Chapter 1 In which my English teacher completely loses it
I can’t believe he’s still obsessed.
I don’t know how long ago it was, but way back before it was even a “thing,” my best friend—formerly known as Peter—started baking. Well, perhaps that’s not exactly the right verb, because what comes out of his oven bears about as much resemblance to bread as it does to, say, reinforced concrete.
Now, why a teenage boy who’s built like a refrigerator is baking bread in the first place is a whole other story. The short version is that it’s my fault, because I was the one who gave him the book The Hunger Games for his birthday. If you’ve been living in a cave for the past couple of decades or are reading this in some far distant future where no one knows who Katnis Everdeen is, well, it kind of sucks to be you because it’s a really great book.
The long version would probably require a panel of psychologists, years of intensive therapy, and a whole lot of dark chocolate to get through, but suffice it to say while the rest of the world was kind of fixated on the whole kids-killing-kids part of the book, what does Peter take from it? That boys can bake.
Yeah, go figure.
Oh, and of course, since the character in the book who bakes bread is named Peeta, Peter decided that was his new name. The only problem with this otherwise brilliant little plan is that we live here in Boston, home of the silent “R”. You know, Pahk the cah in Hahvahd Yahd and all that. So insisting that he be called Peeta rather than, well, Petah, is kind of insane in its own right.
Now, you’re probably asking yourself what a sixteen-year-old girl is doing with a boy as her best friend, or you would have, had I gotten around to telling you I was a sixteen year-old girl. Well, surprise! I am, my name’s Gwen Pendergrass (and don’t get me started on the baggage that last name comes with!), and he is, so you might as well just start dealing with the concept.
Or you could move on to some other book entirely, one which could perhaps be reasonably called “intelligible.” And I wouldn’t fault you; I mean, my mom’s the writer anyway, as you might’ve guessed from all this incoherent ranting. She can’t spell to save her life, but neither could Shakespeare, so there you go. Me, well, I’m not quite sure what I am, but I’m sixteen, so lay off, I’ll figure it out eventually.
Okay. Start at the beginning, Mom always tells me, so here goes: I was born. At the usual age and in the usual manner. Or at least so I’ve been told, as it’s not like I actually remember it at all. Which is probably all for the best, what with all the squeezing, screaming and crying that I’ve heard goes on. In any case, it’s always been just my mom and me, and since I’m not much of a believer in virgin birth or parthenogenesis (see Mom, I do pay attention in biology class! Well, at least sometimes...) I’ve always assumed Dad was out there somewhere. I even have a small strip of pictures of him and Mom in some photo booth at a casino in Vegas. They both look kind of drunk but really happy, which I supposed explains a lot. Me in particular. Or at least my aforementioned birth nine months later.
But as I was saying, Dad’s never been in the picture—or outside of the Vegas ones, if you take my meaning—and while I’m not thrilled with the idea, for the most part I don’t dwell on it. It’s just my life, such as it is.
If you’ve happened to do the math—which I can assure you I would never do in your place—you’ll have figured out I’m a high school soph, which is just about as much fun as it sounds. In English class, we’ve just finished reading Oedipus Rex—you know, that timeless story of a boy who kills his father and marries his mother, something high school students throughout history have always deeply related to.
“...so, using Oedipus’s failed relationship with his father as an inspiration,” my English teacher, the inimitable Mrs. Beecham, tells us as we’re scrambling to get all our stuff into our backpacks, “you’re going to write about your earliest recollection of you and your father doing something meaningful together. Something other than going to his parole hearing, watching TV or playing video games.”
My fellow students let out the traditional collective groan of dismay, which Mrs. Beecham, just as traditionally, ignores. “And make it good, people,” she tells us. “Because if I get one more essay on my dad made me toast while momma was away, we’re doing six weeks of James Joyce. Solid.”
James Joyce, in case you’re fortunate enough not to know, is the Mount Everest of writers. You read him because it’s such grueling, hard going that at the end you can plant a flag on the book and say I prevailed; I reached the summit of Mt. Joyce without the aid of Sherpas or oxygen tanks, and I lived to tell the tale.
However, as I bet there aren’t more than two other people in the room who have any idea who the heck he is, the whole threat thing is kind of pointless. But as I said, Mom’s a writer, so I know this stuff enough to shudder at the thought.
The rest of my classmates start filing out, scrambling to get to their next class before the bell rings.
“Three pages, typed,” she calls after them. “And rough drafts by next Wednesday.”
And then it’s just me, standing in front of her desk. I want to ask if I can approach the bench, but I have a feeling it won’t go over all that well.
“Yes, what is it?” Mrs. Beecham asks with a sigh. Actually, she adds a put-upon sigh as punctuation to every one-on-one interaction I’ve ever seen her have. She once even got so exasperated with us kids for “pestering her for clarifications” that she’d slammed a book down on her desk. “I’m here to teach,” she’d told us in the resulting stunned silence. “Not to answer questions.”
When the time comes, I’m going to push for getting that inscribed on her gravestone like a family motto.
“Um, I never knew my father,” I tell her.
“Consider yourself lucky. Most of ’em are pigs anyway.”
Not what I was expecting. But she’s on a roll, now.
“If I hadn’t met my kids’ father, I would have been a whole lot better off, let me tell you. For one thing, I can guarantee I’d be doing something worthwhile with my life instead of being stuck here teaching the same junk year after year.”
Well, okay, then. This is going well. I start to ask if I could write about my mom instead, but she’s gone, lost in her own world.
“But they’re classics...” she whines, presumably mimicking some member of the school administration. “Classics my ass,” she tells me. “If you listened to those spineless worms on the school board, you’d think nothing worthwhile had been written since Mark Twain.”
“Uh, that sounds pretty frustrating,” I mumble. “But what should I do about this assignment?”
“Frustrating? You don’t know the meaning of frustrating. You kid all whine and moan about the assignments. Three whole pages. Please. I’ve been doing this same curriculum twice a year for fifteen years. Fifteen years! At sixty, three-page papers a year, do you know how much I’ve read?”
I start doing the math in my head, but she’s plowing onwards, saving me the effort.
“Twenty-seven hundred pages. Twenty-seven hundred pages of mostly incoherent drivel from you people! So don’t you complain, Missy, don’t you dare complain!”
“I wasn’t,” I protest. “I just need to know how to do the assignment without a dad.”
“That’s not really my problem, now, is it?”
She looks down at me over her glasses. “This is a creative writing class. Be creative. Write about how the jerk broke your poor mother’s heart, or about all the lies he told her.”
“I really don’t think it was like that, Mrs. Beecham.”
“Yeah, right. Is he dead?” she demands. I suddenly remember there is no Mr. Beecham. Shocking, I know.
“I don’t think so,” I reply.
She smiles like she’s just checkmated with me. “Then it was like that. Trust me.”
“Hey, Pita Piper,” I call, as I finally come out of school.
He’s standing next to this massive oak tree in the school’s front yard, and he doesn’t dignify my adornment of his name with even the faintest of eye rolls. The tree doesn’t react either, but given that it’s a tree and he’s Peter, neither of these events are particularly surprising.
By the way, have I mentioned how much I love this tree? It’s just brilliant. It’s supposedly been here since long before there was a here, here. And despite its size, it has somehow figured out how to offer no shade at all no matter where the sun is in the sky. I’ve never been able to work out how it manages this trick, but if I had to deal with people carving their names into me and covering me with TP on an annual basis, I wouldn’t give them any shade either.
Peter steps away from the tree and matches strides with me as I pass.
“It’s just Peeta,” he tells me patiently. He’s always patient with me, even when most people would want to throw me in front of a bus. Which may explain why he’s my best friend, I suppose, because if your friends are trying to throw you in front of buses, something is seriously wrong with your life.
I’d met him when we moved into our current apartment building filled with double-income families. Unfortunately, the two incomes tend to both be earned by a single parent working two jobs that together pay in the low to starvation range. Peter’s family is the exception in that he still has both parents, though with all the weed they smoke, you could mash their brains together and the resulting creature still wouldn’t be as sharp as my mom. I wouldn’t particularly want to meet it in a dark alley either, but I guess that’s pretty much a given for anything created from two brains.
Don’t get me wrong, they’re nice enough and do their best to take care of Peter... it’s just that their best isn’t particularly good.
So where was I? Oh yeah, I was telling you how I met Peter. We’ve moved so many times that I can’t remember where we were coming from, but my job is always to sit on the lawn of the new place and guard our stuff as Mom makes trip after trip in our old station wagon, moving our junk... sorry, our prized possessions... one carload at a time.
Of the two or three carloads, only two things are really mine: a huge box of books, and a ratty suitcase filled with hand-me-down clothes which are always somehow mostly smaller than I currently am, but which are insufficiently worn out to be replaced.
Of these, I only really care about my books and my clothes can go up in flames for all I care. Well, as long as I’m not wearing them at the time.
But back to yet another move. Mom was off on her second or third trip and there I was, bored out of my mind, so I decided to break open my book box and see if Frankenstein was anywhere close to the top. It is, without a doubt, one of my favorite books... and yes, I know, that makes me officially weird. Most of my generation don’t want to have anything to do with something more than twenty minutes old and my favorite book just had its two-hundredth birthday.
If you’ve never read it, trust me, it’s nothing like what you expect. In some ways, Dr Frankenstein is even more of a monster than his creation, and I can totally relate with the monster’s perspective of having the world all around you, but being outside of it, only able to look in. Sure, being the poor kid on the free lunch program isn’t exactly the same as being a reanimated creature too hideous to be gazed upon, but still, not being seen for yourself, can be pretty exhausting either way.
I had settled down and was in the middle of chapter four when the sun pretty much went away. I looked up and found myself in the shadow cast by this really big guy looking down at me.
“Hey,” he said, then apparently realized he was blocking my sun, because he took a large step to his left and it all came streaming back in.
I blinked in the sudden light and tried to place him, but the only thing I could think of was that he could be the monster itself. Well, in size at least, because this guy was anything but hideous to look at.
“So, I was wondering,” he said, “if I could borrow your copy of Frankenstein. When you’re done with it, of course.”
I had no idea who this kid was and considered the obvious questions that brought up, but decided to go straight for an even more basic one. “Why?” I asked, looking up at him, innocently.
At this point in the conversation, most people will just stare at you blankly with a “that does not compute” glaze to their eyes. Like when a waiter bounces up to you and says, “If you need any help, my name is Candy” and you reply “What’s your name if I don’t need any?”
It kind of short-circuits their brain, and you can almost hear the gears whirring as they try to go back and make sense of what you said.
And of course, this is exactly what I expected to happen to Peter. For yes, this is Peter, and this is the moment I’ve been talking about when I first met him.
“Because the rats ate my copy,” he responded patiently, without even a hint of grinding gears, smoke, or glazed look at all. Impressive.
“Everyone’s a critic,” I told him, wondering if he’d follow my logic.
“Actually, they were pretty indiscriminate. They also ate one of my shoes.”
I’m beginning to like this kid, not that I’d ever let him know.
“Right or left?” I asked, as if it somehow mattered.
“Left definitely. I remember Mitch–that’s my dad–saying it was ironic they ate the left shoe because with that one gone, now the right shoe is left.”
Ouch. I did mention that his parents’ brains are kind of cross-wired right? This sort of stuff comes out of their mouths all the time, and a lot of it is actually pretty funny. All the more so, as they have absolutely no idea that it is.
“You know,” I mentioned casually, “lending a book to someone who has rats which eat them is kind of like lending money to someone with a gambling problem.”
“They’re not so much my rats, as rats who pretty much sublet the entire building.”
Great, I’m just loving this new place already.
“If they bother you, though, you can always get coyote urine from predatorpee.com. Works like a charm. The downside, of course, is that your bedroom smells like a bunch of coyotes peed in it... or you could just embrace the rats as another marvel of nature’s infinite adaptability, and anyway, what’s a little black plague among friends?”
“One of these days,” I commented to the universe at large, “I would really like to live in a place which didn’t involve choosing among bookeating rats, coyote pee and the Black Death.”
“Yeah, that would be nice, wouldn’t it. So, can I borrow your book?”
Since the whole pee thing grossed me out, and having my precious books turned into rat turds was not something I wanted to risk, after we were all moved in he took me to this vacant lot where everyone dumps their junk and we found an old metal filing cabinet that he lugged up to our apartment for me. Must’ve been from the twenties or thirties because this sucker was made of real steel, nothing like that tin foil aluminum stuff they sell nowadays.
Weighed a ton, but it’s been a life saver. Some people have gun safes. Me, I have a book safe. In return, I let him come and read any time he wants.
But back to me, Peter, and the shadeless oak tree that I started talking about like half a chapter ago.
“Can I borrow a memory?” I ask him as we start walking to the green line T-station to catch our train home. Sure, the orange line is closer and takes about a billion fewer stops but what can I say, I like green. And it’s not like we have anything particularly exciting to do once we get to our luxury living accommodations anyway, so why hurry?
Life is the journey, not the destination. Therefore, the longer we can make the journey last, the longer we’ll live. Or something like that.
By the way, for those of you outside of Boston, the “T” is the subway, short for the MTA, which stands for Mediocre Transport Autocracy, or something like that. Some of the stations are actually pretty cool with art and bronzed clothing and stuff.
Ours isn’t one of them.
“I mean it,” I tell him. “I need a memory I can borrow for Mrs. Beecham’s insipid Oedipus-inspired, father/relationships assignment.” He doesn’t respond, just slowly turns and gives me The Look. You know the one: the look that says, “you didn’t really just say that did you?” Which of course I just did, or he wouldn’t have given me The Look in the first place.
So of course I hit him.
Remind me not to do that; the guy’s made of concrete or something because it’s like hitting a brick wall.
As I shake my hand in the air to get some feeling back into it–or at least some feeling other than pain–I glare at him as it were all somehow his fault, but he shrugs, not buying it.
I rub my poor bruised hand as we descend into the open maw of Boylston station. It’s cool and dim in there after the bright afternoon sun, and I fish in my backpack and we flash our Charlie Cards and head out to the platform. A train’s already sitting there so we run for it, taking the stairs two at a time then dashing into the car, just as the doors... well, do nothing.
And they keep on doing nothing for about another ten minutes and we get to watch everyone else do exactly the same thing we just did: see the car from the top of the stairs and risk a broken neck running down to catch the train just before it doesn’t leave.
“It doesn’t have to be a good memory,” I say as we continue to wait. “How about the one when Mitch thought he was the prophet David, or when you went camping and the raccoons found his stash...?” The doors finally slide shut and the car lurches forwards. I plead all the way to our stop in Roxbury, the dissolved municipality we call home. Yep, some people get burgs or boroughs or townships, or even just cool neighborhoods like Angleside, Ravenswood or Pigeon Hill like they have over in Waltham.
Me, I get to live in a dissolved municipality. An alka-seltzer of a former town, whose old buildings often look like they’ve been sitting there dissolving away over the years ever since the proud city of Roxbury was eaten by Boston and dissolved into the melting pot of greater Bostburbia, relegated to a mere backwater of a neighborhood. But we will never forget!
Well, that’s true, but mostly because nobody ever learns that stuff anymore, because it all happened about a hundred and fifty years ago.
And it’s kind of hard to forget what you never knew. But the principle is sound. And there’s always Wikipedia.
Peter’s still shaking his head ‘no’ as we climb up the four flights to our floor.
“Mitch is a bad enough influence in general,” Peter tells me. “And you, in particular, don’t need another one. Why don’t you write about when your own dad was your imaginary friend?”
“I was about three. And it wasn’t real.”
“It was real to you.”
“Yeah, so was the tooth fairy.”
He looks at me, concerned. “What are you saying?”
“Nothing, I’m sure there are millions of cute little pixies out there who have nothing better to do than collect used teeth.
“They aren’t pixies, they’re fairies. And I’m pretty sure they’re not all that cute. Probably more like Rosie the Riveter with wings.”
I’m fairly sure he’s putting me on, but when you look in the dictionary under deadpan it says: “see Peter.” Well, at least it does since I whited out the old definition and penned that one in.
I know, me, the literary literalist, defacing a book. In my defense, I put a picture of Peter next to the entry which means I actually also face’d the book, so between that and the defacing, it should cancel itself out karmically speaking.
Aaaah, I’m turning into Mitch with his right shoe left thing...! Maybe Peter has a point about him being a bad influence after all.