1967. Rigby John Kluesener stands in the moonlight, a flower in his hair, his thumb out trying to hitch a ride on the road to San Francisco. The story of how he came to be there - of an adolescence spent on his parents' farm in Nowheresville, Idaho, of his father's misanthropy, his mother's strict Catholicism - is utterly real and totally unforgettable.
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Tom Spanbauer is the author of three previous novels, Far Away Places, The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon and In the City of Shy Hunters. He lives in Portland, Oregon, where he writes and teaches 'Dangerous Writing' classes. His former students include Chuck Palahniuk.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
My troubles all started with Parmesan cheese.
And they ended with Parmesan cheese.
My life up to now has been one big cheese cycle.
The first grade of Saint Joseph’s School was the first Parmesan cheese incident.
The last Parmesan cheese incident just happened, and what just happened is the reason why I’m a free man out here on Highway 93, a flower in my hair, hitchhiking to San Francisco.
It’s all pretty clear now. Amazing how clear things can get at night in the desert. The moon, a big silver dollar, so much light there’s a shadow of me across the pavement. A long shadow. My feet here on the gravel, my head all the way over there on the center line.
George Serano told me once that you can tell how you feel by how your shadow looks. Tonight in my shadow there’s something about my head and my shoulders, my arms too. The way my hair is sticking up, and my T-shirt on my biceps, the daisy I picked in Twin Falls poking out the side of my head. Something inside coming out that makes my shadow look, that makes me look, I don’t know, full, I guess.
Like this moon. Moon’s so bright I can see the lines in the palm of my hand. I can see my bloody, bit thumbnail. If I took my dick out, I could see every aspect of it. My ass too. I ought to just pull my pants down right here, one hundred and fifty miles north of Reno, Nevada, and show that big old moon my big old moon.
Just my luck, some trucker would come along.
Just my luck.
Quiet as church. Not Mass or Our Mother of Perpetual Help devotions, but quiet in the empty Saint Joseph’s Church. The quiet of the votive candle flame. The blue and red and yellow stained glass lying on the pew. Close your eyes and take a breath. What you smell is Catholic: oiled wood, beeswax, gold frankincense and myrrh.
The desert’s even more quiet. The perfectly still sound of everything alive. Even the pavement, its dark ribbon going over the edge of the horizon, is alive. The horizon too, slow, sloping flat, every now and then an outburst of lava rock making a jagged edge. Sagebrush a darker shade of silver than the moon. Close your eyes here and take a breath, what you smell is sagebrush and bitterroot, what you smell is everything that’s possible.
Two cigarettes ago, just as I sucked the yellow flame into the end of my cigarette, a coyote yelled out a big old lonesome, but not a sound since. Not even crickets or frogs. Just my tennis shoes scraping gravel. And my breath.
Maybe there was a nuclear bomb, and now I’m the only person who survived in the whole entire world.
That might not be so bad.
After seventeen years of breathing, I, Rigby John Klusener, do hereby declare there sure as hell are a few I could live without.
Why else do you think I’m out here on Highway 93, my thumb stuck out pointing to California?
What are you, six years old, in the first grade? There I was, six years old. Sister Bertha had put me on the dumb side of the room. Over on the right side near the cloakroom door in the back. Us dumb ones were supposed to be doing something in our notebooks while Sister Bertha was flashing the flash cards for the smart ones on the other side of the room. I knew every one of the words she was flashing except for have, and that’s only because nobody’d shown me the v yet, plus I didn’t know about the silent e. Anyway, Sister Bertha catches me reading the flash cards, so she says my name out loud. She says, Rigby John Klusener?
I stood up, of course, because I may not have known about v and the silent e yet, but I sure as hell knew you had to stand up straight, away from your desk, and say out loud and clear: Yes, Sister Bertha? Sister Bertha was old and tiny. Holy Cross nun. The ones with the big halo fan thing all the way around their head. My sis, Mary Margaret, had Sister Bertha too in the first grade, and so had a bunch of my cousins. Sister Bertha was so old, she could have been the first-grade teacher for my mom and dad, even.
So Sister Bertha says, Rigby John, read these cards out loud.
I read them all out loud, all of them, no problem, that is except for have, and when she told me that the v had the v sound, after she told me about the silent e, and said the word love was the same way, she moved me clear across the room to the smart side, up front, right by her desk.
Been there ever since, up front on the smart side, a whole room away from dumb.
Maybe that’s when Joe Scardino started to hate me. Because I got to move up front. Because I went from dumb to smart in a matter of five minutes. Plus, then I started helping Sister Bertha with extra things like wiping the chalkboard clean and getting out of class to get tthe chalk dust out of the erasers.
Probably didn’t help.
Like there was the day Sister Bertha asked the class to point out the color orange to her. Thereeeee wasn’t one student who raised his hand. Maybe it was afternoon and everybody was sleepy. Maybe all the kids were just so bored they couldn’t dredge up the simple answer to the simple show- me-the-color-orange question, I don’t know. What I do know is that I remember thinking I was surrounded by a room full of druts, so I raised my hand, and when Sister Bertha called on me, I stood up straight, away from my desk, and said, Orange is the color of an orange, Sister Bertha. And she said, What color is that? She said, Show me where in the room you see the color orange.
The way I think of it now, that day when I looked around the room, everything was in black and white like on Ed Sullivan or Bonanza. I looked all over the room, and there wasn’t one stick of orange color anywhere on anything. So I said, I have something orange in the cloakroom, Sister.
Which I didn’t. I was lying through my teeth, which I think is the only thing that separates the dumb from the smart. So Sister Bertha lets me go into the cloakroom.
The door swung open into the cloakroom, and soon as that door opened, the smell hit you. Bologna sandwiches, Wonder Bread, mayonnaise, mustard, boiled eggs, ripe apples, and a kind of pee smell mixed in with wet wool, and oranges.
I searched all over that room for an orange, inside every coat pocket, inside lunch pails, brown bags, but not a single orange, orange rind, or anything the color orange.
That’s when I found it, and when I found it, I remember I swore to God and went down on my knees.
It was a miracle. A true miracle. The inside lining of my winter coat was orange. I slipped my coat on inside out, stood for a moment in front of the cloakroom door, took a deep breath, then swung the door open.
Sister Bertha! I exclaimed. Here is the color orange!
The whole rest of the day I got to wear a gold star on my forehead.
Scardino must have hated that. I mean, I don’t remember if he hated it or not, but, looking back, it’s amazing how clear things can get.
Something else I can see clearly now. That day when I went looking for something believing I was going to find it and did. Nobody taught me that. Sure as hell didn’t get that from Mom or Dad or Sis or Sister Bertha. Or the Pope. And it’s got nothing to do with smart. Smart doesn’t get you beyond fear, doesn’t set you free.
Looking for something you know you’re going to find. Ever since that day in the cloakroom, I’ve been doing that. I mean when the fear didn’t get in the way. The secret is not to let the fear get in the way.
Still doing it. For example, just look at me out here in this night the color of ice cubes.
Miracles are out there somewhere. You just got to find them.
It wasn’t very long after that Joe Scardino asked me to go home with him after school. I don’t know why he asked me. Maybe even he didn’t know he hated me yet. And for some reason, I don’t know why, I was allowed to.
My parents never did allow anything too different. Differnt. That’s how my parents said the word: differnt.
We had cows to milk, stock to feed, chickens to feed, eggs to gather, and some kind of more specific chore depending on the season, like, say, pick potatoes, shuck corn, can tomatoes, whatever, there were always chores and more chores to do, and dinner and supper to fix. Dishes to wash and dry. Always some kind of work that was so very goddamn important to do. Plus, we had to drive twelve miles to and from church and school, and that took up gasoline, so I don’t know how I ended up at Scardino’s house after school.
The point is, I ended up there, and what happened next is how it all started. After that day, it became a regular thing. Joe Scardino regularly beat the crap out of me over the next eleven years.
Joe Scardino was Italian — the only Italian I knew besides Regina Rossi, and she was in the second grade and a girl.
Plus, you got to understand that going to Joe Scardino’s after school was my first time out alone. Oh, I’d done things alone before, but always with Sis. That was the problem with me, Dad said, that I was always with Sis. Sis’d say jump, and I’d say how high. And if it wasn’t Sis, it was Mom. Those females turning me into a crybaby, a wuss, a girly-boy.
Hell, now that I’m looking back on it, I agree with him. It isn’t that I liked them putting me in dresses and making me tea and playing paper dolls. I would’ve sooner been with him than Mom or my sis any day. But I ask you, did he ever step in and say, Come on, son, why don’t we do something together, just you and me?
Forget it. Never in a million years.
Walking home from school felt strange. Sis and I had to take two buses, and it took over an hour and a half to get home. For Scardino it was only three or four blocks.
I don’t remember much about the walk except for the elm trees we always drove by in our Buick on our way to Sunday Mass on Elm Street, and that Scardino and I wore our winter coats and caps and mittens, and that we banged our lunch pails against the elm trees and against a white picket fence. Scardino’s lunch pail was square and had Black Beauty on it, and my lunch pail was the shape of a hip-roofed barn and it looked like a barn too, red with white trim around the doors and windows and a green roof.
Then all at once, Joe and I were standing in our winter coats, holding our lunch pails in front of a white house, tall and old, with a turret like a castle. The iron gate at the entrance made an Inner Sanctum sound, and the many shrubs around the house made walking into the house dark.
Then we were inside the old white house, and under a big bright chandelier stood an old woman, Scardino’s mother, dressed in a long black dress, most of her hair up in a bun and lots of it flying about her face. She was tall and old like the house, but slumped over, and she rubbed her hands together as if they were cold, and her nose was hooked. I remember I didn’t look at her when she said hello to me, just ran up the stairs after Scardino into the room with the turret, which was his bedroom.
But I didn’t mention the most important thing.
The smell in the house.
The house smelled like the plate of spaghetti and meatballs Mrs. Scardino put in front of me at suppertime. The house smelled of the grated Parmesan cheese Mrs. Scardino dumped on my spaghetti and meatballs from a silver bowl with a little silver spoon.
Mom was so pretty and young with her red lipstick and rhinestone earrings and her gray tweed winter coat standing under the chandelier. She was polite and smiled like she does with people she doesn’t know. I ran to my mother and put my hand inside her hand. Inside my stomach, down low, I felt warm and safe.
Your son didn’t eat any of his supper, Mrs. Scardino said.
Mom’s hand squeezed my hand tight. She was still smiling, but differnt. The red lipstick was on her teeth.
Why didn’t you eat your supper? Mom asked.
Six years old. That’s how old I was. Six years old, and I had never seen anything but our farm, Saint Joseph’s Church, Saint Joseph’s School, Montgomery Ward, S. H. Kress, J. C. Penney, and the Wyz Way Market. Six years old, and I’d only just learned about v’s and silent e’s. Didn’t even know how to spell rhinoceros yet.
Why didn’t I like my supper?
Because my supper smelled like farts, I said.
Maybe the next day. On the playground, near the incinerator, before the playground was blacktopped and it was still gravel, right next to the church on the side where Monsignor Cody’s sacristy was.
By the light pole with the guide wire coming down and stuck into the gravel. Right there where the guide wire goes into the ground is where Joe Scardino doubled up his fist, drew his fist back, and hit me square in the mouth.
The way Scardino hit me knocked me back against the incinerator. I sat down or fell down. I remember I didn’t cry until I put my hand to my lip and saw the blood.
But between the time Scardino hit me and before I saw the blood, I just sat there and stared straight ahead at the guide wire. How the guide wire went into the ground. And the gravel. Only my heart beating.
My life ahead of me.
And all the king’s horses and all the king’s men would never put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
After that day, I was convinced. The universe conspired to fuck me up. No doubt about it. God had it in for me. Every day, everywhere I looked, there was more proof. Spent most of my life thinking that way. But then Flaco and Acho came along, and Billie Cody and George Serano, and with all that’s happened this summer I’ve come to see it isn’t just the universe. All along I’ve had something to do with it too. Still, though, whether it’s God or the universe or the universe that’s inside you that fucks you up, either way, there don’t seem like a whole lot you can do about it. Trying to change yourself is as hard as trying to change the universe. Maybe there’s no differnce. The fact is, shit happens none of us plan on. And like Scardino, most of that shit ain’t good. My advice is the same as the color orange in the cloakroom. You just got to keep looking.
The next time was in the fourth grade.
The spelling bee.
That morning, after we took off our coats and hats and hung them up in the cloakroom, after we sat down in our seats, our feet together, our hands folded on top of our desk, when the class was completely quiet at eight-thirty, Sister Barbara Ann got up from behind her desk, the sound of the big, long rosary hanging from her waist, beads against beads, and walked to the center of the room.
Children, Sister Barbara Ann said, today I have a surprise for you. Sister Barbara Ann looked like all the rest of the nuns at Saint Joseph’s School. The only nun who looked differnt from the other nuns was Sister Eta, who we called Sister Teetha because of her long gray teeth, plus there was Sister Bertha who was so damn old.
The nuns, except for Sister Bertha, were all about the same height. Not any of them was fat. So all you really had to go on was the face. The face was all that was sticking out.
Their faces were all white faces, kind of milky white next to the starched white of their wimples, and their eyebrows that weren’t plucked because they were married to Jesus.
Now that I look back on it, their eyes would’ve had to be differnt, but I don’t know anyone who actually looked a nun straight in the eyes.
Not even our parents looked a nun straight in the eyes.
Not even Scardino.
Of all the Holy Cross nuns, the last one you wanted to look at straight on was Sister Barbara Ann. She was the principal, and the thing that made Sister Barba...
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