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Thread: The Whole World Smiles With You, Version 2.0

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    The Whole World Smiles With You, Version 2.0

    Thirty-three years ago I passed up on seeing a movie which at the time I dismissed as lightweight, teeny bopper fare. Man, was I wrong! Turns out the movie was Sixteen Candles, one of the offerings of the late, great John Hughes. When I finally watched it on tv a week or so ago, I was stunned not only by Hughes's celebrated insight into the adolescent psyche but especially by his comic gift. The test of a really funny movie is if you laugh aloud even when nobody else is in the room. Some of the slapstick humor reminded me of that of Charlie Chaplin. (As I said before, Yeah, I'm old, but I'm not THAT old.)

    I bring this up only as it reminded me that I'd attempted writing stories with teenage protagonists (e.g. "A Change Will Do You Good," "All to Myself Alone," "Sounds No Worse than Cheers," and "Ultraman and the Pagan Babies") -- none of which, I hasten to add, are as insightful or as hilarious as a John Hughes script. Nevertheless, I decided to repost the following, slightly revised. Feel free to tell me what you think. So from 2014, here is:

    The Whole World Smiles With You

    by Aunt Shecky

    All Rights Reserved

    With his typical mixture of pique and dread Ivan Burns came downstairs to what was called at that time of day the Breakfast Table. His father’s grunt was barely audible below his mother’s chirpy greeting, tagged with a good-natured query.

    “Why the pickle puss? They say you use more muscles to frown than to smile.” With her index fingers she upturned the corners of her lips, but the cue failed to ignite, fizzling like a bad joke.

    Her son of late had entrenched himself into a habit of starting the day with a grouch on. Already the malaise had made itself at home.

    He picked up a whiff of something slightly sulfuric under his nose. His mother was waving a plate of fried eggs, unappetizingly flat except for their gooey yellow centers, guaranteed to run with the lightest prick of a fork tine. Flanking these were some brittle toast triangles and a couple of fat greasy tubes. Ivan shook his head.

    “You sure you can’t eat anything, Honey? You know, breakfast is the most important meal of the day.”

    “Just coffee, please,” he said. “Black.”

    From behind the newspaper curtain game a growl. “Just like his clothes. Unless he’s dressing for a part in some dreary Russian play. ”

    “You don’t have to refer to me in the third person, Dad. I’m here.”

    “I bet he’s got the lead in Ivan the Terrible.”

    Ivan’s rejoinder stood ready: “The Eighties called -- they want their print media back,” but was never fired, as the target had moved on, taking issue with an editorial point he’d just read aloud.

    “Well, that’s a matter of opinion,” his father said, “like labeling these eggs ‘Large.’ “

    In First Period Ms Lipton rhapsodized about the novel du jour. She had “fought for” its acceptance in the syllabus, against helicopter parents and the craven School Board in yet another skirmish flaring up whenever the charge of “inappropriateness” arose in intermittent but predictable cycles, like cicadas. This particular book was her baby, and her students knew it.

    It was not easy to tune out the teacher’s voice gushing in the background, but Ivan gave it a try by drumming on his desk with his fingers, still sticky from the doughnut and untoasted Pop-Tart he’d swiped before leaving the kitchen that morning. Just as surreptitiously, he directed his attention to a certain desk in the row by the window - Yes! - La Bellarosa was not absent but definitely present - in the flesh.
    He watched her surrendering to a lusty yawn, raising her tanned arms and stretching her upper torso, eminently attractive, especially in profile. Ivan permitted himself the momentary pleasure of the mere sight of her. In his opinion her pubescence had been a resounding success. Her physical attractiveness more than compensated for her apparent lack of intellectual curiosity, a trait which Ivan did not require in his women.

    “So I’m wondering how you guys felt about it. Anybody? Ivan?”

    He didn’t hear the question. No biggie. Ivan knew the book well enough to wing it, since having read it on his own back in seventh grade, when the rest of his classmates had struggled with grade-level drivel. He cleared his throat. “To tell you the truth, the protagonist doesn’t really strike me as a sympathetic character.”

    Ivan spoke authoritatively, even as the occupant in the seat behind him kept jabbing his back with a stick pen at regular intervals, each stab accompanied with a whispered epithet.


    “He habitually criticizes people behind their backs. This one’s a phony, that one has mossy teeth and so forth.”


    “At the same time he imagines himself this noble savior of children. He’s a self-styled hero.”


    “I submit that Holden himself is inauthentic, as big a phony as everybody else.”

    “Faggy McFag Fag.”

    At the last jab, Ivan discreetly turned around and glared at his attacker before speaking to the teacher and the class at large. “Frankly, I can’t understand why this book is so admired, let alone controversial.” He shot a quick glance over at La Bellarosa, who was tapping out a text on a haphazardly concealed smart phone. Perhaps she was tweeting about Ivan’s impressive take on the book. It didn’t occur to him to gauge the teacher’s reaction.

    “That’s very interesting, Ivan.” Lipton made a triangle with her hands, touching the tips of her fingers as if she were about to play the this-is-the-church-this- is-the-steeple game. “But that’s not what I asked. See me after class.”

    At the bell, he tried slipping out, but she yanked him back in. “What’s going on at home? How’s Mom?”

    Instantly Ivan knew that she was referring to his mother, not her own, but the patronizing tone irritated the hell out of him.“She’s well, thank y--”

    “And Dad – you have a good relationship with him?”

    “I suppose so, but frankly, Ms Lipton, I fail to see how–“

    Her hand reached across the desk toward his hands, but she did not touch them. “Tell me, Ivan,” she said, lowering her voice a notch, “don’t you have any friends?”
    “Or, as you professionals prefer to call them, my ‘peer group,’ “ Ivan said with a chuckle which the teacher did not echo. “The so-called student body with whom I happen to occupy this building roughly one-hundred and eighty days a year may fall into my chronological age group, but other than that, I have nothing in common with them.”

    “Different talents?”

    Ivan shook his head. “Different interests, one could say, and- if their obsession with bonehead video games is any indication- a marked disparity regarding, um, cognitive ability. To tell you the truth, Ms Lipton, I don’t care to associate with those Boeotians. At times I find them insufferable.”

    “Insufferable. I know what you mean –“

    “I’m sorry, Ms Lipton, but I must get to my next class. Would you please, um, get to the point?”

    The teacher folded her hands and leaned backward. “The point is, Ivan, you are a very intelligent young man. You’re articulate and lord knows you’re no slouch when it comes to critical thinking –“


    “We’re becoming concerned. Very concerned. Okay, so we know teenagers tend to be a teensy bit moody now and then, but Ivan, don’t you think– well, it might be a good idea to start trying to get a positive attitude –“

    The warning bell signaled the imminent start of the next class period. “Excuse me. I’ve got to run.”

    In truth Ivan was in no particular hurry but nonetheless merged with the herd streaming through the corridors. The traffic was strictly one-way, according to school rules. It didn’t matter if the next class was in the room directly behind that of the previous class; the student had to go around the entire circuitous route or risk detention, which he’d also face for tardiness, an inevitable effect of following the traffic rule. Catch-22, secondary school style.

    He was already late by the time he made it down to the basement level. For teachers the cardinal rule was meticulously maintaining attendance records, a mandate higher up on the urgency scale than lessons or testing or assigning grades. Taking attendance was required for each individual class period, including gym. The gym teacher, who insisted upon being addressed as “Coach,” carried a roster on a clipboard for this purpose. He checked off names first thing, right there in the locker room while the students changed into their gym uniforms, the roll-call ritual having evolved from the assumption that the fast-paced activity within the gymnasium itself would be - supposedly - too frenetic to allow for an accurate count.

    As soon as Ivan ascertained that he’d been marked “Present,” he ducked between a row of lockers to watch the rest of the class jog single file into the gym until the last of these quasi-athletes received the slap on the backside from the coach, bringing up the rear. A shrill blast came from the coach’s whistle, followed by an almost instantaneous bouncing of balls and the blast of shouts. Still wearing his black street clothes - the industrial gray tee shirt with the stenciled school logo and the ridiculous gym shorts never moving an inch from his locker–Ivan made his move.
    The noise inside the gym muted the sound of the fire door squeaking open. No danger from a sudden gust of wind slamming it shut and re-locking, thanks to an inconspicuous and strategically-placed rock.

    Outside the building Ivan began to stroll through the assiduously-groomed acreage including the expansive green oblong, which still in late May was freshly chalk-scored with regularly-spaced parallel lines, the terminus of both ends marked with an erect letter “H”; as well as a baseball diamond, and a common area adaptable for soccer, lacrosse, field hockey, or what-have-you, the entire complex circumscribed by a state-of-the-art running track.“Fools!” Ivan muttered, at the thought of wannabe superstars nurturing their delusions, as well as those who’d been coerced or otherwise persuaded by their parents and teachers to “try out” for football, basketball or some other competitive endeavor, the participation to be noted on some mysterious personal file, with accumulated data geared to enhance a college application. Actual aptitude for sports and athletic ability – or more likely lack of it - was never really part of the equation. It irked him that he could never convince his father of this reality.

    Ivan climbed up the bleachers, and perching on the row second-from -the-top, lit one of the cigarettes he’d earlier purloined from his mother’s purse – a theft for which he’d never be punished, let alone accused, since she herself wasn’t supposed to have them. Stretching back, he surveyed the surrounding scene as if he owned it. Beyond the athletic fields he saw a small wooded area, the treetops in full leaf brushing the sky, with only a few white puffs interrupting the blue. Even at this distance, Ivan could make out the sounds of birds, proclaiming spring in their joyous mating calls, while late-blooming lilacs and early roses bussed the mild air with their intermingled yet not unpleasant aromas. Everywhere he looked Peace and Beauty conspired to threaten his mood. Time to get out of there before he lost his edge.

    Theoretically, re-entering the building the same way as he’d exited it seemed logical, not to mention convenient. The door itself had remained exactly as he’d left it. Ivan’s timing, however, was off. By sheer chance, the locker room was occupied, this time with females, specifically the 4th period Girls PE class. Though slightly surprised, Ivan was neither abashed nor delighted by the sight of twenty-odd ninth graders in various states of deshabille.

    To Ivan’s eminent relief, no shrieks or similar expressions of shock greeted him. Preoccupied with the act of changing their clothes, the girls chattered and giggled like birds in an animated cartoon. None seemed to notice the intruder, except one, the middle child of the family who resided in the house next to his. Ivan raised his finger to his lips, and she shook her head. A quick look around did not reveal the instructor, but with a quick peek into the gym proper, Ivan saw the back of her petite figure and her bottle-blonde ponytail bobbing as she tied one end of a volleyball net to a post. He slipped into the corridor and made his way up a flight of stairs.

    No student in the school ever had any trouble locating the cafeteria. A newcomer or a blind man could have found it simply by “following his nose.” Every day between eleven and one a sickly miasma from the steam tables permeated the first floor. Regardless of what was being served on any particular day, a odor vaguely akin to vegetable soup hung in the air. Yet suffering the worst assault was the sense of hearing: the unnerving cacophony was relentless, not startling like the sudden roar of a movie monster. There was no discernible pattern at all, no crescendo nor decrescendo, but rather a sustained collective voice, a buzzing anti-chorus counterpointed here and there with shouts, horselaughs, and shrieks. This, Ivan imagined, was a librarian’s idea of Hell.
    Amid the funk and the stench and the noise, Ivan spotted his beautiful blossom right away; as if a sweeping beacon proclaimed her presence, signaling to distressed sailors a reassuring presence to counter a storm or a raging sea. Ivan could swear that she was lit by a golden glow visible only to the Worthy. Now and then she took a dainty bite of ambrosia, and here and there turned to share a confidence with one of her ladies-in-waiting. Ivan yanked himself back into reality with the awareness that the combined group at that table would be hard-pressed to replicate the interior life of a gnat. He moved in for a closer look.

    Ivan stood at the end of her table, for what seemed to be an eternity. Finally, with the pointed end of her sandwich a millimeter from her lips, she acknowledged him. “What?”

    “A moment of your time if I may, Annelise.” He found himself nearly shouting to compete with the din. “I just want to tell you that I’ve been admiring you for quite a while, and I must say that compared with – no, compared to- the typical females within this milieu-- all those interchangeable Ashleys and Madisons and Olivias, you –by far- are the loveliest–“

    At this point La Bellarosa’s subalterns had begun rolling their eyes and elbowing one another. Somebody was recording a video of Ivan with her cell phone.

    “Yeah, so?”

    “So, while I’m not the type of person who usually pays attention to such things as um, frivolous social functions, I understand that a certain affair is in the offing–“

    Instantly the word “affair” inspired guffaws among the table mates, along with some rhetorical questions. “Is this dude for real?”

    Ivan continued with his pitch. “I thought I’d mention the fact that I would not be unwilling to accompany you to this event, provided, of course, you were amenable to the offer, which I obviously hope would prove to be mutually enjoyable.”

    La Bellarosa took a swig of her bottled water. She looked at Ivan as if he were an insect coming in for a landing on her person. “What the hell are you talking about? The Prom? You’re asking me to the Prom?”

    “Well, yes essentially. Yes I am.”

    She raised one of her elegant hands and slapped the table, as if squashing the aforementioned bug. “Un-freakin’-be-LEE-vable! You look at the calendar much?”

    “Excuse me?”

    “The Prom is like a week from Friday? And you’re asking me now? “

    Ivan felt like slapping his own forehead. What had he been thinking? A girl this good-looking undoubtedly booked her engagements months in advance. “I should have known,” he said. “Sorry.” It was the most sincere statement he’d made all day.

    But – what if he had approached her earlier? Would he have stood a better chance? His brain went into overdrive in search of a subtle way to broach this sub-topic, but La Bellarosa wasn’t quite finished.

    “Besides,” she said, “I don’t think nobody would wanna go out with cha? No offense. “ As she made a little pout, an independent exhalation puffed upward, gently tousling a soft curl on her crown. “I mean, like you’re kinda boring? You walk around like your poop doesn’t stink? Like you think you’re better than us? No offense.”

    “No, that’s not true, I–“

    “Besides, you’re always like dissing everybody? I mean, I just can’t be around negative people right now?

    What did she mean “right now”? That she would be able to tolerate him some other time, say, in the not-so-distant future?

    As Ivan opened his mouth to inquire about his chances in the days (or weeks) ahead, he heard a voice that was recognizably masculine, but with vestiges of the crackling higher octaves of a boy. “This geek bothering you, Babe?”

    Ivan secretly prayed that La Bellarosa would answer in the negative, but she said nothing at all. “The lady’s not interested, you hear?” the thug said. “So run along, Sonny.”

    He turned around and faced his accuser, a fellow inmate. “Excuse me? I have a perfect right to speak with a fellow classmate –“

    “Not with her you don’t! Get it?“

    Ivan “got it,” all right. La Bellarosa had already been spoken for, apparently by this very specimen, as undistinguished as any of the other troglodytes roaming the corridors of this institution. What in the name of God did she see in him? That’s what Ivan didn’t “get.”

    With a menacing look adapted from stock characters in action movies, the rival stared into Ivan’s face. The troublemaker was a good six inches shorter, so Ivan literally “looked down” on him. On the other hand, the punk was built like a riding mower.

    “So what are ya waitin’ for, Doofus? Beat it!” This was punctuated with a serious shove to Ivan’s shoulder.

    For a tiny fraction of a second, the noise in the cafeteria stopped, as if somebody had pulled the plug of an amplifier out of the wall. Just as suddenly, came the gleeful shouts: “Fight! Fight!” Red meat for the unwashed masses.

    The last thing Ivan ever wanted to test was his mettle. And the last place he wanted to do it was in a high school cafeteria version of Madison Square Garden. But this was no time for leisurely reflection – it was, as the cliché went - put up or shut up time.

    Ivan stretched out his hands, wiggled his fingers and made two fists. When his challenger did the same, Ivan dropped his hands to his side and took two steps as if to walk away, then instantly turned around. A parsec later he executed an exotic move and decked the kid.

    “What d’ya know--” Ivan remarked, “I guess those tae kwon do lessons my father forced me to take weren’t a total waste of time.”

    Ivan arrived home to find both his parents already there: his mother’s mouth was tight-lipped with the corners pointing the wrong way; his father standing stiffly as the Grand Inquisitor. With no one saying a word, every second of silence felt like an accusation. Finally – “Well?”

    “Excuse me?”

    “Mind telling your mother and me what the hell is going on?“ His father moved his fingers as if he were waving to himself. “Come on.”

    “Honestly, I don’t know what to tell you. I –“

    “You can start by explaining exactly what happened today. I just got off the phone with the principal. Let’s hear your version.”

    Evidently this was not meant as an actual command, for when Ivan opened his mouth to speak, his father cut him off.

    “Brawling in school, for starters. Cutting classes. Even when you don’t skip class, you don’t pay attention. You disrespect your teachers, and if to top it all off, you’re not even man enough to show up for after-school detention!”

    “I didn’t even know I was supposed to–“

    “And what’s this I hear about stalking the Bellarosa girl? What’s next – are we going to find out about you some night on the Eleven O’Clock News?”

    “What do you want me to say?”

    “Your mother thinks you’re going through a ‘phase,’ " he said, scratching the air with his fingers. “If that’s what it is, you’d better snap yourself out of it pretty damn quick -–“

    “It’s no big deal. I just -–“

    His father raised an index finger. “Shut your trap. I’ve just about had it with you. You’re a sociopath!”

    His mother chimed in. “That’s going too far. You can’t say that about your own son!”

    “You keep it out of it! You’re the reason he’s so messed up in the first place.”

    Ivan saw his mother’s shoulders jump up, as if she’d seen a mouse. She rushed toward the front door, not to leave but to grab something on the hallway stand –- her bag, which she desperately rifled through. Stress piling on stress. “Oh, where are they?” Ivan heard her ask. “I could have sworn there was a pack in here.”

    “You are nothing but trouble! Big time. Your mother and I have to take time out of work to go to a meeting at your school. They want us to send you to a therapist. A therapist! Who’s going to pay for that, huh?”

    As punishments go, being confined to one’s room was not the same as being banished to Siberia. Eventually his mother would sneak in with a sandwich. She’d sit on the side of the bed and stroke his head. “Oh, Ivan. Ivan,” she’d say. “What are we going to do with you?” Then she’d tell him how her only wish was for him to be happy and that these were supposed to be the best years of his life.
    Yeah, uh-huh, right. Subsequently all downhill from there.

    Meanwhile, Ivan had his laptop, tv, and plenty to read. He picked a novel he’d bought at the used book sale at the library. He opened it to a random page one of several which he previous owner had defaced with a bold highlighter. Ivan abhorred the practice as childish, but the words covered in Day-Glo orange caught his attention:

    “As most adults know, the distinctions between one’s essential character and value and people’s perceptions of that character/value are fuzzy and hard to delineate, especially in adolescence."

    “Hmm.” Ivan tried resisting the inevitable personal application to the passage. It dawned on him that, like most adolescents, he craved acknowledgment but at the same time if anyone should show the least bit of interest in him, he’d undoubtedly run away as a rabbit from a coyote. He slapped the book shut and tossed it back into the pile.

    For some reason, Ivan began to muse about coolness, the idea of being “cool.” He dismissed the kind of “cool” the inmates admired: the perception of panache, the all-but-invisible swagger. That was a manufactured attitude, lame as hell, for the minute a guy walks around pretending he’s “cool,” or even has the presumption to aspire to coolness, he’s as far away from it as he is ever going to be.

    And it wasn’t the same as the movie version of a cool guy, like Clint Eastwood in the “Dirty Harry” era as opposed to his more recent persona of a cantankerous geezer shooing punks off his lawn. Nor was it the unflappable Mr. Spock.

    But there was something to be said for being cool in the sense of not showing emotion, not - as the idiom went - wearing one’s heart on his sleeve. One could be a Man of Mystery, unreadable, inscrutable, never letting anyone know when he was happy. Or hurting. The only problem was with other people who thought that he looked like he had a ramrod stuck up his butt.

    In the privacy of Ivan’s room, though, all masks were off, all guises suspended. The door remained shut, and no one would be the wiser if he treated himself to a good cry – or do exactly what he felt like doing at the moment, giving in to the irresistible impulse to turn the corners of his lips upward and stretch his mouth into an ear-to-ear grin.

  2. #2
    On the road, but not! Danik 2016's Avatar
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    Seems you know a lot about young people. I saw myself back at school in two different moments, as a student and as a teacher. In the second moment I remember one of my student´s coming up to me and saying: "I´m going to be father. I got a girl pregnant." He was 12 or 13. I don´t know how it all ended, or better how the families of the young people settled the matter between themselves, it was a conservative school. The next time I saw him, one or two years later, he had lost his open boyish look. He had definitively entered adulthood.

    One question: Ivan´s formal, stilted speech, marks him as different from the other kids in the story. Is it usual for an educated school kid in US to talk that way?
    "You can always find something better than death."
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  3. #3
    Maybe YesNo's Avatar
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    I was surprised Ivan thought Annelise would want to go out with him, but without that miscalculation there would be no story.

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    It's not usual for a kid to talk like that but there are definite exceptions. I knew kids like Ivan in school which made me appreciate how well developed his character is in the story. It's interesting that Ivan sees Holden as so unlikeable when he is very unlikeable himself. I could see Ivan being redeemed in some way if the story continues

  5. #5
    Registered User Steven Hunley's Avatar
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    I really liked the details of the character here. And the setting was spot on. I think he doesn't like Holden because he doesn't like himself. Holden represents the worst in him.

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