New Boys and Old Boys

At the semester’s first Vespers, the boys gathered around the sofas in the dormitory parlor, and  I sat among the other unknowns – the incoming mid-year dropoffs – “new boys” as opposed to just “boys”, whose parents had decided to wash their hands early or late, and whose place it was now to find their place and to fit in. The Vesperal prayers took five minutes, the roll call and account of completed chores, demerits, and new job assignments lasted forty. Last year’s boys were old hands at this, and laughed easily at each others exploits, which they recounted with mock sternness and calls for maturity, order, and piety in good service to the school. “Old boys”, the seniors, led the younger. “Police Yourselves”, was the frequent motto, sometimes interspersed with a dreadful stare and “or we will.”

I hadn’t checked in yet, which is what they called inspecting your assigned cubby hole, locking up your carryable gear, and making sure your bed was in order. I wanted to go upstairs, see my room, see who else shared it, and see whether my back was to a window or at least a wall. But Hoss stepped toward me, like the arrival of a sudden train when you’re just turning around. I could almost feel a wind from this behemoth of sixteen-year-old Maine country field hand material clad in a nylon vest that didn’t seem to zip all the way over his chest.

“Bainbury,” he said.

“Excuse me?” I gripped the railing. I might have fallen down if he took another step.

“Bainbury. I thought they sent you home.”

It was a name, then. “I think you mean someone else. I’m Brown.”

“Quit playin games, Bainbury. You”re back. Different hair cut, but it’s you all right. I knew you’d be back.”

“Really, I’m not Bainbury.”

Another boy walked by. “What’s up Bainbury?”

Hoss smiled. Those buckish front teeth said he had me.

I took a deliberate step down off the first stair. “You guys are joking around. Who’s Bainbury?”

“You are,” said Hoss. ‘Ask an honest question,’ said his eyes.’Get an honest answer,’ said his grin.

It was friendly enough. He liked Bainbury. He just didn’t like being gaslighted. I didn’t either.

“Look…” I started to say. I was going to say that we all look like somebody, after all.

“They called your name at roll, and you didn’t say nothin’. You’re Bainbury, Else why would the school have you on the roll as such. They know who you are.”

I had zoned out during the roll. Had they called my name? I couldn’t remember. But there was the faint echo of an old boy’s voice in my mind, the sound of his voice saying “Bainbury”, and others murmuring answers for that name. “He’s right there.” Was it really me they meant? Did I suddenly get assigned the identity of someone everyone recognized but me?

“Bainbury…” I heard an old boy on the other side of the room saying. He was regaling a new boy with my exploits. That is, the exploits of someone named Bainbury. But he was gesturing at me, almost with a wave, as I made eye contact.

Hoss simply waited. It was the patient look of someone used to a simply parental morality. ‘Confess your tall tale, and it wont be a lie.’ It was the rightness of the day after a big fishing trip or the evening after a night of too much beer around the camp fire. ‘You told your story,’ those eyes said, ‘now tell the truth and I won”t hold it against you.’

“Sure,” I said. “I didn’t think you’d recognize me.”

“I’m big, not dumb,” he said. He clapped me on the shoulder, and I thought maybe a molar rattled in my head. So that was how you got teeth like Hoss.

Hoss started to go out to the porch. He signaled this mission by dipping largely into a big bag of Red Man. Almost all the boys dipped or smoked. The school frowned on it, but as long as you were discreet, they pretended that a sixteen-year-old was a day or so from manhood anyway, so it was your business.

I asked Hoss one more question. “Hoss, do you remember where we met?”

“Sure, Bainbury.” He stuffed the wad of shredded leaf in his mouth, making all his words after that sound faintly strangled, yet languid and satisfied. “We met that time when you were striper fishing out on the rocks near the dam, down Tunneytown. You were trying to use a jig and I told you live bait was the best when they’re spawning. You all right, Bainbury?”

“Sure,” I said. Then he walked over to the door, which was open now, and joined other boys for a lot of smoke and spit.

I went up the stairs. Funny thing. I do remember being on the rocks and striper fishing. I do remember using jigs and being frustrated. And I remember trading a few friendly words with a bigger boy in a vest and getting a handful of live bait from his bucket, a detail Hoss didn’t mention. In my head, though, my name is Brown, and I don’t remember seeing that boy at all again.

At the top of the stairs, i turned left, then left again into room 2F. My bed and cubby were at the back. A window and a corner, and on my cubby was a label bearing my name. I dropped my duffel, put away my soap and shampoo, and the care box from my grandmother. I put my new Master lock on the hasp. Then I looked again at the label, before going back downstairs. There were white letters on black vinyl, one name only – in the quasi-military style of boys schools everywhere. And of course, it said ‘Bainbury.’

It took a while to get my bearings. Not as long as you might think. One of the new boys, formerly of the bad boys, sent away and allowed back in the fold. I said a prayer, the next Vespers. The school insisted on a show of contrition, but I really meant it. I’m not sure if Brown heard it, though. These things come out like water released from a dam, rising inevitably, until it flows over and past. You cast your hook, then, and take an opportunity where you find it. It’s a whole life that plunges in, whether it wants to or not. Bainbury is a fisherman – fished his whole absence – always with live bait – these days, at least. Quite a character. Brown was a boy finding a different fit, somewhere under the rocks.

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