Eli knew he had made a mistake even before Cody charged him, knew it as soon as the words left his mouth. What he was not sure about, at least not right away, was if it was worth it. On the one hand, he was outnumbered, undersized, overwhelmed, and more than a little bit scared. On the other hand, fuck Cody Parker.
Cody had always been kind of a dick to him – that’s just how he was – but the Jew stuff was a new addition to his repertoire. Eli didn’t get it. Like, Cody had known he was Jewish since they met in sixth grade. Why wait until they were sophomores to start with the Nazi shit? And it wasn’t as if Cody was a real Nazi, either. He seemed pretty chill with his Black baseball teammates. No, he did what he did to piss Eli off, and that made it worse.
Thankfully, Eli and Cody shared only gym class together, and on a good day, Eli could just avoid him. In fact, he had avoided him. It wasn’t until Eli was walking home that Cody and his crew caught up to him.
“Eli!” Cody boomed from somewhere behind him. Eli stopped walking and moved his phone to his pocket lest it get knocked out of his hand. He thought about ignoring Cody and pretending he didn’t hear, but he suspected Cody wouldn’t be swayed that easily. Unless he relished being called a pussy for the rest of his days, running away was also out of the question.
Cody had three of his bros with them, and they were varying degrees of neckless and beefy. One was a Ronnie or a Robbie, and the other two Eli couldn’t even guess a name for. They all had hungry smiles.
“What’re you walking alone for, bud?” Cody asked. “Where’s the rest of your Jew crew?”
This drew a laugh from Ronnie or Robbie and the other two, and Eli sighed. Don’t get mad, he thought. That’s what he wants. He wished he had some kind of snappy comeback, something that would shut Cody up quick, but his mind was a blank page.
“What?” Cody said. “I thought all you yids stuck together.”
Eli’s neck felt hot and he was sure he was starting to turn red despite his best efforts to remain unaffected. He knew he should take the high road. That’s what his mom would want him to do, and she would be all over him if this went bad. But the longer he stood there watching Cody with his shit-eating grin, the more he felt like a loser.
“I guess we’ve all got lives,” Eli finally shot back. This drew an “Oh” from one of the bros and Cody flinched like a door had just been shut in his face though Eli doubted he was done.
“I guess we’ve all got lives,” Cody said in a mock lilt. “Maybe we should do something about that. Round y’all up like they did….”
Now he felt worse than a loser. He felt like a coward, a traitor. It wasn’t just him Cody was going after. It was his mom, his dad, his friend Ben, Evie Feith in his math class, all those who came before. And he was supposed to do what? Take it? Tell himself these were just words?
“They killed retards too,” Eli muttered. He felt kind of dirty saying retard, but he knew it would get their attention.
“Bro, what did you say?” asked Ronnie/Robbie.
“I said they killed retards too,” Eli repeated, his voice trembling. “Cody here would get the gas before I did.” Then, turning to Cody, “I mean, you got held back a year. Right, bud?”
The grin disappeared from Cody’s face, and for a moment, Eli could see something else forming. He had just enough time to crack a satisfied smile before Cody was on him.
The beating lasted only a few minutes, and it struck Eli as unfair that something so short-lived could do so much damage. One minute Eli was on his feet, and the next he was on the ground, Cody on top of him, yelling “Piece of shit Jew!” clawing at his shirt with one hand, punching at his head with the other, his crucifix swinging with each blow, an Axe-and-B.O. cocktail crawling into Eli’s nostrils, Cody’s fury obliterating whatever small victory Eli had eked out. Eli had thrown his hands up over his face to deflect the blows, but Cody snuck one past and nailed him in the temple, causing him to yelp. And then, mercy of mercies, before Cody could do more damage, before they could see Eli bawling, the bros pulled Cody off and told him they needed to go before someone showed up and they got in trouble with Coach, and so they did.
The worst part was that this happened on a Tuesday. If it were a Monday, a Wednesday, or a Friday, Eli’s mom would still be on campus, and Eli would have time to get home before her, clean himself up, and figure out a story to tell her. Eli didn’t want to have to lie to his mom, he really didn’t, but he knew if he told her the truth, she would flip out, make a big deal out of it, maybe even do something crazy like pull him from school. And then if his dad found out, each of his parents would somehow find a way to make it the other’s fault and there would be more yelling, more angry phone calls, more of what it was like right before the divorce. Really, lying seemed like the better option.
Not wanting to wait for someone to find him lying on the sidewalk – he would have to lie to them too, he supposed – Eli picked himself up and started walking. The collar of his shirt was torn, his face stung, his eyes were wet, and he was sore all over, but he didn’t think that he was bleeding or concussed. Miraculously, his phone’s screen hadn’t cracked, either: Cody’s knee had missed his pocket. However, Eli was, in the absence of a plan, still fucked.
Needing more time, Eli took the long way home, turning right on Pine instead of left, trying and failing to come up with something to tell his mom that sounded plausible. He was a smart kid, an honors student, but that didn’t matter worth a damn in situations like these, and he knew it. If only it were January instead of late March. He’d kill for a patch of ice he could say that he slipped on.
Eli continued down Pine, shoulders hunched, mind racing, pace brisk until he reached the corner of Pine and Grove. Joseph lived on Grove. Yeah, Joseph. It was a longshot, but the way Eli saw it, he was out of options.
Joseph lived about midway down the street, and as Eli neared his house, he began to worry that Joseph wouldn’t be home. True, Joseph was on sabbatical and didn’t get out that much, but he wasn’t like a hermit or anything. He still got groceries and stuff, Eli was pretty sure of that. Sure enough, Joseph’s Volvo was in his driveway, and though that should have made Eli relieved, he was still nervous as he walked up to the door and rang the bell. It was an old doorbell, not a Ring, and it had a chime that sounded almost like old video game music.
When Joseph answered, he didn’t say anything at first, just looked Eli over with sad eyes. Joseph was super-tall, at least six-five, and to Eli, it felt almost like being stared down at by God.
“Eli Loew,” he said at last. “There’s a story here?”
Over hazelnut wafers – Joseph never had normal snacks – Eli gave him the broad strokes of his Cody problem. The whole time Eli was talking, Joseph sat there nodding, saying nothing, occasionally tapping his finger on his kitchen table, but never looking away.
“I guess I shouldn’t have done it, right?” Eli asked. “Called him a retard?”
Joseph studied him, and in the intervening silence, Eli noticed that his beard had gotten longer and taken on more and more gray. Joseph had always seemed kind of old, older at least than his mom, but now he looked old-old. And tired.
“I can tell you that you were wrong to use that word,” Joseph said. “But you know that already. What are you really asking?”
“I…well,” Eli stammered, “what would you have done?”
“Me as I am now or me at your age?”
“Man, why do you have to make it all complicated? My age, I guess.”
Eli expected another long, drawn-out pause while the gears of Joseph’s mind churned. He was surprised to receive a much quicker response.
“Fought,” Joseph said without much hesitation. “Not with words, but I’m sure I would have had a few choice ones.”
“Yeah, well, you’re tall.”
“At fifteen, I was still growing. And skinny. I’d likely have gotten worse than you did.”
“Did you get in fights?” Eli asked.
Joseph said nothing, but his faint smile told Eli all he needed to know.
“So you get it,” Eli said. “But my mom, she’ll…”
“Blame you? Is that what you’re worried about?”
“Overreact. Flip out. Come on, you know how she is.”
Joseph’s smile vanished and his thoughtful look turned hard and ugly. Eli inched back in his chair.
“Is that why you came here?” Joseph asked. “Because you thought I would intercede on your behalf?”
“Sorry,” Eli said, feeling five instead of fifteen. “I guess I thought you would help.”
“I didn’t say I wouldn’t,” Joseph said.
“So what then?”
Joseph rose from his chair. Whatever darkness had passed over him had come and gone, and he seemed almost spry. “Why don’t I take you home?” he offered.
Eli wanted to hate him, he really did. He was thirteen when Joseph started coming around, Eli’s parents having split less than a year earlier. His mom introduced Joseph as a colleague, but they taught different subjects: she was art history and he was humanities and philosophy. The three of them shared a few dinners together, and Eli didn’t see anything overtly date-y going on between them: no kisses, no pet names, nothing like that. But Eli knew, or at least he thought he did.
At first, it seemed like it would be easy to hate Joseph. He was one of the least cool people Eli ever met. Like, he never wore a T-shirt. Ever. It was either sport coats or button-downs all the time. His “jokes,” if you could call them that, were always these weird puns that went right over Eli’s head, and Eli got As all the time, so that wasn’t supposed to happen. Eli had met other professors, in his mom’s department and outside of it, and when they weren’t geeking over whatever subjects they taught, they seemed mostly normal. One or two even liked video games. Not Joseph, though.
Strangely, this is what made Joseph impossible for Eli to hate: he wasn’t cool, he knew it, and he just didn’t care. He didn’t try to be Eli’s friend, either. He was never mean or rude, but he didn’t call him “bud” or “champ” or buy him things (Well, books, but not ones that Eli ever asked for or showed prior interest in, so those didn’t count) to try to win him over or otherwise exhibit the kind of transparent desperation to be liked that would have driven Eli batshit crazy. As far as Eli could tell, he had absolutely no designs on step-fatherhood, and that made him sort of tolerable.
It also helped that Joseph didn’t really treat him like a kid. Once Eli got a better handle on what the humanities actually were, he started peppering Joseph with questions. What is truth? Who you got: Plato or Aristotle? Can you deconstruct deconstructionism? Joseph answered all of these, calmly and rationally. His explanations didn’t always make sense to Eli, but he never seemed to lose patience or dumb down what he was saying. At first, Eli was disappointed: he had really hoped to make Joseph crack. But once he gave that up, he was impressed by just how much Joseph knew and surprised by how much of that he himself wanted to know. His mom, of course, had taught him a lot about art. Some of it was interesting, but sometimes, he would roll his eyes or pretend to start snoring until she told him to knock it off. Talking to Joseph and getting more of what else was going on when the Pre-Raphaelites or the Mannerists were doing their thing made even the boring parts seem not as boring, and Eli told himself that he wouldn’t do the fake snoring thing anymore.
Just when Eli had gotten used to Joseph and his mom not-quite-dating, Joseph had stopped coming around. There didn’t seem to be anything that precipitated it, no big fight, no announcement that he was moving, nothing. One week, they were having dinners together, and the next week they were not.
Finally, curiosity got the better of him, and Eli asked his mom what happened to Joseph. He felt kind of bad about popping the question, like it was a box he wasn’t supposed to open. That his mom seemed somewhat stung by it made him feel even worse.
“He wasn’t ready,” she explained, and he knew better than to press for an explanation. It wasn’t until later that night when he was trying to fall asleep that Eli put the pieces together. He thought about his mom’s sadness when he had asked about Joseph and tried to remember if he had ever seen Joseph that sad, stoic as he was. He had though, once. It was when Eli asked if Joseph had ever been married.
“Yes,” Joseph said, a weird hitch in his voice. “Up until fairly recently, in fact.”
“I’m sorry, man, I…”
“Cancer,” Joseph told him. “There were other factors, but in the end, it was cancer.”
Call it Schrödinger’s fallout: both not as bad and worse than Eli could have imagined. When Eli walked through the front door with Joseph in tow, his mom was so surprised by the latter that she didn’t even notice the damage at first.
“Joseph,” she said. “What brings…”
And then she saw Eli’s face and shirt and moved quickly toward him as if he were a budding fire she needed to douse. “My God, Eli, what happened?”
“It’s not a big deal, mom,” Eli tried to assure her. “I’m fine.”
“The hell you are,” she said. “Who did this?”
“Mom, nothing.” She looked him over and he felt himself shrinking. Whatever chutzpah he had summoned to mouth off to Cody had long since retreated, and only the self that he sometimes hated remained.
“Rebecca?” Joseph said. “A word?”
She wheeled toward him, still keyed up, and for a moment, Eli was worried that she had gotten the wrong idea, that Joseph had done this to him.
“Thank you for bringing him home,” she said. “But I need to talk to my son.”
Joseph nodded and shuffled away, reminding Eli of a deflated balloon as he parted from their company.
“Now,” Eli’s mom said. “What happened?”
To Eli’s relief, she neither pulled him from school nor drove over to Cody’s house to demand an apology. There was an overlong conversation followed by an angry email fired off to the powers that be, and Eli suspected he would be summoned to the principal’s office before the week was out. While his mom clacked keyboard keys with righteous fury, Eli protested that the school probably wasn’t going to do anything because it happened off campus.
“It’s the principle of it,” his mom said. “A property line doesn’t make Nazi trash into a perfect gentleman.”
The deed done, Eli slept poorly, fidgeted through homeroom, and made it just far enough into the day to wonder if the summons would never come. Of course, then it did, and he was ushered into a meeting with Mr. Hayes, the AVP for Student Conduct, aka Discipline Dude. By habit, Eli stayed out of trouble, and he knew he wasn’t in trouble then, but that didn’t stop his palms from sweating throughout the whole meeting, which felt like an interrogation from one of those cop shows, which wasn’t helped by the fact that Discipline Dude looked kind of like a TV cop, a big serious guy in a suit who asked Eli a lot of questions – what did you say, what did he say, what did you do, what did he do — and didn’t react much to the answers except to say “Uh-huh” and didn’t smile, not even once. Thankfully, the meeting was short, and at the end of it, Eli was simply told that he could go.
Cody didn’t say anything to him in gym class, didn’t even come near him, but his mean stare told Eli that he too had been in to see Discipline Dude and was not too happy about it. Well, Eli thought, that’s his own fault. He knew, however, that Cody was not one to simply take what was coming to him, that he was probably complaining about Eli to Ronnie/Robbie and the neckless bros and anyone else who would listen. Eli snitched, Eli’s a pussy, Eli started it, fucking Eli, fucking Jew. Eli hoped he would be content to leave it at that, and here, he had a reason to be hopeful. Dumb as Cody was, he seemed to care about playing baseball, and if going after Eli could get him booted from the team, that was reason enough to lay off.
Out of an abundance of caution, Eli still did what his mom had asked and got a ride home rather than walking. Ben’s older brother had his license and didn’t balk at chauffeuring a pair of sophomores, and so Eli thought of it as a chance to catch up with a friend rather than taking the coward’s way home.
“They got lucky” Ben said of Cody and his crew. “If I was there, we could have taken them.”
“Not a chance,” Eli said. Ben was taller than Eli and several shades more athletic, but the idea of him throwing down with the baseball bros and coming out on top was patently ridiculous. Eli wasn’t sure whether Ben was trying to cheer him up, had let his recent growth spurt go to his head, or both.
“We would have had the element of surprise,” Ben said. “Besides my cousin taught me some krav maga shit, and…”
“He didn’t know what we was talking about and was just trying to show off,” Ben’s brother cut in.
By the time Eli had arrived home and settled into his after school ritual – snack-homework-break-homework – he had largely forgotten about Cody and his low-hanging insults. He found himself thinking instead about Joseph, wondering if Joseph was trying to use him to somehow get back into their lives. But that didn’t make sense. It wasn’t like he had been ejected from their orbit to begin with, not like when Eli’s dad left. Puzzling over Joseph made solving quadratic equations, of all things, seem more appealing – call it certainty in numbers – and so Eli turned his attention back to that.
Eli’s relationship with art was complicated. There were times when he was fascinated by it, his mom’s enthusiasm having poured into him through osmosis. There were times when he was bored by it, and he wished that she had a different passion. There was a time not long after the divorce where it was a source of guilt for him as if keeping a sketchbook was implicitly taking his mom’s side. And then there were times when he didn’t care about any of that and just felt like drawing something.
This latter motivation is what prompted him to take drawing as a free elective, which in turn gave him a chance to meet people outside of the honors bubble. Most of them ignored him, but there were exceptions. Paul Gray, a basketball player several orders of magnitude more popular than Eli, was one of them, and a love of comic book movies was their lingua franca. When the class was assigned a vaguely defined collaborative project, it was a no-brainer that Eli and Paul would team up. Their work would encapsulate the ever-evolving Marvel Cinematic Universe. Eli would draw the left side of the piece, which would feature characters whose rights Marvel reacquired from other studios – the X-Men and the Fantastic Four chief among them – bursting onto the scene. Paul would draw the right side, which would show an increasingly diverse array of heroes newly depicted on the big screen.
During Friday’s class, Eli started to put his finishing touches on the upper left corner. The Fantastic Four could be found there, and the X-Men would soon take up residence below them. Eli figured Deadpool can drop in from the ceiling with some kind of fourth-wall shattering quip. But he was getting ahead of himself. The Four came first. As soon as he finished the last bit – The Thing punching through a glass door labeled Fox – Eli set his pencil down and cracked his knuckles. This prompted Paul, at work on the Black Panther’s right leg, to look over.
“Dude, that’s tight.”
“Thanks,” Eli said.
Paul looked around briefly and then dropped into a conspiratorial whisper. “I don’t know what you did to piss Cody Parker off, but I heard him talking about how he was gonna beat your ass. Better watch yourself.”
“I will,” Eli said. He tried to betray as little of it as possible, but inside he was giddy. Part of it was fear – the last time he’d gotten Cody angry hadn’t gone well for him – but part of it was excitement. Hadn’t Discipline Dude told him to let them know if Cody approached him or made any threats? And hadn’t that been a threat? Sure it was hearsay, but if enough people heard Cody say it, that had to count for something, right? Then again, Eli wasn’t so sure he wanted Cody to get in any more trouble. If he somehow got kicked off the baseball team, all those guys would know that Eli was responsible, and then he wouldn’t have just Cody pissed at him but a whole legion of Codys, eager for blood.
“You gonna be OK?” Paul asked.
“Yeah,” Eli said. “I’ll figure something out.”
He stared down at his drawing, at the blue-clad adventurers who transcended the possible, and felt very much alone.
Cody’s locker was in D wing, and Eli found Cody and a few of his bros huddled around it a few minutes past the day’s last bell. Cody’s back was to him. If Eli had been a different sort of person, he might have found something hard and/or heavy to whip at Cody’s head, but that was not in his nature. Instead, he rapped loudly on a nearby locker to get Cody’s attention.
They turned and eyed him in stunned silence.
“I heard you were looking for me,” Eli said. “Well, I’m here.”
He was worried that his voice would break, that it would sound pained in weak, but somehow, it held. And their reaction, that surprise, that utter lack of confidence and preparedness, was almost enough to make him smile. So too was the knowledge that Cody had walked into a trap of his own making, for he who had boasted loudly of kicking Eli Loew’s ass could not very well back down when the opportunity presented itself. Nor could he proceed with said ass-kicking, not unless he welcomed the suspension and loss of athlete status that would follow.
“Not here, dipshit,” Cody said. “Freiberger Park in an hour.”
Eli swallowed and nodded. That trap had, apparently, plenty of room for two.
He wasn’t quite sure why he went back to Joseph’s. He knew what he wanted: some insight on how Joseph, gangly and awkward, had survived adolescence. But Joseph held some secrets closely, and Eli suspected that was one he would not he would not divulge, not to Eli or anyone else. And yet that did not stop Eli from again appearing at his door.
“This is bad,” Eli said after they finished their preliminaries. “Like, what do I do? Show up and take another beating? Go to the police?”
“Neither,” Joseph told him. “Wait right here.”
He did so, sitting at Joseph’s kitchen table, secure in the knowledge that whatever Joseph came up with couldn’t be worse than his own worst idea.
When Joseph returned a few minutes later, Eli broke out into laughter. He couldn’t help it. Joseph had put on a denim jacket and a baseball cap, and they looked ridiculous. The hat was a faded white and displayed VE RI TAS on a red shield, and the jacket looked like something from the 70s. Worse still, Joseph had brought out one of his hiking sticks, which Eli had seen him use when the three of them hit up the Arboretum trails but had even then not understood. Now, it made even less sense.
“What the hell?” Eli finally asked.
“Come with me,” Joseph said, his tone firm. Eli shrugged and followed him out to his Volvo. “Which park was it again?”
“Of course, it would be the Germans,” Joseph said.
They rode largely in silence until they reached Freiberger Park. Joseph parked in the gravel lot near one of the baseball fields.
“What are you going to do?” Eli asked, trying to suppress further laughter.
“Put an end to your troubles,” Joseph said.
“How? No offense, but you’re…like…”
Joseph did not respond. He instead fixed his gaze on the field, where a group of three had materialized near home plate.
“Is that him?” Joseph asked.
Eli squinted. They were at a bit of a distance, but there was no mistaking Cody Parker.
“Yeah,” he said. “The blond one’s Cody.”
Joseph nodded. He got out of the car, opened the rear driver’s side door, and fetched the stick from the back seat. “Wait here,” he told Eli, who up until that point had been playing along because he was fascinated and needed the levity. But then Joseph had begun a fast march toward the field, and it didn’t seem funny anymore.
“Joseph, wait up,” Eli called.
If Joseph heard him, he didn’t show it. In the time it took Eli to unbuckle his seat belt, get out of the car, close the door, and begin his own approach, Joseph had nearly caught up to Cody and his friends. This is going to be bad, Eli thought.
It wasn’t though, at least not at first. At first, they just seemed to be talking. But then Joseph said something that Eli couldn’t make out and Cody said something back. He turned to one of the bros for a high-five, and that was when Joseph hit him, bringing the stick down hard across his back.
Cody tumbled into the bros, sending all three of them tumbling to the ground. Before Cody could even turn over let alone get up, Joseph started raining down blows on his legs, his feet, his ass, his back again, each followed by a yelp louder than the last. The bros were screaming and tried to close ranks around Cody, but this only seemed to make Joseph madder. He raised the stick and waved it at them, and, as if it were alive and venomous and snarling, they recoiled.
“Now you turn and look at me,” Joseph said, giving Cody enough of a break to allow him to do so. “I have a message for you.”
Eli was close enough to see Cody’s face when he rolled over. It was red and tear damp, fear stamped and utterly defeated. Joseph’s face, on the other hand, was twisted into a hard scowl, as if all that sorrow and contemplation had been hydraulic pressed right out of him.
“Joseph!” Eli yelled, his voice breaking as he ran to close the distance between them. “Joseph, stop.”
Joseph continued to pay him no mind. Cody alone was his world just then.
“When you come for one of us,” Joseph said, raising the stick once more. “You come for us all.”
Eli had spied a mud-covered baseball near the baseline, and without thinking, grabbed it and chucked it at Joseph’s head. The ball zipped sharply into Joseph’s hat, bounced off of the red shield, and fell back to the dirt.
Joseph finally turned his attention away from Cody and studied Eli instead. Eli was more scared than he’d been all week, but he didn’t dare look away. He felt like a general must have after seeing the aftermath of an airstrike that he’d called in, and in a situation like, you just had to own it.
Finally, Joseph’s face drained of fury and his eyes turned sad and defeated. “All right, Eli,” he said. He returned the stick to his side and began walking back to the Volvo, and Eli could finally imagine him as he must have once been, bloody and mud-flecked and looming godlike over those who had done him wrong.
Zac Goldstein holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. His work has appeared in storySouth, Jersey Devil Press, and Heater. A New Jersey native, he lives and teaches in North Carolina.