it was all christopher cain’s fault. i’ve never been one for adventure or courage or going against anything that wasn’t what i was told. i like order. i like predictability but then christopher cain came into my life and…well, all h. e. double hockey sticks broke loose.
i knew he’d be trouble for me the second i saw him with his thick curly jet black hair and that crooked nose i couldn’t decide if it had been broken in a past life of if it was just made that way. all i knew was that the second mrs. norwood sat him next to me and asked me to show him ‘the ropes‘ all i could think about was how much more deeply could i press my nose into my lovingly worn copy of ‘a swiftly tilting planet.’ no one had to tell me christopher cain was a trouble maker i could see it in his lopsided grin and that annoying glimmer his eyes cast when he was thinking up something that had nothing to do with staying in place.
mrs. norwood was a goddess. she dressed in silks that hung about her as though she were a grecian sculpture come to life. we disappointed mrs. norwood on a regular basis. as her class assistant i had the daunting task of making sure everything and everyone stayed in place whenever mrs. norwood had an emergency that called her out of the room. she let me hold onto her sacred ruler ‘vitamin pain’ just in case things got too ridiculous. but things never got too ridiculous until they brought that christopher cain into our classroom. it hurts my brain just thinking about it.
he was late that day. he’s always late. for the life of me i cannot understand what his parents are thinking not getting him to school at least by 8:05 then he would be in time to say the pledge of allegiance and sing our national anthem. i’m very patriotic by the way my great-grandfather, grandfather and father are all veterans. well my father is still in the army. he’s a corporal. we believe in service and punctuality. christopher cain’s family does not believe in either. he told me so. he said his mother didn’t want him to say the pledge of allegiance and that was the main reason he didn’t come to school until 8:45. i thought that was against the law. but when i asked my father he told it wasn’t against the law but it probably should be because every american should be proud enough of our country to stand up and pledge allegiance after all he and our family had done all the fighting.
so on that day…the day of the incident, christopher cain was late. he was even later than usual arriving at 8:50 instead of his usual 8:45. i know because on mondays mrs. norwood ask that i take attendance. and the day of the incident was a monday so i was paying very close attention to the clock. anyway christopher cain came into class later than usual and he was looking a whole lot messier than i could ever imagined him being. his shoes were scuffled and his shirt was torn. there was even a hole in his knee and his nose was running. i really didn’t know what to make of it but i did know i didn’t want to sit by someone who was so out of order. but mrs. norwood has a very strict policy against discrimination. being african american she says that discrimination can cut a person to their very soul. she says its the worst form of bullying because its institutionalized. i asked my father if that was true and he told me it was so i know it is.
i didn’t want to discriminate against christopher cain because no matter how disheveled he looked or how late he was to school or how mischievous he could be i knew it was best to keep my ideas about his behavior and presence to myself. mother is very strict about not saying anything to someone if you can’t say anything nice. so i was in the habit of just not talking to christopher cain even though mrs. norwood asked me to show him the ropes i’d decided that showing him the ropes did not have to include actually talking to him because i didn’t have anything nice to say to him and i didn’t want to get in trouble with mother. so imagine my surprise when on that day after coming in 5 minutes later than his usual late looking like something the cat dragged in christopher cain spoke to me.
‘can you loan me a kleenex?’
my mouth dropped open. christopher cain had never spoken more than two words to me in the entire time that he had sat at my table. even though i was suppose to be showing him the ropes he didn’t really ask me any questions and i could really talk to him because i didn’t have very many nice things to say to him and i didn’t want to discriminate or be mean. that was why when he asked me for the kleenex i nearly fell out of my chair.
‘come on marley. i now you have an entire box in your desk. can i have one?’
christopher cain knew my name. this was even more shocking than the idea that christopher cain had asked me for a kleenex. i closed my mouth nodded and reached under my desk to get out the box of kleenex i had special permission to keep there because of my allergies. i handed christopher cain the box.
he looked at me with something like gratitude and said, ‘thanks.’
that’s when i confirmed he was trouble because at that moment i realized if christopher cain had asked me i would have given him anything he wanted. woe is me.
‘marley. i had a rough time getting to school today,’ he started to tell me. normally i don’t approve of anyone talking during quiet work time. there is no reason really for being unproductive but christopher cain looked like he needed a shoulder to cry on and i figured why not mine.
clearing my throat, i whispered, ‘what happened to you?’
‘these middle schoolers jumped me when i walked across the yard.’
‘what do you mean ‘jumped’?’
‘they beat me up.’
i think that was when i nearly fainted. whoever heard of middle schoolers jumping on a 5th grader. it was absolutely unacceptable.
‘well, we have to tell the principal-‘
christopher raised his hand to silence me then leaned in to whisper as quietly as he could, ‘if i tell i think they’ll kill me.’
‘christopher,’ i gasped. ‘why would anyone kill you? seriously think more clearly.’
‘because i stole something from them.’
at that point i put my head down on my desk and tried to create a bubble because i was sure i was about to have an asthma attack. christopher cain was a hooligan that was for sure. he came to school late. he did not pledge allegiance to the flag. he’s hair was too long. he gets in fights. he steals. and now he thinks someone is going to kill him. i most certainly did not want to show christopher cain the ropes. what i wanted was to have my seat changed.
i raised my hand. i didn’t realize christopher was still talking until he pushed my hand back down and hisses, ‘let me finish telling you what happened. i think i need your help.’
i folded my arms and put my head down but i did listen to christopher cain tell his story. he walked to school just like any other day but today he took a short cut through a back alley one block away from the school. when he was walking through the alley he saw a black metal lunchbox sitting in the middle of the alleyway. the lunchbox looked new and christopher thought it was odd that it was just sitting in the alley way like it was going to be thrown away so he picked it up and opened it. inside the black metal lunchbox was full of money. christopher thought it must have been left there by mistake but he figured whoever dropped it was definitely coming back to pick it up. he put the lunchbox back where he found it but not before taking a handful of dollars out of the box and shoving it in his pockets. that was when the gang of boys say him chased him to the school and beat him up. christopher fought back and was able to get into the school building before they did more damage to him. once he finished his story christopher cain shook my arm demanding i look up at him. when i did he was clutching a handful of dollar bills.
‘you have to give that back! i nearly hollered. ‘stealing is wrong! its even in the bible!’
christopher cain laughed at me. he was the one in all this trouble and he was laughing at me. for the first time in my life i actually wanted to punch somebody in the mouth and that somebody was christopher cain. i sat up very straight and return to my quiet time work. i had had enough of christopher cain and his shenanigans. i did not want to hear anymore.
‘marley, please listen to me.’ he had stopped laughing.
‘christopher i have work to do and so do you.’ i huffed back at him.
‘marley. i wouldn’t’ve taken that money if i didn’t need it. marley my mother needs that money to pay our gas bill. if she doesn’t have it we won’t have heat. marley i need your help.’
i was completely flabbergasted. what did he mean? no money to pay bills. what kind of home does christopher cain live in. i had to ask, ‘where is your father?’
‘dead. my father died in the war. my mother hates this country. she wants to go live on an island, anywhere but here. she makes me late to school just so i won’t say pledge of allegiance. she’s so angry about my father being killed fighting.’
i never knew that. christopher cain and i had something in common. his father and my father both fought in the war, the only difference was my father came home. it made me sad for christopher cain that he and his mother were alone and now she couldn’t pay a bill and they might not have heat.
‘stealing is still wrong.’ i told him.
‘what would you do?’
i almost told him ask my father but then i felt sad that he didn’t have a father anymore. and then something weird happened because i really couldn’t think of anything to tell him. i really didn’t have an answer. it made me cry.
‘marley, please don’t cry.’ christopher cain begged. ‘i just need a little help from you. if you do this one thing for me i won’t ask you anything else. i promise.’
my head hurt and my chest was getting tight. i was sure i was on the brink of an asthma attack but something else was going on with me that confused me even more. my mother talked all the time about christian compassion. she could preach a sermon my father always said about the importance of mimicking christ’s works instead of reciting his words. i think in my heart listening to christopher cain talk about his father and his mother and not having money to pay bills, i started to feel christian compassion. christopher cain was trouble and i was going to help him.
‘what do you want me to do?’
‘you keep the money.’
‘no.’ i said emphatically.
‘please marley. if they catch me they’ll hurt me. worse than this.’ christopher looked so desperate.
‘okay. okay. okay.’ i wasn’t going to be able to take much more of him begging. i agreed to put the money in my pencil box. i agreed to keep the money in my pencil box for two days and then give the money back to christopher cain so that he could give it to his mother and then she would be able to pay their gas bill and they would have heat in their house.
i told you christopher cain was trouble. and a liar. that was not the last time he asked me for favor. it was the last time nor was it the biggest.