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In the same instance in which the world found out that Morty Frank was no longer with us, the Our Lady of Peace high school marching band turned left onto Franklin Avenue. I watched from the side of the road as the last row of tubas snaked around the corner, beginning the slow migration of mothers and grandmothers, waving tiny American flags, from their spots along the parade route towards the church parking lot, where the tired soldiers would pack up their instruments and go home. Luckily I lived only a block away from Franklin Avenue, so there was no need to wait for my sister at the end of the parade; she played the flute. She could walk home.
The stench of broccoli or Brussels sprouts hit me as I stepped inside. My mom doesn’t understand that Veterans Day is not an actual holiday, and every year she invites the entire family over for dinner to celebrate. “How was the parade?” she hollered. “Same as last year,” I yelled back. “We’re eating in one hour. It would be nice if you put on something presentable,” she shouted. Like that would help. I thought about changing for all of two seconds, and took a lap around my house instead. I ended up in the living room, so I plopped down on the sofa and mindlessly flipped on the television. Channel Five came on.
Channel Five is our local station and people in this town watch it more than any other news station. Pete Sommers is the head honcho, thanks to his dazzling smile, which is pretty disheartening for a twice a day brusher who still has yellow stains, and his curly golden hair, which girls like my mom drool over. Pete stutters during his newscasts and sometimes says things like “turn left” or “look at camera” out loud, but he’s so damn good looking that the viewers just nod and call him human.
Pete Sommers was announcing that someone named Morty Frank had just died. A picture of Morty popped up onto the screen. My jaw dropped and I started to feel lightheaded. The eggs I ate earlier leapt up my throat and were threatening to make a second appearance all over my lap. The droopy face smiling at me through the T.V. screen was horrifying, but I couldn’t look away. There was some kind of creature living on the man’s head, above the lids where the eyebrows were supposed to be. I leaned in close to the set, only to discover it was not a huge caterpillar, but a fat hairy eyebrow running across his forehead.
I backed up onto the couch but could not tear my eyes away from the hideous unibrow. Someone at the station must have realized the trauma they were inflicting on their viewers, because after what seemed like hours, Morty’s picture was taken off full screen, and a smaller version was stuck in the upper right hand corner. It was kind of depressing watching Morty’s face float next to Pete Sommers. He must have had one heck of a life with an eyebrow like that. There are no women, no career, and no opportunities for guys like us. Morty had no chance of becoming a newscaster like Pete or a politician or an actor or anything that requires you to be good looking, which is everything.
I reached up and fingered the space between my eyebrows. The red bumps hurt as I pressed down on them. There was no bushel of hair, but the greasy mess on my forehead was enough to drive all of the girls away. The bumps were on my cheeks too, not to mention my nose, chin, and back, and not just my lower back. They started right below where my hair ended, so that unless I wore a turtleneck, which I did not, Justine Marcus would whine to her friends after Biology about how distracting my oozing skin was, and how she could not bear to sit behind me for another minute. I don’t blame her; I wouldn’t want to sit behind me either.
I wondered if any of the other viewers noticed the irony; Pete Sommers, perfect teeth, perfect hair, blabbing about this man in the upper right hand corner, bushy unibrow, mousy nose. Placing Morty’s picture next to Pete was just cruel. It was as if the producers got together and said “Gee, I think the viewers might have forgotten how good looking this guy is. Why don’t we have him stand next to a picture of some butt ugly guy to remind them?” My hand flew to my pimply nose. I squeezed the sides, sizing it up. It was oily and flattened out too quickly at the top, but it was pretty average in size. So far there were no signs that I had inherited my dad’s bulbous nose, which with my luck I will, giving the girls yet another reason to reject me, and employers one more excuse to turn me down. What a mess.
It happened two months ago when my best friend Brian got a job at a clothing store in the mall. Brian and I are complete opposites in everyway that matters. He’s taller than most of the girls, his skin is pretty clear, tan too, and he has hair that looks good without anything in it. We met in third grade when we were both the new kids at school. My mom called his mom, the way little kids parents often do, and set up a play date for us at my house. The first thing he said to me was “You got Mario Cart?” “Duh,” I said, “Who doesn’t have Mario Cart?” From then on we clung to each other. Throughout elementary school we alternated between our houses, playing video games when it was cold and football and soccer when we were allowed outside. Neither of us are any good at sports, but when Brian plays them the girls think it’s cute, when I play them they think it’s pathetic.
We were walking through the mall in the direction of Lids, and I was working up the nerve to tell Brian why I had really asked him to meet me. It was crowded for a Thursday afternoon, but luckily no familiar faces. I put my hands in my coat pockets and admired the mannequins in the windows. If only someone could pick out my outfits, and I could put them on and bam, style. “Isn’t that awesome man?” I hadn’t heard what Brian said; “Yeah dude that’s awesome.” “Think about all of the girls that go in there everyday. I’m going to be getting numbers left and right.”
I was thinking about what the department store ladies would say if they opened up a fresh shipment of mannequins and found one looking like me. “We can’t work with this!” They would shriek. “How are we supposed to make this look good!” They would be in a frenzy trying to dress me. They’d realize nothing was working and probably stuff me in the back room. I was laughing out loud at the image, when I realized that Brian was staring at me. Did he say girls? “Wait, what?” I asked Brian. “Where are there girls left and right?” “At Alden,” he answered. “Girls love that store. There’s like thirty of them in there every time I go.” I was confused, “Who’s going to Alden?” “Were you not listening?” he yelled, waving his hands in my face. Brian is always over the top. When he beats me in Call of Duty he gets on the couch and dances around, weaving the controller in and out of his legs. So I didn’t take his excitement over whatever it was I missed too seriously.
“I got a job there! The manager called two days ago and told me I start on Saturday,” he said. “Wow that’s great man. I didn’t even know you applied to work there.” I was mildly offended that I had not been asked to come along for an interview. Brian and I talked about getting jobs together, he could have asked me to apply also, not that I would have. Alden sold their overpriced surfer style clothing by hiring good looking guys and girls to walk around the store half dressed with the Alden logo displayed somewhere on their fit and attractive bodies. The staff was there to show you how beautiful you could be, all it took was a pair of Alden jeans and some flip-flops and you were Americas Next Top Model. The sick part was people actually bought into it. Fat girls and awkward guys would max out their parents’ credit cards buying Alden apparel, and then would go home and stare in the mirror appalled, wondering why the clothes hadn’t worked their magic on them. I’d never work for such a corrupt and immoral company.
“That’s because I didn’t apply,” Brian gushed. “I was in the store picking up something my mom asked me to get for Penny, and one of the managers came over and asked how I’d like to work there. How insane is that?” Pretty insane. “You should totally apply,” he went on. “I can definitely get you an interview.” Well, I guess it might be cool. If nothing else I could use the money. I’ll do it, but only for the money. “Sure, why not?” I shrugged. “I’ll talk to somebody.”
My interview was scheduled for Sunday at two. I set my alarm for eleven but was up by ten. It was fine, I could use the extra time to try and make my hair not look so lame. Standing in front of the bathroom mirror, I didn’t know whether to try the Cool Wave spiking gel that I had bought yesterday at CVS, or my sister’s Strong Hold Catwalk gel in the cabinet. I picked up the bottle, “will keep curls firm all night long.” That is true, she does have curly hair. I rubbed the sticky goo between my palms. Thankfully, before I put the gunk in my hair I inhaled and got a strong whiff of it. Looking back things probably would not have gone much worse had I used the frilly smelling stuff, but I was naive, so I washed my hands and used the gel I bought instead. After a lot of messing around, rinsing out, messing around, rinsing out, I finally got the front pieces to stand up in a way that I thought looked almost cool.
I guess three days had not been enough time for my new face wash to kick in. I leaned in close to the mirror and checked out the massive planet growing above my left nostril. Even I was repulsed, and it was my own zit. I am ashamed to admit what I did, but you know what they say about desperate times. My sister’s cream worked better than I thought it would; the blackhead was now a discreet peachy color. It’s really not right that girls judge us based on our skin when they obviously have as many pimples as we do, but they use this cream to cover them up.
Aside from the blemishes and the hair, there was not much more I could do about the neck up. I was born with ordinary brown eyes and oversized ears, and those things are hard to change. Tearing my closet apart, I realized how stupid I had been to not buy some item of Alden clothing. The manager probably would have appreciated a man who came in wearing his store’s stuff; “And I see you’re wearing our newest line of Alden jeans.” “Oh am I?” I would say. “I have so many pairs of these things I can’t keep track of when I bought each one.” We would share a laugh. “You’re just the kind of guy I’m looking for to man the register at my store.” Well, I didn’t have Alden jeans so twenty-three dollar Target brand would have to do. I learned in Psychology that green makes people happy, so I put on a green polo. Sandals were the finishing touch. I grabbed the completed application off my desk and my resume from the printer and skimmed it—member of the Accounting Club, award-winning Mathlete, worked at a shoe store one summer (and was nominated employee of the month)—pretty solid credentials. Maybe things were looking up.
On the way out the door I contemplated grabbing an umbrella incase it rained and the pimple cream was not waterproof. I decided against the umbrella, but shoved a baseball hat into my coat pocket. My mom’s car was not my ideal choice of transportation, but because my dad’s Jetta was parked at the train station, the pale yellow Volkswagen beetle would have to do. I drove for a little over a half hour before reaching Roosevelt Field Mall. Alden was on the second floor in between Limited Two and Barnes and Nobel. When I got inside one of the male models took me behind the register and pointed in the direction of the manager’s office. I was sweating bullets standing outside of the door. The spikes in my hair felt sticky. A gooey paste had formed between my collar and the back of my neck. I took my resume out of my pocket, flattened it against the wall, and knocked twice on the door.
“I told you it’s no big deal. She said I was great but they’re not looking to hire anyone right now.” Brian had been calling all afternoon, but I was downstairs and my phone was in my room. I called him later and told him that the manager loved me but regretfully had no spots available. There are times when I notice someone in the hallway wearing an Alden T-shirt and my mind replays the interview, and I actually see it happen that way. The true story is that the interview lasted less than four minutes. It was over before she saw my resume, before I opened my mouth.
I walked in and shook the manager’s hand. She was much younger than what I had expected; I never realized that some of the kids working behind the counter were store managers. She had pin straight brown hair and a cute face. The skinny straps of her navy Alden tank top showed off her muscular triceps, making me think she might be a swimmer. “Nice to meet you,” she lied. I watched her give me the once over. Reluctantly she took the resume and application from me, and proceeded to tap the pages onto her desk, trying to make one neat stack. She smiled nervously, “I’m sorry that you came all this way, but there are no openings right now. We’ll keep your record on file.”
On file, that was all she said. Not on file so that we can call you, just on file. On file in the cabinet with all of the other overweight, awkward, ugly resumes, who had been fooled into thinking that smarts and personality mattered. I wanted to pound my fists on the desk and demand to know why I was not qualified to open and close a cash register in her store. I really wanted to grab the girl by her toned arms and shake her until she admitted that space had no part in why she rejected me. Mostly I wanted to rip up my resume and cry. I am not brave, so the best I could do was walk out without saying thank you, and save my tears for the drive home.
Later that week I told Brian what I had tried to tell him already, before all the job nonsense made me think otherwise. “I decided I’m not going to college in the fall,” I said. We were walking home after school and the grass was still muddy from the rain that morning. Brian laughed, “Yeah why not? You staying home to work in the shoe store?” I didn’t answer. “You’re joking right?” he said. “You would never not go to college. Your mom would never let you stay home. You already applied and got in!” I shrugged, “There’s no point. My life is going to turn out the same way whether I go to college or not. There’s no point.” Brian tried to get me to explain, but I was not going to give him my sob story about how cruel the world is tor ugly people. I’m just lucky I found out early enough to spare myself the four years of useless studying and the twenty years of paying off loans. I broke the news to my parents at dinner, but they didn’t seem too concerned. They thought it was a phase. Nervousness about which school to enroll in or which girl to take to prom was bothering me (yeah that’s it); time was all I needed.
That was two months ago. The deadline to accept an offer of admission at any school is three weeks away, and I’m still not going. My mom believes me now. Her and my dad try almost every day to convince me that I will get nowhere in life without a college education. They don’t understand that working in a shoe store or delivering mail are not careers worth paying forty thousand dollars a year for.
I was still sitting on the sofa feeling sorry for myself when the doorbell rang. Before my mom could get to the door Aunt Kim and Uncle Lenny barged in, announcing they had brought homemade pecan pie, which we all knew was from Trader Joes and had been put on a plate in an attempt to make it look homemade. The doorbell didn’t stop ringing for the next fifteen minutes. Once they all arrived my mom yelled that we were eating in ten and everyone better be hungry. I saw right through her scheme; sure she wanted to bring everyone together to celebrate Veterans Day, but this dinner was also the perfect opportunity to get all of the relatives in one place and shove pro-college propaganda down my throat until I spewed it back out. Well in ten minutes we would all be crammed around my dinning room table, and no one was going to convince me of anything.
Pete Sommers was still on Channel Seven standing next to the photo of Morty Frank. For some reason he was looking less perky than usual. I tried to pay attention to what he was saying, but the room was extremely noisy. Once the food was served the relatives cleared out of the living room, but at that point it was too late; my mom would freak if I spent dinner in front of the T.V. I clicked off the set and thought about Morty Frank on my walk over to the table. I was sad for Morty and for myself, because people never gave me a chance, and because Morty was gone, and the only way I remembered him was as one hairy eyebrow.
The table was set with different color ceramic plates and a combination of dining room and bridge chairs. The food was already being passed back and forth when I sat down at a bridge chair next to my Aunt Kim. You had to be aggressive if you wanted to eat with my family; my cousins were yanking the broccoli out of one another’s hands, and my uncles had just about finished the vegetable surprise casserole. Once peace was restored, my mom asked if anyone had heard the news. My aunt cried that she had, and what a pity it was that he was dead. Were they talking about Morty Frank? “Hey are you talking about Morty Frank?” I asked the table. No one heard me. “He did so much for the poor,” Aunt Sheryl said. “He did so much for this town!” Uncle Jim shouted. “He was the one who got us the money to make that house a landmark. He understood community.” Aunt Jane nodded vigorously. My dad chimed in; “We need more liberals like him in the justice system. It really is a shame.” I leaned over and jabbed Aunt Kim in the shoulder until she turned around. “Who are you talking about?” I asked her. “Chief Justice Morty Frank,” she answered shaking her head. “He died earlier today, such a great man. Isn’t it a shame?” I was dumbfounded. I didn’t know what to say.
I sat quietly the rest of the meal, thinking. After a couple of minutes of discussing the Justice’s life, the conversation changed to one of the Mets lousy season, and from there to why there was no Louisiana baseball team in the MLB. No one brought up college or tried to get me to talk. I was left alone with my thoughts. After the table was cleared, I slipped into the guest bedroom to use the computer. I googled Chief Justice Morty Frank and read his Wikipedia page. He was the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court for the last thirty years. There’s a solid high school education for you; three history classes later and I didn’t know the name of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. It’s my fault really, for not paying attention.
I went back into the kitchen as dessert was being served. My grandpa was leaning against the countertop eating a piece of strawberry short cake. When he saw me walk in he nodded in my direction and motioned for me to come over. This is it, I thought, they were saving it for dessert. “So what’s this I hear about you not attending college?” he asked. I gave him a confused look. “Who says I’m not going to college?”