Loner

“Loner,” New Era, Nov. 1996, 38

Fiction:

Loner

I hadn’t admitted to being a Mormon for a long time. My confrontation with Bo changed all that.

“Three days?” Dad asked, sitting with me across the desk from Ed Flores, Coronado High’s assistant principal. “I hate to see him get behind.”

Mr. Flores adjusted his glasses and studied the suspension referral so he wouldn’t have to look at Dad or me. “If he was so worried about his studies,” Mr. Flores answered tersely, “he shouldn’t have picked a fight with Tanner Briggs. Tanner has a broken nose and a lower lip that will take a couple of stitches.”

Dad twisted nervously in the chair. “JD usually doesn’t pick fights. Now he’s not gonna let somebody push him,” Dad added quickly. “But he’s …”

“Dad, he’s not changing his mind,” I muttered, leaning forward in my chair. I hated dragging Dad in here. He was self-conscious around teachers and principals because he had dropped out of high school when he was 16 and settled for a GED a month before enlisting in the Marines.

“Is this other kid a troublemaker?” Dad questioned. “Because if he is, that would sure explain things. My boy’s a good student.”

Mr. Flores cast me a tired, impatient glance. “Joseph must be a real scholar,” he said, unable to keep the bite of sarcasm from his tone.

“JD,” I corrected warmly. I had already explained three times that I didn’t use Joseph Dale, my first and middle names.

Mr. Flores ignored my correction and studied my clothes—faded jeans, a sweatshirt with a rip under the left arm, and tan suede-laced boots. I wasn’t exactly the picture of preppy scholarship. What Mr. Flores obviously didn’t understand was that I was a good student and that I carried a 3.84 GPA. “Perhaps when you return Monday, you can hit the books rather than the first guy who bumps into you in the hall.”

Dad and I didn’t speak again until we were in the car. “Do you want to talk about it?” Dad questioned, keeping his eyes on the road as he lit a cigarette and opened the window a few inches. He knew I didn’t like his smoking, and he usually didn’t smoke while I was in the car. But he was nervous after his encounter with Mr. Flores. Mom had tried to get Dad to stop smoking, but all he committed to do was not bring it into the house. When Mom died, even that changed.

Slumping down in the front seat, I gazed out the window. “It was the regular ‘new kid’ stuff,” I answered tiredly. “If it hadn’t been today, it would’ve been tomorrow or next week. He tried to start something yesterday in P.E. I couldn’t tuck tail and crawl out.”

Dad looked over at me. “Your mom didn’t ever like you fighting. Maybe I shouldn’t have taught you to fight.”

“Then I’d have the broken nose and sewed-up lip.”

I knew Dad was having second thoughts, wondering if we should have moved from Mesa, Arizona, to Albuquerque, New Mexico. An old buddy from his Vietnam days had invited him to work in his machine shop here, so we had picked up and moved. “It’s no big deal, Dad. Now I’ll be home to help you finish moving in.”

“I wish you had a friend or two. Just somebody to hang around with. Since your mom died, you’ve been too much of a loner.” He rubbed his chin with the back of his hand. “Are there Mormon kids here?”

I laughed and shook my head. “If there are, they make themselves scarce. I don’t need anybody to hang around with, Dad. Like you said, I’m a loner. That suits me fine.”

“Maybe we should find a Mormon church,” Dad said. “You could make friends there. Your mother always wanted that. I should’ve done that much for her.”

“Dad, the Mormon kids aren’t interested in me. I’m not one of them.”

I stared out the window. The last time we were in a church was at my mother’s funeral, two weeks after I turned 13. Mom had always been active, and I’d gone with her. But after she died we moved from our old ward, and I never went back. I knew I should go to church—that Mom would want me to—but I’d grown accustomed to being alone. It was easier that way.

Monday at lunch I wandered by myself to the cafeteria, found an empty table, and ate my lunch while I finished a geometry assignment.

“There’s a corner spot on the patio,” someone spoke to me. I looked up to face a guy about my height but 20 pounds lighter. His blond hair was shaved to the skin around his ears and was thick and straight on top. He had three gold studs in his right ear. “I’m Bo Kramer. Some of us hang out there.”

I wiped my mouth with a napkin and nodded down at my open geometry book. “I have some homework to do.”

“I heard about your trouble with Tanner Briggs. He needed someone to rearrange his face.” Bo looked me over and raised his brow. “I didn’t take you for a brain, Chugg.” He smiled. “Sure you don’t want to join us?”

I considered the offer and shook my head. Bo frowned, turned and walked away. I watched him go, knowing that I didn’t belong to Bo Kramer’s crowd any more than I belonged with the Mormons. I’d face Coronado High on my own.

A week later I stepped into one of the rest rooms. Bo and a group of his buddies were there hanging out. Ignoring the sullen glares, I began washing my hands as Bo and a friend opened a can of snuff.

As I was getting ready to leave, a young freshman kid charged through the door. He was inside before he realized who was in there. Startled, Bo hid his can of dip. The kid froze a few steps inside the rest room. He gulped and wet his lips.

“I just needed to …” He nervously cleared his throat. “I just needed to, uh, um, wash my hands. But I’ll, you know, come back later.”

“Don’t run off, big guy,” Bo said, walking over to him and putting his arm over his shoulder. “We were wondering when you’d show. What’s your name?”

“Tyler,” he answered, his voice breaking as I snatched a paper towel and began drying my hands. Tyler glanced in my direction. To him I was one more of them.

Bo laughed, holding the tobacco. “Tyler came in for his noon-hour buzz,” he announced. “Have a pinch, Tyler. It’ll grow hair on your chest.”

Tyler’s face paled as he stared down at the open can. “I don’t use it.” His protest was a mere whisper.

“What’s that?” Bo blared. “Speak up, big guy.”

Tyler shook his head and tried again. “I don’t use it.”

Bo mocked surprise, looking about the group with his mouth hanging open. Jabbing a thumb in Tyler’s direction, he gasped, “The kid don’t use the stuff.” Turning on Tyler, he growled, “Take some, kid, before I stuff the whole can in your mouth.”

Tyler looked sick, his face ashen and his thin, tight lips pressed together. He shook his head. Bo wasn’t smiling anymore. “One pinch won’t kill you.”

“It’s against my religion,” Tyler managed to squeak. “I’m a Mormon.” His breath came in short, anxious wheezes.

Bo snorted dryly while the others laughed. “I don’t care if you’re Mormon. They ain’t gonna kick you out of church for one little pinch.”

“He said he didn’t chew,” I spoke for the first time, still holding my wadded-up paper towel.

Genuinely surprised that I had spoken, Bo and his friends turned their gazes from Tyler to me. Bo studied me for a moment and then took a step away from Tyler in my direction. “Are you a good little Mormon too, Chugg?”

I couldn’t remember the last time I had ever admitted being LDS. I hadn’t exactly denied it, but I certainly hadn’t looked or acted so that anyone would ever accuse me of being one. “Maybe not such a good one, but I’m Mormon,” I answered evenly. “And I don’t use the stinkin’ stuff, either.”

I turned to Tyler and said, “Wash your hands.”

I knew Tyler didn’t want to wash his hands just then, but he did. Too flustered and nervous to grab a paper towel, he charged for the door, his hands still dripping soapy water. I followed him out, but he disappeared down the hall without saying a word to me.

The next day in the cafeteria I was eating when someone stopped at my table. I looked up to see Tyler. He pointed at the empty chair across the table from me. “You saving that for somebody?”

I hesitated a moment. “Nobody’s fighting over it.” Tyler set his tray on the table and sat down.

“I want to thank you.” He grinned. “I was in a bit of a hurry yesterday. I thought it was all over for me.”

We both started eating without speaking. “Are you really Mormon?” Tyler asked after a moment’s lull. I looked across the table at him. He was staring at me intently. “Or was that just something you said as a joke? I mean, I guess I just wasn’t …” He didn’t finish his sentence.

I rolled my tongue around in my mouth. “You don’t think I look Mormon?” I asked, keeping my face stony serious.

He flinched slightly. His mouth twitched and he permitted himself a reluctant, worried smile. “Well, you don’t exactly look like you’re expecting your mission call.”

I stuffed the last quarter of my hamburger in my mouth and chewed slowly without taking my eyes from Tyler. “Why should I kid? I’m not 19 yet.”

It was as though I’d told the funniest joke in the world because Tyler busted out laughing. “You are Mormon, aren’t you?”

His laugh was comfortably contagious. I could feel my face muscles loosen, and in a moment I was smiling. “Don’t expect me in sacrament meeting next Sunday, though.”

“Maybe we’re in the same ward. Which ward are you in?”

“How would I know? I haven’t been to church for years.”

Tyler and I were as different as a house cat and a junkyard dog, but we talked. I told him about our move from Arizona. He talked to me about his dad, how he worked on old cars as a hobby. He had fixed up a ’49 Buick Roadmaster and entered it in car shows. He was working on a ’51 Mercury now. Although I preferred being alone, Tyler was so unassuming and so uninhibited in his conversation that I really didn’t mind him hanging around.

The following day at lunch he spotted me as I was coming out of line and waved me over to his table. He had a couple of friends with him, and he invited me to sit down and join them.

“This is JD,” he said, introducing me. He turned to me a bit embarrassed. “I don’t know your last name.”

“Chugg.”

“This is Mick and Tyson,” Tyler went on. “They’re in my ward.” Turning to Mick and Tyson, he added, “JD’s waiting for his mission call.” While Mick and Tyson’s mouths dropped open, Tyler looked across the table at me, winked, and then grinned.

I couldn’t pass up joining in the joke. “Yeah,” I sighed, raking my fingers through my long hair,”it should be here any day now. That’s why I shaved and cut my hair. You should have seen me before.”

Lunch with Tyler became a regular thing. Sometimes he had other friends there. Sometimes he didn’t. It didn’t make any difference to him. Since he was a freshman and I was a junior, we didn’t have classes together. But he discovered that he lived three blocks past me, so we started walking home together.

About three weeks after the confrontation with Bo, Tyler was absent from school a day. I ate in the cafeteria alone. I had done that hundreds of times in Mesa, but for the first time in a long time I felt a tinge of loneliness. Of course, I didn’t admit that to myself right then, but I knew it was different not having Tyler’s friendly chatter.

“Were you ditching school yesterday?” I accused Tyler the next day.

“My dad let me go over to Santa Fe with him to look at an old Dodge truck he might buy. Did you miss me?” He grinned.

“I barely made it through the day,” I retorted sarcastically. “I almost had to leave school early just because you weren’t around.”

Tyler was suddenly serious. “I was going to invite you to go with us. I think you would have liked it. And I’d like Dad to meet you.”

“It’s nice to invite me now that you’re back,” I grumbled playfully. “Some friend you are. Why didn’t you invite me two days ago when I could have at least turned you down?”

“You’re pretty studious. I didn’t figure you’d want to leave school.”

He was serious. I could feel it. He really had wanted me to be with him. And he really had worried about my studies so he hadn’t asked. I continued to joke with Tyler, trying to make him feel like a jerk for not inviting me. But it was a cover-up on my part.

The following Sunday I came down with a good case of the flu. For the next couple of days I stayed in bed, aching, shaking, and coughing.

On Tuesday afternoon there was a knock at the door, which I ignored. But whoever was there was persistent. The longer they knocked, the more stubborn I became. I was not going to answer that door. Finally the knocking stopped, and I assumed they had given up. A moment later, I heard the door knob turn and the front door creak open.

“JD, are you awake?” Tyler called.

“I wondered who was banging on the door,” I said. “Can’t you take a hint?”

“I knew you were in here. What, did your dad tell you not to let strangers in while he was away?”

“Yeah, and you’re as strange as they come.”

“I brought you something.”

“Well, you’ve already woke me up. This better be good.”

Tyler came down the hall to my bedroom with a brown paper sack in one arm and his other one loaded with books. He dropped the books on the floor.

“Where’d they come from?”

“I got them out of your locker. I checked with each of your teachers and collected your homework.”

“Some pal you are,” I joked, rolling my eyes. “I stayed here to get away from the work, and you drag it home to me.”

“I didn’t want you to get behind. But I did bring some other stuff.” He opened the sack, pulled out three oranges, a carton of milk, and a bag of corn chips. “I wasn’t sure what you wanted.”

I laughed. “Well, I guess if you’ll leave the food I’ll let you leave the books too.”

He then reached over and rubbed the week’s growth of beard on my chin. “How long you been growing this?”

“Almost a week.”

“You look a little on the rough side. You know the bishop’s going to make you shave before your mission.”

“You and your mission,” I grumbled. “One of these days I ought to show up at church, walk up to your bishop and say, ‘Hi, bishop. I’m the new prospective missionary Tyler’s been telling you about.’”

Tyler smiled. “I’d like that, JD. I’d like that a lot.”

After he left, I thought of what he’d said, and I knew he really wanted me to be there in church. Just like he had wanted me to be in Santa Fe with him and his dad.

Wednesday afternoon I shaved. That evening Dad trimmed my hair. When I returned to school Thursday I found Tyler sitting with Mick and Tyson in the cafeteria. I took a chair across the table from them.

“Gosh,” Tyler gasped. “JD really must have gotten his mission call! They probably called him to the Coronado High Student Gang Mission. When do you report, JD?”

I felt my cheeks color.

I sighed. “The bishop told me I couldn’t accept.”

“Why? Are they closing down the mission because there’s too much violence at Coronado?”

Feigning disappointment, I shook my head. “The bishop said I’d have to return the call because I’ve missed church one too many times.”

“Man, I should have picked you up Sunday.”

“I knew it was your fault,” I accused, smiling all the time. “When you see the bishop, tell him you’re the reason I had to pass this mission call up.”

Tyler’s smile slowly disappeared. He became serious. “Maybe you’d better go to church and tell the bishop yourself.” He shrugged, and the faint traces of a smile flickered across his lips. “I’d like that, JD.”

After years of being a loner, I realized that Tyler, in his kind, innocent way, had shown me what it was like to belong. Ever since Mom died, I had thought off and on about returning to church. But this was the first time I felt as though I really wanted to be there. I shrugged.

“Well, Tyler, maybe I’ll show up one of these first Sundays. Now keep in mind I only said maybe.

Tyler’s face exploded into a genuine grin of triumph. “Maybe is good enough for me. I guess that means I’ll see you Sunday, JD?”

I tried to scowl, but deep down I knew I was going to be there. And when I arrived, I knew Tyler would be there with me.

Illustrated by Roger Motzkus