Why is it always me? I think as I scan the backs of shaved necks and pony tails attached to the dozens of boys and girls lined up three by three, row after row. Why are they safe?
The contorted face of a skull-headed boy, caught in a loop of stutters, attempts to spit out a word. No one cares to listen anymore. And the girl in front of me—someday she’ll be pretty, but today her face is trapped in a metal cage of braces and head-gear. Across the aisle another kid’s face is covered with a mist of connect-the-dot freckles. A stalactite of snot hangs from the nose of the boy beside him. We are all flawed in some way. That much is clear. But I’m the special one.
Our bodies bounce in unison to the school bus’s tires hitting potholes impossible to dodge. They seem as deep as the craters on the moon. I keep my head down, but I know it will begin the same way it always does. A simple act. The middle finger and thumb—pulled like a trigger and popped. And there it is—a slight but malevolent tweak of my ear. For a twelve-year-old boy this is a dangerous situation. A test that defines who you are. I could react, but I have learned repeatedly the benefits of humiliation and passivity.
I look out the window at the passing scene. The afternoon sun flashes behind buildings and trees creating a blur of colors. I squint until my eyes see only red. Unanswered, it happens again. My friends look away, just as cowardly as I would. They are nameless blanks now, but my tormentor’s face may as well be a family photo tucked in my wallet. My bully—Nelson. I own him as much as he owns me, but there’s nothing special about that.
I have what my mother calls “baby fat.” Nelson is fat, fat. The edge of his belly hangs from the tip of a perpetually dirty white t-shirt. A future grease monkey in search of a car. He has always been only slightly taller than me, but physicality can’t define us in full. What defines Nelson is joy. Lustful, unrepentant joy. I offer the slightest glance back. His lips curl into a sinister smile. I am learning, but I don’t fully understand, cruelty has its own pleasures.
My head turns back automatically. A ritual. There is a word for this moment: defeat.
“You got a problem?” he says.
“What’s your name today?”
This is something I can’t answer. I am Eric.
“I don’t know.”
“You know,” Nelson says, raising his voice.
The chatter stops.
“Yes,” I relent.
Nelson proclaims, “He knows his name!”
I know the names Nelson gives me. Sissy, crybaby, freak, chicken, retard. To a twelve-year-old’s mind, these words are knives waiting to be taken from whatever dark drawer in which they live.
“You don’t know…I’ll tell you your name.” He leans over the seat and whispers into my red ear with a snake-like hiss. “It’s pussy.”
My face burns red with embarrassment. Some unfamiliar boundary has been crossed. A jolt of the bus throws me back to an office party my dad gave at the house. A group of men are standing in a circle listening to him. Their faces red with knee-slapping laughter. Dad is either a king holding court or a court jester. Mom dances around the room, passing out drinks and hors d’oeuvres. I can read the expression on her face as she glances at dad—a mix of embarrassment and fear. The men love him though.
“She had a hot pussy, and you know what I was gonna do with that,” dad says as he grabs himself between his legs.
The men notice me standing in the doorway and the laughter comes to an abrupt halt. Dad looks down at me, his lips twisted into Nelson’s smile.
“He’s gotta learn some time.” The laughing begins again, uneasily.
“Tell them your name!” Nelson repeats. I say nothing. I hunch forward. Rub my sweating palms against my knees. A fist hits me in the center of the back.
“What is it!”
My lips form the P. A second fist lands and air escapes from the back of my throat.
“Pussy,” I choke.
Heads turn in unison. I’m surrounded by the black holes of gaping mouths.
Nelson snorts a laugh.
“I thought so,” he sneers.
Seeing my stop, I jump up to make my escape. I feel Nelson grab at the straps of my backpack, but I pull away, make the familiar walk of shame, pulling myself forward one bus bench at a time until I reach the front. In the mirror perched above the bus driver’s head, my reflection hovers next to hers. There is sadness in her face. When the bus lurches to a stop, a hand reaches out and grabs my coat sleeve as I attempt to exit.
“I’m sorry, Eric.”
My fists unclench, the nails disinterred from the flesh in which they were buried.
“You’re a good boy.”
I pull away. Her pity is humiliating. The gulf between the front of the bus and the back is an undiscovered universe.
A small group of boys exit at my stop—strangers brought together by our parents’ desire for a middle-class life. They are nameless now. Deposited and removed by a Mayflower truck. I have a black & white mug shot memory of us standing in a class photo, our faces dull and blank.
“Do you want to hang out?” I ask, though I usually don’t.
Heads hang down. They answer in successive, prescribed sputters.
R. Grayson Wills is a retired film production designer who now finds the joy of the written word more powerful than the screen image. Drawing inspiration from his favorite horror and science fiction writers of his childhood, Richard Matheson and Ray Bradbury, he finds that beyond the edge of a suburban backyard there is horror waiting and wanting to be discovered. Thanks to C.R.S. Grayson recommends The Whitney Plantation.