Jonas Hoeck didn’t have to audition for the part of scapegoat; he was a natural. Every school has one. Some poor kid that his schoolmates heap with scorn so they can feel lighter about their own shortcomings.
The main problem with Jonas was that he was ugly—ugly like a rat. With his flat pelt of tawny hair combed forward into a sharp point that dripped over an equally sharp nose, with his darting eyes and hunched shoulders, he scurried like a scared rodent, unless the boys were after him. Then Jonas would tuck his books under his elbow and run, which was usually not fast enough.
Another problem was that the Hoecks weren’t like most of the community, which clung to the lower rungs of the economic ladder, nor were they churchgoers or participants in P.T.A. bazaars or other school events. They lived above the town on the crest of a rising hill, in a Second Empire house replete with sprouting dormers, brick chimneys, and a rotting black carriage parked in a porte-cochere, all hidden behind a mass of weeds, dying hemlocks, and a rusty iron fence. Since no one was ever invited inside, rumors boiled away in the brains of Jonas’ classmates and their parents. It was known that Dr. Hoeck worked in the city in a hospital, but little else, leaving some to opine that he performed abortions or did research in shady areas of medicine. Mrs. Hoeck did not shop in any of the local establishments, or at least she had never been recognized in any. Some said Mrs. Hoeck had passed away or taken residence abroad. In fact, no one knew anything about the doctor’s wife.
It was a hot May afternoon, made hotter because the students were required to huddle together in the stuffy, windowless center hall room for a drill in case Khrushchev suddenly decided to bomb America into oblivion. Even though the kids watched the Nike missiles rise from bunkers on nearby Sandy Hook like white needles preening with might to remind everyone of the imminent danger, they knew the drills were just a stupid exercise. It didn’t take much sense to realize no room with metal lockers was going to withstand a nuclear attack nor would folding arms over heads or hiding under wooden desks do any good.
Most of the teachers were using the drill as an excuse to catch a quick cigarette in the teachers’ room, ignoring the students in favor of a few puffs. This was fine with the kids, especially a group of fourth-grade boys who were surrounding Jonas, slowly tightening a circle around him like a boa constrictor until he disappeared from view. Seconds later, eight pairs of black high-top sneakers kicked inward. Then there was a howl that brought Mrs. Bromley sailing in like a galleon in a stiff wind.
“What’s going on here?” she demanded, peeling the boys away one by one.
“Nothing,” replied Donald Becker. He was a big blond kid, handsome except for a tightly coiled meanness that hardened his blue eyes.
“Come on, children,” Mrs. Bromley said, as she continued pulling at shoulders until she came to the center. She stared for a second, the lines of her face settling into a deep frown. “Oh, Jonas.” She heaved a weary sigh. “I might have known.”
Jonas was silent, his head down, fists clenched, face dry, though tears weren’t far off. When one squeezed out of his eye, he swiped at it with the cuff of his shirt and sniffed. The boys drifted away into the far corners of the hall.
Mrs. Bromley pinched Jonas’ sleeve with two reluctant fingers, hauled him into an empty classroom, closed the door, and sat him at a desk in the front row.
“Gracious, what are we going to do about you?” Mrs. Bromley asked, looming large in a dark blue, pink, and green flowered dress, whose hem swished against her seamed silk stockings. “Are you all right?”
“Answer me, please.”
Jonas stared at his scuffed black sneakers. A shoelace was broken, the handiwork of one of the pack of boys who picked on him like a day-old scab. “I guess so,” he muttered.
“Look at me when you’re speaking, young man.”
Jonas glanced up at his teacher, his eyes settling on the shiny gold cross below Mrs. Bromley’s thick throat. “Yes, ma’am.”
She let out a long gust of displeasure. “Why do you get into so much trouble?”
Since Jonas had no idea, he was silent.
“Do you tease the other children? Or make fun of them?”
Jonas shook his head.
“Well, you must do something!” Mrs. Bromley insisted.
Jonas slunk deeper in the desk chair.
“What does your mother say about your problems?”
He twisted a button on his olive shirt. “Nothing much.”
“Nothing much? Have you told her what goes on at school?”
“Kind of? What do you mean?”
“Kind of she has her own problems.”
This response stymied Mrs. Bromley, so she tried a different angle. “Do you think the children are jealous of you? You’re a smart boy…from a good home.” She said the latter with some uncertainty since she was Catholic and had heard the abortion rumors.
He squinted. “I don’t know, Mrs. Bromley.”
The teacher looked out the window, as if the solution might lie in busy Main Street. Then she fixed her vision on Jonas again. “You will stay after school.”
“Why?” He stared up at her in surprise.
“Because the boys will leave before you and go home. That’s why.”
Jonas thought of his new Lionel engine, the one his father had brought from F. A. O. Schwartz upon returning from the city the night before. It had been too late to play with it then. Jonas had been looking forward to hooking it up to his train this afternoon. He wished his father would be there for the first run, but his father often stayed in Manhattan, and even if home, he usually withdrew to his study with the door closed.
Jonas’ chin fell on his chest.
Mrs. Bromley stifled another sigh of frustration. “If you would be nicer to your classmates…you know, smile more or something…” She observed her student and realized smiling was not a good suggestion. Indeed, as she attempted to picture Jonas grinning, all she could imagine was a grimace. “Well, you can go out for recess or stay here.”
Jonas slowly rose from the chair and left the room. He wished he could talk to his father about what was happening to him, but his father didn’t discuss such things.
* * *
The playground was blacktopped, with painted white lines marking the two basketball courts. Several children were throwing pink rubber balls against the brick side of the school, a few boys were playing catch with a baseball, and a large group of girls was swinging a jump rope and taking turns stepping in. The afternoon sun was shining brightly.
Jonas surveyed this scene and evaluated the risks each cluster of children posed. Finally, he sat down on the steps in a dark shadow drifting off the corner of the building. He laid his head in his hands and prayed he was invisible.
He wasn’t. A baseball slammed into his shin. Instantly, he grabbed his leg in pain and glanced up. Donald Becker and Jerry Reese stood twenty feet away, laughing and snickering. Jonas snatched the baseball. He wanted to throw it in Donald’s face as hard as he could. He wanted to go punch him in the mouth and knock out every last tooth. His body began to shake.
“Hey, come on, creepo!” Jerry yelled. “Give us the ball!”
Jonas stood, gripping the baseball tightly. Once upright, his knees locked with fear, as he saw the two boys approaching him. The jump rope had ceased its rhythmic slap against the pavement, and the girls were staring.
Jerry bumped him on the shoulder with the heel of his hand. “The ball, dummy.”
Jonas glanced at Jerry’s freckled face and narrowed green eyes, the press of his thin lips, and shook his head.
“Whaddya mean, you stupid jerk!” Donald stepped closer, his yellow shirt flaring with sunlight.
Jonas smelled the tang of sweat—his or theirs, he didn’t know. “I’m not stupid,” he muttered.
Donald and Jerry hooted and punched each other, mimicking Jonas’ words. Then Donald whispered something to Jerry before turning to Jonas with a greasy smile.
“Hand us the ball, Jonas, or else we’ll get you after school.”