It was a small brick school with louvered windows, half-opened, all dusty with the gray, pulverized sand that made up the playground, broken up by a few old tired half-buried in the sand and a see-saw near the door. In one corner of the fenced-in space, a group of three young boys had collected around another boy, shorter than they were with a ragged brown fringe of hair crowning his pallid face. He was dressed more formally than appropriate for the playground. Black pants, white button-up shirt, brown belt a little too long for his waistline, brown dress shoes. He pushed his glasses back up his nose and started talking. He didn’t speak for long but when he ended all three kids, dressed in bright shirts, khaki or denim pants, barked out laughter, repeating bits of what he had said to each other, before the biggest of them shoved the speaker back into the fence and onto the ground. They had done this before and it didn’t surprise the smaller kid, but the laughter was new.
He got up and tried to brush off the sand he could see. Some of it had gotten into his pant cuffs and he tried to empty them out, pulling a loose thread or two out with it. It had gotten into his shoes, but that would have to wait. Once he felt that he had done what he could about his appearance, he leaned over and crept through the cut in the fence opened by kids before he ever arrived in this town. This latest in a series of new towns, this one with brash, loud kids who dressed any way they liked and behaved badly towards outsiders. And now the inexplicable laughter added into the usual physical pranks – tripping, pushing, grabbing, smashing books to the ground, taking his morning snack and hiding it, poking him with pencils, elbowing him in the halls or as he passed through class doorways.
But there was nothing to be done about it. He had learned the hard way several towns ago. All that happened was it all got worse. So he kept his mouth shut and showed up and tried to learn as their meanness came and went like weather, unexpected and always present.
He walked home the secret way, behind trees that reached to the ground, hedges that screened his presence from curious eyes, behind garbage cans and picket fences, painted or bleached by the sun. Whenever he saw another kid – he was always keen to spot them before they saw him – he stopped for a bit behind something close, waited for whoever it was, even adults in their station wagons or walking their dogs, to pass by. No reason to talk to them, no reason to pretend he felt safer from them than he did with the kids. During one of his stops, he knelt down and took off his shoes and socks, cleaned the sand out of them as best he could, and got them back on his feet, grains of sand against his feet as if he had never even tried.
He made his way to the small white clapboard house that his parents had rented a few months ago. The house with broken pavers and too many weeds in the yard, with bare spots of the same dusty sand as the school’s playground, a clothesline stretched between two bowed steel posts in the back, half of a decrepit dog house collapsed in the farthest corner.
The back screen door was ajar. It didn’t fit since a hinge was coming loose and his dad had not attempted to fix it. The screen was torn as well, just in the lower left corner near the handle, but torn all the same. He went in through the back hall, past the washing machine, crackling the torn and bubbled linoleum as he made his way to the kitchen where his mom was mopping the floor just at the sink.
“Mom, what happened?”
“The damned sink is leaking again and your father hasn’t done anything.”
The kid watched his mom pushing the water back and forth, then pulling the mop head up and twisting the strands free of dirty water and dust clots, and back to the floor for more pulling and pushing it across the floor until a film of water was all that remained. She rested the mop handle against the counter, the mop head in the bucket with the water, and leaned back, breathing a bit heavily but coming to rest.
“I told some kids at school what dad said last night and they laughed at me.”
“What did you tell them?”
“That thing when you told dad to shut up.”
His mom cracked him across his face with her open hand.
“Why the hell did you tell them that? I told him to shut up and I would have told you the same if I thought you’d go and repeat it!”
“I didn’t know what it meant,” startled, red-faced, fighting against surprise and fear, not crying, wanting to, knowing she would just get worse if he did.
“Just don’t say anything. I’ve told you before. Those damned brats are not your friends and never will be. Don’t tell them stuff you hear in this house, get it?”
“Go to your room. I might call you for dinner, but go up there and figure out how to be smarter than you are right now.”
The kid went upstairs, sat on his bed with its white sheet and pillow, his back against the headboard, and clasped his hands together. Another day like this.