Editor’s note: At one place in this story we purposely left the author’s “your” instead of “you’re” on the assumption that the student annotator of the textbook had written it that way.
You don’t have to read this if you don’t want to. I don’t care. I don’t give a damn about anything. I just don’t give a shit. It’s not like I’m an anarchist or anything, but I just couldn’t care less. That’s who I am. It was history class, and I didn’t have a clue what was flying. You probably want to hear all about the classroom and what the hell everyone looked like and all that descriptive crap, but I don’t give a shit. Honestly, it was just a bunch of idiots staring at a guy trying to talk in the front. Yay, clap clap that’s it. It’s an art form surviving these classes. You have to zone out till the sound gets all blurry and you can do whatever you want. Just don’t go too far. You’ll start drooling all over the textbook. Take it from me. I’ve done it.
Turn to page 84. That’s what it said. I was flipping through the textbook, not cuz I give a shit about history. I don’t care about that crap. I was just looking in the front where everyone writes their names just to see if I recognized anyone. And it was kinda sad seeing all these suckers write their names year after year on top of each other like robots. Probably a hundred years ago when this thing was shiny and new without any doodles or gum stuck to it, some poor fuck wrote, “James P Weatherfield’’ in script and got a boner. On top of that was scrawled “turn to page 84.”
I’ve seen this shit before. You just turn and turn until there’s some corny message like, “enjoy class.’’ But whatever, Mr. Homan wasn’t showing any signs of letting up and there was nothing better to do. Yeah, so I was hunched over my desk, slouching cuz, you know, low profile, avoid eye contact with the teacher, standard stuff. And I turned to page 84 and there was another message, ‘’keep going… page 124.” I didn’t feel any sentimental bullcrap about some guy in the past urging me to keep going. That would just be dumb. I did wonder who the hell he was. Which name scribbled in the front was making me turn all these pages?
In the background, some guys were throwing stuff around the room. Between me and you Homan didn’t stand a chance. Page 124, okay what now… “don’t give up… turn to 93.”
Listen, I’m not a sucker or anything, but why the hell not. I kept on turning and turning for what seemed like forever. Time is suspended anyway in history classes; everybody knows that. I brought a watch once and it just didn’t move. Don’t look at clocks in school. That’ll kill you. Take it from me, I’ve learned the hard way. Page 78, 876, 123… destruction of Troy… Pompeii… sack of Rome…
I don’t care about anyone, let alone what happened a million years ago, but looking at all these pictures of dead people kinda deflated me. Not like I gave a shit one way or the other. Why would I? But it deflated me you could say. I mean every page this guy led me to was just more killing and destruction.
Peloponnesian wars… conquest of Britain… Visigoths… How many pages would I have to turn? My fingers were all chipped and bloody, flipping like mad through the annals of boredom. All over the pages were doodles of penises and other stuff. I don’t give a shit about drawing on school property or anything, but don’t draw penises. They’re kinda gross to be honest. “Haste makes waste… the faster you flip the sooner you slip… stop now and your a little bitch.’’ Real Socrates-type wisdom. What could I say? He got me. I was going to get to the end of this one way or the other.
“Turn… turn… turn…’’ All those pages were jumbling together in my head like a slideshow gone berserk. Flippity flip, turn, fold, crease, flip. Revolutions, famine, plague, and some fuck who invented the wheel. That cracked me up. I mean I coulda done that if I wanted to.
In my periphery, there was some chaos and yelling going on. Nothing too crazy, just regular history class antics. I used to join in this chaos back in the day. I would make a great paper airplane, not the crappy ones that barely take off, but one that really soared. Now I stay behind my stack of unopened tottering textbooks and booklets. It’s easier that way. Take it from me, I’ve been there.
My eyes were all watery from the blur of thousands of years flapping by. My back was aching from all the slouching. This was it. I had to be close. “Turn faster you little shit… almost there… c’mon…’’ I don’t know how I knew it but this one felt like the last. “Turn to page 546…’’
I don’t believe in astrology or any mystic Nostradamus bullshit, but my gut told me not to turn the page. Not that my gut had a great track record. Once it told me not to get on a bus cuz it was going to explode, and I walked like a goddamn hour home for no reason. I was hoping so bad that the bus would blow and I would have a real wack story to tell. But whatever.
“Turn to page 546…” Okay, alright, I’m going… I took it real slow. Savoring every fluttering page of misery, every review section, all the massacres in black and white. “540… 541… 542…” This should be good… It was weird how suddenly the sound was gone. Sure, the people were still there, moving and swirling about in slow motion, mouths open, arms windmilling. “543… 544… 545…” C’mon… c’mon… let’s gooo…
Bits of paper confetti burst out of the air conditioner. “54—” Showers of ripped-up tests flew everywhere. Homan was shouting something.
I brushed off the hundreds of white fragments.
Words of massive blue ink covered the page. “Hahaha,” it said from on top of ancient Mesopotamia. “Hahaha, you are such a dumb fuck. You seriously turned all those pages like an idiot. What a fucking loser you must be. Oh God, I pity you. Actually, I don’t. You deserve this. Little pathetic bitch. Ohhh, you’re feeling bad now, are you? Boo hoo… No one cares… Go die in a corner. No one will even realize until they smell your rotting corpse. Oh boy, oh man, I wonder what year you’re reading this in. I wonder how it’s possible to be a bigger fuckup than you. I mean, why bother? Why trouble yourself with existence? You insignificant meaningless shit. You primordial actualization of worthlessness. I can picture you sitting there all curious, turning those pages earnestly, ignorant of your own idiocy. Listen pal, you… are nothing. Hey, buddy… I know you will never be anything but the fucked piece of trash you are. Are you crying now? I hope so. Jesus, what a loser you are. Ever dreamed of anything? Boy, I hope not. I hope you knew from the start of your miserable life that nothing would come of it. That you would be a fucking catch-all sack of stupidity. Sorry, bud, I can’t continue. This is too funny. Oh God, I can’t keep a straight face. Jeeeez… Hahahahahahaha…
“The Code of Hammurabi was the… Cuneiform is generally understood to be…”
I grabbed my pen. “Fuck you, man. Fuck you little shit cunt bastard asshole you dumb piece of…”
I realized that whoever wrote that would never read it. Class was over and I was alone. Covered in stupid white confetti.
I don’t give a crap about anything, I really don’t. Sure, I felt a bit… I don’t know…
I chucked the stupid book on the floor, and then I remembered it cost like sixty bucks so I threw it back on the desk. That was stupid. Homan was standing in front of his desk in a daze. White paper all over his hair and shoulders. The entire class must’ve run out early on him, I used to join them, but I got too lazy. I almost felt bad for him, but not really, cuz he was a teacher, and they’re evil and all.
“Anthony… I want to talk to you,” he said.
Oh Christ, oh shit. What the hell does he want from me? What stupid shit did I do anyway recently? Oh damn…
He looked up at me, his eyes misty from the nightmare of high school teaching. Christ, I really almost did feel sorry for the guy. “Anthony… There is so much pain in the world… so much suffering… It is unimaginable…”
I had no idea what the hell he was talking about. I figured it was some sorta test or something. “Umm… Communism?” I ventured in the pause. I don’t think he even heard me.
“Right now, Anthony, my wife is being fucked by a golf instructor in Bangkok…”
Oh jeez. Oh Christ. I have this tic that I rub the back of my hair when I’m awkward. I was doing it like crazy. Shit. Don’t ever develop a tic. They’re just not worth it. Take it from me, I have one and it sucks.
“Given the heartless symmetry of the time zone system, this could be happening at this very moment. This precise second…” He adjusted his glasses and stared right at me. “But today, while I was teaching, with all the squalid misery of life bearing down on my being. With the daily litany of viscious indignities being inflicted on me. Amid the discordant indifference of the wretched hoi polloi… I saw you. Yes, you, Anthony. Reading, with a concentration I had never seen in all my years. And the writing… such intensity… I know how hard it must’ve been… and to know that one student was listening… was learning in this harsh world… It wiped away all the sorrow, all the self-hatred… all of it gone…” His hand gripped my shoulder. “You’re a good man, Anthony… a good man…”
In the hallway, I stumbled to my locker in a daze. I’m a tough guy. Everyman for himself, Darwin, Nietzsche, and all that. But I don’t know, I just felt wiped. Like everything was sucked out of me. I didn’t feel like vaping or doing anything. It all just seemed like a joke.
Moe was leaning against the lockers. “Hey, what the hell happened in there? He molest you?”
I slammed my locker open. “Nah.”
“Haha yeah, you’re not attractive enough. Only the good-looking kids get molested. That’s just a fact. Haha.”
“What a zinger, man.” My voice cracked a bit when I said. Not like I was goin’ to cry, I would never do that. It was just a fluke.
He must’ve heard it cuz he smiled wider. “Can I borrow your vape?”
I shut my locker. Someone had stolen my deodorant, which pissed me off. I grabbed a handful of double bubbles and slunk down the hallway.
“Hey man, what about the vape?!”
Middle finger, thrust behind my back. I was getting the hell outta here. He didn’t bother me at all. I mean people are shit to each other. What’s new? I don’t give a shit. I’m not a good person myself anyway.
Outside was pretty cold. It was the kinda day where you stuff your hands in your pockets and walk as fast as possible. There were trucks and cars clogging up the streets, honking, and screeching. It’s pretty noisy if you think about it. I find it sorta dumb that people can’t just travel around without so much noise. It grates on me, it really does.
Walking away from school early always gives me this adrenaline like I broke from prison or something. And any minute someone will swoop down and say, “Hey, you don’t belong here. Get back to school!” But no one ever did cuz no one gives a shit about anything. You can tell just by looking at them. They walk up the subway stairs looking like their mother just died, running to catch a bus even though they don’t want to be home.
The elevator was broken in our building so I had to walk up four flights of stairs like an idiot. Curled up on the couch was my sister reading. That cracked me up, it really did. Family’s a fraud and I hate the lot of them, but she’s alright. Not like I care too much about her, but she’s okay for family. She’s always reading, like a philosopher or something. I don’t know why, but that always cracks me up. I wouldn’t read a word if you had a gun to my goddam head, and there she was just reading for fun.
She glanced up at me.” What happened? You ditched again?”
“Aw I don’t know… it’s just… you know… just…”
She didn’t ask anything else. I liked that. My parents would have gotten all annoying and interrogated me for hours. Some people just get it. I shrugged my knapsack off and sat by the window.
My legs dangled from the windowsill, waving and kicking, I stuffed like fifty pieces of gum in my mouth. “Whatcha reading?” I asked through a wad of saliva and gum.
She smiled. “The Phantom Tollbooth.”
My sister and I, we have this dumb joke. I mean it’s nothing special, but whenever she had a book our parents wouldn’t let and they asked her what she was reading, she always said The Phantom Tollbooth. I guess it’s kinda corny, but it stuck, and every time I see her reading we repeat the whole thing. Sure, it’s dumb and corny, but it cracks me up a bit, it really does. Maybe it’s the nostalgia. Jokes are stupid that way. They grow on you. Take it from me…
The city was going to sleep through the window. There were kids playing in the street below, their shouts drifting up toward the darkening sky. Everything was getting bluish like a fluorescent lightbulb slowly dying, the clouds disappearing, the night covering everything, all the lamps waking up in a sorta hazy glow. I just watched those kids running around kicking a ball, laughing, and shouting. I didn’t think anything stupid like I want to be a kid again or any dumb stuff like that. They looked happy. You know how kids could be. Yelling, not giving a damn about the cold or anything. Night’s like these, the cold isn’t even cold and the wind is a sort of cool whisper.
A garbage truck was coming down the road, growling like mad, blinking with a thousand orange lights. They all ran off as it came, leaving the street empty. Man, you had to see it, you really did. Cars were streaking by like silver bullets, going home to a million different places in the night that stretched on forever. Don’t ask me how long I stayed there. Or if I cried or anything. Why would I do that? That would just be dumb. Yeah, that would be pretty stupid…
There was this trashcan on the side of the road. All alone… little bits of garbage jumping in and out… I guess… I don’t know… not that I was sentimental at all… no not at all… But it made me wish morning would never come… Life is better at night, it really is… take it from me… The garbage truck’s coming… And all the trash is getting swallowed up. The can rolling down the sidewalk empty. Man, that’s just sad… I don’t know why…
Yitzchak Friedman is a person who lives in the world.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Whatever”:
In this unusual piece, author Yitzchak Friedman uses the brassy, in-your-face voice that J. D. Salinger used in his classic The Catcher in the Rye to suck in the reader. If you’ve read Salinger’s novel, you’ll see the parallels at once—even to not revealing the narrator’s name until several pages in (or in this case, near the end of the story).
Yet Friedman’s piece is different. Even though this story is set in a world seventy years later than Salinger’s, we see that some aspects of human behavior haven’t changed. The author accomplishes quite a lot in 2600 words, capturing not only Anthony’s character but his world as well.
The ending is interesting because we see Anthony contradicting what he told us about himself in the opening—because he really does care about things. And that makes for a compelling and strong character arc.