A Short Story by John McNally
It was 1979, the last week of May with only five days of eighth grade to go, when I saw Ralph at the opposite corner of the blacktop talking to a group of boys he normally never spoke to. Some of them, like Joey Rizzo and Pete Jones, were also in eighth grade, but others looked like they were in only third or fourth. One kid might have been a first-grader.
Ralph, who’d failed both third and fifth grades at Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Grade School, was able to command attention and fear from any of our classmates, especially those he usually ignored, so I wasn’t surprised to see a platoon of kids gathering around to hear what he had to say. But Ralph and I were friends, so why wasn’t I there with him? Why hadn’t he called me over?
Ralph’s meetings weren’t the only odd thing happening. Our teachers had quit teaching us. It was as though they’d given up. And if that wasn’t enough, our principal smiled at us now instead of yelling while the janitor, an old man who normally did smile at us, had begun to glare and nod slowly whenever he passed us, as though silently letting us know, now that it was all coming to an end, that he was going to beat us up. Strangest of all, however, was that girls had started wearing tube-tops to school.
The tube-tops were the most disturbing change, not because I didn’t like them – I did – but because now I walked around all day with a boner unlike anything mankind had ever witnessed. It lasted from seven-thirty in the morning, when I first arrived on the blacktop and saw Lisa Sadowski smooshed into her yellow tube-top, until the three o’clock bell rang, when I stood behind Gina Roush, whose ever-so-slight pudge bunched up where the tube-top squeezed the hardest. The tube-tops presented the girls I knew – girls I had known for eight years now – in an entirely new light. I saw how soon, very soon, they would be dating guys much older than me, guys with cars and jobs, guys with beards and gold chains, maybe even guys with wives and kids. My boner was like an accusatory finger, always pointing: “Hey, you! That’s right. You!”
On Monday of that last week of classes, Mr. Lawrence – our Algebra teacher – kept shuffling off to the bathroom to smoke. Our class was held in one of the three mobile units outside, and there was one bathroom in each unit. He, too, had quit teaching, so when he wasn’t borrowing one of my issues of Mad magazine to read, he would lock himself inside the john for a cigarette break. Smoke would roll out from the vents, as though the mobile unit were on fire, and then the toilet would flush and Mr. Lawrence would appear, coughing and spraying the classroom with Lysol.
Ralph wasn’t in my Algebra class. His status was such that he spent all day with a teacher none of us even knew. What sorts of things did Ralph do with his special teacher? Nobody dared to ask him. Lisa Sadowski, however, was in my Algebra class – she sat in front of me – and during those last few weeks, she wore her yellow tube-top every day, like a uniform. I caught Mr. Lawrence staring at her once, until he saw me watching him, and then he coughed into his fist and disappeared into the bathroom again.
“Psssssst,” I said to Lisa that final Monday of eighth grade, after smoke started pouring through the bathroom vent. “Hey. What’re your plans for the summer?”
Lisa turned to face me, looked me up and down, and said, “Do I know you?”
“Ha-ha,” I said flatly.
“No, really,” Lisa said. “Who are you?”
For a moment, I was thinking that maybe she didn’t remember me, even though we had been in at least one class together every year since first grade, but then she poked me in the chest and said, “I’m going to spend it with you, Hank.”
“So you do remember me,” I said.
Lisa leaned toward me. “I’ll always remember you, Hank,” she said dramatically and then laughed. “Always!”
I tried not to look at her tube-top, but I couldn’t help it. It was like being told not to look at a solar eclipse, that it would burn holes through your retinas and cause you to go blind, but how could you not? I looked. Just a fast look down, but Lisa caught me, cocked an eyebrow, as if to say, “I know what you really want, Hank,” and then spun back around. She reached behind her, slipping a finger under her tube-top to readjust it, and when she ran the tip of her finger between the elastic band and her skin, my boner piped up. “Hey, you!” it said. “That’s right. You!”
Ralph scratched the few wispy whiskers on his chin when I approached him after school, and then his minions scattered like flies, as though scratching were a signal. Ralph yawned and said, “Hey, Hank.”
“What’s new?” I asked.
Ralph frowned and shook his head. “Same ol’, same ol’.”
I was weak in my knees, knowing that Ralph was planning something without me, but I kept quiet. The harder I pressed Ralph, the more he’d pretend nothing out of the ordinary was happening.
We started walking home now, just the two of us, like old times.
“The teachers quit teaching,” I said. “What do you think about that?”
“Probably taught us everything they know,” Ralph said. “If we learn one more thing, we’d be smarter than them. They don’t want that to happen.”
“I bet you’re right.”
“I know I’m right,” Ralph said and punched my arm, hard. “But I’ve got a different arrangement than you do, so I don’t have that problem.”
This was the first time Ralph had ever mentioned his own unique situation, so I decided to inch ahead.
“Your teacher hasn’t stopped teaching yet?” I asked.
“Nuh-uh,” Ralph said. “In fact, we passed the rest of you up three years ago.”
“Really?” My impression was that Ralph had been assigned a special teacher because he’d failed two grades. The possibility that he was a genius who’d flunked those two years out of boredom had never crossed my mind. “Hey, have you noticed how many girls are wearing tube-tops?” I asked.
“What’s a tube-top?”
“What’s a tube-top?” I repeated. “Are you kidding me? What’s a tube-top?”
“Oh, hey,” Ralph said. “I’ve been meaning to tell you. I’m starting a club. You’re welcome to join, but I didn’t think you’d be interested.”
So, this was it. A club!
“How would I know if I’m interested,” I said, “if I don’t know anything about it?”
“Good point,” Ralph said. I waited for him to tell me more, but he didn’t. He knew he had me on the hook. He could toy with me now, reeling me closer or flinging me out to sea. “Tube-tops,” he said. “You mean those things the girls are wearing?”
“Exactly,” I said.
“Wasn’t someone in your class wearing a yellow one?” he asked. “What’s her name?”
“Lisa,” I said, nodding enthusiastically. “Yup.”
“And the teachers aren’t teaching anymore?”
“Mr. Lawrence goes to the bathroom and smokes every couple of minutes,” I said.
“It’s anarchy,” Ralph said. “Just as I predicted to the boys.”
“I guess,” I said. I shrugged. I didn’t know what anarchy was.
Ralph said, “You’ve heard of Skylab, right?”
I collected postage stamps and was in possession of a mint condition Skylab stamp from 1974. For a while, stamp collecting took over my life. I owned a dozen stockbooks, thousands of stamp hinges for stamps I hadn’t yet found, four different magnifying glasses, and a pair of stamp tongs that were actually my sister Kelly’s tweezers for plucking her eyebrows. Of all the stamps I owned, from countries all around the world, the ten-cent Skylab postage stamp was my favorite.
I told none of this to Ralph, though. I merely grunted and nodded.
“Well, it’s coming back to earth,” Ralph said, “and it ain’t gonna be pretty.”
And then he told me how Skylab might hit a major city and set the entire place on fire, burning it the way Chicago had burned a hundred years earlier, or how it might just kill a family after they’d sat down to eat macaroni and cheese, or how it might hit the earth so hard it would knock us off our axis, causing dramatic changes to the weather. The polar caps might even melt, he told me.
“And then you know what would happen?” Ralph asked.
I shook my head. I had no idea.
Ralph leaned in close. “The end of life as we know it.”
“So, this group,” I said. “Are you protesters?”
“Nuh-uh,” Ralph said. “Scavengers. I heard about this newspaper – I can’t tell you which one – that’ll offer ten thousand big ones for a piece of Skylab when it crashes to earth. I’ll pay five hundred bucks to whoever finds it.”
“And you keep the rest?”
Ralph shrugged. “I know which newspaper has the dough, and I’ve got the means to get the piece there.” He smiled and said, “I knew you wouldn’t be interested.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Count me out.”
“I’m also teaching them survival skills,” he said. “You ever read Lord of the Flies?”
I shook my head.
“Oh yeah, I forgot,” Ralph said. “Your teachers quit teaching. Anyway, I had to read it. It’s got some great survival tips in there.”
“Survival tips?” I said. “Lord of the Flies? Really?”
We had reached Ralph’s street. Ralph, walking backwards but still talking, said, “Don’t come to me when a solar panel smashes through your parents’ roof. Insurance won’t pay for it. I already checked.”
“You’ve got all the angles covered, don’t you?”
“All of them!” Ralph said, tipping an imaginary hat to me and then turning around just in time to step over a child on a Big Wheel.