ONE

It was pitch-black in my room and as I tried to imagine the size of each letter so I could keep the words in line and read what I had written in the light of morning. But no matter how carefully I wrote I knew my words would be jumbled and piled up over each other like train cars that had jumped the tracks. It didn’t matter if I could read the words or not. I knew what I was thinking when I wrote them. They were the same discouraging thoughts in the light of day or in the middle of the night. I had the words memorized from saying them to myself over and over again as I walked down the street, or opened a book, or tried to write. Moron. Idiot. Stupid. Two weeks earlier I had received my aptitude-test scores from school and since then I had been giving myself a hard time.

Now I could feel myself reaching the end of my rope.

After another restless night I rolled out of bed and held the curtain to one side. It was just purple enough over the Teeters’ roof to know it was time to get ready for school. Pete was still asleep on his side of the room. I wanted to sneak over there and strangle him. The night before, he said it was a good thing I was brain dead because if I was ever in the army and captured, the enemy could torture me all they wanted and I’d still have nothing to confess.

I looked down at the floor. My personal diary was open to the page I had just written. It looked like the scratching of a madman just moments before he did something he could never take back. If I threw myself off the Inter-coastal bridge and drowned, everyone would think they knew why once they read what I’d been writing. They’d say things like, “Poor kid had low self-esteem.” Or, “He didn’t get enough positive reinforcement.” But they’d be missing the mount. Calling myself an idiot wasn’t about receiving enough gold stars or pats on the head. This was about scientific proof that I was dumb. Slow. Dim. Mentally challenged. A born, biological, stone-cold loser.

Right next to my personal diary was my new writer’s journal. It was totally blank. Not a pencil scratch. Hardly a fingerprint. I bought the plain black book with unlined pages because I had decided to write a novel. I had made up my mind to become a writing, so I figured, why wait until I’m old? Write a novel now, make some money, and move from Fort Lauderdale to Paris or New York or Dublin, where all the famous writers live interesting lives. But I didn’t know how to write a novel. I didn’t know what my characters were like. I didn’t know the setting. I didn’t have a plot, or a theme, or even a beginning, middle or end. I didn’t have a clue—yet. I was still waiting for a good idea to strike me. I had read in an old writers’ magazine that authors, when they were stuck, sometimes just needed to sit around in their bathrobes and stare dreamily up at the ceiling. Until, suddenly, an angel called a writer’s “muse” would descend and whisper into their ears. Then bingo, their pens begin to move across the pages like the pointer on a Ouija board. But the more I stared at the cracks in my ceiling while dressed in a terry-cloth bathrobe, sucking on my lead pencil point with my ears perked up like a Chihuahua’s, the only ideas that trolled around my empty head were ugly. Give up. Throw in the towel. You don’t have what it takes to write a novel. My stupidity was stalking me like some big dumb monster with a club. Every time I thought I was smart enough to write, WHAM, I’d get smacked across the side of the head. And the more I whaled on myself, the dumber I felt, and the more it paralyzed me. I hadn’t written the first word, but I hadn’t given up hope.

What encouraged me to stick with writing was this one weird thing: whenever I closed my eyes, the letters of the alphabet shifted around like Scrabble pieces and formed words. Those words lines up and soon I imagined entire pages of writing so clearly that I could actually read them, sentence after sentence, as if I were reading straight from a book. A book I had written, with my name on the cover and my stories inside. I could feel the weight of that book in my open hands and inhale the clean smell of ink and paper when I stuck my nose between the pages. I could imagine looking through a bookshop window and seeing a stack of my books on display. “Yes,” I’d hiss. “The idiot did it! The moron has triumphed! Those are mine.” And I’d be so dizzy with pride I’d stumble down the road as weak-kneed as a drunk. But even though I could see the book with my eyes closed, as soon as I opened them the words vanished. I knew those words were in me, I just had to squeeze them out.

I preferred getting up early in the morning since it was the only time I had the house to myself. I put on my old blue private-school pants which were now too tight because I was having a growth spurt. I yanked a white T-shirt down over my head and slipped into Dad’s old mud-stained loafers. Mom had given up on dressing me as a catalogue cover boy for Sears, so I dressed myself to look like a combination mental-health outpatient and day laborer so I’d blend in with the tough local kids. I ran my fingers through my hair as I walked down the hall, past Betsy’s room, and into the kitchen. BeauBeau III was sleeping in front of the refrigerator door like some bridge troll trying to collect a fee each time it was opened. I gave him a little kick in the rear. “Come on,” I whispered, “time to make the donuts.” He hopped up and began to stretch. His fleas stretched. His worms stretched. His ticks stretched.

Everything but his brain stretched. He was a mess. I figured if I were a dog I’d be just like him.

I pulled out the carton of milk, flipped open the spout, and held it to my mouth. I loved ice-cold milk and took a long drink, swallowed, and drank some more before I began to gag. I dropped to my knees and spit up a clot of sour milk onto the kitchen floor. It jiggled about like a white cube of coagulated Jell-O. Fortunately, BeauBeau III was hungry, and before I could clean the floor he lapped up what I had spit out. Who’s the bigger idiot? I wondered. Me or BeauBeau III? I didn’t know the answer just yet, but he was definitely my main competition, and I figured we were running neck and neck in the Bonehead Sweepstakes.

BeauBeau III was Betsy’s new dog. Last year, when we all lived in Barbados, Betsy had decided she was going to go to boarding school in London. When we left the island she stayed behind, packed and ready to go. But her plans didn’t work out and she grudgingly returned from Barbados to join us back in Fort Lauderdale. She called Florida “the hairy armpit of the world” and was so depressed mom let her pick out a pet in an effort to lift her spirits. One afternoon she returned from the Animal Rescue League with an already grown cockers spaniel, and just like BoBo I, who’d been eaten by an alligator in a canal near our old house in Fort Lauderdale, and BoBo II, who we had to leave behind in Barbados, this one had no trace of a brain. Betsy was now studying French and she had named him BeauBeau III. The prissy French name didn’t make him any smarter. Betsy could educate his palate with all the French food she wanted—French bread, French fried, French toast, and French dip—she could dress him up in a beret, knot a scar around his neck, and spray him with French perfume, yet he’d still be nothing more than a common American BoBo who cuts loose with paralyzing nerve gas during dinner, pees down his own leg when excited, eats palmetto bugs, and laps up Eric’s baby vomit. But I loved him. He was my soul mate, my double, and was fast becoming my mentor. I was dumb and miserable, and I looked to him to teach me how to be dumb and happy. So far, I wasn’t doing too well.

As I ran a sponge over the sticky spot on the floor, BeauBeau licked at my hand. His breath almost blistered my skin. “You’re revolting,” I said, turning my nose away from him. “Go outside and dig a hole.”

He didn’t need my permission. He squeezed his way through the cat-size rubber pet-door and into the backyard. Digging holes was his obsession. He had dug so many our yard looked like a World War I battlefield. And he dug the deepest holes of any dog I’d ever seen. He could work his entire body below the surface and as he tunneled toward the center of the earth the dirt sprayed up and formed a mound to one side. In his former life he must have been a grave robber who’d been punished when he died by being reincarnated as a dumb dog.

I brushed my teeth, washed my face, and, since I was already dressed, sprayed deodorant on the outside of my shirt. I grabbed my black book from the bedroom floor and shoved it into my backpack. I carried it with me at all times just in case my muse decided to pay a visit while I was on the bus, or trying to figure out how to open my combination lock at school. A muse could strike at any time, the old writers’ magazine had stressed, “even while one was engaged in personal hygiene.” I wanted to be prepared.

I had just slung the backpack over my shoulder and was tiptoeing down the hallway when Betsy cracked open her bedroom door.

“Have a nice day, BeauBeau the fourth,” she sang. She had been calling me that ever since I had announced the results of my school aptitude tests at the dinner table. That was a colossal mistake. Telling my family that I was dumb was even more proof that I was really dumb. If I was even a little bit smart, I would have kept my mouth shut.

I faked a lunge at Betsy and growled. I had already pulled the pins out of her door hinges—my favorite trick—and was praying she might yank the door open a little farther so it would fall back and flatten her. But she held her ground and glared at me.

“Make sure your address is sewn inside your pocket in case you get lost,” Betsy advised.

I wanted to scream out, “I’m not an idiot! Leave me alone!” But if I woke the baby Mom would get involved in a bad way. So I just sucked it up, took a deep breath, and thought I’d sew some other family’s address labels on me, get lost, and be sent to a home full of nice people. And I’d take BeauBeau III with me, too.

Even when my family was trying to be thoughtful toward me, it hurt. The day before, I’d found a package of alphabet flash cards that Pete hid in my backpack. After I got him in a headlock and had BeauBeau lick his face, he said he was just trying to help educate me. And for the last two weeks Mom cooked me fish sticks for dinner because she said fish was “brain food.”

Dad was the only one who didn’t seem to mind that I was dumb. He said that if I was going to work with my hands for the rest of my life brains would just get in the way. He had taken a new job at a concrete factory and said I could always work in the warehouse as the rat exterminator. “You just take the broom handle and pound a rusty nail through the head. And when you see a rat chewing a bag of ‘crete you just stab him in the brain.” The thought of rate juice squirting out of a punctured brain gave me nightmares.

I continued down the hall and slipped out the front door before anyone else woke up and gave me a hard time. As I walked down the sidewalk toward the bus stop, BeauBeau was already deep into a hole. I could just see his tail wagging and a fan of dirt overhead.

“Go, BeauBeau, go,” I hollered. “Dig a hole to France and we’ll visit your relatives.” He hopped out of the hold and shook the dirt from his coat. I peeled the wrapper off a Slim Jim I had saved for lunch, took a bite, and threw the rest in his direction. He snapped it out of the air and swallowed it whole. “See you later, buddy,” I said. He barked and went back to work.

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