The following is a full chapter from my novel Climbing Up.
Chapter 3: The Bird Crap and the Bus Ride
When I was seven, a bird crapped on my head.
My class was on a field trip to this little historical schoolhouse out in the country. In an effort to complete the illusion of time travel, we were all supposed to dress up like we lived in the 1800s. For girls, that meant hours of handcrafting a dress, apron and bonnet. For boys, that meant wearing a button-up shirt.
Given the environment, not to mention our attire, we all felt vulnerable. Everyone was on their best behavior, because on a day like that, you didn’t want to be the one kid who stood out. Even Mrs. Clark told us she was amazed at how well we were acting. Nobody talked out of turn and all were respectful. Even recess (i.e., standing around outside) was relatively quiet on that day. From an outside perspective, one would assume that we were all getting along through an act of divine intervention. In reality, we were really just waiting for someone to screw up. Collectively, all 22 second-graders at Wilmington Elementary silently agreed that this was the day they would officially appoint the class punching bag. Though none of us knew that yet.
The deciding vote was cast by a robin. As I sat quietly under a tree, eating my peanut butter sandwich and Capri Sun (the same meal our pioneer ancestors enjoyed during their lunch break), a robin, perched on a branch above my head, sealed my fate. With absolutely no warning, a warm, white droplet, no bigger than the tip of a matchstick, hit me just above my forehead and bounced a spec onto my shoulder and another onto my sandwich.
If you ever don’t know what’s happening to you, rest assured that the nearest girl in pigtails will tell you. She’ll also tell everyone else.
“A bird pooped on Jeremy!” she screamed. Probably not the way I would have phrased it, but she got her point across. The rest of my classmates, who were a moment earlier scattered across the three-acre preservation, raced to see whether or not Rachel was telling the truth. She was.
“Ew, you can see its guts,” said Robby, pointing with both hands directly at the slime dripping down past my hairline. I’m not quite sure what he meant by “guts,” but I assume that’s the only way he could think to describe the bits of bile currently on my face, staining my clothes, and soiling my sandwich. Or Robby is just an idiot.
Then the kids started laughing. Taking Robby’s strategy to avoid any ambiguity, they all pointed too. Heaven forbid we take at least a second to wonder what they found so funny.
Oh, how I wished I could have been one of them. Sitting there, at the nail end of 42 index fingers, I desperately wanted to laugh at some other kid. I wanted to join the crowd in teasing any other self-conscious seven-year-old. At that moment, I would have literally given anything to be the one looking at the bird dropping instead of the one feeling it drip between his eyebrows. Coincidentally, that was the only time in my life I wished to look at bird feces. Looking at feces is always better than feeling feces.
No matter how hard I could send a wish out into the ether, I would never be some other kid. That bird determined my fate, and it was my job to deal with it, which I did by sitting silently. No comebacks, no sassy remarks to prove I could take a joke like anyone else. Nope, I just sat there while the other kids hissed at me and disfigured their faces in unadulterated disgust.
“Good lord, Fairbanks,” said Lucas Ehrman. At age seven-and-a-half, Lucas Ehrman was already a head taller than the other boys in our grade. Some said they saw him shave in the bathroom at school. Lucas Ehrman’s showed his dominance like it was his job. The girls loved him and the boys feared him. He ruled Wilmington. “What a loser,” he snarled. “Even that bird hates you.”
That one cut way deeper than it should have. Objectively speaking, there’s no reason that should have hurt my feelings but it did. He kept it up: “Hey everybody, if you hate Fairbanks, you should poop on him too!”
Then he turned around, put his butt inches away from my face and made a fart noise against the palm of his hand. While some kids giggled, and some of the more empathetic girls said eww, everyone decided it was time to play along. One by one, all 21 of my classmates shuffled up to me to plant a fake fart in my very real face.
After they completed the first pass, Lucas Ehrman circled back to the front, starting another flatulent conga line that resolved at my face. While butt cheeks were shoved in my face, my only distraction was the feeling of congealing excrement dripping down the side of my nose. I was too paralyzed by humiliation to move. I just sat there, sandwich resting in my lap. I closed my eyes and prayed that it would be done soon. In the darkness behind my eyelids, I tried to focus on the slight tickle on the bridge of my nose.
To this day, the only tangible proof I have that God exists is that before Lucas Ehrman could start yet another round, Mrs. Clark stepped out of the schoolhouse, yelling in her shrill, high-pitched voice, “Lucas, what do you think you’re doing?”
True to the social hierarchy of our class, the other kids scattered and Lucas Ehrman stood in place. I sat against the tree behind him.
“Jeremy, what happened?” she said. She reached out a hand and pulled me up. She kneeled down on one knee to look at me face-to-face. “Looks like you need to get cleaned up. Run inside to the sink and wash yourself off.”
I nodded and slowly shuffled back toward the schoolhouse. As I passed Lucas Ehrman, he cracked a half grin. “What a loser,” he said under his breath, with an eloquence only a seven-and-a-half-year-old can manage. He whispered, “A bird crapped in your face.” It was actually on my head, but I didn’t have the energy to correct him.
“Hey, remember when a bird crapped in Jeremy’s face?” a 16-year-old Lucas Ehrman asked Ryan, who was sitting next to him on the bus. It was my fault they took this moment to torment me. After all, I’m the one who sat in a seat with an empty one behind me. It was an amateur mistake.
As Ryan laughed, I thought about Lucas Ehrman’s incredible ability to be completely not funny, yet still get everyone laughing like hyenas. Since he became my primary tormentor in the second grade, nearly nine years earlier, I analyzed his methods. Most of his “jokes” started with remember when, then he brought up some embarrassing moment in that person’s history. Though, I should point out, just because he had a monochromatic sense of humor, that’s not to say he didn’t evolve his methods. The opposite actually. While he used to make fart jokes almost exclusively, he refined his insults to include the frequent shoutings of “you’re gay,” or “everyone hates you,” or my personal favorite: “why don’t you just die already?” He was nothing if he wasn’t a man of good taste.
I sat there, listening to Lucas Ehrman rev up Ryan with a verbal dump of reasons why I was a total loser and always have been. “God, why can’t Fairbanks just die already?” he said.
“Cha…I know, right?” snorted Ryan. Sitting in front of them, I rolled my eyes, putting on a casual, carefree attitude for exactly no one. I tried to sit as motionless as possible, hoping that there was at least a chance they didn’t know I was actually there, that maybe they just started making fun of me at random.
“I remember thinking, yeah, it’s a good thing that bird shit on his head, because if it didn’t I was going to,” Lucas Ehrman explained with a mix of pride and bold confidence, like he was introducing his senior thesis. What was that supposed to mean? Did he just say that he had an urge to defecate on my head? Of course, Ryan wouldn’t have picked up on this. Even if he had, he certainly wouldn’t have used it to make fun of the great Lucas Ehrman. Instead, he’d just say what he always says—
“Yeah, he’s such a loser. I wish I had crapped on him too.” Then he just snorted again, with a cough-slash-laugh. It came from the deep recesses of his nasal canal, sweetened with fresh phlegm from his throat. I wondered if Ryan’s parents were smokers.
Then I felt a smack on my head.
I practiced my best defense: motionlessness. There is no pain. There is no pain.
A hand slapped the top of my head again. This one hurt more, enough to make involuntarily duck forward with a loud grunting noise. Darn it. Why do our bodies insist on protecting themselves?
“Ha! What a wuss,” said the disembodied voice of Lucas Ehrman behind me. Based on the volume and direction, I knew he was now leaning against my seat back. “Ryan, check it out,” he said, then doing his best semi-girl impression. “Oh no, he might hit me again!”
I heard Ryan sit up in his seat and lean beside Lucas Ehrman. I knew I was about to be hit by both of them.
I hate it when I’m right. They both slapped me in between my shoulder blades.
They laughed and settled back down in their seat. I sat back too and tried my best to return to status normal: a casual posture with a distant stare out the window. Staring at the trees, I did mental math to figure out how much longer I’d have to endure daily torture. Figuring that I’d graduate on time, I had at least another year and a half to go. But that was just until I would be free of the Lucas Ehrman variety hour.
True, Lucas Ehrman was my primary tormentor, but he wasn’t the only one. Ever since elementary school, I felt like there was a target painted on me. I was never athletic enough. My voice got choppy when I spoke in front of the class (my face also got red). I got embarrassed talking to new kids. My clothes were never in fashion. All of my classmates picked on me. All the time.
Who was to say things would get better after high school? I will go off to college, but knowing my luck, there will be a new, hairier Lucas Ehrman there to fill the role of tormentor. I will later get my first job, only to find a suited, corporate version of Lucas Ehrman. The daydreams continued, and my stomach sunk, feeling like it weighed an extra 300 pounds. My whole existence was taking shape. That shape looked more and more like a lifetime round of farts in the face.
Sadness washed over me like an acid rain tidal wave. Trying to settle my stomach, I slumped in my chair and closed my eyes. I always enjoyed daydreaming the world away. As the bus bumped along the long road to school, I lost myself in an imaginary world. Between potholes and the sounds of passing cars, I pictured a vibrant, glowing open field, rolling out to overtake the darkness in my mind’s eye. Daisies sprouted up out of the ground, instantly in full bloom, as busty, naked women ran from the horizon toward me. As they got closer, they jumped with excitement, climbing over each other for the chance to be the first hands on me. Soon, I was surrounded on all sides by a literal sea of women, all arguing for the prize of taking me home that night. “Ladies, ladies, there’s enough of me to go around,” I tell my imaginary army of boobs. I look around at the chaos and correct myself. “On second thought, you better fight. There’s only one of me, and I’m not sure I’ll be around tomorrow.” My daydream-self smiles with the confidence I never had in real life as I watched hundreds of beautiful women wrestle over the chance to spend more time with me. It’s my ultimate fantasy. Should I include wading pools of Jell-O? Sure, why not?
That’s when I started to pump the metaphorical brakes. I tried to make the women less attractive once they started fighting, adding small details like boils on their backs and receding hairlines. The last thing I needed was a…well…I just didn’t need to think about that stuff right before standing up.
For exactly three minutes, all was calm, and I was happy. Why couldn’t real life be like the one I imagined when I closed my eyes?
Then a bird pooped on Lucas Ehrman’s window.
“Hey Ryan, check it out!” I hear his finger slam against the window as he points to the act of nature smearing down the window beside his face. Through a barely-contained chuckle, he asks Ryan, “Remind you of anything?”
Ryan didn’t start going to our school until two years after the incident, so that drop of bird poop shouldn’t have reminded him of anything related to me. Regardless, Ryan immediately shouts, “Yeah! It looks like Fagbanks’ face!” Hilarity ensues. Of course.
You’d think they were watching a comedy set at The Improv. They were both laughing so hard, I was sure they would pee their pants. At least, I was praying that would happen. I so badly wanted a reason to stand up in my seat, point at both their crotches and laugh in glorious slow motion. All of my revenge scenarios are in slow motion.
But no, they didn’t wet their pants. They did laugh for a solid 35 seconds, then slowed to a stop. That’s when Lucas Ehrman has what he considers to be a brilliant idea.
“We should make Jeremy lick the bird shit.”
Oh dear God, no.
“Yeah! He should lick it.” Well said, Ryan.
I slumped in my seat and once again closed my eyes, trying to return to the army of bathing beauties in my mind. The image came to me, but all of the women morphed into naked Lucas Ehrmans as drops of bird crap rained down upon us. Et tu, imagination? Et tu?
I bounced out of my nightmarish daydream when Ryan plopped his bulbous behind on the seat beside me. He was a good six inches shorter than me, but he had much more mass. The combination of his weight and the force at which he sat meant that I didn’t just bounce once, I bounced in consecutively-reducing mini bounces like I was on my aunt’s water bed. Despite this, I stared straight ahead, pretending not to notice him.
“Did you hear what I said, Jeremy?” Ryan asked. It was Lucas Ehrman’s idea, not that I was going to correct him.
I said nothing, focusing straight ahead at the back of the seat in front of me. I tried to imagine tiny faces in the cracked texture of the fake leather upholstery. That too backfired when they all looked like little gremlins laughing at me. I closed my eyes, desperate to think of something else. The wonderful imaginary scene I painted for myself earlier was now gone forever. Bummer.
Ryan interrupted the void. “Hey, are you awake?” He punched me in the arm – hard. I tried not to wince, but I’m sure I wasn’t successful. “Come here,” he said.
He grabbed my arm, which was still numb from the hit, and pulled me with all his weight. It was a human tug of war. I used a defense called “drop all your weight and pretend you’re unaffected by the brute force upon your body.” It didn’t work well. Or smoothly. It was obvious he wanted me to move more than I wanted to stay in place. As he pulled harder, I leaned in my seat, putting up a decent level of resistance. Ryan looked back at Lucas Ehrman and said, “Whoa, he’s got a little fight in ‘em.” Despite his best effort, he released a faint, breathy grunt in his voice. He was struggling more than he was letting on. I smiled, taking whatever victory I could.
Then he noticed that I was enjoying myself. From a bully’s perspective, I may as well told him that his mom and I were running away together. If the object of your abuse seems to be having a good time, it’s a law of nature that you double your efforts, losing all consciousness in the process to become a steaming ball of pure rage.
“Son of a bitch!” Ryan shouted. He twisted my hand around and pulled back my middle finger. Yep, that would do it. No more smiles. Thankfully, he wasn’t yet pushing it back hard enough to really hurt. I knew he was just trying to send me a message, or at least reestablish his dominance over me. If that’s all he wanted, all he had to do was ask.
An important point to make here is that I was trying to be non-controversial. I was making myself a blank slate with no emotions, no attitudes and the least amount of resistance. In the same way you would condition your body to take a suppository, you prepare yourself to get wrestled by bullies.
Knowing this, I still don’t understand why the situation was about to change so quickly. I was doing absolutely nothing. I’ll repeat that: absolutely nothing.
For some reason, Ryan started pulling my finger back further. This time it hurt. And it was hurting worse and worse. Was he trying to break it?
I tried to stay cool, resisting the instinct to pull away for as long as I could, but it was unbearable. As I pulled my hand, he pulled back tighter, thrusting my finger backward even further. Then I snapped.
I whipped my free hand around as hard as I could manage and slapped Ryan across the face.
The entire world stopped. Somewhere in the distance, Simon and Garfunkel sang Sounds of Silence.
Hello darkness, my old friend…
The air radiated with an iridescent glow from the early morning sun shining through the windows.
…I’ve come to talk with you again…
For a moment, I don’t see Ryan, and I have no awareness of Lucas Ehrman sitting behind me. All I know is that I’m lost within the sound of my hand making contact with Ryan’s face and the moment is glorious.
…Because a vision softly creeping…
Through the windows of the bus, the howling wind slows to a gentle whisper. I hear a voice in the wind. A female voice vibrates in my ear. “Wonderful,” she says. Her words reverberate through my mind and warm my soul.
…Left its seeds while I was sleeping…
Ryan drifts slowly into focus but fades out again. I look at my hands, now free, turning them over. Flecks of stardust erupt softly from my palms, dancing like fairies in a morning mist.
…And the vision that was planted…
The roof above us disappeared, revealing a brilliant array of galaxies changing orbit around me. At that moment, I was the center of the universe. I heard choirs of children chant my name from all corners of space.
…In my brain still remains…
The world around me went gray as I illuminated with brilliant color, sharing the light with those around me.
…within the sound of silence.
I took a deep breath, accidentally letting space-time resume normal speed.
Ryan touched his face. I braced myself for retaliation, but I was completely caught off guard when Lucas Ehrman, behind me, grabbed my throat and choked me. With little effort, he slammed me into the back of my seat and pulled hard against my neck. I struggled to breathe, which only seemed to invigorate him. Panicking, I worked to squeeze my fingers between his hands and my neck – anything I could do to release his grip. Black crept into the edges of my vision. I knew I was going to die.
Then he let go.
I collapsed into my seat and caught my breath in short, quick gasps. Ryan, still in the seat across the aisle, chuckled to himself. Between my heavy wheezing, I heard Lucas Ehrman sit back down.
I was devastated. Why was this my life? I was a good person. My family loved me, and I was more than capable of loving other people. I should have had every promise to be happy. Instead, even times when I tried to mind my own business, someone literally makes it his mission suck the life out of my body. I couldn’t comprehend the routine. Life was not to supposed to be lived in constant threat of torment. Right?
Then I thought of that bird. That robin innocently perched above me that fateful day in second grade. If it sat on another branch, or if I decided to sit in the sun instead of the shade, I would have a completely different life. Thoughts of these inconsequential actions culminating into life-changing moments gave me a moment of clarity. Until that point, I never realized the true situation. That robin never changed me, it changed the world around me.
I thought about that empty threat Lucas Ehrman delivered a few minutes earlier. He said he wanted to poop on me first. As a function of true injustice in this world, even if he had done that – even if he had pulled down his pants and left a steaming pile of leaky excrement all over me and my favorite outfit, I would still be the one to get teased about it. The thought made me sick to my stomach again.
Thoughts and visions cascaded into place. I had no control over that bird pooping on my head, yet I was the victim of continuous torture. If Lucas Ehrman had crapped on me, I’d still be the victim. The person on the receiving end will always be the victim. Always.
At that moment, I felt a surge of energy. I sat up in my seat, turned around on my knees and looked directly into Lucas Ehrman’s eyes. My hands gripped the back of the seat and squeezed until my knuckles turned white.
“What’s your problem, dickhead?” he asked. Through unwavering confidence, I kept my mouth shut for a few beats.
Then I opened my mouth.
And let out a spray of acid-ranked vomit all over him.
With my firm grip, I braced for the long haul, letting my body propel the rancid collection of partially digested steak dinner from the night before and Cinnamon Toast Crunch from that morning spew all over Lucas Ehrman. All over the personification of my victimization.
I discovered in that moment that when you puke into a toilet, you miss out on the joy that comes from being able to aim. My initial spray covered him head to toe in insignificant sprinkles of food bits and stomach acid. But for my second upchuck, I puckered my lips and narrowed the stream, tracing it along his body. He held up his hands in a feeble attempt to block it, but from my angle, I could easily arc over his reach.
Soon, the blast was done, and the fountain simmered to a single drip on the corner of my mouth. I wiped it off with the back of my hand. I tried to swallow, but discovered some residue between my cheeks. I looked over at Ryan, who sat with his mouth agape. I hocked up a good chunk of saliva, then spit a large wad of vomit remnants and slobber right in his face. His head jerked backward with the point-blank shot.
I was so caught up in the moment, that I remembered there were other people on the bus only after I heard the vomit drip on the bus floor. As I sat backward in my seat, propped up on my knees, I took another wipe across my lips and rubbed it clean against the seat in front of me. I gazed out across the dozens of eyes staring back.
True to form, one girl called out what everyone else should have found obvious. “He got puke all over him!”
With that, a chorus of ewws and yucks rained upon us. Lucas Ehrman tried feebly to wipe the gunk from all over his body, but as his hands were also covered, he did little more than smear it around. The kids in the very back, the ones with the worst view of what just happened, ran up one at a time to get a glimpse for themselves.
Surprisingly, it was this small crowd that finally caught our driver’s attention – not the violence, shouting, or uncontrollable vomiting. The driver slammed on the brakes and we all shifted in place. She then pulled the bus to the side of the road. The parking brakes engaged with a loud hiss. As she stood up, she shouted back at us, “What is going on back here?” In her voice, I heard echoes of Mrs. Clark in the back of my mind.
One of the younger riders volunteered, “Lucas Ehrman got puked on.”
I gave him a nod of approval. I couldn’t have said it better myself, kid.
As the driver walked toward us, I turned around in my seat and sat down, doing my best to act casual. She marched past me to find Lucas, who was still slumped in his seat. “Oh dear lord,” she said. “You’re…you need…let me call…” Her voice drifted as she headed back to the front. I heard her get on the radio, but I couldn’t make out her words. Her tone sounded orderly, but urgent, like she was ordering a clean-up service. Yippee!
About a half-hour later, reinforcements arrived. By then, all of us stood awkwardly in the back of the bus, leaving Lucas alone in the middle like he was radioactive. Come to think of it, I bet the other students would have preferred that. Every few minutes before their arrival, someone would remind us that “It stinks in here.”
“Well, duh,” someone else would say. “Someone puked.”
A janitor from school, along with our nurse and principal climbed aboard. The principal took the lead, saying, “Okay, kids. I think you’ve seen enough – everybody off and wait outside.”
Slowly, we all streamed off single-file, leaving Lucas to stew in my filth while the janitor sized him up, trying to figure out the best way to handle the decontamination.
While we all stood around off the side of the road, Ryan walked over to me. “Dude, that was literally the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen.”
I subconsciously braced for a punch, but one never came.
He turned toward the bus, where from our perspective, we could only see the four heads of the adults in a semicircle around an unseen Lucas. Ryan said, “Man, that’s embarrassing. I don’t know how he’ll get over this, especially now.” He used his head to gesture behind him. “It’s on Instagram.”
I looked over Ryan’s shoulder and saw at least a dozen of our schoolmates with their phones out, snapping pictures. I wondered how many people will ‘like’ the pictures of Lucas covered in vomit and felt a little like I had missed an opportunity to post it to my own account. Plenty of people liked the vomit picture, but Lucas got double for what came next.
He was paraded off the bus. They had stripped off his clothes, and in an effort to salvage his dignity, they dressed him in our principal’s sports coat. Poking out from beneath the bottom of the coat were Lucas’ skinny, pearl-white legs beneath his Lucky Clover print boxers. How ironic.
As he walked away, I heard a loud camera-shutter sound effect as another picture was preserved in social media memory.
They loaded Lucas into the principal’s van, and then the two of them drove off. The nurse told us the plan, which involved sending that bus to the garage while we waited for a clean one to come back.
Then the bus drove off, leaving us in the middle of a long country road with nothing to do but digitally comment on the recent social media fodder. I pulled out my phone to stay up on the conversation, but I didn’t participate. I suppose my digital silence was an act of penance, a sign of good faith. That, or I just didn’t have anything more satisfying to add. My initial contribution to the story was satisfying enough.
Just like what happened to me when the bird crapped on my head, Lucas was the unwilling victim through absolutely no fault of his own. Actually, scratch that. It was completely his fault. I smiled, which Ryan noticed.
“I bet you’re pretty proud of yourself,” he said, an edge in his voice.
I didn’t answer, but fought the urge to agree.
He turned his attention back to his phone, scrolling through all the comments on what looked like a picture he took of Lucas getting off the bus.
I nudged his shoulder. “Hey,” I said. “Remember when Lucas got puked on?”
Ryan laughed harder than I’d ever heard.