When I was a kid my brother and I liked being able to ride our bikes downtown. Bike = Freedom, then and now.
That was about the time we started guitar lessons at the old music store in downtown Galveston. The idea was to get us out of the house, even for a few minutes a day, and guitar lessons seemed to my parents like a twofer as we might actually learn something in the process besides more cussing.
Our teacher was Mr. Pedraza, a man so ancient that we could scarcely imagine an older thing. In hindsight he might have been fifty. But he was bald and walked with a stoop and the two 30-minute evening guitar classes he taught were plainly the albatross around his neck. Ian and I were in different classes, mine from 3:00 to 3:30 and Ian’s from 3:30 to 4:00. We were in different classes not because of differing ability but in order to keep us from clawing each other’s eyes out.
My class had two other students, a girl named Sally and a dreadful little redneck bastard named Bubba. Bubba had a crew cut, thick little hands and fingers, was one year older, hated the guitar, hated Mr. Pedraza, and most of all hated me. I liked practicing at home with my Mel Bay Beginner Guitar Book No. 1, and Bubba didn’t.
Each lesson we would whang away at our cheap little guitars and Bubba never came close to getting anything right which would infuriate Mr. Pedraza, causing Bubba to gleefully mis-finger the chords even more. In between songs Bubba would lean over and say, “After this lesson I’m gonna punch you in the face.”
I was really afraid of Bubba. Those hammy little mitts that couldn’t make a G chord to save his life were perfect for balling up and punching; I knew that much from my brother’s beatings, and his hands were tiny compared to Bubba’s. “Which fist do you want me to punch you in the face with? This one is good for knockin’ out teeth,” he’d muse. “But this one is good for takin’ out an eye if you use your thumb like so.” He’d jab the air and make a little dig with his thumb. “That’s your eyeball,” he’d say, and I’d tremble, trying to focus on my guitar.
The lesson would finish and I’d race out of there, jump on my bike and speed home before Bubba could so much as get through the front door. Bike = Escape, then and now. But on days when it rained, my mom would pick me up and I’d have to stand on the curb with Bubba, waiting for my brother’s lesson to finish because we weren’t allowed to hang out in the store after the lesson. “If my dad wasn’t on his way here right now I’d punch you in the face so hard your lips would pop,” Bubba would thoughtfully advise me on those days. “You know what happens when your lips pop, doncha?”
I’d just grip my guitar case and get ready to shield myself with it when the blows came.
“When your lips pop,” he’d continue, “they stay flat for the rest of your life, like worms you done stomped on. Everybody’s gonna call you Mr. Wormlips.” Bubba loved instilling terror way more than any actual beating. He was a sadist.
One day after guitar we were having dinner. “How was your guitar lesson?” my dad asked.
“It was okay,” I mumbled.
“That’s not very enthusiastic.”
“He hates it,” my brother smirked.
My dad interrupted. “Why do you think he hates it?”
“He’s scared of Bubba.”
“Who’s Bubba?” my dad asked.
“Nobody,” I said. “And I ain’t scared of him neither.”
“He’s a fatty in Seth’s guitar class who’s always saying he’s gonna punch him in the face.”
“Well,” my dad asked, “has he?”
“Heck no,” Ian said. “Who’s gonna punch Seth? You can just yell at him and he’ll cry like a big baby.”
“You’re the big baby!”
“Say that again and I’ll punch you in the face!”
My eyes teared up.
“Boys!” my dad said. “Is that true?” He looked sternly at me.
“Kinda,” I said.
“What are you going to do about it? You can’t let this bully make your life miserable.”
I thought about it for a moment. “Shoot him?”
Ian laughed. “You don’t even have a gun! How you gonna shoot him?”
“I don’t think he deserves to be killed,” my dad added wisely. “But why don’t you haul off and punch him in the face?”
“Bubba?” I was incredulous. “He’d kill me.”
“Yeah,” Ian agreed. “He’d kill him. He prolly has a gun, too, and he’d shoot him after he killed him.”
I felt the tears start to well up again at the thought of being beaten to death and then shot.
“He doesn’t have a gun and he isn’t going to kill you,” my dad said. “Just wait until the next time he says he’s going to punch you in the face, then haul off and punch him in the face.”
“What if it’s in the lesson? Mr. Pedraza will shoot both of us.”
“Then wait until you’re outside. That’s what I’d do.”
“Have you ever punched anybody in the face?” I asked.
“Son,” my dad said, “sooner or later everybody gets around to punching somebody in the face. Sounds like it’s your time.”
The next lesson I was so scared that I couldn’t finger the C, the G, or even the D. Mr. Pedraza was pretty mad and Bubba was ecstatic. “Boy, oh boy, after this lesson I’m gonna punch you in the face for being a crybaby and then I’m gonna punch you in the face again for Mr. Pedraza. He’d punch you in the face except he’d go to jail.”
I didn’t say anything but my eyes burned and I shook like a leaf. After the lesson I walked outside, so nervous I could barely open the door. Bubba was right behind me. I walked over to my bike and set down my guitar case while I fumbled with my key. Bubba laughed. “I think now would be a good time to punch you in the face.”
I come out of my half-crouch quick as a cat, spinning around, and punched him in the face so hard that I thought I’d broken all the bones in my hand. I was surprised at how it hurt. His face was fat but also kind of hard; the punch landed right on his nose, which was wide and flat, and then glanced onto his cheek.
Unlike the movies, he didn’t go flying through the air or become unconscious, in fact his head only moved a tiny little bit, but unlike in the movies when the good guy and bad guy really go at it, he stood there, stunned. A small Ganges of blood was pouring out of his nose and dripping onto his shirt. Instead of grabbing me by the head and throwing me into oncoming traffic he touched the blood and started to cry, then wail.
He ran back into the music store. “He punched me in the face! He punched me in the face!” was all I heard as I pedaled away, saved by my bike and not for the last time.
Bubba never came back to guitar lessons, and no one seemed to miss him, even a little.
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