A Family Friend
The worst of me. That was all Herluf Ardinger wanted to know about. My worst thoughts. The worst things I’d ever done. His mouth opened wide around the middle of that word, as if his jaw could unhinge and swallow me whole: “What’s your worst subject in school?” he asked.
“The one after lunch,” I said.
“What’s after lunch?”
“It’s always changing.”
I felt like the top of my head was coming off while waiting for his reply. I didn’t dare look from my hands, busy picking grapes. His grapes. I cut another stem with the knife and guided the bunch to a soft landing in the spreading pan. He stood behind me with his shovel, which he used as a walking stick and weapon, his wrists in the cuffs of his work shirt like knife blades unseated in their sheathes. He wanted every tray to be spread heavy, every loose berry accounted for. He frightened and fascinated me. For both reasons, I wanted to please him and gain his approval.
I’d known of Herluf Ardinger my whole life. He was our reclusive country neighbor. His house sat in a clearing within his crooked vineyard and listed a little toward our dining room window, as if to loom larger in my eyes. When my father was growing up he’d worked for him, picking grapes, suckering vines, pruning canes, a nightmare boss that nostalgia had turned into a character builder. He became the threat my father invoked to try and keep my brother and me going down the straight and narrow, the punisher waiting for us if ever we failed to learn our lesson.
When my pan was full, I turned to the paper tray unfolded on the high part of the terraced middle. Out of the shade now the sun burned the back of my neck. As I spread the bunches on the tray, I licked my sweaty lip, and watched Ardinger from the corner of my eye, waiting for him to either move off or brain me with his shovel.
“Stone,” he said, “you’re a mean shit, but not because you’re stupid.”
“Thank you, sir,” I said.
For two weeks, Ardinger ran his picking crew like he was the warden at a penal colony, proving himself every bit the gargoyle my father promised he was, a creature of curses, gnashing teeth, and killing stares. Worse. Five years ago, his son-in-law died, Desert Storm. His widowed daughter, Eula, had recently moved herself and her son out of Ardinger’s house, and in with a man new to Caruthers, which must have offended his sense of right and wrong, and embarrassed him. He took it out on his raisin pickers. We were all criminals in his eyes. In fact, most of us had made grievous mistakes, pushed our parents too far, committed crimes against the expectations set for us, if not against the law. We were the sons, nephews, and grandkids of his country neighbors; working for Ardinger was our sentence. I’m not saying I didn’t deserve to be there. I was the boy who put thumbtacks on seats, entered the girls’ bathroom on dares, spat in the mashed potatoes when the lunch lady turned her head to cough. In third grade, I’d pissed my initials in the sandbox, and in the sixth did them again in cursive. I liked having the kind of reputation that preceded me. Then I went too far and got myself expelled for assaulting my eighth grade teacher. As a consequence to harming Miss Hauser, my father finally enacted his mythical punishment and farmed me out to Ardinger for the raisin harvest.
After harvest I started high school. Caruthers High could have honored the expulsion, sent me to continuation, but they chose to give me another chance, or they didn’t yet know who I was.
I soon found I preferred ninth grade to the eighth. The class changes happened slowly, with a stroll to my locker, and the teachers didn’t stand in their doorways barking at us. They seemed more interested in their subjects than their students. I thought some might deliver lectures and write on the blackboard even if no one showed up for class. And I found I couldn’t rile them, they frowned at my childishness and moved on. My classmates were soon following their lead. By October, I understood that I had a chance to change, if I wanted to.
Mr. Balderas taught English 9. He was dark-skinned with a wisp of soul patch on his chin. From the front of his classroom, he demanded details: names, page numbers, and quotations about imaginary people. His open vest swayed in rhythm as he held forth, his fine fingers drumming the lectern, the wide ring he wore sounding a hard shot when it struck the wood. He stood out in Caruthers, and especially at Caruthers High, where Varsity Boys ruled the school—gay, the rumors said—but he never acted bothered about that. His mind seemed to me an unassailable fortress of freshman curriculum.
Fall semester, we read The Old Man and the Sea. We read Of Mice and Men. Books about lonely men enslaved to their circumstances, the devils of work and need. He assigned papers. Mine he returned with underlined passages, exclamation marks in the margins, chicken scratch at the end. In class he listened to my ideas, which were scattered, thin, and mostly bullshit. He’d stand at his lectern, twisting the hairs of his soul patch between his thumb and finger, and nod considerately, deeply. By Thanksgiving, he was loaning me books. The Sun Also Rises. Lolita. Dense, difficult books that at fourteen I couldn’t finish. I found it strange, the way he was taking an interest in me: he never asked me questions, but encouraged me to study literature, claiming I had a talent hidden even from myself. When I returned a book, he’d swivel in his desk chair and replace the title on his shelves then turn back with another one I should try. Mr. Balderas himself seemed less knowable than his books, which were all monographed BB on the inside covers—another mysterious performance, like his vests and stringy beard.
One December day I came home from school to my father talking with Ardinger on our lawn. They stood shoulder to shoulder, arms crossed, both looking away over the vineyards.
“Herluf came by today,” said my father, later at the dinner table. “He’s got a job for you over Christmas.”
“Too bad, because I told him you’ll be there early.”
My mother bowed her head. Beside me, my brother straightened the lay of his knife and fork. Since the incident that got me expelled from the eighth grade, my family had stopped being afraid for me and started being afraid of me. My father went on cutting the meat on his plate.
“You know better than me we keep agreements with Herluf Ardinger,” he said.
I put my hands on the vinyl tablecloth. Found my palms slick.
“What will I be doing?” I asked.
“Whatever he says.”
The carnivorous rhythm of his jaw didn’t miss a beat.
Saturday morning, I walked the dry furrow to Ardinger’s while beside me the slow moving irrigation water steamed in the frosty air. The rest of the growers around Caruthers had converted their vineyards to drip systems, but Ardinger stayed stubbornly with flood irrigation: the concrete valves at either ends of the row, a shallow well and electric pump, constant tractor and shovel work. Ahead of me one window was lit with white light, while the rest of the house stood black and flat around it. I climbed the few steps to his porch, which was a mausoleum of emptied terra-cotta pots, and knocked. He slithered through the barely opened door. I’d be helping him change the irrigation water, and he got me a shovel from the barn. My breath fogged, and I sweated inside my clothes as we worked. Trenching and damming. I knew to keep up with him, to match him row for row, but it wasn’t easy. I worked past my aching muscles, the blisters on my hands, the misery of being trapped on his place, of belonging to him again. In the turnrows he asked me things:
“Who’s your worst teacher?”
“Which is worse, your father or mother?”
“How long till you get the hell away from here?”
Making the usual questions asked of boys my age seem patronizing and flimsy.
“Do you know a teacher at your school named Balderas?” he asked.
“I’m in his second period.”
“What do you do in the class of someone like that?”
“Read, write, discuss,” I said.
“My daughter’s shacking up with him. He’s stepfathering my grandson.”
He took hold of my arm and stopped me from starting work in the next middle.
“He’s a limp wrist of a man, but you’re no limp wrist, are you, Stone? You hear what I’m saying to you?”
His grip seemed to be driving nails of ice through my skin.
“You hate Mr. Balderas,” I said.
“If he’s a mister,” he said.
From his back pocket, Mr. Ardinger took out the picture of a soldier: desert camouflage uniform, black sunglasses, black rifle, blue sky, hot sand. His son-in-law, he told me, but I’d already recognized him from the picture that hung in the gym atrium at my high school, in memory of his sacrifice. He pushed the photograph into my hand. The paper felt damp from Ardinger’s sweat, with white, crisscrossing fold lines, like crosshairs.
“You show that to Georgie, he’ll go with you nice and quiet,” he said.
“That’s my grandson’s father. Georgie put those lines in it from carrying it around when he and his mother lived here with me. He loves that picture.”
He stared at me impatiently.
“Don’t be slow, Stone,” he said. “You’re going to bring him here to me.”
“That’s kidnapping,” I said. “That’s illegal.”
I held the picture out for him to take back. He didn’t see it, looked at me instead with his killing stare.
“Like you care about illegal. Violet Hauser? She’s a family friend from way back. You did a number on her. I’ve heard about it from a few people. If you did that, you’ll do this.”
I kept my arm straight out, still holding the picture. The cold sweat stung. Motionless now, my muscles hardened as if petrifying. I felt and saw my hand starting to tremble. Ardinger had never seemed so dangerous as now, waiting for my answer, which could only be one thing.
He explained his daughter took things to sleep and Balderas read books. Taking Georgie would be like picking a flower—his words.
“A boy can’t learn from a limp wrist,” he said. “You know. You’re in his class.”
“What will happen to Georgie?” I asked.
“You just bring him here to me.”
I came home to my lunch waiting under a paper towel. My mother didn’t stop watching her detective show reruns on television to join me at the table. I ate a few bites and showered. In my room, I took my eighth-grade English teacher’s eyeglass lens from its hiding place and turned it in my fingers, remembering what I’d done to her.
Mrs. Violet Hauser was a plump, frowning Helga who’d been teaching so long she’d had my father in class. She wore dresses that tied in a bow at the small of her back, the fabric stretching like a tarp across her land-sliding bosom—she must have had a closet full, in pale blues, browns, and grays, because she never wore anything else. After lunch she rolled her chair to the head of the room, held a book in front of her face, and read aloud, softly belching tuna salad between paragraphs. In her mind she must have been sword fighting in France or eating seagull on a deserted island—meanwhile, in real life, I snuck behind and tied her bow to the chair. At chapter’s end, she closed the book and tried to stand, but pitched forward instead, opening her scalp on the corner of a desk as she fell. The chair came down on top of her, its upturned castors spinning like the wheels of a crashed car. Fast-flowing head blood pooled on the asbestos tile. A couple of girls knelt to help, another ran to the office, one boy fainted, and the rest found new stores of jungle energy. In the mayhem I picked up the eyeglass lens, which had popped from her frames on impact, and slipped it in my pocket as a keepsake. It seemed many wild minutes before the principal got there. A substitute, the first anyone remembered Mrs. Hauser ever needing, finished the school year. I served my expulsion at home, completing photocopied packets and answering questions from borrowed textbooks. My mother supervised. She checked over all my work, but would only look at me sideways. Her disappointment had changed overnight into something colder. Fear, maybe. For weeks I expected a beating from my father—for past crimes, he’d turned me black and blue—but this time he didn’t come near me. Not until the day he told me that I’d been farmed out to Ardinger.
I’d picked up the lens as a souvenir, but handled it now for a reason I couldn’t quite name, tracing the curve of the eyeglass lens with my thumb—with my eyes shut, it could have a been a seashell or a flat stone, perfect for skipping across a river, except. If I could, I would have gone back and stopped myself from hurting her, I thought. I didn’t want to end up like Mr. Ardinger: angry, cruel, all his feelings as sharp as blades. I didn’t want to be the man grinding his teeth in the grocery checkout line or growling to himself on the sidewalk, the one you cross the street to avoid getting close to. Yet I felt him growing inside me, that man, forming so quickly I thought my past easier to change than my future.
Howling coyotes paced me through the vineyards much later that night. Sometimes, the pack sounded right next to me, hunting me in the dark, but it never sounded far away. I stepped out of the vineyards into the clearing, crept under the house’s one lit window—Mr. Balderas inside, reading—and touched the picture folded in my pocket, my ticket. I entered through the back door. Let my eyes adjust. Listened—quiet. Coats hung on hooks. Pairs of shoes organized on a set of shelves, bare pine with loose dados, built for the spot by someone who didn’t quite know what he was doing, to keep the family shoes from piling up in front of the door. Still silence. I went on through the house.
The boy’s lips lay open on the pillow, his breath a whisper passing through. In sleep he seemed made of softer things than bones. I sat—the desk was covered with Georgie’s drawings, a small stack of books, a lamp pushed to one corner; I stroked his hair to wake him, picture at the ready—I also prepared to clap a hand over his mouth, if necessary. His eyes flickered and opened, his body undergoing a moment’s fitful waking then growing stiff with fear. Seeing the picture of his father kept him quiet, but didn’t douse the terror I saw in his face. Seemed a long time before he could hold the picture for himself, much less get out of bed.
I herded him down the hall, past Eula knocked out in her bedroom and across the light flowing under Mr. Balderas’s study door. I pointed to Georgie’s shoes on the shelf, and while the boy tied them I watched for moving shadows. Someone taking a child should not expect a friendly conversation if caught, but for some reason I felt calm, clear-headed, protected. I herded Georgie out the back door. On my way, I took one of the shoes paired on the shelf.
“Is Grandpa all right?” Georgie asked, once we were in the vineyards.
“Just he worries about you, that’s all.”
“Even when I’m sleeping?”
Now the boy seemed all skeleton and dense muscle under his coat and pajamas.
“Aren’t you scared?” I asked him. “I thought for sure you’d try and run away from me.”
“Is that Brian’s shoe?”
I dropped the shoe by the mailbox before we walked down Ardinger’s long driveway. I would grab it on my way home.
“I don’t want you mentioning that to your grandfather,” I told Georgie.
Ardinger’s house was lit up like a beacon in the vineyard, looming ever closer. He waited outside, his face tilted upwards as if smelling the air. His grandson ran to him. He cupped the boy’s crown with his palm and took the picture with his other hand.
“I figure Georgie’s tired,” I said.
Ardinger looked through me, as if upon delivery I was supposed to turn into dust, until the next time.
Entering my own house worried me more than the one I’d entered illegally. I’d gone further than I ever had before—I’d become a kidnapper, and I didn’t want my mother seeing me. I snuck to the bathroom, where I shucked my dirty clothes, put the shoe in the hamper and covered it with my shirt; I caught sight of my cheeks in the mirror, red from the cold, and leaned close to the glass, inspecting the big pores on my nose and the soft hair spreading over my upper lip. I felt old and childish at the same time, and this face of mine seemed stuck in between, exactly where I didn’t want to be. I grabbed the shoe and took it to my room.
My desk was stacked high with homework pages, doodles and cartoons filling the margins—a guy with an axe in his head, a rat wearing sunglasses—and for some reason, I straightened the pile before turning out the light. As my vision adjusted I started to see my room again, black shapes in the black. I tried to get comfortable in my sheets, tossing and turning, listening to the coyotes go crazy outside. The way they yipped, I thought the pack must have been hot on the tail of some poor prey.
It was my mother who brought the gossip home a month later: Eula’s boy kept running away in the night. She’d heard it from her hairdresser who’d heard it from Eula herself.
“She always finds him safe and sound at his grandfather’s house, and you know who his grandfather is,” she said. “His grandfather is Herluf Ardinger.”
“The boy can’t be more than six or eight now,” said my father.
“Apparently Eula never had any trouble with him before they moved in with that Mexican.”
“He’s my English teacher,” I said.
I expected my mother to turn to me and ask if that was really true—I thought my father would raise his hand and demand I repeat what I just said, that my brother would confirm I was telling the truth, that in the course of conversation my part in what was happening to Eula and Georgie would come to light—but my mother, she was too absorbed with speculation to hear the facts I offered. The salon must have been vibrating with whispers, the hair dryer exciting her imagination to the point of lightning strikes.
That evening in my room I took the shoes out from under my bed: two, three, four of them, a shoe for each time Ardinger had sent me back to take Georgie. A house key was hidden in the toe of one, which I’d needed after the first time, and I lifted it up by its loop of twine and hung it around my neck. Its cold traveled through my t-shirt to my skin. Leaving the mismatched shoes out in plain view, I lay in bed and tried to read the latest book Mr. Balderas had loaned me, waiting to be caught with incriminating evidence, waiting to be rescued, but another night passed and no one looked in on me.
Mr. Balderas snapped his fingers in my face. I’d been staring at his black hi-tops spattered with house paint. He stood at the lectern with less authority than a stray dog in those shoes.
“My footwear seems of more than passing interest to you, Mr. Stone,” he said.
“They would,” I said.
I’d as good as told him. Now it was up to Mr. Balderas to do something.
“Class dismissed,” he said, loud.
My classmates didn’t move. Not even those who hated English class moved.
“Everybody out,” he said. “Not you, Reg.”
“There’s still thirty minutes—”
The room began to empty, shuffling, buzzing. Mr. Balderas turned, leaned over his desk, and began writing. The door shut behind the last of my classmates.
“I knew George wasn’t running away from his mother. From us. He would not. But I never thought—” He drew a loud line under what he’d written and pushed it on me. “—This is your confession. You’ll sign your name to the bottom, and the police can deal with you.”
I struggled to read his handwriting, the same chicken scratch he used at the bottom of my papers. I couldn’t understand half of it.
“I was trying to help you,” he said. “I never thought—that man hated me before ever setting eyes on me—you’re going to tell me right now, how do I stop him?”
“You have to make him want to,” I said.
Balderas sat on the edge his desk, at the same time leaning forward as if bent in half by a gut punch. My answer had surprised me too. Only after saying it did I know it was true: people like Ardinger only ever do what they want. It’s the worst thing about us.
“I’m not signing this, Mr. Balderas.”
He raised his hands, to insist I do as he commanded, but then dropped them again. Ardinger had called him a limp wrist, and I’d always known what he meant. Balderas was slight compared to everybody. In his own house he’d managed to be nothing but a light under the door. Now this. So what if he’d loaned me books? He couldn’t change me.
“I am going to speak to the principal about you,” he said. “To the police as well.”
“They won’t believe you,” I said.
“You’re going to bring me my shoes back,” he said.
I folded my confession and tore it in two, stood and threw the scraps of paper away in the trash. In my last backwards glance, his hands were hiding his face.
My classmates stood in the grass between buildings and looked to me for the story. I suppose I knew before speaking what I would tell them, though hearing my own voice still frightened me: “Faggot couldn’t wait to try and get me alone,” I said.
The principal had come out of his office and watched us from the end of the hall. I signaled to him, raising my right hand, for help.