I didn’t ride my bicycle to school everyday. If Melody had something to do after school or I was running late I took the bus. The characters had changed since I was a regular rider in middle school: No more Creepy Daryl trying to get into my pants; no more Mike and his buddies tormenting Pearson.
Now we were the big kids: The Olsen boys, fraternal twins from Sweden; the Redfield/Thompson family, Malcolm, Melissa, and Betty; Lee G. and his two brothers; Akemi and her little brother, Chester; Kelly, the fifteen year old who was banging her middle-aged neighbor.
Lee G. and I loved hanging around Akemi’s house. Her mother, a Japanese native, insisted on calling us “space cadets” in her thick accent. Akemi’s big laugh guaranteed that Lee and I would compete to hear it. And Chester? Sweet kid, maybe first or second grade. He was obsessed with Queen’s Flash Gordon soundtrack, running around constantly screaming “Flash! Ah-ahhh!” I chased him around and rough housed with him, partly because it was fun and partly to flirt with his sister. What’s cuter than a guy who pays attention to your little brother? Also, it made me feel like Johnny O’Donnell, the big kid who I idolized when I was Chester’s age.
One school day I was visited by several people with drive-by gossip. “Malcolm called Melody a bitch,” they would say, then flit back to their own social spheres: Band Geeks, Jocks, Prevos, Untouchables, Guys In Black Tee Shirts Who Jam. Everybody got in on the action.
Obviously there was going to need to be a fight, but Malcolm was a buddy. We played pickup football games, swam the lake together. Just the week before I was in his bedroom, admiring the For Those About To Rock We Salute You store display that he scored from Record Bar. But he besmirched sweet Melody’s good name. I was duty bound to kick his ass. Just a man, with a man’s courage. Oh, Flash.
The preliminaries began the moment we stepped off the bus.
“Did you call Melody a bitch?”
“What did you say?
“I didn’t say anything.”
“Yes, you did. You called her a bitch.”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Then why does everybody say you did?”
This supercharged Rocky/Apollo pump-up continued in the same loop for about ten minutes, a half circle of spectators milling about.
“This is boring,” Steven said.
“Somebody throw a punch,” added his twin brother, Tom.
Malcolm finally did — a big, slow, haymaker that came from somewhere near the state line. I stepped aside and threw a jab at his good eye. The kid was nearly blind on the left, so I stayed to that side and counter punched, trying to close up his right eye. He did the smart thing after a few punches and tackled me. We hit the ground and rolled into the ditch. I managed to land on top, so I stopped punching and simply pushed with my feet, grinding Malcolm’s back against the gravel bed until he conceded.
The fight brought me no cred. The Olsen boys swore that Malcolm got the best of it even though he was the one to give in. “That was a pussy move, staying on his blind side,” Tom said.
“Yeah,” Steven added. “And he said he didn’t call her a bitch. That was a stupid fight.”
Malcolm and I were cool again after that. We went back to playing football and whatever neighborhood nonsense helped to pass the time. To some extent that’s all childhood is — passing time. Days to the next birthday, weeks to the next Christmas, months until summer vacation. Years waiting for a driver’s license. Decades — almost two of them — to freedom. And then? Forty-five years of working for the weekend followed by the sudden arrival of age and death. Where did the time go? Wasted, spent counting and waiting. But that’s what living is.
I still rode the bus now and then. Months later I jumped on for a ride home, found a seat next to some skinny kid I didn’t really know. “See that guy in the back row with the blond hair? He’s going to kick your ass.”
“I’m serious. He was on yesterday, too. He’s been looking for you. He’s in the eleventh grade.”
“I’m sitting right here. If he wanted to jump me he could. He’s just talking.”
I was right. We rode all the way home without so much as a rude word. I got off the bus with the rest of the Timberlake kids, hands deep in my coat pockets. The humid South is thick in the summer, but it is biting cold in the winter. Fortunately it was only a quarter-mile or so home.
“Hey,” and a tap on my back. I turned, heard the sound of fist meeting bone. A clean jab to the eye. Another. Another. I stumbled backward, fell flat on my back. He was on me, pounding his fist into my right eye. The pain was coming now, sharp. I saw his hand in motion — a big gemstone ring positioned to bypass the socket and punish my eyeball.
Why weren’t any of my counter punches landing? My face was completely unguarded, the blows raining down on my eye unchallenged. I felt my bladder let go.
Well, you’re fucked, I thought. May as well stop and think for a second. I realized that my hands were tangled in my coat pockets. I’d been fighting with an Army field jacket rather than the redneck who was straddling me. I calmly removed my hands from my pockets and managed to get in two shots to his temple before the bus driver pulled him off — pulled him off and drove away. There I stood in my freshly pissed Levis, eye swelling shut, with my assailant and the neighbor kids. I chose to pretend that no one saw my pants. I took off my coat and draped it casually over my forearm, sleeves dangling in front of my wet legs.
“What the fuck was that?” I tried to sound menacing, but I think that the pee pants probably undercut the message.
“Oh, sorry man. I thought you were someone else.”
“Who the fuck did you think I was?”
“Just this guy from my English class. You don’t know him.”
“Fucking A I don’t know him. I’m not even in high school, mother fucker. Don’t you think you should be sure before you jump somebody?”
“Yeah, man. I’m sorry. I thought you were him.”
By now we were walking, the whole pack of us. There was no way for me to gracefully step away. We were all headed in the same direction, and my house was a quarter-mile up the road. Even the guy who had just whipped my ass was in the pack, walking right beside me. I wanted to jump him like he jumped me, but that would have required moving my coat. I had never experienced such total humiliation.
The real story came together quickly. Within the next few days I learned that he was a member of Malcolm’s church, and that Malcolm’s sister arranged the whole thing. I learned that he first saw me at the hospital a few months earlier, where he was visiting my sister after a car accident. “I hated that mother fucker the first time I saw him,” he told Ricky Brent. “He best stay home, because I’m going to kick his ass every time I see him.”
And so Malcolm got his payback for me staying on his blind side throughout our only fight. Oddly, we stayed friendly even after I found all of this out. He was a good guy– smart, talented. We lost touch after high school, but I found him again during the early days of the World Wide Web. We began an email friendship that culminated in a Las Vegas visit while he was there on business. He picked me up from the airport in his rental car.
“I just, I got to clear the air,” he said after handshakes and hellos.
“Oh, dude, I’m really sorry about that. We were kids. I thought I had to protect my woman’s honor. It was stupid.”
“No, the other one. At the bus stop.”
“Hey, I had it coming. I shouldn’t have stayed on your blind side.”
“That’s what you thought it was about?”
“My sister had that guy beat you up because you used to pick on that little Japanese kid.”
“Yeah, that was his name.”
I didn’t know what to say or how to feel. I rough housed with Chester the way that Johnny O’Donnell played with me when I was that age, and I idolized Johnny O. Did Chester think I was a bully? He is gone now, I will never know. And what about the other neighborhood kids? Was I a bully as a kid and I didn’t even know it? And what about Malcolm? All these years I thought he was responsible for my beating.
“That fight was so brutal,” he said. “I really felt sorry for you.”
“It’s okay. It wasn’t your fault.”
We rode the rest of the way to the hotel in silence.
Related “Why It Matters” pieces:
Melody and bicycles: https://jamesostafford.wordpress.com/2011/08/08/39-that-sleepwalk-should-be-over-by-now/
Bus rides: https://jamesostafford.wordpress.com/2011/04/27/24-thank-you-driver-for-getting-me-here/
First fight: https://jamesostafford.wordpress.com/2010/11/13/show-me-the-way/
Johnny “The Kid” O’Donnell:
What a twist at the end! And an interesting instance of how people can see one single thing so differently.
I wonder how many of my memories are like that. Probably most of them.