A Return to Normalcy
I woke up with a pillow stuck to my face. While midnight drooling has a finesse I just haven’t learned yet, I do know two things have happened anytime you have a pillow stuck to your face when you wake up.
One, you drooled all night and now there’s an odd smell under your nose, and two, you have extreme cotton-mouth as all of the spit you normally have has vacated the premises. After peeling it with the sound of removing plastic off a new tv, I slowly got up and prudently decided to withhold my normal morning stretches.
I made my way to the bathroom, did my routine in a cracked mirror using a dollar store toothbrush, dodged my mom whose turn it was next, and grabbed the clothes that had been put out for the day. It’s not that I don’t know how to dress myself, but my mother was just better at matching the colors correctly. I’m not color-blind…promise. No world of grey for me. Today’s color is blue. Neat. I slipped on a Killers shirt and some jeans that’ve seen a better day, or year, and moved toward the living room.
I started humming one of my favorite songs as I entered the kitchen slash living room for breakfast, but eventually I couldn’t stop myself from singing aloud, “We’re burning down the highway skyyyyy…on the… back of a hurricane”. My mom turned around near the stovetop, whipping her long black hair and glaring at me.
“Mijo, if you’re going to sing a song, at least try to get some vocal training done. You know the Iglesia has a choir you could join anytime you want to.”
I sighed as I stopped my glorious falsetto rendition of the classic and carefully sat on the stool at the counter, “I know mom, but I already told you I’m agnostic now. I’ll believe in God when he comes down and slaps me in the face. Until then, I’m happy to have my sunday mornings back.”
“Ay dios mio, at least connect with your roots. If not mine, then your father’s. You come from two ancient peoples, you don’t think you may need to know a thing or two? You think you’re too special? It just makes me angry that you’re not interested in where you come from. One day you’re going to wish you’d spent the time to really look at where you’re from”
“What’s all this now?” asked my father as he stepped into the conversation. His tall frame was all in blue just like me. Mom liked to synchronize our outfits whenever she could because it was, and I quote, so adorable.
“Hey Babe” Dad said as he kissed my mom on the cheek. She playfully swatted his butt with a big smile on her face. “What were ya’all talking about when I was coming in?”
I rolled my eyes at their entirely unnecessary pda before looking over, “She’s mad I won’t go to church, she’s mad I won’t join the choir, she’s mad I don’t know more about our families history. Honestly, I think she’s just gone mad”, to emphasize my point I crossed my eyes and stuck my tongue out.
“Well, we named you Icarus Fernando Jones…..it’ssss not exactly what you would call a common name son. Your mother and I” he said, wrapping my mom into a side-hug, “we wanted to show that we’re proud of who we are and where we’ve come from. There are few ways more profound than naming your greatest gift after your family’s pride”
I looked at him calmly, and while I knew he was just trying to have a family moment and explain something to me, I couldn’t hold myself back from taking that moment away, “Dad, we’re poor. Like poor poor. You and mom don’t make any money, and you work wayyyyy too much. How are you proud of who you are?” I suddenly had an aching feeling in my chest. It began to feel like my lungs were heavy and there was a strange tingle in my fingers. Everything just seemed to be crashing down on me at this moment. The injustices I’d seen, lived through, were raised in, my entire life was pressing down on my chest. “How can ANYONE be proud of being poor. IT MAKES NO SENSE. What’s wrong with this WORLD. How can anyone live here, work here, and die here, just constantly struggling against these systems meant to keep you in place. Meant to stop any upward movement. Do you know what I have to go through at school? Do you have any idea? What is there to be proud of? HOW CAN YOU THINK THIS WAY!” I screamed, a hand on my furiously pounding ribs, the sound of my heart beating in my ears and the edges of my vision were edged with darkness.
My mom stepped toward me, a plate of my breakfast slipping from her hand and crashing into the chipped tile, “Icarus how dare y…”
My father put a hand on her shoulder and in a quiet voice said, “Hold on Momma. I’ll take this.” She looked at him for a moment, nodded, and walked toward the living room. Noone said anything as she grabbed her things, checked her packed lunch, and left for work. The echo of the door closing left an uncomfortable feeling in my stomach.
He calmly stared at the door for what felt like an hour, then looked at me and brought out a small smile, “Come on Icarus, I’ll drive you to school”. He grabbed his things, I grabbed my backpack, and we walked out toward our rusted blue Dodge Durango. We saw one of the local kids running off to school. The odd thing is he was wearing what looked like a tiny business suit.
“What’s up with that” I asked with a nod of my head at the quickly receding figure.
My dad smiled and said, “That’s John. He’s a good kid. Wrote a speech about wanting to be an accountant of all things. I heard it was good enough that his teacher is having him give it to a few schools around town, including yours.” He shrugged, got into our car and unlocked my door from the inside. The car kicked on with a pop and we slowly drove away from the apartments, neither of us talking. Eventually my dad looked over at me while we waited on a light to change, and started in on the forthcoming lecture with a smile,
“I know what you’re thinking. No lecture today”
Well I was wrong.
“Look, I get it. We don’t have a ton of money, we didn’t go to college, and I don’t really have a clue what’s going to happen the next day.” He leaned back in his seat and looked at his hands on the wheel, “But….. we’re still happy. I think we are at least. I love your mom, I think she might still love me, as dumb as that is, and we got to have you. As hard as things might be, they could always be worse. You can trust me on that.”
“Firstly” I said with a grin, “that sounded like a lecture” He laughed and nodded, “But I believe you dad. I do. It’s just…..I don’t know. It’s hard to look at the tv, or youtube, snapchat, facebook, and see all these people with so much, and here we are from day to day just…barely even living.” I looked at the car next to me, some silver Lexus driving downtown. I bet they’re going to some big job where everything they do is important and the air feels so much cleaner. I bet he never had to eat beans and rice three days in a row. “Dad….It’s not a more thing..you know. It’s just…I don’t know.”
“I do. Things don’t have to be easy, you just wish they were a bit easier. I get it.” He shrugged and looked at the Lexus too, “My family had a good bit of money when we were growing up. There wasn’t much I didn’t get when it was needed. But were we happy? No. No I don’t think so. That’s likely obvious from when your grandparents divorced. They stayed together because it was how things were. Eventually it grew to be too much.” The light changed to green and the sound of the durango panging forward started again, “I love you, your mom loves you, and I know that doesn’t seem like much. But a lot of those kids who have everything may find that they’re missing those things that really matter. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
I looked at my dad, who’d always seemed so earnest and was well known to be a good man in a world of shit. He couldn’t walk around the apartment complex without someone shaking his hand for helping them when he had the time. We shared the same brown eyes flecked with little shards of gold. A family trait he said. I thought of Tommy, his rage about keeping his place in the world, and was pretty sure that’s who my dad was talking about.
So I simply said, “Yah dad, I get it.”
He smiled and patted me on the shoulder as we drove the short distance to my school. Normally Misty and I walked, but I knew she was preparing for a debate match this morning so she’d gone early. As we were pulling up to Ginsburg High School he asked what was going on with my savings.
“Well, I think if I keep doing odd jobs around the complex, I may be able to get a decent computer in a few months. I know the school gives us our internet, and it’s not the best, but I figure I can get a small bank account up and finally start playing some games”.
“Heyyy, good for you boy-o. You worked, you saved, and now you have your reward. That’s what men do. I’ve seen 11-year olds with more maturity than a few of my older co-workers. Remember,”
“Being a man means accepting your responsibilities” I interrupted, “I know dad”.
“Hah, good. We don’t have to always be right in the world, but we must always “do” right.”
In a deep voice I said, “The family motto, yah yah.” I hopped out when we got to the front of the school, Ginsburg Grizzlies jerseys and stickers everywhere. Odd amount of school spirit here.
As I was walking away my dad called out, “Take care of your ribs son”
When I turned around he was already driving away, making me wonder how he knew and why he didn’t ask about it. Now that I thought about it, he was driving pretty slow during the trip, and seemed to ease the brakes slowly too. I put my hand on my side, as bad an idea as that was, and forced out a smile, ready to take on the day.
First period was math, the bane of my existence, but the teacher was cool. He always tried to make it so whatever he was teaching had actual use in the world. I weaved between my classmates, saw Tommy glaring from his locker all on his lonesome, and walked into a class filled with posters of different mathematicians from history. Mr. Rover gave some good tips on different equations, class passed by quickly, and I began my daily trudge through monotony. I saw Misty a time or two between classes. She was an AP student while I was still with all the “normies” as she liked to say. Eventually my day wound down to 5th period and the trainer caught me before I could hit the locker-room for midday practice.
“Jones, hey JONES” He bellowed from his office nearby. “Come here”.
I walked over, doing my best to seem like my ribs were perfect and I was a shining example of physical perfection. “Heyyyy Mr. Rainz. What’s up?” I felt soooooooooo smooth.
He…did not look impressed.
“Knock it off Jones. I talked to Coach Mullins. Head over to Nurse Garcia who knows you’re coming, no games. If I don’t hear that you saw her, you’re not practicing for the rest of the week.”
I got out of there and headed down to the nurses station. Mrs. Garcia was in her room when I knocked on the doorpost. “Oh hey Fern. I haven’t seen you in a little bit.” She gave her perfect rendition of a nurse’s smile. She had a bob cut and sported neon green scrubs, the ugliest color scrubs that you can imagine, but she’d always been nice to me as I’d seen her a few times over the years from the “Tommys”. She was also one of those classic nurses who always gave a lollipop to anyone who came to see her.
She patted her patchy table and closed the door before saying, “Grab a seat and tell me what’s wrong.” I sat down slowly and looked at her, my stomach doing flips already as the lie hardly passed through my lips, “I’m fine, I uh…don’t know why anyone thinks something is wrong.”
She tilted her head and shrugged, “Well that’s fine. Guess goodbye to football. Goodbye to any sports atall. I’m sure your parents and team will understand that you’re terrified of a five-foot-two nurse from the middle-side of the tracks.” She glared at me, “No lolli either”.
“Fine”, I lifted my shirt as carefully as I could, and her eyes moved from the swollen yellow outer bruises to the purple and black.. Mrs. Garcia sucked in air through her teeth for a moment and said, “I need to see if any ribs are broken”. I nodded and tried to mentally brace for what was coming. I won’t say I didn’t hiss, or scream, or mentally threaten her family, but I will say that I really disliked Tommy in that moment.
She stepped back and threw her gloves in the trash, leaning against the wall nearby. “Well Fern, I don’t think a lollipop is going to do it this time. I don’t think they’re broken, but you need xrays at the least, and you definitely can’t practice today.” I froze up a bit and felt a little light-headed “I’m sorry. I’ll let Coach Mullins and Mr. Rainz know what’s going on, and you need to take it easy for a while.”
I said what she likely had already heard plenty in the past, “We don’t have health insurance…if I have to get xrays….it could break us. I can….I can stay off…no…” I just didn’t know what to say, “I…I’ll just” my throat felt like it was tightening as my face grew hot.
She rushed over and put a hand on my shoulder, “Hey…hey it’s ok. The school will take care of it. I don’t think there’s even a copay. Shhhh, it’s ok”. She continued to try to calm me down, which probably required more effort than it should’ve. I just kept thinking of how hard it is already on my family. Throwing in paying the hospital could really bring us down. What’s lower than the bottom?
She sent me off with a handful of lollipops and a sad look on her face. It seemed like people had been pushing me from one place to another all day. I spent the rest of 5th and my lunch in the cafeteria, told my coach what was going on in 7th and met up with Misty after English in 8th.
As we walked toward our apartments, I told her what the nurse said.
“Your ribs may be broken!” She exclaimed. “That royal fuckhead, he needs an asswhooping”.
“Well, apparently the school pays for our health insurance. Subsidized or something. Anyways, I gotta go to the hospital in the next day or two and make sure nothing’s broken. I tried to play it off but…”
“But you can’t lie. Yah I know babe. I’d feel bad for your weird stomach thing if it didn’t mean you always had to tell me the truth.”
A sly grin flashed onto her face as she flipped around and started walking backwards, her eyes staring at my face, “You cheat on me at any point?”
“No! I’d never do that!”
“You think about cheating on me?”
“You ever think about me in the shower?”
At this point my face must’ve been cherry red as she started to laugh with a deep bellow. I started to stammer when she held up a hand stopping me.
“Dude it’s cool.” A different smile appeared on her face, “Now you ask me if I ever think of you in the shower”.
Before I could say anything, I saw the same kid from my apartment complex. Tommy and his gang were pushing him around, bouncing him off of each other and calling him names.
Not all of them could be winners.
They were uncomfortably close to the street and I was starting to get worried. I looked at Misty and nodded over to the situation. She turned around, took in the situation fast, and nodded as well. We started to walk over. I’m not entirely sure what I was going to do when I got there, but the family motto came to mind and my dad had said John was a good kid.
“I heard pushing people around makes your penis smaller, have you found that to be true?” Misty called out as we got closer. I saw that John’s new suit had little rips from when they’d pulled on his arms. Nothing that couldn’t be fixed. While he seemed to be shaking and was no doubt scared, he was still standing tall in front of the same people who tormented me any chance they’d got. No turtle defense.
I just couldn’t stand it anymore. Bullies. Fucking bullies everywhere. Pieces of shit who just skated by in life, knocking down anyone who doesn’t conform to their ideas of self-grandeur. That’s what Misty said at least.
“Hey Tommy, fuck off” I said, before I even realized I was speaking. Everyone paused and just looked at me with shocked expressions. I wasn’t that much of a push-over was I? I don’t think anyone was more surprised than Misty, who gave me a wink before looking back over at them. “What’d John even do to you Tommy? Your dad too much on the sauce lately? Your tiny behind been feeling daddies angry kisses?” I don’t know why I was pushing him so much, but the pain from my ribs was mixing with the electric feeling rushing around my body My heart felt like it was pulsing behind my eyes.
The reaction from Tommy was instant. He screamed and started running at me, pushing Misty to the ground in his way and throwing the worst judo kick you’d ever see on youtube as he screamed, “I’M GONNA FUCKING KILL YOU JONES”.
I moved out of the way, letting it pass me by, and punched him in the face. This was a mistake for two reasons. 1. My ribs realllllly didn’t like that kind of movement, and 2. His friends decided to join in. A kick landed in my back and I hit the grass for the second time in two days. Tommy had blood dripping from his nose, but honestly it didn’t look bad.
I smiled, “Never looked better Tommy”.
John came over and helped me up, and before I could thank him Tommy silently barreled into us. I guess he learned that screaming before you attack isn’t a good idea. I fell with Tommy. We painfully grappled until I heard something that would always stand out to me.
“Fern, get to that kid quick!”.
I looked over and took a hit to the same ribs that Tommy had beaten on yesterday, my eyes watering as I glanced behind us for where John had been. Apparently when Tommy tackled me, he’d winged John and knocked him into the street, and a nice looking blue sports car was driving right at him.
I couldn’t see the driver, but I have to imagine that he didn’t want to put the blood of some poor kid on his windshield. Cleaning and all that. I also imagine he was looking at his phone for whatever reason, because he definitely didn’t seem to be slowing down and John definitely didn’t see him coming.
I threw an elbow into Tommy’s bloody nose, and rolled onto my chest with no little amount of pain. Shifting my body into an agony of a three-point-stance, I bursted toward John with the hope that I could grab him and drag him out of the street. Just as I started getting closer, the car started to speed up, and my hopes of both of us getting out safely fled my mind. I remembered what my dad had told me that morning.
“We don’t have to always be right in the world, but we must always “do” right.”
I grabbed John, planted my foot as solidly as I could, and threw him out of the way, then tried to jump in the air as I’d seen in the movies. Tommy wasn’t the only one who’d been suffering delusions today. The car hit me right at the knees and I spun in the air a few times before crashing down on the street. Blood rushed up the back of my throat and I couldn’t help but throw it up onto the street. I tried to roll on my side but my body refused to move and my brain seemed to be moving slower.
I could see Misty’s pink shoes and hear her voice in the background, but a sudden rushing sound overpowered all else as my eyes could no longer stay open. That’s the moment I died, and someone took my place.
I'm a high school English teacher in Texas. I also hold degrees in radiography and radio and television broadcasting. Though I obtained certain knowledge and skills from my prior degrees, I do not currently use them.