Ontogeny may recapitulate phylogeny but biology stinks, especially Dwyer's class in June. Joanie Snowland, on the other hand, is Something Else, as I shall forthwith demonstrate.
I've spent four years—my whole illustrious high school career—watching Joanie's recapitulation. If I had a million years—if I could live forever—I wouldn't change a single blonde and silky eyelash. She's got looks, poise, talent, and slippery long unshaven legs. She's enough to make your heart stop beating.
Dwyer's noticed. You'd have to be a perve to teach biology anyway, but Lyle Dwyer takes perversion to the max. He's got one of those fat thick bullet heads that would fit better on some kind of killer warthog, and he's got a bad habit of letting his lumpy tongue wander over his swollen lips like a drunken polish sausage in a rancid hotdog roll. He flicks his Miracle of Life slides on and off the screen like boogers on a nut house wall, and his stupefying Texarkana drawl would raise the dead from boredom, but Dwyer's tiny pink pig eyes are glued to Joanie. It's enough to make you puke.
"After six weeks of gestation, the gill slits are gone, the yolk sac has been absorbed, and the embryo is beginning to look like a human." Not only is Dwyer ugly, fat, and stupid, but he thinks he's God's Gift to Science, a regular cut-rate Carl Sagan in flaming polyester.
We're all staring half-awake at this thing on Dwyer's crummy screen. It looks like an oyster abortion, like something Dwyer found stuck in his old lady's garbage disposal. The slide's breathing in and out of focus, like it's got a life of its own and it doesn't want to be here either.
"Looks like the coach on a bum trip!"
That's Allen Palumbo, a guy with a definite way with words. He and Dwyer must've grown up in the same fun house. They share that sort of blubbish offensive-lineman's build and their combined IQs add up to sub-moron. Palumbo was looking at a solid D minus for the year, so he could care less. There were a few tired titters from the class. Any joke in a freak show.
The slides kept coming. The oyster started taking on a more familiar shape. "Three months," said Dwyer. "Six months." He worked a nice kind of fade-in/fade-out as the lights came up and the last slide oozed in and away. "Eight and a half months."
Heads started to revolve, pupils reacted to light, people cleared their throats. Joanie Snowland flounced upright in her chair as Dwyer came to what he thought was the point, like he was addressing the Academy of Science: "But the Big Question remains. When does life begin?"
Palumbo filled the pause Dwyer left after the question with one of his own, then: "Three fifteen?" Dwyer stared at him and continued.
"Churchmen disagree. Congressmen disagree. And yes…" he fondled his meaty left breast fondly, "even biologists disagree."
Dwyer looked dumbly at the specimen jars at the back of the bio lab, as if expecting a comment from one of them. Zack the salamander wasn't talking. He floated there, dead but proud, like he knew he'd live forever in the hearts of the squeamish. Knut the newt, next, sharing his jar with a baby rattlesnake, might have known something, but he was in a pickle. Boris the croaked collie, who had his own jar, played dead like a champ.
Dwyer traced slowly a pudgy forefinger around the rim of a jar in front of him containing Hiram the Human, a fetus who—like most of Dwyer's class—was pretty much dead to the world. Dwyer looked thoughtful, if a sack of shit can be said to think.
"If we say 'life begins'," he went on, "with the first fertilized cell—with conception—don't we also have to say 'life ends' only when the body's last cell dies." He stared pointedly at Joanie who fingered her long blonde hair distractedly.
"Think about it," said Dwyer, as if he'd just scored against the Crimson Tide on New Year's Day in Pasadena.
The old clock on the wall inched slowly on. Next to Joanie it was the most interesting thing in the room. In a way, I sympathized with Dwyer. How could a senile alcoholic lobotomy-case like him ever expect to keep the attention of twenty-five kids less than two weeks from graduation who all had better things to do? I don't think any of us gave a toot for the origins of life anyway. As a matter of fact, we were too busy trying to avoid anything like that, if you know what I mean.
Willard Freeman High School has always been behind the times, as far as I can see. I mean they named the stupid school after some football hero who graduated from the old high school and went off to fight on some goddamned island in the Pacific someplace in World War II. Old Willard got about five yards up the beach and the japs split him up one side and down the other in nothing flat with this special machine gun they had just developed. I mean old Willard, he wasn't a hero or anything. He didn't even get the first down. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, so why would you name a school after a poor schlub like that?
In the sixties, a lot of guys got out of Freeman and split for Canada, and now they're millionaires. It'd make more sense to name a school for a live smart guy than a dead jerk. It seems people are always looking at things from a weird point of view.
Old Dwyer was pacing back and forth behind his demonstration table. Eventually he reached down and he pulled out a big car battery with some wires hooked up to it. The wires ran over to this stand with this big bullfrog's leg attached . There was a little bit of spit around Dwyer's lips as he fiddled with the wires. The frog leg had that formaldehyde smell that you never get used to.
"Now, we have here…" Dwyer touched the tips of the two wires together, spark spark, "…electricity. And over here we have the lovely leg of Fred the Frog."
Joanie crossed her legs. There was a little sweat on her chair where she'd been sitting.
"Dead Fred, right?" Dwyer caressed old Fred's leg a little, it was sort of disgusting, and then he licked the spittle and turned to Joanie:
"Joanie, would you say the leg is dead?"
"Fuck yeah," said Palumbo solemnly. "Dead as shit."
"Uh, sure," said Joanie, who didn't really want to commit herself.
"Class?" asked Dwyer.
We all agreed. It was pretty plain to see. Old green and yellow death with that earthy sheen to it. It was just like old Dwyer to drive the obvious into the ground. Old Fred's dead body was in a jar on the table there. We pithed the shit right out of him months ago, right behind the skullbone, like it says in the book. Fred's leg had to be dead.
"OK," said Dwyer. "Now watch closely."
He touched the two wires from the battery to Fred's leg and the stupid leg jigged up and down to beat the band. Some of the stupider girls kind of freaked out.
"Life…" said Dwyer, with one of his patented dumb pauses, "…is an electro-chemical interaction. But…is the leg alive? What do you say now, Joanie?
You can tell old Lyle was partial to cute blondes.
Joanie was no fool, so she said "I don't know."
"That's exactly the right answer!" chortled Dwyer, shocking the electric leg five or six more times for emphasis.
"We don't really know. We can talk about life-like and death-like states…" (he stared meaningfully at Palumbo) "…but not about life or death itself. Both are mysteries and they overlap each other."
The room was very quiet. Like a tomb. A used-car lot at five a.m. Easter Sunday. The real mystery was how much more of this we could take.
"Death," said Mr. Dwyer gravely. "How many here think about death very often?"
I was thinking about old Willard Freeman, dead up to his ass on Tarawa Beach. Dwyer picked up another specimen bottle; I guess he collects the mothers. There was a fish inside that looked like a dinosaur embryo. Dwyer held the scaly little sucker up to the late afternoon sunlight. He was dead as shit too. Dwyer continued:
"What seems dead may not be dead at all. When the rivers run dry, this African Lungfish can 'play dead' for about four years!"
"Just like Palumbo!" said Roger Davis, who must have woke up when Joanie crossed her legs. Unlike Palumbo, Davis didn't need this class. He wrote A's in his sleep. Captain of the football team and all that rah rah stuff, Rog was headed for Stanford in the fall. I always considered him too mean for the Ivy League. Palumbo gave him the finger behind his Bio book while Dwyer paused for the laughter to die away.
"No food," said Dwyer at last. "No water. It becomes…" he laboriously printed the word on the board "…A-N-A-B-I-O-T-I-C: a death-like state of suspended animation, until the rains come. Four years! Incredible!"
Dwyer seemed to be quite taken with the lungfish. He turned it round and round in his hands as he spoke:
"This is not mere hibernation. The animal truly appears to be dead…reacting to an extreme environment. So what is life?" He set the jar down. "And what is merely life-like?…or Death like?"
Dwyer picked up Hiram the Human, gently, to be sure. I flashed on old Hiram dropping on the floor in thousands of glass slivers, his little blue and yellow body rolling under Joanie's chair. I would crawl under there, happily, and rescue the little guy…
Dwyer squinted one red eye behind Hiram. "Think about it," he said. "It's a tough question."
He passed Hiram over to the class. The jar rose and fell in the sunlight, passing from hand to hand as Dwyer lectured.
"Billions and billions of years ago, life as we know it did not exist. The earth's atmosphere was mostly methane and ammonia gas. Now if to these gases we add electricity—lightning—we get amino acids, the building blocks of protein, of DNA. The life-like behavior of chemicals. It's been done in the laboratory, kids, way back in 1957. Gas—" he clapped his hands once, like God at the start of a Grateful Dead concert, which startled some of us—"zapped by electricity. The spark of life. Maybe those 30's Frankenstein movies had the right idea."
There was general disruption while those who could did their monster impressions. After a bit they settled down. Dwyer put on his most serious voice. A couple of notebooks belonging to the class grinds slid open for the first time in the hour. I myself doubted Lyle'd have anything real important to say.
"How many in this class have a friend or relative who has died recently?" A couple kids raised their hands. "Barbara?"
She was kind of plain. She had five or six white blouses that she wore over and over again to school. I always felt sorry for her, but she got good grades, so what did it matter?
"My mother's cousin was decapitated in a motorcycle accident last month," she said. There was a collective "whoosh" as we all pictured what that might have been like. "In California," she added, by way of explanation, shrugging.
"My cat died last week," said Palumbo, wringing laughter out of a situation that threatened to become serious. "In his sleep."
Dwyer clapped his hands and the laughter trickled off as he spoke:
"OK Palumbo, that's very cute. But why do we joke about it? About death?" It got very quiet again. "We make jokes because the subject of death is taboo. Like talking about venereal disease at the dinner table."
"Not at Palumbo's house," said Rog, igniting another round of guffaws. Dwyer let the laughter run itself out and went patiently on:
"We are lucky—fortunate—to have a member of this class who knows a lot about death. You know who I'm referring to."
No question about it, all heads turned to Archie Meader, who had nothing to hide behind but his smile. He rocked back and forth a little on his chair. He's not the kind of guy who takes kindly to being in the spotlight. That's always been the way with him. As long as I've known him, Archie's been a quiet kind of guy who does his work and makes pleasant company.
"Archie," said Mr. Dwyer, "you work in a funeral home."
Archie moved his head, halfway between a nod and a retraction, like a turtle with his neck stuck out too far. It was plain to see he was uncomfortable. Eight times out of ten, in a social situation, Archie will get uncomfortable. It's just the way he was brought up. He comes from a poor family. He's always had some kind of job or another after school. He has to give money to his auntie cause his parents are dead or something I think. Archie spends a lot of good time explaining to people why he can't hang out with them, as if trying to be self-sufficient ever needed any explanation.
Archie smiled again, but underneath it you could see he was expecting the worst. Dwyer pressed on:
"Can you tell us a little bit about your job, Archie?"
Archie shrugged, holding his pencil tightly with both hands. His quick brown eyes moved from one side of the class to the other as he decided the best thing to do would be to just get this over with.
"I'm just the errand boy," he said. "I don't do any of the actual work on the bodies." The class tittered, led most obviously by Palumbo, with Rog Davis a close second.
Dwyer got that hard-eyed look he gets when he means business. It was funny that he'd take all kinds of shit from guys like Davis and Palumbo yet come down hard on poor Meader.
"Well surely you must have seen something!" Hiram the Human was passed at this instant to Archie, who nearly dropped him in his mortification.
"Oh, sure…" he said, passing Hiram on without looking at him.
"Fine," said Dwyer. "Your observations then."
At this moment the bell rang. Archie breathed a deep sigh of relief and the rest of the class turned away from him at last.
"You are NOT dismissed!" yelled Dwyer over the nondescript clatter of books and bags, and chairs squeaking. "Archie, next week I'd like from you a short report on what goes on inside a funeral home, OK?" Everybody turned to look at Archie again, and after sighing, Archie swallowed deeply:
Everybody started cheering, and I did too, but mostly cause I was glad to get the hell out of that stinking classroom and because—whether anybody else knew or cared or not—I had a feeling Archie Meader was never gonna end up like old Willard Freeman, with too much sun at the beach and not being able to turn over. I liked him.
"Test next Wednesday!" hollered Dwyer. "Study hard!"
A test. This close to graduation. Everybody booed and hissed, but I didn't. I just opened the door for Joanie Snowland, whose blouse was all sticky in the back from the heat. I like to watch her walk.
Joanie has a walk like music: a treacherous 4/4 rhythm with a heavy backbeat. Her stacked heels on Freeman's highly-polished floors add a line of sophisticated syncopation. She must time the hard hits and the more elusive scuffs with some mysterious internal mechanism, you know, left over from Circe or one of those other Greek witches who turn men into swine.
Through some intercession of divine benevolence, Joanie's locker is right next to mine this year, and, again, through a quirk of kinky fate, after sharing Dwyer's crumb-o class, I get to watch her walk the whole length of the corridor.
Though they didn't give it a name until years later (when Willard got his), Willard Freeman Memorial High School was built in 1939 by a bunch of Communists I guess, who couldn't get any other kind of job and therefore Franklin Dee said "build me a school."
It's one of those WPA marvels that are gradually starting to rot away. All brick and white plaster in a pseudo Greco-Colonial style, you know, with the weathervane on top that doesn't work. Being of Communist-Classical design, it is built on something they call the Golden mean which has a lot—if not everything—to do with the Pythagorean Theorem, which I did worse in even than English.
I mention all this by way of explaining that it is exactly sixty-nine and a half paces to our lockers at the far end of the hall. Joanie's combination is 36-24-36, which for some reason I find very easy to remember.
Joanie is a very strong girl, so never make the mistake of asking to carry her books or any of that other corny stuff. She works out with this big home gym that her father bought her for her fourteenth birthday. I guess he figured—since she was starting to sprout pretty good by then—she'd need all the help she could get to fight off all the creeps there are around here.
Looking at her though, you wouldn't say she had a lot of muscles or anything. Her skin seems to fit perfectly over what appear to be simply very beautiful muscles. She's a pretty tall girl, which in a way is too bad because she doesn't have to reach up to the top shelf of her locker, and therefore you can't ever get any of that skirt-hike, you know, that's kind of a turn-on.
I'd say, unlike Barbara the white-blouse girl, Joanie splits her outfits 50-50 between neat and expensive preppy-type skirts and blouses and sweaters, and tight pants and jeans with the designers' names taken off
Today she had on this light little cotton-type peasant skirt on account of the heat. She was brushing her long blonde mane—which is never like a real mane, cause it's never messy—and checking out her mascara in this little mirror she keeps in her locker next to a picture of old Roger Davis, who she has been going around with ever since sophomore year, when she got the gym set, in the nick of time I'd say. I took the opportunity to make some casual conversation, being that kind of guy:
"You going to practice, Joanie?" I was referring to cheerleader practice, which was still being held, although all the sports were finished for the semester.
"I might," she said in that noncommittal way she had of talking. She had a voice like wild honey, and she wrinkled up her nose at me, real friendly-like, though it was not the kind of nose that lends itself to wrinkling, being long and classically beautiful, like Circe's, again, I'd imagine.
Before I could get out my next line, old Roger Davis comes down the hall flanked by Palumbo and another jock/jerk. They're followed closely by Archie Meader. Rog stops at Joanie's locker, kind of behind the door—which swings away from me—and he whispers something in her ear, which is shaped like a beautiful sea shell, and then he kisses her neck, not too kashz at all, but real passionate-like. Definitely macho public display of affection. And it pisses Joanie off:
"Rog! For God's sake!"
Old Rog assumes this picture of innocence, like a poor put-upon scarecrow, and Palumbo chuckles gruffly.
"Whaaaat?!" goes Rog, all long and drawn-out, groping for her rear, which is snuggled right behind that expensive imported summer cotton. Joanie turns on him, real hard, not being a girl to take any shit, and then she shoves him away:
"I said quit it! Leave me alone!"
Old Archie is kind of in the way by this time, and he has a look in his face of mingled confusion and concern. Davis gets on his high horse, not wanting to look like some kind of jerk—which is, in fact, what he is, and mean to boot, like I said before—and he swings around on poor Meader and says, real sarcastic:
"You see something you like, Stiff-licker?"
Archie doesn't want any part of any nutty stuff like this, so he sort of shrugs and starts to move away, like you would from somebody's asshole Doberman, and he goes:
"Look, she's your girl—"
And Roger says very even and menacing, like he's calling plays at Stanford already:
Old Palumbo, who one day when he's fifty years old will look exactly like Baby Huey only ugly and mean, slaps Archie on the back real hard, and says with total mock-sincerity:
"Arch, ole pal, I'm really looking forward to your report." You know, like he's being a good guy and trying to defuse a potentially messy situation. "…how you get down on those stiffs." He holds up his hand like a paw and smiles so you can see his incisors, which are beginning to decalcify because it's all going up to his pea-brain, and his teeth are kind of blue-green around the edges and uneven, and he goes:
Archie kind of stutters out something neutral, switching his briefcase from one hand to the other and smiling:
"Well that's really big of you." His smile gets broader, about to the point where you think his face might crack, but that big prick Palumbo just stares at him like some goony cartoon bear.
Archie goes "See you around," and Rog and Palumbo let him slide away down the hall. Me and Joanie follow him with our eyes and we see that old Fred's dead leg, all yellow and green, sort of like Palumbo's teeth in that respect, but dead and all runny, is sticking to the back of Archie's sweater and swinging back and forth as he walks. Roger Davis chortles and Palumbo kind of grunts a laugh. Joanie looks back and forth between the two of them and down the hall towards Archie, and there are kids starting to turn around and whisper and giggle, and I'm feeling real bad for Archie, and, hell, I'm even feeling real bad for old Fred, who probably only ever wanted to eat flies and never hurt a soul, and he got badly pithed and he had to suffer all that shit from Dwyer and now his leg is hanging there, messing up Archie's sweater, and Palumbo kind of knocks my shoulder and he goes, like the real asshole he is:
"You just oughta mind your own business, Geek."
And then the three of them—Joanie not looking too happy—sashay off down the hall the other way.
It'd be a great world if it wasn't for the assholes.
Next: Archie schmoozes the cheerleaders and gets a tough assignment from Mr. McCloud, his boss at the mortuary.
a bummer of a job, after school
a boy, a girl, a big fat dead old lady
she ain't heavy, she's a mother
lying and sighing and beer, oh my!
and if your teacher is also a pervert?
the end of the beginning
telephone, for thee!
one thing you don't want is a thaw
our little life is rounded with a sleep
"Those suckers are alive!"
In the darkness the undead quarterback
highway to hell in a handbasket
fill 'er up and check the oil
hell hounds on my trail
are you on drugs or just having one of those days?
Freeman and me and the rest of the world