PASTE-UPS – WILLIAM PRUITT

It’s always dark when I think of high school. Dark at Friday night football games I’d walk to with my friends in my red and green leather D’Artagnan jacket, the world spread out before us in the tentacles of suburban streets. Dark at the Beaux Arts Ball where Trey Kuhl and the 360s sang “Baby It’s You,” while I slow-danced with my girl in her silk-sleeved green gown. Dark at paste-ups.

            I am not reminiscing, I am not pining for the old days. Those people are there now, strung across contour lines of a dark and timeless universe. I am one of them. Every moment is a place, nothing more or less. I try to call to them, although I have nothing to say. Just to let them know I’m living. Maybe get a glimpse of what surrounds the lit-up thread from there to here  

__________

They’re working in North Hall, a cavernous white stucco structure on the western edge of the campus. The room they’re in is the only one in the building with a light on. Below them is the bus depot.

            Cat Dietrich sits sprawled at a classroom desk, chin set determined as she reads Jack Ritter’s cursive in a story about the soccer team’s prospects for next year. She has short hair, a small nose and thick glasses with black frames. When she finds a word she can’t read, she writes her own word over it in red pen. 

            René Dufort stands at the front of the classroom in a muted plaid blazer and ascot of royal blue, looking as if the wind might blow him away. His Gallic nose protrudes from his face as if it has been slapped on as an afterthought, overcompensating for his otherwise recessive features. He hopes they can finish the paper before they go home. It would be nice not to come in on a Saturday of a paste-ups week. But he’s not counting on it. 

            Jack Ritter leans forward to hear Suzie Blue’s order for Chuck A Burger. She just returned from taking pictures at a chess tournament across town. Tall, and with an effervescent smile, she doesn’t care for chess but she loves her camera. Jack’s left side hearing was compromised by a body slam at a wrestling match as a freshman. He’s angling for the boys’ sports columnist job next year. 

            Keith Phillips and Brenda Hill are downstairs at the foot of the steps in the bus depot having thought they heard a noise, going mouth to mouth in a groping clinch they neither planned nor knew they desired. 

            Margaret Guttenberg and Ruth Bland, always together, sit in tacit communication, their desks at angles to each other. 

__________

__________

René Dufort stands in his usual position with arms folded, looking more like an old world aristocrat than a faculty advisor, able to relax on his feet without leaning his Italian linen against the chalkboard; alert for problems, arguments, anomalous mechanical sounds. How slack can teenagers be? he wonders from the vantage point of his late fifties. They seem to have found their place in eternity.

            Chunkety chunk chunkety chunk comes reassuringly from the back room, separated from the classroom by a wall with a single large window, through which René Dufort can see Greg Mayfield feeding the ticker tape text he has typed into the justifying machine. In between these sounds comes the murmur of students working on assignments for the Envoy, or talking or doing  homework. Somewhere in the dark hallways a girl strums a guitar, her alto voice singing Where Have All the Flowers Gone.♪

            René Dufort sees Sally Overstreet talking to Greg in the back room. There is a disarmingly frank aspect to her oval face, as if she hides nothing while she listens. René Dufort knew from her early days as a junior that she would be the Envoy’s editor this year. When he saw her blossom into that role, he fell in love. He does not imagine that she or anyone else suspects his feelings. He expresses himself through his devotion. He has decided that Greg will replace her as editor next year.      

            Freeing himself from his own passivity, René Dufort decides to make a move in time. He walks to the back room, sticks his head in the doorway, says —How’s it going?

            Sally looks up and smiles. —We’re trying to fix a headline. 

            —I set the disc for the wrong font size and now it won’t fit, Greg says.

            —Are we gonna get out by 10, or what? Mr. Dufort says softly.

            Sally looks over to the tables where oversize pages are pasted on plates, the smell of glue thick in the room, calculates. —Maybe we should go home soon, come back in the morning.

            —All right, he says, sounding disappointed but unsurprised. He wanders over to the slanting layout board and scans the pages, which confirm Sally’s call. He sees prominent gaps awaiting headlines, cutlines, sub-headers, photos.Mostly the stories are done. The obit for the drama teacher killed on her honeymoon. A piece on the construction of the Gateway Arch. The opinion survey. Almost everybody says they support the war in Vietnam, where the first combat troops—two marine battalions— have just been sent. At least no faculty got insulted this issue.

            Having given Jack her order, Suzie Blue picks up her camera and snaps him as he holds his arm bent at elbow in muscle pose. — Get me right, he says. That’s what we do here. We get the story right. 

            Cat Dietrich looks up from Jack’s story and hears a female chorus sing a snatch of lyrics to a song that hasn’t been written yet, and won’t be for 40 years. We’ve yet to dream, we’ve yet to dream. She wonders where it came from. We’re yet to bleed, we’re yet to bleed♪.

            She has written a few songs but she usually doesn’t get the words and melody at the same time. She’s been trying to write a song for a popular local cover band, most of whose members she has dated; she was just thinking, we’re on the cusp, we’re already imagining it gone, but it hasn’t happened,— her reverie is interrupted by Keith Phillips, who comes in and quickly sits down. The thread is cut. Melodic phrase pffft.

            —Done with your chores, Junior?

            He would have a crush on her if she gave him the slightest encouragement, but it is mostly needling he gets. He nods.

 .          —Did you find anything downstairs? she asks slyly.

            —No.

            —Well since you don’t have anything to do, you can finish Ritter’s story.

            —Why can’t he do it?

            —He just left. Food run.

            —Oh, man. I can’t read his marks.

            —You don’t have to, Junior. I did the heavy lifting. She holds the paper out to him. Keith sighs theatrically and takes it from her. There’s a chair free back there, you can type. 

            —Ok, you can stop calling me junior.

            —But that’s what you are. You’re a junior.

            —I heard we’ll be leaving soon. Why start now?

            —We have to eat, don’t we? At least those of us who’ve taken care of business.

            Keith takes Jack’s marked up copy into the back room: He looks out the window and sees it has begun to rain. He imagines the warm moist breeze on his face. He is the main character in a story of unexamined provenance. He keeps sensing the cycle and batting it down. He wishes he were outside.

            Sally looks animated, face full of presence, as if she has stepped aside from the lateness of the day. Greg Mayfield is all fatigue and defeat; —You gonna type? he says to Keith, who holds up Jack’s paper, then sits down next to Brenda, who is also typing. He does not now think of her as the one with whom he shared a subterranean embrace. 

            Greg scans the columns of text for a few inches of redemption. He sees a hanging indent they have missed. He takes an exacto knife and begins cutting away. Sally Overstreet is rubbing a glue ball on the page adjacent while she thinks about the headline. Keith glances at her, inwardly repelled by her painstaking attention to detail. But she often sees something she has missed in proofreading, as if attending to the wordless surface makes her more conscious of the words.

            Keith starts typing, glad to not have to think about columns and inches. Brenda whispers —Why did we run back upstairs? 

            —I don’t know, Keith smirks, his fingers poised above the keyboard. Maybe we thought we were being bad.

            —I heard something. I thought you did too. 

            He starts typing, trying to locate himself on a glittering slow-motion roulette wheel, intermittently imagining he has enough agency to not land on the wrong number. He hates soccer.

__________

What is happening when we kiss. I gravitate to the current coming from her, We want to give each other something.

            When I hold her head between my hands. I am trying to see who she is, to see if I can see myself in her eyes. I am convening a meeting of animal minds. I am abducting her into my secret place, I am putting my best with her, so that my least will have done its job. I am joining myself with the one too long denied.

            And when I enter her I am closing the deal. I am creating a ridge of skin for soft longings to crest, I am setting the blasts that will blow the rock that has hardened around my self so that I can be touched when she comes, so that I can feel her freedom, so that I can know her when she leaves herself. But just as when you go over the top on a roller coaster while riding with a friend, there is too much rush to hold the sense of other, to keep the double vision.

            Instead of jubilation, there is mourning. The whirlpools we have generated suck us in so we can’t give, we need too much. We sacrifice ourselves to the power we create. With each new partner, we trap each other in a snare we did not intend. We follow the magnetic draw and fall short, we sink into our own vortices and mutate into weapons, our beautiful otherness become selfhood,  until we’re just looking to shoot our load, to get off, not caring about the other at all, who thought that partner was the perfect match to strike the golden flame.  

__________

Margaret Bland is doing her math homework. Her desk is angled toward Ruth. —Jack, she says. The subject is the hottest boys. 

            Ruth Guttenberg looks up in tacit agreement. But it seems to her they are all just becoming visible to each other. Her breasts developed early, which caused her some embarrassment until her mother explained they were nothing to be ashamed of. Now she sees from her secluded perch how her sudden bounty gives her a place to be generous, to understand what is happening to everybody. We’re all filling out in our own way she thinks. We are presenting to each other for the first time even if we have known each other all our lives, even if we see each other every day. We are luminous beings. No one gets it. We think being one of many makes us fractions, but we’re every one of us whole numbers. Margaret is her best friend, but she could never explain these thoughts to her.

            The people in the room are experiencing the high school at night. This place that buzzed with loud bells and multiple bosses and rotating destinations and competitive games now reveals dimensions of time and space that are human. Seating charts are non-existent. Everyone works toward a future with a tangible product. The deadline they face is not for themselves or the teacher, but for the Envoy.

Having handed off Jack’s story, Cat folds her hands and contemplates how easily she laughs with friends and says yes to boys, how this gives some people the idea she is an extrovert, but not her close friends. She wonders what she actually is, not that it matters. In study hall today she saw a black orb on the wall above a door, with  a half-circle of red delicious apples in silhouette above it.  Starting at the right, the apples were black, but they grew progressively paler in their trajectory as they lost form, gradually disappearing from view as the arc shifted left. The vision inspired her with dread, as if it portended the end of the world. She made a quick sketch before the bell.

            Brenda leaves her typing, anticipating the arrival of food. Keith looks up to rain splattering the glass. He tries to focus his ragged attention on Jack’s story, and wonders if he did hear a noise downstairs.

__________

Living in fear— in fealty to others— is the end of the path that begins with doubt. Nature tells the truth; humans lie. She will make you think she’s doing it for you. If you believe that, you’re a fool, but if you don’t trust her, you’re already a cuckold, and you’re left to get your kicks from watching her with you as if you were another man. 

            How about if you try giving her a taste, she could use it. You’ve got plenty to spare. You’re not the needy shrinking thing you think. Just because…never mind. Why do I bother. You can’t hear, even though I am right here.  

            You think you’re close to her right now, my friend. But you’re as far from her as you are from me. 

            Still, if you start now, you might get there tonight. 

__________

Students at D’Artagnan, mostly white,— although a black student who is a star football player will be named Prom King next month, and will die in Vietnam— live a life apart from the aging, bipolar city to the east, where business and homes and stores and theaters and  shops are clustered with moneyed veneer alongside houses and factories in decay. Some students have ridden into the city across bridges by slaughterhouses, past neon Stag Beer logos on corner tavern windows late at night while Roy Hamilton sang Don’t Let Go on KXOK. Some have gone to Gaslight Square into clubs to watch mini-skirted go-go dancers shimmy in raised cages while reedy organs twine through electric bass and drums like sinuous vines sluicing up massive palms.  

            But Ruth is also beginning to sense how evanescent and tenuous are the beings she sees taking form. She can see the seating chart in the future, but not the Lorraine motel four hours drive down the river.

            No one sees the singer in the hallway leave. Her eyes are colorless. The shadows swallow her song.

            Cat tries to get back the melody that briefly surfaced, but it’s gone, the lyric with it. Jack returns with their salty food in crinkled paper and grease-stained bags, sticks his head in the back room where Keith is typing, says, —Food’s here. No lies now.             The others stop what they’re doing to eat, except for Keith, who keeps on typing.