“When I call your name,” the teacher said, “If you use your middle name or a nickname, now’s the time to tell me.”
Lester Grubb sat up. A nickname?
Mama called him Les. He hated it, but it beat what the kids called him. Some of the boys could say “Grubb” like it was a cuss word. In junior high, they’d called him “Less is more” on account of his weight. A cool nickname would fix that. He thought of one quick. He hoped no one else said it first. Most of the guys used their first names. One little Oriental kid said, “I go by Hank,” which was even dumber than what the teacher said. Lester was bouncing in his seat when the teacher started to call his name. Lester cut him off.
“Call me Outlaw.”
Silence like someone cussed in church. Then someone let out a long, grunting snort. Laughter consumed the class. Even the teacher’s shoulders shook.
After class, the other boys growled, “Outlaw” at him and punched his shoulder.
“Don’t call me that. I was only joking.”
At least he wasn’t the only one taking crap. Jack Gorman and his mob surrounded that Oriental kid. Jack wore cowboy boots that added an unnecessary three inches to his height. His bearded face loomed almost a foot above Hank’s. A wad of chewing tobacco swelled his lower lip. “How come you go by Hank instead of your chink name?” Jack’s friends laughed.
Hank locked gazes with Jack. “I’m not a chink. I’m Vietnamese. The correct slur is ‘gook.’ If you’re going to be a racist dick, at least get your terms right.”
Everyone howled, even Jack. Hank slipped away toward the front of the school. Jack and his pack headed deeper into the Agriculture building. Lester plodded to the portable classrooms, rows and rows of double-wide trailers flanked by uncovered cement walkways. Dark, sweaty circles grew under his arms and across his belly.
The buzz of pre-class chatter stopped when Lester entered. Everyone stared at him. He didn’t know many of them, but they seemed to know him. He crammed himself into a desk off to the side and slouched low, his stomach roiling. When the teacher called his name, Lester muttered “Here,” and sank lower in his desk.
One of the boys piped up. “He likes to be called Outlaw.”
Snickers swept through the class. Lester chewed his bottom lip. The pain kept his face from turning red. He kept his mouth shut and his head down the whole class.
On the way to third period, he heard “Outlaw” every ten steps. Why did all his classes have to be at opposite ends of the school? He lumbered across the open quad, past the flag poles, which bore yellow ribbons for the hostages in Iran. By the time he got to class, the only empty desk was front and center. When the teacher called roll, she said, “Are you called Lester, or Les? Or something else?”
The class erupted. Lester hung his head.
At least she didn’t call on him during the class, and she kept a lid on chit-chat. Lester had almost forgotten his humiliation when the lunch bell rang.
The cafeteria sounded like a riot. Long trestle tables lined up in rows like in a prison movie. Lester was last to go through the serving line. He took his tray to the table where the Ag guys sat.
“Seat’s taken,” Jack said when he pulled out a chair.
He tried to set his tray down anyway. A hand shot out and blocked it. “Go sit somewhere else, Outlaw.” Snickering from the lot of them.
Lester approached a table where half a dozen big-haired girls shared a fashion magazine. He’d show those Ag fags a thing or two. He smiled. One of the girls looked up. She was no beauty queen, more zits on her face than he had on his. “You can’t sit there,” she said. “We’re saving that seat.” The other girls stared at him and giggled.
Fine. He slunk off to the one empty table next to the garbage cans and tried to ignore the mixed odor of trash, old food, and rancid grease. He stared at his tray. Spaghetti and meatballs, although he doubted that was really meat. It looked like someone had been gut-shot and they ladled it onto his plate. Grief stoked his hunger, and he ate it anyway, and downed the chocolate milk in two gulps.
“Pretty crowded, huh?” Hank dropped his tray across from Lester and sat. Lester stared at him for a minute, then returned his attention to his empty plate.
“So, why do you call yourself Outlaw?”
Lester glowered at Hank. “Why don’t you shut your stupid mouth and go bother someone else?”
Hank gave him the same unblinking stare he’d given Jack after first period. He picked up his tray.
“Hey, Hank,” Jack yelled. “What are you doing over there with Outlaw?” He kicked an empty chair out from the table. “Come sit here before he guns you down.” That provoked hilarious laughter from the rest of his pack. An awkward smile rose on Hank’s face. He set his tray on the table. Lester waited for Jack to hook the chair with his foot and pull it back in.
He didn’t. Someone slapped Hank on the back and made a comment that Lester couldn’t hear. The whole table howled, and a couple of people looked over at Lester.
Those sons-of-bitches. He slammed his fist at the milk carton, caught a corner of it and sent it skittering down the table. He swallowed against a rising lump in his throat and fled the cafeteria.
The rest of the day, people stared at him in the halls, nudged each other, and whispered. Girls laughed behind their hands. On the bus, he had to sit up front where the driver usually put troublemakers. When he got off, a girl dumped her soda onto his head as the bus pulled away. He hung his head and trudged the quarter mile back to his house, sticky with syrup and sweat.
Lester reached the ranch house at the end of the street where he lived with Mama and her boyfriend, Benton. It was the only one in the neighborhood the developer finished before going bankrupt. Until the courts sorted out what to do, the Grubb family was alone. Lester used to play in the vacant lots across the street, pretending to lead rescue missions to bring his Daddy back from Vietnam. One day he saw a pygmy rattler over there and never went back.
Mama met him at the door, still wearing the blue polyester smock from the drug store where she worked part-time. She was shorter than Lester, with dull brown hair and a crease across her forehead that only faded when she smiled. That hardly ever happened. “How was your first day. . .” she trailed off and frowned. “What happened to your shirt?”
“Nothing.” He tried to step past her, but she caught his shoulder.
“Don’t lie to me. It’s all stained.”
“Some girl dumped a soda out the bus window.”
“Ugh,” she said, and Lester wasn’t sure if she was disgusted with the girl, his shirt, or him. “Give it to me. I’ll wash it. Honestly, Les, you got to be more careful.”
Lester fumed. “I didn’t ask her to throw her drink on me.”
“What did you do to her to make her want to do that?”
The words made Lester’s vision swim. “I didn’t do nothing. I was walking.” He stripped the shirt off and shoved it at her, his flabby chest and fat belly wobbling. “Can I go wash up now?”
She took his shirt away. Lester stood under the shower spray until the hot water about ran out and Mama banged on the bathroom door. He waited for her to go away and went to his room.
He turned on his record player and set the needle down. Hank Williams, Jr. growled a song about not fitting in nowhere. He flopped down on his bed. He knew what that felt like. He stroked his chin. Wished he could grow a beard like the singer’s.
A poster from “The Outlaw Josey Wales” hung on his closet door. Clint Eastwood snarled at some menace over near the window, a pair of six guns at the ready. He didn’t take no crap from nobody. Lester closed his eyes and imagined he was helping Josey gun down everyone who done him wrong.
When Lester woke up, the album was over. He heard Benton in the dining room running his mouth about how Carter had ruined this country. Lester’s stomach grumbled. He fought to ignore it. Listening to Benton was bad enough. He didn’t want to talk to him. Before Benton came along, things had been all right. Mama moved them here to get away from her heartless family and for about a year, she smiled a lot. When she met Benton, her smiles got brighter for a while. Then he moved in and the smiles disappeared.
Lester’s stomach yowled again. He sighed. He had to go out there sooner or later, anyway. Might as well get something to eat. He shuffled down the hall.
Benton sat at the kitchen table, still in his mall security guard uniform. He was older than Mama by a few years and had a puffy, sunburned face with narrow eyes. A pistol was in pieces on a towel spread out in front of him. Mama hated him cleaning his gun at the kitchen table, but she lost that battle long ago. Benton practiced with it in the vacant lot across the street every day. He wasn’t supposed to carry a gun at work, but he wore it strapped to his ankle anyway.
Mama stirred something that might have smelled good if not for the gun cleaner solvent’s stench. Lester’s stomach whined like a beaten dog. He took a bag of potato chips from the pantry and sat at the opposite end of the table from Benton.
“Don’t you eat that whole bag of chips,” Mama said.
“I won’t.” He opened the bag and shoveled out a big handful.
“Did you make any new friends?” Mama asked.
“It was mostly the same people from last year.”
“Mostly?” she asked. “So there were some new kids.”
“Was this one little gook kid, had one of them names sounded like a gong.” He laughed. “Wanted everyone to call him Hank.”
Benton began reassembling the pistol. “You don’t want to be friends with no gook.”
Lester nodded. “That’s what I told Jack Gorman.” Mama stopped stirring and turned around.
“You friends with Jack Gorman now?”
“We were sitting at the same table at lunch.” He stared at his greasy fingers so she wouldn’t see the lie in his eyes.
Mama turned back to the stove. “You be careful. That boy is trouble.”
Lester shook his head as he shoved a handful of chips in his mouth. She didn’t understand.
“Don’t shake your head at your mother,” Benton said.
“I was thinking about Jack inviting that kid to sit down. Can you believe that?” He sneaked a glance at Benton. The man grunted and returned his focus to the gun.
“So I told him we don’t need no damned Viet Cong sitting here.”
“Language,” Mama said.
Benton slid the slide back onto the gun’s frame. “You don’t need no little slant-eye following you around.” He racked the slide. “He give you any trouble?” He pointed the gun down the hall and pulled the trigger. It sounded like someone’s neck being snapped. “You let him have it.”
The next morning, Lester sat quietly near the front of the bus. He slid over to the window and took up as little room as possible. If he was lucky, yesterday was forgotten.
He wasn’t lucky.
The bus traveled a long route, stopping every quarter mile or so to pick up a handful of kids. They all stared at him as they boarded. As the bus filled, they doubled up with each other rather than sit near him. That part was fine by him.
A pair of jocks came aboard at one of the new developments near the high school. One of them slammed his backpack into the seat in front of Lester. “You won’t cut me if I sit in front of you, will you Outlaw?” he asked in a breathy falsetto, a cruel smile smeared across his jaw.
Lester’s neck grew warm and sweat built up in his arm pits. He clenched his teeth, praying the heat wouldn’t spread to his face.
“Hey, I’m talking to you,” the boy said. He stiff-armed Lester’s shoulder with the heel of his hand. “You got a problem?”
“No,” Lester muttered. Benton’s advice echoed in his ears, but if he fought this boy, he’d only get his butt whupped.
“No horseplay,” the bus driver said.
The jock grabbed his backpack and went to the back of the bus, where his friends had gone, cackling. Someone started singing “Desperado,” by the Eagles, and soon everyone was singing along.
Lester wished he could disappear. He wished he could do something cool that would make everyone like him. Last year one of the soccer players shaved his head on a dare. All anyone could talk about for weeks after that was how awesome he was. Lester knew better than to try a stunt like that, though.
Lester waited until everyone else was off the bus before he got up. If he tried to stand while kids filed past, someone would only shove him back down. His heart was gnawing itself to pieces when he descended to the crowded, chaotic bus platform.
Someone jostled his shoulder. A scrawny nerd in a Led Zeppelin T-shirt. Good. Here was someone whose butt he could kick. That would be worth something. He punched the nerd’s shoulder. “Watch where you’re going!”
The nerd’s fist shot out so quick Lester didn’t see it. The blow plunged into his belly and drove the breath from his lungs. Lester sank to his knees and heaved his breakfast. The stench made his stomach buck again. He coughed and spat.
Someone touched his shoulder. “You gonna be OK?”
Lester looked up. Hank squatted next to him, one hand on Lester’s shoulder. Lester swatted his hand away.
“Get your hand off me, you faggot,” he said. Last thing he needed was people saying the two of them were queer for each other.
Hank snatched his hand away. “I didn’t realize it was you,” he said.
“What’s going on?” A new pair of shoes entered Lester’s field of vision, shiny and black below green trousers with a dark green stripe. Deputy Davis, the sheriff’s office liaison to the high school, looked down at him, his mirrored sunglasses and bald black head making him look like a hawk poised to strike.
Lester struggled to his feet. His knee hurt. He’d ripped his jeans and scraped the skin when he fell. It oozed blood.
“Someone beat Lester up,” Hank said.
The hair on Lester’s arms stood up and he shivered in the humid morning heat. “No he didn’t. He sucker punched me and ran like a coward.” He shot Hank a murderous look. Hank frowned, picked up his backpack, and headed toward the Ag building.
Davis looked Lester over. “I’d better take you to the nurse, get that knee cleaned up.” He reached out to guide Lester by the shoulder. Lester shrugged away from his touch. “It’s nothing. A scrape. I don’t need to go to the nurse.”
“Walk with me, anyway. I want to talk to you about this ‘Outlaw’ business.”
Sweat trickled down Lester’s back. He looked down. The ragged tear in his jeans winked at him as he shifted on unsteady legs. He squeezed his eyes tight so he wouldn’t cry.
“I didn’t mean it. I was only fooling.”
“Let’s get inside.”
Davis herded him into the administration building and sat across from him outside the nurse’s office. “Maybe you were joking about the nickname. But now you’re picking fights.”
“I didn’t. . .”
“I was there, Lester. I saw you. Now, the punishment for fighting is suspension, but I think you already learned your lesson about that. Right?”
“Yes, sir,” he whispered.
Davis took his glasses off and leaned toward him, his forearms on his knees. “Lester, I’ve been there. I understand how it hurts not to fit in.”
Lester frowned and pulled his head back. “No way.”
“Court-ordered desegregation. Bussed to an all-white high school. I got my butt kicked regularly. But I got through it. You will, too.”
“Don’t nobody even want to talk to me.”
“What about Hank? He was trying to help you out, and you brushed him off.”
Lester snorted. “I don’t need to be friends with no gook. Them people killed my Daddy.”
Davis stood and looked down at Lester. “That boy didn’t kill anyone. You be a bigot if you want. But don’t be surprised if nobody wants to be around you.” He put his sunglasses back on. “Don’t cause any more trouble. Next time, I won’t be lenient.”
The nurse cleaned and bandaged the scrape and sent Lester to class. All morning, the flash of gauze through the tear in his jeans caught his eye as he made his way through the halls. Mama was going to give him hell about that.
He ate lunch alone in the corner of the cafeteria near the garbage cans. When Hank came in, Jack yelled, “Hey, Victor Charlie!”
“Don’t call me that, you ignorant cracker,” he shouted back. Lester grinned. Now Hank would get what was coming to him. But Jack only laughed. Hank sat at Jack’s table and they cut up all through lunch.
Lester sat alone at the front of the bus again on the way home. He didn’t understand how Jack and Hank could be friends. Jack said bigoted things right to Hank’s face, and Hank didn’t care. That was Jack’s way. He liked to see if he could get under your skin. If it worked once, he’d never stop. He certainly hadn’t stopped with Lester since fifth grade. He respected people who pushed back right away. Plus, Lester saw Hank show Jack how to flip open a butterfly knife. That was kind of cool, so it made sense that Jack liked Hank.
Why did Hank want to be friends with Jack, though?
He watched Hank all day Wednesday. Jack’s crowd wasn’t Hank’s only group of friends. Hank hung out with jocks, science nerds, and band geeks. He liked everyone.
Davis was right. He could use a friend like Hank. And since Hank was friends with Jack, Jack would have to be friends with Lester if Lester was friends with Hank.
He caught up with Hank on the bus platform at the end of Thursday. “Hey, Hank.”
Hank turned. “Lester.” He eyed Lester with a neutral expression.
“Um. Hey.” Lester hadn’t thought about what to say. “I think we can be friends.”
Hank cocked his head and his lips twitched. “Oh. Really?” He chuckled.
Lester bobbed his head up and down. “Sure. I mean, even if you are a dirty gook.” He grinned like Jack did when he called Hank “Victor Charlie.”
Hank didn’t smile. His mouth twisted like he’d bitten a lemon. “You’ve been nothing but hateful to me. Now you want to be friends because no one else will talk to you?” He sighed. “Get, lost, Lester.”
He boarded his bus, leaving Lester standing on the platform with his face burning.
The burn sank deep into him on the ride home, inflaming his chest and lighting a fire in his belly that raged all night. Why did he want to be friends with that son-of-a-bitch? So that Jack would like him. Well, he didn’t need Hank for that. Jack thought Hank’s little bitty knife was cool? He would show Jack something a lot more cool than that.
He got out of bed after he heard Benton leave. Mama was still sleeping. He crept past their bedroom into Benton’s den and eased the closet door open. In addition to the pistol that Benton took to work, he kept a revolver on his top shelf. Lester lifted it with a trembling hand. Even in the darkened room it glittered, as though it gave off light of its own. Lester opened the cylinder. All six chambers were loaded. He flicked his wrist to snap the cylinder home, like tough guys did in the movies. He stared at the gun and imagined the look on Jack’s face when he saw it. “Let me hold it for minute,” he would say. “No,” Lester imagined himself saying. “This ain’t no toy. You got to have respect for a gun. You got to know how to handle it.” Jack would beg to hold it. Lester would say, “OK, but I got to unload it first.” Then he’d make a big deal out of taking the bullets out, make Jack wait for it.
He crept back to his room and stashed the gun in the outer pocket of his backpack.
The gun’s weight tugged on his shoulders as he waited for the bus. It didn’t matter that the other kids ignored him this morning. He had something that none of them had. The jock who teased him on Tuesday saw something in Lester’s eyes that said, “Don’t mess with me.” He moved on by without saying a word. Lester smirked.
Lester’s bus arrived last. He hesitated at the top of the bus’s steps and scanned the platform. Jack wasn’t in his usual spot. A chill clutched his chest. What if Jack was already on his way to first period? Lester wanted to do this now, here, in front of everyone so they’d talk about it all day.
He breathed again when he saw Jack in the quad by the flag poles. Hank was with him. Even better. He sauntered over to them, his backpack slung over his left shoulder.
“Hey, Jack, want to see something cool?”
Hank’s eyes flicked over to Lester and back to Jack. Jack kept talking like he hadn’t heard but he turned so he and Hank formed a wedge that shut Lester out.
Lester’s ears grew hot. He swung around in front of them. “You ought to show me some damn respect.” He yanked the gun out of the backpack.
Jack sneered at him. “Put your toy gun away, Outlaw.”
Hank’s eyes were on the gun. “That’s no toy,” he whispered.
“That’s right.” His finger curled around the trigger. The metal lever slipped into the joint of his finger like the gun demanded it. He grinned. He squinted like Clint Eastwood. “What do you think of me now?”
Hank glanced around, his head jerking from side to side like an agitated mockingbird. “Lester, put that away,” he said.
Jack’s eyes flicked to the gun, then to Lester. “You stare at that thing when you jerk off?”
It was like Jack was speaking a foreign language. The words didn’t make any sense. Then the individual meanings filtered through. Then the whole sentence. Heat spread from Lester’s ears to his face, down his neck. His breakfast squished up into his throat. He swallowed hard.
“Shut up, Jack,” Hank said, his voice squeaky. “That thing is real.”
At least Hank had learned some respect. Jack’s loose-lipped grin showed that he hadn’t. Lester jerked the barrel of the gun in Jack’s direction. Hank exhaled like he’d been punched. Jack still didn’t take it seriously. “Relax, Hank. Outlaw don’t have the guts to pull that trigger.”
For a moment, he was wrong. Lester started to squeeze. As the hammer drew back, the barrel rotated. It ratcheted loud in his ears like a rattlesnake. Terror gripped him. His nerve failed.
But Hank lunged and grabbed the gun’s long barrel.
Lester jerked his hand back. The gun blast echoed off the buildings surrounding the quad. It sounded like a volley from a firing squad.
Jack was on the ground, holding his leg and screaming. Lester never saw that much blood before. He sank to his knees next to Jack. “I’m sorry,” he said, his voice ragged. “I didn’t mean . . .”
Lester pointed the gun at Hank. “This is your fault!” Lester screamed. Tears swam in his eyes. A dozen Hanks quivered in front of him. He waved the gun. “Why did you do this to me?”
“Put the gun down, boy,” Deputy Davis said.
Lester flicked his eyes left, where the deputy stood, his gun pointed at Lester. Lester’s stomach flipped. His hand started to shake.
“I ain’t a boy,” he said, but his voice trembled and broke.
“Put it down. Do it now.” The deputy’s voice carried, command strong.
Lester slumped forward. The gun slipped out of his fingers and clattered to the ground. He didn’t react when the deputy jerked his arms behind him. The cuffs ratcheted into place, the same noise the gun made.
Outlaw let out a wail.
The story first appeared in Grift Magazine #2 in 2013.