Here's how it started. I never said a word. Jimmy Fimple made me speak up. We're fourth-graders. We lunch together on the playground. He wanted to meet by the jungle gym. "Not there," I said. "That's for knobs." We went to the ramada, which teemed with sixth-graders longing for junior high glory. The fools, they'd get what they deserved. Wedgies by sadistic upperclassmen.
It was dismal. Jimmy and I sat on a bench and surveyed the scene. Summer was creeping up. The children flailed about under the sun too stupid to realize they were doomed. What dopes. The future held nothing but skin cancer for that lot.
We talked about school. "The early years are cinchy," I said. "What do you need…new corduroys…a lunch pail…thermos?" I worked a finger up my nose. "Then you hit the middle grades and despair sets in."
Jimmy frowned at his sandwich. "You're right, Billaroo, three straight years of peanut butter and jelly will break anyone."
I snorted. "And these bedwetters are worse than most. Have you ever seen a more pitiful collection in your life?"
"You can't be serious!" Jimmy said, leaping to the defense. "Celine Elementary has the best kids in the city."
"Ha! They're nothing but pint-sized dingleberries in boxy shoes…just as soon swipe your Twinkies than lend you an eraser…dropped off by desperate mothers…unwanted burdens…if there's a happy story in the bunch I've never heard it."
"Clean your ears!"
Our conversation turned to Debbie Muller, a sprite blond I'd been eyeing all semester. She tied her hair up like a movie star and wore frilly dresses that made me feel a grade older. You see, even at that tender age they know what they're doing.
She was loitering by a table of kids signing up to play Little League.
"Morons, they think joining a team will amount to something."
"Little Muller seems smitten."
"If she's the type to be impressed by child's play then I've overestimated her appeal."
"But I don't see any harm."
"Of course you don't, simpleton. That's what grown-ups want you to think…sitting on their bloated asses…bleachers sagging from the gluttony…soda…corn dogs…Cracker Jacks…nachos…while we bust our nards out there and for what…a plastic trophy? Not me brother."
"Billaroo," Jimmy said, a touch of sadness in his voice. "Grown-ups aren't all bad. We have a lot to thank them for."
"You're right there, Jimmy. If it weren't for them I wouldn't be crammed into high-water pants and sporting this bowl cut…suffering through another school year." I spat. "You won't catch me shagging balls for their amusement."
"You have a point, Billaroo. There's always the chance you'd humiliate yourself."
"What? If you think my playing would be less than stellar you have a load in your pants."
Jimmy shrugged. "I guess we'll never know, will we?" He patted me like a stray. "Probably for the best."
How often an insult arrives wrapped in false empathy.
I slapped his hand away. "Wanna see how it's done?" I marched off.
"Billaroo," Jimmy called after me. "Can I have your pudding?"
I ignored him and took my place in line. "Jerk, I'll show you."
I signed without hesitation, cementing a place in the league. I looked up, prepared to bask in Debbie's adoring gaze only to see her locking arms with the detestable boner Roger Hopp. My enthusiasm waned. "Now that I think about it," I said to myself, "maybe this wasn't such a good idea after all." I wanted out but it was too late. The coach slammed the ledger shut and I was trapped on a team. Trapped like a rat in a batting cage.
When you're in, you're in. They put us in caps. They put us in gloves. After a few weeks, they put us in a game. One thing I'll tell you – I had no stomach for sport. What's the use? Team against team…child against child…little bodies scrambling across battlefields. A recipe for trouble in my book…breeding ground for bad intentions. The dodgeball champion of today is the petty criminal of tomorrow.
The brainwashing starts early…those too thick-headed to see the rot below the surface plunge right in. Tetherball in first grade…kickball in second…red rover, red rover…capture the flag…I spy…horse…the indignities heaped on the young are appalling.
"But it builds character, Billaroo," they chirped. Buffoons. The way I saw it, games were nothing but a diversion for halfwits. A ruse to keep kids in line. I could think of no benefits. "Snap to boys and girls . . . play along." Lunacy. The bastards couldn't fool me like the others.
When game day arrived I was ready. Of course it was hot…sun beating down…strong enough to bleach bones when the end came. I don't understand the appeal of the outdoors; there are too many things that can put you in the morgue. If the weather doesn't get you, the vermin will. Mosquitoes…wasps…gophers…even pigeons will lay you flat with disease or cripple you with allergies. Isn't it obvious? The earth wants to slough us off.
But my voice of caution went unheeded. "Pipe down Billaroo," they said. "You just don't want to play." True enough. My warnings wouldn't save them anyway; they were too drunk with team spirit to notice the danger. Time to look out for number one.
We lined up to learn our positions and I seized the opportunity to announce that I had suffered a career-ending injury playing rock, paper, scissors. I expressed regret and assured my teammates I would try to root for them. Their reaction was venomous. I switched to plan B.
I clutched my stomach and fell to the ground, rolling around in the dirt among the bats and gloves…retching…cramping…convulsing in flamboyant spasms convincing enough to fool the school nurse. A magnificent performance, one I take pride in to this day.
It would've succeeded too if a tit named Ernie Robles hadn't swallowed the residue from a bag of pretzels and puked it all back up in spectacular fashion – rock salt and flotsam launching from him with alarming velocity. He dropped like a sack beside me. From my vantage point I could feel the sympathy of the crowd turn. "Get up Billaroo, you coward," they cried. How easily nausea shifted their allegiance. Savages, had they no compassion for a fellow teammate?
I pulled myself up and swatted the dirt from my pants, clipping Ernie with my cleats as I avoided his puddle. Somebody booed.
"Jackals, doesn't my suffering mean anything to you?" The silence was deafening.
A voice floated over my shoulder. Thin. Spectral. "Don't be such a weenie Billaroo. What will Debbie think?"
Had even my guardian angel turned against me? I squinted through the dust. There, on the other side of the dugout, clinging to the chain-link fence, was my answer. "Et tu, Jimmy?" I said. "Et tu?"
His tongue deathly blue, Jimmy pointed his Sno-Kone toward the stands. "She's sitting right over there. She's been watching everything."
That was that. I straightened my cap and looked at the coach with the enthusiasm of the damned. "All right then, where do you want me?"
He grimaced and looked at the clipboard with my future in the balance. "I was going to put you somewhere harmless like right field. But now we're short a catcher." He sighed. "I guess we'll use you." What touching sentiment.
A voice rose from below. "Wait…I can do it…I can play." It was Ernie, still prone. He pled his case through debris-caked lips. "I'm feeling better." He propped himself up on an elbow and coughed. "Really, I'll be fine in a couple of minutes. Please, let me play."
Heroics sicken me – the balloon that keeps vanity afloat – but I found myself welling with admiration for the drooling mound at my feet. I addressed the group. "You all heard him. If he wants to play so badly, who are we to deny him? I say give him another shot. It's the sporting thing to do."
Ernie vomited again with a sound so guttural dogs barked. So much for that. Would my misfortune ever cease?
The answer was no. The coach handed me a mask, shin-guards and chest pad – token protection against the projectiles that would soon be rocketing toward my vitals.
"Billaroo, you catch. Smoot, you pitch."
Smoot? He'd done it now, the ghoul. My goose was cooked. Lester Smoot was a foul-tempered behemoth. A brooding man-child and the subject of rampant speculation – that he was a teenager…that he shaved…that he could buy cigarettes and had a girlfriend with a car.
He held the entire campus in terror. Nothing was spared his wrath. He harbored no love for me, that was for sure, having once attacked me with a bench for correcting his grammar.
Leering like cat to canary, Lester gave me the once over, throwing a ball into his mitt with maddening repetition, each impact making a sickening report. Would my skull make such a sound?
I looked back at the stands. Debbie was resplendent, cracking peanuts between the gap in her front teeth. I would follow her anywhere, preferably far away from Lester Smoot. But it was too late. The umpire barked, "Play ball!" and the wheels of my demise were set in motion.
"So be it Billaroo," I said. I adjusted my cup and took my place on the killing field. "So be it." My only hope was that death would come quickly.
I might as well tell you the rest.
A village idiot once declared, "To the victor belong the spoils." Balls! He obviously never endured a post-game celebration at The Old Nevada Fudge Conspiracy – a chintzy, gold-rush themed emporium whose banner breathlessly promised – "Ice Cream! Games! All the Old-Timey Fun of a Nevada City Mining Camp!" If by "Old-Timey Fun" they meant waiting thirty minutes for a surly adolescent to bring your order then they had exceeded expectations. Give me scarlet fever any day.
Slouched in a corner booth, one hand gingerly tracing the swelling over my left eye, the other absently spooning the remains of my "Fool's Gold Parfait," I concluded that I'd just as soon cast my lot with the losers. That's where you find happiness. Don't let anyone tell you different. The loser warrants envy, not pity – his work is done…nothing more is required of him. Winners, on the other hand, those overachieving baboons, are doomed to the fate of high expectations. The clamoring rabble…fans…scouts…coaches…parasites living off the accomplishments of others demanding evermore…through junior high…high school…college…the pros…it's sickening…the pedestal and the gallows one and the same…it's never enough, you know…they're insatiable.
Speaking of insatiable, Ernie was taking delivery of his second "Motherlode" of the afternoon. The monstrosity arrived with all the hoopla typically accorded a cave-in. Two hapless clods ceremoniously deposited the affront to self-control before him as the first empty bowl was carried out on a stretcher to bells and sirens. I don't mind telling you I was jealous of that bowl. What a way to go – carried out on your back.
Ernie set upon the catastrophe with a frenzy. I turned away and braced for another eruption. Everywhere I looked children were devouring their sweet rewards…slurping their payment for obeying like puppies on teats…good little citizens all…but when the ice cream stopped…the fountain ran dry…what would they have to show for it?...cavities?…diabetes?…gout? The Reaper wields a scoop these days.
"Billaroo!" Jimmy slid into the booth. "How's the eye?"
I winced over his shoulder. "Good enough to see that."
"Is Ernie horking again?"
"Not that." I motioned behind him "That."
Jimmy craned his neck. Across the room Roger Hopp slumped next to my precious Debbie. She was stroking his cap and gnawing her way through a bag of jawbreakers.
"That? Don't tell me you're surprised. It was his fault they lost the game after all. You should've seen it coming."
"Well, that too I suppose."
A pockmarked doofus waddled up and took Jimmy's order, the lamp on his miner's helmet flickering dimly, like his chance of leading a dignified existence.
"Look, I know you're tough Billaroo. Little Muller knows it too. You can take care of yourself…but Roger…he's a bit more…sensitive."
"So he gets the girl and I'm stuck with a throbbing temple?"
"You get to keep the parfait glass."
I pictured it plunging into Jimmy's chest. A shadow crept over the table. A voice boomed. "Billaroo, I been looking for you." It was Lester Smoot. He towered over us. "You did real good. I figured you'd chicken-out like a pansy, but you took that beanball like a man." He extended a paw. It was covered in grime and streaked with what I could only hope was chocolate syrup. Having no choice, I threw hygiene to the wind and accepted his sticky offering. "I had a sawbuck riding on it," he said, easing his grip. "I owe you one. You ever need anything, you just ask Lester Smoot and it's yours."
I knew the score. A favor asked is a favor expected…a gateway to escalating obligations…inconvenience…unfulfilled dependencies ending in recrimination…madness… murder. I was about to respectfully decline Lester's offer when a cackle cut through the din. Debbie. Her laugh was unmistakable – like that of an exotic bird or smoke alarm. Roger was laughing too. She had cheered him up. They leaned in, foreheads nearly touching. Debbie plucked a jawbreaker from her mouth and placed it on Roger's tongue. He held it there briefly before setting the spittle-covered confection back in Debbie's mouth. A mouth that should've been whispering my name. She crushed it between her molars and rooted for another. Enough was enough.
"You know what Lester?" I said, speaking slowly so as not to befuddle. "Now that you mention it, you could help settle a bet for me and Jimmy." Lester blinked slowly. I sighed and forged ahead. "Jimmy figures Roger can fit two of Debbie's jawbreakers up that nose of his. I think that estimate's low. What do you say?"
More silence, and then…a spark. A wave of recognition crept over Lester's features. He spoke.
Success! His brain had received the message. He turned and lumbered toward the happy couple, casting furniture and children aside in his wake. Not wishing to be tied to the event, I headed toward the door as a high, muffled shriek rose from behind me. A piercing howl that increased in pitch and volume until it resembled a whistling tea kettle. I was halfway across the parking lot when I heard my name.
"Billaroo!" Jimmy ran up, panting, eyes wide. "Seven!" he said. "It was seven!"
"Who knew he had it in him?"
"Who knew she had that many left?"
A siren wailed in the distance.
"Better scram." I said.
We beat our retreat, Jimmy trotting alongside me. "You want to go to the park tomorrow?" he said. "Play some ball?"
"I don't think so."
"Come on. We can work on your swing. Practice stealing bases. Maybe get someone to play pickle with us."
I stopped and turned. "Didn't you learn anything today?"
Jimmy shrugged. "Don't eat jawbreakers around Lester Smoot?"
"You're all right, kid," I said, patting him on the head. "But there are more important competitions than mere sport." I grabbed the bill of my cap and pulled it askew at a rakish angle. "I think I'll pay a call on little Muller tomorrow."
"But what about Roger?"
An ambulance screeched onto the lot and sped by.
"Unless that's for Ernie, and there's always a chance, I don't think Roger's going to be a problem for some time."
Jimmy nodded. "You could be right, Billaroo. You could be right."
We stood in silent reflection. The sun dipped low in the distance and exhaust fumes swirled around us. I inhaled deeply and enjoyed a fleeting sense of contentment. Fifth grade loomed on the horizon. Then sixth, and seventh, and high school too, and the hardship and heartache and danger that lays in wait for all of us…each and every one…algebra…chemistry...pimples…pubes… the prom. Time marches on, you know . . . there's no escape…a straight path to the boneyard. But if you're able…ever given the chance…to forget the pain and disappointment and all the other misery that makes up this rotten world of ours, and savor the moment, if only for an instant, then consider yourself lucky, my friend. A lucky child indeed.
BIO: Sean Murphy lives and writes in Tucson, Arizona. His work has appeared in Nerve, Stymie, Opium, The Onion, and Yankee Pot Roast. He is older than he looks.