Anthony Capitanio was now officially a freshman, but he wasn’t excited. As he waited for the school bus under a punishing morning sun at the corner of Lakeview and Pinehurst, which was a thirty-second walk from his driveway, all he could think about was his anxiety disorder.
The sleeves of his shirt were sticking to his skin. As he rolled them, he thought about how panic attacks can arrive at any moment, like an army in gray that moved through fog and night and appeared on a battlefield unannounced. 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. Two weeks ago they were standing in front of the Illinois monument on Cheatham Hill, 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. 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. 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 Eastern European meaty, 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 shirt and tie to look handsome. His black hair, always a little wet and always slicked back, and his curved eyebrows, cappuccino eyes, and masculine chin allowed him to wear anything and look good. He was the idealized Italian handsome, with height to boot. He stood six-foot-two.
“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 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 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. He glanced at Anthony, but neither boy said anything. Anthony could see beads of sweat on the boy’s forehead. It sure was hot inside the tomb. The boy returned to staring out the window as Anthony passed. Across the aisle and two seats down sat a redhead. She was reading To Kill a Mockingbird. Anthony looked into her green eyes. He saw them glide over the words. He knew she saw him, but she did not lift her eyes to greet him. Anthony was certain she would look up to see the face of the new male voice that had interrupted the silence. But she didn’t. What a bitch, Anthony said to himself. But she looked good in that Catholic get up, that gray plaid skirt.
He approached another girl four seats down the aisle. She was far better looking than the reader of To Kill a Mockingbird. She was, and Anthony hated to admit it, one of the most beautiful girls he had ever seen. She had long, creamy legs and her skirt, the same gray plaid as the redhead, accentuated their length. Her back was resting against the window and her legs were fully stretched out, with 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 smiling. He stopped at 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 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 schoolgirls are different, he thought.
“Anthony,” he said.
“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 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.
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-two,” 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.
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, 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 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.
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 the conversation was over and he was especially relieved she did not shake his hand for a second time.
“Sure. It was nice meeting you too,” he said, staring at the cold rocks rolling down the aisle.
She was simply out of his league.
Anthony stared out the window and thought about the Days Inn in Chattanooga, across from Lookout Mountain. There was a large window in front of the indoor swimming pool and Anthony could see the entire hill. He was practicing breast strokes while his grandfather sat 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 they visited. He was wearing a polo shirt with blue and white stripes with the collar popped 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 bald head.
He smiled at Anthony and Anthony smiled back before kicking off the wall and breast stroking towards the hill.
“We’ll be on top of that thing tomorrow, Anthony,” the old man said, referring to Lookout Mountain.
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 irrational excitement. The face was talking with the driver and laughing. It belonged to a boy named Joe O’Connor. Joe had once been Anthony’s little league teammate.
The Darien Youth Club baseball champions of 1992 Indians, to be exact.
God, that was four years ago, Anthony said to himself. It seemed like yesterday.
Joe was the reason they won the championship. He was the best pitcher in the league and he was only one of three players that could hit home runs, real home runs, actually hit the ball over the fence. Anthony never saw a little leaguer hit a real homerun 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.
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 happened in 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. 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 over to his ace.
Kukla threw high fastballs, a pitch most kids 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 swear it’s heading across the plate waist high, but, in reality, you’re swinging at a cloud. Even Joe struggled with high fastballs. He struck out on three pitches before Anthony stepped to the plate. But Anthony and his long arms liked high fastballs. He liked extending his arms and tomahawking the ball out of the air. He had two hits in a game against Kukla three weeks before.
Anthony 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 homerun by two feet. He was only two feet away from becoming only the fourth boy that could hit a real homerun. 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 green 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 schoolbag 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 like. This was the kind of guy Jenna wanted to talk to, Anthony said to himself. He had dirty blonde hair, two moles on his left cheek and bushy eyebrows.
“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 an arrogant voice, 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.
The anxiety had arrived, like he knew it would. This was unacceptable. He was not going to Nazareth or any other school. His mother would have to deal with it. 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, the Indians,” he said.
“Capitanio!” he shouted.
“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 something, 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 too.
“What?” Anthony asked, almost out of breath. It was a stupid a question because he knew Joe would only 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, in fact, like hitting high fastballs. It was easy.
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. There was equal ferocity in each blow.
“What do you got to say now, pussy?” Anthony screamed.
“Oh my God! Stop!” Jenna screamed.
Dom and Acne were frozen.
The driver slammed on the brakes and Anthony was thrown forward, but he didn’t fall.
“I’m going to call the police,” the driver said out loud.
“You’re not doing anything!” 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. 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 to 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.
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.