BOBBY CRAWFORD Eigth Grade – St. Mary’s School – 1962-63 – Sister Patricia Elizabeth

            I know I’ve mentioned this to you before, but I think before I get into any details about this next sad and ugly event, I need to mention again that lots of times the kids that I picked on in the school yard were truly, secretly, some of the nicest kids in the whole school.  I say “secretly” because I was worried that if any of the posse found out that I liked these kids they would have immediately labeled me a fairy, and then I’d be done for.  Tough-guy image gone.  Reputation gone.  De facto boss of the posse gone.  It wouldn’t be good for me.  But like I said, whenever I was assigned to work with one of the so-called pussies in class, they were always really nice, and funny, and helpful, and it actually felt like they genuinely liked me, in spite of what a dick I was on the playground.  It was really wonderful.  And again, secretly, I had a glimpse of what it felt like to be a normal kid – no fighting, no answering back, no vulgarity, no attitude.  None of that.  None.  Just me and this other kid — boy or girl, it didn’t matter — for whom I’d made recess hell, were working together, having fun, and not being in any kind of trouble.  It’s a funny thing, but even the sunlight rafting in through the huge rectangular windows seemed more heartening, and the newly blooming lilacs smelled more like summer than ever.  And one more thing about this revelation – there was, without a doubt, a proverbial “double-edged” sword flashing in that classroom.

            If I outted myself and let the posse know that the kid I was working with was nice, funny, smart, helpful…all of it, I’d be blackballed by the posse, and tossed like a greasy lunch bag into the cloakroom.  On the other hand, if I was really nice to my partner in class, working together, being helpful, laughing, figuring out the school-work challenges, and then pull all kinds of stupid, cruel bullshit on that kid at recess on the playground, I’d feel extra bad, extra mean, and extra confused.  I just wanted to remind  you a little bit about how I felt being a bully, before I told you this next story.

            Bobby Crawford had been with us since first grade, and not much had changed about him between first grade and eighth grade.  He was still overweight, and a great target for ridicule.  His white “uniform shirt” was always wrinkled, and the right side of the shirt – only the right side – hung out in a crumpled mess at the waistline of his “uniform” gray flannel pants.  His black “uniform” shoes were more scratches than leather.  His navy-blue blazer, with the St. Mary’s crest on the chest pocket, was a wrinkled mess and looked as if it had never, ever been cleaned.  And let’s face it, the blue blazer was a crucial part of the “uniform.”  His whole outfit was topped off with his “uniform” maroon knit tie, tied in such a way that the back of the tie was four times longer than the front, which was probably three inches long.  Bobby Crawford.  He was a sight, man.  A total mess, and a walking target.

            Add to his appearance that fact that nobody ever heard him say a single word, and there was Bobby Crawford – fat, sloppy, silent Bobby.  And it is absolutely true.  He never spoke.  Not in class.  Not on the playground when we busted his balls mercilessly.  Not when we followed him on the walk home, being unrelenting.  First grade through eighth grade, and no one ever heard him speak.  I’ll tell you the truth, I could not get this one thought out of my head.  “What a fucked up life Bobby had.”  Kids at school were brutal.  And he never defended himself, never said a word.  I could not imagine what it must have been like at home?  I used to always think, “Why don’t we just leave the kid alone?  Why the fuck are we always tormenting him?” That’s what I used to think, but it didn’t amount to shit.  I just kept joining in on the daily mercilessness.

            The really horrible part of this story begins here.  It all started off just like any other usual day at recess on the asphalt, parking-lot “playground.”  We were up to our normal bullshit.  Huddled in an intimidating little crowd around the fire escape, we talked shit to just about anyone who dared to walk by us, even the nuns, except we were too slick and they were too stupid to catch on to our ranking on them.  And son-of-a bitch, here comes Bobby Crawford, all alone of course, walking toward the fire escape, and toward the posse, the tail of his dirty white shirt hanging out in front.  Shoes scuffed raw.  Tie – ten inches in the back, three in the front.  Blue blazer looking as if it had been rolled in a tight ball for twenty years.  And here he comes, plodding, expressionless, his greasy hair shiny in the May sun.

            When he was close enough that there was no way he could not hear us, Gary O’Connor said, “Hey, Bobby, I’m gonna kick your ass.”  Of course, all of us hyenas thought that was a riot.  But to everyone’s utter and profound shock, Bobby stopped and spoke!  With absolutely no change in his demeanor, and without looking directly at any of us, he said very, very quietly, “When?”

            Well, needless to say there was an incredible, massive, overwhelming, extensive moment of silence, and finally, thank God, Gary said, “After school today.  Three o’clock in the picnic area at North End Park.  Three o’clock,” Gary repeated.  But it’s funny, you know, I could hear in Gary’s voice the slightest intimation of either fear or lack of confidence or something that didn’t quite resemble bad-ass Gary O’Connor.  And in a way I could understand that.  It was pretty freaky to actually hear Bobby’s voice, which was kind of high-pitched and didn’t quite go with his bulk.

            It didn’t take a second for Bobby to reply.  “OK,” he said softly.  And he left.

            As he lumbered off, our conversation deteriorated into something like – Holy shit!  What the fuck!  Think he’s gonna show?  I heard he’s nuts.  Damn, man, that’s the first time I ever heard his voice! Shit, Gary, what’cha gonna do?

            But Gary seemed cool.  He was tall, the tallest kid in the school, and really, really skinny.  A wiry-type who swaggered instead of just walking.  He had “attitude” written all over him, and even though he was actually just a tall skinny guy, his demeanor was intimidating.  He combed his hair like Elvis, only Gary’s hair was curlier and thicker, the abundant, bursting hair of a thirteen year old.  He wore a watch with the face on the bottom of his wrist instead of the top.  His wingtips were spit-shined to a mirror glossiness, and you could hear him coming from a mile away, especially in the marble halls of St. Mary’s, because he had cleats on his heels as big as half-dollars, and he made sure they rang out wherever he walked.

            After Bobby was way across the other side of the playground, Gary spoke.  “I’m gonna kick his fuckin’ ass, and all you muthafukkas better be there.”  And that was that. 

            The bell rang for us to go back in, and the afternoon was just another afternoon in school, an endless pain in the ass, made more endless and more of a pain in the ass because the posse knew that some shit was going to go down at the picnic area of North End Park after school finally ended, and that made all of us edgy and antsy.

            When we walked out of school that day everything seemed normal.  The whole posse —  Richie, Greg, Grasshopper, Gary, Jimmy, Mark, Moosie, Kev, and me — started our walk down Route 5 toward North End Park.  Of course, we fucked around along the way, pushing each other, slap fighting, yelling vulgar things at passing cars.  You know, the usual stuff.

            When we got to North End Park, we were still fairly far away from the picnic area, which was all the way on the other end of the park, right there in the shadow of the huge catwalk that got you into Columbus Circle.  No one…and I mean no one…crossed the catwalk unless they knew what was up.  You feel me?  We could cross the catwalk whenever we wanted, but you had better be connected or you were fucked.

            Once we arrived at the picnic area we had to walk down a little hill and cross a small wooden bridge that got you over the stream that ran all the way around the park.  Down in the picnic area there was just what you’d expect.  Cinder block fireplaces to cook your hot dogs and hamburgers on, and five or six wooden picnic tables to go with each fireplace.  It was also really shady, cooled by a partially cleared out stand of big maples.

            The posse chose a picnic table and we all sat on it, fucking around, being stupid, busting balls, and really kind of forgetting that Bobby Crawford was supposed to be there any minute to throw down with Gary O’Connor.

            But all that changed when we spotted Bobby trudging over the bridge.  He actually showed.  It was on.

            “Oh fuck me,” said Gary, “There he is.”

            Bobby, a rumpled mess, walked toward us.  No expression.  No affect in his walk.  Just this silent hulk heading straight in the direction of the posse.  We didn’t say shit.  We just watched him.

            When he was about ten feet from our picnic table he stopped and looked at us.  He didn’t speak.  He just stood there.  The light shone through the late May maples, massive rungs of light on a crooked ladder.  And though it was cooler in the picnic area, it was still hot.  Summer was coming.  And so was the end of eighth grade.  The end of the posse.  The end of a huge and crucial chapter in our lives – the grand finale of St. Mary’s. And we could not wait.  But today there were things to do.

Bobby removed his blue blazer, tossed it on the ground, and assumed the pose of what I guess he thought a boxer should look like.  His feet were spread about shoulder-width apart, and his fists were raised, one a little higher than the other.  And he just stood there.  Gary looked at us and we all laughed.

            “Rocky fuckin’ Marciano,” Gary said softly as he got down from the picnic table.  Bobby didn’t move.

            Gary walked the two or three steps it took to get within striking distance of Bobby, and that’s when it happened.  Out of nowhere. 

Bobby threw a powerful straight right-hand that landed square on Gary’s nose which instantly erupted into a burst of blood, like an airborne Rorschach.  Gary’s loud grunt was the grunt of pain and astonishment.  The fight was over.  Two seconds and the fight was over. 

Gary was bent over at the waist, crying, and trying unsuccessfully to get his nose to stop bleeding with the once lily-white sleeve of his shirt.  We all surrounded him, trying to comfort him, giving him whatever we could find to try and stop the bleeding, including a bunch of dried leaves off the ground, which only made matters worse – more blood, more pain.

            Jimmy said, “He cheap-shotted you, Gar, that motherfucker.  He cheap-shotted you!”

            That broke the silence and then we all chimed in with Jimmy’s anthem.  Sucker punch.  You weren’t ready.  Cheap shot.  Cheating bastard.

            It wasn’t until we looked up from Gary for the first time in several seconds that we saw Bobby crossing the bridge over the brook, blazer back on, his stride slow and impervious.  He was headed toward Little League Field #2 and in the direction of his house on May Street.

            And so it was.  We had clearly underestimated Bobby’s willingness to defend himself if need be, and how completely unintimidated he was by his tormentors.  These facts changed everything.  Everything about our reaction to Bobby Chapman would be different now.  I mean, let’s face it, who wanted to get their ass kicked?  And so quickly.  No one.  That’s who.

            But then something entirely outrageous happened late in the hot afternoon of the next day.  I clearly recall my rational brain screaming, “Shut your mouth for once, will you please.  Just shut up and stay out of trouble, you idiot!”  But, as usual, I didn’t listen.  I could feel the rage welling up hot in my chest.  I could feel my sense of control vanishing.  I was gone.  I knew it.  And I didn’t care.

Sister Louis Marie was whining on about some crap that I could not have cared less about.  I could not get my mind off yesterday afternoon, and Bobby’s quick dispatching of Gary.  I couldn’t stop thinking that if Gary had only not taken Bobby so lightly, if Gary had been a little more prepared, and a little less of a cocky punk, things might have gone differently.  Maybe.

I could feel my anger continuing to flood my thoughts, and whenever that happened, I was nearly impossible to control.  And I didn’t care who you were.  Once I let my temper get the better of me, there was no stopping me.  Not the nuns.  Not Father Shanley.  Not my parents.  Not Mr. Thibadeau, the custodian.  Not my friends.  Not the cops.  I would become blind, and there was simply no talking to me, no matter who you were.

Well, Sister Louis Mary finally had to call in Sister Anthony Mary to help, because by this point I was standing next to my desk and calling out, “Hey, Bobby!  Hey, Bobby!  Hey, Chapman, you pussy.”  But Bobby didn’t budge.  He just sat silently, looking at the blackboard.  I remember so clearly the two nuns suddenly becoming incredibly nice as they tried to calm me down.  Did they think I was fucking stupid.  “Oh, Sister, how kind of you to be so very nice to me now that I’ve had a complete meltdown, disrupted your class, and Sister Anthony Mary’s class, and threatened Bobby Chapman.  How lovely of you to start caring for me now.”

With the two nuns right up in my face, I shouted over Sister Anthony Mary’s shoulder, “Hey, Chapman, I’m gonna kick your ass, do you hear me?  I’m gonna whoop your ass!!”

Then to everyone’s amazement, Bobby Chapman turned all the way around in his chair and said, almost inaudibly, “When?”

I screamed, “Today, bitch!!”

To which Bobby responded, as calm as ever, “Where?”

“Picnic area, man!  You and me!  Three o’clock!”

At that exact moment Father Shanley walked in.  “WHAT IS GOING ON IN HERE?!  WHAT.  IS.  GOING.  ON.  IN.  HERE?!”

Of course, the whole class went deadly silent.  Bobby was facing front again.  And I was still standing, being guarded by Sister Anthony Mary.  Up in the front of the room I could hear Sister Louis Marie explaining that completely out of nowhere I had stood up in the middle of the class and threatened Mr. Chapman.  I heard her say, “I cannot understand it, Father.  One moment Mr. Stanizzi seemed to be staring out the windows at the lilacs, and then something terrible occurred.”  It’s funny, you know.  Sister seemed genuinely scared and really troubled.

She went on to say, “Even before I had time to react, Mr. Stanizzi accosted Mr. Chapman with violent, vulgar threats.  Mr. Chapman responded, quietly, as Mr. Stanizzi was hollering something about the picnic area at North End Park.  That’s when you walked in, Father.”

As he began walking in my direction, I heard him say, “Thank you, Sister.”  And then to me.  “And you, Mister.  You will come with me.”

“What!?  No way!”  And I immediately went off again.  “What about Chapman, huh, Father?  He just gets away???  Why?  Why, huh, Father?  Why!?”  Of course, Bobby hadn’t done a darn thing.  I was just being a complete ass.

Father responded, “You be absolutely silent, Mr. Stanizzi, or else this will go much worse for you than it is going to go.

Well, as a matter of fact it didn’t go badly at all.  Once we were back in his office, Father, standing behind his huge wooden desk, Crucifix hanging on the old, yellowing wall up behind him, leaned forward, his hands on the desk, and gave me what sounded like a scripted spiel about trying harder to be nice to Bobby, and to consider how Jesus might handle a similar situation, and we’d be leaving St. Mary’s for good in just a few weeks, and wouldn’t it be much nicer to leave on a positive note than a negative one, blah, blah, blah.  I was noticing how the pencil thin lines on the cracks on Father’s wall resembled a map of a vast wasteland seen from an airplane.  I had never really paid much attention before, but the wall was loaded with these fine cracks, some of them even lifted away from the flatness of the wall.  It looked like you could drive forever and never really get anywhere.  They were kind of hypnotizing, these cracks.

Of course, it didn’t help that I was sitting in Father’s massive, brown, soft, cushy, cozy leather chair, and I swear I could have fallen asleep right on the spot.  In fact, I almost did.  My eyes felt heavy and to be honest, I couldn’t really tell you what the hell Father was going on and on about. Although through my fog, I could also tell that this was not going to take long and that there’d be no negative repercussions.  You get a sense for this kind of stuff after a while.  Anyway, this was Classic Father Shanley.  I loved that guy.

When the bell rang for the end of the day and I walked out the front doors, from Father Shanley’s office, instead of out the back door into the parking lot/playground, the posse was there waiting.  We had an appointment to keep at North End Park.  So we headed out, and it was the usual deal.  A ton of profanity.  Busting on anyone who walked anywhere near us.  Yelling stupid shit at passing cars.  Just another typical walk home after school.  Only today we had a detour.  Instead of going straight, we took a right onto May Street, Bobby’s street, which just happened to end at the little league “stadium,” named the “stadium” because there was a concession stand, an announcer’s booth, and closed in, wooden dugouts.  It was pretty cool.  Each section of the outfield anchor fence had a big wooden sign advertising some local business – The Eastwood Theater, Main Street Hardware, Friendly’s, Prospect Pharmacy, Lou’s Pizza.  That kind of stuff.

At May Street’s dead end, we hung a left onto a narrow unpaved road.  On the left side of the road was the park; little league fields, basketball courts, the town pool, and green grass as far as you could see.  On our right, totally littered with tiny liquor bottles, bags, cans, and any kind of trash you could think of, was the catwalk that separated the park from Columbus Circle.

That narrow road was also a dead end; it came to a close at the little bridge that crossed the brook and entered the picnic area.  As usual, the place was empty.  Who was going to be at the North End Park picnic area at three o’clock on a Wednesday?

Even though this “looked” like a perfect replay of what went down yesterday, I knew better than anybody that it wasn’t, and I began to feel nervous.  Bobby was going to show.  I knew that without a doubt.  I also knew, because I had run my big mouth in class.  That fact was that I was going to have to square off against Bobby, just like Gary did yesterday, in front of the whole posse.  I’m not going to lie.  I was freaked out.

Just like the day before, we all sat on the picnic table, busting balls and acting stupid, and Gary was a lot more calm than he was yesterday, that’s for sure.  But I wasn’t calm.  Not at all.  And then the reality of the situation got locked into place.  Just like yesterday, here comes Bobby shambling across the bridge, expressionless, and heading straight for our picnic table.  Somebody said, “Go get him, Johnnie.”  But besides that one comment there was silence.  After yesterday, today’s meeting had taken on a much more serious air.

I kept running through my head what Gary had done to be sure I did not make the same mistake.  I’d have to strike first and fast.  No hesitation.  No waiting.  First and fast.  And I did.

As Bobby was removing his navy-blue blazer, I leaped off the table and hit him as hard as I could smack in the middle of his face.  He wasn’t looking at me; I knew that, and that’s why I went for him when I did.  Totally cheap shot.  I must have caught his nose pretty good, because like Gary the day before, Bobby was bleeding like hell.  The only difference was he wasn’t crying like a little baby the way Gary did.  He just wiped his nose with the sleeve of his white uniform shirt, and then he looked down at his shirt sleeve to see how much blood there was.  That’s when I nailed him again.  I’m pretty sure this one nailed him hard on the left temple, and he started to stumble backwards.

I know for a fact that neither of us ever thought that the brook would come into play in this fight, but we were wrong.  Bobby stumbled backwards just far enough to catch his leather-bottomed black uniform shoes on the muddy bank, and in he went backwards, completely disappearing under water for a moment before coming up looking stunned.  That’s when I jumped in on top of him, and what had been a fist fight was now an all-out wrestling match in waist deep water.  We hung on to each other as hard as we could.  I was afraid that if I let go he’d land the punch that would put an end to this fiasco.  Time vanished.  I couldn’t possibly say how long we wrestled in the water, going all the way under, coming back up, still locked together.  I could see the blur of the posse on the brook bank.  They were yelling, but I couldn’t make out what they were saying.  What I could make out was the fact that I was getting tired.  Bobby was a big guy and it wasn’t easy hanging on to him. So I thought of a plan.

The next time we surfaced, still locked together, I had my left arm around his ample waist, my right hand clamped onto the shoulder of his once-white shirt, and he had both of his arms around me about chest high.  We were face to face.  That’s when, for the first time really, we had ever actually looked into each other’s eyes.  I’m not sure what he saw in my eyes.  Probably defeat.  Exhaustion.  Hatred.  But I know what I saw in his eyes.  I saw a kid.  A kid just like me.  I saw Bobby Crawford.  Also tired.  Maybe even a little sad.  But mostly I saw a kid.  Not a scary, silent monster who deserved to be berated and beaten.  But a kid.  Bobby Crawford, from my class.  From every class since first grade.

I tightened my grasp on his balled up shirt collar and pulled him closer to me, so that our faces were actually touching, kind of smushed against each other.  And though the fight was still on, I also managed to whisper into his ear, “You wanna stop, Bobby?”  I heard him say clearly into my ear, “Yes.”   And at the same moment we both released our intense holds, and stood staring at each other in the chilly, waist-deeply water flowing quickly around us.  The posse was making all kinds of noise, but I wasn’t listening.  I just kind of staggered up out of the brook and headed for the picnic table, drenched and wearied.  Bobby stumbled out too, and without saying a single word, he picked up his navy-blue blazer, tossed it over his left shoulder, and headed out over the bridge and in the direction of his house.

As the posse began to split up, each of us headed in the direction of our respective houses, I recall lots of chatter.

“Nice sucker shot, Johnnie!”

“I can’t believe you got two shots in before that fag even knew what hit him!”

“Into the fuckin’ brook!  How cool was that?!”

But I remember not saying much.  What I really wanted to do was just get home, get out of this soaking wet school uniform, and just sit in my back yard and watch my dog run around.   And so that’s what I did.  It felt good to be alone, but that good feeling was tainted by the fact that I had cheated.  I had suckered Bobby.  Twice.  And that felt shitty.

The next day at school nothing had noticeably changed.  Everything was more or less exactly the same.  The posse was blathering on about the fight, Bobby was sitting at his desk up front, right hand side of the room, facing forward, silently.

When I walked in I tried to catch Bobby’s eye.  I wanted to.  I even walked closer to his desk than usual.  I was hoping he would look at me.  And he did.  And I swear, I saw the vaguest hint of a smile in his eyes, a lightness that I had never noticed before.  It made me feel so good.  It was kind of like seeing Bobby Chapman for the very first time.  The only way, the absolute only way I got any advantage in that fight was because I cheated.  I had sucker punched him twice.  And yet, when we were wrestling in the brook, something changed.  Maybe it had to do with being that close to each other, to really feeling that the other guy was an actual living person, just like you.  He was someone you had known your whole life.  He was not some strange outsider who deserved my wrath.  He was a kid.  Just like me.  Who knows.  Maybe rolling around in that brook had washed away some of that stupidity that I had carried in my heart for so many years.  Maybe that cool, streaming water had helped me to see more clearly what an unkind fool I had been.  I don’t know.  But I smiled with my eyes, too, right back at Bobby.  And so began another typical day at St. Mary’s, with one small change that only a couple of guys knew anything about.

Like I said, it was May, and we’d all be going our separate ways in just a few weeks.  Our time at that crazy place was almost finished.  And while Bobby and I never became best friends, or anything like that, for those next last few weeks in our uniformed lives at St. Mary’s, whenever Bobby and I would cross paths, we smiled at each other with our eyes sparkling with a little sparkle of friendship.

 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, John coordinated the Fresh Voices Poetry Competition for Young Poets at Hill-Stead Museum, Farmington, Connecticut.  He was also a “teaching artist” for the national poetry recitation contest, Poetry Out Loud; he spent a decade with Poetry Out Loud. 

 A former Wesleyan University Etherington Scholar, and New England Poet of the Year (1998), John has just been awarded an Artist Fellowship in Creative Non-Fiction — 2021 from the Connecticut Office of the Arts for work on his new memoir.

 He teaches literature at Manchester Community College in Manchester, Connecticut, and lives with his wife, Carol, in Coventry, CT.