I slapped the following post up here a couple weeks ago, in my continuing (and probably pointless) quest to make sense of my past — in this instance, junior high. I wanted to append this foreword, or preface, or whatever the hell this is, in light of a shocking discovery: This morning, I found some slides in a box in my attic dated Febrary 1979, which I apparently took at my junior high school. Holy crap, these slides are as terrifying as they are amazing. The slides include: an open locker with junk spilling out of it; a cool dude surrounded by girls; and our cool, liberal, super-motivated science teacher who nobody really liked.
I often find myself saying, “If I only knew then what I know now,” the implication being “ooh, all the fun I could have.” (In junior high and high school, I think there were people my age who knew then what I know now, and probably more.) If time travel ever becomes reality, it will present us with the ethical dilemma of whether we should travel back in time, armed with the knowledge of what’s going to happen and intent on using that knowledge to our advantage.
Thinking about this likely impossibility for too long fills me with regret. A variation on this theme, “If I only knew now what I’ll learn later,” fills me with anxiety. Best not to think about that one for too long, either. However, a second variation, “If I could only remember what I knew then,” holds some promise for constructive thought and action, rather than mere selfish pleasure and profit. This variation also offers the added benefit of being possible, if only partly so. Anyone really interested in trying ought to be able to recover some knowledge of how things were at a given point in time, and may even acquire some new knowledge of the past.
One caveat: memories don’t arrive on schedule, at least not on our schedule. Whatever entity it is that holds on to them doles them out in dribs and drabs, or in huge gushing bursts; at irregular intervals or as regular as a traffic light – however it wants to do it. The receiver of this knowledge has no control over how or when it comes.
I will try to keep these considerations in mind as I work on a story I’ve been kicking around. Called “Life in Eighth Grade” or “Repeating the Eighth Grade,” it revolves around a night in the life of Peter Bilirakis, a writer at a newsletter publishing company. After working until nearly midnight, he accidentally sends an obscene email to his boss instead of to a friend. He offers a lame explanation in a follow-up email. Furious for having to work so late, furious at himself for his stupid mistake and feeling like his world is crashing down around him, Peter gets in his car and heads home, trying to forget what has just happened. In a hurry to get home, Peter speeds down the interstate at nearly 100 mph. Exhausted, he falls asleep at the wheel and drifts into the median strip, where his car flips over several times before landing upside-down.
As he hangs there unconscious, Peter dreams that he is in an office where a streetwise and world-weary black man sits at a desk, chewing a toothpick and studying a piece of paper in his hands. The man looks up and says, “So, you must be Peter BI-LI-RAK-IS. What kind of a name is that?” Peter tells him it’s Greek. The man tells Peter to “take a seat, my Greek friend.”
As he sits, Peter asks the man what his name is, where he is and what he’s doing there. The man tells Peter that he’s Peter’s guardian angel, and that his name is Jamal Blakely. Peter cracks an annoying joke: “Oh, it’s Jamal the night visitor!” Jamal says, “Ooh, you’re a funny man, Peter! A funny, funny man!” Then Jamal pulls another piece of paper out of a desk drawer, printouts of the photographs Peter sent his boss. Jamal studies the photographs. “Mmm! Nice, Peter! Real nice! I’ll bet your boss must’ve loved these!”
Peter grows quiet. Jamal tells Peter he has a choice: spend eternity in Hell or junior high school. Peter asks if that means all three years. Jamal says no, just one year, forever and ever. Peter asks why anyone would choose to spend eternity in Hell. Jamal says that, at least with Hell, people know what they’ll be getting. “Hell sucks, but there’s no ups and downs – just downs. And there’s nothing worse than a down after you’ve been up.”
Peter says he sees Jamal’s point, but he’s still interested in hearing about the other offer. He wonders who will choose which year of junior high he’ll have to relive through all eternity. Jamal opens his desk drawer again and pulls out a deck of cards. He tells Peter that the two of them will have to play one hand of blackjack. If Peter wins, he chooses the year; if Peter loses, Jamal chooses.
Peter complains that blackjack with just two players won’t be very interesting. He also wonders why Jamal only has one deck. Jamal is shocked at Peter’s effrontery. He reminds Peter of his choices. Peter relents, telling to Jamal to “just deal the cards.”
“All right, we got ourselves a playah!” Jamal says. “Mr. Bi-li-ra-kis, steppin’ up!” Jamal shuffles the deck, Peter cuts it, and Jamal deals. (The actual play of the cards isn’t that important, except that no 7s, 8s or 9s ever show up.) Peter loses, and so does Jamal. Peter thinks this means they have played to a draw, but Jamal reminds him that blackjack rules consider players with busted hands losers even if the dealer also has a busted hand.
He tells Peter it’s time to go. Peter gets nervous and asks if there’s any other way. “You can’t stay here forever, Peter, but I’ll give you one last chance.” Jamal draw three cards from the bottom of the deck. He holds them up, with the Bicycle design facing Peter. “This is it, Peter. All the marbles. Pick a card, buddy.” Peter hesitates, then picks the one on the left. He turns it around. It’s the eight of hearts.
Sweating, nervous and wide-eyed, Peter asks Jamal what the card means. “What do you think it means, Peter? You’re going back to the eighth grade!” Jamal reaches back in the drawer, pulls out a clipboard with a contract on it and a pen. He hands them to Peter.
“What do you want me to do with these?” Peter asks.
“Stop acting like an idiot, Peter. Just sign the damn thing and get out my face!”
Peter looks over the form, scrawls his name at the bottom, and jumps up. He yells, “I can’t do this,” before running to the door. When he opens it and steps through, he finds himself back in his steamy, filthy junior high locker room, in his bony eighth-grade body.