Nobody on my block played alone. We were like young wolves. A girl either traveled in a pack with the girls, or she left the neighborhood. I got into the Sackman Street Boys gang by a fluke, thanks to Deanna Miller, who found a rusty razor blade in the basement of our building and tested it out on the flesh of my arm. The Sackman Street Boys happened to be playing box-ball right there in the yard, so they saw the whole thing from the beginning. It happened on a mild day in June, somewhere around four o’clock in the afternoon. Deanna came into the courtyard holding the double-edged blade between her thumb and index finger and yelled, “Look what I got!”
Marilyn Whistleman, whose nose ran at the first hint of danger, was standing next to me and leapt clear the minute she saw what Deanna had found. Upholding my reputation for being “crazy-brave,” I took one look at the razor, curled my lip, and said, “It’s rusty.” The boys went on playing box-ball. Seeing that nobody was going to bow down and worship her, Deanna took a step toward me and said, “I think I’ll try it on something. It still seems sharp enough to me.” She whisked the blade through the air and landed a fresh, clean cut on the bare skin of my upper arm, just above the elbow. I didn’t even feel it. I only heard Marilyn scream and noticed from the corner of my eye that Barbara Markinson was running from the courtyard calling for someone’s mother. That was when Michael Toplitsky dropped the ball and the boys came running over. All I felt was cold. I looked over at my arm and watched the blood flow out of me like red nail polish. I didn’t want to faint or vomit with the boys standing around watching me, but I was sweating and my mouth had begun to taste salty. Murray Rosenblum, the leader of the Sackman Street Boys (normally a very hard-to-get-to-know sort of person), stared and whistled. Deanna hopped up and down on one foot, screaming that she didn’t mean it. Then my mother came running out of the house and dragged me to Doctor Sherman’s office on the corner with all the kids tagging along. No one in the neighborhood used Doctor Sherman except in emergencies, because he was a bone specialist and too expensive, but he didn’t seem to mind when we showed up in his office without an appointment, and he never charged us. He was big and sandy-haired, always smiling when we saw him on the street. On Sundays he played touch tackle with his three giant-sized sons in the playground on Riverdale Avenue. Doctor Sherman washed the cut, tinctured it with Mercurochrome, bandaged it, and gave me a tetanus shot. Murray Rosenblum walked me home afterward and invited me to become an honorary member of the Sackman Street Boys.
My new status entailed learning a whole new set of games and terms. For example, boys played stoop ball with a pink Spalding, pronounced “Spaldeen”; traded blue- and amber-colored glass marbles called “shimmies”; lay on their bellies facedown on the sidewalk and shot soda bottle caps across chalk boundaries by snapping forefinger against thumb in a game called Tops; and chose sides and positions for Red Light–Green Light, each hoping he wouldn’t be odd man out and have to play “it,” which meant calling stop-and-go signals with your back turned (while the other players ran up behind you gaining mileage), and simultaneously gauging exactly the right moment to swing around, catch someone in the act, tap him “out,” and no longer have to be “it.” The hardest game was Johnny-on-the-Pony, which the boys only let me play after I’d proved I could jump over three fire hydrants without falling—though they fell down often enough and allowed themselves the luxury of moaning and faking injury. I learned all the little ins and outs of boy behavior that summer, including cursing. My braids were always getting in the way, so one day when no one was home, I cut them off with cuticle scissors in front of the bathroom mirror. When she returned, my mother insisted on shaping the uneven results into a bowl cut.
In July we expanded our territory, carrying a treasure hunt through the alleyways and courtyards as far away as Sutter Avenue and the shopping district bordering Blake and Pitkin, stopping at the foot-long hot dog stand for “one with everything,” smearing tons of mustard, sauerkraut, relish, and ketchup on our franks and inside the heated buns, or buying knishes on the run from an old man with cracked fingers and a dirty white apron who wheeled his portable stove through the streets calling “Hot knishes!” through clouds of steam. At twilight, when it was too dark to see anything as small as a marble or a soda bottle top, we ended the day with a game of Red Light–Green Light.
In the second week of August, Murray called a meeting and said he wanted to vote on including a new game, an import from the Powell Street Boys, who dominated the playground three blocks north. Ringaleevio One-Two-Three was known throughout the neighborhood as preparatory training for aspiring football players. It involved a lot of physical contact, running, passing, and pulling people down to the ground by the neck, chest, waist, legs, or wherever you could grab hold of them. Harvey Katz, the saxophone player who lived above me and drove my father into a rage by practicing scales while we were eating dinner, was the first to bring up the idea that there could be a problem playing Ringaleevio with a girl. Murray said he would think about it. Michael Toplitsky, Irving Friedman, and Marilyn Whistleman’s brother, Wally, said they were neutral: if I wanted to play and take my chances getting hurt, that was my business. Theirs were the most important opinions, since the rest of the boys (a dozen with all present) were peripheral players, pickups who were themselves still feeling their way into the pack, or younger boys following their older brothers around. Freddy Fields, sucking on a toothpick, said nothing. Freddy had never made it to the center of the pack. There was always something fringe-like about him. I think it had to do with his not having a father. His mother, a platinum blonde who worked as a cashier at Lindy’s Famous Cheesecake Restaurant, wore tight red sweaters, tight navy skirts, wedgies, and pastel-colored, three-quarter-length jackets called “toppers,” entertained a variety of men friends, and referred to herself as “separated.” We’d never seen anyone claiming to be Freddy’s father visiting the building, and none of Mrs. Fields’s men friends even vaguely resembled Freddy, who looked exactly like Jughead in the Archie comics: tall and scrawny, with the same cowlick and dopey expression on his face.
Murray thought about letting me play Ringaleevio for two days; on the third day, a Friday, he said it was okay with him. Harvey Katz withdrew his initial veto, the game was in, and I was officially allowed to play. We chose sides by flipping a nickel. Harvey, captain of my team, lost the toss, and Murray, captain of the opposing team, elected to run with the ball. Unsure of the rules, I planned only to run and watch what everyone else did while trying to avoid being tackled.
Sackman Street had no trees, only rows of brick apartment buildings. The block was long and narrow with sidewalks divided by a road that was fairly empty of cars during the day, except for those parked in front of the buildings where their owners lived. Freddy Fields’s mother drove a car, another reason we thought of her as “different” from the rest of our mothers, who did not drive or bleach their hair platinum and looked after us until our fathers came home from work by subway. If they had cars, our fathers used them only on the weekends when they took us out for drives. Freddy’s mother drove a 1958 Ford convertible, mustard color, with big white tires and an intricate chromium grille. It was the showiest car in the neighborhood, and on hot summer afternoons, while practically everyone living on the block was sitting outside on folding chairs, fanning themselves and gossiping, she’d step out of our lobby in her off-the-shoulder blouse and wraparound skirt, cherry-red lipstick, eyelashes sticking out a mile, and start up her Ford, gunning the motor longer than she had to. Freddy never once lifted his head to look at her. There was an unwritten code among the Sackman Street Boys never to make any remarks about Freddy’s mother. Freddy’s looks were fair game for all kinds of jokes; but the subject of Mrs. Fields was taboo.
The ball spiraled upward, a dozen sets of hands reached for it, and I started running. Though I was nowhere near the ball, one of the younger boys had decided to guard me. I was easy prey for the short ones, and I soon found myself surrounded by an army of ants trying to pull me down from all directions. Without a thought for the rules, I tore and clawed at them until I had wrestled myself free and started running toward Harvey Katz, who was himself prying two boys from his neck. En route, I spotted Freddy hanging back, gripping the handle of his mother’s parked Ford and looking as if he thought he was invisible. Bodies were thumping against each other and boys were running in all directions. By this time, no one knew who had the ball. Freddy didn’t budge; he just stood at the curb holding onto that damned door handle, a perfect target. Gathering momentum, I ran at him, screaming “Ringaleevio one two three!” to let him know I was coming. Still, he didn’t move from the spot, didn’t even put up his hands to protect himself. Maybe he thought I was faking, that I’d stop as soon as I got about an inch from his face, that I’d laugh and say I was just kidding around and why didn’t he fake being tackled so the two of us could at least look like we were really playing. But that didn’t happen. What did happen was that I thudded into him at a full run and grabbed him by the shoulders with all the force I could muster. As I said, Freddy was just skin and bones, and it wasn’t hard to dislodge his grip from the handle. What I didn’t count on was the whole door coming off and both of us landing in the road in a heap—Freddy at the bottom, the door of his mother’s Ford in the middle, and me on top.
The results of that day’s game were as follows:
1. Freddy had a broken collarbone.
2. My parents had to pay to replace the door of Mrs. Fields’s car.
3. My membership in the Sackman Street Boys was terminated by my father.
Worst of all, I had to go upstairs and apologize to Freddy. My father didn’t insist on it, exactly; instead, he got around making it look like punishment by reminding me of a story about a mouse that he’d told me when I was five every time I complained about having been born a girl instead of a boy. My father was a big Walt Disney fan, so he’d named the heroine of this story Minnie and changed her complaint to: “Why did I have to be born a mouse instead of a bird?” Like me, the inquisitive mouse was always making trouble for herself—until a troll appeared and turned her into a bird. The problem was, she still had the body, face, ears, head, and tail of a mouse. Minnie flew around enjoying herself for almost an hour before meeting up with a flock of birds who called her “freaky” and wanted nothing to do with her. The mouse-bird spent the next seven years perched alone on the limb of a tree complaining about her fate and pleading with the absent troll to reappear and change her back to the way she was. Which is exactly what happened. It wasn’t my father’s way to end a story without a moral, and he finished this one with the by-then familiar admonition to “be contented with your lot in life.” I liked the phrase “your lot in life.” It sang. But when he droned on about being contented, I stopped listening and created my own ending to the story. Aloft with the aberrant mouse-bird, I soared among the stars, blissfully oblivious of the scornful birds. I preferred Minnie the outcast. At least she’d had the guts to bend the rules.
On my way up to Freddy’s apartment I consoled myself by thinking, It’s okay to be a mouse-bird rather than just a mouse or a bird. It’s like being a bat. You hang upside down during the day and fly around at night scaring the wits out of people who think all you want out of life is to land in their pompadours and suck the blood out of their scalps, like Bela Lugosi . . . But then I saw Mrs. Fields waiting for me in the doorway all made up and smelling like a Macy’s perfume counter, though it was still only eight-thirty in the morning, and I lost my courage. The apartment was like none I’d ever seen, except in the movies: mirrored walls, hanging lamps on thick looped chains bracketed to the ceiling, a mauve shaggy carpet, and purple puffed pillows all over the place. Mrs. Fields led me to a low-slung purple sofa that caved in when I sat down, my face reflected forever and beyond in the mirrored walls. The whole apartment smelled like her, sweet and a little nauseating.
“Freddy is in bed,” she said, fluffing her platinum blonde bouffant with one hand and pointing toward the foyer with the other. She was barefoot, wearing a flowered housedress similar to the kind my mother wore indoors, only Mrs. Fields’s dress was unbuttoned all the way down to the breastbone, and you could see two half-melon bulges and a dark line between them whenever she moved.
I held out the check my father had given me. “Here’s what I owe you for the damage to your car,” I said.
Mrs. Fields took the check. In a breathy voice emanating from the cloud of perfume, she said, “Thank you, Trudy.”
Giving my skirt a little tug, I pulled myself up from the sofa and said, “I’d like to apologize to Freddy.”
“That would be so nice.” Mrs. Fields turned, and I tiptoed behind her into what was certain to be another fabulous movie set.
Freddy’s room, however, was disappointingly ordinary. Unlike the living room, the decor here was far from glamorous, the furniture beat up and probably secondhand. Surrounded by bookshelves crammed with comic books, model airplanes, baseball cards, rocks, and scout badges, Freddy sat propped against a pile of pillows on his ordinary boy’s junior bed reading the latest edition of Captain Marvel.
He looked up at the sound of our footsteps. “What are you doing here?”
I wanted to tell him that I’d been forced to come, and that it was his own fault he’d broken his collarbone, for holding onto the door handle of his mother’s car, but Mrs. Fields was standing behind me, so I said nothing and let her tell him in her breathy voice that I’d come to apologize and he ought to be more “gracious.”
Freddy went back to reading his comic book.
“I’ll leave you two alone so you can work this thing out by yourselves,” said Mrs. Fields, and then she turned and walked away. I was stunned. How could she just leave without even offering to mediate? I was so used to my father snooping into every corner of my life that it was a little eerie to be standing in front of Freddy with no adult prompter in sight. Only yesterday—to “protect” us from a flasher known to be cruising the neighborhood—my father had trailed me and my friends as we walked home from the library. Barbara Markinson, who had twenty-fifteen eyesight and was called “the hawk” because she could read a movie marquee from three blocks away, recognized him, causing me to wish for the ground to open and swallow me on the spot. “Isn’t that your father, Trudy?” she asked, faking surprise. “Nah, he just looks like my father,” I said. But even Marilyn Whistleman, who was nearsighted and wore thick glasses, swore that it was my father. Desperate, I invented a wild story about an uncle who looked just like my father but had become the black sheep of the family since embezzling money from Manufacturer’s Trust and serving time. I’d gotten so good at lying about my father by then that even Barbara bought my story.
I heard Mrs. Fields call out that she had some last-minute shopping to do, and the front door shut behind her.
I stepped farther into the room. “First of all, Freddy, let me tell you it wasn’t my idea to come up here and say I’m sorry. It was my father’s.”
“Yeah, well, my mother told me you were coming today, and I told her she should tell you to stay home and not bother.”
Knowing full well that Freddy couldn’t stop me, I made straight for his comic book collection. He lunged forward and tried pulling a Spiderman out of my hands but the movement was too painful, and, wincing, he fell back against the pillows. That made me feel sorry for him, so I put the Spiderman back on the shelf and said, “Do you know how lucky you are not to have a mother like my father, always telling you what to do?”
Freddy sighed like an old man. “At least you have a father,” he said, catching me totally unawares. “Anyway, what’s so lucky about having a mother who’s never home and leaves notes on the refrigerator telling you to make your own peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for supper?”
So it was to be a “Who’s got the worst parent?” contest.
“Oh, yeah,” I said, breathing hard, “do you think that’s worse than having a father who follows you home from the library and embarrasses you in front of your friends?”
Freddy looked as if he could burst out laughing.
It was hot, and the room wasn’t air-conditioned. There wasn’t even a fan. I noticed that he’d thrown off the covers and wasn’t wearing pajamas, just a T-shirt and a pair of shorts that might have been his underwear. His long, skinny, hairless legs and dopey expression made me think of Jughead, and I almost burst out laughing, too.
He licked the sweat from his upper lip and said, “At least your father cares enough about you to follow you. What about a mother who tells you she prefers being called ‘Paula,’ not ‘Mom,’ especially in front of her dates, because she wants them to think she’s your sister?”
Now that we were really at it I knew that neither of us would give in. We could spend the whole day spinning miserable scenarios about my father and his mother. For that matter, we could spend an eternity complaining about our “lot in life.” We were still at it when Mrs. Fields turned the key in the lock and returned with a container of lemonade and a blackout cake from Ebinger’s Bakery. Minnie had just scored, and Jughead, breathless, his T-shirt dark with sweat, was ahead by three points.
Perle Besserman is the recipient of the Theodore Hoepfner Fiction Award and is the writer-in-residence at the Mishkenot Sha’ananim Artist’s Colony in Jerusalem. She has published stories in literary magazines like The Southern Humanities Review, The Nebraska Review, Hurricane Alice, Other Voices, Crab Creek Review, and The Transatlantic Review. She is the author of an autobiographical novel, Pilgrimage (Houghton Mifflin), and several highly praised books of creative nonfiction, the most recent of which is A New Zen for Women (Palgrave). (4/2008)