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Monday, February 24, 2014

A Demon's Rubicon by Chris Brecheen (Part 4)

A few things have changed in 30 years.
For example, where the hell is this??
A Demon's Rubicon
by Chris Brecheen 

Part 1 
Part 2
Part 3

I had something of a station of honor growing up in Calabasas.

Okay, I might have to put “honor” in scare quotes. But then, to be perfectly honest, I would just erase them again.

I was something of a leader among my friends. We cruised around in pairs and groups and some days even gangs with our Town and Country T-shirts, capri shorts, and our palpable attitudes. We felt like kings when we managed to order fries from the local country club without being asked if we were members, played guns in the park despite the peevish moues of adults jogging past us, or shoplifted a Hustler from the newsstand while the security guard was harassing the patron who “just seemed a little 'urban' for Calabasas.” We rode bikes and skateboards to the edges of our empire and used pilfered laundry money to play video games at bowling alleys and mall arcades.

Being a leader of a group is not like the movies though. No one swears fealty, defers to your wisdom, or even hesitates to argue with you for three days running about whether or not Goonies could "actually happen." You don’t have adult values of loyalty or camaraderie. You don’t decide it’s time to go into the sewers and fight the killer clown and everyone clamps their grimy palms over your closed fist with solemn determination. You get into fist fights because “the person who came up with the ‘fart’ lyrics to ‘Shout’ should be the one who gets to sing it for the tape recorder", you tease one member one day and another the next, you argue about whether Stacey or Jennifer were getting better tits, you scream expletives across the lake at each other, prompting incensed homeowners to send the cops out to talk to you…again, and you keep wondering why all the adults around you call you “the mastermind” and your friends “flunkies.”

Being a leader is more like a slow, dawning awareness that unless you are there, Eric and Eugene won’t hang out with Jason and Travis or that Dusty can’t really stand Aaron or that Brandon is so mad that you’re up watching Fright Night with Adam because he was Adam’s best friend first. And then one day, ten or fifteen years later, you look back and realize that their eyes would flash worry and fear, but they would still sort of do anything you suggested—even running around inside the Lockheed grounds dodging the mechanical eyes of rotating security cameras, grabbing Bangles tapes out of an unlocked car, or “exploring” someone’s apartment when you found a kicked in door.

I was never a popular kid. Likable, perhaps. On the cusp of acceptance. Cute, though never cute enough it seemed to get the affections I sought. Athletic, though too small to be a serious contender for any sport. Smart, but never smart enough to know in which crowds to care about school and which to show off how little I cared. I tended to get into trouble, but not so much I was a “bad boy.”

I would love to tell you I was above all those facile popularity games. That I lived life by my own rules—a maverick even in my youth. I would be lying, though. I was keenly aware of my failings and how they were keeping me back from greatness. I was unpopular and never quite able to break into the cliques that really held sway over the social landscape of A. E. Wright Middle School in the mid 80’s.

My problem was that I collected strange friends the way some people collect salt and pepper shakers, pewter dragons, or matchbooks from every bar they’ve ever visited. My own collection was kids who didn't fit in, who were too awesome to have to eat lunch alone every day. We fell inexorably into each other’s orbits attracted by our mutual outcast status. My friends were the too poor, the too short, the too fat, the too hyper, the too remedial, the too delinquent, and the too Asian. We were the cliche motley crew of outcast misfits.

And where would the outcasts be without their bully?

Bullying…it didn’t mean quite the same thing when I was growing up as it does today. Today the word has been overused and the bullying itself under examined.

When the word is being diluted it refers to every form of fundamental human censure--we keep the other members of the tribe in line by teasing--sometimes harshy--and it's one of the reasons we don't pick our nose and eat the boogers at the bus stop or skip showering for weeks running and why over-politeness meant a generation of people used their cell phones in the theater until it finally became okay to shame them.

But at the same time every social ostracization technique has fallen under the umbrella of bullying, the actual bullying has gotten much, much worse. It is no longer always one troubled youth picking on someone smaller, but is often a horrible group thing that looks socially like hyenas picking off the weak. It happens online where it can be pervasive and constant and basically inescapable even in class or at home and kids have trouble getting parents to fully understand or help. Parents don’t like the word (partially because of it's linguistic dilution) and don’t hold their bullies as accountable as they should, nor do victims want to be seen as weak.

In my day a bully was almost purely a single, physical presence. They were big, but you could usually avoid them when you heard the French horn music. And when you were at school or home, you were safe. And dealing with them was, to some degree in the 80’s, still considered to be a rite of passage. It’s probably fair to say that today’s trouble getting bullying acknowledged as a major social issue by adults may largely be due to what bullying meant thirty years ago.

I don’t want to give you the impression that I enjoyed myself, though. It was balls.

Once every month or so he found one of us and gave us a black eye or nose bleed for our trouble. I remember his fists felt like a brick wall slamming into my face. Once he punched me in the stomach and I fell back and over into the street, gasping for several seconds to try to pull in air that simply wouldn’t come.  He stabbed a switchblade into our soccer ball--a Christmas present I'd been given after three years of playing league.  He chased us down whenever he found us.  One Halloween he waylaid me for my candy, chasing me down on my way to Brandon’s house, but I only had three doors worth of loot. “You’re lucky!” he said, jamming a tiny little Twix bar into his mouth. He shoved me to the ground and shoved me back down each time I tried to get up. It was probably only three or four times, but it felt like I was down there looking up at him eating my candy for hours.

I wasn't able to stop him. I shot up during puberty to a towering 168cm (5’6”), but before the real throes of puberty, I was really short. He was three years older than me and starting to fill out. What could a barely pubescent short kid 6th grader do against a bully from High School who carried a switch blade?

One day he had one of those sticky hand things that became popular in the mid eighties. Back then trends were born and died by what could be pulled out of a capsule vending machine for a quarter. It was made of stretchy goop in the shape of a hand, but was really sticky so it could be used to stick stuff from far away like a frog’s tongue.
As bad as sticky hands were,
Goop was worse.

His was blue. A deep cerulean with iridescent sparkles.

No sooner had we seen him that day than he snapped his blue sticky hand around my neck, cackling.  I grabbed it and we struggled, but he managed to get it back, rewarding me for my impertinent resistance with a fat lugi of citrus scented spit across my cheek.  I wiped the snot from my face while he turned his blue hand sticky thing upon my friend James.

James was fat—the fattest kid in our school—and stuttered profusely.  He would stammer through the simplest things—a T or a C paralyzing him in front of the whole class while he tried to answer a simple vocabulary question. He lived with a brother and his grandmother—and every time his mother or father would come and visit, it was painfully obvious that neither of them had their shit together enough to be his parent.

Everyone treated James like he was dying of cancer when he tried to talk in class, looking around with gobs of mustered faux sympathy, as he gripped the side of the desk and tried to spit out a few words. But their icy concern melted like summer thaw when adults weren’t around. The nice one’s mocked him behind his back. (“Sure, I’ll have another ch-ch-ch-ch-cheeseburger.”)

Those were the nice ones.

We were pretty much doomed to be fast friends. He fit right into our dysfunctional little cadre. I got to see everything the rest of the world was too fucking superficial to appreciate. James was one of the brightest people I've ever known, had read every book I ever did and more, loved astronomy, and when we played, he could go whole afternoons without a stutter. He would stand up to me when he had a moral problem with what I was doing—one of the only in our group that would—even if that only meant threatening to tell his grandma.

James just stood there while the bully snapped out his little blue sticky hand and smacked him with it repeatedly, laughing the whole time.

“Stop,” he cried. “Stop!” His voice became increasingly shrill. “St- St- St-“

Flat soccer balls...Empty bags of candy...Sitting gasping for breath in the street in front of the gas station...Fists like bricks flying into my face...His smug face mocking my pain…

But what did it was James. Holding his hand up to try and stop getting snapped with that blue sticky hand and unable to even get out the word stop as his assailant had switched to an X pattern for maximum effect. “St- St- Stop!” James shrieked.

And that did it. It was like snapping awake from a dream.

“FUCK YOU!” I screamed leaping bodily as hard as I could. (I later heard was audible across the complex by another set of friends.) He fell backwards onto asphalt with a crunchy skid.  I was fortunate enough to fall on top him.  My hands shot out to everything I could find.  I don’t even think I had time to ball them into ineffectual fists. I just slung them out randomly contacting anywhere I could get to.

I knew he was going for the knife when he reached into his pocket. I remembered how easily slid it into my soccer ball and the puff the ball had made as the life drained out of it.

Would I die here in the condo’s carport, my blood running down the white rivulet strip in the middle to the storm drain?  Would I come home stabbed and have to explain to my pacifist parents that I’d nearly been killed in a fight from which I could—and probably should—have “walked away”?

The thing that was pounding in my head though, was that I wasn’t going to let him win. Not this time. It was going to end one way or another. If he killed me, he killed me, but I was NOT going to let him keep hurting my friends. My hands found his throat and curled around it.

The next few seconds dragged out forever.

Thirty years later, I can still remember every second in petrified eternities. It has inexorable feel. He moved in slow motion. I moved in slow motion. I could smell the tar and dirt of the asphalt beneath us and feel the crisp snap of November air on my face. I even remember hearing birds chortling, oblivious to the struggle below them. He had a thin mustache of fine hair coming in above a lip curled to reveal one brown incisor among a row full of yellowed teeth. His eyes were wide with surprise and hate. He popped the handle, and the metal exploded in a dazzling glitter as the bright morning sun bounced off the ejecting blade.

This was it. I was going to die.

My only thought was that if I gave up, I would be running from him forever. I wasn't going to let that happen. I couldn't let that happen. My hands tightened, and I squeezed his neck tighter than I’d ever squeezed anything.  I felt my face contorting into a grisly grimace. And I saw his eyes swim.

I don’t know what I really saw.  Maybe he was blacking out a little, though I can’t imagine my weak hands doing that much damage so quickly.  Maybe he realized that he was probably going to have to actually use that knife instead of cowing me just with the threat of it. Whatever it was, his eyes kind of rolled back a little. And when they refocused on me, he threw the knife to the side and croaked. “Okay…you win.”

And just like that, it was over.

I stood up and brushed the asphalt bits off my jeans. James and I walked to the bus stop like nothing had happened and were joking about throwing Mogwai across time zones as “Gremlin Grenades” by the time we reached school. I never worried that the bully would come stab me.  Maybe I should have, but I didn’t.

Shortly after the carport, Eugene said he’d gotten tripped and held down. The next time I saw the bully, I started to follow him. I don’t know what I would have done, but it didn’t matter. He turned a corner and was gone when I caught up. We never had to deal with him again. Some new group of kids likely were much easier prey.

It wouldn't be the last time I stood up for my friends.

In high school, my best friend was named Jason. Jason was a little overweight. Jason was a little awkward. But Jason’s biggest crime in the merciless halls of Canyon High was that he was a little effeminate. He played the flute in band, liked to put his hand on his hip, and had a C-3PO prissiness thing going on, and had an unfortunate habit of telling people he “didn’t appreciate the fact that” they were doing whatever it was he was objecting to. While I was pretty good at slipping under the radar of the worst teasing, Jason never seemed to get the knack of it. 

“Hey fag,” they’d say. “Hope you blow cock better than you blow that flute.” “Hey Jason, when’s the operation to get your vagina?” “I’d let you suck my dick, homo, but I’m too afraid you’d eat it.” "'I don't appreciate the fact that' you're such a fairy."

I couldn’t fight Jason’s battles for him. I was sixteen. I had my own problems, and if you want to get down to the human fallibility of it all, I was more interested in getting a blow job from the girl in English and passing Algebra. A few “knock it off”s here and there were as much as I stuck my neck out while it was happening.

I could have been a better friend. I should have been. Jason was one of the whip smartest people I'd ever met, and we shared an almost perfect overlap of geeky interests. We blew through years worth of lazy afternoons playing video games and talking about movies. We shared books with steamy parts our parents didn't know we were reading after bedtime.

But more than once I cornered one of the worst offenders alone at lunch or at a fast food restaurant after school.

“Tone it down on Jason,” I’d say.

They’d give me a look. It was the teen-rebelion look. The no-one-tells-me-what-to-do look. Eyebrows high, lips flat, and head tilted back. I was still barely pushing five feet, and despite being known as the guy who smacked another kid with a metal lunchbox in junior high, I hardly had a reputation as a badass. 

But they would tone it down.

All but Brian. 

Brian was on the baseball team, if my memory serves, and he towered over me easily by over half a meter. He was thick and muscular and wore a scowl and a Dodgers cap wherever he went. I think they were psychically linked because his scowl deepened whenever a teacher told him to take off his cap. It was our Sophomore year, and Brian was taking a particular glee in making fun of Jason.

I caught him at his locker one day as lunch was ending.

“Brian, lay off Jason.” I said. 

“Whatever,” Brian said.

“I’m serious,” I said. "Ease off."

He slammed his locker. He took a step towards me towering over me and looking down into my eyes. The height difference alone was comical, but he probably also outweighed me by a fifty kilos. His hands like two ham hocks, each with five thick penis fingers jutting out. “Or you’ll what?”

However, everything Brian was trying to exploit within me had had the life choked out of it on the asphalt of the Oak Park Condominiums in Calabasas. For better or worse, the reason I would fight off muggers as an adult—even three and four at a time—chase a home invader down the street, and risk having my lights punched out to mess with a creep who wasn’t leaving a woman alone had everything to do with that moment--that one moment--when I chose to squeeze tighter instead of give into fear. He wasn't going to intimidate me.

“I’ll pick a fight with you,” I said. I was looking almost straight up to meet his eyes, and practically smiling. My heart was banging away in my chest and my throat and my temples, but I didn't back down.

Brian’s penis fingers curled into a wrecking ball of a fist.  (Here it comes!) “I’ll kick your fucking ass, Brecheen,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said. “I imagine you will. And then you’ll get suspended for fighting."

Brian snorted. He was unimpressed.

"And you’ll probably miss your next game.”


That got his attention.

"And when you get back, we’re going to have this conversation again. And again. And we’ll keep having it until you end up at Bowman.” [Bowman was the district’s continuance school for delinquent students.] "I don't think they have a baseball team at Bowman."

He realized what I was threatening to do. There was a long, long pause. His hand unclenched.

“I’m not going to be his fucking friend,” Brian said.

"He would never be yours anyway." I said. "Just back off a little."

There’s a follow up to this. One of those things that sort of never happens until the day it does. I ended up with Brian in an English class my senior year and the teacher had us all write something complimentary about each other anonymously. The activity hadn’t been structured very well and most of the kids were using the opportunity to deliver back handed compliments. “You aren’t as stupid as you look.” “You smell better than you did at Sierra Vista.”

Mine were the usual blend of smoopy stuff you get from that sort of thing, but I remember finding one I always thought (hoped?) was Brian: 

“I hope some day I have a friend as good as you."

[© 2014 All Rights Reserved]

Part 5


  1. Four thumbs up because, today, I'm pretending that my big toes are thumbs.

  2. This needs to be published as a memoir type thing. Very insightful and entertaining. Due to having vaguely similar childhood experiences, basically the growing up just poor enough and weird enough not to fit in, your story really resonates with me.

    1. Thank you. My work may have physical copies one day, but right now I like to keep it free and work for donations.

  3. I loved this - it's great to come on and see another update to it! (Not that I don't like the other posts, but these are special.)

    I really liked the bit about Brian.

  4. Great writing. Impactful.