“For what?” I said.
“You know,” she said, and her face was so sad, watching me. Then she shook her head, smiling, and started to walk away. “Just be careful. Of P.E. and all that.”
“Okay,” I said, wondering if she had visions of me being nailed by errant Wiffle balls or blinded by flying badminton birdies, or if it was only just Macon, and everything he reminded her of, that made her so sad. “I will,” I said.
She waved and walked off, up the hill to the Sciences building, and I turned and went the other way, pushing open the gym doors to that smell of mildew and Ben-Gay and sweaty mats, where Macon Faulkner was waiting for me.
P.E. became the most important fifty minutes of my life. Regardless of illness, national disaster, or even death, I would have shown up for third period, in my white socks and blue shorts, ready at the bell. Macon missed occasionally, and those days I was miserable, swatting around my volleyball halfheartedly and watching the clock. But the days he was there, P.E. was the best thing I had going.
Of course I acted like I hated it completely, because it was worse than being a Band geek to actually like P.E. But I was the only one in the girls’ locker room who didn’t complain loudly as we dressed out at 10:30 A.M. for another day of volleyball basics. All I had to do was walk out of the dressing room, nonchalant, acting like I was still half-asleep and too out of it to notice Macon, who was usually over by the water fountain in nonregulation tennis shoes and no socks (for which he got a minus-five each day of class). I’d sit a few feet over from him, wave, and pretend I wasn’t expecting him to slide the few feet across the floor to sit beside me, which he always did. Always. Usually those few minutes before Coach Van Leek got organized with his clipboard were the best part of my day, every day. With a few variations, they went something like this:
Macon: What’s up?
Me: I’m so beat.
Macon: Yeah, I was out late last night.
Me: (like I was ever allowed out past eight on school nights)
Me, too. I see you’re not wearing socks today, again.
Macon: I just forget.
Me: You’re gonna fail P.E., you know.
Macon: Not if you buy me some socks.
Me: (laughing sarcastically) Yeah, right.
Macon: Okay. Then it’s on your head.
Me: Shut up.
Macon: You ready for volleyball?
Me: (like I’m so tough) Of course. I’m going to beat your
Macon: (laughing) Okay. Sure. We’ll see.
Me: Okay. We’ll see.
I lived for this.
Macon was not in school to Get an Education or Prepare for College. It was just a necessary evil, tempered by junk food and perpetual tardies. Half the time he showed up looking like he’d just rolled out of bed, and he was forever getting yelled at by Coach for sneaking food into P.E.: Cokes slipped in his backpack, Atomic Fireballs and Twinkles stuffed in his pockets. He was the master of the forged excuse.
“Faulkner,” Coach would bark when Macon showed up, ten minutes late, with no socks and half a Zinger sticking out of his mouth, “you’d best have a note.”
“Right here,” Macon would say cheerfully, drawing one out of his pocket. We’d all watch attentively as Coach scrutinized it. Macon never looked worried. He failed all of P.E.’s notoriously easy quizzes, but he could copy any signature perfectly on the first try. It was a gift.
“It’s all in the wrist,” he’d tell me as he excused himself for another funeral or doctor’s appointment with a flourish of his mother’s name. I kept waiting for him to get caught. But it never happened.
He didn’t seem to have a curfew; all I knew about his mom was that she didn’t dot her is. I didn’t even know where he lived. Macon was wild, different, and when I was with him, caught up in it all, I could play along like I was, too. He told me about parties where the cops always came, or road trips he up and took in the middle of the night, no planning, to the beach or D.C., just because he felt like it. He showed up on Mondays with wild stories, T-shirts of bands I’d never heard of, smeared entry stamps from one club or another on the back of his hands. He dropped names and places I’d never heard, but I nodded, committing them to memory and repeating them back to Scarlett as if I knew them all myself, had been there or seen that. Something in him, about him, with his easy loping walk and sly smile, his past secret and mysterious while mine was all laid out and clear, actually documented, intrigued me beyond belief.
Scarlett, of course, just shook her head and smiled as she listened to me prattle on, detailing every word and gesture of our inane sock-and-volleyball conversations. And she sat by without saying anything whenever he didn’t show up and I sulked at lunch, picking at my sandwich and saying it wasn’t like I liked him anyway. And sometimes, I’d look up at her and see that same sad look on her face, as if Michael Sherwood had suddenly reared up from wherever she’d carefully placed him, reminding her of the beginning of summer when she was the one with all the stories to tell.
Meanwhile, all through September, things were happening. My father’s radio show on T104 had gotten an overhaul and format change over the summer and was suddenly The Station to Listen To. In the morning I heard his voice coming from cars in the parking lot or at traffic lights or even at the Zip Mart where Scarlett and I stopped before school for Cokes and gas. My father, making jokes and razzing callers and playing all the music I listened to, the soundtrack to every move I made. Brian in the Morning! the billboard out by the mall said; He’s better than Wheaties! My father thought this was hysterical, even better than A Neighborhood of Fiends, and my mother accused him of always taking the long way home just to look at it. His was the voice I heard no matter where I went, inseparable from my life away from our house. It was somewhat unsettling that listening to my father was suddenly cool.
The worst was when he talked about me. I was in the Zip Mart before school one day, and of course they had T104 on; people were calling in sharing their most embarrassing moments. About half my school was buying cigarettes and cookies and candy bars, that early morning sugar and nicotine rush. I was at the head of the line when I heard my name.
“Yeah, I remember when my daughter Halley was about five,” my father said. “Man, this is like the funniest thing I ever saw. We were at this neighborhood cookout, and my wife and I...”
Already my face was turning red. I could feel my temperature jump about ten degrees with each word he said. The clerk, of course, picked this moment to change the register tape. I was stuck.