He was large, wide as a kitchen window, with a head as big as a watermelon and hands the span of small pizzas.
The physique of a bully, surely. The psychology was more in doubt.
Gus was his name, and he was a bully in a passive sort of way, satisfied with deference and nervous flattery, of which he got plenty. He never lowered himself to smearing Deep Heet on some dork's belly or making some pipsqueak shimmy up the flagpole in front of the high school. But if he pointed at someone's cigarette pack or a dollar bill in their fist, just pointed and grunted, he always got what he wanted.
Afterwards, we would recollect that Gus' only actual confrontation involved him picking up a guy sitting in a chair in this burger palace. Gus picked him up, chair and all, and held him a yard off the ground while cutting loose with a war-growl of Berserker ferocity. Held him there till all the poor guy's courage ran out and then slowly lowered the chair to the floor. By that simple Bunyanesque moment, Gus had made his reputation. Among most of his fellow students, themselves struggling to put together a reputation that could be recognized and upheld, it was a golden moment.
Gus polished his glittering rep by being jaw-droppingly subhuman, eating a half-dozen roast beefs dressed at one sitting, letting a Pall Mall burn itself out on his forearm. The boundaries of pain and appetite weren't marked on Gus' maps. Or so most of us thought at the time.
Again in hindsight, there were some caution lights that most of us were busy ignoring. Gus had a goofy-looking cowlick and had to put on glasses when he read, and, at the high school he'd been kicked out of before this one, there had been a rumor that he was really smart in algebra. But we never let any of this stuff spoil our vision of Gus' evil self.
We were like some medieval social arrangement. We usually owed some basic fealty to the local lords, linked to them by blood or geography. They would intervene sometimes in our petty quarrels if they involved outsiders, and soon it might be lord against lord, one school against another, one neighborhood, one playground. Hardly a night, never a weekend, without one of these impromptu matchups. They usually involved lesser nobility, but one day, there was talk of Gus and this other guy. He was from halfway across town, and all we'd heard of him was that he was nicknamed for this elementary school because he had repeated so many grades there.
"Looking for" was the term by which these street corner challenges were delivered and accepted. The word went out. Gus was "looking for" this kid. This kid was "looking for" Gus.
Then late one Friday night, summer excitement. On Gus' turf, too, on a neutral ground near one of his hangouts. Except for a couple of seconds who drove the Chevy the other kid came in, most of the crowd would be Gus'.
The other kid had thick arms, and he held them out in front of him with his elbows close to his sides. Gus tried to grab him, but again and again, the guy would push away and punch, hard. Soon the air was full of the sounds of bone gnawing on bone.
Once, Gus stopped and waved everything away and deliberately took off his wristwatch and handed it to someone. Then back to being beaten, back to being debunked. Because in a matter of minutes, the intimidator was being intimidated. The face that had caused such fear was radiating fear. And blood and confusion.
Finally, one of the other sidewalk lords stepped in and put his arms softly around Gus, shaking his head. The other guy had a strange look on his face, not exactly triumphant but more like distaste for the whole thing.
Those who had come to share in the triumph were now being asked to share in the loss. We all knew fear by then, of course, but we didn't know all its refinements, all its disguises, or even how it can be here one minute and gone the next. We were learning. We were feeling bad, humiliated, at how wrong we had been in choosing a champion and, even deeper, at how wrong we had been about courage -- about who had it and how quickly it could be lost.
Never again would Gus get that deference and nervous flattery because he no longer acted like he deserved it. Yeah, Gus lost big that night, but everyone who watched lost a little, too. Learning how on some nights, strength would not be nearly enough.
Come to think of it, maybe we had lost more than a little.