THE LIFE OF THE ACCUSED
I happened to be passing by a school yard on my way to the post office.
The kids were playing, throwing a ball and trying to hit someone standing in the middle
of the circle. The target was wily and knew how to dodge anything hurled at him. He kept smiling, taunting his enemies to try harder. But no one came near him. He just stood there staring back at everyone as if he were waiting for a bus to take him home again. I admired his courage, his tenacity, the strange will power some kids possess before they grow old enough to know real danger. His smile was cold and calculating. He was like Odysseus being taunted and teased by the sirens on their rocky outcrop. He was tied to the mast and his crewmates had sealed their ears with wax to avoid enchantment. But Odysseus was tortured by the alluring high-pitched voices of women who wanted him to swim to shore and beg for a moment of love. They would have drowned him if he succumbed to their temptations. But there he remained, on deck, twisting and struggling to free himself as the voices surrounded him.
Maybe it wasn’t just the kid in the center, but the singsong babble of the ones throwing the ball that made me sense something in my depths about loneliness. These were sounds of people intimidating a victim, someone they wanted to shame and humiliate. I slowed down to listen. I had head those voices myself. I had a sharp tongue and would often say cruel things to people I didn’t trust or like. That’s when I heard the chorus begin with its low-keyed taunts as I walked to class. School was a court room full of accusations, and I often found myself in the dock being examined by a prosecutor who blamed me for some bit of mischief I hadn’t committed. I often faced off with a vice principal named J.J. Lyons, the man hired to enforce school rules regarding truancy, teachers’ complaints, fights, threats, aggressive behavior in the locker room or on the basketball court. Anyone could accuse you of something and you would find yourself taken by a hall proctor, usually one who pulled you along by your ear, to the dreaded tile-lined office of J.J., nicknamed Juicy Jaws. He wouldn’t let you get off with a tear or an apology; he wanted blood. He wanted you to weep, and plead for mercy, as if you were a criminal pleading for your life.
A boy would set up a table in the recess yard and display a row of boxes full of candy bars during play time. I was given a token once, and offered it to the kid for a chocolate bar. The kid grabbed the slug and held me by my sleeve until a teacher came. He showed the teacher what I had tried to fob off on him, and the teacher yanked me to J.J.’s lair. Lots of kids stood there in silent attention as I passed. I was going to be grounded, maybe even expelled from school. It made many shiver with fear as I passed. No one wanted to be hauled off to the dimly lit narrow office of the executioner. But there I was, unresisting, compliant, already meek and humbled by this excruciating turn of events.
J.J. leaned into my face. He had been eating lunch and I smelled cheap mustard on his breath, and the bitter smell of raw onion. His lips were wet, and his voice had a rasp as he swallowed the last bite of his bread. He was ready for me. He had witnessed the crime from his window, and already decided I would be kept after school until my mother showed up. He could now prove that I was persona non grata in his domain. I was a fly in the web of some gigantic black spider eager to start spinning me in a silk shroud. I stood there while he drank off the rest of his cold coffee from a thermos cup.
“It was a joke,” I said. “I was just playing with the kid. I didn’t mean for him to take me seriously.”
J.J. wouldn’t have it. He wrote down my answer in his spiral notebook. He looked over his glasses at me. He waited before giving me his cold stare. “A joke? You think our straight A student is retarded, is that it?”
I wanted to say he was an ass kisser, a coward, somebody whose spine had been removed at birth. But I looked down at my shoes and realized that my shoe lace had come undone. “I don’t like you, never did,” J.J. said. He dabbed his mouth with a paper towel and sat back in his squeaking office chair. He had me, he could toy with me. He could hurl loaded questions at me and dare me to dodge them. I had to be ready for him, even though it would enrage this man who had been abused by an alcoholic father long before he entered kindergarten. He had absorbed his dad’s meanness, and here he was staring at me as I stood there. “You lie,” he whispered. “That’s all you kids know to do when you’re caught red-handed. What’s it going to take to keep you from going to prison later on? Eh?”
That ball went right by me. I didn’t need to feint to avoid it. Too slow, too wobbly. He needed to put some muscle into it, I thought.
“I’m calling your mother, and she’s going to have to remunerate this student. He’s offended and hurt by your action.” He had the receiver up to his ear and dialed the number. I heard my mother answer, “Not again.” “Yes,” J.J said, with a noticeable hint of satisfaction in his voice. “He tried to rob a boy who was selling candy during recess.”
Long silence. Then J.J. said, “You’ll have to come in a pay the young man a quarter for his intended theft. I’m here until four o’clock. I can’t release your son until you come here to retrieve him.”
It was two fifteen in the afternoon when I heard my mother in the hall. I was in the room next door, the detention room, it was called. She went in and spent some moments talking in low tones to J.J., and I heard her purse snap shut. She followed J.J. next door and stood there as he unlocked the heavy door. “Here he is.”
My mother looked at me with a blank stare. I was waiting for her to say something angry, a rebuke perhaps, but she merely looked through me. J.J. returned to his office and my mother waited until she heard the click of his door. She smiled at me. “He gave me this, as evidence of your crime,” she said, and smiled again. I was astonished at her attitude. But I remember her telling me once that she had been locked in a pantry when she was a girl for having stolen a twenty-dollar bill from her mother’s drawer. She spent the afternoon crying and worrying about her father, who would be coming home a little later. She never forgot the offense to her pride, her innocence. She didn’t know how much the bill was worth. She merely wanted to buy a piece of candy from the corner store, but never got that far. They let her out after supper and she was marched up to her room to go hungry. Now I stood before her, accused of some inflated offense by a man whose loose jaws and rubbery nose were twisted in disgust as he reported what he saw from his window.
We went out to the street together, me following a few feet behind. I’m sure J.J. was up in his window observing us. I didn’t want to see his triumphant look as we headed off to the cemetery at the end of the block. On the other side of the street was a candy store and my mother pressed a quarter into my hand and told me to buy myself a treat. “You’ve nothing to worry about. You’re fine,” she said. She hesitated and added, “I won’t tell your father about this. He doesn’t need to know what happened.” I came back to her with my cheek bulging with a red sour ball that would last me a full hour of salivating and gulping down pure sugar. The school’s rusty roof top was behind us now, disappearing behind the rowhouse roofs and turning into a dark shadow under the overcast winter sky. An old sycamore leaned outside my classroom window, where I eagerly awaited the arrival of a robin who came each spring to have her babies. She sang a lot and fussed for hours with tiny sprigs of hay and dry leaves, upholstering her comfortable nest. She would peek into the windows and find me staring up at her and would let out a thin peep as if to say, “You’re okay. Nothing to worry about. I won’t tell your father.”