Paul Dabuse was the toughest kid in the seventh grade and I knew this because I once saw him fight. It was enough to brand him in my brain as someone I didn’t want to mess with. He strutted around the playground with a runt named Timmy Norden, who was what Lee Van Cleef was to Lee Marvin in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Norden hung around Paul, hoping to pick up tips in terrorizing from the master. To paraphrase the companion Gene Pitney song (which never made it into the movie) “when it came to punching straight and fast, he was mighty good.”
Benji Hall was the biggest kid in the class. He was loud, obnoxious and smart, and pissed off a lot of people just by his fiendishly sharp grasp of current events and general know-it-all attitude. His bad wiffle1, to which he applied an inordinate amount of Wiffle-Stick2, didn’t help. However, nobody seemed to scare him, so he became one of my secondary friends. One day in history class there was a discussion about who was going to win the presidential race later that year. Benji said his father gave him a Kennedy campaign button, and he took it out and waved it around.
“Yeah, you wear that,” Paul said, “and you’ll look like a big dink. Hey, you already are one.”
Everybody in class laughed and Miss Kenney slammed her textbook down, then tried to stare down the brewing tension.
Benji turned around and said, “Better a big dink than a little turd!”
“Whoaaaa!” The class roared.
“We’ll have none of that talk in my class,” said Miss Kenney. “Civil discourse only, people!”
Paul said nothing but he did shoot Benji a death gaze. We all knew what that meant.
That afternoon Paul cornered Benji and demanded he apologize for insulting him “in front of everybody.” Benji tried ignoring him until he called Jack Kennedy a “pussy” and said that Nixon was going to wipe up the floor with him.
“As if I’m gonna apologize to a twerp like you!” said Benji.
Let me interrupt this altercation to explain about suburban schoolyard fights of 1959. The rules differ somewhat from the Marquess of Queensberry Rules of 1867.
- Boxing only, no kicking, biting or scratching unless absolutely necessary.
- Marquess of Queensberry Rules state that when one man is knocked own,”the other man is to return to his corner.” Ignore that. If you knock your opponent down, it’s okay to jump on them and throttle them.
- Marquess of Queensberry Rules state: “No wrestling or hugging allowed.” If you’re already on top of your opponent, hug and wrestle all you want.
- If you make an appointment to fight after school, show up on time. If you’re late, your opponent can punch you first, as many times as the minutes you’re late.
- You are allowed to bring as many as two seconds to protect you against being jumped by the other side’s seconds, in case you win. If you fail to do this, it’s possible you could win and lose at the same time.
- The fight is over if your adversary starts crying, says “lemme go!” or “I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” in the loudest possible voice. Do not say “Uncle.” That went out with old Little Rascals shows.
- The fight can also be over if much blood is spurting out of someone’s nose and the other combatant is wearing a non-red shirt.
- If a school official intervenes, neither combatant can run away. Both must accept their just punishment like true fighting men. Explaining what the fight was all about is voluntary, but not advised.
- If you cancel a fight, or back out for any reason, your adversary may bad-mouth you and your family and friends for at least six months.
Now back to the fight.
Paul cocked back his fist and smashed Benji right on the left nostril. It was like what I’d read about a guided missile. Straight and deadly. A hooting crowd immediately formed, just like in Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954). Blood gushed all over Benji’s tie, which he wore every day, complete with an outsized clippership tie clip. He swung madly left and right and missed each time. Had he connected with his massive bulk behind him, he probably would have knocked Paul down. Benji moved faster than most big kids and squished Paul against the wall. He landed a few punches, but they just hit Paul on the forearms. “Whoa! That tickles!” said Paul. Benji suddenly grabbed him in a bear hung and was about to pull him down.
“Watch out Paul!” said Timmy, “he’s trying the ole squasheroo!”
Paul punched his way out of Benji’s bear hug and from that point on the battle was over. Benji got a second nosebleed and stopped to dig his handkerchief out, and Paul moved closer to deliver the final one-two.
He never got the chance.
“Enough of that, you two!” It was vice principal Frank Picard. He grabbed both boys by the arms and “escorted” them into the building. Picard was the panjandrum of Richmond Junior High. Even in those days, he was old-fashioned-looking. Like the writer H.L. Mencken, he parted his hair in the middle.3
Parents loved Picard. At the one school committee meeting I had to go to, “Welcome to Junior High,” Picard read his speech to students and parents. “There is no such thing as a bad boy,” he concluded. “Only a good boy who’s gone wrong. We must try our darndest to guide him back on the right path.” My mother was so impressed she couldn’t stop talking about him all the way home. I soon found out why. A couple of weeks later, she made me watch Boys Town, second time in less than a year. Then I heard the same quote emerge from Father Flanagan. My mother never noticed, but the school vice principal had actually plagiarized a movie priest.
Paul and Benji were in Picard’s office a whole period, and both stayed after school for two hours. They had to write essays about being tolerant of other people’s opinions. Paul never finished his, or so he said. I wondered what detention felt like, as I watched Benji and Paul get dragged away by Picard. Did he threaten them? Give them a lecture? I had no way of knowing then, but I’d soon find out. And it would not be at all what I expected.
A couple weeks later before class I was sticking gummed reinforcements on the loose-leaf sheets of my English homework, then inserting each page into my notebook. For some reason this infuriated Paul. “The fuck you doing, Bates? You a retard?” For some reason addressing someone by only their last name was a sign of reproach. He pushed my notebook so hard it almost fell off my desk, but the gummed reinforcements did and went all over the floor, which was still wet from a recent rainstorm. “Well I was putting gummed reinforcements on.” Why’d I bother telling him that? It had zero effect.
“Sorry, I was wrong. You’re not a retard. You’re a sissy.”
He didn’t mean “sissy” in the sense that I had sex with other boys. Twelve-year-olds had absolutely no idea what that meant (in 1959). To them it usually meant geek, like somebody who’d put gummed reinforcements on loose-leaf pages so they wouldn’t rip out. There were only two of us who did that: me and … Benji.
That was the beginning of my sissy tag but it didn’t stick long because it quickly peeled off to make room for “fairy.” That name did have a sexual component; it was someone who goosed other boys when they weren’t looking. Paul threw the word around every chance he got. His favorite place was the gym locker room. “Watch your balls, here comes the fairy.” When I started to hear the “whooaaa” chorus again, I knew something had to be done. What, I had no idea.
“I’m not a fairy,” I said, and the locker room echoed back “a fairy.”
“Yeah? Prove it. What are you gonna do about it?”
He had me there. No way I was going to fight him in the locker room. I’d get creamed and the next day it would just happen again. Shuffling back to class, I fantasized about bringing my black forest dagger4 to school, the one I got for nine dollars from the back of a comic book. I could whip it out brandish it in his general direction, and scare the shirt out of him. But with my luck, he’d just take it away from me and bop me over the head with its claw-and-ball handle.
So what was I gonna do? I biked home and called up my junior high advisor, Channing Johnson.
Channing was two years older than me and taught me the facts of life last summer when we spied a girl and some guy copulating in the woods.
When I explained the Paul situation to him, he immediately devised a plan. He always did and many of them got us into trouble, but some didn’t so we just kept doing them.
Channing ran his hand through his hair, which was permanently messed up. Other people called it curly. “Wait, his father owns that real estate office downtown, right? Cozy Town Realty? So make a long-distance call and have the phone company charge it to them.”
“What good would that do?”
“Vengeance. Think of it as religious. ‘Vengeance is mine saith the Lord.’ It’s in the Bible. Look it up.”
“You can do that kind of thing?”
“Sure you can. Jay told me about it.” Jason “Jay” Manfred was much older than us, sixteen, and worked on weekends as an orderly at the Hunt Memorial Hospital. His favorite part of the job was peeking at women when they bent over, wearing only their johnnies.
“I get to see everything,” he said and was kind enough to tell us which everythings and their respective sizes.
“He does it all the time , calls some broad in Florida. Important thing is he gets away with it every goddam time. So can you. Know somebody who lives far away?”
I didn’t have to think long. “Yeah, Jenny Schauer. She used to be my girlfriend.” By “girlfriend” I meant someone I’d said hi to and smiled at, and if I got lucky she’d smile back. What else could it mean? We were seven. Jenny was spunky. She warded off pesky boys in the playground by saying she knew “Indian tricks.” She would flutter her hands like window-crashed starlings and scare them worse than a ghost from The House on Haunted Hill. At the end of the school year she moved to Minnesota but still wrote me letters. One of them contained her phone number.
I followed Channing’s instructions and had the operator bill Paul’s family business. She was very helpful, but just to be safe, I placed the call from the phone booth in front of Chet’s Auto Service.
Jenny was first surprised then delighted to hear from me. I told her I had always been impressed with how fast she read aloud through the Alice and Jerry books, never stumbling over hard phrases like “walnut shell” and “fence post.”
“Oh, I still like to read,” she said. “Right now I’m reading My Friend Flicka by Mary O’Hara.”
“I read horse books too,” I said. “I’m reading The Black Stallion and Satan and I just finished The Black Stallion Revolts.” I had no idea who wrote them.
“Oooo Satan? Revolts?” she said. “Those sound interesting. No, nevermind. Those are just boys’ books. I don’t ever read boys’ books.”
So we went on talking about her new dog, which her mother called the “piddlin’ pup” even in public, and the time they went to Yellowstone National Park but didn’t see Old Faithful erupt because her father got impatient when it was late, and the next-door neighbor who didn’t mow his lawn and “God knows what’s living there, I’m afraid to cut through,” and little sister who swiped her poodle necklace but she caught her wearing it at school (“How dumb is that!”), and Jacko’s gooshy Valentine’s card that wasn’t signed but she knew it had to be him, and the gooey Chinese food they were supposed to eat tonight for the second time this month, and “by the way what have you been up to, besides calling me?” We went on like this for about an hour. I must’ve racked up a huge phone bill but did I care? I’d never talked to a girl that long before and it felt almost as good as reading a swiped Playboy magazine. Just before we hung up she said “you know I really didn’t know any Indian tricks. I just made that up.”
I couldn’t believe it. I’d just made a phone call across the country to my old girlfriend and Paul had paid for it! Well, maybe his father. I had no idea it would be this easy. But I was gonna call her again real soon. I was starting to see a future in this. I could call her every week or so, tell her all about what was happening at school and all about my friends that she used to know. And maybe someday if she returned with her family for a visit, we could actually go out on a real date.
A couple of days later I called her again. She didn’t seem so happy. “The phone company talked to my mother this morning.”
Jenny’s mother had come up to her room with some paper in her hand. The billing office must have figured out an illegal call had been made to their house and charged elsewhere and they wanted to know who’d done it.
“She says ‘You get a call from somebody in Danvers?’ And I go, ‘Oh sure, people call me all the time and say where they’re calling from. Like “Hi Jen, this is Ray and I’m calling from Coon Rapids,” “hi Jenny this is Susie and I’m calling from White Bear Lake.” Like that ever happens.’ She just stared at me – don’t ask me what she was thinking – and I kept staring back and she walked out.”
“Hmm, that’s interesting, very interesting, wonder what that could mean,” I said slowly, stalling for time till I could think of some excuse that sounded believable.
“Wonder what they do when they catch a someone who steals phone calls like that. Lock him up, do you think?” There was a long pause, because she’d hit on the problem. I couldn’t think. “It was you, wasn’t it?”
“Could be. Or maybe it was some guy who’s me in another dimension, one of sight and sound.” Silence. “You know, like in The Twilight Zone?”
“Twilight Zone? What’s that?”
Suddenly my friendly call to a girl whose current prettiness I could only imagine had changed into a James Cagney movie and there I was – cornered like a gangster with an empty .38 Special. The jig was up and I was in for it. Worse, I even started wondering if I could have a girlfriend who had no idea what The Twilight Zone was. Had I suddenly put a restriction on who could become my girlfriend? Had I become picky in ten minutes? Could beggars be choosers?
“Yeah, okay. So now what? I get thrown in the clink?”
“Peter, that’s not the point. The real question I want to know is. . . are you a juvenile delinquent?”
Now that stung. I’d seen Frankie Lyman & The Teenagers on American Bandstand sing “I am Not a Juvenile Delinquent,” and while I wasn’t the perfect little boy with his sweet high voice, I knew what I was and what I wasn’t.
“No! Definitely not! I do not break windows, tease animals or deceive adults except the time I snuck my dog that acorn squash that had some disgusting sauce on it.” And I certainly didn’t own a switchblade like Jay Manfred. No siree it was a straight Boy Scout knife for me. I did, however, hang out with Channing Johnson, whom my mother referred to as “one damaging companion you could get rid of, one-two-three, and you’d never miss him.”
“I heard JD’s are sneaky,” she said with a mocking chuckle. “And deceitful. Well, nice talking to you, Peter, but you’re trouble.”
“What d’you mean?”
“Sorry, I take it back. You’re double trouble.”
“No I’m not!”
“Do me a favor. Don’t call here again.”
“Wait,” I said at the exact time she hung up on me. So ended my telephone romance with the possibly comely Jenny Schauer. I suppose I felt sorta bad, as if Paul had ambushed me and knocked the wind out of me with one hydraulic punch. So what was I supposed to do next? Call the phone company and offer to give the money back? How much would that set me back? I was certainly not going to turn myself into the Danvers Police. I decided to go to confession the next day. That had to be the safest solution. Priests aren’t allowed to tell on you because of the seal of confession. I saw it in a movie. He’d probably give me a whole rosary worth of prayers for penance, and that would be it. I’d be all straight with God and that was enough.
But even that didn’t happen. A day later hurricane Donna struck suddenly and all my lingering guilt blew over with the towering black ash that had so lately graced our backyard. It was a particularly messy storm: branches and leaves all over the place, downed power lines, the sounds of power saws whining in the distance for several days. Even the phones were out for a whole day.
On top of the hurricane, I still had to deal with Paul Dabuse. Nothing had changed with that, except this: Three days later when school reopened, I didn’t see him around. Almost a whole week went by and he was still absent. Maybe he was sick with some week-long version of the “24-hour grippe?” Billy Bart said Paul’s dad had probably stuck him in reform school. Steven Wright, a victim of Paul’s “quarters for protection” racket, got a chuckle when he said he saw a corpse with Paul’s coat on, rotting in a culvert. But he couldn’t remember which one. I got a bigger laugh when I said that he’d tried to pick a fight with the hurricane and it sucked him up like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Benji suggested we ask Vice Principal Picard, but nobody ever did.
We didn’t want to know that bad. But we’d soon find out anyway.