On the Friday that ended our painfully slow first week after spring break, Robby and I took our boards and skated through the filthy back alley of Grasshopper Jungle.
Nobody cared about skaters anymore.
Well, at least nobody cared among the four remaining businesses that managed to stay open in the Ealing Mall after the McKeon plant closed down: The laundromat Robby never quite made it to, The Pancake House, and the liquor and thrift stores owned by Shann’s stepdad.
So we could skate there, and did pretty much whatever we wanted to do.
Judging from the empty beer cans, the mysterious floral sleeper sofa we were certain was infested with pubic lice, and the pungent smell of piss in the alley, it was clear everyone else in Ealing was similarly okay with the no-limits code of conduct in Grasshopper Jungle, too.
And that proved to be an unfortunate fact for me and Robby on that Friday.
We had built ramps from sagging flaps of plywood that we laid across a flight of concrete steps behind a vacant unit that used to be a foot doctor’s office.
“Bad business plan,” Robby said.
“Fixing people’s feet in a town everyone’s dying to run away from.”
Robby was so smart it hurt my head to think about how sad he could be sometimes.
“We should go into business,” I said.
“Want to have a fag?”
Robby liked calling cigarettes fags.
There was no way we’d ever sit down on that couch. We upended blue plastic milk crates and sat with forearms resting across our knees while we propped our feet on our boards and rocked them back and forth like we floated over invisible and soothing waves.
Robby was a better smoker. He could inhale thick, deep clouds of cigarette smoke and blow life-sized ghost models of both of us when he’d casually lean back and exhale.
I liked cigarettes, but I’d never smoke if Robby didn’t.
“What kind of business?” Robby said.
“I don’t know. I could write stuff. Maybe comic books.”
“And you could draw me.” Robby took a big drag from his cigarette. “I’d be like your spokesmodel or something.”
I have to explain.
I have that obsession with history, too.
In one corner of my closet, stacked from the floor to the middle of my thigh, sits a pile of notebooks and composition binders filled with all the dumb shit I’ve ever done. My hope was that, one day, my dumb history would serve as the source for countless fictional accounts of, well, shit.
And I drew, too. There were thousands of sketches of me, of Shann and Robby, in those books.
I consider it my job to tell the truth.
“What, exactly, does a spokesmodel do?”
“We speak. And look good at the same time. It’s a tough job, so I’d expect to make decent money.”
“The shit out of it, Porcupine.”
Robby called me Porcupine because of how I wore my hair. I didn’t mind. Everyone else called me Austin.
It is Polish.
Sometimes, in wonder, I can marvel at the connections that spiderweb through time and place; how a dying bull in Tsarist Russia may have been responsible for the end of the world in Ealing, Iowa.
It is the truth.
When he was a young man, Andrzej Szczerba, who was my great-great-great-grandfather, was exiled from his home in a small farming village called Kowale. Andrzej Szczerba had been involved in a radical movement to resist the imposition of Russian language and culture on Poles. Andrzej, like many Polish boys, hoped that one day his country, which had been treated like a sausage between the dog jaws of selfish neighboring empires, would be able to stand on its own.
It was a good idea, but it was not going to happen in Andrzej’s lifetime.
So Andrzej was forced to leave Kowale—and travel to Siberia.
He did not get very far.
The train carrying the exiled Andrzej derailed when it struck a dying bull that had collapsed on the tracks. It was a terrible accident. Andrzej was left, presumed dead, abandoned in the middle of a snowy field.
Andrzej Szczerba wore a silver medallion with an image of Saint Casimir, who was the patron saint of Poland, on a chain around his neck. He believed Saint Casimir had saved his life in the train wreck, and every day for the rest of his life, Andrzej would kiss the medal
and say a prayer, thanking Saint Casimir.
It was a fortunate thing for me that Andrzej Szczerba did not die in that snowy field. Wounded, he walked for two days until he came to the town of Hrodna, where he hid from the Russians and ultimately married a Polish girl named Aniela Masulka, who was my great-great-great-grandmother.
Andrzej’s healthy Polish semen made four Catholic children with Aniela—two boys and two girls.
Only one of them, his youngest son, Krzys, would ever end up near Ealing, Iowa.
This is my history.