A Poetics for Bullies
I had read this story and a few others by Stanley Elkin, and I considered him to be one of my favorite writers. When my mother asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I told her I wanted books by Stanley Elkin. Then I recommended one of those books — The Macguffin — for a book club that I was in. Only a couple of people read it, and the book club never met again. Why do I mention this? No idea. But this short story has it all.
A Poetics for Bullies
By Stanley Elkin
I'm Push the bully, and what I hate are new kids and sissies, dumb kids and smart, rich kids, poor kids, kids who wear glasses, talk funny, show off, patrol boys and wise guys and kids who pass pencils and water the plants — and cripples, especially cripples. I love nobody loved.
One time I was pushing this red-haired kid (I'm a pusher, no bitter, no belter; an aggressor of marginal violence, I hate real force) and his mother stuck her head out the window and shouted something I've never forgotten. "Push," she yelled. "You, Push. You pick on him because you wish you had his red hair" It's true; I did wish I had his red hair. I wish I were tall, or fat, or thin. I wish I had different eyes, different hands, a mother in the supermarket. I wish I were a man, a small boy, a girl in the choir. I'm a coveter, a Boston Blackie of the heart, casing the world. Endlessly I covet and case. (Do you know what makes me cry? The Declaration of Independence. "All men are created equal." That's beautiful.)
If you're a bully like me, you use your head. Toughness isn't enough. You beat them up, they report you. Then where are you? I'm not even particularly strong. (I used to be strong. I used to do exercise, work out, but strength implicates you, and often isn't an advantage anyway — read the judo ads. Besides, your big bullies aren't bullies at all — they're athletes. With them, beating guys up is a sport.) But what I lose in size and strength I make up in courage. I'm very brave. That's a lie about bullies being cowards underneath. If you're a coward, get out of the business.
I'm best at torment.
A kid has a toy bow, toy arrows. "Let Push look," I tell him.
He's suspicious, he knows me. "Go way. Push," he says, this mama-warned Push doubter.
"Come on," I say, "come on."
"No, Push. I can't. My mother said I can't."
I raise my arms, I spread them. I'm a bird — slow, powerful, easy, free. I move my head offering profile like something beaked. I'm the Thunderbird. "In the school where I go I have a teacher who teaches me magic," I say. "Arnold Salamancy, give Push your arrows. Give him one, he gives back two. Push is the God of the Neighborhood."
"Go way. Push," the kid says, uncertain.
"Right," Push says, himself again. "Right. I'll disappear. First the fingers." My fingers ball into fists. "My forearms next." They jackknife into my upper arms. "The arms." Quick as bird-blink they snap behind my back, fit between my shoulder blades like a small knapsack. (I am double-jointed, protean.) "My head," I say.
"No, Push," the kid says, terrified. I shudder and everything comes back, falls into place from the stem of self like a shaken puppet.
"The arrow, the arrow. Two where was one." He hands me an arrow.
"Trouble, trouble, double rubble!" I snap it and give back the pieces.
Well, sure. There is no magic. If there were I would learn it. I would find out the words, the slow turns and strange passes, drain the bloods and get the herbs, do the fires like a vestal. I would look for the main chants. Then I'd change things. Push would!
But there's only casuistical trick. Sleight-of-mouth, the bully's poetics.
You know the formulas:
"Did you ever see a match burn twice?" you ask. Strike. Extinguish. Jab his flesh with the hot stub.
"How do you play?"
"What's your name?"
I slap him. "You're lying."
Adam and Eve and Pinch Me Hard went down to the lake for a swim. Adam and Eve fell in. Who was left?"
"Pinch Me Hard."
Physical puns, conundrums. Push the punisher, the conundrummer.
But there has to be more than tricks in a bag of tricks. I don't know what it is. Sometimes I think I'm the only new kid. In a room, the school, the playground, the neighborhood, I get the feeling I've just moved in, no one knows me. You know what I like? To stand in crowds. To wait with them at the airport to meet a plane. Someone asks what time it is. I'm the first to answer. Or at the ballpark when the vendor comes. He passes the hot dog down the long row. I want my hands on it, too. On the dollar going up, the change coming down.
I am ingenious, I am patient.
A kid is going downtown on the elevated train. He's got his little suit on, his shoes are shined, be wears a cap. This is a kid going to the travel bureaus, the foreign tourist offices to get brochures, maps, pictures of the mountains for a unit at his school — a kid looking for extra credit. I follow him. He comes out of the Italian Tourist Information Center. His arms are full. I move from my place at the window. I follow for two blocks and bump into him as he steps from a curb. It's a collision— The pamphlets fall from his arms. Pretending confusion, I walk on his paper Florence. I grind my heel in his Riviera. I climb Vesuvius and sack his Rome and dance on the Isle of Capri.
The Industrial Museum is a good place to find children. I cut somebody's five or six year-old kid brother out of the herd of eleven- and twelve-year-olds he's come with. "Quick," I say. I pull him along the corridors, up the stairs, through the halls, down to a mezzanine landing. Breathless, I pause for a minute. "I've got some gum. Do you want a stick?" He nods; I stick him. I rush him into an auditorium and abandon him. He'll be lost for hours.
I sidle up to a kid at the movies. "You smacked my brother," I tell him. "After the show I'll be outside.
"I break up games. I hold the ball above my head. "You want it? Take it."
I go into barber shops. There's a kid waiting. "I'm next," I tell him, "understand?"
One day Eugene Kraft rang my bell. Eugene is afraid of me, so he helps me. He's fifteen and there's something wrong with his saliva glands and he drools. His chin is always chapped. I tell him he has to drink a lot because he loses so much water.
"Push? Push," he says. He's wiping his chin with his tissues. "Push, there's this kid—"
"Better get a glass of water, Eugene."
"No, Push, no fooling, there's this new kid — he just moved in. You've got to see this kid."
"Eugene, get some water, please. You're drying up. I've never seen you so bad. There are deserts in you, Eugene."
"All right. Push, but then you've got to see—"
"Swallow, Eugene. You better swallow."
He gulps hard. "Push, this is a kid and a half. Wait, you'll see."
"I'm very concerned about you, Eugene. You're dying of thirst, Eugene. Come into the kitchen with me."
I push him through the door. He's very excited. I've never seen him so excited. He talks at me over his shoulder, his mouth flooding, his teeth like the little stone pebbles at the bottom of a fishbowl. "He's got this sport coat, with a patch over the heart. Like a king. Push. No kidding."
"Be careful of the carpet, Eugene."
I turn on the taps in the sink. I mix in hot water. "Use your tissues, Eugene. Wipe your chin."
He wipes himself and puts the Kleenex' in his pocket. All of Eugene's pockets bulge. He looks, with his bulging pockets, like a clumsy smuggler.
"Wipe, Eugene. Swallow, you're drowning."
"He's got this funny accent — you could die." Excited, he tamps at his mouth like a diner, a tubercular.
"Drink some water, Eugene."
"No, Push. I'm not thirsty — really."
"Don't be foolish, kid. That's because your mouth's so wet. Inside where it counts you're drying up. It stands to reason. Drink some water."
"He has this crazy haircut."
"Drink" I command. I shake him. "Drink!
"Push, I've got no glass. Give me a glass at least."
"I can't do that, Eugene. You've got a terrible sickness. How could I let you use our drinking glasses? Lean under the tap and open your mouth."
He knows he'll have to do it, that I won't listen to him until he does. He bends into the sink.
"Push, it's hot," he complains. The water splashes into his nose, it gets on his glasses and for a moment his eyes are magnified, enormous. He pulls away and scrapes his forehead on the faucet.
"Eugene, you touched it. Watch out, please. You're too close to the tap. Lean your head deeper into the sink."
"It's hot, Push."
"Warm water evaporates better. With your affliction you've got to evaporate fluids before they get into your glands."
He feeds again from the tap.
"Do you think that's enough?" I ask after a while.
"I do. Push, I really do," he says. He is breathless.
"Eugene," I say seriously, "I think you'd better get yourself a canteen."
"A canteen, Push?"
"That's right. Then you'll always have water when you need it. Get one of those Boy Scout models. The two quart kind with a canvas strap."
"But you hate the Boy Scouts, Push."
"They make very good canteens, Eugene. And wear it! I never want to see you without it. Buy it today."
"All right, Push."
"All right, Push."
"Say it out."
He made the formal promise that I like to hear.
"Well, then," I said, "let's go see this new kid of yours."
He took me to the schoolyard. "Wait," he said, "you'll see." He skipped ahead.
"Eugene," I said, calling him back. "Let's understand something. No matter what this new kid is like, nothing changes as far as you and I are concerned."
"Aw, Push," he said.
"Nothing, Eugene. I mean it. You don't get out from under me."
"Sure, Push, I know that." There were some kids in the far corner of the yard, sitting on the ground, leaning up against the wire fence. Bats and gloves and balls lay scattered around them. (It was where they told dirty jokes. Sometimes I'd come by during the little kids' recess and tell them all about what their daddies do to their mommies.)
"There. See? Do you see him?" Eugene, despite himself, seemed hoarse.
"Be quiet," I said, checking him, freezing as a hunter might.
He was a prince, I tell you.
He was tall, even sitting down. His long legs comfortable in expensive wool, the trousers of a boy who had been on ships, jets; who owned a horse, perhaps; who knew Latin — what didn't he know? Somebody made up, like a kid in a play with a beautiful mother and a handsome father; who took his breakfast from a sideboard, and picked, even at fourteen and fifteen and sixteen, his mail from a silver plate. He would have hobbies — stamps, stars, things lovely dead. He wore a sport coat, brown as wood, thick as heavy bark. The buttons were leather buds. His shoes seemed carved from horses' saddles, gunstocks. His clothes had once grown in nature. What it must feel like inside those clothes, I thought.
I looked at his face, his clear skin, and guessed at the bones, white as beached wood. His eyes had skies in than. His yellow hair swirled on his head like a crayoned sun.
"Look, look at him," Eugene said. "The sissy. Get him, Push."
He was talking to them and I moved closer to hear his voice. It was clear, beautiful, but faintly foreign like herb-seasoned meat.
When he saw me he paused, smiling. He waved. The others didn't look at me.
"Hello there," he called. "Come over if you'd like. I've been telling the boys about tigers."
"Tigers," I said.
"Give him the 'match burn twice,' Push," Eugene whispered.
'Tigers, is it?" I said. "What do you know about tigers?" My voice was high.
"The 'match burn twice,' Push."
"Not so much as a Master Tugjah. I was telling the boys. In India there are men of high caste — Tugjahs, they're called. I was apprenticed to one once in the Southern Plains and might perhaps have earned my mastership, but the Red Chinese attacked the northern frontier and . . . well, let's just say I had to leave. At any rate, these Tugjahs are as intimate with the tiger as you are with dogs. I mean they don't keep them as pets. The relationship goes deeper. Your dog is a service animal, as is your elephant."
"Did you ever see a match bum twice?" I asked suddenly.
"Why no, can you do that? Is it a special match you use?"
"No," Eugene said, "it's an ordinary match. He used an ordinary match."
"Can you do it with one of mine, do you think?"
He took a matchbook from his pocket and handed it to me. The cover was exactly the material of his jacket, and in the center was a patch with a coat-of-arms identical to the one he wore over his heart.
I held the matchbook for a moment and then gave it back to him. "I don't feel like it," I said.
"Then some other time, perhaps," he said.
Eugene whispered to me. "His accent. Push, his funny accent."
"Some other time, perhaps," I said. I am a good mimic. I can duplicate a particular kid's lisp, his stutter, a thickness in his throat. There were two or three here whom I had brought close to tears by holding up my mirror to their voices. I can parody their limps, their waddles, their girlish runs, their clumsy jumps. I can throw as they throw, catch as they catch. I looked around. "Some other time, perhaps," I said again. No one would look at me.
"I'm so sorry," the new one said, "we don't know each other's names. You are?"
"I'm so sorry," I said. "You are?"
He seemed puzzled. Then he looked sad, disappointed. No one said anything.
"It don't sound the same," Eugene whispered.
It was true. I sounded nothing like him. I could imitate only defects, only flaws.
A kid giggled.
"Shh," the prince said. He put one finger to his lips.
"Look at that," Eugene said under his breath. "He's a sissy."
He had begun to talk to them again. I squatted, a few feet away. I ran gravel through my loose fists, one bowl in an hourglass feeding another.
He spoke of jungles, of deserts. He told of ancient trade routes traveled by strange beasts. He described lost cities and a lake deeper than the deepest level of the sea. There was a story about a boy who had been captured by bandits. A woman in the story, it wasn't clear whether she was the boy's mother, had been tortured. His eyes clouded for a moment when he came to this part and he had to pause before continuing. Then he told how the boy escaped, it was cleverly done, and found help, mountain tribesmen riding elephants. The elephants charged the cave in which the mo — the woman — was still a prisoner. It might have collapsed and killed her, but one old bull rushed in and, shielding her with his body, took the weight of the crashing rocks. Your elephant is a service animal.
I let a piece of gravel rest on my thumb and flicked it in a high arc above his head. Some of the others who had seen me stared, but the boy kept on talking. Gradually I reduced the range, allowing the chunks of gravel to come closer to his head.
"You see?" Eugene said quietly. "He's afraid. He pretends not to notice."
The arcs continued to diminish. The gravel went faster, straighter. No one was listening to him now, but he kept talking.
"—of magic," he said, "what occidentals call 'a witch doctor.'" There are spices that induce these effects. The Bogdovii was actually able to stimulate the growth of rocks with the powder. The Dutch traders were ready to go to war for the formula. Well, you can .see what it could mean for the Low Countries. Without accessible quarries they've never been able to construct a permanent system of dikes. But with the Bogdovii's powder" he reached out and casually caught the speeding chip as if it had been a Ping-Pong ball. "They could turn a grain of sand into a pebble, use the pebbles to grow stones, the stones to grow rocks. This little piece of gravel, for example, could be changed into a mountain." He dipped his thumb into his palm as I had and balanced the gravel on his nail. He flicked it; it rose from his nail like a missile, and climbed an impossible arc. It disappeared. "The Bogdovii never revealed how it was done."
I stood up. Eugene tried to follow me.
"Listen," he said, "you'll get him."
"Swallow," I told him. "Swallow, you pig!"
* * *
I have lived my life in pursuit of the vulnerable: Push the chink seeker, wheeler dealer in the flawed cement of the personality, a collapse maker. But what isn't vulnerable, who isn't? There is that which is unspeakable, so I speak it, that which is unthinkable, which I think. Me and the devil, we do God's dirty work, after all.
I went home after I left him. I turned once at the gate, and the boys were around him still. The useless Eugene had moved closer. He made room for him against the fence.
I ran into Frank the fat boy. He made a move to cross the street, but I had seen him and he went through a clumsy retractive motion. I could tell he thought I would get him for that, but I moved by, indifferent to a grossness in which I had once delighted. As I passed he seemed puzzled, a little hurt, a little — this was astonishing — guilty. Sure guilty. Why not guilty? The forgiven tire of their exemption. Nothing could ever be forgiven, and I forgave nothing. I held them to the mark. Who else cared about the fatties, about the dummies and slobs and clowns, about the gimps and squares and oafs and fools, the kids with a mouthful of mush, all those shut-ins of the mind and heart, all those losers? Frank the fat boy knew, and passed me shyly. His wide, fat body, stiffened, forced jokeishly martial when he saw me, had already become flaccid as he moved by, had already made one more forgiven surrender. Who cared?
The streets were full of failure. Let them. Let them be. There was a paragon, a paragon loose. What could he be doing here, why had he come, what did he want? It was impossible that this hero from India and everywhere had made his home here; that he lived, as Frank the fat boy did, as Eugene did, as I did, in an apartment; that he shared our lives.
In the afternoon I looked for Eugene. He was in the park, in a tree. There was a book in his lap. He leaned against the thick trunk.
"Eugene," I called up to him.
"Push, they're closed. It's Sunday, Push. The stores are closed. I looked for the canteen. The stores are closed."
"Where is he?"
"Who, Push? What do you want. Push?"
"Him. Your pal. The prince. Where? Tell me, Eugene, or I'll shake you out of that tree. I'll burn you down. I swear it. Where is he?"
"No, Push. I was wrong about that guy. He's nice. He's really nice. Push, he told me about a doctor who could help me. Leave him alone. Push."
"Where, Eugene? Where? I count to three."
Eugene shrugged and came down from the tree.
I found the name Eugene gave me — funny, foreign — over the bell in the outer hall. The buzzer sounded and I pushed open the door. I stood inside and looked up the carpeted stairs, the angled banisters.
"What is it?" She sounded old, worried.
"The new kid," I called, "the new kid."
"It's for you," I heard her say.
"Yes?" His voice, the one I couldn't mimic. I mounted the first stair. I leaned back against the wall and looked up through the high, boxy banister poles. It was like standing inside a pipe organ.
From where I stood at the bottom of the stairs I could see only a boot. He was wearing boots.
"Yes? What is it, please?"
"You." I roared. "Glass of fashion, model of form, it's me! It's Push the bully!"
I heard his soft, rapid footsteps coming down the stairs — a springy, spongy urgency. He jingled, the bastard. He had coins — I could see them: rough, golden, imperfectly round; raised, massively gowned goddesses, their heads fingered smooth, their arms gone — and keys to strange boxes, thick doors. I saw his boots. I backed away.
"I brought you down," I said.
"Be quiet, please. There's a woman who's ill. A. boy who must study. There's a man with bad bones. An old man needs sleep."
"He'll get it," I said.
"We'll go outside," he said.
"No. Do you live here? What do you do? Will you be in our school? Were you telling the truth?"
"Shh. Please. You're very excited."
'Tell me your name," I said. It could be my campaign, I thought. His name. Scratched in new sidewalk, chalked onto walls, written on papers dropped in the street. To leave it behind like so many clues, to give him a fame, to take it away, to slash and cross out, to erase and to smear — my kid's witchcraft.
"Tell me your name."
"It's John," he said softly.
"John what? Come on now. I'm Push the bully."
"John Williams," he said.
"John Williams? John Williams? Only that? Only John Williams?"
"Who's that on the bell? The name on the box?"
"She needs me," he said.
"Cut it out."
"I help her," he said.
"You stop that."
"There's a man that's in pain. A woman who's old. A husband that's worried. A wife that despairs."
"You're the bully," I said. "Your John Williams is a service animal," I yelled in the hall.
He turned and began to climb the stairs. His calves bloomed in their leather sheathing.
"Lover," I whispered to him.
He turned to me at the landing. He shook his head sadly.
"We'll see," I said.
"We'll see what we'll see," he said.
That night I painted his name on the side of the gymnasium in enormous letters. In the morning it was still there, but it wasn't what I meant. There was nothing incantatory in the huge letters, no scream, no curse. I had never traveled with a gang, there had been no togetherness in my tearing, but this thing on the wall seemed the act of vandals, the low production of ruffians. When you looked at it you were surprised they had gotten the spelling right.
Astonishingly, it was allowed to remain. And each day there was something more celebrational in the giant name, something of increased hospitality, lavish welcome. John Williams might have been a football hero, or someone back from the kidnapers. Finally I had to take it off myself.
Something had changed.
Eugene was not wearing his canteen. Boys didn't break off their conversations when I came up to them. One afternoon a girl winked at me. (Push has never picked on girls. Their submissiveness is part of their nature. They are ornamental. Don't get me wrong, please. There is a way in which they function as part of the landscape, like flowers at a funeral. They have a strange cheerfulness. They are the organizers of pep rallies and dances. They put out the Year Book. They are born Gray Ladies. I can't bully them.)
John Williams was in the school, but except for brief glimpses in the hall I never saw him. Teachers would repeat the things he had said in their other classes. They read from his papers. In the gym the coach described plays he had made, set shots he had taken. Everyone talked about him, and girls made a reference to him a sort of love signal. If it was suggested that he had smiled at one of them, the girl referred to would blush or, what was worse, look aloofly mysterious. (Then I could have punished her, then I could.) Gradually his name began to appear on all their notebooks, in the margins of their texts. (It annoyed me to remember what I had done on the wall.) The big canvas books, with their careful, elaborate J's and W's, took on the appearance of ancient, illuminated fables. It was the unconscious embroidery of love, hope's bright doodle. Even the administration was aware of him. In Assembly the principal announced that John Williams had broken all existing records in the school's charity drives. She had never seen good citizenship like his before, she said.
It's one thing to live with a bully, another to live with a hero. Everyone's hatred I understand, no one's love; everyone's grievance, no one's content.
I saw Mimmer.
Mimmer should have graduated years ago. I saw Mimmer the dummy.
"Mimmer," I said, "you're in his class."
"He's very smart."
"Yes, but is it fair? You work harder. I've seen you study. You spend hours. Nothing comes. He was born knowing. You could have used just a little of what he's got so much of. It's not fair."
"He's very clever. It's wonderful," Mimmer says.
Slud is crippled. He wears a shoe with a built-up heel to balance himself.
"Ah, Slud," I say, "I've seen him run."
"He has beaten the horses in the park. It's very beautiful," Slud says.
"He's handsome, isn't he, Clob?" Clob looks contagious, radioactive. He has severe acne. He is ugly under his acne.
"He gets the girls," Clob says.
He gets everything, I think. But I'm alone in my envy, awash in my lust. It's as if I were a prophet to the deaf. Schnooks, schnooks, I want to scream, dopes and settlers. What good does his smite do you, of what use is his good heart?
The other day I did something stupid. I went to the cafeteria and shoved a boy out of the way and took his place in the line. It was foolish, but their fear is almost all gone and I felt I had to show the flag. The boy only grinned and let me pass. Then someone called my name. It was him. I turned to face him. "Push," he said, "you forgot your silver." He handed it to a girl in front of him and she gave it to the boy in front of her and it came to me down the long line.
I plot, I scheme. Snares, I think; tricks and traps. I remember the old days when there were ways to snap fingers, crush toes, ways to pull noses, twist heads and punch arms — for the old-timey Flinch Law I used to impose, the gone bully magic of deceit. But nothing works against him, I think. How does he know so much? He is bully — prepared, that one, not to be trusted.
* * *
It is worse and worse.
In the cafeteria he eats with Frank. "You don't want those potatoes," he tells him. "Not the ice cream, Frank. One sandwich, remember. You lost three pounds last week." The fat boy smiles his fat love at him. John Williams puts his arm around him. He seems to squeeze him thin.
He's helping Mimmer to study. He goes over his lessons and teaches him tricks, short cuts.
"I want you up there with me on the Honor Roll, Mimmer."
I see him with Slud the cripple. They go to the gyro. I watch from the balcony. "Let's develop those arms, my friend." They work out with weights. Slud's muscles grow, they bloom from his bones.
I lean over the rail. I shout down, "He can bend iron bars. Can he pedal a bike? Can he walk on rough ground? Can he climb up a hill? Can he wait on a line? Can he dance with a girl? Can he go up a ladder or jump from a chair?"
Beneath me the rapt Slud sits on a bench and raises a weight. He holds it at arm's length, level with his chest. He moves it high, higher. It rises above his shoulders, his throat, his head. He bends back his neck to see what he's done. If the weight should fall now it would crush his throat. I stare down into his smile.
I see Eugene in the halls. I stop him. "Eugene, what's he done for you?" I ask. He smiles — he never did this — and I see his mouth's flood. "High tide," I say with satisfaction. Williams has introduced Clob to a girl. They have double-dated.
* * *
A week ago John Williams came to my house to see me! I wouldn't let him in.
"Please open the door. Push. I'd like to chat with you. Will you open the door? Push? I think we ought to talk. I think I can help you to be happier."
I was furious. I didn't know what to say to him. "I don't want to be happier. Go way." It was what little kids used to say to me.
"Please let me help you."
"Please let me," I begin to echo. "Please let me alone."
"We ought to be friends Push."
"No deals." I am choking, I am close to tears. What can I do? What? I want to kill him.
I double-lock the door and retreat to my room. He is still out there. I have tried to live my life so that I could keep always the lamb from my door.
He has gone too far this time; and I think sadly, I will have to fight him, I will have to fight him. Push pushed. I think sadly of the pain. Push pushed. I will have to fight him. Not to preserve honor but its opposite. Each time I see him I will have to fight him. And then I think — of course. And I smile. He has done me a favor. I know it at once. If he fights me he fails. He fails if he fights me. Push pushed pushes! It's physics! Natural law! I know he'll beat me, but I won't prepare, I won't train, I won't use the tricks I know. It's strength against strength, and my strength is as the strength of ten because my jaw is glass! He doesn't know everything, not everything he doesn't. And I think, I could go out now, he's still there, I could hit him in the hall, but I think. No, I want them to see, I want them to see!
The next day I am very excited. I look for Williams. He's not in the halls. I miss him in the cafeteria. Afterward I look for 'him in the schoolyard where I first saw him. (He has them organized now. He teaches them games of Tibet, games of Japan; he gets them to play lost sports of the dead.) He does not disappoint me. He is there in the yard, a circle around him, a ring of the loyal.
I join the ring. I shove in between two kids I have known. They try to change places; they murmur and fret.
Williams sees me and waves. His smile could grow flowers. "Boys," he says, "boys, make room for Push. Join hands, boys." They welcome me to the circle. One takes my hand, then another. I give to each calmly.
I wait. He doesn't know everything.
"Boys," he begins, "today we're going to learn a game that the knights of the lords and kings of old France used to play in another century. Now you may not realize it, boys, because today when we think of a knight we think, too, of his fine charger, but the fact is that a horse was a rare animal — not a domestic European animal at all, but Asian. In western Europe, for example, there was no such thing as a workhorse until the eighth century. Your horse was just too expensive to be put to heavy labor in the fields. (This explains, incidentally, the prevalence of famine in western Europe, whereas famine is unrecorded in Asia until the ninth century, when Euro-Asian horse trading was at its height.) It wasn't only expensive to purchase a horse, it was expensive to keep one. A cheap fodder wasn't developed in Europe until the tenth century. Then, of course, when you consider the terrific risks that the warrior horse of a knight naturally had to run, you begin to appreciate how expensive it would have been for the lord — unless be was extremely rich — to provide all his knights with horses. He'd want to make pretty certain that the knights who got them knew how to handle a horse. (Only your knights errant — an elite, crack corps — ever had horses. We don't realize that roost knights were home knights; chevalier chez they were called.)
"This game, then, was devised to let the lord, or king, see which of his knights had the skill and strength in his hands to control a horse. Without moving your feet, you must try to jerk the one next to you off balance. Each man has two opponents, so it's very difficult. If a man falls, or if his knee touches the ground, he's out. The circle is diminished but must close up again immediately. Now, once for practice only"
"Just a minute," I interrupt.
I leave the circle and walk forward and hit him as hard as I can in the face.
He stumbles backward. The boys groan. He recovers. He rubs his jaw and smiles. I think he is going to let me hit him again. I am prepared for this. He knows what I'm up to and will use his passivity. Either way I win, but I am determined he shall hit me. I am ready to kick him, but as my foot comes up he grabs my ankle and turns it forcefully. I spin in the air. He lets go and I fall heavily on my back. I am surprised at how easy it was, but am content if they understand. I get up and am walking away, but there is an arm on my shoulder. He pulls me around roughly. He hits me.
"Sic semper tyrannus," he exults.
"Where's your other cheek?" I ask, falling backward.
"One cheek for tyrants," he shouts. He pounces on me and raises his fist and I cringe. His anger is terrific. I do not want to be hit again.
"You see? You see?" I scream at the kids, but I have lost the train of my former reasoning. I have in no way beaten him. I can't remember now what I had intended.
He lowers his fist and gets off my chest and they cheer. "Hurrah," they yell. "Hurrah, hurrah." The word seems funny to me.
He offers his hand when I try to rise. It is so difficult to know what to do. Oh God, it is so difficult to know which gesture is the right one. I don't even know this. He knows everything, and I don't even know this. I am a fool on the ground, one hand behind me pushing up, the other not yet extended but itching in the palm where the need is. It is better to give than receive, surely. It is best not to need at all.
Appalled, guessing what I miss, I rise alone.
"Friends?" he asks. He offers to shake.
"Take it. Push." It's Eugene's voice.
"Go ahead. Push." Slud limps forward.
"Push, hatred's so ugly," Clob says, his face shining.
"You'll feel better. Push," Frank, thinner, taller, urges softly.
"Push, don't be foolish," Mimmer says.
I shake my head. I may be wrong. I am probably wrong. All I know at last is what feels good. "Nothing doing," I growl. "No deals." I begin to talk, to spray my hatred at them. They are not an easy target even now. "Only your knights errant — your crack corps — have horses. Slud may dance and Clob may kiss, but they'll never be good at it. Push is no service animal. No. No. Can you hear that, Williams? There isn't any magic, but your no is still stronger than your yes, and distrust is where I put my faith." I turn to the boys. "What have you settled for? Only your knights errant ever have horses. What have you settled for! Will Mimmer do sums in his head? How do you like your lousy hunger, thin boy? Slud, you can break me but you can't catch me. And Clob will never shave without pain, and ugly, let me tell you, is still in the eye of the beholder!"
John Williams mourns for me. He grieves his gamy grief. No one has everything — not even John Williams. He doesn't have me. He'll never have me, I think. If my life were only to deny him that, it would almost be enough. I could do his voice now if I wanted. His corruption began when he lost me. "You," I shout, rubbing it in, "indulger, dispense me no dispensations. Push the bully hates your heart!"
"Shut him up, somebody," Eugene cries. His saliva spills from his mouth when he speaks.
"Swallow! Pig, swallow!"
He rushes toward me.
Suddenly I raise my arms and he stops. I feel a power in me. I am Push, Push the bully, God of the Neighborhood, its incarnation of envy and jealousy and need. I vie, strive, emulate, compete, a contender in every event there is. I didn't make myself. I probably can't save myself, but maybe that's the only need I don't have! I taste my lack and that's how I win — by having nothing to lose. It's not good enough! I want and I want and I will die wanting, but first I will have something. This time I will have something. I say it aloud. "This time I will have something!" I step toward them. The power makes me dizzy. It is enormous. They feel it. They back away. They crouch in the shadow of my outstretched wings. It isn't deceit this time but the real magic at last, the genuine thing: the cabala of my hate, of my irreconcilableness.
Logic is nothing. Desire is stronger.
I move toward Eugene. "I will have something," I roar.
"Stand back," he shrieks, "I'll spit in your eye."
"I will have something. I will have terror. I will have drought. I bring the dearth. Famine's contagious. Also is thirst. Privation, privation, bareness, void. I dry up your glands, I poison your well."
He is choking, gasping, chewing furiously. He opens his mouth. It is dry. His throat is parched. There is sand on his tongue.
They moan. They are terrified, but they move up to see. We are thrown together. Slud, Frank, Clob, Mimmer, the others, John Williams, myself. I will not be reconciled, or halve my hate. It's what I have, all I can keep. My bully's sour solace. It's enough, I'll make do.
I can't stand them near me. I move against them. I shove them away. I force them off. I press them, thrust them aside. I push through.