I've got a big mouth.
I always have. I think it has to do with being an only child and having to invent my friends. Not that I didn't have real friends, but sometimes, for logistical reasons, they had to be at the house that they lived in and do god knows what. So I improvised.
As real as imaginary friends may seem to a 10 year old boy, they have an inherent flaw. They don't talk back. This is, of course, for obvious reasons. But this non interaction can lead to cognitive distortions. Not only do you sometimes get mad at these imaginary people because they can't hear you, but it allows for gratuitous boasting. "I have the best tank in the world. It's got a super sized gun on top. It cost a million dollars. And I didn't have to pay for it. My grandfather gave it to me. Hah!"
They won't ever tell you to shut up. And somehow, they can never top you. You can just go on, and on, and on, at what an amazing tank you are armed with. And in your head they are smiling and nodding and are jealous as hell. They could save up all the imaginary money in the world and they'd never acquire as nice of a tank as you possess.
You're dead. Should've come better prepared.
When I was 10 or so, my grandfather gave me an exceptionally nice ring. It was solid gold with a ruby on top and little sparkly diamonds surrounding it. It was his pinkie ring but it fit on my fat middle finger. Barely. It was like the Muppet Show; once it was on, it was not going to be removed without a fight. That second knuckle was a formidable checkpoint and used to infuriate me on a nightly basis until I gave up one day and decided to keep it on until further notice, much to the dismay of my mother.
I took guitar lessons at Fereirra's Music Store in a section of Fall River called, The Flint. The store was owned and operated by a fast talking Portuguese man named Ed Fereirra. Mr. Fereirra had a phenomenal toupee, a big smile, and an impressive selection of musical instruments.
Directly across from the music store was a steak sandwich shop called Dave's. It was just a little hole in the wall that was mostly kitchen, separated by a wall with 2 windows; one for ordering, one for pickup.
And then there was the Galaga machine.
Galaga was one of the more entertaining space fighter games, loosely based on Space Invaders. Large, colorful, and ready to accept your money. It was also kind of like an only child. It could play all by itself. You could stand there and watch the screen and witness the game replay a well fought scenario for hours if you wanted to; no quarters necessary. It didn't need you. It had plenty of fun just sitting in the corner of the room practicing by itself. And since you were like an imaginary friend to it, with no way of practicing stealth moves and increasing your life expectancy on your own, when it said "Insert one quarter" it was hard to resist.
I had gone up the Flint one fine day (as they say in Spindle City) to ogle the Moserite guitar that Mr. Fereirra had recently acquired when I got the itch. I needed to see my pixelated foe, Galaga. And so, I stepped outside the store and walked past the wrought iron security gate; past the learner's drum set and the slide whistles in the window, and made my way across the street and stepped into Dave's Steak Shop.
There it was in all its glory. My opponent. My tall, colorful, shiny, noisy, only child of a video game, just sitting in the corner playing all by itself. It offered to compete, and I stepped up to the machine. I tauntingly jogged its red topped joystick and tapped the "one player button" playfully to let it know I wanted in. I inserted a quarter in the coin slot with my jewel encrusted 10 year old paw, and began my attack.
I was good. Very good. Many an hour had been spent either at Dave's or at the "Pinball Wizard" on South Main St. practicing my moves.
As I was about to advance to the next level of competition, I felt the sunlight from the window to my right disappear, quickly cooling my freckled right cheek. It provided me with an even better view of the monitor within. I took a quick glance over my shoulder and caught a glimpse of him. Tall, greasy, curly black hair, fourteen or fifteen years old, sleeveless shirt with sinewy muscles and beady eyes set in a permanent squint.
I attended to my game.
"Nice ring." he said.
"Yeah, thanks. It's real gold with those cool little diamonds."
My left hand fired a volley of staccato shots into the oncoming onslaught of alien swarm.
"And that's a real ruby on top." I said. " My grandfather gave it to me."
"Huh! Must be worth a lot of money."
"Oh yeah. I'm not supposed to even be wearing it out of the house." I proudly explained.
And he left.
I finished my game. The aliens had won this round, but I'd be back.
I left Dave's Steak Shop and walked around the corner to begin my short journey back to 1073 Bedford St. The intoxicating smell of steak and onions had reminded me that it was almost dinner time and Mom was making burgers; Momburgers as she called them. Not to be missed.
I didn't really understand what was happening until after the second punch. He had run up so quickly that I only heard the last few rapid footsteps from behind me. I caught the tail end of his shadow eclipsing mine on the sidewalk. It was like a hawk dropping fast over a mouse.
The next thing I knew, he was furiously pounding me in the face from behind. His long skinny arm curling around and dropping quickly with his tight, right fist. His other arm firmly wrapped around my neck.
"Gimme the ring! Gimme the ring you fat bastard!"
I saw a few thick drops of blood hit the tar speckled cement sidewalk. I felt and heard my head hit the cinder block music store wall as he threw me against it. He wasn't far behind as he slammed against me, smashing my left shoulder against the graffiti covered store wall.
"No! Lea-mee alone!" I yelled. "Help!" I screamed, and he hit me again.
He took a break from beating me and grabbed my fat hand and started pulling on the ring. It wasn't going anywhere. The little bastard pulled at my ring with the might of a giant and I felt it cut into my soft, piggy, middle finger.
"Gimme the fuckin' ring!"
"Lea...me...alone...ahhhhh!" I cried into the mid afternoon Fall River sky.
I saw a couple walking towards us on the other side of the street. They pointed and shouted in our direction. He hit me twice more; hard, and then, all of a sudden, it was over. He ran quickly away and around the corner of the music store.
I was laying on the sidewalk bleeding from my lip, clutching my still barely connected finger, complete with solid gold, ruby topped, diamond speckled ring.
"Are you alright?" the onlooker asked me.
"I nah no." I said as I felt my tears sting my split bottom lip.
"Did you know that kid?"
"Uh-uh." I told them. They helped me up and asked if I wanted them to call the police.
I told them no and ran home, crying loudly the whole way.
My mother was in shock. She cleaned me up and held me close and put the burgers on hold. I wasn't going to be eating any sandwiches for a couple of days. Not with a split lip like I had.
My grandfather came over and we went downtown in his white '68 Caprice. We went looking for my attacker. We drove by Dave's Steak House. There were a couple of kids inside playing Galaga but neither one of them was our guy.
We drove up and down and all around and I couldn't spot the kid. He looked like a thousand other skinny kids from the projects. But I'll never forget that early evening drive looking for vengeance; looking for the kid that attacked the grandson of a proud man. A very proud, very angry man. We drove for a while longer, and he took me home.
I started taking Karate lessons the very next week. It was a class offered at the YMCA run by a man named Mr. Botelho. He looked like a cross between Scott Baio and Tony Danza; two of my favorite actors.
He taught me some moves; roundhouse kicks, punches, how to drop an attacker, how to roll back and bring down a would be knife-wielding foe, pulling him over you while your foot sat planted firmly in his midsection. And he taught me the spin-around, back hand smack.
I wasn't bullied too much in school. I was lucky. I played the harmonica. And anytime I felt threatened, I'd pull out my harmonica and start tooting along, making up a fun, happy, frantic song. I don't know if they were entertained, or if they just couldn't understand what I was all about and didn't want to find out. Sometimes, the unknown is more frightening than all the palpable power humanly possible.
And then there was Jason Rego.
Jason Rego went to James Madison Morton Middle school at the foot of President Avenue. He was a blonde, skinny punk of a kid with a face somewhat reminiscent of Tom Petty. He was rude, crude, smelly, and whiny. And he didn't like me at all.
He was in a lot of my seventh grade classes. I, unfortunately was forced to follow the same flow of students he inhabited on my way to class each day. And each day he would taunt me.
"Nice overalls Fred!" He'd say.
"Thanks Jason. My mom bought them for me. She has a job."
And of course he would become infuriated.
One day he was behind me as we walked to geometry class; to Mr. Meehan's big room with the Star Wars posters and the fish tank.
"Hey Fred." Jason said, "You smell like a turd."
"No I don't. But you do."
Point goes to Fred.
"You like girls and none of them like you."
Now this made me mad. It was true that I did like girls, but he had no right to imply that they felt differently about me. Little punk.
"Leave me alone Jason, or I'm gonna kick your ass."
"Are you gonna get your mommy to do it?" He said. "Is she gonna come down here and beat me up for you?"
"Jason, I'm warning you. I know karate." I said, and I clenched my fist.
"Oooohhh...fat Freddy is gonna beat me up. Nyah nyah na nyah nyha...you look like a girl...a fat girl...you look like a fat ugly girl, Fred."
And I hit him.
Not just hit him. I stunned him like a stuck pig. I swung around with all my chubby might, pulling the back of my hand from the furthest position on the other side of my body, swinging around and smacking him right across his stupid face. My hand hurt pretty bad, but I'm sure his face hurt even more.
I heard him start to cry.
Just a whimper at first, but soon a full on wail emanated from this skinny oh-so-tough punk.
"What's going on here!" yelled Mr. Nicolletti, the Principal of Morton.
"Jason was picking on me and I used karate on him." I calmly explained.
"You used karate?" Mr. Nicolletti asked. "Why did you do that?"
"Because I could." I said.
And as I looked around at the crowd that had gathered; the crowd that was presently ignoring Mr. Meehan's frantic attempts to break it up, I felt strong.
Because I could, said the short, confident, chubby, auburn haired kid in the overalls. The kid who was now being talked about by the 50 or so boys and girls that had gathered around the whimpering Jason Rego; blood trickling off his nose, forming a small pool on the dark linoleum floor.
The janitor would soon arrive with the sawdust.
Word spread around the school. I had used a weapon that none of them possessed, and that none of them could take away from me. In fact, Mr. Nicolletti couldn't even take it away from me. If I was alive, I knew karate. And if I knew karate, I could kick some serious ass.
I didn't have to use my harmonica so much after that; only when I felt like it.
How sweet is that?
I recently celebrated two full months of abstinence from drugs and alcohol. It is something I am very proud of, something that I value, and something that I have worked hard for.
It is not unlike the ring my grandfather gave me that I used to wear in the roughest places in town. It is something that I know is desirable. Not everyone is willing to do what it takes to obtain this small but priceless treasure. I myself was certainly not willing to work for it over more than 20 years. And just like the ring, if I flaunt it, I will be opening myself up for attack; for assault from stealthy foes who move fast and silent, both real and imaginary.
It is a skill that at present cannot be taken away from me. If I am sober, I have control of my life. If I use, I will become ill again and will most assuredly spiral out of control. This I know without a shadow of a doubt. So I remain strong. I take each precious day and noisily suck the last bit of life out of the bottom of the cup with a straw; skimming the surface for any remains.
I may have forgotten how to execute a back handed spin-around smack, but I sure as hell remember how a furious volley of punches to the face feels. And they feel even worse when they're self inflicted.
I may have a big mouth, but recently my brain has begun to call the shots. And they haven't involved whiskey, not even a little.
Hmmm...maybe a burger is in order.
Yeah, I could definitely wrap my big, fat mouth around one of those suckers.
Thanks for reading,