Deb R. Lewis
For three years, all I could smell was turpentine.
When Mom picked arguments against my being out at school and pointed out how thoughtless I was not to consider the impact of my queerness on our family’s reputation—once she’d worn me down to raw wounds, hitting one of her refrains: “Why are you crying? I cook, I clean, and what do I get? Pissed on! I’m the one who should be crying.”—right about then, I smelled the turpentine in my room, two floors up. It started as a wisp on the air and gained substance as a beckoning, vaporous finger while she wound tighter and tighter. “We’re paying double tuition to send you to Catholic high school, because we’re not in the Catholic Church. Do you realize they could throw you out? Then how will you get into college?”
Once through with Dad’s tight-templed, molar-grinding silence and the hot-wax seal he put on things after Mom ran out of steam—by asking, for instance, “What’re you going to do, marry a dildo?”—I could not imagine arguing. Showing anger got me dressed down for the tone of my voice. If I sobbed or whined, he ridiculed in mimicry. I kept my mouth shut and let the sweet, oily, pine-alcohol scent fill my head.
Released, I went to my room, finished my homework, and lay in the dark where the red numbers on my AM/FM alarm clock stabbed my eyes as the dark matter of the universe crouched in wait. I felt constantly watched as I lay in the bed where four years earlier, when I was twelve, my grandfather had raped me. In the past few months I’d told everyone I was queer, but I’d told no one about him. He was dead. Knowing was lonely. I couldn’t still myself. The death-heebie-jeebies had me (many years later someone would call these panic attacks). I turned the radio just loud enough so I could hear it over my banging heart and held on to Phyllis Levy’s voice—the host of Sex Talk—to my left and the rectangular presence of a gallon can of turpentine on the floor to the right, by my easel in the corner. That can was my ace-in-the-hole. It would wait for me.
So that was home. And then there was Catholic high school, as experienced by a non-Catholic.
I was ignoring my algebra teacher’s chalk dust the Tuesday before Halloween 1985 when Principal Laughlin came on the intercom and announced an impromptu all-school assembly. Anticipating early dismissal, the student body poured, exuberant, through the blue-and-gold halls into the tall ivory-tiled walls of the gym. We sat on the permanent bleachers along one wall, separated by year, to face the glossed basketball court, where Father Spannagel stood with patient doe’s eyes.
His dark hair fought the invasion of silver and he struck me as having gone into the whole priest business with sincere heart, at birth. I felt sorry for him. I guessed he hadn’t ever had sex and probably never would.
As I sat off to one side, waiting for Duke and my other reject friends, someone yelled, “Hey, lesbo!” I turned before I could stop myself. A huddle of five JV guys smooched the air in my direction; the scent of turpentine came on so quick and heavy I sneezed. It was no wonder that oily pine-spiked scent practically lived in my nostrils.
“Hey, Slipstick,” Duke said, harrumphing down next to me. I mugged at him, knocking my shoulder into his, stirring up a puff of his English Leather (of all things). We’d been like brothers ever since we realized we’d unwittingly schtupped the same girl while both going steady with her (a deceitful slut I’ll call Nada, but that’s a different story). Under his cream sweater vest I made out the faint outline of his band buttons—that, like T-shirts and jeans, were against dress code. The Pink Floyd prism, because of the rainbow, was in solidarity with my lesbitude; the Alan Parsons Project Eye of Ra was the thing he was nuts about.
“What is this?” I asked, indicating the gym.
“Hell, maybe our blond little art teacher’s finally going to propose to you.” He lobbled his tongue at me.
“No, really—we’ve never had an assembly just off the books.”
“Hell if I know.”
Duke rode a different bus from me and liked to say hell a lot, because it was subversive and turned heads, being the Catholic kids’ greatest fear. They thought you could go to Hell for saying “hell.” He was tall and huge and brilliant, and so bent on proving he was brilliant that most of our classmates would say, “You’re fat, Duke,” to shut him up, because it was the one argument he couldn’t refute. He’d grin and say, “Ad hominem, hominem, hominem…” and they’d walk off, not knowing what the hell he was talking about, and vaguely wonder if he’d just invoked an ancient curse. Left to himself, his lips set like stone masonry, one atop the other until he could distract himself with a new conundrum.
I haunted the halls like November’s ghost; my depression must’ve worried him. He was the one that forced me the summer before to read his musty copy of John Irving’s Hotel New Hampshire, where everyone’s telling everyone to “keep passing the open windows” until one of the characters, Lilly, finally flings herself out one and kills herself. He maintained John Irving was brilliant.
To avoid a serious talking-to, I demanded to know how people in bear suits got so much action.
“Slipstick,” Duke said, “you completely missed the point.”
Julie, also in my year, sat nearby, a red-haired girl who rode my bus; she was such a sweet person, she’d sit next to anyone, even me, and converse about teachers and classes, if nothing else. She was well-liked but not in-crowd material because she didn’t live in town, where the school was located. She heard Duke saying hell, looked over and smiled, embarrassed for all of us.
Father Spannagel took the podium set up outside center court, blotting out the blue-and-yellow crusader with his priestly black. A hush descended over the bleachers. Silence—because of all the staff, he was most trusted and respected.
“We called you here because we have sad news to share,” Father said, “Your classmate and peer, Bill R— was found dead this morning in his parents’ garage. He was found sitting in the family car with the engine running and the garage door shut, with a yearbook open on his lap.”
Disbelief surged through the crowd. My face flushed hot. My hands went cold with adrenaline shock. Duke’s stir of English Leather seared, in quick succession, to the smells of hot cinnamon, numb clove, wintergreen liniment, then turpentine-like stages of an explosion, leaving flat rubble where sorrow should be. It hadn’t occurred to me anyone else might be clutching to root of life with a slipping hand. Bill—everyone called him “Spider”—had been fairly popular, decently smart—he was the tall skinny guy with dark hair, blue eyes, and freckles. His nickname had something to with his playing on the varsity basketball team. He’d never been bad to me. That was about all I knew of him. He, like me and Duke and Julie, was in the class of 1986. It wasn’t like we were freshmen—we were juniors. He wasn’t a freak or anything. Why would he commit suicide?
When Father Spannagel opened the floor to questions, one of the guys stood next to his sweetheart and her teary friends and asked, “Father, does this mean Spider’ll go to hell?”
Father’s eyes were dark and liquid, soothing black coffee held in place by surface tension. The gym air reeked of moist salt and human life as everyone quieted again, hanging on what he might say.
Gently, he said, “We cannot be certain of such a fate. Only God alone, and His Son in heaven, can know the contents of Bill’s heart as he passed. If he changed his intention at the end and repented when it was too late to save himself, God will know. We must simply trust in His understanding and mercy.”
Duke poked me. Behind his glasses you could barely see how sad he was as his smile flickered on and off like a defective neon sign. “What’d’ya think of that, you damn atheist?” he hissed. He was always testing the resolve of my convictions.
“I think he’s being kinder than he is Catholic right now, you damn Episcopalian,” I whispered, because there were maybe twenty other non-Catholics in the whole damn school and we were surrounded.
When questions ebbed to quiet, the principal came up in his pink-and-Kelly-green tie to cross himself and say a few words and dismissed the whole school. The in-town kids raced to their lockers. A few skipped their lockers and raced out of the gym doors, their wake wafting in the stench of half-damp and burning leaves.
Bus riders hung in the bleachers because the big yellow lugs weren’t yet waiting for us. After the forest of legs blitzed out, I saw Mrs. Jobst sitting with an arm around Julie, who wept.
“We went to Homecoming as friends,” Julie said, her face obscured by her red hair and pale hands. “I should have listened more—I should have been a better friend.”
Mrs. Jobst rasped, “This isn’t your fault. You had no way of knowing.”
To see such a sweet person as Julie blaming herself with hot tears was like having a wrecking ball whack a chunk out of me.
I turned, looking for relief in some sick and genius humor, but Duke watched me through his glasses, his mouth a flat line. He was dead serious, a rare state for that boy.
I steeled my face, catching everything up in a Mason jar and screwing on a lid to bury it in the backyard of my heart. “I gotta go,” I said. “I’ll see ya tomorrow.”
He stood as I did and put a hand on my shoulder, still somber. “Keep passing the open windows, Slipstick.”
“All the windows are shut, man, there’s no getting out of this damn place,” I said, grinning, but he didn’t buy it. It was like he knew I was picturing the easel I’d set up next to my bedroom window, the metal handle on the turpentine can, the red flip-top lid that took a screwdriver to open, the way I’d practiced with a screwdriver stolen from Dad’s toolbox to breathe in what I intended to drink if things got bad enough. If there were no other choice left, I could choose this. Once I chose, I could not choose anymore; this is why I hadn’t yet chugged it.
Duke stood, a hulking live oak, over Julie as she cried herself dry. I looked at her to escape his eyes. I didn’t want this for my friends. Two more years and I could escape to college. Shit, I could hold my fucking breath for two years.
Tight-shouldered, I leveled my eyes with his and said firmly (maybe a bit nastily), “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I headed off to gather my books and sit out front for the bus. I didn’t know where things went bad for Spider, or why it felt so fucking hard to be the dyke in too-short corduroys and wrist-revealing oxford shirts.
I never felt particularly grateful to Bill R—, not until many years after the fact. His death didn’t wash the turpentine out of my sinuses, but it got me to dig in harder. I would wait as long as I could. It helped, knowing the turpentine wasn’t going anywhere. That’s what I thought as the bus rolled up in a stinking cloud of diesel—I was thinking it was all I could do to hold fast. I would simply hold fast.
Deb R. Lewis has published work in Briefly Knocked Unconscious by a Low-Flying Duck: A 2nd Story Anthology (Elephant Rock Books), Windy City Queer: LGBTQ Dispatches from the Third Coast (U of Wisconsin Press), the IsGreaterThan Digital Omnibus 2010 (IsGreaterThan.net), and The Woman-Centered Economy (Third Side Press). Her honors include the Windy City Times Pride Literary Supplement Prose Prize, Top Three Finalist in the Project: Queer Lit novel competition, and a Pushcart nomination. Her work appears in many journals, including: Make Literary Magazine, Cellstories.net, Gertrude, Criminal Class Review, F Magazine, Susurrus, Zahir, Café Irreal, Blithe House Quarterly, Mobius, International Drummer, Bad Attitude, and SandMutopian Guardian. She’s a teaching artist in the Goodman Theatre’s GeNarrations storytelling program. As a 2nd Story company member, she tells stories and helps others tell theirs. She’s an adjunct in Columbia College Chicago’s Fiction Writing Program. DebRLewis.com