The Circle


The Circle

“Dinner will be ready in a half hour,” Brad’s mother called as he left the house.

“Okay, Mom. I’ll be back.”

Walking down a sidewalk bordered with red and pink petunias, Brad looked over his shoulder at the home he had just left, still impressed by the building of white brick and by the green majesty of trees that shaded it.

Facing forward again, Brad slid his fingers into the pockets of tight denim pants, thinking about the contrast between this house on a wide street in a medium-sized California city and the home he and his parents had lived in until two months earlier.

His father, John Brannigan, had been determined to get his family out of the third-floor railroad flat on a Brooklyn street where poverty forced him to take his bride, but his son was 15 before John Brannigan, working days and going to school nights, received his degree that resulted in a job with an electronics firm and eventually earned for him the position with his company’s California office.

The three-bedroom home they bought was so different from the dreary flat Brad had grown up in, the quietness of the suburban neighborhood such a contrast to the day-and-night uproar of the Brooklyn street, that Brad had no more than begun his adjustment to the change.

“Not that I don’t enjoy the scenery and the climate,” thought Brad, “and I envy Mom her delight in our home.” He thought, too, that he understood his father’s pride in his ability to provide so well for his wife and son. Brad wondered, with a sharp twinge of guilt, whether his parents were aware of his unsettled discontent.

Mostly he missed the camaraderie of friends in Brooklyn he’d known all his life, who understood him in a way he was sure no one in this western community ever would.

Even as he brooded over his lack of companionship, he heard a cheerful, “Hi, Brad. How’s the boy?”

He hadn’t noticed Jeff Collier’s approach, so the stocky senior had greeted him and walked on before Brad could respond. Frowning, he looked after the retreating figure.

“How’s the boy?” he mimicked in a sarcastic undertone. “A lot he cares.” At the same time, he was surprised that the other boy even knew his name. Brad had been a student at Caulfield High for barely a month. In that time he had spoken to no more than half a dozen fellow seniors, but he recognized the class president. That Jeff Collier also recognized him disturbed Brad. Walking on, he decided he must have been pointed out to Jeff as “the dude with the weird accent.”

Brad entered a corner drugstore and an agony of homesickness surged through him. No place else in the California town reminded him of his own faraway city, but pausing beside the magazine rack he looked at publications that were duplicates of those on display in the drugstore in Brooklyn. An identical odor that combined the perfume of cosmetics with the antiseptic smell of medicines deepened his nostalgia.

Seated on a stool covered in shiny orange vinyl, Brad studied, with little interest, his reflection in the mirror behind the counter—a lean, tanned face, a thatch of licorice black hair worn loose over green eyes accented by arched, black brows.

The boy behind the counter asked, “What’ll it be?”

“Fresh limeade. Heavy on the fresh.”

Placing a frosted glass in front of Brad, the boy leaned his weight on folded arms.

“I know you,” he said. “You’re in my chemistry class. Have you finished the outside experiment yet?”

With slow deliberation Brad pulled the glass close, removed paper from a straw. Even though classes in his new school were hard for Brad, he was doing well in everything but chemistry. He felt sure the boy who still waited for an answer knew this, that he was taunting him. Grimly Brad drew tart liquid through the straw, thinking, “The guys in school must joke about how tough they think the students in my Brooklyn school were. Bet they think I didn’t learn a thing.”

His voice bitter with resentment, Brad said, “I suppose you breezed right through the experiment.”

The boy straightened. “Don’t even know where to start. I thought maybe we could talk it over, and also I’d like to—”

“Fat chance, man!” Brad tossed a quarter onto the counter and stalked out of the drugstore, the metallic ring of the coin echoing in his head. Fighting the ache of hurt in his throat, he strode toward his home asking himself, “How long before these dudes stop being suspicious of my background?” Brad was sure his classmates suspected him of carrying a switchblade, that they thought his clothes outlandish, and the few times he had spoken in a classroom, he’d caught glances exchanged between several fellow students who appeared to be highly amused because his speech was so different from their own.

In his preoccupation Brad nearly collided with a girl who suddenly appeared around a corner. Mumbling, “Sorry,” he would have hurried on, but she spoke his name.

“Brad Brannigan! Do you always walk right past people you know?”

Recognizing Jill Fenton he wished he could know her. Since his first day in English literature class he had been very much aware of the tall girl with the ash-blonde hair, had admired the friendliness of a smile that seemed to include everyone.

“Even me,” thought Brad. “A doll like Jill wouldn’t cut anybody.” Convinced she spoke to him only because she pitied him, resenting that pity so intensely he could barely speak, Brad muttered, “Gotta go, Jill. See you around.”

As he brushed past her, Brad’s quick sideways glimpse of the girl’s face left him with the uneasy feeling that his abruptness had marred her bright mood. Steps faltering he paused, then turned, but she was walking rapidly away, and Brad told himself, “What makes me think a snub from a guy she couldn’t really give a hang about would bother a popular girl like Jill?”

Dismissing his uneasiness, Brad was soon in an area of the town where he had been several times because a building on the corner of Vine and First streets attracted him. Rich green lawns, trimmed shrubs, and brightly grouped flowers surrounded a large structure of tan brick topped by a tapered, heaven-pointing spire. Brad thought the building was probably a church, but he couldn’t understand why there should be so much activity inside it. Every time he had walked by, people seemed to be going in or coming out.

Leaning against a tree Brad thought about his own religious background. His parents were good, honest people who had explained to him as much about God and the plan of life as they understood themselves, and although aware of the many shadings between right and wrong, Brad still felt a yearning to understand the reason for his existence, and he sensed, from the expressions of purposeful contentment on the faces of both adults and children who went in and out of the building that they knew the reason for theirs.

With a shrug, assuring himself that contentment and self-assurance were moods that could hardly be influenced by anything that took place inside a structure of brick and wood, Brad started home again, hoping he would meet no more of his classmates, not sure he could cope with another condescending greeting, but as he turned to go up the walk toward his house, four girls, walking together, called, “Hi, Brad!” not seeming to notice his surly lack of response.

After a night made restless by loneliness and a wretched sense of displacement, Brad left for school, wondering wearily whether he could ever hurdle the barrier of his strangeness, ever feel himself a part of the California community.

He was so emotionally off-balance all day that when Jeff Collier caught up with him in the hall after the last period, he walked along, unresisting, as Jeff propelled him down the hall with a hand under his elbow.

“Brad, we require another warm body on the decorating committee for the Senior Hop,” Jeff said. “You’ll be glad to know you just volunteered.”

Brad, irritated, wondered why he should help with a dance he hadn’t even considered attending, but before he could voice his refusal, Jeff spoke again.

“I’ll let you know in a couple of days where and when we’ll meet. Okay?”

To his surprise Brad heard himself answer, “Okay,” and felt the muscles in his cheeks relax in a grin, a response to the cheerful smile Jeff gave him.

Still off guard, Brad stopped to wait for Jill Fenton when she called to him outside the school.

She looked up at him with a smile that was hesitant, Brad suspected, because of his abruptness with her the evening before, but she said, “Brad, I wondered whether you’d like to come to activity night tonight.”

“To what?”

Jill laughed. “Oh, it’s an auxiliary of the church a lot of us in this high school belong to. We’re Latter-day Saints.”

“That’s one I never heard of.”

“Some people call us Mormons,” Jill continued, and before Brad could say that he had, indeed, heard of that church, but nothing he’d care to repeat, she added, “We have a chapel on the corner of Vine and First streets. If you’ll be there at 7:30 tonight, I’ll meet you at the door.”

Never could Brad remember living through such an endless evening. He couldn’t eat his dinner; then he had to spend the next hour assuring his mother that no, he wasn’t sick and yes, everything was fine at school. By 7:15 he had definitely decided he wouldn’t go anywhere near the Mormon chapel, and at 7:20 he called, “I’m going out, Mom. I won’t be late,” as he raced out of the house. What if Jill had given up on him? What if he couldn’t find her when he got to the chapel? But as he stepped onto the wide porch, Jill came through the door.

“Oh, Brad, I’m glad you came, but we’ll have to hurry. Rehearsal has already started.”

He followed Jill through a red-carpeted foyer into what was, to his surprise, an enormous high-ceilinged room that looked like a gymnasium. Near a stage on one side of the oblong area at least 30 young people, who appeared to range in age from about 12 to 17 or 18, milled around. Among them were several adults, including a big man whose broad, animated face was edged by rust-shaded sideburns. He turned as Jill, with Brad behind her, walked up to him.

Jill’s hand on his arm moved Brad forward.

“Brother Hill, this is Bradley Brannigan, the new boy in school I told you about. Won’t he be perfect for the Indian chief?”

“Hey, yeah, he sure will!” The man’s examination of Brad was candid and jovial. “Perfect. How about it, Brannigan? You ready to be in our show?”

“Your what?” Brad was confused, not only by the request, but by the bustle around him and the chatter that was suddenly drowned out by a reverberating chord on the piano which seemed to be a signal for most of the young people to run onto the stage where they lined up, arms linked.

As one of the group began to rehearse the others in what appeared to be a somewhat complex dance routine, Jill said, “Brad, our church has all kinds of interesting activities for the boys and girls our age. One of the things we’re doing in this ward right now is a musical show.”

Brad’s bewilderment must have shown in his face because Jill, smiling, explained to him that a ward was an area division of the Latter-day Saint church and that the show now in rehearsal was a dance-drama-musical production put on by the young people of the ward with token help from qualified adults.

“Paul Ensign and Jeff Collier wrote the words and music for this show,” Jill went on, “but we didn’t have anyone who seemed to be right for the part of the Indian chief. Paul said he saw you in the drugstore yesterday and thought how good you’d be, but he couldn’t get you to talk to him, so he asked me to invite you here tonight.”

Intrigued by what Jill told him, but unable even to imagine himself taking part in such a production, actually performing in front of an audience, Brad said, “Oh, I couldn’t do a thing like that, Jill, and anyway I’m not a member of your church, so—”

“Oh, that doesn’t matter at all,“ she said quickly. “You live close, and we desperately need your tall, dark, and handsome presence.”

“Flattery,” said Mr. Hill who had come up to them, “should get you everywhere, Jill. Come on, young fellow, let’s see what you can do.”

Brad, walking forward when Jill did, was amazed to find his feet carrying him onto the stage where he was thrust out in front of the grouped boys and girls. He wasn’t given a chance to say he wouldn’t be an Indian chief. Dazed, he accepted the script thrust into his hands, read lines each time Paul Ensign told him to, and when the play’s finale was reached, he was one of the performers who lined up to sing, with loud enthusiasm, “Home, Home on the Range.”

He left the chapel, part of a large group, and when they reached his house, those who were still together chorused, “Goodnight, Brad!” and “See you tomorrow.”

A glow that had been lit inside him during the evening burned around Brad’s heart and was renewed every time he remembered, during the night, how casually, yet how completely, the friendly, cheerful group had accepted him as one of them.

Entering the school building next morning, Brad was filled with anxiety and anticipation. Would the wondrous sense of belonging, which had so warmed him the night before, carry into the school day, or must he continue to keep himself apart—continue to remain different and alone?

He didn’t have long to wonder. He was barely inside his first classroom when a vivacious brunette who had played the part of an Indian princess the night before smiled at him from her seat across the room, and Jeff Collier lifted a hand in greeting when he walked in.

In his own seat Brad opened his English literature textbook to the poetry assigned for the day. A poem by Edwin Markham caught his attention. He read words that seemed to hold up a mirror reflecting his own recent actions—words about a rebel who, flaunting withdrawal from others, drew a circle around himself to shut out those who would befriend him.

Jill Fenton came in and touched Brad’s shoulder as she walked past him to her own seat. Lowering his head to hide tears, Brad read the poem’s final line that told of friends who, with their love, drew a circle around the rebel’s circle and took him in.

[illustration] Illustrated by Sherry Thompson