Fiction  June 2016 | issue 486

Days Of Human Sacrifice

by Poe Ballantine

Poe Ballantine married at the age of forty-six, had his first child at forty-seven, published his first novel at forty-nine, and now, at the age of sixty-one, with daily practice, hopes to one day learn how to write. His books include the memoir Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere and a collection of essays, Guidelines for Mountain Lion Safety. He lives with his wife and son in Chadron, Nebraska.

When I was in fifth grade, my parents attached a basketball hoop with a wooden backboard to the garage. I liked to watch the Los Angeles Lakers on Channel 11 KTTV, and after a game I would go out and shoot baskets by myself, pretending to be point guard Jerry West. I would never become a great player, but I could hit shots from the edge of the driveway and dribble with either hand. Basketball was the only sport I was remotely good at when I was eleven, the only one for which I was not taken last or second to last when teams were chosen.

Eric Riccitelli, who could do gymnastic tricks on the chin-up bars and was always picked first or second for teams, got mad when I faked him out and dribbled in for a layup. The second time I did it, he slapped me across the face. Then I got mad and told him he should not have slapped me. I should not have faked him out, he said. I told him it was part of the game, and he slapped me again. In my mind I became a robot who burned him into a pile of ashes with my eye lasers.

I was not the only child who got routinely trounced and humiliated in my working-class San Diego neighborhood in the late 1960s. In true primate fashion, the big monkeys pounded the smaller monkeys, who clobbered the even-smaller ones, all the way down to Nick Stamoulos and me at the bottom. Nick lived over on Red River Avenue, under the heels of the big monkeys on that block. There was no one smaller on Red River for Nick to pound after they were done with him, so he’d come gunning for me, on Blue River Avenue, though usually he’d end up getting bounced around by our big apes, Whitey Carr and Jack Taff and Octavio Medina. Nick apparently had no robots in his imagination, because after getting beaten, he’d wander around clenching his fists and screaming in frustration and swearing at God.

I felt sorry for him because I knew what it was like to be violated for sport. His mother, Maria (as she instructed us to call her), was a classical violinist. His father, Titus, was a cross-country trucker with a handlebar mustache and big muscles, like a refugee from an old-time European circus. Titus would lift weights in his garage wearing only a towel, the door open for everyone to see. When he bent over to pick up a barbell, it was like looking at the backside of a bull.

Like most boys who were teased and harassed after school or on the streets, Nick didn’t go home and tell his parents, but they figured it out and enrolled him in judo classes. After that, Nick proudly wore his martial-arts robes around the neighborhood and would often stand like a stick bug, with his wrists crossed and his head bowed. Most people didn’t know what to think of this. Eventually Nick got good enough that he could defend himself, and it didn’t take long before he began to make his way up the monkey hierarchy. He’d trip kids or throw them over his shoulder, and when he was done wiping somebody out, he’d clasp his hands and bow to the sun. Now and then he’d catch me in the hallways at school or outside in the evenings, and he’d growl at me and put my arm behind my back or bend my wrist or take the stick-bug position and then drop me into the dirt, dusting off his hands and walking away as I burned him into a pile of ashes with my robot laser eyes.

One reason the neighborhood children were cruel to me was that my parents got me lessons: swimming lessons, tumbling lessons, bowling lessons, violin lessons. No other kid on the block got so many lessons. I wished they would get me judo lessons, but, then again, I didn’t want to become like Nick, with the soul of a dried shrimp, going around in dumb robes hating all mankind.

My father was the only father on the block who went to work every morning wearing a tie. He was a junior-high teacher. He was against the Vietnam War. He taught me that no man was better than me, and I was better than no man. He liked to say with a chuckle that in the horse race of life, he always bet on Truth, which was why he always lost. He had a library from which I was welcome to borrow any book. He never talked down to me or went back on a promise. There were many occasions when, even though I was having a rough time of it, deep down I felt good about myself because of him.

My parents were unaware that I was being tormented. I was not about to add snitching to the list of my offenses, and my oppressors were smart enough not to leave marks or draw blood. I wondered what the other children got out of my sobbing and humiliation, what kind of sorcerer’s feast my suffering provided them. It would be years before I realized that the rituals they performed on me were the same ones they had been subjected to by parents or older siblings or bigger bullies, and they were just handing it down: Please pass the misery.

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