The Gods Of Angkor Wat
By Ken Rodgers
Mrs. A brought in a slide show of some place called Angkor Wat. There were weird buildings with towers like the soft, twisted ice cream you can get at the Dairy Queen. She called them pagodas. She went there in the summer. Before I got in third grade. As she talked, she paraded around the front of the class with her red hair and freckles. Her hair stood out against the dark wood paneling of our classroom. She went there with her husband and daughter, to Angkor Wat, in some French place in Asia. Mrs. A’s daughter, Chrissy, has red hair, too, and she wears it short. Chrissy can run fast and punch hard. She’s in fourth grade. When she gets promoted next year, she’ll go to North School. Then she won’t hit me all the time.
While Mrs. A was showing the pictures on the screen, me and Elver were shooting spitballs at each other. He told me he was going to whip my ass at lunchtime. Sometimes he’s my best friend. We go to church together where his dad’s a deacon. His dad’s a sheriff’s deputy, too. Last summer Elver’s dad whipped me with a willow switch. I taught Elver how to say, “Fuck.” We stood out in the yard in the irrigation ditch and yelled, “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
Elver’s mother called his dad. He came home in his sheriff’s car. It has a neat siren on it which was whining when he arrived. After he got out of the car, he stripped a willow switch and got after me and Elver. After a little while he sent Elver in the house and said to me, “Boy, I’m going to whip that vulgarity out of your mouth.”
I hopped around as he whipped me. I could feel it through my jeans. It hurt, but not as much as when my father whips me. Father gets me barelegged and raises ugly welts. I didn’t tell Elver’s dad his whipping wasn’t near as bad as my father’s. I screamed and cried a lot, so’s he’d stop before it did start to hurt.
Elver wanted to kick my ass today because I hit his cousin Nick in the head this morning at recess. We were playing Red Rover. Some girls were playing, too. Jinny, mostly. She lets me kiss her. I started last year. Kissing her. This morning she let Nick kiss her, too. He was holding hands with Jinny when I called, “Red Rover, Red Rover, let Nicky come over.”
He was laughing as he ran towards us. Like he was going to break right through our line. He came straight at me. I could see a shiny spot above his right eyebrow. He was smiling. I don’t know why I did it. Hit him, I mean. I just hit him right on that shiny spot. He fell on the ground and kicked his legs around. He screamed. The kids got in a circle around him and clucked like quail in a mesquite thicket. I was standing alone. I looked at my fist. The knuckles throbbed. I liked that feeling.
I had to go see Mrs. A. She’s the principal, too. She made me sit outside the office for a long time. The secretary wouldn’t look at me. I stared at the big calendar behind her. It showed a painting of Santa Claus trying to get down a chimney.
Mrs. A came out of her office and frowned at me. Her face was so red it was hard to see her freckles. She made me march in and stand in front of her desk. She walked around with a paddle in her hand. She walked behind me. I covered my butt with my hands. She slapped the paddle on her leg.
She said, “Ennis, why did you hit Nick?”
I looked at the hardwood floor. There was a lot of dirt in the joints where the flooring pieces came together.
She said, “Ennis, why did you hit Nick?”
I said, “I don’t know.”
She said, “Ennis, you are always hitting somebody. Why?”
I didn’t answer. I stood there looking at the floor. I stood there with my hands over my butt. She didn’t whip me.
After Mrs. A stopped talking about Angkor Wat, it was time for lunch. We had grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup. I don’t like cheese and I don’t like tomatoes. I threw my lunch in the garbage can along with my empty milk carton. I ate the bread pudding.
Outside I saw some older kids playing by the picnic tables. I went over there. Mrs. A’s daughter was one of them. She had a magnifying glass. She was burning something into the top of the table. I walked over and watched the way the sun came through the lens and pinched down to a tiny, white-hot dot that made the wood in the table top smoke. She was writing, “Chrissy loves,” but there wasn’t any name there yet, I mean the name of who she loved. I got up close. She looked up at me and frowned, then stuck her tongue out.
Right then somebody pushed me from behind. It was Elver. I turned around and he threw a punch at me. But he missed. I got him in a headlock and Dutch-rubbed him. I could feel his hair underneath my knuckles. He squirmed. I kicked his feet out from under him. I fell on top. I whispered in his ear, “Fucker, fucker, fucker.”
He threw me over and started to hit me in the face. He knocked my glasses off. Tears got in my eye. Chrissy A was screaming, “Hit him, Elver. Kick his ass.”
I got ahold of his hair and pulled hard. He stopped hitting me and whined. I yanked harder and he tried to get away.
Someone yelled, “Cheater.”
I got behind him and bit him on the side of the neck just below his left ear. He jerked hard, but I sank my teeth in deeper. There was blood in my mouth. I liked the taste of it, the way it reminded me of tinfoil.
Somebody grabbed me and threw me to the ground. Through the tears in my eyes I could see Chrissy. She was hissing under her breath. I couldn’t make the words out, but I didn’t like the sound.
The playground proctor, Mrs. C, came along and grabbed me by the back of my shirt and hauled me off to see Mrs. A. This time Mrs. A wasn’t so nice. She’d had holes drilled in the paddle. I could hear the air sluice through them as she swung it. I got five swats. They burned like my father’s belt. Mrs. A was little. Her whipping surprised me. I didn’t let her know, though. My guts hurt from the fact that I refused to cry. She called my momma at work. Momma’s boss gets mad when people call her at work. My momma wasn’t there, though. I was glad. Momma would tell Father. He’d whip me, too, most likely.
After she swatted me, Mrs. A said, “Why did you bite him?”
I looked at the ground. She shook me by the shoulders, “Why did you bite him?”
“He was whipping me.”
She rolled her eyes at Mrs. C, who was standing there watching.
Back in the class, Mrs. A talked about adding numbers. I kept looking at Elver. One of his eyes was swelling up and turning black. I felt like my chest would explode. I liked that feeling.
At recess, Mrs. C came and got me off the playground and took me to Mrs. A’s office, again. I put my hands over my butt as we walked. Mrs. A said, “Ennis, your grandfather has passed away.”
I stared at her. I still held my hands over my butt. I thought, must be my father’s father. The other one’s dead.
She said, “Ennis, your grandfather has passed away. Do you understand me, honey?’
I nodded. I didn’t know my grandfather. Just his black and white milk cows, and the old horse out in the barnyard. And his three-legged dog. The yellow one with the concrete block tied around a chain that was looped around his neck. I didn’t know my grandfather.
Mrs. A said, “Honey, after school you go right to your momma’s office. She wants you to walk right over there. She’ll wait there so she can take you to a babysitter while your daddy and she go to see about your grandfather. Understand, honey?”
After recess, Mrs. A talked about spelling words. Every time she said another word, I’d look away from her red hair and the dark paneling. I’d look outside at the Chinese elm trees. Their naked branches reminded me of the termite tubes that ran along the walls of the barn where my grandfather kept his black and white milk cows.
Once, when I was looking out the window at the old stone church across the street, I heard Mrs. A clear her throat. I looked at her real fast so’s she wouldn’t think I wasn’t listening to her. She was staring at me. I looked at the floor.
After school, I walked out the front gate and headed for Momma’s office. On the sidewalk in front of the school, Chrissy A and Thel, Elver’s other cousin, were leaning against the chain link fence. I tried to get by, but when Chrissy hissed at me I said, “Fuck you.”
Thel jumped at me and I hit him in the nose. I felt it cave in. Blood shot out and ran down the front of his shirt. He looked at me like one of those movie cowboys who dies when the hero shoots him at the Saturday matinee. He was crying. The sight of him crying made my insides feel like they were boiling over. My face got hot. I kicked him in the nuts. He screamed and fell to his knees. Chrissy grabbed me and started slapping me on the face. She knocked my glasses off. I hit her in the breasts. That’s where I hit my older sister when she messes with me. When I hit my sister there, she folds her arms over them and runs away. When I hit Chrissy, she stopped slapping me and yelled, “Don’t hit me there, it causes cancer.”
Those words were like worms digging on the inside of my ears. I punched her in the breasts as hard as I could, once, then again and again. I could hear other students rooting. Chrissy tried to get away from me. I tripped her. She whopped when she hit the concrete. I pulled her over on her back and punched some more and every time my fists hit those breasts I hissed at her, “Die, fucker, die.”
Mrs. C suddenly had me by the arm and yanked me around and started kicking me in the butt, saying, “Don’t you ever hit a girl. Don’t you ever hit a girl. Especially not there.”
Her breath was hot on my face as she said those words. I thought I could smell onions. Her face was as white as the spots on my grandfather’s black and white cows.
Jinny was standing behind the crowd looking at me. I couldn’t read her face. Nick was there with a knot over his right eyebrow. He was smiling.
Mrs. A was real mad. She said, “Ennis, I’ve seen you in here too many times.”
She grabbed her paddle. “Ennis, do you understand?’
I looked at her. She was lit up like one of those red Christmas tree lights hanging on the tree in our living room.
“Ennis, do you understand?”
By now, Momma would be swearing under her breath. Father hated to be late. I suddenly thought about those pictures Mrs. A showed of Angkor Wat. I could see the pagodas sticking up. Mrs. A said that they worshiped other gods at Angkor Wat. I wondered what Elver’s dad would think about those other gods. He was always looking at heaven and talking real loud about our god. I wondered if my grandfather had gone to see our god, if he was talking to him about milk cows.
“Ennis, do you understand?”
Momma would be here soon. To see why I was late. Father would be here, too. He hates to be late.
I covered my butt with my hands, noticed the dirty joints in the floor. I heard the hiss of the paddle. It reminded me of the sound of milk hitting a tin pail when my grandfather squeezed the tits of one of his black and white cows.
Ken Rodgers writes poems and prose and teaches on-line writing classes from Boise, Idaho. See more about him at KennethRodgers.com.
Photo "Despair" courtesy of Marcel Hol, Rotterdam, Nerthlands.
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