“The World Doesn’t Smell Like You,” from LOOK! LOOK! Feathers by Mike Young
“The World Doesn’t Smell Like You,” from Mike Young’s story collection LOOK! LOOK! FEATHERS, is a quest narrative about these high school dumbasses who need to know whether the rumor’s true that their gym teacher, Coach Schiel, has only got one ball.
It’s one of the L!L!F stories I got to read an early draft of, it’s the story I got to publish in Keyhole 10, and when in a certain mood, it’s my favorite story in the collection. Other favorites are “Susan White,” “Snow You Know,” “The Same Heart,” and “Burk’s Nub,” the latter a band-nerd companion to “The World” that underscores each high school clique’s unique potential for cruelty.
And the pack of guys in “The World” is a clique, but not one tied to a sport, art, activity, or a love for much of anything. They’re instead united by a philosophy of self-serving people-trampling hedonism—or what would be hedonism if they were better at figuring out what felt good—and gruff Coach Schiel is their prophet. “You don’t learn to shake a man’s hand, how to grip,” Schiel speechifies, “I guarantee you’ll wake up one night and he’ll be pissing in your hair.” Or, as the narrator puts it, “Buzz the world. Do not let the world buzz you.”
Schiel begins to lose his edge, though, when a pep rally horse accident leaves the Home Ec teacher permanently deaf and Schiel kinda to blame. When Schiel, weeks later, takes uncharacteristic sympathy on Fat Burk, one of the boys flips and attacks Burk to counteract Schiel’s undue kindness. The scuffle that ensues leaves two boys unconscious and Schiel’s job on the chopping block.
The manic playfulness of the prose and plot dizzies a little on first read (see above, where I had the privilege of skimming by a pep rally horse accident), a dare to the reader—I’m not waiting for you—from a narrator who occasionally must express his discomfort with relating his testicular tale to the sort of people who might be more concerned with the “narrative scheme or whatever” than with how hella hot Kristy Saiz looked when mad and sweaty.
One of the story’s only still moments comes from the school principal. “I’ve been speculating a sort of anti-video game,” he tells Schiel. “In lieu of your typical prostitutes, pistol whipping, etcetera, what I’d like to see invented is a game in which the player controls a desert. The sensitive ecosystem of a desert. The slow, imminent sand.” At this school, that kind of quiet sparseness could only exist as fantasy.
In the story’s final pages, the boys pay Schiel a visit in his home. “For a dude with one ball, he had a pretty sweet pad,” we’re told before the narrator checks himself and qualifies the compliment: “Sweet enough, I mean.” Schiel gets them drunk, administers doorstopper cunnilingus lessons, and takes them to the bridge to toss a broken recliner in the river, where they revel together and bond over inflicting themselves on nature. But there is still, of course, the matter of the ball. The boys’ need to know trumps their respect for grizzled Schiel’s dignity, as it must if they don’t want to wake with somebody pissing in their hair.
It’ll surprise few Giant regulars that the grad school friendlies that most stirred in me a “Damn, I better step up my game,” competition are Mike and his ex-roomie, Rachel Glaser. Mike’s stories, poems, and songs, taken together, form an America that doesn’t know that its beating heart is the hungry cluttered small towns of the Pacific Northwest. It’s the fiction, though, that for me does the most at once: Language, character, plot, place, inventory, experiment, emotion, and ambition are inextricable from each other in this book. Look! Look! Feathers does the old things and the new things. We can have it all, and should.
When I read an early draft of “The World…” Mike shared that the story was a challenging write for him—and one he felt ambivalent about—because these central dicks are of a kind Mike can’t stand in real life. But they’re dicks who have been granted the dignity of very close attention—they hurt, they confer over plastic tacos, they’re largely shunned by their classmates, they tear each other down, they each privately long for a cruel girl way out of their league, and at the end, each boy gets his own “where are they now” sentence that reminds us how few cards each of these guys held to begin with. Maybe the thing that most gets our empathy machines humming for the unnamed narrator is that he has been loaned the author’s own powers of articulation. And when we talk about a writer’s generosity for characters (a phrase that sounds to some a little too Glimmer Train for comfort), that’s what we mean: The author offers the guy enough space to try and sway, enough rope to hang.