The East Bay’s Premier Magazine of Culture & Commerce

The East Bay’s Premier Magazine of Culture & Commerce

The Bully

The Bully

I was 8 and he was 10 and he terrified me. I had watched him construct a very efficient guillotine from razor blades and Popsicle sticks, sitting at the curb in a thunderstorm, waiting to vivisect any earthworms or frogs that floated past on their doomed journey to the gutter. His name was Mark and all the kids on the block gave him a wide berth, often walking on the other side of the street if they knew he was home. Of course, he was large for his age, with a crew cut square as a newly trimmed box-hedge, his eyes blank as buttons. He was the first boy I had ever seen who sported both a black eye and a chipped tooth, and who used his fists brutally when fighting with the neighborhood boys.

Mark was an only child, who lived in the only house for miles around that had a private swimming pool, which he never invited anyone to use. Every other couple on the block had at least three children, a few of the houses bursting with as many as nine. On summer evenings, all the parents except Mark’s sat on their front steps, the women with red lipstick, madras Bermuda shorts, and crisp white sleeveless tops that their bras showed through. The men horsed around, still dressed in their suits from work, but jackets off, ties loosened, sleeves cuffed, hands passing out scotch-’n’-sodas.

We kids ran wild. We roamed the streets in gangs of 15 or more, playing Capture the Flag or Kickball or Keep Away until the streetlights came on. And while all of us feared Mark, none of us tattled on him to our parents for fear of retribution. When he was involved, the games took on an ugly edge. Dodgeball became a life-or-death proposition, prized marbles were pocketed or crushed under bricks just for spite, and his demands during Simon Says usually involved having us steal a pack of gum or jawbreaker for him from Mr. Brown’s pharmacy while he waited outside. Yet the thought of actually saying no to Mark, no matter how outrageous his request, was simply out of the question.

At the age of 8, I virtually lived in my ballet clothes. I felt wonderful in the stretchy black leotard and cotton candy pink tights. When it wasn’t a school day, I kept the outfit on all day, sometimes putting it back on after my bath and sleeping in it. In short, I was an easy target for Mark, for if he saw that something was dear to any of us on the block, he simply reached out and took it, like a giant plucking a tree from the ground.

And so it was the Saturday he lured me into his garage under the pretext of playing a game. Mark told me I had to remove my ballet outfit or he would lock me inside. I began to cry, and of course, once he had the leotard, even my precious ballet slippers, he locked me inside anyway. It seemed that many hours passed before I was able to escape through a window, and I remember trying to get home running from bush to bush as I had nothing on but my underpants and didn’t want to be seen. The locusts were screaming and my foot was bleeding and I was incredibly thirsty.

My mother took one look at me, wrapped me in a towel, and said sternly: “I want you to tell me who did this.” I was afraid to tell her, but the minute I said Mark’s name aloud, something shifted. I knew that we all, as children, were no match for this bully, and suddenly, neither retaliation nor the stigma of a reputation as a tattletale mattered to me anymore. I simply needed stronger allies.

My mother marched down the street, knocked hard on the front door of Mark’s house. I watched the drama unfold from behind a curtain in my bedroom window. With their front door wide open now, I saw his mother grab Mark’s ear, twisting it so he was forced down onto his knees, yelling all the while for her husband. Mark’s father was suddenly standing there. He motioned for his wife to stop and as if a switch had been snapped off, she let her son drop. He then nodded at my mother, as if dismissing her. She started to walk away, looking back at the three of them uncertainly.

“Sorry now?” the father yelled, over and over, and there was no mistaking that beat of a belt striking. “Sorry now?” He shouted for the whole neighborhood to hear.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Mark wailed.

Eventually, Mark’s father stopped. He did not put his belt back on, but held it loose in one hand, like a noose.

After that, our relationship to Mark was different. We still avoided him, but now, not so much out of fear, but because the public shaming had made all of us uncomfortable. I wasn’t sure which made me feel more horrible, what he did to me, or the fact that I had caused such a punishment. When, one day, Mark’s path finally crossed mine, I braced myself for an explosion. I would have almost welcomed the catharsis, what might even have been the healing potential, of a big confrontation. It could have been a test to show how I, too, had changed. But no, he just walked right past me, same flattop, same big hands and slight slouch, only now, I couldn’t tell if the expression on his face was a smirk, or just indifference.

Jill Koenigsdorf owned an Oakland flower shop, Spring Fever, for 24 years. She now spends much of her time in Santa Fe, N.M., where she sells antiques, walks dogs, and writes. She has recently completed a novel, Radiance; a publisher would be welcome.

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