“Thomas!” the teacher barked. “What’s that on your feet?”
Dex looked up from his magazine, buried in the pages of his biology textbook. Thomas shrugged. “Shoes.” The other kids laughed at the would-be class clown.
“No…” Mr. Hicks said disdainfully. “Above that.”
“Yes. Rainbow socks. You look like a clown. Do you think this is a circus?”
Thomas shrugged again. “Could be.” Louder laughter this time.
Mr. Hicks made a great show of reaching for The Pad, the book of detention slips he kept on his desk. “Get out of my class.”
Dex returned his attention to the latest issue of Guitar Player. He’d seen kids get sent to detention for less. Hell, he’d seen kids get arrested for less. Well, black kids like Thomas, at least. One black girl had needed to pee so bad, and for some reason Hicks wouldn’t give her a hall pass, that she jumped up and ran for the bathroom. Hicks called the cops and they took her to juvenile detention.
He must be in a good mood today, Dex thought, if all he’s handing out is a detention slip. Mostly white kids got detention – black kids would often get sent to juvie for even the most minor infractions.
“Now where were we,” Hicks said, running his hand absently through the thin strands of his combover, as if he still had all his hair. “Right. We’re talking about the study that proves, proves, that condoms have a 45% failure rate…”
Everyone was pretty much tuned out. The Biloxi schools were big fans of abstinence-only sex education, which was probably why the STD and pregnancy rates were so high in Mississippi. Two of Dex’s classmates had failed to come back to school this fall, already big as houses, quite possibly from the same boy.
“Oh look!” Hicks said dramatically. “It’s 2 o’clock. That means it’s time for the football players in our classroom to get out early and go to practice.” He put his hand on his forehead to shield his eyes from the flyblown fluorescents lights hanging from the ceiling, and looked around like a sailor searching for land. “Do we have any football players in this classroom? Why no, we don’t. Everyone here has to sit here another hour and listen to me talk.”
Everyone looked at Dex, who refused to take the bait. Sixteen years old, six feet tall already, and 180 pounds of muscle…what the hell was wrong with him, why wasn’t he on the team? Why was he letting the school down like that? As they gave in to the slightest nudge into mob psychology, he could feel them all turning on him. It was his fault that the team wasn’t doing well this year. As if he was good at football just because he was big. He could even feel the classroom’s web camera judging him, the cameras the school district had installed in every classroom, ostensibly to “deter crime.”
“Wouldn’t you like to be out there on this nice day, getting some fresh air and sunshine and exercise, instead of being locked in here? I know I would.”
When the silence continued for painfully eternal seconds, Dex finally looked up. “Yes, Mr. Hicks, that would be nice, but you know, it’s the football players in this school who really need to learn about condom failure rates.”
The class roared and Hicks blushed. “That’s enough! Shut up, all a’ you!”
Dex started putting his book (and hidden magazine) away, getting ready for the trip to detention, but it didn’t happen. Hicks went on about Saving Yourself for Marriage, and the last hour of school went on as usual. He went back to his magazine and waited, like everyone else, for the time to pass.
After school, he walked to the seafood warehouse, the job that was mostly responsible for his current bulk. He’d started the job at 14, working under the table, and was still working under the table after two years, for the same amount of money.
Jake Shills, the owner, had given him a shit eating grin when he’d asked for a raise at the beginning of the school year.
“Now, Dex, that’s true, you ain’t makin’ minimum wage. But see, this way I don’t have to give the goddamn gummint half your check, and you don’t either, see?”
Dex didn’t see, but he also knew that arguing wasn’t going to do any good. He really should look for another job, but half of what stopped him was the nature of the other available jobs (fast food cook, theater popcorn slinger), and half was…well, just inertia, he guessed. “Gettin’ by” was the prevailing philosophy of everyone around him, and making changes required ambition, which Dex had pretty much reserved for his musical career. What was the point of starting over somewhere that he’d have to prove himself all over again, especially if the shifts would interfere with his guitar practice?
Not that this job was anything to write home about. The grown men worked 39.5 hour weeks, Dex knew, always had and always would. The company gave benefits to anyone who worked “full time,” which meant only a handful of managers. And most of them worked a lot more than 40 hours a week, but since they got paid a salary and not an hourly wage, it often worked out to be not much more than what the warehouse men made.
Dex had asked them once why they didn’t unionize, and they’d looked at him like he’d grown another head. “You a socialist or something?” Like so many working class people across America, they’d been well-schooled to believe that anything that would benefit them was “socialism,” a dirty word most of them didn’t even understand.
Shills had given him the job as a favor to his dad, a drinking buddy and old classmate. When he’d started, it nearly broke his little body, hauling huge boxes. His hands had frozen through the thin gloves they’d given to handle frozen fish – gloves he hadn’t been given the first week, a prank by the lifers. When he realized what they’d done, he was furious – his hands! His guitar playing hands had been jeopardized, for what?
“Aww, we’re just funnin’ ya.” They laughed at him, as if making him miserable was…hilarious. He didn’t get it. Why? Why was other people’s suffering so entertaining? And it wasn’t just him. They did it to each other, pulled dangerous pranks that left them doubled over in laughter when someone slipped on fish guts or hit his head. As if the job wasn’t hard enough on your body, and dangerous enough too. He’d bought his own high quality gloves with his first check.
They’d made him do the shit jobs, thrown fish heads at him (frozen, if he was lucky), all the while laughing, hee haw. And then he’d had a growth spurt, going from squirt to monster in two years. One day, instead of saying “Stop it,” and hearing them all mock him, echoing “stop it, stop it!” in little girly voices, he turned on them.
In a new, deep voice that surprised himself, he looked at the ringleader, Cleve, and said, “You better knock it the fuck off.”
Everyone froze. Dex held Cleve’s gaze, didn’t blink. Finally the other man looked away. “Aw, we’re just messin’ around.”
“Not any more, you’re not.”
And that was that. Of course, after that, they started talking about football, how he should play football, discussing what football position they thought he’d be best at as if he wasn’t there, didn’t have a say.
And as he’d learned at school, wisecracking was the best defense. He looked at Cleve and smiled. “If I played football, I wouldn’t have time to socialize with you gents, and I wouldn’t miss that for the world.”
Haw haw, the others cackled, jabbing Cleve in the ribs. And that was that.
It was getting dark when Dex got home around 7. The closer he got, the more he slowed his pace, trying to bank a few more seconds of peace before he walked in the door, knowing what was behind it.
Tonight he was lucky, since only two of his three younger siblings were fighting in the hallway, screaming and arguing over nothing in particular. Their mom, Carla, shouted from the living room.
“Shut up out there! I’m watching Dr. Phil!”
Dr. Phil’s buffalo voice filled the house. “Are YEW gonna DEW what DAWCTER PHIL tells YEW to DEW?”
Some hapless idiot sobbed on the TV, relentlessly bullied into saying yes, the camera, the audience, the family members and of course the “doctor” brooking no other answer.
Dex’s mother was obsessed with Dr. Phil. She worked as a cocktail waitress at the riverboat casino, and when she worked day shift, she taped it so she could watch it when she got home.
“Carla! Get me another beer!” Mike shouted from the family room, where he was watching SportsCenter on the big TV.
“One more, and that’s it,” she shouted back. She saw her oldest son in the hallway. “Dex! Get your daddy a beer.”
Dex’s dad worked at the same casino, as a change person – though there wasn’t much physical change to make anymore, since most of the slot machines now paid out in tickets instead. If Carla was cutting him off at two beers, it meant he’d just gotten up for a graveyard shift.
Dex stepped his way to the kitchen through the toys scattered across the floor and frowned at the heap of dirty dishes in the sink.
“Carrie,” he said to his oldest sibling, twelve years old, as she cut past him at the fridge to get a juice box. “What you been up to all afternoon? Why didn’t you do the dishes?”
“Homework,” she said, tossing her feathered hair.
He looked at her suddenly blond locks. “Did you dye your hair?”
She sighed heavily. “Duh.”
“You spent all afternoon on that, didn’t ya, instead of your homework, or the dishes.”
“There’s a beauty pageant coming up,” she said, as if that settled it.
“And that’s more important than your…”
“Yes,” she cut him off. “God, Dex, you’re such a nagging housewife.”
Dex looked at the dishes. “You load ‘em in the dishwasher, now.” He grabbed the juice box out of her hand. “Or I’ll whup you myself.”
“Mom!” she screeched automatically.
“Shut up! Do what your brother tells you!”
“Dex! Where’s my fucking beer!”
Dex brought his dad the Budweiser. Mike Dexter was sprawled in the La-Z-Boy, the sound on the TV turned up to drown out Dr. Phil in the next room.
The Dexters had taken maximum advantage of the housing boom. Loans were easy to come by in 2004, even with a minimum wage job. And once you had a house, the value just went up and up, and would forever, for sure. So then you could take out a home equity loan on the difference between what you bought it for and what it was worth now, and buy yourself some nice shit, like a new recliner and some big ass TVs.
His dad looked at the beer. “Why didn’t you bring me a tallboy,” he grunted, taking the twelve-ounce can grudgingly.
“Because a tallboy counts as two beers,” Dex said. “And you gotta drive.”
He went back to the kitchen and loaded the dishwasher himself. “What’s for dinner?” he asked his mom.
“There’s KFC in the oven.”
He opened the oven door, where a bucket of chicken and a box of biscuits and gravy was being kept warm.
“You want something fancy, bring us some seafood home from work and cook it yourself. I can’t work all day and come home and make you a four course meal.”
“Well,” he muttered to himself below the sound of the dueling televisions. “If you spent as much time solving your own damn problems as you spent watching Dr. Phil solve someone else’s, you might have some free time. Charlene!” he shouted. “Get in here and help me serve!”
The six year old was glad to have an excuse to stop fighting with Kaleb, her eight-year-old brother. There was still hope for her, Dex thought, if he could help it.
He handed her the paper plates and plastic silverware. “How come we eatin’ off this?”
“Why are we eating off this,” Dex corrected her. “Because nobody did the dishes, that’s why.”
“Eww,” Carrie said as she sat down at the dinner table. “Gross. I can’t eat off a paper plate.”
“Princess Carrie’s too good for paper plates!” Kaleb said gleefully.
“I am a princess,” Carrie flounced. “Right, daddy?”
“You’re watching too much Disney Channel,” Dex said. “The world needs less damn princesses, not more.”
“Dex!” his mother shouted. “Language. Mike, say grace.” They joined hands and bowed their heads.
“Lord, thank you for this dinner, and for the Ole Miss football team, and please hurry up and make Dex try out for the team soon, amen.”
“Amen!” they all chimed, and the carnage began. Dex always thought of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory when he watched them eat – Augustus Gloops, all of them.
Dex pulled the batter and skin off a chicken breast before he ate it. He was sick of eating KFC, sick of junk food, but that’s all they ever seemed to eat anymore. The rest of them ate like wolves.
Mike looked hungrily at the thigh on Dex’s plate. “You gonna eat that?”
“No, take it.”
“How you gonna get big and strong if you don’t eat more? And how come you ain’t tried out for football yet? Coach is bothering me, comin’ down to the casino to ask me why you ain’t tried out yet.”
“I don’t wanna. I don’t wanna and I’m not gonna.”
Shocked silence. The first silence of the day.
His dad reached over and smacked him upside the head. “What the fuck you mean you don’t wanna!”
“It’ll mess up my hands. For guitar.”
He snorted. “Shit, you ain’t never gonna be a real guitar player.”
Dex should have been used to it by now, the relentless negativity. But it still hurt. “But you gave me a guitar!”
“Yeah, I gave you an electric guitar. So you could pick up girls. Not so you could pussy out on football. And play that fucking acoustic like a fucking Commie folk singer.”
“Language!” Carla shouted. “Dex, football could be your ticket to the big time. You could be a star!”
“Or I could get smashed up and be good for nothing, like Johnny Duke.” Johnny was a neighbor kid who was a huge prospect, had a scholarship to Ole Miss in the bag, and then kabam, broke his leg in two places, and now he’s working at a convenience store.
Mike waved the thigh at him. “You suck on that guitar, I hear you practicing. And what’s that shit you’re playin’, how come you don’t play some Randy Travis? You better get your priorities straight.”
Dex fumes. “Speaking of priorities, I gotta do homework.”
“You ain’t that bright, either,” Dad grumbled after him. “Schoolwork ain’t gonna get you anywhere. Carla, get me another beer!”
“You ain’t gettin’ another DUI on my watch, mister.”
Because Dex was sixteen years old, emotional hurt got expressed back out again as anger. The detached garage had become his space by default, even though it had his dad’s tools and a punching bag Mike had bought one day off Craigslist when he thought he was a badass. But Mike never used the tools, and certainly never punched the bag. Not since the day he’d tried a flying kick and landed on his ass, anyway, to the hysterical laughter of his family.
Dex put on the boxing gloves; even in his rage he was sure to protect his fingers. He got in a fighting stance, then began pounding the bag.
He hated his father with the raging disgust only a teenager can feel for a parent. His dad was a deadbeat, plain and simple. Right about now he’d be in the kitchen, the freezer door open, a gallon of ice cream in one hand and a soup spoon in the other, as if he was just going to have a bite. And he’d fucking stand there, Dex thought as he landed a series of jabs and crosses, shove shove shoveling that ice cream down his gullet.
Then, he knew, his dad would go to work, and do just what he’d done at every job he’d ever had – goof off as much as possible, slack off and string out the easiest task as long as he could, devoting more energy to thinking of ways to get out of working than it would have taken him to do his job.
“Goin’ back to a real job when the plant opens again,” he’d say to his drinking buddies as they sprawled in the new patio furniture scattered across the front lawn. They’d nod and raise their beers, as if any of them would ever go back to the plant, where they’d actually had to work, if they could help it.
Tonight he’d go to work at the casino, and he and his buddies would cover for each other as they took naps in the one corner of the casinos that someone had thoughtlessly forgotten to cover with a camera. Then he’d come home, drink some more, pass out, snore like the devil from his COPD, wake up in time to throw up from his GERD, and then wash the bile back down with his first beer of the day.
When he’d pounded the bag to his satisfaction, Dex took off the gloves and took his acoustic guitar out of its case, gently. He loved this Martin guitar. Johnny Cash played a Martin, and that was all he needed to know.
He’d bought it for a couple hundred bucks off one of his dad’s friends who was short of cash and, of course, hadn’t played it in years. Most of Dex’s paychecks went to music-related purchases, where other boys his age spent theirs on a car. Dex was content to walk forever if that was the price he had to pay.
He got his fingers flexed, sounded out some chords, then thought about what he wanted to play. He wasn’t a book learner, couldn’t march through the Mel Bay books, down the accepted path of orderly progression where you learned all the chords before you played the songs you really wanted to play. He wanted to play NOW, not later. He’d learned the opening to Nirvana’s “Come as You Are” before he ever touched “Red River” or “Amazing Grace.”
Mike played the electric guitar sometimes, when he and his friends were drunk and decided they’d “jam” in the front yard. He’d bang on it and mess up the chords and laugh. Then he’d take a break for another beer and announce that “Someday I’m a gonna get our old band back together.”
Dex thought about that now, and some lyrics popped into his head. “I’m a gonna go back to work real soon, I’m a gonna fix that busted roof, I’m a gonna get that truck off the blocks, just as soon as I finish this beer.” He laughed. “I’m a gonna” was pretty much the mantra around here, he thought.
He knew what he wanted to play tonight. He hadn’t learned to read music yet, had sidestepped that tedious lesson, so he played from “tabs.” Tablature replaced complex musical notation with dots that showed you where to put your fingers, basically. And you could find them for free on the Internet, best of all. He’d printed out tabs for tons of songs from the new computer the Dexters had also acquired via their generous credit lines.
He put the paper on the music stand. His mind cleared, his anger dissipated, as he started playing the song, pleased at the way the transcription converted the piano opening to guitar.
He didn’t trust his voice yet, didn’t have the confidence to do more than whisper the words along with the song. “Have a little faith in me,” he sighed as he played the John Hiatt song. “Have a little faith in me…