The six year old sat in the dirt playing with army soldiers and Tonka toys. He had more than thirty infantrymen, several bazooka units and a kit and kaboodle of armored transports, even though they were scale designs of big work trucks. He played under a neighbor's house across the big grass yard behind his own home. Elevated platforms supported the old houses of the area in case the river ever backed up from the Gulf. The arrangement left a lot of room for a boy his age to pass the time.
If he looked over his shoulder he could see the back door of his home. His miniature dog sprawled out in the sun right behind him. Occasionally the little animal growled and rolled back and forth, soaking it up.
Two gigantic pecan trees cast shade over most of the back yard from the perimeter. The yard sloped up to the houses behind it. Two T-shaped clothes line poles protruded from the grass closest two the gate that led to the front street. Fencing extended between most of the houses on the block, but did not separate all of the yards.
The day before he had been called into the office at his elementary school. Somebody had thrown shreds of paper all over a janitors closet during recess, and an eyewitness teacher placed him very close to the scene of the incident. He had only known one thing about the office before that. Stories conveyed the horror of the place. Students went there and never came back, or came back turned into zombies. On his way to the office he had never been so afraid in his life.
Once in the foreboding glass windowed room facing the entrance, the school secretary led him before the principal and sat him down in a mauve plastic chair with a curved back and a bucket seat. In front of the seat an over-sized oak desk stretched out in front of him, and behind it a grim looking, gray haired man with horn rimmed glasses peered at him over the tops of the lenses.
"Have you been making trouble, Mark?" The principal asked him.
"No," he responded.
"Say no, sir, when you address your elders, young man."
"Okay," Mark said.
"You need to say 'yes, sir' and 'no, sir,' 'yes, ma'am' and 'no ma'am.' Not simply no or yes, and definitely not 'okay.'"
"I heard you had yourself quite a good time this morning. I hear you threw a whole wad of paper bits all over the janitor's closet. Don't you think the people who work at this school have enough work to attend to without having to clean up after disrespectful misfits?"
"I don't know anything about any paper. All I did today was go to homeroom and then to recess."
"Mrs. Skinner says she saw you right by the janitor's closet where the mess was discovered, and that there was nobody else in the hallways at the time."
"But I didn't go anywhere near the janitor's closet. It's damp and musty in there."
"How would you know what it's like in the janitor's closet if you haven't been in the janitor's closet?"
"I've walked by it before. I didn't go in it though."
"You're in very big trouble, Mark Thompson. I'm going to get the truth out of you," the principal said. The gray haired man opened a drawer of the desk and pulled out a great big paddle.
Mark stockpiled pea gravel for the upcoming battle. After he amassed a moderate pile of ammunition he commenced the bombardment. He missed a lot, even though he accompanied every throw with the appropriate sound of gunfire. When one of the missiles struck a target he solemnly lined the fallen unit beside the others on a masonry ledge next to him. He knew about the horror of war and the dignity of the military, and took care not to violate any posthumous protocols. The model soldiers deserved honor after they had fallen.
Halfway through the grim decimation of every standing unit the back aperture of the house opened. The dog, Bojangles, catapulted off of his back and tore out for the back porch. Mark peered around and knew it was time for lunch, because Bojangles jumped three feet in the air like a creature possessed. Every few jumps Bo would spin 270-360 degrees. He even pulled off a half-flip and a complete back flip now and then. That could only mean hamburgers.
Mark slid out from under the edge of the cool house and jogged for home. His father, Emmet Thompson, danced a little jig coming off the back porch of the house with the food. He held it up to almost elbow level to safeguard against Bojangles, even though Bo's bounced only to showboat for the two of them. The plate held a big, juicy hamburger with lettuce and tomato. A pile of hash browns covered the side and sent steam up into the air.
"Go inside the house and wash your hands, Emmett," Liam told his son.
The lad ran inside to get cleaned up for dinner. The builders placed the kitchen on the north side of the house, originally on its own side porch to keep the heat out of the main dwelling. Somewhere after the turn of the twentieth century one of the owners walled it in and restructured the walls. They had also doubled the size of the original home, constructed in the historic shotgun shack style, when they converted the kitchen into a full room and added a back porch. Originally the back of the house only sported two steps. The carpenters covered the outside walls of the house with old growth cypress from the edges of Lake Salvador when the remodeled.
Mark pushed through the kitchen, through his bedroom and into his bathroom. Liam dedicated the master bedroom to his son's use after Emmett made it out of the crib so the boy could have the most private room and wouldn't have to use the same bathroom as any guests. A deep porcelain and steel bathtub on clawed legs filled up the outside wall end of the narrow private facilities. The sink and the commode adjacent to the tub took up the rest of the space. The original plans made the private lavatory smaller than the one for house guests. That one also contained a tub after the renovations.
The warm water whisked the fine layer of dust on Emmett's hands down the drain. The dust on his pants bothered him for a second, but he couldn't do anything about that. He hurriedly dried off and exited. He had already been hungry, but once nothing stood between he and the food his hunger became ravenous.
Both of the private bedrooms of the house opened into the kitchen. The original intent had been nothing of the sort, but Liam didn't like the idea of having the private rooms strung out in a line. Instead of locating the dining room next to the kitchen he placed it as the rearmost of the public rooms and put both bedrooms adjacent to the kitchen, for privacy reasons.
Mark cared nothing about the layout of their living accommodations. The husky youngster made the house shake when he strode through it. The forks resettled on the table when he sat down.
"Don't body slam the chair, son," Liam told him, amused. He sat down across from Mark and said, "Let's bow our heads."
Mark took an ample bite of the burger as soon as he opened his eyes. The ground round was still on the hot side. He sucked in air and grabbed for a drink of water to prevent his tongue from burning.
"Don't eat so fast. Take your time," Liam chided.
Mark switched to working on the hash browns to give the hamburger time to cool off. He stabbed the coolest pieces on the outside edge and dipped them in a dollop ketchup. The third portion did not reach his mouth in its entirety. A small chunk of potato landed on the table. He snatched it up and ate it so fast Liam didn't even notice.
"Your grandmother tells me there you got into trouble yesterday," Liam started carefully. He had not approached the subject earlier.
Mark stayed with his mother during the week, and with his father on the weekends. After school he went home with his grandmother Estelle. Liam worked Friday night. He picked Robert up in the morning rather than wake him up at night, so he didn't actually see him or speak to him until early Saturday morning. He declined to bring up the news of the trouble earlier because he hadn't wanted to ruin the morning.
"I don't want to talk about it," Mark said.
Mark took off his Scooby Doo backpack in the living room of Estelle's spacious, modern home before he related the story. When she heard he had been paddled she loaded him back in the car. Estelle intensely defended the right of the private family over that of public schools in matters of child discipline.
Estelle wanted to send Robert to the Catholic school closest to her home. She bowed to the Catholic church, not the public schools. She believed that if a Catholic school disciplined a young pupil the hand of God was involved. Robert's mother, Angela, squashed those ideas immediately. Angela worshiped in an Evangelical church with a charismatic tilt. The two women did not get along.
"And you didn't do it, Mark?" Estelle asked her grandson as they barreled down the road.
"No, grandmother," he replied.
Estelle insisted he call her grandmother. She disliked the sound of the word grandma. Her borderline obsessive-compulsive behavior about vocabulary originated from her own Catholic education. The nuns tolerated no slang or dialectic English in the schools she attended.
Upon hearing Mark deny the offense for the third time she launched into a tirade. The words were nothing more than a distant drone in his ears. Estelle brooked no breaches of the language from her grandson, but her experiences during the Great Depression never faded from memory. By the time she reached her golden years Estelle sometimes lost control of her tongue, even in front of the child. Too many injustices in the world ground her patience down to nothing.
When they arrived at the grammar school Estelle told Mark to wait in the car. He looked out the window at birds and squirrels beneath a great live oak on the grounds. The wildlife hid in the trees while the students roamed nearby. He had never seen them in such abundance there before.
A ruckus on the walk not far from the car drew Mark from his peaceful contemplations. Estelle cursed loudly at the principal, who smiled smugly. He spoke dismissively to her, backed up and turned a key in the front door. That action sealed the old lady and her grievances on the exterior side of the glass. Her fury grew to epic proportions, but she had no recourse left but to return to the car and drive away.
Emmett heard all about it in far greater detail and volume than he would have liked while picking Mark up. It took him twenty extra minutes to extract the little boy from her indignant declarations on the subject. Mark spent that time watching cartoons in the house, oblivious to the sound outside. Emmett smiled broadly when he managed to get Mark into the car and drive away. A bystander would not have questioned his reasoning about putting off a discussion of it with his son.
"Stop eating for a second and look at me, Mark."
Mark placed the last half of the hamburger back on the China handed down by Emmett's paternal grandmother. He gazed at his father, and his features became serious. The expression was priceless. He looked like a Cabinet Member that had just received some important news directly from the President.
"I know you didn't do anything wrong, son. All your life you will have to deal with injustice and unfairness in the world. If you take it with dignity and grace you will be the sort of man who could lead the world. I want you to know I'm proud of you."
"Thank you, father," Mark said. He never called Emmett father. It made his father smile.
"Would you like to throw the football after we eat?"
"Yeah, I'd love to!"