~This piece previously appeared in Bloom (2010)
Tom Amelio, legs wedged into the chute of space under his bedroom desk, was trying to write his first condolence note. He was seventeen, too young to have devised a cluster of dignified, repeatable sentences with which to express sorrow.
July 14, 1978
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Hills,
I am so sorry
It was shocking to hear
He scribbled Hitler mustaches over the false starts. The sound of the pen on paper reassured him that work had begun. He flicked his old Tensor lamp on and off. He wanted to finish a rough draft before his hands began sweating under its heat. He was working with notebook paper first, just as he did for English essays. To his left was a slim box of the special black-bordered paper that Funeral Customs the World Over had mentioned. He had had to go to three card stores in downtown Glen Ellyn to find it.
Jeff Hills had swerved off Wiesbrook Road and into a tree going ninety-five in the middle of the previous day. A group of girls from Glenbard East had parsed the shocking event at Zip’z, the make-your-own sundae franchise where Tom worked. The local paper had yet to cover the accident, but ninety-five miles an hour was their agreed-upon detail. Tom noticed too that the recollection of Jeff’s glossy, shoulder-length hair had brought them close to tears, as if death were especially senseless in the case of blond boys. The girls didn’t know that he had known Jeff too, and long before they did, back when Jeff sported a bowl cut and freckles. He offered them free soft-serve as a distraction from their grief and from his own confused feelings. Jeff Hills was the first person he knew who had died, and the box of stationery didn’t carry instructions for what to say, or how to say it.
Jeff and I were at Monroe Junior High together
You moved away in the summer of 1975
I still live on Kingston Street, where you used to live
“Used to live” was horrible. Tom set down his pen and carried his work through the dark house to the edge of the den. His parents’ faces glowed blue-yellow in the reflected light of The Streets of San Francisco.
“Mom. Pop?” His mother stopped crunching ice, so he went on. “Should I write Principal and Mrs. Hills, or Mr. and Mrs. Hills?”
Questions of protocol, he knew, confounded them. When the second store didn’t have mourning paper, his mother had raced the engine and told him to go back in, buy a card, and be done with it.
“’Principal Hills’ is respectful,” said his father.
“But he wasn’t the principal of my high school,” Tom countered. Debate had been one of his extracurricular activities.
His father released the handle on the recliner, and his feet touched ground. “Good point, Son. I’m sure ‘Mister Hills’ is okay too.”
“Call him Clifton,” said his mother, in her “La-de-dah” accent. “Or Clifford. Which was it?”
“Janet,” said his father.
“Always strutting around in a jacket and tie, like he was the Prince of Kingston Drive.”
“He’s a principal, Mom,” said Tom. “What else is he supposed to wear?”
“The couple of times I met her, she seemed unhappy. Pretty little thing.”
“Well, she must be miserable now, because her son is dead,” Tom snapped. “And she only had the one.”
“Don’t be smart,” said his mother. “And take the clothes out of the dryer if you have nothing better to do.”
“I was doing this.” Tom crumpled the sheet of notebook paper and aimed it at the Blackhawks wastebasket by the plate glass window.
“You could call him what you called him when they still lived in the neighborhood,” said his father.
Tom couldn’t remember what they had called Mr. Hills. His position as Principal at Glenbard East made him a hands-off dad—a car turning, then a peripheral garage door going up while they played touch football in the front yard. All of the boys would stand at attention until he’d gone inside, though Jeff sometimes gave him a mocking salute. The Hills family had moved to a better subdivision the summer after freshman year, and Jeff switched from Glenbard South to his father’s school. Tom remembered Mrs. Hills—Sally—better. She worked at the Wheaton Public Library, and she was, like his mother remembered, pretty.
“It’s nice that you’re doing this,” his father said. “It’s not necessary, kid like you.”
“I know,” Tom replied. He bit a fingernail and wondered, impolitely, if Sally Hills were wearing her black nightgown at that very moment, black a useful emblem for mourning her son and seducing her husband at the same time. It was the kind of polluted thought Jeff himself would have put into words if he were alive and they were still friends.
His father was standing now, trying to read Tom’s mood. He flexed one heavy, marble leg, then the other. “I’m getting some ice cream,” he said. “You want any?”
Having ice cream with Alphonse would mean discussing Jeff Hills in the kitchen. It was too soon for that. Tom shook his head.
“You get too much of that anyway, am I right?”
“You are right, Daddy-O” said Tom, slipping away. Pausing in the hot sleeve of the hallway, he heard his father say to the icebox, “Jeff Hills had one heckuvan imagination. Be sure to tell his folks that.”
Making a batch of sugar syrups the next day at Zip’z, Tom pondered Jeff Hills’ imagination. Upon learning of his free ride to Purdue, his boss, a Yugoslavian refugee named Iulian Bogetich, had made Tom “junior manager” of the parlor, which meant he opened the store three mornings a week for an extra seventy cents an hour. Tom enjoyed testing his strength by hoisting five-gallon barrels of milk product with one hand onto his shoulder and into the machine, but replenishing the syrups was quite another thing. It required titrating jug after jug of viscous sugar water with eyedroppers of chemical flavorings. Peanut butter and bubble gum smelled the worst.
Thinking back to seventh grade at Monroe, Tom remembered the original, pre-druggie Jeff. How they’d first met—pick-up street hockey? the school bus? whipping dirt clods at the ponies in the horse farm?—was less clear to him than the floor plan and furnishings in Jeff’s house. The Amelios had a dinky rancher with no shade, but the Hills’ Dutch Colonial, framed by a pair of impressive birches, had two full floors covered with old intricate rugs. They had Chinese trinkets, and drawings on the walls with tiny numbers penciled in their bottom corners, and the living room furniture went together without having to match.
Ten minutes after their first soda and chips Jeff had shucked his clothes in the upstairs hallway and dived onto the double bed in the guest room. “I like to feel free,” he announced, like he was hosting a nature show on Channel 13. Tom had two older brothers, so Jeff naked didn’t seem as big a deal as the walls of books in Mr. Hills’ study and the freestanding Formica island in the kitchen.
Tom ripped open and dumped ten-pound bags of confectioner’s sugar into the giant syrup drum next to the standing freezer.
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Hills,
I remember how in seventh grade Jeff would call up after school while you were still at work and tell me about a new way he’d thought of to whack off. I sat in your kitchen in your elegant home, twirling in the yellow space-age chairs, waiting for the timer to ding. Then Jeff would take a hot orange out of the oven, stick his dick into the hole he’d cut into it, and squeeze. He said it felt amazing.
Tom’s penis was already too big for oranges. Jeff’s was small, like a baby lamb chop, the leg bone pointing up, the scrotum just one mouth of meat. It had pretty much stayed that way through freshman year, the last semester he and Tom had had the same gym period.
Dear Mr. Hills,
I remember watching Jeff whack off with a handful of your menthol shaving cream. I tried it at home with my Pop’s. Boy, that really stung!
Thomas A. Amelio
Tom sprayed hot water into the drum. Neither one of them could ejaculate in the the seventh grade, but Jeff had said they should get a head start on puberty. Wanting an audience more than a co-conspirator, he didn’t seem to mind that Tom wouldn’t attempt his brainstorms in front of him.
Dear Mrs. Hills,
I’m going to miss Jeff. I remember one time he pulled some hair out of your hairbrush, smoothed it into a pad, and then Scotch-taped it onto his pubic bone. The word he called it was “merkin.” For a boy with terrible grades, he had a fine vocabulary. He did like to read. He must have gotten that from you.
Then Jeff had put on his mother’s long blond wig and round sunglasses to complete what he called his Love, American Style look. He sashayed to the front living room window, threw open the sheers, tucked his penis between his legs, and rocked his hips like a hula girl for all of Kingston Drive to see. Tom’s ginger ale came out his nose, it was so hilarious. Jeff claimed he gave the mailman a more elaborate show on the days he stayed home sick—there was time enough then to stuff a bra and put on his mother’s black baby-doll nightgown and, bizarrely, her sanitary napkin belt.
You may not know this, Mrs. Hills, but Jeff wanted you to wear tampons instead of pads. He dared me once to shoplift a box of them at the Walgreen’s.
Tom grew a little careless with his work: the stream of starter syrup caught the sides of several jugs. The minute he turned his back, ants would mount a parade to meet the drips. Squatting with a Handi Wipe, he accidentally dropped the mixing ladle into the wet mop bucket, as if Jeff’s ghost had knocked his elbow to re-assert his historic ability to make clean things dirty.
Dry toppings were next. Tom dished coconut flakes, M & M’s, Rice Krispies, chocolate chips, jimmies, raisins, almond slivers, peanuts, and mini marshmallows into clear-topped containers. He couldn’t get over the amount of junk people would pile onto one dish of ice cream just because it was free. They’d sprinkle corn chips and bacon bits, if he set them out. Pepperonis. Parsley sprigs. Eggs. At least one kid puked every other day.
Dear Mr. and Mrs. Hills,
I didn’t believe Jeff when he told me he’d once put an egg in his ass, because I thought it would break. It occurs to me now that he meant a peeled, hard-boiled egg.
Their division happened during Halloween season freshman year. After pushing the neck of a speckled gourd up his butt, Jeff went to hunt down his mother’s hand mirror while Tom stayed frozen in the swivel chair, staring at the intersecting rings of corn oil on the Formica island.
A car coasting down Kingston had spooked him into action. He capped the Mazola bottle, shoved it back in the cabinet, and then reshuffled the gourds and miniature pumpkins in the holiday centerpiece. He called out to Jeff that he had to go and ran into the cold, his shirtsleeve, blotted with oil, sticking to his forearm.
Dicks were one thing; ass stuff was queer, beyond witness or encouragement, so
Tom ignored Jeff’s subsequent invitations to hang out. Jeff made friends with Randy Cooper, a neighborhood burnout, and that was that. By Thanksgiving weekend Jeff had scored his first nickel bag and Tom, until then a completely indifferent student, had caught up in geometry, biology, and social studies. He became a grind, joined the wrestling squad, paid attention, applied himself, and never looked back. When the Hillses moved to High Knob the following summer, he decided that he missed their house, quiet and composed, more than he did Jeff and his sex stunts.
One time junior year, at a tournament at Glenbard East, Tom spotted Jeff lounging in the stands, surrounded by friends. His hair was nearly as long now as his mother’s famous wig, and he had his arm around a pretty girl in a pom-pom uniform. The stoner and the socialite—Jeff had obviously lost none of his bad-boy charm. Standing in his singlet, lumpy with strength, Tom sunk his shoe into the soft wrestling mat and knew that he was more respected than liked.
He was too young for regrets, yet mourning Jeff that day in the ice cream parlor—if smutty recollections between serving customers can be called mourning—allowed Tom to see that he already possessed a history. To realize that, even at seventeen, his life could have gone in a very different direction was reassuring. But then his father, who was head butcher at the Dominick’s grocery in the same strip mall as Zip’z, came in on his lunch break and floated the notion that Jeff Hills had chosen death the way Tom had picked Purdue.
“Why do you think he did it?” was his first question after sitting down with his pizza slices. Tom gave him a root beer and change. Alphonse—‘Al,’ for short, embroidered in red on his green apron—never took freebies.
“Did what?” replied Tom.
“Drank himself to death.”
“Pop! It was an accident.” Tom had no supporting evidence for his statement; there was still nothing in the papers about what had happened.
His father sucked his teeth in disbelief. Sunshine lit the hairs on the bridge of his nose. Iulian Bogetich, whose shaved head and tinted aviator glasses made him look like Kojak, had hair there too. If hairs ever dared to sprout on his nose, Tom would tweeze them, every single day if necessary.
“You can’t drink yourself to death at our age,” said Tom. “We studied cirrhosis in health class.”
“Use your head, Tom. You don’t run into a tree at three in the afternoon unless you’re drunk off your ass. Or worse.”
“They haven’t ruled out engine failure.”
Alphonse laughed, then pushed a green pepper tail into his mouth. “If you was going ninety-five in the Dodge, you bet it would fail.”
“Nobody knows how fast he was going.”
“You said ninety-five.”
“I was only repeating what I heard. It hasn’t made the papers.”
Discussing his long-ago semifriend with the most concrete thinker he knew, and a butcher to boot, was leading Tom toward the body. Was Jeff Hills cooling on a slab, or lying in a drawer? Was he strung upside down to drain, like the carcasses in Alphonse’s meat locker? What was left of him? What were his remains? Had parts of his brain sieved on impact through his nostrils and eye sockets, spattering the bark, or had it gone the other way, a branch poled through his ears, long hair and leaves ratted in a green and gold wreath, the green and gold of Glenbard East? Thoughts of Jeff compounded with a tree made him think of that Ovid story they’d read in Enriched Senior English.
“His parents spoiled him rotten. Poor kid.”
“Poor? Get real, Pop.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Jeff was happy-go-lucky. He was an—“
Tom was about to say “exhibitionist,” but that would send the wrong message, and besides, he knew Alphonse didn’t like ten-dollar words flung his way.
What he wanted to tell his father was that in late June, not three weeks ago, Jeff had come into Zip’z with the munchies and, after offering his hand to Tom over the counter, had sat at that same table. He said he had heard through the grapevine about Tom’s graduation speech, and now he wanted to hear it, or at least the gist of it, or at least—and here Jeff had adopted the shaky voice of an old lady English teacher—“the topic sentence.” Blushing to think that Jeff might have come just to see him, Tom had changed the subject to whether it was true you could get high on hits from the whipped cream canister.
“You can cry if you want to,” said Alphonse.
That his father knew how he was feeling, sometimes before he did, terrified Tom. “What are you talking about, Pop?” he said, loudly. “I don’t cry.”
“Maybe so, but it’s okay to.”
“I didn’t know him, not anymore. We had nothing in common.”
“That can make it harder.”
Just before leaving that night, Jeff had held out a grimy baggie of ‘shrooms. A graduation gift, Tom supposed; fortunately, a family of four’s timely entrance kept him from having to refuse or accept the offer. That was the last time he saw Jeff alive.
Tom curled his father’s paper plate around the cast-off crusts. “You want a sundae, Pop? You can make it in a Tigers cap.”
This was a new Zip’z promotion. Customers could make their own sundaes in a hard plastic cap of their favorite pro baseball team. Glen Ellyn was a mostly white-collar suburb, so the Cubs outsold the Sox five to one.
His father smacked his belly and said that soft-serve tasted like lipstick. He stood and held his arms away from his body. Tom went to re-tie his apron.
“I’d love you, Son, even if you’d gone bad. You know that.”
“I know, Pop,” Tom answered quickly from behind. Too quickly, because then Alphonse turned and caught him in a mortifying bear hug.
“Your mother, too.”
“Right,” said Tom, breathing through his mouth.
“I’m gonna miss you in the fall, you know that?”
“I know that.”
Gone bad—like meat, or fruit, or sour cream—Tom thought after Alphonse had left. But he hadn’t turned out badly, so maybe it was an easy thing for his father to say. And on the other hand, if it didn’t matter that he’d done well, why had Tom bothered to become the pride of the guidance counselors? Debate team co-captain? Third in Illinois at his weight? When their schedules matched, father and son walked home together, and Alphonse would shoot down every hint Tom made about how expensive Purdue was going to be, even on scholarship.
Two more days passed before a death notice appeared in the Bugle below Jeff’s pouty yearbook photo. He looked like a Beach Boy, free and fun and foxy, the Glenbard East girls said on another round of sad speculation. Tom, wiping down their table afterwards, thought how Jeff would have been great for business. Nobody could snow or sweet-talk better than Jeff Hills on a jag. He would have made Zip’z a hangout.
Tom had filled out and returned his housing form, but the condolence note still flummoxed him. He stared at his hands, andirons baking under the Tensor lamp. The eloquent phrase from the obituary—“in lieu of flowers”—dammed up his thoughts. The more he remembered Jeff, his wily SAT antonym wiggling in the window of a Dutch Colonial, the less he felt he could express sorrow or dispense comfort to Mr. and Mrs. Hills. Flowers would have been perfect.
“Just write what you feel,” said his mother, pausing in his doorway to roll her eyes at the snowdrift of paper wads in his wastebasket.
She really didn’t get it. “I don’t know what I feel,” he said to the wall in front of him.
“Then take a break and go clean the grill. Your brothers are coming for dinner.”
Dan was a Culligan Man, and Dave sold Magnavox. Tom didn’t relish an evening of their put-downs. Neither one of them understood his need to be the first Amelio whose given name you had to guess at, because it wasn’t stitched onto a shirt pocket.
His mother was clearly exasperated, but for once she had a useful suggestion. “You know there are books for this. Check out Emily Post, for God’s sake.”
“It has to be original.”
She uncrossed her arms and, still hugging the doorway, said, “You think sorrow is original to you, Tom?”
Before he could manage a response to this very curious question, his mother was making a blasting, nasal sound, a prolonged, undulant cry more piercing than a whistle. It seemed to rattle the rancher and made the hair stand out on his neck.
Never in his life had she produced such a noise.
“Keening,” she said when it was over, with more than a trace of a smile.
She’d scared him, and they both knew it. She moved on before he could turn away from her again.
In his high school library, where he tutored summer algebra on his non-Zip’z mornings, Tom went back to Funeral Customs the World Over and learned that keening, a communal practice in Ireland and many Mediterranean cultures, was both an expression of sorrow and a profession. Since sorrow came more easily to some, old women could get paid to wail the way his mother had. They could do it for you; the best keeners could keep it up for days.
He wound up ignoring Emily Post. Instead he scanned three examples in Correspondence Made Easy and dropped it into the book return before he could memorize whole sentences—another scholastic talent that had helped him ace written exams and craft crushing rebuttals in debate tournaments.
When he couldn’t locate a word in any of the dictionaries on the shelves, Mrs. Wilderman was happy to lead him to The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary in her office. She handed him the oblong magnifying glass and closed the door behind her.
In Volume I, A-O, on page 1775, column four, final definition: “Merkin, counterfeit hair for women’s privy parts.”
How in the world could Jeff Hills, who’d spent four years of study hall toking under the library balcony, know a word like merkin?
Tom curled his arms around the heavy blue slab and let its weight draw him down and inward until his cheek lay flat on the conference table. The secret specialization of merkin, so ancient and tiny you needed a magnifying glass to find it, made Tom’s career decoding trigonometric identities and trade tariffs and the laws of noble gases seem like a swill at a giant, common trough. Jeff Hills had been a body and a book, a dirty one maybe, slim with wide margins, but one whose secrets had been permanently removed from the collection. Death was a loss of knowledge in the shelf of the world.
That thought was worth writing down.
He straightened up and blotted the dictionary with a sleeve, just in case, and replaced the glass in its little drawer.
Out of habit Tom checked his locker, emptied now for a month. That he expected to remember its combination until the day he died suddenly seemed an impossible burden. Before closing the door, he practically begged the coat hook to tell him whom it would have hurt had he eaten even a crumb of a graduation ‘shroom. Jeff’s last words, said with a wicked shake of the baggie, were, ‘Cmon, Tommy. For Kingston Street and auld lang syne.”
Leaving school, he deliberately ducked the cases flanking the principal’s office. Permanent record of Thomas A. Amelio ‘78 was etched on a plaque and two silver cups. Jeffrey Hills was unsigned graffiti, seeds and burnt matches, heated oranges and a sweet, peaceful reek.
Several nights later, Tom was waiting out the end of his shift. When the bell tinkled by the door, he thought it would be Iulian, coming to close after payroll. Instead, a tall man in tennis shorts and a green cotton sweater greeted him by name.
“Um…hello, sir,” said Tom, puzzled. Grownups never ate ice cream alone.
The man shifted a brown grocery bag from one arm to the other, took a few steps in, and extended his hand. He was handsome in a tired way. His hair, cut over the ears, was a mix of blond and gray.
“It’s Mr. Hills, Tom,” the man finally said.
Tom started to blush. “I’m sorry.” They shook hands, and then he gestured vaguely at Mr. Hills’ summer attire. “I didn’t recognize you.”
“No real reason you should, Tom,” said Mr. Hills. “People don’t recognize other people out of their habitual contexts. When I was just starting out, I taught history. The first few summers, to make ends meet, I sold encyclopedias door to door.”
“Really?” He couldn’t picture Mr. Hills as a salesman.
“When my students answered the door, and it did happen, I would estimate that fully two-thirds of them didn’t recognize me. They could only see me in the protective coloration of a jacket and tie and a piece of chalk in my hand.”
“How about the other third?”
Mr. Hills, as if expecting the question from the alert pupils, smiled. “They’d scream.”
Tom, not knowing whether this was a joke, stalled by wiping the counter.
“Your father told me you were working here,” said Mr. Hills.
“You talked to my father?” Tom, first in his class, was nonetheless alarmed at the thought of any principal chatting up Alphonse.
“I was just at the Dominick’s.” Mr. Hills set his bag down. A carton of eggs was tilting on top. Tom had to agree about context, since it seemed weird for a principal to buy groceries. Then he remembered what had happened—Mr. Hills had to be out shopping for his wife.
“How is Mrs. Hills? Is she….”
“She’s doing remarkably well. Thank you for asking.”
Mr. Hills pinched the bridge of his slender, hairless nose. His watch was loaded with extras.
“I’m really—” Tom started.
Mr. Hills folded his hands and let them hover above his waist, the way Alphonse did to say grace. “Your note was truly a comfort to her,” said Mr. Hills. “It was a comfort to both of us. You have a way with words, Tom.”
Even dressed for tennis, Mr. Hills conformed to Tom’s image of what his college professors would be like in Indiana. Polished and accommodating, tempered with strictness.
“And a natural ease of expression,” continued Mr. Hills, as if he were introducing Tom at an awards banquet. “Your commencement speech was one of the best I’ve encountered, and I’ve heard and read a lot of them.”
Tom was too amazed to play it cool. “You read my speech, Mr. Hills? How could—”
“You wrote and submitted it beforehand, did you not?” Tom nodded. “Well, when a pupil does something outstanding, principals can be like proud parents with bragging rights. We circulate major achievements amongst ourselves, on mimeo.”
Tom didn’t know what to say. Mr. Hills began moving down the toppings bar. As he spoke, he peered at the labels, lifted lids in order to grasp the fantastical concept of the make-your-own sundae.
“I found your observation about how, after four years spent striving to self-differentiate into jocks and socialites and brains and band fags and stoners, how all of your classmates looked exactly alike in their caps and gowns, particularly astute.”
“I guess that was my major point,” said Tom, rattled to hear Mr. Hill use the proper slang for their cliques. “We’re not really all that different underneath.”
“Correct, Tom. We all start from the same place. Everyone loves to hear an old truth in a new way.” Mr. Hills slapped a lid shut. “I gave your speech to Jeff to read.”
“You did? Really?”
“Whether he read it or not….” Mr. Hills blew out a long breath and ran a hand through his hair.
Tom wanted to ask if he remembered what exact day that had been. Had Jeff read the speech and then come to see him at Zip’z? Or had he been too zonked to read and decided to just come over to hear the gist of it? Had he died knowing the gist of it?
Dusk had settled in now; the vast parking lot was filling with flashlight taggers. Tom remembered playing it with Jeff in the horse farm behind Kingston Drive, their beams joyously crossing and bouncing off the fence posts and white feed buckets. He went by “Tommy” back then.
His shift was over in twenty minutes. He would have preferred not to have to re-clean the soft serve machine, but he asked his visitor whether he might like a sundae.
Mr. Hills rubbed his stomach. Tom calculated that he was probably the age of an actual Beach Boy, all grown up. “I’ve been stuffed with casseroles for days.”
“On the house, Mr. Hills.” For Kingston Drive and auld lang syne.
“Chocolate, vanilla, or swirl?”
“What is ‘swirl’?”
“Chocolate and vanilla.”
“Vanilla’s my meat and drink.”
“We have a baseball cap promotion, Mr. Hills. I can put your ice cream in your favorite team’s cap.”
Some kids on bikes whizzed under the lights in front of the store. At the end of the toppings bar, Mr. Hills was jigging his hand in the left pocket of his shorts, counting change.
“I’ll take the Cubs. No, make it the Phillies. I grew up outside of Philadelphia.”
“I think I knew that,” fibbed Jeff, turning to the shelf behind the soda machine. He grabbed the Phillies stack and pried off the top cap. He’d let Iulian know it was time to order more Cubs and Cardinals. He turned back, and Mr. Hills was somehow right there, directly across.
“It’s funny Thomas,” he said softly. “ Or rather, it’s a wretched thing, but how I sometimes wished, watching you mature, that you could have been my boy. Your mind. Your character. Your…physique.”
Mr. Hills’ eyes were shining with something that weren’t tears. The sentiment, the whispered second syllable of his given name, the point of his tongue touching his top front teeth—Tom realized that Mr. Hills’ hand wasn’t counting change. Jeff had been a leftie too.
Mr. Hills’ voice grew quieter still. “I’m going to need to use the facilities before I enjoy my confection.”
Unable to speak, Tom nodded to the back of the store.
The bathroom door closed, but he didn’t hear it lock.
The cold of the lever on the soft-serve machine steadied his hand until the solid white tip of the ice cream showed itself. Tom would not have been surprised to watch the end of a peeled, hard-boiled egg emerge from the star-shaped metal die.
He set the filled cap down; then, to regulate his ragged breathing, quickly crouched behind the counter on all fours, as he sometimes did before stepping onto the wrestling mat or even before making a rebuttal in a debate final.
Though not nearly as obscure as merkin, Mr. Hills’ use of the word confection ratified an innocent sentence in the second paragraph of Tom’s final draft of the condolence note:
I feel certain that many of Jeff’s finest qualities—his sense of humor, his sociability, and above all, his imagination—came directly from you.
Tom stood and tried to use his head. Through the opening to the storeroom, he saw that the back door was padlocked, but the wall phone stood above the utility sink in case he might need to call Dominick’s.
The noise inside him, shrill and burning, he recognized as keening. He was suddenly keening with feelings, feelings that jumped straight to facts, with no time in between. He saw Jeff’s body, his limbs detaching and falling like fiery logs across the hood of a car. Part of Tom grieved for him, grieved for a boy who should have had a dark-haired father like Alphonse to keep him from harm, but the greater part of him was terrified. Not of Mr. Hills, whose imagination had driven his son to suicide, but of the pent-up force thundering between his own legs.
The keening grew louder, burned brighter. Jeff Hills was safe in the ground now; the gist of who Tom Amelio had been, a typed speech on four sheets of mimeo, was inches from a different flame. Until Principal Hills, a tree so strong his son couldn’t destroy him, not even going ninety-five, reappeared to make his dessert, Tom flipped lids on the toppings bar and stirred fresh circles in his syrups.
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
In early 2008, I was writing a lot of condolence notes. They never get easier, especially when you didn’t know the deceased terribly well. I thought back to the first one I ever wrote, to the parents of a former friend who had died in the same circumstances as Jeff Hills in “Use Your Head”—car crash into a tree in the middle of the day. That the death was anything but a tragic accident was never questioned. Twenty-six years later, I began to wonder whether it might have been a suicide. From that question, I started a story.
The model for Jeff had introduced me to his odd masturbation techniques and exhibitionist tendencies when we were twelve, but at that age, you don’t have a larger picture of how sexuality (as opposed to sex) operates, or at least I didn’t. The more I remembered, and wrote, the odder Jeff’s notions seemed. He lived up the block, but he had known things I had not. How might he have come by them? Had he been gay? Might he have killed himself because he couldn’t deal with that? Sex, death, fathers, class differences, college in the fall, a toppings bar to maintain—Tom had a lot on his plate.
In “real” life, I wrote that first condolence note, but I wound up missing the funeral because I had misread the address in the death notice and was too embarrassed to enter the church after the service had begun. I tried to put that “slip” into the story, but having Tom drive around, park, hear the bells, walk to the door, lose his nerve, etc., was a time-sucking cul de sac. Stick to the note, I thought. It got you in, maybe it will get you out. Then I had the idea of having Mr. Hills show up at the Zip’z parlor at the end of Tom’s shift to thank him for the note.
I went to bed that night, having written most of the final scene, terrified of what I imagined about the relationship between the real Jeff Hills and his father. In the morning, I got up and wrote Tom’s second discovery at the toppings bar, potentially more hazardous than the first.
Start to finish, that first draft of what was then titled “Keening” took ten days, very fast for me. Like Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces, I thought the story “particularly fine,” and, as has been my habit, began submitting to journals prematurely. After a year of rejections, I met Jane Delury,* a Baltimore writer and teacher. We traded stories. I don’t have an MFA in fiction, so I’d never been through the workshop process. In my mind, Jane’s suggestions made it a story.
She had me bring up Mr. Hills earlier, cut a scene in which Tom discusses his future at Purdue with the school librarian, remove Iulian Bogetich’s wife Barbara, and give her audible keening moment to Tom’s mother. Most crucially, Jane suggested we see Jeff and Tom interact in the recent past. Whence Jeff visiting Zip’z with an offer of graduation ‘shrooms, and, I suppose, Tom’s ability to see his own life in historical terms for the very first time. And the burden of that.
Bloom, a new-ish LGBT literary journal, which had published my second story in 2004, took it almost immediately, with its new title.
ABOUT JAMES MAGRUDER
James Magruder's fiction has appeared in New England Review, Gettysburg Review, Bloom, Subtropics, The Normal School, and elsewhere, as well as the anthologies Boy Crazy and New Stories From the Midwest. His debut novel, Sugarless (University of Wisconsin Press), was a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award and shortlisted for the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award and the 2010 William Saroyan International Writing Prize. His second, a novel-in-stories titled Let Me See It, is due out in August 2012 from Magnus Books.
Editor’s Note: See Jane Delury’s story, “Autumn Harvest,” in Issue #8 of Redux, here.