At twelve years old Jimmy Montgomery was known as the Rubber Band Boy of Cole, Kansas.
He had the mind of a five-year-old and attended special classes with other mentally challenged children at an old brick school over in the much larger town of Roland. Six students met five days per week in the dank cinder block basement of an elementary school, while other kids attended class on the first floor. Under exposed rusty water pipes and beside battered electric boxes with hundreds of wires dangling around their heads the six tried to learn. They tolerated condensation dripping on them from the pipes. The teacher’s voice was drowned out by the whirl and banging of a nearby service elevator.
The year was 1983. The Roland, Kansas school district had not yet mainstreamed challenged children. Students had not been taught compassion and acceptance for kids facing mental or physical difficulties. So if Jimmy had been integrated into the main student body the other kids would have been merciless. As it was, the tough kids already taunted Jimmy and the other special needs students. Collectively, they called them, The Circus.
When Jimmy left class at the end of the day, walking head down past the custodian’s office where he saw a man in a blue jumpsuit chain smoke cigarettes, then up the long echoing staircases to the first floor, he took a deep breath of fear before yanking on the latch to the big metal doors. In an instant he was engulfed by an overcrowded hallway, overwhelmed by yelling, arguing, laughter, encased by a society of children that did not acknowledge his existence unless they wanted to belittle him, surrounded by a world foreign to him.
Ten steps down the hallway, four big kids spotted him. “Hey, Dip Wad, how was kindergarten?”
Another boy shoved the books out of his hands.
“Still reading about Sally and Spot the dog?” a third asked to laughter.
Jimmy, dark-haired and short, sputtered meager responses.
Then he ran for the exit doors.
To make matters worse, Jimmy rode an old yellow school bus home to violent, despicable parents who were a good twenty-five years older than other parents. His 300-pound father Al was a drunk. The locals called him Manatee Montgomery. His mother Elaine had been a looker in her time. But now she was a boney, disheveled version of herself, a heavy smoker and drinker with the prune-like gray face of someone who abused herself with cigarettes and alcohol every day. The two of them could be violent, prone to sadistic behavior at the drop of a hat. Jimmy spent nights pleading to someone, anyone, to save him from this life. “Please help me,” he said aloud.
Three weeks into the school year, Jimmy got his nickname.
The Montgomery’s bought their clothes at a thrift store. Elaine usually bought pants several sizes too big for Jimmy so he could grow into them. To keep them snug she made extra holes in a leather belt so the excess hung down six inches like a Labrador’s tongue on a hot day. Jimmy then double cuffed the pants and slipped three or four rubber bands inside each cuff to keep them tight to his ankles. But it didn’t help much. When he walked the coarse material of each baggy leg rubbed together alerting everyone that Jimmy was nearby.
He got his nickname, Rubber Band Boy, because of a game of tag. As he ran from one of the other members of The Circus the rubber bands began working their way up his legs. When nearby children in the schoolyard saw them the insults began.
Jimmy slumped sadly in a corner of the asphalt schoolyard gripping the rusty chain link fence. There he sobbed until a teacher led him inside. From where they were sitting they could see happy children playing.
The teacher, a cynical member of the athletics department who planned to retire in two months, explained his version of reality to Jimmy. “Your life will always be different than other children,” he told him. “Deal with it.”
“Will I ever be happy?” Jimmy asked meekly. “That’s all I want.”
“Depends. Like I said, kid, you’re different. Accept it and go with it.”
Jimmy sighed. “I know I different.”
Jimmy knew almost everything about his life was different. In fact, his hometown of Cole was very different, too. He was one of only a few children bused to this school. There were so few families left. A change for the worse seemed to coincide with Jimmy’s first day in school. That was seven years ago. A natural disaster changed the tiny town, the farm economy and the people.
Back in the waning light of June water had grown scarce for the farmers. Plowed fields parched, even weeds died quickly. Children ran about with chapped lips like the caked surface of a dry streambed. Their feet kicked up dust. Local vehicles were coated with it. More than one child finger-painted, ‘Wash Me’ on a windshield or a hood until a dozen cars around town all said the same thing.
Nearby canyon paths had become pebbles as the dirt wore away. The yellow hills were no better.
By late July, Cole municipal water sprinklers at a ball field had been shut off. Grass faded to yellow. It crunched underfoot. Authorities were worried. Pretty soon farmers were arguing about cloud seeding.
In the plow lines dirt turned to powder. A hard foot stomp raised a tiny cloud. Landowners imported water for as long as they could. Trucks rumbled into the fields and sprayed until their tanks emptied.
After many months it was no longer economical to continue the process. Farmers let the wheat crop and the corn crop die. They watched the stalks dry out and bend until the crop hunched over like old men. Helpless farmers felt like they were seeing family members wilt and pass away. They held the wheat and the corn in their hands until it crumbled to ashes with pressure and blew into the last surviving fields of this precious crop. These were the only fields they still watered.
“Dust to dust,” said a despondent farmer. “Like old bones. I can’t make it much longer.”
Then the weather changed suddenly, unexpectedly and unpredictably.
Over the flatlands of Cole, Kansas, the rains had come quietly with no warning. At first the lit sky and the heavy rain seemed incompatible. But then lightning flashed over the fields of dying wheat. It washed over straw-like corn. The valley sky turned as gray-black as spent charcoal. The air seemed thick, heavy and formidable. The change in weather was sudden and deadly.
Farmers and villagers had not expected this. Rain was welcome. But this was well beyond what they had hoped for.
They glanced up almost in unison from the various fields, barns and windows of the small, vulnerable homes. In the little village they stepped out of the shops and watched the rain sweep across the distant pastures.
Powerful rain swept toward them. Even from a thousand feet away shopkeepers and customers heard a loud thrashing as it struck trees and ripped through lower vegetation with tremendous force.
Corn stalks dropped to their knees and the wheat shuddered under the onslaught. A row of parked pickups rattled like machine gun fire in the truck beds.
Residents quickly ducked inside the stores.
At a farm that spanned from Cole to Roland the storm battered the fields. A woman in an over-washed dress – unevenly faded as if it had been left folded in the sun for years – frantically called to her son Gary to come inside.
The boy was lean and tall for sixteen. He was sturdy and active. He had a thick mop of dark hair and warm brown eyes. In the local high school the girls talked about his eyes and admired the long lashes,
The boy was familiar to Jimmy. He was the only young man in town who had ever waved to him. It was just once. It had happened the day before Jimmy’s twelfth birthday.
This rain was welcome. But its devastating power was not. Farmers watched from the windows of the shops, half thankful, half worried.
The mom beckoned her son again.
Gary, now comfortably wet and cooled off, turned slowly toward the house. He hesitated. He wanted to stay outside. These first tiny drops of rain felt refreshing. To him, it was almost joyous. Even as the rain became intense he did not move. His mom knew that children that age feel invincible, as if nothing in the world could ever harm them. But then the downpour hit him. It almost knocked him completely off his bare feet. He dropped to one knee in a pool of water. But he turned up his head, closed his eyes and opened his mouth to the rain. Mom screamed for her son to come in.
At that moment a long bolt of lightning flashed straight down and struck him. To his mom it seemed as if it hit him directly on his forehead.
The only boy who ever had been friendly to Jimmy took his last breath.
It was over in seconds. Yet the significance of Gary’s death was huge. His passing was only the beginning of the end. The town died with him. For some it was a slow, agonizing goodbye, like a parched desert, a ghost town, or the empty broken heart of a once vibrant love.
In the years that followed townspeople often wondered how the weather could have destroyed Cole, Kansas.
Before the drought and the overwhelming rain Cole had once been a thriving community of hard-working people. There had been sprawling prosperous farms, grain stores, a grocer and a hardware store, even a small toy store. At the four corners they had installed that first street light with a big ceremony including a high school band and cheerleaders. Soon Cole boasted a barber, a shoe and leather repair shop, a farrier, a small weekly newspaper and a Five and Dime. A man joked to heavy laughter that, “One day we might have a Starbucks!”
The train stopped just two miles down the road. But at its height, freight trains picked up product from the farmers every three days. A.J. Smith, owner of the largest farm in the area, even bought his first brand new John Deere tractor. The entire town turned out for the delivery, except for Jimmy’s family of course. They were as a threesome, not welcome.
That big, bright green and yellow tractor symbolized success. Though still a small town by any standard Cole had come of age.
Of course, residents all knew one another. Children attended school together from kindergarten to 12th. Grade.
Birthdays, marriages, holidays, even deaths were celebrated together. Although life was slow, every day was vibrant with common activities.
Almost instantly, the heavy rain, which quickly became a flood on the dry ground ended the prospects of the town.
Eighteen of twenty-four buildings were destroyed the day that Gary was killed.
The buildings collapsed in the flood and the mudslide that swept window high down Main Street. People could hear the two-by-fours snap like twigs. Debris and sludge overwhelmed several adults trying to escape to high ground. A completely intact roof rode thick swirling mud all the way to a distant ravine.
The hardware store collapsed first then washed down the road until it dropped over a hillside. The Five and Dime tore off its flimsy foundation like a big cardboard box. The walls broke into eight sections and struck several other buildings on the way down the street, taking parts of them with it.
The wreaked walls, framing and foundations of shops were half-buried in mud. Toys, clothes, shoes, farm equipment, dishes and appliances churned at the surface as they were swept away in the thick water. The river collapsed a hillside and poured down Main Street. Chunks rumbled toward two nearby homes. The impact was astounding and the homes barely survived.
Residents watched from windows as a Barbie doll – in mud up to its waist and its arms outstretched – swirled down Main Street into a ravine until it circled continuously and disappeared forever.
Two tricycles followed alongside a plastic peddle car, all remnants from a family garage.
Many weeks later the contents of the Five and Dime were still resurfacing from under the mud. One man uncovered a fully intact Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots game and got it working again.
None of these buildings were ever rebuilt.
Over the coming months the fortunes of Cole quickly changed.
The farmers were not able to recover. A.J. Smith had lost that new tractor. It glided like a boat down Main Street on a wave of muddy water. Two yellow rims broke loose and flew into the trees as if enormous Discus or huge discs from a weight set.
The tractor finally lodged between two trees until the trees fell. It dropped with them into the wild, overflowing Warner River, where it was carried away as if as light as hollow plastic.
Days after the flood residents immediately struggled to make ends meet. They had lost everything. Homeowners and the small business owners did not have flood insurance. Inside many of the remaining homes a filthy soup of muddy water, fertilizer, cow manure and sewage caused toxic mold. Carpet, drywall, couches and chairs began to blacken. Now most of these homes were uninhabitable. Residents fled the devastating odor. The county came in and noticed most of the remaining buildings.
Tents filled with entire families appeared in the fields. Headlights from trucks and cars provided light at night. Jimmy saw the trucks in a circle. He saw the people inside that circle with heads down, a small fire blazing in the middle to keep them warm. Remarkably, one of only eight homes to avoid the sludge and destruction was that of the Montgomery’s.
“Good riddance,” Al smirked watching the town collapse. “Ain’t no one ever given us nothing.”
“You ain’t never been nice to them,” Elaine spat. “But I agree. They got what they deserve.”
Within six months families loaded up cars and pickup trucks with all their possessions. They abandoned their homes or their empty plots of land where a home used to be because there were no buyers.
Not since the Great Depression had the older citizens of the town witnessed caravans of trucks carrying entire households up a long road to the highway.
From his bedroom window Jimmy saw the caravans in the distance. It was a necklace of lights rivaled by no other. To him it looked like fireflies drifting up a long road. The string extended a quarter mile. Pavement lit up as if daylight, and the families of Cole disappeared, never to return.
They left their beloved Cole behind, Jimmy understood. But he did not understand why. He was far too underequipped for that. Every few months another home was abandoned. Another family drove away. Some left in the dead of night to avoid the shame of failure.
And it got worse.
Gary’s decomposed body had been located a half mile away where the torrential rain and floods had carried him.
When the mud cleared the family buried him in a small community cemetery a mile up the road. The entire town came out, but for the Montgomerys. Almost every one in attendance had a family member or a friend buried at the cemetery. Another dozen people would soon be buried there, all as a result of the flood.
The following morning Jimmy glimpsed Gary’s high school photo on the front page of a freebie five-page newspaper Elaine had left on the kitchen table. It was one of the very last editions. Elaine and Jimmy had just finished mopping up the water that had leaked through holes in the roof. For most of the morning Jimmy had been on his hands and knees with towels and rags. He crawled along to dry out the final drops.
“You’re freaking Cinderella,” Al laughed, knocking him down as he waddled by like an enormous blob. “But you ain’t going to no Ball!”
Jimmy moved away from him and glanced at the paper again. He immediately recognized Gary. He could not read just yet. All he could do was look at the black and white pictures. He did not realize the photo meant that Gary had died. He did not understand obituaries. “Mom, can you read this to me?”
“I’m busy,” she shouted back at him, cigarette and a glass of scotch in her hands. “Just clean up the mess and keep quiet.”
Jimmy stared at the picture. He eyed Gary’s smile. Gary seemed as alive as he had that day on a street corner where he first saw him. Jimmy felt that same joy and connection with him again, as though Gary was smiling at him one more time.
He raised a hand and waved. “Hello… Friend,” he said.
Elaine breezed by and smacked him on the back of the head. “Finish your work!”
She grabbed the paper, crumpled it and dumped it in the trash, then dumped coffee grounds on top.
Jimmy stifled his emotions. He finished wiping up then lay face down on the bed in his room. He was sad. He wanted to play with Gary. Moments later Elaine and Al began to argue over a television show. Jimmy shut the door to his tiny bedroom. The room had darkened with midday light. A lamp was inoperable. The sheets smelled musty. He had one pair of pants and one shirt in the closet. Both were dirty. He had nothing to do.
He thought about that day in Cole when he saw Gary for that one and only time. The only connection he had ever made with any human being in his entire life.
Jimmy had been sitting that morning in the backseat of Elaine’s car. She had been forced to take him along on a drive to the dentist or Al would have surely killed him for crying about the most mundane thing. This was the first time he had ever been given a ride in a car, other than the day Elaine had forlornly brought him home from the hospital. He had been on a bus to get to school, but never a car, an never a different route than the one that led to school.
Jimmy stared out the window in awe of the fields, gullies, roads and bridges that he had never seen.
Al had risen early from bed that morning and had begun drinking straight from the bottle. Soon he could barely walk. He began complaining about everything.
An hour later he slapped Elaine so hard she slammed against the kitchen table and knocked it over. Jimmy began to bawl. Al whacked him too.
“I’ve had it with the two of you,” he screamed.
Knowing she could not afford to have the police prosecute them for neglect and possibly murder, she licked her bloody lip, scooped up Jimmy and ran him out the back door to the car. It wasn’t that Elaine didn’t smack Jimmy around herself. She did. But she told herself she knew when to stop.
The dental appointment was two towns over. “You will sit in the waiting room,” Elaine told him. That would be special, he realized. He wore a smile from ear to ear. Especially when Elaine – between puffs on a half-used cigarette – told him the receptionist would give him a lollypop.
While on the way, Elaine stopped impatiently at that one and only streetlight in Cole. Few people crossed the road. Few people ever did. From the car Jimmy saw people sitting in old cane chairs on the wood porches of the stores. He saw a boy in blue jean overalls he recognized from school. But upon eye contact the boy then ignored Jimmy’s effusive waves.
Gary was standing on a corner. He enjoyed a stick of licorice. He did not enter the crosswalk. He saw Jimmy staring at him in amazement as if he were some kind of alien, or a foreigner. He was an all sports star at the high school so he was used to the attention. But this was a bit different. Jimmy’s almond brown eyes were wide and his gaze direct. He did not try to hide his interest.
Jimmy would not have known at that age or any other age that he was ‘staring’. He did not know polite from impolite. He always had to learn these things on his own.
Then Gary waved. In utter shock, Jimmy froze.
Jimmy remembered it well. It was a very friendly casual wave, as if the boy didn’t notice that Jimmy was different.
He even remembered the boy’s hand. It was strong, yet soft and big, almost the size of a kitchen potholder. He had calluses as if he worked hard in the fields. It was the hand of an adult, not a sixteen year old. Gary worked daily on the farm to help pay the bills. His father was a kindly man who believed in putting the kids to work at an early age. He helped to put the calluses on that hand by assigning regular chores.
Gary waved just inches above his shoulder. When he saw the fear and confusion in Jimmy’s eyes he extended his arm to make certain Jimmy knew he was waving to him.
The wave was accompanied by a bright, sincere smile. But Jimmy could not be sure.
Jimmy did not know if this was a ruse to make fun of him, or if his mom would spot him in the rearview mirror and yell at him for bothering people. At that moment he entered a world of unfamiliar social interaction, a world where kind, friendly people – who were few and far between for Jimmy – actually existed.
Gary’s action was a friendly gesture and that’s all it meant. He lived with his family in a world where friendship and love were not ambiguous. Family members gave both with no hesitation. He had no ulterior motives.
In the past, children ran past Jimmy’s home, smiled then waited mischievously for him to come to the window. They would then pelt the glass with water balloons until he cowered in a corner on his floor. Hearing the noise Al would take off his belt and enter his room.
So Jimmy hid low in the backseat of the car, almost receding within himself while momentarily averting shy eyes.
Gary could only see the very top of Jimmy’s head, like seeing the top of a black bristle brush.
The car idled, producing the uneven sound of a lawn mower. This brief moment seemed much longer than in actuality. But that is how it is when waiting.
Over time, as Jimmy’s memory took over, this singular brief incident in his life became longer.
As the light turned green Jimmy lifted his head to see. He braced himself on the armrest. Was the boy gone?
Gary was still there and he smiled again. He waved again. Jimmy – with all the hesitancy and uncertainty expected of someone trying something new – waved back.
As the car slowly surged through the intersection the boy mouthed the words, “My name is Gary.”
“I Jimmy Montgomery,” he shouted.
“Shut up,” Elaine barked.
And the interaction was over.
The impact lasted for a long time. Jimmy never forgot that boy.
“He talked to me,” Jimmy mumbled under his breath.
“What? What the hell are you saying?” Elaine muttered, eyes of fire framed in the rearview mirror.
“He’s the first boy ever to talk to me.”
Elaine looked at him like he was crazy. “What are you talking about? There was nobody there.”
“Yes. Across the street. His name is Gary.”
Elaine shook her head. “You really are an imbecile.”
Days later Gary’s wave had so startled and excited him he could not control a smile. Jimmy flushed with warmth and excitement. For him, this was contact. This was a connection with someone in the town. This was a friend and in an odd way, he would influence Jimmy’s life one more time, long after he was gone, long after the lightning and the funeral and the burial, long after the mud that stained the town had washed away and most of the residents had fled and long after Jimmy’s parents beat the soul out of him.
Gary in death became as important to him as in life.
Four years passed. Snow had fallen for days. Jimmy turned sixteen without a party, without any acknowledgement. He was broad shouldered and thick now. He had strong arms and legs. But his face – his eyes – gave him a look of bewilderment.
Before sunrise, Elaine leaned in the doorway to Jimmy’s bedroom. She threw a shoe at his head. He leaped up.
“Get your coat and your boots on. I left my car a few miles up the road.”
“You parked far away,” Jimmy said.
Al began to laugh from his bedroom. Elaine tried to control herself. “No, you moron… My car broke down and I had to leave it. I have to retrieve a few things before the tow truck arrives to haul it to the mechanic.”
Jimmy sprang up from bed to put on his clothes. “Okee-dokey.”
He dressed in a hooded sweatshirt, a winter coat and boots. They ventured outside in the very faint light, careful to avoid patches of ice. The cold wind hit them so hard it yanked their hair straight back. They trudged onto the snow covered street. “Step lively,” she said.
Jimmy walked twice as fast as normal. He glanced up from the oval opening of his hood. The sky fluttered with snow. For three nights the snow had drifted slow and silent at first. All the world seemed to lay still while snow fell.
Snow gently drifted down to fall upon the rocks as if well placed white shawls. Snow thickened as the hours passed. Six hundred feet away, a neighbor walked a black horse into a barn. Then just like that the world was very still again.
Snow, so much snow, falling, forever, gently and lovingly on the land until Jimmy could no longer see beyond an extended hand.
Within days snow had pinned like white sheets to the house. Icicles in the form of thick spikes hung from telephone wires. When Jimmy shut the back door they fell as if daggers standing in the snow. He grabbed one to play sword fight with an imaginary adversary until Al shouted at him to “cut out the racket.”
Clothes Elaine had left out on the backyard line froze in place. Motionless half-men and women were clipped to a rope below a pot gray sky. If they had been laid on the snow they would have look like awkward crime scenes.
Bare trees took on the appearance of old bones.
And it kept snowing.
Last night Jimmy tossed and turned in his sleep, slipping in and out of wicked dreams he would remember clearly in the morning.
Snow fell heavy in his dreams and outside the house. Storms caused whiteouts. At first, surreal flakes drifted down, twirling the sky with it. But soon heavy flakes fell. Over time the flakes became heavier and heavier, larger than he had ever seen. The window of his room in Kansas iced over then cracked in the shape of a lightening bolt.
He heard his mother scream, blaming him for the window. Then Al appeared carrying a whip.
“No,” he shouted as Al approached him. Things were falling around him.
And now, Jimmy followed his mom up the long desolate road.
The storm grew wild.
Kansas had quickly grown so cold. Now Jimmy could feel the hard wind pouring down his coat. He listened to the howl as he trudged behind Elaine, the sound much like wolves whispering in the forest.
“You’re falling behind,” Elaine shouted at him. “Double time!”
The snowflakes coated his skin. At first it felt like cold pinpricks, frigid, not sharp, but precise. His hands froze. He did not have gloves. All around him trees had uprooted a long time ago in the yards of the homes. With ice and snow on them they were eerie.
Buildings that had collapsed all around the town were now odd mounds of snow. Bone-like trees in a forest at the edge of the field had turned white. He shivered as he walked.
Jimmy once thought he could preserve snow forever, even in summer. So he packed snow in a jar. Every summer he poured the leftover water in the rusted metal kitchen sink.
“We’re almost there,” Elaine said. “That stupid car… Piece of junk. But that’s what I get for marrying Al, the great provider.”
Jimmy walked for three miles alongside her, silently listening to every complaint about his father, her life and even himself..
As the snow fell a dull sun still hid behind the trees. Snow on a hillside reflected the colors of the gray sky.
Ahead of them the untouched road lay as smooth and white as shaving cream. To the right high drifts had formed in the fields where two years ago a circus lit up three summer nights. Snow built odd high bridges extending from a split rail fence to distant boulders. Drifts assumed the shape of small tents.
Far across the enormous fields the lights of a passing train now lit the falling snow. The flakes were like Angels drifting down, floating all around him, teasing his face and soothing him. ‘Help me,’ he wanted to say to them. But he knew better. Jimmy knew he must keep quiet or he would upset the beast in his parents.
And as the locomotive chugged to the distance, white steam bellowed above twenty cattle cars. There, hundreds of little puffs of hot breath from the nostrils of cows blew through the planked sides of the cars.
A cowcatcher pushed snow aside like a street plow. Eventually, the lights of the locomotive turned away, splitting another field in two. Then as Elaine and Jimmy bore left, the train gradually turned right. The lights glowed all the way to the skyline, beyond the distant trees leaving the dark lines of the tracks and Jimmy and Elaine behind until it was silent again. Only the steady crunch of snow underfoot made any noise at all.
Lights dimmed on the falling flakes until the train disappeared for good. Then it was black outside again. It was silent. It stopped snowing. The Angels had abandoned him.
“Keep walking!” Elaine barked suddenly. “That truck is supposed to tow my car early.”
“I walking fast,” Jimmy blurted.
“If my car is gone it’ll be your fault,” she said.
“I walk as fast as I can.”
Jimmy broke into a run. He sped ahead of Elaine.
He could not see the moon or the stars. He could not see the sun or very much past the end of the road. Dark sky walled them in – together. But distant clouds – one tiny spot – had lightened a bit, Morning was rising.
“I am trying,” Jimmy said fearfully.
He felt anchored to this place. But it was not in a good way.
The anchor felt heavy, tied to his legs, arms, his heart, and his hopes and dreams of a better future. Even then he had few aspirations. He had been taught to have none. He could not conceive of life beyond his bedroom walls. He hoped for more than the frozen steel tundra of this Kansas field.
He had spent his short life in search of normalcy. He wanted – needed – to blend in. This put him on a quest for acceptance. He searched for the will hidden inside him to avoid humiliation and abuse and break free.
Jimmy wore his disability like an uncomfortable coat of inferiority. He could never undress. He wore it all the time. Elaine once said to Al that evolution has spent thousands of years helping weaker animals to blend in for survival; the chameleon, leopard and even Stick Man. Nature’s cruel joke on Jimmy was to make him stand out. He could not blend in. He was ‘different’. “Poor schmuck,” she said.
And yet, he felt invisible to those who did not want to see him. It pained him that most people could not look him in the eye. That’s one of the reasons Gary’s wave – an acknowledgement of his existence – was so important to him.
As if their mission in life, Elaine and Al always reminded him, “You’re not like other people. You never will be. Too damn bad.”
In a sense Jimmy realized one thing: caring societies might deny it, but survival is far more difficult for those who don’t blend in.
Elaine prided herself on reading and paying attention to the world around her. In her view, governments may make provisions for those less fortunate. They may create assistance programs. Certainly these are all good things. But citizens do not wear blinders. Human nature can be shaped, but it cannot be controlled.
If in the end it is the survival of the fittest, nothing will overcome the odds. Jimmy had to stand up for himself. He had to fight negative emotions. Even Jimmy realized that the battle within himself was just as important, if not more, than the battle around him.
Jimmy learned to seek safety wherever he could.
Even as he walked beside a mother who only wanted him along as a packhorse to carry back the items from the car, he immersed himself in the task of seeking a safety cocoon. He searched for it at all times. He checked behind him, he checked to the side. Where would he hide from her if she suddenly lost her temper?
Jimmy was a skittish young man. Loud noises startled him. He sped up if a branch fell from a tree behind him, or a bird spooked from a thatch. Even the roar of a moving truck frightened and worried him. If he had possessed a tail on this walk it would have been between his legs.
Jimmy and Elaine reached the disabled vehicle. It was a mound of snow.
She wiped snow from the lock on the door. “Freaking thing is completely covered.”
She glanced at a watch. “We got five minutes before the truck gets here.”
As Jimmy watched her fish for her keys in a coat pocket he worried about his own safety.
For so many reasons he stayed outside her striking distance. Yet he wanted to ask her to be his ally in changing his life. He wished to discard the burden of loneliness. She was the lesser of two evils.
The key would not turn the lock. “It’s frozen,” Elaine spat tersely.
“I try it for you.”
Her ashen face grew taut and distorted as she shouted profanities at him. Jimmy retreated to the other side of the car. He crouched out of sight then tightened into a small fetal position. Even more importantly, he could not see her.
He heard her though. She jammed that key in the lock several times. She slammed the window with her gloved hands. She kicked the door several times.
“I okay,” Jimmy repeated under his breath. “I okay.”
Snow began to blow off the drifts like a desert sand storm. It swirled as the wind roared and beat the car as if a flicking towel. He scrunched up even tighter and pulled up the drawstring on the hoodie.
“Damn it all!” Elaine screamed. “Why does everything always happen to me? Why did I move to this town? Why did I marry Al?”
She glanced to the other side of the car. “I know you’re hiding, you coward,” she shouted. “It’s your fault this happened to me. You’ve ruined my life!”
She repeatedly jammed the key in the lock. Each time she tried to turn it and she failed.
Finally, the key snapped.
Elaine looked at the broken piece in the lock and screamed. She kicked the door then ran her gloved hands along the top of the car like knocking off crates, sending snow over the sides.
Jimmy broke into a run.
He lit out as fast he could toward the house, shoes sliding on the ice and snow. “Get back here,’’ she screamed at him as he flopped to his belly, then shot up and ran again. “I’m warning you!”
Against this background of anger it would have been easy for Jimmy to become permanently angry, too. It was already difficult for him not to be ashamed of himself. Yet he bore no malice toward anyone.
He occupied a no man’s land between the happy, well-adjusted children he saw occasionally playing in the fields outside his bedroom window, and the reality of his life. A life locked in the house with the anger his family felt toward everyone, especially themselves.
He belonged wholly to neither, yet was tied forever to both.
In the Spring of 1990 two days after Jimmy turned nineteen a lean silver-haired man knocked on the front door to his home. He was dressed in a suit and tie and black polished shoes, accompanied by a Roland County Sheriff’s Deputy in full uniform. The deputy’s sunglasses reflected the peeled door and a rusty Ram’s head doorknocker.
Elaine opened the door. She sized them up. “We being evicted or something? Cause we own this dump free and clear.”
“No, ma’am. We’re here to see Jimmy Montgomery,” the man in the suit said.
The deputy had already tipped his hat with a little touch at the brim. “Is Mr. Montgomery at home, ma’am?”
“Al is here. You can’t be calling that moron Jimmy a mister?”
The two men eyed one another. “Is Jimmy at home?”
“He’s always at home. He can’t go out. He wouldn’t know how to find his way back.” Elaine said. Then she glanced over her shoulder to the inside of the house and called out, “Jimmy, come to the front door.”
The house was small so they heard the springs of a bed, some shuffling and footsteps. A short, broad shouldered young man appeared. They could see his ‘limitations’ the deputy was to say later. “But he’s high functioning. Looks like he could hold a job.”
The chief had asked, “Why doesn’t he?”
“He’s a prisoner in his own home. From the front door I could see six windows were nailed shut.”
“He could walk out a door.”
“He’s too scared to do that. The moment I saw him I knew he couldn’t. The hold on him was psychological. Physical abuse, too. He walked as if he hurt real bad.”
The deputy breathed deeply. “Chief, he was as stiff as a board. I waited for the right moment to find out why.”
That moment had come pretty quickly. Jimmy stared at the man in the suit and the deputy in bewilderment. His eyes were red rimmed and his lips puffy as if he’d been smacked repeatedly. “Am I in trouble again?” he asked.
“Not at all, son,” the man in the suit said.
“How are you?” the deputy asked.
Jimmy glanced at Elaine who was standing off to the side. “I okay,” he said.
The man in the suit – oblivious to the deputies’ motives – spoke up. “I’m Pastor Gold of the Presbyterian church in Roland. “We have many families in our congregation. Several are from Cole.”
“That’s nice,” Jimmy said uncomfortably. He eyed Elaine again. She was now hidden behind the wall. Jimmy saw her staring at him, eyes like darts.
Jimmy asked the two men, “May I go back to my room now?”
The Pastor said, “Uh… Yes, I need to get to the point…Let me give you some good news,” he remarked joyfully. “I’m so thrilled I can barely contain myself.”
The deputy positioned himself so he could see a bit of Elaine. She immediately stepped further back and out of his line of sight.
“This is exciting news,” the Pastor said then.
He told Jimmy about a letter from a law firm. “It says that the family of Gary Carson has left $800,000 to you.”
“What does that mean?” Jimmy asked.
Elaine leaped toward the door. “I’m his mom. That means I’m his legal guardian.”
“He’s 19,” the deputy said quickly. “He’s emancipated.”
“He ain’t emanci-nothing, He’s an idiot. Al and me have legal control over him and his money until the day he dies.”
“The letter from the law firm makes it very clear that the bequeath is specifically intended for Jimmy’s benefit to be controlled and distributed through a third party if necessary,” the deputy said firmly. “Two alternate third parties are named. Not a dime can be touched by you or your husband.”
“They can do that?”
“It’s a legal will and trust.”
“What third parties?”
“Either one of two non-profit homes for handicapped and abused children.”
“He ain’t abused,” Elaine said quickly.
The deputy turned to Jimmy. “Who gave you that fat lip, son?”
“He fell,” Elaine said quickly.
The deputy looked at her for a long, lingering moment. He stared at her until she glanced away, lower lip trembling. He then turned to Jimmy. “You look like you are hurt bad.”
Jimmy started to speak, then stopped. He averted his eyes.
“You look stiff.”
Jimmy began to tear up.
“He ain’t nothing,” Elaine shouted and tried to slam the door on the deputy’s face. But he stopped it with his hand. “Son, please lift up your shirt,” he said.
Jimmy glanced at Elaine. He began to cry. Suddenly they heard bedsprings groan in a back room. The deputy spied a 300-pound man waddling toward them.
“Lift up your shirt,” the deputy commanded.
“You cannot do that,” Elaine said, grabbing hold of Jimmy’s shirttails. “Al, I need you.”
“If I believe a crime has been committed I can,” the deputy said harshly. “Lift up your shirt Jimmy.”
Al walked up at that moment. “I say you can’t.”
The deputy rested his hand on his belt, near a Glock. “Jimmy step outside.”
Al grabbed Jimmy firmly by the shoulder, but the deputy pulled Jimmy out by the arm. “Step back,” he barked at Al.
“Lift up your shirt,” the deputy told Jimmy as gently as he could muster. “It’s okay. Just do it for me.”
Gingerly, as if in great pain, Jimmy very slowly raised his shirt to his shoulders. He could not hold up his arms for long.
The Pastor saw his back. He blurted, “Oh dear God.”
The deputy said, “Come with me, Jimmy.”
He put him in the backseat of the patrol car.
He returned to the door. “Pending an investigation we will talk again.”
“Keep your talk officer. I got nothing to say,” Al barked. He slammed the door almost knocking over Elaine as it swung closed.
They walked toward the patrol car. The deputy called the Chief, an ambulance service and county child protective services.
When he was done the Pastor asked the deputy. “How’d you know?”
“Didn’t take a genius. And remember, the Carson family said their son suspected the boy he saw in the car was either being neglected or abused.”
The Pastor said, “That young man was pretty intuitive.”
Before they opened the vehicle doors the Pastor asked, “Why didn’t you arrest them?”
“We need to prove abuse first. CPS will do that. Do you mind telling me where Gary’s family got $800,000 to give away?”
“The family moved to Roland and struck it rich in development. Plus, the insurance money.”
“Did they meet Jimmy at any point?”
“Not according to the letter from the family lawyer. It seems no one in the family actually knew him. But their son spoke of him often. Jimmy had made a lasting impression on him,” the Pastor said. “Apparently he spent time trying to locate Jimmy. But he was never able to find him. They felt Gary would have wanted this. So the family lawyer finally tracked Jimmy down.”
In the quiet of a winter night in Roland, Kansas as snowfall turned the dark into a cascade of silver flakes as if thousands of slivers of the moon were now floating over his new home, Jimmy sat by the window and dreamed. For the past year he had a room to himself, good food, a part-time job and loving caretakers. He attended a new school, designed for young men and women in need.
From the window he watched the snow light upon the fields and drift past a nearby greenhouse of sunflowers and daffodils. Such bright colors in all this silver. He watched the wind swirl the snow under the hanging cones of light lining the street, across the wheat fields, to the picket fences and the homes full of life. The snow floated down on shops and churches and narrow winding roads all the way to a cemetery in Roland where it lay on the tombstones and the graves that marked two hundred years of living and dying. There lay Gary Carson, son of June and William Carson. Only sixteen years on this earth the stone shadowing his snow covered grave said, but his legacy will last a lifetime.
Jimmy visited Gary’s grave once a month to thank him for his kindness. An orderly waited patiently by the car. The visits calmed Jimmy, as did thoughts of Gary every night. Now and then, he left behind a little something he had made. A hand-carved whistle, a plastic toy soldier, even a card with his picture.
When he returned to the car Jimmy told the orderly that he and Gary had talked for a while. The orderly closed the door behind Jimmy and smiled.
There were two other members of The Circus with Jimmy at the same homecare center. Jimmy had set aside some of his money so they could be safe, too. They loved to hear about Gary.
Now in this moment of quiet Jimmy reflected on his life. Everyone at the home was asleep except for staff. Jimmy quietly remembered the children chanting “Rubber band Boy.”
He also retrieved many nice thoughts and dreams. All the world was again under the snow this night, all the hills and valleys, all the towns and cities of Kansas, the wheat fields and the fences and the barns of horses and cows, the cars and the low rooftops of sparsely lit homes spaced miles apart, and of course the cemetery where the snow lay thickest of all. Even Jimmy understood that one day he would be buried in the cemetery, too. And in winter he would lie under the snow like all things living and dead. Life in its cycles might even bring another Jimmy, but it would certainly bring many snowfalls, many months of bleak gray, making everything equal, everything one. For now, he felt joy as he remembered Gary’s solitary and singular wave that had given him hope. “Friend,” he said. “Friend.”
Work by John C. Weil can be found in both online and print literary magazines. This include over 3,500 articles and commentaries, short stories and many poems of social commentary, including The Sign, We Came From Ellis Island and Cat and Child. His essay, Unorthodox Environmentalism appeared in Canary. He has published in Time Magazine, Reader’s Digest, San Diego People and San Diego Magazine among others.
© 2018, John C. Weil