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Something Happened

Something Happened

Something Happened 24


  "Is that what he wants?"

  "Yes, I think so. Although I don't think he will ask you. And I will talk to him. But don't say anything."

  "If that's what he wants, sure. I don't pick on him, Mr. Slocum."

  "Maybe he'll get a little of his confidence back. Just for a few days."

  "I try to help."

  "Tell him he looks a little tired or something."

  "Have him come to me with an excuse. Let him limp a little or bring a note from you saying he feels sick. So the other kids don't find out and make fun of him."

  "It wouldn't be a lie. On days when he has gym, he does feel sick and feels like throwing up. He doesn't eat breakfast. He comes to school without eating anything."

  "I didn't know that. Does he say anything about me?"

  "Only a little. Nothing bad. That he's scared and can't do things. He didn't ask me to come here."

  "I'm only trying to help him when I get on him to try to make him do better and try harder. I'm just trying to get him to realize his maximum potential so he'll do the best he can and be much better off. You ought to tell him I said that."

  "I don't even want him to know I came here. Let him do pushups or something for a few days and see what happens when we take the pressure off. Okay?"

  "He's no good at pushups, either. Or at chinning, sit-ups, rope climbing, or tumbling. In fact, I don't think I could give your boy a good rating at anything, Mr. Slocum. But running. He's pretty fast. But he doesn't always try. He kids around."

  (I have to suppress another smile.) "Maybe that's hereditary," I say. "I was never much good at anything either."

  "Oh, no, Mr. Slocum," Mr. Forgione corrects me with a laugh. "Anybody can be good at anything physical if he works steadily to develop himself."

  "I hope so," I concede diplomatically. "I know I used to spend a lot of time in gyms," I lie. "But I never seemed to improve very much."

  "You've got a good build. I can see that from here. Your boy could be a fine athlete, Mr. Slocum, if he'd only apply himself harder. He can run like a weasel and has quick reflexes. You should see the way he flinches when he thinks I'm gonna yell at him. Or one of the kids."

  "He may be afraid to ask you. Even if I give him the note."

  "I know what to do."

  "He might be too embarrassed. And you won't tell him I spoke to you. I wouldn't want him to know."

  "Sure. No."

  "And you're not going to get even, are you? Take it out on him because I came here to ask?"

  "No, of course not," Forgione exclaimed indignantly. "Why would I want to do that?" (Because you're human, I think.) "What kind of a man do you think I am?"

  "Cro-Magnon," I reply crisply.

  (But that, of course, I say to myself. Outside myself, I laugh softly in a pretense of congeniality. I wonder if the time will ever come when I will begin, without recognizing I am doing it and without detecting the change, saying out loud the things I now say privately to myself or verbalize in contemplation and if I will therefore become psychotic or one of those men--more often than not they are women--who talk out loud to themselves on sidewalks and buses. If that happens, I will blend my inner world with my outer world and be disoriented in both. I will be pathetic. I have trouble enough deciding which is which now and which one is the true one. I worry gravely about all lapses of self-control. I think it may already be happening, that I do talk to myself out loud--my children tease me and say I did talk to myself out loud while rehearsing the speech I wasn't allowed to give at last year's convention--sometimes when I'm drunk or very deeply immersed in work or introspection. Sometimes I catch myself almost mouthing words that I intend to write down when I get to my desk at the office or in my study at home, or that I plan to say to whoever it is I am on my way to meet. At least, I think I always catch myself in time. I can't be sure. There may be times already when I don't. I know I occasionally do gesticulate with hands and head when preparing myself for conversations, but that is almost in the nature of a rehearsal of which I am aware. I am so afraid that I will start talking to myself someday that I feel I already do. People will make fun of me. Or look the other way and pretend I'm not. I suffer chest pains frequently because I'm so afraid of suffering chest pains someday and dying of a heart attack. My brother died of a heart attack while waiting for something in the waiting room of his office, and my father died of something else while I was still just a little boy, and my mother, as I can't forget, was struck down in her old age by a number, some of them too subtle and minute in individual effect to be counted, of cerebral vascular accidents, as they are euphemistically called--they did not seem like "accidents"--that set her tongue clattering inside her mouth when she tried to talk and turned the rest of her, eventually, to bloodless pulp. God, how I grew to detest the sight of her! And wanted to cry, in love, sympathy, and self-pity, and would not let myself do anything like that. I kept control. I was strong. I can be strong and unemotional when it comes to someone else. I think I may worry as much about talking out loud to myself as I worry about stuttering. I think some of my dreams may be homosexual. I think I'm afraid I might start stuttering incurably when I even think that thought of being homosexual. I don't know why I feel that way about those dreams. And I also feel that some of my other dreams may be heterosexual, and I do know why. I am chasing and pumping away with girls in those dreams and almost get there, almost get all the way in, but never do. I never even come. They always break off unfinished. Is it my mother? Nude and cooperative? And know also that much of my waking life is composed of defenses against behavior I am not aware of and would find difficult to justify. Why do I feel like crying so often and why do I refuse to let myself do so ... ever? There are times, afterward, when I wish I did and regret I didn't. I often used to feel like crying after quarreling with my daughter. I am no longer proud that I can remain unmoved. I hope desperately that my little boy never finds out I'm a fag if that is what I really am, although I think I might derive some nasty gratification if my wife began to harass herself about that possibility. I hope I never lose control of myself in anything. I never have, not even with a girl. I wish I wanted to. I'm glad I don't. I hope I never have a stroke that makes me stutter or renders me paralyzed or speechless. I hope I never have a heart attack. I hope I'm never senile and pee in my pants and want to molest children. I wonder what kind of person would come out if I ever did erase all my inhibitions at once, what kind of being is bottled up inside me now. Would I like him? I think not. There's more than one of me, probably. There's more than just an id; I know that; I could live with my id if I ever looked upon it whole, sort of snuggle up and get cozy with it, exchange smutty stories. Deep down inside, I might really be great. Deep down inside, I think not. I hope I never live to see the real me come out. He might say and do things that would embarrass me and plunge him into serious trouble, and I hope I am dead and buried by the time he does. Ha, ha.) "Ha, ha, Forgione," is what I do say, to indicate to Forgione that my question was not intended to be taken seriously. "I do. I really do, Mr. Forgione."

  "What?"

  "Appreciate it. I'm glad you understand."

  "That's okay, Mr. Slocum. I'd do that to help any kid."

  "Thank you, Mr. Forgione. I feel much better now."

  I put my hand out eagerly in order to shake his, and find that I feel much worse when I depart from him.

  I went there braced for battle, prepared to take on all comers, if necessary. I have won my point too easily, and go away feeling I have lost. I am depressed. Good God! I catch myself wondering as I commute into the city by train to my office again. What in the world have I done to my poor little boy now? I find myself furious with my wife for having prodded me to go there. Suppose Forgione is intent upon revenge? I don't want to have to go looking around for a private school to transfer my little boy to, not now; yet Forgione can make me. I am in his power, and he is not in mine. Last year it was a saturnine battle-ax of an arts and crafts teacher (his Mrs. Yerger, and mine too aga
in, for that time. For every season there is a Mrs. Yerger, it seems--there always has been--and a Forgione too) that came very close to making me move him out of his public school (he pleaded with me to let him stay) into an expensive private one that might have turned out to be just as evil. This year it is sturdy, umber Forgione, with his damned gym and muscular physique. (We moved to Connecticut to get away from Negroes. Now I've got this stocky Italian weight-lifter to worry about.) Does Forgione, as I now feel absolutely certain, resent my having come to the school to complain to him (did I make a very bad impression on Forgione?) and criticize and interfere with his work in relation to my child? Will he strike back at me, with immense personal satisfaction, by browbeating and disgracing my boy even more than he already has? Tune in the next day to find out. And I do tune in shakily all the next day to find out, with a telephone call home at lunchtime (to ask, ostensibly, if there is any important mail, but really to make certain he is still alive, that no word of his death has come from school) and with another telephone call home late in the afternoon.

  "Guess what?" my boy exclaims cheerfully, answering the phone (to my vast relief and amazement).

  For Forgione, bless his noble heart, turns out fine. (I am more tense about gym than my boy at breakfast that morning. My coffee is flavored with the bitter taste of bile. Forgione is an executioner, masked in dire, enigmatic intentions, and I ponder all day long in my office over what kinds of criminal atrocities are being committed against my boy behind the brick walls, closed doors, and blind windows of that penitential institution of a school. I am more tense than my boy because I can objectify anxieties he does not even know he suffers from yet. I have an imagination that is infinitely more sophisticated and convoluted. He does not know yet about Leopold and Loeb, and I do. He does not know about cunning, older, polymorphous perverts, driven and deranged, who brutalize and murder children for no good reason. I have the same scorching foresights he has of strange, fierce, scowling men abducting, harming, dismembering him, and there are days--or used to be when we lived in the city, and still are, even now that we have retreated into the suburbs--when I will glare accusingly and belligerently, bluffing, of course, at every strange man I see in his vicinity--handymen, delivery men, construction men, insurance men, even clergymen--as potential kidnappers, sadists, ruffians, degenerates, or mad murderers who torture and mutilate their disbelieving victims before and after killing them, even though I know that's impossible. I picture it anyway. And now Forgione's face is swimming among them, heartless, symbolic, carnal, alien. I am crazy: no wonder my boy tends to be fearful. For a long time in the city I was too fearful to allow him to walk to school alone, even though the school building was only a few blocks away and other kids his own age were already doing it; at the same time, I kept urging him to get up the courage to try it, pointing out to him that he was big enough and intelligent enough and would have to do it someday, and assuring him that nothing would happen to him if he waited always for the light to turn green and looked in all directions before stepping from the curb and crossing each street. I was afraid he'd get lost. I am afraid of traffic accidents. I also feared drunkards, junkies, unhappy laborers, explosions, bigger, bullying schoolboys, and truants from high school come to prey on the smaller children in elementary school, most of them Black, Puerto Rican, or Italian, who would take his ice cream money, tear his clothes, bloody his face, or pull his ears off; I was even afraid of falling cornices, and so, I think, was he. I would telephone the house two or three times a day from my office to ask if any important mail had come or my dry cleaning, but really to make sure that everyone there was still alive, as far as anyone who was there could tell--if no one answered the phone when somebody should have, I would think of calling the police, the apartment building superintendent, or one of the neighbors--to verify that he had made it back home safely from school for lunch--which meant, by deduction, that he had made it to school safely after breakfast--and that he had found his way back home successfully again after school--which meant, once more, that he had made it back safely to school after lunch, that day.

  "Do you want to talk to him?" my wife would ask.

  "Only if he has anything he wants to say to me."

  "He doesn't. Do you have anything you want to say to Daddy?"

  "No."

  "Do you want to ask him anything?"

  "No."

  "He doesn't. You sound disappointed."

  I would be disappointed. I'd feel he should want to talk to me, even though he had nothing specific to ask or tell. Hadn't I worried about him?

  I would brood about that too: his ingratitude. After all, I was investing so much of my feelings in him, wasn't I?

  Every trip from home for him then was, for me, another venture into unknown perils that were inching close. I would feel about him the way I believe I used to feel about my wife and daughter, the way some passive part of me still feels every time I walk up the ramp into an airplane on an ordinary business trip: I'm not sure I will ever come down. Wouldn't it be ridiculous for me to die on an ordinary business trip? Every day that he and I and the rest of us remain alive is another miracle. Isn't it wonderful that we can still be here and have not yet been knocked off by some accident or crime? I think that. I don't trust cars. God knows who may be driving the ones close enough to collide with us. I don't trust my wife when she is driving, especially now that I know she drinks during the day, and I don't like my daughter at night in a car driven by some kid who might be drunk also or loony with drugs. I don't really worry as much as I used to about my wife and daughter, possibly because they have both survived early childhood and seem old enough now to take care of themselves, or possibly because I no longer care for them as much as I used to, as much as I know I do care about my boy and myself. I do have morbid outlooks about myself; I don't like closed doors, sick friends, bad news. And my boy is still young and vulnerable enough, we feel, and he does too, to be very much in need of our love and our protection. And I know I do care for him, and I worry nervously about what jeopardy I have placed him in with Forgione, who--God bless him again--turns out to be just fine indeed.) Forgione, in fact, proves a surprisingly good-hearted man, and he is more generous and discreet with my boy than I would have thought him capable.

  "I don't have to do anything in gym anymore," my boy continues with elation. "I don't even have to play. Until I want to."

  And from that day on, my boy is a swaggering princeling. (But it does not, of course, last.) He treasures his respite in the beginning (he thinks he's smart); he basks in leisure, luxuriates in school and at home. Along with boys with plaster casts on hands and arms and legs and those with heart damage or other seriously crippling deformities, he is allowed to remain out of the games and races and to pass the time in the gymnasium watching and strutting, although he is required to report there and remain for the entire period. (There is one boy in the school his own age who is totally blind, and he is excused from gym. The school keeps him as an experiment.) My boy spends his time in gym strolling around the outskirts of activities, he tells me, feeling superior. (He is pulling a fast one, he feels, and wants others to observe that.) He feels he ought to be envied. (He isn't. He is only a temporary novelty.) In a short while, though, and all at once, a transformation occurs, a draining of confidence, and he flickers in sallow indecision. He perceives that he does not want to be different (perhaps he is startled by the threat that what he thinks he is faking will prove to be real and that he is facing the risk of being excluded permanently, like those other boys his own age who do have heart murmurs of pathological origin and are not allowed to play, and all those others we always see wheeling and hobbling about who are disabled and deformed).

  He wants to be the same as healthy ones, part of a normal group (before he is left behind and finds he can no longer catch up), even though he does not esteem the group and does not enjoy what the group is doing. He does not enjoy being classified with those who are weak and crippled (and cannot even
band together into a group of their own, because they are handicapped in separate ways) and exiled and ostracized. So he stops faking fatigue, a limp, and a sore throat and goes to Forgione to report he thinks he feels okay again.

  And back he plunges voluntarily into games and races (and into chinning, rope climbing, and tumbling, as well, which he still hates but consents to endure, for he cannot declare himself fit for games and races but not for gymnastics). And now he roars like a lion and fights like a tiger; he runs like a weasel and says "hubba, hubba, hubba" dutifully like an eager beaver.

  ("Mr. Forgione says nice things about me now," he discloses to us smugly one day.

  "I scored four points today," he tells us another. "I was the second best on my team.") And he learns it is easy enough for him to be good enough in sports if he has that true will to win (and even, perhaps, in gymnastics, if he applies himself), just as it is very easy for him to be good enough in math (even without applying himself). He is not the best at anything, but he is good enough (and lots of fun), and the ones who are the best enjoy him and want him on their teams now. (They are tougher, bigger kids, and he is one of them now.) He keeps cumulative (clandestine) records (in his mind) of his own and all other kids' triumphs and failures in pushball, punchball, kickball, throwball, shoveball, upball, assball, and baseball (he is back now with all his balls, ha, ha) and is aware always of how he stands in comparison with others. (He is like our sales staff at the company.) In relay races and in basketball, he will connive to place himself opposite some fat boy on the other team whom he knows he can beat. (He feels guilty about that fat boy, and sorry for him. But someone is going to beat the fat boy anyway, so it might as well be him.) It is not so much that he wishes to look good but that he wants to avoid looking bad. It doesn't really bother me anymore that my boy does not want to be best.