Paulie wasn’t all that much smaller than the other boys. On Health Day, they’d measured themselves on the wall chart, and he’d only come up about a half an inch shy of Rafael, who was called a champ by Mr. Corbett. Quickness was his compensation; Paulie knew he must be the fastest boy in the school. When he ran in the park he became a blue blur. Then Mr. Corbett made the boys race and Paulie finished last. As Rafael pointed out, even the girls beat his pants off. In tatters and rags his self-image hit the finish line.
Bicycles, then. On his Rallye Malice he was bulletproof. Many of the other kids couldn’t ride, or their parents wouldn’t let them — the streets were double-laned and the drivers didn’t even look. Sheldon, for instance, still had his training wheels. He wouldn’t ride to school; he was ashamed. Paulie had to promise that he’d stick to Dawson Street and the park and never go without a helmet. His father made him put his hand on his heart. He pledged. Then he would hide the helmet behind a stone.
The faster he went the better he felt. Paulie stayed on the lookout for the steepest drops. His scouting took him straight through the park and out the other side. Smiling he crashed down an incline and around a blind curve into heavy traffic. Everybody beeped. It was like a gang of geese. One cold Sunday he followed the road all the way down to the river, passing by the green glens and brick houses with their neatly squared hedges to the grey-brown verge of the industrial zone. The stones in the pillars in the highway viaducts, the barges and the big car parks, all on a rough, oversized scale, nothing decorated, nothing made simple or smooth. Boy did he want to cross the Hot Metal Bridge. But then he got scared.
“Hey kid what are you doing here? You lost?”
Paulie shook his head no.
“Mom and dad know where you are?”
The next day Paulie’s father woke him up early. The sun hadn’t risen but he could see fat snowflakes in the streetlights. Maybe school had been cancelled. Nope pal, said his dad, not enough accumulation, but there’d be slush on top of the ice already there. I don’t want you riding that bike in this. Ice won’t be visible and will come as a surprise. I want you to take the bus today.
Paulie ate cereal in silence. He hated the bus. There was never anyplace to sit by the time it got to his block; he’d have to share with a classmate who probably didn’t like him and would call him short stuff or worse. Mental midget. Under the weak lightbulb he let his dad bundle him up and force on his tight galoshes. Vulcanized rubber snapped across his heel. Outside, the wet street ate the snow on contact. Paulie grabbed his bag and pretended to head down to the bus stop. Instead he dodged behind a hedge and cut through a neighbor’s yard and ran back to his house to get his bicycle. Even through his mittens he could feel the cold of the handlebars. The sole of his galoshes squeaked against the pedal as he kicked off and vanished.
This isn’t too bad, thought Paulie as he dipped into the damp blackness of the underpass. Besides the occasional pellet of ice dancing on his eyelid, it was not so different from all the other winter mornings he’d ridden to school, with the sun very far away and breathless, and pushing hard against the horizon. Not a morning made for Paulie, but which one ever was? Just shy of the school he felt the rear tire skid on a slick patch, but his brakes were there to catch him before he spilled. The school was rough and low in its arm-pit intersection, and the tail lights of the unloading busses painted red squiggles in the icy puddles. Paulie could see the bus he would have been on. It was fourth in a procession, waiting to make the turn. The kids inside would be impatient and draw dirty pictures in the condensation on the windows. Hah I beat those bums said Paulie to himself. I am faster than any of them. In victory he rang his little bell.
One great fear he had: another boy would watch him as he locked up and copy down the combination. Madison had had her bike stolen that way. The school policeman didn’t believe her. He said she must have failed to lock the lock properly. I did so I did so she said, right like I always did. It wasn’t fair. Paulie agreed, but he’d also learned never to expect fairness from grownups. There could be a boy hidden in the scrub trees, or over the fence, with binoculars and Mr. Corbett would think he was only playing. Paulie went behind the shed where they kept the bike racks. They were empty today. Because everyone was chicken, thought Paulie. But you can’t be too safe. So he unzipped the top of his anorak and let his scarf hang wet on the ground. The tassels were flat and gummy from where he’d tread on them. He stuck the lock down the front of his jacket and looked down over his nose as he fiddled; he could probably do it by heart, but it was quicker to peek. With satisfaction he felt the metal hook snap out of its mooring. Then he unwound the chain from the crossbar. And as Paulie wheeled his Rallye over to the rack, his wet galoshes caught the wet corner of a block of ice, and he dropped the bike, and flew forward fast.
“Didja get into a fight?”
Sheldon turned to the crowded hall and declaimed.
“Hey Paulie got into a fight!”
“Fight fight, a nigger and a white,” added Rafael unhelpfully.
Other kids looked Paulie over. You better get to the nurse they said. Ooh Paulie you got a hole in your head. What was all the fuss about, he wondered. His face felt sore but no worse than it did after the dentist. It occurred to Paulie that some of the kids — definitely not all of them, but some of them — were looking at him with a measured sort of respect. They’d wait to learn the outcome of the fight, but just in case Paulie had won they wanted to be sure they were in good standing with the victor. Paulie already understood that fighting, outlawed by the elders, worked as the ultimate form of rebel currency, much more than mouthing off to teachers or making a loud noise in the cafeteria. A fighter was a threat to the order and therefore a good bet to upend the humdrum day and its meaningless, unending obligations to authority figures. A fighter could be a hero, but only if he won. If he’d gotten his butt kicked, he was an object of derision, a symbol of the schoolkid’s failure to impose his will on his surroundings through violent insubordination. Hence Rafael had worked hard to manage the public reception of his last fight, which had at first been deemed a grubby draw on the varnished floor by the auxiliary gym. In its aftermath he had campaigned hard. A day later he was unanimously declared the winner and his social standing was saved.
In class Mr. Corbett pulled Paulie aside. Step into my office, will you? He meant the hall.
“You want to tell me what happened?”
Paulie explained. He had stepped on the ice and his old galoshes had failed him. The bicycle had accelerated forward toward the rack and so had he. Face first he had bounced off the big metal W. Mr. Corbett stood with his arms crossed. Beneath his button-down he heaved around his pectorals. You want to try again Paul?
“I just told you.”
“I see both a contusion and a slight laceration. One that has congealed. Do you know what those words means?”
“No you don’t. Look I know you’re new here and you don’t want to get anybody in trouble. But I –
“I’m not so new.”
“You’re not so new. Okay. If you tell me the truth about who did this, what did they hit you with a block of ice?, if you tell me, I promise I won’t embarrass you.”
Paulie didn’t mention that he’d narrowly missed a rusted screw and its washer and bolt. A thumbnail up and he would have skewered his eyeball. He didn’t feel that it was salient, and he’d learned not to be dramatic. Besides he had a good idea Mr. Corbett wouldn’t believe him anyway.
“Code of silence. You let the bullies get away with everything. I don’t suppose you want to see the nurse, huh.”
No way no sir. The classroom fell airless as they re-entered, but he knew it had been boisterous when they were unsupervised and beyond the door. They’d been talking about him. A few girls tittered. Paulie was suddenly ashamed of his bruise. He felt like an animal branded for slaughter. You smaller kids are going to have to learn how to defend yourselves, Mr. Corbett had told him. His father had issued similar warnings: when the bully boy comes, don’t just stand there, don’t run. You have to fight back. Even if you take a bruising get in a few shots. Then he will respect you. When the bully boy comes be ready. So he was ready. But how recognizable would he be? Would he wear a mask, would it be his entire identity, or would bully boy just be one of his daily roles?
After Corbett’s class came the dreaded music period. Mu-sic/makes U-sick, chanted Sheldon in the hall. It was a common refrain. Nobody liked Ms. Alvarez, who smelled bad and had junk lodged in her teeth. Most of her favorite material recommended filial piety. Thank you mother, thank you father, this is Thank You day. This she sang out in a stentorian voice as she banged a top-open spinet with high keys that rattled in their frame. They were expected to sing along. But Ms. Alvarez was not at the piano. She gasped when she saw Paulie’s face. Then she took her phone into the hall.
“I slipped,” explained Paulie as she walked by. She did not look down.
By now a provisional consensus had developed: Paulie had gotten his ass kicked. The reverence of first period had given way to whispers and pointing and the occasional sneer. Even Madison turned on him. Who punched you who decked you who knocked you silly, she wanted to know. She teased and flirted and angled in for the scoop. It occurred to him that this appetite for the sensational gave him a small opening to rewrite his reality on the fly — if he was loud enough, and convincing enough, as Rafael had been, he could make believe that he’d won a fight, or at the very least held his own. But he’d need to invent a sparring partner, and he couldn’t think of who it could possibly be. Besides, he felt a certain loyalty to the facts. Paulie stood firm. In exasperation Madison blew the bangs out of her face and turned to face the blackboard. He won’t tell, she said to her red haired friend with her shoes half off.
Ms. Alvarez returned to the classroom. Like a lumbering riverboat she headed straight for Paulie. You are to go straight to the nurse. What was Mr. Corbett thinking!, I mean really.
“But it’s congealed.”
An explosion of laughter, a riot of merriment and derision. It’s congealed, it’s congealed, bwaaa ha ha. Paulie got his ass kicked ass kicked. Silence said Ms. Alvarez, to no great effect.
Ms. Alvarez, too, was preoccupied with bullies, recalled Paulie, as he fingered the hall pass on his way to the nurse’s office. Once she’d pleaded with the class to love one another and stop the bullying. I see the bullying every day, she told them tearfully. One little boy has soft shoulders and a quiet voice like a girl and I see the way he gets treated. You all should be ashamed. Paulie wondered: could she maybe be talking about him? That night he examined his shoulders in the mirror until he had to admit to himself that he didn’t know what he was looking for. They seemed bony to him, not soft; the blades were a diagonal slash across his back. As for the voice he’d practiced shouting but it didn’t come naturally. Probably she’d meant someone else anyway. She’d been worked up, and had even stopped the singing short, right in the middle of a verse. Imagine no more fighting, imagine all the people living in harmony. Gosh what a dumb song.
Well, maybe the nurse would be more sensible. She might help overturn the verdict of his classmates. It was unlikely that the word of an authority figure — especially one as impotent within the school’s power structure as a nurse — would hold any sway, but it couldn’t hurt. At least Madison might believe him. It was better than being a general laughingstock forever.
What an eerie no-man’s land, these bare halls between class. Everything moved furtively. Those in the halls had either been tasked with a mission from a teacher, and was therefore a courier or a collaborationist, or was cutting. Despite the surveillance cameras Paulie knew better than to go to the bathroom. There were always the desperate ones — usually older ones — who couldn’t take the sticky seats or the confinement anymore, and risked suspension and ran wild. Paulie had done it once, or tried to. He hadn’t finished his problems. Rather than report to class, he’d waited in the gym alcove by the rack of kickballs until the halls were barren. Then he’d crept toward the exit door and prepared to push the red lever. But at the decisive moment he found himself terrified of the sudden burst of daylight. What would it mean?, leaving school behind, unauthorized, charging across the football field to the bike rack and pedaling free, all by himself? With an incomplete paper he headed for math, and the consequences.
The nurse received him, piteously, with her hydrogen peroxide bottle out. She was not alone at her station: another woman stood in the office too. It struck Paulie that she wasn’t dressed like a teacher. She was younger and more perfumed.
“Hello, Paul. I’m Ms. Crutchfield.” She held out a hand to shake: another odd thing to do. But he shook.
Ms. Crutchfield explained that she was the school social worker. Sometimes she was brought in to make sure that everything was all right. Paul can we be pals? We’re going to be honest with each other today. Over the little room with bandages and cotton balls, a new sort of seriousness descended. Paulie felt it mandatory to tell the whole truth, and so he did — the ice, the bike rack, the rusty screw with its old bolt, the close call he’d had. The screw could have gone right through his face. He felt gory fascination as he said it, and hoped Ms. Crutchfield could visualize the moment of orbital penetration and the pop of his eyeball, like an overripe cherry. Just then the nurse whispered something to her that Paulie didn’t catch. Your teachers say you’re a pretty sharp boy, Paul, a boy with a colorful imagination.
“Paul, how do you get along with your daddy?”
“Is everything good at home?”
Paulie was startled. What on earth was the correct answer?
“Your daddy lost his job last year?”
“He didn’t lose his job. He got laid off.”
“Laid off, yes. And he hasn’t been able to find work? He must be frustrated.”
Paulie had to concede that he was.
On it went like this, a hushed but fierce volley, back and forth; Ms. Crutchfield asking and asking, Paulie sticking, ferociously, to his guns. He had fallen on the ice. What the heck was so hard to believe about this? After swabbing him thoroughly and applying a bandage to his face, the nurse departed, leaving the two combatants alone in the little room. Periodically Ms. Crutchfield scribbled a note on a pad. Paulie strained to see what she was writing, but the handwriting was illegible. On the wall behind her, the second hand swept around in steady circles as she put the questions to him: about the move, his grandmother, his father’s behavior, the history of his family. Most of these he simply couldn’t answer. He sat, stupefied, staring at a wall chart. What to do to help a choking victim. You have seconds to save a life.
“All right Paul. That’s enough for today. We’ll talk again soon.”
He hoped not. They were sending him home; he’d have a bus all to himself. But I got my bike, I can ride home. No no no, Paul, we’ll get you back. It’s raining. You might not be able to tell from here.
Lunch was closed. Monitors stuffed kids into the cafeteria; those that didn’t fit spilled out into the halls. In the wake of his escort, Paulie prayed no one would notice him. They turned a corner and there was Rafael, wagging around a tray of lukewarm tater tots in a basin of ketchup. Hey Paulie midget where you been, who you turning in. Etcetera. Saw you’re headed home. They’re going to load you into the tard cart. Short bus rider! Who beat your butt who knocked your block off who kicked your wazoo. Didja tell the teachers. Tell tell you smell.
Open palm and teeth gritted, Paulie slammed his hand into a locker. The sound of clashing aluminum reverberated in the hall.
“Okay Paulie. Okay. You slipped. You slipped.” Rafael’s upper lip quivered. He put a tater tot in his mouth and blew away.
It was the short bus indeed; a site of embarrassment on a different sort of day. Paulie wiggled his butt into the vinyl of the rear seat. Ms. Crutchfield and another man he didn’t recognize sat in the front. A light rain fell on the schoolyard, and beaded up on the broad windows. Water rippled in puddles by the parking lot verge and streamed into the street as the snow melted. And the last thing Paulie saw as the driver cut the wheels and began to retrace the route he’d taken that morning: his orange Rallye Malice, slick and dripping with rainwater, still chained to the rack that had knocked him out. There it was, the W, merciless and mute, looking nonchalant in the rain. He pressed his hand against the cold window as they hit the road. Then time turned over and they passed the sweet shop. Not long after the bike was out of sight. Paulie watched it all the way.
By the time they reached the park the rain had stopped. Now it was all fog; fog that ate the tops of the trees and hung over the road like an undone homework assignment on Sunday night. All silent in the cabin except for occasional goofy exclamations from Ms. Crutchfield’s big ham-headed friend: hope you’re doing okay back there, champ. Hope you feel better later. What could he say? He felt the distressing burden of victimhood. A role had been laid out for him and he’d been obligated to wear it, no matter how much it chafed. But he didn’t want to!, the accusations, the name-calling, the assumption that he’d been trounced, all of it was phony. How easy it had been for everybody to assume the worst — that he was the loser, that he came to loserdom naturally, that he didn’t have what the other boys did, that luck underscored by muscle, and that in single combat between Paulie and the world, Paulie would always succumb to his limitations, his shortness, his weakness. It was a curious kind of protection he was getting. Curious that they were so adamant that he be exactly what they wanted him to be, and nothing more, ever; curious and shitty, like the alleys of a neighborhood on the wrong side of the park on a wet winter day.
The yellow brick columns of the porch looked filthy in the rain. His dad was out on the stoop. There he waited for Paulie, ashing his cigarette in the bush, a yellow cap with the broad brim pulled down to occlude his eyes. The neighbor’s three-legged dog squatted next to him and breathed out little hot clouds of mist and stink. Paulie knew what it was up to: it whimpered for a treat. It knew it could lean on its infirmity. The old ladies of the block would bring out the meat.
The short bus had stopped at the end of the block. You wait here just a moment, said the man, we need to speak with your daddy. From the steamed-up windows he watched the backs of the heads of the man and Ms. Crutchfield and the impassive face of his father. Grown-ups have strange heads, he reflected — the more upset they get, the more still they are. How different his peers were!, all that back-and-forth noggin motion, taunting and bobbing, jaws quivering in an idiot grind. Adulthood seemed like it was mainly a matter of economizing motion. Looking for the one gesture loaded with significance, remaining as reserved as possible until it was time to strike. His father, he knew, would give nothing to these people: no sign of fear, or warmth, or simple hospitality or humanity. Paulie would have been crestfallen if he had been anything other than a stone.
Hands in her pockets, Ms. Crutchfield returned to the bus. She opened the back door.
“You ready to go see your daddy?
It was the dumbest question she’d asked so far, but Paulie allowed her to take him by the hand and guide him up the slate path to the stoop. She felt sweaty. Amidst pleasantries she delivered him to his dad. He was a package, a little damaged but more or less in accordance with factory specifications. Ms. Crutchfield and her man returned to the van and drove away. The dog, too, limped unfulfilled to the far side of the hedge. Paulie was alone with his dad.
For a long time neither spoke. Paulie felt his father looking through his bandaged face, past it somehow, toward an abstract truth about an iron future they would inhabit together: a future of punches. He was embarrassed to have lost the fight. But he knew his father would never have expected him to win.
“Teachers think it was Rafael who decked you.”
No they don’t, thought Paulie. He meant to shake his head no, and was surprised to find himself nodding instead.
“Greasy little no-good. What, he sucker punch you? Come on don’t cry.”
Paulie sniffled. He squeezed his eyes tight to keep the moisture in. Again his head nodded. He saw himself as a spider on the roof of the porch might have, like his father did: small and disheveled, wearing a bandage as a badge of cowardice, beaten by a bigger boy. Look just tell me you fought back. Tell me you stood up to that punk and got your hits in before you went down. You didn’t run, did you, Paulie? You wouldn’t run. I’m begging you Paulie.
“I fought back. I fought back.”
“Good. Good! That’s the important thing. You can’t, you’ve got to make them respect you. Now they know you have guts. Next time they’re going to think twice. Eh?”
Paulie said nothing.
“You didn’t tell anybody did you? Tell on that punk?”
I didn’t tell, Paulie assured his father. Good. No snitches in this house. Well I am proud of you son. I am proud of the way you handled yourself. Fights happen. Everybody fights sometime. Paulie’s father had drifted a little. His grip on the afternoon slackened; the day dilated. Maybe there was an opening for a getaway. He could run back to school before the bell, get the Rallye Malice and crash around the park in the fog. He’d be a shadow whispering in the grey, scaring the sparrows. Paulie put his head down and stepped toward the walk.
“Stop. Where do you think you’re going?”
“Paulie, you lied to me.”
He gulped. Had he been so obvious? Now he would be punished. Yet there was a part of him that was relieved: his father had figured it out. His dad reached down beneath one of the plastic folding chairs on the porch and pulled out a black lump, round and light as a loaf of bread. It was the bicycle helmet. He wagged it in Paulie’s face. Not only had he disobeyed his dad by riding to school when he’d been told to ride the bus, he hadn’t protected himself. What the hell was he nuts.
“Sorry nothing. You know what, I thought you were responsible enough to be trusted with a bicycle, that you were a big enough boy, but I see I was wrong. I was mistaken. How would you like to see what it is like to take the bus every day. Until you show you are grown up enough.”
“You’re taking my bike away!?”
“Oh you’ll have it back. Eventually.”
Against the cold air of his little room, Paulie wrapped his red and blue knit blanket around his body and forced his stiff fingers through the holes between the yarn knots. A pair of pinking shears that had belonged to his mother gleamed under the white light of the fluorescent bulb. It would feel good to cut the blanket to shreds and then cut up the pillowcase, and the rug, and snip vicious zigzags in the wallpaper. Leave the room a mess of strips for his father to clean up. Instead he sat on his rage and squashed it down with his butt. When it felt like it would wriggle out and wrap itself around his neck, he forced it to stay put. Press down until it was flat, flat like a manhole cover or one of his grandmother’s vinyl records. The trick was to stay disciplined and pinch back regret the moment it began to bud.
Paulie didn’t even feel bad about bearing false witness. With satisfaction he thought back at the flash of terror in Rafael’s eyes when he’d banged the locker, as if he’d broken the rules of a game, violated an agreement. His only mistake, he realized, was that he’d slipped; well, that wouldn’t happen again. If the truth wasn’t acceptable, falsify he certainly would. He might never be the hardest puncher, or the fastest runner, or the quickest thinker, and now he didn’t even have a bicycle. But he could be the best liar. At once he felt much better. The teeth of the gears sunk into the greased chain. Yes, a liar Paulie could be, and would be, and nobody — but nobody — was ever going to beat him at that.