Liam? He couldn’t squeeze his skinny, scrawny fists any tighter. The backs of his hands was all dingy in the cracks, scrapped and bruised and worn from all his nearly twelve hardscrabble, farmbred years of livin’. His rangy neck muscles strained hard against his too small buttoned up collar, fabric worn and frayed. Lord, he wanted to scream so. He gritted his teeth so hard he could fairly hear them crackling under the pressure. His breathin’ wouldn’t hardly come up from his insides, much less out through his nose holes or anywheres else. He’d like to explode from all them extra breaths trapped deep down. A big ol’ giant foggy bubble filled his head so’s he couldn’t see nothing but pops of lights. Nor could he hear nothing neither, just static, like from the radio late in the night betwixt far off, lonely stations playin’ Tex Ritter and Gene Autry.
This is what pure black as coal hatred feels like. He cultivated this singular solitary line of thought. Pure ragged rage. Bitter tasting anger. Vile, putrid venom. It don’t just eat you, his brain told him, it comes near devourin’ you from the inside out. Big ol’ raggedy torn up bites, drippin’ with blood and gore and spaghetti strings of innards unknown. Nasty.
“Nice shoes, boy.” Ugly, taunting words pierced the static. And while the tiny piece of him seeing clear told him the voice was beyond arms length, the mammoth, putrid hateful part assured Liam that ugly, doughy face was purtin’near an inch from his. Even if were so, he weren’t able to see it anyhow, his anger blinding him true. Still, the youngster could smell it, that porcine breath, no chance he could mask the stink of the bologna sandwich ol’ Winston’d had hours ago for lunch.
“Yeah, them is really fine shoes, boy.”
Laughter and snorts of derision echoed not far behind.
Liam, somewhere outside himself, reckoned it was time to stop with the “boy.”
His next highly vola-tile, irreverent, taking-the-Lord’s-name-in-vain thought, though, must ‘a made itself heard.
Because at that point Winston snickered real loud, tossing back a fat burbling laugh over his fat shoulder. No tellin’ how long he’d practiced that move. Turning back, his little puffy pig eyes narrowed, dark as midnight. He was gettin’ stirred up. His so-called pals, repulsive follow-the-leader suckers the lot of ’em, sneered then guffawed along behind, amused and secretly relieved for a di-version from Winston’s normal pursuit of a-bullyin’ them. They could smell somethin’ was a’comin’ and they wanted to be on the winnin’ end.
“Hey, , boy, where’d you get them shoes?” Another snicker behind a fat hand. “Them’s just all right! I think I’d like me some, sure would!” A jiggly speck of saliva caught in the corner of the big boy’s mouth, unnoticed. Liam tried hard to focus his writhing senses on that speck, keepin’ his ownself in check. Again, nasty.
His mind, however, would not stay still, it kept on a’chewin’ and spewin’. “I ain’t yer “boy,” it shouted! He kinda hoped not out loud, but then kinda hoped it was. Near time for this to be over and done with, one way or th’ other.
Winston gave a pig snort appropriate to his constitution, then, sing-songy, “We’d like us some shoes just like that, wouldn’t we, fellers? Where’d you get them, huh, boy? In the little girls‘ department down to the store?”
Here we go.
Lard boy Winston reckoned himself pretty hi-larious, Liam noted, his jelly belly bending plum double, creased in the middle, then fake laughing just for the show. Cur-like minions a’joinin’ in the glee added to the fun. They was like wolves a’circin’ their prey, all itchy and ready to pounce, waitin’ for just that moment the schrivledy little rabbit showed its fear. Then, bam! Rabbit stew for dinner. Seen it a hunderd times.
Liam vowed he would not be the rabbit, not this day.
Immobile, purposeful or not, Liam was planted, the deepest unseen part of him rooted deep down through the wooden schoolhouse porch, anchored solid in the clay beneath, unable to move or even sway. Couldn’t run nor even turn away. Aged nearly twelve with a birthday month after next, and growin’ like a weed, his dungarees was inches too short, his bony ankles rising high above his stretched-to-death socks, and his stretched-to-death socks puddling sadly atop…here he couldn’t help an inner sigh…atop his big sister’s outgrowed shoes.
His sister’s shoes.
His sister’s shoes.
They was all ‘twould fit this mornin’ come gettin’ ready time. Why, his tattered boots, they fit a mite snug yesterday, but today, they simply would not allow entrance of Liam’s growing feet, no matter how much he pushed and tugged and silently swore. He pondered, just for a moment, slicing the toe end right off, leaving his own toes the wide open spaces for to wiggle and jiggle. He then pondered one more moment , one too long, he reckoned, and knew Mama’d not let the destruction of a perfectly good pair of boots, worn in and ready for his the young’uns followin’ behind, stand. Bald panic ensued. The boy barreled ’round and ’round the house, inside and out, tossin’ things hither and there-ther. Surely the big boys had some leftover shoes ready for hand-me-down duty. He dove under beds, shimmied into the tight space behind behind the sooty wood-fired stove, even checked in the barn where the muddy boots and stiff oilcloth jackets lived. He’d come out triumphant with a pair of Daddy’s hip waders, but Mama’d have none of that. She vetoed them waders right quick. Now, true, she had some sympathy for his plight, she did love him awful bad, but time was short and she would not abide his being late to school. What she would also not abide was her precious son arrivin’ down to the schoolhouse in them too big rubber tubes still smellin’ of dead fish.
Still, he plead his case somethin’ fierce.
“Please, Mama, I cain’t. I just cain’t. These is Luce’s shoes!” A salty tear or two might of helped turn the tide, but Mama’d made up her mind, and frankly, manufacturing personal precipitation never came easy for Liam.
She’d looked him straight in the eye, mournful somehow, her words, though, was anything but.
“Liam, straighten up! Ain’t no shame in wearin’ Luce’s shoes. They’s nice leather, and they got plenty of wear left in ’em.” Mama was not without her pride, “And it beats goin’ without, like some poor folk.”
Mama had said her piece.
Backtalk would’a earned him the switch.
Done and done.
She was an understandin’ woman, and a little softness come through. They, the two of them, ripped and pulled and chewed and sawed with an old file but couldn’t quite get the buckles and straps clean off, not in a hurry anyhow. Nothin’ he could do but push the telling Maryjane stumps hard inside the side of the shoes, and go a’ limpin’ and a’scufflin’ his way down the lane toward the one room house of learnin’. There was some heartfelt prayin’, hopin’ the whole way and the whole day no one would notice. He hoped his mama was a’prayin’ too, ’cause the Good Lord answered her prayers way more often than his.
And sure enough, didn’t nobody notice none, neither, at least not until going home time, which is what time it was. He’d surely and purely concentrated hard on the hidin’ of them shoes. The entire day, Liam’d managed to tuck his newly growed feet up under his desk tight and clean, one on top a’ the other’n so’d only one showed at at time. He’d been studyin’ up on his fractions, it was standard in sixth grade, so he was purty sure he was only half as prone to bein’ found out. He sat on his haunches at lunch. Uncomfortable, sure. Still nobody’d said a word. Now, he’d admit catchin’ a glance from Luce early on, but it was one full of pity, and he couldn’t hardly abide that neither.
But that was the extent. And that’s when Liam, thinking he was home free, waited till he thought everybody’d headed home before he slipped out. He slung his books, cinched tight together with an old belt, over his to his back. He looked left then looked right out the door, then took a caution step out to the wooden porch.
That’s where Winston and the boys was waitin’. A little semi-circle of jibes and jeers and torment gathered at the bottom of the schoolhouse steps. That’s when his heart dived straight down to the pit of his person, wallerin’ there, waitin’ to die. Throwin’ up was what his insides wanted, his stomach lurchin’ in and out, tryin’ to spew. Liam kept it down, where it started to stew.
“Hee Haw! Them is some shoes you got, Liam! You look so pretty!”
Quick as a lick, mortification and shame turned to fury and flames.
No tellin’ how long he just stood there, straight and proud, and shoes bared for all the world, and Winston, to see. Not much else he could do.
Chilled, it occurred to him he was not afraid, not one iota. He buried that line of thinkin’ too, knowin’ he’d need all his attention for what he knew lay ahead.
He’d take it as long as he could, Liam vowed, but his red-headed temper was a takin’ its toll. His insides was now a seethin’, wrigglin’ mess of oily innards. They was all afire and blazin’. Liam was sure smoke must be emittin’ from his person somewheres.
His whole self was stiff, the top of his head ready to pop like a Polynesian volcano he’d seen down to the the-ater. All hot and seeping red orange goo. A low gutteral growl started way low in his belly and was bubblin’ up at the back of his throat. Them big boys couldn’t hear it for all that sniggerin’ and tee-heein’ and Liam wasn’t of a mind to force it back down. Wouldn’t. Maybe couldn’t.
He was fixin’ to erupt after all. It tasted hot and spicy, hot tamale-like.
And so he stayed, planted. Murder ‘n mayhem was a’comin’ and he cared not one whit he’d be the perpetrater of the same.
And them boys, unbeknowin” of the thunder and lightnin’ awaitin’ them, they kept on with their laughin’ and jawin’.
“Liam, what are you, a girl?”
“Them’s girl shoes! You get dressed in the dark, son?!”
“Liam’s not a feller ‘tall! He’s LeeAnn!”
“LeeAnn! LeeAnn! Nice shoes, there, LeeAnn!”
Oh, they was funny, wasn’t they. The cloud in his head broke ever so slightly, he could see a red haze through squinted eyes. Classmates he’d been sure was long gone hung out of nearly every tree and peeked ’round the corners of the whitewashed building, witnesses to his humiliation, afraid for their ownselves lest Winston and his crew turned their attentions their way.
Liam knew he hadn’t much time. Them wolves was closin’ in, circlin’ tighter and tighter. Smells of hot metal burned his nose. He’d best take the fight to them, elsewise he’d be cornered up here on this porch, no options but to flee inside the cool sanctuary of the classroom. No salvation there. Miss Meadows was a’gradin’ papers up to her desk, unknowin’. He’d melt into a puddle before he sought refuge from these thugs in front of her.
No. No runnin’. This was, Liam vouched, a turnin’ moment of his life, one he’d long remember. He vouched, one more time, he’d remember it or die a’tryin.
Lights in his head was firecrackers now and the rush in his ears was the like the crick after the first big thaw, gushin’ loud and mean. Flexin’ his hands, he stepped strong and slow down the first step. Beady-eyed Winston waved his boys back. They shut right up, tense, tight. He himself stepped one step closer to the bottom of the stairs.
Winston’s watched, moving not a muscle, black eyes drillin’ holes into Liam’s.
Liam took the next step, deliberate. Slow.
So’d Winston. Eyeball to eyeball.
Liam’s head cleared right up just that instant, just like that, sparkly and blue as the sky after a summer rain. Things was as clear as clear could be, and truth be known, the picture unfolding before him in stark Technacolor rattled him a pinch. Liam stomped down hard on the next wooden step, a reminder of his march to his destiny. Luce’s leather shoes was firm but squeaked just a bit. Now only one step down to the ground where the wolves was now silent as puny lambs, and not near as purty.
Not the time to think about it, Liam, took that last step to the ground, even up with ol’ Winston. Well, even with his Adam’s apple, but they’s eyes was glued to the other’n. Liam’s growl burst out sharp, barkin’,
“You got a problem with my shoes?” Sure don’t sound like me, Liam’s small voice noted quietly.
Winston rolled his tongue ’round the insides of his mouth, a poke here and there showin’ out the sides of one or t’other of his chubby cheeks . He curved his fat back, throwing his neck back so his face was even with Liam’s. Close this time, sharin’ breath close. Exceptin’ Liam was holdin’ his.
Darkly, deeply, breathy, “I reckon I do.”
Then, a shot! A cannon shot of a right hook came from the depths of the skinniest boy in the sixth grade, a punch ‘twoud be remembered dismembered and talked about in graphic relief for time immemoriam! The slingshot tension of all that anger and embarrassment and hate and shame snapped that wiry arm back and thrust it forward with the forward motion of a loco-motive! Toot toot and shoot!
Liam, feelin’ less red and boilin’ over, found himself oddly spent and still, lookin’ down on the bloodied mangled mess of a nose of the biggest boy in the eighth grade. Detatched, like them folks what came back from being slain in the Spirit down to the Pentecostal Church. And the biggest boy in the eighth grade found himself wiping away a few tears, his own humiliation on display for God and ever’body else to see. Snufflin’ and makin’ fussy baby noises didn’t help him none, and his pack turned their heads away, shamed.
His own arm hung loose, dangling unaffected and uncaring at his side. It took some effort to raise it. Liam eyed it and the bony fist attached wonderingly. Was it his own? He’d no recollection of pulling his arm back and lettin’ ‘er rip. Remembered nothing about it finding its way to Winston’s nose. None whatsoever. It done it of its own accord. He wasn’t even certain it’d felt good, nor if it would rare back and do it again, of it’s own volition. Would it? Could he will it? Should he try it? Worth a shot, Liam smiled. He managed one short motion in the direction of that downed tub a’ lard, a slow fire kindlin’ once again, and hintin’ at heatin’ up.
This newfound fire lasted only a second or two when Liam’s mouth fell slack, open, agape, and his ear twisted and burned somethin’ turrible.
Miss Meadows, her teensy little almost womanself loaded for bear twisted for all she was worth.
“Ow ow ow ow OW!” Liam was practically on his knees, shimmyin’ the rest of hisself to undo the twist put upon his left ear.
“Liam! Young man! What’s going on here, tell me right now!”
A cacophony of voices, the whole peanut gallery what spectated the whole ordeal, the schoolmates who’d thought better that day than mention the girly shoes Liam’d been sportin’, their voices rose all at once, explainin’, describin’, joyful and giddy.
“You should ‘a see’d it, Mizz Meadows!”
“Winston started it! Winston started it!”
“Picked on Liam, ’cause a’ his shoes!”
“Bad form!” This from Liam’s bookworm sister Luce.
“Boy, but did ol’ Liam end it!”
“Did he ever! One punch, boy, one punch!”
“Right in the kisser” not accurate, but the general idea.
“Yeah! Hu-rray for ol’ Liam!”
“He oughta be a boxer! Hey, Liam go after his bunch, boy!” The giddiness reached a pitch. Winston’s bunch went pale.
Miss Meadows put one hand up, and the juvenile cheering section shushed themselves and each other. Winston just covered his face with his pudgy hands, whimpering, still sidelong in the dirt.
Looking stern, Miss Meadows pursed her lips, finding Liam’s eyes.
Once there, she asked, “You the one responsible for what just happened here?”
Now the sun was fairly shinin’, his whole self gloriously lit from the insides.
He looked her straight in the eye.
“Yes, ma’am, he said loud and proud.
“I reckon I am.”