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Sawdust

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Jake and Misty made pies in seventh-grade home economics as the snow fell softly outside. The teacher, an impossibly old woman named Mrs. Hansen, never let them work together; Jake was always paired with the least competent student, because Jake could make a flawless pie crust. It seemed that the teacher would appreciate his talent, but instead she seethed with jealousy.

Misty was known for giving blow jobs in the back of the school bus. Jake was always her go-between when they went on field trips, a fearless pimp, proud of her bobbing head and blue mascara. He was the one who always packed the blanket, shielded Misty and the football player from the bus driver. Misty was the bossy one; she made the other kids switch seats, but everybody watched that motion, that flurry in the backseat of the school bus, the blanket moving up and down. Misty had a reputation that she swung around like a favorite purse.

The blow job that Misty had given Sixty-Four on a trip to Glacier National Park had become mythical, and now he wouldn’t leave her alone, as the pies browned in the long row of ovens. He wanted a repeat performance, without an audience of mouth-breathing football players. It was a small school, but the football players were indistinguishable: all were Applehauses or Petersens or Clinkenbeards. It was much easier to pick out members of the herd by the numbers on their jerseys, which they wore to school every day.

Jake watched now as Sixty-Four begged Misty for a date, a real date. She threatened him with a rolling pin. He walked away and spit tobacco into the garbage can, and cursed loud enough for everyone to hear.

Now the other football players in the class were glaring at Misty, and Sixty-Four grabbed his crotch and pointed at her. She spit at him and was sent to the principal’s office by old Mrs. Hansen, always quick to pounce on unladylike behavior.

Jake didn’t see Misty again until the last period of the day. Last period was shop, and they were making toolboxes, metal bent and folded with the press that Jake could never master. He put an edge in the metal press so many times that the paint scraped from it, and it was now just shiny tin, its edges curling hopelessly. The football players had finished their toolboxes on the very first day, and the shop teacher, who was also the football coach, had asked them to supervise while he went to the teachers’ lounge. After five minutes, they began to gather around him. Sixty-Four was the first to step forward.

“Fucking faggot,” he said. “You can’t do anything right.” He slapped Jake’s hand away from the metal press.

“I’m trying,” said Jake. The metal piece was beyond repair. “I’m not good at this sort of thing.”

Thirty-Seven mocked Jake’s high-pitched voice but added a lisp that Jake was certain did not exist. He had once asked Misty for confirmation of this.

“You’re gonna make him cry,” said Sixty-Four.

“No,” said Jake. “This isn’t anything to cry about.”

“Don’t be a smart-ass,” Sixty-Four said, and pushed him. Jake absorbed the blow, but took a step backward.

“Sissy,” hissed Sixty-Four, and pushed Jake harder, this time against a wooden workbench, and he tripped over it, landing on the floor in a pile of dust from the band saw. Jake was upset, because he was wearing his favorite slacks—gray wool—and his favorite dress shirt—jet-black polyester and shiny—sure to pick up all of this mess on the floor. Before he could start brushing himself off, Sixty-Four stepped over him and pushed Jake’s face down toward the bits of wood shaving.

“Eat it, faggot.” He bent down to Jake’s level, his face was red from crouching. “I want you to eat it.”

“I won’t,” said Jake, just before his head was turned, and his mouth filled with sawdust, and his teeth touched the cement floor. The football players laughed, and Sixty-Four planted a foot against his neck. Jake choked as he breathed in the fine dust of two-by-fours and whole sheets of plywood.

“Stop dressing like such a fucking pansy,” said Sixty-Four. “And maybe we’ll leave you alone.”

Jake heard a door slam, and the foot lifted from his neck.

He pushed himself up from the floor. He stared through the legs of the football players at Misty, who was walking toward them, her hands clenched by her side.

“Motherfuckers,” she proclaimed. “You leave him alone.”

“Fuck you,” said Sixty-Four. “Mind your own business.”

“Leave him alone,” repeated Misty as she picked up a finished toolbox, perfect and gleaming, from the workbench.

“Hey!” protested Thirty-Seven. “I made that!”

“I don’t give a shit,” said Misty. Sixty-Four spit down on Jake and kicked him once in the ribs. Jake yelped and rolled over on his side. He slid across the floor and pressed up against a metal cabinet.

He watched as Misty swung the toolbox and hit Sixty-Four in the side of the head. He collapsed, took down two benches as he fell to the floor. She held the toolbox in front of her, shoved it at the circle of football players, who all backed away. She jabbed it at them, until they backed out through the door, leaving their comrade lying on the floor.

When the door closed, Misty replaced the toolbox, now dented on one end, back on the workbench.

“Fuckers,” said Misty. “All of them.”

“Oh my god,” Jake said, and spit on the floor. He could taste the wood shavings on the roof of his mouth; his tongue was coated with sawdust.

Misty helped Jake to his feet. They stared down at Sixty-Four, a slick of blood on his forehead, shining in the fluorescent lights. He was still.

“Maybe he’s dead,” said Jake.

“I doubt it,” Misty said, and shoved him with a push of her foot. “He’s a goddamn football player. I knocked him out, that’s all.”

They watched Sixty-Four’s chest rise and fall, and Jake was relieved.

“Jesus,” said Jake. “How are we going to explain this?”

“We’re not,” said Misty. “We’re leaving.”

She grabbed his hand and pulled him out of the classroom and into the hallway. The corridors were completely empty, except for the two girls who were hanging up the pep rally poster with electrical tape. They paid no attention as Misty and Jake, still covered in sawdust, exited through a side door.

That night, Misty’s mother came to deliver news. Martha Man Hands stood on the porch, shaking her giant fists, still furious over Misty’s latest misadventures. Krystal immediately sent Jake to his room. He stood in the hallway and tried to listen, but the baby was screaming, and then Martha was crying.

Krystal came into his bedroom after Martha left, and told him that Misty was being sent away. Misty had always saved him, escorted Jake through the streets of Quinn in the morning. Misty flashed a pocketknife at any assembly of boys more than three in number. Misty had been his protector, and Frank had been his friend. Losing them both was too much to bear. Something folded up inside him like a lawn chair.

He was more afraid than ever. He went to sleep holding Frank’s harmonica.

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