Facing the Bullies
by Morris Marshall
Judith looked like she’d just bitten into a lemon. “You’re not actually thinking of buying that?”
“I like it, Hon,” I replied, whisking the T-shirt away to the checkout counter before she could change my mind.
Her heels clicked behind me. “I thought you were looking for a dress shirt, Mark.”
We were browsing for summer clothes in the local Value Village. The ripped black T-shirt had an iron-on picture of heavy metal band AC/DC live in concert. Vintage early eighties. It reminded me of a simpler era in which we broadcasted preferences on clothing rather than on Facebook or Twitter. It also triggered a torrent of old memories.
That evening, after Judith had gone to bed, I tiptoed upstairs. My grade nine yearbook was in the bottom drawer of our dresser. I returned to the living room, sat down in my La-Z-Boy, and flipped through the student photos.
September 1983. Jack Edwards, Nick Delacroix and I had just entered Apex High School in Toronto. We’d been kings in grade eight but now faced older students who’d trip you in the hallways or stuff you into a locker.
Like any high school, Apex had cliques: Jocks, Rockers, Nerds, Preps and Druggies. Jack had played soccer in grade eight and magically sprouted four inches over the summer. Nick, a guitar virtuoso, impressed girls with his renditions of “Stairway to Heaven.” I studied and scored straight A’s.
The summer before high school I put heel lifts in all my shoes. When I tried growing my hair like the members of Rush, my favorite rock band, my dad marched me off to Ray’s Barber Shop. When I purposely stepped on my glasses and asked for contacts, mom purchased a pair of Honest Ed’s black-rimmed glasses that said, “Looking for someone to pick on? Look no further!”
Jack and Nick had protected me since grade four in exchange for math tutoring. When an older kid named Lorenzo snatched my trick-or-treat bag, I ran home crying to my parents. The next day, Lorenzo came to class with a fat lip. In grade six, Nick chased away Davy “Doughboy” Rizzuli who routinely pushed me to the sidewalk and sat on me until I couldn’t breathe. This year, for the first time since we’d met, Jack, Nick and I had different schedules.
The second week of classes, I sat beside Judith Misener, grade eight valedictorian, in the front row of Typing 101. She smiled, fluttered her eyelashes at me behind her glasses. “Congratulations, Mark, on winning the math award last year.”
Before I could respond, a long shadow glided across the floor and stopped in front of my desk. “That’s my seat, Shorty!”
The voice’s owner towered over me. He had a big head and dyed blond hair that spilled luxuriously down the back of his black leather jacket. His brown eyes stared at me as though he were a mother bird defending her chicks against an invading racoon. He smelled like a potent mixture of leather, sweat and Ralph Lauren Polo cologne.
“There are plenty of seats, Alex,” Judith said.
He shook my desk. “I’m waiting, Shorty.”
The buzz of conversation dwindled. My face flamed as people stared.
“Jerk,” someone whispered.
I grabbed my books, scrambled to my feet and sat down between Darrell Eastman, the only kid in class shorter than me and Gordie Smith, a.k.a. Tinsel Teeth. Mrs. Tuttle entered the room and put on a tape. A deep voice said, “Standard keyboard position, everybody. A-A-A space, S-S-S space, D-D-D space...”
Alex Pappas was three years older than the rest of us. He always wore baggy black jogging pants even though tight jeans were in style. The only time he smiled was when he was intimidating someone, which was often. He loved strutting down the crowded hallways after school, screaming “COMING THROUGH” in a mock Arnold Schwarzenegger voice just before he’d bump you and send you flying into a locker. Then there were his trademark handshakes. He’d extend his hand to shy students. When they’d reach for it, he’d pull it away at the last second, laugh and stroke his hair. We whispered about Alex, always making sure to first look over our shoulders:
He’s been in jail for murder.
His father’s in a biker gang.
He sold pot to my sister last—
He never changes for gym with us. Maybe he’s ashamed of the size of his—
By October 1983, Jack, Nick and I had settled into our lunch hour ritual. We spent ten minutes lining up for beef patties and cocoa bread at a nearby Jamaican bakery. After wolfing them down, we still had 45 minutes for snooker at Fast Eddie’s Billiards. Instead of betting money, we adopted the “Loser Pays for Table” Rule.
“Alex has a major attitude problem,” Nick said one Friday as he took his pool shot. “Let’s put a stink bomb in his locker.”
Jack smiled and his eyes glazed over. “Not bad, but I have a better idea. We’ll get him soon enough.”
“I can’t wait,” I replied. “He’s such a jerk.”
The pool hall door opened. A cool breeze carried in stray leaves and the scent of Polo cologne. As Alex walked toward us, students parted like rows of corn rustling in the wind. I hadn’t noticed before, but he was limping as though he’d banged his left leg against something. His right leg would sweep forward in a circular motion and land on the ground with the left leg lagging stiffly behind. Alex stopped beside our table, opened the slim case under his arm and assembled his customized pool cue.
My breath lodged itself in my throat. “I... I have class in five minutes.”
Alex blocked my exit. “Wait, Shorty.” He placed a fifty-dollar bill on the pool table. “Here’s the deal: if you win, you get this cash. If I win, you tutor me in math tomorrow at my place.”
Jack stepped forward. “Mark doesn’t have time for you. He already tutors Nick and me.”
“Yeah,” Nick agreed, standing behind Jack.
I wondered if Alex had earned the fifty dollars selling pot. If I walked away now, I’d lose what sliver of self-respect remained.
Students congregated around the table and one of them racked up the balls. I sat down and waited for Alex to take his turn. He reminded me of Paul Newman in The Hustler as he waltzed around the table, deftly setting up a red ball, then following it up with a well-placed colour. He repeated this pattern multiple times. After sinking his last ball, he looked at me and smiled. Then he reached into his pocket. “Here’s directions to my house, Shorty,” he said, handing me a sheet of paper. “See you tomorrow morning at ten.”
That night, I dreamed that I’d gone to Alex’s home to tutor him. When I rang the doorbell, a man with long greasy black hair and an eye patch answered. The left side of his black leather jacket bore a large red “E”: Easy Riders Motorcycle Club. In a raspy voice, he said, “My son better get an A on his next math test.” He produced a switchblade from his jacket pocket, clicked it open and smiled, showing off a mouthful of rotting brown teeth. I screamed and sat up in bed.
Before leaving for Alex’s Saturday morning, I checked his address: 255 Galbraith Road. My parents and I had driven along it last Christmas, marveling at the brightly lit Tudor-style mansions, spacious yards and two-car garages. I opened my backpack, inserted my math textbook and “Basic Taekwondo,” a Korean picture book to memorize on the bus ride there.
Animal-shaped hedges surrounded Alex’s two-story house. Pink flamingos occupied his neatly trimmed lawn. As I came up the front walk, the curtain on the upstairs window parted. I rang the doorbell, suddenly aware how Daniel must have felt before entering the lions’ den.
A shadow drifted across the frosted hallway window and the door creaked open. A slim middle-aged woman with salt-and-pepper hair peered out. “You must be Mark,” she said in a Greek accent. Wrinkles formed around her eyes and mouth as she smiled. “I’m Mrs. Pappas, Alex’s mom. Come in.”
I removed my shoes and followed her into the living room.
“Alex isn’t feeling well this morning. I’ll go get him.”
A plate of cookies and a black photo album graced the living room coffee table. I picked up the album, leafed through the images: Alex, in black jogging pants, pushing a lawnmower around the backyard; a yellowed newspaper article with the headline ‘Car Accident Kills Prominent Toronto Businessman; Eight-Year-Old Son in Critical Condition.’ In another photo, a dark-haired boy leaning on crutches, his left leg amputated at the knee, his brown eyes staring morosely into the camera.
I turned, wondering how long Alex had been standing there. “Could you please stop calling me that?”
He smiled. “No problem, Mark. My homework’s upstairs.”
My heart pounded as we mounted the staircase. “If you’re too sick, I can come back later.”
“My leg was sore,” Alex said, “but I’m fine now.”
Posters of heavy metal bands wallpapered his bedroom walls and milk crates full of record albums littered his room like minefields. AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” screamed from a large boombox on his dresser.
Alex turned down the music. We sat on his bed and spread out our papers. Dimly, as if from a distance, I heard myself explain how to solve linear equations, but my mind kept returning to the boy in the photo album. His sad brown eyes. His amputated leg.
Alex looked up from his textbook. “What are you staring at, Mark?”
“Nothing,” I stammered.
Around noon, Mrs. Pappas appeared with plates of Greek salad and Souvlaki. She set them down and rested her hand on Alex’s shoulder. “I’m so glad you’re tutoring my son, Mark. He talks about you constantly.”
After Mrs. Pappas left, I asked Alex, “How’d you become so good at pool?”
He led me to the basement and turned on a Tiffany lamp. Light flooded down onto a slate-topped pool table and a glass display case containing several trophies.
“Yours?” I asked, pointing at the case.
“My dad’s. He died when I was a kid.”
Alex nodded. “I still miss him sometimes.”
I grabbed a cue and lined it up for a shot.
Alex came alongside me. “Bend closer to the table, Mark, with your chin against the cue. Focus on the angle between the target ball and pocket.”
I followed his directions and sank several balls.
“See? It’s all in the angles, just like math.” Alex showed me the new black AC/DC T-shirt his mom had bought him for his 17th birthday. He passed me a blue Rush T-shirt.
I smiled. “How’d you know?”
“I overheard you talking to your friends.”
* * *
On Monday morning, Jack and I hopped a fence and took the railway tracks to school. We discussed the Toronto Maple Leafs’ recent five-game winning streak and Michael Jackson’s newly released Thriller video.
“I actually enjoyed tutoring Alex,” I said, easing into the subject. “He’s a decent person.”
“How can you say that, Mark, after all the crap he’s pulled? He’s using you.”
“Maybe if you got to know him, you’d change your mind.”
Jack contorted his face. “I don’t want to know that loser.”
Second period math class dragged as Mr. Murchie explained how to solve two-variable word problems. As I took notes, Darrell Eastman slapped my back and pointed at the door. A face smiled at me through the window.
I raised my hand. “Sir, can I go to the washroom?”
A chorus of voices greeted me outside class. “Quick, Mark, get downstairs to the gym! You got to see this!”
“Clanging” sounds came from inside the Boys change room, punctuating the silence of the basement hallway. Then cheers a few seconds later. I almost expected a matador and bull to appear as I opened the change room door and pushed my way through a circle of students.
Jack and Nick had Alex pinned against a locker. Blood streamed from his nose and his new AC/DC shirt looked as if a frenzied mob had tried to tear it off. His black jogging pants hung around his right ankle, exposing his shortened left leg. His prosthetic leg lay on the floor of a bathroom stall.
Nick smiled when he saw me. “He really had it coming, eh, Mark?”
Before I knew what was happening, my left fist shot forward, connecting squarely between Jack’s shoulder blades. A wave of pain surged up my arm.
Jack turned, glared at me. “Are you crazy, Mark?” He shoved me and I stumbled backward, striking my head against a locker. My glasses plunged to the floor and shattered. Everything went blurry, but I could still see Alex collapse.
“You wanted this more than anyone,” Nick said.
He was right. I had wanted this. Just days ago, I would have spit in Alex’s face myself as he lay on the floor bleeding, but now...
Footfalls outside the change room, getting closer. The door opened and Mr. Alexander, our gym teacher, ran inside, breathing heavily. “JACK. NICK. PRINCIPAL’S OFFICE. NOW.” He leaned down and examined Alex. “Can you make it to the nurse’s office, son?”
“I’ll take him,” I said. Somehow, despite my blurred vision, I scooped up his prosthetic leg from the bathroom floor.
Alex blinked, sat up slowly and wiped his nose with his sleeve. He pushed his hair away from his face. Once on his feet, he began hopping to the stairs, his right arm crushing down on me for support. I stood up, determined not to collapse, like Atlas balancing the weight of the Earth on his shoulders.
When we reached the nurse’s office, I passed Alex his leg. Tears stung my eyes. “I didn’t know what they were planning. If I did, I’d—”
“They jumped me while I was changing, Mark.”
“Hey, Alex, how about coming to my place for tutoring next Saturday? I have AC/DC albums, and my mom makes a mean chili.”
He stared at me. Just when I thought he’d decline, a smile spread across his face. “Sounds good, Shorty.”
* * *
I last saw Alex Pappas at our prom, dancing with Elena Stetson, lead singer of an all-female rock band. I looked him up on Facebook a few years back, but all that appeared was a lawyer in Texas and an accountant in Timmins. Neither picture matched.
After retrieving the Value Village bag from the kitchen table, I removed the torn black AC/DC T-shirt I’d purchased earlier that afternoon. It smelled like industrial laundry detergent. As I unfolded the shirt, my fingers brushed against a series of small white letters and numbers sewn into the bottom of the left sleeve. It can’t be, I thought, not after thirty years. I closed my eyes. When I opened them again, the message was still there: “Happy 17th, A.P.”
Copyright © 2013 by Morris Marshall