Perhaps he should have known he would meet the blustery bully again. If so, could he have foreseen their brief, but painful reunion?
At the Orchard House Tom and Rick had taken their lunch to the living room to watch the noon newscast while they ate. There, during an extended commercial break, Rick asked, “Are you going to check out the rest of those boxes in the shed this afternoon?”
“I suppose so,” Tom replied. “It has to be done sometime. I’d like to get it out of the way.”
Rick gathered their empty plates and started toward the kitchen. “I’d lend a hand, but I wouldn’t know what I was looking at. I probably wouldn’t be much help. I think I’ll take a walk around the North End. Kind of check things out.”
“Is that the same as checking out the girls?” Tom was grinning at the boy’s unpracticed transparency. “I suppose you’ll find they’re about the same as home. Just don’t be getting too crazy. We’ll be leaving the first of the week, you know.
"The first of the week," Rick repeated to himself. It had the sound of being too soon. There was so much the boy wanted to know about Tanner, the North End, and their place in his dad’s life. “Can they sell the house that soon?” he asked.
“They can if everything goes according to Paul Corin’s plan. At least they’ll be finished with my part of it.”
Minutes later Rick was ready to leave, with the purloined phone-book map of northwest Tanner tucked safely in his pocket. He saw no reason to apologize for that minor bit of larceny. In a matter of days the phone book would be trashed, along with the house. No one would miss the map.
“I’ll be back in an hour or two.”
“I may not be here when you get back.” Apparently Tom had picked up on the boy’s exploration mode. “When I’m through in the shed I may take a tour of my own. There are some places around here I haven’t seen in ages. It would be a shame to come this far and not do some checking out of my own.”
“Then I’ll see you when I see you.”
Starting off toward the old downtown Rick had pinpointed at least two possible destinations on his map's North End "Points of Interest" listing....the North Tanner Library and the Lawrence Aquatic Center, both of them across the old highway, within easy walking distance. The aquatic center sounded like an especially good idea. On a warm summer afternoon the local swimming pool would certainly be worth checking out.
The boy had always considered himself a library sort of person. The Highland City Library, recently expanded and thoroughly modern, had become a favorite haunt of his. Sadly, however, it took only a brief inspection of the North Tanner Library to realize he would not feel at home there.
The sturdy brick building dated from the nineteen thirties, when it served as the North End Library. It was old and showed its age. The recent addition of two adjoining modular structures was not enough to overcome the depressing, uncared-for feel of the place. Apparently libraries were not a priority in modern day Tanner.
From the library he walked down Tipton Street toward the pool. Even from a distance he could tell the Lawrence Aquatic Center was something different, something special. "The Center,” as it was known to the locals, had been built ten years before as the City of Tanner’s most extravagant olive branch, a peace offering to hopefully quiet the disgruntled remnants of the North End population who had never accepted the reality of their village being swallowed by the insensitive greed of Tanner politicians.
The shiny aluminum structure was wrapped in glass, which in the brilliant afternoon sunlight cast dancing reflections across the water. One side of the long glass roof had been retracted, creating an inviting open-air pool. Strolling along the chain-link fence separating the pool from the viewing area, Rick watched infants splashing in the shallow end and muscular teenagers showing off their form on the diving board.
At the far end of the complex, beyond the showers and changing rooms, a grassy hillside dipped toward the tall hedge that marked the center’s southern edge. Across the sloping lawn noisy teenagers stretched out on towels, to see and be seen while they soaked up the warm sunshine.
Crossing behind the bathhouse, Rick started toward the asphalt path that followed the hedge back to the street. He had gone only a few yards when he heard the vaguely familiar voice.
“Hey, redskin. You lost or something?” There, just ahead, Burt Dunn and three other boys were standing on the grass beside the path.
“Yo, Injun,” the bulky one next to Burt called out. By then Rick was aware of a sudden quiet settling over the crowded hillside. He sensed the curious stares turning toward him. Stepping off the path he walked toward Burt. “You talking to me?”
Looking down into Rick’s face, Burt tried for his most menacing scowl. “I think I owe you. You tried to make me look bad. I didn’t appreciate that.” By then Burt’s friends, each of them at least as big as him, had edged closer, effectively surrounding Rick.
“I don’t recall that you needed much help,” Rick answered. He had more to say, but the words never left his mouth. Before he realized what was happening, a pair of strong hands had grabbed each of his arms, while a third boy jerked back on his shoulders.
Burt Dunn was through talking. He stepped forward and aimed a punch at Rick’s belly. An instant later a second hard blow crashed into the left side of the boy’s face.
It had happened so fast. Rick scolded himself for being caught unaware. But now he was beginning to respond, intent on disabling his attacker. He planted his feet, straining for enough footing to deliver the kick he was aiming just below Burt Dunn’s belt buckle.
But before Burt could step back into range came the loud command from the top of the hill, next to the bathhouse.
“Burt Dunn,” the bulky college-aged lifeguard yelled. “You cool it right now. Let him go.” Then, sensing his demand might not be obeyed, “You want me to come down there?”
With all the dejection of a job half-done, Burt nodded to his friends. They loosened their grip and backed away.
Burt Dunn, however, could not resist a parting word. He jabbed his finger toward the young Indian. “You see what happens to trouble makers? You remember that, and stay the hell out of my way.
“Burt, I warned you.” The lifeguard bluffed a step toward the boys, sending them up the hill toward a group of giggling girls. Without looking back Rick started up the path to the street.
Back at the Orchard House Rick stood hunched over the kitchen sink, daubing cold water on the angry red abrasion under his left eye. Though it was not a deep wound, the water had a sting to it. He dried his face and walked to the wall mirror in the dining room. Already there was a pronounced swelling high on the cheekbone. In another hour or two the bruised welt would surely be a choice shade of purple.
He was still inspecting the wound, probing the skin with his finger, when his dad came through the back door. Tom did a quick double take, then hurried to the boy's side to look in the mirror.
“How the hell did you manage that? I leave you alone for an hour, and you’ve already found a new friend.”
“It wasn’t hard. This is a real friendly place.” Rick answered, gently poking at his cheek. “Sometimes they run in packs.”
Tom grinned and shook his head. Sitting down at the long dining table he motioned for the boy to join him. “So you found a way to upset somebody, eh? How did that happen?
“It was my own fault. There were four of them. I wasn’t paying attention, just jawing with the talkative one. Next thing I know they'd jumped me. Some guy, I think he was a lifeguard, ran them off before they could do much.”
“A lifeguard?” Tom was puzzled and it showed. “You were at a swimming pool?”
“Just walking past. Checking it out.” Rick's cheeky grin was meant to calm his dad's concerns. “Don’t worry. Next time I’ll be paying attention.”
“You’re expecting a next time, are you?”
“I kind of hope so.”
Tom Fedder had known the boy for nine years. Together, they had faced their share of harrowing situations, especially the loss of Rick’s mother. Through all those trials he had never seen the youngster show anything that looked like fear. It may have been there, but it never showed. There were times he wondered if it was an Indian thing, or simply the boy’s natural disposition.
Returning to the kitchen to start a fresh pot of coffee, Tom yelled back to the youngster. “What did you do to stir things up with the locals?”
“It wasn’t everyone, Just one guy. I’d met him before, when he was hassling some girl. She didn’t appreciate his attention. So I ran him off.”
“Didn’t I warn you about the girls?”
“Hey, it was nothing,” the boy answered, hoping to deflect his dad’s interrogation. “This time he had some buddies with him. They had me cornered until the guy ran them off.”
“And if the life guard hadn’t been there?” What would it take to make the boy see the seriousness of the situation?
“If he hadn’t been there," Rick replied calmly. "A few guys would have got hurt.”
“Maybe so. But I wouldn’t have been the only one.”
It was not a matter of bravado. Tom knew his young ward better than that. The truth was, Rick was not afraid, and Tom understood why.
It had been four years earlier, not long before Annie’s passing, when fourteen year old Rick Levant and his mother had walked past a loud and raucous bar on the wrong side of Highland City. Through the open door one of the well-lubricated patrons had noticed Annie, a full blooded Blackfoot Indian, and her obviously Native American son.
The fellow had half-stumbled out to the sidewalk, aiming a stream of profane insults at Annie. Though it hurt, she had heard it all before and was prepared to walk on, to let it pass. No one was more surprised than she was when her son grabbed her arm and pulled her to a stop. Without a word he turned and walked back toward their obnoxious tormentor.
He was wide, that unruly drunk, with a belly that drooped over his belt. In all likelihood, he was having a hard time deciphering the approaching boy’s tight-lipped grin The youngster was well built for fourteen. Not tall, but a solid one hundred and thirty pounds. Still, at first glance, he was certainly no match for the larger, loud-mouthed man.
Approaching slowly, Rick paused for a moment in front of the bemused drunk. Then, without a word he lunged forward, slamming his forehead into the man’s nose. With a pained scream the surprised bully lurched forward, grabbing his face, wiping at the stream of angry red blood. A second later Rick aimed a hard kick at the man’s crotch. His legs buckled and he pitched forward to the sidewalk, moaning in pain.
Ignoring his groaning victim, Rick turned to glare at the pair of wondering faces that peered from the bar’s doorway. Apparently no one else was interested in joining the ruckus. Without looking back he walked to where his mother stood watching in shocked disbelief.
It was a week later before Tom heard Annie’s retelling of the boy’s explosive confrontation. Minutes later he motioned Rick to join him in the back yard. There, leaning against the old Ford pickup, Tom was ready to hear the boy’s version.
“I expect I’ll be hearing about this around town," Tom explained. "I’d like to know what to expect.”
“Not much to tell,” Rick answered. “Mom and I were walking by the Nite Owl. Some guy came out and started bad mouthing her. You know, "squaw" talk, and where that leads. He was really rank, an absolute garbage mouth....a lot of stuff Mom shouldn't have to hear, and it really steamed me. Anyway, I guess I kind of lost it, hearing him talk to her that way.”
“Did you tell him to stop?”
“Nah. I didn’t feel like talking. I suppose by then I didn’t have much to say. He wasn’t going to listen anyway.”
Tom paused, processing the boy’s calm recital. “I’m not sure what you’re saying, son. You’re a kid. Yet you hurt a grown man, rather badly from what I hear. I know he was drunk, probably a little wobbly. But how many kids would even try that? And now you’re making it sound like it was no big deal. There’s something going on here. Something I’d like to know more about.”
Though Rick had turned away, the old man was not ready to let his questions go. “You want to tell me what this is about? I’m assuming you do know why you did what you did.”
The short answer was "No." The youngster did not want to go there. But "Yes," he did know why it had happened. It seemed, in the face of his dad’s blunt questions, he should try to explain.
The sprawling Blackfeet Reservation was a three-hour drive away. Dozens of tribal members lived and worked in Highland City. Tom Fedder saw them every day. More than that, he had lived with one of them, the boy's mother, Annie Lavant, for nearly five years. Still, Rick was not sure the old man understood how the town’s Native American population chafed under the abuse accorded them by some of the locals.
However, on that afternoon four years earlier, Tom Fedder had been seeking a different sort of information. “Where’d you learn to do that?” he asked. “What your mother described wasn’t some school kid taking wild swings, hoping to land a lucky punch. Was it some kind of Indian fighting? Something you learned from your uncle or someone?”
Rick was not sure how his confession would be received. But if there was a chance that his dad or the store could pay a price for his actions, he at least owed the old man an explanation.
“I’m not sure how Indians fight,” he laughed. “The ones I know aren’t real good at it. I guess what I’ve learned is some kind of oriental stuff.”
“Oriental? You mean karate, tae-kwon-do, that kind of stuff?”
“I suppose so.” Rick’s embarrassed smile was reflecting his discomfort....having to explain what he had worked so hard to conceal.
“Charlie has never put a name on it. He's just showed me different things to do and helped me practice them. And he’s told me over and over to be careful how I use all that.”
At that point Tom was struggling, trying to process the unlikely fact that this youngster, who shared his home, had apparently been schooled in some sort of martial arts. Certainly his parents had known nothing of that. It was clear that their little boy had moved beyond fun and games. How was a father supposed to react to that?
“Tell me about this Charlie. Who the hell is he?”
“It’s Charlie Lee. You’ve met him.”
“Charlie Lee? You mean Ben’s dad? The Chinese restaurant guy?”
“That’s the one.” Rick paused, remembering the afternoon that had changed his life.
“About a year or so ago, after school one day, Charlie saw me getting pushed around by a couple of guys, the way lots of Indian kids get hassled. Afterwards, he asked me if I’d like to learn how to stop that.”
“He knew how to do that?”
“He said he did.” Rick smiled at the thought of it. “He told me that the Chinese have always been picked on, just like Indians. Most of them are kind of small. They can’t expect to overpower anyone. But if they ever had to stand up to someone, it helped to know they could.”
Rick was grinning now. “He’s been working with me ever since. Every Saturday morning.”
“And I thought you were going over to Ben’s for Saturday morning cartoons.” Tom was shaking his head. “So what have you learned?”
His dad's timid question had Rick half-laughing. “Charlie’s big on practical things," he explained. "Like no fingers and no fists. Hands are kind of fragile, with lots of little bones that break. Knuckles get bruised and that hurts. So he taught me to use my elbows and knees, and my head. Those are all pretty durable and they work just fine.”
“You must have been a pretty good student.”
“I did okay. Charlie had said he could help me, and he did.”
“Have you ever used that stuff before?” It was hard to believe he had heard nothing about the boy’s self proclaimed prowess.
“Just one time. At school. The guy had been hassling Indian kids for years. It happened in woodworking class, in front of a bunch of guys.
He realized he should not be smiling at the thought of it. But, in truth, Rick remembered that morning as a watershed moment. It was the day he realized that Charlie had been right.
“So what happened?”
“He got hurt. They took him to the infirmary. He never came back to school. No one’s hassled me since then.”
Now, four years later, temporarily transplanted in Tom Fedder’s home town, Rick Levant was showing no apparent distress at the rough treatment he had received at the hands of Burt Dunn's local greeting committee. For the time being that was good enough for Tom.
There were, however, other questions to be asked. “We’ve been here just two days,” he said. “And you’re already stirring up girl problems. Was that really necessary?”
“Come on, Dad. I didn’t stir up anything. The girl wasn’t a problem. I saw her once, for about two minutes. She didn’t like the guy who was bothering her. So I asked him to leave.”
“And where did that happen?”
At once Rick sensed the unexpected arrival of a new tension. Did he really want to go where this was leading? Short of lying, how could he avoid it? “It was over on Bluff Avenue,” he answered.
Tom straightened up, pushing himself away from the table. “What the hell were you doing over there?”
For an instant the boy had second thoughts, afraid that Tom’s suspicions had already homed in on the truth. “I went out walking this morning. While you were downtown.”
“Why’d you walk over there? As I recall, it’s not a pretty part of town. At least it wasn’t forty years ago.”
“It’s still not.” The boy took a deep breath and prepared to jump in with both feet. “I found another Fedder name in the phone book. The only one besides Grandma’s. I was curious. So I walked over there. There was a map in the phone book. It wasn’t hard to find.”
In all the years they had been together Rick had rarely witnessed Tom’s unrestrained anger. Those few times had left a definite, intimidating impression. For a moment he feared he might be seeing it again.
“Damn it, Son. You should’ve asked first.” Tom’s voice had turned loud and emphatic. “You’re playing with fire and you don’t even know it. There are lots of feelings, lots of hurt. Things you don’t know about. I want you to stay away from there. Do you understand?”
Though Rick nodded his understanding, he was not through explaining. “It’s kind of a dumpy place, the other Fedder house. That’s where I met the girl I was telling you about. I think she lives there.”
“You what? You talked to someone at that house?" Tom was up and pacing, his hands curled into tight fists.
“Just long enough to chase the guy off.”
“My God, boy. What have you done? Did you tell her I was here?” Before Rick could answer Tom Fedder slammed his palm on the table top, turned, and stomped off through the front door.