The Visitor
Home Up Supernatural

   

Book One:
A SIMPLE ACT OF KINDNESS


PART TWO: HIGH SCHOOL HELL

CHAPTER SIXTEEN:
THE VISITOR

Written by Rick Archer

  2015, Richard Archer
 

 


SUBCHAPTER 71
- LOST

 

On the day I read the bad news about losing the Jones Scholarship in the paper, I packed it in for the rest of the day.  First I called St. John's to explain I wasn't feeling well.  Since I practically never missed school, no one questioned me.  Then I went upstairs to my bedroom and made sure Terry came with me. 

I was grateful to have Terry in the room with me.  I patted the bed and he jumped up beside me.  How many times had Terry been there for me?   

How had I gotten myself into such a bleak corner?  I thought back to the happier days when my parents still loved me and how Terry and I had so much fun.  Then my mind drifted to those awful arguments my parents had when I was nine.  Those were the days when Terry was my only friend in the world. 

Now look at me.  Here I was nine years later and Terry was still my only friend in the world.   Terry's loyalty was the one constant of my miserable childhood. 

I looked directly at Terry.  Right now he had that worried look on his face.  He could tell I was upset.  My dog had taken care of me through thick and thin for nine long years.  He could always sense when I was upset.  

I smiled wanly as I thought of the old saying... "Lord, please let me become the person my dog thinks I am." 

Well, right now, I wasn't feeling very good about myself.  I could not believe how badly I had screwed up my senior year.

Terry nudged my arm.  That was his way of telling me to snap out of it. Now the tears came.  Ordinarily I never cried, but when Terry was around, I seemed to cry all the time.  That dog had my number.  I pulled him to me and scratched his ears while I sobbed.  This amazing border collie was the only thing keeping me afloat right now.  

 


SUBCHAPTER 72
- GOING THROUGH THE MOTIONS

 

My realization that cheating on the German test had cost me the Jones Scholarship sucked all the life out of me.  I was positive I was being punished by Mr. Salls.  Now I was mired in a gloom that showed no signs of lifting.  For the next few days, I could barely function. 

As far I could tell, any chance of going to school out of state was gone now.  All that work and look what I had to show for it.  My college expectations began to shift from prestigious Georgetown University in Washington DC to Houston Community College.  I idly wondered if I needed to contact HCC to ask their admissions requirements.

I kicked myself constantly for not having the foresight to apply to a single state college such as the University of Texas, Texas A&M, or the University of Houston.  The tuition at these schools was low enough that even with my meager savings, I could have afforded an entire year of schooling, then perhaps transferred to Georgetown.  If Georgetown had accepted me once, surely the school would accept me again.

Why didn't I think of applying to these schools as a back-up plan? 

Well, I knew the answer to that.  I didn't want to waste any more valuable money than I had to.  I was already upset with myself for applying to a stupid college like Johns Hopkins that I didn't want to go to.  What a bitter joke.  Mr. Salls had made me waste money on Johns Hopkins when what I should have done was use that money to apply to the University of Texas.   

Well, it was too late now.  If I wasn't leaving to go to college out of state, I guess I better hang on to my grocery store job.   If I was going to stay here in Houston, would I ask to remain here at Little Mexico?  I wondered if my mother would follow through on her threat to charge me rent. 

My life was ridiculous.

Slowly and unsurely I trudged through each day in a cold, joyless funk.  I was just going through the motions.  I spent all spare moments of every day mourning the death of my college dream.  I went to school, but I had to force myself to do it.  I said nothing in class and I ate alone.  Sorry, no chess today, guys, not in the mood.  I went to work, but I had to force myself to go.  I spoke to no one unless they spoke to me first.  I went home, but I prayed no one would see me as I slunk up the stairs to my bedroom.

All I really wanted to do was go to bed.  With my dog beside me, here was the only place I could feel safe.  Preferring sleep over consciousness, I stopped studying.  What difference did it make?  My grades had no meaning for me anymore.  I had lost all pride, all incentive to strive.  I could see I was slipping further and further behind in Calculus, but I had lost my self-discipline.  I could no longer force myself to study a subject taught by a teacher I despised.

I could not get over the fact that cheating on that German test had apparently cost me my college future.  This torment followed me around every waking moment like an evil shadow.  To think I had thrown it all away over something as inane as refusing to memorize the names of German authors.  How utterly absurd!

I thought about Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the authors on that ill-fated list.  Nietzsche was my favorite German author.  He was dark, sarcastic, and rebellious... just like me.  Nietzsche would have been highly amused by the predicament I was in, especially once he learned I had refused to memorize the title to Thus Sprach Zarathustra, his greatest work, due to my misguided teenage pride.  Nietzsche took great delight in skewering human flaws, so no doubt he would have embraced me, the poster child for self-destructive stupidity. 

Nietzsche had suggested that excessive time to think was the incubator of psychological problems, a rephrasing of the 'idle hands are the devil's workshop' aphorism.  Nietzsche had me pegged to a tee.  I spent far too much time thinking about my problems and feeling sorry for myself.

 

The cheating incident was the direct result of my self-pity.  I used it to justify thinking I was privileged to do things any way I pleased because the world owed me a favor.  In so doing, I had become my own worst enemy. 

It is one thing to hate the world.  It is far more painful to hate oneself.  What a terrible mistake I had made.  And all because I thought I was entitled to skip memorizing a couple of German authors and their works.

What would Nietzsche say about me? 

     If you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes back into you.

I wasn't feeling so smart any more.  There was no fight left in me.  I was beaten.  I was completely numb.  There were no thoughts of suicide, but I was certainly at risk.  I was in freefall.

One more searing defeat might have done the trick.  Things were that bad.

At that point, the yawning Abyss would claim another victim.  The way I felt right now, I was on the edge of jumping in.

 


SUBCHAPTER 73
- THE VISITOR

 

It was now mid-March 1968.  Last week I had learned that Katina had gotten the scholarship instead of me.  Since then, I had been walking around in a daze.  Reality was a blur. 

On a Wednesday afternoon, I had just arrived at the grocery store from school when a woman who looked suspiciously like Mrs. Ballantyne walked in the store.  I watched as she pulled two carts out.  I didn't believe it.  Surely the fog of my disturbed mind was playing tricks on me.  Unwilling to trust my own eyes, I rubbed them and looked again.

Yes, sure enough, that was Mrs. Ballantyne.  Only seven days had passed since I got the bad news about the Jones Scholarship Robbery.  I was incredulous.  What was this woman doing here on my doorstep?  My mind immediately jumped to the conclusion she was here to see me.  There was no explanation why my hero turned enemy would be in such a random place as this unless her sudden appearance had something to do with me.  Surely that had to be the reason.  This was just too strange to be a coincidence.

Sad to say, thanks to all my problems, in those days everything was about me.  I was so wrapped up in my drama that my reality checking equipment was not in very good working order.  My very first thought upon seeing her was that this busy woman had driven two miles out of her way to shop at my store just so she could have a chat with me, a complete stranger, to say she was sorry for taking away my scholarship. 

That infantile line of thought speaks volumes at how disturbed I was at this point.  I simply wasn't thinking clearly.  It never even crossed my mind that if she really wanted to talk to me, our paths crossed at St. John's three times a week.  Why would she bother driving across town when all she had to do was track me down in the hallway at St. John's?  That logic escaped me.

 

In the 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 famous. 

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.  

In addition, my 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 clientele.   Therefore, Mrs. Ballantyne had no business shopping here.  Consequently I could not shake the feeling this visit had to be deliberate.

Surely Mrs. Ballantyne had come to see me!   Why else would a wealthy woman like her stray so far off the beaten path to shop at my middle-class grocery store?

   

My curiosity was on overdrive, so 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. 

 This 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 with me.  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 once spoken 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 itself. 

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. Ballantyne's groceries.  I was on pins and needles awaiting her arrival.  Unfortunately, since Mrs. Ballantyne was clearly taking her time, my anxiety continued to build.

Mrs. Ballantyne 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.

Mrs. Ballantyne's 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.  Mrs. Ballantyne's 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.

However, 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.  Consequently our walk to the car was done in complete silence.

   

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 Katina.

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 than Katina.  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 directly 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 considerably.  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 mystery. 

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 Scholarship snub.

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.  But 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 know!! 

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 was wrong.  At first, I thought Mr. Salls had sent Mrs. Ballantyne here to cheer me up.  However, that elation was wrong.  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 scholarship.

The 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 there somewhere. 

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 there.

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. 

"Mrs. Ballantyne, 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 question! 

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 in 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 my system!

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 my woefully 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! 

Okay, 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.  This angry 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 angry chip 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 studying again! 

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 this mystery? 

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.  This magnetic 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?

 


SUBCHAPTER 74
- The CONVERSATION

 

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 polo shirt identical to the outfit her three boys wore every day.  No doubt the outfit positively screamed 'St. John's School'.

Now 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 looked pleased.  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 here.  But 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 amused.  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 caught myself.

Mrs. 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. 

This 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 furrowed.  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.  Mrs. Ballantyne started asking questions in hopes the answer would come soon enough.

"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 Saturday."

"And you have been doing this for two years?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Doesn't this interfere with your studies?"

"Yes, ma'am, 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 this 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. 

"Why do you work here?"

"Money is very tight at home.  I have been worried about finding some way to pay for college.  This job is my only hope."

Mrs. Ballantyne 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 lady.

"Yes, ma'am, that is correct."

"I thought so." 

She nodded and smiled, pleased that she had finally placed me. 

And there it was.  It had taken nine years, 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 crossed Mrs. Ballantyne's path 1,000 times at St. John's over the years.  

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.

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 was never 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 interacting. 

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 week.

The dominant feature of St. John's was a lovely green area in the center of the school known as the Quadrangle.  Many classrooms 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.

Considering 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 Hallway
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 some point. 

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 the time."

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 registered. 

"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.

"Rick Archer."

"How long have you been at St. John's, Rick?"

"Nine years."

"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 it?"

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, Mrs. Ballantyne didn't budge.  Instead, she took a step backward to 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 warming up.  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 Texas 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 zinger. 

"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 school 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 college. 

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 feelings. 

"Yeah, I guess so."

Could I really trust this woman?   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 feeling that 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 themselves?"

I had never really thought of it that way before.  Encouraged by the compliment, I continued.

"Working 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. 

To my surprise and fascination, that was exactly what began to take place.  Mrs. Ballantyne began to tell me her life story.

 


SUBCHAPTER 75
- MARIA BALLANTYNE'S CHILDHOOD

 

Mrs. 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 background. 

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 twice.

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 childhood 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 still upset 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 father ditched 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.  The restaurant 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 hurry." 

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 night.  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 wondering 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 well.

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 George.

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 asked.

Mrs. Ballantyne 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 tennis.

Now Mrs. Ballantyne smiled.  "You know, I was so mad at George for not letting me date.  The happiest moment of my childhood 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 meant it."

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 her 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". 

Mrs. 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. 

 


CHAPTER SEVENTEEN: SUPERNATURAL

 

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