by Rick Kempa
What we had in common were our differences from everybody else: he was the heaviest kid in our school, and I was the smallest. In a high school of over 1,600 boys, these distinctions mattered. Our lot was to bear their taunts and nicknames. Thanks to a cruel gym teacher, I became known as "Peanut," a name especially galling because it suggested not only my size but the root of all my troubles at that time, my prepubescence. Eddie, too, shuffled back and forth between classes with his head down, dodging nicknames.
One year ahead of me, he was initially my older brother's friend, with whom I hung around by invitation only when they needed more bodies for the hockey games that were played in his backyard. (To lure friends over, his father and he had sculpted a miniature ice rink, piling up dirt embankments in the fall and diligently flooding it all winter long.) In Eddie's eyes, I was of the same low rank as his younger brother Joey, a sixth grader. In fact, I was inferior to Joey because I couldn't skate. Thus I was always the goalie, my mission not only to keep the puck from entering the makeshift goal, but from smacking their back door. A fearful sight it was, to see Eddie advance like a mountain in motion and then loom above me, poised to strike! But I had three things going for me: agility, a goalie stick big enough to guard my groin, and a fierce, almost suicidal hunger for respect. I lived for the sound of being cussed out when I stopped a breakaway.
Winter was not half over when the hockey season abruptly thawed out. For my brother and the rest of the gang, Eddie's thirty‑by‑thirty‑foot rink, with its no‑slap-shot rule and his smiling mom always in the window overlooking us, suddenly became claustrophobic, and they began instead to hang out in someone's garage. I was not invited, and neither was Eddie.
No greater misery exists than to come home from the school halls full of laughter, shouts, and promises of phone calls and to have nothing better to do than watch cartoons. For two sad weeks Eddie skated slow circles in his backyard, a hockey stick dangling from a gloved hand. Then he called. He asked first for my older brother, knowing full well he was out, and then he informed me curtly that if I wanted to come over and shoot the puck around for a while, I could. And so out of sheer need our friendship was born.
Our routine that winter involved two games, pinochle and chess. Always we played at his house, huddled over a card table in his unfinished basement. His mother would unfailingly appear with milk and cookies. A transistor radio, its antenna pointed towards the one square shaft of light, would be tuned to top forties. In time we were comfortable enough with each other to croon along with the songs that held no literal meaning for either of us: "Honey, Sugar Sugar. You got me lovin’ you.”
Pinochle was Eddie's forte, chess mine, and so alternating the games meant switching roles of champ and underdog. Eddie kept a record of the pinochle results, arranging the data in as many ways as he could think of: won‑lost record and percentages, total points scored, average points per game. These tabulations were posted on one of the basement beams, open to the world, had the world cared to see. I kept the chess records in my diary, along with blow‑by‑blow accounts of the games.
When the weather broke, we added a third game to the repertoire, one‑on‑one basketball on Eddie's backyard court. In this we used our physical traits to full advantage. I would run like mad, side to side, back and forth, until Eddie dizzied and I could break for the hoop. Eddie's main move, infuriatingly unstoppable, was to back in towards the basket, guarding the ball with his body and fending me off with his elbows, until he got to a certain familiar crack in the driveway, whereupon he would whirl and unleash a hook shot. Swish!
And so my first year in high school swung from worst to best. Having an upperclassman for a friend raised my status immeasurably, at least in my own eyes. The heckling probably didn't diminish any—it may have in fact intensified, to celebrate the sight of the two of us, Biggest and Smallest, together—but I was newly deaf to it. As for what our coupling did for Eddie, what I lacked in terms of status I made up for with raw devotion. I was like a cute pet. His mother could've saved herself a sack of sugar that winter. Had she fed us bread and water instead of cookies, I wouldn't have gone anywhere.
When the locker next to Eddie's became vacant and Eddie helped arrange for me to move into it, our happiness was complete. As often as our schedules would allow, sometimes for just a few seconds, we would meet there. At last we could add our own spirited voices to the babble of sound! We belonged.
But although we rubbed elbows all day long, we would not make after‑school plans in the hall; we had a more delicious way to do that. We lived just two blocks apart, but took separate busses. I would race home to drop my books and change my clothes. Then, just as I was getting my sneakers laced, without fail every day the telephone would ring and Eddie would nonchalantly ask, would I like to come over for a game? Oh the sweet shrill sound of that phone! The respectful gaze of the younger brother!
The following year, Eddie was the first of any in his class to learn to drive, which restored to him the status of the backyard hockey days. This was especially so because he drove a car befitting his size, his uncle's Monte Carlo. He steadfastly refused my brother's overtures to be the chauffer for the Friday night dances, but he was soon recruited for the week night "open gyms," those three‑hour‑long orgies of pick‑up basketball. You'd think Eddie would not bear up well in such a scene, but he did fine. Sure he was slow, but he was a master at positioning, a true force beneath the boards, and even without cracks in the floor to guide him, a deadeye.
His only problem came when, playing with guys who did not know him, he would end up on a "skins" team, the ones who were supposed to play without shirts. Eddie would flat‑out refuse to take his off, pretending not to hear the other's orders, turning his back on their snide remarks. Finally he'd bark, "You know who I am. Let's play.”
With his fleshiness and my persistent hairlessness, the locker room continued to be a place of shame for us both and so we conspired to avoid it. At night's end, when the gym moderator would herd us all off the floor, Eddie and I would dawdle at the water fountain or stare into the trophy case, until we were sure that the other boys were safely in the shower. We'd then hurry to our lockers where, back to modest back, we'd shed our gym suits for street clothes.
The rate of change in high school is phenomenal. Weeks are like years, while each school year, punctuated by the infinity of summer, is a lifetime. And in each new life, the allegiances shift as easily and quickly as in an evening of pickup basketball.
In my third year, Eddie's fourth, the luster was gone from our after‑school routine. We still enacted it a couple of times a week, when I wasn't involved in one of the after‑school clubs I'd joined. (He knew my schedule; the phone still rang on cue.) But pinochle and chess were definitely "uncool," and our one‑on‑one basketball games were serious affairs, in which winning, or as we said it, "owning" the other, began to matter too much.
The truth was Eddie was "uncool" too. For me, all kinds of welcome changes had occurred. I had worked my way into a clique that specialized in all‑night poker games. I got a driver's license and ventured out on a date or two. But the best development by far was physical: I had begun to grow, an inch at a time, and had finally sprouted body hair. Eddie, meanwhile, seemed to stay the same, a big relic from an earlier, darker age.
There came a day when, to his phone invitation, "Whattya say to a game of one‑on‑one?" I answered, too proudly, "No thanks, I'm going over to some other guy's house." In the few seconds of stunned silence, his breath came fast and wheezy. Finally he muttered "no problem" and hung up. From then on his calls were studiously irregular, and his voice, when he did call, had a fierce don't‑care‑if‑you‑do tone to it.
In fact, Eddie was doing his own desperate best to belong, venturing out with my brother and me to the Friday night dances, where he'd plant himself stoutly at the fringe and pretend it wasn't agony to be there. We would drop in on him between our forays out to the parking lot to swill more apple wine. But as our alcohol‑levels climbed, our visits grew more infrequent and less genuine. It became possible to forget that he was there.
Dropping him off at his house at the end of one such night, we indulged in one of those mindless fits of cruelty that can come so naturally to young people. As Eddie was walking up the driveway in the glare of our headlight beams, his shadow looming against the garage door suddenly struck us as funny. My brother began to flash the brights on and off. He revved the engine, inched up close behind Eddie, so that the shadow was immense, and we began to chant, mimicking, I suppose, his mother, "Eddieeee! Eddieeeeee!" He fled inside.
The enormity of our crime dawned on me at once. The look on his face had been more like terror than anger, as if we might hit the gas and run him down. All night on the slow drift back to sobriety, that look was fixed on me. Sometimes it shifted to one of reproach—how could you do this on my own turf?—then back to the blind fear of the hunted animal. These were not mere dream images; he was lying wide‑awake in his own bed, I knew, and these were his eyes. I wanted to race back over that very minute and beg forgiveness. The next day I did go over, but a long leaden sleep had blunted my urgency, and I did not beg. His mother did not smile, and Eddie would not see me. Not then, not ever again.
There is one more scene. It is near the end of my third year, Eddie's last. I am up in the balcony of the gymnasium with four hundred other boys. Down on the gym floor, a game of dodge ball is in progress.
As with all forms of war, the rules of dodge ball are few and basic: two teams of thirty or so boys, four soccer balls, each team trying to decimate the other, either by smacking opponents with a ball or by catching a ball and thus eliminating the thrower. There's a safety zone for each team at opposite ends of the gym, a line which the other team may not cross, and so, seen from above, the action is more wavelike, ebb and flow, than it is chaotic.
The contest proceeds with the usual quick attrition until on one team there remains four of the best and strongest, while on the other team just one, and lo and behold it's Eddie.
It looks bad for him. Each of the four guys has a ball, and Eddie is backed into a corner of his safety zone. The crowd is laughing, yelling out fat-boy jokes, itching for a quick, fierce kill. My ears are burning, my lunch flip‑flopping inside me. I'm afraid of the hurt that is occurring, that is going to get worse.
The four unleash their throws all at once, and as if he has an eye for each ball, Eddie twists and turns, like a ballerina in slow motion, and eludes them all. He manages to capture one ball, while the other three bounce back to his attackers. Again they synchronize their throws, again he writhes away, and again captures a ball.
Up in the balcony, the tide is turning, the insults snuffed out by a growing sentiment for the underdog. Twice more his attackers throw, and now Eddie has all four balls, and, with two of them under each arm, he is advancing.
The four are running backwards to their safety zone. They don't have to retreat; instead they could surround him, like wolves around a lone bull, and simply wait. In order to attack, he'd have to put down one, maybe two balls; he'd have to turn his back on half of them.
But a host from on high is pounding its feet in unison, screaming in a rising frenzy, "Go! Go! Go!" It's not one against four, it's four hundred and one. Against such odds, teamwork means nothing. Each of the four is running for his life.
And Eddie is advancing. His bigness is not fat, it's power. The four are not wolves, they're jackals scattering before a lion.
When they can retreat no further, Eddie puts down two of the balls. He paces back and forth along the edge of the safety line. He singles out one of the four, glowers at him until the kid is half dead with fear, then finishes him off with a scorching blow to the back. The multitude is delirious. He does the same with the second guy, but this time one of the survivors catches the ball on the rebound, and like any cornered beast will do, he charges. Eddie scurries backwards, drops the ball he's holding, and faces the kid head on, palms open. The throw gets him right in the belly and he smothers it. The kid is out. Eddie then reverses himself, bears down on the last guy, who is squating above one of the other balls. Smack! The impact is heard even above our shrieks (for I am shouting now too). The kid is sent sprawling, and Eddie is alone on the floor.
And now amidst our bedlam a new chant is taken up. Soon the gym is rocking with "Eddie! Eddie! Eddie!”—a no‑nonsense cry of adulation this time. In his person, every boy's fantasy has come true, has been exceeded even. The anonymity that was his life before now is no longer. He could be student body president. And I'm clapping and stomping with the rest, but not chanting, because I'm too choked up. And I'm wondering, Eddie, does this destroy the echo of that other chant?
He does not wave or even look at us. He walks to the sidelines, to the back-slaps and high‑fives of his teammates and to the locker room, where, finally, he too can shower with pride.
Rick Kempa lives in Rock Springs, Wyoming, where he teaches writing and philosophy at Western Wyoming College. His most recent books are the anthology Going Down Grand: Poems from the Canyon from Lithic Press, which he edited with Peter Anderson, and a poetry collection Ten Thousand Voices, published by Littoral Press in Richmond, CA. Visit his website to learn more about his work.