One Such Bully
Back then I was just some kid walking around the bus circle during recess, kicking leftover ice chunks so they exploded into the air. I didn’t have friends. Instead, I watched from a distance as people acted like friends. They’d really figured something out, I thought, and they chased each other and laughed and knew how to play games with balls. My father watched the rodeo in his La-Z-Boy and drank Michelob, and he never once threw a ball at me.
I’d grown a rat-tail because some vampire in some movie had one. I wore sweatpants and had thick, plastic-frame glasses. In spring in the Adirondacks, the snow melts in long, brown streaks on the sandy pavement, and you wear your parka and boots even though you’re only going to get hot and wet. That’s how cruelty found me: sopping and alone and witless to the power of appearance.
One middle-schooler came up to me that day and said, “Hey, see that kid over there?” The elementary and middle schools were combined, which meant the young were at the mercy of the system.
I looked over. This other kid looked lonely, and I felt sad for him. He was about my age, seven or eight, and had black hair and rosy cheeks and was a haircut taller. I nodded.
“Okay,” middle-schooler said. “I dare you to go beat him up.”
All the boys jabbered incessantly about giving each other bloody noses and shiners, and I figured it’d be okay to beat up a sad kid. Who would care if he got any sadder? So I shuffled up to him, my sweaty, rubber Sorels scuffing the dirt.
“Hey, kid,” I said softly. “I’m supposed to beat you up.”
When his foot hit my chest it didn’t hurt exactly, but instead I just fell over, almost like it was a decision I’d made. I got up and threw literally the first punch I’d ever thrown, and he caught it and used my arm like an axe handle to chop me into the ground. I landed and it felt good to lie, so I stayed there. The burst of laughter I heard came from the direction of the middle-schoolers.
“I know karate, stupid,” the kid said as he floated away.
I don’t think he was a bully before that, but I’d apparently stumbled into some reverse reality where everyone became the things other people asked them to be. He’d asked me to be a wimp, and I acquiesced.
There were maybe five thousand people in my hometown, so I saw the karate kid all the time. When I signed up for little league a year or two later, he was on my team. And he played my position. And his fat, mustachioed dad was the coach.
“Don’t feel bad,” the kid told me during practice. “Some people just aren’t supposed to play organized ball.” He meant me, and he started giggling. I tried to ignore him all season, but instead he worked to make me cry every day. “Hey, Organized Ball,” he called me from second base, where I should’ve been. “Don’t get splinters in your ass riding that bench!”
His folks owned the video store too. The few acquaintances I’d made started hanging out with him instead, to play his free video games and watch his new movies. Every time I turned around, he was taking something, stealing something from me.
Then he missed school for two weeks. When he came back, he was different. He was silent and reserved and white as sheetrock. When people talked to him, he mumbled and just looked out the bus window.
“Hey, what happened?” I asked someone across the aisle.
“He says he saw an angel,” they said. “Like, an angel came in his room when he was sick and tried to take him away or whatever.”
When a bus-wide chorus went up, chanting “an-gel, an-gel” at him, I didn’t join in at first. It was ugly music, meant to break someone in half. But then I had to join, if just for a few rounds, if only so everyone would see I wasn’t on his side.
One part of me hoped he’d really seen that angel. But there was no way to be afraid of him anymore, not even when he tried to give me a whitewash in a snowbank the next winter. Instead, I slugged him in the ear, laughed, and sauntered away, shrugging him off like a wet jacket by the door.
About the Author: Colin Pope grew up in Saranac Lake, New York. His poetry and prose have appeared in Slate, Best New Poets, TimeOut NY, Rattle, Poet Lore, and The Los Angeles Review, among others. He is the recipient of residencies from the Vermont Studio Center and Texas State University and is currently a PhD student at Oklahoma State University, where he serves on the editorial board at Cimarron Review.