Thursday, September 27th

I'm drifting in and out of consciousness, in and out of sleep. The fuzzy curtain behind my eyes is in a tug of war with my eyelids and dried out eyeballs, straining to win and send me back to bed. It's undefeated.

7:10 in the morning. I'm in the passenger seat of Eli's truck. We're plowing north through the drizzle and mist to pick up Joe, who called us frantically yesterday to shout about his car trouble, how he couldn't drive and his parents couldn't take him.

Something about fish.

And because the school has him down for driving himself this year, the buses – which must run past his house five times every morning – can't legally stop in front of it. Or something like that. So for now, we have to set aside an extra half hour from our morning to swing out, pick him up, and drive him to school.

The rain spraying the truck is lulling me dangerously close to the brink of sleep, monotonous white noise whizzing out of the tires and beating on the bed in the back.

Bed. Mmm.

Not much more time, just stay awake, almost there. Almost. There. I nod down and jerk my head back up, now suddenly another half mile down the road, Joe's house in sight. Or, would be in sight, if it weren't for the fog.

We roll off the road and into the gravel pull-off in front of their garage, the repair center his father owns and runs. Their house is up the hill from the garage, a crumbling concrete path to the narrow, peeling home.

He probably isn't at the door waiting; it's not like Joe to be prepared. I pull an umbrella out from underneath the seat, open it up, and climb out. It's much windier up here near the exposed coast, almost too much for the flexing wire of the umbrella as I hold it at an angle to buffer against the sharp rain. I should know better by now.

I dash up the walk, trying to sidestep the dark puddles. Joe sees me coming and heads me off halfway to the house. He looks equally as asleep as I was ten seconds earlier.

"Buddy."

He squeezes into the nonexistent center seat of the truck while I fold myself inside with the umbrella. By now I'm a master of car- umbrella skills. I can open the door, cover the opening with the umbrella while I climb inside, close the umbrella while I'm slowly swinging the door shut, and come out bone dry.

Eli waits for a yellow bus to steam past and does a U-turn on the highway.

"So what are you barking about witht the car breaking down?" I yawn.

"The inside's totaled, it's all ruined."

"What happened?"

Joe gulps and winds up. "The battery was dying, and all the batteries in the garage and in the work truck are dead, so my dad put a marine battery in instead, 'cause that still works for a while."

"Uh huh."

"So we had to put our skiff in yesterday, but the truck is broke more, so we hooked the trailer up to the car to take it to the landing."

"Your car has a hitch?"

"Sure." He takes a loud, deep breath through his nose. "So we're there, and we launch the boat, and me and my dad are out there getting ready to go for a ride."

"Aaand you left it in drive."

"My Gramma's gonna drive it back to the house. And she sees we left our cooler in the trunk of the car, so she tries to take it out to us." He lowers his head, ashamed of something.

"Okay?" I prod.

"She drove it out to us."

Eli wakes up behind the wheel. "In the water?"

"She thought that 'cause there was a marine battery in the car that you could drive it in the water and it'd float and nothin' would happen."

"Oh god," I snort. This follows a familiar pattern of brain lapses from Gramma.

"Yeah. So the whole car fills up with water, she's yelling at us, and we have to pull her out, get the car towed out, and now it's all warped inside."

"Wow. Sucks man."

He starts to sound panicked. "You can't tell anyone, okay!" Okay?"

"Yeah, don't worry, no one's gonna care."

"Promise you won't tell anyone?"

"Yeah, it's nothing. I won't say anything." I try to put on the most serious voice possible with grappling with the visual image of Joe's four foot tall grandmother driving their car into the sea. In fairness to her she might not have been able to see over the wheel and thought they were still on the beach.

I wouldn't be embarrassed over it, I'd take pride in knowing that I wasn't the dim bulb in the family.

The air grows brighter as we roll into town, morning slowly waking everyone else up. The school parking lot is as full as it usually is by the time we make it in, and park around the block. We have twice as many cars and trucks as there are spots in the afterthought of a student parking lot, and without parking passes, it turns into a rat race every morning to squeeze in. They're lined up halfway to my house, so I've never seen the point in bothering to circle for half an hour when I can just walk or grab the bus.

I guess that shows how forward thinking our town is – in ten or fifteen years, our population and school's attendance will have shrunk enough to make the little lot fit just right.

We've got a special prize in store for us today – no first period, and in exchange, the senior class gets to sit through a lecture on the magical world of scholarships. A patronizing woman paces the stage, clicking through a slideshow demonstrating how we'll all be getting free rides to the colleges of our dreams. I'm massively tired of these pep talks, knowing that I won't qualify for anything on their dream board. We got this at the end of last year, and pumped up, I went to guidance to check out what was available for me. And the answers weren't good, because what she isn't telling us up on her high horse is that the winners are almost already predetermined. Because when you read between the lines, you see that the whole stack of them are something along the lines of – and with my answers:

Are you an African American? No.

Are you Hispanic? No.

Is your family's income under $30,000 a year? No.

Do you have a pilot's license? No.

Are you interested in joining the Armed Forces? No.

Do you have a GPA of 3.5 or above? No.

Are you a Native Alaskan/Pacific Islander (read: majority)? No.

Are you interested in Nursing? No.

Are you an immigrant? No.

Are you interested in studying in Ireland? No.

Are you interested in becoming an educator (and thus spending what, like eight years in college)? No.

Are you interested in politics? Hell no.

And on and on and on, all of them something like that. Or, a local company or a foundation offers one to the winner of a contest that involves submitting a 3,000 word essay on how we'll change the world or how school fixed me or made me a better man. Damned if I'm going to waste my time on one of those, when they probably know who they're going to pick before you've even done it. That doesn't leave much left for me, the perfectly or imperfectly average and vanilla.

For the lucky many who don't qualify as special, you get saddled with years of debt, paying for the college scam. My family isn't poor, but we aren't all that wealthy – I'm expected to help pay for whatever the next path is. Funny, they don't tell you that at lectures like these. You're expected to be angels and try to win their fancy awards with your ideas and blood.

We're encouraged to swarm the office at the end of the lecture to pick up our waiting stacks of scholarship applications that we'll surely fill out and have back in by tomorrow morning. In fact, they're so generous, we've been given the first half of second period to get a head start on completing them. As a suggestion. To force us to.

"Kurt, you're not going to college?" Mr. Alfred says accusingly after I've filed in and put my head down on the desk empty handed. Just go ahead, single me out. He's already got a habit of doing that. Math teachers, they can see right through you, know when you're bluffing, so he's already got it in for me this year.

"I dunno. I'll do some when I get home."

"I gave you time to be doing that now."

"…Okay." There wasn't any better answer. What am I going to say, say that I don't need them, or grumble about how none of the apply only to get dragged down there by the ear to get the few that do pointed out to me. I don't need to be patronized.

I can tell that some other people didn't even come back from the office, so I'll follow suit and just hang out there until the bell rings.

Inside, there's a girl my age at the counter that I've never seen before, having an argument with the secretary.

"But excuse me," she says with a sharp and distinctive Australian accent, pointing at a paper, "all it says is Recent Immigrant."

"Honey, I wouldn't bother," the secretary mumbles.

Was it Australian? I don't know the difference between that and New Zealand, but Australia has more people so I'll run with that.

The girl turns around in front of me. Tall, long brown hair, obviously new to town. Unweathered.

"Worthless, right?" she says to me, asking rhetorically. I mumble something somewhere between out loud and in my head, and move up to the counter, slapping myself for standing there like a dick. What just happened?

I grab a scholarship form from an irritating local car dealership with no intent of filling it out or sending it back, and it take it up to the library in hopes of staying out of trouble. I've made it a game to try and spend as much time there as possible, whenever I can, and can take advantage of lax hall rules with the lecture letting out today to get up there.

There's not much on the top floor of the school, the penthouse. The big library, science labs, teachers offices – pretty much a no-mans-land outside the library's doors. Eli and Joe's English class is hogging up the computer banks, so I make faces at them while doodling on the back of my empty form. I'm hoping that their class clears out so I can log on before the next period, but they hang around until the last minute.

We're all in the same class next, the worthless Marine Studies period. Worthless is the best way to describe it, thank god it's only half the year. Worthless and unnecessary, telling us what most of us already know. It's way down in the smelly basement, by the big back doors and the big flood funnel.

Worthless studies ends. US History is next, but it's about a ten second walk up the stairs from this room, so I burn time staring into the vending machines. There's a couple banks of them scattered around the school. The basement's has a water machine, a soda machine, and snacks. First floor has the same thing, but then another one with ice cream. Second floor has a water machine, and in the library, a Special machine with rarer drinks and cans that likes to disappear from time to time.

US History starts, with Ballmer, the big tall Texan teacher. All the classes so far have consisted of PowerPoint presentations that we have to copy slide by slide into our notes. Every class, I wonder what the purpose of that is. He could just give us the slides, and we wouldn't have to copy them down word for word for an hour. Or just not have class at all, that'd be even more useful. It's a great way to lull you back into sleep though, sitting in a darkened room while your teacher drones on and on about the board in front of you. Lazy teaching.

So that's fourth period.

Fifth period is English, broken up by lunch in the middle, so it's only two twenty-five minute classes. It flies by with lunch wedged in there, making it the leading candidate for my favorite class so far.

Sixth period: Phys Ed, with Mr. Knude. It's "not," not "nude," but we've already found out that calling him Mr. Nude doesn't go over well.

Thus, Mr. Nude.

I might be alone in this thought, but I love the locker room. We've got a couple of nicknames for it – the smokehouse, the steam room, the hot box – all appropriate. Anything to do with heat. It's one of the remnants of the older school that wasn't renovated very much in the last wave of fixes, and has some kind of horrible ventilation system. Usually feels about a hundred degrees inside, but without any humidity. Dry heat. To help fix the scorching, they've set up ancient floor and wall fans every row or so to blow the air around, creating the hot, windy, and noisy effect that makes it feel so strange. And it dissolves the awful smells of the last half century that I'm sure are lurking around.

If it weren't, you know, a locker room, it'd be even better. I'd sneak down and take a nap, but I've seen what's been on those benches.

Seventh period – last – is Photography, tucked away in the back corners of the basement. My least favorite class after our first couple of weeks. Our teacher is kind of an ass, and I find it hard to respect him when he's blubbering on nonchalantly about how great his life is and all the fantastic places he's been.

And that's school.

The rain is coming down in sheets outside, so I take the bus home. I only live four blocks away, but if it's raining enough to be uncomfortable, I'll sit on the bus. It drops me off in front of my house, but takes fifteen minutes to loop down to it. Beats getting wet today, especially when I've got work afterwards.

I have my license, but don't have a car. My parents both need to commute, and we don't have room or money for a third car. Why I've got my bike. If it's raining too hard to ride it the mile or two to work, I'll call my dad and ask him to drive me down there, but it usually leaves him in a bad mood to take time out of his day to get me and I don't want to piss him off, so I'm hoping that it lets up before I have to set out. I'm leaning to look out the window of the bus to see where the clouds end. I see patches of different shades of gray wherever the sky's showing, so it's impossible to tell.

Fifteen minutes from the time I get home until I have to leave. Time to change, down a bowl of cereal, wash my face, and kick the bike out of the basement.

The rain lets up into a shimmering mist by the time I'm on my bike and rolling out onto the street, gliding carefully downhill towards downtown. Whatever tires I have, they're garbage. Takes me twenty feet to stop on a wet surface, and one jerk to the side sends me tumbling off. I'm afraid of getting hit on the main road, so I usually take the parallel back street, a rickety road held up on stilts in places that weaves around garages, staircases, and fleets of decaying trucks and vans. And what I said about the tires and traction? Means I have to steer half a block ahead of all of these twists and turns. Fun, until I start careening towards the edge and have to brace myself with my hand to bounce off the railing, back out onto the uneven patches of concrete, avoiding barriers and telephone poles like a video game.

It feels and smells like freedom.

The pavement improves in the same spot it always does, and I coast a straight line for what feels like a mile, merging back out with the main road, past the warehouse lots, the elaborate piers, up against the craggy retaining walls. Loop around the tunnel, past the eagle, and I'm dockside, downtown, thrust into crowds of vendors and Scandinavians. The pavement under me gives way to boards, rattling underneath one by one as my shit tires toss me around in every direction.

Here we are. The store. I park and lock my bike in the public rack under the Trading Company awning – code for "trade us all of your money for a pile of shit" – and hop up the step to our store next door. Ah. The smells of coffee, bread, and fish guts.

Jersey Murph's cleaning up behind the counter. "Jersey Boy, my man."

"Kurt, mah' boy."

"Boss man here?" I call out as I head around back.

"What, I can't clean without you coming in here and asking questions? Just assuming I only work when someone's watching? Think you're better than me?"

"Yeah, who's watching?"

Murph slumps his shoulders. "He's in the office."

"Ah."

He tosses me an apron off the dry rack behind him. "Suit up."

We only wear them when he's watching. What's the point? I'm not smearing jelly around the room, nothing's going to get me looking gross. Something spills, I'll clean it up. And either way, my clothes will be wet, apron or no apron. Save a load of wash, kill the aprons.

Otherwise I like our boss, but I don't respect him. He runs a shoddy business with ideas and models that don't make much sense. And his broken English prevents me from getting the nerves up to ask him any questions or suggest improvement. I don't speak very much Norwegian. Jersey Murph turns into a yes-man around him, but seems as stumped as I am. I just trust that he'll put a good word in for me whenever he sees him, since Boss is usually only here when I'm at school.

"Jersey" Murph is one of the managers. He moved out from his native homeland of New Jersey and has worked jobs all around town since.

There's worse people to have to spend dull afternoons with. And I say that with specific people in mind – most of the workers Boss hired over the summer almost drove me out of the place. Now that summer's over and the busy season's winding down, we're back to the old skeleton staff. It's only us for now; Tom's coming in for me at 6 to help close.

Take a step back. Why does this place smell like coffee and fish guts?

Our business is a hybrid of a coffee shop, a sandwich joint, an information kiosk, and a novelty seafood distributor. If you're questioning whether or not that works, well, it doesn't. What I said earlier about poor business, I'm pointing at our menu and storefront. I don't quite understand what we're aiming to do, when we can't do any of those four very well. I'm probably best with information – Boss doesn't like it when I mess around in the kitchen, and I feel warm and productive when I give someone directions or warn them about the dangers that lie ahead.

We get a lot of coffee orders, but not a lot of food. Understandable. They stuff you silly on the ships with buffets, so it's probably the last thing you want to dive into on shore, unless you're going for some of the novelty local fish, which quite frankly, I wouldn't recommend from us.

Boss, maybe pushing seven feet tall, stands out in front of the store like a parade float, beckoning passersby to come inside while scaring children. If you need to put a mental image of someone to him, picture the character Jaws from the old James Bond movies – not the first movie, where he was biting people in the head, but the next one with him, where he goes a little creepy and has a good streak. Now imagine him as your boss.

I lose sleep at night imagining what a local commercial for our store would look like if he was starring in it. Or billboards, or magazine advertisements in the dollar tourism rags. There was some talk of filming a commercial, but I think he realized how pointless it would be, just broadcasting to the same handful of people that already dislike us.

Boss' (Boss'? Boss's?) OCD takes over when he emerges and sees an empty store. The finger and eyes point to me, standing there with my hands in my pockets, and he has me stock the entire storefront, regardless of whether we're out of said products. We missed our soda bottle shipment, so now all we have in the back are crates of water and Cherry Coke, which I'm somehow supposed to disperse through the three fridge units. We used to have a soda fountain machine, but it broke down and no one bothered fixing it, so all we're left with are bottles. And coffee.

The notion and façade of our store being a coffee emporium is a complete and intentional sham. The left wall of the store is counter-to-ceiling bean dispensers and displays, mugs, mix-ins, glossy coffee images, fancy levers and presses and grinders – almost all bullshit. Either fakes or gadgets no one knows how to use.

It's a slow afternoon. I sit up on my high stool between the counter and the windows facing the street and the water, watching people drift back and forth without giving our store a glance. The ships pulled out right after I my shift started, which marks the beginning of a dead night. Murph realizes this after two hours, and sends me home.

The bike ride home with the big uphill at the start is much less fun, especially in dim light.

My parents aren't home – a surprise. I'm not sure how much they'll be included. Not because I don't love them and aren't grateful for them, but because they aren't major players in my life, and we've all accepted it. They work a lot, and we don't have very much in common anymore. I'm okay with it, I don't hate them. You just won't be seeing me mention them every day.

I've just gotten used to going without them and their guidance. My dad's a police officer (as was his dad, and his dad's dad, etc), and – he's actually the police chief – that casts a shadow over me. Not that I just sit around doing drugs and breaking windows all day and have to watch my back, but it's a different household. You know what I mean?

It's not all bad, and I like being from a family of cops. There's instant protection, and you learn a lot of the tricks of the trade. But it's their trade.