In first grade my hands would sweat pools of liquid onto the fake blond woodgrain of my desk. Math classes made me tense. They warped my spine and made my neck hurt. Lift up the curtain of stars and show me the King's magic exit. They served chili in styrofoam cups and offered tiny half-pint bottles of milk. We ate on mess hall tables that folded up and were wheeled away through the gymnasium as recess began and we beat each other with jump ropes and blew ground chalk powder into each other's eyes.
I can still smell those blue tiled corridors mopped daily with disinfectant to keep us pure. I can see the tall nurse in her white sweater and the red cross pin on her lapel. I see our hedgehog principal whose name was Violet. I see our Polish Phys Ed instructor, Mr. Jotsky, with his net bag of vollyballs, and with his black whistle dangling from his neck. We called ourselves “The Hawks” and wore dark blue sweatshirts on the cold soccer field, and ran back and forth chasing a black and white ball made of patchwork pentagons. We were allowed one point per score. Stingy. Ungenerous.
I, Dennis Schloop, visit this place occasionally in my mind, not frequently, but just enough to remind me to alter the details the next time I live through it, to do something extreme or to do something kind, to alter the axis, to fiddle with the outcome, to change the scenery. I once sat wide-eyed exclaiming to my sister we had lived this 1000 times previously, exactly the same way each time. I was convinced it was time for a change.
At the end of sixth grade John Robert Jupiter, Rhonda Mayers and I, Dennis Schloop, agreed to meet at the Pizza Hut for the all-you-can eat buffet. We wanted to celebrate our passage from elementary school to junior high.
“You know, he had me believing he was really a vampire!” Rhonda pointed accusingly at John.
“I am.” John said.
“Bullshit.” I said.
“There are a lot of things you don't know about me,” John said. “I am also a burglar.”
“What nonsense!” Rhonda said.
“I'm good at it too. I'm just the right size to squeeze in a basement window. I'm move silently as all vampire burglars do. And I've got a sack just the right size to squeeze out again. A real reverse Santa Claus.”
“Grinch!” Rhonda said, and Rhonda and I gave each other a look of disbelief.
There were no amusement parks in our town, no shopping malls, no bookstores. In winter the town was surrounded by an ocean of snow, or, in dry years, the seemingly endless grooves of harvested cornfields. If they started to lose their minds, our dads and moms picked a direction and started driving, or if they didn't own a car, they told you to start pedaling your bicycle.
Our bikes were parked outside the Pizza Hut. All-you-can-eat is a dangerous proposition when you are talking about sixth graders out on the prowl. The manager was beginning to watch us nervously as we returned to the buffet again and again to fill our plates.
“Ooh, I can't eat this,” Rhonda said. “It's sausage.”
“Scrape off the toppings onto my slice,” John said.
“Now all I have is crust and a little sauce.” Rhonda said.
“Go put some salad stuff on top of it and eat it,” I said.
The manager was really fidgeting. Rhonda came back with her plate.
“Hey, this is good! This could be a thing!” She had lettuce and macaroni salad and Italian dressing all over the crust.
John held two slices and stood and flapped. “Look at me! I'm a pizza bird!”
Enough was enough. The manager stepped over to our table.
“Say, you kids can sure eat a lot of pizza. But don't you think you should slow down? I don't want you to get sick or nothing,” the manager said. The manager was a high school junior named Joey Zitto. Yes, he got teased for his name, but that's a whole other deal.
“Hey, look! It's the bicycle man!” Rhonda said pointing out the window. The bicycle man was a homeless man who rode a girl's fat-tired Schwinn and collected pop bottles from the side of the road.
There was the year of the tornado, and then there were other years. The bicycle man wasn't seen for months, and then, suddenly, there he was again. He could barely pedal, but he was alive. 10,000 people are not that many when you sit down and think about it. Same dirty kids riding their bikes down the wrong side of the busy highway; same crazy hillbillies threatening to slash your tires and sometimes doing so; same pretty girls leaving the high school, books cradled under their arms; same women working at the bank drive-through who were once pretty high school girls; same cops tailing you, checking your speed and/or license number; same crowd at the ice cream stand in summer and at the Maid-Rite in winter; same dogs menacing your walk past the glove factory; same annoying school kids pelting your car with snowballs or apple cores. Same bicycle man.