This is an excerpt from the essay I began this AM, which will also be folded into a book on the unlikely corners and corridors in life where we often find the most meaning, if we are astute enough, and brave enough, to look. The essay is called "He Who Vanquishes Warm Fuzzies and Cold Pricklies Sires Legend in the Writing Patch of Great Sincerity."
Riding the bus to school was a big deal for me in third grade. It was a different kind of deal for other kids. They had been turned loose out into the world—a world they thought was theirs, open, free, but, of course, controlled, monitored—again, to navigate relationships with friends, compete for power on the playground as the latest demigod of the kickball diamond, lob another benign bomb—perhaps with the premature erasure of a chalk-drawn hopscotch grid—in the war of girls vs. boys.
On the bus, objects went airborne. Lots of paper, crunched into balls, and heavy artillery like pencil stubs, the official missile of choice within those apricot-orange transporters of children, better known as buses, but mobile social worlds all the same.
Our first grade instructor, Ms. Atkinson, had shared a gruesome tale of a friend of her brother’s who was sword fighting with another kid and the kid got his eye poked out by the sharp end. I wasn’t sure if I should have raised my hand and asked if the eyeball stuck to the rod or went flying, so I said nothing, though I would sometimes revisit this anecdotal scene of epee-based tragedy in my mind as the fusillade of pencil stubs lit up the air in streaks of passing pink and yellow, ducking my head, so as to lose nary a ball. When you are a kid, your balls are in your head. It’s only later in life that you think of the southern hemisphere variant, let us say, and the metaphorical notion of being without any. But in my view, on the bus, I was very busy. I was working, in my head, on the story I was about to write in Ms. Ferris’s class.
It was somewhat ironic how I became a bus-ferried writer. In first grade, my teachers determined that I struggled to pick up reading. I was viewed as trustworthy, maybe even mature for that age, but something of a dullard, perhaps a child with something truly wrong with him, when it came to reading and writing.
It’s funny the things you take so little note of at the time, that become what you recognize later in life as the details of life as life really is, the colorations that make for the most meaning. There was a greasy spoon restaurant across the street from my grammar school, adjacent to the village green—as this was a proper old tyme New England setting—and when this one kid would come in late most days, Ms. Atkinson would give him some money, and have me walk with him to the greasy spoon, so he could get something to eat.
I didn’t think anything of it then, really, though naturally I’ve thought about it much since; that young boy, his family, whatever his situation must have been, what this teacher knew about it, how she came to know about it, how much she gave to others, how much that cut into her finances, what her own upbringing was possibly like. I was moved out of her class and placed in a room with the kids who were disabled. That might not be the right term now. It’s hard to keep up with allowable terms. But that is what they were called then. We were there to work on our reading.
There were five of us. Two of the other kids were in wheelchairs. These were the kids who your parents told you to be nice to, and why you shouldn’t say words like “retarded.” One of my worst moments of shame as a kid was when we were at some seafood restaurant, and I made a horrible joke to my sister Kerrin about tartar sauce being retarded sauce, as I caught the eye of a special needs girl at the table next to ours. I do not forget a lot, but even if I did, I would never forget the look my mother gave me. If you had taken my temperature just then, I think it would have been 105 degrees, for that was the sort of shame that felt like it was burning inside of me. I wanted to mouth that I was sorry, but the girl had looked away. I think I caused her to look away.
My stint in this room was short—maybe just a week—but I didn’t sweat this idea that I wasn’t picking up reading and writing as I ought to be, because I knew that wasn’t the case. In fact, I knew I was doing something that none of the other kids were doing, in any classroom, in that school, or most schools, not at the age of six. I was making up stories in my head, creating characters, and sometimes I’d just have to wait for them to tell me the rest of their stories. That’s what I was interested in. Listening to my characters. That’s where my focus was. That was, as I intuited more than I knew, felt more than I reasoned, where my talent lay. That’s where my future was. What my life would be. What I was.
In second grade I was also, it seemed, a badass. I went from being the kid who got to take the kid who was always late and needed food across to get his breakfast to a little fellow who rarely ever heard the bell to come in from recess because I was always stuck inside with my teacher, a Ms. Pucci, bane of my existence.
The way she might have told it, I all but walked around with scissors snipping off pigtails, overturning desks and quoting The Wild One. “What are you rebelling against, Colin?” “What do you got?” She spoke in the vapidest of bromides. I think she was probably like a hot twenty-five-year-old, though who knows when you’re seven, right? I’ve subsequently imagined—speculated upon—a lot of parties and double-fisting of drinks after a college career of no shortage of what adult-me will term good times.
“Colin,” she’d say. “You’re giving me cold pricklies, not warm fuzzies.”
That was her go-to line, the pricklies/fuzzies thing. There’s an old film noir called D.O.A. in which the Edmund O’Brien character—he’s the doomed guy that is a prerequisite for these kinds of movies—shows up at the police station at the beginning and says that he’s been murdered, he wants to find his killer before he dies. Wonderful conceit. There’s a time-delayed poison acting upon on his body, within his system, so he’s not dead yet, but he will be, right around the time he lays his mitts—as last earthly act—on his killer. That’s how I entered Pucci’s classroom everyday. D.O.A. No recess. In trouble already. When the kids paired off for games, she’d say, “You’re with me,” and we’d play checkers. I still do not know if Pucci was inept at checkers or I was a prodigy when it came to the old red and the black ((Julien “Checkerboard” Sorel?), but I was triple-jumping this lady left and right, and each time I did so, I would have to fight the urge to declare, “Who’s sucking on them cold pricklies now? Yeah, you deal with that, Pucci!”
I suffered from migraines that would leave me in bed for four, five days at a time. Suppositories from Canada—I don’t think they were strictly legal in the US; they had codeine in them, I believe—would have to go up my ass. I’d bang my head against the wall because that hurt less. There was concern that I had a brain tumor. I’d vomit with these headaches, the most intense physical pain I knew or would know until I was around forty and had pneumonia that brought my childhood migraines back with greater-than-ever-ferocity, like the inside skin of my forehead now had barracuda teeth stitched into it.
The worst of these migraines occurred one day in Pucci’s class when it was my turn to read to all of my little classmates at the end of the afternoon. I must have been purple that day. I saw everything in double. I threw up into a trash can, not really caring if anyone noticed. I asked her if maybe I could read on a different day, I really was not doing too well, and she responded by informing me that kids who fake things and pretend to be sick give her—here we bleeping go—cold pricklies, and what about the warm fuzzies? Where were those, Colin? She had me read a book about purple monsters. There may have been a double meaning in that. I stepped off the bus that day and vomited on the street, kids looking on. Then I banged my head against the wall for the weekend. If I could have spoken, I maybe would have said something about class to my parents, but all of my energy was focused on the pain I was in.
There was a pond near this village green. You could walk to it from the school, going in the opposite direction from the greasy spoon. At the end of the second grade school year, we sat in a circle twenty feet from the water where your mom would take you to chuck hunks of Wonder Bread in the general direction of grateful mallards, and Pucci said now we will go around the circle and everyone will say how they feel about the school year coming to a close and moving on. It was one hoary tribute after another, such that I wondered how she had brainwashed this many kids, with the bulk of the sugary homages focusing on the instructive values of worshiping at the altar of what I viewed—sanely, I still maintain—as these damnable warm fuzzies. “I’m going to miss you most, Ms. Pucci,” the girl next to me said. “You never gave me cold pricklies.”
Bloody hell. Scratch her off the birthday party invite list.
I was last to go. Pucci might have set it up that way. Conceivably she intended it as my big moment of redemption, the final and biggest fruit to pluck and place in her basket, proof that there was no pricklies-laden young child she could not reach and save, the payoff of her labors as a pro-fuzzies activist.
But nah, second grade Colin was not feeling it.
“Yeah, I’m ready to move on. It’s been enough. More than enough and then some. Ready to go. You move forward or you don’t move at all.”
The other children stopped pick at grass and making their drawings in the dirt with sticks and stared, communally agog. Pucci’s jaw was clenched so hard you could have used it for a battering ram.
That was a pretty sweet bus ride home that day. Suffice it to say, Pucci had told me I was pretty bad at the writing. Maybe math could be my thing?
But I was informed over the summer, a plethora of times, as if even the wind whispered it, that the autumn, despite marking the start of the post-Pucci era, would not be a pleasant one. This was a bummer, as I loved fall. Apple picking, pumpkin carving, black and white monster movies, Golden Age British mysteries which I devoured under my covers with a flashlight, not because I was not allowed to be reading at whatever that given hour was, but because I liked the enhanced atmosphere.
My teacher was to be Ms. Ferris. And she was strict. Everyone said this. At the time, “strict” was code for “she is a termagant. Good luck, buddy.” She was joyless and she was mean. She lived alone, went the rumor. (She was probably twenty-seven. That doesn’t stop a kid from thinking someone’s a spinster.) I expected Ms. Havisham without the eccentric style of dress.
Nothing happened on the first day. Settling in. We had a fire drill. The second day, she had us write stories. One page. Do the best you can. Write on anything you wish. On the third day, as we barreled through the door for recess—something I didn’t do, because I wasn’t keen to be crunched against the jamb by a lot of kids I’d see in twenty seconds anyway—she asked me to stay back a moment. She asked me about my story and how I came to think it up. It involved a child who returned home from school, into a neighborhood where no one was anymore. The houses have not been lived in, but he recognizes them as houses of people he knows. But it is like they have not arrived yet, have not ever arrived. He can still see the bus pulling away. It’s not empty. The kids are still on it. He won’t be able to catch up if he runs. He’s going to go home to his house. He’s going to see one person there, inside of it. He will have a message for this person. That person is not going to be either of his parents. It’s not going to be his sister.
“Who is that person going to be?” she asked me. We were sitting by this pointat those little desks, always designed for righties, not lefties, which I was, side by side, but turned towards each other. There was no checkerboard between us.
There is a murmur that comes from every recess there ever was and will be, no matter how much we devolve, rot our culture from the inside out, and I guess you could say that the deathlessness of this murmur gives me hope. Like a train station has a murmur, a ballpark has a murmur, only different, and I heard it through the window then. It’s like the grammar school version of the waves lapping the shore alongside a home by the sea.
“It’s me, when I’m older, when I’m a better writer,” I told her. “When things are hard and I want to stop and that person needs to know to keep writing.”
“Is that what the person in the story is going to tell this person at the house?”
I’ve been given a number of important looks in my life. I don’t think I receive more than the average person does as a result of being swathed in concern and care, because, to date, I don’t think there have been many people who have had affection for me, or loved me. A best friend, maybe. A child, not mine, whom I will come to in a bit. I hope that changes in the future, and there’s still a lot of ballgame left—conceivably, if I keep going—and I do think it’s true what I remarked to Pucci about how if you’re not moving forward you’re not moving. I know that I do that.
But people do seem to give me more looks that bear more emotion than looks they give other people, in part, I suspect, because there is something about me, and my energy, my openness and ease and acceptance with who I am, my mind, that teases out their emotions, that causes them to step clear, at least for a moment or two, of inhibitions, dispense with the veneer we usually use to put a layer of separation between a heart and the world. And I also think a lot of people just are not very observant, and looks calculated to impart great meaning are missed entirely because someone is working on the thing they are next going to say that they wish to be clever, or wondering if it is time to check their phone again.
She told me that she wanted me to write one story every day. Any length I wanted. A story. Each day. I’d write it. She’d read it.
As I was about to pass through the door, make a hard right, join my mates at recess, she said one last thing to me on that early autumn afternoon, and with that thing came what was for a long time the most important look anyone ever gave me.
“Yes, Ms. Ferris?”
“You need to keep writing.”