Jim didn’t know what sucked more: South Dakota or high school. Days when he sat in class enduring another long, boring lecture in history class, waiting for the clock on the wall to speed up, high school sucked more. But high school was small, just a speck. South Dakota took up his entire universe.
Drowning in his thoughts, Jim stared out the window. The view from the second floor was green grass, a chokecherry tree giving shade, and a parking lot full of cars, followed by an endless sea of houses planted on flat land like a garden of flowers with various shapes, sizes and colors. He plucked one with his imagination and watched as it withered away, a few small pieces at a time like a dandelion being blown in the wind. His mind drifted with those pieces, going somewhere that was far away.
As much as he loathed South Dakota, he longed to be out there, free from the shackles of school. Stuck inside, he was just a nobody. Outside, he was still a nobody, but at least there, he was free to roam. That was the thing about Indians, his grandfather always said. They weren’t meant to be in a cage. Four walls were a prison. Freedom, the outside world. It called to them. Always did, always would. It was in their blood and their blood was part of the land. True freedom was space and movement, not confinement.
The only thing worse than being an Indian in South Dakota, was being a half-Indian. What his white classmates, especially the two brothers Luke and Chad Stuckman, called half-breed. Jim was half white, half Indian, and stuck in the middle. What he called the suck. He didn’t want to be white. He didn’t want to be Indian. He just wanted to be a normal teenager—whatever the hell that was—and left alone.
Jim broke his gaze from out the window and stared up at the clock. He was disappointed to see that only two minutes had passed. His history teacher, Mr. Barnes, a short, plump man with a scruffy, graying beard, continued his monotone onslaught on the English dialogue, describing some development of the Industrial Revolution. His voice was like a fan, a constant buzzing in the background that was heard, but not listened to.
“The telegram. Let me tell you about the telegram, guys. Living in a world with tablets, iPhones, igadgets, and whatnot, you youngsters have no idea how revolutionary this invention was back then. It changed the world. For the first time in the history of man people could communicate across large distances almost instantaneously. It opened up doors many never saw coming. Now think about it? The tele—”
Jim didn’t want to think about it. He didn’t care about the stupid telegram. It didn’t speed up time so it was completely useless to him. Just another outdated item on a long list of outdated items. He sighed and stared back up at the clock. Not even a minute had passed.
Instead of staring out the window, he looked to his right, where Tammy Long sat. She was the most beautiful girl in school and she had no idea he existed. In the course of the year since his arrival at Pierre High, they had maybe said two words to each other. And those two words were pretty much the same. Hi or hello. He hadn’t even made it to the easiest question in the world. How are you? The sad truth, he wouldn’t know what to say to her even if he had the chance. Girls were a mystery. No, more like an enigma.
He stared at Tammy’s blonde, curly hair, falling shoulder length, and daydreamed about the conversations they never had, followed by the sex they never had. Such scenarios were usually reserved for his nightly ritual, but helped pass the time in class.
“Hi, Tammy. It’s me, Jim, from history class. How are you?”
“Oh, hi Jim. I remember you. How are you?”
She smiles. He smiles. This is followed by a short pause that is not in any way awkward.
“Tammy, I must say you have very nice boobs—”
Scratch that, mental floss, do over. Thank the Great Spirit these are thoughts not actual conversation.
“Um . . . you have very nice hair. It reminds me of waves on the ocean.”
“Oh thank you. That is the sweetest thing anyone has ever said to me.”
She kisses his cheek. This is a gateway drug to holding hands. Within a matter of days, they go steady. Then they kiss. Then they make-out. Then they touch each other and not in a “just friends” kind of way. Then comes the day when she shows him her boobs. They are just as amazing as he always pictured them to be. Perfectly round. Perky. Pink. Delicious. He touches them. Squeezes them. Pinches the nipples. She doesn’t seem to mind. She just sits there, without saying a word, while he moves them this way and that way. Sometimes clockwise. Sometimes counter-clockwise. Sometimes he just sucks on them like a baby for whole hours. Eventually they have sex. She says he’s very good at it, despite it being his first time. He’s a natural, a real man. They live happily ever after. An Indian, a white girl, a modern day West Side Story. She calls him her Chief. ‘Give it to me, Chief. Give it—”
The bell rang. Jim broke from his reverie and wiped the drool from his mouth. He watched as Tammy gathered her books and rose from her seat. He marvels at the way her jeans fit perfectly against her ass. He was about to rise himself but then he realized he couldn’t. A part of him had already risen. Oh god, he thought, staring down at the teepee sticking from his pants. What his friend Carl called an Indian totem pole.
He glanced around the classroom, wondering if anyone noticed his predicament. Most of his classmates were already streaming towards the door, unmindful of the lone, bulking Indian still in his chair. Jim dragged his notebooks and binder down onto his crotch. “Think of a naked grandma,” Carl said to him once. “Quickest way to get a totem pole back down to firewood. Works every time.”
Jim tried picturing a naked grandma, but the thought only disgusted him—too much wrinkled skin. He tried thinking of something else. Anything that didn’t involve Tammy’s boobs or any part of her for that matter, but, much to his dismay, his totem pole remained at full staff. It was like a hose with the water turned on high and there was no way to turn off the pump. He started to panic. He was beginning to think that he would have to do the boner walk of shame, with notebook in front, when Mr. Barnes noticed him still sitting there.
“Hey, Jimbo, didn’t you hear the bell ring?”
Jim looked up, puzzled. “I . . . uh . . . had a question.”
“Oh really? Well, shoot then.”
“I . . . uh . . . thought the talk of the telegram was interesting.”
Mr. Barnes ran his hand through his beard and waited for Jim to elaborate. When Jim didn’t, he gave him a disconcerting look. “That wasn’t exactly a question there, Jimbo.”
“Yeah. I know. Um . . . why was it so important again?”
“Weren’t you listening to anything I said during class? I must’ve given five or six good reasons why it was important.”
“Right. What I meant to say was, do you think it was more important than say the computer or smart phone?”
“Now that’s a good question. Let me see—”
Mr. Barnes talked for the next five minutes. Most of which was lost on Jim. He stared up at the board and gave the occasional “yes” or “hm-mm” to show that he was still paying attention. He tried not to think of anything, especially the bulge in his pants.
Mr. Barnes was still talking when the second bell rang. Jim was pleased to see that his totem pole was back down to a medium-sized piece of firewood. He stood up and walked towards Mr. Barnes, who was still talking.
“Um . . . sorry to interrupt, sir, but can I get a pass to my next class?”
* * *
Jim tried sneaking into his last hour class—English Lit—but his big frame and long, black, wavy hair was hard to miss. His teacher, Mr. Ray, had already started the day’s lecture. He paused to greet Jim. A kid in the back, most likely one of the Stuckmans, started in with Indian chants of “whoo-whoo-whoo,” made by slapping a flat hand against the mouth in rapid succession.
“Hey, you in the peanut gallery,” Mr. Ray said. “Cut it out.”
The chants stopped, followed by hushed snickers. Jim made his way to the far right of the classroom, his wide sides bumping into desks as he went.
“Hey, slow down there, Jimbo. Where’s my pass?”
Mr. Ray stood with his hands akimbo. His black tie—he always wore a tie—hung like an exclamation point. His thick, black glasses magnified his intense stare. The light above gleamed off his bald forehead.
Jim halted in his progress and then backtracked, bumping into the same desks again. A few girls giggled. Mr. Ray waited for him with an extended hand, as if expecting a slap. Jim gave him the pass with his eyes fixed to the ground. Mr. Ray studied the note and then waved him ahead.
“‘Better three hours too soon than a minute too late.’ Mr. Shakespeare said it best, though I prefer Ms. Monroe’s explanation better. ‘I’ve been on a calendar, but never on time.’ I personally believe that if you’re going to be late, best have a good excuse. You’re excused this time, Jimbo.”
Mr. Ray tossed the note into the trash and then jumped right back into his lecture. Jim carefully made his way to his seat, mumbling “excuse me” every time he bumped a desk. Once in the safety of the chair, he was able to relax.
“So, The Great Gatsby, one of the great works of American literature, what some call a classic, the best book ever written . . . but is it? Is it really that good? Does it live up to the hype?” Mr. Ray sat on his desk. His legs made gentle kicking motions in front of him. He stared back at the class, his eyes penetrating, scanning like the bright beam of a lighthouse, waiting for someone to respond to his question. No one moved. “Alright, I’ll repeat the question. The Great Gatsby, is it a classic or is it not?”
Again the pause, the penetrating stare. “Come on people. There is no wrong answer. This is an opinion. You can say anything, but be prepared to back up your answer. Any fool with a mouth can have an opinion, but only a person with a brain who knows how to use it can back it up with some facts and deep insights. So let’s hear from someone . . . anyone. Please don’t make me pick a victim.”
The class groaned. Mr. Ray stood up. His hands scanning, pointing at students. His face expressionless, with a hint of disappointment.
“Okay . . . Mr. Stuckman! Let’s start with you. What say you about The Great Gatsby?”
Jim turned to stare at Luke, the bigger and dumber of the two brothers. His large frame lurched over the desk. His red hair fire on his head. The sleeves on his shirt rolled up, revealing beefy white arms covered in tribal tattoos that weren’t really tribal. His face folded in concentration. He almost never said anything in class, unless it was directed at someone else as an insult or jibe. Now, with the prospect of a serious conversation, his eyes looked worried.
Jim guessed that he hadn’t even read the book. Almost all of Luke’s homework was copied from someone else, most likely Jeanie Swartz, a smart-dumb girl, who got good grades but fraternized with those who didn’t.
“Uh . . . can you repeat the question?” Luke asked. Jim couldn’t help but grin, watching his nemesis sweat.
Mr. Ray sighed.
“What do you think about The Great Gatsby? Was it good? Bad? A classic? Did it live up to the hype? Or was it overrated? Give me your opinion, whatever it may be.”
“Uh . . . I thought it kind of sucked.”
The class chuckled. Mr. Ray stood up straighter. His face perking up. “Okay. Fair enough, but I’m not going to let you off the hook so easily. Now support your opinion, Luke. Answer me, why? Why does The Great Gatsby suck?”
“Okay, give me an example of how it’s boring.”
“Uh . . . well . . . it has too many words and just goes on and on and doesn’t make sense.”
“A book is supposed to have too many words. That’s why it’s a book, not a comic book or coloring book. Now give me a direct example or quote from the book to explain why it’s boring and just goes on and on and doesn’t make sense.”
Mr. Ray stared intently at Luke. His eyes unblinking lasers. Luke relented. His own eyes fixed down at his desk. Jim smiled. This was why Mr. Ray was his favorite teacher. He didn’t take shit from anyone, especially the ones at school who dished out the most shit.
“Okay, then.” Mr. Ray paced back and forth in the front of the classroom. “Perhaps it would help to actually read the book before you give an opinion on it.”
The class chuckled. Luke slumped in his chair.
“Now, is there anyone out there who has actually read The Great Gatsby from cover to cover? Anyone?”
Mr. Ray picked more victims. Some gave answers that met his approval, others needed “more depth.” Thankfully, Mr. Ray didn’t call on Jim. He had read the book and actually enjoyed it, but never liked to speak in class. He preferred to listen and soak it all in. There was no ridicule in being silent.
The clock moved fast—or at least faster—as it always did in English Lit. Jim was just beginning to think he was going to be saved from talking in class, but with only a few minutes until the last bell, Mr. Ray asked one final question.
“What do you think the quote at the end of The Great Gatsby means?”
The class answered with silence. No hand raised.
“In case you forgot, let me refresh your memory. ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, ceaselessly into the past.’ One of the greatest quotes in American literature and a pretty fine ending too. But what does it mean?”
His lighthouse eyes searched the classroom and then fell on Jim.
“Jimbo, what about you? What do you think?”
Jim let out a breath. He felt all eyes on him. They were pressing, claustrophobic, and digging. He stared at the clock. Less than a minute left. It couldn’t come soon enough. Jim let out another breath and then, without raising his eyes, spoke.
“I guess it means . . . that in the end . . . no matter what we do . . . we’re all screwed.”
Mr. Ray smiled. The bell rang. Class dismissed.