I have always liked the first day of school, ever since I can remember. I even dug it in first grade, although based upon the pictures from that early September morn, it was obvious my parents were enamored with brown plaid. Everyone had shiny new metal lunchboxes filled with sandwiches, chips, and some sort of treat (the lucky kids had Twinkies), and we always had new shoes that would remain looking that way for only about three days. Our hair was slicked down in that back-to-school ’do favored by our folks, our shirts were tucked in, and we were ready to face the brave new world, unaware that our parents were more nervous than we were as we stepped off the curb and onto the big yellow bus.
In high school, the ritual may have been different, but the anticipation remained. My friends and I would get together the week before to compare schedules and notes, and to speculate as to whether there would be any new talent gracing the halls upon our arrival. It wasn’t like we were tired of the ladies we had been seeing for the past ten years – they still looked good (and some were starting to look better) – rather, it boiled down to the spirit of competition. If you’re the only retailer in town, you can relax a little and not worry so much about your advertising and selection, because people are going to buy what they can where they can. As soon as the ground is broken on that new Kmart, however, you’d better tighten your ass up or you’ll be usurped by a clean, bright, modern store hocking goods that were impulse buys in the first place. Kind of how it was with the girls – they didn’t like the competition a bit, but they reacted the same – new clothes, new bows and, for the most part, a well-tanned body. This attention to detail always impressed us, even though we were never the intended beneficiaries of their efforts.
The boys, on the other hand, never really gave much thought to the new guy or two who came in, and we certainly didn’t undertake any extra efforts to polish the chrome. Usually, he fit right in anyway with one crowd or another.
Our first day back as juniors started out not much different. We were all supposed to meet in the parking lot at seven-thirty, and since we were now officially upperclassmen, we got to park in the back next to the seniors, no longer relegated to the few crappy parking spaces by the drop-off line in the front. I left early and stopped by the Bayou View Grocery on the way in to get a Coke and drove up at a quarter after, wheeling in right behind Hop and Mark. We were the only ones there. I got out, grabbed a doughnut from Hop’s Quality Bakery bag, and leaned against the Milk Wagon. I could smell the fresh cut grass down by the practice fields.
“Welcome to paradise, boys.” I said, taking in another deep breath and wondering how long the dew would stick to the ground with all the humidity. Mark hadn’t gotten out of the car yet. He considered himself a bit of a musician and was waiting for “Blister in the Sun” to end before he officially started his day. He was spitting powdered doughnut crumbs on the dash with every chorus between drumming. Hop was digging in his pockets for his schedule, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he had checked it twice already that morning, once before his shower and once while taking his morning growler.
“Who you got for first period?” he asked, uncrumpling the blue mimeograph that smelled like a chemical weapon. “I thought I had English, but it says here chemistry,” he said through a grimace. “I don’t know if I can handle a nun first thing in the morning.” I couldn’t blame him. No one wanted a perimenopausal celibate as their eight-fifteen a.m. warden.
“El Español,” I replied. “I’ve got Ms. Mander.”
“Lucky bastard.” He took another glance at his sheet and began cleaning his glasses.
Jason “Hop” Hopkins and I met in the seventh grade playing on the basketball team. We were two goofy-looking, skinny white kids who played at about the same level – fair to middling. We didn’t know each other well, and during a full-court-press exercise, I tripped him and he busted his ass. I helped him back up, we continued to play, and the rest, as they say, is history. Whether or not I did it on purpose is still the subject of much dispute, and he brings it up way more than he should. Truth be known, I barely even remember it, and I doubt I did it with intent to harm. Unless, of course, he was getting the edge on me. Then I might have.
The Femmes tape ended, and Mark got out, chewing on a straw and picking his nose. “Am I clear?” he asked, cocking his head up for us to verify. After we ignored him, he checked it in the side mirror and came around to join us. “You’re taking Spanish? What the hell you going to use Spanish for?”
Mark was a relatively recent transfer, having just started at St. John in the ninth grade. He moved over to Gulfport from Biloxi and didn’t make a peep his first couple of weeks. He and Hop knew each other from back in elementary school when they used to play each other in peewee baseball, and once Mark realized he was not alone, he followed us around like a puppy. Before we knew it, Mark was one of the guys, despite his clothing choices, which were questionable at best. Black Chucks and torn Levis were cool; red Chucks not as much, but still acceptable. Wearing a gold necklace with a St. Christopher medal so it showed – even on the outside of a button-down – was a bit much. Mark’s roots were primarily Italian, but he had just enough redneck in him to make things interesting.
“I don’t know,” I said. “It had an opening.”
“I’m taking French,” he said, tucking his shirt in. “I think I’ll get more out of French.”
“French? Really? Pussy.”
Mark smiled real big and took a draw on his chocolate milk. “Say what you want; I know what I’m doing. You ever see the makeup of one of them French classes?”
“You ever see any real French girls?”
“Yeah, on the Olympics. And I liked them.” Now I can guarantee Mark hadn’t seen a real French girl on TV, and I’m certain he’d never watched the Olympics, but to him it sounded cool. “Plus, Blondie sang some French on one of her B-sides – I think it was ‘Sunday Girl.’ And the backup singer in ‘Eyes Without a Face’ did too.”
Billy Idol played in my head as he spoke. Mark wasn’t wrong.
“So what classes do we have together?” Hop asked. We checked, and it looked like Hop and I would suffer through algebra; I would have biology with Mark, and the three of us would share the religion and English comp classrooms. Homeroom was a toss-up; we might have had the same times, but we would likely get split up into different groups. Mark believed it was part of a conspiracy, but he thought everything had some sort of furtive backstory.
More cars started creeping in, and before I knew it, our little corner of the parking lot was filling up with classmates. I didn’t see any new vehicles, and from the looks of it, several folks carpooled.
The metal girls gathered around Shayna Haddock’s pickup truck, smoking cigarettes and listening to Warrant. They wore a lot of paint, and the sheer size of their hair was always a source of amusement to me. I could not imagine how much ozone they burned to tease those helmets out that high. I wanted to comment, but I didn’t because I thought some of the girls, especially the thicker ones, could whip me if it came down to it, and that was never a good thing. Also, I knew if they couldn’t take me, their redneck, roach-killing boyfriends – several of whom finished high school early and now worked for the city – could do the job for them with ease. And by finishing “early,” I don’t mean they were part of the gifted program.
Trey Kratz pulled up in the Whale, an antique, beat-up baby blue Mercedes with a rusted-out hole in the back seat so big you could drop a tennis ball through it. Chad Harkins followed in the Firechicken, Travis Wilson in the Dustbuster, and Ben Sands, Antonio Adkins, Rush Atherton, and Sammy Mallette arrived in Ben’s mom’s Cadillac – affectionately named Freddy after the notorious pimp who ran the whores up in North Gulfport. Ben was embarrassed to be driving such a behemoth, but Sammy thought it was funny and was laughing about it when they got out of the car. Sammy laughed at everything. Rush was the redheaded kid of the class. He always wore a crew cut and dreamed about being a Navy SEAL. He was laid back, easy to talk to, and had a good-looking older sister with fantastic cans.
We eventually decided we had hung out in the parking lot long enough, and it was time to comb the halls to see what piqued our interest. I was hoping one particular white BMW would roll in, but seeing none, there was no need for me to stay outside any longer. I borrowed a pen from Hop, who grabbed his notebook and a sack lunch. Mark didn’t bring anything. No paper, no books, nothing. He figured the first day was a pass. Actually, he considered the first week a pass.
As we started to make our way to the side door near our lockers, a shiny, red four-wheel-drive F150 pickup crunched through the oyster shells and pulled in next to where Mark had parked.
“Who is that?” I asked. Neither Mark nor Hop answered, and judging by the looks on the faces of the rest of the gang, no one had a clue. The door opened and out stepped a cat who looked like a cross between pre-Army Elvis and post-Outsiders Tom Cruise.
He was crisp, polished, and clean – much like his truck. His hair was Lego perfect, and when he closed the door and started walking towards the school, it was like a slow-motion scene from a movie, with the Kenwoods from Andy Tanner’s Camaro over in the senior lot pumping out the soundtrack. He looked toward us and scanned the crowd, then nodded, glanced at me for a second, and headed for the door.
“Must be a new kid,” Mark said.
“You think?” Sammy chimed in from behind us, still laughing. I put the pen in my mouth and checked out the truck again while everyone headed towards the door. It looked like it had just rolled off the lot.
New kid indeed.
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