He couldn’t see them very well yet, but he had to work to keep from staring at the men’s hats. They were shadowy figures, silhouetted against the curtains on the small, low, east-facing windows glowing behind them through which shone shimmering, dust-filled columns of the mid-morning sun he’d just walked out of. The dim light from the ceiling fixtures about fifteen feet above didn’t diminish the relative gloom of the rest of the room.
Fezzes, he remembered, as his eyes, momentarily transfixed on their little purple hats, began to adjust. On one, he read
VFW 4?? — 400 and something. He forced himself to look at each man’s face.
The three of them sat before him now, sternly, ready to judge. He’d come here, to the old armory, to interview with the local selection committee for the chance to go Boys State, the summer
camp in Sacramento that introduces outstanding high school juniors to electoral politics. He hadn’t even known this was the old armory until the week before, even though he’d lived in Reedley most of his life. The Vice Principle at Reedley High, Mr. Carlton, had told Paul and Steve and John that they’d been nominated and that they were to come here for the interview.
Where’s the old armory? he’d asked.
Next to the cannon, John helped, his exasperated tone adding
stupid to his words. The cannon had always been a major, local landmark for Paul and his friends, and Paul had climbed around on it many times growing up.
The room he was in looked more like a small auditorium or dance hall than a weapons warehouse, but it had probably taken only a little remodeling. The men sitting before him hardly looked like soldiers either — they seemed old, two too fat, the other too gaunt, more like a drought victim.
People change, he thought, almost shrugging.
He sat on the folding chair they’d left for him. It was a bit removed from the folding table they sat behind, also on folding chairs. Nothing about the situation seemed designed for comfort. He felt exposed and nervous, in any case, like he was on trial or the subject of an inquisition. The shadowy figures settled in before him.
Paul Lehman, the fattest man in the middle spoke to himself, picking up what must have been Paul’s file and glancing at him with a nod.
Paul, I am Mr. Williams. This is Mr. Jones, he nodded toward the fat man on his left,
and this is Mr. Thompson, he nodded toward the drought victim.
Paul wondered if they were the grandfathers of any of his friends at school: Genny and Mark Thompson, the twins in his algebra class and the concert choir; Jack Jones, the second baseman on the team; Pat Williams, his friend from down the block.
Paul, Mr. Williams continued,
why do you want to attend Boys’ State?
Paul hadn’t thought about it much. He hadn’t nominated himself, and he didn’t know who had nominated him or how. He was a high-ranking student. He’d had some local celebrity as the baseball team’s star pitcher his sophomore season, a year ago, before he’d been
injured. He sang in the top choir and had the occasional solo. But that was just his life; he didn’t know that it was particularly outstanding. Apparently, however, someone thought it was, which made him feel a little proud. So he wanted whoever it was to feel good for having nominated him. And he wanted to make the best of this opportunity and any others it might lead to.
Of course, he knew all that wouldn’t do for an answer, so he tried to think quickly. Andy Barton, a senior on the baseball team when Paul was sophomore, had been Reedley High’s representative to Boys State the summer before that and had told stories about what fun everyone had goofing off in Sacramento State’s dorm, raids and water fights and stuff. Paul, himself, knew that anything that required a nomination was some sort of honor.
Well. . . , he started and paused,
from what I know of it, it seems uuuuh. He stopped himself from humming.
It seems like it offers (he noted that offers seemed like a good word and smiled inwardly, applauding himself)
a good, practical, hands-on chance (nuts! opportunity is better)
or opportunity to learn about how elections and government work. I’d at least like to know about these things; politics is important. And even though I’m more interested in some other possibilities right now, I’ve thought about going into politics. Maybe Boys’ State would make me more interested. I’ve also heard that Boys’ State is fun. And being chosen, I know, would be an honor. He stopped himself from rambling.
Mr. Williams looked down at something he was scribbling on his notepad and nodded.
They got to talking about Paul’s academic record and participation in student organizations, and Mr. Jones joined in a little. Paul relaxed a little, though he felt a little funny talking about his GPA in his honors classes. He wanted to put his best foot forward but didn’t want to brag. At least he didn’t want them to think he was bragging. Besides, he knew Steve did just as well, if not a little better. They talked about the Community Action Club and the History Club, for which he was Treasurer. They also noted that he wasn’t active in student government and had never run for an office there, but he explained that he participated in it because it met after school, when his sports practiced most of the year, which was a convenient excuse (at least now), since he doubts he would have gotten involved if he weren’t out for sports. This seemed to satisfy them. And Paul started feeling pretty good about how the interview was going.
In fact, Paul was surprised by how excited he suddenly felt. He hadn’t campaigned for nomination. And before this moment, he’d have rather been mowing the lawns this morning than showering and shaving (which he now had to do every few days) and getting dressed up to go to this interview. He’d have to mow them later anyway, which meant having to miss part of one of the NBA playoff games on TV. But now, he felt like going for it, the honor.
Mr. Thompson took a breath, preparing to speak. Paul looked over. Their eyes met, and Paul had to look away from Thompson’s glare.
Have you registered for the draft?
Paul felt his neck twitch and stiffen and his eyebrows bolt up his forehead. He managed not to drop his jaw. Suddenly alert, he wondered,
Where did that come from? He pictured his slightly long hair. He caught himself and spoke,
No. I’m still seventeen, remembering that a few of his friends had already had their birthdays. He thought to himself,
What’s going on here? What’s this about?
I won’t have to register until next summer, after I graduate, he continued aloud, looking again at Thompson, his fez, the VFW. And he added, feeling a little bold,
But I’d rather not have to.
I suppose we’d all rather not have to, Thompson said sarcastically.
I know from experience, all three of us do —
war is hell.
Paul thought to himself, bemused (now that he thought of it) that a lot of people volunteer to go just the same.
Mr. Jones piped in with an embarrassed chuckle, his tone more friendly,
Well, I take it you’re not going to enlist. Neither did I. But if the draft were reinstituted and you were drafted, what sort of service would you be interested in doing?
None, Paul said, wanting to ask what this had to do with Boys’ State.
I’m a conscientious objector, a pacifist.
Would you consider the medical corps?
It’s hard to criticize people who are trying to save lives and treat wounds. But I object to war and wouldn’t want to be a part of supporting
the effort, sending people back to the front, just being a member of the armed forces. That would go for signing up even during
honor of going to Boys’ State began to shrink in importance.
What would you do if you came home and found someone assaulting your mother or your girlfriend? Thompson challenged.
The same as last time, pretty much, I guess — I hope.
’The same as last time’? What do you mean?
Paul sighed. He was suddenly tired of this: the interview certainly but — even more — recounting and reliving the story. He prepared himself to start, but he knew he wouldn’t tell these three all that he meant, all that flashed painfully to mind. Luckily, they only wanted to know what he had done.
Don’t you know who I am? Paul asked.
He’d been frontpage news the summer before.
What flashed to mind was this.
He’d arranged to meet his mom, Ruth, and Carol, his girlfriend, at First Mennonite, where his mom was church secretary, organist, and accompanist for some of the choirs. She was thinking about going to seminary to get certified as a music minister. Carol was going to summer school and, that day, was going to walk from the high school to the church after class ended, around noon. Paul was working at Wilson Brothers’ fruit-packing shed and would bike over whenever they broke for lunch. (
When varied, but they always got an hour.) Carol and his mom would wait until he got there. Then they’d take his mom’s car to Burger King or McDonald’s, maybe KFC or even New China, and spend a little time together.
He made them wait a while that day.
He’d thought they might be impatiently waiting by his mom’s car when he pedaled up about 12:15 or 12:20, but they weren’t. He locked his bike and headed toward the church office.
Mom! he called,
Carol! as he stepped inside the building. He walked down the hall and, when he tried the knob, found the office door was locked. He jiggled it again,
He turned away from the door a step, uncertain. He started toward the sanctuary,
Mom?! Carol?! He thought heard something through the door, and paused.
What was going on?
He looked into the sanctuary from the door to the choir loft.
He turned and, listening as he passed the office door, headed back down the hall quietly, out of the building. He wanted a look through the office window. Was something with his mom? But why would the door be locked? Even then, why wouldn’t Carol answer? Why would she be so late too? By the time he rounded the corner of the building, vague images of emergencies and violence were flashing in his mind and twisting his gut.
At the same time, he felt himself fingering the Swiss army knife in his pocket. He pulled it out and looked at its folded blades. He shuddered and flicked it and his keys behind him into the churchyard.
He looked up and saw that the blinds were closed to the reception room where his mom’s desk was. He stepped back and checked Reverend Penner’s windows. One was open. Reverend Penner must have taken advantage of the cool morning air and forgotten to shut the window when he left for lunch.
The window was around four feet off the ground, so Paul hopped up and got his head through while resting on one elbow and forearm. He listened for a moment and thought he heard muffled sounds from the reception room. He quietly pressed himself up until his arms were straight, the back of his head barely touching the inside of the windowpane. Finally he lifted his legs through one at a time.
The door connecting Reverend Penner’s office and the reception room was just ajar. He tiptoed across the room to it.
He heard somebody whisper something, a low voice.
Leaning into the wall by the door, he peeked through but saw only his mom’s desk with no one sitting at it. He did hear something like sniffs and little coughs — like someone was crying but trying not to cry too loud.
With a fingertip, he inched the door open a bit more. Now, over by the windows, he could see the man bent over his mom and Carol, who were kneeling, facing each other. Paul simultaneously registered the knife in his hand and Carol’s dirty looking, tear-smeared face. Neither his mom nor Carol had on a shirt.
The man whispered,
Quiet, I said. Shh!
Paul cautiously pushed the door open further. It squeaked, and the other three looked up. His sneaky entrance discovered, Paul stepped into the room and, without conviction, said,
Hey! adding a lame wave of the arm in man’s direction.
His and the man’s eyes met through the pantyhose pulled over the man’s head. Paul followed the man’s eyes as they flashed to the door to the hall; both calculated their equal distance from it then looked back to each other. Paul saw the man’s frustration just as he broke eye contact with Paul, his eyes darting looking at nothing, looking within. He exhaled and, with a kind of roar, charged Paul. Paul quickly dodged behind his mother’s desk and spun her secretary chair out behind him as he dashed past it. Just as he let go, he heard a thump.
Sonuvuh. . . , then the chair crashing back under the desk.
Paul heard his mom’s and Carol’s muffled cries as he crossed the room and stopped at the far end of the couch used by people waiting for Reverend Penner. He turned and took in the room quickly, a blur. Peripherally, his mom and Carol kneeling on the floor. He focused on the man, who was only a few steps in front of him now, having cut across the room, from the corner of the desk to Paul’s end of the couch.
Paul sidestepped left, toward the middle of the couch, preparing to start the chase around the furniture again. But the man surprised Paul by veering toward him and stepping onto the couch cushion and vaulting over, fear and determination pressed between his lips, glowing in his eyes. He stabbed at Paul as he came.
Paul ducked and reached out to ward off the knife. He heard screaming before he realized it was him. Then he saw the blade stuck through his hand just as the pain registered.
Stabbing didn’t do the pain justice. But there was no time for words anyway.
Paul’s right hand rested limply around the hand holding the knife. His left gripped the man’s wrist.
By reflex perhaps, he threw his weight against the man and twisted the wrist. A new bolt of pain shot up Paul’s arm as the blade twisted too. Then they slammed against the wall, and the man’s breath escaped in a long deep cough.
He let go of the knife.
Paul stepped away and grabbed his own wrist then, as if to block the pain in his hand from shooting up his arm and reaching his brain. Eyes darting to his hand, he considered whether to pull the knife back through. He turned his hand palm up and lightly grasped the handle in his left.
Their eyes met again. The man was slightly bent over, just recovering his breath. His eyes darted down and back. He saw Paul holding the knife handle. He took only a moment to imagine Paul’s intentions.
At the same time, Paul gave the handle a little pull, testing. Straightened rigid fingers suddenly, trembling. Pain raced through his arm and turned to rage.
Get out! he bellowed, turning on the man.
He pulled quickly then, choosing a short violent pain. His whole body stiffened. Then he crumpled and grimaced, sucking air through his teeth and blinking tightly, though the pain wasn’t as excruciating as he’d expected. In a second, he righted himself.
The man had backed to the door. Another frantic second, he was through the deadbolt and into the hall.
Paul dropped the knife and again squeezed his wrist. His hand curled, a lifeless claw.
His mom was at the door, locking it behind the man. They heard the outside door bang open and start to swing shut and, at last, latch.
Paul stepped to the wall, leaned back against it, and closed his eyes, then slid down until he sat on his heels. His mother’s arms looped around his shoulders. He felt his blood, warm, pool where his thumb squeezed the soft under-side of his wrist. He opened his eyes as it dripped over and continued down his forearm toward his elbow. He started to feel dizzy and gagged a little, but he hadn’t had lunch yet.
He felt his mom flinch and looked her way. As his eyes swept from the floor to her face, he noticed her breast. His head shook once. Then he looked up at her teary face. Her wounded look pierced him again, even as he saw her worried eyes. His eyes welled and he took a couple of jerky breaths as he pieced more of the situation together.
Duct-tape covered her mouth. He let go of his wrist and pinched a corner of the tape and began to pull slowly.
He looked at Carol then and saw that her mouth too was taped. Just as he registered her haunted expression, he felt his mother’s head jerk to rip the tape off quickly. She took her arms from his shoulders and tore the tape of the rest of the way. Blood oozed from her lip. Paul then saw her blouse and bra hanging around her wrists, which had been bound with a plastic slip-lock fastener. He looked and saw that Carol’s wrists were also bound. She had sort of wadded her blouse and bra into her hands, which she held up and seemed to cower behind, trembling, breathing slowly, deeply. One cheek was smeared red, a tear of blood rolled down it.
Paul stood to go to her and she rose to her feet. Neither could hold back their tears then. She reached out to him, and he couldn’t help but notice her bare breasts just before her arms folded again between them and he embraced her.
He’d seen most of her before, at the pool and the beach, while floating down the river on inner-tubes. He’d sometimes imagined the rest. This didn’t satisfy his curiosity, though. This was painful.
He stroked her hair left handed and kind of hugged her with his upper right arm and elbow, holding his hand away.
They loved each other; they’d told each other as much. But the word was taking on new meaning. Paul felt a new quality of care and concern suddenly that made him feel more grown up than he’d been a moment before. Could this be what makes teenage desire last a lifetime?
Maybe it was, but even as he thought it, Paul knew that finding it in this way was all wrong.
After a moment, he turned his face and extended his arm to his mother. She nestled into his embrace and returned it.
But he had to let go. He grabbed his wrist again and sat on the edge of his mom’s desk. He took a deep breath to steady himself.
His mom ripped the duct tape from Carol’s mouth, then helped Carol let go of her clothes and slipped them up onto her shoulders. Head bowed slightly, Paul watched this gesture, noting his mother’s grown-up care for Carol, noticing Carol’s body distantly, but seeing almost only the mixture of sorrow and fear lingering in their faces. Then she got the knife and carefully cut the fastener on Carol’s wrists.
Go ahead and fasten your bra, his mom said softly. She did, absently but gracefully.
Paul’s mom held out the knife and her wrists to Carol, who returned the favor. Then she slipped on her clothes. Their shirts were cut up the back, so they had to reach around to keep them on.
Carol gulped a breath and began sobbing.
He. . . He. . .He wanted. . .us. . . , she tried to explain, crying harder then, her courage to face the memory faltering.
. . .to touch each other, his mother continued, her voice catching in her throat, in sympathy with Carol.
But you showed up. He was just looking and touching himself, though his pants anyway.
Carol tried again.
He started touching my hair, she said and then intoned a long, quavering cry.
I said I wouldn’t, and he. . . . Again she couldn’t continue. She touched the cut on her face and sobbed inconsolably into her hand, her face wretched.
Paul stood and held her again. This was too much. He tasted salt and, without thinking, wiped his face with the back of his hand. He grabbed his wrist again to stop the stinging. He couldn’t even hold her right.
He let go of his wrist for a second to take his arms from around her and sat on the floor.
His mom dialed 911. She waited a moment.
There’s been a stabbing. We’ll need the police and an ambulance at First Mennonite Church — Eleventh and L. She listened.
He’s been stabbed in the hand, but please hurry. Come in the west door, on L.
I’m so glad you got here when you did, Carol said. (Paul couldn’t help but think he should have been there sooner.)
I don’t know what he was planning.
You being here at all was the first thing to surprise him, Carol, his mom said, perhaps thinking for the first time that the man had had something in mind for her.
He seem confused the whole time. Making it up as he went.
God, I was so scared, said Carol. She sat and leaned against Paul.
I was too, he whispered, nodding.
They fell silent. There wasn’t much else to say.
Carol put one arm around him.
Are you okay? she asked.
Paul felt himself sag. He felt his blood, still running slowly down his arm. He didn’t know how hard to squeeze. But he began to wonder if he’d be able to squeeze hard enough much longer, let a little blood through but not too much.
They listened to the sirens get louder. They heard brakes outside and car doors opening. A second siren was still approaching.
Ruth went to unlock the office door.
This is what flashed to Paul’s mind — pictures, sensations, sounds encapsuling all this anyway. He gave his inquisitors the short Reader’s Digest version: that his mother and girlfriend had been assaulted, that he’d happened upon the scene, that he’d had the presence on mind (despite his fear) to throw away his knife, that he’d done what he could but not more than he should, that he’d been stabbed through the hand so he hadn’t been able to play ball this year and might never again because of the damage to his hand — he just couldn’t grip the ball well enough to pitch effectively and he’d never been much of a hitter — slow-pitch softball was beginning to look like the best he’d be able to do.
I remember reading about that, Mr. Jones said.
I hadn’t made the connection.
Bet you wish you’d hung on to your knife, speculated Williams.
I’ve thought that at times. But I’m pretty well convinced that I did the right thing. I was tempted, but when I felt the knife in my hand, I threw it away. I guess that means something. I wish I could still throw the ball 85 miles per hour, but I’m getting over it. I’m satisfied — content at least.
You would have been able to fight back, keep him away, protect yourself. Even take him down and hold him for the police.
Weren’t they listening? he thought. Aloud:
Yeah, I might have stabbed him too! even killed him! Paul hoped his mock enthusiasm registered.
Thompson was still staring, sneering, shaking his head. Paul didn’t know whether he heard him whisper too or just read his lips but, at the least, he saw Thompson mouth the word chicken.
He was suddenly standing, yelling,
I went through the window, didn’t I? He composed himself just as abruptly, closed his eyes, and gestured
settle down to himself, hands held out slightly, palms down.
Sorry. I’m sorry, Mr. Thompson, he said, thinking,
This interview is not going well.
Then he changed his mind. Certainly, the interview was not going as he’d vaguely anticipated and hoped. And he figured he could kiss the
honor of Boys’ State good-bye. But
Strangely, he thought,
it’s actually going well.
Looking Mr. Thompson squarely in the eye, he asked,
Do you think I’m cowardly just because I don’t want to hurt other people?
Thompson didn’t answer. Of course he thought so. He’d never thought any other way about people like Paul. But he looked down when Paul raised his eyebrows and cocked his head to reiterate the question. Maybe Thompson would think it over.
No one said a thing. Finally, Mr. Williams began gathering the papers before him and said,
Well, we have to interview the other nominees. The school will let you know what we decide.
Paul rose to his feet, a pinched smile on his face. He had a good idea what their decision would be. But he walked to the door thinking that he’d get over Boys State, just like he was getting over baseball — only faster.
Outside, the light blinded him momentarily. Looking down at his contracted shadow, he slowly threw an imaginary pitch. Then he looked at his palm, rubbed the scar with his finger, and started walking home.