Because up until now I’ve mostly posted nonfiction here, let me to give you a heads up: the following short story is fiction, brilliant, and not written by me. Please welcome my guest today, author Benjamin Dancer, whom I recently met when I gave a craft talk for his high school students on behalf of Lighthouse Writers Workshop. I hope this will just be the first of many appearances here by Benjamin and other fine authors of fiction.
By Benjamin Dancer
Adam was sitting on the sidewalk outside his mother’s townhouse when I pulled up four minutes early. He was still alive: that was something. His beard looked good, too.
He got in my truck.
We lived in a town with a gun store on both ends of Main Street—a traffic light between them. It was red. When it changed, I turned into the police station.
Adam spent his mornings curled in the corner of my classroom the year I met him. He went by a female name then. I’m not sure his anxiety was something he really understood. That was also, by coincidence, the year I taught Middlesex.
By Thanksgiving, puberty had brought the tortured “girl” a red goatee.
The fingerprint desk was in the lobby of the police station. The form asked for both his first and last name. Adam signed only the latter.
“I need to see a photo ID.”
He didn’t respond to the clerk’s request. I don’t think Adam heard it. He was petrified. Frozen. I had seen it a lot over the years.
“Did you bring an ID?” I asked.
My voice startled Adam. I repeated the question, and he pulled a leather wallet from the back pocket of his fatigues.
The clerk studied the ID. The unambiguous female name. Studied the man to which the document belonged. She consulted a coworker. The two of them had difficulty resolving the incongruity Adam presented.
The grace in it was this: Adam was a skilled practitioner. He had checked out of his body. Wherever it was he had gone, he didn’t have to witness the humiliation.
The clerks eventually figured it out and rolled Adam’s left hand.
As they took his prints, I checked the belts of the passing police officers. It’s a habit, as unconscious as any other, to check the make of a weapon. They carried Glocks. I preferred a Colt 1911. I had been brought up to believe that a firearm is crafted from wood and steel. A gun was a thing of beauty and I loved them as such. I doubted I could ever bring myself to love a plastic weapon, to choose utility over beauty. But it was a fact, and I knew it: there wasn’t a handgun of American manufacture in the station. It’s the little things that make you worry about your own culture.
The clerk had a two-handed grip on Adam’s arm. I don’t think she noticed that his eyes were squeezed shut. She was too frustrated. Adam’s whole body shook.
The clerk had to redo the hand.
I’ve been at this teaching gig for twenty years. So it wasn’t a shock to hear that the relative who used to rape Adam—when he was a little girl—was a nationally respected pastor. Like most church-going Americans, I’d heard of him. Adam used to sit with the man on his mother’s couch; they’d watch James Dobson together after the relative had finished.
It was the second time Adam had made it this far in the process of changing his name. The first time, he had run out of money, and the FBI background check had expired before he was able to save enough to cover the court fees. The other times he had come to the police station (there had been three or four) he plain chickened out. Turned tail and went home without having his prints taken.
“What made it so difficult?” I asked.
Adam was twenty-three. He never graduated. But he often came back to my classroom to visit.
“That’s right.” I was remembering. “They roll your fingers.”
“Yeah, it’s not cool.”
Last spring, Adam talked a lot about not being alive. What made the conversation serious, and different from the run-of-the-mill angst, was that his plan included never being found. That was May. I wasn’t sure I’d see him again. Other kids just don’t fantasize like that.
“What if next time I came with you to the police station?”
“That’d be cool.”
As the clerk rolled his fingers again, Adam moved his face as far away from her as he could. It looked as if blood were being drawn.
Then Adam took off. He just split. But the kid was going in the wrong direction. He nearly hit the wall, spun at the last second and headed for the exit.
I wasn’t ready for that. I placed my hand on his shoulder as he flew past, “You okay?”
He didn’t answer. He wasn’t there. Gone.
Adam was waiting for me beside a concrete pylon in the parking garage. All he said was, “Thank you.”
We got in the truck.
I asked, “What’s your plan?”
“To get the money orders and send the fingerprints off.”
“How long does it take?”
“For the FBI it’s thirty to ninety days.”
It was September. I counted the months. “Even if it takes ninety days, you’ll have time to register for the spring semester.”
What Adam needed was to get out of town. But he couldn’t have his birth name showing up on a college roll, called out to a class. To have to explain it. The beard. The boots and fatigues. To deliberate about which bathroom to use.
“Can I ask you a question?”
“Was it easier this time because the clerk was a woman?”
“No. Some chicks are scarier than dudes.”
“Once the name change goes through, will they change the gender designation on your license?”
“You have to have a signed statement from a physician.”
“What’s the exam like for that?”
“Yeah, that could be awkward.” His right knee was bouncing. He crossed his arms and leaned forward in his seat—his face against the dash. Then he sat back.
I read the clock beneath the sign of my favorite gun store. I was going to be late for third period.
I told him, “Being a man is a pain in the ass.”
“Yeah it is.”
“All the little things.”
Benjamin Dancer considers himself unbelievably fortunate to be an English teacher at Jefferson County Open School in Lakewood, Colorado, one of the last high schools in the country where students still love school. Benjamin writes about fathers. He’s just completed a series of books on that theme: In Sight of the Sun, Fidelity, and Patriarch Run. In his story Fidelity, a blizzard worsens as Cal climbs higher on the mountain, unaware that his pursuit of an elk is the pursuit of his dead son. You can read more at Authonomy.com