Balthazar – a serial novella Pt. 3
Moundridge buzzed when a week after the fire, a letter appeared in the newspaper supposedly from Martin Balthazar in which he confessed to setting a fire inside the school and was now in Ontario, waiting for attorneys to clear his name and allow his safe return. The letter didn’t indicate a reason for setting the fire and even to my ten-year-old perceptions, such an omission was suspect. I didn’t buy it for a second. Martin’s sudden verbal exercises aside, he wasn’t one for public attention. Not from what I could tell.
It seems to me that a child has better truth sensors than most adults. Maybe it’s better instinct, maybe it’s just a more untouched view of the world. But when something wasn’t right, a kid would know. And I knew that the Martin Balthazar on paper wasn’t the same one that I’d talked to in the rain.
“See I told you.” Grandpa was puffed up about how he was “dead on” about Martin. How “those types” were capable of anything if you didn’t watch them. Every word he said infuriated me. But at the same time, I was bound by the immature hopelessness that didn’t allow a child to challenge most ideas proposed by their elders. And I knew no amount of indignation would change Grandpa’s mind, just as I knew his convictions weren’t going to change mine either.
“He’s pissing in our faces. That’s what it is. He’s saying ‘Look at what I can get away with, while you still have to trudge off to work and worry about your children while I think up new schemes in my mansion on the hill.’ That’s what he’s saying.” Grandpa slammed his fist down on the kitchen table, and silverware danced. “And I will be goddamned if I’m going to let that freak laugh at us.”
White foam was forming at the corners of his mouth and his ears were glowing red. I didn’t want to argue with him, I didn’t want to call him a bitter old man. I didn’t want to tell him that the Balthazars had never harmed anyone in Moundridge, but they’d helped us a time or two. I didn’t want to tell him to shut up and give it up. But I did anyway. Mom and Dad winced as Grandpa walked out of the kitchen and into his bedroom, and their look of disappointment when they turned to me caused the tears to fall.
I ran out onto the porch, nearly slipping on the wet wooden deck, but I made it to our tire swing hanging from a maple tree. I grabbed it and threw it like it was tetherball, letting it slam into the trunk and swing back, where I’d punch it or kick it so it would stop and I could wrap it around the tree again. The screen door squeaked open; I didn’t look behind me. I kept attacking the tire swing as if it would surrender the answers I was looking for. I was still crying.
“Eddie, come back inside, cool off. Settle down,” Dad said. “Finish your breakfast before the bus comes around. Beatin’ that old tire isn’t gonna make you feel better. You’ll just get tired. Get it? Tire-d?”
I spun around and looked at him. His bearded face and wool cap inspired imagery of a lumberjack, but his widened eyes and jutting tongue wiped that image away and replaced it with that of a clown. He had a knack for finding ways to calm people. Humor was one, even bad humor. But it worked.
“See, that’s better. What’s your fascination with these Balthazars anyway? Why are you so wound up over this?”
I told him that Martin was interesting. That I thought it was odd that a family with so much within the town would allow their son to wander around, even though he had some disabilities. That I thought it was odd that a family didn’t care so much what the rest of Moundridge said about them and that nobody really knew them anymore after all. I told him that I thought Martin seemed mostly normal to me when I ran into him, and that I’d like to know more about who he was, instead of who everybody else thought he was.
Wherever he was.
“Duh, he’s in Canada. Didn’t you hear about the letter in the paper?”
Jimmy Mingus was being his normal self. He thrived during recess, when one teacher thirty yards away only had a whistle to control his antagonizing.
“How do you know he wrote the letter in the first place, Jimmy?”
“Well it was signed by Martin Balthazar, that’s how I know.”
“But they already figured out that he didn’t start the fire. It was an accident. So he had no reason to go to Canada.” I hated to argue when I didn’t know for sure what all the details were, but I had faith that Martin wouldn’t turn up in Canada, since he didn’t do anything. I don’t think he’d ever left Moundridge once in his life.
“So what, do you think he’s just sitting at home staring out the window while the whole town thinks he’s setting fires all over the place?”
“That you know of,” said Jimmy. He folded his arms and glared down at me.
“That’s just stupid, Jimmy. There haven’t been any other fires.”
“Fine. Maybe not, but I still don’t think he’s still in town. I dare you to go to his house and bring him out for us to see that he’s still here.”
Now, the sensible thing to do would be to ignore him. Nobody ever went up to the Balthazar house from Moundridge – they only seemed to entertain people from other states, other countries. People in suits (Grandpa never trusted anybody in a suit except the undertaker). Obviously, nobody had ever been inside in ages. I’m sure I wasn’t the first kid to have this kind of challenge extended to him, but I was probably the first in Moundridge to accept.
“Fine. I’ll bring him out and he’ll say ‘Hello Jimmy, you butthead.’”
If I could follow through on the promise, it would make the black eye that Jimmy gave me worth all the trouble.
(continue to part four)