Michael Hollister (Ph.D., Stanford Univ.) has worked as a sketch artist, intelligence agent, and professor. He has published many scholarly articles and reviews, as well as short fiction in periodicals including The Gettysburg Review, North Atlantic Review, Mississippi Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, Hawaii Review and Paris Transcontinental. "More Room to Pray Golf" is excerpted from The Girl Under the Ramp, his unpublished novel that earned an award from the national Writers Association. He is married with three children and lives in Oregon.
On the street I went by Emily Dickinson until some guy told me that she's a stripper. All I wanted was to get away.
It's hard to go back when you're so far behind and the other kids stare at you and whisper. Mountainview High is on a hill, stretched out level as a factory with the football field and the track below it like the whole school is watching a game. In the middle of the field is a gold eagle with its claws reaching out the same as the one on the ballcap my dad wears when he's coaching football. Our district has a few rich looking houses up on Rocky Butte, but my dad says this is more like the butt of the city since we started having so many dropouts, and people put the blame on us.
My stomach feels like I'm going to run away again before I even start. When I get inside, the long main hall is like a chute full of wild looking kids all trying to fit in and we's all just milling around through the chutes of the factory, but I can't say I'm sick again so fast, I got to try at least. The feeling in my stomach is spreading all through me into my fingers even, so when I try the padlock on my locker the combination don't work at first. I keep my eyes to myself and nobody hassles me. Davey Sample's locker has bunches of flowers laid in front of it with black crepe and longstem flowers stuck through the handle and farewell notes from girls taped on the door.
In her cubicle Mrs. Nicely my counselor is talking on the phone and turning her pen over and over on her desk. She has neat gray hair pulled back and listens to you like a mom from the olden days before they got too busy. She glances up and don't even reckonize me cause this morning when I looked in the mirror it made me want to just take off again like the birds from the poisoned lake I seen on TV, but I got to try. So I used my sister Angela's blow dryer to freak out my hair and make me look normal and put on my short denim skirt and purple lipstick and skull earrings is why Mrs. Nicely don't reckonize me.
"Nancy Tucker, is that you?" she hangs up. "I'm glad to see you back. We missed you."
"Yeah, I'm sure," I slump in the chair.
"That's a pretty outfit. How have you been? Is there anything you'd like to talk about today?"
"How to get a ticket for the Crude Spill concert."
"I mean personal. Nothing? Well. All right then. But if you ever need someone to talk to, I hope you'll come and see me. I really do want to help you, Nancy," her voice goes softer and she clenches her hands in her lap. "You do believe that, don't you?"
"You just want to put me in that school for dumb kids."
"Alternative School is not for dumb kids."
"It's just math and stuff."
"Well okay then, how's this? What would you like to study? If you could run your own school, what would you like to do?"
"Go to the beach." I watch her eyes.
"You mean like a field trip. Well, why don't you let me talk to Mrs. Rankin. Maybe it can be arranged for one of her science classes in the spring. Would you like that?"
I look down and shake my head.
Mrs. Nicely sags back in her swivel chair, but she smiles at me anyway. Then she tells me how the counselors been talking to my dad and everything, and how they's going to let me finish out the term and then start over after Christmas.
"Can I go now?"
By the time I get to class I'm late again. Ms. Watson she has her back turned writing numbers fast on the blackboard, so I just slide into a seat in the back row.
I hate fractions, but I like the way my pencil feels when the lead flattens a little on one side and the edge of it makes the numbers look pretty. Ms. Watson is a skinny teacher with glasses big as goggles. Doing problems, she goes faster than Indy Fivemillion on speed. Indy is a kid I know on the street. Ms. Watson writes numbers so fast on the blackboard and hits it so hard that pieces of chalk fly off and when sometimes it breaks, she quick grabs up another piece and keeps on going.
She races along explaining then all a sudden she hits the brakes and calls on you before you get a chance to think even. I keep my head down low. But sure enough, first day I'm back in her class, right away she calls on me. Everybody looks around at me. I'm so far behind it ain't no use to try is why I got behind in the first place. After class she calls me up to her desk. She says it's just cause I'm a girl and been conditioned. She tells me how I got to work on problems at home, and I promise to try, but I feel like this is just a lot of numbers and the way I see it people is what counts. Ms. Watson says math is the future and I got to learn computers and income tax and property settlements. She says I got to copy all her problems.
Next is Mr. Popkin, through the crowd of kids around the corner and down the hall. In the noise of between classes I flop in the back row of Popkin's room and put my feet up. I look out the window. Over the football field the sky is dark low clouds and at least I'm inside, warm and dry, stead of on the street with Tab Lloyd and Metasta Sizemore and Aka Zero and the other kids. You can't see the mountain from here, but this is a lot better than math, cause Popkin says there ain't no one right answer. He lets you put your feet up and he never grades hard—that's discrimination. He lets you answer how you feel like. The kids are all talking so much the way they feel like all the time that he has trouble getting the class started. Mr. Popkin is a short almost bald man with some wriggles of hair left on the back of his head like half a hula skirt. His nose is pink, his eyebrows are pale, and in the rolled neck of his white knit sweater it looks like his head is sinking lower and lower, so pretty soon his nose will go under and he'll be ducking all the time, like Ickybod Crane in that story Mrs. Seaman made us read last year.
We can write on anything we want for Popkin, cept for God and porno. Like graffiti or detective stories or bubble gum wrappers, cause he says theys just as good as Shakespeare. That's the guy we heard about from Mrs. Seaman. This is an advanced class. We sit around watching the litature on TV and so it don't matter what I missed, cause it's just what I do all the time, like Fantasy Island. Popkin says it don't matter what we watch, so mostly we listen to him talk about what he likes. Popkin says TV is democracy, cause what goes on is what most people want. He says computers is going to do away with teachers and litature and everything will be video like the president. Popkin gets cloudy in his eyes and his voice kind of trembles when he says stuff like "technical advance" and "true democracy" and "bestseller." My sister Angela says she really learned a lot from him about commercials and how to get people to do what you want.
Today he has us watching a video that Louie Carbozo made for his term project. Q.T. comes in late in his sloped black leather cap and slumps into a chair beside me. We grin at each other. Popkin don't notice when kids in his class are stoned. He sits on the edge of his desk with his arms folded in the bulky white sweater, his hula skirt hair covering his neck and his pink head shining in the light from the TV. The picture is dim, but I can see it's the main hallway of our school, long and empty with light reflecting off the waxed floor all the way to the end. We's looking through the front door into the long chute. Something is in there. It slides this way until we see it has two little arms. It squirms around with its legs kicking out and little hands reaching. Then two big hands come and lift it up from a carseat on a cord.
"It's having a baby!" Gloria pops out.
"Yeah," Q.T. goes. "It's a horror movie."
Before we's done laughing the picture changes to a kid that looks like a little Louie on a skateboard in traffic, swooping through the cars and almost getting hit and swerving around like crazy, going smaller in the distance. A big face comes in close up sticking out a huge tongue and mugging at us. Then he's gone and we's all laughing. All a sudden he's back again with bug eyes and his fingers pulling his mouth as wide as it can stretch, then gone again and we's staring at the behind of a girl walking past and away up the street so fast it's like the film is speeded up as fast as Ms. Watson.
"I think he should change his perspective," Gloria goes. "Mr. Popkin, shouldn't he change his perspective?"
"Well," Popkin pulls his chin and his head ducks lower into his sweater. "This is very interesting, Louie. Very postmodern."
"Better than Shakespeare?" I go.
"More democratic," Popkin goes. "And quite advanced. Except for the way he looks at the woman. You're right, Gloria. Yes, that's a little insensitive, Louie."
Now the picture is back inside somewhere and it's so dark we can hardly see what's going on. The boys are snickering.
"This isn't pornographic, is it, Louie?" Popkin goes.
Q.T. grins, "I'm appalled."
The class is all gaspy.
We can't see who it is or what, cept theys standing up and doing it together. It looks pretty sensitive to me. Popkin is squinting at it and we's all waiting to see if he thinks it's democratic, cause whatever theys doing, we can all see for sure that it's advanced. And besides, whatever it is, we already seen everything in movies and magazines and stuff, so what's the big deal is why we's laughing so hard. And Popkin not able to see. Now we see it's a boy that's kissing somebody that might be a girl. Then quick we's gawking down at a body on the floor with a knife stuck in the back. Now all a sudden we's outside in the parking lot looking at Louie Carbozo with his arm around his car. It's a black Trans-Am with a gold eagle painted on the hood with its claws reaching out. Some of the boys they cheer at Louie posing for us, all toothy and proud with his dark curly hair slicked back and his arm slung around the top of the driver's side of his car. He gives his car a hug. He goes down on one knee and kisses his car on the door handle like it's a girl's hand. Then we's staring at the rear of his Trans-Am going up the street and that's The End.
We clap and cheer for Louie.
Popkin goes to the VCR with his hula hair blowing out in the air behind him. "Okay," he sits on the edge of his desk and folds his arms, hunching up and smiling with no neck. "How did you relate to that? What do you feel about it as a statement?"
"I liked the end," Q.T. goes.
More cheers from the boys.
"Nancy, we haven't heard from you for awhile."
I'm slouching low in the back row with my feet up. "I think it was advanced and democratic."
"Yes, it was very advanced, wasn't it. Very good technically. Abrupt cuts, especially the stabbing—wasn't that good!"
"Might of been even better if we could of seen it," Q.T. goes.
"We don't have to see everything, do we?"
"Seeing what happened might be good," I go.
"But does it really matter who stabbed him in the back?"
"It wasn't him, Mr. Popkin!" Gloria busts out all excited. "It was her that got stabbed in the back!"
"Who was it, Louie?" somebody yells.
"It was a pillow."
"I liked the stabbing part," Hog Bartok goes. Hog has some little rat scalps hanging from his black leather jacket. "It ain't any Chain Saw Massacre, but hey—he's just learning."
Popkin turns to me with a pink face and his bald head ducking lower into his sweater, "Nancy would like more plot. Do we really need plot? Most commercials have no plot or character development. Who cares about plot or character?"
"Well I do," Abby glances around like we's going to jump on her cause she cares. Her eyes are wide. She sits up straighter and touches away a hair from her mouth. "I mean how can people get along if they don't have character?"
Popkin looks afraid she's going to talk about God.
"I get along okay," Louie goes.
So then nobody has much to say. We said everything important about Louie, so next we look at Gloria.
Gloria keeps herself in the center of the picture all the time like my sister Angela. She has lots of squiggly blonde hair and teeth like she can bite open coconuts. Her video is brighter than Louie and moves along more on the same line and she don't get into the dark so much. We look up at her face as a baby in a gray pants suit taking her first step, with the angle making her head look big, then we see her peddling a tricycle toward us on the sidewalk and right on by without slowing down and up the street with her ponytail bouncing up and down, and then's she's running through a wading pool, stomping on water and taking a hose away from her dad. After awhile we seen so much of Gloria as a little girl it seems like her project is going to be a miniseries.
After class, out with all the kids in the hallway, I get a stab in my heart to go down to the gym and see my dad. I feel so bad about him and my mom fighting that I almost cut Mrs. Kloneberger-Frye, but he would just make me come back to her, even though he said that once in a faculty meeting she called him a macho dodo. He wants me not to embarrass him and fail, but I'm so far behind I might as well go and sit on the can and have a cigarette. I ain't doing good in anything but Popkin, which don't mean nothing cause everybody does. I scuffle along the chute in a herd of kids with the books in my shoulder bag wanting to pull me down. In the hall some kids are standing around Q.T. They want to make buys, cept he don't sell on the school grounds.
Mrs. Kloneberger-Frye she makes us all sit in a circle so you feel like everybody's looking at you all the time and she takes notes about you on a red plastic clipboard. She's my sister Angela's advisor, and Gloria's too. At first she made us sit around the circle girl-boy-girl for equality, but that made some girls feel like it was boy-girl-boy, so then she let us sit where we feel like and now it's mostly girls on one side of the circle with Mrs. Kloneberger-Frye and mostly boys on the other side with Brad Foley and Q.T. Gloria sits with the girls, Abby sits with the boys and I sit kind of in between, where Davey used to be. When the two sides argue, I go back and forth in my head.
Mrs. Kloneberger-Frye sits up straight in the back and looks around the circle. I hope she don't say nothing to me. When she looks at me her thin red lips turn up in a smile but she don't say nothing yet. She's wearing a blouse as ripply as lettuce in front and a tan jacket with really wide shoulders that bulge like buns. Her glasses have horned amber frames, her face is narrow with a pointy jaw and her hair is dark and hanging in tangles of wet looking curls. Right away she asks everybody to turn in their homework. The papers come passing around the circle to her and everybody sees I don't have it done and is thinking how low I am in the class, so I slouch in my chair with the collar of my jacket turned up and scribble in my notebook, doodles of things all breaking apart, while she talks about the map test, how kids got places mixed up and couldn't find the United States.
Komiko done the best.
After awhile Mrs. Kloneberger-Frye gets us discussing about Japan and I feel better, cause I know all about Japan. It's across the ocean and we beat them in a war and now theys beating us in business.
"And what are some of the reasons for this, do you think?" Mrs. Kloneberger-Frye looks at us around the circle.
I frown my eyes down and scribble.
"They do more homework," Wendy goes.
"We have too much crime," Brad Foley says.
"Women haven't been treated fairly."
"Yes, Gloria. That's a very good reason."
"We take more vacations and drugs," Q.T. grins, slouching under his sloped leather cap. Q.T. is the chairperson of the school Just Say No to Drugs Campaign.
Komiko has shiny long black hair and a dark blue dress with a white collar. When she first come here she was quiet and looked down all the time, but now she talks right up. "Japanese students work too hard and not creative. They not have freedom in Japanese school, and women not allowed to work in business as much as here. American way is better."
Kids clap and Komiko bows.
"Also more room to pray golf."
Mrs. Kloneberger-Frye smiles at Komiko. "We're not better, just different. But we're all the same underneath, aren't we?"
Her eyes are coming toward me.
"Are we all the same underneath as Hog Bartok?"
It pops out just to say something before she calls on me, but it kicks up a few laughs. Mrs. Kloneberger-Frye has to adjust her glasses and wait before she answers.
"Perhaps we'd better define equality again."
"Kids that don't get their homework done get the same grades as everybody else."
"Nice try, Kevin."
Brad Foley laughs the loudest. He slouches back in his sports letter jacket with the gold eagle on the side and grins over at Wendy DeFoliak in her letter jacket the same as his. "Equality is when guys pretend they aren't better at anything than girls."
Some of the girls moan and boo and Wendy throws a wadded paper at Brad and it bounces off his arm.
"Boys kill themselves ten times better," he ducks.
"No they don't!" Wendy shoots back.
Dirk makes a snorting noise. He has a sideways mouth and combat boots. He sits back stiff with his arms folded in a tan army shirt hanging over his jeans and a shaved gray head with just whiskers on it. "It means you're discriminated against unless you're a white male."
Mrs. Kloneberger-Frye smiles at Dirk like he's just the same as us underneath. "Those with power have to accept the most responsibility for conditions as they are."
"Is that why Davey Sample killed himself?" I go.
We all sit quiet.
Davey did it with a hunting rifle on the infield of the greyhound race track, by the river. After his memorial in the auditorium, I left and ain't come back until today.
"We don't really know that," Mrs. Kloneberger-Frye sounds concerned. "We'll probably never know."
"We know he had a lot of pressure on him!" Brad busts out like he's mad at Mrs. Kloneberger-Frye.
"Yes," she nods. "David was a good student."
"We're not the same underneath!" Abby cries out. Her eyes are full. "Davey was a good student and the quarterback of the team and all that, but most of all"—her voice cracks—"as a person!"
We all sit really still.
"It's just a game," Gloria goes. "I can't believe he would do something like that just because of a game."
"That tees me off," Brad makes a cussing noise.
"It wasn't just a game!" Abby wipes her cheek.
"All right, all right," Mrs. Kloneberger-Frye calms them down. We all sit back and get quiet again. "Let's get back on the track, okay? Now then. Where did we leave off?"
"Losing the game to Japan," I go.
After lunch in the cafeteria, me and Q.T. cut out.
We go down the steps to the football field and around the track to the hole in the cyclone wire fence. I look to see my dad or nobody is watching and then we scrunch down through the hole and onto the golf course. In his sloped black leather cap Q.T. looks like a Russian punk spy golfer. We cross the steep downhill of the fairway into the stand of tall firs and go in deep enough so we don't get spotted by kids in gym class running the track. We's on the bend of the dogleg fairway, sitting on the steep cold slope in the firs with golfers teeing off at the top of the hill behind us. With the green out of sight from up there at the tee, this is a sucker hole with a lot of lost balls.
We hear the whock of a shot. Listening to hear if it hits a tree and maybe us, I think of Komiko when she said pray golf. We hear a golfer swear. Over our heads a white ball knocks into one of the firtree trunks with a hollow sound and bounces into another trunk and ricochets off that one into another like follow the bouncing ball in a singalong, or Mrs. Kloneberger-Frye. Q.T. lights a joint, sucks up hard and passes it to me. I only done this a few times before, just to be sociable you know, cause I like to keep myself clean inside, but coming back to school gets me down. I take a slow draw, hold in and pass it back. Q.T. has limp hair wimping out from under his cap, a cute grin and the pockets of his black leather jacket full of pills. Q.T. stands for quality time. He and his mom have this deal where he just comes home to sleep and she don't hassle him. A ball hits a trunk and we duck.
It ricochets away and down the hill, bouncing out of the forest and on down, kerplunk into the pond below the green. Pretty soon, here comes this golfer puffing along. He's a paunchy old guy in a white cap. He leaves his golfcart on the fairway to our right and comes trudging into the forest with a club, swearing and looking around for his ball. We duck low under a bush. The golfer comes a few steps farther into the forest, looks around holding his club like he might get attacked in here, and sees the green up there through the treetrunks. He lowers his club. He stands there gawking up at the green, like having a religious golf experience. Then he glances back toward the fairway, ducking and moving his head around to see the other golfers through the trees. He pulls a golfball out of his pocket and looks around. He moves a few steps further down the hill and drops the ball where he wants it. Hunching up that way and glancing around, he looks like Popkin. He steps up close with his club. The green is across a gulley with the pond in the bottom, up high on a hill with the flag limp. He lines up with the green and lifts back his club and eases it up to the ball a few times. Then finally he swings.
The shot is a rocket that whacks into a trunk about twenty feet ahead of him and ricochets back into his paunch—
"Ooof!" he goes.
He falls on his knees holding his stomach. His cap tips off. He makes a gaspy sound and tumbles forward on his face and rolls.
"Does your dad play?" Q.T. passes me the smoke.
"Yeah," I stand up to watch. "He plays everything."
The golfer rolls down the hill but he don't make it into the pond. He comes to a stop on his back with his hands clutching at his stomach. I start to run down there to see if he's okay, but he sits right up and gropes around for air, trying to breathe. He wobbles up to his feet and staggers, holding to his belly like he got shot. He looks out through the trunks at the fairway where two other golfers are coming down from the tee pulling their golfbags. He grabs another ball out of his pocket. He tosses it underhanded down the hill to a space out of the trees where it's a clear shot up over the pond to the green. Then he comes puffing back up the hill toward us, red in the face and clutching his belly. He snatches up his white cap and slaps it on his head, finds his club and puffs out of the forest to his golfcart with the striped blue awning. The back of his white jacket is covered with bits of leaves and fir needles.
"I'm appalled," Q.T. grins.
After a few hits I feel good for awhile and forget about Davey. With my back to the huge trunk, it's like my body is the ground left alone to grow big trees and be the green, high in the sky. I gawk at it glowing like heaven up there in the sunlight.
At the bottom of the hill, the golfcart with the striped awning comes around the fir trees and parks beside the pond. The paunchy golfer in the white cap gets out. He pulls a club from his bag and steps up to the ball he tossed, looking up at the green. Just then a pill falls on the green and rolls a ways and stops. Then pretty soon another pill lands and bounces along the green and rolls over a mound. The paunchy golfer is still lining up his shot. The other two golfers stop coming up the hill to the green and stand with their bags, watching the paunchy guy. He pulls back his club and eases it down to the ball, looks up at the green, then finally lifts back in a full swing and knocks the ball up and I hope for it to plunk into the pond, cause he lied to those other guys about his lie, but his pill falls on the green and spins backward, rolling closer to the flag than them.
"Right on," Q.T. sucks in.
The three little golfers on the green stoop over, popping their pills. When one of them notices the leaves and fir needles on his back, the paunchy guy acts embarrassed, but they all laugh like it don't matter, cause theys just praying golf. They move on over the hill out of sight. Under his sloped black cap Q.T. looks around at me and grins like the devil. He likes it when somebody gets in trouble, for the fun of how they cheat, but me, I like it better when they go straight, there ain't no ricochets and nobody gets hurt.
Behind us, a shot whacks off the tee.
Somebody yells out over our heads like swearing in Japanese. With my back to the big trunk I look out for a ricochet, not scared anymore, cause I can duck a golfball, it's the things knocking around inside that hurt. Q.T. offers it, but me, I don't want another hit. It's getting too late. I get up and brush myself off and say so long.
I better go back to school.