November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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Thaddeus Rutkowski/Fiction

 alice

 

Out of Fashion

 By Thaddeus Rutkowski

In school, I wore bell-bottoms made of brushed felt. The pants were tight around the thighs, but the bells — which had fringes — were very loose around the ankles. I kicked the fringes when I walked. For a top, I wore an orange corduroy shirt.

I walked alone in the halls of my high school. No one wanted to walk beside me. If I happened to be walking toward someone, the student stared at me as I passed.

*

I had one teacher — a Spanish teacher — who was a perv. He would notice any girl who wore a miniskirt. The school had a dress code — one of the rules was that the hem of a skirt had to touch the floor when the wearer was kneeling.

Whenever this teacher had any doubt about the length of a skirt, he would have the student kneel on the tiles, and if the fabric of her skirt touched the floor, she would be allowed to take a seat and the class would resume. If not, the teacher would dress her down, in Spanish.

When I walked into the classroom wearing my bell-bottoms, the teacher looked at the fringes brushing the floor and shook his head. He waved a finger, then rubbed one finger over the other as if to say, “Shame on you.”

“Tomás,” he said, addressing me by my Spanish name. “Tomás, we don’t do that here.”

*

My math teacher didn’t care what clothes students wore, but he was a sadist nonetheless. He said he would raise students’ grades, on one condition. “If you take a whack,” he said, “I’ll give you a higher letter.”

He opened a closet door to reveal a collection of paddles. He had flat wooden bats in various shapes, some with holes drilled through them for a greater sting.

Students lined up around the classroom, waiting to be paddled. The line included girls as well as boys. One by one, they went to the front of the room. Each of them took a swat, except for one boy, whose grade was too low for the paddle. He had to accept a kick. The teacher hauled back and booted the boy. The force of the blow sent the boy hopping forward, but he didn’t make a sound.

Only a few students were doing well enough not to get whacked. I was one of them. When the teacher noticed me sitting at my desk, he said, “You, Mouse, come up here. You’re next. You also get one — that’s a real number, plus one — just for being here.”

I rose from my seat and went forward.

*

At home, I put on hip boots to go fishing. My brother called the rubber wear “hippie boots.” I walked to the creek with the tops of the boots folded down. When I was ready to wade, I pulled up the tops and buckled the rubber straps around my belt.

As I walked through the fast-moving water, I realized the boots weren’t really necessary; the creek was only about two feet deep. I could have waded wet and made my casts. I could have fished without stepping into the water at all.

I put away my hippie boots when I returned from the stream. The next time I went out, I decided, I would wear sneakers.

*

My father took my family to see the movie Alice’s Restaurant. The movie was rated R, and I looked forward to seeing some sex, but there was next to none in the film. There was some nudity when the main character was given a physical exam for induction into the military. There was drug use among the people who were living communally. There was some swearing. That was it.

*

Later, my father became angry about a scene in the movie. In the sequence, one of the characters, a recovering junkie, gets high on drugs and swings around on some kind of apparatus. As he hangs like a monkey, he says repeatedly, “I am an artist!”

“That guy was no artist,” my father said. “He was a horse’s ass.”

After a few drinks, my father called me to where he was sitting. “I’m a real artist,” he said, “I’m serious, too serious for the rest of the clowns. But you don’t give me my due. You treat me like your social organizer. My job is not to entertain children!”

*

My mother brought home a small box from the hospital where she worked. The box held greeting cards. “Look,” she said. “It’s drawing by your father.”

I looked at the sepia-colored drawing my father had made. It showed the hospital where my mother worked. Every edge of the building was sharp; every angle followed perspective. The roof of the car port jutted out over the area where ambulances arrived. The windows of the rooms looked new and clean.

I could see  that my father had talent. He had exceptional eye-hand control. I couldn’t understand how his hand could be so steady, even after years of drinking.

*

My sister embroidered an image from one of my father’s paintings onto a lapel of my jacket. In light- and dark-blue thread, she constructed an antique bottle, the kind with a stopper instead of a twist cap. It was one of the bottles my father had dug from an old dump in the woods. He’d cleaned the old glass container and set it up in a still life.

The bottle floated there, against the tan color of my cotton jacket. I wore the jacket to school, and some students noticed the splotch of color in the shape of a bottle, but no one asked me what it was.

*

I tried writing a piece in the manner of a book I was reading. The book was ostensibly about fishing for trout in America, but it was really about a character named Trout Fishing in America. He did some fishing, but he did a lot of other things as well.

My piece had a beer wino in it. This wino drank only beer, which he bought by the case. He would start drinking in the afternoon, and he would go until he fell asleep in front of a television test pattern at night. He drank beer like a wino.

Somehow, my father saw my story. After he’d read it, he said, “Is this all you can do? Write funny stories? Why don’t you go to your room now and write another funny story?”

*

I went out to the porch, where there were hooks in the ceiling that had once held a swing. The swing must have broken and been taken down. Or maybe it hadn’t been broken, and had just been taken down. Perhaps my father took it down. Maybe he just didn’t like the idea of rocking in a swing on the front porch, chanting that he was an artist. It might have signaled boredom to him, as if people who sat in swings had nothing better to do. He had his ways of relaxing— sitting on a porch wasn’t one of them.

Most of our neighbors did, however, have porch swings. I would see them sitting there on summer evenings, looking out from their front porches. They wouldn’t be talking. They’d just be staring.

When I walked by, they wouldn’t talk to me. They wouldn’t wave, even if I waved. So I didn’t wave. I even avoided eye contact when I passed by.

The last thing I wanted to do was to have a swing on our porch. I didn’t want to rock back and forth in it and chant, “I am an artist.” That would be an embarrassing thing to do.

About the author:

Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of the novels Haywire, Tetched and Roughhouse. He teaches at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn and at the Writer’s Voice of the West Side YMCA in Manhattan. His writing has appeared in The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry, The New York Times, The International Herald Tribune, Fiction and Fiction International. He was awarded a 2012 fellowship in fiction writing from the New York Foundation for the Arts. 

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