My parents never talked about race or religion to me; maybe that explains why I got in the fight. It happened when I was nine years old. After school, three of the neighborhood bullies in a front yard ganged up on the boy who lived across the street, my neighbor. He was my age. As it often goes with bullies, one Chief Bully was doing all the dirty work while the others stood to the side, cheering.
They were attacking him because his skin was brown. That was the only reason. His parents had come from India a few years before. They came here with a couple of suitcases and a little boy and about fifty bucks. That’s it.
It wasn’t the first time I’d seen it. A few years before, we had been in his front yard, me and him and his father. We’d been kicking a soccer ball around, dribbling. His dad was good, could juggle a little. Two teenagers, white kids, came down the road on their bikes, pedaling in that slouched and lazy way characteristic of a certain type of teenager. As they approached, I saw his dad tense, put his arm out as though to ward off something. Then the teenagers reached in their mouths and flung their gum at him and rode away, laughing.
But there were no parents around this time, no bus driver, no grownups – the neighborhood was still at work. No audience or camera phones then, no viral YouTube glory waiting in the wings. The entire earth and everything on it was reduced to five boys on a landscaped hill in front of a suburban house. The Chief Bully, husky and curly-haired, was on top of my neighbor. He used his knees to pin my neighbor’s arms. He was saying something down, sneering it.
He was trying to spit down on my neighbor.
They didn’t react when I walked up. They looked me over with those blank corpse eyes – like fish eyes - that all stupid people have. Then they turned back to the fight.
They weren’t threatened by me. There was nothing threatening about me, an undersized white kid with crooked teeth and a bowl haircut and a red collared shirt with an alligator patch that his mom had picked that morning. I was bookish and non-confrontational and thin. Aside from thin, most of these things are still true. I could have walked right past the whole scene and no one would even have noticed.
Maybe – and this is the thought that disturbs me most when I remember – maybe they didn’t scatter or stop or attack me when I came up because they assumed I was on their side.
I walked to the Chief Bully. He still knelt on my neighbor’s arms, trying to spit down on him, on his face - these phlegmy, trailing drools that my neighbor could just squirm his head enough to one side or the other at the last second to avoid. But he was getting tired – it was only a matter of time. My neighbor’s clothes were smudged green, grass clippings thatched through his black hair.
I reached out and shoved the Chief Bully’s shoulders hard with both hands. As hard as I could. I still remember the look of shock that shot through those stupid eyes. He tumbled off my neighbor. It was all easier than I thought. He actually rolled a little down the hill. He was chubby and easy to roll.
I turned then to the others, scared, certain they were going to gang up on me, ready to endure the ass-kicking my moment of rebellion had surely earned. But they weren’t mad or even particularly interested. They stood, turned their milky carp eyes to their friend, who was yelling something from the bottom of the hill, and walked away, off to torture cats or kill ducks or whatever it is asshole kids do.
My neighbor shot back up, angry, dirty, defiant. But nothing else happened.
We grew up. He went into medicine. Got married and had a beautiful son that looks just like he did – I see the pictures on Facebook. He became a doctor and moved to Boston. When the bombing happened at the marathon, he was working in an emergency room. That’s my point here – it’s not my story. He is the hero of this story.
I’d forgotten all about it. He told that story, 25 years later, in his toast at my wedding. When he told it, it wasn’t the bullies I remembered; it was my neighbor in that moment. Springing up without brushing himself off, the fierceness of dignity. So now when people ask me, “Why do you write stories? You’re not Hemingway. You’re not making money off them. Why waste your time?” I think: because somewhere a bully needs rolling down a hill. But instead I tell this story and say: This is why. I think this is why.
Winner of the Tillie Olsen Short Story Award, Adam Kotlarczyk's short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Adam has work recently appearing or upcoming in The Tishman Review, Pif Magazine, The First Line, and SQ Mag, among others. He teaches at a gifted school near Chicago.