As I stepped up to the doors of Crestfield Elementary, I was overcome again by how real this all was. It still didn’t make any sense, but it was certainly real. There were children all around me and I fit right in. I wasn’t the adult who was out of place among a sea of children. No one was wondering why I was here. I was just another fourth grader taking part in the institution of American education.
But, to me, it was all wrong. I had already spent kindergarten through sixth grade in these halls. I had gone on to high school, to college, and into the military. I had gotten married and Sarah and I had built a life together. Now, I was a child and there was no Sarah in my life. I was stuck revisiting a painful past, dropping into my youth mere days before my father was supposed to die. I had no idea why I was here, what I was supposed to do, or how I was going to get back where I belonged. I only knew I didn’t want to do this again. I didn’t want to re-experience my father’s death and I didn’t want to watch my mother deteriorate into her own hell. And I really didn’t want to throw in lower elementary studies on top of it.
My gut reaction was to turn around and walk away. I wanted to go down to the creek or into the crawlspace under my house or just about anywhere but here. I wanted to get away from all of it and be alone with my thoughts. The only thing that kept me from it was all the drama that would ensue if I did. I was going to see my dad again tonight. I was going to see him for the first time in twenty-five years. I didn’t want to cloud that reunion with my having skipped school.
So, instead of walking away, I walked inside. The building was enormous to me. The ceilings seemed to be fifteen feet high and the teachers looked like giants. Of course, the ceilings weren’t that high and the teachers really weren’t giants, but they sure looked that way. Somewhere between yesterday and today, I had lost a couple of feet in height.
I was in fourth grade. That meant my teacher was Mrs. Leach. Where was her room? I started to feel a twinge of panic, but I reminded myself that there were only two main hallways. I had a fifty-fifty shot of picking the right one. I made my way down the corridor in front of me, looking at the nameplates next to each door as I went. Mrs. Thompson, Mr. James, and Ms. Abramowitz were on my left, the restrooms and a janitor closet were to my right. Artwork created by the student body covered portions of the sea-foam green cinderblocks: chalk drawings of the moon and stars on black paper; blue, green, and purple kites were cut from construction paper.
Farther along, I saw Mrs. Leach’s name printed next to a door on my right. I turned in and was surprised again by the familiarity of it all. I hadn’t been in this room for decades and yet I still felt as though I knew the place. It was as though the memories had sat just below the surface this whole time, just waiting for the right trigger to bring them out. I didn’t have all the details, like where I was supposed to sit, but the classroom was unmistakably familiar.
I breathed a sigh of relief as I looked down at the desks. Mrs. Leach had put stickers on each one, identifying the assigned student. “Thank God,” I whispered under my breath as I saw the word “Andy” printed in neat, block letters. Staying under the radar was one of my prime objectives this morning. Sitting in the wrong seat probably wouldn’t help me achieve that goal. I slid into my seat to wait for the final bell to ring.
As I waited, I lifted up the top of the desk to see the jumble of textbooks inside: Social Studies and Math, Reading and Science. It occurred to me how much was missing or even incorrect in some of those books. Technology and society had come a long way. Back then, there were no cellphones, tablet computers, or GPS navigation. NASA wouldn’t launch the Hubble Space Telescope for another seven years, and HIV had only been discovered two years before: the worst of the AIDS scare was yet to come. It was sobering to think about how much of what I took as history was still the future. None of these people had experienced the world I had taken for granted.
“Get out of my stuff, Andy,” I heard from above me. Lowering the top of the desk, I realized my mistake as I saw the boy standing with his arms crossed. It turns out that one of the details I was missing was that there was more than one Andy in the class. Evidently, Mrs. Leach hadn’t thought to put the first initial of our last names. So much for not wanting to draw attention by sitting in the wrong seat.
“It’s not your stuff. It says ‘Andy’ right there. My name is Andy, isn’t it?” I said, tapping the block letters with my finger. I smiled up at him, hoping at least to salvage the situation with some laughs, but the best I got from the kids around us was a couple of snickers.
“Mrs. Leach, Andy’s in my seat and he won’t get up.”
Crap. Tattletale. “All right, Andy, don’t get all worked up. I’m going, I’m going.” Thankfully, Mrs. Leach only shook her head as I got up and found the correct seat. That at least saved it from becoming a bigger deal.
As the bell rang and we got started, the morning lessons were pretty much as I expected them to be. We talked about states and capitals. We did some basic multiplication and division. Thankfully, recess wasn’t that long of a wait.
I spent most of the break hanging back, keeping to myself. That actually surprised me. I had the energy of youth, but no will to exercise it. I must have said a dozen times or more how much fun it would be to be a kid again. I thought it would be awesome to have the vigor of youth along with the appreciation for life that you don’t get until much later. But, being a kid with an adult’s brain meant that I brought all my troubles with me.
So, instead of engaging with the kids around me, I just wandered around, acting out the introverted nature that I didn’t pick up until the years following my dad’s death. I watched the kids I had known in another life. It was strange, seeing them in their youth. I knew more about some of them than they did and I could see those things reflected in their younger selves.
Alicia Brower and a girl named Tonya, I think, were playing on the swings. They swung back and forth, pigtails swaying as they moved. They looked as though they didn’t have a care in the world. If I remembered right, Alicia grew up to start a web company and made out pretty well for herself. Tonya’s story wasn’t as happy. I think she got pregnant at sixteen and ended up dropping out of school.
Behind them, Tommy Helms was kicking a ball back and forth with a boy I didn’t know. They were grinning and laughing, talking trash whenever one of them would miss. Tommy eventually took his own life. He slammed his car into a rock wall at the bottom of the Y-Highway exit ramp off of 71. I didn’t remember all the details, but I did remember that about a hundred kids held a candlelight vigil the night before his funeral.
As I walked further, a weird set of monkey bars sat off to my left. I still couldn’t quite figure out what it was supposed to be. It looked like a worm, only it had big ladders that extended off its trunk like legs. The paint was peeling and bits of rust showed from underneath as the elements took their toll. I drove by here a couple summers ago, reminiscing about the past, and they had ripped all this stuff out and replaced it with newer, safer equipment. There were actually wood chips under each piece instead of the hard asphalt that was there now.
At the base of one of the insect’s legs, there was a small group of fourth and fifth graders gathered around another boy. As soon as I saw him, I knew exactly who he was. His name was Aaron Rogers. Kind of like my dad’s tombstone, some things burn into your memory so permanently that you might never forget them – even if you lived two lifetimes. He was one of those.
To the casual observer, it looked like they were having a great time, joking and laughing. The unfortunate truth was that they weren’t. Or at least Aaron wasn’t. He was a target for the other kids. Torturing that poor boy was almost a sport.
Aaron was an overweight kid with a shock of bright, orange hair. It was almost the color of a carrot. His clothes were always too small and it was common for his shirt to pull up, exposing his belly button as his generous gut spilled over the top of his pants. And I’ll never forget the smell that came off him. The distinctive smell of body odor constantly emanated from him like steam rolling off a pot of cabbage. Sometimes, it was so bad that he would leave his scent behind in an invisible cloud that hovered in his wake for several minutes after he departed.
I adjusted my course, moving to bring myself within earshot of the group. If I was going to be trapped in this rehash of my youth, I may as well try to correct some of the sins of my past. As I drew closer, it looked like two of them were the main antagonists. The others stood by in the same way people slow down to watch a traffic accident unfold.
“Man, Aaron, you stink!” one of them said. I couldn’t remember the boy’s name. I thought he was a fifth grader, but he looked like he might even be in sixth grade. He towered over the other kids.
“Yeah, you smell like butt. Don’t you ever wash?” another chimed in. I think his name was Ernie Hammett.
Aaron didn’t say much and he certainly wasn’t trying to defend himself. He just laughed as though he thought they were funny. He was likely hoping they would get bored and move on, but they didn’t. They almost never did. Instead, they continued to throw insults at him. They worked to chip away at his resolve, and they wouldn’t stop until recess ended or they reduced him to tears.
“Hey guys, what’s going on?” I asked as I walked up. Of course, I already knew. I had been one of the kids who had laughed when they made fun of him. Maybe not in this particular circumstance, but there were others. I still get pangs of regret when I think back to this time. I wasn’t one of the instigators, but I always felt like I may as well have been.
“Hey, Andy!” The kid whose name I couldn’t remember lit up as he saw me. He lifted his arm and pointed in my direction, bouncing up and down on his toes. “Maybe you can help us. We’re trying to figure out how Aaron can love smelling like donkey crap.”
He looked like he was having the time of his life. He shifted his body back toward Aaron and folded his arms across his chest. He still had that same, smug smile. Everything about him seemed to be daring the boy to fight back.
Aaron, however, was not smiling and he certainly wasn’t fighting back. He had been trying everything he could to keep them from knowing how much they were getting to him. He waited for me to respond, but the smile was gone. There was a mix of sadness and fear in his eyes as he looked at me. I imagined that it wasn’t me he was seeing. Instead, he saw another lion that had come to clamp down on his neck as he tried desperately to escape.
Bobby Richardson. That was the big one’s name. Suddenly and out of nowhere, the memories popped back into my consciousness. He was never a nice kid. In fact, he had gone well beyond not being nice. He was a bully. Even at such a young age, he seemed to have mastered the art of sniffing out weakness and exploiting it for his own pleasure. He preyed on the weak as if he actually was a lion, waiting for a member of the herd to separate and leave himself open for attack.
His mean streak had gotten worse over the years. He eventually ended up in juvenile hall because he beat a nine-year-old girl unconscious, leaving her for dead. It wasn’t until he went away that we understood how badly he had it at home. Rumors had spread like wildfire about the abuse he endured. His father would come home drunk and take his frustrations out on the boy. He would often invent reasons to punish Bobby just to satiate his own need for control and retribution.
I took a step closer to them and made a point to look Aaron in the eye. “What makes you think he likes it?” I asked Bobby without looking back at him. There was a moment of relative silence as I locked eyes with Aaron. All around us were the sounds of children playing, but that spot on the playground was completely without sound. I could hear the girls on the swings and a group of kids playing kickball. There was a crow crying out in the far trees. But the children around me were silent.
Finally breaking the silence, Bobby said, “He’s that way all the time. He’s got to like it.”
“Oh?” I asked, still not turning to face him. “Do you think he has more control over his life than you do?”
Bobby stood silently, not sure what to say. I didn’t think he was used to people standing up to him, particularly people who were so much smaller than he was.
“How much control do you have when your daddy comes home drunk? When he takes the belt to you or locks you in your room for hours at a time, why don’t you do something about it? Why not rip the hinges off the doors when you have to pee instead of soaking it up with dirty laundry?”
I had no idea why, but I could see a clear picture of Bobby in his room, sitting on the floor with his knees pulled up to his chest as he sobbed into his arms; his urine soaked clothes lying next to him in a pile. There was no way the image could be of a real situation, but I had an odd confidence that it was. Impossibly, it seemed to be more than just the benefits of age and hindsight. Little snippets of his life were floating across my mind like photographs flipped about in a breeze.
When I finally turned to face him, every boy in the group was staring at me. Not one of them was moving. None were speaking. “I’ll tell you why, Bobby. You don’t fight back because you are just a boy. What happens to you isn’t your fault just like what happens to Aaron isn’t his.”
“You shut up, Andy. You just shut up. You shut up or I’ll make you!” he said. He wasn’t smiling anymore. Instead, the anger and hurt in his eyes were boring a hole through me.
“I know plenty about you and your daddy, Bobby. I know that both of you like to pick on people you think are weaker than you. I know that you feel powerless and you look for ways to feel powerful –to feel strong and unafraid. What your father does to you isn’t your fault, but what you choose to do is.”
“I said shut up!” Bobby raised his fists and ran towards me like a bull charging a matador. As he came, I suddenly found myself hoping that I had better hand-eye coordination than a normal nine-year-old. I was willing to take a beating, but I really preferred not to.
As he approached, I managed to sidestep out of his way. He ran a little past where I was standing and he tried his best to come to a quick stop, bending over a bit in the process. I turned toward him and kicked him in the backside as he was still fighting his forward momentum. This sent him toppling and he didn’t have enough warning to be able to soften his descent with his hands. Instead, his face half smacked and half slid across the asphalt.
Bobby rolled over and sat up, looking up at me. He had small bits of gravel stuck to his face and blood was flowing freely from his nose. Tears streamed down his face. He started to get up, maneuvering an arm and one of his legs under himself to push up. Surprisingly, two of the boys in the group stepped toward him, silently telling him that further aggression was a bad idea. Bobby clambered to his feet as he watched them, brushing the rocks and sand from his hands.
“You need to go the nurse,” I said. “Tell her you fell. And you might tell Mr. Paterson about your dad. There are people who can help you.” Dropping his head to look down at his feet, he just walked away. He reminded me of a whipped dog as he went. All the fire seemed to have gone out of him.
“You… you talk like a grownup,” Aaron said as I turned back to face him.
“I know I do. Aaron, I want you to know that there is nothing wrong with you. When kids like Bobby pick on you, it’s because they think making others feel badly will make them feel better.”
I don’t think he knew what to say. I didn’t know if it was because he was shocked that I was trying to help him or if it was because I didn’t sound anything like a fourth grader. What was clear was that the pretense of laughter was gone now; tears were openly rolling down his cheeks, creating blotchy red marks around his eyes and on his cheeks. Off in the distance, the teacher’s whistle blew indicating it was time to line up. Recess was over. Aaron used both hands to wipe the tears from his face and then turned to go find his place in line.
The rest of the school day was a challenge to get through. In part, it was because of the lack of stimulation from fourth grade material. Mostly, though, it was because I couldn’t stop thinking. I thought about Bobby and Aaron. I thought about my dad. I thought about the mess I was in and I wondered whether I would ever see Sarah again. I was torn between the desire to see my dad again and the need to go home to my normal life. I had only been in this time, this reality, for less than a day and it was already lonely.
After school, I made my way out to the base of the flagpole where Lanie and I met to walk home every day. Lanie was already there waiting, squinting at me as the afternoon sun shone into her eyes.
“Hey, squirt. How’s it hanging?” she asked, raising her hand to block the sun.
“Pretty well. How about you?” I asked as I stepped onto the sidewalk, looking back at her to follow.
Instead of following, she cocked her head to the side a bit and looked at me for a moment before she responded. “I’ll bet you’re feeling good. I heard about Bobby Richardson.”
“Oh?” I replied, trying to feign ignorance. Evidently, news of the incident travelled quickly. I didn’t end up in the principal’s office, so it must not have made it back to the teachers yet, at least in a way they could corroborate. Maybe Bobby really did say he fell. I could only hope.
“Don’t be a dork. I heard you beat him up pretty good. I didn’t know you were a fighter. And he’s even in fifth grade.”
Oh, that. Well, he was picking on Aaron Rogers. I told him to stop and he wouldn’t.”
“My hero,” she said in her best imitation of Darla from The Little Rascals, holding both hands up to her cheek and pretending to swoon.
“Oh my gosh. Now who’s being the dork?” I asked, rolling my eyes. I reached over and gave her arm a light shove. “Race you to the stop sign!”
I got the head start, making it ten or fifteen feet before she recovered and got her body into motion. “No fair, Myers. I’ll get you,” she yelled, pumping her legs to catch up.
I ran as fast as I could, but she was faster. Lanie had just over two years on me and her legs were a lot longer. Looking back over my shoulder, I could see that she was closing the gap quickly. Seeing her approach pushed me to move my legs even faster and I was surprised at how great it felt. There was a freedom to running I hadn’t felt in a long time. None of the normal aches and pains or tight muscles associated with age were weighing me down. I felt like I could run forever. She managed to catch me just as I was crossing the stop sign, but I still won, even if it was barely.
“Ha, I won! You suck!” I said, bending over and placing my hands on my knees to catch my breath.
“Only ‘cause you cheated,” she replied, breathing just as hard.
We started walking again, this time more quietly as we worked to get our breathing back under control. As we reached our street, Lanie looked over at me and asked, “So, is that why you seem so much happier than you were this morning? Because you beat up Bobby and saved the day?”
I didn’t know that happy was the word I would have used to describe me. Although, I guess I did feel better than I had that morning. The situation with Aaron showed that I really could change things. I hoped that meant that I wasn’t constrained by what happened the first time around.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I didn’t really beat him up though. I just made him stop.”
“Not what I heard.”
We reached her house and made the turn into the driveway. A Bradford pear sat in the front yard, covered by the white blossoms that marked springtime. Their sweet smell wafted over to us, whispering to our senses.
Lanie bounded up the steps and poked her head inside the door, calling out, “Mom, we’re here. We’re going to play outside for a bit.”
I heard her mom’s muffled assent from inside as Lanie let the storm door fall closed, clanging loudly as it bounced off the frame. She came down the steps in short, quick hops from one step to the next, allowing herself to fall back on her hands and butt as she reached the last step.
“What time is your dad getting home?” she asked, looking up at me.
“Pretty soon, I think.” My dad’s restaurant was only open for breakfast and lunch, so he got home a lot earlier than my mom did. I didn’t remember it being that long of a wait after school.
I stepped up to the porch and turned around, dropping down beside her. As I did, Jimmy Thomas and a friend emerged from the house across the street. They descended the steps and Jimmy vaulted the porch railing, swinging his legs over with ease. As he landed, the other boy threw a soccer ball at him, smacking him in the forehead. Now with Jimmy cursing and the other boy laughing, they crossed into the street. They started juggling the ball between them, bouncing it off their knees, chests and foreheads.
I looked over at Lanie to find her gaze fixed on me. “You beating up Bobby isn’t the only thing I heard today,” she said.
“Oh.” I said, holding back the sigh I wanted to let out. “What else did you hear?”
“I heard you sounded like a grownup. When you talked to Bobby and Aaron, you talked like you were twenty or something.”
“Who said that?” I asked. I knew it had seemed odd to them, but I hadn’t thought that part of it would spread. I guess I had been hoping they would dismiss that part as just being weird.
“Julie Reeves told me.”
“Ernie Hammett told Julie Reeves in Special Ed. She told me at second recess.”
As we sat, a black Camaro turned onto the street. Its paint was like glass, reflecting the leaves from the trees above. A distinctive lightning bolt was painted across the side. The boys stopped passing the ball back and forth and stepped out of its path only to watch it pull over to the curb a few houses down.
“She said you were talking about Bobby’s dad and how what he did didn’t give Bobby a reason to be mean to other people. She said you told Aaron that he picked on him because he felt bad about himself. It did seem pretty smart for a rug rat like you,” she said, giving a nudge to my ribs with her elbow.
“Well, that’s what my mom and dad tell me sometimes. When I talk about someone being mean at school, that’s what they say.”
“Yeah, that’s what my mom says too. But it isn’t just that. You seem different today. I don’t know how, but different.”
Before I could respond, my dad appeared from behind the hedgerow that separated Lanie’s yard from her neighbor’s. Seeing him walk up to the end of Lanie’s driveway was like seeing a ghost. I hadn’t even seen a picture of him for years, but he was just like I remembered him. Most everything I saw today fought a strange battle between the real and the unreal, but this took it to another level. He had been dead for twenty-five years and yet there he was, standing at the foot of the driveway waiting for me to walk over to him. Seeing him like this made me want to believe that we could walk off into the sunset, live happily ever after, or do whatever it was people did in storybook endings.
Except I knew that wasn’t the ending that was planned. Everything was in place for him to be taken away from me all over again. Intervening with Aaron had planted a seed that said things could be different, but seeing my father challenged the idea. I felt the conflict between seeing him and remembering life without him. In that moment, I felt both the enormity of my loss and the joy of seeing him again. But in that moment, joy won out.
I launched myself off the step and ran as fast as I could to the end of the driveway. I caught him off guard, jumping up and grabbing his neck. I was a smiling, incoherent mess and I was trying as hard as I could to hold back the tears that wanted to come. He reached around my middle, helping to support the weight and returning the hug.
“Wow, bud. I’m happy to see you, too,” he said as he set me back down on the concrete. “You act like I haven’t been home for a month.”
Try years, decades even. I couldn’t say that, so I kept it simple. “I just missed you today.”
“Well, I missed you too. Ready to go home?”
“Yeah, sure.” I turned toward Lanie and waved. “Bye, Lanie. See you tomorrow.”
“See you,” she said. She had stood up and was resting her hands on her hips. She turned, pulled open the screen door, and disappeared inside as it closed behind her.