Everybody agreed that what Stephen had done was hilarious. They jested about it constantly, never leaving a shred of a doubt that any one of them was thinking otherwise. It came up frequently and they cracked new jokes about it in class, even. It was the reason why they were waiting in front of their teacher’s office now, arguably because teachers just didn’t know what was funny.
What Stephen had done was that he had beaten his mother to a pulp.
Now, this probably sounds harsh and not exactly amusing to an unknowledgeable person like most who didn’t know Stephen, a tall and large guy nearing 15, not exactly a quiet type, but he kept to himself most of the time nonetheless, and fact of the matter was that he had done it and everybody agreed that it was not only amusing, but laugh-out-loud, drop-dead humoristic genius that that was the case. It wasn’t something you could silently chuckle about to yourself, but rather something you had to engage in together with your friends, celebrate it a bit, you had to show that you agreed how funny it was.
Farhad left Massacre’s room furiously, slamming the door behind himself.
“Dumb asshole”, he snarled.
“Uallah, how bad was it?”, Stephen asked, seemingly exhilarated by Farhad’s anger.
“Yallah, it’s not your word, fucking retard, and it was dumb. He just like, asks questions.”
“Did you do the homework?”, Salvo followed up Stephen’s question, trying to interrupt Farhad while he hurled abuse at the guy who immediately seemed to grow even taller and wider and who, after all, had beaten up his mother pretty bad, just that it hadn’t been that bad, it was still funny. Be as it may, Salvo failed to keep Farhad from insulting Stephen, and just before Stephen had made up his mind whether this was worth pressing the scrawny guy against a wall and discreetly demonstrating him the correct use of that and several other words, the door, which was the same color as the walls Stephen was about to slam Farhad against (maybe, that is, as he was still just about to make up his mind about it), a sickly off-white with a plasticky sheen and a grimy finish, the agreed-upon look for all school walls, window frames and doors, this door that led into Massacre’s room opened once again.
“Stephen. You may come in.”
“Oh, I may come in. Listen, guys: I may come in.”
Salvo prepared a follow-up joke in his mind, but was preceded by Massacre simply saying: “Heel.”
One of the oddest things about Massacre was that he showed no qualms whether he could address his students like misbehaving dogs, and even odder was that Stephen, of all people, was rarely agitated by it. He let go of Farhad, whom he hadn’t really been tackling so far, and entered the room. As Massacre closed it, Salvo concluded that this might be because other teachers at the end of their patience resorted to screaming, which Stephen hated, but also found funny, funny enough to record it with his phone sometimes to then upload it somewhere or just show to his friends. However, screaming usually really was a last resort, and after that came suspension, which Stephen hated the most, not because he liked coming to school, but because he disliked being told that he wasn’t allowed in the classroom anymore and that he was about to be picked up by his warden. Massacre’s last resort was also always his first – using dog speak – and after that, suspension was immediate.
“Dumb fucking retarded idiot”, Farhad reiterated, sensibly leaving open the intended recipient’s identity of his insult this time.
“Did you actually do the assignment?”, Salvo asked for a second time.
“No. No time.” Farhad hesitated. “It was dumb. Didn’t want to.” He paused again, then, after the ticking of the hallway clock had become a force to be acknowledged, added: “Did you?”
“No. ’course not.” Salvo looked at the floor, which was blue, but to him it seemed to be the same color as the door and the wall they leaned against: the unmoving color of quality linoleum and time proof wall paint. “I didn’t understand it. It was dumb.”
“It’s like, why us anyway? The others laughed too.”
“They’re always just picking the ones they don’t like.”
“Massacre doesn’t like anyone.”
“Right. He just hates us all.”
“But he just picked us three.”
Salvo glanced at Farhad as if to warn him that he was dangerously close to a moment of introspection, but he knew they both weren’t.
“He’s called Massacre, and he gives such pussy assignments, like, we just should call him Gaylord. Who came up with ‘Mr. Massacre’ anyway?”
“My brother told me he’s been called this name since he started here. Like, maybe he killed someone before he started teaching.”
“You can’t teach if you killed someone. You’d be in prison.”
“He’s pretty old. Like, he could have started after he came out.”
“If he killed someone, that’d be cool.”
“Yeah. But I would, like, tell everybody. No student would fuck with him if he just said that he was a killer.”
“Yeah. So he isn’t.”
They endured the clock for another ten minutes until finally the door opened again. Stephen dragged his feet out in the corridor, winking at his friends, but making sure that his voice still sounded submissive as he replied to Massacre’s questions. “Yes, Mr. Jamestown”, he murmured and came to a halt in front of Farhad, signaling him that they could continue where they had been interrupted a few minutes earlier.
“Salvo, come in.”
Salvo didn’t come up with a witty rebuttal in time and had to comply.
“Please close the door behind you, will you?”
Salvo nodded and obeyed.
Mr. Massacre was an elderly man, 45, maybe 50. Salvo wasn’t very good with age. But his teacher smelled like old people on the bus did sometimes, of rain and fumes mixed with mothballs. He looked the part as well.
Massacre seated himself behind his desk and pointed at the chair in front of it. Salvo went in its direction, looking down at the floor. There was no use in looking up; the chair, the desk, Mr. Massacre himself – they were all the same color.
“Look at me”, Massacre said as soon as Salvo had sat down. Salvo made a feeble attempt at complying.
“You still can’t look into other people’s eyes. That’s fine. None of you can.”
Massacre tried to sound smooth and soothing. It further convinced Salvo that they should call him Gaylord.
“They’re probably beating up each other in front of the door right now”, Salvo felt obliged to mention.
“I know. I care very little.”
“It’s ‘uallah’. A slight difference in pronunciation. Not that you care.”
Salvo didn’t reply.
“You didn’t do the assignment either, did you?”
“I’m too dumb for that.”
“I get that excuse a lot. Lack of intelligence is not a liberating synonym for laziness.”
“But it was hard.”
“Does that mean you read the assignment, at least?”
“Like, a bit.” Salvo waited for Massacre’s response, but none came. “Why did we have to do these, anyways? It’s not like, we didn’t do anything.”
“No. Not at all. We just joked.”
“About the hospitalization of Stephen’s mother, owed to one of his violent outbursts.”
“She didn’t die.”
“Luckily she didn’t. Would you be happy if that was the most positive thing I had to say about your mother’s health?”
“My mum’s doing fine.”
“I know, Salvo.”
“And Stephen’s mother, she’s like, uh-”
“I know Stephen’s mother, Salvo. That is besides the point.”
“Yeah, but I didn’t hit her.”
Massacre, thinking about whether raising his eyebrows was of any use, looked at his notes. “You boasted about how you’d have liked to see Stephen smash that lamp in, I quote, ‘her dumb, ugly face’ and help him, I quote again, ‘make her beg for help’.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“We talked about that. I stood in front of the class while you said it.”
“Yeah. You misheard.”
“And the others laughed too.”
“This is not about what the others did.”
“But they laughed-”
“I care very little.”
“Yeah? Wallah, I don’t care at all.”
“It’s still ‘uallah’. ‘Yallah’ if you will. Depends on your dialect.”
“I don’t care.” Instead of replying, Massacre waved his hand to assure Salvo that he acknowledged that fact and yet was not very interested in its intricacies.
“About the assignment-”
“I’m too dumb for that”, Salvo interrupted him with renewed confidence. “I can’t do it.”
“No. Stephen couldn’t do it. He really tried, though.”
“Stephen didn’t do the assignment either.”
Massacre picked a greasy, crinkly piece of paper out of the vomit-yellow folder, which also was the same color as everything else, beneath his notes, presenting it to Salvo. It was barely legible, but definitely bore Stephen’s signature.
“Believe it or not, Stephen cares about his grades a bit. But don’t worry, it’s a very superficial approach to Achilles and the Tortoise. I expected more.”
Salvo suppressed the feeling of betrayal boiling up.
“Don’t be silly, of course he forgot about it. He didn’t deliberately ignore it, though, no matter how spiteful he likes to convince his friends he is.”
Massacre noticed Salvo’s pained expression and seemed very pleased with himself.
“Are you even allowed to tell me this?”
“Tell you that your friends tried to do their homework?” Massacre smirked, then his expression changed to something illegible for his student and his demeanor became a lot more serious. “Salvo, I gave you these assignments hoping you would at least google and copy-paste a solution that you’d then hopelessly try to read to me so you’d maybe learn one or two new words before you turn 16. That is to say, to force your brain to produce a thought only once in ten years of gratuitous education. I can’t say I’m surprised that didn’t happen, so now you’ll have to live with the two of us going over your assignment and searching for an ad-hoc solution for the problem.”
“I don’t have-”
“I know you don’t have the exercise sheet with you”, Massacre interrupted and took his own copy from his folder to put it in front of the boy and carefully flatten it with his fingers before he continued: “Can you explain the Dichotomy to me, Salvo?”
“I can’t. I’m too dumb.”
“You’re all too proud about not being able to do things.”
“I didn’t read it.”
“Tell me what you remember.”
“I have time. We can do this forever.”
“You’ll have to let me go eventually.”
“You’re right.” Massacre leaned back. “Eventually.”
Salvo twisted his eyebrows in a way he had learned conveyed hatred, but to no avail. It didn’t help that he still hadn’t managed to look into his teacher’s face.
“There’s a runner who can never arrive at the goal. The end.”
“Why can’t he?”
Salvo stayed silent. Massacre looked out of the window. The sun wasn’t visible from his office, but he made a friendly face at the sallow sky. “Eventually”, he repeated.
“Because the distance has been divided by two.”
“And that entails?”
“That- I don’t know.”
Massacre didn’t say anything.
Salvo likewise looked out of the window. The sky was the same color as the window frames, the floor, the door and the walls. Even if he got out of this, the color would stay with him until he arrived home and turned on his TV.
There was no escape from the static.
“The runner needs to run half the distance now, first.”
“That is correct.”
A static of one uniform nameless, hueless color.
“And the half after that is divided into two halves again.”
“That is also correct.”
“And that repeats forever.”
“And that’s why he can’t do it.”
Salvo looked at Massacre quizzically. It didn’t dawn on him that he was actually meeting his eyes until he noticed that they both smiled the tiniest of smiles.
“You understood the question”, Massacre acknowledged.
“But I can’t answer it.”
“What would you answer if you had to?”
“That it’s dumb.”
“Because runners do arrive.”
“Right. So is there an error in the question?”
“I don’t see one.”
“So what are you proposing? That the question is correct, but yet things happen differently, and therefore it’s dumb to think about it?”
“Just a silly thought experiment. A paradox.”
“I don’t know what a paradox is.”
“It’s a statement that contradicts itself even though it seems true – or the other way round: a seemingly contradictory statement that might be true.”
“I don’t get that.”
“Oh, you do.”
“Why didn’t the others have to do this?”
“I’m not answering that again.”
“This is dumb. The question is dumb. I’m not learning anything from this.”
“I think it’s very interesting.”
“I think it’s retarded.”
“This paradox was stated by Zeno around 2.500 years ago.”
“The first one to answer it was Aristotle. Not in a very satisfactory fashion, if you ask me.”
“I’m not asking you.”
“Other approaches can be found throughout history, you know, in-”
“No, I don’t know”, Salvo exploded at Massacre, “and I don’t want to know. Wallah, I’ll tell you why the runner arrives, it’s because he wants to. It’s just like with Stephen’s mum, that dumb bitch who wouldn’t shut up, we laugh about her because we want to. You can tell us that it’s not funny, and that she’s a human being and shit, and Stephen can be a creeper and threaten us all the time and maybe it’s really not funny at all and maybe some of us are bit sorry for his fucking mum, but no matter how many things you throw at us and no matter if we know better, in the end we’ll laugh, and that’s why the question is dumb.”
Salvo had just finished his tirade when he noticed that he had given Massacre exactly what he wanted to get. He could see the satisfaction all over his teacher’s face, which made him notice once again that he was neither looking at the floor nor the sky, but at this old, annoying, stupid man.
He realized he had made a grave mistake. What he actually, if he should have done his homework at all, needed to say was that the question didn’t matter, and that the runner arrived because things just happen, and that they laughed about Stephen’s mum just because it happened that they laughed, not because anyone wanted to. Not because anyone had a reason, responsibility, or a will. Like an idiot, Salvo had given himself a conscience right in front of his teacher.
He thought about clutching his fists, but that was too melodramatic a move to pull in company of an adult even for him.
“Can I go now, Mr. Jamestown?”
“You are dismissed.”
The distance between his chair and the door seemed way too long.
“Uallah, did he also try to pull tricks on you?”, Stephen asked. Farhad was awkwardly silent and stayed in the background as the three of them left the building and walked across the schoolyard.
“’course he did. Fucking Gaylord never gives up.”
“Gaylord?” Stephen laughed. His laughter seemed more like a boar’s impatient grunts, or at least it rang like a boar sounded like in Salvo’s imagination.
“He’s a total Gaylord. Like, I bet he never killed anyone.”
They parted ways at the gate. When he crossed a small bridge over a creek he didn’t know the name of, Salvo realized that he was about halfway home.
He looked at his feet and, between the wooden planks of the old, brittle bridge, saw the water underneath moving. The creek was hue- and colorless like everything else, but its muddy water was in motion; a static with a direction.
He’d only arrive home if he wanted to.
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