King Jimmy by Susan Verrochi
“IT! You’re IT!” shrieked the girl with the long braids. The tag was more like a body check, an assault to her left side that Morgan was certain would leave a bruise.
Slowing to a trot, she appeared to look straight ahead of her.
“Peripheral vision,” she thought to herself, “Eyes forward, never to the side. They’ll become too confident, darting alongside you to show their friends how brave they are and then WHAM, you’ve got them.” She continued her easy jog around the schoolyard, a Mona Lisa smile on her long, thin face, waiting, yearning for one of them to stumble into her web.
“You cah’nt catch me! Ha, ha! Surfah Girl cah’nt catch a fly!” Jimmy Mellon, that was, she saw out of the corner of her eye. Not quite close enough, she realized, and he was quick. They’d started calling her Surfer Girl in their strange North Woods accents on February 13, two months ago, on her first day at Dedham Elementary, or, as she preferred to call it “Deadly Elementary.”
Morgan and her father had moved from sunny California in the dead of winter. In the colder months, housing prices went down in New Hampshire while they went up in California, so they’d make out better, Dad had reasoned. He’d been right, she had to admit. They could never have afforded their sprawling farmhouse on a six-acre lot back Fresno.
But what good were six acres when they were covered in permafrost? It wasn’t the soft, fluffy snow they’d once skied on in Idaho. This stuff was hard and icy and never seemed to melt. It was April now and there were still patches of brown-crusted slush in the shadier spots on the schoolyard. By now, she was so sick of her Sorel snow boots that she wanted to throw them in the garbage dumpster behind the school and walk around barefoot.
Of course, she’d selected the wrong boots. Every other girl in her fifth grade class had boots from LL Bean. “Beanahs”, they called them. If she was still her next year, and she prayed every night to a God she suspected did not exist that she would not still be here next year, she would get the right goddamn boots.
Morgan loved to curse. She rarely did it aloud, in front of others, for she’d seen boys in her school get hauled down to Mr. Consentino’s office for swearing and she wasn’t about to let that happen.
A sidelong glance showed her that Britney Pak, an easy target, was off to her right and slightly behind her. Britney was an overweight girl, already sporting fatty breasts in the fifth grade, God help her. Breaking stride, she suddenly darted to the right and backtracked, smacking the plump girl on her right shoulder and narrowing her eyes.
“You’re It!” she announced calmly and then moved off to the outskirts of the playground. The game continued in a desultory way after that. Recess seemed never to end at Deadly Elementary. Sometimes you had to wonder if the teachers were all gathered in their lounge, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee and laughing and the idiotic students running around outside in forty degree weather.
“Let’s play a different game,” Britney suggested, panting, when she’d been unable to tag a single person after ten minutes. The others relented, having grown bored of Tag after twenty minutes of play, and formed an impromptu huddle over by The Tree. This tree, a proud Canadian maple, was the center of most playground activity. Over the years, numerous initials, hearts, invectives and even a swastika had been painstakingly carved from the bottom of the trunk upward for at least fifteen feet so that it now resembled a section of wall from an ancient cavern, or a particularly unholy totem pole.
The fifth-graders gathered in a circle with Jimmy Mellon at their center. Morgan was not part of the circle, as she had no actual friends in the group. Morgan supposed she was lucky to be included in the game at all. Others, like the boy missing a finger and the girl with the lazy eye, merely sat on the bench with the Miss Hancock, the recess monitor, and waited out the thirty minute recess period reading a book (Finger Boy) or fiddling with her lunch box (Lazy Eye).
The fifth grade class at Dedham Elementary had, for the most part, known each other since before kindergarten. Morgan understood herself to be an outsider and, therefore, a potential target for ridicule. Fortunately, she was expert at flying under the radar. She made it a point never to excel in her academic classes, although she was more than capable. In any sporting contest, she studied her competition and adjusted her natural athletic abilities so that she was never the best, but always close to the best.
Jimmy Mellon, however, always was the best. He squatted now, in the center of the circle, a miniature sergeant, rallying his troops.
“Whaddya wanna do?” he asked them.
“Kickball! Capture the flag? Freeze tag! Dodgeball?” Various suggestions were thrown out by the crowd, and Jimmy appeared to consider each one. Morgan could see, though, that he had something else in mind. He intrigued her, Jimmy Mellon did. Like her, he was tall for his age. Where Morgan was fair, he was dark, but their eyes were both a brilliant blue, long-lashed and intelligent. Jimmy’s father, James Mellon, Sr., was Dedham’s First Selectman and this authority had somehow trickled down to his son.
Morgan’s own father was a writer. Or, more precisely, an aspiring writer. He’d had a few pieces published in obscure local magazines, and quite a few in online e-zines. Currently, he was working on a novel, a horror slash psychological thriller that would really put him on the map, or so he believed. Believed enough to quit his job as a technical writer for an engineering company and move out East where they had no one, No One But Each Other, so he could write in the setting where his story took place. Morgan, a precocious reader, was familiar enough with Stephen King, to wonder if her father was subconsciously trying to channel the King of Horror.
“What about we play Rulah?” The accent still threw her sometimes. Was he saying Ruler?
“What’s that?” the children wanted to know.
“Ruler,” Jimmy said, again, enunciating each syllable. “You know, like a King or a Queen. You have to do to Everything that person says for the rest of recess.”
“That sounds dumb,” said Sophie Anderson, the girl with the long braids who had tagged Morgan. She could afford to be outspoken. Her family owned a fairly small but extremely popular ski resort in Dedham. There was a rumor, possibly started by Mrs. Anderson, that Sophie was being tagged for the US Olympic Downhill team in eight years. “You probably just want to be King and then you’ll make us all, like, kiss you or something.”
Morgan had to suppress a laugh. Sophie seemed to think everyone wanted to kiss her. She had a flat shovel-ish face and wide-set eyes. In a few years time, if she wasn’t on the Olympic Ski Team, she’d be begging Jimmy Mellon to kiss her.
“Nah, it’s not like that,” Jimmy insisted. “If yawh the rulah, you send people out on, like, missions, like, whaddya call ‘em?” He zipped and unzipped his bulky Patriots jacket, searching for the right word.
“Quests?” Morgan suggested.
“That’s it, Surfah Girl. Quests,” Morgan had never been on a surf board in her life, but for some reason she found herself pleased to be recognized favorably by Jimmy Mellon. “So let’s say I’m king,” he began. “I say to Ryan M, ‘Go walk over to Finger Boy, pick up his book, read a few sentences out loud and then give it back to him’.”
“But he’s sitting right next to Miss Hancock!” Ryan M, not to be confused with Ryan K, exclaimed.
“Yawh not doin’ anythin’ wrong,” Jimmy explained. “Just lookin’ at his book.” Ryan M carefully weighed the pros and cons of this. Egged on by his classmates, he started over to the solemn boy reading on the bench and sat beside him. Morgan watched as he awkwardly struck up some pretense of conversation with the boy, who was clearly suspicious of the sudden interest shown to him and fully aware of the crowd of onlookers.
After a few moments, Ryan M took the book in his dirty hand. Morgan noticed with some irony that it was a tattered copy of Lord of The Flies. She made a mental note to try and get to know Finger Boy. At least he had taste in literature, and maybe there was an interesting story behind the missing finger.
From across the playground came Ryan M’s halting, stuttering voice (Jimmy had chosen the worst reader in the class for this quest):
“Roger gathered a handful of stones and began to throw them. Yet there was a space round Henry, perhaps six yards in [here Ryan paused, considering] diameter, into which he dare not throw. Here, invisible yet strong, was the taboo of the old life. Round the squatting child was the protection of parents and school and policemen and the law.”
Ryan M gave Finger Boy back his book, losing the place, Morgan noted, and came trotting back across the patchy, slushy, had-once-been-grass with a triumphant grin on his face. While none of the children actually applauded, their approval was palpable. Miss Hancock looked around vaguely, feeling perhaps that something ought to be done, some rule, perhaps, enforced, but unsure what that rule might be. In the end, she just blew her whistle with extra gusto and directed them to form a line by the door. Recess was over.
The next day, Morgan found herself watching the clock all morning, counting down time until recess, to see if they would play Ruler once again. As if by consensus, they gathered once again around Jimmy Mellon.
“King Jimmy!” someone hollered, joking. The black-haired boy laughed, blue eyes flashing in the watery sunlight of that April afternoon.
“Ah, let’s play somethin’ else!” he protested. But, no, the fifth graders wanted their quest, and who was Jimmy Mellon to deny them? The boys were made to go and fetch rocks, stones, branches fallen from the tree after the brutal winter snows. The girls, meanwhile, formed these craggy offerings into a throne of sorts, upon which Jimmy then sat. Morgan hung back, watching these proceedings from the rickety swing set.
When the throne was complete, they erupted into a spontaneous game of Girls Chase the Boys. Morgan joined in, finding that with her long legs she was able capture nearly every boy in the class. No one captured Jimmy, who remained seated on his throne. The whistle blew and children returned, once again, to class.
Over the next several days, the children came to Jimmy in ones and twos, demanding to be assigned a quest. Colin Hemphill, one of the best students in the class, was made to ride twice around the playground on the back of Pete Simko, a brutish boy with piggy eyes. The class laughed and laughed at the site of skinny Colin, lightly tapping Pete with a stick and shouting “Giddyup, now! Move along Hossy!” Eventually, Miss Hancock intervened, worried that someone would be hurt, though Pete Simko was fully capable of transporting Miss Hancock herself around the school yard.
Justine DeVries was tasked with “borrowing” Lazy Eye’s lunchbox, which the poor girl brought everywhere with her. After a quiet conversation on the bench, and only a few tears on the part of Lazy Eye, the box was presented to Jimmy, who inspected its tuna-fishy contents, declared it to be “Gross!” and handed it back to Justine for return delivery.
Ryan K, renowned at Dedham Elementary for his ability to vomit at will, was assigned the task of puking just outside the door of the teacher’s lounge, to be discovered later that afternoon by Mrs. Jowdy, sneaking out for cigarette between classes. Celebrating an unusually warm spring day, the math teacher had worn a pair of strappy sandals and the stinking mess had thoroughly soaked her stockinged feet.
Sophie Anderson was indeed made to kiss someone, but that someone was not Jimmy Mellon, as she had secretly hoped, but was instead Britney Pak. The rest of the class made a human wall, shielding the two girls and Jimmy Mellon from the eyes of Miss Hancock. Britney’s large, doughy face blazed red as Sophie, on tiptoes, reached up to meet her fleshy lips. The other girls watching reacted either with horrified gasps or gagging noises while the boys collectively whooped with delight. The crowd separated, the children moved off into groups near the jungle gym, the four-square court and the hulking metal slide to discuss the great event.
“Dad… DAD!” Morgan often had to shout to get her father’s undivided attention when he was deeply involved in his book. In the past, she had held entire conversations with him which he had no memory of later. She knew, now, that she had to have eye contact with him to make sure he was truly hearing her. She watched him click File, then Save, and then he looked up at her, his tired blue eyes squinting in the afternoon sun that framed his young daughter standing by the window.
“Dad, do you think it’s true that if you’re not part of the solution then you’re part of the problem?”
“Hmmm, that is an interesting question. Why do you ask that, honey?”
“I mean, just, if someone is doing something that isn’t, like, nice, then should you try and do something to stop it?”
Her father’s eyes flashed with sudden insight. “Is someone bullying you?” There was worry in his voice; worry and the fear that some crucial deficit in his parenting had lead to this new and dreadful development.
“No!” she insisted. “That isn’t it. I mean, even if they aren’t doing bad things, just, well, things that are just a little bit, um…” Morgan was unsure how to describe the actions of Jimmy Mellon. Although careening toward adolescence, she still adhered to the intrinsic morality of the very young. And this unwavering part of her understood that the things King Jimmy was directing his subjects to do were hurtful things.
“Just tell me what happened, Morgan. We’ll get through it. Oh honey, you know that people are weak. They don’t always do the right thing. Well, I don’t need to tell you that…” He drifted off here, and the familiar haze came over his features. She knew that his mind had drifted back to Morgan’s mother, who had been struck by a drunk driver while riding her bicycle. The driver had fled the scene, only to collide with a utility pole a hundred yards further down the road. Both the driver and Morgan’s mother died that same evening, in the same hospital, three doors away from each other.
“Never mind, Dad. It’s really nothing. Just a show I was watching on TV. Really, everything is fine. Nothing you need to worry about.” The last thing Morgan wanted to do was to add to her father’s burdens, which she understood, despite her youthfulness, were considerable.
In reality, there was nothing on television. Her father kept forgetting that a connection to the local cable company was required in order to receive any other than fuzzy static. Finally, yesterday, she’d taken matters into her own hands and called the cable company, pretending to be her own mother, to make an appointment for a hook up. But an appointment could not be had until next week, so the television remained useless.
It was a fine day, so Morgan took herself off for a walk across their property line. She enjoyed walking. From their house in Fresno, she’d been able to walk to a Dairy Queen, a playground and a CVS. The problem here in Dedham, well, one of the many problems here in Dedham, was that there was nothing to walk To. Any walk was just an aimless wander, and she set off on one now, in a direction she had not previously tried.
To her surprise, she learned that the woods to the north east of their land ended very abruptly, after less than a quarter mile, onto the back of row of houses. Some of the nicest houses in town, in fact. This must be Chestnut Street, she realized, where Sophie Anderson and Jimmy Mellon both lived. Of course it made sense, they both rode on her bus, but they got on before she did, and she got off before they did, as her house was closer to the school.
One of the trees abutting a particularly well-maintained yard featured a sturdy tree house with a rope ladder hanging down invitingly. Without giving much thought to who might own the tree house, Morgan scrambled up the ladder to have a quick look at the leafy roost.
As she climbed onto the platform, she called out, rather quietly, but loud enough to be heard by anyone actually occupying the tree house:
“Is anyone there?”
No one answered, so she stepped inside. The room held few contents: a half-empty Pepsi can, a slightly mildewed pillow, a well-thumbed collection of Harry Potter books. Morgan was studying these when she heard a commotion down on the ground, at the rear of the house. She peered through the little arched window, and saw Jimmy Mellon backing through a French door into the yard. Behind him, lurched a hulking man in a dark suit pants, a white button down shirt and a tie loose around his neck. His sleeves were rolled up, revealing muscular arms and a hand balled into a tight fist, which was aimed at Jimmy Mellon’s face.
“Why cahn’t you keep that goddam room of yours clean! Is it so much to ahsk that you take a few minutes out of your busy day to help your mother?” James Mellon, Sr., was shaking his son back and forth like a rag doll now. There was horrifying click-clacking sound that Morgan realized must be the boy’s teeth chattering in his head.
A small, rumpled woman was standing in the open doorway, pleading, “James, no, please no! It’s alright! Jimmy’s room was clean. It was my fault, I dropped the laundry hamper. Come on inside and eat your dinner.” Even from her lofty perch, Morgan could see that one of the woman’s eyes was swollen shut. She held herself tightly, like one accustomed to pain. But her words were effective. Mellon slammed Jimmy up against the back of the house and stalked back into the house.
Released, Jimmy shambled across the yard, and Morgan realized with horror that he was heading for the tree house. She felt the limbs sway as he mounted the ladder, and could hear muttering as the boy ascending.
“Goddamn bastard, shit-for-brains, asshole,” the litany continued all the way up the ladder, until King Jimmy himself stood at the threshold of the tree house. Morgan had seated herself directly across from the opening of the door, recognizing it would be best to face him immediately. He did not notice her at first, however, for the sun had begun to set and his eyes had yet to adjust themselves to the relative gloom of the play house.
Once inside the door, he got down on his knees and picked up the tattered, flowered pillow, which he gripped tightly to his chest. At last he looked up and his startled eyes, still wet with tears, met Morgan’s.
“Who? What’re you…? Surfah girl?”
Morgan was silent, biting her lip. She ran a shaking hand across her cheek, surprised to find it came away damp with tears. Awkwardly, but carefully, Morgan reached forward and put her arms around Jimmy Mellon’s thin shoulders. Her touch was gentle, understanding that there must be pain. She offered not a word of explanation, knowing that there could be none, but merely held him for a long while, until dark had fallen. Then, she got down out of the tree and went home.
During recess the next afternoon, Jimmy and Morgan dismantled the throne. They used the rocks and stones it had been built with to make a circle around the old, scarred maple tree. The fifth-grade class played kickball that day, and for most days after that, since now it was fully spring.