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Werewolves in Their Youth, Page 2

Michael Chabon

  “Are you expelled?” I said. There was no reply. “Are you, Timothy?” Again he said nothing, and I couldn’t stop myself from turning around to look at him. “Timothy, are you expelled?”

  “I’m not Timothy, Professor,” said Timothy, gravely but not without a certain air of satisfaction. He didn’t look at me. “I’m afraid your precious antidote didn’t work.”

  “Come on, Timothy,” I said. “Cut it out. The moon’s not even full today.”

  Now he turned the werewolf glint of his regard toward me. “Where were you?” he said. “I was looking for you.”

  “I was in the ditch.”

  “With the ants?”

  I nodded.

  “I heard you talking to them before.”


  “So, are you Ant-Man?”

  “No, dummy.”

  “Why not?”

  “Because, I’m not anybody. You’re not anybody, either.”

  We fell silent for a while and just sat there, not looking at each other, kicking at the legs of our chairs. I could hear Mrs. Gladfelter and Mr. Buterbaugh talking softly in his office; Mr. Buterbaugh called her Elizabeth. The telephone rang. A light flashed twice on Mrs. Maloney’s phone, then held steady.

  “Thanks for calling back, Joel,” I heard Mr. Buterbaugh say. “Yes, I’m afraid so.”

  “I went to see Dr. Schachter a couple times,” I said. “He had Micronauts and the Fembots.”

  “He has Stretch Armstrong, too.”

  “I know.”

  “Why did you go see him? Did your mother make you?”

  “Yeah,” I said.

  “How come?”

  “I don’t know. She said I was having problems. With my anger, or I don’t know.” Actually, she had said—and at first Dr. Schachter had concurred—that I needed to learn to “manage” my anger. This was a diagnosis that I never understood, since it seemed to me that I had no problems at all managing my anger. It was my judgment that I managed it much better than my parents managed theirs, and even Dr. Schachter had to agree with that. In fact, the last time I saw him, he suggested that I try to stop managing my anger quite so well. “I don’t know,” I said to Timothy. “I guess I was mad about my dad and things.”

  “He had to go to jail.”

  “Just for one night.”

  “How come?”

  “He had too much to drink,” I said, with a disingenuous shrug. My father was not much of a drinker, and when he crashed the party my mother had thrown last weekend to celebrate the closing of her first really big sale, he broke a window, knocked over a chafing dish, which set fire to a batik picture of Jerusalem, and raised a bloody blue plum under my mother’s right eye. People had tended to blame the unaccustomed effects of the fifth of Gilbey’s that was later found in the glove compartment of his car. Only my mother and I knew that he was secretly a madman.

  “Did you visit him in jail?”

  “No, stupid. God! You’re such a retard! You belong in Special School, Timothy. I hope they make you eat special food and wear a special helmet or something.” I heard the distant slam of the school’s front door, and then a pair of hard shoes knocking along the hall. “Here comes your retard mother,” I said.

  “What kind of special helmet?” said Timothy. It was never very easy to hurt his feelings. “Ant-Man wears a helmet.”

  Mrs. Stokes entered the office. She was a tall, thin woman, much older than my mother, with long gray hair and red, veiny hands. She wore clogs with white knee-socks, and in the evenings after dinner she went onto her deck and smoked a pipe. Every morning she made Timothy pancakes for his breakfast, which sounded okay until you found out that she put things in them like carrots and leftover pieces of corn.

  “Oh, hello, Paul,” she said, in her Eeyore voice.

  “Mrs. Stokes,” said Mrs. Gladfelter, coming out of the principal’s office. She smiled. “It’s been kind of a long afternoon for Timothy, I’m afraid.”

  “How is Virginia?” said Mrs. Stokes. She still hadn’t looked at Timothy.

  “Oh, she’ll be fine,” Mr. Buterbaugh said. “Just a little shaken up. We sent her home early. Of course,” he added, “her parents are going to want to speak to you.”

  “Of course,” said Mrs. Stokes. I saw that she was still wearing her white apron and her photo name tag from her job. She worked at the bone factory out in the Huxley Industrial Park, where they made plastic skulls and skeletons for medical schools. It was her job to string together all the delicate beadwork of the hands and feet. “I’m ready to do whatever you think would be best for Timothy.”

  “I’m not Timothy,” said Timothy.

  “Oh, please, Timmy, stop this nonsense for once.”

  “I’m cursed.” He leaned over and brought his face very close to mine. “Tell them about the curse, Professor.”

  I looked at Timothy, and for the first time saw that a thin, dark down of wolfish hair had grown upon his cheek. Then I looked at Mr. Buterbaugh, and found that he was watching me with an air of earnest expectancy, as though he honestly thought there might be an eternal black-magical curse on Timothy and was more than willing to listen to anything I might have to say on the subject. I shrugged.

  “Are you going to make him go to Special School?” I said.

  “All right, Paul, thank you,” said Mrs. Gladfelter. “You may go back to class now. We’re watching a movie with Mrs. Hampt’s class this afternoon.”

  Mrs. Maloney had reappeared in the doorway, her cheeks flushed, her lipstick fresh, smelling of cigarette.

  “I’ll see that he gets there,” she said—uncharitably, I thought.

  “See you later, Timothy,” I said. He didn’t answer me; he had started to growl again. As I followed Mrs. Maloney out of the office I looked back and saw Mr. Buterbaugh and Mrs. Gladfelter and poor old Mrs. Stokes standing in a hopeless circle around Timothy. I thought for a second, and then I turned back toward them and raised an imaginary rifle to my shoulder.

  “This is a dart gun,” I announced. Everyone looked at me, but I was talking to Timothy now. I was almost but not quite embarrassed. “It’s filled with darts of my special antidote, and I made it stronger than it used to be, and it’s going to work this time. And also, um, there’s a tranquilizer mixed in.”

  Timothy looked up, and bared his teeth at me, and I took aim right between his eyes. I jerked my hands twice, and went fwup! fwup! Timothy’s head snapped back, and his eyelids fluttered. He shook himself all over. He swallowed, once. Then he held his hands out before him, as if wondering at their hairless pallor.

  “It seems to have worked,” he said, his voice cool and reasonable and fine. Anyone could see he was still playing his endless game, but all the grown-ups, Mr. Buterbaugh in particular, looked very pleased with both of us.

  “Thank you very much, Paul.” Mr. Buterbaugh gave me a pat on the head. “Remember to say hello to your mother for me.”

  “I’m not Paul,” I said, and everybody laughed but Timothy Stokes.

  When I got home from school my mother was down in the basement, at my father’s workbench, dressed in the paint-spattered blue jeans and hooded sweatshirt she put on whenever it was time to do dirty work. She had pulled her hair back into a tight ponytail. Normally I would have been glad to see her home from work already and dressed this way. One of the sources of friction between us, and among the various angers that I had supposedly been attempting to manage, was my dislike of the way she looked as she went off to work in the morning, in her plaid suit jackets, her tan stockings, her blouses with their little silk bow ties, her cabasset of hairsprayed hair. In the days before she went back to work my mother had been a genuine hippie—bushy-headed, legs unshaven, dressed in vast dresses with Indian patterns; she was there to fix bowls of hot whole-grain cereal in the morning and to give me a snack of dried pineapple and milk in the kitchen when I came home. Now, every morning, I fixed myself a breakfast of cornflakes and coffee, and when I got home I generally turned on the t
elevision and ate the box of Yodels that I purchased at High’s every day on my way back from school. But my pleasure at the sight of her in her old, ruined jeans, patched with a scrap of a genuine Mao jacket she had bought as a student at McGill, was diminished when I saw that she was dressed this way so that she could stand at my father’s workbench and toss all the delicate furniture of his home laboratory into an assortment of battered liquor cartons.

  “But, Mom,” I said, watching as she backhanded into a box an entire S-shaped rack of stoppered test tubes. The glass, in shattering, made a festive tinkle, as of little bells, and the dank basement air was quickly suffused with a harsh chemical stink of bananas and mold and burnt matches. “Those are his experiments.”

  “I know it,” said my mother, looking grave, her voice filled with vandalistic glee. My father was a research chemist for the Food and Drug Administration. He was a small man with a scraggly gray beard and thick spectacles. He wore plaid sports jackets with patches on the elbows, carried his pens in a plastic pocket liner, and went to services every Saturday morning. He held a national ranking in chess (173) and a Canadian patent for a culture medium still widely used in that country, where he had been born and raised. “And he worked very hard on them all.” She hefted the heavy black binder in which my father kept his lab notes and dropped it into a box that had once contained bottles of Captain Morgan rum; there was a leering picture of a pirate on the side. “For years.” The laboratory notebook landed with a crunch of glass, breaking the throats of a dozen Erlenmeyer flasks beneath it. “I’ve asked him many, many times to come over here and pick up his things, Paulie. You know that. He’s had his chance.”

  “I know.” On his departure from our house, my father had taken only a plaid valise full of summer clothing and my grandfather’s Russian chess set, whose black pieces had once been fingered by Alexander Alekhine.

  “It’s been months now, Paulie,” my mother said. “I’ve got to conclude that he just doesn’t want any of his stuff.”

  “I know,” I said.

  She surveyed the wreckage of my father’s home laboratory—a little ruefully now, I thought—and then looked at me. “I guess it must seem to you like I’m being kind of mean,” she said. “Eh?”

  I didn’t say anything. She held out her hand to me. I grabbed it and tugged her to her feet. She lifted the Captain Morgan carton and stacked it atop a Smirnoff carton filled with commercially prepared reagents in their bottles and jars; there was a further crunch of glass as the upper box settled into the lower. She hoisted the stacked boxes to her hip and jogged them once to get a better grip. One carton remained on the floor beside the workbench. We both looked at it.

  “I’ll come back for that one,” my mother said, after a pause. She turned, and started slowly up the stairs.

  For a minute I stood there with my hands jammed into my pockets, staring down into the box at my father’s crucible tongs, at his coils of clear plastic tubing, at his stirrers, pipettes, and stopcocks wrapped like taffy in stiff white paper. I knelt down and wrapped my arms around the carton and lowered my face into it and inhaled a clean, rubbery smell like that of a new Band-Aid. Then I lifted the carton and carried it upstairs, through the laundry room, and out into the garage, trying to fight off an unsettling feeling that I was throwing my father away. The rear hatch of our Datsun was raised, and the backseats had been folded forward.

  “Thank you, sweetie,” said my mother, gently, as I handed her the last carton. “Now I just have to load up a few more things, and then I’m going to run all this stuff over to Mr. Kappelman’s office.” Mr. Kappelman was my father’s lawyer; my mother’s lawyer was a woman she called Deirdre. “You can just stay here, okay? You don’t have to help me anymore.”

  “There’s no room for me anyway,” I said.

  Most of the space in the car was already taken up by packed liquor boxes. I could see the fuzzy sleeve of my father’s green angora sweater poking out of one carton, and, through the finger holes in the side of another, I could make out the cracked black spines of his college chemistry texts. Stuffed into the spaces among the boxes and into odd nooks of the car’s interior were my father’s bicycle helmet, his clarinet case, his bust of Paul Morphy, his brass wall barometer, his shoeshine kit, his vaporizer, the panama hat he liked to wear at the beach, the beige plastic bedpan that had come home from the hospital with him after his deviated-septum operation and now held all his razors and combs and the panoply of gleaming instruments he employed to trim the hair that grew from the various features of his face, a grocery bag full of his shoe trees, the Montreal Junior Chess Championship trophy he had won in 1953, his tie rack, his earmuffs, and one Earth shoe. There was barely enough room left in the car for the three boxes my mother and I had dragged up from the basement. I helped her squeeze them into place, audibly doing more damage to their rank-smelling contents, and then my mother put her hands on the edge of the hatch and got ready to slam it.

  She said, “Stand clear.” I flinched. I guess I must have shut my eyes; after a second or two I realized that she hadn’t closed the door yet, and when I looked at her again her eyes were scanning my face, darting very quickly back and forth, the way they did when she thought I might have a fever.

  “Paul,” she said, “how was school today?”


  “How’s your asthma?”


  She took her hands off the lip of the hatch and crouched down in front of me. Her face, I saw, was still buried under the thick layer of beige frosting that she applied to it every morning.

  “Paul,” she said. “What’s the matter, honey?”

  “Nothing,” I said, turning from her unrecognizable face. “I’ll be right back.” I started away from her.

  “Paul—“ She took hold of my arm.

  “I have to go to the bathroom!” I said, twisting free of her. “You look ugly,” I added as I ran back into the house.

  I went to the telephone and dialed my father’s number at work. The departmental secretary said that he was down the hall. I said that I would wait. I carried the phone over to the couch, where I had thrown my parka, and took my daily box of Yodels from its hiding place inside the torn orange lining. By the time my father took me off hold I had eaten three of them. This didn’t require all that much time, to be honest.

  “Dr. Kovel,” said my father as he came clattering onto the line.


  “Paul. Where are you?”

  “Dad, I’m at home. Guess what, Dad? I got expelled from school today.”

  “What? What’s this?”

  “Yeah, um, I got really mad, and I thought I was a werewolf, and I, um, I bit this girl, you know—Virginia Pease? On the neck. I didn’t break the skin, though,” I added. “And so they expelled me. Can you come over?”

  “Paul, I’m at work.”

  “I know.”

  “What is all this?” His breath blew heavy through the line and made an irritated rattle in the receiver at my ear. “All right, listen, I’ll be there as soon as I can get away, eh?” Now his voice grew thick, as though on the other end of the line, while he held the receiver in the middle of his blank little office in Rockville, Maryland, his face had gone red with embarrassment. “Is your mother there?”

  I told him to hold on, and went back out to the garage.

  “Mom,” I said, “Dad’s on the phone.” I said these words in a voice so normal and cheerful that it hurt my heart to hear them. “He wants to talk to you.” I smiled the conspiratorial little smile I had so often seen her use on her clients as she hinted that the seller just might be willing to come down. “I think he wants to apologize.”

  “Did you call him?”

  “Oh, uh, yeah. Yes. I had to,” I said, remembering my story. “Because I got expelled from school. I have to go to Special School now. Starting tomorrow, probably.”

  My mother put down the hoe she had been trying to squeeze into the back of her car and went, rath
er unwillingly, I thought, to the phone. Before she stepped into the house she looked back at me with a doubtful smile. I looked away. I stood there, behind her car, gazing in at all my father’s belongings. My mother had said that she planned to take them over to his lawyer’s office, but I didn’t believe her. I believed that she meant to take them to the dump. I hesitated for an instant, then reached in for my father’s laboratory notebook. He had always been more than willing to show me parts of it, whenever I asked him to; and naturally I had taken many furtive looks at its innermost pages when he wasn’t around. But I had never really comprehended its contents, nor the tenor of the experiments he’d been performing down there in our basement over the years, although I had a general sense of disappointment about them, as I did about his whole interest, professional and vocational, in the chemistry of mildews and molds. Yet even if there was nothing of interest in his notes—a likelihood that I still could not fully accept—I nonetheless felt a sudden urge to possess the notebook itself. Perhaps someday I would be able to decipher its cryptic formulae and crabbed script, and thence derive all manner of marvelous pastes of invisibility and mind-control dusts, unheard-of vitamins and deadly fungal poisons and powders that repelled gravity. I reached for the notebook and then decided also to take two of the boxes of laboratory equipment. I knew who would keep them safe for me; I hoped, as I never had before, that he would still want to be my friend.

  I peered around the side of the garage, to make sure that my mother wasn’t watching from the front windows, then ran as quickly as I could toward the stand of young maples and pricker bushes that separated us from the Stokeses. The boxes were very heavy, and the shards of glass within them jingled like change. It was dinnertime, and nearly dark, but none of the lights were on in Timothy’s house. I supposed that he had been taken to see Dr. Schachter, and all at once I worried that he would never come home again, that they would just send Timothy straight off to Special School that day. Some people claimed that the little yellow van that sometimes passed us when we were on our way to school in the morning, its windows filled with the blank, cheerful faces of strange boys none of us knew, was the daily bus to Special School; but other people said that you had to go live there forever, like reform school or prison, and get visits from your parents on the weekends.