Sometimes You Have to Blast a Tunnel
He counted 21 blank spaces; 12 on the front and nine on the back.
Mrs. Wink put her hands on her hips, projecting her voice with loving firmness. It echoed against tidy shelves and seemed to move the crooked slats of Venetian blinds. “Don’t forget to put your name on this. No name – no credit! You’re in 7th grade now. You should know better than to turn in a paper without a name! First and last, please. It says NAME in the top right corner. That means first AND last.”
He pressed the tip of his pencil into the middle of the line after the word NAME. Creepy buzzing behind his eyes traveled down his neck, shoulder, arm, into the hand that held the pencil. The lead snapped. The buzzing fizzled for a minute, but he felt it again in his stomach. He quickly looked around to see who had noticed, smiled a little bit, and shot his hand into the air. “Mrs. Wink. Mrs. Wink!” his voice released some more of the buzzing pressure. “Can I sharpen my pencil?”
“I’m sure you can, Brandeis. Are you asking permission? May I sharpen my pencil? Is that what you mean? Yes, you may.” Her arm, near the shoulder, looked upside down, like a muscle that might round when flexed, except that it reached down instead of up and it jiggled just a little when she waved him off. Mrs. Wink shooed him toward the sharpener without ever looking at him.
Brand felt his teeth press together at the use of his longer name. Just because his father had played baseball for the Judges, just because his mother had been a waitress at a Boston bar where Brandeis students hung out, had landed a jock majoring in investigative journalism, he got stuck with a weirdo name for life. Not that the landing of Jordan Ball meant that the man would stay with his family. His father had taken off to cover the war in Lebanon alongside Friedman and it seemed that one conflict after another kept him in a foreign land. Brand never found out exactly when his parents divorced, officially. There were always letters and little packages from his father, addressed to him. Crazy stories. Coins and strange candies. Once, a pen-knife.
He got up without repeating the Mother-May-I thing that Mrs. Wink wanted to hear. On the way across the classroom he counted touches. Jared, toe on the heel; almost a kick but not. Brushed against Cory’s pony tail. Popped Austin on his ginger head. Dustin’s fist met Brand’s in a bruising bump. “Hey!” he turned to mad-dog Dustin. The teacher was licking her right thumb to separate another worksheet from a clutch in her left hand, her loose arm flesh jiggling. Sarah was watching him. He pulled himself taller, glared at Dustin again, glanced covertly at Sarah, and then sauntered back to his seat.
Now, Barbara Wink began to notice the disruptive odyssey; she eyed the skinny boy from behind a pencil eraser, then flinched when she saw him catch her staring. Right away she pretended he was looking at things on her desk and applied the pencil eraser to a stray mark on the margin of an essay that had Becky Fallon’s name in the top right corner. Brandeis was no mystery to her. 7th grade boys could barely be held in place long enough to warm a chair and they burned attention like gasoline. Still, there was a quality about this one that unnerved her. She couldn’t name it exactly, but she was aware of it. He was erasing something now, too. Then he chewed his eraser, or at least put it in his mouth. He had a way of working around requirements, looking busy, accomplishing little. It was like a kid pushing peas around on his dinner plate, moving them doggedly but never ingesting one. She began to pace up and down between rows of desks, checking progress.
Brand felt Ms. Wink looking over his shoulder. “Brandeis,” she began patiently, “did you read the directions?”
“Yes.” His one word response pushed the dialogue back to her.
“Why aren’t you further along?” His dusty brown eyes connected with her sharp blue ones for a flicker of a second, then focused on the rims of her glasses. He considered the question. Did she want to know why? Not really. She was telling him to get going without telling him to get going.
“I don’t like worksheets.” His voice was soft. All those blanks to fill in seemed like holes in a boat. He couldn’t explain why, but he really wanted to do something else, to build a boat instead of constantly patching up holes.
“That’s enough out of you!” Mrs. Wink marched over to her desk. In minutes the boy was dragging down the hallway to the principal’s office, referral in hand. Mr. Bertram asked him the usual questions. He gave the usual answers. He was not suspended. He was not surprised. The only down-side to this day materialized the next week with Monday grade checks. His grade in Literacy had dropped to an F. The first football game of the year was next weekend, and he was ineligible to play.
The Saturday game was not until 1:00. Brand managed to rake leaves and finish his laundry before lunch. His friends made fun of the laundry chore, but Brand secretly liked it. He liked working with machines. The old washer had been a pain. When it flooded the kitchen, his mom had gotten a new one. She’d had to. The old one was dead. The new one was outstanding. It had LCD lights and dials everywhere. Brand pretended that he was handling space ship controls. Sometimes he took his phone, sat just at the edge of the closet where the washer and dryer were crammed in, and played video games. He watched the cycles. They were almost part of his game. He was in a starship. The sound effects of the washer spun him along with the clothes, into a private sort of orbit.
He made a sandwich for his mother. She was asleep on the couch. Carefully covered with plastic wrap to keep it from drying out, he left the plate and a half empty bag of chips on the coffee table next to her. His own sandwich was safely stashed in a breast pocket, on the inside of his jacket. A Dr. Pepper was crammed in the outside pocket. He hoped it would not fall out while he biked to the school. He did not want to bring a back pack. Not today. He was sorry enough that he had to sit out the game. He didn’t want to bring attention to his spectator status. Hence, dressed in uniform, baggy shoulders that a more muscular older guy would fill out, he would slip down near the bench, sit on his jacket, and chew gum.
By the time the last quarter was half over, Brand was almost glad he was not playing. The Bears were getting slaughtered. He knew, if he were out there what might work, but he wasn’t sure if Dustin could throw that far. Or well enough, for that matter. Coach Lundy was clearly frustrated. Brand looked away every time Coach glanced at him. His face flooded with heat. He was letting the team down. His teeth ground together. It was that stupid Ms. Wink! He just couldn’t stand her and the stupid worksheets. Still, he felt like this game might be lost because he wasn’t strong enough to just do the stupid worksheets like she wanted. She didn’t care if he knew the stuff already or if he didn’t understand the stuff at all. She just wanted to grade them and make it all into a weekly grade that didn’t really show if he was learning or not. He felt Coach Lundy’s eyes on him and his face grew warm again.
“How’s it goin’, Buddy?”
Now he was standing right in front of him. Looking up, Brand tilted the brim of his Bronco’s ball cap up enough to make eye contact. “I’m okay,” he offered.
“What do you think we should do?” Coach Lundy used a low conspiratorial voice. Brand was confused. He wasn’t sure if the coach was talking about the game or him.
“I guess…” he fingered loose fabric at the hem of his jersey, “I can ask her if she will let me do extra credit. So I’ll be eligible to play next week.”
Coach Lundy looked confused. “What do you think we should do on the field? Right now. I’m afraid we’re going to lose.” Brand’s brain went into instant overdrive. He thought about a play that he had practiced with the team. He considered Dustin’s arm, his speed, his aim. If he wanted to be a real quarterback, now was the time. Destiny was calling. All of the grand phrases that Brand got from stories flew in circles around his head, like hawks speeding toward the ground on a downwind. He quickly summarized the play that he was imagining. It warmed him in a different way to see the teacher’s intent look, his genuine attention. Lundy was listening to a 7th grader who wasn’t even eligible to play. It happened faster than the time it takes for an echo in Thorn Canyon to shout back at you. Brand watched Coach Lundy stride out to the sideline to call a time-out. Brand felt just like he was sitting by the new washing machine, playing for an unbelievable level. He reached up to adjust his ball cap, every muscle tensed with purpose.
On Monday, in class, Dustin bragged every chance he got. When Brand tried to get into the conversation, Mrs. Wink made like a torpedo to get close and shut him up. “What do you think we should do?” she challenged him. Brand thought about describing a perfect throw, the image of a football rushing in front of his eyes like a spit wad headed for Austin’s ear.
“I would do some extra credit if you wanted me to,” he ventured. “What if I write an article about the game on Saturday? I could use a lot of compound words to show you that I understand how to use them? Or I could put vocabulary into the story if you gave me a list of the ones you want me to learn.” Mrs. Wink pulled the old assignment off of her stack – the one that Brand didn’t finish last week. She put it on the desk in front of Brand and walked away. He felt mad at her again. The worksheet hollered at him, empty nothing words, but not nice. He pushed it off the desk and then walked out of the room.
Mr. Bertram found him at the drinking fountain. “What’s up, Buddy?” he sounded like Coach. Brand found it hard to talk. He followed the principal back to his office. He sat there until lunch time, quiet, thinking. When he couldn’t think about Mrs. Wink or worksheets anymore he took out his binder and began drawing a map of town. He drew various routes from school to home and began estimating the steps that each would require. It was something to do. At last, Mr. Bertram turned from his paperwork to face him. Brand told him about worksheets. He told him about missing the game. He did not tell him about how he helped to win the game.
“Here’s what I want you to do. I want you to think about asking permission to leave a class. I want you to think about asking permission for anything that you need from Mrs. Wink. If you need to do something different, something besides what she is asking you to do, I want you to ask. I think she’ll listen.” Mr. Bertram seemed serious but Brand could tell that he understood; that he wanted to help. “What would you like to do to make up for today?”
“Can I write a story? Well, may I write a story?” Brand could not help but think about his father. He hoped that his liking to write was from his father but he also hoped that his standing by his mother, helping her, would not be something he would one day forget to do, like his father had.
Mr. Bertram nodded solemnly. “I think that’s a great idea. Write a story about people asking for permission. I want to see it tomorrow. You can read it to Mrs. Wink and I together, in my office. Deal?” Brand nodded. “Miss Sandy will call your mother to have her pick you up after lunch because I am going to suspend you for the afternoon. You must understand that following basic teacher directions is a safety issue. I can’t have you doing this ever again.”
His mother couldn’t come pick him up. She talked to Mr. Bertram about the suspension and authorized the school to let Brand walk home. When he left the school, Brand was thinking about the story. Inside, he was starting to feel better. He counted the steps home on his typical walking route. When he got home the first thing he did was eat a triple scoop dish of Oreo Cookie Crumble ice cream. Then he changed his clothes to his home jeans – the ones he was not allowed to wear to school because of the cannabis leaf that he had drawn with a permanent purple marker on one thigh. He set out for school by the regular Baker Street way.
From the front door of the middle school he turned and began counting steps again. The alternative route, he figured, was a third shorter. But, it meant going through Chin’s back lot. Chin owned the Chinese Grocery on Front Street. He’s never been in the store, but it looked interesting. There was always a chicken hanging in the window by its feet. He wondered if it was the same chicken, just fixed like the buffalo head on the wall at Pete’s Pizza, or if it was a new one, freshly hung every day. Who would eat a chicken that wasn’t refrigerated, anyway?
He approached the small grocery with the chicken and, he noticed now, a leaning stack of red and gold boxed cookies in the window, still counting steps. The small neon sign was glowing faintly, spelling out Chin’s Grocery, in the middle of the day. Mr. Chin, at least Brand thought that must be his name, stood in the doorway. His smile attached to his ears on each side, stretching straight and level, like a shelf. Brand felt like he had nothing to lose; he was already suspended. “Mr.” he started loudly, and then remembered that just because someone was foreign didn’t mean that they were hard of hearing. “I was wondering if I can cut across your back lot.” The man put a hand to his trailing white beard. His eyes reflected the sun like black marbles. “I’m going home. It’s shorter that way.” Brand watched him for a response. Chin’s gray and powder blue plaid flannel shirt hung loose at the waist, and then flapped aside with a breeze from nowhere. Under the shirt, his jeans looked brand new. He held a finger to his temple, as if in deep thought.
“The gate is not locked,” he stated in a twinkling tone.
“So it’s okay?”
“Try it. Let me know how many steps you save.”
“How did you know I was counting steps?” Brand was shocked.
“Got an iPhone?” the man chuckled. “Steps. I do it every day. You are looking for a shorter way. I look for longer ways because I want my legs to stay strong. I am old, but my legs are young when I take the long way.” Brand laughed out loud. He decided to ask about the chicken when he came back to report the number of steps.
The gate opened without a sound. He turned to Mr. Chin. “Thank you,” he said.
“Thank you for asking permission,” Mr. Chin bowed to the boy.
The story Brand wrote was about the game. He did not praise Dustin for the pass, or the receiver, or himself for giving that play to Coach Lundy. He just told the story. That is what journalists do. They tell the story. It doesn’t matter what they like about it, if the story makes you think you were there. That’s what his father had written in a letter. But he had to write about asking permission. That’s what Mr. Bertram wanted. At the beginning of the story he added a bit about a boy who was not eligible to play. The boy asked a teacher, not Mrs. Wink, but just a teacher, if he could do something different to bring his grade up. Something besides a worksheet. Something for extra credit so that he would be eligible to play. The teacher said no. She said he would need to complete the worksheets that all of the other students had completed. In his story, Brand had the boy go to the principal then, before he had a chance to get really mad. The boy asked if he could write a story and the principal said yes. The teacher was not happy, but the principal told her to let the boy write a story.
The rest of Brand’s story was about the game. He imagined he was his father, writing about a very important event, but he worried that there wouldn’t be enough about asking for permission, just because the boy in the story had done that once. He knew that good stories have a theme – an idea to share. He knew that he needed a good hook and a good conclusion. He was a pretty good writer. He went back to the beginning of his story to add a few sentences. It went like this: Boulders are huge rocks and they can be hard to move. The team had a tough job ahead of them, playing without their regular quarterback. It felt like needing to move a huge boulder. Then Brand went to the end of the story to add some ending sentences that would link back to the beginning to explain his theme. He wrote: The team made a bold move, pushing right through the defense, even though it was a little scary. Sometimes it’s better not to expect boulders to move. Sometimes you have to blast a tunnel right through the big ones.
The next morning he read his story to Mrs. Wink and Mr. Bertram. The principal’s lip curled into a very slow thin smile. Mrs. Wink sat like a stone. She thanked him for writing a story with a good hook and a good conclusion and then she questioned whether the details of the game were really connected to the topic sentence and the conclusion. As Mrs. Wink and Brand walked down the hallway back to her room, the teacher put her arm around Brand’s shoulder and told him that his writing showed promise. She reassured him that this whole thing would be forgotten if he came back to class and got to work. He felt his lip buzz.
Mrs. Wink took attendance. She asked if Becky Fallon would hand out the worksheets for class. Brand stared at his desk. A worksheet floated onto its surface innocently. He immediately penned his longer name, Brandeis Ball, in the upper right hand corner and he added the date. Mrs. Wink flashed a broad smile at him. She started walking up and down the rows, checking progress. Brand wrote quickly, very legibly, in every blank, idk idk idk idk. He got to the bottom of the page just as Mrs. Wink approached. He turned it over and poised his pencil to begin the second half of the worksheet. “May I sharpen my pencil, Mrs. Wink?” Brand asked. She waved him toward the pencil sharpener without a word and moved to the next student.