This boy, Charlie Cunningham, would go to Bunker Hill Park, and by tipping over a garbage can and using the bottom as a pedestal, he’d be able to climb up onto the roof of the pavilion. Why did he do this? No one knew. Charlie was afraid of heights, and when he was up there he would never raise himself off his stomach, but for the times when he was quivering so much and his tears burned so hot that he had to throw up a little, and he would raise himself up on his elbows and knees to let the puke drool down the shingles beneath him.
Kids used to run over and see him when he was up there. It was always a show, and watching Charlie suffer was as good as watching any animal cry. This audience need not say anything; once Charlie realized he was not alone, he would cry harder and start tearing rotting shingles off the pavilion roof, throwing them at the kids below. And this was perfection. The kids could laugh and taunt, fully aware of the Hammurabi Code of the Playground which permitted a rotting tile hurled at you to be thrown back with three times the force at the original hurler, with a bevy of insults accompanying. Few laws are as beautiful as the violence of self-defense.
Jason tried to make his way over to Bunker Hill every time he learned Charlie was up there: the telltale was the children’s mawkish laughter rising out of the park, a cruel mirthless one which rose like sparks off a bonfire. When he heard that cruel laughter, Jason always made a point to head over quickly, because he was the only person Charlie would listen to once he was up there.
Under the pavilion, Jason called, “Hey Charlie, buddy, why don’t you come down?”
It wasn’t that Jason particularly cared for Charlie: the freckle-splattered redhead was a rude and violent little sprig who cursed and touched himself far more than any sixth grader should. Nonetheless, he felt an obligation towards the boy. Back in fourth grade, Jason had been assigned to take care of a group of first-graders on one of the school-wide field trips to the Minnesota Zoo, one of whom was Charlie; and though the mandate had only applied to that school day, Jason’s feeling of responsibility had never disappeared. Charlie was the kid at the bus stop who used to stuff his peanut butter sandwiches down the sewer drain to see if today’s floated; he was the kid who used to pants little girls and kiss their underwear after his older brothers told him they were magic; he was the kid who used to bite his fist at the back of the lunch line until you could see bone shining through the red meat of his knuckles. On the zoo trip, Jason had had to stick up for him when the older kids started stuffing candy wrappers and sandwich bags down his shirt.
The crowd around the pavilion was mostly composed of younger kids; the only other high schoolers who came were the ones who smelled like pot every hour of the day and wrote poetry about Columbine, and kept towards the periphery, waiting for hilarity.
“Hey, Charlie. Why don’t you come down?” Jason yelled up again. He’d only ever succeeded twice in getting him down, and that was when he had climbed up on a picnic table to help him like a kitten out of a tree. The parks department had removed the picnic tables since then, but Jason thought he’d give it a shot anyway.
Charlie grunted and threw a tile at Jason; he stepped out of the way and it clattered to the concrete. Some of the greener kids laughed at Jason for bothering to talk to the freak, but Charlie was doing his best to look towards Jason now—a terrifying prospect—and the knowledgeable kids could tell Charlie was listening to him.
But today, it was of no avail. The police came, a cop car driving right over the little bridge that crossed Cedar Creek, letting out a couple blurts of the siren as it approached. The kids scattered and ran home, all except for Jason, who watched and waited from a distance.
The cop got out and called up to Charlie, “Kid, why don’t you come down from there?” The cop’s tone wasn’t terribly sympathetic, and Charlie’s nerves got shot. Sometimes he peed, but not today. Today he started to tremble and scream, and threw a shingle at the cop.
Another police car arrived, this one with a ladder. One of the cops climbed up there and brought down with him the blubbering little redhead, who threw punches all the way. They took him home to his father.
The next night, Charlie was back out on his motorbike, a ten-speed Schwinn he and his brothers had rigged with hardcore tires and a smoke-belching engine. He cruised on his bike up from his house on Gannon Way, down Gerdine Path, and towards the Christianson household, smoking a cigarette and tapping some ashes off in front of their driveway.
“That boy’s a holy terror, ain’t he?” Davis said as Charlie roared past. He and Jason were raking leaves in the front yard.
Russell had lived in Valley Park until seventh grade, before his parents made enough money to move to an affluent section of Rosemount, a couple miles northeast. It had been years since Russell had had anything to do with Valley Park, and it struck Jason as strange when Russell asked him to call the next time he got wind of Charlie climbing onto the pavilion roof.
“He’s usually not up there long enough for you to get over and see him,” Jason told Russell. They were in the cafeteria of Rosemount High.
“That’s fine. But if the little retard goes up there, give me a call.”
It went back to a bike Charlie had stolen from Russell when he and Jason were in sixth grade. Charlie had put his prized five-speed in the garage one night and forgotten to close the door, and some kid had gotten in and stolen it. Charlie’s dad wouldn’t drive him around to find it because it was Charlie’s own stupidity which had gotten it stolen in the first place. So Charlie was on his own to get it back.
The plan he came up with displayed more wits than he ever had in school: It was to abduct every child’s wheeled creature, from tricycle to ten-speed, in Valley Park. This was not in order to possess any of these bikes for himself; no, he only wanted them as leverage to receive justice in the form of his old, badass bike returned. Charlie was sure that in making every other child in Valley Park pay for the original crime and making every victim feel as heartbroken and impotent as he had felt on that day, losing his, one of them would eventually come forward and return his bike to its rightful owner.
And so every night, Charlie would sneak out after his father was asleep, and if any kid’s garage door was open, or if some first-grader had been too tired to pedal his one-speed into the backyard and lock the chain-linked fence gate, Charlie would go snatch it. He never kept the bikes for long; he’d take them and toss them right in Cedar Creek just east of where it ran through Bunker Hill Park, from whence it flowed through Foxborough Park, out of Valley Park and into Farmington where it caught up with the Vermillion River, and the mighty Mississippi, and the world.
None of the bikes ever made it that far; most of them got caught in the weeds behind the Hoefts’ backyard. Jason had had his bike stolen and found it there. Russell had had his stolen, but never found his.
Most every kid in Valley Park just went along with it, because Charlie was Charlie: and eventually he got a new bike, and simply forgot. But Russell didn’t forget, and he didn’t forgive. He was a believer in justice, and since he hadn’t stolen the little dullard’s bike, what justice was there in having to suffer for it? So much of the modern world was adapted to meeting the handicaps of mongoloids like Charlie, and in so doing letting them abide by lower standards and laxer moral law. In this, man tarnished the world. In this, man destroyed what was right and wrong, and true justice was devoured by the fat gut of his indifference.
Russell’s life was more or less ideal, with two parents, wealth, and family vacations to California over winter break and to Sweden in the summer. While some boys would have been made magnanimous by such good fortune, Russell grew furious whenever an action or outcome deviated from the ideal. He had been born into a life so close to perfection that he had come to believe the world itself could be brought quite near it through reprimand and pain, through rigor and chastisement. And so whenever someone traduced his name, or a nasty act befell him, he was unable to take it as a slight against himself; he took it as a slight against the entire moral order. And like a God who actually cared if His commandments were followed, he did his best to revenge, always, whatever and whomever did him wrong.
Whenever a car cut him off when he was on his bike, he would follow the car to wherever it was going and he’d key it, wherever it was parked. One day, a dog barked at him from behind a chain link fence and made him drop his pop on the sidewalk as he was walking by. He came back in the night with a twelve-pack of chocolate bars and laid them in the yard for the dog to get sick on, and the dog did. Russell was tall but not very sturdy, and throughout the summer he had sought out skirmishes with kids smaller than him to hone his fighting skills. In the fall, when one of his female classmates had called him ugly, he had Photoshopped a picture of her giving oral sex to a bloodhound, and distributed the pics around school. The girl disappeared for a week.
He was cruel, blonde, and ugly. But he and Jason had known each other for so long that the bonds of common interest and morality were no longer necessary to hold in place a friendship. So one day in November, when Jason heard the laughter of children rising up across Valley Park, he called Russell, thinking nothing of it. Jason’s walk to the pavilion from his house took about five minutes, but by the time he arrived, Russell was already there. Jason had no idea how he had done that.
The crowd was sparser than it had been in the summer. Charlie had been largely absent from the park after the cops went off on his father last July, after Charlie had climbed up there three days straight. Russell was chasing away the few kids who still bothered to show up when Jason arrived, screaming profanities at them. He said their mothers were all cunts who sucked their fathers’ asses; he was sacrilegious about Christ, shouting tales of sex acts performed on them and their brothers. He screamed and threatened violence to all the kids threatening to stay.
“Always gets the first-graders away,” said Russell with a sharp smirk as the last children went running playfully towards the hill. Jason shrugged. He was a young man, after all, and generally allowed a wide latitude for the weird and ironic, and he assumed this is what he was witnessing now, in some way.
Now it was only Russell and Jason, and Charlie, trembling and murmuring above.
“Hey Charlie? What ya doing up there?” Jason called.
Charlie was already in his laughing fit. He would get like this sometimes, where the only breathing he could do was a sick cackle. He sounded like a crow choking on some garbage.
“You’re a scumbag, Charlie. You’re a fucking retarded scumbag.” Russell cupped his hands around his mouth. “Has anyone ever told you where your mother went to?” Russell stepped back to get a better look at the boy. “No one can love a retard, Charlie. They’re worse than rats. She would’ve drowned you in the womb, if she knew you. Someone could dissect you like a frog and throw all your guts in a sack, and that sack would be nothing but what you are.”
“What are you doing?” Jason asked.
“I’m yelling at the little retard,” Russell told him.
“Why do you want to do that?”
“I bet I can,” Russell responded, as if Jason had doubted his ability to be cruel. But that had never been in doubt. “Are you scared up there?” Russell called through cupped hands. “Stand up. Are you afraid?”
Charlie, still pinned down to the roof, started twitching his hands, as if playing boogie-woogie piano on the shingles.
“What is it you’re up there for? What are you up there for, Charlie? Are you up there for attention? Is that what you want? Can you see your mother from up there?”
Jason socked Russell on the arm. Russell ignored him.
“You go up there and you think you can get away from your problems, Charlie? You remember my bike you stole? You can never run away from life, Charlie. That’s the lesson of life, Charlie. You can’t run away from life. Can you see your mother up there, Charlie? Do you see her?”
Charlie steeled himself and raised his head just a few inches, enough to get a look at Russell below him. Jason had never seen Charlie raise himself that far up. Even the two times Jason had guided him off, he had kept his cheek pressed down, scraping it against the coarse shingles in his descent.
Russell loved seeing his eyes.
“I bet you can’t jump off there, Charlie. You get up there, you get too scared to do anything.”
Charlie’s legs had started to shake. He curled his hands against the roof as if trying to grab on more firmly, but of course, there was nothing he could grab onto. His knees started to knock against the roof.
“You’re pretty scared up there, aren’t ya, Charlie? You’re real scared of falling. But you oughta be scared of everything, Charlie. I think you’re scared of everything. You’re scared I’m going to beat you up for what you did to my bike.”
Charlie split off a piece of shingle and chucked it. It hit Russell on the top of the head. A sharp laugh erupted from Jason’s mouth involuntarily. Russell snarled, but he just kept talking, and his voice was calm. “You see your mother up there? You see her love up there? You see her up there? She can hide from you, but you think you can hide from her? She would have aborted you if she’d known you. No one can love a retard. You think you can hide from truth?”
Jason thought about it often, later, and would come to believe that what happened to Charlie was a result not of anything particular Russell said, but simply from the fact that he was addressing Charlie directly. No kid ever talked to Charlie like that. When they came around to mock him, they would hurl at him spare insults—You’re a moron and the like—but no one was really addressing Charlie when they made fun of him. It was nothing personal: in fact, they were gracious that retards and morons existed to harass, because they made life that much richer. Charlie understood the ecosystem; he understood there were masters and bullies. But he didn’t understand that anyone could hate him; not before Russell. Russell was the first onlooker to really engage him, to try to mock Charlie for being himself. This was Jason’s belief, anyway.
Charlie was trembling more and more.
“Are you scared up there? Why should you be scared up there? If you’re scared up there, you oughta be scared down here, too. There’s nothing you’re apart from.”
Jason called out, trying to sound comforting but coming out a shout, “How’re you doing? Just wait up there, the police will be here soon.”
“No, Charlie, come down. Can you see your mother from up there? Don’t be a coward. Stand up.”
Charlie, trembling, started to raise himself to his knees. He balanced himself on his elbows, which rattled like mallets against the rooftop. He put his palms to the shingles and tried to raise up his torso, but the slope of the roof made it hard for him to manage this easily. He pushed himself up on his shins and tilted backwards a little, towards the rooftop’s edge. Russell shouted up to Charlie one last time, but Jason didn’t hear what he said.
There was a moment in time that wasn’t a moment. In Jason’s mind, it was white air, something like wind rushing through, clearing away every other thought and impression. Charlie was there on the rooftop, but then he disappeared. Suddenly there was only the bare rooftop, and the gray sky. When he saw Charlie again, it was as if it were minutes apart. He saw the top of his head was touching the cement, and Charlie’s body was perfectly vertical, as if being kept up in the air by a steel rod running through his spine. That was the moment before his neck snapped. Then the rest of his body, his arms and legs, crumpled like wads of empty flesh before Charlie’s stomach flopped on the concrete floor.
There was more dead time. There was more white air, until Jason’s memories returned, and he cried, in a cracking voice: “What did you do?”
“Let’s walk away,” Russell said, without affectation.
Jason’s first thought was to help Charlie. But he took a look at him: it was just a body. It was a heap. He reached forward, but he realized there was nothing to touch but a lump.
Russell tugged at his arm and then he was walking, towards the weedy hill to the east and the copse of trees next to the cable company along Cedar Avenue. They were soon obscured by dead weeds. When they slipped into a bare section of the forest worn away by the tread of kids’ bikes and shoes, Jason primed himself and punched Russell in the jaw. Russell fell away with the impact onto the bough of a fallen tree.
“What did you do?” Jason screamed. Spit flew out of his mouth and he drooled over his lower lip.
“I wanted to see what I could get away with,” said Russell, rubbing his jaw without anger. “You fag. I wanted to see what I could get away with.”
Jason’s lungs ached and lodged his body in anaerobic shock. “How could you do that? How could you do it?” His spine seemed to curl and harden like a snail’s shell, and he crouched into a catcher’s position and wrapped his arms around his head.
Russell stood watching the pavilion; he was mostly hidden by the trees and weeds but made no real effort to be stealthy. He was watching when the police came, then the EMTs; both took turns checking the boy’s pulse, and then stood over the corpse, looking at it.
Jason was sweating, and the beads in the cold November air formed steam around his face. He felt like he was about to throw up, or that his bowels were about to loosen. There was only one voice in his head: the voice of his father. Be strong, it said. You have to be strong in this life if you want to survive.
“I’m here. I’m okay. I’m here,” he uttered under his breath. He was alive. He was breathing. He was alive and not trapped in a prison or the back of a cop car. He was free, on the earth, breathing air. I exist, he thought. I’m strong, and I exist, and that means nothing hurt me.
Russell started laughing quietly, as if someone had whispered a joke in his ear. He reflected aloud: “The average man is so small he can’t control anyone. The average man is so small he can barely control himself. But what kind of man is that? What kind of man can’t change the world? This is what makes men great or obsolete. Don’t you worry about being insignificant?” he asked, turning to Jason.
But Jason didn’t answer. And for another hour, the boys remained quiet but for Russell’s occasional soft laughter. The ambulance left first, and a quarter of an hour after that, the police drove away.
“Well, that was something,” said Russell. He stood from the bough he had been leaning against, and started out of the woods.
“Where are you going?” Jason croaked.
“I’m a traveling show, faggot.” He trod out of the woods, back towards the pavilion.
But Jason couldn’t move. He watched Russell striding proudly on his way out of the park. Some neighborhood kids had come over, hoping to see blood on the concrete, and Russell waved at them and pointed out where the blood was before continuing on his way.
Jason stayed where he was as the afternoon faded into dingy evening. He was cold. He decided not to leave the shelter of the woods, but followed them through thick brambles and some barbed wire from a long-extinct farm, northwards. He had to stop at Cedar Creek, but it was shallow enough to get nothing but his shoes and the cuffs of his jeans caked in clay and mud. He crossed through the Westerfields’ backyard and jogged the rest of the way to his house.
With every step of the way, he kept telling himself I’m okay, and because he was still speaking he knew it was true. It’s okay; it’s okay, he repeated, again and again. The past is all inside of me.
He made it home, where Davis was already talking about a dead kid at the park. Jason changed out of his dirty clothes before anyone could ask him about them.
“A Lesson in Justice” is an excerpt from A Few Things Broken at the Seams, Richard Greenhorn’s new short story collection in progress.
Richard Greenhorn is the author of Western Empire and A Few Things Broken at the Seams. He tweets here.