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My Friend the Bully

by Charles C. Cole

In 1975, when I was the “new kid” sophomore year in high school, freshly arrived from southwestern Pennsylvania, most of the local Maine boys treated me like a lifelong classmate: we shared TV-show jokes in homeroom, hung out at lunch, and ran on the cross country team together. One “local” had been a new kid himself, having moved from Missouri six years before.

But then there was Dennis Libby, this red-headed kid who, when I put my textbooks down to work my combination on my locker, invariably showed up to kick my things down the back hall, for a snarky laugh with his cronies, at my expense.

One stressful afternoon I unexpectedly lost my natural reserve. I was tired from staying up late studying the night before and dejected at still doing poorly on an exam in AP English. I surprised myself and everybody around me: I grabbed Dennis by the collar and threw him against the metal lockers on the other side of the hall. I pinned him in place, but I never threw a punch, because I’d never thrown a punch.

Attracted by the commotion, Mrs. Churchill, the oldest teacher in the building, a little warrior with short curly white hair and thick reading glasses that she wore around her neck and frequently forgot were there, poked her head out of her room, I hoped, to put an end to the impromptu shenanigans.

Mrs. Churchill said: “If you boys are going to fight, take it outside.”

“I’ve got to catch a bus,” I countered, a convenient truth. “Maybe another time.” Dennis, with a suppressed glare, straightened his shirt and disappeared around a corner. My good friend, Jeff, helped me gather my belongings.

The tension was over, mostly, or at least postponed. A couple of girls in cheering outfits (for football, not cross country) tittered. Mrs. Churchill dismissed the distraction with a wave and a snort, ducking back into her classroom.

Jeff was a guy to definitely have on your side in a real fight; he lifted free-weights in his basement bedroom daily. He shook his head and shrugged as he tried to make sense of the sudden turn of events.

“You were awesome! I would have had your back, man,” Jeff whispered. “Don’t even worry about it.”

The next day, having told my parents nothing, I was once again at my locker when an unfamiliar guy came up to me. The hall was busy, so he coughed for my attention. “I don’t like how you treated my friend,” he said, like I had started the altercation.

“Then tell him to keep his distance,” I managed over my shoulder. He lingered a moment, maybe hoping for something more exciting, then nodded and left.

“George Varney,” Jeff explained. “He’s a member of the wolfpack. He was sent to check you out, see if any payback is warranted.”

I turned around. “Look at my back,” I said. “Tell me, do I have a target on it? A kick-me sign? Or can we please just move on? You know these kids, so what are the rules in play?”

“Honestly, I thought he was going to ask you to meet the boys after school,” Jeff explained. “Since he didn’t, I think it’s over, pretty much. Dennis, the red-headed doobie, is not one of the chosen ones, not like George. If anything, I think Dennis was trying to use you as a step up the ‘bully ladder,’ only it didn’t work out like he’d expected.

“You won, man. This time next week, they’ll have another target. That’s the way these things happen. Why do you think I lift weights? It’s not to pick up girls. Bullies like the road of least resistance. You’re not worth it.”

Jeff was right. The harassment stopped cold. I fell completely off the radar. No aggressive shoves while in line. No targeted gym-class rough-housing. I even received a semi-civil grunt of acknowledgement from a couple of thugs in the boys’ room, while interrupting them on their butt break.

One day, I saw Dennis go after another kid, someone smaller and younger than me. I didn’t say or do anything but, when he saw me in the vicinity, he moved off. Honestly, I didn’t feel I had earned the change of heart, but I wasn’t about to buck the system.

Years later, after a hitch in the Air Force and a couple of years struggling in Los Angeles, I moved back to town. I owned a classic 1967 Ford Mustang but no garage and mostly travelled family-style, with a pair of 4-year old girls in a soccer-mom van. I decided to sell my southern California dream car before watching it wither to rust.

“Claire” was parked at the end of my gravel driveway with a “For Sale” sign. I had originally wanted to nickname her “Sabrina,” but my previous girlfriend had jealousy issues. George Varney ran an automobile repair garage in town with his cousin. He rang the doorbell. I recognized him immediately, though I was clearly a stranger to him.

He said all the right things about classic cars. I wanted her to have a good home with someone who would take care of her. He even offered, after she was fixed up, to let me take her for a summery Sunday afternoon spin.

I reminded him about high school.

“Doesn’t ring a bell, but those days were a real struggle; I just wanted get through and get out.”

“And Dennis Libby?”

“He became a state cop. Funny, huh?”

My twins were rolling around in the yard, while my beautiful wife kept an eye on things.

“You did okay for yourself,” said George. “That’s what matters, you know?”

For a long time, we had our cars repaired and maintained at Varney’s Garage. George became “just a guy I knew from the old days.”

Copyright © 2020 by Charles C. Cole

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