© Tim Parrish
Used by permission.
All rights reserved.
“Hey, fucker!” Latchney yelled. I turned. His long, oily, dirty-blond hair lifted from his shoulders as he strode toward me. His arms swung wide, his boots clomped on the concrete parking lot. Behind him, at the barred-window, convenience store, the hoods watched, grinning at the entertainment I was about to be. I dropped my book sack and said, “Here,” handed my glasses to Ramirez. Latchney and the backdrop of boys in Army jackets and girls in hip-hugger jeans blurred. All feeling went away, except for the nerves scurrying along the ridge of my chest. I briefly thought how it had been as soft as an overripe peach only three months before, after surgery to remove a section of bone in order to cure the “deformity” of my lopsided breast bone.
The noise of my schoolmates bunching to watch and the traffic on the four-lane next to me went away, leaving only the cadence of Latchney’s boots. When I thought he was within reach, I threw a roundhouse right, missed and spun off balance. His arm locked around my neck, my head facing the same direction as him. His fist met my cheek, then my nose, then my chin with a sound like gravel crunching between my teeth. My braces cut the inside of my lips, blood coppering into my mouth. Fear rifled through me, but at least its source was immediate, the pain tangible, unlike the shame and anxiety of every trip to and from school since Latchney had strolled up smiling two weeks earlier and sent me running with a sucker punch to my temple. I’d changed my route, traveling an extra half block every morning and afternoon to avoid the convenience store hang-out, every step an admission of weakness combined with nauseous anticipation that he’d catch me nonetheless. The first few days my friends had ridden me — the cocky eighth-grade quarterback, honor-roll kid, now a coward — until the weight of fear and confusion that pressed me every sleepless night included their weight. Latchney was a rogue element, a troubled, dirty, chain-smoking kid who had befriended a transient boy on our street and awkwardly tried to bond with the rest of us the previous summer. I suppose I had condescended to him, thinking he was dumb and trashy, but mostly worrying that some day he would go after me. Nevertheless, his oringinal punch had caught me off guard. Finally, on this morning, I’d taken the regular route to get things settled.
I jerked my head against his looped arm and pushed his back with one hand while trying to block his punches with my other. He was cursing me, and beyond that and the jarring of punches rang the yells of my friends and the other spectators, my awareness of audience keen despite what was happening. Each jerk of my head threw him slightly off balance and I was managing to deflect some of the punches, yet it seemed sickeningly clear that I wasn’t going to escape. I stretched my arm up and clawed at his eyes, skin peeling from his cheek beneath my fingernails. He shrieked and I clutched his hair, tugged downward, shoving his back at the same time. “Cocksucker,” he yelled, and I tugged and jerked again, broke free and staggered backward. He spun to face me and this time my roundhouse caught him in the jaw. He stumbled and I punched him again. I charged, pushed him to the cement and jumped on him. We tangled, slugging and wrestling, his body odor and the stench of tobacco surrounding me. Then somehow he was on his feet, me on my knees. His square-toed boot came at me and I ducked my head and covered my chest. The kick landed on the crown of my skull, that crunch again, as if my teeth and jawbone had shifted. I rolled and managed to get to my feet and we were locked, grappling.
We careened across yards of parking lot, trying to hold the other’s arms, to keep the other close to avoid long-armed punches, and to land or block punches when we separated the least bit. Every muscle strained as if I were suspending my weight between two rock faces that were constantly shifting. My mind had never processed so much information — balance as our legs intertwined; how he would try to hurt me next; protecting my chest; how best to hurt him; how badly I could stand to hurt him; whether hurting him would worsen the fight; what my friends were thinking about my scratching and pulling hair; whether some adult would break us up; how badly I was already hurt; whether I might die; whether I might lose. At the same time I was trying to block the pain and the fright at not knowing how this fight could end.
We spun and spun. Latchney grabbed my hair and huffed, “See how it feels.” We stumbled over a slight drop, then the blaring of car horns and the crossing guard’s screams told me we were in the middle of the road. For a second I thought she might stop us, but we kept straining. Already I was tireder than any football practice had ever made me. A massive ringing like feedback cluttered my head. We broke apart for a flurry of punches that took us back into the parking lot, then we tangled again. We tripped and went down hard, me diagonally on top of him, my back on his stomach. I held his forearms as darkness flitted at the edge of my consciousness, his breathing the only thing I could hear outside the noise in my own head. “I’ll kill you,” he wheezed. I turned my head and saw scratches down his cheek, felt a twinge of shame before fatigue heavied me again. I wondered how I would find energy to fight anymore, knew that the magic kid words, “I give,” would not apply here, knew that neither of us would consider saying them anyway. I was vaguely aware that one of his arms was scrambling in my grip, then Latchney was moving from beneath me. I staggered to my feet and saw Gaudin, a notorious sixteen-year-old criminal, dragging Latchney. I thought they would both attack me, but Gaudin pulled him away to his ragged-out Ford, tossed him in, flipped me off and laughed as he went around to the driver’s side. They peeled out.
My breakfast came into my throat. I bent at the waist and touched the cut line on my chest for firmness. Just before the turn of the year, the surgeon had removed a deformed one-by-four inch piece of bone and I hadn’t even played contact sports yet. My heart shook my whole breast plate. My shoulders and neck spasmed like whiplash. The scene around me pulsed, the light dimming and brightening. “He pulled a knife,” Ramirez said through the fog. I straightened and he handed me my glasses. I slipped them on, bringing into focus the kids already moving toward school again, some giggling, some jeering, some staring and pointing, some blank. I touched the top of my head, found a ping-pong ball knot and checked my fingertips for blood.
“He got a knife out his pocket and was trying to open it and Gaudin grabbed him.”
Ricky said, “You pulled his hair, you sissy.”
“Shut up, Ricky,” Salario said.
I checked my clothes — a mod set of green bell-bottoms and a puffy-sleeved early-seventies shirt Momma had bought me, enough excuse in themselves for Latchney to go after me. My collar was ripped, a button was torn, dirt was ground into the knees and elbows. Dust coated me. Salario handed me my book sack, its small heft tweaking my bicep.
“Y’all fought for like ten minutes,” Chaney said.
“Y’all stopped traffic,” Salario said.
“You going home, sissy?” Ricky asked.
Streamers of smoke rose on the horizon from the refinery stacks off by the Mississippi. The long angle of the morning sun struck me as impossibly normal. I shook my head.
“We better get to school,” Salario said.
We moved toward the crossing lady, who stood with her fists on her hips. From the convenience store, some of the hoods hooted and cussed me. The crossing lady scowled. “I thought you were a nice boy,” she said. A picture of Latchney slipping a knife from his pocket drifted to mind. The guard stepped to the middle of the road where Latchney and I had been just a few minutes before and held out her arm. I had no idea what was supposed to happen next.
All day at school I clenched against the growing stiffness in my neck, shoulders and legs, the ache in my hands, the throbbing in my skull and face, and the strain across my chest. Classes passed in a slow blur, my head drooping toward sleep while at the same time my mind skittered. I waited for the principal to call me in, for some teacher to say something, but no one did. None of them even knew, I’m sure, but my brain couldn’t fathom that. I liked school, was a happy, enthusiastic show off. The year before when my brother Robert was in Vietnam, I’d enlisted my friends to record silly skits on cassettes to send to him, had drawn him cartoons of Tick Macy, my spoof of Dick Tracy, had written him long letters about football, my doings in the neighborhood and the activities of our dog Butch and guinea pig Chubby. My parents had protected me the best they could from the reality of what Robert was going through, and even when he returned home angry and changed, determined to be a cop and nothing else, my mother and father worked to make sure I was still a kid.
Of course, we’d always had fights in our north Baton Rouge neighborhood, but they were typical, working-class boy fights. We picked on each other, then settled it. And even when it wasn’t settled, both parties had at least made an attempt to prove their manhood. Still, those were kid fights, mostly wrestling with a few wild punches landed and no serious physical consequences. My friends and I fought, got over it and remained friends.
When recess finally came, I went into the bathroom and sponged at the dust and dirt on my clothes, checked the friction rash on my neck from tugging against Latchney’s headlock, sat on the closed toilet and dozed before going out into the large schoolyard braced against the accusations of fighting like a girl. A few kids said they had seen me fight, made light of it or commented on who had won, but mostly people stayed quiet. A few of the glances seemed to say they were as unable as I was to process why the good kid had been in a brawl against a hardcore juvenile delinquent.
Finally Thomas Hughes and his ninth-grade brother came over. They looked straight out of Lynrd Skynrd, rangy, wide-shouldered, scraggly-haired boys. Both were older than they were supposed to be for the grades they were in, and everybody suspected they sold pot, even though my friends and I didn’t know much about that world yet. They had shown intense gratitude after I had passed the football to Thomas several times in games the year before.
“Latchney pulled a blade on you?” Thomas drawled.
The question seemed so foreign that I had to work to get an answer. “They said he did.”
“Gaudin took him off?” the older Hughes asked. I nodded. They looked at each other. “Why you think Gaudin to keep him from using that knife?”
“I don’t know,” Thomas answered. “Maybe he’s carrying for Gaudin.”
“Might could be. He maybe thought Latchney might spill something if the cops got him.” The older Hughes spat. “They both sorry shits.” The brothers focused on me as if I could confirm this. The bell rang, making me start. “Well,” Thomas said, “if they hassle you anymore, you tell us now.” They walked off, but I didn’t move for a while, the possibility of more trouble hitting me fully.
That afternoon I took the longer route home again, another concession to cowardice. Ricky taunted me until I told him to shut up or I’d beat his ass, but my other friends went along without a word. I walked down the scruffy, asphalt streets next to grassy drainage ditches, waiting for Latchney to appear, my whole body protesting with soreness and exhaustion not quite like any I’d ever experienced even from surgery. I couldn’t wait to get to the safety of my street, and when we turned the last corner, I breathed, seeing Latchney wasn’t there. I almost smiled, too, until a second later it struck me that my problem with him was going to continue, an ellipsis of fights, even if I won one here or there. Again I remembered the knife. For the first time in my life, something like futility struck me.
I peeled off from my friends without a word. I had decided not to tell my parents or my brother, decided I would stick to the code of stoicism that was only stated as “don’t whine” or “shake it off” but completely understood. Daddy wouldn’t be home from the plant until around midnight, Momma not back from her job at J.C. Penney’s until nine. She would think my pants dirty and my shirt ripped from playing football at recess. I went into the house and slammed the door behind me, the tears I’d been holding burning out of my eyes. “Tim?” came Momma’s voice from the back, then the creak of her getting out of bed and her footsteps coming down the hall. I wanted to bolt, but she came into the living room wearing a work dress wrinkled from lying down, her poof of blond hair crushed on one side. “What’s wrong?” she asked. Her face was flushed, eyes bleary from napping, and I knew she was home because she was sick from her Lupus. “You all right, sugar?” she asked and stepped forward to touch me. I moved back and swallowed. I wanted to tell her what had happened, and I would soon, except for the knife, which I thought would worry her too much. But right then, admitting how scared I was and how weak I’d been in first avoiding then not winning the fight seemed a sure way to bring pity that would only multiply my shame. Especially if Robert found out.
I was in bed when I heard Daddy come in from work and the murmur of Momma’s voice, punctuated by the deep rumble of his replies. I had asked her not to tell him, but I knew she was, every sound pressing on me. I stared at the wall, not knowing what Daddy would say or do. After kid fights on my street, I’d sometimes gotten whippings and punishments, sometimes praise for sticking up for myself. But those were neighborhood scraps. I didn’t know if he’d be proud that I had defended myself, angry that I hadn’t avoided the fight like a good Christian, or disappointed that I hadn’t beaten Latchney’s ass. The secret of my running from the original punch had chafed at me every day and now even fighting hadn’t settled anything. I didn’t consider he might worry about how dangerous a fight might be for my chest. When they were finally quiet, I lay awake a long time, tracing the spongy seam on my breast bone. Some time during the night I dozed off, but I was awake again earlier than usual. Daddy was up early, too, and at the breakfast table drinking coffee.
“Heard you got in scrape,” he said. His heavy whiskers were shaved, his black receding hair slicked back from his dark features, telling me he’d been up even earlier than I thought. “Who’d you tussle with?” I didn’t look at Momma, who was setting a skillet of her buttermilk biscuits on the table. They were as large as bagels and as light on the inside as cotton candy, but I couldn’t stand the thought of tasting one. Daddy put a large daub of butter on his plate, poured cane syrup over it and mixed them. I wondered if he was up on his own accord or if Momma had urged him to get up.
“He’s a kid hangs around that Stop and Go. He doesn’t go to school.”
Momma sat across from me, but I didn’t look at her.
“How come you to fight him?” Daddy asked. He reached a biscuit and then speared two patty sausages. Neither Momma or I moved for the food.
“He’s one of them kids that just likes to fight,” I said. “He hung around here some last summer, before that kid Vic moved.”
“Vic’s the one was in that rental house?”
“And y’all ain’t had words or nothing?”
The thought of my running flushed through me. “No, sir.”
“Eat,” my mother said, and I picked up a hot biscuit and dropped it on my plate, my stomach greening.
“Well,” Daddy said, chewing his biscuit, “your momma and me think you oughta ride in the car to school for a little while.” His voice sounded casual, and I nodded, my ears hot. I took a bite of biscuit and chewed, the dough expanding as mush. I was certain he saw me as a coward, although I have no idea how he saw me. I doubt he truly knew how serious the brawl with Latchney had been and it’s possible he was confused as to why my mother was so concerned, even though I’m sure she told him I’d walked around the house like an arthritic man and squinted my eyes against a headache all evening. Most likely he knew that until I completely healed from surgery any fight held risk. I would never know. Neither of us knew how to talk about it.
A half hour later, Momma asked my friends if they wanted to ride to school with us, and they glanced around at each other before piling in. At school, after my friends had gotten out, I looked at her and said, “You shouldn’t of told him. Don’t tell Robert.” I slammed the door.
After a week or so I walked again, although I still took the longer route. Sometimes my friends took it with me and sometimes they didn’t. At school, some of the hoods who thought I was okay told me that Latchney was mouthing off about me, and a couple of older holdbacks even told me they hoped I would beat his sorry ass. A couple said to look out for Gaudin. Then one afternoon my friends and I all walked home together, safely passing the intersection from which I could see the Stop and Go, passing the short cut-through across Hurricane Creek that led directly to the Stop and Go parking lot. Relief always lifted me when I got past this point, and I was feeling it as I neared the last turn onto my street. “Hey, dude,” somebody called from behind. I glanced back and saw three people twenty yards away. The one in the lead, who had obviously called out, was a tenth-grader with long bright red hair, black Buddy Holly glasses, bell-bottom jeans and tight T-shirt. I knew him only by sight, but I knew he was the older brother of a kid from school. A couple of steps behind him was a beautiful black-haired girl in tight jeans and tube top. Next to her strode Gaudin, his body as squat and muscular as a boxer’s, his face, I imagined, scrunched beneath his outdated crew cut hair, his eyes agleam with unsteady light. I figured he was siccing Chapman on me for entertainment, especially since I could see his grin even from this distance.
“I said hey, you little sonofabitch,” Chapman yelled, and I picked up my pace, making the turn onto my street.
“He’s talking to you,” Ricky said.
“I know he’s talking to me.”
“You chickening out again?”
“Shut up, prick.”
“You better stop!” Chapman yelled. “I want to talk to you!” The laughter from Gaudin and the girl reached me, but I kept walking. When I reached the street in front of my house, Chapman said, “You better talk to me,” and I stopped, I guess because I didn’t want him to see which house was mine. He closed the gap between us fast, while Gaudin and the girl watched from the end of the street, four houses away. I hoped that some adult would look out, hoped now that Robert would miraculously show, that my friends would help me. And I also hoped that none of that would happen since it would just heap more evidence that I was defenseless. Chapman pulled up a foot away. Everything in me dropped. “Heard you been calling me names, mother fucker,” he said and poked me.
“I don’t even know you, man.”
“You calling me a liar?”
“Man, I ain’t calling you a liar, man.” The word “man” crowded my head as if it might offer me some coolness as protection. My voice quivered, my desire strong to say that I was friends with his brother in the hope that would make him sympathetic.
“Gaudin said you were. You calling Gaudin a liar?”
“Man, I don’t even know Gaudin. I didn’t say nothing.”
“Don’t call me a liar, you little shit.”
In my head a voice said, Just go ahead, hit me and get it over with. Sweat wetted my palms and a shiver erupted from my core. My arm tensed with the notion of hitting him and getting my beating over with. The possibility of pain scared me, but it wasn’t the pain that terrorized me most. My house was thirty feet away, my friends were standing there next to me, and yet I was the most unsafe and hopeless I had ever been. I broke and sprinted across the street to the house of an old lady who tried to get us to dance to Hank Williams with her when she drank too much. I still didn’t want Chapman to know where I lived, but I also figured the old lady wouldn’t see me, or, even if she did, wouldn’t judge because she wouldn’t really understand how cowardly I was. I jumped up on her porch and looked back, but Chapman hadn’t followed. He just laughed hard as he headed back toward Gaudin and the girl, his derision worse than any punch. Right then I wanted both to die and to kill, and not in the abstract way of a teenager. I barely heard my friends as I passed them on the way to my own house, which I hoped again was empty.
The two detectives in suits distorted our living room, and I kept glancing through our picture window, praying that none of my friends would see their car and figure out what it was. They were there because my mother had read my intensifying fright and pressed me until I told her about Gaudin and Chapman. Then, despite my begging her not to, she contacted the juvenile detectives through a policeman who went to our church and asked them to our house. I’d secretly hoped they might help, but telling them about Gaudin and Chapman in front of Momma was like regurgitating venom and glass. At least Robert and Daddy weren’t there. She hadn’t told Robert even about the fight, not only, I guess, because I had pleaded with her not to, but also because she was afraid of what he might do. Likewise, I suppose, she hadn’t told Daddy about Gaudin or calling the detectives because he would feel like he needed to handle it himself or be ashamed that there really was no way he could handle it.
I told the detectives the story with as few words as possible, metal bands forming across my shoulders and neck. But I didn’t mention the knife. I thought if I told them about that, Latchney would be arrested and I would have given in. I also thought that the situation might escalate to every day stalking by Gaudin and Chapman. When I finished, I glared at the floor.
“So Gaudin and Chapman didn’t hit you,” said the detective who was drinking coffee while the other took notes.
He sipped and focussed on Momma. “We know Gaudin. He’s a troublemaker been in and out of juvey detention. We can go talk to him and this Chapman character, but we can’t really do anything until they lay a hand on the boy.”
“Would that do any good?” she asked.
“We could see.” He looked at me. “We could haul in this Latchney and book him with battery.”
It was true that Gaudin and Chapman hadn’t even touched me. Spit filled my mouth. I sensed, whether it was real or not, how weak these men thought I was, believed that what was happening to me was nothing compared to the crimes they usually dealt with. “I ain’t scared of Latchney,” I said. The coffee drinker uh-huhed.
“You’re telling me,” Momma said, “that you can’t do anything about these older boys coming to our house and threatening my son?” Her complexion was pink, just as it was when the her fever spiked. I looked past her. Above the couch was the framed print of a mountain scene that I loved to daydream myself into, counting the deer spread along the stream from the foreground far back into the foliage. The painting had always taken me to our summer vacations in the Smokey Mountains, to Daddy’s laughter when he goaded us to go swimming in the skin-shrinking cold creeks and to Momma’s constant joy at mapping out our daily activities like military exercises.
“Not really, ma’am,” the note-taker said. “I think if we talk to Gaudin, it might just add fuel to the fire.”
“Then I’d like you to arrest this Latchney boy and maybe show the others.”
“No!” I said and popped up.
“They need to talk to somebody, Tim,” Momma said.
“No,” I said again. “It’ll make it worse.”
The three adults sat silently. I had never seen adults appear so helpless, frustrated, ashamed, whatever they were, and it was my fault. I wanted to scream at all of them and vanish.
The detectives stood and shook our hands, told Momma if the older boys touched me, to let them know. When they were gone, Momma and I just stood there. I knew she wanted to protect me, but I was furious at her that she couldn’t, that I couldn’t, that no one could, and that two strangers now knew it too. She reached to touch me and I moved away. “You have to let them do something, sugar.” I brushed past her and went out the back door. In the garage I grabbed a baseball bat, went to the backyard and beat a pine until my hands couldn’t grip anymore.
I faced it again and again without facing it, until one morning I again walked with my friends through the shortcut brambled with saplings and vines, the stench of the low canal thick, walked past the rear of the biker bar, its cinder block back mottled with mildew and graffiti, and into the convenience store parking lot. I inhaled as we headed to the spot where Latchney and I had begun to fight. My legs and arms tingled, my friends fell quiet. What logic was there in not going the extra half block, except that all logic had been pulverized. I flexed my fingers, tensed my shoulders and fixed my eyes straight ahead. In my peripheral vision, I could see the kids by the convenience store, the girls who already knew sex and the boys who were already doing drugs that I would soon do, some of whom were suffering humiliations like the dark cylindrical burn scars I’d seen on Latchney’s arms. “There’s that fucking sissy,” Latchney yelled. My muscles tensed. “You fight like a girl, bitch.” I looked at him next to the store, his face sneering, cigarette in the corner of his mouth. The fight came back to me as slush in my bowels, a crash of boot to skull, exhaustion that had quaked my legs. I would have given anything not to fight again, but nothing could pay off the little dying every time I strode that extra half block. I kept moving and so did Latchney’s mouth. But Latchney didn’t move. He cursed and laughed and took a drag off his smoke. I turned my head. The crossing guard stopped traffic and my friends and I passed between the stopped cars, or so I suppose. My perception blitzed white. I didn’t think that Latchney may not have wanted anything more to do with me. All I thought was I hadn’t changed anything by taking the shorter route, because next time Latchney might decide to attack or Gaudin might be there in his place.
Three weeks later Robert gulped coffee and rattled on at the kitchen table. He wore his brand new police uniform, Confederate gray with red epaulets and piping. The force had been so short on personnel that they had put him on the street without going to the Academy later, and he bristled with a manic happiness that gave the stories he told about his new job an edgy fervor that his Nam stories sometimes didn’t even have. Beside all that, his girlfriend had gotten pregnant and he’d married her without telling anybody.
“Kirkland’s unit broke down, so he was riding in the backseat of ours,” Robert said. His partner sat opposite him at the table while Momma sat on the side nearest. “For some reason he had this ape mask with him and he put it on and we kept pulling up next to people at red lights with him in the back. He’d pop up and give this ape roar out the window. People almost shit.” He recoiled to demonstrate, his partner cracking up, then he glanced at Momma to see her reaction to his language. I paced near the table, staring at Robert’s wood-handled .38 and its bright copper-headed bullets, at his blackjack and mace, so many things that could erase Gaudin. He shifted in the kitchen chair, his leather holster creaking. “So we get a call from the burglary interceptor unit that they’re chasing a dude who robbed a store, and we have to haul butt over there. Kirkland starts jerking on his mask, but he can’t get it off and we’re busting our guts laughing when we see this nigger run by with these B.I.U. officers behind him. We skid over to the side and jump out and let Kirkland out the back and book after the dude too, but Kirkland’s still yelling he can’t get the mask off, and he’s falling back behind us while we’re all booking. Finally the nigger runs into this parking lot that’s hemmed in with buildings and we all run up and draw down on him. At this point the dude’s acting all tough and ready to fight even with our pistols on him. Then his eyes go all wide as Kirkland comes running up. The dude just drops to his knees. He goes to begging and praying with his hands, saying, ‘Do what you want, officers, do what you won’t, just don’t give me to that gorilla, don’t give me to that gorilla.’”
Robert and his partner bent over laughing and even Momma covered her mouth and laughed, the first time I’d seen her let go in days. I was standing off to Robert’s side, thinking I was laughing too, but he turned to me and said, “You don’t think that’s funny?”
“It’s real funny,” I said. I glanced at Momma and Robert’s partner and smiled. “Did y’all take him to jail?”
“Damn right we did,” he said. “Nigger wished we would’ve give him to a gorilla.” Robert poured back the rest of his coffee, and I studied Momma’s expression, the displeasure I knew she had at the rough way Robert talked and the rough ways he said he acted. I went over and sat at the table across from her. The smell of cigarettes and Robert’s pungent body odor stung my nose and like a bolt Latchney came to mind.
“Your brother told me you’re a quarterback,” Robert’s partner said.
Robert poked my arm. “All that work to make you a split end and you want to be Johnny Unitas.”
“You want to be Johnny Unitas,” I said. “I want to be Fran Tarkenton or Archie Manning.”
Robert smirked and nodded. I laughed until I looked at my mother and saw an expression of sadness, an expression that would soon often hover around her. She met my gaze and forced a smile. Robert stood. “Well, we gotta get back out and catch some bad guys.” He slapped my back but much more gently than he used to. When he was gone, Momma and I stood at the door staring at the bright, hot afternoon.
Then summer came. I didn’t sleep well, but I could forget the trouble when I was shooting basketball or playing RISK or visiting the Goudeau or Sims girls. My friends and I went back to our dirty-talking, rough-housing selves, playing electric football, jumping off our bikes while they were moving to see who could get theirs to travel riderless the farthest, the bikes often crashing into neighbors’ cars parked on the narrow street. Ortego turned us on to Black Sabbath, Cheney beat Ortego up for being a smartass, Ramirez’s dog fought mine, Ricky called us names, and Salario’s dad bought him an Elsinore dirt bike. Richard and I talked about our last year of junior high being so close to tenth grade and high school and drivers’ licenses.
During a campout in our garage, Robert and his pal Amodee showed up drunk and found me reading H.P. Lovecraft out loud to my friends. They mocked us, then told us that pussy tasted like peanut butter, onions, and tuna fish, grossing us out before giving us the most straightforward sex ed talk most of us would ever get, plus two cigarettes to share. Late that night we threw matches into the storm drain at the end of the street, setting off an explosion of accumulated methane gas that set us running to hide in the back yard until we were sure no one had called the police. Still later, we tore through the quiet neighborhood on our bicycles, knocking over garbage cans and an abandoned washing machine that boomed when it toppled onto the asphalt. During the day I made snowballs at a stand attached to McClure’s drugstore, dreading that Gaudin would see me going to work or stop in for a snowball. Nights, Momma and I played board games or cards, and sometimes Robert joined us with his new wife, whose belly was rounding away from her tiny body. For vacation we went to Nashville. My friend Chaney went with us to the Parthenon and Andrew Jackson’s house, then he and I went to a public golf course with night lights, where we raced motorized carts up and down the hills until the pro caught us and kicked us out. Sometimes I forgot about Gaudin and Latchney and again experienced joy like a kid, but whenever I left the street on my bike, my body thrummed with adrenalin.
As school neared dread slithered in, but I had been cleared to play football and that was a balm. A week before classes, my pal Choate called to say that ninth-grade Coach Mears had asked him to round up a couple of people to throw and catch the ball in order to simulate penalties for a new-referees’ training session. It thrilled me to be going to play ball, but as soon as I hung up, I pictured the route to school hotly lit and unpopulated by my schoolmates, thought of the route impending every day with the possibility of Gaudin and Latchney still. The next morning I hopped on my bike and pedalled, my throat tight until I bumped onto the football field, its grass slightly browned and patchy from the summer sun. Choate and his pal Hebert were already there tossing the football as Coach Mears talked to a group of about fifteen men in their twenties and thirties. I had worried all summer about whether I could make it as quarterback, because Mears liked the wishbone, which featured a running QB instead of a passing QB, and my main competitor was a faster, better ball-carrier than I was. I also worried about whether my body would serve me, not only because of the surgery and the lack of physical activity, but also because I was surging taller without putting on much weight and feeling clumsy for the first time in my life. Plus, my knees ached from growing too fast. I saw this day as a try-out for quarterback, or at least for split end.
Mears put some of the young referee wannabes on defense and Choate, Hebert and I took turns being center, quarterback and receiver. A few minutes into the session, Mears whispered to the refs on defense and then to us that he wanted to simulate a pass interference call with one of the refs as my defender. We weren’t wearing pads or helmets and the penalites simulated so far had been light contact. I split out wide and the man in his twenties crouched and eyed me as if he and I were in an actual game. My blood rose. I wanted to beat him, even though I knew he knew my route and was going to interfere and touch me before the ball reached me so the other refs could make the call. Hebert snapped the ball to Choate, and I sprinted off the line toward the defender. Just in front of him, I cut hard toward the middle. Choate threw the ball high. I leaped and extended as far as I could, determined to hold on even with interference. I eyed the ball in. At the peak of my jump, just before the ball reached my hands, the ref cut my legs at the ankles from behind. I saw the sky, then the world going upside down as I flipped backwards. I kept my arms out to break my fall, caught my full weight on my left wrist, pain firing through my arm, then smacked down on my front. I heard the future refs making the call and Mears’ gruff voice saying, “This ain’t full contact, boy,” to the ref who had hit me. I stood and gripped my wrist. “How bout that?” the ref whispered.
I jogged back to Choate, Hebert and Mears. “You okay, Parrish?” Coach asked. I let go of my wrist and nodded. “Good, shake it off,” he said.
The next round of plays I was quarterback, and I took snaps that jammed the ball into my hands and shot red through my wrist. But I stayed until the finish, my passes accurate and strong from my uninjured arm. On the ride home I struggled to grip the left handle bar, my fingers numbing, and finally rode the straightaways with no hands, turned corners with just my right. At supper I told my parents what had happened with pride. Plus I wanted Momma to tend to me, not only because I needed to heal quickly before practice began, but also because my fingers and wrist could barely move and her sympathy would be the magic medicine.
“Who done this?” Daddy asked, glowering. When I told him, he stood from the table. “I’m calling that durn coach right now. I’m gone find out why grown men are hitting boys.”
“Daddy, don’t spoil it,” I said. “Practice starts in a coupla weeks. I don’t want him to think I can’t take it.” My mother bent my wrist the slightest bit. I jerked away. “Don’t twist it,” I said.
She looked at my father and back at me. “We need to have a doctor take a look.”
“It ain’t that bad,” I said. “Let’s just wrap it in a Ace bandage.”
She held my wrist in one hand and stroked it with the other. “We’ll put ice on it then wrap it,” she said. “If it ain’t better in the morning, we’re going to see the doctor.”
“I don’t need to see a doctor.
“Sons-of-bitches,” Daddy said.
“Hollis, just calm down,” Momma said. “You’re not making it any better.”
“Please don’t call him, Daddy.”
My father shook his head and snorted.
Before bed I wriggled my fingers against the bandage despite the pain. Archie Manning had worn a cast when he played against my beloved LSU, and even though the Tigers had thrashed Archie’s Ole Miss, I remembered him rolling out, tossing long balls and even running. The thought of another doctor made me clench. I couldn’t lose football.
During the night and early the next morning, the throb in my wrist awakened me. In the bathroom I studied my swollen fingers, then at breakfast told my mother I was fine and tried to keep her from removing the bandage by holding my arm behind my back. “Tim,” Daddy said as he walked into the kitchen, “you stop that foolishness.”
“It’s just sprained.”
“Hush,” Momma said. Every turn of the bandage off my arm was a cranking up of the inevitable. “Goodness gracious,” she said. My wrist was twice its normal size. Purple had bled into my hand.
“I oughta whip their sorry asses,” Daddy said.
By noon I was in a cast.
I’d been back at school a month, taking the longer route every day. Some mornings I walked alone, some mornings my friends walked with. Even on the longer route I had already seen Latchney once, and he didn’t say anything, his expression distracted and tired. But Gaudin was seeing a girl from our school, and I had seen him a number of times driving to drop her off. More than once, I had ducked my head to avoid being seen, but two mornings ago we had caught sight of each other just as I crossed the street onto the school ground. He pulled into the parking lot along the road, slouched behind the wheel, his girlfriend close to him. “Little cocksucker!” he yelled, and I looked at him. He squinted, flipped me off and laughed. I kept moving, glad I was safe on the school ground. Every ounce of terror, doubt, shame and confusion concentrated in my veins like toxin. My vision tunneled, Gaudin’s laugh fading behind me as I strode toward the red brick building and around its side. Out of Gaudin’s sight, I leaned against the wall and breathed, the schoolyard rippling before me.
A week after that, my cast came off. I was shooting basketball by myself in our driveway, losing myself in the roll of the ball off my fingertips and the simplicity of jumping, trying to strengthen the wrist before basketball season when Robert drove up in his white Fairlane. He stepped out in his uniform, evidently just off work, adjusted his gunbelt and strolled toward me, wiping the corners of his mouth, a sign I recognized as his being keyed up. I dribbled as he strode up lighting a cigarette.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked. “About Gaudin.”
I caught the ball. I hadn’t told her about Gaudin at school, but maybe she had noticed that I was leaving earlier in the morning, noticed, like before, other things that I didn’t even know I showed. “Momma told you?”
“What you think?”
“I told her not to.”
“Well she did.” He flicked his smoke. “Can’t believe this shit’s been going on since spring.” We stared at each other, shame, betrayal, anger and something close to relief all colliding in me. “I came to tell you you ain’t gonna have anymore problems,” he said, his blue eyes glistening with sunburst wildness. “I went to Gaudin’s house.”
“Goddamn right I did.” He grinned. “His old man answered the door, just let me in and told me Gaudin was taking a nap in his room. I figure he’s let the cops in before.” Gaudin lived two houses down from one of Robert’s old friends, so Robert knew Gaudin and the criminal spiral he’d been on for years. He flicked his smoke, waiting. “You wanta know what happened?”
Robert laughed and nodded. “I went down the short hall till I heard that fucker snoring and I eased open the door. Piece of shit was laying there on his back on this bed about a foot off the floor. Looked like he was stoned cause his mouth was wide open and he was out. I took my nightstick out,” Robert acted the gesture,” and got up next to him. Then I just shoved it between that fucker’s teeth and pushed my foot on his throat. You should’ve seen that son-of-a-bitch choke awake with his eyes all bugging out and his mouth fulla wood.” Robert laughed and took a deep drag. “His arms flew up there to grab the stick, and I went, ‘Try something, Gaudin, please try something.’ He looks at me like he’d done shit his pants and he kinda laid back. I asked him if he knew who I was and he nodded a little, his teeth on my stick.” Robert leaned toward me, poking the air with his cigarette and making me want to take a step back. “I told him, ‘You fuck with my little brother again and you’re a dead asshole.’” He straightened again. “I gave him a stomp on the neck and took my club back and just stood there looking at him.” Robert’s eyes gleamed, and he wiped several times at the spittle collecting at the corners of his mouth. Different emotions were firing through me, but Robert’s malicious glee was mainly rising in me like something almost sexual. I hoped he had killed Gaudin.
He took a last drag and spoke through a cloud of smoke, but not directly to me this time. “Piece of shit. He was holding his windpipe and still choking when I left.” Robert shifted his feet and hooked his free hand in his gunbelt while he rolled the last fire and tobacco out of the cigarette butt, put the filter in his shirt pocket, his typical routine of field stripping when he was in Daddy’s yard. He leaned back against the ironwork that lined our short walkway from the driveway to the front steps. “You happy?” he asked me.
“You think he’ll let me alone?”
“He will if he wants to stay alive.”
“That’ll be cool.” I stood there looking at Robert smile. “Thanks.”
“Uh huh.” He kept nodding. “You should’ve told me, though. You shouldn’t make Momma figure this shit out and have to worry.”
I nodded back because I didn’t really know what to say. I wanted to be happy, but already the fleeting relief I’d felt was passing, followed fast by the most complicated moment of my life until then. Anger was roiling off Robert like smoke from a heavy smolder, and even though I knew that he had fought in Vietnam and heard him tell brutal stories, I understood for the first time that he could actually kill someone, understood a bit of what killing would be like and what kind of consequences it might have for Robert.
He shoved off the ironwork and grabbed my shoulder. “If some older dude messes with you, you better tell me, all right?”
I watched him drive off, the smell of his cigarette lingering. He was still my brother, but the sense that he wasn’t quite the brother I’d had before was more intense than ever. Nevertheless, all that night I revelled as much as I could in the images Robert had given me of roughing up Gaudin, putting myself in Robert’s place or there beside him as Gaudin got his.
The next afternoon Gaudin was waiting two blocks from my house. I had stayed at school a little later for a meeting about running for class president and I was alone. He leaned against a street sign smoking a cigarette, no Chapman or girl this time. He squinted as I approached, maybe unsure it was me, then shoved off with his shoulder when I came close. My head did a slow spin inside, and he flicked a cigarette in my direction. I looked at the ground and braced for something so bad I couldn’t even imagine it. “You sorry cunt,” he said as I passed him. He stepped behind me so close his words touched my shoulder. “Little fucking dickless wimp, send your brother to fuck with me. I’m gonna take care of you and that sonofabitch when I’m ready.” His words were the edge of a blade raked along my spine. Even though my friends and I practiced cursing, I had never heard anything with venom quite like this. White spots exploded like tiny fireworks in front of me. In my head I could see his fist swinging at my skull, or his hand reaching to turn me and punch me, but he didn’t touch me. Instead he kept following close, spewing insults that almost washed my legs from under me, every syllable spoken with animal conviction, my consciousness thinning to paper until I walked in a haze.
At the end of the street he stopped, but I didn’t believe that he was scared enough of Robert not to kill both of us. “You remember I’m here waiting, mother fucker,” he yelled. I kept my eyes on the grain of the street’s cement so that I wouldn’t fall. It didn’t register that even though he’d threatened me, he still had never touched me, and it wouldn’t register for a long time, his words alone a splinter deep in me. When I entered my house, I collapsed on the couch and didn’t cry, didn’t move for a long time. I gathered whatever I had in me so I wouldn’t say a thing to Robert or my parents, so that this time they wouldn’t see what was inside.
Text prepared by
- Bruce R. Magee
Parrish, Tim. Fear and What Follows: The Violent Education of a Christian Racist, a Memoir. Jackson: U of Mississippi, 2013. Print. Used by permission. All rights reserved.