Hit and Run

For the first few hours of Juan's arrival, he scrawled whatever I wrote on the board, but his face was like a page in a foreign text. The entry form said he was from Peru, and that he was classified as a "beginner" in English. To me, he was just another new student, my second in a month. I always watch the new boys for signs of trouble, because mid-year disciplinary problems are often dumped at our school.

I left him alone to find his own place among the other kids, but on the playground that afternoon, I recognized Juan at the center of a crowd. His right arm was cocked, and he restrained another boy in the crook of his left. His tiny fist landed with the blunt punctuation of a jackhammer. I blew my whistle and ran.

The other boy was crying and bleeding from the nose, his shirt splattered with bright red, his diminutive chest heaving. Juan stood alone and uninjured, his face still inscrutable, as if his eyes were doors to his soul rather than windows.

After school I sat at my computer and wrote a letter to the counselor.

*

It had been a month since the dull thud of the motorcycle on the grass, and the body hitting the tree. For such a violent death, the end had crept on soft-padded feet. There had been no screech of brakes. The motorcycle had flipped then rested in the park's lawn. And the man's body had been lightly tossed, describing a gentle arc in the air almost balletic before wrapping itself awkwardly around the tree trunk. Insomniac neighbors would have heard little more than a series of thumps, the slow of a car, then the slight acceleration as the perpetrator vanished.

In my dream sometimes I leave the car. I crawl to the man on hands and knees, and the crawling is difficult, as if the night air is made of translucent putty. I reach him at the base of the tree, and he blames me. "See what you did?" he says. "I have a family. I have a wife and children waiting at home. They'll never see me alive again. How could you do this to us?" I tell him I'm sorry. I weep. His blood mixes with my tears. His face is the face of a kind man made hateful. I beg him for a forgiveness I don't deserve.

*

Our counselor, Liz Nesbit, was tall and lanky, with glasses and stubborn curly hair that reminded me of a pruned hedge. At some point she'd probably decided to just chop it and hope for the best.

A few days after pulling Juan from math to interview him, she replied to my message. According to the e-mail, Juan's father had left them, and the loss had extinguished the happiness of a once lively, loving young boy.

In this fatherless boy, I saw my chance for redemption.

*

The night Juan invited me to his apartment for dinner, I noticed a large wooden crucifix in the hallway. It bore a Jesus with bowed head, and he guarded the family's inner sanctum of kitchen and bedroom. I paused involuntarily, for a brief instant afraid He would blame me for what I'd done and bar me from taking another step. But then I told myself that I'd been brought here to right the wrong I'd committed, to make peace with the restless soul I'd sent prematurely to Him.

We settled at the kitchen table, and they observed me as I fumbled with my spoonfuls of beans and rice and spicy meats and sauces I didn't recognize. I communicated with a thumbs up sign, and eager nods, and brief interjections such as, "Oh, very good," and the few words in Spanish I knew, "Mucho delicioso," which were received with smiles.

After dinner, Juan's mother indicated with a wave of her hand her desire to give me a tour of the tiny apartment. She seemed to believe there was a lot more to see than the hallway I'd stood in, and the kitchen where we'd eaten. Maybe she had the idea from television that Americans give tours of their homes. Or maybe in her country it was a tradition to show a visitor around.

In the living room, a small Panasonic television sat on a box draped with a threadbare gold-colored cloth. From there, Juan's mother pointed along the hallway toward the entrance. I nodded, demonstrating the fact that I recognized the hall. Then we crossed five or six steps to the only room I hadn't yet entered the bedroom.

Juan must have slept on the cot next to the bed. His mother was tidy; both the bed and cot were made with carefully upturned sheets under multi-colored, hand-woven blankets. The bedroom had the restless intimacy of bedrooms everywhere, where people shed their worries and pains and lay themselves down to sleep, what, in my more morbid moments, I sometimes think of as a rehearsal for death.

I tried to smile at the room so that I could get away faster. Peering in bedrooms always strikes me as a violation of someone's privacy, even when that someone invites me to look. Juan, too, began to fidget and even once tugged at my sleeve. The mother nodded her head "okay," as if content that the tour was now over. Before she closed the door, however, I caught sight of a mini-shrine on the dresser. There were photos of a man in front of a house in some far away village. He was young and strong, a man to comfort and protect those whom he loves. I understood that he was Juan's father, and the resemblance in the thick arms and broad face confirmed my intuition. Around the photos stood uneven candles with recently blackened wicks. Although in my eagerness to close the bedroom door I didn't ask about the man, the shrine seemed a strange way to honor someone who'd deserted his family. It would have been more appropriate, the thought struck me, as a way to pay tribute to a dead man.

*

Three weeks before Christmas I received an e-mail from Liz Nesbit asking me to meet in her room. The message praised me for how I'd helped Juan. He'd opened up in counseling. He'd begun to express his feelings, to wrestle with thoughts he hadn't the words nor courage for at the beginning of the year. He'd even mentioned me personally, and wanted to show me a book he'd made. The three of us would share this achievement together.

The chairs in Liz's office were all children-sized, and the table near the wall stood a mere two feet from the ground. I arrived first and tried to squeeze into one of the chairs. Liz's chair was the only one large enough for an adult, but I didn't want to take it from her. So I sat in the tiny chair, wriggling my butt a little to get comfortable, and stared at the drawings posted on the wall with colored pushpins. In one, a girl held the hand of a woman while an orange sun splintered into rays behind them. The flowers looked like lollipops with fingers. Another drawing showed two boys playing on a slide and the words, "I miss you brother." I felt like an overgrown child sitting in that chair, unable to fit no matter how I tried. I also experienced the charge of a sudden anxiety, as if I'd soon be expected to open up to a counselor. But when I glimpsed Juan through the window of the door holding Liz's hand, the anxiety passed.

"I'm sorry," Liz said. "Let me get you a bigger chair."

"That would be great," I said with a smile.

Juan carried a large binder, and he struggled with it as if its weight were more than merely physical. I patted him on the back and asked, "What have you got there?"

"Pictures I made," he said. "To show you."

Liz returned with an adult-sized chair and placed it across from hers. I gave Juan my chair to form a tight circle.

"Well," Liz began as if to declare the beginning of the meeting. "I called us together because Juan wanted to show you what he's been working on in counseling. He's been making excellent progress, and he wants to thank you for all your help."

I smiled proudly. I didn't have a son but, at that moment, thought I knew how it must feel to be a father.

Liz's face brimmed with maternal empathy. We were a family.

"I felt bad," Juan said.

"I know you did," I said.

"I lied to you," he said.

I looked to Liz.

"He means he didn't tell you the truth about his father," she said. "That's what his breakthrough in counseling has been. Today he wants to share the truth with you and ask for your forgiveness."

"Your father didn't go away?" I asked, confused now.

"He did," Juan said.

Juan opened the binder to better explain himself. He handed it to me as Liz watched. The binder was full of drawings, each slid carefully into a plastic divider.

The first was a scene I recognized, with huts dotting a mountaintop protected by a watchful sun.

"That's where you're from," I said. "Your home."

Juan nodded.

The next showed three figures trapped behind bus windows. "My family," Juan said. "To America."

My hands began to tremble as I turned the pages. I tried to use only the tips of my right hand. I didn't want Liz to notice.

The next page showed a broken motorcycle with a man lying beneath it.

"What's this?" I asked.

"I lie to you," Juan said. "I so sorry."

The following page repeated the same scene from above. The scene appeared again on the next page, and then again on the next, each time from a different viewpoint, as if the artist had worked obsessively to both understand and exorcise its significance.

The shaking of my hands became so fierce that I turned the pages just to hide the rippling of the paper and plastic.

"His father did leave the family," Liz said, although her voice was coming from very far away now, almost through water. "But not in the way that he first told us."

"Why?" I asked, but I wasn't asking about Juan's deception.

"He couldn't face his father's death. He wanted to believe he could still return. These pictures came out of therapy."

"Where did it happen?" I asked, my voice like the final whisper of someone being strangled.

"Right here in Redwood City. One night soon after they arrived. Now he wants you to forgive him for his lie."

"Forgive him?" I whispered, but I wasn't sure any sound had passed my lips this time. My stomach threatened to spew its lining on the floor. I heard popping noises between my ears and my vision was blurring.

"Forgive me," Juan said. "Please." He reached his small hand out for mine.

But I wasn't responding. I kept staring at the pictures, hypnotized by their colors. Days passed during which I wandered like a stick figure at the scene of the accident. I was trying to lift the motorcycle, to help the crumpled form beneath, but my stick figure arms were too thin.

"Go on," Liz urged. "He's asking for forgiveness. It's the only way to find peace. Just say the words."

About the author:

All Chandler Dean's joy is pure joy, and all his pain is champagne.