On those spring afternoons in sixth grade’drowsy, slumped back at my desk, tracing the letters of Sue Ann Finger’s name carved on the underside of the writing surface’I spent my daydreams trying to visualize a map of the unknown between a girl’s legs. Attacked by a sudden boner, I’d slither in my chair and whisper the Redlegs’ batting order as the thing nosed toward my belt. And hope Mr. Bowser’s recital of the day’s fodder’the eighty-eight counties of Ohio, the shape of Peru, or a real-live kidney from a sow’would speed me through another turn of the clock-hands to the final bell.In those days, even the backseat jiggle of the family’s powder-blue Oldsmobile’on the way to the Methodist Church for a Scout meeting, no less’could call forth a prize-winner. Only problem was I still had no idea what to do with one.
And that afternoon when Ritchie Fairchild grabbed Sue Ann’s purse at recess, I’d still been too embarrassed to ask him why he called her ‘Stinky.’ To me, she was the acme of perfection, caramel hair all frothy and ribboned back along her temples, at her mouth a blush of scarlet lipstick’or maybe just a fleck of cherry Tootsiepop’and, tight across her spine, the mysterious hardware of a bra. He pitched me her bag, its skin dyed to match an embarrassed flamingo, and he lit out for the territory of the jungle gym. I recognized a crossroads when I saw one and froze, the purse stowed at my back.Sue Ann and a pair of her friends veered my way, reined in a few yards off, caught their breath. Two grades earlier, they’d have swarmed me like puppies on a squirrel carcass. But now they faced me, an enemy somehow, yet not quite.
Not sure how a real man might handle such a dilemma, I thought of my dad, sheathed in pipe smoke, tinkering on his model railroad; of my big brother Paul, learner’s permit in hand last week, the lucky butt; and of our ancient Scoutmaster for Troop Three, Buzz Andrews, with his quiet, lumpy smile; and I decided to let the girls make the first move. I glanced off at the ridgeline of Two-Mile Hill, freckled here and there with the creams and pinks of new dogwoods, and studied its contours. Just where the land plunged down the bluffs to the Scioto River, the abandoned fire tower poked through the trees near our favorite campsite. A line of cloud, fresh yet scuffed underneath like an old baseball, edged up over the hill.
‘Open it up’see if she’s got a Kotex!’ Ritchie issued a challenge from the top bars of the jungle gym. Had he read my mind?
When I looked back, Sue Ann had turned, headed for the swing set. Her sidekicks hesitated’Judy Dooley squeezing off a pinched shake of her red curls’and then stalked after her.
‘Hey!’ My shout came without thought. ‘I’m looking inside.’
How did they do it? Not a signal between them, all three girls continued their retreat.
***What would Paul have done? Driving Mom’s turquoise Bel Air like some electric-guitar paladin’as if she weren’t riding shotgun, ‘Slow down around this bend, young man,”his hair oiled and mounded off his forehead. All those hours in the john just for that? Mom would test the locked door. ‘What are you doing in there, Paul Michael?’ she’d demand. ‘Finish up now, your brother has to pee.’ That one would earn me about a dozen atomic shoulder knocks.Then the flush at last, and Paul stood in the doorway. ‘Does Spanky need to wee-wee?’ He blocked the opening, held the doorknob.
‘Come on.’ I tried to squeeze past. Paul shot a pair of knuckle-jabs into my arm. The door bounced off the wall.
‘Boys!’ From the basement, Dad whommed the metal laundry chute. An intense silence was required for the delicate switch-building phase on his model railroad.
‘More where that came from,’ Paul hissed. ‘Spanky boy.’
‘Why do you call me that?’
‘You really don’t know, do you?’ Paul smirked, caught me another punch.
‘Damn you, Paul.’
I slammed the door, found the tufted pink of the seat cover, lifted. Why couldn’t somebody just tell me?
***Even last Saturday, it had been Dad and the Post Office and a puzzle like some living rebus.’Come on, Timmy, we need to mail our income tax return.’ He’d glanced at Mom where she ignored us from her couch, pretending to read the Ladies’ Home Journal. I never figured why she always flipped the pages back to front, back to front, her eyes drifting between the magazine, back to front, and her programs on the TV.
Dad stood at the door. ‘Nice day for a drive, Son.’ Son. I knew better than debate him. At least we took the Olds.
We drove down the hill, past Roosevelt Elementary (HOME OF THE ROUGH RIDERS!), its mock turrets somehow not so threatening on a Saturday; past the brand new town sign (WELCOME TO RIVERTON, ATOMIC ENERGY CAPITAL OF APPALACHIA); past the Shawnee Restaurant (HOME OF THE BUTT STEAK!), its roof slanting forward as if it might stumble out onto the street; across the viaduct over the rails of the N&W’s hump yard (HOME OF OHIO VALLEY STEEL!), the clang and screech of coal cars and steam brakes lifted from the background only when I could see them; and on into the downtown, prideful bunting still draped from the recent dedication of the Roy Rogers Esplanade (yes, HOME OF ROY ROGERS!).
As we drove, Dad futzed with his pipe, loaded wads of Edgeworth from the cobalt tin, whistled ‘Seventy-Six Trombones’ through his teeth.
‘Wet dreams.’ He cleared his throat ostentatiously. ‘Perfectly normal and healthy.’ He seemed intrigued by the stoplight. ‘Nothing to worry about, Son.’
Well, I hadn’t. Worried or’as far as I knew’had one.
‘Your mother felt I should let you know that. Of course, I hope you haven’t started to’.’ Another throat-clearing. ‘Abuse.’
Abuse?‘You know about girls’what they do?’ He held the steering wheel with his knee, tamped his pipe.
Did girls abuse something? Maybe girls had wet dreams, too?
‘Menstruation.’ He nodded. ‘Bleeding. It’s all right to talk about, Son.’
That I knew about’girls had been launching from their seats, clutching purses, and bolting from the classroom since mid-fifth grade. But did he mean guys got some sort of bleeding, too? Wet dreams? Holy shit!
‘Periods.’ Now he smirked. ‘On the rag’falling off the roof’out of order.’ Dad looked at me, his eyes all sparkly, a grin I’d never seen. ‘A visit from Flo.’
And that was it. Not a word, not a hint more about wet dreams or how one might abuse, or the fitting together of all the parts. The rebus had still stumped me, no help from sibling or parent.
***On Two-Mile Hill that Sunday, the rain-drenched campsite by the fire tower had weeded over, but Scoutmaster Buzz didn’t seem to mind. Paul laughed, almost giggled, said we could have the Tenderfoot patrol cut them down before next week’s campout. His drive up had seemed labored, though, with Buzz’s old Desoto’skidmark-brown, Paul called it’stubborn as some cowboy sidekick’s mule, an extra jerk of the steering wheel needed to coax it around the slick hillside road. Our talk had hung on the Redlegs, on their trade for Harvey Haddix’Wally Post and all his homers gone. Gone just like that.On the way back down, my soaked jeans clinging to my shins, I crouched between the seats, elbows over the seatback. Could Scoutmaster Buzz help me? I’d already thumbed the vigorous index in The Boy Scout Handbook‘camp-craft and first-aid and knot-tying, scores of hyphenated, clean-spirited activities’but not a word on puberty or sex or abuse, let alone a helpful photo or two of a girl’s crotch.
I just had to know, and sought an entry into the evening’s quiet. ‘Why didn’t you ever have any kids, Scoutmaster Buzz?’
Paul tugged at the wheel, crossed his eyes at me in the mirror. Buzz stiffened a hand against the dashboard, looked out the side window. I pictured his crooked smile. Wondered if maybe his wife wouldn’t put out’whatever that really meant.
Buzz watched the side of the road. ‘How old are you, Timmy?’
‘Twelve.’ I checked Paul’s eyes in the mirror. ‘Come June.’
‘Oh, we tried.’ Buzz twisted in the seat to face me. ‘Lordy, we did.’
How did you try’and why would you? The questions yearned against my front teeth, but I couldn’t slide them through. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘Nothing to be sorry about’just one of the facts of life.’ Buzz grinned. ‘I was sterile.’
I glanced at the mirror, found myself pinned by Paul’s stare, a tiny shake of his head.
Buzz lurched out, grabbed the wheel. Shouted something.
The car slid on the skim of wet flowers, slid on the pinks and creams, slow and silent, no shriek of tires. Toward the low ditch, the trees.
The whomm of metal on tree bark, the spangle of glass, all seemed disappointing, nothing like the tremor and echo of TV crashes. I sat back in the seat, checked my arms and hands, rubbed my face. No blood. Paul clutched the steering wheel, both hands proper, ten and two. No blood.
Then Scoutmaster Buzz.
Menstruation. I heard my father’s lesson. All that hideous blood. Buzz looked as if he’d somehow tried to leap through the side window, his shoulders clean outside, his head lolled against the tree. Was that the smell of blood?
‘Jeez, Paul, you killed him!’
‘Shut up! Shut. Up.’ Paul sat, held to the wheel. ‘If you hadn’t been so’.’
Scoutmaster Buzz, gone? Could it be, just like that?
At the hospital, a nurse worked me through a catechism of pains, prodded my arms, checked my ears, my eyes, as if she’d fail a quiz unless she could ‘X’ at least a box or two. But she refused to heed my own fears about the others. About all that blood.
Finally another nurse came in, told me the rest of the story. Scoutmaster Buzz? A concussion, she said. Lots of blood but fairly mild. ‘We’ll keep him overnight, but he should be fine.’ Fine, with all that blood? Another of those things forever beyond me.
Then Paul, scared but fine himself, just a stoved finger. Best yet, though, he’d peed his pants. Pee-Pee Pants Paul, I’d tease him.
***The bell snatched me back to recess, and Ritchie whapped the crown of my head as he trotted past.’She won’t put out for you now!’ He made for the final hour of Mr. Bowser’s drone.
A gang of second-graders skirted around me, giggled, sang ‘Cu-ute pu-urse.’ They clutched hands and galloped off. A breeze lifted the dust, danced a few pebbles across the playground. The cloudbank rose over Two-Mile Hill.
Half-hitch or clove? I wondered, fumbling to knot the straps of Sue Ann’s purse at the swing-set, my Scout’s training a loss. I nuzzled the bag’s fake leather, closed my eyes to fix a snapshot of hidden contours, a breath of some flowery perfume, the tease of its stunning pink. Dangling from the cross-bar, her purse seemed naked, exposed for all to study. I turned away and ran for the classroom. No boner.
Mr. Bowser stepped to the blackboard, chalked an outline of some monstrous head, a long tusk jutting, then dribbling, off to the left. Judy Dooley turned, scowled my way, passed a note across the aisle. The strap of Sue Ann’s bra had twisted, nudged toward her shoulder as if to escape.
Johnny Temple, second base.
Anchorage. Fairbanks. Nome. The chalk revealed not horns and fangs, but simply Alaska, soon, maybe, to be our 49th State. Mr. Bowser tapped the board, as if its runes could fill our minds, no spoken word required.
Two seats up, one row over, Sue Ann knuckled at her eyes. Was she crying?
I reached under my desktop, found the shape of her name. Traced the loops and bends, the frozen teardrop of the cursive ‘e.’ Roy McMillan, shortstop. I tried to imagine the feel of driving those letters, like the swirling road up Two-Mile Hill.
Just before the final bell, the room turned heavy and the light changed, fell to olive. Lightning shuttered the blackboard, and one-two-three-four the roll of thunder followed. Less than a mile. Mr. Bowser closed a window at the back of the room, scanned the playground, the ridge beyond. ‘Looks like a good one!’ Only Sue Ann neglected to swivel in her chair to follow the weather.
Mr. Bowser started to turn, hesitated, and leaned toward the glass. In the first sheet of rain, Sue Ann’s purse spun and twitched at the swing set, then disappeared. I told myself not to watch. He shook his head, made his way back up the aisle.
At the next growl of thunder, the old Kindergarten storm-fear crawled my back. That childish fear, the loneliness of parents elsewhere, of something missing, unknown. Again, Judy Dooley caught my eye, glanced past me out the window. I hoped I hadn’t been looking scared.
But the storm pushed through quickly, hung a rawness of worm and root in the air, a scatter of dogwood and redbud petals glued over the black of the pavement. And yes, that angled fan of sunlight as it slid from under the clouds.
The final bell sounded against the lessening rain, a last belch of thunder. I followed Sue Ann and Judy at a distance, wondered if I should say I was sorry. But I hadn’t taken her damn purse’it was Ritchie’s fault. Maybe I could help Sue Ann get back at him. That was it! She’d thank me, want to hold my hand, maybe even kiss me’or put out. They climbed the steps to the playground, Judy kicking at the puddles as if she’d mislaid her proper age.
I hung back, watched from inside the door.
Ritchie joined me, whapped my head with one of his books. ‘This’ll be great.’
I couldn’t match his grin.
At the swing set, the rains had bled the flamingo from Sue Ann’s purse, its flesh gone pale as the sheep’s lung we’d prodded weeks before. She unwound the straps, folded the thing to her chest, walked off alone through the drizzle. No boner.
Ritchie slammed through the door, double-stepped up to the playground, trotted after her. Would he take her purse again? She’d kill him! I stood back.
He caught her and Sue Ann turned, didn’t look away. A last fling of the rains blew across the playground, and Ritchie hovered his book above her head. She laughed, tucked a strand of caramel hair behind her ear. Laughed again, the clear song of it drifting out against the rain. It drifted from the schoolyard, drifted and climbed, rang over the valley, over the ridge of Two-Mile Hill. Rang through and beyond me, only her laughter.