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Following Howard by Nancy Antle

Jacob, just fifteen, watched the man-child walk down his Gran’s street almost every day.  The man walked with his head bent, his shoulders hunched forward.  To Jacob, he always looked like someone who was about to break into a run.  Course he never did.  In fact, Jacob wasn’t even sure he could run.

Jacob’s mama had lectured to him over and over that the man’s name was Howard and that he wasmentally handicapped and Jacob was not to refer to him unkindly.  But Jacob just laughed.

“You can call him whatever the hell you want,” he’d said.  “It don’t change anything.  He’s still what he is.”  His mama pressed her lips together and turned away from him.  Jacob knew in her mind it wasn’t worth the argument. She’d had her say.

Jacob wondered what kind of God created such a messed up human being – someone so unattractive and dependent on others for everything.  The boy felt bad for Howard’s mama who he saw on Sundays at church.  She looked to be about as old as dirt, a widow, and still tending to her little boy in a man’s body. God had dealt her a sorry hand.

Jacob and his mama had moved to town about a month before – two weeks into November to live with Gran, recently made silent by a stroke.  Jacob’d tried talking sense into his mama.  Tried to get her to move Gran instead of them but she wouldn’t listen.  She said Gran needed to be in her own home with her own things. But what about his home?  His things?  His daddy?

Jacob’s mama said she was done with Daddy now and Jacob didn’t like it but he understood.  Daddy’d been in and out of jail for twenty years of marriage – DUIs, disorderly conduct, shoplifting.  Jacob loved him in spite of everything, though, and missed talking to him in the evenings while they watched TV and his daddy drank beer after beer.  He was a happy drunk – not the least bit mean. His mama claimed that’s why she’d stayed with him as long as she had but now she was done making excuses.

Course by moving in with Gran they’d also left behind all the town folks who knew his mama had gotten fired from her job after Daddy had driven his car through the lobby of the motel where she worked as a receptionist.  Or that Jacob was repeating ninth grade and had gotten caught spray painting “Mother Fuckers” on the side of the school gym over the summer.  The town they’d come from was even smaller than Gran’s – a place where everyone knew everyone else’s business which was okay if you were sick and needed someone to drop off a casserole to get you through a few days but not good if you were in trouble – then everyone turned into your parent and tried to tell you what to do.

Mama informed Jacob’s new high school principal that it wouldn’t serve any purpose for Jacob to start school at the end of the first semester when the teachers were all giving exams that he wouldn’t be prepared for.  The principal agreed but sent out a tutor to make sure Jacob was caught up with the rest of the ninth grade.  But, Jacob wasn’t dumb.  He knew that being held back was due to pure laziness on his part seeing as how he’d never turned in single piece of homework – not a lick.  But he’d been paying attention.  Having to repeat ninth grade just meant he was getting a second dose of everything he’d already heard and he soon set that tutor lady straight about how much he knew.

Jacob would have liked to have seen the school and the other kids and gotten the lay of the land so to speak but he didn’t suppose it would’ve matter anyway.  He hadn’t had many friends at his old school and doubted he’d have many here.  So until he started school in January he met with his tutor and stayed home with his mama and grandma.  He changed sheets when Gran had an accident or mopped the kitchen floor when something got spilled and even when it didn’t.  But mostly he was bored and antsy and wished for something fun to do.  At least back home he could’ve gone with his daddy to the pool hall and shot pool or played pinball but there was no such place here.  Or at least none he knew of.

Jacob had seen Howard over the years when he’d visited Gran but Jacob’d never really stopped to notice what Howard got up to all day.  Now he did.  One day when he grew too bored to sit still any longer, watching game shows with two mute women, he shrugged into his leather jacket and took to walking.  From then on he spent most every day wandering around town, trying to stay warm in the cold.  And he saw Howard everywhere.

Inside the warmth of the diner Jacob sat at the counter and ate a burger he’d bought with some quarters he’d squirreled away.  Mrs. Hendrix, the owner, gave Howard a free plate of food just because he stuck his head in the door and grinned and said, “Watcha cooking?”  As if he was a cute little kid or something.  It pissed Jacob off.  He knew he himself was younger and better looking than Howard and just as poor.  Why didn’t he get a free meal?

At the meat counter of Gates’ Grocery Jacob waited in a long line to get the pot roast his mama wanted.  But Mr. Gates let Howard cut the line and then even threw in an extra pork chop with his order after he’d already weighed it and printed out the price sticker.  When it was finally Jacob’s turn Mr. Gates asked after Gran but didn’t offer to put a little extra in their order.  Jacob wanted to get in Mr. Gates’ frowning face and let him know that his own mama was scrimping and saving every dime just to feed them and how about a couple of free steaks?  But he kept his mouth clamped shut.

On one really cold day, Jacob saw Howard riding around with the sheriff in his nice warm patrol car.  Jacob figured the only way he’d get to ride in that car was if he bought some spray paint and went to work.  He thought about doing it – he really wanted to – but decided it wasn’t worth the effort.

Another day he saw Howard through a window of the high school cleaning the blackboards – even though Howard wasn’t a student and never would be.  It wasn’t like he would get to start school in a few weeks like Jacob would – and yet he probably would never get lost inside that big building.  Probably would always know right where he was and where he was going.

Sundays at the Freewill Baptist Church, Howard sat beside his white haired mama in the front pew holding her hand.  He droned along while he pretended to sing the hymns.  Nobody seemed to mind when his voice rose to a shout on the Amazing Grace or the Gather at the River parts.  Everyone smiled at his enthusiasm as if he sang like an angel instead of like an idiot.

Jacob sat with his own mama who followed along in the hymnal but she only mouthed the words as if she was ashamed of the sound of her own voice.  Gran rocked back and forth to the music, her lips pressed together.  When the preacher got up and started speaking he didn’t seem to mind when Howard yelled, “Amen!” more times than anyone had a right to during a sermon.  On the other hand, people turned to glare at Jacob when he accidentally dropped his hymnal during one of the prayers – like they thought it wasn’t an accident.  Howard came to his rescue, in a way, when he said, “Oops!” loud enough for all to hear which made everyone laugh and forget about Jacob who slumped down in the pew embarrassed at being saved by someone like Howard.

The boy watched Howard in all those different places and wondered what it was about him that people liked. All Jacob saw was unattractive.  He didn’t get it.  He wondered if he’d lived there all his life if they would have cared for him and his mama they way they did for Howard and his mama.  Or did you have to be born stupid to get their attention?  It wasn’t fair.  And then, one day, because of his wondering, he started following Howard as he walked back and forth across the town.  He hadn’t planned it.  He just did it.  He followed Howard for several blocks through a neighborhood with two story houses while Howard looked in trashcans that were at the curb, peering into each one then closing it and dragging it down the driveway.

“Hey!” Jacob hollered finally.  “Watcha doing?”

Howard turned lazily towards him and grinned, watery spit at the corners of his mouth.  “I’m helping,” he said.  He turned and went on down the road to the next trashcan. He looked inside that one too, then pulled it to the back of the house like he knew where the person in the house wanted it.

“Who told you to do that?” Jacob asked.

Howard didn’t turn around.  “I’m helping,” he said again.

Like a parrot the boy thought.  Like a dumbass parrot repeating what he’d been told.

Jacob kept following Howard down the street.  He had to admit that what Howard was doing was probably one reason people liked him but was that all there was too it?  Howard glanced behind at the boy from time to time then tucked his head and kept walking.  When Howard came to a house with two trashcans Jacob stepped up and put his hand out for the lid of one of them.

“Whatcha doing?” Howard asked.

“Helping,” the boy parroted back.

Howard smiled his watery grin.  “Okay. Okay.  Thanks. Thanks.”

They put the cans next to the back door and as they did a woman came out.  She smiled at Howard and ignored Jacob as if he wasn’t there.  Jacob used to hate everyone in his old town eying him with suspicion wherever he went, but this was worse.  Being invisible made his stomach hurt.

“Thank you so much, Howard. I don’t know what I’d do without you,” the woman said.

Jacob snorted.  The woman seemed pretty healthy and capable to him.  She was like Jacob’s mama – inventing jobs to keep him busy.  Giving him something to do.  The woman’d have no trouble at all taking out her own damn cans and bringing them back if Howard wasn’t around.

She handed Howard a white envelope.  “Here’s a little something for the holidays.”

“Okay.  Thank you,” Howard said.

He stepped up the two steps until he was standing beside the woman.  He waited and the woman hugged him and patted his back.  Howard stood there with his arms hanging limp at his sides.  Jacob thought the woman treated Howard like a dog – patting him for his good behavior.  Pathetic.

“See you next week,” she said.

“Okay.  See you next week,” Howard replied.

Howard walked back to the street.

“What’d she give you?”  Jacob asked, as hurried to catch up.

Howard shrugged.  “Just money.”  He shoved the envelope into his jacket pocket.

“Why don’t you open it?”

“Not now.  I gotta work. I’ll look later.”

Jacob kept following Howard from house to house – helping when there was more than one trashcan.  Sometimes Howard picked up newspapers in the grass and put them on front porches so Jacob started doing that too while Howard dealt with the cans.

Howard shuffled back and forth down people’s driveways and Jacob wondered why people liked him at all.  He drooled and smelled – like pee and sweat all mixed up with laundry detergent and fabric softener.  Jacob took a shower every single day even if he didn’t have plans so he knew he smelled better. And he was pretty sure he hadn’t drooled since he was a baby.

Other people came out of houses and handed Howard envelopes too.  But of course, he never opened them and always said, “Okay. Thank you.”

At the last house a tiny, bent over old man tottered out onto the back steps leaning on a cane.  Jacob figured he might actually need some help.  The man handed an envelope to Howard and smiled at Jacob.

“Who’s this with you, Howard?” the old man wheezed.

Howard smiled.  “That’s Jacob,” he said.  “He goes to my church.  He’s helping.”

Jacob was surprised that Howard remembered his name.  The pastor had only said it the one time.

“That’s nice,” the old man said.  “You got a friend.”

Howard nodded and Jacob felt his cheeks burn. He sure as hell didn’t want people to be getting the idea that he was some grown man’s sidekick.

They walked on down the road, out of the neighborhood toward town.  Jacob kept up with Howard – still curious about him and disgusted with him all at the same time.  He thought maybe he should check in with his mama and see if she needed something but he couldn’t face going back to the house just yet – having to clean up some mess someone else made.  Or worse, finding nothing there to do at all.

In front of the diner, Howard stopped and stared through the big picture window.  He waved to Mrs. Hendrix who was behind the counter, a notepad in her hand.  She waved back and motioned for Howard to come inside.

Jacob looked inside too, through his own ghostly reflection.  It made him feel funny looking at himself that way and he turned to go but Howard put a heavy arm around his shoulders.

“Okay. Okay.  Let’s eat,” he said.

“No, thanks,” Jacob said.

“C’mon, c’mon, c’mon.  I’ll buy.  You know I got lots of money.”  Howard grinned like they shared a secret.

Jacob looked back at the window – at the two ghosts standing there.  “I don’t want to eat with you.”

“But you’re my friend,” Howard said, pulling Jacob closer.

Jacob tried to step away but Howard caught him by the arm and wouldn’t let him go.

“C’mon.  Please?”  He tugged at Jacob’s arm.

“Lemme go!” Jacob said.  He struggled to free himself from Howard’s grasp and finally shook him off.  He turned and strode down the alley beside the diner hoping Howard wouldn’t follow, but of course he did.

“C’mon, man,” Howard said behind him.  “Don’t go.  We’re friends now.”

Jacob whirled around to face Howard and glared at him. “I’m not your friend!”

Howard’s mouth gaped and he breathed through his mouth.  He sniffled and wiped his nose on his coat sleeve “Why are you so mean?”

Jacob stared at the ground not acknowledging Howard’s question.

Howard moved beside him and put his arm around him again.  “Mama says sometimes people get mean when they’re hungry.  So let’s eat. Then you’ll be nice again.”

Jacob stood still as stone and hoped that Howard would just give up.  But Howard was too stupid to get it.

Howard tried to steer Jacob back to the diner.  “Mama says I should be nice to you because you’ve had a hard life.  Just like me.”

Jacob twisted away from Howard.  He knew he was nothing like Howard.  Nothing like him at all and he didn’t want anyone – especially not some retard and his dumb ass mother to think otherwise.  Howard breathed heavily in front of Jacob blocking his way to the back parking lot.  Jacob didn’t try to go around him – couldn’t even bring himself to look at his ugly face.  He stared at the little blades of grass in the alley by his feet and wondered how they grew there in the shadows being trodden on all day long.  His chest ached and his lungs felt like they might explode until he let the air trapped inside rush out.

The ground seemed to be pulsing up toward Jacob and he put his hand out to steady himself on the rough wall of the diner. It was true that Jacob didn’t have a daddy here just like Howard, but he had one in another town.  And it was true that his mama was hard up just like Howard’s but Jacob’s mama could go to work and make some money and get them out of the hole they were in and who was ever going to hire Howard’s mama again as old as she was?  Jacob’d been held back at school but he was NOT stupid like Howard.  Not. Not. Not.  Not even close.

Jacob turned away from Howard and staggered back the way he’d come – toward Main Street.  Howard followed and put his hand on Jacob’s shoulder.

“I’ll bring you a hamburger,” Howard said.  “So you’ll be better.”

Jacob spun around, punching at Howard’s face.  He was surprised when he connected with the taller man and even more surprised when Howard fell to his knees, blood coming from his lip and nose.  When he fell over dramatically as if he was playing a part in a movie, Jacob knew he’d won.  Knew that Howard would leave him alone, quit trying to be nice to him, trying to be his friend.  Jacob knew he could walk away.  But his anger kept him rooted to the spot.  Someone had to pay for all that was wrong with his life. And there was Howard acting like a big baby instead of like a man, which just made Jacob even madder.  He kicked Howard in the stomach, feeling the toe of his running shoe sink into the flab around his belly.  He was kicking his grandmother for having a stroke.  His mother for dragging him there.  His father for not stopping her.  Kicking everyone else in that stupid town who ignored him.  It felt so good that he just kept on and on.

Howard sobbed and curled into a ball.  “Stop! Stop!” he blubbered.

Jacob was aware of colors and shapes appearing suddenly all around him – blurry, watery, indistinct. People, men, pulled him from Howard.  Someone shoved him against the concrete blocks of the diner holding one arm twisted behind his back.  His face scraped against the hard, pockmarked surface.  He struggled to get free but he wasn’t strong enough.

Nancy Antle is a recent MFA graduate of Southern Connecticut State University. Her YA and middle grade novels have been published by Dial and Viking and her short stories have been published or will be published in CT Review, Noctua Review, Rock Bottom and The Los Angeles Review of Los Angeles. She works as a volunteer mentor/writing teacher for the Afghan Women’s Writing Project online.