Eddie Bunion was a bully extraordinaire. I estimate he borrowed $12.75 from me that first year. I call it “borrowed” because that’s what he called it though there was never any discussion of repayment or interest rates. My calculations showed that Eddie brought in close to $10 a week, not bad for a third grader. (I base these number on twenty-five cents per day per victim, nine victims a day, five days a week less the inevitable sick day or two.)
He called us his family. The only advantage of being part of the family was the face-saving luxury of knowing I wasn’t alone. I was only one of his targets but I bore the numbing shame of living each day as a victim. I couldn’t talk with my “brothers” because Eddie always warned us, “You tell anyone and you’re dead!” At eight years old, dead meant dead. It wasn’t hard to imagine Eddie’s clenched fist slamming my temple or his steel-toed boots pulverizing my nose.
Yes, Eddie was a master of his trade and there was no one brave enough to stop him.
You’d figure a couple of us would combine forces and fight back. This is the reasoning of an adult, not a scared schoolboy. In truth, we in the family despised each other. At least that’s how I felt. I remember the time I saw Ethan Howley walk into math class holding his stomach and I knew he’d just taken one of Eddie’s beatings. Rather than compassion I felt a sort of glee, grateful it was him and not me who’d been singled out. I even reasoned that Ethan deserved the beating, punishment for his willingness to accept Eddie’s brutality. This was the kind of thinking that kept Eddie in business.
In class, Eddie was a poor student. He was silent, even a bit shy. When called upon to spell a word, he’d stutter and stammer before putting an “e” before an “i” or using a “k” instead of a “c.” Mrs. Bell would kindly correct him whereupon Eddie would respond, “Sorry about that, ma’am,” bringing a smile to the teacher’s face.
At noon, when the three shrill bells signaled lunch, we’d all pile out the front door with our sack lunches. This should have been my favorite time of day, with half an hour to eat and compete in any of six different ballgames. But while the rest of the kids rejoiced and chomped their tuna sandwiches, I was left to contend with a fluttering stomach and jangled nerves. I was on Eddie’s lunchtime hit list.
Eddie let me eat in peace. He knew I wouldn’t spend my milk money. If so, he’d have the excuse he needed to pound my flesh. I’d usually finish lunch in 15 minutes. This left 15 minutes to play since Eddie wouldn’t approach until recess was over. These minutes were precious. I chose dodge ball because it allowed me to practice avoiding other kid’s attempts to hurt me. It also took my mind off my coming mortality.
I’m not sure how Eddie spent his lunchtime. Once I saw him taking a smoke behind the ball shed. He was probably a good athlete. His thick arms and broad chest betrayed a strength that might take him to high school football fame or maybe even college, if he ever learned to spell.
When the bell rang to end lunch, the kids ran back to class laughing. I lingered behind, reasoning if I made it easier for Eddie to find me, he’d show mercy and not hit me that day. Or if he did hit me, he’d strike my arm and not my chest, my chin instead of my eye.
Eddie always stayed out of sight until the last moment. I walked from the playground to the drinking fountain, time to disconnect and minimize the horror of his approach. From there I’d take seven tenuous steps towards the oak tree in front of the lost and found closet where for a brief second I thought I might be spared. I was always wrong. Bullies have a flare about them. Like a monster in a horror film, they appear at the last second out of nowhere.
As I turned past the benches in front of the girls bathroom Eddie stepped into my path.
“Where you been geeky boy,” he scowled. He grabbed the top of my t-shirt, gave it a twist and poked two sharp fingers into my chest. “You got my money?”
I reached into my back pocket and removed a quarter. I held the coin in the palm of my hand making sure to look down, avoiding eye contact. He grabbed the money then slammed my hand down with his fist.
“Good job, moron. I’ll make sure no one beats you today. You’re part of the family.”
I held my breath knowing that if he were going to hit me, this was the moment. Sometimes he’d slug me in the arm, hard enough to leave a welt. Other times he’d fake hitting me then laugh when I flinched.
The first time he beat me was at the start of school year. I wasn’t accustomed to his schedule and I’d spent most of my milk money on orange juice. Upon seeing a mere nickel in my hand, Eddie’s cheeks flamed red and his ears wiggled like an enraged hippo.
“Where’s my money,” he screamed. He snared me in a firm headlock. When I tried to wriggle free he punched me twice in the face then let me fall limply to the tarmac. I returned to class with a bloody nose and fat lip. When Mrs. Bell asked what happened, I said I tripped. Due to my swollen lip, I had to spell it out for her on the chalkboard. I intentionally scrawled “I TRIPT,” my feeble attempt to implicate Eddie. It went over Mrs. Bell’s head.
At the end of each mugging, Eddie pounded his chest like a gorilla then hustled back to class as if nothing happened. Perhaps in his mind nothing had happened. According to Jenny Raskin, who lived near Eddie, fighting was a way of life for the Bunion family. Jenny said Eddie’s father beat his wife so bad she had to be hospitalized. No slouch herself, Mrs. Bunion broke a porcelain vase atop Mr. Bunion’s head. Mr. Bunion took out his wrath on Eddie’s two older brothers who passed the buck to Eddie. Being the youngest, Eddie formed a new family, of which I belonged, allowing the abuse to continue.
Eddie’s reign of terror lasted until fifth grade. The family grew to include more than twenty kids. It must’ve been hard work for Eddie, collecting payments from so many people each day. But he did his job well. That is until he committed the cardinal sin of despots. He became greedy.
It happened on a Wednesday morning in April, during recess. Eddie was feeling pretty cocky. He was in the process of interrupting a kickball game to collect funds from several family members when one of the players, Jim Behlendorf, told him to get out of the way. Jim wasn’t part the family. He was a quiet boy, respected as one of the best athletes in school. Whether Jim was aware of Eddie’s reputation or not, I’m not certain. But clearly Jim was not scared of Eddie. Why should he be? This was the kickball diamond where Jim ruled supreme.
Those of us in the family winced. We realized what was happening. Jim had unwittingly challenged Eddie. Since Eddie couldn’t afford to be shown up, he had to squash the threat. I was scared for Jim. He might be great in sports, but Eddie was not a bouncing ball. He hit back. Fortunately, Jim had a secret weapon. Something no one could have known. His parents were going through a divorce. This left Jim feeling confused, angry and with a desperate need to vent his feelings. Until that moment, sports provided the outlet. But sports didn’t have a face. Sports didn’t have a voice. And sports didn’t have the ability to utter the fateful words, “You got a problem with me, dickhead?”
Jim snapped. He became an animal, a funnel cloud, a torrent of rage. We all expected Eddie to fight back and display the mythic menace he’d carefully cultivated. But Eddie froze. Like a deer in the headlights he succumbed as Jim pummeled his face over and over again.
Kids gathered from all over the schoolyard. Boys and girls, first grade through sixth, everyone wanting to be part of this momentous occasion. The crowd grew so thick I lost sight of the fight. But I didn’t need to see it. I could hear it. There were screams, yells, smiles and hugs. For the first time members of the family became a family. I slapped hands with Jack Spielman (broken nose). I patted the back of Albert Rosen (fractured wrist). I cheered with Bobby Levine (concussion).
A party atmosphere ensued as if school had been let out for summer. By the time Principal Farnum arrived to break up the melee, we were in a state of jubilation. We were told to go back to class but we stayed put. As the crush of students parted and Principal Farnum escorted Jim and Eddie away, I saw the most elegantly beautiful sight I have ever witnessed. Eddie Bunion was crying. Through swollen eyes and a ravaged face, tears spilled down his bloated cheeks. We all became silent. Eddie’s reign of terror was over.
Jim Behlendorf became a schoolyard hero. Lunchtime regained its magical quality. But Eddie maintained a psychic hold over me. Whenever I saw him, my heart dropped into my stomach. I kept an extra quarter in my back pocket in case he resumed his collections.
The following year, Eddie’s family moved away and Eddie was forced to attend sixth grade in a remote school across town. By then, our new fear was junior high school. Rumors promised a horde of thugs and psychopaths laying in wait for fresh “scrubs” to conquer.
The years passed and Eddie leaked into the crevices of my memory. But then it happened. One week after my 23rd birthday, I walked into my bank to deposit a check. As I waited in line, I saw him. He was a bank teller, much older and taller, but clearly the Eddie I remembered with his bulbous face and muscular neck.
My first reaction was shock, as if I’d seen a ghost. Sweat gathered on my brow as I realized the visage in front of me was real. A deafening roar filled my head. The bank line grew smaller. Eddie’s presence grew larger. I was filled with shame and terror. I thought I’d put these feelings to rest but the scared young third grader inside me returned.
I was now first in line. There was a one in three chance the next available teller would be Eddie. That’s only if you believed in odds. If you believed in fate, as I did at that moment, the outcome was fixed. Sure enough, Eddie’s window opened and the counter indicator directed me to Teller #6.
I walked slowly, feeling the firmness of my steps on the marble floor. Eddie greeted me with a smile. This threw me. I’d never seen him smile. I tried smiling back but all I could muster was a pained grimace. It was confusing seeing him in a suit and tie. He was grown, but a wolf in sheep’s clothing is still a wolf regardless of how many sheep classes he’s taken.
“Can I help you,” he asked.
I met his gaze. If he recognized me, he didn’t let on. I was grateful. Just as quickly I felt slighted. He’d played such a huge part in my childhood memories I felt I deserved at least a bit part in his.
“I’d like to deposit a check,” I said. I placed my check on the counter. He quickly pulled it towards him. I was struck by the irony. Once again I was giving this man my money. I immediately asked for the check back. He ignored me. He seemed transfixed by the name on the check.
“I know you,” he spat out. “We went to school together.”
“We did?” He’d taken the initiative and I was scared.
“Grammar school, right?”
“Uh, maybe,” I said pretending not to remember. “What’s your name?”
“Eddie. Eddie Bunion.”
“Oh yeah, Eddie.” This was becoming a full-fledged horror show. I did my best to remain calm. “How you doing,” I asked.
“You know, hanging in there. Keeping out of trouble.”
“That’s good,” I said.
“How you doing,” he asked.
“Couldn’t be better,” I answered.
“Yeah, I can see that,” he said with a wink, holding up my $1,500 check. The hairs on my arm stood on edge. “We should get together,” he said. “Get a beer or something.”
I couldn’t tell if he was serious.
“Yeah, well you know I’m pretty busy these days,” I responded.
“Busy. Doing what?”
“A little of this, a little of that.”
“I see,” he said. He seemed disappointed. “You remember that old gang we used to belong to,” he asked. “What was it called?” He put a thick finger to his chin. “The family, that’s right. You remember the family?”
“Uhhh, yes,” I whispered. I felt a chill pass through me.
“Boy, those were great times weren’t they?”
I realized he was in dire need of help.
“I don’t think of those days much, Eddie.”
“Really. Why not?”
I moved my gaze from his hand clutching my check, to his face. His cheekbones were sharp, his chin sturdy. He still appeared formidable. Except for the plastic nametag pinned to his suit. His name was misspelled. “Edie.” This washed the menace away.
“Because those days are over, Eddie.”
I held his gaze. He seemed ready to crumple my check in his hands.
“Can I have a receipt, please?” He had no choice. “Yeah sure,” he said. He wrote a receipt signing his initials in the proper box. He handed it to me. I checked it carefully. Everything was in order.
“Thanks a lot, Eddie. See you around.”
“Yeah, see you around.”
I moved toward the front door. I felt a new spring in my step as if I were a kid again. That is until I saw the sign over the exit door. “THANKS FOR BEING A PART OF OUR BANKING FAMILY.”
The next day I closed my account and moved my funds to another bank.