Sunday Snippet – The Red Tail

A quick first draft I hammered out on a break from work. There may be something here, but I’m not sure what.

Walter ran through the corn. It was higher than his head and he knew he was invisible. The stalks stood thick, but there was room to run between the rows. He realized he still had the gun in his hand and that it was slowing him down, affecting his gait. He raised the gun to his face and realized that it was giving off a burned smell and that the barrel was hot.

He threw the gun away into the corn.

He wanted to start running again, but Walter had lost his way. The high corn hid him but made it impossible to see where he was going. The noon sun was directly overhead and he realized he didn’t even know what direction he had come from.

So he just ran.

When he was a child, Walter Skopsky’s father gave him a gift. He didn’t know it at the time but that moment was to shape the rest of his life. His father was a struggling alcoholic insurance underwriter and was hunched over his desk balancing the family’s meager bank accounts late one evening – trying to finish so he could reach for his second bottle. Walter was out of paper for his school work and was pestering his father for a sheet or two when the old man reached into a drawer and fell upon a pad of graph paper. He threw it and told his son to leave him alone for the rest of the night.

Walter still remembers the cool, green color of the pad, the thick blue and fine red lines crisscrossing in a grid of such heavenly precision – the repeating pattern of the axis implying an infinite steadiness and surety reaching out past the edges of the sheets into infinity to the left and right, back from the past and forward into the future.

It was the most beautiful thing Walter had ever seen.

A shy, nervous, and delicate boy, Walter took refuge in his graph paper. Once he committed something to the Cartesian Predictability on the single plane he felt he had the world under his control.

He was terrified of the long drives his family would take every holiday to West Virgina – to spend time with his mother’s large, diffuse and complex, intertwined family. The visit was a blur of loud and unpleasant confusion to Walter, but the drive up there and back was horrifying. Walter did not have access to accurate statistics on driving fatalities, but he watched the evening news and read the paper. He knew that a lot of people were meeting a gruesome end on the roads. Walter made guesses as to the percentages of deaths per thousand miles of driving and would graph the family voyage along with his estimate of his odds of dying in a fiery crash.

During the trip he would look from the back seat of the car over his father’s shoulder at the odometer and would then retreat and mark their progress on his graph and reduce his estimate of fatality until, pulling into the weed-infested gravel driveway of his aunt’s doublewide, the two lines would move to zero and he could breath easier until it was time for the trip back.

As the years went by Walter became increasingly unsatisfied with his simple linear graphs. The world was getting too complicated. That was when, on a whim, he fished the teacher’s guide to a set of standardized progress tests given out to his entire grade level out of a classroom trash can. He slipped the guide into his notebook and surreptitiously sneaked it home like it was a set of state secrets. That night he removed the clear cellophane from the unread thin pamphlet and devoured it cover to cover. There, he discovered, for the first time, the concept of the bell curve.

The simple curve resonated with Walter and he felt, finally, that he had learned a concept that explained the world to him. At first the librarian dismissed him, but he kept bugging the woman until she led him to an introductory statistics textbook that had a long chapter on the normal distribution. The mathematics were above him, but Walter began to understand the curve itself in its graphical form, with the large number of “normal” points arranged around the center and the two, rare, special, “tails” extended out to either side.

Walter copied the curve onto an entire pad of graph paper and then began to fill in the areas with highlight markers, so he could still see the lines underneath. He used the most common yellow markers on the vast territory of the center hump of the curve. The top one percent of the tail, he colored green and the bottom one, he colored red.

He stared at that upper green tail and swore he would always be in there, no matter what it took. If he couldn’t make it there – he would move on. He entered into a long period of studying. He would graph his test scores and his mid-semester and final grades – making sure he was in that top one percent. Anything less would be represented by a big blotch in that vast yellow mediocrity of the curve and Walter would be up late at night, sweating in his bed, and staring at that mark of self shame.

In English class one day, they read Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” and Walter wrote a long heart-felt essay about how the two roads led to the left and right areas of his beloved bell curve, and the “Road Less Traveled” led to the right-handed, green tail. He even stapled one of his beloved graphs to the back of the paper, carefully labeled with sections of the poem. He let slip a rare grin of self-satisfaction as he handed in his paper, sure that the teacher would be impressed by his understanding of the relationship between statistics and literature.

Walter was mortified when the paper was returned with a “C-” and the notations, “Well written, but does not make sense,” and, “Does not follow instructions.” Tears welled up in his eyes as he made a mark slightly to the left of center in the vast hated yellow land of the bell curve.

He kept staring at that graph… as time and again he kept ending up in that yellow center. It was horribly frustrating and he became more and more discouraged. Walter needed to be there in that green tail – the top one percent. But, try as hard as he could, he kept falling short. Slowly, inevitably, he began to think about the other end of the graph, the red end. The bottom one percent. What would life be like down there?

It was about that time that Walter’s father fell asleep in his car in the garage with the engine running. There was a lot of talk about whether he had done himself in or had simply made another drunken mistake… his last one. Walter didn’t think it made much difference either way.

In the confusion after his father’s death Walter was able to sneak into his parent’s bedroom and find the black plastic case hidden under the shoe stand. Walter’s father had proudly taught his son how to use the snub nose revolver and the two of them had spent some time out in the country, target shooting at whiskey bottles stuck between strands of barbed wire.

The gun was the only possession of his father’s that Walter cared about. He was able to keep it hidden away under his mattress. Nobody ever payed much attention to his room and after his mother disappeared and he was sent to live with his aunt in West Virginia nobody payed any attention to him at all.

Walter had grown into a tall, lanky, quiet youth. He wasn’t too quick, but he was fast, and he had some stamina. At first, he did well in math, which made his teachers like him and the other kids stay even further away.

He was still making his graphs, and his bell curves, but he had stopped coloring in the green tail on the right hand side. His mind began thinking more and more about the red end to the left and began to rejoice as his marks were drifting lower and lower, moving in that direction.

Finally, one summer he decided to take the plunge. He began thinking more and more about a little gas station out on the highway. A dirt road ran to the east from his aunt’s trailer and was separated from the gas station by a wide, flat, corn field. He was tall, fast, and though it was wide he knew he could run across that field in less than five minutes.

A girl from his high school worked out there on the weekends. Her parents owned the place. She was a senior and a cheerleader and everybody knew who she was though Walter was sure she had no idea who he was.

All Walter had to do was wait until the corn had grown higher than his head.

He didn’t know where he was going, but Walter still ran through the corn. His pockets were stuffed with cash which seemed heavier than it should have been.

Walter realized that this must be what it felt like to be down in the red tail of the bell curve. Lost, running, desperate. This wasn’t what he expected but he wasn’t sure if it was what he wanted. He did know that now he was there, down in the red tail, that he was there for good.