“Jesus Christ, kid! Go outside.” There was no “natural world” in Tomah, or anywhere nearby. Kids knew about nature, theoretically. But we tended to locate it elsewhere. For the literates among us, it resided at the Tomah Public Library, in yellow-backed issues of National Geographic
. For the rest, nature’s closest outpost was “Up North,” a mythic realm whose frontier began well beyond the distance a kid could ride his bike on any given summer day. We knew nature wasn’t local because it had animals we never saw in Tomah. Moose and wolves and grizzlies. Gila monsters and warthogs and duckbilled platypuses.
Kids looked around Tomah and we saw . . .
. . . Chicago.
We saw bars and stores and two-story bank buildings. We saw beer cans in the gutter and cats in the garbage. We saw asphalt, Florsheim shoes, TV antennas and stifling civilization.
The woods, swamps and fields that seduced us and then spit us out again at dusk—scratched, bitten, exhausted and fearful of the dark—these weren’t nature. All this stuff was just “outside.”
“Jesus Christ, kid!” someone would holler. “Go outside.”
Forced outside, we worked outward gradually, checking the ballfields, trying out the playgrounds, the parks, the lake. Eventually, naturally, a kid would venture farther and farther, into bogs and cloverfields, up trees, over hills, down holes and into culverts, into the unknown.
Nobody ever wondered where we had gone. We were outside, where we belonged. Sometimes, we ventured afield in virtual throngs. Once, four of us—my cousins Danny and Bobby, my moron brother, Bill, and I—discovered a perfect swimming hole, its bottom lined with freshwater clams, and the only hitch to get there was that we had to pedal like maniacs through a pack of Baskerville-class farm hounds. More often, we entered the wilderness in pairs. I put up with Koscal, for instance, because he had a nose for snakes. Snakes were the ultimate quarry. Sometimes, we even teamed with grownups, but only when there was real blood-hunting involved, because Dad owned all the guns.
But, if no one else was interested, I would go out alone day after summer day, searching the canopy for movement, lifting wet rocks or standing knee-deep in cold muck, staring into the water, harassed by bugs, hunting for tadpoles, wary of snappers. I had no plan. None of us did. Kids just lit out for the woods, because the woods were there for lighting out.
Kids roamed but we never “hiked.” Kids lived on the seats of our Schwinns and J.C. Higginses but we never went “biking.” We clambered up the vertical crags of Mill Bluff but we never in our lives went “rock climbing.” The farther we stretched the edges of town, the more mystery, the more fun, the more peril was possible—although the available perils rarely amounted to more than wood ticks, yellowjackets, green apples, hostile turtles and the occasional psychotic squirrel.
Koscal Feeney was the kid who tagged Koscal a “Polack.”
In every classroom in every schoolhouse, everywhere, there has always been a social director. Actually two of them, one for girls, one for boys. But since boys ignore girls, and vice versa, each pupil in each class only deals with one of these petty tyrants. Feeney was ours. His job, which no one gave him—somehow, it was his destiny—was to administer the pecking order among boys. Although Feeney wielded more power than any kid in our class, his place was neither high nor exalted. He willingly installed a small coterie of alpha males above him—the tall, the strong, the handsome and sleek, a prosperous, confident and fashionable few—so that, by serving them, he enlarged himself. Feeney was small—a ferret among lions. The rest of us, the unchosen, Feeney labeled, graded, dismissed and derided. He never laid a glove on me or anyone among the culls and outcasts; that would have been risky. Some among us—a kid named Gladstone, one of the Kamperschroer brothers, certainly Koscal—had the bulk and agility, if provoked, to crush Feeney like a loose cockroach. But Feeney, who did his damage with tongue and tone, delegated the occasional strong-arm work to the alphas. Feeney was the first bureaucrat I’ve ever met; the first kid of my acquaintance who understood the ethics of adulthood, in which one’s ability to push to the front of a crowd—or, preferably, to persuade someone bigger to do the pushing on your behalf—trumps talent, ability, knowledge and character. Feeney proved the efficacy of the executive mind every Monday at recess, during the weekly choose-ups for softball or soccer or football. Despite his half-pint size and dubious skills at every sport, he was the first chosen after the most gifted jocks and coveted teammates had been divvied up. He contributed nothing to the athletic endeavor, but he had insinuated himself among the elite and he had assiduously distanced himself from the unclean, unnoticed and unloved.
I never figured out how Feeney got this job; nor was it sensible to wonder. Feeney was already a fact of life, established and immutable, passing judgment and juggling black balls, the day I showed up. He disliked me on sight. He liked Koscal even less. On Koscal’s first day, Feeney called him “Polack.” Thereafter, everyone called Koscal “Polack.” This was supposed to humble Koscal. Trouble was, nothing humbled Koscal.
Besides, “Polack” was a poor excuse for an ethnic slur. In those days, “Polack” didn’t carry the same sting it developed later when Polish-Americans discovered the benefits of political correctness. In those days, “Polack” was just a synonym for “Pole,” slightly more satisfying on the palate because of that nice sharp plosive at the end. My main grandfather, whom we called Papa, had a fondness for ethnic insults, but only if they were fun to say—“Polack,” “Hunyok,” “Mulyok,” “plow jockey.” In his Saturday badinage among the merchants and shopkeepers on Superior Avenue, he called people “Polack” and “Hunyok” affectionately and interchangeably, without regard to national origin. “Plow jockey” was his only term of genuine disparagement, which Papa applied exclusively to slow drivers who got in his way on Superior Avenue. This habit left me with the lasting impression that farmers are the world’s worst drivers. Papa never said “plow jockey” outside his car, however, because a farmer might overhear. If Papa sensed that any of his mild sobriquets might be hurtful, he held his tongue. He was a man without malice.
When Feeney called Koscal “Polack,” it sounded different from Papa’s formulation. It sounded mean in Feeney’s mouth, which was Feeney’s point. Most of us got the point. Koscal, if he got it, gave no indication. He was numb to insults.
Of course, I deplored Koscal. Everybody deplored Koscal. Deploring Koscal was as auto-muscular as breathing and farting. If we’d been asked to explain our universal contempt for Koscal, we would have probably said, “Well, ’cause he’s just such a jerk!”
Koscal’s defining quality, for which we had no word, was chutzpah. Where others trod softly, Koscal barged. Where others spoke barely above a whisper, Koscal crowed. Where others shrank self-consciously into the background, Koscal thrust out his chest—the better to display the hand-me-down bolo tie he just got for his birthday. Koscal had a lot to be self-conscious about, and he wasn’t self-conscious. Koscal was poor, he was Polish, he was raggedy and soiled. His hair was shaggy, black and unkempt. He ate strange, fragrant homemade lunches from greasy paper bags. He had an unseemly number of siblings, even for an ethnic Catholic. His family, every time they showed up en masse at Mass, were shockingly uncool. They laughed, they sang, they hugged and bellowed and generally had more fun than immigrant paupers were even supposed to think about having. Perhaps worst of all, Koscal had no sibling shame. He seemed to like his brothers and sisters. This was a gross violation of the unspoken law among kids that it was acceptable to have siblings as long as you didn’t flaunt the fact. Koscal not only violated this rule; he seemed not to realize that it existed. He talked about his brothers and sisters. Out loud. He greeted them in the hallways at St. Mary’s. He sought them out at lunchtime and carried on with them, flagrantly, even when they tried to avoid him. Which they often did. Not all the Koscals were as brazen and outgoing as he was. Some of them understood society and tried to conform. He screwed things up for them.
Koscal screwed things up for everybody. With nuns and teachers, for instance, kids were supposed to be respectful. We had rituals to observe, greetings to recite. But Koscal didn’t just go through the motions. He performed the rituals with joie de vivre. He didn’t mumble his mandatory greetings; he orated them. The rest of us, seeing Sister Terence turn a corner and penguin toward us, would all mutter, “G’mn, S’t’r T’rnce.” Behind us, suddenly, Koscal would erupt, bugling his salutation loud enough to wake up roosters in Vernon County.
“Hey! Sister Terence! G’morning! What a nice day, huh?”
“It certainly is, Mr. Koscal,” Sister Terence would say, glowing. And then she’d turn to everyone else, her voice dripping with disappointment for our un-Koscalian absence of enthusiasm.
Her “Good morning, children” came out as more an indictment than a hello.
“Koscal, you prick!”
“Wha’d I do?”
Poor kids weren’t supposed to be loud. Kids with obvious ethnic names didn’t shout and challenge people. They cringed and apologized. Poor kids didn’t laugh and toss insults back at their insulters. They kept a low profile. I kept a low profile. But Koscal screwed it up, made life miserable for all the rest of the outcasts in class. He kept barging in among Feeney’s inner circle of jocks and snobs—Kiegel, Fin, Gunderson, Overacker—and kept getting kicked out. He always emerged unfazed and dove right back in, as though his perpetual exclusion was some sort of mistake.
Even more annoying, Koscal had talent. His grades teetered perpetually on the cusp of catastrophe, which redounded to Koscal’s credit. Poor kids and farmers weren’t supposed to be brains. But Koscal did several extracurricular things appallingly well. For instance, he could sing. Worse than this, he liked singing, right out in front, among a classful of kids for whom any sort of public performance was the equivalent of dropping your pants, lifting your shirt and doing a pirouette on the playground—at lunch hour. Koscal not only sang. He pulled it off, in style, then smiled and bowed and carried on as if this singing crap was something to be proud of. He even did encores. Not that anybody asked for one.
One Christmas season, Sister Claveria was trying fecklessly to get us to sing the world’s hardest carol, “O Holy Night,” in four-part harmony. In the midst of our bleating and squawking, she heard one angelic tenor hitting all the right notes and cruising through the impossible passages—you know, where it goes, “O night!/O night divine!/O night, when Christ was born . . .” The annoying perfect voice was—who else?—Koscal. That son of a bitch. Nuns love to show up the whole class with one shining example of how splendid they all could be if only they weren’t a reeking heap of harelipped cretins. Here was one of those triumphant moments for Sister Claveria. She stood Koscal up in front of everyone and directed him to sing “O Holy Night,” all the way through, a cappella, emphasizing, with a few melismatic flourishes and reverent gestures, the parts that made your eyeballs bleed. Thereafter, given false hope by Koscal’s virtuosity, Sister Claveria redoubled her efforts, every day, torturously, to squeeze from us a musical Christmas miracle. We could all handle “Joy to the World,” and we could sing the bobtails out of “Jingle Bells.” We never got a chance. And did Koscal have any clue? Did he shuffle and blush and curry our sympathy for his exposure and all the added pain his virtuosity imposed on us? Koscal? Not Koscal. Koscal swelled. He smirked his way through every eight-octave verse. He strutted and fretted his hour upon the stage like a Shakespearean ham. We all wanted to kill him, cut him up and send his body parts to all his innumerable brothers and sisters who lived on the wrong side of the tracks, down by the Seven-Up bottling plant.
Koscal was even more annoying on the playground. Poor kids, farmers, pariahs and outcasts had a certain style at recess. We played the games because the nuns would interfere if they saw some of us loitering motionlessly on the fringe. But even as we played, we held back, in exaggerated attitudes of submission. Koscal, of course, accepted none of this. He didn’t have to, because he was good. He could hit, he could run. He caught every pass that got close to him—although it was often intended for someone else. He could throw the ball a mile and kick it through a wall. Koscal was a jock. He should have been the pride of the outcast class; we should have loved him, and taken him as our hero. This is what reject kids do in the movies, when one of their kind turns out to be the second coming of DiMaggio. The Koscal character leads the lepers from the ghetto, and they carry him on their shoulders through cheering crowds of penitent aristocrats. In real life, every Koscal touchdown, home run, goal or basket mortified us. It made our lives worse, because Feeney and the jocks couldn’t take out their resentment on Koscal. He could stand his ground and actually beat some of them up. He was a problem they couldn’t solve. They didn’t mess with Koscal, except with insults that had no effect. Instead, the rest of us, the suffering classes, stand-ins for Koscal, got picked on, sniped at, pounded and pestered. And Koscal didn’t even notice. The son of a bitch was clueless.
I hated Koscal. This, of course, was self-hate. While shunning him, I was drawn to him. We had a lot in common. We were penniless and messy. Our knees were patched and our shoes were brown. We distinguished ourselves in unpopular skills; Koscal could sing, I could spell. We were permanently excluded from Feeney’s elite. While the thoroughbreds lived rigid lives of grade school conformity and macho bonding, Koscal and I were free. Because our every word or deed was greeted with derision, we could do or say anything that occurred to us. Koscal understood this strange liberty better than I. His annoying insouciance was simply the freedom of an unselfconscious boyhood. He shouted, he laughed, he roamed where he wanted, he got dirty and wet and he snuck into places where he shouldn’t have gone. He could be curious about unfashionable things, like animals and chemistry and woodburning and playing the marimba. Amidst the contempt of his stifling peers, Koscal enjoyed life.
Inevitably, while studiously deploring him and all his antics, I gradually, grudgingly befriended the unbefriendable Koscal.
I justified this social dead end as my Christian duty. Among all the kids in my class at St. Mary’s, I was the one who found meaning in our catechism lessons and took Jesus literally, as a real guy, who went around Palestine buddying up with ragamuffins, hugging spastics, coddling panhandlers and feeding multitudes. He didn’t mind thieves, he treated whores like ladies, and some of his best friends were Jews. If Jesus could forgive Pontius Pilate for sending him off to his crucifixion, I could make friends with Koscal.
Fat Vinny was an even bigger reclamation project. Fat Vinny, who was one grade above mine, and therefore technically none of my responsibility, was so detested by everyone in school that his presence on the playground incited periodic riots. After participating once in an anti–Fat Vinny demonstration, throwing sticks and rocks at him as he retreated toward school, cordoned off by his bodyguards—Fat Vinny was the only kid I ever knew who paid other kids to protect him from spontaneous assault by mobs of disgusted schoolmates—I was overcome with shame and remorse. Would Jesus have pitched pebbles at Fat Vinny and chanted, “Fat fat Vinny’s full of greasy grimy gopher guts, greasy grimy gopher guts, greasy grimy gopher guts,” over and over, in bad harmony with the apostles, ’til he was hoarse? This was a question that needed no answer.
A few weeks later, I approached Fat Vinny in an aisle at the Red Owl store. He didn’t recognize me as one of his tormentors. He had too many enemies to actually pick faces out of the ugly mob. So I had to introduce myself before I apologized, and then had to remind him of the particular riot for which I was sorry. Fat Vinny, intuiting that in me he had found a live one, forgave me on the spot and agreed to let me help him in his various downtown hustles. Fat Vinny was a twelve-year-old entrepreneur. He had the franchise on shoveling snow in front of most of the twenty or thirty bars in downtown Tomah, and the exclusive rights to distribute advertising flyers for the Coast-to-Coast Store, S&Q Hardware, both drugstores, and sundry other retail outlets. In getting to know Fat Vinny over the next year, I learned the main reason why other kids hated him so passionately. He was—in kid terms—rich. Because he had so many schemes working all the time, he always had pocket money that came in bills, not coins. In those days, the average kid’s allowance topped off at fifty cents a week. The only known income source beyond that was a paper route, which earned your average kid about three bucks a week, maybe—except Freddy Foss, a workaholic geek who earned twice as much as anybody else, because he had 120 customers on his La Crosse Tribune route, which ran literally from one end of the town to the other, and took three or four hours a day, except for collecting—which was literally a full-time job three days a week. Freddy Foss sacrificed his childhood to the La Crosse Tribune.
Another reason to hate Fat Vinny was that he was a piker. If he could find a sucker to help him do his chores on Superior Avenue, he’d let the sucker do all the work, collect five bucks from the bartender at the Hofbrau or old man Sorenson at the Tomah Hardware, and then Fat Vinny would turn around and give his helper—often me—a quarter. Fat Vinny knew a quarter was a fortune to a kid in those days. But even I figured out eventually that a fifty-fifty split on five bucks was more than two bits.
Still, the main reason kids hated Fat Vinny—kids who didn’t even go to the same school, kids who’d never met him, never talked to him, rarely even set eyes on Fat Vinny—was that Fat Vinny was the worst kind of fat. He was fat in that sloppy, droopy, voluptuous way that forty-year-old men are fat. Fat Vinny was adult-fat, and he was adult-ugly. Fat Vinny’s ugly was sneery and vulgar and degenerate. You could see in Fat Vinny, at age twelve, the seeds of a sleazy adulthood, full of spilled booze, petty crime, mean swindles and trailer park sex with underage girls. Kids sensed in Fat Vinny the worst possibilities of their own future, and they recoiled. Once, walking home from school with Fat Vinny, I stopped to watch a few min- utes of a baseball game at the public school playground. Some kid I didn’t know was pitching to another kid I didn’t know. The pitcher looked our way.
“Shit,” he announced suddenly to every kid on both teams, who responded by looking our way, “it’s that tub of shit Fat Vinny.”
Excerpted from The Life and Times of the Last Kid Picked by David Benjamin. Copyright © 2002 by David Benjamin. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.