Travis was a kid spoiled rotten, they said, but really he was just curious. And smart and brave enough to voice that curiosity to the world. It did still, though, make him a jackass.
Today the offending action was to stick a crumpled Coke can on the teacher-nun’s chair, plucked from her own recycling receptacle, the caffeine content bolded and highlighted. If you don’t do drugs, Ms., don’t even drink coffee, why do you drink Coke? Even diet? Travis rolled his own eyes at the memory of his first reprimand for the question. How stupid were they: it was in the name.
But he would still be met with the same: it was an ancient, unchanging tradition.
The sharp aluminum grated her bottom like a cheese grater when she sat down. She would have bolted up like a fly shooed at, but her cellulite love handles hung off of her at such a length and for such a time they had begun to lose feeling, and so she could grind them into anything for a minute or more without noticing. That was new, he thought. That was an empirical discovery of the nature of this old hag. The nun grunted her teeth, in a final frown that grew into a smile.
When she plucked the tainted red aluminum from out of her robe her voice thundered his name, without having to ask or think. Without even remembering their first conversation, or the real content of any of his challenging questions. He flunked off, once more, to the principal’s office. Oh dear, he thought to himself, I hope I’m not alone. I hope he isn’t feeling frisky. It was a joke to himself of a real fear. But Travis would make fun of anything.
Their uniform requirements were relatively relaxed, if arbitrary, and he was allowed to get away with any shirt that had buttons and a collar. He fidgeted with his black and red flannel ensemble, topped by his sprouting teenage beard he didn’t bother to shave off, looking like a sort of wannabe lumberjack. The secretary, also a nun, to the principal, a priest, peered behind semi-circle glasses at him, out and over the hulking and tan computer monitor, and the lip of the desk. It was so high it was to her nose. They still made those old things? He laughed to himself. She sneered. He couldn’t see her mouth, but could tell it in her eyes.
The principal erupted from the small glass door next to the claustrophobic waiting chair. “Travis!” His name was too familiar. The boy smiled mischievously, nodded, unrepentant, and sank customarily into the chair in the office, putting on the motions of a show. The principal closed the door and sat down behind his desk. He loosened his collar. Oh no, the boy thought to himself, a sharp pain in an instant half-joking, don’t take off the collar, the shirt. He straightened his neck, lined by expanding jowls like a sheep’s stomach. “Trav— “
But he interrupted him. He knew to interrupt him to make it sting more. “Father, if god is so good, then why send people to hell.” The Father was weary and tired of the remarks. He snapped back, but slow and tired, like a rubber band overstretched, “To teach them a lesson.”
“But, if they’re there forever, how could they apply it? Where? To make hell a better place?”
The Father smiled crow-beak lips, “You’ll have to tell me.”
“I’ll let you know if I’ve learned my lesson on the way out,” he pointed to the door, and laughed.
The Father pointed, smiled a smile long since pent up, and laughed a forced, canned laughter. Canned for too long, it had gone rotten in the tin.
“Yes! And don’t come back. You’re expelled.”
She had tossed the can, grazed with a bit of blood and flesh, back into the receptacle immediately, the caffeine content inevitably remaining unread. Unverified. That was the worst of it. He pictured the gleaming can in the recycling. Only, it wouldn’t be gleaming, like this one he was kicking down the dusty street now. It would still have its label too bright red to see the shine through, and it would be caught in a low swamp sludge of half empty sugar corn fluid dripping out just a millilitre at a time from those ‘empties’ she tossed away without cleaning out. Not really empty at all, still the syrup and the saliva, part solidified since the denser stuff was at the bottom and it had the time to coagulate. What shit jobs the janitors had, having to empty out after all those nuns. They must have puss oozing out from under their robes. At the least sweat, in their thick black robs they had to wear, just had to, even here in the desert.
* * *
He had never seen a grown up at that school actually clean out a coffee mug: just rinse it, like it was good as new. Without even checking if it was. Nothing but a second long swim in tap water. Grounds still clung to the bottom, growing wrinkles like all of them — and mold. And they still drank it. That mold was brewing inside of them. He kicked the gleaming Coke can through the sand. It got lost in it, after suffering a dent from his boot. It rolled up into the thing, getting swallowed and lost like a worm in the dirt. He had an idea.
He didn’t go home at first, but to the thrift shop. He devoured the place with the three dollars fourteen in his pockets. They let him take back a box of books and magazines. Not home, of course: just out to eh parking lot. There was work to be done, and his parents might already have gotten the call. Luckily he found a can of old adhesive rusting out in the back. The stuff smelled awful, he was sure it corroded his lungs. But that meant it was industrial, and perhaps could last; he was right.
After an hour, he was done. That was all it took to make a new world with new problems, destined to be grumbled and warred and pondered and killed over for millennia — if you didn’t really care about any of it. And why should he? He would be gone soon, and his part would be done. On to the next.
He had fastened it to the heartiest looking book spine, tore out the pages of the gossip and movie magazines, blacked out the words, and drawn obscene messages, obscene connections. When he was in doubt, he tore a word or two from the most common book of all, to give it a regal sound. He looked at the collage of nonsense on the pavement, and whatever was the most nonsense he circled and put in, slopped on the splooging glue and fastened down into eternity.
What a joke: he thought to himself. That three fourteen of writing he didn’t even write would be his greatest achievement, and the most priceless thing of a prizeless society. Maybe. He could hope. He could hope one day he would look down on them, laughing. But for now he could only imagine it. He wrapped it in cling wrap — that great invention. Keep it freezer fresh for forty thousand years. Duck taped it over, double bagged it like a boy at a grocer’s, and hurled it as far as he could. Where it landed, he buried it, then ran home. He didn’t do anything else of note for the rest of his life. But he did not have to. He had already done it. In ten thousand years people would know and love his hodgepodge half stories. People would live and die by them, by all of his rules half-made wholly to make fun. In ticker tape scraps, in fortune cookie clips, Though shalt not eat yeast products on a Thursday. Though shalt not jump on two feet next to the visage of the lord. Thou shalt not cut with metal any of those who live by the cloth. Thou shalt always wear red and buttons. Burnett popped a pop tart into the toaster, and plunged it and himself into the bathtub. And waited ten thousand years, until it would happen again. Ten thousand years on he might find his spiritual successor.
* * *
Travis stood up to go. The priest bore angry teeth behind him. He could not stop the spew of fear in small sneezing spittles, “You should be quaking, boy! You should be praying! You violated one of the holiest of rules! One of the 12 commandments! Thou shalt not cut with metal any of those who live by the cloth! May the great and evil Mariah Carey rot you in hell.”
He kicked the can aimlessly down the road outside of the school. It sunk soon in the sand. That can would always have that dent now. Would be found in two thousand years with that dent. And what would they think? Would it seem foreign or natural? Would it be mined for, sometime far? What a circus! What if Coca Cola was still stamped on it, and they never knew what it meant. Their new alphabet might only have C, O, A and L. That putrefying black rock in the sand, that would somehow never lose.
He had an idea.