Lord of the Ralphs

When I got home, I looked up “anarchy.” A state of lawlessness or political disorder due to the absence of governmental authority. I looked at other words on the page, like “anamnesis.” A remembering, especially of a supposed life before this life. Or “anan.” Eh? What? What is it? The longer I studied the dictionary, the more I realized that my teachers hadn’t taught me anything. I hadn’t even seen most of the words in there, let alone knew how to pronounce them or what they meant.

As the week wound down, I had a harder and harder time imagining my years of grade school coming to an end. It must have been how prisoners felt when they were about to be set free. Even though I hadn’t even graduated yet from eighth grade, I bought a T-shirt with an iron-on decal. “Class of 1983,” it read, optimistically. I wanted everyone to know that I was already thinking about my release from high school. I wanted people to see me and think, Now, that’s a kid with his eye on the future!

Meanwhile, Ralph’s group tripled in size. There were even girls in the group now, including a pudgy-kneed first-grader whose eyes, like a kitten’s, barely focused on whatever she stared at. The entire time Ralph talked, he made wild hand gestures, and more than once I saw him reprimand a child for not paying close enough attention.

Normally, a recess monitor would have broken up the meeting and escorted Ralph to our principal’s office to explain his suspicious behavior, but even the recess monitor didn’t care what we did anymore. She sat on the hood of her Gran Torino, eating Ding Dongs from a box, one after the other, while one kid pulled another kid’s hair.

Ralph was right. Everything was up for grabs now. I was looking directly in the face of anarchy, and it was as ugly as Ralph predicted.

I escorted a small boy who’d wet his pants into the school. I delivered him to the front desk of the main office, where Mrs. Lurch, who normally smiled at me and asked about my mother, was busy filing her nails and reading a copy of Man, Myth, & Magic. On the cover was some kind of man-beast. “The most unusual magazine ever published,” it proclaimed at the bottom of the cover.

I took the boy back outside and told him to go home.

“Go on,” I said. When he hesitated, I said, “Come back when you’ve got clean clothes on. You’re not going to get in trouble. Nobody cares anymore,” I said.

The boy ran away, and I never saw him again.

*

“Hey, you! That’s right. You!

My boner was like a ventriloquist doll that had come alive. On the one hand, it needed me for its own survival. On the other hand, it didn’t care what I thought or how I felt. Most frighteningly, it wanted to run the show. It pushed against my pants, straining, trying to break loose. On one occasion, while standing in front of three girls wearing tube-tops the colors of Easter eggs, I was certain I’d been busted because one girl blushed and turned away while the others looked at each other and giggled.

Damn you! I thought. Damn you all to hell!

I wasn’t sure how to spend my school days anymore. By Tuesday, we could go to whatever classes we wanted, so long as we were still in school. The brightest and most promising students were now sitting in the same room with delinquents who farted at will and, using one finger and a nostril, played Boston’s entire album on the nose harp. Some students spent the whole day in gym class throwing a medicine ball at each other while the teacher slept on an exercise mat on the gymnasium stage.

My science teacher, Mr. Gerke, showed the John Wayne movie The Quiet Man in his class. I wasn’t sure why he chose that particular movie – maybe it was the only feature length sixteen-millimeter movie the school owned – but he put a sign on the door announcing that the movie would begin at one p.m. As it turned out, I was one of only two students who showed up. Lisa Sadowski was the other.

At first we sat at desks, the way we normally would have, but then we moved to the floor at the back of the room, up against the cabinet that held the beakers and test tubes. Lisa kept scooting closer and closer to me. Light from the projector’s lamp shot out from the seams, intermittently illuminating Lisa and her tube-top. There were goosepimples all along the skin that her tube-top didn’t cover up, and I wanted to run my finger across them, every one of them, but I was afraid to touch her.

“I’m sleepy,” Lisa said when she finally slid right up next to me. She lay down, resting her head in my lap. “Do you mind?” she asked, looking up at me.

“No,” I said. “No, no.”

She smiled and then turned her head, facing the movie again. My boner pressed against her ear, and I shut my eyes, praying that it wouldn’t twitch. Dear God, I thought. Please don’t let my boner do what it wants to do. But then it twitched, and Lisa’s head actually moved. I wanted to kill myself. I wanted to break a beaker and slit my wrists. And then it happened again – another twitch. It was as though Lisa’s head were on a tiny see-saw. It rose quickly then gently lowered, rose and lowered again. Wheeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!

I shifted this time, and Lisa, who hadn’t complained about the mysterious twitches under her ear, said, “What’s wrong, Hank? I was just getting comfortable.”

“Oh,” I said, willing myself to calm down. When John Wayne kissed Maureen O’Hara in a rainy, windblown cemetery, Lisa nuzzled closer, and I couldn’t resist: I rested my hand on the soft, prickly flesh below her tube-top and left it there until Mr. Gerke flipped on the lights and, wiping tears from his eyes, said, “Damn fine movie, kids. Damn fine.”

*

On my way home, I noticed how many people littered. Scattered along the ground were crumpled bags and straws and Kayo cans and rubber gloves. Two cars had apparently crashed into each other, because in the middle of the intersection was a mound of broken glass. But why didn’t anyone pick it up?

Anarchy had arrived, and not just at school. It was spreading across the entire city like a rash.
On Wednesday, students I didn’t recognize at all sat in our classrooms and played cards. Were these kids from other schools? Were they someone’s cousins from Tennessee or Mississippi?

On Thursday, very few students showed up and those that did were reprimanded by Mr. Gerke.

“I don’t want to have to babysit you,” he said. “Why don’t you go home, like the rest of your friends?”

One kid, Jimmy Gonzalez, gathered his belongings and left the room without saying a word. The remaining four of us, unable to do something wrong even when we were told it was okay, sat with our eyes averted, afraid Mr. Gerke would yell at us if we looked at him.

Mrs. Davis, my Reading teacher, flipped off the lights once we were all seated. I had brought along a paperback book titled Beyond Belief: Eight Strange Tales of Otherworlds with the hope that reading something, anything, would be encouraged, but it was too dark to see the teacher at the head of the room, let alone words on a page. I wondered if maybe we were all part of an experiment and if one day I would appear in a medical book as “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Stop Going to School.”

“Mrs. Davis?” I called out in the dark. “Mrs. Davis?”

Lisa Sadowski walked over to the exit and turned on the lights. Mrs. Davis wasn’t even in the room. At some point she had slipped out, perhaps through the door that joined the library, which also remained dark.

During recess, I watched Ralph and his troops perform a battery of synchronized activities, many of which involved slowly approaching an invisible person and choking them. “Now again!” Ralph shouted, and they did it once more.

From behind, someone grabbed my neck and started choking me. I managed to break away, only to discover that it was Lisa Sadowski. She laughed and said, “You didn’t think I was really going to choke you, did you?”

“How should I know?” I said. “Nothing else is making any sense.”

Lisa shrugged. “I think I’d have liked school if it was always this way.”

“What way?” I asked. “This way? With no rules?”

“I guess,” she said.

Until then, I’d admired the fact that Lisa had continued coming to classes, same as me, but I realized now that she was as crazy as everyone else.

“I kissed a girl last night,” I lied, hoping to hurt her. “We were in a closet, and when her father found us, he threatened to shoot me.” When Lisa didn’t say anything, I said, “He had a gun.”

Lisa stepped up close to me and kissed me on the lips.

“You have a wild imagination,” she said. “That’s why I like you.”

She kissed me again, longer this time.

“It was at an Amway party,” I whispered, although I had never been to an Amway party.

Lisa said, “You don’t stop, do you?”

“It’s true,” I said, still in Lisa’s grip, our mouths almost touching. “Amway is short for the American Way, and the girl I kissed was named Wycherley.”

“Now I know you’re not telling the truth,” Lisa said.

“Wycherly Wozniack,” I breathed.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Ralph watching us. Lisa kissed me once more and then backed up. Ralph yelled, “Now again!” and everyone took three creeping steps, reached out, and choked the air in front of them.

*

On our way home, I asked Ralph how his Skylab project was coming along, but Ralph wasn’t interested in talking about it. He said he was more interested these days in teaching survival skills to Ralph’s Raiders.

“Ralph’s Raiders?” I asked. “What the hell’s that?”

“You’ve seen them,” he said. “We train on the blacktop.” Ralph stopped walking and said, “Actually, you were looking right at us today when you were with…now, tell me her name again?”

“Anan?” I said, trying out my new vocabulary word.

“What?” Ralph asked.

“Eh?”

Ralph glared at me.

“What is it?” I said.

Ralph shook his head.

I started walking and said, “I used to take karate lessons with my dad.”

Walking beside me, Ralph snorted. “Karate’s a good way to pass an afternoon, I suppose, but I put my trust in the U.S. Army Combat Skills Handbook. Did you know that a nuclear blast can crush sealed objects like food cans and fuel tanks? Nuclear radiation hits, and there goes all your food and water. Tell me how a karate chop to the left shoulder blade is going to get you out of any of those pickles.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess I would just die then.”

“Not an option,” Ralph said. I couldn’t tell if he was the one crossing the line between mentally stable and mentally unstable, or if it was me. He must have noticed my expression because he smiled and said, “Don’t worry. I’ve got your back, buddy.”

“Good,” I said. “I appreciate it.”

“Oh, and don’t think I’ve given up on Skylab,” he said. “We’re going to find us a piece of that baby if it’s the last thing we do on this sad, doomed planet.”

*

On Friday, the final day of classes, I put on my “Class of 1983” T-shirt and my favorite pair of Toughskins. I probably looked like someone from the future, already privy to what the next several years held for me. I wanted my teachers to say something about what a good student I had been and how I would no doubt excel in high school. I wanted girls to see me and ask to touch the iron-on, which sparkled from some kind of glitter in the decal itself. Most of all, I wanted Lisa Sadowski to tell me how much fun we were going to have together in high school, the two of us. I was determined to make the first move today. I would hug her, the way John Wayne had hugged Maureen O’Hara in The Quiet Man, and I would pull her close to me and press my lips against hers. I wouldn’t care who saw us, either. I was a man from the future, already sure of the moment that would mark the end of my shy years, ready to embark upon four glorious years of reckless abandon. When I showed up at school, no one was there except for a few teachers, and they hung out in the hallway and gossiped with each other, or they wandered off to the teacher’s lounge for hours at a time. The only other kid at school was Roark Pile, whose hair never looked washed and who always smelled vaguely like meat on the brink of going bad.

Roark saw my shirt, pointed at the year, and laughed. “Good one,” he said.

“It’s not a joke,” I said.

Roark squinted at my shirt, then looked up at me, and said, “Yeah, but…” He seemed hesitant to break the news to me. “We’re, like, class of 1979?”

“I know,” I said. I felt like weeping, but I didn’t.

I left Roark alone in the art classroom, where he was considering putting his schoolbooks in the kiln and turning it on. I wandered the halls until I found Mrs. Dunphy, the school’s nurse. She was a short, almost entirely round woman whose gums were black instead of pink.

“Excuse me,” I said, “but do you know why Lisa Sadowski isn’t in school today?”

I realized that my question was a preposterous one, since practically no one was in school today, but Mrs. Dunphy looked up to the ceiling, as though maybe Lisa Sadowski had passed on. “Lisa,” she said finally, thinking. “Lisa Sadowski. She’s got mono, I think.”

“Mono?”

“The kissing disease,” she said. She smiled, exposing her black gums.

My heart pounded.

“You didn’t kiss her, did you?” Mrs. Dunphy asked, raising her eyebrows expectantly.

“Me? No. Why?”

“Because it’s contagious,” she said. “If you kissed that girl, you should probably go home.”

“Is that why no one’s here?” I asked. “Did everyone kiss her?”

“It’s entirely possible,” Mrs. Dunphy said. “A lot of your classmates have mono.”

“Thank you,” I said.

Mrs. Dunphy placed her hand on my forehead, as if checking for a child’s fever were an instinct, and said, “My pleasure.”

*