Algebra and Ali McGraw

I rode in the limo with his parents. Everyone was shell-shocked and dazed. Apart from the driver saying, "He's travelling," when the sun briefly struggled through, nobody spoke a word. Hyper-Super-Mega-Mall, call it what you will, you get the picture. BIG. There used to be a town out here: Stores, Diner, Drugstore, Bar, Laundromat, Restaurants, Churches. And a damn fine micro-brewery. Not anymore though. The mayor ran his re-election campaign on the building of the monstrosity. And won, the prick. Lots of jobs: non-union, minimum-wage, but let's not piss on the parade. Even the 7-Day-Adventists rented space.

Jody's first job: escorting shoppers to their cars, loading up SUVs with groceries, returning trolleys from the mega-car-park. Just so long as it's a first job, I told him.

"We got different music, Mr Shanahan, that's all, try to respect it."

Shopping music filled the air. "But, yes, I hate this shit, they should do us all a favour and shut up."

"You're 16, you should be in school- end of problem."

"It's not what Ali McGraw would want for me."

"Ali McGraw? She's old now Jo-"

"Don't go speaking disrespectful about-"

"Why don't you find a girl your own age?"

"Girls my age are more interested in vacuum-packing their soiled panties and selling them to the concierge at the hotel, who sells them to suits at $10 a pop."

"That's just a rumor."

"No, Mr S, it's not, it's really not."

"What about your future? What about your parents?"

"They won't even notice I don't go to school anymore."

He wasn't far from the truth. I turned to blow smoke over my shoulder.

"I hear you cringing, Mr Shanahan. It's okay."

"And what about the algebra, Jo?"

"'What about the algebra, Jo' Algebra won't change shit in this world, Mr S."

He was a small 16. Driver's license in his pocket, he had to sit on a cushion to see over the wheel of his father's BMW. I was the neighbor over the backyard fence, the one he showed his compositions to. Sometimes I checked his algebra. Only his algebra didn't need checking, it was as close as he came to
showing off.

"It's so perfect the way the letters and the numbers fit together."

I had no idea about his nocturnal activities. His parents didn't get back from their careers till late, "and he was always a good boy, and always went to bed early, and was never any trouble." Even after, we didn't talk much, about Jody, about anything. His writing was full of reunions with relatives who showed themselves in careful glimpses of how they wanted to be perceived. On "The Art of Chivalry is
Dead," he wrote, "So my twin brother died at birth, of course I feel abandoned. I'd give anything to go over to his place on Sunday with the wife and kids, and shoot the breeze, and vow to change this rotten world. He'd comment on the gray in my sideburns. I wish he could see the light now, dying in my eyes ... and the fierce fire still burning within."

"The job, Mr S? I'm outside, fresh-air. Nobody bothers me. I'm pretty much down the food chain, I guess, but if everybody gets a trolley, I don't get no grief. What more can I ask for? Fame and fortune? My vehicle to success? Success is for losers. Maybe I can get my own place one day; the Mall is offering discount mortgages to employees. And the tips are good, people pay a stack for groceries, they have no problem parting with a couple of bills.."

And the small talk:

"Nice car, sir. How's the acceleration? Power-steering? Cool. ABS? Where you guys live at?"

They came from miles around to shop. And it didn't take Jody long to map the distant suburbs with the fine, fast cars. He could reach most of them by mountain bike in little over an hour. Minutes later
he'd be blazing down the 101, his bike folded on the back seat. Go Jody, go.

Off-road, away from the town's glare. One elbow in the breeze, eyes like crazy diamonds.

The airbag craze wasn't new. That a handful of kids wanted to play at being crash-test dummies concerned people, but kids were kids and there'd always be some fucked-up craze.

"Yes, of course I have an airbag, Jody. Don't all cars these days? Your Dad's car does, right?"


"Why do you ask?"

"I figure I don't need a seat-belt if I have an airbag."

"Huh? Well ... okay, maybe not for those head-on collisions. But what do you do when a truck hits you
from the side?"

The cushion though, was his undoing. The cushion he forgot to bring. The cushion I think he forgot to bring. He stole the Jag from a dentist who tipped him $5. And drove it into a tree at 103mph. Airbagged. "Because he was so small," they said, at the hospital, "the impact of the airbag just plain decapitated him...if he'd been sitting on a cushion this never would have happened."

I offered to identify him, somebody had to. His parents were beside themselves, and full of medication. The sheet pulled up over his mouth, he looked like a Madame Tussaud's Jody. He's long gone, I thought, and stroked his hair.

Jody always rode solo, but airbaggers came from all over to pay last respects. Some even came from Kansas. Transport was never going to be a problem. The wreaths around his coffin imitated emblems of the European automotive giants. Tear-stained, pale-faced parents, numb. "Why us? Why him? Why now?" The Mall offered to pick up the tab from the funeral home.

On "Reaching for The Sky," Jody wrote, "Although he died before I was born, I know Steve McQueen must have been an honorable man. When he spoke it was clear. His actions fitted his words. Like an equation. Nobody screwed with him, at least in the movies. If I were like him, nobody would question my motives, and nobody would ever give me grief. Well, I like to think so. And Ali McGraw would be my constant companion."

About the author:

The author of this piece is just short of six feet and 200 pounds.