At age twelve, Kevin Brockmeier is ready to become a different person: not the boy he has always been—the one who cries too easily and laughs too easily, who lives in an otherland of sparkling daydreams and imaginary catastrophes—but someone else altogether.
Over the course of one school year—seventh grade—he sets out in search of himself. Along the way, he happens into his first kiss at a church party, struggles to understand why his old friends tease him at the lunch table, becomes the talk of the entire school thanks to his Halloween costume, and booby-traps his lunch to deter a thief.
With the same deep feeling and oddly dreamlike precision that are the hallmarks of his fiction, the acclaimed novelist now explores the dream of his own past and recovers the person he used to be.
Following English, just as the bell is releasing everyone to third period, Miss Vincent gives him a greeting card with a drawing of a hippo standing on its hind legs. She hands it across his desk unassumingly, offhandedly, like homework, and no one pays much attention. Though the caption looks handwritten, it isn’t: “When everything really starts to get to you, DON’T DESPAIR! DON’T GIVE UP! Just do what I do,” and on the inside, “Eat.” There beneath the punch line is the blue ink of her cursive, full of circles, like the pattern at the corners of a fancy napkin: “Hope you are feeling better about things today. Things will get better, just be patient. Have a good day! Love— Ms. Vincent.”
The words make a kind of drumbeat in Kevin’s head.
Things, things. Better, better. Love.
Things, things. Better, better. Love.
For nearly an hour he listens to it, opening the card every so often to read the note again, and then geography has ended, and he is surveying the lunchroom. Where should he sit? The Thad table is an impossibility, and so are the girl tables. And the majority of the others are already taken by older students, eighth- and ninth-graders who have known each other for most of a lifetime.
Kevin shoulders up against one of the pillars. Too many people aren’t his friends. He feels as if the sheen of paint on the walls, the fluorescent lamp sputtering above the door, the shadows of the tree branches on the windows are all whispering a secret to him, one he could hear if the rest of the kids would just be quiet, something about time and school and where his life is taking him, but instead there is only the popcorn of everyone’s voices, bursting and bursting and bursting.
He decides to sit with Leigh Cushman and Mike Beaumont. He finds a barnacle of gum on the underside of the table and picks at it with his fingernails. Before long Saul Strong joins them with his sandwich bag and his Ruffles and “Hey there,” he greets them. “It’s the Tough Guys,” which is the name they have given their volleyball team in PE. They’ve even invented a chant:
We’re tough guys! We don’t take no crap
When we deliver our TOUGH RAP!
“How’s it going with y’all?”
“How’s it going?” Leigh complains. “I’m totally gonna fail this Bible test, that’s how. Are you gonna fail it? ’Cause I am. All those begats and he-dieds and crap.”
“See, you just don’t remember memory verses. That’s your problem.”
“My point exactly! I only remember things I already know. That’s what they should have: knowing verses.”
“ ‘ ’Cause knowing is half the battle,’ ” Mike says.
“Meep meep,” Kevin adds.
Saul shakes his head. His feathered hair does a little landslide. “Man, that’s the Road Runner, not G.I. Joe.”
“No, no, there’s this episode where Shipwreck kicks a coyote into a canyon, and when it lands, he says meep meep. It’s a Road Runner joke, not a Road Runner mistake.”
“My whole life is a Road Runner joke,” Leigh says.
“My whole life is a Road Runner mistake,” Kevin says.
He’s not sure what he means, or if he even means anything at all, but the tone of sad-sack defeat in his voice gets him a laugh.
The result is incontestable. That’s who he is: funny.
The rest of the day passes somehow, and then he is lying on his bedroom floor staring at the blades of the ceiling fan, edged with ruffs of gray dust, and there is only Friday to finish before Christmas break.
He spends most of the evening working on the lyrics of a Christmas song—“Deck the School,” he calls it—the kind of parody he has written by the dozens ever since he started buying Mads and Crackeds from the magazine rack at Kroger. The verses ascend through the school grades, each one landing squarely on a big-name student, a Beau Dawkins or a Bryan Plumlee, a Matthew Connerly or a Doug Odom. The next morning Kevin deposits the page anonymously on Mr. Garland’s desk and waits for him to read it. You never know with Mr. Garland. You just never do. He is half jester and half grouch. Telling a joke in his class is as likely to earn you a demerit as a laugh. But after the bell rings and the quiz begins, when he finally lays his fingers on the page, he chuckles silently with his mouth closed, exercising one side of his face as if he is working the sugar off a jawbreaker.
In chapel, sitting with the rest of the seventh-graders at the far end of the bleachers, Kevin watches him take the microphone and announce, “The kid who wrote this actually included all the fa-la-las, but I’m just going to give you the good stuff.” Mr. Garland delivers the lines like wisecracks, pausing to let the laughter burn down to ashes. The loudest reaction comes from the eighth-graders, for “When we get back, there’ll be no lickin’s / Assuming that there’s no Chris Pickens,” and then from the seniors, for “Can you hear the women screamin’? / There’s mistletoe and (gasp!) Scott Freeman.”
Afterward, in the thick of the applause, a voice shouts out, “Who wrote it?” and Mr. Garland tacks the paper to the stand with his finger. “Sorry, folks. ‘By anonymous.’ ”
Someone once told Kevin that if a hummingbird’s wings stop, its heart will explode.
Excerpted from A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip by Kevin Brockmeier. Copyright © 2014 by Kevin Brockmeier. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
In addition to his most recent work, A Few Seconds of Radiant Filmstrip, KEVIN BROCKMEIER is the author of the novels The Illumination, The Brief History of the Dead, and The Truth About Celia; the story collections Things That Fall from the Sky and The View from the Seventh Layer; and the children’s novels City of Names and Grooves: A Kind of Mystery. His work has been translated into seventeen languages. He has published his stories in such venues as The New Yorker, The Georgia Review, McSweeney’s, Zoetrope, Tin House, The Oxford American, The Best American Short Stories, The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, and New Stories from the South. He has recieved the Borders Original Voices Award, three O. Henry Awards (one, a first prize), the PEN USA Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and an NEA Grant. In 2007, he was named one of Granta magazine’s Best Young American Novelists He teaches frequently at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and he lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he was raised.