Taking on Big Terry

Catherine Grow

© Copyright 2022 by Catherine Grow

Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Times growing up I would have sold my soul for an older brother—someone to look up to who, with his worldly wisdom, would illuminate a sure and steady path for me as I muddled through my mid-1950’s childhood.

What I got was J. J.: two years younger than I and, until his teens, shorter and scrawnier. For most of our childhood, I could win arguments by wrestling him to the ground and sitting on him. The balance of power was clearly in my favor.

As the big sister, I’d keep track of J. J.’s comings and goings and find ways to entertain ourselves during our free time. I was also my brother’s bodyguard; nothing terrible would happen to him as long as I was nearby to throw myself—body, mind, and soul—into any perilous situation. I took this responsibility as seriously as if I’d taken a vow.

For his part, J.J. was a devoted companion who would defend me with surprising ferocity on unexpected occasions. Like the afternoon I took on Big Terry Gerrardi, the meanest kid around.  

At the time, I was a wiry, self-reliant, and brash eight year-old. J. J., small, shy, and soft-spoken, had just turned six. Big Terry was twelve and tall and solid with the beginnings of real muscles. No one knew exactly where he lived or with whom, but it was said that he resided somewhere just outside the boundary of our immediate neighborhood near the top of a long hill that extended beyond where our friends Little Terry Amato and his younger brother Tommy lived. On the day of our encounter with Big Terry, we’d planned to meet the Amato brothers for a round of Cowboys vs The Outlaws.

By early afternoon the mid-summer sun blazed so hot that the tar on the street stuck to the soles of our shoes and smelled acrid. J. J. and I were decked out in full regalia: me, in the cowgirl clothes—a black skirt with white fringe, matching vest, and straw Stetson—I’d received for Christmas and J.J., wearing blue jeans, a vest and chaps, cowboy boots, and a hat similar to mine. So great were our expectations for an afternoon of adventure that my brother toted a fully-loaded cap pistol in a holster buckled snugly around his waist. 

But when we arrived at our destination, no one was home. To ease our disappointment, I suggested that we salvage the afternoon by walking farther up the hill to see if we could find a fortress for our exploits.

What we found was a long grass-less rise that served as a divider—a sort of no-man’s-land between the Amato’s place and their neighbors’ property above them. The expanse was wide enough for us pseudo-cowpokes to build up a defense against marauders. We began mounding dirt to reinforce the area in front of us. 

We were hard at work when Big Terry showed up, casting a shadow on our efforts. “Why looky here!” he chirped. “It’s Roy Rogers and Dale Evans!” 

Since my brother and I watched this famous pair’s show every Saturday morning, I felt proud to be compared to such exemplary role models. But compliments were hardly what Big Terry had in mind.

What’cha doin’ here?” he snarled. Looming tall above us in a snug white t-shirt and faded black dungarees, he had the presence of an ogre and sounded like one, too. "I said, what’cha doin’ here?” He stepped closer, looking even more menacing.        

We’re not bothering anybody,” I replied with all the bravura I could manage.  "We’re just playing. Now go away and leave us alone.”

But you’re in my territory. What makes you think you can be here without my permission?” 

I cocked my head and stared him squarely in the eyes. “We didn't know this place belonged to you or anyone else. We just wanted to play.”

But you didn’t ask if you could come here.” He crouched beside me so closely that I could see sweat dampening the dark hair on his forearms. A shaggy thatch of sable hair fell across his forehead, partially obscuring the expression in his gray-green eyes. “You don’t belong here,” he declared. “And now you’re gonna hafta pay.”

  My stomach flip-flopped. Here my brother and I were, alone with the nastiest boy in the area. It was common knowledge that Big Terry came from a broken home and was frequently truant from school. Rumor had it that he couldn’t be trusted or reasoned with. He was a real terror and proud of it.

What do you mean ‘pay’?” I tried to keep my voice steady.

Big Terry jerked his head backward in a single violent gesture, flinging the hair out of his face. Then he reached out and thumbed the silver studs that outlined the front of J. J.’s black denim vest. As he toyed with its fringe, his eyes glinted with merriment.  “This here’s a cute little vest. What if I want it?” He hooked a couple of fingers—the nails of each jagged and bitten down to the quick—into the armhole and tried to yank the garment off my brother.

Stop!”  J. J. hollered.

You gonna make me?”

J. J. attempted to pull the edges of the vest together, but Big Terry held fast. “Stop!” my brother repeated in a kindergarten-ish quaver.

But I like it. I want it. I think I’ll take it,” Big Terry taunted.

By this time, I was on my feet, ready to come to J. J.’s rescue. “Leave him be,” I said. “He hasn’t done anything to you.”

No, but I want it,” Big Terry replied, tightening his grip. “It’s a gen-u-wine, rootin’-tootin’ cowboy vest.” With his free hand, he began to jab at my brother’s arms and stomach to force him to loosen his hold to defend himself. Before I could intervene, he had the vest in his hands and was on his feet twirling it around his head like a lasso

Give that back!”  I shrieked, launching myself upward in a series of jumps that, though highly amusing to our tormentor, fell far short of retrieving my brother’s clothing. “Give it back! Now!” 

Big Terry grinned satanically and continued twirling the garment until, growing bored, he tossed it on the ground and stomped on it. “There!” he said, grinding the heel of one of his black Converse high tops into the vest until it became half buried in silt. Satisfied, he once again flicked the hair out of his eyes and returned to bullying J. J. 

Straightaway, I retrieved the vest and shook it, raising a cloud of dust that made Big Terry cough. “Cut that out!” he shouted. I gave him a withering look.

Not that it mattered….

The lout continued making sport of J. J. “And what’s that you got on your pants?”

They’re chaps,” I said, stepping between Big Terry and my brother.

I didn’t ask you!”

Chaps,” J. J. mumbled.

What? I didn’t hear you?”


Why, you got the whole stinking outfit, don’t you?” Big Terry chortled.  He pushed past me as easily as if knifing through butter, then bent down and tugged at J. J.’s chaps. My brother recoiled, scooting backward, away from the older boy’s assault.

Leave him be!” I grabbed Big Terry’s arm, but he jerked away, making me stumble.

I recovered myself. “Why don’t you go pick on someone your own size?”

Like you?” Big Terry lunged toward me. “Should I pick on you?” 

I stood my ground. “We haven’t done a single thing to hurt you.”

But you’re here, and I don’t want you here.” He glared at me, flexing his fingers until they cracked.

Well, then why don’t you just let us go?” For emphasis, I tossed my head so vigorously that my braids, partially confined by my cowgirl hat, danced across the tops of my shoulders.  

Go?” His voice faked incredulity. “Oh, I can’t let you go. Not without paying.” He slapped the rim of my hat, intending to knock it off my head. Instead, it caught at the nape of my neck by the elastic that held it beneath my chin. “Ha!” he hooted.

He turned back to J. J. and resumed prodding him. My brother was trying to put up a brave front, but his mouth was tight, its edges turned downward.

Gonna cry now, Baby?” Big Terry jeered.

I’m not a baby!”

Big Terry snatched my brother’s black straw Stetson and began turning it in his hands. “How ‘bout this hat! Just like the King of the Cowboys!”

Give it back!” J.J. sounded as if he was about to break.

No, I don’t think I will.” The scoundrel squatted on his haunches, then sunk the brim of my brother’s hat into the mound we’d built as a fortification and began filling the bowl of it with dirt.

Leave my brother alone or I’ll kill you!” I shoved Big Terry aside just far enough to snatch the hat out of the soil. With a sneer, he pushed me over the edge of the embankment. It knocked the breath out of me…but not for long. 

By this time, Big Terry had risen to his feet and was eyeing J. J. to see what additional abuse he could inflict. My breath had just returned to normal when he swooped down and snatched my brother’s pistol from its holster. “What’s a little baby like you doing with a big gun like this?” he demanded, examining it closely from front to back then side to side. He shook the pistol vigorously before pointing it at J. J. and firing the entire roll of caps. 

Give it back!  Give it back!” my brother whimpered.

I ran at Big Terry, kicking and clawing with a fury that startled him. In spite of my smaller size and strength, he staggered when I caught him around the waist and tried to drag him down. He swatted at me with the muzzle of the gun, but I didn’t even feel it. “Give it back! Give it back!” I screamed before doing my best to sink my teeth into one of his meaty forearms.

Ouch!” he bellowed before grabbing the end of one of my braids and jerking my head backwards so violently that I bit my tongue. “Here, Girly,” he sneered as he tossed the gun down the slope. He then picked me up and threw me on top of it.

 Several seconds went by before I was able to move. I blinked to clear my head from the impact and, through a mental fog, became aware that my blouse was un-tucked and my cowgirl skirt had ridden up clear to my underwear. My hat—now completely dislodged from my head—was crushed beyond repair; my forearms and the backs of my legs were scraped raw, bloody, and gritty with dirt.

I staggered to my feet, then gathered myself, stepped over our rampart, and ran full-force at the bully, butting him in the stomach. He grunted and reeled from the impact, fighting to stay on his feet. "Damn you! You just won’t quit!”

A cloud of dirt hit me flush in the face. I blinked and coughed and spit, which ground the particles more deeply into my eyes, nose, and mouth. 

Directly, I heard scuffling as my brother ran toward Big Terry. “Don’t you do my sister that way!” he bawled as, with a high kick worthy of the Rockettes, he landed the pointed toe of his cowboy boot square in our tormentor’s gonads. The meanest kid in the neighborhood dropped like a load of bricks.

The next time we saw him, Big Terry was with some buddies. “See those kids over there?” He jerked his head in our direction. “Don’t mess with them. They’re mean!”

I am a former women’s studies instructor who writes fiction and nonfiction in a small 18th century home that I share with my husband and golden retriever in rural Connecticut. It’s a far cry from the childhood days I spent with J.J., dealing with the likes of hooligans like Big Terry Girardi. I’ll never know if the placement of my brother’s high kick was deliberate or accidental, but he still has effective (though perhaps not as direct or visceral) means of dealing with bullies.My work has appeared in a variety of online and print journals, news magazines, and anthologies, including Dappled Things, The Copperfield Review, Reed Magazine, and The Christian Science Monitor

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