Anthony Capitanio missed half of eighth grade due to a severe anxiety disorder. He had to complete a month’s worth of summer school just to graduate. He was not allowed to attend the normal graduation ceremony with the rest of his class. Instead, he graduated in August with seven special needs students. Anthony refused to attend the special needs ceremony and the school mailed him his diploma.
His mother wanted to frame the diploma and hang it in his room, but he grabbed it out of her hand, rode his bike to a dumpster in the parking lot of a nearby apartment, and threw it in with the rest of the garbage. It was just an eighth-grade diploma. Who frames an eighth-grade diploma? It also reminded him of the anxiety. It reminded him of all the days he spent at home, unable to cope with this new sickness.
He didn’t care he didn’t graduate with the rest of the class. He never belonged to them anyway. What did bother him, however, was that he was graduating with special needs kids.
Was this what I’ve become, he asked himself.
He earned A’s and B’s in sixth and seventh grade and was placed in advanced English after his eighth grade English teacher, Mrs. Lepley, recommended the move to the principal three weeks into the school year. She said Anthony was very articulate, when he came out of his shell, and was a very talented writer.
Mrs. Lepley showed the principal a short story Anthony wrote called Buddy. It was about a shy boy with thick glasses who was smitten with a classmate named Margaret. He talked with her when he found the courage, but he could not bring himself to ask her out to the movies. Instead, he decided to profess his feelings by writing a song about her and performing it at the school talent show. The boy who was too scared to ask the girl to a movie didn’t hesitate to perform the song in a gym filled with his classmates, with the girl in the audience, fourth row.
He had a “funny” sort of courage, Anthony later explained to Mrs. Lepley.
Buddy performed the song, which he called “Peggy Sue,” with an electric guitar. His classmates loved the performance and gave him a standing ovation. Margaret, or Peggy Sue, as her friends called her, was smiling. As he walked out of the gym, a janitor who caught the end of the song asked for his name.
“Buddy Holly, sir,” the boy said.
Buddy Holly was Anthony’s grandfather’s favorite musician, and the two would listen to his music during their trips south to visit Civil War battlefields. His grandfather had been a history teacher and was now a full-time Civil War buff. He wanted to mold Anthony into a buff too. The old man had no one else to discuss the Civil War with and he saw Anthony as a custom-made partner in fanaticism.
Mrs. Lepley asked Anthony to read the story out loud to the class. She then discussed with the students the techniques Anthony used to make the story effective. She also had the story published in the school’s newsletter the following week.
Seven months later, he was graduating with special needs kids.
Anthony thought about this on his first day of high school as he waited for the school bus at the corner of Lakeview Drive and Pinehurst Road, which was a thirty-second walk from his driveway. He looked to his left, all the way down Lakeview Drive to where it curved around a bend and behind a house and out of sight. It was far from where he was standing, eleven houses down. When he saw the yellow nose of the bus enter the bend, he would know his time had come. He would see just how strong these new anti-depressants were.
He wished he was still in Georgia with his grandfather, instead of here in Darien, Illinois, visiting Chickamauga and Kennesaw Mountain. Just two weeks ago, they were standing in front of the Illinois monument on Cheatham Hill near Kennesaw Mountain, where Illinois men were uselessly slaughtered in June of 1864, on a day nearly as hot as this day, staring at the high grass amphitheater below them, outlined by a forest of pine trees.
Anthony kept the famous poem Union Colonel Dan McCook read to his men before the suicidal assault in his wallet. He removed it now and read it.
“Death will cometh sooner or late, and how can men better die than facing fearful odds, for the ashes of his father’s grave and the temples of the gods.”
My father is still alive, and I don’t believe in gods, Anthony said to himself staring at the bend eleven houses down. He did not want to see the yellow nose, not this morning, not ever.
He did not want to go to a Catholic school, but his mother heard somewhere that Nazareth had a specialist who was “an expert” at helping students with anxiety disorders. It was worth the $4,000 a year in tuition, she explained to Anthony’s father.
The yellow nose appeared in the hot, wavy blur. The bus approached Anthony like a snake. It stopped in front of him; it stopped just for him. It was toying with him, he thought. The mouth opened with a hiss. There was no one on the street or at a house window or in a passing car to see it swallow him.
“Welcome aboard. My name’s Donna,” the bus driver said, as she pulled hard on the handle, shutting the door. There was that hissing sound again, like air released from a tire. Her hands were meaty and Eastern European; so was her face.
“My name’s Anthony,” he said.
“All you boys are so handsome in your uniforms,” she said.
Anthony did not need a buttoned down shirt and tie to look handsome. His black hair, always a little wet and always slicked back, and his curved eyebrows, cappuccino-colored eyes, and masculine jaw and chin allowed him to wear almost anything and look good. He was the idealized Italian handsome, with height to boot, something rare for a descendent of the Romans. He stood six-foot-two, four inches taller than his father and grandfather.
“I’m not used to the whole uniform thing,” he said.
“That’s because it’s hot outside. You’ll get used to it,” she said.
“I went to public school. I never had to wear a uniform before,” he explained.
“Oh,” the driver said. She assumed all Nazareth students graduated from Catholic junior highs.
Anthony walked past the driver and through the tomb. It was a submarine tomb, submerging under a wave of August humidity and melted tar. There was no escape now. He could feel his heart beat faster. He looked at the windows. He hated bus windows; they were all the same. They were far too small for someone his size to jump through if the situation called for it.
He slowly approached a fellow passenger, an overweight Mexican boy with a buzzed head staring out a window that was far, far too small. He glanced at Anthony and their eyes met, but neither boy said anything. The boy was wearing a blue buttoned down shirt like Anthony, but his tie was black and Anthony’s was red. Anthony could see beads of sweat on the boy’s forehead. It sure was hot inside the tomb. That’s the other thing with these bus windows, Anthony said to himself. They’re too small to allow any real air to come through.
The boy returned to staring out the window as Anthony passed by. Across the aisle and two seats down sat a redhead with green eyes. She was reading a book, To Kill a Mockingbird. Anthony looked into her eyes. He saw them glide left to right. He knew she saw him, but she did not lift her eyes from the book. Anthony was certain she would look up to see the face of the new male voice that interrupted the humid peace of the tomb. But she didn’t. Anthony swore under his breath. But she looked good in that Catholic get up, that gray plaid skirt.
Four seats down and on the same side of the aisle as the redhead sat another attractive girl. This one had longer legs. The skirt, the same gray plaid as the redhead, accentuated the length of the legs. She had her back against the window with her legs stretched out and her feet resting on the seat across the aisle. Her gray socks were pulled up to just below her knees.
She was staring at Anthony and smiled when they made eye contact. He approached the hazel eyes and brown freckles. He took the seat in front of her legs.
“Hey,” she said in an interested voice.
“Hi,” Anthony said, unsure what to do with her eagerness.
“Is that brown house yours?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said, turning his neck around to see his house one last time before the submarine was completely submerged.
“It’s really nice. I like the landscape. It looks very classy,” she said.
“Thanks. I’ll tell my mom you like her landscape,” he said.
“Your mom has good taste,” she said. “I’m Jenna by the way.”
She extended her hand in friendship. He never shook a girl’s hand before. These Catholic school kids are different, he thought.
“Anthony,” he said, her hand still in his.
“Hey, do you mind if I use some of this lotion on my hands and legs?” she asked, taking her hand back and using it to remove what looked like a toothpaste tube from her schoolbag.
“The reason I ask, it has a strong, fruity smell. I know a lot of guys hate that smell. I want to do it now, you, know, when the bus is still kind of empty,” she explained.
“Sure, go ahead,” he said.
“I knew you wouldn’t mind. I can tell you’re a nice guy…well, brace yourself, here it comes,” she said, rubbing lotion all over her hands. He saw long, arched fingers and full red nails. They were not the hands of a fourteen year old.
She lifted her white sleeves and rubbed lotion on her arms and elbows. Her arms were the same eggnog color as her legs. No blemishes, no moles or scabs or birthmarks, just pure cream. She rubbed the lotion into the skin very fast and with purpose. It was really nice to watch. He wanted to watch and not say anything. The heat and the braking and accelerating and the smell of the lotion made him dizzy. But the way she rubbed the lotion on her skin was the perfect tonic.
“Hey Anthony, just because I’m putting lotion on doesn’t mean you have to stop talking,” she said.
“What do you want to talk about?” he asked, trying his hardest to focus on her face instead of her legs.
She laughed and he became frustrated. She was waiting for someone more exciting to come along. That didn’t take long. He was the Army of Tennessee and this was Franklin on a November night, and the blood was soaking through his boots, not his blood, his brothers’ blood, but he had to advance towards the bullet-riddled white house in the center of the line. She was ordering him to move forward and he had to obey. He said something about being a basketball player, about playing basketball for his junior high team.
She looked up from her arms and into his eyes.
He does have nice eyes, she said to herself.
“So does that mean you’re going to play for Nazareth?” she asked.
“If I make the team. Tryouts are in October,” he said.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’m sure you’ll make it. You’re definitely tall enough. How tall are you, by the way?”
“Six foot three,” he said.
He wanted to place his hand on her leg. What would she do, this Catholic schoolgirl? She would have him thrown off the bus, which would be the best thing in the world, he said to himself.
“Wow, I didn’t realize you were that tall. Okay, the hands are finished, now let’s move on to the legs. How’s the smell by the way? Are you holding up okay?” she asked.
“It’s fine, really,” he said.
“Cool,” she said. She looked up again and smiled.
“I like your shoes,” he said.
“Thanks. I got ’em yesterday. They’re Doc Martens,” she said, staring at the shoes across the aisle and moving her feet left, right, left, right, like windshield wipers.
“Yeah, they’re really nice,” he said.
For the next two minutes he watched her rub the lotion on her legs. He didn’t care that he was staring.
“Are you nervous about the first day of school?” he asked, ready to pass out.
“A little bit. How about you?” she asked, staring at her legs with a pleased expression, as if she had accomplished something truly great.
Anthony could tell she wasn’t nervous at all, not this beauty.
“I’m looking forward to starting over again, meeting new people,” he said. “I’m the only one from my eighth grade class going to Nazareth, so everything will be new,” he said.
He planned his next words very carefully.
“Nobody knows me, I get a clean slate,” he said.
There were more thoughts before speaking, too many thoughts.
“I guess I want what everyone else wants, to have some friends and fit in,” he said.
“Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll be fine. You’re outgoing and easy to talk to,” she said.
She waited for him to say something, but he didn’t. He was staring at the floor, at the cold rocks that had fallen from his lips, lost in thought.
She placed the tube of lotion back inside her schoolbag.
“Hey, I’m going to finish the last three chapters of this book before we get to school,” she said, removing the red paperback edition of The Catcher in the Rye from her schoolbag. “But it was nice meeting you.”
Anthony was relieved she did not shake his hand for a second time.
“Sure,” he said, delighted the conversation was over. “It was nice meeting you too,” he said, staring at the cold rocks rolling down the aisle.
She was simply out of his league.
He stared out the window and examined the license plates of passing cars. Most were from Illinois, but there were the occasional Indiana and Wisconsin plates. And then he saw Tennessee. He told himself that a mere seven hours ago, that car was rolling through empty road in early morning darkness, road that travelled up and down rocky hills in Civil War country. He would give anything to be there now.
What a difference two weeks made. Fourteen days ago, a fortnight ago, a word he learned yesterday, “fortnight,” he was free in Tennessee. Now they were taking him to jail. They were teasing him with pretty girls, but they were still taking him to jail. From 8:00 AM until 2:00 PM every day, he was expected to fight off panic attacks inside thick, thick walls.
There was a Days Inn in Chattanooga with one of the finest views of Lookout Mountain in town. There wasn’t one window inside the motel that didn’t offer some glimpse of the historic hill. There was a large window in front of the indoor swimming pool through which Anthony could see the entire hill. He was practicing breaststrokes and he stared at the mountain until he touched the south wall. Then he kicked off the wall and free-styled towards his grandfather sitting cross-legged on the edge of a white plastic pool chair, reading the Chattanooga Free Press. He always read the local paper of each city or town they visited.
He was wearing a polo shirt with blue and white stripes with the collar turned all the way up, and blue shorts and white tennis shoes with white socks. He was smoking a cigar and wearing sunglasses. He looked like an old time Mafioso, especially with that baldhead. He was a small time criminal in his teens and early twenties, doing jobs for mobsters on Chicago’s Southside. He even went to jail a few times. But sitting there smoking that cigar in shades, he looked like an old Don, someone that was someone dangerous in his day.
He smiled at Anthony and Anthony smiled back before kicking off the north wall and breast stroking towards the hill again.
“We’ll be on top of that thing tomorrow, Anthony,” the old man said before coughing.
Anthony imagined the men in blue climbing the hill in the fog. How can men be so fearless, Anthony asked himself as he spat out pool water. Fear was everything to Anthony, and yet there were men who lived and died as if fear did not exist. He wished he could possess just some of that courage, just enough to get from one day to the next.
There was a new face inside the tomb, one that Anthony recognized immediately. He looked over at Jenna as if he was going to tell her all about it. He laughed at himself and his excitement, but he made no sound. The face was talking with the driver and laughing. It belonged to a boy named Joe O’Connor. Joe was Anthony’s little league teammate four years ago. The Indians. Anthony smiled. The Darien Youth Club baseball champions of 1992 Indians to be exact. Joe was the reason they won the championship. He was the best pitcher in the league and he was only one of three players in DYC that could hit home runs, real home runs, actually hit the ball over the fence. Anthony never saw a little leaguer hit a real home run before, so when Joe did it during the third game of the season, Anthony ranked it as the single most amazing thing ever accomplished by a kid his age. Actually, Joe was a year older, but still, it was awesome.
Anthony provided some heroics of his own that season. He had the game-winning hit in the American League Championship game against the Royals. It was the bottom of the seventh and final inning with the Indians trailing 3-2 and Mike Kukla on the mound. There were runners on second and third with two outs, but the bases may have well been empty. Kukla was the second best pitcher in the league and it had been runners on second and third with no outs before the coach handed the ball to his ace.
It wasn’t exactly a moral decision by the coach since Kukla pitched a complete game the day before and DYC sent a letter to parents before the season started stating that two players required surgeries on their arms the year before due to “Little League Elbow,” which, the letter said, was a precursor to the condition that led to Tommy John surgery. The letter urged coaches to decrease the amount of innings a boy pitched in a single week. The health of the children, after all, was the most important thing.
But the coach of the Royals wanted his team in the World Series against the Cubs in three days, so he turned to Kukla. It didn’t surprise Anthony. The Indians coach rode Joe too. The parents didn’t care, either. It was the first time Anthony realized not all mothers and fathers were like his mother and father.
Kukla threw high fastballs, a pitch most ten and eleven years olds can’t hit. With high fastballs, at least through the eyes of little leaguers, the ball never seems as high as it really is. You would swear it was heading right across the plate, waist high, but it was like swinging at a cloud. Even Joe struggled with high fastballs. He struck out on three pitches before Anthony stepped to the plate. Any other Indian would have been demoralized watching Joe go down on three swings from the on deck circle, but not Anthony. He liked high fastballs and had two hits in a game against Kukla a month before. There was a freedom in stretching out his long arms and tomahawking the ball out of the air.
He swung at Kukla’s first pitch and sent the ball clear over the right fielder’s outstretched glove and off the fence. He missed a home run by two feet. He was only two feet away from becoming only the fourth boy in DYC that could hit a real home run. Both runs scored and the Indians were American League champions.
“So who gets the game ball?” the coach asked the team in the dugout after things calmed down. It wasn’t a serious question.
“It should go to Anthony,” Joe said. “If it wasn’t for him, our season would be over.”
Three days later, Joe pitched a complete-game shutout and the Indians beat the Cubs in the World Series.
Anthony watched Joe walk down the aisle. He had fiery brown hair and a wide nose. There was a splatter of freckles and zits around his nose. His greenish eyes were small and narrow. There was sarcasm in his eyes and it touched everything he looked at, as if everything was only half real or not real at all. He looked the same, but the zits and the sarcasm were new. Anthony wondered if he would recognize him. He didn’t. He took the seat three rows in front of Anthony and Jenna.
Two more boys got on at the next stop. One boy tossed his school bag on the seat across the aisle from Joe before sitting down. He tossed it as if the bag had no value. He fell into the seat, real cool. This was the kind of guy Jenna wanted to talk to, Anthony said to himself. He saw her look up from her book. He had dirty blonde hair, two moles on his left cheek and bushy eyebrows. Anthony was far better looking. A big dog doesn’t have to bark, he said to himself. His grandfather told him that. If Jenna couldn’t see that, she wasn’t worth the trouble, legs or no legs.
“What’s up, pimp?” the boy said to Joe.
Joe lent him his sarcastic eyes.
“Hey, Dom,” he said, in control of the situation.
The second boy had a double chin and acne spread all over his forehead, from one side to the other. There was more acne than white skin. He took the seat in front of Joe. He waited for Dom to finish before speaking.
“Hey there, killer,” he said, turning around to face Joe. He had a buzz cut that did nothing except draw more attention to his ugly face. He had an arrogant voice too, a fake voice, one he practiced at home. He fist pumped with Joe and smiled. His smile was the worst part of him, and that was saying a lot. Anthony named him Acne Double Chin. It would have been nice if the bus had run him over, on accident of course.
Anthony came to the grim realization that he would be riding this bus for two more years. The anxiety had arrived, like he knew it would. This was unacceptable. He was not going to this school or any other school. His mother would have to deal with it. There was always enough wine in the house for her to deal with it. What choice did she have anyway? The hell with her. These boys were just the tip of the iceberg. Did she want him to spend the year in a mental hospital instead? It would be homeschooling or nothing. Anthony would make that very, very clear.
What had to happen had to happen.
He waited until the next stop before getting up and introducing himself to his former teammate.
“Are you Joe O’Connor?” Anthony asked in as pleasant a voice as his rapidly beating heart allowed.
“Who wants to know?” Joe said, shooting him a laser of sarcasm.
Anthony tried to remain pleasant.
“I’m Anthony. We were on the same little league team in 1992, the Indians,” he said.
“Capitanio!” he shouted with fake surprise.
“How you doing man?” Anthony asked, feeling Jenna’s eyes on the back of his neck.
“Good man, how you doing?” he asked.
“I’m all right,” Anthony said.
“Tell me, do you still run like a penguin that shit his pants?” Joe asked real loud.
Dom and Acne Double Chin exploded in laughter. Half of the bus turned around. They all heard what Joe said. Anthony was sure the driver heard it too.
“What?” Anthony asked, almost out of breath. It was a stupid a question because he knew Joe would repeat himself.
“Do you still run like a penguin that shit his pants?” Joe asked as loud as he could.
Dom and Acne exploded again. Three other boys in the very front joined the laughter.
“What’s going on back there?” the bus driver shouted.
“I’m just getting acquainted with an old teammate, Donna,” Joe shouted back. He even cupped his hands around his mouth as he shouted, as if he was calling to someone across a canyon.
“Well keep it down, Joe, I’m trying to drive. And young man, please return to your seat. Everybody should be seated when the bus is moving,” she said.
“Sure thing, Donna,” Joe said.
“Fuck you,” Anthony said to Joe.
“Oh, damn Joe, he said ‘fuck you’,” Dom said with another laugh.
“You’re a fucking pussy,” Acne Double Chin said to Anthony.
“Drop it, Mike,” Joe said to Acne. “The Penguin’s had enough.”
Now was the time. Jenna was watching.
How can men better die than facing fearful odds?
Anthony punched Joe in the face with everything he had. It was the most natural motion his arm and fist ever undertook. It was pure fresh air nature. It was, in fact, like hitting high fastballs.
He saw the blood poor from Joe’s nose.
“You motherfucker!” Joe screamed. He did not strike back, nor did he defend himself. He covered his shattered nose with both hands. Blood was dripping through his fingers.
Anthony punched him two more times on the left side of his face. There was equal ferocity in each blow.
“What do you got to say now, cocksucker?” Anthony screamed.
He always knew he had too much of his grandfather’s blood, that boiling Italian blood.
“Oh my God! Stop!” Jenna screamed.
Dom and Acne were frozen. They should have been twins, one handsome twin, one ugly twin.
The driver slammed on the brakes and Anthony was thrown forward, but he didn’t fall. Thank God.
“I’m going to call the police,” the driver said to Anthony.
“You’re not doing anything you fat bitch!” Anthony said, running towards her.
“Open this fucking door before I knock your fucking head off!”
She had never been so scared in her life. She was sure he was going to kill her. This crazy Italian kid, he’s psychotic, she said to herself. He’s out of a goddam movie.
She did as he said. Anthony heard the dying hiss of the snake as the door opened.
He ran in the direction of a residential area. He ran through front lawns and backyards and was soon out of sight. He knew the area well enough and he popped into a McDonald’s. He didn’t fear the police; he was still too young for any real punishment. He was confident they’d chalk it up as just another bully getting what he deserved. But what was really important was he proved to his mother he wasn’t stable enough for regular school. She would have to believe him now.
He ordered an Egg McMuffin and an orange juice. He took a seat next to a payphone. He would enjoy his breakfast before calling his mother to pick him up. He skipped breakfast earlier because he woke up too late and was scared of missing the bus. He hated missing breakfast. It always played tricks on the old anxiety.