Ricky and I first met when he moved into the house six doors down from mine. We were both 9 years old at the time and we quickly became best friends.
“Hi. My name’s Biff,” I said when I first saw him. “What’s your name?”
“Ya wanna play?” I asked.
“Uhhhh… I gotta go ask by bob first.”
“What?” I said.
“I gotta ask by bob.”
“By bob!” he yelled.
“Where’s he?” I asked, scanning the area for another boy.
“By bob! By bob!” he said again and again, pointing to his house.
It was then that I realized that Ricky had no nostrils and he had trouble articulating his M’s and N’s. What Ricky was saying was that he had to ask his mom, and not someone named Bob.
I went inside Ricky’s house with him where I met his Mom. She was tall and pretty and she had long blond hair.
“How do you do, Mrs. Grossbib?” I said.
“Grossman,” she said. “My name is Mrs. Grossman.”
She was glad that Ricky had made a friend so quickly, as she feared the worst. There, I also saw Ricky’s little sister, Cindy. She was about 7 years old and I thought that maybe she could play with my little sister, Julie, someday. As I waited for Ricky to put on his play clothes and sneakers, little Cindy was giving me the creeps. She kept staring at me with her enormous, blue eyes. She didn’t even blink. Ricky’s mother saw me looking and she informed me that Cindy was born without eyelids.
“Wow!” I exclaimed. “She could win all the staring contests in town!”
“And, as you’ve probably noticed, Ricky was born without nostrils in his nose.”
“Yeah. I noticed that,” I said. “So, how does he pick it?”
“Never mind!” she said firmly. “He gets along just fine.”
Soon, Ricky and I became best of friends. We played together all the time, and we shared all our toys and stuff. In school, when the other kids made fun of him for not having any nostrils, I was always there to support him and scare them away.
But they were relentless. “Rick! Rick! Has a nose he can’t pick!” they would repeat. In gym class, he was always picked last for the teams.
“Hey, Rick,” said mean Tom Herberle, “you got picked last, but at least you got picked… unlike your nose!” And then the other kids would laugh and laugh. They were all awful.
In high school, things got worse for Ricky. When we were freshmen, a group of the seniors grabbed Ricky and dragged him to a stairwell and drew nostrils on his nose with a black magic marker. Ricky tried to wash the marker off, but I could see the remnants of the marker for the next week.
Another time, someone made an enormous nose out of clay in his or her ceramics class, sans nostrils, and put it in the school trophy case for all to see.
People mocked him: “Hey, Rick! Are you going to your geobetry class?” or “Are you studying for your bath test?” instead of math test. Even the teachers got in on the jokes: “Rick, please recite the passage that’s written on the blackboard: A skunk sat on a stump and thunk the stump stunk, but the stump thunk the skunk stunk.”
It was horrible, but things got worse. When we entered the eleventh grade, Ricky’s little sister became a freshman. The two were picked on something fierce. Scarcely a day went by that Cindy didn’t arrive home from school crying her eyes out… er... I mean… sobbing.
Then, Cindy’s teachers were complaining to the school principal, and then to the school board, about her staring at them with her huge, blue eyes. They wanted her removed from the school on the grounds that she was disrupting the classes. And to make their case stronger, they complained about Rickey’s lack of nostrils, saying that it was too difficult to understand him when he talked, so they wanted him removed too. There was nothing the school board could do, but the publicity and the ridicule from everyone was taking its toll.
My parents were outraged, and so was I.
“What about Carl Hamilton, the guy with the parasitic twin on his back?” I said to my folks. “Or Gina Poncilletto’s clubfoot? Or Tammy Hern’s unibrow and freakish goatee? Why aren’t the teachers complaining about them?”
Then, one Wednesday night, the matter was to be addressed at a PTA meeting. The meeting was held in the school gym, filled with those standard, beige, metal folding chairs that all the schools had.
My family went, and Ricky’s family went, and it was the biggest PTA turnout since the time the girls’ gym teacher, Miss Edison, stripped down to her bikini during class on a hot day in 1969.
The gym smelled like it always did, but the aroma of women’s perfume made it smell even worse.
My mom was disgusted by the sight of a jockstrap hanging precariously from one of the light fixtures high above.
I heard that Ricky’s Dad, Mr. Grossman, was there too. I had never seen him, as he was always busy with his work. No one knew who he was, but when his name was called to address the board, a special wheelchair could be heard whirring from the back of the gym. As I looked behind me, I was shocked at the sight I saw. Equally shocked spectators gasped as Mr. Grossman made his way down the aisle to the microphone.
“Could somebody please point the microphone to my mouth?” he said.
One of the board members quickly left the room, and a few spectators followed. Finally, one of the other parents adjusted the microphone for Mr. Grossman.
“Thank you,” he said.
The gym was so quiet that all I could hear was Ricky breathing through his mouth.
At the front of the gym, all I could see was the back of Mr. Grossman’s wheelchair and a small part of his head sticking up. He had a great haircut.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” he began, “my name is Ferdinand Grossman. When my mother was just a child, she became ill. And while her temperature was being taken, she bit down on the thermometer and it broke, and she swallowed the contents of the thermometer: mercury. As a result of that accident, she suffered from mercury poisoning for the rest of her life, and I am also a result of her accident. As you can see, I am nothing but a head, 1/3rd of a torso, an arm with a 3 fingered hand, and very tiny genitalia, in a place where it shouldn’t be, as you’ve probably noticed.”
A lot of the people winced at Mr. Grossman’s misfortune.
“18 years ago,” he continued, “when my wife and I decided to try to have children, we consulted doctors and inquired what our children might look like, if we were able to conceive any. Every doctor we consulted told us that our children would probably be normal, but there was a very slight risk of some kind of malformation. As a result, our wonderful son, Richard, was born without nostrils, and our beautiful daughter, Cynthia, was born without eyelids. To me, their slight maladies are nothing compared to the problems of their father.”
The entire group was listening with respect and admiration as Mr. Grossman continued.
“Let me tell you what it was like to grow up looking the way I do. First of all, my mother had to make all of my clothing. Sears didn’t sell clothes and suits for kids like me. Everything I wore had to be specially altered to fit me. On birthdays and Christmases, while the other kids would receive decent clothes, toys, and bicycles as their gifts, I received hats. Hats, hats, hats! I had closets, drawers, and boxes full of them.”
The group became uneasy in their seats, looking at each other to see each other’s reactions.
“When I got a little older, I used a skateboard to get around. It was easier than a wheelchair, and I got pretty good at maneuvering myself around. One day, when I was about 12, some local hooligans tied a dog to my skateboard, which scared the dog into a trot that lasted 30 minutes. 4 miles later, we ended up on a busy area of town, where a cat jumped out in front of us and the dog sped after it. When the cat ran up a tree, the dog stopped, but I didn’t, until I hit the tree with my chin. I needed 12 stitches to close a gash. And the next day the story was all over the newspapers and the TV news. It was embarrassing, to say the least.”
Doing their best to contain themselves, broad smiles and a few giggles broke out, as they pictured the sight in their heads.
“Another time, some other hooligans dragged me out into a field of ripe wheat. I couldn’t see more than two feet in front of me, and so I spent hours looking for a way out!”
By now, unable to contain themselves, the PTA meeting sounded more like a crowd at a Marx Brothers movie.
“Go ahead and laugh,” said Mr. Grossman. “It happened a long time ago, and I can laugh about it now, too. But life went on, and I did the best that I could. I went to college, and I met and later married a beautiful woman, and we made a beautiful family. But all I’m asking now is for all of you to leave my children alone. This is the 1970s, and we’ve come a long way in treating people equally: coloreds can ride in the front seats of the bus; women are becoming more than just secretaries, librarians, nurses, and housewives; and me, I’ve become a very successful business owner. The Grossman Backscratcher has become a household name.”
The group nodded in agreement and one lady even pulled her own Grossman Backscratcher out of her purse and showed the people around her.
“And so, why can’t my children, in spite of their minor maladies, be treated the same as your children? Is the absence of two holes on my son’s nose, or my daughter’s eyelids, so big of a deal that they have to suffer needlessly by the teasing and taunting of the other children, and now by the intolerance of the faculty? I ask you all to consider the feelings of my children, and their parents, before anyone decides that someone’s lack of nostrils or eyelids is enough to remove them from the school.”
The group was silent. A few women wiped their tears with their white hankies.
“Thank you,” Mr. Grossman said.
And as he turned his wheelchair around and headed to the back of the gym, people stood and applauded. Amid the cheers and ovation, he stopped briefly where his family sat, and he waved and winked at them, and they waved and winked back. Well, except Cindy. She couldn’t wink.
“Thabks, Dad!” Ricky shouted.
After that night, the teasing stopped, and Ricky and his sister became school icons. They were treated with respect and dignity and they both became model students. Ricky tried out for and made the school swimming team, where he broke state records. Ricky always said that it was because he was strictly a mouth-breather that he swam so well.
Cindy was in the school chorus, and her grades changed from B’s and C’s to all A’s. Her self-esteem peaked in high school, which gave her the confidence to do well in college and a career. “Eagle Eyes Grossman,” as she’s respectfully called, is now the Chief Of Security at a popular casino in Las Vegas.
And that’s the story of my friend, Ricky Grossman, who, sadly, died of asphyxiation in 1984 while eating an unusually thick peanut butter sandwich.
© 2012 Biff Remington, Model Citizen - 2/1/12