Richard Jespers

When I hear a snark’s been killed, I figure the cops’ll nail a fag within hours, but it doesn’t come down that way. The paper says that Tommy Goen died from a single gun shot to his head, near point-blank range, in his own backyard. And there are no clues, no smoking guns, no shells. All the snarks think a fag did it, and all of us fags think it’s a snark. But everyone knows guns are owned by snarks, not fags.

And everyone knows that all of us in drama, whether we like chicks or not, we’re all fags, not to mention all the academics. Here are the real differences. Fags do drama; snarks make drama. Fags make their grades; snarks float and flunk. Fags like girls; snarks fuck them blind. Fags will go to college; snarks will sleep. But it goes further. Fags are mostly white; snarks mostly not. Fags drive first-generation Explorers their dads give them. Snarks drive vintage Chevies that hop up and down with a touch of a lever under the dash, or they strut around in saggy jeans. Fags have money; snarks jingle coins in their pockets. Fags rent the robe for graduation; snarks spike the dropout rate. Fags eat lunch out; snarks commandeer the cafeteria. Fags take a chick to homecoming and buy her a huge mum with long streamers. After the game snarks sit in their cars and wait for us fags so they can steal the mums and our girls. And don’t forget about sports. The football team is half fag, half snark; they call a truce to play on Friday nights. They try to win one game a year, homecoming, usually against a smaller team from out of town. And of course, I’ve only been talking about the guys. All the girls are either fags or snarks, too. MetroMagnet has no independents. You’re either a fag or a snark or you’re dead, quite obviously.

Tommy Goen wasn’t always a fag. That’s probably what got him killed. Well, I don’t know that for sure, but I do know he was sick of all the fighting and had started a movement to get the two sides talking, publishing little articles of understanding in the newspaper. Then poof, he was gone. Unlike the rest of us fags who transfer in from the better parts of town, Tommy lived in a house across the alley from the school. He once invited me over to rehearse a scene. Lying on his bed and staring out his window, I could see the huge smokestack rising out of the auditorium. The mother he left behind is Mexican, his father Anglo. White name, tan skin, but if he hadn’t told anyone, no one would’ve known. He could have passed as a fag, I mean, if he’d wanted to. But he wasn’t like that. He felt that if he did what God wanted, he would be safe. He told me that once between dance rehearsals and each of us was downing a bottle of PowerAde.

“God told me, ‘Tommy, you have the power. You should win them to my side.’”

“And you respond?” I said, having acquired my parents’ tolerant but snotty view that God may exist but only in your mind.

Tommy shrugged.

“It’s so hard, man,” I said. “We’re the fags. We stand for everything that is decent. Snarks are dropout druggies.”

“No, we’re…they’re not. Not all of them.”

“See! You’re a fag at heart,” I said. “You can cross over.”

“That’s just it,” he argued. “There’s nothing to cross over. Underneath the crap, we’re all the same.”

I have to respect his passion, if not his opinion.

One night I go out to my car after Grease rehearsal, and these snarks, about five of them, jump me. Start patting me down for my keys, which are plainly in my hand. When I jingle them in one guy’s snarky face, he grabs them. Snarks tie me up with some skank’s pantyhose and leave me in the middle of the MetroMagnet parking lot. Then they drive my car all over town, in and out of bars all night long, crashing clubs with phony IDs, I’m told. Meantime, I schlub my way home and sneak in through my bedroom window.

The next day, when my parents see my Explorer isn’t in the drive, it’s too late. The cops have already found it in a cotton field south of town. Nothing left but a charred skeleton. Nada. My parents are pissed off, not because of the car so much, but because I didn’t stand up for myself, didn’t call the law. My father says, “The police might have been able to find those thugs in traffic and stop them. Now they’ll see you as an easy mark.” Parents always use the word “police,” as if it’s a term of endearment, as if they’re our friends. Where was the nice policeman when the snarks turned my car to charcoal?

The fag girls feel sorry for me, the snark girls laugh behind their hands. Other fags offer me rides until I find an old Corolla my dad buys for me. The snarks…snark…make that obnoxious laugh as I walk to my new wheels. It’s said they patented the sound when a principal caught onto their yellow bandannas around the neck, trying to get around our no-can-do dress code. We can’t wear earrings either, so snarks invented this laugh that makes like a loud snore attached to the syllable “ark.” It’s such a great sound that even the fags imitate it when no one’s listening. If you want to make fun of one of your fag friends, you snark him, like this. Snaaaaaark!

That’s when I get into real trouble. I’m snarking my friend Lenny in the hall one day, when a snark overhears me. He tells me to meet him in the parking lot after school, where all the snarks park. All day I debate it. Should I, or should I get a bunch of my fag friends and rumble? Uh huh. Right before the bell rings at four-thirty, I head for the lot east of the building and loiter for the longest time. The traffic slowly ebbs away, and there are only a handful of cars left. I walk up to the one with five guys, a ’63 Impala painted midnight blue. The inside of their car is swarming with smoke.

“You snark pretty good, bro,” the guy in the driver’s seat says, holding smoke in his lungs. I know who he is by face. “You must really be one of us, bro, if you can snark like that. Ain’t that so, my friends?” His friends agree with some mumbling sounds. “Why don’ you snark for us right now and join up? Join the right side. The good side. Let’s hear you, bro.”

Now this is what I’ve heard from the fags ever since I started MetroMagnet High. Fags are the right side, the good side. It’s hilarious to hear the same words coming out of their mouths, that they think they’re the holy anointed ones.

“Whatayou want?” I ask.

“Learn my name first. Roy Boy,” he says, extending his hand for a snark shake. Good thing I know how to curve my fingers at the tips and snatch my hand back and place it behind my ear before it gets burned. “And these are my bruthahs.” He gives me all their snark names, which I immediately forget. “And what about you, bro, what’s yo name?” Not one of them is black.


“What kind of fag name is that? You look more like a Jerm. Yeah, we’ll call you Jerm. Get in, Jerm.” Roy Boy looks like he’s eaten about a million tortillas in his life, but he hops out of the Chevy and I hump the middle.

The scrawny guy on the right gives me a gold toothy smile and tries to hand me a joint; his mustache looks like it’s been drawn in with pencil. We drive around for a while, hopping the car up and down when we’re stopped at a light. I’ve always thought that looks pretty stupid, and nothing about the experience changes my mind. Roy Boy plays some Mexican polka shit, but since he appears to have nothing but an AM radio, he doesn’t have much choice. Then someone pulls out a cassette, and Roy pushes it in where the dial gives way to an opening. The angriest chicka chicka boom boom kind of rap comes blasting out of huge speakers hidden somewhere in the back. Sometimes in the night, I can hear this stuff pound through my bedroom walls and crawl up my skin as one of their cars roams around town. Finally, the bros end up at K-Mart. I can’t say which one, because the cops might come back and study the security tapes.

“We be tired of this shit,” Roy Boy says, punching the stop button. The car is filled with a deafening something, not silence exactly. It seems we’re in the middle of a huge bubble filled with this sweet-smelling fog. “Go inside and get us Sean’s newest D.”

“I don’t have any money,” I say, coughing.

“Give me your wallet,” Roy Boy says, fingering my cash.

“Whatayou know!” I say.

“Yeah, this ought to be plenty.” He takes what I have and rolls it into his shirt pocket. “They all be sittin’ on a display by the cash register. We all wanna D. You got a credit card?” he asks, sifting through my ID shit. “No Visa?” he says, sticking the wallet in his pocket. “You can have it back after we’re through. Junior here’s goin’ in with you. You won’t even know he’s there.” He means the skinny guy with the gold smile and pencil mustache, who now passes this itty-bitty roach to someone in back.

“Oh, I get it,” I say. “But where am I suppose to stash ’em?”

“You talk funny,” says Junior.

One of the bros in back throws me his skanky parka, you can’t really tell what color it is. Both pockets have been expanded to slide things down into the lining. At a light Roy shows me how deep they are. “Thanks,” I say, without considering it might sound snotty.

After I step out of the car and put on the parka, I start thinking how I could break into a run, but Junior’s right behind me. Even if he’s whanged out of his mind, I have no doubt he could chase me for blocks. Besides, the guys in the car wouldn’t be far behind. I’ve long trusted my instincts to get me out of a jam (I love forties flicks), but this seems too hard. This one is designed to make me fail. Even if I do get out with all their Ds, what then? They’ll find some other test for me to fail.

I walk through the big sliding doors and grab a cart. I look behind me, but Junior has vanished. Then I wheel the cart around and see him perusing this wall of bagged candy. Next thing I know, he’s located a black overcoat he likes. In his Dockers, he looks like one of the managers going to lunch. I make my way to the music section. Yep, right there by the register, which is unmanned at the moment, stands the cardboard display with Sean’s latest. I can’t see Junior anywhere. Maybe now I can figure out how I’m going to do this, if I’m going to do this. Yo, I think. You have to do this. You have to, or you’ll be one dead fag. Then it hits me! A fag for a snark. A snark for a fag, and back and forth it’ll go until we’re all dead.

I begin inching my way over to the stand, thinking how I might slip the jewel cases into my pockets. I mean, every one of them is set in a plastic frame that’ll trigger an alarm if I walk out. I pick one up and begin to finger it. Maybe, with the brute strength held within in my fingers, I can get the frame off the CD and pocket it. Suddenly, someone crashes into the stand, knocking it over, and me with it. I get up.

“Oh, man, I’m sorry. God, I’m so clumsy.” It’s Junior, sounding so unsnarky I think I might sign him up for an audition.

The sales clerk comes running from an aisle or two away. While she’s futzing with all the CDs on the floor, I feel Junior brushing up against me, but he won’t let go. “Go to the back,” he whispers. “Run out the door when no one’s looking. And put this on.” He hands me a red ski mask. Uh huh.

It seems totally stupid, but I get up and start to move. He bends over and helps the clerk put CDs back on the stand, getting all flirty with her. And she’s eating it up, like a good little snark girl should. I’ve seen her in the halls at Metro; she works for the office, delivering messages to teachers and students.

I sprint to the back, putting my hands in the parka’s pockets. God, near the hem of my coat, I can feel the plastic cases bouncing off my ankles. In the restroom, I pee forever. Emerging, I linger in the hallway where employees seem to swarm like bees. I get a drink from the fountain and loiter, get a drink and loiter some more. Finally, the hall clears out, so I run to the back wall and shove the emergency door open. It begins to scream, this claxon. Blaam, blaam, blaam! And it keeps going as I run down the alley. I sprint as if someone might start shooting at me, all this plastic clanking together in the lining of my coat. There at the end of the block, there’s Roy’s Impala. I jump in, and he careens around the corner. The old heap can move pretty fast if you push it.

“Just now came outside,” a voice in back says. “They couldn’t ID us for nothin’.”

Pretty soon Roy Boy’s on the freeway heading toward the center of town.

“What about Junior?” I ask, breathless.

“Don’t worry about Junior, he’ll be home in time for dinner.”

All the bros laugh. At me. It would seem.

“Hey, Jerm, where’s my D?” asks Roy Boy.

I reach into my pockets and distribute CDs. The bros express sounds of gratitude and crack open the frames around the jewel cases, screeching the cellophane. In a few minutes, each one tosses his D out the window and a few miles later, all the plastic crap.

“What the fuck?” I say.

“Only fags listen to that shit,” Roy Boy says. “Let’s bag some tamales at Josie’s!” He takes the cash from his pocket, my cash, and tosses it my way.

It feels really strange going to MetroMagnet the next day. If I were running for office this very morning—before the fags figure out I’ve been inducted into the snarks—I could win by a landslide. Usually, it’s very close, a fag winning by a small margin, although snarks have been known to get everyone in their ranks to attend school on election day and sometimes win a tight one, too. Anyway, it’s the day of Tommy Goen’s memorial. The hall is filled with teachers wearing black like nuns, fags in black, snarks in black. There’s a certain dignity, everyone’s quieter than usual, and it seems very strange. The principal comes on the horn and announces the revised schedule and says the memorial will be at ten in the auditorium. We’ll get out in time for an early lunch.

I go to a short first period, where my English teacher Mr. Nunez teaches us a poem called “Daddy.” It’s complex, with all these symbols that no one but him can see, like they’re a secret code written in lemon juice. Someone says, “Why doesn’t Syl rhyme things, and everyone would know what she’s talkin’ about?” We write a class poem about Tommy in small groups, each group has to write a stanza. But the only rhymes I can come up for death are beth, reth, keth, seth, teth, neth . . . and no one likes my ideas anyway. Here are the first two lines written by a redhead named Cass.

Tommy Goen’s is goin’ down the line.
He’s an actor, his dancin’s ever so fine.

Of course, the poem makes no sense when we read all six stanzas together, but it doesn’t matter, the day’s already fucked. Who cares about some pathetic poem that makes even me cry before it’s over. I slink down the hall and up the stairs to second period. Yikes, Roy Boy’s coming right at me.

“Yo,” he says, stopping me before I can get to my next class.

“Yo, Roy,” I say. “Poor Tommy.” He raises his hand for a snark shake and I do the same. We look ridiculous, pulling our hands away at the last second.

Roy doesn’t say anything. And he doesn’t look so tough now. He’s shorter than me. I could probably take him, if I was into that kind of shit, but I don’t even like to wrestle. Maybe real fags like it, you know, all that slippery contact, but not me. I can still remember all the tag team shit I did in eighth grade, all that onion underarm BO. “Me and the bros be sittin’ front and center, see you there.” And he’s gone.

Shit. I can’t sit with snarks. Not at Tommy’s memorial. Well, I’ll get lost in the balcony, I’ll say some teacher made us sit up there because the lower level was full. Second period goes by like a flash, I can’t even remember what we do. It’s my algebra class, I think maybe we do homework. Teachers like to keep their classes on the same page, and if a morning class is cut short, then they have to kill time in the afternoon to keep us all together, so they kill time in the morning, too. They tell us this like it’s a big secret.

At ten to ten, the principal comes on and begins directing us to the auditorium, one grade at a time. It might work in junior high, but no one can get two thousand snarks and fags to sit where they don’t want to. And it’s wild, as I watch from the balcony, these swarms of kids dressed in black, sitting down and then getting back up. It’s hilarious. No one can tell a fag from a snark. I laugh until I feel a tap on my shoulder. It’s Junior.

“Hey,” I say, trying to sound breezy.

“Roy Boy wants you down with us,” he says, pointing.

“How’d you make out yesterday?” I ask.

He cocks his head. “Shut up, doofus.”

“That’s the smartest thing I’ve ever heard a snark say.”

“Roy wants you with us. Now.”

I follow him along the balcony steps and into the hallway. We snail our way down the back stairs, pushing against traffic, pushing our way in and out of the groups of bustling bodies to the front, where the king of the snarks sits dead center on the front row. There’s an empty seat on both sides of him. He pats the one on his left, and I sit down. Some guy—I think it’s a snark, I’m sure it is, because he looks snarky—begins playing the old Hammond organ in the pit. It’s the same kind of organ that jazz groups use in dives on Saturday nights, but he has it sounding like cathedral music, all this sound coming out of the large grilles on each side of the stage. Making me sad, very sad, yet joyful, too, I can’t explain it. Before an assembly, kids are usually talking a mile a minute. The principal normally pounds his shoe like a Soviet dictator (we saw a video in history) to get us quiet, but today, there’s this swish of bodies moving from one place to another, trying to find a seat that isn’t next to someone they hate.

“Ladies and gentleman,” the principal says (he’s a fag, too). “Please locate a seat so we can begin.” He pauses. “Again, I have to ask you to please find a seat at once.”

The crowd heaves a sigh, politely telling him to shut up. He stands there until all you can hear is the rustle of clothing, the soft roar of air conditioning rolling over our heads like a breeze. He cues the organist and a soloist. This redhead, a fag chick from theatre, begins to sing “One Hand, One Heart.” I don’t recognize it at first. Then, oh yeah. West Side Story. It seems totally wrong. I mean, isn’t it a love song? But as I listen to the lyrics, I think it could be like Mr. Nunez’s poem, a symbolic elegy, begging us all, fags and snarks, to join together. One hand, one heart. Something inside me gets all gnarly and rebellious. No fag’s going to tell me, I mean, no snark’s going to tell me…then it’s over and this minister comes to the podium.

“Tommy wanted you to talk today,” Roy whispers in my ear. “He told me before he died. ‘Get Jeremy Cobb to say something at my service.’”

I do a Daffy Duck double take, my eyes rattling in my head.

“Tommy offed himself,” he says. “I saw him do it.”

“But the police, the papers,” I whisper back. “He was shot point blank.”

Roy points an imaginary pistol, held as far from himself as he can, about a foot and a half, and pulls the “trigger” with both thumbs, steady as a rock. I jump.

“What happened to the gun?” I whisper.

“Gone by the time me and Junior got there,” he says, checking his fingernails.

“Why would he do it, Roy?”

“Dunno,” he whispers.

“Come on!” I shout.

The minister, Rev. Bob, stops speaking, and at least ten fags go “Shhhhhh.” I bow my head, staring at the ugly brown linoleum floor that the school board needs to replace but probably won’t because the district is too poor, the state legislature too stingy.

“He wanted you to say something at the service today,” Roy whispers.

I look at him, covering my mouth, wondering what I could possibly say.

“You were the only fag he ever liked. If anyone can bring the school together, it’s you, he said.”

“Jesus Christ,” I mutter behind my hand.

“I’m just telling you what he said.”

“You two young men on the front row,” says Rev. Bob, a tall, silver-headed man. “You seem to have a lot to say. Why don’t you come up here and share it with us.”

I search his voice for anger or sarcasm, one of the adult tones, but he seems sincere, bidding us with his finger to come to the podium. Even the organist plays a little traveling music, something with a great beat. It’s way cool but totally wrong, like we’re running up there to accept an award or something. I stand and so does Roy, and we walk to the side steps and make our way up to the minister.

He asks us our names and we speak into the microphone, magnifying our voices into these monstrous echoes. “Now which one of you is a fag?” he asks. His face is red from having to use that word. Cold silence. “All right, then, which one of you is a snark?” He faces the audience. “Why don’t all you fags out there stand up?” There’s an immediate buzz that swells across the crowd. “No one? Well, how about you snarks? Come on, stand up!” Again, a roll of hushed whispers. “Well, now, I’ve been told that this school is overrun with the two of you, fags and snarks, but now, in the light of day, no one will stand to avow his association.” Rev. Bob’s sweating, and it sours his cologne, whatever it is, something cheap, like a poor parishioner might give at Christmas, the most he can get for his money. I reach for the microphone with my right hand, and Rev. Bob releases it. I’m silent for a few seconds, gathering my mood. Then I stand with one foot crossed over the other, like Tommy used to.

“You may not know who I am,” I say, “but my name’s Tommy Goen.”

A large hiccup shoots across the auditorium, as if Tommy’s risen from the grave. I know…the symbolism is cheap…but I feel something very deeply and begin to speak, almost as if the words are being pulled from my mouth.

“Yes, I was a snark, until I died, I was a snark.” Then everyone sees where I’m going and settles down. “Every day I went to school with the fear that a fag was going to kill me, not with a gun—but with words or with silence or by not speaking, by not acknowledging my existence as a human being.” I immediately toss the microphone to my left hand and say, “My name is Jeremy. And if you can’t tell,” I say in a slightly lower voice, “I’m a fag. I dress like a fag—you know, Abercrombie Fitch, Tommy H on a bad day. I drove an Explorer until some snark burned it to a crisp.” It draws a laugh. “It isn’t funny,” I snap. “What’s next? Are we gonna burn each other’s houses down?” I pause, handing the mic back to “Tommy.” “Yeah, fellow snarks, no one killed me. I shot myself, like this.” I hold the microphone out and snap it with my thumb to get a bang out of the crowd. Then I toss the mic back to my left. “And how do I know Tommy killed himself? you ask. Because someone very close to him, a snark, told me, a few minutes ago.” Roy steps forward. With his head down, he scuffles across the stage and stands next to Officer Vestra, the school cop, and holds out his arm to be taken away. Officer Vestra motions for him to wait. “I have no reason to doubt what Roy Boy told me. Now, the question is why, why would Tommy, who had so much going for himself—I danced in the line with him on Grease—would take himself out like that? He was headed somewhere. And I don’t mean Broadway, he wasn’t that good. But he was headed somewhere.” I bend down and rest my forehead on the podium a moment; when I look up everyone sits still. “Tommy cared. He wanted…it was his biggest wish to join us all, fags and snarks into one.” Charged air seems to boil across the room, like a low rumbling of thunder. Then a groan, shuffling feet. “Shut up!” I shout. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. “It’s time we all shut up and listened to what’s going on around us.” Snarks and fags fold their arms in defiance.

“I’m sorry,” I say, holding the mic over my chest a moment, gathering my thoughts. “I have no moral authority. I stole five CDs yesterday so some snarks wouldn’t kill me. And look at all of us today. You can’t even tell where the fags take up and the snarks leave off. There’s a fag,” I say, pointing. “You there, and you, and you, and you,” pointing to my buddies from drama class. Each one of them stands. “And look, there’s a snark, another, and another, sitting right there between two fags. Why don’t y’all shake hands, and none of that gang shit either,” I say. Miraculously, they do, these half-dozen students shake hands like real people. “Now, I can’t expect the rest of you to do this, not this very minute, it would be like a fagfest at some church where everybody hugs a neighbor.” Slowly, black-clad students turn and talk to someone close by. Some hold hands. And some cross their arms. “Change takes time,” I say. “Even if it shouldn’t.”

I hand the mic back to Rev. Bob, who leads us all in prayer—an ecumenical doozy that honors the Baptist god, the Catholic god, the Hindu, the Muslim, the Jewish gods, all of them. And it isn’t patronizing like some ministers can make a prayer sound, but sincere, calling for the dialogue to continue, saying the obvious, something about Tommy Goen’s death not being in vain. After the amen, I grab the mic away and holler, “And tomorrow, everyone wear red!” Uniting under one color has worked for a day, why not a second, a third? A whoop goes up, and for a moment I’m fooled. But I know that tomorrow we’ll all be dressed in our old garb, and that we’ll all be fags and snarks again, jockeying for position in a world that demands it of us. I step down from the stage and go to lunch with my fag friends.

While at Arby’s, some guys lean out their car window and snark us, disgorging that stupid laugh that now sounds as crude as a fart. But we’ve never seen them before in our lives, and we finish our subs with curly fries as if it’s a normal day. Back at school we go to third period, where a cop interrupts our history class to talk to us about how stupid gang life is and how we ought to love and respect our parents, who’ve worked hard to get us where we are today in Cowpie, Texas, USA, Earth, the universe, a speck in the eye of God. I’ve heard this somewhere before, but somehow he makes it sound brand new.

As a man in my fifties, I wrote “Snarked” on a lark, to see if I could create a story from the point of view of a high school student. Somewhere in the mix, I also had a desire to defuse, exploit, and transform emotionally charged words that come from a more or less contemporary vernacular that pervades our world. Beyond that, I had no agenda. The story took me to its own natural conclusion, which is where I always hope a story will end.

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