The Year Bobby Kennedy Was Shot
Jason chooses a desk four seats back in the first row by the window, a good choice, he decides, because whoever is a tough guy in this first period English class will sit behind him in the last two rows, and the boys who are afraid and the girls who aren’t sluts will sit in front of him. Everything is important the first day in a new school, especially in ninth grade, when no one else in the building is younger than you are.
As soon as he sits down, Jason notices that this teacher acts like it’s his first day, too, writing his name on the board and English 9C as if everybody doesn’t already know. And he sees there are fewer black students than at his old school, four of them in this class of thirty, all of them girls who sit in the row along the opposite wall. The boys who sit in the back, five of them across the back row, are white, and all of them wear dark T-shirts and blue jeans. Everybody else except one girl acts like they pick a seat by accident, dropping into chairs and talking to each other like they’re friends. Only the last girl to sit down looks like she wants to sit somewhere else, but there’s no other desk except the fourth seat in the second row, right beside the largest of the black girls. “Hunh,” the girl says as she sits, making it sound like she’s been punched in the stomach.
Mr. Fletcher looks up from a piece of paper Jason knows has their thirty names in alphabetical order. When he hears him say, “Robert Anders,” in a soft voice, Jason guesses this class will be one of those where everybody talks and doesn’t pay attention. Mr. Fletcher, by the time he gets to “Jason Mroz,” hasn’t spoken any louder; when he says, “Phyllis Zachs,” the girl in the second row says, “Yeah,” and the boys in back laugh.
“Okay, then,” Mr. Fletcher says, beginning to pass out lined yellow paper. “I want everyone to write two hundred words for me today.” When the groans stop, he smiles. “That means you can fit your essay on one side of this paper. Think of this as you introducing yourself to me. What do you want me to know about you that makes you unique?”
When Jason walks into English class the next day he sees that Mr. Fletcher has posted essays on all of his five bulletin boards. Ten of them are on the one labeled 9C, but the bulletin boards are along the wall where the black girls sit, so he can’t tell if one of the ten is his.
“We’ll be writing three essays during each marking period,” Mr. Fletcher says. “That means everyone will be posted once each quarter. Please read them when you get a chance.”
After class, Jason walks to the bulletin board and sees that one of the essays is his. The next one says Phyllis Zachs, and as soon as he glances at it, he has to finish:
Last year something really awful happened to me on a school bus. It was a foggy morning, and I was sitting in the front seat like I always did, minding my own business. A girl named Cindy was sitting next to me and she wouldn’t shut up talking about her geography project, some kind of map she’d made out of gunk so everybody could see where the mountains and valleys and rivers and such are in the United States. Shut up, I kept thinking, but she didn’t. I looked at the fog. It was pretty. And then there was a big bump and the bus was off the road and going down a hill and it tipped over and everything was crazy. Everybody was screaming but me and Cindy. I was holding my head where it slammed into the window really hard, and Cindy was just laying there with her face all cut and bleeding all over. She looked like somebody who was going to be ugly now with stitches on her face but it didn’t matter because she was dead because her neck was broken. You could tell because she looked all crooked and her eyes were funny. I have nightmares now. I don’t ride the school bus. I remember the last thing Cindy said before we crashed. “I’m bringing my map to school tomorrow. It’s still drying.” And I remember all that blood. It looked like rivers for her stupid map.
“That’s so terrible,” Mr. Fletcher has written at the end. “What a thing to have happen to you.” Phyllis, Jason notices, spells badly, which always gets you points off, but Mr. Fletcher has just explained that he doesn’t give grades during the first half of each marking period. “I don’t want to be judgmental,” he said. “I don’t want to discourage anyone.”
Jason has to rush to his next class, but he’s glad no one else has stopped to read the essays. His is about getting new contact lenses, how much they hurt the first time the optometrist had put them in. “That sounds so painful,” Mr. Fletcher has written on his paper. “But now you can see so much better.” Jason hopes nobody ever stops to read his paper. If it was written by another boy, he’d think, what a pussy. His mother has said, “They cost a fortune, bright boy. That’s the last thing I buy for you for a year,” but Jason hasn’t put that in the essay.
When he’s leaving school to walk home, stopping at his locker, he sees Phyllis closing hers in the next bank of lockers. She squints at him as she approaches, and he sees that her glasses are thick and make her eyes look funny, but other than that she looks pretty. When she slows down as if she might talk to him, he says, “Yours was the best essay on the bulletin board.”
“No, it wasn’t,” she says. “I get Ds in English.”
“Maybe you won’t from Mr. Fletcher.”
“Yes, I will,” Phyllis says. “Schools are all the same, except some are worse when they have niggers in them.”
Jason looks around to see if anyone can hear her, and she frowns. “You worried about somebody hearing?” Phyllis says. “I’m not the only one says nigger. Listen to Miss Haseltine. She says the same thing only she says ‘chocolate drops.’ That’s what she told Mr. Fletcher: ‘You have to watch out for those chocolate drops.’” Phyllis looks triumphant.
“New kids should stick together,” Phyllis says. “We’re too old to make new friends.”
“I hope not.”
“What makes you hope?”
“I don’t know. I moved once before, in fourth grade, and I made some friends.”
“You must have moved to Disneyland,” Phyllis says. “I moved last year, and it was just like it is here.”
Mr. Fletcher turns out to be one of those teachers who wants everybody to like him. “You’re doing fine,” he says to everybody who gets stuck on an answer. “Take your time and think what you want to say.”
Jason is sure this won’t work on the boys in the back of the room and some of the girls who sit right behind him. It’s still September, and he can hear them whispering to each other, “You’re doing good, baby. Take your time.”
When Jason shakes his head instead of even trying to answer a question he doesn’t know, Mr. Fletcher stops him after class to say, “I want you to know I understand how hard it is to be the new boy when you’re fourteen.”
“Okay,” he says.
The girls from the back of the room are walking by them. Jason hopes they’re busy talking about their boyfriends and what they do with them; he can imagine how they would whisper things in his ear if they decide he’s somebody to laugh at.
His mother opens the door to his room to tell him she has a new boyfriend, and he is staying overnight now and Jason should know.
“Okay,” Jason says.
“Roy doesn’t want to scare you or anything if you run into each other in the morning.”
“He’s my friend,” she says. “He belongs here too.”
She stands in the doorway and looks at how Jason’s books are shelved alphabetically in his bookcase, how each of his school subjects has a folder filed by the period in the day. She knows that his records, the 45s he buys, two per month, are arranged in chronological order. “He’ll be surprised if he ever comes in here,” she says. She picks up his alarm clock and puts it down. “You keep yourself a secret in here, you know.” When she leaves, Jason moves the clock to where it belongs.
Five boys in Jason’s class, the ones in the back of the room, complain to the principal when Mr. Fletcher, who’s walked into the flag twenty times in two weeks, says, “That’s enough of this,” and lifts the flag from its holder and tosses it into the closet. By the end of the day Mr. Fletcher is a Communist and a traitor according to hallway rumors, and the next morning he apologizes to Jason’s class and puts it back up. “I’ll just be more careful,” he says.
“That’s dumb,” Phyllis blurts. “We don’t even say the Pledge at this school, so why have a flag up there to get in the way like that?”
“Shut up,” one of the boys in the back says. “You sound like you’re in the Vietcong.”
“Yeah,” the boy beside him says. “We’re all going to Vietnam as soon as we get out of this stupid school.”
Phyllis grunts the same hunh noise she made the first day of school. “You’re going to get killed there because you’re stupid,” she says. Jason thinks she’s right, but he’s not going to argue with those boys. Mr. Fletcher asks everyone to be civil. “Keep talking,” he says, “but raise your hand,” but nobody says anything else.
Because Jason walks to school and doesn’t have to go to a bus line, he starts to read in the library. The teachers have to stay for half an hour after the last bell, so the librarian lets him sit at a table until she turns off the lights and leaves. By the time he gets to his locker, no one else is ever around. Near the end of September, he notices that the locker next to his, the last one in the row, is ajar. It’s never had a lock, the only one like it on his row, and now, after he looks down the empty hall, he nudges the space wider and looks inside.
A pile of shoes is stacked up in the bottom. Jason counts six pairs, two brown, two black, one burgundy, and one red. He closes the locker carefully, trying to leave exactly the same small space that was there before he touched it.
A week later, even though the locker is shut, he opens it again. Now there are eight pairs, another brown and a blue pair added to the pile. When he changes for gym class the next day, he puts his shoes inside his shirt. He’s never heard anybody in his gym class complain about his shoes being stolen, but the shoe thief, who has to be in a hurry, would think he was a boy who wore tennis shoes all day and move to the next locker to rob.
That afternoon, Jason wants to open the locker next to his and count the shoes to see if another pair has been added today. For a moment he holds his jacket and stares at it as if it might be remembered when somebody recalls seeing a boy looking in a locker that isn’t his. “Hey,” he hears from so close he flinches.
Phyllis laughs when he swings around so fast she knows she’s scared him. “You forget how to put on a coat?” she says.
Jason shakes his head and slams his locker shut, clicking the lock and spinning it so nobody will know what the last number of his three-number code is. He wants to ask her where she goes after school if she doesn’t leave because he’s never seen her in the library.
“I saw Bobby Kennedy get shot,” Phyllis says. “His brains were everywhere. My mother worked in that hotel where he got killed.”
“Wow,” Jason says, but he thinks she might have it wrong, that it was President Kennedy’s brains you could see. Jason tries to decide whether to ask her and risk sounding like he doesn’t believe her, when she says, “That’s why we moved here, because my mother didn’t want me to be in Los Angeles anymore.”
“I thought you moved here from West Virginia?”
She stares at him through her thick glasses, her eyes looking as big as the plastic circle ones on his little brother’s teddy bear Cubby. “Yeah,” she says. “We moved there first and then to here. West Virginia was worse than Los Angeles. Even the white people were stupid.”
The next morning, when Jason looks up from his notebook in class, he watches Phyllis scan the room as if she’s looking to see who’s whispering about her or who’s looking at her. Nobody, he decides, and he opens his literature book and stares at it like it’s a palm he’s examining, ready to tell a fortune. He listens to Mr. Fletcher because he knows once a class he’ll be called on. He hopes it will be early so he can forget about listening. What Mr. Fletcher says is always something he already knows because he’s read the assignments.
“Why do the Martians disguise themselves as the space explorers’ families?” Mr. Fletcher asks, and Jason says, “Because the humans were far from home and lonely.” “Good,” Mr. Fletcher says. “And?”
Jason wants to be quiet, but the way Mr. Fletcher is leaning toward him, one hand cupped and pulling toward his tie in small waves, makes him go on. “The spacemen should have known it was all fake,” he says. “Nobody has families like that. If the Martians were really their families, something would go wrong.”
“Interesting,” Mr. Fletcher says like he does when he wants a different answer. The next two boys he calls on haven’t read the story. Mr. Fletcher sighs and tries a new question on a girl named Kristen who sits in front of Phyllis and always wears her cheerleader uniform to class on Fridays.
Phyllis stops Jason after class. “That sounds like a stupid story,” she says. “I’m glad I didn’t read it.”
Jason tells her he likes it, that he’s found the whole book of The Martian Chronicles and read it. Phyllis shakes her head. “You’re crazy,” she says, and Jason thinks she’s right, not because he reads, but because he already thinks he’s going insane. He wants to tell somebody this, but he’s afraid to. He thinks this is a sign his fear is real. If he brags about it, like the boys who sit behind him brag about sex, it would all be lies.
He knows he’s not like the patients in the movies he watches on television who think they are other people. “That’s stupid,” he says to himself. I know who I am. Napoleon, Lincoln, Jesus—the patients in the stories always pick somebody a little kid would recognize.
In those movies, the interesting crazy people are always quiet. They sit by themselves. They’re afraid to be touched. Jason always worries that they will kill themselves before the movie ends. He wonders how those people he likes could do that. Hurt themselves. And more.
Right now what he is most afraid of is being hurt or getting a disease that never goes away. He washes his hands and cleans his room; he reties his shoes; he says he’s sick on days they do gymnastics because he’s convinced he’ll break his neck. He wants to tell Phyllis about being afraid because he thinks she’s like that, too, only worse. She’s like I’ll be if I don’t watch out, he thinks. He knows what happens to crazy people; they get shock therapy and put in straightjackets. They sit in rooms by themselves and people watch them through tiny windows.
“I was happy to hear you talk the other day,” Mr. Fletcher is saying to Jason because it’s his midterm conference. For a week, during the half hour all the teachers stay, Mr. Fletcher talks to each of his students. He does this, he explains, because after four and a half weeks, he has to start grading. “You’re very quiet is all,” Mr. Fletcher says. “That’s not a bad thing, and anyway, you’ll get over it some day. There’s another world besides this one.”
Jason nods like he thinks he’s expected to, but he wants to get out of there before he starts to cry because Mr. Fletcher sounds exactly like a minister promising heaven in return for a miserable life.
When a few seconds go by with no one talking, Mr. Fletcher starts to arrange his books like they need to be in a certain order before he can leave the room, but instead of turning and leaving, Jason stands there like he needs to hear a bell.
“I see you’ve made friends with Phyllis,” Mr. Fletcher says then, standing up as he speaks, and Jason shrugs because a nod seems like a lie. He doesn’t think Phyllis likes him, but she doesn’t hate him like she does everybody else. “Well, then,” Mr. Fletcher says, “I guess you’re going to wait a bit longer to talk to me.”
“Yeah,” Jason says, and Mr. Fletcher smiles. One of the black girls is standing in the doorway.
“Yeah,” Mr. Fletcher says. “See you later, then,” and this time Jason remembers to leave. When he walks down the hall to the library, all the teachers he sees in their rooms are just sitting there reading a newspaper or a magazine.
“Roy says he’s never heard of a boy who cleans his room without being told,” his mother says. She’s moving his radio and his clock, switching their positions. She drops onto his bed and pulls the pillow loose from under the tightly tucked spread. “‘Crazy people wash up like that boy of yours,’ Roy says. ‘He fixing to go to the nuthouse?’”
When she stands up, Jason goes to the bed and replaces the pillow, tugs the spread tight and wrinkle free. “I had to tell him about you,” his mother says. “He’s thinking of moving in, and I didn’t want you to scare him off.” She switches the clock and radio back to where they started. “When you two meet I want you to set your mind to being polite.”
“Roy is a package of his own,” she says. “He has his own problems. You’ll see right off what they are, so I need you to promise to be good.”
“Okay,” Jason says again, and then he walks down the hall and outside where the first thing he does, when she doesn’t follow, is pull weeds from the flower bed, the one thing around their house that isn’t a mess. It only takes two minutes because everything, even the weeds, has shut down for the winter.
Two weeks after he first found the shoes, there are eleven pairs in the locker. All of them, Jason finally notices, look like shoes a girl would wear. The next day he leaves his loafers sitting out during gym. He worries while they run laps and play volleyball; he ties his shoes three times because he feels like he’s going to trip. When he opens his locker, his shoes are there. There’s proof, he thinks, that the thief only steals from girls.
Later, when he stands at his locker he shifts his eyes to look to see who might be watching before he opens the one next to his to count. He never thinks it will be empty, but now he decides to only look on Tuesday and Friday, always waiting ten seconds after he gets to his locker, so anyone who is checking will show themselves. When nobody ever appears, he thinks he could empty that locker and carry away the shoes without anyone seeing him. He thinks he could steal shoes from the girl’s locker room and not get caught, but then he lists five reasons why he would get caught, including a girl coming back in to go to the bathroom and the real thief showing up.
The next time his essay is on the bulletin board it’s about having a birthday so close to Christmas it’s like not having one. Phyllis writes about Bobby Kennedy being shot. “My mother was in the hotel kitchen washing dishes,” Jason reads, “and I was with her because she was working overtime for Kennedy’s party.” When nobody talks about it, he thinks Phyllis and Mr. Fletcher are the only other people who read the essays. The rest are about playing basketball or being in the band or babysitting or making a pizza. All of them have as many spelling errors as Phyllis’s.
Jason’s last paragraph says:
“That was some Christmas to forget,” my mother always says on December 30th. “I was miserable. Your dad always said you could have waited another two days. Then I could have gotten my picture in the paper and all that free stuff you get for having the first baby of the year.”
Right beside the very last word Mr. Fletcher has penciled in, “How sad.” During class Mr. Fletcher passes back tiny pieces of paper with their grades printed on them. Jason’s says A-.
When he walks out of class, Phyllis says her birthday is in December, too. “Fifteen has to be better than fourteen,” she says.
When he doesn’t answer right away, she squints at him. “You’re going to be fourteen, aren’t you?” she says. “You’re still thirteen.”
The black girls, who are trying to get by them, look at him funny, and Jason thinks it’s good that they’re the only ones that seem like they heard, because here it is the end of October and he suddenly knows he’s the only person in ninth grade who is still thirteen years old.
The next day all four black girls turn around to look at him and form a word with their mouths. “Jason,” he thinks they’re saying, but when they shape the word again, he knows it’s not his name. The girl behind him leans forward and breathes on his neck. “Junior,” she whispers in his ear. He feels his face go red. What surprises him is the black girls have told the girl behind him. When she leans forward again, she says, “Junior High,” loud enough for the back row of boys and the black girls to laugh.
Mr. Fletcher glances back from where he is writing on the blackboard, but he keeps writing when nobody says “Junior” again. Jason gets it. He’s going to be called “Junior” now, short for junior high, which is where he belongs if he’s only thirteen.
After class Phyllis glares at the black girls when they walk by. Jason hears “Junior” from three different voices as he walks up the hall with Phyllis, who tells him he must have skipped a grade. “Sure you did,” she says, when he denies it. “You just don’t want anybody to know you’re too smart.”
“No. It’s because I lived in a state where you could start kindergarten if your fifth birthday came before the end of the year.”
“You’re the youngest whether you skipped or didn’t skip, so you ought to say you did. If people are going to laugh at you, you might as well be special for it.” She squints at him. “I got a C- on my paper. I bet you got an A.”
Jason begins to see Roy’s dirty clothes in the bathroom. A buckskin jacket hangs over a kitchen chair for two days. His mother sits in that chair when she eats dinner with Jason. “Roy had himself the troubles when he was in high school,” she says the second night that jacket hangs there, “but he’s over them now.”
Jason hasn’t seen any beer bottles in the trash, so he thinks maybe that was Roy’s problem. “Good,” he says.
His mother runs her hand down one arm of the jacket and settles back against the chair. “I love this coat,” she says. “You know, Jason, some men are better for showing their sorrows.”
The following Monday Phyllis stomps into class like she’s just learned she has a nickname she hates. “I want my seat moved,” she says before Mr. Fletcher gets started.
“Why?” Mr. Fletcher says.
“Because I’m tired of sitting beside this nigger.”
Maybe she’s just so angry she doesn’t remember there are three more black girls in the room, Jason thinks. Nobody says nigger here, not like West Virginia or wherever she lived before. Instead, the next phrase she shouts is “nigger bastard,” which brings Marcella Grant, who has the shoulders of a man, out of her seat. She closes her fists and shifts her weight through her knees and hips and shoulders, driving her right fist and then her left into Phyllis’s face. The other black girls cheer.
“Hold it,” Mr. Fletcher says, sounding so thin and uncertain that Marcella doesn’t even slow down, slamming Phyllis again. A boy in the back row says, “Punch her lights out.” Another one says, “Pound that Commie.” And then Phyllis shows she is made of stone because she starts to scratch and claw, sprawling Marcella underneath her and pulling them both down between the desk rows while they say white trash, nigger, piece of white shit, nigger bastard and Mr. Fletcher is tiptoeing up to them like he’s deciding if he’ll show favorites by grabbing one or the other first.
He pulls Phyllis off by both arms at once, and she kicks the air before he sets her down at her desk. “Settle down for a minute,” he says like he’s the world’s greatest optimist, and when Marcella sits in her chair, he says, “There, see?” and turns his back to speak to the rest of the class. “Okay,” he says, but the two of them are at each other’s throats again, tumbling onto the floor and nearly rolling up the backs of Mr. Fletcher’s legs like linemen taking out the ligaments of a quarterback’s knees.
Jason doesn’t find out what happens after the vice-principal comes to escort both of them away. Boys who fight are always suspended; girls who fight get secret punishments like cleaning desks after school or writing essays about how fighting never solves anything. Marcella comes back to class the next day. “Where’s your girlfriend, Junior?” she says to Jason, but all he knows is Phyllis has stayed home as if she’s decided to punish herself.
The day Phyllis comes back after missing a week, Mr. Fletcher grabs a girl right in the middle of class. She sits two rows in front of Jason, who watches Mr. Fletcher read questions for a quiz. After two students interrupt the test by going to the desk to sharpen their pencils, the girl breaks off the point of her pencil right in front of Mr. Fletcher and steps up to stick it in the sharpener. His hand is a frog’s tongue. He grips her wrist and pulls sideways, snapping the inserted pencil in half. Her eyes widen but she doesn’t say anything. “Sit,” Mr. Fletcher hisses, and she does, staring at the white prints which circle her wrist while Mr. Fletcher reads the last three questions, none of which she can answer without a pencil.
Phyllis shows up at his locker after he leaves the library. She stands by the one filled with shoes. “You see how Fletcher snapped?”
“Him and his head-shrinking. Maybe he knows something now he didn’t know yesterday.” She leans against the locker. “Nixon won that election,” she says. “He had Bobby Kennedy killed so he could be President.”
“You don’t know that,” Jason says.
Phyllis smiles. “You know, there’s a story that’s true I haven’t told you.”
She purses her lips into a tight, bloodless line. “I want to tell you now, but you have to say you’ll believe it.”
No way, Jason thinks, but says, “Okay,” again as if he is one of those dolls his little brother has where you pull the string in the back and it says, Let’s play or Night, night or You’re my best friend.
“I’ll tell you anyway. It’s really short.”
“Go ahead then,” Jason says.
“I had a baby last week,” Phyllis says.
Jason knows this is a lie. He was eleven when his brother was born. Nobody has a baby without giving it away by being fat.
“It’s the truth,” she says. “The baby was six weeks old.”
Jason nods. He’s heard of miscarriages.
“See,” she says. “It’s a true story and nobody dies.”
“Yes, they do.”
“It wasn’t anybody. It was a mess of blood. You need a face to be somebody.”
Jason nods like this all makes sense. He tries to guess who the father might be, and right away he thinks it has to be a grown man.
When he comes to class the next morning Jason finds out Phyllis has been suspended for attacking Marcella with a pair of scissors in home economics class the day before.
“That white bitch is sure enough crazy,” Marcella says.
“Did she try to stab you?” one girl says.
“She just pointed it at me and talked her trash. She’s so crazy she probably thought it put the voodoo on me or something.”
Jason listens and wants to tell Marcella about how Phyllis walked right back into school after they sent her home, that he thinks she will come back any time she wants and wait for her if she has a mind to.
It’s a Thursday, but he opens the other locker that afternoon, and there are sixteen pairs of shoes inside. He drops a green pair that belong to his mother onto the pile, and then he takes all seventeen pairs out and puts them in a trash can. The thief will stop now, he thinks, or at least use a different locker. “It’s okay,” he says aloud.
He follows the corridor to where he turns left toward the front door, but suddenly he turns around and walks back to open that locker and check again. He realizes he’s expected it to be full of shoes, that this would be the day he knows he is crazy, but it’s empty.
When he gets home he dusts his room, but doesn’t vacuum because his baby brother is asleep in his crib. Jason looks at his room and knows it’s not as clean as it should be. He pushes the vacuum cleaner into his room and plugs it in, but then he unplugs it and wraps the cord tightly around the vacuum’s two hooks because just standing there it makes the room look messy.
He hears the door to his mother’s room open, and when he looks out, he sees a man come out of his mother’s bedroom wearing only a pair of white briefs. He thinks it is Roy, but then he knows it could be anybody, some other man who doesn’t care if he cleans his room every day. The man goes into the bathroom and doesn’t close the door or turn on the light. Jason doesn’t hear the seat rap against the toilet tank, so he’s certain the man pisses without lifting it.
Jason pulls back from the doorway and listens to hear if there are splatters against the seat, but then his mother calls out, “You piss so loud you’ll wake the baby,” the sound of her words keeping him from knowing for sure.
When the man closes the bedroom door behind him, Jason pushes the vacuum against the wall beside his desk and sits down to read. His brother never sleeps more than an hour. He wishes he could be like Roy wants him to be because cleaning always makes him sad.
The day Phyllis comes back from suspension, she wears a bandage across one cheek. “I was slashed by a gang of niggers who broke into my house,” she announces to Mr. Fletcher. Marcella glares.
“We say ‘black’ now,” Mr. Fletcher says. “We try to be considerate of others.”
“They were black all right,” Phyllis says. “They tried to kill me.”
“Were the police called?” Mr. Fletcher says.
“The police are stupid.”
“Not as stupid as a girl going to lose that overgrown Band-Aid,” Marcella says, and Jason looks at Phyllis, wondering right away whether there is anything under there but her acne.
“We’re going to have another little one in the house,” his mother says that night. “Roy’s the daddy to the one we don’t know yet, so that makes him half a father to you.”
She stands in the hallway outside his door as she talks, the fingers of one hand tapping against it. “He’s moving in this weekend. Roy’s taking up with us full time, so you’ll be seeing him front and center from now on.”
Jason waits until the tapping stops to say, “Okay.”
“His face has had an accident,” she says. “You keep your thoughts about it to yourself, you hear?”
Jason knows Roy is ten years younger than his mother, who is thirty-three. Whatever accident Roy’s face has had is at least five years old.
The next day is picture day, but Jason hasn’t ordered any. “We don’t have money for that,” his mother had said. “If they’re your friends, they’ll give you a picture anyway.”
He sits at his desk and sees only one other boy who hasn’t brought pictures from homeroom. It’s the boy who’s ready for Vietnam, nobody he could be friends with.
Mr. Fletcher lets them trade pictures for ten minutes. “That’s all,” he says, “so do it quickly and quietly.” In a minute there are decks of pictures fanned out on desks for a kind of solitaire, but nobody is trading with Phyllis, who is wearing a different bandage on her face, something so small Jason thinks he should be able to see at least a red mark outside its edges.
No matter what Mr. Fletcher says, everybody is talking out loud, but suddenly Jason hears Phyllis shouting. “I want to trade,” Phyllis yells at Kristen, her hand pressing against the bandage.
“You’re too ugly. I don’t want your picture,” Kristen says. Jason can see one of her photos on the desk of the girl in front of him. She’s wearing her cheerleader uniform even though, Jason remembers, the pictures weren’t taken on a Friday.
Mr. Fletcher looks up, but Phyllis shouts, “I want it,” even louder.
“I don’t want yours. Take it back,” Kristen says.
Mr. Fletcher is standing now, making up his mind. Everybody is watching, so they all see Phyllis take a gun out of her purse. “Give it to me or I’ll shoot you,” she says, and the dilated pupil of the gun barrel fixes on Kristen’s left breast. Phyllis rises over her like a teacher, and she takes all the pictures Kristen has traded for. Mr. Fletcher is fixed on that gun as he moves forward, even as Phyllis puts it back in her purse and takes her seat.
“Please don’t touch your purse again,” he says.
“Hunh,” Phyllis grunts. “It’s nothing. I bring it every day for protection from the niggers.”
“Okay,” Mr. Fletcher says. “Nobody’s threatening you right now,” and then he asks the class, row by row, to leave, and they file out so straight and quiet they could be doing close order drill. When the first three rows, including Kristen, are gone, Phyllis and Jason and Marcella are all in the new front row. “I’m not shooting nobody,” Phyllis says.
“That’s good,” Mr. Fletcher says, sitting in the empty desk in front of her.
“I got my pictures is all.”
“Yes, you did,” he says, and then he takes that purse from the desk, tosses it behind him, and grabs both of her arms, twisting them behind her back and slamming her facedown on her desktop, scattering that stack of pictures she’d taken from Kristen.
Phyllis doesn’t fight back. She doesn’t scream or moan in pain even though Mr. Fletcher leans into her so hard her bandage starts to lift off just as he says, “Everybody go now,” and the rest of the class gets up and leaves without saying anything, even the boys in the back.
Before the next class starts, Mr. Fletcher has the two boys who sit behind Phyllis move up one seat. “She ain’t comin’ back,” Marcella says. “She and her Band-Aid are off to jail.”
“Girls like Phyllis don’t go to jail,” Mr. Fletcher says.
“They ought to,” Marcella says. “For life.”
“She needs to be cared for.”
“She needs a whuppin’.”
Jason opens his notebook. For once, nobody has called out, “Junior,” when he walked in, but now that Phyllis is gone, Jason knows he has the worst story to write about of anybody in the room.
It starts with his mother having another baby even though his father hasn’t lived with them for five years. But that’s not what’s awful, he knows, because his little brother doesn’t seem crazy even though his mother’s old boyfriend Randy had only stuck around for three weeks after the baby was born.
It’s Roy who’s the star of this story because an hour before he showed up with a duffel bag and a suitcase, his mother told Jason the accident his face had was caused by the shotgun he’d stuck in his mouth during his senior year in high school. “He tried to kill himself and shot off part of his face instead,” she said. “If you look at him from his good side, he’s a handsome man.”
Jason nodded, remembering the man in the white briefs pissing on the toilet seat. “He’s been through a lot,” his mother kept on. “He’s older than his years. You can trust a man like that.”
Jason knows that Roy twisted away at the last second, blowing a hole through his cheek. He’s seen Roy now. If you look at his face from the bad side, Jason thinks, you think you’re in hell and start touching yourself to make sure you’re all there.
He checks the locker every day, but the shoes don’t come back. Only he and the thief will ever believe they were in the locker next to his for a month. Because everybody else would tell that story to a friend. Because then that friend would open the locker and see the shoes for himself.
He listens every day until Christmas vacation, but never hears any of the girls talk about losing shoes. The thief only stole from older girls, he decides, ones that he never hears because he’s in ninth grade.
Or it wasn’t a thief at all, he suddenly thinks as he closes his locker for the last time in 1968. Just girls he doesn’t know putting a few old shoes in that locker and then laughing about Junior, the new boy, counting them, those girls beginning to add shoes because it was funny.
They could have played a better joke, Jason thinks. They could have talked about the shoes being stolen so the story reached somebody in his English class. The girl behind him could have asked him if he liked her shoes instead of just saying “Junior” in his ear. Or they could have accused Phyllis, because everybody, including him, would have believed them.