Almost perfect, p.1
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       Almost Perfect, p.1

           Brian Katcher
 
Almost Perfect


  Also by Brian Katcher

  Playing with Matches

  To my sister, Katie.

  See, there’s a sister in this one. Happy?

  Everyone has that one line they swear they’ll never cross, the one thing they say they’ll never do. Not something serious like I’ll never kill anyone or I’ll never invade Russia in the winter. Usually, it’s something less earth-shattering.

  I’ll never cheat on her.

  I’ll never work at a job I hate.

  I’ll never give up my dreams.

  We draw the line. Maybe we even believe it. That’s why it’s so hard when we break that promise we make to ourselves.

  Sage Hendricks was my line.

  chapter one

  I’M NOT SURE what I loved most about being on the track team. Maybe it was the crippling shin splints. Or constantly feeling like I’d just smoked three packs of cigarettes. Maybe it was the empty stands at every meet, or the way the results got buried in the local sports section.

  The football field was by far the best feature of Boyer, Missouri. My hometown, which barely boasted two thousand people, pumped nearly every tax dollar they could into maintaining the facility. The city of Boyer was little more than a half-dozen trailer parks, an electronics factory, and five churches, but the football field was always pristine. The maintenance staff mowed the grass twice a week and watered it every day in the summer. The bleachers gleamed, the locker rooms sparkled, and the scoreboard towered like some great pagan idol. The crumbling structure of Boyer High School stood across the parking lot, almost as an afterthought.

  Us track poseurs were permitted to run the perimeter of the sacred field, but only when the football heroes had no use for it. During the fall we had to run laps in the parking lot while the Boyer Bears practiced. One time we were run off by the marching band, which gives you an idea of where we stood in the school food chain.

  It was mid-November. My friend Jack Seversen and I had managed to squeeze in some after-school running, trying to stay in shape for the winter. The cold wind chilled my sweat-soaked body, making me shiver and swelter at the same time. Exhausted and thirsty, I walked a final lap to avoid muscle cramps, then limped toward the water-cooler.

  “You suck, Logan!” shouted Jack, jogging up behind me. Even though he’d run as much as I had, he was still vibrating with raw energy. Thin as a whip and gangly, Jack reminded me of a broken fan belt, wildly flailing in no particular direction. Track wasn’t a sport for him; it was merely an excuse to move.

  “Hey, check it out.” He jabbed his bony, spastic hand toward the football field. The Boyer cheerleaders were wrapping up their practice. I’d heard that in bigger towns, only the pretty, graceful girls made the squads. In Boyer, with a student body of about two hundred, the only membership requirement was a majority of intact limbs and the ability to bend at the waist.

  Jack and I reached the water table. I chugged a couple of cups, while my friend, in spite of the low temperature, dumped his over his head. He shook like a wet dog. Eventually, he managed to focus on me. Even then, his protruding brown eyes spun in their orbits like a weather vane in March. Jack had that intense mania common in serial killers and car salesmen.

  “You should go talk to Tanya. She likes you.”

  Without meaning to, I glanced over at the squad. I could just make out Tanya’s form as she did jumping jacks with the others.

  “It’s a wonder she doesn’t knock herself out,” I muttered. In elementary school (in Boyer, you knew all your classmates since kindergarten), Tanya had been the fat girl. Then, in eighth grade, most of her body mass had migrated into her chest. She wasn’t exactly bikini material, but she did have a couple of good points.

  “C’mon, Logan. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t like to press your face into her chest and make motorboat noises.”

  I stifled a laugh. “Piss off, Jack.”

  I walked over to the bleachers and grabbed my bag from next to my old bike. Jack followed me, almost uncomfortably closely, and then suddenly grabbed my shoulder.

  “Dude, it’s time to get back in the game.”

  I yanked away. “Drop it, okay?”

  He didn’t drop it. “You’re a senior, Logan. In May, we leave this place forever. Don’t spend your last semester moping about your ex-girlfriend.”

  I stormed into the gymnasium, a blocky building that we shared with the middle school next door. I made sure I was alone in the locker room. Then I drove my fist into a metal door. The sound echoed through the empty room. Pain radiated through my wrist and shoulder.

  Jack thought he was being helpful. He thought Brenda had just been another girl. For the past month, he’d been trying to fix me up. To him, all I needed to do was make out with some random chick and I’d forget about how Brenda had dumped me.

  To be quite honest, she never actually dumped me. It was her decision to sleep with another guy that had put the strain on our three-year relationship.

  I quickly stripped down and hopped in the shower. As the stall steamed up, I thought about Brenda. The homecoming dance in early October. I’d sold my baseball card collection just to pay for her corsage and had to drive to nearby Columbia to rent my tuxedo.

  I paused, midlather, remembering that night. My tux hadn’t fit exactly right; my arms were too long and my chest too broad. With my advanced hairline and jutting forehead, I’d thought I resembled a shaved ape. Even with my mom’s help, I looked like some Mafia don’s bodyguard; a muscle-bound lummox, washed and dressed for a night out with sophisticated people.

  Brenda had told me I looked suave, like a James Bond supervillain. She’d said I had the face of an angel and the body of a god. I found out later she didn’t always tell the truth.

  Brenda had been dolled up like someone you’d see on a movie poster. Her long black hair had been styled at the local salon. She’d worn blush on her high cheekbones and had left her glasses at home, even though that meant she was almost blind. Her dark blue dress had exposed her smooth shoulders. As I strapped the corsage onto her delicate wrist, I’d felt a sting of electricity shoot through my arm, down my legs, and out the heels of my rented shoes. Of the dozens and dozens of guys in Boyer, Brenda had chosen me. If I’d won a million dollars in the lottery the next day, I’d have called the money the other good thing that happened that week.

  After the dance, I’d driven her in my mom’s car to the empty field out by the water tower. I don’t think I’d ever been that nervous. I wanted everything to be perfect. I had a blanket in the trunk and her favorite songs in the CD player. I had driven all the way out to Moberly to buy condoms.

  We’d kissed for about two minutes. Then Brenda had asked me to drive her home. I could still remember the little speech she gave me as we pulled into her driveway at eleven p.m.

  Logan, I’m just not ready for that. Could we wait a little longer? Please? Think about how special it will be.

  As I turned off the shower and wrapped a towel tightly around my waist, I wondered how special it had been for Brenda. I just wished I could have been there.

  chapter two

  “MOM! I’M HOME!” That was totally unnecessary for me to say. When you live in a single-wide trailer, it’s pretty obvious when someone comes in.

  As far as mobile homes go, it wasn’t too bad. We had nearly an acre of land, which I kept neatly mown. Whoever had owned the lot before us had built a nice outbuilding. I kept my weight bench out there, along with my mower, weed eater, and snow shovel. During the summer and winter, I’d pull in about a hundred bucks a week cutting grass or shoveling driveways.

  I found Mom in our living room/dining room/kitchen. She had already put on her waitress uniform, ready to work the night shift at Ron’s Grill, Boyer’s only nonchain restaurant. As l
ong as I could remember, my mother’s nicest clothes consisted of sturdy shoes, black pants, and a top with her first name stitched on it.

  Mom smiled when she saw me.

  “Hey, honey, how was school?”

  I shrugged. “Dinner shift again? That’s, like, the tenth night in a row.”

  She frowned, and I felt a little guilty for bringing it up. When she worked evenings, I’d only see her for about half an hour.

  “I’m sorry, Logan. They’ve been shorthanded since Dori quit, and …” She left the rest unspoken. We could really use the money.

  I couldn’t remember a time when we couldn’t have used more money. I’d been four years old when Dad peeled out of our gravel driveway, headed for the green pastures of New Mexico or Utah or somewhere. All I knew was that we’d never seen hide nor mullet of Dad again. Mom was left with me and my older sister, Laura, to take care of.

  Mom searched for her keys. “Do you have any jobs tonight?”

  I plucked the keys from the bowl by the front (and only) door and handed them to her. “It’s a little late in the year for mowing. Pray for a long winter.” The snowplows didn’t scrape the dirt roads that ran around Boyer, and a heavy snow could trap people in their homes. During especially bad storms I could make a killing shoveling drive ways, provided I was willing to work fourteen-hour Saturdays. Maybe that’s what had given me my powerful chest.

  Mom smiled. With most guys my age, an after-school job meant gas money, maybe a date now and then. I knew better. I spent some money on clothes and school supplies. The rest I turned over to Mom. It had bothered her at first, but we could really use the money.

  Mom picked up her jacket. “Can I fix you some dinner before I go?”

  I pecked her cheek. “You’re already running late. Bring me back some hot wings.” It was an empty gesture anyway. Mom used to leave me a meal every night, but eventually stopped. I think she got tired of fixing me a casserole only to find me eating cold SpaghettiOs right out of the can.

  She grabbed her purse. “Don’t stay up too late. And no girls in the house.” She was through the door before I could answer.

  Mom didn’t intentionally try to rub it in; she knew Brenda was history. But like Jack, she just thought I was nursing a broken heart. I’d dated Brenda since our freshman year, after all. I needed a few weeks before I was ready to find someone else.

  That’s what everyone thought. Everyone but me.

  I plopped onto the couch, too exhausted to get up and turn on the TV (the set was so old it predated remote controls). I stared at the imitation-wood-paneled walls. It was about five-thirty I’d go to bed in six hours. And I couldn’t think of a damn thing to do in the meantime.

  I didn’t have a car, so I couldn’t go hang out at Mr. Pizza or cruise what passed for the main drag in Boyer. I couldn’t drive out to Columbia, the only sizable city within a hundred miles. And I didn’t want to sit in a garage and huff paint like so many other people in this town.

  I wished Laura still lived at home. She was a lot of fun, even if she did hog the bathroom. We’d talk, go for walks, and eat fast food together. But the year before, she got a scholarship to the University of Missouri in Columbia. It hadn’t really bothered me when she left. I missed her, but I still had Brenda. I thought I’d always have Brenda.

  And now I had jack shit.

  Massaging the hand I’d punched the locker with, I thought back to the past Fourth of July. Brenda and I had gone to “downtown” Boyer to watch the annual Independence Day parade: the mayor and aldermen in some not-quite-classic cars, the Boyer marching band endlessly bellowing “Louie Louie,” two tractors, and an unshaven clown. Afterward, I’d invited Brenda to the trailer for lunch.

  Mom had barbecued some chicken (the one time I’d tried to be manly and run the grill, I ended up using my entire supply of driveway sand to douse the flames). Laura was still living at home then. She’d tried to engage Brenda in conversation.

  My girlfriend had sat on a plastic lawn chair, listening to my extroverted sister but not saying much. She was almost painfully shy, especially around loud, friendly people like Laura or Jack. When my sister had gone inside for a drink, I asked Brenda if she wanted to go for a walk.

  We didn’t say anything as we walked down the dusty gravel road in front of our lot. She was wearing the Boyer High T-shirt I’d given her. Her slender, pale arms stood out starkly against the dark blue of the school colors. Though hardly a breeze stirred the air that day, her long black hair always seemed to blow into her face.

  I smiled as we paused in front of Scott Henderson’s cornfield. That was where we’d made out for the first time. The first time either of us had made out with anyone.

  I was about to ask Brenda if she’d like to revisit that old memory when she suddenly turned and hugged me, burying her face in my shoulder. I stood there, enjoying the moment. She didn’t usually care for public displays of affection. When she pulled away, I noticed the glint of tears in her eyes.

  “Brenda? What’s wrong?”

  Brenda snorted, then wiped her eyes and gave me a real smile. “Nothing, Logan. Just, um, girly stuff. I’m okay.”

  Hand in hand, we walked back to the trailer. I’d smiled inside, thinking that Brenda had teared up because she was just so overjoyed to have a boyfriend like me.

  I couldn’t have been more wrong.

  chapter three

  THE NEXT MORNING, I sat on a bench in the school commons, watching my few dozen classmates file in. The walls were lined with class photos, beginning with the twelve students of the Class of 1939. If you took the time, you could find graduating pictures of your teachers, your older siblings, and your parents. In fact, the Class of 1986 picture was the only place I could look at a photo of my father.

  The second of three buses pulled up to the school and began spitting out students. I knew them all, even the eighth graders who, due to space limitations in the neighboring middle school, had classes in our building. I’d see all of them every day. The same people. In twenty years, their kids would be coming here.

  I used to think I’d avoid that. Last spring, I’d been so damn smug. I was going to leave Boyer, go to college. I was going to get a good job and never come back to this shit hole. And I was going to do it all with Brenda. We were going to go to MU together.

  Now she was gone. Did I even have a reason for leaving town anymore? Why go to Columbia and be alone when I could do that at home?

  “You’re not doing yourself any favors, you know.”

  Tim Tokugowa was in my first-hour biology class. He was the only Asian student at Boyer. In fact, aside from a couple of Mexican kids, he was the only minority. As such, he felt he had certain obligations. Namely, he wanted to destroy the stereotype of the clean, hardworking Japanese.

  Tim had thick black hair, great teeth, and a smug way of looking at you that made you want to admit that he was right, even if you weren’t arguing. Tim’s weight, however, was really starting to get out of control.

  His eating exploits were legendary. I once saw him eat a thousand M&M’s on a bet. Even now, at 7:50 a.m., he was cramming down fistfuls of Fiddle Faddle from a jumbo box. He flopped his ponderous body onto the bench next to me.

  “Hey, Tim. Did you see the Rams game last night?”

  Tim ignored the question and stared at me with his narrow brown eyes. He would have looked rather mystic and serene had it not been for the flakes of caramel popcorn stuck to his cheeks.

  “You’re waiting for Brenda’s bus, aren’t you?” Tim could have accused me of shooting heroin and made it sound like the truth. Every year, the Boyer debate coach would beg Tim to join the forensics team.

  “Of course not.”

  “Yes, you are. You’re out here every morning waiting for bus fifteen. It’s not healthy.”

  I turned and faced the dusty trophy case, enraged. It wasn’t that Tim had been so dead-on correct, it was that I hadn’t even realized what I was doing. I’d convinced myself I was just rest
ing, and if Brenda just happened to pass by …

  “Look, Logan, I know she hurt you. But you can’t sit here every morning panting after her.”

  I resented Tim for his insight, just like I resented Jack for not realizing how much pain I was in.

  “I’m not panting …” That was as far as I got. Brenda had arrived.

  Brenda didn’t turn heads. She was too skinny, too mousy for most guys to notice. But she had a willowy figure, with long, shapely legs and delicate arms. A soft neck that she wouldn’t let me kiss. Long black hair that I wanted to run my fingers through (but she didn’t like that). And that face … that narrow, beautiful face, behind those glasses that she could never keep clean.

  That was one of the many things I loved about her. I thought she was perfect. The year before, every morning, I’d wait for her on this bench. When she got off the bus, she’d skip over to me and give me a big hug. And a smile. Christ, that smile … She made me feel like a king. A god. Just the way she’d look at me with those brown eyes … I would have done anything for her—including nothing. It wasn’t easy, but I was content for over three years with just kissing her. Turns out she did want something more, just not from me.

  Brenda trotted across the lobby, not looking in my direction. Maybe she didn’t want to deal with her ex. More than likely, she didn’t even notice me.

  “Logan, shut your jaw,” said Tim with his mouth full.

  I glared at him. “I wasn’t staring.”

  He threw his empty box in the trash. “Let’s get to class,” he said with a shake of his head.

  When we arrived at the biology lab, a putrid smell nearly made me gag. I mean, it stank. Only when I saw Mr. Elmer opening the crates marked RUSH and PERISHABLE did I remember we were going to start dissecting frogs that day. Tim and I took our seats at our table. I tried to breathe through my mouth until I could tolerate the odor. Tim opened up a bag of mini candy bars.

 
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