You should have ditched PE and hung out in your art teacher’s room instead.
Today, the class is playing baseball. The coach takes attendance and then sends you out to the girls’ field. Actually, it’s softball, because there are no gloves. Not that the game of softball is played without a glove, but no one else seems to be questioning this.
Your problem is, given time, you overthink everything. And in right-field, where they always seem to put you, there’s too much time to think. By the time the pop fly reaches you, you’ve already imagined every way possible of screwing up this simple catch, and so you do. The ball smacks the palms of your cupped hands and passes right through them. You pick it up from the grass between your feet and throw it to first base. Too late. So late, the runner on third thinks he has time to steal home. He doesn’t and you head for the dugout.
By the time you are up to bat, there are already two outs and no one on base.
As you step up to the plate, your slick-haired harasser growls from the dugout behind you, “You better not strike out, faggot.”
You swing at the first pitch and surprise yourself by making contact with the ball. It’s not the homer you wished-for, but it gets you on first base.
Now, Slick is up to bat.
Like you and most of the class, he wears his gym shorts over his sweat pants, the unofficial phys-ed uniform of the school. Instead of the plain white tee everyone else is wearing though, Slick prefers a white tank top, or wife-beater, as Eric calls them. As you look around, it occurs to you that you probably look more like inmates out for morning exercise in the prison yard than teenagers in high school. The only thing missing from the scene are the guards. And speaking of missing, where is your coach? Did he even bother to follow you out here?
Slick lets the first pitch go by without swinging. It’s clearly a strike, but no one says anything. “Throw it right, fucker,” he tells the pitcher. “That one almost hit me.”
It’s nice to know you’re not the only target of his displeasure.
The next pitch is just as good. Slick swings this time and hits a grounder directly up the center of the field. You’re tagged out before you reach second.
A whistle blows in the distance, several short bursts, and the class begins to shuffle off the field.
“We won,” says the pitcher.
“Yeah,” growls Slick, still holding the bat in one hand. “Thanks to this faggot,” he says, pointing it at you.
You wouldn’t be so tough without your club, you big fuckin’ troglodyte, you want to say, but you don’t because you’re not entirely sure that’s true. Instead, you stare him down with cold indifference as you continue to walk past him, pretty much the only trick in your bag.
After your shower in the locker rooms you dry off and get dressed. Out of the corner of your eye you see that Slick is doing the same, sitting on the bench next to yours in his creased blue jeans tying the laces of his black leather shoes. He seems to have forgotten all about your recent encounter, but you haven’t. Your imagination is caught in a loop, replaying and revising the events over and over in your head. In one version you catch that pop fly, and when he calls you a faggot, you disarm him of his bat and beat him with your bare fists until the blood is pouring from his nose and he’s crying like a baby. In another version, someone tosses you a second baseball bat and you show him what a fair fight looks like, breaking both of his arms in the process.
Two figures walk purposely past the end of your row of lockers heading, you guess, for the door to the coach’s office. Were it not for your currently heightened Spidey-senses, you probably would never have noticed or found anything unusual about them, but something purposeful in their bearing catches your attention.
Suddenly, just as you finish rubbing deodorant into your armpits, one of them is standing next to you. He must have circled around the back of the lockers. He’s totally in your space, but not in a threatening way, more like he knows you. He taps you lightly on the arm, and when you turn in his direction he tells you with his chin to move back. Still uncomprehending, you obey. The kid getting dressed next to you notices your new neighbor and quickly does the same.
That’s when the third stranger enters. Like the one beside you, he’s wearing jeans with two polo shirts, the contrasting collar of the first folded up over the second. Both have small, compact builds with honey-brown skin, short, curly hair, and square, blunt features, so much alike they must be brothers, or cousins at least. Number three steps up behind Slick, still seated, who has yet to notice either of them. “Heard you were talking shit,” he says. “You wanna say that to my face?”
Slick turns, but number three doesn’t wait for a reply and proceeds to punch him repeatedly in the face. His fists, piston-like, are a systematic blur of movement. Your bully attempts to turn and stand, but his legs twist beneath him and he falls backwards against the lockers. “Fuck you,” he manages to slur, the words gurgling wetly from his mouth, but his attacker has already disappeared along with his lookout. The last member of the team hurries past the end of the lockers and you—finally catching on—realize it must have been his job to block the door to the coach’s office.
Slick attempts to get to his feet, but then cries out in pain and topples sideways onto the floor. “Fuck you!” he screams a second time, his voice now high-pitched and desperate. Blood is everywhere. It’s on the bench, the floor. It covers the front of Slick’s once white shirt. The salty tang of it is in the air, blending with the wet funk of the locker room.
You pull your shirt on and fumble at the buttons.
One of the coaches appears, takes in the scene, and vanishes again.
No one steps forward to help.
You stuff your sweaty gym clothes and damp towel into a locker drawer and snap shut the combination lock.
More faces appear and disappear from all sides of the locker room.
Slick continues to groan weakly, a twisted heap on the floor with his left foot extended at an impossible angle from his body, a puppet with no strings. You overcome the urge to run as you step calmly over the pool of blood next to his head and turn your back on the tableau of violence. Outside, you take slow, deep breaths until your head clears.
The bell rings. What now? Do you shuffle away from the gym with the rest of your shameless lot and discreetly re-enter civilized society, act like nothing happened, and go on with your day? Or do you turn around and find one of the coaches, tell him what you saw. After all, you are one of only a few witnesses to a violent crime. Isn’t it your moral duty to tell someone in authority what happened, to describe the assailants? But he must have done something, your slick-haired thug, to deserve such a beating, right? Justice works in mysterious ways and who are you to say otherwise? Who are you to meddle in someone else’s karma?
What do you do?
(A) Go tell one of your coaches what you saw.
(B) Keep walking. It’s none of your business. Don’t be stupid. Snitches get stiches. You know better than to get involved with something like this.
THE MISADVENTURES OF MATTHEW VAN DER BOOT is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental … no matter how many times you ask.