At thirteen, Robert had a routine breakfast. He had optimum body weight, good posture, and some pimples. He had some Journey albums, a Snoopy alarm clock, and new basketball sneakers. Robert hated basketball. Robert had a C average, a favorite book, and an only friend. Robert’s English teacher called his life a crescendo of magnificent unpopularity.
“That’s a well-turned phrase,” Robert’s science teacher said.
“Thank you,” said his English teacher.
His science teacher repeated it to his history teacher.
“A crescendo? Of magnificent unpopularity?” he said. “How sad.”
He mentioned it to Burt Reynolds, the school psychologist.
Reynolds summoned Robert to his office, which meant Robert saw the principal, first, where the principal told him how to find the counselor. Robert’s classmates had no idea that he went there, but the principal did, and it came up as dinner conversation with his wife.
“One of our students, a magnificently unpopular one, was called to the shrink’s office, today,” he said.
“Magnificently unpopular!” said his wife. “My!”
“Yes,” he said. “I can’t help but wonder what Reynolds tells these kids.
Dr. Reynolds placed a box in front of Robert. Robert looked at it as though it were ticking.
“Robert,” said Burt Reynolds, “inside this box are four boxes. Inside each of those boxes are eight boxes. How many boxes are there?”
Robert stared at it, and back at the doctor. He looked at the box again, then at Burt again. He stared.
“Take your time.”
“The question’s wrong, I think.”
“Yes. You mean eight boxes, not four. Four boxes would only fill up half of it. They’d all shake around.”
Reynolds sighed through a smile.
“The question does not say the box is full, Robert. There are four of them in this one, and eight in each of those.”
“But, that’s wrong,” said Robert. “Why would you do that? If you put those thirty-two small boxes on top of the four medium boxes, they’d fill the big box perfectly.”
Burt Reynolds shook his head. Robert received a poor grade on his evaluation. The doctor also called the office to recommend a phone call home. He wanted to meet Robert’s parents.
They wore sunglasses to the meeting. His mother cried.
Soon, Robert had twin prescriptions, an upper to balance his depression, and a downer to mitigate any anxiety arising as a side effect. Robert’s only friend called them meds. His parents called them vitamins. Robert took them.
The meds numbed the back of his neck as he sat at his desk on the first day of school. He felt his spinal chord become spaghetti. His head lolled as he looked around. Posters of movie stars holding their favorite books lined the walls above the blackboards. A stuffed Beethoven doll sat on an old speaker installed over the door beside the American flag. Beneath it, as Robert’s eyes dulled, a girl appeared in the doorway. She looked to Robert like a light hid under clothing, shining in the doorway with pale flesh that peeked below bangs and above blouse and bra, and when the teacher spoke to her, she nodded. Yes, her name was Brooke Williams.
Robert had only that first class with Brooke. Their teacher, Ms. Finch, looked like a hamburger. Short and squat, with a round face creased by too much smiling in her long, mysterious life, Finch could not have garnered more animosity from the sixth graders at Ethel Dwyer Jr. High. Kids treated her like the nerdiest kid in class. Robert liked her.
The nerdiest kid in class would have been Robert Johnson, except he had his mother’s good looks. Unfortunately, though, he also had his father’s anxious temperament. Handsome and tall, with ears like the handles of an urn, he spoke when spoken to and otherwise hid himself behind the cover of a book. He loved to read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and felt like the only kid in the world who had read it four times. He sympathized with Captain Nemo. He fantasized about making his own empire beneath the waves where beauty meant kindness and anger meant ugly.
Robert’s parents beat each other up. They never did it in front of him, but neither his mother nor father ever went a month without a black eye. For years their penchant for sunglasses seemed natural to him, until he learned from television that people wear them to disguise abuse. They loved each other, though, he thought, and they treated him like a god, except when he talked back to them or had not done the dishes.
“Everybody else has a dishwasher,” he said.
“Yes,” said his father, “but we’ve got you.”
Robert Johnson did the dishes and went to his room. He had a record collection there that his Aunt Sue had given him, but most of the albums he played were his own. Kids at school had CDs, but those cost twenty dollars apiece. He could get three used records for ten bucks, his weekly allowance. Today he played one of his favorites, a blues record by a guy also named Robert Johnson. Lots of his Aunt’s records had screamy singers on them, and he liked those, but he couldn’t sing to them. He could sing the blues, though. He listened and listened, and learned the words.
“Old John Henry,” he sang, “steel drivin’ man. Steel drivin’ ma-n, John Henry.”
He sang as he typed on an old computer. He wrote a story about a man who lost his daughter on the foggy moors of Victorian England. Searching in vain, he stumbled upon a magical book that led him to different worlds to search for her. Robert planned to reunite them at the end.
Robert wrote by candlelight. He knew nothing of paragraphing, so it all came out in blocks of PGDN. He’d written scores of pages that way, by candlelight and the light of the monitor, in the silent hours of night when his parents slept. He would go to bed at one or two, and wake up at seven for school, every day.
School gave him a world of joy and hurt, joys open and evident, and hurts not so obvious to those around him. School formed faces and emotions for him, and he injected people into his writing like a god, picking out traits and happenstances as he liked and imagining America reading about them, wondering if anyone would ever know that he’d stolen them for fiction, as copy after copy sold out at Barnes n’ Noble or some other chain book store. He stole his friends, his enemies, and, most recently, he’d stolen Brooke Williams. She was the lost daughter in his tale.
Each day he had math with Brooke, he thought to himself that she had no idea how famous he’d make her.
He knew she didn’t know. He knew he’d make her famous. He knew he had to pursue her for her sake, because she deserved him.
Kids passed notes in class, and teachers would read them aloud if found, teachers who wrote kids up, threw notes away, reprimanded, or otherwise. It excited Robert to take part in it. He wrote notes designed to draw a positive reaction if read aloud. He made them poetic, incendiary, funny, and brilliant. He begged to get caught but never was. Brooke and Robert exchanged a few. Her notes read like journals.
Im in 1st period with you now. Can you believe Finch? This homework is so lame! I got grounded for staying up too late on the phone. My dad really needs to die. I got new shoes yesterday there black and purple. I love purple! Purple purple purple purple purple. That’s the bell hold on. OK now Im in 2nd period.
Sometimes they went three pages like that, little windows into Brooke Williams’s life. She folded them into triangles, or clever arrows that needed dismantling, or angular hearts that looked like valentines. Robert sweated when they looked like valentines.
One day, Robert decided to tell Brooke he thought her beautiful. He wrote a poem during science class, folded it into an airplane, and waited for the bell to ring. When it did, he went into the hall with everyone else and stood away from Brooke’s locker.
He waited for her to appear. She had a trio of pretty girls with her when she did. They talked in rapid sentences all at once, over and around each other. Listening to them reminded Robert of an orchestra tuning their instruments. They looked like sisters, all of them in black skirts and knee-highs, Mary Jane doll shoes and white, short-sleeve business shirts. They could have conquered Africa.
Robert Johnson stepped toward them, poem plane in hand. He inhaled. He exhaled. He flipped the poem airborne. It sailed straight, dipped a wing, collided into her open locker door and fell. They backed away from it. Robert panicked. He stamped between them and took it up, thrusting it into her locker. Her locker had a wall of textbooks in it and the plane fell again. He snatched at it, missed, picked it up again, and shoved it inside.
He tried to hurry away and jostled one of them. The busy hall prevented his escape. He blended into it with difficulty. He sweated through his next class.
“What’s the matter with you?” said his mother. “I hate the attitude you’re giving me.”
“I don’t have an attitude,” said Robert.
“What’s the matter with you?”
“Nothing!” said Robert Johnson.
He played his Aunt Sue’s rock records all weekend and bared his teeth through the guitar solos. He did not sing along.
Brooke didn’t answer his notes on Monday. She glanced at him as though he were a panhandler, looking his direction but never exactly at him. When he sneezed, she did not bless him. He told Mike, his only friend, all about it.
“Whaddya see in her, anyhow?” Mike said. “I mean, she treats you like fuckin’ furniture.”
Robert winced at the cussing.
“No, she doesn’t.”
“Sounds like it.”
“She didn’t before.”
“She does now, though. Right?”
Robert shrugged, looked at his sneakers.
“I guess so. I mean, yah, kind of. Gosh,” he said. “she’s so hot, though.”
“We’re doomed to walk alone, man. Doomed to walk alone. Fuck it. Let’s go rent a movie.”
Mike and Robert had a tradition. They ran most places they wanted to go in as straight a line as possible, vaulting fences, using each other as ladders, crossing the rooftops of houses, leaping from heights and rolling like paratroopers, using their jackets to blunt barbed wire and the tops of chain link. If they bled on the way home, they considered their cuts and scrapes medals for another successful mission.
They rented a science-fiction movie about an intergalactic siege and felt inspired. Mike knew where Brooke lived, he said. They should toilet paper her house. He talked Robert into it. Robert called his mom, and she said he could spend the night. They filled a backpack with rolls of toilet paper and snuck out late, having devised several booby traps to set around Brooke’s house.
A huge, umbrella-shaped tree stood in her front yard. They threw toilet paper over it until it looked like a bride. They tossed roll after roll over the roof like grenades. They gave the garage door a white curtain. They hopped the fence and stuck a safety pin into the top of the front door’s frame, then opened a second and hung it on that one. They threaded string through the wire circle of the first one and tied it to the doorknob. They tied a balloon to the other end, filled with whipped cream. They lined little glass stink bombs under the doormat, and traded the key there for Mike’s. They looked identical. They vaselined the doorknobs and and the dial on the padlock at the gate, and balanced a tower of eggs on the knob leading to the separate garage. Then, hooting and whooping like Apaches, they leapt over the fence and ran home.
Having taken his meds, Robert watched the door for Brooke on Monday morning and waited to feel their effects. Brooke walked in. Her eyes looked a little red, and her hair was up, something he’d never seen before. When he passed a note to her, she wrote back. Her house had been toiled-papered. The kids had played pranks on her family, too. Her dad made her clean everything up, and she got locked out of her house the night before.
That’s so unfair!
I know! I wish hed just die.
You don’t, really.
Not really hes just really lame sometimes and I wish he would. I wish I could live with my mom in virginia but shes in virginia and I don’t want to live there. Virginias so lame.
Robert wanted to ask her if she’d read his poem airplane but thought better of it. His forehead creased at the thought of the conversation.
Then this face smoothed out, and he felt oil making a second skin over him. He swiped his fingers across his cheekbones and imagined leaving streaks, but his skin felt dry as hardpan. The tops of his ears tingled cold. He looked up at Brooke again, the back of her head, the nape of her neck, and saw it glow with a pearl light that pulsed around her.
He pushed his eyes to the folded notebook paper and rested the tip of his ballpoint pen on a blue line. His hand moved. He expected to leave greasy smears as his wrist slid over the page. Words came out.
Virginia’d be less lame with you there. What would they do with you? The trees would lay down. Sidewalks would turn to marshmallow and golf courses would sprout wildflowers. The sun would stay out ‘till you went home, and stars would wait through dawn to see you off to school. But, yeah, he wrote, Virginia’s probably lame, now.
He folded the paper into an octagon and drew a big happy face on it, then slipped it to the kid in front of him. The kid asked another kid to borrow a pen, and dropped the note into his book bag when he opened it. That kid kicked the girl next to him, and she looked over. He nodded at the floor. She picked up the note and tickled Brooke’s neck with it. Brooke took it from behind her ear and unfolded it in her lap. When Ms. Finch started scratching at the blackboard, Brooke twisted in her seat and looked at Robert. Robert locked eyes with her, smiled, and looked away.
The bell rang.
The rest of the day shined like gold to Robert. He went to a coffeehouse with Mike in the afternoon, and wrote until two when he got home. The next morning, having enjoyed the benefits of the previous day’s medication, he ate a double dose. An hour later, he felt better.
He cruised through the main hall at school heedless of his footsteps. He studied the antique chandeliers and gilded crown molding for the first time, looking out over the heads of his classmates like a runway model looks over a crowd. People made way for him. A boy with hair in his eyes bumped into him and excused himself.
“Sorry,” said Robert, smiling at and steadying the kid before moving on.
Robert started a new short story in pre-algebra that morning. He wrote with fluidity and confidence and flow, and by the end of the day it looked like something excellent was happening. He kept at it, and the confident feeling stayed. It took him until the start of eighth grade to get the story where he wanted it. When winter break came along, he tied the manuscript in a ribbon and gave it to Brooke for Christmas. She took it with wide eyes, thanked him, and went off to join her black skirt and knee-highs troops.
Winter break distracted Robert from school life. He took less of his medication to make it look like he wasn’t doubling up on it. As a result, his demeanor changed.
“Why are you so mean?” said his mother. “It’s Christmas.”
“I’m not,” said Robert.
“Well, what’s with the attitude?”
“I hate when you say that!”
“Well, what’s with-”
“I don’t have an attitude!”
“Okay, okay, okay, okay, okay.”
“Jes’ leave me alone.”
Christmas came and went. Robert saw lots of drunk relatives, wrapped and unwrapped presents, and received lots of clothing he hoped his mom wouldn’t make him wear. He had forgot all about his present to Brooke Williams by the time school started.
He had only just stepped onto campus when she raced up to him. He shrank from her.
“Oh, my god!” she said. “Oh, my god, Robert, your story – was so good! So good. I cried, I cried so hard at the end.”
Robert gawked at her.
“Um,” said Robert, “so you liked it?”
“Oh, my god, I loved it,” said Brooke.
“Oh. Good! Thank you,” he said.
“Thank you,” said Brooke. “Thanks, Robert. Thank you so much. Thank you.”
Then, she left.
Robert became an author. He started work on a sequel to the story he’d given Brooke right away. He stopped reading during math and science, and started writing. He finished the novella before summer. It had seventy-seven pages. He thought the number lucky. When he edited it, he re-arranged the words and changed the punctuation in such a way as to not lower the page count. He wanted her to know how much work he’d done for her. He also liked the number seventy-seven.
That’s how he spent eighth grade. He wrote and read, read and wrote, and learned how best to take his vitamins. Rather than popping them every day, he took them as he liked, tightening and loosening his nervous system according to his whimsy. On bright days when he felt energetic, Robert chopped up his downers with a butter knife and sniffed them up his nose. On gloomy, overcast days, he snorted uppers and took walks. When he wrote upbeat material, he took uppers, and took downers for writing more dramatic portions. Robert felt fine. Mike worried about him.
“Dude, you should take it easy on that stuff, man,” he said.
“I can’t. My psychologist says I’s gotta take them.”
“Dude, I don’t think he meant for you to take them like that.”
“What’s the difference?” said Robert. “As long as I’m taking them.”
It rained one day, and Robert snorted uppers. He stood near the enormous doors leading into the auditorium that housed the students at lunch when it rained. One kid had brought a palm leaf from outside and stood on the steps above Robert, batting Robert on the head. The other kids paid no attention. Robert waited and let him do it. The kid said things Robert didn’t listen to. He wondered when the doors would open so they could go in. They stayed shut. The palm leaf had thorns along its branch like saw teeth, and the kid started poking his scalp with them, lifting his hair, and bopping him on the head. It continued.
Robert had the longest arms and legs in school. When he turned and seized the boy’s neck, pinning his head to the wall behind him, Robert barely had to move. The palm leaf fell, and the kid spasmed, kicking his legs and clutching spasmodically at his throat. Everyone turned around. Robert’s voice sounded like rocks grating. He spat in the kid’s face, close enough to kiss him:
“I – am not – amused.”
Robert threw him to the floor and curled his lip. The kid, rigid, made a show of agitation but stood there shaking. Robert looked at the other kids, back to him, and turned around.
It never came up. He wondered if anyone would remember it long. Brooke heard.
“I heard you beat up Clem,” she said to him. “Did you beat up Clem?”
“I didn’t beat him up. He was being a jerk.”
“I heard you did. Didn’t you choke him and throw him down?”
“It wasn’t like that.”
“Well, he’s my friend, okay? So don’t do that anymore, okay? I’m mad at you. I can’t believe you did that!”
Robert watched her stalk away. Mike heard, too.
“Dude! I heard you kicked the shit out of Clem Hutchinson.”
“It wasn’t like that.”
“You know that’s Brooke’s friend, right? Fuckin’ shit, dude! That’s so rad. You’re crazy, though. She’s never gonna talk to you again.”
“I talked to her today.”
“What’d she say?”
“She said to stay away from him.”
“You gonna beat him again?”
“It wasn’t like that!”
“Well, I bet you anything he gets his friends and wants to fight you.”
Robert’s shoulders drooped.
“You really think?”
Mike raised his eyebrows, smiled, and nodded.
“He’ll take you to the park.”
“I won’t go,” said Robert.
“You have to go, man. Or he’ll fuck with you all the time.”
Robert sighed, examining the ground.
“What do I do?”
Word spread through school faster than Robert could hear it firsthand. He was fighting Clem Hutchinson at Lake Park after school. Clem never said a word to him. Everyone knew. Robert ditched school. He walked home, took out his downers, and cut up eight of them. He snorted them in a pile with a swizzle stick taken from his parents’s coffee set. He swaggered back to sixth period English.
The ceiling drooped in class and the walls bent inward. He saw the windows bulge convex and the teacher’s desk sag. His shoes felt like anvils. He hid behind 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea like an ostrich, but the words seemed pointless to him. When the bell rang, it rang dull and matter-of-factly.
The bell is ringing.
Robert shuffled into the hall.
Robert’s schoolmates herded him out the south door and through the parking lot, across the street and into the park. The crowd left an open circle on the grass, like nobody wanted to be in the middle. Cars crawled by. Adults walked onto their lawns and stood hands-on-hips, watching. An old man talked on a brick-like cordless phone.
His peers pushed him through the crowd. He couldn’t feel their bodies. In the middle of the circle, he swayed on his feet and tried to feel his pocket change. People shouted and hollered. They sounded mushy.
Clem stood with his friends. They laughed and clapped him on the back as he stepped around. Robert made eye contact with him, and Clem shouted something. Robert smirked. He wondered if Brooke was watching.
Clem ran across the circle. He smashed his elbow into Robert’s cheek. Robert spun to the ground. Robert felt grass in his hands, spongy, wet, and crisp. He squeezed it. Clem kicked him in the stomach, kicked him again and again. Robert tore up fistfuls of grass and got up. Clem hammered at Robert’s stomach. Robert doubled over, and Clem kneed him in the forehead. Robert stood upright, and sprinkled grass on Clem’s head like snow. Clew, bewildered, turned around and said things. Robert draped his apelike arms around his back and hugged him. Clem threw him off.
“Whoa,” said Robert. He staggered.
“What the fuck is the matter with you?” said Clem. Uprooted grass hung from his hair.
Robert laughed. Clem stomped on his chest. Robert laughed harder. Clem jumped on him with both feet. He slipped on Robert’s tee shirt and fell, hard. Robert laughed harder. Clem rolled over and started beating him. Robert, laughing, took some hits and grabbed Clem’s fists in his hands, guffawing like a maniac. His smile gaped like he was on a roller coaster. He did not let go. His face bled. Clem thrashed and kicked. The more he flailed around, the harder Robert laughed, and the harder Robert laughed, the more Clem threw his arms. Robert let him go and held himself, laughing. Clem stood back.
“What the fuck is the matter with him?” he said.
Robert saw Mike sail over him. He crashed into Clem like a meteor. Clem’s blood spattered them both. They went down. Robert laughed until his breath ran out, laughing in stuttering little coughs and sputters as mike battered Clem, arms flying like a windmill. Robert felt himself carried. He woke up on Mike’s couch. He smelled sausage frying.
“Am I spending the night?” he said.
“Dude, where the fuck have you been?” said Mike, shaking spices into the frying pan.
Robert sat up.
“Does she hate me?” he said.
“You didn’t do anything – except act like a total nut. She’ll hear that.” Mike stirred the sausage. “She might hate you.”
Robert breathed through his teeth.
“You should see Clem,” he said. “His dad’s gonna sue me.”
“Why would he sue you?”
Mike laughed and held up his hand. It resembled a Thanksgiving turkey. Robert laid back down.
“I love you, man,” said Robert Johnson.
“Oh, fuck off,” said Mike.
Robert stopped passing notes in class. He also stopped his medication. He flushed it so his parents wouldn’t know. He got lazy and dressed in the same jeans and tee every day. His mom responded by buying more of them. When wallet chains came in fashion, he bought one.
Sadie Hawkins came around, and he waited for Brooke to ask him to be her date. When Nicole from Social Studies asked him, instead, he said he was going with Brooke. Brooke never asked him. He didn’t go. When the spring dance came, he petitioned Brooke. She said she wasn’t going.
It happened like that. Soon afterward, they graduated. At their ceremony, he gave his novella to her. Seventy-seven pages. She held its weight in her hands, unstapled and handwritten, and stared at him like they’d never met.
“You liked the last one so much, I wrote you another one.”
Her graduation dress blew in the ocean breeze. Robert straightened his tie, the way men did it in the old movies he liked to watch. She looked at him. She looked at the manuscript. Robert’s handwriting looped and crossed and dotted without a single word crossed out or corrected.
“Thank you,” she said, and kissed him on the cheek.
Robert’s toes stung. His fingers flexed and relaxed. His stomach knotted. A lump in his throat choked him like he would cry. His back tightened.
He smiled as debonair as possible, but looked down at her with every honest thought he had. His eyes peered into hers, and she thanked him again. Then, Brooke walked away.
Robert started learning guitar that summer. He tried writing, but with Brooke gone until high school started, it felt empty and pointless. The guitar came easier; he always had something to sing, but his fingers hurt from practicing all the time. Notes came differently than words.
Notes never left him. He played a chord, knew which note he wanted to hear next, found it, and played that one. He could play three clumsy blues songs by August. He wrote lyrics and memorized everything. Robert became a musician.
“Did you know he could do that?” said his mother.
“He couldn’t do that a few months ago,” his father said.
“He’s a genius.”
“I’ve never heard of a kid his age playing the blues before.”
“How do you think he does it?”
“It’s a little scary.”
“Do you think he’s a natural?”
“I think it’s unnatural.”
She glared at him.
“He’s our son.”
“I just don’t understand it, is all.”
Robert played the blues all summer. He played through side A, and when it finished, he refrained the last song for sometimes half an hour, singing through the middle. If he erred, he laughed and played on. He laughed more than his parents had heard him laugh since grade school, but made mistakes ever less frequently.
“He laughs like an old man,” said his mother.
“He sings like one, too,” said his dad.
“You notice him talking different?”
“It’s those old records you gave him.”
“I never listened to the blues; he bought those on his own.”
“Unnatural,” said his father.
The first day of school came, and Robert snorted a couple of downers in preparation. Mike had gone to a different school, so he had no friends to meet there. He ran into Brooke, though. She went up to him.
“It was very good,” she said.
“What?” said Robert Johnson. “Oh, sure. Sure. The story.”
“I’m going to type it for you,” she said.
Robert’s eyes widened. He smiled.
“That’d be all right,” he said. “That’d be really cool of you.”
“It’s going to take some time,” said Brooke.
“Sure enough,” Robert said, “I expect it will. Thank you.”
She never did it.
Robert made acquaintances and a few friends. He dressed in his jeans and tee every day. His mother gave him money for a haircut and he spent it on records. He slicked back his hair and shaved his neck, and his mom never mentioned it. He skipped his meals and saved his lunch money, and since he never ate dinner, lost weight. He had to cuff his jeans.
He started walking to school with his guitar so he could play during lunch. It took a week for someone to find him where he sat playing, and another week for others to come. Soon, Robert Johnson never stopped waving in the halls.
“You seem like a totally different guy when you play music, do you know that?” said a girl one day.
“Totally,” she said. “Your eyes get small. And you stick out your lip. You sound older, too.”
“Maybe I am older,” he said.
Brooke heard about him and went to hear him play. She stood behind a group of people tapping their feet and nodding their heads. When the bell rang, she tried to get to him, but a circle of kids walked away with him. He saw her and smiled, waved.
“You like Brooke?” said someone.
“Sure, I do,” he said. “Mayhap a little.”
“She’s got a boyfriend.”
“She does? Who?”
Robert stopped. He looked for Brooke, but she had gone to class. He spun on his heel and walked home, saying nothing.
Brooke found him the next day.
“I didn’t know you could play guitar,” she said.
“I didn’t know you dated assholes.”
She eyed him up and down, and stomped away. Her sneakers slapped the concrete.
Robert started snorting his downers every day. He told Mike they helped his guitar.
“That ain’t good, man. You should quit.”
“Doctuh Burt Reynolds’ orders,” said Robert.
One day, he stopped playing behind the gym where he’d been hiding, and sat on the concrete stage of the amphitheatre. Students ringed the tiers before him, eating from cafeteria packages and brown bags. He checked the tune of his guitar, and bowed his back. His head dipped. He stuck out his lower lip and closed his eyes. The first chord came out louder than he thought the guitar could sound. Kids looked up.
High school disappeared. Music came through him, and he heard people clapping. Someone sat beside him. He felt kids standing around. He heard people singing. He heard himself talk between songs. The amphitheatre listened.
“She weren’t no good, nohow. Foolish, foolish woman, don’t never know a man love her right. No, suh. No, suh. An’ I let ‘er go, mm-hmm. And den,” he said, and opened another song. Robert heard applause and smile.
The principal called him to the office two days later.
“Some students are very upset at you,” he said. “They say you’re prejudiced.”
“They sure is,” said Robert Johnson, “in’t dey?”
“Why do you talk like that?” said the principal.
Robert smiled like a jack o’ lantern.
“Why you talk like you do?” he said, squinting. “I play, tha’s all.”
The principal sighed.
“You’re making some students very upset,” he said. “They’re very offended.”
“That ‘fends me,” he said, “but I only come to you cause I’m called.”
The principal drummed his fingers.
“Look,” he said, “if this continues, there’ll be trouble. I can’t let you play in the amphitheatre.”
“Mm-hmm,” said Robert Johnson, licking his lips. “All right. That make you feel better?”
The principal frowned.
“This can get much worse, Mr. Johnson,” he said. “Let’s not let it.”
“If I could stop it,” said Robert, “you’d never hear no blues outta me ever ‘gain.”
Robert played behind the gym after that. More kids showed up than the space allowed for. They had to stand. Some ate, but most held their sack lunches in their hands. He finished a song, and as the kids applauded, a small group of students booed him. He looked up, heavy-headed and bow-backed.
“Naw, c’mon. Le’s not start a waw, heyah. Der’s music n’ der’s fight’n, an’ dere ain’t no fightin’ I evah liked much’s music, so le’s all jes’ have a good tahm n’ keep the warrin’ for de football fiel’, hoh? Yeah? Well, awlright.”
He played. His guitar rang. People swayed and clapped and tapped their feet. Some danced in place. Somebody said things up front, and others booed him. He didn’t listen. Other students told them to shut up. People shoved other people. When he finished the song, his applause divided. Kids argued. He tried to quell it.
“C’mon, it’s jes’ music. Ain’t nothin’ fo’ nobody to fight over.”
Somebody walked up to him.
“You’re a racist bastard,” said Clem.
Robert played a chord.
“That right?” he said.
Clem grabbed the neck of his guitar.
“And you need to quit playing here,” Clem said.
“Ain’t gone quit nothin’,” said Robert, “an’ I ain’t gone fight choo, neither. Why don’t choo go stan’ over der’n listen a bit, swear t’wont hurtcha none. Might even like it.”
Clem pulled on the guitar. Robert looked up, saw Brooke. She squinted at him, shaking her head.
“Nah leave off,” said Robert. “I’m gone play some, cause’n deres more here wanna hear, than wan me go ‘way, an’ I can’t see no sense in quittin’ less’n deres sense in quittin’.”
“Stop talking like that!”
Robert Johnson shut his eyes and nodded. He hung his head a long time. People said things.
“Leave him alone, Clem.”
“Let him play!”
“Let him play!”
Clem stepped back. Brooke came from the side and took his hand, pulled him back.
“He’s fuckin’ prayin’ or some shit,” said Clem.
Brooke faced him.
“I am,” she said.
Clem scoffed. Robert looked up.
“No prayin’,” he said, wiping his nose. “I’m writin’ a song.”
He began to play. Clem moved. Brooke caught him. The guitar hummed out, loud and demanding.
“Pea-rl,” Robert crooned, “weren’t never mi-ne. Never mi-ne, my Pearl. Who is’t done cast yo-u, befo’ dem swi-ne, my Pearl.”
Clem stepped forward. The crowd closed infront of him. Brooke let him go. She stared.
“Pea-rl, swee-ter den wine. Sweeter den wi-ne, sweet Pearl. Why is’t cain’t have yo-u, why inchu mi-ne, my Pearl.”
Clem had hands on him, holding him steady. His face looked ready to pop. Brooke’s lips parted. The edges of her teeth showed. Her eyes, large and blinking, seemed unable to look anywhere else. The bell rang. No one left but Clem.
“Pea-a-rl! My Pearl. You been unki-nd. You been unki-nd, my Pearl. Ever’body knows ah love you, an’ dey knows it ain’t no lie, my Pearl.”
The kids cheered, yelled and whistled. The noise continued. Class had started a while before, and the ruckus brought the security guards in their golf carts. The crowd scattered. Brooke stopped staring only when she reached the corner.
“What do you think you’re doing?” they said, taking Robert.
The principal’s neck rippled with tendons and veins when they ushered Robert in.
“You held students after lunch?” the principal said. “You’re suspended! I’ve called your parents. Your father’s on his way. If I ever see that guitar again, I’ll expel you. Do you understand? Do you hear me?”
“Yessuh,” said Robert Johnson, “yessuh, I do. Won’t happen ‘gain, not on yo’ life.”
“And stop talking like that. Get out of here. Wait in the lobby.”
Robert’s guitar hit the doorframe with a loud knock as he left.
Robert’s father wanted to take his guitar away, but his mother prevented him. They scheduled several appointments with Dr. Burt Reynolds. Reynolds changed Robert’s medication. Robert would take two of these twice daily, one of those, and another one every other day. Dr. Reynolds knew what they were.
The pills made him nauseous the first week. When the nausea stopped, Robert changed. He spoke less, and more like his peers. He seemed to have forgotten all his slang. ‘Mom’ became ‘Mother’, and ‘Dad’ became ‘Father’. His responses never strayed far from ‘yes’ and ‘no’. He played guitar, still, but the blues went stale to him. He played rock n’ roll, instead, but with a halting, changing rhythm. He only sang the plainest melodies. He started writing again.
Clem tried to organize a fight again, but students laughed at him. Did he think he was in jr. high? Clem’s reputation suffered.
Brooke brought a typed manuscript to Robert at lunch one day. He stood alone in the amphitheatre, writing on a notepad that lay on the concrete stage. She startled him.
“You’re not eating?”
“Here,” she said. It had a ribbon around it similar to the one he’d tied around the story he gave her for Christmas in seventh grade.
“I corrected some spelling,” she said. “I hope it’s okay.”
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