Everybody in Middleton knew about it, of course—knew that Jim Weaver hit his kids. There were no secrets in Middleton. Not really. Everyone has eyes that see and ears that hear. The Middletonians just seemed to be especially adept at using theirs. Nothing escaped them.
Catherine Banks (who was a somewhat recent immigrant to Middleton, from a small city in the liberal Northeast, and therefore somewhat arrogant) at first felt sympathy for Weaver and his family. She would find excuses to come over to their house and chat with Teri Weaver, while Jim hunkered down in his recliner, sulking. He saw what she was trying to do, and while he didn’t like it one bit, he felt powerless to stop it. Also, Catherine would frequently invite the Weaver sons, nine and twelve years old, to play at her house with her Robbie, aged thirteen.
But soon she discovered what the rest of town already knew: the Weaver boys had problems. They were violent, destructive, sadistic. They tied bells to their cat’s tail and howled with laughter when the poor creature went insane trying to be rid of them. They punched Robbie in the face and, when Robbie didn’t fight back (“You’re older than they are, Robert!”), punched him again. They would laugh at sad things and cry at happy things. Catherine Banks pitied them but could not bring herself to tolerate them. So eventually she did what the rest of Middleton had been doing for years. Left the Weavers to their own devices.
It was the climax of summer. The trees bent under the weight of their full branches, and the air throbbed with the dry, still heat of the season. In the patch of land at the center of town, officially christened Middleton City Park, were gathered the majority of the town’s citizens. Some lay on blankets strewn over the park’s grassy areas. Others milled around the various barbecue grills placed near the blankets. Everywhere, the sound of people’s laughter and children’s gleeful shrieking filled the air.
Separated from this throng stood a group of boys. They were dressed nearly identically, with red shirts, blue jean shorts, and white shoes and socks. But one young man, rather short and standing in the middle of the group, was distinctive. His face was pasty and acne-scarred like the others, and his hair was the same shade of sun-bleached brown, but his eyes were darkly foreign. The others’ eyes were a colorless dull blue, but his eyes burned with passion and intelligence and the hint of something just beyond description.
“Come on, sharpen up these rows here. Bill! Stop pushing Chris! And Chris, keep your hands off Bill.” The choir director, an angular and youngish man clad in white, clapped his hands. “Okay, here we go! Just relax and sing like angels.”
They trooped out to the stage. The picnickers turned toward them expectantly. The orchestra below, their dress shirts plastered to their chests and arms with sweat, lifted their instruments. Quickly the choir ascended the stage.
“O-hh, say can you seeee … ”
The boy with the dark eyes sang mechanically. He could not sing with patriotic fervor, nor with self-aware satire, as many of the others did. The words meant nothing to him and the music seemed somehow false. Too bombastic, too smug. He hated feeling like this. Like a bad American and a bad human being. He wanted to run off the stage, to run from the ever-present eyes of those watching the Fourth of July concert. But he didn’t. He stayed until every last note had been ripped out of him.
“Oh, Robbie,” said Mrs. Banks, putting her arm around her son’s shoulders, smiling into his dark eyes. “That was beautiful. Just beautiful.”
The choir director sneaked up behind them, grabbed Robbie and began ruffling his hair. “Yeah, they sang like little angels, didn’t they? Your boy ’specially, Mrs. Banks, your boy ’specially has got a real nice set of pipes. You oughta be proud.” Then he let Robbie go and left to repeat this speech twenty more times to twenty more parents.
Catherine continued smiling as they began gravitating toward the grills. “Well, Robbie. Aren’t you glad we started going to Sunday services? Otherwise, you never would have been able to join the church choir. That sure was nice of Reverend Hickory to compliment you like that. You should have thanked him.”
“I’m hungry,” Robbie said. “I want a hot dog. With mustard.”
“All right. Sure you don’t want a hamburger instead? All right.” She continued smiling and Robbie felt like smacking her, just to get her to stop smiling. “But you really should thank the Reverend the next time you see him.”
Catherine squeezed his shoulders. “That’s my little man. Now let’s go get hot dogs for you and Dad. He’s been working the barbecues all day and probably needs a break.”
Mayor Simon Dell, with his thinning gray hair blowing in a gentle breeze, bit into a piece of steak. It was grossly overcooked. He chewed, swallowed, then moved on to the potato salad. That was slightly better.
Lazily he looked over the crowd. A fair majority of his townsfolk had appeared for the Fourth of July picnic. Many of the more well-known ones, at least: the notorious Weavers, the well-to-do Carmichael clan, the Richardsons (one of only two black families in Middleton), the Chous (the only Asian family in Middleton), Dr. Elliot Maddox, Reverend Harold Hickory, the recently-arrived Banks family, and lastly, himself. Everyone seemed to be behaving themselves, but quiet groups of plainclothes cops mingled among the picnickers anyway. Better safe than sorry—that was Mayor Dell’s motto.
He put down his fork and took a gulp of beer. It was hot out today. God, it was hot. He noticed Reverend Hickory coming his way. Suddenly he remembered the church choir’s rendition of the anthem and shuddered. Twenty adolescent boys, with twenty cracking voices … but of course he couldn’t tell the reverend that.
“Mayor Dell,” began the reverend with a big, happy grin, “how are you on this fine July day?” He said July like “Joo-lie.”
“Pretty well. And yourself, Harry?”
The reverend’s chest puffed out ever so slightly. “I’m doing fine. Did you hear the choir? A little flock of angels, all of ’em. Best version of ‘Star Spangled Banner’ I ever heard. Don’t you agree?”
“Hmm? Oh, yes. It was definitely something.”
“Yes, it was.” Hickory leaned forward and whispered. “You want to know why? Heart. All those kids have got such heart.”
Dell nodded in agreement. “Sure do. Well, keep up the good work, Reverend!”
“I will. Don’t you worry about that, Simon,” the reverend said, waving good-bye. He started off for the grills.
Dell watched Reverend Hickory leave with a deep sense of relief. Lord, I am a good, worshipful man, he thought after the reverend had gone. I go to church regularly and read the Good Book. But I cannot stand another year of the Faith Baptist Church Choir. I can’t! So I beg you, I implore you, to do something about that holy and terribly deluded man.
Damn kids. Always getting into trouble. Pestering little animals, or fighting with the other kids, or some other damn thing. He should paddle them right here, but then the neighbors would give him nasty looks. Damn neighbors. Ought to mind their own damn business and their own damn kids.
Teri Weaver sat beside her husband Jim on an outspread picnic blanket, her face stony and tense. “It was an accident. They said it was an accident.”
“Those boys’ll say anything to save themselves.”
“You’re angry and you’re going to do something you’ll regret.”
Weaver turned to face her. “Did I say I was angry? Did I? Now that I think about it, I didn’t say anything at all.”
“No. No, you didn’t,” said Mrs. Weaver carefully. “But you’re angry all the same.”
“I have a right to be. The kids are monsters. That little girl’s lip was bleeding, Teri. Bleeding.”
She folded her hands. She looked sad. “I know. But Chris and Bill swore they didn’t mean to hurt her.”
“Accident, my ass,” replied Weaver. Moodily he sipped his cola. He’d finished eating and now his stomach began churning like crazy. The kids were always giving him heartburn.
He set the soda can down. He hated soda, too sweet and sugary for his tastes, but couldn’t drink beer. Teri wouldn’t let him drink beer in public.
“So what are you going to do, Jim?”
“Dunno. Have a talk with ’em, I guess. Try and make ’em see what they did was wrong.”
Mrs. Weaver nodded slowly. “That’s a good plan. But why don’t you do it in fifteen minutes or so? Catherine is watching them now—she’ll keep them out of any more trouble. If you give yourself some time to cool down, you won’t blow up at them.”
“Yeah. Yeah, okay, whatever you say.”
I’m no animal, Jim thought peevishly. I won’t kill the damn fools or anything like that. Maybe just break their legs or something …
“Yeah, Teri.” He yawned, stretched his arms over his head. “That’s a good idea.”
“Christ, willya look at that?” said Dr. Elliot Maddox, his hard face etched with mild interest. “It’s not even three, and already Weaver is causing trouble.” Over by the make-shift parking lot, Jim Weaver was slapping his son Bill’s face and screaming, “How do you like being slapped? Not very much, do you? Well, how do you think that little girl liked it, huh?”
Nicholas Carmichael looked up from his grill. “The cops’ll take care of him. Quiet him down.”
Maddox turned over a hamburger and put a slice of processed, artificially-colored cheese on it. “That’s not the point, Nick,” he persisted. “The point is that the man is trouble. He tarnishes the reputation of all Middleton. Our reputation, too.”
“Aw, let him alone, Doc. If I had kids like his, I’d smack ’em same as he does.”
“Nick, I’m ashamed of you. This isn’t the nineteenth century. And we don’t live in some boonies in India or Indonesia, but in a civilized town in the heart of the U.S. of A.”
Carmichael grinned. “If you say so.”
Alan Banks, positioned a few feet away at his own grill, entered into the conversation. “I don’t know,” he said thoughtfully. “You sometimes read stories in the paper about parents severely abusing—or even killing—their kids and all. And it happens in places just like Middleton.”
“But not in Middleton. That’s the difference.”
Alan shrugged and returned his attention to his grilling.
“He’s got a point,” Carmichael argued. “We aren’t half as civilized as we like to think we are.”
The doctor smiled at Carmichael. “Didn’t know you were a philosopher. I thought all you cared for was money.”
“Not true, and you know it. How much do you think educators make? Not as much as you think. But you’re right on one account—money is everything. You can’t even take a piss without it. But just because I’ve got it, doesn’t mean I can’t lay things down like they are. Speak the truth, you know.”
“I guess you’re living proof that money doesn’t corrupt everyone.”
“Hell, Duke, money doesn’t corrupt. The lack of money corrupts.” Carmichael looked at him seriously. “Trying to get money corrupts. Trying to keep money corrupts. But money itself? There ain’t nothing purer than the smell of new green cash.”
“Amen, Brother Carmichael. Amen.”
Carmichael took up a platter of cooked meat and carried it over to one of the picnic tables. In the parking lot a policeman was trying to soothe Jim Weaver while Bill cried loudly, half in actual pain, half for effect.
Robbie sat at a picnic table, watching the scene in the parking lot. It really was something. He had been afraid today would be a complete bore, but things were shaping up nicely.
“Screw you!” Jim Weaver yelled at a cop. “I got the right to discipline my kid ... I got the right …” To Bill and Chris, who were standing off to one side: “Mouth off to me again, you little fuckers, and see what happens!”
Then Weaver was being led away to a squad car. If history was a good indicator, they would keep him for a day, maybe charge him with disturbing the peace, drop the charges, then let him go home.
Bill and Chris stood side by side, eyes on their father. They seemed almost sad to see him being led off. Robbie looked away. He couldn’t watch the little domestic drama anymore.
“Hey, kid, what’s up?”
Robbie turned toward the voice. It was his father.
Alan Banks sat down beside his son. “I brought you a hot dog. With mustard.” He grinned. “Just like you wanted.”
Very suddenly, Robbie felt sick to his stomach with guilt and grief. His father tried so hard sometimes to make him happy that it was painful to see.
“Thanks, Dad.” Robbie took a large mouthful. “This is really good. Did you grill it?”
Alan was chewing his own hot dog. “Yeah. Not too burnt for you, I hope?”
“Good. I’m glad I finally got it right.” Playfully Alan chucked Robbie’s shoulder. “You wouldn’t believe how many pounds of perfectly good meat I’ve scorched today. You know what a numbskull I can be sometimes.”
Robbie said nothing. They ate their hot dogs in silence, then Alan returned to his picnic duties. Robbie remained at the table. He looked around and noticed that Jim Weaver had been let out of the squad car and was rounding up his family to go home. Mrs. Weaver was pleading with him to give her the car keys, but he silenced with a look. Everyone was looking at the Weavers, too. But nobody went over to help. None of their business.
Suddenly Robbie felt sorry for them, so he trotted over to where his father was, beside the grills.
“What’s up?” Alan asked, concerned by the look on his son’s face.
Robbie swallowed, glanced back toward the Weavers. “I think Mr. Weaver is drunk,” he said.
“I know so. After his wife left to get their kids, he wandered off and found some beer.” Alan shook his head. “Somebody should do something about him. He’s going to run over an old lady or something.”
“Why don’t you drive them home?”
Alan blinked rapidly. “Me?”
“Yeah, Dad.” Robbie looked straight into his eyes, which made his father uneasy. “You.”
“Okay. Sure, why not?”
Robbie watched in apprehension as his father slowly walked over to Weaver’s car. Mrs. Weaver and the boys were already in the car. Alan and Weaver talked for a while, then Weaver finally handed Alan his car keys. Robbie exhaled in relief. Without even realizing it, he’d been holding his breath.
Suddenly a hand was on his shoulder. He whirled around. It was his mother.
“What does your father think he’s doing?” she asked, annoyed.
“He’s driving them home.” Robbie paused. “Mr. Weaver ... can’t drive right now, so Dad volunteered to help out.”
“Well, that’s great,” said Catherine sarcastically. “He always puts the damn neighbors before his own family. We took his car, and he’s the only one with keys to it. How are we supposed to get home?”
She walked away, not expecting her son to answer.
Robbie returned to his picnic table. The sick feeling was back in his stomach.
Why’d I have to go and do that? thought Robbie bitterly. Try and be a fucking hero? Mom’s right. Dad doesn’t care about us. Why’d I do that? Well, he didn’t have to listen. I mean, did he? No, of course not. After all, I’m just a kid and it was a stupid idea, and he’s the adult, and adults are supposed to say no to stupid ideas. Right? Yeah. After all, I’m just a kid. I’m only thirteen.
It wasn’t my fault. Why’s Mom got to yell at him anyway? It’s not my fault.
Why’d I have to go and do that?
Lee Chou sat on the picnic blanket beside Gene Richardson and Gene’s wife, Annie, painfully aware that they made up the unofficial affirmative action division of the Fourth of July picnic. It was a fact he didn’t like.
“Hey, Gene,” he suddenly said to Richardson, who was watching their children play in the grass. “Why are you here? In Middleton?”
Richardson looked amused by the question. “I was born here, that’s why.”
“Yeah, but you could’ve moved like some other folks have. Why’d you stay?”
Mrs. Richardson answered for her husband. “Middleton is a good community. Low crime rate, good schools, nice open spaces to play in. You can’t get those in a city.”
Richardson nodded enthusiastically. “You bet. I mean, that’s why you stayed, right?”
“Oh. Right.” Chou gazed over the park, remembering. His wife Jianmei—bless her beautiful soul—had never really liked Middleton. Before she died of cancer, she had often urged him to move. To somewhere with more Asians living near. Any Asians, she said, even godless heathen Hindus or Muslims. Just so her children knew what an Asian looks like.
He had resented the implication. He had lived almost his whole life in Middleton—did that mean he wasn’t a true Asian?
No, no, I didn’t mean you, darling …
“Hey, Lee.” Richardson stretched lazily. “Don’t look so upset, buddy. This is supposed to be a party.”
Chou gazed at his little five-year-old girl, Suyin, laying in the grass. Her long and flowing hair, her sparkling black eyes. “Daddy,” she scolded, “be happy!”
He smiled. Her eyes resembled her mother’s so much. “I am happy, sweetie. I’m happy.”
Alan Banks wiped the sweat from his balding forehead as he walked back to the picnic. After he’d driven the Weavers home, Teri Weaver had awkwardly thanked him for his help, apologized for her husband’s behavior yet again, and invited him inside for a drink of water. He’d politely refused—hell, it was his wife that wanted to play nice with the Weavers, not him—and started walking back towards the park. He just hoped Catherine wasn’t pissed at him. It seemed like everything he did pissed her off.
When he got back, Reverend Hickory was the first to see him.
“Well, hello, Mr. Banks.” The reverend beamed at Alan and clapped him on the shoulder. “Mighty fine performance your son put on. Just wonderful.”
Alan smiled stiffly, searching the crowds for Catherine. “Thank you, Reverend. That’s very kind of you.”
“Well, I’ll let you go now. I know you must want to get back to your family,” said Hickory. He began to drift away. “Oh, and by the by, that was a real neighborly thing you did for Jim Weaver. Bless you, Mr. Banks.”
“Don’t mention it.”
It was Catherine who had wanted them to start going to church, too.
Alan spotted Robbie. He was by the grills, eating another hotdog. He wondered whether he should tell his son to go easy on the junk food. It was hard to admit, but the truth was that Robbie was getting a little … chubby. Gets it from his old man, thought Alan ruefully, patting his own paunch. Besides, if Robbie was anything like himself, he already knew he shouldn’t eat so much.
“Hey, Dad,” greeted Robbie.
“You watch the grills for me while I was gone?”
The boy nodded.
“Made sure the park didn’t burn down?”
He nodded again.
Robbie watched intently while Banks retook his post behind the grills, as silent as a ghost. That always bothered Alan. Was it natural for a young boy to be so quiet all the time?
He cleared his throat. “The Reverend says you sang real good.”
“Liar,” muttered Robbie.
“I’m proud of you,” insisted Banks, more loudly than he’d intended. He lowered his voice. “It was probably scary going up there, in front of everybody and all.”
His son shrugged but was grinning ever so slightly.
“Me, I never was a performer. I was never good at much.”
“You’re a good mechanic.” Robbie looked away, towards the stage. “You’re good at fixing things.”
“I guess so. I mean, I did fix that little video game of yours when it wouldn’t turn on, didn’t I? Just a wire that came loose from the circuit board. And you like playing it all right, don’t you?”
The little half-grin flashed across Robbie’s face again. Alan opened his mouth to say something else, but then Catherine Banks came into view, marching toward them with a highly irritated look on her face. Robbie paled, then got up and left. Alan simply sighed, resigned to what was about to come.
Grimly observing the fight between his mother and father, Robbie sat by the side of the park pond, throwing little stones into the water. He hated it when his mother got like this. Her hands on her hips, with a really nasty look on her face, yelling about something or other, wagging her finger right in his father’s face.
Like his father was some kind of imbecile or something.
Too bad the Weavers were gone. At least they would have given him something else to pay attention to.
He lay back, the dry, tall grass tickling the back of his neck. The little Asian girl—was her name Chung or Chou?—came running towards the pond, because there were ducks swimming near the edge, and Robbie got ready to call out a warning. But then her father swooped down and grabbed her away from the water. As the two of them hiked back up to the main picnic area, away from the water, Robbie’s mind started to drift …
What a boring town. When the only exciting thing that happens is when Jim Weaver gets tanked or a little girl almost drowns. Pathetic.
Maybe I should have signed up for baseball lessons when Mom offered. Of course, she only wanted me to because she thinks I’m fat. But at least it would be something to do.
I could try out for baseball at school.
No, I’d never make it. I’m too fat, too short, too slow. I was the shortest kid in my sixth grade class last year.
Mom says I’ll get my growth spurt soon.
Robbie rolled over onto his stomach. The sky had darkened. Thick gray clouds hung ominously over the whole park area. The mayor was on the make-shift stage now, shouting out a speech to the gathered picnickers. Something to the effect of, “Glad you could be here, hope you enjoyed the food, go home now.”
I wonder if Mayor Dell is married. Yeah, I think I heard he is. But he doesn’t look like he could get a wife. Bet she won’t screw him, probably won’t even kiss him! Maybe he just goes to prostitutes when he gets the need.
I wonder if they would take a thirteen-year-old as a client. Are there any rules about that? I bet Reverend Hillbilly would say even thinking about prostitutes was a sin. I bet if anyone in this town went to prostitutes, it would be him. What a joke.
I wish I’d get my growth spurt soon.
“Robbie, we’re going now,” shouted Catherine. She and Alan were standing by their car, packing up.
“Coming, Mom!” Robbie yelled back.
I wonder when I’m ever going to get a driver’s license, so I can get the hell out of this town.