Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Lion's Face

His name was Tad which was short for Thaddeus. Thaddeus was his father’s name. He was sixteen years old and unusually tall and lean. His hair was the color of straw and tended to be a mess. No one had ever taught him a way of combing it and he had cut it himself just to keep it out of his eyes since he was six years old. That was after his mother had run away to California.
He sometimes got a postcard or letter from her. He had received three to be exact, two postcards and one letter in the ten years since her departure. Her name was Helen. She had married Thaddeus Sr. when she was only fifteen. She ran away to be with a traveling vacuum salesman and get away from the town of Bethlehem where she had lived her whole life up till then.
Tad was in the high school marching band. When he wore his white uniform and bright red cap he resembled a matchstick. He played trombone. That was until the day that Pauly, Cash, and Steve pried the case out of his hands after school. Pauly was the shortest, with a mean square jaw and a buzz cut. What he lacked in height he made up for with pure aggression. He was the ring leader. Cash was the lumbering giant. Big and dumb with a perpetually bruised eye. At home he was the punching bag, but at school he did all the punching. Steve was of average build, not too lean and not too hefty, neither short nor tall. He wore a leather jacket and sold ecstasy, acid, and reefer to other kids, all of which he obtained from his older brother Stan. While Pauly was the brains, and Cash the muscle, Steve just struggled to keep up and laughed no matter what was happening, encouraging the other two with his enthusiasm.
Tad tailed after them begging to get his trombone back. Whenever he got close enough to make a grab for it, Cash just gave him a rough shove back while Pauly continued mixing insults and abuses with the occasional taunt and Steve trailed behind the other three, doubling over with laughter now and then when the abuses were particularly amusing. In this way, they paraded all the way down to the river where Pauly flung open the case, made a few more quips, and dumped the instrument into the brown water. Now Tad made his greatest effort to reach the trombone, but Cash threw him down on the muddy bank and pressed his cheek into the wet earth. Pauly kneeled and tilted his head to face his victim.
“What’s the matter? I’m doin’ you a favor. Your never gonna get any girls if you spend all your time fiddling with your trombone.” Steve erupted into a fresh burst of chortles and flopped down onto his rear trying to catch his breath.
“Yeah.” Pauly said, “Have you heard from your mom lately?’
When Tad’s answer was to try and struggle with Cash, Pauly continued, “Aw. That’s too bad. She stopped by my place last night.”
And so it went until the trombone was long gone and Tad’s uniform was soaked and stained with mud. Cash then let go of him and the three tormentors strolled away. Tad lay in the muck waiting for their voices to fade into the distance. Laying there studying the mud he noticed something shiny protruding about two feet from his face. He reached out with his hand and plucked it was of the moist grime and brushed its surface clean with his fingertips. At first he thought it was a coin, but then he noticed that it had a loop to run a chain through. There was a lion engraved on one surface, and on the back, “For my Katie.” was inscribed in a flowery script. Tad clutched the amulet in his hand and stood up. He spent the evening searching the banks down stream for his trombone but all he found was the case.

Tad could not tell his father about the trombone since it had cost a great deal of money. Neither could he bear to explain the manner in which it had been lost. In the weeks following the event, he carried the empty trombone case away from the house to keep up appearances. He often didn’t make it to the school at all. Instead he strolled along the river bed, musing over his treasure, wondering who Katie was, imagining that he might meet her one day, looking for her medallion among the reeds. He imagined she would be so pleased that he had found it, that they would agree it was fate that had brought them together. Katie might have long brown hair and green eyes. She might be someone from the school that he had never seen before, or somebody’s cousin just visiting, or even an older woman, a college student come home to care for ailing parents. They would fall in love and she would beg him to come with her, away from Bethlehem to New York, or California, or wherever she went to school.
Soon he no longer debated whether he should go to school or take another walk. The river seemed to be calling him, Katie was waiting for him. Each day, he left the house a little earlier and he came home a little later.
He wandered farther afield than he had ever gone as a boy, following the river upstream, under bridges, through pastures. Breathing the fresh air, stretching his legs, examining the amulet, he dreamed up pleasant conversations with Katie, picnics and swimming in the river, first kisses and second kisses and more and more and more.
On one particular Friday afternoon, he passed the point at which he usually turned back home. His father would go to the bar after work and he would be home late. Tad would be home late too. He pressed on and caught sight of a distant orchard. The sun was poised in the center of a blue sky beaming warmth down on his straw colored hair. He whistled and ate a sandwich and drank a root beer he had packed. On the opposite bank he caught sight of the ruins of a burned out house. The whole bank surrounding it was charred black. The remains of a few trees jutted up out of the ground mournfully. Tad put away the uneaten remains of his sandwich. He stripped off his shirt, socks and shoes and put them in his backpack. The medallion, which he wore on a bit of twine around his neck, gleamed in the noonday sun. He sat the back pack down in the grass out of the river’s reach and waded in. The cool water felt good after a morning of walking. The current was gentle and he waded until he had to swim and soon, he made it to the opposite bank.
He approached the charred ruins carefully, watching for broken glass or anything that might injure his bare feet. There was very little to see. A wall stood with a bit of sooty wallpaper still intact. He had almost satisfied his curiosity and made up his mind to swim back when he noticed something glittering beneath a mound of ash. Walking on the balls of his feet he approached gingerly and brushed away the soot. He caught his breath. It was a lion’s face, like the one on Katie’s medallion, gazing at him from the lid of a pewter jewelry box. The box lay open, it’s hinges fully extended. He lifted it, but there was nothing underneath. His hand drifted to the amulet at his throat.

Saturday morning, Tad mowed the lawn for his father. Thaddeus Sr. sat under the shade of the porch drinking bottles of cool beer one by one. When the lawn was finished, Tad left his father dozing on the porch and stormed the garage. Every Sunday for the last three years the Nors County Tribune had been left on the porch. Tad’s father read the funnies and the sports section and then deposited the paper in the garage to be recycled someday. There, in the stuffy darkness of the dusty garage, the young man searched around for the most recent papers, carefully reading dates and arranging a stack that spanned over the last 12 Sundays. Then he retired with them to his own room and began a systematic search starting with last Sunday’s paper. In the third paper, he found what he was looking for. A fire in east Nors county had killed 82 year old Kathleen Sims in her home. She had no children to survive her. Her ex-husband Ralph Sims still lived in Florida with his second wife.

On Sunday, Tad walked the length of the river only as far as Old Pete’s bridge. He stood in its center, watching the water rush by, disappearing under his feet. He remembered that his mother had brought him here to Play Pooh sticks when he was small. It was a game she picked up from an old children’s movie which she played for him every morning while she did the housekeeping. The game involved each player dropping a stick into the water at one side of the bridge and then rushing to the other side to see whose stick came out in the lead. She’d had to hold him up so that he could drop his stick over the side at the same time that she dropped hers. Then she would rush with him in her arms so that they could see whose stick had won the race.
He thought about his Katie, the way he had imagined her, and of the picture of the wrinkled little woman from the newspaper photograph. If they had met while she was alive, she might have baked him cookies and he would have done her yard work. If he had been born 66 years sooner, then maybe she would have been his green eyed black haired Katie. She would have married him instead of Ralph Sims and they would have died together in the fire. He turned the lion faced amulet in his fingers and watched the sunlight reflect from its golden surface. He heard them coming long before he looked up to face them. They were practically on top of him before he acknowledged them with a glance.
“Where you been Tad?” Pauly sneered. “Haven’t seen you around school lately. You been here looking for your trombone this whole time?” Steve snickered.
Pauly caught sight of the amulet pressed between Tads thumb and forefinger, “What’s that? Was it your whore Mommy’s? You missing your Mommy Tady wad?”
Pauly’s hand darted out to snatch the amulet but Tad was a hair quicker, jerking his own hand out of reach. In an instant, Cash was behind Tad pinning his arms behind his back.
“Throw this moron into the river.” Pauly laughed at his own suggestion because Steve was too occupied with slumping against the railing as if he were falling asleep.
Tad struggled while Cash endeavored to heave him over the rail. He wiggled and kicked and his head was slammed against the rail just as the bigger boy managed to flop him over the side. Katie’s medallion fell ahead of him glistening in the sun as it went. It hit the water just seconds before Tad’s inert body came crashing down over it, forcing it down to the river bed escorted by tiny green bubbles. Cash and Pauly hung over the rail waiting for Tad to resurface so they could throw in a few more abuses. When he did, he was face down in the water and completely motionless, drifting slowly downstream.
“Shit.” Pauly said after a few moments of stunned silence. “Shit! You banged his head on the rail!”
“I didn’t do nothin’,” Cash protested.
“Fuck.” Pauly said. “Fuck. I think you killed him.”
“I did what you told me to do.” Cash puffed out his pudgy chest.
“Oh shit.” Pauly said looking around to see if they had been observed. “C’mon, lets go.” He didn’t have to tell Cash twice, but Steve didn’t move.
“Steve,” Pauly said, “C’mon, we’re going!” He pulled on the leather jacket but Steve was out cold now, sitting with his back propped up against the rail and his mouth draped open. Pauly pulled him until he fell over on his side and murmured something indistinct.
“Whatever. Forget him. Let’s go,” Pauly commanded and he and Cash hurried away with shoulders hunched.
Katie’s amulet followed Tad’s dead body downstream for a while until he drifted up onto the bank not far from where they’d met. Then it kept going on it’s own, carried along by the current, until the lions face was once again shining in the sun, miles away from the town of Bethlehem.

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