Every year it’s the same just before the football game between Ridgewood and Central High, the two high schools in town. Each school does everything it can to fire up for the big game. On Thursday night there’s a big pep rally in the parking lot where the symbol of the opposing team is burned in effigy.
Another tradition, one which is not appreciated by school officials, also takes place during the week. A group of students go to the opposing high school and leave their mark. One year a group from Central painted Ridgewood’s sidewalk with a large C for Central Cougars. The next year Central High was broken into and an old car painted with Ridgewood colors was driven onto the gym floor at night, and then the wheels were removed. It was not until noon that authorities finally removed the car.
Unfortunately in some people’s minds it’s more than just a game. Since most students attending Central are of Mexican heritage, and most at Ridgewood are white, sometimes the cross-town rivalry is just an excuse to promote racial prejudice.
For as long as anyone can remember, it’s always been the same.
Jason Miller played the trombone in Ridgewood High’s marching band. On Thursday night he attended the pep rally because the band had to play for it. Afterwards he went home and watched TV for a while, but then decided that he’d better start studying for an algebra test. It was then that he realized he’d left his algebra book in the band room at school. He’d have to go back to the school and get it before the janitors locked up for the night.
He drove to Ridgewood High, parked, got out, and walked to the door.
“Hey, where do you think you’re going?” a voice called out.
Jason stopped. Two large guys stepped out from the shadows. “What are you doing here?” one asked.
“I’m in the band,” Jason said. “I left my algebra book in the rehearsal room, and I’ve got a test tomorrow.”
“I’ve never seen you before. How do I know you aren’t from Central and have come here to make trouble.”
“I’ve got my activity card here.”
“Let me see it.” Jason showed him his card. “All right, go ahead, but you better be telling the truth, because if you’re not, and we catch you messing around …”
“I’m telling the truth.”
“All right, you can go.”
Just then there was the sound of shouting from the other side of the building. “There are people inside with cans of paint!” someone yelled.
The two self-appointed guards ran inside the building.
Jason walked up to the third floor where the band room was. He could hear people yelling back and forth and the sound of running. “There they go!” someone shouted.
Because Jason was a section leader, he had a key to the rehearsal room. He went inside and began searching for his algebra book.
Suddenly a girl ran into the room. She was dark-eyed, with black hair and olive skin. She was breathing hard from running. “Hide me, okay?” she asked.
She’s from Central, he thought to himself. “You can’t stay here. I’m going home now, and I’ve got to lock up.”
“Just let me stay here until they’ve gone.”
One of the student guards barged in, saw the girl, and yelled out into the hall. “I’ve got one!” He turned to the girl. “Where’d your friends go, huh?”
“They all got away.”
Two guys rushed in the room.
Jason looked at the clock. If he didn’t start studying soon, he’d end up not doing well on the test tomorrow. “Can you all go someplace else? I’ve got to close up now, and I can’t let you stay in here because there’s thousands of dollars of musical instruments and …”
“Hey, cool it. We’ll be out of here in a minute. First we have to decide what to do with our prisoner.”
“I think we should make her clean up the mess where she and her friends painted on the wall.”
“I don’t want to sit around and watch some chickie clean walls.”
“Let me go, okay?” the girl said. “C’mon, a joke’s a joke.”
“I think we should keep her our prisoner and make her wish she’d never come here tonight,” the one in charge said.
The smile on the girl’s face vanished.
“Yeah, let’s teach her a lesson she won’t ever forget,” another said.
Jason could see the girl was getting scared.
“Let’s take her for a ride in my car.”
The girl’s lip started to quiver. “Please let me go.”
“No way. Hey, I just thought of something. I’ve got some handcuffs in my car.”
“Good, go get ‘em.”
The girl made a break for it, but they caught her and held her. “Let me go!” she cried out.
“You’re not going anywhere. Go get the handcuffs like I said.”
When Jason began speaking, he realized how thin his voice was compared to the others. “I think you should let her go.”
“Hey, geek, who asked your opinion? Look, just walk away from here and go home and forget you ever saw any of this.”
He’d never stood up to anyone before, and these guys were big and mean. But he had to say something. “I can’t let you hurt her.”
“I just can’t, that’s all. Can’t you see you’re scaring her.”
“You think we care? Look, whatever happens to her is her own fault. She was the one who broke in. She’s got to be punished.”
“What are you going to do with her?”
“I don’t know. But it’ll be so bad she’ll never come back here again, that’s for sure.”
The girl had the look of a trapped animal. She kept trying to free herself, but it was no use.
Jason looked at the girl. “I won’t let them hurt you.”
The ring leader shoved him backwards. “What are you going to do to stop us?”
Jason didn’t know. They were all so much bigger than he was.
The handcuffs arrived. Two of them held her while the other put the handcuffs on the girl.
Jason saw the phone on the band director’s desk. He went to it and picked it up and started to dial.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m calling the police.”
One of them grabbed the phone from his hand. “Let’s take both of them with us. Handcuff Twinkle Toes to the girl too.”
A few minutes later Jason and the girl sat in the back seat of an old beat-up car, a guard on each side of them. Jason could hear the terrified shallow breathing of the girl. He leaned over. “Don’t worry. They’re not going to hurt you.”
She reached out and grabbed his hand and held it tightly.
Fifteen minutes later the car left the highway and started down a nearly abandoned road which led to a place called Crescent Ridge where people went target shooting. No more than a dozen vehicles used the road in a year’s time.
“Let’s all think of things we can do to our prisoner when we get to the end of this road,” the driver said. They each took their turn describing various forms of cruelty. The girl held on tightly to Jason’s hand.
Suddenly the car stopped. “Let Twinkle Toes out here. We’ll take the girl on with us alone.”
“No,” the girl pleaded.
“He’s still handcuffed to the girl,” the one next to Jason said.
“Well, undo them, stupid.”
“I can’t see anything. How about turning on the dome light?”
“It doesn’t work. Get in front of the headlights.”
Jason and the girl were pushed out in front of the car. One of them took the key to the handcuffs from his pocket and waved it in Jason’s face. “You’re lucky we’re letting you go—you’re luckier than she’s gonna be.”
With his free hand Jason hit the hand holding the key. The key flipped into the air and landed somewhere off the road. In the soft sand at night it would be nearly impossible to find.
“He just threw away the key!”
The driver got out of the car. “What’s wrong with you anyway?” He shoved Jason backwards. Because they were bound together by handcuffs, he and the girl both fell down to the ground.
“Now what do we do?”
“Hey, they’re both such great friends. Let’s just leave ‘em here. Let ‘em try walking back in the dark. It’ll serve ‘em right. I’m tired of this anyway.”
They got in the car and drove away.
The girl was quiet for a minute and then she started sobbing. Jason kept saying it was all right now.
After a while she calmed down. “Maybe we’d better start walking toward the highway,” he said.
At first their progress was slow because it was hard to see, but eventually their eyes adjusted to the darkness.
“Why did you help me?”
“I don’t know. I just did.”
“You must have had a reason.”
“It’s the way I was raised.”
“What do you mean?”
“I was taught a guy should protect the girl he’s with.”
“You weren’t exactly with me.”
“No, not exactly.”
“Who taught you that about girls?”
“The church I go to teaches that. I’m a priest.”
“You’re no priest.”
“In my church I am.”
“What church is that?”
“The Mormon church.”
“You a priest? In my church a priest looks like a priest. I’m Catholic.”
“Well, I bet that’s a nice church too.”
“I go every Sunday,” she said.
“No kidding? Me too.”
“I don’t want you to think my church says it’s okay to do vandalism.”
“I just don’t want you going around saying we do that.”
“People do things like that though. Sometimes when I go in a store, salespeople stare at me like I came to shoplift. Maybe one time they caught one of us shoplifting, and now they think we all do that. That’s wrong.”
Jason paused. “When I was nine years old, I got a bike for my birthday. Two days later it was stolen. The police found it on Del Marco Street, all smashed up. After that I figured every Mexican kid was the one who’d stolen my bike.”
“Hey, it wasn’t me, okay?” she teased.
They started laughing.
“What’s it like to be … like you are?” he asked.
“It’s great on our side of town. It’s only when we cross over we get hassled.”
“Sometimes I wish my skin was dark like yours.”
“I can’t ever get a tan. I’m either white or sunburned. When I go swimming my stomach looks like the underbelly of a dead fish.”
She started laughing.
“You’re very funny, but in a nice way. What’s your name?”
“That’s a good name. It kind of fits you.”
“Rita’s a nice name too.”
They walked for a time without talking and then she said, “This is so strange.”
“Me taking a walk with a guy named Jason Miller.”
“I know what you mean.”
“If we saw each other on the street, I never would have talked to you,” she said.
“I wouldn’t have talked to you either. But it has nothing to do with prejudice. I don’t talk to many girls anyway.”
“I don’t know. Bashful I guess.”
“You shouldn’t be bashful. You’ve got more to offer than most guys.”
“Me? What’ve I got to offer?”
“You’re a nice guy. There aren’t many nice guys around anymore.”
“Maybe I could see you once a week and you could pump me up by saying things like that to me.”
She paused. “Sure. On what side of town would we meet?”
“I don’t know. Maybe we could talk on the phone.”
She nodded her head. “Sure. Except I should tell you I’m going with someone. He doesn’t like Anglos, and he doesn’t like me talking with other guys. His name is John.”
“Is John big?”
“I knew it. Big John. And mean too, right?”
“To others, but not to me.”
“Big and mean, huh?” Jason paused.
“Maybe if you just send me a letter once in a while.”
“You’re so funny.”
“Nobody else laughs at what I say.”
“I can’t believe you were willing to get yourself beat up just to try to protect me. I wish my parents could meet you. I know they’d like to thank you too. Maybe we could have you over for dinner sometime.” She paused. “Would you come if we asked you?”
“Sure. I love Mexican food.” He paused. “I’ve got a question. When ever I go out to eat, I always get Mexican food because it’s different from what my mom fixes most of the time. So I was wondering, well, like if you go out to eat, do you ever order mashed potatoes, canned peas, and roast beef?”
She looked at him strangely and then started laughing again.
“I didn’t think it was that funny,” he said, pleased that she appreciated him.
“Why do our two schools hate each other so much?” she asked.
He thought about it for a minute. “I guess because we don’t know each other.”
“It’s not right to hate an entire school, is it?”
“No. Especially if there are people like you at Central.”
“And people like you at Ridgewood.” She paused. “Jason, you know what? I’m really sorry I broke in. I was brought up better than that.”
“I know. I can tell you’re basically a good person.”
“We ought to try to change the way things are,” she said.
“I don’t know. Like if I could talk to the kids in my school and you could talk to the ones in your school. And we could tell them it’s not right to hate somebody just because of the color of their skin.”
“Sure, why not? I could ask to speak to the band sometime and tell them that.” He paused. “It might make a difference.”
There was a prolonged silence.
“Do you really think it would make any difference?” she asked.
He sighed. “No, not really. I guess everybody’s got to find it out for themselves. Like we did tonight.”
They made it to the highway. Across the street was a truck stop. They would have to cross the highway and walk inside and ask to use their phone. He knew people would stare and make jokes at their expense. After they phoned, her parents would come and her father would use a hacksaw to free them and then they would be separated and it would never be the same for them again.
“Looks like we made it,” he said quietly.
“Thanks for being such a good person.” She looked at him and smiled. “You’d make a good Catholic. You could even become a priest.”
He smiled. “Hey, you forget, I already am a priest.”
“Father Jason,” she teased.
“They don’t call me that.”
“What do they call you?”
“Mostly just Jason.” He paused. “Well, sometimes they call me brother.”
“Then I will call you brother too,” she said.
They walked across the highway to the glaring lights of the truck stop.