by Jere Matlock
The seniors were waiting for him again after school, near the bicycle rack.
“Hey, Ray, whatsamatter, don’tcha wanna be pals?” Three of them, leaning on his bike. Both his tires were flat and the seat was kicked over to one side.
“What’s the deal, Jimmy?” he heard himself say, “You guys got nothing better to do than harass sophomores?”
“Oh, we got lots better to do, wise-ass!”
When he made no move to rescue his bike, they moved to surround him where he stood. The one behind him knocked his books out of his arms into the mud.
When he bent to pick up his books, Jimmy shoved him over. “Sorry, Ray. My mistake!” Jimmy kicked him once, and the other two splashed him with mud. The bell rang and they ran off to football practice, jabbing each other in the ribs and howling, “Oops, sorry!”
He’d made the mistake with these three before of trying to fight them. His black eye had healed, but the bruises on his ribs were still yellow from the experience.
He unlocked his bike and started walking it home. He tried filling the tires at the service station but this time they’d punctured them and he’d have to buy new ones if he wanted to ride to school again. Well, he’d just have to walk to and from school from now on, that was all. That way they wouldn’t be able to ambush him at the bike rack any more.
Two blocks away from the house, Ray saw his older sister Cora’s black Renault in the driveway. He ran the bike the rest of the way home, dropped it in the yard, and shouted her name while cruising from room to room in the little house. But there was no answer: his little sisters were still in school, his mom should already be working at the tavern, and his step-dad wasn’t usually back from the plywood plant until 6:00. “How typical,” he thought, “There are no answers to be had here.”
He dropped his books in the litter of his room and stripped off his muddy clothes. He put on clean clothes, smoothed the covers on his bed and plopped down on it. In three minutes he was sound asleep.
Gradually a faint mewling sound crept into his awareness. In the next few minutes the noise crossed the spectrum from mild annoyance to genuine aggravation. He dragged himself out of bed and began searching for its source. As he opened the door of his room and stepped out, he tripped over the noise problem.
An orange and white kitten shot down the hallway to hide under the sofa, mowling and hissing. “Well, now, where did you come from, kitty?” Just then his little sisters bounced in from the school bus. Within seconds Erica, the animal lover, had the kitten purring in her arms while she stroked its head and stomach. “That your cat?” Ray asked.
“No, this is Cora’s kitty and his name is ‘Savage Orange Beast!’ I’m taking care of him for her. Isn’t he just the sweetest little kitty you ever saw?”
“He’s a noisy, smelly furball is what he is, and he ought to be put out of his misery. But he’s kinda cute, at that. Where’s Carol?”
“She was here early this morning with Dick but they just dropped off the car and the cat and drove back to Portland. She told Mom to be sure and not let you drive her car.”
“Well, Geez, thanks for all the good news then, you little rat!” He missed Carol and was sorry she’d left without getting a chance to talk to her. “Carol loves that car. Why did she leave it here?”
Little Tammie piped up, “She said she couldn’t park it in her room and she has too many stickers, and she wants Mom to have it cause it’s too ‘spensive. And you can’t drive it!”
“You mean she keeps getting parking tickets and can’t afford the IN-surance. Geez! I’m only fifteen years old–I can’t drive it anyway, squirt!”
Both the girls set up a chant: “Ray can’t dri-ive! Ray can’t dri-ive! Ray can’t dri-ive!” until he started tickling them and they ran off, giggling, into their room.
The little orange cat sat on the sofa, licking its paw and then wiping its face repeatedly with the soggy member. “Blerrrt?” it asked.
“Yeah, Blert, yourself,” Ray said, picking it up. It purred loudly for a few minutes and then fell asleep in the crook of his arm. “I can see we’re gonna get along just fine, pal.”
* * *
Over the next few months Savage Orange Beast came into his own, becoming quite a respectable orange cat, given over utterly to the sloth that was both his right amd duty. During the day he could often be found lazing on his back, eyes closed, feet aimed half-heartedly at the sky, soaking up the sun on the back patio.
Football season gave way to basketball season, and Ray’s bruises healed and were forgotten. But all the same, he never took the same route twice out of the school buildings, nor the same path home from school. Since Ray was no longer biking to school and had become unpredictable in his habits, the seniors moved on to easier quarry: freshmen.
Taking a circuitous route home after a basketball game one night, Ray found himself walking next to a senior, a huge short-tempered lumberjack-type named Red Wilkins, who shared study hall with him. Before he could say anything or move out of range, Red said, “How’s it going, Ray?”
He couldn’t believe the hulk had even acknowledged his existence. Then he noticed that Red’s hands were bleeding.
“I’m fine–but what happened to your hands, Red?”
“Oh, some punk ducked and I hit a brick wall with my fist. Hurts like hell. You got a handkerchief or anything in that bag?”
Ray had an old stained sweatshirt in his backpack. He pulled it out. “This do?”
“Yeah. Thanks.” They stopped at a public drinking fountain and Ray soaked the sweatshirt in cold water. Wilkins held his hands out and Ray wiped off the blood with the sweatshirt, being careful not to get any on himself.
“Shit, that hurts!” There were several lacerations and missing chunks of skin–the back of Red’s hands were well and truly barked. In the dim light, Ray couldn’t tell if he needed stitches or not. He had a thought.
“Red, there’s a box of giant-sized band-aids at my house. It’s about half a mile from here. You want them, they’re yours.”
“Thanks, Ray, looks like I could maybe use ’em.”
As they set off toward his house, Ray asked, “So, who were you fighting with?”
“Just some punks from Medford.”
“What happened to them?”
“I left them in a pile behind the stadium!”
“Is that so!” Ray said respectfully. They talked the rest of the way home about highlights of the basketball game against Medford, the end of which Red had missed because of dealing with his punks.
Ray’s kitchen sink was a gory mess when Wilkins finished washing him up. There was a gash on one of his cheeks, as well, and they cleaned it, then patched it with two butterfly bandages. By the time they were done bandaging his hands, they’d used half a bottle of iodine and all the bigger band-aids were gone. The sweatshirt went into the trash. Ray cleaned up the sink while Red tried to open a pop-top coke with stiff and uncooperative fingers. Ray opened it for him.
“Thanks, Ray, thanks a bunch.” He finished the coke in two swigs and turned toward the door, then stopped. “Hey, listen, I’m heading over to a kegger at Roger Vaughn’s. You want to tag along? It’s supposed to be seniors only, but I can get you in.”
Ray tried to keep his cool but he fairly yelped when he said, “You bet!”
At the party Red disappeared upstairs with one of the cheerleaders. Ray saw her kissing Red’s wounded cheek as he groped with bandaged hands at the buttons on her sweater.
Ray wandered around, but he didn’t know anyone else at the party–he was the only sophomore there. He drank a couple of beers, then drank a couple more, and then he lost track of the time and the beers altogether. Red seemed to have disappeared into cheerleader heaven, and Ray bleerily wished him well.
Then Jimmy and his pals arrived so he ducked out the back way before trouble could find him. He walked unsteadily home, stopping only to puke up perfectly good beer for no reason he could think of.
The next morning, Saturday, he woke up with a hangover. He drank some water, went back to bed for a couple of hours, then felt human enough to get up around two. He had a bowl of cereal and idly watched the cat sunning himself on the patio.
They were both startled when a blue jay swooped down and pecked out a hunk of hair from the cat, who howled and ran off around the side of the house, growling and hissing outrage, with the blue jay in hot pursuit.
Ray slid open the glass patio door to see what the bird was up to. As he went out onto the patio, another blue jay dive-bombed him out of the hazelnut tree, pecking a little hole in his his arm when he raised it to cover his face and bat it away.
“Damn bird!” Ray shouted and ran, following the cat around the side of the house to the front yard. The cat was under the Renault in the driveway and it wouldn’t come out when he called to it. The birds dove at Ray a few more times, and he thought about going inside to get his pellet gun and putting an end to this fiasco, but he was too tired and hung over to focus on a battle with the jays.
He went back inside, grabbed his bowl of cereal and flopped in front of the TV to watch some college basketball. When the game was over he remembered he had lined up going to his new friend Dave’s house for the day. When he went outside, the cat was still under the Renault, and now there were four blue jays cawing and capering, one on each side of the car. The cat was effectively trapped, but licking his paws and basically ignoring the birds with great dignity. It was getting dark, and the birds had to sleep sometime. “Good luck, buddy,” Ray said as he ran down the street. “Don’t let the assholes get you down!”
Dave was new to the school, a sophomore transferred up from California. He was a short, tan, blonde, blue-eyed surfer, the girls thought he was sexy, and he didn’t take any shit from anybody. He had only been in town for three weeks but he already had a car and Kathy, a buxom red-headed senior as his girlfriend. She was in the living room, studying her math and listening to Dave bang away on his drum set, when Ray arrived. “Hey, Ray, are you going to the dance tonight at the school?” He could hardly hear her over the loud music and Dave wailing away on his drum set.
“Yeah, I guess so. You going with Dave?” he shouted.
“Yeah.” She leaned close enough to speak in a normal voice. “Why don’t you ask some girl and we’ll do a double-date?” It was the first time Kathy had included Ray in their plans for anything. He was stunned and flattered. He hung out for a while, tried to get in the groove on the drums when Dave got tired of banging on them, but he just couldn’t seem to find the beat. Dave and Kathy laughed at his lame efforts until finally he gave it up, laughing along with them.
“Well, I’ll never be a drummer, that’s for sure!”
When he went into the kitchen for a coke, Dave and Kathy started necking. They carried on when he came back, ignoring him while he was poking through the album covers and listening to the music. He felt embarrased.
“Hey, you two love-birds, I’m gonna head out,” he yelled over the music, but he didn’t think they would have noticed anything short of a bomb going off.
He headed over to the donut shop where the current object of his fascination, Rhonda, usually worked after school. In Ray’s eyes she was a beautiful girl, a bit large but quite shapely. She was a junior who was repeating her sophomore English and math classes. Not as bright as Ray, but he’d talked to her a few times in class and while ordering maple bars at the donut joint. He figured she wasn’t stupid–just not interested in schoolwork after working at her dad’s shop every evening.
He’d never summoned up the courage before to ask her out on a date.
“Hi, Rhonda,” he said as he entered the empty donut shop, “What’s cooking?”
She turned to see him from where she was ladling dough into the vat of simmering oil. “Donuts, Ray! Same as always.” He stood tongue-tied for a moment, unsure how to proceed. She gave him a crooked grin while she wiped her hands on her grimy apron. “So, you gonna order your bag of maple bars, or you gonna stand there all night?”
“Not today, Rhonda. I’m, uh, here on a personal matter.” She was still smiling. When she smiled at him, he noticed, her already pretty face became a whole lot prettier.
“And just what kind of personal business would drag you into this god-awful donut shop, Ray?” she said, leaning over the counter toward him just a bit.
He took her smile and banter as a sign of encouragement–he would have taken almost anything as encouragement–and plunged ahead. “I’m here to ask you out on a date–a double date actually–with me, Dave Pilker and Kathy Romano. We’re all going to the dance tonight. Would you like to go to the dance with us, um, with me?”
She faked a scowl at him, then came out from behind the counter and sized him up and down with exaggerated care, cocking her head from side to side. She motioned for him to turn around twice so she could see all of him. “Well,” she finally said, “you’re a scrawny-looking beanpole and your hair’s too long, but you’ve got good shoes and some potential. I’ll take a chance on you this once, anyway. What time is the dance?”
He was mortified to discover that he hadn’t found out that particular info. “Um, I’m not sure!”
“You don’t do this very often, do you?” she laughed at him.
Thinking fast, he said, “Give me your number and I’ll call you after I find out. I’ll let you know when we’ll be by to pick you up. What time do you get off work?”
“I’m out of here by 7:15 on Saturdays.”
“That’ll probably work out fine, then. I’ll call you as soon as I know.”
An actual donut-buying customer came in, forcing Rhonda back into work mode, but not before she wrote down her home and work numbers for Ray on a receipt, which she calmly put into a bag of maple bars and handed to him.
He left whistling, her number in his pocket, and feeling 30 feet tall. The maple bars disappeared on the way back to Dave’s house at the rate of one per block.
Later Ray called Rhonda to let her know the time of the dance and then a little later to tell her that they would be late. Then he had to call yet again to find out where she lived. “What a doofus!” Dave kidded him. Kathy’s extensive makeup and beauty preparations had put them an hour behind schedule by the time they picked Rhonda up.
But it was worth all the calls and the wait: out of her work apron and hair net, and in makeup and her high-waisted party dress, she was a knockout. Her dad made him promise to get her home before midnight. He would have promised anything short of assasination to go out with her – it seemed the least he could do.
In Dave’s car on the way to the dance, they all took slow, stinging sips from a bottle of gin stolen from Kathy’s mom.
After dancing about ten tunes with her, Ray had to admit that for a big girl, Rhonda could really dance! He excused himself to get some water and go to the john.
When he zippered himself up and turned away from the urinal, Jimmy and his pals barged into the boy’s room yelling, “Hey, Ray, how do you figure you can go and take a first class piece of ass like old Rhonda to a dance like this, eh? Don’t you know you’re just a little worm, you little puke?”
“Look, guys, I’m not looking for trouble. It’s a free country, right? I can ask anybody I want to a dance.”
“Smart ass! We’re gonna give you a free ass kicking! You little puke worm sophomore!” They grabbed him by the arms and hustled him out into the darkened hall and down a flight of stairs, then dragged him outside to the back parking lot of the school.
Two of the goons held his arms while Jimmy pounded fists into Ray’s gut. Ray doubled over, and Jimmy kneed him in the face to make him straighten up. Ray saw stars for a moment, but managed one good fast kick at Jimmy with what little strength he had. He didn’t think he had connected well, but then Jimmy was on the ground, holding his groin, and suddenly Ray’s left hand came free.
He swung it at the senior on his right, missed the jaw he was aiming for and connected with an over-large adams apple. All of a sudden his right arm came free as his assailant put both hands to his own throat, gasping for air. He grabbed the boy’s arm and swung him around, spun him into a car, hard, then kicked him as he fell.
That’s when he noticed Red was pummeling the other senior who’d been on his left. The guy was still standing, but only because Red had him leaned against a car and was taking turns bashing him in the face, then the gut. Finally he slid to the ground, unconscious.
“Hey, Ray! How’s it going? These punks bothering you?”
“Not any more, Red. Thanks for your help!” Red was kicking them while they were down, whenever they would move. He didn’t know how much damage Ray might be doing, so he said, “Think maybe they’ve had enough?”
“Sure, sure! I don’t mean to kill ’em. I gotta make sure they’re listening, though, ’cause I got something to say.” He kicked them a couple more times, not too hard. “Hey, punks! You listenin’?”
Only incoherent moaning came from the pile of seniors.
“Listen up, you punks! Don’t you ever, ever mess with a friend of Red’s!” With that injunction, he pulled out his dick and peed over all three of them.
Red finished splattering them, stuffed his organ back where it belonged and pulled a red mechanic’s cloth from his back pocket with a flourish. “I been carrying this around all day, just in case I saw them Medford punks again. Looks like you could use it more than me.”
Ray looked down; sure enough there was blood on his shirt. He felt his nose and realized it was flowing onto his hand. He didn’t remember being hit in the face.
The three seniors, who had been the bane of Ray’s existence for most of a year, made a soaked, steaming, unconscious puddle in the parking lot. He grinned, whooped and did a little dance.
“Aw, shit, it was nothing. They was just punks.”
“Thanks, anyway. Say, how’re your hands doing?”
“Oh, hell, I’m all right. I went and bought a whole box of those big-ass band-aids. I ain’t had a chance to use ‘em much yet. Well, this was fun, but I got two cheerleaders waiting for me in a car over there. See you later!”
By the time he got to his school locker Ray’s nose had stopped bleeding, but the front of his shirt was a scarlet mess. He rummaged through his locker and pulled out an old red sweater he’d forgotten was in there. He took off his ruined shirt and stuffed it in the locker. He wet the mechanic’s rag in the hall fountain, and wiped his face and neck as best he could. Then he put on the sweater and headed back to the party.
Rhonda and Kathy were both dancing with Dave. They waved at him and tried to yell at him above the music, which was blasting at just the right ear-pounding level. He couldn’t hear what they were saying even when they yelled in his ear, and it didn’t matter. He joined them and danced with both Rhonda and Kathy, switching off with Dave, and using all the moves he could think of. Somebody turned on the ultraviolet lights and you could see the bras and panties of the girls right through their clothes; his red sweater glowed like it was on fire and people kept coming over to see it up close. It was getting to be a very good night.
They left the dance early. Dave parked on a quiet street, where they finished the bottle of gin and necked with the girls for a while in the car. Dave and Kathy up front, and Ray and Rhonda in back. He wondered how Rhonda could have such clean, fresh breath, then found out why when she popped a minty Life Saver straight from her mouth into his.
Dave dropped them both at Rhonda’s just before midnight. She kissed him good night on the front porch with her parents looking on, said good night to them, and then snuck out and sat on her back porch with Ray until almost three, talking in whispers and making out in the dark. The last thing she whispered to him was, “You’re a terrible dancer!”
To which he replied, “You were a knockout in that dress.” He walked home electrified.
The next morning, as he ate his cereal with four spoons of sugar, he noticed the cat sprawled on his back out on the patio in the bright spring sunshine, with his feet angling lazily into the air, seemingly without a care in the world. A cloud of blue feathers from a half dozen blue jay corpses swirled about him in the gentle breeze. The Savage Orange Beast paid them all not the slightest attention.
# — #
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