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.
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:
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.
“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:
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.
Wow. Just, wow.
I LOVE the way you write. Nick!! I read it to my daughter (in my most dramatic tone) and she loved it! She strongly suggested you send this to Huffpost. She’s a social worker and loved the way the the “lesson” was introduced. Just a thought……. I have so many. Thanks for sharing your talent with us.
Very very good..
Made me reflect on my own experiences with bullies, both past and present, and my reactions to it. Very powerful. Thanks for sharing.
Came for the cat video, stayed for the great story. Well done.