Balthazar – a serial novella Pt. 2

(start at part one)

Three out of the five school nights, I had an after school class with nine others, since Mom didn’t get out of work until later in the evening. Dad was always stuck at the mill. Today’s special lesson (and Mrs. Glenn always had a special lesson, every day) was art appreciation. Basically, we were given a card with a famous work of art on it, and instructed to recreate it as closely as possible, only to change one detail on the picture. The class was supposed to find the change, and, for bonus points, determine why such a change was made. Supposedly, this would teach us to think like artists, or in ways that would “expand our appreciation for observation.” It’s been twenty years since, and I still don’t know what “expand our appreciation for observation” means. Mrs. Glenn died before anybody could figure it out.
I got Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” which made half the rest of the class jealous because it was a freaky looking painting. The other half were talking about hockey and hadn’t even unpacked their art supplies. They were there for detention usually, also. I’d been opted into detention by my parents. It’s inspiring. It really is.
I didn’t change much, and what I did change was more of a mistake than an intention. The creature in my painting had noticeable ears peeking out over the edges of its hands. I just hadn’t looked that closely at the picture and assumed he had ears.
“Interesting. Class, do you notice the change that Eddie has made?”
Silence. Half the class was still behind, scrambling to complete their pictures. Still, the other half discussed two-line passes, arguing if the goal line counts or not. It doesn’t, for the record.
A cough. A rustling of paper. Even if they had a guess, these kids weren’t willing to take a chance at being wrong. Or worse, they weren’t willing to be right.
Finally, a small and quiet child (I remember her name as April) raised a tiny and scrawny hand from a table near the doorway.
“April, do you have an idea what Eddie changed and why he did so?”
“I smell smoke.”
And she did. Shortly after, so did we. Running into the hallway, we noticed a janitor’s closet expelling black clouds, clearly not Mr. Stills sneaking a cigarette. The door was slightly open ,and we could see the orange flames dancing inside. Mrs. Glenn fell down when she pulled the alarm. She groaned out of fear. Three other classrooms down the hallway opened their doors, saw the smoke and charged outside. We followed.
For once, everybody actually remembered and complied with the fire escape procedures we’d practiced once month. Single file. Find a buddy. Walk far out onto the blacktop, turn and watch the building burn. It was like clockwork, only with children calmly leading a frantic Mrs. Glenn outside.
The fire department arrived and hustled into the building. The fire was small, but could have spread easily, they said. We reacted appropriately. Mrs. Glenn was gasping, hyperventilating. After she caught her breath, she looked at me sweetly and whispered.
“You gave him ears because he knows the truth about himself, am I right? So when he screams, he hears his own voice…”
I looked up at her. She was still fighting to regain composure. I thought this might be the most important thing in the world to her. Validation. Proof that she was the adult and had all the answers.
“Yeah, that was it.”
I’d just assumed he had ears, though.

“You know what I heard,” Grandpa said. He was running with one of his rants again. “I heard that the son was out that way about that time. They don’t have security at that school, just three or four teachers right? I’m telling you, it was him.”
“Oh really now, Dad,” Mom said. She had been saying that a lot more often than usual during this time. “He’s around there most of the time anyway, and you don’t see a fire every day do you? He likes the school. It reminds him.”
The story she’d told me once was that Martin was usually the smartest kid in class, if you could get it out of him. It only happened one day, and after that, he was more reserved and hidden than ever. They were working on long division that day, and the teacher was explaining the steps. Mom knew a trouble-making kid named Jimmy (must be something about that name) who wanted to test the teacher’s abilities (and patience).
“Do you know what 285 divided by 15 equals?” Jimmy asked, then leaned back in his seat, smug and victorious as the teacher stammered out a wrong answer.
“Nineteen,” answered Martin.
The teacher jotted it down on the board, and it was correct. Jimmy wasn’t convinced.
“Try 2000 divided by 25.”
“Eighty.” No hesitation at all.
By this time, Mom said, Jimmy was standing up, angry at being shown up, but also because he was just making things up to begin with, and didn’t think there could be an answer found so quickly.
“Fine. Take 9573 and divide that by 438.”
“That’s about twenty-two. Actually, 21.86.”
The teacher punched numbers into a calculator and sighed.
“Twenty-one point eight-six. He’s right. Very good, Martin.”
Jimmy launched himself across the room and pushed Martin down off his chair. He stood over him with venom spilling from his mouth.
“You think you’re so so smart huh? Making up good guesses like that, I bet you’re a big cheater. You can’t know this, you’re one of the dumb kids. You don’t talk, you don’t play, you just sit around and jump in the air at recess. You’re dumb. And nobody likes you. I don’t like you, Miss Stallings doesn’t like you. Your mom and dad don’t like you either. They told me.” And he slapped him.
Martin didn’t even blink during the whole confrontation. His eyes widened and he watched Jimmy spew.
The next day, Martin wasn’t in class. But they saw him on their way to lunch. The school nurse said he exhibited similar reactions to sociopaths and needed special supervision from Mrs. Rooney in special education. Hers was the class with the kids who screamed at things only they could see and who had people help them remember to wipe their faces when they sneezed. Mom hated that I described them like that, but it was the truth. They didn’t wipe their noses.
But according to Mom, Martin had never belonged there.

For the next few days after the fire, nobody saw Martin around. To many, this was a big “guilty” sign blinking towards the Balthazar estate. And admittedly, it did seem convenient that amid all the rumors, and despite the conclusion that a misplaced rag by the furnace was the root of the blaze, a missing Martin Balthazar shortly after such an incident didn’t bode well for his innocence. Even I had begun to believe the prospect of Martin Balthazar, arsonist.
It was a busy day in the mill that day. So busy that I got to help out for a couple of hours. Or had to. At the time, it was a privilege. Thinking back, it was a chore. But my parents had made the mill off-limits, and thus, irresistible. I jumped at the chance to help them harvest syrup.
I couldn’t do much, mostly just moved buckets from under the trees and into the truck. All the same, it made my arms tired and sore. You wouldn’t believe how much a trees leaks when you jam a spigot into its bark. Really. They leak bucket after heavy bucket. I thought my arms had stretched a couple of feet by the end of the day. And all the payment I’d ever get was a pat on the back from Dad. All I expected, at least.
“You know your grandpa gets a little wound up sometimes. I don’t think he really means it all the time when he says he hates people or things.” He watched me, checking for recognition. “He grew up when a lot of people liked to be proud and remember all the good things and big success they had made. You can’t blame him for being upset to see where we could be when you look at where we are.”
“Yeah.” I knew. I felt the same way when I practiced throwing a football all across the yard, and then, in the heat of the battle during gym class, watched it flutter and die five feet down the field. You expect it to go much further once you know it’s possible.
Anyway, we do alright.” He messed with my hat and sighed. “I don’t think your friend started that fire. There’s no reason for it. They just want to blame somebody who has it better than we do. It’s natural.”
I didn’t think Martin had set a fire. No reason for it, no explanation. I guess they just didn’t like him to try to blame it on him. But, and I felt bad for this, it seemed pretty easy for him to slip in, do something, and run out without being seen. And he hadn’t been around for a while, either. Like he knew he was in trouble. Like a dog that tries not to watch its owner when it’s made a mess and knows they’ll pin it on him. Most people don’t confront consequences. That thought stuck in the back of my mind as I wondered if he’d done it or not.
There weren’t any other special classes the rest of that week. The principal had painters in to fix up the charred walls but the idea that somebody could have started a fire once caused the school board and the PTA to assign a man to guard the hallways after regular classes were over for the day.
Mom had made arrangements for me to stay with Jimmy Mingus after school. I protested, but there wasn’t really an alternative. Nobody else lived close enough to our secluded little area of Moundridge, and even going to Jimmy’s was a good mile out of the way. I didn’t like Jimmy any more than he liked me. It was going to be a fun few weeks until I got to hang out with Mrs. Glenn again.
Jimmy and I had made an understood agreement to make the best of the time we had together. Neither of us was in a position to negotiate. We either got along or we’d be miserable half the time. As much as I enjoyed one-upping Jimmy, it was tiring work talking him down when he wanted to get big and violent about our private little war.
Instead, we turned our energy toward sports and used that as a means of more civilized competition. Jimmy had about six inches and thirty pounds to his advantage, so if we played basketball, I knew I wasn’t going to get a rebound. He knew this also, and made an effort to miss shots on purpose to rub it in. If I got a shot off (which wasn’t often with his height advantage) I had to make it. There was no question of need. If I expected to win, I had to make it.
I lost. I only got three shots, and only one of those went in the basket. Jimmy got his eleven points pretty easily. Sitting on his porch afterward, he made sure I knew it too.
“You might have won,” he said. “If I didn’t have feet. Or legs. Or if I was blind. Maybe.”
I ignored him. He thrived off of confrontation, and I didn’t feel like giving him the satisfaction. He kept staring my way, anticipating a response. I tried to bore the antagonism out of him. After a moment of waiting, he turned away. I was tearing apart a twig, piece by piece. No real reason. There wasn’t a sudden need in the country for disassembled twigs. One of those “I don’t really have much to say to you, so I’ll fidget and look like I’m engrossed in this activity so you don’t feel unimportant” types of situations.
“So did he really talk to you?” he asked. “Or were you just making that up to sound cool?”
I looked up. The look on his face struck me as worried more than curious. But I wondered, was he worried because the local weirdo was talking to children now, or was he worried because the local weirdo was talking to somebody other than him?
I answered him with a smirk. Didn’t even look up. He turned away with an annoyed sniff, and I couldn’t help but smile.

(to part three)

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~ by Michael Engel on February 12, 2007.

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