I must have just said something a little too stupid just a little too loudly. Ms. Brewer, her voice like something rising from a swamp, was in the middle of lecturing me from across the room. Being a teacher, she couldn’t exactly cuss at us, so she did the job with puns and euphemisms. “Bullfrog! don’t give me no bologna!” was her go-to, and she was in the middle of it now. She never left her desk. She was a large lady and she would have us write on the board for her and she would watch us walk down the hallway to the cafeteria or the art room from the small glass slit in the door near her desk. Later in the year, she would not report for work. An administrator or long-term substitute would tell us that she needed surgery and would not be back until almost June. School let out in June, so she was going to miss practically the whole year. Most of the rumors assumed the lab coat-wearing doctors would spend most of that time searching inside that large globe of her body for the organ that needed fixing, and many of us believed they might never find it. We often cloaked ourselves in crude jokes and minor cruelties.
When she dismissed us to lunch, students grabbed their coats and jackets from off hooks and the backs of chairs. This was in the time of bomber jackets. We fawned over teal and purple Hornets, crimson and gold Seminoles, blue and white Cowboys, red and black Bulls, and what have you. We wanted to be either stylish or victorious, and sometimes there was no real difference between the two. A coat without sports insignia didn’t really count, but if it was stay-puft like a marshmallow, it could almost qualify. I did not own a bomber jacket. I was not alone in this, but it felt isolating, nonetheless. I felt exposed to the elements of human judgment by the informed opinions of my peers. This was Georgia, so the thick coats were not a necessity for survival—they were about status.
The carpet down the main hallway in our school was worn thin from decades of students walking by the front office to some place or another. The school’s hub was a structure from the city’s antiquity and each wing sprouting from it became the destination of another grade level achieved, crossed off, forgiven.
In line for lunch, time passed slowly, and we would make it go more quickly by sneaking up behind one another and pushing on the backs of other students’ knees. If they buckled, we would heehaw and utter clever lines like, “You hungry!” We did this while wearing bomber jackets, but something about the jacket made one less likely to be a target than an ace in these dogfights. On days when pizza was served, which was almost every day, we cracked jokes about how nothing melts quite the same as government cheese.
This was our ecosystem and the order in which we sat on the linear lunch stools defined our pack’s rank and file. Freddie Williams always sat at one end, looking in size and shape like Prop Joe from The Wire all through elementary school. On one hand, he wore a gold ring on every finger. In the other hand, he always held a Cherry Berry ice cream treat, which means he paid out fifty cents to a dollar extra every day at lunch for at least five years. He always wore spotless shoes, probably because he licked his thumb and wiped away the dirt spots before they gathered. Freddie moved at the rate of an elephant seal on land everywhere he went, but somehow this slothfulness only made him cooler, which is not true of actual elephant seals. He was terrible at basketball, but he was somehow never picked last or even next-to-last. When Ms. Brewer bellowed at us from across the room, Freddie just giggled and counted his ice cream money just underneath his desk cubby and out of sight. William Lattimore always wore polo shirts and Fila shoes and sat near Freddie at the lunch table. William shot the basketball from the side of his head like he was holding an anti-aircraft gun, and somehow, he almost always made it. Only two kids in our grade were better at basketball than William: Kenyatta Hill and Xavier Goddard. Kenyatta was the only Hakeem Olajuwon fan in the state of Georgia. He was good at everything. Xavier had a spot on his eye where he said a pencil had stabbed him—do pencils stab people? On the outer edge of this group sat Terril Howard. He was smaller than everyone. He thought he was good at basketball. He thought he was good at everything. He and William were close friends, and everyone knew this because Terril always made fun of William’s two front teeth, telling William not even the tooth fairy would take them. This lowball estimate on the value of William’s teeth was also the nicest thing Terril ever said to anyone in our class. In all honesty, Terril hated everyone.
No one really knew why Terril hated everyone, and maybe he didn’t. William always laughed at what he said and did. He didn’t really say or do anything to Freddie or any of the moons that orbited around Freddie’s gold rings and ice cream money. Freddie had a bomber jacket for almost every day of the week. William wore one too. Kenyatta had one, but he only wore his when it was cold. I don’t remember Xavier having one; in fact, I’m pretty sure he wore the same gray sweatpants all year. Terril owned a bomber jacket. His was green and orange and featured a tough-looking pelican on it. His older brother also owned one. I can’t say that I knew his older brother. I saw him once at a cakewalk outside the school cafeteria. That’s how I knew he owned a bomber jacket. He stared coldly at the layer cakes, as if he might murder them, while wearing a blue and green Minnesota Timberwolves coat. Minnesota was a fairly recent expansion team and I had never seen any of the organization’s merchandise up close. Terril’s brother and the wolf on his jacket looked very much the same. Then again, maybe the two have melted together in my memory; after all, the only thing any of us really ever heard about Terril’s brother was that Terril’s brother was in serious trouble. I always wondered if he had stolen from the cakewalk, but again, that’s probably apocryphal—who would steal cake?
I always sat at the opposite end of the lunch table. I sat with a kid named Matt who was a good friend of mine and another kid whose name might have been Jonathan. There was another Jonathan in class, but he smelled worse than the boy’s bathroom. I don’t think anyone sat near him. However, it is worth noting how he also owned a bomber jacket. The girls in our class filled in the middle of the table. Not many of them owned bomber jackets, but it’s possible some of them did. I believe Tawanda Williams may have. Matt and I did not buy ice cream often. When Matt bought ice cream, I believe he always bought a chocolate éclair and burped the ice cream’s name as he ate it. Then again, Matt burped during just about all conversations, and most of us found him funny for doing so. If a person could make Freddie laugh, then that person could be described as funny. Most of us, therefore, tailored our jokes to Freddie’s sophisticated tastes. We hoped that he might say, “You’s a trip,” and that such a comment could be cashed in later in some sort of TGIF endeavor.
After eating lunch, our table would be summoned to return our trays. Returning the trays required standing in line for the dish room. The dish room was full of milk crates and steam. The temperature spiked in there and one always felt the view of the dish room workers gloved hands removing items from a barely visible conveyor belt was some sort of veiled threat telling us all to behave and study real hard. Upon exiting the dish room, each class would line up against the lunchroom’s backwall and wait to be dismissed. Some other teacher would always walk us back to Ms. Brewer’s room because Ms. Brewer was landlocked. I guess later in the year, the long-term substitute may have walked us up and down the hallway.
I leaned against the backwall and I probably didn’t know what to do with my hands. I probably crossed my arms, uncrossed my arms, crossed my arms behind my back, uncrossed my arms, placed my hands in my pockets, clasped my wrists, and repeated all these awkward steps in an effort to look like someone who knew what he was doing while waiting to be dismissed. I noticed a dark green jacket drooped over a lunch stool at the table where we had all been sitting. I walked over to it. I picked it up. I saw the green and orange letter on the back and that tough-looking pelican. Why did it have teeth? Birds do not have teeth. Anyway, I knew it belonged to Terril, so when he walked out of the steaming dish room, I extended my arm towards him. The jacket hung between us like some sort of silent ghost.
I said, “You forgot this,” and I could see his eyes reading me the way the Predator’s eyes read everything in shades of green. He took the jacket and for a moment I thought maybe I had misread Terril’s expression. Maybe he wasn’t seeing me in infrared heat-seeking vision like some sort of target. Then his face flinched into the same expression his older brother used to stare down layer cakes. The fist landed square in the middle of my chest, and Terril barked, “Don’t you forget!”
In hindsight, the line doesn’t make much sense. He was the one who forgot the jacket. And yet my mind and my body did not forget that moment.
I would get off the bus rubbing the memory into my chest. That night, my mom probably rubbed Vix vapor rub all over my chest as I compared her touch to Terril’s punch. The next morning, waiting for the bus, I would feel the force of that blow as if Terril had given me a heart murmur. After all, he had struck me in a manner I had only seen on doctor shows—like he was George Clooney reviving a dead patient or Eriq La Salle landing that fist pump in the opening credits of Bedtime.
How could I ever forget that tectonic shock of a world outside my own striking me in the sternum?
Later that school year, I tried to pass on that same lesson: when, on the basketball court, I shoved Nick Willoughby in his chest so hard, he felt inclined to break my nose. The amount of blood caused other students to call the fight a murder. Neither of us returned to class that day, and in isolation, I doodled all the bomber jackets I wouldn’t mind wearing, wondering if having one in my possession might have somehow saved me from my present course. Walled off inside a wooden desk carrel, I doodled every jacket from the Orlando Magic to the Nebraska Cornhuskers to the San Francisco 49ers. Like some patchwork quilt depicting the promised land, I wanted to own them all. I wanted to wear them in layers, unzipping each jacket to reveal another so fresh and so clean underneath it. I wanted to be everywhere I was not.
On the last day of school, we rushed to the school bus steps and neighborhood cut throughs that would lead us home. And I don’t know where I was when I found out we were the last class Ms. Brewer ever taught. Those doctors had failed to save her.