EQMM Award Winner

Boo Radley College Prep

by Karen Harrington

 

Karen Harrington’s first adult novel, Janeology, came out in 2008. She has since won awards and praise for three novels from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. The latest of them, 2016’s Mayday, received starred reviews from both PW and Kirkus Reviews.

 

“I’m for truth, no matter who tells it.”

―Malcolm X

 

When the officer cuffed me, my first thought, honest to God, was that I probably didn’t like that paperback novel because I’d read it sitting in a Whataburger, and maybe that’s not the best place to consume good literature, but damn their spicy ketchup is good. Maybe I should have stayed there, given it a chance. Instead, I got arrested.

I lay on the ground, smelling asphalt and cigarets, wondering if deep down in my bones I wanted to get caught. Bad DNA. Bad decisions. My story could end right there. I mean, Radley once gave me this Hemingway test, okay. What you do is tell your own story in six words.

Tony Reyes. Screw up. The End.

That’s pretty sad, you know. But that’s my bio.

“You have a weapon in that back pocket, son?” The arresting officer’s shadow loomed across me even in the dark.

“If words are a weapon,” I say stupidly. He pats me down and then holds up the rolled paperback I’d stuffed in my jeans’ pocket. I could only see the word Gatsby from my view. I wondered, too, if I’d get Radley’s book back. He loaned them to me one at a time. Paid me an extra twenty if I finished reading.

“That’s supposed to be great literature,” I say.

“You dumb or something?”

“College-prep course reading.” I don’t think this helps my case. He has that face with a capital F, you know. The Not Amused Face. I get that a lot.

“Oh, sure, the twenty-four-hour, open-all-night course.”

“Something like that,” I say.

“Tony, shut up!” It’s Jesse, doing a face-to-face with the concrete curb, the cruiser’s lights bouncing off the gold chain around his neck. He’d resisted the officer. The officer did not like that. He made the Face.

I watched the officer search Jesse, hoping he wasn’t carrying. Cowboy Hat was, at least in his glove box. I can’t tell if they’d found him. He sped off like a cat on fire and left us holding the bag. Part of the stash was stuffed in my left shoe when I saw the lights from the cruiser spin on. But I tossed it. Now, I pray a dog won’t eat it because I love dogs, man. They’re about the only creatures I trust.

See?

I’m being arrested and I’m still thinking stupid shit.

“What’re we going to do?” I whisper to Jesse.

“Shut up,” he says. I have nothing to say, anyway. I was just the lookout, first day on the job too, and not very good at it.

Obviously.

An officer pulls Jesse up and stuffs him into the back of a cruiser. I am still on my chest, about to piss myself from fright and afraid I’m going to see those fries with spicy ketchup again soon.

“Why were you running?” the officer asks. “You with this group?”

I shrug.

I ran because Jesse ran. He heard the cops coming first. I’d become bored and read a page from Gatsby because Radley said I had to finish it by the end of the week and if I did, I’d get paid and get to swim in his pool. Jesse took off, so I figured it was time to scoot. Like I said, first day on the job. Just proves it’s another thing I fail at epically. There are so many people going to kill me. They’ll have to get in line like I’m a first-run movie they’re dying to see.

The ride in the back of the cruiser is a blur of late-night neon rushing past. We roll over a deep pothole in front of the Golden Chick. Someone has messed with the letters on the marquee. It reads: Now Hiring All Shifts, only some moron stole the letter f. Now there’s a job for me. The problem is, I like the job I have.

By the time we get to the station, it’s past one in the morning and all I can think about is that I’m going to be late. Radley eschews tardiness. And just to be clear, I’d never heard that word before, but from the annoyed expression on Radley’s face that one time, I got the context. Don’t be late. Sometimes you just look, then you know.

I know you’re thinking, this Tony guy, is he stupid or what? Maybe he shoulda thought about that earlier, you know, before the deal and the ketchup and the reading on the first day of the job.

They haul Jesse someplace around a corner. And I think, this is my life, forever. ’Course Radley would say that was a cheap way of skating out of consequence alley. He’d say exactly that.

“Go further, Reyes,” he’d say. “Don’t trust your first idea. Or your second. Examine your thoughts.”

Now Officer Serious Face tells me to sit in a chair and wait and be quiet, he’ll be back in a minute.

“Did I commit a crime?” I ask him. “What’s going to happen?”

The officer sighs. “You are being detained, son. Sit tight.”

They didn’t find anything on me, that’s good. But I guess tonight it’s a crime to hang out with the wrong people. I don’t know what to do, what to say. When your back’s up against a corner, all you can do is swing. And I feel like swinging. Radley said that too, so you see, we agree on some things. He told me that hunger changes your morality. Is that what I did? Wanting to make some money so I could eat? He made grilled-cheese sandwiches one day, and we talked about that idea for two whole hours. He said literature is full of good men on their worst day. He wanted me to discuss whether that made them bad or just human. I said, what if a bad man does something good one day, does that change who he is too?

And he said, “Forgiveness is like the rain, Reyes. It should fall on everyone.”

“Cool, who wrote that?” I asked.

“My grandmother.”

Three months ago, I wouldn’t even know how to form that kind of thought in my stupid head.

Officer Browman, the cop with the Face, comes back, and I can tell he’s in a worse mood. Maybe the wife called and told him something broke at their place and he’s, like, what can I do about it now? I’ve seen that show a thousand times at our old apartment complex.

“Okay, time for processing, Mr. Reyes.” Suddenly he’s interested in my biography. First up, age, address, and whereabouts of parents.

“Fifteen, 1601 Cloverdale Circle, and just the mom and my dumb uncle and I don’t know but you might try the nearest bar.”

The Face.

I give him Mom’s phone number. He doesn’t know it, but the number is like a lottery ticket. The chances of her answering are one in a million.

“How long have you lived at this address?”

“A few months. We’re trying out Garland, see if we like it. Do you like it?”

He would kick me if it was legal, I can see that. Then he makes a couple phone calls. I hear him giving someone my address. And then he calls my mom, but I already know how that story ends. It rings, predictably. And predictably, no answer. I have to give him my uncle Curtis’s name too, but I don’t keep phone numbers of people I hate and I tell him so.

“What have you been doing this summer?”

“Working. Generally avoiding my uncle.”

“Just messing around? Idle hands?” he says.

And now I’m itching to swing, talk, tell him more. Maybe tell him about my job. I’ve sweated and worked hard, but he doesn’t know, looks at me like I’m a thug.

“I have a job,” I say.

“A real job?”

“Sort of,” I say.

“Go on,” he says.

“You’ll think it’s weird,” I say.

“Twenty-two years as a cop and three teenagers and you don’t think I’ve heard everything?” he says. I have to wonder.

“I clean the pool,” I say. “And I type editorial letters.”

His eyebrows raise and it erases the Face. Maybe he hasn’t heard everything after all. “Do you have a name and number?”

“Sure,” I say, nervous. This might go south. I can’t tell them his real name. It would make things one hundred times worse, because I’d bet my ass that Officer Browman has heard my employer’s real name. He’s as infamous as a Manson follower. They made a movie about his life and it’s called The Face of Evil. Just thinking about that sends a shiver up my spine. Things you wouldn’t expect from a pool-owning book editor, but hey, life is sketchy.

“And yet, you have no ID or driver’s license.”

I shrug. “He lives on my street and I can’t drive. Officially.”

“Mmm-hmm,” he says. He writes, he makes judgments.

I have to stay with Officer Browman, because they can’t put me in a cell, I’m a minor, that’s what he says. First time in my life being young has been a plus.

Officer Browman puts a piece of paper in front of me. “Phone number and full name of this sort-of employer on your street. I want to check this out.”

“Wait? What?”

Do I really write down Boo Radley? I mean, I was so dumb, not knowing it was a character in a world-famous book. I don’t think Officer Browman is that dumb. Truth? I didn’t know what a Boo Radley was until the summer. When the flood drove us out of Houston, treading water all the way up outside of Dallas. And there was this house at the end of Curtis’s street, all overgrown and spooky, and dumb Curtis said, That’s the Boo Radley house, so stay away, two people and three dogs disappeared in those knee-high weeds, and he never comes out.

“It will help if I can speak to someone who knows you, Mr. Reyes,” Browman says. “Until such time as your guardians can be reached.”

I write down his number and his address, and I put Mr. Radley as his name. There. Done.

“It’s not what you think,” I say.

“Seems like you’re the one who needs to spend time thinking, Mr. Reyes. I already know how you got here. You need to figure out why you got here. As much as I like spending my Thursday nights chatting with the youth of our town, I don’t ever want to see you again. This is a minor infraction, but I’ve seen where this could lead, you got me?”

I nod. Here comes another officer with a coffee for him, a soda for me.

Browman takes a sip of his coffee, winces.

“That bad?” I ask.

“Undrinkable swill,” he says, but takes another sip anyway.

“Yeah, and you would know, right? Always getting a coffee and a donut?” He stabs me with his Look and man, do I feel the knife point. Plus, I mean, obvious cliché, Tony! A cop with a coffee and a donut? I can just feel Radley giving me an F.

“Mr. Reyes, it’s thinking time,” he says. “You think. I work. That’s how this is going to go. And if you can’t think, pretend.”

“Can I have my book back?” I ask. “It’s due by tomorrow.”

The Face.

I stare at the tile floor. Dingy and yellow. The smell of urine and disinfectant. Damn, someone must have peed right here. Recently!

Now I have plenty of time to think about things I don’t want to think about. Especially how I will explain this to Mom.

To stupid Uncle Curtis.

Worse, to Radley.

I pretend to think. I picture the whole mess as a story. Like it happened to someone else. Radley says he likes beginnings—set the stage, show the scene, get things moving on the page.

He said he didn’t mind a murder or a heartbreak on page one, but that people usually screwed it up by talking about the weather.

But this started with the weather, dammit.

Because if there was no bad weather, no reason for me to move. It’s that simple. You get born under watery geography, it changes your life. We moved away because of Hurricane Harvey, away from a crappy apartment, away from streets full of trash and rot, packing everything we owned in the trunk of Mom’s beater.

And heartbreak? There was a micro-heartbreak that happened right before the first thundercloud rolled over Houston. Victoria Casey from English class. And she wrote her number down inside a college-prep book because a girl like her had an extra copy and did I want to borrow hers?

Did you get that? A college-prep book? Man.

All of that led us to Garland, which is just landlocked Houston, if you ask me. People travel with their misery all over Texas. And we took ours to a life with lousy Uncle Curtis and his crap place with dirt for a yard, crusted dishes in the sink, and big-ass cockroaches crawling over the bread. Curtis works as a body-shop manager and says he makes extra dough fixing up garage-sale junk.

“I don’t have time to clean,” Curtis had said. “You do it, lazy ass.”

He assumed I was a bad apple from the jump. Like my dad is. Was.

Picture me walking away from Curtis’s dump every chance I got. Especially when he and Mom were mouthing off after too many beers and trash-talking everyone on TV. And everyone in the neighborhood.

That woman next door, she’s a bonafide hoarder and all her cockroaches are coming into my lawn.

I’m gonna call the cops on that guy across the street for playing his music at all hours.

That crap Boo Radley house at the end of the cul-de-sac with the overgrown grass is about to get smacked with a citation.

“You called them?” Mom asked.

“Yeah, I called them,” Curtis said.

I went to check out the Boo Radley house. Cloverdale Circle, as it turned out, had two cul-de-sacs. One swung off of the other and there were four old houses on it. The scary one was almost dead in the middle. The house itself was hidden from the street like the trees and bushes had swallowed it. You could make out a narrow pathway that probably led up to the front door, but the last leg of it disappeared under the toddler-high overgrowth and low-hanging branches. And there was an eight-foot-high wood fence around the side. The rest of the houses in the neighborhood had chain-link fences. That one stood out like a spider on rice.

“Hey! You there!” The voice was quick and loud like sudden backfire. “I said, what the hell are you doing out there?” the voice shouted again.

The house had an angry man with an angry voice. We had ten of those back in the complex in Houston. Nothing to see there but an old man with an overgrown yard. Still, I didn’t move. I glanced sideways long enough to see a dark curtain parted open and a tall shadow behind it.

“My dog hasn’t eaten yet,” the deep voice said.

Then there was the sound of a giant beast barking and then a blood-curdling growl. In my mind, I was running. But my feet were heavy as bricks, unable to move. Why does fear have freezing power? I was so mesmerized, I didn’t even notice that a heavy city truck idled nearby.

“You live here, young man?”

I swiveled my head to the sound.

“Um,” I said. The guy was official and wearing a uniform.

“This lot needs to be cleaned by order of the City of Garland,” the man said. I noticed he wore a short-sleeved shirt with a patch bearing his name. Dwight. Dwight from the City of Garland extended his hand with a piece of paper on it.

“Oh, no, I don’t live here,” I said.

Dwight from the City ascended the path up to the scary house, disappearing halfway up the walk. I’d been right. The wild vegetation could swallow a person. Then I heard a somewhat heated exchange in the same fashion I often heard at the apartments. One person arguing about the need for another to do something. Dwight ambled down the sidewalk, pushing a pen into his shirt pocket.

“Is he a monster?” I asked. “Did he have a knife?”

“Good day, sir,” was all Dwight said. All business. I admired that in a person. It told me a little about the boogeyman of Cloverdale Circle. He didn’t actually eat people.

“Why are you still loitering?” It was the voice. “What do you want?”

“I can do this for you. Clean it up, I mean.” I surveyed the yard. A couple hours’ work, I naively thought. “Twenty bucks.”

Then the man Boo Radley let out a laugh. He knew a sucker when he saw one. Before you knew it, big yard bags and tools spit out onto the porch. A large rusty metal scythe, or I guess that’s what you call it. I’d never done any work like this before so I wasn’t sure how to get started. As if he read my mind, his voice boomed through the door, “Just pick it up and start swinging.”

There it was. The language of a possible murderer. Scared as I was, the summer suddenly sparked with potential.

I went across the lawn, if you could even call it a lawn, and tossed all the dead grass and tall weeds and who knows what else was underneath there into the bags. I dragged eight full bags out to the curb by the mailbox as the sun was setting. And when I went back up the walk, there was a twenty-dollar bill taped to the screen door. Crisp, clean, and untouched, as if it had never been spent a day in its life. I wondered then if maybe Radley was a thief and this was connected to some great robbery. I’d earned it, though, so it didn’t matter. A twenty is a twenty.

And there was a note, just as crisp, with the perfect penmanship of a first-grade teacher: COME FOR WORK TOMORROW, 10 A.M.

The beast barked at me as I walked away. But I didn’t care. Because you know what I did? I walked straight to Whataburger, land of no cockroaches. No Curtis.

Next day, my hand moved toward the old man’s doorbell. I kid you not, it was shaped like a skull and you had to press a black button in the center of the mouth. I touched it and then recoiled. I told myself to knock instead of ringing the bell a second time, but my courage wouldn’t rise.

“You going to stand there all day and sweat?”

His nonshouting voice was deep, richer than I expected.

I coughed. Fear kept me from moving.

“Enter.”

I opened the screen door and it hissed against its springs. Needed oil. Two steps forward and I was inside the house. Dim from where I stood. Old wood paneling. A tiled entry. Endless knickknacks, doilies, fake flowers, and a framed Jesus. My mind sort of bent, because it looked like a classic grandma house.

Five paces in and I saw him, sitting there on a sectional sofa. He was in the shadows, but I could see he wasn’t a giant but an average-sized guy wearing a button-down shirt and jeans. Papers all around him, the beast at his feet.

“Name and age,” he said.

“Yes, fifteen. Tony. Tony Reyes.”

“Mr. Reyes,” he said. He rose and walked into the light.

“Oh, you’re black.” I could now see he had a mean, deep crescent scar under his right eye.

He stared at me intensely, like he could stab me and not blink. “Nothing gets past you, Reyes.”

“It’s just that everyone said Boo Radley lives in that house, and I looked it up and Boo Radley in that famous book was, or is, this white guy in this novel. You ever heard of him?”

He rubbed his chin, thoughts of how to cover up my murder forming in his cool head.

“Man, I’m sorry,” I stammered.

“Why are you on this particular street this particular summer?” Radley asked.

“The flood in Houston. No work. No jobs. Mom dragged us to the nearest relative.”

“Your dad?”

“What about it?”

“You have one?”

Agitation boiled up. “Man, I’ve got a father like anyone else has a father. But not a dad. A dad is someone who teaches you stuff. He’s not around, not that it’s your business any more than me asking you if you are divorced or a Democrat.”

He looked at me over the rim of his glasses, a sneer on his face. His scar wrinkled and puckered.

“Fair enough. We agree not to ask those kinds of questions,” he said.

I got all fidgety again, kinda mad at myself for sounding all righteous when all I wanted to do was earn a little more money. Mom said we might have to turn off the phones and I expected she was going to come for mine first.

“You have a lot of books here,” I said. “You ever read that one with Radley in it?”

“Yes, I’ve read that book with Radley in it. You should too. Do more than just look things up.”

“That’s how I know anything. I look it up. So what’s your name, then, if it’s not Radley?”

“You going to look it up?”

I shrugged. “Probably. If I get bored.”

He rubbed his chin. “Let’s stick with Radley then. I’d rather you not look me up at the moment.”

“Why, you got some controversial tweets or something?”

“Sort of like me not asking about this person who is a father, but not a dad,” he said, which I liked right off. He was listening to me, which I don’t have to tell you doesn’t always happen.

He stepped over the beast and went to the kitchen table.

“What do you think of this sentence, Reyes,” Radley asked. “The clouds were abloom with whiteness.”

“Um, sorry. Is that the job? I thought it was the yard or something. Or I could fix that squeaky door.”

“You say or something quite a lot.”

“I have no opinion on stuff like that.”

“Stuff like that.” He roasted me and his eyes never left the page. “I’m not a fan of the sentence. The word abloom makes me think of something . . . planted. In dirt. Which is a contrast to the very residence of a cloud.”

“Unless it’s fog. I mean, fog is clouds on the ground.”

Now his stare landed on me, heavy. That scar. I’d done it now. Ruined a chance at a job and more Whataburgers. He wrote on the paper. “Clouds on the ground.”

“Okay.”

“I need you to clean my pool. Gets a lot of debris this time of year. Needs the chemicals to be balanced. I’ll show you how.”

“You’re a liar,” I said, smiling. “No one here has a pool.”

The glasses came off. The beast growled. “I am many things, Reyes, but I’m not a liar.”

That’s how I came to clean his pool, which was magically in the back of his huge backyard. It was a secret hidden right in Garland. Man, that pool was like seeing a mirage or something. I guess I do say that too much.

“I’ll tell you what to do. Your fee shall be twenty dollars.”

“Sure, Mr. Radley.” I smiled and he turned his blazing eyes at me. The room was all relaxed for a minute.

 “What, pray tell, is the last book you read?”

“Well, actually, the last one I got was a college-prep guide.”

“Mmm. And you read it, I take it? Studied it?”

“Only the part where this girl, Victoria, wrote her number in it. That was my favorite page, ya know?”

“Come with me.” Radley slid open the glass door and we stepped out next to the pool. The next hour was a series of strict commands on how to brush the sides of the pool and stick a little piece of paper into the water, wait for it to change colors to check the pH balance, then add a couple scoops of chemicals. The tricky part was the annoying leaves. Three giant trees surrounded the pool and every time I thought I’d skimmed my last leaf, another one fell to the water’s surface. If you’d asked me, I’d just cut the trees down to save time, but nobody asked me.

When I came back inside, Radley was back on the sectional, frowning at a page as if it had insulted his mother.

“What’s the problem now?”

“Are you really interested?”

Another shrug. I mean, the old man hadn’t tried to murder me yet and I had plenty of time to kill.

“And now, Reyes from Houston who has a book with a girl’s phone number in it, you are done. Find your fee taped to the door. Have a pleasant summer.”

“So that’s it?”

He stabbed me with a look. “That’s it.”

“I just thought maybe you’d want me to do more jobs. There’ll be a ton of leaves in that pool in a couple of days, just sayin’.”

He said nothing, didn’t even look up. “Your attitude is full of entitlement. I’ve zero patience with that kind of foolishness, and now I have to type up my letters. Goodbye, Reyes.”

“I’m just looking for more work.” That wasn’t the best first thing to say, but it was the truth. All of it.

“Son, I don’t like repetitions on the page or in person. I believe I made my preferences for your services clear.”

“I see how it is. You aren’t scary, you’re just old,” I said and turned to the door.

“That’s what the warden said too,” Radley said.

A chill ran up my spine and I was monster-under-the-bed paralyzed, couldn’t turn around and look at him. I twisted the doorknob and got the hell out of there, kicking a rock all the way back to Curtis’s house. I heard Mom and Curtis laughing it up. Figured I’d just keep kicking the rock on past the house for an hour. But you can only do that so long.

I came back home and wished I hadn’t. Mom said, “Your phone will be turned off tomorrow. Do the dishes.” There was a mound of crusted pans in the sink. Still.

And Curtis yelled a Jeopardy! answer about some piece of art at the TV and pounded the arms of his recliner. And damn, he was right. I couldn’t believe it, because I always thought Curtis was about as deep as a puddle.

“You’re so smart, Curtis,” Mom said. “Tony, he got almost all the answers right.”

The thing was, I think they were starting to like each other. My own mother and my dead dad’s brother. I gagged my way through washing the stupid dishes.

Next day, I pushed the skull doorbell and the beast barked and Radley scorched me with, “Reyes? Are you lost?”

I could see his outline through the window screen.

“It’s half-price day. All my services, half off.” I’m smiling like an idiot, but what can I do.

“That’s good. Good.” Then he just said no.

“No, I mean. Please, is there anything else I can do? I’m sorry for before. If I was, you know, entitled-sounding. So, you know, if you don’t have any chores for me, maybe you could recommend me to a friend or something.”

“To a friend?”

“Yeah, like your neighbor or your best friend or maybe your bowling buddy.”

“People have accused me of a lot of things, but never of being a bowler.”

“Okay, maybe you have a . . . book club. And they are too busy reading, they don’t have time to edge their lawns.”

“You’re not that bright, are you, Reyes?”

Man, the words I had to stuff down. I wanted to swing, you know. To be spiteful and mean. To say he was just a giant know-it-all, trying to scare the neighborhood with his mangy lawn. Or find one of those SAT words I’d been scanning in Victoria’s book. A word that perfectly described a poser; I knew it existed in the world, but I couldn’t place it. Someone who was so educated they could not believe they could ever be wrong in a million years. No way I could say it on Radley’s porch. One thing I learned this summer is that I am way more articulate in my thoughts than I am with spoken words.

So I blurted, “Why’d you go to prison?”

Picture me, surprised as hell and twice as terrified. My courage had fallen as it had risen—instantly. I couldn’t see his face, but I could feel his eyes narrowing. Sharpening. The beast growled. This was the end of my life.

“I went to prison as a consequence of my poor choices.”

“Sorry,” I said finally. “I would like the work and I need to eat. Sir.”

An eternal pause. Then he wedged open the screen door a little.

“So, Reyes, you have arrived at that point where hunger is a guiding force. Like so much of the world, I’m afraid.” He looked across the lawn, his dark eyes shifting from fearlessness to something I couldn’t place. I suddenly felt embarrassed to be standing there to witness it. Right then, I didn’t know the depths of his pain or his past. If I’d known, I might have . . . I don’t know. I was hungry and I wanted my phone back. Wanted something to do. Still, I turned on my heel. Radley was done.

“Warden used to say if you could make him laugh, you’d get an extra helping of dessert.”

“Yeah?” I turned back.

“Make me laugh.”

Make him laugh? At first, I didn’t know what to do, my heart racing. All I could remember was one cringey joke I overheard my old principal tell the PE coach. And it was bad.

“Did you know you can date a nun? Yeah, you can, as long as you don’t get into the habit.”

His face, stone cold. I felt terror rise up. Again. And then, he erupted in laughter. I forced a smile.

“Can you type?”

Type?

“Some,” I said, thinking I was more of a hunt and peck on a keyboard kind of guy, but he didn’t know that. He invited me to sit at the kitchen table and gave me his precise “do not do anything more or less than I tell you, is that clear” instructions.

His handwriting was as clear as a font. Some of his comments were funny too.

“Can I read the pages?” I asked. “From the writers?”

“I thought you weren’t a reader.”

I shrugged. “Nothing else to do but wait for the rain. That’s a line from a song I know.”

“That will take you too long. Get to work. I run everything on deadlines. My word is my bond and these writers need my help yesterday.”

“You’re pretty hard on them, aren’t you? They’re at least trying.”

“My job isn’t to be nice,” he said. Then he went into the kitchen and made grilled-cheese sandwiches and iced tea, and I should mention, his kitchen was spotless, even if it was too packed with flowery things.

“How’d you get so smart about words and sentences anyway?” I asked, typing up one of his comments.

“It’s a long story.”

“Shoot.”

“I worked in the prison library and helped others get their GEDs,” he said. “Found that I liked it. Liked that I could find redemption and mercy within pages.”

“So you’ve sort of been a teacher all your life.”

“Sort of.”

He’d never tell me why he went to prison, but he said one of his prison friends got out and worked at a college as a bonafide professor and that’s how he got this editing gig.

“I’m only telling you this, Reyes, because I can spot the ultimate curiosity that’s about to transfer from your brain to your mouth.”

“Cool, but what I was really wondering is why you live in a grandma house.”

“Type, Reyes.” And then, “This is my grandmother’s house, God rest her soul.”

Well, that fit. I still didn’t understand how a convict became a word nerd, but hey, life is strange. I typed and he worked and at one moment, I heard him mumble-laugh under his breath. As long as you don’t get into the habit.

All summer, I typed and kept the leaves out of his pool and cut the grass with his scythe and kept the front yard neat. Radley sat at the poolside reading on days I cleaned, marking up a page or reading a sentence or saying something interesting about books. I think I learned more new words next to that pool than I ever did in ten years of school. I have to wonder now what would have happened if Radley hadn’t gone away for two weeks. He had to visit the professor in person. He was even taking the beast with him. He left me a copy of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea with a twenty in it and told me to study it like I had to report its themes to Victoria Casey back in Houston. After all that time, he’d remembered her name. I couldn’t believe it.

That day, I handed some cash to Mom and asked her to turn my phone on and Curtis came in from a yard sale and got his nose in it.

“What’s this?”

“Money I saved,” I said. “For my phone.”

Mom took the money. “Curtis, don’t worry about it. Let’s watch Jeopardy!”

“How’re you saving money, boy? What are you up to?” Curtis asked.

I pretended I didn’t hear him, so he cuffed my head. Everything in me wanted to take a swing at him, but there was Mom behind him, looking beat down, shaking her head no. Curtis’s dumb place was all we had. I pictured that perfect sparkling pool and wished I could dive deep to the bottom, touch the floor, the drain, whatever.

Two nights later, I was so bored that I actually sat down to read Hemingway. And Curtis sat at the kitchen table, cleaning an old rifle he was putting up for sale.

“I’m gonna make a killing,” he said. No one said anything about his dumb comment, he’s never going to be a Radley, but still he went on, “Do you get it? A killing?”

Radley called that kind of sloppy writing the “poor-slob-at-a-party” technique. The poor slob wants to make sure you got the joke, so he tells it and then explains it to you.

“No, I don’t get it, Curtis,” I said. “Explain it to me.”

“See, a gun can kill and . . .”

I was grinning like a fool. Then he biffed the back of my head again, but it was worth it. I went to the hall bathroom and grabbed the Mason jar I’d hidden in the toilet tank. It held my last two twenties. But there was Curtis right behind me, stealing it out of my hands, calling me a thief, telling me he was taking it for past-due rent. And Mom? She saw it all and said nothing. The price we paid for bullshit rent was way too high.

I walked out of the house, trying to process it all. Life was as dead-end as our street.

I met Jesse and Cowboy Hat that night. They’d been trolling me on my rock-kicking walks, anyway, and buying me Cokes and shit. I guess I thought they were starting to be my friends, which now I know makes me a grade-A fool.

Then it was a Tuesday, bright, clear with the promise of being a hundred degrees out. Radley had returned and his pool was gross. A shade of Jolly Rancher green apple. You couldn’t even see to the bottom. I saw at least fifteen bucks, though.

“Nice shoes, Reyes,” Radley said. He’d noticed right off. My other kicks were way past their expiration date and besides, Jesse said I had to look neat if I was going to hang with him. He told me to do stuff. I did it. That was part of the game.

“Thanks.”

Radley gave me a paperback and told me I was ready for it. I didn’t quite understand, but that was fine. It was The Great Gatsby. When the pool was clean, Radley’d left an iced tea and a grilled cheese on the table next to the computer where I typed. I ate and it was good. Or I should think it was “stellar” because that was the word written at the top of the first page of notes. Stellar! And you can’t blame me, I got curious about what kind of writing was stellar to Radley. Anyway, I got drawn into the first paragraph and then I noticed an envelope behind the first page. A piece of mail that had nothing to do with the work, looked like some bill from the utility company or something. I almost tossed it aside until I thought, Damn, this has his real name on it!

Radley never left anything out with his name on it.

But there it was.

C. C. Robinson.

I did an image search on the computer because, hey, if he’d done time, C. Robinson might show up someplace. There are a lot of C. Robinsons, I must tell you. A lot. But then, bingo, the picture shot up, only it was about forty years old. He had that same hard stare and mean scar I’d been bruised by all summer. One thing led to another as I searched and found his first name.

Clarence.

Clarence Robinson.

More than a thousand references came up. I’d found him. I clicked on an article. Boy, did it go down a twisty path too. Clarence Robinson was honest-to-God infamous. Hated. A magazine cover had his mug on it with the caption: The Face of Evil.

“You did warn me about that,” Radley said.

“Oh.” I couldn’t manage any words. Not even sounds that were intelligible.

“I hated the actor who played me,” he said. Then he clapped his hands together, loud as thunder.

“Okay,” he said. “That’s all for today, Reyes.”

“Wait, I’m sorry. I know you said . . .” I stammered.

“That’s it,” he interrupted. “Time’s up. The pool looks great. I can finish up there.”

“It’s nothing. You did your time, right? Paid your debt.” I was on shaky ground, my head still trying to match up the man I knew to the stark contrast of his infamy.

“And I said you were done today, Reyes.”

He was in that scary middle space. Not angry and not happy. The limbo where sparks fly, unpredictable sparks. I only had myself to blame.

I headed toward the door.

“That’s right, keep walking, no talking,” he said, his words stinging me. I spun back and stared into his dark face.

“I won’t tell anyone, you know that,” I said.

“Do I?” he said. “Everyone else does, why shouldn’t you?”

“Well, because you’re my friend,” I said.

Dead air. Not even the beast made a sound. “Man like me doesn’t have friends, Reyes.” He closed the door on me, the lock clicking, the deadbolt connecting. Funny thing, I was on the outside, but somehow felt like I’d been put behind bars.

I hated myself all the way home.

Jesse caught me out walking like always.

“You done with that dumb pool job?” he asked.

“It’s not dumb.” My anger boiled up. Jesse wouldn’t understand that I was also typing, reading, and eating a grilled cheese, and learning about how someone can manipulate a sentence. Things I never knew, like ways to write them short and quick to speed up tension. Long and colorful to make you travel. It was the best part of my day. My life.

“You know you could make bank a lot easier,” Jesse said.

We got to the sidewalk in front of Curtis’s house. I could hear his drunken voice shouting answers at the TV. I could feel Mom growing smaller in the recliner, staying there, never trying to get back to Houston. We were out from under the flood, but still drowning.

“Meet at the gas station later. How about midnight? Or earlier, and I’ll buy you one of those burgers you like so much.”

“Sure,” I said.

Everything tilted on that one stupid word. That one stupid decision that led me here tonight, at the station. I let myself slip into uneasy rest, eyelids heavy.

Officer Browman comes back into the holding room, the smell of stale coffee wafting off of him like bad cologne.

“Wake up, sunshine.” He hands me a steaming mug of coffee. I take a drink. It is swill, through and through.

“Is this my punishment?”

“I’m afraid that’s only one of your consequences. Let’s go.”

“Why? Where am I going?”

Another officer stops and conspires with Browman a minute and Browman says to mind your own business. While there, I overhear two officers dishing about something in a corner.

No shit, it’s Clarence Freaking Robinson.

What’s he doing here?

The hell if I know.

My stomach cramps up tight. Radley can’t be here. He can’t be. Browman waits for me to walk through the door.

“You waiting for me to adopt you, Reyes?” Browman asks.

“Would you?” I ask, stalling.

The waiting area is thick with people, all with faces of disappointment. All waiting to pick up humans caught on their worst day. I wish I had a joke or some words to get me out of this. To save myself. To save him. But I don’t. I see him. Radley standing near the American-flag post. He’s trying to hide under a navy baseball cap, but it’s him. Standing with purpose, arms folded across his chest.

I don’t know how to feel. Glad that he’s there or scared. He steps up to the counter.

“Mr. Reyes, is this your employer?” Browman asks. And I nod yes. “He came to see if you needed bailing out and I explained that, because you are a minor, and this was an infraction, you need to be released to a guardian.”

The room fills with whispers loud enough to reach Radley and me.

“You didn’t have to come,” I say, humble.

“His guardian is on the way?” Radley asks. “And he’s in good standing, because I can vouch for him, Officer.”

“That’s right.”

The whispers increase.

“Good, good.” I hate that Radley is rattled.

I will my face to communicate with him. Just go!

And as if he can read my mind, he says in his powerful voice, “Don’t want you getting on the wrong path, Tony, you got me?”

And I nod yes, feeling like a humiliated dog.

“Well, well, look at the little bad-ass.” Damn. It’s Curtis.

“What do I need to do?” Mom asks Browman. Radley steps back and we lock eyes. He just nods at me.

“If you’ll just sign these papers,” he says.

“Come on, you little shit,” Curtis says, slapping me on the back of the head. “I knew this day would come. When you would screw up so bad.”

“Get off me,” I say.

“You just wait until you get home. If you have a home. I should kick you so far to the curb,” Curtis says, squeezing my arm.

“There’s no need for that,” Radley says. “Leave the boy alone.”

“Who the hell are you?” Curtis says.

“Never mind who I am, you seem to be gripping that kid a little too much,” Radley says. I shake my head no, no, no, don’t poke the stupid bear.

“You aren’t going to tell me what to do with my family,” Curtis says. “You don’t even know me.”

“Oh, I know you.”

When Radley leaned into a word, it could shake the ground you were standing on. And I could tell, Curtis was shook.

“Who are you?” Curtis snaps.

The volume in the station dials up. Someone shouts Radley’s dead name.

“All done, folks, you can take this conversation outside,” Browman says. “I don’t want to see you again, Tony.” He hands me my paperback book. Gatsby. My face goes red, but still, I shoot a glance to Radley and he smiles at me. Knows I was reading in jail.

Mom looks scared, tries to push us along, but it’s useless. Because Curtis versus Radley. Both of them stones from different quarries.

“Wait, did someone say Clarence Robinson?” Curtis says.

“Shut up, Curtis,” I say. “Why don’t you go, Radley? Just go!”

Curtis and Mom look at me hard. You know this man, they are saying.

“Well, son of a bitch,” Curtis says. “You are one stupid boy.”

“He’s not your boy,” Radley says. The temperature rises between them and I wish I could just be back by Radley’s pool, making it clean. No more leaves getting in the way.

Curtis, closer and closer into Radley’s space and he doesn’t even back down, but I’m dying inside because I don’t want anything to happen. And the room feels like the weight of the world, the weight of the past, is about to crush everything.

“That scar,” Curtis says. “Robinson. The evil one. That’s right.”

“Stop it, Curtis,” I say.

“Clarence Freaking Robinson,” Curtis shouts and now he has the attention of the room. Like I feared. Everything stops, slow motion, as the people waiting around look in. Even Browman has turned around.

A stranger says, “Son of a bitch, you are Robinson. Why the hell are you walking among the citizens?”

It’s awful, like you’d expect. Hate has a feeling and it’s in the room, solid as the clock hanging on the wall. Tick. Tick. Tick. Hate. Hate. Hate.

Radley is herded from the building by jeers and insults, out into the rainstorm that just broke over the city. And we go too, through the first set of glass doors, Curtis dragging me by the sleeve. Radley is looking back at me. Every groove in his face shows a map of pain. Really old pain, from a place so deep, I can’t imagine, I just feel it. And I go to the last door and race out, and there’s already all these people. How did they get here? How did the word spread? But I know how it is. A rumor spreads fast as rising water. There are people yelling at him, taking pictures. They chase him, and he turns his collar up and stuffs his hands into his pockets and tries to weave through the crowd, pelted by rain and insults. I manage to get one shout out to stop it.

“You don’t even know him! He served his time!” I shout at the top of my lungs. And it gets their attention. For just a second, they turn to look at the fool defending Clarence Robinson and I feel ill. Curtis gives me his trademark biff to the head and pushes me toward his car.

They don’t even know him. They see evil and I see a man who makes grilled cheese and cares about words.

Then our car is crawling down the street, and from the backseat, I see Radley being hounded, hunted, camera flashes going off like fireworks through the rain. If I hadn’t choked and given Officer Browman his name. If I hadn’t gone with Jesse in the first place. Damn, I’m so dumb. They’ve surrounded Radley at the corner and we’re stopped at the light. I roll the window down, put my hand up. He puts his hand up too. Above the mob of people who don’t know him, but think they hate him.

And all I can think is, when is it enough? When does someone finally get done paying the price? Is it like he said? Redemption and mercy are only found on pages?

They think they know him, but all they know is him on the worst day of his life. They don’t know he lives in his grandma’s house, not hurting anybody.

Two days later, I walked past Radley’s shut house and it was silent and covered with hate from a paint can. I’d walked all over town and thrown out those shoes from Jesse; and later, valiantly dodged every insult from Curtis, only because I’d dipped his toothbrush in the toilet so every time he talked, I pictured the filth there. Three days later, I caught Curtis watching DVR’d Jeopardy! and memorizing all the answers. You know what? I didn’t have to say a thing. It made sense because he was a liar and knowledge cheat and now, we both knew it. And he said, “I’ll turn your phone back on if you don’t tell your mom.” And I agreed, not because I believe in mercy, which I do, but because Mom said we’re not moving. That fight will keep.

Four days later and no sign of Radley. But I get an anonymous letter in the mail. My hands shook. I’d recognize that perfect, first-grade teacher handwriting anywhere.

You have successfully completed the Boo Radley College Prep Course.

                  Go further.

                  Your friend,

                              C

And I swear, I will.

 

© 2020 by Karen Harrington