ALL Miss Price had been told about the new boy was that he’d spent most of his life in some kind of orphanage, and that the gray-haired “aunt and uncle” with whom he now lived were really foster parents, paid by the Welfare Department of the City of New York. A less dedicated or less imaginative teacher might have pressed for more details, but Miss Price was content with the rough outline. It was enough, in fact, to fill her with a sense of mission that shone from her eyes, as plain as love, from the first morning he joined the fourth grade.
He arrived early and sat in the back rowâ€“his spine very straight, his ankles crossed precisely under the desk and his hands folded on the very center of its top, as if symmetry might make him less conspicuous â€“ and while the other children were filing in and settling down, he received a long, expressionless I stare from each of them.
“We have a new classmate this morning,” Miss Price said, laboring the obvious in a way that made everybody want to giggle. “His name is Vincent Sabella and he comes from New York City. I know we’ll all do our best to make him feel at home.”
This time they all swung around to stare at once, which caused him to duck his head slightly and shift his weight from one buttock to the other. Ordinarily, the fact of someone’s coming from New York might have held a certain prestige, for to most of the children the city was an awesome, adult place that swallowed up their fathers every day, and which they themselves were permitted to visit only rarely, in their best clothes, as a treat. But anyone could see at a glance that Vincent Sabella had nothing whatever to do with skyscrapers. Even if you could ignore his tangled black hair and gray skin, his clothes would have given him away: absurdly new corduroys, absurdly old sneakers and a yellow sweatshirt, much too small, with the shredded remains of a Mickey Mouse design stamped on its chest. Clearly, he was from the part of New York that you had to pass through on the train to Grand Central â€“ the part where people hung bedding over their windowsills and leaned out on it all day in a trance of boredom, and where you got vistas of straight, deep streets, one after another, all alike in the clutter of their sidewalks and all swarming with gray boys at play in some desperate kind of ball game.
The girls decided that he wasn’t very nice and turned away, but the boys lingered in their scrutiny, looking him up and down with faint smiles. This was the kind of kid they were accustomed to thinking of as “tough,” the kind whose stares ha made all of them uncomfortable at one time or another in unfamiliar neighborhoods; here was a unique chance for retaliation.
“What would you like us to call you, Vincent?” Miss Price inquired. “I mean, do you prefer Vincent, or Vince, or – or what?” (It was purely an academic question; even Miss Price knew that the boys would call him “Sabella” and that the girls wouldn’t call him anything at all.)
“Vinny’s okay,” he said in a strange, croaking voice that had evidently yelled itself hoarse down the ugly streets of his home.
“I’m afraid I didn’t hear you,” she said, craning her pretty head forward and to one side so that a heavy lock of hair swung free of one shoulder. “Did you say `Vince’?”
“Vinny, I said,” he said again, squirming.
“Vincent, is it? All right, then, Vincent.” A few of the class giggled, but nobody bothered to correct her; it would be more fun to let the mistake continue.
“I won’t take time to introduce you to everyone by name, Vincent,” Miss Price went on, “because I think it would be simpler just to let you learn the names as we go along, don’t you? Now, we won’t expect you to take any real part in the work for the first day or so; just take your time, and if there’s anything you don’t understand, why, don’t be afraid to ask.”
He made an unintelligible croak and smiled fleetingly, just enough to show that the roots of his teeth were green.
“Now then,” Miss Price said, getting down to business. “This is Monday morning, and so the first thing on the program is reports. Who’d like to start off?”
Vincent Sabella was momentarily forgotten as six or seven hands went up, and Miss Price drew back in mock confusion. “Goodness, we do have a lot of reports this morning,” she said. The idea of the reports â€“ a fifteen-minute period every Monday in which the children were encouraged to relate their experiences over the weekend â€“ was Miss Price’s own, and she took a pardonable pride in it. The principal had commended her on it at a recent staff meeting, pointing out that it made a splendid bridge between the worlds of school and home, and that it was a fine way for children to learn poise and assurance. It called for intelligent supervision â€“ the shy children had to be drawn out and the show-offs curbed â€“ but in general, as Miss Price had assured the principal, it was fun for everyone. She particularly hoped it would be fun today, to help put Vincent Sabella at ease, and that was why she chose Nancy Parker to start off; there was nobody like Nancy for holding an audience.
Posted by permission of Random House and Richard Yates’ agent, from Eleven Kinds of Loneliness by Richard Yates ©1962. Atlantic – Little, Brown. All rights reserved.
The others fell silent as Nancy moved gracefully to the head of the room; even the two or three girls who secretly despised her had to feign enthrallment when she spoke (she was that popular), and every boy in the class, who at recess liked nothing better than to push her shrieking into the mud, was unable to watch her without an idiotically tremulous smile.
“Wellâ€“” she began, and then she clapped a hand over her mouth while everyone laughed.
“Oh, Nancy,” Miss Price said. “You know the rule about starting a report with `well.’ ”
Nancy knew the rule; she had only broken it to get the laugh. Now she let her fit of giggles subside, ran her fragile forefingers down the side seams of her skirt, and began again in the proper way. “On Friday my whole family went for a ride in my brother’s new car. My brother bought this new Pontiac last week, and he wanted to take us all for a ride â€“ you know, to try it out and everything? So we went into White Plains and had dinner in a restaurant there, and then we all wanted to go see this movie, `Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,’ but my brother said it was too horrible and everything, and I wasn’t old enough to enjoy it â€“ oh, he made me so mad! And then, let’s see. On Saturday I stayed home all day and helped my mother make my sister’s wedding dress. My sister’s engaged to be married, you see, and my mother’s making this wedding dress for her? So we did that, and then on Sunday this friend of my brother’s came over for dinner, and then they both had to get back to college that night, and I was allowed to stay up late and say goodbye to them and everything, and I guess that’s all.” She always had a sure instinct for keeping her performance brief â€“ or rather, for making it seem briefer than it really was.
“Very good, Nancy,” Miss Price said. “Now, who’s next?”
Warren Berg was next, elaborately hitching up his pants as he made his way down the aisle. “On Saturday I went over to Bill Stringer’s house for lunch,” he began in his direct, man-to-man style, and Bill Stringer wriggled bashfully in the front row. Warren Berg and Bill Stringer were great friends, and their reports often overlapped. “And then after lunch we went into White Plains, on our bikes. Only we saw `Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.’ ” Here he nodded his head in Nancy’s direction, and Nancy got another laugh by making a little whimper of envy. “It was real good, too,” he went on, with mounting excitement. “It’s all about this guy whoâ€“”
“About a man who,” Miss Price corrected.
“About a man who mixes up this chemical, like, that he drinks? And whenever he drinks this chemical, he changes into this real monster, like? You see him drink this chemical, and then you see his hands start to get all scales all over them, like a reptile and everything, and then you see his face start to change into this real horrible-looking face â€“ with fangs and all? Sticking out of his mouth?”
All the girls shuddered in pleasure. “Well,” Miss Price said, “I think Nancy’s brother was probably wise in not wanting her to see it. What did you do after the movie. Warren?”
There was a general “Aw-w-w!” of disappointmentâ€“everyone wanted to hear more about the scales and fangs â€“ but Miss Price never liked to let the reports degenerate into accounts of movies. Warren continued without much enthusiasm: all they had done after the movie was fool around Bill Stringer’s yard until suppertime. “And then on Sunday,” he said, brightening again, “Bill Stringer came over to my house, and my dad helped us rig up this old tire on this long rope? From a tree? There’s this steep hill down behind my house, you see â€“ this ravine, like? â€“ and we hung this tire so that what you do is, you take the tire and run a little ways and then lift your feet, and you go swinging way, way out over the ravine and back again.”
“That sounds like fun,” Miss Price said, glancing at her watch.
“Oh, it’s fun, all right,” Warren conceded. But then he hitched up his pants again and added, with a puckering of his forehead, ” ‘Course, it’s pretty dangerous. You let go of that tire or anything, you’d get a bad fall. Hit a rock or any- thing, you’d probably break your leg, or your spine. But my dad said he trusted us both to look out for our own safety.”
“Well. I’m afraid that’s all we’ll have time for, Warren,” Miss Price said. “Now, there’s just time for one more report. Who’s ready? Arthur Cross?”
There was a soft groan, because Arthur Cross was the biggest dope in class and his reports were always a bore. This time it turned out to be something tedious about going to visit his uncle on Long Island. At one point he made a slip â€“ he said “botormoat” instead of “motorboat” â€“ and everyone laughed with the particular edge of scorn they reserved for Arthur Cross. But the laughter died abruptly when it was joined by a harsh, dry croaking from the back of the room. Vincent Sabella was laughing too, green teeth and all, and they all had to glare at him until he stopped.
Posted by permission of Random House and Richard Yates’ agent, from Eleven Kinds of Loneliness by Richard Yates ©1962. Atlantic – Little, Brown. All rights reserved.
When the reports were over, everyone settled down for school. It was recess time before any of the children thought much about Vincent Sabella again, and then they thought of him only to make sure he was left out of everything. He wasn’t in the group of boys that clustered around the horizontal bar to take turns at skinning-the-cat, or the group that whispered in a far corner of the playground, hatching a plot to push Nancy Parker in the mud. Nor was he in the larger group, of which even Arthur Cross was a member, that chased itself in circles in a frantic variation of the game of tag. He couldn’t join the girls, of course, or the boys from other classes, and so he joined nobody. He stayed on the apron of the playground, close to school, and for the first part of the recess he pretended to be very busy with the laces of his sneakers. He would squat to undo and retie them, straighten up and take a few experimental steps in a springy, athletic way, and then get down and go to work on them again. After five minutes of this he gave it up, picked up a handful of pebbles and began shying them at an invisible target several yards away. That was good for another five minutes, but then there were still five minutes left, and he could think of nothing to do but stand there, first with his hands in his pockets, then with his hands on his hips, and then with his arms folded in a manly way across his chest.
Miss Price stood watching all this from the doorway, and she spent the full recess wondering if she ought to go out and do something about it. She guessed it would be better not to.
She managed to control the same impulse at recess the next day, and every other day that week, though every day it grew more difficult. But one thing she could not control was a tendency to let her anxiety show in class. All Vincent Sabella’s errors in schoolwork were publicly excused, even those having nothing to do with his newness, and all his accomplishments were singled out for special mention. Her campaign to build him up was painfully obvious, and never more so than when she tried to make it subtle; once, for instance, in explaining an arithmetic problem, she said, “Now, suppose Warren Berg and Vincent Sabella went to the store with fifteen cents each, and candy bars cost ten cents. How many candy bars would each boy have?” By the end of the week he was well on the way to becoming the worst possible kind of teacher’s pet, a victim of the teacher’s pity.
On Friday she decided the best thing to do would be to speak to him privately, and try to draw him out. She could say something about the pictures he had painted in art class â€“ that would do for an opening â€“ and she decided to do it at lunchtime. The only trouble was that lunchtime, next to recess, was the most trying part of Vincent Sabella’s day. Instead of going home for an hour as the other children did, he brought his lunch to school in a wrinkled paper bag and ate it in the class- room, which always made for a certain amount of awkwardness. The last children to leave would see him still seated apologetically at his desk, holding his paper bag, and anyone who happened to straggle back later for a forgotten hat or sweater would surprise him in the middle of his meal â€“ perhaps shield- ing a hard-boiled egg from view or wiping mayonnaise from his mouth with a furtive hand. It was a situation that Miss Price did not improve by walking up to him while the room was still half full of children and sitting prettily on the edge of the desk beside his, making it clear that she was cutting her own lunch hour short in order to be with him.
“Vincent,” she began, “I’ve been meaning to tell you how much I enjoyed those pictures of yours. They’re really very good.”
He mumbled something and shifted his eyes to the cluster of departing children at the door. She went right on talking and smiling, elaborating on her praise of the pictures; and finally after the door had closed behind the last child, he was able to give her his attention. He did so tentatively at first; but the more she talked, the more he seemed to relax, until she realized she was putting him at ease. It was as simple and as gratifying as stroking a cat. She had finished with the pictures now and moved on, triumphantly, to broader fields of praise. “It’s never easy,” she was saying, “to come to a new school and adjust yourself to theâ€“well, the new work, and new working methods, and I think you’ve done a splendid job so far. I really do. But tell me, do you think you’re going to like it here?”
He looked at the floor just long enough to make his reply â€“ “It’s awright” â€“ and then his eyes stared into hers again.
“I’m so glad. Please don’t let me interfere with your lunch, Vincent. Do go ahead and eat, that is, if you don’t mind me sitting here with you.” But it was now abundantly clear that he didn’t mind at all, and he began to unwrap a bologna sandwich with what she felt sure was the best appetite he’d had all week. It wouldn’t even have mattered very much now if someone from the class had come in and watched, though it was probably just as well that no one did.
Posted by permission of Random House and Richard Yates’ agent, from Eleven Kinds of Loneliness by Richard Yates ©1962. Atlantic – Little, Brown. All rights reserved.
Miss Price sat back more comfortably on the desk top, crossed her legs and allowed one slim stockinged foot to slip part of the way out of its moccasin. “Of course,” she went on, “it always does take a little time to sort of get your bearings in a new school. For one thing, well, it’s never too easy for the new member of the class to make friends with the other members. What I mean is, you mustn’t mind if the others seem a little rude to you at first. Actually, they’re just as anxious to make friends as you are, but they’re shy. All it takes is a little time, and a little effort on your part as well as theirs. Not too much, of course, but a little. Now for instance, these reports we have Monday mornings â€“ they’re a fine way for people to get to know one another. A person never feels he has to make a report; it’s just a thing he can do if he wants to. And that’s only one way of helping others to know the kind of person you are; there are lots and lots of ways. The main thing to remember is that making friends is the most natural thing in the world, and it’s only a question of time until you have all the friends you want. And in the meantime, Vincent, I hope you’ll consider me your friend, and feel free to call on me for whatever advice or anything you might need. Will you do that?”
He nodded, swallowing.
“Good.” She stood up and smoothed her skirt over her long thighs. “Now I must go or I’ll be late for my lunch. But I’m glad we had this little talk, Vincent, and I hope we’ll have others.”
It was probably a lucky thing that she stood up when she did, for if she’d stayed on that desk a minute longer Vincent Sabella would have thrown his arms around her and buried his face in the warm gray flannel of her lap, and that might have been enough to confuse the most dedicated and imaginative of teachers.
At report time on Monday morning, nobody was more surprised than Miss Price when Vincent Sabella’s smudged hand was among the first and most eager to rise. Apprehensively she considered letting someone else start off, but then, for fear of hurting his feelings, she said, “All right, Vincent,” in as matter-of-fact a way as she could manage.
There was a suggestion of muffled titters from the class as he walked confidently to the head of the room and turned to face his audience. He looked, if anything, too confident: there were signs, in the way he held his shoulders and the way his eye; shone, of the terrible poise of panic. ”
Saturday I seen that pitcha,” he announced.
“Saw, Vincent,” Miss Price corrected gently.
“That’s what I mean,” he said; “I sore that pitcha. `Doctoi Jack-o’-lantern and Mr. Hide.’ ”
There was a burst of wild, delighted laughter and a chorus of correction: “Doctor Jekyll!”
He was unable to speak over the noise. Miss Price was on her feet, furious. “It’s a perfectly natural mistake!” she was saying. “There’s no reason for any of you to be so rude. Go on, Vincent, and please excuse this very silly interruption.” The laughter subsided, but the class continued to shake their heads derisively from side to side. It hadn’t, of course, been a perfectly natural mistake at all; for one thing it proved that he was a hopeless dope, and for another it proved that he was lying.
“That’s what I mean,” he continued. ” `Doctor Jackal and Mr. Hide.’ I got it a little mixed up. Anyways, I seen all about where his teet’ start comin’ outa his mout’ and all like that, and I thought it was very good. And then on Sunday my mudda and fodda come out to see me in this car they got. This Buick. My fodda siz, `Vinny, wanna go for a little ride?’ I siz, `Sure, where yiz goin’?’ He siz, `Anyplace ya like.’ So I siz, `Let’s go out in the country a ways, get on one of them big roads and make some time.’ So we go out â€“ oh, I guess fifty, sixty miles â€“ and we’re cruisin’ along this highway, when this cop starts tailin’ us? My fodda siz, `Don’t worry, we’ll shake him,’ and he steps on it see? My mudda’s gettin’ pretty scared, but my fodda siz, `Don’1 worry, dear.’ He’s tryin’ to make this turn, see, so he can get off the highway and shake the cop? But just when he’s makin’ the turn, the cop opens up and starts shootin’, see?”
By this time the few members of the class who could bear to look at him at all were doing so with heads on one side and mouths partly open, the way you look at a broken arm or a circus freak.
“We just barely made it,” Vincent went on, his eyes gleaming, “and this one bullet got my fodda in the shoulder. Didn’t hurt him bad â€“ just grazed him, like â€“ so my mudda bandaged it up for him and all, but he couldn’t do no more drivin’ after that, and we had to get him to a doctor, see? So my fodda siz, `Vinny, think you can drive a ways?’ I siz, `Sure, if you show me how.’ So he showed me how to work the gas and the brake, and all like that, and I drove to the doctor. My mudda siz, I’m prouda you, Vinny, drivin’ all by yourself.’ So anyways, we got to the doctor, got my fodda fixed up and all, and then he drove us back home.” He was breathless. After an uncertain pause he said, “And that’s all.” Then he walked quickly back to his desk, his stiff new corduroy pants whistling faintly with each step.
“Well, that was veryâ€“entertaining, Vincent,” Miss Price said, trying to act as if nothing had happened. “Now, who’s next?” But nobody raised a hand.
Recess was worse than usual for him that day; at least it was until he found a place to hide â€“ a narrow concrete alley, blind except for several closed fire-exit doors, that cut between two sections of the school building. It was reassuringly dismal and cool in thereâ€“he could stand with his back to the wall and his eyes guarding the entrance, and the noises of recess were as remote as the sunshine. But when the bell rang he had to go back to class, and in another hour it was lunchtime.
Miss Price left him alone until her own meal was finished. Then, after standing with one hand on the doorknob for a full minute to gather courage, she went in and sat beside him for another little talk, just as he was trying to swallow the last of a pimento-cheese sandwich.
“Vincent,” she began, “we all enjoyed your report this morning, but I think we would have enjoyed it moreâ€“a great deal more â€“ if you’d told us something about your real life instead. I mean,” she hurried on, “for instance, I noticed you were wearing a nice new windbreaker this morning. It is new, isn’t it? And did your aunt buy it for you over the weekend?”
He did not deny it.
“Well then, why couldn’t you have told us about going to the store with your aunt, and buying the windbreaker, and whatever you did afterwards. That would have made a perfectly good report.” She paused, and for the first time looked steadily into his eyes. “You do understand what I’m trying to say, don’t you, Vincent?”
He wiped crumbs of bread from his lips, looked at the floor, and nodded.
“And you’ll remember next time, won’t you?”
He nodded again. “Please may I be excused. Miss Price?”
“Of course you may.” He went to the boys’ lavatory and vomited. Afterwards he washed his face and drank a little water, and then he returned to the classroom. Miss Price was busy at her desk now, and didn’t look up. To avoid getting involved with her again, he wandered out to the cloakroom and sat on one of the long benches, where he picked up someone’s discarded overshoe and turned it over and over in his hands. In a little while he heard the chatter of returning children, and to avoid being discovered there, he got up and went to the fire-exit door. Pushing it open, he found that it gave onto the alley he had hidden in that morning, and he slipped outside. For a minute or two he just stood there, looking at the blankness of the concrete wall; then he found a piece of chalk in his pocket and wrote out all the dirty words he could think of, in block letters a foot high. He had put down four words and was trying to remember a fifth when he heard a shuffling at the door behind him. Arthur Cross was there, holding the door open and reading the words with wide eyes. “Boy,” he said in an awed half-whisper. “Boy, you’re gonna get it. You’re really gonna get it.”
Startled, and then suddenly calm, Vincent Sabella palmed his chalk, hooked his thumbs in his belt and turned on Arthur Cross with a menacing look. “Yeah?” he inquired. “Who’s gonna squeal on me?”
“Well, nobody’s gonna squeal on you,” Arthur Cross said uneasily, “but you shouldn’t go around writingâ€“”
“Arright,” Vincent said, advancing a step. His shoulders were slumped, his head thrust forward and his eyes narrowed, like Edward G. Robinson. “Arright. That’s all I wanna know. I don’t like squealers, unnastand?”
While he was saying this, Warren Berg and Bill Stringer appeared in the doorway â€“ just in time to hear it and to see the words on the wall before Vincent turned on them. “And that goes fa you too, unnastand?” he said. “Both a yiz.”
And the remarkable thing was that both their faces fell into the same foolish, defensive smile that Arthur Cross was wearing. It wasn’t until they had glanced at each other that they were able to meet his eyes with the proper degree of contempt, and by then it was too late. “Think you’re pretty smart, don’tcha, Sabella?” Bill Stringer said.
“Never mind what I think,” Vincent told him. “You heard what I said. Now let’s get back inside.”
And they could do nothing but move aside to make way for him, and follow him dumfounded into the cloakroom.
It was Nancy Parker who squealed â€“ although, of course, with someone like Nancy Parker you didn’t think of it as squealing. She had heard everything from the cloakroom; as soon as the boys came in she peeked into the alley, saw the words and, setting her face in a prim frown, went straight to Miss Price. Miss Price was just about to call the class to order for the afternoon when Nancy came up and whispered in her ear. They both disappeared into the cloakroom â€“ from which, after a moment, came the sound of the fire-exit door being abruptly slammed â€“ and when they returned to class Nancy was flushed with righteousness. Miss Price very pale. No announcement was made. Classes proceeded in the ordinary way all afternoon, though it was clear that Miss Price was upset, and it wasn’t until she was dismissing the children at three o’clock that she brought the thing into the open. “Will Vincent Sabella please remain seated?” She nodded at the rest of the class. “That’s all.”
While the room was clearing out she sat at her desk, closed her eyes and massaged the frail bridge of her nose with thumb and forefinger, sorting out half-remembered fragments of a book she had once read on the subject of seriously disturbed children. Perhaps, after all, she should never have undertaken the responsibility of Vincent Sabella’s loneliness. Perhaps the whole thing called for the attention of a specialist. She took a deep breath.
“Come over here and sit beside me, Vincent,” she said, and when he had settled himself, she looked at him. “I want you to tell me the truth. Did you write those words on the wall outside?”
He stared at the floor.
“Look at me,” she said, and he looked at her. She had never looked prettier: her cheeks slightly flushed, her eyes shining and her sweet mouth pressed into a self-conscious frown. “First of all,” she said, handing him a small enameled basin streaked with poster paint, “I want you to take this to the boys’ room and fill it with hot water and soap.”
He did as he was told, and when he came back, carrying the basin carefully to keep the suds from spilling, she was sorting out some old rags in the bottom drawer of her desk. “Here,’ she said, selecting one and shutting the drawer in a businesslike way. “This will do. Soak this up.” She led him back to the fire exit and stood in the alley watching him, silently, while he washed off all the words.
When the job had been done, and the rag and basin put away, they sat down at Miss Price’s desk again. “I suppose you think I’m angry with you, Vincent,” she said. “Well, I’m not. I almost wish I could be angryâ€“that would make it much easier â€“ but instead I’m hurt. I’ve tried to be a good friend to you, and I thought you wanted to be my friend too. But this kind of thing â€“ well, it’s very hard to be friendly with a person who’d do a thing like that.”
She saw, gratefully, that there were tears in his eyes. “Vincent, perhaps I understand some things better than you think. Perhaps I understand that sometimes, when a person does a thing like that, it isn’t really because he wants to hurt anyone, but only because he’s unhappy. He knows it isn’t a good thing to do, and he even knows it isn’t going to make him any happier afterwards, but he goes ahead and does it anyway. Then when he finds he’s lost a friend, he’s terribly sorry, but it’s too late. The thing is done.”
She allowed this somber note to reverberate in the silence of the room for a little while before she spoke again. “I won’t be able to forget this, Vincent. But perhaps, just this once, we can still be friends â€“ as long as I understand that you didn’t mean to hurt me. But you must promise me that you won’t forget it either. Never forget that when you do a thing like that, you’re going to hurt people who want very much to like you, and in that way you’re going to hurt yourself. Will you promise me to remember that, dear?”
The “dear” was as involuntary as the slender hand that reached out and held the shoulder of his sweatshirt; both made his head hang lower than before.
“All right,” she said. “You may go now.”
He got his windbreaker out of the cloakroom and left, avoiding the tired uncertainty of her eyes. The corridors were deserted, and dead silent except for the hollow, rhythmic knocking of a janitor’s push-broom against some distant wall. His own rubber-soled tread only added to the silence; so did the lonely little noise made by the zipping-up of his windbreaker, and so did the faint mechanical sigh of the heavy front door. The silence made it all the more startling when he found, several yards down the concrete walk outside, that two boys were walking beside him: Warren Berg and Bill Stringer. They were both smiling at him in an eager, almost friendly way.
“What’d she do to ya, anyway?” Bill Stringer asked. Caught off guard, Vincent barely managed to put on his Edward G. Robinson face in time. “Nunnya business,” he said, and walked faster.
“No, listenâ€“wait up, hey,” Warren Berg said, as they trotted to keep up with him. “What’d she do, anyway? She bawl ya out, or what? Wait up, hey, Vinny.”
The name made him tremble all over. He had to jam his hands in his windbreaker pockets and force himself to keep on walking; he had to force his voice to be steady when he said “Nunnya business, I told ya. Lea’ me alone.”
But they were right in step with him now. “Boy, she must of given you the works,” Warren Berg persisted. “What’d she say, anyway? C’mon, tell us, Vinny.”
This time the name was too much for him. It overwhelmed his resistance and made his softening knees slow down to a slack, conversational stroll. “She din say nothing ” he said at last; and then after a dramatic pause he added, “She let the ruler do her talkin’ for her.”
“The ruler? Ya mean she used a ruler on ya?” Their faces were stunned, either with disbelief or admiration, and it began to look more and more like admiration as they listened.
“On the knuckles,” Vincent said through tightening lips. “Five times on each hand. She siz, `Make a fist. Lay it out here on the desk.’ Then she takes the ruler and Whopl Whopl Whop! Five times. Ya think that don’t hurt, you’re crazy.”
Miss Price, buttoning her polo coat as the front door whispered shut behind her, could scarcely believe her eyes. This couldn’t be Vincent Sabella â€“ this perfectly normal, perfectly happy boy on the sidewalk ahead of her, flanked by attentive friends. But it was, and the scene made her want to laugh aloud with pleasure and relief. He was going to be all right, after all. For all her well-intentioned groping in the shadows she could never have predicted a scene like this, and certainly could never have caused it to happen. But it was happening, and it just proved, once again, that she would never understand the ways of children.
She quickened her graceful stride and overtook them, turning to smile down at them as she passed. “Goodnight, boys,” she called, intending it as a kind of cheerful benediction; and then, embarrassed by their three startled faces, she smiled even wider and said, “Goodness, it is getting colder, isn’t it? That windbreaker of yours looks nice and warm, Vincent. I envy you.” Finally they nodded bashfully at her; she called goodnight again, turned, and continued on her way to the bus stop.
She left a profound silence in her wake. Staring after her, Warren Berg and Bill Stringer waited until she had disappeared around the corner before they turned on Vincent Sabella.
“Ruler, my eye!” Bill Stringer said. “Ruler, my eye!” He gave Vincent a disgusted shove that sent him stumbling against Warren Berg, who shoved him back.
“Jeez, you lie about everything, don’tcha, Sabella? You lie about everything!”
Jostled off balance, keeping his hands tight in the Windbreaker pockets, Vincent tried in vain to retain his dignity. “Think J care if yiz believe me?” he said, and then because he couldn’t think of anything else to say, he said it again. “Think I care if yiz believe me?”
But he was walking alone. Warren Berg and Bill Stringer were drifting away across the street, walking backwards in order to look back on him with furious contempt. “Just like the lies you told about the policeman shooting your father,” Bill Stringer called.
“Even movies he lies about,” Warren Berg put in; and suddenly doubling up with artificial laughter he cupped both hands to his mouth and yelled, “Hey, Doctor Jack-o’-lantern!”
It wasn’t a very good nickname, but it had an authentic ring to it â€“ the kind of a name that might spread around, catch on quickly, and stick. Nudging each other, they both took up the cry:
“What’s the matter. Doctor Jack-o’-lantern?”
“Why don’tcha run on home with Miss Price, Doctor Jack-o’- lantern?”
“So long. Doctor Jack-o’-lantern!”
Vincent Sabella went on walking, ignoring them, waiting until they were out of sight. Then he turned and retraced his steps all the way back to school, around through the play- ground and back to the alley, where the wall was still dark in spots from the circular scrubbing of his wet rag.
Choosing a dry place, he got out his chalk and began to draw a head with great care, in profile, making the hair long and rich and taking his time over the face, erasing it with moist fingers and reworking it until it was the most beautiful face he had ever drawn: a delicate nose, slightly parted lips, an eye with lashes that curved as gracefully as a bird’s wing. He paused to admire it with a lover’s solemnity; then from the lips he drew a line that connected with a big speech balloon, and in the balloon he wrote, so angrily that the chalk kept breaking in his fingers, every one of the words he had written that noon. Returning to the head, he gave it a slender neck and gently sloping shoulders, and then, with bold strikes, he gave it the body of a naked woman: great breasts with hard little nipples, a trim waist, a dot for a navel, wide hips and thighs that flared around a triangle of fiercely scribbled pubic hair. Beneath the picture he printed its title: “Miss Price.”
He stood there looking at it for a little while, breathing hard, and then he went home.