Every day after high school classes let out, I ride the No. 42 bus home, along with a bunch of other kids. Sometimes we stop and get cigarettes and candy at the drugstore before we get on. Today, I buy a pack of Pall Malls and a box of Licorice Nibs. On the bus, I sit with my friend Billy Wilson. In the seat in front of us are Charley Kapeghian and Jerry Slice. Charley and I are close, but I don't know Jerry all that well. He's in the commercial track and takes mostly shop classes. Jerry's supposed to be pretty tough. He's wearing a white T-shirt, with the sleeves rolled up so that you can see the muscles in his arms. Charley told me that Jerry Slice even picked fights with the black kids in school, for no reason at all except that he was nuts.
Billy, Charley and I are sounding on each other. It's a sort of game we play. The worse the insult, the more we laugh. Anything is fair when we're sounding. You can sound on a guy's religion or his ethnic background, on his family, his girlfriend, sound on any damn thing. I take out one of the black Licorice Nibs, hold it up between my fingers and tap Jerry Slice on the shoulder. "Hey," I say, "This looks just like your mother." I am too young and stupid to know how cruel and racist this "joke" is.
Jerry stares at me with a flat expression. Neither Charley or Billy laugh and I know something has gone very wrong. Jerry turns back to the front without saying anything. For the rest of the bus ride, my stomach hurts.
The next day, during 3rd period, Billy Wilson tells me that Jerry is going to "kick your ass."
"How come?" I say.
"You insulted his mother."
"So, big deal. Everybody does that."
"Yeah, but his mother's dead. She died last year from cancer."
"Shit" is all I can say.
"He's coming after you at lunch."
"Shit," I say again.
For the rest of the morning, I feel shaky. Actually, what I feel is scared. I don't want to get in a fight with Jerry Slice. I'm pretty sure he can kick my ass, and, anyway, I don't like to fight. I know that makes me a chickenshit, but there it is.
I think about trying to talk to him and explain that I was only joking around. Hey, man, no way does a piece of licorice look like your mother. I didn't mean that at all. I was just playing. I have nothing against Jerry Slice and I don't really see any reason why he should want to beat up on me.
But like I said, Jerry and I are on two different tracks at the high school: I'm in the "block roster"—the honors academic group. We all take the same classes and move through the school as a "block." We think we're big deals: the smart kids, the ones who are going to go to college. A lot of us are Jewish. And Jerry Slice is in the commercial track, for kids who are going to be plumbers and carpenters and not go to college. The dummies, is how we think of them, to be honest. So I'll never be able to talk to Jerry before lunchtime, when he will already be looking to get me. I just have to play it cool for the rest of the day. Not let anybody see that I'm scared. That's not something you want your buddies to know.
At lunchtime, my friends and I leave the building to buy sandwiches at Dom's, a hoagie shop. It's about a two-block walk from the school building and halfway between Dom's and the school, Jerry Slice catches up with me.
"Hey," I hear, a second before he grabs me by the shoulder and pulls me around. Here I am, facing him. With everybody else circled around us, like boys do when there's gonna be a fight. The first thing I do is shit my pants. I'm not lying. A hard little turd shoots straight out of my butt into my underpants. I pray nobody will notice.
"Hey, man," I say, trying to keep the shake out of my voice, "How you doin'?"
"Who do you think you are?" Jerry says, scrunching up his jaw.
"I don't know," I say. "Nobody special." I take a step back. Jerry's an inch or two shorter than I am, but his shoulders are wider and his neck is thick like a football player. He's got a black smudge across his cheek, looks like grease.
"What you said about my mother, take it the fuck back." His fists are balled up.
"Sure, I'll take it back," I say. And add, "I ... I didn't even know your mother."
"How would you?" Jerry says.
"I wouldn't. I'm sure she was a good lady."
"Fucking A," Jerry says. There's a catch in his voice.
"I'm really sorry, man." I don't feel like a chicken shit saying this. I do feel sorry for Jerry now. He's probably a decent kid. "I don't know what I'd do if I lost my mom. And I don't even like her very much."
Jerry laughs. "Yeah, I know what you mean." Then he jumps bad again. "I should still kick your ass." He steps toward me.
"I said I was sorry, man." I shrug. "What else you want me to do?" I notice that I'm not scared anymore. It's gone beyond that somehow. If Jerry Slice wants to punch me in the face, I don't even care.
"You got a token?" Jerry says.
"Yeah, man, a token. For the bus. I don't have any to get home." Jerry steps back, lets his hands dangle at his sides.
I reach in my pocket to make sure the smooth metal tokens are there. I buy a package of them every week. It's cheaper than paying the bus fare each time. "Sure, man, I can lend you a token." I pull it out and hold it in my hand.
"Awright," Jerry says. "I can pay you back later."
"Don't worry about it. No big deal." I hand him the token and he takes it.
"I said I'd pay you back."
"Fine," I say.
The circle around us begins to fall back, the boys losing interest, disappointed that likely nobody's going to get punched out.
"So, forget about that thing I said before?" I hold out my hand to shake. Jerry waits a moment and tries to do a stare-down, but I don't back away, and finally he puts his hand out and we shake. The whole group then moves on to the hoagie shop, like nothing ever happened and we all just better grab our sandwiches quick before the bell rings. I know I have to get to a stall in the boy's room.
I can't say that Jerry Slice and I became best friends after that. I'd nod to him if I ever saw him around school, but that was about it. I still thought it was best to keep my distance. Jerry went into the Army after Bartram High. I went on to college, later grad school, and had student deferments. Somebody told me that Jerry Slice got sent to Vietnam. Who knows where he is now, or even if he's alive. He's never come to any class reunions. We had our 50th last year. I asked Billy Wilson then if he remembered that day Jerry and I almost fought. "Doesn't ring a bell," Billy said.
"Yeah, no big deal," I said. I was surprised at how old Billy looked. He probably was thinking the same about me.
"I just hope he had a good life," I said, but Billy had already turned away.