The Madison Review Extended Cut: no. 12
Welcome back to The Madison Review's web series, The Extended Cut, where we showcase exceptional work that was not selected for the fall or spring editions of our journal. This week, we share 'Teen Canteen' by Steven McBrearty, a short story about the magic of weekend youth... and the lows of its reality -- welcome to the Teen Canteen! We hope you enjoy!
Steven McBrearty has published more than 40 short stories and humor pieces over the years. A second collection of McBrearty's short stories, "The Latin Sub - Impure Thoughts, and One Man's Definition of Mortal Sin," was published in December 2017 by Adelaide Books. The collection has been nominated for a Benjamin Franklin award. A previous collection, "Christmas Day on a City Bus," was published by McKinney Press in 2011.
Most recently, McBrearty's story “Children of the Shopping Mall,” was accepted for publication in a “best of 2019” anthology for Adelaide Publications. “Bertrand Russell and My Summer in the Sun” was published in the April 2019 issue of 34th Parallel magazine. “Paterfamilias for the New Millennium” was published in the September 2019 issue of 34th Parallel.
There was a place when I was growing up in San Antonio, TX., called Teen Canteen. Physically, Teen Canteen was a basic storefront in a strip mall, a cement-floored, deep, narrow space—an appliances shop in an earlier incarnation—but for me it was a place of mythic proportions, a place where hopes and dreams for the future lived and died. The impetus behind Teen Canteen was to provide a clean, safe, wholesome (but hip!) environment for us San Antonio teens to interact with one another and listen to some music and maybe dance. The people promoting it were probably the same kind of people who operated camps for church youth groups, though with a secular bent. The dancing part, and the interacting part, were the parts that inflated a giant balloon of anxiety and angst in my chest. I never actually felt safe, clean, or wholesome going there. In fact, I felt rather depraved. I felt lucky if I returned home with one shred of dignity clinging to my psyche.
Teen Canteen was a hot, hectic place, with the dance floor packed, the concession stand lined up ten deep, people milling everywhere, the crowd spilling onto the sidewalk outside. Strobe lights flashed spasmodically. A movie screen on the back wall displayed cartoon-like images of geometric shapes merging and morphing, like protoplasm. A band was setting up on a small, raised stage in the rear, a band composed of fellow teenagers, the grungiest, most disheveled teenagers available—though clean, safe, and wholesome!—with holes in their jeans and bandanas on their heads and shirts unbuttoned to the breastbone. Everybody aspired to look like them. They showed no emotion while they played, made no eye contact with the crowd. On the sidewalk outside, a gaggle of tough customers stood trying to appear cool and jaded, as if they had no parents to restrict them, no rules governing their lives.
This was a Thursday night when my father dropped me off in front of Teen Canteen, an aura of anxiety permeating the cabin of our late-model, cream-colored Buick LeSabre. (We were dedicated Buick people, not wealthy enough or show-offy enough for a Cadillac, or bourgeois enough for a Mercedes.) I was fifteen, not yet old enough to drive myself. It was mid-July, when the false hopes and expectations of early summer began to wilt away into the grim reality of another school year on the horizon. With every passing day, it began to seem more urgent now to make something happen in my life, something powerful and dramatic and glorious, something that would jolt me out of my dismal morass of an existence.
As my father pulled to the curb, I placed my hand on the door handle, anxiety welling in my chest like an allergic reaction. I was eager to jump out before the complete strangers on the sidewalk noticed that I had a father. My father balked, grabbing my left arm and holding on tight. I knew what was happening. He was freaking out, seeing guys slouching around with hair that had grown out since school ended, touching the bottoms of their ears—my dream!—and girls in halter tops and mini-skirts, the bolder ones braless, perhaps. They all seemed terribly bold and brazen, as if there were no curfews in their households. My father spoke to the back of my head.
“There won’t be any drugs there, will there?” he said. His articulation of the word drugs was sinister, dire, apocalyptic. I had a vision of flying monkeys, demons, pits of sulphuric fire.
“No, Dad,” I said. I hoped my voice didn’t falter telling this blatant lie. I sat clutching the door handle, ready to bolt. My father’s hand left my arm and slid over the top of my shoulder blades. I leaned forward, evading his touch.
My father knew nothing first-hand regarding drugs, but they were all over the news, of course, in newspapers and magazines and TV reports. I was sitting with him watching TV one night, a documentary on LSD and other mind-altering substances. It was an uncomfortable situation for both of us. He said, “I don’t know why anybody would want to have sensations like that.” I shrugged, feigning obliviousness. If he didn’t know why, I sure as hell couldn’t explain it to him.
“You sure?” he said now.
“I’m sure,” I said.
“OK, then,” he said. “Just stay out of trouble.” It was his usual uplifting sendoff. My father was an accountant, with an accountant’s prosaic, cost-benefits perspective on the universe. Stay out of trouble, don’t rock the boat, work with the system, were his mottoes, his guiding lights. He was unmoved by the changing times. In fact, he actively resisted them. He was a one-man anti-counter culture resistance crew.
“I will, Dad,” I said. I opened the door a crack, planting one foot provisionally onto the pavement outside. “Can I go?”
“Go,” he said. “I’ll pick you up at ten o’clock.”
“Ten?” I said. “That’s too early, Dad.”
He tapped his fingers on the steering wheel in a gesture that meant, “Take it or leave it.”
“OK, Dad,” I said. “Crap.” I began making back-up plans in case I became entangled in a romantic relationship and couldn’t leave on time. For that, I would endure my father’s wrath, cheerfully, beatifically.
I leaped out, then, banging my knee harshly against the car door.
“You alright?” my father said.
“I’m alright,” I said. For some reason, his solicitousness annoyed me. Just about everything he did annoyed me.
I was free. Of course, freedom doesn’t guarantee happiness, it only guarantees that you don’t have anybody telling you what to do. My anxiety transferred instantly from one locale to another. I strode toward the entrance door, trying valiantly to display how calm and cool I was, how self-assured and unflappable and daring. I knew everybody was watching me, observing me, judging me. I feared their judgments would not be good. I felt inferior somehow, inferior in some vague but global way, unfixable. My faint hope was that something positive would happen here tonight, something that would transform me spontaneously into a confident, secure, successful young man. At age 15, I felt pretty much at a dead end. My life was going nowhere fast. I won’t describe what I did for pleasure, but it didn’t make me happy, that’s for sure.
I paid my cover charge to a slender, wan, long-haired dude who seemed to regard me dubiously. Hand stamped, I stepped inside, into the crucible, so to speak, searching for a suitable corner to station myself in. Normally, I stood in a corner for a while, working up the confidence to ask a girl to dance. It wasn’t exactly confidence, it was more a savage burst of temporary insanity. I didn’t go to Teen Canteen with friends, because friends would interfere with me taking action. They would be watching my every move, making me so self-conscious I would have been basically neutralized. I might as well have stayed home watching TV.
Tonight, I established a position in the far-right corner of the room and began the process of sizing up my opportunities. It really wasn’t much of a process, it was mainly staring out into the crowd and using my gut to pick out likely prospects. The place was hopping that night, half-price admission night. The band was warming up on stage, random guitar notes screeching out, exciting the crowd, inciting a rising tide of potential energy. It was twilight, a deep shadow suffusing the room like a soft blanket. There was the usual cacophony of people talking, gesturing, smiling, bumping bodies. I thought, how were all these people thinking of so many things to say, when I sometimes couldn’t think of a single thing to say? Talking to a girl, I generally ran out of conversational topics after three or four sentences. Then I smiled and stared into space, hoping to appear intelligent. Everybody was bumping, I was standing in a corner, trying to reach across the gulf between them and me, like an electric charge leaping.
On an impulse, I decided to make my move early tonight. It wasn’t so much a decision as a quick-twitch reflex of nerve endings and brain synapses. It was as if some alien force had taken over my body and my mind. I flexed my knees, stretched out my arms, took a deep breath. The problem with making my move early was that if it failed, I spent the remainder of a long, long evening in a deep, enveloping funk, the room swirling around me like the climactic scene from Marate Sade. But if I didn’t try at all, it was a wasted night, a void, an existential nothingness. I glanced around the dance floor, searching, searching hard, for someone who might agree to dance with me, date me for years, and, ultimately, marry me. I saw a girl who I knew slightly—from my church—a girl with long, brown, wavy hair, that sat flat between her shoulders like a beaver’s tail, and iridescent blue eyes, eyes that seemed always filled with surprise and wonder. Her name was Laura. I thought the surprise and wonder in her eyes could indicate a glimmer of hope that she would find a person like me acceptable. She might not shun me completely. It wasn’t that I was a snob about girls, it was that I understood that only those with a certain narrow range of characteristics would even glance in my direction. She wouldn’t, at least, laugh in my face. She would wait until I walked away.
There was one more essential step. Right before making my move, I assigned Laura with the physical attributes of every California beach babe I had seen in magazines or movies, with the soul of a 19th Century British poet. And then it was happening. Abruptly, I was making my move, making a beeline across the dance floor like an out-of-control marionette. I may have knocked several bystanders out of the way. When I reached her, I spoke immediately, instantaneously.
“Remember me, Laura?” I said. “Would you want to dance?”
I spoke the words so swiftly, and so devoid of context, that I’m not sure that anyone could understand. She seemed ambivalent, glancing about as if to ascertain if there were better prospects—or an escape route—before agreeing to dance. In the moment, I didn’t want to admit that her agreement was emphatically reluctant.
“OK, let’s go,” she said, in a “Let’s get this over with” tone of voice. She walked ahead of me to the center of the dance floor, then, determinedly, grimly almost. We stood facing each other uncertainly, for a few static moments, and then we sprang into action, rather like athletes when play begins. We danced to a fast number, something Top 40 song from one of the major rock bands of the day. Laura seemed aloof, her gaze wandering off into the distance, her limbs moving mechanically. I wrote this off as ordinary fast-dancing behavior. Fast dancing was intrinsically unemotive, impassive.
Afterwards, we stood on the dance floor together, talking for a short while, decompressing. I was talking, anyway, trying to prolong the moment, trying to keep her standing there. I feared that if I didn’t keep her there, she’d be gone forever. I was trying desperately to forge a bond between us, an understanding, a concurrence. I thought perhaps something had clicked when she took my two hands in hers, holding them in front, and smiled. Her iridescent eyes seemed to signal a future together.
“I’ll be right back,” she said softly, I would even say soothingly.
“Sounds great!” I said. I held her two hands tightly—and squeezed. I wanted to keep holding on forever. She pulled away. We both looked at our hands, then, as if to assess the effects of my touch on her. She smiled—summarily. Then she turned and walked away. I stood in place, watching her disappear through the crowd, like watching the last fading rays of a sunset over an ocean horizon. I waited then, waited hopefully, anxiously, patiently, longingly, like any perfectly normal young man waiting for his girl to return. Well, any perfectly normal young man staking his entire future well-being on the girl returning soon.
I felt serene, at first, almost smug, waiting through the next number. I was holding onto my happiness, feeling sorry for all these other schmucks standing around aimlessly, a guy with a girl coming back. Sweeter words were never spoken: “I’m coming back.” I would see her again soon. We would dance some more. Or maybe, just stand talking together for the remainder of the night, entranced by our proximity. When she returned, I would think of things to say, brilliant, ingenious, astute things to say. Maybe there would even be a kiss at the end of the night. When my father picked me up, I would kiss him, our damaged relationship repaired, and thank him profusely for guiding me along to this exalted place in life, this cornucopia of bliss.
Laura failed to return after the first song ended. I stayed upbeat then, assuring myself that she was returning shortly. Or the second. I glanced around then, restively; I craned my neck looking for her; I checked my watch. Was she lost? Did she forget where we were standing? I tried to make myself a bit more prominent, edging out slightly from the corner. Then the band took a break, laying down their instruments and wandering off somewhere, probably to smoke some weed behind the building. The crowd on the dance floor thinned out, and I saw Laura talking with a group of people on the far side of the room. It was then that I began to hear horror music playing in my mind. I tried making eye contact with her, but she was looking away, determinedly away. I briefly entertained the idea of barging in on her group and saying, “Did you forget to come back?” But with perhaps my last remaining shred of lucidity, I refrained. I began the process of regrouping then. I began to rationalize. I was unquestionably one of the great rationalizers of all time.
I slunk outside then, past the knots of people talking, past the dude at the check-in table, hiding myself in the gaggle of tough customers on the sidewalk. I didn’t want Laura to see me. I didn’t want anybody to see me. I wanted to become invisible. I wanted to shrink myself to the size of a proton and orbit soundlessly around the globe. I started to walk. Maybe I would walk the way around to the back side of the strip center and stare at the stars. Maybe I would get lucky and be struck by a passing car and spend the next several months in the hospital where I would undergo some kind of spiritual renewal. Maybe the band would be back there smoking pot and I could toke up, too, obliterating my consciousness in a rush of psychoactive stimulation.
When my father picked me up at 10:00 o’clock, I was riding high, on Panama Red, or Acapulco Gold, or Texas Tea, or some combination of all that. He had the passenger door open for me. I climbed in.
“How’d it go?” he said.
“Fantastic!” I said.
“Did you meet some girls?” he said.
“Lots of girls! Millions of girls!” I said.
“Hey, that’s great!” he said. He tooled off in the Buick LeSabre, thinking I had spent the night in an orgy of dancing and female interactions. Oh well, might as well let him think that. Better not to let him know what a nobody his son was.
Teen Canteen—safe, clean, wholesome (and hip!).