Ever so gently I close the door behind me. The lock clicks, leaving sunlight outside. Entering our Somerville home I return keys to pocket and make my way upstairs to our second floor unit. The sounds of the Cranberries pour from the top of the stairs, washing through me like a warm breeze as I ascend hardwood. Tiny grains of sand crinkle under foot.
Keeping to the left I avoid the protests of 100 year old steps. Dust balls formed from cat hair circle in corners. My shoes squeak as I step softly, intent on surprising my children.
Pausing at the top of the stairs I slip a heavy black bag holding my laptop, a yellow notebook, an extra set of keys, an expired pair of contacts (carried in case I should lose my glasses in a fight) and a copy of Robert Wright’s Moral Animal from my shoulder. The bag is placed against the wall behind a green loveseat capable of fitting a trio of Harry Potter fans. As I unzip and remove a black windbreaker I hear the rumblings of my son. Words remain unfocused though his familiar cadence makes itself apparent. Through songs of Cranberries I listen for Gee.
Not a peep from Gee.
Truth be told, DJ makes enough noise for the two of them. He must be in the family room, roaming the plains of childhood. Within a moment the sound of metal – or plastic, perhaps – scraping against wood becomes clear. Animated murmurs join the scraping. They drift from the back of the house. The sound of footsteps clomping, agitated, soon join the racket.
Then it grows quiet.
An exaggerated exhale pushes aside quiet; the sound purposely dramatic.
Something spills. A loud clatter rolls like a wave across polished floor boards. From out of sight the voice of our sitter, Kelly, jabs the air. “Oh for the love of Pete, lad! Look what you’ve done! Legos all over the floor! And we’ve just tidied up! Now, here you go; help me clean up this mess.”
The music stops.
DJ’s gravelly voice flits past walls crafted from horse hair and held together by layer upon layer of plaster to find me at the top of the stairs. I listen as my son protests, “But, I have to…”
“No ‘buts’, young man! Now, come on! Give me a hand.”
The exchange is followed by the familiar scratch and scoop of Legos. Little bricks are cupped like rainwater in a pair of strong Irish hands and a pair of DJ hands before being poured into a plastic bin. Tumbling cascades of Legos fill the air.
A small foot stomps, shaking glassware. “I need to find George!”
Unconcerned for George, I can’t help but smile at my son’s voice. Rough; like a miniature sailor.
“Don’t worry, Love. We’ll find your frog; just as soon as we clean up your mess.” Kelly must be pointing out unrecovered Legos. “There you go. Get that one; under the chair.”
The Lego cleanup continues as I remove my Florsheims; first one, then the other. In the process I safely hop away from the top of the stairs. The scent of coffee and meatballs (or sausages; I can’t tell) taps my nose. Somewhere behind those horse hair walls century old pipes announce victory over an early September chill. Shoes removed, I creep down the hall toward the family room, listening to DJ and Kelly.
Kelly seeks to soothe DJ. “He must be hiding in there somewhere, Little Man.”
Boyhood despair blooms. Again DJ stomps his foot. “He’s not! I don’t see him.”
Silence follows – a glare from Kelly perhaps – before DJ continues, “What if Rifka ate him! She coulda ya know! She coulda eaten him.”
“Oh dear Lord, DJ! The cat did not remove the bloody screen and that ungodly heat lamp from top of yer aquarium, and eat your bloom’n froggie now did she?”
Apparently, DJ does not respond.
Entering the family room I find Kelly standing tall with hands on hips. She gives me a smirk and juts her chin towards DJ. “This one thinks he’s lost his frog.”
I look around. “Where’s Gee?”
“Oh, she’s at art class. You know, at Cathy’s place. Yer little lady loves to paint.”
I nod. “She does, doesn’t she?” I don’t wait for a response. “When do I have to pick her up?”
Kelly rubs a towel over her hands. “Maria mum’s picking up the lot of ‘em.” Kelly looks to the clock. “She’ll be here in half an hour or so.”
Turning my attention to DJ, I plop to my knees in the center of a Crate and Barrel throw rug. Colorful rings radiate outward from my kneeling position. With a shimmy across the rug I approach DJ. “Alright now, what’s goin’ on? George’s hiding on you, or something?”
With dramatic effect DJ hangs his head, sullen.
“Come here.” I pull him into a hug before he protests, pushing me away.
Stabbing a finger toward an aquarium packed with backyard dirt, a bowl of brackish water, a scattering of soggy twigs, sprouts of green grass gasping for fresh air and two limp ferns DJ pleads. “Dad, he’s gone!” He leans forward, whispering, “I think Rifka ate him.”
Placing my right hand on DJ’s shoulder I nod solemnly. “You know, just because you can’t see him doesn’t mean he’s not there.”
DJ frowns before stepping toward the aquarium. Pressing his face against the glass he adds to a collection of smudge marks.
“He’s not here!”
I bump his upper arm with my elbow. “Step back will ya? Let me have a look.” Working for a smile I cajole my son. “Ya know, maybe that big ‘ol face of yours scared the poor little guy into hiding. What’d ya think about that?”
DJ ignores me. His breath fogs the side of the aquarium as I join his 10 year old view of the frog’s home. It’s a dirty little home. The smell of rolled-over log reaches through the screen.
“Come on, step aside.”
DJ’s nose crinkles as he steps back and crosses his arms. He rests a square chin on a sullied Catholic school shirt, once bright white. His mouth and eyes form horizontal slits as the sound of his breathing fills the room.
I make a show of peering into the aquarium’s unexplored crevices. As I look here and there I ask Kelly about the day. “So, other than the hunt for George, how’d it go today?”
“Oh, grand. Just grand. We just finished some meatballs and spaghetti. And peppers. This one loves red peppers!”
“That’s what it was; meatballs! I smelled ‘em coming up the stairs! They smelled awesome.” I face DJ and raise my eyebrows. “So, how’d you like dinner, bud? I tell ya, I could smell that stuff as soon as I walked in the door. Man, it smelled good.”
Refusing to relinquish his sour puss DJ’s right arm jerks outward. He gives the most basic of thumbs up before quickly returning his arm to its position of despair.
I shake my head in a ‘that’s all you got?’ kind of way.
DJ wails, “Rifka ate George. I know it!”
I frown. “Wait a second. Did you thank Kelly for a most excellent dinner? I mean, if it wasn’t for those meatballs and peppers you wouldn’t have the strength to be so dramatic now would you?”
He looks at Kelly.
Palms to the ceiling Kelly doles out a ‘Well, did ye?’ shrug.
DJ kicks the rug. “No.”
I nudge him. “Well… go on, buddy. Say some thanks.”
He turns to his sitter. “Thank you for dinner. I liked it. A lot.”
In exchange, Kelly gives her charge a faux curtsy. The exchange causes a small smile to leak from DJ’s face though he quickly returns the sour puss mask to its rightful position. In turn Kelly wheels on her heel to face the sink.
Satisfied with the show of thanks I focus my attention on George’s dirty dwelling. DJ sidles up next to me. With the tip of my finger I tap the corner of the aquarium. As I lean toward DJ his breath warms my cheek. I drop my voice so he can barely hear me. His head lolls forward, resting against mine. Uncombed hair tickles my ear.
“There… by the corner. I think I see something. I think it’s George.”
With a lurch DJ bonks his forehead against the glass.
“Easy there, killer!” His face pushes back and forth across the glass. I tap his shoulder. “Here, step back a bit.”
DJ obliges my request as I remove the heat lamp and covering screen. Moisture clings to my hand as I reach into the aquarium. Grabbing a slimly twig I poke into the nearest corner. Hands on knees, DJ bends forward.
An annoyed George jumps and sends DJ squealing.
“You found him! I see him! I see him.” Hands clasped together my son beams.
He starts to sing. “Oh George, oh George, oh Georgie! Oh George, oh George, oh Georgie!” His gravelly voice fills the room.
From the sink Kelly yells over her shoulder, “Yer man might be a singer someday with that tough-guy voice of his.”
Still kneeling I nod. Kelly, though, does not see me as she remains facing the sink. Dropping the twig I return the screen and lamp to their rightful place and turn to DJ. I open arms wide to collect my reward. He ignores me, doing his best to find a better view of the never-was-really-missing George (truth be told, this is actually George III as the first two Georges died and were covertly replaced months ago).
Turning to Kelly I see she’s drying a pan. “I’ll get that, Kelly. You go do your thing.”
“Oh yeah, before you go. How’d DJ say things went at school today? Any more trouble with what’s-his-name?”
Folding and placing the towel on the counter Kelly turns and crosses her arms. She purses her lips.
“Oh, right. I almost forgot. I guess that Barry boy gave your lad some grief at lunch, today. Right DJ?” DJ ignores Kelly as she continues. “Pushed our little man up against a tree during recess, didn’t he?”
As DJ continues to ignore Kelly the back of my neck begins to burn.
I shimmy over to my son and slowly tug him away from the aquarium. I hold his hand in mine until he faces me. His hand is warm, soft. His fingers wriggle like a collection of tadpoles.
“Hey, buddy, you OK with everything at school?”
He shrugs and looks back to George.
“DJ, did anyone bother you at school today?”
Again he shrugs.
“Like Barry maybe? Did he bother you again?” DJ’s eyes drift from the aquarium to me. Ever so slightly, he nods his head. I prompt him. “And what happened?” He looks to George for a bit of encouragement. I give his hand a reassuring squeeze. “Hey, come on. You can tell me.”
Looking from me to Kelly (she nods a quick nod) to George and back to me, DJ pulls his hand from mine. He tosses his arms up in the air as if resigned to telling the story. His words tumble forward. “Barry pushed me against the tree – the big one by the swings – at lunch. And held me there; so I couldn’t get away.”
My eyebrows buckle as he seeks to end his story of woe with a cursory explanation. “I tried, but I couldn’t.”
He looks down. A quickening heartbeat drums dully within my chest. I nod, stroking DJ’s arm. He attempts to back away and I let him do so.
And tilting my head to the right I smile a sympathetic smile. “Hey, it’s OK. You can tell me. What happened next? Did your teacher – Mrs. Paris – see what was going on with Barry?”
He shakes his head. His shoulders slump. “No. She wasn’t there.”
“So what’d ya do? How’d it end?”
DJ slows his words. He looks away. Monitoring my reaction from the corner of his eyes he continues, “I did what Tashi Fran said I should do; to get away, I mean.”
“And what was that buddy?”
“I got free. And ran away.”
“Well, that was smart, real smart. You didn’t get hurt did you?”
He shakes his head in the negative. His shoulders slump further. His eyes cast for a safe place among the concentric circles of the Crate and Barrel rug.
“And what about Barry, did he get hurt when you got away.”
Tapping the bottom of his chin with my finger, I prompt DJ to look at me. I give him an exaggerated smirk and, leaning forward, assume a conspiratorial tone. “You know, DJ, it’s OK if you do hurt someone if that’s what you have to do to get away. I mean, you have my permission to do what you gotta do to protect yourself.”
DJ’s face corkscrews. He stammers, “But I’m not supposed to hurt anyone … especially at school. And … and Barry cried. He did! I didn’t mean to but…”
His words drift away in search of a hiding place. His eyes well. In moisture collecting along his bottom lashes I see a pair of tiny reflections. They’re me; distorted, misshapen, they drift back and forth on a swell of tears. In a blink, however, they vanish. I attempt to cup my son’s face in my hand but he retreats. Stepping back he grows agitated; frightened. Finally, he stamps his foot hard. Again glassware rattles. “I didn’t mean to do anything!”
I touch his shoulders before pulling him back into my orbit. Grabbing my son in a hug I rub his back. Slowly, my palm runs a circular route over poking shoulder blades. “Hey, I believe you, buddy. I do.”
Finishing the hug I rock back on my heels and hold him at arm’s length. “You know, you’re allowed to protect yourself. That’s OK. I mean, that’s what karate teaches you right? To protect yourself. So, you’re not in trouble if that’s what you did.”
He nods; relieved trouble seems to be passing him by.
I tousle curly hair. “So, don’t worry about it, OK?” Again he nods.
“I repeat: you are not in trouble.” Cocking an eyebrow, I whisper, “So tell me. How’d you end up getting free?”
DJ shrugs. Stiffening his shoulders he stands very still. Then, quickly, he snaps his head back in a dramatic display. “Reverse head butt.”
My eyebrows shoot up. “Head butt? You cracked him with a head butt?”
I look to Kelly as I try to keep from laughing out loud. She bends over to conceal laughter of her own before returning to a standing position. Tapping sealed lips with an index finger Kelly gives me a shrug before grabbing her coat and heading toward the stairs. “He’s a tough one when he wants to be, this one is.”
I can’t contain myself. A smile spreads across my face. My neck ceases to burn as I hold up my right hand. “Head butt! Jeeze, DJ. Nice going. Give me a high five!”
He hesitates. My hand floats in the space between us.
“Hey, I told you; you’re not in trouble. Come on, high five. I mean a head butt’s a pretty impressive move.”
The door at the bottom of the stairs shuts behind Kelly as DJ squirms. Tentatively he slaps my hand. He struggles to hold back tears. “But, I got in trouble – we both did – and I had to sit with Mrs. Paris on the bench ‘till lunch ended. It wasn’t fair; I didn’t start it. He started it, but he said I hurt him!”
His face drops. “I didn’t want to!”
He’s ready to burst.
Grabbing both his shoulders I squeeze gently. His eyes find mine. “Hey DJ, listen to me. And I mean it; this is important, OK?”
“First, you’re not in trouble. Zero trouble for what you did. Nada. And second, you remember what Tashi Fran taught you, right?”
DJ looks down. Behind him George searches for a hiding place.
“DJ, Tashi Fran is very wise. And you know I like him, right? He’s a fourth degree black belt and he knows what he’s talk’n about. And for four or maybe five years he’s taught you to do exactly what you did. He always says ‘don’t start a fight. But if someone picks one with you and you can’t avoid it use your karate to get away.’ And that’s what you did. You did what you were taught to do.”
DJ turns to monitor George. Again, I squeeze his shoulders.
“Hey, look at me you goofy-goober.” Releasing him I tap the tip of his nose with an extended finger. “You did what you were supposed to do.”
He works to contain a smile before looking me in the eyes. “And … I’m not in trouble?”
“What’d I just say? No! The answer is ‘no’. 100% no. You are not in trouble. In fact, I’m glad that you stood up for yourself. You didn’t go and hide like poor little George here.” I nod my head toward the aquarium. DJ looks over, wondering where George went.
I tilt forward to rest my forehead on DJ’s. With our eyes an inch or two apart my son is forced to look directly at me. My reflections return – larger this time – to float like looming moons on a pair of receding seas. “You know when I was little, kids used to pick on me and sometimes I stood up to them and sometimes I didn’t. And I tell you this; not standing up for yourself hurts a lot more than a black eye or getting in trouble at school ever does. That’s for sure.”
“So, I’m proud of you. Come here, you little black belt.” I give him a big hug. He squirms a bit before realizing I’m not letting go. He rests his head on my shoulder.
“I love you, buddy.”
His scratchy voice fills the space between us. “I love you too, dad.”
We separate. “OK, I know you’re itching to play with good ‘ol George the sneaky-Pete frog but one more thing before you start. You know I’m friends with your teacher Mrs. Paris and with Principal Dorothy right?”
He nods a sharp nod.
“Well, they know Barry’s been bothering you – I told them about it a couple of times and they promised me it was gonna stop – so since they weren’t able to keep their promise I’m gonna tell the two of them that if Barry bothers you again (I slow my words) YOU, DJ. HAVE. MY. PERMISSION. TO SMACK. THE. TAR. OUTA. BARRY.”
DJ’s newfound composure falters. He begins to slip. “No, dad. Don’t. I’ll get in trouble. We’re not allowed to fight or even push at school.”
He hushes his tone.
“And I don’t want to get in trouble.”
I shake my head in an understanding nod. “Well, you’re definitely not allowed to start a fight ‘cause that’s not nice so you’ll definitely get I trouble if you do that. So no starting fights. But if Barry or anyone else picks on you have my permission to use all your Jr. Black Belt skills to protect yourself and get away.”
He tries to protest but I place my finger on his lips. I smirk. “You can knock him out for all I care. Just don’t take out an eye or something like that, OK?”
His eyebrows furrow in confusion, “But dad, I…”
“No buts. You can protect yourself and if you get in trouble at school ‘cause you had to protect yourself I tell you what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna leave work and come get you from school and – so long as you didn’t start the fight – I’m gonna take you out to J.P. Licks for the biggest ice cream cone you ever had. Deal?”
He struggles. “I don’t know…”
Dramatically, I roll my eyes.
“Oh for the love of beans! Why is it you’re only 10 and already you’re the mature one in this relationship, huh?” I shrug, “Well, I tell you what; you can do whatever you want but just remember what I told you; you won’t get in trouble if you decide to protect yourself, OK?”
“Come on, give me one more hug before you go off and play with George the vanishing frog.”
I collect my hug before DJ turns away, engrossed in the life of George.
“Hey, buddy, I’m gonna use my computer to send a note to Mrs. Paris and Principal Dorothy now, OK?”
He nods though I doubt he’s listening.
And as DJ sings his rough little song to George I retrieve my laptop, log-in to mail and begin typing.
To: Dorothy O’Connell
Sent: Thursday, September 22, 2010 6:18 PM
Cc: Patricia Paris
Subject: DJ Defending Himself at School
Dorothy and Ms. Paris, I hope this note finds you well.
This evening DJ informed me of his most recent encounter with Barry. The intent of this email is to inform you of next steps and what I have shared with DJ. As I understand it (and I recognize I have heard only one 10 year old’s side of the story) Barry pushed DJ against a tree and DJ was forced to head butt Barry to get free. Rather then staying and fighting Barry, DJ informed me he then ran to safety. I understand Barry cried following receipt of the head butt. As a result of Barry’s bullying efforts and DJ’s measured defense I understand DJ and Barry were both made to sit out the remainder of lunch recess.
As I recall Dorothy, you and I have corresponded on the phone (last Monday and two Fridays ago) and via email (copy attached) regarding DJ’s challenges with being bothered in your school. During our communications you ensured me DJ is safe at St. P.’s and, going forward, you indicated he will not be subject to bullying at school. Apparently this assurance remains unfulfilled.
As I suspect you know our family feels quite fortunate to be part of your community. Gee is excelling scholastically at St. P.’s and my ongoing involvement with the school fund raising committee and finance committee reflects our family’s commitment to you and your school.
Certainly, we do not wish to leave St. P.’s due to violence as such a step would seem unfair to DJ and may be construed as rewarding the perpetrator. Therefore, in order for DJ to remain at St. P.’s, I have given DJ permission to defend himself.
As you may be aware, DJ earned his Junior Black Belt this summer and he spars weekly. I have given DJ permission to inflict whatever damage is necessary in order for him to defend himself. As a courtesy, I have asked DJ not to remove or damage the perpetrator’s eyes.
Should DJ be forced to defend himself once more I understand he will likely be punished and perhaps as a result of this note I will be removed from my committee work on behalf of the school. I understand and very much respect your decisions regarding discipline and in no way wish to interfere with how you apply your code of discipline. That said, if DJ gets in trouble because he is forced to defend himself I have explained to him that – though he may be in trouble at school – I will immediately pick him up from school and I will bring him to J.P. Licks so he may enjoy all the ice cream he wants. I have assured DJ he will never be punished at home for protecting himself from violence at your school.
I look forward to your thoughts and thank you for any attention you may allocate to this situation.
Less than 30 minutes later I receive a response in the form of an email, the contents of which assure me of the school’s commitment to a safe environment and guaranteeing this situation will be resolved. When I do not respond to the email a phone call follows.
Hanging up the kitchen phone I turn to watch DJ and the recently returned Gee in the family room. They’re playing Harry Potter’s Whomping Willow game. My children sprawl across the family room floor and squeal in delight as the plastic whomping willow tree twirls in a cacophony of Harry Potter sound bites. Jockeying for position Gee and DJ work to pluck remaining beige suitcases from extended branches.
“We’ll see,” I tell myself.
And over the next two weeks I do see.
Through the grapevine I hear Barry’s parents are called into Dorothy’s office. Barry is put on ‘warning’ and the bulling ends. DJ brings home a crayon drawing from Barry apologizing ‘for rough housing’ and saying they are friends. In the picture Barry is big and DJ is small. They are holding hands.
DJ is happy.
And so am I.
Another week goes by and I am in receipt of a note from DJ’s teacher, Ms. Paris, indicating DJ will join Barry and a young girl in his class to deliver a short reading during the school’s weekly Thursday morning mass.
The night before mass DJ and I practice his two lines. He alternates between saying them and singing them.
“Can you say them with your eyes closed?”
He does, concluding with, “It is right and just to give thanks.”
I close my eyes and listen to my son’s voice.
The morning of the reading arrives and DJ vibrates with excitement. For my part I look forward to being late to work so I may attend his school’s 8:00AM mass.
With Liz on call DJ, Gee and I rush through a morning breakfast of fruits organized in a display of flowers. “Alright kids, let’s go.”
Traffic is light and we make it to school by 7:50AM. Gee bolts from the car with a quick ‘I love you, Dad.’ I watch as she finds her friend, Maria, shares a hug and rushes inside. She does not like to be late.
Before DJ jumps from the backseat he asks, “You’re coming in right?”
“You bet, buddy! I’m excited to see you do your reading. You’ll do great. I know it!” He smiles and runs off toward the school’s entrance.
The modestly sized parking lot is packed and I am forced to circle the block in search of a space. I grow anxious as I make my second lap around the block. Time slips away. 8:00AM approaches as I finally find a space along a side street. It’s tight and I squeeze in. Rushing to the church I see DJ and his classmates walking across the parking lot from the school toward the front entrance of the church. DJ is at the front of the line. He beams. Making my way to a side entrance I rush up stone stairs toward the back of the church.
At the top of the stairs I place my left hand on a big brass doorknob. The polished metal is cool to the touch. A thick shaft of morning sunlight seems to chase me up the stairs. Not yet reaching me the shaft of light illuminates a world of sparkles around my feet. Specs of dust skip and dance in the wake of my flight up the staircase.
Behind me traffic drains away in the form of a metallic breeze.
From the bottom of the stairs I hear a yell. “Hey, Kinkade. Hold that door.”
Turning, I see Barry’s dad, Billy. He approaches the stairs, picking his teeth with the nail of an extended pinky finger.
He takes his time meandering up stone steps. He passes through the shaft of sunlight and stands before me, grinning. With a patchy salt and pepper beard, Billy’s a bit shorter than my six feet two inches. He’s also a bit leaner. Like a wrestler, he’s sinewy. From under the blue sleeves of his well-worn work jacket hairy forearms end in long red fingers. They seem to grope the air as the tentacles of a probing octopus might.
I stare at his fingers as they wiggle idly. And seeing I have yet to open the door Billy steps forward, just close enough to invade my space. Coffee breath wafts over me. “Hey, you going in or what?”
“Uh-huh; just about to. I had to find parking; barely made it here in time.”
“Oh yeah?” He jerks his thumb over his shoulder, “Me? I’m right across the street. Don’t even have to get in the car to be at my boy’s school. Not bad huh?”
I nod. With my hand resting on the cool brass doorknob I remain silent. In the silence Billy looks down to the stone landing and then stares into me. “Hey, um, I guess I should say ‘sorry’ for that little dustup with the boys, huh?”
He continues, “Yeah I guess it was just something stupid. One kid being stupid and then the other being just as stupid, huh?”
I ask myself, ‘Did he just call me son stupid?’ My blood boils.
Ever so slowly my head tilts to the side as he lumbers on. “Yeah, well we got a call – like you did I’m guessing – saying Barry and DJ had to knock off the monkey business and rough-housing.” He leans closer; so close I can see blackheads poking like groundhogs from oversized pores sprinkled across red cheeks.
Billy lowers his voice. “If ya ask me, that’s the sort of thing they should let boys sort out on the playground, ya know what I mean? I mean, come on. Boys will be boys.”
I consider the source of Barry’s bullying and give Billy a faux smile. He smirks before offering his hand.
“No hard feelings, huh, bub?”
Stretching my faux smile as far as it’ll go I take Billy’s right hand in mine.
Leaning forward I squeeze his hand as hard as I can. Long red fingers twist and bend as I mash them together. My teeth clench as I focus all my attention on crunching fingers. In my right palm I feel his knuckles grind together; I feel them jerk past each other, huddling in the center of my hand like a bag of marbles.
Caught off guard, Billy staggers forward. His right shoulder falls into my chest. I raise my left hand in case he tries anything and, with my squeezing right hand, pull his arm downward toward his knee. He loses his balance and winces, “What the…”
I tug his arm down, bending his right wrist at a sharp angle. I squeeze and bend and squeeze and bend. We’re close; so close I smell cigar; a Tiparillo or something like that.
On the top of the stairs the world grows quiet. Behind me traffic rushes away. Sunlight blazes a path to the foot of the stairs.
His left hand gropes for my chest but I deflect it aside. Violently he jerks his right arm back. The side of his neck grows red; blotchy. I hold tight and again he yanks his arm. It’s almost over as moist fingers slip from my grip. Still, I refuse to let go.
On the other side of the church door children prepare to celebrate mass as Billy’s fingertips grind together. Arching his blotchy neck, he looks up, shocked and confused.
He swallows, his Adam’s apple rising and falling in the process.
Grimacing, he places his left palm over my right wrist. With a mighty yank he pulls his right hand to freedom.
And in five, maybe ten, seconds it’s over.
He bends forward, dangling his hand slowly. He flexes (very) bright red fingers. From his huddled stance I have a clear view of dandruff resting on top of his head. Like his Adam’s apple, his shoulders rise and fall as he catches his breath.
Finally, he looks up with narrowed eyes. He straightens himself and, as he does, I take a half step forward. I exhale a long slow breath into his face. I suspect he now knows I had coffee before church. His nose scrunches up in response.
I smile and, ever so gently, tug open the church door.
Massaging his wounded right hand, he clenches teeth. “What’s your fucking problem?”
As I swing the church door open the scent of incense and a tide of warm air find us on top of the stairs. From just inside the door two blue-hairs stare from me to Billy, horrified at hearing the F word at church. Looking from Billy to the old birds I fake a cringe and, placing my right index finger across my lips, I shush Billy. The ladies glare at Billy. From behind the blue-hairs an organ begins to tune.
A momentary silence follows.
Light falls from the sky. If falls all around me; but does not find me.
The moment passes and the sun retreats behind a single cloud. I lean toward Billy and whisper, “Sorry ‘bout that. I didn’t realize I was hurt’n you.”
A breeze blows, rustling leaves at the foot of the stairs. A tree by the swing set in the playground sways softly.
Smirking, I jut my chin toward the door. “Come on. Let’s head inside and see how the kids are doing.”
Billy stands frozen.
Then, as if confused, his brow furrows. Hesitantly, he steps toward the open door. My right hand falls on his shoulder as I guide him toward mass. He glances sideways as I give his shoulder a gentle squeeze. A beam of sunlight reaches for the small of his back pushing him into the church.
Billy passes before me in silence.
I want to say it but I don’t.
From inside the church young voices, DJ’s among them, swell to launch an entrance hymn. The sound of innocence blooms, filling the church and pouring through the vestibule, over Billy’s shoulder and past the blue-hairs. The song washes through me as I turn to enter the building.
From behind I feel a warm tap upon the back of my neck. Startled at the sense of warmth I release the door handle and, turning from the entrance, I search for the source of warmth.
Nothing. It’s gone.
Squinting toward the sky I find the center of the sun cloaked by the same solitary cloud. It holds its ground.
All around sunlight pours forth to find every surface in sight save for the one spot upon which I stand. Above me, at the foot of the stone stairs and on each side of the landing the world is bathed in a radiant glow.
I alone remain cast in shadow.
Through the closed door I hear children sing of their lord’s warm embrace.
And titling my face to the sunless heavens I nod. I understand.
“Boys will be boys.”