Jason M. Thornberry

The Measured Echo

That first swat nearly knocked me over. I turned to look at Mrs. Reyes, her thin-lipped mouth set, jaw muscles tight. She was hunched over behind me like a pitcher at the end of their windup.

“Bend over,” the teacher said again, “and touch your ankles.”

I was ten—and my parents had made the sloppiest custody swap in the history of sloppy custody swaps. Here’s how it went: I lived with my mother—and when I went to my father’s one weekend, he handed me the telephone. He told me to tell my mother I wasn’t coming back—that I wanted to live with him. I made the call, standing in that prickly headrush between loyalty and betrayal. Like hanging upside down from my ankles. I mean, yes, I was momentarily happy—happy not to have to live with my stepfather, a short-tempered giant who worked in a steel mill, had fists bigger than my head, carried a Colt .45 pistol, and scared me so bad one day that I peed my pants in front of him. But a turbulent stomach-churning guilt quickly darkened my days. I had left my mother behind, casting her aside, abandoning her.

My father spent the year leading up to this moment with campaign promises—I was going to be so much happier with him and my stepmother. He’d just moved out to the sticks, and he bought me a little red dirt bike to ride in the fields surrounding his huge house.

He also extracted me from Marshall Elementary, enrolling me at Valley Christian School, his coiled signature authorizing faculty to employ corporal punishment if necessary.

He told me all about it that night after dinner. He said that my new teachers would be stricter than I was used to. And for every swat I received at school, I would enjoy five more when I got home. “Five for one,” my father said, blue eyes wide, eyebrows raised, forehead wrinkled. “Got it?” My stepmother quietly removed the plates, and my father stretched his hairy arms across the shiny surface of the table, staring at me until I said yes, I’ve got it. But I was confused and suddenly intimidated by a man who, for all of my life, had been my hero.

My father barreled headlong into the career of a newly minted criminal defense attorney. In my hometown, it would prove to be lucrative work. And it visibly changed him. His work wore away at his good nature, shortening his fuse, changing his perspective. Trafficking in epithets, he began walking with his chest pushed out, raising his voice, glaring when people made eye contact.

Mostly, he was hired by men who rode deafening black motorcycles and wore leather vests with winged skulls sewn onto the back. Dad wore a crisp suit and tie. But now, he enjoyed describing spontaneous fistfights—confrontations with people who underestimated the darkness beneath his professionalism. He became someone else.

At Valley Christian, my first homework assignment in my new fifth-grade class had been to memorize a passage from the Book of Matthew. I had never read it. My mother’s bible was the TV Guide. And when the time came—pencil in hand—for me to reproduce the verse in class, I simply wrote my name.

Mrs. Reyes, passed from desk to desk, collecting papers. I didn’t know anyone yet. So I sat, listening to the clock. The dusty forgotten clock, resting impossibly high on the wall over the doorway. The seconds ticked by and suddenly, I felt impossibly old. I missed my friends at Marshall Elementary. I missed the kids I rode bikes with. The kids who lived on my street. I missed my mother. 

Mrs. Reyes began reciting students’ names. I watched as kids rose in front of their desks. Anxious boys and girls. Some blushed. When she called my name, I followed the others into a humid corridor outside. Chosen ones, we formed a wordless queue—the girls, smiling anxiously in their long, matronly flower-print dresses; the boys standing stiffly, austere, in our rigid polyester slacks and long-sleeved button-up shirts.

I heard an airplane pass. I looked up and wished I was on it, heading back to Newport, Oregon, where my grandparents lived. A few years ago, I began spending summers with them, reading voraciously, learning to write. It was a temporary time out from my hometown—San Bernardino—a fractured city, meandering toward bankruptcy and collapse. I didn’t appreciate how different my hometown was until I went somewhere else.

Mrs. Reyes finally materialized in the doorway, surveying the column of youthful delinquents. Crossing the threshold, she gazed upon us. Her face was blank.

I fidgeted at the back of the line, still unused to dressing formally for school. My shirt was itchy. I looked at my teacher.

Mrs. Reyes’ freckled hands gripped a plank of darkened wood that resembled a breadboard. The top third was missing, snapped off, splinters protruding like thorns. While I considered them, I listened to the measured, clapping echo of my teacher’s exertions in that hallway. She didn’t speak. Until it was my turn.

After the second swat, I stood. I remember returning to the classroom, walking on the balls of my feet. Tiptoeing. Trying to suppress the discomfort. Trying not to breathe. Wanting to seem as detached as the other boys. Easing slowly into my wooden seat, I remember a girl crying at her desk.

Afraid my father already knew, I came straight home and confessed.

Let me tell you: Mrs. Reyes had nothing on my father. A swat from Mrs. Reyes was like getting stung by an especially angry bee. But in my bedroom with my pants around my ankles? I received the whole hive. With a sweaty ruler in one hand, my father screamed as if I were beating him. Between each swat, he called out their number, daring me to contest his count.

“Six, that’s only six! You’ve got four more coming!”

He took his time delivering the other four, allowing the throbbing pain to flare to its brightest color before administering the next. Examining my scrawny backside in the bathroom mirror—at livid stripes of bloody pink—I was exhausted.

I went to bed early that night, awakening early the next morning, my voice still hoarse from crying. I put on my funeral clothes, returning to the sepulchral classroom of Mrs. Reyes.

Over the coming months, I tried without success to contact my mother. I heard she’d left town. Encouraged by my grandmother, my writing slowly improved. But back then, I couldn’t articulate the whirlpool of emotions: guilt and regret; fear and demoralizing confusion. At home, I crept around the house. I felt like one of the rabbits my father shot at in the backyard. Like an active volcano, his was a volatile, dangerous presence. I longed for the sanctuary of Newport and the loving embrace of my grandparents. Lights out, I lay in bed, wishing I could teleport myself to them, willing the months to pass while I slept so I could see them again. Rising every morning to put on my scratchy school clothes, I wondered if I hadn’t made the biggest mistake moving out of my mother’s house.

As the year progressed, I found my way into the humid corridor outside Mrs. Reyes’ class a few more times. Slowly, I adjusted. 

Mrs. Baker, my next teacher, seemed unusually proud of her paddle. She made little effort keeping its fabled existence a secret. Stories had circulated in fifth grade about what awaited us in sixth, and I learned you could cross a teacher at Valley Christian without trying. You might forget to finish your homework. You might talk in class. You might wear a certain look on your face. I guess sometimes I did. The teachers at Valley Christian savored their ability to make us cry.

Mrs. Baker’s instrument of retribution was an oar. With the handle sawed off. As a substitute for its traditional functions, Mrs. Baker believed the oar could rectify our sins. She could paddle away our imperfections. Some days, the line of sixth-grade offenders extended beyond the length of our classroom. And I did my best to stay out of that line, memorizing as much of the New Testament as possible.

But I was summoned, one day, to the principal’s office. Mr. Roth, a solemn white man with jowls like Richard Nixon and white hair like my grandfather, wanted to speak to me. Nervously, I entered the room. And with a startling burst of energy, Mr. Roth introduced me to his paddle, a flattened hunk of clear fiberglass. It caught the sizzling fluorescents, reflecting them like lightning.

For the life of me, I still can’t remember what I did to become acquainted with Mr. Roth. I never told my father.

Jason M. Thornberry’s work appears in The Los Angeles Review of Books, North Dakota Quarterly, Broadkill Review, and elsewhere. A musician and victim of violent crime, Jason overcame a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic epilepsy. Relearning to walk and speak, he earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University.