I’m not sure how old I was. I’m guessing I was about nine or so, maybe fourth grade. I was on the next street over, hanging with some neighborhood kids I knew but not well—they went to public school and we went to Catholic school, so we’d play on sports teams or afterschool sometimes, but not all that often.
One of them was a bit older, maybe eighth grade, maybe even high school; in fact, looking back on it, it’s possible he was actually older than any of my brothers. I don’t think he was really hanging with us, I think he was just walking by on his way to his house, and probably said “hey” to us or something like that. I don’t remember his first name, so let’s call him Derek.
What did I say to Derek? Who knows. But I vaguely recall wondering later why I had said whatever it was I did, since he was being nice enough. But I must have said something snotty, probably in a failed attempt to be funny, the continuing story of my life, already being written from an early age.
He tried to get me to take it back, which even though he was older and probably twice my size and I was in the wrong just wasn’t gonna happen. He gave me another chance and I dug in my heels, responding with some further verbal jousting which upped everything a notch or two.
“Oh, a wiseguy, huh?” he said. At least, I think he said that, although it could have been “wiseass,” and I’m just hearing The Three Stooges in my faulty memory, because I very clearly remember responding, “No, the Wises live right there,” and pointing to an adjacent house which, indeed, was where the Wise family, friends of ours, lived. Even in the middle of a rapidly deteriorating situation I recall thinking that the absolute height of wit.
Did he twist my arm? Push me down? Whatever it was, he physically dominated me in some way, although it wasn’t severe; he was trying to get me to say “uncle,” metaphorically, not to punish me. He didn’t want to hurt me, he just wanted to teach me a lesson, just to save face, to show the others that some little punk wasn’t going to talk smack to him and get away with it. He was a good kid, but still a kid, and I’d pushed him too far.
So it went on like that for a while, him trying to convince me and me not giving an inch. Finally he gave up and issued a mild threat. And that was that. I got up and walked home, only realizing halfway there that I’d forgotten my bike, but definitely not going back for it.
When I got home all three of my big brothers were in the driveway playing basketball. One of them asked casually, “Hey, where’s your bike?” And then one of them must have gotten a look at my face, because someone asked what had happened.
I hadn’t cried at any point through the entire thing with Derek; I remember that very clearly. But now I had trouble speaking and my chest started to hitch. I got out something about Derek and my oldest brother, Jay, suddenly got a look on his face, a look we were all pretty familiar with and that none of us liked to see.
But now he walked past me without saying a word. One of the others said, “come on” and started after him, probably because, if nothing else, Jay was always interesting, and this looked like it was going to be very much no exception. I followed, miserable.
When we got to where the kids were still hanging, I remember seeing Derek look up and the expression that came over his face and him saying, “Oh, hey, Jay, hold on, wait a minute.” And Jay saying, “No.”
Derek put both his hands up, palms out, in the universal sign of “I really don’t want to fight,” and said, “Listen, he started it, I didn’t hurt him and all I wanted was for him to say he was sorry.”
Jay was nose to nose with Derek now and said, “I don’t care. You don’t ever touch one of my brothers again. If you have a problem with something one of them did or said, you come to me. But you. Don’t. Ever. Touch. One. Of. Them. Again. Got it?”
Derek nodded. “Sure, man. I got it.”
And then Jay told Derek to apologize to me.
And Derek apologized to me.
And we all turned and headed home. But not before Jay reminded me to get my bike.
As we walked home, my other brothers looked at each other and smiled.
Afterwards, I was always sure to be nice to Derek. Because it wasn’t his fault; I may not remember what I said, but I’m quite sure I was being a little punk and that I was in the wrong. And it turns out that having a guardian angel that everyone in the neighborhood knows can and will kick anyone’s ass for you? It doesn’t make you cocky or a bully. It means there’s no pressure, so you can actually be nicer, ‘cuz you don’t have anything to prove. It was like having an ass-kicking security blanket around you wherever you went.
Derek always gave me a funny smile whenever he saw me after that, maybe because I was so much nicer from that point on. But I think his smile was because he was thinking, “Man, it must be nice to have a big brother like that.” And not in a “you little jerk” kinda way, but as though he were genuinely good-naturedly envious.
And it was.
And it is.
So happy birthday to my big brother, the finest man I’ve ever known, who’s still watching out for me, all these years later. Thanks, pal. And many, many, many happy returns of the day.