Skywriting at Night

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Chapter 7

     "So how was school today?" Jackson Robert asked as he surveyed the dinner table: dry pot roast smothered with lumpy gravy, runny macaroni and cheese, string beans so overboiled there was no hint of green left, and biscuits that were gummier—though admittedly browner—than when they'd come out of the refrigerated can. It was hard to imagine someone who enjoyed cooking as much as Erta could turn out such consistently bad food.

     "We didn’t have school today," Jet said, closely examining the food he put on his plate to see if he recognized it. "It’s Sunday."

     "I now that," Jackson Robert lied. "I meant, how was Sunday school?"

     "We don’t go to Sunday school," Job replied, looking at his father as if he’d just come down from Mars.

     It was true; the boys had never gone to Sunday school. Being the children of a fallen Jew and a woman who changed religions like most people changed underwear, Jet and Job spent their Sundays without having to think about dressing up, going to church or being repeatedly shushed during sermons.

     "And what did you do this afternoon, my dear?" Jackson Robert asked his wife.

     "A little of this and a little of that," she said, certain that neither he nor the boys were even remotely interested in what the Quite Reverend John Joseph Matthew Paul III had said during the five hours she watched him on television that day.

     It wasn’t so much that they weren’t interested, as it was they were afraid to raise the subject. Like Erta’s tenth and thirteenth religions, this sect made a great show of speaking in tongues. All afternoon Jackson Robert and the boys heard Erta in the living room—watching, listening, and trying to speak in tongues along with the Quite Reverend.

     When she had first tried this she discovered she was always saying the word about a half second late and, as if that wasn’t bad enough, it didn't sound even remotely like the one she was trying to imitate. It was much like when she tried to sing along with a song whose lyrics she didn't know. But since Erta's evangelical TV show wasn't Closed Captioned for the Religiously Impaired, and the local librarian hadn't even heard of a Glossolalia-English dictionary, Erta was forced to find her own way to learn the language.

     She bought a small hand-held tape recorder and taped the spoken-in-tongues segment of the show. Then she spent the rest of the day phonetically memorizing the sing-songy babble. The next day, as soon as the Quite Reverend reached the point in the show where he lapsed into tongues, Erta would proudly recite her lines along with him. But each day the preacher seemed to speak in a new and different tongue. So each day Erta would tape the show and memorize the new speech. And the next day it would again be completely different.

     She just didn't get it.

* * * * * *

     No one at the dinner table had to ask Jackson Robert how he spent his Sunday, for after what he had gone through the day before at the hands of his son there was nothing he could do except whip his life back into order by straightening his closet, cleaning out the already spotless attic and shining everyone’s shoes. His twice.

     "Have you boys done your homework for the weekend?" he asked.

     "Yup," Job said, macaroni and cheese spluttering out of his mouth.

     "I've gotta go to the library tonight," Jet said.

     "What for?" his mother asked.

     "To look some stuff up for English."

     "No you don't," Job said.

     "Yes I do."

     "No you don't."

     "How do you know?"

     "'Cause I know."

     "You don't know anything," Jet said. "You don't even know what the inside of a library looks like."

     "Sure I do," Job said, "it's an old building full of old books, old ladies, and young dorks like you."

     "Okay, you two," Jackson Robert interrupted, "that'll be enough."  He glared at both the boys, who turned and made faces at each other. "Who are you going to the library with?"

     "Rubber Boots."

     "He didn't say what," Job scolded, "he said who. Are you deaf?"

     "No, I'm Jet," he said, then turning back to his father. "I'm going with Rubber Boots. He's a kid in my English class."

     Rubber Boots was indeed in Jet's English class, though the boy who sat two rows away was so quiet it would have been easy to overlook him entirely. And yes, his legal name was Rubber Boots. His parents, Duncan and Mary Bruce, agreed to name him after Robert I, the 14th century king of Scotland.  Instead of telling that to the obstetrics nurse at the hospital where his son was born, Duncan, ever the scotch-filled practical joker, said the boy’s name was Rubber Boots. While it was a cute nickname for the baby, it wasn’t until several years later that his parents looked at the birth certificate and realized what had happened, for having heard much stranger requests than this one, the nurse had obediently filled out the birth certificate exactly as Duncan requested. At that point it wasn’t worth changing.

     Everyone called Rubber Boots by his full name except his mother, who called him Robert, and his teacher, Miss Hellstrom, who called him Mr. Boots. By high school he would be called Rubber, which embarrassed him no end, but by college he’d manage to make the switch to R.B.

* * * * * *

     Rubber Boots looked at Jet admiringly as they left the library; his friend was everything Rubber Boots wished he could be. Or so he thought. Whereas Jet said whatever came to mind, the lone trait which separates philosophers from the masses, Rubber Boots kept his few opinions to himself. He admired Jet much the way a 16 year-old idolized a rock star; if he could get a poster of him to hang on his wall he would. Until this class assignment he had always admired Jet from afar, but thanks to Miss Hellstrom’s picking names out of her aluminum foil covered shoe box, he found himself paired up with his idol.

     "That wasn't bad," Jet said as they walked home in the dark. Since Rubber Boots told his mom Jet's mother would be picking them up, and Jet told his mother they would take the bus, they got to do exactly what they really wanted to do: walk and explore.

     "Yeah, but we still have to write the stupid thing," Rubber Boots said.

     "No sweat," Jet replied, "we've got almost a week."

     They walked the next block in silence. Jet was happy watching the cars drive by, looking in the store windows, and kicking any cans, wrappers, and stones that made the mistake of getting in his path. Rubber Boots was miserable, trying frantically to come up with something to say to break the uneasiness he felt.

     Jet kicked a soda can into the street. "you like Hellstrom?"

     "She's okay, I guess."

     "Mr. Boots," Jet began, imitating his English teacher, "in your own words, or someone else's if you have them handy, describe for the class why you think Romeo wore tights and how that relates to Shakespeare's inability to move his bowels regularly."

     Rubber Boots started giggling.

     "Mis-ter Boots," Jet continued, his imitation right on target, "I'm waiting. The class is waiting. In fact, the whole school is waiting."

     Rubber Boots stopped walking, bent over in laughter.

     "Mister Boots, would you like to tell the class exactly what it is that you find so humorous? I'm sure we'd all like to share in the joke. You know I like a good laugh as much as the next person, unless of course the next person happens to be a human being, in which case I probably don't like a good laugh half as much as they do." Rubber Boots fell to his knees and was slapping the sidewalk. "Then again if the next person is a Martian they probably don't get the joke at all, in which case I would finally get a chance to feel superior. In a very Shakespearean way, of course."

     Rubber Boots was balled up on the sidewalk. "Stop! Stop!" he cried out.

     "Mister Boots..." Jet began, but was interrupted by something whizzing by his ear. "...You do understand that..."

     Another whiz-z-z. Then another. And another. Rubber Boots stopped laughing and looked up in puzzlement as the whizzes flew by and smacked sharply into the store windows. Whiz-z-z clink! Whiz-z-z clink!

     "Let's get outta here," Jet said as quickly walked away. Sensing he was alone, he turned to see where Rubber Boots was—he was on his hands and knees. "C'mon, let's go!"

     "Wait a minute," Rubber Boots called out.

     The round metal missiles continued their whiz-z-z clink! Whiz-z-z clink!  Rubber Boots crawled around the sidewalk after the projectiles, but each time he got close enough to grab one, another went zipping by his head, causing him to duck and change directions. He looked like a bumper car running into invisible obstacles.

     "It's money, Jet! They're throwin' quarters!"

     Jet hurried back and grabbed Rubber Boots’s arm. "They're not quarters, they're slugs. Let's get the hell outta here!"

     Suddenly the whizzing stopped. The abrupt silence was unnerving, but it didn't last long; it was quickly replaced by the sound of heavy footsteps crossing the street.

     "Why if it isn't ole Bubba Roots," an all too familiar voice called out. "And look who he’s with."

     Johnny Kasouska and The Turk came out of the darkness and into the glow of the street lamp. They were the elder statesmen of the seventh grade, two boys with more time than brains and on this particular night, more beer in their blood too. As if to prove this, not an hour before they happened upon Jet and Rubber Boots walking home from the library they’d shot a hole in the window at Cordin’s Jewelry Store with a Daisy model 95 spring air BB rifle.

     "Check out the sign," Johnny had ordered his friend.

     "What about it?"

     "Read it, dumb shit."

Cordin's Jewelry
Watches * Rings * Gold Bought And Sold
Precious and Semi-precious Jew s

     The Turk slowly read aloud. "Watches...rings...".

     "No, pencil dick. The bottom."

     "Precious and semi-precious jewels," the Turk continued.

     "Can't you even read?" Johnny said. "Try again."

     "Precious...and...semi-precious......Jews?" he said, finally noticing what the peeling paint had done to the sign.

     "Yeah, right," Johnny said. "Precious Jews, my ass. Fat fuckin' chance."

     With that Johnny raised the BB gun, trying to line up the bead with the word "Jews".  But the beer in his bloodstream caused the air rifle to drift gently up and down while his eyes went in and out of focus ever so slightly. The high-powered BB shot out of the barrel and struck the glass above and to the left of its intended target, leaving a neat round hole which obliterated the letter "l". The sign now read:

Cordin's Jewelry
Watches * Rings * Go d Bought And Sold
Precious and Semi-precious Jew s

* * * * * *

     "Hey, Turk," Johnny said, "Bubba Roots must think he found pennies from heaven."

     "Hey look, it’s the Slugs from Hell," Jet told Rubber Boots.

     "What are you two doing out this late?" The Turk said. "Isn't it past your bedtime?"

     Rubber Boots looked nervously from one to the other. "We were just coming home from the..."

     "Candy store," Jet interrupted, giving Rubber Boots a shut-up look, "but the jerks wouldn't sell us any cigarettes."

     "Aw-w-w, what's the matter? Did your mother run out?" Johnny taunted.

     "My mother doesn't smoke," Jet said, "but I do."

     "Me too," Rubber Boots chimed in a little too quickly.

     Johnny raised an eyebrow and looked at The Turk. Rubber Boots raised both his eyebrows and looked at Jet.

     "You got a couple of spare butts?" Jet asked.

     "I'll have your butt if you're lyin' to us," Johnny said.

     "Yeah," The Turk added.

     "Yeah?" Rubber Boots asked.

     "Yeah," Jet said matter of factly.

     Johnny laughed and shook his head. "Give the kids a couple a ciggies."

     The Turk pulled a crumpled pack of Kools from his shirt pocket and tapped it against the side of his hand, trying to get a couple of the bent cigarettes to slide out. He tapped the pack again. And again.  Johnny grabbed the pack out of his hands and ripped the top completely open. He pulled out four cigarettes and silently passed them around. reaching into The Turk's shirt pocket, Johnny came out with a book of matches. With one hand he opened the cover, bent a match outward, and struck it against the emery strip. Johnny had spent many hours perfecting this move, first with one hand and then with the other, telling himself that if he ever lost one of his arms it would be to his benefit to still be able to light a match. This little show never ceased to impress The Turk, who had spent many more hours than Johnny trying to learn the trick with only badly burned fingers to show for it.

     Johnny held the match out to Jet, who put the cigarette in his mouth and tried to light it without inhaling. That not working, he drew softly on the cigarette in short quick puffs. Johnny extended the match to Rubber Boots, who stared at the end of his bent cigarette so intensely that his eyes crossed. He drew the smoke in slowly. feeling his stomach start to churn, he closed his throat to choke back the rising urge. Johnny put the match in front of The Turk.

     "Uh-uh," The Turk said.

     "Whadaya mean, 'uh-uh'?" Johnny asked.

     "Three on a match. I ain't gonna get pregnant."

     "How many times do I have to tell you," Johnny said, "just suck on the thing and you won't get pregnant."

     The Turk warily lit his cigarette, taking a deep drag. Johnny lit his, heavily drawing on it until the tip glowed bright enough to light up his face, the smoke drifting lazily out his nose.

     "Thanks," Jet said, "that hits the spot. We'd better get going now."

     "Not so fast," Johnny said, "we haven't finished our cigarettes yet. You don't want to be unsociable, now do you?"

     Rubber Boots took a small drag on his cigarette, puffing his cheeks out as he held the smoke in his mouth, then letting it out in an asthmatic burst. "If I don't get home soon..."

     "We won't have time to raid his father's liquor cabinet before he gets home," Jet finished.

     Johnny looked at them suspiciously. "Whadaya drink?"

     "Gin and tonic," Jet said.

     "Scotch and tonic," Rubber Boots chimed in.

     Jet took another shallow drag on his cigarette, then looked at Rubber Boots, who picked up his cue and took a deep drag. His stomach flopped upside down, then righted itself, then flopped again as he clamped his mouth shut and tried not to go bug-eyed.

     "I can't hack these menthols," Jet said to Rubber Boots, "let's go get a couple of your father's Camels."

     Jet tried to casually flip his cigarette into the street, but it fumbled from his hand and bounced off his shoe.

     "Fuck this shit, we're going home."

     He tapped Rubber Boots on the arm and walked away. Rubber Boots dropped his cigarette and casually stepped on it, grinding the butt until it was tobacco pulp. He turned to follow Jet.

     "You were great," he whispered to Jet, clamping his hand over his mouth as his stomach convulsed.

     "Survival of the glibbest."

     "Hey Bubba Roots!" Johnny called out. "Have a scotch and tonic for me!"

     Reaching the intersection, Jet quickly pulled his friend around the corner. As soon as they were out of sight, Jet took off running down the side street with Rubber Boots close at his heels. They ran full out for two blocks until they were both afraid their lungs were about to burst.

     "I guess we showed them," Jet bragged, panting hard.

     "Sure did," Rubber Boots said, right before bending over and throwing up all over Mrs. Jordan's blooming pink azaleas.


Chapter 8 ]

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  Skywriting at Night - a novel by Mad Dog

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