Another short story from 'Dirty Little Altar Boy.' This one entails a 13-year-old discovering fashion.
Seventh grade was a son of a bitch. Not exactly the numerical grade itself but the realization that it was Junior High—that I was in Junior High. I was now in that strange frontier of dating and hair mousse and social cliques, and the harbinger of high school itself: fashion. Fashion, what a son of a bitch.
Thirteen was an age when you needed privacy, room for personal expression, social growth, new style. What a 13-year-old really needed was his own bedroom to allow this strange, new season to fully blossom. But when you’re the middle child of a middle-class family of five in a small, three-bedroom house, you had to make due with what you had. What I had was a dad with a new power drill, three cans of Miller High Life and a Saturday without any sports on the TV.
“Ah, son of a bitch!” My dad wailed as he pulled the power drill from my bedroom ceiling and inspected the screwdriver bit. “This dumb son of a bitch isn’t doing anything!”
“Give it to me,” my older brother replied, taking the drill from my dad’s hand while continuing to hold up the large particle board planted in the center of my room. The collar of my brother’s shirt was fashionably flipped up and the buttons at the front were fastened clear up to his neck. “Did you put this in correctly? Right here, this, right here,” Sean said as he snapped the plug firmly into the handle. “You have to make sure this is pushed in all the way.”
He handed the drill back up to my dad, who was standing one step high on a three-step ladder, and not fashionably clothed at all. As a matter of fact, my dad was the type of man who wore shorts that were so small and withered that his unmentionables dangled out from the bottom, as they were now. Everyone had learned to always keep their distance when dad was doing repairs on a ladder or stepstool.
He inspected the drill before lifting it over his head and planting two screws into the ceiling, trapping the top of the particle board in place at the center of the room. No one wanted to watch, but all three of us saw his unmentionables jiggle as the drill shook his body.
“See, who needs their own bedroom when you got a new wall?” He said as he stepped down and cracked open his second can of beer. He took a long sip and studied the finished job, apparently very proud of himself. He and my older brother had just successfully turned one small bedroom, which my little brother and I had always shared, into two tiny bedrooms in the span of forty minutes.
My little brother and I were watching eagerly from the door, sitting Indian-style on the carpeted hall floor just outside the room. It wasn’t quite what I had expected when I heard him mutter the phrase, “Build an addition to the house for you,” over dinner the previous night, but it was definitely a beginning. I did indeed now have my own bedroom.
“You guys did a real son of a bitch job,” I told them.
“Hey, watch your goddamned mouth!” My dad replied. “This thing can come down as fast as it went up!”
“No, no, no, I meant it was good,” I explained, “a good son of a bitch job. I like it. Colin, don’t you think it’s good?” I looked at my little brother’s enormous smile before my dad interjected.
“What the hell did I just say? Watch your goddamned lip, flakes!” My parents had called me ‘flakes’ ever since I could remember, because Brandon had turned into Bran sometime around the toddler stage, and Bran was associated with flakes, like the cereal bran flakes. I was a cereal, and not even a good one. I was nicknamed after a meal that made you shit.
After they situated our mattresses against both sides of the particle board partition, Sean and my dad collected their tools and empty cans and left our bedroom in an argument about my older brother borrowing some money to buy an old Porsche. The last thing I heard was my dad saying, “What do you need a piece of shit like that for when the Corolla runs like a top?” My brother seemed to put up quite a fight in the kitchen about what an investment it would be and how he could drive my little brother and I to school in style, but when I heard the faucet turn on and the garbage disposal erupt, I knew the argument was over. Sean didn’t. He refused to admit defeat just yet and continued to express his need for German speed and handling even louder.
“If you stop putting so much of that crap in your hair, you could save a fortune and buy it yourself,” my dad explained after turning off the water.
“Mom buys my mousse!” Sean replied, “I have been saving!”
I sat on my bed in my new bedroom and listened to them bicker back and forth about hair products and Porsches for several minutes. I realized that my older brother had some serious conviction toward his style. I had never heard an 18-year-old defend his right for personal freedom like he did, not even on TV. This was the type of dedication to fashion that I should have, I thought to myself. Now that seventh grade was here, I should be claiming my right to some form of style and defending it with hellfire. I should be my own Rosa Parks, and the front of my bus should be bitchen clothes and a new hairstyle. “Bitchen,” I whispered to myself. Bitchen would be my new fashionable word.
The argument ended when I heard my brother’s bedroom door slam and my dad yell, “And don’t blast that goddamned Durango-Rango music either!” And seconds later, the Durango-Rango music, or what everyone else called Duran Duran, detonated from Sean’s bedroom.
With the bellowing soundtrack permeating my bedroom wall, I pulled all of my little brother’s clothes from the closet, folded them, and placed them on his bed in his side of the room. He looked at me quite concerned as to what was happening. I raised my shoulders and frowned, “I wish there was something I could do. The closet’s over there and you’re way over here. I folded them, though.”
As I helped him organize his folded stack of T-shirts and shorts into his drawers, he turned to me and said, “I think this being apart from one another is good for us.”
“I think it will give us a chance to grow, you know?’ I replied.
“Yes, I do know.”
“Well, I’ve got things to do,” I said and walked the eighteen or twenty inches to my side of the bedroom.
“That’s rich,” he replied.
Over the next two hours I constructed a make-shift bedroom door from three pieces of cardboard duct-taped together with a piece of string for a handle, as well as situated all of my ‘fashionable’ clothes onto hangers and hung them in the closet. The construction of the door took one hour and fifty-six minutes, mostly because I decided to draw a life-size Viking warrior with a battle axe on the outside, proclaiming DO NOT ENTER to all that approached. The hanging of the clothes took approximately four minutes. You would be surprised at how quick an army jacket, a camouflage T-shirt, and two pairs of pants were to put on hangers.
I sat on my bed and pondered the amount of girls I would be able to ask out on a date with an army jacket and a camouflage shirt. Not too many, I surmised. Not too many at all.
But as 5:00 rolled around, my mother not only prepared her infamous meatloaf for the family, but she relayed the news that would flicker Sean’s cool meter in high school, and hopefully mine in Junior High.
“Do you guys know who Rick Springfield is?” Mom asked the table as she cut slabs out of the mound of wet beef and divvied them out to us.
Sean’s eyes lit up instantly. “Rick Springfield? Yea, I know who he is! I know every word to Jessie’s Girl! I lost my virgi-” He stopped himself short of finishing. “Yea, why?”
“He’s playing at the Amphitheatre tomorrow night and there was a bunch of extra tickets left over, so I brought home enough for all of us to go,” my mom replied. “They’re 2nd row, too. Right in front.”
“Holy shit!” Sean stood and announced.
“Watch your mouth at the dinner table, Seany!” My dad exclaimed.
“But, dad, we got tickets to Rick Springfield!” Sean replied.
“I don’t care if the good Lord is singing at Universal tomorrow tonight! You don’t watch your mouth, you aren’t going anywhere!” Dad barked.
“I like Born in the USA,” I commented. “I think he’s a Vietnam vet, too.”
“I don’t think that’s Rick Springfield,” my mom said as she sat down and poured herself a glass of wine. “But you might like him anyway.”
“That’s Bruce Springsteen!” Sean started drumming his index fingers against the wood table and then began singing. “Rick Springfield does I- did- ev-ery-thing- for you….you did nothing for me, I- did-ev-ery-thing- for you…you did nothing for me!”
“Just eat your goddamned meatloaf, would you, please?” My dad asked my older brother, “And quit drumming the table or I’ll Jessie’s Girl you.”
Colin and I weren’t quite sure what dad meant by that, but Sean seemed to. He quieted down and sped through his meal in a matter of minutes, nodding his head to some silent song the whole time.
“Flakes, are you ready for your first concert?” Mom asked me.
“You know, I am,” I replied, “but I think I’d be more prepared if I had some new clothes to wear. It seems that all the clothes that I curr-”
“What do you need new clothes for?” My dad chimed in with a mouthful of mashed potatoes, “You wear a uniform to school everyday! You got another year in a uniform if you keep your grades up.”
“I thought you liked wearing your uniform, honey?” Mom asked. “You told us it defined you.”
“Yea, but a smart, new blazer or a leather jacket would be just what-”
“Honey, just wear something from your father’s closet tomorrow night,” my mom explained to me with a compassionate smile. “You’ll find something nice in there.”
“Can I wear mousse in my hair then?” I asked her. She looked over at my dad, who in turn looked over at Sean with a grimace, as if to say Look what you started with that talk of fashion!
“Why don’t you let me style your hair tomorrow night, okay?” Mom replied. “I’ll make you look real handsome.”
“Well…okay, but I’m picking out my clothes,” I demanded. “You guys aren’t going to believe what I’m going to do with that closet of dad’s. You’ll rue the day that you ever told-”
“Maybe you should borrow some of dad’s cool shorts for tomorrow night!” Sean exclaimed and started laughing hysterically.
“What in the hell is wrong with my shorts, knuckle-head?”
“Honey, you can see your balls in those things!” My mom replied.
“Oh, Jesus, mom!” Sean sighed and turned his head away, “We’re eating here.”
The dinner conversation went from hanging testicles back to Rick Springfield and then on to one more attempt by Sean to get his Porsche. After dishes, I perused my dad’s closet and carefully studied his wardrobe while they all watched TV in the den. I was a fresh, clean canvas in need of paint, and the dozens of shirts and slacks ahead of me were the paint store that I would choose my colors from. I grabbed handfuls of shirts at a time and examined them under my chin in the parents’ bathroom mirror. There were cowboy themes and Dodger baseball themes and velvety themes. Next were pastel stripes, long-sleeved denim shirts, and sweaters advertising Universal Studios. There was a cream-colored blazer that I applauded, but it engulfed everything from my neck down to my knees. The pile of potentials grew on the floor in front of the bathroom door; I was overloading on possibilities to choose from.
My goal was to ‘wow’ everyone with what I could piece together and show them that I was a fashion force to be reckoned with. My mom, dad, and older brother would see this amazing outfit that I would create and be forever envious of the middle child, the mere 13-year-old with an inherent knack for couture, and stand back in awe. I envisioned future episodes where Sean would come to me before a date and ask, “Does this outfit look cool to you, mighty one?” and I would simply reply, “You need more red in the shirt department, but other than that you look okay, kid.” It would happen, and this outfit that I was creating would be the cause of it all.
After forty minutes of running from the closet to the bathroom mirror, I had completed what was to be my masterpiece. I coyly hid the pants, shirt and accessories inside the plastic wrap of a drycleaner’s cover and scuttled into my room and shut my cardboard door behind me. I placed the clothes onto hangers and displayed them inside my closet for only me to see. Tomorrow would be the unveiling, and not one second sooner. Tomorrow would be the greatest day of my life.
I woke up three times that night thinking that my fantasy outfit was just a dream, and each time I turned on the closet light just to make sure that they were still there. The next day at school dragged on and on, and I was only able to tolerate the wait by drawing my outfit several different times onto paper. I illustrated my outfit in several different action poses, one of which entailed it sword-fighting God almighty. The outfit was indeed ready, and as soon as 3:00 came and mom picked Colin and me up from school, I forced her to drive us straight home and made her style my hair within five minutes of arriving there.
“But, sweetie, the concert’s not for another four or five hours,” she commented.
“I need this, mom. I need it bad.”
“Well, okay, how do you want your hair styled then?”
“I was thinking, what would look real sharp with my outfit would be a side-part, preferably from the left…no, the right. Maybe kind-of slick back the sides a little and have this wave come down from the right, like Faceman.”
“Faceman, from The A-Team.”
“I’m not quite sure what that is,” she said as she inverted the aerosol can of mousse and expelled an egg-shaped amount into her palm, “but what if we did this here, like this,” and she proceeded to run the mousse through my blond hair and slick back the top and sides. She then turned on the hair dryer and announced loudly over the noise, “From the right, you said?”
“Yea, a good right part.”
She finger-combed my hair with her long fingernails as the hairdryer sent blond locks swaying to and fro, until finally, after several minutes of this, she turned the hairdryer off, put her finger and thumb to her chin, and studied her work of art. “What do you think?”
My hair was indeed slicked back at the sides and puffy at the top, with just the most delicate of a right part dangling down onto my forehead. I glanced at my reflection from several different angles before looking at her and nodding my head. “Real nice, mom. Real nice work.”
“Just remember, mousse can be dangerous. If you don’t know what you’re doing before you start, the mousse will dry and you’ll end up with a hardened hairstyle that you’ll have to wash out. Always have a goal before you apply it.”
“And when you look at yourself in a mirror, remember, no one ever looks at you straight on so you shouldn’t look at your reflection straight on. Always look at yourself at an angle. Like, see how you’re looking at me right now, it’s not straight on. Always look at yourself at an angle. You’ll see how other people see you.”
“I’m going to go start dinner now. We’ll eat early so we can all get ready for the concert.”
After she left I stayed in the bathroom and used the new skills she had taught me for close to an hour. My left side had a handsome, charismatic and friendly feel to it. My right side seemed daring and dangerous, completely ready for a Rick Springfield concert. Sakes alive, I told my reflection, you are one charming-looking bastard. But just wait till everyone sees the outfit underneath this new hair of mine, then they’ll be truly astonished!
When dinner was ready, I brought my plate into my room, shut my cardboard door behind me, and sat and marveled at the outfit that I was going to be putting on in just a matter of minutes. After finishing the grilled cheese sandwich, I thoroughly cleaned my hands on my blanket and delicately pulled the outfit from the closet and laid it across the bed. Like an assassin inspecting his favorite weapons, I stood before these clothes scrutinizing every inch of them; from the shoes to the collar, the belt loops to the buttons. Everything was perfect. Slowly, I undressed from my school uniform and placed the obsolete clothes on the floor. Their time had passed.
I stood in front of the bed in just my briefs and socks and ran my bare fingers up and down their fabric. “It’s time.” I removed the two hangers and slowly unbuttoned and unzipped the pants. Each of my legs trembled as I carefully pulled the fabric over them and to my waist. The button fastened and the zipper rose like well-oiled machines. The shirt felt like Jesus himself was hugging my chest.
I had entered my bedroom a boy; I left my bedroom a fashion god. With my outfit completely on, I opened my flimsy door and walked down the hall with a stride. I was bitchen. I was Mr. Bitchen. I was so bitchen I spit on the carpet as I walked and never looked back. Sean, mom, dad and Colin were all in the den taking pictures of each other, and when I walked into that room, galvanizing every wall along my way, everyone stopped what they were doing and simply stared in awe at the outfit.
Starting from the bottom: Imagine sharp, black loafers that shined like sun ripples on a calm ocean. Then picture an inch or so of white socks showing. Above the white socks were pastel green pants with a thin bar of white piping rising up their sides. Holding up these ferociously oversized pants was a thick gold belt, which concealed, or attempted to, the six or seven rolled-over cuffs at the waist to help make the pants fit. And tucked into these green pants and gold belt was an equally-green short-sleeved LeTigre shirt, complete with flipped up collar and slightly rolled sleeves to the shoulder. As my family stood silent and simply gazed at me in amazement, I slowly turned to the side to reveal the flat, pink comb tucked into my back right pocket. And to complete the whole display of the package, I exhibited my new hairstyle for the admiring crowd by running my hands over my head, several inches above the hair.
“Good Lord!” My dad remarked.
“Can we get a picture of that?” Sean asked.
“Oh, no, no, no, no,” Mom sighed.
“He looks like grandma,” Colin said.
I gave them the thumbs-up and nodded my head. My smile was as long as the right part in my hair. “I call her…I call her Silent Green.”
That concert turned out to be one of the most unforgettable moments in my life. And it wasn’t because I was so close to the stage that I caught Rick Springfield’s sunglasses when he threw them into the crowd, and it wasn’t because I made $50 by selling the sunglasses to the lady behind me. It actually had nothing to do with Rick Springfield at all. That night was remarkable because it was the first time in the three months of being thirteen that I owned my age. I owned who I was. I owned all thirteen years of my life. And no matter what seventh or eighth grade, or even high school, would bring my way, I would own that night and everything leading up to it. I was Silent Green.