Joey's parents weren't stupid. They knew all about their son's troubles with Butch Kilabreski and Wayne Jarrett. They'd known about it for quite some time, as a matter of fact.
"Just ignore them," Ellen advised her son. "Just ignore them, and pretty soon, they'll get tired of picking on you and leave you alone."
He had tried to ignore them. But it seemed that the more he tried to ignore them, the more they picked on him.
"Why don't you just try standing up to them, for once?" Frank Duduka asked his son, one evening, at the dinner table. "You try hitting them back a couple of times and they'll stop picking on you, soon enough. I gaurantee it."
"I can't," Joey told his father.
"Because---" Joey looked down at the table; he sighed and shook his head. How could even attempt to explain it to his father when he didn't understand it, himself? "I can't."
"BECAUSE YOU'RE A COWARD, THAT'S WHY!!!" Frank roared at his son like an angry lion. He struck the table so hard with his big-knuckled fist that the plates and silverware rattled and jumped, and the water glasses threatened to tumble to the floor. Frank shook his head. "I never thought I'd have a sissy for a son."
"I am not a coward!"
"Then why won't you stand up to those punks when they pick on you?"
"Because I can't, that's why. I just can't."
There were two brown paper lunch bags sitting on the kitchen counter, instead of the usual one, when Joey came out to breakfast, the following morning.
"Who's the other lunch for?" he asked Ellen.
"That other bag is for your father. He's decided he doesn't want to work nights, anymore. He wants to switch to days, so he can spend more time with his family. And since you both start at about the same time, he'll be able to drive you to school, from now on. Isn't that nice of him?"
"Yeah, real nice."
Frank sat at the dining room table, already dressed, in his thin, green jacket and red electrician's cap. He glowered at Joey over the shiny rim of his coffee cup with his hard, dark eyes. Joey and Frank both knew that Frank's sudden decision to switch from the evening shift to the day shift hadn't been his idea, at all; it had been Ellen's idea.
Joey followed his father out to the garage. He climbed into the back seat of their old, white Ford station wagon, locking the door behind him.
"What's the matter?" Frank jeered at him from the rear view mirror. "Afraid you might fall out? Or are you scared that someone might get in and grab you?"
The twenty-minute drive to the junior high school, in nearby Lazarus, was long and silent. Neither of them spoke. Frank pretended to concentrate on the winding country road in front of him, listening to CNN on the radio, while Joey stared out the window at the bare, brown fields on either side of the road. Once Joey turned his head and caught his father's scornful reflection in the rear view mirror. But only for a second. Joey quickly returned his gaze to the barren landscape.
Frank let him off at the corner, a block away from the junior high school.
"Thanks, Daddy," Joey said. Frank snorted, contemptuous and disdainful.
As Joey watched Frank drive away, he couldn't help feeling that his father wished he'd never had him for a son.