Monday, November 4, 2019

Boys by Gary Ives

Two smart, caring kids with very different backgrounds become such firm friends that surely nothing could keep them apart; by Gary Ives.

Noah entered the art room having to pee really bad. Before taking his seat he asked Miss Wilson for permission to go to the bathroom. "You've had plenty of time to take care of that between classes, so please just sit down." He had tried to go after Geography but Mr. Rolf, the janitor, was mopping the boys' bathroom. Thursday was art class day for the seventh graders during the last period. Miss Wilson told each table to create a "Florida, The Sunshine State" poster. These would be displayed at the assembly on Friday. He shared his table with Fredrico, a Mexican boy he barely knew. They were cleaning up before the bell when Noah lost it. Though he tried to stop, a little pee came out and then a lot. The khaki school uniform pants were soon darkened, and a small puddle lay at the foot of the stool.

"What's the matter," Fredrico asked.

"I had an accident; I peed myself. Everyone is gonna laugh at me. Look there's pee on the floor."

"Jus' stay there, don' say nothing." Fredrico took a roll of paper towels from the cleanup shelf and sopped up the pee. "Don' feel bad, such things happen. No?"

"But everyone's gonna see when we leave to get on the bus. Then I'll probably feel like crying. Aw shit, Fredrico."

"No, man. You no' gonna cry." Fredrico took off his grey hoodie. "Here wrap this around you middle and I'm gonna walk right in front of you all the way to the bus. You gonna sit by the window. No one gonna see nothin'."

On the bus Noah asked Fredrico where he lived.

"We live over in Vet's Village. You know, Beaner Town? It's the last stop for this bus." The small population of Mexicans, nearly all of whom worked at the chicken processing plant, lived in what was officially called Vet's Village, constructed rapidly after the war to accommodate married GI Bill students; townspeople had unofficially renamed Vet's Village "Beaner Town." By the 60s the dozens of small cement block quarters had been left to rats, mildew and vandals. When Family Farms Chicken built the processing plant they purchased the four blocks and restored the units for occupancy by the immigrants who processed live birds into fryers, chicken tenders, chicken strips, and chicken byproducts such as hot dogs, ground meat and pet food. Fredrico's father, Ramon, worked there as a forklift driver. He also had a side business cleaning bricks on weekends.

Noah, a highly intelligent boy, possessed an unusual sensitivity to other's feelings. A quiet, perceptive boy, he loved his family unfailingly and life in general in the way religious ascetics love God or nature. He was, in the truest sense, a good boy. His parents were Herb and Beth Comstock. They had met during Herb's last year of law school. Herb had been invited to the University after an article he'd published in The Atlantic condemning the Nixon administration as warmongers. There he lectured in Bioethics, opened a small law practice in town, and built their family of three boys, Noah the youngest. Beth was the part-time manager of the University's three experimental frog and turtle ponds. Noah's place, because of his age, was like that of an only child. It would have been impossible for his parents not to dote on their youngest boy. At that crepuscular and amorphous adolescent state of maturing he was no longer a little boy. He was bright, inquisitive, hip, and on the cusp of that semi-independence of a teen; however, he still possessed an androgynous, cherubic face one could easily term as beautiful. This with his quiet demeanor made him much loved by his family and attractive to nearly all.

"I'll ask my mom to drive you home." However, when they got to Noah's house no one was home. The boys went up to Noah's room where he changed. Fredrico said he'd walk home.

"But Beaner Town is too far. Hey, you can take my bike then tomorrow my mom can drive me over to your house and then I'll ride back."

"No. I don't think so." He did not care to explain that there were those likely to steal the bike in the night.

"Then I'll ride you double over there now and come back by myself. Hey, I owe you, man. Lemme do this. Please."

That's how the friendship began.

Riding back home Noah considered the stark differences between his situation and Fredrico's. He lived in the better part of town, Fredrico in the sorriest. The Comstock's house was large, comfortable with many appliances, while the Ochoa's little cinder block four-room place housed his mother, father, a grandmother, Fredrico, his older brother and a smaller sister. The little house was neat, with appliances limited to a refrigerator, a blender, a stove, and a tv. However, Fredrico had been genuinely proud to introduce Noah to his mother and siblings. Señora Ochoa, happy that her boy was making a polite, Anglo friend, sat the boys down at the picnic table in the kitchen and served them Orange Crush.

Fredrico was like his new friend in so many ways. He was devoted to his family, immensely curious, but somewhat withdrawn, shy and taciturn. After Noah left, his mother had sent Fredrico to the little bodega to buy milk. On the walk there he felt a shine within concerning Noah, and a natural pull that rarely happens. He thought that when you see a little into someone else it is usually a warning to tell you that this person is bad; not so with Noah. So seldom had he had a friend, he cautioned himself not to become too hopeful. That his mother liked the boy pleased him, and he was almost sure that Noah liked him too.

Noah and Fredrico began eating their lunches together, usually at one of the school's outside picnic tables, and they'd meet before and after school for a few minutes at the paved lot where the school busses loaded. They soon discovered that each of them had a quiet disposition and a wry sophisticated sense of humor. They both liked science and math. They clicked.

Just before Thanksgiving Fredrico was pulled out of gym class and summoned to the principal's office. "Let's go to your locker, son," Mrs. May, the principal, ordered. There he and Mr. Spooner, the assistant principal, went through everything in his locker, even opening the tortillas filled with mashed peas his mother had packed for his lunch. After this search they marched back to the office. With the door closed, Mr. Spooner ordered him to strip to his underwear. After he had been allowed to put his clothes back on, Mrs. May half-heartedly apologized saying that one of the bus drivers had reported seeing him hiding drugs. "So, when we get these reports we have to investigate."

"It was Mrs. Avery. I know. That mean bus driver. She's a liar."

"Now, now, none of that. We're not at liberty to disclose that information, young man. Here's a pass; go back to gym class now. You're not in any trouble, but if you're messing with drugs, we'll find out. You understand me, boy?"

"Yes, sir."

Mrs. Avery on the first day of school had remarked, "Oh now I got me a wetback to carry back and forth to school. Don't leave no chile peppers on the bus, Pedro." This garnered few of chuckles from a few students. To Fredrico it was ominous. He would have to encounter this hateful woman, this chingadera, twice a day. Every chicano knew to expect some gringos to be this way, but it was generally realized that most gringos were amable. His father had told him, "You got to behave like what they say don't bother you none." Like most in the Beaner Town community the Ochoa family worked without authentic documentation, fearful of confrontation with authority at any level, deportation looming always.

Although the two families had little in common, the boys' friendship had occasioned inviting the Ochoas to barbeques at the Comstock house, Fredrico spending many overnights there, and Señora Ochoa frequently sending over a pan of tamales, enchiladas or empanadas.

Noah's father, an amateur astronomer, taught the boys the major constellations, and had taken the boys to the beach at night to view them and the planets and stars through his telescope. He taught them how sailors navigated by sighting the stars to pinpoint their location at sea and to keep a steady direction at night. When the boys camped they'd lie on their backs in the sand spotting and pointing at Orion, Ursa Major, Draco and others, also stars like Castor, Pollux, Vega and Polaris. They were captured by the vastness of heavenly bodies and fascinated by the exacting dependability of their apparent motion. They contemplated the vastness of the universe, the imperishable stars, and discussed with certitude the existence of intelligent life out there. It helped that they were in a phase of devouring science fiction novels. Fredrico told Noah that once he graduated high school he would join the Navy and be one of those sailors who navigates the ship by the stars. After serving four years in the military he would become a citizen then go to the university and become a scientist or even apply to become an astronaut.

One afternoon standing in the line of kids ready to board the school bus Noah gave up his place and twice moved to the rear of the line because he was waiting for Fredrico. When Fredrico finally arrived, he told Noah hurriedly that his father was waiting for him. At breakfast Ramon had told Fredrico to meet him on the street in front of the school after school to help him finish a job, but Fredrico had forgotten to tell Noah until the end of the school day, then he'd rushed over to the bus line, told Noah, and handed him some comic books he'd borrowed.

Noah, the last to board the bus, met the stern gaze of Mrs. Avery the bus driver. "Just you wait a minute, mister," she barked pulling the lever that closed the door. I been watchin' you, Comstock, dancin' in and outta the line. I wanna know what you're hidin'. You better tell me."

Her rough manner put him on defense and frightened him. He paused, clutching the comics tightly, his fist in a ball, and turning around at the swish of the closing door. He knew that sometimes people mistook shyness for arrogance. He was beginning to feel a little nauseous; maybe it was her perfume. The running joke on the bus was that she bathed in it.

"Answer me, young man! Quit stalling!"

"I'm not hiding anything, Mrs. Avery. I was just waiting for my friend."

"Oh yes, that Mexican. I've had my eye on that one. What did he give you? I saw it. I saw him pass you somethin'. Hand it over."

He handed her the X-Men comics, his hand shaking a little. Looking up at the wide rear-view mirror he saw every eye on the bus was on him, kids whispering.

He watched Mrs. Avery rifle the pages of the comics then thrust them back into his hands. "Go on to your seat, you rich little brat. I don't like smart alecs."

This upsetting ordeal put Noah in a dark, fearful funk. He'd never had an adult bark at him so disrespectfully. When he recounted the episode to his mom, she went into a slow simmer that boiled over as soon as his dad arrived home. The next morning Herb Comstock waited with Noah for the bus. Stepping onto the bus, he addressed Mrs. Avery in her bright red Make America Great Again ball cap. "I understand you had a problem with my son. Is that correct?"

"The boy was actin' suspicious and I seen this Mexican boy pass him something. We got instructions to be on the lookout for drug deals. Thass all."

"You called him a rich little brat and a smart alec, did you?"

"He wasn't cooperatin'. Take it to the United Nations for all I care. I gotta schedule to run," she said reaching for the door lever.

"Oh, I will, Mrs. Avery, I will. In the meantime, mind your manners with my son." Herb Comstock failed to mention that he held a seat on the School Board.

With Fredrico, Noah had watched the interlude from their seat. He said, "Your dad really gave it to that bitch, no? What happened, man?" Explaining this to Fredrico they noticed the other kids snickering, pointing at Mrs. Avery and giggling, happy to see the sour woman get her come-uppance. Through the rear-view mirror, she glared hatefully at Noah and Fredrico. That afternoon found bus 36 with a new driver, Mr. Hakim, and Mrs. Avery now assigned to bus 13, the longest route that served the far end of the county, the route that began 45 minutes earlier in the morning and finished 45 minutes after all the other busses were back in the barn. And this had taken only two phone calls.

Usually on Thursdays Fredrico would come over after school. The boys would romp in the woods behind the house or play on the Game Boy, then sit down for pizzas or spaghetti with the Comstock family. After dark his mom or dad would drive Fredrico home. Earlier Noah had asked if he could spend the weekend but Fredrico said that on Saturdays he had to do the family's wash at the laundromat and help his mom walk his tiny abuelita and sister to the park. "Maybe in the summertime we can do that. That would be so much fun." His older brother Juan was seldom around. He worked with a landscaping crew and on weekends with his dad. Juan had taken to hanging out with an unseemly faction, not a gang, but closer to trouble than provident, boys who smoked and talked in rough Spanglish slang that would have earned slaps and licks from their parents. Still, he was likeable and always friendly to Noah. Juan liked teaching dirty words to the younger boy.

Summer came with plenty of opportunities to be together and they camped at the beach and rode boogie boards in the surf. Sometimes they fished. And sometimes Noah accompanied Fredrico when he worked with his father cleaning bricks on weekends. Señor Ochoa had two pickup trucks: an old rusted-out junker that ran well, and a four-year-old Ford 150 he kept in good condition. The junker was fitted out with a portable pump and two 55-gallon barrels, one of muriatic acid, the other with water. He would spray the brick walls of new construction with acid, then the three of them in a tangle of hoses with long scrapers would clean and rinse spilled mortar from the buildings. It was wet, messy, and tiring work but the boys liked it and Mr. Ochoa was a jolly man, who kept a close eye on the boys, never allowing them to work the acid sprayer. He would buy hamburgers and cokes for lunch and give them each $15 at the end of the day. Fredrico told Noah that this sideline of his dad's had allowed him to purchase the good pickup. "Sometimes he gets 200 or even 300 dollars for what we do in a day." Fredrico bought a bicycle which he chained each night to the chain link fence behind their little house. "Next I am goin' to buy a telescope like your dad's." Three times a week the boys played tennis at the University's courts, often unused during the hot summer afternoons, Fredrico usually slamming Noah. And sometimes the boys rode the four miles to the beach. Noah had picked up much Spanish from Fredrico and his brother Juan and sometimes for fun spoke with a Mexican accent to fool people. But the highlight of the summer was a week in a rustic cabin at Myakka River State Park with the Comstocks. The boys fished and frolicked in canoes searching out alligators and all manner of wildlife. When Fredrico landed a seven-pound catfish, the whole family feasted in jolly spirts. That summer was golden for each boy, to be indelibly imprinted forever on their minds.

That fall each discovered girls, or more properly girls discovered the quiet fourteen-year-old boys. Gretchen de Villbis sat next to Noah in his Language Arts class. The teacher Miss Daisey Crockett, also the drama teacher, one day announced that the school play would be The Anne Frank Story. She passed out copies assigning study of the play over the weekend, asking all to be ready for the initial out loud reading on Monday. Gretchen, like Noah, was a diligent student and had not only studied her part but had begun memorization. Noah, the same, so when the reading occurred in class Miss Crockett was so impressed she assigned the lead to Gretchen and the supporting role of Otto Frank to Noah.

Noah asked his mother to call the school to ask that he not be in the play, but Beth Comstock reasoned with Noah that such a thing would be good for him. "You need to get over your shyness, Noah. This is doable and might even be fun. So, I want you to give it a try. Do it for me, love, will you?"

In the production most scenes fell to Gretchen. She was a natural, and like Noah, had easily memorized her lines and was able to present them realistically, with a restrained sense of passion. Noah's character Otto Frank served as an on-stage narrator. Miss Crockett was suitably impressed and encouraged Gretchen and Noah to work together. "You two should exchange phone numbers."

At the same time that Noah was becoming involved with the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands and Gretchen, Fredrico was trying out for the school's tennis team. Gladys Swan, the tennis coach, quickly recognized his excellent hand-eye coordination. Half the practices were doubles and half the doubles games were mixed. Fredrico soon found Janice Harwell an excellent partner. She was a slightly better player than he, and with him playing net and Janice back court, they were unbeatable at practices. Janice, a year older, was in her second year of Spanish and appreciated Fredrico's availability and ear for practice. He, as most Latinos appreciated, anyone trying to learn his beautiful native tongue. By springtime the two were kissing behind the bleachers.

The Anne Frank Story's first dress rehearsal was the Tuesday evening before the Friday opening of the school play. It so happened that Gretchen and Janice were friends from two years of summer camp together, and as the top students in second year Spanish, Gretchen had asked Janice to come to the dress rehearsal; and naturally Fredrico accompanied her. Also present were Noah's parents. All sat together with other friends and parents in the darkened school auditorium.

The lights dimmed then darkened as a voice shouted, "Quiet. Quiet on the set, the audience will please observe quiet too."

As the curtains were drawn, Act One, Scene One sounded with whistles and the thumps of German boots marching across the stage. Jacob Silverstein had even enlisted his family's old German Shepherd, Bambi, on a leash as a Nazi attack dog. Act Two found the Frank family huddled in the secret attic space in which Acts Two and Three transpired. Gretchen was flawless in her delivery. Noah, who had developed a credible Dutch accent during the rehearsals, was impressive. Dressed in a worn dark suit and a working man's cap, he closed each act, shambling from the darkened wings onto center stage under a blue spotlight, delivering his lines in a slow litany of sadness. Midway through Act Two Noah spotted Fredrico and Janice and delivered his monologue in a bouncy, heavy Mexican Accent with one or two very naughty words to their delight. After a severe between-the-acts talking-to from Miss Daisey Crockett, the Dutch accent returned in solemnity.

At school word had spread for months about the play, and opening night delivered a full house, with the Saturday and Sunday evening performances sold out, Noah's and Gretchen's parents attending each performance and Fredrico and Janice attending the final performance.

In the final scene the stage lights dim, and all actors freeze. Otto Frank shambles slowly onto center stage, head bowed, this time not from the wings but from the rank of Jewish captives. Taking center stage, he stands silent for a full 20 seconds, then delivers the final lines of the play in slow, deliberate Germanic cadence under the intense blue spotlight. "And so, as we do to these, we do to all men." Noah paused. "Let us then approach God's throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need." Noah slowly lifts his face. Tears roll down his cheeks as he slowly rejoins the line of prisoners. Just before Anne Frank reaches the wings, the German Shepherd gently licks the doomed girl's hand. Curtain.

The audience exploded in shouts and thunderous applause.

After changing clothes Noah sought out Gretchen backstage to ask her to come with Fredrico, Janice and his folks for ice cream. She said in almost a whisper, "Come over here, please. There in the wing of the stage she cupped her hands to his cheeks, drew him near and kissed him slowly, and Noah kissed her, and they then kissed a second and a third time before heading hand in hand to the Comstock's station wagon.

At the Dairy Queen everyone was jubilant, talking at once. Noah was buoyed beyond all his expectations. "I could feel it, inside, Mom, I could feel it, Dad, just like it was in 1945 and I was Otto. Most of all I could feel the audience, really feel them in my head. It was... It was... It was indescribable!"

"Noah, you were sensational, son. I'm so proud of your talent. Musta got that from your mom."

On Monday Fredrico missed school. After school in Janice's mom's car they drove to Beaner Town to see why. He'd not missed a day of school, ever. His house was empty, and a great confusion was evident in the street. Soon they learned that at dawn an ICE roundup with half a dozen busses had taken many families, including the Ochoas, into custody. They were gone.

Soon Mr. Comstock learned that the family members were held separately, Señor Ochoa and Juan at the Krone Detention Center in Miami, the rest of the family in tents on Homestead Air Base, all awaiting deportation to Mexico. Noah and his dad were able to visit Señor Ochoa one time. With powers of attorney in hand he got Señor Ochoa to authorize him to acquire the Ochoa's trucks and furniture from the ICE compound, and to sell these goods. He would forward the money once the Ochoas had an address in Mexico. On the single visit they were allowed to see Señora Ochoa, Mr Comstock surreptitiously passed through the fence an envelope with $1000 in cash to help the family reunite. He whispered to her, "At Krone, it's too dangerous for your husband to have cash. You understand? Hide this and tell no one."

"Si señor, y gracias, señor, mil gracias. Que dios guarda te siempre."

Through the chain link fence Noah saw Fredrico for the last time. He could not hold back the tears. On the fence Fredrico spread his hands against Noah's, smiled and said, "Hey cabron, at least this time you are not peeing in your pants. Tell Janice I will write to her, please. And Noah, we must stay in contact, you and me Noah, you and me, mi hermano, we gotta stay in contact. I'll find my way back, hombre. I will. I will."

The long drive back home was quiet and sad. Noah's lines from the play reverberated in his head. "And so, as we do to these, we do to all men. Let us then approach God's throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need."

It is often said that art imitates life, but
Sometimes life imitates art.

3 comments:

  1. Likely meant as social commentary. I guess maybe I'm more into dialogue and character development than exposition. But indeed it reflects these polarized times and tries hard to include the injustice of our time.

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  2. A gentle tale of friendship rooted in kindness. The world could use more genuinely decent people like the Ochoas and the Comstocks.

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  3. Thank you reading and for commenting. You're right, is social commentary but also based on an actual occurence. I too write often from dialog, though not exclusively. I love Elmore Leonard's dialog.

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