By Desiree Kannel
The Irony of Ham and Boo Radley
Isaiah and I don’t talk anymore. We don’t even look at each other, which is hard since we go to the same high school and have two classes together. Right after that big fight in the library, I started sitting in the back of the class. He started hanging out with those jerks he rides the bus with. All those guys want to do is play around and terrorize the rest of us.
I told him not to hang out with those dudes, but Isaiah never understood how I was trying to help him be a better person and move up in life. He kept making excuses as to why he couldn’t do this or do that. When I told him that excuses were for failures and incompetents, the fight started. He was yelling and telling me to mind my own god damn business and that I was turning into my dad which was ironic since I always hated the way my dad treated me.
He used the word “ironic”—a word I taught him two weeks ago while I was helping him write his To Kill a Mockingbird essay. So I shot back how ironic it was that he didn’t think I was helping him when it was so obvious that I was. He was sounding more normal, you know? Like regular people.
Isaiah flipped and started shouting stuff about how he was proud of who he was and where he came from, and that he didn’t need help from some dumb-ass who felt guilty. I yelled back at him that he was just making up another lame excuse for failing, and then I pretty much told him to go to hell. After that Mrs. McGee made us leave the library.
So that was that. I don’t know why things got so bad with us. I mean Isaiah and I have been friends for forever, right after we met in the first grade back at Lincoln Elementary. My family had just moved to the neighborhood from the other side of town because Dad wanted me to go to Lincoln, the best school in the city. We could barely afford the rent, but Dad took on extra shifts and Mom started working in a beauty salon part time. I was nervous and scared about starting at a new school and having to make new friends, but everything was going fine. Until story time.
It was right after lunch and I was too shy to tell the teacher I had to use it, so I just sat there and tried to hold it in which was hard and I guess I started making squinty faces because Isaiah was watching me. He just kept looking at me while I was trying to hold my pee and listen to The Very Hungry Caterpillar so I could tell my dad about it when he got home from work. He always used to ask about school. But just at the part when the teacher reads about all the food that stupid caterpillar eats on Friday, I couldn’t hold it any longer. The other kids started laughing and pointing while the teacher’s trying to calm everyone down and make them shut up, and I’m just sitting there in a pool of warm pee with a hot face when Isaiah comes over and says that it’s not a big deal and takes me to the bathroom.
While I’m trying to clean up, he tells me how three other boys had the same thing happen to them and that’s why the class doesn’t have a story time rug anymore, and if anyone calls me any names I should just call them the same name back and tell them to shut up. He was pretty cool about it all, so I told him that it wasn’t the other kids I was worried about but my dad. Isaiah just looked away and said, “Yeah. Dads can be kinda mean sometimes.”
I found out later that Isaiah’s dad had to go away from his mom and his sisters because he had “anger issues.” At least that’s what Isaiah said the school counselor told him. Seems like everyone in that family has anger issues.
After a while, Tommy Peters came in and told us Miss Ito wanted us back in the class, so we left the bathroom. When we got back, Miss Ito was really happy that Isaiah helped me so she asked him to be my special friend, and show me around the school and stuff. I was pretty excited about that and I thought that Isaiah was too. Another thing he yelled at me last week was how he never even wanted to my “special friend” back in the first grade and how he only did it because he liked Miss Ito. And then he tells me how he got beat up a bunch by the kids in the neighborhood because he hung out with me so much. “They called me the pee-boy’s babysitter,” he said.
I never heard anything about that back then, so he probably just made it up. He was always making stuff up. Like me feeling guilty about my dad. Why would I feel guilty about that? I didn’t cause the accident. But you want to know what’s really ironic? The fact that my dad never liked my friendship with Isaiah and now that we’re finally not friends anymore, I can’t tell him.
My dad used to say that Isaiah was caught in something called the circle of poverty and that it would be hard for him to escape it without hard work and determination. After his dad was gone, Isaiah’s mom kinda fell apart. They got poor real fast and had to move to a small two room apartment on the other side of town. Their furniture is old and raggedy, and his mother doesn’t work so she gets food stamps and free clothes from the school for Isaiah’s sisters. One time I asked Dad if Isaiah and his family cold come over for Christmas Eve dinner. Dad didn’t think it was a good idea because he said they would feel uncomfortable in our home. So instead Mom made a gift basket for them with a ham, cake, cookies and presents for everybody. We brought it over to their apartment on Christmas Eve and his mom seemed really grateful for it. I know she liked the stuff because she kept thanking my mom over and over. Mom just smiled and said that we were happy to help out. And we were.
The next week, when school started again, Isaiah was really cold like he didn’t want me around, so I asked him how his sisters liked the sweaters and perfume my mom got them. I expected him to at least say thank you, but he flipped out and started yelling and telling me that his family wasn’t a charity case and that we should have just kept our stupid ham. “We can buy our own damn food,” he told me.
But it’s just like Isaiah to take a simple act of kindness and make it seem like we were the ones doing something wrong. Like me trying to help him with his school work. Isaiah is smart. He catches on real fast and he’s never flunked a class. All the teachers like him and they all say the same thing on his report cards: Isaiah is capable of higher grades; however, a lack of motivation hinders his progress. Teachers have been saying that about Isaiah Walker for as long as I’ve known him. But it’s not his fault. He messes up ‘cause his dad isn’t around. If his dad was around to help him, I know he’d do better in school. And if he had a dad like mine, he’d be on his way to Harvard by now.
All he needs is someone to look out for him and help him a bit. Like my dad always did for me from the very beginning.
It started with Dad busting his ass to get me into Lincoln. I could have taken the bus from our old house, but he said we had to live in the neighborhood and become part of the community. Then he wanted me placed in the gifted class. I had to take the test three times, but I finally passed it in the fourth grade. Dad was always in the principal’s office speaking up for me. He said that I would have passed the first time if the teachers had prepared me right (Mr. Dowd was so dumb). They tested me on stuff that we never talked about in class. After I got in, Mr. Dowd was transferred to another school. I think my dad had something to do with that.
We studied hard for that test—every night after dinner, and weekends too. I even had to miss Charlie Baker’s ninth birthday party at the beach because of tutoring. Dad’s motto was: “The sacrifices you make now will pay off later in life.” Isaiah went to the party without me and told me how Lisa Phillip’s bikini top came off while she was trying to body surf. That was pretty funny. Isaiah was mad that I hadn’t come to the party. He didn’t understand.
See, Isaiah thinks I get good grades because I’m super smart or something. I’m not. I just study real hard and always do my best. Like my dad taught me to. He was always talking to the teachers and getting extra help for me from tutors. The last thing we did together was study for my history midterm. It was an AP class and the teacher was talking about transferring me out because he thought I couldn’t handle it, but Dad let them know that that was not going to happen and that his son could, and would, make it. So, just like we did back in the third grade, we studied together for that midterm. Every night after dinner we sat at the kitchen table and he would quiz me on Custer’s last stand, Little Big Horn, the Ghost Dancers, all that Indian stuff from the 1800’s. I knew dates, names, locations, causes and effects . . . everything, and I should have aced that test. I would have aced that test, but I just got really nervous right before fifth period. I felt like I was gonna throw up and I couldn’t remember anything.
So I decided I needed to cheat a little. I just wrote some dates and names on a piece of paper and slipped it under my sleeve so I could take a little peek during the test, just in case or something. I was nervous as hell and it must have shown because Mr. Gibson kept looking at me the whole time. When the bell rang, he collected the tests and said, “Thomas, could you stay? I need to speak with you.” After everyone left he asked me what was in my shirt sleeve and all I could think was, Oh shit.
After ten minutes of me pleading with Mr. Gibson not to tell my dad and him telling me he had to, I left the room. Isaiah was waiting in the hallway and right away he asked what happened, so I told him.
“Man, your dad is going to kill you. When’s Mr. Gibson calling?” Isaiah said.
I told him that he said he’d call that night, and we walked to the locker room.
“You should just tell him that the class it too tough for you. He’ll let you change like he did with AP Lit last year.”
I looked at him like he was crazy. “I can’t do that. Don’t you know anything? I need these AP courses to up my GPA.”
He stopped changing into his track clothes. “Don’t you remember what the counselor told you all last year? Just drop it and take regular history with me.” He smiled. “I’ll even help you get caught up.”
I just kept changing and kept quiet because he never understood about that stuff. We were late for track practice anyway.
After we were on the field and doing warm ups, Isaiah said, “Don’t worry about it. Your dad will forgive you. Just like he always does.”
Mr. Gibson never did talk to my dad.
When I got home, Mom was there with grandma, grandpa, Aunt Pam, and Uncle George. Everybody was standing in the kitchen drinking coffee when I came in. Mom just looked at me and started crying, and then Aunt Pam came over and put her arm around me and told me that my dad was killed in a car accident. She gave me a quick hug and then let me go, and then I’m just standing there with everyone staring at me holding my backpack and I’m just looking at everyone staring at me like they were waiting for me to say something. Since I didn’t know what they expected, I looked at Mom and said, “I got a 96% on my history midterm.”
Right away Mom starts bawling and smiling at the same time, and she comes over and hugs me real hard and says how proud Dad would have been and how happy she is that she has such a smart young man and how she wouldn’t have to worry about me or anything. She was hugging me so tight, and everyone was coming over and patting me on the back. I didn’t know what to do. When she finally let go, my face was wet and I knew they all thought I had been crying for my dad. Those were Mom’s tears on my face. I wiped them off and went to my room.
I ended up transferring out of AP history which was all right because I ended up in Isaiah’s class. It should have been great because I could have helped him out. But then he started acting like a jerk.
The first week after the funeral, Mom let Isaiah come over a lot. I told her we were studying together, and we were. When I could get him to concentrate. He always wanted to watch TV or play basketball. Anything except study or do homework. He got a B+ on that Mockingbird essay I helped him with, and he didn’t even thank me. That was the highest grade he ever got. When I asked him what his mom said when he told her, he said he didn’t.
Getting him to be serious was always tough, but I didn’t think he minded too much and I thought everything was going fine. Fine until we were getting ready for a history quiz on Friday. He kept saying that it was just a quiz and it was no big deal. I tried to tell him that every point counted, but he just wanted to go to the pep rally and check out the cheer leaders. He liked watching Ashley Cortez’s boobs bounce up and down. So did I, but when I tried to explain to him how the sacrifices we made then would pay off later, he got really mad. He slammed his book shut and started yelling at me about my dad and how I lied and that I was just feeling guilty. He sounded crazy.
I always knew Isaiah didn’t understand about my dad and me. I guess because his dad was never around and all his mother wanted him to do was get through the day without the principal’s office calling. My dad said Isaiah was one of the “unfortunate ones” and that I shouldn’t spend too much time with him. Dad was always pushing me to be friends with some of the other boys in our neighborhood. He would sign me up for soccer and baseball teams, but I never did too well, and I hated those stupid pizza parties we always had. It was at my house one year but I couldn’t invite Isaiah to come. The league wouldn’t allow him to play with us because he didn’t live in the area. That was too bad because whenever we were on the same team at school, we always kicked butt. Even though we didn’t see much of each other out of school or during the summer, we stayed friends.
But now I think my dad was right. What kind of best friend picks a fight with someone who just lost their father?
Desiree Kannel is a writer and teacher living in Southern California. She has a MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University, Los Angeles and is a certified Amherst Writers & Artists workshop leader. She is the founder and facilitator of Rose Writers Creative Workshops, a creative writing community that serves beginning and experienced writers. Follow her @RWwrites.