Mr. Kemp Cobbs's face was as tight as a raisin until he saw Baby Eric make an effort to walk at ten months, after which it expanded into a beaming grape. Subsequently, Kemp expected Eric to make extraordinary efforts throughout Eric's childhood. So when the counselor began questioning young Eric's intellect in grade school, Kemp was not thrown off the least bit. He didn't think twice about his son's capabilities, expecting no more from the boy than what the boy was able to produce under his lone efforts. Sticking to his "hard work pays off" philosophy, Kemp declined to put his son in Special Education when the counselor diagnosed Eric with a mental disability.
By freshman year Eric was happily occupied with ambitions of one day playing football in the NFL, and his determination never ceased to put a glow on Kemp's face. Over the years, the Administration of Adroitt schools, occasionally encumbered by Eric's disability, collectively came to the realization that Eric was competitive with average students when he was kept motivated by the prospect of achieving his impossible goals. Eric's effort was rewarding to himself as well. After playing on third team throughout junior high, Coach finally allowed Eric to dress out for a football game freshman year.
"Eric, if you keep doing like you're doing, you might make first team by your senior year, and then maybe you could go to college. And who knows, maybe the NFL will draft you," Coach said to him in his office.
"Yes, sir, Coach!" Eric said, his eyes excited; his back and arms parallel; as he mocked the posture of a soldier willing to follow his general into the depths of danger to fight off whatever enemy needed to be annihilated.
"And make sure you wear your white uniform to the away game. You got that? Your white uniform."
"Yes, sir, Coach. Should I wash it, sir?"
"Have your momma wash it for you, Eric. Tell her you need it for Tuesday's game. Tell her your future depends upon it."
"Yes, sir! My future depends upon it! And my chances at the NFL!"
"See, now you're getting it, Eric. Now run home and get you some supper. And don't forget your uniform."
* * *
In the principal's office, the tenured teachers gathered around the principal's desk, each trying to relax; another Monday had ended. The hard work -- dealing with teenagers -- finished for now (as the counselor put it); the teachers loafed, complaining about the worst kids.
Principal James McCarthy walked into the office wearing a black pinstriped suit, his face tight and angry like an animal; his eyebrows pointed away from his nose like the horns of a devil. He cleared the "IN" and "OUT" baskets to one side and sat on the top of the desk. He looked up; his face relaxed into to a human-looking appearance.
"The test scores are falling again," said McCarthy. "This school can't afford to fail the state assessment again. We're getting too close to state disciplinary action."
"Here we go again," Hibert said to McCarthy. "This is crap, and you know it James. We're busting our asses out there. I don't know what else I can do to keep up the test scores. It's the Reagan years all over again."
"We can't inflate the test scores anymore, Gary," McCarthy said. "It's not working. We're going to have to hold back the students who are bringing us down. We have no other choice. If we don't make the standard this year, they're going to give vouchers to our best students."
"That's the thing," said Hibert. He took a sip of his coffee, "they're not inflated. They simply forget everything I teach them after the quarter. What else can I do?"
"Make sure they know the material before the assessment. If they don't know it, we have to find a way to get the underachievers out of school," McCarthy said.
Hibert stood up. "Shit, James. I want to bring up test scores; but at the sacrifice of whom? I just don't feel right about kicking kids out."
McCarthy wadded up a piece of paper and threw it. "Gary, it's the law. It's those damn Republicans and the No Child Left Behind Act. Anyway, there are plenty of good jobs out there for underachievers. Not everyone is cut out to be intellectuals."
"What about Eric Cobbs?" Sherry Anderson, the counselor, chimed in as she drew a doodle on her notepad.
Coach suddenly awoke from his day dream and lifted up his balding head. "What about Eric Cobbs?" he asked.
"Aw, come on, Coach. He's mentally challenged. There's nothing the teachers can do to get his grades up. We've tried everything. He needs to be in Special Ed., but his father's in some kind of perpetual denial about it," she said as she flailed her pad and pen about.
"He does fine in Gym," Coach said sternly.
"Everyone does fine in Gym, Coach. Look, he needs help, and if Kemp Cobbs won't let us put Eric in Special Ed., then I think we should get him out. He's bringing everyone down ... including the teachers."
"I don't think he's mentally challenged. The kids like him. He gets along fine. Sure they make cracks at each other, but that's just the way kids are. Adolescence is a fact of life. You just have to harness their excess energy for something good, like sports."
McCarthy stood up. "Okay, Okay. You calm down," he said to Coach. "For this week, review, review and review hard. We'll reassess the situation next Monday at the conference."
The teachers began leaving the office. "Gary, you stay." McCarthy said, his voice booming.
"Sure, James," Hibert said.
"Look, Gary. This is a critical situation. I think we both can agree on that. People's jobs are at stake."
"Okay," Hibert said as he looked at the floor.
"If that Cobbs boy gives you any trouble, send him down to Anderson's office. Okay?"
* * *
Eric sped around a wooden fence and down Bellview Avenue. His arms chopped through the air. The autumn wind dried the sweat on his red face and swirled into his ears. In his imagination, he was going a hundred miles an hour. The sidewalk was the side line; the fence was the fans cheering him on; Er-ric, Er-ric. His cleats gripped the pavement as he swerved left, then right, a sharp right down Crane Street, and then the Hail Mary. Cobbs cuts across the twenty. Cobbs reaches for it. He bobbles it. He's got it! Cobbs fakes right and loses one. He jumps over the hands of another. Cobbs is going for it. He's almost there. Touch down! Touch down! Cobbs did it! The Packers win the Super Bowl. Cobbs did it! He exploded through the front door.
"Mom! Mom! You've got to wash my uniform! I'm dressing out for the game."
"Well, throw it in the hamper, Eric," she said. "I'll have it ready for you when you wake up tomorrow."
Kemp folded his paper. "That's great news, son! We better go work on your game before it gets dark out there."
"What about my homework?"
Mrs. Cobbs's eyes peeked over the top of her thick glasses. Kemp pondered the consequences, "Well, I suppose it can wait a few minutes while we toss the pigskin around."
In her pink flower-decorated apron, Mrs. Cobbs turned away from Kemp as she continued dicing green onions. She took her glasses off and wiped her eyes.
Under the soft, red covers in the bathtub shined a light. Eric was up late doing his homework again. Kemp cracked open the door of the bathroom to check on Eric, and he saw the glowing ball of light under the blankets.
Eric slept in the bathtub since age seven, when one morning he awoke to a spider descending down its web, and it landed right on his forehead. From that point, the spider owned his bed, and because the bed remained unused, spiders and dust tenanted it, solidifying Eric's delusions.
Kemp smiled at his son's fortitude, and then frowned with paternal determination.
"Eric!" he said.
Startled, Eric hit his funny bone on the edge of the bathtub and fidgeted in pain.
"Get to sleep, son. You have a big day tomorrow."
The next morning Eric woke up late. His head popped over the bathtub barricade. With a sudden sense of immediacy, he exploded out of the tub, grabbed his uniform and ran out the front door in his pajamas. His first class of the day, Football Appreciation, was when coach had planned to review the key plays of the game, and Eric was running late. Eric ran through the snow-covered streets. A feeling overwhelmed him; something bad.
Eric ran faster. He slid around the wooden fence along Bellview. He pounded through six inches of snow on the sidewalk. He pushed harder. Cobbs has the ball. He plows through the defense. Cobbs gets hit hard. He deflects the tackle. Cobbs is still going! The thirty. The twenty-five. Cobbs stumbles. The ten! He's hit again from the side.
Eric's foot tangled in something buried in the snow. He fell; his bare hands caught the cold ground. Then his face found the snow in a freezing whitewash. The chain of a bicycle buried under the snow broke his skin. Darn kids. He untangled his foot from the chain. It was bleeding and red from the icy snow. Eric realized he should have worn real shoes instead of slippers. Damn it! He inspected the wound. A minor infliction. A casualty of the game.
Eric got up, and hobbled to the football outbuilding where the team was dressing out for the morning workout. All the players were in the locker room and dressed in their workout clothes.
"Damn, Cobbs, you look like holy hell," Terry said.
"I woke up late," Eric said.
"You didn't have time to put clothes on?"
"I didn't want Coach to cut me."
"Well, you better straighten up. If Coach sees you in your pajamas, he's going to give you hell."
Eric opened his locker and dressed in his gym clothes. He couldn't feel his feet well enough to get his tennis shoes on. He rubbed his foot.
"Cobbs, what the hell happened to your jersey?" Terry asked. Eric looked at it. It wasn't white. At least it wasn't anymore. It was pink. Eric's mom must have accidentally put something red in the whites. Eric was cold and stiff from the snow. He started to shake. He compared his jersey to Terry's.
"Dude, what happened to it?" Johnson, the quarterback, asked.
"I don't know."
"It looks like your little sister got hold of it," Johnson said and laughed, unable to contain himself.
"Or maybe his mom was afraid Coach might actually put him in," Terry said. They both laughed again.
"What am I going to do?" Eric asked.
"Don't sweat it. Coach probably won't even notice," Johnson said.
Eric hid the jersey in his locker. He wore his gym clothes to his classes instead of his pajamas. He felt unusual about wearing his pajamas to school, and he especially didn't want Lauren Roberts to see him like that. Lauren was the girl who occupied the other half of Eric's thoughts. In his mind, she sat upon a pedestal like his golden goddess. When he saw her he choked, his mouth dried, and his thoughts turned into a thicket. That's why he loved and hated Spanish class. Eric couldn't think when she was at the desk to his right; he could hardly move. As he sat next to her, he wondered if she thought about him. He imagined what she did when she wasn't in school. She probably went home; not on the school bus, but in her mom's sedan. They almost certainly would get pedicures after school every day. Then she would go home and get in the tanning bed. That's why she was always so tan, even in the winter months. She probably helped her mom cook dinner, and they talked about boys while they cut celery and peeled potatoes together.
"Eric!" scolded Hibert.
Eric twitched and hit his knee on the desk, but he held back his undying need to roar. "Yes, sir?" he said.
"¿Qué es tu nombre en español?"
"No comprende, sir," Eric said. The class laughed.
"Clase ¿Como dices Eric en español?"
In unison the class answered, "Erico."
"Eric, have you studied at all this week?"
"Dices 'Sí, señor.'"
Eric looked at him. Lauren didn't look at Eric. The pain began to simmer. He hoped Lauren noticed how he had toughed it out, like a man.
"Do you know any Spanish? I mean, can you say one sentence in Spanish, Eric?"
"Dices 'Si, señor,' ¿comprende?"
"No comprende, sir," Eric said. There was an awkward silence. Hibert's face burned, and when Eric saw the red in Hibert's face, his began to burn, too.
Hibert knew he had to do it. Teachers' jobs were at stake. It's for the kids, he thought.
"Eric, you shouldn't be in this class. You need to see the guidance counselor so she can place you where you belong," he said. He paused, analyzing his phrasing, and unsure of himself, he reinforced his authority over Eric. "And tell her I don't want to see you in this class again."
No, Eric thought. Not again. "Please, sir, I can't go back there. I'll do better. I promise."
"What'd I tell you?" Hibert scolded.
"Yes, sir," Eric said. He packed his books in his bag, and Eric took one last glance at Lauren. He could smell her hair; green apples. It was brunette, smooth and silky. Her skin was soft.
Lauren made eye contact with him. Eric stared into her eyes. They were dark brown. He thought she might stick up for him if she liked him, too.
"Quit staring at me," she said.
Eric looked down so she wouldn't see the shame in his face. He wondered why she didn't like him. What was it about him? Maybe it was his haircut. Perhaps it was because he never knew the answers to Mr. Hibert's questions.
Eric waited alone in the counselor's office for some time. She was in a meeting, the secretary had said. Over the years, the office had become overly familiar to Eric like a jail cell. A clank echoed across the room when the door opened.
"Wow, it's stuffy in here," Anderson said. "Do you smell that?"
"It smells like ... something."
She sniffed around the room and was embarrassed to realize it was Eric, his gym clothes still unchanged.
"Mr. Hibert said he doesn't want to see me in his class again."
"Yes, I've talked to him. It seems you haven't been studying. Do you study at all, Eric?"
"Yes, ma'am; every night."
"And how long do you study every night?" she asked.
"About three or four hours; sometimes five or six if there's a test. Oh, and on the weekends, too, when I'm not playing football."
"So how are things going with the football team? Is Coach treating you right?"
"Yes, ma'am. I'm dressing out today. If all of the players get injured, I'm the go-to-guy," Eric said and chuckled. Anderson frowned. She looked at her degree on the back wall as she contemplated the phrasing of her foremost question.
"Eric, how much do you think the other kids study for class?"
"I don't know. I guess as much as me, or maybe even more."
"No, Eric. That's wrong. When I was your age I studied for maybe two hours a few nights a week. I am normal, Eric. All the kids in your class are normal. You see?"
"If all the normal kids study for a few hours a week and you study every waking moment, what does that make you?"
"I don't know, ma'am."
"Think about it, Eric."
"I don't know. I guess normal."
"No, Eric. I'm normal," she said. "You're something else but not normal. You will never be normal, Eric. You're special," Mrs. Anderson said boldly.
"Yeah ... because I'm awesome," Eric said with a grin. He laughed.
"No, Eric. I'm not making fun of you. You are ... oh, how do I put this, mentally challenged. Do you understand? You are slow. As long as your father keeps you out of Special Education you will never amount to anything."
Eric laughed nervously. "You're funny Mrs. Anderson."
"I'm not joking, Eric."
Eric leaned forward and focused clearly on the counselor, "Mrs. Anderson, I'm going to play in the NFL someday."
"Eric, you hardly ever play a game."
Eric thought for a few seconds. He leaned back in the chair. "Yeah, but Coach says the scouts know about all the politics that go on in football. They know the best players are the ones that don't play."
"Eric, you don't play because you can't. You're too slow. You can't learn the plays. You do not have the ability to learn. You are learning disabled. You are intellectually challenged. Do you understand? That's why you don't know anything. That's why you don't play. That's why you don't know the answers in Spanish even though you study all day."
"So you're saying that I'm really, actually a retard?"
"Intellectually challenged!" Mrs. Anderson said as her face lit up.
"Is that why everyone laughs at me, even when I don't want them to?"
"Probably. Look, Eric, you need to take a shower. You need to wash your clothes; you see? You need help."
"Well, I was running a little ... "
"No, Eric. You are mentally challenged, that's why. You're special. Okay?"
"Okay Ma'am," Eric said.
"And your dad is slow, too. We've been trying to put you in Special Education since you were in the first grade, but apparently your father ... "
Something started to click in Eric's mind. It was like Mrs. Anderson drifted off into space with all of her normal people. Lauren must have known he was retarded. She said, 'quit staring at me,' as if he was embarrassing. Perhaps she really thought he was mentally challenged; after all, he didn't know the answer to Mr. Hibert's question. What was it that he was talking about? He said nombre; that means name. They said Erico. That is Eric in Spanish. He knew the answer. Why couldn't he know it then? And they laughed at him. Why were they laughing? Because he was different? Retarded different? He thought.
" ... and we are tired of dealing with this around here. I have half a mind to put you in Special Education without his permission ..."
When Eric left her office, he didn't think about where he was going. His body moved through the halls instinctively as his mind pondered the idea. His personality retreated behind his unused defensive mechanisms, as his happiness and understanding of the world was in question. For the first time, he began to listen. Students around him talked.
"There goes that 'tard."
"I don't understand why they keep passing him through."
"I feel so bad for him."
"Date him? Ew."
" ... thinks he's going to be drafted by the NFL."
" ... came to school in his pajamas."
It wasn't fair, he thought, that he wasn't normal. Could she be right? A retard? What does that mean? Eric thought about getting his father's forty-five. He could run home and be back in only a few minutes. No one would realize he had left. Then he could kill everyone; starting with Mrs. Anderson.
No, Eric couldn't kill anyone. Somehow no vindication would be good enough. Eric realized if Mrs. Anderson was right, he would never make it into the NFL. When was the last time a retard played quarterback? He thought. He would always be slow. He would always be mentally challenged, and he didn't want to know the truth about his learning disability.
He went to the office and called Kemp. Eric told him he wasn't feeling well, and Kemp dropped what he was doing at work to pick him up. Kemp didn't ask any questions, wanting to respect his son's privacy. Eric was getting older, and Kemp felt he was old enough to work out his problems on his own. It's probably just a girl, he thought.
It was around nine at night when the police showed up at the Cobbs's residence. Eric and Kemp were watching professional wrestling together while Mrs. Cobbs cooked dinner. They saw the flashing red and blue lights penetrate the white curtains first, and then they heard the obtrusive pounding on the door.
"Police! Open up! We have a warrant."
Kemp rushed to the door. "A warrant?" He yelled. He turned the knob, and the door swung open from outside hands. "A warrant for what?"
"We have a warrant for the arrest of Eric Cobbs."
"What? He's just a child. What could he have done?"
"Dad? What's going on?" Eric asked.
"Eric Cobbs?" The juvenile officer asked. The police pushed past Kemp.
"Hey! This is my house, damn it." Kemp pushed back. "This is my house!"
An officer threw his thin body to the ground, twisting his arm behind his back.
"Hey!" Mrs. Cobbs screamed. "What are you doing? He didn't do anything. No one did anything."
Two officers gripped Eric's arms. The juvenile officer emerged from the swarming police. "Eric Cobbs, you have the right to remain silent. Anything you do or say can be held against you in the Court of Law ... "
Mrs.Cobbs reached out for the cuffing hand of the juvenile officer. "What did he do?"
"Ma'am, I'm going to have to ask you to remove your hand."
"Remove your hand from the officer!" The other cop said.
"What did he do?"
"Remove your hand now!" A third officer spun Mrs. Cobbs, apron and all, to the linoleum floor.
"What did he do?" Kemp yelled as a blue, polyester knee wedged his head against the hard floor.
"He's wanted for the rape of Lauren Roberts."
To be continued ...