The Evolution of Jeremy Warsh
Jess Moore © 2018
All Rights Reserved
Chilly in the underground basement, one of my best friends and I spent the final hours of summer’s freedom on opposite sides of the couch. Kasey’s head poked out from under an orange-and-black chevron afghan. Her arm snaked out from under the blanket as she reached for the bowl of potato chips between us. In fact, we had moved only for snack and/or bathroom breaks since setting up camp earlier in the day. The last of August’s to-do list was to listen to Nirvana’s entire library.
“Did you catch this live when it came out on MTV?” I asked, as the first few notes of “Lake of Fire” sounded. Cobain’s scratchy prophet-like lilt emanated from a set of waist-high speakers next to the fireplace.
“In middle school? I don’t know. They re-air it every now and then though.” She licked the BBQ-flavored spices from a potato chip.
“It wasn’t long after that he was gone, and we were all down here drinking our first beers in his honor.” I gave my can of Mountain Dew a little shake, empty.
“I remember.” Kasey leaned her head back against the pillow. “This is too depressing for words.” She popped the rest of the chip in her mouth and jumped up from the couch to switch off the stereo.
“Hey! I love that one!”
“Come on, Jeremy. You need to practice.” She grabbed my hand and tried to pull me from the couch.
“Yes! School starts tomorrow.” She gave up and walked toward her bedroom. Kasey’s basement was hardly that. Basically it was its own two-bedroom apartment with a TV room, kitchen, and dining space. The lower level of her house cut into the hill and opened to a brick patio overlooking a pool and woods beyond. She’d lived down there with her older brother until he left for college. Now, it was just Kasey; her parents lived upstairs.
“Fine!” I called after her. Our senior year was less than twenty-four hours away; she was probably right. My distorted reflection peered back at me from the TV’s black glass as I forced myself out of the sunken cushions.
Kasey’s bedroom walls were sponge-painted with textured splats in varying shades of flamingo pink. It was dizzying and the opposite of subtle, but the same went for her.
“Jeez, you’ve grown, like, a foot in the last month. You could’ve played football this year.” She reached for my shoulders and positioned me in front of her closet mirrors.
“That would mean more time around Russ. Plus, Mom would never let me.”
Kasey stepped back, assessing my reflection. “Now, say it.”
“Suck it, Russ.” The words rolled clumsily off my tongue. I rushed through the line because I hated every minute of it.
Russ Landry had been making my life miserable forever. Kasey was convinced if I stood up to him, he’d leave me alone. I figured it would likely get me punched. But ignoring the bastard, which I’d been trying to do for years, proved an unsuccessful strategy.
She shoved me forward and flopped onto her bed. “You’ll get nowhere if you say it like that. This needs flair, Jeremy. Again.”
I repeated the line with some sass that I would never replicate in real life.
“Grasshopper, you must deliver a blow of such magnitude that thine enemy is left stunned.” Kasey flipped through the latest issue of a teen fashion magazine. She hadn’t even seen my sashay.
“Is that why you tell people to suck your dick?” I cleared my throat, a little embarrassed.
“I only tell misogynists that, and yyyyep.” Kasey unwrapped a sucker and stuck it in her mouth. “Wah-wa?” she asked, her speech hindered by the candy.
“I’m good.” I sat next to her. The magazine contained musky perfume samples. Kasey found one and rubbed the paper on both her wrists and neck.
“Yuck, that smells awful,” I said.
“You’re crazy. Everyone loves CK One.” She flipped through the special back-to-school edition. “Wanna read your horoscope? Cancer, right?”
She read my crab-shelled future.
Kids packed the halls, most of them showing off stiff new clothes and kicks. My sneakers were the same ones from last year, and these new jeans were already creating itchy red impressions on my gut. Mom had spent most of her last paycheck getting new school clothes for me. So, I wasn’t about to tell her. I’d wash them less and hope for some stretching. Maybe try to lose a couple pounds. Or not. Overweight, with kinky hair and sweat permanently lining the sides of my face, I was boundaries upon borders.
As I mixed with the herd, it hit me how this would be the last time I’d cross the threshold of these halls with a whole 182 days of lectures and homework in front of me. The last time I’d find my new locker and get all sweaty when the combination didn’t work the first, second, or…third time. Damn it! I slammed my palm into the area above the lock, and the door opened with a clang. I stacked a fat binder and a package of loose-leaf paper on the top shelf but kept a few pencils and spiral-bound notebooks in my backpack for later.
“Wat up, beeyotch?”
The last year I’d have to deal with Russ Landry.
The jerk rounded the corner, high-fiving one of his lackeys. “Boo-yah!” The two bumped chests and foot traffic came to a standstill as they hashed out how their summers had gone.
I kept my head down and decided on going the long way.
My first two classes, World History and Classic Lit, went off without a hitch. I kept to myself in the back of each room. Nobody I hung out with on the reg were in those classes, but neither was my archnemesis.
My two best friends were supposed to be in Physics with me though. I weaved through mazes of people the whole way. The district had approved the transformation of the smoker’s courtyard a decade ago. Filled in with cinder blocks and fluorescent lights, the once green space had become three climate-controlled classrooms and a computer lab. Stuart and Kasey both waved as I walked in, and Stuart removed his backpack from the empty chair next to him.
“How goes it?” he asked. We’d been bros since we were a couple of twerps in elementary school.
“I’m here, ain’t I?”
The bell rang, and everyone hustled to find a seat. Kasey sat across the aisle, and I leaned over and whispered, “Hey” before the teacher introduced herself and started taking attendance.
“Warsh?” Mrs. Paisley had frizzy sand-colored hair and wore a pair of lavender-framed glasses that kept sliding down her nose. Her long skirt had a swirling purple-and-red-violet paisley pattern, and I figured that was a purposeful choice. “Jeremy Warsh?”
People said my full name, and their mouths sounded full, as if they’d tucked two midsized sacks of marbles into their cheek pockets.
“Here,” I murmured.
“All righty, then. That’s all of us. Welcome, Class of ’99; this is Physics!” Mrs. Paisley motioned to the room. She went right into a lecture on potential versus kinetic energy, not wasting a second of time with introductions and getting-to-know-you posters. I hard-core respected this decision. As she turned to write on the whiteboard, the classroom erupted with shuffling and zipping noises.
“I love that sound!” Mrs. Paisley chimed with her back still toward us. “It means you are invested in your futures! Your mission, if you choose to accept it, and you must…” Mrs. Paisley paused. Thirty adolescent groans tolled. “…is to build a mousetrap powered car by the end of this week.” She straightened a stack of papers at her lab table. A couple hands shot up. Mrs. Paisley carried the bundle to the front of her desk and handed them to me.
“Jeremy will pass out the instruction sheets, which I expect will answer many of your questions. But, yes, you there. In the back, mm-hmm.” Mrs. Paisley pointed to the back of the room. “I don’t know your name yet. What’s your question?”
The legs of my seat grated against the freshly polished linoleum floor. I counted two papers for each table. Russ Landry sat in the last row, smirking in his letterman jacket. Why the winter coat? It was ninety degrees outside. Even the AC struggled to keep up with the heavy August heat. Passing out the papers caused a line of perspiration to form under my pits. I tossed the handouts at him. Of course, he let them float to the floor.
“Hey, p-p-porky.” He talked loud enough for the kids around him to hear, but not Mrs. Paisley. Hardly ever did a teacher catch this guy in prick-mode. “You better p-p-pick those up.”
I’d stuttered one time in eighth grade during an oral presentation on Aztec culture—or maybe the Mayans? I couldn’t remember. Point was, Russ did. Assholes must be born with an extra memory sector. Within the additional brain fold existed embarrassing details from every weirdo’s tiny life.
“You wanna suck it, Russ?” My voice wavered, registering higher at the end of the sentence. Damn it. That wasn’t what I’d practiced all summer with Kasey. She’d made it sound hard and offensive. I sounded as if I’d just offered my junk on a serving platter. People snorted with laughter. My heart raced. Sprouting legs and wearing knee socks, shoes, and a sweatband, the little organ sprinted inside my chest.
“You think you’re funny now?” Russ leaned over the desk looking up at me, a coiled snake shaking its rattle.
“No.” I backed away.
“Nobody talks to me like that.” His cheeks flushed with excitement, anger, or his own body heat trapped in that ridiculous puffy coat. He wouldn’t make a scene now, would he? I walked away totally aware a beating could be on my horizon.
“Are you okay?” Stuart asked. “You gonna hurl, Warshman?”
“Possibly.” I patted my clammy face and sat back down.
“That sucks. I hoped to hit up Hefties for lunch.”
The burger joint down the street permeated a constant smoky smell, bringing even the crunchiest of health nuts to their knees. “I’m in.”
The bell rang—although more accurately, it chirped, signaling the end of class. Stuart promised to meet me at the restaurant and left. I’d shoved the new textbook and notepad into my bag when a meaty hand slammed all my stuff back down on the table.
“Leave him alone, Russ.” Kasey stood at the lab station next to mine, fitting her arms through the straps of her bedazzled backpack. Boys loved Kasey. She made out with a few but typically moved on after a couple weeks, claiming an overall dullness contaminated our species.
A creepy smile surfaced on Russ’s face as he sauntered toward her. “Looking good this year, Kasey.” He adjusted his crotch and waited for the usual coo he got from most girls when he handed out compliments. Kasey ignored him.
“What, you’re not gonna acknowledge me now? You had something to say when I was tryna chat with your boyfriend over there.” Russ placed both his palms on the table, claiming territory wherever he could get it. His stubbled jaw, level with Kasey’s chest, flexed as he chewed a wad of fluorescent green gum between his front teeth. “Least you can do is give me a smile, girl.”
Kasey tilted her head to the side and batted her lashes at Russ. Extending both middle fingers, she said, “See you around, pig.”
“You can count on it.” Russ pushed away from the table, watching her leave. He adjusted himself again.
I grabbed my things and hurried out of the room behind her. Russ feigned a pounce at me.
“She won’t always be around to protect you, dork!” he threatened.
Bodies shuffled through the two-lane hall. I trotted after Kasey. An easy trail to follow, her fake raspberry body spray overpowered the surrounding scents with its sweet-and-sour candyness.
“Wait up!” I panted.
“Do me a favor, Jeremy.” She stopped short, turning to point her finger in my face. “Don’t you ever pull that shit, okay?”
“I would never…” When her signature cat-eye outline around her eyes disappeared in a squinty glare, I knew to agree with whatever she said. “Um, okay…”
“Never tell a girl to smile for you.” Her lips were stained the same color as her cuffed maroon minidress. Stomping down the hall, she came up to my shoulders in her chunky Mary Janes. “You know why?”
I leaned against the wall of lockers and looked around. Kasey’s loudness and spasmodic movements were garnering attention.
“I’ll tell you why.” She wrenched her padlock down and banged open the metal door. “Because it’s not a woman’s job to look cute for you. That’s why.” Kasey dumped the textbooks from her morning classes in the bottom of her locker. She grabbed a fresh folder and zipped up her backpack. “Got it?” Hives were forming on her neck.
“Kase, it’s me,” I whispered. “You’re more than how you look.” That got her attention, and her shoulders relaxed. “We all are, right?”
“Right.” She rolled her lips. “Ready for lunch?”
“Sure. Stu said he’d meet us at Hefties.”
“Cool.” Her purse hit me in the stomach as she flung it over her shoulder. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
We stepped across the school building’s threshold, and my lungs pitched back against the glass doors—the southern Ohio air so thick with moisture, it was near solid. Throughout the neighborhood, the steady whir of AC units hummed, an orchestra of heavy machinery tuning relentlessly but never playing their own song. They had a job to do. Cool the people. This town could stifle anything.