A serialized novel and podcast by Andrew Leo Lovato
The following is Chapter Twelve of a serialized novel and podcast. Start at Chapter One.
When I entered the seventh grade the happy, self-confident boy who believed that Santa Fe was his private domain disappeared and he was replaced by a shy, insecure double who barely felt worthy of walking out the front door in the morning. One of the sources of my insecurity was an acute awareness of my physical shortcomings. I lagged behind many of my junior high peers in my development. My voice was too high and I had no facial hair to speak of except for fine peach fuzz that sat on my upper lip. While some of the boys at De Vargas Junior High were transforming overnight, growing mustaches and sideburns and developing biceps and broad shoulders, I remained a child in my own eyes, unworthy of respect or attention.
Nowhere was this hierarchy more evident than in physical education class. PE was a sadistic rite of passage for boys at De Vargas Junior High. If they survived intact physically and emotionally, nothing else they would ever encounter would seem quite so unbearable. It was run more like a prison wing than a gym class. The warden, Mr. Archuleta, was a short, squat man with dark reptilian eyes. He had been teaching PE and coaching the wrestling team for over twenty years. He viewed it as his responsibility to break down soft-bellied mama’s boys and transform them into cold, hardened replicas of himself or else kill them trying.
Mr. Archuleta did not take on this task entirely by himself. He recruited a couple of eighth grade assistants who gleefully and enthusiastically provided the muscle for his mission. The henchmen for my class could hardly be called boys. They were imposing physical specimens from the wrestling team who resembled me and the rest of my weak-kneed troop about as much as mountain lions mirror house tabbies. They sneered at our assembly of pale, droop-shouldered, sissy boys as we stood in a line in the school gym on the first day of class. It was a humiliating experience. Mr. Archuleta berated and cursed us.
“Listen up; I’m going to turn you motley group of weak sisters into men before the school year is over. What I see right now are a bunch of little joto, sissy boys. I don’t want to hear that any of you went home crying to your mamas saying, ‘Mr. Archuleta is so mean.’ If I do, you’re going to be on my shit list, you read me loud and clear? Now go run ten laps around the gym and if I see anybody goofing off, you’ll run ten more. Move it!”
I could feel the sinking sensation in my stomach turning into a full-fledged belly-ache as the initial class came to a close. Things went from bad to worse as the weeks went by. For some unknown reason, one of Mr. Archuleta’s great apes took a particular dislike to me.
Big, ugly Beto with a forehead that took up most of the front of his face bellowed out every time he saw me, “Elvis has left the building, Elvis has left the building!”
Of course this made no sense whatsoever in the context of our gym class but this didn’t stop Beto from repeating this mantra over and over again whenever he spotted me. This ritual took place much to the delight of his fellow wrestling goons who broke up in hysterics and never seemed to tire of his caveman humor.
Beto Baca was a predator at De Vargas who sat at the top of the food chain. Beto seemed much too old to be in junior high and I figured that he had been snared in eighth grade for several years. The school was Beto’s jungle and his finely honed animal instincts gave him the ability to smell out fear and weakness. Whenever Beto’s scornful eye fell upon me, a cold current ran up my spine and I immediately diverted my eyes toward the vicinity of my shoes. However, rather than appeasing Beto, this sign of subordination only enraged him and brought out his cold-blooded nature. He mercilessly chided me and my fellow inmates to run faster, do more sit-ups and pull-ups, and generally tormented us until we collapsed in exhaustion at the end of every class defeated and hopelessly resigned to our inadequacy. I fully understood the meaning of hell in a more meaningful way than any Catechism class had ever instilled in me.
There were particular tortures that caused me the most grief. One was rope climbing. A thick burlap-fibered rope hung down to the floor with a texture that was intended to inflict maximum pain to fingers and hands and cause nasty burns to the soft inner thighs of boys who ascended and descended. Every three feet or so there was a knot that served as a hand or foot hold as we climbed upward. I dreaded the days when my turn came around. The roof of the gym was almost thirty feet high and usually about halfway up, I began to swoon and felt like I was about to pass out. I shut my eyes and didn’t dare look down at the floor far below. I always stopped at this point and slid down in defeat to the jeers and taunts beneath me. I couldn’t explain that my fear had been integrated into my psyche when I was just an infant and my uncles used to enjoy tossing me up into the air as I stiffened my traumatized little body in fright. In order to pass P.E., I was required to climb the rope and touch the roof at least once before the year was over. I knew that this was something that was not even remotely possible.
Another anguish that I was required to endure in gym class was innocently referred to as dodge ball. The basic premise of this game was that two teams of boys stood along the walls at opposite ends of the gym with an assortment of inflated rubber balls that were basically used as ammunition. When a boy was struck by a ball, he was ejected from the field of battle and retired to the sidelines. The team that lost all of their players first were declared the losers and had to run extra laps around the gym at the end of class.
While on the surface it seemed like a sporting type of activity, in reality it was an exercise in extreme cruelty. The small rubber balls when they were projected by behemoths like Beto and his fellow goon, Chewy could strike with amazing force on exposed legs, heads, or worse yet find a bulls-eye between a victim’s legs, dropping him to the floor like a rock. Bloody noses and red welts were not an uncommon aftermath of a game of dodge ball. There was one ball that was the most dreaded of all. It was small and hard as a stone and bright orange in color. It was reverently referred to as “el naranjo.” When “el naranjo” was in the hand of someone like Beto, it became a lethal weapon. I will never forget one particular day when Beto singled me out for target practice. As I stood across the gym floor from him, I sensed that my moment of destiny had arrived. The way that Beto fondled “el naranjo” as he eyed me told me that my time on earth might be short. It all seemed to happen in the slow motion time of a bad dream. I saw Beto cock his arm and run towards me as the orange bullet left his hand and sailed through the air. I impassively watched as the dot came closer and closer. I wanted to move or duck but I seemed frozen as the bright orange missile grew larger and larger until it eventually obliterated everything else from my view and struck the side of my face with a tremendous impact that I could taste in my mouth. The world around me began spinning wildly and I didn’t even remember falling to the floor. I only recall the sound of loud laughter and the smirking faces of the pitiless boys as I crawled on my knees with tears streaming from my eyes.
As hard as things were for me, I was just a run-of-the-mill boy in gym class, not really worth much attention or worthy of the most extreme cruelty that was meted out. This was reserved for a boy with the unfortunate name of Thaddeus. He was a gentle, sensitive boy of slight build with pale, milky skin which highlighted the blue veins in his arms and legs. He spoke with a heavy, southern accent which infuriated Beto and Chewy.
On the first day of class an incident occurred that sealed Thad’s fate once and for all and placed him beyond the benefits of any amends or reparations. Every boy was issued a grey tee-shirt with “De Vargas Jr. High” stamped across the front and stiff, grey gym shorts. Standard equipment also included a sweat band and a starchy white jock strap sealed in a clear plastic bag. Poor Thaddeus had never encountered a jock strap before, being raised by a single mother. Thaddeus had the added misfortune of being assigned a gym locker next to Chewy. He innocently asked him on the first day what the strange item was intended for. Chewy suppressed a smirk and earnestly explained:
“Hey little Bro, let me help you out there. You see this pouch fits right over your nose and this strap stretches over your head to keep the whole damn thing in place. Pretty chingon don’t you think little buddy?
Chewy continued in a benevolent tone as he took Thad under his wing, “This bitchen thing filters out the bad air and helps you to breathe better. You’ll score big points if you have it on right it in front of Mr. Archuleta.”
Chewy graciously assisted Thaddeus in donning the air purifier and hurried him out to the gym floor. Thad waited in anticipation to be singled out for his keen preparation. As he stood in the line, he realized that every eye was upon him and that several boys were grabbing their sides and doubling over in mirth. He looked around awkwardly and was confused until it began to dawn on him that he’d been had. But before he could react, Mr. Archuleta strode up to him and bellowed,
“So you think you’re a wise guy, huh? I’ll teach you how we treat wise guys in here! You’ll run laps for the rest of the period. Now go mister! I’ve got my eye on you.”
Poor Thaddeus hung his head and shuffled away and he began circling the gym with long, sad strides. After this incident, Thad was assigned to the lowest rung of the gym class ladder. He was the lowest gym rat in the cage, the lowest snitch in the cell block. Finally, after all of the abuse he endured in and outside of P.E. class, he couldn’t take it anymore and a couple of months later, I heard that he’d transferred to a private school in town.