The last time I saw James up close he was punching me in the face…repeatedly. My rationale for such a resounding loss was that James was older, one of those fabled 'left-back' kids that sprang from the halls of Norwood Elementary in Port Jeff Station like weeds of iron. James taught me a valuable lesson about violence, one I instill in my own students in South Jamaica, Queens: The tougher you think you are, the further you are from the truth. Sometimes they listen. Sometimes they have to meet their own James.
So when I came upon an article about his death, I felt the sting of his punches all over again. It was written four years ago by some tough guy columnist in a New York paper. His claim was that living on Long Island was a myth, our neighborhoods and schools, even our beaches. Somehow James was the embodiment of this myth, the monster we had created and deserved. Juicy tabloid stuff, but James would have found trouble in Hampton Bays or Wichita, Kansas. He was that kind of kid.
We sat alphabetically in class. A pair of James's with similar surnames so we became fast friends. Our tract-housing development was fairly new, so we'd play war after school in the surrounding woods and sand-pits. We were both fair-haired and easy to confuse. Sometimes he received my grades at school. Other times I got blamed for beating up some kid when it had been his handiwork. As we grew older and became strangers I occasionally wondered what my doppelganger was up to. It turned out James had been incarcerated for twenty years prior to his death.
The last time I saw him alive was from a distance. He was hanging upside down from a streetlamp in a strip-mall parking lot, challenging the world to a brawl. We didn't say hello. A few years later he would be convicted for four robberies, specializing in stealing cash and drugs from pharmacies. Four years ago he announced a holdup at a Seaford pharmacy brandishing a pellet gun that looked like a 45. He was shot by an off-duty cop, which also resulted in the friendly-fire death of a federal agent. I'm sure the store was occupied by women and children. The columnist described James as a 'bag of human garbage.'
But the strange thing about garbage, especially when it comes from one's own backyard, is that it's difficult to throw away. The thing's broken, useless, holds no value whatsoever, but hangs around for some reason, in a shed, an attic, or the back of someone's mind. James and I were two of the most disruptive boys in the history of our school, but there was something different about us. At eleven years old, it was just a sense. The last time we played together was at his house, two years before our Three O'clock High bout. The hours wore on and I abruptly made my way for the door. 'Hey,' he said, 'aren't you stayin' for dinner?'
'No, thanks, Jim. I gotta get home.'