“That’s what you do if you love someone, David,” Mark said.
A Monday morning, 1983. Bird sounds, traffic noise. Power lines, carrying a million voices, slung over our heads. Sun midway up the eastern sky.
Mark and I had been walking around, kicking cans, throwing rocks at mailboxes, looking in house windows and at the faces of people driving by in cars, and now we were sitting on the curb in front of the 7-Eleven: cigarette butts, oil stains in the shape of Midwestern states, shoe-printed chewing gum, the shimmering heat of car engines, wafts of cool air coming out of the double glass doors behind us each time they opened.
David balanced beside us on his red beach-cruiser bike, the kind with big wheels and fenders and longhorn handlebars. He had one foot on the concrete, one on a pedal. He held a Slurpee cup, his blue tongue resting on his bottom lip.
“I mean, if you love someone,” Mark continued. “Not just like. Only if you’re in love. That’s when you use this technique.”
“Nooooooo,” David said. He was tall for his age, with short, wavy blond hair. He wore high-water jeans, three-button shirts fastened to the top, and a blue Izod windbreaker even when it was in the nineties, like today. At fourteen he possessed the intelligence level of maybe a six-year-old. He looked like the televised version of a retarded kid, so who could doubt—what kid would even think to doubt—the realism and authenticity of television?
“Oh,” Mark said. “I thought you were in love. Never mind then.”
“I am in love!” David shouted.
A woman in cut-off jeans, a tank-top, and flip-flops turned and looked at David as she walked into the store, a cigarette hanging from her mouth.
“Then do it,” Mark said.
I squinted in the brightness, my T-shirt rolled up in my hand, wet with sweat.
“Hey,” Mark said, looking at me, shoulders shrugged, palms up. “When you’re in love…?”
We were talking about David’s crush on Marie, a girl who wouldn’t even speak to Mark or me. She was kind to David, though it was a pity thing, the way certain girls love helpless animals, hang posters of big-eyed baby seals on their bedroom walls. The whole imagined romance was a big joke among us middle-school flunkies. We tormented David because he was stupid and weak. We shouted at and mocked Marie’s beautiful body, her beautiful hair, her beautiful face, which made her walk with her back stiff, her eyes straight ahead. We had all felt an arm-twist to the point where the bone creaked, had all tasted rusty blood in our mouths after a hard punch to the face, had all received wedgies from bigger kids that ripped open our ass cracks, had all had our ears boxed to ringing by our dads, uncles, brothers, coaches…. It killed us that Marie wouldn’t explode into tears for our amusement. It was the least she could do, with all that beauty and success, with the way she knew she was better than us.
“Dude,” Mark said again. “Tell David. Tell him what to do.”
I tried to avoid David, but we had played together some as small boys—at our mothers’ insistence—and he always found me now, sidled over: “Hey!” Kids in my new clique, the tough kids, the cool kids, smacked him in the face, walked up and said, “Hey, David,” and instead of patting him on the back they hit him, sometimes hard—a gut shot, a pointy knuckle to the arm. He was shocked, hurt, but when we laughed, he rounded the corner of his pain somehow and laughed, too. Like me, he wanted to belong no matter the obstacles. He was willing to be tortured, to an extent, if he could be a part of the something I’d call kid life in our city. I was willing to torture, to an extent, to not be left out of that same something, which would have been like becoming a leper, or being banished into the wilderness to perish among the stacked layers and layers of corpses of unwanted and un-liked kids.
“Tell him, dude,” Mark said. “Tell him.”
A guy named Darryl, a sixteen-year-old who’d spent time in reform school, a kid who said “fuck” two or three times a sentence, his language like an American poetic assault in its way, textured and stylish and syntactically interesting, had put a cigarette out on David’s back not long before. I saw it happen, but didn’t say or do anything. I’m sure I laughed like all the other kids there.
I looked at the ground, at a cigarette butt with a circle of lipstick around the filter, and thought about David screaming when Darryl burned him, his animal grunting, how he pushed his elbows out behind him, his back curled away from the pain, his bony scapulae like little spread butterfly wings.
I looked up. “David,” I said as I sat on the 7-Eleven curb, unrolling my shirt, sweating, my eyes like gun sites pointed right at his stupid face, “here is what I’d do…”
A few days from then, at school, on the playground, he would show his shriveled, asexual prick to Marie. She’d run away, finally crying. He’d then stand, bewildered, pants open, blank-faced, all hope, his whole world, ended; he’d drop to the ground and rub dirt into his hair and face, like a beast trying to cover its own bad scent. I once, years ago, said a long prayer about this. And I still have dreams about it. But in the dreams I’m the one with dirt on my hands, on my face, in my hair. I’m the idiot with my pants down.
Copyright © 2008 by Greg Bottoms from Fight Scenes. Reprinted by permission of Counterpoint.
Greg Bottoms is the author of six books, including the memoir Angelhead (U. of Chicago Press), the recent essay collection Spiritual American Trash: Portraits from the Margins of Art and Faith (Counterpoint Press), and Pitiful Criminals (Counterpoint Press), a graphic collection of memoirs and stories, with drawings by artist W. David Powell. He teaches creative writing at the University of Vermont, where he is Professor of English.