When Elmer Whit’s mother first discovered there was a baby growing inside of her, she did what most fifteen years-olds would do. She fell into a dark hole and stopped breathing. While turning blue in that hole, she remembered what started the whole thing—a trashy man-boy named Carl who said her panties were pretty. She waited underground until she could no longer hold her breath, and when she finally emerged after three long days she decided she would tell no one, not even Carl.
In other words, Elmer was a zero.
Her soft stomach grew firmer each month, swelling imperceptibly as though God attached an air nozzle to an under-inflated tire at the Exxon station. She wore her clothes loose at school and when she could no longer fasten her jeans, she took rubber bands and looped them around the metal button and through the slot on the other side. In the month of October, the weather changed just in time for Talia’s coats and sweatshirts to camouflage her truth. No one asked why she ate more and cried more—don’t most teenage girls do both when they’re depressed? —and when her mother noticed her daughter’s widening hips, she chalked it up to the family’s hefty DNA and the arrival of womanhood.
In the eighth month, Talia felt the child begging for air himself, moving around so violently inside of her that she wondered if he would kick his way out. She spent her days hiding her belly under the school desks and her nights rolled on her side on top of her twin bed, dreaming about the day she would give birth to Carl’s son. He would be pink and round and perfect and twice the man his father was. She would surprise the world by dressing him in a cream-colored, rich-boy romper and presenting him in front of the student body during an assembly where she would announce how he would be the next Nobel Peace Prize winner. Then everyone would chuck their fingers under his chin and wiggle his toes and tell Talia how lucky she was to have given birth to such a fine son.
When the time came sooner than it should, that teenage mother felt her body crack open like a hen’s egg. She crawled down to the basement when no one was home and laid beside the telephone, spreading out beach towels side by side. The boy slid out while Talia screamed. He was slippery and chalky white, and the side of his face was splattered with purple paint in the shape of a continent. She looked at the tiny boy-on-a-leash and called the emergency operator who told her to “stay right there,” an instruction that seemed rather unnecessary.
Her mother arrived at the same time as the paramedics. Elmer’s new grandmother flung herself on the sofa and wailed louder than her daughter had. The EMT snipped the leash and brushed off the blood, but the purple shape on the baby’s face did not go away. Talia cried and said that her baby boy was supposed to be perfect. It’s just a birthmark, said the man with rubber gloves. He is beautiful anyway.
It was the second time that a man had lied to her in just eight months.
Elmer Whit entered the world curled in the shape of a zero. Like his mother, he lived underground in a hole where it was dark and moist with very little beauty in it. Elm had the terrible misfortune of being born into a labyrinth of tunnels, a place of horrible darkness.
When Elmer was three, his biological mother and father decided to join forces yet again, this time in unholy matrimony. They had everything in common, like brown hair, a fondness for mac-and-cheese, and two bastard sons between them. Apparently, teenage girls were Carl’s specialty. Five-year-old Ed was Carl’s first son, but Talia was so desperate to play house that she took them both. They pretended to be parents for six months before the lack of sunlight wilted their hopes. Daddy Carl eventually split for higher ground, and the two boys stumbled along in their underground life, two little nothings
Elmer was no different from other boys except for one small item: a tiny little variation that showed up during the mysteries of cell division in his mother’s womb. With God looking on, and even with his approval, Elmer’s DNA experienced a tiny blip. It was the reason that the peculiar birthmark on Elmer’s lower jaw was the color of new bruises. It was the reason that he loved repeating simple math problems but couldn’t read big words. It was the reason that he was secretly brilliant and beautiful and so freaking nice. It was the reason that he was slow and strange and wonderful. Even when the dark soil of his family altered his brain chemistry even more, he was still a work of art. True, Elmer’s DNA was different from most other kids’ but then again, whose genes are perfectly aligned anyway?
When Elmer started pre-school, he escaped the basement but continued to stumble through the darkness. He later trudged through middle school and finally staggered along with the nameless, teenage mass moving every 55 minutes through the hallways of Sun City High School. When he turned seventeen, the hallways of Sun City High School still felt a lot like the tunnels of Elm’s life. Dark. Random. Dangerous. He moved from 7:30 to 3:00 like a worm in the soil, with the distinct feeling that at any moment a classmate’s spade or a noisy lawn mower might cut him in half. To be stalked or ridiculed is to be valued in a way, but to be ignored is an even harder fate. Usually the teenage mass ignored him. Like scientific organisms that follow natural patterns, most of Elm’s peers shut their eyes to the brown-haired boy with the backpack-on-wheels and eventually forgot about him. By tenth grade, the laughter died down. Not many asked questions about his face or his brain. Few bothered anymore.
He finally had a dream that one day he might push through the clay and find the sun—a mythological orb that coaxed flowers to grow and handed out suntans to pale boys and assisted vitamin D to do what it was made to do. In other words, Elmer knew that his time was coming.
In high school, Elmer learned to navigate his struggles with a certain measure of finesse. He picked a random happy song every morning and sent it rattling around in his head. He packed his own lunch—even if that lunch was day-old bread, cucumber slices and a slap of cheap, bright-yellow margarine. All the while, he ignored the eternal droning of his mother’s grief. He was born with a fierce optimism, not to be subdued by bullies and con artists or the occasional jackass, thanks be to God.
Oh, and maybe thanks be to Gloria Christenson.
Miss Chris, as everyone called her, was a teacher made of uncommon goodness. She was neither attractive nor homely—just a moderate shade of pleasant, the perfect neutral against which to frame her vibrant inner character. No one knew how old she was: was that a streak of silver in her hair—or just an illusion of precious metal? Were those wrinkles, or merely the places where her smile embraced her cheeks? She could be thirty; she could be fifty. Her chronological age was so entirely irrelevant that no one ever asked about it or even speculated. Few women can ever simply be. And Miss Chris simply was.
She had been born to a Scandinavian family long ago whose parents’ strong backs and hardy resolve had rowed a boat across the sea to find a new life for themselves. With five brothers, she had learned that boys need to fight epic battles and women need to leave them alone while they do it. Her mother had taught her about compassion and her father about justice, a combination that can change the world.
No one knew why she never married. No one asked. Perhaps they knew what the answer would be, that Miss Chris might not be a real person at all but simply one who had been cast out of heaven, not as a punishment for pride or self-glorification like Lucifer’s fate, but because God needed someone who could help him scoop up the dirt, shake it through his fingers, and unearth the creatures living there.
To do such a preposterous thing, every morning between 6:45 and 7:30, Miss Chris followed a very strict routine:
6:45 – Take her keys off the hook by the back door (a lucky horseshoe nail forged into a J)
6:46 – Start the car and drive to school
6:55 – Arrive at the door of Room A-8
6:56 – Place her purse in the cabinet, her grade book on the podium, and her lessons on the whiteboard
7:00 – Pray for miracles
7:20 – Spray for germs
7:25 – Awkwardly fist-bump all the humans as they walked through her door
And it just so happened that Miss Chris and Elmer were destined to collide.
Elmer woke each school day with the single-minded focus of an athlete. He wasn’t fussed over like other kids whose moms hid sweet notes in backpacks. Instead, he had learned to live in a rather solitary world. He had conversations with himself—sometimes monologues, too—and he didn’t mind the company. When he walked outside in the morning, the air felt better than his suffocating bedroom.
His thoughts were usually packaged in straight lines like rows of cookies. The breeze is good today. My hair is doing something stupid. Don’t make noises when you eat lunch. Will I find a place to eat? Why is the string on my sleeve a different color than my shirt? I hope Charley is there. My left ear hurts.
On the first day of school in August, he unrolled the paper scroll he had fashioned out of his school schedule to see where he should go. He saw the name Christenson and her classroom number: Seven.
When he finally walked into Room Seven at 7:42 am, he felt the air change. Elm loved it, breathed it, drank it like water. Miss Chris had artfully posed a shrine of portraits from Einstein to Curie, cell models, a standing rack of lab coats, a row of microscopes like a military line-up, mobiles swinging with cheap Styrofoam planets, and glass cases holding secret experiments. The entire place celebrated the patterns of God, the predictability of the world, and the anticipation that there was more to learn. The smell in her classroom was not the deathly fog of formaldehyde, but the quieter scent of life.
She also taught math, having not been able to decide which of the glorious disciplines—math or science—she would rather tinker with each day, so she was certified in both. Alongside the gorgeous collection of science doodads were math posters of various kinds. It was a classroom of impeccably straight lines dancing with the curves of art. Her classroom was beautifully appointed with the things she loved, and in this house of formulas and discovery was something even more astonishing: hope.
He slipped into his desk. It vibrated with good things, but he didn’t know why. Miss Chris, of course, had spent her time hovering over it that morning with whispered prayers, electrifying it with a divine voltage. He did not know this. He just knew that during the first week, he walked from death to life as he crossed the threshold of her door, feeling the sun on his face. Their first conversation was a beautiful thing.
“And you are Elmer?”
“I can’t wait to hear more about that name. Can you stay a moment after class?”
“You want me to stay?”
“If that’s okay with you.”
“Do you have your textbook yet?”
“Um…I don’t have my ID card. I don’t like pictures, really.”
“Oh, I think you’d take a great picture, Elmer. In fact, let’s go over there together at lunch, and I’ll show you where they take ID photos.”
“Really? Do I really need one?”
“Yes. If you check out a book from me, you have to show your ID.”
She and Elmer walked over to the library at lunch just as she promised, and he smiled into a camera. The laminated card popped out of the machine, and Miss Chris took one look and said to Elm, “Why I think I might see you on my wall someday as a famous mathematician.”
“Yes, I think you just might,” he said.
Elmer never understood why high school was named such.
It certainly wasn’t the highest school you could attend; there were plenty of others that ranked much higher, such as Wonder Valley Community College or maybe a place named Yale. It wasn’t really high in the narcotics sense either, since actually getting high inside the high school was really difficult to pull off (unless you were Dylan Arbuckle who artfully wrote “Get Wasted in Civics” in the Yearly Goal box of his free school planner).
High school didn’t have high morals, it rarely demanded high standards, no one ever used high diction, and the morale among the teachers was painfully low. So after Elmer’s first three months of ninth grade, he was sorely disappointed that a place such as this had so woefully misrepresented itself. Yes, three months into high school and Elm had discovered that one can never assume too much about a name.
Unless your name is Elmer, in which case everyone assumes plenty. Fudd was the obvious weapon of choice, the blunt, punishing association used by the least clever peers in school. Fudd was easy. It was a given. It was the nickname that the simple-minded bullies used, a leftover relic of 1950s hand-drawn animation when Porky Pig and Elmer Fudd roamed Saturday mornings.
On one fall day, all of Elmer’s irregularities were on full display. He was moving his rolling backpack along the corridor at school, humming some song to himself. He felt the swish swish of his shorts as he moved, keeping his eyes down and watching the concrete change from gray to black to brown.
Wearing jeans shorts to campus (not the socially acceptable ones, but the ones that grandmothers snip out of your used denim) was the high school equivalent of a beef cow being tagged for the slaughterhouse. Elm’s brain didn’t make the connection between his clothes and his social punishment, but every time he pulled those shorts over his thighs, he felt a vague uneasiness. His mother, believing somehow that she was redeeming him from a cruel father who could not buy his son new clothes, made it worse by hemming those unholy denim cut-offs with sturdy white thread.
Matched with a T-shirt emblazoned with the fading words Fashion Fiesta Mall Albuquerque, Elm’s clothing (“psychopath couture” as one girl labeled it) invited all manner of oppression. His mother didn’t realize it. His sympathetic aunts continued to send odd little items, like parachute pants with zippered compartments, 1980’s faded striped shirts, and freebies like T-shirts from the American Cancer Society. For adults, the purpose of clothing was strictly utilitarian; for the rest of Sun City High School, clothing was essential to one’s survival.
Elmer saw the crowd ahead of him. He was used to the nausea, used to moving in slow motion toward the nameless, faceless oppressors who subtracted his value. Crowds of teenagers meant diarrhea. Do they know that my brain is different? Do they even know my name?
Suddenly a kid named Kelton, Sun City High School’s Chief of Pricks, answered his question. “Hey! Hey, you there…Fudd!”
Elm knew better than to turn around.
“I said Fudd! Are you listenin’ to me, Fuddrucker?”
Elm said nothing. He kept humming to himself.
“Oh, geez, you’re making me look like an idiot now. Is this how you treat all your friends?”
A small cluster of onlookers began to feel the buzz and crackle of conflict. In a high school, it’s irresistible. So the people gathered, and the King Prick kept it up.
“We saved a seat for you at lunch, E-Dog. How come you didn’t show up?” Kelton, annoyed by the slight and empowered by the crowd, gathered momentum. There was no turning back on this growing provocation. “You gotta be kidding me, fag-boy. Are you deaf AND stupid?”
One girl’s voice from the middle of the crowd squeaked out a weak little counter-weapon: “C’mon, Kelton, you’re being a jerk now. Quit it.”
Elm had not turned around the entire time. He was floating above the action, as he had learned long ago. But this time the intensity and perseverance of his enemy just might pull him down to sea level.
“That’s right, slow down and listen to your buddy. Are you gonna turn around and talk to me or what?”
Boys like Kelton aren’t powerful; they simply terrorize small habitats like tiny, ugly reptiles in the desert who feed on rubbish dumps or scrawny rodents. A perverse idea slithered into Kelton’s head and worked its way to his hand. He drew a pencil out of his backpack, not unlike a video game avatar drawing a sword. He swept into position behind Elm and grunted against him with the point of the pencil pressing into the back of his jeans. “I’ll bet you like that, Fuddrucker. Now I gave you something to dream about tonight.”
The crowd squirmed. The air was thick with brutality.
Inhale exhale inhale exhale. I am zero, he thought. I must keep walking I must not look I must keep my face to the sun. His stomach leaped up to strangle his throat, and Elmer struggled to breathe. Get to the corner get to the door get to the exit get to the fresh air.
Kelton and all the reptiles watched as Elmer, back straight and face set to the sun, left the building.
In the quiet safety of Miss Chris’s room, his mind fiddled with a Rubik’s cube made of only three colors: Kelton-the-prick, his warped mother, and a man whose sperm was his only qualification for fatherhood. He could not think of Study Skills or World History. Only these three.
Elmer dreamed every day of his new name, the name that God would someday give him in heaven. The scene would look something like this:
God: How are you, Elmer? You’re looking rather dead today. How about a resurrection?
Elmer: Boy, that’d be cool.
God: As a bonus, I’ll give you a new name. Would you like that, too?
Elmer: I’ll say.
God: All right, Andrew Weldon Carmichael. C’mon inside and join the party.
As for Elmer’s mother, she had snapped long ago. More than a few men had dumped their own shovels of black dirt over her air supply as well. With two sons and an addiction to her own unhappiness, she knew nothing except for hollering and sleeping. When she was asleep, she was no mother at all, and when she was awake she was a persistent nag.
Elm, get yourself out of bed, child.
Elm, get yourself going—it’s time for school.
You got those clothes I washed for you? The jeans shorts?
You’d better thank Aunt Kitty for those the next time you see her. She bailed us out with those clothes since your father left us with nothin’. ELM! GET OUT OF THAT BED! That dumbshit don’t know if he’s asleep or awake.
While sitting in Miss Chris’s classroom, he added to his thoughts the arrival of his father two weeks ago, an unexpected visit that further smothered him.
Geez, E, can you put away your crap here? It’s all over the living room.
It’s not mine—it’s Ed’s.
Tell Ed that the two of you pigs aren’t welcome in this house.
I’ll tell him.
You steal my Crown Royal? That stuff ain’t cheap, y’know.
No, Dad, I don’t drink.
That’s what they all say. Hey, E?
You’re a good son, you know that?
When you’re not screwing things up, you’re not too bad. You might be messed up in the head, but I say he’s a good tax credit, that Elmer.
I said you were a good son. You hear me?
We should do something sometime. Go somewhere when your mom doesn’t know.
Silence. Are you going to live here now?
Are you crazy, boy?
I was just wondering.
With his dad coming in and out like the tide, Elmer’s life was unpredictable and often disrupted. He had never known the steady life, never known the certainty of a daily sunrise. His father was as damaged a man as you will find, with his grandfather equally broken. In this way, Elmer would have to be rescued from the long ancestral record of self-loathing.
Carl Whit was a builder. Not the kind with craftsmanship in his blood, or engineering in his head, or a natural love of cross beams and mahogany, but the kind of oxymoronic builder who lives to tear stuff down. His rage and disappointment with life were relieved, in part, by the daily hammer blows he laid down. He worked to be paid, and with that payment he consumed his whiskey and porn, pissing away any respect that comes from merely being someone’s daddy.
Carl was a dirty man. First, he was dirty in the physical sense with grime buried in the half-moons of his fingernails and ball caps etched with the salt of forehead sweat. Showers rarely helped. His jeans—some six or seven pair of Levis with indistinguishable markings—were stiff and polluted, and on the floorboard of his 1992 pick-up truck were scattered months of neglect. Unlike the men who find art and dignity in their physical labor, Mr. Whit found nothing but contempt for himself. His own father was dirty, too, the master having taught a young apprentice.
But such dirt was not merely streaks on the skin and clothing. It had seeped into his heart and changed its color to ash. He had never allowed love to scrub his heart clean, so Elmer’s father carried around a dark soul wherever he went. It had stained his wife, ruined his friends, and soiled his sons. They all lived underground in a big pile of dirt with the address 4863 S. Bedford Road.
As a testimony to Elm’s deeply tragic beginnings, that little boy had buried in his psyche that afternoon at the age of five when his father took him to buy a milkshake. On the day before kindergarten started, Elm was excited, having remembered few outings that promised a reward. He ordered strawberry—it was just a cup of too-pink frozen chemicals purchased at the cheapest neighborhood joint. But for Elm, it was heaven. His father never bought him anything.
On the way home, the truck hit a speed bump and Elm’s dreams fell to the passenger floorboard in a sticky puddle, mixed with the detritus of his father’s miserable life. His father said nothing, simply pulling over to the side of the road. His anger was spilling over in strange and silent form. He opened his car door and moved to the passenger door where he instructed his son to step out of the truck.
“Get out,” he shouted.
Elmer slid down from the cab, barely tall enough to land without hopping.
“I said drink it,” he repeated. “You spilled it, you idiot. Now you get to have your milkshake.”
The boy, bewildered by his father’s command, looked up at his dad.
“Drink it,” he demanded.
The minutes that followed—the vile, outrageous minutes that shrink a boy into a worm, the minutes that make some men into beasts, the minutes that teach a child’s spirit how to die—defined Elm’s childhood forever. That young boy bent his head into the grainy pink puddle and lapped and lapped and lapped until his father finally let him free.
On the way home, some said they saw a little boy leaning his head out of the passenger window, vomiting up the day’s reward in a long pink stream.