Wednesday, July 18, 2007

School's out for summer

Yeah. We're done with summer 2007 semester. We have a seven week break and I am excited to do nothing. I have already read two books: The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. I recommend both of them, especially Old Man and the Sea. I am now reading Beloved by Toni Morrison and have All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy checked out and ready to read. I am excited. Natasha and I took a little adventure out to Beaver Dick park at 2:30 in the morning and stood out on the Snake River and looked at all the stars. It was incredible. Not having school is so much fun. However, it is confusing because we keep forgetting that it is not Saturday and we keep thinking that everything is going to be closed. But things are open, it's not saturday and we have no other responsibilities besides getting rest. It is oh so nice. We will be going to California soon. I'm excited to go home. I haven't been there in a year and half.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

New Story

This has the "a" word in it, so be prepared. I also don't know why it doesn't recognize the tabs for the start of new paragraphs. Sorry if it is confusing.

Mike and the Weeds
By Steven Hopkins

The Bishop and I sat at opposite ends of the mahogany desk. He was searching through a stack of papers. I watched him and flipped through a book on welding I had checked out from the library. I wanted to be a welder so bad that year, but I was a sophomore and had to wait to take any classes. I wanted to build custom motorcycles like the guys on TV. This book was kind of old and the black and white pictures were grainy, but I still learned what acetylene was and why they wear those facemasks, so I was glad I checked it out.
The office was dim, lighted only by the hallway lights and a desk lamp. It was a warm evening in late spring and there were fireflies bumping into the screens of the office. Bishop had pulled me away from our Tuesday night youth activities because he had a program to talk for a few minutes with a different kid each week. There weren’t very many of us, so we cycled through often.
“So how are things with you Justin?” he asked me.
“Things are fine. I guess. Can’t complain.”
“Well, good. What are you reading?” He shuffled some more papers.
“I got this book on welding,” I said. “From the library.”
“Welding, huh?” he looked at me over the top of his glasses holding the papers still. I didn’t know what he was going to say about it. Bishop was a stockbroker and made a ton of money. Welders don’t make a ton of money, unless you make it on TV. “Is that what you want to do, be a welder?”
“Oh yeah. Definitely. I love it. I want to build stuff with my hands and take raw metal and make something out of it. I think what I want to specialize in is making motorcycles. You know, like those guys on TV.”
“Are you taking any welding classes right now?”
“Well technically no. You can’t take any until your junior year unless your parents sign forms, but I didn’t know I wanted to do it until it was too late. But next year I will.”
“Well, good. That’s good.” He got up and turned on his office light, and it brightened the room a lot. He sat back down and copied some information into a binder, shuffled the papers and put them in the file cabinet next to him and locked it. “Ok, Justin, the question I’m going to ask you this week is this, and I want you to answer with complete honesty.” He raised his eyebrows at me and waited.
“Yeah, Ok.” I said.
“Now here’s the question. Do you,” he said ‘you’ really long and slow and pointed at me, “believe what we teach in church about Jesus Christ? About how he suffered for us, and made it so we can be forgiven?”
He squinted at me like he already knew the answer and just needed me to say it so I would hear it for myself. “Well, I never really thought about whether I believed it or not. I mean, because we always just talked about it. I guess it’s more like a story to me. I don’t know.” I really didn’t know, I don’t think. I think that was the most honest answer I could’ve given him.
Bishop nodded and rubbed his chin and leaned back in his chair. He took off his glasses and set them on the desk. He breathed deep, staring hard at the top of the desk. “Well here’s what I want you to do.” He leaned forward and grabbed his glasses. “I want you to figure that question out. Figure out if you believe it all or not. And then, once you believe it, now this is important Justin, you have to protect it with everything you’ve got.” He put his glasses back on. “Will you do that Justin?”
“Yeah, I guess I will,” I said.
“You guess, or you’re going to?”
“I will. I’ll do it.”
“Well, that’s that,” and he slapped his hands on his knees. We stood and he bounced the keys in his hand as he put his arm around my shoulder. “You think hard about it. Pray hard about it. You’ll find out.”
“All right Bishop.” I said. As we left his office, he walked to the right to go to the clerk’s office and I turned left to go back to the gym to see what all the youth were doing. We had combined young men’s and young women’s activities that night so all the youth were there together.
I turned the corner and a kid I didn’t know but had seen a few times before was getting a drink from the water fountain. I had never seen him before. In South Carolina there aren’t very many members of the church, especially ones my age. There were just the six of us young men and Greg was the oldest and Thomas was my age and the other three were way younger. This guy looked a little older than me, maybe 16. But he surely didn’t dress like the rest of us. He had on enormous, faded black jeans, with a long wallet chain hanging out and an extra large t-shirt with big holes where the sleeves connected. He wore leather bracelets with metal spikes and a baseball cap that was stained with sweat all over the front. His t-shirt had a big custom motorcycle on it.
“Cool shirt,” I told him.
“Yeah,” he said wiping his mouth of the dripping water.
“I’m going to build bikes like that. I’m going to be a welder.” I said.
“Really, are you in any of Mr. Harding’s classes?” He seemed aloof, but still genuinely interested in me.
“Not yet, I’m just a sophomore. But starting next year I will for sure.”
“Cool, because Mr. Harding asked me to be his TA next year.”
“You do welding?”
“Yeah, my dad’s a welder too. When he’s not drunk off his ass.” He covered his mouth quickly with his hands and his eyes went big. “Oh, I’m sorry dude. I don’t mean to talk like that. I know you people don’t like cursing. Especially inside a church. I’m sorry.”
I’m really not sure how he started coming to church activities; he never went to church on Sundays. “Hey it’s cool.” I hadn’t even really noticed that he said a bad word. I felt a little embarrassed for him. “Yeah, I really want to build motorcycles, like on TV.”
“Yeah those guys are amazing. I like to do sculpture stuff.”
“Cool man. Hey, what’s your name?” I stuck out my hand.
“Mike.” He shook it.
“I’m Justin, it was nice to meet you.”
“Yeah cool. Well, I got to get back in there and play.”
He turned and went back through the double doors into the gym. They had been playing crab soccer and all the young kids had red faces and were breathing hard and shouting at each other. Greg and Thomas were sitting in the corner by themselves like they normally do. They were my friends at church activities, but we never spent much time together outside of church. I never really felt comfortable around them. I pulled a chair over to them to watch the last round.
“So what did the Bishop have you do?” Greg asked.
“It was official church stuff, I’m not allowed to tell you.” I said.
“Yeah whatever. What’s the book about?”
I hid it behind my leg a little. “Welding.”
“Well that’s dumb,” he said. “Hey,” he leaned in closer to me and Thomas leaned in too. “You see that guy over there with the wallet chain and everything?”
“Yeah, his name is Mike.” I said.
“I don’t care what his name is. That guy is pissing me off,” Greg said. “He’s been flirting with Thomas’s sister all night tonight.” Thomas nodded but didn’t say anything. “Doesn’t that just piss you off?” Greg started using the word ‘piss’ about a month ago and he always said it really hard, moving his whole chest to force it out each time.
“Greg, why don’t you just mind your own business,” I said and I leaned back in my chair to try to balance on just the two back legs.
“Well, I’m making this my business.” Greg said.
We watched them play the last round. Mike was playing crab soccer and looked like he was having a pretty good time. He was on the same team as Thomas’s sister Kimber. She was 14. She was dressed in bright colors and had her hair up in two little pigtails behind her head.
Kimber passed Mike the ball and he kicked it in for a goal. He stood up to celebrate and Thomas’ sister ran up and hugged him and they jumped up and down with her chest pressed right up against his. They stopped jumping and she grabbed his hand. I came down on all four legs of the chair and Thomas grabbed both our knees.
“I’m going to kill that stupid kid,” Greg said, and Thomas swallowed hard. Right after that, the young women’s leader said that was the last goal and they needed to clean everything up.
We started stacking the chairs along the sides of the gym. Greg kept staring at Mike and mumbling. Any time Mike went anywhere near Kimber Greg would punch Thomas in the arm and point so Thomas would look. Thomas just looked blankly over and then kept stacking chairs. I caught eyes with Mike one time and gave a half-smile, and he did the same back to me.
On our way out of the church Greg passed by Mike and they hit shoulders hard. “Hey why don’t you watch where you’re going,” Greg said to Mike. I looked back and kind of apologized for Greg with my eyes. Then we left.
Greg usually drove his mom’s car and dropped us off, but not tonight, so we just walked home together. Thomas lived closest to the church, Greg lived on the next block after that and then I usually cut through his back yard and around his shed and my house was across the park after that.
About a block from the church, we saw Mike walking alone behind us in the streetlights. He was smoking a cigarette and his huge pants and chains made a lot of noise when he walked. He was the first person I’d met that did welding.
“I freaking hate that guy,” Greg said. “Look at him smoke. We have to do something to this kid. We can’t let him just get away with everything he’s doing.”
“Oh, what’s he doing that’s so bad Greg?” I asked.
“Well, he’s trying to do Thomas’ sister. You want to let that happen Thomas? You want this guy hanging around with us” Thomas shook his head. Thomas was younger than both of us and didn’t say much, but he was bigger and stronger than both of us too. “Right,” Greg said. “So here’s what we are going to do.” Then he started to explain his plan.
“I don’t want to do this.”
“Don’t be stupid Justin.”
“No, dude. I’m going home; you’re on your own.”
He grabbed my book from me. “I’m not going to give this back unless you come with us.”
I grabbed for it but he pushed me away. “Come on Greg don’t be like this.”
“Like what. You act like you love this cigarette-smoking fag or something.”
“Shut up.”
“Look, if you don’t come with us now, I’ll tell everyone about that time you peed your pants on the scouting trip and how you just sat there in your own piss crying like a baby.” He waved the book to taunt me.
“No you wouldn’t.”
“I could tell three people and the whole school would know by the end of the day.” His head jutted forward and turned a little.
“Give me back my book.” I said.
“Are you coming with us?”
“Just give me back my book.”
We cut through the Simpkin’s backyard and then hopped the fence to the middle school ball fields, crossed over the playground equipment and through the campus and waited by the bushes in front of the school. I don’t know how Greg knew Mike was going to pass by this street but, sure enough, he came around the corner just as we squatted down to wait. He had one hand in his pocket and he swung the other wide back and forth and his wallet chain bounced with every step. “You guys ready?” Greg asked.
“Do we really have to do this Greg?” I asked.
“Oh shut up Justin. You sound like my Mom. Now are you going to do this or not? Your part is easy. Do you really want this kind of kid hanging out with us at church activities?”
I didn’t say anything after that. I spit in the dirt next to us. It mixed with the dirt in a little ball. All that noise Mike made was getting louder. He was coming up the sidewalk alongside the bushes we were behind. He was the first person I’d met that did welding. They were thick bushes and there was no way he could see us. He can’t see us, I thought, he won’t see me. My knees were burning from squatting and I suddenly had to go to the bathroom worse than I ever had. Greg watched with gritted teeth as Mike came toward us. Thomas stared blankly into the bushes ahead with his head down. My stomach went hollow and I burped. He’s not going to see me, I thought. He can’t. He won’t. I can’t lose this before it starts. Mike’s chains jingled louder and louder. My neck veins throbbed. The muscles in my forearms were having spasms. “This is it. You guys ready?” Greg said.
I numbly nodded. Greg whispered to us, “On three.” Mike walked past jingling and clinking. We heard each footfall loud in the night. As soon as he crossed out of the light from the street lamps, Greg motioned three with his mouth and pushed out through the bushes. Thomas and I pushed through right after and, like we planned, Greg pulled Mike’s hat down in front of his face so he couldn’t see and grabbed for his hands. Thomas grabbed him with his thick arms in a chokehold around the neck. “Who the —” Mike started to say but Thomas squeezed the rest of his air out. He clawed at Thomas’ arms and his leather bracelets left huge scratches and some of them bled. Greg and Thomas both backed into the bushes and got him up off his feet. I was supposed to take his shoes off. So I did. I grabbed the heels and the shoes slipped off easily because they were big and loose. “Hey!” Mike screamed. Once I had them, I started to back away. I thought we were done. Mike was kicking and screaming and helpless. His voice cracked. But then Greg reached in and undid his belt.
“Take his pants,” Greg whispered at me, forcing it out with a big push from his chest. Thomas had his back in the bushes and his arms were red and swollen and bleeding a little. Mike’s head had hit him in the mouth. He was sucking on his bottom lip. I looked up at Greg and he pointed at the pants again. I knew if I hesitated anymore Thomas’ whole face would get smashed. So I tossed the shoes to Greg and grabbed the torn hems of those faded black pants. I yanked hard and the pants came right off. As I pulled, Mike’s hat toppled off his head and he looked right at me. He was calm, almost like he understood why we were doing it. A hot splash of fear and resentment hit me like boiling oil. He stopped struggling. His skinny white legs looked so small compared to his pants. His underwear was the brief kind and made his legs look even skinnier. His socks were white and loose and made him look dopey like a five year old. He lay there with Thomas’ arms around his neck. I stood there holding those long pants in both hands, staring into his face. The chains clinked against the sidewalk. Mike’s youthful eyes didn’t leave mine until I felt Greg push me away down the street. I put the pants up under my armpit and started running. We got to the first fence and I threw the pants over and climbed over myself. I don’t remember Greg and Thomas jumping that fence but soon they were right behind me sprinting through the middle school campus.
We were already at the far end of the ball fields when we stopped running. My lungs were on fire and my throat was full of mucus. I kept spitting wads of phlegm but it didn’t get any clearer. The spit was thick and clung to my lips.
I realized I still had the pants balled up under my armpit. They smelled like cigarettes. Thomas was examining his arms. Greg sat down against the fence with Mike’s shoes next to him. We all just stayed there until our breathing calmed and slowed.
“He saw me,” I said. The two of them turned towards me. “He looked right at me.” Greg and Thomas made sounds through their teeth. “I don’t know if he saw either of you. But I know he saw me. He looked right at me.”
“So what?” Greg said. He picked up the shoes and threw them one after the other into the far corner of the playing field. “What does it matter anyway? If we did a good enough job he won’t come to activities night.” He stood there still huffing breaths.
I dropped the pants onto the ground and they jingled when they landed. “Why’d you take his pants, Greg?”
The three of us stood there looking at the pants like they were a pile of vomit. “You took the pants dude. That was all you,” Greg said. Thomas kicked at the pants with his foot. I felt sick. I couldn’t get the picture out of my mind of his skinny legs and floppy socks sticking out of the bushes under the dim streetlamp’s light. And his eyes.
“He’s walking around in his underwear right now Greg,” I said.
“Yeah,” Greg said. “Serves him right.”
“There’s something wrong with us,” I said. “I hate you guys.” I walked away, and neither of them said anything.
In fact, none of us said anything to each other the rest of that week. I even have a class with Thomas. Some days we just nodded at each other, but we never said anything. He sat on the other side of the classroom. I watched him pick the scabs on his arms. We were never that good of friends anyway. I never saw Greg, not even at church on Sunday.
I didn’t leave my room that whole week except to eat and go to school. I thought a lot about what the Bishop had said. I wanted to believe it. I prayed to know if all they taught us about Jesus was true; if what we did to Mike really mattered in the grand scheme of things. I knew it did. And I wanted to know how and in what way Jesus was a part of it. The two things just seemed connected. But I couldn’t quite understand. I just didn’t get it.
The next week at activities night we were going to do a service project pulling weeds at the Bishop’s house. I kept watching for Greg, or Thomas, or Mike, but none of them came at the beginning. I stood by myself.
The leaders gave us a lesson on service about how the only difference between the sheep and the goats and being on the right side and the left side of God was service. The people who served others went to heaven and the ones who didn’t didn’t. When we did service we were like Christ, they said. Christ suffered for others, so we need to suffer for others too. Maybe I was in the wrong mood, but it still felt like another story.
We left out to the cars and Greg and Thomas came up right as we were about to drive to the Bishop’s house. They both got out and were looking around a lot and Greg kept shaking his keys. He never got more than five feet from his car. Greg told the leaders that I would ride with him. He pointed at his car, indicating that I needed to get in. I sat in back and Thomas in front. As soon as we got in they turned to me. “Is he here?” Greg asked.
“Who?” I said.
“Oh shut up you idiot, you know who I mean.” Greg said.
I looked out the window. “I didn’t see him. No.”
Greg looked around at everyone getting in the cars again before starting his. Thomas just sat there. Greg turned up the radio. It wasn’t far to the Bishop’s house.
The Bishop was out of town. So the leaders wanted to go and do all his yard work that he never has the time to do. On the side of his house there was a strip next to the sidewalk that ran along the right side of his house that was completely full of three-foot-tall weeds. It was like a mini jungle. In his backyard, which covered about an acre, he had a pool and a trampoline and some games and stuff to play with all overrun with grass and weeds. We all got out of the cars and stood around near the huge line of weeds and the leaders started assigning work to everybody.
Greg and Thomas came and stood next to me with their arms folded. “If we don’t make eye-contact we won’t have to do anything,” Greg said.
“Don’t talk to me.” I said and started to walk away.
Greg grabbed my arm and I shook out of his grip quick. “Come on Justin. Don’t be like this. You wouldn’t want me to tell everyone about your little accident, would you?”
“Go ahead. You know what. Just go ahead. I don’t care.”
“Oh I think you do.” Greg said. “I think I could exaggerate a little too.”
“You’re stupid,” I said and walked around toward the far side of the house.
“You’re going to regret this, Welder boy.” he called after me.
I went past the pool and past the half basketball court to the far corner of the field. The white grass was tall and I sat down in it. It rustled when I did. I picked huge clumps of it and sat it all in my lap. I sat there a long time like a wounded lion, hiding to die in peace. Fireflies lilted in the distance. I spat a lot and watched to sun creep toward the horizon. One of the leaders rode a riding mower around and around and I listened to it get closer. I sat there until it came about 15 feet from me.
I dusted the big pile of grass away and got up. My legs were stiff and my left foot had fallen asleep. I limped toward the house. They had done a lot of work already. The garden was weeded and clean, the lawn was cut and raked; they even washed the huge windows that looked over the backyard. I came around to the far side where the weeds were, and there was Mike. He was dumping an arm full of weeds into a trash bag. His pants were smaller and even more faded and he didn’t jingle when he moved. His shoes were almost completely worn out. The sole was coming off the left one. He wiped his nose with the back of his wrist. His arms were red and swollen and his shirt was loose and covered with brambles and spikes from the weeds. He and two of the younger kids had cleared away 20 feet of the weeds and there was still three more feet to go. Mike grabbed another load with his bare arms and stuffed it into the trash bag. He coughed, covering his mouth with his hand. He looked straight at me. He hesitated for a split second and then grabbed the hoe to start chopping at the weeds again. I must have stood there for a whole minute doing nothing but staring at him.
“You want to give us a hand?” Mike said to me. I started to point at myself to ask, “Me?” But instead I just stumbled over to the pile of trash bags; there were 6 of them, bulging and full with weeds. I stood next to him as he hoed. He had strong arms. I could see his muscles flexing through his shirt. He was working hard. I don’t think he had even met the Bishop before. He raked the hoe across the weeds and began to cough again. He coughed so bad he had to stop. “Man, I really got to quit smoking,” he said, and continued working.
I took a half step behind him closer to the weeds and he propped the hoe up to rest on it. He nodded toward the pile of weeds. I stepped in a squatted down. He watched me like a father watching a son shave for the first time, raising his finger in a bit of a warning.
I leaned over and hugged the first armful of weeds. Immediately, I felt my skin start to swell and turn red. The weeds weren’t just irritating, like were like poison, or like acid poured right onto my skin. Mike had been clearing these weeds for about an hour now. After I dumped my load, the other two kids picked up and dumped a load and then it was done. Mike stood there leaning against the hoe, wiping sweat from his forehead with his dirty hands. My arms were tingling with pain. I can’t imagine what his must have felt like.
I looked over at him. He returned the same calm look he had before when I was taking his pants. We both stood there with our arms in pain. His worse than mine. He pressed his lips together and nodded at me. I nodded back. And that’s when I realized it.
Just then, Greg and Thomas walked up. They looked at Mike and me, Greg with his fist in his hand, shaking his head.
I took a step in between them and him. It wasn’t just a story anymore.