On my first day of high school, a good ten minutes after the bell had rung, a new kid came through the door of our Spanish class. As he passed by, Mr. Paez, our teacher, stopped in mid-sentence and stared. We all did. The kid was a good four or five years older than we were, tall, and skinny as a twig. Dark stubble on his long Appalachian face made him seem weary. He looked like Abraham Lincoln costumed to play a few of Brando’s scenes in The Wild One. His white T-shirt was ironed and spotless, the sleeves rolled up like condoms to show off arms as thin as spaghetti strands. His unwashed Levis were pulled down so far that only a death grip from a wide black belt kept the pants from falling off completely. The bottoms of the denims were tucked into polished black motorcycle boots, each with its own shiny chrome buckle. The boy’s body danced as he walked down one of the aisles between desks, his limbs rolling this way and that, his head bobbing to the rhythm of some private music. He flopped into the seat across from me, sprawled his long legs out across the aisle and winked.
His name was Phil Nicholson. Pale and fragile, it was hard not to grin at his biker garb and tough guy pose. That first day on campus he turned heads. By the second day, the school’s jocks, hoods, and surfers were calling Nicholson names and laughing at him, trying to see who could get deepest under his skin. On the third day just before the first bell, he snapped, pushing a football player, an all-conference lineman, who also held the school record for tossing a shot-put, and by lunch break everyone on campus knew that when classes let out that afternoon, the weird new kid would be stomped senseless in the alley behind school. It was the kind of train wreck no one wanted to miss.
Our proximity in class made Nicholson and me partners for Spanish practice, and he listened as I read phrases from Hablar y Leer and practiced rolling my r’s. That Wednesday he showed no concern about his after-school appointment. “Come have a look,” he said. “You can be my second. Mi segundo.” His pronunciation was near perfect.
I went. So did nearly everyone in school. The alley was jammed. I wasn’t exactly Nicholson’s second, but I was the only one who stood anywhere near him. His opponent wasn’t much taller than Nicholson, but he was all body, a thick neck, knotty biceps, veins tunneled along massive forearms. His friends laughed and slapped the ball player on the back as he stepped into the center of the alley.
Nicholson nodded towards me, forced a grin, and then slowly walked out. There were titters throughout the crowd. All pale skin and bones, Nicholson seemed a clown, his pants sagging down below his ass, his boots at least two sizes too big for his frame. It was impossible to imagine him offering even the slightest challenge.
The jock snarled an obscenity and strode forward, his right fist cocked by his shoulder.
Nicholson stood still, poised like a matador, waiting for the fist to be unleashed. When it was, he ducked, and his right hand dropped to his ankle, Nicholson’s fingers reaching inside the top of his boot. He whipped out a long metal chain, and it arced through the air. The chromed steel lashed across the jock’s mouth, snapping teeth off the way a careening car levels highway road signs, a slurry of blood and white chips spewing into the alley. The jock’s arms flew up to his face, and he dropped to his knees, blood boiling from his mouth.
We were all stunned. The downed jock moaned and cried out in pain. Nicholson turned, the chain draped over his hand. Our eyes met briefly and he shrugged, then he walked away. Several of the jock’s friends shouted threats, but no one pursued Nicholson. He turned a corner and disappeared.
My first year of high school had barely started and, standing in that alley, it could not have been clearer that I had a lot to learn. That was a long time ago. I never saw Nicholson again.
Tom Moran’s essays and non-fiction pieces have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Seattle Times, Washington Post, LA Weekly, California Living, Beyond Baroque, LA, Reed, Stone Canoe, Penumbra, and other publications. He teaches at Rochester Institute of Technology in upstate New York, and is working on a collection of stories based on the antics of artist/photographer/filmmaker Tom Sewell. (Tom Moran blogs on the origin of this essay here.)
Photography by Eleanor Leonne Bennett