In memory of Arby
ROBERT was a sixth-grade shrimp, 4’6”.
I measured 4’11”, straining for five feet.
We had been classmates and best pals for three grades by the time of the spelling bee. Most of that time we spent cracking up. A whispered joke or a funny face, or even a significant glance from across the room, would whack the other like a spitball, forcing him to snort back his laughter and rivet his eyes to the desktop for stability’s sake. What hilarity! What idiots! Every cell trembled to maintain the decorum of our class until recess, when the giggles would burst from our bellies, leaving us weak on the concrete playground. If I laughed that hard now I’d get sick to my stomach. But as kids we had clean systems.
Oh, Robert. Even now I could pick out your laugh from a chorus: from among the dry chuckles of Elitists, the jeers of Jealous Men, the giggles of Superficial Swamis, the chortles of Business-Suited Rat Racers, I could pick yours out, little brother, fresh among the stockpiles of canned laughter.
I laughed! Deep in my gut, bright in my eyes, spinning myself dizzy with the earth, I laughed. I gurgled with love for Robert Cantor. I was a little boy with a big head and a dimpled smile. Isn’t this accomplishment enough? Can’t this be my raison d’etre, now that, as a dry-boned adult, I need one?
“PLEASE, HARRY, come to attention,” scolds our teacher as the Public Address system crackles to life. Mr. Abraham’s voice, the Principal’s solemn, pious voice, booms down at us from the speaker above the blackboard. “Your attention, please, boys and girls…”
I PLEDGE ALLEGIANCE TO THE FLAG OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA AND TO THE REPUBLIC FOR WHICH IT STANDS ONE NATION UNDER GOD INDIVISIBLE WITH LIBERTY AND JUSTICE FOR
(Ha! I slap my own face. I deepen the furrows of worry in my forehead with a rusty razor blade. I suck at cigarettes until my cheeks cave in. I lay aside all fanciful notions, all daily gratifications, all hope, and come to attention.)
“You’re going to be be given a spelling test this morning. All boys and girls in the fifth and sixth grades will be taking this test. But there’s no need for you to worry, boys and girls, this will not go on your record cards.”
(Air-raid sirens! The buzz of a dive-bomber! Quick, under your desks! Face away from the windows! I’ll go save the record cards!)
“We want to find a good speller among our pupils who will represent our school in Albany at the State Championship Spelling Bee next month.”
(I feel the sting of ambition at the back of my neck. The whorls of my fingerprints burn hot/cold and harden. Pubic hair prickles below my belly.)
“Please put your names and class numbers across the tops of the papers that your teacher has given you. Then wait for my instructions.”
(I imagine my name in broad black letters across the blackboard. I imagine plus signs, A++, a million zillion plus pluses.)
Robert glances my way — he’s flirting with the idea of cracking me up.
Harry Allen Class 5-1
1. achievement 6. embarrassment
2. successful 7. gopher
3. ascendant 8. unfortunately
4. dilemma 9. necessary
5. amicable 10. Mississippi
I can even spell antidisestablishmentarianism.
So what did it mean when Rob and I tied for first place? Was it solidarity or competition? Was it sheer coincidence or something more ominous, some kind of subconsciously inspired puberty rite? We were never told our scores, nor on which words we flubbed, if any, nor whether our selection as finalists was based exclusively on test scores or on other considerations of personality, grades, maturity and so forth. We were told nothing, only that our teacher had just one spelling manual for us to share in preparing for the playoff.
We went home to Rob’s house, following our private route across yards and alleys. I remember little more of that afternoon than hiking in the three o’clock sun and lugging a book too thick, we said, to take seriously. Still, we opened it and drilled each other as we went. “Ah, man,” I complained shortly, “I hate spelling. If we’re so good at it, how come we have to get tested all the time?”
Rob persisted. “What are we up to?”
I clucked my tongue. “The d’s.”
“The d’s as in doody.”
“The d’s as in Ding-Dong School.”
And I can see us giggling again, only holding off from a full-scale outburst as we were crossing someone’s backyard.
(ROBERT, I want to finish this off quickly. I want to get off this stage and out of this memory. I want to repair my life, flush away my idealism…) IN THIS CORNER, WEIGHING SIXTY-EIGHT POUNDS…
IN THAT CORNER, BOAST A SEVEN-INCH BICEP…
IN THIS CORNER, WEARING THE WHITE UNDERPANTS with the shit stains and the gawky legs…
IN THAT CORNER, my best friend…
(It is because of these white-shirt-and-tie assembly days that I will never wear a business suit. Never! It is from being on stage, juggling terror and ambition before two-hundred and fifty fifth and sixth graders that I will never again…)
Mr. Abraham: “Are you ready, Robert?”
Mr. Abraham: “Camera.”
Robert handled it as a live bomb while my mind tore it apart for practice. “Camera. C-a…m…e…r-a. Camera.”
Mr. Abraham: “Correct. Harry?”
My stomach floated up like a dead fish. “Ready.”
“Elevator. E-l-e-v-a-t-o-r. Elevator.”
(Rob, let’s jump the sonofabitch!)
Foreign, f-o-r-e-i-g-n. “Correct. Harry?”
“Calamity. C-a…l-a-m-i-t-y. Calamity.”
(Breathe easy and deep. Easy, deep. Your friends are not out there. They’re all strangers. None of them are girls. Your fly is zipped. You’re a good speller!)
Robert: “Dictionary. D-i-c-t…i-o-n-a-r-y. Dictionary.”
Mr. Abraham: “Correct.”
(Keep it going, Robby, keep it going. We’ll outlast the assembly period.)
Mr. Abraham: “Perspective.”
Whoa! “Perspective. P-e…r…s-p-e-c-t-i-v-e. Perspective.”
Mr. Abraham: “That is correct.”
(All right! Stomp that stage and give a holler! Perspective!)
(Hush, it’s your friend’s turn.)
Mr. Abraham: “Alcoholism.”
Robert: “Alcoholism. A-l-c…o-h-o-l-i-s-m. Alcoholism.”
Mr. Abraham: “Correct. Harry?”
“Say the wrod first, please.”
“Sorry. T-r…treachery. T-r-e-a-c-h-e-r-y. Treachery.”
Mr. Abraham: “Correct. Robert?”
Mr. Abraham: “Labyrinth.”
Robert’s brow wrinkled. Robert’s eyes blinked and opened wet. “Would you repeat that, please?”
(L-a-b-y-r-i-n-t-h. Labyrinth, Rob. The maze.)
I SEE THE MINOTAUR, EMERGING FROM BEHIND THE CURTAINS BEHIND MY BELOVED. I SEE ITS TERRIBLE CLOVEN HOOF RAISED ABOVE HIS CURLY HEAD.
Mr. Abraham: “Labyrinth.”
(Say it right! La-bee-rinth, not la-ber-rinth! He doesn’t even know what it means!)
Robert: “Labyrinth…” (Rob, listen: l-a-b-y-r-i…) “L-a-b…e-r…”
“No, I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry,” Mr. Abraham repeats firmly. “The rules are that no corrections are allowed. Now, Harry: can you spell ‘labyrinth?’”
(Why didn’t I refuse? WHY DID I NOT REFUSE?)