As important as it is to have good friends to turn to for companionship or support I believe, to the core of my soul, that it is equally important to have at least one good enemy. Maybe it’s even more important.
A friend is someone you can bitch to, and that’s important. But a good enemy gives you someone to bitch about. Without the bitching it can be hard to come up with something new to talk about with your friends. The right enemy in the right circumstance can even strengthen your friendships and even prolong a romance.
It's often said, usually by me, that a good relationship is based on two people liking the same things but a great relationship based on two people hating the same things. For example, if you both like, say, Dutch Paintings but one of you likes the paintings for their composition and subject matter but the other person likes them for the color pallet or painting style you can still hang your painting in the grand dining room but there will still be friction as to why it's there and why you both like it.
That’s not the case with shared hatred. With a shared hatred for someone one of you can see someone walking down the street and say, "I hate her shoes" the other person can respond in a disgusted voice, "Look at her tube top". You then declare,"she's a nasty slut that's probably going to end up in a trailer park with five kids from six different men". And then, of course, you can't argue with the statement of, "She's such a whore, I hope she gets hit by a truck".
Unlike with a work of art you don't have to agree on the specifics of why you hate this slut with the tube top and bad shoes. (oh yeah, she has bad shoes). Those slight differences of opinion somehow melt away when they are on the negative side of the spectrum. You're a united front against that tramp and and your relationship is more solid for it.
For me it's especially important to have a good enemy around to take the brunt of the excess of negative energy and dark thoughts that seem to multiply in my psyche like evil bunnies. If I don't have someone I don't like to direct this mental energy at then I end up directing it at someone I actually care about or related to.
Going to school in a small town means it's not unusual to see people that are best friends one year, become vicious enemies the next year, and then in high school they go to prom together. I had a few of those on again off again enemies, we all did, but I also found a really good full time enemy. Our relationship lasted for years. I can still remember the exact moment he came into my life and I knew he was the one.
It was third grade. Our class assignment was a short story with some sort of moral undertone to it. We were to read it then discuss the morality part as a class. Our first story was set in the late eighteen hundreds and was about a shopkeeper that finds himself being bullied by the illiterate wagon driver that delivered the products to his store. The wagon driver was physically abusive and, most importantly to the plot, stole from the shopkeeper on a regular basis. He did this by tapping into the whiskey barrels and drinking down a good portion of it. To put an end to the abuse and thieving the shopkeeper ordered a barrel of wood alcohol that looked exactly the same as the whiskey barrels except for the label. Since of course the wagon driver couldn't read he drank the wood alcohol and subsequently dropped dead.
To me the moral was obvious! If you're stupid and abusive someone will poison you and make it look like an accident. It's also a good lesson on not pissing off the people who touch your food before you do.The teacher was not content on my brilliant and concise assessment and decided she would ask the rest of the class one by one if they thought what the shopkeeper did was right or wrong. Most of us agreed that what he did was right and justified and that he didn't really kill the asshole wagon driver. It was more of an accidental suicide. Admittedly with a little help from our hero the shopkeeper.
One person did not agree. That person was my future nemesis, James Bilby.
Because our last names were alphabetically close we were seated next to each other. He had been writing or drawing or doing math problems, something lame, and hadn't bothered to look up during most of the discussion. When the teacher got to him he said "The shopkeeper is wrong because it's never ok to kill anyone".
Even at that age I had a prepared short list of situations of when it was ok to kill someone.
1. If someone kills your parents or someone in your family,
2. Someone is going to kill you
3. If you're in a war"
I'm still proud of how insightful I was at the time and still stand by convictions. However, the list of reasons that make it ok to kill someone has grown to include such things as:
4. Taking the parking space, that I pay for! two days in a row
5.Wearing a mullet unless you’re a lesbian or a NASCAR fan
6. Asking me why I'm single
*I've lightened up a little on the "killing someone in your family" rule.
James Bilby wouldn’t argue his reasoning. He just repeated what he said once and went back to the paper in front him. I got the feeling that the opinion wasn’t his at all but was given to him by someone else. Maybe I have a few opinions like that too but I make it a point not to agree with parents or authority figures.
I hadn’t thought much about James Bilby up until that point but now I hated him. It wasn’t just because he disagreed with me. There was just something about his arrogant confidence about something he was so obviously and completely wrong about that made me crazy.
That was also the first time I looked at James, I mean really looked at him. He wore jeans and a t-shirt like most of the rest of us but his t-shirt was more like the kind grown ups wore under long sleeve shirts. More like underwear. He was pasty white and shiny from a constant thin layer of oil or sweat. He had mousy blond hair that hung in exhausted curs. The top of his head looked like it belonged on an antique baby doll.
None of these attributes were his fault, of course, and there was no good reason to hate James but at some instinctual and visceral level, I did.
In the Fall our local schools held a parent teacher conference. This was an annual event that I always assumed my mother and stepfather would rather avoid. Being the thoughtful kid I was I made sure to destroy the note sent home alerting them to the time and date of the conference so they wouldn’t be bothered. I didn't count on my brother Bubba having the same notes sent home. To be fair he didn’t bother to give our mother the mimeographed notices but he didn’t bother taking them out of the pockets of his jeans either. To my bad luck laundry day fell before conference day and, in a fit of uncharacteristic parenting care, my parents decided we would all attend.
There's something surreal about an elementary classroom at night. The windows you normally looked out of all day are now dark. After night falls the scene changes from the playground, the trees and the occasional view of humping dogs to your own reflection looking back at you. The cheap institutional glass makes the room look as though it were melting around the edges. Kind of like those paintings from that guy whose name you can’t remember.
The overhead fluorescent bulbs didn’t produce enough light to penetrate the corners like sunlight could. The little curve of dirt left by a hasty mopping and the collections of hair and fuzz were now hidden in the shadows. This made our classroom look as clean as it did the first day of school.
Even our teacher looked different at night. She was wearing a dress with big puffy sleeves like a girl pirate costume. She wore two shades of blue eye shadow and wasn’t wearing her glasses . This didn’t seem fair to me somehow. It was like she was trying to make school look better than it actually was. Was she trying to fake people out? If I had been a little bit older I would have pretended not to know her for no other reason than to make the point that she didn’t always look this good. "Your voice sounds familiar”, I would say “ but, I’m sorry, I really can't place the face". I wasn't that quick yet so I just resented her puffy sleeves in silence.
When it became obvious that there was a line of parents and students to speak to the teacher my mother turned to me and said, “While we’re waiting why don’t you show us around?” She said this in a very sweet voice that I had never heard before. This startled me and I was a little suspicious of that voice coming out of a mouth that was usually reserved for yelling at me or someone directly related to me. I guess all of the grown up women decided to be fake this evening.
“But we’ll lose our place in line!”. I braced myself for a smack or that thing she did where she pinches the back of arm. I had been working on a counter move that involved screaming “Child Abuse someone call a cop!” at the top of my lungs and I wanted to test it out.
Instead she just put her hand on my shoulder in a very unnatural civilized manner and lead me out of line. This was staring to creep me out. Who was this lady?
Giving in to the realization that I wasn’t getting out of giving a tour I pointed to the desk closest to us and said “That’s my desk”. It was a beige on beige affair with a lightning bolt ‘S” carved in the corner. It was also four desks away from where I really sat.
“That’s not your desk” my stepdad said pointing out the name tags that had been attached to the fronts of the desks sometime after we left that afternoon and before we returned that evening. Sabotage.
“Ok that’s my desk” Fine, I would show them where I really sat but I wouldn’t show them the good stuff. Like the chair that Lori McMillen peed in the second week of class or the desk Matt Amick puked on and the janitor had to be called to put sawdust on it. They’d never know how to squeak the closet door so it sounded like a fart. That’s right. You can force me to show you my desk but Pee Chair and Puke Desk will always be a secret.
One wall had a list of the Book Worms and a worm with my name on it was one of the longest because of all the books I had read out of boredom and NOT because I cared my worm.
“Oh, that’s some other Steve” I said when asked about it. I’d be damned if was going to let them be proud of how many books I read.
They continued their way around the walls of the room coming to the crayon self portraits. Mine was missing. When asked I explained “Oh yeah. The teacher said mine wasn’t good enough and tore it up in front of my face”. In reality I didn’t like it and snatched it down earlier in the day. I wanted to look persecuted in case I needed evidence to get out of trouble later.
The last poster was the Math Stars poster. At first glance it looked like two of the names were a tie. One of those names was mine. My stepdad did everyone a service and counted the actual stars and and pointed out that the other kid had more.
“Who’s this James kid?” He asked, “He looks like he’s pretty good at math” .
“That’s fake” I countered
“So he cheated?” He said this with a little grin like I was lying.
“No. it’s a fake name. The teacher does that so people will try harder. Nobody real can ever be in first place”
“So you’re trying to tell me that your teacher made up some kid named James Bilby and gives him more stars than everybody else to make you all try harder?” He asked.
I got indignant” Are you trying to tell me that you keep asking me questions then you don’t believe me when I answer you?”
Mom stepped in to stop the argument from escalating. She wasn’t ready to go through a yelling match between two immature children. Even if she was married to one of them.
We made our way up to the front of the room for their turn with the teacher. While they were discussing my academic career I started noting the other families and my classmate’s parents. I was surprised at how old some of them were. Did some of these people bring their grandmothers? Were we supposed to bring ours? My confusion makes more sense when you take into account that when I was nine years old my mother was twenty four and my grandmother was not yet forty.
It didn't take long to realize it was more than the age of the adults that made my family different from the others. First of all, a lot of the kids looked like miniature versions of at least one of their parents. Puking Matt for example looked just like the man standing next to him who was, I guess, Puking Matt Sr.
I looked closer at my family and realized my kid brother looked a lot like my mother but I didn’t look like either one of them. I tucked that information away to help bolster my growing “Swapped at birth” theory.
Secondly, I noticed that in the other families everyone had the same last name. I could see how much more convenient that would be since there was often confusion regarding names at home. But then again it seemed to be a loss of personal individuality too.
When it was my moms turn to talk to the teacher I took my little brother Bubba and showed him where I sat and the contents of my desk. I was about to show him how well the sharp point of a compass could etch the fiberboard our desks when a shadow blotted out the fluorescent light. "Oh, is this your desk, Jimmy?". James was there with his parents. I went back to ignoring Bubba since this gave me the opportunity to pass unfair judgment on the family of my nemesis.
Even if they hadn't walked up to his desk I would have had no problem spotting James’ parents in a crowd. They were merely older shinier versions of James. His mother had the thin blond hair that was probably clean but looked dirty and his father was completely bald. They both had the small turned up noses I saw on James everyday. In my mind I dubbed them Porky and Petunia the talking pig couple from the Warner Brothers cartoons. Though technically a Petunia should be a brunette.
As it turns out my stepdad knew the James’ father and told us in the car later that his family owned and operated a large animal processing plant. The business wasn't large the animals they processed were. It was where people took a cow, a pig or a deer to be made into little freezer packets wrapped in white paper and marked with magic markers. Maybe, over the decades, the family grew to look like the animals they've been so intimate with for so long. This took on special significance when we were later forced to read Animal Farm by George Orwell.
When it was their turn to talk to our teacher Porky and Petunia Bilby had somehow gotten it into their minds that James needed special academic attention and argued with the teacher for advanced classes in mathematics. This was so they could advance his "spark of genius".
They actually said “Spark of genius". He couldn’t be a genius I protested silently in my head. He only had three more math stars than I did! But, since nobody was willing to argue the point for me, I had to take the same math lessons as the rest of the dumb kids. Oh well. I didn’t like math that much anyway.
The week after the parent teacher conference James was given a fake stock portfolio to invest in and follow. Every day he would look at the Wall Street Journal and track his fake wealth. This segregated him from the rest of the class and added more to his assumed general weirdness. On the plus side, with him out of the way, my math stars took the lead. Not that I cared.
I didn't have James Bilby in class during the fourth grade but fifth grade had us sitting next to each other yet again. Our teacher, Ms. Sobanski, was sort of a cliche teacher type. Her hair was dyed a shade of black so unnatural it looked like she colored it in herself with a magic marker. She parted her hair on one side showing a severe gray line that were her permanent roots. The uncolored stripe drifted from left to right across her head but was never flattering.
I'm sure when she first became a school teacher Ms. Sobanski cared about her appearance and how her hair looked but by the time I was in her class she just thought didn't matter any more. Nobody paid attention to such things she told herself. Little did she know the gay kid in the second row did notice such things. He even wrote it down in a notebook for future reflection.
My school bus passed her house every day on the way to school and often times I'd see her walking to her car or coming home from school. Ms. Sobanski lived in a tiny row home so small that there was no room for more than one human inside.
She always wore dresses printed with tiny flowers on a background of what was either considered off white or really light yellow. I guess the best name for the color would be “smokers teeth”. She wore the exact same style of shoe in three different colors. They looked like blocks of wood covered with the material from old car seats and held together with rusting buckles. It looked like she was able to dress herself entirely with materials she found laying around an automobile grave yard.
As fascinating as I found her fashion sense and living situation I never really thought much else about Ms Sobanski. I hadn't even taken the time to make up a nasty nickname for her since she came with one already installed.
Our fifth grade classrooms were connected to each other by a short hallway that contained bathrooms and a little meeting room. One stormy morning the connecting teachers decided that, since we couldn't go outside, we would have a math competition between the two classes. The idea was to let us burn up some energy and blow off some steam education style.
Our class was very excited since we had James Bilby and the whole school knew he had been promoted to the title of fifth grade math genius. James, however, told the teacher that he didn't want to play with us because he “Didn't believe in competition”. How can anyone NOT believe in competition? It wasn’t like we were talking about ghosts or bigfoot. Competition was everywhere and it was obvious.
The teachers agreed that he shouldn’t have to participate and James Bibly retreated to his math corner. Our math ringer turned out to be a traitor and fled to his version of Canada so he could avoid the upcoming conflict. "Come on" I thought "you're nearly eleven years old. Be a man why don't ya"
The rules of the contest were simple. One student from each class would go to either side of the chalkboard and one of the teachers would read an algebra problem out loud. The first one to write the answer correctly would win a point for their class.
After half an hour it became obvious that the teams were too evenly matched and the score showed that neither side had a real advantage. Being tied most of the time was getting boring and the kids were getting restless.
To spice up the game the other teacher, Mrs. Baker, the teacher that I had hoped I would get, made the problems more complex. It was also decided that the person who won his or her round got to stay up at the board competing against the students This made for champions and a real competition. It also made me regret not having Mrs. Baker even more. This teacher knew how to appeal to my competitive side.
Before I could get called up to the board Marcus Johnson, a new kid that moved to town two years ago but would forever be known as a new kid, from the other team had taken out ten of my classmates. My side decided it was time to pull in our ringer even if it was against his will and started chanting "Bilby, Bilby ...” He ignored us as though he were deaf and continued to work on whatever work he had in front of him. It wasn't until Ms Sobanski walked over and leaned down to him and asked him to do it that he gave in and waddled up to the board. Marcus Johnson’s winning streak ended then and there and James’s started. James would refuse to admit it but it was obvious he liked winning.
In almost no time at all twenty-five students that were our competition fell under James’ mighty piece of chalk and his superior math ability. The other team pretty much gave up when a girl from my class, that always wore overalls and could do a back flip, named Stacy yells out "Make Steve go up against James". I thought "Steve Hedges is dumb and can’t stop picking his nose long enough to hold the chalk, he wont' last up there". But everyone knew that . No that's the not the Steve she meant. I looked around and they were all looking at me...even Nosepicker Steve Hedges.
Later, I asked Stacy why she did that. Why she wanted me up there competing against the fifth grade math genius. I was hoping to hear it was because she saw in me a “spark of genius” that nobody else did. Or that she believed in me and that only I could save the class. Of course it could have just as easily been that she had singled me out to fail in front of everyone. People with pigtails weren’t usually that mean.
Come to find out it was none of these things it was, she explained, "’Cause everyone knows you hate him". It wasn't the reason I thought but it was certainly one I could respect. It seems Stacy had an evil streak. I would have to adjust my opinion on girls with pigtails.
James’ strategy was to write out the problem as it was being read and start to do the problem in his head as he wrote it. My strategy was to let him write it out and guess the answer before he did. I had done some social math in my head and realized I couldn't really lose. After all, if I didn't get the problem solved before he did it was no big deal since everyone else up until now had lost too. Right? There was no shame in losing against a genius.
I walked up to the chalk board to the calls of “Get him Steve” and whispered versions of “kick his butt”. I didn’t fool myself into thinking I was loved. I knew I was just less disliked than the traitor.
I found the longest piece of chalk in the tray. James’ face was impassive as he waited for the problem to be read so I looked at him and smiled and said "Hi James!" and gave a little wave. The combined classes laughed. I could pretend it was a calculated gesture meant to unnerve him in the spirit of competition but really I was just being a dick.
Ms. Sobanski put us on our mark. “Ready?" We each lifted our chalk ready for the problem. I moved my feet apart in a pseudo karate stance. Ms. Sobanski slowly read the problem, James started to write out the numbers and letter. I guessed at the answer and scribbled it on the board.
I got it right. I had kicked his butt. The combined classes yelled in triumph! They weren't teams facing each other anymore. It was them, and me, against the smart kid. This is probably what it felt like to score the winning goal or shoot the winning basket. Two things I've yet to experience.
The losing math genius who had proclaimed not to be competitive turned red and stomped his foot and yelled to be heard over the crowd, "That's not fair he didn't show his work!". This was the first time any of us had ever seen him have any type of emotional outbreak. HA I thought, he was a fake. and now I had proof.
The teachers didn’t hear him over the cheers so he had to repeat, "That's not fair he didn't show his work".
The teachers looked at each other knowing they faced a mutiny if they gave a bad decision. I took their slow response as an opportunity. “Nobody said in the rules that we had to show our work and I couldn’t have cheated off of him since I got the answer before he did.” Looking back I should have said "WAY before he did" just to make the barb sink in a little bit more but I was too caught up in being technically right to think fast on my feet.
It was a very satisfying moment to see him there having a melt down because I had beaten him at what he thought he was best at. But, like most great moments of triumph, it didn't last long. I saw him standing there in his short sleeved collared shirt the color of stained teeth that he had started wearing sometime in the past year and khaki pants with white tennis shoes. His fat rolls stacked perfectly on top of each other like the cartoon spokesman used to sell tires. As he complained to the teacher wearing a flower print polyester dress and off white naugahyde shoes her fat rolls also stacked on top of each other like the wife of the cartoon spokesman used to sell tires and I knew I was in trouble. They looked so much like each other that I knew she would take his side.
"Ok let's do it again because it was close" Ms. Sobanski announced. The classes were in an uproar of "no fair" and "He lost!" came shouts from the classes. Again I knew they didn’t want to see me win they just wanted to see him lose.
My face somber since I didn't know if I could pull this lucky guess trick off again. I glanced over at James and made my face go from somber to the hint of a smile that didn't quite reach the rest of my eyes. A facial expression I picked up subconsciously from watching footage of Richard Nixon. “Ok, let's go". That smile flustered James even more than the one with the wave. I added it to the mental list for future reference.
Ms Sabanski read the problem this time, James wrote it down, I guessed. We both wrote the same answer at the same time. This guessing system was really working! My drive to annoy someone I thought of as my nemesis has surpassed my meager math skills. But this time it really was technically a tie. We were given another problem, James wrote it, I guessed it. Another tie. You could feel the tension mounting in the air. And since there were fifty kids in one classroom on a humid and rainy day you could smell the tension too. Everyone was silent in anticipation.
Another math problem, a longer and more complex one this time. James wrote it out as Ms. Sabanski read it. She paused, I guessed and wrote my answer. Then that ugly, poorly dressed , bad dye job, probably celibate bitch of a teacher added a second part to the problem. James didn't have an answer yet since he was still writing out the problem. I had already guessed, so I lost. It was obvious I had been set up so there were a lot of "you really won" and "She is such a cheater" in the halls and during class over the next week. I had the feeling I had won and lost at the same time. A unique feeling few people ever experience. When Al Gore won and lost the two thousand presidential election I sent him a note saying “I know how you feel”. I really did.
I never found out if James thought he deserved the win and Ms. Sabanski never said anything to me about it either. When asked, he would just say that he did it faster and would walk away if he could or just put on the deaf act he was so good at. He never defended himself and never fought back. This refusal to stand up for himself didn't sit well with our classmates.
I think fifth grade is when the cruel gene becomes activated. James was now everyones target not just mine. Nobody wanted to actually physically attack someone they knew wouldn't fight back but there was a general feeling of needing to get even with him, somehow. This need was causing a social pressure to build up and somebody had to do something to release it before there was an explosion.
The opportunity for petty revenge came a few days later when someone farted in the classroom. As the rest of the class giggled, pinched their noses and made makeshift surgical masks out of the necks of their t-shirts someone yelled "Bilby did it". True to character James said nothing to the accusation. He just sat there and let his silence confirm for everyone that he had done it. From that moment on James Bilby got the blame for every smell that wafted through the classroom regardless of it's origin.
In our corner of the world the sixth grade was the start of middle school. This meant some big changes. The hundred or so students my age from my school would be forced to merge with the hundred or so other kids in the same grade from the more outlying rural schools. For the first time since First Grade we would see people our age we didn’t know already. It also meant we went from a format of the same classmates all day every day to new classmates every hour. The upside of this arrangement meant that long before you could get too attached or too mad at the person next to you the bell rang and five minutes later you were off to sit next to someone else.
The biggest change in middle school, and the one I feared most, was that we would have to change into different clothes for gym class. This meant seeing and being seen in my underwear. Worse we would be forced to shower afterwards. Together. Naked. With other boys. We were also expected to wear jockstraps. I had never seen or heard of a jockstrap before until we got our annual list of necessary school supplies.
I knew vaguely what a jockstrap was used for and reminded of a phrase I had heard in a dirty joke a few years back that referred to a bra as an over the shoulder boulder holder. I deduced that a jockstrap was a long strap that went over one shoulder down the body cupping my groin. I assumed it would be made of elastic some sort of adjustable buckles or clips. I imagined it looking like a half a pair of suspenders with a coffee cup attached.
Most of the first day of middle school was pretty exciting. The new kids and the kids I was used to ran around in confusion as they learned to navigate hallways. The school had been expanded over the years so the labyrinth of hallways didn’t always follow reason. Classroom 22 for example was next to room 201. If you were looking for room 23 it was at the end of the hall past room 223. It’s hard to say why the rooms weren’t renumbered to make sense. It probably just never occurred to the people who already know their way around to make it easier for anyone that wasn’t them.
After we found the right room we got to see which of our old friends from grade school would be in the same class. First Period I sat next to Angela Clayton, a former stalker of mine from our kindergarten days. Second period had Matt Dimeo on one side of me and some new kid from a different school on the other. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this idea of “new kids” but I had Matt on my side if things started to get bad.
In all the excitement I forgot how much I dreaded gym class. I also had yet to see my favorite enemy, James Bilby. Then came Fifth period and reminded me of both.
The first day of gym class wasn't a real class day. Instead, we sat around on the newly polished wooden floor and listened to a speech from our gym teacher. A break down of all the procedures, requirements and expectations. We would have to wear black or navy shorts, a white t shirt with our last name on it in black, white socks and rubber soled gym shoes. Failure to have these uniform components, we were told, would result in a reduction of points toward our grade.
Next the subject of athletic supporters came up. The previous week one appeared as if by magic on my bed. Once I opened the package I realized it was just underwear made by someone too lazy to sew the butt into it.
To our combined relief wearing a jockstrap wasn’t mandatory. This caused a few giggles through the class. Partly because we were just kids and partly because of the underlying tension of the impending shared nudity.
"What?" our gym teacher demanded flatly. "What's so funny? Listen an athletic supporter is important to protect from any injuries between here..." He put his hand level with the waistband of his sweatpants "and here." he continued indicating an imaginary line on his thighs about three quarters of the way up from his knee. Seems he could talk about it but couldn't actually indicate the exact area expected to be protected. This caused a little more laughter and he just stared like he didn't understand what we could be laughing at. Come on, I though. He had been a gym teacher for 15 years at this point. Of course he knew what was so funny. He was just being difficult.
“At the end of class”, he went on, “ you will all get completely undressed.” He put a weird emphasis on "Completely". Why did he have to say the word "completely" anyway? Were people wandering into the showers still wearing random items of clothing?
"After you're completely undressed" he continued" You'll wrap your towel around you and walk over to the shower" He mimed wrapping the towel around himself but not the walking. " Hang your towel on the wall and get wet then give me your number and I'll check you off the list as you're walking out". It seems actually getting clean wasn't mandatory. Just complete nudity and some dampness.
We were then assigned numbers and taken into the concrete and steel locker room to see the showers and get assigned our lockers. Brad Aarons was assigned the locker to my right and who else but James Bilby assigned to the locker on my left.
After the Great Fifth Grade Math Competition, when he only beat me by colluding with the teacher, James made sure to avoid anything that looked like a competition. At least he did when I was around to witness. It didn't matter to me since I could make up competitions and place him in them against his will and without his knowledge. Neither James or I would be considered athletic but as long as I was chosen for a team before he was I considered that a win. I couldn't run fast but I could run faster than he could so I won there too.
During a Spirit Week, an annual contest between the different grades, each of the three classes gained points for their team through student participation . James, of course, refused to participate. But when our points for a costume contest were being tallied I pointed out to the teacher that his beige short sleeved collared shirt and his cocoa brown polyester pants were exactly what the kitchen help at El Taco Via wore and should be counted as a costume. The teacher agreed and counted him as an active and spirited participant. His face turned red and he broke into a sweat. I guessed this was his version of a temper tantrum. I won again.
The second day of gym class was a full dress day. Nearly all of the boys decided not to worry about athletic supporters deciding an injury to the groin was a risk worth taking if we could avoid this funny looking garment. Everyone except for James. For some James thought his groin needed the extra support. While we were changing I saw out of the corner of my eye what looked like a slingshot made from some ancient flesh colored bra. It looked nothing like the bright white one I had stuffed in the back of my underwear drawer back home. I never confirmed it but I think it may have been a family heirloom. An heirloom passed down from unathletic father to unathletic son for generations, occasionally repaired with material from a grandmothers over the shoulder boulder holder.
I never liked gym class but that first one passed extremely fast and in no time we were back in the locker room for our first group shower. I wasn't blatant about it but I stole occasional glances at Bilby, his first name had been abandoned for gym class, as he got undressed. His name had been handwritten on his t-shirt with a magic marker and not the iron on letters most of us had gotten specially made at the mall. His towel was a faded blue and yellow floral print. One end of his towel had a tuber sewn in it indicating that it had also pulled duty as a curtain at some point. He had put his antique jockstrap on over a pair of formerly tighty whiteys that obviously hadn’t been completely tight or completely white in years. He was a mess.
When my sister was younger she successfully lobbied our parents for a Joey doll. Joey was the baby from the TV show All In the Family and was advertised as the first anatomically correct boy doll sold in the US. Christmas morning she unwrapped the doll and then immediately stripped it naked so we could see its penis. It was a shiny little lump of plastic about the size of the end of a little finger. We were kind of a let down that the dolls genitals weren't as authentic as advertised. Seeing James completely naked made me realize that the doll penis actually was authentic. For some people.
I hadn't thought of this as a competition until that point. But I won there, too.
My animosity toward James faded over the next few years and into high school. We still shared some of the same classes but I was too busy or too hungover to properly harass him. I was also getting the sneaking suspicion that he was gay. All the signs were there and in retrospect everyone I thought was gay in school was. Even the few who got married and had kids eventually came out of the closet even if it took them the next twenty years.
In the late nineties I went back to visit my family over a holiday. One of my uncles poached two deer and was proudly parading the dead animals around in the back of his truck showing off to his friends and family when he asked if I wanted to go with him to drop the carcasses off at Bilby Meat Processing. I was curious, so I went.
After Bambi’s mom and older sister were unloaded and carted off to a back door entrance I stood with my uncle while he chose how he wanted the venison packaged. Some parts would made into cutlets, some would be made into sausage and some of the parts of the animals the processing house could keep for resale.
It was a lengthy and macabre process and halfway through I asked the chubby girl helping us who was in charge of the place. “Well, if you ask me it's me but if you ask my husband it's him.” She laughed at her dumb joke. When I didn’t laugh back she added, “ Him and his dad own it."
"Is 'Him’ James?" I asked. Of course, it was.
“He’s working over to the other store in Missouri city if you want to go see him"
I didn't. Even though I hadn't seen James in over eleven years he still annoyed for some reason.
On the drive back to my parents house I thought about James and how much his life sucked. He was most likely a repressed homosexual and had married a piggy woman just like his mother. I knew through the grapevine that he had gotten a scholarship to a prestigious college in Maryland but was using his education to turn woodland creatures into sausage. This was the same job he would have had if he had dropped out of school in eighth grade. The guy was a genius and had his education paid for but never did anything with it.
It clicked for me then. James never fought for anything. Not even his life. He was like the poor shopkeeper from that story we had to read and discuss in the third grade. Except the shopkeeper took action and stopped life from stepping on him. James Bilby didn't take a stand. He didn’t find a way to make things better for himself. Instead he lived a life of least resistance subject to the more subtle bullies of the world that will keep your life subdued and uninteresting.
Of course, if James Bilby had taken some initiative and poisoned his oppressors like the shopkeeper in the story, I might not have made it here today.