I only spent one year at Second North School, the little public school across the street from St. Mary’s, and that’s only because St. Mary’s didn’t have a kindergarten. But right after kindergarten I was shipped across the street to St. Mary’s, and almost immediately things began to fall apart. Right from the start I was disruptive. I was chatty and silly in class. I was a playground bully. I could be terribly vulgar. I was considered a serious “conduct” problem. And that reputation stuck to me like a tattoo.
By third grade I had begun to be a real pain in the ass to the nuns and a daily whipping boy for my mother. I suppose the fact that I got beaten up every day at home was part of the reason that I would become a tormenter in school, although, to tell you the truth, I don’t like such excuses. And I like such labels even less.My behavior was mine.I was powerless against it, but it was all mine.
I always picked on kids whom I knew could not or would not defend themselves. I learned that strategy from my mother. She had been powerless against her own abusive mother, her drunken father, and eventually her husband, that seething, simmering, angry, drunk, violent, cheating, raised-in-abject-poverty, hubby of hers, my father.
One of the things I remember the most about being a bully was secretly feeling bad about picking on kids. That’s strange, I know. I didn’t feel bad while I was picking at someone, of course. Not entirely, anyway. I was too busy putting on a show for the other bullies, and for the kids who got bullied, demonstrating to them what’d they’d get if they crossed me, or perhaps what they’d get even if they did nothing at all. Sometimes I’d wonder if my mother felt that way – you know, did she feel bad after she beat me, or did she just not care at all?
As I got older, I began to understand the source of her anger. Her father, my grandpa, was a drunk, a gambler, a womanizer, and a barfly who rarely came home. And I can’t blame him. My grandmother, his wife, was a judgmental, prudish, angry, quick with the rod, mean-spirited bitch. I don’t think my grandfather made her that way; that’s just the way she was. But she must have also been so frustrated and angered by the behavior of her bum of a husband that she’d end up taking it out on my mother. And not just with beatings, though my mother had more than her fair share of whippings at the hands of my grandmother. But it was more than just the beatings. At night, my grandmother would make my mother walk to the bar on Albany Avenue, which was a good five or six blocks from their apartment. The bar was a run-down joint called the Red Ash, a huge, neon sign of a cigarette over the front door. My mother’s job was to walk to the bar in complete darkness – except for the dim, yellow streetlights, and stand outside the front door and call Daddy! Daddy! Mommy says you’d better get home! The only response she ever got was the buzzing sound of that gigantic neon cigarette. It must have been fifteen feet long – white neon with a big red neon ash hanging off its end, and gray neon smoke that blinked on and off in the city’s night sky.
Once in a great while – and it was rare — instead of ignoring her until she quit trying and went home to my grandmother’s ire, he would go outside, collect his daughter and bring her in. He’d sit her on a tall bar stool, and the bartender, our cousin Petey, a former professional flyweight boxer, whose face was more scars than features, would bring her a plate of macaroni, while my grandfather rejoined his friends at one of the tables.
Cousin Petey would never go anywhere except behind that bar. Not with family. Not with friends. If he wasn’t behind the bar at the Red Ash, he was holed up in his tiny apartment above the bar.Turns out he had a terrible reaction to the rosin they kept in boxes in the ring. Boxers would step into the rosin box and rub the bottoms of their shoes in the stuff. The coating of rosin gave their shoes more traction in the ring. The problem was that if a fighter got knocked down he might get some of the rosin on his gloves. Then he’d transfer the rosin from his gloves to the face of the other fighter. Lots of times the rosin would cause the guy’s eyes to burn, or cause a rash to break out on his face. Petey had a really,really bad reaction to getting rosin on his face. He got it all. It was terrible. He looked scary. And if you didn’t know that it was just old Cousin Petey, you’d be petrified. It was so bad that he looked just like a burn victim.The rosin ate away at his skin and caused big, open, weeping sores all over his face. Sometimes he’d put some kind of cream on it, which made it worse. Now the weeping, raw sores also seemed to glow. He had it rough, Petey. You know that line in on On the Waterfront, when Terry says I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody instead of a bum… For Cousin Petey that was the truth. In fact, in the beginning of his career he was a contender, known for his killer body shots. They say he could knock a guy out just with shots to the gut. He was damn good, and he could have been a somebody. But he got knocked out. Not by an opponent. But by rosin.
Anyway, eventually, my grandfather would get around to sending my mother home, where she would have to tell my grandmother that my grandfather wasn’t ready to come home yet, and that he’d come home when he was good and goddam ready. .02And when he did get home, he’d yell at my grandmother to stop sending the kid to the bar. “Good and goddam” ready always happened when Grandpa ran out of money. He’d be especially late on payday because it would take a while to squander his whole check, which he did most of the time.
There’s a story in the family that every Friday night my grandmother’s sister, Anna, would plead with my grandmother to go to the Red Ash for drinks and dancing. Aunt Anna and Uncle Tommy, her husband, never missed a Friday night. It was fun, and she wanted her sister and my grandfather, Lenny, to join them, and do something other than brawl all the time. And my grandmother’s response was always the same. “I absolutely refuse to step foot that filthy place with all those drunken bums, including my husband. No thank you. You can go alone.” Man, she was such a witch. And as a little side note – my Aunt Anna loved to dance her whole life. She was still dancing, right up until about a week shy of her one-hundredth birthday. My grandmother, on the other hand, wouldn’t dance if you handed her a thousand dollars. Dancing was beneath her.
Anyway, I hope these things give you some small sense of how this train I was on had been slipping off the tracks for years. I learned all these things about my mother’s childhood gradually, over the course of many years. But still, I loved my grandparents – Mema and Gramps. And I loved Aunt Anna and Tommy, who would take me fishing once in a while. And I loved Cousin Petey. He was a hero to me, you know, being a boxer and everything. That these people whom I loved so much, could have had anything to do with my mother’s mental illness never entered my mind when I was a kid. They were just my grandparents, my aunt and uncle, and my cousin, and as such, they were flawless.
Lots of times, in bed at night, those kids that I’d picked on would come to my mind and what I always thought about when I thought about them was that they were really nice, kind, fun, good kids. I clearly remember times when I’d give someone the business on the very same day that we might have been partners in class or something, and we had had real, honest to goodness fun being partners. There was no pressure on me to be the wise guy, or the rude guy, or the tough guy. Nope. All I felt was good, which was a rare and welcomed feeling. It was so much fun and so relaxing doing work with a kid whom I’d otherwise probably made fun of or slapped around. I could be a real low-class punk, yet deep down inside – but not too deep – I didn’t like that about myself, being a wise-guy and all. I didn’t like it one bit.
What I really want to tell you about is this one day when my bullying went way too far. I want to say (and it’s a cheap, cowardly excuse) that it was the day after I took a particularly bad thrashing at home. And while that may or may not be true, it doesn’t matter one single bit anyway. The beatings at home happened every day, and while some days were worse than others, they were all pretty intense. She would chase me from room to room. Sometimes she’d be unarmed and just ready to beat me with her hands. Other times she’d have a belt or her trusty wooden spoon; she broke plenty of those on my body, that’s for sure. The truth is that I thought her beating me up every single day was a piss-poor excuse for whatever my behavior might have been, so we won’t go there.
It’s hard to say what motivated me on the playground that particular day. I’d guess it was just me, being a complete mean, uncompassionate little jerk. That’s my theory. And in spite of my new attempts at improving my “Effort,” still nothing turned out right. Those boxes on my report card for “Effort” and “Conduct,” still had red “Fs” in them, and that’s the way they were going to stay, until the end of the school year.
Rather than blame my reprehensible behavior on the events of a particular day, or a specific beating, it was, no doubt, the result of myriad reasons, too many and too complex to get into. I can remember so clearly being completely confused about the way I was. Knowing that the things I was saying and doing would cause me great grief, I did them anyway. There was no stopping me. Nothing I did ever changed the way things were in those early days of my life. Beatings at home lead to outbursts at school which lead to punishment and calls home which lead to more beatings, which lead to me trying to do better, which failed almost immediately because of something that I’d done in school which resulted in another call home. And so the horrid cycle went on and on. I was trapped in a vortex of beatings, punishments, promises to do better, failure to keep those promises, more beatings and punishments and promises, and on and on and on. And it shames me to admit this, but my earliest memories include thoughts of suicide. And though I would never have had the gumption to actually do it, there were lots of times when I thought that anything would be better than the life I was living, even not being here at all. My brain was full, jam packed with worry and anger. There was no room in there to think about school work. I was too worried about getting into some kind of trouble, and yet my judgement remained horrible. I would pick on kids. I would act out in church. I would answer the nuns back with my sharp tongue. I would refuse to do my homework. Or lie and say I didn’t have any. I was drawn to all the rules so that I could break them. I fought with my mother. I goaded her. I answered her back. I despised her. It’s a difficult situation to explain, a difficult pattern of behavior to comprehend, even now. I think I probably saw going to school as an escape from a terrible situation, a situation in which I had no power, no say. And even though I hated school utterly, it was still better than home, where I was the object of another person’s frustrated sadness and hatred.
So that’s the feeble lead-up to one of the most shameful days of my life. I don’t recall exactly what provoked me to pick on Jimmy. Maybe it was his glasses. Maybe his shoes were not in style. Maybe he had pimples. Maybe it was nothing at all. Who knows? He was just my target on that particular day. And so, as my friends, the other four or five bullies, egged me on to start something with Jimmy, I finally relented and did what the “cool kids” insisted I do. Rather than lose face with “the guys,” I started pushing Jimmy around. He didn’t retaliate. I would never have picked on him in the first place if I thought there was any chance that he’d defend himself. I slapped him around. Pushed him. Dared him to fight back. I grabbed his tie, his maroon, clip-on, knitted “uniform” tie and pulled it off. The guys laughed and began to join in the pushing and slapping. This, of course, juiced up my bravado, and we started pushing him around among us, on the ground, flat on his back, Tommy kneeling over him holding his shoulders down. Greg and Moose had hold of him, too. We had him good. Now what? Tommy started yelling, “His pants! Pull down his pants! Pull down his pants!
What I recall next is rather blurry. I remember fumbling with Jimmy’s belt buckle as he struggled helplessly against the three guys holding him down. I remember unbuttoning his pants and unzipping his fly. He continued to thrash. He also started to cry. But he was trapped by four guys and he wasn’t going anywhere. And it’s strange, you know, but I clearly remember thinking how wrong this was, how unfair. I grabbed his waistband and pulled. He fought and kicked. And I pulled on his pants. And I also felt sadness in my heart. There was something inside me that was disgusted by my own behavior, but the seduction of being the big tough guy was stronger than the sadness I felt in doing what I was doing. I was powerless against the will of the group. I pulled two or three times and his pants were down around his ankles. Tommy let go first, and he stood up laughing and pointing. The other guys did the same. When I stood up I had an image burned into my brain. Jimmy was on his back on the asphalt playground, his glasses were cockeyed on his face, his jockey shorts seemed to glow, as he struggled to pull his pants back up without standing. A crowd had begun to gather and Sister headed our way with long smooth strides, her habit wafting like a big black sail as she strode. Jimmy was up now and doing four things at once…rapidly. He was straightening his glasses, zipping up his pants, struggling to get them aligned on his skinny body, all while assuring Sister that everything was fine. Can you imagine that?! Assuring Sister that everything was fine!? “What is going on here!” Sister roared. What happened next is unforgettable. The first person to speak was Jimmy. “Nothing,” he said. And at the same moment Jimmy said Nothing, a group of girls surrounded Sister, all talking at once, and pointing at me. I recall juggling several emotions at the same time. I had to maintain my remorseless façade in front of the other kids. I had to pretend that I wasn’t the least bit concerned with what the repercussions of this latest fiasco would be, even though I had immediately begun to worry about the trouble I was in. And I had to act like I didn’t care about how Jimmy was feeling, even though I instantly felt horrible for having done what I did.
I have no real sense for what lead up to this heinous behavior other than it was the result of the my own assumed power, and the power of a few other troubled boys who were bored at recess, and needed to show off and exert pain on someone who would do nothing about it. I know I shouldn’t speak for the other perpetrators, but I just think that’s kind of the way the whole sordid thing went down. I’m sure I got a beating that night. But so what? The punishment did not match the crime. The crime was despicable and worthy of much more than the daily, garden variety beatings I took. But I’m sure that’s all that happened. Except that all the yelling, all the hitting, all the threats were powerless against the demons that drove me to do such things. Until I confronted those demons myself, exorcised them on my own, and truly changed my ways, nothing would be different. And it wasn’t. Not for many years. Man, if Cousin Petey had found out about the things I was up to, he would have kicked my ass. And I would have deserved every punch.
The playground at St. Mary’s was a blacktop square maybe seventy-five feet long on each side, and surrounded by a tall anchor fence on two sides, the school building on another, and an old garage that completed the square. The garage was a low, gray, four-car structure. I was never sure who, if anyone, used it. I never saw the doors open. I never saw a car. And the little square windows on the garage doors were covered with dried up, crispy looking brown paper taped from the inside and fading to yellow. Two sides of the yard were blocked by that tall anchor fence which separated the school from the surrounding houses, and in spring the fence was overcome with big, fluffy lilacs whose scent filled the school on those long lazy afternoons in late spring, after lunch, after running around on the hot tar, and later on, when it was almost impossible to stay awake at my desk. The fourth side of the playground was the school itself.
During recess, the girls all stood around in groups and giggled and talked. But the boys played. We’d play Red Rover, Buck Buck, or Cowboys and Indians. There was no official gym class except on Wednesday when a man named Mr. Daly came and played with us. Basketball or kickball in the tiny gym during the winter, and softball or kickball in the spring, outside on the black top.
On one particularly beautiful, warm May afternoon, the lilacs in bloom, the smell of the freedom of summer in the air, we were playing softball with Mr. Daly. He had scrawled the bases onto the asphalt with a piece of chalk. The pitcher’s “mound” was the storm grid in the middle of a big dip in the yard. When it rained that indentation became a small lake and a big temptation to those of us apt to have a mind to push someone in. Anyway, the storm drain was the pitcher’s mound. Home plate, also scribbled with chalk, was at the far end of the playground, right in the corner where the anchor fences met. This meant that we were hitting toward the school which loomed in the background. Its façade was all brick, and the windows were massive and rectangular, and could only be opened by using a heavy wooden rod with a hook on the end of it. Coach Daly had watched us grow up by playing some kind of ball with us every Wednesday since we were in first grade. And even though we were in eighth grade now, we still played softball against the backdrop of the school. The building was certainly far enough away from this goofy, awkward bunch of eighth grade Catholic schoolers; Coach Daly was not the least bit worried about anyone hitting a ball against the school, or worse, through one of those huge windows.
By eighth grade I was five-foot-nine, the biggest kid in the school, an All-Star little league player, and a lefty with good power. I got up to the “plate” (the chalk-scribbled square on the asphalt) just as I had done every Wednesday gym class since I was six.
“OK, Staniz, show ‘em what ya’ got,” Coach Daly called out, and he lobed the ball with a slow, lazy arc through the warm May morning. I took my best swing and I launched the ball way up over all the kids in the school yard. The sky was a brilliant blue and the ball disappeared into the massive shadow cast by the school. I stood mesmerized for a moment. Everyone did. We all – including Coach Daly – turned and stared as the ball rose and rose until it disappeared into the shadow. And then we heard (we all heard) the hideous impact of ball on glass, the sharp sound of glass shattering and raining down onto asphalt, and Coach Daly’s voice in the deep, deep silence of the aftermath.
“You asshole, Stanizzi! You asshole! What the fuck is wrong with you!? You broke the goddam window! You…stupid….you…”
Whatever happened next has been erased by time. I couldn’t tell you. I only have fragments of fragments. My gym class career was over, which ended up not mattering because I was playing little league and had plenty of “real” baseball to satisfy that need. I also got myself into lots of trouble and was out of school as much as I was in, and since gym class was an “earned” privilege in those days, I no longer went to gym. Anyway, those details, while perhaps relevant in other places in this story, are completely irrelevant here. What is relevant here is the sound of smashed glass shattering, and Coach Daly calling me an asshole, repeatedly. I can still feel the perpetual sting of those words. I remember confusion. I had no idea I could hit that far. I was as surprised as anyone. I remember Coach Daly insisting that I did it on purpose. But I didn’t. I really didn’t. I had absolutely no idea that I could hit a ball that far or that hard. No idea.
And that’s all I remember. It’s another one of those experiences where I don’t remember much before it happened, and I remember less after it happened. But the singular moment, the moment that would go from meaningless to unforgettable — that’s what remains. I swing. I see the ball’s arc through the morning sky. I hear the explosion of glass, the raining of shards. I hear Coach Daly, seething with anger. “You asshole, Stanizzi, Goddam you!” And in my mind the ball never comes down. It never reaches the school. It leaves my bat. Soars up into the spring air. Disappears into the shadow. Then it leaves my bat again. Soars up into the spring air. Disappears into the shadow. Then it leaves my bat…
John L. Stanizzi is author of the collections Ecstasy Among Ghosts, Sleepwalking, Dance Against the Wall, After the Bell, Hallelujah Time!, High Tide – Ebb Tide, Four Bits, Chants, and Sundowning. His brand new collection, POND, published by “impspired” in Ireland will be out in October. John’s poems have appeared in Prairie Schooner, The Cortland Review, American Life in Poetry, The New York Quarterly, Paterson Literary Review, The Caribbean Writer, Blue Mountain Review, Rust + Moth, Tar River, Poetlore, Rattle, Hawk & Handsaw, and many others. His work has been translated into Italian and appeared in El Ghibli, The Journal of Italian Translations Bonafini, Poetarium, and others. His nonfiction has been published in Stone Coast Review, Ovunque Siamo, Adelaide, Scarlet Leaf, Literature and Belief, and Evening Street.
A former New England Poet of the Year, John is the Flash Fiction Editor of Abstract Magazine TV, and he has read at venues all over New England, including the Mystic Arts Café, the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, Hartford Stage, and many others. For many years, Johncoordinated the Fresh Voices Poetry Competition for Young Poets at Hill-Stead Museum, Farmington, CT. He is also a teaching artist for the national recitation contest, Poetry Out Loud. A former New England Poet of the Year, and Wesleyan University Etherington Scholar, John teaches literature at Manchester Community College in Manchester, CT and he lives with his wife, Carol, in Coventry. https://www.johnlstanizzi.com.