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.
Fenced, hedged walkways we called “catwalks” connected Blue River Avenue to the blocks on either side. Children from the other avenues arrived by these walkways looking for games and companionship and sometimes fights. Many boys on my block liked to fight, and invaders were usually repelled. There were no real street gangs yet in our area, only pretenders like Jack Taff in his denim jacket and chain-draped motorcycle boots, who would kick his opponents in the legs until they were barely able to walk.
Terry Underhook, a white kid, imitated Mexican gangs from the barrios of Chula Vista and Barrio Logan, who kept their longish hair greased back against their skulls and carried switchblades and wore taps on the soles of their boots so you could always hear them coming.
My father, who had had Terry as a student at Parkway Junior High, warned me to stay away from him.
No problem, Dad.
With his dead eyes, pressed-back hair, and metal-sounding walk, Terry reminded me of a zombie. I imagined his brain had been taken over by an extraterrestrial plant, and if I got too close, it might turn me into a zombie, too.
But Terry didn’t spend much time on my street. He sought the company of wannabe gang members in other parts of town. I pictured them getting together to sniff glue and steal cars and vandalize schools and pull the legs off flies — or whatever it was gang members did.
I was climbing over our fence one evening to retrieve my basketball from the neighbor’s yard when Terry rose up from the other side to meet me. Face to face with the fake-Mexican zombie hooligan, I let out a yell, and he flicked his switchblade open and pressed it against my neck.
Do you want me to cut your throat, sonny boy?
Power of speech short-circuited, I could only shake my head.
Well, get lost then.
I set a new personal land-speed record running back into my house and shivered in the bathroom behind a locked door, wondering what I should do. I had to tell someone. Getting mistreated and degraded was one thing, but being threatened with murder was quite another.
Finally I told my dad. I’d hesitated because, in my mind, he was not equipped to deal with the primitive and the lawless (though I should have known better judging by the tattoos on both his arms). He was not a big man; nor was he overtly masculine, like many of the other kids’ fathers. The only time he’d ever spanked me was when I’d dragged Arlene Swoboda off our couch by the heels and she’d hit her head on the floor. But if there was a fight out front, he would storm over to break it up, eyes narrowed, jaw slung to the side. I was always amazed by how the combatants fled, as if he were someone to be reckoned with.
When I told Dad what Terry had done, his eyes narrowed, his jaw slid to the side, and he marched me down to the Underhook house. Terry’s mom answered the door.
Is your son here, Mrs. Underhook?
She looked upset as she turned to call Terry, who came to the door.
Come outside for a minute, Terry, my father said, crooking his finger.
Terry slouched into the pool of light on the porch.
Is this the boy who held the knife to your throat? my dad asked me.
Terry had showered and changed into a long-sleeved flannel shirt and high-top tennis shoes. His hair was no longer greased back but flopped wetly over his arctic-blue eyes. He looked completely different from the boy who had curdled my blood half an hour before. And it wasn’t just the clothes — I realized he was afraid. It surprised me that my father, the warmhearted schoolteacher who opposed war and preached tolerance, could get this kind of reaction from one of the most notorious ruffians in the neighborhood.
Then Terry leaned his cadaver face closer to mine, and I saw a faint threat slowly churning in his vacant blue eyes. I had a careful look into that face and weighed my already dicey situation and legion of enemies and torturers.
I don’t think so, I said.
You sure, Son?
Pretty sure, I said.
Terry straightened up, barely holding back a smirk.
Sorry about the mixup, my father said, looking at me as if I’d rigged the race to make Truth lose once again, which I had.
A week or so later I stepped outside and saw a new boy in a western shirt and cowboy boots running with the other children, who were jostling him and calling him names. Strangely he didn’t seem to mind. He broke away and came over to me.
I’m Virgil Dekker, he panted happily, and I’m from Texas. He extended a hand.
I took it and introduced myself. I was of slight build, but Virgil was even thinner, with a gray complexion and crooked buck teeth.
Jack Taff, the shin-kicker, came over and slapped Virgil roughly on the back. It’s Bucky Buck Owens all the way from Hee-Haw, Texas, he chortled. Right, Bucky?
Virgil nodded and went straight into a rousing rendition of “Deep in the Heart of Texas,” complete with hand claps.
The children stopped their cavorting and gathered around to listen in disbelief.
They are not going to bully this boy, I thought. They are going to annihilate him.
Good one, Bucky, Jack said. Tell us the one about how you killed a bear with your bare hands.
Virgil started to oblige, but Jack kicked him in the leg with a chain-draped boot and knocked him to the ground.
Virgil got back up and, with faint indignity, brushed himself off.
Let him finish his story, said Wally Miller, a heavyset boy with porcine ears and raisins for eyes.
He can’t finish his story, explained Jack, pushing Virgil over. He keeps falling down.
Virgil tried to smile, seeming confounded by the rude welcome. I would’ve explained it to him had I been in the mood for a piece of Jack’s boot myself.
Virgil eventually headed home, trailed by Jack’s threats to kick his butt “back to Tex-ass.”
The next day I was shocked to see Virgil back on the avenue and trying to join a game. Octavio Medina hit him in the chest with such force that Virgil had to take a knee. When Virgil had recovered, he began to extol the virtues of his home state but wasn’t allowed to finish.
Personally I think Texas is a shit hole, said Octavio, who could throw a volleyball so hard it would leave a round red mark like a sunburn on your chest. If you like Texas so goddamn much, why did you leave?
My mom had to get work, Virgil replied.
You ought to help her out and get a job as a can-opener, with those teeth.
You look like a damn beaver, Bucky, Wally chimed in. My dad needs some trees trimmed. He’d pay you.
Virgil slunk away but, to my astonishment, returned the following morning, a Saturday, looking as optimistic and expectant of fellowship as he had on the first day. He was about to demonstrate for everyone a variety of cattle calls when, hoping to extend his life, I invited him to come with me downtown to the library, my regular Saturday hangout. He liked the idea but had to get permission from his mom, he said.
I followed Virgil to his house, a drab, run-down place with a ragged yard and a couple of cracked windowpanes. There was not much furniture inside, just the sort of mismatched items you’d find at a garage sale. His mom had the same gray complexion and fantastically messed-up teeth. Mrs. Dekker said it would be all right if Virgil went downtown with me, and she gave him three dollars and some change for bus fare. I also met Bram, Virgil’s younger brother, who had a terrible speech impediment and even worse teeth than his mother and brother. I couldn’t understand a thing Bram said, but I figured he wanted to go with us, because Virgil told him no, that we might check out some “fillies,” which I guessed meant girls.
It took an hour to get downtown by bus. We sat in the back, and Virgil talked about all the fillies he had back in Texas, and then about the time he’d killed seven rattlesnakes and made a belt and a pair of boots and a hatband out of them, all of which he’d left back in Texas. And I’d thought I had a vivid imagination.
Hell, it ain’t like Dallas, but it ain’t bad, he declared after the bus had dropped us off at Horton Plaza, in the center of downtown San Diego.
By then I’d decided that I couldn’t take Virgil to the library, because he’d never shut up, and we’d be kicked out for sure. So we studied the marquees of the triple-feature dollar-admission theaters. The Cabrillo was showing three Sidney Poitier movies, and the Plaza had a trio of spaghetti westerns.
Naturally Virgil picked the Plaza. I hated spaghetti westerns. The actors’ mouths didn’t match the dialogue, and the movies were always about a sweaty, greasy bounty hunter chasing a sweaty, greasy outlaw across the desert and shooting a lot of other sweaty, greasy people along the way.
The Plaza was a vast, ornate movie house that smelled like an old couch left out in the rain. It was open twenty-four hours a day and had bathrooms and a snack bar, and you could stay as long as you liked, so some people appeared to call the place home. The homeless paid admission just to sleep in the seats, and hookers came in to get a break from the heat and to rest their feet.
Virgil wanted to get a pack of cigarettes from the vending machine in the lobby. I worried the lady behind the snack counter would see, but she took no notice of us. Virgil bought Benson & Hedges menthol 100’s — his mother’s brand — and we sat in the very back row. I declined Virgil’s offer of a cigarette, content with my paper tube of Flicks chocolate wafers. He smoked about five but did not inhale. I noticed he had trouble getting his lips around the butt because of his teeth.
After we had watched about two hours of greasy, sweaty people shooting each other, Virgil whispered that he wanted to go. He looked a little green as we came out into the sunshine.
At Caruso’s Italian Restaurant, next to Horton Plaza, we ordered two torpedo sandwiches — ham, salami, sliced tomatoes, shredded lettuce, provolone cheese, and Italian dressing on a long bun wrapped in butcher paper — for a dollar each. We sat and ate at a table with a plastic red-and-white-checkered tablecloth.
Bet I could eat sixteen of these, Virgil said through a mouthful of sandwich.
Getting into the spirit of his braggadocio, I replied, Hell, Virgil, I bet you could eat a whole cow.
Bet I could, too.
Four sailors swaggered into the restaurant.
I bet we could take all four of them, I whispered.
The most people I ever whipped at one time was three, Virgil admitted humbly, striking a match and putting it to the tip of another Benson & Hedges menthol. Unable to finish his sandwich, he wrapped up the other half for later.
Just before we had to catch our bus back home, we went to the library so I could check out some books. Virgil gazed around in awe, his thumbs hooked into his back pockets. He said he’d never been in one of these places, but he’d once read twenty books in one day.
Don’t you ever tell the truth, Virgil? I asked.
He just looked at me.
You never knocked out three people or read twenty books in one day. I read more than any other kid at school, and the most books I ever read in one day was one.
You need to take a speed-reading class, Virgil said.
That evening at dinner I asked my father what I should do about Virgil. I explained that I was his sole friend, and only because I felt sorry for him. Most of the time he was unbearable, which was why he got beaten up so much.
I’ve talked to his mother, my dad said. They’re barely hanging on. That family’s been through a lot.
But all he does is tell lies, I said. Big, fat, made-up lies.
Most of us dream big, my father said. Virgil just dreams big aloud. I’m proud of you for sticking with him.
Sundays were the worst for the smallest monkeys. The fathers who had the day off would get drunk and beat their boys, who would dash out their front doors to pass it on down. On Virgil’s second Sunday on Blue River Avenue, right after he told everyone how he’d once shot a cougar between the eyes, Wally flipped Virgil over his back, and Virgil’s head hit the pavement with a sickening thud. The year before, I’d accidentally hit Joy Johnson in the back of the head with a baseball bat, and her eyes had gone funny, and she’d thrown up all over the sidewalk. The doctor had said she had a concussion. I was afraid Virgil might have a concussion, too, so I suggested we go over to his house for a while.
Those kids are never going to let you be their friend, Virgil, I explained as we crossed the catwalk. They are never going to like you. They are only going to hurt you.
Yeah, well, back in Texas I could hold my own. He flashed his hands around in a karate blur.
There was no one home at Virgil’s. The house smelled of fish sticks and bacon. Virgil poured himself a cup of coffee from the pot on the stove and grimaced at the first gulp. Then he found a pack of his mother’s cigarettes and lit one.
Where’s your mom? I asked.
Working, he said.
What’s she do?
Lots of stuff. Drives taxis. Does secretary work. Tends bar.
Where’s your dad?
Died in the war, Virgil said, and he blew smoke ceilingward. Congressional Medal of Honor. Him and me used to rope a hundred cows in an hour when we had our ranch back in West Texas. He left me a ’57 T-Bird in a shed.
I toured the room and studied the row of photos on the mantel. They were all of Mom, Bram, and Virgil — no father.
How come there aren’t any pictures of your dad? I asked.
Virgil bristled. There’s a bunch of them, but they’re all back in Texas.
OK, Virge, OK.
Don’t call me Virge.
I didn’t like the look in his eye. All the other kids called him Bucky Beaver, but I couldn’t even call him Virge?
How’s your head? I asked.
I been hit harder.
On the weekends I continued shooting baskets at my house. Like fighting, basketball was a language the children on my street understood, and the same kids who terrorized me would invite themselves over to play Horse, Around-the-World, and Twenty-One. I was flattered to be treated as an equal and always made the mistake of believing they had become my friends.
Virgil joined us once. He whirled and jerked about, shooting and missing the entire hoop and sometimes the backboard, too. He dribbled stooped over, using only his right hand, and consistently bounced the ball off his foot.
You can’t play worth a damn, Bucky, said Octavio Medina.
Hell, back in Texas I hit three shots in a row from the half-court line.
You couldn’t hit a shot if I held you over the basket.
Leave him alone, I said.
Octavio turned on me. Don’t press your luck, he said.
The trick to surviving in my neighborhood was to get out of my neighborhood. Virgil had no bike, so on the weekends I lent him mine and took my dad’s old three-speed, and we’d pedal to the hills above Grover Cleveland Elementary or out to Lake Murray. One Sunday we rode over to Parkway Junior High, where my dad taught social studies. Just down the hill was a culvert where a cement storm-drain pipe emptied into a rank marsh teeming with crawdads. The tail meat from boiled crawdads was good — as long as you didn’t think about where they’d come from. My mother did think about it and refused to boil them for me. Virgil and I caught two paper cupfuls for sport and threw them back.
Virgil wanted to explore the storm drain, which was large enough to walk into, though you had to crouch as you went along and keep your arms and legs close to avoid sliming your clothes. We were about thirty feet in when Virgil stopped, out of breath.
Darker down here than in my grandfolks’ old place back in West Texas, he began.
Here comes another ripsnorter, I thought, but instead he began to reminisce about his dirt-poor grandparents, who had only eight head of cattle and a truck patch. Their electricity came from a windmill that produced just enough power to run a light bulb and a radio. Virgil said he, Bram, and his mom had lived on that ranch for years, sitting in the dark and listening to the coyotes. When his grandparents had passed away, the bank had gotten everything, and Virgil’s family had pretty much been on the move ever since.
So you didn’t come here straight from Texas?
No, hell, we lived all over Arizona: two months in Prescott, three months in Tuba City. We went to San Luis Obispo for a year. Mom tried her hand at blackjack dealing, but she said Reno wasn’t no good for raising kids.
Where was your dad?
I don’t remember him real clear.
Off to war?
Nah. His voice was completely flat. There wasn’t no war.
One cold, clear day over Christmas vacation, Virgil brought a length of rope to my yard and tied a lasso, which he twirled aimlessly while reciting tiresome boasts about all the rodeo awards he’d won. He claimed to have once wrangled a calf in five-eighths of a second. I doubted aloud that he could wrangle a calf if he had a whole day to do it.
I’ll wrangle you, he said.
Go ahead, partner, I replied, sure that he’d bungle it and I’d be able to rip the cover off another of his yarns.
But Virgil had another prodigious talent besides lying, and that was knots. He looped my wrists and bound them to my ankles so quickly I felt like livestock. I was helpless, my feet behind me in the air and my head pulled awkwardly back. I couldn’t get loose no matter how I tried.
Let me loose, I said.
You thought I was never in a rodeo, Virgil crowed, but I hogtied you good.
OK, you’re a rodeo star. Now untie me.
Virgil laughed and crossed his arms.
When I get out of this, I’m going to hang you from a tree, I told him.
I’d better not let you go then, he said.
I writhed and swore and got so mad I began to shout like Nick Stamoulos before he’d learned judo. A few kids, attracted by my yelling, came over to watch. Virgil stood by, snickering.
It was Bram who finally freed me when he came to gather up Virgil for dinner.
That night I wrote a song mocking Virgil: six full verses sung to the tune of “Davy Crockett.” Like all ridicule, the rhymes came easily. I sang the song at him the next day, my wrists still sore from his proficient knots. In attendance were Octavio and Wally, who laughed at each new line. Virgil walked away after the third verse, about how his father had abandoned him.
A few of the lyrics stuck and were sung with sadistic glee in the neighborhood and at school, sometimes even to Virgil’s face. I was applauded and congratulated. Virgil stopped coming over to Blue River Avenue after that, and he steadfastly avoided me at school. All the skilled torturers and persecutors on my street had been unable to penetrate his tough Texas pride, but I had scored a direct hit on the first try.
A few months before Virgil’s family moved away, Mrs. Dekker had a word with my father. He was furious with me. I was the only one that poor boy could call a friend, he said, and I had betrayed his trust and destroyed what was left of his dignity.
But Dad didn’t understand. For once I was popular. For once I belonged.