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Return to lately 2016.
just a shell i left behind some bushes
august 1, 2016
It's been a long, long time since I was a little kid. That energy? That confusion? So far back in years and miles in fact I wonder if at my age I were brought to a police station and shown, behind one-way glass, a line-up of little boys who look similar, I'd even be able to identify which one was me.
I shuffle through black and white photographs of me from my early years, playing with my toys in a shallow plastic pool in the backyard, or standing in the small kitchen of my parents' first apartment, dressed like a tiny cowboy, holding fake black guns, grinning like a monkey at the camera, and of course I don't really recognize myself. Even the eyes. That island is too far away by now, below the peach horizon.
Trace your finger across the condensation, and the trail to the left gradually leaves.
If it's better for you, I'm happy for you.
I have photographs of me from grammar school, when I was older, twelve or so, and I know it is me, because I remember looking at those photographs at that time, being either pleased or more likely disappointed at how I looked in that flat moment, I always thought, staring at myself in a mirror those years, which I did a lot, that once I was grown and earning money, the first thing I would do is get plastic surgery to reduce the size of my nose, pull my ears closer to the sides of my head, but flipping through those photographs now, so many experiences later, walking out of the billowing smoke of so much loneliness, joy, disappointment, true love, I no longer know who that guy is. It's just a shell I left behind some bushes.
Even though I don't recognize my face from my early life, I do have memories of those years, certain experiences from way back then are still see-able, big white seashells half-buried under the ocean's green water.
I went to a Catholic grammar school.
So I was raised by nuns. And every day we went through the rote.
Who made me? God made me. Why did God make me? Because He loves me.
And was the Mickey Mouse Club song from my childhood meant as a parody of that? "M-I-C, See you real soon! K-E-Y, Because we like you!"
The Catholic grammar school I went to was St. Mary's Grammar School, located on Greenwich Avenue, the main business district in Greenwich, Connecticut, a rather wealthy town about fifty miles from New York City. I have absolutely no idea how the parish managed to obtain such a prime piece of real estate.
Next to the school was a building for all the nuns, and next to that, a rectory for all the priests. You can imagine the jokes, and there were a lot of them back then, about underground tunnels.
Our playground was a black tar lot behind the school. Essentially, a parking lot without cars. Absolutely no grass or trees. If you want to picture it in your mind, think of the exercise yard in prison movies.
We'd be let out the back door after lunch (which was absolutely hideous, we'd line up cafeteria-style at the counter at the back of the large auditorium, the lunch ladies, old women whose long gray hairs would always wind up in our food, ladling tuna-flavored mayonnaise on a slice of white bread, capping it with another slice), and once we were out in that black-tarred parking lot, pretty much anything was permitted. (Years later, when I was in eighth grade, I started writing my first novel, We the Cursed, in my bedroom each night, then would read the latest chapter to a group of kids after lunch, and that was one of my favorite experiences as a writer, ever, telling what happened next, and getting their immediate reactions.)
All kids, from grade one to grade eight, were poured out into the same hard space.
What I remember most from those early years was when The Ultimate Playground Bully tried to tell me what to do.
Every playground has bullies. But this guy, and I don't remember his name, it's too long ago, was the boy everyone feared. I was in first grade. He was in eighth grade. And even then, bigger than every boy in eighth grade. The nuns didn't discipline him. He could do pretty much anything he wanted. And of course someone who can do anything they want does in fact do anything they want.
So one recess, I'm standing with a couple of my friends by the chain link fence at the edge of the black-tarred playground, we're goofing around, and the ultimate bully comes over and tells me I have to move. This is his spot.
I refuse to.
One of my friends was this kid called Dicky. I won't give his last name, because that wouldn't be a nice thing to do. His father was a cop. Around the Fourth of July his father would confiscate fireworks from town kids and give them to Dicky, to help make him more popular with his friends. One time, while Dicky was over my house for lunch, my mother mentioned she had to pay a parking ticket. Dicky told her his dad would get the ticket cancelled for her, he just needed the ticket number; his dad did it for all his friends' parents. My mother, to her credit, refused the offer, said she'd pay the fine because she had been in the wrong. One time, and only one time, I slept over Dicky's house. He had an older sister, who had made up a song about Jimmy Olsen, a character in the Superman comics, and more specifically in the George Reeves TV show based on the comics; and a younger brother who barely registered. I remember the cabinets in the family's kitchen better than I remember the younger brother. The father, the cop, came home eventually, still wearing his gun, and started to drink. And I mean, he could pour them back. At that point, I had never been in the same room with an adult who drank so much. Dinner kept getting postponed, which after a while I realized was a nightly thing, because the father, also named Richard, hadn't quite had enough hard liquor yet. Big, overweight man, gun still at his waist, stumbling sideways, getting really angry. At what, I had no idea. Starting to get violent. Really loud voice in the small kitchen, raging, where the fury is so turned up it sounds half like shouting, half like sobbing. Palm slapping pots off the stove. Slamming kitchen cabinet doors over and over again like they're the side of someone's skull.
(Years later, I learned Dicky had become a highway patrol officer in a Midwest state.)
So anyway. The ultimate bully is ordering me to move from where I'm standing on the black-tarred playground, and I refuse to, waiting to see what he's going to do next.
Here's what he does next.
He picks Dicky up in his hands. Left hand under Dicky's crotch from behind, lifting him off the black pavement, right hand wrapped around the back of Dicky's neck, so he doesn't wobble.
Hoisting Dicky up in the air, he fucking aims Dicky's mouth at me (Dicky had buck teeth).
Then he throws Dicky across the short space between him and me, like Dicky is a knife, Dicky's front buck teeth smacking into the top of my forehead, cutting deep into the skin.
Dicky bounces backwards off my face onto his ass.
Head wounds produce a lot of blood. My left eye starts blinking, from the blood pouring down into it.
A nun shows up, grabs my wrist, leads me like a dog across the lot, more and more kids turning around to gawk at me, to the rear door of the school. In its reflecting glass I see my face, left side absolutely covered in blood. It's a horror movie.
She pushes me down the stairs to the basement, where the school nurse stayed. The nurse examines me on the small stage down there, used for school recitals, lifting my hair to evaluate the width of the wound. The police were never called, I don't think my parents were even called, and back in those days, the idea that I might need to go to a hospital to get stitches was unheard of. Eventually the bleeding stopped, and I was sent back upstairs to classes.
I don't know what happened to the ultimate bully. I don't remember seeing him in the recess area after that, so it's possible he was suspended, or ran away, or who knows what.
But I honestly hold no grudge against him.
Using another boy's buck teeth as a knife to throw at my forehead? Pretty fucking creative.
And like all of us, I love creativity.
I still carry the scar of his creativity.