Authors: Kevin Brockmeier
Also by Kevin Brockmeier
The View from the Seventh Layer
The Brief History of the Dead
The Truth About Celia
Things That Fall from the Sky
City of Names
Grooves: A Kind of Mystery
This is a work of nonfiction. Nonetheless, some of the names of the individuals involved have been changed in order to disguise their identities. Any resulting resemblance to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental and unintentional
Copyright © 2014 by Kevin Brockmeier
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Pantheon Books, a division of Random House LLC, New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto, Penguin Random House companies.
Pantheon Books and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.
Portions of this book have previously appeared, in slightly different form, in
The Oxford American
(Summer 2011) as “Seventh Grade,” in
(Summer/Fall 2013) as “Two Days in Seventh Grade,” in
The Oxford American
(Summer 2012) as “More Seventh Grade,” in
(January 2014) as “The Case of the Missing Miss Vincent,” in
The Georgia Review
(Winter 2013) as “Dead Last Is a Kind of Second Place,” and in
(Fall 2013) as “The Plans, The Blueprints.”
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip : a Memoir of Seventh Grade / Kevin Brockmeier.
1. Brockmeier, Kevin—Childhood and youth. 2. Authors, American—Biography. 3. Boys—United States—Biography. 4. Preteens—United States—Social life and customs. I. Title.
2014 813′.6—dc23 [
Cover design and illustration by Paul Sahre
This book is dedicated to Jason Akins, Tim Allison, Nikki Bailey, Chris Bastin, Mark Beason, Chris Bell, Randy Bell, Stacey Bell, Sheri Benthall, Matthew Berry, Alisha Black, Jon Bozeman, Andrew Brady, Rebecca Bredlow, Chris Brown, Tasha Brown, Todd Brown, Martha Campbell, Chad Carger, Chuck Carter, Eric Carter, Walter Carter, Michael Compton, Lynn Cypert, Camarie D’Angelo, Learon Dalby, John Daniel, Erica Dany, Brian Drewry, Kristen Dugger, Cari DuVall, Kelly Felton, Christian Funderburg, Russell Gardner, Jessica Gentry, Katie Gentry, Jeff Glymp, Jennifer Harper, Amy Harris, Shane Herald, Kim Hill, Mark Hopkins, Melissa Horn, Carey Kilpatrick, Sophia Lewis, Shane Lind, Jason Looney, Michael Loyd, Stacy McDonald, Scott Meislohn, Leslie Miller, Janet Moore, David Morton, Jennifer Newkirk, Brian Orsborn, Tammy Parsons, Aaron Perry, Keith Price, Jason Raney, Michele Regauld, Bobby Roberts, Steve Robinson, Michael Smithson, Allan Snyder, Shawn Starr, Ami Stecks, Shauna Stephan, Angie Stevens, Hope Sutton, Karla Templeton, Phillip VanWinkle, Stephen Webb, Jill Wood, and Tina Woodward
and, with gratitude, to Miss V.
Sometimes one who thinks himself incomplete is merely young.
He feels like a different person. There he is, scaling the bluff behind Mazzio’s Pizza, bracing his sneakers against chunks of stone and the whip handles of baby trees, twenty-five feet above the parking lot. He could be a stuntman, a daredevil, almost anything. He clasps a rock, the kind made from hundreds of chalky plates, and reaches for another. His hand finds a tuft of grass instead. Then he snatches at a pine sapling and it separates from the ground in a froth of dirt and roots. His knee gives a sudden slide to the left. He nearly goes sailing off the hillside. He has to flatten himself against the rocks to regain his balance. The wall above him is smooth, faceless. He’s too short to grip the top edge and, even if he could, not strong enough to hoist himself that high. He tries to climb back down, but the way his leg lashes at the air, slipping short of its foothold, makes his muscles feel like they are floating free of his bones. The others, Kenneth and Thad and Bateman, are already somewhere overhead, flicking long curves of spit onto the grass—gleeking, it’s called, and no one has ever been able to teach him how to do it. He can hear the snap of their tongues against their teeth, and then Thad bragging, “Coke bottle!” and Kenneth saying, “Negro, you did
hit that,” and Bateman beginning his Eddie Murphy routine, powering up his slow, shameless fox’s laugh. He stays fastened
to the bluff, glancing this way and that, as if the trees or the clouds or the roof of the Shell station could undo the last thirty seconds and give him another chance. It would be just like him, a classic Kevin move, to die here while his friends tell dick jokes.
His throat is so dry that talking seems impossible, but “Guys,” he manages to say. “Hey, Thad! Bateman! I need some help.”
Thad’s head appears, Whack-a-Moling out over the grass. “Having some trouble?”
“How did you guys make it up there?”
“See that big rock? You want to go around the other side.”
“I can’t. I’m stuck.”
“You weigh like seventy-five pounds, man. Here.” Thad lets down an arm, and gravity instantly ropes his skin with veins.
Kevin counts to three and releases his fingers from the root fibers of the pine tree. He is ready to fall, ready to break a leg or worse. He is always amazed by the difference between how he feels and how he appears, the way his single-minded determination can look like the panicky darting motion of a little kid.
“Ow,” Thad says. “Not my hand, gaybait. Take my wrist,” and then there is the same sensation Kevin remembers feeling when he played rocketship in the swimming pool. His body is lofted into the air, and before he knows it, he is lying safe on the ground, bugs the size of celery seeds springing in multitudes out of the clover.
It was last winter when Kevin’s dad and stepmom moved to Brandon, Mississippi, a town roughly half the size of its
own reservoir. That was where he spent the summer, watching R-rated videos and buying candy from a bait-and-tackle store, playing with his little brother instead of his friends, his head brimming with fantasies of everything he might be missing. Barely a week has passed since he returned to Little Rock. Home to his records and his comics and his room with the big wooden
on the door. Home to his friends and their ten thousand changes. Suddenly everyone is saying
, and mostly the gaybait is him. They have taken up a medley of black slang—
—pronouncing the words with a strange slingshot rubberiness. Their one-liners are borrowed from
Beverly Hills Cop
, and in their tape players Mötley Crüe has been replaced by Iron Maiden, Dio, and W.A.S.P. And then there are their social lives, that elaborate nervous arrangement of who owns what, who called when, who kissed who and where. In May, Kenneth was going with Sarah, but they split up in July, and now she likes Thad, or at least that’s what Jess said. (She certainly doesn’t like Kevin.) M.B.’s parents bought a new house in Colony West, and it looks like Carina’s are divorcing. Bateman’s moped was stolen from his back porch—by Ethan and Kenneth, it turns out—but they returned it that same afternoon. Stephanie is leaving Central Arkansas Christian to attend a secular school, Nathan has moved with his family to Texas, and Greg, who made a
of his arms and called out, “Boom time!” whenever he scored a goal during soccer; Greg, who liked to tackle Kevin, clamp his legs around him, and say, “Don’t you want to get up? Why don’t you get up? Come on, Brockmeier, get up off the ground”—Greg has
recruited his older brother to pen Kevin in a locker on the first day of seventh grade, one of the tall athletic models the senior high kids use, and there’s not a damn thing he can do about it.
In Arkansas, in August, the sun is so indomitable that the light melts on the pavement, collecting in silver puddles that reflect the sky and split like water around the tires of the cars. Bateman, whose shirt is ribboned with sweat, the cotton clinging transparently to his gut and nipples, says, “This heat is a bitch, mans. Let’s get something to drink.”
They take the easy route back down the bluff. The sidewalk outside the pizza parlor is so muggy, the foyer so frigid, that goose pimples contour their arms as soon as they step inside. All at once it feels like winter: September, October, November—
. An old Pac-Man machine fills the room with its electronic swallowing noise. Absentmindedly, Thad attempts to reproduce the sound: “Huey-huey-huey-huey.”
There is a moment of perilous quiet before Kenneth pounces. “Huey
? What the fuck is huey
?” Then Kevin says, “It’s not huey-huey. He goes waka-waka, doesn’t he?” and Bateman says, “I thought it was wookiee-wookiee,” and Kevin tries, “Nookie-nookie,” and Thad says, “Pussy-pussy,” and Kenneth says, “Licky-licky.”
They keep running through their variations as they head for the soda fountain. Kevin unzips his backpack and distributes the stack of plastic yellow Mazzio’s cups he has been saving. One by one they fill them from the soda spouts. Someone has to cap off the line, and today it is Bateman, which means that he is the one waiting for the foam to settle when the stocky little manager comes tugboating over from the ovens, trailing a pair of skinny waiters behind him. He smacks a hand on the ice bin. “Just what are you boys doing?”
Bateman gives the Coke lever another tap. “These are endlessly refillable.”
“Look, kid, the free refills are for when you order something off the menu. You can’t just wander in off the street and start drinking whenever you feel like it.”
“It doesn’t say that in the commercials.”
“It’s strongly implied.”
“What do you want us to do, dump it out?”
The manager wipes the oil from his brow with a shirtsleeve. “No—go, go. Drink your Cokes. But don’t try this stunt in here again.”
November, October, September, and they are back outside, in the heat and the daylight and the damp air with blurred spots of gnats sliding through it. There is a rumor everyone has heard that when the cook scorches a pizza, Mazzio’s tosses it in the trash barrel out back, coated with red pepper flakes to keep the homeless from stealing it, but when the four of them investigate, they find only a mound of raw dough the sickish color of something trapped in a swimming pool filter, slowly bloating through the holes in the rusty metal. It is easy for Kevin to imagine it coming to life and terrorizing them. He says, “Beware the Blob,” hoping for a laugh, but the alley behind the restaurant is so sticky and unpleasant that the joke frays away before he has quite finished speaking.