The Sky, the Razor, the Shout

One.

The Man yelled at the Cat. And shot a video, and threw it online. After all, it was funny.

It was neither the first nor the last mistake he would ever make.

Two.

The boy came upon the box of straight razors in the pantry under the stairs. It was late January, and the man his mother had been seeing had just given him a another brutal dressing down.

Lately, the Boy had taken to lying in the back yard in his winter clothes and staring up at the trees as the sun set. Something about them, black against the last red of the evening, felt deeply familiar. As if something inside of him was taking the same shape, reaching up with bare limbs into the dying light, trying to grasp at something just out of his reach. He listened to the tape playing in the old Walkman and tried to clear his mind. He fingered the small box in his pocket.

Three.

When the cat video went viral, the Man thought that he’d drown in the flood of mindless rage flowing toward him, but instead he’d floated along, reading the messages, one by one, as they reached into the hundreds, then the thousands, telling him that he was worthless or that he should die or that he looked like a certain famous person but in much worse shape.

The rage was new, exciting, and maybe something deep down in him enjoyed the attention.

And so he let it wash over him.

But the lectures.

He couldn’t stand being condescended to, and every time a new lecture appeared on his screen, he cringed. He was an asshole, yes, but not a stupid asshole. Right? Of course he knew that shouting at his cat would teach it nothing. He wasn’t trying to teach the cat anything. He was just trying to wake it up. And mission accomplished, thank you.

You joyless fucks.

Four.

The boy became obsessed with the small box of razor blades. Where they had come from, why they had been bought. They consumed his days.

He thought about them on the bus on the way to school, in his classes, on the ride home. He thought about them as he wrangled his siblings in the evenings before his mother came home from work. He thought about them as he lay in the yard, staring at the branches of the trees.

Some part of him believed that maybe he’d been fated to find them.

He’d always believed that everything served a purpose.

These razors meant something.

Five.

And then came the woman who finally broke the man. It was the longest comment he’d received, as well as the most pointed rage. She went on and on, attacking the man’s intelligence, his disposition, his manhood, his soul. She went on further to defend the cat. The cat was blameless and beautiful.

But the man had no place in this world, she said. The man should die, she said.

He thought, I should probably say something back.

Six.

It was late on a Tuesday or very early on a Wednesday when the boy woke in the night from a dream of the trees. They had reached up into the darkness and grasped something, finally, something tangible and huge and inevitable in the sky, and they were pulling it downward, fast, toward him.

When he woke, he was very calm. He thought of the box of razors in his bedside table. He knew then.

Seven.

The man spent hours on Wednesday, starting early in the morning and typing well into the afternoon, writing and rewriting phrases, making deep and passionate points, explaining that he hadn’t meant for this video to go so far, that he felt silly and lost and that this had eclipsed everything he’d ever worked for. It was more than he had written in weeks, and he didn’t know why, but getting through to this angry stranger meant a great deal. As he read it over one last time, he thoughtlessly rubbed at the small scar on his wrist.

He sent the letter to the woman. He received a reply within the hour.

It was two sentences:

“You piece of shit. Do you think this means anything?”

Eight.

The boy took the razor into the bathroom. He stood in the dark for a long time, breathing, on the bathmat in front of the tub. He said something to himself, quietly. A call for courage, or a prayer. He held the razor to his wrist and pressed its edge into his flesh.

He wasn’t prepared for the pain. He was so shocked by it that he dropped the razor onto the bathmat and clutched at the offended wrist, turning away from the tub and stepping directly onto the naked blade, which buried itself in his heel. He slipped backward into the tub, slamming the back of his skull against the wall as he went.

Nine.

The woman was right, the man thought. He had expressed himself as well and as deeply as he could. He had reached downward all the way and pulled up something tangible and huge and had brought it forth in all of its ugliness, and then sent it along.

It had been rejected. It had meant nothing. Maybe the cat was worth more.

So what do I do now?, the man thought. What’s left to do?

Ten.

The Boy lay in the tub.

He thought about his mother and his siblings sleeping in their beds, of all of the other people that he knew. He wondered if any of them were awake. If any of them knew what was inside of him, and whether or not it would matter if they did.

He thought about how spectacularly he had just failed. It hadn’t been the first mistake he’d made, and it wouldn’t be his last.

He thought he should probably throw the razors away. This was clearly not his time. Maybe the huge, tangible thing was not here yet, but still somewhere out there in the vast dark. Maybe it wouldn’t come at all.

For now, he had to drag himself out of the tub. For now, he had to bandage his wrist and his foot and take something for his headache. Hide all evidence. Nobody needed to know about this.

For the time being, he thought, he should just go on.

Foster’s Pointe

So we were married, and the ceremony was attended and the wine flowed and there was dancing. We had an excellent photographer, Josh Rigsby, who really made it look sharp. He’s submitting the whole thing for publication, and so I wrote this little blurb to accompany all of the photos. At any rate, happy March.

We were sprouted in the grey-black pluff mud of the Lowcountry, my siblings and cousins and I, and we spent our summers swimming in the warm brackish water of the River that flowed past our dock at Foster’s Pointe.

Foster’s Pointe was magic. To children, the smallish plot of land outside Hollywood, SC was a vast wilderness, where we caught fiddler crabs by the water, climbed the branches of the great Live Oaks, played hide-and-seek in the dense grove of Camellias my great-grandfather had planted decades before. We helped our parents clear brush in the Summer heat, helped build the house when it grew too small for the thriving family, roasted marshmallows over campfires at night.

I had my first oyster there, plucked directly from the River, salty and strange and slippery; my first sip of beer, which I found disgusting; my very first chaste kiss from the neighbor girl, who was a year older and- I believed then as I believe now- infinitely wiser. I am what I am because of the water and the land, and the Family that raised me.

There is a test for newcomers to Foster’s Pointe, whether friend or lover. The test was handed down from the Aunts, whom we love and fear and whose word is final, Amen. The test is very simple: they must love Foster’s Pointe at first sight, or they are not worth keeping.

I didn’t have any worries about Amy passing the test. Amy is sensible. Amy knows a good thing when she sees it. And so when she first breathed in the salty-sulphur air of the marsh at low tide, she fell hopelessly in love. In the following years, we’d escape out into our wilderness whenever we could, and we grew together in the Lowcountry. When she asked to me to marry (Amy also knows when she has to take the initiative), there was only one place that either of us could see gathering our loved ones together to celebrate. There was no question.

With family and friends surrounding us under the live oaks, we were home.

Little Monsters, Part One

In 2007, I wrote 101 short short plays, many of which were very silly, and most of which were impossible to produce. They have languished in my inbox ever since, as I’ve never really known what to do with them. Here, I share [some of] them with you. 

+++

#1:  JAMES V. THE LAW OF GRAVITY

(Curtain up.)
(Man stands on bare stage.)
(He jumps into the air and levitates.)

MAN: Take that, Gravity.

(Curtain.)

+++

#2:  …AND THE WORLD WILL NEVER BE THE SAME

(Curtain up.)
(A reporter interviews a wild-haired man in a white labcoat.)

REPORTER:  Professor Wermer!  Tell us about your exciting new invention!

WERMER: (In a slight accent) I have built a Perpetual Malaise Machine.

REPORTER:  And how do you feel, Professor?

WERMER: (Shrugs.)  Eh.

(He sighs in German.)
(Curtain.)

+++

#12:  HAIKU LOOP

(Curtain.)

(A FRANTIC MAN runs into the doctor’s office.)

FRANTIC MAN:  Doctor, you must help!

DOCTOR:  Tell me, good man, what is it?

FRANTIC MAN:  I am trapped in a…

(He is unable to speak another syllable.  He weeps silently.)

(Curtain.)

+++

#17:  1932: A STAGE ODYSSEY

(Curtain.)

(The PALACE THEATER, New York City, 1932.  To the strains of the first movement of Richard Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” a tribe of prehistoric ape-men are watching a dull VAUDEVILLE performance, and eating a freshly killed TAPIR.)

(Suddenly, a MYSTERIOUS BLACK MONOLITH appears in the center of the audience, two seats over from the ALPHA APE-MAN.  He looks at the monolith, and then at the Tapir-bone in his hand.)

(At the monolith.)

(At the Tapir-bone.)

(At the monolith.)

(At the Tapir-bone.)

(He scratches his head.)

(Suddenly, screaming, he jumps upon the stage and beats the living shit out of VAUDEVILLE, which dies.)

(The other APE-MEN howl in approval.  The Palace Theater is converted into a cinema-house.)

(Mankind evolves.)

(Sort of.)

(Curtain.)

+++

#18:  PATIENT ZERO

(Curtain.)

(A super-secret lab.  Two doctors sit at a desk, feet up, sipping brandy and smoking cigars.  They laugh and high five one another.)

DOCTOR FINN:  Well, we did it.

DOCTOR GILL:  Yup.  Cured every disease, ever.

DOCTOR FINN:  Uh-huh.  Cancer?

DOCTOR GILL:  Kicked it.

DOCTOR FINN:  Pneumonia?

DOCTOR GILL:  Nipped it.

DOCTOR FINN:  AIDS?

DOCTOR GILL:  Ate it.

(FINN looks at GILL, disgusted.)

DOCTOR GILL:  Well, not literally.

DOCTOR FINN:  Yup, got a cure for everything.  Only thing that could lick us now would be some type of super-virus that doesn’t yet exist.  But my hubris tells me that’s impossible.

(The JANITOR comes in and sneezes.)

(FINN and GILL look to each other in horror.)

(Panic.  Apocalypse.)

(Curtain.)

+++

#20: MARSHALL LEEDY: A BIOGRAPHY

(Curtain.)

(1950.  The L.A. County Morgue.  Five men stand around a body, smoking cigars.)

DETECTIVE:  Marshall Leedy.  45.  Quit his job, quit his wife, quit his friends and family.  Found dead on his couch last night.  Doc?  What’d you find?

DOC:  His heart stopped.  No explanation.  It just…  stopped beating.

DETECTIVE:  Quit his life.

DOC:  The man successfully ceased to exist.

DETECTIVE:  Not entirely.  Left behind a corpse.

(The body suddenly evaporates into thin air.  Pause.  Exasperation.)

DETECTIVE:  Well, we’ll always remember–

(Sudden, long pause.)

DETECTIVE:  What were we just talking about?

(Longer pause.)

(Curtain.)

Eyeful.

I’ve been in a little bit of an anxiety spiral of late, and so the work has become difficult. Instead of banging my head on the table, I used my limited photoshop skills and inexhaustible mental health issues to make this simple comic strip.

Enjoy the fruits of my labor.

19990402_10155470089199134_6520711234124130804_n.jpg

Good Girl, Pretty Girl

I’ve been a little remiss in updating for a number of reasons. Things have been busy, I’ll say, even if that is only sort of true. I’ll write more soon. In the meantime:

In searching for a file yesterday, I came upon this piece. It was written in the winter of 2013, which was terrible. My writing partner and I had taken a job developing and scripting a reboot of a famous horror franchise, and it was making us both insane. I lost 35 pounds that winter, smoked two packs a day, barely ate, drank myself to sleep every night. On a rare morning off from the project, I wrote this piece, about desperation, from the perspective of my dog. It is strange and disjointed, more a series of sketches than a short story, but I’m more fond of it than I’d have thought.

Talk soon,

nt.

+++

“Good Girl, Pretty Girl”

I.

The dog wakes from a dream. She was running through a dark wood, chasing. Shadows ran alongside her, and she knew that she was safe, that these were the shadows of brethren in the midst of a furious primal hunt.

Dust motes float in the beams of sunlight pouring through the window of the cluttered apartment. She listens through the sounds of the city outside, and she hears the sound of the man breathing in the next room. He is alone in bed, the woman having left for work early. He will be awhile waking up, and so she stretches her joints, aching and stiff from sleep.

The dog winds her way through the furniture and into the kitchen. The woman has filled her bowls. She sniffs at the kibble. It smells only vaguely of game, something that she would chase down in the forest. She takes a bite, and the illusion is shattered.

She goes to the door of the bedroom and peeks in. The man is snoring operatically in the tousled sheets. His legs curved just so and and his arm draped over his face. She sighs and flops down in the doorway. She waits for him to wake. She drifts.

She does not get up when he wakes. She is familiar with his morning routine. He pulls himself from the great cast-iron bed. When he walks, he takes slow, heavy steps that cause the wooden floor to shake beneath him. He steps over her and into the bathroom, and the sound of his urination hitting the porcelain bowl and the salty smell of it fill her senses. He, this beast, he is hers, and she loves him and fears his shifts in mood but when he exits the bathroom, he pauses to run his bare foot over her back before continuing on to the kitchen, where he furthers his ritual by pouring the dark, pungent beans into the grinder and boiling water and opening the refrigerator to inspect its contents.

The coffee done, he sits down on the couch and places the steaming mug beside him. He will not drink more than a sip before he lies back and closes his eyes once again.

The man does not move for a great length of time. She cannot tell how long. She does not know minutes or hours. She tracks the sunlight as it shifts across the room and after it has moved from the rug to the coffee table, he sits up and looks to her. They make eye contact.

It is time to go outside.

II.

The dog wakes to the sound of sirens in the distance, and for a moment, she mistakes them for the call of her wild sisters. Before she can stop herself, she raises her head and returns the forlorn howl. It was not something that she was taught and she does not know why she howls, only that she must howl, and a memory that is not hers passes through her mind. She realizes in a moment that these are not the sounds of the Others. She knows that they are only mechanical. This does not stop her from howling. She howls until they are out of earshot, and she stops and listens. Only the sounds of the city, muffled through the thick walls.

To pass the time, she tries to think the saddest thing that she can think. But the only thing that she can think of is being alone, and she is alone right now, she does not know when or if they will return, and it is dreadfully quiet. She tries to think of something else. She cannot. She sighs heavily.

III.

The woman returns before the man. She drops her bag in the chair and she greets the dog in a high tone, and the dog gets up and shakes off and wags her tail to return the greeting. The woman walks back to the door and retrieves the leash hanging on the hook and the dog runs to her and sits on the kitchen floor and she is so excited that she cannot help but shake. The woman hooks the leash to her collar and opens the door. The dog tries to wait, because the woman will be cross if she bounds out the door before being told to do so. But she wants to go through the door so badly. She can smell the outside. She can smell the rain from before and how it intensifies the scents of the world. She waits. The woman gives her the signal, and she rushes toward the world, feeling the pull of the woman on the other end of her tether but not caring for a moment.

She squats to relieve herself, shivering with pleasure at the feeling. She sniffs the air around her. They walk. There are so many smells. They are a history of the world.

All too soon they are reentering the apartment and she does not want to return but takes consolation in knowing that the rest of her pack will be with her inside the small space, that they will eat and sit and stare at the television and if she lies next to the man, he will scratch her behind her ears and when he stops he will lay his foot upon her side and leave it there and they will both find comfort in the contact.

IV.

The man and woman take turns being the alpha, depending on who has energy after the long day. She knows her place in the chain, she is Omega, sometimes she wishes otherwise and tries half-heartedly to assert dominance, but they are not fooled and they lay hands on her and press her to the ground until she stills herself. It does not matter. It is a passing fancy. They are not an ideal pack, but they are hers and she theirs, they are all together, for now, in the cavern that they call home, and the smell of the dishes in the sink and the dust that surrounds them in the air and the socks on the floor, those that she has hidden beneath the furniture, and their bodies, their simian bodies, it is all there as it has always been. As it will ever be.

She smells where they have been. The Woman smells of coffee and stale sweat and the Man smells of cigarette smoke but beneath these masks she can smell what they feel. The subtle air of sadness, the sharp tang of anxiety or desperation. She comes to them and tastes them, and they smile and accept her tongue for a moment before calming her with hands on her skull, her neck, her back. She knows she only has so much time to taste, that they will rebuke her sharply if she persists, but she tastes for as long as they will let her.

She feels a kinship with them when they are sad. When they cannot get up off of the couch. They are alone but together. She fears the morning. The morning is when they leave her. She never knows for sure if they will return.

V.

When they are all together, they make voices that they know are supposed to be hers. They speak for her. She knows the tone of it and listens intently, her ears perking up. She understands very little of the language, but it does not matter. They are communing with her. That is all that matters.

VI.

When the man lies on the couch in the afternoon, she knows that something is wrong, but can only gauge the severity of the situation when she creeps close and sits beside him, face to face. He does not usually respond well to her face in such close proximity to his. If he snaps at her to go, he is merely tired. If he places his hand gently atop her head and looks into her eyes and whispers to her, something is very wrong. She does not know what it is, except that she feels it too, deeply, without understanding. They are alone, together.

VII.

The dog does not entirely understand pack politics. She knows her place in the order, of course, but cannot understand the subtle back-and-forth between the two people. She senses when things are tense, and also the lack of tension when things are easy. The feelings wash like a great tide over her, swelling and receding. She cannot imagine the future. She has never tried. Life is one endless expanse, interrupted by periods of dark and sleep and an occasional meal and a walk through the vast park.

The dog does not know if she is happy and doesn’t ponder it. There is an emotion in her, deep down, that she does not quite comprehend, that came from before her great great great grandmother was born. Sometimes it swells in her chest so much that she can feel it in her throat, and she tenses, barely controlling herself, half-expecting it to burst forth into the small apartment, tear through the walls, escape into the hazy afternoon sunlight outside. She shakes her entire body as if trying to dry herself. She barks into the empty apartment and listens to the echo. Something stirs just outside, in the hallway.

The dog waits.

Something will happen. It always has before.

On Italics, in Brief

So my cat (read: my wife-to-be’s cat) is famous, and I am now known better for meowing at him than for anything else I’ve done with my life. So all of the hard work has finally paid off! I’m writing a piece on this. In the meantime, here is the video:

If you’re new here, I’ve done other things with my life that are not related to Italics. Here, watch a film that I made with my writing partner a few years ago (Warning: if you’re only here for the cat, you won’t like this at all.):

And here I am, yelling at a child:

At any rate: I’ll write a real humdinger of a thinkpiece about owning a cat or owning a famous cat or yelling at cats soon, and also I will write more about our impending nuptuals after I shake off the hangover of this sudden and strange notoriety.

Stay in school, kids!

Bully.

I am trying to be a good person. For Amy. Also, for me. You know how it goes. It is easy to be a misanthrope. It is easy to raise a gentle middle finger to the world and all those in it. It is easy to sit alone at home and make cat memes and hate the men with the leaf blowers who forever blow outside my window.

I frequently struggle with empathy. when I do, I think about Russ James.

For a ten-year-old, he was a real dick. I mean just a petty, mean-spirited, walking, farting, swearing pile of wet garbage. A cartoon bully. The kind you’d find in one of those Looney Toons knock-offs in the 30s. Alfalfa cowlick. Husky southern accent. He stalked the halls of Pine Ridge Elementary School alone or with a couple faceless goons, threatening swirlies and stealing lunch money and just generally being the worst kind of stereotype about it all. A little redneck shit with a chip on his shoulder.

As you can probably tell, I was no big fan of Russ James. For the most part, my memories of him are a gauzy haze of half-remembered dread. And they pop up infrequently, usually when somebody else is reminiscing about in their own asshole demons. And then suddenly his stupid smug face and the grating, raspy twang of his voice jump to the front of my mind.

So:

It was Christmas, probably 1990. Because that would have put me at eleven. And it seems rational that someone that age would still be excited about Christmas, despite the recent divorce (we didn’t know yet the extent to which divorce was a joy-suck during the holidays.) Also, eleven sounds like an age wherein a kid would still believe in Santa. I mean, it’s at the tail end of those years, to be sure. But it’s there.

I was little and bleary-eyed and riding on the bus early in the morning on the last day of school before Christmas break. The mind conjures up sleep in eyes and condensation on the inside of the bus windows and the squeak of jeans on pleather and the smell of bookbags and erasers. The strange blue-gray light of a December morning. And then, from behind me, from above, Russ James’s voice:

“Hey, Nicholas.”

I remember his buckteeth on full display (no judgment, I still have buckteeth myself), as he smiled down at me with a weird sense of [false] benevolence.

“… Yeah?”

“Are you excited about what Santa’s going to bring you?”

This gave me pause.

I was used to Russ. Russ was never nice. If Russ was being nice, it meant that he was setting a clumsy trap. I’d fallen for them before. And was inherently distrustful.

But I could not for the life of me figure out what he was getting at with that question. Why wouldn’t I be excited about what Santa Claus was going to bring me? Everybody was excited about that. And Jesus, it had been a rough year. It was a relief to have something to look forward to. And so I answered truthfully:

“Yeah.”

His eyes lit up. Like, this was great. Like, he couldn’t fucking believe his luck. This was perfect! He’d gone fishing, and caught a whopper on his first cast. He turned to the rest of the bus, and announced at the top of his lungs:

“Hey, everybody, this baby still believes in Santa Claus!”

He received a wide variety of responses. The older kids all burst into full-throated laughter. The younger kids either looked around, blessedly confused, or sat like I did. Eyes ahead. In stony silence. Brains overheating. Because Russ James had just taken something. Gleefully. Which is what bullies do.

Anyway, there it was. No Santa Claus. And of course, as soon as it sunk in, it seemed like the most obvious thing in the world. Of course there’s no Santa Claus. What a little idiot I have been!

It’s a real bummer to think about those nasty little turning points. The epiphanies that come wrapped in humiliation. So we won’t. This is not about loss of innocence, after all. Not entirely.

+++

I continued over the coming years to avoid direct contact with Russ. Because every interaction came with a price. Usually that cost being to one’s dignity. Luckily, I was not the epicenter of Russ James’s attentions. No one seemed to be. He didn’t have an Object of Derision like some bullies seem to. He was a freelancer. A man without a country. So he’d just meander through  our weekdays, breaking and scraping and peeing on things at random and just generally making everyone uneasy.

And then one morning in the sixth grade, in the autumn, Russ came to school with a stack of small envelopes. He looked different. His hair was combed. He was wearing a button up shirt. And he looked… nervous. During homeroom, he went from desk to desk, dropping envelopes in front of each student. Muttering quietly some strange mantra as he went.

It’s Saturday. Saturday. It’s Saturday.”

A small blue envelope fell in front of me, and he moved on, muttering. I picked the envelope up and looked to the kid on my left, who seemed afraid to touch the dubious missive Russ had dropped in front of him. I maybe should have been more skeptical, but I was dying to know what was in there.

And so I opened it. It was an invitation to his birthday party.

I almost laughed. For safety’s sake, I held off.

But man, when I got home, I couldn’t wait to tell my mother. She’d understand. I’d told her about the Santa incident. When I did, I’d wept. I’d been betrayed, after all. By my parents, who’d lied to me all my life. By Russ, who’d humiliated me. By my own stupid milk-baby naiveté. I know that my mother had been pissed about it. That she had ached for me. And probably wanted to slap the shit out of Russ James. So I thought she’d get a kick out of the fact that he’d invited me to his birthday party. I mean, the gall.

She read at the invitation. Listened as I laughed about how stupid he must think I was. I mean, seriously, buddy. Shame me once, shame on you. Right? Right, Mom? Isn’t Russ just a big, dumb bully jerk? Isn’t he? Can we burn this invitation on the stove?

She made me go.

I was not happy about it.

But we went and bought Russ a birthday present (I don’t remember what he was into but it was probably duct tape or sticks or something). And on the appointed day, despite my protestations, she marched me to the car and strapped me in. Somewhere, faint a far off, a snare drum rolled. We drove drove to the James House. It was like ours, but in a slightly shittier neighborhood. She pulled up to the house with the lone balloon, and walked me in slow motion to the door. I couldn’t understand. I couldn’t understand what law I’d broken or who I’d pissed off up the ladder to deserve this fate. But we knocked on the door, and Mrs. James answered. For the purposes of this retelling, she had a cigarette in her mouth. (She didn’t.) My mother passed me off to her. Before she left, I made sure to make one last pleading gesture to her, putting all of my heart and dread and need into my blue eyes and trying to shoot it at her like a little desperate cannon. How could you leave me, the look said. I, your first born, who has loved you so well?

She must not have noticed.

“Have fun,” she said, and was gone.

I did not have fun. It was an uncomfortable afternoon. Russ was sullen. He’d invited our entire class and most of the kids in his neighborhood to this party. All he got was me and two of the younger neighbor boys, who spent most of their time stuttering and blinking too much. We ate pizza and cake and watched a VHS tape, and Russ opened the few gifts he’d received as his mother looked on with an inscrutable expression. Sadness? Disapproval? Boredom? What was that? My mother never made that face. She was not particularly engaged. As if it had taken everything in her to do this much for her kid.

We went outside and walked around the neighborhood. Russ showed us a fort he’d made in the woods out of some old plywood and a few sticks. We listlessly threw things at squirrels. I’m pretty sure we talked about something, but I can’t for the life of me imagine what that would be.

My mother picked me up around dark. She asked whether I’d had fun. I’d shrugged. She asked if all of my friends were there. They were not, I’d said. She nodded. We drove on in silence. She was not off the hook for throwing me into that situation. I was going to be so insufferable for the rest of the weekend. I was busy thinking about all of the ways that I would be a prick to her when she broke the silence.

“Do you think Russ is a happy person? Do you think he has a happy home life?”

I was taken aback by the question.

“I don’t know. Probably not.”

At the next light, she turned and studied me for a moment.

“I’m proud of you,” she said quietly, turning back to the road.

For the rest of the weekend, I tried very hard to be a good son.

+++

I’m not sure why my mother chose Russ as a conduit to teach me a lesson about empathy. Maybe because he was such a dick? If you can see the humanity in the worst of us, maybe it’s that much easier to see it in everyone else? Whatever her reasoning, it stuck.

It’s easy to be decent to someone who is nice. Or who is like you. It’s harder to extend that outward to others. To assholes. To people who lie outside of your comfort zone. I struggle with it, constantly. It’s not easy. Anyway, thanks, Mom.

I’ll cut to the chase and say that Russ and I did not become friends. The next year, we went on to different middle schools, and I moved on to bigger, better, crueler bullies. That’s the way it goes.

But by way of an epilogue, I’ll give you this: Weeks later, during recess, I was playing kickball [against my will] and totally botched a play when I neglected to catch an easy fly ball, causing my team to give up two runs. The captain started mocking me loudly for my complete lack of athletic prowess.

Russ, on the other team, piped up loudly:

“At least he doesn’t piss the bed, Joey!”

Joey’s face turned beet red and he ran inside, his teammates watching helplessly as he went. I looked to Russ. Maybe to thank him? To acknowledge at least the small favor he’d done me? But he’d already moved on to mercilessly flicking the ear of the small boy next to him.

My hero.