Douglas Kolacki

Southern California refugee

Southern California refugee

The Off Switch

I just beat Keith Jeffers out of the cafeteria. Call Guinness! Jeffers, The Great Lightspeed, nipping at my heels for once, not the other way around. He wouldn’t even pass for a jock–scrawny, weasel-faced, reddish mop of hair. I can smell his body odor. Any closer, and his legs’ll get tangled up in mine. My bell-bottoms flap around my ankles.

“No way!” he guffaws. Keith’s the only one in gym class who actually laughs his way around the wide, wide track while the rest of us lag behind, wheezing.

Here comes Mark Walford with his bowl haircut, juggling an armful of books, looking everywhere but where he’s going. I give him a shove. Down he goes, books flying.

That costs me my lead; Keith matches me step for step now. “You and Sandee going out tonight?” he asks. Today’s Friday.

“Tomorrow.” He knows I never miss Chico and the Man. We slow to a walk, knowing what’s up ahead. By the time we reach the first floor, we’re practically crawling.

“Metal,” I growl, “shop.”

Where the teacher is paddle-happy, especially if you’re late. But they can’t crook their little fingers and make me show up whenever they want! I know my Constitutional rights as an American citizen.

All right, no paddling–substitute teacher today. Final bell, released for the day: I lose Keith in the mob of erupting, laughing, spitball-shooting classmates. Home to dinner. After Stepmom–mom to me, really–serves up potato stroganoff Hamburger Helper transformed into something you couldn’t match in any fancy restaurant, and I help her with the dishes and haul out the garbage, I move our phone from the kitchen counter to the kitchen table, tip back in my chair until I touch the wall, and spin Sandee’s number.

“Have you heard?” she asks.

“What’s that?”

“Mark Walford. He said he’s going to kill himself.”


Mark Walford. Round moon-face, taller than Keith but shorter than me–not many people tower over me–overweight enough for Keith to yell “Hey Meatball!,” sheepish enough for Joe Teal to tag him “Dork,” and enough into all those radiation-spawned city-stomping monsters for me to call him “Godzilla.”

Actually, before that, I called him Wallflower. Somewhere along the line, I changed it. It was me who dubbed Keith The Great Lightspeed, and that caught on, but I guess lightning doesn’t strike twice. Meatball was what everyone called Mark, including me, though I still kind of hope they’ll start using Godzilla.

Sandee’s in Walford’s Third Bell English class, and she saw it all. Mark raised his hand, and when called on, stood up and made his announcement.

“What did Mrs. Olson do?” I asked.

“She just asked him to sit down. Had him stay after class for a talk.”

“He’s clowning.”

“Do you know how he said he’d do it?”

She waits. Finally I ask, “How?”

“He thinks that somewhere on the human body, there’s something like an off switch. Press it, trip it, and that’s it. No pain, no mess. You’re just dead.”

When It Sticks

It’s Thursday Night, and Darrell is all set to tell the angels he won’t go to their meetings anymore.

At first he thought about just walking away–that is, going home after work on Thursdays, instead of taking two buses out to Jim’s suburban estate. On the other four weeknights he can walk in twenty minutes to his third floor flat, whose one distinguishing feature is that it overlooks the Seekonk River. Darrell suspects the rent would be a hundred bucks cheaper without this. The toilet gurgles all night long, and the neighbors downstairs aren’t always as quiet as he likes, but no matter–it’s home, and he need not share it with any other guy.

Just forget the meetings. They’ll get the idea soon enough.

Angels, though–he’s not sure what they would do. The last time someone left, Jim and his assistant leader, Tom (who’s still not an angel) went to the poor devil’s house and knocked on his door and asked nicely what was going on. Darrell doesn’t know how the conversation went, but the poor devil did not return.

That was before the whole portrait business started, though…

He likes more and more the idea of free Thursday nights. He could fix a proper dinner, like frying chicken in the Fry Daddy instead of stopping at the corner burrito shop and munching with one eye on his watch. He wouldn’t have to balance on a metal folding chair with a boxy guitar on his lap, strumming praise songs he’s privately never really liked, singing those songs besides, and leading everyone else in the singing on top of that. When his own attempts at transformation didn’t work out, he’d thought at least maybe he’d get out of leading the songs. An angel’s singing voice turns even a nursery rhyme into the music of the spheres, and fingers dragged across metallic strings interfere with this more than accompany it.

Still they urged him to play on.