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Eddie Vargas was a bully.
It surprised many who met him for the first time, since Eddie was an average sized kid. It was his vicious temper and eagerness to fight that intimidated other kids, even bigger and older boys.
Eddie lived in a big old house on the edge of our small town . . . an only child. We moved in across the street, one house from the corner, in a brand new subdivision.
I first saw Eddie through an opening in the big trees lining their front yard. The faded yellow clapboard house was on the corner, facing the street that intersected ours. I watched him drop his bike on the front sidewalk and race up the front steps into their screened porch. That was the day after we’d moved into our new house. I was 12 and excited that a boy my own age was living across the street. I’d never met Eddie, so assumed he attended the Catholic school up the street. My sisters and I were at the public school.
Mom insisted I go across the street and meet Eddie. His mother answered the rickety screen door. Mrs. Vargas was friendly and enthusiastic when I told her we’d just moved in. I was slightly aware her hair was unkept and her voice slurred when she talked. She kept sipping at something in a squat drinking glass and puffing on a cigarette.
I told her I’d come to meet her son. Mrs. Vargas said she didn’t think Eddie was home. That’s when I learned his name. Her reply surprised me . . . his bicycle was clearly visible on the sidewalk behind me. Later that evening, I could see Eddie through the scraggly hedge that formed the side fence of their back yard, across the street from us. He was playing alone. Eddie seemed fully occupied. I didn’t go over.
A few weeks later, I was passing their house on my way downtown. Mrs. Vargas called from the porch. She came quickly to the front gate. It was obvious she wanted me to make friends with Eddie. I suggested he phone me or come over. She wrote down our phone number. I never heard from him.
I was going to invite him to become a Boy Scout. I’d joined a new troop. The leader was an amazing guy. Les Markson was a war veteran with a love of the outdoors. He was excited about me sharing with others the skills I’d learned while living on a farm before we moved to town. I realized the other kids didn’t know things like tying knots, making a campfire or building a shelter in the woods. It made me proud to share things that others didn’t know.
Eddie and I would encounter each other occasionally on our bicycles, going in opposite directions. He would look my way sometimes, but didn’t seem to see me. He never replied when I said ‘Hi’. I wanted to be friendly . . . I knew about his reputation.
During the next few years, my circle of friends grew and Eddie was soon forgotten, mostly. I would see him less and less often across the street. We heard occasional rumors about him. Once, we heard he’d been on probation for beating up some kid. It wasn’t the first time. He was still living at home but attending a special school for troubled kids.
We were in our late teens when his father’s business went bankrupt. Rumors were that Mr. Vargas was an alcoholic, drinking during the day at his car and truck tire business, and then drinking at home with his wife in the evening. The outcome was no surprise.
By that time, most of us were finishing high school and looking forward to the independence that graduation promised. Memories of Eddie had receded to the farther reaches of my mind. And like teenagers, we were all dating or trying to. Kirby and I had begun dating three years earlier. We didn’t realize it at first, but fellow students envied our ongoing relationship. Her parents were so concerned about it they sent her off to a private school in another city for a year to keep us apart, and presumably ‘cool our jets’ a tad.
When Kirby returned in the spring, we became ‘an item’ again, showing up on Saturday nights with other teenaged couples at the local hangout, the aging Regal Café. One Saturday evening in mid-summer we were gathering as usual at the Regal to hang out as teenagers do. I’d found a parking spot for my customized metallic blue Chevy two door, half a block from the café.
Kirby and I were just about to enter the café when I heard my name called. I looked up the street and there was Eddie Vargas. I hadn’t seen him for a more than a year. His parents had moved out of their house.
“Hey, Big Shot!” I heard Eddie say, after calling my name a second time. “Where the fuck do you think you’re going?”
“Hi Eddie,” I replied, trying to keep my temper in front of Kirby. I knew she had a strong dislike for foul language. “How’re ya doing? Haven’t seen you for a long time.”
I was hoping to calm him by at least appearing to be unperturbed. It didn’t work.
“I’m not surprised, asshole,” he said. He sounded drunk. “What’sa matter? D’ya think you’re too fucking good for the likes of me?”
I knew that responding further would serve no useful purpose. He wanted to fight. But being small and light for my age, I was anything but a fighter. Any fight would be one sided and over painfully fast. The few skills I had in that department came from a couple of lessons in boxing and wrestling our scoutmaster Les Markson had given us. It was shaky stuff against an experienced street fighter like Eddie.
A crowd began to gather on the wide sidewalk in front of the Regal. I turned to Kirby and asked her to go inside. She refused, but agreed to step back a few paces into the safety of the crowd of kids just behind me. Those behind Eddie kept a respectful distance well behind him.
He stepped toward me. Without warning, his hands shot up and he pushed me hard in the chest. I stumbled back a few steps. My back bumped into someone in the crowd. I moved forward and stepped sideways quickly, hoping to dodge his next move. My back was toward the café. Eddie had circled in the opposite direction. His back was to a car parked at the curb. I saw his right foot brace his weight on the bumper. And then he lunged at me, his right fist coming up.
Instinctively, or perhaps desperately, I thought of a wrestling move that Mr. Markson had taught us in Scouts. Much to Eddie’s surprise, I stepped toward him and grabbed the lapels of his jacket. Then I stepped back quickly, falling backward. Eddie was startled when he felt my weight propelling him forward. Like Mr. Markson had taught us, just as my back reached the sidewalk I raised my right foot up to Eddie’s stomach. I pushed hard, firmly holding his jacket at first, and then letting go has he was propelled over me.
Until then, I hadn’t thought about what was behind me. I was thinking how bad it would look for me to lose a fight in front of my girlfriend and our friends. I was hoping Eddie would hit the cement sidewalk on his back, hurting him enough to discourage him from fighting. The maneuver had worked that way in practice at the Scout hall. But I must have released Eddie’s jacket too soon. Instead of flipping over, he went sailing head first behind me.
I’d forgotten the Regal Café had a huge plate glass window, bearing its name painted in a crescent shape. It was directly behind me.
Eddie went sailing head first through the window. He landed on his stomach on the wide bench-like windowsill. The clothes on his back and the three-foot wide windowsill were covered in razor sharp shards of broken glass. Eddie was stunned at first. So was I. But I was pleased I’d got the best of him, if only briefly. I looked around for Kirby and began to plot our escape.
The crowds cheered. Eddie rolled over. Apprehension began sweeping over me. Small cuts on his face oozed blood. I wondered what he’d do next. Unexpectedly, his eyes grew wide in fear. I was secretly proud of that, too, until I looked up.
Eddie was focused on a long, sharp pointed wedge of glass hanging above him from the top edge of the window, poised directly over his stomach. It could fall at any moment, like the other glass. It was so big and sharp that if it fell there was no doubt it would pierce his stomach, perhaps even go right through him.
‘Oh my God,’ I thought. The crowd saw it too. They grew silent.
Eddie uttered strange guttural whining sounds deep in his throat as he carefully worked his way sideways, keeping his frightened eyes on the dangling wedge of glass. Then he gingerly wiggled, feet first, out the window. No one offered to help. Eddie fell to his knees on the sidewalk. He paused for a few seconds, wiping blood from his face with his right hand. Then he stood, and without looking at anyone, walked away in the direction he’d come.
I never saw Eddie again.