Authors: Harry Steinman
Ringer reacted to Mom, too. Why? Mom never yelled or hit. She might scold Dad—mostly about money—but she never lost her temper. But Ringer’s ears pitched forward anyway and now Jim noticed the tension in her smile.
Sometimes she provoked Dad. Her words weren’t so bad and she never used swears. But Ringer reacted and Jim listened. He heard acid-laced tones, derision in Mom’s voice. When she combined a certain intonation with a particular cant to her body, Dad would react, hands flying. It was as if he had a mad switch and she closed the circuit. Then Dad struck.
Jim learned to move like his dog. Ringer’s head was like an arm whipping this way or that to deliver a canine mouth at play or prey. Jim’s arms learned to deliver his hands as well. Ringer’s mouth was both delicate and powerful. He could carry a baby bird, fallen from its nest, or grind a marrow bone to a sliver. Jim’s hands learned tenderness and anger. The boy who had discovered every plane, curve, and hollow of Ringer’s form began to learn the strengths of his own form and the weak spots of others.
Now Jim could dodge Dad’s slaps and blows. But a slight, thirteen-year-old boy is no match for an adult. Jim was fast, but he would tire, and Dad never got smaller. The odds favored size, and the day before Easter vacation, Jim’s luck ran out. He was cornered in his room.
“Where you gonna go now, little man?”
Jim checked Dad’s hands. They were open and empty. Ringer was not in the room. He faced Dad alone.
“I asked you a question. Where you gonna go now?” Dad lunged and Jim ducked under his father’s arms.
“Have it your way. But remember this is my damned house.” Dad’s mouth curled into a smile and then left the room. Later, Jim would remember that the smile never reached his eyes.
Jim whistled for Ringer and they slipped into the Pasadena evening. When they returned, Jim opened his bedroom door to a near-empty space. His books were gone. His reading lamp was gone. There was a cot in place of his own bed. Even Ringer’s bed was gone. His father stood in the doorway.
“You think you’re smart. Well, remember that this is my house and I pay for everything.”
Jim’s last thought before the tears fell was,
Well, I guess I can go to the library.
He felt helpless, powerless, diminished by his father’s insult, “Little Man.”
Something’s got to give,
or I’m going to go crazy.
When he regained his composure he walked into the kitchen, opened a drawer, and removed a box of toothpicks. He placed two of the wooden slivers in his breast pocket and slipped into the night, blind to the world around him, operating on habit alone.
Had Jim looked up, he could have traced the forms of the constellations. It was early evening and he might have looked for Libra. But eyes were cloaked in anger and his vision fixed into a narrow spot on the sidewalk just in front of him. On another evening, he would have delighted in the scents of Southern California’s abundant flora, but tonight, even the night-blooming jasmine smelled cloying. He heard neither the whisper of the evening breeze, nor any sound except blood pounding in his ears.
Dad’s workplace was two miles away, thirty minutes at a schoolboy’s angry pace. He approached the front door of the storefront office and removed one of the toothpicks, broke it in half, and inserted a piece into the tumbler mechanism of the door’s lock. He used the other toothpick to push the broken piece in as far as possible. Tomorrow Dad would be locked out of his office and the entire lock would have to be removed and replaced.
A security camera recorded every move.
The next day, the last school day before Easter vacation, a pulse still twitched in Jim’s neck. He ignored greetings from teachers and students. He ignored the bells that signaled the change in classes, navigating by rote. He ignored his lunch and moved to his afternoon classes with all the focus of a man in a coma.
The trance broke during math class. The teacher was administering a quiz. Jim sat unmoving.
“Mr. Ecco, would you like to join the rest of us in the exercise?” She smiled.
Jim did not reply.
“Mr. Ecco? Jim? Are you all right?” Her voice was bright, but with a note of concern.
The teacher walked down the aisle to Jim’s desk. When she reached out to touch the boy’s shoulder, he saw his father’s hand. He heard his father’s voice. Jim’s arm flew up and knocked aside the teacher’s hand. In the same motion, Jim stood, too quickly, and his desk tumbled over. The edge scraped down the woman’s shin. It was painful but not damaging. Still, it would cost Jim the rest of the school year.
Jim looked at his teacher. “I’m sorry,” he said, and left the classroom. He walked home, into his bare room, ignored the cot and lay down on the floor with Ringer, unmoving, until the police arrived.
On the following Tuesday, school principal Danny Sorenson sat in a tan club chair that was browned from use, the man’s form outlined in darkened leather. Sorenson was in that indeterminate middle age when his belly had begun a winning battle with his hair for prominence. He wore a red bow tie, a white shirt, and a forest-green cardigan sweater vest and rumpled khaki pants.
Jim sat on a matching sofa, opposite the administrator. He’d been there before. Sorenson had asked about Jim’s home life, had reached out to Jim and tried to find some activity that would help Jim channel his frustrations. “You’re a smart kid,” Sorenson said. “Your aptitude tests say you’ve got a lot of potential.”
But today the conversation would be about survival, not potential.
“Jim, you’re in a pickle,” Sorenson said, not unkindly.
“I’m sorry,” said Jim.
“The incident with Ms. Rice was reported. She says that it was an accident that the desk struck her leg, but when you hit her arm, technically, you assaulted her. Can you tell me why you did that?”
“I don’t know.”
“The police are considering dropping the charges against you.”
Jim, this is serious. Your father is waiting outside. He needs to be part of this conversation but I wanted to talk to you first. Jim, what’s going on at home?”
Jim said nothing.
“Okay,” Sorenson shrugged. “Let’s get your father.”
When Sorenson brought Galvin Ecco into the office, the attorney glared at the principal, glared at his son, looked around the office and, for good measure, glared at Sorenson’s framed credentials.
“Mr. Ecco, you’re an attorney. Can you explain to your son how serious this is?”
“It’s his mess. Let him fix it. Are we done here?” Galvin rose to leave.
“No, Mr. Ecco, we are not done here. Please sit down. There’s a second problem, one that involves you directly.”
“I don’t like the tone of your voice,” Galvin said.
“Sir, I’m sorry you’re upset. But your son is going to be expelled. It’s school policy.”
“That’s his problem. He also vandalized my office. Did he tell you that?”
“It sounds like he’s pretty angry about something. Do you know what that might be?” Sorenson asked.
“I don’t know and I don’t care.”
“Mr. Ecco, the question is, what are you and Mrs. Ecco going to do about Jim’s education? If we can show a plan for rehabilitation that includes keeping him in school, the police will drop the charges. But he’s not going to be able to return to this school.”
“So, what’s going to happen?” Jim asked.
“Well. That’s why we’re here,” Sorensen said.
Jim’s father raised his voice, “He vandalized my office, he hit the teacher. He’s a big boy, he can pay the price. He’s got to learn some discipline.”
“Mr. Ecco, can you do me a favor?”
“Settle down for a few minutes? Every family has problems. But yours cross over into my school and you can’t just wash your hands of the matter. Your son is thirteen years old, and you’re responsible for him.”
“What the hell am I supposed to do? He crossed the line with this stunt.”
“I’m trying to help, Mr. Ecco,” Sorenson said quietly. Then, a bit sterner, “Now please listen.” Galvin’s face colored. He opened his mouth and closed it, then opened and closed it again. For the first time since his books were stripped from his room, Jim became animated. A half-smile turned up one corner of Jim’s mouth.
Sorenson looked at Jim’s father. “Here’s my proposition. I’ve arranged a transfer to another school district where your son can start fresh.”
“Los Pobladores High in East Los Angeles.”
“East L.A.? Some ghetto school? Let’s see how smart he can be down there.”
“Actually, Mr. Ecco, Los Pobladores would be a good school for Jim. It’s one of the schools sponsored by the Hidden Scholar Foundation.”
“What’s that?” asked Jim.
“The Foundation takes good students from poor neighborhoods around the world. It places them in low-income neighborhood schools in the U.S. and then provides funding to those schools. The Hidden Scholar Foundation is the creation of the philanthropist, Robert Murray Herbertson.”
“The rich guy?” Jim asked.
“Yes, the rich guy.” Sorenson stroked his chin and his eyes went back and forth between the father and son. Then he fixed his gaze on Galvin. “Mr. Ecco, your son won’t be a Foundation scholar, but he will benefit from the Foundation’s programs. I’ve arranged for him to transfer to Los Pobladores. I know the principal there and we worked out an arrangement. We do this from time to time when a change of location might benefit a good student.”
a good student,” said Galvin.
“He’s an underachiever, but he has a lot of potential.”
“Well, I’m not driving him all the way down to East L.A. every day. And there’s no train from Pasadena to East Los Angeles.”
“Actually, sir, in view of the, uh, tension, at home, we’ve arranged for him to board with a local family—with your permission.”
“What about my dog?” said Jim. “What about Ringer?”
Sorenson sighed. “You’re going to have to work that out. Right now I’m trying to keep you out of the court system.” Sorenson unrolled his dataslate. Jim saw his school records. Sorenson continued, “Jim, I think you can make something of yourself, but you have an attitude problem. In the last nine months, you’ve been in three fights with other students.”
“It wasn’t my fault! I never start it.”
“I know, but each time you could have walked away.”
Jim started to protest but Sorenson held up a hand. “Stop. You have an attitude problem that’s getting you in trouble. Part of the plan to clear your record involves that you be placed in another home for the school year, if your father consents. Let’s see if that makes a difference.”
“Mr. Ecco, if we take this action, the courts will be satisfied. Your son will not end up with a juvenile record, and you avoid liability if the teacher seeks damages. As an attorney, I’m sure you can see the benefit to you.”
Turning back to Jim, Sorensen said. “Son, no matter what your father decides, you’re out for the rest of the year. You’re going to have to attend summer school to make up the days you miss here.” Jim heard a tone of finality in the principal’s voice.
“That’s not fair,” Jim protested.
“Enough! You assaulted a teacher. I know it was an accident, and you didn’t hurt anybody. But it was reported to the police, and this is the way it’s going to be.”
“Who reported it?” asked Jim.
“What difference does that make? There was a class full of students, and students talk. Ms. Rice needed some treatment for the scrape on her leg. So, there’s the infirmary. Someone might have been walking by. It doesn’t matter now. Keeping you out of the court system is the most important thing. Mr. Ecco, will you allow Jim to board with another family so he can attend Los Pobladores? If you agree, Jim’s record gets expunged and you won’t have to worry about a lawsuit.”
Dad said, “Yes. Are we done now?”
“Yes, Mr. Ecco, you and I are done.” Sorenson sighed again. It had been a long day, a long weekend, one that started when he picked up the phone, called the juvenile authorities, and arranged for Jim’s arrest and for his reassignment to a different school and a calmer home.