Jerry Burko had by now come to imagine that the tree he usually focused on when he came here was bowed by fatigue of working so hard for so many years. Holding up the sky, he reckoned, was mighty hard work.
The tree was to the right of his field of vision from the bench where he had taken to sitting. He’d prop his hands on the bench’s edge with a lit cigarette clenched between his knuckles. He wasn’t the tallest kid in school, but he was considered to be one of the roughest, with shoulder length, unkempt hair, a swarthy complexion and rough workman’s hands at only 15. Today, as was often, he bravely wore his Pittsburgh Steelers jersey.
The perception that Jerry was a tough kid wasn’t all his fault, but he did nothing to dissuade the impression. When he was little, his Dad was a pretty rough guy. He was tall and strapping and had a booming voice. During the day, he helped the local electric utility check meters. At night when the weather allowed it, he was the only parent who ever came out with the fellas to play capture the flag or kickball. There were many times when the fellas appreciated Mr. Burko’s intervention. It often prevented that awkward and somewhat terrifying moment when one of the kids gets kicked in the shins and runs home screaming for Mama. There was no need to fear the rogue tattler. Mr. Burko was there.
But Stan Burko apparently had some problems that went beyond his powerful personality and his wholesome interest in the development of young men. When Jerry was just 10 years old, Mr. Burko ended his life. And, rumor has it and Jerry had never attempted to squash the rumor, that his Dad had been such a tough guy that his weapon of choice was an electric drill.
It was, of course, an incredible claim. But Jerry never said otherwise. And nobody ever dared to question it.
Today was a calm, brisk, beautiful day in his little Ohio town. The river was calm here. The air smelled delicious. And the sun felt good on his face as he closed his eyes up to it. Jerry Burko was really enjoying his day, although he soon would need to wrap up his cigarette and get back on his bicycle. His Mom worried.
His peace was weirdly interrupted as Allen the Alien rode past him on his ten-speed that was too big for him, down the path about 40 feet, and promptly wiped out in a fashion that would be difficult to explain.
Jerry extinguished his butt and put it in his pocket as he got up to see if the smaller kid was okay.
“Don’t hurt me!” yelled Allen. “Please don’t hurt me!”
“What?” said Jerry. “What are you talking about, kid? I’m just trying to see if you’re okay.”
Jerry helped the small, fair boy to his feet. He indicated that the kid should sit down, then put out his hand for a shake. “I’m Jerry,” he said. Allen was still shaken by the fall and a little nervous about his chance encounter with THE Jerry Burko. “I know who you are,” he said. “I’m Allen. And they’re going to be here any second to beat me up.”
“Sam Garfield and those guys.”
“We’re at middle school together. They’ll be freshmen next year, so you don’t know them. I’m a year behind them.”
“Thought I’d seen you up at the high school.”
“Yeah, I take a few AP classes there.”
Figures, thought Jerry.
“So why are they coming after you, man?” asked Jerry.
“Because,” said Allen, “I peed on Sam.”
Jerry blinked hard, and then he beamed. “You what?”
Allen’s face became worried again as he realized he was actually going to have to explain this. “Sam does this thing to the smaller kids. When you’re at the urinal, he likes to come up behind you, grab your belt buckle and move you around. He calls it ‘writing on the wall,’ though I’m sure he himself misses the irony in him calling it that. So he does this and eventually makes you piss all over yourself.
“Well, I knew it was coming. He was at the one sink and his hoodlum friends were at the other, that’s how they set it up so you can’t get out of it. So I held back. I waited for him to come up behind me, and I…”
“You let him have it?” Jerry interrupted, laughing.
Allen’s face went from worried to laughing and a bit proud. “Yeah, man. I did. I soaked him.”
“And now they want a piece of you. Because they’re stupid enough to pull a prank like that, and you made it backfire?”
The two took to laughing, laughing one of those laughs that’s nearly fatal, one of those laughs that feeds half from the original source material and half from the other fella’s laughter. It was cathartic and joyful and it did not stop until three boys rode up on their one-speeds and cut into the dirt with the wheels.
“Hey Jerry, ‘sup,” said the lead boy.
Jerry looked at the kid, then stood up. Jerry was a bigger kid than any of these, but he was doing the math. There was no way to take them all, and, besides, despite his reputation, the truth was that Jerry Burko had not ever actually been in a fight.
“So, I guess Allen here really gave you a shower today, huh, little man?”
“Yeah, and we’re gonna KICK HIS LITTLE ALIEN ASS,” said Sam Garfield, and his friends agreed with nods and whoops.
“Okay fellas, sure, have at him, of course,” said Jerry, to which Allen objected with a sharp “whoop.” “But I’ll tell you what. You lay a hand on this kid and I will see to it personally that you, you, and you are known as ‘The Piss Boys’ when you get to high school.”
The chubby little guy blinked his vacant eyes. “That’s not cool, man.”
“Well, that’s the deal. You get your rocks off by your little ‘writing on the wall’ stunt—which, by the way is rather um…what did you say about calling it that, Allen? Ironic?”
“Well, that means that you like to play with piss. So, in exchange for my allowing you to get back at Allen here for turning your own trick on you—which I thought was brilliant, by the way—you three boys will enter high school next year with a reputation of having a penchant for piss. When the upper classmen walk by you in the halls, they’ll make a little sssssssss noise wherever you go. And, Sam Garfield, I will make certain that at least eight times during your freshman year, you, too, will experience the joyful event that you have come to call ‘writing on the wall,’ followed perhaps by a little trick we like to call the ‘swirlie.’
“That, gentlemen, is your certain future if you get ahold of this young man today. So, if that’s what you want…I’ll just step aside and let you at him.”
The three hesitated with sour looks on their faces. Then: “C’mon guys, let’s go. He’s not worth it anyway.”
Allen thanked Jerry profusely and awkwardly and went on his way.
Jerry lit another cigarette and thought about his Dad, who was always bugging him to come out and play with him and the other kids in the neighborhood. He never did, not once.
Now he often wished he had.
He finished smoke #2, got on his own 10-speed, and started pedaling for home. It was sloppy joe night, and Jerry liked sloppy joes.