Not For Babies
One-Mississippi, Two-Mississippi, Three-Mississippi.
I paused to check if I could still hear them down there. I certainly hadn’t heard them leave.
Odd that Fenton hadn’t given them away. Usually he couldn’t keep his mouth shut, but with Mark by his side, no telling what Fenton was capable of. Mark was twelve, same as me, but his twelve looked a lot different than mine. His twelve might provoke bear attacks.
Now we were trying to outwait each other. I smoothed my skirt, then counted to pass the time but even that was getting old. Fenton and Mark must have put together a plan—stop throwing walnuts at me long enough so I’d think they left and when I showed myself, unload on the easy target. They’d tried this before, but I couldn’t tell if this pause in action was different and longer and they really had left or if I would rise up and get ambushed, fifty walnuts right in the eye. But either way, their plan wasn’t why they were winning the waiting game. Mark and Fenton stood on the ground with bushels of green walnuts rotting to black lying within arm’s reach. I hung fifteen feet in the air in the bucket of my Dad’s bucket-truck with nothing to throw but the few rocks caught in the floor mat’s deep creases and a pair of my Dad’s unlaced work boots. The truck had some other gadgets but all were either impractical or out of reach—a helmet attached to the side of the bucket, a ladder mounted in the bed of the truck below me, and stacks of orange cones fixed to each end of the bumper by short poles ran up the middle. The cones, marked by black tire marks, had seen better days.
“C’mon boys,” I taunted. “You quit on me?”
From my crouch in the bottom of the bucket, I reached and flipped the switch on the control bank. The bucket rocked back and forth, the metal neck buzzed as it lengthened, and slowly I began to move out. Movement at least brought a touch of relief from the heat. I peeked through the crack of the bucket’s door and watched the walnut tree get closer and closer, then flipped the switch the other way and the neck retracted. I moved in and out, toward the tree, toward the truck, toward the tree, toward the truck, a humming and sluggish temptation in the sky. Could they hit a moving target? Mark—yes. He’d reach me no matter where I moved the bucket. But Fenton’s spindly arms were like giraffe legs.
A walnut thudded against the plastic bucket’s wall. A second one ricocheted off the metal side panel of the truck below. “Get outta there and we’ll show you quit,” Mark yelled back.
Without anything to throw, it seemed I would have to do just that. A few times I caught the walnuts Mark or Fenton threw at me, and other times I managed to maneuver the bucket in place to do the catching. The bucket was big enough to work that way, like a collection basket for pieces of nature falling from the sky. Its walls were up to my chest and provided ample cover. Besides in and out, the control bank also had a knob to shift the bucket up and down and a thin joystick to take the bucket right and left. Phone men needed to go in every direction, my Dad said. He said it every chance he got.
I pushed the knob to go up and the bucket jostled. “J-O-S-T-L-E-D,” I said, because when counting fails, you can always spell to pass the time. I moved up and up until the bucket wouldn’t go any higher. The boys had trouble throwing walnuts high enough to reach me at only fifteen feet, higher than that and I was an impossibility. When I reached the highest I could go, I raised up enough to peer over the bucket’s edge. Mark gathered walnuts into piles, his white t-shirt wadded in a heap on the ground. He thought he looked cool with his shirt off, you could just tell. But his chest and shoulders were shades lighter than his arms like he was a newborn, hungry and hairless. Fenton stood around looking stupid. S-T-U-P-I-D. Fenton was nine and my cousin but the day before, I decided to hate him, cousin or not.
Summers were rough. Fenton lived across the street from me, and his dad and my dad were brothers. When Fenton got bored, he’d come over all the time and since Mark stayed with Fenton until his parents got home from work, that meant I saw Fenton and Mark every day. Wasn’t a moment’s peace. Mark always wanted to sneak off to the rock quarry and swim where we might be hit on the head by falling boulders and get paralyzed. Fenton played the trumpet poorly and thought Mark and I should spend our days listening to him blow. I preferred looking at “National Geographic.” My mom had recently bought me an entire box of back-issues that never sold from the grocery store where she worked. Sitting in the stock room, the boxes of magazines weren’t doing anything but tripping stock boys. She bought magazines for me sometimes, but her stipulation was if I got them, I had to stay in The Speller’s Bee Club. My stipulation was that the magazines had to have pictures of animals. But the day before, Mark, Fenton and I didn’t do any of those things. The three of us went to Fenton’s house and played Hide-and-Go-Seek because Fenton pitched a fit.
“We always do what y’all want,” Fenton said. He had stolen Mark’s tennis shoes and now used them as collateral. “Always,” Fenton repeated. His curls were damp and plastered against his forehead. With his hair sweaty, it was much calmer, but otherwise, Fenton’s hair was an unstable brown mound, shifting when he moved.
“So?” Mark said.
Fenton put one of Mark’s tennis shoes on each of his hands. He bent over. “Look,” Fenton said. He walked around us in circles on all fours singing a song, “I’ve got a new pair of legs yeah, yeah. I’ve got a new pair of legs.”
“If we play,” Mark paused, “you gotta gimme back my shoes and you gotta be It.”
Fenton stopped his circling and stood. He agreed to the bargain but added that we had to play all day long. He released one of Mark’s tennis shoes into Mark’s open palm.
Mark grabbed for his second shoe and Fenton hugged it to his chest.
“Promise,” Fenton prodded. “All day, or you’ll never get this one,” Fenton said, dangling the shoe by its lace. The lace was frayed at the end like a tuft of a wildebeest’s beard.
“All right, all right.” Mark snatched his shoe from Fenton’s hand. “Just give me the damn thing.” Mark sat on the gravel driveway that led to Fenton’s house to put his shoes back on. Mark’s feet were brownish gray on the bottom with small dots of rock stuck to the skin. He shoved his feet, rocks and all, into the tennis shoes, then stood. Fenton was right to take Mark’s shoes. It would teach Mark not to walk around with them off, just begging to get tetanus.
I pointed at the porch. “That’s home-base,” I said and took off running.
The slap of Mark’s shoes on the ground sounded close behind me, and a few seconds later, Fenton started counting. Mark and I hid together in Fenton’s shed. An aquarium full of paperbacks was on a shelf, and the books pressed the plastic seaweeds against the glass pane, making them look like streaks of mold. A metal rack with winter coats and double-lined flannel shirts hanging from it stood in the back corner. Mark and I sat on the floor beneath the coats, hoping if Fenton thought to look in the shed, we could still remain hidden.
I turned to Mark. “Think he’ll find us?”
Mark placed his hands on the side of my face and kissed me, his tongue inside my mouth. Then it slipped out and wet my face with slobber. My first kiss.
Mark shifted so he was on his knees facing me. He whispered, “What’s that like?” A bead of sweat dripped off the end of his nose.
I shrugged. “What’s it like for you?”
Mark separated from me, and we watched each other. His chin tilted down and his parted lips revealed the line of his bottom teeth, straight except for one shorter tooth. I leaned into him and put my tongue in his mouth before he could put his in mine again. I wanted to be good at kissing, and I wanted Mark to tell me I was good. It seemed I should have been wearing a strand of pearls and that he should wear a velvet smoking jacket, and we would be married.
I stuck my tongue deeper inside his mouth and grabbed the back of Mark’s head. We would dress in formal wear, Mark wearing a tux with tails, a top hat, and a cane, plus aftershave that smelled like freshly fallen pine needles and my dad’s beer. Me in a satin navy-blue Rockette’s uniform with high-cut legs and a cigarette tray hanging from my neck in case Mark needed to smoke.
I bit Mark’s lip. He tried to pull away, but I tightened my fingers in the hair on the back of his head, pressing our faces together until our teeth hit and the impact ran through my mouth, down my jaw line, and into my ear. And Mark would look debonair in his tux. D-E-B-O-N-A-I-R. And I would be a debutante. D-E-B-U-T-A-N-T-E.
I pulled Mark’s head away from mine, a smile on my face, the rest of our lives looking like slick pictures of magazine families. A paisley printed coat fell from its hanger in between Mark and me, and he shoved it to the side. Mark crawled closer, and we kissed again, gentler this time. Meanwhile, Fenton ran by the shed’s door blubbering something about how he knew he’d find us in the tree house. Mark grabbed my hand and stuffed it deep inside his pants. I yanked my hand out.
“What’re you doing?” I asked him in this breathy voice, just like the movies.
Mark reached for my hand again. I pulled it away.
“Aw, hell,” Mark said. He wiped his mouth and stood. He walked out of the shed and into the yard. I followed.
Fenton turned when he heard me slam the shed door then ran toward Mark and me. “You’re It,” Fenton screamed, even though he still had some ground to cover before he actually touched one of us. His curls hung in his eyes, and he wiped them out of the way.
“Shut up,” I said to Fenton. I still followed Mark.
Mark walked to the house. He seemed unable to hear us, only able to recognize the house directly in front of him as if pulling his focus away from it would make it disappear.
“We could be fancy together,” I yelled to Mark. I took a few more quick steps after him. “And grown-up,” I added, my outstretched arm dropping to my side.
When Fenton got close to Mark, he stuck out his hand to tag him.
Mark turned and slapped it. “Stop being an idiot,” Mark said and continued walking away from us.
Fenton looked down at his hand. He rubbed the back of it and the pink skin between each knuckle. “No,” Fenton whined. “We’re playing this all day.” When Mark ignored him and entered the house, Fenton turned to me. “Remember?” he asked.
“Shut up, Fenton,” I said, barely able to hold back tears. “God, do you have to ruin my entire life?”
Keeping my head below the bucket’s edge, I stretched my arm over the side and felt for the yellow plastic utility helmet I knew was there. I released the catch holding the helmet in place then pulled the helmet up and over the edge and inside the bucket with me. Since yesterday, Fenton, Mark and I were in all-out wartime, showing no mercy. Today, Mark barely spoke to me, and though yesterday he despised Fenton, today it was me. Mark’s faint smell of sweat and rubber I’d inhaled, a dark misshapen mole on one side of his neck right below the earlobe I’d licked, our Technicolor life shot down to a black and white nothing. He was letting it slip away, and all of this overwhelmed me. Mark would have me, he would like me, he just didn’t know it yet. But my knowing this made my palms moist. I thought if I ever got back to the house, I would make him a beaded necklace from the beads left over from the previous summer’s incentive to stay in The Speller’s Bee Club—a bead kit that included amazing, vibrant gemstones and highly durable black, plastic-coated string. Supposedly, the string was so tough it couldn’t be broken. But last summer, after having broken an ankle bracelet I spent hours threading, I shoved the kit far under my bed so I didn’t have to look at it. Now it was time to get it out again.
The bucket started to feel like a cage. To get to my house, I had to run past Mark and Fenton, and making a run for it was my only shot at freedom. I felt around the control panel until I grasped the knob, lowering the bucket until it rested in its lowest position.
“She’s coming,” I heard Fenton say to Mark. “Oh man, she’s so dead.”
Walnuts thundered the side of the bucket. Some probably even came from Fenton now that I was low and within his throwing range. I put on the helmet and snapped the chinstrap. In case of lightning, I was supposed to get out of the bucket to avoid electrocution, and helmets were to be worn during any strenuous labor where head injury was a possibility. It said all this on a laminated picture posted both on the inside and the outside of the bucket’s walls. I grasped the helmet, making sure it was on straight and tightened the chinstrap another snap. Some rules needed to be followed.
“Come outta there, and your mine,” Mark yelled, sounding hollow and angry at once, as if he was biting bone with his teeth.
I burst through the bucket’s door and jumped to the ground, careful to shove off the bottom of the bucket hard enough to clear the truck’s rusted bumper. Even the tight chinstrap didn’t stop the helmet’s sliding from one side to the other as I ran straight at Mark, a walnut in his hand and many more at his feet. I ran dead at him, fast like a loose hyena on the desert plains tailed by a lion, extending my stride, caught up in the red-hot feeling of adrenaline. A-D-R-E-N-A-L-I-N-E. I spelled, then said the word over and over again to myself, adrenaline, adrenaline, enjoying the way the “n’s” and “l” made my tongue work against the roof of my mouth, as I closed the gap between Mark and me.
“Ahhhhhhh,” Fenton screamed. The shrill battle cry of war.
The walnuts Fenton and Mark threw peppered my chest. One caught me in the throat, but still I kept running at Mark, hell-bent on making it home.
Prayer of Divine Inspiration