Jonathon was raised on a small, poor patch of hardscrabble at the edge of the Amish community. His was the last house before the double overhead power lines quit, just stopped, ending at the creosote pole, like long, skinny fingers pointing towards the Amish.
The dilapidated dwelling seemed perpetually in danger of falling down. The paint on the siding was long since gone, the bare wood turning dark gray, like a land-based shipwreck. The rocky ground hadn’t seen grass since his mother left when he was five. The run-down homestead was a stark contrast to the neat, fresh, well-kempt grounds and white, always white, houses, of his simple Amish neighbors a mile down the gravel road.
Jonathon hated the Amish. Even if he had stopped long enough to wonder why, the answer would have been elusive. His was the kind of visceral hatred the lion has for the weak gazelle; the need to destroy, to consume. And he particularly hated Ezra, “…that queer, that bookworm dweeb,” he would say to himself. “How can you be Amish and a bookworm?” he would mutter. And he would hate him even more. He took particular delight in tormenting Ezra. At first, the torment had been spitballs, a little shoving, and then expanded to the family, burning a few corn shocks. Soon it escalated to killing their chickens and slicing up leather harnesses. Ezra and his family never shoved back. “What a bunch of pussies,” Jonathon would laugh.
“Hey, Jon, how’s it going?”
Jonathon’s father tentatively creaked the grimy, bare-wood door open to his son’s room. He wanted to be his friend.
Last week, Tuesday, his father had discovered the plastic packets with the dried, off-green plant leaves in each of them neatly stacked in Jon’s top dresser drawer next to an equally neat stack of one-dollar bills.
Jonathon slowly turned from slicking back both sides of his black hair. He used Brylcreem like everyone. He slowly, deliberately, put the brush on top of the dresser, and stared at his father.
“What part of ‘Don’t ever come into my room again in your life’ do you not understand?”
Jonathon was not large, but at fifteen he was bigger than his father. More importantly, he was a bully, and with the instinct of a serial tormenter, knew when to press, when to back off. It was time to press.
“Look, Jon…” his father started his usual, tentative pleading, then stopped. It had all been said before, to no avail.
Jonathon’s face was expressionless, placid. He was relaxed.
“See that?” he nodded towards the shotgun hanging on the wall.
“I keep #4 shot in it all the time. #4 is especially good for bigger animals.” He continued to stare at his father, who was now looking at the floor, at his worn shoes. “Get out of my room. Don’t come back in here.”
He never returned.
Someone had let the air out of Ezra’s bicycle tires again. He walked it the three miles to his house, hand-pumped the tires full of air, and leaned the faded red bike against the barn. He walked the short distance to the house, carrying his school books, and entered the back porch. He started to catch the rear porch screen door behind his back, and then let it slam instead. His mother looked up from the sink.
“Wie er an der Schule heute ging, Eshra?” she asked in Pennsylvania Dutch, a peculiar mixture of Low German, unwritten German, and English, a clipped, guttural language. She wore a pale-yellow, full-length dress, dark hose showing on barely exposed ankles. Her dress had the traditional modesty panel sewn over her chest, hardly disguising her ample figure. The work-day Amish bonnet hid her prematurely gray hair, and the long tie ribbons hung almost to her waist.
“School went fine Momma,” he answered in English. “Where's Father?”
Ezra's mother glanced at her son and then answered, also in English, “He went to town with Mr. Schilling.” Mr. Schilling made his money ferrying the Amish around in his old Chevy van.
“What kind of mood is he in today?”
“Are you alright?”
Ezra's mother was busy cutting up vegetables on a handmade cutting board. She finally laid the wood-handled knife down on the faded brown Formica countertop and turned to her oldest son.
“Yes, Ezra, I am fine. It has been calm today. Why don't you go upstairs and change for to do your chores so maybe we can have a peaceful evening?”
She wiped her hands on her dirty apron.
“Mrs. Herzog brought some more books by. I put them in the attic. But do your chores first.”
Mrs. Herzog had taught many Amish kids in her career, and had run her own small education-revolution, her mission to educate the world. She was appalled and fascinated with the Amish determination to live in ignorance, institutionalized ignorance, dependant on “Word-From-Above” for every detail of their lives.
Ezra was her latest target, but unlike so many before him, he was interested, even eager to learn. Ezra’s mother was nervous, and early on had asked the gray-haired revolutionary to please not come by the house. But Ezra had pleaded with his mother for more books, and so Mrs. Herzog still came, quietly, furtively, watching for Father, making sure he didn’t suddenly arrive at the door. Sometimes Ezra would stop at her house, risky business too, and then hurry back home, down the brown-stained road from their close neighbor, barely a quarter mile away, carrying the verboten books in a sack.
Earlier that day, Mrs. Herzog had come to visit. There was no doorbell, of course, not even a doorknocker, so she rapped on the sun-bleached front door with her knuckles. She heard footsteps growing louder, felt the front porch tremble slightly as someone walked towards the front door.
“Guten Morgen.” The schoolmarm taught eighth grade German and always greeted whoever came to the door that way. A flicker of a smile briefly lit up Rebecca’s face, and she replied, “Guten Morgen, Frau Herzog.”
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