(to listen to the story, click on the player above)
Ricardo Armada sat alone behind the main counter in the office of Christian Brothers High School, staring off into space. His glance went beyond the wire-reinforced plate glass windows separating the office from the school’s main hallway, and beyond the glass double-doors leading outside to the courtyard lawn dividing the school’s north and south classroom wings. Those doors opened on to a concrete pad that supported two metal racks, filled with student bicycles.
Nary a sound emerged from the courtyard on this lovely spring day. Normally, it would be abuzz with voices of teachers and students flowing through the open windows or classroom doors. But on this day everyone, save the three people working in the office, was gathered in the gymnasium for the annual Baccalaureate Mass commemorating Commencement, May 1977. Seven years prior, Armada sat on the very same gym floor celebrating with his fellow seniors.
The tall, dark-haired alumnus had been relegated to answering phones and issuing “late slip” notices to tardy students. It was a personal embarrassment for the 25-year-old who tried to ignore the fact his fellow CBS classmates already were working their third year of business, science or teaching. At least he'd heeded his girlfriend’s recent advice and re-enrolled at the local university. That musing was interrupted by the muffled laughter of the two middle-aged women working in the Finance office: the bookkeeper and her assistant, Lorraine Valim, Ricardo’s godmother.
Continuing to gaze out to the courtyard Armada remembered the time when the football team practiced on the lush, sweet grass. It afforded a much softer landing than the hardpan field behind the gymnasium that was undergoing reseeding. This reverie was interrupted at the sound of footsteps in the hallway. Armada checked the clock above the glass walls: 9:07.
The tardy student opened the office door and approached the counter. Armada recognized the young lad, an African American underclassman, James Gale. Dressed in khaki pants, a short-sleeved knit shirt and wearing his Afro hair style formed into a near-perfect globe shape, Gale presented a model image of the Brothers’ strict dress code.
“Mr. Armada,” the young man acknowledged as he approached the counter.
“Need a late slip, eh James?”
“Yes sir,” the youth said, shoving a paper across the counter. “Dental appointment this morning.”
“Nothing major, I hope,” Armada said while writing the admissions note.
“Nah, my lip’s a little numb, still,” Gale admitted with a smile. “Man, I hate that.”
Armada looked up as he ripped the note from the pad. “Know what you mean.”
Just then he saw a second young African American boy pass through in the hallway. Leaning to his right, Ricardo followed the youth who walked out the double-glass doors to the courtyard. Armada rose from his chair and gestured outside.
“James, that boy come in with you just now?”
Gale turned around. “No, sir. Never seen him.”
Ricardo noticed the youth's pants were ripped at the knee and his shirt looked like it had never been ironed. Probably a kid from the neighborhood, Armada surmised. Clearly, not a CBS student. Ricardo exited the office and hustled across the hallway, with James Gale following behind. When Armada reached the doorway the boy had lifted a chain over the seat of one and pulled the bike from the rack.
“Hey! What-'n-hell you think you’re doing?”
The youth jumped on the bicycle seat while pushing down on the pedal with force. “Think I’m stealin’ me a bike!” The local lad failed to get traction on the grass and lost control of the bicycle. When it toppled, he started to fall with it. But the youth adroitly corrected his balance and began to run. Ricardo rushed over and tackled him on the grass. But the boy sprang up, ran to the veranda and raced free. When he charged past Room 106 Ricardo was only a half-step behind.
Running alongside him on the veranda Ricardo instinctively reverted to a defensive back posture: knees bent, arms extended and running sideways, trying to prevent a ball carrier from cutting back into the open; in this case to the wide expanse of courtyard lawn. As they rushed past Room 110, blue sky suddenly appeared overhead as they emerged out from under the second-story overhang. The pair simultaneously jumped down on the asphalt and sprinted past the Science Lab building. A few more strides, Armada figured, and the kid would be running for the open field where the football team practices, with a good shot at hopping the fence and heading home.
To Ricardo’s surprise, however, the youth veered right, toward the gymnasium complex. He allowed himself to be corralled near the back wall of the building where the water fountain was mounted next to the boy’s bathroom door. Seeing one final chance to stop the boy, Ricardo shoved the youth hard, as if pushing a runner out of bounds to prevent him from scoring in the end zone. The youth lost his balance, stumbled and slammed head first into a return wall. He fell instantly on the concrete pad next to the bathroom door, as if blasted by a bazooka.
After this 100-yard dash—with Armada’s chest heaving from lack of oxygen—he leaned over the youth, half-expecting him to pop up like a wounded rabbit and sprint for the open field. The boy, however, lay still. Ricardo reached down and jabbed the his chest with a finger. No reaction. Unconsciously, Armada grabbed his head in anguish with the sudden realization this action may have killed the youth.
The sound of collective voices singing drew Ricardo to the north corner of the gymnasium. There at the open double doors, he found Brother Hilary walking the length of the doorway, hands clasped behind his broad back, contemplating the communion music.
“Brother. Brother Hilary!” Armada called out to his former senior class religion teacher.
When the Brother realized he was being summoned outside, a worried look crossed his face. “What is it, Rick? What’s wrong?”
“Come. This kid, I think he’s dead,” Ricardo said in a rush while motioning for the Brother to follow him. When they arrived at the water fountain, Ricardo pointed down at the boy’s body. “I caught him stealing a bike from the rack, and when he ran…” Ricardo paused to regain his breath. “… I chased him down here.”
“What happened—did he trip and fall?”
“No.” Ricardo’s voice broke. The Brother looked into his eyes, waiting for a fulsome explanation.
“At the last second I shoved him and he slammed against the wall. He just dropped, cold.” As the Brother bent over the boy, Armada admitted, “God, I think I killed him.”
“No. He’s breathing,” said Brother Hilary. “But he needs an ambulance. Go back to the office and call for one.” Armada continued staring at the boy lying on the concrete. “Go!”
Ricardo bolted for the courtyard grass, running in the opposite direction from which he had just come. But he was still winded and couldn’t muster the strength to run full speed, so he slowed to a fast trot. His lungs felt as if they would burst. Some sixty yards away his godmother appeared at the double doors. She waved, calling to him. “Rick. Rick, what’s wrong?”
“Call an ambu…” He slowed to a stop, as he couldn’t run and shout in his winded condition. “Call for an ambulance. A boy’s been hurt.”
She startled him with her reply. “Are you sure? Check again before we call.”
He stopped, bent over, gasping for air. “What? No. Call an ambulance.”
“You’d better double-check,” she said. He’d learned long ago not to challenge his godmother; she was hardly ever wrong. Ricardo Armada turned and slowly jogged back to the gymnasium complex.
When he passed the Science building, to his amazement, neither Hilary nor the boy were at the water fountain. Ricardo quickly looked around expecting to see the Brother carrying the youth over his shoulder. There was no sign of either of them, as students swarmed toward the cafeteria doors, an indication mass had ended. The verandas and hallways would soon be filled with students and teachers returning to their homerooms. Ricardo turned onto the south wing veranda and hustled back to the Office.
Down the main hallway Ricardo opened the first door to the Office and was startled by the site of the young thief sitting upright on the wooden bench. Seeing Armada, the youth shouted to no one in particular “There he is! That’s the man who accosted me. He the one!”
Stunned and angered, Armada responded “What the hell?” The loud accusations began to draw a small crowd.
“That’s him. I was just mindin’ my own business when he threw me ‘gainst the wall out there. He the one!”
Armada drew his right arm back, snarling “You lying sonofa…” Ricardo relaxed the fist and gestured across the hallway. “And I suppose I didn’t stop you over there from stealin’ a bike?”
“Armada! Knock it off!” barked Ron Muenster, the school’s P-E and baseball coach. “Just cool that damn Portugee temper of yours.” Armada looked up from the youth to Coach Muenster. “Get over here, Rick.”
As Ricardo passed by the boy, he heard a retching sound. When he turned around the African American was vomiting on the floor. He rounded the corner past the coach, who gave a friendly slap on the shoulder. From the main counter, Ricardo saw the school’s priest, Father Serra, down the hall, beckoning with an index finger.
“We need to talk,” Father Serra said as he waved Ricardo into a small enclosure. The priest closed the door behind and sat across from him. “The police will be here shortly to take a statement from the kid. I need you to tell me exactly what happened out there.” Seeing Armada opening his mouth, the priest stopped him with an upraised hand. “I need the honest-to-God truth, here, Rick. You understand? Every last detail.”
Armada nodded as he breathed in deeply. His lungs which were still stinging from the chase twelve minutes ago. He stared into the priest’s eyes and remembered that earnest, but somber expression from his four years at CBS. The cleric knew him better than most; hell, he had heard his confession during Ricardo’s teen years. For added pressure, the handsome Serra also was a distant Portuguese relative.
The priest allowed Ricardo Armada to recount the experience without interruption, even the minutiae of assuming the defensive back posture during the chase. When the young man had finished his testimony, Father Serra asked “Now, that’s the full story?”
The priest looked down between his legs, then angled his head toward the door, sighing in resignation. He turned back to Armada. “Truthfully now—did you slam the kid against the wall… because he was black?”
Ricardo reacted in disbelief. “No, father, I’m not a racist! Hell, I was having a pleasant conversation with James Gale in the office when I caught the kid stealin’ the bike.”
The priest’s audible exhalation alluded to the quandary. “Yeah, but when you shoved him, he wasn’t a threat to steal the bike any longer. Right? The kid was just trying to get away, run home.”
Ricardo shook his head. “Honest to God, Father, I got so caught up in the chase, it felt like I was back on the football field again! All those times I’d failed to make a tackle in the games… something just over me. I had to stop him.” The priest nodded, suggesting he followed Ricardo’s rationale. “So, knowing it was the last chance before he ran free, I shoved him. I didn’t mean to kill him, that’s for damn sure.”
The priest’s stern demeanor underscored the situation. “Yeah? Well, small consolation if we were sitting here waiting for the coroner instead of the police.”
Armada sighed. “I’m truly sorry, father. Honestly.”
The priest rose from the chair. “Well then, you need to go out there and apologize to the boy.”
Ricardo nodded and stood with him. “Okay, father.”
The two men walked back into the main office, which had resumed its normal beehive activity. Standing against the counter in quiet conversation was the principal and Mrs. Lucas, the office secretary. Father Serra interrupted them to inquire about the status of the local youth.
“The police just took him away, Father,” Lucas said while shooting a cold look in Ricardo’s direction. “Juvenile detention.” The priest thanked the secretary and walked back to Armada.
“Well, the police already took him.” His raised eyebrows confirmed Ricardo’s lost opportunity for forgiveness.
The second main office door opened and in walked varsity head football coach, Ben Quarterdeck. He was one of the few CBS faculty who stood eye to eye with the tall priest. His close-cropped wheat-colored hair, chiseled chin and confident manner lent an image of Aryan superiority. As he approached the men, he slapped Armada on the back, smiled at Father Serra and said in his comically cynical voice, “Heard you made a game-saving tackle out in the courtyard today, Armada.” Rick nodded with his chin near his chest.
“Why’n’hell couldn’t you have done that for us your senior year?” Quarterdeck skirted around the two men, glanced back with a half-smile and a shoulder shrug.
Armada’s eyes met the priest’s. Father Serra’s head shake suggested Ricardo shouldn’t take offense at the coach’s sardonic remark. He grabbed Ricardo’s shoulder with his large right hand. He gave it a friendly shake, saying, “You’re a good man, Mister Armada. Just gotta learn to control your temper.”
The priest took two steps toward the door, turned and added with a raised right index finger “… and learn to leave the past behind.”
Ricardo nodded to Father Serra, and muttered to himself, “Yeah… if only.”
Note: As this is a semi-biographical story, the names of the characters have been altered to protect the innocent. If, however, you happen to be familiar with the situation, it shouldn't take a psychic or a cipher to figure out who they are. Enjoy.
© Rick Cabral, 2021