Ricky Jenkins was struggling to talk—sucking in breath, squeezing his eyes against the swell of tears, wiping his nose with the sleeve of sweatshirt. And who could blame him, Principal Warren thought, accustomed as the boy was to taunting, to mockery. He lived on that narrow dirt lane branching off from Ford’s Road and winding along the river, the house fifty yards up from the marshy banks, shabby and paint-peeling and, from the looks of it, too small for Mr. and Mrs. Jenkins and their seven children, six of them boys with crew cuts, three of them foster kids, Ricky the youngest and frailest of the three, one of those kids whose sense of himself was bestowed by the friend who was cruelest to him, in this case his brother Kyle, who was two-and-a-half years older than Ricky but who, because of a fluke in the enrollment guidelines, was only one grade ahead of him, and Kyle was everything Ricky was not: broad shouldered, outgoing, well enough liked, athletic. Football and track. Something of a star at both, a small school standout but not scholarship material, not college material in any respect, a metal shop kid destined for a life of welding or hammering out fenders and who every now and then would have felt some fleeting but, while it lasted, satisfying flush of his old cocky self-assurance—during a parking lot fight, Warren thought, or in the company of old teammates at Gavin’s Bar. Though even that future was lost to him now.
It’s okay, Warren told Ricky, nudging the box of tissues across the desk. Take your time, he repeated in a tone of long patience while he held in mind the image of the Jenkins’ house and the parallel clotheslines that ran between it and the river. The crowded house was half a mile downstream from quiet pools that were thick with perch and trout, and though Warren wasn’t much of a fisherman, his superintendent was, and so after Warren had been appointed principal, they went for an early morning getting-to-know you session—hot coffee from a Thermos, nylon lines cast lazily into the glassy water, easy talk about nothing in particular—and when the superintendent drove past the Jenkins’ home, he pointed it out and Warren’s gaze fixed on the clothesline. No washer and dryer, Warren had thought then, a sign of lack, he had understood, but the image carried something else, an ache of loss that reached out and tugged at him, a thread connected to a sorrow in his own childhood, so that whenever he remembered the house his mind turned to the clothesline, the long rows of jeans and t-shirts and bras, bed sheets, underwear, socks, and cotton dresses lifting on a breeze, looking weightless and bleached-out pale in the sunlight, and now his thoughts of Kyle brought to mind the same lonely picture, an image of sudden absence, as Warren thought of it. A tragedy, he almost said out loud, and he found himself thinking, as he waited for Ricky to gather himself and speak: There must be some safe place in the world for Ricky Jenkins. Everyone deserves at least one safe place in the world, because even at home, Warren knew, Ricky was friendless, unable to keep up with the older boys and his one sister, the eldest of the Jenkins’ kids, who was nineteen now and had graduated, if by the skin of her teeth, and so was finally free to ride around in Peter Shanley’s rebuilt convertible and smoke cigarettes and give blood dark hickeys without Warren’s constant hectoring. It’s only because I care, he had half-teased her each time she made that put upon face, and he enjoyed watching her try to conceal the little smile it brought, and she would say, I know, I know, you’re gonna see me graduate if it kills you, Mr. Warren, and even the youngest Jenkins, toe-headed Bobby, three years behind Ricky, barely twelve years old, and already he was bigger and more vigorous than Ricky, and he showed some aptitude for math. He had something going for him. Maybe. If he could stay on track. But Ricky lived deep inside himself. Blank-faced and silent. Unreachable. Arrived for class with his books but never his homework, stammered I-I-I don’t know when called upon, and blushed, slumped down in his seat, tried to disappear from view, until, inevitably, his teachers gave up and left him to his stubborn shell. Sometimes, in the hallway, he would look up and nod when Warren said hello, but he must have gone days, maybe weeks, without speaking to a soul.
And yet he had come forward, wanting to talk, and his father had called Warren rather than the police, though Warren was firm about it: If Ricky has information, he will have to tell it to the police. There are no two ways about it. I’ll be as supportive as I can be. I’ll go to the station with him, whatever he needs. But if he knows something, if he knows anything at all, he has to tell it to the police.
Not the station, Mr. Jenkins said. Your office.
At the school.
It’s your job, Megan told him when he apologized for having to leave. Today of all days, honey. Go talk to the kid.
And so here they were on a Saturday, the parking lot empty, the halls quiet, Ricky Jenkins sitting across the desk, having worked himself up with fear and dread and who knew what, taking in those sudden gulps of breath, contorting his face to keep from crying, squeezing his eyes shut and then opening them and looking up at the ceiling, and then emitting a sound—not a word but perhaps the beginning of one, a vowel or sometimes a hard consonant, a C or a G caught in his throat—cah, gah—but then he would stop again, shake his head, bully himself back into silence, Warren thought, because bullying was what he knew.
It’s okay, Warren said. Take your time. We’ve got nothing here but time.
And Ricky had said a great deal already, describing how he had followed Kyle because that’s what he did. There were times when he was permitted to tag along and serve as the target of derisive fun, the object of Kyle and his friends’ withering jokes, the cause of so many careless injuries, Warren imagined, that Ricky accepted in exchange for the temporary right to their company. But more often than not he was instructed to stay behind, as was the case on this day he was struggling to talk about, and so he followed, as he almost always did, giving the five of them—his brother Kyle, Emilo Correa, Clay Henley, Bennie Sanchez, and Victor Marturano— an ample head start before trailing them stealthily along the riverbank and up Ford’s Road until it connected to Webster and then to Prospect and then to Mulberry, and all the way to the top of Mulberry, through Mulberry Park, past the pool noisy with children and the young couples sprawled on blankets, over the six foot-high chain-link fence marked at even intervals with DANGER and KEEP OUT and NO TRESPASSING signs, down the gentle, wooded slope twisted through with tree roots, through the blackberry bramble that someone had recently—very recently, Ricky had said—cut a good, wide path through, and to the rocky cliffs above Nay Aug Gorge. Down below, rain-swollen and rushing, foam-topped, the same river, the Tuscarora, that newly appointed Principal Warren and his superintendent had fished, that moved wide and slow past the Jenkins’ house, picking up speed as it gradually narrowed, dividing a once rich vein of anthracite coal into rival companies’ holdings, then rushing down a sudden staircase grade, carving into compressed Cambrian sediment the curved line of the Nay Aug Gorge and drawing the half moon southern border of town.
From a tree-shrouded distance, Ricky watched the boys on the ledge. They stripped naked, he said, and tossed their clothes into the river, and then bumped each other’s fists. He watched as they lined up along the very edge and looked toward Clay Henley, the quarterback, without a doubt the leader of the group, who counted down from five until, together, as a single unit, as though they had practiced holding a squadron-like formation, all five boys jumped. Only one, Victor Marturano, Ricky said, failed to launch himself far enough to clear the rocks that jut from the cliff. He seemed to lose his footing, to slip just a little at the crucial moment, and he never regained his balance, never righted himself into the simple, graceful pose the boys had chosen, and one foot caught a jagged outcropping, upending him, sending him into slow somersaults, Ricky had said—It was like he was doing somersaults in mid-air, Principal Warren—until he smacked into the water face first. The others kept their form—rigidly upright, legs together, arms at their sides—and knifed into the turbulent, white-capped river and disappeared.
Just take your time, Warren was telling Ricky. I’m right here whenever you want to talk, whatever it is you want to say. Just take your time, Warren said, and in the patient repetitions he wondered about Mr. Jenkins in the outer office, his head dark and blurry and statue-still through the dimpled window. He was crew cut like his boys, halting in his speech, but with flashes of raw anger in his eyes. A man raising seven children as best he could on a paper mill wage and faith in God, Warren knew, ministering every Sunday at one of those rural churches shrouded in secrecy, the Mt. Hope Church of Christ, Warren thought it was, up the hill from the river and the Jenkins’ home. He was a man who sat alone in the bleachers, away from his wife and the younger boys who demanded hot dogs and soda and constant attention, and he prayed for touchdowns and sacks and bowed his head when Kyle made a solid tackle or laid a key block. Whether he preached brimstone or benevolence, Warren couldn’t say. But he had not accompanied Ricky into the office, had not stood with an arm around his foster child’s shoulder, had not spoken directly to his son at all; instead he kept himself at a distance of three feet or so, spoke only to Principal Warren—The boy has some things to tell you—gestured Ricky toward the Warren’s office with his chin, and then turned to take a seat on the bench where he remained, unmoving, even through Ricky’s noisy grunts and spasms. Maybe he hadn’t come in because he didn’t want to know what Ricky had to say, Warren thought. The newspapers were full of innuendo and speculation. SUICIDE PACT, the headline said, but no one knew what the boys had intended or why—five powerful physical specimens, four with better than average grades, three bound for college in the fall, all but Kyle with girlfriends, popular girls who made themselves up each day, striving for their boyfriends’ attention, flattering them at every turn. Just last week Warren overheard them planning for the prom, but they got no goodbyes, these girls. Nor did the boys’ parents or anyone else. And no one recognized signs, even in retrospect, that the boys were planning to disappear. The paper said as much, but only after the third paragraph, as the story moved from “apparent suicide pact” into more complicated territory, but at that point it hardly mattered, not after those blaring block letters had their way with the story. Though what else could they have been thinking, those boys, jumping seventy feet in a swift-moving and shallow river? Every year kids fell from those fenced-off cliffs, generating newspaper stories and outcry. Better, higher fences were built, more signs added, scolding school assemblies following each death, the constant repetition of Public Service Announcements on late night television, but it never stopped them, those who were drunk or high or curious enough to tempt fate. Or who took fate into their own hands. Or who, like Warren’s own father, were visited suddenly by the inexplicable. And now this man, this Mr. Jenkins sitting upright outside Warren’s office, had lost a son, a boy delivered to him at three years old, Warren knew, who he’d raised with everything he had, for better or for worse. Maybe he could not bring himself to hear what Ricky had to say—and he could be forgiven for that, Warren thought. After all, it was God’s business now, Mr. Jenkins must have believed. God’s job to sort it all out and assign His blessings or curses. What else was the faithful man to do at this moment if not exercise his faith? What could even be said about such things?
Or maybe he had already heard Ricky’s story and could not bear to hear it again. Or maybe this was the cost of living in a crowded household of nine: all that noise, all that constant human contact, and then when tragedy arrives you are struck by your aloneness. Or maybe—and the idea made Warren wince—he could not tolerate the sight of Ricky himself, the thin, broken boy who had watched his better, stronger, more beautiful son jump inexplicably to his death. Warren looked across his desk at the boy in his too-big sweatshirt, snot-crusted at the cuffs. His wet eyes aimed sidelong toward the window, his lips stiff and trembling. You cannot look away from this boy, Warren thought. You cannot, Mr. Jenkins, however shattered and angry and cheated you no doubt feel, turn away from this boy who needs you, and Ricky cleared his throat, he parted his lips, he forced out breath, but the trembling returned before words could form.
It’s okay, Ricky. Just take your time.
Mr. Jenkins, too, would have to gather himself and speak about it, wouldn’t he? He would have to stand at the pulpit at the Mt. Hope Church of Christ and speak. If not tomorrow—that was understandably too soon—then a week from tomorrow, while it was still on everyone’s mind, while the congregants felt their faith tested and feared slipping into doubt and anger and befuddlement or perhaps clung more desperately to the mast, in any event presenting religion with its chance to step forward and claim its place in their lives. He would have to look into this tragedy and draw out of it something worth saying—for his own sake as well as theirs. Then I saw all God has done, Warren thought. No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all his efforts to search it out, man cannot discover its meaning, and Megan would have pointed out how like him it was to remember lines from Ecclesiastes and from nowhere else in the gospel, and Warren would have smiled darkly because she was right and because he himself would have to speak about these boys, and no one wants a principal who quotes Ecclesiastes rather than offering words of comfort and consolation. He was spared the job of speaking on behalf of the school—to parents and press; the superintendent had assumed that job—but on Monday, at nine in the morning, a mandatory general assembly, all the students and teachers would gather to hear the sense Warren has made of the senseless, and that responsibility for speech dogged him nearly as much as the picture he had of the boys jumping from the cliff, or of their bodies washed down to where the river slowed again, releasing them to be snagged in the branches of a fallen tree, wedged between rocks, caught up in slow-circling eddies. He would have to stand behind a podium and present the authority of his office, such as it was, even if he could not find words to express his thoughts. It comes without meaning, it departs in darkness, and in darkness its name is shrouded, and he saw that Ricky had silently composed himself, caught his breath, wiped his nose with his sleeve, and come a long way toward steadying his gaze as he looked up at Warren as if waiting for a cue.
Is there anything else? Warren asked. Do you know of a note Kyle might have left?
Did he say anything to you that might have told you his plans? Did he do anything peculiar last week, anything not like himself?
Okay then. Maybe we should take a break. Can I get you something to eat? Would you like a soda?
A Coke would be okay.
Okay then. I’ll get you a Coke.
Warren pushed his chair back, stood, came around the desk to place a hand on Ricky’s shoulder. He held it there as Ricky pulled in a tense breath and then another but quickly recomposed himself, more or less, and nodded.
In the outer office, Warren asked Mr. Jenkins, Can I get you something to drink?
No thank you.
I’m sorry for all of this. Again, Mr. Jenkins, I’m so sorry for your loss and your grief.
I think it’s time for Ricky to talk to the police. I’ll call them and have them send someone here. We won’t have to go to the station. Ricky doesn’t know anything that hasn’t already been reported, except for a couple of details, but the police will want to talk to him anyway. I’ll stay there with him, and you’re welcome to come in too. I’m sure your son could use your support.
Offering drinks was an excuse to step out for a moment, to not think of the boys, to not speak as he took his time walking the long corridor to the vending machines, where he bought Ricky his Coke and called the police, and then he made his slow way back toward his office. But even then he wasn’t ready, and he found himself pushing open the school’s front doors and stepping out into the half-light of an overcast day. Except for his car and Mr. Jenkins’, the parking lot stood empty; across it, a row of dogwoods white with bloom. He put Ricky’s Coke in his pocket, where it was cold and wet with condensation that bled into the cotton, though the feeling of it was not unpleasant: a sensory experience while the mind struggled with its overload. From his other front pocket he took his pack of cigarettes and his lighter. He had quit years ago, a condition Megan had put on their marriage, but on the drive to school this morning he had stopped for gas and heard himself asking the attendant for a pack of Camels the way he sometimes, if he was feeling lucky, might buy a lottery ticket, and now he tolerated the acrid taste and the unexpected burn in his lungs in exchange for the little bit of time it bought to stand dumbly, watching a break in the clouds to the south, while the image of his mother came to mind, the phone’s receiver cradled between her ear and shoulder, cigarette smoke escaping between her lips as she spoke the words Yes and No and Oh God, and Warren and his brother could tell at once, or maybe they heard it through the receiver, spoken by the grave and distorted voice that had asked if she was who she was and then explained he was calling with bad news, and she turned away from her boys, from Warren and his brother, shielding the call with her back, preparing to accept the news in a fragile, fashioned kind of privacy that she would never fully emerge from. A protective space that soon molded itself into a vault within which she would retreat, unspeaking, until finally she was lost to them.
A break in the clouds to the south, in the direction of Mulberry Park, where one of those impromptu memorials had been created as word spread, shocked and tearful students leaning flowers, photographs, notes, and hand-lettered signs of remembrance against the chain-link fence the boys had scaled on their way to the ledge. Uniformed police kept watch, fearing the grief stricken or curious might try to visit the rocks from which the boys had jumped. And tonight, in the same place, would be a candlelight vigil. The breaking cloud cover might be good news for the vigil-goers, Warren thought, and he pictured them gathered in the dark, the same students he would have to address on Monday morning, putting words to thoughts that do not yet exist. We are gathered here today . . . We remember those we’ve lost . . . The true lessons of this tragedy . . . How does one even begin? That desire to touch the unknown, Megan had said abstractedly, the way she does when she’s feeling her way toward comprehension. At that age, meaning the dead boys’ age, you feel that pull toward it, don’t you? It goes away after a while—or maybe you just get older and more aware of your mortality—but I felt it then. It was powerful. And an editorialist on the local news had bemoaned the pressure kids face these days: Their world isn’t like ours was, he had said, and we need to be mindful of that and reach out to our children and come to understand and appreciate them. Really and truly understand and appreciate them so that more young people don’t decide life is too lonely to bear. A man who called into a different program had said, I understand it. There aren’t jobs here, there’s not much of a future. Why not go out while you still got some glory in your life? A tearful woman had said, We’ll never forget them, never ever let them leave our hearts, but there would be a day, Warren knew, when he realized he no longer thought about the boys. He saw himself retired at their house in the mountains, daydream images he had refined for a decade before he and Megan finally bought a farmhouse uphill from a cold, clear lake. Two summers ago, they began the slow process of renovation and remodeling. Just last weekend they had committed to opening the house for the summer on a Saturday at the end of the month, and with the dates settled, the old daydreams—of clear-cutting trails and tending to a garden and indulging in sunset swims before supper and long evenings in the hammock, reading under the porch light—reemerged as if from hibernation, and here they were still, even today, untouched by these deaths, though it was true that the boys will never stop coming to mind unexpectedly, Warren knew, as his own father still comes to mind, as the close-lipped face of his mother still comes to mind, even after years-long dormancies, causing him to close his book and lay it on his chest and remember, and Megan will ask from across the porch what he’s thinking about, and he will tell her, and she will nod sympathetically but say nothing, not about the boys or any of their other losses, because even then there will be nothing to say as their hammocks ease back and forth and cricket sounds pulse in the air.
Behind him, the glass and metal door whined open on tired hinges and then slammed back into its frame, bouncing once, twice, before settling. Warren turned to see Mr. Jenkins with his hands fisted in his pockets and his eyes focused on nothing. He came and stood at Warren’s side, though at arm’s distance, and looked out over the parking lot, silently. Warren took the cigarettes from his pockets and held the pack out to Mr. Jenkins, who took one, and then handed him the lighter, and they smoked without speaking. Whatever he finds to say at church, Warren thought, Mr. Jenkins will not be blessed with the luxury of forgetting. Through a window he will catch a glimpse of Mrs. Jenkins hanging the wash and then, beyond her, the river glinting in the sunlight, and he will be reminded. There will always be reminders in everything. There was even the river’s name, Warren thought, and the Tuscarora Indians who had been chased off their native Carolina lands to migrate north, to here, before being run off again, this time to Ohio before resettlement in Kansas and then in Oklahoma, their ever smaller numbers holding fast to the old ways until the Tuscarora disappeared, its handful of survivors taking up with other tribes, adopting new languages and traditions, leaving the old ways to vanish. And now there is only this river with its meaningless name pointing mutely at a fleeting presence that left no imprint on the land or the life here.
In everything lies a metaphor of bafflement and loss, Warren thought.
He said, Ricky’s a good kid.
Mr. Jenkins exhaled smoke and held his gaze.
Warren said, My mother—. But stopped, then began again: I know this isn’t the right time, but we will need to talk about how he deals with this, Ricky, his sister and brothers too. I’m concerned about him. He’s a good kid, but he doesn’t have an easy time of it as it is. He needs to be able to talk to someone, to really talk.
When Mr. Jenkins didn’t answer, Warren nodded to signal he understood and left the man to his cigarette.
A police cruiser crested the hill, and they watched it turn slowly, heavily into the parking lot. I don’t like police, Mr. Jenkins said, and he stomped out his cigarette and turned and went back toward the school. Warren almost called after him, Please wait with your son, but he didn’t. Instead he watched the door close behind Mr. Jenkins and thought himself a coward for letting him go. He was, he understood, intimidated by the man’s grief, as he had been intimidated by his mother’s grief, and like her, Warren thought, Mr. Jenkins looked every bit like one who felt abandoned by God and saw only emptiness before him, as if a curtain had been pulled back to reveal the nothing that always was, and he was shattered by it, broken, and one struck with that emptiness is unknowable, unpredictable, suddenly responsible to no one. He may turn from the people he loves. He may step away from precisely the people he ought to draw in. Warren’s mother’s sad face through the kitchen window as he maneuvered the push mower down the line hung with bed linens. His mother’s face small and withdrawn in the windowpane. His mother who days before had become a widow. Then Warren told himself: When the time was right and the raw grief began to scar over, he would pick up the phone and urge Mr. Jenkins not to turn away from his tender boy but find in this tragedy an opportunity to love him, to hold him near and love him. Embrace the son you have, Warren thought of telling him, and then: So I commend the enjoyment of life because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. That’s Ecclesiastes too, he thought. Isn’t it? Then joy will accompany him in his work and all the days of his life, and Warren felt the sudden presence of warmth. He looked up to see the sun had broken through. He leaned his face into it and closed his eyes.
I didn’t know you smoked, Detective Hampton said, approaching with his partner.
Warren flicked his cigarette onto the parking lot asphalt and said, I don’t. Especially if anyone asks, and he led them toward the doors.
This is some business, Hampton said. Driving people to all sorts of behaviors. He gestured toward his partner, lean and smooth-faced, who was looking down and covering his mouth with his hand and shaking his head as he walked, and Hampton said, He gives that look every time the subject comes up. One of the boys was his buddy’s younger brother.
I knew them all, the partner said, sounding as though he was beginning a thought. Warren and Hampton waited, but he didn’t complete it.
So, Hampton said, does the kid know anything we don’t?
I don’t think so, Warren said. But maybe he’ll tell you more than he told me, and he held the door for the officers to enter ahead of him. As they neared his office, Mr. Jenkins sat in the outer office, his hands clasped between his thighs. This is Ricky’s father, Warren said, though the officers had already spoken with him. Then he said to Hampton: Listen, Ricky is a good kid but very self-conscious, and he’s in a lot of pain over this, as you can imagine. I’d like to talk with him for a moment before I let you in. You okay with that?
Mr. Jenkins, would you like to come too? We can talk to him together.
No thank you.
It would do your son a lot of good to have you in the room, Mr. Jenkins.
No thank you.
Well, gentlemen, Warren said to the officers. Maybe Mr. Jenkins has more he’d like to say to you, and he was surprised by his tone, by his inability to control it. He was surprised by his need to punish Mr. Jenkins in the small way available to him: If the man refused to comfort his son, he would be left with the police he didn’t like. He said, We’re going to have to talk, Mr. Jenkins. Your children, not just Ricky, but all of your children are going through this too.
Mr. Jenkins lifted his head and held Warren’s gaze blankly until at last he said, softly, calmly, as if speaking to himself, Yes, you’re right, you’re right, I know, and Warren felt a flush of relief and shame that struck him dumb. What did he think he knew of this man’s grief, Warren thought, and he understood he had been, in his way, speaking less to Mr. Jenkins than to his mother, belatedly, out of his own old hurt, and he lifted a mute finger to signal he would be back in a moment. He opened the door to find Ricky slumped the way he sat in class, glassy-eyed and still, occupied by whatever filled his mind. I have your Coke, Warren said, and he closed the door behind him and sat next to Ricky, rather than at his desk chair, and smelled damp earth, the field mud that always clung to the hem of Ricky’s jeans, that fell in clumps from the heavy soles of his work boots. It smelled like the river, Warren noticed, and he said, The police are here. I know these guys, or one of them. He’s okay. You can trust him, and Ricky nodded, then took in a breath at the thought of having to speak to uniformed strangers, his chest filling with air, his face distorting again with contortions of fear and restraint, and Warren said, You’re a good kid, Ricky. I know that. This whole thing, Warren went on, this whole situation, reaching to lay his hand on Ricky’s shoulder, this whole situation is awful. It’s more than awful, but you’re a good kid, and you’ll get through this. I’m here to help you, Warren said, gripping the boy’s shoulder a little more firmly, placing emphasis on his words, wanting the boy to hear them, and Ricky nodded, caught his breath, nodded again, composing himself until he was sure he could get the words out. It’s just, he began, and he stopped, closed his eyes, swallowed. It’s just, he started again, and Warren waited, giving him all the time he needed. It’s just that I don’t know what to say.
All they want are the facts, Warren said. Just tell them exactly what you told me.
But—but— But it’s so hard to talk about it, Ricky said. He looked to Warren, and Warren leaned toward him and slid his hand to where it cupped Ricky’s neck, and he felt the boy’s smallness, felt how little there was of him and how cold he was, and he said, I know. Believe me, son, I know.
William Black‘s recent work appears or is forthcoming in The Sun magazine, The Southern Review, Threepenny Review, Prairie Schooner, Orion Magazine, The Harvard Review, Boulevard, and elsewhere.