FIVE FLAVORS OF DUMB - chapter one

Hard to believe that this novel came out a full FIVE YEARS AGO now. But if you haven't read it, and wonder what it's all about, please check out the following excerpt . . .



For the record, I wasn’t around the day they decided to become Dumb. If I’d been their manager back then I’d have pointed out that the name, while accurate, was not exactly smart. It just encouraged people to question the band’s intelligence, maybe even their sanity. And the way I saw it, Dumb didn’t have much of either.

But they weren’t in the mood to be reasoned with. They’d just won Seattle’s annual Teen Battle of the Bands, and they were milking their fifteen minutes for all it was worth. Never mind that no one else at school even knew the contest existed, the fact is they won. The Battle organizers had even hired Baz Firkin—lead singer of defunct band The Workin’ Firkins—to mentor their inevitable ascent toward rock stardom during three all-expenses-paid recording sessions. Baz hadn’t heard them yet, of course—he wasn’t up for parole for another week—but he was a man with experience and connections, both of which were sure to come in handy as soon as he was released.

Meanwhile, Dumb celebrated their victory by giving an unscheduled performance on the school steps first thing Monday morning. It would have been the most audacious breach of school rules ever if the teachers hadn’t been attending their weekly staff meeting; instead, the band cranked up their amps, to the delight of their numerous groupies. I wanted to ignore them, but they were strategically blocking the school entrance, and hustling past would have marked me out as anal-retentive (“Doesn’t want to be late for homeroom!”) and indirectly critical (“Didn’t even look at the band!”).

Or maybe not, but that’s how it seemed to me.

Anyway, I stuck around for a few minutes and watched the threesome thrashing their poor defenseless instruments with sadistic abandon: swoony Josh Cooke on vocals, his mouth moving preternaturally fast and hips gyrating as if a gerbil had gained unauthorized access to his crotch; Will Cooke, Josh’s non-identical twin brother, on bass guitar, his lank hair obscuring most of his pale, gaunt face, hands moving so sluggishly you would think they’d been sedated; Tash Hartley on lead guitar, her left hand flying along the neck of the guitar while she stared down her audience like a boxer sizing up her opponent before a fight. Not that anyone—male or female—would be stupid enough to take on Tash.

I was going to slide past them as soon as they finished a song, but as far as I could tell that never actually happened, so I just held back. Anyway, the scene on the steps was oddly compelling, even aesthetically pleasing. The bright, late September sun glinted off the teen-proof tempered windows. Beside me, Kallie Sims, supermodel wannabe, was a vision of flawless dark skin and meticulously flat-ironed hair. Even Dumb’s instruments looked shiny and cared for. And all the while I could feel the music pounding in my hands, my feet, my chest. For a moment, I understood how Dumb might have won the Battle of the Bands on pure energy alone. I could even believe they were set to conquer the world—if the world were a small public high school in a predominantly white, middle-class suburb of Seattle.

There must have been a hundred of us out there when I first noticed someone staring at me. I didn’t even know her, but when I smiled she looked away guiltily. Then someone else glanced over. She tried to look nonchalant, but was clearly confused to see me with a group of mostly popular kids, listening to music of all things.

Suddenly I couldn’t watch the band, couldn’t enjoy the scene. As I scanned the crowd I saw more pairs of eyes trained on me, each of them wondering what I was doing there. And there was whispering too, which should have seemed comical—why go to the trouble of whispering around me, right?—but instead made me feel even more self-conscious. I just wanted to make it to the end of the song, but I was beginning to wonder if that would ever happen.

Finally Dumb relaxed, like they were pausing to draw breath. I couldn’t bear to move, however; couldn’t face drawing even more attention to myself. I watched as the performers knelt down before their amplifiers and turned a few knobs. Then, smiling at each other, they attacked their instruments with renewed vigor, spewing out noise that replicated a small earthquake, while Josh gave us an unparalleled view of his tonsils. Satisfied at having initiated seismic activity on school grounds, they played on even when smoke started rising from Will’s amp—maybe they figured it was only appropriate that they should provide their own pyrotechnics as well. They didn’t even seem to mind when the small black box, clearly fed up with this particular brand of thrash-scream cacophony, began sparking, then flaming gently.

Kallie’s supermodel posse was first to evacuate, presumably afraid that the chemicals in their hair might spontaneously combust, although Kallie herself stuck around. This surprised me. Gradually everyone else shuffled off as well, like they knew things were about to turn seriously ugly and didn’t want to be at the crime scene when punishments were being doled out. Eventually only Kallie and I remained. Together we watched Dumb’s unofficial concert end in a literal blaze of glory. Even as I struggled to avoid inhaling the noxious smoke, I couldn’t help but admire the showmanship.

I can’t say when Will’s amplifier stopped producing sound altogether and threatened to ignite the school’s electricity supply. But I remember exactly how I felt as I raised my arms and screamed at the top of my lungs—the kind of obnoxious, over-the-top response I normally reserved for our sports teams’ own goals and air-balled free throws. I remember my shock as Kallie raised her arms too, like she thought I was seriously impressed with the band. And I can still picture Josh and Will and Tash smiling and pumping their fists in the air. But most of all I remember how great it felt to vent, whatever my motives, to share an animal scream with four other people who gave even less of a crap than I did. For a moment I even allowed myself to believe that the blackened air was nothing less than the whole damn school disintegrating into beautiful, blissful oblivion . . . right until the principal burst through the main door, drowning everything and everyone in foam from a gratuitously large fire extinguisher.

By the time the fire truck arrived, the amps were nothing but an electrical dog pile on our school’s formerly pristine steps, and Dumb had been hit with a week-long in-school suspension for committing unforgivable acts of “noise pollution”—the principal’s words, but no one seemed to disagree. It should have been the end of the group really, considering their punishment, and the inescapable fact that their amps were ruined. But in one of those crazy rock music situations I came to know firsthand, the moment of their untimely demise became the moment Dumb was truly born.

For the rest of the day, freshmen reenacted the moment when the amp actually caught fire. Even the band’s staunchest critics began scrawling eulogies on bathroom stalls. Suddenly the world of North Seattle High revolved around Dumb—the only topic anyone discussed anymore. At least, that’s how it seemed to me. I think that’s what everyone was talking about. But in the interests of accuracy, I should admit that it’s kind of hard for me to tell because, well, you know.

I’m deaf.