Twenty Minutes with Pepper
The boy lived in a foggy world replete with gawking stares and cruel barbs. Daily, he was referred to less by name and more by words like “moron,” “spaz,” and “retard.” But most often, he was simply ignored. He was big for his age. Perhaps too big. At six foot three, two hundred twenty-five pounds, he was twice the size of the other sixteen year olds at school. However, his size didn’t intimidate. Rather, it made him a larger target for the ire of the terminally insecure. Still, despite his condition, the boy looked, for the most part normal. Aside from a lazy lower lip (an injury he incurred at birth from the tightly held forceps that eventually freed him from the womb) that hung down low enough, especially on the right side, to reveal most of his bottom teeth and much of his gums, one would never know, just by looking, the struggle that had become his every waking moment.
The boy hadn’t spoken in nearly a week: since the incident. And his mother, for whom life hadn’t been easy, was perilously close to her breaking point. All his life people had talked around him. They spoke of his “problems” and about “what is best for him.” And as of late, they spoke about the incident and about what caused it. And since no one ever asked the boy what he thought, he decided he would stop speaking.
They said the suburbs would be good for the boy but since the incident there had been talk of sending him back to the city to live with his father. The idea of which wasn’t all that objectionable to the boy except for the fact that he’d have to leave his only friend, an Irish Setter named Shawn, who his mother bought for him when it was determined by the doctors that he could use some company.
The boy had been out of school since the incident and his reinstatement was pending a meeting of school officials. The boy didn’t exactly mind the time off as he loathed sitting in cramped desks in the back corner of the school, reserved for him and the others like him. However, he did long to get out of the house as his mother, whom he didn’t particularly care for, worked from home.
The boy had always been made to feel by his mother that his existence on this earth was wholly objectionable. After struggling to get pregnant for three years and after the overwhelming joy she’d felt when it finally happened, she was rewarded with nine months of agony, a bloody, brutal delivery and a mentally handicapped son. Also, she was told that she’d never be able to get pregnant again. Not only was the boy’s presence a daily reminder of imperfection, perversion and failure, his presence was a reminder that because of him she couldn’t ever try again. It was because of him that she’d never be able to have a “normal” child.
His mother had tried to love him at first, she truly did. She’d told herself that this was her son, exactly as God intended him to be. She told herself he was perfect as he was. But soon, a loathing, as ominous as a storm cloud began to envelop her. She’d watch the other moms cheering their kids on at the park or the swimming pool. She’d watch the other children developing as she thought they should; smiling wide smiles, soaking in the sun, in love with life. While her son seemed content to lurk in the shadows, unable to walk until he was two, unable to speak until he was three and a half.
She began questioning herself. She wondered if her difficulty in getting pregnant had contributed to her son’s problems. However, there was no history of mental illness in her family. In the father’s though, there was. His brother’s daughter was diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome a few years earlier. She silently blamed her husband for the half-son they’d created. She started to loathe his corrupt genes. She began to abhor his flawed DNA. She grew to detest every “retarded bone in his retarded body.”
At first, the father didn’t suspect anything. He worked incessantly and while he would admit to himself, after six or seven scotches, that he wished his son was “normal,” he loved him and tried to support him as best he could.
The mother’s hatred for the both of them grew as she was home alone with the boy all day. She bore witness to his every struggle, his every failure. She simultaneously resented and envied the father because he wasn’t exposed daily to the boy’s shortcomings. While the boy’s inability to complete the simplest tasks, like holding a fork or giving a high five were daily reminders that the father and the son were the same and that they were both the enemy.
Dinners became an amalgam of slamming dishes, hostile glares, broken sighs and massive liquor consumption. This went on until the boy was seven and the father decided it was time for him to leave. He’d loved the mother very much at one point but he’d fallen out of love with her. Not because of the son, but because she’d allowed the son to turn her into someone he didn’t recognize. The mother missed the father when he was gone.
The mother endured failed relationship after failed relationship, many of which she blamed on the boy. And while it was true that a handful of men made comments about the boy, the relationships invariably failed because the mother chose men poorly and because mentally, she was in no condition to give herself to anyone.
On this particular day, the boy was limply throwing a gnarled stick all about the backyard. Shawn promptly retrieved and returned it at least twenty times with little evidence of exhaustion or disinterest. One time, on a particularly far throw, the stick got caught in the fence that separated the boy’s backyard from the house behind it. The boy lurched toward the fence and attempted to free the stick as Shawn circled, huffing and squeaking with an excitement that people can rarely muster and that dogs exude daily. As the boy worked on the stick, his eyes gazed up to the window of the house behind his. He didn’t know the people that lived there. He’d seen the mother and father out back a few times but they’d never done any more to acknowledge him than giving a brief nod and a half-smile. There was also a girl. She was fourteen and people called her Pepper. The boy had seen her many times. Not just in the back yard but most mornings as he walked to school. She was younger than him and attended the middle school. Still, the schools were on the same block so almost every day he’d lumber down the street, anywhere from fifteen to fifty feet behind her, depending on what time he’d left.
Pepper had long black hair and dark, almond shaped eyes that rested behind thin, straight lashes. Her skin was pale and smooth. She had deep dimples in both cheeks: the deepest dimples the boy had ever seen. She was very popular and because of that, she was always surrounded by a gaggle of cackling, pre-pubescent girls while she walked to school. The girls behaved as if the fact that the sun had barely risen or that much of the world was still asleep was completely irrelevant to them. They pushed each other playfully and ran up on peoples’ lawns, all as the boy did his best to keep far enough away to be left out of their jokes, but close enough to hear their conversations. On one occasion, after making the mistake of venturing too close, one of the girls pointed at him and screeched, mockingly, “Ahh, a giant is following us!” To which another girl replied, “A retarded giant!” And a third screamed, “Who doesn’t speak!”
The boy had gotten used to this type of treatment so the remarks barely pierced the invisible armor that had formed around him over the years. But what happened next was something he wasn’t used to. As the group of girls laughed and pointed, walking backwards and away from the boy (who at this point just stared at the ground, doing anything to avoid eye contact) Pepper spoke up. “Leave him alone,” she said. And the girls stopped. After that the girls barely acknowledged him so he was free to walk to school, eavesdropping and watching them out of the corners of his eyes.
As the boy freed the stick, his eyes were fixed on the window in his neighbor’s backyard. In the window he saw Pepper. She was crying. Tears ran down her smooth face and into her dimples. She didn’t see him so he watched her while Shawn tugged at his prized possession. The boy let go of the stick and Shawn wrestled with it in the dirt. After a few minutes Pepper left the window and the boy went inside.
A week passed and the boy, who was still suspended, continued walking the mile to school each morning. And upon arriving would simply turn and walk home. The boy had seen all of Pepper’s friends while walking to school but hadn’t seen Pepper. He’d not only looked for her on his daily trek but also in the backyard. While playing with Shawn he’d always make sure to peer up to her window. She never appeared.
During this time there was a meeting to discuss the incident. The principal, his guidance counselor, the school psychologist, the boy and the boy’s mother, her lined face marked with tears, all convened to discuss what to do with this violent, potentially dangerous person. They recounted all the details as they knew them. The spoke about how the boy had tried to attack another boy half his size. They spoke about how it took three adults to restrain him. They all agreed that this was unacceptable and that nothing like this could ever happen again. They determined that they couldn’t expel him because of his “mental problems” but that he’d now have a chaperone to walk him from class to class. If it did happen again he’d need to be home schooled for the remainder of high school. However, the boy knew that his mother would never allow that. The boy knew that it didn’t matter that the other boy was an obnoxious brat named Terry Regan who had gone to great lengths to humiliate him on numerous occasions. He knew it didn’t matter that this red-headed, blue eyed devil had cut in front of him on line in the lunchroom. It didn’t matter that this high-voiced terror had stolen his soda. It didn’t matter that this freckled-faced shit had laughed, pointed, and gathered his friends when he tried to get it back. It didn’t matter that half the lunchroom erupted laughing as he lunged for his drink and the other half roared as he fell on the floor. It didn’t matter that as he writhed on the slick, blue tile, barely able to control his gigantic limbs, that not one person, teachers included, tried to assist him. It didn’t matter that Terry leaned down and whispered, “You’re so ugly, no wonder your dad left you.” It didn’t matter that he’d just wanted him to stop. He’d never be home schooled. His mother wouldn’t allow it. If anything like this happened again he was off to live with his father. That was that.
On his first day back the boy walked particularly slowly to school. He didn’t know how he felt about his reinstatement. He thought that perhaps it would be best to leave this school and start fresh with his father. He thought that perhaps he should leave school altogether as it was hard enough to do the work and the work paled in comparison with dealing with the insults of his classmates. As all these thoughts swirled the boy decided to sit down on a curb about half the distance to the school. He sat and watched as other kids walked past and busses and cars drove by. He just sat as the sun shone softly from behind a tall, leafy tree forcing him to look away to avoid the dull burn. As he turned his head he noticed a small girl making her way up the block. As she came closer he knew it was Pepper. Her head was down and he expected her to walk on by as everyone always did. However, Pepper stopped. She looked at him and he looked away, embarrassed.
“You live behind me, right?” she asked, kicking a pebble around with her left foot.
The boy didn’t say anything as he was accustomed to not speaking.
“What’s the matter, you don’t talk?”
The boy didn’t move. He just sat there looking down, his saggy bottom lip protruding and hanging so low he could see it. Pepper shrugged her shoulders and began to walk on. As she was almost ten feet away, the boy felt an urge he hadn’t felt in forever. The urge to speak.
“I saw you crying,” he whispered.
Pepper turned and looked back toward him with dark, curious eyes. “What?”
“Last week, I saw you crying, in your window.”
“What were you spying on me?” she asked, slightly bothered.
“No, I was playing with my dog. I looked up and you were there. I wasn’t spying…I saw you by accident.”
Neither one of them said anything for a moment until Pepper uttered, “My parents told me I shouldn’t talk to you. They said you were dangerous, that you might hurt people.”
The boy looked down.
“Is that true?” she asked.
This hurt the boy worse than any vicious insult or disturbed stare. This hurt because people that didn’t know him assumed he was terrible and he hated that. His eyes welled up.
“Is that true?” she asked again.
The boy shook his head No.
“Are you going to school?” she asked.
“I’m not sure.”
“Well...I am,” she said and then shrugged. “You can walk with me if you want.”
The boy looked up at her to see if she was joking. She wasn’t. So the boy stood up and the two of them walked to school together. The boy didn’t say much. Pepper did enough talking for the both of them and the boy didn’t mind at all. He was content to lumber a step or so behind her, smiling at this funny little girl who laughed frequently, talked with her hands, and flung her hair from side to side every so often just by swinging her head. The two of them looked ridiculous together as he was three times her size. Normally this would have made the boy feel funny but that fact that Pepper didn’t seem to mind put him at ease. They arrived at school and she said that if she saw him at the end of the day that maybe they’d walk home together. He nodded and smiled. She said, “Goodbye.”
The boy had his best day in months and even though she wasn’t there when he got out of school, she was sitting on the curb across from the tall, leafy tree the next day waiting for him. This went on for two weeks. Whoever got to the tree first would wait for the other one and they’d walk the mile to school together. Pepper had given up walking with her group of girlfriends who didn’t take this slight lightly. When they’d see them the girls would hurl insults at both Pepper and the boy. Things like, “Pepper and the spaz” and “retard lover.” The boy told Pepper he wouldn’t be mad if she wanted to start walking with them again but Pepper told him, “They’re bad friends. I’d rather walk with you. That is, if you don’t mind.”
Of course the boy didn’t mind. He so looked forward to the twenty minutes each day he got to spend with her. Those twenty minutes made everything in his world, all the bad, all the difficult, fade into the background. He didn’t start enjoying school or his mother’s indifference or even the more brutal insults hurled by Terry; the boy he’d tried to attack, who knew that if he could rile the boy up enough he’d be forced to leave school. It’s just that with Pepper by his side, he simply didn’t mind them as much. In those twenty minutes each day he began to open up to her, telling her about his family and his dog and about the incident that made her parents think he was dangerous. She gave advice, the best advice a fourteen year old could give. She told him to ignore everybody else, especially that “Jerky kid.” In fact, she made him promise. “If you do anything to him you’ll be sent away. So promise you won’t do anything so you don’t have to.” She held up her pinky to indicate that if the boy intertwined his pinky with hers that he’d promised. The boy did as she wanted. His enormous pinky made hers disappear.
The boy nodded.
They both smiled.
In those twenty minutes each day she told him about her life. She talked about how all her friends were so “fake” and about how her dad was already pushing her toward certain colleges and getting down on her for every sub-par grade she’d get. She said that’s why she was crying that day, that she was having trouble dealing with the pressure. She also showed him a ring on the index finger of her right hand that she said her great grandma had given her a few years before she died. It was silver with a shiny, green emerald in the middle. Her great grandma said it had gotten her through the war in Europe even after they took her entire family away. She said it had gotten her through her toughest times and that she wanted Pepper to have it. She said it would always keep Pepper safe.
“I never, ever take it off. It’s my prized possession,” she said, holding her hand up in the air, laughing. “I never take it off.”
The weather shifted from sunny skies to brightly colored leaves painted on a gray background, and through the change of seasons, the boy and Pepper still walked to school together every morning. It was the best part of the boy’s day. Unlike nearly every kid his age he actually began to despise the weekends while praying for the weekdays so he could see her.
They both knew what people thought. The people in the town would look at them strangely as they’d walk past their houses each morning. Other children, especially the boy he’d nearly assaulted, would gawk, point, laugh and ridicule whenever they came into view. Pepper had told him that her parents repeatedly cautioned her about talking to a “weirdo” so they continued meeting in front of the tall tree so her folks wouldn’t know she was ignoring their advice. A teacher who’d seen them had even called Pepper aside and warned her of the dangers of a fourteen year old girl spending time with a sixteen year old boy who had “major issues.” The teacher warned that one day the boy might try to hurt her or force her to do things she didn’t want to do. Pepper asked him if he ever would and he said “No.”
The boy knew their relationship may have appeared strange. Still, he knew what he felt in his heart. He knew that he didn’t think of Pepper as anything other than a friend. He thought of her as a best friend. He thought of her as a little sister. She’d been the first person in years to treat him like he wasn’t different; like he was the same. He’d never hurt her. He cared about her too much.
For her, he was someone she could vent her fourteen year old problems to. He was someone who wouldn’t ever judge her or reveal her secrets to gain some kind of advantage in the kill or be killed world of middle school. He wouldn’t deceive her or talk behind her back. He wouldn’t be catty or dramatic or hurtful. Despite everything she’d heard about him, he was a safer bet than the so-called friends she’d known for years.
One Monday Pepper seemed different. She was less chatty, less inclined to smile. She rubbed her great grandma’s emerald ring with the thumb on her left hand. The boy didn’t ask what was wrong as it wasn’t his way. And after three blocks of virtual silence she turned to him and said, “I think I’m going to a different school.”
The boy just looked down.
“My dad doesn’t think this school is pushing me hard enough.”
They kept walking.
“He wants me to go to Lenn Academy in New Hope.”
The boy knew that the school was an all-girl private school. The girls that went there lived there during the year. There’d be no more morning walks, no more conversations, no more friendship. His heart raced at the thought of losing her and the twenty minutes each day when he was just like everybody else.
They kept walking as she said, “He thinks he knows what’s best for me. He wants me to be somebody I’m not.” Her eyes watered. Her voice was scratchy and raw. She rubbed the ring incessantly. “He wants me to start in January even though I begged him to let me start next Fall.” Crying she said, “I don’t think he’s going to.”
The school day was a blur. The boy couldn’t focus on anything other than losing Pepper. He didn’t want to go back to the way things were, he didn’t know if he could.
At the end of the day he left school and began walking on shaking limbs back home. The boy was only a few hundred feet from the school when he heard the familiar sound of insults and disparaging remarks coming from behind him. It was Terry; his blue eyes filled with rage, his red hair like fire ready to burn the boy. Terry was with three other kids and they all cursed and threw rocks at the boy. The boy walked on, thinking more about losing his friend than anything. Terry and his clan gained on him, making a circle around him as he stumbled forward. Their put-downs and verbal abuse escalated as they began yelling about his mother and how she couldn’t possibly love him. They called him “monster” and suggested he kill himself so people wouldn’t have to look at him anymore. The boy walked on. He remembered his promise to Pepper and tried to ignore them. Then Terry stepped right in front of him, forcing him to stop. They were face to face. The boy tried to look away but Terry made sure to keep eye contact throughout by swinging his head back and forth, following the boy’s eyes.
“Leave me alone,” the boy uttered.
“Wow,” said Terry. “He talks fellas. I thought you were too retarded to talk. I guess you learn something new every day.”
The three other kids cracked up. The boy tried to walk past but Terry put his hand on the boy’s chest and said, “Whoa man, hold up a second.”
Thoughts of Pepper filled his head as he whispered, “Please…leave me alone.”
“Okay,” Terry said. “Okay.” Terry looked back and forth and then stepped aside. The boy walked past him hesitantly. As the boy was a few feet past Terry said, “I’ll leave you alone, I will. Just do me one favor. Tell your girlfriend that when she gets sick and tired of spending all her time with a retard to give me a call.”
The boy turned around and faced Terry. He deliberately looked him in the eyes for the first time ever.
“It may take a while to get the monster stink off of her,” Terry said. “Still, she’s pretty cute so maybe I’ll give it a shot.” Terry shrugged his shoulders and smiled a wicked smile. He stood there in the middle of the street, shifting his weight back and forth from his right leg to his left. He was so fully proud of himself for his latest remark. The remark that he could see had cut to the boy’s core. In that moment the boy felt worse than he’d ever felt in his entire life. Not because of the insults or the laughing or his wholly pitiful existence, but because he knew he was about to break his promise to Pepper. And he knew that because of that, regardless of where she attended school, he’d very likely never see her again. But he’d simply had enough.
His first punch landed right smack on Terry’s nose, breaking it apart. Terry fell to his knees, grabbing at his face. The boy punched him on his forehead and Terry fell back. The other three boys began stepping away slowly and before long they were running back toward the school screaming for help. The boy didn’t care as he struck Terry repeatedly with slow, heavy punches that pounded his enemy’s bones and broke his skin. Soon Terry was a hysterical mass of blood and fear. The boy leaned back, wheezing, his arms tight and burning. He looked up as the sound of grownups running and yelling flooded his ears. He stared at the sky and inhaled every ounce of the gray into his lungs. And then he smiled.
The back seat of his father’s car was cold and lonely. Some of the neighbors were outside watching. His mother cried on the sidewalk while holding Shawn’s leash. The big Irish Setter stretched it as far as it could go and rested his paws on the back door, trying to lick the boy’s face through the partially opened window. The boy pet the manic dog’s head when he stayed still long enough. His father said something to his mother. They didn’t hug or kiss, he just walked away and around the front of the car. His father opened the front door and got in. He started the engine. Shawn barked as the boy’s mom restrained him. Tears rolled down the boy’s face as the car pulled away. They got to the corner and even though the boy wanted to turn around he didn’t because he didn’t want to feel any sadder. His father put on the left directional and began to make the turn when someone pounded on the back of the car. His father jumped and slammed on the brakes. Someone flung open the back door. It was Pepper. Sweating and teary-eyed she apologized profusely to the father but begged him for two minutes to speak to the boy. The father obliged and pulled the car over to the curb. She climbed into the back seat. The father stood outside the car, pretending to act like everything was normal.
“I’m mad at you,” she said, wiping the tears from her pale face with her left hand. “You promised you’d ignore those jerks.”
“I’m not switching schools,” she said. “I talked to my dad, I begged him to let me stay here.”
“He said it was OK?”
The boy smiled.
“I’ll miss you,” Pepper said. She reached out and placed something in his huge left hand and closed it tight. Her eyes were wet. So were his. She opened the back door and stepped out. She looked back in.
The boy spoke. He pushed out the words, “I’ll miss you too.”
Pepper smiled a long smile and then she ran off. His father closed the back door, got back into the car and then drove away. The boy opened his left hand. In it were two gifts from Pepper. One was a note that read, “So you’re always safe.” The other was her great grandma’s emerald ring.
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