i. racing the schoolyard
HE GREW UP with Lil, but never thought twice about her being a girl until the first time he saw her run. Not just run, but run fast – with a funny way of bringing her knees high at each step, holding her elbows in close, fists swinging like pistons.
He was in 5th grade; she was in 7th. He heard whispering in the school hallways before she did.
“Who do they say it was?” she asked. He tried to escape into the boy’s bathroom but she followed him in.
“You’re a bad liar, Patete. How could it be nobody?” She was the first to call him Patete. It was French for little, she said, and she would stop when he was big enough to make her. Now everyone called him that.
So he told her what he’d heard: that it was Eric and Superchicken, two shooting guards from the JV. They said it was all her idea, that she drank until she saw stars and they had her at the paper-recycling warehouse, on a pile of porn and crosswords. Lil was so angry that she marched into 9th grade Geometry and called both of them to follow her outside.
“You want another go?” laughed Eric, and the class laughed with him. But the teacher, his bald head and mustache swelling, shouted until she closed the door.
She waited in the hall. When the bell rang, the whole class followed them out the double exit doors, into a parking lot frozen between an aluminum sky and claustrophobic concrete, and the smells of diesel and winter leaves. Lil and the boys walked ahead, like tall somebodies the others would never be.
“To the stop sign and back,” she said.
Under his sweatshirt, Superchicken flexed his thin biceps. Behind him, Eric shuffled and blew into cupped hands.
“C’mon Lil, it’s cold. Let’s just go inside,” Eric said.
“You talk like a man, why don’t you show it?”
“I’m not cold,” said Superchicken. “Anybody hear me say I’m cold?”
“Well I am,” said Eric. “So let’s do it or don’t.”
“One on one?” somebody asked, but Lil shook her head. “Together. Like they say happened down at the recycling.”
The boys laughed, then looked at her and thought better.
Superchicken drew an invisible line with his foot.
“Ladies first, Lil.”
“Don’t you call me Lil.”
Nobody said anything. After a few seconds, Patete said, quietly, “But Lil, that’s your name.”
“Shut up, Patete.”
They started on a three count and when they reached the far stop sign, Lil was ahead by two strides. She was running harder than Patete had ever seen anyone run. Her feet blurred the ground and she bit at the air, her eyes swollen from crying, her light skin flushing, her legs as long as strings. But when they turned, the soles of her shoes slipped on loose ice and she went down, both hands splayed wide. The boys cornered expertly behind her and sprinted back toward the start.
Lil came up, her mouth a violent gash, her breath hot white. The huddled group backed away to clear a finish line just before Superchicken broke it, Eric neck and neck with him but Lil four steps back. She stood off to one side, her chest heaving, wiping long loops of spit from her mouth as Eric and Superchicken grinned around, pushing their way through the silent crowd to the rack where their Huffys were chained, then disappeared across the parking lot.
Patete followed Lil to the edge of the schoolyard, to a high metal fence – eight-foot tall corrugated sheets of tin laced together with baling wire. She pushed at one of the wide panels, scraping it against the cold dirt until she could squeeze through. A few seconds later, she swung it open again and looked out.
“What do you want, Patete?” “Is it true?”
“Does it matter?”
She’s a girl and girls don’t bite, Patete had heard, not unless you ask them to. He was afraid she might take a swing at him just for thinking that.
“You remember when we used to play in the creek, all last summer?” He nodded, slowly blinking, thinking of sun and shade.
“And after, we would eat melons we stole from the community garden? To see who could spit seeds the furthest.”
“I never did that.”
“You don’t remember?”
“That wasn’t me. That must have been someone else.”
The tall fence panels spread in ripples left and right from where Patete stood, the metal clanging lightly under his knuckles.
“Maybe so,” she said.
ii. summer swim
THE SUMMER BEFORE, on the last day of fourth grade, Patete had helped the man who lived with his mother – a man he had never called Dad – to carry tools down the street to Lil’s house. He worked the loading docks at Home Depot; when tin sheets got bent, he would buy them off the manager for two dollars each, cash only, then hammer them straight and build fences all over the neighborhood.
Lil’s mother said it wasn’t safe for kids to play with so many sharp edges around, so she sent Lil and Patete to the creek. They made the long walk along the tracks, balancing on the rails and telling jokes, throwing dirt clods to burst, like dusty stars, on the clanging boxcars. They stole cardboard boxes from the recycling plant and rolled them down a steep embankment where the creek was knee-deep and brown. She ducked into the bushes to change into a bathing suit, while Patete watched flat-footed beetles walking on the creek’s surface, shifting against the current, holding steady, gulping air. When Lil came out, they jumped from the box tops to splash in the water, over and over, until the boxes wet through and collapsed under them.
They went to the creek every day that summer – even after the fence was finished, even after the man left Patete’s mother to move in with Lil’s mother, even as Lil went deeper into the bushes to change.
On the day before school started, walking back from the creek, Patete saw wet triangles showing through Lil’s clothes. She saw him looking and hit him in the chest, hard. He sat down, trying not to cry, then followed her at a distance, his hands bouncing against his thighs. When he reached her house, the high fence, Lil was waiting for him. She held a panel open, and through it Patete could see the grass tall against the house, so tall that only the roof was visible.
“He never mowed our yard either,” he said. “I had to do it.” “I could mow it if I wanted.”
“I hate mowing. It’s boring.”
“You’re boring, and you can’t come in.”
Patete’s face fell. “What? Why not?”
“He’s here.” She watched the house like it was watching her back. “You know, he gets Mom’s pills from Mexico, cheaper than she can at the Bi-Lo. And she says he has needs, too.”
Patete thought about standing in the school locker room, surrounded by boys who had hair showing on their arms and chests and between their legs. He never wanted to take his shirt off in the locker room, or in front of his mother, or anywhere except at the creek with Lil. And now, maybe not even there, not anymore.
“Anyway, he has a car. He lets me drive it sometimes.”
“You’re not old enough to drive,” he said.
“Okay, Lil.” He kicked at the fence, his tennis shoes flicking dirt on his shirt. “Want to go to the creek after school tomorrow?”
“Soon it’ll be too cold to swim. I don’t want to catch sick.”
“We don’t have to swim. We could throw rocks, or tell jokes,” Patete said. “I know some new ones.”
“You know shit,” she said.
All that fall, kudzu spilled over embankments and the sparrows that dotted the neighborhood flew only at night. Patete saw Lil most days, getting in and out of cars in the high school parking lot. But she was too far away for him to hear her voice – only her laugh came bouncing back toward him, spinning the earth faster with each bounce, so he felt he was sprinting, out of breath, just to keep from falling. And he could not guess what was coming, beyond the weather and smells of exhaust and coal ash and fish frys, or what he would do, or what she would say.
iii. dinner time!
THE DAY before Thanksgiving, a police dispatcher chuckled at reports of a white man standing in the middle of Rossville Avenue, swinging a shotgun at the sky. When the patrol cars angled to a stop, their hands on sidearms, the man shouted that he was tired of the damn ducks skimming his rooftop, and wanted some dinner. The shotgun popped at his shoulder, echoing off the buildings around. Neighbors glanced at the windows, then went back to television.
But one duck jerked sideways, as if lassoed by an airy thread. It fell in a somersault, suddenly heavy, toward the ground before catching the air. Its wings beat furiously. The band on its neck dripped as it jittered over three, four blocks before tumbling hard into the short, grassy yards between two rows of identical houses.
From his window, Patete saw the duck land, green and white and brown and red into the grass. It stood on stick legs, one eye covered in dirt, its head looping a circle with each step, dragging its wing.
As he watched, a front door opened across the street and Mrs. Garcelle came out, holding a foot-long serrated bread knife. Patete knew her as a girthy woman, always on her front porch, and it seemed strange to see her, out in the yard, in her house dress. Looking up, she saw him watching and held one finger to her mouth, shhhh, but farther down the street another door opened and another woman came out, shouldering bra straps into place, a rolling pin in her hand. The duck started waddling fast, arching one wing high, the other loose and useless. More doors opened. Men and women stalked the short walkways.
Patete sat at his window for a long time, for hours after dinner had been cooked and the dishes put away, waiting for morning to flood the world.
iv. a mother’s errand
HIS MOTHER leaned back against the refrigerator door, a hazy ring of fingerprints and magnets over her head. Patete poked his head around the corner, grinning at her, his mouth making an unsteady butterfly shape.
“I know what’s in the fridge, Patete,” she said. “Why didn’t you clean it up? Is it milk?”
He nodded, still standing in the doorway.
“I don’t want to know what happened,” she said. “It doesn’t matter why you stop being a child, Patete, or where, or even how. Only that it happens, and happens soon.”
On the floor beside her was a plate of half-eaten macaroni, smeared with cheese powder, crusting over. Patete could smell its stink from the doorway. She was still wearing the brown uniform, unbuttoned over her undershirt; the security guard patch gaped like a flap of skin above her low breasts.
“Come sit with me, honey.”
“I already ate. I had cereal.”
“With milk. Don’t I know it.”
It was Saturday morning, the day after Lil’s race. Patete wanted to tell her about Lil all but beating two boys, but he knew better; when his mom came from work, she was headed to bed.
She patted the hard linoleum and he sat, tucking his head under her arm. He leaned into her, rising and falling on her breathing.
“You know I’m proud of you baby. You let yourself in and lock up. You look after yourself all night. But it’s not enough, and I’m trying, but I just can’t make do.”
“I know,” he said, not understanding.
She held her breath, half in half out, until he bounced his head on her chest and she exhaled, words rushing out of her mouth. “They say God is outside of time and place, Patete, so maybe there are things he can’t remember. But I remember everything. And every time I pass that house I hate God like I hate him, and her, and even Lil, for stealing away the little bit of ease I’d gathered.” She wiped her face. “I hate everything that won’t stop the world turning long enough for me to jump clear.”
Patete stared at her until she said, “No, baby, I don’t really hate Lil. Not anymore.”
He kissed her cheek and said, “Go to bed, Mom. I’ll go to the park.” “Maybe could you walk past her house, on the way? Just one time.” She touched his elbow as she said it. Every Saturday, the same question – just one time past Lil’s driveway, to see if that old blue Honda was parked there. Maybe slip into the side yard, push at the fence panels, peek through. The man had caught Patete once, bending him across his knee like a father. But Patete knew that, when he came home, her expression would be the same whether the Honda was there or not. Her bubble of strength would vanish without any noise at all, not even a popping sound, and there would be nothing for him to do but go into his room to play, and pray for her to stop crying, but she wouldn’t, and wouldn’t.
“I should be strong,” she said; but he interrupted her:
“You’re my good boy,” she said thickly. “My man of the house.”
As soon as he was outside, however, Patete turned in the opposite direction. The street was sunny and warm, without any of the ice of the day before. Neighbors sat on porches, watching flickering televisions through open windows; children in diapers played with dogs on yard chains. Patete stood in line at the 7-Eleven for a bag of Skittles, then went to the park. He sat on metal bleachers, lining up the round-flat candy on the empty bench, row by row by color.
Groups of older kids were already playing pick-up, at each end of the outdoor court. They collided under netless rims, guessing where each other was going to be, throwing arms wide, gripping jerseys. The ball skipped low on the ground between them, hand to hand. Patete watched, thinking he would never be so long-armed, so teenaged, so sure of where his feet hit the ground.
Superchicken was there, shorter and pushing harder than the others, pointing and shouting, one hand in the air, the other loose and kinetic at his side. The ball stammered, started one way, got fearless, stopped; started another way, struck, marked time, started again; then seemed to have found a direction, struck again, got stuck.
Then Lil appeared, stepping out of the blue Honda before it roared toward home. Patete crouched in the bleachers, staring at her as she laughed and clapped, not at all the same person she had been the day before. She ignored Superchicken as he dribbled close to her, bringing the ball up court, then suddenly turned and pretended to throw it at her. Lil shrugged her shoulders in a mock reflex, not even taking her hands out of her pockets. They laughed, together, the sound of it rolling across the blacktop, across the grass, slowing to a stop at Patete’s feet.
He peered out from behind the bleachers. Nobody was looking, so, pocketing the candy, he hurried across the open field, his face turned away from the court. From behind him, dribbling came in an unpredictable rhythm, then silence, a backboard shaking. He wondered exactly what was happening; the whole world seemed to be at his back, just out of sight, focused and sharp, magnetic. Lil laughed again, and he knew that he had missed something that meant something to her. He wondered how many laughs he had missed in the months that had passed since they went swimming in the creek, and he felt the first great pain of his life.
At the long rack of bicycles, all neatly rowed, all unchained, he found Superchicken’s bike – an old Huffy, spray painted purple, a bell twisted onto the spokes with a paperclip. He looked backward. Superchicken was pretending to slap Lil’s face. She slapped back at him and he clapped his hands together, the sound resonant and full, pretending to stagger backward.
“If my fists and feet were strong, I could hit and run,” Patete whispered to himself, imagining attacking like a bird out of the bushes, inhuman and brutal. “Then Lil would see me with a missing tooth, or a blacker eye. She would say, What were you thinking Patete? And I would say, Don’t call me that.”
Reaching, taking both handlebars, he pulled the purple Huffy out of the rack. The grips were cold in his hands. He looked up to see Lil staring at him, shaking her head, fast. From behind her, Superchicken was sprinting toward him.
“Run, Patete, now,” Lil shouted over the sound of the wind already rushing in his ears.
v. kissing at the creek
PATETE STOOD, brushing his knees, watching circles spread in the muddy water. A car came barreling into the recycling lot, a hundred feet away. It was the blue Honda, with the driver’s seat as far forward as it could go. Lil unlocked the doors. Patete ran around the car and opened the passenger door, into her candy-wrapper smell.
“Boy, you’re in some trouble.”
“You have to ask?” She cracked the window. “Quiet.” But it was only a train on the tracks. “Don’t you know what he’s like? What were you thinking?”
“I thought maybe I’d sell it to Dom. I thought I could get some money, maybe buy something.” He didn’t say what he wanted to buy.
“Oh Patete,” she said and shifted into drive, kicked at the accelerator. “How much did he give you?”
“Dom said if it was stolen, he would beat me silly. A stolen bike at his door means cops at his door. So I ran it into the creek.”
The engine thunked through the gears and they cut up an alley. Bricks slid past, weaving close on either side, then dropped away as the car soared, without slowing, across oncoming traffic. She tried to cut the steering wheel, nearly made it, might have made it except for a UPS truck parked at the corner. Her fender clipped the truck’s back tire, and it burst in thunder and rubber that flew like shrapnel, shattering the windshield into a web of grey-green cracks. The car fishtailed into the side of the truck and stopped dead. Patete had to crawl over the gearshift and out of Lil’s door, after her.
“What the hell is that truck doing parked there, nine on a Saturday morning?
“You wrecked his car. What will he do when he sees it?”
“What? Who?” before she realized. “Don’t worry, Patete,” she said softly. “Maybe I can talk to him, too. Maybe I can fix everything.”
She pulled at his arm, tugging him around the side of the building and Patete saw that they were standing in the schoolyard. The high, metal fence was ten steps away. She pushed through it; he pushed through after her.
His arm was bleeding through his sweatshirt. He wished that she would notice, come and roll up the sleeve, but she was standing with her back to him, facing the house. Around her, the grass was tall on every side. The curling leaves, winter thin, waved in the morning air.
“I should go and tell him about his car,” she said. “We should go around the house and come in the front door. Make something up.”
But instead, she took his hand and led him deeper into the grass. When they could almost see the windows, but not quite, she stopped and was very still.
“Remember last summer, Patete, when we used to go swimming in the creek? I never told anybody about that.”
The grass was taller than Patete. He felt its razor edges on every side, except where Lil’s body parted it, in front of him. He felt like he had been swallowed by the fence, the grass, the yard.
“How old are you, Patete?”
“I’m still eleven.”
“That means I’m still thirteen. A lot can happen in a few months, Patete. Things that make you a different person.”
“You don’t seem different to me.”
She might have touched his hand; he wasn’t sure. Around them, the wrinkled leaves on the stalks rippled together, like fragile fingers reaching for something primitive and certain.
“Maybe some things never change,” she said. She turned to face him. He was so close to her mouth that clouds of her breath wrapped his neck. “Look at me, Patete. When you look at me, I don’t seem so different to me, either.”
She came closer, blinking slowly, her eyes crossing slightly, as if she were hunting a reflection in his wet eyes. When they met, he closed his mouth into hers, not knowing how, only knowing why, and breathed her in as deep as he could.
Afterward, he said, “That’s all there is to it?”
“That’s all there is,” she said. And they sat in the tall grass, choosing candy out of his palm, biting the sugar shell away from the sour centers.
vi. lock and cock it.
IT WAS AFTER NOON when Patete’s mother woke to the sound of the doorbell. It rang over and over, fast, echoing itself. Balled hands pounded the door.
She got up slowly from the kitchen floor, felt her way through the house in the curtained dark, not turning lights on as she went. The front door was outlined in daylight; two shadow feet scuffed erratically on the boards of the porch.
“Momma, Mom, please just turn the knob, quick,” she heard through the door. She pressed her eye to the view hole.
“Patete, what have you done now?” she called. His face filled the fisheye lens, streaked with tears. Behind him, a car she had never seen before pulled short at the edge of the yard. Its passenger door opened, a boy already running out of it, his face shining with rage, his arms stiffening.
Patete turned, saw, threw himself against the door once again, knowing it wouldn’t open. His mouth gaped against the unyielding wood.
“No, Mom. Please.”
The dead bolt tripped closed beneath her fingers, the steel filling the lock. As she watched through the glass, her son turned to face the yard. Other boys poured out of the car, forming a half circle, stomping, laughing.
“Someday you’ll be a man,” his mother called through the wood. “Be strong, Patete. Kick his ass.”
Superchicken tore off his sweatshirt as he reached the steps, not slowing. Patete stepped out from beneath the shaded porch to meet him, his fists lifted small.