Though the character ‘Jo Schulz’ was named after a friend (with her permission) this story is in no way meant to reflect that friend or my feelings/attitudes/relationship towards her.
It was a fight. It was the kind of fight small children have when they still believe in cooties. The other kids had left, and now, it was only the two of them, arguing and nearly cat-pawing each other on the porch: Max Greene, the quirky boy with the glasses, sitting on a plastic chair near the amaryllises and Jo Schulz, the sweet girl who had Downs Syndrome, standing on the other side of the porch, swinging the birdfeeder with a tap of her left index finger and making seeds drop on the flowerbed.
They were deeply entrenched in the argument, like two Greek scholars, though neither could say what had started it exactly.
If you’d asked Max, he’d say, “Jo is annoying. She won’t leave me alone, and she won’t stop touching me.” He’d puff out his chest, with the Marvel emblem on his shirt, and whip back his brown hair dramatically. Or he’d push his glasses up his nose, like he always did, and give you the stink-eye.
Jo would have said differently. Her throat would have tightened, and her tiny, slanted eyes would have gotten watery. Her shoulders would have sagged. Probably, she wouldn’t have said anything, even if pressed hard. She was stubborn. She would have just sat there and refused to move even after Max had apologized. She’d have crossed her arms over her chest, hid behind her blond hair, even lain across the porch step and pretend to be dead. She did that sometimes when she was in her worst moods or if she wanted to seem funny. Jo had learned that such tactics got people to give her attention, and she had also learned that being stubborn was the only way of not having to do what she was told every single time.
If, by a lucky chance, you had gotten her to say anything or if you had forced her, she would have muttered something about, “Max, um, uh, don’t love me” and thrown a flappy hand in the air.
Now, they stood in tension, eyeing one another.
“Yew idiot, Max,” Jo laughed, swinging the birdfeeder one more time before slapping him playfully. “Yew such an idiot.”
Max growled under his breath. Jo tossed her blond hair behind her, stuck her butt out, and wagged her head. She stuck her tongue out too now.
Max made his hands into fists and smiled at the tendons in his arm, thinking he was so strong. Of course, Jo claimed he wasn’t. She’d even felt his bicep once and called him a wimp. Dumb girl!
“Yew’r such an idiot!” Jo said in her singsong voice.
Max got up, pushing the plastic chair back, and stomped his feet on the porch.
“You’re so annoying!” he barked. “Leave me alone.” His fists got tighter. His eyes got real green. He’d say the word—the word mom never let him say:
He slapped Jo across the face, not hard, and her eyes got huge—blue oddly-shaped pools. Right there, she started crying.
Max froze. His hands dropped. He looked at her, stiffly, then away. He decided he had to escape the situation. Quickly, he marched into the house, his back straight, pretending nothing was wrong. He slammed the door behind him, more out of sudden fright than anger.
His mother stood behind the counter, her hands deep in a batch of squishy dough, her gray hair wrapped loosely in a bun. She peered at him.
He quickly escaped her glance, looking down at her dry hands instead.
“Did you pick up the stones in the front yet?” she asked. Maybe she hadn’t guessed anything was wrong. “Daddy needs to mow the lawn.”
He shook his head.
“You should’ve done it yesterday,” she groaned.
The stones had been swept into the lawn during winter snow shoveling, and it was his chore to get them out. He got paid twenty dollars for doing the whole yard. Not a bad price. But Max was allergic to grass.
He crossed his arms and looked at his mom with puppy eyes.
“There’s so many stones to pick up—they’re everywhere,” he whined. And you know how the grass makes my eyes sting.”
“You can take a Benadryl when you finish, but you need to do your part.” She gave him the sweet look. The small smile and raised chin and the slightly creased eyebrows. “You had your friends over today—I’d say it’s only fair.”
Max rolled his eyes.
“Jo’s still here.”
His mom nodded.
“Yes, we promised her parents we’d give her a ride home. Now, the sooner you get out there, the sooner you’ll be done. Okay?”
He slowly walked outside again, his shoulders slouched.
He closed the door behind him.
Jo sat on the porch step, underneath the porch, her head bent down between her legs. Her hands holding her knees in tight-clamped fists of self-preservation. She’d only been trying to annoy him, he knew. She hadn’t wanted to make him angry.
He should say something, but what? Sorry, maybe? But that was too embarrassing.
He had to pick up the rocks. The lawn spread in front of him, an unending expanse of green and yellow deep enough to plunge into like an ocean. Drowning in grass. But on one side were the stones that made up the driveway. In the front was the long, winding road that was really just a short dead-end neighborhood with hardly any traffic ever.
Max waded in the grass, his eyes already getting itchy, feeling as if smoke had gotten in them. He picked up a rock. The sun was glaring at him.
He’d said it. He’d actually said it. “Shut up.” He’d also hit a girl, which dad said he was never supposed to do. The image of the girl on the step, hugging her knees, sitting there in sorrow because of him—it made him feel like some sort of savage animal. A completely naked savage animal, exposed and found vile.
He picked up stone after stone and threw them in a rage at the driveway.
You have to say something to her. You just have to pluck up the courage and do it, you idiot.
It was the name she’d teased him with.
Max only picked up stones faster and shot them across to the other side of the driveway, constantly stealing nervous glances at the girl on the step.
Slowly, she looked up from between her knees and smiled, her eyes red. Max looked at her, self-consciously aware that he was staring. But she was smiling.
“What ya’ doing?” she asked.
Max started, as if he thought he’d been looking at a painting or a statue, and suddenly realized that it could move and talk.
“A chore,” he said.
Jo’s lip twisted half-up in a far away smile. “What chore?” She was getting up from the step.
“Picking up rocks,” Max said.
She was running towards him.
“I help you.”
He snickered a little, nervously, under his breath, in confusion, and opened his mouth to respond. Then closed it quickly again. Jo was right in front of him now, picking up rocks and throwing them in the driveway. He looked at her sidelong, his eyebrows creased.
“Why are you doing this? I just slapped you and told you to shut up.”
Suddenly, she put her arms around him and squeezed. He stood, awkwardly stiff in her embrace.
When she let go, Max touched his arms, where she’d put her warm, dry hands. Who knew how often she washed them? Who knew where they’d been? But they were perfect.
“I forgive you. I help you,” Jo said. She winked at him, grabbed a stone, and threw it. It plunked on the driveway. “Easy!”
He smiled at her and threw a stone himself.