Fifth grade was supposed to be the year. Kindergarten through fourth grade were just practice. They weren’t real grades. Fifth grade, though, I was going to grab by the neck and throttle. I had Mrs. Holman, who was the nicest woman who ever taught at Helen Muraski Elementary, and she was especially courteous about my tendencies to “drift,” and frequently admitted to me that she, too, “drifted.” This was before ADD was an “it” disorder, so that was the only way we knew how to speak about it.
In addition to the regular lesson, Mrs. Holman would impart to her students a full set of manners, which were bound to make us the most polite fifth graders in the Strongsville City School system. She asked us all how we were doing, and if we replied with “good” rather than “well,” we would be instantly corrected. If we didn’t understand something she had said, we were to ask, “pardon?” rather than, “what?” or “huh?” She managed to do all this without coming across as pushy or strict. All the children loved her.
I think she loved me especially because my “drifting” seemed to charm her. I was messy and disorganized, papers and Pink Pet erasers spilling out of my desk. I fidgeted, and I did unnecessary things when I was supposed to be paying attention. I drew pictures. I looked obsessively at baseball cards. This, somehow, earned me a special place in her late-fifties, copper-topped heart. She had a smoky voice, and now that I look back, a Jewish Princess look to her. I remember her perfume as being very intense.
I had a classmate who was dumpy and bug-eyed. She sat at the same cluster of desks as me. She was one of the students with a learning disability, one that had actually been acknowledged, and one that must have been more severe than my ADD, because she and a few other students would leave every day when we had Reading class and come back after recess. On one particular day, probably in October, she came back and sat down at her desk. I was nearby, painting my fingernails with a highlighting marker. I was almost done, having painted Pinky, Ringo, Tallman, and Pointy, and working on the thumb of my right hand. My classmate gasped. “What are you doing?” I replied that I was oh, you know, just painting my fingernails with a highlighter. She told me that the fluorescent ink in the marker was going to seep into my bloodstream and kill me.
I should have dismissed it. I should have asked myself what the hell this learning-disabled girl knew about highlighters in the bloodstream. I shouldn’t have believed her. I can remember turning a deadly pale from my flighty head to my new Nike Agassis. I had just killed myself. There was absolutely nothing I could do to get that neon yellow out of my veins.
I had started listening to the radio in fourth grade, after I began to get disenchanted with “Weird Al” Yankovic. My favorite was Casey’s Top 40, which I would listen to every Sunday morning while I neurotically sorted baseball cards. We didn’t go to church. I am still taken back to my bedroom, which I shared with my brother Jordan, whenever I hear “Power Windows” by Billy Falcon or “3 AM Eternal” by the KLF. I would listen to the whole thing, ready with a blank tape every week to tape my favorites, because I knew they were coming. On the Sunday after I had received my death sentence from a girl who looked like a Gorg from Fraggle Rock, I still listened to Casey Kasem. I really didn’t know when I was going to die. She must not have known how long it took highlighter ink to fully invade one’s blood supply, so really any moment could have been the last. I thought that if I was going to die, I may as well be listening to “Hazard” by Richard Marx on Casey’s Top 40. This song was immensely popular at the time. It seemed inescapable. I never really paid attention to the lyrics in the verses, but I knew it was about something dark. My situation was dark too, I thought to myself, fingers on the play and record buttons. It became the soundtrack to my supposed last days.
I never told my parents what I had done. It would have been too much for them. To know that their eleven-year-old son was dying from something that he himself did would have just killed them. So I figured that I would let my sudden death be a surprise to them. It would really be better that way, I thought. So I kept it all inside me, where the highlighter ink was.
I lived to make it to one last baseball collectors’ convention at the Holiday Inn by the highway. My dad always took me to them because I was somewhat of a freak when it came to baseball cards. I memorized statistics. I projected the success of rookies based on their performance in the minors. I can remember walking around distracted at this convention, descending into a terrible maelstrom of slow neon death, not really seeing the point of collecting baseball cards anymore.
After the convention, we went to Primetime Sports, another baseball-card shop in a plaza near our house. Jim MacMahon, the owner, was listening to the radio. As I flipped halfheartedly through 1991 Topps singles, I heard a familiar tune coming from the speakers overhead. “I swear, I left her by the river / I swear, I left her safe and sound.” The song’s coming on, of course, meant that it was going to be tonight. I had a few hours, tops, to live.
When we got home I went to my bedroom. I closed the door and paced, waiting for it. Wondering if I should have the radio on, or if I should be playing a tape when it happened. I became overwhelmed, and went down the hallway to finally tell my mother. I explained the whole situation. The highlighter, my classmate, the Richard Marx song I kept hearing, an early-nineties death knell if ever there was one. Mom assuaged my fears quickly, almost effortlessly. If there was one person whose words could override anybody else’s, especially my classmate’s, it was Mom. “If those things could kill you, there would be warnings all over the marker.”
Of course there would! She was right! I wasn’t going to die! I would live to see twelve, my teens! I would live to see my classmates’ breasts grow! I would live to touch a few of them, perhaps! I would live to hear the next single from Richard Marx!
I haven’t heard that song since. If I ever hear it come on the radio again, I am sure I will pick up a highlighter and cover every square inch of my skin with beautiful fluorescent yellow—that brutal, magnificent jaundice. I will put the cap back on the marker and sing into it like a goddamned microphone, “I swear, I left her by the river / I swear, I left her safe and sound.”