“Bullies”

 

The Director of The Landings — the independent retirement “village” where my mother lives — is a bully, pure and simple. Residents’ requests are ignored, cooks quit every week, and occasionally some poor old person will find his lease is not renewed for no discernible reason. This woman has an alarming resemblance to Glenn Close with a rabbit boiling on the stove. She’s reportedly got the owner of the place wrapped around her perfectly manicured finger. She cruises into work in her Cadillac and hurries off to lunch with her slightly smaller but no less blond assistant. They are always hurrying somewhere, blowing by in a hurricane of perfume.

Fortunately we don’t have much truck with them.

In her little apartment, Mom is claustrophobic and lonely. To combat both issues, she keeps her door open and plays piano, hoping to lure in admirers. She’s pretty effective at it. People wander by, hear Bach or Debussy, and stick their head in the door, curious. Slowly, but surely, she makes a few friends.

One of them is a woman named Carol, a retired art teacher. My mother’s hobby for many years has been watercolors. Some of them are pretty good. Emmy still has the  painting of a clown walking a chicken on a leash that my mother painted when Emmy was just a baby. So Carol and my mother decide to paint together. The Landings has an art studio. We saw it when they took us on a tour of the place. What we hadn’t noticed is that no one was actually using it. Like so many of the amenities at The Landings, it is only there for show. The tables aren’t placed at a convenient height for painting, and my mom, being handicapped, has great difficulty in there. But no adjustments will be made. Still somehow my mother and Carol manage to paint together.

Carol has a daughter my age, and like me her daughter is constantly stopping by to help her mother with one thing or another. Mom gets confused and calls the daughter “Carol’s mother.”

“Carol’s daughter,” I correct her.

“Oh, yes. Of course,” she replies, but next time she does it again, mentioning something about “Carol’s mother.” And that’s what we are: mothers to our own mothers. I am constantly wiping my mother’s face, washing her hair for her, and exhorting her to get out and do things with friends.

My daughter Emmy is also trying to find a way to fit in at her new high school — a private school where the kids have all known each other since kindergarten. She’s been pestering me to try to get her into the other private school where some of her friends are, but it’s not doable. We’ve already gotten a scholarship at this place, and it would be way too late to get one anywhere else. She’s despondent, but one day she comes eagerly over to the car when I pull up.

“There’s auditions for a play,” she says, her eyes bright. I can’t help but remember the three-year-old Emmy who stood on a five-inch curb and exclaimed, “It’s a stage!”

“Do you want me to come with you?” I ask.

“Would you?”

So I find a seat in the back of the auditorium to watch the auditions. The kids are good, but Emmy’s cold reading is brilliant. She’s funny and quick. The woman who will be directing the show is not actually a teacher. She’s been hired from a community acting group. After the auditions, she bounces back to where Emmy and I are sitting together. Her eyebrows leap to her hairline when she sees me. I’m the only mother there, but she seems friendly and enthusiastic about Emmy.

“You’ve got a real instinct for theater,” she says to Emmy. Then still smiling, “I’m not going to cast you in this show, but I hope you’ll audition for one of the shows I’m doing in the community. You’re really good.”

Emmy and I are confused. If she’s so good, why isn’t the woman going to put her in the show?

“It’s probably because you’re a freshman,” I tell her as we’re driving away. But later we find out that another freshman was put in the show. It’s baffling.

Over the next few years Emmy will have her share of successes and crushing disappointments. For the disappointments, I usually trot out the old story about being a finalist in a screenwriting competition and being sure that I was going to Hollywood and then not making it and feeling like the air had been sucked from the planet, or the sun had suddenly expired. And then a couple of weeks later my friend Mikey died and I had to take over his classes and be there with my friends to help them as they grieved and suddenly not getting that award and that new life in Hollywood didn’t matter so much. I don’t think this story helps, but I tell it anyway.


Although Emmy’s audition didn’t land her a role in that show, it did garner attention from the school’s young theatrical genius — a senior.

“Your audition rocked my socks,” he told her in the hallway the next day. And as the director of the student-directed play that year, he took her under his wing. Emmy found herself ensconced with the nicest, smartest, most intellectually adventurous group of kids in the school. Hallelujah.


But there are still a few bumps in the road.

One day I pull up to the school to pick up Emmy. She lands in the passenger seat like a wounded bird.

“What’s wrong?” I ask her.

Immediately she begins to sob, heart-wrenching, wheezing, mucus-manufacturing, chest-heaving sobs. The story emerges in fits and starts.

“There were these boys . . .in one of the classrooms . . . and I had to go in there to get a . . .book I’d forgotten.”

Blood begins pounding in my head like African drums.

“They saw me and they started laughing. One of them said . . . ‘it’s that girl . . .Emmy . . . she’s so weird.’ . . . and they kept laughing at me.”

“What did you do, honey?”

“I turned and ran!” she screams at me.

So there are a lot of things worse than being laughed at, but at that moment with my child sobbing in my car, I’m wanting to go kick some juvenile ass. Rage seethes through me like red hot lava. I’m pissed off at these unknown boys but even more pissed off with myself for letting her come to this school full of rich assholes. (I know. Many of the parents turn out to be incredibly kind and some of these kids will become her lifelong friends, but none of that is registering in the moment.) I can’t do anything except try to stifle a terrible memory that suddenly surfaces.


Our paths only crossed once. She was on a blue bike riding across the newly built wooden bridge that spanned the Willow Branch Creek. She didn’t have a “cool” bike with a banana seat like we did. She was not cool. She was blond and pale and plump. She wore the plaid skirt and plain white shirt of the Catholic School. My friend Carmen and I spied her. There were two of us and one of her.

“Fatty Patty,” we taunted. She tried to ride past us, but as soon as she crossed the bridge and was on the concrete walkway, we closed in. “Fat bitch,” we called her. One of us grabbed her bike and the other pushed her and she fell to the ground. Perhaps she skinned her leg or the palms of her hands as she fell. But there she was on the ground while we stood above her. Tears streamed down her face in helpless impotent rage. She screamed at us to leave her alone as she stood and lifted up her bike. Tears streaked her red face. Even as she rode off on her blue bike, pedaling furiously to escape our insults, I knew she was — at that moment — far superior to us. My throat constricted. I wanted to call out, “I’m sorry. Please . . .” I doubt I could have articulated what was in my heart. But if I could have, it would have been “forgive me” — anything to erase the sudden shame I felt. I was a kid with a heart full of pain and she was my mirror.

I guess I figured that I’d see her again somewhere and I could make it up to her. But I never did see her again. She was probably afraid to come through the park after that — that beautiful city park with its old oaks, its thick carpet of grass and the playground and basketball court just past the azalea bushes.

My karma wasn’t exactly instant, but it came. In December Carmen and I and the park boys rode our banana-seat bicycles on a mission. We were headed to the barbershop that belonged to Harold’s grandfather, located in what we then called “colored town.” This was in the late 1960s, and the good folks who divvied up the tax dollars neglected to fix the roads in this area of town. When the front tire of the bike I was riding hit a pothole, I flew face first over the handlebars, grinding my lips on the gravel road.

Hours of plastic surgery restored my lips but left me looking freakish with oversized lips on my small face and a scar running down my chin.

“You’ll grow into the lips and the scar will fade,” the plastic surgeon assured us.

It didn’t matter what the future held. I became a pariah among the park kids with Carmen as their ring leader. They called me names. They laughed at me. They told me I was ugly. I had not yet read The Metamorphosis but I knew how it felt to wake up one day as a cockroach. Unlike the girl on the blue bike, I did not lash out angrily. I suppose I thought they were right. I was hideous to look at and not worthy of their company.

Eventually I found a new friend. She also earned the disapproval of the park kids. She was a “rich kid,” they accused. But they kept their taunts in check because already she possessed something, some aura of redneck aristocracy, that alarmed the boys and cowed the girls.

Soon Carmen concocted an excuse for a fight. She claimed I was after a boy that she liked. I had no interest in the boy and I didn’t want to fight Carmen though if it came down to it, I thought I could win. Carmen was soft and plump, and though I was small, I was wiry and came equipped with a gut full of rage.

It came down to it. My new friend and I were playing tetherball, the one game I was really good at it because I could smack the hell out of that ball, when Carmen showed up, like a gunslinger in a Western, and issued her challenge. I reluctantly followed her to a grassy spot behind the azalea bushes. The other kids circled around us, all but one of them rooting for Carmen. I felt like a fool standing in the circle. I wasn’t mad at Carmen. I didn’t hate her. But I was supposed to beat her up or get beaten up.

My new friend stood in the crowd of park kids, arms crossed, green eyes narrowed, waiting to see what I would do. So when Carmen came after me, I balled my fist as if I were getting ready to smack the tetherball, and I hit her. Soon all was a confusion of yells, slaps and punches. Then Carmen began crying, her face turned red, and the tears made a snotty mess of her face. She yelled that I had hurt her.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“You go to hell!” she screamed.

There was nothing I could do. My green-eyed friend and I walked away.

That was a long time ago, and yet I still have pockets of shame and guilt. The girl on the blue bike is one of them.


Everyday is a good day! Grab your bottle and raise it! Cheers to everyone!

January 7, 2011 at 3:56 PM

Do rite and kill everything! Merry Christmas to everyone on facebook! Don’t forget to pop those bottles open at midnight tonite for Santa clause! Cheers !!!!

December 24, 2010 at 3:57 PM

30 pack of beer is great, bottle of ghoose is even better, adding a little yager with that and watch newton, and aurban whip ass, is priceless!!!!

December 4, 2010 at 3:47 PM

Happy dead turkey day everyone! Time to get out that bottle of wild turkey and do some shots!!! Cheers!!!!!

November 25, 2010 at 2:47 PM

Yo, 2 years ago, a freind of mine, told me aliza and crystal really blows your mind! Drink early, and get to bed early!! Cheers!

November 13, 2010 at 10:58 AM

Rain, rain, go away, that’s what all my haters say! Always good when you open your fridge and you have one beer left for breakfeast!!!!

November 10, 2010 at 10:38 AM

Dosent matter what day of the week it is, they are all the same when you are half in the bag by noon! Cheers!!!

September 16, 2010 at 1:57 PM

Is it a bad thing when you would rather have a beer for breakfeast, lunch, and dinner instead of food??

August 29, 2010 at 2:23 PM

Always good to open that fridge and grab a cold one, even better to grab 2 or 3 out the fridge after that, sucks when you open it up and they are all gone, it’s priceless when you wake up and that was a dream, I would never run out of beer!!! Ha!

August 3, 2010 at 11:54 PM

Every time you look up in the sky you want to be that star! I say we are all stars in are own way, even if you are down and out, as long as you can look up and see the stars! And yeah I forgot cheers !

July 28, 2010 at 12:36 AM

Rolling down the street smoking endo, sipping on gin and juice, laid back!!!!!

July 22, 2010 at 12:06 AM

We pop champaign cuz were thirsty! ( grey ghoose would be better! Haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa !

July 21, 2010 at 12:10 AM

All day everyday, crack open that cold beer on these hot days and drink them down! Don’t forget the yager behind that! Ha! Txs everyone for the b day wishes! I will be changing to non acholic beers very soon………….

July 20, 2010 at 7:28 PM

Holy shit! Thanks for all the b day wishes everyone! Can’t wait to get off work and have some tea and crackers for my b day! I’m done with drinking! Haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa! Maybe for just one more day I will have a couple of beers, then I will be done! Done way too much drinking over the years! Yager bomb anyone? Lol!

July 14, 2010 at 11:56 AM

On vacation from work is great, to be out in the sun all day getting a tan is even better, to fall asleep with your beer in your hand and have a sunburn spot of a beer on your chest is priceless!

July 5, 2010 at 7:32 PM

Better late then ever! Where is all my Boston fans at now? It was a good game, till the lakers did work! 3 peat next year! Any bets yet? Feels like I won the lotto! Was gonna quit drinking, but a 3 peat, I guess 1 more year of drinking! Cheers everyone! Go lakers! Fuck Boston! Whoop whoop!

June 18, 2010 at 3:36 PM

Drinking wiskey out the bottle not thinking bout tomorrow……..

June 14, 2010 at 7:15 PM

JOKE OF THE DAY: Two fleas on a pussy, one is a burgular & the other one is a junkie. HOW CAN YOU TELL THEM APART: The burgular is hiding in the bush & the junkie is sniffing the crack!!!!!!

June 14, 2010 at 4:27 PM

Quote of the day ” drinking non alcholic beer is like going down on your own cousin, it taste the same, but it’s just not right!

June 9, 2010 at 2:29 AM

When you can’t sleep after working too many hours this weekend ! might as well have a shot and a beer to pass out! Don’t forget to reach for the stars! Like biggie said! Go lakers all day!

June 1, 2010 at 1:41 AM

Everytime your glass is half empty, fill it up! Then your glass will always be full! Cheers! Go lakers, whoop whoop!

May 11, 2010 at 3:26 AM

Life is all about a dream! You try to make the best out of it that you can, even when you get confused and don’t know what to do in life! You keep your head up and cheers it up, cause dreams do come true!!

April 22, 2010 at 2:27 AM

Time for the big decesion, what to drink? Dark or clear? Let’s crack the ghoose open and get a little crazy on this fine Sunday! Cheers!!!

April 11, 2010 at 5:40 PM

Still finding beers that the Easter bunny hid! They just seem to pop up! Lol!

April 4, 2010 at 7:40 PM

Time to go to ace and get the stuff to make a beer bong! Easy way to save money! Buy a 6 pack and put it thru the beer bong then pass out! Gonna see if that works!!!!

March 4, 2010 at 2:04 PM

We sip champagne cause were thirsty!

February 13, 2010 at 12:03 PM

99 bottles of beer on the wall,99 bottles of beer,take one down pass it around,98 bottles of beer on the wall! Let’s see how many beers come off the wall today!!

January 23, 2010 at 12:22 PM

Anyone in for some wine tonite? Lol! Only time I can have wine, if the liquar store is closed and there is no more beer!

January 21, 2010 at 12:32 PM

What a great football day! Dallas and chargers both loose! Love it! Might have to jump on the jets bandwagon! Cheers to all those fans that watched your teams loose! Might as well drink away the bad game that they played! Lol! Lol! Whoop whoop!!!

January 17, 2010 at 7:35 PM

Everyone cheers it up for the end of this year and for many more years to live a good life and keep your heads up! Life keeps going on and so do we! This is the sober me, only had 8 beers! Just getting warmed up! Lol! Have a good new years everyone! Cheers!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

December 31, 2009 at 11:25 PM

I. 1987

I’m eight years old and everything is different.

We live in a new house, one we moved into after my mom finished divorcing my dad and she and her boyfriend G. sold our old one. This one has an extra bedroom where G.’s daughter can stay with us on his visitation days. My little sister and I have to go to a new school and make new friends.

The reasons for the move are never explained to us. My mother simply lets G. slip into the void left by our father and place his firm disciplinarian hand on the tiller of our lives. All the rules we now follow are his.

Nothing I do seems quite good enough for him, though he never actually says so. The disappointment and disgust are veiled in perpetual comments and criticisms. There is always a shake of the head or a disdainful grunt whenever he sees me in the yard with my toy dinosaurs instead of skinning my knees in a game of street football with the older boys up the block. The way, I am endlessly told, that he did at my age.

One late Saturday evening when he and I are home alone I take a couple of my favorite dinosaurs out in a far corner of the back yard to play. The damp soil clings to my shoes and when I come inside to watch TV I track some on the couch without noticing.

When G. sees it he shouts my name and lunges at me. It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever seen. He doesn’t touch me, but his arms corral me in on either side and his face is less than an inch from mine. Once at dinner he let me sip from his beer, and now his breath smells the way it tasted. I retreat as far back into the cushions as I can.

“What is this?” he barks, pointing at a spot on the couch where my shoes have been. “You got mud on the couch.” I steal a glance, and just see some loose dirt, which could be brushed off with a swipe of the hand and not even leave a stain. “What the hell is wrong with you, boy? Don’t you think? Or are you just a dumb animal?”

He demands an answer and I don’t know what the right one is, so I just say, “I’m sorry.” When I do G. cuffs me across the face with his open hand. The shock of the blow winds me up into a ball of raw fear, too terrified of further punishment to even think.

He stares at me for a long minute. “Clean it up,” he growls, then returns to whatever he was doing elsewhere in the house, leaving me alone again. I sweep the dirt up into my hand and throw it out in the back yard. Then I go huddle in the corner of my room farthest from the door with my favorite paleontology book. The words slip around the page a little bit when I try to read them.

Because I believe G. parents with my mother’s full consent, I don’t ever mention it to anyone.

Not long after G. and my mother get us kids out of bed early one morning and have us dress in our good clothes. We go down to a botanical garden, where a Justice of the Peace marries them. G. is now my stepfather, his daughter my new slightly-older stepsister.

Afterwards we take a family trip to Disneyland. At one point my mother takes me aside and informs me that it would really make G. happy if I started calling him Dad.

II. 1989

I’m nine years old, almost ten. A dental abnormality requiring surgery has been discovered in my upper jaw, and I’m wearing a set of uncomfortable braces intended to space my teeth out enough so they can operate. I’ve become that kid who never really smiles when adults are around and who prefers to play by himself behind a closed bedroom door.

It’s early spring and we’re moving again, this time into a house we’ve bought in the eastern part of town. The entire upper floor is a single master bedroom with a walk-in closet and bathroom.

We have a sort of picnic celebration in the new empty house the day before move-in, sitting around eating pizza cross-legged on blankets and inflatable mattresses. My aunt and uncle are there with my little cousin, who is almost two. He’s recently started walking, and toddles around aimlessly with a big smile like it’s the best thing in the world.

After lunch we kids are sent up to the master bedroom to play with the few toys we brought with us while the adults drink beer and talk amongst themselves. The girls entertain themselves by improvising dances to the pop music station playing on my stepsister’s little radio and by doing somersaults and other acrobatics. My stepsister, who is taking gymnastics, demonstrates her handstands.

On impulse I tickle her during one of them. She collapses in giggles just as my cousin toddles past, pancaking him to the carpet. He starts bawling, and my aunt, like any first-time mother, comes running at this sound, whisking him downstairs. My sisters follow, telling the adults about what I did.

I wait until all the crying and fussing from the living room quiets down before slowly approaching the stairs.

G. is waiting for me halfway up, in a wide stance so I can’t rush past, his arms outstretched to either wall. “Where do you think you’re going?” he asks, quietly. His voice reminds me of unsheathed knives, flat and cold and hard and ready to hurt something.

I know enough about alcohol at this point to know that G. is drunk, even though he never stumbles or slurs like the drunks on TV. I’ve seen him drink an entire pitcher of beer by himself without effect.

He takes me into the walk-in closet, and here he rips into me, about how I’m just a horrid, loathsome kid, rotten through and through, for daring to do something like that to a little boy. He prods me into the far corner with his finger, advancing as I retreat until I’m backed up against a wall that still smells of fresh paint.

This time I don’t even finish saying “I’m sorry” before he thumps me across the face so hard my head bounces off the wall and I slump to the floor. Because I am prone to nosebleeds I know the taste of my own blood as it seeps from my sinuses into the back of my mouth. I sniffle, trying to keep it in, because I’m sure he’ll kill me if I bleed on the new carpet.

He thinks I’m starting to cry. “Fucking baby,” he spits at me before he goes downstairs, leaving me in the back of the closest.

After I’m sure he’s gone I go into the bathroom to clean myself up. My already-tender gums are bleeding too, little red rivers seeping between the braces. Because there are no towels I have to dry my hands and face on my shirt.

I go back into the closet and stay there until someone calls up that it is time to go. No one really speaks to me. I’m sure they’ve all been talking about what a bad kid I am.

III. 1991

I am eleven years old, and on perfect trajectory towards becoming a teenage malcontent. My family considers me humorless, mostly because I don’t laugh at G.’s incessant teasing. I almost never speak around adults.

Standardized aptitude testing has revealed a higher than average intelligence in me, and I am shuffled into advanced education classes at different schools every year. No one ever explains what this means to me, or asks if it’s what I want.

I have no social life to speak of. Because I change schools so frequently I no longer really bother with making friends, as I know I’ll lose them once the academic year is over. When I am bullied at school I simply take it without fighting back, as I am conditioned to believe I deserve it.

At home I spend much of my free time in my room reading science fiction novels and comic books or building models, mostly sailing ships and spacecraft. My interest in prehistoric life has taken a backseat to space travel and adventure stories, and I spend my allowance money on the supplies to build these tiny vectors of escape.

G. is showing more and more gray in his hair, and has taken to working out more frequently. He swims laps in our pool most mornings and runs a few miles around the local park in the evenings. He’s mounted a basketball hoop over the shed at the far end of the yard, and sometimes drags me out there to shoot hoops with him.

One afternoon he comes into my room without knocking, as usual. His basketball has gone flat and he’s looking for the handheld bicycle pump I won at a school raffle. It came with a needle attachment for inflating athletic equipment, but the one time I tried to use it the needle detached inside the ball and I needed pliers to get it out again.

I explain this when I hand it over, but G. brushes my warning away. This is common; even though I am frequently told how smart I actually am nothing I say is treated with any merit.

I return to sanding down the mainmast of the two-cannon pirate sloop I’m working on. I barely have it fitted to the deck when I hear G. roar my name from outside. He storms back into my room, clutching the ball in his hands. Just as I predicted a half-centimeter of the needle is poking out from the rubber seal.

G. shakes the ball around like he wants to throw it at something, angrily sputtering about how he thought I meant something other than what I said. “I told you so!” I blurt without thinking. It’s the first time I have ever back-talked to an adult.

The ball launches out of his hands like a cannonball and hits me square in the face, immediately sending a gush of blood out of my nose. Either the ball or my flailing arm sends my model crashing to the floor.

I clutch my hands to my face and double over on my desk, expecting a rain of similar blows to crash down on my back and sides. The warm blood pools between my palms and my face.

When I open my eyes G. is gone, having taken the ball with him. Out my window I can see him in the backyard, sitting on the diving board and taking long pulls out of a bottle of beer. His face is unreadable.

I know that I did absolutely nothing wrong and yet was punished anyway. As the blood drips out onto the plastic drop cloth on my desk I begin to understand for the first time that I do not deserve the treatment I am receiving. And that I should not have to take it.

The next spring I tell my mother I want to start taking karate lessons.

Twenty Dollars

By Ben Loory

Memoir

When I was in fifth grade, I was in love with Shirlene DuJack. We used to draw pictures of TIE fighters together. It was the ideal relationship. The only problem was that the school bully, Wayne DeCourte, was also in love with Shirlene DuJack. A fact which I found annoying. Apparently he felt similarly, because one day he announced that the two of us were going to have to fight after school for the hand of Shirlene DuJack. This made sense to me, so I agreed, with one stipulation: I had piano lessons that day, so could it be tomorrow? Wayne said sure, and we shook on it. It was all very gentlemanly.


I decided I was mentally ill when I was seven years old. I had just seen Sally Field in Sybil, and I agreed:

It was all green. And the people!

[Later, when I performed this scene for my acting class at the performing arts high school I attended, much to the chagrin of the real actors there, my teacher, Heloise Jones, insisted I reached octaves only discernable by dogs.]

Everyone always said my dad was crazy, so I assumed that I was, too. Figured it was like inheriting his brown eyes and Cherokee skin. 

With a loco padre lurking around the hacienda, I learned pretty early to hide as much as possible, so I used to spend a lot of time watching television in my dad’s room. Dad had converted the garage into a dance studio, so he spent most of his time out there teaching lonely old women how to foxtrot.

His bedroom was a ghost town during the day, so I’d hide on the floor in between the bed and the wall and watch cable all day, sometimes with the sound off, just to be sure no one would find me.

[It’s no surprise to anyone in my family that I turned out to be a filmmaker.]

Dad got cable before anyone else in our neighborhood. He loved technology and always had to have the biggest and best of everything, whether he could afford it or not.

Usually not.

Sybil was on cable all the time, and it was one of my favorite movies. It was the most honest thing I had ever seen on television. Kermit and Miss Piggy had nothing on Sybil, and Sesame Street was for babies. I was seven, and I was already grown up.

I didn’t feel especially crazy. I didn’t hallucinate or hear voices or scratch myself all over. I didn’t drool or stutter or even fart all that much. But I knew I was crazy nevertheless. Like how people know when they’re poor (which we were, too.)

Problem was, I didn’t know how I was crazy.

Crazy people have designated crazy skills. Sort of like superheroes. Batman has all the cool gadgets. Wonder Woman has the Invisible Plane and Lasso of Truth. Aquaman has badass underwater chops. These skills are specific to the superhero.

It’s like that for crazy people, too. Berkowitz had voices; Frances Farmer had psychotic rage, Woody Allen has…well, he has a lot of things.

My sister’s crazy was a little red diablo named Rage. She used to chase my brother around the kitchen table with a butcher knife when he wouldn’t get up from the piano fast enough so she could practice The Theme from E.T. before her next piano class. My brother tended to hog the piano, and he didn’t take either of us girls very seriously, which further infuriated Sister.

The first night she broke out the butcher knife, I let her off the hook and didn’t tell Mom. After all, no blood was shed. By the third time, I told Mom I thought Sister should be put in an insane asylum. I knew it was only a matter of time before someone lost a limb. Probably my brother. Mom thought I was being funny.

I wasn’t.

In elementary school, the principal could always discern the fighting climate by the placement of my sister’s shirtsleeves. Rolled up: there was big trouble brewing. Rolled down: smooth waters.

My brother’s crazy was pretty easy to identify, too. He played the piano for monster stretches at a time. On the weekends, he practiced up to eight or ten hours at a time; hence my sister’s predilection for butcher knives.

My brother had the piano, and my sister had her knives.

What about me?

Sometimes, I’d feel like that little bird from that kid’s book, “Are You My Mother?”

“Are you my crazy? What about you? How bout you?”  I’d wonder as I ate my meals one section at a time, hopped over sidewalk cracks, or reorganized the kitchen cupboards at midnight.

Soon however, the anxiety over finding my brand of crazy was usurped by the fear of getting my ass kicked by one of the neighborhood girls, usually Cora Rodriguez.

Cora and the rest of the girls hated me because one night, I made out with Cora’s older brother Max behind the skating rink. Apparently, he had a girlfriend he forgot to disclose.

When all the other guys at school were wearing skintight Jordache jeans or those ridiculous parachute pants, Max wore baggy Levi’s with holes in the knees. He drove a 1969 Plymouth Barracuda, and he smelled like bacon, maple syrup and marijuana, an intoxicating combination, I assure you.

If we had been making out in his car, I’m sure I would have given him my virginity. To this day, I spread for Mopar. But on that particular evening, his car was in the shop getting new brake pads, so he had to settle for third base.

(I did eventually lose my virginity in a 67 Camaro to Max’s good friend Diego.)

But on that pivotal evening, behind that broken down skating rink, underneath a sycamore tree that flanked a field of fertile corn, I made out with the most popular, most beautiful, most badass guy at the high school. It was all too Sixteen Candles.

And just as all movies come to an end, so did my affair with Max. By the next morning, it was all over my junior high school as well as the high school. I was officially branded a slut, and therefore guaranteed an ass whipping.

As I played pick-up sticks by the flagpole, trying to pretend I didn’t hear the whispers, Cora and her minions jumped me. They jumped me again at morning recess, stole my lunch, followed me home, whipped me in my own yard, and then scattered like chickens when my little sister came to the door.

This was my routine for the next three months.

Then one night, I sat down at the piano to practice Bach. I had a concert coming up, and I was working on Invention #13. It wasn’t coming along. In fact, had Heloise Jones heard my rendition, it would have hurt her ears, too. My fingers stumbled for the notes. Tripped on the tones. I’m sure our dogs were barking.

Brother dashed into the room. Sister gave chase, waving a butcher knife over her head.

“Don’t think I won’t do it,” Sister yelled.

“I know you will!” Brother replied as he darted through the swinging door then dodged into the den.

“Just stop it,” I screamed. “Just stop it!” Neither of them gave pause to notice me. Around and around they went like Tom and Jerry.

And that’s when it hit me like a golf bag full of lightning bolts. Sitting there at the piano, screaming as loudly as possible for the madness to stop and banging on the keys like a lunatic toddler, I realized they couldn’t see me, hear me or even smell me. I was invisible. And I thought that was way cooler than being crazy.

I figured it must somehow be related to Evolution, like I had learned about on cable. According to this program, over time, the more an animal needs a certain trait to survive, the more likely it is that Evolution will grant the request. Like a fairy godmother, Evolution had bestowed upon me a special power, not unlike that of the cuttlefish. To protect against predators, cuttlefish can alter their skin color at will. Because of this evolutionary gift, it has survived for eons.

Maybe I could be like that. Like the cuttlefish – an ever-changing ebb and flow of translucent colors. Maybe if I practiced being invisible and got really good at it, I could survive junior high school and Cora Rodriguez. 

Maybe I could survive Dad, too.

It would mean hours of dedicated practice. I’d hide in my room or by the side of my dad’s bed and work on it for hours, usually while Sybil was playing. I’d get super quiet, and I’d close my eyes and imagine the cuttlefish, its shifting colors, its three hearts pumping turquoise blood to its nether corners, willing a disappearance.

I knew there were Buddhist monks who could change their body temperature through meditation, so I’d practice all the time. I just knew if I trained hard enough, I could harness my power and use it to protect myself.

My training ended one spring morning when Cora Rodriguez and her cohorts ambushed me in an alley of blooming dogwood trees on my way to school. Cora pushed me to the ground. I fell into a pool of pink petals. For a few suspended moments, I watched her laughing, until I remembered my special power.

I’d show her.

I closed my eyes, centered my breathing, and summoned the cuttlefish.

Suddenly, I felt a sharp bite, like a cold snake snapping his fangs into me. It was working! The transformation was painful, but it was working!

When I opened my eyes, Cora stood with a knife in her hand, blood dripping onto the spent dogwood blooms. It took me a few moments to realize that the blood was mine. I reached down to the side of my belly where I felt the wind cooling my insides. My shirt was ripped. I lifted it and saw the wound, milky blood and bones.

“Hey!” I said, then burst into tears, probably because I couldn’t think of anything clever to say.

Cora and her friends howled then scampered off when a burgundy Crown Victoria turned into the alley. I stumbled to my feet, and I noticed it was Mr. Ruper, the retired mechanic who lived on the corner with five Chihuahuas. Sometimes I took him extra blackberries when we came back from the country. I inched a step towards him, my bloody palm held up.

But Mr. Ruper didn’t stop. He didn’t even wave.

Mr. Ruper hadn’t even seen me.

“Fine time for my special power to work,” I thought, then stumbled home, cleaned my wound with mercurochrome, and taped my stomach back together with a box of Scooby Doo band aides.

That night, Brother and Sister played Scrabble while I watched “Love Boat.”

The following weekend, I moved in with my grandparents on the other side of the lake, though that was not the last time I would tangle with Cora Rodriguez or turn invisible.

But it was the last time I ever saw Max.

 

For dinner we have masa harina corn cakes with herb sauce and a dilled potato salad. Johanna, though dejected at another day of meatlessness, eats voraciously. We all do really. She and I sit at a rust-painted picnic table with Lance, Crazy Jeff and Gloria, Hector, and Charlie the Mechanic. The field crew eats with hunched shoulders, cramped forearms, aching lower backs. Johanna sits abnormally straight, exhibiting her self-described “perfect body mechanics.” We all swat at the flies and mosquitoes as we eat with the exception of Charlie the Mechanic who seems oblivious to them. He is oblivious also to the mayonnaise in his beard.

Hector hates the insects the most. A short stocky man in his forties, he waves wildly at the bugs with both hands, dropping his plastic fork to the ground, retrieving it, and wiping it on his pants, only to begin the process again a moment later.

“These fuckin’ bugs eat more than we do,” he shouts, frustrated.

“It’s the truth, man,” Lance says. He speaks in a voice that forever sounds as if it’s about to drop off to a decades-long sleep; a voice that sounds at home. Or rather: at hoooooome…

“I’m serious,” Hector stresses, “When these fuckers bite us, think about the equivalent. I mean the food they eat compared to the size of their bodies, and the food we eat compared to the size of ours. It’s ridiculous.”

Hector’s hair, jet black and tightly curled wobbles as one contained unit as he speaks, swats at his ears, drops his fork, and picks it up again. I have previously encountered such a head of hair only on my late grandmother. I wonder if Hector spends his Saturdays in the beauty parlor, his hair liberally doused with hairspray and pulled at with a fuchsia teasing comb. If he, like she, will argue with his offspring for hours about the thermostat setting, will leave bed in the middle of the night in house-slippers and house-frock and, with hunchback catching the moonlight, raise the temperature a couple degrees while everyone, but the grandson, is sleeping.

“Yeah,” Lance snores, “The equivalent. It’s totally unfair.”

They both pronounce the word, equivalent, as if they had invented it, just moments ago. In their mouths it seems so new, deserving of endless repetition. Of course, they’re probably high. Of course, I may be too. Who remembers? When a brain cells falls into to the cerebral spinal fluid, and not a single of his compatriots is alive to hear it, does he, in attempting to recall the truth, make a sound?

We make up one table of about twenty. The conversation for such a crowd, and such a crowd of societal rebels, is surprisingly hushed. To generalize: much of the crew involves the type of folks who call their uncles, Unky, (as in: Unky Paul touched me), but not in some po-dunk toothless sort of way; more in some postmodern ironic self-aware hick-as-hipster sensibility, like the Rolling Stones in “Dead Flowers” and “Far Away Eyes,” et al.

During our meals, we are not making any large statements, not changing the world or subverting any governments. We are farm laborers, famished and tired, chewing more than we speak. At least at the meal’s beginning…

Charlie the Mechanic burps demurely, Crazy Jeff laughs to himself, Gloria rotates her head in a circle with an audible crack, and Johanna touches my leg under the table. We can’t see the stars beyond the white ceiling of the canvas tent, but, out here, tonight, I’d bet they’d be huge.

“Piece of shit bugs,” Hector says more calmly, “and they’re better than us, too.” He shoves another wedge of corn cake deep into his mouth.

Hector was born in Chiapas, Mexico and became an American citizen through, according to him, “some deal with the U.S. Army.” His military tattoos cover his thick arms with a sickly vein-green, as if he had some adverse and irreparable reaction to an intravenous medication. I remember, in our first few days here, he told us stories about how, as a child, he would stalk leopards through the Chiapas jungle, not far from the Guatemala border. I believe him. His military training, and perhaps his résumé as leopard stalker, earned him a place in the treetops. As a Treetop Sniper at Weckman Farm, he serves as an armed guard, keeping watch for trespassers, marijuana-poachers, and law enforcement.

Trust me: This whole sniper thing made Johanna and I, at the beginning of our stay, incredibly uneasy. Johanna, particularly has an aversion to guns. One of the reasons she fled her home country was the second attempted carjacking she faced, during which, like the first, she had a semi-automatic held to her temple at a stoplight. And, as during the first, she floored the gas pedal, narrowly averting cross-traffic, and ran over the guy’s foot. She told me this on our first real date, a breakfast in Key West (where we were both working in restaurants at the time), detailing the image that still plagues her at night of the perpetrator falling over into the street and she watched in the rear view mirror. And I have never, as Paul Hamby, Juneau, Alaska fireman, said as I served him his blueberry-pecan pancakes in the Channel Bowl Cafe (where I worked prior to meeting Johanna)discharged a weapon. But after having dined with Hector a few times, we soon grew accustomed to the notion of “sniper-as-sweetheart,” and other such anomalies unique to Weckman Farm, and this particular line of work.

Hector has an eight-person tent set up at the Residents’ Camp, though he rarely stays the night, and when he does, he sleeps in the large tent alone. Sometimes, the picking crew can become indignant regarding Hector’s clearance to leave the property, while we are bound to it. On his tent’s door, he has attached with a staple, a laminated postcard of the Virgen de Guadalupe, garlanded with pink carnations. I’m so glad that’s true. I’d feel like a stereotyping asshole if I made it up.

One night in our tent, before we went to sleep, Johanna asked me, “Do you think he comes from a family of eight? Do you think he gets to sleep imagining the seven other people? Or that the space reminds him of his family?”

Johanna has enough heart for the two of us, though, for the sake of tone here, I’m trying to keep mine at bay. (As my editor keeps telling me: brash sons-of-bitches sell, invoking, whenever possible, the spirit of Anthony Bourdain).

“We don’t even know if he has a family,” I said. (Hector, not Bourdain).

“We should ask him,” she said, fatigue pouring itself into her voice like motor oil.

I love it when her voice sounds like this—it’s so tired-sexy, but I’m too sore-hungover to do anything about it.

“If I catch him without his rifle, I’ll ask him,” I said.

Johanna said nothing. I paused, listening to the night-sounds—wind, frogs, insects, the breathing of the crew in their tents.

“I just wonder where he goes at night,” I said.

Johanna let out a dull, elongated violin snore.

Now, as Charlie the Mechanic burps at the dinner table again, this time flamboyantly, turning his head to the side and pursing his lips as if sipping from an imaginary, mid-air water fountain, Johanna touches my leg all the more mightily.

“Shiiiiiit,” Lance moans as if the word were four syllables.

“That’s it, brother,” Charlie rasps.

Lance taps me on the shoulder. When I look up from my paper plate, he says nothing, just sits there nodding with both his hands flat on the table.

Lance is only twenty-four, but this is his fifth season working at Weckman Farm. This makes him a Field Manager or Head Trimmer, both titles referring to the same set of duties: he tells, in his cat-before-a-nap sort of way, the Virgin Pickers (as they’re called) how to carefully trim the plants so as not to lose any of the “medicine. This is very, very important.” He takes his time with the “verys,” his shoulder-length blond hair swaying with his voice, calling to the oceanic Southern California rhythms that reportedly encompassed his formative years. This is Lance: slow tide in, slow tide out.

Like any good-looking young guy in a position of authority, Lance is a combination of annoying and enviable. As with at lot of the surfer interviews I’ve watched, I struggle between these two positions: wanting to be that surfer; wanting to punch him in the face. Lance probably never knew what is was like to be a nerd, favoring classic rock when all his cool classmates were listening to Bon Jovi’s “Slippery When Wet.” In the junior high school gym class locker rooms, he probably never had to pretend to be familiar with lyrics that he had never heard (pleading: Shot through the heart! Shot through the heart!), just so Ricky Meyer wouldn’t throw wet wads of toilet paper at him and, potentially, bodyslam him onto the changing-bench. I heard that Ricky Meyer is now a millionaire. I hate it when bullies become successful. It’s so uncinematic. Except in Back to the Future II, I guess.

Lance belongs to one of two factions of the crew who choose to be paid in marijuana. The first is a group who tend not to spend the night at the Residents’ Camp, known at the farm as The Patients. The Patients, many of whom work as Pickers, use the marijuana to alleviate the effects of illness. (Despite her agony, I couldn’t have possibly convinced my mom to go this route, because “it’s illeeegal”).

In the Residents’ Camp, adjacent to the shower sheds, Lady Wanda supplies her crew with a sizable A-frame cabin known as the Sofa Room. Television-less, but stuffed with board games and lined with windows, the Sofa Room has become, either out of respect or necessity, the solarium lounge for many of the tired Patients in need of a cushioned respite at day’s end.

Into the Sofa Room, Pickers both past and present have placed various “healing” artifacts. The shelves are lined with miniaturized busts of the Venus of Willendorf, Buddha, Shiva, Ganesh; tin chickens and earthenware piggy banks, brass candle-less candlesticks and polished water-less river rocks; a salt-and-pepper shaker depicting a morose Roman-nosed planet Earth reclining in a celestial armchair; Kokopelli charcoal-drawn on a sliver of sandstone; rusty horseshoes and red sequined burlesque garters; coconut shells painted to look like fish, ceramic fish painted to look like gods. It’s a silver-haired new-age guru’s wet dream and a Midwestern cynic’s excuse to perfect his eye-roll, and then, because he feels guilty for being intolerant and judgmental (maybe this is where the Jewishness comes in), nods and smiles, and, overcompensating, accepts the fact that he has a lot to learn. Just as an aside: according to my computer, Jewishness is not a word. Some suggested alternatives for this “misspelling”: Jadishness, Juiciness, Jewfishes. (I’m thinking gefilte). Thank you, Jewish readers, for your token giggle there.

I first met Crazy Jeff and Gloria in the Sofa Room one night while searching for Pictionary. Johanna and I had long been fostering an addiction to the game, and it was in our characters to throw, on occasion, one of the drawing pencils across a room in a fit of excitement or frustration. We had convinced Lance to be the all-time drawer so Johanna and I could play one another.

Gloria was sleeping on an orange loveseat next to the board game closet, her head teetering between her own shoulder and Crazy Jeff’s. Crazy Jeff sat next to her staring at the exposed wood ceiling as if the beams were tea leaves.

At this point, somewhere into my first week at Weckman Farm, rumor had it that Crazy Jeff was a former cocaine addict who still had the occasional lapse and Gloria was a paranoid schizophrenic. The rumor went on to speculate, in nervous-excited whisper, that, although Crazy Jeff preferred men, he took Gloria as his lover in order to live off her social security checks.

Many of Weckman Farm’s crewmembers thrive on perpetuating and adding to the fictions of their co-workers. Perhaps the temptation to create legends of themselves to a pair of newbies is too much to resist. Perhaps the realities of farm work, when taken hour-by-hour, are just too mundane. Anyhow, I am their digestive system here, processing what they have to offer, adding some enzymes for flavor, and shitting it out, hoping the stench is, if nothing else, memorable. (You can’t imagine the restraint it took not to substitute nucleotidal for memorable there).

Crazy Jeff, we came to discover, was never a coke addict, though he did cop to a few dabblings. Gloria, while eccentric, does not have paranoid schizophrenia. They have become wonderful friends, but they are not lovers. Crazy Jeff and Gloria are both Patients, living with HIV, and numerous unnamed afflictions, for fifteen and ten years, respectively.

Without breaking his gaze from the ceiling, Crazy Jeff cleared his throat and said, “Only Scrabble’s left, ha, ha, ha, ha ha!”

Soon, while Gloria slept—her black hair stiff and straight, her nose wailing like a pennywhistle—Crazy Jeff and I began talking about how Lady Wanda paid him for his work.

Crazy Jeff (called Crazy, due to his frequent bouts of often-unprovoked maniacal laughter) had told me, “I get a little over three grams of the good stuff an hour. Like an ounce a day. For this stuff, that’s like five-hundred bucks! A day!”

Approximately, eighty-five to ninety-five percent of Lady Wanda’s seasonal yield will be sent on to medical marijuana hospices and dispensaries, sold at “retail prices” (about five-hundred dollars an ounce). The remaining five to fifteen percent goes to pay workers like Crazy Jeff on a collective basis. The rest of us, of course, are invited to toke from their joints.

“Can you believe that?!” Crazy Jeff cried, “There’s nothing more physical than physics!”

Of course, he descended into a disturbing bout of giggles which he staunched, as if hiccups, by meditatively rubbing the cysts that plague the undersides of his ears. Each cyst is about the size of a halved wine cork, and Crazy Jeff often keeps them covered with circular Band-Aids. For this reason, some of the less kind of the Pickers refer to him as Frankenstein, an insult Crazy Jeff is prone to dismiss with a wave of his hand and a sharp, singular, “Ha!” He’s in his upper forties and, though balding and unwell, he looks young for his age. I never amassed the courage to ask him about his laughing, the reasons behind it, but Johanna theorized that he took the “laughter is the best medicine” advice far too literally. He aggravated her far more than he did me.

He shifted in the orange loveseat as his laughter subsided. Gloria woke up, disheveled, blinking like Olive Oyl after unusually good sex with Popeye. She looked at me, then Crazy Jeff.

“Whaaaaat?” she demanded.

Lance is part of the second group who chooses to be paid in pot, a group Charlie the Mechanic affectionately dubs, “The Bud-Fuckers.”

“That’s all they do. They fuck bud. The sons a-bitches love their weed more than I do,” Charlie would say, his voice struggling through an electronic-sounding rasp. Lance would often counter by accusing Charlie, being a mechanic, of reconstructing his own throat with a series of screws. Charlie would counter back.

“You got it, little man. And fuck yourself.”

Lance and his fellow marijuana enthusiasts, ranging in age from eighteen to seventy, choose to be paid solely in pot for the sheer enjoyment of smoking some “really exotic stuff. Connoisseur stuff, man. Real delicacies.”

So as I said, in not so many words, Lance is a beautiful man, blessed with feminine features, a jaw-line so sharp it could double as a letter opener. I think most of us on Weckman Farm were drawn to him in one way or another. His draw, for me, was one of the lustily platonic, if I can get away with that. Ogled by crewmembers male and female, gay and straight, Lance is the fun-loving target of equally fun-loving harassment. He is the blonde-haired, blue-eyed demigod of countless teen idol pin-up magazines, his lazy pot-fueled speech easily mistaken for a confident drawl. Like a photo, his face is glossy and permanent. Like the often-photographed, he’s come to depend on the attention.

Lance claims to have grown up in Southern California, near Pasadena, but these claims are often mumbled and unspecific, and Charlie the Mechanic routinely dismisses them as bullshit.

“The boy’s a surfer wannabe,” Charlie would say, “but he ain’t never lived in Southern California. He’s always been here.”

Lance would counter this with a stunning silence, during which he swayed all listeners to his side.

It was by means of Charlie the Mechanic’s ridiculing (ridiculing that I’d like to believe was good-natured) that Lance earned his third title, one which he wore like a badge and bragged about. Lance the Field Manager. Lance the Head Trimmer. And Lance, King of the Bud-Fuckers. This was how he introduced himself to Johanna and me—yet another crewmember stoking his legendary status, earned or unearned, I couldn’t yet tell.

At the dinner table, Crazy Jeff is holding up a baggie that must contain twenty freshly rolled joints.

“Whoo-hoo! Whoo-hoo-hoo!” he cackles to no one in particular, “funny cigarettes!”

Charlie the Mechanic is in the middle of telling Johanna, “Boutros Boutros-Ghali is the Antichrist.”

Sadly, I didn’t hear how this conversation got started. As a matter of fact, most of this dialogue is half-remembered by a half-stoned guy who wrote many of his notes in the Coleman Cimarron tent after dark, without turning on the lantern and risking disturbing his slumbering wife (pardon all theing words there—I promise I won’t mention ping-pong, maybe for the remainder of this manuscript).

“Uh-huh,” Johanna musters.

“And I am the Sun-God!” Charlie follows, to the delight of Lance.

In my notebook, in crooked blue Papermate, after-dark handwriting, my note of Charlie’s strange claim borders on the illegible. I am the Sun-God could easily be I am So Good, but why would I have made it a point to write that down? Plus: Charlie would say things like that all the time, situating himself in the realm of mythology. According to my notebook, he also once said, unprovoked, “I got lightnin’ in me!” but I’m not certain how to work that into the story.

Lance high-fives Charlie and I finally chime in, “I don’t know what the fuck any of you are talking about.”

If I had to guess, I was a little stoned, and Johanna was too. Maybe that’s the reason behind our attraction. We both saw, early on, the potential in the other to one day become an unreliable narrator.

Hector smashes a mosquito against the side of his face with an audible slap. He laughs at me, “Dude, it’s the end of the day. Who does?”

“Well…” Gloria says.

“So. So,” Crazy Jeff interrupts, trying to get my and Johanna’s attention, “I’m sitting in Trax [a Haight-Ashbury bar] and the bartender puts down three drinks in front of me. And I look around…”

Here, Crazy Jeff looks around Lady Wanda’s carnival dinner tent with eyes and mouth agape. The twenty tables surrounding ours are holding their own courts, filled with their own din, and the soothing sound of plastic silverware clicking against a chorus of teeth. At one table, an unseen male voice, with a slightly Germanic accent, bellows to his giggling audience “I am a doctor!”

“…and I say to the bartender,” Crazy Jeff continues, staring wide-eyed at the center of our rust-painted picnic table, surely envisioning those three glorious drinks, his voice growing louder, “I say, ‘I didn’t order these.’ And the bartender points to three different guys in the bar and I think: This is the curse! This is what my father was telling me about!”

As if on cue, Crazy Jeff falls into laughter and begins rubbing his cysts. Then, he points with one hand to three different tables under the tent, mimicking the bartender’s long-ago indication of Crazy Jeff’s triple appeal. He’s smiling like a boy. We all laugh with him. I feel shell-shocked and look to Johanna to see if she feels the same. She shrugs with her eyes, but she is laughing. I feel the urge to hold her hand with my right and Crazy Jeff’s with my left. Instead, I use my hands to slap my legs, hoping that this gesture will allow me to laugh harder than I am. I think it actually works.

Hector shakes his head, a tiny explosion of blood holding to his cheek where he smashed the mosquito. I wonder if Hector is thinking about “the equivalent.”

When Crazy Jeff ends his crazy laughter with an exasperated, “hoooooo,” the table goes quiet for a moment. In this time, the night temperature seems to drop ten degrees. Johanna kisses my ear in a way that’s pleasurable in its wetness, and painful in its loudness.

“Well,” Gloria says.

I don’t know what happened. I could be one of those people who black out, who say things in moments where there’s no clarity, no real consciousness, just daydreaming —  starwalking in silent dreams during schoolyard bells.

The bus dropped me off near Geneva Avenue — that’s on the southside of Bakersfield. It was a poor blue collar street with stray dogs, tumbleweeds and the shitty kids I grew up with.

Walking home, I remember a short Asian-Mexican boy with a cleft palate. His face always looked angry, distorted. He had a mouth like a pumpkin scar. He was in the group of kids following me, encouraging the boy at the front of the pack to get me.

There’s no pride in fighting when your father claims to be a fighter and he never teaches you how to even slap someone with a glove and say, “Touche!” So I kept walking.

The boy following me was a dirty-faced white kid with dark stringy hair. He thought I said something at school. Something mean. Something that questioned his boyhood maleness. I racked my brain for some sort of explanation since I had no memory.

He turned me around and clocked me on the left side of the temple.

He was taller than me. He looked tougher. But I remember it didn’t really hurt. And I didn’t fall down. I just stood there. “I don’t want to fight,” I said.

Eventually he and the others left. They were laughing. I got one final stare from the kid with the cleft palate and permanent angry eyebrows. His curdled milk lips knotted into a gleeful smile, thirsting for blood.

I turned around and walked home. I was looking forward to reading another book in the John Carter of Mars adventure series by Edgar Rice Burroughs. I’m guessing I was about halfway through “The Chessmen of Mars.”