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Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel

Battling the Bulge

There was always one in every school when I was growing up. And if he moved away, or transferred to a different school, he was soon, and mysteriously, replaced by another. I'm talking about the really fat kid--the one kid who was four times the size of any other kid on the playground. More often than not, I've found, they were named "Dennis." Nobody's quite sure why that is.

Things may well have changed over the past three decades. In fact, to hear the newspapers tell it, there might well have been a complete switcheroo--that 99 percent of the kids in any given school are obese, and it's the sole skinny kid who stands out. Maybe now it's the skinny kids who are named "Dennis." I couldn't say for sure.

The fat kid (again back in my day) was often times a bully, and for obvious reasons. They were called names, they were taunted from a distance on account of the way they looked, they were always chosen last. They had plenty of reason to seek revenge against the rest of us wee twigs. That was the case in grade school, at least. Once you hit high school, the fat kids tended to take on a more jolly demeanor, they became the party animals, which was clearly a more desirable coping mechanism for everyone involved.

Between kindergarten and 8th grade, the primary fat kid I had to contend with was Dennis Ziggart. There were other big kids around, and chubby kids and beefy kids, but none of them could hold a candle to the sheer, frightening mass of Dennis.

He was kind of slow-witted and, I must admit, not always a bully. Sometimes he could be quiet, or friendly, or even funny. But he was never hesitant to knock some smaller kid to the ground, should circumstances (or his lightning-fast mood swings) call for it. For the most part, I had no trouble with him, nor him with me. I didn't steer clear of him, as a lot of equally scrawny kids did. I think the deal was that I never made fun of his weight, and so he never pummeled me. He was very sensitive about the weight thing.

Still, as these things happen, we did get into one schoolyard brawl. Through those early years, I was in a lot of fights, primarily because there was plenty about my appearance to make fun of as well. I eventually ended up in fights with most everyone I knew for one reason or another. But again, as these things happen, there were no grudges. I usually found myself fighting with someone one day, then joking around with them the next. They were simpler days, and it was a small town, where long grudges did you no good.

I don't remember what prompted the fight exactly, though I think Dennis may have tripped me as I passed him on the playground during recess. I do remember that it was fourth grade, and it was in the dead of winter. The sky was clear that afternoon, and the sun was bright. It was probably in the low 20s, if not colder. There had been a lot of snow that winter (there always was), and the small plows used to keep the playground clear had pushed all the snow into a small mountain, which buried the bike racks.

It was at the base of this small mountain that I found myself throwing my body towards Dennis' bulk in a rage, trying to knock him down, trying to do anything. Each time I was close enough, however, he'd simply grab my arm or my coat and toss me to the ground again like an afterthought. Each time he did this, I grew more enraged as I stood to thrown myself at him again.

After attempting another hapless dive at his midsection, he grabbed me by the front of my coat and pushed me backwards into the loosely-packed snowhill. Then he landed on top of me.

I couldn't see, and I couldn't breath. Dennis wasn't pummeling me--in fact, he wasn't doing anything at all. I think his intent was simply to smother me. To bury me in the snow and smother me.

After a moment, he pushed himself upright, and I could see sunlight again. But before I could begin to extricate myself from the icy tomb, he jumped and landed on top of me again, driving me even deeper into the snow.

Dennis pushed himself upright again and leapt on me a third time. I couldn't feel anything except panic. I'd had the wind knocked out of me threefold already. My clothes were soaked. If he hadn't broken my glasses already, he would soon. And worst of all, I was going to die out here on the playground, knowing full well that my body wouldn't be discovered until the spring thaw. I'd had enough. I would have willingly surrendered had I been able. Why was he doing this to me? Why didn't he stop?

This time, after Dennis stood again, I saw what was happening.

My friend Norb had arrived to save the day (or at least me). He was a hefty kid. Not as big as Dennis, maybe, but big enough.

Problem was, Norb wasn't really much of a fighter. What he was doing, see, was catching Dennis off balance. It took some effort for Dennis to stand upright, big as he was, so Norb seized the opportunity, as Dennis struggled to his feet, to push him to the ground again. Problem was, Norb wasn't pushing Dennis to the ground, exactly--he was pushing him back on top of me.

Half buried as I was, I was unable to signal Norb that he should try and knock Dennis in some other direction. With the wind still knocked out of me, I couldn't even scream for him to stop. All I could do was watch in horror as Norb, in an effort to rescue me, sent that monstrous hulk crashing down on top of me again.

Finally it was over, as Dennis--who really had been trying to get off me much of the time--regained his footing before Norb could push him back down again.

Dennis reached down and extracted me from deep inside the snowbank, and brushed me off as best as he could.

"Your nose is bleedin'" he said.

I reached up and wiped my upper lip. The sight of the blood enflamed me again. Flames erupted through my bead--not at Norb, who in reality had been the cause of much of my suffering these past few minutes, even if he didn't mean to be--but at Dennis. He was the one who started it. He was the reason my nose was bleeding. So now, even as he was clearly trying to help me get myself back together, I tore myself away.

Instead of throwing myself at him again (I'd about learned my lesson, that-a-ways), I danced in a wide circle around him, shrieking the only words that came to mind in the midst of my terror and confusion and rage--"Big fat Ziggart! Fat! Fat!" This was accompanied by some expressive arm gestures.

Dennis hadn't moved since I pulled away from him as he tried to brush me off. He hadn't said a word. And now he only stared at me, his eyes following me as I moved back and forth well out of reach, screaming those same words over and over again.

I saw his face fall, and an almost profound despair shadow his eyes. I had been one of the few kids who had never mocked him about his weight. Now here I was, proving that I was no different from the rest of them.

None of this occurred to me at the time, of course. At the time, all I knew was that that big elephant Dennis had nearly killed me and that this was the only reasonable recourse I had left. The only thing at my disposal that I knew could hurt him.

After I was finished, Norb and I walked back towards the school building, leaving Dennis standing there, not looking at us, not looking at anything, still motionless, next to the Jim-shaped hole in the snowbank.

By the next day, the events of the previous afternoon had all but been forgotten. Dennis and I dealt with each other in a civilized manner, and I never called him "big fat Ziggart" ever again.