“What we know is so little and what we presume is so much.” – Pablo Neruda
Deep in the winter of eighth grade after the final bell had rung, I raised my anxious fists in an abandoned field far away from the attentive eyes of all the adults in our small, Northwest town. Darren Mitchell brandished nothing more than a shit-eating grin. His open backpack with the busted zipper remained casually slung over his shoulder as a swarm of boys begged us to fight like some rural version of Lord of the Flies.
He was twice my size and already had wiry muscles beneath his ragged winter coat. I was a runt, a tiny brown boy who remained one of the smallest kids in our school. Aside from bad luck, my dad insisting I skip third grade so he could brag to all his friends hadn’t helped my cause in the size department either.
Darren had grown into a bully of sorts. He hurled various slurs at me for laughs. He wasn’t the only one and probably wasn’t the worst. Still, they stung like errant fastballs to the face: “Camel jockey, nigger, raghead, darkie, etc.” Those words sometimes chased me on the way to school, down corridors between classes and, finally, in my own head before I went to sleep. They reminded me over and over again that I was hopelessly foreign in the only place I could ever really call home.
Up until now, Darren and I had never really fought. Sure, we’d had a few small scraps, but that was mainly just some pushing and shoving at recess. Today was different though. On the way to school he’d insulted my mom. If you ever want a Muslim boy to declare jihad on someone insult his mother. A righteous rage smoldered inside of me like stoked coals in a steam engine and I spent all day raring to fight.
Amid the rowdy commotion of boys we both looked a little lost though. I had no idea when to start swinging. Darren didn’t either. A boy’s first fistfight is similar to his first kiss, I guess.
Darren finally looked around then down at me and scoffed, “You know I’m going to kick your ass.” He made no move toward me and white-knuckled the shoulder strap of his backpack like some sort of ripcord.
I felt the fight leaving me fast as well. I had to somehow summon my rage once more. “Don’t ever say that shit about my mom again,” I shouted as bits of snow began to whisper all around us.
Darren laughed and snorted. “You mean calling her a sandnigger? She is one isn’t she?” A few other boys laughed as well.
His head snapped back as I shoved him with as much force as I could muster. He stumbled and fell. His backpack spilled open. Books and papers went flying out. He propped himself on an elbow and shook his head, stunned and woozy. He must have hit it on the frozen ground. Any fight he had in him hightailed it out of there in a hurry. He wobbled up to his knees desperate to gather his belongings, but a few of the other boys began kicking it all around some more. Someone even snuck up behind him and dumped handfuls of dirty snow into his backpack.
A massive jock slapped his giant paw on my shoulder. “I’m calling you Rocky from now on,” he said. It wasn’t much of a fight at all, but I’d won. I was in disbelief, vindicated and proud.
Darren began to whimper like some kicked dog as he desperately tried to collect his wet, ruined stuff. He then stumbled off toward his home, the whimpers graduating into open sobs that grew louder, more discordant as I grew older.
Darren grew up only four houses down from me. My first significant memory of him is right around first grade. His adoptive dad had pieced together a bicycle from various parts he’d found in a junkyard or something. It was a multi-colored contraption, but it rode well enough. More importantly, Darren was over the moon to finally have a bike alongside the rest of us.
Some of the kids in the neighborhood began pestering Darren to let them ride his new bike. Even at such a tender age Darren had grown wary around most of us and for good reason. Unfortunately, his joy for his new bike distracted him and he relented. A bigger kid grabbed Darren’s bike by the handlebars, pretended to admire it for a moment then sent it ghost riding down a hill. The bike must have rolled a good forty feet before it finally flipped over and crashed. Darren ran toward it in tears. The rest of us just laughed.
The following year my family left Idaho. My dad decided to take a sabbatical teaching position at a university in Saudi Arabia of all places. It paid well and would apparently keep boys away from my older sister – a dilemma that had finally reached a fever pitch for my increasingly religious parents.
My brother and I were forced to attend an all-boys parochial school there. My first few months at this new school overwhelmed me with dread as an 8-year-old. I would often vomit up my breakfast when I’d exit the bus. I had gone from sweet, gentle Mrs. Long who encouraged me to draw to an insane assortment of rough, domineering teachers who hit us for the smallest infractions or none at all.
A teacher once slapped me so hard my head spun. I didn’t cry though. I refused to give him the satisfaction. Instead, I pissed myself. It was almost reflexive. I had to take off my hoodie and tie it around the front of my pants to hide the sizeable stain that formed.
We finally moved back home to Idaho the summer before I started sixth grade. My parent’s religiosity often now crossed over into fanatical tirades toward us. Worse, Prozac began to fuel my mom’s beleaguered prayers to compensate for my father’s unbridled temper.
My grades would soon take a nosedive. I was well on my way to becoming a congenital fuckup. In a few short years I would start cutting myself in the bathroom before finding a more reasonable solace in booze and cigarettes.
I returned to also find myself unavoidably on the fringe alongside Darren. Friends were few and far between for both of us. Darren and I started to play together every so often that summer because we lived so close to one another. Though adolescence and puberty began to encroach upon us we still played with action figures and toy guns in the park across from our homes. We also loved to imitate our favorite bands like a couple of joyful idiots. We would dance around in my living room with cue sticks and tennis rackets whenever we heard a favorite song on MTV or the radio.
We never really played in Darren’s home. We might horse around in his backyard on occasion, but those were fleeting moments. Inevitably, we would end up at the park or my house. Darren claimed his parents were too strict and didn’t allow friends over. I was pretty certain it was because I had better toys. To be sure, his folks were definitely strange, silent people who kept to themselves. I’d sometimes see his dad chop wood by the side of their house with grim solemnity, but that was about it. He never smiled or said hello.
One afternoon when his parents were away we managed to sneak down to his cramped basement to watch MTV. I noticed his tiny, windowless bedroom off to the side and felt a little sorry for him. While we both furiously played air guitar to Metallica he suddenly dropped his pants and began jerking off in front of me. He asked me if I wanted to also. I ran up those narrow, rickety stairs as fast I could and bolted out the back door toward home. I never played with him again and told what few friends I did have that he was a certified creep.
Right around our freshman year Darren found himself in juvy. I forget why exactly. I knew detention no longer served any purpose for most of us, but especially him. He’d become too wild and erratic, often suffering from crying jags or conniption fits of rage that would get him tossed out of class. Of course, everyone would inevitably laugh at him for being such a spaz. Even teachers would sometimes join in.
By the time we graduated it became pretty well known around town that his adoptive parents had molested and tormented him throughout his childhood. I think it was his older sister who finally had the courage to confirm all the abuse some years later. By then it was too late. His parents were never convicted of anything nor were any charges filed against them. Darren would end up in and out of prison for various crimes including apparently the same ones he was forced to suffer in that terrible basement.
The last time I saw him I was maybe eighteen or nineteen. We bumped into each other downtown. I think he had just gotten off another stint at the penitentiary in Orofino or maybe county. His teeth had decayed to yellow and he wore a purple thrift store suit that was too small for his lanky frame. Someone had tattooed EVIL or HELL on his knuckles with cheap, faded ink. We were friendly to each other though and I remember he still had an easy laugh.
It’s true I could never quite know as a boy what horrors his home must have hidden. It’s also true that it’s just so much easier to chronicle the cruelty of others than it is one’s own. Darren and I were both outcasts in our own separate ways, but I don’t think he ever really stood much of a chance. Sometimes I wish I could find that broken boy sobbing on the ground among all his lost belongings and pick him back up. Maybe throw my arm around him and walk him to somewhere safe, but there was no place for us to go. We would both have to spend a long time fighting for our lives, facing all kinds of darkness, begging for a little light.
© 2018 Gable Gripes All Rights Reserved