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Authors: Lesley Choyce

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BOOK: Shoulder the Sky
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“And now he's gone. I'll never see him again.”

I wanted to tell her that I knew for a fact that the odds are against graduating high school without at least one or two of your classmates dying from something. Funny that it had to be Scott. Had it been Darrell or me everyone would have felt bad, then been mystified that they had never really known or understood us. People would have felt bad that they had not taken the time to get to know us while were alive and now we were gone. It would have been a tragedy, but we would have faded
from memory quickly, I think, almost as if we had never been there.

But not Scott.

“Kathy, I think Scott was a fool for not asking you out earlier.” I was fishing for a way to say something about my own feelings for her.

“Scott was Scott. He liked all the attention. I was just part of the crowd.”

“You were never just part of the crowd.”

“I think I was in love with him,” Kathy said.

I knew that Scott would loom large in her life, whatever she did from here on. A dog on a street and a motorcycle out of control and a martyr for love bleeding out his lifeblood on a stretch of suburban pavement. And Kathy, maybe forever, locked into what might have been — even if it was mostly in her imagination. I touched her hand and she looked up at me. Her eyes were wet with tears.

“Martin, what do I do now?”

“Want me to call your parents and get them to come pick you up?”

“No.”

“Martin?”

“What?”

“Hold me.”

The door opened to the cafeteria and Mr. Egan, our guidance counsellor, stepped through. He saw Martin
Emerson with his arms around Kathy Bringhurst. She had her head on Martin's shoulder and she was sobbing. Mr. Egan gingerly closed the cafeteria door again and walked away.

I remember the feeling of Kathy's tears soaking through my cotton shirt and I could feel the warm wet spot on my shoulder. She had her arms around me and did not let go for the longest while. My heart was beating very fast and I didn't want this to end. I did not cry or feel the need to cry. I think I had felt terrible about Scott's death. Unlike Gottfried Leibniz, I had been thinking the world was this big stupid, pointless place where ridiculous, cruel things happened to anyone at random.

Now, it was different. Sitting there in the empty cafeteria holding onto Kathy, I was feeling pretty good. Despite what had brought us to this, I was holding Kathy Bringhurst in my arms. And I felt more alive than I'd felt in a long time. And for that, a surge of guilt swept over me like a tidal wave. But I did not let go of her until another bell rang and it was time to leave before the swarm of kids came through the door for study hall.

We walked together to math class and sat in our usual seats. Kathy was in the back alongside the empty desk that people kept looking at. Mr. Miller closed the door. His guitar case was on the teacher's desk, his amp in front of the blackboard. He plugged in the guitar and turned the amp on, then hit a loud, angry distorted chord. His
amp was way loud, insanely piercing. He hit the chord again and again and then began to play some kind of crazy riff — high and squealy and soulful. It was angry and sad and so full of hurt that it swept us all away.

It reminded me of an old Jimi Hendrix song that Darrell had downloaded for me from the Internet. Mr. Miller's guitar blasting away there in school shattered the silence that had loomed all morning. He wasn't looking at us as he played; he looked down at the floor. It was the most mournful, piercing sound imaginable and he kept playing, even after the door opened and Mr. Cohen and two other teachers stood there looking at him.

He played faster and harder, and the whole scene was way too weird for us to comprehend, but it was becoming clear that Mr. Miller had been deeply affected by the death of his student and was having some kind of breakdown.

He hit one final dissonant chord and then took off his guitar, raised it above his head, and then smashed it down hard on his desk. The neck broke off the body of the guitar and the amp let go with a long wail of feedback as he threw what was left of his guitar down on the floor and walked out the door, past Mr. Cohen and the other teachers.

By noon that day, the principal had called off school and sent everybody home early. On the bus ride home, my own thoughts were confused. I felt really bad about
Scott. But I also felt a little envious of the attention he was getting even though he was dead. I realized that I was feeling jealous and I was annoyed at myself for feeling that way.

C
HAPTER
T
WELVE

The Universe

Most people don't spend a lot of time worrying about the difference between the cosmos and the universe. Some would say they are the same thing, just two different words. One accepted definition of the universe is that it is the sum total of all material things. Well, you can see the limitations with that. The universe is just the stuff that is physical and if you are the kind of person who has been spending your time hanging around this website, you already know that matter is 99.99 percent nothing. Little chunks of supposed matter — protons, neutrons, pi mesons, and all their cousins spinning around so fast that we think they are
something but they're probably just a bunch of energy. Well, you get my drift.

For the sake of argument, though, we can assume that the universe is like the hammer. You can pick it up and it has weight and seems to exist in the material sense. If you had a giant hand, you could pick it up and whack something with it and it would have an impact. If the universe hit the thumb of some imaginary giant (and I do mean a truly gargantuan) hand, then it would hurt like hell because of the supposed matter packed together in the hammer head.

Now, for the sake of argument again, I'd say the cosmos is something more ambiguous and grander. It includes everything that exists (or appears to exist in the physical sense) but all the other junk too. All ideas, all desires, all memories of swimming in a pond when you were a kid, all thoughts as well as hammers. A thought is a kind of hammer, actually, which is a metaphor you might want to pursue on your own time.

So the universe is a small sort of ghetto for debatable material things and the cosmos is the big anything-goes warehouse. You couldn't easily pick up the cosmos and use it like a hammer. It's more like a big fish net for catching things.

One dictionary suggests that cosmos implies an “orderly system.” Which this critic finds annoying. Whose order? Why does it have to be orderly? Probably
because language is in the business of making things orderly, which makes us feel very clever. We put things in boxes with language — it's like organizing your old baseball cards according to team or batting average. Fun to do for a while but tedious and somewhat pointless after a bit.

The only good thing about the dictionary is that it has a second meaning for cosmos: “A tall garden plant with varying coloured flowers resembling a daisy.” I didn't get it at first. I thought it was some kind of linguistic joke.A cosmic joke. But if I can suggest the universe is a hammer, then why can't the cosmos be a flower?

That's a rhetorical question, by the way. Please don't try to send me e-mails with your answers. Talk it up in the Emerso chat room if you like. Anything goes in the chat room, as long as there is a degree of common courtesy and mutual respect. Even if the universe is made up of 99.99 percent emptiness, I still believe that people should be nice to each other.

Emerso

My mother grew flowers in a large flower bed out the back door. Some flowers came back year after year. Some she started from seed. She knew the names of all of them. When I was little, I sat on the back steps with
a couple of toy trucks and pretended I was a truck driver. Why I thought truck driving was such a great job, I don't know. But my life's goal was to grow up and drive a truck all over North America. What could be more exciting, I thought, than driving a real truck? So I sat on the back steps and drove a tractor-trailer to someplace. I knew lots of names of places because I was a weird little kid who memorized things from any book I could find. I had learned to read at a shockingly premature age.

I also studied the maps in a big atlas at night.

“Where are you driving to today?” my mother would ask while she was planting some kind of bulb.

“Norway,” I would answer, or “Zimbabwe.” My trucks could go over oceans and up the sides of mountains. I lived in the realm of possibility, not actuality. I wouldn't have to cope with tangible reality checks and roadblocks until I was older.

“What is your cargo?”

“Light bulbs,” I would answer, or sometimes, “Plutonium.” Plutonium was one of my favourite words.

“Where are you going to drive to tomorrow?”

“Bangladesh and then Ohio.”

And so it went.

Sometimes I just moved my lips like kids do, trying to make the sound of a diesel engine by blowing air out through pursed lips. During such moments, my mother
would talk to her plants instead of me. She believed talking to plants made them grow better.

“How are the nasturtiums today?” I remember her saying. “And you, the delphiniums?”

She looked at them as if truly expecting an answer.

Sometimes I would stop motor mouthing and she would point a finger at each flower and name it: “Peony, tulip, calendula, marigold, gladioli, lily, delphinium, daisy, iris, poppy, cosmos.”

Mr. Miller was not in school the next day and the substitute teacher, Ms. Schencks, said he was taking some time off. By the end of school day, the truth was out: the HMMWMT had been told he had to take a leave — he was suspended. Some parents had complained that he had gone over the top. Some teachers had suggested that he had gone off the deep end. Kathy suggested to me that something about the death of Scott had pushed him over the edge.

In study hall, I sat beside Kathy and waited for her to start up one of our whispered conversations. I was expecting to hear a lot more about how she felt about losing Scott, the Scott she had never really had.

“I'm mad at him, you know. He should have told me how he felt before... before this.”

I understood this thing about being mad, because that was what Dave was always talking about. My problem. I never got mad about anything. Even, well, you know.

“I know he didn't think I was as attractive as Kelly Tyler or Jen Greenlaw but I think he was beginning to appreciate my other qualities.”

“You are probably the smartest girl in the class.”

“I'm not that smart. Besides, I don't really want to be smart. I want to be thought of as mysterious.”

Kathy was as mysterious to me as all the other girls I knew. I wanted to say something complimentary so I took the hook. “I bet you're more mysterious than all the other girls in this study hall.”

“You think I'm more mysterious even than Sybil over there?”

Sybil was a tough one to pick. She was mysterious. She wore dark clothes like Lilly and cultivated a pale and humourless demeanour. She listened only to music that she called “experimental” and she kept a lot to herself, reading books on shamanism.

“Anybody can be like Sybil. She's not mysterious at all. Compared to you.”

“Why do you think I'm mysterious?”

Uh oh. I was not a great conversationalist or a very good bullshitter. I tried to imagine how Scott might have handled this. Scott was born with charm and tact
and verbal skills stitched right onto his chromosomes. I was born only with a high IQ and quirky interests. I tried to smile like Scott would have smiled. “You have a look about you.”

“I do?”

“Yeah. Something unfathomable.”

“Wow.”

Mr. Willis was tapping his pointer stick on the table in front of us. Time to shut up. Mr. Willis never spoke at all during study hall. He only tapped with a pointer stick or a ruler or sometimes smacked a book down loud so that it made a great walloomph sound in the high-ceilinged cafeteria where we had afternoon study hall. He saved me from having to rifle through the thesaurus in my brain for more big words. I didn't know why Kathy wanted to be mysterious. She wasn't any more mysterious than the rest, but I still had my feelings for her, so I would go home and work on a list of compliments to throw her way: cryptic, enigmatic, perplexing, and paradoxical, but unfathomable was a good start.

BOOK: Shoulder the Sky
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