There’s always one kid in the neighborhood everybody loves to torment; in Windsor Heights it was me. My short list of therapy-inducing childhood memories includes being stuffed into a sleeping bag and tied to a tree branch, being locked in a garage and pelted with bottle rockets, and being excluded from everything potentially fun, competitive, or criminal. I would laugh about it later, of course, when I managed to reach adulthood.
But now I have a son of my own. His name is Aaron. The first blow hit him right in the freckles. I didn’t give him a brother and he never had many enemies, or friends, so it was his first fist to the face -- and it landed right where his mother kisses him at bedtime. That first punch, like a first kiss, sort of, without the spit, is something a guy never forgets.
The second blow knocked him off the curb and into the street. His backpack, a fifteen-pound pile of hardcovers he carried but never read, slid down off his shoulders and pinned his wrists to his sides. One of the boys planted a Nike: Aaron skidded out onto the asphalt, his shirt collecting all the grit and gravel within a spit-wad’s reach of our driveway, barely thirty feet from our front door.
No one saw a thing; I called around to ask.
In my mind’s eye I can see Aaron smiling as he’s falling, and he’s wearing one of those silly little grins -- he was always smiling at the wrong times. It never occurred to me to tell a nine-year-old not to grin if he was getting his tail kicked.
It was late afternoon when Katherine met me at the door with details and evidence in hand. Parenthood has a way of repeatedly pulling this kind of thing on you. Won’t there ever come a day when I see it coming? Maybe a red flag in the yard, so I know to keep on driving?
I examined his pants with the dirty shoe prints and a street-scuffed shirt with a heel mark, while Aaron stood, shifting from foot to foot, chewing his T-shirt. A dark saliva stain the size of a softball fanned out from the hem.
“Show your father your face,” Katherine said. “Show him your face, Aaron.”
Aaron stood before me. I couldn’t help but smile at first -- until I saw the welt beneath his eye. “Oh no,” I said, lifting a finger to touch it. He wouldn’t let me. “Was the kid who hit you wearing a ring?”
He popped the wet cotton from his lips. “Duh,” he said.
I’d spent half my life dreaming about things that never happen. But this? I grabbed my boy and squeezed -- his spindly body, smooth arms, elementary-school aroma -- and just like that got caught up in something. No doubt there’s a name for it somewhere in some parenting textbook I never read, a name that captures the notion that there’s a reservoir filled with everything we’ve ever held back, and that it can rise up and splash without warning.
“Let go of me,” he said.
I didn’t want to. Cross-examination time. “Do you know these boys?”
“Are they from your school?”
“Did you run into them on the playground or bump them or say something or…”
No, no, and no. He’d done nothing. I believed him. They’d followed him home from school and pounced.
“Man,” I muttered, flashing back decades to the angry face of Danny Murphy, the kid who chased me around a parked car screaming that he wanted to pound my face in. What had I done? Nothing! Not a thing! “We’re going to do something about this, Aaron. I’m going to do something,” I told him. “What they did was wrong.”
He looked at me and nodded.
“I’m going to stand up for you,” I said.
Why didn’t my old man ever say that for me?
Aaron provided a thin description of the perpetrators -- shirt and hair colors, tennis shoes -- and we set off on a bully hunt. It didn’t take long to spot one, and when I pulled up to the curb, just a block from our house, he took off. I threw the car in park and opened my door. A man in a nearby driveway stood hosing his cement. I went to him and asked if he knew where that boy lived.
He squirted a shot of water into his next-door neighbors’ yard. “Right there,” he said. “Joshua.”
I asked for the family’s name. He didn’t seem embarrassed about not remembering it: “We don’t get along that well.”
When I got back in the car I had more than a fleeting notion to tell Aaron I’d taken care of everything. Part of me wanted to lie and wish it all away, to tell him I’d just talked to one of the boys’ dads and that everything was taken care of. I yanked the keys from the ignition. “I know where one of them lives,” I sighed. “Come on.”
Joshua Templar's mother was preparing for a party, and in spite of the fact that she'd never seen me before, she opened her door wide enough for me to get a good look inside. Her living room was decked out with balloons and candles, and a table next to the baby grand piano was covered with silver-wrapped boxes. A dozen framed photos of smiling, well-dressed people lined the tabletops.
I introduced myself with a handshake -- who knew pressing the flesh was involved in getting to the bottom of such things? -- and told her where I lived. Then I introduced Aaron and told her my son had been “roughed up” on his way home from school. She gasped, naturally; one of those “In this neighborhood?” reactions. Aaron stood silently at my side, chewing the bottom hem of his shirt.
It wasn’t until I described the perpetrator’s hair and shirt color that the woman’s hand snapped up to her mouth. “Joshua?” she asked.
“I don’t know. But the one who punched his face wears a ring. You can still see the imprint on his cheek.” I pointed at my boy.
She leaned in for a look, and her lips moved. Her eyes welled.
I looked at Aaron, Aaron looked at me, and we both looked away and out toward the man still hosing his driveway. He gave us a thumbs-up.
As Joshua’s mother apologized, Aaron grew fidgety. He just wanted to see someone get whacked, or so I figured. Or maybe it was me.
Joshua, meanwhile, was nowhere to be found. I gave his mother my phone number, and we left with her promise that she’d call us when she got her hands on her son.
Forty minutes later we were back on the doorstep, but this time I was nervous. I’d had time to fantasize about outcomes. Was Joshua’s father going to be there too? Aaron was especially twitchy.