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Authors: Geoff Herbach

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BOOK: I'm with Stupid
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“It's sort of what my body was built to do,” I said.

“Yeah?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Stay here.” Grandpa stood and shuffled to his study, where he listens to music and pays bills. A couple of minutes later, he shuffled back. “Found it.” He placed a folder in front of me.

“What's this?”

“Open it. Your father's poem from high school.”

I swallowed hard. Something real? Something from my dad? A real document? I opened the folder. Made me so nervous.

There was just a wrinkled piece of dirty notebook paper inside with “Steven W. Reinstein” written on the top. This is what the poem said:

I will break the mold.

I will start to stop now.

I'm a Flying Wallenda between two clouds.

I am not what I do.

I am not what I will be.

I will stop and let go, balanced between two clouds.

I will break this mold.

“Hmm,” I said. “He wants to break the mold.”

“See?” Grandpa said. “That's your poem now. Take it.”

I put the poem in the folder and held on to it. “See what?” I asked.

“Your father's body played tennis, but he had other ideas.”

“I don't see that in this poem,” I said. “I don't think he had any idea what he wanted to do but wished he did.”

“Oh?” Grandpa asked.

“I get it,” I said.

Grandpa paused. He breathed. He nodded. “And you? Might you like something else? Maybe sitting on a mountainside like a swami? Meditate like an old holy man?”

“Yeah, that's me.”

“You might like to grow a long beard?” He smiled.

“Maybe,” I said. I sort of smiled. “I'm a fan of loincloths.”

“Me too,” he said. “I like air on my boys.”

I laughed a little. Then I said, “I'm going to play football.”

“I've just been thinking…you know, worrying, as I get to know you more.”

“Don't worry,” I said.

“Good.” He smiled. “Fine. Go play your game. If it doesn't work out, you have other options. Sports aren't everything. You understand?”

“Okay,” I said. Then I paused, thought. “Hey. What's a Flying Wallenda?”

“They were tightrope walkers who crossed spectacular divides and used no nets. Very risky. Sometimes, they fell and died.”

“Wait. That's what Dad wanted to be?”

“Maybe it isn't such a good poem.” Grandpa's face lost color. “Give it back to me.”

“No. I want it,” I said.

***

An hour later, I said good-bye to Grandpa and Evith in the kitchen. Two hours later, I hugged Andrew and Tovi at airport security. Three hours later, I was on my way home to Bluffton, the “I'm with Stupid” T-shirt folded perfectly in my bag. By mid-afternoon, Jerri had pulled up in front of the Dane County Airport in her crappy Hyundai.

***

On the way home from the airport, rolling through the mucky hills of a forty-degree Wisconsin January (too warm, by the way), Jerri said, “You'll never guess who I spent New Year's Eve with!”

No, I would never have guessed.

Abby and Nolan's parents divorced in September. Terry Sauter is an orthodontist. He wears a shiny brown leather jacket and he smiles too damn hard.

I didn't really care. Sure, Jerri had said she couldn't be with Aleah's dad and be a student at the same time. Sure, I thought she was contradicting herself. So what? I came home ready to get on with it. I wrote this on a piece of loose-leaf notebook paper:

1.
One more high school sports season. Run. Stretch. Get ready for Roy Ngelale. Win at least one state track championship. Maybe three?

2.
Figure out good words to say about Stanford. When announcement comes, you'll show the choice was right one.

3.
Be nice to Pig Boy. Bring him some new drawing pens?

4.
Wear “I'm with Stupid” T-shirt? Looks like something Gus would wear. Hilarious.

5.
Graduate. Have fun. Leave.

6.
This is going to happen whether you like it or not, dickweed.

See? I was ready to go!

But…

Buried/Unburied

Chapter 16

The Death of Curtis Bode

I've thought a lot about this. Would I have crashed if Tommy Bode hadn't been my mentee-sidekick? Maybe not right away. Would I have screwed up my college announcement if Curtis Bode had stayed at school that day in early January? Maybe. Would I have crashed if I wasn't a jock, if I was just a normal dude who didn't have colleges texting every minute? At some point, yes. Definitely.

I have a big problem in my past. I'll never actually be a normal dude.

***

Bad. Okay.

Tommy Bode's dumbass, drunken, shouting dad kept guns in the house. Do I look like a hunter? You're right. If my hair grows out, it's a Jewfro. I'm not a hunter, so I don't know anything about gun safety, but I'll tell you this: I'm pretty sure you're not supposed to keep a loaded handgun under your pillow, which is what Tommy's dad did because he's a psycho.

(I only know this because Tommy told me later. He didn't tell anyone else because he thought the cops would come and arrest his dad, which is probably the damn truth—and maybe would've been good.)

On January 3, the first day after winter break, after a rough morning, Tommy's little brother, Curtis Bode, left Bluffton Middle School. He walked home, walked into his dad's bedroom, picked up the pillow, lifted the handgun, turned it on his own chest, and shot himself in the heart.

He was fourteen and in eighth grade, okay?

***

I didn't see Tommy that morning. I'd looked for him a little in the commons when I got to school because I wanted to show him my “I'm with Stupid” T-shirt. (I wore it.) It just seemed like something he'd find funny. On my way into choir, filled with forty-four singing dorks, an announcement buzzed on the intercom. “Tommy Bode to the principal's office immediately.”

My knees went weak and my heart accelerated. I don't know why I knew.

I knew something.

Curtis Bode died on the floor, his grandma next to him, crying and screaming at a 911 operator. That's what Tommy said.

***

Bluffton is a small town. Everyone knows everyone, which can suck (and sometimes not suck). We haven't had a lot of suicides. I remember Jerri crying when I was ten because the brother of one of her high school friends shot himself in the woods by Belmont Tower. Other than that, I can't remember any suicides other than my dad and Curtis Bode.

Some places have suicides all the time. Some schools. It's old hat.

It isn't. I'm sure. I know. I hate this.

The news ripped through the choir (and the school). Kit Hinkins had texts from his cousin within a few minutes. Ms. Rory had to stop class because everyone started buzzing. Kayla Zielsdorf's brother is an EMT. Ms. Rory let her call him. He confirmed that it was Tommy's brother. He said it was a gunshot. He did not call it a suicide, but everyone sort of knew.

Ms. Rory leaned back on the piano and covered her mouth. My classmates muttered back and forth. They all covered their mouths. I sat crumpled in a folding chair, my head in my hands. Gus sat behind me on a riser. He leaned over and whispered, “Is that Pig Boy's little brother?” I nodded. He said, “Oh, man. I'm so sorry.”

“Don't be sorry for me,” I said.

“Okay. It's okay, man,” Gus said.

“What's okay?” I spat.

“Nothing,” Gus said.

***

An hour after lunch, the whole Bluffton school district closed down. Cody asked me if I wanted to go out to the big M, my favorite hill near town, which would be muddy and cold as crap in the crap January weather. “Me, Reese, and Karpinski are going out there.”

The last thing I wanted to do was to sit around talking about “life” and bullshit with a crew of jocks who had it totally easy all the time. (Including one who bullied the shit out of me when I was a broken kid, who thought “keeping the dipshits in line” was funny.)

Gus asked if I wanted to drive around with him and his sophomore punk rock girlfriend, Maddie O'Neill. “We're just going to cruise, maybe over to the Mississippi.” I didn't want to talk about life with them either. Her especially. Maddie likes horror movies and her bedroom is painted black. It's like death is her style. This did not appeal to me.

“No thanks.”

I walked home in this January soup air (a couple miles of muck on the streets). My eyes burned. I thought of Tommy pinning his brother, Curtis, against a wall, choking him the way I did Nolan Sauter.

***

Speaking of Sauters.

When I got home, Jerri wasn't at school. Jerri was in the house with Nolan's dad, Terry. His giant Cadillac Escalade blocked the garage door, so I had to climb up the stairs and go in the front, which caused me to catch them making out on the couch.

“Whoa, ho, ho!” Terry said when I entered.

“What are you doing home?” Jerri barked.

“Kid died. They let school out. Can I speak to you, Jerri?”

“Kid died?” Terry asked, sitting up. “High school?”

“No. Middle school,” I said.

“Oh good,” Terry said.

I stared him down. His kids were both in high school. I guess I understand why he'd say, “Good.” Still, it was a shitty thing to say.

“Do you two know each other?” Jerri asked.

“I used to see Mr. Sauter when he lived in Abby's house,” I said. “Can I speak to you, Jerri?” I asked.

“Yeah, Felton. Of course.”

She got up and followed me into the hallway.

“Jerri,” I whispered. “An eighth grader killed himself today.”

“Oh God. Oh shit,” she said. “Do you know who?”

“Curtis Bode,” I said.

She nodded. “I was in school with Doug,” she whispered. Jerri graduated from Bluffton High. “That's his dad,” she said. “Doug.”

“I heard him shouting on the phone one time,” I said.

“You? What? You called that kid? Do you have something to do with this? Why would you call an eighth grader?” Even in the dark hall, I could see color rising in her face.

Did I have something to do with this? Did Tommy smash Curtis into a wall so much he decided to die?

“No. I'm his brother's…I'm Tommy Bode's senior mentor at school. I just called because I wanted to tell Tommy something, and his dad was screaming in the background. Sounded like a psycho, okay?”

Jerri swallowed. She nodded. “In art class, Doug could draw any car you could name with perfect detail. Any car.”

“Tommy draws pigs. Good ones.”

“What the hell happens to people?” Jerri asked.

“Hey,” I said. “Could we go to a movie in Dubuque tonight? I don't want to…I don't want to see my friends and I don't want to be alone and I…I'd like to see a movie.”

“Oh shit,” Jerri exhaled. “My first Accounting II class is tonight. It's a new semester…I want to get off on the right foot, you know?”

I nodded. “What happens to people?” I asked.

“I don't know,” Jerri said, like nothing had ever happened to her, like she hadn't gone through a hundred crazy changes. “I just don't know,” she said.

***

Thank God for Andrew. An hour later, he got a text about Curtis and called me. Then we played
Minecraft
(him on a school computer in Florida, me in my bedroom) for a long time.

Jerri and Terry left the house while we played. Andrew missed his bus home, and Grandpa had to drive to pick him up.

Later, Andrew and I talked again, which was good. Something had been bothering me and I didn't know who I could ask, other than Tommy himself, and I definitely didn't have the guts to just call over there.

I sprawled across my bed, staring at the ceiling, phone pressed to my ear. “Was Curtis pushed around?” I asked Andrew.

“I don't really know him,” Andrew said. “I suppose. Probably. He's a year younger than me, so I don't know for certain.”

“But do you know someone who would push him around?”

“Sure. Ryan Bennett is in his grade and he's a very bad egg,” Andrew said. “When he was in sixth grade, he'd spit on dorky people's faces, even if they were eighth grade.”

“I know who he is. His sister is Carly, that sophomore girl, right?” I asked.

“Yes. Are you going to hunt Ryan down and murder him?” Andrew asked. “So you can keep protecting Tommy Bode?”

“Maybe,” I said. I was sort of serious.

“Don't, Felton. You can't…you can't just…Plus, Ryan will grow up and just be a sad person,” Andrew said. “You don't have to hurt him. Time will take care of this business.”

“You think, huh?”

“I'm positive,” Andrew said.

“You're smart for a dipshit,” I mumbled.

“I am, Felton,” Andrew said.

Then we played
Minecraft
late into the night.

Chapter 17

Brains Are Weird

I decided not to go to the funeral. I never knew Curtis.
I'm just going to show up now?
That
wouldn't be respectful…

Respectful, my ass. Is this the choice a “superhero” trying to take care of the weak would make? Avoid tough parts?

No. I was too scared to go. I felt guilty as hell because I knew I was too scared to go.

On Thursday, a couple of school buses lined up in front of the high school and a large part of the freshman class actually went, including Nolan Sauter. They were dressed just like they would be for school. They stood there in the commons like they were waiting to go on a field trip.

I couldn't hold steady. I felt dizzy.

Karpinski, who stood next to me, said, “
Now
these little peckers give a shit. They probably all took shots at that kid, and now that he's dead, they're all going to go cry about it.”

I turned to Karpinski. “You fuck off, man.”

“What?” he barked. “Truth hurt?”

Cody said, “Have some damn respect, you idiot.”

“Maybe they should've had some respect when the kid wasn't dead,” Karpinski said.

I spun and walked away fast. I thought of Nolan Sauter. I thought,
Karpinski's right.
That didn't make me like Karpinski any better. He was the same guy who said a few weeks earlier that it was his job to kick Tommy Bode.

***

Really, maybe I didn't need to go to the funeral. I lived funeral.

In the couple of days after Curtis killed himself, I remembered Dad hanging in the garage. Before Curtis, I knew it had happened and where, but I couldn't remember the details. Jesus, did I remember the details now. I woke up choking, the whole freaking thing in my brain, stuck in the back of my throat, ringing in my ears. I asked Jerri about the snack bag on the floor: “Did I forget it so we went back to the house?” She nodded.

I remembered Dad's funeral for the first time. Me, Andrew, and Jerri rode in the back of Grandma Berba's car. (That's Jerri's mom—she lives in Arizona now.) We all wore black (little black pants and a white shirt—that's what Andrew wore). Grandma kept changing the radio station in the car until Jerri yelled at her. At the service, these tall men read poetry. Who were these men? Dad's friends?

Evith sobbed. She gulped for air.

There was a dog loose in the cemetery. It galloped down a hill and around the burial people. The dog scared me. I grabbed Jerri's arm. She pulled her arm away. I looked up and her chin shook. She shook her head like someone trying to clear the cobwebs after getting hit on the football field.

“Mommy?” I asked because I called her Mommy back then, not Jerri.

“No,” she whispered. “No.”

This was in Chicago. I remember seeing tall buildings from the back of Grandma Berba's car.

I remember Grandma Rose, Dad's mom, hugging me, telling me she loved me. I remember there were little green leaves on this skinny tree. I climbed on that tree and someone pulled me down. Another tall man. I remember Grandpa Stan, how he'd been so funny before, how he once called me a little pistol because I tore through their house so fast. At the funeral, he wouldn't even look at me. I remember Tovi hanging in the folds of Evith's dress, just one eye uncovered staring out at me.

Before Curtis killed himself, I had no memory of this at all.

You know what? Before last year, I didn't remember Grandpa Stan. I didn't remember Grandma Rose existed at all. I didn't even know I had a cousin.

Brains are damn weird beasts. A few months ago, I read about post traumatic stress disorder on the Internet. Guess what? I've got it. Apparently, we weak-ass, trembling little human beings make bad memories disappear. This is weird, right? I had suppressed memories.

“Suppressed” means they were always there though. Just hiding. They were in me and I didn't know about them. Back in the fall, Gus told me I didn't know myself well enough. How could I justify my existence? Clearly, he was right. Jesus. Whole important people had disappeared from my memory.

During that part of January, I spoke at length to Gus only one time. I told him about the memories. He said, “This is probably normal for a dude like you.”

Normal? Paranormal? Alien inside me? Who am I?

“That's good,” I mumbled.

For weeks after Curtis's funeral, the memories just blossomed in my brain like gross flowers trembling awake in time lapse on PBS, and I could barely think about anything else, definitely not the phone calls from recruiters and the coming ESPN announcement (how dumb and useless). I'd sit in class, barely able to breathe, seeing dirt on the cuff of Grandpa Stan's pants after he shoveled a little dirt on my dad's coffin in the ground. (I think this is a Jewish thing.)

Space case. Mr. Linder said stuff like, “You in there, Felton?” when I didn't hear him to answer a question he asked during class.

“What?” I asked, shaking my head. “What?”

“Never mind,” he said, looking concerned.

In the halls, people kept getting in my face.

“You okay?” Gus asked.

“You okay?” Cody asked.

“You okay?” Abby Sauter asked.

“I'm okay,” I told them all.
Filled
with
buried
treasure.

Occasionally, my phone buzzed. Aleah texts. Out of the blue. After she tortured me with silence.
You okay? I'm thinking of you.

I wouldn't respond to her. No more. She'd hurt me enough.

One time, she texted:
I'm writing a lot of music, Felton. You're the inspiration.

I wouldn't respond.

Days and nights sort of blended together. I remembered the ambulance in front of our house. I saw my dad in a damn bag being pulled out of the garage on a gurney. I heard Jerri sobbing in the bedroom. I saw Andrew coloring in a Mickey Mouse coloring book. He turns to me and says, “Daddy's dead. That means he won't come home.”

No
shit, little guy.

I'd climb out of bed and hold my phone, thinking about Tommy Bode. I wanted to call, to ask Tommy if he was okay. I worried so much about that little pig boy and his crazy dad. I wanted to tell him to come over to my house. To get out of there. But I never called. I was too wussy to call.

Tommy didn't come back to school in January. He was out all four weeks.

Sometimes, awake in the middle of the night after suffering through all these new memories, I'd ask the air, “Are you there, Dad? Please?” I didn't hear, “Yes,” like I did in Florida.

Aleah texted once:
I know about the boy from Andrew, okay? We can talk. I'm here.

I didn't text back.

No Aleah, no Cody, no Karpinski. I didn't want to talk to anyone.

I didn't even want to hang out with Gus really.

You
there?
I only wanted my dad, so long ago dead.
You
there?

I read and reread that high school poem of his.

I will break the mold.

I will start to stop now.

I'm a Flying Wallenda between two clouds.

I am not what I do.

I am not what I will be.

I will stop and let go, balanced between two clouds.

I will break this mold.

I thought: Why did you want to be dangerous? Why didn't you want a safety net? Why did you want to break stuff?

I got no answer. There were these blinding moments when I thought I should break stuff.

It's freaking weird. The death of Pig Boy's brother made me miss my dad like I'd never missed him before. Uncovered. Pig Boy's brother made me remember my dead dad like never before.

I was not in great shape.

And in January, I stopped running, stopped working out, stopped functioning.

(Track season? What's track?)

(School? Never heard of it.)

BOOK: I'm with Stupid
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