Farewell (June 1978): an excerpt from the novel “Discipline”
Spanish was first period, so Reggie was dozing in one of the mobile classrooms when a tall middle-aged man, dark haired with a round, sweaty face, shook him roughly awake. “OK, buddy. OK, come on.”
“What?” Reggie said, instinctively shrugging the stranger’s hand off his shoulders, a “get off of me” springing to his lips, though he didn’t speak it.
“You’re coming with us,” the man said.
“What?” Reggie repeated. The man jerked his head toward the door, as if Reggie were confused about the avenue of egress, not the reason for it. “Who are you?”
The classroom, so ordinarily stifling, was suddenly electric. Something was happening.
“That’s for me to know, and you to find out,” the man said, schoolyard-style. Was he for real?
Improbably, he was wearing a long duster coat, even though it was early June, already so hot the city’s newspapers were full of angry letters saying the school year should be shortened, kids couldn’t concentrate in the un-air-conditioned classrooms. Next to the stranger stood a short, beefy guy, wearing a white T-shirt, jeans, and a Red Sox cap, which was confusing in a different way. Bridgeport wasn’t a city where people wore baseball caps, and if they did, it was for the Yankees.
“Ay caramba. What’s going on?” said the Olive-Oyl-shaped Ms. Funes, hand to cheek, behind her the magazine pictures from Spanish-speaking lands that she’d taped onto the blackboard. She always talked in rapid, overexcited Spanish, and no one could tell if this was a Ricky Ricardo imitation, the way she really talked, or something she affected to get the class motivated. It didn’t tend to work, whatever it was, but now Reggie’s classmates were livening at the possibility of drama. Nothing really good had happened all year.
“He’s coming with us to the principal,” the bigger man announced to the room. He handed Reggie a soft-edged hall pass, confirming the official nature of the errand. Hall passes only came from one office.
Reggie had not, to his knowledge, done something wrong. Not recently anyway. “What for?” he asked.
“There’ll be time for all that,” the man said.
“Nice coat,” a kid called from the back of the room. The garment looked like something a pimp might wear, and Reggie assumed the kid—it was Noah Tremont, that bonehead—had the same thought and was offering the insult disguised as a compliment.
“All right, whatever. I’m coming,” Reggie said. He stood and swung his backpack over one shoulder then offered a broad shrug to convey to his classmates that this was a mystery to him too. At least he wasn’t going out in handcuffs, never to reappear, as one kid had in English last year. He followed the men out of the classroom and down the hall, walls painted in what Reggie always thought of as Milk of Magnesia white to cover (and then re-cover) the swears routinely scribbled there. He was really tired. He was always tired, so he wasn’t even thinking, “What’s going on?” more like “OK, man, whatever you want.”
Later, of course, much later, he’d wonder why he didn’t think to start asking questions right away. Why he didn’t think to resist? Had he been able to avoid the situation he was about to step into, his life might have gone in an entirely different direction. Could he have stopped things? Who might have helped him, if he had realized that, at that very moment, he was in profound need of help?
“In there,” the tall guy said, once they got to the office, gesturing not to the Principal’s door but the Vice Principal’s. Reggie wasn’t exactly surprised. The Principal was a good enough guy. He looked a little like that gameshow host. Gene something. Match Game something. Gene Rayburn. That was it. Anything that smacked of punishment rested outside the Principal’s purview and with Vice Principal Jack-off, who was an indisputable asshole.
The Vice Principal’s actual name was Jack Jacket, which should have been the first indication that he shouldn’t work with teenagers. Or that his parents were drunk when they named him. Or too stupid to think of a different first name. Everyone called the Vice Principal Jack-off, or J.O., or Joe Job. Sometimes even the teachers slipped and called him Mr. Jack.
“What’s up, my man?” Reggie said with brash, false enthusiasm, when he entered the Vice Principal’s office, a place where spider plants went to die. Reggie raised his arm exuberantly, so Jack-off could offer him a high-five. Then, when Joe Job failed to do so, Reggie examined his hand, as if wondering what was wrong with it. He sniffed his palm, as if that were the issue, then, making a face to indicate everything smelled fine to him, shrugged before slumping into one of the two chairs in front of the Vice Principal’s desk.
“I see. A smart guy,” said the tall man, as if he’d already figured Reggie out. Reggie yawned theatrically, though, in fact, concern had finally woken him.
The Vice Principal waved the pimp guy into the seat Reggie hadn’t taken, and pressed the intercom on his phone to ask the secretary to bring in an extra chair, presumably for the beefy sidekick. (OK, Reggie knew he was supposed to stand till all the adults had a chair, only why should he? If the beefy guy had been pregnant or super old, Reggie would have given him the chair, but basically Reggie felt his rest/beauty sleep was more important than the beefy guy’s as the beefy guy had a ring on his finger, thus a wife, ergo, did not need to look hot as the day wore on, where with Reggie, good looks were essential to his getting out there, mating, and continuing the species. This all ran through Reggie’s head as a line of thought he might share with his friend Gilbert later. Complete with the “ergo” and even the words “QED, end of proof,” something he’d started saying after taking geometry last year, when he was a sophomore.)
The rumor was that Jack-off had come back from Vietnam with a metal plate in his head. Whenever Reggie saw Jack-off, he wondered where the plate actually was, and even though he knew he should be focusing on Goon 1 and Goon 2, today was no different, despite an internal rumble of anxiety, his tectonic plates shifting slightly. What could these guys possibly want? The back of Jack-off’s head was peculiarly flat, so maybe there? J.O. combed his hair flush with his scalp and the strands were greasy in a way that had to be about some product like Vaseline. Who could possibly think this was a good look? Like, did you ever see an actor on TV with his hair matted to his head with grease and think “Bingo!” Might it not occur to you that the reason there was no model for the very look you sported was because no one, anywhere, wanted the very look you sported?
“Reggie, these gentlemen want a word with you,” the Vice Principal said when everyone was seated.
Gentlemen! Of all names, especially given Jack-off’s chosen name for Reggie was generally “punk,” as in “Listen, Punk,” when he had something illuminating to offer, like Reggie was going to be suspended if he skipped school again, a punishment that struck Reggie as both counterintuitive and welcome, but whatever. Reggie had stopped skipping. Not because he wanted to be in school, but because he didn’t want to hang out at home, now that his foster dad had been laid off from the shipyard.
Attendance didn’t change Jack-off’s attitude about Reggie. People said Jack-off was nicer before the war, but who could imagine that far back, to Jack-off as a soon-to-be-scarred high school kid, instead of a king, whose robes were an ugly tan-green suit, his kingdom, the high school cafeteria, and his scepter, the microphone that he slapped into his hand repeatedly, before he raised it to his lips to bark out a reprimand. You didn’t need much of an imagination to picture Jack-off using the microphone as a club to beat an unruly kid.
He had to have learned a few things in Vietnam.
“We understand you’ve gotten into a little trouble down here,” said the pimp-looking guy.
“Who’s we?” Reggie said, looking around broadly then peering at the dust bunnies under his chair, as if to figure out where the committee liked to hide.
“The state is making a very generous offer, thanks to Dr. Busseau,” Jack-off put in. Busseau was the social worker (sans medical degree, thus with fraudulent title) who Reggie had been seeing ever since he’d gone into this weird ass vegetarian restaurant and … the truth was he’d done a little something, kind of been a little rude, pulled a small prank, rocked a boat, hammed a hambone, freaked a freak, boogie oogied a little oogie.
Reggie offered a bland, “Yeah?” but what he thought was, Oh, shit.
The whole thing had happened because of a dare. Gilbert Moran, Reggie’s best friend, saying, “Come on, come on. Do it, do it, do it,” the repetitive chant with an “It’ll be fun” subtext. The entreaty all about breaching the stronghold of Gilbert Moran’s ruined neighborhood: the lesbian restaurant.
Gilbert lived in a section of town that would have looked suburban, if the streets’ densely-packed one-story homes hadn’t been largely abandoned, some with roofs sunk in, others with front doors removed. This was not a place to strip off copper wire, that task having long been completed. Gilbert’s own slump-roofed home didn’t look occupied either, and Reggie was not sure if his family lived or squatted there. (Reggie had never been invited in, a telling enough sign.) Gilbert’s street dead-ended at a restaurant called the Old Mole, which the boys had nicknamed the Hairy Mole. The Old Mole had curtains and shades, but even when lifted and parted, they didn’t exactly reveal the interior. At least, when Reggie pressed his face to a window, all he could make out was a cluster of mismatched wooden tables and chairs and one wall lined with old-fashioned framed mirrors of all shapes and sizes.
Basically, Gilbert was too chicken-shit to step through the front door and see what the place looked like inside. (Later, Reggie would regret telling Gilbert he was chicken-shit. He would develop a substantial allergy to that slur, one he’d previously thought of as funny rather than mean. Well, he’d come to feel otherwise.)
Gilbert said that it would be easier for Reggie than Gilbert to go into the Old Mole. The lesbians—a little sexual thrill came with just saying the word—wouldn’t even notice Reggie wasn’t a guy. With his long hair—“Goddamn hippie hair,” his foster dad called it—Reggie was halfway to being a girl anyway. “Shoulder length,” Reggie corrected. “It’s not long. It’s shoulder length.” (And, honestly, it was only because he looked so clearly male—medium build, chest having filled out recently, almost six feet—that he had the confidence to grow out his hair, which was dark and wavy. He needed something to give his big brown eyes and heart-shaped face, still boyishly sweet, an edge.)
The restaurant thing hadn’t gone the way Reggie had hoped. Of course, like Gilbert, he had his own little fantasy going about what he’d see, as if even though housed in a small white building with a dusty parking lot outside, the restaurant was going to be the Playboy mansion inside, all these hot women serving all these other hot women some sort of alfalfa sprouted thing, and occasionally rubbing breasts together when they slid past each other in the kitchen. But when Reggie stepped in, the place was empty of customers, and the woman behind the counter was as close to square as a human being could be without actually being a geometric shape. He’d gone up to the counter and asked for a hamburger. The woman’s hair was buzzed army short—like Gilbert’s but without the provocative mini-mohawk Gilbert sported—and her expression didn’t adjust at his request, as if you actually needed to be boned to have a funny bone, Reggie later said to Gilbert. “I’d like a little dead cow please,” Reggie said, extra polite. On the wall to the right was a sign that said, “Place your order. We’ll call your name when it is ready.” Under the sign, another said, perhaps by way of explanation, “We don’t serve you, because we don’t serve anyone.” The square woman looked at him, her face hardening, as if she’d figured out that shoulder-length hair aside, he wasn’t one of the tribe. She neither spoke nor moved. “I guess I am kind of being … uh …” Reggie rolled his eyes upward, as if searching the ceiling for the word. “Imprecise. I’d like it dead, but ground up, and put on a bun.”
“Men are not welcome here,” she said in a flat voice that suggested she would just love, love love an opportunity to deck Reggie. Her statement struck Reggie as unnecessarily blunt. The rumor was that the restaurant got around its reverse chauvinism by saying The Old Mole wasn’t a public business but a private club. It just so happened that the members of the club were all the people on the planet who had two X chromosomes.
Reggie flashed on pig-tailed girls he’d encountered in his various grade school classrooms—he’d been moved around a lot—their Nyanananyana! taunts.
Reggie didn’t need to get pissed off. He really didn’t, but it was as if she’d said “Blacks aren’t welcome here.” Reggie was white, but Gilbert wasn’t, so he decided to take personal affront. Plus, he and his mother had often enough been the only white people in their neighborhood. (By contrast, his foster parents had always been white people in white neighborhoods, though usually fairly down on their luck white neighborhoods.)
“That’s not very Con-sti-tu-tional,” Reggie said, stretching out the word. “About men not being welcome.”
The woman just looked at him.
“I forgot to add something,” Reggie added, faux-thoughtfully. “And that would be … um … I’d like special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, on a sesame seed bun. As an accompaniment.” He paused, mournfully. “To the deceased.”
The woman huffed angrily. Above the counter, there was a long thin sign that said, “We recognize our old friend, our old mole, who knows so well how to work underground, suddenly to appear: the revolution.”
What the fuck was that supposed to mean?
“Also, just an FYI: I like my dead cow well-done.”
He smiled then turned for a table.
Nothing happened. For thirty minutes he just sat there, till he realized the square woman’s punishment was going to be to ignore him entirely. So, he went back to the counter—by this time some female customers were seated at other tables—and said, “My order is taking much longer than I expected.” He kept his voice poisonously sweet. In fact, he’d been oddly happy just sitting there, daydreaming in the air-conditioned space. The dried sweat of the day felt like an invisible turtleneck. That should have been a bad feeling, but it wasn’t. Such a relief to be cool.
“Order,” the woman said, kicking the right side of her mouth into a smile that was actually a grimace.
OK, Reggie thought, I get it. “You know that old mole,” he pointed upward. “You’re pals, right?” She looked at him flatly. “Sorry, my mistake,” he said. “I was just thinking, you know, old mole, old beaver.”
It was sort of fun to see the woman flip out at him saying “old beaver” and also not. “You fucking little shit,” she said, and immediately some women came out from the kitchen—the very lithe, femme women he was hoping to see when he first entered—and said, “Hey, everybody, big breath, take it easy.” But the square woman would not take it easy, and after that, everything played out as you might guess, various women asking him (politely or not so politely) to leave, and him refusing, until they finally called the cops. When the cops came, Reggie shot to his feet, and spread out his arms, as if to protect a crowd behind him from advancing. He said, “Ladies!! That’s a man! Do not let him in here!” And then, sotto vocce, “You’re not going to be very happy, when you learn what he’s got in those pants!”
“Jesus Christ,” said the cop who finally pushed Reggie out the door.
Reggie cracked up when he landed in the parking lot, but the police were pissed at having been called out for such foolishness, and Gilbert (whom Reggie had imagined waiting in the parking lot, ready for Reggie’s report on Operation Old Mole) was nowhere to be seen. Later, Reggie learned Gilbert had taken off with Reggie’s bike when he saw the cops. Reggie almost asked the cops to give him a lift home, but they’d want to come in and have a word with the Clancys, and that would make things worse. In the end, he walked the ten miles home. It had taken him almost three hours.
The social worker they’d sent Reggie to for the prank was Dr. Busseau, who asked what he so enjoyed about upsetting other people.
“I don’t enjoy upsetting other people,” Reggie had said.
“Yes, you do,” Dr. Busseau said.
Fuck you, Reggie had thought. You don’t know a thing about me. But he held his tongue, then sat silent for the rest of the session. Why didn’t the man ask about his mother? Or his father? Wasn’t that what he was supposed to do? Try to figure Reggie out? Offer him a little help? Father? Never knew him. Mother? Too batshit to raise him. During an AFDC visit, she’d said, one time too many, that the lamp was spying on her, so she lost some income (boo hoo) and Reggie to boot. Never quite clear on how she felt about that latter loss. If it bothered her, wouldn’t she have visited him? On occasion? Once? Or they could have decided not to even let her know where he was. To keep him safe. She had told someone that the case worker wanted to cut a tumor out of her left breast without using anesthesia. Who knew where she got that idea? He didn’t know where his mother was anymore. He’d gone back to their last apartment once, but someone else lived there now. He wanted to ask the case worker for her address, only he couldn’t bring himself to pose the question. He’d start to form the words then there’d be a weird racing non-sound sound in his ears, panic galloping past, and he’d think, “Don’t,” as if Fate had finally decided to adopt an advisory role, whispering in Reggie’s ears, “Curiosity? The cat? Remember?”
Reggie and Busseau had a second and then a third silent session, after which Mr. Busseau said, “I see this as a waste of the state’s money. I’d like to see you clean up your act.”
Reggie said, “I’d like to see you clean up your office.” He didn’t know why he said it, except the office was a mess, papers everywhere, stacked on the floor and falling out of loose-leaf binders. For a guy who’d lived in a lot of filthy places, Reggie was unusually fastidious. He liked his immediate surrounds in order, though often those surrounds merely encompassed the space he could reach when he spread his arms: his bed and the neat stack of clothing and personal items he kept (in two separate cardboard boxes) by his pillow. He kept the set up the same, no matter where he lived.
“OK, Reggie,” Dr. Busseau said. “You think you are testing people, but we are testing you, and if you fail, things are going to be very, very hard for you.”
Reggie shrugged. He thought that would be the last he’d ever see Dr. Busseau, but then his foster father du jour, Mr. Clancy, caught him smoking pot. Clancy was such a weirdo with his Bee Gees hair, all-day depression, and deference to his wife who worked back-to-back shifts at Cumberland Farms. Ever since the shipyard canned him, Clancy never got out of bed, save to put a frozen pizza in the oven for Reggie. The guy was such a loser that a little Mary Jane might have helped his bad attitude. Instead of having a puff (Reggie had offered, ironically, then in something like earnest, when he saw where things were going), the man lost his shit, completely lost it, screaming about how Reggie had to get out of the house, that he was a bad influence, enough was enough. At the time, the Clancys didn’t have any other children, though they had fostered before, so Reggie wondered exactly who was being influenced badly.
Though he’d imagined Dr. Busseau was a thing of the past, he found himself back in the man’s messy office, with Busseau telling Reggie that his behavior was frightening and that something was going to have to be done.
And now, it seemed, something was.
Excerpt from “Discipline” (c) 2024 by Debra Spark. Appears with permission of Four Way Books. All rights reserved
“Farewell” is an excerpt from Discipline, Debra Spark’s most recent novel, published in early 2024. She has published nine other books, including fiction, anthologies, and essays about writing. Her book reviews, essays, and articles have appeared in places like Dwell, Food and Wine, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Post, and Yankee. She teaches at Colby College and in the M.F.A. Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.
Discipline can be found at https://www.amazon.com/Discipline-Debra-Spark/dp/195424598X
or by following links at https://www.debraspark.com/