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Jason and his Grandmother CHAPTER 1

The Kitten When I was thirteen I was in the seventh grade, in a certain sort of town. It was one of those towns where you knew everyone in your neighborhood, but no one in any other neighborhood, of which there were many. There were about thirty of us in my class and we had all been together for seven years. Perhaps one or two of my classmates had moved, and one or two had replaced them, but essentially we were like brothers and sisters. One day there was a most unusual event, a new boy arrived in the middle of the term; by the name of Jason Sweet. From the moment he entered our room one could see that he was strikingly different from the rest of us. His uniqueness announced itself by two things: his clothing and his hair. He wore dirty, ill-fitting second-hand clothes, and his matted and uncombed hair stuck out in small tuffs at odd angles. Our long-suffering teacher was talking to him as he came into the room but, as if he was deaf or hard of hearing, he didn’t seem to hear her. Around our classroom was a chalk tray, and in it were a lot of books lined up. When we had reading hour on Thursday afternoon, we would chose a book from the tray and read it for an hour at our desk. Jason picked up one of the books and started to look through it. It was just an unlucky chance that he picked up the book that he did, the favorite book of the boys in the class. On the cover it said, History of the United States; a big dark blue book with a picture of an eagle and a flag on the cover. But no teacher had looked closely at that book or it would not have been among the books in the chalk tray. The title actually read, A Cultural History of the United States. Lincoln wasn’t in our favorite book and Washington wasn’t mentioned. It had chapters like Cinema, Organized Crime, Jazz and Blues. It was full of fascinating pictures like John Dillinger full of bullet holes. Our favorite picture was of an actress named Jean Harlow, who was wearing a dress, but you could almost see through the cloth, under the dress there was apparently nothing. I suppose it wasn’t the nakedness that we liked about the picture so much as the happy look on her 50 • JULY 2019 THE ARTFUL MIND

face, as if she knew you were looking at her but didn’t mind. She was not like any of the women or girls we had ever seen in actual life. The book had been opened to the page with her picture so many times that Ms. Harlow opened for Jason as soon as he picked it up. He looked at the picture, and then he got a big crooked grin on his face. That was Jason’s strange introduction to our closed society. Later, about halfway through the math session, Jason got out of his seat for no reason at all and walked over to the chalkboard to have another look at Jean. To get up from one’s seat without asking for permission was an act of extraordinary rebellion in that place and time, and in our entire seven years of schooling it had never happened. We were all amazed at the audacity of it. Our teacher said nothing at first, but then, using a tone that would admit of no contradiction, she ordered Jason to return to his seat. Jason did not return to his seat, instead he seemed to grasp the back pockets of his ill-fitting trousers and pull them apart while at the same time bending over. We could not imagine what such a posture could possible signify, but our teacher was so offended that she shouted, “Jason, are you some sort of an animal?” Jason turned around to her and with strange composure replied, “Yes, I am a crocodile.” With that he opened his mouth as wide as possible showing us his missing front teeth, and roared at her. Our teacher was stunned into silence. In the face of this mutiny to her authority she didn’t say a word but put herself down into her chair behind her desk, pressing her hands on the desktop for support. We were witness to a complete impossibility; she did not go to the phone, the principal’s office was not called, and the police were not summoned. For the rest of that day Jason alternately sat in his seat, or roamed about the room, picking up and examining anything that aroused his interest. He even looked through Dorothy’s backpack and ate some of her lunch. He was however, entirely quiet. I once saw a rabid raccoon acting the same way; slowly curious about everything, and afraid of nothing. Jason’s behavior upset all of our established preconceived ideas about existence, as we had understood it up until that day. His arrival had many inexplicable things about it. First was the fact that the principal was not called, and the police did not come to the school. We had been told for years as an absolute fact that if we misbehaved after being yelled at, the principal would be called. Further disturbance would involve the police, and then “Reform School.” What Reform School consisted of, and where it was, no one had any idea. Reform School was never described to us and its location was unknown. No details about it existed even in our imaginations. So, when the principal was not called, it was as if the doors of some invisible prison were discovered to be unlocked. When I look back on it now from a broader perspective, I would have to say that Jason gave us our first glimpse of the terrible real world where there were no actual rules that you could obey and so depend on, a world where anything might happen to anyone. Every boy in our class became terrified of this new Jason person, and we actually held a conference to decide what to do about him. We all suffered from the conviction that he would murder each of us one at a time. The question was, “Will we be strangled, or simply stabbed to death.” We talked of a group attack, but then had to consider that he would subsequently just kill us one at a time. We took a vote, and it was de-

cided that I would attack him and “teach him a lesson.” Why I was chosen probably had to do with the fact that some time previously I had purchased a dagger from a mail order catalog. My aluminum dagger featured a naked woman as the handle, and the only time it was out of its hiding place in the rafters of the attic was a few days after it arrived when I had exhibited it proudly to my closest friends after swearing them to secrecy. The fact that I owned this secret object has earned for me a reputation for fearlessness among my peers. Of all the boys in our class it turned out that I was in the greatest danger from Jason. I found out very soon after he appeared in our class that he lived in a newly constructed housing project just a few blocks from my house, and on my route to and from school. My parents had talked often about this strange housing project but I was unable to quite understand what they were concerned about. For some unknown reason there was an atmosphere of fear associated with everything about it. My father had this to say, “Who authorized it? That’s what I want to know.” And so I began to have a terrible fear of him and his housing project, and to avoid him I would go out of my way by a great distance. This paranoia gradually became an obsession with me, until finally my life was completely disordered by it. Then one day a solution presented itself to me in a most outlandish way. Late one night I was returning home from a dance at the school. I was walking, alone and lost in thought, in front of one of those apartment houses that have bushes with prickers and small red berries on them that you’re not supposed to eat. The bushes were planted along the border of the sidewalk, and intended to act as a fence. Suddenly, from among the bushes, some small animal leaped out and attacked my leg. I had no idea what it could be, but I discovered something interesting about fear. If you are truly frightened by something you begin to scream very loudly without realizing that you have started screaming. You hear someone screaming and then realize that it is you yourself that is making the noise. It is also true that your hair stands on end in such situations. After a while I stopped my screaming and became aware of a weight of probably about a pound attached to my ankle. All around the bottom of my pant leg was a prickly sensation, and a curious rattling sound like a coffee grinder makes. It was dark. I couldn’t see what it was. Finally I bent down and discovered that I had a cat attached to my left foot. I was glad to make friends with a strange little animal in the night. He was an extremely happy little cat, who after he had detached himself from my foot threw himself down on the sidewalk on his side, switched himself from side to side, and begged and pleaded with his little cat like tricks, to get me to pet him. The cat explained to me how best to deal with Jason. I would not try to beat him up, but instead I would make friends with him, but first I would treat him to the friendly kitten experience. RICHARD BRITELL: FROM THE BLOG NO CURE FOR THE MEDIEVAL MIND

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the artful mind july 2019