According to my father, there are three types of necktie knots: the Windsor, the Half-Windsor, and the Limp Dick.
“Jeremy, I’d bet my hand,” he says, adjusting his seatbelt, “that every swinging dick at Byron Hall wears the Windsor.”
“Could you not talk about dicks first thing in the morning?”
“The ladies love masculine things,” he says, pinching his silver tie at the base of its knot.
“Dad, it’s an all guy high school.”
“It’s the principle of the thing.”
“The size of a man’s knot. His bastion of strength.”
“Don’t say bastion of strength. Gross,” I say, shivering.
“It’s true,” he says. “Fact. Proven.” Dad turns, facing me, and exposes the flauntingly fat Windsor knot of his silver tie.
Welcome to Necktie 101. I will be your professor today.
According to Ballentine Barker, in order to make a Windsor, you must cross the long, fat end over the short, skinny one; double loop through the cross-over; make a tunnel over the loops; and funnel it through. The Windsor usually makes you look like a fuckwad.
What is that Bible story about the whale and Jonah? Or is his name Jonas? And Jonah is swallowed whole by some gigantic whale for whatever reason—I don’t know—and Jonah lives inside the whale? And then the whale spits him out. Or is it that he swims out? Or is it that he gets blown out through the blowhole? Or does he die inside the whale? Am I thinking of Moby Dick?
We pass a sign on the side of the road that reads Baltimore: The Greatest City in America. Get in on it.
“When they say that—get in on it—what do they mean?” I ask.
“That Baltimore is a secret not many people know about,” Dad says.
“Get in on it. Be one of the people in the know. Be in on the secret. A part of the club.”
“What secret? What club?”
“It’s like referring to Baltimore as Charm City. The name creates a buzz where no buzz is buzzing.”
“Buzzing?” I ask.
Dad says, “You ask too many questions.”
Jackson used to call Baltimore by a bunch of different names. B-town. Charm City. Crabtown. City of Firsts. Monument City. Mob Town. Murderland. He’d say them mainly to impress girls. They’d stop by the house in the evenings. Groups of them. Whore-ds of them. Get it? Whore-ds of them? And ask if he was home. They would travel from far away. Randallstown. Ellicott City. Columbia. Westminster. Cockeysville. Perry Hall. Take 81 South to Cold Spring Lane or I95 to Russell Street past M&T Bank Stadium. Travel just to see him. They’d stink of perfume, wearing short skirts, tight tops, big hair, lipstick-red lips. Jackson would emerge from his room, sometimes wearing only a robe, and descend down the stairs like some Casanova Fuck. “Welcome,” he’d say, “to the City of Firsts.”
What an ooze.
We drive past a middle-aged woman speed walking in pink Spandex shorts and a black tank top. She has medium boobs, her butt cheeks shifting back and forth with each step. The Spandex cups her ass and hips such that she might as well be wearing underwear. I immediately feel guilty, like I just lied to a priest. I think about her tits. Amazing.
Dad taps his horn. “Ballentine likes what he sees,” he says. Dad refers to himself in third person from time-to-time, including on his voicemail messages. I am constantly reminded where Jackson gets his ooziness. “A little beep-beep now and again keeps them feeling young, son. Lets them know they still got it.”
“Do you think she has kids?” I ask.
“Not all mothers are your mother,” he says.
I’m surprised Dad mentions Mom at all, especially on the first day of school as it always used to be her day. She would get up early, make a big breakfast of pancakes and eggs and strawberry milk. After, she’d pose me on the front steps of our house for the annual first day of school photo. She kept the photos framed in a collage on the wall, reaching all the way back to my first day of pre-school. There’s a black rectangle on the wall where the collage used to hang. Today there was no first day of school photo. Today there was no breakfast or strawberry milk. I wonder where those framed photos are now.
“Your mother is not here, Jeremy,” Dad says. “I am.” Dad’s car drifts into the other lane, crossing briefly over the double yellow lines before weaving around a garbage truck. “The size of a man’s knot,” Dad continues, “indicates his massiveness.”
“Massiveness? Oh, Jesus.”
“Listen. You need to hear this: Windsor equals monster. Half-Windsor equals babyshit.”
Allow me to professor your ass with some Half-Windsor knowledge.
The Half-Windsor folds like a paper football, easy with perfect angles. Personally, I think it’s the best knot. It’s easier than the Windsor because you only make one loop over the cross-over instead of two. But getting the length right takes skill, practice, and a sense of pride. Where the Windsor, more often than not, gives you a stumpy bitch length, the Half-Windsor—if you get it right—hangs sexy and perfect right to the tip of your belt. That triangular tip of the tie skimming a silver belt buckle. It’s badass. Totally badass. But I haven’t figured out how to tie it perfectly yet.
We drive past a private golf course—some members only club surrounded in a super high fence to keep the wrong kind of people out. There is a valley in the road, then a hill, which Dad accelerates through, and as we reach the peak, I see Byron Hall in the distance.
Dad says, “Survival scenario—you’re in school. English. Zombies crash through the windows. Unstoppable. Sick. Savage. Your school is under siege. It’s a zombie apocalypse.”
“Crashing?” I ask.
He loosens his grip on the steering wheel, his fingers spread open and relaxed.
“I’m in English class and zombies are crashing through the windows?”
Dad coasts down a straightaway of red brick houses with long driveways. A man wearing a cowboy hat and mirrored sunglasses navigates a wheelchair down his driveway to the street and slides envelopes inside a mailbox. Dad rides the brake, cutting our speed down quick, and looks over his shoulder as we pass, watching the man spin and roll away from the street, retreating in his wheelchair, completely legless.
“Dad, you said zombies were crashing through the windows of my English class?”
“Right—crashing. They’re crashing.”
“Through the windows. A zombie apocalypse, you said.”
“What is your weapon and what is your escape plan?” He looks at me longer than anyone driving should. “And no Minigun either. You always say Minigun. Use another movie other than Planet Terror as an example. Think outside the box.”
Stopped at a red light, I see the Byron Hall campus up across from a strip mall, just like the one in Dawn of the Dead. His turn signal clicks.
“Break the glass of one of those emergency panels with my elbow, grab the axe, and chop my way across the street to the mall.” I chop my arm from the school across the street to the mall. “Hold up there. Last-stand style. Barricade the doors with bike locks from a sporting good store and wait for the cavalry to come. I’d grab a few extra things—blowtorch, propane tank. If I have to make a bomb. Blow some shit up. What about you?” I ask.
“You couldn’t pay me to go back to high school,” he says.
We pass an empty football field with metal bleachers and two yellow wishbone goalposts. Dad pulls in behind a long line of cars, waiting to turn into the entrance. The sign out front reads: Byron Hall Catholic High School for Boys. We jerk to a stop at the top of the circle where two Christian Brothers greet students as they enter. The Brothers wear long black tunics that brush their shiny black shoes, although if memory serves me correct from when Jackson went here the Brothers have the options to wear the long black tunic, or all black suits like a priest or just rock the regular sport coat, button down shirt and tie. But not these Brothers. These Brothers are old school. These Brothers look like hippie priests in their tunics. The Byron Hall mascot, an angry fighting blue jay, stands with the Brothers waving his blue-feathered wings at people passing by. The blue bird is equal parts terrifying and gay.
“Well, here we are, son,” Dad says, palming the back of my head.
I knock his arm away. “You’re messing up my hair.”
He wipes his hand on a handkerchief. “It’s like a fucking grease pit up there.”
“Hair gel.” I lower the overhead visor to see the mirror, to fix the brown curls he ruffled out of place, the curls I rushed this morning to not make him late. I comb a few strands of hair back into a part and adjust my thin black tie. I aim my shoulders to the door, so he won’t see my knot.
“Look at you,” he says, poking me in the back. He drapes his arm over the wheel. “Barely a freshman and already primping like a Revlon girl.”
“Quit,” I say, slamming the car visor up. I grab my book bag and push open the door when his hand grabs me by my navy blue sports coat.
“I’ll quit,” he says. “Sure. If you turn around.”
“I’m your father.”
I know what he wants to see, but it’s his fault for rushing me this morning, goddamit.
“I’m really going to be late for homeroom. You’re going to make me late.” Dad’s words from my lips.
Dad smells like aftershave and coffee and bleach. He disappeared again last night. Showed up at the house early—scattered, paranoid, rushed. Like always, Dad disappeared and no one knows anything about it. He thinks he’ll be able to keep it a secret. He thinks he will be able to scare people away, but I follow the Code—Zombie Survival Code (ZSC). The ZSC is a list on how to survive a necroinfectious pandemic, otherwise known as a zombie apocalypse. B-t-dubs, it should be noted, that I totally ripped the idea of survival rules off of Zombieland. Big holla to Jesse Eisenberg. I don’t know if I heard this somewhere or thought it up myself, but here is the deal—rules are meant to be broken, but codes are made to be followed.
Zombie Survival Code #1: Avoid Eye Contact (ZSC#1)
Zombie Survival Code #2: Keep Quiet (ZSC#2)
Zombie Survival Code #3: Forget the Past (ZSC#3)
Zombie Survival Code #4: Lock-and-Load (ZSC#4)
Zombie Survival Code #5: Fight to Survive (ZSC#5)
“I asked you to turn around,” he says. “Show me. Now.”
“You want me to miss first period?” ZSC#1: Avoid eye contact—I look away.
“I want you to obey your father. It’s in the Bible. Now turn around.”
I’d been hiding the knot with my sports coat all morning. I refuse to answer and hope he let’s it go and leaves me alone—ZSC#2: keep quiet. I thought I’d be able to get away with it. I know what he’s going to say but there’s no avoiding it, so I turn around.
“Limp Dick?” he asks, slapping his forehead. “Fuck me. That’s a Limp Dick.”
Hey now, hey now—Prof Knot in the house.
The third and final knot—the Limp Dick—is self-explanatory. The Limp Dick has no loop, but instead folds in an impulsive movement from the cross-over to the tunnel and funnels through, dangling down limp-like. Self-explanatory. Limp Dick.
“Mom wouldn’t care about my knot,” I say.
“You’re right. She wouldn’t. When’s the last time you saw her?” Dad slips the car into drive, his foot still on the brake. He makes a fist and punches the dent in the dashboard in slow motion with a sound effect of an explosion on impact. “Jeremy. After school. You and me. Necktie refresher course.”
“You’re such a loser,” I say.
“I’m not the one rocking a Limp Dick,” he says.
“Dad,” I say, “where did you go last night?”
“Spent the night at Liza’s.” He smiles. “Don’t worry so much.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Yes, you do.” Then, raising his hands, he says, “Have a good day, son.”
I raise mine too as our hands turn into fists and we bang them together like boxers tapping gloves before a fight.
The Byron Hall Catholic High School for Boys—nicknamed The Hall—is made up of five hallways. There is no second floor. The school has not changed a lick since Jackson graduated four years ago.
On an aerial sketch of the school, like an architect’s layout, like the kind Mom used to spread out on the dining room table, The Hall would look like the number eight on a solar-powered calculator. Three mini horizontal hallways—one at the top, one in the middle and one at the bottom of the school. Two long vertical hallways on the sides—one with even classroom numbers, one with odd. Each lined with lockers for 1300 students, lockers so skinny and tight they would barely hold a broom.
According to Jackson, the cafeteria is called the cafe and sits past the mini hallway at the top of the school. Jackson told me that Dad said the cafe reminded him a lot of the Marine chow halls at Fort Drum in New York where he was stationed before deployed to Vietnam. Simple room to describe, really—blue-jay-blue tiled walls; eggshell white, linoleum floors; long, boring, brown tables seating six evenly spaced across an L shape. A sign on the wall reads: Fire Occupancy 585. I wonder what would happen if all 1300 kids had a free period at the same time.
When I got my course schedule and locker assignment a few weeks ago, Jackson volunteered to drive me up to his old stomping ground, a phrase he likes to use like some kind of old man. He escorted me around like some big dick hotshot, head held high, walking with a swaggerly limp. He even got all dressed up—khaki pants, white button-down shirt, plaid sport coat with an all blue tie in a Windsor knot. Tool. It was nice, though, to get acquainted with the layout of the school, showing me all of the hallways, which were empty as fuck except for custodians pushing mops around and some people in the front office. No brothers. No students. He showed me my locker at the end of the even hallway near the cafe and had me practice the combo. He told me to always make sure my lock snapped shut. One of the things the upperclassmen like to do, apparently, is find someone’s lock undone and put it on backwards. Before we left, he pointed to the vending machines in the corner of the cafe and said, “I fucked some girl once at a dance over by the vending machines. Fuck central.”
At my locker, I look around and wait until I feel invisible. I slip off my shoe, pull out a piece of paper, and read a small piece of paper with my combination and quickly apply the three numbers in perfect left-right-left order. The lock snaps open like a broken jaw. I slip the paper back inside my shoe and my shoe back on my foot and the lock back on the locker. I wonder if I’m the only student with a combination cheat sheet in his shoe and a back-up sheet in his bedroom. My backup is in my closet with my other secrets. I dump the contents of my book bag into my locker and pick out my books for the day. Western Civilization. Algebra. Christian Awareness. English Literature. My locker rattles shut with a good kick. I twist a couple of times to scramble the combination.
I’ve already forgotten the numbers.
A Brother I haven’t seen yet—a small, Asian man, wearing a long black tunic and thick black hair slicked back—paces along the back of the cafe, his hands behind his back, watching the boys at the tables, waiting for something to happen. I imagine him to be some kind of drill instructor, ready to scream at kids to get to class on time.
Outside of the cafe is an overhang with metal picnic benches where kids can chill and eat lunch and congregate like felons on the prison yard and tell stories that are most certainly all lies—stories that mainly consist of fucking girls and drugs and sometimes school work, but mostly fucking girls and drugs. They, the boys, the young men, they all look exactly the same, unified, like an army—an academic siege!—with their neckties and wrinkled sports coats, all crushed together, like a rat king. Then I hear what Jackson calls the hotness—sweet, honey-like voices—slow and smooth and sexy. Baby, are they sexy.
A group of four girls in short plaid skirts and white short sleeve, button-down shirts pass the cafe windows and sit at one of the metal picnic benches. A gaggle of dudes swarm the girls, sharks to chum. The guys wear super baggy pants and speak in this faux-gangsta accent like they thug life, yo, like they’re from the projects, which is funny because they’re probably all from the wealthiest suburbs just outside of the city, living in mini-mansions owned by parents who run PR firms and are politicians. It’s that kind of school. Retards.
The girls know what they’re doing, how they’re sitting, showing some serious leg, sitting side-by-side, hips cocked, the ends of the skirts pulling up past mid-thigh. My God their skin looks smooth like a baby’s ass, so smooth you want to lick it—the three white girls with this 2% milk sheen and the black girl a dark chocolate dream. The black girl might just be a super model—I mean she is thin and tall with an incredibly angular face in a beautiful way and her big, bold eyes might as well be singing me a song. It’d be hard to execute any of the five zombie survival rules with these girls.
The hallways swell inside with dudes stopping, pressing, and pushing each other to see the girls, like it was their first time. Once guys find a clear line of vision, they freeze and hold. There has to be a name for this. Is there a word for it? Can I call it something? Hotnified? Yes. Yup. That’s it. We’re hotnified. We’re hotnified, watching the girls.
My dangerous daydream continues, the girls white-pantied and strutting around in slow motion to a rock-n-roll soundtrack, when the small, Asian Brother sprints across the cafe, bullet-like, and hurls himself through the double doors to the outside area. I expect to see him do some kind of back flip or combo leg-swipe kick or crazy mid-air Jujitsu. Instead, it looks more like hand-to-hand combat. He grabs boys at their collars and elbows and flings them away from the sexy, girl zombies come to infect and devour the Byron Hall Boys. The boys laugh and slide their bags onto their backs and go back inside the building. The girls are unphased, unmoved, and extend their hands to the Asian Brother as an introduction.
I push my way through the crowd of horny high school perverts, their faces pressed to the doors and windows, practically licking the glass, the fucks. I edge my way to the front of these boner boys and head outside, pulled in like some kind of sexual riptide.
The air is dead outside, breezeless, hot and heavy with humidity, like the girls brought all of this hot, sexy air with them. I sit at bench and, smooth as all hell, stoop to tie both shoes that are already double-knotted. The girls, still undressed in my head, circle the Brother. Seeing girls in short skirts pass by makes my pecker shiver for sure, so I can only imagine how the entire school of horny bastards feels.
“Ladies, you must leave,” the small, Asian Brother says. “No girls on school.” He shakes his head. “Three thirty, then you return.” He taps the face of his watch. “Then girls on campus.”
“What’s your name, Brother?” a girl asks, a tan girl with dark, red hair. She looks over at me and without even thinking or anything I raise my fucking hand and wave to her with a big old goofball smile on my face. She doesn’t smile back. Fuck me.
“I am Brother Lee,” he says.
“We’re looking for the drama department,” the girl with dark, red hair says. She hands him a stack of papers. “We are members of the drama club at Prudence High, Brother Lee, and are working on the Byron Hall Fall drama, but we need to turn these in before auditions.”
“You bring after school,” Brother Lee says. “I’m no mailman.” Brother Lee crosses his arms over his chest. “I look like mailman to you?”
“No, Brother,” the super model says, “you don’t look like a mailman at all. They have better uniforms.” She smiles at him.
“I don’t think this is funny,” he says.
She touches his arm and says, “They are our parental permission slips. We need to give them to Father Vincent Gibbs.”
“You wait to last minute,” Brother Lee says, shaking his head in disapproval, but even Brother Lee is powerless against the plaid skirt and teenage shaved legs. “Follow me. No walking.” He rushes down the sidewalk toward the lecture hall building, herding them away from the rest of us, like cattle away from a cliff; although in this scenario the girls seem more like the cliff and the rest of us the cattle.
The girls march single file past Brother Lee who follows quickly behind them. The girl with the dark red hair looks at me over her shoulder again, but still without a smile, not at all like in the movies, like in those RomComs—the movies where two souls are destined to be together and love one another and get married but for an hour and a half they keep missing each other, either by chance or fate, or by some kind of bullshit, until one rainy or sunny or snowy day their lives crash together and they see each other for the very first time. The girl passes by the boy and smiles over her shoulder and the boy returns the smile, maybe adding a wave, but she doesn’t see the wave because the guy that she’s with is her boyfriend who distracts her. The smile is what I’m really talking about here, the smile that says they will meet up again soon. Then, the girl falls out of love with her fuckneck boyfriend just as the boy is about to settle for some plain girl who is good enough for him, when in the nick of time the boy and the girl wind up at a public park feeding birds, or at a used library browsing books in the same section, or strolling through a grocery store in the produce section—his hands squeezing cantaloupe melons as she digs her way through a bin of avocadoes—and they see each other again, but this time it will be the last time they see each other like strangers and the first time they see each other as friends.
Yeah, this girl that I like doesn’t look at me like that in the slightest. This girl looks at me like she thinks I’m just another pervert, like she knows I undressed her, got her completely naked in my head.
Brother Lee escorts the girls to the lecture hall building as they disappear.
I walk back into the even hallway of the school by the cafe and realize I am still smiling and when I stop smiling it makes me feel sad for some reason. Because she never smiled back.
J. R. Angelella is the author of the novel Zombie (Soho Press) as well as a forthcoming, Southern Gothic, supernatural YA series (Sourcebooks/Teen Fire) co-written with his wife, the writer Kate Angelella. His short fiction has appeared in numerous journals, most recently in Fifth Wednesday Journal, Sou’wester, The Coachella Review, JMWW, Plots with Guns and The Collagist. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing and Literature from Bennington College and teaches at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop in New York City. For more info, check out his website: www.jrangelella.com; or follow him on twitter: @jrangelella.
Adapted from Zombie by J.R. Angelella. Copyright © 2012 by J.R. Angelella. With the permission of the publisher, Soho Press.