The words came out of my mouth exactly the way my older and only brother, Jim, had enthusiastically demonstrated.
“Shut it, fat boy!” I firmly said.
I held my ground and waited for Charlie Demarco to approach me on the outside steps of the Garden City Park elementary school. Fourth, fifth, and sixth-graders responding to the 3 o’clock bell flooded the north exit and trickled down a widening set of marble stairs that served as the social epicenter of the schoolyard. The scuffle of Pro-Keds and the pop of hard blue rubber balls slapping against smooth red bricks and soft adolescent hands suddenly became quiet as every bright young face abandoned the joyous celebration of another ending school day to witness the power struggle between the overweight bully and the thin blond-haired kid who had publicly challenged his reputation.
“Dom, listen to me . . . this is what you do.”
Jim knelt down beside me and held out his hand; it was then that I realized he was cognizant of the situation.
“Close your fingers tight, leave the thumb outside so you don’t break it, then pull your arm straight back and turn your body into the punch, while twisting your hips to get strength from your legs — here, watch me do it.”
I had complete faith in him as he stood up and aggressively punched the air, grunting with each repeated movement before snapping on a tan leather catcher’s vest that he had borrowed from a teammate who lived around the block from us.
“Hit me right here — good — again — nice!”
He corrected my form as I aggressively punched him square in the chest until I finally met his approval.
I never really knew if my brother had even liked me up until that point. I would have been fine ignoring the taunting behavior of my younger, larger adversary, but Jim insisted that I nip it in the bud before my reputation became tarnished. I wasn’t aggressive by nature and I didn’t feel Charlie would ever hurt me, but I did consider how others would view me if I let it continue. So I took Jim’s advice and patiently waited until the end of the school day to oppose Charlie in front of a crowd.
Jim had specifically instructed me to stand at the top of the stairs and glare at him until I received his attention, forcing Charlie to approach me after I embarrassed him about his weight. He felt I had the upper hand because my attitude towards the situation had been elusive so far. One calculated act in front of my peers and underclassmen would not only change Charlie’s behavior, it would also prove I wasn’t someone to be taken lightly, even though my modus suggested otherwise.
“What’d you say to me, Dominick?”
Charlie’s voice ever-so-slightly cracked as he said my name. His darting eyes and hesitant stride, which implied doubt in his initial split-second reaction, opened a whole new world of confidence and awareness to me, and proved he was indeed fearful of the situation. I carefully watched his every movement, his every tick, as he was forced to reevaluate over two weeks of neutral behavior in the few seconds it took to climb the steps towards me.
“Kick his ass, Dommy!” a familiar voice rang from the crowd.
I momentarily broke eye contact and observed my best friend, Joey Carbone, leaning on the metal handrail at the bottom of the steps. His powerful inflection gave me a rush of adrenaline that triggered an unexpected rising anger. I was finally able to acknowledge that Charlie’s behavior really did irritate me, and just as he reached the step below me, all of my emotion took over as I cocked my arm lightning fast and crashed my fist directly into his nose. He immediately dropped to his knees and reached out to brace the step below me. The crowd gasped in unison as blood sprayed and stained the random streaks of blue waves beneath the polished white stone. Charlie unsteadily rose, held his ground, and cursed me in a muffled, fearful rage with cupped hands over his nose as if he was looking for an answer in prayer. He was now convinced I was tactfully aggressive as I intently stood above him, fantastically present with my newfound veracity, waiting for some kind of retaliation that never came.
The intense flood of emotion and the immense concentration it took to remain dominant and appear calm shifted something inside me. Events seemed to almost slow down and stand still, allowing me to tap into the abstract, fluid nature of life, before the intensity of my actions wore off and left me holding on to something I couldn’t quite define. This shifted perspective revealed the possibility of tapping into the sublime nature that all humans possess, especially an 11-year-old boy discovering his will to live and define the world around him.
Instead of disabling me by fighting my battles for me, Jim had intuitively demonstrated his brotherly love by presenting me with an effective strategy to defend myself, which changed the course of my life. It was the gift that kept on giving by offering me a glimpse into living an honest, informed existence by making conscious, present decisions, instead of being a slave to unconscious emotional reactions and confusion.
The whole experience left me with much to contemplate, and even more so today. I still search within for the clarity and awareness I felt in that moment as I delivered and observed Charlie’s experience of karmic retribution almost three decades ago.
Charlie continued his fearful, chaotic verbal rant as I picked up my knapsack and grabbed the glossy black metal handrail to balance myself as I descended the stairs. A small group of friends huddled and congratulated me as we walked off the school grounds. When I arrived at home that afternoon, Jim was in the street playing Wiffle-ball with several of the neighborhood boys. He gave the pitcher a wave and tapped the plastic yellow bat against an old faded lawn chair, which doubled as catcher and the strike zone, before addressing me.
“So, how’d it go?” he said.
Everyone cheered as I silently shook my head and smiled.
“I told you so,” Jim said, and left it at that.
As I walked away, I realized that Jim was unable to verbally express how he truly felt about me. We were both faced with — along with every other boy innocently playing in the street that day — the monumental task of understanding the convolution of feelings and emotion. No matter how indifferent Jim’s reply seemed, his actions certainly spoke louder than his words.
Anthony Picicci lived and worked in East Hampton for several decades. He is studying creative writing at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington.