Orientation

By Art Taylor

One Friday during those first weeks at the Blue Ridge School for Boys, Nathaniel and I hung out in the common room and watched Dukes of Hazzard instead of heading out on the weekly “Night on the Town”—the big BRS shuttle to the local movie theater, the chance to flirt with some local girls. Our monthly allowances were nearly tapped out. I hadn’t had any luck with those girls, and Nathaniel had seemed too shy to even try. The rat system—the relentless hazing—had left us both a little shell-shocked, especially Nathaniel, thin and a little frail and looking like his mom had given him a bowl haircut, which hadn’t earned him any points with the old boys. The taunts and punishments were meant to bond us together, and I guess they had in our case, but both of us needed a break.

So we played cards and watched TV and felt in charge of ourselves for a while. But then boredom and regret sunk in, and I turned to him and said, “Up for exploring?”

“Always,” Nathaniel said, and he gave a big smile. His front teeth were slightly crooked, one overlapping the other. The old boys had given him hell about that too.

The football stadium was the proud capstone to every campus tour, and we rats were required to cheer the team at every home game, but it felt like we’d crossed some boundary into unfamiliar territory when we found ourselves on the fifty-yard line under a moonlit sky. When we called out “Hello!” and “We’re here!” and “Old Boys Suck!” our voices sounded like someone else’s echoing through the stands.

We stumbled along the length of the cross-country course. ‘Nam, the runners called it, and the way the moonlight filtered through the trees, it did look like a jungle. Nathaniel worried about stepping on a snake. We’d both heard rumors that some of the old boys went out there to smoke pot, and I wondered how many demerits that would be. I wondered how many we were risking ourselves.

Inside the classroom buildings, we crept up pitch-black stairwells, wandered dim hallways, a lot of them barely familiar even with the lights on. We tested doors, pulled a rolling bucket out of a supply closet and pushed it around with a mop, listened for the security guards making the rounds.

The bio and chem labs were locked tight, but the study hall was open, and we raced three times between the rows of desks to see who was the fastest. When we gave each other high-fives at the finish line, Nathaniel’s palm was already sweaty. Jazzed up, breathless, we scrambled down another stairwell that neither of us had ever used and came out into a trash area behind the kitchen.

“You never know where you’re going to end up,” Nathaniel said.

We turned back, rerouted.

Another stairwell turned out to be a back entrance to the library, which took up the whole top floor. Big plate-glass windows covered each wall, the whole thing about the same level as the lights that lined the plaza and the courtyard below. The way those windows filtered the light, those long rows of books all amber and eerie, the deep quiet—all of it felt like a horror movie, like anything could happen.

I poked around a row of atlases, then turned each of them upside down on the shelf. My one real transgression of the night. Nathaniel whispered that he needed to look for something and asked if I wanted to come. When I said no, he started down one of the rows, deeper into the shadows, then stopped and turned back like he was scared of the dark.

“Pussy,” I said.

He wouldn’t look at me. “It wasn’t important.”

From one side of the library, the campus stretched out past the old gym and across the track and the soccer fields. If it hadn’t been dark, it would’ve looked like one of those panoramic pictures in the application packets our parents had gotten.

From another side, we could see Little Egypt, the shadows of smokers huddled under a tin canopy. Their parents had to sign permission slips. The red tips glowed here and there in the darkness. One of the smokers flicked a cigarette out into the night. Demerits there too, I’d imagine. Littering.

On the front plaza, the bus pulled up, returning from the big Friday night out, and as we watched them unload, I wondered what movies they’d seen, if any of them had kissed a girl.

I nudged Nathaniel with my elbow. “Our night on the town was probably better than theirs, huh?”

“Do you think they can see us?” Nathaniel asked. He stepped back, further from the window.

“Nah,” I said. “Maybe if we were up closer to the glass. But you know how windows are. If you’re on the side with the light, you just get a reflection of yourself.”

The bells sounded then—15 minutes to get back to dorm.

“Time to go,” I said.

“Almost,” he said, and he sounded nervous.

Scared again, I figured—of being late, being caught, getting demerits. But then I turned and looked at him, standing there in the amber and the half-shadows. He was biting at his bottom lip with those crooked teeth, and when he tried to smile at me, his lips parted and trembled. How can I describe how different that smile looked from the one before? how needy? how hopeful?

In a sharp rush, I saw everything I’d missed.

*

About a week later, there was a football game out, and it was all laughing and cheering from the visitor’s side of the field when some guys there brought out a homemade banner with “BRS has AIDS.” This was the early-’80s, before any of us were supposed to know any better. Not even the teachers batted an eye.

Like I said, we rats were required to attend all the football games, so Nathaniel must have been there too, somewhere back in the stands. He’d been avoiding me, that’s what I’d told myself, and that was true, but I guess I could’ve turned to look for him myself.

“Assholes,” said Trent, another new boy, sitting next to me that day. At halftime, he went over to the visitors’ side and got in the middle of it, tore the banner in half. He earned a black eye for that and forty or fifty demerits too, I can’t remember which. The old boys started calling him king of the rats.

*

If I’d ever told anyone about all this, I probably would’ve said something about how quickly I’d fled the library, raced down that dark stairwell, run back to my dorm—about how awkward it was, Nathaniel’s misunderstanding. Much later, I might’ve said something about my own sons. A what if? Something about how hard adolescence can be, how vicious.

But I wouldn’t have admitted how vicious I’d felt myself, how much I’d wanted to hit him—not angry, not offended, but just because that bowl haircut and those crooked teeth, that vulnerability, was suddenly just too terrible to see. I wouldn’t have tried to explain my quick intake of breath and the sudden depth of the ache I felt, whatever was at the heart of it. I wouldn’t have tried to explain how I’d lost track of myself for a minute, forgetting how we’d gotten into the library in the first place, which way was out.

***

Art Taylor has won an Agatha, a Macavity, and three Derringer Awards for his short fiction and was a finalist for the Anthony Award. Stories have appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and in other magazines and anthologies. His novel in stories On the Road With Del and Louise will be published in September by Henery Press. He teaches at George Mason University and contributes frequently to the Washington Post and Mystery Scene. www.arttaylorwriter.com.

Share this: