The War Against the Assholes
Nothing ever turns out the way you imagine it will. You think there’s going to be someone telling you the great and painful secrets of this world. Or opening a golden, final doorway. Beyond which would lie what, exactly? That’s not what happens. What happens is: you meet Hob. All you get. Then again, if you need a more instructive and obvious guide, you’ve already lost the whole game. Certain schools consider that a radical notion.
You wouldn’t have thought there was anything unusual about Hob, other than his being a weak-looking kid in a school full of much bigger, stronger kids (of which I was one, I admit). Saint Cyprian’s, where I went to elementary, middle, and high school, under the supervision of Carmelite nuns. I knew Hob that whole time. We didn’t formally encounter each other until senior year. His full name is Hobart Callahan. Everyone only ever called him Hob, that I heard. My name is Michael Wood, for which people mocked me. Kids at Cyprian’s—a boys’ Catholic school, in case you couldn’t tell from the name—talked about dicks and gayness a lot. I never dealt well with the consequent teasing I suffered. Because of my last name. In fact I beat up Greg Gilder for giving me shit about it.
That’s how I first got to know Hob. Not a lot of friends in the school. He didn’t act lonely. He didn’t see people. He would walk right past you. Never bat an eye. He always had this book with him during lunch and gym. Coach Madigan had basically given up on him and let him read during class. A small green book. Gold letters on the spine. He put it away whenever anyone got close. I assumed it was either poetry or pornography. Either one would land you in trouble. If Greg Gilder caught Hob reading poetry, he would have knocked him unconscious on principle. At least that’s how the operating theory ran. The day Hob actually entered my life was not extraordinary. I had overslept, which happened two or three times a week. The sky was cement colored. Or something. My imagistic vocabulary was limited. No one’s fault but my own. I had to wait eight minutes for a train. Pacing the platform edge, staring down my fellow laggards. The main hall of Cyprian’s had just been washed when I arrived, and the dead-fruit smell of floor cleaner filled my nostrils as I raced across it. In the center a mosaic of the saint himself: his white-haired head backed with a flat, orange, Russian halo. Our motto carved into the ribbon of stone beneath his thin hands: Melior Audere. Sister Immaculata reamed me out for missing the first ten minutes of world history. The Treaty of Versailles. I didn’t follow. Wars and treaties: they go on existing whether you know about them or not.
Greg Gilder muttered, “Morning, Wood,” as I passed him, and the two kids sitting next to him, Simon Canary and Frank Santone, both laughed behind their hands. I think I may have had a premonition that I was going to kick Gilder’s ass at that point. This was more than ten years ago. Risky to rely on memory. Though it’s all we have. Hob sat in the back of the class not talking. As usual. He read his green book during gym, as he had for the past three years. Things just got weirder and weirder with Gilder. He kept saying, “Morning, Wood”—like morningwood, like the hard-on you have in the mornings just from consciousness—all day. Gym, lunch, Greek class (I never managed to learn much more than the alphabet), right through math. At least I was well rested. Hob was there too. He might have been watching me, or that just might be my mind weaving another strand of historical narrative. Makes no difference. What happens, happens. My school day ended. It took forever. It always did. When the last bell rang, I caught Hob giving me an up-and-down. I shrugged and he grinned, and then I went down the hot, gray stairs that led to the locker rooms. You could hear the permanent whine of a machine there, behind the deep walls, loud and shrill. We called the hall Old Egypt. As the rest of the team came bounding down the stairs, I changed and started hammering out push-ups. I did this, every day, to get started. After everyone arrived, I calmed down. We muttered our hellos and a few profanities. Gilder didn’t speak to me. He grunted as he bench-pressed. “Don’t strain yourself,” said Coach Madigan. We all cackled at that. Gilder racked the weights and sat up, face pale. We all had to go up with Coach Madigan every month or so, to Yonkers, and help his mother: raking leaves, lifting boxes. Even Gilder went. The Catholic Church knows how to extract free labor from its members. I enjoyed it. Seeing the house and yard of another human being. Call it native curiosity.
“Gentlemen,” Coach Madigan said, “start your engines.” It was cold enough on the field that Coach Madigan’s head—squarish, red haired, it must have weighed about thirty pounds by itself—steamed when he took off his hat. It’s absurd to me, even now, that Saint Cyprian’s possessed enough real estate to have its own football field in Manhattan. Then again, that’s another specialty of the Church: acquiring valuable land. We got into position for warm-ups. Gilder did his jumping jacks and push-ups and screamed. His normal display. Embarrassing the rest of us. When we started scrimmaging, the trouble began. Coach Madigan assigned Gilder to block me and Gilder kept making these late, late hits and muttering, “Morning, Wood,” every time. I could have retaliated, then. Coach Madigan wouldn’t have said anything, even if one of my teachers had asked him about it. He believed, as he once expressed it, in a wall of separation between church and state. I knew it would be safe. Which explains maybe why I didn’t do anything.
Hob was up on the one set of bleachers. Watching me. This time for sure. “Callahan,” said the coach, “I see you’ve decided to honor us with your presence.” Hob went back to reading his book. When my side took possession, I concentrated on taking Gilder down. Clean. Every time I hit him, the world slowed down: I could see where he was going and get there first, one second ahead of him, two seconds. Call it poetry, maybe. I’d felt that way before—time slipping—during my best games. I ran the table on him, as we used to say. Tackled him every time. The weird slowdown stopped. My vision cleared up. Hob was just sitting there with his green book.
I kept taking Gilder down. He called me a bitch and a faggot, at first. Then he just transitioned into more grunting. Success leads to success and confidence leads to confidence. So I followed him after practice. I didn’t have any other intentions at that point. Then again, you never do. It was starting to get darker. Colder. The sun had already gone down, lurid orange. The faint clouds still carried its tint. My brown cap pulled down to my eyebrows, my brown scarf wound up to my philtrum. Amateurism. I had no other choice. Simon Canary bumped into Gilder on the front stairs and Gilder shoved him. Simon stumbled to the sidewalk. Came up with bloody palms. Gilder told him that’s what he got for being a faggot. Simon rapid-walked off. He passed me. Didn’t see me. I kept far back. Crows gliding above. Keels of cloud. It was easy to trail Gilder in the crush of kids leaving the school. Then the crowd thinned. I didn’t mind. Even if he spotted me I knew I could catch him. I could outrun him. Greatness equals endurance. The air had that blue-black color it gets during winter twilight. Makes you certain of yourself. The crows kept circling. A good omen, I thought.
Gilder walked west, into the last fires of the sunset. He had turned into the green, dimming park and was crouched over his shoes, fumbling the laces, when I ran at him and slammed my knee into his lower back. A curt, garbled cry. Then his face hit the path. He stopped shouting. This just made me more furious. I scanned the street: uninterested drivers, uninterested pedestrians. You can get away with a lot of violence when you’re a kid. Moral law and human law make exceptions for it. I grabbed Gilder’s arm. I frog-marched him. He blubbered. Kept asking me what I was doing. He tried and tried to get a look at my face. I gripped his arm tighter. Locked the elbow. Twisted upward. He shrieked. He said he didn’t have any money on him. We reached the deeper shadow of a forked, mottled sycamore. I shoved him against the trunk. He thrashed and gasped. Called me a cocksucker through his tears. Or it sounded like cocksucker. The back of his neck was grimy and pale, divided by a smiling crease. I waited for him to calm down. I’m not a coward. I wouldn’t have ambushed him ordinarily. But my ribs still ached from his bullshit late hits. So I wanted to make sure we stood on even metaphysical ground. He had these watery greenish eyes that suggested he couldn’t see anything. Crowded, crooked teeth: at Cyprian’s you never knew if substandard teeth meant the kid was on a parish scholarship or if his parents simply did not give a shit. I never found out. Can’t say I cared. A cab whizzed to a halt near where we were. Its roof light came on above the lip of the stone wall. Seven seven one seven. That I remember. Two women got out. I could just see the tops of their blond heads, both uncovered. Their clear, high voices echoed in the cold, empty air. Gilder was struggling again. Throwing his free elbow at my face. Still weeping. Choking it back. One attempt landed. My inner cheek tore on a molar. He asked me, voice snot-thick, if I wanted any more. Platitudes he used all the time. “Who wants some?” “If I ever see that faggot again, I’ll kill him.” He was no weakling. I’ll give him that. He just had a weakness for dialogue.
Most people go through life, I imagine, without ever injuring another member of their species physically. Not me. Not me with blood on my tongue. I didn’t care about his tears. I grabbed Gilder’s fake-lamb’s-wool coat collar and punched him in his temple, as hard as I could, and then I spun him to face me and hit him—mouth, neck, cheekbones, nose, eyes—until I felt a slashing pain in my fist and heard Gilder whimper. Not cry. Not speak. Whimper. His head lolled on his wide throat. I hit him eight or nine more times, ignoring the pain in my fist. It helped, even: your brain releases pain-fighting chemicals when you get injured, Coach Madigan liked to remind us. “And that, gentlemen, that is the only high you’ll ever need.” Gilder’s left eye had swollen closed. Both his lips were split and bleeding, and blood, too, was dripping from his nostrils. Though the sidewalk hitting his face might have done that. He mumbled. Probably asking me to stop. Another piece of dialogue. He’d miscalculated. My hand was aching. Blood warmed the skin over my tendons. I dropped him to the hard park path. He moved his arms and legs. A slow swimmer. I kicked him in the ribs, twice, three times, five times, seven. He cried out at the first blow. He stopped crying out at the second blow. After number eight, I paused to breathe. To consider. I heard someone say: “Nice work, Michael. Efficient.”