Sometimes life is funny as hell.
By funny, of course, I mean peculiar. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Roy Coxson was a bully. I had met him for the first time on the playground in the opening days of the fourth grade. He was the guy who pushed me in the chest and made me fall down over Donnie Ritchen. Donnie was on all fours, and I found my feet flying out from under me, and I hit the ground hard on my back. Roy kicked some dirt in my direction, they hi-fived each other, and ran off. Over the following two years, Coxson had done nothing to change my opinion of him. If it is possible for a twelve year old to hate, I hated him.
And then there was that day just before Christmas break when our teacher made an announcement to the class. Roy Coxson, it seemed, had gone deer hunting with his brother and father. The old man had handed the shotguns to Ben while they crawled over a fence. The eight year-old had promptly dropped one of the weapons, and it had gone off. The shot caught Roy in the right arm and the right side of the chest. So Roy was in the hospital, and we were told if we wanted to visit him, it was room 614 at Jefferson Hospital.
I thought little more about it until we came back from Christmas Break. I noticed that Coxson wasn't in class. As soon as we came to order, our sad-faced teacher gave us an update.
"I know you have all been concerned about Roy Coxson. I got a call from his father last night. Roy won't be back in school for at least another month. His lung is fine, and his breathing is much better. But..." She paused a moment and swallowed. "But the doctors say they haven't been able to fix the damage in his arm very well. They are going to amputate his right arm this afternoon."
Mickey Kentz bent over to my desk and whispered "What's amplatate?"
"It's AMPUTATE," I whispered back. "They're gonna cut his arm off!"
"No shit?" Mickey whispered back.
I just shrugged. I missed the rest of Mrs. Hermann's talk. I was alone in my own thoughts. Actually, I had a hard-on. I had no idea why I was affected that way, but ever since I had been a little kid people with missing limbs had fascinated me. Now, here was someone I knew who was going to be that way. I didn't like Roy at all, and yet I felt ashamed because I was excited about him becoming an amputee!
I thought about him off an on for the next several days. I could imagine what he was going to look like when he returned. But I wondered about exactly where they had cut it off. I wondered what it really looked like. I wondered how much he had cried when they did it. I knew I would have.
Roy came back to school on Valentine's Day. The blond crewcut hair was the same. The braces were still on the teeth. He still wore that big ass buckle on the belt in the jeans. The only change was the right sleeve of his shirt was neatly tucked into the waistband. Everybody greeted him and tried not to stare at his arm, or rather, at the lack of his arm. When class started, Mrs. Hermann welcomed him back. At the time I was surprised when she asked him to tell about his stay in the hospital.
Coxson got up and walked up by her desk. He began by telling about waking up in the hospital, and not being able to breathe very well. Some of the shot had collapsed his right lung.
"The doctors made that go away pretty quick," he reported. "I could breathe better by Christmas. All I got left of that is some scars on my chest." He fumbled at the top three buttons of his shirt, and pulled the right lapel aside. A series of red points started at about the nipple, and headed under the shirt to the right.
"The problem was I couldn't feel my hand. They kept telling me it was just part of getting shot, but then they took me back to surgery four times for it. Every time I'd breathe the gas from this mask they have, and I'd go to sleep. I'd wake up, and still couldn't feel or move my hand."
He paused. I don't know if he was trying to decide what to say next, or if he was screwing up his courage to do something he had been told to do, but didn't want to.
"Finally, a couple of days after New Years, the doctor came in, and told me that he had tried, but that I was never going to be able to feel with that hand or move it again. He said that there was so much other stuff wrong with it that he thought I'd be better off if they got me a new arm. I said 'OK,' and he said, 'fine.' Then he explained that they had to cut off the old arm to make room for the new one. They put me to sleep one more time, and when I woke up, it was gone."
Roy pulled back the right side of his shirt, showing what was left of his right arm. It was about six inches long, and redder than the rest of his skin. There was a scar that ran from the inside to the outside across the end. He waved it at us.
"The doctor said I ought to show off my scar when I came back to school so that everyone wouldn't wonder about it. So here it is." He moved the stump again. Then he put the shirt back on and started buttoning it up.
"When will you get your new arm, Roy?" Mrs. Hermann asked.
"A few weeks, they said, Mrs. Hermann. My arm has to heal real good before I can get it."
I had rather enjoyed not having Coxson around during the weeks he was in the hospital. The reason, of course, was that he was not around to pick on me. I spent some time that morning sizing him up. Surely, I thought, a one-armed kid wouldn't be able to bully much! But more than that, I was fascinated by HIM. I found myself making doodles in my paper binder. I would draw with a sheet covering the sheet I was marking on to hide it from anyone else's view. I drew his shoulder, as best I remembered it. I put that sheet of paper, neatly folded into the pocket of my notebook.
It was recess when I found out that not much had changed. Coxson was pitching kickball, a process that is something like rolling a basketball at the person who is to try and kick it far enough away to run bases. I skirted the game, trying not to bother anyone. No matter. Without warning, the kickball landed squarely against the side of my head.
I picked myself up off the ground, and turned to the group of "jocks in training" who were laughing. Coxson had retrieved the ball by that time, and was laughing as well. I thought, for a moment, that maybe I ought to go give him a punch in the nose for a change, but thought better of it. I mean, how was it going to look? Me beating up on a one-armed kid? As always, I let it go.
Spring came. In March, we flew kites. In April, it started to rain. But more interestingly, April third, Roy got his new arm.
We were all in short sleeves by that time. I had watched the stump of his arm peeking out of the short sleeve when I could. It was so strange: The person I hated most in the world held the greatest fascination for me!
When Roy came in with his new arm, there was quite a stir. I don't think it was quite what the doctor had represented to him, because I don't think he was all that happy with it. He did a show and tell for the class, showing how he controlled it with a shoulder harness on his left shoulder. The plastic tubes that made up the arm itself were nothing compared to the steel hook that capped it at the end. That thing looked absolutely wicked! He could open and close it by moving his shoulder, and he showed how it could grip a pencil. All I could think, in the back of my mind was, this shit ass is now armed and dangerous!
Little did I know.
It was three days later when I found out.
Coxson ambushed me on the playground, again. He ran up behind me and hit me in the middle of the back with a ring he wore on his middle finger. I broke. I had had enough. I turned around and started running after him. After all, he wasn't a one-armed kid anymore! He had his new arm. I was going to take a poke at him even if he beat me in the fight!
I tapped him on the shoulder. He turned, and I round housed him with a right. He spun around from the shock, rubbed his chin with his left hand, and headed toward me. He hit me in the eye with his left, and the last thing I remembered was that hook of his coming for my jaw.
When I woke up, it was my turn to be in the hospital. Coxson had knocked me out, and knocked three teeth out in the process. The doctor told me not to worry. They were all baby teeth and would grow back, but it hurt like hell.
Upon return to class, I had a surprise waiting for me. Roy Coxson was sitting in his seat one-armed again! I asked Kentz what was going on.
"They made him take it off and leave it at home after he hit you. He's really pissed about it, too!"
"Wonderful," I thought glumly. Still, I was pissed myself. This son of a bitch had knocked three teeth out and I was mad! It didn't take long for it to all come to a head.
Recess. I headed for a swing, and Coxson was right on my tail. He reached out and grabbed my shoulder.
"Turn around, you little shit," he snarled!
"Yeah," I answered. "What do YOU want?"
"You got me in trouble, you little bastard! They won't let me wear my new arm because of you!"
"You started it," I returned.
"You couldn't leave it alone, you little shit. You couldn't leave it alone. I ought to beat your ass right here and now. In fact..." He doubled up his fist and tried to deck me. He missed. I don't know if I was getting the hang of this fighting stuff, or if he was too mad to think, but he missed me. As he turned around, I doubled up my fists and popped him in the eye and then on the chin.
It broke up at that point, because Mrs. Hermann saw us going at it and dragged the both of us to the principal's office.
Mr. Scroggins was not amused. He looked at both of us, and finally asked, "Well, boys, tell me about it."
"I'd of had him, Mr. Scroggins," Roy started. "If I'd uh had my other arm, I'd uh beat the shit out of him!"
"I'm sure, Roy," the man commented dryly. "And that's well and good, except I think you and I have talked before about the fact that I don't allow fighting in this school."
"But..." Roy started whining. It was odd to hear. "But, I mean, he was gonna take me on. It ain't fair! He's got two hands, and I only got one!"
"What about it, Rusty?"
"He hit me first, Mr. Scroggins."
"And you don't feel like there was something wrong with your hitting Roy here, given his handicap?"
I thought it was over right there. Mr. Scroggins was a crippled man, himself. He had been born before the polio shots had come out and he'd had it. One leg was shorter than the other, and he wore a built-up shoe. I knew he was going to take Roy's side, and I was going to have to sit there and take it. Roy smiled, meanly.
"Mr. Scroggins, Roy has been picking on me ever since he came here. He's a lot bigger than I am, and he hits me with balls he throws, and hits me in the back, and runs away. I was never big enough to fight back before."
"And you think that's all right?"
"No sir. I was wrong. I'm sorry."
Scroggins looked at both of us.
"Yes, Rusty, you were wrong. You were wrong, because fighting is wrong." He turned to Coxson. "But Rusty, I understand your feelings. And you can leave. I don't think I want to talk to you further."
"Wha..." Roy whined?
"Rusty is free to go, Roy, because I need to explain a few things to you."
I thankfully beat it out of Scroggins office. Outside the door, I noticed that his secretary wasn't at her desk. I stood outside the door wondering what he was about to say to mine enemy! The door muffled the sounds some, but I could hear. Scroggins was talking plenty loud!
"You have a problem with my letting Reynolds go, Coxson?"
"You bet I do! He was gonna lam me, and you made me stop wearing my new arm!"
"Not much fun being on the short end, is it."
"No, it ain't!"
"Reynolds has been on the short end all these years."
"No, he ain't! He's still got both arms!"
"Roy, let me draw you a picture. You are about five and a half feet tall. You weigh about 140 pounds. Rusty is MAYBE five feet tall, and weighs less than a hundred pounds."
"Do you really think I don't know how you've picked on him, and the other kids?"
"I was just havin' fun."
"You were a big strong kid picking on small weak ones. Now you are not quite as strong, and you still think you can bully everyone else. Worse yet, you have suffered a loss. Rather than understanding how the weaker ones feel, you take the adaptive device that is to help reduce your handicap, and you turn it into a weapon to further terrorize the weaker ones."
"Shut up. I am speaking! I took that arm away from you so that you might consider the situation. And you STILL think you can solve everything with your fists."
"Look, son. I know what it's like to have a hard time with things." He gestured to his shorter leg. "This kept me out of a lot of things I wanted to do. But I never used it as an excuse to be mean to anyone."
"So here it is. I'm not giving you permission to bring your new arm to school for the remainder of the year. And if I find out you have so much as doubled up your fist in that time, you are out. Expelled. I think you had better decide if you want to take it from the kids you can no longer bully, or if you want to make friends with some of them. It is immaterial to me what you decide. Now get out of here!"
I turned to leave, but didn't quite make it out of the office before Roy came out of Scroggins office. He saw me, and threw a hard look my way, but didn't give chase. I decided to leave well enough alone. I made it back to class ahead of him.
It took three days for him to decide he had something to say. I was walking home and, when he fell in step beside me, I was afraid he was going to try some crap all the way. But, to my surprise, all he wanted to do was talk.
"Hey, kid," he said.
"Yeah, Roy," I answered.
I turned and looked at him as he caught up with me. "What do ya want?" I asked.
"I... uh... well... I wanted to tell you I got to thinking about what old man Scroggins said the other day. I've been a real bully to you. I...uh... I'm sorry."
"Yeah, well, I heard what he said to you. You're just being nice to me because he's making you."
"Naw... that's not it, kid."
"My name's Rusty."
"That's not it, Rusty. I thought about it. The old man was right. I picked on you before because you were a little guy with red hair and freckles... I knew some of my buddies picked on you... and... uh... I just wanted them to think I was cool too. It wasn't you, Rusty. I just wanted to be cool."
"Yeah, well, fine. Why didn't you leave me alone after you made the team? I never done nothin' to you! Even after," I gestured at his amputated arm, "you know, I'm the only one you picked on! Why can't you just go away and leave me alone?"
Roy glanced at his shoulder. "I, uh, I kept seeing you looking at it... in class. I thought you were making fun of me...uh... cause I'm a...a.... cripple now." His voice almost broke at the last.
I looked at his face. Sure enough, there was wetness in his eyes. I took a deep breath. "Well... uh... you're kinda right about one thing. Yeah... I have been looking at your, uh..."
"Yeah... your... nub. But I wasn't making fun of you."
"You don't think it's funny looking?"
"Naw. Not funny. It's... uh... interesting."
"No, man. Naw. It's not! It's... I can't explain it. I watch you. And I watch how you move it sometimes. I... I guess you think I'm crazy. And I'm sorry I made you feel freaky."
"They told me at the rehab hospital that people would look funny at me. I do look like a freak. Well, anyway, kid, I mean, Rusty... this is my house, here. I really am sorry I've been mean to you. I won't bother ya again."
"It's ok, Roy." I glanced at his shoulder again. "And I'm sorry I stared at you." Roy raised and lowered his stump slightly. I grinned slightly. "How did you DO that?" I asked him.
"How do you make it move?"
"Same way you make your arm move. I just move it."
"Do it again," I grinned.
He got a puzzled look on his face, and then shrugged his shoulders. The stump flicked up and down again.
"That's far out!" I said.
Roy and I both broke out laughing.
"Come on in," he grinned. "I'll show you something that'll REALLY knock you out!"
Roy's room was on the second floor of the house. We dodged the piles of his stuff and headed for the desk against the far wall. There, on the desk was the artificial arm that the doctor had promised him months ago. "Want to see how it works?" he asked.
"Sure!" I exclaimed!
Roy took off his shirt. He was wearing no tee shirt. I looked at his stump, almost riveted. He looked over at the new arm and moved the nubbin again.
"That is so cool," I said.
"The way you move it. Can I feel it?"
He shrugged his shoulders. "Sure. Knock yourself out."
I reached out and touched his shoulder. "Make it move," I asked. He did, and it simply amazed me. I understood he was just raising and lowering his arm, but the abbreviated limb appeared to have a life of it's own. I touched the scar at the tip. "Is it sore?" I asked.
"Not now. It was for a long time. But now it just feels tickly sometimes. Anyway, you wanna see how my arm works or not?"
He picked up the device and slipped a harness over this left shoulder. There were straps and cables that went behind his back, and another strap across the chest. He swung the arm up and extended his stump in the same direction. His nub slipped into the hollow center of the appliance, and he lowered it. "There it is," he said.
"Make it work," I said.
Did he ever. Roy had been practicing with it every night, it seems. Before I left that day, we had played checkers, him using his new arm to make the plays. Could even type, using the hook for all the letters his right hand fingers would have hit. I was amazed.
It was nearly six when his mother called him for dinner. I realized I was late and high-tailed it for home. My own mother was about to roast my ass for being late, but it was ok. I would have cheerfully traded as ass licking for what I had seen this afternoon.
So, as it turned out, we were friends until school was out. Roy's dad was transferred to a new job, and they left the city. I never knew where they went or what became of him. Still, the life lessons that we learned helped us both. He stopped being a bully. He found he didn't need to be one. As much as it blew his mind, he found out that not everyone thought his "disability" was ugly. And I found that I was not crazy. It was ok for me to have "the interest."
Life is funny as hell sometimes.