I'm leaning against the alligatored weather boards of the PE building behind the school. Not a building really, just a kind of make-shift shack where we huddle when it rains. It's the ten-minute break between classes and I'm thinking about something we just learned in science the period before: missiles in Cuba aimed straight for us.
The science teacher tries to scare us. He admits it during class. "The best way to learn something is when it frightens you. Then you don't forget." So today he talked about atomic bombs and plutonium. "One speck of it in the atmosphere," he said, "will kill one hundred thousand people."
So this is what's on my mind, not the hundreds of kids kicking balls in the dusty field or hanging out on the concrete steps waiting for the cafeteria to open, or the ones just loitering over by the fence trying to sneak in a smoke. I don't even notice that the meanest, biggest, toughest punk in school is headed my way. Sonny Busso. He's flunked a few times and looks like a man, not one of us kids. I heard he shaves three times a day. He's probably twenty years old to look at him.
Suddenly he's standing, no swaying, right in front of me and then I do notice. I've got to look up to catch his gaze. "Hey, kid," he says, "gimme a quarter."
I stuff my hands tightly into my khaki pockets. "I don't have a quarter," I say. I do in fact have a quarter and it's clutched in my left fist, but I have resolved never to give Sonny Busso another.
Sonny gazes at me, almost stunned it seems. Everybody gives him quarters every day. He's a rich man. Then he slaps me across the face, just like that, whack . . . and I don't see stars, as they say you do, but cans of Breast-o-Chicken tuna, opened cans with juice dripping down the sides. Tiny cans of tuna, that's what I see, along with some blue and black spots that fade in and out. My face hurts everywhere. I see Sonny's hand poised to wallop me again but for some reason it freezes in mid-air, inches from my face.
He lowers his body in order to look me squarely in the face. He stares hard and it almost seems as he might be thinking something, a guy who has probably never had one thought in his entire life. Then he snorts, laughs, pats me on the shoulder. "You've got balls, kid," he says, and walks away as if nothing's happened. "See you around."
I'm sweating, trembling, but take the chance. "Hey, Sonny," I shout, "did you know that one speck of plutonium in the air would kill all of us."
Sonny whips his massive, crew-cut head around and smiles, beaming with health and raw voltage. "Huh?" he asks.
"Nothing," I wave.
He shoots a fist into the air and winks at me. "Tomorrow it's two quarters."
I lean back again, sink to my knees. I'm proud to have balls though they feel wilted and shriveled. Who needs plutonium when Sonny Busso's on the prowl? Tomorrow? It's always tomorrow. Plutonium just doesn't rate, not in this fun house.
BIO: Louis Gallo was born and raised in New Orleans and now teaches at Radford University in Virginia. His work has appeared or will appear soon in Glimmer Train, Missouri Review, New Orleans Review, storySouth, The Ledge (Pushcart nominee), Portland Review, Texas Review, American Literary Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, Rattle, Paradigm, Clapboard House, Bartleby Snopes, Oregon Literary Review and The Southern Quarterly. His poetry chapbook, THE TRUTH CHANGES, has just been accepted for publication.