“You wanna die, Schaeffer? You wanna die right now? Because I can kill you, you know. And there’s nothing that anyone can do about it. Would you like that?”
Although Stefano had no doubt intended the question to be purely rhetorical, I shook my head, even as Stefano tightened his grip around my shirt collar, making it more difficult for me to breathe. Nor did I really believe that Matt Stefano would kill me—though there were times that I wondered. But it would not be beyond him to hurt me very, very badly. Matt Stefano, I believed, was either seriously crazy or pathologically evil—and possibly both.
Behind me, I could feel the brick wall of the rear side of St. Patrick’s Elementary School. Why had I been stupid enough to wander back here after eating lunch? When you’re a twelve-year-old boy who is trying to dodge a bully, there is always safety in numbers. You want to be out in the open, where everyone can see everything and everyone.
The rest of the seventh and eighth graders—not to mention two or three teachers—were on the other side of the building. But they might as well have been a mile or two away. Back here, beneath the late autumn shade of the pin oak trees that dominated the rear of the school building, it was only Matt Stefano and I.
“Do you wanna die?” he repeated. “Do you?”
What did he expect me to say? I might have pointed out, for instance, that this was far from a fair fight. Matt Stefano was not only an eighth grader—but an eighth grader who had been held back at least once. (And there were persistent rumors that he had been held back twice along the way.) So I was twelve years old, and he was fourteen or fifteen. At that age among boys, two or three years of growth confers a big advantage.
Add to that the fact that Stefano was a naturally big boy. He was by far the tallest of the eighth graders, coming in at just over six feet and perhaps a hundred and eighty pounds or so. He could easily have been an athlete, but it was clear that Matt Stefano much preferred to be a hoodlum. He wore his hair long, even as long hair was now starting to pass out of style, a remnant of the recent sixties and seventies.
In those adolescent years in which the concepts of sex appeal and popularity are nascent, Matt wasn't quite a heartthrob. Not quite. That honor was reserved for the more clean-cut, mainstream boys who excelled at basketball and baseball. But Stefano definitely had a following among both the seventh and eighth grade girls.
While I waited for Matt Stefano to do his worst, I had a random thought: Why had my parents sent me to St. Patrick’s Elementary School in the first place—instead of the nearby public school, Youngman Elementary?
Certainly they had wanted me to get a Catholic education. At St. Patrick’s we wore the typical Catholic school uniforms: white shirts and dark slacks for the boys, plaid skirts and white blouses for the girls. We attended mass once a week, and one of our regular courses was indeed called Religion—a mixture of church history, Bible study, and current events from a Catholic perspective. My parents were both devoted Roman Catholics, so that was important to them.
But maybe, I thought, they also wanted to spare me the indignity of being held against a wall by a school bully like Matt Stefano. What was he even doing at St. Patrick’s, I wondered? Who had signed the papers that had allowed him in here?
This town, Withamsville, was not even a town, properly speaking, but a “census-designated place” not far from the Cincinnati city limits. Withamsville was a mixed income community where the old money neighborhoods of the city bled into a semirural zone of body shops, trailer parks, and pony kegs. Withamsville was neither city nor farmland, but a no-man’s land where newly built suburbs mingled with postwar tract homes, and still older, decaying neighborhoods inhabited by the sons of Appalachian migrants, and white-flight refugees who had fled the poorer sections of the city following the race riots of the 1960s. It was a world that was alternately refined and rough, where upper middle class kids like me often fell prey to working class bullies like Matt Stefano.
That was about the time when we both heard the rock crash against the wall, not so very far from Matt’s left ear. The sound immediately captured both our attention, and Matt temporarily relaxed his grip on me. But he didn't let go.
Serial be continued....
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