The Price Tag
Almost all the leaves were down now, coloring the brick-lined streets in brown, yellow and red. The cool, gentle breezes of fall were giving way to the first bite of winter, when the cold snaps at your cheeks and fingertips. The boys had finished P.E. class and hung around at the gate, staring through the chain link fencing as they awaited the last bell of the day.
Theirs was a small town, so excitement came only rarely and briefly. P.E. was often the highlight of their day. Still, for all young boys, the final bell was a time to eagerly burst from their prison, scattering in all directions to home, friends, or whatever trouble they could find. Trouble was exciting; it upset parents and made girls curious. Such a combination was irresistable.
Often the talk around the gate before the bell was about trouble – who had been in it, who would be, and where it could most likely be found again. Kelly, the biggest lad in the group, was usually the best source of news; he created so much of it himself. He was a curious combination too, at times affable and easygoing, then bullying and heckling at random. His sandy hair and freckled face was equally at ease with a grin or a snarl.
Several boys in the group had been victims of Kelly’s darker moods. Some had missing teeth to show for it. Others merely earned the scorn of Kelly’s friends for not standing up to him. One of these was Jerry, a small, hapless fellow with two left feet. His dark hair was never combed, his plastic frame glasses sat askew upon his nose, and his gaze always seemed out of focus. Even when Jerry was around, his mind was somewhere else.
Next to Jerry stood Richard, whom Jerry sometimes used as a buffer between himself and Kelly. Richard was sensible, a born mediator. He was stout enough to put up a good fight, but smart enough to be able to avoid one. He somehow managed to win the friendship of Kelly and his rowdy crowd without abandoning his relations with their victims. Jerry envied him; others respected him. When Richard had something to say, Jerry listened.
And so it was utter astonishment that Jerry felt when Richard turned to him at the fence and said, “Why do you let everyone walk all over you all the time, Jerry?”
Jerry stood, mouth gaping, looking at Richard. He noticed, too, that other conversations had stopped; everyone was waiting for his answer.
“B-b-because I can’t win, Richard. I’ve tried. If I fight, I get beat up. If I run…I can’t win, Richard.”
“It’s because he’s a wimp, Rich!”, added Kelly, to the laughter of his mates. Richard smiled and said to Kelly, “So he is. I want to know why.”
He turned back to Jerry, who was now more confused than ever. Not only was Richard not defending him, he agreed with Kelly. Was his friend gone?
“Have you ever won a fight, Jerry? Ever?”
Jerry looked even more miserable, glancing down and shuffling his feet, and very softly mumbled, “No.”.
Richard turned around with a sparkle in his eye and said to Kelly, “How come you never let him beat you up? Wouldn’t cost you anything and it would make his day!”
Kelly smiled back and replied, “Well, it wouldn’t be a fair fight unless my arms and legs were tied.”
Richard joined in the laughter and turned again to Jerry, who wished he were anywhere but here. “I guess you’ve never had a fair fight. You’re too small. The only guy smaller than you around here is Steve Marantz.”
At this, the laughter became a roar. Steve Marantz was a nerd’s nerd. Even Jerry flinched at being compared to Steve. Sure, Steve was a fool, but he had nothing against him. Steve had never hurt anyone, certainly not Jerry.
“If you can’t beat up Steve, Jerry, you better hang it up and become a nun”, quipped Kelly, as his friends bent over double with mirth. Jerry stood alone and ashamed, agony written in his features as his classmates mocked him. Another voice called out, “Don’t worry, Jerry. If Steve wins, we’ll buy you a new dress!” Jerry turned away as if he’d been slapped, while laughter thundered around him.
Gradually, as the boys wiped their eyes and lapsed into chuckles, Kelly stepped forward and stood over Jerry. He looked down mischeivously and and said, “Why don’t you do it, Jerry? Show us what you’re made of. Take on Steve and show him who’s boss.” Kelly looked around at the group and asked, “What do you think?” They shouted their assent, a loud chorus of agreement, and again all eyes turned to Jerry.
Jerry looked nervously towards Richard for advice. He didn’t want this, but maybe he should do it. Maybe they would like him if he did. If he won. But Steve…
“I think people might stop walking on you if you try, Jerry. You have nothing to lose,” Richard said. Jerry gazed back, his face filled with uncertainty. “Ok,” he said.
And as if the fight was about to begin, the bell rang.
Rather than going off their separate ways, the entire group started off toward the yard near the school entrance. Everyone in this town grew up together, had attended this school all their lives, and without discussing it knew the best place to find Steve would be in the yard. He would be heading home, and they walked quickly to cut him off before he got away.
Jerry was hanging in the back, thinking furiously. He knew this was his chance. He had been picked on so many times; now he could take it out on someone else. It wasn’t fair to Steve, but that was just too bad. He would have to suffer just as Jerry had.
Others coming out of the building noticed the group and began asking questions, and soon news of the fight spread throughout the yard. A large crowd was waiting when Steve emerged, and he was caught off guard by seeing so many people staring at him. He was confused and a little scared; his fear increased when he heard Kelly say loudly, “Hey, Steve, we’ve come with a surprise for you.”
That, coming from Kelly, could only mean…trouble. Steve shrank back, becoming smaller than he already was, and the crowd pressed closer. Kelly spoke again. “There’s someone here who has some business to settle with you.”
Richard gave Jerry a shove, and he began working his way through the crowd. He appeared in front and glared, and now Steve was really puzzled. What did Jerry want from him? Tension filled the yard as they regarded each other. Jerry appraised Steve and suddenly knew, for the first time, that he would win this fight. Physically, it was no contest. Jerry could beat him. He stepped toward Steve and said, “I think it’s time we settled who’s boss here.”
“What do you mean, Jerry?”
Jerry licked his lips and glanced around him, then leaned forward and said, “I mean, people are saying I’m a wimp, like you. I’m going to prove them wrong.”
Steve trembled at the insult, but otherwise remained frozen. Jerry moved closer, pulled pack his arm, and hit Steve in the stomach. Steve, shocked and unprepared, toppled backwards to the ground even though the punch was light. The crowd oohed and aahed their encouragement and moved into a circle, forming a makeshift boxing ring. Steve stumbled back to his feet, terror in his eyes, and faced Jerry again.
The boys began circling each other with their fists half up, hesitating and uncertain. Jerry closed in again and connected with Steve’s jaw. Again, Steve fell backwards, arms and legs flailing like a helpless turtle. He sat up and slowly got to his feet, never taking his eyes from Jerry. As Jerry returned the stare, it dawned on him that Steve’s haunted, hunted look was the same one he’d worn himself for so long, the same fear and panic he knew so well. But now he was the bully and Steve the victim.
Jerry paused to look around him, seeing the faces encouraging him to continue. His gaze turned back to Steve. Poor, helpless Steve, cowering in fright, hurt and bewildered. And suddenly, Jerry was filled with disgust. Disgust that he’d allowed himself to be goaded into this, disgust that the price tag of acceptance was beating up someone else. It wasn’t so much that the price was too high – he knew he could easily pay it – but that the merchandise was damaged. Jerry craved acceptance, but not that badly.
He lowered his fists and stood up straight, then looked through the crowd until he found Kelly. He looked Kelly in the eye and said, “Go home. It’s over.” He turned then to Richard, who smiled and nodded back. At least one person understood. Jerry brushed aside the bystanders and strode confidently out of the ring.
They might call him a wimp again tomorrow, but it didn’t matter anymore.