The Bully

John Howell

© Copyright 2023 by John Howell

Image by Victoria_Regen from Pixabay
Image by Victoria_Regen from Pixabay
I donít remember his name. Thatís the most terrible thing: that I have even excised from my famously selective memory what his name was. He was a little boy whose family had the fair cabin two doors down from ours at the Neshoba County Fair. The Fair was the major event of the summer for me as a child, next to Christmas the major event of the year. It was the last gasp of summer before school started back again. It was spending a week in a rustic cabin in the vicinity of midway rides and games and food stalls with corndogs and snowcones alongside the exotic presence of livestock and horse-racing and other interesting things, and best of all spending time with friends. I would spend the whole week with my friends Scott Barham and Tracy Smitherman. It was rare for me to see them outside of school. They lived in the same close-knit neighborhood called Woodland Hills back home in Philadelphia, but I lived on what seemed to be a distant, semi-rural road. But at the Fair we would see each other every day, spending the night at each otherís cabins, playing tag in the rafters of the livestock barn, exploring every inch of the Fairgrounds. There were a few other kids who came and went with our group: Scottís younger brother Kyle and a few older boys who were mainly friends of Tracyís (Iíve forgotten their names too).

With white-blonde hair and silver-rimmed glasses, Tracy was perhaps the unlikely-looking alpha male of our group, but he had a certain confidence that whatever he liked, whatever he chose was the right choice, and we tended to agree with him. I had met him in first grade, and I had immediately wanted his approval. I had it for a while, enjoying his ďbad boyĒ humor when he would make fun of our very nice (but very old) teacher, Mrs. Durrett. I lost his favor in second grade when Tracy inexplicably turned against me and seemed to go out of his way to ignore or antagonize me. I would cry about it at home, and Daddy said sympathetically, ďThat is what is called a bully.Ē But for four or so years in the mid-Seventies Tracy and I enjoyed what I felt to be a very strong friendship. I was pleased to have earned a spot in his entourage, even though I suspected at times that I may have been most valued for my ability to supply us with free passes to rides on the midway because Daddy was an official Fair employee.

But there were other worlds at the Fair, of course. It was and is a place where multiple worlds and spheres of experience are continually colliding, because the Fair is always full of people: family and friends and neighbors you donít really know and strangers and their friends and guests from out of town; and everyone is constantly dropping by the cabin to see my brothers or my parents, to join the party, to watch the horse races. We were all jam-packed in those wooden sardine cans lined around the racetrack, but we never really knew our neighbors very well. I never knew the people in the cabin on the right, but my brother David did (he knows everyone); and on the left was the Therrell cabin, a huge double-cabin with their name on a sign on the front. Mr. Therrell was a Fair employee as well, who oversaw the horse races, and there were lots of kids and relatives over there, none of whom I ever knew except Stacy Therrell, who was a year younger than me in school, and her little cousin Todd with the curly blonde hair, whom I had watched grow up at the Fair. Tracy and Scott and I made a running joke out of an expression that Todd had said, when he described a horse racer who had died from an accident on the track as ďa whole lot dead.Ē I donít know if itís true that the racer died; I just know we never tired of saying things were ďa whole lot deadĒ and then laughing. Tragedy into comedy. I had learned from David and his friends and from mine that there was nothing in the world (and to be honest there still isnít) that is better than making your friends laugh: coming up with the right turn of phrase, the right joke that catches them off guard with delight and saying it before anyone else can think of it. And when you hear their laughter, then you haveĖat least for that momentĖ their full attention and admiration. That is the most delicious form of approval.

The cabin just beyond the Therrellsí was a small one, and I never knew the name of the family there. But one year I know they had a little boy staying there, and I would see him out in the little communal strip of yard or pathway that ran between our cabin porches and the wide dirty creek separating us from the red dirt track for the horse races. I was even more shy then than now and very unlikely to meet new people without being prompted. But I saw him playing out in the yard, and he saw me and became curious to play with me. And at some point we got together. He may have come over to my cabin, and maybe I let him play with some of my toys (at that time it would have been mainly Planet of the Apes toys). And I do remember once going into his little cabin. There was something cozy and quaint about it, and I remember his having a little toy chest and inviting me to play with him. And we had a nice time, but he was younger, and I didnít consider him a serious playmate. But I did know his name at the time. My other friends never knew him, never played with him, only passed by a few times and saw him digging in the dirt or playing by himself and derisively referred to him out of earshot (or maybe not) as ďthat boy.Ē I liked him perfectly well, but I knew they found him silly, so I would defer to their opinion that this little kid was beneath us.

In retelling this, Iím really having to fill in some gaps, maybe even fabricate a little because I just canít recall many details. All I really recall is the shame. But I think this probably happened on my birthday. I usually celebrated my birthday at the Fair, and at that age it was an especially great place to do this. Later I would come to despise birthday parties at the Fair just as I came to despise the Fair itself for the most part. But Iím sure all my friends had come over for my party: Tracy and Scott and probably Kyle, and we were playing out front with something with which we could torment each other. Perhaps they were water pistols or some kind of noise-makers. I really have no idea, but there was something that we were firing back and forth at each other. And I was standing on the little bridge across the creek, and I caught sight of the little neighbor boy. He had wandered over closer to us, maybe intrigued by our game, happy enough to watch, but maybe waiting to be asked to join. Why not?

But my instinct was to seek my peersí approbation at the expense of someone else. I wanted to alert them immediately to the presence of the interloper. I was hungry already for more birthday approval. Because the fact is that as much as I enjoyed my friendsí approval, I was never certain of keeping it. It wouldnít be long before I might be relegated again to the bottom of the pack, not all that bright when it came to the practical world, certainly not as confident nor as savage as was necessary, a second string player in the end, at least until the moment that I managed to present something that merited their approval. Already I was fearing that I might be ignored on my own birthday if I didnít come up with some new way to amuse them.

So this is all I did. I simply said, ďHey! Letís do it to that boy.Ē I meant to serve up two treats for my friends: first to alert them to the boyís unwelcome presence and then to suggest the punishment for his unwelcome-ness. We would do it to him, whatever it was. It might have been tossing water balloons or firing plastic missilesĖIíll never remember, because that isnít what matters. Tracy and Scott didnít hear me, so I had to repeat this more than once, getting louder each time. ďHey! Letís do it that boy

I donít think they ever heard me. The only thing I remember is the thing That Boy said to me. As I stood halfway across the bridge, he stood at the foot of the bridge and looked at me with hurt, sincere eyes and said, ďYou know my name, John .Ē

That rebuke froze me in my tracks and froze me in time. I donít remember anything else that happened. I donít remember ever seeing the boy again. And I donít remember his name, only my shame. The dissonance of ideas of my own self-image resounded with hypocrisy. I always thought of myself as the good guy. So did everyone else. Everyone will tell you how nice, how patient, how kind, how courteous I am. Itís the others around me who may be bold enough to be caustic, to scold, to wound, to skirt the rules. Sometimes I chide them, not openly, but perhaps only by my presence. Such was the story I had told myself. I wanted the laugh, I wanted the approval, but I would always be the good guy in the end. But of course that wasnít true. I was capable of being not nice at all. I could be a bully too.

He was right. I had known his name. He had brought me into his home and allowed me to play with his toys, to meld our make-believe for a bit, which is an intimate thing to do. And I was willing to dismiss him utterly as nothing but a punch line, no one of importance. I pretended I didnít know him, that I didnít care for him, that I didnít even see him as human. I pretended so well that I convinced myself. But he reminded me: I am human, and you do know me, and you chose to reject me. What a heartless thing to do. Why, in retrospect, why didnít I invite him to my birthday? Thatís what a really good guy would have done. But we were only kids. And kids are cruel. And in my mind I remain stuck on that bridge, halfway between good and evil, strong and weak, human and monster, always remembering the look in his eyes.

My name is John Howell. I grew up in a family of artists and musicians in Philadelphia, Mississippi, and started writing around the age of seven. It was my early ambition to be a science fiction writer, but I never published anything. When I married and moved to the Mississippi capital of Jackson, I worked at New Stage Theatre, Mississippiís only professional theatre, as both an actor and Education Director; and my wife Diana and I co-founded the Fondren Theatre Workshop in 2003, I have performed in over 50 plays and directed many others for college, community, and professional groups. I wrote and produced a full-length musical adaptation of Lewis Carrollís Through the Looking-Glass as well as several short plays. In 2019, I received first prize in the Mississippi Theatre Association Playwriting Competition for my one-act play The Mice.

I worked for Jackson Public Schools for 25 years as the Arts Coordinator and Drama Teacher at Casey Elementary School, where I enjoyed introducing young people to the arts and helping them to discover their own creative passions. I retired from the school in May of 2023.

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