I’m sitting in the passenger seat of a half-wrecked beige’99 Toyota Corolla in our neighborhood junkyard that borders on the car impoundment center for the DMV, wondering where the hell the little red pull-tab on my roll of Tropical Fruits LifeSavers is. On every candy packaged in a roll shape, be it Mentos, LifeSavers, bubble gum, or Jolly Ranchers and even the occasional cd, there is customarily a little red piece of plastic tape that is wound into one extremity of the tube’s packaging and has an end sticking out, saying “Pull me! Pull me!” so you can grab it and rip open the top.
But why doesn’t mine? It’s vexing. It’s worsening the headache the dry heat’s created. I’m turning the thing around in my hands, rolling it around, flipping it over and checking both ends, but I can’t find it. Now I have to dig through the thin wrapper, with its joyous colorful bands, and then the second layer of protective waxy, metallic-sided paper to get to my delicious dyed, flavored, ring-shaped treats for a flavor explosion from the equator. And it won’t be neat either. With the little red pull-tab everything is tidy and starts on a good sloping diagonal so you can unravel further as you suck down those candies. But now it’ll be sloppy, uneven tearing. Who the hell doesn’t put a red pull-tab on their tube of LifeSavers? A Neanderthal, that’s who, someone who doesn’t care about humankind’s great advances in candy technology.
“Hey. Alex. Allllex.”
This is Mary. “Open this,” I say, squinting in the sun to look up at her and hand her my precious parcel. “It’s retarded.”
“Oh my God, you mouth-breathing idiot.” She deftly picks it open and hands it back. Mary has three mommies, owns no pants, and likes: making shapes like a capital A when two things meet at an angle, evenly-made stacks, symmetry, watching the currents in teacups, and ending on strong cadences. Today she is wearing her usual sullen attitude. She crosses her arms and goes contropposto, shifting her weight onto her right leg. She looks down at me. “I tried calling you, but I think your phone’s not on.”
“So I looked here. Yeah…so, Chet is threatening to take down the stuffed alligator from the biology lab and jump with it from there.”
“Ohh.” I imagine Mary sauntering over and taking her sweet time after Chet had delivered his suicide threat. Mary moves for no one. And then, Chet flinging himself out of the window, alligator held aloft, flailing his legs, a jubilant suicide cowboy. Slow motion. The angle is from behind him, and he’s going down onto a grey dusty plain. “Do you think he’s dead yet?”
“Eh, I don’t think the fall would even kill him. It’s the second floor. Break bones, yes. But not kill.”
I ask, “Hey, what if he only got a little messed up, like he only broke his spine, and he was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life and we had to take care of him?”
“That would suck.”
“Should we go check on him?”
“I guess so.”
Brushing the dirt off my jeans, I hop up and start walking. I’m a lot taller than her: she’s tiny and cute and I’m hulking and big, or at least just long and lanky. I switch on my CD player in my back pocket and suddenly there’s a self-justifying soundtrack for my life. We sling ourselves over piles of refuse, amid jumping-up curls of dust puffs, because even though we’re here on a day they’re not operating body-crushing equipment that could finish us off before the workers even noticed our presence – this is a good place to sulk and hide from the world, so we’ve figured out the schedule – we really shouldn’t be here. I sometimes think on why they’d be unappreciative of our presence. The air is tangy and metallic, free of the organic, rotting-sweet smell of the average dump. Would the rusty stuff here give us tetanus if we cut our hands on it?
It’s only a few blocks over to our school. “So how was the party last night?” I ask. I talk over the music in my head. Right now it’s Coldplay and I bounce a little as I walk.
“Meh, pretty good.” Mary makes that “meh” noise a lot. “Everyone was pretty drunk. Liz started making out with some guy, then realized what she was doing and freaked out and called John and cried to him since it was cheating or whatever. And then I cut my knees to bits because I stumbled up the stairs to my house because I was totally wasted.”
“That sounds fun.”
Mary also parties a lot. I have another one of my LifeSavers, and it’s coconut, which is probably my most favorite flavor of anything.
Could a LifeSaver actually be a lifesaver? If a little marzipan Titanic went down in an iceberg-laden maple syrup ocean, and the little gummy people were panicking and drowning, could LifeSavers be little round O’s of hope for corn starch people before they dissolve, bobbing up and down in the water?
We round the corner, and our big grey rectangular prism monolith Stalinist building rears up at us. We have a habit of sneaking in on the weekends and just playing around in there. Again, another place they don’t want us. Did I have anything for chemistry? Definitely something for English, but not too sure about chemistry. Don’t care about chemistry, but I should do the homework anyway, or our teacher, an angry southern man, will bristle his moustache at me.
We get in by the back entrance, the fire escape door that says an alarm will sound if the door is opened. The alarm never goes off. Chet’s on the second floor, so we walk up through the stairwell in the rear that isn’t near the main entrance with the poor teacher on guard duty this Sunday. Our school has a grey-green theme, if you can call it that: walls that were either originally painted off-white or are now from dirt, grayish lockers that vaguely match, and a floor of warped linoleum tiles in a checkered institution-green and flecked white. With the ceiling lights out and only the bright sunlight from the windows at either end of the hall, there’s some shade, but what light there is picks up the glimmer from the warpings of the floor tiles. It’s nicer in here with the cool sea green covering instead of the dry, brown, dusty aridity and blazing sky of the junkyard. There’s none of the thousand students and everything seems farther than usual. The building naps.
Three rooms to our left, it’s the biology lab. I can’t hear anything, but just as Mary and I enter, Chet jumps up from the windowsill he’s been sitting on and dangling his feet off of, starts making lots of noise cutting down the stuffed alligator where it’s suspended from the ceiling as part of our biology teacher’s plan to make a dynamic environment that showcases the (now dead) wonders of life. “Don’t come near me!” he cries frantically over one shoulder. It’s a really weathered alligator, its once-verdant skin now a sickly, pickled, warty grey-green. The skin’s flaking off a little.
This is Chet. He has a strange name because his parents wanted him to have something unique, his mom is running for mayor, and he likes: the feeling of smooth cast plastic, blue hair, the glowing buttons on computers and printers when the lights are turned off, and parenthetical asides.
“I…vote we leave. The attention we’re giving is encouraging him,” Mary says. “It’s like a pet whose bad behavior you have to ignore.”
By now the majestic alligator’s swinging wildly, mouth slightly agape, as Chet hacks away at the nylon threads holding it up with a dissection scalpel, rusted from preservative chemicals like formaldehyde from the lab. Nylon is a pretty nifty invention of mankind, aided by our discovery of the polymerization process. I eat another LifeSaver, this time fruit punch. Fruit punch is the most heinous of flavors, but at least it’s sugary and with this one out of the way there might be a coconut flavored one waiting eagerly later down the tube for me.
“Chet, why are you doing this? Seriously,” I ask, hoping we don’t get a teacher wandering up to see what is going on.
In between sobs, he chokes out, “Jo broke up with me and she says I smell bad and I’m stupid and my ferret is missing and – “ Chet is about six and a half feet of scrawny teenager. It’s embarrassing to see him like this, like when he tried it two weeks ago with an English classroom on the fourth floor and two months ago with the chemistry lab. That one was actually pretty spectacular, since he threatened to drink the ingredients for nitro-glycerin and jump around a lot. Nitro-glycerin is actually a lot more complicated than just dumping some stuff together, but still. Mary and I, thinking of these episodes, look at each other.
“Yeah, but it’s gonna get us found out, and then we’ll get expelled, and your parents will dig up your grave and hurt you some more,” I say, the last part for levity.
Chet pauses for a moment. He goes back to the alligator liberation anyway. “You guys, I’m really gonna do it this time. Really.”
Asking “Did you take your meds today?” doesn’t help. I know he has a shrink and a prescription for stuff. I tried taking some of his meds once. It made me wish I had seasonal affective disorder like him.
One alligator thread snaps off. I think proportionally this is farther he’s gotten than the other attempts. Now he’s wrenching it, both arms around it in a bear hug, and jumping up and down. Crap.
And with that, the alligator snaps loose with a crunch-pling sound of nylon tendons breaking off. Chet cradled it in his arms and strode over to the open window.
I start with an interjection of “Please, Chet, no, God, please, don’t, Jesus.”
“Chet, don’t be stupid,” Mary mutters, and strangely enough, that does it.
He pivots and starts shouting at her. “Don’t call me that, okay?! Don’t belittle me! I have real legitimate emotions! I’m working on them with my therapist!” He has on a Sublime shirt today. I approve.
Mary slowly backs out into the hall through the open door, and Chet follows. “You’re so unsupportive!” he’s saying, his voice rising. We’re back in the echoing corridor. “This is just a cycle, and you have to help me break it!” he adds, and then he looks in the other direction at the teacher who’s coming up the main stairwell to see what the heck was going on up here. “Oh.”
It’s a quick run down the stairs to where we came in, thunk thunk thunk thunk land and thud, quicker still with the adrenaline after the teacher saw us. He doesn’t pursue. We lean against the chill stuccoed outside wall in the shade and rest. Mary smacks Chet’s arm. “You retard,” she says. We make up our minds to go back to our respective homes, since it’s halfway through the afternoon now and school is tomorrow.
As I walk, hands in pockets, I wonder if Chet’s gonna go to a psychiatric ward like two of my other friends. One of them tried to o-d on Tylenol, the consensus of my friends being that it was pretty weak. I wonder if he’ll know how stupid this is and grow out of it. I wonder if I can offer them all a LifeSaver. And maybe the tube’ll have a red pull-tab. Maybe we’ll all have red pull-tabs and it’ll all be neater.
Next week in health class I think we’re gonna do this topic of suicides and stuff, and maybe I’ll bring this up as a hypothetical situation or something to ask the teacher so the people in that class in the hard blue plastic chairs don’t know who I’m talking about.