These are the first two chapters of a new novel called Top Ten.
CHAPTER ONE Not Always Famous
Now that I’m famous, people from my high school will say I was cute, or I was their good friend, or that all the girls liked me. But that’s all a load of hooey.
Two years ago I was the quiet, small guy who was picked on whenever the teachers weren’t looking. Some pin-head would make fun of my curly hair or my small size or my high voice.
“You’re the size of my baby brother – and he’s six.” My face would go red. “You’re gonna burst, little suck? Gonna beat me up?”
It all began in Junior High. I didn’t grow. I still looked like I was supposed to be in elementary school. The desks were too large and the chairs too tall.
“What’s your name?”
“How old are you, like, ten?”
“I’m fourteen, just like everyone else.”
“How come you’re so small?”
“I don’t know.” How come you’re so stupid?
“Like, do you have a disease or something?”
“No.” And what’s your disease, stupiditis?
“If I were you I’d eat grow-up pills. Ever try steroids?”
In junior high I learned not to speak up in class, even if I knew the answer. Better to let them think I was stupid than get beat up.
People complain about being the last one picked for a team or game, but I was the one chased off the field. I could lose a game all by myself. I was the smallest, the weakest and the last to hit puberty. Gym class was torture because we had to take showers. The guys threatened every week to throw me naked into the hallway where the girls were. They called me Pre-Pubic Pete.
“Let’s toss Pete into the hall.” Luckily they never did it.
By high school, a lot of kids thought my name really was Pete. I was the last to have my voice change, and even then it didn’t change much… I still have a high voice.
“Why do you sound like a girl?”
“I don’t know.”
“I mean seriously, why is your voice so high?”
“I don’t know.”
“You’re weird, man.”
“If you say so.”
“Are you being smart? Don’t make me hurt you.”
Even the girls could beat me up. One day I was being chased by a couple of jocks and I ran down a set of stairs and whipped into the nearest washroom. I didn’t realize it was a girls’ washroom until I ran into an enormous tough chick named Alicia.
“Eeee yuck! – you little perv! What are you doing in the girls’ john?” Alicia grabbed me by the arm.
“I was being chased!”
“Carol, quick come here, a guy in our washroom!”
“It’s Pre Pubic Pete.”
“Let’s have some fun.”
“Grab him and let’s carry his skinny little butt down to the vice-principal.” They picked me up; one at each end like a log, and carried me halfway into the hall but I wriggled free and escaped. I hid under a stairwell for an hour in case the principal really was looking for a guy who would go into a girl’s washroom. I was so embarrassed.
Two years ago girls my age would look at me, giggle, and whisper. Only one girl ever would go out with me and that was Taylor, back in Grade 9. She was small, like me. The closest we got to ‘going out’ was smiling at each other and holding hands in the cafeteria line. I liked her and holding hands was cool but I never knew what to say. She broke off with me after a few days. Even guys with pimples or bad breath had better luck than I did. Most girls hardly knew I existed.
I get my small size from my dad. He left us a couple of years ago. Even though he abandoned us and mom couldn’t cope on her own, I still wonder what he is doing. He would make jokes about himself; “I might be small, but parts of me are big.” He used his smallness as an advantage. He was likeable and people trusted him, even when he was trying to rip them off.
Dad’s last job before he left us was taking the cash and booking cars at a taxi garage. When things were slow there was a pool hall next door. Dad was an expert pool player. He could clear a pool table twice over without missing a shot. But he would play just average until somebody put big money on the game. He could make winning look like a lucky accident, but not everybody was fooled.
One day an unhappy man lost sixteen hundred dollars and didn’t like how Dad played him for a chump. He was a big guy with no sense of humour. My dad got a concussion and his arm broken in three places. The dizzy spells never went away and his pool-playing was affected. Dad began to play cards instead. He and Mom were always arguing about money and sometimes about other women.
Dad would be gone for days at a time, and tough-looking men would bang on the door, looking for him. We would tell them he’d moved out. Mom started taking pills and hardly got out of bed anymore.
In those years if I wanted supper or lunch or breakfast I had to make it myself.
I began to use pills. I tried some of my mom’s pills and I could see why she liked them. The buzz helped me forget how small I was, how I had no friends and how messed up my home life was. They gave me confidence, for a few hours. On days I came to school high on her pills. I felt great, fearless. One day I began humming a song and tapping my pencil at the back of the room. A girl back there said, “Hey, you’re Sid right?”
“Yeah,” I said, tapping and humming.
“I got a friend would like to meet you. She likes small guys.”
“Gee, what a compliment.”
“I mean she’s sorta cute. Maisy D.”
“Don’t know her.”
“Look her up on Facebook.”
“She might like you.”
“I don’t mean to be rude, Sidney, but you shouldn’t be choosy…”
“You’re just full of compliments aren’t you?”
“Just trying to help.”
“Gee, thanks. If that’s helping, I’d hate to see you being nasty…”
The teacher called for us to be quiet and the girl made a face and turned away. I felt smart when I took those pills. They helped me actually say what was on my mind, things I normally kept locked inside. But when the pills wore off I felt even worse.
That was the day I felt ready to jump under a bus.
Because that day I found the note from my dad.
Mom wasn’t home. The closet in my parents’ bedroom was open. He’d been gone for weeks but now he had come by and got all his stuff and cleared out for good. The note was addressed to mom. It said he was sorry and it was better for all of us if he went away. I just sat there, staring at it until my mother came home from the doctor’s office. She cried when she read it and then said, “We’ll manage. We’ll get by.”
CHAPTER TWO The New Beginning
In our high school it was cool to be into music. They had a big music program with two concert bands, a jazz band, a junior and a senior band. There was a jazz choir called Razz-Ma-Jazz, plus gospel choirs and an all-school chorus.
Miss Krantz was the music teacher everyone loved. She was pretty but didn’t act like she was. She was smiley and pleasant and nice to everybody. Even guys from the wrestling team and big football playing jocks waiting in line to try out for the all-school chorus, though half of them couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.
Singing was something I could do. Ever since I was a kid I would sing wherever we’d go. Dad always took me with him when he was looking for a job. We walked for miles downtown and I would sing as we walked. One day a man heard me singing and told my dad.
“Your son’s a very good singer.”
“He loves to sing, that’s for sure,” agreed my old man.
“His tone is perfect. Unusual for a child. I can give free lessons.”
“Sorry buddy, we’re all booked up,” Dad said and pulled me along.
“What did he mean about singing lessons?” I asked after we walked away.
“Nobody gives away something for nothing. Everybody’s got an angle.”
Dad was always afraid people would rip him off; take advantage of him. “Get while the getting’s good,” he’d say, or, “Beat them to the punch.”
In elementary school we had to sing in class but if the kids around me sang poorly I’d stop. Sometimes even the teachers didn’t sing very well and I didn’t want to be part of a song that sounded bad.
One day my dad gave me an ipod with all sorts of music on it; Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and hours of other tunes. I listened to it hundreds of times over until I knew the tunes by heart. When I was alone I sang the songs; sometimes the melody, sometimes I’d do the background vocals or harmony. I only sang when others weren’t around.
So here I was in high school. When Miss Krantz announced tryouts everybody came. Tryouts were at lunch. The room was crowded with guys. Miss Krantz, as always, could have walked off a magazine cover. If she looked in your eyes you melted like ice-cream on a sidewalk. We were told to come up one at a time, boys first. We had to sing something so she could sort us into basses and tenors. She stood next to each of us to listen. Most of the guys sang the national anthem or something easy. She’d say “Tenor. Stand over there, please,” or “Bass, join that group over there. When I came up I felt like my insides turning to water. I could sing even higher than the tenors so I sang “My Girl” by the Temptations, but tried to sing lower so I wouldn’t sound girly. Miss Krantz stood next to me and rested her fingers on my shoulder. It was like an electric shock. “Now try that it in a higher key.” She gave me a new starting note. I turned red as her nail polish and then choked and coughed.
“Sing for me, please,” she said quietly, “I heard something quite special.”
I couldn’t sing.
“Let’s try a bit later,” she suggested kindly. Some jerk in the bass section snickered. As soon as Miss Krantz’s back was turned I left.
A few weeks later I heard them practicing and they sounded fantastic. If only I hadn’t been such a wussy and walked out I could have been part of that. I leaned against a wall near the exit door and listened to them sing. I knew some of the songs already. Someone with cojones would have walked into the room and asked to join them late. I didn’t. Instead, some Grade 9 kids came around a corner.
“Hey, it’s Pre-Pubic Pete.”
“What are you hanging around for?”
“Are you waiting to minor-niner us?”
“Yeah, Pete, all those older kids, like you, picking on us little niners…”
“Let’s get revenge!”
They found an empty locker and stuffed me into it. Here I was in Grade 11 getting stuffed into a locker by Grade 9 boys.
A while later a girl named Reilley heard me banging and opened the locker and let me out. She was in my math class.
“Are you okay?”
“You should report this! Nobody should be allowed to bully anybody at our school.”
“Oh, it’s alright.”
“No it isn’t! Was it those guys on the rugby team?”
“The guys on the football team? They were warned already not to…”
“Really, it’s okay. I’m alright. Thanks for letting me out.” I didn’t have the guts to admit the bullies were grade-niners and not much bigger than I was.
A week later Reilley came up to me at my locker. She was about twice as tall as me and had lots of freckles.
“Want to come out to our youth group?” she asked.
I turned to look if there was someone behind me.
“Yes, I’m talking to you, Sid.”
“Why?” I said.
“Because it’s fun and we need more guys.”
“I mean why are you asking me?” She always was with a gang of friends. Why would she be talking to someone like me?
“Like I said, it’s fun and we need more guys.”
“When I get invited somewhere it’s usually so someone can lift me up or lock me up or something.”
“We’re not like that.”
“I hate to break it to you, but from down here, pretty much everyone is like that.”
She put her hand on my shoulder. “I didn’t want to come either, when someone invited me,” she explained.
“Why did you?”
“My mom had just died in a car crash and I was new to the area and I didn’t have any friends,” she said.
“Sid, you look like you’ve had some troubles of your own.”
Suddenly I thought of all the times I’d tried to join in with other kids, only to be made fun of because of my high voice and small size.
“Will they laugh at me?” I whispered. My eyes started to leak so I turned toward the locker and started fiddling with the lock.
She stood closer and said quietly, “they’re real nice people. They won’t laugh at you unless you are trying to be funny.”
I faced my locker, ashamed of my tears. “I got to be at home, and… my mom is sick with something…” Making excuses made me feel even more like a coward.
At home the apartment was empty.
I couldn’t do anything right.
I couldn’t talk to people like my dad could.
I couldn’t fight like some tough little guys do.
I was too scared to even talk to a girl who was trying to be nice to me.
All I could do well was sing, and when I tried out for a stupid open chorus, who would take anybody, I choked and walked out.
I decided I was the most useless and worthless piece of garbage in the world.
If this was a movie I should have punched a hole through the drywall, but I was too weak to punch that hard.
Maybe if I threw some stuff around the apartment I’d feel better. But I’d just have to clean it up again.
There was a silver letter-opener in a drawer. It looked like a knife. I tried to imagine how much it would hurt to stab myself with it. I poked my leg fairly hard a few times but not hard enough to go into the skin. Poking my arm with it cut the skin a little bit.
Some blood came out.
I smeared it around to make it look worse, like I’d been attacked or something. With my sleeves rolled up it looked like I had been attacked or been in a knife fight. Maybe some girl would notice me. Maybe somebody would feel sorry for me. I walked to the mall and sat around. But nobody saw me sitting there.
Eventually I went home.
I was such a loser.
By late October I started to collect pills from my mother’s bottles, a few at a time. On the Internet I found some websites where people talked about how to stop the pain forever. Having a plan and a secret date on the calendar made me feel I better. Within a month I had gathered enough pills from my Mom’s cupboard. I would swallow them down with a bottle of Vodka.
The night I was planning to kill myself, my cellphone rang. It was 10 o’clock.
“Reilley. You know, overweight… freckles… big laugh…”
“How are you?”
“I want to know, that’s all.”
“I’m fine,” I lied. My hands were shaking.
“I felt I had to call you.”
“It’s 10 o’clock,” I said. I could pretend I was trying to get to sleep, but something was keeping me from hanging up the phone.
“I’m worried about you.”
“I just knew I had to call you. What’s wrong?”
“Bullcrap. What’s wrong?”
I gripped the phone like a lifeline. How did she know?
I slid to the floor and leaned back against the wall. I didn’t care to hide anything. Tomorrow it would all be over so it didn’t matter. I began to talk to Reilley. Slowly everything came pouring out of me; my mom’s pills, my dad’s gambling and the how the arm-breakers had been looking for him. I told her stuff I’d never told anyone. Reilley listened. Before long it was after 1:00 in the morning. We talked about being rejected. She’d been hurt many times because she was overweight and not pretty. Boys would pretend to ask her out and then laugh that she believed them.
It actually made me feel better knowing I wasn’t the only one to feel that way.
“So what do you do when you want to feel better? What takes you away?”
“Besides that, I mean.”
“I used to sing.”
“Really? What kind of singing?”
“Anything and everything. Rock, Reggae, Blues, Punk, Techno, I can do a great techno voice…”
“Sing for me…”
“Seriously, I would never laugh at you, Sid.”
I went out on the balcony and sang for her. Singing over the phone seemed stupid, and I had to keep my singing quiet so as not to wake my mother. That was the first time in years I’d ever sung for anyone besides my mom or my dad.
“You are so good! Where did you learn that?”
“I started when I was four.” I told her about walking through the streets of Hamilton with my dad.
“I can just imagine you. You must have been the cutest little kid.”
“My dad gave me an ipod a couple years before he left. I listened to it until I’d memorized a few hundred songs on it. I still have it.”
I fell asleep without taking mom’s pills and went to school the next day like a zombie. I was tired from being up half the night, but talking to Reilley made me feel connected to someone. She winked at me from her locker door that morning. It wasn’t a ‘let’s go out’ wink but a wink between friends and it made me smile. I was quiet in class, but the emptiness was less.
That Wednesday Reilley asked again if I wanted to go to her youth group.
I figured it would be a hangout for dweebs and losers like me, but there were some popular and good-looking kids there too - the quiet ones, mostly. None of them were the ones who teased me. They had coffee and sandwiches and donuts and some cake and juice.
“Who brought all this stuff?” I asked.
“They’re donations from my church.” Reilley said.
“Really? So you don’t have to pay?”
“Really. They’re donations… like, free...”
“My Dad used to say, ‘Pay now or pay later, but nothing’s free.’”
“Well…” Reilley laughed, “I’ve been coming here for over a year and they haven’t charged me anything yet.”
“Isn’t this a religious group?”
“I guess. My church runs it.”
“Churches are just after your money… Nothing’s for free.”
Reilly’s face changed like I’d hit her. “Good churches aren’t like that,” she said. Not two minutes into her youth group and I’d insulted her church.
“Take more cake,” she said.
“Trying to help me grow?” I asked sarcastically. She turned away from me and I left.