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28

She would not wait until her sixteenth birthday to quit school.

She would be expelled in November 1951, and she would not return.

She would break Rose Lutters heart, for it could not be helped.

For that day shed had enough. Fuck it shed had enough. Long they had harassed her at the high school. Her teachers knew, and the principal knew, and did nothing to intervene. In the tenth grade corridor at the stairs the older Meunzer girl shoved Rebecca from behind and instead of behaving as if she hadnt noticed, turning the other cheek as Miss Lutter advised, walking quickly away without a backward glance, Rebecca turned and threw her books at her assailant and began to hit her, striking with her fists as a boy might strike, not overhand but from the shoulder, and beneath. And a second assailant flew at her, a boy. And others joined in against Rebecca. Cursing, scratching, punching. A thrill as of wildfire spread through the corridor, once Rebecca was wrestled down to the floor and kicked, and kicked, and kicked.

They hated her that she was Herschel Schwarts sister, and Herschel had left Jeb Meunzers face disfigured by scars. They hated her that she was the daughter of the gravedigger Jacob Schwart whod killed a man named Simcoe, a name well known in Milburn, and had escaped by killing himself and would not die in the electric chair. Long theyd resented Rebecca, that she persisted among them. That she would not humble herself. That her manner was often arrogant, aloof. Both with her classmates, and with her teachers who were uneasy in her presence, and seated her with other misfits and troublemakers at the back of their classrooms.

All whod been involved in the fight were expelled from Milburn High and ordered by the principal to leave the school premises at once. It made no difference that Rebecca had been first attacked, he would allow no fighting at his school. There was a possibility of appealing the principals decision, in the new year. But Rebecca refused.

She was out, she would not return.

Miss Lutter was stunned by the news, devastated. Rebecca had never seen the older woman so distraught.

Rebecca, you cant mean this! Youre upset. I will talk with the principal, you must graduate from high school. You were the one who was attacked, you were only defending yourself. This is a dreadful injustice that must be rectified Miss Lutter pressed a tremulous hand against her chest, as if her heart were beating erratically. Almost in that moment Rebecca weakened, and gave in.

But no: shed had enough of Milburn High. Shed had enough of the same faces year following year, the same staring impudent eyes. Imagining that they knew her, when they only knew of her. Imagining that they were superior to her, because of her family.

Her grades were only average, or poor. Often she cut classes out of boredom. The course she disliked most was algebra. For what did equations have to do with actual things? In English class they were forced to memorize poems by Longfellow, Whittier, Poe, ridiculous singsong rhymes, what did rhymes in poems have to do with things? Shed had enough of school, she would get a job in Milburn and support herself.

For days Miss Lutter pleaded with Rebecca. You would have thought that Rose Lutters future itself was endangered. She told Rebecca that she should not let those ignorant barbarians ruin her life. She had to persevere, to graduate. Only if she had a high school degree could Rebecca hope to find a decent job and lead a decent life.

Rebecca laughed, this was ridiculous. Decent life! She had no hope of a decent life.

As if what Jacob Schwart had done surrounded her like a halo. Everywhere Rebecca went, this halo followed. It was invisible to her but very visible to others. It gave off an odor as of smoldering rubber at the town dump.

One day Rose Lutter confessed to Rebecca, she had retired early from teaching because she could not bear the ignorant, increasingly insolent children. Shed begun to be allergic to chalk dust, her sinus passages were chronically inflamed. Shed been threatened by white-trash parents. The principal of her school had been too cowardly to defend her. Then a ten-year-old boy bit her hand when shed tried to break up a fight between him and a smaller boy and her doctor had had to give her a prescription for nerves and heart palpitations and the school district granted her a medical leave and at the end of three months when shed re-entered the school building she had had a tachycardia attack and had nearly collapsed and her doctor advised the school district to retire her with a medical disability and so she had conceded, it was probably for the best; and yet she wanted so very badly for Rebecca not to give up, for Rebecca was young and had all her life before her.

You must not replicate the past, Rebecca. You must rise above the past. In your soul you are so superior to

Rebecca felt the insult, as if Rose Lutter had slapped her.

Superior to who?

Miss Lutters voice quavered. She tried to take Rebeccas stiff cold hands, but Rebecca would not allow it.

Touch me not! Of the myriad remarks of Jesus Christ she had come to learn, since moving into Rose Lutters house, touch me not! had most impressed her.

your background, dear. And those who are your enemies at the school. Throughout the world, barbarians who wish to pull the civilized down. They are enemies of Jesus Christ, too. Rebecca, you must know.

Rebecca ran abruptly from the room, to prevent herself from screaming at the nagging old woman Go to hell! You and Jesus Christ go to hell!

But she has been so good to me. She loves me

Yet the end would come soon now, Rebecca knew. The break between them Rebecca halfway wished for, and dreaded.

For she would not return to that school, no matter how Miss Lutter pleaded. No matter how Miss Lutter scolded, threatened. Never!

More and more she began to stay away from the tidy beige-brick house on Rush Street, as once shed stayed away from the old stone house in the cemetery. The potpourri fragrance seemed to her sickening. She stayed away from church services, too. After dark, sometimes as late as midnight, when every other house on Rush Street was darkened and utterly still, she returned guilty and defiant. Why do you wait up for me, Miss Lutter? I wish you wouldnt. I hate it, seeing all these lights on.

I hate you, I hate you waiting. Leave me alone!

The tension between them grew tighter, ever tighter. For Rebecca refused to tell Miss Lutter where she went. With whom she spent her time. (Now that she was out of school, she was making new acquaintances. Katy Greb had quit school the previous year, she and Katy were again close friends.) Since shed been attacked at school, so viciously, so publicly, ugly welts and bruises lasting for weeks on her back, thighs, buttocks, even her breasts and belly, she had come to see herself differently, and she liked what she saw. Her skin shone with a strange olive pallor. Her eyebrows were so fierce and dark, like a mans nearly touching above the bridge of her nose. A rich rank animal-smell accrued to her skin, when she sweated. With what sudden inspired strength shed struck Gloria Meunzer and other of her assailants with her fists, shed made them wince with surprise and pain, shed drawn blood.

Smiling to think how like the outlaw Herschel she was, in her heart.

And there was Miss Lutter, persisting. I am your court-appointed guardian, Rebecca. I have an official responsibility. Of course I want only what is best for you. I have been praying, I have been trying to think how Ive failed you

Rebecca bit her lip to keep from screaming.

You havent. You havent failed me, Miss Lutter.

The very name Miss Lutter made her smile, in derision. Rose Lutter, Miss Rose Lutter. She could not bear it.

I havent? Miss Lutter spoke with mock wistfulness. Her thin faded hair had been crimped and wadded up somehow, flattened against her skull beneath a hairnet. Her soft skin that was lined terribly about her nearsighted eyes, and sagged at her chin, glistened with a medicinal-smelling night cream. She was in her nightgown, a royal blue rayon robe over it, tightly tied about her very narrow waist. Rebecca could not keep from staring at Miss Lutters chest that was so flat, bony. Of course I have, dear. Your life

Rebecca protested, My life is my life! My own life! I havent done anything wrong.

But you must return to school, dear. I will see the principal, hes a man of integrity whom I know. I will make an appeal in writing. Im sure that hes waiting for us to appeal. I cant allow you to be treated unjustly.

Rebecca would have pushed past Miss Lutter in the narrow hall, but the older woman blocked her way with surprising firmness. Though Rebecca was taller than Rose Lutter and heavier by perhaps fifteen pounds, she could not confront her.

Your destiny, dear. It is bound up with my own. Sow not your seed in a stony place.

Jesus didnt say that! Not those words, you made it up.

Jesus did say that. Perhaps not those exact words, but yes He did.

You cant make up what Jesus says, Miss Lutter! You cant!

It is the essence of what Jesus said. If He were here, you can be sure He would speak to you as I am. Jesus would try to talk some sense into you, my child.

In scrubby areas of Milburn you saw scrawled on walls and sidewalks and the sides of freight cars the words fuck fuck you fuk you which were not for girls to utter aloud. Boys uttered such words constantly, boys shouted them gleefully, but good girls were meant to look away, deeply embarrassed. Now Rebecca bit her lower lip, to keep such words back. FUCK FUCK YOU ROSE LUTTER. FUK FUK FUK ROSE LUTTER. A spasm of hilarity overtook her, like a sneeze. Miss Lutter stared at her, wounded.

Ah, what is so funny, now? At such a time, Rebecca, what is so very funny? I wish that I could share your mirth.

Now Rebecca did push past Miss Lutter, into her room slamming the door.

Damned lucky and you know it. You! It was so, she knew. He was reproaching her. For a father had the right.

Always in that dim-lighted room where time passed so swiftly she was missing something. Always she strained to see, and to hear. It was a strain that made her spine ache. Her eyes ached. Living again those confused fleeting seconds in the stone house that would mark the abrupt and irrevocable termination of her life in the stone house as a daughter of that house. The termination of what she would not have known to call her childhood let alone her girlhood.

The smell of potpourri confused her, mixed with the smells of that other bedroom. She struggled to wake breathing rapidly and sweating and her eyeballs rolled in her head in the agitation of trying finally to seewhat lay on the floor, obscured in shadow.

A wet glistening shadow beyond the bed. The soft fallen body that might have been (in the semi-darkness, in the confusion of the moment) simply discarded clothes, or bedclothes.

Ma? Ma-

No. She could not see. He was blocking her view. He would not allow it. When she was neither fully awake nor fully asleep she had the power to summon again the vision of her father Jacob Schwart smiling tightly at her and his eyes wet and fierce as he tried to maneuver the awkward weapon, trying to shift the barrels unobtrusively in that tight space, for he wanted to aim the gun at her and yet he did not want to touch her. For with his fatherly puritanical tact he would not wish to touch his daughters breasts even by way of an intervening object. Rebecca had seen her father staring at her chest, frequently in the past year, not knowing how he stared and that Rebecca saw, instinctively she turned aside, and thought no more of it. Nor would he wish to touch her throat with the gun barrels, where an artery was beating wildly. Still she tried to see past him, to where her mother lay unmoving. Where the upper body of what had been her mother dissolved into a shapeless darkness. She would see, she must see!-except not clearly. So long as her eyes did not open and she hovered in that twilight state between sleep and wakefulness she could see into that room and by an act of will she could see backward.

Again approaching the stone house from the gravel drive. And there was the crudely painted front door. And there, in the backyard of the house, the clothesline, and on the clothesline laundry stirring in the wind for it was a windy May afternoon, the sky overhead was splotched with swollen rain clouds. Towels, a sheet, his shirts. His underwear. So long as the laundry flapped on the line it was an ordinary washday, always there is something comical and reassuring about laundry, there could be no danger waiting inside the house. Even as a strangers voice came urgent and jarring Dont go in there!-stop her! A womans voice, distracting. And yet already it was too late. For in history there are actions that no act of history can undo.

She was missing something! Always she was missing something, shed failed to see sufficiently, or to hear. She must begin again.

Running along the Quarry Road, panting. And into the cemetery on the gravel lane that had become shabby in recent months, pebbles scattered in the grass at the sides of the lane, and weeds emerging. Dandelions everywhere! For the caretaker of the Milburn cemetery was not so fastidious as hed once been. For the caretaker of the Milburn cemetery was not so courteous and deferential as hed once been. There was a vehicle or vehicles in the interior of the cemetery. And something was wrong, there was some upset there. And a woman calling to Rebecca, who gave no sign of hearing. Calling Ma? in a voice so absurdly weak, how could Anna Schwart have heard it! Rebecca was inside the house when the explosion erupted. The very air shook, vibrated. She would believe that she had witnessed the shooting, the impact of the buckshot at a distance of approximately six inches from its soft, defenseless target, yet she had not witnessed it, she had only heard it. In fact the explosion was so deafening she had not heard it. Her ears had not the capacity to hear it. Her brain had not the capacity to absorb it. She might have fled in panic as an animal would have fled but she did not. A recklessness born of the stubborn inviolable vanity of the young, that cannot believe that they might die, might have carried her inside the bedroom where virtually in the doorway, for the room was so small, Jacob Schwart was standing blocking Rebeccas way. She was pleading with him. He was smiling his familiar smile. It was a mocking smile of stained and rotted teeth like a crudely carved jack-o-lantern smile yet it was (she would see it so, she who was his only daughter and the only child remaining to him now) a mordantly tender smile. A reproachful smile and yet a forgiving smile. You! Born here. They will not hurt you. His words were senseless like so much of what he said and yet she, his daughter, understood. Always she would understand him though she could not have articulated what it was she understood in his despairing and jocular face as, grunting, he managed to turn the shotgun against himself and there came a second explosion far louder than the first, far more massive, obliterating; and something wet, fleshy and sticky flew at her, onto her face, into her hair where it would coagulate and have to be carefully scissored out by a stranger.

Yet: Rebecca had missed something, again. God damn it all passed so fast, she could not see.

The crucifixion of Christ, that was a mystery.

The crucifixion of Christ, she came to detest.

Listening stony-hearted and unmoved as Reverend Deegan preached his Good Friday sermon. That Rebecca had heard before, and more than once. The mans bulldog face and whiny, blustering voice. Betrayal of Judas, hypocrisy of the Jews. Pontius Pilate washing his hands of guilt with the excuse What is truth? And afterward at the house shed wanted to escape yet could not for Miss Lutter must read aloud from the Book of St. John as if Rebecca were not capable of reading for herself. And Miss Lutter shook her head, sighing. Cruelly Rebecca thought Its for yourself you feel sorry, not for Him. And Rebecca heard herself ask, with childlike logic, Why did Jesus let them crucify Him, Miss Lutter? He didnt have to, did He? If He was the Son of God?

Warily Rose Lutter glanced up from her Bible, frowning at Rebecca through silver-rimmed bifocals as if, one more time, to Rose Lutters disgust, Rebecca had muttered a profanity under her breath.

Well, why? Im just asking, Miss Lutter.

Hating the way the older woman was always looking so hurt, lately. When it wasnt true hurt but anger she felt. A schoolteachers anger at her authority being challenged.

Rebecca persisted, If Jesus really was God, He could do whatever He wanted. So if He didnt, how could He be God?

It was supreme adolescent logic. It was an unassailable logic, Rebecca thought.

Rose Lutter gave a moist, pained cry. With dignity the older woman rose, shut up her precious soft-leather Bible, and walked out of the room murmuring, for Rebecca to overhear, Forgive her, Father. She knows not what she says.

I do, though. I know exactly what I say.

That night Rebecca slept poorly, waking often. Smelling the damned potpourri on her bureau. At last, barefoot and stealthy, she carried it out of her room to hide in a hall closet, beneath the lowest shelf where, to her chagrin, Rose Lutter would discover it only after Rebecca was gone.


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