Popkin

Author’s Note: After I realized in my early school grades that my fighting skills were woefully out of step with my temper, I learned to control myself. I got in only one real fight after that, in high school. My muddle-minded experience of the aftermath served as the seed of this story.

            Sam’s grandmother had been dying for a long time. The doctors had long since given up hope of saving her, and had lately revised their prognosis, saying only that “it was just a matter of time.” The effect on Sam was palpable. He had always been outgoing, active, and successful without even seeming to try. For weeks, though, Sam had slowly sunk into a pit of apathy and despair. His grades plummeted. He ceased to attend the meetings of the various clubs that had previously seemed to revolve around his magnetic personality and charismatic leadership. He withdrew from every aspect of his life.

            So when he’d accidentally bumped into Sherman James in the hallway between seventh and eighth period, he’d hardly noticed. He mumbled a detached “sorry” and continued on his way, head down, eyes on the floor, mind contemplating the maddening irony of time — so arbitrary, yet so absolute.

            Sherman, though, was not to be denied any opportunity to live up to the timeworn tradition of the high-school bully. He grabbed Sam by the collar of his shirt, yanked him back, spun him around and got nose-to-nose with him — or as close as their five-inch height difference would allow.

            “You ran into me, punk!” he said, punctuating his insult with a spray of spittle.

            Sam reached slowly up and wiped his face, his eyes and mind still far away, seemingly unaware of the angry giant before him or the rapidly congealing ring of schoolmates that was forming around them.

            The crowd buzzed anxiously, straining to get the best look at what would surely end up being an ugly, perhaps even a bloody, encounter, while at the same time carefully avoiding any intrusion on the two boys’ rumble-space.

            Then a voice, apparently belonging to someone familiar with Sam, yelled.

            “Hey, Sherman — leave him alone, man. He didn’t mean it”

            Then another.

            “Yeah, leave him alone. His grandmother’s sick, man.”

            “Shut up!” barked Sherman, infuriated by the unusual lack of support from the crowd.

            “Hey!” he yelled in Sam’s face again. “I said you ran into me!”

            Sam just stared into Sherman’s chest blankly, utterly indifferent to the melodrama into which he had been so rudely thrust.

            “I’m talkin’ to you!” Sherman yelled, shoving Sam hard as he said it, slamming his body and snapping his head violently against the lockers behind him.

            In that instant, with this belligerent and idiotic target before him, Sam’s apathy, pain, and sadness sparked into an absolute rage. He rebounded off the lockers as if they were a trampoline and was, in a blinding flash, upon the unwitting Sherman, flailing, screaming, crying his anguish and futility, pouring out his hatred of an unfair world and crushing the bully beneath the weight of his burden.

            It was only a few minutes before teachers and administrators broke up the fight and subdued Sam, but for the first time ever, it was Sherman, instead of his opponent, who was left bloodied and bruised on the hallway floor.

 

           The confrontation, the fight, and the rest of the afternoon spent in the assistant principal’s waiting room swirled and ran and melted together for Sam. Images came and went in disjointed fashion . . . the Assistant Principal giving him a pen and paper and telling him to write out what had happened . . . the ring of the school bell . . . a friend sticking his head in the waiting room and saying — something . . . the A.P., angry, showing Sam his school discipline record, blank until this day . . . his mother, crying, asking him why, what was he thinking . . . and then the car, where he and his mother sat, the rickety air conditioner blowing tepid air on their sweaty faces, while she sobbed uncontrollably for several minutes.

            “What are you doing!” she finally screeched at him. “What were you thinking! I can’t take this, none of us can! With all that’s going on, why would you do this to us!”

            And then the tears again, drowning her stinging words.

            When his mother finally composed herself enough to drive, she looked at Sam. He sat rigidly, stoically staring out the front windshield at nothing, burying the painful feelings that were shattering him inside. Then, suddenly, her face was hard, her tears evaporated by Sam’s apparent indifference to the pain he was causing her and his father and grandmother, by the heat of a rising anger that wanted to reach out and hurt him back, make him regret his selfishness.

            “Look!” she said angrily, pointing at the digital clock set into the sun-split dash, “We were supposed to be at the hospital an hour ago. By the time we get there, visiting hours will be over.”

            “Thanks Sam,” she said venomously, slamming the car into gear and tearing recklessly out of the parking lot. “Thanks a lot!”

            By the time they got to the hospital, visiting hours were indeed over, not that it mattered. Sam’s grandmother had died less than half an hour before, and the waiting room of the I.C.U. ward was clogged with those friends and relatives that had been there when she’d passed.

            Again, as had happened too many times in recent weeks, Sam was shaken to the core. The news of his grandmother’s death, expected as it had lately become, jolted him harshly.

            Then Aunt Tracy was there, hugging him in her meaty arms, comforting him as best she could with loving words and embraces.

            “Oh, Sammy,” Aunt Tracy said, “Mama loved you so. She asked for you at the end. ‘Popkin?’ she said, ‘Where’s my Popkin?’ And when we told her you were coming she just said, ‘You tell my Popkin that . . .’ and then she was gone.”

            Here Aunt Tracy burst into tears as she held Sam in her flabby embrace.

            “She loved you so much, Sammy,” she continued. “She died with you in her mind and in her heart.”

            There was no malice or ill-will in Aunt Tracy’s words, none of the desire to wound with which his mother had spoken in the car, but nothing anyone could have said or done could have cut Sam deeper than her ostensible words of comfort.

            Grandma had wanted him, wanted to tell him something, to hold his hand, perhaps, and say . . . something.

            (. . . tell my Popkin that . . .)

            Something, maybe, that would make this hurt less somehow, something he would have heard if only he had been there like he was supposed to have been. Grandma had wanted him.

            (. . . tell my Popkin . . .)

            And he had been tied up in that fiasco at school, caught up in something so stupid.

            (. . . my Popkin . . .)

            And now he would never know what it was that she had wanted to say. It was too much, too cruel.

            For the second time that day, Sam’s world swirled away into disjointed and meaningless snippets as his mind reeled with shock and disbelief. Later he found, perhaps mercifully, that he could recall no more of the remainder of his night at the hospital than he could of the fight and its aftermath at school. Those hours in his life were, and would always be, nothing more than a conglomeration of muddled impressions — hours that, for all their profound significance, essentially never existed for Sam.

            After his grandmother’s funeral, Sam fell into a depression that paralyzed him for weeks. His parents had wanted him to write and deliver her eulogy, thinking that the act might bring closure to their wounded son, but Sam could find no words for either the love or the pain that was so irrevocably connected to his grandmother and her death. So he attended the funeral as a mourner, paid his respects in the most mechanical and cursory way possible and left as quickly as he could, returning to his home and his room, away from the bitterness of the world outside.

               It was in his room that his friends found him, draped across the recliner in the corner, an open book face down on his chest as he stared vacantly at the wall. They were inordinately upbeat, smiling without reason, optimistic without effect. They talked to, or at, Sam for several minutes. Then, in a flash of false spontaneity, proposed an outing to the local mall, where they could catch a movie or shop or talk or whatever else Sam wanted to do. Finally, they half-dragged him out of his room and his house and into the sunshine of a glorious Saturday afternoon.

            Sam allowed himself to be pushed into a crowded car in front of his house, then out of it again in front of the mall, simply because it was easier to do so than to try to resist. It was all the same to Sam whether he was at home in bed or shuffling around the mall. The world was just as dark and unforgiving either way.

            Over the next four hour, his friends dragged him everywhere they could. They showed him the new video games in the arcade, forced a double fudge brownie down his throat, loaded him onto the merry-go-round three separate times, and snuck him into a bad action movie. It was after the movie, as they headed for the Toy Warehouse, that the pay phone in front of the adjacent restrooms began to ring.

            Sam’s friends jumped at the opportunity. Sam was legendary for the pranks he was wont to play on callers of pay phones. He had, the year before, scored a date and an on-again-off-again relationship with one of the hottest girls in school by answering her wrong number call to a local pay phone. Then, just a few months before his grandmother had gotten really sick, he had convinced a misdialing radio contest junky that he’d won an all-expense-paid trip for two to Mexico by impersonating, to the astonishment of onlooking friends, a disc jockey, his producer, and a radio station legal adviser, all during the course of the same call. The case was still in litigation as yet another potential victim rang through on yet another pay phone.

            Sam was propelled past the Toy Warehouse and over to the ringing phone, where he was left to work his magic to the cheers and encouragement of his friends nearby. Several rings later, Sam gave in to the pressure of his friends’ well-intentioned urging. Letting his head fall forward and rest against the body of the phone, he picked up the receiver.

            “Hello,” he croaked in a lusterless, lifeless voice.

            “Hello,” said a soft, quavering voice unsurely, “Popkin?”

            Sam’s head snapped up off the body of the phone as his body went rigid. Electricity danced through his veins as the world around him fell silent. His heart pounded, threatening to burst from his chest.

            Then the voice that couldn’t be began again.

            “Popkin, is that you?”

            The voice was hers, without a doubt. It wasn’t possible, but the voice was right, a voice that rang through his dreams and sweetened his fondest memories, a voice he could never mistake, calling him by the pet-name that only that voice could render tolerably.

            “Grandma?” Sam asked, his voice breaking as tears slipped down his face.

            “Yes, Popkin,” she said, “it’s me. I just wanted to tell you . . .”

            Sam’s heart leapt into his throat. For a moment he felt as if he would pass out. He had so much to say, but was silenced by his overpowering emotions. But she had something to say too.

            ( . . .tell my Popkin that . . .)

            “ . . . I wanted say, before I had to go, that I love you, Popkin. And that it’s all right. Everything’s going to be okay, including you . . . and me.

            “But most of all,” she continued softly, her voice rich with grandmotherly tenderness, “I wanted just to say goodbye.”

            The tears came in a torrent then, and Sam slumped forward against the phone again and slipped down the wall, sobbing uncontrollably, venting his pain and loneliness. The words, so few, yet so powerful, had touched his soul, wiped his conscience clean and given him leave to grieve, and to begin to heal, at last.

            His shocked friends reached him seconds later, offering words of comfort and concern that were no longer needed. One of them snatched the receiver from his ear with the idea of firing back some insult or threat to whoever had caused their friend’s apparent pain.

            But only the dial tone remained.

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