Paul Ziakin, the son of immigrants, grew up in Portland, Oregon during volatile times. He served in the US Navy, went to art school, and worked in the construction trades for thirty years. After traveling the world, then raising three wonderful children, he retired to Victoria, British Columbia, Canada to be near his three grandchildren. There he spends his time in the great outdoors and writing stories based loosely on the many and varied experiences of his lifetime.
Sister Agnes Mary was the teacher that I would recall with fondness for the rest of my life. Wrapped in the black and white habit of the Dominican Order, her laughter and singing seemed to be all the color we needed in those dark days. On the occasional afternoon, she would have us lay our heads down and close our eyes. Moving down the rows, stroking a head here and there as she passed, she would sing songs of hope and joy in her angelic voice. I would sit there, my head nestled in my arms, listening intently, drifting off to a place where I wasn’t afraid. That never seemed to last long enough.
The classroom reflected Sister Agnes Mary’s black and white garb. Of the twenty children in the small classroom, ten in the fifth grade, near the windows, and ten in the sixth grade, near the coat racks, Michael Cavenaugh, the two Loomis brothers, and myself were the only white kids in the room. The rest of us were black, African American. This was the early 60’s. It was a time of racial tension and unrest across the country. It was a time when an oppressed people finally stood up for justice, for their rights, and they were tumultuous, confusing times. The hideous concept of racism hadn’t yet infected our young hearts and innocent minds, but soon enough, we would begin learning its painful ugly lessons. I suppose that it was inevitable that some of us would unwittingly carry deadly bits and pieces of the politics and opinions of our older siblings and parents into our playground, into our small child’s world. Once there, they festered; plague infected bits of that world that slowly ate away at the innocence of our hearts.
We were far too young to fully understand or grasp the consequences of our actions. My friends, Ronny and Hebert had started making it a point of not sitting with us “white kids” at lunchtime. They held handkerchiefs to their mouths when near us as though we carried some disease that they may contract. We had been friends since the beginning of time in the first grade. Chucky not so much, he was bit of a bully. We had tumbled and wrestled with each other, run through the neighborhoods over back fences and through gardens, raced our bicycles, sworn allegiances to each other as only young boys would or could. I could not understand their behavior now. It troubled me.
On an April school day at lunch hour, the Loomis boys and I were well into an enthusiastic game of “horse” when Chucky strolled up. Ronny and Herbert hung nearby as I dribbled around under the basket and shot, mimicking the awkward right handed layup Jeffery had just accomplished for the letter “S”. I was thinking that they wanted in on the game. That was swell. Jeffery saw them gathering as well, and nudged his little brother. “We gotta’ go finish our homework, Ben. You gonna’ come with us?” He said this with an earnestness that I partly understood. Chucky had been messing with the Loomis brothers more than usual lately. I thought of walking away myself, but decided that Chucky and the others were just looking to shoot some baskets. I would stay and play with them. The Loomis boys walked away, struggling to maintain their boyish dignity, fighting the urge to run.
I twirled the ball in my hand, looked at my friends, standing around the top of the basketball key, arms folded, staring at me. They wore those black head scarves, bandanas, tied at the back. They looked silly I thought, like child pirates. I had seen them on their big brothers and their friends as I rode my bike past the high school some mornings. I spun, dribbled across, faked right, jumped and landed a smooth left handed layup. I was tall for my age and I was born for this game.
Chucky laughed out loud. “That cracker thinks he can play. Hey cracker, you think you can play?”
I ignored the taunt, wondering what he meant by “cracker”, continuing to dribble the ball around below the net.
“Hey Cracker I’m talking to you! Get off our court.”
I continued to ignore him, continued to dribble and fake, laying up shots under the basket.
“Gimme the ball you piece of shit!” He stepped in front of me. I stopped in my tracks.
“Get off my court.” Chucky was standing right in my face.
“This isn’t your court Chucky, but you can play if you want.” I had offered a friendly way out for Chucky. I pretty much knew that that it he would ignore it. He had to. His status as the new schoolyard bully would suffer. Worse, his new buddies here would accuse him of going soft on the current focus of their enmity and hatred. Us white kids.
It seemed that Chucky’s greatest interest in life at the age of 10 was to be the “baddest dude” around. He seemed to hunger for conflict. Since I was considerably taller and bigger than the other kids, it stood to some foolish reason that Chucky would seek me out to establish himself in his new surroundings as the toughest kid. Chucky was not the first bully I had been forced to deal with. I had become a bit of an expert at turning a confrontation into a conversation, a berating comment shouted across the schoolyard into a harmless joke. Lately Chucky and his new buddies, my friends, with their new black bandanas had grown progressively bolder and brutal in their harassment. What had been typical schoolyard pushing and shoving had taken on a brutal ferocity.
Chucky stepped over and snatched the ball from my hands. “Gimme my ball you skinny little prick.” He then slammed the ball into my chest, hard. I stumbled back in surprise. Standing a good foot taller than Chucky, I stared down at the top of Chucky’s head and the sweat stains in his black bandana. If Father Staid had seen or heard any of this, Chucky would be in big trouble. I listened hopefully for the school yard nun with her big bell. I was standing there, hoping against hope that Chucky was just fooling with me when he threw the ball aside, took a step toward me and landed a punch on my face.
I reeled backward, almost loosing my footing. I was in shock and pain.
“Shit! Chucky, whadid I do! Why’d you do that ?” My hands at my face, rubbing the swelling cheek, I was fighting back tears of pain and rage, and hurt. Why was Chucky being so mean, so nasty? What had I done or said?
Chucky looked back at his friends, some of them were watching for the nun in charge of the playground. Ronny and Herbert stood there trying hard to look enthusiastic and involved but it was clear their hearts were not in it. They would just as soon be playing ball with me right now I guessed. Ronny worked up the courage or what ever it took to sort of half yell out, “hit him again!” and “Beat the shit out of that cracker!” I was looking at Ronney in confusion when Chucky took another swing at me. I saw this one coming out of the corner of my eye and was able to almost duck; it glanced off the side of my head.
Chucky moved in and released a barrage of punches.
I recall my hands going up in a halfhearted defense. A couple of them got through. One landed square on my jaw. Not hard, but it shook me good. I saw stars for a moment; just like in the cartoons.
Another punch got through.
When that punch landed hard on my cheek, everything changed. Time slowed to a crawl for me. I saw only Chucky’s face, everything else was a blurred mess. The entire universe shrunk to that
face in front of me. The missing tooth, the round baby cheeks, that was all I saw, all I focused on now.
I watched myself from a distance as I charged. I slammed into Chucky, my long arms wrapping around behind, then turning hard to my left, at the same time picking Chucky up off the ground. In a wrestling move that I had picked up from wrestling with my big brother, I brought Chucky down hard to the pavement. I watched myself as I scrambled onto Chucky’s chest as he lay on his back, stunned, staring up at me. I watched indifferently as I squeezed his throat hard with my right hand. I punched his face repeatedly and rapidly with my left fist. I let go of his throat and punched with my right fist, then my left then right again, then left then right. My arms were tiring, but I kept on punching, left then right, then left…. I watched from a distance as Chucky’s eyes rolled up into his head, his arms once grabbing and flailing, lay still by his side. I watched as I steadily and methodically pounded Chucky’s face into a bloody oozing pulp.
Chucky’s friends, my friends, stood gape-jawed, shocked into inaction by the ferocity of my response. “That mothafucka is cra-a-azeee” whispered Ronney as they now faded into the press of kids as the priest arrived. “Stay the fuck away from that fool!”
My folks were immigrants. “Fresh off the boat” some would say. They had somehow survived a world war in which they had lost entire families, friends, everything. They had had their fill of conflict. When I came home bruised and bleeding from another after school beating, my mother would show no mercy, no concern. She would simply push past me standing there in the kitchen bruised and crying, declaring in her thick accent, “You’re a foolish little boy. A troublemaker. You’re going to go to hell if you don’t stop it!” She would refuse to tend my wounds, telling me its Gods justice for my sins and go on with her work of ironing or cleaning, or cooking. If my father happened to be home, and I was making a fuss or in the kitchen crying, he would come storming into the kitchen cussing in his thick broken English. When I tried to explain myself to him, he would come at me with his hand raised ready to strike. I would quickly retire to my room to lick my wounds on my own. After the 2nd or 3rd time, (I was a pretty quick learner.) I simply gave up and went straight to my room to tend my wounds, cry, and wonder at the injustice of it all.
It wasn’t like that for the other kids who were subjected to this regular and frequent brutality from Chucky and kids that had once been our friends. The Loomis brother’s folks reacted to theirs son’s beatings vociferously. Mr. Loomis had called the police. He wanted to press charges. The Rector had talked him out of it. Michael’s dad, Mr. Cavanaugh, had gone to have a “talk” with Father Staid ,the Rector of the Parish, after his boy had been pushed from his bike and beaten. I overheard gossip that Mr. Cavanaugh had used some very “strong language” in a very loud voice that could be heard on every floor of the three-story rectory. I imagined the nun’s hushed surprise, their pale hands to their mouths in shock, heads down, as they scurried down the dark hallway on the third floor to prayer. These parents had sought some justice for their children, at the very least an explanation. Everyone knew that Chucky and his cohorts were to blame. For some reason, unknown to any of the victims, nothing ever came of this call for justice. The beatings simply continued.
A week after Michael’s bicycle incident and Mr. Cavanaugh’s colorful and blasphemous outburst, Father Chin, the visiting priest from Korea, had given a twenty minute pulpit pounding diatribe at the Wednesday morning mandatory communion services about how Vengeance is the domain of God. It was not the domain of man. He shouted in his high nasal sing songy voice about how we as “chidrin of God are to turn oder chee”. “Do noe resis, Do noe figh ba!” he shouted, slapping the pulpit with his right palm for emphasis. We were to welcome our enemies with open arms. Turn the other cheek. I was focused on the spittle flying from the priest’s mouth with every tortured consonant. The early morning sun was blazing in through the tall slender multicolored windows from the East side of the church. One golden ray had chosen a path directly across Father Chin’s face as he ranted, spitting, and slapping away. I watched the shards of spit explode into view, fly across the span of this beam of sunlight and then disappear into the darkness again. I wondered if everybody else could see this. I wondered where they eventually landed.
On a sunny April day, Father Staid strode across the playground from the Church rectory to the school principles office intent on speaking with Sister Rose Alinda, the school principal, about the janitor and his habit of smoking in the washrooms. He noticed a commotion at the far end of the yard and decided to change direction to see what was going on. Where was the nun with her brass bell? She was supposed to sound the alarm if someone was hurt or if there was trouble of any kind that she couldn’t handle herself. Maybe it was that damn dog again. No, he could hear crying, and screaming. He broke into a sprint, his dull black priest’s tunic flapping behind him, the large crucifix at the end of his rope belt bouncing crazily off his right knee.
He came upon Chucky laying on the pavement with that tall skinny kid sitting on his chest beating the shit out of him. Good God! “Stop! Stop! God damn it!” He shouted, waving the kids aside. “Move! Move!”
He grabbed the skinny kid by the arm and yanked him off the poor kid. Elijah was much lighter than anticipated, and Father Staid’s anger and alarm gave him more strength than he expected. He flew up and away, like his name sake, Elijah, being lifted to the heavens, but unfortunately, rather than sailing on to the peace and tranquility of Heaven, he landed neatly on his feet, solidly back on earth, though a good five feet from where he has been. The priest was looking at Chucky. He lay very still. He turned back to the skinny red headed kid he still had by the arm. He had this glazed over look and was grinning, grinning! For god’s sake! The little son of a bitch!
He slapped the boy hard across the face in an act of spontaneous retribution. “How does that feel? Is it still funny?” The priest shouts. Elijah continued to smile. He slapped him again this time out of pure frustration. The skinny kid suddenly went limp and the priest released his grip. The boy slumped to the ground.
The nun was ringing the big brass bell now as she ran toward the school. Cla-clang! Cla-clang! Cla-clang! For the love of god, the priest thought, a bit late sister! The kids had all scattered when the priest had arrived. Now they circled back quietly and stared at Chucky there on his back. Blood had begun to pool under his head.
The priest knelt beside him. His eyes were closed. His face was almost unrecognizable. For the love of god. He picked up a limp arm and felt the wrist for a pulse. It was there, weak but steady.
He looked around at the children all standing silently, staring at him, at Chucky, there on the ground.
“He’s ok children. He will be fine. Go back to your classrooms now. Go on. Hurry. Get along now!” They turned, some walking, some crying, some running back to the perceived safety of the school. The nuns were coming out of their doors, herding their respective flocks into their classrooms.
He heard the ambulance announcing its arrival. Jesus Christ in heaven, what happened? What possessed him to do this? What was he thinking? The priest knelt there on his knees next to Chucky, hands clasped praying fervently.
With the ambulance now gone with Chucky, and that tall, red headed kid hauled off to the nurse’s office, the priest now had to deal with the parents.
The priest sat at his desk in his rectory office flicking through a folder stuffed with lists of phone numbers. He began with Chucky’s mother. She was a single mom with three kids. Charles in the 5 grade, and two girls. One was in the 8th grade, and the other a sophomore at the Catholic High School. They lived just a few blocks from the parish school in a rundown dirty little bungalow with no front yard and no porch. The front door opened awkwardly directly onto the sidewalk.
“Your son has been taken to the hospital. He was hurt during lunch hour today in the school play ground.” “Yes, he was taken by ambulance to the emergency room at St Vincent’s.” “Well, he got into a fight with another.. No, I mean I don’t know who started it, Mrs. ….Yes, he was white. What has tha.. No, I don’t believe it was a race thing. No I don’t know…No… I will not tell you the name of the child right now. Lets try to calm do…no, I will not tell you. Please Mrs. Den…..Mrs. Denton? Mrs. Denton? Hello?”
Now for the skinny kid. What was his name. Some foreign name, Jewish? Z something. Zednik. Yes, here it is, Zednik. What sort of name is that? “Hello, Mrs. Zednik, yes hi, this is Father Staid from the parish school, yes, I am fine. Yes, good. I am calling….yes Father Chin is doing well, yes, I am calling you in….yes, Sister Agnes Mary is doing just fine, listen please….Yes, he is well, Yes, we are praying for her quick recovery. Yes thank you. Your prayers are greatly appreciated. Mrs. Zednik, your son is hurt. Yes, Please listen, yes, that is what I am calling about. Yes. No I don’t think he can or should walk home. No, I can’t give him a ride home. Could you or your husband come and pick him up? Yes, he will be waiting in the nurse’s office. Yes, and I need to have a chat with you or your husband or both if possible about what happened. He was in fight. Yes, Yes, as soon as possible please. Have the nurse call me when you arrive.
Yes, good bye, yes, I will certainly. Yes..”
I lay there on the nurse’s vinyl leather couch with an ice pack on my face. The ice had melted long ago and the vinyl bag was leaking. I could feel the cold damp creeping down my shoulder and chest.
As I lay in the semi darkness I tried to recall what had happened. How everything had slowed down, how I had seen only Chucky’s face and how I had hit Chucky over and over. I moved my hands, trying to make fists. They hurt badly. I looked down at the bloody knuckles. Broken skin hung off of them.
I was crying, sobbing. I had a terrible headache. I ached all over. My very soul seemed to ache. I did not know what had just happened but I did know that I was very likely going to go to hell now. I lay there in misery and deep despair in the half dark.
As soon as Mr, Zednik had come home from work, Mrs. Zednik confronted him with the news that his son had gotten into “another” fight at school. She told him to go pick him up at the school nurses office immediately. After a few loud curses and the slamming of a few doors, he drove to the school.
It was dark out by the time Mr. Zednik arrived. The place was deserted except for the school nurse, me on the couch, and the janitor in the boy’s bathroom smoking a cigarette.
Mr. Zednik yanked the outer door open, stormed down the hall to the door labeled “School Nurse” and banged on the door. The nurse came out of her inner office. “Good evening Mr. Zednik. Elijah is right here.” She turned to the telephone on the desk to her right. “ Could you wait a moment while I call Father Staid, he would like to talk to you.”
In the time it took her to reach the phone, my father had pushed past her and grabbed me by the same arm that the priest had used, in exactly the same place, and wrenched me to my feet. The ice pack, blankets and the wet pillow went flying. I was once again cast into the role of Elijah, and again tragically, landed on my feet back on this earth.
My arm burned with intense pain and I howled. My father slapped me and told me to shut up. The nurse startled by the violence and now the sudden visceral scream from me, let out a scream herself, and Mr. Zednik not to be outdone, began cussing at the top of his lungs in his shattered English as he dragged me through the door.
Outside finally, he released his grip and I followed him at a safe distance and purposefully, willfully stifled the desire to cry out at the pain radiating from my arm with each jarring step. I dreaded riding in the car with my dad, especially alone. Right now, I was terrified. It wasn’t so bad if my mom was in the car with us , I could relax a little bit at least. I knew he would not dare intentionally crash the car to kill me if she were there.
I sat in the back seat, (never the front, I was not allowed up there,) and imagined that I could see the anger emanating like death rays from my father in the driver’s seat. It was palpable. I was certain that at any moment he would spin around, reach over the seat and kill me. He never uttered a word when driving. He never asked, “How was the movie?” or “Did you have a good time at Jerome’s last night?” “or “What did you learn at your Cub Scout meeting tonight?” I wished he would sometimes, but he never did.
I hunkered down in the back seat as far out of reach of my father as possible and waited for the car ride to be over.
I was sad that I had missed Sister Agnes Mary’s afternoon class today. “I bet she was singing today”, I thought as I stared out the car window at the passing lights. “Maybe she will sing to me tomorrow.”