The School on Heart's Content Road

By Carolyn Chute
Atlantic Monthly. 384 pp. $24
Jan. 4, 2008

Chapter One


[The screen insists, scolds, grins, cajoles] The screen shouts

Beeeee afraid! Low types of people are everywhere, in cities, in towns, in your backyard! In other countries. Drugged, crazed, mindless evil is at large!

[Out in the World] Out in the World, Mickey Gammon remembers his last day of school a few weeks ago. Mickey speaks

Last March, my mother wanted to come back to Maine. My brother Donnie came and got us and he had gotten a little fat, but I recognized him. (Ha! Ha!). Okay, just a little fat. A gut.

We rode back in the night. To Maine.

The school here in Maine is a joke. Like the other school was a joke. In Mass. You were supposed to keep your locker locked to keep people out, but there was a rule they could search your locker on demand. There's two types of teachers wherever you go. The kind with slitted eyes that try to get you to fight. And the ones, mostly women, who talk to you like if they say the right thing, they can change your life, that there is something wrong with your life. I say, fuckem, there's nothing wrong with my life. That was the same thing back in Mass. It's like they either want to kick your ass or sniff it.

My brother's wife is sweet. She has everything ... looks, brains, composure. And I especially like her t-shirt with the Persian cat printed on it ... something about the idea of that cat's face goes with her face ... the big eyes. Meanwhile, she has arms like Wonder Woman, like she could wrastle you down if it got to that. But she's not one of them man-women you see around. Erika is soft like a pillow. My brother Donnie ever lays a finger on her, I'll break his face.

Meanwhile, I was just taking the bus to school, to finish out the year at this school here. I don't mess with their books, you know, frig with them, write shit in them or vandalize things. That's stupid. But I figured before the last day in June I was going to draw a picture of Mr. Carney sucking a pony's cock on a separate piece of paper. And you know, tape it into the book.

Okay, so my life isn't perfect. You wanna hear this? I got a little nephew ... Erika's and Donnie's kid ... name's Jesse. He's got a weird cancer. At first it was slow, but now it's fast. Imagine! A little kid like that. He don't even talk any more.

So while I was in class one morning drawing some doodles on my paper, listening to them all whine about South American exports and the the Incas or some such shit, the door opens and, yes, it's the cops. They have a marijuana-sniffing dog and the teacher who is in on this like some fucking spy says that the dog is here to sniff our lockers, all the student cars, and yes, us. She says that the officer is just going to walk with the dog down between the rows, that unless the dog indicates illegal substances on us, none of us will be searched. "It's just a routine thing," she says. "We're sure that no one here has any illegal substances on them."

Wellllll, I was sweating in a cold way all over. I hadn't had any weed on me for weeks, but I had this horror suddenly, that that sucker was going to take an interest in me because of my THOUGHTS.

So the Nazi-Pig comes along and his dog is going along ... you know ... like an ordinary dog ... and he's cleared two rows without finding what he likes and as he is coming nearer to me I'm feeling freaked ... and this kid Jared behind me, he says, "That dog sniffs my crotch, I'll kick his face in." He said this wicked soft, but Mrs. Linnett with fucking amplified-radar-electronic ears that could probably hear your faucet dripping in another state, says, "What's that, Jared?"

And so the dog has gone past me and Mrs. Linnett tells Jared to "Go to Mr. Carney's office." And she apologizes to the Nazi and makes a real scene over Jared.

At lunch, we heard that three kids were caught, one with a toothpick-sized joint and two with a smell that meant they'd had the stuff on them recently. Everyone, the teachers and all the obedient Honor pansies and killer sheep were pale in the face wondering how OUR SCHOOL has got this terrible DRUG PROBLEM. Some were saying they just KNOW there must be LSD, too, and coke, and heroin, crack and crank, OxyContins and whatever, but dogs can't sniff that yet. The whole cafeteria was in a kind of high squeally furor ... LOUD ... like panicked mice. I wasn't hungry. I stabbed my fork into my apple. I said, "Fuck this Alcatraz!!" and I stood up, without my tray, and walked outta there. And out to the hall, Mr. Runnells, one of them that guards the cafeteria doors, says, "And where do you think you're going, Gammon?" And he reaches out like he's going to put his hand on my arm. And for some reason beyond reason, I started to cry-the trembling mouth, the shaky voice, tears, in the eyes. It's like they got an electric paddle touching every part of you, making you do things against your will. The place has an ugly power over people.

I stepped away from him and said "Bye now" in a kind of nice way and went past Mr. Carney's office and out the glass doors and out into the sun and then I started running like hell.

[The screen insists, scolds, grins, cajoles] The screen brays

These flavorful burgers, these potato-flavored salt strips, these fizzy syruppy brown-flavored drinks in tall cups are waiting just for YOU. Go to it! NOW!

[Out in the World] Out in the world

Thousands of little red, grey, white or blue cars and billowy plastic-bumpered sport-trucks and SUVs snap on their directionals and whip into the asphalt passages of the drive-in order windows of any one of thousands of the identical burger stations.

[Neighbors] Now in summer, we see Mickey Gammon at home

The walls of this old house have a weary cream and green wallpaper. Horses, carriages, men and women. Tall arched elms.

The shades here are drawn. Shades yellowed with age. The light of this room is therefore dark but golden.

There's a car chase scene on the TV. Vigorous and bouncy. But Mickey Gammon's mother, Britta, keeps the sound down because of the child, Jesse.

Jesse, almost age two, is shrinking. A thick-legged, noisy, grey-eyed boy whose favorite word was not "No", but "Why?" Now shrinking. Stretched out on the couch. His skeletal legs seem awfully long.

Toys all around. Blue plastic car. Yellow plastic car. And a plastic-haired doll. Plastic, convenient, affordable, but terrible to the touch.

Mickey has just come in. Fifteen and free as a bird. He smells like somewhere, somewhere different than here. Other homes. Other considerations. He kneels against the couch. His grey, always watchful, almost wolf-like eyes press like a hand over Jesse's baseball print pajamas and the nearest small hand. Mickey speaks something low which his mother, Britta, over there in her chair, cannot hear, but Jesse hears. Jesse stares steadily through the magnificent pageant of his pain into the soft spoken word.

In this household, there is no money today. No money. No money. No money.

Out there in the world are whole bins of pain pills unreachable as clouds. The key to painlessness is money. Money is everything.

[Neighbors] Mickey finds honor

He is walking the long back road some call "The Boundary". He is a light and fast walker, staying to the road's high crown. Light and fast, yes, but also cautious and manly, a gait that is articulated at the knees. Such a fine-boned creature, this Mickey Gammon. Narrow shoulders. Little tufty streaky-blonde ponytail. Dirty jeans, and hipless. Fairly androgynous at first glance. At first glance.

He can hear shots up ahead in the Dunham pit. And then beyond that, a deeper and darker aggression, a thunderstorm rumbling in from the southwest. When he gets closer to the opening of the pit, the silvery 'popple' leaves are already starting to flutter, and upon his hot face, the restless air is like a big God hand of airy benediction.

He sees four pickups, a newish little car, a pocked Blazer and at least eight men, none he recognizes, yet he is under the good and nearly true belief that his brother Donnie knows everyone in Egypt who is near his, Donnie's, own age, and yes, almost anyone might also be a distant relative.

Mickey walks his arrowstraight and lightstep walk to where the group is standing with their firearms and thermos cups of coffee and he sees one man squatted down with a .45 service pistol aimed at a black and white police target , target with a silhouette of a man, only about fifty yards away on a wooden frame. Mickey slows his pace just before reaching this group. Guns? Mickey has no problem with guns. It is having to talk that brings him terror.

The man is rock steady in his aim, taking a lot of time. Silence before the pounding crack of a gun is always a momentous thing.

The other men turn and see Mickey. Some nod. Some don't. None speak. One man is sitting on a tailgate, wearing earmuff-style ear protectors, his fingers nudging the double action of a revolver with soft sensuous clicks. The men who have acknowledged Mickey have turned away now to watch the framed target. One guy watches through a spotting scope on a tripod on his truck hood. The breeze rises up and gives everyone's sleeves and hair a flutter. And sand moves a bit. And then there's another rumble coming closer fast from the southwest.

Mickey moves lightly, stepping inside the edgy-feeling perimeter of the group, and sees there across the tailgate of one truck is a Ruger 10/22, a Springfield M-1-A, and several SKS's, three Russian with the star and red-yellow finish, a couple with fold-up vinyl stocks, black, light to carry, easy to hide. And a whole selection of full auto military-issue Colts. Two AR-15's. A Bushmaster. And two AK47's. Some of these are, yuh, the real thing. The thing made for war.

At last the shooter squeezes the trigger and the deafening crack of this, it almost feels good to Mickey's ears.

The guy with his eye to the spotting scope looks grim. "Seven!" he calls.

The shooter, dressed in dark blue work clothes, no cap, bald but for horsey grey hair on the sides and thorns of grey hair on his tanned and lined neck, dips the .45, then raises it quickly, squeezes off four rapid shots in a row. Echoes among the hills multiply the four shots to a lively staccato. And then the supreme BOOOOMMM!, this the thunder of the storm marching closer.

Mickey spins his studded leather wristband, which is what he always does when he doesn't know what else to do, watching the guy with the spotting scope who now calls out, "Ten X! Ten! Two sevens!" And the shooter slips the .45 into the holster, which is against his ribs outside his shirt, but is the kind you wear under a shirt if you plan to conceal it.

Mickey says croakily, "Anyone got a smoke I could borrow?"

There is a guy standing very close to Mickey who is of medium height, small-waisted, fit, wears a red t-shirt, jeans. Very square-shouldered. Black military boots and a soft olive drab army cap, a very fancy black-faced watch, looks more like a compass. Maybe it is a compass. And sunglasses. Metal frames. Cop glasses. Like the Nazis wear to school when they bring in their drug dogs. But this guy has a moustache, the kind that crawls down along the jaws, Mexican moustache. Arms are not thickly-haired. Nothing hides the impatient pulsing musculature. He says, "What's that you say?"

Mickey can't exactly see this man's eyes because of the sunglasses, but he can tell the guy is looking him up and down.

A hefty white-haired guy with a white sea captain's beard says, "Right here" in a voice that is high and quavery for such a big guy. He steps toward Mickey with the pack, shakes two into Mickey's hand and says cheerily, "I'm not starting you on a bad habit, am I?"

Mickey replies without a smile. "I've been smokin' for five years."

"Breakin' the law." This voice is shaly and made for hard reckoning. Mickey doesn't look to see which face owns it. It's beyond the sunglasses guy so it is not the sunglasses guy.

Another voice, letting go with a small shriek of laughter. But no words. Also not the sunglasses guy.

"What! Artie break laws!" This, another voice as tight as a stricture and yet it means to be teasy. This voice beyond the first truck.

Many small chortles overlapping and flexing. Earthworms in a can overlap and flex, too. Faceless laughter. Mickey keeps his eyes lowered.

Hot breeze blows some more sand around. Then the BOOOMMM! and matching flutter of light in the darkening southwest. Mickey now watches two really young guys, maybe not yet twenty, murmuring to a small, dark-haired, dark-eyed older guy with a mean-looking hunched bearing who is reassembling a black vinyl-stock SKS. Even his ears have an inflexible, shiny, mean look to them.

A guy with a camouflage print t-shirt, very thin, bony, urgent-looking guy, clean shave, freckles, almost no eyebrows, reddish hair and a big smile asks Mickey, "On foot today, huh?" He selects one of the SKS's from the tailgate, pulling it away quite theatrically with both hands, raises his foot to rest on a plastic ammo case, then places the rifle across his thigh with stiff, animalish, almost bewitching-to-see grace. Mickey eyes the flash suppressor on the end of the short carbine barrel, the long, dark, curved, extended magazine, says, "I have a '66 Mustang in Mass ... everything but the body is real nice ... sixty thou' original ... but needs some stuff ... tires mostly. Couldn't move it. Not road worthy."

"Lotta road between here and Mass," declares the hefty sea captain beard guy with a cackle. This is the guy called "Artie".

Mickey nods. Pokes a cigarette into the corner of his mouth. Snaps a match alive, cupping his hand and hunkering down to give the flame shelter from the wind, takes the first drag hungrily, drops the match into the sand.

"You walk from Mass?" softly wonders another guy, great, tall, rugged, clean-shaved guy in full camouflage, heavy-looking BDU's. Long sleeves. Looks hot.

Mickey replies, "No."

The guy with the sunglasses and red t-shirt, thick dark moustache, has turned away, sort of dismissively, but he still hangs back, an ear on what's being said.

The full camo guy picks up a stapler and fresh target and trudges off toward the open pit area.

The sea captain beard, hefty, high-voiced Artie asks Mickey, "Do you shoot?"

Mickey says, "Yuh, some."

The bony, urgent-looking, red-haired guy, not smiling now, advises, "If you keep your aim up, you'll be glad some day."

Mickey says, "I like shootin' alright."

The red t-shirt guy with the sprawling moustache and sunglasses and army cap and awesome black-faced watch stares after the baldish guy, who is ripping his target from the fifty-yard frame.

Big guy with full camo trudges the long open pit to a frame against the bank at a hundred yards, the wind wrestling earnestly with his target as he staples it to the wood.

The red t-shirt guy now seems to be staring at Mickey, though with the sunglasses, one can't be absolutely positively sure.

Mickey smokes his cigarette down. He has pocketed the other. He now leans against a fender, feeling the thunder in the ground, watching the purple-black part of the sky flutter with big jabs of light, splitting open right over Horne Hill, the sweet breeze touching him all over, the tobacco smoke's big satisfying work done inside him, the men trudging around him and their voices, both grave and playful. Alas now, they speak of the storm, and discuss whether or not to wait it out in their vehicles or leave.

The red t-shirt guy asks Mickey his name. Mickey tells him. He asks Mickey his age. Mickey says sixteen, which he is, almost. He asks him what kind of gun he has. Mickey says a Marlin 22 Magnum.

"Just one?"

Mickey says, "Yep."

The guy asks, "Where do you live?"

"Sanborn Road."

The bony, urgent, eyebrowless guy, overhearing, calls to him, "You live in that new place over there?"

"No. In the big one. I'm Donnie Locke's brother. Been in Mass for awhile. I'm livin' here with him now."

The full camo guy is coming back through the wind and wild sand. Wind getting some real gumption now. Mickey can see through one side of the red t-shirt guy's sunglasses, eyes that never seem to blink.

Now Mickey leans into the open door of the Blazer and casually sorts through shot-up police and circular competition targets. "You guys are good," he says.

"Not really," the red t-shirt guy says rather quickly. "When your life is at stake, your first four shots are what counts. There's no chances after that. You can't have twenty shots to warm up."

Mickey nods, picks something off the knee of his frazzled filthy jeans. A green bug with crippled wings. He scrunches it. With a murderous CRACK! and the sky dimming blue-black in all directions, light scribbles and splits into veins, and now rain. A few splats.

The red t-shirt guy seems to be looking at Mickey hard.


Excerpted from The School on Heart's Content Road by Carolyn Chute Copyright © 2008 by Carolyn Chute. Excerpted by permission.
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