We called the wooden bleachers the Big Steps. They overlooked a pit of dust and gravel, generously called the field. I sat on the Big Steps and watched as two boys in my grade rooted around the edge of the field as though searching for a lost ball.
They emerged, each holding a long strip of wild grass. Ollie, the smaller of the two, didn’t have all his permanent teeth yet, so he wouldn’t give more than an unnerving, close-mouthed smile. Roger Foher, tall, ugly, and hulking, had ruddy-brown hair and a crooked nose.
I skipped down the Big Steps with some of the other boys. Half hidden around the corner, the playground teacher smoked and dropped ashes onto her gray dress, trying to set herself on fire. We formed a circle around Roger and Ollie. Another boy shoved me out of the way to get in close. He cheered with his fists balled.
Roger struck first, backhanding the grass in the circular sweep of a swordsman. I could still hear, over the shouting, the grass slicing through the air. It left a red welt on the milky skin of Ollie’s calf.
Ollie raised the grass over his head like a lion tamer with a whip. He cracked it on the shoulder of Roger’s T-shirt. The sound—the impact—was muffled by the fabric, and Roger laughed. Ollie stayed grim and silent; the first boy to cry out or bleed lost the game.
Roger struck the same spot again, crossing the welt into an X. Ollie’s grass wrapped limply around Roger’s side. Roger turned the X into an asterisk. Ollie got one solid hit, on the fleshy part of Roger’s upper arm. Roger continued to crisscross the same spot on Ollie’s leg.
I could smell the teacher’s cigarette, see its muted red dot against the gray sky. The boy beside me stamped his feet, stirring up the dust around us, throwing gravel against the back of my legs.
It was Roger’s turn. He paused, expectant, like an animal when it hears movement in the brush. Squinting his eyes, he pointed at Ollie’s leg. The jagged ladder of skin peaked in a spot too bright to be just a mark.
Roger raised his arms and spun around. Champion of the world. The other boys were quiet. The strong had beaten the weak; there was nothing exciting about that. The boy who had shoved me went to walk Ollie off the field. Ollie shoved him away.
The boys dispersed. I stuck around. Roger noticed me. “You played before?” he said, gesturing with his strand of grass, green and impotent now. I shook my head. “You should try it. It’ll make a man out of you.”
Two years earlier, in the first grade, we did all of our assignments in a slim composition book to be collected at the end of the year. I couldn’t imagine consequences that far away. Maybe I’d be dead by then, or living on the moon.
One of our assignments was What I Want to Be When I Grow Up. Our teacher had written several suggestions on the board: doctor, astronaut, policeman, scientist, businessman, and Mommy. Mommy was the only one with a capital letter.
Working in studious silence, I drew myself as a Mommy. I thought of the mommies in magazine ads and picture books, always bending at the waist over their tied aprons with their breasts on display—serving pancakes, wrapping presents, patting the heads of puppies, vacuuming sparkling-clean floors. I drew myself with a stiff halo of hair, swaddled babies around my feet. A satisfied smile from ear to ear. “I want to be a Mommy.”
Two days later, I found my notebook lying open on my bed. That page was ripped out. I asked Bonnie, my younger sister, if she’d done it. The evidence didn’t point to Bonnie: she could hardly have ripped so neatly, right from the staples, making it seem as though the page had never been there to begin with. There was no one else in the family I was willing to confront.
The year I became friends with Roger, we were asked again. I said fireman. A picture was optional. I worked furiously on mine. The fireman had an ax in one hand and a woman in the other, and his muscles were as bulbous as snow peas. Flames danced all around. I could imagine only being the woman, my arms around the thick neck of my savior, a high-heeled shoe dangling from my raised foot. I left my notebook open on the coffee table when I went to bed.
My father came into the room I shared with Bonnie after we were supposed to be asleep. I watched his shape swoop down like a bird to kiss Bonnie on the forehead. He stopped near my bed and saw the whites of my eyes. He patted me on the foot through the blanket. The door clicked shut. I stayed awake for a long time afterward, wiggling my warmed toes.
Ollie and I waited at the base of the Big Steps for Roger. I asked Ollie about his leg and he gave me a withering look, like I had asked something overly intimate. I tried to think of a topic that would interest him. I was used to talking with my sisters. “How did Roger break his nose?”
Ollie pointed to the end of the field, where Roger was jogging toward us. “One time, he said it was in a fight with his cousin, who lives across town. Another time, he said he tried to skateboard off his roof. Some girl asked him yesterday and he said he got struck by lightning.”
The boy who’d shoved me the day before came to join us. “Hey, Lester,” said Ollie. They nodded to each other.
“Hi, Peter,” Lester said. I gave him the same knowing nod and crossed my arms over my chest the way they did.
We didn’t speak until Roger arrived. “New game,” he said.
No fear crossed Ollie’s and Lester’s faces.
“I put three big rocks at the other end of the field,” Roger went on. “Last guy there gets them all thrown at him.”
Ollie and Lester nodded. I looked back. Behind us, I could see the yard teacher chastising a girl for chewing gum. There was no reason to bother with us. This was what boys did.
Ollie shot off immediately. Lester and Roger were close on his heels, and I followed. We broke right through some kids who were kicking a ball back and forth. Their shouts fell behind us.
My lungs seized up. I ran as fast as I could. The distance between me and their backs grew, became unbridgeable. As I watched Ollie crash into the fence with his arms out, and Lester and Roger slow to a stop, I considered turning and running the other way.
By the time I reached the end of the field, each of the boys held a stone in his hands. Roger tossed his back and forth between his palms. I doubled over, my hands on my thighs, and stared through my knees. I could hear a jump-rope rhyme coming from somewhere—musical voices, an even meter.
“Straighten up,” Roger said.
I tried to stand tall, but the moment they drew their arms back, I instinctively crouched and threw my hands over my face. With my eyes closed, I heard the stones hit: Thump. Thump. Thump.
They’d all missed.
Roger barked, “Peter! Stand still!”
They gathered up their stones again. Ollie caught my eye and quickly looked away. He was enjoying this—the victor at last, his fast, mousy frame good for something.
I couldn’t help myself. The stones left their hands and I dropped instantly down. The stones flew over my head.
“This isn’t working,” Lester said.