by Peter C. Conrad
He was going to get involved—he decided. He walked out of the school and looked across the white field that was their playground in summer. The building was white too, but its walls were dirty. The large windows were covered with things of all colours cut from paper. “That’s where the rejects go,” Ed remembered a friend said once. Stupid, he thought as he began to walk across the playground.
The building was divided into two sections. One was the classroom with three walls covered with shelves. The other wall had a small blackboard on it. The second section was the recreation area. Off to one side was a small kitchen. The kitchen had one door and a square opening where plates of food were pushed through.
“So you’ve come to help,” said the lady standing in front of Ed. “Well, I’ll tell you what is expected. This isn’t going to be a picnic.”
“No,” replied Ed as he watched Mrs. Thomas dry her stout fingers on a tea towel. Her grey hair was gathered into a lose bun with about a quarter of it falling to the sides, calculated Ed.
“Well you better be prepared to work—and that isn’t just cleaning up—you’re going to have to get right into the mess. Do you understand?”
“There are the chores in the morning you’ll have to do. They show up and need breakfast. That means cooking, setting the table, helping them where they need it, and then doing the dishes. Noon will be the same way—you will have to come straight here when your class ends. It’s the same things, but you’ll have to help clean up the morning stuff; from the class you understand. You’ll be busy right through. There are also games after lunch that you’ll have to help with. The same things happen after school. You’ll be able to handle that?”
“We’ll see. We’ll see if you turn up tomorrow morning at seven-thirty. If you want to help with anything, you’ll have to help with everything.”
“Tomorrow, then …”
* * *
Ed really never understood the idea behind fighting. He always felt puzzled when he was arguing. A friend would ask. “Do you want to fight about it?” It made no sense. He just didn’t fight. He would rather have people call him yellow than to meet behind the gym at three-thirty. Ed watched his classmates fight and play. He was often puzzled by how fast a game became a fight. He always preferred to watch.
Robert was different. He would beat anyone that stood around long enough. Even though Robert was the captain on the hockey team, he would be the first to drop his stick and let it fly. Half the time he was the one behind the gym at three-thirty. None of the guys wanted to scrap with Robert, especially Ed.
It was an uncontrolled anger; thought Ed. Robert appeared unable to help himself. Robert move too fast. He couldn’t think about it first, thought Ed.
* * *
“What did you say your name was?” asked the heavy-set woman as she cracked another egg onto the grill. Ed was stirring a pot of steaming cereal.
“Ed, Mrs. Thomas.”
“Well, you can start calling me Darcey.”
“How old are you?”
“Just about fifteen,” lied Ed. He had just turned fourteen.
“Fifteen, eh? That’s something—the ones that stick with it are older or younger. I was sure after a week you’d stop coming, that was if you came back for the first day.”
“You’re a nice kid—you have problems getting along with the rest?”
Ed remained silent a moment.
“No—I’m fine,” he replied.
“Quickly now, get the dishes out,” she said. “That cereal is done. Set the table, they should be here any minute.”
Bill and Gregory were the first to arrive. Like every other morning, a taxi arrived and the two would slowly open the door and climb out. Ed never did know why a taxi brought them. It seemed odd to Ed at first, but as he spent time in their world things that were strange became normal. He watched out the window as the hunchback boys came to the door and walked in. Their faces were red and cold the same as everyone else. They had thick lips and crooked stained teeth. Bill had a huge lump on the right side of his nose that made it look crooked. Gregory didn’t appear to have any nose at all. Their cheekbones were low and heavy. The heavy bony mass of their brows made their eyes look small and sunken. Their hair was thin, making them look slightly bald. They both had short, stocky legs and Gregory’s arm was like a flipper. Ed watched as the two helped each other take their boots and coats off. This silent ritual occurred every morning and every afternoon when they left.
Connie was different. She would skip and jump as she came to the small building. There was no one with her. “La–la, ta–ta, da–da.” She would come in. Her body always dancing to the rhythms of some band playing again and again, somewhere bright… She was always there—wherever that was—smiling, always happy. “Ta–ta, la–la, da–da, she sang along as she took off her coat. She was not physically different like Gregory and Bill. She was overweight for her height, but at eleven years it seemed right. From a distance, she seemed like any other girl.
Tom came next. He was the oldest and the biggest. He came down the street from the same direction as Connie. He had abnormally big boots. Tom never looked around. He walked with his eyes straightforward—his chin was stuck far out. Like Gregory and Bill, he had a very pronounced hunchback and heavy eyebrows. His arms were too long and bulky. His legs were bowed. He looked old at nineteen.
Kathy and Bob came on one of the early school buses. They arrived as the rest finished their breakfast.
“Oh but Connie,” said Kathy as Ed came out of the kitchen with fresh toast for the two that just arrived. Kathy was at Connie’s side, her coat still on. She was trying to clean some hot cereal from Connie’s blouse with a napkin. Connie was sitting still and looking down at the mess. Ed was surprised. For the first time since Ed had been helping, Connie was still, not humming.
“Oh but, oh but,” continued Kathy.
“There now, don’t worry,” said Darcey as she stepped out of the kitchen behind Ed. “You take your coat off Kathy and eat,” she said as she placed another jug of milk on the table. “I’ll take care of this.”
“Yes,” said Kathy quietly as she did as she was told.
“I saw a nice car today,” announced Bob.
“You take your coat off too Bob and eat,” said Darcey.
* * *
“Hey Ed, what’s the matter? You going over to the rejects again? Can’t handle real people? Can’t play hockey?” called Robert. It was three—thirty and everyone was heading over to the rink. Ed continued to walk away from the school.
“Hey, you’re making progress; you’re beginning to walk like those reject.”
Ed noticed he was staring at the ground in front of himself—his head bent forward. He straightened up. He could feel Robert’s gaze following his back.
“Hey, when you get better, you can come play hockey again. Have fun with the weirdoes.”
* * *
“I like you Ed,” said Bob as he stood up at the classroom table. He picked up some paper and carried it to the shelf.
“Yeah, you’re nice,” agreed Kathy.
“Oh,” replied Ed. He picked up another two magazines that were open and had holes in them. He placed them on the shelves.
“They’re not all like that,” said Kathy.
“What?” said Ed.
“Just boys that look like you.”
“They’re like you, but they’re not.”
“They’re not what?” asked Ed, not paying attention. There were still three bottles of white glue to put away and some coloured paper that belonged in a special box.
“Nice,” Kathy said.
“Yeah, they’re not nice,” repeated Bob.
“But, you are nice,” said Kathy. Gregory and Bill nodded in agreement. They were always nodding yes or no. They never spoke a word.
“Oh,” whispered Ed. He forgot where to put the glue.
* * *
“Come on Connie, we have to eat now,” said Ed. Connie was in a corner in the classroom. “Da–da, ta–ta, la–la,” she sang as she moved from one foot to the other, swaying from side to side.
“Please Connie it’s time to eat.”
“Ha–hum, ha–hum, la–la, la–la.”
“Connie, the food is going to get cold.” He looked at her smiling round face and eyes. Her eyes were dark and happy, but focused on the ceiling. She was focused on something else—a moment of happiness, somewhere.
“Ed, where are you?” called Darcey from the table.
“Getting Connie,” he replied. He grabbed Connie’s left hand and held it. Connie’s eye were not on the ceiling anymore. They focused on him. Her rhythmic dance stopped as Ed led her to the next room.
* * *
“What do you mean? You can’t stay and help us decorate the Christmas tree?” asked Mrs. Wilson, Ed’s homeroom teacher.
“He goes over to the school for the rejects three times a day. He took that volunteer job to help with the rejects,” sneered Robert.
“Quiet,” snapped the teacher. She looked at Ed again. “I guess you can go.”
“Thanks,” said Ed as he hurried to the back of the room.
* * *
“Jesus loves all of us, right?” asked Kathy.
“Yeah,” replied Ed as he put down the last box of Christmas tree ornaments. All of the ornaments were made of plastic or wood painted in red, yellow, green or blue.
“Even the bad people?” asked Bob.
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“Why?” asked Bob as Ed handed him a wood globe to hang.
“Because, the bad people can turn into good people. Even if they’re bad now, they can get good some day—so Jesus loves them,” replied Kathy.
“There are some smart people that says to me there is no Jesus,” said Bob.
“That’s because they’re still bad people,” replied Kathy.
“But how can Jesus love them?”
“Because he’s God,” replied Kathy.
* * *
On the last day of classes before the Christmas holidays, Ed was at the school cleaning up, helping each student get their folders of cut-out paper cards for Christmas and sending them home. With relief Ed helped Darcey stack the chairs that had been around the table and sweep up for the last time.
After a short word of thanks for his help, Ed was off. He would go to wrap gifts and help his mother with the Christmas chores.
There was Robert up to what he was known for. The victim was a small bundle in the snow under Robert—he hit and hit. Ed felt sick, then angry. He began to run to the place in the middle of the field. He did not know why. Robert continued mechanically. The body under him seemed to be squirming. “Bitch, bitch, bitch,” said Robert with each blow. The Ed recognized Connie’s small body—her round face—
“You’re rotten!” screamed Ed. Running full speed; he dove at Robert and pulled him to the ground. Ed hit Robert in the face and throat. Ed felt suddenly removed, as if he was watching the incident: a passive bystander. As blood flowed from Robert’s nose and cuts on his face, Ed’s blows became more frantic and devastating. Soon Ed felt exhausted. He felt a growing pain in his firsts. Robert whimpered in the snow. Ed got up looked at Robert crying, then Connie who was sitting up now. Ed moved over to her and looked at her bruises and swelling face.
“Connie, we have to go,” he said. She wasn’t moving in her usual rhythmic motion. Ed took her hand and helped her get up. Now, she looked at him. Her smile was gone. Two streams of tears flowed from her eyes.