lifford Wimple was a dork. His brother, Bob, an Eagle Scout, was Student
Council President at the high school. Bob rolled down our streets in his
maroon '49 Merc, wearing a Kelly green and gold varsity letterman's sweater.
Beside him on the black tuck and roll, right beside him, Jane King sat as if
enthroned. She was a cheerleader. Bob oozed cool from every pore. Clifford
oozed snot. How Mrs. Wimple had managed to produce two sons so utterly
lacking in similarity was just unfathomable.
I only knew Bob by sight and by reputation. He was ten years older. I knew Clifford though. We tied knots and built birdhouses together with all the other Cub Scouts in Mrs. Boothby's garage. We sang together in the choir at the local First Methodist and attended the same church-sponsored summer camp.
I don't know why Clifford was a dork. His running nose and whining voice were only symptoms of dorkiness rather than causal factors. I didn't like him. No one I knew liked him. I don't think his mother liked him either. Maybe that was what made him such a dork. I'd heard her scream at him so often that I'd quit paying attention. I'd seen her slap and shove him with ham-fisted anger more times than I want to remember now. Back then, we didn't think in terms of abuse, the thought didn't cross our minds. Johnny Fuller, my next door neighbor, said that if he had a kid like Clifford, he'd probably clobber him, too.
When my mother forced me to invite Clifford to my ninth birthday party, I was disappointed. But, she laid down the law: No Clifford--No Party. Anyway, that was the unspoken bottom-line of a speech about fairness and treating others as I would wish to be treated. Naturally, Clifford was the first to arrive. Mrs. Wimple came with him.
After the cake and presents, we went out back to play baseball while some of the mothers picked up bits of wrapping paper, collected paper plates, and drank coffee. I was first up because it was my party and I had a brand new bat, a Mickey Mantle 32 genuine Louisville Slugger autograph model. Johnny Fuller was pitching and Clifford was the catcher. On the first pitch I bashed out Clifford's front teeth. Blood and screams poured from his mouth as tears squirted from his eyes. I stood frozen in terror. I didn't know what would happen next, but I was terrified that I might be held responsible, that I might be blamed, that I might be punished.
Clifford's screams brought the women from the kitchen. I saw Mrs. Wimple lumbering toward me from the house. Her purple and green muumuu blurred as tears filled my eyes. She was going to kill me. I'd never imagined that the 300 pound woman could move so quickly. Her shoulder bumped me as she reached out and slapped the back of Clifford's head yelling, "Shut up, you idiot!" My mother appeared with ice cubes in a clean washcloth for Clifford's mouth. Everyone talked at once for a few seconds, and then Mrs. Wimple grabbed Clifford's wrist and dragged him to the car. They were gone.
I don't remember what happened next, I guess the party was over. For several nights I woke from nightmares that ran in slow motion. I saw myself clobbering Clifford with that bat. In the nightmares I seemed to snarl cruelly as I watched Johnny wind up for the pitch. I always woke up when the end of the bat hit Clifford's face. Was it an accident? Everyone assumed so and treated the matter that way, but I was uncertain then, and I'm not certain now.
I don't think Clifford and I ever spoke to each other after that day. For almost ten years, though, everytime I saw him I wondered what he thought. The last time I saw him was at our high school graduation. When he walked across the stage to accept his diploma, the scar tissue lump on his upper lip was still quite visible. I haven't seen him since, but now, when he walks across my memory, I understand my guilt. When I heard that bat smack and saw that blood, I didn't care. I didn't care if he was hurt. I only feared what might happen to me.
Clifford, I'm sorry.
|DENNIS CARDWELL is a junior high school English teacher who believes he can speak the language of children. For the first twelve years of his life he professed to be a Texan. He admitted in 1959 that he was born in northern California where he lives to this day. Hundreds of former students feign interest when he speaks to them on the street. He is happily married, but don't tell his wife.|