It’s twenty minutes later and I’m moving down the hall- way past the school office when I glance through the open door and see that Willard Twomey is sitting on a bench.
It’s postbell but I’m in no real rush. After lunch it’s fourth period calculus and I always take some time get- ting there because I know the teacher, Mr. Thurmond, is still in the faculty lounge sucking down his umpteenth cancer stick of the day.
Mr. Thurmond, who is heavy and sad faced, is an aspiring stand-up comedian who puts flyers of his open-mike nights on the classroom bulletin board, never realizing none of us are old enough to get in. He also uses the class to try out his material, which means he tries to make calculus funny. Calculus, which studies the limits, functions, derivatives, and integrals of numbers, is about as funny as an abscessed tooth and so is Mr. Thurmond.
“What did the zero say to the eight?” he’ll say. “Nice belt!”
“What is the first derivative of a cow?” he’ll says. “Prime rib.”
No one laughs.
Which confuses and disappoints Mr. Thurmond. And makes him anxious. Which makes him want a cigarette. Which makes him excuse himself and run down the hall to the teacher’s lounge. The class is pretty much Mr. Thurmond’s only good joke.
I stop and look around to see if anyone is coming, and when I see that no one is, I turn back and go into the school office. Except for Willard Twomey and some secretary, there’s nobody else there. I clear my throat. The secretary looks up from whatever it is she’s doing. Unprepared for the port-wine hemangioma on my face, she flinches.
“Shouldn’t you be in class?” she says. No hello, no may I help you.
“I need to see the nurse,” I say.
“For what?” she says. She seems alarmed. Like maybe a birthmark is possibly contagious.
“For a brain tumor,” I say.
Actually, I don’t say that.
“My stomach hurts,” I say. “I think I ate something at lunch.” Which is true. It was something.
The secretary sighs as if she’s besieged on a daily basis by disfigured people who have gotten sick from eating something at lunch and it’s exhausted her.
“Have a seat,” the secretary says. “I’ll see if she’s in.” She gets up and she leaves, probably down the hall to join Mr. Thurmond and the school nurse in the faculty lounge for a quick smoke.
Willard Twomey is still sitting on the long wooden bench, acting as if I’m not even there. I go over and sit down next to him, leaving room between us. Now both of us are acting as if the other isn’t there. I realize I can hear Mr. Esposito, the principal, talking on the phone in the inner office. He has a surprisingly strong, authoritative voice.
“Yes, I understand . . . No, but I do want to know who’s responsible for him . . .”
Obviously he’s talking about Willard Twomey.
“Very impressive,” I say, not looking at Willard Twomey. Willard Twomey doesn’t say anything.
“What you did in the cafeteria today.” Willard Twomey doesn’t so much as blink. “Montebello’s an idiot.”
“What are you?” says Willard Twomey. He stares straight ahead. I notice that on the back of his right hand Willard Twomey has another tattoo.
And on the back of his left hand yet another.
“. . . yes, well, I think we should have been informed that the young man has a juvenile record and a history of physical assault,” says Principal Esposito in his surprisingly strong voice.
“Who’s he talking to?” I say.
I don’t think Willard Twomey is going to answer. But then he does.
“My grandmother. Like she’s going to do anything but make herself another drink.” Willard Twomey sounds disgusted.
“I understand. Yes, I’m sure it is difficult for you,” says Principal Esposito’s voice, full of authority.
I don’t remember the last time I’ve done this. Maybe I never have. But I do now. I stick out my right hand.
A handshake is a ritual in which two people grasp one another’s hands. It is thought by some to have originated as a way of saying, There is no weapon in my hand. I’m not going to cut your head off. This, of course, is unless it’s the left hand, which in many parts of the world is a way of saying, I’m going to use your head to wipe my ass.
“Billy Kinsey,” I say.
Willard Twomey looks at my outstretched right hand. And now he looks at me. At me. Willard Twomey doesn’t flinch, he doesn’t waver. He studies my face. It is rude and disconcerting to the point of panic inducing and I have to force myself not to look away. His eyes trace the periphery of my right cheek and all of a sudden that side of my face begins to burn.
Point of reference.
Dorie used to say that my birthmark lightened or darkened, ebbed and flowed in shade and intensity, according to my emotions, and that a person could tell what I was feeling just by looking at it. Which is just another reason why I always try to feel nothing at all.
Dorie thought my port-wine hemangioma was beautiful.
Willard Twomey reaches out and lightly taps my open hand with a closed fist. “Twom,” he whispers. He repeats himself, says it louder. “Twom Twomey.”
“Not Willard?” I say. I make sure I sort of smile as I say it.
“Not unless you want a tray in your head.” He’s sort of smiling too. The tap with the fist, I decide, is an original way of saying, I’m not going to kill you yet.
“I look forward to meeting you as well,” we hear Esposito’s voice say. It sounds like he’s wrapping things up which means it’s time to get out of there. I stand.
“See you around,” I say.
“I thought you were sick,” says Twom Twomey.
“Miraculously cured,” I say.
I beat it out of the office into the hall. When I look back I can see Esposito standing over Twom Twomey, lecturing. Twom Twomey, looking bored to stone, is staring at Mr. Esposito’s navel. Esposito might as well be talking to the wall.
Twom. Twom as in “tomb.” A mausoleum. A place for the dead. Dad thinks I should have a new friend. I wonder what he’ll think about one who’s now baptized my open palm with the right hand of chaos.