one hundred twenty-two days before

After my last class of my first week at Culver Creek, I entered Room 43 to an unlikely sight: the diminutive and shirtless Colonel, hunched over an ironing board, attacking a pink button-down shirt. Sweat trickled down his forehead and chest as he ironed with great enthusiasm, his right arm pushing the iron across the length of the shirt with such vigor that his breathing nearly duplicated Dr. Hyde’s.

“I have a date,” he explained. “This is an emergency.” He paused to catch his breath. “Do you know” — breath—”how to iron?”

I walked over to the pink shirt. It was wrinkled like an old woman who’d spent her youth sunbathing. If only the Colonel didn’t ball up his every belonging and stuff it into random dresser drawers. “I think you just turn it on and press it against the shirt, right?” I said. “I don’t know. I didn’t even know we had an iron.”

“We don’t. It’s Takumi’s. But Takumi doesn’t know how to iron, either. And when I asked Alaska, she started yelling, `You’re not going to impose the patriarchal paradigm on me.’ Oh, God, I need to smoke. I need to smoke, but I can’t reek when I see Sara’s parents. Okay, screw it. We’re going to smoke in the bathroom with the shower on. The shower has steam. Steam gets rid of wrinkles, right?

“By the way,” he said as I followed him into the bathroom, “if you want to smoke inside during the day, just turn on the shower. The smoke follows the steam up the vents.”

Though this made no scientific sense, it seemed to work. The shower’s shortage of water pressure and low showerhead made it all but useless for showering, but it worked great as a smoke screen.

Sadly, it made a poor iron. The Colonel tried ironing the shirt once more (“I’m just gonna push really hard and see if that helps”) and finally put it on wrinkled. He matched the shirt with a blue tie decorated with horizontal lines of little pink flamingos.

“The one thing my lousy father taught me,” the Colonel said as his hands nimbly threaded the tie into a perfect knot, “was how to tie a tie. Which is odd, since I can’t imagine when he ever had to wear one.”

Just then, Sara knocked on the door. I’d seen her once or twice before, but the Colonel never introduced me to her and didn’t have a chance to that night.

 

“Oh. My God. Can’t you at least press your shirt?” she asked, even though the Colonel was standing in front of the ironing board.

“We’re going out with my parents.” Sara looked awfully nice in her blue summer dress. Her long, pale blond hair was pulled up into a twist, with a strand of hair falling down each side of her face. She looked like a movie star — a bitchy one.

“Look, I did my best. We don’t all have maids to do our ironing.”

“Chip, that chip on your shoulder makes you look even shorter.”

“Christ, can’t we get out the door without fighting?”

“I’m just saying. It’s the opera. It’s a big deal to my parents. Whatever. Let’s go.” I felt like leaving, but it seemed stupid to hide in the bathroom, and Sara was standing in the doorway, one hand cocked on her hip and the other fiddling with her car keys as if to say, Let’s go.

“I could wear a tuxedo and your parents would still hate me!” he shouted.

“That’s not my fault! You antagonize them!” She held up the car keys in front of him. “Look, we’re going now or we’re not going.”

“Fuck it. I’m not going anywhere with you,” the Colonel said.

“Fine. Have a great night.” Sara slammed the door so hard that a sizable biography of Leo Tolstoy (last words: “The truth is…I care a great deal…what they…”) fell off my bookshelf and landed with a thud on our checkered floor like an echo of the slamming door.

“AHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!”he screamed.

“So that’s Sara,” I said.

“Yes.”

“She seems nice.”

The Colonel laughed, knelt down next to the mini fridge, and pulled out a gallon of milk. He opened it, took a swig, winced, half coughed, and sat down on the couch with the milk between his legs.

“Is it sour or something?”

“Oh, I should have mentioned that earlier. This isn’t milk. It’s five parts milk and one part vodka. I call it ambrosia. Drink of the gods. You can barely smell the vodka in the milk, so the Eagle can’t catch me unless he actually takes a sip. The downside is that it tastes like sour milk and rubbing alcohol, but it’s Friday night, Pudge, and my girlfriend is a bitch. Want some?”

“I think I’ll pass.” Aside from a few sips of champagne on New Year’s under the watchful eye of my parents, I’d never really drunk any alcohol, and “ambrosia” didn’t seem like the drink with which to start. Outside, I heard the pay phone ring. Given the fact that 190 boarders shared five pay phones, I was amazed at how infrequently it rang. We weren’t supposed to have cell phones, but I’d noticed that some of the Weekday Warriors carried them surreptitiously. And most non-Warriors called their parents, as I did, on a regular basis, so parents only called when their kids forgot.

“Are you going to get that?” the Colonel asked me. I didn’t feel like being bossed around by him, but I also didn’t feel like fighting.

 

Through a buggy twilight, I walked to the pay phone, which was drilled into the wall between Rooms 44 and 45.

On both sides of the phone, dozens of phone numbers and esoteric notes were written in pen and marker (205.555.1584; Tommy to airport 4:20;773.573.6521; JG — Kuffs?). Calling the pay phone required a great deal of patience. I picked up on about the ninth ring.

“Can you get Chip for me?” Sara asked. It sounded like she was on a cell phone.

“Yeah, hold on.”

I turned, and he was already behind me, as if he knew it would be her. I handed him the receiver and walked back to the room.

A minute later, three words made their way to our room through the thick, still air of Alabama at almost-night.

“Screw you too!” the Colonel shouted.

Back in the room, he sat down with his ambrosia and told me, “She says I ratted out Paul and Marya. That’s what the Warriors are saying. That I ratted them out. Me. That’s why the piss in the shoes. That’s why the nearly killing you. ‘Cause you live with me, and they say I’m a rat.”

I tried to remember who Paul and Marya were. The names were familiar, but I had heard so many names in the last week, and I couldn’t match “Paul” and “Marya” with faces. And then I remembered why: I’d never seen them.

They got kicked out the year before, having committed the Trifecta.

“How long have you been dating her?” I asked.

“Nine months. We never got along. I mean, I didn’t even briefly like her. Like, my mom and my dad — my dad would get pissed, and then he would beat the shit out of my mom. And then my dad would be all nice, and they’d have like a honeymoon period. But with Sara, there’s never a honeymoon period. God, how could she think I was a rat? I know, I know: Why don’t we break up?” He ran a hand through his hair, clutching a fistful of it atop his head, and said, “I guess I stay with her because she stays with me. And that’s not an easy thing to do. I’m a bad boyfriend. She’s a bad girlfriend. We deserve each other.”

“But-” “I can’t believe they think that,” he said as he walked to the bookshelf and pulled down the almanac. He took a long pull off his ambrosia. “Goddamn Weekday Warriors. It was probably one of them that ratted out Paul and Marya and then blamed me to cover their tracks. Anyway, it’s a good night for staying in. Staying in with Pudge and ambrosia.”

“I still—” I said, wanting to say that I didn’t understand how you could kiss someone who believed you were a rat if being a rat was the worst thing in the world, but the Colonel cut me off.

“Not another word about it. You know what the capital of Sierra Leone is?”

“No.”

“Me neither,” he said, “but I intend to find out.” And with that, he stuck his nose in the almanac, and the conversation was over.

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