Bad Apple



Bad Apple

           

It was routine for Henry’s mother to be in and out of the hospital for leukemia treatment. After school he’d come home to an empty house and be greeted with an eerie silence. No sound of machines: vacuum, blender, radio. No sauce or meatloaf aroma. No hum of life. 

             On Sundays, Henry and his father lit candles at church and waited to hear his mother’s name, Gertrude, announced during mass when it was time to pray for the sick. Henry didn’t like her name. He wanted her to be Carol or Jane, like the moms in television show families, and he’d think about how simple life with those families seemed, where the kids endured petty squabbles and slept in bunk beds and laughed all the time and went to their father for pat advice.

And only the girls cried.

After mass, the pastor would ask about his mother, and then in a stern tone, ask Henry if he was behaving and doing well in school.

            Yes, Father.

On the ride home Henry’s father would tell him to look the pastor in the eye when he talked.

Henry’s parents emphasized responsibility and assigned him chores, for which he received a weekly allowance. His chores were to cut the grass and vacuum the house. And with his mother not feeling well he began to wash the dinner dishes, for which he received an extra allowance. He looked forward to spending it in the strip mall’s stationary store, which had a spinning comic book rack that he loved to browse.

The owner wore thick black-rimmed glasses and a wrinkled brown suit with pants that remained high above black socks. He would hover around Henry, the wooden floorboards of the store creaking when his weight shifted, and sometimes Henry would be too unsettled by his presence to make a decision on which comic to buy. One day he said Henry would have to leave the store if he didn’t hurry up and make a choice. Henry went outside the store and waited for his mother to come out of the bakery. She found him in tears.

They went back inside and she confronted the owner. The man said he had to watch for stealing. My child does not steal, Henry’s mother told him. If he ever did, I’d burn his hands over the stove.

Some kids stole candy from me last week, the man said.

My child looks forward to spending his allowance money here, she said. You make him nervous.

The man looked at Henry. Henry had a hard time looking back at him. The man said he would be more patient.

Henry’s parents enforced the idea that stealing was the most sinful thing you could do. Once, when a neighbor’s son was caught stealing in a toy store, Henry’s mother said she always thought the boy was a bad apple and that stealing was the kind of thing that broke a parent’s heart.

At the counter, a policeman was buying a newspaper, and Henry’s eye-line was level with the wooden handle of the officer’s holstered .38. It was the first time he’d seen a gun, and the officer appeared as a symbol of all that was good in the world.

The policeman made eye contact with Henry and winked, a gesture that seemed to say that he knew boys like Henry didn’t steal, and that the owner was just a crabby old man who didn’t like kids.

 

In school a few teachers expressed condolences when Henry’s mother died. The kids appeared to be afraid of him. He did some make-up work. They taught you all the right things, he thought, fractions and important dates and the history of the Indians who once lived on the fertile land that his town was named for, and the proper way to do push ups, they taught you everything, except how to deal with the things that really mattered.

At home Henry and his father went back to their routines: cooking, cleaning, food shopping, weeding the gardens. They didn’t talk about his mother. Sometimes, when he set the table for dinner, he felt guilty for leaving her spot empty.

Henry had accumulated some allowance money, and during Easter break, he asked his two friends, Chris and Glenn, to go to Korvettes department store to play pinball and buy candy and records. They hadn’t seen each other much lately. At the funeral he could tell that his friends didn’t know what to say to him so he tried to make them feel comfortable by asking them when they were going to play ball or go see the latest James Bond movie.

They chained their bikes to the bike rack outside the department store. Inside Henry was greeted with a new plastic toy smell that he associated with Christmas morning. He browsed the record aisles and looked for a popular album.

Henry saw Chris by an empty register pick up a brown paper bag and place a record inside it. Henry walked over to him. Did you buy that? he asked.

No, I’ll just walk out, Chris said, it’ll look like I bought it. It’s easy. Try it.

Henry always suspected that Chris, who once took a puff of his older brother’s cigarette, would be the first of his friends to do something like this.

I’ll meet you at the bike rack, Chris said.

Henry remembered his mother’s admonishment that she’d burn his hand if he ever stole, and how she’d said stealing was the worst sin you could commit, but Chris wasn’t a sinner, he was no different than Henry, they were best friends, they played games in the woods and sports in the street and went to church on Sunday.

Henry waited for someone from the store to walk up and implicate him as an accomplice, like he’d seen on police shows, but nothing happened.

Henry eyed the empty register where Chris had found the bag. A kid in school once said that Korvettes was the toughest store to steal from. Henry took a bag.

            He paced up and down the aisles, scared. A yellow record stood out. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Chris’s older brother played it all the time. He grabbed the record, and took three more, random albums with psychedelic art work or cool long-haired rock singers, and held the brown bag under his arm, tight against his body, as he hurried towards the sunlight beyond the exit doors where summer awaited.

Henry felt strong hands grab his arms. Two men, store employees, spun him around and led him back into the store, through the aisles of clothing and toys, and into a cramped office that reeked of stale cigarettes. They placed him against a wall with stained paneling and frisked him. 

Henry’s wallet contained a social security card that his mother told him to carry around. They read his name aloud. He wanted to scream out that he wasn’t a criminal, he was not the person they thought he was, but they seemed mistrustful, like the stationary store owner that day, they didn’t know the moral person he was, the son of parents who went to church every week.

Where’s your mother? one man asked.

            She’s dead, Henry said. He had hoped that they’d feel sorry for him. But he was probably just a bad apple to them, he thought, a kid with a dead mother who was now running loose in the streets, the kind of kid his mother had warned him against becoming.

            They took down his address and phone number and said if he came back into the store he’d be arrested.

At the bike rack, Henry told his friends what happened. They biked home in silence. When they turned onto their maple tree-lined street Henry was relieved to be back within the comfortable boundaries of the front lawns and houses of his neighbors. He vowed to never do anything bad ever again.

In his bedroom, Henry stared at a picture on his wall, a framed ink-blot image, a seemingly indecipherable blot that you had to stare at for a long time until the picture came into perception, and once you saw the image you never forgot how to see it. The face of Jesus.

When his mother was sick, he prayed to the image, but now he didn’t want to see the face, he pretended he didn’t know where it was, how to make sense of the blot. Then he thought of the manager in the stationary store who once feared that Henry would steal from him. Fuck you for being right, Henry said aloud.

And fuck you, Jesus, for not listening.

Later, Henry turned on the small black and white television on the dresser in his room. An old John Wayne western was on. Westerns were his father’s favorite genre because the good guys always won.

 

 
 
Peter DeMarco

 

 

Peter DeMarco teaches high school English and film in New York City. His writing has appeared in The New York Times “Modern Love,” decomP (Pushcart nomination), Hippocampus, SmokeLong Quarterly, Prime Number Magazine, and others. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/23/style/overcoming-love-addiction-one-apple-martini-at-a-time.html?ref=fashion

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