Salvation

by Marlene Olin

South Miami Senior High, 1986.

As soon as the bell rings, Luca runs through the empty corridor, finds the custodian’s closet, and pees into a pail. Next he slips outside and tiptoes to class. His eyes scan every shadow and every hidden door. The hall monitor glances in his direction. A ceiling camera zeroes in and whirrs.

We gotta jump to hyperspace, Chewie! They’re closing in fast!

Then he sprints. His backpack bounces on his shoulders, his hands chop the air brushing away enemies only he can see. A fist in the gut. A pen in his back. You never know. When he bursts through the door, Mr. Harris is taking attendance.

“Nice of you to join us, Mr. Plasky.”

He’s small for a tenth grader. Built like a puppy. Big paws. Big head. When all his body parts match up, Luca figures he’ll reach six feet. Freddie del Salvo is his lab partner. Freddie’s body parts already match up.

Each week there’s another lab experiment. That day they’re building volcanoes with baking soda and vinegar. All Luca has to do is glance at the textbook and the images pop up 3D in his head. He sees the chemical reaction, the explosion, the before and after mess on the table that they share.

Freddie doesn’t bother reading. While Luca carefully fills out the worksheet—materials, hypothesis, procedure, data, conclusion—Freddie tackles the modeling clay. They’re a perfect team. While they work, they hum and tell each other corny jokes. What did the volcano say to his wife? I lava you so much. They fall into a rhythm, passing the beaker, the measuring cups, the mixing spoons.

For a few moments, Luca is lulled into complacence. Once Freddie was his best friend. When his father died, Luca spent more time at Freddie’s house then he did at his own. It was Freddie’s father who taught him how to ride a bike. It was Freddie’s mom who sewed the holes in his socks, who helped him with his homework. Freddie was the closest thing to a brother he ever had.

Then senior high started. They’re only five months deep into tenth grade but those five months have changed everything. Freddie started hanging out with a new group, an older group, a group that prided itself on fast cars and faster girls. Whenever the group’s around, Freddie acts like Luca doesn’t exist.

You must confront him. Then, only then, a Jedi will you be.

Mr. Harris, as usual, glances at their work and pens Great job! on the worksheet that they share. Freddie, as usual, grabs it from Luca’s hands, squashes it into a ball, and takes aim for the wastebasket. Luca watches the trajectory of the worksheet as it lands in the garbage. Then he walks to the wastebasket and digs it out. Like all of his schoolwork, the worksheet will find its proper home. When the boxes beneath his bed are filled, Luca figures there are other beds, other boxes.

Luca smoothes out the creases of the paper while Freddie smirks.

“Did you know that you’re an asshole?” says Luca.

When the words come out, they sound strange. Strange and loud. Like a voice synthesizer amplified the sounds. As soon as he says them, Luca knows that he’s made a big mistake. Freddie side-glances and moves to a table across the aisle.

The bell rings. Instead of heading to the cafeteria for lunch, Luca eats in the library. His mother, the school librarian, keeps an extra sandwich for him. Every morning she suggests that he carry his own food and eat in the cafeteria. And every morning he lies. My backpack’s stuffed, Mom. Do you see any room in my backpack?

But in truth Luca’s fears dictate his life. He fears that his belongings will be ransacked. If he carried his lunch, it would be stolen. If he carried any cash, they’d take that, too. It’s best, Luca figures, to simplify things. He brings an apple or a bag of chips and they are happy. Like an offering to the Gods, a small gift will suffice.

“How was your morning, sweetheart?”

His mother bares a set of yellowed teeth. Since his father’s death, she has aged light years. One minute his father was fine and the next he just keeled over. A hole in an artery, a bubble bursting, a manufacturer’s defect. Weeks later his grandparents came to live with them. They were supposed to help out, his mother told him. Funny how some plans don’t turn out the way you plan them.

“How’s Mr. Harris? Did you have fun in Science?”

She walks slowly, her back bent, a corona of gray hairs circling her face. Like a cheap car, she is planned obsolescence, a product with a shortened shelf life. He watches for a hitch in her step, a catch in her breath, bracing himself for the moment that she keels over too.

The kids in Freddie’s group love to humiliate her. Their favorite trick is to drop pennies down the stairwell from the second floor. They laugh while faculty members pick them up—knees kneeling, purses swinging, the bodily contortions just to pick a measly penny off the floor. They stand on the balcony doubled over, laughing, their idea of having fun. His mother has a whole drawerful of pennies. He both loves and hates her at the same time.

“How’s Freddie? Did your lab experiment go well?”

After he eats lunch, Luca moves over to the checkout desk. The students walk up like supplicants, proffering their opened books, waiting for him to stamp the inside cover. Luca watches his hand stamp. Up, down. Up, down. His mother lurks by his side.

“You sure you don’t want a ride home, Luca? If you wait around awhile, I can give you a ride. You sure you don’t want a ride?”

A ride would be easy. A ride would be like floating in a swimming pool. Face up. Arms out. Buoyant. But Luca would never abandon Marissa. Like Freddie, Marissa also lives on his block. She has blond hair, blue eyes, perfect skin. Cheerleader material. It’s up to Luca to protect her from sinister forces known and unknown. The Galactic Empire spares no one. Luca has been in love with her his entire life.

Hours later, the two of them get off the bus. Luca sucks in air and readies himself. An ambush could happen anywhere. Once in PE, Pushy Johnson pulled Luca’s gym shorts down to his ankles. They were standing outside on the basketball court. An entire class of eighth grade girls ran by, saw his boxers, laughed. He wears his jeans one size too small now, so tight he can barely breathe. You can’t pull them down. You’d have to peel them down.

Old Jedi mind trick, eh?

There are one thousand and forty-three steps between Marissa’s house and the bus stop. They walk quickly. Luca keeps the keys to his house in his fist, the sharp ends jutting out between his fingers. When they see her white clapboard house and the huge oak tree that shades it they both exhale at the same time.

Marissa has a worried face. Her mouth and eyebrows arc like a sad clown. Like someone took an eraser and wiped the happiness off. “Can you make it from here?” she asks.

Luca’s eyes scan the street and nods yes. Three minutes and twenty seconds later, he arrives home. His grandfather is still holding court on the porch. Luca never knows which person will greet him. There are too many versions of his grandfather to keep count.

“Is that you, Jeff?”

Some days his grandfather calls him Luca but other days he thinks Luca is his son. While Luca and his mother are at school, his grandfather sits outside watching the news on their black and white TV. His feet pump the rocker like kids push on a swing. He and Luca used to play chess. Toss a baseball. Wash the car. But lately all he wants to do is pump.

They say that years ago Florida, the Caribbean Islands, and Central America were all connected, like pieces in a puzzle. When the land pulled apart, water filled the empty space. Slowly Luca’s grandfather is forgetting how to talk and how to walk. So far nothing has filled the empty space.

“It’s me, Grandpa. Luca. I’m Jeff’s son. Luca. Remember me?”

Luca remembers when his grandfather was as tall as the trees. A minor league recruit, he was told. A natural athlete. Now he sits in the rocker like a long wet noodle, his neck resting on a shoulder, his body limp. Most days he is forgets to put on shoes and underwear. He lives in a bathrobe the color of mud.

Grandma Rose is his opposite. She’s Luca’s height but doughy and round. Her enormous breasts reach her waist. Two thick legs stick out under her housecoat. She waddles like a duck.

Judge me by my size, do you?

She hears the screen door and rushes to greet him. “Some milk, some cookies. Hits the spot. Right?”

Luca has heard the stories about life in Russia, about the Holocaust. His grandmother speaks in spurts, groping for the right words. She runs her shaky fingers over his face. Her chin tick-tocks like a clock.

“Some days. They are better than others. No?”

“Some days are better,” says Luca.

He escapes inside his room to do his homework. The curtains have been drawn all day, keeping the room cool. It’s the one room his grandmother cannot clean, his mother cannot inspect. Floor to ceiling Star Wars posters cover the walls. Deadbolts run up and down the door.

With his back against the wall, he listens. Any minute he’ll hear the crunch of his mother’s car pulling onto the gravel, the grind of the garage door straining to lift. But the only sound he hears is his grandfather. He shuffles from room to room like a ghost, stabbing the floor with his cane.

Luca drops his shoulders and sighs. Once he determines that the coast is clear there are rituals that he must perform. He closes his eyes and lightly touches the lids. Counts to one hundred. Lines up the pens on his desk, the shoes in his closet, the pill bottles sitting on his bathroom sink. He feels the power slowly work its way from his toes up. Then he stares at a book and wills it to move. Lays his hands on his mattress and wills it to rise.

Luca, it’s your destiny.

When he turns on his desk lamp, shadows appear. They’re larger than life, stretched and elongated like funhouse distortions. He stands up, lunges, points his pencil in the air. Sure enough a lightsaber appears on the wall. He bends his wrist to the right and to the left, dodging, lunging, slashing.

All at once the world’s a simpler place. It’s Luca versus the Emperor Palpatine. Good versus evil. He hears the music, hears the triumphant chords swoop and soar. A portal opens. In a galaxy far far away Freddie is loyal, his father alive, his grandfather well.

*

Most of his days loop. But the next day, the day that changes everything, starts differently. The temperature has dropped. The sky is cloudless. Birds rocket from branch to branch, weightless.

“Your sweater, bring!” says his grandmother.

Luca steps onto his front porch. There are tiny icicles on the grass. When he opens his mouth a puff of moisture billows. Yes, it is cold.

“See you at lunch!” says his mother.

His grandfather is already outside, sitting in the rocker and combing the newspaper. Today is a good day. He looks at Luca and instantly registers where he is, who he is. Luca’s heart skips a beat.

“Goddamned Reagan!” Then he blows his nose into a sock.

One step. Two steps. Three steps. Luca walks to Marissa’s house and knocks on her door. Together they head to the bus stop. When they turn the corner, Freddie’s group stands waiting.

I have a bad feeling about this.

Pushy. Manuel Diaz. Karl Krebs. Luca’s forgotten to hold his house keys in his hand. He’s forgotten to hide his homework inside his shoe.

It’s a trap!

The scene rapidly unfolds. Marissa screams as Freddie jumps out from the bushes. Lights flash as Luca’s ass hits the ground. An apple rolls down the sidewalk. Papers soar in the breeze.

Then they laugh. Freddie. Manuel. Pushy. Karl. Heh heh heh. Like machine guns. Heh heh heh. Luca looks at his crotch. He thinks he’s wet his pants.

“Come on, Luca,” says Marissa. “They’re just joking around.”

But Luca has learned that people behave like pendulum clocks. Though they start at different points, they eventually swing together. Everyone but Luca. Pushy grabs the apple while Karl commandeers his backpack. Laughing and smiling, Marissa helps Luca up.

The worst is yet to come. Freddie walks over, plants a kiss on Marissa’s mouth, then dips her backwards like a dancer. She leans in and sucks his lower lip. It’s all done in one fluid motion. As if they’ve been practicing. As if they’ve been watching black and white movies all night nonstop and memorizing the moves. Swoop. Swing. Swig.

The world telescopes in and out. Luca glances behind him. The pavement vibrates as a squad of stormtroopers marches in lockstep. A huge hologram of the Emperor’s skeletal head is close enough for him to touch.

We’ve lost the deflector shield! Weapon malfunction! Weapon malfunction!

Luca swears he sees a white helmet poking out behind a car. The barrel of a blaster rifle points straight at him.

“The bus is here, Luca!” shouts Marissa. She grabs his hand. “Pay attention, Luca! The bus is here!”

Freddie’s friends are too cool for public transportation. They’re adjusting the front of their pants and yanking on their shirt sleeves. Freddie tugs on Marissa’s arm as she nears the bus. “See you at lunch, your worshipfulness.” A busload of kids stare as they lock lips once more.

Luca’s morning is a blur. It’s getting harder and harder to concentrate. Then third period is mercifully cancelled. Instead of a lab, Mr. Harris directs them into the school auditorium. The Space Shuttle Challenger is taking off and for the first time a teacher gets to ride on board. Mr. Harris has been talking it up for weeks, like it’s a bakery and if he takes a number his turn will be next. Mammoth TVs are brought in special for the event. They’re plopped Stonehenge style in circles around the room.

The crowd quiets as the rocket takes off. Two hundred faces watch the screens, lift a little in their seats. Thirty seconds pass. A minute passes. Then suddenly a plume of smoke. Luca glances at Mr. Harris. His hand is over his mouth as he slowly stands.

And then everyone is standing. Without one word spoken, they fall into fire drill patterns and head towards the exits. Minutes later they’re on the front lawn of the school. They collectively look north towards Cape Canaveral, hoping that by some small miracle they’ll see a dot on the horizon, a speck traveling across space. Maybe, just maybe, the TV announcer was pulling their legs. Maybe, just maybe the images on the screen were a trick, a deception. And for a few wonderful minutes, Luca is immersed in collective confusion. A sense of the unreal, a sense that everything is broken and needs to be fixed, pervades every single mind.

School is dismissed early. Marissa is red-faced and teary-eyed. Freddie meets them alone at the bus stop so the three of them walk together. A flush of memories races through Luca’s brain. Birthday parties. Sleepovers. The three of them riding bikes with training wheels, their thumbs ringing the bells. When they get to her front door, Freddie takes the key from Marissa’s hand and opens it. Then he walks inside.

Luca is left alone. He’s counting the steps, the cracks in the sidewalk, the mailboxes one, two, three. Then Karl pulls up. He drives a piece of shit Chevy Nova but he’s added off-road tires, huge ridiculous things with white stripes and treads like dinosaur tracks. Manuel’s in the front seat and Pushy’s in the back. Karl honks the horn once, twice, three times then follows Luca up the street. Gravity seems doubled. Luca plods so slowly he can barely lift his feet.

As usual, Luca’s grandfather is sitting on the porch with the TV blaring. But today everyone has their TV blaring, the whole neighborhood is bathed in surround sound, looking at the video over and over again, listening to the TV announcers weep.

The three of them get out of the car just as Luca approaches his front walkway. Manuel has a bottle of beer in one hand, a tire iron in the other. He’s a skinny kid, not much taller than Luca, and hasn’t learned to hold his liquor. He’s weaving on the sidewalk and slurring his words. Karl and Pushy sit on the hood of the Nova and watch.

“Hey, Mr. Skywalker. I’m talking to you, Luca! I’m talking to you!”

Manuel’s so dumb he channels five movies at once. He’s gesturing like Marlon Brando, walking like John Wayne, talking like de Niro. Luca’s head hurts. The voices are relentless, radiating from his teeth, the telephone poles, the sky. When he glances at Karl and Pushy, Boba Fett’s sitting next to them on the hood.

Your weapons, you will not need them.

Manuel doesn’t mean to hurt Luca. He’s swinging the tire iron like a bandleader’s baton, swiping the air, waving it around, acting goofy. But men are falling from the skies and spaceships are somersaulting back to earth. Up is down and down is up. Luca sits on the ground and covers his head with his hands. The voices are laughing now. The birds are laughing. The mailboxes with their gaping lids and flattened flags are laughing too.

His grandmother yells from the kitchen. “Is that you Luca? Luca is that you?”

When it happens, Luca only sees bits and pieces. An empty rocker creaks. A cane is brandished. His grandfather’s robe sweeps the steps.

“What the fuck!” shouts Karl.

“Fuck me,” yells Pushy.

Help me Obi Wan! You’re my only hope!

But his grandfather will not be contained. A white thigh is unsheathed, his long wrinkled penis flops back and forth, the cane raised to the heavens then slashed downwards. Manuel screams then crumbles in a heap. And for one brief second Luca’s life couldn’t be more perfect.

 

Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. Her short stories have been featured or are forthcoming in publications such as The Massachusetts Review, upstreet Magazine, Arts and Letters, Slippery Elm, and The American Literary Review. She is the winner of the 2015 Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Award as well as a nominee for both the Pushcart and the Best of the Net prizes.

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