Apr 06, 2023, 05:55AM

A Long Way From Home

Mr. Cunningham said nothing.

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When he got out of bed that morning he hadn't a clue that it would be his last day alive. Groggy, he waited patiently for his turn at the one bathroom, dressed, ate breakfast, and got on the school bus.

Billy Kreneke was an affable kid. Maybe he had to be, just to squeeze by. He was too tall for his age, just shy of six feet. And despite his height, he was just shy of being too shy. He knew he was odd; he felt like a duck in a hunter's bead at Grover Cleveland Junior High School. He outgrew his clothes about as fast as his parents could buy them. His pants were always too short, his wrists extended beyond his cuffs. Pap Kreneke drove a rubbish removal truck, and clan Kreneke included eight kids, Billy the eldest. All the little ones looked up to him. Times were tight. Store-bought book covers were out of the question. Kreneke school books were dutifully covered in brown paper, shopping bags reincarnated. And hand-me-down clothes were a norm. "Waste not, want not," was Mrs. Kreneke's motto.

Kids were getting seated for home room when Mr. Cunningham, he of the sandy crewcut and drip-dry attire, called them to order with a sharp rap of brass ruler on his desktop. "Monday morning! Anyone learn anything of interest over the weekend, anything they'd care to share with their fellow students? Hey! Filanda! Spit out the gum! No chewing in school!"

Pete Filanda spit his gum into a scrap of paper, then walked up, shame-faced, to the wastebasket beside Mr. Cunningham's desk, tossed the wad in, and began to shuffle to his desk, but was halted by the teacher's bark, "One! Don't saunter! Two," Cunningham continued, handing a piece of chalk to the kid, "put a dot on the board."

Pete marked a little dot, as instructed, a tiny yellow dot on the ocean of dark green board. He wondered what was up, but felt a certain satisfaction in a task properly completed. He smiled.

"See that dot?" Cunningham sneered into the kid's face, "See it! That dot is your brain. You are a pea-brain, Filanda. An imbecile. Now take your seat! And don't saunter!" Cunningham was standing, knuckles on his desktop, red-faced. He sat down and, cooling off, said, "Now, where were we before so rudely interrupted? Oh yes, anything of interest to share?"

Billy Kreneke gathered courage, raised his hand. Cunningham gave him the nod. Billy stood up and said, "In The Plainview Press I encountered an item that said if you took a human being and reduced it to all its mineral components, the entire worth would be thirty-nine cents!"

"That is a lie! A stinking rotten lie!" All eyes swerved to Nancy Greer in her plaid jumper and navy turtleneck. "Our priest says that human life is priceless! Every human life, even that of a bum or a criminal! He said you cannot put a price on a human life! Not a million dollars! Not a billion dollars! Certainly, most certainly, not thirty-nine cents!"

A wave of murmured agreement swirled around the classroom. Mr. Cunningham said nothing.

Billy struggled to clarify, "What I meant was, or what the article meant was, if the physical components of a human being's body were evaluated on strictly a material basis. That wouldn't include a soul. If you included..."

Nancy cut him off and doggedly reiterated her point, shaking her head, scowling in sharp disapproval of him. Although she now understood what he meant, she wasn't about to yield and look the fool. Better to just roll over him. A few kids jeered at Kreneke as he sat down humiliated. The bell rang and everyone grabbed their books and headed to their first class. One boy made a point to bang his books into Billy's back, smirking at him.

Grover Cleveland Junior High collected kids from all over Plainview. They were mainly suburban, but included rural and town kids, a lot of Catholics and various Prots, a generous jigger of Jews in the mix, some blacks. But none were, like the Krenekes, Disciples of Jehovah, an obscure doomsday sect. In Plainview, the Disciples didn't have an actual church. Instead they met on Saturday, their Sabbath, in a rundown little storefront sandwiched between an auto repair shop and the Polish market on the bleak end of Main Street. At the opposite end of Main Street loomed a Gothic Roman Catholic church. And two New England-style Protestant churches: tall and white, redolent of Yankee history.

Billy managed to make it through the day, then the week, until Friday afternoon when the bell ended the week at three. The hallway was Bedlam as kids banged open their lockers, beat feet for exit doors, hungry for freedom! Here comes the weekend!

For the entire week, the pain of Monday homeroom hung in Billy's chest like a brick.

To most kids Saturday meant ballgames, a visit to D'Amato's Hobby Shop, a matinee of horror movies at the Palace Theater. Or just hanging around the house, chipping away at homework, reading comic books, watching TV, tuning in to WPOP to hear the hit parade. For the Kreneke kids, Saturday was a three-hour service, then home for chores.

This Saturday, Pastor Smith's sermon was the ballad of their founder, Thomas Sarren, who had declared that Judgment Day was imminent, pinpointing it in 1899 to, fittingly, April 1. When the day came and went, he retreated to the drawing board and came up with another doomsday date. When that failed, another. Despite these failures, his charisma generated a following, a congregation large enough to earn the ire of a Montana mob who kidnapped him in the dead of night, tried him as a heretic, declared him guilty, and hung him from a tall oak tree in a desolate field before dawn, his carcass to remain there for buzzards to feast on, and as a signal to his flock that it was time to skedaddle.

Who needed a horror movie matinee with sermons like this? Week after week, the Kreneke kids felt the fear, had it driven deep into their marrow. As a result, their faith was rock solid.

The next Monday, December 9, Billy was back in school. It was after the final bell when he noticed Arthur McArthur, a pee wee, but ringleader of the Ebony Dragons, making a beeline to him. McArthur knocked Billy's books out of his hands, and fired at him, "What this I hear about people only worth thirty-nine cent? You sayin' I only worth thirty-nine cent!" Arthur raised his dukes and said, "Get ready to fight, boy!" With his left he socked Billy in the gut. "Come own! Come own!" Boys collected and began the requisite chant of, "Fight! Fight! Fight!" This was gonna be good!

Whether McArthur knew it or not, the Disciples of Jehovah were pacifists. Even self-defense was strictly verboten. We are all children of God; we are all loved by God equally.

Billy was stomach-punched again, knocking him on his butt. He struggled to his feet, seeing red, only dimly aware of the laughter and catcalls. McArthur did a little fancy footwork, and, chin up, mugged to the crowd, then taunted, "Come own! Come own! Fight, you big pansy! Fight!"

Billy, blinking back tears, forced his hands to remain resolutely at his side. But he broke emotionally and blurted, "Damn you to Hades you... you... you black Martian!" McArthur slammed Billy in the gut yet again just as Miss Greene rounded the corner, took in the scene, grabbed each boy by an ear, dragged them along the linoleum tiles as they yelped like pups, and deposited them before Principal Zornstrom's desk with the brief explanation, "Fisticuffs in the hallway!"

As she huffed out, Zornstrom closed his door and told them to each take a seat, as he sat on the side of his desk, fingers interwoven resting on a knee, a pose of casual calm. "Now, tell me, what happened? And remember, you cannot spell principal without pal. I'm here to help," he recited with a practiced modulation.

"He call me a black Martian!"

"I see, I see... Billy, is this true?"

"Well, yes, but..."

Zornstrom raised a palm, signaling Billy to zip it, and turned to the accuser, "Arthur, you can leave. But would you, please, try and stay out of trouble? For once?" Arthur snorted and strutted out, slammed the door after him.

Just the two of them, Zornstrom stood and bellowed at Billy, "I fought in Europe, lived in a muddy foxhole, dodging kraut bullets!" He pointed an index finger at Billy, his thumb raised, miming a pistol. "I saw buddies killed! We were fighting a war! A war to end this very sort of bigotry!" Shaking with fury, Zornstrom slammed the top of his desk causing Billy to jump in his seat. "I guess youse Disciples of Jehovah think you're so high and mighty! Well, let me tell you, buster, you are no better than anyone else," he snarled, lips drawn back revealing nicotine-stained teeth in full. He tilted his head, leaned forward into Billy's face. "A week of detention every afternoon, starting when you leave this office! And you are to write an essay, no shorter than five-hundred words, on how to be a better citizen of Plainview. Present it to me first thing tomorrow morning! Now get out of here, to detention hall! Your kind make me ill!"

Alone in his office, Zornstrom fired up a smoke, settled into his seat, propped up his dogs on the desk, gave himself a mental pat on the back for having taught a good life lesson to the Kreneke lad. If pressed, he'd admit, "Nah, I never saw any combat, did my bit Stateside, in a munitions plant." But to make a point about universal brotherhood, a fib is A-OK. You gotta get 'em young, teach 'em not to hate, he reasoned.

Halfway through his cigarette, he realized that, maybe, he'd blown his stack, gone overboard. Pondering more, he had to admit he'd been on edge ever since that dark day in Dallas, just a few weeks ago. "I guess everyone is," he sighed. Then he focused on paperwork, but first took a moment to reflect on army life, he the munitions factory supervisor prone to pinching female fannies on the assembly line. He chuckled and rubbed his palms. "Them were the days, boy! Hoo hoo!"

Having missed the bus, Billy trudged home, several miles. "Mom's gonna kill me."

It was getting dark on this lonely side street in town. And it was cold and windy; Billy's jacket didn't offer much resistance to December's chill. No gloves, he kept his hands in pants pockets. A jalopy crammed with high schoolers rolled past. A teen lowered a window to toss out a cig, allowing laughter and a few bars of music to escape, "...bright stars and guitars and drive-ins on Friday night." As the heap disappeared, its taillights glowing red in the gathering gloom, Billy froze: a V formation was marching towards him. Ebony Dragons, Arthur in front, two lieutenants behind him, three sergeants behind them.

"There he is," Arthur yipped, reaching into a pocket. Snik! The switchblade sprang to life. The juvie gang looked as sharp as that knife in their uniforms: black pointed-toe shoes, black crew socks, black Continental pants, orange shirts, collars tabbed tight as a drum, and black satin jackets. In this sartorial splendor they formed a circle around Billy, knives out.

Ebony Dragons and Billy, not another soul on the unlit street. From above, someone pulled their window shade down.


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