Thursday, January 5, 2012

Alligator Wrestling

The bus driver looked just like Miss Piggy's evil, red-headed stepmother. I dared not look at her girth shoe-horned into her seat as I got on the bus every day. It was best not to look her directly in the eye. Like Medusa, her power was reduced when viewed in the reflection of the rear view mirror. On a good day, the only thing the mirror showed was the small balding spot in her crispy red hair. On a bad day... hoo boy. The head would slowly move, planetary. First the eyes, dark and glassy, rimmed with sparkly green eye shadow, pasty and thick with the notion that green was the only acceptable color for redheads. Then the snout would emerge in that terrifying piece of glass and the whites of her eyes would flash as she searched the mirror for the cause of the hubbub. It was never me, but even so, my shivering spine sat a little straighter just in case. I'd look for as long as I could and then avert to something desperately interesting out the window.

He was in my grade, but at least 3 years older. A foot taller, a menacing wisp of shadow on upper lip and cheeks. His clothes were dirty, mismatched, holed and patched. His hair hung in lank twigs, uncut around his head. His face was haunted, hungry, and angry. He was not cowed by the threatening, porcine glare in the rear view. It only served to push him further once he got started. He was named after an alligator - Cayman. He lived with his mysterious family in the hills around our town. There were always whispers and rumors of the things his family got up to - unspeakable, foreign to my whole world.

My sister was in first grade. It was her first year on the bus. She was skinny and small for her age, but made up for it in personality and confidence. She could talk the paint down off a wall, sell you the seat you were sitting in, and make you love her all the more for it and beg for more. She had some friends on the bus and usually they would cram three to a seat and giggle and talk about My Little Ponies. I, being older by four years, was far too mature for such things. My friends got off the bus earlier than I did and my brother had just switched to the Junior High bus, so I mostly sat and watched and tried to avoid any unpleasant seat companions. It was a long ride out into the country where we lived, too winding to read and sadly, I'd become immune to the New England scenery that others paid good money to come and ogle.

It started with a scuffling. A quiet, subtextual shoving and hissing. Cayman and another boy arguing about a seat. I ignored them at first because it wasn't uncommon. Usually it sorted out until they could get off the bus and beat each other up. That day, though, there was a small girl in the seat in question. Small and skinny for her age, but outspoken.

"Get out of my seat!" I heard the familiar little voice holler and I tensed. More scuffling.
"SIT DOWN!" came the screeching edict from up front, so Cayman plopped into my sister's seat and contented himself with hissing threats at the other boy. When he bored with that, he turned his attention to my sister, who was looking resolutely out the window. I couldn't hear him from where I sat, but could see him keeping a constant patter of malevolence directed at my sister. Something made her turn and tell him to shut up.
"Leave me alone or my big brother will beat you up."

And then it all happened in a series of disjointed images. He stood up and hovered over her, she cowered. He uttered something unintelligible that turned her white and I stood up, made my way toward the scene. With jolting, jostling bus feet I lurched toward her, having no idea what I would do when I got there. I could barely hear the screeching of the bus driver over my own respiration. And then a zip, flash of skin and hair, menacing waggling and my sister's cries. My own animal instinct and revulsion took over. I grabbed the back of his greasy coat and he wheeled around. While he was turning, a fist that belonged to me, but was somehow detached from my experience punched him as hard as I could in the jaw.

I'd never before or since punched anyone in anger. The sick, oddly intimate sensation of bone meeting skin, meeting skin, meeting bone. The faint crunch of knuckles. The flashing anger in his eyes. He punched me back. Right in the face. I'd been raised in a chivalrous, civilized family. We never punched each other, and it was just known that you didn't hit girls. I had never anticipated punching him in the first place, much less the stinging, throbbing, eye watering return. That punch rattled loose some rage within me and I went in for another attack.

He clawed at my coat, my arms until he caught one and twisted it behind me. It was then that I realized that the bus had stopped. Stopped because of me. I was fighting on the bus. One of the unforgivable sins.
I dissolved into tears and my sister sat frightened and mute in the seat beside me.

She was out of her seat. She had to turn sideways to fit down the aisle and even then, the seats indented her flesh obscenely as she squished through. Scraped and bruised and terrified, I waited as she made her sloth-like progress toward us. No one spoke. I don't think I even breathed. "TO THE FRONT OF THE BUS! BOTH OF YOU!" It was a punishment worse than death itself. To sit with Cayman, in the front seat, right behind the bus driver. The longest ride of my life.

The next day as I timidly boarded the bus, I was curtly informed that I would have to ride in the front seat for a week, to and from school, because I "started it". I hadn't told my parents about the incident because I was afraid of getting in trouble for fighting on the bus. I swallowed my outrage silently and served my sentence without a word.

As an adult I look back and see an angry and troubled boy from a disorganized, probably abusive home. A whirling dervish of emotion and hormones and intensity, angry at the whole world and not given the tools to deal with it appropriately - so he fights, he exposes himself to little girls, he punches in the face. Instead of fearing him, I fear for him. I want to get him the help he so obviously needs. I never learned what became of him. I fear the worst. In the bus driver I see a tired, beleaguered woman. Underpaid and overworked, probably a little afraid of some of the hellions on her bus. We were the rough route. The route that wound out into the sticks, where kids were named after alligators. And my sister. She survived, she laughs about it now, pokes fun at me for being so uncharacteristically tough, grateful to know that I was and am the kind of sister who will defend her and come to her aid at any cost.

And me? I've ended my fighting career. That one knock-out round was the beginning and the end. That was enough for me. Just the one punch. But I'm glad to know I have it in me.

Written for Mama Kat's Pretty Much World Famous Writer's Workshop. The prompt? "Tell us about something you've punched."


  1. I think the instinct to protect is in all of us. I've never hit anyone and am not sure if I could. No, I'm sure I could if my kids were in danger.
    Isn't it interesting to look back at the people we knew as children and realizing that their lives affected who they were? I sometimes wonder how people looked at me.

  2. Yowsa! I would have done exactly the same thing...even today I think. I do wonder how his, and others like him, lives turned out. Maybe your punch set him straight?!?

  3. It's interesting how sometimes instinct takes over and judgement disappears. You are a fantastic storyteller!

  4. That is so crazy and BRAVE. I think it's awesome you stood up for your sister. There is no reason for that kind of bullying. I don't care where he comes from. Your descriptions were so spot on. LOVED your writing in this.:-)

  5. Mama Kat did a great job springing this from within you, Ess Stauss. Top Shelf. You spin a spell-binding tale.

  6. Great, great writing! Wonderful story!

  7. Wow! Thanks, folks! It seems like whenever I hesitate before posting something, it's the one people really like!

  8. As a kid, nothing got me going faster and hotter than someone being mean to my sister....actually, still true today. Although I've never punched anyone, I have made a grown man cry. He hasn't been mean to my sister again, so I'm pretty pleased with that moment.

  9. It's your writing style that suck us right into the story you tell... nicely done. Not sure I would have been that brave. I remember being bullied in 1st grade... but I don't remember fighting back. Luckily, it was short lived. But I too, think back to that little trouble boy and wonder what became of him.

  10. Ditto ditto and ditto! Great story!

  11. Oh I've felt my face burn when someone was teasing, or being downright mean to my brother...but I've never been one to hit.
    I use words. Which sometimes has worse effects than a punch. :(
    As everyone has already mentioned, you're an awesome story teller! Thanks for sharing your memories and stories with us.

  12. We moved around a lot, but we were on the "country bus" more often than not--sometimes riding up to an hour per trip. So I've witnessed not a few of these types of scenes and been victim to a smack in the back of the head from a high school boy when I was in fifth grade. (I had pushed his little brother away when he tried to kiss me earlier that day.)

    When a fellow rider exposed himself to my younger sister, she was a junior in high school and calmly said, "Where's the rest of it?"

  13. @Nadia - I totally thought your comment said "It's your writing style that sucks." Had a big giggle. Thank you for your kind words.
    @Larissa - I use words, too. I try not to fight in general any more. I'm a lover, not a fighter.
    @Masked Mom - I do believe we have led semi-parallel lives sometimes. There was NO ONE trying to kiss me in the 5th grade, much to my chagrin. And I think that's what my sister would have said a few years later. I love the word "smack" as in, "Smack, smack, Dig'em Smacks. Gimme a smack and I'll smack ya back."

  14. I found myself cheering for you. Not that I advocate violence, of course, but some people? Need a sock in the jaw.

  15. I, as a child, have been that full of blinding rage to protect/defend. It's terrifying and empowering.

    But what got me in this story wasn't your bravery. What got me is your insight as an you want to help that little boy (relatively speaking now). How horrible his life must have been then.

  16. Beautifully written. I'm enjoying following your writing. A rare treat. :)


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