Wednesday, Feb. 05, 2003, 12:52 AM


Joe. Names don't get much more generic than Joe. His parents called him Joseph, but he was Joe. Joe was a skinny bastard, and tall. He was almost disproportionate with his arms hanging down real far like a monkey's and his head on this long, thin neck like it was just perched there waiting for the first stiff wind to do a number on it. He must have been damn close to legally blind. His glasses were so thick that his eyes would kind of swim around inside them when you looked him in the face, like a goldfish looms up and sways in front of you when he's in a round bowl. Looked like a big old dork--his pants always bunched up around his waist by a belt that had extra holes punched in it to keep his pants from sliding to the ground. Of course if his pants ever fell, they would cover those two inches of blinding white socks that burst out from under his pant legs like the sun through the clouds. He was a sight. Always looking down on me from under that straight, stringy hair of his. He had the classic bowl cut straight across the middle wrinkle of his forehead and cut like a helmet halfway on his ears. Reminded me of those little football players that folks used to put on the dashboard of their cars with the head that jiggles around every time you hit a bump. Yes, he was a sight, and he was my best friend until college.

I found him like you would find a stray dog. Well, I guess that isn't quite right. I suppose you could say that he found me like a stray dog finds an owner. He came running on up to me on the field during gym class one day and hid behind me. He was trying to get anything he could between him and Bobby Montefaire. It seems that on this day Bobby--Bobby Mountain to his friends and Booby Fairy to the rest--had a particularly rough day finding someone to pummel until it soothed his insecurities enough to strut into the cafeteria and assault a pizzaburger. The Reynolds kid was out with a broken leg, and Howdy Carmikel was sent home after showing the morning math class what he had eaten for breakfast all over Miss Treadwell's shoes. So Bobby decided to get after the lanky Joe Fischer. Unfortunately for me I wound up between a soft head and Bobby Mountain.

I stayed to myself for the most part. I was in the advanced classes with only a few other students, and was only put into general population for the gym classes. Joe was in the advanced math with me, and everyone knew Bobby, so I pretty much knew where I stood and knew that I didn't like being there. It was your basic middle school banter. A few swear words, a couple of threats involving my ass and my short life span, and the customary warning about the pummeling I would endure if I decided to stay. Bobby was a bully in every sense, and when I stood my ground he yielded his, promising to make my decision the worst and final one of my life.

Joe was happy. He smiled a big shitty grin at me and even started to say something when I let my fist fly at his face. I was careful not to break his glasses. I popped him square in the mouth and watched his eyes fill up the confines of his glasses before they flew from his face. He stumbled backwards and landed on his ass--one hand holding his mouth while the other was already sweeping the ground for his estranged glasses. Mr. McIntry, the gym teacher, was not what I would call pleased. In fact, he was so not pleased that he made both Joe and I stay after school for detention. He said that no one, but no one, fought during his gym class as he dragged me along by my arm in a grip that was so tight I could feel his fingers long after he had left us in the principle's office for sentencing. Not the most auspicious of introductions.