The Purple Phantom and other stories…

imageThis is yet another short part of my manuscript on the fictional lives of real people living in a real place I completely made up called Elizabeth, Illinois.

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When Pastor Webber arrived Mrs. Jenkins and Mrs. Winters were standing in front of the room, talking to each other and occasionally ordering obedient silence from the kids. Pastor Webber’s entrance was obvious, but needed to be officially announced by the leaders, but not until they consulted the clock and calculated twenty-five minutes left until they planned to serve a snack. You can tell them a story, or do a Bible lesson, Mrs. Jenkins said, and You’ve got twenty five minutes, and They’re all yours, were their final words.

He sat down, in front of the dozen and a half faces, most of them wearing a defiant look –a We dare you to get us to listen, kind of look. He was no Janice Reynolds –he knew that, Mrs. Jenkins knew that, Mrs. Winters knew that, and Janice’s sister Beth knew that, and there was no display board, no hidden picture, no black light resting in anticipation. Just a middle-aged man wearing jeans, running shoes, and a flannel shirt unbuttoned and untucked with a gray t-shirt showing.

Have you ever heard of the Purple Phantom? was how he started. Two or three kids shook their heads No in a disinterested way. Ever heard of the boy named Ralph? was the next question, and again they shrugged No.

Well, Ralph was about ten years old, and in school one day, in the middle of world studies and something about a map and culture and far-away places his teacher asked if anyone had any questions. Ralph raised his hand, Yes Ralph? Well, I have a question, but it’s not about those people. Go ahead, ask your questions Ralph. It’s kind of silly, Ralph said, and the teacher quickly responded, There’s no reason to be afraid of asking questions, and turning to everyone in the room he added, There are no silly questions.

What is your question Ralph? Well, I heard something about something and, I didn’t understand, so, um…, and I was wondering something, and, um…, and the teacher impatiently blurted out, What’s your question Ralph?! O…kay, the boy shyly said, I wanted to know about, ummm…, the, uhm…, the Purple Phantom.

With that the teacher’s mouth made a gasping sound, his throat choked, eyes flashed anger and meanness and without hesitating marched to the door, threw it open and ordered Ralph to Leave at once, Go straight to the Principal’s Office, and hurried the shocked boy with Go, Right Now! Go! Young man! And he left, leaving the room in shocked silence. The teacher slammed the classroom door behind Ralph as he sulked down the hall.

Ralph, what are you doing here, was the secretary’s question. I’m in some kind of trouble, he answered. Well, you’re such a good boy, what happened, the secretary asked. When he said he didn’t know, she cajoled him, Oh, come now, what on earth could you do to get you sent here? We were doing World Studies and teacher asked if anyone had questions, and I said I did and then I got kicked out of class and he told me to come here. The secretary knew he’d left something important out of his account and said, What was it? Ralph said, He asked in anyone questions, and I said it was probably silly and he said There are no silly questions, and I didn’t mean to get in trouble or cause trouble and I don’t know what happened and I got sent here. You mean you were Sent here, don’t you Ralph, and he admitted his poor grammar. What was your question? And Ralph didn’t want to answer, he was afraid and said so, but the secretary assured him that unless it was inappropriate, he was free to repeat his question to her and she just wanted to know what had happened. I said that I was wondering about…, well…, and the secretary blurted out, For goodness sake what was your question Ralph? and he said, I wanted to know about the Purple Phantom.

At that the secretary jumped from her chair and grabbed for Ralph’s collar, roughly pulling him toward the Principal’s door, dragging him behind her as she burst through the door interrupting the Principal who was talking on the phone and hurriedly said, I’ll have to get back to you, something’s come-up here…thank you, and he hung up the phone with a shocked expression on his face. What’s the meaning of this? he blurted out speaking to the secretary but looking at Ralph with a face of both anger and indignation, and with that Pastor Webber’s own face was scrunched-up in a contorted fashion that several of the younger kids mimicked and everyone was listening now. Mrs. Jenkins and Mrs. Winters were standing in the doorway mumbling back-and-forth, looking at the kids, then at Pastor Webber, with their faces scrunched-up in a contorted fashion

The secretary wouldn’t let go of Ralph’s collar and he was hanging there with his heels off the ground, his shirt pulled up into his throat, and his head cocked as he strained against her grasp. That’s enough, the principal said, Let Ralph go. She reluctantly released him, and said, It’s horrible, just horrible. What on earth is wrong?! Ralph just didn’t know what was happening, and he was shocked, and shook his head and shrugged his shoulders (and a few more kids joined-in with Pastor Webber’s shrug). Tell him, young man, tell him! the secretary demanded and the Principal looked straight at Ralph who hung his head and didn’t want to speak. Tell him! she yelled again, and he jumped, and so did the Principal.

I don’t know! Ralph responded quickly, I don’t know what’s wrong, I just asked a question and everyone got mad at me! and Ralph was just confused. Now, young man, that doesn’t sound likely, the Principal said in a deep, official voice, but Ralph just shook his head (and almost all the kids, except the older ones, were shaking their heads, and Mrs. Jenkins and Mrs. Winters were shaking their heads, but with a hint of disapproval). And the Principal said, Tell me…ask me your question Ralph, and he hesitated but answered, Well, I was in class and we were doing World Studies and the teacher asked if any of us had a question and I raised my hand, and the Principal was listening and encouraging Ralph and saying Yes…, yes…, and…, And, Ralph said, I asked a question, and he stopped. The Principal was waiting, and waiting, and Ralph didn’t want to keep going. Well…? Well, I asked about…, About what? the Principal insisted. I asked about the Purple Phantom, Ralph said quickly. And with that the Principal’s face turned red, the secretary huffed something, and Ralph ducked as if he would be struck. Get out! Get out of this school, right this minute, and the Principal pointed toward the door, and Go home young man, and the secretary grabbed Ralph’s collar again and roughly pushed him toward the door and out into the hallway before shoving him toward the exit doors.

Ralph walked and then ran out the doors into a cold day and started for home. Along the way he avoided people walking by him, and refused to answer when asked Shouldn’t you be in school young man? by a woman. He was scared and cold and he ran the rest of the way home and into his front door.

Ralph, is that you? his mother called to him from the basement, and Ralph finally felt safe and ran to her, hugging her around the waist. What’s the matter? she asked, and he didn’t want to answer. After a few minutes, after some milk, after some distractions, his mom persuaded him to talk to her, and sitting next to him on the living room couch Ralph started to recount how they’d been in World Studies, and the teacher asked if there were any questions, And all I did was ask a question, Ralph said. Oh, Ralph, there must be something else; you can’t get expelled from school for asking a simple question. But I did, that’s all I did, Ralph said, I just asked a question about the Purple Phantom. At that his mother jumped to her feet and screamed in horror, Go to your room young man, and you’ll wait until your father gets home! And Ralph ran to his room and threw himself on his bed.

Hours later Ralph heard the front door open and close, he heard his mother’s voice, he heard a quiet discussion, and then the sound of his father coming up the stairs and toward his room. The door swung open and Ralph’s father said, What on earth did you say to your mother that’s got her so upset, young man?! and he sat down on the bed next to Ralph. The boy began to recount the story. His father didn’t believe him –that all Ralph did was ask a question, What was the question? He didn’t want to answer, he was scared and he knew nothing good could come of his answer, but he talked about all kinds of things with his father and he hoped that if he told him he would understand. When Ralph finally said, I asked about he Purple Phantom, his father put his head in his hands and began to shake. It seemed like an hour but it was just a few seconds of silence until his father stood up, and looked the other way, drew a breath and spoke slowly and purposefully, You – are – no – longer – my – son – Get – out – of – this – house – and – never – return! When Ralph said in disbelief, What? his father repeated himself and pointed toward the door. A minute later Ralph was standing on the sidewalk in front of his house and his mother and father had slammed the front door and Ralph heard the lock click (and at the Click! Pastor Webber made, several children jumped in their seats as if startled, and Beth Reynolds, who had returned just before the sound, had a quizzical look on her face).

Well…, and Pastor Webber exhaled in frustration, Ralph began to wander and wander until he came to a remote place, off a road, near a river, with no one around him; he sat down and began to cry. Without realizing it, a man had walked up behind Ralph and stood there quietly while the boy wept. Ralph jumped in fear when he sensed the man nearby, but the man said nothing. He just stood near and waited for Ralph to speak (and Pastor Webber sat, quietly as if copying the man, and the kids were sitting on the edge of their seats waiting, while Mrs. Winters looked like she was about to cry). The man finally asked, What is wrong? and Ralph was afraid to respond. He had been through so much, from his teacher, the secretary, the Principal, his own mother and father, and all for a silly question. The man just stood calmly waiting until Ralph in frustration and anger that he was Expelled and disowned all because he asked a stupid question! to which the man said, Tell me the question, maybe I can help you. No, Ralph said, No you won’t help me, no one is helping me. Trust me, I am different, the man offered.

Well, Ralph had nothing left to lose, and although he was afraid he decided he that telling this stranger could bring nothing worse than he’d already suffered, Pastor Webber said. And so, he walked right up to the man and lifted his chin proudly and spoke (and Pastor Webber’s face was lifted and he noticed Mrs. Winters lifted her chin with him), I am just a small boy but I asked a question that has caused me all my troubles, and the question was…, and Ralph hesitated, trying to understand the man’s face and guess his what his response would be…, and Ralph blurted out quickly, I asked about the Purple Phantom. With that he almost ducked, expecting the same reaction he’d received from every other adult, and braced himself for the worst.

But the man said nothing and made no reaction. Instead, he calmly said, That is a good question, and you’ll find your answer across the road behind you and find a small house with a swing in the front yard. Ralph was so surprised that he asked the man to repeat himself, and the man calmly said, Turn toward the road and look for a small house with a swing in the front yard. Ralph was in shock and the man simply turned and walked away from him in the opposite direction, across an open field. Ralph jumped when he realized he was free to move, free to find the house, free to have his question answered. He started to run along the roadside looking for the house, running and running and running, without becoming tired; he was excited and enthused and there…, right there, across the road up ahead was a small house, red brick, white windows and a swing was in the front yard, and Ralph could barely contain himself as he ran faster toward the house where he’d hear the answer to his question.

And then…, and then…, as he started across the street, with the house just in front of him, so close that he could make out the open front door as if he was being welcomed, as if he was expected…, just as he started across the street, SMACK, Ralph was killed by a speeding truck (and Pastor Webber clapped his hands together and everyone was startled, and even Beth Reynolds jumped in the doorway to the kitchen, and Mrs. Winters and Mrs. Jenkins clasped their hands to their mouths with a gasp). And before anyone could object, or say anything at all, Pastor Webber stood and said, And the moral of the story is, Look both ways before crossing the road.

And with that Pastor Webber walked right past all the kids, past Mrs. Winters and Mrs. Jenkins and Beth Reynolds, up the stairs, out the front door of the church and across the yard to the Parsonage to help Debbie with dinner. And the kids ate their snacks right on time.

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