An Act of Sympathy, Pt. 1

This piece began from a free write and transitioned into the final paper for an advanced fiction course. I started it in 2010 and revised to complete it during my first semester of my junior year at Western Michigan University (2012). This short story follows the life of a boy who experiences the effects of bullying during his high school career. This is a short story.


An unparalleled heaviness hangs about me. For another person it might have been due to the fact that I’m standing in front of an audience consisting of the entire town; for someone else it could be the blackening clouds above the open football stadium. However, for me it has to do with the pistol stowed in my jacket pocket. I can feel its weight pressing on me, daring me to do the things so recently done in my dreams.

The podium’s dark wood feels threatening beneath my sweating palms. No, it can’t be the wood. It’s the mood in the air, it’s the crowd, it’s Sympathy. Not a single friendly face looks up at me as my index finger drags over a deep cut in the podium, back and forth. I take a breath.

“He doesn’t belong up there.”

I know the voice but my eyes still travel to meet those of the loud whisperer. Brett Clawson sits a few rows into the audience. His friends snigger as he glares at me. Years of hatred shoot through me and my right hand instinctively flinches.

“As the valedictorian of Sympathy High’s 2010 graduating class, I would like to personally thank you all for coming to this year’s graduation.” I hear myself say, and begin to blush. Brilliant, Kev, you’re not hosting a dinner party. You have a job to do.

Mr. Richards, the school’s principal, clears his throat, “Mr. Buckley, if you could finish before the rain begins.”

“It looks like he’s about to cry!”

My hands jerk into my pockets following Brett’s second statement. I blush deeper, but the crowd seems not to have noticed my awkward motion. In and out, I instruct myself to breathe, in and out. The weight seems to be lifting as I stroke the piece with my thumb. Not yet, have some patience. You’ve gone this long, just need to wait it out until you’ve had your say. I take one more deep breath, straighten my shoulders, and rest my left hand on the podium. My right I leave in my pocket, continuing to lessen the pressure surrounding me. I look down at the wood once more. No note cards hide its imperfections; I’ve been creating this speech for over ten years, I know it by heart. I raise my head and nod to myself. Here we go.

As I begin my rehearsed speech I wonder if sympathy will ever truly be recognized in this town…

***

            It’s one of those towns whose citizens dream of packing up and leaving, but never actually have the ambition to do so. The same families have lived on the same streets for generations and the sight of new residents is a rare occurrence. The only highway that brings visitors runs across the northern border and greets passers-by with waving stalks of corn most of the year. Those in cars who pass by at flying speeds never take a second glance at the exit sign reading Sympathy, Iowa.

My parents and I moved to Sympathy the summer before my seventh grade year. The economy’s drop had led to the closing of my father’s automobile repair shop in Chicago and in turn had led to my parents’ inability to pay for our city living. I had grown up in the city, but in different places: a studio apartment, a suburban tri-level, and finally the loft above Hal’s Auto Repair. Moving was not something new to me. I was unprepared, however, when my wispy mother suggested leaving the city for a new experience.

Record heats were held that summer as I found myself panting in the backseat of our Buick Sport Wagon. The car was a peeling hunk of rusted metal with no air conditioning, but whine as I did, my dad swore the car was a classic.

“She’s got character, that’s all. Those fancy cars nowadays just don’t have the sort of prestige this gal has.”

“I don’t think its prestige she’s got, Dad. And we sure won’t look very cool rolling into this town looking like we’re about to die.” I pressed my head against the window hoping to find it cool but with no luck, “Where are we heading again?”

“Sympathy, Iowa,” said my father.

“Where the sky never ends,” sang my mother, and they both laughed.

It was a joke between my parents. When cleaning out Dad’s shop, my mother had found a postcard underneath a crate. It had a large smiling family waving in front of a red barn. “Sympathy, Iowa” was written from clouds in the sky above them, and the phrase “Where the sky never ends” nestled at their feet. The card was not addressed to anyone and had no message, but Mom had taken it as a sign from Fate that this is where our family was meant to move.

My parents had met towards the end of the Gulf War. Having no care other than expanding his ink sleeves, Dad made his earnings being a vehicle technician outside of West Pointe. My mom, following her aspiration of joining the Peace Corps, assisted in protests for world peace on the lawn in front of my father’s shop. Local businesses were told to pay no attention to the antics of the kids outside, and Dad’s employer agreed, “It would be bad for business if one on my guys to be seen speaking to one of them protesters. We work for the government, that means we support this war. No war, no more army trucks to work on and no more money coming our way.”

Yet Dad had no choice when the pretty girl walked into the garage that fateful day. Noticing the pair of boots protruding from under a car, Mom cleared her throat and asked where she could get a glass of water. Pushing the creeper out from under the car, my father says he was blinded by the sun for a moment. Waves of blonde hair and an angelic face was all he could see. Mom always smiles at this point in the story and says, “You were a sight also, sweat rolling down those muscular, tattooed arms.” It was love at first sight, they both agree.

So since Fate brought them together that day in the garage, my parents both like to use the signs given them to make life choices. Every major decision my parents have made depended on extraneous circumstances. The first date my parents went on was at a hot dog stand. Each ordered Chicago-style dogs and, laughing about their surprisingly similar tastes, looked back on the moment to mean that they should move to the windy city. I grew up believing that was the way to make decisions. But when my parents decided to move to Sympathy due to a random postcard, I lost credibility. Ever since Sympathy came into my life, I prefer to use my own judgment and experience to make my decisions.

As we exited the highway a small town came into view. My mother squealed when we drove down Main Street, seeing the stereotypical picturesque town for the first time: cute brick store fronts, kids laughing as they biked down the sidewalks, American flags wove on every street light. My father shared in her enjoyment, pointing out the ma-and-pa general store and a small bakery sporting inventive cakes in its front window. I, however, sunk deeper into my seat with a heavy lump in my throat. Even before I knew the town I was not so naïve.

My father had visited Sympathy a few weeks before our move and had bought the house after little discussion with my mother. As they seemed to always be on the same wavelength, this was not an issue in my household. Rather it was an “amazingly cute gesture” made by Dad. Amazingly cute was not the description I would give our new house. Amazingly ordinary would be more proper. A large bay window peeked out at me from behind dull brown bricks. Black shutters hid behind unruly bushes. The only notable difference the house had compared to all others on our block was how pale the lawn seemed.

“It needs a bit of work,” commented Dad as he pulled into the driveway.

“Oh, Steven, it’s wonderful!” negated Mom. “After we give it a bit of the Buckley magic it’ll be the best looking home on the street!”

The Buckley magic began right away. The moving van arrived minutes later and boxes promptly began to infiltrate the premise. As the movers, Dad, and I continued to carry boxes inside, Mom began to unpack. My mother’s collection of wind chimes were hung above the front door stoop before the third wave of packed goods came in. Unlike my father I wasn’t much of an athlete and I dropped a laundry basket stuffed with clothes on top of one of Mom’s potted plants. She scrambled to clean up the shattered porcelain. I apologized profusely, but as I attempted to pick up the basket again I almost fell over.

Mom grabbed my waist to keep me from toppling over. “I think it’s time for something to eat. How about you run down to that store we passed and grab some sandwiches?” She took her wallet from her purse on the counter, “I’ll give you some extra cash and you could buy a new flower pot for me also, okay?”

Seeing my escape from the manual labor, I quickly agreed. Telling me to try and meet some people as well, she instructed me not to hurry home. I walked down the sidewalk liking my independence; I had never been allowed to walk around Chicago by myself.

***

            Brett Clawson sat on a bench in front of Barber Shoppe with his older brothers, Clark and Adam. The three waited for their father as he sat for his weekly shave inside. Police chief Samuel Clawson ran a tight household. His wife, Margaret, was a model stay-at-home wife, and his sons were all stars on their school athletic teams. If there was anything the Clawson family knew it was how to perfect their public appearance.

The boys had just received their weekly trim and an uncomfortable tickle lingered on Brett’s neck. He read the Herald Tribune over Adam’s shoulder, skimming an article recounting Sympathy High’s football season. Clark had starred on the team, bringing it to a district title.

“That’s Sympathy blood you’ve got.” Samuel had growled with pride. “There ain’t anything else in the world like it. No one can buy something like that.”

The town of Sympathy, Iowa held a special significance to the Clawson family. Ninety-four years ago Winston Clawson had happened upon the fertile plot of land and founded the town. And to that day Sympathy’s residents looked at the family as the leaders in the community. The chief of police title had solely been held by a Clawson since the town’s beginning, and so had the head of the town’s council and school board. The Clawson’s had their hands in every aspect of Sympathy.

So much responsibility on his family, however, gave Brett a sour taste in his mouth. Only a handful of people moved out of Sympathy, usually teens rebelling against their parents, and even fewer residents took vacations. The farthest Brett had been from the town was west to Emmetsburg. Emmetsburg was hardly larger than Sympathy but it did house a shopping mall. Brett also knew that Emmetsburg became the home for over eighty percent of Sympathy’s graduates, all who ended their higher education with an associate’s degree and returned back to their hometown. If you grew up in Sympathy, then chances were you would never leave.

“Hey, look at that,” nudged Clark, bringing Brett out of his thoughts.

Brett followed his brother’s finger and saw a boy about his age struggling to carry a large flower pot. A boy he did not recognize.

Even stranger than someone leaving Sympathy was finding a new face. As Brett thought about it, he actually couldn’t recall the last time someone new had come to the town. His curiosity began to prickle, wondering who the boy was and from where he had come.

Clark, always looking for an opportunity to push someone around, stood up and began striding towards the straining boy. As his brother expected, both Adam and Brett followed at his heels. The boy, oblivious to his followers, turned a corner around an abandoned building and vanished. Clark sped up.

Brett knew that an open field lay beyond the building. The boy must be taking the field as a shortcut to Cork Street, the closest subdivision to town. As the brothers came to the end of the sidewalk as well, they peeked around the corner to see the boy trip on a tree root. A small cry could be heard as the boy fell, dropping a paper bag on the ground and causing the flower pot to roll across the ground. Clark and Adam looked at one another, smirking.

“Need some help?” asked Adam as the brothers wandered over to the panting boy.

The boy, blushing deeply, shook his head, “No, I’m fine. My shoe just caught on something.” He stood up, brushing off his knees.

“You’re new to town, eh?” inquired Clark, picking the paper bag off the ground.

“Yeah, my parents and I are just moving in today.”

Clark began shifting through the bag, “Lunch time?”

The boy chuckled nervously, “It’s been a workout trying to get everything inside, lots of heavy boxes and such.”

Brett eyed the boy. He had a small frame to him, not many muscles. Brett could see how lugging around boxes and the flower pot could do him in. Not only that, he had the typical geek-guy ailments: glasses, braces, gelled-back hair probably done by his mom. I bet he has asthma too, thought Brett, surprised at his own hostility.

Samuel Clawson had always been one to mock outsiders to Sympathy. If his father had his way, Sympathy would be closed to any new residents. He had raised his sons to believe that anyone outside of Sympathy was worthless. They did not have good work ethics, they believed in hundreds of different kinds of truths, and they didn’t know the importance of a healthy foundation. People who moved were wispy. And wispy meant they could not be trusted. “They’ll tell you one thing one day and the next they have a different idea,” his father once said. Brett often wondered if his father was simply afraid of the outside world.

“Where are you from?” asked Adam.

“Chicago.”

“Really? So you carry a gun on you and a knife?” Adam seemed impressed.

“What?” stammered the boy, “No.”

Adam looking less amused, “That’s what people from Chicago do though, right?”

The boy swept his hand through his hair and watched Clark unwrap a sandwich from the paper bag. “On television, perhaps, but that’s not how it really is. That’s my dad’s lunch, by the way.”

Clark took a large bite and made a face, “Salami!” He spat a glob of food onto the ground and dropped the sandwich.

An awkward silence fell and the boy’s nervousness was tangible.

“I like your shoes,” stated Clark.

The boy’s eyes dropped to his feet, “Oh, thanks, they’re new.”

“Yeah, I’ve needed some new shoes.” Clark made eye contact with Adam and winked. “Give me yours.”

Adam laughed as the boy’s face turned white and Brett felt his stomach drop. He knew that tone of Clark’s, it meant his brother was about to throw around his weight. All the Clawson boys, being superior athletes, were broad-shouldered and tall but Clark had bulked up even larger since his freshman year in high school. This boy looked like a toothpick compared to an oak tree.

Brett had to hand it to the boy, he did attempt to flee. However, he had forgotten that his flower pot had rolled behind where he stood, and he tripped to the ground again. Brett watched as his brothers pounced on top of the boy. Adam covered his mouth and took his glasses. Clark kicked him in the side, taunting him. The boy’s glasses snapped with a snigger from Adam. Brett began to zone out as his brothers beat the boy until the boy quit moving.

“Stop,” spoke up Brett for the first time. “Stop!”

His brothers quit laughing to look up Brett. Fearing the boy may have been knocked out, Brett pulled Adam off the boy’s back. A line of blood was seeping from the boy’s nose. The boy remained still but a soft whimper could be heard. Brett exhaled in relief, “We need to go.”

Snickering, Clark bent down and removed the boy’s shoes. The attack had caused the new white to become scuffed and a small drop of blood clung to the toe of one. Clark appeared thrilled.

“Welcome to Sympathy, Newcomer,” laughed Clark as he turned and began strolling back towards Main Street. He motioned for his brothers to join him and they did.

Adam chattered enthusiastically, “I bet that wasn’t the sort of welcoming he was expecting. Are those shoes going to fit you, Clark? Oh man, did you see his face when you spat out that sandwich! I thought Chicago kids were supposed to be tough? I wonder why his family decided to move to Sympathy anyways.”

Brett took one last furtive glance back at the unmoving boy. For Brett, the question he asked wasn’t why the new boy had moved to Sympathy. It was why he would want to move here.

TO BE CONTINUED

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