two years I had worked here, not once had
I seen Mrs. Ballantyne
at my store.
No surprise there. I did not work at
the kind of "high end" grocery store frequented by the rich and
For one thing, my
store was well off the beaten path for her.
My store in the Montrose area was nowhere
near her River Oaks
neighborhood two miles away.
knowledge of the area suggested three grocery stores much closer to her
home, including Jamail's on Shepherd Drive, a store down the street
from her home which catered
directly to the grocery needs of its affluent River Oaks
Mrs. Ballantyne had no business shopping here.
Consequently I could not shake the feeling this visit had to be deliberate.
Ballantyne had come
to see me! Why else would a wealthy woman like
stray so far off the beaten path to shop at my middle-class grocery store?
My curiosity was on
I quietly followed the lady as she made her way
through the store.
Lost in my haze-filled
dream world, I hoped and prayed she was here to clear up the
confusion surrounding the Jones Scholarship.
The odds of her appearance
were so remote, I simply could not believe her sudden appearance at
such a critical time in my life was an accident. However, there was nothing remarkable about her
journey. She took her time squeezing the tomatoes and
comparing the prices on cans just
like everyone else. She was obviously in no hurry to get to me.
My heart began to sink.
had to be a deliberate visit. It had to be, it had to be, it
had to be...
however, it didn't look it. Slowly but
surely, a more reasonable
part of my mind was reporting that her visit probably did not have anything to
do with me.
If this busy woman
wanted to see me, she would not be wandering around the store aisles
evaluating her meat choices at a snail's pace. Instead she would have
tracked me down at the front
of the store
the moment she walked in the door. This powerful woman would have walked
directly over to me and said, "Young man, could I have
a word with you?"
With that realization, I
sighed heavily. This visit wasn't about me, was it?? Oh well.
I felt a keen sense of disappointment. Crestfallen, I slowly
began to accept that Mrs. Ballantyne was not
here to see me.
Now I began to wonder if
she would at least recognize me. I had wanted to meet this
woman for the past nine years. At one point, she had been my
biggest hero. I wondered what she knew. Did Mrs.
Ballantyne know that I had
disgraced myself by cheating on the German test? Did Mrs.
Ballantyne know that I had handed the Jones
Scholarship to her daughter Katina through my stupidity? I doubted
Mrs. Ballantyne knew anything about that. Hopefully Mr.
Salls had not told her anything.
To be honest, I was under the firm impression that
Mrs. Ballantyne had no idea who
I was. Although she might vaguely recognize me thanks to my scarred face, to her I
was at best a background bit player in the daily scenery of her visits to St.
John's. It felt weird that the most important woman at St.
John's, my longtime hero, had no idea her invisible admirer was
following her around.
As I watched Mrs.
Ballantyne move through the store, I experienced a wide gamut of
emotions. To my surprise, I was happy to see her here. If
she had come here one week earlier, I would have been furious.
However, in the past week I had
calmed down quite a bit, especially towards her. If I was
angry at anyone, it was Mr. Salls. However, once I realized I
was being punished for cheating, my anger towards both people had cooled dramatically.
Right now my anger was directed at no one but myself.
Eventually I had to get back to work. She certainly wasn't looking for me, that much I
could tell. With a deep sigh, I concluded once and for all this visit had nothing to do
More than likely,
Mrs. Ballantyne had been passing by my store after some
meeting in the Montrose area and had found it
convenient to stop here on her way home.
That said, I was
intrigued by her visit. I continued to wonder if she would recognize me.
I had long been fascinated by this woman. Furthermore, if we could
just talk, maybe I could find a way to steer the conversation to
Katina and perhaps get a better understanding of why her daughter had been given the scholarship.
But first I wanted to
see if the woman knew who I was.
I pegged my chances of
being noticed at 50%.
Mrs. Ballantyne and I had never
in nine years over at St. John's. Nor could I recall a
passing smile. Every time our paths crossed, she passed right by me
without a glance. I
looked at her but she never looked back. Not once. Considering how small
my school was and how many times I had lingered in the shadows near her, the fact
that we had never
accidentally bumped into each other was kind of odd in
The one thing I was sure of
was that Mrs. Ballantyne did not
know she had been my secret candidate for best mother in the
world. How could she? I had never told anyone, not even
Mr. Curran. Nor
could she possibly have known about my recent grudge towards her. How could she? I
had never told anyone.
Okay, so maybe our paths
had never crossed at St. John's, but today maybe I could change
that. I intended to use some
initiative and make sure our paths finally did cross.
I arranged with the
other sackers ahead of time to let me take
care of Mrs.
I was on pins and needles awaiting her arrival. Unfortunately,
since Mrs. Ballantyne was clearly taking her time, my anxiety
continued to build.
was in the store for a solid thirty minutes before heading to the
checkout line. I looked at the clock. It was 4:40 pm. She had two full
carts swollen to the brim with groceries. That made
sense. She had a large family. I also noted that with
two carts, more than likely she would accept my offer to take the
groceries to her car. Finally, after nine years, our paths
were about to cross.
strange appearance had brought all my confusion
over Katina's award back to the surface. As Mrs. Ballantyne
waited for her turn to be checked, I asked myself again
why Mr. Salls had punished me. Okay, yes, I had cheated... but I was the only one who knew this for
a fact. The boy who saw me could not possibly have gotten a
good look and Mr. Salls didn't seem like the kind of person to throw the book at
me without more evidence. I had begun to wonder if my guilt
had made me jump to the wrong conclusion.
My gut told me my
Headmaster respected me...
and yet I was also certain it was upon his authority that Katina had been
given the Jones Scholarship. Could there be another
explanation that I had missed??
Maybe Mrs. Ballantyne
had meddled after all. Or maybe not.
Try as I might, I simply
could not solve this mystery.
One moment it was my fault, the next moment it was Mrs. Ballantyne's
fault, the next moment it was Mr. Salls' fault. I had to be the most confused kid on the planet.
It aggravated me no end that I couldn't find an answer other than
the cheating angle to
explain how a poor kid had lost a shoo-in scholarship to a rich girl.
I would be grateful if
Mrs. Ballantyne could give me a hint.
Fat chance of that.
Now it was Mrs.
Ballantyne's turn to have her groceries checked. With a contorted
half-smile and half-sneer that summed up my mixed feelings about the
woman who may or may not have stolen my scholarship, I greeted the legendary Mrs. Ballantyne at the checkout counter and offered to sack her
bags. With a nod, I received permission. My initial impression was that she had no idea who I was.
As I filled her bags, I watched her face intently
out of the corner of my good eye. If she was up to something, she
definitely had me fooled. Once she looked right at me while I
sacked her groceries and I saw no sign of recognition.
Not even a blink. Her face was impassive. Mrs.
Ballantyne was concerned about making sure the checker
didn't overcharge for an item or double charge the same item twice.
The blank look said it all. Mrs. Ballantyne did not have a clue who I was.
I indulged my curiosity
by observing my hero/nemesis close up. Mrs. Ballantyne was an attractive woman
of great bearing, perhaps 5' 4" in height, medium build. She
had thick, dark brown hair, brown eyes, and a dark olive complexion that gave her a
suntanned Mediterranean appearance. No surprise there.
After all, she was Greek by heritage.
She was very relaxed and
seemed to be in no rush.
presence in my store was just an odd coincidence, I was sure of it
now. There was no longer any doubt in my mind. Given her
blank stare, she did not have the slightest idea who I was.
After she paid her bill,
I politely offered to take her groceries to her car, an offer she
accepted. This was an interesting moment for me. Despite the
unfortunate events of last week, in this moment I realized my
admiration for this woman had not diminished.
I was very
excited to be standing next to her. This was like meeting Elvis or
Marilyn Monroe by
accident. My confusion over the Great Scholarship Robbery
didn't seem to matter any more. All I felt was the rebirth of
my hero worship.
at the same time, my desperation to know the truth about the
scholarship mystery was also at the forefront of my mind. Due to my
uncertainty and confusion, I found myself tongue-tied. I toyed with the idea of introducing myself, but
I was much too nervous to say anything.
to the car was done in
I was lost in thought.
If Mrs. Ballantyne had not come to see, then what she was doing
here? I mean, her presence was downright weird, especially
coming just one short week after last week's horrendous Great
Scholarship Robbery. Furthermore, her sudden appearance
reminded me of something that had been bothering me. It was quite a
coincidence that the three people I studied the most frequently at my school
- Mr. Salls, Mrs. Ballantyne, and Katina - were directly involved in my scholarship mystery.
Why did it have to be Katina? Let's
pretend someone said to me, "Tough luck, Rick, you aren't going to
win that award. However, can you guess who will win it?"
Katina Ballantyne the winner? C'mon. No way.
Katina would never have crossed my mind. Over the years I had
watched Katina like a hawk since she was the most visible extension
of Mrs. Ballantyne, my "mother icon". I knew everything about
Good grief, Katina's
father was a doctor! The family lived in River Oaks,
domain to the rich. Her parents were so wealthy they sent
seven children to this school at the same time. Mrs.
Ballantyne herself was the most admired mother at the school. So to
see Katina of all the students at St. John's win the prize was
disconcerting. Although no one in the school was poorer than
me, I knew of at least two students in my Senior class who were
probably on partial scholarship. If I was disqualified, both
would have been more deserving choices from a financial standpoint
Therefore it had already crossed my just how odd it was that Katina of all people
would win the
prize that I coveted so dearly.
And why Mr. Salls?
How was it possible the one faculty member I admired the most would be
responsible for the quandary I was in? He had to know how much
I needed this scholarship.
And then there was Mrs.
Ballantyne, the object of my motherhood star search since the 4th
grade. Of all the people in the world, what was she doing
here today? Was it my imagination or was something very strange going here?
In the past week, my
thoughts and moods had varied wildly. My initial grudge towards
Mrs. Ballantyne had simmered down. The cheating insight had diminished my anger towards the woman
As I followed to her car at the far edge of the parking lot, my
thoughts flipped back and forth. On the one hand I was really
excited to be near her. On the other hand, try as I might, I
found myself suspicious of her. I had to be the most confused
teenager on the planet. A third part of me was intensely
curious to see if Mrs. Ballantyne knew the answer to the Scholarship
Yes, Mrs. Ballantyne was
someone I admired. Yet the person I admired more than anyone
at the school was Mr. Salls.
It still upset me terribly that Mr. Salls
had not spoken to me about the cheating incident or the Jones
Mr. Salls had to know how
important that Jones scholarship had to be to me!! Why did he
turn his back on me!!! WhyWhyWhy?
I sighed deeply. The answer was obvious...
Mr. Salls had decided that Katina
deserved the award more than me. Okay, that was his right.
even if he didn't give it to me, wouldn't he at least say
something? I had always thought Mr. Salls liked me. Lord
knows I worked my butt off in his class for the past three years. Mr. Salls had to know I needed that scholarship. He had to
And that brought me back
to the cheating angle. Maybe Mr. Salls was angry. Here
was a young man who had been given a full scholarship to St. John's,
the most prestigious academic school in the city, and the young man
had shown a total lack of respect by violating the Honor Code.
The Honor Code was very important to Mr. Salls.
A surge of guilt passed
through me. This had to be the explanation. I would
never know the truth. Mr. Salls didn't owe me an
explanation. Mr. Salls wasn't going to bother spelling it out
for me. He knew I was intelligent enough to figure it out on
my own. I had cheated. End of story.
And yet... my instinct
said I was missing something. I was going crazy. And
now, just when my life could not get any crazier, Mrs. Ballantyne showed up out of thin
air. This had to mean something! As the ancients would
say, surely this was an Omen!
But now it looked like I
At first, I thought Mr. Salls had sent Mrs.
Ballantyne here to cheer me up. However, that elation was
Mrs. Ballantyne was here to buy groceries. I needed to get a
grip and stop all this magical thinking. I was not important.
I was a nobody kid with a scarred face who cheated, would not be
going to college, lived in a Mexican halfway house and sacked groceries.
I hung my head very low. I had never felt
more like a loser in my life.
My mind drifted to a curious observation.
Two days ago I had seen Mr. Salls
and Mrs. Ballantyne on one of their afternoon strolls together in
the exterior hallway that framed our Quadrangle. In virtually the
same spot where Dunham, the class prefect, had brought up the
subject of the cheating incident a month earlier, I saw the two of
them talking and
laughing as usual. Seeing how happy they were in the exact
place where my life had started to unravel upset me badly. I wanted scream bloody murder at both of them.
I had the kind of grades that were Ivy League caliber, but thanks
to these two, I was headed to Houston Community College next year.
The sight of those two
together had upset me no end. I understood that this dilemma
was my fault, my responsibility, but some infantile part of me still
wondered if they had colluded together to cheat me out of my
brunt of my
blame focused on Mr. Salls because he had the authority to pull
the trigger on this decision. However, that didn't let Mrs. Ballantyne off
the hook. I still believed that Mrs. Ballantyne had pulled
some shenanigans and that I would find her fingerprints in
Then the healthy part of
my mind pointed out that if I had been a parent in her place, I would
have done the same thing. She had only done what a good parent
is supposed to do... find ways to help her own child. Seeing
as how my own mother didn't even know the scholarship existed, I
concluded the better mother had won this round. No surprise
As Mrs. Ballantyne and I
took the long walk to the edge of the parking lot together, my mind
was in chaos with all these mixed up thoughts. Seriously, I
felt like a dog
chasing his tail. I went round and round with explanations.
Every time I was certain I had this mystery figured out, some new angle would cast
doubt on my latest theory. Something about that damn
scholarship didn't make sense and I was determined to get to the
bottom of it. Who could I ask to get a
straight answer? As we walked to the car, a part of me
urgently wanted to stop pulling the carts and ask this woman what in the hell was going on.
do you have any idea why on earth
Mr. Salls gave that award to Katina
and not me?"
But that question did
not get asked. That question was right
on the tip of my tongue, but I did not have the courage to ask it.
Nor could I say anything else. I was so scared of blurting out the question
that I pressed my lips together. Oh, it was so
hard to remain silent!
Round and round I went.
The one woman on earth who might know the answer was walking
beside me and I didn't have the guts to say anything!
I hated myself.
Ask the question, you idiot! She knows. Just ask the
It was no use. Due
to my insecurity and my overwhelming depression, I was in no mood to
risk such a bold move. Maybe she didn't even know. There was only one thing I
was sure of - even
my darkest, most bitter thoughts I did not think Mrs. Ballantyne's maneuvering had
anything to do with me personally. I took another glance at
her and realized my anger was gone.
Although initially I had
blamed Mrs. Ballantyne for my misfortune, she had no idea I even
existed. Even if she did do something, how could I fault her for
helping her daughter? Katina won; I
lost. That's just the way life
had it set up.
I hurt so badly right
now. A dream of a lifetime had vanished. Losing that scholarship
was brutal. However, a comforting thought occurred to me.
Yes, I was way down at the moment, but at least I
was still able to force myself to show up for school and work. I would just have to find a different way to
get to college, even if it meant waiting for a year.
But right now
I ached all over. If only I could get this awful pain and
bitterness out of
Out of nowhere, a huge stab of
bitterness hit me as the ancient envy returned. The emotion
was so strong I actually lost my step for a moment. I felt
a hot, burning rage!
Katina was so
lucky to have someone like this powerful woman to protect her!
This was all so goddamn unfair!
The anger whipped through my
consciousness. Katina Ballantyne had Mrs. Ballantyne and her
immense political savvy to thank for her scholarship. As for
me, I had
ineffective mother plus Father of the Year.
Katina had someone to watch
out for her; as always I was flying solo.
Tough luck for me.
I had been on my own my entire life. That's how I felt.
A flash of 'Me
Against the World' rage tore through me. To my
astonishment, I felt my body come back to life. How dare they take my
scholarship away!! Damn it to hell, I'll show them! I'll make it anyway!
my Senior year of high school was a start to finish disaster.
But I was still going to graduate from the finest school in Houston
with remarkable SAT scores and some of the best grades in my class.
I would make it to college one way
or the other. If not next fall, then the year after that.
My life was hardly over. Get a grip!!
With this unexpected
infusion of pride, I immediately stood up straighter.
Wow! Where did all that
anger come from? It felt suspiciously like my
defiance had begun to resurface.
I was surprised at the intensity. Rather than be upset, I was thrilled.
feeling heralded the possible return of my fighting instincts. Could it be true?
Was I starting to come back to life?
I might be the most
bitter kid in the world with the world's biggest chip on my shoulder, but that
was the undisputed source of my competitive fire. I would
prove to everyone that I was just as good as Katina Ballantyne and
every single one of my classmates. For the past nine years, it was this fire that drove me to make some of the highest grades in my class
and go to work even when I didn't want to. I had more
self-discipline than anyone could imagine. I smiled grimly.
Waves of resolve passed through me telling me to start trying again.
Yes, my father's rejection still
stung like hell. Yes, losing the scholarship and Mr. Salls'
respect was beyond devastating.
Okay, I made a terrible mistake by cheating. But I
wasn't crippled, was I? Get the hell back up and start
I could not believe
myself. This was crazy. Walking next to Mrs. Ballantyne
had triggered a violent chain reaction of emotions that had led to
me to discard my thick cloak of self-pity. What could possibly
be weirder than this woman's visit? Yes, somehow I would
make it through this set-back. I was sure of it.
A thought crossed my
mind. That which doesn't kill
you makes you stronger. Hmm. Where had I heard that? Now I remembered.
For three years, I had sat in
Mr. Salls' German classroom with that phrase posted on his bulletin board.
Ah, Mr. Salls.
Him. It crossed my mind that Mr. Salls must like Nietzsche
as well. If so, why? Was there a reason I was so drawn
to Mr. Salls? No matter how angry I was at Mr. Salls right now, some
crazy part believed he still cared about me. If so, he sure
had a weird way of showing it. How was I ever going to solve
Oh well, I would solve
the mystery later. Nietzsche was telling me to
quit staring at the goddamn Abyss and start fighting again. I felt better already.
Now another strange thought
crossed my mind. Just
walking next to Mrs. Ballantyne seemed to have a rallying effect on me.
woman radiated so much self-confidence that just being next to her
made me want to quit feeling so sorry for myself. Now a new set of questions arose. Who is this woman? And
what on earth was happening to me?
On the way to the car,
Mrs. Ballantyne never said a word. However, as I placed the
groceries in her trunk, I did notice her studying me intently.
Would she guess my identity?
After I finished putting the groceries into
the trunk of her car, I
gathered up the two carts and prepared to leave.
I had decided against introducing myself. I shrugged my shoulders
with disappointment. Oh well.
I did not even have the courage to make eye contact. I was far
too intimidated by the presence of this powerful woman.
That is when
Mrs. Ballantyne stopped me. She
said, "Young man, do
you mind if I ask you a question?"
"No, of course not."
"Are you by any chance a student at St. John's?"
"Yes, ma'am, I go to St. John's." My heart
skipped a beat.
"I thought so."
My heart was racing.
My hero... or should I say 'heroine'?... had just talked to me! Amazing! Mrs. Ballantyne
and I were speaking together for the first time in our lives. To
me, it was like meeting a celebrity who engages a stranger in a normal
conversation. I was really excited to be noticed.
Then I caught myself. Wasn't I supposed to be mad at her?
At this point, my immature
thinking kicked in again. Maybe she really had come to
see me? Otherwise, how would she know I went to
St. John's? My mind scrambled for an explanation.
Then I looked down at my
clothes and realized I was still wearing my St. John's uniform. Darn
it, of course.
An outfit identical to the St. John's uniform
would be hard to miss for a woman who practically lived at my school.
During our trip to the car,
with no one else to look at but me, Mrs. Ballantyne must
surely have thought it was odd
to see some random boy wearing khaki pants and
a white button-down
shirt identical to the outfit her three boys
wore every day. No doubt the outfit positively screamed
Mrs. Ballantyne was curious.
A pause took
place as she looked at me and I looked back. I could
feel my invisibility cloak being tugged at.
First Mrs. Ballantyne
It was a long shot, but she was no doubt proud that her hunch was correct.
Good guess! Then her expression changed and a frown crossed her face.
I tried to read her mind. I
assumed she had begun to
wonder what a St. John's student was doing
in a place like this.
Mrs. Ballantyne knew she didn't belong
if she didn't belong here.... pause... then by definition a St. John's student did not belong here either.
Bingo. This boy whoever he might be did not belong here. So what was a St. John's student
doing here? Her gaze focused in. Mrs.
Ballantyne began to study me with total concentration.
Now it was my turn to be
I knew exactly what she was
up to. She wanted to get to the bottom of this mystery.
What on earth was a St. John's
student doing working in a place like this? And who is this
boy? What grade is he in?
Mrs. Ballantyne's face twisted a
bit while she worked through her confusion. I almost laughed,
but fortunately I
Ballantyne was working hard trying to solve an impromptu Riddle of the Sphinx
here at the edge of
a parking lot in the middle of nowhere. I was amused because all she had to do was
ask, but she didn't want to ask. She wanted to figure it out!
I smiled. That spoke to character. If I didn't know better, Mrs. Ballantyne was just as
curious and just as
analytical as I was.
Let's see how good she is!! I could see the tumblers in her mind
working overtime to solve the puzzle. There were only 220 students in the entire SJS
Upper School. Mrs. Ballantyne was
certain she had to know me. After all, she was at the school every day.
shouldn't be too hard. But it was hard. No immediate
answer popped into her mind. The Invisible Man had her
stumped. This was so ironic. I had been staring right at
this woman for nine straight years approximately three times a week
and she couldn't place me.
I watched as her eyes
Her pride was wounded that the answer eluded her.
I could see
the intensity of her concentration ratchet up.
This was proving much
more difficult than she expected. She was trying to place
me, but she couldn't figure it out. So now she played for time.
Ballantyne started asking questions
in hopes the answer would come soon
"How long have you worked here
at this store?"
"Almost two years."
"Really? How often do you work?"
"Four days a week. Three afternoons after school and all day
"And you have been doing this for two years?"
"Doesn't this interfere with
but I need the job."
I smiled to myself.
I knew exactly what she was doing. She had begun to play the
St. John's version of "What's My Line". All this lady had to do was ask, but
she didn't want any help solving this puzzle! I concluded this
lady was just as competitive as
Katina and the rest of her children.
Mrs. Ballantyne made no
signs of leaving which surprised me. Now it was my turn to do
some guessing. I wondered why
she was showing so much interest in me. I assumed it was the mystery that was
drawing her to me.
From her point of view, this
was an improbable scenario. What was a St. John's student
doing sacking groceries after school in a place like this? Trust
me, this was no ritzy neighborhood. The kids who lived around
here went to public school if they went to school at all.
I would also imagine Mrs. Ballantyne had never met a St. John's student who had
told her 'I need this
job'. This had to be a first.
On the surface, my
statement made no sense. By definition, St. John's students
lacked for nothing. Sure, a few of the kids had part-time jobs
working for their parents. One of my Senior classmates
sold expensive designer shoes at Sakowitz on a Saturday afternoon to her prep
school girlfriends, but that was a prestige
job. All her girlfriends made a visit to her department part of their Saturday
pilgrimage to the mall. Sacking groceries at a grocery store
for the middle class didn't have quite the same cachet.
I could see the wheels
turning in her mind. This
lady was clearly intrigued. Why did a boy who attended the most
expensive and most exclusive prep
school in the city need to work
menial job after school? Why would any
prep school kid ever need a job like this?
Mrs. Ballantyne still
hadn't placed me yet. But she was too competitive to give up
easily. So she continued questioning me.
is very tight at home. I have been
worried about finding some way to pay for college. This job is my
frowned at my unexpected answer. Her face said she did not like
that answer at all. She kept studying me.
Finally it clicked.
I knew it the moment her expression changed.
"I think I recognize you.
Aren't you in my daughter Katina's class?"
Nice work. I smiled. Smart
"Yes, ma'am, that is correct."
"I thought so."
She nodded and smiled, pleased that she had finally placed
And there it was.
It had taken
but Rick Archer and Maria Ballantyne had finally met.
At this moment, the most
famous parent at St. John's had just connected to the least famous
student at St. John's for the very first time.... in a remote parking lot
in the wrong neighborhood
miles from campus.
I felt uncomfortable at how utterly random this meeting was. This
meeting was quite a coincidence. Think about it... we should
have met long ago at St. John's. Our school was so small I estimate that I
Ballantyne's path 1,000 times at St. John's over the
Although the distance
varied from five feet to 50 yards, I imagine I saw this lady on average 3 times a week
at the school. 40 school weeks a year. 9 years. 3 times
a week, 40 weeks, 9 years = 1,080. Round it off to 1,000.
sightings at St. John's yet I had no memory of exchanging
a glance, a smile or a simple 'hello'. Not once. There
the slightest bit of contact between us. Like two strangers
riding the bus to work, over the years we had shared the same ride 1,000 times without
Now this inability to
connect might make sense if we were talking about a large college
campus, but keep in mind that St. John's was so small that I
literally passed Mrs. Ballantyne's shoulder at least once a
The dominant feature of
St. John's was a lovely green area in the center of the school known as the Quadrangle.
surrounded the Quadrangle. Since only Seniors could walk in
the Quadrangle, the rest of the students and the faculty were funneled
into the open air Hallway that
connected about 15 classrooms plus the Administration office.
Mrs. Ballantyne used
the same Hallway I did. Mrs. Ballantyne
loved to stop in that hall and talk to one of her children or
Mr. Salls. Considering I used that hallway nine times a
day, I brushed past her in the hall at least once a week.
Once in a while I would find myself walking right behind her.
All she had to do was turn around and I would have been face to face
with her. But that never happened. Not once.
Although I was too respectful of her space to do something
like deliberately bump into her, I certainly didn't go out of my way to avoid her.
Whenever I would walk right past Mrs. Ballantyne, I would look
directly at her.
I never got a single
return glance back.
Now I will make my
point: By the laws of probability, we should have met.
how the hallway compressed us all into a tight space, by the laws of random
motion in physics, our paths should have connected at least once. But it never happened.
We mysteriously kept apart.
Asteroids collide in space all the time, but
it becomes obvious that Rick Archer and Maria Ballantyne were never
destined to meet... until now.
So now we had finally met...
but not in the confined space of the school hallway, but rather at a remote parking lot
two miles from school. The utter improbability
of this chance meeting left me deeply unsettled. I could not shake the thought that someone
had arranged this meeting.
I started asking myself questions. Why here? Why had we met here in my grocery
store parking lot of all places? Why not at St. John's?
The Open Air Exterior
can be seen in the background
For nine years, my path and Mrs. Ballantyne's
crossed several times a week in the Hallway marked in yellow.
But we never once met at St. John's. Not once.
Oh well, I had no
explanation. The important thing
was that I had finally met my idol. After all these years,
thanks to a very odd coincidence, the most
visible parent at St. John's had finally noticed the least
visible student, a nondescript boy who just happened to be a huge admirer.
I was very pleased that
Mrs. Ballantyne had been able to finally place me. That spoke volumes about her powers of observation. I
was impressed. How did she do that?
I decided that surely the boy with the battered face had to be
vaguely familiar. Just as the prettiest person stands out, so
would the ugliest.
I imagine Mrs. Ballantyne had seen me around campus at the various times
when we passed in the hallway. Even
if I remained in the distant background of her conscious field, one
can imagine my cratered face registered in the back of her mind at
At this point, Mrs. Ballantyne
snapped me out of my thought process.
"I thought I knew
you from somewhere. Do you know who I am?"
"Yes, ma'am. You
are Mrs. Ballantyne, Katina's mother. We have never met, but I
have known who you are for years. I see you at the school all
I laughed to myself.
Mrs. Ballantyne had just asked if I knew who she was. And I
had replied yes with a straight face that gave nothing away.
What would she think if she knew I was obsessed with her the same
way a kid follows a baseball star? However, I had always kept
a discrete distance, so obviously my hero worship had not
"What is your name?"
I hesitated. Depending
on the situation, I went by five different names: Dick, Rick, Rico, Ricardo and Richard.
My mother reserved 'Richard' for the times she was mad at me.
These days I was always 'Richard' at home. I was 'Ricardo'
to Janie and 'Rico' to Linda at Little Mexico. I was 'Dick' at school. I
had come to hate that name with a passion thanks to Harold's "Dead Eye Dick"
taunts. Two years earlier I had switched to
'Rick' here at the grocery store. It had been
my symbolic way of making a fresh start.
So which name
do I give? I decided on the fresh start.
"How long have you been
St. John's, Rick?"
"Nine years? Really? I wonder why
we haven't met before."
You and me both! I had wondered the same thing many times.
I shrugged my shoulders and smiled. "It does seem odd, doesn't
I figured we were done now. The pleasantries of the
chance meeting had just reached a tidy conclusion of sorts.
Mrs. Ballantyne had figured
out where she knew me from, learned what I was doing here, and learned
my name. This was a good opportunity to say something cheerful,
wish me a nice day, tell me she would see me around campus and return to the lifestyle of the rich and famous. I
imagine that is what every other parent at St. John's would have done.
Not Mrs. Ballantyne.
To my profound surprise,
didn't budge. Instead, she took a step backward
lean back against the car. Then she crossed her arms and shifted a
little more to get comfortable.
Now Mrs. Ballantyne began to study me in earnest. I'll be darned. If I didn't know better,
Mrs. Ballantyne was just
She was clearly evaluating me.
A thrill went
through my body. Oh my goodness, there was going to be a Second Act to this
unusual meeting. Could this really be
happening? Here we were in the
equivalent of Timbuktu and this powerful woman had just taken a sudden
interest in me, a nobody kid. Well, if we were going to keep
talking, thank goodness this
was a cool spring day in mid-March. Any other
time of the year and we would have both melted in the heat.
Her next question was a
"Rick, if money is so tight at home, then how on earth do your parents
manage to send you to such an expensive school?"
Another good question.
Well, she asked, so I decided to tell her
some of my story - how Dad paid for a while, how Uncle Dick had paid
for a while, and how Mr. Chidsey had come through for me starting in the
9th grade. After I
explained my full scholarship status, Mrs.
Ballantyne nodded. It was starting to make sense
to her now. I was poor kid who was able to go to a rich kid's
because I went for free. And I had a
job because I didn't know how else I was going to afford to pay for
Mrs. Ballantyne smiled.
"That's quite a story, Rick.
I am impressed. A full scholarship at
St. John's is quite an accomplishment. Your parents must be very
proud of you."
Ouch. That hurt.
In fact, that hurt a lot. She had hit a bad nerve.
It had been ages since either parent had expressed pride in me.
How was I supposed to explain the intense bitterness I felt?
I decided to hide my
"Yeah, I guess so."
Could I really trust this
One part of me worried that she was getting this information so she could
tell a funny story to her wealthy friends at the next Mother's Guild
meeting. 'Hey ladies, you won't believe this creepy loser kid they have
going to St. John's!'
But I have to say
I didn't believe that. Mrs. Ballantyne seemed genuinely interested. I did not get the slightest
she was toying with me. If there was one impression I had formed
about her to this point, the woman was sincere.
"So tell me about your job.
Do you like working here?"
I wasn't quite sure why
Mrs. Ballantyne had parked so far from the store, but my own car was
nearby. I proudly pointed to my used Volkswagen Bug parked about twenty feet away. I told
her I had paid
for the car myself from the money I had made sacking groceries. Then
I felt sheepish. I could not believe I had accidentally bragged
about my pitiful car. Surely her own children all had shiny yellow
Mustangs, the ultimate teenage status symbol.
However Mrs. Ballantyne
just smiled graciously.
"Good for you, Rick. How many boys
at St. John's can brag they bought their car with money they earned
I had never really
thought of it that way before. Encouraged by the
compliment, I continued.
here has been good for me. There are days when I don't feel like I
belong at St. John's, but here at the store I feel at ease.
I find that all those good manners I learned at St. John's really
impress the customers."
Mrs. Ballantyne smiled
again. "You definitely express yourself well. And St. John's
has taught you to be polite. Good manners will take you a long
way. I imagine that
helps. So you work here to save up money for college. Where do you
want to go to college?"
Another ouch. Another
painful nerve activated.
Of all the questions to ask! At the moment, I wasn't even sure if I was going to college next year.
This was my opening. Should I bring up the Forbidden Subject now? No,
too scary. Better to play it straight.
"Right now, Mrs.
Ballantyne, I am most interested in Georgetown, but
I am having trouble figuring out how to pay for it."
"Won't your parents help?"
I stared at her.
Should I tell her? Oh heck, why not? Maybe it will lead to the
mystery of the Jones Scholarship.
"Mrs. Ballantyne, my parents
are divorced. My mother is broke and my father doesn't know I
exist. I have no idea how I am ever going to pay for Georgetown."
"Are you saying that your
parents aren't going to help you at all?"
"No, ma'am. What
I mean is, no, they are not going to help."
"That doesn't make any
sense. You must be very worried."
"Believe me, it's all I
think about. I have no idea how to pay for college and it drives me
crazy. I really mean that."
Here I wanted to add that if she
and Mr. Salls hadn't stolen my
scholarship and handed it to her daughter, I might have a better chance. However, I
wanted this conversation to continue. I was enjoying her
unexpected interest in me. Bringing up the
Forbidden Subject didn't seem like the appropriate thing to do if I wanted her to stick around.
And I definitely wanted her to stick around.
Mrs. Ballantyne paused her
line of questioning for a moment. Now she changed directions.
"You might be surprised to know your
story reminds me
of my own childhood."
My eyes widened.
Who is she kidding? This is Mrs. Ballantyne, the lady with the
big house in River Oaks. Then I realized the implications of
those words. If I didn't know better, Mrs. Ballantyne was preparing to talk about
herself. This sent a shockwave through my body. I
could not believe the most prestigious parent at my school was
talking to me as if I were a trusted companion.
surprise and fascination, that was
exactly what began to take place. Mrs. Ballantyne began
to tell me her life story.
Ballantyne said my story reminded her a lot of her
own childhood. Huh? That got my attention in a hurry.
She said this might come as a surprise to me, but things had been pretty tough for her when she was
growing up. Like me, she had a similar experience of growing up around
wealth even though her own family was not particularly wealthy.
Mrs. Ballantyne was
right. I was surprised! I had assumed Mrs. Ballantyne had come from an affluent
She said she grew up in
Galveston. Her father was a poor Greek immigrant who ran a
shoeshine shop, but gambled away half his earnings. Although her
father Mike was an interesting character... she paused to add
Mike was a notorious gambler... he was not much of a father to any of his
four children. She referred to her father as a "real jerk".
I smiled quietly.
I may have used the same words to describe my own father once or
On the other hand, her mother, a lady named Katina,
was a wonderful woman. Her mother Katina was very warm and caring. However,
now Mrs. Ballantyne frowned. She told me her
took a very dark turn when her mother died of
a stroke when she was 11.
Shortly after that, her
father Mike was in a serious car accident that shattered one of his
legs. Now Mike had a decision to make. His two older boys
were college age and able to take care of themselves. However, Maria, 11, and her brother
George, 13, were alone together in the family home.
Crippled, broke and
lacking his wife to take care of the
two remaining children, her father decided
to hand the kids over to relatives. What hurt young Maria the
most was seeing George sent to another home.
Mrs. Ballantyne paused
for a moment. Forty years had passed and I could see she was
over being separated from her brother. split the two of them up.
I had a hunch her bond to George was the same as my bond to my dog.
I would die without my dog; I am sure Mrs. Ballantyne felt she would
die too at the time. It was one thing to face the horrible
turn of events with George at her side, but now she was alone.
George went to live with his
father's brother and Maria was sent to live with her mother's
sister. Aunt Virginia
and Uncle Gus lived
in a small apartment
above a Galveston restaurant with three
children of their own. Although her father Mike owned
the restaurant, he wasn't around that much. Instead he
depended on his brother and his wife to run the place.
Maria did not know her Aunt Virginia very well beforehand. She
was a good woman, but overwhelmed. Between three children of
her own and running this restaurant, Aunt Virginia was in no position to give
her niece any special attention.
Imagine the shock.
Maria had just gone from a loving home to become a near orphan.
Feeling like an unwanted child,
Maria had to grow up in a hurry and learn to fend for herself.
Mrs. Ballantyne looked
at me with a big frown.
"I was not pleased with this move at all.
Here I was, 11 years old. I had just lost my entire family.
First I lost my mother, a woman I loved dearly. Then my father
told my two older brothers to go out on their own. Then he
decided to feel sorry for himself and stopped being my father.
However, the worst blow came when George, my best friend in the
world, was sent to a different home. I tried to be
brave, but once George was gone, I fell to pieces. I cried
every night for a year. From a
big family, I was all alone."
What little attention
there was generally went to her three cousins first and then to Maria last. Finding herself in a
home where she wasn't really wanted plus the separation from her favorite
brother, young Maria felt completely abandoned. It
was difficult adjusting to her sense of isolation.
Raising her voice
slightly as her ancient bitterness reemerged, she focused her anger
on her father Mike.
"I know exactly why my
me. He was a self-centered jerk who didn't care about anyone
but himself. He wasn't married anymore, so he figured he would
use his freedom to gamble and chase the ladies. My mother was
barely in the ground and here my father was spending what little
money he had on wine and women. I was just a kid, but I was
old enough to be disgusted. He should have taken care of
George and me, but no, playing cards was more important. My
father was dead
broke most of the time. What little money he made playing
poker and running errands for mobsters, he frittered away chasing
skirts. Mike was useless to me as a father."
Maria soon learned
there was a dark secret to
this restaurant she lived at. Maria
had a small room to herself upstairs. But there was never
a moment of peace.
served as a
front for a gambling operation run by the Galveston mob.
There was a mysterious door in the restaurant guarded by
powerful thugs. Behind that door was a hidden casino. From the
casino, another side door led to a brothel. Mrs. Ballantyne
frowned and added,
"The rooms were busy day and night. I saw and heard
things no small girl should hear. I had to grow up in a
This restaurant was a
favorite meeting place for gangsters. Mrs. Ballantyne
commented it was the spot where the island Mafiosos would
collect to eat, conduct business and flirt with the women of the
One can imagine Maria was forced to grow up fast
surrounded in this dangerous world of tough men and fast women.
After her mother's
death, her father went off on a tangent. He was born to
hustle, not raise children. Mrs. Ballantyne would see her
father from time to time when he came by to play poker at the
casino. He rarely paid any attention to her. Usually it
was a cursory wave, a quick "How ya doin'?" and then her father
would disappear behind the
mysterious casino door.
Mrs. Ballantyne said
her aunt and uncle basically ignored her. Mrs. Ballantyne
added there were times when her aunt was downright
cruel to her. Aunt Virginia was resentful at being stuck
with raising a useless girl. Consequently, Mrs. Ballantyne
felt lonely much of the time. She spent many a night alone
in her room
how her life could have changed so fast.
Now Mrs. Ballantyne
began to talk about her brother. She said that if it
hadn't been for her brother George, her best friend in the world, she would have been completely
lost. George missed her too. Soon they found an unlikely
meeting place... the local tennis court. Although they lived apart,
Galveston was not all that big an island. For the next two years, they often met for
tennis after school. When they weren't playing tennis, they
went fishing. George made spending money selling the fish he
caught to the local seafood restaurants. Whatever the
activity, they found time to talk as well. George basically kept
his younger sister going during these rough times.
After her mother died,
things were tough on young Maria for other reasons. Galveston
was a world to itself. Situated a mile off shore with only one bridge to
the mainland, Galveston was a small town with small minds.
Her family was "not respected". In the tight-knit and quite conservative
Greek community, Mrs. Ballantyne felt looked down on due to her father's
behavior. The Greek community saw her as the unimportant daughter of
an uneducated Greek immigrant. It did not help at all that
her father Mike was friends with the
shady characters who ran the Galveston underworld. Her
father was not respected and that attitude was extended to her as
Not only did the adults
treat her as an outsider with little value, they made sure their
children avoided her as well. She grew up feeling a powerful resentment towards the "high society" of Galveston for
the way they looked down upon her and her family.
When Mrs. Ballantyne said she grew up with a chip on her shoulder, I
began to see why she was so curious about me. There were such
striking parallels here, I think she saw herself in me.
I drew the conclusion that her low status as a child
might have driven her
to reach the high status she achieved as an adult. More than
likely, Mrs. Ballantyne felt compelled to someday prove she was just
as valuable and talented as the people who looked down on her.
Although it crossed my mind that maybe I was projecting themes from my own
life onto her, I imagined we both felt the same way.
Two years after her
mother's death, Maria's life took another dark turn. First George
left for college. Maria missed him terribly. Then her aunt
and uncle decided to move to San Antonio. Now Mrs. Ballantyne was
completely separated from everyone she knew. At this point she
felt like an unwanted orphan all over again. At least she had
some friends at school. They were gone now. So was
Relocated in San
Antonio, Mrs. Ballantyne said she kept to herself at her new high
school school. She insisted she
never dated in high school, but not by choice.
"Why was that?", I
shrugged. "My brothers showed up at the house one night and
insisted I should not date without any of them to protect me.
I felt absolutely betrayed. From that point on, my aunt and
uncle refused to let me date."
"So what did you do with
all your time?"
With a rueful smile, she
said, "I played tennis instead." Mrs. Ballantyne paused for a
second. Then, as
if to underscore her point, she swung an imaginary tennis racked and added "I
played a lot of
Now Mrs. Ballantyne smiled.
"You know, I was so mad at George for not letting me date. The happiest moment of
came the day when I finally beat George. The son of a gun was a
star tennis player at the time, but I beat him fair and square."
Mrs. Ballantyne grinned.
"When I beat him, George was incredulous. He was older, faster,
and taller. He was captain of his college tennis team.
But I beat him. I told George I would never let him forget it and I
While Mrs. Ballantyne
paused for a moment for a chuckle, I quietly noted I had just discovered the
likely origin of the famous Ballantyne athletic prowess... all of
children were terrific athletes.
Now Mrs. Ballantyne
changed the subject. When it came time for
college, money was very tight.
Mrs. Ballantyne paused, then repeated her words for
emphasis... "very tight".
Ballantyne had no idea where the money
would come from. Thanks in part to some money from her brother
George, she was able to attend University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, a
women's school in Belton, Texas. Now Mrs. Ballantyne
hesitated. I assumed she was wrestling with what to say next.
After a decided pause,
Mrs. Ballantyne whispered, "Yes, George helped me some, but he
was still in school and could barely pay his own way. The
truth is that a gangster from the Galveston underworld
paid most of it." Her voice was nearly inaudible.
My eyes grew wide, but
she said no more. Obviously she had mixed feelings about
sharing this information. I was very curious, but preferred
not to interrupt.
Mrs. Ballantyne added a
few words about college. She
loved college, but continued to remain the shy, quiet, unwanted
girl. Since finding men to date at a women's college was something of
a challenge, Mrs. Ballantyne said she didn't bother looking. She said it was
easier to concentrate on her studies instead. Then, with another
rueful smile, she added, "Guess what? I played a lot of tennis in college too."
And with that, Mrs.
Ballantyne concluded her story. I just stared at her in
amazement. That was quite a story.
My only regret was that she didn't finish it. Wasn't she
leaving something out here? How did she become rich?
Indeed, how on earth had a shy,
poor, semi-orphan become this wealthy, confident dynamo who carried
the highest prestige of any parent at my school? I was
dying to know the answer, but no answer was forthcoming. Since I didn't
think it was my place to ask questions, I decided she married
someone rich and left it at that.
I was fairly
incredulous. Why would Mrs.
Ballantyne opened up to me like this? I was a complete
stranger. We had just met. Good grief, I was the same age as her children, yet
she had entrusted me, some random boy, with this intimate story as if I were her long
lost friend. This had been
the most unusual conversation of my life.
However, that was just
the warm-up act. Our conversation was about to enter the Twilight Zone.