Best Man: a story

By Joseph Mueller

“Your mother does push-ups in a cucumber factory!” yelled Rodney.

James stood there, still for a moment, considering. Was there such a place as a cucumber factory? He turned and started walking toward home, ignoring Rodney and his friend on the bicycle. The sun beat its hard August heat into James’ throat and made him thirsty.

“Are you gonna stand there and let him say that about your mother?” prodded Wayne. “If it were me, I’d kill him.”

Well then kill him, James wanted to say. He stopped and looked at Wayne. With his white blonde hair, Wayne’s head looked like a mop. What does he care what Rodney says about my mother, James thought. Martin came running out from his backyard, breathless. “What’s going on guys?”

“Aw, Rodney’s calling James’ mother names,” explained Wayne. James wished that Wayne would shut up. It was hot out and now it was noisy as well and James had a queasy feeling in his stomach, not like being sick, but like knowing something unpleasant is about to happen.

“What you going to do about it, James?” Martin asked.

“I’m just going to ignore him. He ain’t hurting me. He’s just an idiot with a big mouth.” James wanted to leave, to step from the corner and walk up the street home where he could read or lie in bed where it was cool and quiet and nobody expected him to do anything. “I’m going home.”

“Don’t be scared,” Wayne said, “I know you can take him.”

“Yeah, James,” joined Martin, “you can definitely take him.”

“Why don’t you fight him?” James asked, looking at both of them.

Wayne slitted his eyes at James and gave him his mean stare. “Because he’s not insulting our mothers. That’s why.”

James turned around to look at Rodney and his friend. What was his name? Peter or Bill or something, some kid from the next block that he didn’t know. They were sitting on their bicycles, waiting. Rodney kept looking over to his friend and then back to James.

“Why don’t you run on home to mama?” yelled Peter or Bill. He was wearing a black t-shirt that said “Van Halen” on it. When he leaned over to talk in Rodney’s ear he looked like the little devil that sits on your shoulder and tells you to do bad things. James ignored him and stared at Rodney. Rodney was grinning that stupid grin that made his braces look like monster’s teeth, all gleaming and evil looking. Rodney grinned like that whenever someone paid him special attention. He reminded James of a dog, loving anyone who would rub its fur or feed it. “Tell him Rodney. Tell him how ugly his mother is.”

Rodney looked at the boy beside him and then at James. He looked like a trapped animal for a second, a dog given two conflicting commands. James stared at Rodney, wanting him to stop before he said anything else, wishing Rodney would just turn his bicycle and ride away. The quiet was too uncomfortable for everybody. Martin yelled, “Call him out, James.”

There would be no trouble, James knew, if it was just him and Rodney here. He and Rodney used to be best friends until Rodney went to his aunt’s house for a month and James started to hang around with Wayne and Martin. It was that other kid who was making Rodney act like this. James felt like hitting Rodney’s friend for being such a trouble-maker, but that was against the rules. It was Rodney who was doing the name-calling.

The Van Halen boy whispered something to Rodney who coughed a sharp laugh. Rodney turned his stupid grin and his monster teeth toward James and said, “Your mother’s so ugly that your father makes her put a bag over her head just so he can kiss her.”

Wayne and Martin sniggered. James’ fifth grade teacher, Sister Rosemary, used that word all the time. “Stop sniggering back there!” she yelled to the laughing boys in the back of the room. It didn’t even make sense, thought James, his father couldn’t kiss his mother if there were a bag over her head. It was a ridiculous thing to say. It made James want to laugh because Rodney was so stupid. At the same time, he was starting to feel a little angry. James told himself that he didn’t really care what Rodney said, Rodney was an imbecile. The two boys stood facing each other.

James felt his head start to shake back and forth. Why should he have to put up with it? Why should he have to stand here and let Rodney insult him? He stopped his head from moving.

“Call him out, James. Let’s see if he can do anything but talk.”

Wayne pushed James on the shoulder.

“I bet he won’t even get off of his bike,” Martin added, “probably too scared of you.”

Wayne and Martin stood, leaning forward, watching James. Their eyes looked like rats eyes. Hungry, greedy rats. They wanted something to happen, something bad that they couldn’t be blamed for. Like when James was at the Speedway and everyone was hoping a car would crash. Or like his sister’s eyes just before their dad yelled at him for something he didn’t do. Rodney’s friend on the bicycle had the same look. His black hair curled low toward one eye. Hunched over in his black T-shirt like that, he looked like a skinny vulture. Rodney’s eyes had that same look too, like he couldn’t wait for something bad to happen.

“Chicken-boy,” said the vulture. “He’s too chicken to say anything! Bock bock bock bock.” The boy made chicken noises until Rodney joined in, pointing and saying, “That’s going to be your nickname, ‘chicken-boy’.” He grinned his stupid grin.

James was breathing more quickly. He noticed this and thought, “what a stupid thing to fight over, someone’s calling me names.” Still, he realized, he probably could take Rodney. He had never been in a real fight, just some wrestling around, tackling people and trying to hold them down while they tried to get up. Was there a certain way to begin a fight, like they did on television, or did you just run in and start swinging?

Wayne shoved him in the back a little bit. James thought that he might hit Wayne if he didn’t cut it out.

James didn’t want to be here and he really didn’t care what Rodney was saying about his mother. Rodney was a jerk and everyone knew it. James couldn’t believe he had been his friend. He took a step toward where Rodney was still perched on his bicycle. Everyone grew quiet. Rodney tensed up. Pete or Bill leaned over and said something in Rodney’s ear that made him grin that stupid grin again. His braces looked like small bridges this time.

Rodney looked at James and then back to the vulture boy. James’ fists were clenching and unclenching and he hadn’t told them to. He shivered because the back of his neck suddenly felt like he had run a comb up it the wrong way, all prickly. He wasn’t thirsty anymore but his throat felt warm, like it was getting ready for something. James wasn’t thinking about going home anymore. There was a strange energy rolling in his body, sliding through him like the electricity through the wires of a house. “Electricity is power,” he thought. “Electricity is power.”

“What are you going to do chicken boy?” asked Rodney. He looked a little worried now. Like maybe things were getting too dangerous for him.

“Are you going to stop?” James asked him. “Are you going to stop it?”

Rodney looked at his friend on the bicycle and then at James. James felt a little sorry for him. Rodney didn’t look like he could do anything for himself. Like a little kid too small to open the door by himself. He looked past James at Wayne and Martin who were watching everything with their rats’ eyes. “Chicken boy,” Rodney said, looking down at his feet, “chicken boy.”

There was nothing left to do. “Fine,” James said. His body felt very heavy all of a sudden and he wished none of them were here doing this. Not Rodney and the vulture boy. Not Wayne and Martin hoping for some excitement. Not James himself.

“Fine.” he said again. James tried to look Rodney in the eyes but he wouldn’t lift his head. “Then I call you out.”

“There,” James thought, “I’ve said it.” He had never called anyone out before and didn’t know what would happen next. Was he supposed to hit Rodney right away? James felt unprepared, like going to a birthday party without a gift. But Rodney had to make the next move. Wayne and Martin moved in closer behind James. Martin said, “Yeah!”

James had seen the Ali and Foreman fight on television with his dad. That’s the way you talked about boxers, only using their last names; Clay and Liston, Ali and Frazier. Before the punching started boxers came out in the ring together and touched gloves. James thought it was sort of like a handshake. His father said it meant they agreed to let the best man win. At the end of the fight everybody cheered the best man.

Rodney still hadn’t moved off the seat of his bicycle. His friend’s eyes looked like they were sparkling. He took Rodney’s bike by the handlebars. “I’ll hold your bike.” Rodney just stood there, looking like he couldn’t understand how he got here and what was going on. James wanted to kick his friend for saying, “I’ll hold your bike.” The bike didn’t need holding and he didn’t have to be fighting with Rodney. But it was too late to explain that to Rodney. His arms hung down his sides. They looked like white noodles hanging out of his red t-shirt. He wasn’t grinning right now, but James could still see the silver of his braces bridging one side of his mouth to the other.

“Get him, James,” Wayne said quietly. “Go get him.”

James wished Wayne would shut up so he could figure this out. He didn’t know what he was supposed to do. Rodney was just standing there, looking like he was waiting for his mother to pick him up from school or something. He didn’t look ready to fight. James was sweating and confused. Why didn’t Rodney do something? James thought that maybe he had called him out wrong.

James stepped up close so he was only a couple of feet from Rodney. Rodney looked up at James, quickly, and then back at the ground at his feet. His braces glinted in the sunlight. Everything was quiet again, but with a new tension.

James felt he had to do something. He couldn’t just stand there waiting for Rodney to stop staring at the ground. Slowly, James lifted Rodney’s right hand with his own and shook it. Rodney’s hand was limp and sweaty. But cold sweaty, James realized, not warm. Cold fish, James thought. He understood why someone would say that. James was surprised and nervous that Rodney had not said, “Stop!” or squeezed his fingers or jerked his hand away. He was like a zombie in a horror movie who hasn’t been brought back to life yet.

James’ body tensed. He was ready to hit Rodney but Rodney didn’t seem ready for anything. When James let go of Rodney’s hand it dropped right back to his side, like that’s where it belonged. James’ hand was still outstretched, waiting for a real handshake. He felt stupid. No one said anything. Now he wanted something to happen.

He turned around and looked at Wayne and Martin. James didn’t like them anymore. He shrugged his shoulders. They still had greedy rats eyes. He wanted to tell them that there would be no fighting here because he had won. Maybe they couldn’t see it, but he had won. James had called Rodney out and he didn’t fight or do anything, just stood there. He wasn’t calling James’ mother names anymore. That meant that James won. James thought, “I win. I am the best man.”

Someone behind him muttered, “chicken boy,” as he took his first step toward home. It could have been Rodney’s friend or it could have been Rodney, James didn’t care anymore. Without stopping, James pivoted on his right foot and swung his body around, lashing his right fist into the stupid grin of Rodney’s braces.

Rodney didn’t fall to the ground like James imagined he would. He just stood there, his bottom lip bleeding, looking like he was trying to figure out some kind of puzzle. Rodney’s head was up, but he wasn’t looking at any of them. His eyes didn’t seem like they could focus, just point this way and that. James’ hand hurt, but not in a bad way. He had done his best to avoid this, he told himself. He was the good guy. “You lose,” James told Rodney, just so there would be no mistake. “You’re the loser.”

James turned back to Wayne and Martin. He wanted to say something a good guy would say, something to let them know that he had done what had to be done. All I James could think of was, “If anyone needs me, I’ll be at home.” It sounded all right.

“Dirty fighter!” yelled Rodney’s bicycle friend. “Cheater! We don’t like dirty fighters.”

James didn’t say anything. He’d had enough. As he walked past his friends, Wayne shoved him. “Dirty fighter,” Wayne spat. “No fair.” He and Martin moved over to stand next to Rodney.

“Go home,” yelled Martin. “Nobody likes a dirty fighter.”

James couldn’t believe them. He had won. He was the best man.

Joe Mueller finds that writing is the best therapy for life’s vicissitudes. He is the oldest of 11 children and mixes a mean margarita.

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