T. J.

By Holly Robinson Ashby

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    He that soweth and he that reapeth … rejoice together (John 4:36).

    Timothy John Harris was a bully. Everyone at Pierce School stayed out of his way, including me. I could count on three hands the times he got me into trouble. He didn’t just push everybody around, he tattled. If I so much as rested my head, T. J. would tell the teacher, “Danny’s looking at his neighbor’s paper!”

    Well, Timothy John had been here for about three weeks when my chance to get even came. Mr. Roundy, our teacher, had sent us to the school bookfair in groups of six. I happened to be by T. J. when he slipped a book into a folder that cost fifty cents. The book was Cool Cars, and everybody wanted it. I wanted it, too, but I didn’t have $4.95, which is what it cost. When it was time to buy, Timothy John was in line in front of me and was only charged the fifty cents for the folder. They didn’t see the book. I wondered if I should say something right then, but I didn’t.

    When we got back to class, I thought I’d tell the teacher. Then I thought, What if T. J. really picks on me after school? I have to admit—he was pretty scary. He had blond hair that stuck out all over his head, and he had dirty hands with scabs on them. Well, scary or not, I had to do something!

    Mr. Roundy said that he was going to show us a film about a family starting a farm. When the lights were off, I thought I could tell Mr. Roundy without T. J. noticing. I looked over at T. J. and couldn’t believe my eyes. He was crying! Crying over a film! I hardly felt like telling on him then.

    By the time the lights came on, Timothy John looked as hard and mean as ever. I decided to write him a note before I chickened out: “I know you stole that book. Just take it back, and I won’t tell.”

    I set it on his desk when I went to sharpen my pencil, and when I came back, I could feel him watching me. I’m in for it now, I thought.

    At the start of recess, T. J. came over to me. He had mean green eyes and gave me the creeps. “OK, Danny, I’ll do it,” he said. “You come with me.”

    We walked in silence to the book fair. I watched T. J. over the top of a book I picked up. He tipped his folder upside down, and the book slipped neatly back into it’s place on the shelf.

    When we went out for the rest of recess, I kept expecting to get clobbered, but he picked on other kids.

    I couldn’t play after school that day because my whole family had to go to the dentist. That evening it was my turn to wash the dishes, and when it was time for bed, I couldn’t sleep. It’s impossible to sleep when you live in a trailer and the wind is blowing. It sounds exactly like monsters moaning all around you.

    The next day, after eating lunch, I played tetherball with Morse, my best friend. His real name is Cody, but on the roll, his name says, “Morris, Cody,” so we call him Morse Code. He doesn’t mind. Anyway, I was actually winning, when T. J. walked over. I sure didn’t want to play against him, so as soon as I won, I yelled, “I’m going to get a drink!”

    I looked back to see T. J. slump down, holding his stomach. I hoped someone else would help him, but nobody did, so I walked him to the nurse’s office. He looked pretty sick.

    “Did you eat lunch today?” the nurse asked him, taking his temperature. T. J. shook his head.

    “How about breakfast?” He shook his head again.

    The nurse got him some juice out of her little fridge, and a paper about the free breakfast program.

    “You have a temperature,” the nurse said. “If you’ll give me your phone number, I’ll call your mom to come get you.”

    “We don’t have a phone,” T. J. mumbled.

    “How can we reach your mother?”

    “I don’t have a mom.”

    The nurse looked at me. T. J. drank his juice.

    “I’ll walk him home,” I said.

    “No!” T. J. said sharply. Then, softening, “I’ll get there OK.”

    “I think Danny’s right,” the nurse said. “Someone should make sure that you get in the door.”

    T. J. and I checked out and walked toward the river without saying much. We call it the river even though it’s dry most of the year. The air smelled like people were starting to burn wood in their fireplaces.

    I had some peanuts in my pocket left over from lunch, so I held them out. “Want some?”

    We shared my leftovers, and he cracked the shells with his fingers instead of his teeth, just like I do.

    When we got to the end of the street, T. J. said, looking toward the river, “I never stole anything before. I’m glad you stopped me.”

    I didn’t know what to say. He went on, “I just live a few houses down. You can go back now.”

    “No,” I said, “I told the nurse I’d see you in the door.”

    “Look,” he said, clenching his teeth, “this is as far as I want you to go.”

    “All right,” I said. “See you tomorrow.” I walked off, wondering why he was so touchy.

    Then he called after me, “Danny, thanks!”

    “It’s OK,” I called back. I felt kind of good.

    I watched him from around a fence. He kept walking and walking, way past the houses. I found a closer lookout point and saw him walk clear to the river bottom.

    A man in a baseball cap got out of an old car and gave him a hug. T. J. leaned against him, and the man felt his head. Then he put T. J. in the backseat and tucked a blanket around him. They didn’t drive anywhere. I couldn’t figure out what was going on until the man got some things out of a sack and started to build a little fire. Then it hit me: T. J. lived in that car! That’s why he didn’t want me to come with him.

    I thought about T. J. a lot that night. His dad must have been out of a job. Suddenly our trailer seemed like a pretty nice place to live.

    Morse and I were playing tetherball the next morning before school started, when T. J. came over and just stood looking on. “Hey, T.J.,” I yelled. “Want to play?”

    Morse looked at me like I was crazy, but T. J. shrugged his shoulders and walked over.

    “No rope swings,” I said, hitting the ball to him. T. J. almost smiled and played hard. He skunked me!

    “Come on, Morse,” I said. “You play the winner.”

    T. J. beat him too. Soon there were kids lined up, bragging that they could beat T.J.—but not one did.

    From then on, kids started hitting T. J. on the back instead of in the stomach. He stopped trying to get kids into trouble, and he wasn’t a bully anymore.

    The art teacher said, “Timothy John, you are a fine artist!” T.J., of all people!

    The day T. J. won the district art contest, he told us that he was going to move. “My dad got a new job.”

    Even though he was a friend now and I would miss him, I was happy for him.

    Two months went by before I heard from T. J. again. I smiled when I got his postcard; there was an apartment number on it.

    It’s winter now. I kick holes in the ice puddles with my heels on the way to school. Sometimes when I walk home by way of the river bottom, I think about T. J. And peanuts. And friendship.

    Illustrated by Dick Brown