By Salvatore Difalco
He saw himself tented, with a little plastic window. Inside there, looking out. He saw the talking globe of the world and talked back to it under his breath. The skeleton hanging by the blackboard knew him, shook slightly when he stared at it. And the hamster Rafael knew him. He fed Rafael his pellets first thing. Then the little guy pooped or slept. It was his life. One day he would free him. One day. Then inside the tent and silence.
When the other students stomped into the classroom Bradley was already there. They looked at him and nudged each other. One of them said good morning but he said nothing. He was always that way. They could only bear so much. Daniel wanted to hang him–he crayoned pictures. Jesse said she would burn down his house. Ryan threatened to break his legs. He could do it. He was a giant. He wore red shirts to school because Jesse hated red. She once took a yardstick and jabbed it in Ryan’s stomach. He collapsed on the floor screaming in pain but no one moved a muscle to help him. Jesse struck Bradley between the eyes one time and it felt like walking into a wall in the dark. He saw sparks. Jesse, the only girl in the Section 20 class, hated everyone. Hatred oozed from her pores. She liked to pull things apart, lay them bare, make them as ugly, as hateful, as she could.
Winter was Bradley’s favourite season. He could sleep through most of it. He had wanted to sleep that morning but his father wouldn’t let him. He pulled him out of bed by his feet, threw him in the frozen red pick-up truck. When he dozed off in the truck his father cuffed him. Now he tried to sleep in the tent but the other students wouldn’t let him.
“Hey, fuckhead, no manners?”
“He was born on a raft.”
This was the song he heard every day and he didn’t mind it. He’d been called worse things. They wanted him to come out of the tent and show his face but he wouldn’t do it. They would get too close to him. Jesse might touch him. He didn’t want her touching him. She hurt. He would stay put for now. Nothing they could say or do would get him out of there. They continued taunting him for a time. Then their voices fell silent.
It was nice, briefly. A soft green inside the tent. He curled up tight, tried thinking of nothing. That was hard but he could do it now. Think of nothing. Then Daniel started braying like a donkey. He had silky blonde hair and flat blue eyes and often touched himself under the desk, turning pink, drooling ribbons. Mr. Chiasson let Daniel do his thing most of the time but when he humped the desk or yanked his bob out of his trunks, he took him to another room to sit and write in a green notebook with a Happy Face sticker on it. This time Mr. Chiasson hastily pulled Daniel out of class by the ear. Bradley wondered what Daniel wrote in that notebook. He was surprised he could write at all. Daniel’s favourite thing was staring off into space. He saw something there. Sometimes he laughed at it.
Ryan talked too much, in his red tops. They said it was his sickness. He took powerful drugs for it. He scared Bradley sometimes, just from talking. That he was a giant didn’t seem to matter as much as the talking sickness. “My cousin . . .” and he always started with the cousin and some mischief they’d been up to. Then he talked about his life and his world. He talked about the cars he would buy when he was old enough to drive, and he talked about food, like what he had eaten for breakfast or what he had eaten for dinner the evening before, or what he would like to eat when he got home, or what he and his cousin had eaten at some wedding months ago. He talked about things he had done with girls and things he wanted to do, and he talked about songs. He knew the words to many of them. His voice came out too high or too low, never right. Ryan’s mother plugged his ears with cotton against infections and the noise factor. The noise factor made Ryan unfriendly unless he was making it. When it got too loud in the classroom his neck did this thing, then his head snapped to the left, and his mouth and eyes gaped. Daniel imitated it better than Jesse. He had the head part down.
Jesse neared Bradley. Her mouth fell open. Blackheads peppered her nose. She had eaten onions for breakfast. She said she’d cut off his lips if he didn’t speak to her but he didn’t believe she would do that. He tried to imagine what no lips would be like. One time she offered him a tuna sandwich. He had no lunch that day but he liked to be hungry. It made him strong. He liked to eat too. After he ate the sandwich she told him she had put a booger in it.
The teacher never talked to him; so they never talked. Bradley never complained. Mr. Chiasson gave him math quizzes and geometry exercises and books to read. Bradley enjoyed the math, it was easy, and he liked to spin out circles with the compass. But he never read the books. They were words. Pure words. He had to see the story. He couldn’t read.
“Bradley,” Jesse said. “Show us your weenie. Do you have one? He has no weenie, fellas. He’s neutered. Bradley the kitty cat. Let’s call him Bradley the kitty cat.” She suddenly threw up her arms. “No! Nobody call him that! Ryan, are you eyeing me? If you’re eyeing me I’ll kill you and your mother.”
“Don’t talk about my mother. What did she do to you? You’re a pig, Jesse.”
Bradley stayed in his tent until lunch time. Today he had one. His mother had gotten up that morning. She made him two salami sandwiches. His father ate one in the truck. Bradley ate his slowly in the cafeteria. The teacher made him eat in there with the others. He just made him. Whenever he refused Mr. Chiasson called in this heavy guy Sam who would corner him and put him in a basket. That’s what they called what he did. Putting someone in a basket. It hurt. But it felt okay too. Bradley cried after the basket but only to get Mr. Chiasson going. Crying made him hop around like a kangaroo.
“Hey, Bradley,” Jesse poked. She wore a creamy brown sweater and pants low on her hips, her navel exposed. “When you went to bed last night did you say your prayers?”
He never prayed. He knew no church. The only one he’d ever visited made people kneel down. His father asked what good this was. Jesse reached over and slapped Daniel in the face. Daniel screeched like the parakeets at Pet Village, where they bought Rafael. Bradley glanced at the cage, wondering what the hamster thought of all this. Daniel continued screeching. Ryan covered his ears, shut his eyes and started shouting obscenities. Jesse picked up a basketball on the floor and started bouncing. She bounced like she could do something. When she crossed the ball over from her right hand to her left, it struck the chess table and scattered the men. Everyone fell silent.
Mr. Chiasson returned. First he scolded Jesse, made her pick up the chess men. Then he talked about the news. He said people were dying everywhere, there was war and famine, and other bad things, but that they should be happy, they were children. His teeth hurt you when he smiled. He always wore a dark green corduroy jacket with chalk on the back. It smelled like a house. He changed slacks and shoes but always wore the jacket. Jesse raised her ugly hand.
“What is it now?”
“I have to poop.”
The boys howled.
“That’s inappropriate, Jesse.”
“Actually, it’s a female problem.”
Mr. Chiasson rolled his eyes and waved her out. Jesse exited holding herself. Daniel brayed and rocked back and forth in his seat. Mr. Chiasson shouted at him to stop. When he wouldn’t Mr. Chiasson seized his shoulder and shook it. Then he moved over to Ryan. Ryan’s snoring head lay on his desk. Mr. Chiasson never tried to wake him when he fell asleep. One day a supply teacher covering for Mr. Chiasson made the mistake of waking him up and he bashed a bowling trophy over her head. They had to get a new trophy, and a new supply teacher. The trophy went to the best bowler at the end of the year. Bradley bowled five pin. Ten pin balls weighed a ton. But he could handle the five pin balls. Ryan busted his arm bowling ten pin one time. He threw the ball funny and everyone heard a snapping sound. Ryan went green and passed out. They removed his bowling shoes and called an ambulance. Jesse bowled like a killer. Daniel like a chimpanzee. This was every Wednesday afternoon. Today was Wednesday. Bradley came out of the tent for bowling.
So that guy Sam drove them in a minivan to a place called Welland Lanes. Old people came on Wednesdays too and they were mean bowlers. They didn’t like too much noise though, and shot dirty looks at the class. Mr. Chiasson tried to quiet the youth, but he had to make noise to do it. People at the grill stopped eating their French fries and watched Ryan when his turn came up. He swung the ball to his chest and lurched forward. His way seemed to hurt everyone. Jesse mocked him until he was twitching. Mr. Chiasson pulled her arm and said something in her ear that made her stop. Bradley wondered what that could have been. Daniel bowled nice in his little black cap and orange jacket. He brayed when he knocked down pins. Fat people bowled too, balloon men and women with small sweet feet. They tiptoed up with the ball and let it flow. Bradley learned from them.
“Watch my form now, boys. Observe the follow through.” When Mr. Chiasson hit a strike he punched the air and sucked in his lips. Bradley tiptoed up and let the ball flow. His strike came quietly. Bowling was good. He hit another strike, then another one. Mr. Chiasson had to walk Jesse out when she started swearing at a senior in a red pullover. Then Bradley got cold. His shots shook the lane. What happened? He lost his eye. When you lose your eye the ball goes off, runs away from the point. You had to see the point. Ryan slammed a ball down the lane and it guttered. His face turned red. He swung his long arms around and caught a short woman’s shoulder. She spun like a bulldog chasing its tail. The old woman beside her resembled a sphinx. She blew dust at Ryan. Mr. Chiasson hurried in from the cold, steaming and pale. Bradley suddenly felt like cement. He sat down. Wearing a weasel face, Daniel walked up to a girl beside a broken man in a wheelchair. The girl jumped. Her screams pierced every eardrum in the place. Then she caught a fistful of Daniel’s pretty hair and wrenched.
Mr. Chiasson rapped Ryan in the skull with his knuckles but this went wrong. Ryan kicked him in the groin and he dropped to all fours. All the problems then. People running, left, right. The porky owner, wearing a black cowboy hat, swung out from behind the cash register and legged his way to the action, pulling up his silver-buckled belt. He demanded to know what was going on. By now Mr. Chiasson had recovered his colour but pain still creased his face. Ryan stood staring at the teacher’s feet.
“What the heck is wrong with you, Ryan?”
“I don’t know.”
“What does that mean, Ryan? Tell me what I don’t know means.”
Ryan’s head twitched. “I don=t know, Mr. C.”
“Well,” said the owner, a Mr. Stram, “I can call the po-lice, if you need em.”
Mr. Chiasson’s mouth opened but by now Bradley had gone to the tent again. He left the window alone. He wanted to see nothing. Sounds still came but the tent muffled them and Bradley could hear his own heart beating. Life is nice, someone told him once, in a dark room. He wanted it to stop, back then. He said so. But he frightened himself and let it go on until he liked it. In the tent blue light showed through the fabric; he liked it blue.
Coming back, Sam had to stop the minivan on one of the icy canal bridges. Jesse had opened the door and said she wanted to jump into the frigid water. She said she wanted to die. Sam wouldn’t tolerate her foolishness. He told her to die some other time. Daniel burst out laughing. Jesse walloped him in the crown. He whimpered but didn’t start screeching. Sam said if she hit Daniel again he’d drive her straight to the cops and have her charged with assault. Sam spoke low and calm. Jesse listened.
The trip back to school continued. The landscape was snow. Honking Canada geese flew overhead in a giant V. They were early, or late. It made Bradley sad to think of them up there in the cold air. Did they know what they were doing? Jesse and Ryan had words. Jesse promised to burn down his house. Ryan swore his cousins would revenge it. Daniel tried to remove his thing from his pants before he got out of the van. His cheeks burned and drool dripped down his chin. He had seen Tammy the receptionist from afar. She looked like a blonde horse. She trotted up to her white car and waited for the boys to enter the building before she lit her cigarette. Mr. Chiasson dragged Daniel into the school by the arm. Jesse followed them, quietly clapping. Ryan stumbled and fell over. Bradley tried not to laugh. Sam helped Ryan to his feet and said some words to him about being more mature, but judging from Ryan’s expression he understood nothing.
Back in the classroom Bradley went tent again, but Mr. Chiasson came to the window and peered in. “Time, young man. Time.” His face melted away. It was quiet for a moment. Then he could hear Ryan sobbing. Mr. Chiasson softly spoke to him. Jesse was quiet. Where was she? He peeked out the window and saw her standing a few feet away, expressionless. She stroked her finger across her throat and nodded. Bradley ducked down and curled up.
Jesse left before too long, with the others. Bradley came out of the tent. He approached the cage. The skeleton watched. The globe was quiet. Rafael’s cheek pouches trembled. He was wise, Rafael. He understood. Bradley opened the cage. The rodent froze. Bradley had stroked the fur once before but not since then. He stroked gently now. Rafael tried so hard not to move. Bradley lifted him out of the cage. He held him to his chest and rocked from side to side. A loud clang behind him caused him to drop the hamster.
It was Bradley’s father, standing there in greasy blue jeans and a dark green jacket short on the sleeves. He didn’t look too pleased.
Bradley was afraid to look down to see what had happened to Rafael. Was he hurt? Did he escape? His father glared at him with his hateful black eyes. Bradley wanted to say something, anything, but his mouth wouldn’t open.
“What the fuck was that?” the father asked.
Bradley took a deep breath. “Rafael.”
“Don’t sass me, boy.”
“He’s a hamster.”
“You’ve gotta be kidding me? Is that what I pay my taxes for?” He spat on the floor and pushed Bradley’s shoulder. “Go on, get your ass moving.”
“But I should . . .”
“You should what? Move it, you little prick.”
The father said things all the way to the house. He said he was sick and tired of this nonsense, that Bradley had to come to a reckoning. That’s right. A reckoning. He kept saying that word. It hit you. They drove past the house. They continued down to the park and got out of the truck. They walked to the monkey bars. He made Bradley get up there and hang. He told him if he let go he’d get no supper. Bradley lasted ten seconds. The father kicked the snow.
Salvatore Difalco lives and works in Niagara Falls. He recently completed a collection of a short stories set in the Falls.