The strange thing about Mike wasn’t that he was an asshole. That much became clear to my brother and I shortly after we moved in.
The weird thing was that he was also an idiot. He once proposed that air pollution could be solved by instructing the National Guard to stand along the Canadian border and blow the air to the other side. He wanted to re-create Pangea using giant magnets. He broke his ankle one time because he leapt into an above ground pool without checking to see if it was full of water.
Mike’s stupidity was counteracted by his assholery. Two years older than most of the kids on the block, Mike cursed freely through his braces-clad teeth. Whenever we were playing some game in somebody’s front yard, he’d ride his bike by, slowly looping around, like a shark, and toss off some half-hearted homophobic epithet to whoever looked weakest before riding away.
Those were the good days.
He’d pick a target, like all bullies do, and, since he was an idiot, he’d pepper that person with insults, working from generalities to hyper-specificity, finding the entry point like a virus. Once he knew it, he’d use it. Over and over.
Once he found yours, those were the bad days.
My brother and I found some solace in the reminder that he was a dumbass. Whenever he’d say something like “Native Americans and Indians are the same thing?!?” or “I can outrun those wasps” we’d chalk up another tally and feel a little better about the world.
My cousin Alan came to visit us one summer. The sudden presence of an Irish kid, replete with accent, caused a stir among the kids of our little suburban corner of Syracuse, New York.
We used to ride our bikes up to the local golf course, which had the only restaurant accessible to us. Mike came along.
We sat down at the table, standing out like sore thumbs, a dozen sweaty kids to whom the concept of “Free Refills” was very, very exciting.
We ordered burgers and Mike asked, “So, Alan, have you ever had a burger before?”
Alan had tolerated a lot of ridiculous questions about his and my native country–about leprechauns, about Lucky Charms, about all manner of curious, tentative inquiries concerning that guy St. Patrick and his magical snake-banning staff (…or whatever).
Perhaps it was his status as an outsider, or the fact that he would be leaving this country shortly, or maybe Irish kids are just mature or some shit, but Alan had little respect or fear for Mike. Which made his dry wit so perfect, so devastating. “No, Mike,” he said. “In Ireland, we eat rocks.”
It was such a childish, perfect retort. My brother and I smirked, while Mike reacted as though he had just made the anthropological discovery of the decade. “Really?!” he said, his braces fully exposed as his jaw dropped.
Chalk it up. Call it a win.