The Pink Donkey
People were always telling me what to do.
"But, Momma," I whined. "I don't wanna hit at the piñata."
"Come on, honey. It's fun. I bought the camcorder just for this."
She stooped over me in the middle of my grade school cafeteria. It was a Saturday. I remember feeling queasy about being at school on a Saturday. The fundraiser hollered about us. Parents paid for their kids to bounce around in one of those big enclosed air mattresses. Or they bought stale pound cakes from Mr. Twifford. Or they entered a raffle for some fancy plastic flashlight. All this to raise money for sports jerseys, I think, or maybe a class trip to the neighboring county's petting zoo. The piñata dangled from a rope that stretched from the state flag above the cafeteria's entrance to the national flag above the cafeteria's wall of windows.
"Little Jimmy is eleven today?" Mrs. Roach exclaimed. "Well, well. You must be very proud. You have to be the piñata boy then, Jimmy. It has to be you."
"But I don't want to go after that donkey," I pouted.
I had watched other kids undergo this shame at other school carnivals. I always felt so embarrassed for them that I wouldn't even sit near enough to scramble for the candy when they finally managed a disembowelment. The way they blindfold you so you can't see! And then they have some girl tugging at a rope that torques the piñata back and forth and swings it up and down. The thing moves and you can't see it and they expect you to tear it open with a broken broomstick? And in front of all the other kids?
"Everyone's gonna laugh, Mom. Mitch Decker's gonna make fun of me big time."
"Oh, honey. Who cares about Mitch Decker?"
"I do. I care about him a lot. I've told you how he won't let people forget Craig Schuffenmuller puked macaroni and cheese all over the xylophone in music last year. And it was his fault. He made Craig lick that slug."
Mitch Decker ridiculed, bullied and bad-mouthed every kid he met. One of his favorite and most-feared tactics was to threaten you into doing something idiotic before a crowd of witnesses. He would howl with vicious laughter then and blame the whole scene on the extremeness of your stupidity or innate inferiority. But his inventions were always somehow comic. So onlookers, even the scandalized, always ended up belly-laughing. Kids would tease you then for weeks and weeks.
"Remember when I came home stinking like fish sticks because someone made me pretend to dog paddle in a dumpster in the rain?"
She cocked her head, unswayed.
"He socks people," I added. "Hard."
"Do it for me, honey. It's why I bought the camcorder. Grandma will love it."
Mrs. Roach hovered over me, too. "It is your birthday, Jimmy." Her severe fingertips clamped my shoulder like talons. "On one's birthday one breaks piñatas so that the candy comes falling out. That is what is done. Where would the world be if what was done was not done? Where? It is your birthday, Jimmy. You must do it."
"Come on, Jimmy," a kid shouted.
"Hit it, Jimmy," cried a familiar voice.
I was surrounded.
"See?" my mom said. "Everybody is excited. Are you really going to let everybody down?"
"But that was Mitch Decker that just yelled that. That's a bad sign."
But they wouldn't listen. They just wouldn't listen. It was as if I wasn't even speaking at all. I tried to warn them, but they just wouldn't listen.
The last thing I saw as they strapped the blindfold over my eyes was Mitch Decker gloating and elbowing Charlie Potts. Decker wore the eager face of an unbeaten cheater. And he pointed at me mockingly.
"I don't have a good feeling about this," I told my mom.
"It's going to be great."
Then the world went dark.
The game proceeds like this. Some invisible person shouts out to you what direction to aim the broomstick while some other invisible person yanks the cord that wiggles the invisible piñata. This piñata was a donkey made of crepe paper, and pink. The donkey grinned unhappily.
I heard my mom say: "It's to the right."
Blindly I swung.
Everyone laughed excitedly.
I could hear the camcorder clicking.
I swung again.
"Straight ahead," coached Mrs. Roach.
I took a step forward and swung.
"No, dickhead," Mitch Decker jeered. "To the left."
I pivoted, confused.
The kids laughed.
I began to feel frustrated. Mitch Decker's voice reminded me how dopey I looked, and that to prevent weeks of similar taunting I had to shish-kabob that donkey immediately, to bust its gut right away. But the mortal blow wouldn't fall. I couldn't connect. I had just one or two swats more and the scene might be forgotten, I might preserve some crumb of dignity. But I swung and swung and missed and missed. Nothing broke. What had been a child's frustration then mutated toward something much more volatile. Desperate anger, I began to feel, and hotly. That anger filled my blinded eyes with the selfish faces of every person who had ever coerced me into anything.
Mrs. Roach called out then, gravely, "Come back toward my voice, Jimmy. This way."
What, I thought? Have I strayed from the pink donkey that far? Am I that lost?
The kids roared.
Then my mother spoke and I detected doubt in her voice, doubt that reconsidered maybe my reluctance, or rethought maybe her insistence. But she was just wrestling with some potential regret right now, I felt indignantly, while I already choked on the stinkingest kind of humiliation. "Honey?" she called.
The kids had started laughing when Mrs. Roach tried to redirect me. They had not stopped. Mitch Decker cackled now over their hilarity. "What an idiot!" I heard him cry. And, "Where's the candy, you idiot?" And all the kids suddenly laughed in a menacing way. They laughed in that big-headed and vulturish way that I knew meant catcalls until I graduated from college. Kids would be asking me for candy for the rest of my life.
And the intent of my swinging suddenly changed. My anger boiled into rage now, aggression. I heard myself muttering through my clenched teeth: "You want some candy? I'll give you some goddamn candy!"
And the laughing stopped.
"I'll give you some goddamn candy!"
I heard an ohhh.
I heard a shriek.
The clatter of footsteps.
"Jimmy!" my mother shouted, her voice far away.
"Candy? Candy? I'll give you some goddamn candy!"
I kept swinging and I kept swinging. The broomstick swooshed powerfully when I swung. That swooshing sound affected me deeply. The whole of my soul leapt to that swooshing sound, sang through it. I wanted that swooshing sound to reverb and resound for all eternity. I swung and I swung and nothing else existed. I heard roadway traffic and I kept swinging. I heard emergency sirens and I kept swinging. I heard helicopters and I kept swinging. I just kept swinging and swinging.
And then suddenly I found myself flat on my back, looking up at my wide-eyed mother. I mumbled to her then, pathetically: "Where's Pookie, mom? I want Pookie."
My mother never looked at me the same again. In the van as she drove me home her oversized eyes basically popped out onto her cheeks every time she leaned over to gauge my flushed face. This bug-eyed business continued through our commute, arrival and ominously wordless march to the sofa. There I finally asked,
"Momma, why do you keep looking at me like that?"
She didn't answer.
She sat me down.
Innocently I confessed to being very tired.
Knowingly she nodded.
I slouched and yawned as she moved to the television. With a visible lump in her throat, still wide-eyed, she plugged the camcorder into the set. She inched down beside me then, reaching for the remote control. The recording rewound. Some phrase low and breathy she murmured then, like, "I think we need to talk." Or, "Maybe you can explain this." I don't recall exactly what she said. I remember more squirming with dread for how dorky I was about to look on our television screen.
"Ah, mom, why are you making me watch this?"
She pushed play.
And there I was, Mr. super-dumbass, stumbling in semi- circular directionlessness, head tilted partly back, mouth stupidly agape, swinging and chopping and thrusting the broken broomstick like some ginned-up circus flop.
I swung and missed.
In just seconds I had turned away from the pink donkey. Almost at the outset then gutting that piñata became well-nigh impossible. But blindly I swung on, whipping and grunting and swirling and panting and pole-fighting the unseen with all my frenzied might. Watching the video I wanted to upchuck. Shamed by it, I felt, crushed. I could hear already next week's heckling: "Piñata boy, Piñata boy," they would brand me.
"Turn it off. Please."
But my mother didn't flinch. She didn't even glance at me.
Mitch Decker's jeer ricocheted through our TV speakers then. "What an idiot," he cackled. "Where's the candy, you idiot?" I shrank into myself. But then, as cowardly I watched from the sofa, I observed a startling change in my swinging movements on TV. Motions that had been half-dizzy and self-conscious before Decker's taunt, turned suddenly harshly determined and keenly deliberate. Strength, I saw in myself. Focus. Direction. I felt surprise at this, astonishment even. I shook my head.
"Is that really me?" I asked.
My mother said nothing.
I might have been the lone vandal of some remote street of Halloween pumpkins. The street stretched long before me and I faced an uphill fight before dawn and I worked drivingly. Indiscriminate, I was. I slashed the broomstick murderously, raving for any contact. Ruthlessly, I swung, hungrily. All the while I growled, demonically: "You want some candy? I'll give you some goddamn candy!"
First the kids sat stunned.
Then the kids went running.
I shattered a window.
I shattered another window.
I gashed open the air mattress.
I overturned the baked goods.
I laid out Mr. Twifford.
"You want some candy?" I kept roaring.
My madness shunted me through a broken window. I walloped the marquee in front of the school. My wildness halted traffic.
Headlights, I smashed.
The school cop, Jerry, at last huffed up from across campus. When I turned my back to unleash a savage swing he flattened me with a crude tackle. City police arrived shortly. A helicopter thrummed overhead.
The camcorder jiggled through this final takedown and my subduing. And sprinting to me, my mom got accidental footage of some big guys in riot gear, and nervous spectators. But she found me unconscious. Jerry's three hundred pounds had obliterated my eleven-year-old awareness. All the anger had left my face. My stilled expression was even serene. Then, as I came round, to gaze blurrily up at my mother, the camera captured my childish whim:
"Where's Pookie, mom? I want Pookie."
Pookie was our dog.
As I watched the video at first I felt embarrassed all over again. Then I felt disbelief. Was that really me? But when I saw my fury break, and I saw the kids go "oohh," I felt a vengeful satisfaction. Then I saw myself turn psycho-freak and I felt a sizzling strength. Then I saw myself shatter the windows and I felt a stomping power. Then I punctured the air mattress, and waylaid the pound cakes, and coldcocked Mr. Twifford, and thrashed my way out to mangle the marquee, and cave in the windshields, and bash out the headlights and something even more potent roared throughout me. While watching myself rage across that television screen, while watching my violent defiance of all control, both mental and physical, I discovered an unbreakable individuality within myself, and an independence, and a self-sufficiency. Those feelings overwhelmed me as I sat there on my sofa. They possessed me even. And they have never slackened.
That day changed my life forever. Before they cinched that blindfold over my eyes everyone from Mitch Decker to my mother to the lunch lady to my great aunt Frances had told me what to do. I had been their piñata, their pink donkey. As soon as they willfully blinded me, however, and then selfishly maneuvered me into ravaging them, everything changed. The force of my individual self broke free. I learned that day to whom, ultimately, I have to answer. And I have never forgotten. No one has ever told me what to do again. Not through high school. Not going to college. And not running the national chain of martial arts studios I own. I am my only master.
My mother's camcorder was not the only one rolling that day. In fact, by the time we finished reviewing her record of my rampage, my rampage had become an international news item. She thumbed off the camcorder, tripped on the television and there I roared, little
Jimmy Leicester, cussing through the joggling pictures of every news source on cable, newly dubbed "Piñata Boy."
"They're pronouncing our name wrong," I remember fuming at my mother.
"Does that matter now?" she murmured distantly.
I glared at her. Catatonic, she sat, her eyes fixed and as buggy as ever. She seemed detached somehow from her sick complexion.
"Yeah, it matters," I snapped directly. "Lexter!"
She rose, tightening her lips at me angrily. But I met her gaze unintimidated. She fathomed the changes in me then and softened. She wanted suddenly to reclaim the days before the pink donkey, to put everything back like before. I saw this. But I shook my head. I pointed at her. I commanded, "Make me some popcorn!"
And then I began watching the news coverage of my freak-out.
"Eleven-year-old Jimmy Leicester goes berserk with a piñata pole," the host railed, at a shout. "What does this tell us about safety in our schools? Is your child about to die? Where were the police?"
Several experts commented then, at length. A retired college administrator commented, and an off-duty narcotics detective, and a securities attorney, and a clinical psychiatrist. They even had a whiny-ass insurance adjuster summing up damages to the school building and automobiles.
I watched them talk about me for four hours straight. They talked about the fundraiser and interviewed Mrs. Roach. They talked about the history of the piñata and showed video of a bandaged Mr. Twifford. They dissected pictures of the ruptured marquee and the air mattress. They talked to almost everyone involved except me. I refused to acknowledge them until they pronounced my name correctly. But they wouldn't pronounce my name correctly. Not even the pushy newspeople that huddled outside our house would pronounce my name correctly. I just shook my head at them. I pointed at them. I commanded, "Get lost!"
Two days later when my mom dropped me off at school I marched right through all the waiting reporters and cameras, right up to Mitch Decker, and I punched him right in the fucking mouth. That's what I wanted to see on TV. And I got to see it. You're goddamn right I did.