I first encountered Elwood in junior high school. I didn’t know him, never spoke a word to him and he spoke fewer than a dozen words to me, but he was known to all because he was on the short list for the title of most pathetic dork ever to breathe oxygen. Even the way he breathed was pathetic. He didn’t have any respiratory anomalies, was perfectly healthy in that regard, but he had a very annoying nervous habit of sniffing, snorting, and weakly half coughing/half clearing his throat. To make matters worse, he was a poser. Or poseur if you’re from uptown. He dressed like a biker, or as he thought a biker should dress. He didn’t even have a bicycle.
Elwood’s backstory, which I didn’t yet know: He was adopted by a couple who shouldn’t have been allowed to keep a dog. His (adoptive) mother was some kind of mental case and just completely gone on religion. She would tack tracts to his bedroom door, and if he hung a poster of some rock band or some other “of the devil” thing on his wall, she’d tear it down and replace it with bible passages printed out in ASCII art lettering on 120-column tractor feed paper that she’d create at the place where she worked. His adoptive father was a hard core alcoholic, the worst I’ve ever known — and that’s saying something, given the two families that came together to create my heathen ass. Elwood’s dear old dad couldn’t hold a job for long before the booze got him into trouble, and then it wasn’t too long before the liquor store would cut off his credit again. I don’t ever want to know what it’s like to sink so low, to know that I’ve sunk so low, that drinking Old Spice could fall within the realm of acceptable. Elwood’s dad knew that depth and didn’t seem to mind plumbing it.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not judging Elwood’s parents. Something/some things must have gone really very badly wrong for both of them to end up being as they were, and I don’t know that I’d come out any better if the same were to happen to me. I’m also not going holier-than-thou by pointing out that I’m not being judgmental, because by golly I have been known to judge and I see no reason to apologize for it. It’s not like I just recently painted a pretty picture of Melvin The Mormon and defended his actions as potentially understandable given his nature, environment, and sum of experiences. No, Melvin is just a shithead. But I don’t know Elwood’s parents’ stories, and I know that for most of us our relative emotional and mental health is intact only because we have not endured adversities beyond our individual capacities for resilience. Most appear to be pretty normal and full of promise in kindergarten, ya know? Then life happens and a few more fall every year.
It’s a funny thing, these stories of mine: The ones from my home town are not the stories of some inner city or working poor rust belt company town. Nowhere near it. Four miles east was Disneyland, about the same distance south was the Pacific Ocean. The kid who played Toby Martin on the Doris Day Show was a classmate and lived 12 doors north — if he wasn’t the inspiration for Spicoli (Fast Times At Ridgemont High) then it was his clone who was. Todd did that falling out of the smoky van thing pretty regularly long before Fast Times was made. That turd John Stamos grew up in my home town, claims he was born there but if he was it was a home birth because there are no hospitals within the city limits. Brian Tochi (lots of television, Revenge Of The Nerds, etc.) grew up there, too, in Amethyst’s neighborhood. A guy, Tim something, who played for the California Angels and had a stone fox for a wife lived next door. It was not a bad place to grow up, really, unless you were me.
I saw Elwood around school but always tried to give him a wide berth, in part to avoid being accidentally hit by whatever was being thrown at him, but mainly to avoid being recognized as one who might get between him and the bullies who made his life hell. I wanted out of the street fighter business because it was one I hadn’t chosen for myself and did not want — by the time I was in junior high I was the neighborhood entertainment. It was bad enough that the neighborhood kids were instigating fights in ways that brought kids from other neighborhoods around to do that high noon bullshit, but my parents were doing it, too. It became the neighborhood’s greatest entertainment, with parents and children alike gathering around to cheer and place bets, and with my parents there for the entertainment but also to prevent my fleeing into the house. I had no reason to fight those kids, didn’t really know most of them, and some of them I didn’t know at all. One that my mother somehow drug in for her amusement was even from out of state, had come with his mother to visit his grandparents, and I never even saw him until about a minute before the fight. I still don’t even know what the excuse for that one was. Or why his mother pushed him into it. Hell yes I would have run away to avoid those fights, and with no shame at all. The shame belonged to my parents and my neighbors, but having made their monstrous behavior acceptable and approved they were incapable of feeling shame.
That’s another topic entirely, but trust me on this: Most of the people you know and trust are much closer to being monsters than they know, and much closer to it than you’d be comfortable believing them to be. It’s all but certain that none of my neighbors ever went to work the next day and talked about how they’d just made 6:5 on the wager they’d placed on a street fight between two 12 year old kids, but they were always there putting money into Fat Tommy’s greasy hands.
With that in mind, though, I did my level best to stay away from Elwood. It was bad enough that in addition to my being the main attraction in the neighborhood blood sport I was the target of every punk in the school who was out to make a name for himself, and I didn’t need to add being the protection friend to it. I’d have none of that. I made it a point to hang out mostly with girls (because that’s what I’ve always done), and with guys who were so cool that nobody fucked with them. No tough guys and no wimps were in my circles. I still got into my share of fights, and my share was the greatest share, but it wasn’t because of the people I hung around with and that was how I liked it.
It was in ninth grade and after I’d already done battle with most of the punks so things were winding down that things suddenly got very interesting again. The greasiest punk in the place, one I’d first had to contend with in seventh grade, had made an exception of himself and come at me a second time. And stupidly, too, with that I’m going to get you after school crap. Well, okay, Bill, but I’m going to get you right now… Bill was overweight, slow, stupid, and looked a lot like Meatloaf (the singer), but he was also mean, aggressive, and persistent. I took the easy way out and threw him into a desk, and when he came to a stop all tangled up in two or three tipped over desks I was standing there looking down at him, and he was lying there looking up at me, and we both knew that if he tried to get up I was going to kick him right in the face. Everyone knew that — I never let someone who was down get back up. (Honestly, I was afraid to. The fight was over if they stayed down, and I’d do my best to make them think that down was a very good place to be. If I let them get up, I might get hurt.) He mouthed off some, but he stayed down like a good little greasy punk. Well, a good large, slow, stupid greasy punk. One who didn’t want his face caved in.
The next day the word was out that he was putting together a gang to take me out. At first I thought it was just so much bluff, bluster, and bullshit because it had been said before, by Bill and others, and nothing ever came of it. But when I came out of the locker room after gym class there really was a gang waiting for me. That was a surprise on the order of the magnitude of shitting out a space shuttle. So I turned around and went back into the locker room to think, sweat some blood, and continue shitting out spacecraft that hadn’t been invented yet. Could’ve saved NASA some money that day.
I guess I looked worried, because one of the football jocks who usually had no use for the likes of me asked me what was wrong. I told him about Bill and his gang waiting for me, and he said he’d heard about it but didn’t think anything of it because those guys are always full of shit. I assured him that they were there this time, and he went out and looked for himself. When he came back he asked me what I was going to do, and I told him that the best I could come up with was to do as much damage as I could before I got the shit kicked out of me. He laughed, and said that though we weren’t friends and never would be, he had always respected that about me: I always fought my own battles and never ganged up on anyone. I said, “How could I gang up on anyone? I’m only one guy”. He laughed again and told me not to head out just yet, to just sit tight for a minute. That sounded pretty good to me, having another minute with no pain.
Next thing I know my new non-friend of a jock was back with six or seven of his jock buddies, asking me if I was ready to go. I asked him what this was all about, and he told me that now it was a fair fight. Well shucks how cool is that? I’d never had anyone on my side before, not to the point of putting blood on the balance, and it felt pretty darn good. I’m just an average sized guy but I felt ten feet tall walking out to get the dust up done.
I walked right up on greasy ass Bill, and told him that it looked like maybe his gang wasn’t as big as mine so maybe we ought to just settle things between ourselves so his “pussy ass friends” didn’t get hurt. “What the fuck is this shit?” was all he could think of to say. Bill was not known for eloquence. Or hygiene. I told him that the whole damn school knew that he wanted to put together a gang war, and though I wanted to oblige this was the best I could manage on such short notice. (It’s not news that I’m an incorrigible smartass, am I right?) He started sputtering some bullshit about how he didn’t put together a gang and they weren’t there to gang up on me, but one of the jocko sportos cut him off and said that yes, indeed, he’d been right there and heard him talking about it just that morning so he should stop his pansy ass lying to get out of taking the beating he deserved.
I asked him, if the plan wasn’t to gang up on me, why they were all just hanging around in a place where they’d never just hung around before, and a place I had to pass through to get to my next class. Oh, well, they’re just his friends come to watch. Watch what? The fight. What fight is that, Bill. I don’t see a fight. Are we going to fight? I’d kick your ass, but then I’d get suspended and my dad would kick my ass. Your dad’s not here, Bill. I’m here. Are we going to fight? I can’t get suspended. Bob’s going to kick your ass. Bob? That Bob? The one standing there looking all nervous and scared? He’s going to kick my ass? From way over there?
Another kid pushed Bob from behind, and Bob half turned and pushed the kid’s hands away. Bob didn’t seem so eager to take a shot, but then another of his punk buddies piped up and said, “C’mon, Bob. You were shooting your mouth off a minute ago, now get to it!”. Oh, poor dumb Bob. He’d been talking tough when he thought it was safe because it was going to be a gang attack, but now he was in an unenviable position. A pickle, as it were, unable to go forward or back. If he ate crow he would suffer the ridicule of his punk ass buddies, but there was no saving of that face. That face was going to be bruised, bloodied, and swollen for sure. Poor dumb Bob.
A pause for the cause: I said something that most find unbelievable (because it is uncomfortable) just a bit ago about people being much closer to monstrous than we’d like to believe they are, and this is a bit of evidence of that. Being gregarious creatures we are more motivated by acceptance and approval than most of us realize, and when monstrous behavior is accepted and approved we simply do not feel shame for engaging in it. That was the dynamic of my neighborhood’s blood lust which would otherwise have been tempered by the social expectation that it be tempered. This was the flip side of it: Bob had put himself into a position in which the acceptance and approval of his punk buddies was at stake, and he was sure to choose physical pain as the price he must pay to keep some fraction of it. People will choose to die rather than lose social acceptance.
Another shove from behind put Bob into motion, but he obviously enough didn’t really like the idea. Hell, I didn’t like the idea either but it was the only way to get from the locker room to my next class. Bob stepped up to the plate, so to speak, and Bill stepped back out of the way. I had to give Bob as much of my customary speech as he would stand for: Hey, Bob, we both know why you’re here and that you don’t want to be. The thing is that you’re afraid of Bill, but I’ve put Bill’s ass down twice now so you’re much better off fighting him than fighting me. You sure you want to do this? Poor dumb Bob, that made sense to him but he was not thinking about how much it would hurt to get his guts stomped out. He was thinking how much it would hurt to be ridiculed by his punk ass buddies. His punk ass buddies who started again goading him on, reinforcing the fact that he would not be accepted if he didn’t do this thing that not one of them was eager to do himself.
Bob wasn’t quite ready to fight yet so he figured he’d do some warm up exercises. Which is to say that he went to shove my shoulders back, as those are the warm up exercises of a street fight. Once that starts, the fight is inevitable. Well, almost inevitable. When his hands came forward I thrust mine up and out, driving his arms away and inviting him to fall into me. Which he did, and I then grabbed him by his waist, picked him up, and threw him into a mud puddle. There was always a mud puddle there, a great big one, in a depression that filled with water from the lawn sprinklers every morning. It was sticky, slippery mud of the sort only silty soil can make. The soil was poor because the land had been a dairy farm for several decades, and a school for just a few years. The fight was no longer inevitable because I’d broken the rhythm of the warm up exercise and got distance and inconvenience between us. Bob was slipping around in sticky, slippery mud, and more concerned about minimizing how much of it he’d have to wear for the rest of the day than about anything else.
“Gee, Bill, it looks like Bob’s not doing so well at kicking my ass. Any of your other buddies want to give it a go or are we all heading to class now?”. Gawd but I’m incorrigible. “This ain’t over”, Bill said, “You can’t have your friends with you all the time”. “It looks like it’s over to me”, I replied, “And those aren’t my friends anyway and you can’t have your friends with you all the time, either”. One of the sportos piped up and said that they’d better not hear that I got ganged up on because they always had their friends with them. I thought that was cool, but I like my comforts a mite warmer than the knowledge that he’d get his after I was beat nearly to if not all the way to death.
The happy little gathering broke up and I started on my way to my next class. There was an area where the building was poorly designed that was always congested, and as I made my way slowly along, still pumped on adrenaline, I was thinking ahead. What if the silly son of a bitch persisted with the idea of a gang attack? When would I face him next? Was he capable of coming at me with a weapon? Was that idiot Bob going to get to feeling frisky? What the fuck what the fuck what the fuck. A noise caught my attention, and when I looked up to try to identify it, there was Elwood standing at his open locker. He wasn’t the noise, so got just the briefest glance. Then he challenged me, “What are you looking at?”. It was just more than I could stand. I’d been sweating blood and shitting out spacecraft just minutes before, had an unpleasant confrontation, tossed a guy into a mud puddle… now this? I’ve been dealing with tough guys all morning, and now here’s this pathetic dork issuing tough guy challenges? I just didn’t have an extra brain cell with which to consider it.
So I bashed him dead in the face with the spine of my three ring binder, and kept walking. From behind me I heard Elwood’s shocked exclamation, “What’d ya do that for?”.
I kept walking.