The Baptism of David Ripley

Contributor: Steve Karas

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"David is in the front of the building,” the secretary informed me. “Lying on the concrete. Again.”

This was why I’d become a social worker at El Dorado High School. To save America’s youth. To save the world.

David had transferred in from Vermont. Within the first few weeks of the school year, it had become increasingly evident that Hobson, the veteran social worker on staff, had dumped his most difficult cases on me, the rookie. Hobson, on the contrary, spent his days between the faculty lounge and dealing with family disagreements over car privileges.

I walked outside. Through his bird’s nest hair, David picked at his scalp with the tip of a pencil. He had on the same knit sweater he wore every day, even though it was eighty-five degrees. A camera case hung from his neck like an Olympic medal.

“What’s going on, buddy?” I said. He sat up.

“I’m consumed by a great philosophical conundrum. Free will versus determinism.”

The kid was smarter than me. I.Q. of 139, 99.5th percentile. I didn’t follow.

“Determinism. Nothing is uncaused. Everything that happens must happen. Your actions are part of a causal chain that extends back far before your birth and each link of the chain determines the next link on the chain. Hence, although it may appear that you have control over your present actions and mental state, you, in fact, do not.”

In his short life, David had already racked up an assortment of diagnoses: Asperger’s Syndrome, Schizoaffective Disorder/Bipolar Type, Anxiety with Panic Episodes, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.

“I used to have such potential,” David said, “but now I fear I’m going mad and will be a complete nuisance to society. An ignominious fool. And there’s nothing I can do to stop it. I might as well be gone, swimming with the fishes.” A bee lifted from a potted geranium and circled him. “Oh, dear God,” he said, ducking and weaving like a prize fighter.

Here was David’s history: Dad and Mom were both alcoholics and God knows what else. Dad had made a handful of unsuccessful suicide attempts in the past. Maternal grandparents were pathological hoarders. An aunt was Schizophrenic. Truth was, kid barely had a puncher’s chance. By third grade, he was pulling knives out on his mom and threatening to jump from third-story windows.

“Whatever your conditions,” I said, “there are treatments. How about your medications? They help, don’t they?”

“I stopped taking them. They were speeding up my downfall, making me glib. Besides, that’s no cure – pumping me full of pills, turning me into a zombie.”

Hobson poked his head out the door. He signaled me over. I hesitated for a moment.

“Give me a second, David.”

“What’s going on with him this time?” Hobson said.

“He’s okay. Just having a bit of an anxiety attack. I’m talking him down.”

“Talking? Can’t fix a guy like that. Why don’t you get in touch with his mom? Tell her to pick him up, take him to hospital for an evaluation. Tell her he can’t come back to school without a doctor’s note.”

When had he forgotten why he’d entered the field? The helping profession. Had he been soured by bad experiences or had he just become immune to people’s pain?

“He’s a capable kid,” I said. “He’s sabotaging himself.”

“He’s nuts. C.Y.A., young gun. Cover Your Ass.” And then Hobson’s smile dropped. That’s what I remembered. His eyes widened. “Oh shit,” he said. “Oh boy.” And there was a loud splash. I turned to see David flailing in the school pond amongst the blue-green algae and carp. I ran in to call 911. Hobson hollering behind me, “I’m not going to say I told you so, but I did.”


By the time the fire department rescued David from the pond, half the school’s teachers and students were pressed against the windows looking on. Hobson was surrounded by other staff members, no doubt telling them how the kid was crazy, how he never belonged at El Dorado in the first place. I stood next to David’s mom. She had leathery skin, a purple nose, and breath that smelled like an ashtray.

“I wish he would just try to fit it,” she slurred, arms folded. “I don’t know how many times we’ve been through this. A woman can only take so much.”

David sat on the stretcher, wrapped in towels, his hair like seaweed. I wanted to hug him, comfort him, but you couldn’t do that in schools these days. I walked over and patted him on the shoulder, told him he’d be okay. I told him it was just a bump in the road and that he’d soon be back to his old self, whatever that was.

“Everything will be fine, buddy,” I said. “We’ll see you here in school shortly.”

David ended up hospitalized for a month. When he was discharged, his mom sent him back to Vermont to live with Dad. I never saw him again.

I wondered if things would have turned out differently if I’d kept my eye on him. If I hadn’t left him alone. Would he have stayed out of the pond? Would he have still been with us? Or maybe he was better off in Vermont. That’s what I’d convinced myself. That maybe his plunge was a baptism of sorts, a rebirth. I imaged that the water and algae would keep his skin slick so that Life couldn’t get a hold of him. So it couldn’t catch him. Couldn't swallow him whole.

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Steve Karas lives in Chicago with his wife and daughter. His short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Bartleby Snopes, Xenith, ken*again, Foliate Oak, and Little Fiction. You can visit his website at
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