by Xenophon Hendrix
That night as I lay in bed with Harvey sprawled across my feet, I reverted to my worrywart self. What if Mom and Dad won't let me get a guitar?
Why wouldn't they? Ursus thought in reply.
I recalled the event of about a year before. I had told Mom and Dad that I wanted to learn the guitar. They asked me if I would promise to practice every day. They told me that the strings would cut into my fingers. Their reaction struck me as strangely intense, and I received the impression that they didn't want me to learn it. I was confused and hurt, and I dropped the notion after that and tried to convince myself that I didn't really want to play. But I did.
Ursus shared in the memories as they were recalled. Hmmm, he thought, that is puzzling. They don't have any religious objections. They both like music. Frankly, I'm as baffled as you are. Perhaps it was just a matter of logistics. Your father works long hours. Your mother cares for five children. Maybe they didn't want the hassle of getting you to lessons unless you really were committed to learning. It could be that they accidentally scared you off while trying to gauge how serious you were.
Do you think they will try to stop me?
Based on your memories and what I have seen so far, they seem like decent folks. I doubt if they would try to prevent you from getting a guitar. They might not cooperate with the idea, but the mental collective of which we currently consist is a human being with free will and resources of its own. We'll get a guitar.
Now, we are a growing boy, and it's time to get to sleep. Ursus began his relaxation ritual, and it soon had its intended effect.
Thursday I woke up feeling even better than I had on Wednesday. I'd again had a lot of dreams and had accumulated new memories. It was clear that Ursus's mental dump was primarily happening while I slept. I divided a thousand years by ten hours per night and came up with a lot. The memories were coming in at a faster rate than they were originally lived, but I could tell the process was going to take a long time.
I did the morning bathroom rituals then wandered out to the kitchen. Mom was sitting at the end of the table with a cup of coffee in a death grip. I knew that it was grocery day. "Mom," I said, "pick me up some plain cornflakes, please."
"What, are you getting tired of sugar-frosted chocolate lumps with marshmallows?"
"It's starting to taste too sweet. If the cornflakes aren't sweet enough on their own, I'll just add a little sugar from the bowl."
She looked at me. "That happened to me, too. As I got older, stuff started to taste sweeter. There are things that I liked as a kid that make me feel sick, now. You must be getting old."
"What does that mean for you?"
"Smartass." She smiled when she said it.
I usually read the comics in the morning, so no one paid much attention when I started to read the rest of the paper, too. At about a quarter to nine, I looked up and saw it was shaping up to be a nice day in November, traditionally a gray and depressing month in Michigana. "Mom, can I ride my bike to school today?"
"Why would you want to do that?"
"I'm still a little weak from lying in bed for so long; a bike ride would get me some exercise. Besides, it looks really nice out there."
"How will you carry your books?"
"I'll put them in my backpack." I had an old canvas knapsack from the surplus store.
"What about Sean?" Whereas Mom didn't have a formal agreement to bring Sean back and forth from school, if she saw him on the way, she gave him a ride.
"I'll call him right now and see if he wants to ride his bike, too."
"Fine," she said in the ambiguous tone of voice that irked me. I never could figure out why she did it. It left a person wondering if she really did think it was fine, or if she thought it was a terrible idea but was reluctantly going along with it.
I started to open my mouth to say something when Ursus thought, Shut up!
You made a reasonable argument and got what you wanted. It's not your problem to try to figure out if she is happy about it or not. You asked permission. You were polite. You received the permission. Just can it. She's a mother, so she worries about all kinds of things, and there isn't much you can do about it. Go call Sean.
Sean thought it was a fine idea. I got my pack and started to go downstairs to collect my school stuff when Mary asked Mom, "May I ride my bike, too? I can strap my books to the rack on back." Mary turned to me, "You don't mind if I come along, do you?"
"It's fine with me," I said. Mary looked hopefully at Mom.
"Fine, go," she said.
As Mary was getting up from the table, Rich began to say, "Can I-" when Mom cut him off and said, "No you'll ride in with me."
Mary and I headed off. On our way to collect Sean, Ursus thought, You know, this is a good idea.
It is a great day.
Yes, but more than that, the main reason you're pudgy is that you don't get enough exercise.
I was about to think, Bite me, old man; but I tried to suppress it. Suppressing it didn't work, and Ursus "heard" me anyway.
I'm just trying to look after our best interests. If everything works out, we will be living in this body for a long, long time.
At that point, the Arthur part of my brain spoke up: What's going to happen to me? He sounded scared.
What do you mean?
Am I going to just disappear?
Ursus became totally serious. Arthur, I'm very sorry for what I did--am doing--to you. I didn't even take your rights into consideration. All I thought about was a way to keep living. But to answer your question, no, I don't think you will disappear. I think the two of us are going to keep growing together into a new personality that happens to remember two childhoods and two sets of parents, but I also think that an Arthur part and an Ursus part will always remain facets of that personality.
I was pretty quiet when Sean came out and greeted us. We rode in almost silently, enjoying what might be the last blue sky for weeks.
We actually arrived a minute or so before Mom. After locking up our bikes, Mary headed to the grade-five wing while Sean and I went over to stand beside Al. I noticed that Kirsten Kennedy was back. I'd had a bit of a crush on her at least since grade four, but I tended suppress it, because I knew how Al felt about her. Nevertheless, I found her especially fascinating that morning.
She was probably the best looking girl in grade six. She had wavy auburn hair, green eyes, high cheekbones, a dimple in her chin, a heart-shaped face, and an adorable spray of freckles across her cheeks and nose. Normally, she wore glasses, which gave her a somewhat intellectual look. As I mentioned earlier, she was already starting to show womanly curves. From her head to her feet, she was elegantly proportioned.
But it wasn't her physical beauty that held me transfixed. After all, we had gone to the same school since kindergarten, and I had seen her regularly for years. The insight with which Ursus was supplying me, though, forced me to look at her with new eyes. She was one of the best students in grade six--one of the brains who had assembled in Mr. Dean's class. From hearing her read the occasional essay aloud, I knew that she could write. She even once had rendered in rhymed couplets a report on the House of Tribunes. Kirsten played the piano, the flute, and had recently started learning the saxophone. Beauty, brains, and talent--a killer combination if there ever was one, and on top of it all, she had a good-natured disposition. Even her voice had a pleasant timbre. I felt a nervous sickness to my stomach.
Shit, Ursus thought. I'm turning into a pervert.
"Hey!" Kirsten said in a mock-stern tone. "Who are you staring at?"
Arthur's first instinct was to look away, mumble something, and then flee. Ursus, however, seized control and saved the situation, "Forgive me, lady," I said. "I was smitten." I removed an imaginary hat and made a sweeping bow. The kids who saw what happened laughed in a good humored rather than mocking way. Kirsten smiled and blushed. Her friend Pam hugged Kirsten's arm and briefly rested her head on Kirsten's shoulder in that way girls do.
I was saved by Miss Gorse unlocking the door to the grade-six wing. Kirsten looked at me a moment before she turned to go inside. I could hear my heart beat. Al looked at me, too, searchingly. Oops. We went in without saying anything, though.
I noticed Kirsten looking at me again as we filed into the classroom. I smiled at her, and she smiled back. I turned in some more of my make-up work, returned Debbie's notes (she grinned at me), and sat down. OK, I thought at Ursus. I know who pulled out that save, but I want to know why.
What do you mean why? I saved us from some embarrassment and quite possibly transformed the situation into a coup.
I've heard you more than once worry about being a pedophile.
Fair point, but what do you propose to do? Our body is eleven-going-on-twelve. It's true that the adult part of us feels like a dirty old man when the younger part of us looks on an eleven-year-old girl with lust in our heart, but is it fair to force the young part to live like a monk?
Ursus, I feel wicked, and sick to my stomach, and good all at once. I don't know if I can take it.
It's all right. We'll work something out.
School was uneventful until lunch. Al sat beside Sean, across from me. Once we all had begun stuffing our faces, Al said quietly, "Artie, do you like Kirsten? Like, like?"
I wasn't going to lie to my friend. I didn't do that, not in either of my lives. "Yes, I'm afraid so."
"You know how I feel about her." I noticed Sean subtly move away from Al.
"I know, but I also know that you haven't done a thing about your feelings."
"What do you think I should do?"
"Talk to her. Find out if she feels the same way about you."
"That's really hard."
"I know. I was so scared when I flirted with her this morning that I felt sick to my stomach."
Al digested that for several moments and then said, "I can't believe you're doing this to me. I thought we were friends."
"We both have known Kirsten since kindergarten, so you can't claim to have met her first. I'm not doing anything to you."
"God damn it, you know how I feel about her." Sean moved even farther away from Al. Some of the guys around us were starting to look.
I purposefully lowered my voice even more. "Tell Kirsten you like her. See if she likes you back. If she does, I'll stay out of your way."
Al lowered his gaze and chewed on his sandwich for a while. After he had swallowed one bite and then another, he looked up and said, "OK, I guess that's the best I'm going to get out of you." He was quiet after that, and we finished our lunches in silence. When we went out for recess, Sean and Al played a desultory game of rock hockey on the blacktopped area near the grade-six door. I just leaned against the wall and watched.
Of course, the rest of the day went splendidly. Thursday was gym day. The elementary school kids only had physical education one hour per week. We didn't bother changing other than to put on sneakers. At one o'clock, Mr. Dean turned us over to the gym teacher and went off to do whatever it is teachers do when their students aren't around.
After we had gone to our assigned spots on the floor and had been led through five minutes of warm-up exercises, Mr. Kane, the gym teacher said, "Today we are going to begin a unit on square dance."
The boys in the class groaned, loudly. Mr. Kane was grinning when he said, "Hey, I don't much like teaching it, either."
"Then why do we have to do this?" asked John Marcello, one of the bolder boys in class.
"One of the things I'm supposed to teach is 'lifetime skills for physical fitness,' and square dance qualifies."
"But what does square dancing have to do with gym?"
"Well, I guess you move around a lot. Anyway, the grade six teachers asked me to include the unit. Take it up with them if you have complaints."
"OK. That's enough. Everyone, pipe down! I want every boy to ask a girl to dance."
Oh, shit. While I was lamenting the vagaries of fate and the hell that was being an elementary school student, Ursus already had my feet moving. Hey, what the hell do you think you're doing?
We are going to have to dance, and we are going to have to ask someone to dance. Given those two facts, we might as well dance with someone you like, and if we don't move quickly, someone will get to her before we do. Arthur felt mortified, but I found myself standing in front of Kirsten Kennedy and giving her a half bow, one not nearly as florid as the one that morning. "Miss Kennedy, would you do me the honor of being my dance partner?"
I'll give her credit; she played along. She dropped a curtsey using an imaginary dress (she was wearing pants), and said, "Why of course, Mr. Powyr. It would be my pleasure." She even took my arm. Part of me was worried sick over Al's reaction when he heard about it. Another part of me was sick with nerves. And yet another part of me was thrilled to bits.
Once we had more-or-less sorted ourselves into couples, the fun and games began. Unlike more complicated dances, the easier forms of traditional square dancing are mostly a matter of learning a few terms and then following directions. Let it be noted that sixth graders are still at an age wherein that skill remains underdeveloped. There was much confusion, and we never got to any actual dancing that week, but we did practice allemanding, do-si-do-ing and the like. I only tripped once or twice, and I didn't fall down.
As we rode our bikes home that afternoon, Sean said, "I can't believe you did that to Al today."
"I don't want to talk about it."
"What did Arthur do?" asked Mary. I knew there had been a reason I didn't want her around.
"First, he flirted with Kirsten right in front of Al, and then when we had to square dance in gym, he asked her to dance."
I sped up and shifted into high gear so that I didn't have to hear them. Sean laughed. He had an evil sense of humor.
Mom passed us on her way home with my younger siblings. When I went into the house she asked, "Why were you so far ahead of the others?"
"They were gossiping, and I didn't want to hear it."
"And what was so offensive to your precious little ears?"
"No comment." I dropped my homework off in the basement and then changed clothes in my room. By the time I came out, Mary was in her own room changing. Mom looked at me as I passed, but didn't say anything. I went into the garage and fetched a rake. As I walked out into the yard, Mike and Terry asked me if I was going over to Danny's.
"Nah, I have this chore to take care of."
"See you later, then."
The yard had already been raked once after the bulk of the leaves had fallen. A few stragglers had hung on for quite a while, though, and some more had blown in. I set about cleaning up the lawn and managed to collect nearly a garbage bag full of debris. I even gathered up Audrey's piles of poop for good measure.
After that, I did schoolwork until supper. As I tucked into the spaghetti and meat sauce, Mom said, "Arthur raked the yard today without having to be asked."
"That was nice of him," said Dad.
"He did a good job. You know what else he did?"
"He flirted with the prettiest girl in grade six, and he asked her to dance."
I felt my face heating. I hated them all. My first instinct was to retreat to someplace private, but Ursus seized control of my body. Not only did he prevent me from escaping, he kept my back straight, my chin up, and kept shoveling in the grub as if I had heard nothing.
Don't react, he thought, it just encourages them.
"You're starting a bit young, aren't you?" asked Dad.
"I'm starting nothing, sir," I said in a level tone of voice that was as cold as my eleven-year-old vocal cords could make it. I should note that in our family we rarely called Dad "sir." He was "Dad," or when we were feeling really informal, "Pop."
I looked at Mary. When Mom had first mentioned the Kirsten incidents, Mary had looked amused, but now she looked stricken. Good. She should have known better.
Something of my total lack of amusement must have made it through, because Dad immediately dropped it. Rich started in a chorus of "Arthur's got a girlfriend," but Mary gave his arm a squeeze and him a look that shut him up. The rest of the meal, thank Bog, passed in unusual silence.