Given the treatment he got for a little truancy from his brotherly duties, I don’t know how I thought I could get away with what I did soon after. In fourth grade, I thought I could get away with anything. I was scrawny, short, and strawberry-blonde. My appearance, high grades, and good classroom behavior led all my teachers to describe me as “angelic,” which of course pleased my mother greatly.
However, these beautiful things I had been graced with did little to win me approval with my classmates. Being the teachers’ favorite, I was marked. So I was subjected to all the little cruelties for which schoolchildren are notorious. I was picked last for every sport. Children spit at me from behind so I couldn’t tell who did it. I yearned to take the burning clump of blood in my throat and force it down theirs, but the targets of my revenge were too obscure and numerous—too tightly allied by imbecile, grinning camaraderie. In my helpless rage and weakness, it seemed natural to me to turn on someone weaker.
The only person available was Lyle Christen, an overweight, brown-eyed boy whose existence was generally ignored. I saw his father once, when he visited our class on career day: a reedy, wiry-haired, bespectacled man with a thin mustache who introduced himself as a newspaper copy editor. I wasn’t surprised. The effect on Lyle’s reputation was nil. If he had any friends who existed outside of his imagination, I never saw them.
Academy Elementary School was a cluster of squat, squared buildings, seemingly laid out in no order at all, with a large green field behind it that gradually rolled up into a low ridge. Looking to escape the other kids, I found every gravelly nook, every crumbling-stucco alley, and every crawlspace beneath outdoor machinery that there was on that campus. My intimate knowledge of the school left nowhere for Lyle to hide. Through all those months in which I dealt out every cruelty—offering no explanation, no warning, but always looking him in the eye—he lacked against me the only advantage I had against the others, or any advantage at all. He was cornered. I think that’s what finally made him desperate.
One day in early February, I had Lyle holed up underneath the water pumping controls affixed to the faded brick back of the gymnasium. I was standing on the grass, halfheartedly poking him with a stick. Just another day. I had lost interest in him, whimpering and cowering as he was. It was chilly and the smell of rain was in the air. Lyle’s jacket lay where I had thrown it on the ground, and he was shivering. The gravel dug into him from underneath and the icy metal pressed down on him.
Finally, carefully, he began to crawl out. Looking up at the clouds, I didn’t even notice as he stood up in front of me and drew back his chubby fist. A second too late, my ears noticed the air parting to make way for Lyle’s closed hand to wallop me in the gut. I was too surprised to make any sound and went straight down onto my knees. Lyle ran away, around the corner and towards the playground, tears in his eyes. As I knelt on the turf, all I could think about was how his fist had felt strangely warm as it squashed my intestines back up against my spine.
As he sat on the seat to my left, with that same hand cuffed behind him, I went back to that time and tried to think what was different. I didn’t have that burning. It hurt, yeah, but that was all.
Afterward, I decided an appropriate course of action would be to rat on him, so he had a talk with the principal and his teacher. Sitting in a too-large chair outside the office, glared at by the fluorescent lights, I could hear Lyle inside trying to explain what happened, but they wouldn’t even let him speak. There was no excuse, they said, for hitting.