Time flies. Two years ago this summer, New Times teamed up with Valley Bar to create a monthly live reading series. Our tagline: True Stories. And Drinks. We’ve lived up to that, with more than two dozen shows on the books — and documented in our podcast, available for free on the iTunes store. For information about upcoming shows, or to find out how to participate, visit barfliesaz.com. This week, we are sharing three of our all-time favorite Bar Flies stories, each touching on the theme “Back to School.”
Calvin is a student in my sophomore English class, and I’ve been calling him by his last name, unwittingly, for weeks. He has one of those last name/last name combos, like Taylor Martin or Hayden Cooper. He’s an ROTC kid, so it’s weird that it even bugs him, but I know it does because he raises his hand and says, “Tricia, may I ask you a question?” To let this slide would mean anarchy. It’s not even September yet. A fellow cadet chastises him for his un-ROTC-like conduct, and he explains that if I can call him by his last name, surely he can call me by my first.
He’s super-tall, Creamsicle-blond hair cropped close, all elbows and angles wearing desert-camo cargo pants, T-shirt tucked in, belt cinched tight. He carries a huge military-style backpack and reads the Ham Radio License Manual for his free-choice novel. I overhear him telling another student he wants raspberry pie for his birthday. I think this is a strange (and adorable) thing for a kid like him to want. On one of our library visits, I nudge him toward my friend, the school librarian. “Tell the librarian what you want for your birthday.” He does, and they start geeking out over Raspberry Pi, which, it turns out, is a circuit board, not a dessert.
Calvin starts accessorizing his drab uniform — except on dress blue days — with a scarf. He constantly plays with it, folding it, wrapping it around his head, his neck, his wrist, swinging it above his head, dangling and twisting it like a lasso, snapping it.
“You’re obsessed with that scarf.” I state the obvious.
“It’s not a scarf,” he huffs, “it’s a shemagh!”
The other sophomores quickly grow tired of Calvin’s constant boy-splaining, his sentences that begin, “Actually …” I’m more patient. Maybe because there is something unmothered, almost feral about him. He hangs out in my room a lot after school, keeping me from my work — or maybe this is the work. He’s seeking connection, I tell myself. Hyper-parented kids can’t wait to get home to their healthy snacks and overstuffed couches and AppleTV and goldendoodles. Their moms bring them Dutch Bros. and text them. A lot. No one seems too concerned about Calvin’s whereabouts, and his snacks are tiny packages of Craisins and waxy, decidedly nonorganic Red Delicious apples, a variety no one even eats anymore, cafeteria seconds, a perk of his work-study lunch-hour gig in the school cafeteria. Yeah, I think this is the work.
It’s true. He can be annoying in class. But he is provocative, often right, quoting some YouTube vlogger or his father, a veteran, about U.S. foreign involvement, computers, camping, anything military, the school cafeteria, and firearms. Calvin knows a lot about firearms. One of his scarves is decorated — if that’s the word — with semiautomatic rifles.
“Don’t wear that one to school again,” I advise him.
“But …” he begins to protest.
“Listen,” I assure him, “I’m telling you kindly.”
I don’t see him with friends, but he’s not a loner, exactly. He’s buoyant and eager, not a broody bone in his bony body, always bursting with hellos, never in a hurry to say goodbye.
He’s had a barky cough for weeks, and I nag him about asthma and pneumonia.
“Ms. Parker,” he tells me bluntly, “I have a mother.”
Really?! I’ve suspected that Calvin does not have a mother. She’s not listed on his student profile. He talks endlessly about his dad. Does he mean he has a mother in the sense that everyone does?
He would not be shy about telling me to mind my own business, but he shares his. He is so matter-of-fact, so practical, so unembarrassed. She’s not really in his day-to-day life much. She can’t be, for lots of reasons, but Calvin definitely has a mom.
He announces that he intends to buy me a shemagh. He’s going to the military surplus store. They cost $10, and do I have a color preference?
“No guns!” I warn. “You pick the color.”
He buys me a purple one, then he passes his ham radio test.
“What does HAM even stand for?” I ask my boyfriend on the way to Calvin’s house.
“You told me it stands for hard-as-a-motherfucker.”
“Nooo. Ham radio.” But neither of us has any idea.
It’s almost summer now, and we’re dropping off doubles of some camping equipment at Calvin’s house. He loves to camp and has some land up north. I’ve asked him to okay our visit with his dad, a Gandalf-meets-Hell’s Angel type. He seems suspicious of me — a good sign. We are both protecting this impossibly skinny boy whom I will not see for months.
Then in August, Calvin and I return, him as energetic and fidgety and talkative as ever. I don’t see him every day, but he still stops by. He stays late, sometimes with ROTC, sometimes in my room, sometimes in the library. He comes to our fledgling Secular Student Alliance meetings, where we argue so heatedly about Gamergate that the club dissolves. Calvin and I don’t need a club, and we continue to argue about gun control, welfare, and the early presidential campaign.
I text him on Thanksgiving. “Do you have pie today?”
“Yes, Ms. Parker, I have pie today. Happy Thanksgiving.”
That spring, we bump into each other turning a corner on campus. I’m late for a meeting, so he reverses his course and sort of escorts me, gabbing nonstop. Along the route, a science teacher lets her turtle crawl around in the grass, and before Calvin bounds off to check it out, he says in parting, “It’s weird that we’re friends because we disagree about everything.”
The following year, I transfer. My friend the librarian promises to keep an eye on Calvin. They have 45-minute conversations about Arma, an online game that mimics the tedium of army life, and she keeps me in the loop.
And for his part, so does he, checking in the day after the election.
“Hello Ms. Parker,” he texts. “Did you watch the polls last night, it was exciting.”
“That’s one word for it,” I reply.
He types three rapid-fire messages:
“It was at least entertaining and surprising.”
“Just figure to make sure you are ok.”
“Give my support to you.”
My heart, I admit, is broken for our racist, misogynistic country. But you have helped me face it, I tell him.
“Awesome,” he replies, “have a good school day.”
A few months later, he checks in again.
He’s writing an essay about hazing. He thinks the sources are biased because the studies are done by universities. Hazing is a guy thing, I insist. Also ...
“Hey! I’m going to try to come to your graduation,” I text.
“I enlisted” he replies.
I shoot back a grimace emoji — shit, why’d I do that? — then a congratulations.
Which branch? I ask.
“Army,” he replies, “and actually according to the articles, sororities and fraternities both haze similarly with less than a 20 percent difference.”
Half a dozen text bubbles appear in successive bloops:
“Ship out July 10. I’m going into satellite communication. If I do well I can enter their 1-E, which is the army’s space division.
“Pretty cool stuff.”
“Current general James Mattis is a good guy.”
“Though a bit stiff. That’s to be expected.”
“How are your classes? Did you enjoy your break?”
Yes, I tell him, I had a great break. I ask about his.
“Went camping. Thanks for the gear,” he replies, and I picture him in my old blue tent without the rain-fly, gazing at a star-blanket sky, quiet and thinking. Not about his mom or his teacher, but about radios, circuit boards, satellites, space.
And forts — Jackson, Gordon, and Benning, in that order.
“Calvin” was performed as part of the May 2017 edition of Bar Flies at Valley Bar in Phoenix.
Tricia Parker teaches high school English and ELL and has endlessly circular conversations about words like “scoundrel” and how they translate (or don’t) into Arabic, Spanish, Urdu, and Swahili. Her students can all curse in each others’ languages and sometimes manage to learn a bit of English, too. She’s grateful for the calming effects of grammar in the classroom and in the world and is still riding high from a recent conversation with a student who asked — because he had been wondering about it a lot — if the coordinating conjunction “yet” works like the subordinating conjunction “although.”