The microwaved potato is like a piece of a truck tire in your mouth. Margarine, sour cream, and bacon bits fail to improve it, but you and your brothers keep trying, while your grandmother, sitting at the end of the dining room table, asks if anyone would care for more Swiss steak. The three of you keep chewing with the silent intensity that teenaged boys bring to food of almost any kind.
Since the family ranch is an hour away, you and your brothers stay with your grandmother in town during the school week. A widow for almost twenty years, she has floated the Amazon, ridden a camel, seen Paris in the rain and fed a temple monkey from her hand. But when needed, she moved back to the middle of nowhere, put her luggage away and turned on daytime television. Your father had warned you about his mother’s cooking. He was right.
The white casserole dish is passed, and you all take more thin slices of beef covered in brown gravy. The overcooked broccoli remains ignored at the center of the table. No one will want more of that.
“How was school today?” asks your grandmother.
“It was fine,” says your older brother June, “only ninety-four days left.” He reaches for more sour cream. It’s June’s senior year and with football over, he can now concentrate on the spring rodeo season.
“Yeah, pretty okay. I got my math test back, and I passed,” Norris says. Norris has never not passed a test. Not any test.
“Good. We start practice tonight for the play. Mike’s in it, so he’s giving me a ride,” you say, careful to keep your voice as dead as possible.
Your grandmother, in her late seventies, has recently given up wearing wigs. She looks perfectly fine with her white halo of hair that tops off a round face. Her sharp eyes, behind oversized glasses, find yours and she asks:
“Which Mike is picking you up?”
“Mike McBride,” you answer.
“He’s such a handsome boy, don’t you think?” she asks no one in particular.
You and your brothers are silent. And then June says, “Sure, if you say so. We’re guys, so how would we know?”
“Yes, you are young men, but you aren’t blind,” she says.
“Is there dessert, Grandma?” Norris asks, pushing the rest of his potato aside. He’s a tall boy, wearing a white baseball shirt with blue sleeves. At fourteen, his face is like a kitchen drawer of features not yet completely assembled.
“Yes dear, there are brownies in the kitchen. Can you bring them in for us, please?”
“Glad to help.” Norris jumps up and flails his long body in the direction of the kitchen.
“Damn it, Norris, can’t you manage not to step on me?” June says.
“Nope, guess not,” Norris says, continuing a conversation that started at birth.
At the sound of a car horn, Norris calls from the kitchen, “Tommy, your ride’s here. Cool car.”
“Invite Mike in for a brownie,” your grandmother says.
“I’ll take one for him; don’t want to be late on the first night of play practice.” You take two brownies, grab your coat, and run for the door. You shout, “See you after practice, don’t wait up.”
“Remember you have homework to do, young man,” June yells after you. “We don’t want you running the streets all hours.”
Mike is driving his mother’s light blue Cadillac. He blinks the headlights as you come out the front door. You hold both brownies between your teeth as you heave the car door open and then slide in. You hand one brownie to Mike and pull the door shut.
“From my grandmother. And Duncan Hines, of course.”
“Classic,” Mike says through the brownie.
Your grandmother is right; Mike McBride is a good-looking guy. No, come on, you have to admit it. He’s handsome. You use the word ‘beautiful’ to yourself, even though you’ve been told men are not beautiful. Mike is, without a doubt, the most handsome/beautiful guy in the whole school, maybe the world, for all you know.
The McBrides have the car dealership in town and more ready money than most of your families. Mike was adopted by them and is darker than his parents. He tells people that he is Cherokee Indian but is probably a Mexican mix. He has thick black hair, wavy in a feathered way that is fashionable but natural on him. It’s long enough to brush his broad shoulders that are filling out his fleece lined denim jacket. His eyes are the same shade of green as the big glass grapes that sit on your grandmother’s coffee table and he smells powerfully of Brut 33.
You breathe it in and talk yourself down — you are in Mike McBride’s car and he is three feet away. You have thought of nothing else all day, but you must stay cool. You are just two guys driving to school. No. Big. Deal.
Mike noses the car out into the small town’s main street in the direction of the high school. Taste of Honey’s “Boogie Oogie Oogie” comes on the radio and you turn it up. Mike nods his head to the music and spreads his legs apart and stretches his arm across the top of the seat. You can tell he’s acting cool; you lean back and do the same. Your arms touch and Mike squeezes your bicep. You freeze, but flex at the same time.
“Tommy Miller. How are you?” Mike asks.
“I’m okay,” you say. “Thanks for the ride.”
“Anytime, Tommy Miller,” he says.
Your mind is blank, it’s as though there is literally nothing behind your eyes, you notice that you’ve stopped breathing.
“Man, I sure hope that fag Mr. Jordan doesn’t try to get into my pants this time,” Mike says.
“Uh, yeah. He better not try it with me, that’s for sure,” You say, even though Mr. Jordan has never, not even once, been anything but friendly and polite to you. But he is the school librarian and wears an earring, so people say he is gay.
You wonder for a moment what trying to get into someone’s pants might look like. This makes you glance at Mike’s pants and you then stare out the window, trying to get your mind to change the subject.
Just driving along like this, passing the NAPA auto parts store and LaChappel funeral parlor, listening to music with a friend, you are getting an erection. You shift in your seat and you remove your arm from his and say:
“Let’s drag the gut after play practice.”
“Can’t. My mom will check the odometer. I’m still in trouble from last time my buddies and I drove up and down main street until two in the morning.”
Your erection is not going away, so you try to think of something gross. Your mind rolls through images of a dead bloated cow, followed by moldy cheese, and then finally, your Uncle Bob’s breath seems to do the trick, just as you pull into the high school parking lot.
Most years, the spring play is a musical. This gives the choir and band kids the entire year to prepare. But, since last year’s production of Godspell proved that the current crop of students are not singers, Mr. Jordan has decided to attempt a play.
“And not just any play, but a classic; Thornton Wilder’s Our Town,” Mr. Jordan says, as scripts are handed out to the cast of students gathered on two of the several folding tables in the cafeteria. Heavy dark maroon curtains are pulled shut on the stage at the far end of the large room. The whole place smells of bleach with something to hide.
Is Mr. Jordan gay? you ask yourself. He just seems like Mr. Jordan to you. True, no other man in town wears an earring or clogs. And he does have a funny sort of voice. Does that mean he’s attracted to men? What would the tone of his voice have to do with anything? Mr. Jordan has pushed up the sleeves of his black v necked sweater; a chain with a gold cross nestles in his dark chest hair. Does he look gay?
Darla Simmons, your best friend, slides into the table next to you and says, “Tommy. Mike. Good evening to you both.” Darla has come from work and she’s wearing a white rabbit fur vest over her Dairy Queen uniform. The vest was a gift from you on her last birthday and she’s not been seen without it since. Her hair is short and spiked and she’s wearing a lot of Bowie inspired eye makeup.
Darla mimes taking off a hat, putting it down, and then picks it up and places the invisible hat on your head. She then adjusts imaginary eyeglasses and begins smoking an invisible cigarette.
“Darla, what are you doing?” you ask.
“Rehearsing. Careful, don’t damage my hat. Mike, want a cigarette?”
Mike laughs and holds out his hand. She mimes hitting the back of a cigarette packet on the table, extracts a cigarette and hands it across the table to Mike and says,
“I read the script in the library, this play has no props, we have to fake it.”
Mr. Jordan, slips his glasses up to the top of his bald head and says,
“Welcome everyone to our first read through. We have a wonderful cast and I’m super excited to begin rehearsal. You all have your scripts, so let’s dive in, shall we? Now, it’s a little confusing, but, as you know, I will play The Stage Manager, but Mrs. Hotchkiss will be our stage manager. Mrs. Hotchkiss, may I ask you to read the stage directions?”
“Super excited!” Mike whispers to you and stretches his legs out under the table and rubs them up against yours. You have to think about Uncle Bob’s breath again.
Darla looks at you and whispers, “Stop making fun of Mr. Jordan.”
Darla is right, you should stop. You pull your legs back, and look down at the script as Ellie Hotchkiss, the typing teacher, continues with the stage directions,
“When the auditorium is in complete darkness he speaks:”
Mr. Jordan clears his throat and reads, “This play is called Our Town. It was written by Thornton Wilder …”
It takes two hours to read Our Town, and you think the play is incredible, even though your role of Dr. Gibbs is not that interesting. Darla is playing several roles including the Lady in the Balcony and Mrs. Soemes. Mike is playing a character called Simon Stimson who is sort of an outsider who drinks.
“I guess we know what Mr. Jordan thinks of the three of us. An old doctor, a sketchy drunk, and the town gossip,” Darla says, as you move to leave with the chattering cast members after the quiet ending of the play.
Mike remains seated and he looks dazed. “What a sad ending. Everyone sitting there in a graveyard. It’s sad but really good, don’t you think?” he says, his eyes soft, all sarcasm and joking gone.
“Yeah,” you say, looking away from him, and pulling on your coat. “It’s not bad, I guess.”
“Especially the part when dead Emily goes back to just a regular day and it’s too much for her. And she realizes that she missed so much by not paying attention. I bet we do that all the time,” Mike says, still sitting as students are folding up the tables and rolling them to a corner.
“Come on, let’s put this table away,” Darla says.
Mr. Jordan comes over and says, “I’m glad the three of you are in the play this spring. We are so darn lucky to have such talented actors like you— a brilliant Doc Gibbs, a perfect Simon, and Darla, who can play so many parts in the same play!”
“We’re looking forward to doing this play; it’s really good,” Darla says. You and Mike glance at Mr. Jordan and nod and mutter agreement. Even though you see and talk to Mr. Jordan in the library, you pull away here in public. You can’t afford to be seen talking with a gay teacher.
“Mike, let’s go. I have a lot of homework to finish,” you say and walk towards the door.
“Right,” says Mike, “Catch you later, Darla.”
“Good night, Mr. Jordan; and thanks again for putting us in the play.” She follows you out to the parking lot.
The night has gotten colder, and as you stand by Mike’ car, clouds of your breath fill the space between the three of you.
“Want to get something to eat?” Darla asks.
Mike glances as you and then you say, “No; thanks anyway, I have to start that paper for English tonight.”
“I better drop Tommy off and get home myself,” Mike adds and walks to his side of the car.
“I thought we could… I mean, I have a bunch of homework too,” Darla says. “So yeah, good luck with your homework. And Mike, drive safe, the roads out our way are gonna be slick tonight.”
Darla gets into her beaten up white El Camino, its bed filled with an old chicken cage and a bale of straw with its corners blown off. At some point, her father had wired on a set of deer antlers as a hood ornament and Darla strung a set of beads between the two sides.
Her car coughs awake, and Darla gives a couple of squeaky honks on the horn and she is gone. The blue Cadillac is the last remaining car in the lot. The sky is blank with snow clouds lowering themselves towards the county. You think you can just see the first sifting of snow as it falls past the nearby streetlamp.
“I better get you home, it’s beginning to snow,” Mike says, getting into the car and starting it.
You turn your face up to the sky, catching the first few flakes of snow in your mouth. You inhale deeply and imagine you can smell the snow as it melts on your hot tongue.
You turn and get in the car and slam the door shut.
“Cold out there,” you say, not feeling cold in the least, instead you unbutton your jacket. You turn on the radio, Elton John is halfway through “Your Song.”
“Elton. Cool,” Mike says. You have loved everything Elton John has ever recorded. Mr. Jordan has lent you three of Elton’s records and you played them constantly until June threatened to break them over your head.
“Yeah, not bad,” you say and settle back into the seat. The car is warming up, but Mike doesn’t seem in any hurry to pull out of the parking lot. Elton John continues to sing about if they’re green or if they’re blue.
“Your eyes are blue,” Mike says.
“Uh, yup. And yours are green,” you say without thinking. “At least I think they are. I don’t really know.”
Elton’s voice continues to hope that you don’t mind.
“We all have blue eyes; I guess it runs in the family,” you babble, “Green eyes are more unusual, generally. Don’t you think?”
“Let me see your eyes,” Mike says and reaches up, turning on the dome light, and leans over to you, puts his hand on your chin and turns you towards the light.
At first you squint in the light, and then open your eyes obligingly. He is so close that you smell the Big Red cinnamon gum on his breath. His eyes examine yours and he says,
“What shade of blue would you say they are? Blue like the sky or darker blue like a lake? Or blue like a work shirt, or blue like a flax flower?”
You laugh but don’t pull away from him. “What’s a flax flower?” you ask.
“You know, the pale blue one that grows along the road. Flax. Don’t you know the local plants? We obviously have different fathers.”
“You’re adopted, so maybe not,” you say.
He laughs and drops his hand.
“True enough, we don’t know.”
“Let me see your eyes,” you say, while the dome light is still on.
“Right,” he says and tilts his head up and looks into the light.
You were correct, they are a clear beautiful shade of green, his black eyelashes are long and dark, and you look into his eyes. And your hands reach up and touch either side of his face, and then gently glide up towards his ears. You sharply tug both of his ears.
“Hey!” he says and pulls back from you with a friendly shove at your chest. He turns off the dome light and reaches for you.
The front seat of the Cadillac is big enough for him to move from behind the wheel to your side of the car. You grab his arms and he tries to get you into a headlock. You laugh and say, “Back off buddy, you don’t want to get hurt.”
He says, “And who’s gonna hurt me?” He pulls you into a tight hug, pinning your arms. You struggle but not too much really. It’s not at all cold in the car anymore.
“You surrender?” Mike asks, his face close to yours, John Denver’s voice singing “Calypso” arcs out of the speakers.
“I surrender,” you say. And you kiss him.
It starts out as a small brush of his lips, but he pulls you closer and kisses you back, hard. Then, at the same time, as though blown apart, you both jerk back to your sides of the car. John Denver is still singing, the car motor is still quietly murmuring, and you can hear the soft whir of the heat fan.
You both reach for the radio at the same time, your hands banging together, and you turn it off.
“God, yodeling. Unbearable,” you say.
Mike turns the heat down and lowers his window by a couple of inches.
Cold air seeps into the car, and you say, “That feels good.”
You keep your face looking dead ahead, but steal glances as Mike’s dark profile against his window. You feel out of breath, and you can hear your heart beating in your head, and you have no idea what is next.
Mike puts the car into gear and the Cadillac floats out of the parking lot towards your house. A couple of cars cruise by filled with your classmates heading downtown. One car you recognize belongs to a neighbor and that might be your brother June in a smoke-filled interior. But the car is gone before you can be sure.
The short silent drive to your grandmother’s house is over. Mike pulls up and puts the car into park. The snow is managing to just barely cover the open ground.
“Well, see you tomorrow,” you say and bend forward, groping for your script, which has slid under the seat, Mike places his hand on your back and gently moves it up to the nape of your neck and then it’s gone.
“Yeah, see you tomorrow,” he says, and you get out of his car.
“Super Excited” is one of an interlocking set of stories about searching for a place to be in the American West. You’d think with all that space there would be room for everyone. Jack’s writing is usually a failing attempt to capture in words his own vulnerability and attach it to fictional characters. And in spite of Jack wanting to take on the big issues of fate, religion, injustice and death, his stories rapidly stray into the uncertain hearts of his characters who seek each other in everyday lives.
Jack Bentz grew up on a cattle ranch in Oregon and has lived and worked all over the States and Latin America. He is a Catholic priest and currently lives and writes in a small room on the third floor of a girls’ dorm on a university campus in the Bronx.