League of Mortals: a novel on illness
League of Mortals is a razor-sharp examination of youth, illness, hope, and death. It is the funniest, rawest, darkest, most honest novel you will ever read about illness. And you can read it free (for now).
The story begins with Wesley Peary, the narrator, discovering that he is ill, right before his senior year of high school in 1994. As gets sick, Wesley befriends Travis, a slightly older boy with a terminal immune disorder. Meanwhile, Wesley contends with his fussbudget English teacher and a girlfriend with hospital issues, each a monster in her own way.
League of Mortals tells a story that is invisible in literature, even as it unfolds in hundreds of thousands of lives across this country. I write embarrassing, humiliating, crushing things about my life – not because I enjoy over-sharing, but because I believe it is important that sick people tell their stories.
If you’re reading this, the odds are you’re sick, too. I want you to read it, of course, but I don’t want to take your money. You probably have financial issues, anyway. So here’s the deal: I will let you read the thing for free, provided you give me feedback that helps me improve it.
All you have to do is send me an email saying you promise not to distribute or modify my work, and I will send you an artfully formatted PDF. Read it, then let me know what you think.
Here’s the first chapter as it currently stands — just a taste to get you going.
Chapter 1. Poo
I am thirty-four this year (2011) and the worst thing that happened to me in the first half of my life was that my girlfriend my junior year broke up with me right before prom. I didn’t go, just stayed home and sulked and mashed her corsage to pulp, listening to loud music that was probably Jimi Hendrix because I was never angry enough to buy anything darker. Maybe there were other worse things, maybe things earlier, but that was the worst I can think of. The tickets to prom were forty dollars each, non-refundable. My mom bought me a new two-hundred dollar suit that we had altered to fit and I never wore it until months later, when it no longer fit. At least the tie that matched her dress was returnable for store credit. I can’t remember why she broke up with me, except that it was somehow my fault. I just remember thinking the world might as well end, because I was lonely and humiliated and out eighty dollars. I say she was my girlfriend junior year, but really we only dated for about three months until she broke up with me. Part of me was relieved when she broke us up, but most of me at the time was pretty angry.
Otherwise, the first half of my life was golden, like when politicians talk about a return to old-fashioned values, and you know they just mean nostalgia for their own childhood when black people were invisible and gay had not been invented yet. My childhood was that good, although not for the same reasons.
The rest of it started the summer before my senior year of high school. I finished my junior year with mostly As and Bs in honors classes that year, was a sure thing for Varsity water polo next year, and I had a car. College was too far away to worry about, so I was going to spend my summer doing precisely three things: working at the county pool, surfing when I had the time, and nothing much else. Apart from lacking a girlfriend, that was the best possible summer I could imagine.
To get summer going, I threw my end-of-the-year party. In earlier years this was also my birthday party, since the day fell close to the end of the school year. As the School Board kept creeping the year forward, it became less about my birthday, so I called it an end-of-the-year party but most of my friends knew it was also my birthday. I didnʼt send invitations or anything, just told people to show up.
Our new house – I still think of it as the ‘new house’– had a pool, the care of which was my responsibility. The new house and the old house are both in Orlando. I know what you are thinking: “Oh, he grew up next to Disney World – that must have been nice.” Sorry, but no. Dad was native Floridian from before Disney, and convinced us kids the Magic Kingdom was an awful place. My grandma took me once when I was six, and I peed myself in the Haunted Mansion, so dad was right: awful. I avoided it most of my life, and never really thought that much about it. What does differentiate Orlando from most places is the many tourists who somehow escape the Disney compound and wander into our lives: for example, this includes each year about ten thousand middle-aged British guys broiled lobster red by the sun, wearing white a-shirts, Bermuda shorts, black socks and black shoes, and telling everyone in earshot, “Hullo, Iʼm on holiday.” You wanted to dart them, like feral goats, and send them somewhere to be looked after properly.
I spent the last few days before my party ensuring my pool had tropical clarity: flocculant, chlorine, muriatic acid, and frequent vacuuming and filter cleanings. The pool was pristine; apart from the chlorine, I could have drunk from it. In the summer sun, the blue Marzite bottom glowed and sparkled, cool and inviting against the heat. The pool was ringed at the waterline with ersatz-Mediterranean tiles, and surrounded without by a concrete deck formed to look like limestone, and from a good angle the pool was as beautiful as an advertisement. Lots of people in Florida half-ass their pools, leaving them streaked and cloudy with algae, or clumps of sunken dirt on the bottom. Not my pool – not that summer – and I was proud to share it with my friends.
There was food, too. Mom bought a cake, and not the kind grocery stores make with plastic icing and canned messages written in food dye. She went to an actual bakery, and bought an awesome cake that she set on the snack table with just a handful of unlit candles, since I didnʼt want to be obvious about it, but still felt there should be cake. It was like, ʻhey, hereʼs some cake, itʼs someoneʼs birthday sooner or later – no biggie.ʼ The cake and snacks and large bottles of Cokes and a cooler full of ready-made ice were positioned in our sun porch, where mom and her friend Mrs. Walker kept an eye on things, just in case we decided to start having a teenage sex orgy. Mom used to pay my sister to babysit my parties, but my sister was gone for the summer so mom had to be there. Mrs. Walker was just there to keep her company, I guess.
School ended on a Wednesday, because the School Board said so, and the party was held on Saturday. The party started at one in the afternoon, and my friends trickled in over the next hour or so – maybe twenty or so. By that point I had developed two distinct circles of friends, with water polo players in one and nerds in the other. I sat almost alone in the thin sliver between the two. It was an awkward thing to straddle two social circles. I should mention that I started life more or less a stone cold nerd. School did that: they put me in “gifted” classes, even though I never felt particularly smart. So even if I wanted to be something else, school had already decided for me what kind of person I was, which was great except that I found school tremendously boring, even when it was challenging. The gifted program tracked me with the same group of students through middle school and into high school. Some of the kids at my pool party that summer I had known since fourth or fifth grade, and these were people I probably would never have hung out with except that we were in classes together constantly. Not that they were bad people, just that we had different interests apart from school. They liked being really good at calculus and computers and pretending they might have to choose between Cal Tech or MIT. My 3.23 GPA was a sweet spot as far as parental intervention was concerned – “gee, mom, Iʼm this close to an A minus” – but kept my collegiate aspirations firmly grounded.
The gifted label pushed us all into the same high school, Boeme. The name is supposed to be pronounced sort of like “Berm”, but everyone says “Boom”. When schools were segregated, it was called Orlando High School and every white kid in town went there. In fact, I was second-generation Boeme: my dad had done three years there in the ʻ60s. Three decades later, it remained the flagship school for the small portion of old money in the city of Orlando. That ensured our district was drawn artfully enough to minimize the inflow of black and Hispanic students, though the law forced them to allow some.
Boemeʼs mascot was the “Bomber”, and our school colors were orange and silver. Orlando had been an Air Force bomber base until they moved the planes somewhere else in the ʻ70s, and the base became the city’s airport. Our schoolʼs traditional cheer at sporting events was to shout “Boom Boeme Bombers!” and clap hands twice in what was supposed to sound like sonic booms, but everybody was always just a little off and so it just sounded like applause. It was still mostly a white school. Opposing schools shouted “Boo! Boo! Bombers!”, and sometimes you couldnʼt tell the difference.
Boeme was a typical high school, as near as I can tell, which meant the best thing about it was that at some point you left. It was a boring place if you were not involved in sports – there just wasnʼt a lot else to do. Drama, I guess, but those kids were creepy, even the ones I was friends with. We had chorus and band, but I wasnʼt musical. We had an Army JROTC unit, but I wasnʼt into the military; anyway, the kids in JROTC were mostly anal-retentive blowhards. I remember thinking that if any of our nationʼs youth must to be sent away to die in battle, at least the JROTC kids were first in line. I felt bad about that after 9/11.
The ball-centric sports were beyond me because I was kind of small; too short for basketball, too light for football, too easily bored for baseball. Then right at the beginning of ninth grade, we moved to the new house with the pool, and I discovered I was good at swimming. I tried out for the swim team, but the flip-turn at the end of a swum lap is tricky and disorienting. I once did the turn and knocked my head against the side of the pool hard enough to nauseate myself.
Water polo seemed safer; it was also a new sport at most schools in central Florida, so I had no trouble making the team. Even though our team wasnʼt great, we were still competitive with the other not-great teams in the area. Two weeks before the end of the year, our team had come in third at the State tournament; first place went to a club team of private school jerk-offs from Miami whose parents could afford to import a former Soviet Olympian to teach their kids how to inject steroids, so really it was like winning second place, except we didnʼt go to regionals.
Meanwhile, having a pool at home meant I could practice on my own. Our pool was too small to swim laps, but just fine for treading water and tossing a ball. When water polo was out of season, I would have a few teammates over for pick-up games, and wound up spending a lot of my free time in the pool. I was not great at it – still on JV my junior year, but we had a lot of good players graduate that year and coach had told me I would move up to Varsity.
So suddenly I was not entirely a nerd. I was not quite a jock, either, because the real jocks looked down upon the briefs-clad polo players as not real athletes and “faggy”. The alpha jocks were the football players, which included defensive linemen, whose virtues as athletes are essentially the same as traffic bollards. Every year the sports teams all held a rally on the athletic field, and as an athlete I had to go and stand around in the hot sun clapping for football players while my nerd friends skipped for burgers and milkshakes and talk about “the retrograde tribalistic instincts manifest in so-called school spirit”, or something like that. It chafed.
Fortunately, these were all school problems, and school was over for the summer. At the party, everybody seemed less owned by their labels. Thatʼs not to say it wasnʼt a little disorienting, seeing the nerds and players together in the pool. On the one hand, there were the polo players, still in tournament form: taut, athletic, tanned, with hair still sun- and chlorine-streaked, legs depilated and smooth. And these were only the male players, since the girls I invited didnʼt show up, due to the aforementioned breakup with my then-former girlfriend, who was on the girlsʼ team, and whose side all the other female players took in the minor spat that led to my being dumped, which – again – was somehow all my fault.
Like the other players, I wore my polo swimsuit, which did in fact feel a little ‘faggy’ when I first put it on. I was a late bloomer, and when I started playing this fact was conspicuously advertised by the swim briefs. I was careful never to face the home stands, if I could avoid it, especially if I had been in a cold pool. Even my sister made fun of me. The trick was, if anybody commented on your package, you could just say, “itʼs cold”; if they kept at it, you called them a ʻfagʼ and walked away disgusted. I am not at all proud of my use of that word – ‘fag’ – but it was high school in the 1990s, and I had smallish genitals at the time, and I was insecure. It was easier to wear the briefs when other guys were doing it, too.
The nerds all wore long trunks, and not all of them took off their t-shirts to swim. The girls wore whatever they felt suited their figures, one-piece or two-piece, as they did indeed have figures already. The boys were still mostly boys, a mix of gangle and pudge. A couple of the women were reasonably attractive, by 17-year-old male standards, and though the polo boys would never have admitted it, they paid some attention to the nerd girls. Few of the nerds could prove their torsos had so much as a momentʼs exposure to sunlight in the year so far. One of the players, a sophomore named Matty, took it upon himself to point this out to one of my nerd friends who had bravely decided to swim shirtless. “Dude, your chest is so blinding white, I need sunglasses.”
The nerd, Nathan, looked at Matt as if contemplating an insect. “If you want, we can build you a pinhole box.” Nathan was so intelligent it was unfair I had to take classes with him, but he was also a nice kid. He could see Matt wasn’t tracking. “Like what you might use to watch a solar eclipse.”
“Oh, snap,” said Matt.
As host, I felt obliged: “Matty, do you need a time out?”
“Yo, Wesley, my bad,” Matty said.
We swam around for a while, some of the guys splashing the girls, but not really doing anything, until the girls got tired of the pool and adjourned to long chairs on the patio. The thing about pool parties is that they are kind of pointless unless you have a game, and that game was always going to be water polo in my pool, but none of the girls knew how to play. I had already set up the net on the concrete at the deep end; the pool wasnʼt large enough to play full court, so the rule was you had to return the ball to the shallow end every time there was a turnover. A couple of the nerds played, but not for long, since the game requires treading water for inordinate amounts of time. It was exhausting if you werenʼt trained for it.
After fifteen minutes, we were down to four of us: Matty, Pete, Kevin, and me. Kevin was an aggressive, strong swimmer, but couldnʼt hit the goal to save his life. Instead he pounded the ball into a panel of the screen enclosure.
“Damn, Kevin, go easy on my screen,” I said after his third miss. “I have to fix that shit.” It wasnʼt hard to fix, but I could already see a tear forming in the corner.
“Sorry, bro,” he said, as Matty scooped the ball up from the patio and threw it to Pete. Pete was the best player of the four of us, and also the only player who also qualified as somewhat a nerd by taking honors classes. Pete swam the ball to the shallow end while Matty reentered the pool. I let Kevin press Pete, but Pete skipped the ball past him to Matty, who took the shot and scored. Kevin mumbled a ʻfuckʼ, and the nerds still watching golf-clapped politely.
Kevin rebounded to me, and I swam it in. Matty was pressing me, but I didnʼt see any opening to throw to Kevin. Since it was my pool, I had practiced enough to know that I could reliably hit the goal from exactly the point in the pool where I could just push off the bottom with my tip-toes. Since the pool dropped off sharply from there, Matty was in too deep water to follow. The extra push got me up over Mattyʼs reach, and I threw the ball hard at the net and scored. The spectators obliged with more golf-clap.
“Thatʼs a foul, you bastard,” said Matty.
“My pool, my rules,” I said, distractedly. I had noticed my stomach rumbling earlier, but had ignored it so I could play the game. With the push-off for the last shot, I felt my pucker give way just a bit, and an unmistakable warmth in my briefs.
I had shat my own pool party.
I looked down and fanned my hands around my trunks, but there was no stain in the water. I told everyone else I needed a break, and Nathan volunteered to play my spot. I swam to the shallow end and started up the steps. Karen, a nerd who had chosen not to swim, was sitting on my towel, but I didnʼt want to get too close in case I smelled funny. “Can you hand me that towel?” I asked, and she did. I wrapped it tightly around my waist and went inside through the bathroom entrance.
Once inside I took to the toilet and emptied my guts. I remember thinking, “I never have diarrhea”. While I sat there, I examined the inside of my briefs, which showed a minute amount of fecal material. I wiped it out with toilet paper, then rinsed the briefs under hot water from the tub faucet. Then I wrung out the briefs and slipped back into them. I washed my hands carefully and returned to the patio.
The ethical thing to do at this point was to get everyone out of the pool and hit it with enough chlorine to blister eyeballs. Recreational Waterborne Illness is a constant plague in summer months among young people, and itʼs largely due to kids shitting in pools. My accident might start a mini-epidemic.
On the other hand, there wasnʼt that much discharge, and I did keep the chlorine at a solid level. And if I closed the pool, I would have to explain why, to admit that I had pooped myself in my own pool at my own party. And Matty – goddamnit – could be trusted to recount the story to anyone who would listen, which would include the entire polo team, and for the rest of the next season people would give me shit about it – “Wesley, weʼre losing – take a dump so theyʼll forfeit!” They would probably give me a nick-name – Wesley Pooey, or something like that. Closing my pool, especially Matty, was effectively social suicide.
Instead, I rejoined the game.
Later in the afternoon my dad grilled hot dogs and hamburgers, and the party dined on the deck sopping wet. I took a hot dog and a toasted bun, but avoided the condiments and ate timidly. Dad noticed. “No relish? Is something wrong?”
“Just a little upset tummy,” I said. “Iʼll be fine.” Which, it turns out, was more of a lie than I meant to tell.