“He was already in bed when you called. Do you need him? I would rather let him sleep.”
“No, just the opposite. I was hoping we could talk freely without worrying about whether or not he could hear us.”
“His bedroom is at the back of the house and his door is closed. He’ll never know you were here, unless I tell him.”
It was almost as if she wanted to make sure that Jesse never knew Neil had come into their house. There was no doubt something to be learned from that, but Neil had not come to attend to subtleties. He was here for crude facts.
“Mrs. Herrera, I told you what Jesus did today. His behavior was more than thoughtless or mischievous. The boy is full of hatred. If I am going to help him, I have to understand why. If I can’t, there is no use in having him come back to my class.”
It seemed that Mrs. Herrera had spent the time since he called rallying her resources. She asked sharply, “How did Jesus get home from school? Nobody called me.”
“He walked! You mean you just sent him away without . . .”
“Oh, shut up!” Neil shouted, then cut back the volume immediately. His outburst stopped them both. He had not realized how close to the edge he was. She burst into tears. “Mrs. Herrera,” he continued, “you have to stop dancing around the problem. How Jesus got home isn’t important now. He has a real problem and if you can’t solve it while he is eleven, how are you going to handle him when he is sixteen?”
Mrs. Herrera wiped her face and slid back in her chair, as if to get as far from Neil as she could.
And, with the cold clarity of inspiration, he knew what had been happening.
To test his sudden understanding, he stood up and moved abruptly toward her. She cowered back into her chair. He stepped back and said, “So that is how it was?”
“I don’t know what you mean?”
“You know exactly what I mean, Mrs. Herrera. I’ve seen that reaction twice before, on Jesus. Either you beat him, or his father used to beat him and he never got over it. You just told me which.”
“Miguel never beat anybody!”
“Then why did you cringe? Why does Jesse cringe?”
“It’s you, that’s why.”
“No,” Neil replied softly, “it isn’t me. I won’t take the blame for this. No one else cringes from me.”
He sat down again and waited for Mrs. Herrera to regain her composure. Then he said, “Tell me about your husband.”
“Miguel didn’t beat me.”
Suddenly, Neil was struck by the falseness of his position. He had no business here cross-examining this woman. If she was a battered wife caught up in a pattern of denial, that was simply none of his business. And how could he be so sure that he had hit the right answer. He was no psychologist.
Yet, now that he had forced himself upon her in the name of saving Jesse from himself, he was committed to stay the course.
“Just tell me about him. How long were you married?”
“Did you live here, in this house?”
“Yes.” Her voice was still suspicious, but as she began to talk, she could not stop herself. “We moved here right after we were married. Miguel was ten years older than me, and he had already established himself in real estate before we got married. That’s how he found this house. He looked for one that was a really good deal while he was selling houses to other people. He had bought this one and furnished it before we were married.” more tomorrow