Paradigm Journal: The Jackson Issue Winter 2009
On John Reily’s first day at the new school in rural Nebraska, Mrs. Clarkson stood him before the third grade class and introduced him to the silent room. When she asked him to tell the class where he was from, John said, “I’m from Colorahdo.” His voice was loud and scratchy. Having known each other from kindergarten on up, the other twenty-five or so children stole sideways glances at him and then at each other as he was led to his desk. All the other boys had normal hair. John’s was long, clear down past his ears. It was January.
At recess, he didn’t wait for anyone to invite him to play; he walked right up to a group of kids and said, “How ya doing?” He smiled at them for a little while. Then he tried another group. And another.
The next day, some girls started a game. The first girl went up to John and clapped him on the shoulder, smiling and tilting her head. “Hi, John! How’re you?” He started to answer, but she whirled around and smacked another girl on the arm of her quilted coat. “John’s germs!” she cried, dancing away from her friend. “Look out everybody, she’s got John’s germs, don’t let her touch you!”
Soon, kids were racing all over the playground, playing the wonderful new game. Whenever they forgot who was currently infected, somebody ran up to John and slapped him on the chest, and the game went on. They gave him a special place to stand, up on the hill overlooking the playground, so they would always know where he was. All through math and social studies and lunch, they could hardly wait to get back outside.
At the end of noon recess, one of the kids who’d been playing the game paused beside him on the way back in. “Doesn’t it bother you? It’s not like you really get to play,” he said.
John smiled, shrugging. “Naw, we used to play stuff like this back in Colorahdo. I’m the most important part!”
The next day, John’s hair was short enough you could see his earlobes. Mrs. Clarkson exclaimed how handsome he looked with his new haircut. It was very cold outside, and the children wore earmuffs or knit caps. John wore a big, black hat with fuzzy earflaps as he stood on the hill overlooking the playground. At the end of the last recess, the girl who’d invented the game passed him on the way back in. He asked her if they were playing tomorrow, though he didn’t need to. “Yeah,” she replied, speeding up to join her friends.
The next morning, class was just getting started when John walked into the room wearing the big fuzzy hat. “John,” Mrs. Clarkson sing-songed as he took his seat. “What have we said about wearing hats indoors?” He sat unmoving for a second before reaching up and dragging off the hat. His ragged hair was so short that his ears were completely naked. From behind, you could even see pink skin showing through the hair. “Oh John, you got another haircut!” Mrs. Clarkson exclaimed brightly. “You look so handsome! Doesn’t he look nice, class?” Her eyes drilled the room.
The boy who’d spoken to him yesterday finally said, “I like it. Wish I could get a haircut like that.”
John flushed a little, his wooden expression softening by degrees. “My mom cuts my hair,” he said in his loud, scratchy voice. “I tracked mud into the living room,” he added. Everyone stared at him.
Snow was starting to fall when the other boy stopped playing the game and looked up the hill to where John was standing. Shoulders hunched against the wind, he trudged up the slope. “Want to wear my mittens?” he asked. John, hands shoved deep into the pockets of his worn corduroy jacket, shook his head and smiled a little. “So they cut your hair, huh?”
John shrugged. “Beats being locked in the closet. You get hungry after awhile.” They both laughed. Then the other boy touched his shoulder, not quite looking at him, and ran back down, germ-laden, to chase his friends.
The next day, they were halfway through science class when the principal opened the door and beckoned to Mrs. Clarkson. There was a brief, whispered conversation out in the hall. Then Mrs. Clarkson came back in, turned, and made an impatient motion. John entered quickly and silently. His shirt was painstakingly tucked into his waistband. His eyes were on the floor immediately ahead. His hand clutched the black fuzzy hat, knuckles white. Several kids stared openly. Most looked frozen. Under the hard fluorescents, his bald head gleamed like an egg. At his desk, he propped his cheek on the hand still gripping the hat so that his face was mostly shielded. “Okay!” Mrs. Clarkson said brightly, clasping her hands together. “Let’s get out those take-home questions. Eyes to the front, please. Page twenty-six.” The class was slow to obey. “Please remove all hats. You may wear them outdoors, but not in here.”
At recess, the other boy sat on the very top of the monkey bars. Below, the playground was a riot of scrambling third graders circling the bars, holding on to keep from sliding on the hardened snow, banging off the teeter-totters, spreading the disease. The ground was white, the sky colorless. Across the playground on the hillside stood a lone figure. John’s face was raised into the stinging sleet; their eyes met. Even from this far away, his eyes looked flat, like a drawing. Just then, someone raced up the hill, slapped him on the arm, and raced away. John looked after the retreating back and laughed loudly, nodding and lifting one raw, reddened hand. Then he looked up, still smiling. He shrugged, head tilted, arms flapping. The pallid sky went a sullen gray and closed over the world.
At the end of the day as the classroom emptied, the boy who liked him looked around to see if anybody was close enough to hear. Then he said, “Want to come over for supper? My mom won’t mind.”
“Naw. I gotta…” John grinned, shrugging. In his eyes, something desperate seemed to cry out.
“Oh, right! Okay,” the boy said, pretending to understand.
A couple of weeks passed, during which some teachers finally caught on to what the kids were playing at recess and began to police the playground. When John tried to take his usual place on the hill, they yelled at him to come back down. They made the other kids include him when they built a snow fort. His hair started to grow back, a shadow of fuzz. The other boy said hi to him and he said hi back. Another kid heard them and shoved the other boy into the family of snowpeople they’d been building, destroying the little one.
The next day, John did not come to school. After another day went by, someone went to the Reilys’ home and found it empty. Mrs. Clarkson told the class that John Reily and his family had moved to another state.
At recess, the other boy, who often resides in the top monkey bars now, looks at the skeletal weeds spindling up through the dirty snow along the side of the hill. In one world, John will keep his goodness. In another, the Reilys will succeed in ruining him. In some uncharted dimension, he will find real friends.
Something invisible stirs last fall’s dry growth in violent circling whispers, dead ribbons of leaf whirling into the sky. A boy is standing alone on the hill above the playground, waiting for someone to touch him.
It must be quite a view, up there suspended as the light begins to fade.