"One time," she said, "a boy in my class, a mean boy named Harold Kettlety, started calling me 'Rabbit Face.' I hadn't done anything to him. Not a thing. I never bothered anyone at all--I was scared of my own shadow. He just thought up that name one day and decided it was funny. 'Hello there, Rabbit Face,' he used to whisper to me across the aisle. After a while, some of the other boys took it up, too. They used to chase me at recess and call me 'Rabbit Face.' "
I sat there, pumping my leg up and down, wanting her to stop--wanting Harold Kettlety to still be a kid so I could find him and rip his fucking face off for him.
"And so I told the teacher, and she sent me to the principal. Mother Agnes, her name was. She was a stern thing." Ma's fingers twisted her pocketbook strap as she spoke. "She told me to stop making a mountain out of a molehill. I was making things worse, she said, by calling it to everyone's attention. I should just ignore it. . . . Then more boys got on the bandwagon, even boys from other grades. It got so bad, I used to get the dry heaves before school every morning. You didn't stay home sick in our house unless you had something like the measles or the chicken pox. That's the last thing Papa would have stood for--me home all day long just because some stinker was calling me a name."
I needed her to stop. Needed not to hear the pain in her voice--to see the way she was twisting that pocketbook strap. If she kept talking, she might break down and tell me everything. "I don't see how any of this sob story stuff has anything to do with me," I said. "Are you planning to get to the point before I die of old age?"
She shut up after that, silenced, I guess, by the fact that her own son had joined forces with Harold Kettlety. On the drive home from the optometrist's, I chose to sit in the backseat and not speak to her. Somewhere en route, I drew my new glasses from their brown plastic clip-to-your-pocket case, rubbed the lenses with the silicone-impregnated cleaning cloth, and slipped them on. I looked out the window, privately dazzled by a world more sharp and clear than I remembered. I said nothing about this, spoke no apologies, offered no concessions.
"Ma's crying downstairs," Thomas informed me later, up in our bedroom. I was lifting weights, shirt off, glasses on.
"So what am I supposed to do about it?" I said. "Hold a snot rag to her nose?"
"Just try being decent to her," he said. "She's your mother, Dominick. Sometimes you treat her like s-h-i-t."
I stared at myself in our bedroom mirror as I lifted the weights, studying the muscle definition I'd begun to acquire and which I could now see clearly, thanks to my glasses. "Why don't you say the word instead of spelling it," I smirked. "Go ahead. Say 'shit.' Give yourself a thrill."
He'd been changing out of his school clothes as we spoke. Now he stood there, hands on his hips, wearing just his underpants, his socks, and one of those fake-turtleneck dickey things that were popular with all the goody-goody kids at our school. Thomas had them in four or five different colors. God, I hated those dickeys of his.
I looked at the two of us, side by side, in the mirror. Next to me, Thomas was a scrawny joke. Mr. Pep Squad Captain. Mr. Goody-Goody Boy.
"I mean it, Dominick," he said. "You better treat her right or I'll say something to Ray. I will. Don't think I wouldn't."
Which was bullshit and we both knew it.
I grabbed my barbell wrench, banged extra weights onto the bar, lifted them. Fink. Pansy Ass Dickey Boy. "Oh, geez, I'm nervous," I told him. "I'm so scared, I'll probably shit my p-a-n-t-s."
He stood there, just like Ma, his look of indignation melting into forgiveness. "Just cool it, is all I'm saying, Dominick," he said. "Oh, by the way, I like your glasses."
© June 1998 , Wally Lamb. Used by permission.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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