I am as I am

I am as I am

Almond, Steve

The developer’s hope had been to establish the park in Dorset Centre as a “public square” of the sort British townships once organized themselves around. The design featured a lazy slope of grass circled by a gravel pathway. In the proposed model, displayed at Village Hall, little plastic mommies pushed perambulators along this path, while a knot of boys tussled after a ball on a swathe of green. Beyond this, a man on a raised box held one arm aloft, his tiny mouth open. A group of fellow citizens stood before him in postures of thoughtful attention.

This was not, in fact, how the park looked. The village crime consultant voiced alarm at the prospect of creating an unstructured “youth magnet” environment. The open space, therefore, was somewhat reduced and converted into a par course. When, after several months, it became clear that no one used the par course, a baseball field was put in its place. As the village fulfilled its prophecy of attenuated growth, the roads around the park widened and a new round of fretting ensued over the possibility that a child would chase a baseball into traffic. The park’s central location, originally embraced as a quaint communal flourish, seemed, upon sober reflection, an inattentive, even reckless choice. The baseball field was soon encircled by a high chain-link fence.

This was why the boys of Dorset began referring to the field as the Prison Lot. They grumbled over the sense of confinement, which ran contrary to the sport’s pastoral spirit. And, being children, they took up the obvious challenge: to hit a ball over the fence. In this way, they managed a collaboration that publicly confounded adult concerns. On summer afternoons, with the shadows drawn long, threads of boys in baseball mitts converged on the Prison Lot to conduct the business of childhood.

Eric Hielman was a handsome boy and he had lived with the advantages of his looks. He was picked up and played with frequently as a baby. He made friends easily. Teachers doted on him. He had a fine jaw, his father’s jaw, and eyes the green of antique glass. He was also the only boy ever to clear the Prison Lot’s fence in a game situation.

Bat speed was the central issue in Eric’s life. His father, who had played ball in college, explained that a major leaguer must be able to bring his bat from a motionless state to a dynamic point of contact, at waist level, in less than half a second. This required coordination of the entire body: the eye had to pick up the ball and anticipate its path, wrists and forearms had to bring the bat to the back of its swing, upper arms and shoulders had to flex and pivot, the trunk and waist had to rotate, the thighs had to transfer the weight of the lower body from the back foot to the front in a controlled lunge. It was a kind of ballet-Eric’s father had said this, a bit dreamily, quickly adding that the goal was to “maximize bat speed,” that without the cooperation of any one part the swing would fail in its intended task.

The most frustrating aspect of a baseball swing, Eric’s father said, was that it had to be intuitive. Eric, who was clever enough but only nine years old, shook his head. “You can’t think about the swing,” his father said. “You can’t tell your body to do all these things I’m talking about. You have to let your body figure it out on its own.”

Eric spent hours practicing in the backyard, hoping to familiarize his body with the mechanics of the swing, to bleed the process of thought, and listening for the sound of his father’s car in the driveway. Inevitably, his mother ordered him inside before his father arrived, citing darkness.

Like his father, Eric was tall and solidly built. By his tenth year, he had developed an exceptional swing, smooth and explosive. When he stepped to the plate, the infielders edged back. The outfielders positioned themselves on the warning track and turned to one another and spat. If the ball sailed over the fence, they would have to retrieve it.

Eric himself took little notice of these adjustments. In the batter’s box he thought of nothing; tried to think of nothing. This was the key to success in life, as his father had intimated. “The whole problem with this place,” his father would say, eyeing the groomed lawns of Dorset Centre, “is too damned much thinking.” Eric thought about the space at the far end of the park, where the girls now played dolls on the gazebo. And sometimes he imagined his father there, standing on a box and telling the people of Dorset what he really thought of the place. He envisioned this as a heroic moment, one they would secretly share, though he knew his mother would never allow such a thing to occur.

Among the players were younger and weaker boys. Bill Bellamy was a sad third category: ungainly. He lacked coordination, and worse, lacked the good grace to remove himself from games. A doughy, red-haired boy, Bellamy was so pale his veins appeared to run green. He failed as a player, but always with an exuberance that refused to recognize his failure. He held the bat like a girl, fists too far apart, and came around late, even on slow pitches. He was a loss in the field, logy in his reflexes, incapable of tracking. Second base or right field were his, unless there were enough fielders, in which case he was happily excluded from the game. The notion of placing him behind the plate was a new one. Perhaps he would do less damage as a catcher.

The experiment was a failure. Bill Bellamy was frightened of the ball and twisted away, holding his mitt out as if to shield his eyes from a small explosion, then chuckling to himself as he lumbered to the backstop. By the time Eric Hielman came up to bat, on the long last day of summer, players were yelling for a new catcher. More kids had arrived. Bill Bellamy was expendable.

Down at first base Stevie Hayes was calling out “new catcher new catcher” and Matt Anderson, the shortstop, took up the chant. They were the best players in the game, besides Eric, and the others joined in. Eric stood at the plate and waited, trying to avoid thought. But hesitation was the ally of thought; welcomed a distraction of instinct. The pitcher, Jamie Blake, looked at Eric.

“Just pitch the ball,” Eric hollered.

It hadn’t been his intention to make a noble gesture, only to move the game along so he could take his turn at bat. He felt strong today, and the spot where he stood, at the center of this enclosed diamond, emphasized his strength. As he squared his shoulders and watched Jamie Blake dip into his windup, he experienced the euphoria of perfected focus. The other boys scattered across the brown and green, the hovering sky, the smell of bubblegum and linseed oil on leather, the new tar of distant roads: all these seemed a part of his brightly appointed future. Behind him, Bill Bellamy said “Thanks Eric,” said this with a goofy conviviality he seemed to feel was shared, and stooped forward on his clumsy cleats, hoping, apparently, to offer his gratitude with a pat on the back or a handshake or some other gesture of touch which Eric Hielman never noticed.

The pitch came in, one of Blake’s underthrown sliders, and Eric could see that it would not break; the rotation was insufficient. It would sit up and wait to be drilled. Eric’s body would execute this and was already beginning to execute this, wrists and arms and trunk and legs acting in concert to pull the swing around, into abrupt dynamic motion, a single whipcord arc beginning over his left shoulder and ending as he stepped forward and felt his bat explode into Bill Bellamy’s head.

He did not understand that this was what had happened. Not immediately. What he understood was only a truncation of the bat’s natural progress. He had come up against something, a spongy feeling he would recognize later as flesh giving way to wood. The pitch came in at waist level, but he was off-balance now, as a result of this obstacle, this thing, and falling toward the plate, the trance of his swing broken and shouts knifing in from the field and on the face of Jamie Blake a pinched look he had never seen before, and from behind home plate the heavy sound of a body falling without resistance.

Eric stumbled then righted himself. He turned around. Bill Bellamy lay on the ground, half-curled. His shirt rode up over his belly. An arm lay over his forehead. But even obscured, it was clear his skull was wrongly shaped. His orange hair had begun to mat with dark fluid. His feet twitched. “Bellamy,” Eric said. There was no response.

Jamie Blake and Stevie Hayes and the others were now gathered around home plate and Eric turned to them and saw that they sagged back an inch or two. Jamie looked down and Eric realized that he still held the bat in his hand and that the bat was cracked. Not a deep crack, one that he would be able to tape if he wanted to use the bat for practice, which of course was no way to be thinking at the moment. He dropped the bat.

One of the younger kids, Tom Severance, began whimpering. “Blood,” he said. “Blood.” He pointed to the small puddle beneath Bill Bellamy’s head, as if it were important to convince some adult just out of view. Without a word, Stevie Hayes set off for the gate and Matt Anderson flew after him, mitts thumping against their legs. The others followed. Only Jamie Blake remained with Eric, bound to the play as pitcher; trapped in the grim duty of attending to Bill Bellamy.

“He’s hurt,” Jamie said. “He’s really flicking hurt.”

Eric said: “Bellamy? Bellamy, can you hear me?”

“Blood,” Jamie said. “He’s fucking bleeding from his head.”

“Okay. Calm down. An ambulance is going to come. They’ll call an ambulance.”

“We should do something, man,” Jamie said. He had begun to cry and now fell to his knees and pounded his head into the dirt. “Fuck, man. Fuck. His head, man. Fuck.”

Eric considered this idea, of doing something. He looked at Bill Bellamy and noticed that his eyes were closed, but his stomach was moving, quivering with fast, shallow breaths. He knew about CPR from a film in school (a firm thrust of the palms below the sternum, use your weight) and, from swimming certification, he knew about mouth-to-mouth resuscitation (clear the breathing passages and form a seal over the mouth, four breaths then a break). But he knew nothing about head injuries. They hadn’t gone over that: what to do when you have smashed someone’s head in with a baseball bat.

Jamie was on his hands and knees, making retching noises.

“Calm down,” Eric said. “He’s breathing. He’ll be all right. We just have to wait until the ambulance comes.”

“Fuck,” Jamie said and retched again and continued crying. “It was like he was down before you hit him.”

Eric could see Stevie Hayes and the others crossing the street that led to their homes, darting up front walks. He turned to Bill Bellamy and crouched. “Bellamy,” he said. “The ambulance is coming.” A sharp ammoniac scent rose from the body. Its feet continued to twitch.

Jamie was muttering to himself. “Fuck, the way you hit him. Like his head was, like, fuck, like crack.”

Eric was still trying to figure out what had happened, and he didn’t like the way Jamie was saying this. It made Eric sound as if he had known Bellamy was there, or had had some control over the situation. “You shouldn’t have thrown a pitch if he wasn’t set.”

“Me?” Jamie reared up on his knees. His face was webbed with snot. “You were the one, Eric. Shit. You were the one who swung.”

This was the difference, Eric realized: Jamie had seen it happen. This was why he was so upset. He had been a witness. “Okay,” Eric said. “He’ll be all right. We just need to wait until the ambulance comes. We have to stay here and explain.” The two of them said nothing. They looked at Bill Bellamy every few seconds; they did not look at one another.

“Maybe we should turn him over,” Jamie said.

“No,” Eric said. “I don’t think we should touch him. It’s serious, a serious thing.”

“I know it’s serious,” Jamie said. “Shit. I know.”

Now the sound of a siren rose and dipped. It was not a familiar sound in Dorset Centre and it made the dogs, labs and shepherds mostly, howl. The ambulance companies had trouble in Dorset, with its cul-de-sacs and speed bumps and winding streets. Eric could hear the siren swell, then recede.

A group of girls left their place at the far end of the park and headed toward the field, squinting into the low sun and pointing. Jamie’s younger sister spotted him. “What happened?” she screamed. “Jamie, are you okay? Is Jamie okay?”

“I’m okay,” Jamie said, but, at the sight of his sister, he began crying again.

“He’s fine, Kelly,” Eric said.

“What happened? Who’s hurt?” The girls collected at the fence along the thirdbase line.

“Bill Bellamy,” Eric said. “But he’s going to be all right.” Eric heard one of the girls say “Bill Smellamy,” and the others laughed. “Just go home now,” he said.

The girls were suspicious of being shooed away, but they moved off once the ambulance appeared, howling with lights. The truck jumped the curve and drove right up to the fence. A trio of men burst out of the back with a gurney and hustled across the field. Eric had expected they would want to know what happened, but they ran right past him and Jamie and hunched over Bill Bellamy and one of them said, “Good God” and another ran back to the truck for more supplies. A short man with a beard, obviously the one in charge, said, “Is there any way to get our truck onto this field?” “I don’t think so,” Eric said. “There’s just the gate.”

“Great. Great planning.” He wore latex gloves, the fingers of which were already stained crimson. They eased Bill Bellamy onto his side and wedged a board under his floppy body and raised him up. One of the paramedics started an IV bag and a second held a compress to his head. The reddish dirt from which he had been lifted was darkened by blood; it looked like chocolate cake batter. The medics carried the gurney gingerly. “Go home,” the man with the beard called out. He slid the body inside, collapsing the gurney.

Eric felt a sense of betrayal at having lost sight of Bill Bellamy. He had somehow assumed he was going with the medics, that they would need him for something. He and Jamie walked home in silence.

Eric turned into his driveway. “See ya.”

“Right.” Jamie’s chin was pinned to his chest.

“You okay?”

“Yeah.” Jamie walked on and Eric knew then they would never again speak about what had happened, not to each other.

Eric himself was distressed to discover his most urgent memory of the incident: he had caught sight of Bill Bellamy’s face as they attended to him. It seemed to him the boy had been faintly smiling.

He closed the door lightly, but his mother heard him come in, as she always did, and hung up the phone and rushed towards him. She was smoking, a vice she disdained in public, but practiced with a peculiar vengeance at home. Her words cut through the smoke. “Are you okay, honey? Marcia Hayes called and told me about the accident. That’s what the ambulance was about, wasn’t it? Did you do this? Hit the Bellamy boy with a bat? Marcia says it was an accident, that everybody knows it was an accident. What happened?”

“He was the catcher,” Eric said. “I was at the plate. Jamie pitched the ball. I didn’t see him-”

“Jamie? Jamie Blake?”

“Yeah. I was just watching the pitch and when I swung, the bat hit him. Bellamy.” Eric’s mother took a sharp drag on her cigarette and Eric found himself worrying, absurdly, that her ash would fall on the rug. “Why did Jamie pitch the ball if Bellamy was in the way?”

“I don’t know.”

“Why was Bill in the way if you were swinging? Isn’t the catcher supposed to be back, out of the way?”

“Yeah.”

“How badly is he hurt?”

“I don’t know. Pretty bad. His head was bleeding. A lot.”

“What did the paramedics say?”

“Nothing. They just took him away.”

Her brow crimped and her lips began forming silent words. This was what she did during awkward social situations. “Nothing,” she said quietly. Then, to him, she said, “Are you okay?”

“I guess.” He wondered if he would start to cry.

“This was just an accident,” she said quickly. “You did nothing wrong.” She moved forward and hugged him in her brittle manner, her arms caging him briefly, smoke from her cigarette ribboning between her fingers. “Please stay inside, Eric. If the phone rings, let the machine pick up. I need to get your brother from soccer. You mustn’t worry. Do you understand?”

The phone did ring several times, the distressed tones of one or another mother on the machine. Eric wanted to speak to someone, his father or Stevie Hayes, or even his little brother. He thought about heading outside, but was suddenly frightened someone would see him, that there would be a commotion. The feeling reminded him of having the chicken pox, a kind of quarantine. He called his father’s office but there was no answer. He checked the fridge; the maid had left some lasagna. He turned the TV on and watched music videos with the volume on high.

His mother took forever getting home. He knew that she had been making the rounds, gathering information. She was berating Mikey over something as she entered, but cinched on a smile when she saw him. “We’ll have pizza tonight, okay?”

“Hey Eric,” Mikey said. “What happened? I heard you hit Bill Bellamy in the head with a bat. Crack! Mom said. And Mrs. Middleton. What happened?”

Eric’s mother turned on her younger son and swatted him, hard, on the behind. “What did I just tell you? Leave your brother alone. Do you understand me? Get those muddy shoes off this instant and take a shower.” Mikey’s face flushed. He made for the stairs. Only recently had he advanced past the stage of unashamed crying.

“Maybe we should call the Bellamys,” Eric said. “To find out how Bill is doing. I could call. To apologize.”

His mother didn’t appear to hear this.

“Or we could call Dad,” Eric said.

His mother looked up from the phone book. “Your father is busy. I’ll talk to him when he gets home.”

Eric slipped into Mikey’s room. His brother was still in his soccer uniform, grass stains on his shorts. He could hear his mother downstairs, murmuring into the phone.

“Mom said for me not to bother you.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Eric said.

Mikey glanced up nervously. “What happened?” he said softly.

Eric told his brother the story, not embellishing, only restating the events from the time he stepped to the plate until the paramedics left. The tip of Mikey’s tongue hung over his bottom lip as he listened. “Mom told Mrs. Middleton that Jamie Blake shouldn’t have thrown the ball,” he said finally. “She said he’s hyperactive.”

“It wasn’t Jamie’s fault,” Eric said.

“Bill Bellamy should have been back more. He’s the catcher. Only a fat retard doesn’t know that.”

Eric knew his brother had heard these names from older kids, maybe from Eric himself He looked at Mikey for a long time. His brother had their mother’s eyes, small and sharp and jumpy when faced down. He hoped that Mikey would understand the shame of his words, that he might offer the apology of silence. But Mikey giggled sheepishly. “There’s nothing funny,” Eric said. “Don’t say stuff like that about Bill Bellamy, okay? Bellamy’s hurt. How would you like it if you got hurt and someone teased you?”

“I didn’t get hurt,” Mikey said.

Eric had slept over at Bill Bellamy’s once, a year ago. A birthday slumber party. Bellamy’s parents had made elaborate preparations, sending out fancy invitations, phoning a list of mothers. They had wanted to make sure enough kids would show up.

Mrs. Bellamy, a birdlike woman who hummed to herself, handed each child a bag of goodies at the door. Mr. Bellamy fetched sodas. The boys sat around in Bill’s room, playing an old computer video game. Bill’s little sister, Tracy, kept sticking her head in the door and running away laughing. Like her mother, she was slightly wall-eyed. Mr. Bellamy announced that chow was on and served up pizza he had made himself. Rather than pepperoni, the pie had little sliced-up hot dogs on it.

The Bellamys lived on the outskirts of Dorset Centre, in a portion of the development known as the Annex. It had been built after the initial developer sold his interests to independent contractors. The lots were smaller, the homes crammed together, and none of them had a pool. The Bellamy house seemed to slant.

The boys managed to escape the house for a midnight game of tackle the pill, and a few whispered of heading home. Bill remained oblivious, lost in the happy enthusiasms of the birthday boy. Cake was served upon their return. The boys who had spoken of leaving settled instead for the distractions of torturing Bill in his sleep. They soaked his fingers in warm water and put toothpaste in his car. If he minded these pranks, he said nothing. When the boys woke the next morning, Mr. Bellamy was in the kitchen, his loamy body wrapped in an apron, a spatula in one hand. “Who wants griddle cakes,” he called out.

“I do,” Bill said. He pulled the dog, a mangy terrier, onto his lap. Eric was horrified to see fleas squirming on the dog’s belly. Tracy burst out laughing. “Billy has fleas,” she squealed. “Billy has fleas.”

Eric’s father didn’t get home until after nine. He looked rumpled, as he usually did, like a slightly deflated version of the crisp, darkly suited man who left in the morning. Eric had been hanging around the foyer. But his mother headed him off. “Don’t jump on your father. Let me talk to him.”

Eric began to protest, but her face was smooth with the promise of an outburst. “Go to your room, Eric. He’ll come up.”

In a few minutes, he heard his father’s car start and he moved to the window and watched it depart. His mother came into his room. She had a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other.

“Where’s Dad going?”

“Honey, sit down for a minute. Your father is going to the Bellamys. He wants to find out what’s going on.”

“Why can’t I go with him?”

“No, honey. This is something serious. I know it was an accident, honey. We know that. But we don’t know how people are going to react. Your father is a smart man. He works all day helping people solve arguments. So let’s let him speak with the Bellamys.”

“But I was the one who was there. It was my fault.”

Eric’s mother tensed her jaw. “It was not your fault, Eric. Don’t say that. Do not say that.”

“But I was there. And I know Mr. Bellamy.”

“After your father returns and we know the situation, you can write a card to them. A get-well card.” Eric wanted to tell her that he was scared, that he needed to say he was sorry, but he was afraid she would try to embrace him again.

His father returned a half hour later. Downstairs, his mother launched her interrogation. His father said: “Enough, Jeanie. Let me see him.” There was a knock on the door. His father’s long body angled into the room. “Hey.”

“Hey.”

“Rough day, huh?”

“Yeah.”

His father sat on the bed. “Bill Bellamy is in the hospital. He’ll be there for a while. The doctors say he’s had a hemorrhage of some kind. That’s like a problem inside his head. They need to wait for the swelling to go down.” His father rubbed his eyes. Eric thought about the moment of impact, that spongy feeling. “They won’t know anything until the swelling goes down. There’s a chance, if he hemorrhages again… but he probably won’t. The doctors will know more when the swelling goes down.”

“How are the Bellamys?”

“Well, I mean, they’re upset. Upset. But they know it wasn’t your fault, kiddo. They know it was an accident. Are you okay?”

Eric nodded.

“Your mother says you’ve been very brave.”

“It feels weird, Dad.

“I know it does. I know.”

Eric looked at his father’s profile, lined by the light in the hallway. The patches of flesh under his eyes were swollen and colored with sleeplessness. It didn’t seem fair that his father should have to suffer this, that either of them should, it wasn’t fair. He felt sorry for his father, and he felt that it would be unfair to add his own tears to his father’s burdens. Still, he wanted his father to stay. Not to comfort him, just to sit beside him until he could fall asleep. His mother’s footsteps and then her voice at the door and then his father’s body rising up and being led away.

Eric stood in the doorway to his room, listening to the conversation floating up the stairs. He was supposed to be asleep.

“The man’s only son,” his father said.

“Yes, I know. You’ve already said that. Now listen to what I’m saying: we don’t know these people.”

“He’s a teacher. He teaches math to eighth graders.”

“What do you think teachers get paid, Stan? Honestly.” Eric heard her throw ice cubes in a glass. “You’re too damn trusting. These people, I mean, look where they live. And you know as well as anyone how victims are. They want to make somebody pay.”

“Do we have to talk about this now, Jeanie?” His father sounded tired.

“And that Blake boy-”

“It’s not really appropriate-”

“They give him that drug, Stan, for hyperactive children. He has an attention disorder. Barbara brought it up at PTA, made a big fuss. She wanted the district to hold some kind of sensitivity workshop or something. What’s that drug called?”

“Ritalin.”

“Yes, Ritalin. He takes Ritalin. And the Bellamy boy himself had asthma. Doctor Springer told him not to play organized sports, warned him not to. Cheryl told me herself. That’s why they keep him out of soccer. But of course they can’t stop him from playing in that damn park.” Eric heard in his mother’s voice a familiar enthusiasm for tragedy. She spoke the same way to the morning newspaper. “He should have been wearing some protection,” she said. “The catcher is supposed to have a mask and a helmet.”

“Not in a pickup game.”

“In any kind of game.”

“That’s not how it works.”

“That’s how it should work, Stan. Look what’s happened.”

“These things happen, honey.”

“Not to people who are careful.”

“Yes they do, Jeanie. They just happen.”

“Okay,” she said. “Let’s just stop this. We’re going in circles. Don’t get up. Sit. I’ll freshen that.” He heard his mother pad across to where they kept the liquor. “All I’m saying is that we should be prepared for anything that might happen. I’ve made a few calls, just to see what the other kids are saying. You know how kids are, Stan. They make up stories. Blood makes them crazy.”

There was a pause.

“I never liked that field,” his father said.

“Yes, all that traffic. It’s a death trap.”

His father sighed and clinked his ice cubes. “That’s not it, Jeanie. That’s not what I mean. You can’t plan everything out. That’s what I mean. They should have just left it a big patch of grass.”

“Or the par course,” his mother said. “I liked the par course.”

At home, discussion of the matter closed. But it remained very much alive at school. Eric’s friends all wanted to reenact the event, its mysterious violent glamour. After a few days, Eric began eating his lunch inside. He could hear the other boys who had been there at the Prison Lot, Jamie Blake and Stevie Hayes and the rest, discussing the particulars, the angle of impact, the body’s prone position.

Miss Weeks, the fifth grade teacher, announced that Bill Bellamy was “doing fine,” and had the class send a card signed by all of them. Eric sent a card of his own, carrying the envelope to the village post office and mailing it himself. The item in the Dorset Register mentioned only that William Bellamy, age ten, had been injured in a baseball accident. He was in critical condition.

At home, Eric could hear his mother worrying the incident on the phone, her voice low and raspy. She was smoking more than ever, hiding the smell from company with air freshener that hung about in clouds. His father treated him kindly, laying a hand on his shoulder, telling him to keep his chin up. But he appeared helpless before the larger duties of concern, worn out by his days at the office. He rarely arrived home in time for dinner.

On Sunday morning, his mother walked into the TV room and announced that the family would be attending church.

Mikey made a face. “Church?”

“I want both of you in your suits. No arguments.”

She wore a new dress, dark blue, and makeup and high-heel shoes. His father wore a suit as well. They drove in silence. Eric wondered if the Bellamys would be there. His stomach fluttered and his suit felt too tight.

In the parking lot, Eric’s mother went to find friends.

“Dad,” Mikey said. “Why are we here?”

“We’re here for church, Mike.”

“But why? It’s not Christmas.”

Eric’s father dropped into a crouch and addressed his son face to face. “Now come on, Mike. Don’t start up. We’ve come to church to worship. You should know better than to misbehave. Try to act like your brother. You don’t see him complaining, do you?”

His mother met them at the entrance and marched them up the center aisle to the front pew. Eric felt sure the Bellamys would join them there. He began rehearsing in his head what he would say to them. How sorry he was, how worried and sorry.

But then the hymns began. The minister, a stout man in a purple robe, delivered a rambling sermon about Jesus and the Pharisees. “Jesus wore a simple frock and from this drew his hand, and said, `Let no blood stain the hands of an innocent.’ And, you see, he forgave them their scorn, because, because you see, it was the scorn of ignorance.” He said this in such a distracted tone, though, that Eric imagined he must be terribly hungry. Mikey kept falling asleep and yipping softly when his mother pinched him.

“Before we depart,” the minister said, “I would like the congregation to say a prayer for William Bellamy, and the family of William Bellamy, of Dorset Centre, who, as some of you may know, was, is still, in the hospital. In fact, Mrs. Janine, or Jeanie, Hielman, also of Dorset Centre, has volunteered to lead the congregation in prayer.”

Eric’s mother ascended the altar and gazed into the crowd, past the astonished faces of her sons, and said, “Lord in Heaven, please see William to a safe recovery, that his family might rest easier. Let us all pray for this. We are praying, my family, my boys-” Her voice cracked and she had to halt. “My boys and I, for William and his family.” She stifled another sob and returned to her seat.

On the ride home, she said: “We should do that more often.”

“No we shouldn’t,” Mikey said, though he said this quietly, to himself, with a child’s accidental sense of purpose.

Bill Bellamy did not recover. Instead, the hospital announced what everyone had known for some time: he had fallen into a coma. The following weeks brought an odd silence. Nothing was said about the incident itself, but it informed much of what went on in Dorset Centre. An ordinance was passed requiring kids to wear protective gear when they played athletics in Dorset Park. But the kids, without any real discussion of the matter, abandoned the Prison Lot. The small, fenced field that had once been the center of a communal life to Eric and his friends gathered leaves.

Mrs. Bellamy (never, according to Eric’s mother, a stable person) took to riding Bill’s bicycle through the development, trailing after her daughter. Both wore pigtails. From time to time, Eric saw Mr. Bellamy returning from the junior high in his old station wagon, staring vacantly ahead at the road. If he recognized Eric, he gave no indication.

Bill Bellamy died in late October, a few days before Halloween. Eric’s mother, who learned of this almost immediately, said nothing until his father came home. She sent Mikey to bed and sat both of them down. “The doctors said there was really nothing left to do. I called the Bellamys to express our condolences. I asked about sending a floral arrangement. Bill’s father said they have set up a memorial fund. I told him we would contribute, of course.” She put out her cigarette and straightened her armrest cover and looked at Eric. “I know this has been a difficult time for you, Eric. You feel responsible. That is only natural. But you must realize that this is not your fault. No one blames you, so you mustn’t blame yourself.” She got up from the couch and went to Eric and grappled him into a hug. “We love you for who you are,” she said.

Eric’s father seemed caught off guard. “Your mother is right,” he said, glancing at the crystal decanter of bourbon atop the sideboard. “It’s very sad. For this to have happened. Sad. But you can’t, you can’t let this, you know, stop you.. . ” He mouth continued moving, but no sound came out. He appeared to have lost his place.

“Yes,” his mother said. “We feel, we both feel, that you’ve put yourself through quite a lot over this. Too much. We understand if you are sad. And especially now, with this. It is terribly sad. Tragic. But you mustn’t do this to yourself. Remember how much you used to like baseball? And you don’t play at all anymore, now. Mrs. Blake and Mrs. Hayes, they say, you know, they don’t see you much anymore. And the boys miss you, too. You are such a successful boy, so smart and handsome. So popular.” Abruptly, she got up and went to the kitchen and returned holding a cake pan.

Eric glanced at his father, who shook his head.

“Remember how we used to make a cake for Halloween, before you were old enough to go trick or treating? And you could request the colors? You always wanted green cake with orange frosting, remember? Such silly colors. When I heard this, about poor Bill Bellamy, I was quite upset, as you can imagine. And I needed something to distract myself, I guess, and I found myself making a chocolate cake. It’s been years since I’ve baked, Lord knows, but I just found myself making it. These aren’t the colors you used to ask for, but I did the best I could.”

The cake, lettered in orange and green, read: IAm as IAm. “I put those words on as a reminder, Eric. A reminder that we love you for who you are. If you’re hungry, you can have a piece before bed. I know it’s against house rules, but I won’t tell if you won’t.” She smiled tightly and hurried to the kitchen, where Eric heard her clattering for a knife. She returned with a small square of cake on a plate, which she set before him. The cake was yellow. Alma, the maid, must have made it.

“I’m not really hungry,” he said.

“If you have a piece it will be like you are giving yourself a reward. A reward for being so brave about all this.” Eric’s mother looked at his father. “It’s the message that’s most important, Eric,” she said brightly. “The message. Isn’t that right, Stan?”

Eric waited for his father to say something, to break the silence that settled over them. But he only looked again at the bourbon.

And so Eric picked up his fork and chewed the cake and swallowed and thanked his mother and told her he understood and not to worry and climbed the stairs and lay in bed and waited for sleep. He waited a long time. He heard his mother and father below, her shrill incantations, his drowsy murmurs, the clink of his ice cubes, the snap of her lighter. He heard them climb the stairs and go about their before-bed rituals. He wondered if his father would come to say good night.

After a time, Eric stopped wondering. It was dark and quiet and when the salty taste of nausea came, he felt relieved. He ran to the bathroom and stooped and his stomach heaved. Someone rushed into the hallway, but Eric shut the door and locked it.

He turned the light out and touched his forehead to the cool rim of the toilet and let his mother’s voice bounce off the door. A whitish silence rose around him. Then a green stretch of lawn unfurled. At the far end stood Bill Bellamy. His face was hideously swollen, disfigured in a manner Eric recognized at once as permanent. Bellamy was nonetheless determined to speak. He offered a slight bow and clambered onto the raised platform and addressed Eric in a voice that swirled the leaves of the Prison Lot and traveled to every well-tended corner of Dorset Centre. “I am as I am,” Bill Bellamy said. “Remember that. Remember me.”

STEVE ALMOND is collection of stories, My Life in Heavy Metal, will be published by Grove/Atlantic in early 2002. The title story is slated to appear in Playboy later this year. Other stories have appeared recently in Zoetrope, Missouri Review, Southern Review, and Georgia Review.

Copyright New England Review Winter 2001

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