Dudley Ball

In third grade only two kids got chased
around the playground.
One was a shaggy-haired boy,
I think his name was Peter,
who miraculously appeared in Lincoln,
Nebraska, from England, in 1963,
trailing clouds of Beatle-mania.
I watched in helpless amazement
as the girls squealed and took off
after him at every recess.
Hard to imagine what they would
have done had they caught him.
Held him down and kissed him?
Torn him limb from limb
like the maenads in Ovid?
The other was Dudley Ball, whose
yellowish face and bloodshot eyes
I now know indicated jaundice
and liver disease but at the time
signified only strangeness,
laughable ugliness, untouchable
difference from the rest of us.
The other boys chased him,
threw kickballs at him, thrilled
they could zing a ball at a weird kid
named Dudley Ball. “Hey Dudley,
have a ball!” “Dudley Ball, what a dud!”
The red hair and freckles, puffy cheeks
and constant perspiration, amplified
his otherness. No one spoke to him.
But why do I see his face so clearly now,
the fear and loneliness in his eyes?
The faces of all the others I’ve forgotten.
I was outraged at the injustice of it,
the cruelty of the schoolyard taunts.
I tried to intervene but couldn’t
put the pack off his scent.
I told the teacher but can’t recall
if she did anything about it.
And then he stopped coming to school.
A few months later, we were told he’d died.
I wish now I’d said a kind word
to him, tried harder to protect him.
I had my own strangenesses,
though mine were mostly invisible.
I wish I’d put my arm around his shoulder,
asked him to eat his lunch with me.
We could have watched together
the screeching girls, their mad pursuit,
and marveled at the vagaries of luck
and circumstance that exalt some
and cast down others, dealing out
adoration and ridicule in unequal measure.
We wouldn’t have talked that way
back then, of course. More likely
we would have sat in awkward silence,
or talked about what we wanted
to be when we grew up.
Or maybe compared our cowlicks—
I remember now how alike ours were,
a cresting ocean wave on
the right side of our foreheads,
as though we’d each been licked
by the same thick-tongued cow,
a calm old cow who saw all our fears
and flaws and loved us
just the same.

–from The Sun Magazine; forthcoming in Dharma Talk, due out in September 2023 from Wisdom Publications