He Was an Adult and I Was Still a Kid
The last lunch period before Christmas break junior year, when I arrived at Mr. Graves’s classroom, he was full of holiday cheer and smiling much more than usual. We had been eating alone together for months. But for that day, his wife had baked me a plate of Italian pizzelle cookies, which made me wonder what Mr. Graves had been telling her about me. The cookies looked like giant snowflakes and tasted like black licorice. We each had one, and then Mr. Graves handed me a small box wrapped in blue paper dotted with the white silhouettes of reindeer equipped with enormous antlers. I had never received a present from a teacher before. It seemed significant.
“Just a little something from one cafeteria avoider to another,” he said, and smiled.
I tore into the wrapping paper.
Inside was a paperback novel called The Bubblegum Reaper, written by Nigel Booker. The cover was taped to the spine, and the pages had yellowed. It smelled like an old camping tent that had remained slightly damp for fifty years. On the white front was one of those long Grim Reaper scythes with the curved blade at the top, only it was made entirely of rainbow-colored gumballs—like someone had arranged them that way on white marble. The image was certainly weird. It both frightened and lured.
I opened the book to the first page.
The dedication read “For the archery pit.”
Bizarre, I thought.
I quickly flipped through the dog-eared pages and saw that someone had underlined hundreds of passages throughout.
“I read that book when I was your age, and it changed my life,” Mr. Graves said. “It’s out of print. Probably worth some money, but it’s just not the type of book you sell. I scanned the entire thing and made a digital file a long time ago. And I promised myself that I’d pass my copy on to the right student whenever he or she came along. It’s maybe not the most literary work in the world. Probably a bit dated. But it’s a cult classic and I have a feeling that it might be the perfect read for you. Maybe even a rite of passage for people like us. Anyway, Merry Christmas, Nanette O’Hare.”
When I gave Mr. Graves a thank-you hug, he stiffened and said, “No need for all that.” Then he laughed nervously as he gently pushed me away.
His doing that made me angry at the time, but later I sort of got why he was being cautious. He saw what was coming before I did, because he was an adult and I was still a kid.
I began reading that night.
Like the Story Wasn’t Finished
The Bubblegum Reaper is about a boy who identifies himself as Wrigley because he’s addicted to Wrigley’s Doublemint chewing gum. He says it calms his nerves, and he chews so furiously (and often) that he frequently gets jaw aches and even “the occasional bout of lockjaw.” He never tells you his real name as you follow him through a year of high school.
Wrigley mostly observes his classmates, whose company he doesn’t enjoy, and talks about “quitting” all the time, only you really don’t know what he wants to “quit.” I Googled the book and there are theories online—whole websites dedicated to answering the question. Some people think Wrigley wants to kill himself, thereby quitting the human race. Some believe he simply wants to drop out of school. Some people think Wrigley’s talking about God and really wants to quit believing in a higher power, which I’m not sure I get, because the narrator doesn’t mention God even once. There are others who theorize that Wrigley wants to quit America and that the whole book is about communism, but again, I’m not sure I believe that, either.
The problem is that Wrigley falls in love with one of two identical twin sisters named Lena and Stella Thatch, only he doesn’t know which he loves. It happens because one of them likes to talk to this turtle that suns itself on a rock sticking out of the creek near the high school they attend. Wrigley names this turtle Unproductive Ted because it just sits on the rock all day long doing nothing but soaking up the sun. (I love that nickname so much: Unproductive Ted.) From behind an oak tree, Wrigley eavesdrops on the twin talking to Unproductive Ted about all her fears and worries and about something awful her father had done, but you never quite know for sure what that is. What’s certain is that this girl is on the verge of tears the whole time. Wrigley listens patiently to everything the girl needs to get out, and then once he shows himself and she realizes he’s heard everything, Wrigley immediately tries to comfort the twin by saying, “What you just said. All of it. I understand. I really do. I think the same thoughts—well, most of them—too.” She’s mad at first about “the spying,” but then she and Wrigley have this amazing talk about life and their school and how they can’t be honest “outside the woods” and about “just quitting.”
The tragedy manifests when Wrigley leaves her. On his way home, much to his horror, he realizes he didn’t ask for a name and therefore doesn’t know if he had this really intimate experience with Stella Thatch or Lena Thatch, which induces a crippling and nauseating anxiety attack—he actually pukes—because the twin kept saying over and over, “Please don’t tell my sister about this. Please!” He realizes that he can’t ask one of the twins if it was her by the creek without risking betraying her confidence, because if he asks the wrong twin, it would “ruin everything.” It’s obvious that he can’t get out of his own way, but you feel really sorry for him anyway because in his mind it is an unsolvable problem that tortures him.
He spends months trying to figure out exactly which twin he spoke with and waiting for her to say something to him in school and worrying that maybe she’s waiting for him to make the first move, and he’s also worrying even more that she regrets their private conversation in the woods and never wishes to speak with Wrigley again.