Therapy

Peter Clement

November 22, 1963…

No one paid the boy particular notice. He walked on the shoulder of the road, several yards away from the asphalt edge. Motorists didn’t bother to slow down as they passed.

He wore a powder-blue jacket, unzipped, and it appeared to be a few sizes too big. His arms hung listless at his sides, but brown mitts dangled out the sleeves on idiot strings, swinging back and forth to slap against his knees the way broken hands on a wooden puppet might parody someone enjoying a thigh-slapping joke. His face, however, showed no such amusement. It remained as deflated and slack as the empty schoolbag slung across his back. Staring straight ahead, he’d locked his gaze on something visible only to him. Had anybody taken a good look at his eyes, they’d have seen pupils pumped wide as dimes, and a blackness as impenetrable as pitch.

Perhaps, if only someone had stopped to ask, “Are you okay?” he’d have told all to a kind stranger.

But drivers remained hunched over their steering wheels, attention riveted to the radio broadcast. Even the few neighbors who’d chosen to immerse themselves in manicuring expansive, tree-canopied yards never so much as looked up from their rakes, mowers, or clippers to acknowledge the child.

To the boy it felt as if he bore a telltale stain that shrieked what he and Vulture had done. Everyone would know his secret at a glance.

He fixated on shimmering gold poplars that lined the street, the flash of their foliage brilliant against a late afternoon sky turned milky in the haze from burning leaves. “Unseasonably mild,” had been the forecast that morning. For him, the day seemed drained of heat.

Closer to home he began to shiver, and a cold, slimy sensation crept up the back of his throat, causing him to gag. Normally this time of year he’d race through the back door shouting “Mom!” and into a steam-filled kitchen where aromas of yams or beets or squash or other assorted vegetables wafted off bubbling pots. Now he slunk in, careful not to make a noise, as if he’d lost his right to be there. One look, and his mother would see his shame.

The kitchen was empty.

“Are you okay?” she asked after he entered the living room. Any other day at dusk the place would be ablaze with lights. Tonight, only a television screen illuminated the gloom, and in its silver glow he could see that her eyes were red from crying. For an instant he panicked. She must have already found out about him and, disgusted, left the house in darkness to cover up his presence. His fear that he no longer belonged in his home trebled.

But she rose from her chair, gave him a wan smile, and folded him into her arms.

He recoiled, his face flushed hot with guilt as it always became when he tried to hide the truth and tell a lie. He didn’t deserve a hug.

Looking out through her embrace toward the flickering, black and white image on their television, he saw a round-faced man with a little mustache who spoke in a sad, gravelly voice.

...all we know at this point is that Lee Harvey Oswald might have been a Communist sympathizer...

“I’m okay,” the boy finally replied in a monotone, hoping with all his heart that she would not believe him. Then he’d tell her everything, once she pressed further and insisted on knowing what was the matter. And she would insist. His mother unfailingly sensed when something was wrong. Though frightened, he would welcome getting caught. Because then she’d fix everything. Make it right. Take away the bad feelings he couldn’t even name.

Instead, she simply said, “You look tired, little man. Your soccer coach even called and told me a lot of the kids were upset--”

“He phoned?”

“Yes, to say he was worried about you. ”

Don’t tell anyone.