Illustration by Morgan Maurer, 2011
The grass I’m lying on is wet and hasn’t been cut in several weeks judging by its length. There’s a small bug slowly crawling across one long, flat blade and I watch, fascinated by the fact that something could move so carefully, so unaware of the chaos all around it.
This insect lives contently in a universe of its own. I am vaguely aware of movement behind me. I sense, rather than hear, people shouting from above me. I pay no attention; I am happy to watch the bug make its way through its little world. Everything is quiet. Still. Like the world is holding its breath for one small moment.
Behind the bug the background is a blur; my glasses were knocked clean off of my face with the first hit Marco landed. I can only focus a few feet in front of me. Now, lying on my stomach in the grass beside the bus stop, the morning dew seeping through my coat, I am content to lie here in this sudden and surprising silence for the rest of my life. No more teasing. No more going to the bus stop and waiting in fear to see if Marco is going to walk to school or ambush me near the oleander bushes at the intersection where the other kids wait for the bus. A small gallery of children that has become a loyal audience for my daily hazing.
Last week Marco was sick and didn’t come to school and the other kids were actually disappointed that I was left alone. I made a joke about it, the first step on a long journey toward a sarcastic and self-deprecating sense of humor. “Sorry guys,” I said. “No show today.” I smiled at them like we were all buddies.
These kids who had never once helped me out while I was pushed around the street like a rag doll. Never ran and got an adult from the neighborhood when this bully, this giant kid who was old enough to be a sophomore in high school but had failed so many grades he was still in middle school, pounded me day after day.
They are bored.
And I am the show.
And this is the way of my world.
And today I have had enough. Today, I am finally tired of sneaking back into my house without my mother seeing another black eye, split lip, or random abrasion that I try to explain away as a playground injury.
A particularly rough game of touch football at PE.
A bathroom door that swung open at an inopportune moment.
But never a bully.
My mother will not know what to do about a bully.
Her idea of how to handle things will be to report it to the school. To call the sheriff’s department and file a complaint. Worst of all, to go to the bully’s house and talk to his parents in an attempt to “sort things out.”
Things that will only make my life worse. My teasing more intense. The image of my mother holding my hand and standing next to me at the bus stop with the other kids, this image, it’s beyond horrible.
And she’ll do it too.
I secretly confided in my stepfather, a career military man who, although not a great thinker by any stretch of the imagination, had a certain masculine philosophy that seemed appropriate at a time like this.
“You’ve got to fight this asshole,” he told me one night after I admitted that my cut lip was not from getting hit in kickball.
I blinked in astonished surprise.
“Red,” I said (He was Red to everyone who knew him. I didn’t find out his real name for years. I’m not even sure my mother knew it when she married him). “This guy is huge. He’s fifteen or something.”
“Get a stick,” he said.
I just blinked again.
“Or a rock, or a brick, whatever,” he said. “What I’m saying is, get an equalizer. If the guy is bigger than you, get something to take away that size advantage. It doesn’t matter how big a guy is, if you bash his head in with a stick, he’s gonna go down.”
“Something like a knife?”
“No. Never ever use a knife.” He was adamant, and I remember thinking that this was odd. What could be a greater equalizer than a knife?
He went on. “And if he tries to use a knife, just tell him you’re going to take it away from him.”
The idea of me and my skinny body telling anyone that I was going to take a knife away from them seemed absolutely ludicrous, but I didn’t mention this to my stepfather.
“What I’m trying to tell you is, even if you get beat up, it’s better than being afraid to go to school. It’s better to fight your enemies than to run away. Don’t ever run away from trouble. Be a man and fight for yourself, or you’ll never be able to look yourself in the face.”
This was not only the longest piece of advice Red ever gave me, it was also one of the most profound.
It’s also how I ended up on my belly on the side of the road.
Another Northern California weekday. Forty degrees or so, light fog, and a pack of twelve year olds waiting for the bus in their Lacoste polo shirts and Levi’s Jeans. I arrived in a pair of blue, threadbare corduroy trousers (one of four I owned) with very visible hem marks from where my mother lowered them at the start of the school year. This was her way of saving money. Buy pants that were several inches too long for me and then just “let them out” as the year went on. As a child my body grew up, not out, and I was able to wear my clothes for as long as my mother was willing to patch up the knees and elbows of my middle school wardrobe.
I made my way to the bus stop each morning, the corduroy zip-zipping as I walked down the hill towards the intersection below my house. No one else wore pants like mine. The other kids had designer labels and shopped at the mall for their clothing, and they weren’t hesitant to let me know it.
Marco began picking on me at the beginning of the school year and I never found out why. I was a small, skinny kid, but that was hardly unusual at my school. I wore glasses, but this too was not unique. I was poor, but so was he. If I was going to psychoanalyze the situation I’d say that he was beating up on me in order to fit in with the other, more affluent kids in the neighborhood, only he wasn’t. Marco treated me like shit everyday he was there, but made no effort to talk to the other children at the bus stop.
Even at school, he hung out by himself. Occasionally, someone would report that he was “smoking weed” with some older kids from the high school out behind the large dirt circle that served as the school’s track and field course. But never was it apparent that his punishment of me led to any sort of social advancement.
Marco was huge for seventh grade. Not only had his parents started him late in an attempt to “make him bigger for sports” a not entirely uncommon event in my neighborhood, somewhere along the way he had seen fit to fail a grade or two. Thus, at fifteen years old he towered over the rest of the kids waiting for the bus like an ogre. He couldn’t have looked more intimidating if he tried. He was the perfect bully; straight from central casting. His hair was cut, if it could be called that, into a shaggy, jet black mullet that perpetually hung in his eyes. He wore an olive drab fatigue jacket year round, beat up and dirty with US Army tapes still above the pocket, blue jeans stained with motor oil, and black motorcycle boots that he stuffed his enormous feet into. He looked like a cross between a heavy-set Joey Ramone and a Mexican wrestler and he scared the shit out of me.
But today I have had enough.
Today, when Marco pushed me at the bus stop, I turned around and hit him in his eye as hard as I can. I had to stand on my toes to do it, or maybe I just jumped up when the time came, it’s not really clear anymore. I’m not sure what I thought would happen. In all of the movies that I’d seen, the bully went down like a stone when the victim finally stood up to him. I imagined Marco clutching his eye, collapsing on the ground in pain. Perhaps, in my more dramatic pugilistic fantasies (and there were, admittedly, several of these) blood spurted forth and my attacker permanently lost the use of his eye.
Of course, none of these things happened in real life.
In real life, Marco took a small step back and gave me a surprised look.
Then he threw me to the ground like a rag doll and began kicking the shit out of me.
Somewhere during the journey from standing erect to huddling in a fetal position on the ground my glasses had flown off. I could feel kicks hitting my ribs and shoulders as I lay there, but also something else.
I had stood up to Marco, and now, in my seventh grade logic, he would see that I wasn’t going to take it anymore and leave me alone. He wouldn’t have any choice; bullies don’t pick on kids who stand up for themselves. This was the irrefutable law of every television After School Special.
Faintly, in the distance and between the kicks, I can hear a low rumbling noise.
Delivery from pain.
The School Bus, hallowed be thy name.
The one rule held amongst all suburban children, regardless of their social status, was that all mayhem stopped when grown-ups arrived. Especially teachers or other school employees. The bus was no exception.
The blows stop and I hesitantly get to my feet. I can see a big green Marco-blur moving towards the intersection where the other children are forming an orderly line. I can feel hot salty tears covering my face that I don’t remember crying. I am waiting for my face to swell up, my legs to give out. For someone to tell me that my nose is covered in blood.
None of this happens.
The show is over.
It’s time to go to school.
Someone touches my arm.
A girl that I’ve never seen before is handing me my glasses. They’re wet, and one of the arms is bent, but they are otherwise unharmed. I stammer out a thank you but when I look up she is gone. I carefully straighten them out and place the gold rimmed teardrop shaped lenses on my face. My mother suggested these frames when I started wearing glasses a year earlier because they “looked like something a motorcycle rider would wear.” My guy who lives across the street from me is a motorcycle rider. He spends all day working on his bike in the front yard, shirtless in faded jeans. Old, blurry blue-green tattoos cover his arms like a disease, their original shapes lost to time. Sometimes I wonder what they mean, and how this skinny, weather-beaten man ended up in our moderately safe suburban neighborhood of used American cars and weekend Nerf football games.
My stepfather says he’s a dirtbag.
I wipe water from my face and blink a few times to clear my eyes. My world is a bit clearer, my body starting to ache. My head still buzzes with what has just happened. The rest of the world moves on, but something in me has changed. Slight, imperceptible right now, but growing.
I walk over and stand behind Marco who is last in line for the bus. We shuffle forward, inching towards the open door of my savior, big yellow #31. I can hear the offbeat tic-tic sound of the windshield wipers, like an irregular heartbeat, as it starts to sprinkle. My jacket is already soaked from the damp ground where I was tossed. There is dirt on my sleeve, and my trusty blue cords have a rip in one knee.
In what seems like a dream, I grab Marco by the sleeve and lean in close so that only he can hear me. I don’t know why I do this, only that I have an intense need to confirm what I feel here, now, at this moment. That things have changed. Things are different. I can feel him tense up, but I know that he won’t do anything with the bus right here.
I say, “We’re done now.”
I say, “This is over.”
I have no idea where this is coming from, I only know that it’s true.
Marco turns and looks down at me, and I notice that his left eye is red where I hit him.
“Nothing’s over,” he says. He points a finger at his hurt eye. “If this turns black, I’m going to kill you.”
“We’re done Marco. It’s over.”
My body is shaking and I want to cry but I’m too young to understand that this is adrenaline and it’s normal. I’m twelve years old and I think that I’m weak because my voice is shaking so hard that it sounds like I’m freezing to death while I stand here.
Marco faces away from me and we get on the bus. I used to worry about him picking on me during the ride to school, but not anymore. My worst fear was getting into a fight with him, and now I have. I am concerned that his eye might turn black, and that he will get mad again, but part of me also hopes that it does. A kid can say that nothing happened at the bus stop, that he didn’t lose the fight, but every child knows that the kid with the black eye is the one who got his ass kicked. If people at school think that I kicked Marco’s ass, that won’t be such a bad thing.
I would like to say that all of the kids on the bus are looking at me differently now. I would like to say that they all have a new respect for me that wasn’t there before, but I can’t. I am still the poor kid who shops at Woolco for his school clothes and has patches on the knees of his corduroy pants. I am the one who wears polo shirts with a tiger on the pocket instead of an alligator or a man riding a horse. I am the one whose mother trims his bangs once a month and calls it a haircut.
I am the one who hit Marco in the face and gave him a (possible) black eye.
The bus driver (who also looks like he might be a motorcycle rider) gives Marco and me the once over and then shuts the door.
“You want to sit up front behind me kid?” he says.
There is a long moment where the only sound in the world is my breathing and the Steve Miller band singing “Abracadabra” from the driver’s radio bungee corded to the dashboard. Marco has already sat down and stares at me from a few rows back. He sits by himself, like he does everyday. He looks angry, but that’s the way he looks all the time, and I’m through being afraid every day.
I look back at the driver, slouched in his chair, smoothing out his whispy blonde moustache. I can see a pack of cigarettes poking out of the pocket on the olive drab fatigue shirt he is wearing. There are military unit insignia and name tapes on the shirt in all of their proper places. Army units. I wonder briefly if our driver was in Vietnam but he looks too young. I am only twelve and a boy and war is still something romantic and misunderstood to me, something I will later learn is fought by boys not much older than I am now.
“No thanks,” I say. “I’m okay.”
I make my way back to an open seat near the emergency exit, my ribs starting to throb and my glasses crooked, a stupid grin on my face.
Kevin Jones’ work has been featured in The New York Times, Ink Pot, and the anthologies Home of the Brave: Stories in Uniform and Boomtown: Explosive Writing from Ten Years of the Queens University of Charlotte MFA Program. He lives on Florida’s Gulf Coast where he teaches writing and literature.
Read our interview with Kevin here.