“What’s your hurry, kid?”
It was a familiar voice — the voice of all the bullies in the world, Harvey Cranch who used to wait for Jerry outside the third grade at St. John’s, and Eddie Herman at summer camp who delighted in the small tortures he inflicted on the younger kids and the complete stranger who knocked him down at the circus one summer and tore the ticket from his hand. That was the voice he heard now: the voice of all the bullies and troublemakers and wise guys in the world. Mocking, goading, cajoling and looking for trouble.
Jerry looked at him. The kid stood before him in defiant posture, feet planted firmly on the ground, legs spread slightly apart, hands flat against the sides of his legs as if he wore two-gun holsters and was ready to draw, or as if he was a karate expert, with hands waiting to chop and slice. Jerry didn’t know a thing about karate, except in his wildest dreams when he demolished his foes without mercy.
“I asked you a question,” the kid said.
Jerry recognized him now — a wise guy named Janza. A freshman-baiter, somebody to stay away from.
“I know you asked me a question,” Jerry said, sighing. He knew what was coming.
And there it was. The taunt, the beginning of the old cat-and-mouse game.
“The question you asked me,” Jerry countered but knowing the futility of it. It didn’t matter what he said or how he said it. Janza was looking for an opening and he’d find it.
“And what was it?”
“You wanted to know what was my hurry.”
Janza smiled, having won his point, gained his little victory. A smug superior smile spread across his face, a knowing smile, as if he knew all of Jerry’s secrets, a lot of dirty things about him.”
“Know what?” Janza sked
“You look like a wise guy,” Janza said.
Why did the wise guys always accuse other people of being wise guys?
“What makes you think I’m a wise guy?” Jerry asked, trying to stall, hoping someone would come along. He remembered how Mr. Phaneuf had rescued him once when Harvey Cranch had cornered him near the old man’s barn. But there was nobody around now. The football practice had been miserable. He hadn’t completed a pass and the Coach had finally dismissed him.
“Why do I think you’re a wise guy?” Janza asked now. “Because you put on a bid act, kid. You try to get by with a sincerity act. But you’re not kidding me. You live in the closet.” Janza smiled, a knowing, this-is-just-between-us smile, intimate, creepy.
“What do you mean — closet?”
Jaaza laughed, delighted, and touched Jerry’s cheek with his hand, a brief light touch, as if they were old friends engaged in friendly conversation on an October afternoon, leaves whirling around them like giant confetti as the wind rose. Jerry figured he knew the meaning of Janza’s light tap — Janza was aching for action, contact, violence. And he was getting impatient. But he didn’t want to start the fight himself. He wanted to provoke Jerry into beginning — that’s the way bullies worked so they could be held blameless after the slaughter.
“This is what I mean by
“Hiding what? Hiding from who?”
“From everybody. From yourself, even. Hiding that deep dark secret.”
“What secret?” Confused now.
“That you’re a fairy. A queer. Living in the closet, hiding away.”
Vomit threatened Jerry’s throat, a nauseous geyser he could barely hold down.
“Hey, you’re blushing,” Janza said. “The fairy’s blushing…”
“Listen…” Jerry began but not knowing, really, how to begin or where. The worst thing in the world — to be called queer.
“I’m not a fairy,” Jerry cried.
“Kiss me,” Janza said, puckering his lips grotesquely.
“You son of a bitch,” Jerry said.
The words hung on the air, verbal flags of battle. And Janza smiled, a radiant smile of triumph. This is what he’d wanted all along, of course. This had been the reason for the encounter, the insults.
“What did you call me?” Janza asked.
“A son of a bitch,” Jerry said, measuring out the words, saying them deliberately, eager now for the fight.
Janza threw back his head and laughed. The laughter surprised Jerry — he’d expected retaliation. Instead, Janza stood there utterly relaxed, hands on his hips, amused.
And that was when Jerry saw them. Three or four of them emerging from bushes and shrubbery, running, crouched, keeping themselves low. They were small, pigmy-like, and they moved so swiftly toward him that he couldn’t get a good look at them, saw only a smear of smiling faces, smiling evilly. More coming now, five or six others, slipping into view from behind a cluser of pine trees, and before Jerry could gird himself for a fight or even raise his arms in defense, they were swarming all over him, hitting him high and low, tumbling him to the ground as if he was some kind of helpless Gulliver. A dozen fists pummeled his body, fingernails tore at his cheek and a finger clawed at his eye. They wanted to blind him. They wanted to kill him. Pain arrowed in his groin — somebody had kicked him there. The blows rained upon him without mercy, with no let-up, and he tried to curl up and make himself small, hiding his face but somebody was pounding his head furiously,