Sweet, sweet in the dark, safe. Dark and safe and quiet. He dared not move. He was afraid that his body would come loose, all his bones spilling out like a building collapsing, like a picket fence clattering apart. A small sound reached his ears and he realized it was himself, crooning softly, as if he were singing himself a lullaby. Suddenly, he missed his mother. Her absence formed tears on his cheeks. He hadn’t cried at all from the beating, had lain there on the ground for a few moments after the brief blackout, and then had dragged himself up and made it agonizingly to the locker room at school, walking as if on a tightrope and one misstep would send him hurtling into depths below: oblivion. He’d washed himself, cold water like liquid fingernails inflaming the scratches on his face. I won’t sell their chocolates whether they beat me up or not. And I’m not a fairy, not a queer. He had stolen away from the school, not wanting anyone to witness his painful passage down the street to the bus stop. He kept his collar up, like a criminal, like those men in newscasts being herded into court. Funny, somebody does violence to you but you’re the one who has to hide, as if you’re the criminal. He shuffled to the back of the bus, grateful that it wasn’t one of the crowded school buses but a maverick bus that appeared at odd hours. The bus was full of old people, old women with blue hair and big handbags and they pretended not to see him, sailing their eyes askew from him as he stalked to the rear of the bus, but their noses wrinkled as they caught the smell of vomit when he passed. Somehow, he’d made it home on the jolting bus, made it to this quiet room where he now sat, sun bleeding low in the sky and spurting its veins on the den window. Dusk moved in. After a while, he took a warm bath, soaking in the water. Then he sat in the dark, quiet, letting himself mend, not stirring, feeling a dull ache settle in his bones now that the first waves of pain had moved away. The clock struck six. He was glad that his father was on the evening shift, at work until eleven. He didn’t want his father to see him with these fresh cuts on his face, the bruises. Make it to the bedroom, he urged himself, undress, curl into cool sheets, tell him I came home sick, must be a virus, twenty-four hour flu, and keep my face hidden.
* * *
The telephone rang.
Oh no, he protested
Let me alone.
The ringing continued, mocking him the way Janza had mocked him.
Let it be, let it be, like the Beatles sang.
And he saw suddenly that he must answer. They didn’t want him to answer this time. They wanted to think that he was incapacitated, injured, unable to make it to the phone.
Jerry lifted himself from the bed, surprised at his mobility, and made his way through the living room to the phone. Don’t stop ringing now, he said, don’t stop ringing. I want to show them.
“Hello.” Forcing strength into his voice.
“I’m here,” he said, shouting the words.
Silence again. Then the lewd chuckle. And the dial tone.
* * *
“Jerry… oh Jerry…”
“Yoo hoo, Jerree…”
The apartment Jerry and his father occupied was three floors above street level and the voices calling Jerry’s name reached him faintly, barely penetrating the closed windows. That distant quality also gave the voices a ghostly resonance, like someone calling from the grave. In fact, he hadn’t been certain at first that his name was being called. Slouched at the kitchen table, forcing himself to sip Campbell’s Chicken Broth, he heard the voices and thought they were the sound of kids playing in the street. Then he heard distinctly —
“Whatcha doing, Jerry?”
“Come on out and play, Jerry.”
Ghostly voices from the past recalling when he was a little boy and the kids in the neighborhood came to the back door after supper calling him to go out and play. That was in the sweet time when he and his parents lived together in the house with the big backyard and a front lawn his father never got tired of mowing and watering.
But these voices calling now were not friendly after-supper voices but nighttime voices, taunting and teasing and threatening.
Jerry went into the living room and looked down cautiously, careful not to be seen. The street was deserted except for a couple of parked cars. And still the voices sang.
“Come out and play, Jerry…”
A parody of those long ago childhood pleadings.
Peering out again, Jerry saw a shooting star in reverse. It split the darkness and he heard the dull plunk as a stone, not a star at all, hit the wall of the building near the window.
“Yoo hoo, Jerree…”
He squinted at the street below but the boys were well hidden. Then he saw a spray of light sweeping the trees and shrubs across the street. A pale face flared in the darkness as the ray of a flashlight caught and held it for a moment. The face disappeared in the night. Jerry recognized the plodding gait of the building custodian who evidently had been drawn out of his basement apartment by the voices. His flashlight swept the street.
“Who’s there?” he shouted. “rm gonna get the police…”
“Bye, bye, Jerry,” a voice called.
“See you later, Jerry.” Fading into the dark.
* * *
The telephone ruptured the night. Jerry groped upward from sleep, reaching for the sound. Instantly awake, he glanced at the alarm clock’s luminous face. Two-thirty.
Painfully, his muscles and bones protesting, he lifted himself from the mattress and poised, on one elbow, to thrust himself from the bed.
The ringing persisted, ridiculously loud in the stillness of the night. Jerry’s feet touched the floor and he padded toward the sound.
But his father was already at the phone. He glanced toward Jerry and Jerry drew back into the shadows, keeping his face hidden.
“Madmen loose in the world,” his father muttered, standing there with his hand on the phone. “If you let it ring, they get their kicks. If you answer, they hang up and still get their kicks. And then start all over again.”
The harassment had taken toll on his father’s face, his hair disheveled, purple crescents under his eyes.
“Take the phone off the hook, Dad.”
His father sighed, nodded assent. “That’s giving in to them, Jerry. But what the hell. Who are
“Fine. I’m just fine, Dad.”
His father rubbed his eyes, wearily.
“Get some sleep, Jerry. A football player needs his sleep.” Trying to keep it light.
Compassion for his father welled in Jerry. Should he tell his father what it was all about? But he didn’t want to involve him. His father had given in, taken the receiver off the hook, and that was defeat enough. He didn’t want him to risk more.
In bed once more, small in the dark, Jerry willed his body to loosen, to relax. After a while, sleep plucked at him with soft fingers, soothing away the ache. But the phone rang in his dreams all night long.