August 2017 . . . .

“The Head Librarian”

Not a big boy, not a bully because he was larger or older or stronger than other boys. Dark hair, untrimmed. Underwashed, but not grimy. Rather, dusty. like a child gets when playing in the attic. Deep-set eyes, bruised looking. A bully — thick of mind, surly and bored — that used to choose me out of all of the classrooms full of boys to be the target of his ire. I was the teacher’s kid. So, of course.

I was running home from school. I remember that I used to time myself, out the back door from school, across the yard and down the hill path through the woods. If I left early, I could be first to the crossing guard and then run all the way home. But sometimes I was behind, and then he and his . . . minions would be in front of me.

It wasn’t always a problem every day, I guess, because they liked to stop at the pizza place. Mary’s. I’d stayed after school for something, and was way behind the school crowd going home. Everything seemed OK. You know how you sometimes just have a feeling in your gut that things are alright, and you can relax, while other times there’s a sense of something just beyond the horizon, looming? It was that kind of day, a sunny afternoon with nothing but promise ahead, so I was just walking, looking around, on my own. I was so into my own world that I didn’t even suspect any trouble when I reached the pizza place, only thinking that it smelled terrific and how great it would have been to just open the door and stand in line and buy a slice to eat the rest of the walk home.

I should have known better than to glance in the front window of the pizzeria. I’d made it my practice never to do it, because there were other people there sometimes, older boys in middle school who hung out in the afternoon who sometimes picked on younger kids because no matter what they were doing a little kid was the most interesting thing to mess with in. I didn’t catch him looking at me, making a decision to stop whatever he was doing and come outside. I was past the pizza place when they pushed open the door and swaggered outside, behind me.

And I don’t know why they chose to say something first, call me a name, announce themselves, rather than just grabbing me and thumping. I turned and felt the blood rush from my head, a whistling in my ears, my legs going wobbly. This was before I ever learned to curse or I would probably have said something — holy shit! — and then wasted time looking for a reaction from them. I hadn’t yet learned the words “run like hell. ”

Instead I rabbited. Like something was on fire behind me. They took up the chase, immediately and so close I swear I could smell the sour of their bad breath. All these years later, I have a picture in my head of them, with dirty blue jeans and worn out work boots and tee shirts with the necks pulled out. Short hair sticking up, not lying flat against their heads. But I can’t see their faces in my mind. Only frowns. Always frowning. It must have been lousy to always be frowning when you’re a kid.

At the playing fields right next to the pizza place, I turned, all tactics and no strategy, skidding in the dirt and gravel, and scampering down into the grass in order to give myself the most space to run. A bad idea. They fanned out behind me, like Zeroes chasing a P-40. I thought I was fast enough to get away. I thought that fear, being afraid of being beaten up, gave me an edge.

I look in the mirror every morning. Older and heavier than that whipcord-thin ten or eleven year old boy who ran from bullies, my face scuffed with a weekend’s growth of beard, but he’s still there; threads in the fabric and weave of me. I am . . . fortunate that I can look back on such things without remorse or regret, able see them as they were, moments in the past and not nightmares that repeated and reopened old scars. Frankly, it is amazing that thinking about it now, as a story to share and not as a scar is my thing.

And then what happened?

He caught up to me, and tried to punch me. I didn’t see it, but I knew it was coming. He couldn’t be patient and wait for me to do something wrong so he could catch me, hold me down. We were running full tilt towards the middle school gymnasium across the playing fields. Maybe because of that it just wasn’t a good punch; a roundhouse thrown wild, his fist grazing along my scalp and tugging the hair on the back of my head. It jostled me forward. For a moment, I was afraid, certain I was going to fall down, and if I know these many years later that if I had they would be on me, not troubled that I was already hurt from the fall.

Falling, it would be like one of those nature programs on TV where the lions or hyenas are stalking wildebeest, and they close in and then the narrator begins to warn the viewer that, sorry, folks, it sure looks bad for the wildebeest but hey, after all, that’s nature — the great big ellipse of life. And then the claws reach out or the teeth chomp and the cameras prudently cut away to a commercial.

But actually getting hit, well, it made me mad (along with afraid and tired and, and and . . . .) Somehow, I got my feet under me again, without stumbling, without slowing down. And in the back of my mind, which was still thinking — as opposed to everything else about me which was trying to run, fast, and keep breathing and balance myself so I wouldn’t fall flat on my face and be eaten by the hyenas — I decided to turn back towards the sidewalk, out of the field. He went right by me when I juked.

Remember Gale Sayers? In my mind’s eye, I can see an old piece of black and white Wide World of Sports stock footage where the Bears running back is galloping full speed towards a defensive back, waiting with open arms, and then changes direction without giving any sign that he is going to do so, not slowing down or putting out his arms to balance himself. Then he just . . . turns and the defender is suddenly alone, as if in a vacuum, right up until the person chasing after Sayers collides with him, because he, too, just didn’t see the juke.

Amazing. I was . . . amazing.

It was a hell of a thing. I ran out into the street. I was getting so tired, and I knew that he would stop chasing me soon, but then one of his minions, laying back, resting, would take over. How hyenas do it, they hand off the chase to another member in the pack. Wild dogs do it that way, too. So I ran right out into the street, with all the cars and after-school traffic and everything. Drivers were slamming on their brakes and honking at me, but I kept on going, right down the middle of the street, along the white lines. I knew that it was a crazy thing to do — I did — but it was the only answer in my mind. And I guess I imagined they would be too surprised to follow me. Maybe my brain was starved for oxygen. I don’t know.

But you know what? They didn’t follow me, not into the road. I didn’t look back, either, to see if they were trailing along the sidewalk. And I couldn’t hear them shouting taunts, because of the street noise, people rolling down their windows, shouting at me to get out of the road, was I out of my mind, where were my parents? I didn’t care about that, either. I had just a little gas left in me, and with it I lit out for home. Down the middle of the street. Right down the dashes of the white lines, cars on both sides like . . . like a police escort.

But what I didn’t know was that he must have decided that today they weren’t going to give up so easily. I don’t know why. Maybe I made him madder by galloping out in the road. Maybe he really wanted someone to beat up that day, and having been so close to getting me whetted his appetite. But he kept going, right along the sidewalk, keeping pace with me. I wasn’t looking over I was busy enough — but I ran panting all the way past the middle school and past a dozen homes with Moms inside them or grandparents, maybe even sitting outside on lawn chairs wondering at the child in the street but not knowing, and he just watched me running and ran along himself. I can imagine that he didn’t worry that someone in a car would see him prowling along, stalking me in the road. He knew that the grown-ups were too busy watching me, hauling down the middle of the street like a lunatic. Sometimes — most of the time — grown-ups don’t see the things they’re supposed to be looking for, the dangerous things that haven’t yet happened, the smoke preceding real flames.

He knew where I lived, knew my house, and that’s the side of the street he was on. I think he was giving a thought to catching me right in the front yard, and pummeling me on my own lawn. Who would have stopped them? Mom didn’t get home from work until six; Dad was still at school. I couldn’t keep going forever, past our house and around the turn in the road and on down into the center of town, out the other side, east towards the ocean and on to, where, Normandy? But that would lead past his house — the house with the vegetable stand out front. I remember we used to buy tomatoes and pole beans from there. Maybe we stopped when he got older and started punching kids, beating up on other children.

In the history of a thing, the analysis that comes with years passing between a moment and surviving it to go on with your life, it is strange what sometimes is a necessary fact. Sandwich tomatoes and pole beans. And zucchini and summer squash that Mom would put in a hot frying pan to wilt and taste good with just a little salt on it. Sweet Jersey corn, too. Instead, we went to the stand near church instead — out of the way except on Sunday afternoons. His family’s stand got more ramshackle, didn’t it? Not newly painted each spring, and the screens replaced when they were torn by wind or winter ice? Or is my imagination repairing holes in my memory?

The car traffic from the junior-high petered out in front of our house. Not one adult stopped his car and got out to see what the problem was. Now, I thought. Now I could sprint across and get to the front door. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw him charging at me, like a bull buffalo, sweating and grimacing, his teeth showing as he panted. Split-second: I might make it, but what if I slipped on the gravel at the side of the road? What if he was only pretending he was tired? What if . . . ?

So I turned right instead of left when I reached our house. Away from the safety of our front porch, away from any traps or plans he might have been forming. Right up the walkway to the library, to the front door of the grown-up section. I hit that long bar-handle on the front door — you know the kind, when you push it too hard it makes a ridiculous banging noise. Well, it must have gone off like a gunshot, because Mrs. Yamashita, the head librarian, snapped around the corner from her desk when I roared into the room, frowning at me with her hands on her hips. She opened her mouth to scold me — probably in her softest whisper — but something about me, the way I looked, the jackrabbit fear in my eyes, stopped her. She waved me over. Are you thirsty? she asked me. I gulped. I couldn’t even catch my breath to say Yes, Ma’am. I just nodded. Come, she said, as if other grown-ups were seeing us and listening. I don’t want you to spill on the floor. She pointed at the stool next to hers behind the check-out counter. Sit here and I will get you a cup of water. I couldn’t tell if she was being stern with me. Her glasses were on — sometimes she wore them and other times no.

Then she walked away, left me on the stool behind the counter. It was library-quiet again. I could smell my own sour-sweat, and wiped my face with my shirt sleeve. It came away soaked. There were piles of books in front of me on the linoleum-topped counter being sorted, like sandbags blocking the view in and out. No one could see me, and I couldn’t see them. I cocked my ear to listen for that bar on the library front door to slam again. Would he follow me in? I didn’t put it past him — he’d thumped little kids before right in the school hallway or in front of the pizza place without a hint of hesitation that some adult might stop them. They seemed to have no fear of punishment.

The handle on the door mashed open with a bang, and it was him. I could hear him, or maybe now them, some or all, scuffling on the carpeted floor, breathing hard, mumbling. Mrs. Yamashita walked over like it was nothing. You boys need to take it outside. This isn’t a playground. One of them, maybe it was him but I couldn’t be sure, started to grouse at her; you know? That she wasn’t the boss of him and he could do what he wanted. I was afraid even to peek around the book-wall where I was hiding. But Mrs. Yamashita was having none of it. I said out, now, please, she insisted, her whisper as sharp as a blade. And they left.