chemistry

Witch_Burning1a

School cafeteria.  

Bob ate lunch with Doug Borges and Charlie Martins.  At the entrance to the gym area, a list had been posted.  I read the list, and infuriated, tore it off the door, walked over to Bob’s table, and thrust it at him.  

“What the hell is this?” I said.

“What?” said Bob.

She’s a Witch?

“So?”

“You signed up to do a Monty Python sketch?”

“Yeah.  Is that okay, your highness?”

“No.  It’s not okay.”

“Now, what did he do?” Bucky hovered nearby with his tray.

“He’s doing a Monty Python sketch – without us – without the Pistols – in The Corral Show.”

“Bastard,” said Bucky, nonplussed.

 

The Corral Show was Wyoming’s annual talent show put on by the juniors and seniors of the high school.  The show ran three nights at the Wyoming Civic Center.  For a local talent show, it was fairly high end.

At last year’s show the Six Pistols had became local heroes after performing The Preppie Song – a simple sing-a-long that trashed all things prep.  We were especially heroes to the Preps themselves, all of whom disavowed actually being Preps.  

 

About the Preps.  

After exhausting mutants, monsters, westerns and game shows, the Pistols began making fun of the people we knew at school.  We all had rages and resentments against the more popular kids.  Some, like Bucky and Dave S., simply ignored them and got on with their lives.  But Bob hated the Preps – detested them – which was interesting because, in a parallel universe Bob could have probably been one.  Bob was better looking than most of the Pistols, and nowhere near, say, Ron’s level of social ineptness.  The Preps themselves had fringe members – hangers on – that were less athletic, more acne-ridden, and much more socially awkward than Bob.  So compared to the rest of us, Bob was ahead of the game.  If the lights were dim, he might’ve passed for a Prep.  But despite that, he loathed them.  Maybe he had no sense of self?  Or maybe he’d had a run-in that none of us knew about?  Whatever.  We were the Good Guys and they were the Enemy – smarmy, elite bastards, repressing us purely by virtue of their existence.  Stick ‘em on a bus and off a cliff.  Really, the Preps probably didn’t even know who we were.  Bob had only transferred in during freshman year.  But maybe that was the point?  Maybe the rest of us had grown used to being kept down.

While there were certainly lots of groups to not like, we went right to the top of the school’s caste system hierarchy and attacked the Preps.  And, surprisingly, the Preps joined us.  For the radio show, wewent around with tape recorders interviewing everyone at school who would talk to us.  And we asked a simple question: “What is a Prep?”  But no matter who we asked, everyone hated the Preps.  Preps included.  Not one single person acknowledged themselves as a Prep – even though more half the folks we interviewed seemed to be exactly that.  Preps were someone else – some other.  Certainly not them.  Overnight, Preps had become the school equivalent of the Masons.  They existed, but no one would admit they were actually a member.  Everyone was an Us.  No one was a Them.  

 

At that first Corral Show, when the Pistols performed The Preppie Song, Bob tunelessly sang lead.  But charm won out and the piece was a hit.  After that, in Wyoming, the Pistols were on the map.   

 

“Ron’s doing She’s a Witch, too!” barked Bob.

“Ron?!  Ron, too?” Bucky looked over at me.  “Is that bad, Al?”

“Yes, it’s bad!  Anybody can do that sketch!  You do that bit, Bob, and you’re the same as everyone else!  Jesus!  Do one of our bits!  Do The Navy!  It’s a great bit!”

“So, we’re doing a Monty Python sketch?” asked Bucky.

We’re not.  He is.  With them!”  I gestured to Doug and Charlie, who were beginning to look pissed.

“I like this bit,” said Bob.  “I like doing this bit – with these guys!”

“Wanna be in it, Bucky?” asked Charlie.

“Uhh…” said Bucky.

“It’s not original!” I shouted.

“So what?” said Bob.  “Who cares?  No one cares but you.  You don’t have to be so fucking righteous all the time!”

Righteous!?  Who’s calling who righteous?!  At least I’m doing a bit with the Six Pistols!  These guys – no offense guys – are in band!  For Chrissakes, Bob!  My respect for you just dropped, like, ten notches!”

“You’re doing stand-up, y’fuckin’ hypocrite!”

 

It was true.  For this year’s Corral Show, I had signed up both the Pistols and myself – as a solo act.  It seemed obvious that after last year’s performance and more than a year on the radio, the PIstols would dominate.  But I also decided to sign myself up as a separate act – alone.  

For months now I’d been performing stand-up for complete strangers.  People who didn’t know me, who had no knowledge of my past, my pathetic history.  Performing stand up at Corral meant exposing myself to people who had, over the years, fought me, teased me, bullied me.  Teachers who had given me failing marks.  Girls who had rejected me.  Dozens – dozens – of kids who called me Greasy.  People who didn’t like me, who were disappointed in me, who had not invited me to parties, who had seen me with earth shoes and zits, who knew I read too many comic books.  People who had thought – at one time or another, no matter how briefly – I was a geek, a nerd, a wimp, a Jew, a nobody, a loser.

All of them would be there.  

Corral seemed like my one opportunity to show all of these people what I had been doing for almost a year now; the night world that I’d been living in; that my WHY job had not been a complete and utter scam.    

It would be my chance to give something back.  And not out of anger, but out of, I don’t know, mutual respect?  Understanding?  Affection?

Love?

I was ready.

Corral would give me a chance to perform, finally, en masse, for all the people who couldn’t see me at the eye: family, friends, neighbors, students.

My parents.  

Maybe I’d even invite Ann.

 

“I’m doing stand-up and the Six Pistols!” I said.  “Are you doing the Six Pistols?”

“I’m doing what I want,” said Bob.

“At least do something original!  Show some fuckin’ backbone, Bob!”

And Bob was on his feet.  And nerd shoving commenced.

“Fuck you!”

“No – ”

“Boys!”

And Ken Miller, the laconic WHY counselor was there.  

“Everything okay?” he asked.

“Fine!”

“Fine.”  Bob settled into his seat.  

“Walk with me, please,” Ken said to me.  And we headed to the exit.  But I yelled back at Bob.

“We’ve got a show Saturday!  You owe me a bit!  Unless you’ve got a show with the band guys!  No offense, guys!”

 

Hallway.  

“Things alright?” asked Ken.

“Great.  Things are great,” I said.

“I think it’s terrific that you signed up for the Corral Show.  Let ‘em see what you’re up to.”

“Thanks.”

He stopped in the middle of the hallway, looked at me seriously.

“I heard from NYU,” he said.  “They’re taking a pass.”

“Shit.”

“They said there was always the possibility that you could transfer in later – maybe Sophomore year if you can get your Freshman college grades up.”

“Have you heard from Hampshire?”

“No, I’ll give them a call later.”  And he whispered, “But I’m a little concerned about your chemistry – ”

He waited as a gaggle of students passed by.  

“Mr. Haas says you failed a couple tests?”

“Uhm.  Yeah – I think I did.  Is that a problem?”

“Well, WHY requires participants to have a passing grade in all of their remaining classes.  So, if you can’t pick this up – ”

“What?”

“I’ll have to pull you.”

“Pull me?”

“Out of WHY.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means you’re out.  Done.”

“But I’ve been doing WHY for months now.  I’ve been doing exactly what I said I’d do – ”

“I know.  But no one in WHY ever failed any of their remaining classes before.”

“No one?”

“No one.  Ever.  You’d be the first.”

“Oh great – well, at least there’s that – ”

“And if you leave WHY – you don’t get the credits.”

I stared at him, speechless.

“It’d be like you didn’t take three classes.  You might not have enough credits to graduate.”

“You’re kidding?”

“I’m not.  That’s just what the policy is.”

“But – I did the work!”

“I know you did.”

“But I didn’t know any of this!  I mean – if I’d know it could all get screwed up – I would’ve worked harder at chemistry!”

“I’m sure.”

“Jeez – is there anything – what can I do?!”

“Talk to Haas.  Maybe you can get tutoring?”

“I – ”

“Just see if you can get that grade up, okay?  See what you can do.”

Ken moved down the hall.  And then Dave was beside me, a comforting face.

“That’s messed up,” he said.

“We’re seniors!  This was supposed to be a blow-off year!”

“Maybe you blew off too much – ”

“I didn’t blow off anything!  I’ve been working my ass off!  I only missed like seven, eight classes – tops!”  

“Look – all you need is a D.  Do whatever it takes to get a D and you’re golden.”

“Right.  You’re right.”  

“This is do-able.”

“Hey – after the show Saturday, right?  Maybe we can – ”

“Show?” said Dave, blankly.

“This weekend.  It’s the fourth Saturday,” I said.  “We’ve got a show.”

“Oh.  Shit – I can’t go – I’ve got some Ursuline thing Buffy roped me into.  I totally blanked.  I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay.  It’s fine.  Really.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yeah.  ’S’okay.  How are they all, anyway?”

“Good.  Good.  Mindy broke her leg.  Katy got accepted to Yale.  Oh – Bitsy’s having a party next week if you’re – ”

“Sure.  Let me know.”

And Dave went off, down the hall.  And then Bucky was there.  

“I can make the show, Al,” he said “I can always make the show.”

 

Mr. Haas’ office.  

I poked my head in.  Haas, the sandy-haired chemistry teacher in his Mr. Rogers sweater, sat looking through class papers.  

“Mr. Haas?”

“Hey there.”

Even with the worst student he was always pleasantly chipper.

“I guess I’m not doing too well in class, huh?”

“Oh, not really.  No.”

“It’s a great class.  I mean – you do a terrific job.  It’s not you.  It’s me.   My problem!”

“Understood.”

“I guess – I guess the thing is – I’m in WHY, see – and I didn’t realize that my grade in this class could – all by itself – well – mess up my graduating.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

“So, it’s a credit problem?”

“Right.  Yes.  So – if there’s anything I can do.  I mean I really enjoy the class!”

“When you’re there?”

“Yes.  Right.  I guess I’ve been distracted.  Hey – hey – you don’t have any groups or clubs you belong to?  Y’know – church, temple, Kiwanis, choir, men’s group, rotary club, glee club?  Anything?”

“Uh – ”

“Mensa?  AA?  Bowling league?  Tipplers?”

“No.  No, Tipplers – ”

“No communions, or bar mitzvahs, or weddings coming up?”

“Actually – ”

“Yeah?”

“No.”

“No?”

“No.”

“No – nothing?”

“No.  Nope.”

“Because I – I – I – ”

“You’re doing stand-up comedy?”

“Yes.  That’s right.”

“I don’t have anything you could perform at.  If that’s what you’re getting at.”

“Uhm, well…”

“But it wouldn’t help your grade, you know.  I mean it might be fun – ”

“Yeah!”

“But it wouldn’t help your grade.”

“Uh huh.  So, then – any suggestions?  I mean – what would I have to do, exactly,  to pass?”

“Well – ”

“Yeah?”

“Study like your life depended on it.”

“Mm.  Which it does.”

“Sounds like.”

“So, there’s a chance?”

“Oh sure.  There’s always a chance.  You put the time – and I mean a lot of time – significant time – in you might, hypothetically, conceptually, not-quite-completely-impossibly swing a low passing grade.”

Really?”.

“Maybe.  Possibly.” he said.  “Crazier things have happened.  But not recently.”

“Perfect!  Thank you!”

I shook his hand, vigorously, and ran out.

“Good luck!” he called after.

 

And so I studied.  I crammed.  I spent nights – non-eye nights – poring over chemistry, desperately trying to learn everything I’d missed for the first four to five months in a few weeks.  Thank God pre-cal, English and typing weren’t equally in the toilet.  

The other Six Pistols excelled at science – physics, biology, anatomy.  They loved this stuff.  What was I thinking?  I was completely underwater with moles and structures and periodic charts and – Christ, chemistry was difficult!  Reading the same paragraphs over and over, absorbing nothing.  Never had I been more mindful of my limited capacity for studying.  

Of course, I probably had had other options in the beginning.  I could’ve taken a no-brainer “piano lab,” or some bonehead history course.  Both would’ve likely been easier.  But no, I had been looking forward to chemistry; to making acids and ink bombs and things that combusted.  After years of scrutinizing comic books, chemistry seemed like a fun place to be.  Ray Palmer – the Atom – he was a chemist, right?  Actually, he was a physics professor.  But the Flashhe was a police scientist that got doused with chemicals during a freak lightning storm!  That was kind of like chemistry.  Sure!  A lot of the super heroes were scientists!  So, thank you, effin’ Flash!

I had to pass.  The idea of not graduating – or even graduating at a different time than my class – was unfathomable, humiliating, shameful.  Here I was writing and performing alongside adults.  I had my own radio show and I might not graduate?  

God was still punishing me.  For what?  Stealing jokes?  Years of bad grades?  For being an asshole in general?  All the things I’d done to shore up the architecture of my new life seemed as fragile as that first night that Don had kicked me out.  What were all the other seniors doing these nights?  Not writing radio shows.  Not panicking that they might get left behind.  What a schmuck I was.

But it wasn’t God.  It was me.  I’d made my choices.  And now was no different.  I’d just have to work through it.  I reallocated my days – my free time – to studying, to doing whatever it took to eke by.  I spent days memorizing chemical combinations, the periodic chart, listening to Tom Lehrer’s Elements over and over.

There’s antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium, and hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen and rhenium

I had to bear down, prioritize.  Even with the Corral Show, and competition for Saturday nights, and my commitment to weed out the stolen jokes and replace them – even with the Six Pistols and Saturday shows – and Ann – Ann! – staying behind was not an option.  

I knew I couldn’t stop performing.  I had promised myself that if offered a spot I would take it.  But there was no time now for rewriting.  I’d have to use the stolen jokes a bit longer – just until I could get through chemistry.  Then – then – I’d cut them.  If I could just bear down – do my act, head home and get right back to work – then everything would be alright.  

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