“Not everybody’s going to be nice to you, not everybody’s going to be kind,” the boy’s mother said. Sometimes it came cased in a “What-did-you-expect?” tone. Other times she half-sung the lines like a bird caught in a better mood.
He’d read about how birds had an inkling for the weather to come. They knew when it was going to rain before it did, and when it would stop, even as other animals, and people, still ducked for cover.
He thought in the terms of cover a lot. During a school report on hummingbirds, he’d stood in front of his class and tried to use his most equanimous of voices in saying that almost all birds sang, but hummingbirds were different. They didn’t make noises like blue jays or cardinals or gulls or any bird you cared to name.
That last phrase had been what he considered a special touch. He wasn’t proud of it, but he thought his intonation had the ring of sophistication, which meant grown-up. Above it all. Not reachable by those particular things that reached weak kids who were at ground level. Sub-ground level.
Someone coughed at the back of the room as they laughed, while someone else said, “Fat kid talking about a small bird.”
When his mother did the sing-song voice or asked him what he expected without technically asking him what he expected, he wished his father would step up to the plate, as they say. That was a phrase he used a lot in his head, which he had never tried aloud. He didn’t like the plate part. What someone else could do with it if they were of a mind.
“You should fucking know,” one of them might say.
The temptation lingered to appeal to his father, but it wasn’t much more than a wish that knew better.
His father seemed to sink deeper into the book he was reading. Or found a tiny dragon on the carpet to stare at. His dad discovered a lot of carpet dragons. The boy wondered if he’d have to be that way later on. He probably would, because he’d also read that a lot of life is hereditary, and he didn’t sound like his mother.
Each morning before school he shivered atop his blankets in training. He never went under them. The window was half open. The room freezing. He’d learn discipline. What it took. If you could marshal yourself in one area, you could train yourself in the rest. His belly hung to the top of his thighs. He wore no bottoms, just a baggy sweatshirt.
“A sweatshirt big enough for a big man,” his mom told him when she’d bought it, and he didn’t know if she was proud and meant he was a big man as in a good one, or might be someday, or that she loved him, or if she was instead doing a version of the “you gotta be kidding me” voice that was tantamount to the look she gave him when he reached for another serving at dinner.
He imagined shears that could cut the fat from his front, and an elfin helper who would bundle it up neatly in brown paper, like one of those old-fashioned packages in Christmas movies from long ago. There’d also have to be twine, which seemed integral to that type of bundle in which there could be meat from the butcher or a robot toy. That versatile kind of paper.
Then he could walk downstairs, expecting coffee rather than juice, like his father, carrying his bundle by the twine, and place it on the kitchen table, with surpassing nonchalance, and say, “there we are, all taken care of,” his air of “now let’s get to what’s next in life, shall we?” self-evident.
He pulled his knees as close as he could get them to his chest. He tugged his penis hard three times, to see if that did anything. A health teacher said the tugging could help with stress, and a bunch of boys giggled. The girls weren’t there. They’d been separated. The boy wished there was more separation, in one way. That people who didn’t really go that well together could be pulled apart, until you had the group with which you best belonged. But then the boy was scared the group would be just him, like it was in the mornings, when he was cold.