by Xenophon Hendrix
When Mary and I went in, Mom heard us and said, "There they are now. You two come out here, so we can talk to you." She sounded angry.
"We'll be right there," I said, "just as soon as we take off our winter stuff."
Once we walked into the kitchen, I saw that Mrs. Pullik had brought along her husband, Hal. He was a big guy--about six-foot-four-inches, more than 300 pounds--with a jowly face. Everyone present was looking at us. I just stood patiently. Mary, apparently following my lead, stood beside and slightly behind me. Mom eventually said, "Sit down." There were empty chairs on both sides of Mom, so we took them. Dad's chair was on my other side.
"What happened?" Mom asked.
I could actually feel Ursus working at keeping me perfectly calm. "Well, I suppose the most important thing is that Mrs. Pullik assaulted Danny."
"Jesus Christ!" Mrs. Pullik yelled. She pronounced "Christ" as if it were spelled "Cripes." "You're a goddamn liar!"
"My son almost never lies," Mom said.
"He is now."
"Son," said Mr. Pullik, "tell us what really happened." I detested that he called me "son," but I refrained from protest.
I remained silent until Mom said, "Go ahead."
"Mrs. Pullik tried to kick Danny several times. He avoided her, and she eventually slipped and fell in the snow."
"Did he, or did he not, call me a "silly old bitch?" I noticed Dad cover his mouth.
"He did. Right after that, you assaulted him."
"Kicking at him is not assault."
"Did he hit you first?" Dad asked, "or at least try to?"
"He was a disrespectful little smartass. So is your son."
"You can't kick someone for being a smartass, Gertrude," Dad said.
"The law says I can't hit him with my hand, but I can kick him."
"Where did you get that idea?"
"Hal's lawyer." Mr. Pullik was a draftsman who moonlighted as a freelance checker. I supposed he consulted a lawyer for his business.
"Hal, you better get a new lawyer." Dad laughed as he said it.
"You don't think he knows the law?"
"If he told you it's all right to kick someone for being disrespectful, and he's a lawyer, he was either pulling your leg or incompetent."
"When did you go to law school?" Mrs. Pullik asked. Dad ignored her. I waited silently.
"Start from the beginning," Mom told me.
So I did. I told it from the beginning, in nearly full detail, but used circumlocutions for all the words my mother considered bad. The only part I left out was when Danny told Mrs. Pullik to mind her own business. I had barely made his mutter out, so I sincerely doubted that Mrs. Pullik had. I also emphasized that I had heard something that sounded like a snowball hitting a car, but that I hadn't seen anyone throw a snowball or one hit. Mrs. Pullik interrupted me several times as I spoke. Whenever she did, I sat silently until Mom told me to go on.
When I was finished, Mom turned to Mary. "Is that what happened?"
"Danny also said something that made Mrs. Pullik really mad, but I couldn't make out what it was."
"Other than that, did Art tell everything you heard and saw?"
"Uh-huh, Artie told it all."
Mom looked at Mrs. Pullik. "I can see why you might be upset with Danny, but why are you upset with Arthur?"
"His smartass mouth and his goddamn attitude."
"He can be a damn smartass--I know that better than anyone--but where was he a smartass with you?"
"The way he spoke to me and his better-than-you attitude. You just heard him yourself."
"Artie, how did you talk to Mrs. Pullik?"
"Just like I was talking to you now, except a little louder because we were outside."
"What's wrong with that, Gertrude?"
"Can't you hear him? If my kids talked to me like that, I'd smack their mouths."
Mom looked genuinely puzzled. Dad, bless him, decided to extract Mary and me. "There's school tomorrow. You two go to bed."
After I crawled under the covers, and Harvey moved to my feet, Ursus said, That woman is one vile human being.
Oh, yes. Maybe I opened Mom's eyes about her.
Don't count on too much. Despite all her rough talk, your mom tends to look for the good in people.
At least cutting the evil hag down to size some was fun, anyway. I had a good day, old bear. Thanks for all the help.
You're very welcome. Disturbing those who deserve disturbing is indeed fun. He began the relaxation ritual.
Thursday morning, I got up a little before the other kids. Mom was sitting at the kitchen table eating toast and drinking coffee. She looked at me for a moment and then cracked up. "I can't believe you suggested that Mrs. Lukowski call the cops on Gertrude."
School was routine. During lunch with Kirsten--macaroni and cheese--the topic turned to winter sports. "Do you ice skate, Artie?" she asked.
"No. I tried it once. I put on the skates, hobbled out onto the ice, slipped immediately, and landed flat on my back, giving my head a hard smack. Once the pain was under control, I crawled off the ice, put my boots back on, and have flatly refused ever since to try it again."
Ursus, do you ice skate?"
"That's a rather defeatist attitude," said Mrs. Kennedy.
"I suppose, but coming down on my head like that scared me."
"How about skiing?" Kirsten asked.
"I've never tried it."
Cross country, when I needed it to get around. Not my idea of fun.
"Skiing is one of my favorite things," she said.
"I've never had the opportunity."
"How about tobogganing?"
"I've never been on one."
"I've been on Mike and Terry's a couple of times, but it's pretty flat around here. We just took turns pulling each other."
"Are there any winter activities that you do?"
"Snowball fighting." Kirsten grinned at that.
"It looks like," Mrs. Kennedy said, "we're going to have to expand your horizons."
"Does it hurt?"
"Not too much."
"Oh, before I forget," I said, "Mom said that Kirsten is invited to our house for supper tomorrow. She's making pot roast."
"May I go?" Kirsten asked her mother.
"Yes, you may."
"Mom said she'd wait after school while you went home, and then give you a ride."
"She doesn't have to do that," Mrs. Kennedy said.
"It's only a few minutes extra wait."
"I'll give her a call later," Mrs. Kennedy said.
"Would you like to bring one of your instruments and play with our band?" I asked Kirsten.
"That would be fun. Do you want to come over here after school for a while today?"
"I want to, but I need to buy Mary a Christmas present after school, and I'm running out of time."
She looked a little disappointed but said, "That's OK. We'll have a lot of time over winter break to do stuff together."
"Does your family have any big plans?"
"We're going skiing up north over New Year's weekend, but I think that's it. Isn't it, Mom?"
"Other than Christmas, that's all we have scheduled."
"Is your family doing anything?" Kirsten asked.
"So far as anyone has told me, Mom's making a big Christmas dinner for the family. We sometimes have relatives over, but I don't think so this year. We'll also have corned beef and cabbage on New Year's Day."
"Mom does that too! I've told that to some people, and they look at me funny."
"It's an Irish custom, dear. Is your mother Irish, Arthur?"
"She's half Irish and half Scottish."
"I'm three-quarters Irish and one-quarter English," Kirsten said.
"A fine blend," I said. Kirsten smiled.
We held hands on the way back to school, and the rest of the school day passed normally. Once I got home, I took Mom aside and said, "Do you think we can have Mary watch the other kids while you take me to the mall right now?"
"I need to make supper. Can't your father take you after?"
"I don't want to miss two practice sessions in a row. If Mike and Terry start believing that I don't take it seriously, they'll start skipping out." I paused to assume a pleading look. "I know what I want to pick up. It's a Christmas present for Mary."
She looked thoughtful. "All right, but we can't take too long."
"I'll be in and out. I saw it when we went to the mall, but I couldn't get it when Mary was there."
I changed clothes and fetched my money. When I came out of my room, I heard Mary say, "But why can't we all go?"
"Why do you think?" Mom said.
"We're only going to be gone a few minutes, Mary. I want to get your Christmas present," I said.
"You don't have to get me a present."
"I want to get you one."
"Oh, that's kind of you."
I almost didn't do it, but I gave her a one-armed hug. "Why wouldn't I get such a great sister a present?" She hugged me back.
When we arrived at the mall, Mom asked, "Which store are you going to?"
"I want to stop in that gift store--what's its name?"
"Yeah. I want to get a poster frame for Danny's picture. I'm going to park as close to Skip's as I can. While I go there, you go to the bookstore. You're young; you can walk. Deal?"
"That's good." The shops were pretty much at opposite ends of the mall, but as she said, I was young.
Given the season, we didn't get that close. Once we were inside, Mom said, "We'll meet at this bench." She pointed at it.
"All right, I'll see you in a few minutes."
I put it into high gear and weaved my way through the crowd. Christmas songs were playing over the PA system. Some guy was standing in the center of the aisle demonstrating a stunt glider. I spent a couple of seconds watching the thing do loops.
Cool, thought Ursus.
Cool! thought Arthur.
Yeah, but if that's all it does, I imagine it gets boring after a few minutes, I thought.
No doubt. It doesn't look like we could play catch with it, Arthur thought.
I didn't say it was a wise purchase; I said it was cool, Ursus thought.
I continued on to the bookstore. Fortunately, they still had what I wanted. It was a three-volume set, wrapped together in plastic, imaginatively titled Learn to Play Piano! I bought it and started walking back to the designated bench. I was again watching the stunt glider when I nearly walked into Carol Flagler.
"Watch where you're going, nimrod," he said.
He was with his mother. "You're the boy who hurt my son, aren't you?" She must have recognized me from the massacre scene near the Beauchamp residence on Cabin Drive.
"Yeah, I guess that's true," I answered.
"You're also the boy who got him in trouble for throwing snow."
"I suppose that's technically true, too."
"You're a bully, and I want you to stay away from him."
"I do my best, I assure you." I tried to escape.
"Don't turn your back on me when I'm speaking to you."
I wanted to speed up, but I put on the brakes. That was a mistake, thought Ursus.
I turned back around. "I'm sorry," I said. "I'm listening."
"Why have you been picking on Carl?"
Ursus was laughing in my head. Arthur was swearing. "I haven't been picking on him. He's been picking on me."
"Are you trying to tell me that you put him in the emergency room, but that he's been picking on you?"
"Yes, that's it exactly." I turned and started to go. This time, I wasn't going to let anything stop me.
She grabbed the sleeve of my coat, right on the place that was patched from the damage done by my slide on the pavement. "I told you: don't turn your back on me."
"Mrs. Flagler, let me go. I already can see that talking with you will do neither of us any good."
Carol gave me a bit of a shove. "You treat my mother with respect, Powyr."
"You kids these days are getting so ill mannered," his mother said.
I took a deep breath. "Mrs. Flagler, please release my coat." She let it go. I turned to face her again. "We have a drastic difference of opinion over what has been happening between Carol and me. I don't see any way of bridging it here in the mall."
"Are you trying to tell me that my son has been lying to me?"
"It looks like it from here." Carol reached for me this time, but I maneuvered away and put a clump of shoppers between us. He worked his way through them while I went behind a kiosk selling paintings on velvet. Carol came after me, and we played ring-around-a-rosy for a few seconds.
"You're such a chicken shit," he said to me.
"Carl! Get back here," his mother said. Carol ignored her.
We were only about half way to Skip's Gifts, but Mom must have been looking for me, because I heard her say, "What in hell is going on here?" I went over to stand beside her.
"Is he your son?" asked Mrs. Flagler.
"Yes. Is that your son who was chasing him?"
"He wasn't chasing him."
"It surely looked like it to me."
"He was just being a high-spirited boy."
"I see. Artie, what's going on?"
"This is Mrs. Flagler," I said, "and the ruffian there is her son, Carol."
"The little bastard who has been giving you all the trouble?"
"What did you just call my son?"
"I called him a little bastard, but if that's inaccurate, how about little son of a bitch?"
Mrs. Flagler looked shocked. "I see where your son gets his disgusting behavior."
"I see why your son gets away with murder."
"I'm not going to mince words with you," said Mrs. Flagler. "You keep your child away from mine. If he harms my son again, I'm filing charges."
My mother was actually speechless for a moment. "I can't believe this bullshit! The little bastritch repeatedly attacks Arthur, and my kid's the one who is going to be up on charges?"
"Your son has been bullying Carl incessantly."
"Your son and three other boys attacked Arthur."
"They did not! Carl and his two friends were merely defending themselves from your hoodlum and that huge Beauchamp boy."
Mom looked at me with an open mouth. I shook my head. She took my arm. "Let's go, Arthur. There's obviously nothing to be done here."
As we were walking away, I heard Mrs. Flagler shout, "Mark my words. Keep your young bully away from my son."
I could feel Mom's hand shaking. "That goddamned shit-for-brains bitch and her bastardly hell-spawn. I can't believe the nerve of her! File charges my ass. I'll take her charges and shove them up her festered rectum. Arthur, if that little shithead attacks you again, I want you to thrash him good."
"Aye, aye, ma'am."
That got her to grin. "Stupid, idiotic bitch."
The walk out to the van seemed to cool her off a bit. "Are you OK to drive?" I asked.
"Don't you start." She smiled when she said it. She muttered a few more times on the way home, but the main storm had passed.
When we were in the driveway, I asked, "Will you wrap this for me, please?"
"Yeah. Give it here. I'll carry it into my room. Go fetch Danny's picture so I can put it in the frame."
I fetched it, she framed it, and we went downstairs to hang it. "Where do you think we should put it?" Mom asked. The rest of the kids were with us.
"We've been practicing over there," Mary said.
"How about over the chord organ?"
"Looks like a good spot to me," I said.
Mom tacked up a hanger and hung the picture. "Is this straight?"
"It looks good," Mary said.
Mom stepped back and looked at the picture herself. "That Danny is quite the artist. Too bad he's such a bad little bugger."
After Mom had taken Susan upstairs, Rich and Charlie started a game of pool. Mary sat at the chord organ to practice. I took up my guitar on the other side of the basement. I had become pretty good with the basic open chords, but I still needed to develop my left hand to do barre chords, and I had a lot of practice ahead before I would be skilled at picking with either a plectrum or my fingers.
Do you feel how close the manna is? asked Ursus.
Almost close enough to touch.
I think we should carve a pentagram and a hexagram into your guitar.
Around back where it won't affect the soundboard, in the spot where the finish is already worn off. I quit practicing, and we looked at the spot in question. Once we charge them, it might be enough to let us gather manna as we play.
Part of me was horrified by the idea, but most of me wanted to try the experiment. In my heart of hearts, I was a nerd before anything else. OK, but I want to be really careful when we carve.
We'll take our time and make shallow cuts. We'll do the carving today and the ritual tomorrow, after Kirsten goes home. The eleven o'clock bedtime dispensation for winter break will give us time.
When I was done practicing, it was too late to go to Danny's, so I did my arithmetic homework and looked at the two witchcraft books until supper. When Mike and Terry came over after, Mike said, "Danny's poster does pick up the atmosphere."
"It gives us something to dream about, anyway," Terry said.
"It's going to take a long time," I said.
"Some of the rockers from the Mother Country turn pro when they're sixteen," Mike said.
"Most of us go to school longer, on this continent," I said.
"Hell, if we ever get a recording contract, I'll drop out of school."
"You're getting way, way out in front. Today's agenda includes reviewing our first song and continuing to learn our second."
We practiced for over an hour. Once they left, I unstrung my now-beloved instrument and set it up face down on several scrap blocks of wood. I used mechanical drawing tools to lay out the two symbols as precisely as I could. Then I picked up Dad's smallest gouge, took a deep breath, and made the first gentle cut.