The October People. Chapter 29: The Dog

Updated on November 13, 2018
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Mr. Vanek is a student of the Human Condition, and a Writer among other things.

“What am I now that I

was then?

May memory restore again

and again

The smallest color of the

smallest day.

Time is the school in which

we learn.

Time is the fire in which

we burn.”

“For Rhoda”

Delmore Schwartz.

Man.

5th grade.

What an awful year.

When I compare the photo of myself in May of 4th grade with the one from May of the 5th, incredibly I seem to have shrunken. I was much thinner, I now wore coke-bottle bottom eyeglasses, and I looked crushed.

4th grade
4th grade
5th grade
5th grade

With my last report card from 4th grade, I learned I was being dropped down to the lowest level 5th. Lily was livid, especially about the checkmark in the box next to “Does not work up to potential”. I was exasperated at the unfairness of it and told her I was trying as hard as I could, that I wasn’t doing this on purpose. Her response was that the teacher is always right.

Lily was expecting a child that August, and George was moved out of the little ‘nursery’ room and in with Jake and me. Our twin beds were converted into bunkbeds so George’s little bed and dresser could be shoehorned in. He was already being treated as an afterthought, something superfluous to the main dynamic of the ‘family’: Which was the rejection and covert usurpation of the eldest son by the Triad.

George never knew what it was like to be played with, snuggled, or comforted by his parents either. Half the time his existence was barely acknowledged.

When Lily went into Huntington Hospital in mid-July, Al was left in charge for 3 days. This was the first time he was ever alone with us and as if to be sure everything was alright, Grandpa and Grandma paid us an unannounced visit on one of the afternoons.

Al was in high spirits and seemed relieved to have Lily out of the house. He took advantage of her absence to splurge on food we never would have had; like buying a package of frozen butterfly shrimp. I’d never had shrimp before and found it exquisite. It would be the last shrimp I’d have until I began working in restaurants when I was almost 16 and ate them as I prepared them in the kitchens.

If the new baby were a boy, his name would have been Kevin. If, as it turned out, she was a girl, she’d be called Kathy. We three brothers were surprised but delighted to have a baby sister. Like knights, we swore to protect her and defend her honor.

When George was a baby, I was already drafted to help with the diaper changing and feeding. With Kathy I was assigned it more regularly.

I dreaded starting school that fall. I was to begin attending Major Lanes Elementary. Twice during the past winter, the boiler had broken down at our school and we had been all bussed to Major Lanes for the day. The kids there looked different; poorer even than us. The whole place seemed more run-down, and the food I saw being served in the cafeteria looked and smelt like burnt canned dogfood.

But at least they didn’t have bomb threats like we did.

By the fall, the novelty of Kathy’s arrival must have worn off; because Al and Lily’s active menacing of me once again picked up. I couldn’t do anything right, or anything to make them act like they liked me. No one would laugh at my attempts at jokes. Laughter would cease and their looks change when I came into the room. I was singled out as the “disappointment”, the one they were “ashamed of”, the “lazy good fa nuthin”, the “liar” and the “sneak”.

I felt like a stray dog, hovering around the edges of the family, always furtive, hoping for a crumb, but wary of kicks.

The stress at the dinner table made it hard for me to swallow my food, but I wasn’t allowed to eat anyway while I was being yelled at or lectured. I had to wait until she, or they, were done lashing me, only then could I eat until the next topic of haranguing began.

And I was hungry, so hungry all the time. I don’t know how many times I went to bed hungry, not from being punished, simply because I didn’t get enough to eat. In desperation a few times I snuck a half a stick of margarine and gobbled it down, licking my fingers clean. The only thing that kept me from wolfing down the rest of it was the knowledge that the loss would be noticed.

In no time at all I was in free fall in math again, and the notices sent home by the teacher were now not only about my schoolwork and “not working up to potential’, but also about unruly behavior. This was a rougher school, and there were not only more fights, they were of a more serious intensity. I began to spend more time wandering alone.

And I was envious now of the other kids. They had money for lunches, seconds, and ice cream at school. They got allowances and could buy baseball cards. They were in Little League, or took music lessons, or joined Cub scouts and Boy scouts. With disbelief I could smell their breakfasts on their breath. This one had eggs and coffee; this one had bacon; that one waffles and syrup.

I was amazed, bitter, and I began to steal. I’d make sure I was the last one to leave the classroom, and then I’d rifle the desks for the coins tossed so thoughtlessly in there. They had that much, it meant so little to them, that they were so careless with it?

Nobody ever noticed the loss or stopped tossing spare change in the desks, and I never got caught at that or picking the locks of the lockers and stealing baseball cards. I rationalized my thievery to myself as just helping myself to what they had so much of. I used all my ill-gotten gains to buy food and a couple packs of baseball cards. I only needed a few packs as a stake, because I had become a baseball-card shark, and amassed huge stacks of cards as winnings.

But the world seemed to be crashing down on my head and I had no idea why, or why Al and Lily would start threatening to put me up for adoption, unless ‘God’ was punishing me for my crimes.

When they started threatening me with ‘Reform School’ again my bones iced up. For some reason it summoned up vague images of a nightmarish place of mad scientists and cruel boys and merged it with the stories we all heard of being thrown into the midst of sadistic guards and gangs.

Dere dey’ll straighten ya out!” Al guaranteed me through his teeth.

They scared the hell out of me with those unending threats. And I didn’t know what I had done, or what they thought I had done, that was so bad as to warrant all of this.

No questions were ever asked of me, no help or explanations given of what they wanted me to do differently. My insomnia worsened. I couldn’t get to sleep for re-living the terrors of the day and for fear of what the next one would undoubtedly bring.

When I finally would fall asleep, nightmares from earlier years made their return; ones of being hunted by an Allosaurus that searched at night for me, looking in every window, or of being tied up to be eaten by a giant spider. New ones appeared too, not just of drowning now, but of sharks pulling me under the water and trying to eat me.

They may not have loved me, but Lily demanded I love them… but nothing spontaneous, only obedience, homage on holidays and to kiss their cheek. They were under no obligation to me. They made no demonstrations of affection ever, except for the thin veneer of a pretense when we were in the eyes of the outside world.

And always those eyes, those angry, hate-filled eyes. As soon as I walked in the back door after school she would launch into me about something, like she had been fuming and stewing all day just waiting for me.

I was always confused, on the defensive, two steps behind her, never sure what she was really getting at. It was intentional. She always made it seem like I was hiding something from her. I felt hunted and hounded.

Sometimes I made the mistake of lying to avoid getting in trouble. But her cross examinations invariably uncovered any lying, and I rapidly adopted the salutary, life-long habit of always telling the truth, because lying proved to be fruitless and humiliating. It was much easier and more dignified to just tell the truth and take what was coming.

Otherwise I’d hear:

“How can I trust ya when ya lie?! I can’t trust ya! Ya not my son! How can I love ya if I can’t trust ya?! And I won’t love ya until I can trust ya!”

The underlying message, out of all proportion with my actual ‘offenses’ was:

“You are hiding something from me and pretending not to be. Therefore, you are not a member of this family; and will never be until you tell me what it is you’re hiding, what it is that you remember. You are the Bad Seed, and we cast you out. And that door will remain shut to you until you make good for what you’ve done, and what you’ve cost us.”

What it was I did was never said, but I did feel guilty. Because despite a natural need to feel like I belonged somewhere, there was a part of ‘me’ deep, deep inside that knew I did not love them, and did not want to be part of them. All my childhood imaginary games began with this initial, spoken out loud premise:

“My parents are dead and I’m alone. There is no one for me to depend on but myself.”

It felt so freeing to say that.

What I needed was a place to live, but what I wanted was to be alone, to have the peace and freedom of solitude. I just wanted to endure until I was old enough to be able to survive on my own.

So, in my eyes, in that sense I was using them, and that ultimate sacrilege had to remain unadmitted to myself. It could never be consciously thought; even the feelings had to remain unacknowledged. I lived a role more completely than any actor ever dreamed of doing, without knowing I was. It only left me aware of a guilt, which I accepted as the necessary price to be paid.

While my labyrinth of ‘head games’ had to remain for me completely unacknowledged, Lily was under no such handicap. She knew exactly what she was doing.

She wanted to know what I knew. She couldn’t be sure I wasn’t just hiding what I knew; like Hamlet, pretending an insanity, biding my time. Too much was riding on this. She had already hatched an idea for the future to turn things around in her favor, and it was essential that she know what I knew.

She made it very uncomfortable for me as, without ever being explicit, she came as close as she dared to the forbidden, without giving anything concrete away.

For years, I weathered a constant invasion of every nook and cranny of my mind as she hunted for thoughts and emotions hidden from her; always testing, probing, trying to trap me.

My only defense was to be un-conscious of myself; to never, ever, think the truth of how I felt. If ‘I’ lost my ‘mind’…Well, then she couldn’t find it either. I was their prisoner for now. My task was to endure, survive…Until I could disappear.

“I gotta have a dawg!!” was suddenly heard from Lily that October. That was that: We got a dog.

It’s odd that we would have gotten one. None of us had ever asked for one, because we assumed it would never happen anyway.

Kathy was only about 3 months old then; you would have thought Lily wouldn’t have wanted any more complications at that time. It was also hard to see how this additional expense meshed with her constant refrain about our poverty, which was drummed in daily. Nor did Al like dogs; some unexplained incident from his childhood.

And Lily had never expressed any desire to have one either. I had never seen her so much as touch a dog, never mind pet one.

Yet, we drove to a local animal shelter and waited in the car while she selected a puppy. She announced that she had named it “Nettie”, after a dog she said she had as a child once. That was the first I heard of it. She said that the original “Nettie” had died horribly, because “somebody” fed her chicken bones.

I fell in love with that little dog before we even got her home. She became the one being that I knew loved me; and I loved that dog. But dark, disturbing feelings rose in me after we got home. Lily wasted no time. Immediately upon arriving home she commenced “training” Nettie.

She said the dog had to be trained not to cry to be held, and learn to be alone. Nettie was put in a box out in the hallway, and we were ordered not to pick her up when she cried.

I didn’t understand this; it seemed cruel and wrong.

But Lily insisted that if we didn’t do this it would ruin her as a “good dawg” forever. Of course, the puppy cried piteously at being left alone like that. When she did, Lily beat her with her hand or a rolled-up newspaper. Each time that the little dog had an ‘accident’, her nose was rubbed into it and she was beaten.

When the puppy eventually showed some signs of resistance, like growling at being beaten, that was the point she was waiting for. She’d put her face with those eyes down into the dog’s, and menacingly dare her to bite.

“Ya wanna bite me?! Heh?! Gaw head! Bite me! See what happens ta ya!” she’d snarl, shoving her forearm against the puppy’s nose.

The dog never bit her, but she’d mercilessly beat the animal anyway until it was just whimpering.

Watching as she ‘trained’ the dog made me feel very, very, strange.

I knew that tone. I knew those words. I knew that look.

I felt icy and hollow again.

Why was all of this so familiar? Why did I feel such a sense of desolation and loneliness? I didn’t know why, which only increased my confusion and led to an unconscious refusal to think about it or feel it anymore.

I adopted the dog as my ‘totem animal’. I read all the stories I could find about dogs. I studied and memorized all the breeds. I constantly drew dogs. I invented a comic book superhero called “Dog.

And I began to call myself “Dog”.

Where were all the school psychologists, for Christ’s sake?

It has been interesting to trace the transformation of my drawings of dogs through those years. At first, I portrayed them as the classic embodiment of loyalty, trustworthiness, and noble-hearted service.

Hachiko: The legendary faithful dog from japan.
Hachiko: The legendary faithful dog from japan.

Over time, the dogs became more and more wolf-like, ones that were reverting back to their original, free state; living without masters.

They became wolves.

In my mid-teens they changed more dramatically, into half-dog and half-dragon.

As a young adult, the dragons took the field entirely; all traces of dog were gone.

Later still, the dragons evolved from the classic occidental ones, through the oriental versions, into something that was neither.

I had created my own ‘Dragon’: My own Daimon’s image.

One afternoon between Christmas and New Year’s that year, Lily came into our room and told us to sit down; she had something to tell us. We dutifully sat on our beds and waited.

She told us she wanted to begin doing a tradition from her side of the family, one that her mother, and her mother’s mother used to do too.

It was about “The Golden Pig”.

On New Year’s Eve, the Golden Pig flies through the air and leaves 12 shiny pennies, an dey haveta be dat year’s, on the window-sill for each child.”, she recited solemnly, with peculiar emphasis on certain words.

We looked at each other, mystified.

That was it? 12 pennies? What can you buy with 12 pennies?

But, we acted respectful of her family’s precious ‘tradition’. Sure enough; on New Year’s Day there were 12 pennies for each of us on the windowsill inside the room.

I have another puzzling gap in my memory at this point. Just like the year before, I can’t remember much from then on until months later in the spring. By then I was a scarecrow.

While all the other kids were getting bigger; I was getting smaller. My eyesight worsened at an incredible rate. The school kept insisting my eyes be checked by a doctor.

In little more than a year, I went from being a captain of baseball teams, a long-ball hitter and snap-trap fielder, to the last one chosen. From then on in Gym classes during the baseball season I now had to endure the humiliating sneer of “Move in!” called out to the fielders when I came up to bat.

As I weakened; the predators smelled blood. No longer viewed as a match for all comers, I had to constantly battle for my pride wherever I went.

In the midst of that, I learned another valuable life-lesson: Most of the bullies did not really want to fight a weakling: Because it was the bully who had the most to lose. Nobody expected the weakling to win anyway.

So, when I fought, I was the one who gained the respect, not him. What those bullies wanted was to make themselves feel big in their own eyes and look big in others’. They didn’t want me to fight; they wanted me to cower or run away.

That I would not do, that I could not do.

I didn’t relish the humiliation of being beat up, but I’d rather accept that than act the coward and run or beg.

I think this was the Easter we met Babi and Dede at a Chinese restaurant. My memory is still very hazy here, but I remember someone remarking that it was strange to have Chinese food on Easter. I mention this, not because anything dramatic happened, but because it serves as another example of them seeming to avoid coming to our house. The restaurants all seemed to function as a neutral ground. And they were always Chinese restaurants.

Based on what I can remember of the surrounding vegetation and terrain, I’d guess it was further out on the Island; possibly Ronkonkoma or Bohemia. It was a ‘Diner-car’ type restaurant. There were no other buildings in the area, and though it was on a main road, traffic was very sparse. There was no landscaping; just sandy soil, scrubby undergrowth and small oaks bordering the dirt and gravel surrounding the place. Outside the back door, empty produce boxes were stacked up.


The booths were upholstered in a dark maroon and thickly padded. We took up 2 booths; one for us kids, one for the adults.

I remember it as a tense dinner between the adults; one of lowered voices, sometimes trembling with tightly controlled passions. It was more like negotiations than conversation. The only attention paid to us was when we were barked at for some alleged lapses in manners or behavior.

When it was over, they headed back north to Saratoga, and we went home.

On my 11th birthday I was given a pocketknife. It was second-hand and a knock-off of the classic Boy scout pocketknife, but I didn’t care; I finally had a knife like the other guys did. A sheath knife was of course forbidden because those were viewed as weapons. And I was warned by Lily that if I ever used that knife on anyone, or threatened anyone with it, or brought it to school; it would be taken away forever.

Her warnings puzzled me: Why would she think she had to tell me not to use it on anyone?

For years now, she had drummed it into me, over and over, that I was never, ever, to use a weapon. She told me she didn’t care how big my opponents were, how many of them there were, or if they had weapons: I was never to pick up a knife.

In contrast, Aunt Edie had told my cousin Joey that if he didn’t start the fight and they were bigger than him, he could use anything he could lay his hands on to defend himself. That seemed much more rational. They didn’t even mind his carrying a switchblade later.

But I came to look on it as a point of pride that I didn’t need to rely on a weapon. Though in later years, I too would carry a knife… and use it.

Naturally I disobeyed and like all my friends I brought that knife to school, and promptly lost it on the school grounds outside at recess: It fell out a hole in my pants’ pocket. I searched for it desperately.

Then I saw Bill Lloyd standing alone, examining a knife; my knife.

He was in 6th grade, but the talk was that he’d been left back many times. I didn’t know if that was true or not; maybe they said that to explain why he was so big compared to the rest of us. He was like a giant, a Native American as wide as he was tall, but without an ounce of fat on him; a natural super-athlete. I saw him knock another kid clean out of his loafers once. No lie.

Without hesitation, but much hidden trepidation, I went up to him and told him that knife was mine, I had lost it, and can I have it back now? Though it was an obvious suicide, I was prepared to fight him for it.

He simply looked down at me, looked at the knife, and gave it back to me without a word. I couldn’t believe it. I said thanks, and left with my dignity and face intact.

The school system was still finding itself short of room because of the never ceasing influx of émigrés from the City to suburbia.

So, the year I entered 6th grade, they combined all the grades from 6th through 12th, approximately 1,000 kids, into the newly built High School building. What that meant was that 11-year olds were roaming the unsupervised halls, restrooms, and locker rooms with up to 20-year olds.

The 6th graders were on the bottom of the pecking order, and skinny runts like me were on the bottom of the bottom. Everywhere I turned were kids bigger than me. I could never relax, but always had to be on guard against any possible assault on my honor.

When we went up to Saratoga for Christmas dinner that year, Babi and Dede weren’t there. Lily told me they had begun spending Christmas in Florida. By now it was as if they had vanished from our lives.

Before dinner, under the pretext of showing me something in the attic where all the boardgames and paperbacks were stored, cousin Agnes the Prima Donna led me upstairs.

I went reluctantly.

I rarely saw her, but I didn’t like or trust her. Whenever I saw her she was always bossing me around or playing mean tricks on me. Like the time she showed me a huge spider in her wading pool, and then pushed me in right on top of it. Or the time she led me and cousin Joey into their basement, then raced up the stairs, slamming the door on us and shutting off the lights.

Once upstairs, instead of going up to the attic, she pushed and pulled me into Babi and Dede’s bedroom. She signaled me imperiously to be silent, then turned and began rummaging around in their closet.

I was uncomfortable; we weren’t supposed to be there and it wasn’t right to be going through other people’s things. I listened intently to the sounds wafting up from downstairs, alert for any sign of someone coming.

Suddenly, she turned around and triumphantly showed me what she had been looking for: A red-cloth covered scrapbook, about the size of a loose-leaf binder. Its bound pages were of a coarse, heavy paper, beige with age. She held it up open for me to see. Browned newspaper clippings were glued to the paper. My stomach clenched.

Agnes! What are you doing?! Are you in the attic?” Rosa’s tone was suspicious.

“We’re coming down now!” Agnes replied, quickly replacing the scrapbook.

Holding her finger to her lips, she shoved me out of the room, frowning to wordlessly warn me to be quiet or else.

I never saw that scrapbook again. But a grainy photograph in a newspaper clipping glued to the top of the righthand page had leaped out at me, mutely powerful. It was a photo of a young boy in a sailor’s cap and wearing a sweatshirt with the Jones’ Beach logo on it. He had a hot dog and was sitting on a woman’s lap.

At the end of the summer before 7th grade began, the school mailed out sign-up sheets for Junior High football, soccer, and band. Football had a minimum weight requirement of 100 pounds, which I wouldn’t weigh until I was almost a Junior in High School, so that was right out.

I remembered hearing Rosa say Dede had been on an Olympic Soccer Team, so I thought I’d try out for soccer. Lily refused to sign the permission slip, saying they couldn’t afford it, nor were they about to cart me all around to the games.

I tried to explain to her that there was no expense for the parents, and the school provided buses to and from the games. It made no difference:

No means no!”

Because of lack of money, or transportation, or because I was “too young”, I was barred from all the after-school functions that began in 7th grade; dances, clubs, sports, and music. The result was that once again, I missed all the shared experiences that bound the others in the school into friendships, cliques, and groups.

There was a pattern here of keeping me a stranger in the strange land of my own peers. And it was so exceptionless a pattern it had to have been deliberate. It extended even to attending church in a different township rather than in our own neighborhood or district.

I detested my skinniness, my glasses, my awkwardness, and my clothes. Most of those clothes were hand-me-downs Rosa had gotten from her neighbor and given Al and Lily for me to wear. It was better than no clothes…I think.

Besides being from the 1950’s and thus ten years out of date, the boy whose clothes I was now wearing was built nothing like I was. The pants were up around my calves, and the shirt sleeves didn’t make it down anywhere near my wrists.

With absolutely no ‘fashion-sense’ I didn’t have a clue how they’d be viewed by my peers. At first. But the “Slam-Books” that were passed around let me in on it. Those were notebooks some of the girls made up. On each page some one’s name was written in on top. Then the book made the rounds. Anyone could write an anonymous comment about you.

On the positive side, by close examination of the couple of photos I have, it looks like my scars were fading by the end of Junior High. The negative side was that the hammering at home had escalated again in 7th grade.

My grades began to slide fast again, and like a vicious self-feeding spiral down, that gave them fresh ammunition to hammer me further.

And I still felt like I was shrinking as the other kids were growing. They were beginning to change from boys and girls into men and women, whereas I wouldn’t see the first signs of puberty for almost another 2 years.

This was the beginning of what Lily later said she called my “Black Period”, where I only wanted to wear black, which of course was impossible because I only had a very limited ‘wardrobe’, but I did try.

I had recently discovered Marvel comics’ Spiderman. He too was always being picked on, but was much stronger and faster than he seemed. That appealed to me because I had the persistent sense that I was a giant trapped in the body of a dwarf. His “Spider Sense” I also found analogous to my own ‘radar’ sense of impending danger.

I took to wandering alone through the streets of the housing developments after dark, deliberately looking for others in danger so that I could suddenly appear and help.

Being like a shadow among the shadows on a mission gave me a sense of worth and superiority, and there were some I did help when they really needed it on those nights. Other times I didn’t need to look for it.

It came to me.

Long Island is pretty damn flat, so sleigh riding hills were hard to come by. At the ballfield, there was a bank maybe 8-foot-high going from the upper field to the lower one. That winter Jake and I went up there to sleigh one day.

As we came up, I saw two guys shoving around a smaller one. He broke away and ran up to me and I recognized him. Jackie was from the neighborhood, the younger brother of a kid in my class and a friend of Jake’s.

“Hey, man! Help me! They’re stealin my sled! C’mon man!”

I looked at the two of them. It was obvious which was the leader: He was one of those Italian boys that matured physically earlier than most. He was tall and heavily built, a man already. The other one was just a hanger-on. He wouldn’t be a problem unless I went down.

I didn’t want to have to fight, but I could not walk away from it either. It looked to me like I was going to get my ass handed to me.

“Leave him alone. Give him back his sled.”

“What da f*ck are you gonna do about it? You wanna fight?” he taunted me with a sneer on his thin lips.

He strutted up to me rolling his shoulders.

You gonna stop me?”

He put his hands up and moved into range.

“C’mon! Start sumthin!”

He shot a clumsy right out at me. I merely stepped back away from it.

“I don’t start fights. I finish em.” I bluffed.

I took off my glasses.

“Yeah, right.”

With that we began throwing punches. There wasn’t any real skill involved, it was mainly not backing up and continuing to punch at the other guys face.

After a few minutes of exchanging blows, he stepped back.

“I thought you said ya finished fights.”

“That’s what I said.”

“Yeah, right.” He turned and swaggered away.

But he was the one who left the ballfield, and without the sled.

I looked around.

Jackie had grabbed his sled while we were fighting and fled.

So had Jake.

Sometimes I didn’t have to do a thing.

A department store, ‘Modell’s’ had opened at the corner of Jericho and Larkfield. I haunted the book department and snack bars there.

One early spring day as I was crossing the vast parking lot, I noted something going on.

Two kids were surrounded by a gang of about eight guys. I could see that they were going to steal the minibike of the two smaller ones. I didn’t feel like getting into this one. It was daylight, not night, and I was hungry.

One of the kids broke away and ran up to me. I recognized him now as living near our block. Jakey knew him and his brother, who was the other kid.

“Please, Mista! Be our friend?” he begged me, looking up into my eyes, pleading. “They’re gonna steal our bike!”

I sighed inwardly, turned around and walked toward the gang resolutely. They had been watching and now let the other kid and the bike go. They backed up as I came forward, then started to spread out in an arc around me in order to encircle me.

I moved to the left, outflanking them and causing them to break up. The leader tried a bluff at threatening me, while the others snarled curses.

It ended with no violence. I simply told them:

“F*ck off. Leave em alone. They’re my friends.”

I said nothing to anyone about what happened in the parking lot when I got home. At dinner later, it was more silent than normal. I concentrated on my food, saying nothing.

I no longer said much of anything to any of them.

“Anything happen taday?” Lily asked me suddenly.

“Nope.”

“Jakey said you helped some kids.”

I said nothing, just glanced at him.

“Him and Tony were by the doors. Dey saw da whole ting.”

I shrugged and remained silent, though I wondered why he had done nothing to help his friends, or me.

Nothing more was said. Not a word of praise by anyone.

Walking across that lot later in the winter, I saw 2 kids approaching. I recognized both. One was the younger brother of Ronny Getz, a neighborhood tough, the other was the youngest of “The 6 Ugly Brothers”. They all were built like gorillas. Their thick arms were longer than their legs, and their bullet heads were topped with hanks of red hair. Their features were brutish; thick jawed, stupid, and malevolent. Each was bigger and uglier than the others and if you beat up one, the next biggest came after you. If you beat that one, the next biggest came looking for you, etc, etc, like a never-ending nightmare.

They passed me without incident. I began to breathe a sigh of relief when a rock ricocheted off the tarmac near my right foot.

Then another.

White socks!’ the ugly one taunted.

I was wearing white athletic socks which were uncool at the time, and my high-water hand-me-down slacks halfway up my skinny calves only made them more glaring.

White socks!”

Another rock whizzed passed me.

I took a deep breath. This I could not stand.

I don’t care how many I gotta fight. If I take this, it’ll never end.” I thought.

I pulled my shoulders square, took a deep breath, wheeled and started for them, glaring at him from under my eyebrows.

To my utter surprise I hadn’t taken more than a half dozen determined strides toward them when they turned tail and flat out ran.

“Ya betta not! I’ll tell my brothas!” The ape yelled over his shoulder at me.

I was stunned at the knowledge that he was scared of me.

Me.

“But they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength.

They shall mount up with wings like eagles. They shall run

And not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

Isaiah 40:31

I cut that verse out of a church bulletin. It was my daily prayer. I needed that God, the One that would give me strength, because I was fading fast.

I was holding the Pastor, the teachers, and Him, to the promise that He always answered your prayers. I never totally gave up the hope that someday, someone would hear me, but everytime I asked my ‘Heavenly Father’ for the proverbial bread, I got a scorpion or a stone instead.

I had come to accept that God was good, but I was now striving mightly to avoid thinking that the reason why my calls were unanswered was because nobody was home. As far as I could see, He was totally absent from His creation and negligent in His duties, because this world was crushing me and I hadn’t done a thing to deserve it.

It wasn’t even a fair fight.

Whoever was running this show now was definitely out to get me and doing so with impunity: I was on my own.

I never lost that view, or the resolve it led to. As it was obvious no one was going to help me, it was up to me to help myself. I would have to take over His work and make myself grow.

The idea crystallized into a plan after the first time I saw the old movie “Wee Geordie” on television. It was the story of a poor Scottish boy, a runt like me, who used Charles Atlas’s techniques and sheer will-power to forge himself into a giant of a man, an Olympian gold medal winner. I had no money for those body-building programs advertised at the back of comic books, but there was the school library.

I took out all the books I could unearth on health, nutrition, fitness, and exercise. Later, when I began earning cash I bought more books on the subjects.

I learned to count calories, and quickly realized there was no way in Heaven or on earth that I was going to start putting on muscle and weight on the barely 1,200 calories a day I was getting at home. I had to find some way to get more food into me.

At 13 I stood 5’1 ½ “, but only weighed 75 pounds. And both Lily and Al actively discouraged me from working out. Al, especially, hated the idea of me getting large. The larger I got, the more anxious he got.

Regardless, I began to exercise daily. Everything I did became an opportunity to work out. And because I was so skinny, I felt I needed any edge in fights. So, I studied every schoolground and street fight I wasn’t in and did a post-mortem on everyone I was in. I devoured any self-defense book I could lay hands on and practiced constantly.

What proved itself of value in the real world, I kept. I learned to read the signs and understand the dynamics that led to fights, and most importantly, how to sense and avoid traps.

I had already learned through experience the basic rules for dealing with gangs.

Gangs are formed of cowards around a central strong personality and his lieutenant, who was the one who usually circled behind you and attacked first. As part of what I’d learned I always determined who was the weakest member of the gang, and if I had to break through a circle; I’d go through him.

But most importantly, I learned to make eye contact with each one and send each one the message that if anything started, he was personally going to get hurt. No hiding behind numbers: He was going to get hurt. And if I went down, I’d get each one later for pay-back…as long as I made it out alive.

I don’t miss those years.

I had become extremely, pathologically, girl-conscious, but I didn’t have any idea how to do anything about my yearnings.

When puberty finally did hit when I was 15, it hit like a Tidal wave. The erections came on constantly; at all times and in all places. Nothing was sacred to that blind impulse. It didn’t require sexual thoughts to rear up.

I took to wearing a jockstrap all the time just to keep those aching erections somewhat restrained. But at 5’ 6” and only 97 pounds, a nine-inch hard-on sticks out like a...

Well, it sticks out.

And I didn’t know what to do about it.

I didn’t know there was such a thing as masturbating.

Probably just as well.

I’d have been doing it constantly.

I had absolutely no idea what was involved with sexual relations. My ‘sex-education’ was picked up on the street, from the television sit-coms of the 60’s, and the rare, tattered, “Playboy” found on the side of a road.

They created a perception of sexuality overflowing with fantasies, misconceptions, cultural lies, and unbelievable ignorance. I learned what little I knew about ‘sex appeal’ and personal hygiene products from commercials alone.

There was no one to ask. I couldn’t ask any other kid, because it would betray the fact that I was ignorant, and I’d never live it down.

Al was revolted by any attempt on my part to question him.

Every night those dreams created incredibly powerful feelings that I tried fruitlessly to stop from culminating.

From Biology class I at least knew they were called “Wet Dreams”.

My voice had begun to deepen, and I enjoyed feeling the bass rumble in my chest when I sang.

One Sunday during church service, after we had sat down after a hymn, Jake leaned forward and hissed at me from the other side of Lily.

“Will you shut up? Ya embarrassin us!”

“God doesn’t care how bad you sing, Jakey, just as long as he sings.” Lily responded in a prim whisper.

I was mortified to realize I sang badly and that everyone knew it. I had thought I sang well. From that day on I couldn’t sing again.

Whenever I tried, even alone just for myself, I couldn’t carry a tune.

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