"The Underachiever" was published in RAMBLR in 2020.
Copyright Christopher Stanton.
Thanksgiving rolled around, and Ted Mulchowsky decided to drop out of college.
He was from a coal mining town down in West Virginia that was so barely there, you could drive from the Dairy Queen at the north side of town to Dusty’s Bail Bonds at the south side, holding your breath the whole time, and you wouldn’t even pass out. Ted had tried it, twice.
He was strong because he had to be. His brother Stanley played football at St. Peter’s and gave him bloody noses and split lips. So Ted learned to defend himself in a number of ways. He lifted concrete blocks behind the garage after dinner. He took three years of Greco-Roman wrestling lessons from a toothless Hungarian man in a studio in Wheeling, right above the Mountaineer Savings and Loan. And he prayed.
In the long run, none of these things did much good against Stanley, but they did earn Ted a free ride to college on a wrestling scholarship, three hundred miles from home.
* * *
The night things all changed, Ted pulled out of the parking lot at Larry’s Pizza and started down the main road toward campus like he always did. He passed fried chicken drive-thrus and auto body shops. Freezing drizzle kissed his windshield, and Ted cranked up the heat inside the Honda. He knew they were in for a storm.
Ted liked his job. Delivering pizza put spending money in his pocket and taught him the back streets and alleyways of the crowded neighborhood between campus and the river. He also loved how the smell of melted cheese and hot pepperoni filled his car while he drove his route. It reminded him of the Friday nights that Stanley took him into town, back home. Just the two of them, sitting in a corner booth in the Pizza Hut, listening to the jukebox and watching the cars on the Interstate as they headed up to Wheeling or down toward the river.
He made a right at the Texaco and entered the maze of winding streets where most of the students lived. As soon as he left the safe lights of the main road, dark thoughts pushed their way into his mind again.
Your papers are incomprehensible; his British Literature professor had told him after class that Monday. She pulled him aside after the rest of the class had been dismissed for the holiday. You can barely construct complete sentences.
Ted figured that she had him confused with someone else, and he said so.
No, she insisted, her spectacles perched on the end of her nose. It’s you, Ted. What are we doing to do about this?
Monday night, back at the dorm, Ted had stared at his reflection in the bathroom mirror for twenty minutes straight, but he still didn’t know what the problem was or what he could do about it. He had already tried praying.
Ted drove on. The narrow street led away from the edge of campus, past two-story apartment buildings and fraternity houses towering at the top of steep gravel driveways. The Honda’s headlights caught patches of ice on the pavement from the hard freeze the night before. They were rutted and streaked with mud.
You’re underachieving, Theodore, his Freshman Composition instructor told him when he ran into her in cafeteria that morning. She was blond and lovely; a Mormon from Utah. It’s a real shame. What’s it going to take for you to turn things around?
Ted wasn’t sure how to answer that question. He had made it through high school without any major incidents. He had graduated on time, and he had even managed to place second in his weight class in the West Virginia State Championships his junior year. Although sometimes he had trouble understanding what he read in class, he had figured out a reason for that.
I’m just not a big thinker, he told himself. Not everyone is.
He slowed the Honda to a crawl as he approached the address where his customer lived, beat-up cars lining both sides of the street. The house leaned against an enormous elm tree that sprung from the hill beside it; gnarled branches spread across the side and roof like tentacles. Everything about the house was worn and rotten. The front porch was piled high with newspapers and old tires, and jagged curtains made from torn beach towels covered the bay window.
Ted decided to keep his car running and double park. He got out and pulled up his collar against the cold drizzle that soaked the back of his neck. Spotting a single light coming from the front window, he suddenly wished he could be home. He pictured his mother, standing over the stove, basting the Thanksgiving turkey as she called the family to the table. He thought of Stanley, wrapping him in a bear hug so tightly he could barely breathe. Then, he imagined the solemn sadness of his father’s face after he would learn of his decision.
I’m just not a big thinker, Ted would explain. He had practiced the line, many times. I’m sorry.
Ted bounded up the driveway, took the front steps two at a time and stood in front of the door. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, holding the pizza in one hand. Cardboard pilgrims were taped crookedly to the wooden surface behind the screen.
Before he could knock, the door swung open and he was greeted by a woman dressed in an oversized Pittsburgh Steelers jersey. She had dyed black hair and appealing brown eyes that reminded him of the deer that lived in the woods behind the railroad tracks back home.
“Pizza Man,” she said. “You’re just in time.”
The woman was about forty-five, maybe older. She was barefoot and the collar of the jersey was torn so that the neckline plunged toward her breasts. Her legs were bare, and Ted had the sneaking suspicion that things were bare underneath the jersey, too.
She wore an enormous amount of makeup. Ted spotted the faint outline of a bruise below her left eye. Her lips were full and candy apple-red.
“Hey,” he said, and swallowed deeply. “Large, soft crust, half-pepperoni. That’ll be $11.50.”
“Come on in here, Big Red,” she said, noticing his curly red hair and freckles. She opened the screen door. “My purse is in the kitchen.”
Ted stepped inside. The foyer was drafty and the wooden floorboards creaked under his weight. He heard the muffled sounds of a raucous game show coming from a TV in the next room.
“You go to school?” she asked, as she started down the hallway.
“Yes, ma’am,” Ted replied. “Freshman.” He set the pizza bag down on a card table and removed the pie box from inside. Then he watched the woman walk to the kitchen. Her figure from behind was even more amazing than the view he had enjoyed moments before.
She turned around and caught him looking at her. “You like it?” she asked.
Ted looked away. He thought of the parking lot of the Dairy Queen back home; how the railroad ties were painted yellow and tiny flowers sprouted from the holes inside them in the summer. “Yes, ma’am,” he replied softly. “Yes, I do.”
* * *
Ted got off work at ten and arranged to meet the woman soon after that. She had paid him a twenty for the pizza and touched him on the chest as he left. He tried not to look at her bruise.
The rest of the evening had passed in a blur. He delivered six pizzas to a raging party in a third floor apartment across from the football stadium. An enormous man with a shaved head and rocks for biceps kissed him on the lips in thanks when he arrived. Then the man vomited all over the carpet in the stairwell. Ted had gotten out of there quickly.
Then he had delivered a vegetarian special to a young couple in a white cottage near the river. The woman smiled shyly at him when she answered the door.
“It’ll be our first Thanksgiving together,” she said, and winked at her husband, a scholarly guy with thinning hair and black glasses. “We just got married.”
“Good luck to you,” Ted said. Something in the way they looked at each other, like they shared a wonderful secret, made Ted smile as he punched his time card and made his way back to the older woman’s house.
He drove around the block twice before he found a parking space. The rain came down harder as he locked his car and jogged down the sidewalk, his breath lingering behind him in the night air.
Ted made his way up the front steps of the woman’s house and stopped. He wasn’t sure if he should knock or ring the doorbell. She’s there, waiting for me, he thought. He wondered if he should smoke a cigarette.
He decided to knock.
Ted jumped up and down a bit to keep warm. He thought of an auditorium full of people, cheering for him, right before he stepped into the wrestling ring. He thought of his parents in the bleachers, and the current of electricity that shot through him just before the match began.
He put his face up to the screen door, trying to see inside. There was a light from the living room, and one down the hall, in the kitchen. There was no sign of any movement. No sound. Nothing.
Ted knocked again, louder this time. “Hello…?” he called. He realized then that he didn’t know the woman’s name.
He decided to try the back door. Maybe she’s taking a shower and didn’t hear me knock, he thought.
Ted turned and saw two yellow eyes staring at him from a wire cage on top of a pile of newspapers on the porch. He moved closer and realized it was an emaciated brown rabbit, pressed against the wire, its breath coming quickly in the cold.
The animal held Ted’s gaze for a long minute. It didn’t blink.
What’re we going to do about this?
Ted bounded down the stairs and made his way around the side of the house, the rain soaking his jeans and woolen ski hat. He ran down the uneven concrete walkway that separated the woman’s house and the elm tree, thick branches stretching over him and onto the roof above. He passed the cellar door, boarded up with rotted plywood. An old push mower lay face up in a shallow patch of weeds, the rain splattering off its metal surface.
Ted came around the corner and saw the woman immediately. The wide open back door was at the top of three stone steps, and she was in the kitchen, leaning against the refrigerator and talking on the phone. The cord was tangled in a knot and she had it wrapped around one hand. Ted knew that if she looked up, the woman would see him through the screen, standing outside in the rain.
“Harry,” the woman said loudly, and she wrapped the cord around her hand a few more times. “I can’t do that.”
Ted couldn’t make out the rest of what she said. He wondered who was on the other end of the line.
“I ain’t seen her since Christmas!” the woman yelled into the phone. “You son of a bitch, why don’t you listen to me?”
Then she looked up and saw him. The woman whispered something into the phone and hung up.
“You’re soaked,” she said, and opened the screen door, pulling her jersey close to her neck against the cold. She wiped at the corner of her eye. “Get in here.”
Ted stood there a moment, watching her. He wasn’t sure what he should do.
“Don’t tell me you’ve changed your mind,” the woman said, and smiled.
Ted felt his skin prickle on the back of his neck; no one had ever smiled at him like that before. “No,” he replied. “No, I haven’t.” He went up the steps and into the kitchen, glad to be out of the rain.
“You’re a drowned rat,” she said, brushing water off his sweatshirt. Her touch felt deliberate and sure. “Come with me and let’s get you dried off.”
The kitchen was bright and cold. The ancient Frigidaire was covered with the crayon drawings of a child. Ted thought that one of them looked like a dragon.
“That’s a turkey,” the woman told him. “For Thanksgiving.”
Ted followed her across the dull linoleum to the hallway. They passed the living room on their way to the front stairway. An enormous color TV was tuned to a football game. Snow covered the field and Ted could barely make out the players.
“You like football?” the woman asked. She took his hand and led him up the stairs, each step creaking under their weight. The stairwell was dim but Ted could see the curves of her behind through the oversized jersey. A jagged scar ran down the back of her left leg, just below the knee.
“I wrestle,” Ted told her. “I’m on the wrestling team. At school.”
They reached the top of the stairs and the woman pushed him toward the wall, gently but firmly. She ran her hands under his sweatshirt and across his chest. Ted felt something stir between his legs.
“I knew it,” she whispered. Her breath smelled like cigarettes. “I knew you was strong, just by looking at you. We’re gonna have a real good time tonight.” She let her hands move across his stomach and down to his waist before they separated.
Ted followed the woman into a room down the hall. She flicked a switch on the wall and the overhead light came on. The hardwood floors were scuffed and there was a space heater lying cold in the corner. An antique desk, covered with books and papers, was pushed against the window. A mattress with tousled sheets lay on the floor. Ted wondered why there was no box spring.
“You take off them wet clothes,” the woman said. She removed the jersey in one quick motion and Ted saw her breasts, soft and pink, the nipples taut. She wore clean white underwear. Rain poured against the window behind her, moving down the pane in determined patterns.
Ted was freezing but took off his sweatshirt and then his favorite flannel shirt he had on underneath. The woman smiled again and lay down on the mattress. “Yes,” she said, as Ted lay down next to her. He ran his hand across her pale chest and her skin felt surprisingly warm to his touch. She inhaled and grabbed him tightly. She whispered things under her breath that Ted couldn’t understand.
He looked out the window again. Rainwater had found its way through a crack underneath the window by the desk. It seeped onto the papers and old books that were piled there.
The woman sobbed suddenly, a noise so quick that Ted wasn’t sure if he had heard it to begin with. He looked at her. A tiny tear trickled down her cheek. She turned her head and stared at the wall.
“My baby,” she whispered. “Oh, Jesus.”
“What is it?” he asked her. “What did I—?”
“No,” she said, and her body shook with the force of her sobs. “Goddamn it, no.” She raised her hands and covered her face.
Ted moved off of her. He rolled to one side to give the woman some room. He didn’t think he had hurt her in any way, but he wasn’t sure.
“What?” he said again. Then he was quiet. He couldn’t think of anything else to say. A red flush spread across the back of the woman’s neck. He shoulders looked suddenly thin and frail.
Ted got off the mattress and moved over to the window. The water spread across the desk in a shifting pool. He lifted the stacks of paper out of the way. There were folders of yellowed clippings and crossword puzzle books. There were sewing patterns and TV Guides that were at least a decade old. All were soaked. He set them in piles on the floor.
He looked around for a towel. There was nothing in the room except him and the woman. He glanced out the window. Water poured over the side of the gutter and splattered the window pane.
What’re we going to do about this?
Ted slipped on his sweatshirt, then looked at the woman. Her dyed black hair covered her face, and she was whispering under her breath.
“I’m going to fix it,” he told her. He didn’t want to sit in the drafty room and be alone with the woman. Ted knew he could help somehow.
He left the bedroom and pulled the door shut behind him, careful not to disturb her. He walked down the dim hallway until he reached a door that he thought might lead to the attic. After a bit of coaxing, it creaked open.
Ted found a light switch on the wall and made his way up a flight of steps. As he ducked under the low wooden beams of the attic, he tried not to look at the ripped cardboard boxes that spilled their contents onto the floor. He knew they were filled with objects from the woman’s past. He imagined that there were photos of the woman and the man called Harry. He imagined that there were Christmas ornaments and children’s toys from times in the past when the house was not so cold and empty. The fact that he was even considering these intimate objects made him feel like an intruder, and he suddenly thought of his family sitting at the kitchen table back home, eating Thanksgiving dinner without him.
Ted concentrated instead on the side window that looked out on the tile roof. Rain beat time against the window as the elm tree shifted its branches outside. The roof sloped gently down to the second floor below, and Ted knew that he could make it down to the gutter.
The window had an ancient metal lock that he managed to open with some difficulty. He slid the window upward on its rickety wooden tracks and the rain immediately soaked his jeans. The street lamps cast feeble light as he squeezed out the window and onto the roof. The wind blew his hair into his eyes and soon he was freezing.
Ted made his way carefully down the roof toward the edge, where the branches from the elm tree stretched inches above his head. The trunk was so close, he could jump across and grab onto it, and he was sure he would not fall.
He looked down at the gutter. It was filled with twigs and leaves, and the water streamed over the side as quickly as it fell from the sky.
Ted bent down and reached into the gutter, right next to the hole that led to the drainpipe. He grabbed a handful of wet leaves and tossed it over the edge of the roof, down to the concrete walkway that ran along the side of the house. Then he reached deeper into the drainpipe and pulled out another sopping handful of gunk. He could feel the water around the hole struggling to form a whirlpool. Yes, he thought. I’m making room for you now.
As he removed more of the leaves from the drainpipe, the water began flowing toward the hole in a path that was clear and true. A quiet warmth filled his chest and spread across his body; it was unfamiliar but comfortable, and Ted breathed deeply. He knew that in the bedroom where the woman lay crying, the rain would soon cease beating against the window and the leak would stop. Only then could he find his way home.