A Density of Souls
Excerpt from A
Density of Souls
Cannon School occupied an entire block of New Orleans, its sprawl
of manicured lawns and neocolonial brick buildings dividing the
neighborhood in half. The back end of Cannon's football field had
drained the blocks behind it of property value, turning the neighborhood
into a welter of shotgun houses with crumbling front porches. The
façade of the school's main buildings faced the wealthier Creole
cottages of uptown. The school announced its name on a bronze plaque
above its entrance doors, both of which bore the Cannon seal frosted
onto glass panes set in polished mahogany frames. The entrance doors
led into the administrative hallway where the business of the finest
private school in New Orleans was conducted in gentle whispers punctuated
by gracious laughs.
The commerce of the front wing of Cannon School
was softened and padded by wall-to-wall carpeting in all the offices,
interrupted by the occasional clicking of high heels over the hallways'
hardwood floors. Beneath crown moldings, Cannon's finest alumni
stared out from eight-by-ten picture frames.
There was no hallway connecting the locker room
and the administrative offices. To get from one to the other, a
teacher would have to leave the building completely and re-enter
the campus through the side parking lot. This was a bone of contention
for most of Cannon's faculty, because the faculty lounge was located
at the far end of the administrative hallway. Thus, there was no
easy access between Cannon's classrooms and the over-decorated faculty
lounge with its worn, soft sofas and massive mahogany coffee table.
At the far end of the campus, a wrought-iron
breezeway connected the three-story Athletic Complex to the smaller,
squat Theatre Building; it was almost as if the athletic department
were taunting its less popular cousin. The handful of theatre enthusiasts
at Cannon were often forced to exit quickly through the breezeway
onto the side street, for fear of meeting up with the varsity football
players who always seemed to have leftover steam to vent after afternoon
practice. Play rehearsals in the Theatre Building were sometimes
interrupted by footballs hitting the side of the building; the actors
knew the field was too far away from the pigskins to be simply misdirected
The Senior Courtyard sat in the exact center
of campus, separating the Administrative Building from the English
Building and its ground floor locker room, and featured rusted wrought-iron
furniture. Fringed with yellowing banana trees, the Senior Courtyard
was so exclusively reserved for the graduating class that any underclassmen
found sitting in it without an invitation would promptly be shoved
into the nearest empty locker. But the only way for students to
reach the classroom hallways from the locker room was through the
Senior Courtyard and up a concrete set of steps which led to the
second floor of the English Building. During this time, nervous
underclassmen would scurry up the steps, trying to avoid the glare
of seniors awaiting an opportunity to assert themselves as the top
echelon of Cannon's aristocracy.
Half of Cannon's lessons were taught by its
queer architecture. Its passages and connections were illogical,
subjecting its students to intermittent bursts of pain and confusion.
Over four years, Cannon's students were forced to find the proper
mix of aggression and grace to guide them through passages that
led from one ritual to another, in a seemingly endless succession
of hierarchies, before finally depositing them back into the city
that had given them birth the same city that had given birth
to Cannon itself.
As Meredith Ducote learned on the first day of her freshman year
and the last day of her life as a child, students were forced to
enter Cannon every morning through the side gate, rounding the outside
of the main campus buildings before coming to a single entrance
of glass doors. The locker room took up the entire ground floor
of the English Building. Even with its expanse of benches and blue-painted
lockers, it could barely contain Cannon's three hundred students.
The glass doors were gliding shut as Meredith
turned the corner of the English Building. The doors were tinted
and a green poster taped to them read WELCOME FRESHMAN! Its edge
was torn where it had been caught between the opening and closing
Meredith's sweaty palm slid off the door handle.
She gently kicked one of the doors inward with her foot. It didn't
budge. She wiped her hand across her skirt and pulled the door open,
revealing what seemed like three hundred faces that all seemed to
stare back at her, if only for a second, before they collapsed into
laughter and conversations.
Earlier that morning, Meredith had argued with
her mother about the halter top she had bought from Contempo Casuals
a week before freshman orientation. The argument had culminated
in a tug-of-war with the halter top during which Trish Ducote kept
intoning, "Meredith, you are fourteen!" It was her mother's
voice, high-pitched through clenched teeth, that came to Meredith
through the locker room racket. The admonishment became an accusation.
Her breasts suddenly seemed huge. She could
suddenly feel them pressing against the halter top and her exposed
arms went hot and clammy with sweat.
She found herself paralyzed, paces past her
locker and surrounded by laughing, bellowing classmates. At fourteen,
Meredith had experienced few moments from which there seemed to
be no escape, but this was one of them. She glanced behind her and
saw a group of girls (all wearing shirts with sleeves) gathered
around the door to what she was pretty sure was her locker. They
looked back at her like conspiring thieves.
Someone brushed Meredith's shoulder with his
book bag. Meredith almost let out a startled yelp before she saw
He was sitting on a bench against the far wall.
Meredith didn't recognize the guy next to him; his face was concealed
under the bill of a baseball cap that read CANNON KNIGHTS and he
was hunched over with his forearms on his knees, obviously whispering
the punch line of a joke. Brandon erupted into laughter and rocked
back on the bench.
When he saw Meredith, his laughter stopped.
Meredith felt a smile tighten her face, but it died as Brandon's
eyes rolled up and down her body, his face suddenly expressionless.
He nudged the guy sitting next to him.
Greg Darby looked up at Meredith from beneath
For a brief moment, as Greg took her in, Meredith
understood what the four weeks of pre-season football training had
done to Greg and Brandon. It had made them men. Or at least look
like what Meredith thought men should be.
When Greg smiled, Meredith felt her heels sink
to the floor. She realized she had been walking on tiptoe since
she had entered Cannon.
Stephen was waiting by Meredith's locker, trying to guard it from
the posse of girls. They had giggled at his approach and whispered
after his arrival, but he held his back on them. Knowing this was
the only way he could wait for Meredith alone. He told himself that
Meredith would hardly want to ask a bunch of strangers to move out
of her way so he'd keep a clear passage open for her.
She had looked right at him. And then away.
Meredith took a seat between Greg and Brandon,
and Greg curled one arm around her shoulders. She playfully batted
it away. Stephen stared at them; he was perfectly within their line
of vision. None of them looked his way. When the three of them finally
rose from the bench, with Greg extending a hand to help Meredith
to her feet, Stephen made no move to follow them out the doors into
the Senior Courtyard.
Something dark uncurled inside of him.
During his first morning at Cannon, Stephen's only companion was
the collective din of whispers, snickers and openly disdainful glares
he received as he passed. All of which made him acutely aware of
the flop of blond bangs that partially concealed his eyes, the strain
of his backpack straps as they pulled at his gaunt frame, and worst
of all, the reflexive cock of his wrist as he extracted a book from
his backpack during class. It all culminated in the nightmare of
PE, the aftermath of which propelled him to the back freight door
of Cannon's Theatre Building and the smell of cigarette smoke wafting
through the open door of a brightly lit office down the musty, darkened
corridor of the backstage.
Stephen had deliberately gone to PE early. He
had been frightened by the idea of having to take off his clothes,
so he had planned to change quickly and make it to the gym floor
before everyone else. Then the football players had exploded into
the locker room, slugging metal doors and bellowing war cries intended
to clear a path before them. Their heads had all been shaved during
freshman varsity initiation. Stephen thought of Nazis. At Cannon,
athletes were exempt from physical education classes, but the first
week of the semester was dedicated to endurance testing, mandatory
They had assembled on the gym floor, where it
seemed all eyes inspected Stephen. He relaxed slightly when he saw
that neither Brandon nor Greg were in his class. The football players
had mangled their PE uniform shirts to protest a week of third-period
gym classes. Daniel Weber had torn holes for his nipples on either
side of the Cannon logo across the shirt's breast. Coach Stubin
ordered him to put duct tape over them. Stephen looked from Daniel's
nipples to the polished gym floor, where he saw his own reflection
between his tennis shoes. He lifted his head to stare off into some
distant corner of the gym, and found himself taking in the series
of banners that hung from the banister of the jogging track circling
the gym's ceiling, proclaiming the various District Title wins of
the Cannon Knights.
But now, in the theatre, there was smoke and
light, tattered costumes and old set pieces, the ragged edges of
stage flats. Carolyn Traulain threw open the office door and a blinding
rectangle of light fell across Stephen. She looked startled when
Stephen didn't raise a hand to block the glare from his eyes.
"Are you here for the meeting?" Carolyn asked.
Stephen stuttered a yes, hating the sibilant
s on the end. She nodded and disappeared into a thicket of
curtains and darkness. The overhead lights flickered to life, illuminating
the theatrical debris that surrounded him. There were so many flats
he could have tripped over.
Carolyn Traulain had a white scar that scooped
beneath the collar of her black T-shirt before resurfacing on the
opposite side of her neck. She occasionally glanced at Stephen as
she set up a small battalion of metal folding chairs, kicking each
chair's legs out. "You came from Polk?" she asked.
"Yeah," Stephen said as he moved to a faded
green sofa against the wall. It had obviously been a set piece in
every production since the school's founding in 1905.
"We get a lot of kids from Polk," Carolyn said.
She was the first person all day to speak to Stephen like an ordinary
person, and he immediately loved her for it. She met his eyes with
each question and he saw no laughter in them.
But the mention of Bishop Polk Elementary School,
so much closer to home and now abruptly transformed into a memory,
tugged at something in him. He brought his book bag onto his lap
and began to tear at one of the seams with a fingernail he had not
yet chewed off. He tried not to think of the old morning bike rides
to school. As the battalion of students turned onto Jackson Avenue,
they would pass beneath the bell tower, its portico towering high
enough to catch the first rays of a rising sun that had not yet
mounted the tree line.
Over, Stephen thought. That's over now.
Carolyn's voice startled him. "The first day
can be rough."
A flicker of genuine emotion softened her eyes.
Stephen could only manage a forced smile in response. Carolyn nodded,
as if a suspicion of hers had been confirmed.
They both jumped at the sound of the freight
door thrown open.
A shadow was advancing through the darkness.
Stephen could make out the bulky outline of a letter jacket and
his breath caught in his throat. For an instant, he thought it was
It wasn't. The shadow was shorter, thicker.
It moved with an ease of strength over the discarded dresses and
sequined shirts. A powerful arm pushed a curtain out of its way.
A short, dark-skinned boy turned and regarded
Stephen with drowsy brown eyes. On the shoulder of his letter jacket
a miniature cartoon Knight raised a sword.
"Wassup?" he asked.
Stephen tried a nod that resulted in a stiff
jerk of his neck.
"Glad to see you could join us, Jeff," Carolyn
announced, emerging from her office with a folding chair under one
Jeff looked from the chairs to Carolyn.
"Sorry, Miss T. See, Coach called this meeting
'cause we're playing Buras on "
Carolyn threw up one arm to steady herself,
releasing the chair. It smacked onto a pile of paint-speckled plastic
"Right. No surprise," Carolyn said, plucking
up the chair and kicking the legs out.
Jeff turned to face her. "Look, I'm sorry "
he began, both arms thrown open.
"You're always sorry and you never show up at
Carolyn turned and disappeared into the prop
closet. Jeff's eyes moved to the empty folding chairs all around
him and then to Stephen and back again.
"And if you ask me about the musical again,
I'm going to strangle you." Carolyn's voice blew in from the prop
closet, followed by a metallic crash.
"You're killing me with the waiting, Miss T!"
Jeff called out.
"And you'll wait even longer, if you keep calling
me Miss T. Goodbye Jeff. Get your cudgel and go to the field!"
"What's a cudgel?" Jeff asked with a smile.
He pivoted and found himself facing Stephen,
whose presence he had apparently forgotten. Stephen looked away
from the boy whose profile was broader and thicker than his own
"Freshman?" Jeff asked.
"Yeah," Stephen answered, dropping his voice
so suddenly and ridiculously that Jeff smiled, which made the discomfort
"Junior," Jeff said. "Gets better, dude."
As Stephen tried another nod, Jeff stared at
him for a second before turning and leaving. When Stephen finally
heard the freight door slam shut behind Jeff, the aftershock of
sudden desire congealed. He finally understood the whispers that
had followed him around all day. He knew what was being said. And
he knew it was true.
Because Meredith had spent the morning with Brandon Charbonnet
and Greg Darby, she could easily introduce herself into the posse
of girls who spent lunch period on the hill next to the cafeteria
with their sleeves and hems rolled back to the tanning powers of
the sun. Kate Duchamp had immediately rolled over onto her stomach,
pushed her Oakley sunglasses up off her face, and said a word hardly
anyone said as a freshman on the first day of high school. "Hi."
"Hey," Meredith replied with forced indifference
as she took her seat.
"You went to Polk, right?"
"That's why you're friends with those guys?"
"One of them is so hot ..."
"Greg," a voice finished.
"No ... Brandon is so fine! Have you ever seen
his brother?" asked another female voice Meredith couldn't identify.
All the girls around her were lying flat on their backs beneath
the glare of the sun.
"Who's the other one?" Kate asked.
Meredith felt as if the patch of earth beneath
her butt had shifted and sunk several inches beneath her. The other
"Omigod ..." Now Meredith recognized the voice.
It was Cara Stubin, the football coach's daughter and the only other
freshman girl to make varsity cheerleading along with Meredith.
"He's like ..."
"Stephen. He's kind of cute ..." another voice
from the grass offered.
"I heard his mom is like so fucked up," Cara
continued. Meredith's first instinct was to rise up and stomp one
foot into Cara's stomach.
"My mom said she came to this parents' meeting
in this dress with, like, her tits hanging all over the place ..."
Other girls laughed. Meredith realized Kate
had not taken her gaze off her.
"I'm sorry. But I think I'd be a little screwed
up, too, if my husband blew his brains out!" another girl said defensively.
"Do you know him?" Kate asked Meredith.
She remembered a cemetery pummeled by rain.
She remembered a tangle of mud-flecked legs. The memory led Meredith
to commit an act that would carve itself into her memory with the
building precision of regret.
"He's a fag," she said flatly.
Some flame guttered inside of her, quietly and
without protest. She felt hotter, but she assumed it was the sun
on her bare arms.
Kate laughed, signaling that Meredith's pronouncement
was more of an accusation than a joke.
Ten minutes before the lunch bell rang, Kate
Duchamp invited Meredith to go to the bathroom with her. Meredith
followed silently as Kate led her through the desolate English Hallway,
past classrooms where teachers savored lunchtime silence at their
desks. Once inside the bathroom, Kate said, "Watch the door," gesturing
toward it with one thumb before moving slowly down the four stalls,
checking for feet. She opened the door to the first one. Meredith
braced herself across the door.
"So how long have you been friends with them?"
Kate asked, as she gathered her platinum blonde hair behind her
head, holding it tight in one fist.
"Since we were kids. We all live near each other."
"Brandon's fine. You're not, like ... You guys
"No!" Meredith responded so quickly that Kate
laughed before she sank to her knees on the stall floor. Meredith
listened to the sound of Kate vomiting into the toilet bowl. She
rose, butt first, out of the open stall door, wiping the corner
of her mouth with a triangle of shredded toilet paper.
"That crap they serve isn't even meat. It's
like meat juice with, like, extra fat poured on top."
Meredith managed a laugh. Kate hadn't even had
to gag herself to force her lunch out of her stomach.
"What about the other one?" Kate asked, stepping
clear of the stall door.
"Greg?" Meredith asked, with a note of ambivalence
in her voice that suggested even she his childhood friend
was not sure of his name.
"Yeah," Kate said, her eyes darting back and
forth between Meredith and the open stall door. Meredith guessed
that if she hesitated Kate would lose interest in the conversation
and ask right out why she hadn't tried to throw up her lunch.
"Well ..." Meredith said.
By Friday, Meredith Ducote and Greg Darby were declared "together"
by their classmates.
Stephen overheard the news in his fourth-period
history class. "Greg Darby and Meredith Ducote are going out." The
whisper from the next desk over was still resonant. The teacher,
Mr. Humboldt, was asking a question. Stephen knew the answer. He
looked down to his open textbook at a Mesopotamian ziggurat and
felt something between nausea and acute pain. Without thinking,
he raised his hand.
The classroom bristled. Mr. Humboldt couldn't
conceal his surprise. Stephen had not once raised his hand the entire
Stephen answered. The fall of ancient cultures
would become more familiar than the students sitting around him.
Copyright © 2000 Christopher Rice. All rights
A Density of Souls, by Christopher Rice. © August
2000 , Christopher Rice used by permission.