Two By and Duane were introduced in the fifth grade by the earnest intentions of an English teacher hoping to score warm fuzzies all around by handing off to Duane a clear shot at making a friend, while to Two By he offered a dependable and affable guide to the general layout and schedule of the school. Duane eyed the chubby new boy wearing shorts in the winter, and assumed that meant he was poor, like Duane, although Duane did have a coat. Two By angled his chin back at Duane and introduced his open hand between them. Duane wiped his palm on his pants and they shook hands. Duane lead them to Miss Crabtree’s Earth Science class in second hall. Once seated, Duane studied the new boy from a row back, his black and yellow Pittsburgh Steelers jersey and ball cap sitting on the desk, his shiny black hair that grew up and out from his head in all directions, and his brown skin. Miss Crabtree invited him to stand up and tell the class his name, which was not yet Two By, and where he was from. “Alaska,” Two By said, and plopped back in his desk again ignoring the stares and whispers of the room. “He’s an Eskimo,” said someone matter-of-factly, and Two by narrowed his eyes, but did not turn around.
After class, following the fat kid with the blotching face through the halls, Two By asked Duane the name of the boy who said, “Eskimo.” “That’s Anthony,” Duane told him, raising his eyebrows in a silent cautionary advisement. “Is he tough?” Duane shrugged, and nodded yes. He thought Anthony was pretty tough, tougher than he himself, anyway. “Anthony,” said Two By to himself, then he cracked his knuckles. Duane’s eyes widened, but he said nothing.
The boys repeated the routine through the rest of their classes, and in between they did get to know each other. Two By lived alone with his father, who hired on as a guard at the Metropolitan Correctional Center. Duane lived alone with his uncle, and when Two By learned this, he put his hand on Duane’s shoulder, and nodded slowly, as if they had reached a deep understanding. “Duane,” he paused for emphasis, take me where Anthony is when the bell rings. A fresh burst of sheen blossomed across Duane’s upper lip and forehead, and speaking against his fear, he nodded, “ok.”
So after the last bell without saying a word, Duane and Two By marched to the bus lines and down the covered sidewalk, Two By stepping out to kick sooty slush balls of ice into the lane methodically. Stopping, Duane’s arm rose to point at a knot of kids, backs hunched against the wind in a circle, and there was Anthony, sweater tied around his waist, mittens in his back pocket, mouth hanging open in a smile. Duane stood locked in place and watched Two By stride right through the group, bumping Anthony hard with his shoulder. The circle expanded immediately in choreographed precision until Two By and Anthony stood alone in the center, facing off. “What’s your problem Eskimo?” said Anthony, right before Two By lifted him over his shoulder and rushing to an open garbage can, dumped Anthony into it headfirst, toppling the can, its middle school contents, and a stammering Anthony onto the sloppy sidewalk. Nobody said a word as Two By walked back to Duane, now an open fountain of perspiration from the hot glare of the limelight. As they walked back down the row to Duane’s bus stop, they heard Anthony jeering, “Fatty Eskimo Two by Four can’t fit through Sweaty Duane’s mom’s door.” Two By turned to go back, but Duane did not, so the still un-defined, but maybe or maybe not Eskimo new kid, followed his new and only friend onto the bus.
Thirteen years later, Sweaty and Two By were still friends, and while Duane rejected his own childhood taunt, even as it persisted in adulthood, Two By introduced himself as Two By to everyone starting the day after stuffing Anthony in the garbage can.