From an Innocent Desolation

Prologue: The Fantastic Four. 1998.

The sky, awash in pink, gold, and the white of stray clouds, was fast brightening. They were all tired, but that was the point of staying up all night. For Cather, seeing this group of friends had come to feel increasingly like a chore. He had made new ones at middle school. Tyler and Jim were always especially mean when Laura was around.

Laura stood up from the plastic lawn chair and walked to the edge of the building, hawked a loogie, and spat. She turned around and grinned:

“If this were the middle of the day I could have hit someone,” she said.

“Not on my watch,” answered Stuart, her father.

“This is boring.” Jim stood up as well. “Let’s go back.”

“Yeah, let’s,” echoed Tyler.

“What do you think, Cather?” Stuart asked. “Ready to go?”

They all looked at the diminutive twelve-year-old (the same age as all the others but Jim, who was one year older).

Cather shrugged. “Do what you want.”

“Oh come on, Cath,” said Jim. “You want to go or not? Don’t be a mope.”

Cather didn’t answer. He leaned back and turned his face up towards the sunrise.

“Uh-oh,” said Jim. “Cath’s giving us the silent treatment.”

“Leave him alone,” Laura intervened. “Let’s stay up here a little while longer.”

“Why?” Jim shot back. “Because of him?”

“Because of me.”

“What are you arguing about? I’m the only one whose opinion really matters,” Stuart shouted over them.

“Well not Cath, that’s for sure,” Jim went on, now walking towards his target.

Cather looked at him as he approached. He stood up and their eyes locked. Jim, coming to a stop, broke into a smile and raised his hands.

“Don’t shoot, Cath, you God damn Columbine waiting to happen.”

Tyler laughed. Laura didn’t.

“Hey, knock it off,” said Stuart. “We’ll go down in a minute. Just wait for the sky to turn blue. As the only parent, and building manager, if I say we stay up all night watching anime and eating popcorn so we can see the dawn, then my word is law.”

Cather glowered briefly at Jim, then sat back down.

After about ten minutes, and another period of silence, Stuart made the call and they left the roof.

Stuart fixed breakfast: bagels with lox and cream cheese, scrambled eggs, and assorted fruits. They sat at the table in the living room of the large ground floor apartment. Stuart’s position as manager here was the only reason he could afford the rent, his meager salary as an elementary school arts teacher being what it was.

“You know,” he managed between mouthfuls. “You all should come up with a name for this little group. Make it official that you like seeing each other.”

Tyler and Jim looked at each other and shook their heads. Cather pretended he hadn’t heard.

“What do you think?” pressed Stuart.

“I don’t know,” said Jim. “Sounds sorta dorky.”

“I like the idea,” Laura opined.

“We don’t need a name,” said Tyler. “That’s fucking stupid.”

“Hey, watch your language,” ordered Stuart.

“Of course the black man don’t know how to carry himself,” Jim added.

“I won’t have any swearing from any of you while you’re under my roof.”

“Well it’s stupid,” Tyler insisted. “It doesn’t matter who’s black and who isn’t.”

“I’ve got it!” Jim shouted. “You ready?”

“Let’s hear it,” said Stuart.

“The Fantastic Four. That should be our name.”

“No way am I calling any of us that,” muttered Cather.

“That’s a great idea, Jim,” said Stuart. “I’ll call you that every time you come to my house from now on.”

“It is pretty dorky,” said Laura.

“You know who’s dorky? This little guy Cather right here,” Jim gesticulated.

Cather grimmaced. 

“Yes he is a dork,” Tyler agreed.

“I’m the reason you’re all here,” Cather said, which was true: the three others only knew each other through Cather’s mutual acquaintance.

“What?” Jim tried, “you want us to say thank you?”

“There he goes again,” said Tyler, “just being himself.”

“Damn Jim, leave Cather alone,” Laura pleaded.

“I’m not calling us the Fantastic Four,” Cather insisted. “Sorry Stuart.”

“Well it was just an idea,” Stuart replied.

“No need to get hung up on it, Cathy,” Jim went on. “Just say what you feel, man.”

“I am saying what I feel,” said Cather.

“Just eat your breakfast, kids,” Stuart requested. “And don’t tell your parents we stayed up all night.”

They went back to eating. Laura was smiling. She preferred this group to that of her girl friends. She felt like the center of attention with the boys, and she knew that both Tyler and Jim had a thing for her. Of Cather she wasn’t so sure.

She watched him finish his bagel, then reach for fruit. There was something beautiful about him. He couldn’t stand up for himself, which was why he was so consistently singled out. Even her father made fun of him from time to time.

“Do you have coffee?” she asked Stuart.

“Not for kids I don’t.”

“I’m gonna crash as soon as I get home,” Tyler admitted.

“So am I,” said Jim.

“How about you, Cathy,” said Stuart. “Are you tired?”

“Of course I am. But my parents won’t know it. I don’t think so anyway.”

“It’s okay,” said Stuart. “I’m really more responsible than I let on.”

Then something happened that no one saw coming; something Cather would remember shamefully for the rest of his life, and which would leave an indelible mark on the fortunes of the Fantastic Four: Cather sneezed. A veritable explosion of snot and spit expelled in a burst from his nose and mouth, reaching the fruit and bagels, and all members of the group.

“Holy crap!” Laura squeeled. “Gross!”

“Oh my God, Cath, what you done now?” grinned Tyler, wiping his arms where some of the phlegm had landed.

Jim burst out laughing, along with Stuart.

“You gosh darn detonated,” said Laura’s father.

“Okay, that’s enough of you,” Jim forced himself on Cather anew. “Where did that come from?”

Cather blushed furiously and cowered. He wiped his face with the sleeve of his sweater. Until his parents came to get him he didn’t even try to rejoin the group. He stayed in the corner in exile, as everyone else now considered him far beyond saving. Laura felt bad, but what had happened had been quite inexcusable. She worried about the fortunes of the group without him. Would they still even bother to see each other?

As it turned out, they wouldn’t. Cather never called on Laura again, and would only see Jim through their mothers, who remained friends. He went to school with Tyler, so that was unavoidable, but the Fantastic Four would not convene again for a long time.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: