100 Sideways Miles
THE QUIT MISSION
Look: I do not know where I actually came from. I wonder, I suspect, but I do not know.
I am not the only one who sometimes thinks I came from the pages of a book my father wrote. Maybe it’s like that for all boys of a certain—or uncertain—age: We feel as though there are no choices we’d made through all those miles and miles behind us that hadn’t been scripted by our fathers, and that our futures are only a matter of flipping the next page that was written ahead of us.
I am not the only one who’s ever been trapped inside a book.
• • •
A story involving alien visitors from outer space, an epileptic kid who doesn’t really know where he came from, knackeries and dead horses falling a hundred sideways miles, abandoned prisons, a shadow play, moons and stars, and jumping from a bridge into a flood should probably begin with a big explosion in the sky about fourteen billion years ago. After all, the whole story is rather biblical, isn’t it?
But it doesn’t.
It begins at a high school in Burnt Mill Creek, California. It begins before the summer Cade Hernandez and I went on a fact-finding expedition to visit a college in Oklahoma.
We didn’t quite make it to the college. I’m not sure if we found any facts, either.
• • •
Mr. Nossik hung motivational posters on the walls of his classroom—things about perseverance, integrity, and shit like that.
One of them said this:
OPPORTUNITY: WHEN ONE DOOR CLOSES,
ANOTHER ONE OPENS.
The first time we saw that one, Cade Hernandez, my best friend, said, “Sounds like he lives in a fucking haunted house.”
I suppose it was a year for opening doors in more ways than I ever imagined.
• • •
At Burnt Mill Creek High School, the people in charge were constantly on some kind of pointless mission to get us kids to quit doing shit. All schools everywhere are like that, I think. Quit Chewing Gum flopped in ninth grade. Quit Using Cell Phones was dead before it started. And, now, during the second semester of our junior year, the quit mission involved “fuck.”
Not doing it, saying it.
It was destined to fail.
More than a century of public education that aimed its pedagogical crosshairs at getting teenagers to quit having sex,
quit drinking, quit driving so fast, quit taking drugs, never had the slightest behavior-altering effect on kids.
Not that I did any of those things. Well, some of them.
Now we were caught up in the Burnt Mill Creek High School mission to make us quit saying “fuck,” which is more or less a comma—a punctuation mark—to most teenagers when they speak.
The teachers and administrators at Burnt Mill Creek High School might just as well have focused their energies on getting tectonic plates to quit making so many fucking earthquakes.
The brains behind the Quit Saying “Fuck” mission was our history teacher, Mr. Nossik. He and the staff at the school painted signs with slogans that said things like NO F-BOMBS, PLEASE! (the kids called them “fuck posters”), and teachers even wore specially printed WATCH YOUR LANGUAGE, O PIONEERS! T-shirts. The kids called them “fuck shirts.”
The campaign only made things worse.
By May, Mr. Nossik was about to explode.
• • •
We were all about to witness a Nazi having a stroke.
Here is what happened: Our teacher, Mr. Nossik, believed in making history “come alive.” So, naturally, on May 7, which was the anniversary of the German surrender in World War II, Mr. Nossik dressed himself up as a Gestapo kommissar.
What a nice scene: a Nazi at the front of a public-school classroom filled with sixteen-year-old boys and girls.
You can’t make history come alive. History is deader than Laika the space dog.
And I’ll admit it—nobody in my class ever learned anything from Mr. Nossik’s living displays. Are you kidding me? This was eleventh grade. Shit like that stopped working on our brains around the same time the training wheels came off our bicycles.
Besides, Mr. Nossik’s so-called “living history” often pushed things a little too far. One time last March, he dressed up as a battered drowning victim to commemorate the catastrophic failure of the St. Francis Dam.
History lives, it dies, and it comes alive again as the soaking-wet, mangled, and bloodied corpse of a Mexican ranch hand.
My mother was a Jew, which technically makes me a Jew. Only a few people know that about me because on the surface I am an atheist; and with a name like Finn Easton, who would guess I’d feel a bit edgy around a forty-five-year-old freak who liked to role-play genocidal war criminals?
I am named after the Mark Twain character, by the way.
I am not named after the Finn in my father’s book; I swear.
So: My best friend, Cade Hernandez, who always sat next to me unless Mr. Nossik kicked him out of class or assigned him a back-row desk facing away from the lectern (just because Mr. Nossik frequently couldn’t stand looking at Cade), raised his hand and asked our Nazi leader this: “Mr. Nossik, why do I always get a boner in this class, at exactly eight-fifteen, every morning? This is ridiculous!”
Who wouldn’t laugh at a boy who asked a Nazi a question about getting an erection?
Besides, Cade Hernandez was our de facto commander in
the Stop Trying to Make Us Stop revolution, our act of defiance against the quit missions. Cade Hernandez ran the school. He could get anyone to do anything he wanted. Cade Hernandez was magic or something.
Mr. Nossik’s face reddened, which, in the aesthetic arrangement of things, matched the color scheme of his outfit perfectly.
Let me tell you something else about Cade Hernandez: As the school’s de facto commander in the Stop Trying to Make Us Stop revolution, he was an expert button pusher. The moment any authority figure challenged Cade’s control over things, the game was on.
Mr. Nossik despised Cade Hernandez as deeply as anyone could ever hate another person.
It was only a matter of time until Mr. Nossik came up with some type of Quit Being Cade Hernandez mission.
To be honest, all us kids in the class loved to see the two of them square off. Cade routinely won. At least once a week, Mr. Nossik would tell Cade that he couldn’t stand looking at him anymore, so he’d order Cade to the back of the room, as far away from Mr. Nossik’s desk as possible.
And Cade frequently wasn’t doing anything to justify his banishment.
But Cade Hernandez did have a way of just staring and staring—without blinking—calmly showing the faintest trace of a smile on his face as though he were saying, Come on, fucker, let’s see who wins today.
That was it.
Cade stared and stared and smiled and smiled.
And that was how he looked at Mr. Nossik on May 7, Nazi
Day, when Cade Hernandez, in as straightforward and sincere a voice as you could ever imagine, asked our Gestapo kommissar teacher why he got a boner during history class at the same time every morning.
This was Cade Hernandez, a kid whose lower-body blood flow apparently had tidal predictability.
Mr. Nossik, his voice quavering as though he’d just swallowed a fistful of feathers and sand, stamped his jackbooted foot and told Cade to GET OUT of the classroom immediately.
Man! The only thing that could possibly have made Mr. Nossik look more like Hitler at that moment would have been a toothbrush swath of black hair on his upper lip.
And Cade, all innocence and self-pity, said, “Can I wait a couple minutes before I stand up, please, Mr. Nossik? Seriously, this thing is ridiculous!”
We all laughed again.
And Mr. Nossik—in a voice reminiscent of the most fiery Nuremberg Rally oratory—stamped and shrieked, “GET! OUT!”
So Cade Hernandez, smiling slightly, completely unashamed, stood and walked across the room to wait outside the door while the quaking Mr. Nossik composed himself.
Of course, everyone looked to see if Cade really did have a boner.
I’m not saying.
And Mr. Nossik, our Gestapo kommissar, didn’t actually have a stroke that morning, but I believe some crucial arteries and shit inside vital parts of his body got dangerously close to their bursting point every time Cade Hernandez put pressure on Mr. Nossik’s hair-trigger nerves.
• • •
Cade Hernandez and I both played baseball for the Burnt Mill Creek High School Pioneers baseball team.
Cade was our pitcher—a lefty who’d been scouted by the majors, extremely talented—and I played the outfield, usually right. I would not want to play a position like pitcher, where there is such a high likelihood of making costly mistakes.
Costly mistakes, like sexual confusion and nuclear weapons, which by the way are both legacies passed down from the greatest generation—the guys who whipped Hitler—are strongly related to extinction.
Who wants that?
Cade’s nickname was Win-Win, but it had nothing to do with his record as a starter. I will explain later, since I wanted this part of the story to be about me: Finn Easton.