by Dalien Shields
Jay Gilbert Masterson, III owns more cockroaches than any other landlord in town. According to the health department, his cockroaches outnumber his human tenants by more than 11,000 to 1.
Jay once hired an exterminator to clean one of his complexes. The service kept the infestation at bay for a week, but then the tenants’ collective cloud of Cheetos lured the roaches back, poison be damned. Jay refused to hire the exterminator again. Instead, he now provides his tenants with monthly bottles of aerosol bug killer and tells them to keep their walls wet with it.
Masculinity is a point of pride for Jay. His gut hangs over his belt like no woman’s belly ever could. His memory collects professional football statistics in the way geeky children collect Star Trek subplots. However, no matter how many times Jay coaches his Baby Boo Baseball team to victory, there is still a tiny part of his brain that is a Pussy.
The Pussy part of Jay’s brain talks to him as he stands outside a tenant’s door in a brief moment of introspection after exchanging a can of aerosol bug killer for a rent check. The Pussy voice says, Jay, aren’t you asking your tenants to breathe poisonous mist—not just once, but everyday, month after month? What if they get sick? There are children in this apartment. What if the children get cancer—or grow extra limbs? You’ll feel bad then. And you’ll get sued.
Jay silently rebukes his Pussy voice, The tenants don’t have to spray if they don’t want to. I’m not responsible for their choice. Besides, the human body is made of chemicals. I’m sure the body can find a use for—uh— He pulls a spray can from the half-empty case, positions the can exactly eighteen inches from his farsighted face, looks at the active ingredients, and attempts unsuccessfully to pronounce imiprothrin. He then throws the can into the gravel and mumbles, “I hate cockroaches.”
The only person in town who hates cockroaches more than Jay Gilbert Masterson, III is his son, Jay Gilbert Masterson, IV, known to everyone except his mother as Jock. His mother calls him Gilbert.
As a high school superstar, Jock Masterson’s hate for cockroaches extends beyond the taxonomical class insecta to include most of his classmates. Just as he enjoys the art of dangling an insect over the mesmerizing flame of a stovetop until the heat forces him to let go, he also enjoys inflicting pain onto his peers.
For instance, Jay’s second-favorite target is Floppy, a tenth grader who should have begun shaving in eighth grade but didn’t. Now his chin is overgrown with inch-long, very fine hairlets that flop when he talks. Jock likes to grab and twist Floppy’s chin hair until Floppy screams “I’m an ever-flopping Gobflopper!” three times fast.
Unfortunately for Jock, Floppy is now on the football team. He plays third string wide receiver. The team only has two strings. Floppy is not allowed to play unless the team is at least forty points ahead, but he’s still on the team. That means that Jock can torture Floppy on the practice field or in the field house—but never in the school proper. You can’t tease a teammate in public. That’s the rule.
So for in-school teasing fun, Jock turns his attention to the pizza delivery boy named Dennis. Jock spends his creative thoughts devising new ways to make Dennis fall on his face. Walking every night with loads of imbalanced pizza boxes makes Dennis good at recovering from falls without touching the ground. Making Dennis fall is therefore a fun challenge for Jock.
At first, Jock simply put his foot in Dennis’s path, but Dennis nearly always recovered from that. One of Jock’s newer methods is to shove or trip other people, sometimes two at the same time, in such a way that they fall into Dennis.
Don’t get the wrong idea: Jock isn’t always mean to Dennis. In fact, Jock is very friendly when Dennis delivers pizza to his house. Unlike the other pizza boys, whose pizzas are cooled to the point of solidification, Dennis always delivers his pizzas warm and stringy, no matter what—and Jock enjoys the otherworldly social experience when Dennis steps into his foyer with professionalism and courtesy. Last night Jock tipped 30%, a handshake, and a breathtaking smile.
Last night may have been pizza night, but this morning is a different day entirely. Today is the restless day in anticipation of the Homecoming game and dance. Tonight, Jock’s own Benjamin High School, home of the Devilhorns, will play their blood enemy Garfield High School, home of the Nuclear Warheads. Today is the most pumped-up day on Jock’s calendar. It is a day of celebration. A day to take Dennis’s pain to a new level.
Dennis, for his part, only vaguely remembered that today is Homecoming when he arrived on campus. Now, as Dennis stands at the health room chalkboard drawing cartoons of dead politicians, Dennis doesn’t form any thoughts of tonight’s game, nor of Jock Masterson, who happens to be standing immediately to his right, grinning.
As Dennis’s left hand draws Gerald Ford’s forehead, Jock punches Dennis in the right arm.
Dennis stops drawing for a second. His rather weak Macho voice tells him, Jock just hit you. That means you have to fight him. If he hits you then you have to fight. That’s the rule, to which his rather loud Pussy voice replies, But look at his arms! He’s muscular enough to throw power, slim enough to move quickly, and mean enough to—
Jock punches Dennis’s arm again.
Without thinking, Dennis returns the punch to Jock’s arm. No damage.
A wide-eyed chorus of “Ooooooh” ascends from the seated students, who are now assured of a great show and an inside story to spread among the bleachers at tonight’s game.
Jock snaps into a boxer’s fighting stance. Facing him, Dennis stands stiffly with his feet together and his fists up. Jock throws a fist at Dennis’s jaw. The fist connects.
Dennis’s eyesight jolts and he finds himself on the floor. I just got hit, he thinks. Hard enough to land on the floor. But, strangely, it doesn’t hurt. Why doesn’t it hurt? Dennis gets back up.
The audience make excited noises.
Jock resumes his stance, prancing from leg to leg, clearly having a good time. Dennis throws a fist at Jock’s jaw. Jock dodges. Dennis throws another. Jock dodges again. Then Dennis rolls a solid volley, one empty punch after another. In all, Dennis attempts nine punches before Jock throws another fist into Dennis’s face.
Again, Dennis finds himself on the ground. Again, no pain. Why is there no pain? Dennis gets to his feet.
The audience sound like they’re watching anal porn for the first time. A cacophony of “Oh my God,” and “Dude, don’t do it. Seriously!” and “That has got to be painful,” spark the idea that maybe Dennis should change strategy.
When Dennis puts his fists up, Jock looks shocked. He silently communicates, What—you want more? Are you sure? Well, it’s your face, not mine. Jock resumes his stance and waits for Dennis to swing.
But Dennis doesn’t swing. Instead he points his shoulder toward Jock’s stomach and lunges in a motion that one might use when tackling a lawn jockey. Dennis’s arms wrap around Jock’s waist as Dennis’s momentum carries them both into a clutter of unoccupied desks. Jock’s tailbone hits the ground.
Dennis is now hugging Jock. His neck is directly below Jock’s armpit and his face is in a palace of desk legs, outside the reach of Jock’s fists. If Jock had a knife then he could bring the blade downward into Dennis’s lower back, but being unarmed Jock can only pound his fists onto Dennis’s spine. Dennis finds that he prefers having his spine pounded to having his face pounded, so he waits in this position for a teacher to arrive.
Jock and Dennis are escorted to the chief authority’s office. The chief authority determines that the school’s no-tolerance fighting policy remains in effect no matter who threw the first punch. He therefore sentences each student, Jock and Dennis, to three days of suspension. He then calls the students’ parents to give them the news.
Dennis’s mother pleads for lenience on the grounds that her son had no choice but to defend himself. Jock’s father pleads for lenience on the grounds that he tonight’s homecoming victory requires Jock’s presence on the field.
The chief authority shows his mercy to both parents by allowing Jock and Dennis to remain at school for the rest of today, and also to attend the Homecoming festivities tonight. Both students must then report to in-school-suspension in the morning. Everybody happy? Dismissed.
Dennis has never been particularly good at making friends. But today, Homecoming Day, appears to be the beginning of a new social life. As soon as he leaves the chief authority’s office, people start to approach him, one after another, to offer solace and congratulations.
Floppy confesses his admiration to Dennis. “You did it!” he says. “You hit Jock Masterson. I’ve wanted to do that since fourth grade!”
A girl named Alison, whose black hair takes up more volume than her torso, introduces herself by kissing Dennis on the nose.
Even Jessica Lovelace, the shoo-in for tonight’s Homecoming queen, caresses Dennis’s face with her baby-soft fingers, looks into the wells of his eyes and says, “Jock is such a prick.”
All this before Dennis sees himself in a mirror.
When he finally makes it into the boys’ room and stands in front of the glass, his reflection jolts him almost as much as the punches did. The blood from his nose is now caked onto his mouth and chin. His is a star chart of blood splotches.
The pain that previously stayed hidden now shows itself. Dennis’s cheek, nose and jaw feel like they’re pressing into his brain.
As Dennis surveys the damage, Jock Masterson walks into the bathroom. Dennis tightens. The two make eye contact with one another’s reflections, each daring the other to look away. Time freezes.
Jock breaks the stare. He looks at the ceiling and makes his way into a stall.
Dennis blinks. Wow, he thinks. Jock broke the stare. He can’t hurt me anymore. Jock Masterson will never again treat me like a cockroach.
Dennis returns his sight to own his bloody reflection. He looks into the eyes of an entirely new person.
First published in Benjamin Golden Devilhorns, 2009