Eddie Bunion was diligent. As a student he was below par but as a bully, there were none better. I calculated he "borrowed" $12.75 from me that first year. I label 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 numbers on 25 cents a day per victim, nine victims a day, five days a week less the inevitable sick day or two.)
I was merely one of Eddie's targets. 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. Still, I bore the numbing shame of living each day as a powerless 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 fists slamming my temple or his steel boots pulverizing my nose.
Yes, Eddie was a master at 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 but 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 as if about to vomit 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. Of course, this was exactly the kind of thinking that kept Eddie in business.
In class, Eddie was silent and even a bit shy. When called upon to spell a word, he'd usually 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 and head toward the milk lines with our sack lunches and loose change. This should’ve 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 down their tuna sandwiches, I was left to contend with a fluttering stomach and jangled nerves. I was on Eddie's lunchtime hit list.
Eddie always 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 eating in 15 minutes. This left me 15 minutes to play since I knew Eddie wouldn't approach until after 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.
Eddie didn't like games. I'm not sure how he spent his lunchtime, though 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 later take him to high school football fame or maybe even college, if he ever learned to spell.
When the bell rang to end lunch, most of the kids ran back to class laughing and playing. I lingered behind, reasoning that 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’d walk from the playground to the drinking fountain, time to disconnect and minimize the horror of Eddie's approach. From there I’d take 17 tenuous steps towards the oak tree in front of the lost and found closet where for a brief moment I actually believed I might be spared. I was always wrong. Bullies have a way of doing that to you. They gave you a moment of hope only to appear at the last second with dramatic flare.
As I made my turn 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, geeky boy. I'll make sure no one beats your ass today. You're part of the family."
At this point I held my breath knowing that if he were going to hit me, now was the moment. Sometimes he'd slug me in the arm, hard enough to leave a welt. Other times he would fake hitting me then laugh when I flinched.
The first time he beat me was at the start of the 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 gave me a push then snared me in a firm headlock. When I tried to wriggle free he punched me twice in the face and 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, but 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 on Eddie's block, fighting was a way of life for the Bunion family. Jenny told me that Eddie's father beat his mother so bad she had to be hospitalized. No slouch herself, she returned the favor by breaking a porcelain vase atop Mr. Bunion's head. He took out his wrath on Eddie's two older brothers who passed the buck down to Eddie. Being the youngest, Eddie formed a new family, to which I belonged, allowing the abuse to continue.
Eddie's reign of terror lasted until fifth grade. Slowly "the family" grew to include more than 25 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 got greedy.
It happened on a Wednesday morning in April, during recess. Eddie must’ve been 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 move it. 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 had happened. Jim had unwittingly challenged Eddie. And since Eddie couldn’t afford to be shown up, he had to squash the threat immediately. I was scared for Jim. He might’ve been great in sports, but Eddie was not a bouncing ball. He hit back. Fortunately, Jim had a secret weapon. Something no else could’ve known. Jim's parents were going through a divorce. This left Jim feeling confused, angry and desperately in need of a way to vent his feelings. Until that moment, sports had 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 just snapped. He became an animal, a funnel cloud, a demonic torrent of rage. We all expected Eddie to fight back and display the mythic menace he'd so carefully cultivated. But Eddie froze. Like a corpse he simply succumbed as Jim pummeled his face over and over again.
Kids came running from all over the schoolyard. Boys and girls, first grade through sixth, everyone wanted 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. I could smell it. There were screams, yells, smiles and hugs. For the first time ever members of "the family" actually became a family. I remember slapping hands with Jack Spielman, he of the broken nose, Albert Rosen, fractured wrist, Bobby Levine, concussion.
Kids screamed, "Kick his ass. Kick his ass." A party atmosphere was at hand as if school had been let out for the summer. By the time Principal Farnum arrived to break up the melee, I was beside myself with jubilation. I felt as if I'd been freed from prison. Somehow we all knew it was over. Eddie's haunting balloon had been popped.
We were instructed to go back to class but we all stayed on the playground. This was a great moment. 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, pinkish tears slowly fell down Eddie’s bloated cheeks. We all became silent. An era was over.
Jim Behlendorf became a schoolyard hero, of course. But life didn't change as much as I expected. I resumed drinking milk again. And lunchtime regained a magical quality. But Eddie maintained a psychic hold over me. Whenever I saw him, my heart fell into my stomach and my hands began to sweat. I even kept an extra quarter in my back pocket in case he ever resumed his collections.
The next 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. That is until one week after my 23rd birthday. I walked into my local bank to deposit a check and as I waited in line, there he was. He was a bank teller, much older, taller, but clearly the Eddie I once knew with the bulbous face and bulldog neck.
My first reaction was shock, as if I’d seen a ghost. But as I felt the sweat gather on my brow I realized the person in front of me was very real. A deafening noise filled my head and I grew dizzy. The bank line grew smaller. Eddie's visage grew larger. The scared young third grader inside me stepped forth from the past. Instantly, I was filled with shame, guilt and a tinge of terror. A cauldron of emotions I'd thought I'd put to rest filtered through me and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
The woman in front of me walked to a female teller. I was now first in line. There was a one in three chance that the next available teller would be Eddie. But that's only if you believed in odds. If you believed in fear, 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. In all the years I'd known him, I'd never seen him smile. I tried smiling back but all I could muster was a pained grimace. It was confusing seeing Eddie in a suit and tie. Sure he was older, an adult, but a wolf in sheep's clothing is still a wolf regardless of how many sheep classes he's taken. Eddie remained still, his gaze professional and poised. "Can I help you," he asked.
I met his eyes. If he recognized me, he didn't let on. I was grateful. Then 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. Suddenly, 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, " I answered. 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 Bunion," I said as if caught completely off guard. "How you doing?"
"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 and a smile, holding up my $2500 check. I felt the hairs on my neck stand on edge. "We should get together,” he said. “Get a beer or something." I couldn't tell if he was being 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 forehead. "The Family, that's right. You remember the Family?"
"Uhhh, yes,” I whispered. I felt a rush of blood to my stomach. "Boy, those were great times weren't they?" Again, I couldn't tell if he were being serious. If so, his sadism had reached gargantuan bounds. If not, he was in dire need of help.
"I don't think of those days very much, Eddie."
"Really. How come?"
I moved my gaze from his hand that clutched my check, to his face. His chin was thick, as I remembered. His cheekbones were sharp and his brow furrowed. He still appeared formidable. Except for the plastic nametag pinned to his suit. It washed the menace right off him.
"Because those days are over, Eddie. They’re long gone."
I held his gaze. He seemed ready to crumple my check in his hands.
"Can I have a receipt for that deposit, please?" He had no choice. "Yeah sure," he said. He wrote out 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 waved and 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 PART OF OUR BANKING FAMILY.”
The next day I closed my account and moved my funds to another bank.