FICTION September 28, 2012

Lord of the Ralphs

I waited until two o’clock – one hour before the end of my grade school career – before calling it quits and heading home. I couldn’t tell if my throat hurt or not, so I poked at my lymph nodes until they started growing, and then my throat started pulsing.

Outside, walking past all my old classrooms, I saw Roark Pile in the room where I had left him. Using a giant pair of tongs, he was pulling something burnt and flaking from the kiln. When he saw me, he opened a window and yelled, “Loser!”

I tried yelling something back, but a coughing fit overtook me, and I had to keep walking, half bent over, my hand over my mouth.

The next day, I stayed in bed. Twice, my sister, Kelly, looked in on me and said, “Yep, you’re dying.” She was two years older than me and had vowed long ago to outlive me. “You’ve got a week,” she said. “Two weeks, tops.” But the next day, I was up and about. Whatever I’d had, it was gone. I would live, after all, much to my sister’s disappointment.

Graduation came and went in a blur of relatives, cake, and too-stiff shoes. I saw nearly everyone at the ceremony, including Ralph, despite his claim that graduation would be for him a private affair held in the principal’s office, but most of the girls I saw, including Lisa Sadowski, were too busy getting their photos taken or squealing with their best friends to say hello to me.

It wasn’t until July that I saw Lisa again. On that particular day, Thursday the twelfth, I was so bored I biked to Rice Park to watch a Little League game. For the past month, no matter where I went, I would hear “My Sharona” by The Knack playing on somebody’s radio, and every time it came on, people stopped what they were doing to snarl and bob their heads super hard. Best of all was the sleeve for the 45, which featured a braless, pale, dark-haired girl whose nipples you could see right through her tight white undershirt, and whenever I heard the first notes of the song and thought of that girl, my boner would wake up from its summer slumber. And so when I heard “My Sharona” on some kid’s boom-box at Rice Park, it was as though I were back at Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Grade School all over again, living in a state of never-ending frenzy.

And that’s when I saw her – Lisa Sadowski, snarling and bobbing her head. She was wearing her yellow tube-top and blue jeans that had been made into shorts with a pair of scissors. A thousand white threads circled her tanned legs. She was wearing flip-flops and eating a corndog.

“Lisa!” I called out. “Over here!”

Lisa looked right at me, still snarling, her head bobbing, but it was as though she had no idea who I was.

“It’s me!” I yelled. “Hank!”

She squinted, but the sun must have made it difficult for her to see me, or maybe her eyesight had weakened since graduation. Maybe she was blind now. I was about to yell her name again when a man with a mustache and a gold chain around his neck walked up beside her. He was holding two cans of Coke. She raised up on her tiptoes and kissed him, and then she tried to force-feed him the corndog. He laughed and backed up. His shirt was unbuttoned almost to his brass belt buckle, and he wore a pair of aviator sunglasses on top of his head, as if there were a second set of eyes peeking up through the hair on his scalp.

“Here, take this,” I imagined him saying, handing her the Coke. “You’re one crazy chick, you know that?”

That’s when I noticed that all the other girls from eighth grade were with much older guys – guys smoking cigarettes, shirtless guys with mysterious scars across their chests or backs, guys with incredibly bad acne. Who were these guys, and where had they come from?

I said hello to some of the other girls as I biked away, girls who used to be happy to see me, but either they didn’t recognize me or they were ignoring me. I wanted just then to get the hell away, so I stood up on my pedals, but before I pushed down to leave, I saw what appeared to be a small army approaching Rice Park from the dirt hills.

The hills were where tough kids went to race mini-bikes and make out with girls, a place my parents had warned me to stay away from. As the army approached, I saw Ralph at the front leading his soldiers toward the ballpark. Here were Ralph’s Raiders, and they were carrying something long and shiny.

“We found it!” Ralph yelled, and all the girls who had ignored me, girls who were now hooked up with older men, rushed over to see what wonderful and glorious thing Ralph had found.

Ralph was happy, truly and undeniably happy, for the first time since I had known him. The Raiders marched in unison behind him, exhausted from their mission but clearly exhilarated. A few of the boys whose fathers worked construction wore hardhats, probably in case falling pieces of Skylab were to hit them.

The closer they came, the clearer I saw what they were holding. It was the bumper from a car and not a piece of the famous space station, which I’d heard had crashed into Australia the day before. At Ralph’s command, his army raised the bumper triumphantly over their heads, as though it were an enormous trophy and they were the victors.

“Behold!” Ralph said to the approaching mob. “Skylab!” As more people rushed over, Ralph yelled, “Don’t touch it! Back up! Don’t crowd us!” but he was trying not to grin, and I figured he was imagining how to spend all the money he thought would be coming his way.

I wanted to tell everyone that it was just an old bumper, but who was I to take away their fleeting moment of joy? Who was I, of all people, to tell anyone what truth and happiness really were?

I walked over to Ralph to shake his hand, but he wrapped both arms around me instead. He whispered, “What a year, Hank. What a strange and wonderful year.”

When Ralph let go, I saw in his eyes that he already knew the truth about the bumper but that it didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was what people thought it was. And so I lifted my arms into the air to touch this shiny thing that had brought us all together. I stretched and stretched, hoping to feel the magnetic power of something ordinary while Ralph, raising his arms beside mine, yelled, “Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”

John McNally is author of seven books, most recently the novel AFTER THE WORKSHOP (2010) and VIVID AND CONTINUOUS: ESSAYS AND EXERCISES ON WRITING FICTION (2013). His novel-in-stories THE BOOK OF RALPH, which originally appeared by Free Press in 2004, will be reissued in an expanded ebook edition in 2013. "Lord of the Ralphs" is a new story from that edition. Originally from the Chicago area, John now lives and works in North Carolina.