Christopher Surrey is at the kitchen table wearing a normal green T-shirt and normal blue jeans and normal white socks and just starting his homework for precalculus that’s due tomorrow when his aunt comes banging through their front door still wearing her work uniform and shouting about how his goddamn cousin ran away again. Christopher Surrey’s mother is flipping through notes in her briefcase at the counter. Christopher Surrey’s mother has a twin sister which is his aunt and his aunt has one son just like his mother has one son which is Christopher Surrey. His mother is divorced and his aunt is never-married which in the seventeenth century would have meant that Christopher Surrey was a boy but his cousin Taylor was a bastard. But now it’s the twenty-first century and that doesn’t matter. What does matter is that Taylor’s grandparents are what they call Hispanic which means that Taylor’s father is what he calls Latino which means that Taylor is what he calls Native and what everyone at school calls Wetback, Spic, or Nigger. Christopher Surrey is learning about imaginary numbers such as i which is the square root of -1. i does not exist but mathematicians use it anyway because it is useful for solving certain problems.
“The little shit has an algebra exam in the morning and hasn’t even started his English,” his aunt says [forte]. “I locked him in his room, so he jumped out his window.”
“Where did he go?” Christopher Surrey’s mother says [mezzo-piano]. She’s pouring his aunt a glass of juice just like Christopher Surrey has but his aunt says she doesn’t want it.
“He’s not about to tell me that,” his aunt says [forte]. “But I’m sure it’s nowhere good.”
His mother hands Christopher Surrey the second glass of juice. Christopher Surrey already has a plan. He pretends to pencil in an answer.
“We’ll find him,” his mother says [mezzo-piano], taking her purse down from the wall. “We’ll drive around all night if we have to.”
“I have to be up for work again at four a.m.,” his aunt says [staccato], sitting down at the kitchen counter. She takes off her name tag and her apron. “Four a.m.,” [decrescendo]. “That little shit is on his own.”
Christopher Surrey knows that calling his cousin a little shit is what might be considered his aunt’s ostinato. Christopher Surrey has been playing the violin since he was four. He drinks both glasses of juice and then says he’s going to the bathroom and runs upstairs to his room which is not the bathroom. Christopher Surrey lies only when lying is better than telling the truth.
I leave the house at nine p.m. exactly, wearing my brass spectacles and my very best hat. It’s a black top hat I recently obtained on a trip to the islands of Malta. It’s April and the night is sticky and stinks of ragweed. At nine p.m. on a school night, all of the local roughs are out—Phil “The Big D” Deroos sprawled out on the trampoline in his backyard; Jordan “Rotten” Otten and the Beatriz sisters cranking off on their bikes toward the bus garage and the abandoned tennis courts; Amy Green and her friend Katie B., out on Katie B.’s porch, eating what appear to be sandwiches. I wear my fanciest union suit—with an actual fireman’s flap—and yellow galoshes. I also wear a green fisherman’s jacket, in the pockets of which I carry my matchbook, a tiny dagger, and a couple of chocolates. I prefer dark chocolates with an orange filling.
I hop the fence into The Big D’s backyard and approach him. He’s got Valerie P. lying on the tramp with him with her shirt off and also her belt but not her pants. I offer him a truffle.
“Piss off,” The Big D says.
“Don’t pay attention to him, pay attention to me,” Valerie P. says, tugging on The Big D’s shirt.
“I can’t when he’s just standing there like that,” The Big D says.
I return the truffle to my pocket.
“I’m looking for Taylor Whitman,” I say.
The Big D says, “If you don’t get lost ten seconds ago I’m going to feed you my dog’s shit.”
“If you don’t tell me where Taylor is, I’ll make your dog eat your dog’s shit.” I pick up Valerie P.’s shirt off the grass and take out my dagger. “But first I’m going to carve up the girl’s shirt.”
“You fuck,” The Big D says, crouching at the edge of the tramp like he’s considering jumping me.
“Put down my shirt, Queerley,” Valerie P. says. Which isn’t my name—she’s confused me with someone else. I find this often happens with high schoolers.
“Is there a party tonight? Are there any girls with parents out of town?” I poke my dagger into the fabric of the shirt, just enough so that it doesn’t actually pop through but that The Big D still gets the message.
“I don’t know where Taylor is, OK?” The Big D says. “So will you please go terrorize someone else?”
“First the shirt, then your dog!” I shout.
“That blouse cost me a hundred dollars,” Valerie P. says. “If you so much as nick it I’ll slash your raincoat and cut up your boots and knock the top straight out of your hat.”
I don’t say anything. Valerie P. reminds me of a sailor I knew in the Galapagos. I hated that sailor.
“Anyway,” she says. “There’s a big fight down at the gravel pit. Maybe he went there.”
“Grazie,” I say, kissing the collar of her shirt and then draping it over the side of the tramp. I take off my hat and bow, and then patter off into the night, dagger still in hand.
What Christopher Surrey likes about his cousin is that parts of them overlap and parts of them don’t, so that they’re the same but also different. One of them is descended from a circus strongman; one of them is descended from the inventor of key lime pie; they’re both distantly related to Boris Karloff. Christopher Surrey’s grandparents are what they call Italian which means that his father is what he calls Italian which means that Christopher Surrey is what he also calls Italian and what everyone at school just calls White. His cousin Taylor says that Christopher Surrey isn’t White and that in the nineteenth century Christopher Surrey would have been called Wop, Guido, or Guinea. Taylor does not believe White exists. He thinks it is just an imaginary word people use to solve certain problems. Christopher Surrey believes him because he knows someone who is part Vietnamese who everyone calls White and someone from Israel who everyone calls White and someone half Brazilian and half Bolivian who everyone calls White too. But he knows someone else who is part Vietnamese who everyone calls Korean and an exchange student from Israel who everyone calls Al Qu’ran and someone else from South America who everyone calls Fucking Cuban. At school, what White really means is + , and everything else means – .
What Christopher Surrey got from his father was a brain that’s good at solving things or remembering things, which is why as a seventh-grader he is in precalculus and anatomy and chemistry, which are all high school classes, and a heart that’s bad at pumping things, which is why he failed his physical and couldn’t try out for the basketball team or the baseball team or the soccer team, which made him feel sadsad. What Taylor got from his father were muscles good at building themselves, which is why he is big and good at fixing things with his hands and why Christopher Surrey wants to be him, but Taylor got cut from the basketball team anyway, he says because he’s Native, the coach says because of his attitude. What they got from their mothers was each other.
I cut through the bus garage parking lot, sneaking through the rows and rows of empty buses, then across the abandoned tennis courts and the field and into the gravel pit. This isn’t the first assignment I’ve taken in the Lower Peninsula—I know the area well. I wiggle under the fence and light a match to look at the map posted along the front gate. Back out in the field the crickets are screeching, but in the gravel pit it’s quiet, only rocks.
I follow the tire tracks into the pit.
The Jeluso twins and Unibrow Tommy are hunched along the top of a gravel pile, peeking at something in the pit beyond it. I creep up the dark side of the pile, shadowed instead of moonlit, and settle alongside them.
“Good evening,” I say.
Unibrow Tommy ignores me. The Jeluso twins nod at me, then turn back to the pit. Down below, the high schoolers are perched in the beds of pickup trucks and on the roofs of minivans, some of them with bottles, some of them with pipes. Jordan “Rotten” Otten and the Beatriz sisters are sitting halfway up a gravel pile on the other side of the pit, their bikes stashed at the bottom of the pile. I recognize some of the high schoolers: hockey players, wakeboarders, most of the homecoming court. Not a single flutist or mathlete among them.
“I’m looking for Taylor Whitman,” I say.
“So was everyone else,” one of the Jeluso twins says. “That’s why we’re here.”
“Go on,” I say.
“Yesterday he told Crumb to go fuck himself, so today Crumb and all of his friends wanted to kill him. So now Taylor and Crumb are going to fight to the death.”
“I’ve heard tell,” I say. “Biggish fellow? Jaw like a horseshoe?”
“He’s the one that got Kelsey Green pregnant last year, before she got hit by that bus,” the Jeluso twin says. “He made a speech about it at the homecoming game.”
“His mom owns the bar that does karaoke,” the other Jeluso twin says.
I say, “He sounds like the sort of fellow who would get along swell with Taylor Whitman.”
“It all started because Crumb called Christopher Surrey a fartsucker,” Unibrow Tommy says, still watching the crowd. But then one of the Jeluso twins elbows him and gestures at me. “Oh,” Unibrow Tommy says, looking at me for the first time. “Sorry.”
“Gentlemen, please,” I say, adjusting my spectacles, “speak openly. I’m used to such vulgarities.”
“Well, down there they’re about to kill each other over them,” Unibrow Tommy says.
Then I spot my quarry: Taylor Whitman has stepped into the ring of high schoolers, squeezing past Graham “The Little D” Deroos and the Pitsch cousins and peeling off his shirt and tossing it at some girl wearing white shorts and a black bikini top. The girl in the bikini ducks his shirt and just lets it fall onto the gravel. Someone shouts Spic at him, and in a town where most everyone thinks they’re White, no one’s about to shout otherwise.
“He doesn’t look that scared,” Unibrow Tommy says.
“He looks scared shitless,” one of the Jeluso twins says.
If I had brought my pouch of banknotes, perhaps I could have bribed these middle schoolers into becoming my temporary sidekicks. But the pouch is back in my rented room, along with my pocketwatch and my lantern, and anyway I lost most of my banknotes a few weeks ago during an incident in the Himalayas.
I wiggle higher up the hill, trying to see better.
“Hey, keep down,” one of the Jeluso twins says. “Those kids hate middle schoolers. They’ll bury us right along with Taylor Whitman if they catch us watching.”
Adam “Crumb” Martindale and about the entire wrestling team come lumbering out of a van at the edge of the ring and shove their way to the front. Taylor’s big for a tenth-grader but Crumb’s a twelfth-grader and just big for a human. He’s got a man’s worth of blond stubble and a belly button the size of a silver dollar. Taylor’s scratching his stomach when Crumb knocks past some kids in jerseys into the center of the ring, and when Crumb sees Taylor he just laughs.
“Just you,” Taylor says, gesturing at the rest of the wrestlers. “Not them.”
“Those are some dark nipples,” Crumb says, still laughing. “No hair yet, Castro?” He claws off his own shirt. His chest is covered in fur. He has tattoos on his shoulders and most of his back—the number from his football jersey, the number of his weight class, the name of a girl, the name of another girl, a flag. The other wrestlers back up into the crowd, looking like they’re wanting to get tagged in.
“Go fuck a corpse, you fucking Kraut,” Taylor says.
“He’s about to,” one of the wrestlers shouts.
“You don’t have to fight me,” Crumb says, taking a bottle of beer from someone in the crowd and sipping from it. “If you’d accept that Christopher Queerley is a huge faggot, we’d be on the same side.”
“He probably is a faggot,” Taylor says. Someone throws a can and Taylor ducks it. “But that’s not the point, you dumb fuck. The point is that you’re all faggots too. And I’m a faggot, and Pitsch is a faggot, and Katie Bree is a faggot, and your mom is a faggot, and the people that work out here in this gravel pit are all faggots too. We’re all each other’s faggots.”
“If you’re a faggot,” Crumb says, “then we’re definitely not on the same side.” He downs the rest of the beer, then palms the bottle, moving toward Taylor.
“It seems I arrived just in time,” I say. I climb up onto the hill, the gravel sinking under my galoshes. The wind catches my jacket, snapping it around my legs.
“Oh, Jesus,” one of the Jeluso twins says, and I hear them skittering off down the hill behind me.
“Hey, Tidbit,” I shout, and Crumb’s head swivels back toward me like a dog’s. “Want a chocolate?”
I slide down the hill and walk into the crowd, tapping hips or backs when I can reach them, excusing my way to the front. Everyone just stares at me, not making any noise, some of them not even breathing. Now Crumb’s really laughing, and Taylor’s holding his hand over his face like he’s either ashamed of something or afraid of what’s about to happen.
I poke a tattoo of a girl’s name on Crumb’s stomach.
“Pick a pocket,” I say, sticking my hands into my jacket.
He’s laughing too hard to choose.
“Be a moron if you choose left,” I say. “Be annoying if you choose right.”
He’s still laughing.
“OK, you’re being annoying, so you chose right. Here.” I offer him a truffle from my right pocket.
“How thoughtful,” Crumb says, still laughing, but tossing aside the bottle, and bending down to take the chocolate. “And incredibly gay.”
“But you’re also being a moron, so you chose left too,” I say, and I take my dagger out of my left pocket and grab his wrist and stab the dagger up and clean through his hand. Crumb shouts and tries to pull his arm away but I hold on and it carries me up toward his face, so I pull my dagger out again and then go at his cheek, but he bats it away and then knocks me off onto the gravel and all of the high schoolers are either screaming or cheering. Taylor comes running but one of the wrestlers grabs him and tosses him down and one of the other wrestlers kicks me in the stomach and then for a long time I’m just trying to suck in some sort of air but can’t. Crumb’s wrapping his hand in his shirt.
“Get him out of that silly shit,” he says, not looking at me.
Then the wrestlers take my top hat and my spectacles and my fisherman’s jacket with all of my things in its pockets and then, one by one, my yellow galoshes.
Christopher Surrey is sitting in his pajamas in a gravel pit with his cousin Taylor Whitman. Christopher Surrey is feeling < a hero and scaredscared. Taylor’s hands are tied up with his T-shirt and Christopher Surrey’s hands are tied up with the sleeves of a fisherman’s jacket. The jacket belongs to someone he knows who even in this situation would be feeling = a hero.
“Your mom’s going to freak,” Taylor says [piano].
“Your mom already did,” Christopher Surrey says [pianissimo]. “I had to find you, if she wasn’t going to.”
Crumb and his friends are trying to decide whether it’s wrong to beat the living shit out of a seventh-grader or whether in this situation it might be OK. Either way they think it’s OK to beat the living shit out of a tenth-grader. Most of them have taken off their shirts. They’ve all got tattoos—the school mascot, the numbers from their jerseys, one of them the name of his dead grandfather. Crumb’s playing with a dagger that belongs to someone Christopher Surrey knows.
“Fuck,” Taylor says [portamento]. “And I’ve still got algebra.”
“I’m only halfway done with my precalc,” Christopher Surrey says [piano].
“And that’s if I have eyes left to see it with by the time they’re finished with me. Fuck” [fermata].
Christopher Surrey is named for a county in England that borders the Kent, East Sussex, and West Sussex counties. Christopher Surrey is 0% English. His great-great-grandfather who was what he called Italian and what everyone else called Wop, Guido, or Guinea changed his last name from Martone to Surrey when he was fifteen years old.
“Someone cut that faggot up!” someone shouts [allegro] from the roof of a van.
The remains of someone Christopher Surrey loves are scattered around the gravel pit: the black top hat on the lap of the girl in the black bikini, who’s ashing into it; the brass spectacles on The Little D, as he performs imitations of the someone Christopher Surrey loves for the Pitsch cousins; the Beatriz sisters wearing the yellow galoshes like puppets. His body’s been ripped apart and now people are wearing it. Christopher Surrey thought it would be fun to have an adventure with his cousin but it turns out that an adventure with his cousin is only scary. Christopher Surrey knows that his cousin has friends and that Christopher Surrey doesn’t which is partly why Christopher Surrey wanted to be his cousin but now they are somewhere where everyone hates Taylor too. It has never occurred to Christopher Surrey that it was possible for high schoolers to hate a high schooler who had muscles and could make his free throws. It’s also never occurred to him that it was possible for Taylor to get into a situation that Taylor could not get out of. Taylor is supposed to get away with everything.
“Why aren’t your friends here to yell things at Crumb’s friends?” Christopher Surrey says [mezzo-piano].
“Because they’re going through a phase where they think I’m an asshole,” Taylor says [mezzo-piano].
“So they’re not going to rescue us?” [mezzo-piano].
“I don’t want to talk about it” [piano].
What Christopher Surrey knows about limits is this: say you have a function, like f(x) = 1/x. When x = 1, f(x) = 1. When x = .001, f(x) = 1,000. When x = .000000001, f(x) = 1,000,000,000. So as x becomes smaller—as x approaches zero—f(x) approaches infinity. Christopher Surrey knows he is also a sort of function, and sometimes he feels like there is some infinity his brain is approaching, like when his arms are saying things with his violin that there are no words for, or when his fingers are saying things with numbers.
“Why did you say I’m probably a faggot?” Christopher Surrey says [mezzo-piano]. “Do you really think I am?”
“I really don’t care,” Taylor says [mezzo-forte].
Christopher Surrey enters a number of variables into his brain: the number of high schoolers in the gravel pit, the numbers of automobiles, the distance from Christopher Surrey and Taylor Whitman to the bikes belonging to Jordan “Rotten” Otten and the Beatriz sisters, the tightness of the sleeves of the green fisherman’s jacket tied around his wrists, the number of matches in his matchbook, the probability of finding a container of gasoline in the back of a high schooler’s pickup, the speed of Christopher Surrey, the speed of Taylor Whitman, the speed of a 6-feet-6-inches 250-pounds on-the-football-team on-the-wrestling-team high school senior.
“Are you?” Taylor says [mezzo-forte].
“I don’t know,” Christopher Surrey says [mezzo-forte]. “I never really thought about it before.”
“If they give me a fair fight,” [mezzo-forte], “I’m going to tear that ape’s tongue clean from his skull.”
“They’re not going to give you a fair fight” [forte].
“Spay the gay!” the high schoolers are shouting [homophony].
Crumb’s friends are laughing at something he just said. Christopher Surrey is still feeling scaredscared, but now he’s also feeling smartmastermind + strongsuperhuman.
“I have a plan,” he says [forte].
“An escape plan?” Taylor says [forte]. “Or a fight-back plan?”
“Both” [pianissimo]. “How tight are you tied? I’m going to call the Beatriz sisters over here, and when I do—”
Christopher Surrey never finishes saying his plan, which was genius + perfect + less-than-fifteen-seconds-from-being-initiated, because Crumb has just tossed the dagger onto the gravel and bent into the cab of his truck and is now walking back toward Christopher Surrey and Taylor Whitman with his friends and a tattoo gun.
One of the wrestlers kicks Taylor Whitman in the stomach and Taylor curls up coughing blood and one of the wrestlers kicks Christopher Surrey in the stomach and Christopher Surrey curls up coughing up nothing but what feels like everything, and then they untie both Taylor and Christopher Surrey and then unbutton Christopher Surrey’s union suit halfway and pull it down to his waist, and then Taylor and Christopher Surrey are splayed out on the gravel, and the high schoolers are cheering [falsetto + contralto], and then with his gun Crumb writes a name onto each of them, somewhere where they won’t be able to see it, at least not without a mirror, but where everyone else will be able to see it, all of the time, if Christopher Surrey and his cousin are ever again brave enough to walk around shirtless.
At one a.m. on a school night, even the local roughs are at home and in bed, but it’s been a hell of a night for me and Taylor Whitman and his cousin Christopher Surrey and we’re still out walking. I’ve got my jacket and my dagger and one of my galoshes, but my top hat is gone, and so are my spectacles—I’m hardly even feeling like myself. This has been worse than Egypt, worse than Columbia, worse than that entire week in Siberia. As we hike out of the gravel pit and across the abandoned tennis courts and through the bus garage parking lot with all of its sleeping buses, Christopher Surrey tells me he won’t need me anymore—his cousin is back, he’ll take it from here. So I bid them adieu as Christopher Surrey folds my jacket over his arm, and does me the courtesy of carrying home what’s left of my galoshes. I patter off into the night, disappearing into someone’s backyard.
“I want to move,” Taylor says [mezzo-piano].
“I don’t,” Christopher Surrey says [mezzo-forte]. “As bad as it is here, it’d be even worse moving somewhere else and having to be the new person.”
They walk down the middle of the street, Christopher Surrey in his pajamas, Taylor wearing his shirt again. The lights are off in every house. There are no cars. Christopher Surrey is happy to be with his cousin who is older and strong, so strong that he didn’t scream or make even a single noise when it was Crumb’s turn with him. Christopher Surrey’s back hurts like it’s very cold and very hot all at once. He knows that even though Crumb has won, this is not the end of it. This is the Da Capo. They are a song Crumb will want to keep on singing.
“Next time don’t come looking for me,” Taylor says [mezzo-forte].
“I know,” Christopher Surrey says [piano].
Christopher Surrey is thinking about his precalculus homework, about how many problems he left unsolved. And then the headlights come swinging around the corner, bumping down the road toward them, and the car is honking, and as Christopher Surrey and Taylor stop in the street, blocking the light with their hands, their mothers get out of the car, leaning over the tops of their doors, yelling at them to get into it, and calling them things that they know that they’re not.