This is a multi-part series on the subject of the various great and memorable enemies I have had the pleasure of knowing over the years, from the earnest gibbering of schoolyard bullies to the courtly dance of the merely ritualistic antagonist.
I have often found that identifying someone as an opponent can crystallize one's position in a muddy situation, or even inspire one to achievement in order to thwart their evil. The notion of the personified nemesis speaks to a deep part of the human tribal psyche. It is the basis of our stories, the stuff of nightmares, the archetype at the foundation of our understanding of conflict, righteousness and victory.
Our series begins when I am just four years old.
Jessica No Legs
On the first day of preschool I was introduced to three enchanted playthings: a child-proportioned wooden automobile in which one could sit and pretend to be driving around, a storey-high wooden castle with tiny rooms inside, and a girl named Jessica with curly hair who wanted to hold my hand.
She did not enjoy the wooden automobile as much as I did, which I could not fathom since pressing the pedals made little coloured lights on the dashboard illuminate -- a reward inarguably among the coolest cause and effect relationships available in the preschool's toy complement. Never the less, Jessica favoured the castle.
It was while we were racing up the down and tiers of the castle's tower that we were sandwiched in a child-jam: Jessica could climb no higher because the top of the castle was crowded, and I could not retreat because someone was pushing aggressively on my bum. Stuck in the companionway between tiers, my face was pushed up against one of Jessica's legs.
The leg was not flesh. It was made of skin-coloured plastic.
The smooth, inhuman texture of the thing gave me the willies. I was simultaneously repulsed and transfixed. It was like Jessica was not a real girl at all, but some kind of toy. At my Grampa's house I had seen part of a movie called Westworld in which robots who looked like people had become angry and tried to hurt everyone. It scared me, so Grampa turned it off.
I wasn't sure whether or not Jessica's toy leg scared me until the whining and crying in the castle became serious enough for the authorities to intervene. The north wall of the tower hinged open by adult hands and, in a mishandled effort to loosen the clot, I was yanked out of the companionway. Since I had been supporting Jessica who was in turn supporting the suddenly claustrophobic party at the top, this uncorking resulted in a violent landslide of children.
When the dust settled I saw one of Jessica's toy legs, and I saw Jessica. They had landed on opposite sides of the pile of human moraine. Jessica's thigh terminated in a slightly irregular bulb which waggled in the air like a giant nail-less thumb. Her other toy leg had come only partway uncoupled, and hinged off her knee at a sick, free-wheeling angle.
I suddenly felt the way I had felt when I had swallowed too much snot one day. (I recalled the term nosey-ated from my father's explanation.) I did not know exactly why, but I was now sure that Jessica's condition made me feel icky and strange.
So, from that day forward whenever I saw Jessica coming I ran the other way. And she gave relentless chase.
I tried tattling on Jessica, but none of the adults I knew supported eschewing the girl just because she was a cyborg. Once I mentioned her having "funny legs" I lost any sympathy the earlier part of my narrative may have earned. My mother thought it was quite adorable the way Jessica chased me and told me that Jessica might have a "crush on" me.
I was horrified. Could her bionic legs be possessed of the adult-scale strength required to actually crush me? I resolved never to let down my guard.
Whenever I came into the room or approached a toy I scoped things out so I could know where Jessica No Legs was. I kept her under stealthy observation, glancing over the heads of other kids as we mucked in the sandbox. I followed her movements, prepared at any moment to dash away should she spot me.
As the preschool year wore on I learned that there wasn't anything inherently icky about Jessica. I sat beside her in the singing circle and I didn't even mind playing with her at the crafts table. It was easy to forget that she was a cyborg when you were only dealing with her torso.
In all full-bodied contexts I continued to run away and she continued to chase me. Our confrontations had become ritual, our motions and feints rehearsed.
The following autumn kindergarten began. It was only when I learned that Jessica was in the morning class instead of the afternoon class with me that I realized how much I would miss having an adversary. Coming to school wasn't nearly as exciting when you didn't have to hide from and athletically dodge a semi-mechanical nemesis.
I guess I had a sort of crush on Jessica, too.
In this next installment we attempt to play heroes to counterpoint our villain, only to find that the nefarious forces of schoolyard evil cannot be so easily brought to justice.
When I was in primary school all of the big kids were playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and so pervasive was the game's influence that when my friends and I were first bullied by Paul we knew we had to give him a name suitably dungeonesque: we called him Paul Ravenblack.
During recess we would assume the barely understood roles of paladins, thieves and elves and march along invisible right-angled paths in the schoolyard grass, imagining we were navigating a dark, labirynthine dungeon riddled with sneaky and savage dragons. For reasons that were never very clear we also occasionally sat on a log and pretended it was a time machine.
Paul was an aggressive, swarthy-skinned fourth-grader who would disrupt our games by running in our midst -- just as we were cooperatively hacking the hit points off of a killer gnome -- indiscriminantly shoving members of our party to the ground while shouting, "Frenchies are gay!"
Our leader was named Tim. (This made sense for a lot of reasons, not the least of which being that he wore a hat with Kermit the Frog on it, and Kermit the Frog was the leader of the Muppets.) Tim was usually the first to summon the courage to reply, "Go away, Paul!"
"Stop speaking French, Frenchy. You're gay!"
"I'm not even speaking French, dummy. You're so stupid."
Then Paul would push Tim into the dirt and run away laughing. The rest of us would help Tim to his feet, and someone would pick up his Kermit hat. We all agreed that Paul was evil. Somebody came up with the idea of integrating his performances into our fantasy world, and so he became known as Paul Ravenblack the Chaos Wizard.
When his rampages were heralded by our cries of "The evil wizard cometh!" Paul was incensed. Apparently we were Frencher and gayer than ever. He punched one of the Scotts in the shoulder and made him cry and he stomped Tim's Kermit hat into the mud with his boot. Then he tripped Skinny Nick so that he skinned his knee, kicked me in the back and ran away.
Being kicked made me cry, but luckily nobody noticed because the injured Scott was crying much more loudly. His non-injured counterpart shook his head angrily. "Enough is enough guys," Scott declared. "It's time to tell on Paul."
There was an awed hush.
"Scott T. is right," said Tim. We all nodded our assent and collectively scanned the yard for the closest bell-armed marm. We found a target and marched over the grass in a tight pack, paladin at the rear and elves scouting out front for signs of The Enemy. The Scott who had been punched cycled his tears back up as we reached our target, and Tim delivered a quick precis of the harrowing altercation.
The judgement? "Well, if it happens again you come and tell me," said the teacher. "Recess is over children." Our protests were drowned out by the clanging of her hand-bell.
And so our game changed -- we had a new mission to seek out Paul's interference, but only when we were reasonably close to the recess marm. This proved to be a challenging mission as the evil wizard had a seemingly preternatural ability to sense the proximity of authority, and lay off. Though none of us said so it was clear to all that our recess experience was enhanced by the hunt to bring Paul to justice. We were quietly disappointed on days when he harassed us not at all.
It was Skinny Nick who came up with the design of our final plan: since Nick was our fastest runner, we would turn the tables by taunting Paul into a frenzy and somehow induce him to chase Nick. Skinny Nick would then run straight toward the marm before opening himself up for a witnessed attack.
We all thought this was very brave.
When the time came we found taunting Paul easy. We called him "retarded." As he ran at us we ducked aside while crying, "Toro! Toro!" like Bugs Bunny and then showered him with derisive laughter. When he started hurling abuse at us we responded by speaking only in French, which caused his eyes to bug out of their sockets in rage. Sang the Scotts: "Comme vous etes jolie quand vous etes fachee, Paul!"
Finally, Skinny Nick tripped him, hovering as Paul peeled himself out of the grass, his face pale with surprise. "Run, Nick, run!" we chorused.
Skinny Nick took a pre-emptive blow from his asthma inhaler and took off like a bolt of lightning, pelting away across the grass in a blink. Paul raced after him wordlessly, breathing hard.
"Let's go!" decided Tim after a safe interval, and we ran to catch the climax. Tim was short and he fell behind quickly, as did Scott T. who was still finishing his sandwich. The rest of us rounded the corner by the south doors in time to see Paul chasing Skinny Nick in tight circles around the courtyard, his face pinched in an intense grimace of determination.
And then the extremely likely happened: Skinny Nick had an asthma attack. He fell out of the race and staggered against the fence around the preschool area, clutching his chest and gasping. Paul stopped up short behind him, temporarily confused by the intense wheezing.
Tim ran up beside Nick and helped him get his puffer out of his pocket. "Leave him alone, he's got asthma!" he shouted at Paul.
"What's asthma?" asked Paul, still stunned.
To which Scott D. replied, "It's when Paul is a gay dummy!"
There was a momentary silence before this statement caused the situation to crystallize in Paul's mind, whereupon he stepped up to the mouthy Scott and, with precision and zeal, kicked him squarely in the leg.
Scott howled like an ambulance. He lay on his side on the asphalt and rocked back and forth, turning red in the face. The marm descended instantly. Everyone tried to shout at her at once. She waved us into silence and demanded, "Who saw what happened?"
Tim and I put our arms up into the air. "He kicked him!" we cried, pointing from Paul to the wailing Scott.
"What about him?" she asked, visual scanning units swivelling to lock on Skinny Nick.
"Just a little asthma," said Nick. "I'm fine. I'm great."
Even Scott stopped snivelling as it dawned on him what was going on: we had our collar. It was with a feeling of unmitigated triumph that our party proceeded to the principal's office, walking five abreast down the polished and squeaky floor of the upper corridor, Paul sullenly skulking ahead of us and the recess marm bringing up the rear. We felt as if we were escorting Paul, and that the marm was there as a mere formality. We were superheroes.
Principal McCabe was less impressed. He listened to our overlapping recountings of Paul's rampages by each member of our brave squadron, but seemed fixated on when such and such an incident had actually taken place. Finally he held up one giant pink hand and interrupted to say, "But what has Paul done today?"
"He kicked Scott D. really hard."
Principal McCabe gave Paul a serious look. "Paul," he said sharply, "now you know we don't condone kicking people, do we?"
"No," agreed Paul, staring into his lap.
"I'm not going to see you in here again for kicking somebody else, am I Paul?"
"No way," said Paul.
"Okay," agreed Principal McCabe. Paul was released on his own recognizance and he sauntered out of the office. The members of our party exchanged shocked looks.
"But you don't understand!" I cried. "Paul is a bully. He's mean to us all the time."
Principal McCabe shrugged and smiled unwarmly. "I'm sorry boys, I can only address what's happened here today. So now I'd like to talk about the way you all ganged up on Paul before the kicking started."
I sighed. Tim shook his head and Skinny Nick took a puff from his inhaler. The Scotts sagged. The Enemy had won again -- but we would live to fight another day.
In this installment we learn the true answer to one bully's rhetorical demands, and get our first taste of the baffling inaction of onlookers.
I changed schools in the winter. My new school, like my old school, was a lumpy mass of greying snow with dirty windows and twin ice pastures out front and behind. My new schoolmates, like my old schoolmates, were colourful waddlers with fluffy extremities, swaddled and packed within an inch of their lives by their mothers into astronaut-fresh envelopes of wool and down.
Come morning recess we were freed to tramp outside in the field, breath fogging out into the air ahead of us and the snow squeaking beneath our boots. My new classmates showed me the ropes. They said we should set to building a snow fort post-haste.
"Snow forts are fun!" I said.
"Snow forts are a necessary element of our defense," corrected Cactus, pushing his foggy glasses up against the bridge of his nose with a thick mitten.
As construction proceeded I noticed that a number of kids were congregating by an impressive ice fortress on the opposite side of the field. They appeared to be pre-rolling massive stashes of snowballs. "Are we going to have a war?" I asked excitedly.
"Yes," said Cactus.
The assault was launched in the lunch-hour. One minute I was giving my granola bar to a new Scott in exchange for some kind of plasticized pseudo-fruit snack, and the next minute a keening horde of snowsuited warriors was crossing the field in two tight squadrons. I was excited. I scooped up a snowball and grinned.
A boy named Percy shouted, "Incoming!"
Scott was dashed across the face with a snowball. His eyes started to well up with tears so I was beginning to think he was excessively wimpy even for a Scott when I was myself walloped in the back of the neck. It stung fiercely and I cried out in alarm -- the snowball was laced with hunks of ice.
The invading army swarmed over our front-lines, their fell cry crisp in the cold air: "Gifties are gay retards!"
And they were upon us. After their initial volley the infantry dropped to the ground to scoop up fresh snowballs to feed the second wave, hammering a group of us into a tight corner near the west end of the fort. Our own supplies of snowballs were woefully inadequate, and we were unable to build new ones as we had overmined the crust around us to reinforce our walls.
The hoard kicked down those walls in a matter of minutes and then parted as a tiny boy in a giant red parka walked over to assess the situation. Though he was very short the parka was both red enough and large enough to lend his presence weight. This was the first time I set my eyes on Hedgie. A chuckling fat boy in an unfortunately snot-coloured scarf loped at his heels. That was his sidekick, Chad.
They wanted to know what my name was, but whatever I tried to reply they over-rode me with accusatory nonsense. "What's your name, Einstein?"
"My name is --"
"What's with all the nerd-talk, brainiac?"
"You're a gay nerd, retard."
"What's your problem?"
"You are, gifty. Stop being such a nerd."
Hedgie concluded the conversation by grabbing me by the back of the neck and grinding my face into the ice. Scott interfered and was shoved aside by Chad. Wriggle as I might I could not twist my snowsuit-bound limbs around to free myself, and I experienced a panicky moment of helplessness. As Hedgie tried to turn me around for another face scrubbing I spotted Cactus coming out from cover and approaching us. He walked right up to Hedgie and tapped him on the shoulder.
"Excuse me," said Cactus, "but I believe your epidermis is showing."
Hedgie objected to his use of nerd-talk, so Cactus quoted Pythagoras' theorem. Hedgie released me in favour of pushing Cactus's face into the snow. I was grateful but confused -- our situation had really not advanced much for his sacrifice. "What do we do now?" I whispered to Scott.
"Just wait," said Scott. "Hedgie's gonna make Cactus mad."
Suddenly Hedgie was knocked backwards. He landed heavily on the ice and skidded against the ruins of our fort. Cactus arose before him, his face red and his taped glasses hanging around his neck by their durable strap. He let out a dreadful caterwaul and then began hysterically striking out at anything within his range. He punched Chad. He kicked Hedgie in the stomach. He even pushed Percy, even though Percy was on our side.
"Holy smokes," I said. "Cactus is the Incredible Hulk!"
Thus was I indoctrinated to the two great opposing warriors of Prestign Heights: Cactus the shameless genius, and Hedgie the boy who would restore hope and dignity for normal kids everywhere by kicking his ass. As we took off our coats and boots in the cloakroom Scott and Percy explained to me how Cactus had had a lot of severe behavioral problems before they figured out he was a genius, and throwing violent tantrums was still one of his trademark moves.
"You have to keep your distance though, once he goes off," Percy warned, rubbing his bruised shoulder with a wince. "His targeting scanners get screwed up."
Cactus was a good friend. Palling around with him was a mixed blessing, of course, for while he could be a potent anti-bully weapon he was also a bully magnet. Throughout our many subsequent encounters with Hedgie and Chad I learned much from Cactus and his refusal to give in to intimidation. "Being hit in the face hurts less than feeling upset all day because you were too scared to take a measly hit in the face," reasoned Cactus.
It was seldom necessary for Cactus to lose his temper. Just knowing that the capability existed was sufficient to bolster the courage of those near him -- knowing we had an ultimate weapon if our backs were up against the wall inspired us to stand firm, to resist intimidation, and to rescue others from harassment.
One day when Cactus was at home with the flu Scott and I were ambushed by Hedgie and his minions. I was muscled into a tight corner behind the east doors, squeezed between a wall and a garbage can, and repeatedly kicked by three boys at once.
"You're so gay, gifty!" they mentioned. "Think you're so smart now, eh?"
At one point I caught sight of Scott on the periphery of the melee. He seemed hypnotized. I thought perhaps he was waiting for a choice opportunity to make a precision strike, but as the seconds ticked by it became apparent that he wasn't going to do anything but act as a paralyzed witness. "Help me!" I yelled. "I'm not Cactus!"
Noticing me noticing Scott, Chad menaced him and Scott ran away.
My hopes extinguished. I was completely at the mercy of The Enemy. Hedgie was delighted by my chagrin. "Got something weird to say?" he asked me as he kicked.
"No," I admitted.
A year later my friends and I were drifting along the field enjoying our lunches as we strolled when Hedgie ran up to us, his giant red parka uncharacteristically unzipped due to the unusually balmy weather. We steeled ourselves for attack but Hedgie did not plow into us or pester us with aggressive rhetorical questions. Instead what he said was, "The space shuttle just blew up and fell into the ocean!"
Percy said, "He's lying."
"No way!" added Scott.
"That's impossible," agreed both Steves.
Cactus just kept looking at Hedgie. "For real?" he asked.
"Let's go see," said Cactus with a nod. We all ran back toward the school where a crowd of kids were pressing their faces into the windows of one of the classrooms where Mr. Bertram had had a television wheeled in.
The screen showed a great Y-shaped cloud of grey and orange smoke and the text running along the bottom of the screen said, Shuttle Challenger destroyed - all hands lost.
I said, "Holy smokes!"
"I told you," said Hedgie.
"It's true," said Cactus. "Hedgie was right."
And Hedgie never bothered a single one of us again. I can only guess that somebody had once made him feel stupid, and being acknowledged as right about the space shuttle made him feel smart. For all of his strange, nonsensical questions there really was something he needed from us: acceptance.
If only all beasts could be so easily quelled.
The following installment forces this cheeseburger to come to his own defense, when all allies fall by the wayside -- through which process he gains his first inspiration for storytelling.
In middle school the stakes were higher. Hundredth-monkey style advances in bullying science had seen the widespread adoption of the chortling sidekick, and cutting edge bullies were injecting their assaults with elements of generalized humiliation as a complement to mere violence.
I was selected as a target by an up and coming young bully named Garth, who was repeating the seventh grade when I was in grade six. Garth and his sidekick Todd worked by isolating an individual gifted student from his group, and then mocking him -- working at first for nervous laughter from the audience, and later using that as a ticket for noninterference when the mocking became more cruel. It was a delicate process to work the crowd this way but, like Adolph Hitler, Garth had a knack.
Cactus's mom picked him up from middle school, but Scott and I took a city bus along with most of our classmates. Scott had been briefly auditioned by Garth but abandoned when he proved too liquid to toy with: Scott responded to intimidation by hanging around in the cafeteria until the later bus came, and went home alone.
Garth often opened by shoving me into the street and then tripping me when I tried to get back on the curb. "Can't stay on the sidewalk, eh? You virgin!"
Adults often advised ignoring bullies, so I did my best to ignore Garth. It quickly became obvious that such advice was proffered only by people who had no experience of bullies, who have evolved an effective response to being ignored: they ramp up the aggression.
One day Garth pushed me into traffic close enough to the approaching bus to give me a real scare. I scrambled back onto the sidewalk and pushed him into a snowbank, my heart hammering in my chest. As we filed aboard to pay our fares he whispered, "You're dead, virgin."
The other adults seated on the city bus watched on with disinterest as Garth punched me in the ribs and then tripped me when I tried to get up. I sprawled on the dirty rubber floor and looked up to see my classmates trying to look the other way. A pinch-faced woman gave me a dose of stink-eye when my elbow touched her umbrella. "Watch it," she snarled.
Todd and Garth herded me to the largely unoccupied rear of the bus to shove me around. "Get away from me!" I cried.
The driver's intercom squelched. "Quit yelling in my bus or I'll throw you out at the next stop," said the friendly bus driver man.
"Yeah, you'd better shut up," agreed Todd, wrenching my arm behind me.
"You fucking virgin," added Garth darkly.
When our collective stop came everyone queued up at the rear doors to leave. I gathered myself and joined the rear of the line, and then felt a new and special kind of fire burning behind my sternum as I stared down the back of Garth's neck.
The bus stopped. The doors opened. I grabbed the metal bars on either side of me, hoisted myself into the air, and came down upon Garth's back, planting both boots firmly into the small of his back and propelling him forcefully. He made a lateral exit from the bus and smacked the sidewalk outside face-first. Any concerns I might have had about missing my stop evaporated as I saw the look of shock and hatred roiling on Garth's face as he rolled over.
I was the king of the planet.
Except that Todd manhandled the doors as they closed with a chuff and forced his way back aboard the bus. As we pulled away from the stop we stood together, saying nothing for a few blocks. I wondered where I would get off the bus, and how I would get home.
"You think you can do that to my friend and get away with it?" Todd asked quietly.
I said nothing.
"I'm going to make you pay for it," he promised.
"You used to be nice to me at Prestign," I pointed out dumbly.
"What? You think I'm not being nice?"
"Not when you're threatening me."
"I'm not threatening you," he argued, kicking me in the leg. "I'm teaching you a lesson." He knocked my knapsack off my back and then kneed me in the chest when I tried to retrieve it.
I caught the eye of a woman with a young child who was staring at us as if we were on fire. "Why don't you do something?" I asked her. "How would you like it if somebody was beating up on your kid?"
She turned away.
In desperation I dug into my knapsack and took out the remains of my lunch. I opened my uneaten dish of yogurt and emptied it into Todd's face, then shoved him back hard. He stumbled to the floor and I lobbed an empty can of fruit salad at him, which caught him in the forehead. "You fucker!" he screamed.
Then I fell over as the bus screeched to a sudden halt.
"That's enough horseplay! Get off my bus!" suggested the driver.
He meant me. I picked up my knapsack and gave Todd a little parting wave. "Well," I said, "you sure taught me, didn't you? I hope your boyfriend isn't too hard on you for getting your ass kicked by yogurt."
I exited the bus, and it drove away with a whine.
On the long walk home I thought over the experience and considered it a victory; though I had absorbed some abuse I had had the last laugh at both Garth and Todd. I puzzled over the novel feeling of redwashed rage that had run through me like electricity when I had elected to double-kick Garth in the back, and spent some time coming to terms with the fact that my faith in humanity had likely been irrevocably eroded by the inaction of my classmates and fellow transit patrons.
I was still shaking with adrenalin when I got home. I did not know what to do with myself. I paced in circles in the livingroom.
And then I sat down at my step-father's computer and began typing. Like a kid possessed I hunted and pecked until my eyes ran blurry. I distilled my frenzied feelings into a long tale. I started typing and I never stopped. Now it's twenty years later and I'm a published author with a second novel in the works for whom creative writing is among my chief pleasures in life -- and I owe it all to Garth and Todd.
I got a lesson in spin-doctoring, too.
I arrived at school the next day ready to be lauded for my triumph against evil, only to have everyone ask me why I didn't look worse. "I was expecting a black eye or something," said Scott.
"Because of the way Todd and Garth came to your house and beat you up last night. They told everyone all about it."
I sighed. Victory can be fleeting.
This time we turn our focus away from those would make us victims of intimidation to those who those who give us a profound sense of the most morbid kind of heebie-jeebies -- a visceral unease that means their presence cannot be entertained for fear of nausea, their personalities cannot be endured for fear of discovering more about them.
The Weird Sisters
I switched schools again. I switched schools a lot. Between the middle school featured in the last installment in this series and the middle school described below I attended an imploding alternative school run by dirty hippies, but that's another story and has already been told.
In the middle of the eighth grade I was introduced into a small class of kids who had been together since kindergarten. They considered the integration of strangers into their cloister to be of dubious value, so while they were basically polite in the classroom itself they didn't invite me to any of their reindeer games.
There was another new boy, a fat kid with greasy hair and grandma sweaters who sat in the corner and didn't talk to anyone. He had arrived a few months ahead of me, and it didn't look like he had eased himself into class society with much success. When I talked with him I discovered that he was clever and French, and despite his general oiliness and grumbling irascibility I felt a connection to him in his pitiful alienation.
His name was Stephan.
At lunch time Stephan would walk over to Mount Pleasant to buy take-out Kentucky Fried Chicken, and I'd wait with him in line with my bagged lunch and then we'd go back to the school's basement cafeteria to eat and chat about outer space. Stephan was a big fan of outer space, the outer the better. He had acquired a copy of Carl Sagan's Cosmos and we pored over it like it was the Bible.
The caf was a dungeon for freaks.
None of the other kids from our class ate down there. It was a hiding place for the ugly, the shy, the maladjusted. There was a retarded kid who only ever ate hot dogs. There was a boy with some kind nasty skin condition who looked like a skinny, feckless version of The Thing. There were many who ate alone. Eye contact was rare.
One day when I happened to look up after being startled by the retarded kid crying over his dropped hot dog I caught the eye of a boy I recognized from one of my old schools. I waved to him and he ignored me, and it took me a moment to remember why: my close-knit classmates and I had not been very warm to him when he had been introduced into our school mid-year. It all came back to me in a rush and, given my current experience as a stranger, it made me feel like a heel.
"Do you know that guy?" I asked Stephan.
"Is his name David?"
I went over and sat across from David. I thought that he might not remember me by name, so I started to introduce myself. Without looking up he interrupted to suggest that I fuck off and die.
"You should be. You ruined my life you piece of shit." David gathered his things with shaking hands and left the cafeteria quickly, his eyes on the floor except for a brief glare back at me with narrowed eyes as disappeared through the door.
I sat down beside Stephan again. He was reading about quasars. I felt disturbed and guilty from David's vitriol. I had always thought of myself as one of the ones who had been kinder to him, but in retrospect my efforts were cowardly, meagre and, evidently, invisible to David. To him, I was just another fellow student who had failed to intervene. There was no mistaking that look in his eye: I was The Enemy, or as good as.
David always ate alone. I tried to approach him once or twice more but was always harshly rebuked. On the last time he looked like he was going to cry so I decided to leave him alone. No thirteen year old boy should have to cry in public, even in the freak dungeon.
Over lunches I noticed that David would only take his seat after I had, so that he could orient his back to mine. In deference to his wishes I always tried to persuade Stephan that we should sit in a certain peripheral quarter of tables so as to make this as easy for David as possible. Stephan thought David was an asshole and obliged me only grudgingly.
One day Stephan was sick. I was making friends in class but I hadn't been invited to share lunch with them, so come noon I came to the basement caf alone. David was hovering by the wall pretending to read six month old notices on a bulletin board, so I moved my chair loudly as I took a seat at a respectful distance, so he would notice his waiting time was up.
My mother had made me a ham and cheese sandwich. I sipped a drink box and read a book I largely didn't understand about neutron stars. I hoped to read another book in the future that would shed some light on the nonsense I was packing into my head (a process I called pre-stuffing and Stephan called swamping).
I glanced up as the Weird Sisters sauntered over from the darkest corner of the far quarter and hovered in front of me. "He-llo," said one and then, "Hell-o," said the other.
They were giggling girlfriends. They looked at each other and laughed as they talked to me, asking about why I always had lunch with the gross fat guy with greasy hair. They said he was "weird" and this struck me as strange, because the two loitering girls gave me the willies from the second I'd spotted them.
"You're new," said the first Weird Sister, who had a long, horsey face and a body like a skeleton. You could always see her big teeth, her gums seeming curiously withdrawn. She was pointy and restless, constantly rearranging her bony form beneath a pink sweatsuit. Her blonde hair was elaborately crimped. Her breath smelled like battery acid.
"I am new," I confirmed.
"You're cute," said the second Weird Sister, who had a round, cherubic face slathered in make-up -- raccoon eyes and a smeared mouth that featured braces with hunks of crud stuck in them. She wore oddly formal clothes, like she was about to have her picture taken at any moment: black creased slacks, heeled shoes, a shiny blouse pushed garishly open to showcase her zitty cleavage.
"Er," I said, and they laughed hysterically and told each other I was blushing.
The Weird Sisters continued to pester me with stupid, sing-song questions while I tried to dispose of my lunch as quickly as possible. The Skinny Sister had a plastic ziplock bag full of Arrowroot biscuits which she would nibble on for a while and then get up periodically to step over to the garbage can.
I interrupted the Braces Sister to ask, "What does she keep getting up to do?"
"She's throwing up," said Braces. "She's really good at it."
I blinked. "She's what?"
"I have to go to the washroom, because I'm loud. But she's such a pro she can just lean over the garbage and it's like whatever."
I furrowed my brow, certain I was being joked with. I looked over at Skinny again as she stood before the garbage, and as I shifted myself over on my seat I was able to see her quietly unload a stringy stomachful of biscuits and bile into the can. A wave of queasiness overtook me. "I don't...understand..." I stammered weakly.
"It's because we're too fat," replied Braces.
Skinny returned and sat down again, toying with her ziplock bag. "Hey, have you ever kissed a girl?" she wanted to know, looking at Braces.
"Yes," I admitted.
"Have you done frenching?" asked Braces.
"Um, I had a girlfriend at my old school..." I trailed off uncertainly.
Skinny leaned across the table and smiled toothily. I caught a pungent whiff of bile. "We do it all the time," she assured me. "In the lower washroom."
Braces giggled. "Do you want to make out with us?"
I did blush. I also stood up and tossed my knapsack over my shoulder. I felt ill. "Maybe some other time. I've got to go now."
I moved to leave and Braces caught my elbow. "We do blowjobs," she said, glancing over at Skinny who nodded and laughed and then leaned casually over to the garbage can and vomited soundlessly.
The next day when Stephan returned the Weird Sisters continued to haunt the periphery of the far quarter like vultures. Whenever Stephan got up to use the washroom or get some desert they would sidle over and giggle at me. "We're going to the lower washroom now," Braces mentioned with a teasing tilt.
"Wanna come?" invited Skinny, burping behind her hand.
"No thank you," I murmured, casting about for Stephan's return. When he sat back down and the Weird Sisters retreated I told him that I couldn't stomach the dungeon caf anymore. Keeping a constant scope out for The Enemy was making me edgy. "It's spring -- why don't we just eat outside?"
Stephan grumbled dubiously.
I starting eating lunch the park. I discovered that's where the rest of my classmates congregated, and soon I was invited into their eating circle. Once one of the middling popular girls began to "like-like" me more-than-a-friend I had my ticket to be invited to extracurricular outings, too. Everyone went to a movie together one day after school and I held that girl's hand in the dark. It was only later that I realized Stephan hadn't been invited.
I tried my best to include him, to make up for my inaction when David had been excluded. I pestered my new friends to invite him along. Stephan would come, but he was sullen and grouchy. He always ended up slouching alone at the periphery, as he did in class. "Let's eat lunch in the caf today," he would suggest to me if I came over to talk to him.
"I can't," I'd say, shaking my head. "I hate that place."
Stephan would look at me sadly and nod. He did not understand how the basement cafeteria was forever tainted by the stink of Enemies for me now -- I could not bear to continue skulking in fear of the nauseous vixens with David's unforgiving curse at my back. Though he listened patiently to my explanations it was clear he thought I had forsaken him. He bore me little malice. Like David, he had accepted rejection as the norm.
To Stephan and the other freaks the dungeon caf was infinitely better than the alternative. Self-exile is easier to swallow than feeling unwelcome.
For him, The Enemy was everywhere.
And now we discover how, in the absence of actual enmity, creativity fills the void and that it is hard to stop boys from being boys.
The Children of the Crow
My high school, Butcher-of-the-Somme Secondary, was a performing arts school, like Fame. We didn't have bullies -- we had dance majors. There was no football team, just rugby played by flautists. My friends and I spent the morning in life drawing class drawing ugly naked people, and then at lunch time we accused each other of having had erections.
"Skinny totally had wood for the lumpy chick!"
"Shut up, assmonkey."
We were fourteen year old boys. We were idiots. We had boundless appetites and boundless energy. We grew a foot a day, and had no idea how to propel ourselves with anything resembling dignity. We needed to shave but had not yet dared, our moustaches shaded with soft fuzz.
In spare periods we congregated at Mel Lastman Square, a great civic labyrinth of concrete separating famous Yonge Street from North York City Hall, encompassing all manner of benches, fountains, gazebos, walkways, stairs and ramps. Like many similar efforts of optimistic urban planning, it lay abandoned by the citizenry. We boys almost always had the square to ourselves.
And do you know what we did there? We played tag.
We chased each other sweaty, climbing the walls, scrambling over fountain edges, leaping from stairways. We hid in the nooks and jumped out to ambush one another. We pursued one another through the glass doors of city hall and through the public library. We lay in the middle of the walkways and tried to catch our breath, mocking one of our own number for one piteous stumble or another.
Some other boys our age were cool, even though they were in Grade Nine, too. This was especially likely if they were theatre majors. The cool boys sat in the mall and smoked cigarettes, orbited by Oortish puffs of cool girls with brand name purses and bulimia. We did no truck with them, but they watched us through the windows like TV. Breathing hard and laughing in the open air I had no envy for them, either.
We uncool boys developed a variation on Capture the Flag in which the "flag" was a human being who could roam the course at will, or be physically captured and strongarmed across the border by opponents. This became sporting enough that other students began loitering around the raised periphery of the square to spectate as they ate their lunches.
At first we were known as "those Grade Nines who play in the square" but Drummer, our most aggressive member, dubbed us "the Children of the Crow!" in reference to the movie Children of the Corn; Drummer reasoned that since crows ate corn, they were one step more bad-ass. Predictably, this meant we ran around crowing like roosters a lot in only half-remembered homage to Neverland's braves.
Our games became too famous and in response a new opponent took the field: Civic Centre Security.
While the little men in blue jackets and grey slacks were hard-pressed to explain how exactly playing tag in the empty public square violated any rules, they were steadfast in their conviction that we should play no more. At every opportunity they strode into our midst to disrupt us, and attempted to intimidate us with threats to "ban" us from the city's property.
It did not take long for our game to realign itself. Who would comprise us and them was no longer a matter of drawing lots, but a matter of uniform. Frustrated in their lack of real power, the security guards became our toys.
Chief among The Enemy was a man named Jerry, whom we called "Jerry Masterman" because of the way he bossed the others around when he thought no one was paying attention. The Children of the Crow frequently shadowed Jerry in order to eavesdrop on the chatter from his walkie-talkie. It was not hard to learn the basic security codes, or to decipher the guards' routine paths through the complex. From our games we knew every hiding spot and trail, every point that afforded a square-wide view. We bought our own walkie-talkies from Radio Shack.
(We took code names for ourselves, but for the life of me I can't remember what any of them were. Memory is weird. My current code name is CheeseburgerBrown so let's just go with that.)
Once the intelligence gathering phase was complete we moved on to forcing the security guards to play tag with us. Any of our team's members who spotted a guard was to act startled, and then flee in a panic. In a good co-ordinated assault is was possible to engage multiple security guards chasing multiple panicked runners, who would then come together at the water fountain and give themselves up. The security guards would converge on us.
"Thanks boys! That was a good run!" we'd say and they'd scowl.
They wanted our names for wasting their time, but none of us were fool enough to carry identification. "I'm Nuget Cadbury," Drummer would tell them. "And these are my friends Charlie Wonka, Robert Plant and Dennis Shakespeare."
"That's enough jerking off at the mouth. I want your real name now, son."
"Let me think about that," Drummer would say. "....No."
"I'm authorized to issue all of you a warning..."
"Cool!" cheered Skinny. "We're getting Jerry's autograph!"
"If I ever see any of you setting foot on this property --"
"What? You'll chase us again?"
Then we'd run away, crowing. It was time for English. Occasionally we were subjected to greater scrutiny, like being brought up the security office to have our pockets turned out. But we never carried anything incriminating beyond plastic walkie-talkies, and these occasions gave us the opportunity to irritate the living daylights out of the security staff simply by accepting such procedures with a cheerful attitude. Intimidation melts when confronted by patient bonhomie.
Being twice our age it did eventually dawn on the security guards that they could defuse our games simply by refusing to be baited. This came in the dead of winter and we were happy to stay in school during spares to make more routine kinds of trouble in the warm halls. Jerry Masterman no doubt congratulated himself on ridding the square of our scourge.
Meanwhile, we had declared war. Based on a script running from tribal instinct we created a totem: a dreadlocked doll's head stuck on the end of a wooden pole, decorated by a laurel of artificial leaves and spatters of bloody red paint. Drummer shook the totem to bring to order the lunch hour meetings in which we planned our next missions. "Bob Marley Babyhead calls the Children of the Crow to order!"
In the spring we found a boarded-up house and made it our headquarters, the Crows' Nest. We kicked aside the milk-crate and rye bottle debris of hobos to set up our apparatus: bombs of coloured soap and water-balloons. We drew great maps on the walls and drilled each other on contingency plans. We prepared ourselves for sustained sorties of saturation pranking.
"It is noble of those security smurfs to game for our pleasure," I commented.
"We salute you, security smurfs!" agreed the Black Serb.
"They will rue this day," promised Drummer.
Indeed, it was satisfying to watch the guards' consternation as every fountain in the square and mall's connected water network erupted with bubbles, great pillars of iridescent soap lifted by the wind trailing away from each. The crowd applauded but the Children of the Crow took no bows -- we were mixed among the student spectators, with traded toques and jackets.
The week was rich: crank telephone calls ("I'm calling from my mobile because I'm stuck in the washroom -- I've wedged myself in a stall and I'm too fat to get out!"), water-balloon soakings for each guard on duty with double soakings for Jerry Masterman only a day apart, twenty superballs released from the top of the library at once, bushels of school photocopier paper molded into a fleet of paper airlines launched down the centre of the mall, mysterious trails of fake blood, and of course many, many more soapings of the waterworks.
At school we received hearty congratulations from all sides save one: my girlfriend.
Fourteen year old girls are not fourteen year old boys. An appreciation of destructive hijinx does not necessarily come naturally or easily. She failed to see the romance of our night-time forays into construction sites to drop objects off cranes to see how they would smash. She was disgruntled that I could not accompany her to hang around in the mall for fear of The Enemy's reprisals because she wanted to spend lunch sitting with her friends and talking about stuff.
"What do you and your friends talk about?" she wanted to know.
"Talk about?" I echoed dumbly.
We leapt from roof-top to roof-top, pole-vaulting with stolen rebars. We ripped reflective scales off of the billboard on top of the pizza store and dropped them down on people's pizza, where they would bite into them thinking they were a bit of pepperoni. We ran and hid and chased and laughed between plagiarized jokes about boobs and farts.
"Don't you ever talk to them about how you're feeling?" she asked.
"What do you mean?" I replied, confused.
One day my girlfriend decided that, in an effort to be a part of my world, she would spend lunch with the Children of the Crow and I. We went to the Chinese place in the mall that served beer to kids. Conversation was strained.
Drummer told a colourful anecdote about "a dumb bitch" at the fireworks store who had incorrectly accused him of shoplifting, and my girlfriend piped up to ask Drummer why he was a misogynist. "What's a misogynist?" asked Drummer.
"It's someone who doesn't respect women," she told him.
I tried to change the subject. I asked Skinny about the new cartoon show he had swapped out for a documentary about Vimy Ridge during our history class, much to the amusement of our fellow students and the consternation of our teacher when he returned a quarter hour later. "That show is awesome," gushed Skinny. "I've taped all nine episodes so far."
"What's it called?" asked the Black Serb, who took geography instead of history.
My girlfriend would not be deterred, however. She wanted to know why Drummer was always objectifying girls by discussing them in sexual terms. "I don't know," admitted Drummer. "Because I'm horny?"
Everyone laughed except my girlfriend, who explained to us that our derision was feeding a culture of emotional suppression by making it difficult for Drummer to talk about his real feelings. At the sound of the words "real feelings" Ponytail LeTrenchcoat laughed so hard he blew beer suds out his nose and thereby fouled his spring rolls.
When my friends were chastised for their laughter by my girlfriend they narrowed their eyes at her to register their heartfelt disapproval. She was The Enemy.
I sat pinned between two worlds.
On the one hand lay the adventures of boys -- duels and smashing and our games with the toy Enemy of security, the peals of stupid hilarity from carefree young chellovecks out for some sporting razz-rezz and spoil. We drank deep from a shallow cup and had no pretentions.
On the other hand, my girlfriend used to fondle my pecker while she kissed me and I'd cover her fingers in jissom.
I weighed the juxtaposed possibilities gravely.
"Yeah, um," I ventured, clearing my throat. "You guys should like, uh, grow up."
Later, without ceremony, I took Bob Marley Babyhead out of my locker and transferred it to Skinny's. The Black Serb wanted to know if I'd be coming along for some urban spelunking in the sewers on the weekend, but I declined. Drummer had nothing to say to me, and would never have much to say to me ever again. To him, I was a betrayer of the Crow.
Noting my melancholy in the afternoon my girlfriend asked me if I had had "a fight" with my friends. "Sure," I said. "You were there." She could not understand that, and insisted that more drama must have happened in order for me to be so sure I was no longer truly welcome at their reindeer games. She didn't get that everything that had needed to be said had been said.
"What can I do to make you feel better?" she asked, holding my hand and tossing her violin case over her shoulder as we walked to the subway.
"Are your parents home?"
"Let's go to your house," I suggested.
Somewhere far away, Tink died.
In this installment we see how tracking an opponent's efforts can improve one's performance in sport, and how an unsporting response may ultimately raise the stakes higher than some would care to contend with.
The Stork Boys
If there is one thing that battling supervillains has taught me over the years it is that form is more important than content. My friends and I had been the enemies of Paul Ravenblack simply because we took school in French. We were targeted by Hedgie and Garth because we were in special classes. In every case the antagonist was simply seeking opponents, and any device which served to delineate us from them would prove a sufficiently inspiring conceit.
The Stork Boys seized upon a difference even more classic than language or honours: they were comparatively wealthy, and we comparatively weren't.
When I was a teenager I sailed on the youth racing team of the Queen City Yacht Club, a dingy workyard on the industrial side of the Toronto Islands peopled by sailors who couldn't afford the loftier moorings at the esteemed Royal Canadian Yacht Club at the rosier end of the harbour.
(If you want help with the visuals, QCYC was featured in the aquatic climax of the Canadian cinematic classic Police Academy 3: Back in Training. Someone drove a boat into a false part of the main club building, painted blue and white to match. And remember when Sergeant Hooks knocked one of the bad guys down a long stairwell and then pointed a gun at his head and called him a "dirtbag"? My friend Shammy threw up there once when we were drunk.)
QCYC straddled Algonquin Island and Ward's Island, two of several mountains made primarily of landfill pushed out from the city a hundred and fifty years ago to better shelter the harbour. And while Algonquin Island was almost entirely taken over by Queen City, Ward's Island was split between the club and a small neighbourhood of cottage-like houses lived in year-round largely by poor idealists and burnt-out hippies.
Due to proximity it was this neighbourhood that formed a strong contingent of the club's membership, breaking the otherwise nearly uniform ranks of white mid-level lawyers and other reasonably remunerated professionals. It addled a colourful strain that most of the other establishments lacked.
And yes -- our boats were shitty. And it was true that our clubhouse was sinking into the lagoon. And it was also true that we placed poorly in a wide variety of regattas across the province.
But, um, we had heart.
All of the clubs had dinghy racing teams, whom they would pit against each other all summer culminating in the grand races at CORK: the Canadian Olympic-training Regatta at Kingston.
So, we should now have all of the elements necessary for a bad teen summer movie: we have the richies and the scuffies, competing across the harbour in a build-up to the big, official challenge. We have sunshine and water, and I'm soon to introduce pranks and booze.
And, like in Revenge of the Nerds, there will be at least one scene of gratuitous nudity.
It all started when some racers from Texas' Team LYRA offered up one of their boats for sale and I outbid two tall, lanky teenagers with identical crewcuts and saggy lower-lips. As my crewmate Freckles and I loaded the boat on my step-father's trailer I noticed the boys staring us down with twin sneers.
"Are those boys trying to look down my shirt?" asked Freckles.
"No, I think they hate us because they wanted this boat. I'll try to look down your shirt later, if it'll make you feel better."
Our coach, Hugo, was very excited to have a newer boat in the fleet. He expressed himself with characteristic passion and ineloquence. "Holy shit, it's got all new shit! Look at this shit! This is some quality shit, CheeseburgerBrown. Shit!"
We spent the early part of the summer making fibreglass repairs and resealing the ports and instruments while we listened to Hugo's rock favourites, and then moved on to doing dry-land drills during which Hugo would grab our boats by the masts and heave them around while screaming us at to do things and waving a stopwatch around.
"Grab the shit! Uncleat that shit! Douse the fucking chute! Cleat that shit down! Tack! Aw fuck, you guys suck."
And it's true -- we did. But we had a lot of fun. I named my boat Raskolnikov and built special dry-bags which fit inside the buoyancy tanks for keeping goodies at the ready, like Freckles's cigarettes or other items of mischief. We rigged up an ice-sock for stowing beer, for instance. We were proud and pleased the day we set sail for the Outer Harbour Races after Hugo had smashed a bottle of pop against the prow of our noble Laser II.
Freckles and I split a beer and by the third race we were pretty buzzed. We went through the motions of navigating the course by rote as we shot the breeze about this or that. We waved to Hugo as he blazed by in his Boston Whaler, screaming at people about their shit. Freckles lit a cigarette and closed her eyes while I steered us around to the start line again.
"How did we do that time?" she asked.
"We're second last again. We always beat that one boat."
"The guys getting yelled at now."
"Jesus, those guys are from Royal Canadian!"
"Can you imagine how humiliated they must be to be beaten by Queen City boats?"
I chuckled. "Ha ha. Losers."
On the windward leg of the fourth race we crossed close enough to get a good look at the chastised sailors: it was the two gangly fellows with sullen lower lips. They narrowed their eyes and sneered at us as they sailed out of view beneath our foresail. The Enemy!
"It's them!" I whispered.
"Those fucking stork boys," agreed Freckles. "We can't let them beat us."
We redoubled our efforts, and began paying serious attention to our trim. On our next tack we gained a few boatlengths on the Stork Boys. They glanced over their shoulders at us and frowned. They made adjustments to their sails and began to pull ahead again.
Despite our mutual sucking both Raskolnikov and the Stork Boys' Marauder began to catch up with the rest of the pack. We rounded the second marker together, and regained the lead on the reach. The Stork Boys applied themselves with renewed vigour and steered through our wake around the third marker, bringing them dangerously close to our vessel.
"Leeward boat stave off!" I called over the wind, for Raskolnikov held the windward position and thus had the right of way. "Windward!" I added for emphasis.
I dipped the tiller to avoid a collision and in the split-second of depowered sail the Stork Boys threw themselves against their mainstays in tight unison, using their combined inertia to cause Marauder to surge forward. For an instant they were directly abeam of our mast, and the skinniest stork boy veered his craft down and touched my deck just as he cried out his right of way: "Mast abeam!"
"What the fuck?" yelled Freckles as we jerked sideways.
The Stork Boys chanted: "Collision foul! Seven-twenty! Seven-twenty you Queen City cocksuckers!"
"We had windward!" Freckles shouted.
"We got mastabeam, bitch! Don't fuck with me -- I'm going to be a lawyer."
Despite Freckles's protests we were obliged to stop and spin our vessel twice in place while the Stork Boys sailed on, a penalty known as the dreaded Seven-Twenty. Freckles was enraged that the Stork Boys had scooched, which meant throwing their weight forward for an inertial surge, and thus had technically fouled.
"Look, if you want to hang around in the race office filing protest paperwork, go ahead. Myself, I want supper."
"But we can't let them get away with it! I mean, Jesus."
"We won't," I said. "Now we know what kind of game the Stork Boys play. And we can beat them at it. Doesn't Hugo have a copy of the official rule book?"
"No, he burnt it when he was cooking hash."
"Maybe my step-father has one."
As the summer progressed I studied the international racing rules until I could have convinced the race committee itself that a boat which had never sailed had actually won. At every regatta Freckles and I scoped the fleet until we found our nemeses, charting our efforts by the failures we traded with them.
We outfoxed the pupal phase lawyer on more than one occasion and delighted in his morbid countenance, droopy lower lip thrust out defiantly as his spindly frame stretched out with tension. We laughed ourselves stupid again when coaches in matching jumpsuits roared up in matching Boston Whalers to anti-congratulate both Stork Boys on a race well borked.
Occasionally we would come to a race and find no Royal Canadian presence, which was disappointing. On these days Freckles and I placed very poorly even by Queen City standards, and sorely missed our foils.
The pranks began in Peterborough, when the Stork Boys mislaid our rudder and daggerboard under an overturned rowboat so that we missed the first race of the day. We responded in kind by polishing the name Marauder off the back of their boat and replacing it with Mommyfucker in grease-paint, which resulted in the Stork Boys' disqualification from the last race of the day for breaching the yacht club's obscenity code.
When they denied responsibility it was suggested that they inspect their vessel more carefully before going to water in the future. The Stork Boys glared at Freckles and I across the race committee room. We knew it meant war.
It was a sweet moment. There was comfort in the familiar schema of antagonism. There was a titillating fear in wondering whether they would try to take things too far. There was an anticipatory glee in designing their defeat.
I nodded slightly at them in acknowledgement. Game on.
At CORK we lodged in the unused dormitories of Queen's University. Since the well-oiled machine of the Royal Canadian team prided itself on athleticism and excellence over having fun, we used to begin our evenings by pressing our naked asses against the windows of their dorms. The Royal Canadians were locked in with an early curfew, monitored by same-sex sergeants to ensure the rest they would need for calisthenics at sunrise.
In contrast, Hugo was generally more interested in where the best parties were taking place, and he bought us all our preferred flavours of liquor at the LCBO before abandoning us in some pit of revelry while he hunted for action. Later, he would clean up whichever members of our youth team were puking and carry the unconscious ones into the back of his rusted Hyuandai Pony which featured no trunk because it had been installed with a sound system bigger than God's.
Hugo favoured Hendrix.
On the way home we would stop at the boatyard to pee in the Stork Boys' buoyancy tanks. Occasionally Hugo would take out a screwdriver and remove a particularly nice fitting from one of the Royal Canadian boats. "What?" he'd say if challenged. "Bobert broke this shit off his boat today -- we need this shit. It's a fucking trickle-down economy."
One morning Freckles put on her hiking harness and found it filled with dog excrement. "I think they're on to us," she commented drily.
Each day a fleet of the fastest Laser IIs in North America would fly around the race courses poised on the funneled winds at the mouth of the St. Lawrence, trailed by Freckles and me and the Stork Boys. Over lunch Freckles and I moored up with some Mexican kids and smoked marijuana with them. They spoke very little English but we were able to teach them how to point and laugh while shouting "Stork Boys lick ass!" To the great chagrin of Marauder's crew the Mexicans taught the rest of their fleet this jeer.
The Americans were winning everything. They were always at the front of the pack, so we seldom met them.
Ultimately, the Stork Boys beat us. They sailed harder and sharper, and in the final rankings they placed above us. As I was elbowed out of the way of the lists so that others could see their placing I spotted one of the Stork Boys and offered my hand to shake. "Well done," I said. "The honour of ultimate sucking remains firmly with Queen City."
He did not take my hand. He sniffed and turned away. Our contest had made him bitter.
"Did he just snub you?" asked Freckles, suddenly at my side. I nodded.
"What a fuck!" commented Hugo.
On everyone's final night in Kingston all curfews were lifted, even for the really anally-retentive teams. The university dormitory buildings all housed concurrent parties, spread over all floors, in stairwells, in bushes, on rooftops. Security was going mad trying to keep a handle on it all, but it was too much. We wandered the campus freely, swinging beers from our hands and singing obnoxiously.
Freckles left us to make out with a Californian named Dalton and then somewhere in the next building we lost everyone else until it was just Hugo and I prowling the corridors to find entertaining rooms to sit down and partake in. Once be became sufficiently drunk Hugo developed a game in which we threw open doors at random to expose people having sex, which was good for few larffs until some guy from Illinois with a sheet around his waist chased us down the hall and threatened to do unmentionable things to our dismembered corpses. On another occasion we did get to see a passed out girl's boobs before her roommate shrieked at us to make snappy with the fucking off.
We settled in a common room where two black guys were hallowing out a cigar to make a blunt. Hugo was gregarious and affable, stupid but unpretentious -- he was a shoe-horn into any social situation. In moments we'd made friends. "Where you sail from?" Hugo asked, pitching in.
"Do I look like a sailor to you?" asked one fellow, smiling. "Have you ever seen a brother with a sailboat?"
"I'm Portugese," offered Hugo.
"Shit," said the second fellow. "Portugese are alright."
"We're just here to party," added the first fellow. I missed their names, but one of them had a golden tooth like the Muppets' bandleader.
The room filled with drunken youths as the blunt was passed around, its smell attracting explorers. Somebody put on Bob Marley. There was a lot of giggling. I can't remember who I talked to or what it was about, but I do remember when the Stork Boys showed up.
"Hey! This is our common room!"
The babble quieted. All eyes turned to the two tall, spindly teenagers hovering in the doorway. The Stork Boys shoved out their lower lips defiantly. "If you trash this place we're going to get blamed, so get your drug-smoking ghetto asses out of here right now."
Another pause. The second Stork Boy started to look a little nervous.
"Shit. Did Honky just call my ass ghetto?"
"I think he was talking to us, actually," said Hugo. "Let's not get excited. They're just RC snobs."
Hugo was right -- the Stork Boys called us "ghetto" all the time because our club wasn't as wealthy as theirs. They said it without thinking about it. They weren't used to being in the same room as actual black people.
"I'll get excited if I want to get excited," insisted the golden toothed man.
I was drunk and I didn't want to seem like a pussy in front of Hugo so I stood up and put my arm around the Stork Boys. They were my toy Enemies, and I didn't want them hurt. Because I am a racist I thought the black guys might shoot the Stork Boys in the face with the glocks they probably had stowed in the waistbands of their rebelliously baggy pants.
"Never you mind these Stork Boys, they're alright," I slurred. "They're the Stork Boys," I explained. "They're the worst of the best Royal Canadian has to offer, and we can cut them some slack. Look at them. They're adorable. I've always loved birds."
"Don't touch me, QC scum!" objected the closest Stork Boy, casting off my arm.
I stepped back and shrugged to Hugo. The crowded room murmured in disdain. "Jou're fugging rude, mang!" called one of the Mexicans.
Hugo held out his hands, imploring the Stork Boys like Captain Kirk. "Look guys, shit's going on everywhere. Forget about it. Why don't you come relax your shit and just party with us?"
"You're a coach," said the second Stork Boy. "We're going to report you to our coaches. You'll be fired."
Golden Tooth stood up and sauntered over to the Stork Boys. "They've got a bad attitude if you ask me." Hugo looked at him and nodded. He wasn't smiling anymore.
"If you do anything to me my father will own you," promised the first Stork Boy hotly. He tried to turn around to leave but discovered, with a little startled grunt, that the way was blocked with frowning people. The second Stork Boy did not even try to turn around -- he stood expressionless, as if hypnotized by the flashing golden tooth.
I worried that something bad was going to happen.
"These boys talk too much," declared the non golden-toothed fellow with a grin. He patted his angry friend on the shoulder to make him relax. "It's time for a gag order. You're all sailing people; who's got the tape?"
A roll of ever-sailor-ready duct-tape was passed forward and a strip was applied to the important son's mouth while he was pinioned from behind by a tattooed Texan. The second stork was done next. "Jou lick ass, Stork Boys!" jeered the Mexicans.
The spirit of violence was quickly defused by hilarity, encouraged by Hugo. Somewhere in there we opted to use more duct-tape to attach the Stork Boys to the wall of the dormitory's elevator, and then send them on a journey to visit every floor. Freckles arrived at the last moment and decided that they should have their pants down around their ankles for this experience, and so she and the besmitten Dalton made it so.
"Happy Trails, Stork Boys!" I said as the doors closed and their naked journey began. Everyone cracked up a moment later when we heard the laughter on the floor above, and then a more muffled report from the floor above that one.
Freckles leaned against me and burped. "Is there a lesson we can take from this?"
I nodded. "It pays to be a good sport, lest you end up taped to an elevator."
"Okay, on to my next problem then," she whispered. "How the fuck do I get rid of Dalton?"
I held up the roll of duct-tape and raised one eyebrow.
Next we encounter a veteran of pushing people around whose expression of homicidal surprise upon being roundly trounced by a teenage cheeseburger is a treat sweeter than any candy.
I would like to begin by saying that I think mathematics is amazing, and is probably the closest we will ever come to knowing the language of God. Myself I can't do math to save my life. I am also not a religious man.
My lack of numeric ninjitsu was recognized when I was in high school, and by my third year I was shunted down from Advanced Enriched to Advanced to just plain Basic. I had never taken a Basic course before and I found myself utterly unprepared for what it would entail. I just thought it would be a less taxing way to achieve the absolute minimum mathematical requirement for university consideration.
The reality was that Basic was like school for chimpanzees.
I sat next to a long-haired boy named Garth. "I once knew someone else named Garth," I told him.
"Oh yeah? Was he an asshole?"
"He was, actually."
"Dude," grinned Basic Garth, "me too."
Garth's ambition for the year was to cultivate marijuana in the math department's various potted plants. He explained that it was like a science experiment, since he would learn with which kinds of species marijuana would profitably cohabitate. That's when the teacher came in.
Her name was Miss Esses and she explained in a clipped and precise speech the rules of her classroom. She noted how speaking, drawing, jackets, headphones, calculators, food, drink, gum, profanity, cigarettes and hats were all banned with no exceptions. She outlined the breakdown of our marks, for which attendance counted toward twenty-five percent. She indicated that any failure to complete assignments or homework on time would result in a suspension of washroom privileges.
I put up my hand. "I'm sorry? Did you just say that if we don't do our homework we can't go pee?"
"That is correct, Mr. Cheeseburger Brown."
"Doesn't that strike you as a bit...Draconian?"
"You are wasting everyone's time."
"You will see me after class, Mr. Cheeseburger Brown."
I looked around the room. No one else seemed concerned. The giant squeezed into a desk behind me didn't even wake up. The chick with her breasts hanging out of her shirt continued to examine her fingernails nonchalantly. A girl I knew named Heather Steel who was scheduled to be in the class with me hadn't shown up. Resignedly I nodded to Miss Esses and bade her to proceed with her proclamations.
In subsequent classes I was introduced to the Ludovico technique of mathematics: the sickeningly painful repetition of basic operations until Miss Esses' mousey voice was etched into our brains. She asked questions that no one answered. No one raised their hand. Most of my fellow pupils would not elect to speak even if called upon.
I only ever heard the sleeping giant talk on a single occasion. Miss Esses was dividing polynomials and fishing in the silent room for the answer to a simple process sum. All eyes shifted to behind me. I turned around to see the giant's meaty paw in the air, braced against the desk by his other arm.
He cleared his throat and said, "Two-four."
"Yes, twenty-four, very good," replied Miss Esses.
"No, two-four. Get it?" The giant guffawed. "Like a two-four of beer, eh?"
Everyone in the room cracked up until Miss Esses was forced to slap her desk with a ruler and flash the lights on and off. "Twenty-four," she repeated severely. "Let us continue."
Because it had broken the monotony so nicely I had to lean over and pat the giant on the shoulder. "Good one," I said.
"Dude!" agreed Basic Garth.
But where lurked The Enemy? In the wings, in the wings. This story does not begin in earnest until the day the boobie chick forgot her homework in her boyfriend's car. Miss Esses cited her zero tolerance policy for rules non-compliance and explained that she had no choice therefore but to suspend the boobie chick's washroom privileges for the remainder of the period (approximately seventy minutes).
My friend Heather Steel arrived. She tried to breeze through an art school themed excuse for her absences to date (she was a theatre major), taking an empty desk as she talked and unpacking a bagel with cream cheese wrapped in tin foil. "Sorry I'm late today, too," she mumbled through her first bite.
I leaned forward and whispered, "Doubleplus ungood, Citizen. You will be punished."
"Mr. Cheeseburger Brown!"
"Stop jibbering or your washroom privileges will be suspended."
Heather Steel giggled and almost choked on her bagel. "His what?"
"Shhh!" I warned. "Facecrime!"
After Heather Steel was straightened out on the rules Miss Esses began reviewing the homework, which meant walking up and down the rows to check off whether or not we had a sheet of mathematical looking scribbles under yesterday's date. I tended to jot mine down when I first sat down to my desk, writing things like a) 7y and b) 12x or d) 2 - 4 until the sheet was reasonably covered. Basic Garth had assured me early on that this would earn me my checkmark.
Heather Steel nudged me and pointed to the boobie girl. She was crossing her legs and looking nervously at the clock. After a moment she put up her hand. "Miss Esses, I really need to go the washroom now. I really do."
"Zero tolerance," said Miss Esses in a sing-song way. "The time for breaks is between classes."
The boobie girl hugged herself in a sad but cleavagalicious way. She bit her lip. Miss Esses proceeded down the aisle to confer with Garth, who was poking around in a potted fern.
"This is cruel," I whispered to Heather Steel.
"What if she's getting her period or something?" she pointed out. She narrowed her eyes appraisingly at the poor perspiring girl. "Or maybe she took the Morning After pill."
"Yeah," I agreed. "Fuck."
Heather Steel put up her hand. "Miss Esses, I really think she has to go the washroom."
She was ignored. Heather Steel leaned across the aisle to the boobie girl. "Just go. Fuck it," she advised, her blue eyes flashing as she repeated Christian Slater's cattle-call to misbehavior from the movie Pump Up the Volume. "Fuck it," she urged again.
"I can't get more marks off," said the boobie girl. "I'll totally fail."
The boobie girl's makeup started to slide down her face with tears. I stood up from my desk and started walking toward the door. Miss Esses called sharply, "Mr. Cheeseburger Brown, why are you out of your seat?"
"I have to poo," I lied. "Urgently."
"Then you may take you seat and raise you arm to gain permission."
"I'm afraid it's much more urgent than that. I had Mexican for lunch. My apologies for breaking protocol but I really gotta go."
Before Miss Esses could reply Heather Steel had stood up, too. "I have to change my tampon," she announced, gathering her bag.
Garth started to nod. "I could use a leak myself, you know?" He and the giant stood up in concert and started shuffling toward the door. I stepped out of their way as they left followed by Heather Steel. Ten seconds later the entire classroom was empty, and the boobie girl was doing the high-heel equivalent of sprinting as she made a beeline for the closest washroom.
Miss Esses just stared. I closed the door behind me.
Now enter The Enemy: the next day I was summoned to the office of the head of the department for a special debriefing. I was chatting with Mr. Clifford, a math teacher I had enjoyed having the previous year, when Mr. Bisset clapped a heavy hand down on my shoulder in a fairly unfriendly way. Mr. Clifford, bless his heart, was trying to figure out a way for me to take physics without all the prerequisites. He stopped mid-sentence and looked faintly alarmed.
"Come with me," grunted Mr. Bisset and turned away.
"Well...we'll talk later," I told Mr. Clifford and followed.
Inside Mr. Bisset's closet-like office was a small metal desk and a single chair. I was invited to sit in the chair, and Mr. Bisset chose to stand over me. He opened up our discussions by asking bluntly, "Who do you think you are?" which is a question that is only ever asked by assholes.
Indeed it heralded the opening of a long speech peppered with rhetorical questions. It was quite severe and dramatic. I noted that Mr. Bisset had a very wide frame, and I considered that his equally wide, mustard-yellow sweater was not really working for him. He had a white crew cut, and his mouth looked like it was never used for smiling.
"I know your kind," he informed me, which is another thing that's pretty much only said seriously by assholes. It was not hard to decode his gruff demeanor as some kind of an attempt at intimidation. He seemed an unlikely math teacher -- he looked like he would be more comfortable coaching something.
When I was too slow to respond to a seemingly rhetorical question he would repeat his question in a sharp, startling bark. If it startled me the lines around his eyes tightened -- my fear was a victory. I wondered: since when is frightening students a constructive method of problem solving?
Meanwhile he rattled on and on. When he was done he asked me what I thought of the classroom's policies. I cautiously suggested that the zero tolerance suspension of washroom privileges was basically inhumane, and in response his eyes bugged out wide.
He wanted to know whether or not I had been listening to a word he had said, and I told him I had been. He then expressed a theatrical level of bewilderment about how a bright fellow such as myself could be so sorely confused about such a basic policy.
"I'm not confused. I do not agree."
"Well you'll keep that disagreement to yourself from now on."
"It's a deal. Ask me no questions and I'll tell you no lies."
"Are you being smart with me?"
"Not on purpose."
This is when I began to suspect that Mr. Bisset was The Enemy. He was not seeking my mere compliance -- he wanted supplication. I wondered whether he would subject all of the students to this kind of tirade...the energy he must expend!
"Do you think I don't know what's going on here?" I said nothing so he continued: "You're playing some kind of popularity game by getting the Basic kids all worked up. You want to lead a class revolt, have some fun?"
"That was never my intention. I just thought the poor girl should be allowed to pee. I'll take the fall for her getting to go if I have to. I can afford to lose yesterday's checkmark."
"That's a very arrogant attitude and I don't appreciate it."
"I'm sorry about that."
"But you're not sorry for exploiting a bunch of Basic kids, is that it?"
"Exploiting?" I stammered, caught off balance by this strange accusation and the rise in his hostility. Mr. Bisset's eyes gleamed and I realized that he was excited by my show of weakness, like all true bullies.
"Do you think any one of them would make a stand like this without somebody like you, from Advanced, leading them by the nose? Most of these kids will end up criminals, do you understand? And the rest of them will end up on welfare only because they're too stupid to think up a crime. And you're there putting ideas in their heads and getting them all excited over nothing, and it's not fair. It's not fair to them, and it's not fair to my department."
He wanted to know whether or not this non-negotiable interpretation of events was comprehended by me. I nodded slowly. "Understood."
When he asked me again what I thought about the zero tolerance policy I said, "It is clearly a very good system," in a tone which would have earned me a rebuke from any other teacher for insolence, but Mr. Bisset accepted with a tight, cold smile.
Then he told me I was "dismissed" as if I were in the army.
"What a nasty man!" I reported to Heather Steel outside in the hall. I summarized his colourful characterization of the kids in Basic and their assured destinies as human pieces of excrement.
Heather Steel shrugged. "Well, that's kinda true..."
I watched Garth and the giant try to give each other a high-five as they passed one another, but Garth missed the giant's massive paw and stumbled into a garbage can. "Dude!" he commented, laughing hysterically.
I turned back to Heather Steel. "Okay, I admit that it's hard to deny. Still, Bisset can't be saying shit like that. It's anti-Degrassi to the max."
"So? Just get him to say it again, in front of someone."
Indeed -- someone, or...something. I asked my step-father if I could borrow his dictaphone for a couple of weeks and bought blank micro-cassettes. My plan was simple: I had to get in enough trouble in math class to land me another one-on-one with Mr. Bisset, at which point I would bait him with insouciance until he said something stupid again.
This proved a difficult plan to execute, for Miss Esses had decided I was The Enemy and therefore to be placated at all costs. While the zero tolerance policy was still ostensibly in effect, it didn't apply to me anymore -- I could come and go to micturate as I pleased.
I spoke out of turn but received no rebuke. Try as I might I simply could not rock the boat.
Miss Esses called my mother one night and told her that I was giving her "the evil eye" in class and that she was concerned I might be harbouring a hostile attitude toward her. My mother found the phrase "the evil eye" particularly funny, but admonished me for scaring my poor teacher. "She's obviously a frail little thing," she told me. "The evil eye -- goodness!"
In my next Basic math class I fixed Miss Esses with my full attention and did not let it wander until the bell rang. By the time the period was up she was visibly unnerved. This "evil eye" thing really worked wonders on the weak of mind!
Miss Esses was indeed a frail little thing, and I realized that if she was afraid of me she must be terrified of Mr. Bisset. That was why she had bypassed him about the evil eye, and that was why she hesitated to call me out on my campaign of minor infractions. To deal with me would mean dealing with Bisset.
In time I gave up my plan. I ceased to care about Mr. Bisset. I was sixteen years old and my attention flitted.
And then one day in math class we had a quiz, and in the space at the bottom of the sheet where we could volunteer to answer a bonus question I wrote:
Honestly, I don't have the answer, but you could always just give me the bonus points anyway. You know, for good karma. Otherwise monsters might eat the tires off your car or something.
It wasn't something I thought hard about. I had run out of time, and was just scrawling nonsense as the tests were collected. I didn't think about it after the fact, either, until the school called that evening to say that I was suspended for one academic day for making threats against a member of the faculty.
"Making threats?" echoed my mother incredulously, cradling the receiver with her shoulder as she stared at me. "What exactly did he write? Can you read it to me? Uh-huh. Uh-huh..."
When she hung up she sighed and said, "You idiot."
"What?" I asked, still perplexed. I was wracking my brain for something I could've said or done to anyone that could have been interpreted as a threat. The correct answer was the last thing that would've occurred to me, and when my mother told me what the vice-principal had said I was baffled. "The thing about tire-eating monsters?" I cried.
"Apparently Miss Esses needed an escort to her car, she was so scared."
"I'll say. You have a meeting with the head of the math department next Monday morning, a Mr. Bissell."
"Oh, you idiot."
As my mother had learned from a previous incident, being "suspended" from high school in Ontario is not a very serious thing because we were obliged to take five years of secondary education, which meant we turned eighteen and therefore gained control of our permanent records before the applications went out to universities in the middle of the fifth year. Thus, indiscretions could be purged from the record at will and trifles like the odd suspension or even an expulsion could be swept under the rug forever. Ahem.
Tuesday came. I showed up at 8:30 as requested. Mr. Bisset made a long show of methodically preparing his coffee while I stood at the door of his closet-office. I couldn't help but sniff at this petty display.
"Do you think something about this situation is funny?" he asked his coffee.
"No sir, I have a cold."
"Bullshit," he replied tartly. "I think you think everything about this situation is funny, and that's why you're in this goddamn situation."
Well, there was no arguing with that logic. I waited at patient attention.
"Come in here and sit down. Take that chair. Bring it in here. Sit down. And we'll see how funny this is."
I brought in the plastic orange chair from Mr. Clifford's table and wedged it as gracefully as I could between Mr. Bisset's trash-can, the door, and his desk. On command I closed the door with difficulty, and then wormed my way into the orange chair.
I was wearing drab olive faux-army pants with big pockets on the legs. I crossed my right leg over my left, in order to bring the thigh pocket on that side as close to Mr. Bisset as possible.
He had a photocopy of my quiz, and he dropped his head over it for a long moment to re-read my sassmouth. He looked up at me and sipped his coffee. "You think this is just horsing around. You're going to tell me you didn't mean anything by it, and you never expected anyone to take it seriously. Is that right?"
"That is true."
"Well, if this happened in an Advanced class I'd probably give you the benefit of the doubt. But this happened in a Basic class. In Basic, we take these kinds of things very seriously." He pegged me with his eyes and took his pauses liberally, smirking. "Tire-slashings have happened before. You didn't stop to think about that, did you? You didn't think about the history. You don't have a clue. But I'm here to tell you today that I won't have members of my faculty threatened with that kind of bullshit."
"I didn't threaten to slash anyone's tires. I simply posited the existence of monsters that ate tires."
"Sometimes students in Basic don't express themselves very clearly," he said philosophically. "It's up to me to assess the attitude behind the threat, if it seems ambiguous. Some students make Cactusasses out of themselves with a stupid joke that backfires, others have a real malicious intent."
"I certainly did not have any malicious intent, and that's the truth."
He shrugged and meditated over his coffee again. "That's what I'd be likely to believe, from an Advanced student. But -- this...is Basic, isn't it?"
I licked my lips. "What difference does that make?"
"It means that threats and a malicious attitude go hand in hand in Basic. I've been dealing with Basic students for years, and half of them should've been in jail rather than school. Delinquents and punks, on a road to nowhere! And they very often have something to prove to anyone who gets in their way. Teachers have been harassed, teachers at this school. And sometimes very serious situations have come out of it."
He snorted. "You think you do, but you don't. You're still sitting there with that idiot grin on your face. Don't try to hide it. You can't. And I think this is going to become a very serious situation for you. Perhaps serious enough to involve the authorities."
"Are you saying you're going to quote-unquote assess my attitude by just saying 'Basic kids are violent so this Advanced kid in a Basic class is probably violent'?"
"Ah-ha!" he cried, putting down his coffee. "That's just it, isn't it? You just called yourself an Advanced student in a Basic class."
"You don't belong there. You have no right to be there."
"So why am I in Basic?"
"Because you're lazy. You're taking resources meant for a much lower level of person and using them for yourself because you're too damned lazy to do your math homework and advance properly."
"My Advanced teacher tried to force me into Basic in Grade Nine!" I objected, stung by this new line of attack.
"Bullshit," he said. "I've seen your marks in other classes. You're smart enough to do math. People like you fail in my department because you're too lazy to do your work. And that's fine if you want to flunk and be cool, but don't drag these Basic kids down with you, disrupting their class and messing around with Miss Esses! They're doomed anyway so let them have what they've got."
I sat back. "Let me make sure I understand you. People who don't do well in math are lazy, and people in Basic are doomed. Is that right?"
He did not answer.
I pressed ahead, "I've been thinking about writing an article about Basic classes for the school paper, and I just want to make sure I've got you right."
"You won't be putting anything in the paper."
"I don't believe you're the judge of that," I replied sharply, sweat tickling my ribs as it left my armpits.
His eyes bulged and the muscles in his neck quivered. "You will not be writing drivel to the disgrace of department, if you think that's funny you little prick. You want to try it? I'll shut you down. You just don't understand, do you? I have you. I'm going to be calling the fifty-one division this afternoon after I speak with the principal, and I will file a charge of threats of violence against you. That's how seriously we take these things in Basic."
"Mr. Bisset, I admire your sense of symmetry -- answering my prank-threat with a prank-threat of your own!"
"I'm not bluffing with you, mister."
"You would be bluffing the police, actually, in that situation."
He leaned in close and hissed, "If you were my son I'd have taken you out back for a beating."
His face was red. He was breathing heavily. His coffee was long forgotten.
"I'm sorry, what was that again?" I said, cupping my hand to my ear. "Did you just say threats are bad?"
"I'm not threatening you," he assured me icily. "I'm just telling you what your father should've done. A long time ago, by the looks of it. And you still seem to think this is funny. But I'm here to tell you that you won't think so for long."
I nodded. "Time will tell."
"Get out of my office, but stay in the building. This isn't over."
I left his office feeling dizzy and bemused, the weight of the dictaphone knocking against my knee gently. Would he really waste the time of the police by reporting that there was a malicious intent behind my threat? Would he try to force me to get my credit in summer school? I was giddy and nervous, sweaty and elated. Mr. Bisset was about to get a taste of the sting of a zero tolerance policy -- the school's zero tolerance policy for dreadfully impolitic speech, and for openly badmouthing the Epsilons in front of a student.
I checked the tape. The dialogue was muffled but perfectly intelligible. His wide ass was mine.
A runner came into my science class to give me a note: I was summoned to the principal's office at three o'clock. When I arrived I met my mother, who had been called in from work. "Did you do something worse?" she whispered. I shook my head.
The principal had a round table in her office and we each took our seats around it: Mr. Bisset, my mother, and principal and me. "I've been looking over Cheeseburger's record," said the principal, "and I have to say I'm mystified that a student like him is in a situation like this. Threats against faculty, Mr. Brown?"
"It isn't how it seems, Miss Little, really."
"Is there anything you have to say for yourself before we hear from Mr. Bisset?"
I nodded. "Yes, thank you." I put the dictaphone on the table and pressed play.
I studied my fingers. When it was over I looked up and the principal was rubbing her temples slowly. "Okay," she said after a moment. "Okay, I don't think we need you for anything else today, Mr. Brown. I'm sorry we've wasted your time, Mrs. Brown."
Mr. Bisset had turned an unhealthy colour with splotchy pink rash developing on the back of his neck. He stared at me as if I were a creature of supernatural horror. I relished the moment with a subtle smirk.
The principal stood up stiffly and escorted my mother and me out of the office, and then turned back to Mr. Bisset and closed the door firmly.
In the corridor my mother explained to me how embarrassed she was to hear me speaking so disrespectfully to Mr. Bisset on the tape, but added that it was obvious that Mr. Bisset was an ass. She took me out for chips with vinegar.
Mr. Bisset took an early retirement package. I got my math credit.
In this final installment we see the lessons of the previous adventures applied to set right the scales of justice in a method both succinct and satisfying.
Columbus Christopher was a beautiful Spaniard with an aquiline nose, tanned skin and an easy, jocular manner that won him the favourable attention of men and women alike. Despite this I was slow to despise him.
He was one of two boys I shared an apartment with during my first year of art school (which is another story that has already been told). They were different kinds of boys than I was -- rougher and tougher, sons of autoworkers with a lot to prove to offset the fact that they studied art instead of something their fathers would have approved of, like operating heavy machinery or drinking beer while on strike.
Like a lot of people, I have two voices: a speech that comes naturally, and a diminished speech to be used around people who find diction and vocabulary to be frightening. This is a habit long established from mixing with people who brand thinking as effete and objectionable, a habit of self-defensive camouflage to forestall accusations of being a nerd.
It didn't take me long to establish which voice was appropriate for Christopher and his heterosexual life-partner, The Thing. I was dropping the final g from present progressive verbs like it was goin' out of style.
Never the less, even in the first days of our living together my companions began to suspect my disguise. For one thing my most precious possession was a computer, which they pawed at curiously like apes at a monolith. They expressed incredulity that I had completed the fifth, pre-university year of high school. They were confused and bewildered when I admitted I owned neither a skateboard nor a snowboard.
"Dude?" said The Thing, tilting his heavy head.
"What the fuck do people do in Toron'o, anyway?" Christopher guffawed. "I knew big city people were fucking shifty, eh? But, fuck! Let's do hot knives."
"Yeeeah," agreed The Thing.
And so we got stoned and watched horrifying violent movies about organized crime from Hong Kong, and this was enough to seal the gap. Christopher, who was constantly talking, would narrate events as they approached and then debrief the action after the fact. The Thing would agree a lot and giggle. Together they enjoyed introducing me into their choice cinematic realm, and vicariously rode my shock and awe as people were mowed down by bullets in increasingly spectacular ways.
"That was the shit!" Christopher would cry, which meant he was impressed.
"Yeeeah," agreed The Thing. "Fock!"
For a week, it worked. They knew I was alien but my overtures were good enough to bridge the gap. I wasn't one of them but I wasn't anything offensive, either. When we were drunk one night I told them the story of the Lipgloss Gypsy and they laughed themselves onto the floor.
Things changed when their friends came to town.
The king of their posse was a sharp-nosed Quebecois named Cunt. His hair was dyed bright red and he had disdain for everything. He was a painter. His sidekick -- his The Thing -- was a dull-witted skateboard-filmmaker west coast clown named Baffoon. In orbit they held a loose cloud of girls. We went to the famous Seahorse Tavern for beer, and somewhere in there I became too relaxed and talked too much and Baffoon started calling me "Brainiac."
My bridges melted.
Cunt thought calling me Brainiac was delightful. He began to playfully abuse me, in a gentle, sarcastic way, with teasing banter and rhetorical questions and sardonic chuckles. This made his monkey laugh, and Baffoon's drunken chortles were infectious because he was such an animated goof. In the course of an evening it became cool to make me the butt of jokes.
Cunt seemed to want to prove himself obnoxious enough for me to physically strike him, and when I did not he declared that I was a wimp. He was right. I knew that escalating violence would not get me anywhere with someone who was comfortable with fighting.
Neither Christopher nor The Thing rose to my defense. From then on they only took to being nice to me when no one else was around.
It was no great loss. I didn't particularly want to be a part of Cunt's circle. In time I made my own friends from school. As the semester progressed I only encountered him very occasionally, like when the gang swung by to pick up Christopher and The Thing for an evening's adventures. Cunt's abrasiveness was a petty and infrequent irritant, far below the threshold of Enemy Status. Enemies were for kids.
Nor did our circles mix out on the town. My friends and I assembled at the Birdland Cafe (now defunct) and Cunt's crew partied at the Khyber Club. I had been there once or twice but the place didn't appeal to me -- dark and ravey, packed and frenetic. At the Birdland they played jazz.
Christopher and The Thing hosted a party at our apartment one night. The Khyber was closed for the installation of a new art exhibit, and their gang had nowhere else to go. Cunt was bitter because the new art exhibit did not consist of his paintings, but those of someone else. He got very drunk and ranted a lot while Baffoon followed him around with a camcorder.
I holed up in my room.
The next morning I was unimpressed with the amount of vomit in and around the toilet. A girl in a heavy blue brassiere was passed out on the floor but I managed to drag her out into the hall without substantially waking her, so I could take a shower in private.
My mouthwash had been stolen. Presumably ingested for the alcohol content. There were old cigarettes in the sink. And my bar of soap had the word DICK carved into it, probably by the bent and hash-stained butter knife lying on the floor.
I was puzzled but incurious. I sighed, and washed.
My principal concern was getting packed and out the door so I could meet up with my friends to drive out of the city for a camping weekend. We had liquid lysergic acid and a lot of really pompous arty things on our minds. We also had marshmallows to roast.
The Monday of our return was also the date of the school's open film festival, a showcasing of submitted student works done inside or outside the context of their courses. A free for all, if you will. The Anna Leonowens Memorial Auditorium was packed.
Before the first film a very sad lesbian came to the microphone. She told us all that someone had broken into the Khyber last night and destroyed all of the paintings in the art exhibit which was to have opened Tuesday. She asked that anyone who had any information please be good enough to come forward, anonymously if necessary. She was trying not to cry. All of her paintings had been destroyed. Everyone was very quiet. The sad lesbian thanked us for our time and left the stage.
Movies were played: good, bad, ugly. My own painfully awkward summer short was in there somewhere.
And then came a series of vignettes by Baffoon, including a twenty second slice-o'-life in which Cunt diligently carves letters into my bar of soap, then holds it up to the camera and asks someone off-screen to read it. "CheeseburgerBrown is a dick!" cheers Christopher, and then many people laugh.
I was surprised, confused, and then, after a moment, humiliated. In the dark auditorium I turned red and my skin prickled. The act of carving words into my soap seemed merely juvenile; the act of videotaping it seemed pointless; the act of submitting it for school-wide viewing while including my proper name seemed cruel.
Though I had not mistaken those boys for good people, I was still surprised and stung.
But I pushed it out of my mind. What could I do? They'd had their larffs at my expense and it was done. It was not to my profit or amusement to think of Cunt or Baffoon or Christopher as The Enemy. I had no recourse against them, and nothing to be gained even if I did. I would only be admitting my hurt to respond.
The festival concluded. I elected not to go drinking. I had scrounged up enough money to buy a new Hi-8 videocassette on the way home and I chatted up the guy in the camera store for a bit, looking for advice on how to best disconnect the red light on the front of my camcorder which blinked while the unit was recording, something most subjects found distracting. We looked at a model similar to mine on the shelf and tried to figure it out.
When I got back to the apartment I pushed aside a little pile of kipple so I could sit down in the living room to tinker with my camcorder while I watched The Simpsons. Christopher and The Thing got home shortly thereafter. The Thing retired to his closet to sleep but Christopher had energy to burn. He paced around the room and performed various routines of his about what or was not the shit and whether or not something had been shifty or wicked.
Somewhere in there he said, "Look, about the festival, man, I know Cunt's an asshole but whatareyagonnado? He's fucking Cunt, you know?" which I can only assume was meant as a kind of apology for Baffoon's short and his part in it.
"Whatever," I said. I had cut the proper wire in the camcorder but now I wasn't getting power to the unit at all.
"What are you doing to your camera?" Christopher changed the subject breezily. I wasn't someone who was going to punch him, and that's the only kind of retaliation he really cared about.
"Trying to fix it," I muttered, screwdriver in my mouth.
"It's not working, eh?"
"That's too bad. Fuck. Hey, shit -- do you know what we fucking did on the weekend?"
"No. What?" I screwed the case together more firmly and suddenly I had power. Experimentally I recorded a few seconds of tape and turned the camcorder around to see if the red light was blinking.
Christopher continued: "We fucking broke into the Khyber and partied there!"
My finger hovered over the recording toggle, hesitating. I opted to let the unit continue recording. "Fuck!" I commented, pretending to fiddle with more screws.
"I know, eh? We fucking trashed the place, too. I mean, like fucking throwing bottles of vodka at the mirrors. You know those mirrors with like the old Coke ads on them? It was wicked funny."
"Shit," I agreed.
"Oh man, and then we ripped this like anarchist feminist bullshit piece off the wall, and I start drilling Sandy on it doggy-style. You know -- like, fucking imagine it: I'm fucking drilling her from behind on the fucking feminist art. It was the shit. She's fucking banging her head on the wall 'cause I'm pounding her so hard and she's whining, 'Chris-topher, Chris-topher!'"
At this point Christopher was laughing so hard he was having trouble getting the story out. "Get this, though, get this!" he told me, chuckling; "in the end I fucking pull out of her and I fucking jizz on the artwork. You know? I'm like, 'Hey fuckers, this is a Columbus Christopher original -- I'm fucking jizzing on feminist shit!' You know? I'm all like, 'Take that you dyke bitches!' and just unloading all over this piece of shit painting. It was hilarious."
"A Columbus Christopher original, eh?"
"That's it! That's the shit! Frame my fucking jizz and there's your art with all the social commentary you'll ever fucking need!"
"Ho boy," I whistled in agreement.
When The Simpsons was over Christopher retired to the kitchen to cook hashish with knives heated on the stove. For my part I rewound the tape in my camcorder and then played it back, plugging in my headphones to get the audio. In a tinny little voice the camcordered Christopher mimed his own spurting member as he quoted himself saying, "Take that you dyke bitches!" followed by Homer Simpson's faint report of, "D'oh!"
If Christopher was not my Enemy, he was somebody's. His pearly smile jiggled in freeze-frame in the viewfinder. With a moment's meditation I found it easy to hate him. His carelessness nauseated me.
I thought: how stupid does one have to be to partake in a humiliating prank on his own flatmate, and then brag about exploits of vandalism and misogyny to that same flatmate while he cradles a camcorder in his lap? Seriously: how fucking stupid?
The Enemy. Accomplice to a snotty frog, a shameless desecrater, too concerned for his own status as a social player to stand up for the downtrodden. He who would find knocking a little Asian girl's head against the wall funny. He who would smash his own hangout. He who would foul his own nest. He who would ejaculate on art, and sing his own praises for it.
It was spring. There were four days of school left.
On the fourth day I took the videocassette to the womyn's studies office and slid it into the mailbox of the sad lesbian. My note was brief: Khyber Incident, Columbus Christopher: Confession.
I signed it with Christopher's name.
Salty Dog East | Rapscallion Relish | Lipgloss Gypsy | The Wrap Party | What Art Is | My Cat's Girlfriend | Four Corners of a Box | The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle
||IF YOU HAVE ENJOYED READING THIS STORY, PLEASE CONSIDER LEAVING A SMALL TIP. A PAYPAL ACCOUNT IS NOT REQUIRED. THANK YOU VERY MUCH. YOURS TRULY, C. BROWN.