From Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul IV

Two Ways We Can Remember It

When I was in high school, the town I grew up in was pretty rough. None of my friends liked using violence, and I thought it was pretty much the worst turn any situation could take, but I think all of us had been in fistfights, been beaten up a few times, and generally accepted the fact that even though violence was terrible, it was a part of life. It wasn’t that you used it as a tool, but when people made it necessary, you couldn’t be afraid to step up and defend yourself, so they didn’t hurt you.

The night Mikey was jumped, I remember that we were all playing pool at this place called the Hilltop. They didn’t serve liquor, so teens could play pool there until eleven or twelve, even on weeknights. There were five of us there, and I was at the table, losing to Jens, as usual, since he was the best pool shark among us, when Dan got a page from Mikey. When he came back from the telephone by the bathroom, we could all tell something was wrong by the gray color of his face framing a small scowl of worry.

“We gotta go pick up Mikey,” he said, the words coming out slowly. “I think something happened to him.”

That was all he would say until Mikey jumped into Dan’s van at the corner of Twenty-third and Potrero. Mikey’s face looked like a very hardworking prizefighter’s; it was speckled with livid bruises, his lip was split and one eye was already swelling shut. I had certainly never been worked over so badly, and I think each one of us winced a little when we first saw his busted mug.

“These guys came outta nowhere,” said Mikey. “They saw me on the bus, and when I was getting off, I guess they musta followed me around the corner. Then I just heard this deep voice asking me for a light, and when I turned to look, I just saw a fist come up all fast and then Wham! and I was on the ground. Everything else was just a blur, man.” He sounded like the most tired guy there ever was, like he had been dreading talking about it, but also felt like he was unloading a huge weight just by telling us. He was vague in his recollection of exactly who the guys were, and he could only give us a few very rough descriptions, which could have fit just about anybody with the same basic skin tone or body shape.

We took Mikey home, but he didn’t want us to come in. I guess he was scared of telling his mom about it. We asked him if he wanted to go to the hospital, but he said he hated the hospital and just wanted to go home.

The next day in school, he had stitches in his lip, so I guess he had to go to the hospital anyhow, but he didn’t say anything about it until the next week, when he saw the guy who had asked him for a light.

We had spent the intervening time recycling Mikey’s story between us, talking about what we’d do if we could just find the guys who had beat up our friend. We never said anything when he was around, because we all knew Mikey would just rather forget all about it. But we were angry, and we wanted to feel like we could do something about it, so we talked and threw around fantasies of revenge and retribution.

Mikey saw the guy during lunch, at the supermarket near our school, where the guy apparently worked. Mikey said he had been behind the deli counter, chatting up some girl who worked there, too. Mikey said he had recognized him right away, and saw that his name tag read “Victor.”

After school, Mikey went home as he had every day since he got jumped, but the rest of us all gathered at our usual spot above the old train tracks.

Now that we had a name and a regular location on the object of our anger, the plans could begin. Some wanted to jump him outside of his work, but Dan eventually convinced most of us that we should get some bats, follow him home, and get him there.

All of this scared the daylights out of me. As I said before, none of us were strangers to using our fists, but this was different. This was not the childish roughhousing of greedy or mean juvenile thugs, this was planned, organized violence that could get very real, very fast, resulting in serious injuries for this guy. I had this sick feeling of both terror and resolve—like the floor was dropping out of my stomach—but that wasn’t going to stop me from doing what I had to. If we were going to use violence, I would be there. I felt it would be my duty, but I didn’t want to, so I didn’t know what to say.

I looked over at Jens, who had this look in his eyes that I have only seen a few times before or since. It was the look of supreme sadness, the sorrow that comes from a direct understanding of all the pain and hatred in the world. He looked at the ground, and then, in a very careful, clear voice, said something I will always remember.

“Guys, I’m as pissed as anyone about what happened to Mikey, and I don’t think this guy deserves to get away with it, but we have to think about what this can cause. The way I see it, years from now, we can remember all this stuff in one of two ways: the first way is that we’ll say, ‘Remember when Mikey got jumped? Man, that sucked, but we looked out for him.’ The other way is that we’ll say, ‘Remember when we beat up that dude, and he got killed, and one of us went to jail?’ or ‘Remember when one of us got killed because his boys decided to find us and put a bullet in us?’ I think it’d be better if we choose the first way and think of some other plan to get this guy.”

The words seemed to tumble out of him from some other place, like a hole in time had opened up and the guy he was going to become years from then had fed those words straight to his younger self. Silence overtook us, the way it does when someone is saying something exactly right even though no one else could see it before. Like ice water on red-hot iron, it cooled our anger, and we all accepted the wisdom of his words.

We came up with something better: we talked to the girl who was Victor’s coworker. It turns out, she thought Victor was a total jerk and was only too pleased to help us pay him back. We concocted this plan to incriminate him for stealing liquor, which she assured us that Victor had bragged about to her in any case, and our plan went off without a hitch. He lost his job, and we heard he got slapped with a hefty fine, drug counseling and probation, so we figured that was good enough for our revenge.

Mikey wasn’t happy about it anyway, but he was glad we wanted to help him and thanked us for deciding not to get violent with Victor.

I think we were all a little bit less than satisfied, but the retribution wasn’t important. We had done our best to stand by a friend without being stupid or impulsive.

The crucial thing was that we had turned a corner in our lives. As I remember the events of those days, I look at them as one of those times that helped decide who I am, and that, at all times, I had a choice about shaping what kind of future I could have.

Evan Wynns

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