It was an age when stereotypes walked the earth. There were kids called Four Eyes, and rough kids and fatsos, there were boys who spoke with lisps and boys who wet their beds, there were dumb kids and walking encyclopedias. Anyone could be summarized in a phrase, and every neighborhood had the same population of simple phrases, with different faces attached. The fat kids seemed in our imagination –- and I have to call it imagination although we saw them every day –- not just large or overweight but balloonlike, globular, as if they belonged to a different species, and in the animated feature that was our street life they came complete with pendulous drooling lips and silly pompous voices.
I was a skinny malink. Whatever a malink was, I was informed in the most authoritative tones that I was it. My malinkhood, not to mention my protruding ribs and twiglike forearms, were proof that I could be made fun of with impunity. But everyone made fun of everyone else with impunity, and I was among the swiftest and most skillful in jeering at fat boys and running away, or calling out, “Thufferin’ Thuccotash,” when Stewie Silverman -– Thtewie Thilverman -- lisped.
My bully hadn’t achieved true circularity yet; he was large and pudgy on a realistic scale; but his older brother was a foremost blimp who, somehow in conjunction with that, had tremendous amounts of schoolwork that prevented him from going outside to play. My bully never spoke about his brother but they were inseparably joined in my mind. My bully’s name was William Goldschmitt, and you could tell he was on his way to alien-species roundness because he was never called Billy like a normal boy, always William.
The Goldschmitts lived in the apartment directly over ours, my family on the ground floor and his on the second: we were friends by propinquity. The strange thing was what good friends we were when he wasn’t beating me up. We walked down the street together for fifteen-cent slices of pizza, chatting enthusiastically about dinosaurs and astronauts, stamp collections and Jerry Lewis movies, despite the fact that when I was in company with my other friends, my normal friends, we shouted, “Pizza Boy!” at him because he ate three slices at a sitting. (He was eight years old, me six.) Often I ran upstairs to play board games with him. William always got the new games a few weeks before anyone else –-or maybe it was just a few days, those extra-inning days of street running and ball chasing, days as full as weeks -– because his grandfather owned a hobby shop, a little place stocked with model kits, pink rubber balls, lanyard material, chemistry sets, erector sets, terrariums, baby blocks, rhythm band instruments, and books in boys’ and girls’ mystery adventure series, as well as the games we lusted after. It was William who first possessed a copy of The Game of Life, by Milton Bradley; we must have played it a dozen times before it was available for purchase by the unconnected. To fuel the action we drank glasses of iced tea, dark moss-brown and zinging with artificial sweetener, from the Tupperware pitcher William’s mother kept in the fridge, a practice my mother sneered at as being pretentious and genteel.
The times I didn’t want to be near William were the times he came upon me in the lobby of the apartment building, where I couldn’t outrace him and no parents were around. I don’t remember what reasons he claimed for attacking me; I don’t think he even used a pretext, like my looking at him funny or anything. He just came in swinging and kept up till I was crying, which was never very long. I was going to use the word “merciless” in that last sentence but in fact it wasn’t merciless at all: he stopped as soon as I sobbed, “I give.” The rules were never spoken but they were followed. Another rule was that the little space in the corner of the vestibule, where the open front door made a triangle with the walls, was my safety zone: if I could dash into there, he wouldn’t come in after me, although if I ever felt like leaving that tiny triangle of floor space, he was waiting right there with his fists still clenched. Once or twice he broke the rule and pounded me within the safety zone, but some inner voice stopped him and he respected the rule from then on.
I couldn’t understand why someone would want to hurt someone else for no reason. For a reason, yes, that was part of the code; but I was just walking through the lobby doing nothing! In our friendly hours -– which could follow the unfriendly ones with no interval -– I asked him why he punched me. “Don’t you ever feel like fighting someone?” he asked -- a question to which I still don’t know my true answer. Then he directed me to the next board game, the next glass of iced tea.
I complained to my father: “William always beats me up.” Contrary to my hopes, my father did not beat up Williams’ father, an insurance man of dismal mien. “Hit harder,” my dad said, and looked back down at some printed matter.
I even asked William himself what I should do. “How come it’s so easy for you to beat me up?” I asked.
He explained his secret technique: don’t just punch once or twice, conduct a relentless rapid-fire barrage, punch after punch to the same spot on the belly, until the opponent –- me – is overwhelmed.
Next time we found ourselves in the vestibule together, I tried it, but I was so intent on keeping out of range that my fists couldn’t reach the target area and landed harmlessly on his arms. He stuck to his plan as always, and I gave up on schedule, believing I was incapable of mastering the technique.
As usually happens, at some point he stopped bullying me without ever saying so. Maybe it was when my family moved to the fourth floor, a larger apartment in a different precinct of the building. Ringing his doorbell now required travel with a purpose; it was no longer what I automatically did when I went out into the hall to look for a playmate. Then William advanced to junior high school -- not our district one, but a private school his mother genteelly drove him to –- and when we crossed paths he didn’t bother to say hello.
One time, William got into a fight with the son of a friend of his parents, and the boy broke Williams’ arm. William’s parents sued their friends, winning hospital costs plus emotional damages.
Years later, William’s older brother became a tax lawyer, and the neighborhood whispered that he’d lost a lot of weight and become a racquetball nut. I don’t know what William became, because by the time he was old enough to become anything I was out of there myself.
Now I’m coming to the ending, and it’s not going to be what I planned when I wrote the beginning. I’ve thought of an alternate ending, so I’m going to give you both, the theatrical version and the director’s cut. The theatrical version is that I think of William with insistent bitterness, and if I came across him lying in the gutter I’d piss on him and remind him why. In that version, William is my negative mascot, and while I love peace and have spent years meditating, practicing serenity, studying forgiveness, and I know that anytime I hurt someone it hurts me worse, I want to keep one symbolic enemy, a mental demon I won’t come across in real life, so I’ll stay grounded and not think I’m some kind of spiritual person.
The director’s cut? It’s just this: William became a good story and now we’re through. His story visited me after a lot of years and made me smile, and as it passes out of my mind, perhaps for as many more years as I have left, I see it off with a grateful wave. If I ran into him again I’d be happy to see him, and not need a reason. I wonder if he’s fatter now, or thinner, and the unknown answer pleases me.
He was always a story, and now he’s more so.
Labels: new york, nonfiction, vita vecchia