How You Spell America

After dad made like an auction--going once, going twice, then gone to the taut-tummied nutritionist twenty years his junior--Bob Baum's mom sagged into the dusky consolation of the drape drawn family room and--day in, day out--absorbed the stale blandishments of primetime TV, her eyes drafty and narrow, like empty hallways searching for a home.

Poor Bob! He could have stumbled down the brambly path toward self-destruction, colliding, for instance, with St. Sebastian's all-state linebacker, allowing the monster to give Bob some cast wearing evidence of his woe. He could have simply dissolved into tears, leaking out of the house and into the posh office of some smartly dressed psychiatrist who wrote prescriptions with a kind of Christmas glee. Instead, self-reliant boy that he was, Bob quit school, quietly retired to his room to play video games and bide his time . . . to wait for the gawky fuse of puberty to sizzle to its nub and-POW!--explode into livid adolescence. On that splendiferous day, Bob tapped his skull against the headboard and watched the shrapnel fly, bearing raptured witness to the havoc these sharp edged fragments of himself could wreak. The moment had the sublimity of a calling.

One day, rising only minutes before the bold imposition of noon, Bob punches down the stairs, a plan beginning to bloom like a cyst in his febrile brain. Bob grasps a calcified bagel in his globe-sized fist. Today, it might be breakfast, or the blunt object he uses to batter the first person that looks at him askance. On the way out, he yanks the bleached flannel from the clothes tree because it goes with his stone washed jeans, stiff as a denim ghost, giving him an "off white" kind of look--emphasis on the off-- because this too is part of the plan: to leave a trail of signs for survivors to mull . . . when it's just too bad, too late.

Somewhere behind the tiny squares of a bug clotted screen, his mother is suddenly roused, perhaps by maternal instinct, or by the guilty stirring of a hibernating conscience, or by the dry throated fear that something televisable just beyond the edges of her safe and circumscribed world is about to happen. When will you be home? she calls, voice weak as a Third World nation. When should I preheat the oven for supper? Bob hears the questions like the beep, beep, beep of his radio alarm. They sear him with the impulse to smash.

He passes straw colored lawns and haggard duplexes looking like people out of work. Behind dense, looming bushes, large flags snap vengefully in the out of nowhere wind. Ah, Bob sighs, the good old Blood, White, and True. Times like these, he feels an integral part of the national agenda.

Slouching in the seats at the back of the bus, he swallows the exhaust spooning through the window. This is the stuff he craves: the acrid, angry odors of the city--the noxious exhaust of vehicles, the suffocating swirl of construction dust, the sweet, chemical spume of the corn syrup plant just outside of town. A home cooked kind of satisfaction turns his lips into what nervous, hopeful onlookers might rationalize as a smile.

By the time he bashes out the back doors with balled up hands, Bob feels preternaturally alive, his eyes--hard, dark, scooped out like hollow point bullets--revealing a firmness of resolve, a coalescing of vision. He stalks to the center of town and drops himself into the peaceful environs of the Persia Cafe, broad arms like fallen buildings against his chest, a wide cup of impenetrable roast smoking before him. He could overturn this table, strip the sepia prints of nature from the walls, throw steaming coffee in the brown face of the bitch up front. Or he could turn toward someone like you--you and your ambiguous skin; your long a pricot scone; your fat free latte; your Clerestory Crux, headlines bland as mother's meatloaf-and scrape steel toes behind you down the street, around the corner, to where there's nothing but you and your sexy Lexus, which you whoop whoop open with the omnipotent remote, while Bob unveils what he's been concealing this whole day, and . . . and! . . .

But wait: all of this is such small time stuff--filching candy from this unflushed shit of a town. What's the point if you don't hit it big--land a major role on World News Tonight, tomorrow, and the next evening after that? New York, he thinks at once. New York. The possibilities swell in his mind. Give the boy some credit: Bob may have dropped out of school, but at least he knows how to spell America.

About the author:

Michael Cocchiarale lives and works in Chester, PA. "How You Spell America" is one of a series of stories set in Clerestory, Ohio, a small college town south of Cleveland and east of Winesburg. Other Clerestory pieces appear in Slow Trains, Paumanok Review, and Thunder Sandwich.