by Ben Beard
This is the story of two fights, unpunished crimes, dingy high schools, errant punches, the unreliability of memory and a semi-hidden psychopath. It’s also the story of the Florida Panhandle, the 1990s, and the end of my youth.
Memory is tricky, collapsible, untrustworthy, elusive, sometimes misleading, often contradictory. Our brains are as often as not eliding key details, creating narratives, reordering sequences. But one thing I’m certain of: when I was fourteen, I ran into the meanest person I’ve ever met, a teenager who, over the years, has transmogrified into something darker, something out of a fairytale or a myth.
Let’s call him Tony.
He was one year older than me, but it felt like a decade. He had olive-toned skin, wavy black hair, a nose a little too small for his face, dark brown eyes, and an inexplicably Welsh last name, despite his Mediterranean features. He could be part Greek or Italian, with a soupcon of French. Whatever his genetics, the result was a disaster. He was volatile, terrifying, rapey. He radiated menace. User of steroids in high school. Possessor of fully formed pectoral muscles.
Me: Tall, gawky, curly-haired, ill-fashioned, friendly, lover of comic books and video games, and still playing with toys at 14. I liked The Beatles, Jellyfish, The Connells, and R.E.M. I was competitive in soccer but gentle in just about everything else.
This was right before grunge exploded, somewhere in early 1992, right before flannel hit, when people wore shirts meant for cold rain and light snow in the sultry heat of Pensacola, the shirts often unbuttoned and dangling open with an alternative-rock band shirt underneath. If you were really cool, it’d be Dinosaur Jr. or Sebadoh. If you wanted to look cool but couldn’t quite fake it, Polvo or Firehose. If you had a little money and really cared what others thought, it might be Archers of Loaf or Pavement. Most kids had Led Zeppelin apparel. The clothes were shares of granola, beige, burgundy, campfire, and sienna. Pants were just extending into the baggy spectrum, on their way to absurd late-’90s decadent flare, culminating in jean skirts for men that never caught on.
We distrusted bright colors. They spoke of ’80s excess, of peacock posturing, of the West Coast, of elsewhere. Everyone wore khaki and beige, horizontal stripes. Even the white t-shirts were faded.
The categories of high school—nerds and jocks and burnouts and cheerleaders and band geeks and so on—were breaking down. It was a ’90s thing. You could be good at sports and good at school and good at music but the one thing you could not do was show that you actually cared. An abiding spirit of irony and detachment saturated everything. The key concept was disengagement. The vibe was apathetic. Striving was lame, trying was worse, and caring for anything was seen as dumb.
Seinfeld, a show that advertised itself as a show about nothing, would in just a couple of years be the top program on TV.
The categories were breaking down. Or maybe they were evolving. We were most of us swimming in least-worst spender mentality—wary of success, distrustful of authority, of money, floating in a post-Cold War opulence that we all interpreted as end-of-history ennui. We didn’t have everything. No one seemed happy. We had cut our teeth on Cold War animus and with the Berlin Wall now a memory a tentative optimism took hold but no one knew what to do with it and we were children, still, and children don’t know what to do with anything.
Tony didn’t fit into the old categories. He was too moody to be a meathead—meatheads hold a revelry in ignorance and violence, there was a joy in the meathead’s assholery, and if you played your part, they’d leave you alone; Dazed and Confused captured them best, with the asshole who proclaims, “I’m here to kick ass and drink beer. And I’m running out of beer.”—but he didn’t brood in any noticeable way. He wasn’t an update of Bender from The Breakfast Club, he didn’t write poetry or listen to The Cure. I don’t know what kind of music he liked, but if I had to guess, I’d say he probably complained about what was on the radio, holding a secret penchant for Celine Dion or the Spin Doctors. He drove a truck, but I don’t remember him being a hunter or into fishing. He didn’t surf, despite living near the beach.
In retrospect, much of him is unknowable.
It started with two other sophomores—Sean and Neal—telling me during lunch that they heard I had been talking about their mamas. I said I hadn’t; I was too naive to throw the joke back at them. This was in the cafeteria, one of the unsafe places in the school. (The bathrooms, the locker room, the senior hallway, the quad, and the field behind the school were the others.) Tony walked up and joined in, only unlike Sean and Neal, he was genuinely threatening. He had pectoral muscles and enormous biceps, menacing brown eyes, and a hard, bitter mouth. He asked me again.
“No,” I said.
“I heard you’ve been talking about my mama,” he said again.
I knew I was in trouble. I was still new to the school and didn’t yet have the lay of the land, but my internal alarms were ringing. I repeated myself. Tony wasn’t having it. I tried to shrug him off, move past him back to my table. The gambit worked, or so I thought.
I always went out to the quad after I ate, and this day was no exception. Only Tony followed me. Right behind me. And he asked again why I was talking about his mama. I said I hadn’t been. He asked me again, closer this time. I noticed that my friend Cody was nearby, watching and clearly worried. Tony kept coming at me about his mama, while students milled about and pretended to look at the dirt and the sky. We were near the door to the main school, a sandy patch of crabgrass edged with desiccated hydrangeas. He was in my face, and it was all happening so fast all I could think was, what is happening? Why aren’t the adults doing anything? I didn’t look around but sensed the growing audience of onlookers, doing nothing.
He shoved me. I shoved him back. He inhaled, swelling up to double his size, dropping his arms to his sides, preparing to administer a beat-down.
Then Braden—kind, tough, bowl-cutted Braden, a guy I’d known in middle school but was never friends with—stepped in. “Hey,” Braden said. “He’s cool. Let him alone.”
Tony took stock. He wasn’t looking for beef with Braden. “You really weren’t talking about my mama?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “Never.”
The bell rang. We entered the school, a mass of lemmings. Cody and I headed for art class.
“Oh my god,” he said. “I would have been shitting myself.”
“Yeah,” I said, my hands not shaking but they might as well have been. I was petrified.
Thus began my relationship with Tony. One of the truly heinous people I’ve ever met.
In the after-school specials, the books and the movies, bullies are cowards. I’ve never found this to be true. Yes, most bullies look for easier prey—say, me, at 14—but my pushing Tony back had accomplished nothing.
Tony stalked the hallways. He was a moody motherfucker, often shoving past underclassmen in a puffed-up rage. He dated Janey, a girl uniformly acknowledged as one of the prettiest in the school whose locker was unfortunately next to mine. So Tony was always lurking about. I avoided eye contact, praying that Braden’s protection extended to all four years. Around this time, he head-butted a friend of mine who tried to intercede in their dysfunctional dynamic.
But it was a small school. We ran into each other. One day, after soccer practice, he was skulking around the track, shirtless, strutting around with his ridiculous physique. He pretended to punch me in the chest as I passed by. It was a thing. If you didn’t have pecs, you had a bird. And older kids would extend their middle knuckle and jack you right in your breast bone, saying, “Shut that bird!” It was a weird north Florida thing.
Weirdly, Tony didn’t actually hit me, just pretended to, making disparaging remarks. I moved along, grateful the interaction didn’t last any longer. Also, I was curious: why hadn’t he punched me?
Tony was part of a rowdy, dysfunctional, disreputable class. There were pranksters who always took their jokes too far; burnouts rocking the flannel as an advertisement for their weed-smoking; metal-heads pushing the dress code with their wristbands; skaters, smokers, nerds, assholes, geeks, and rednecks. It was a liminal time. They all seemed to hang out together, to tolerate each other, despite the meanness and the irrationality. Tony fit right in. They all seemed damaged. They all seemed off-kilter. They drove trucks and listened to Metallica. They wore Vans and drank cheap beer. They played football and basketball, with the occasional freak drifting into soccer.
The emerging class of skate-punks—most of whom didn’t skate—and the older hunting/fishing/camping crowd—most of whom did hunt and fish—were at loggerheads. They lived in different worlds. The school was a microcosm of the Florida Panhandle, split between the new-old sound of grunge and the old-new sound of country.
Grunge broke through with the appearance of Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, the Screaming Trees, and Mudhoney, but it was really the first three that formed the locus of the music, and all of them hit through MTV. The bands didn’t have much in common beyond a boozy, angry, fuzzy sound, rock stripped back to its basics. But it wasn’t inevitable. Surf punk a la Jane’s Addiction—singing about heroin and homelessness and the squalid viciousness of the human animal—could have caught on. There were other bands, other trends. Industrial music—a clangy, heavy-metal derived sound—appeared with Nine Inch Nails, Tool (one of the most fascinating bands of the decade), and Circle of Dust.
I hadn’t yet succumbed to the primal angst of punk. I liked P.J. Harvey and the Lemonheads and the Las, a kind of fuzzy, early shoe-gaze alternative music, and was just six months away from Pavement and other slacker rock bands. I was still open to new things. I still listened to the radio, but I was more and more drawn to the underground. So, it seems, was everyone else.
Fast forward two years.
After school one day, Peyton and Devon got into a fight after school. I knew them both. We all grew up in the Cordova Park neighborhood, festooning with teenagers during my childhood, too many to name, boys and girls that almost all went to Washington High. The fight was set up ahead of time. I can’t remember what it was about, only that I had a makeup test the same day so I missed it. Half the school showed up to this abandoned field of overgrown grasses, parking their cars in a semicircle on the grass. Fights normally didn’t actually happen this way, and Peyton and Devon probably would have exchanged words but avoided punches.
But Tony and a meathead named Brandon told them in front of everyone that if they didn’t fight each other, then they would both get their asses beat. “We’ll fuck you both up,” Brandon said, with Tony scowling behind him. So Peyton and Devon squared off. It was a warm, sunny day. They each held their fists in front of their faces, like pugilists of old. Everyone stopped talking, giggling. They waited, leaning in, the eyes of half the school peeled, the crowd half-frozen in blood lust reverie.
A few quick asides:
Brandon was a pretty horrific person in his own right, thick-necked and ignorant, but also predictable, an old-fashioned redneck. He sported a serious mullet. He had enormous hands. He liked football, fighting, drinking, and fishing. He was a dour and humorless guy. He carried the face and features of a middle-aged man while a junior in high school. He was part of a teenage fight club that met behind the bowling alley by the airport, where the members would fight each other for fun, knocking back beers in a circle of truck headlights. They had a few rules but the point was to pummel each other and practice their brutality. He died a few years back in a fishing accident. Working on his boat, he slipped, hit his head, and fell into the water, where he drowned. The various obituaries said he was beloved.
I’ve known Peyton since I was seven years old. We were good friends, then acquaintances, then good friends again, now all of it swallowed by the crush of time. Peyton was a puckish guy, funny, quick with the pranks. He got bored easily. Once, in a varsity soccer game, he retrieved the ball by the bleachers of the opposing fans. They were heckling him. He pulled his pants down, subtly, and then when he bent over to get the ball, mooned all the parents and siblings of the other team. No one else noticed. He once made a giant rope of rubber bands just to attach it to my friend’s car when we picked him up to go to the movies. Dozens of people yelled out of their car windows on the way, “You have something trailing from the back of your car!” We pulled over and took it off. Peyton didn’t let on that he had put it there.
I was with him when the nation’s news stations broke to O.J. Simpson fleeing down the freeway in his white Bronco. We watched, unsure if we should laugh or hide our eyes, as the white Bronco made its quiet way down the freeway devoid of cars. We knew this was a big deal. We were mesmerized. Here was Simpson, a favorite of mine thanks to The Naked Gun, armed and suicidal and fleeing police. We knew we were watching something significant, even if we weren’t sure why.
I sided with him in his beef with Devon, even if I never understood the conflict. We were all on the soccer team, and I never realized it was heading towards fists.
Faced with the threats by Brandon and Tony, Peyton and Devon squared off. Peyton ducked and weaved, like an old-style pugilist, tagging Devon in the face and stomach. Devon landed a glancing blow off Peyton’s head. Peyton kept moving forward. He punched Devon a few more times. He beat Devon up. Devin fell to the ground, signaling the fight was over. Peyton backed up and walked away. His part in the fight was over. He got in his car and left, his retinue close behind.
As Devon started to get up, dust and dirt on his arms and back, shaky on one knee, Tony stepped forward and kicked Devon savagely in the ribs. Devon fell back against the trailer hitch of a truck, and busted his eye. Tony said something nasty, something like, “You fucking pussy.”
Sickened, everyone left, Devon one of the last.
I went to a girls’ basketball game the next night. A couple of my friends were playing. I went alone and sat by myself. I cheered a little, enjoying the back and forth. Halfway through the game, Tony dropped down into the seat next to me. I tried to hide my panic.
“’Sup,” he said.
“Hey,” I said, thinking, what the hell is going on?
“Kind of a lame game,” he said.
We sat in relative quiet, the gym filled with the echoing bounce of the basketball, the coaches yelling and the cheering parents. I was shitting myself.
“You at the fight?” he asked.
“Naw,” I said. “I had a test.”
“That’s fucked up,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. “It sucks.”
He leaned back against the bleachers. You’d think we were pals. “I just don’t like pussies, you know? I just don’t like when people are pussies. If there’s a fight, then fight. Do it. Don’t be a pussy.”
“Yeah,” I said, thinking, why are you talking to me?
And I knew he was talking about the kick, but I wasn’t going to bring it up. I reflected everything back at him. The strategy worked.
“I’ll see you around,” he said, then headed off, the normal swagger gone. There was something lonely about his shoulders.
A year passed.
I went to a party with Chad, a friend of mine in Tony’s grade. We weren’t there but ten minutes before Tony popped me in the back of the head, an errant punch. I swung around, ready to fight. Chad hustled me out the door. “That was Tony,” he said, aghast. “What the hell are you thinking?”
In a parallel universe, Chad isn’t there. It plays out one of three ways. One: I George McFly his ass with a wild haymaker, breaking his nose. He crumples onto the floor and maybe I kick him a few times while he’s down. Two: I miss or he blocks it, and then he proceeds with the beat-down. Three: we get into it but the other people there break it up.
Chad and I left. He was right, of course. We fucked off, drove around a bit, listening to Beck before eating some hamburgers at Whataburger.
Here’s where memory is tricky. I know this happened, but the hit couldn’t have been very hard, and Tony and I were rarely at the same parties. I don’t know how he saw me as we both got older. I don’t know if he thought I was cocky or meek or reckless or strong or weak or strange, perhaps a little dangerous, too.
I was a bit of all of these things, maybe. I wasn’t a timid wallflower. I once tried to start a fight with a deaf kid in a pickup basketball game. (To be fair, he was a bully himself.) I shoved another kid into the Gulf, out of anger. At a church retreat. I injured multiple people in soccer and at least one for life. A teacher at my high school proclaimed in front of a large group that I had the Devil in me. Even though she wasn’t joking, I laughed.
I possess a hidden face, and it was and is hostile. I wasn’t all good.
Tony graduated. He went to college in Alabama. He joined a fraternity. I can’t imagine what his college life was like, the hidden tensions, the resentments, the loneliness. I don’t know if he followed co-eds home in the dark, or studied philosophy, read Kerouac and Hesse, or hit the weights and drank himself into a stupor at frat parties. I don’t know.
I went to college in Alabama, too, far from Tony. I didn’t hear about him for a couple of years, and I didn’t think about him, either. This was the late ’90s. Grunge in the rearview mirror. The dot-com boom. The Clinton impeachment. The pre-9/11 years of minor cultural squabbling, with hip hop beginning its ascendancy.
I heard little updates about him here and there—and the stories are really fucking dark, truly depraved and scary stuff, with Tony running someone over in his car and braining another with a brick—but with each passing day the likelihood that I would ever see him again decreased.
My buddy Robert stayed in Pensacola. He got a job as a lineman for the phone company. He rented a small house with a group of friends, right near the oyster bar, just off Bayou Texar. One night he threw a party. Some dickhead started shit with him. They fought. Robert won. But the dickhead wouldn’t leave. He stood in the yard, talking shit and making some threats. Robert was done with him. But the dude wouldn’t leave. Tony was there. God knows why. He grabbed the dude by the hair and said, “Boo-yah bitch!” before kneeing him right in the face, breaking his nose. The dickhead dragged himself to his car, and screamed at Robert and Tony and everyone else through his bloody nose that he’d be back the next night, with a gun, and was going to shoot every fucking one of them.
We weren’t kids anymore. Tony was in his mid-twenties. I had already graduated college and was working my first job in Alabama. The ’90s had ended. The 2000s were here.
My wife has taken to practicing extreme empathy. She tries to extend grace to people she dislikes or even loathes, mostly right-wing political figures. “It’s a way of letting go of negative emotions,” she tells me. “The person you hate is unharmed and you are burned up with resentment.”
I’m a nonviolent person. I try to be good. But I cannot forgive Tony. He remains on my not-so-shortlist. I brood. I like holding on to my resentments. I don’t like being a resentful grudge-holder, but I come by it naturally. I’m mostly Scottish, a grouchy, clannish hill people ill-tempered by centuries of haggis, English imperialism, and interminable rain, with only the goddamn screeching bagpipes for succor and comfort. We have this in our very bones.
The film critic A.O. Scott writes in a recent essay that, “The things you loved when you were young will never be able to make you young again.” Perhaps this is the way of hate, too. I’ve held on to Tony; I don’t want to let him go. I keep the anger close, and the fear closer. I should have exorcised Tony from my mind a long time ago. I’ve wasted precious time on him that I could have spent living my own life.