Sixth-hour study hall was a gift: an entire hour in our high school library. I finished The Outsiders, a tiny masterpiece written by a girl my age about life in her city. Not New York, not Los Angeles, not Dallas. Tulsa, not even two hundred miles away.
Can it be that simple? Can I write about the teenagers in Hell Creek, about how high school endows the jocks and the cheerleaders with exceptional looks and groovy personalities, but afflicts the nerds and the losers with ruddy faces and funky personas?
I had started with Alcott in the literature aisle and, midway through sophomore second semester, I’d read through Graham Greene. I’d even read a magazine article on the Q Document, about how Satan had tempted Jesus in the desert. Tomorrow, I’d move onto Hemingway’s short stories and digest “Big Two-Hearted River.” After the final bell rang, I’d passed the hall leading to the back door when Spidey sense raked my spine. I turned around.
Like the Grim Reaper, Pickle Andersen had stalked me to the west exit, where my Schwinn was parked. “It was funny last week. Is it funny now?”
“Hey, Pickle, sorry. I didn’t mean to laugh. It probably sounded mean. I apologize.”
“PPPickle!” Spit sputtered from the janitor’s closet and fell into step beside his brother.
Two Andersens. Jesus, if you’re back from that desert, I might need your need help.
Spit’s gray uniform shirt hung from arms that were so short, his fingers probably didn’t touch the bottoms of his pants pockets. “Are you ssshitting me! You gonna let him get away with that?” His Cyrano de Bergerac nose flushed into red cheeks that appeared well slapped.
“My name is Dillon.” Pickle’s snarl matched the crimson of his Hell Creek Demons T-shirt. “Not Dill. Not Pick. Not Dill Pickle.”
“This is the guy who laughed at you?” Spit never pulled up his Dickies; the hems behind his heels dragged in tatters.
“Okay. Dillon, I promise . . . ” I reached for the back door. Maybe I can outrun them.
Scooter jerked open the door.
I lost my balance and stumbled. Hell, hell, the gang’s all here.
“What’s a matter? Can’t ssstand up?” Spit sputtered.
“You’re as funny as a ssscreen door on a ssspace ssship.” I instantly regretted that. Mockery is an underappreciated form of humor, especially when avoiding a confrontation.
Spit turned redder. “Cutie called Dillon ‘Pickle.’”
Scoot faked concern. “Oh. You shouldn’t. He hates that. We’re the only ones who call him Dill Pickle. Ain’t that right, Dill Pickle!”
Pickle inflated like a pufferfish. “You’re afraid of me.”
Five students saw the scared in me and stopped to watch the Friday Afternoon Fight.
“Okay, Dillon, A: big deal, everybody’s afraid of you. And B:” I dropped my voice, “don’t let your brothers do this. Don’t let them humiliate you.”
Spit’s face darkened to beet black. “What are you saying about my brothers?”
I was going to die anyway, so I did to Spit what I’d done to Biggy. Both wore their jeans too long. I lowered my pants past my hips and hunched my shoulders. “Amos Andersen.” The crowd tittered.
Bullies don’t care, do they, Gatsby? They smash, they retreat back into their vast carelessness, and they leave other people to clean up their messes. Scoot and Spit pretend to protect their brother but, of course, they torment him. Time to expose the Andersens for what they are. “Dillon, don’t let your brothers push us into a fight. I’ve never done anything to you.”
“He’s talkin’ shit about us,” Scooter sneered to Pickle.
Spit and Scooter don’t want to fight me; they want to torture me. Focus on Pickle. “Dillon, we can be friends.”
Spit pulled a custard doughnut out of a bag. “Who’s calling the ssshots, Pick? You gonna let Egghead talk you out of this?”
I snatched the oval pastry from Spit’s hand and stuck it on my head. I grinned and mugged the crowd: “I’m an egghead.”
The crowd smirked knowingly at each other.
Spit’s face turned apoplectic. With a thumb and index finger, he flicked the doughnut.
Yellow sauce flew onto the tip of my nose. I tasted it. “Mumm. Custard. My fave too. Okay, Spit, I know you don’t come from a warm, loving family, so someone needs to tell you: you’re overcompensating like crazy. The girls already know you have a Ken-doll penis.” Could you say anything stupider?
Spit leaned in. “Why don’t you go hang yourssself?” His sibilant droplets hit my ear.
Well, I keep thinking about killing myself. Maybe, after this is over . . .
Time slowed. I knew everyone in the crowd. They were mostly socials: Poodle Brown could’ve been a drum major if she’d been born with a Y chromosome. Twitch Baker lived on Country Club Drive; both of her sisters were cheerleaders. Twitch should have been, but she lost her sense of balance back in the fourth grade when her right ear got infected. It quivered so much, we called her Twitch. Minute Mann, her boyfriend since U.S. Grant Elementary, was where he always was, beside Twitch.
O’Murphy stood beside Sammie Davis Jr. Both looked concerned. I opened my mouth to say something, but Murph disappeared.
“Knock him down!” Spit shouted to Pickle. He held up both hands like a circus barker. “Destroy this skinny queerbait!”
Twenty students formed their own arena to watch the lions eat–well, me, actually. I was the apostate. My turn. I raised my voice. “Some people–let’s call them heartless bullies–use the term ‘queerbait’ to taunt smaller boys into fights they can’t possibly win.”
“He’s too ssscared to fight,” Spit interpreted for the crowd, “and he’s too ssscared to run.”
Perceptive, my dear Sssnidely Whiplash. But how do Pickle and Spit and Scooter and Biggy know that? I’m not afraid of blood, roller coasters or leftover chicken. How do bullies know which guy won’t fight?
“Kick him.” Spit, who was twenty now, had wrestled in high school. He leaned into his brother’s face like a coach. “Then sssweep. Take hisss legs out.”
Pickle kicked my thigh with his pin-box boot.
“Pickle, don’t.” It was like reasoning with a terrible two-year-old. But I didn’t feel much pain. I had never realized that before. Is pain easier to ignore during a fight?
“He’s ssstill ssstanding, you pussss!” Spit slurred. “Sssweep!”
“Anyone got a hanky?” I touched my chin. “Amos, you’ve got a little drool right here.”
Spit took the bait and wiped his chin.
“No,” I moved my hand across my cheek, “a little to the right.”
Spit’s jaw dropped when people in the crowd grinned.
“Joke. Sorry. That hurt your feelings?” Every time I zing, you stop to figure it out. Because your IQ is the caloric equivalent of Melba toast. Nineteen calories a slice.
Frustrated, Pickle looked at Spit but swept at my knees.
A half-dozen football players could’ve stopped the fight, but they just watched and smiled. Scooter leaned against the door frame with that dangerous James Dean grin.
This jerk has been given so many advantages, but he uses them to seduce a nice girl. “Why do you hurt your own brother, Spit?”
“Wha’d jou say?” Spit’s soul darkened his eyes.
That’s when I felt most afraid. But it was also when my face flushed. When I get mad, my brain blocks my vision and I lose control. Careful, anger resteth in the bosom of fools. My right hand clasped Spit’s left shoulder like I was imparting wisdom. “Sorry, I’ll speak more slowly. I said a low IQ is nothing to be ashamed of.”
Scoot knocked my hand off Spit’s shoulder without even moving his jackal eyes, and then punched both my jaws. Whap, whap.
“You like that, Smart Boy?” Scoot smiled cunningly.
“Kick the shit out of him,” Spit boiled. It was an order.
Pickle kicked. Wham. My left knee buckled.
Sammie Davis Jr. moved in front of me and mouthed, “Cross your arms.”
Pickle kicked. I X-ed. His boot heel snagged between my forearms. Off balance, he couldn’t pull back, and he couldn’t lift his foot higher without falling. His shoulders hunched round like Boo-Boo Bear, and he pitched forward to keep his balance. His panic sounded childlike, especially from such a badass. “Let go!”
If you show mercy, maybe he will too. I dropped my hands.
He kicked again.
I crossed my arms, and his heel fell into my right hand again.
“Leggo!” he screamed, terrified as a wiener over a campfire.
A movie played in my mind. If I lift his boot over my head, will his brain crack like an egg on the sidewalk? Can I then leap onto his chest, pin both his arms with my knees, and beat his nose bloody? No. Don’t. Respect the code. Fight only to protect others.
“If you don’t let me go, I’m gonna kick the shit out of you!” Pickle’s voice rose an octave.
“If you promise to leave me alone.”
“All right. Let go.”
Now I felt a different vibe from the crowd: from first grade to high school, the Andersens had picked on dozens of us. The twenty or so who surrounded us sighed a crescendo, relieved that the Andersens’ reign of terror might end. I saw admiration on their faces. For me. I released Pickle’s foot. “Are you neo-Neanderthals done?”
Spit and Pickle looked at each other, dumbfounded.
Oh feces. If you had just kept your self-righteous mouth shut, this humiliation would be over. There was O’Murphy again. Out of breath.
Spit turned to his brother. “Kick him in the gut,” he commanded.
Given permission to break his word, Pickle kicked for my stomach.
I X-ed once more, and this time, I looked him in the eyes and lifted an inch.
For a moment, his free knee wobbled. Nothing was within reach, not even his brothers. His fear was uncontrollable. His eyes shrieked his horror.
“Break this up!” We all knew Mr. Boone’s voice.
I held fast to Pickle’s foot.
Scooter gave me the death stare. But where had Spit–our high-school janitor–gone?
I wanted to tell Mr. Boone that they’d started it, but that would break the Ninth Commandment: Thou shalt bear no witness against thy fellow student. Even if they’re kicking thy butt in the parking lot.
Mrs. Lane moved between us. “Cutie, let go of Dillon’s foot.”
I let go.
“Shake hands,” the principal commanded.
I held out my hand, feeling more adult than I ever had. “Dillon, I never wanted to fight. I have no reason to hate you. Forget your brothers. Let’s be friends.”
In that moment, something changed in Dillon’s eyes.
O’Murphy looked directly at me and then, a guilty look on her face, took Scooter’s arm.
Now what did that mean?
“Both of you. Take off,” Mr. Boone commanded.
“But . . . ” I started.
“Don’t come back next week.” Mr. Boone wanted no conversation.
“ . . . it wasn’t my fault.”
“Suspensions are automatic for fighting on the school grounds,” Mrs. Lane interpreted. “You’ll have to appeal to the school board to get back in class.”