By Attila Zønn
Miss Athlon, our teacher, had a nose that curved down at the point. If someone was casting for a movie about witches, she could easily have gotten the part. Her hair was a dirty blonde with grey strands, very straight and very long, halfway down her back.
Before she became my teacher, I had seen her lots of times, walking down the halls, her nose in a book, her long hair flowing behind her and it amazed me, with her being so focused on her book, how she didn’t bump into anyone.
We had to say present when she called our name and roll call went smoothly until she got to, “Heinz-Harald?”
A big kid with very blond, almost white short hair, sitting by the window, raised his hand and said, “Present.”
Miss Athlon stared at her list. “Is it Free-oond?” she said and looked up. “How do you pronounce your last name?”
His voice trembled when he said, “It’s Freund. But you can say it any way you want. I don’t care.”
“He doesn’t care what you call him,” the boy behind me said. “Just don’t call him late for dinner.”
We all laughed, but Heinz-Harald started to cry.
We chanted, “I don’t care. I don’t care.”
“Stop that,” Miss Athlon said.
Heinz-Harald lowered his head onto the desk, covered his face and laid down some pretty big sobs.
I was supposed to be in Grade 6, but Genni was in my class, and that made me wonder because he didn’t know what two plus two was. Me and Mike Webster, my best friend, used to corner him during recess and ask, “Genni, what’s two plus two?” And he’d always put on his thinking face but never knew the answer.
“It’s four,” I’d say. He’d nod. Then Mike would say, “So, what’s two plus two?” And Genni would think, but he didn’t know the answer. Finally, one day I guess he got tired of us bugging him. Mike said, “Genni, what’s two plus two?” And Genni, without hesitating said, “I don’t got to know that outside the school. I only got to know it inside the school.”
Also, this was Room R. Everyone knew that the R in Room R stood for Retards. Everyone knew it. Ever since I could remember, since I’ve been coming to this school, Room R had this history. It scared me when I was younger. I’d quickly walk past the door because I didn’t want any of the retards jumping out of the room and ‘duhing’ in my face. And now I was in it.
The friends I’d had the previous school year didn’t want to know me anymore. Not even Mike Webster who had been my friend since kindergarten. No matter where I was in the schoolyard, they were always at the farthest end, and I’d call and wave to them, but they just stared at me and talked among themselves. When I ran towards them, they’d run away.
At this point, I have to explain something. During the summer I did a bad thing—I burned my house down with my parents in it. The how and why isn’t important right now. I just did it, and I guess nobody wanted to know me now that I was a killer.
And in the schoolyard, I was alone.
It’s no fun when there’s no one to play with. I won’t say I was lonely, I just had nothing to do so I spent my time watching what everybody else was doing.
There was Heinz-Harald, crying. I saw him again by the baseball diamond, crying. He was crying by the hill. Kids poked him and called him a big fat cry-baby. His sobs were intense—hiccupy, runny nose sobs and waterfall tears.
One morning, I walked up to him before the bell rang to end recess. He was leaning against the brick wall near the doors, talking to himself.
“Hey,” I said. He flinched and pressed himself against the wall. He stared at me.
“Hello,” he said.
“My name’s James,” I said and stuck out my hand. He looked at my hand, then looked at me but kept his body pressed against the wall.
“What do you want?” he said.
“Nobody wants to be my friend, so I thought I’d ask you if you want to be my friend.”
He moved a little from the wall. “Nobody wants to be my friend either.”
“Maybe it’s because you’re crying all the time. Why are you crying all the time? Don’t you like school?”
He stared at the ground and said, “My mom wants my dad to leave our house, and he can’t afford another house so he’ll have to live in a basement apartment, and he showed me where he’s going to live, and there’s a big dog there that guards the house and it’s not gonna let me see my dad, and I’ll never see my dad again.” He sobbed. “I’ll never see my dad again.”
“I know something about dogs,” I said.
He pushed away from the wall. “Really?” he said and wiped his eyes.
“Yeah. If you be my friend, I promise you’ll be able to see your dad whenever you want. Dogs are easy to control. You just have to show them who’s boss. I’ll have that dog licking your hand like that—.” And snapped my fingers.
“Really?” he kept saying, “Really?”
And that was it. From then on Heinz-Harald was glued to me.
After school, we’d walk home together, and over many walks, he told me about his family—about his mother and how she was always yelling at his dad, and after all the yelling, his dad went in the basement and punched the walls.
“I don’t know what happened,” he said, “because before, we were always happy.”
Heinz-Harald used to have a baby brother, but he got sick and died.
“His name was Hansi. He had a bad cough, and he was throwing up everything, even water, so they took him to the hospital, but he never came back home. And for a long time, the house was quiet—I remember that—like there was nobody in the house except me, and sometimes when I’d wake up in the morning I’d go wake up Hansi so we could play, because I always used to take him out of his crib in the mornings. As soon as I walked in, he’d be waiting for me. He’d have his hands on the railing, and his legs would be jumping, and he’d call my name—well, he couldn’t talk good yet, but he called me ‘Hi’, and I used to take him out and take him to my room where I made funny faces for him, and he’d laugh so hard he couldn’t stop, and then my mom and dad would come in, and they’d start laughing. Sometimes I have dreams, and we’re all in my dreams laughing. Then I wake up and run to his room but he’s not there, and it makes me sad. Now his room is a place where we keep boxes of things we don’t need. I can still see him, but I don’t remember what he looked like.”
He said his auntie came to live with them, and she took care of Heinz-Harald for a long time because he hardly ever saw his mom.
“She was always in her room sleeping.”
For a time his dad hardly ever went to work, but when he did, he didn’t work all day anymore. He’d come home early and go into the basement where he sat all the time in a chair, and sometimes when Heinz-Harald wanted to ask him something his dad grabbed him and hugged him so strong, and they’d sit like that in the chair for a long time.
“I love my dad,” Heinz-Harald said.
Colton sat in the back corner of the class by the window. He had long brown hair that covered his eyes and he never said anything. He just sat there tapping a pencil, sometimes hiding his head behind the curtains. Miss Athlon asked him questions all the time, but he’d act like she wasn’t there so Miss Athlon would give up on him and go to someone else.
Miss Athlon’s favourite person in all of history was a guy named Dylan Thomas. She read us a lot of the poems Mr Thomas wrote. I didn’t understand them, but the words sounded good.
She wanted us to use our memory—”because when your memory is good, you learn more,” she said—and she told us, “The easiest way to remember something is to put it in a rhyme.”
“I’m a poet,” she said, “and I’m going to teach you how to rhyme.” She said people who like poetry are gentle and will never get in trouble. And to write poetry, you don’t need to be very smart, just observant. And people who write poetry are lovers, not fighters so they will always be happy.
So she told us we had to write a poem, about anything we wanted, and she gave us a week to do it. I went to the library, and Sue helped me find a book on poetry, and as I read, I realized Miss Athlon was a liar because a poem doesn’t have to rhyme, which made me feel better. I read that book all the way through, and I learned some new words, and one night as I lay in my room in the dark, words came to me.
Encased in echo,
Contained in darkness
Splashing, something slithers
Slithering, something surfaces
—what is it?!
A rat shrieks!
So when the day came, I was ready. Miss Athlon asked, “Who wants to start?”
I raised my hand—but she picked Colton.
We all looked back at him.
He looked at all of us looking at him and slid lower in his seat.
“Come to the front, Colton,” she said.
Colton stared at his pencil and tapped the rubber end on the desk.
“I’m waiting,” she said.
“I don’t have one,” he said. That was that I thought, and raised my hand again because I had one. But Miss Athlon kept looking at him.
“I’m not going to be your babysitter,” she said. “You’re going to learn something in this class young man.”
“Rhyming is stupid,” he said. “It isn’t real talk. Poets are stupid.”
“Get up here,” she said.
Colton didn’t move.
Then, like someone lit a fire under his seat, he sat up and yelled, “Why are you bothering me?”
“You’re going to participate in this class.”
“Why? I don’t want to. I just want to sit here. Leave me alone! I didn’t do anything to you! You’re always picking on me. You’re such a—such a fuckin’ bitch!”
Miss Athlon seemed to fly down the aisle towards Colton and slapped his face, hard—I felt it—and made him cry, then grabbed him by the back of his shirt and pulled him out from behind the desk, out the door and into the hall. As the door slowly closed, we heard Colton’s voice echo in the hall, crying out, “Bitch! Bitch! Bitch!” And then it was quiet.
We stared at each other.
They were gone a long time, and when Miss Athlon came back, Colton wasn’t with her. She told us to sit quietly and do whatever we wanted. Then she sat behind her desk for the rest of the afternoon, arms folded and looked out the window.
The next day Colton was back, sitting at his desk, tapping his pencil and hiding his face behind the curtains, but we had a new teacher—Sue, the Chinese girl, who helped me find that poetry book in the library.
“Due to extenuating circumstances,” she said. “Miss Athlon will no longer be your teacher. I’m going to supervise for a couple of days. What do you want to do?”
No one offered any suggestions.
“I’ve just finished reading this really neat book,” she said. “Do you want me to tell you about it?”
All the girls nodded.
Sue said the book was about a twelve-year-old girl and her mother, and they were living in a rented house where the girl finds an Ouija board in the basement and starts playing with it.
“And you know what happens?” Sue said, with her eyes wide and a big smile.
We all shook our heads.
“She gets possessed by the devil!”
She told us there was this innocent girl named Regan—she was about our age—and how with the Ouija board she called up the devil, who took hold of her body, and the devil twisted and changed her body and made her swear and do disgusting things to her mother. How she killed her mother’s friend by pushing him out a window—Sue was very good at describing stuff.
When Sue finished, Agnes, who had a face like she was always worried about something, raised her hand and stood up.
In a trembling voice, she said, “Can that really happen? ‘Cause my sister and me have a Ouija board, and we play it all the time.” Agnes cried that she hadn’t wanted to play with it, that it was all her big sister’s fault—her sister made her do it.
Sue rushed towards her and held Agnes. “It’s just a made up story, it’s not real, but it can be fun to read if you like that stuff,” Sue said.
“Don’t be scared. I didn’t mean to scare you. At the end of the story, God wins. God wins.” Telling Agnes that God won didn’t stop Agnes from wailing, which made me feel sick a little bit.
“Okay,” Sue said and addressed all of us. “There’s no need to be afraid because there’s no such a thing as the devil. It’s just a fantasy story.”
On the third day, we came into class, and there was a young woman standing behind Miss Athlon’s desk. She was smaller than Miss Athlon, with sandy coloured hair and wore sunglasses. I don’t know why she wore sunglasses because it wasn’t all that bright in the classroom.
She stood so still, but her head moved as if she was looking at every kid as we walked in. When I saw her name on the blackboard, I thought that our new teacher didn’t know how to spell. She’d misspelt the word, Miss.
After we’d sat down, she said, “Good morning. My name,”— she pointed to the blackboard—“is Ms Goldring.” She had the same last name as our principal.
We went to find Heinz-Harald’s dad on Saturday. He didn’t live too far from Heinz-Harald, in a house on Sweeney Drive, and just as Heinz-Harald had said there was a big German Shepherd tied up on the driveway. It was crouched when we first saw it, but when we got closer, it stood up and stared at us. I don’t blame Heinz-Harald for being scared— this dog looked like it would bite our heads off.
We stopped just before the driveway.
“What are you going to do?” Heinz-Harald said.
It stood so still—watching us. I’d read about that. Some predators freeze on the spot, till their prey moves, and then they attack, quick as lightning. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I had to do something in front of Heinz-Harald, or after all I’d said, I’d look like a phoney.
I took a step onto the driveway, expecting it to bark and get all crazy at us but it just lowered its head and wagged its tail. A woman came out the front door.
“It’s okay boys,” she called out. “He doesn’t bite.” She came down some steps.
She was a pretty woman, blonde haired, who didn’t look too young or too old.
“King’s just a big pussy cat,” she said when we got closer. “I keep him tied up so he doesn’t run off. He’ll go with anybody. You want to pet him? He’d like that.”
I touched King on the shoulder. His coat felt bristly. Heinz-Harald stroked King on the head then laughed and looked at me when King licked his hand. He laughed so hard like he couldn’t control himself.
“I’m Janice,” the woman said. “Are you here to see Karl?”
“Then you must be Heinz-Harald,” she said looking at me.
“No, that’s Heinz-Harald,” I said pointing to Heinz-Harald.
“Well, Karl’s out back. Just go through the gate, down the steps and knock on the door.”
Heinz-Harald’s father wasn’t big, and that surprised me because I was expecting somebody big and chunky like Heinz-Harald only older. His dad was thin, and his eyes looked tired but he was happy to see Heinz-Harald, and he seemed to like me. There were boxes all over the place but he cleared some away, and we sat at a table. He poured us each a glass of milk and put a package of Dad’s oatmeal cookies at the centre of the table.
After we ate the cookies, he showed Heinz-Harald where his room was. Heinz-Harald bounced his bum on the bed and clapped his hands. The mattress creaked. His Dad told him he could come over any time he wanted, and he could bring as many friends as he wanted.
“James is my only friend right now,” Heinz-Harald said. His dad smiled at me.
Our library was annexed from the main part of the school, which was two storey. The library roof was lower, maybe twelve feet from the ground. During recess, Colton spent all his time charging the library wall, run up a few steps then flip backwards onto his feet. He was very good at it. Every time he got a little bit higher.
“What’s he trying to do?” Heinz-Harald said.
One recess, Heinz-Harald pointed up and said, “Look.” I looked at where he pointed and saw Colton on top of the library roof. As soon as we saw him, other kids saw him, then Sue, who was the yard monitor sometimes, saw him. She ran into the school. A few minutes later Mr Goldring came rushing out with Mr Wu the janitor, with Sue running behind them.
“Oh, my God,” Mr Goldring said.
“Wha’ a hell?” Mr Wu said, and ran back into the school.
Mr Goldring pointed at Colton. “You,” he said. “Don’t move. Stay back.”
Mr Wu came back with an extension ladder. Mr Goldring helped him extend it and prop it beyond the top of the roof. Mr Wu climbed this very wobbly ladder while Mr Goldring held it steady at the bottom. I looked up again, but I didn’t see Colton anymore. Mr Wu kept climbing, and the ladder kept flexing. Then the next thing I knew, Colton was standing beside us.
“Wha’ a hell?” Mr Wu said when he got to the top. He looked down at Mr.Goldring, then looked in our direction.
Mr Goldring’s face turned red when he saw Colton back on the ground. After Mr Wu got back to the ground, Mr Goldring came over and grabbed Colton by the back of the shirt and marched him into the school.
“You!” Mr Wu called after Colton. “No more go up on roof!”
That day after school, we saw Colton on the sidewalk ahead of us.
I said to Heinz-Harald, “Do you want Colton to be our friend?”
“I don’t know,” Heinz-Harald said. “He called Miss Athlon that bad name, and now she’s gone.” Colton walked like he was trying to step on all the cracks in the sidewalk. We came up behind him, and I said, “Colton!” He jumped and stepped off the sidewalk.
“I’m James,” I said. “This is Heinz-Harald. We’d like to be your friends.” Colton looked back and forth from me to Heinz-Harald but didn’t say anything. He walked away from us down the hill.
In school the next day, I saw him looking at us, and then after school, he stood by the exit, and when we walked up, he stepped forward and said, “Okay.” And that was that. Now there was three of us.
Listening to Colton talk, you knew right away he didn’t like girls. I don’t remember how we ever got on the topic, but it started with him saying, “I’m surrounded by bitches.”
He had an older sister, and she was a “rotten bitch”. His mother was a “crazy bitch”, and his Nana, at whose house they all lived, was the “biggest bitch” of them all because she kept all the money in her purse.
Colton’s mother didn’t work. She hurt her back years ago, and every month the mailman brought her a cheque in a beige envelope. But sometimes she had no money when on Friday evenings she changed her face and her hair and wore her mini-skirt and pointy shoes with skinny high heels. Then she’d stand in the kitchen waiting for his Nana to give her money, and his Nana always gave her ten dollars, and his mom always smiled at that because it wasn’t enough money, and his Nana always shook her head and said, “I can’t keep doing this,” but she always reached into her purse and gave his mom more money. And it used to be that after his mom got the money, she’d come over to Colton and plant a big red lip kiss on his cheek, then the taxi would come, his mom got in the back seat, and she’d be gone. Colton didn’t like the feel of lipstick on his cheek, so he never stood in the kitchen anymore on Friday evenings.
Late on those Friday nights, Colton would wake up because the light was on in the hall, and he’d go into the bathroom to find his mom on her knees bent over the toilette, throwing up, while his Nana stood over her in her nightgown, saying, “What’s wrong with you?” She had two growing children and was setting a bad example, and when was she going to grow up and take responsibility? Colton’s Nana would say, “I don’t know how much longer I’m going to put up with this!” Sometimes his mom would respond with words that didn’t make sense like, “The woman at 5, wants more coffee and homefries.” Then his Nana would notice Colton at the door and tell him not to worry, to go back to bed. Sometimes his mom would lift her head out from the toilette and look at him, and her eyes were like the eyes of a monster.
He hated his sister, who had a different father. When she came home on Sunday night on those weekends when she went with her dad, she’d always come find Colton even though Colton didn’t want to see her, and show off the things her dad had bought for her and she’d tell him, “My dad really loves me.”
Colton’s Nana had a restaurant where they served breakfast and lunch and one Saturday morning Colton took us there. At the back of the building, there was a steel door without a handle, but Colton slid his fingers down at the bottom and pulled the door open. We walked through a storage room and into the kitchen. There was a big woman in a purple dress with her back to us at a dish washing machine. Colton walked up to her and tugged on her dress. She turned, and her face lit up.
“Colton!” she said and picked him up off the floor in a big hug and made fart noises on his neck. Then she kissed him twice on the cheek and put him down.
“Nana, I brought my friends,” he said and pointed to us.
“Friends?” She looked surprised, and stared at us for a few seconds then said, “Your friends! Of course. Your friends. Hello, Colton’s friends. Are you boys hungry?” Heinz-Harald nodded. “Then let’s get you fed.”
A door to our right swung open, and a pretty young woman with a pony-tail walked in carrying a small pad.
“Look, Tina,” Colton’s Nana said. “Colton’s’s brought his friends. And they’re hungry.”
The young woman came over and put her arm around Colton and gave him a little shake. “We know how to take care of Colton’s friends don’t we Nana?” she said. She ripped a sheet off the pad and handed it to Colton’s Nana.
“Follow me guys,” she said.
We followed her to a table in the corner of the kitchen while Colton’s Nana went to talk to a man dressed in white by the grill. There were four chairs at the table, and I sat with Heinz-Harald while Colton sat across from us with the young woman.
“How’s your mom this morning?” she asked Colton. He shrugged. She looked over at us and smiled. “Are you guys all in the same class?” Heinz-Harald nodded. “Aren’t you going to introduce us?” she said to Colton.
“This is James,” he said pointing to me, “and Heinz-Harald.”
“I’m Tina,” she said. “I’m Colton’s favourite aunt.” She laughed and ruffled Colton’s hair.
I really liked Colton’s aunt. When she left to get our food, I said to Colton, “You’re aunt’s really pretty.” He looked at me and frowned. “Yeah, she’s nice.”
He said Tina was his mom’s younger sister. If anything ever happened to his Nana, Tina would get the restaurant on account of Colton’s mom didn’t have her head screwed on right.
“Where’s your dad?” Heinz-Harald said.
“He’s dead,” Colton said. “He died in the war.”
“The big one.”
“World War II?”
Colton gave us a blank look. “Yeah, that one.”
“My Opa was in that war,” Heinz-Harald said. “My dad said when he got home my Opa was a hero, but over here he would have been the enemy.”
“Maybe your Opa killed Colton’s dad,” I said.
Heinz-Harald looked at me. His eyes widened.
“How can that be?” he said, turning back to Colton who stared down at the table.
“If your dad died in World War II, how could he have been alive to kiss your mom and have you?”
“Here you go guys,” Tina said, setting three heaping plates on the table. “Burgers all around.”
It was the best burger I’d ever had. Heinz-Harald was done before I was halfway through mine. Colton didn’t eat much.
“I was wrong which war my dad died in,” Colton said later when we were walking to Mitch’s to get gum and candy. “It wasn’t World War II. It was Vietnam. Yeah, my dad died in Vietnam.”
“That’s going on now,” Heinz-Harald said. “Me and my dad watch the news, and there’s a lot of Vietnam on the news. I asked my dad why he never went to Vietnam? He said it’s an American war. Canada isn’t in it. So your dad must have been American.”
Colton gave us a blank look. “Yeah, that’s what he was. From Hollywood. He used to be a drummer. He played the drums for Sonny and Cher.”
We walked into class and found Ms Goldring sitting at her desk reading a book. When we were all seated, she flipped the book closed, sighed and stood up.
“Well, none of you are going to college,” she said. “But you can still learn something, or you can all be stupid the rest of your lives and let smarter people take advantage of you.”
I didn’t want to be stupid the rest of my life, so I listened real hard to what she was going to say.
“In your lives,” she said, “there’ll be people who won’t like you. They won’t like you for many reasons—because of how you look, how you talk, what you do, what you have, what you don’t have and—she paused and breathed in—because of your ancestry. They’ll call you names, and depending on where your family comes from in the world, there’s a bad name that goes with it. For example: if you come from England, you’re a limey, Irish, you’re a mick, Italian, you’re a wop, German, kraut, Spanish, spic, Jewish, kike. I’ve been called a kike many times, but I’ve never let it bother me.”
She went to the blackboard and wrote all these bad names down: limey, frog, kraut, spic, wop, mick, paki, chink, nip, towelhead and nigger. She circled nigger twice then stood back to look at it.
“This one,” she said tapping the word with her chalk. “This one can have many bad meanings. It can be about how you look, how you work, what you’re worth, and how you’ve been stepped on and enslaved.”
From the back of the class Colton said, “Woman is the nigger of the world.”
Ms Goldring turned from the blackboard. “Pardon?”
“That’s a song,” Colton said,” by John Lennon. He’s a Beatle.”
“I know who John Lennon is,” she said and stared at Colton for a few seconds.
“Anyways, they’re only words, they’re not sticks or stones, or bullets, and it’s up to you whether you get upset. If somebody doesn’t like you, you shouldn’t be upset because it’s not your fault. You can’t make people like you if they don’t want to. Just turn around and walk away. That’s the best thing, because if you get upset, then they win. That’s what people who hate other people want. They want you to fight back so they can hit you harder and that makes them feel justified to hate you.”
Copyright©Attila Zønn 2018