Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Herb Table: Chapter Two

John takes his time walking down the stairs, in no rush to get back to class. John hates every subject, but Drama is especially shitty to him. He'd always been interested in acting -- nearly all of his patented daydreams consisted of playing villains in superhero films or fighting John Travolta in a helicopter. 

Ms. Cunningham's drama class is anything but inspired. She'd been wise enough to double major in drama and education in college, though the safety net of a stable income and summers off made her lazy in her pursuit of a career in theater. "I'll audition in the summer," she'd say. "The day ends at 3," she'd rationalize. 30 years later, after two failed marriages and an acting career that never materialized, she lacked any motivation to pass on her craft to any of her students. 

Not that they gave a fuck anyway. 

John never saw drama class as an opportunity to explore his ever-growing curiosity for being in movies. Ms. Cunningham essentially let the loud, popular students fuck around in front of the classroom, giving them lazy improv scenarios and allowing them to mug to their friends. Whenever a student like Harper Paul, a knot of angst with a deep appreciation for the craft of acting, would attempt to do anything remotely artistic, she was greeting with jeers and mock standing ovations. Ms. Cunningham would occasionally offer a half-hearted, "knock it off", then put her feet up on the desk. 

Harper at least tried. John saw standing up and performing in front of the class as asking to be “Herbed” by the other kids. It's this line of thinking that held John back in every aspect of his life. He'd get it in his head that he wanted to be something -- a baseball player, a movie star and, for a brief period after 9/11, a firefighter -- and imagine how great it would be. He would imagine the perks, the admiration, the girls it would bring… and that's about it. He would imagine. He would never do. John never felt like he deserved anything he daydreamed about. 

John quietly walks into the classroom. Rocco Esposito and Brianna Scarpelli are wrapping up an improv. Rocco calls Brianna a "bitch", which provokes a thunderous explosion of students screaming "OH" while pounding on their desks. Rocco smirks at his buddies. 

Ms. Cunningham screams, "No swearing!"

Brianna, not to be outdone, indicates to her right pinky, "Well you got a small dick anyway!" 

The classroom goes apeshit. Brianna covers her mouth with both hands and bends down, red in the face and laughing at her own burn. 

Ms. Cunningham screams again, "Brianna! That's enough!" 

Brianna and Rocco return to their seats to a rousing ovation. He'd get her pregnant a year later. 

Ms. Cunningham offers up no advice or feedback on the scene the class had just witnessed. 

Rocco and John arrive at their seats at the same time. Rocco doesn't take joy in bullying people the way Neil Raffie does, but discovered early on that occasionally preying on the weaker students kept his stock high. Though, unlike Neil, Rocco lacks the wit to cut deep with his insults. 

"Welcome back, Thompson!" Rocco yells, for the classroom to hear. "Nice Old Navy shirt, dick!" 

Scattered snickers from the students pepper the room. Rocco's made this burn at least several dozen times, yet behaves as though he'd written "Who's on First?" every time he does. He raises his arms and gestures to the room in an, "Am I right, or what?" fashion. 

John likes his shirt. His wardrobe, which consisted of mostly modest Old Navy apparel and a black Robin Ventura Mets jersey he wears once a week, drew routine jeers from his velour jumpsuit and Armani Exchange t-shirt-wearing peers. While his white Nike Uptowns gave him a boost of confidence when he first bought them, months of delivering the Staten Island Advance and stepping in dog shit chewed them up a bit. Having white Nike Uptowns wasn’t enough, keeping them in pristine condition was a fashion key. Some of the well-off kids were able to keep cranking them out for $89.99 at Foot Action once a month. When John asked his old man to buy him new sneakers three months into the school year, he was greeted with a, "yeah, because that's why I work in a fuckin' manhole all day… to keep white sneakers on your feet. Asshole." 

Rocco is the epitome of an unoriginal Staten Island kid in the year 2000. If an orange crayon knocked up a bottle of hairspray, out would come Rocco, all his friends and the girls they chased. 

Ms. Cunningham, having fully heard Rocco's attempt to embarrass John, does nothing to reprimand him. This is common practice for her. 

John knows the repercussions of what attempting a comeback will bring. He knows he can cut Rocco deep. When you go to a small school, you learn things about everyone. John knows Rocco's father is in a wheelchair from a motorcycle accident, which deems him unable to work and afford new clothes. 

"Yeah, but at least my Dad can walk into Old Navy and buy it for me", John could say. This would undoubtedly send Rocco diving across the desk and at John's throat. John could fight him off for a bit, long enough for other students to come and break it up. Once it's over, other kids would gossip about it, saying what a fucked up thing John Thompson said to Rocco Esposito. While he may lose moral points for making a dig at someone's parents being in a wheelchair, it would wholly mean that no one would dare try and zing John in public again. 

But John Thompson doesn't stoop that low. He takes the high road. At least that's what he tells himself.  


The lunch room at this high school is a converted basement. With only ninety students per grade, it never gets too crowded, which doesn't make it any less bleak. It takes the sunniest of days for any sort of shine to sneak through the gated, half-windows at the top of the walls. 

It's chicken teriyaki day at school. This was the lunch lady masterpiece, the only fucking edible item they serve. Served on a flaky white bread bun with a side of vegetable slop, the students flock in droves to get their hands on the golden-dipped poultry goodness that is the chicken teriyaki sandwich. 

John loves chicken teriyaki day for two reasons -- the sandwich, and the length of time it took to wait on line for it. The longer the wait, the less time he has to spend at his lunch table. 

The alignment of tables is divided into two columns, with the popular kids taking up the first two, closest to the lunch stations.  As if renowned respect by the whole school wasn't enough, these fuckers had the shortest walk to nourishment. Kids like Rocco Esposito, Neil Raffie and their cliques occupy these tables. The deeper you sat towards the back of the room was a representation of where you stood in the school's social food chain. 

The last doomed table in the back, where personal status goes to die, lies "The Herb Table". 

John's only invite to any table since arriving at the school was at The Herb Table. John lived there in middle school and had his face punched many times. As a result, he resisted the urge to fully commit to a permanent residence with them. The Herbs sensed this -- no one wants to hang out with a kid who feels like he's trading down by being seen with you. John would usually get his food, sit with one leg half-hanging out of the bench, eat quickly, then get the fuck out and roam the hallways for the rest of the period. If he hadn't gotten a spank in during 4th, he'd find an empty bathroom to, ahem, take care of that. 

At the Herb Table, you have Andy Lipowtiz, a nice Jewish boy. His mouthful of braces and propensity for eating tuna fish sandwiches with extra mayo every day made him an undesirable kid to break bread with. 

You have Raizul Joseph, a portly Indian kid who has a habit of asking out all the pretty girls at school. Boasting a 0% success rate, all the other boys mock him for it but secretly admire his balls. 

And, finally, you have Tommy Green. He's the smallest kid in the grade, mainstreamed from a Special Ed school earlier that year. He fought the good fight academically, putting up the same grades as John while working four times harder to achieve them. His ADHD makes him a little ball of energy, and the popular kids enjoy getting him fired up in the hallways and enjoying the show. Tommy's naive ability to laugh along with the popular kids goading has kept him from being bullied. This is something John can't get through his head. He always wondered how a kid like Tommy Green can have such an easy time getting by. This made John resent and ignore him, despite Tommy's frequent invites to hang out and watch Met games at his house after school. 

While John toiled at the Herb Table, he was spending his freshman year waiting for an invite to Neil's table that would never come. 

John takes a voracious bite of his sandwich. Flakes of the cheap bun slowly fall like leaves onto the Styrofoam tray. Had Neil not slapped the orgasm into remission the period before, this would be the second-best sensation of his day. He pops open his ice-cold chocolate milk and washes down his first bite. 

"Did you see what Chipper Jones did?" Tommy shouts over the rest of the table at John.

John focuses on his sandwich, "No, Tommy. What did he do?" he flatly responds, followed by another greedy bite. 

"He named his son 'Shea'!" Tommy reveals, holding his sandwich with one hand, chicken patty half-hanging out. 

John had read the news this morning. Chipper Jones is the best player on Mets division rival, the Atlanta Braves. He routinely smacks the Mets around and taunts them in the playoffs. Hated by all New York fans, he twisted the knife the previous morning by naming his son "Shea", after the Mets' stadium. Fucking douchebag. 

"Oh yeah?” John humors him, without looking up, "What a jerk-off." 

Tommy, having waited all morning to break the news to his fellow die-hard Mets fan, deflates a bit and goes back to his sandwich. 

He notices a reddish spot in the middle of his sandwich. He contemplates for a beat, wondering if it's something he should continue eating. It tastes fine and chicken teriyaki day only comes once every two weeks. 

Fuck it. He takes another chomp, front teeth sinking into the slightly-raw processed chicken. 


John jumps off the S66 bus and slowly walks down the last cobblestone block in his neighborhood. When John's old man bought their house ten years prior, he took pride in it being the last street of its kind. When the city motioned to have it paved two months prior, the old man said, "fuck these guys", and pulled down every "No Parking" sign on the day it was to be done. The pavers came, saw forty cars parked on the street, didn't think towing all of them was worth the effort, left and never came back. It was a major victory in this suburban everyman's life. 

The Thompsons live in a one-story home. John slinks his key in the door, creaking it open every-so-quietly. His old man takes a nap from 4-5pm after work every day. John sneaks by his bedroom door, hoping he'll sleep through the night and into the morning, forgetting the chat he's had with Mr. Murphy. Or, better yet, maybe Mr. Murphy forgot to call altogether. 

John ninja walks to his room, though the wooden floors in their old house throw him a big "fuck you". 

"JOHN", the old man screams from the other room.


"Yeah, pop?" 

"Get in here." 

John puts his game face on, pretending not to know what all this could be about as he opens the door. The old man lies in his normal position -- head propped on two pillows, eyes half-shut, hands folded on his chest. 

"What's up?” John forces.”Need anything?" 

"Don't play dumb", the old man barks. "You're smoking cigarettes now?" 

"No-" John retorts.

"You know I quit for YOU, right?" 

"Yes, you've made that clear, but-"

"Because that's why I work in a fuckin' manhole all day, so you can spend all your paper route money on cigarettes-"

"Pop, listen-"

"Don't tell me to listen!"

John stares at him, unsure if it's time to speak: "Ok-" 

"Okay, then what?” the old man asks. 

"Can I talk?" John asks, a tinge of sarcasm in his voice. 

"Watch it.", he warns. 

"Sorry. But I wasn't smoking. I swear to God."

"Don't swear to God." 

"Ok, but I wasn't. I was holding it for another kid." 

Every kid on the planet who's ever been caught smoking has used that excuse. John is the only unfortunate sap who's actually telling the truth. 

The old man knows in his heart that his son wasn't smoking.  Mr. Murphy described the incident in such a way where John's story holds up. The old man and Mr. Murphy were both brought up in tough Irish neighborhoods and shared similar values. He knows his son was being bullied and not sticking up for himself. The concept of not fighting back is a foreign impulse to him, having spent his childhood playing street basketball and getting into routine brawls with kids from other neighborhoods. 

John’s brother Pauly, now 11, is much more similar to their father. Pauly's an athlete, a competitor. He doesn't take shit on the football field. He curses. He gets into trouble. He's got balls. The old man can handle a few phone calls from neighbors, or a broken window here and there, so long as his sons show some life. His eldest boy, whom he raised the same as the other, showed him nothing of the sort. He just fucking daydreamed. It killed him. 

"You were holding it for another kid," the old man presses. "Neil Raffie?" 

John doesn't answer. 

"Are you hanging around with that kid again?" 

"No!" John snaps. "Definitely not." 

The old man would rather hear his son was hanging out with a bad kid than being bullied by him. John's demeanor proved the latter. He sits up. 


"Pop, I'm not hanging out with him!" John pleads, trying to convey that he actually has a choice in the matter. 

"Alright", the old man calmly rebuts. "I believe you. But you gotta start sticking up for yourself." 

No kid, or adult, ever wants to hear those words. Ever. 

To John, facing his father is the most difficult aspect of being bullied. He knows he's been a disappointment, even though it's something that would never be said. 

"I am", John lies. "I'm going to get some homework done", he lies again as he exits, leaving his father sitting up, at a loss.  

John wakes up the next morning to a fiery menace breakdancing in his stomach. His first thought as his eyes bulge open: 

If I'm not sitting on a toilet in ten seconds, something horrific is going to happen. 

Getting food poisoning from his favorite lunch item is devastating for John. He replays the moment of doom in his brain, where he tested his own fate by eating pink chicken. Now every sensation of what made the chicken teriyaki great will be repulsive to him in the future. 

This day has ginger ale and The Price is Right written all over it. Though unfortunately for John, his years of crying wolf had hardened his parent’s instincts. John was doomed to a day of FOSY (Fear of Shitting Yourself) at school. A true nightmare.

Before John can reach his first class, he darts to the boy's bathroom. 

Halfway through first period, he excuses himself and goes again. Mr. Murphy spots John whisking by his office. 

At the top of second period, the bubble-guts return. John excuses himself. 

Twenty-two minutes into third period, another gastric explosion. As he briskly walks closed-cheeked into the first floor bathroom, Mr. Murphy spots him again. 

"This fucking kid", Mr. Murphy mutters to himself. 

Fourth period: Ms. Cunningham's drama class. John needs no excuse to leave, but the five-alarm fire happening in his bowels permits him to do so. He jets.

Upon exiting the bathroom, John realizes he can't remember the last time he got through 4th period without jerking off. 

"THOMPSON!" Mr. Murphy's booming voice echoes down the hallway. 

John gulps as the dean comes stomping towards him, on a mission. 

"Sir, I don't feel well-" John attempts.

"Every day, I see you during this period", Mr. Murphy shouts.

"Yes, but-" 

"And the period before this one, and the period before that-"

"I know, but I have-"

"No more 'buts'", Mr. Murphy inches closer to him. "That's all you do, is make excuses! You know you're failing most of your classes, right?"

John doesn't answer. Because what the fuck are you supposed to say in response to that question that doesn't make you sound lazy or stupid? 

"John!", Mr. Murphy presses. "Are you going to say anything?" 

Something comes over John. While he believes Mr. Murphy is well-intended, the tactic of screaming and scaring kids into respecting him has grown tiresome. 

"Well, what do you want me to say?" John snaps back. "'Thanks for noticing?!?'"

John gulps a grapefruit down his throat. He's never talked back to a teacher before, let alone the school's alpha male gym teacher and dean. Mr. Murphy's nostrils flare like a bull, blowing the mustache hairs underneath into straight lines. 

The kids in Ms. Cunningham's class hear screaming from the other end of the hallway. Mr. Murphy's thunderous screams at John quickly get louder, right up until the two burst through the door. Mr. Murphy has John by the hand, like a bad child. 

"NO MORE BATHROOM BREAKS FOR HIM", he bellows at Ms. Cunningham. 

John returns to his seat, looking at the floor as the eyes of every student in the classroom burn through him. Giggles and snickers snap through the room. 

He plops down at his seat. Ms. Cunningham continues to talk about Beowolf or whatever-the-fuck. He turns to the window. 

Rocco Esposito leans over to him. 

"Why did Mr. Murphy bring you back to class?” he quizzes. 

"I don't know", John answers. 

"Did he catch you trying to kill yourself?” Rocco jokes.

"What?” John keeps his focus on the birds outside the window. 

"Did catch you jerking off?” Rocco asks, desperate to keep his tired line of questioning going. 

This sends a jolt through John's body. He turns to Rocco. Everything slows down for him. He should know that, even if the dean did in fact catch him in the act, Rocco would never know about it. But something in John's reaction and demeanor portrays one thing: 


Rocco's eyes light up. John has just served him a hanging curveball. 

"He caught you jerking-off!" Rocco exclaims, loud enough for Brianna Scarpelli to hear him. 

Brianna looks up from her notebook: "What?" 

"John Thompson got caught jerking off in the bathroom!" Rocco blurts, much louder this time. Ms. Cunningham hears this and does nothing. 

"Shut the fuck up!” John pleads. "I did not!"  

"Gross", Brianna mutters, going back to her notebook. 

Rocco bounces around like a child in a stroller, seeing Times Square for the first time. He turns to the kid on his right:

"John Thompson got caught jerking off in the bathroom!" 

He turns to the kid behind the kid on his right:

"John Thompson got caught jerking off in the bathroom!" 

The bell rings. The kids shuffle out, Rocco turns back to John with an ear-to-ear grin. John fantasizes about taking him from behind and smashing his teeth into the floor. 

The cafeteria fills up quickly. The various crews and tables form and the lunch lines begin. It's hot dog day. 

John slowly enters, white in the face from all the shitting and the lingering doom he knows is coming. 

Maybe no one will care. Maybe no one will believe Rocco. After all, the kid is a fucking nimrod. Just play it cool and maybe it won't catch on. 

"What's the matter, buddy?" a familiar voice in a foreign tone asks from behind him. 

John turns to find Neil Raffie, packet of Linden's chocolate chip cookies in hand. The look in his eyes is kind, unlike anything he's witnessed since they were kids in John's basement. 

"Nothing, it's nothing", John mumbles, again staring at his beat-up Nike Uptowns. 

"Johnny…" Neil hasn't called him Johnny since the 5th grade. "Talk to me buddy, you look like you're about to puke." 

Well, he's not wrong about the puke part. John looks up at Neil. For a moment, he feels the comfort of his old pal. This is something he wished he had on his first day of school here, not knowing a soul and in desperate need of a friend. Maybe this is the moment. Maybe if he confides in his old buddy, it'll build trust and they can reignite their friendship. Maybe he'll invite John to sit at the front tables. Neil nods, welcoming John to spill it, that's he's here to help. 

John Thompson is a gullible asshole. 

"Rocco Esposito is telling people that Mr. Murphy caught me jerking off in the bathroom." 

That doesn't hang there for a second. Neil wastes no time in bending over, practically touching his toes. He holds there for a beat, then rises up, blood rushed to his face, licking his chops. This is Thompson's second hanging curveball of the afternoon. 

The look on Neil's face can only be described as a nano-step away from wanting to lean in, kiss John on the mouth, and softly say, "Thank you. Thank you for this gift you have brought." 

He skips to his lunch table, leaving John behind. 

John's point of view is of the entire cafeteria. He watches the spread of the virus. Neil tells his people, who look back and laugh. Rocco works his side of the lunch room. The news travels to the table behind them, and behind them. We climb the social latter all the way down, ending at the Herb Table, with each student marveling and snickering at the greatest rumor they'll hear all year: 

Mr. Murphy caught John Thompson jerking off in the bathroom. 

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Herb Table: Chapter One

It's April of 2000, an election year. The Twin Towers stood erect on the southern tip Manhattan. The Mets and Yankees were beginning their respective campaigns, on a steadfast track to the historic Subway Series. Teenagers across the country danced crotch-apart slow-dances to K-Ci and Jojo's All My Life at high school dances and sweet sixteens alike.

Somewhere, at a small high school in Staten Island, New York, a sophomore named John Thompson feverishly masturbates into a urinal.

John isn't a sexual deviant, no, no. This daily round of pumping his seed onto a floating, corroded urinal cake is as much sexual contact as he's had with another human being, and it's the most obscure place he'll do it outside of his Mets-memorabilia-infused bedroom at home. John's made out with a couple of girls, or, as the kids say, "go with" (used in a sentence: "John, I just spoke to Becky, and I'm sorry but she doesn't want to "go" with you"). Though, unlike some of the other popular kid's in his school, who were allegedly experimenting with each others genitals at an escalating rate, he hadn't experienced anything below the belt with a girl. Not for lack of trying.

John's a middle-of-the-road caucasian. His voice is on the cusp of dropping, his round face and mashed potato-like body is, unbeknownst to him, about twelve months away from a bean-stalk like growth-spurt that would thin him out for good (and for good, I mean till he discovered binge-drinking and late-night fast food runs in his early-twenties). His big, round glasses and mushroom haircut are perfect for other students to mistake him for the class Mom. He's not an athlete, or an academic, or at all popular. He's a daydreamer, always wanting to be somewhere other than school.

John frustrated his teachers -- he wasn't stupid, didn't come from a broken home, nor showed any signs of mental illness. In their eyes, he was just-plain lazy. A waste of potential. A slacker. He never raises his hand, though always knows the answers. He never turns in homework. He seems content with failing his classes during the school year, then spending his summers and nights making them up.

Back to the urinal. John hacks away at the vivid memory of Jessica Carlin showing him her tits in the stairwell earlier that year. He didn't do much to earn such a show -- Jessica had been on a year-long flashing rampage after the summer was good to her chest. She, like most girls at school, finds John harmless. Lacking any sort of distinction between platonic playfulness and actual flirting, John never pursued any sort of sexual activity with Jessica afterward, despite her having a fleeting crush on him. He simply kept it in his mental spank back, a go-to when rubbing out a quickie in the middle of 4th period Drama Class.

The 3rd floor bathroom is quietest during 4th period. The only active room is the staff lounge, but most of the teachers opt to use their free time chain-smoking and napping off hangovers in their cars. Whenever a teacher would spot him using that bathroom on an empty floor, John would favor his stomach, claiming all the stalls on the 2nd floor were being occupied.

John pumps and pumps, the image of Jessica asking, "Ready?" then lifting up her shirt on loop in his head. Many times, the actual memory evolves into a fantasy, with her approaching him, letting him feel her breasts. He'd never felt one before, so he had to create a sense-memory with his hand. He'd find, later in life, that his idea of what a woman's breast felt like on his hands would be far, far different than the actual thing.

Almost there.

Oh, God…

The bathroom door bursts open. John's body stiffens. A rope of semen unceremoniously plops into the urinal water.

In comes Neil Raffie, with his boys. His cronies. They have names, but after a few years, no one would expect to remember them, so they're not important now. Neil Raffie is the type of kid who thrives as the most popular in a school with no sports program. He's popular because he's naturally alpha, and he can fight, so most kids either stay clear, take shit from him, or become a crony. 

John calmly stuffs his erection into his pants, pointing it at noon to secure it with his belt. The blood clears from his face in time for Neil to spot him.

"John Thompson!" Neil yells at the back of John's head. "What's up, you fucking Herb?!?" 

John's body tenses up, anticipating a hot slap on the back of the neck. He anticipates correctly. The whipping sound of Neil's open-palm comes crashing down and the impact echoes through the porcelain-tiled walls.

Neil and John were best friends in elementary school, sitting at the same table during class and at lunch every day. Back in those days, John was amongst the popular kids. He didn't sit at the "Herb Table", which consisted of the kids who had a harder time falling in line. Neil would frequent John's house after school, sometimes till 9 or 10 at night, or whenever his older brother, stoned in his Dominos delivery boy outfit, could come pick him up.

John always took this as a bonus; someone his own age to bounce ideas off who wasn't his brother Pauly, who was four years younger. Neil and John would rough-house with Pauly, as older kids did. One night, John accidentally split Pauly's head open trying to emulate a wrestling move. Having it instilled in their brains by their old man to never rat on anyone, especially your friends, all three boys were mum about how Pauly would come to spent the night in the ER getting stitches in his dome. John's parents could only assume scenarios, almost all of which landed with the kid from the broken home putting their youngest son in the hospital.

Neil's visits to John's house quickly eroded thereafter. The two eventually went to different junior high schools, communicating less and less till they were practically strangers. Once in a while, they'd run into each other in Staten Island AOL chatrooms, briefly exchanging a "yo" in a private message. Neil experienced an early growth spurt in 6th grade. By 7th grade, his voice dropped. By 8th, he could grow a mustache. Sort of.

John, on the other hand, didn't experience much puberty while the other kids were discovering new terrain on their bodies. As junior high processed, Neil grew into a man amongst boys, while John coasted as another weak-chinned target for the pubescent monsters amongst him to attack. John got beat up. A lot.

Neil was big enough to stay out of fights, but found his size brought a natural respect, a fear even. This was intoxicating to him. The first time he shoved a kid out of the way in the halls, to the tune of laughter from the cronies who followed his lead, came a rush that outweighed any sort of guilt or fear of repercussions. The first time he got suspended for beating up a kid in the cafeteria, he was sentenced to a one-week vacation, where played Nintento 64 and smoked his brother's weed all day.

Eventually, Neil ignored the infrequent "yo's" from John. He had a fresh start, a new identity. That identity didn't include some kid who sat at the Herb Table in another school. John came here as a new kid halfway through his freshman year. He hoped to get a head start with Neil, the only kid he knew who happened to run the school. He was instead greeted with daily physical and verbal abuse, which is contagious amongst 15-year-olds. John never fought back, instead hoping Neil would come to his senses and remember his old buddy, the kid who was his best friend for all those elementary school years.

But that Neil was long gone.

John bites down, as the sting on the back of his neck sends a current through his body that blocks the euphoria of his orgasm. He looks down and notices a small glob of jism lingering on his thumb. He covers the thumb with the rest of his hand and makes a fist, pressing down on the semen and spreading it like jelly on a sandwich. He sidesteps quickly to the sink, running his hand under the water and washing away the evidence.

Penis still pulsing against his belt, he maintains eye contact with the drain of the sink.

"What, you can't say 'hi' to me anymore?", Neil snaps, unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth.

John rigorously scrubs the pink hand soap into his pores, ignoring Neil's goading. Neil lights his smoke, not bothering to open a window. John turns off the sink, and heads for the exit without drying his hands. Getting the fuck out is easier than taking the bait. Neil blocks his path.

"I have to get back to class", John pleads, eyes locked on the exit.

"You want a stog?" Neil offers, opening his pack of Newport 100's.

"I'm good"

"Don't be a faggot."

"I don't smoke"

John steps to the side. Neil mirrors him. No chance.

"I'm offering you a boagie, and you're saying 'no'?", Neil challenges, holding the cigarette up to John's face. "You gonna disrespect me like that?"

The sizzle from the cherry slinks into John's eyes, fogging up his vision with dampness. John rubs the tear away.

Neil guffaws, "Ha! Are you crying? Are you upset?"

He raises the cherry of the cigarette closer to John's eye.

"Smoke the fucking cigarette."

John eyes him down for a beat, imagining what it would be like to be his best friend again. Imaging how easy it would be to become one of those kids who follows him around, holding his backpack at the bus stop and buying him an egg bagel with cream cheese every morning. Neil didn't have pals, he had followers. Like some warped prison gang, you had to either degrade yourself to run with him, or withstand the torment and go your own way. John missed his buddy, but he sure as fuck wasn't going to carry Neil's bags.

Neil snaps his finger in John's face: "You awake, mo? Stop being a Herb and take a pull."

John takes the cigarette from Neil's hand, pressing the orange filter with his thumb and index finger. He brings the cancer stick to his puckering lips. He'd never smoked before, but is aware he's looking pretty fucking amateur right now.

"What are you, sucking a micro penis?!" Neil yells, much to the joy of his boys observing. "Hold it like a fucking man!" 

John eyes him down. The images of himself carrying bags at the bus stop quickly dissolves to the Newport 100 being snuffed out on Neil's forehead, the amber flakes falling from the cherry melting a bullet-hole on his screaming face.

He makes a "V" with his index and middle finger and tucks the cigarette in between. Before he could take a drag, a thunderous voice booms from outside the door:


The bathroom door flings open and in comes Mr Murphy -- all 6'4, 240 lbs of him. He's the gym teacher and dean. Approaching his 50's but not looking a day over 35, Mr Murphy wears a polo shirt and basketball shorts. Every day. If it's 98 degrees and sunny, polo shirt and basketball shorts. If it's -5 and raining frogs, polo shirt and basketball shorts. His thick nest of black beard always covers his mouth, save for his ever-curled bottom lip. Despite all his screaming at students, no one had ever seen his teeth.

If there was one person in the building Neil Raffie respected, it was James F. Murphy. There was a rumor at school that the "F" stood for "Fucking".

"Thompson! Thompson was smoking!", Neil dibs, pointing at the now-ashy cigarette nestled in John's frozen hand.

John goes white and drops the cigarette on the floor, stomping it out with his foot as if it were going to somehow get him out of trouble.

Neil turns back to John and winks.

"Really, Thompson?!" Mr Murphy shouts, eyebrows slanted down like two bushy pinball flippers.

John Thompson isn't a rat.

"I'm sorry", John rebuts, "I don't know what I was thinking."

"Could have at least opened a window", Neil taunts, hiding a sadistic smile from the dean.

"Shut up, Raffie", Mr Murphy barks, observing John. "Get the hell out of here."

Neil and his cronies bounce, marveling in yet another small victory. John imagined the life of a bully as a daily onslaught of small victories.

John stares at his beat-up Nike Uptowns. Mr Murphy, hands perched on his hips, waits for some life out of this fucking kid.

"I didn't take you for a menthol-guy", he quips.

John doesn't know what that means. Mr Murphy knows it.

"Sorry", John replies.

"You say that a lot", Mr Murphy says. "Sorry."

"Sorry?" John half-heartedly answers.

Mr Murphy shakes his head, "Where are you supposed to be?"



"Thank you, sir."

John heads for the exit.

"You're not off the hook", Mr Murphy calls out. "I'll have a chat with your Dad later."

John mouths, "fuck" as he walks out the door.

Today is the last normal day of the school year for John Thompson. Tomorrow will bring an event that will shatter his world and change the course of his life.