.  His eyes scanned down the page, checking his own grading one more time.  Come on already.  Satisfied, the burly hunter sat the test on my desk face down.

            "Nice work Tony," Mr. Buttworst said smiling.

            Wow.  I got the comment and the smile.  It must be good.  I lifted the paper slightly off the desk and peaked underneath, like something would have escaped if I turned it completely over.  Marked on the top of test in red ink was a "B".  On a test like this, a mid-term, a "B" might as well have been an "A".  It meant there was no way I could flunk the class unless I turned in nothing the rest of the semester.  I wanted to hold it out the window and yell "B!" as loud as I could.  Instead I let out a squeaky high-pitched fart that lasted only a second.  My stomach felt better now.  Most of the class busted out in laughter, including Mr. Buttworst.  The girl in front of me looked up at the ceiling, like she was trying to see a bird overhead.

            "Scuse me," I said, smiling.

VI

At lunch our tableís cast of characters grew again with the addition of two more cheerleaders.  Johnnyís table was two girls away from becoming a sausage fest.  Heather was sitting next to Roman looking at him as he ate.

            "You want to go out with us after the game Friday, Roman?"

            Roman swallowed hard.  "I have to work."

            "Yeah, I know, I mean afterwards.  A few of us are going over to Scottyís house to hang out.  Itís not going to be big, just a few of us, like Tony, Sally, Scotty, me and a few others."

            "I donít get off until late."

            "Itís our last regular season game, and itís in Bloomington.  We wonít be back until after midnight anyway, especially if we get one of the shitty buses.  Think about it at least."

            I nudged Romanís elbow with my own.

            He looked at me and then at Heather.  "Maybe."

 

VII

            "Maybe" wasnít a "no", but it wasnít the answer Heather was looking for.  If there was only one word that described our blond friend, it had to be persistent.  So much in fact that after school sitting at Romanís kitchen table, trying to stay ahead of the game in algebra, I heard a knock at the door.  Heather decided to join our after-school study group.   Really, it was me with my two hundred dollar calculator, Heather with her seemingly endless supply of French flash cards, and Roman reading not his homework, but the book of the day.

            Heather was flipping through her flash cards, looking busy.  It didnít take a rocket scientist to figure out the real reason Heather was there.  Romanís "maybe" was just not quite good enough in Heatherís book.  She probably didnít mind that much if Roman was a no show at Scottyís Friday.  What bothered her was the fact that Roman didnít jump at an opportunity to hang out with her.  Did she want Roman?  I donít think so, but the heart seems to be attracted mostly to the things it cannot have.  Roman wasnít trying to play games with her.  Yes he was attracted to heróyou could see that in his eyesóbut it just wasnít Romanís thing to hang out.

            Anyway, Heather noticed me staring at her.  "Why doesnít he come in here and study instead of sitting by himself?"

            "Because heís not studying.  Heís readiní, for entertainment purposes I mean.  Havenít you seen that other room?  There are about five hundred books in there, stacked to the ceiling on bookshelves.  Those are the ones heís read.  The ones you saw on the floor when you came in were the ones heís workiní on.  He goes through each one in a couple of hours and then on to the next.  Heís some kind of fuckiní speed-reader.  Thatís all he does is read, not just good stuff either.  He reads manuals and shit on how things work.  He fixed the engine in the Pinto by some book he read."

            "What about his homework?"

            "Youíre not heariní me sister.  A couple of weeks ago he was helpiní me with my algebra.  I decided to test him a little bit.  I started rattling things off like Ďwhatís five hundred and eighty-two times four hundred and seventy-fiveí or Ďwhatís the square root of seven hundred and eighty-three.í  The man spit out the answers faster than I could get them off the calculator.  Heís a genius Heather.  Geniuses donít have homework."

            Heather looked toward the living room, trying to process everything Iíd just thrown at her.  Roman walked in and poured a glass of water from the tap.  He drank it down like a camel at a watering hole.  When he finished he turned and walked back toward his book.

            "Il est grossier pour ne pas offrir ŗ vos invitťs quelque chose boire,"  Heather said to Roman.

            Roman stopped without turning around, matching the dialect with elegance.  "Pardonnez-moi, vous aiment le jus d'orange ? Je ne prends aucun champagne."

            I itched the top of my head.  "What is this, keep the dumb guy out of the loop?"

            Roman turned around.  Heather ignored me and continued to look at Roman.

            "L'eau sera belle," she said continuing to manipulate the language of love.

            "What the hell are you guys talking about?"  I asked.

            "Heather just reminded me of what a rude host Iíve been.  Would you like something to drink Tony?"

            "You got Miller Lite?"

            "Sorry.  Iím fresh out.  Iím sure Carl could help you out.  Thatís his flavor."

            "Iím just joking," I said. "Wateríll work."

 

VIII

            At Scottyís we played dirty Jenga.  Jenga itself was the game with the little wooden rectangles that you stacked neatly to make a tower that was about a foot and a half tall.  When it was your turn, you had to remove any one of the rectangles from the tower and place it on top of the tower anywhere you would like.  If you pulled a rectangle and the tower fell, you lost.  We added the dirty part by writing little words on the rectangles.  My mother would have referred to them as lewd acts.  Really they werenít that badóthings like "suck on someoneís toe" or  "French kiss someone."  It wasnít like we wrote, "tie someone down and have your way with them" on any of the pieces.  If you pulled a rectangle out successfully, you got to choose the person you did the act with.  If you pulled a piece out and the tower fell, the other players got to choose any one of the acts written on the pieces, and with whom you had to do the act.  It was an entertaining game at the worst.

            Me, Scotty, and his girl all sat around drinking, waiting on Heather and Sally.  By the time they got back from the football game I had drunk at least five beers.  It ended up being only couples with the exception of Heather.  Twelve forty five came and went and I had pretty much written Roman off for the evening.  To my surprise at one oíclock he showed up.  He wasnít wearing his janitor get-up as I thought; instead he was back to the plain T-shirt, jeans, and a flannel.

            "Time for dirty Jenga," I said half-buzzed.  We all sat down at the kitchen table except for Roman, who stood by the counter looking for something more challenging to tweak his brain.  The table instantly reminded me of the Century Club and Johnny pissing himself in more ways than one.  I chuckled out loud.  We sat the tower up and I tried to distinguish where one piece began and the other ended.

            Control of motor skills was important in Jengaóthe slightest wrong movement could destroy the tower.  Thatís why drinking made it more fun.  I liked the game because I knew me and Sally would be making out several times throughout the night. The girls liked the gameóand this is strictly my theoryóbecause it gave them the green light to do things they normally wouldnít do.  If one of the chicks at school heard that they licked whipped cream off another girlís nipple, and asked why they would do such a thing, the girls would simply reply they were playing dirty Jenga.  Jenga made me do it.

            The game began.  I had to unzip Sallyís jeans without using my hands, which was no easy feat, especially with several beers in me.  Scotty and his girl had to wear each otherís underwear for the remainder of the game.  I could tell by the look on Scottyís face that his boys were a little uncomfortable in thong panties.  Roman stood at the counter, reading Mrs. Jakowskiís cookbook.  Always with the reading that guy was.

            Heather pulled one of the rectangles out successfully.  She turned it over and read the dirty deed.

            "Closet for 15," she read.

            She looked around the room at the four of us seated at the table, then at Roman.  The whole scene couldíve been in a kidís picture game entitled "what doesnít belong."  Any kindergartner wouldíve pointed to Roman in seconds.

            "I want you to go with me Roman," Heather said.

            I about choked on my beer, thinking the odds of Roman participating in any act of dirty Jenga were slim to none.  Roman lifted his head up from the cookbook, his eyebrows rising like a grandpa interrupted from his Sunday paper by his wife of fifty years.

            "Iím sorry?" Roman responded.

            "Itís how you play the game," Heather said.  "I drew the piece for the closet.  Iíve got to pick somebody to go in there with me for fifteen minutes."

            "And?"

            "And, Iím picking you."

            "I did not know I was playing."

            "If youíre in the kitchen honey, youíre playing."  Heather got up, walked over to Roman, grabbed him by the hand, and led him to one of the bedrooms.

            I swallowed the last gulp of my beer.  "Hold on a second.  Youíre going to the wrong closet.  Itís supposed to be the one in the living room."  The living room closet was three times smaller than any other one in the house.

            "Thereís a bunch of stuff in that one," Heather said.

            "Donít worry about it, thereís just a few shoes on the floor and a couple of coats hanging up.  Just move whatever you need," Scotty said as he drew the next piece.

            Heather did a U-turn and dragged Roman off to the living room.

            After waiting for several turns, and after some minutes of studying the pieces I finally pulled the piece Iíd been waiting for all night. It was the sleeping bag one.  That meant me and Sally had to undress in the sleeping bag together.  I turned the piece and put it front of her face.

            Scotty fetched me the sleeping bag.  I could tell by his eyes he was pissed I got that piece.  The four of us went downstairs.  The funny thing was that we really didnít have to go down stairs to do the dirty Jenga deed.  Me and Sally couldíve got in the bag and undressed right there on the kitchen floor.  Nobody said anything, it was just understood that there would be more going on than just getting naked.

            Scotty and his girl watched as we struggled to get our clothes off inside the sleeping bag.  Just the getting naked part took ten minutes in it self.  That was supposed to be part of the fun I guess. More rituals. More foreplay.  I was careful to grab the miniature raincoat out of my jeans pocket before I tossed them out.  Getting our socks off would be every bit of impossible so we left them on.  Scotty gathered up our clothes.

            "Iíll bring Ďem back down in fifteen minutes," he said, giving me a wink.

            This time there was no Johnny the Killer running down to the dock threatening to dismember the janitor.  There werenít any crazed cheerleaders barging in on us.  There were no fathers getting home from work early.  It was just the two of us.  But even with all odds on my side, I still didnít get to finish the deal.  As hard as I tried Sally wasnít going to let it happen.  Donít get me wrong, there was still the fondling, and such. It just wasnít the real deal.

            Scotty threw our clothes down the stairs to us, which I thought was a lot nicer than interrupting.  When we returned upstairs Scotty and his girl were kissing at the kitchen table.  I felt sorry for him.  It was his first date with the chic.  She went to the local Catholic school, and although the Catholic girls were a lot wilder than the ones in our neck of the woods, it was their first time out together, and Scotty wasnít known for his game with the ladies.  A kiss was as far as Scotty was going to get.

            "Where are Roman and Heather?" I asked.

            "Theyíre still in the closet," Scotty responded.

            "You gotta be shittiní me."

            "Iím not.  I went up to the door and told Ďem their time was up.  Heather said okay, but they never came out.  That was ten minutes ago," Scotty said.

 

IX

            Heather pushed the coats to one side and stepped in, smashing the shoes and the rest of the rubble on the floor.  Roman followed.  The closet was small, giving only a small pocket of space between them.  Heather closed the door, darkening the room to the point that Roman thought he was blind.  He stood with his arms pressed against his sides, like a corpse in a coffin, partly because of the lack of room, but mostly because he wasnít sure exactly where his hands should be.

            Heather moved forward pressing her chest against his.  She wiggled a little, moving something from behind her and then somehow managed to wrap her arms around Romanís neck.  Not one arm, like when they danced, but both.  "Sorry, I think there was a tennis racket poking me in the ass.  There, thatís a lot more comfortable."

            Roman eyes were useless, but his sense of touch was off the charts because of the breasts smashed into him.  He could smell the flowers of her perfume, the watermelon shampoo in her hair, and the cinnamon gum she had chewed at some point earlier in the night.  He felt her warm breath on his chin.

            "Thatís all right," Roman said back in his soft monotone voice.  The darkness seemed to gobble up the sound of his voice before it left his mouth.

            "Have you ever been stuck in a closet with a girl before?"

            "No, never."

            "Donít worry weíre all the same."

            "I doubt that very much.  I doubt there is anybody quite like you."

            After a long silence, Heather moved to kiss him.  Roman sensed the movement and pulled back.

            "I donít want you to kiss me because some piece in a game told you to," Roman said.

            "The piece only told me to go to the closet.  It didnít tell me what to do or with whom to do it."  Heather moved in to kiss him again.

            Roman retreated once more.

            "I donít want to be the guy in the closet you tell your friends about five years from now, and you know the story but not the guyís name."

            "If we didnít see the meteor shower together, if you didnít save Johnny in the lake, if you werenít such a gentleman, I would still remember your name.  I would remember it from the day I met you, the day you saved my grandmaís cheerleader.  Every story starts somewhere Roman, ours just happens to be in a closet."

            Their lips met, barely touching at first.  Heather pulled him closer with her arms, running her fingers through his hair.  Romanís eyes closed, but there was no difference between the blackness trapped in his eyelids and that which filled the closet.  His nervous hand made its way to her butt, careful to stay on the outside of the skirt.

            "Timeís up," a voice from the other side of the door sounded.

            Their kissing only got stronger and their breaths heavier.  Heather maneuvered her arm down her side and then behind her, grabbing Romanís hand and putting it up her skirt instead of on it.

            They began to talk as well as two people could with their lips still pressed together.

            "What are you doing tomorrow?" Heather asked.

            "No plans," Roman said back

            "Want me to come over?" Heather asked.

            "How about dinner?" Roman asked back.

            "What time?"

            "Six oíclock good?"

            "Make it five."

 

X

            We were waiting in the living room when the door finally opened.  Heather was flushed and Romanís lips were a shade I wasnít used to seeing.  Both were surprised to see us in the living room.

            "Iíve got to go," Roman said.  "Thanks Scotty."

            Roman gave a brief wave.  Before I could ask if he needed a ride, Roman was out the door.

            Heather sat down in the chair across from me like she had been hiking in the mountains all day.  Her eyes were looking straight across the room, but werenít focusing on any of us.

            "Jesus Heather," I began. "What the hell did you do to the poor guy?"

            Heather just sat slumped over in the chair, still with the dazed looked on her face.

            "Whatíd you do, play the skin flute while you were in there?" I said.

            Sally gave me a sharp elbow to the ribs.

            Heather spoke as she got up from the chair oblivious to the comment I just made.  "Iíve got to get going too.  Iíll see you guys later."

 

XI

            Gina Hawthorne sat on the new ten thousand dollar couch that she bought against her husbandís wishes.  She had the deliverymen put it in the room just to the right of the foyer and the lavish staircase that sprang from it.  The room was her roomóthe reading-TV-relaxation-gossiping on the phone-room.  The room where she went to escape.  The room that Heather and Dr. Hawthorne avoided at all costs.  It was like avoiding a dark cave in fear of a hibernating bear.  It was also the room in which Gina could hear Heather coming and going.  The room she could jump up from and in a second stop Heather and peek into her night, with an onslaught of questions.  Gina was watching the Soap Network, which was part of the daily routine for her.  But tonight she heard Heather coming before she even started down the stairs.  She stood in front of the double doors like a bouncer at a nightclub.  Heather grabbed her coat from the rack, ignoring the person in front of her.  She walked to the door almost bumping her mother, hoping she would pass right through like Gina was nothing more than a ghost.

            "Are you going out with the girls tonight, honey?" Gina asked, knowing that was not the answer.  She prayed nonetheless.

            "No, Iím going over to Romanís for supper."

            "Oh, thatís nice of his parents."

            "His parents are dead, mom."

            Unfazed by the fact Gina said, "Iím not sure I want you go over to some strange boyís house with no adults."

            Heatherís cheeks flushed with anger. "Heís not a strange boy.  Heís a friend from school and you would do well to meet someone as nice."

            "What about Johnny?"

            "Johnnyís an asshole, always has been.  Instead of encouraging me all these years you shouldíve been telling me what an idiot I was."

            "I just donít know honey, we need to talk about this."

            "Thereís nothing to talk about.  Iím eighteen years old and on my way to college.  Youíre not going to tell me who my friends are.  It sure is funny that you never questioned in three years of dating Johnny, if his parents were home.  Go watch the soaps on TV instead of trying to star in what you think is your own soap opera."

            Heather nudged Gina out of the way and left.

           

XII

            On several occasions throughout the day while he was preparing the meal, Roman had a sense of dread come over him, fearing their meeting would be awkward.  He had heard stories about good friends who became lovers, failing miserably at the latter.  Could a single kiss transport you from one level to the next?  Roman thought not, but he was sure that kiss held them somewhere in limbo.  Somewhere between lovers and friends.  Romanís anxiety lifted the minute he opened the door.

            Heather stood there with her wide smile and her long blond hair let down past her shoulders.  Sheíd been beautiful at Homecoming with her hair up, but Roman much preferred it this way.  She held a bottle of what Roman thought was champagne.  She stepped through the doorway and hugged him tight enough for Roman to hear his motherís voice echo in his head about how she loved him so much she could squeeze the stuffing out of him.  Roman noticed the Mustang sitting in his driveway.

            "Beautiful car by the way," he said as they backed away from each other.

            "It is nice; when your parents have a lot of money and arenít sure your sure how much they love you, they buy you things.  Iíve gotten used to it, although as the years go by, gifts seem to lose their luster.  Daddy seems to understand that, so the gifts just get more and more expensive."  Heather held up the bottle she was holding and handed it to Roman.  "Donít panic, itís not champagne.  Sparkling cider."

            Roman smiled.

            The blinds were pulled, and the light turned out.  Romanís kitchen table which she was so accustomed to seeing used for studying was now transformed into something out of a fine restaurant.  A white lace tablecloth draped over the table, hanging to just before the floor.  Two candelabra stood at their respective ends of the table, illuminating the room around them.  In the middle were several roses bundled together with careful preparation.  Their color mirrored that of the dress Heather had worn to Homecoming.  Gold silverware was placed next to their respective plates.  Soft music played in the background, although she saw no speakers or radio.

            "Itís beautiful Roman," she said, unable to get rid of the thought that Roman had done in one day what Johnny had failed to even understand in years.

            "The real test is how itís going to taste, Iím afraid.  Iíve never really cooked before, not like this anyway.  Iím more of a snacker really.  An apple here, a banana there, throw in a tuna fish sandwich and you could keep me happy for a month."

            "Iím sure itíll be delicious, and even if itís not, the visual effect in this room might trick me into thinking otherwise."

            Roman walked her over to the table, pulled the chair out for her, and when she sat, he tucked her gently against the table.  He opened the cider, pouring first her glass and then his own.

            Roman served the appetizerófried calamari with a thick white dipping sauce that was spicy to the taste.  The salad was next, the lettuce replaced with leaves of plants unrecognizable to Heatherís eye, topped with tiny raspberries, nuts, and sweet red vinaigrette dressing.  Roman served the main course, placing the grilled veal on her plate as well as long green beans and baby carrots, all covered with a sweet mustard sauce.  The beans were very bright green, looking like there was more of chance of them being wax than food.  There were also crescent rolls with apple jam.

            Romanís brown eyes reflected the candlelight as he maintained eye contact with her the entire meal.  He looked because she was beautiful, but also to see any signs in her body language of distaste for the food.  He was sure that her words would only tell him what he wanted to hear.  His heart was glad when she squirmed with enjoyment, taking slow deliberate bites from the end of her fork.  Roman finished before her, though she was not far behind.

            "I know youíre probably full, but I made dessert as well.  Would you like some?"

            "Please," she responded.

            Roman had made it earlier in the day with Carlís electric ice cream maker. The sauce was made from fresh strawberries.  Heather sucked the dessert off her spoon with the end of her lips.  A low quiet moan of satisfaction seemed to come from her stomach as the ice cream slid down her throat and reached her belly.

            "As much as you are a fruit and snack guy, Iím a dessert gal," Heather said.  "As good as everything else was, you couldíve given me a heaping bowl of this and I wouldíve been happy."

            Roman laughed.

            "You really shouldnít hold that back.  Youíve got a good laugh," Heather said.

            "So, Iím told.  Sometimes there just isnít that much to laugh about," Roman responded.

            "Never cooked before huh?" Heather asked.

            Roman shook his head back and forth.

            "It was really good Roman, and Iím not just saying that.  Did you make all of this stuff from scratch?"

            "The jam, sauces, and rolls I made.  I traded the carp Tony and I caught awhile back to Carl for the vegetables and strawberries.  Iím sure I got the better end of the deal there.  He grows all sorts of things in his back yard and then freezes them.  I cheated on the ice cream with an electric maker, but at least it wasnít from the store."

            "It must have taken you all day.  Thank you Roman."

            "Thank Mrs. Jakowski.  All this is her recipe."

            "The cookbook you were reading?"

            "Yes.  After reading several of the recipes I caught on to her little system.  She marked her favorites with stars next to the name of the cuisine.  There were several four star recipes, but this was the only five star."

            "I didnít see you write anything down."

            "Thatís because I didnít."

            "I forgot the photographic memory thing."  Heather finished the last lump of ice cream in her parfait bowl.

            "Who are you, Roman?"

            Roman smiled.  "Iím the guy you see sitting right in front of you."

            "Thereís got to be more to the story than that."

            Romanís smile faded as he looked down at his own empty ice cream goblet.  He picked up his sparkling cider, swirled it in the glass, and then took a drink.  "My story is long and drawn out.  Iíd much rather talk about you.  Not how you got here, I think I know that part.  I want to know where youíre going.  Who is Heather Hawthorne in five years?"

            "In five years sheís a med student.  In ten sheís Dr. Hawthorne, married with four kids, living out in the country with a swimming pool and a horse ranch."

            "Sounds like youíve got it all mapped out."

            "Iíve got good enough grades and a high enough ACT to get into Northwesternís pre-med program.  Iíll find out in couple of months if they accept me.  Iíve wanted to be a doctor as long as I can remember.  Itís in my genes I guess.  I really want to get into cancer research."

            "The moneyís not bad either."

            Heather smiled.  "No, itís not."

            With that Heather helped Roman clear the table and do the dishes, even though he pled with her to let him do it himself.  When they finished, they went into the living room and sat close to each other on the couch.  Roman turned out the light.  In front of flickering candlelight, they talked into the early hours of the morning.

 

Chapter 6

 

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