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Authors: Bentley Little

Dispatch

BOOK: Dispatch
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Dispatch
by Bentley Little

Copyright Š 2005

For Paul Houghtaling, teacher and handyman extraordinaire, who has kept the Little houses working for lo these many years.
 

*1*

There was a witch in my hometown.

Well, it wasn't really a "town." It was a midsized city in overdeveloped Orange County. And I don't suppose she was really a witch, although she served that function for me and my friends.

I had her removed from the streets when I was in high school.

Things might've turned out differently if I hadn't done that.
 

When I was in fifth grade, I was in love with Miss Nakamoto.

She was the youngest, prettiest teacher at Alexander Hamilton Elementary. She was also the nicest, one of those teachers you usually see only in inspirational movies or bad television shows. I remember her giving everyone in class a goldfish in a little bowl, taking us to the beach to look at the tide pools, letting us make movies with her video camera, doing all sorts of off-curriculum things that I'm sure were not approved by the school's administration.

But most importantly, she liked me.

She was the only teacher who had. My first-grade teacher, Mrs. Sobule, hated my guts. Of course, that year I was a bratty, disruptive know-it-all, so I could see her point. But she seemed to enjoy punishing me far too much. In second grade, Miss Corea hated all boys. Mr. Osterwald, in third, was just an all-around asshole, and with my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Boorham, it was guilt by association; she disliked me because I was friends with Steve Simmons, who'd been caught the first day of class doing a wicked imitation of her.

Which was why Miss Nakamoto was so wonderful. Unfailingly polite, unendingly patient, willing to overlook minor faults and transgressions while focusing on and nurturing a student's strong points, she was encouraging and inspiring to all of the kids in her class, the good, the bad and the indifferent. To top it off, she was as beautiful as any actress in movies or on TV. And she was giving me straight A's.

So of course I was in love with her.

I still remember the day (how could I not!) when she started the Pen Pal Program. A lot of students laughed, called it the "Pee-pee Program"—anything using the letters
PP
is a prime target at that age—and I laughed, too, pretended like I didn't care, pretended like it was a girls' thing to do. But secretly I was excited. As Miss Nakamoto described it to us, I doodled on a piece of scratch paper, drew a noose and a knife and a hot-rod car, feigning utter disinterest, all the while listening intently to every word she said. Even now, I'm not quite sure what about the concept of a pen pal appealed to me so, why the idea spoke to me, but it did, and as I sat there behind Tony Jacobson and his dumb buzz-cut head, I knew I wanted to do it.

That was strange. I was not a particularly good writer, had no real interest in corresponding with anyone—my mom had to
force
me just to write to my grandma in Ohio a couple of times each year—but I suddenly wanted to be involved in this program more than anything.

I wanted to write to a girl in Japan, a girl who looked like Miss Nakamoto.

It was weird, really, because I didn't much like girls my own age, didn't have a whole lot of interest in them, although I liked it when Tammy Ferris spun around on the parallel bars at recess and her dress flipped up and we could see her underwear. But I guess I thought my teacher would like it if I wrote to a girl from Japan.
She
was the one I really wanted to write to, and I imagined her being proud of me for writing to a foreign student and maybe taking an extra interest because the girl was Japanese.

That was the impetus, but that was not all of it. Yes, I wanted to impress Miss Nakamoto. But I also wanted the packet that participants would get, wanted the little card with the name and address of my foreign counterpart, wanted the official instruction booklet, wanted the certificate of participation. I wanted everything. I
needed
to be a part of this program, and I suppose that's when my proclivity or talent or whatever it is first raised its head. The idea of having a pen pal opened a door within me, awakened a desire I didn't realize I possessed, and even as I doodled on my paper I knew that I would brave the ridicule of my friends and classmates if need be, but I
had
to do this.

It was as if Miss Nakamoto understood my predicament, because she didn't post a sign-up sheet on the bulletin board the way she usually did. Instead, she told us that anyone who was interested could come to her desk before school, after school, during recess or during lunch. After school would be a good time, I thought. I was busy with my friends during lunch and recess, but most of my friends didn't live in my neighborhood and walked home from school in the opposite direction. I could stay after and no one would know. I even had a backup story, just in case someone caught me. I was going to say that I was doing it for the extra credit.

Miss Nakamoto wrapped up her spiel, and after that it was a normal Monday. We did math and science, social studies and art, and went out for PE and lunch and recess, but in the back of my mind was the thought that I would soon have a pen pal, and my underlying emotion was one of irrational exuberance. Everything seemed to take much longer than it usually did, time passed too slowly, but finally the school day was over, and I lingered at my desk, gathering up my books and pencils and work sheets. Several girls had already signed up for pen pals during lunch and recess, and Missy Lowry and Charlotte Green hung around after class to sign up, as well. Missy noticed immediately that I was dawdling. "What are
you
waiting for?" she asked disdainfully. "Why don't you go home?"

"Missy," Miss Nakamoto cautioned.

"Jason wants a pen pal!" Missy sang, cutting straight to the chase.

Charlotte took up the chant. "Jason wants a pen pal!"

"I do not!" I said, grabbing my things and storming out the door. I could hear Miss Nakamoto giving the two girls a lecture behind me in her soft patient voice. I was suffused with shame, and the thought that those two blabbermouths would spread the word around—even though they had no proof and no corroboration—filled me with dread. But what was even more unbearable was the fact that I would have to wait another day to sign up for a pen pal. My exultation had turned to dejection. On impulse, I ducked around the corner of the building by the boys' bathroom and paused. I could come back early tomorrow and talk to Miss Nakamoto before school...

...or I could wait until Missy and Charlotte left and
then
sign up for a pen pal.

The excitement returned, and a few moments later I heard the two girls chattering away as they left the classroom and headed down the corridor in the opposite direction of the bathrooms. I waited until I could no longer hear their voices, then gave them an extra minute or so until I was sure they had rounded the corner by the principal's office. I stepped back into the corridor, then hurried over to Miss Nakamoto's room before she left.

She was still seated behind her desk, going through papers, and she looked up as I entered. She smiled at me. "Jason," she said. "Did you forget something?"

I hesitated, cleared my throat. "I'd, uh, like to sign up for a pen pal," I told her.

"Great!" She didn't say so, but I had the feeling that I was the first boy in class to enroll in the program, and that made me feel self-conscious. Miss Nakamoto immediately put me at ease, however. She told me how happy she was that I was going to participate and how she knew I would have fun as well as learn a lot about another culture in a way that I couldn't just by reading books. "A lot of people," she said, "become pen pals for life."

She presented me with a blue folder (girls got pink ones), and in it were my certificate, an instruction booklet, a sample letter, a new ballpoint pen, pre-stamped envelopes and several sheets of stationery. It seemed very official and very adult, and I felt as though I were joining an exclusive club.

Miss Nakamoto opened up a binder. In it were staggered sleeves on which were written the names of various nations. "You can write to students in over twenty countries," she began, but before she could say more, I pointed to the sleeve marked JAPAN.

"That one," I said. I was afraid to look up at her, afraid she would see right through me and immediately ascertain my motives.

She withdrew a foldout containing small cards with the names and addresses of potential pen pals on them. The left side said
Girls
and the right said
Boys
. "You can choose any one you like," she told me.

"That one," I said, pointing to a name on the left, my voice much smaller than I'd intended.

Kyoko Yoshizumi
, the card said.

"Wouldn't you rather write to a boy?" she asked.

"No," I managed to get out, though if she had pressed further, I probably would have caved. I reddened as I took the card with the Japanese girl's name and address, and my embarrassment only deepened as Miss Nakamoto smiled at me. But I was excited at the same time, and I forced myself to meet her eyes. I saw only kindness there, only understanding.

Did she know what I was thinking? Maybe she did.

Maybe she liked it.

I felt good as I walked home. The neighborhood around the school was clear, all of the other kids having hurried home save for a few stragglers outside the office who were waiting for their parents to pick them up. I liked it that way. I had the sidewalk to myself, and I could stroll at my own pace, stop to look at whatever I wanted, and not have to worry about older kids or bullies. I kicked a crumpled Coke can across a side street into the gutter, picked up a Super Ball lying at the edge of someone's ivy and pocketed it.

I saw the witch on Washington, hobbling past an apartment building, her knobby cane tapping out a Morse code message on the sidewalk, and I crossed the street to avoid her. The witch was a fixture in Acacia, always walking down one street or another.

No one seemed to know who she was or where she lived or where she was going when she walked, but she was old and creepy and though she never said a word, she had an evil stare. My friends and I were afraid of her—it was Robert who'd first started calling her "the witch"—and I'd seen more than one adult step out of her way as though fearful of contact. Rumor had it that she was responsible for the mysterious death of the hundred-year-old pepper tree in front of Acacia High School as well as the disappearance of all the ducks from the pond in Murdoch Park, and though none of our parents believed it, we all did. I think a lot of other people did, too.

I walked past the witch on the opposite side of the street, looking down at the sidewalk in front of me instead of over at her. After that, I turned onto Lo-mita and sprinted the rest of the way home, running on lawns, leaping over small bushes, barely able to contain my excitement. As soon as I got home, I would take out my new pen and a sheet of my special pen pal stationery, and write a letter to Kyoko Yoshizumi.

That plan died the second I sped past the Shapiros' oleanders and saw the car parked in our driveway.

My dad was home early.

I stopped running, and almost backtracked behind the oleanders, but for all I knew my parents were in the front room and I'd been spotted through the window. I continued on but at a much slower pace, suddenly in no hurry to get home.

My dad looked like Chuck McCann. You know, the guy in those old deodorant commercials who shared a medicine chest with a neighbor on the other side of an apartment wall and always danced away saying, "One shot keeps me good for the whole day!"

My dad wasn't a friendly, dancing kind of guy, though. He was a mean old bastard, a middle-management guy at Automated Interface who hated his job and took it out on his family, and I always had the feeling that he would have been much happier if I had never been born.

My mom was a purebred bitch. One of those pinched, uptight women who usually spent a lot of time in church. Only my mom never went to church.

I never understood why my parents had gotten married. They certainly didn't love each other. Hell, I don't think they even liked each other. In all the years I lived at home, I don't remember ever seeing them kiss or hug or display even a modicum of affection. Their conversations were little more than recriminations for slights or wrongs done to one by the other.

Most likely he'd knocked her up and that's why they tied the knot.

My brother, Tom, three years older than me, was barely part of my universe. I saw him at breakfast and dinner, and that was about it. If our paths crossed outside of the house, on the street, we ignored each other, pretended we didn't know who the other was—which was fine with both of us.

Although Tom was no great shakes academically, he was a good athlete, a football and basketball star, and to my parents he could do no wrong. I was the fuckup, the loser, the dink. With no real talents or abilities, and no interest in anything other than watching TV and hanging out with my friends, I engendered only disapproval and occasional interest from my parents. Mostly, I tried to stay out of their way.

BOOK: Dispatch
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