by Bobby Fox
Some kids spend chunks of their childhood in the safe confines of a tree house. For one afternoon, I had the luxury of spending part of mine tied to a tree.
Looking back, I can’t say I didn’t deserve it. I’m not saying any child deserves to be tied to a tree. But I am saying that in the years leading up to that exact moment in time, I certainly didn’t help my cause.
My elementary school social standing left much to be desired, to say the least. I was a nerd and a dork (labels I now look back at with pride). Back then, however, pride wasn’t even in my vocabulary. When you are small for your age and picked last in gym class (even picked after overweight sloths and once, students labeled “mentally challenged”), there really isn’t much hope.
It’s a pretty sad state of affairs when even other nerds pick on you. Yes, that was me.
From time to time, I fancy myself building a time machine, so I could go back in time and kick my own ass. Or at the very least tell my childhood self a thing or two. For example, “don’t start out the school year sporting a Sea-Monkey necklace.” For those (unfortunate) few who are in the dark about Sea-Monkeys, Sea-Monkeys (aside from being my only friends at one point), are slickly-packaged brine shrimp that hatch instantly upon the addition of water. They roughly resemble enlarged sperm. Pretty nifty. They grow to about 1-2 inches in length and certainly looking nothing like the way they are portrayed on their packaging. However, there are several accessories one can get for their Sea-Monkeys, if so inclined, all of which I owned: a Sea-Monkey race track, Sea-Monkey floating “diamonds,” Sea-Monkey vitamins, Sea-Monkey medicine, Sea-Monkey mating powder and last – but not least – a Sea-Monkey necklace. And by necklace, I don’t mean a medallion resembling a Sea-Monkey. What I mean is, an actual miniature plastic aquarium that you could place a few of your Sea-Monkeys into and carry around town. Or, in my case, school. Despite constant teasing (from classmates and teachers alike), I naturally convinced myself that they were jealous and/or didn’t know a fashion statement when they saw it. This begs a logical question (actually, probably several questions): What kind of parents would send their son to school wearing a necklace filled with Sea-Monkeys? (Mine!) And how is that not child abuse?, you might be asking yourself. Perhaps it is. Perhaps it isn’t. But looking back, I’m glad they let me wear my Sea-Monkey necklace. They were allowing me to be me, which would pay dividends in the future (so I like to believe). I am eternally grateful that they didn’t force me to leave my necklace at home, just as I’m grateful that – during that same year – they didn’t talk me out of buying the Beastie Boys “License to Ill” album when they would have preferred that I buy the soundtrack to Grease II (I ended up getting it for Christmas that year, anyway, along with the soundtrack to Dirty Dancing … and later, More Dirty Dancing). But I digress.
Thinking back on it, my parents certainly didn’t help matters on several occasions. For example, in the first grade, I was cast as an old man in a school assembly. My mom thought it would be a great idea to glue cotton balls over my eyebrows to make me look more “old.” This plan was all fine and dandy, until the time came to pull the cotton ball eyebrows off my face, taking one of my real eyebrows with them (somehow, the second one was spared). So for the majority of my first grade year, I had one eyebrow. In many ways, this was the beginning of the end.
The next piece of advice I would give to my more helpless, younger self would be: “To avoid being picked last in gym class, don’t simply stand against the wall during games of dodgeball.” I’m not going to elaborate, but I could devote an entire book to my misguided gym class adventures, which among them includes having a basketball thrown at my head from an upper balcony. The bounce off of my skull was breathtaking. So were the stars.
The next bit of advice I would have given my younger self would have been: “Make sure you don’t leave a pair of dirty underwear hanging out of your pant leg before putting on a pair of jeans.” While walking out of the classroom bathroom, one of my tormentors blurted out: “Look, his underwear is hanging out of his pants!” Next thing I knew, 25 classmates (and I’m pretty sure, one teacher) were laughing at me, as my underwear trailed behind me out of a pant leg, before eventually coming to a rest on the floor. To make matters worse, I picked it up and shoved it down the front of my pants, somehow thinking that this was the only solution.
The last piece of advice (and trust me, there are dozens more, but for the sake of brevity, I am limiting myself) I would tell my younger self: “Avoid, at all costs, the temptation to pee your pants while playing in the snow at recess. Especially early recess, when you have to spend the remainder of the day with your pants full of piss.” I still remember the feeling of cold air of winter against the warm urine in my pants as though it were only yesterday. Not to mention the smell. At least I had some self-respect in regards to this incident. Rather than admitting that I pissed my pants, I spared myself the embarrassment by remaining stoic. When a classmate asked why I smelled like pee, I told them it was my mom’s new laundry detergent. Yes, I actually said that.
At this point, many of you are probably thinking: “Okay, he deserved to be tied to a tree.” And I agree! And if you’re not thinking that, you’re thinking: “Well, I can at least understand why bullies would tie him to a tree.” So now I will tell you how it happened on that fateful day.
As I was walking home following a half-day of school, eager to eat the egg salad sandwiches my mom had waiting for me, I approached David Murphy’s house. David Murphy was one of the “cool” jocks who – on most days – was nice to me. At least, compared to the majority of the other jocks and other classmates. Every now and then, David would invite me over to play. But the problem with David was that the moment someone else saw him with me, he turned against me. He could only be my friend as long as it was kept in the closet, so to speak.
While passing by his house, he stepped out onto the porch and eagerly invited me in. This presented an instant dilemma: delay egg salad sandwich gratification in exchange for a rare opportunity for social interaction? Or stick to my game plan? I decided egg salad could wait, assuming it was refrigerated. When I entered his house, I realized I wasn’t the only guest. Three other classmates were already there. And two of those three classmates were among my biggest tormenters. And with no sign of parental supervision, the odds were not on my side. But at this point, I realized that there was no turning back. If I walked out the door, I would be subject to probably more ridicule than if stayed. Then again, most of it would be behind my back, so maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing. I ultimately decided it was in my best interest to stay put and prove I can hang with the in-crowd, despite my skepticism regarding David’s intentions. You know the phrase “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean people aren’t out to get you”? Well, this sentiment would only be proven as the afternoon progressed.
Things started out well-enough. At the very least, there was pizza! But first thing was first. I had to call home to ask if it was okay that I stay.
“Can I use your phone?,” I politely asked David.
“Why, so you can call your mommy,” said Matt Belcher, an utter asshole. With a name like Belcher, what could you possibly expect?
Rather than coming up with a plausible lie, I manned-up. “Yes. I need to call my mom.”
David showed me to the kitchen and handed me the phone. As I dialed, I overheard the following conversation:
“Why did you invite him over?”
“He’s not that bad.”
“He’s a dork.”
“And the biggest mama’s boy.”
This statement was actually true.
“Don’t worry. I got a plan,” I heard David mysteriously say. In the meantime, my mom picked up.
“Hi, it’s me. Can I play at David Murphy’s?”
“Sure!,” my mom said, probably trying to hide her excitement about the fact that her son was actually invited to someone’s house.
“But what about the egg salad sandwiches?,” I asked with genuine concern on one hand, and hope that she would demand that I come home on the other.
“You can eat them later.”
“Okay, thanks. Love you!”
“I love you, too.”
Laughter poured out of the other room as I hung up. When I entered the room, I was greeted with an echo of my own voice. “I love you, Mommy.”
“Guys stop,” pleaded David, deceptively making it seem that he was on my side. The first clue that things were about to turn was when I realized that all the pizza was gone.
“Is there any pizza left?”
“Nope,” said Belcher, shoving the last piece into his mouth, then promptly (and fittingly) letting out a loud belch.
I pretended not to let it bother me, despite being so fucking hungry. There is always egg salad, I thought to myself.
We proceeded to head out into the backyard to play what I was led to believe was going to be Wiffleball. The second clue that something was about to go horribly awry was the rope. The third clue was when my tormentors grabbed me and pushed me toward the giant oak tree looming in the center of the yard. David stood by, doing nothing to stop it, making him as culpable as the rest of them – much like the rest of the world looking on during the Holocaust. Sometimes I wonder if he ever regretted his role in what transpired on that unfortunate day. Furthermore, I wonder just how involved he was in this debacle. Was he the ringleader, luring me to his house knowing full-well of his diabolical intentions? Or was he simply caving into peer pressure? I suppose I could always ask him over Facebook. Perhaps someday, I will, but then I might risk the hopeful illusion that he was as much the “victim” in this whole ordeal as I was.
In the meantime, my tormentors continued to push me toward the tree (with close to zero resistance on my part … my usual reaction to such events included curling up into a ball, much akin to an animal pretending to play dead to ward off predators). They proceeded to slam my back against the tree. While two of my tormentors held me in place, awaiting my crucifixion, the third grabbed the rope and proceeded to wrap it around my body.
“If you scream, we will kill you,” one of them said, ever-so-matter-of-factly, tightening the rope around my ankles. When they were done, Belcher proclaimed:
“If you tell anyone, we will hunt you down and kill you.” I never told anyone. At least not until I was old enough to look back and laugh, when it would have been too late to file charge.
Once I was securely made one with the tree, they then proceeded to play backyard WiffleBall, with me being their only spectator, watching from “centerfield,” tied to a tree against my will. One hasn’t truly experienced life until you have Wiffeballs hit in your general direction, helpless from being able to block them off. Fortunately, only two or three actually hit me. Unfortunately, one of them was a direct shot to the forehead, which stung like a motherfucker. I refused to scream, fearful of retribution.
When they had their fill with Wiffleball, Belcher approached me, removed a lighter from his pocket and attempted to light the rope on fire. Fortunately, he was unable to ignite the rope. Fortunately, lighter fluid never crossed his mind. After several attempts, he gave up, with a late plea from David to “cut it out.” Belcher listened, prompting David to suggest they head off to a park “to hit some real baseballs.” I wasn’t included in this plan. By the same token, I still believe till this day that David did the only thing he could (short of freeing me) to avoid future torture. And for that, I thank him.
Left behind, all I could think about (besides my hope for freedom) were the egg salad sandwiches that awaited for me at home. But then I wondered: Would I ever see home again? Would I be left here for dead? Other thoughts included: Will crows peck out my eyeballs? Is this how Jesus felt?
Fortunately, the claustrophobia I would develop later in life hadn’t kicked in yet. However, I credit this event as the catalyst. Looking back, I realize that things could have been much worse.
The torture took a turn for the worse when the sweat forming on my skin from the bright sun aimed in my general direction (but fortunately moving away from me as the hours wore on) began attracting mosquitoes. Little did I know, more humiliation awaited for me just around the corner … literally. Since David’s house stood on a corner, the backyard was in full view of anybody walking along side the house. At first, I took this as a harbinger of hope. All I needed was for somebody to pass by and surely they would free me. After an hour or so (I was unable to see my watch to know exactly how much time had passed, however the bells of a neighborhood church would allow me to keep track of each passing hour), I heard voices down the street towards David’s house. I could taste freedom on my lips. And freedom tasted like egg salad sandwiches. And Lays potato chips. The voices belonged to three of the most popular girls in my grade. One of the voices belonged to Nicki Smith, who – till this day – was my biggest crush. Upon realizing it was she, I actually started praying that she wouldn’t see me. I knew full well that any chance I had with her would be erased if she saw me in this current state of affairs. Then again, perhaps she would have felt so bad for me, she wouldn’t be able to resist me. I quickly eliminated that possibility from my mind. Surely it was the dehydration speaking. As miserable as I was, I continued to hope that she wouldn’t see me and that an elderly neighbor walking her dog would find me instead.
If only I could make myself disappear, I thought to myself. As much as I longed for freedom, I realized that I would rather spend the night tied to that tree than be seen there by the girl of my dreams. But if there was one thing I had learned by the tender age of 9, fate could be cruel. And that this was just one of many embarrassments I would endure throughout my lifetime regarding the opposite-sex.
As the girls drew nearer, I held my breath, hoping that nobody would notice. At first they didn’t. But as soon as one of the girls pointed a finger, I knew it was over:
“Look!” This was proceeded with laughter.
“Please, help me,” I pleaded, pathetically, drawing even more laughter.
They kept on walking. And for one microcosmic, fleeting moment, I saw what could only be a look of pity on Nicki’s face. At least, that’s what I convinced myself that I saw. It was probably a hallucination caused by the sweltering heat. After all, my vision was obscured by mosquitoes, which had already begun to nest in my eyebrows (two of them!).
I tried not to panic about the fact that an opportunity for rescue had passed. After all, it could have been worse, like that scene in Titanic when they see a ship out in the distance, which doesn’t see them in return. At the very least, David’s parents would have to be coming home at some point. And more than likely, his captors would let him go before they returned, to avoid getting in trouble. Right?
The church bells chimed two. Then three. Sometime between three and four, David and his friends returned. Despite much resistance from his friends, David approached me with a knife. My initial thought was that I was about to be gutted like a fish. But instead, David took the knife and cut the rope. I was free.
“If you tell anybody about this, next time, we will kill you,” Belcher warned. And I didn’t. Until now. Even as I write this, part of me still fears for my life.
Now a free man, I ran home, where I was greeted by my mother.
“Did you have fun?”
I considered telling her about what happened, but chose life instead.
“Yeah. A lot.”
“What did you do?,” my mother asked, still excited that her son was actually invited over to someone’s house to play.
“Did you eat?”
“There was pizza.”
“Are you hungry?”
“Yeah, a little.”
She promptly removed the egg salad out of the fridge, then prepared the best egg salad sandwich I would ever eat in my life, which almost made everything I endured worth it.
I then proceeded to feed my Sea-Monkeys, comforted by the thought that – unlike most human beings – they would never let me down. In fact, I continue to have Sea-Monkeys till this day. And the Sea-Monkey necklace. Every now and then, I consider filling the necklace up, but then quickly remember what it ultimately put me through, all those years ago. Then again, without it, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. And that truly has made all the difference.
Bobby Fox is the award-winning writer of several short stories, plays, poems, a novel and 15 feature length screenplays. Two of his screenplays have been optioned to Hollywood.
His works have been published in the The Naked Feather, The Medulla Review, The Path, The India Contemporary Review, The Lyceum, Detroit News, Dearborn Times-Herald, TravelMag and InTravel Magazine.
He is also the writer/director/editor of several award-winning short films. His recent stage directing debut led to an Audience Choice Award at the Canton One-Acts Festival in Canton, MI.
Fox graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.A. in English and a minor in Communications and received a Masters of Arts in Teaching from Wayne State University.
In addition to moonlighting as a writer, independent filmmaker and saxophonist, Fox teaches English and video production in the Ann Arbor Public Schools, where he uses his own dream of making movies to inspire his students to follow their own dreams. He has also worked in public relations at Ford Motor Company and as a newspaper reporter. He resides in Ypsilanti, MI.
His website is http://www.foxplots.com