Anthony found out about his father’s death from his second grade teacher, a Polish woman named Ms. Helgark, who stood six-feet-two-inches and had been a professional volleyball player in Warsaw before emigrating to the United States. She frightened most of the children, but Anthony didn’t mind her: she never yelled at Anthony and his best friend, Debbie, and even gave them a ride home one afternoon when bus number six broke down.
When she broke the news, Ms. Helgark took Anthony by the arm and dragged him into the hallway. She removed a Marlboro from her pocket and placed it between her thin, dry lips.
“Your father, while no longer alive,” Ms. Helgark spoke, removing a lighter from her shirt pocket and igniting the cigarette before taking a complimentary pair of puffs, “will always be your father I believe. He has gone to bathroom and is no longer here.”
Ms. Helgark puffed on her cigarette, shuffling back into the classroom as Anthony stood in awe in the hallway. Her broken English and overall poor handling of the situation led to some initial confusion.
Anthony remained in place in the hallway for a few minutes before Ms. Helgark reappeared, the Marlboro still dangling from her mouth.
“Father of yours,” she began, before losing focus and gawking at Mr. Pinella, the schools handsome and charismatic young principal, “is…sorry, hold on one second Ms. Helgark is having a moment…yes, Anthony, your father is dead.”
She took a long drag and sighed. “Why still standing here?”
Ms. Helgark returned to the classroom and, again, Anthony remained in place, eyes wide open, staring at the white wall in front of him.
It wasn’t until his mother ran up and embraced him with a hug some five minutes later that he snapped out of the trance he had fallen into.
Debbie sent Anthony a text message on the morning of his 19th birthday:
“Hey! Knock knock…”
“Who’s awaiting my arrival at the front door?” he responded.
“Who cares?!? Happy Birthday, silly!” she quickly sent back.
Debbie was never known for her humor, but Anthony appreciated her efforts — he always did.
Anthony stared at the screen on his phone, amazed that he was communicating with his best friend from across the country. His mother had bought him an iPhone a few months earlier, so that Anthony could call her from college to make sure everything was alright. He never had a cell phone in high school, and his lack of knowledge regarding technology was beginning to catch up to him.
“Eddie!” Anthony hollered from his bedroom. “How do I send a picture?”
There was no response.
“EDDIE!” again, Anthony hollered. “HOW DO I SEND A GOD DAMN PHOTO?”
Again, no response.
Anthony sighed, violently threw himself out of bed, collecting himself with a few light slaps to his left cheek. He walked to his closet, pulled out the navy blue polo his grandfather mailed him for Christmas and his favorite pair of chinos — the ones with the hole in the right pocket — and got dressed for class.
The collar on his polo was propped up as he slumped back onto the end of his bed. Anthony guarded his neck at all times; protecting against what he dubbed “government radio waves.”
Hunched over, he tapped the screen on his phone, typed 5–5–5–5 and opened his messages. He didn’t know what to send back to Debbie. He wanted it to be special. He wanted to show her that he cared for her, much the way she had for him before he went away. He remembered a high school classmate, Brian St. Denis, and how he had once sent another girl a picture of his flaccid member. Anthony debated sending one, even going as far as taking his chinos off, but eventually decided against it.
Underwear and pants cuddled his ankles, his stick legs were exposed. Anthony realized it was colder than he originally thought, reaching down to pull up his pants.
Eddie St. Germaine, his roommate, came into the room holding a toaster as Anthony began his upward hike. Embarrassed, he ditched his pants for the comforter on his bed, flinging the feather-filled quadrangle over his exposed lower-half.
“Watching porno films again?” Eddie joked, leaning against the doorway.
“Go suck an egg,” Anthony responded defensively, “Just show me how to send a photo on this thing, would ya?”
Eddie walked over. He and Anthony swapped items — an iPhone and a brand-new stainless steel Cuisinart toaster.
“Why did you get a new toaster?” Anthony asked, examining the product.
“I threw the other one off the roof on Tuesday.”
It wasn’t uncommon for Eddie to do such bizarre things. His rap sheet when he left high school was legendary, stretching from his hometown of Billings, Montana to far off lands such as Kazakhstan. When he was accepted into Stanford, the board of admissions had Eddie conduct interviews with several psychologists in order to definitively prove he was mentally stable enough to live around other students.
So, no, Anthony didn’t feel the need to question the toaster incident any further.
Debbie’s interest in sharks started in elementary school when Anthony handed her a book in the school library.
“I got this book for you,” Anthony mumbled, looking down at the concrete floor, hands trembling as he extended the book out toward Debbie. “It’s about sh-sh-sharks. You remind me of them because they’re pretty but also make me scared.”
Their mothers, friends themselves, worked at Sparky’s Plug — a diner located two blocks from what was once a booming stretch of automobile manufacturing plants in Flint, Michigan– where Anthony and Debbie would occupy a booth in the corner everyday after school. They scribbled their way through homework, giggled as Debbie and Anthony read about sharks and wandered into the kitchen where a line of cooks would spoil them with french fries, chicken tenders and whatever succulent deserts caught their eyes.
Anthony, from a young age, admired Debbie. Back in those days, he marveled at her knowledge about sharks. She knew they lived in the ocean. She knew they ate other things that lived in the ocean. She even knew they organized themselves into a professional hockey team that played in San Jose, California. Each fact, Anthony found, was seemingly more interesting than the last.
Things soon changed, though. Anthony was twelve when his father, Steven Dupree Jr., killed himself. Steven was fired from his job at the post office a few weeks before his death and took to drinking heavy. The final straw was his learning that Hunting Man, his favorite magazine, was no longer in publication. With nothing to look forward to receiving in the post, Steven grabbed a chair, some rope and decided to hang himself from the bathroom ceiling in a gorilla costume.
His mother took a second job, and Anthony found himself spending more time at his grandparents and less time at Sparky’s Plug. Before he knew it, he was in high school. Debbie expanded her social circle, spending more time with her female friends. Anthony played on the school’s varsity hockey team and flourished academically.
They remained friends, yes, but they weren’t as close as they had once been. Debbie would keep in touch with Anthony, who seemed to grow more and more paranoid as time wore on, and Anthony would touch base with Debbie to make sure she wasn’t talking to men in trench coats and keeping up with all that was happening on Lost.
Anthony missed his days as a child, when everything was simpler. Back then he didn’t have to worry about conducting scientific studies, or explaining to his mother that the woman who answered the phone when she called was just his lab partner and not his wife.
Indeed, the days of his youth were simpler.
The movie rental industry was fading away into oblivion, but Anthony was both unaware and far too enamored with alphabetically organizing the VHS’s and DVD’s to pay attention as his boss, Big Al, complained about the current state of home entertainment.
“This Netflix, it’s just a fad” Big Al said, opening up his fourth diet coke of the day. “Don’t you agree, Anthony?”
Anthony, studying the labels on the Drama DVD’s could not have been more unaware there was a conversation taking place.
“You’re a strange son of a bitch, you know that?” Big Al interjected.
Anthony, with a copy of A Beautiful Mind in his hands, turned to Big Al.
Big Al looked at the young man, smiled and told him he could take a fifteen-minute break if he wanted. Before Big Al finished speaking, Anthony dropped the DVD and sprinted to the break room, nearly colliding with the cardboard cutout of Batman adjacent to the restroom.
Inside the break room, Anthony tore open his knapsack and rummaged through it so violently globs of sweat began to form on his forehead.
“Where the fuck is it?” he said aloud.
Finally, in a pile of crumpled papers and textbooks he found his iPhone. He pulled it from the wreckage, tapped the home button and noticed he had missed call from Debbie. He was ecstatic.
Anthony clicked on Debbie’s name in his contact list and listened as the phone rang. The fingers in his right hand were being flicked against his right thumb in intervals of four. Only one finger would tap to four at a time. If there was an irregularity in the pattern, he had to start over or else his mother would die.
The phone rang and rang. Thirty seconds passed before he finally heard her voice:
“Hi, this is Debbie. I’m currently out to sea so leave me a message and I’ll get back to you.”
Anthony heard a beep and panicked. He mumbled something about hammers aren’t made to be as durable nowadays before hanging up and tossing the phone back into his knapsack.
Debbie was in the midst of clipping her toenails when she heard the phone ring. It was her mother — it always was.
“Debbie! I found $4.65 in pennies underneath the dining room table. I think your step-father’s having another one of his affairs,” her mother howled into the telephone.
Debbie’s mother was constantly worrying. After all, her first husband cheated on her with the mailman and her second, Debbie’s father, had an affair with a telemarketer who offered a nine-percent discount on weight loss supplements.
“He’s been hanging out at the Elks club every night, and he comes home reeking of booze and regret,” her mother complained.
Debbie, unsure how to handle her mother’s concerns, patiently listened, occasionally interjecting with an “mmhmm” or “ohhhh.”
Despite the heavy drinking, Debbie saw her mother as a form of inspiration. Without her mother, Debbie wouldn’t have become the strong, independent woman that she was today — studying on scholarship at the Coast Guard Academy in Groton, Connecticut.
Her mother talked endlessly for minutes, before calming herself down by telling Debbie to hold on a moment and slamming her face into a bucket of ice.
“Christ’s bananas that feels good. Debbie I’ll call you tomorrow.”
As she went to place her phone onto her desk, Debbie noticed she had a voicemail from Anthony. He probably called to tell her he had no interest in meeting up when she flew out to San Jose in a couple of weeks. She stared at the phone, debating what to do. She was growing tired, her mind working overtime trying to decide.
She put the phone down and looked over to the dead potted plant her roommate insisted they keep. It reminded her of Anthony’s last hockey game in high school, when he was handed a bouquet of flowers to give to his mother — a customary senior night tradition. Only, he burned the flowers instead, believing they contained a listening device planted by the men in trench coats.
Debbie lay in bed, laughing as she remembered how Anthony handed his mother the torched bouquet of flowers and dryly quipped “they look great.” How, after the game, Anthony drove her to Alvino’s Diner to grab ice cream and a slice of apple pie. How, then and now, she was very much in love with a schizophrenic.