Copyright (c) 2017 by Randall R. Peterson ALL RIGHTS RESERVED This is a work of fiction. All persons, locations and actions are from the author's imagination or have been used in a fictitious manner.
By R. Peterson
Cloverdale school officials tried to get Mr. and Mrs. Huang Lee to let them call their daughter by initials or another name but they refused. Ug was an honored ancestral name in China and they were proud immigrants. The fact that Ug was born with horrible facial deformities made no difference. Surprisingly most of the other students didn’t tease … they were all terrified … for good reason.
The first hour science classroom went as cold as the inside of an ice cream truck when Mrs. Williams read the role-call.
Everyone kept sneaking glances at the husky new kid, Tommy Everett; he’d only been in town about a week and was labeled an army brat and a bully by those who walked sheepishly into Cloverdale junior high school sporting black eyes and swollen noses. Tommy the Terrible as he was already being called behind his back squirmed in his seat wearing a tight white t-shirt with a box of Junior Mints rolled under one sleeve like a greaser car-hood carries his cigarettes. Ug was sitting two seats behind me, not that I looked, that would have been insane, but I knew she was there. It was as if I could feel her two dissimilar oriental eyes drilling holes into the back of my head.
There was silence as Tommy sat there shaking his head in exaggerated disbelief. He was sitting on the front row under a portrait of President Lyndon B. Johnson, the place where all new students sat. Mrs. Williams paused for a moment and then called him name again. “Tommy Everett?”
Tommy looked around the classroom as if the teacher had just asked the stupidest question he’d ever heard then banged his fist on his desk. “Yo!” he blurted, then added with a smirk. “When did I become invisible … and where is the girl’s locker room?” No one laughed.
Mrs. Williams adjusted the glasses on her nose and then stared at the new student sitting less than a yard from her. “You are requested to answer here or present when I call your name!”
Tommy stared at her for a full ten seconds before he replied slowly and loudly “Here or present!” The “You old cow!” that followed was barely more than an exhale … but most of the class heard.
Mrs. Williams ignored him and went back to the role-call. Tommy unwrapped and crammed two sticks of Juicy Fruit gum in his mouth and began to chew loudly imitating the teacher’s stilted movements.
“He’s not here today,” Vicky Cartwell replied. “I sat next to his little brother on the bus and he said Lester has the flu.”
Everyone except Tommy Everett held their breath; we all knew what was coming.
Tommy burst out laughing. He whirled and kneeled up on his seat so that he could scan the classroom. Malicious eyes searched for the owner of the hilarious moniker. I couldn’t help myself … I looked too.
Ug was in the middle row, near the back, reading Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. She closed the book and looked up. The near normal blue eye stared at Mrs. Williams while the much larger brown one rotated until it was aligned like a futuristic laser gun at Tommy Everett.
“Here!” she said. Her voice was not much above a whisper but with the smothering tomb-like silence in the classroom she could have been yelling.
Tommy’s face was as white as the sheets on my mother’s clothesline as he turned and settled in his seat.
I glanced at Tommy several times during the period but his head was always buried in his arms.
Recess came, and I was the last to leave. I was trying to finish an essay on space travel that was due on Friday. Mrs. Williams prodded Tommy out of his seat and told him about the baseball game the boys always held behind the school. After Tommy left, I got up to sharpen my pencil and saw the puddle of urine where he’d been sitting before the janitor showed up with Pine Sol to make it go away.
Tommy didn’t return after the twenty minute break. Mrs. Williams said, with what sounded like a sigh of relief, that he had gone home sick.
My last class ended at three twenty. If I ran all the way home I could watch Lost in Space before I had to meet the truck at the corner of Townsend and Wallace at four thirty and pick up my sixty-four copies of the Vanishing River Tribune for my evening paper route. I had a Schwinn three-speed bicycle with crooked handlebars but the duel canvas paper-bags, thirty-two papers on each side, balanced and rode nicely across the top tube with the extra wide tires. On television you always watched the paper boys ride past on bikes and toss the papers onto the lawns or sidewalks, not so in Coverdale. Each paper was folded in half and placed between the screen and the front door unless the subscriber had a special receptacle … few did.
I left my bike parked in front of the vacant house on Garlow while I walked across the street to deliver three papers to a group of apartments. When I came back I realized the white house with the peeling paint was no longer vacant. Tommy Everett was just pushing my bike - newspapers and all - into the neighbor’s fish pond. “Hey!” I yelled, secretly glad that he turned and ran back into the dilapidated rental home before he could beat me up. I had a hard time pulling the bike out of the water. Landscaping plants, weeds and dead water lilies tangled around the handlebars like fishing nets. When I finally got the bike onto dry ground my newspapers were gone. “Looking for these?” Ug Lee appeared and handed me the green canvas bags with Vanishing River Tribune printed in bold yellow letters on the sides. “I think I pulled them out before they got too wet!”
Before that day I don’t think I ever knew exactly where the monster-of-the-seventh-grade lived. She had only been in Cloverdale for six weeks and we all just took it for granted that the she-beast slept in the dark dungeon of a mossy castle on a foggy hill somewhere, not in an unfinished basement-house in a lot overgrown with weeds on west Garlow. I would have grabbed the newspapers and ran, but my legs felt weak. I sat down on the un-mowed lawn instead. She was right the newspapers were miraculously dry except for the two on the top. They were the overprints the newspaper company always sent along … just in case and prospective customers were interested.
“I’ll take this one for my trouble,” Ug said pulling the soggy paper out of my hand. “You still have one extra and I’ve been wanting to find out more about the community I’m living in.”
My train of thought had derailed and didn’t know what to say. “Nice place you have here.” The instant the words left my mouth I felt like a stupid jerk.
Ug shook her head and smiled. Her lips looked like they belonged on a large sea-fish. “It was left to my family by my uncle,” she said. “My father plans to restore the gardens and the fountain when he has the time … and the money.”
“I better go; I’m going to be late … thank you!” I gulped as I hung the bags back on my bike.
“Thanks for the delivery, Jeffery Roland Bland.” She said as she held up her free newspaper.
I peddled away as fast as I could without actually looking like I was speeding. I don’t know how the newspapers stayed so dry I had watched the entire bike go underwater. And how did she know how many extra papers I had? I shivered as I peddled down the street. My wet tires left wiggly water lines on the sidewalk. And she knew my name … that was the scariest thing of all. She knew the name only my mother and grandmother ever called me.
Tommy Everett’s father Butch, was inside the glasses-in foyer of the principal’s office when I arrived at school the next morning. I could hear him and Principal Marcus Dunn arguing even from the hallway, so could most of the other arriving students, that part of Cloverdale Junior High was deserted … there’s nothing like loud angry voices to clear a room. I picked up shouted words like “abomination” and “It’s bad enough we have to live next door to that freak!” and I hurried along also.
Tommy the Terrible was not in class, Mrs. Williams announced that he had been transferred to another home-room. I held a book in front of my face to hide my smile. Everyone was stealing glances at Ug. I couldn’t help myself; I stole a glance too and then quickly turned away. The monster of the seventh grade had her head buried in a book. I watched a tear roll down a bulging cheek from the overlarge brown eye … then I too turned away. There is a certain social order in early adolescence … hang with the wrong crowd and you become them.
The fact that Marine Corps Drill-Sergeant Butch Everett had gotten his son transferred to a different classroom seemed to embolden Tommy. I couldn’t help but remember the puddle of urine on his seat the day before; fear always brings out the worst in anyone including our hero’s children.
Tommy was next to home plate on the baseball field choosing team members for a one inning game at recess. Stan Morris was the other captain. “I’ll take the Hicks Brothers, Joe Martin and Larry Stump … you can have all the rest of these retards on your team!” Tommy looked around for approval then turned on Stan. “If you don’t like it ask for my uncle … this was his idea!” He slapped Stan playfully in the side of the head, so hard Stan’s glasses fell into the dust.
“You need to get a strap for those,” Tommy said. “You might need to see if you ever get a hit and have to run the bases.” He looked around smiling. “As if that’s ever going to happen!”
Tommy was pitching of course. The first pitch was high and to the outside. When Kevin Bates didn’t swing and declared it a ball Tommy just smiled. “Like ‘em a little closer do ya?”
The second pitch was a fastball that hit Kevin in the leg. He could barely stand as he limped to first base. After that, every player on my team swung at every pitch … no matter how outrageous. Tommy walked one, then struck out two in a row. Tom McLeary miraculously hit a fly ball to right field and it was caught by Louis Hicks. Once Tommy’s team came up to bat they never left. Tommy was just as intimidating running the bases as he was pitching. He stood directly between first and second and when he’d charge to steal second he wait till the pitcher threw then move back toward first until finally one of the basemen missed the catch then he’d run all the way home. He made all the rules … there was no arguing with him.
Mrs. Williams came out to announce that recess was over and insisted that both teams line up and shake hands to show good sportsmanship. “You need to get some water-wings on that bike of yours,” Tommy said when he slapped my hand. “What if next time you ride it into the river?”
I couldn’t help but glace toward where the girls were playing as Mrs. Williams herded us into the school. Ug sat alone on a swing set while other girls played hop scotch and jumped rope. Loneliness is worse than hunger Mother Teresa would say some years later … she was right.
There were two extra newspapers in my stack when I picked them up on my bike after watching Lost in Space. I was still thinking about how Greedy Dr. Smith had used an alien ring to turn all the lost space-traveler’s food into useless platinum when I saw the new subscription notice. Mr. Huang Lee didn’t surprise me; Ug had shown an interest in the soggy paper that I’d given her. It was the next name on the list that made me groan. I figured Robert “Butch” Everett was too busy destroying new recruit’s self-esteem to read the Vanishing River Tribune. This had to be Tommy’s idea.
I put off delivering to West Garlow until last. Huang or his wife had made a receptacle for the paper out of a plastic milk jug with one end cut away. They had nailed it to a post with The Vanishing River Tribune blocked in artfully with a blue Magic Marker. I slid the paper in the receptacle and was just turning toward my bike when Ug stepped out of a clump of still dormant early-April rose bushes with pruning-shears in her hand. “I convinced my mom and dad that subscribing to the local newspaper would be a great way for them to learn to speak proper English,” she said. Then she added almost as an afterthought, “although it was quite expensive.”
Every month, I had to collect for the newspaper. Three forty-five didn’t seem like a whole lot of money to me.
“Where does your father work?’
A look of anguish crossed Ug’s deformed face. “He works for Lemont Hick’s at his garage and my mom cooks for the Hicks family and cleans their house on weekends.”
I knew the entire Hick’s clan and they were a bunch of illiterate, selfish, hillbillies … I felt sorry for anyone who had anything to do with them. If they were employing Ug’s family they were paying peanuts for wages … if anything at all.
“You could have asked,” I told her. “I usually always have a couple of extra papers and this is almost my last stop. One half of her face smiled and it almost made up for the desolation of the other side.
“Thank you for thinking of me,” she said. Her brown eye closed, but the blue one stayed partially open. “I don’t have too many friends.”
She turned and scuttled back toward the basement house before I could answer. You don’t have any I thought. Thank God I didn’t say it. Looking back my life has been one long list of regrets and things that I am ashamed of … something that heavy might have torn the page.
The screen door was hanging crooked on the Everett house; rusted screws were pulling out of rotted wood and it almost fell off its hinges when I opened it to slip the newspaper inside. “What did you do to our door?” Tommy had come around the side of the house and stood behind me glaring with his fists clenched.
“I didn’t do anything,” I stammered. “It was that way when I found it.”
“Bullshit!” He shouted so loud my ears rang. “It was just fine before you showed up!”
He jerked the paper from my hand and smiled. “Don’t bother trying to collect for this month’s paper,” he growled. “My father agreed to let me handle all of our transactions.” He added figures with his pudgy fingers and I could see the reflections of things he was going to buy with my money in his eyes. “A box of screws, wood putty and my labor … you’ll be lucky if you don’t owe us for next month’s delivery too.”
I turned and pedaled away as fast as I could on my bike. I was furious and intimidated … mostly scared and miserable. If this was what I had to look forward to seven days a week then I might as well quit. There goes the motorcycle I’d been saving for. “Next time roll the paper in a plastic bag and put it on the step like a white man,” he called as I was halfway down the sidewalk. The tears in my eyes kept me from seeing where I was going and I ran off the curb and tipped over my bike just around the corner. Thank God Tommy didn’t see me fall. I don’t think I would have ever gotten his laughter out of my head.
The next week might have been a nightmare, except Tommy secured a spot on the seventh grade wrestling team and they practiced each night after school until five. I started delivering his paper first, rolled and put into a clean plastic grocery bag, I got a hundred of them from Hunter’s market for a quarter and managed to always miss him. I was feeling almost happy. My birthday was on Tuesday April 12th. and my mom and dad had promised me a mysterious something special.
Special turned out to be a gangly Border Collie - Lab mix pup and he was tied to our front porch with a piece of old clothesline when I came home from my newspaper-route. My parents had rescued him from an animal shelter and they said his name was Sparky but I could choose something else if I wished. Something surely lit my fire that day I turned thirteen and Sparky he stayed.
As the days went by me and my new best friend became inseparable. We played fetch and cops and robber dogs every night until the street lights came on. I didn’t want him tagging along when I went on my paper route but he whined and looked at me with those soft brown canine eyes filled with such misery that I couldn’t resist. Using the same clothesline my mom had used when he’d first arrived, I tied him to the metal carrier on the back of my bike and he ran alongside as I went house to house. Sparky waged his tail every time I collected money from my route and licked my face, as if healing a wound, each time Tommy Everett laughed and refused to pay. Tommy always managed to let me glimse the three dollar bills the quarter and two dimes his father had given him tucked into his t-shirt pocket.
The papers were late on Tuesday, April nineteenth. A semi-tractor trailer hauling fuel oil had jack-knifed on the highway north of town and the newspaper’s editor wanted pictures on the front page. It was a quarter after five when I picked up my papers and pedaled directly for Tommy Everett’s house. I left Sparky tied to the bike while I hurried up to the step with the newspaper carefully wrapped in plastic. In the same place I usually left the paper a note taped to the cement said. Please put the paper on the back step. I thought I heard Sparky bark once when I went around the house. Someone had left a sprinkler going and I had to walk around it. I was just placing the newspaper on the back porch when I heard Sparky barking loudly and I knew there was trouble.
I rounded the corner at a run just in time to see Tommy Everett dragging Sparky into his back yard and closing the gate. “Give me back my dog,” I screamed as I chased after him.
“You’re too late,” Tommy laughed. “My dad says I get to shoot any dog that crosses our property.” Tommy latched the gate behind him and by the time I found an empty milk box to stand on and pulled myself over the wooden fence, Tommy had Sparks tied to a tree and was loading a rifle. “No!” I screamed as he took aim and I lunged. I grabbed the rifle barrel and thrust it to the side just as Tommy fired. Rage made me tear the weapon out of his hands. There was a smell like dead animals and a hissing noise coming from the house next door. My captive dog was barking furiously and straining against the old clothesline. A bang like a car back-firing sounded and then a flash of light and the sound of breaking glass just as Sparky broke free and leaped toward a broken-out window. Tommy’s stray bullet had ruptured a propane line going into the basement home. In a matter of seconds the whole dwelling, fed by the pressurized gas, burst into a raging inferno.
The smoke and heat burned my eyes and I forgot about Tommy Everett as I stumbled toward the flames. I fell to the ground coughing just as Ug’s piercing scream came from inside the burning basement. A second later, Sparky’s terrified yelping told me that he was inside with her.
TO BE CONTINUED …