We had this kid in my junior high, Danny Tharpe, who was the poster child for geeks. Maybe he was autistic. He was tall and skinny and wore glasses and had black hair that always looked greasy; if he had never washed it, it would have been different. He washed it, just not enough or maybe with something his grandmother made him use. He lived with her. I didn’t know him well enough to know why he didn’t live with parents.
Everyone picked on Danny because his reactions were volcanic. It was an adrenal rush to set him off because he’d come at you with a primal rage and an impromptu weapon. I knew of two boys and one girl whose arms sported graphite tattoos of punctuation marks where Danny had impaled them with pencils.
I didn’t pick on Danny. I was the new kid in school and I was geeky, too, and I was a Second Class Boy Scout. For whatever reason, mostly because it seemed right, I tried to be nice to him. We’d play chess sometimes under an oak in front of the school, but we’d rarely finish a game because some errant sports object — often a basketball though the courts were behind the school — would scatter the pieces. We lost one of the white knights and had to use a drafting eraser from then on. I took to writing down the moves so we could resume our games.
Danny never beat me at chess but not because I was smarter. A few years later, the Milwaukee-area high schools administered tests to their seniors to select three students from the district for full-ride scholarships to Marquette; one in math, one in physics and one in chemistry. I took and bombed the math and physics tests. Danny won the chemistry scholarship.
In junior high, though, Danny was not as fortunate. Girls were getting their tits and we all noticed — Danny among us. Blonde Kellie Zimmerman tortured Danny with hers. She’d rub her hands on them (very nice ones, by my standards) and say to Danny, “You want these, don’t you?” He’d spew magma and dive over a lunch table in the cafeteria or leap across a running belt sander in wood shop. Who knows what would have happened if he’d caught her? She was a gymnast and a sprinter and stayed clear of the lava’s reach.
Like Kellie, the rest of us survived junior high’s various perils until the last week of school. It turns out Danny had an older brother who wore a red and white varsity jacket from Pulaski High School. He came to school one late May day in lieu of the grandmother to pick up Danny, but just that once. I was in front of the school rolling up a D&D paladin when Danny’s brother parked the family’s grey Plymouth Fury and strode into our school. I went inside.
The brother tore a wake through that junior high. With Danny in tow, he plowed through the halls, a threatening, shoving, punching machine. Danny would point out a kid and that kid would fall, the object of the brother’s violent wrath. Danny and his blood relation were cleaning house.
This was going down in a public school “pre-Columbine”, as they say, and there were no weapons except fists. It didn’t bother me enough: I thought most of the kids deserved the beatings they were getting and I had nothing to worry about. I was sort of a friend, at least a chess partner.
Danny and his jock brother approached me in the hallway by the Spanish classroom and Danny leveled a finger at me. I smiled, confused, but that’s the last part of the incident I recall clearly. Danny’s brother threw a wicked punch to the belly, just one, I believe.
Danny and I weren’t friends after that. To be honest with myself, I have to think we never had been. If there’s a moral, hindsight suggests to me that a true friendship has to go deeper. Just because I treated Danny with more dignity than most kids did doesn’t mean I ever tried to get close enough to be his friend.
My epilogue is that I shunned Danny and made lifelong friends in high school and finished paying off college fifteen years later. I play chess, D&D and basketball with my twin sons.
Danny’s epilogue is that he graduated from Marquette (gratis) with a chemistry degree and immediately went to work as a brew-chemist for Miller where he makes a wicked salary and lives alone. He didn’t go to the reunion, but Kellie Zimmerman-Kloske’s brother drives a forklift at the brewery. He told Kellie that Danny keeps to himself at work. I speculate that the black knights still outnumber the white ones in Danny’s life.
Sean Jones has been a dad, a soldier, a teacher, a computer technician, a translator, a foreign exchange student, an Eagle Scout, a city councilman and a game designer but never a lawyer, an astronaut or an Indian chief. His favorite hobby is any kind of metal fabrication: customizing cars, welding, sculpting steel and aluminum; he’s a Jones who wants to be a smith.