Saturday, November 14, 2009


His name was Ralph. Robbie, Jeff, and myself had found him in a window well on the side of Robbie's neighbors' house. He had been running in circles, kicking up dirt and dead leaves. We thought we were doing him a favor by sealing him in that shoebox. But Ralph's new digs probably weren't that much more accommodating than his previous residence. Searching through window wells was a regular part of our summer afternoons when we were eleven. It's how all three of us had found our pet toads. Mine had recently escaped to glorious freedom underneath our deck and I was looking for a replacement. But Ralph was better than any toad. This was a one in a million find. I hadn't quite figured out how I was going to warm my mother up to the idea of a pet mouse but that was a minor detail.
I carried Ralph to the elementary school playground, feeling the weight shift in the box as he ran from one end to the other. We put him in the large circular sandbox and laughed as he ran laps around it. It was impossible to hide my smile as I daydreamed about all the fun I was going to have with my new friend. When my toad had run away I was heartbroken. But his replacement was infinitely superior. If they had been girlfriends my buddies would have unanimously agreed that I was trading up.

The first auburn streaks of the sunset began to settle weightlessly against the horizon. I announced it was time for me to be getting home. I scooped Ralph back into the shoebox and we went on our way. As we walked down the street I kept lifting up one corner of the box to steal peeks at my new pet. He'd run over to the source of light and hold his head up towards me, his nose twitching and his eyes squinting. "That's right," I thought to myself, "It's me, Ralph... your dad."

My playful euphoria was interrupted by Robbie's concern of something up ahead. "Oh shit..." His pace slowed just a bit, "It's Russ." His name alone caused all three of us to stiffen up and swallow nervously. Russ Lehman was a year older than us and made a career out of tormenting kids in our grade. Somewhere there must have been a bully factory that turned out these cookie-cutter assholes and shipped them to all corners of the globe. With their blonde crew-cuts, crooked smiles, broad shoulders, and their capacity to tower over everyone else, there was little doubt they'd been created to serve any other purpose. They must have had a checklist with every suburban street on it and deposited bullies in such a fashion that every neighborhood had maximum asshole coverage. Whoever made such decisions had decided that Russ was our bully and he'd relished the assignment like he was getting paid for it. This was a kid who had shot at us with his bebe gun, flattened the tires on my bike, held me down on the ground with his knee and spit in my ear, and gave a Robbie a bloody nose for stepping on his lawn.

It was too late to turn around. Russ and the three friends he was standing with had already seen us. Russ stood up from his throne of a front porch and started walking towards us. His goons obediently followed. "Aren't these the ugliest kids you've ever seen in your life?" Russ called back to his posse. They chuckled. "No, I'm serious. Aren't they ugly as shit?" We kept our heads low and said nothing. I gripped onto Ralph's box tightly and wedged myself in between Robbie and Jeff. "What's in the box?" Russ asked. Robbie and Jeff looked at me nervously. I couldn't walk any further. Russ was standing right in front of me.
     "Nothing." I replied. Russ raised one eyebrow inquisitively.
     "Oh yeah? Then let me see it." He reached for it and I pulled the box back. His brow furrowed and his determination grew ten fold. "I said let me see it!" He ripped the top off and looked down at Ralph who was huddled in one corner. Russ looked at the mouse, then up at me, and started laughing. "It's a f*cking rat." He called back to his friends who got closer to take a look.
     "He's a mouse." I corrected him.
     "Let me see him." Russ said with genuine curiosity. No trace of macho bullshit. I shifted apprehensively. "Come on, man. Let me see. I used to have tons of these things when I was little." He reached in and grabbed Ralph by his tail, lifting him up into the air. Ralph squeaked a little and wiggled wildly.
     "Careful!" I said as Russ put his palm below Ralph and lowered him into it. It was the first time I saw a smile born from happiness and not some malicious intent spread over his face. He lowered Ralph down towards the curb. "What are you doing?" I stepped in to snatch him back.
      "Relax, relax." Russ held his hand out to stop me. "He'll stay near the edge of the curb. Watch." And he was right. The same way Ralph had run around the perimeter of the sandbox, he ran up and down the curb, never veering off into the street. Russ got to his knees in front of his driveway. He motioned for me to sit down a little further down the road. Ralph ran between the two of us, stopping when he reached someone's sneakers and then turning around and running back in the other direction. Russ laughed and smiled and I couldn't believe me and my one time foe were bonding over this tiny mouse.

Robbie and Jeff traded concerned looks with each other. They knew what I didn't... that Russ Lehman could never be trusted. No matter how convincing the facade. Ralph ran up to me for the last time and I had an impulse to grab him and go home. An impulse I will always regret ignoring. He began running back towards Russ who got to his feet.  "Why is he standing?" I wondered, "What if Ralph runs between his legs?" And that's exactly what my new friend tried to do. But Russ never gave him the chance. He lifted his leg and slammed it down onto Ralph's head. I screamed and ran towards him. He was laughing and bending over to get a closer look at the damage he'd done. Ralph was laying on his side, half his skull sunken in, and blood spilling out of his mouth, staining his teeth red. He was taking short and desperate breaths, his entire body heaving. I reached down for him but Russ kicked him. He rolled down the curb and fell into the sewer. I dove to grab him but I was too late. I looked down and saw him floating in the water. His tiny, broken body in the center of that darkness. He was still breathing, but he couldn't move. And that's how Ralph died. With a mouthful of his own blood and dirty sewer water. I felt like I had been stabbed in the heart. Every daydream, which had seemed so alive and vibrant only moments ago, was now shattered into pieces too tiny to ever put back together.

"You asshole!" Robbie screamed and charged at Russ. Russ' friends grabbed Robbie and threw him onto the lawn. Jeff ran in to try and get them off but soon found himself on his back receiving the beating of his life. Me... I ran. I ran towards my house, tears streaming down my cheeks, and screaming at the top of my lungs in an effort to empty out the anger festering inside of me. No matter what I did I could not get the image of Ralph's last moments of life out of my head. And I couldn't let go of the fact that I had had a chance to save him. I looked across the street at the construction site and saw a dumpster filled with discarded pieces of wood, dry wall, and other materials. On any other afternoon, during any other confrontation with Russ, what happened next would never have been an option. It would never have crossed my mind. But my friend had just died at that bastard's hand and I couldn't stomach the idea of him not being punished for it. I ran to the dumpster and grabbed a piece of a broken 2x4. Instead of running the rest of the way home, I started walking back towards Russ's.

He heard me before he saw me. He was too busy pummeling Jeff to notice me walking up the sidewalk. But he heard me dragging the 2x4 behind me. He stopped and smiled. Not even a trace of fear. "If you love that stupid mouse so much maybe I'll throw you down in the sewer so you two can be together." He called out. I said nothing. I just kept advancing on him. I was not as big as Russ or nearly as strong. And I knew I didn't intimidate him. There were a lot of reasons this wasn't going to work. But I thought of Ralph and it all became very easy.

I was a few steps away from Russ who started to rise up. Before he could get to his feet I swung the 2x4 and struck him clear across the face. He landed on his back and I never gave him another chance to move. I kept swinging and screaming. His friends backed off with terrified looks on their faces. I don't know how long it lasted but when it was done the end of the 2x4 was covered in Russ's blood and chunks of it had broken off. Robbie pulled me away after seeing neighbors faces in the nearby windows.

As we walked home, the emasculated wails of our former bully rang out behind us. But it didn't feel like a victory. One hand still clutched the bloody 2x4. The other, an empty shoebox.


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