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Jessica, at 96, ranks highest in the family. She puts those 2 PhDs to work at the National Institute of Health, researching cancer cures. Mom and Dad are so proud. Andrea is second with 93. She's a trauma surgeon at the hospital in our home town, saving lives every night. Anthony comes in third at a close 92 (something that Andrea never lets him forget). Not surprising that the twins are closest in rank. He does something with aerospace engineering that will probably launch humanity into space someday. Next up is Sam, with 90. He's a successful entrepreneur, though most of his high score likely comes from the work of his charitable foundation.
And then there's the youngest, with the eye-popping score of 4: me. When I was first born, no one could believe that it was true. Mom had a score of 75, Dad had an 82, and with all of my siblings... well, everyone just thought I'd be higher. Mom checked with the nurses twice make sure that there hadn't been some mix-up in the nursery. The government even revoked the high-potential stipend that Mom and Dad had been promised, which was given under the assumption that they'd create another 90+ kid who would change the world. Needless to say, my parents were disappointed. And they stayed that way for the next 18 years.
Nothing changed when we were kids; I always got the short end of the stick. If anything went wrong around the house, my brothers and sisters had an easy scapegoat. Who was Mom going to believe: one of the perfect little 90+ angels, or the 4? If there was a chore that needed to be done, it was mine. "I can't live up to my full potential if I don't get all my homework done," Jessica would whine to get out of the dishes even as she was planning to sneak out for the night with her boyfriend. Mom and Dad fell for it hook, line, and sinker. And so everything got passed on to the one kid who had no potential to live up to.
All of my siblings went to the prestigious Morton Academy (which only allows pupils with a score of 80 or higher), while I went to the local public school. Even there, I was put into the "skills workshop," for my future life. It was the nicest possible way of telling me and the other 'under-10s' to accept our fate as a plumber or some shit, whose only purpose in life will be to clean up after the people like my brothers and sisters. We learned woodshop and metalworking and whatever other arts and crafts the administration could think of to take up our time. The consensus seemed to be that we'd all end up as drug addicts anyway so why bother spending money on any of our programs? Unsurprisingly, that's what ended up happening. Those of my classmates who didn't drop out ended up exactly where everyone thought they would be. Janitors, construction workers, welfare queens, burnout druggies... the dregs of society.
And as for me... well, I'm not any of those things. I just left town, and society, altogether. Moved up to the mountains on my own and got myself a nice little patch of land as far away from everyone else as I could find. My woodworking skills ended up coming in handy after all: I built myself a nice cozy cabin on the edge of a quiet lake. There's no one else for miles around. It's just me and my dog, Buck.
In the spring, I plant vegetables while Buck chases bees. We fish in the summers, with Buck lazing in the front of the canoe until he gets too hot and dives in to scare off all the fish. In the fall, we go hunting, though he's a pretty bad tracker. And a bad retriever too. Luckily the deer around here are so plentiful that it's hard to take a shot and not hit one. And in the winters, we curl up by the fire and read. That's the one thing that I've kept from the outside world: a well stocked library.
I read everything. All the classics, of course. Philosophy, history, politics, scientific journals... everything I can get my hands on. Buck and I make a weekly trip down to the nearest town, and we raid the library with as many books as they'll let us check out. I've always been a voracious reader, even if my parents never encouraged it in me.
It's snowing outside. I set my book down and turn slightly, trying not to disturb the dog in my lap, with little success. Buck stirs from his nap, stretches his legs out, and gives a big yawn. I glance out the window to check whether the lake outside has completely frozen over. But in the firelight reflecting off the window pane, I catch a glance of the '4' still floating over my forehead. For just a moment, I wonder where I'd be if that said '94' instead. Then Buck lays his head back down on my thigh, and I rub his belly. I don't care where I'd be; I'm happy here.
Anna was thirteen when her younger brother Danny called the Garcia boy a dirty ‘spic. She found out in the middle of her home-ec class. Mary--an Irish girl, just like Anna--tapped her on the shoulder and whispered the story into her ear.
She would be lying if she said she was surprised. Hector Garcia had been the topic of her family’s dinner table for more than two years. He was a tall, handsome boy of sixteen, his black hair cut to a short crew. He always wore shirts that could show the size of his muscles, the hair already sprouting from his chest, or both. Anna would have had a crush on him had it not been for his intense rivalry with her older brother, Patrick. The two--Hector and Patrick--fought endlessly with each other. They ambushed each other outside of classrooms or lockers or even out in the school yard. In one especially brutal confrontation, they broke the high-school’s trophy case. So, it made sense that if anyone asked Danny how he felt about his big brother’s enemy, Danny would naturally find some way to insult him. Anna would have done the same, even if their father had not told them to do so. But she would never have used a slur.
Word traveled in that district as fast as the gossip was hot. A lesser insult would have barely made it around the middle school by lunch, let alone reach the high-school. But Anna knew that her brother had misjudged the power of the slur, a thought confirmed when, by the end of the day, word returned to the middle school that Hector would be keeping an eye out for “that ugly paddie.” There was no question what this meant--Danny had a beating coming his way.
Anna said nothing to her brother on the bus ride home. Nobody said much of anything to Danny, who sat towards the front with an ashen look on his face. Poor boy, Anna thought, he thinks he’ll be attacked today. He thinks Hector Garcia will be waiting at the bus stop, fingering his blade.
Anna knew otherwise. She was sure Hector would wait two days before he responded. Despite the viciousness of the statement, Hector likely saw it as nothing other than part of his feud with Patrick. Because Danny had used a slur, Hector was forced to make a threat in response, but at its heart the threat was only another challenge to Patrick. Hector would spend the next day waiting for Patrick. If Patrick attacked Hector, Danny’s insult would be forgotten in an hour. If Patrick did nothing, then Hector would find little Danny on the next day, Friday.
So, Danny had nothing to fear yet. Anna, however, would say nothing. His terror would be the beginning of his penance, his punishment for disgracing their family by using a word like “‘spic.” She let him stew the entire bus ride and walk home. Only when they made it inside the front door and he smiled in happy relief did she say, “You think you got off? Wait until pa hears.”
His smile crumpled.
Nobody in the house said anything else about the matter until dinner that night. After their mother served the meal, their father, as was his custom, asked each of his five children about their day, starting with Nick, the youngest. When he reached Danny, Danny only shrugged and said, “It was fine.”
“Fine?” their father repeated. “Just fine?”
Danny shrugged, his face bent towards his plate. “Yeah,” he said. “Fine.”
The old man watched Danny a moment, chewing on a bite of bread. “And what about Hector Garcia?” he asked.
Anna hid her smile in her napkin. Patrick immediately broke in, leaning across the table towards his brother while looking at the old man. “There is nothing to worry about with Hector Garcia,” Patrick said.
Their father looked at Patrick, still chewing. “Oh?” he asked.
“Hector has always been my problem,” Patrick said. “This stuff with Danny is just a part of that. He was sticking up for me, just like you told him to.”
“I see,” the old man said. “So, you’ve called Hector Garcia a ‘dirty ‘spic’ too?”
Of course he knows the whole story, Anna thought. Their father could sense family dishonor better than he could hear, taste, or smell.
“No,” Patrick admitted. “I haven’t.”
“Good,” said their father. “Because if you had, I’d whip you too.”
Danny kept his face towards his plate. He did not look up as their father slowly returned his gaze to Danny. Each of the five children had been whipped by their father before. Anna could still remember her last time, could still feel the strap if she closed her eyes and thought of it. She felt some pity for Danny then, but maintained the conviction that he deserved it. Anna also noticed their mother’s silence. Whatever their father decided, the couple had likely already talked it over.
“Does that scare you?” the old man asked. “The idea of me whipping you? Well? Does it?”
Danny managed a meek, “Yes, papa.”
“Well, don’t worry, I’m not going to,” their father said. Danny looked up from his plate, surprise and hope crossing his face. “Word is that Garcia boy will be looking for you,” their father continued. “I say, let him find you.”
“Pa,” Patrick said, indignant, but the old man rounded on him.
“And don’t you help him,” he spat. Then back to Danny, “You started this mess, you brought this shame on our family. What were you thinking, that you’re a man now? Throwing words like that around? Well, a man starts his own fights and he ends them too. You hear? So if you really think that Hector Garcia is a dirty ‘spic, then you go beat him up for it. Good luck to you.”
“I don’t think he’s a dirty ‘spic, pa,” Danny whimpered, “I swear, papa, I don’t.”
“Then you go and apologize to him,” their father said. “And that’s that. No helping him,” he added, a finger in Patrick’s face. “That’s final.”
And it was final, at least at the dinner table. Two days later, as Anna predicted, Hector found little Danny and asked him what a dirty ‘spic looks like. Then Danny cried and whimpered and screamed that he was sorry while Hector hit him with blow after blow after blow. Eventually, the teenager let the little boy run away. Anna was sure that would be the end of it. Hector and Patrick would resume their feud and little Danny had learned his lesson.
Except that Hector Garcia did not end it there. As Hector saw it, he now had free reign to bully his rival’s little brother. This made no sense to Hector, who wouldn’t let anyone even so much as look crosswise at his own little brother. Hector could not see why Patrick did not step in, but since he didn’t, Hector decided to terrorize Danny as many times as he could. Every two or three days, Hector would find Danny and give him a beating and Danny would sob and say he was sorry.
At the dinner table, Danny’s bruises still fresh, their father still forbade Patrick from intervening. “Danny must end this himself,” he said each night. No one, not even their mother, could tell him otherwise.
Two weeks after it all began, Anna decided enough was enough.
On a Friday afternoon, Anna skipped her last class and made her way to the high school. She had heard Patrick describe his encounters with Hector enough times to know where she would find his locker. She also knew of a small alcove where Patrick liked to wait, out of the way but with a clear sight of the hall. There was a low bench there. Anna sat and pulled a library book from her bag.
She had read twelve pages when the bell rang. Students poured out of the classrooms all at once. The sudden loud voices and flurry of steps disturbed her reading, but she did not stand. She did her best to look for him, but she was so small it was difficult. The crowd obscured her vision too much. She became afraid that she would miss him.
But then he was there. Through a gap in the crowd, Anna saw him turning from his locker, his dark eyes meeting hers for a moment before moving on. Anna jumped up and pushed her way through the crowd.
He was easy to follow. Tall and confident, he cut a swathe through the other students, some of his friends calling out as he passed. All Anna had to do was keep in his wake. They were walking towards the East exit, the one that looked out onto Powell Boulevard and led to his neighborhood. Slowly, the crowd began to thin until Anna no longer had to squirm her way through.
She waited until he began to descend the stairs. There were still people there, but not enough for Anna to miss her chance. She let him take one, two, three steps down, and then she caught him.
“Hector Garcia!” she shouted.
He turned to find Anna right behind him. On the stairs, they were at the same height. No, she realized, not the same. She was taller.
Before he could recognize her, Anna balled her hand into a fist and hit him square across the jaw. There was a flush of pain in her hand, the ripple of force crushing her bones, but she committed to it. Her punch was strong enough to knock Hector backwards. Behind him was nothing but steep descending steps.
He stopped falling in a painful heap at the bottom. Hector managed to hit each of the twelve concrete steps on his way down. He was bleeding from cuts on his arms and chest and face and he was groaning. But all that had been the point.
Anna descended the steps. He was moving now, writhing, but still not standing. Anna waited above him for a moment. The school yard was silent. Anna realized they were being watched. What she said next was heard by nearly three hundred students who spread the legend of the incident throughout the entire city and then the entire state. Eventually even her father heard about it, and he could only smile at the story. Anna didn’t care about all that. All she cared about was whether Hector Garcia heard her.
“Stay the fuck away from my brothers.”
ad got our walking papers today along with our last check. We had a good run, he said. When your mom left us in the middle of the night with the Strongman, and took all our elephants except Baby Jumbo I had to do something. So I gave up my ringmaster’s uniform and my own Mighty Elephant Circus and became Splatt the Falling Clown while you girls walked around with props knocking me over. We signed on fifteen years ago with The Great Circus Tour and thought it might be only for a few years until I could start my own circus again but now it’s time for me to take off the greasepaint and for you girls to go to Community College and begin your life’s dream to become dental hygienists. Baby Jumbo will stay on with The Great Circus but you can bet on one thing—he’ll never forget us.
Something about travelling, a map that I could draw of the smell of rubber and seaside.
The map was easy to draw because it could look like this:
Bikes go in the middle. I, and M, on panniered bikes.
As long as the sea is on my left, I am going the right way. As long as I can smell the salt and feel the air cooler to my left than the right, then I am going the right way.
This map only works if you're going north.
A slightly more specific map would be this:
We cycled from Ghent, which is pronounced a bit like Kent, but you have to hate your tongue and really want to bash it against your teeth to do it justice.
I've always liked going to the edges. This is where interesting things happen. At the borders where the lines are drawn clearest.
At the edge of town they're poor; they're real people making real compromises in their lives. It's not that the edges are complicated, but to be on one means learning a kind of hardness and sympathy that only comes with understanding difference.
You can make your life easier while riding a bike with a GPS unit. We didn't have one, so I wrote on the back on the glossy card of the Belgian train tickets. They're larger than a ticket needs to be, and perfect for writing down the names of Belgian and Dutch towns on.
There are some things you should know about The Netherlands - one is that the people are very friendly, well educated, and look miserable until you talk to them - and the other is that you get chips with everything.
I do mean everything (I don't). There's a mint on your pillow, there's also chips (there isn't). There's pasta for dinner, there's also chips (this is true). There's a salad, there's also chips (also, true).
The chips are always good, they're full of salt and crispness. I suppose I should update the map:
And then there are the smells. You can smell the salt in the air, which you'd expect, and you can smell the kind of stone they use in Den Haag and you know the kind of oils that come out of the ships around the Hook.
The water was very clear where we crossed at Vlissing (flushing, yes, it is a good name for a wash). The water was clear but very dark and deep, and the sand was fine and regimented, as things that are beyond a sense seem to blur.
There's a place in England called Kessingland. Here you can see the old ugly promenade which was intended to run alongside the sea - for a nice walk without getting sandy. When it was opened tourists couldn't walk along, because the sea was too rough. While not very far North, it is still the North Sea.
The solution was to plant sandgrass. This is a grass which grows in sand and spreads out quickly - although they didn't quite know this at the time. Once planted, they spread like only seagrass can, pushing back the sea, reclaiming land.
One day, maybe, Kessingland and flushing will meet - although I don't think the people who drive the ships will like it, as they will have to go the long way around.
The k stands for Kessingland, the place with the long grass which dearly wishes it could go to Holland for chips.
Later, travelling north we met many wonderful things, like the cold air again, like Alkmaar, where they make cheese and exhausted people can find Greek food.
The day after we travelled in the rain, all day. I think this was the day where M became the most defeated.
The rain was cold and endless, and we were not really all that prepared for it. It was the longest day, because it was the day in which we would travel over the IJsslemeer.
When you go over the IJsselmeer you have one long straight road which goes on forever - or it may as well have. I have never been somewhere where you can focus that hard on the horizon and see nothing. It's 26 miles, I think. You ride full-straight for the first half of the arm, then there is a break, you can see things of historical value here. From an engineering point of view anyway.
Then there is the rest of that... which continues until something else comes into focus, something else on the horizon which you had no idea of. This is not the end, as you might imagine.
I asked M while riding: is that the end, or can you remember, does it take a turn?
When you can't focus on the end, your memory also gets blurry.
Our untrained legs weren't ready. This was an 80 mile day I think, the only one in the trip.
I would like to do a map of the turn in the IJsselmeer, but it would be very boring. It is something like this:
There was water to the left, water to the right, giant sluices worked somewhere in it. It was wonderful.
Holland can be sliced up into 7 sections, here it is, stacked North to South:
The dashed line is the border, not a "cut here" guide - although, that is how borders used to work in Europe.
There is nothing wrong with the north. They just had a lot of sheep. It was busy with sheep.
We saw a group of roller-bladers in perfect time somewhere in the North. They were heading directly for us. It is difficult to understand why this rollerblading man had extra legs following him, but not bodies.
The North had great salt flats which makes for the best of that fatty kind of lamb you love.
In the airport we had to go to a luggage shop to tape things on to our bikes. They get shrink-wrapped, and you're not sure if they're really going to survive the trip.
When you land in London, you remember you're not allowed bikes on the underground. But that's okay, anything wrapped in shrinkwrap is luggage. If it squeaks, it's ok.
It's strange to smuggle your transport home.
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