New town. New life. Opportunities afresh. Only thing is, you’re still you.
Boys often don’t speak the truth with each other. Especially in groups. Your status in a group is important, and you work hard to maintain it. In our group, even though I was relatively new, I stood pretty high up, close to top dog status if you discount Roger; he occupied a different sort of position, sort of a plenipotentiary one. He was more a facilitator. I had the ability to be a leader, but that wasn’t my inclination or my personality. Tim and I were the two oldest, we’d both be seniors, and so we could have assumed a top-dog position as if by divine right. But Tim was out for Tim and we all knew that, and I didn’t want the role, so by default it fell on Roger’s shoulders.
Actually, Roger was more a natural leader than I was, and he liked that role better than I did. But I was older, I liked being looked up to even if I never wanted to take advantage of that, but I didn’t want to do or say anything to negatively affect my standing in this group.
But now we were talking girls, and experiences, which is where this has been leading. My romantic history was, I had had a couple of girlfriends while living back where I’d been. You go through middle school, your body is telling you it’s time to reproduce even while society is telling you it isn’t. I was a normal kid, kind of quiet but not overly shy, and when other guys started dating, I did, too. I liked girls and was friendly with a lot of them. It was funny, though. When I asked girls out, the ones I asked were always good friends. And when we went out, we had fun, but for reasons I couldn’t quite figure out, making out with them didn’t seem right. They were friends! Who wants to feel up a friend? Icky!
Well, it seemed that all my male friends liked doing that a whole lot and didn’t find it icky at all. I seemed to be the only one who found it awkward, embarrassing and unsettling. But I did, and any sexual activities I had with girls was because they took the lead. I don’t think the way it’s supposed to work is for the girl to be more aggressive, wanting to do more than the boy. In my case, that’s how it was.
I didn’t get it. I had crushes on girls. On guys, too, but that was what we were told in Sex Ed was what everyone experienced. Also, that the same-sex attractions would fade as we got into our later teens. I kept waiting for that to happen, thinking the making-out part with girls would probably feel different then.
It hadn’t happened yet. I didn’t think I was gay. I thought I was a late bloomer. I had made out with girls. I hadn’t gone all the way with one, not even half that, but had touched two and they’d touched me, and that had felt good, the ‘them touching me’ part. I’d gotten hard when they did that, after a while at least, and it was nice, but I hadn’t enjoyed the ‘touching them’ part much. Those girls wanted me to spend more time down there, touching them and more. So I did, but I was always glad when they’d had enough. Anyway, with those girls, it wasn’t love; it was sex.
But that was okay. That’s what teenage sex was supposed to be like, wasn’t it? Just feeling your way, if I can make a bad pun.
I’d never done anything with a boy. Certainly never dated one, or given any of the ones I’d had crushes on any reason to think I felt the way I did. Those crushes hadn’t stopped as the years passed. I still did have crushes. I still ignored them. I expected, when the late blooming finally hit, I’d leave the crushes behind; I didn’t want to have a history with boys behind me to be ashamed of or have anything to compare to my expected-to-be satisfying experiences with a girl, or girls. And to be truthful, I wasn’t sure what I thought about sex with a boy. I knew sex with a girl didn’t thrill me. But some of the boy porn I’d seen on the internet—well, ugh! A lot of that didn’t seem like something I wanted to do, either.
Of course, I couldn’t say any of this, not to the others and certainly not to Tim. So, I merely left it where it was, that I’d had a girl friend, I’d had sex, and that was that. It wasn’t really a lie, either; I merely hadn’t done the ultimate deed. Petting is still sex, isn’t it? Of course it is. If the guys in our group wanted to interpret that differently, that was their deal. I joined in the boasting and teasing, and all remained right with my world.
We eventually climbed the stairs again and began another game.
Tim was still smarting a little because of Jimmy’s teasing. I could see that. It didn’t really concern me; he was often a little hostile. Of the four other boys, he was the one I could never warm up to. I played endless games with him, both on the same team and on the other. There’s a camaraderie you form doing that. Maybe not a real closeness, but . . . you do become comrades; maybe a comradeship is the best way to put it. Sort of what guys feel going through basic training in the army. They develop a feeling of community with their peers. They don’t like them all, but they are part of each other. While in their unit, they’re on the same wavelength. Leave the army, though, and they may never the others again and most likely won’t miss more than maybe one or two of them. The only chemistry they had with the group was an artificial, forced one.
Tim was competitive. We all were in our own way. But his competitiveness defined him in a way that was different from the rest of us. We all knew we were playing to have fun, to work off a lot of energy, to unite in the strange and unique way boys in athletics do, a way that makes us feel part of something larger than just ourselves. We all liked to win the individual games we played, but that was secondary to the experience, to just being there in the barn playing the game, to being a unit with no adults supervising us, to having fun in the summer doing something we liked.
Not so with Tim. He wanted to win, and he did everything he could to accomplish that other than playing dirty. And today, he was pissed.
We would pick new teams for each game we played. We usually played to a score of 21. That meant 21 baskets, not 21 points; to put it another way, each basket counted one point, not two. We didn’t shoot foul shots. We just took the ball out of bounds and threw it back in after someone called a foul. The team that committed the foul gave up the ball. But we tried not to foul much. We didn’t play a real rough game. Ours were basically friendly games, and purposeful fouls weren’t part of that. Incidental ones simply rewarded the ball to the team whose member had been fouled. If some kid started fouling on purpose, he wouldn’t be invited back to play again.
Anyway, for this particular game right after our break, the teams were Tim, Phil and Carl against me, Roger and Jimmy. Those weren’t two evenly matched teams. The two best players were Tim and I, the two weakest players were Carl and Phil. Everyone knew before we even started that our team was going to win. But since we always changed teams, all combinations of players got together eventually; after all, it was only one game. No big deal.
So we started playing, and it became pretty obvious right from the get-go that Tim was going to do his best to win that game. He wanted the satisfaction of winning against a better team, winning a game no one thought he could win, winning with a team where he was the only decent player. It would be an ego boost, a huge one. So, what that meant was, he dominated the ball. He took every shot, tried for every rebound, and he completely froze his teammates out.
As already explained, the way the games were usually played, whoever was on Phil’s team made sure he got the ball now and then, and the guys on the team he was playing against made sure to hang back on defense so Phil had the opportunity to shoot. You make allowances for players like that. You want them to have fun, too. We were all basically nice guys that way. Well, maybe not so much Tim, but the rest of us.
When it became apparent that Tim was going to play against the other three of us and ignore his teammates, we three began keying on him. This meant Carl and Phil were wide open for passes and shots because we started double and triple teaming Tim, but Tim was determined, and he still wouldn’t pass them the ball. He’d try to fight through our defense, but he couldn’t do it. He became more and more frustrated. When we had the ball, he couldn’t defend against three guys, and Carl and Phil, since they were getting intentionally shut out on offense, couldn’t see much point in playing defense; it would merely prolong a game they weren’t enjoying, so why do it? They didn’t. This left Tim trying to stop three guys, and when we saw this, we spaced ourselves out so he couldn’t. It was a game of much quick passing, pulling Tim out of position, and shooting uncontested layup after layup.
The game didn’t last long. This was a good thing as Tim was so hostile afterwards that he simply walked off. Left the barn. Left us with only five guys. We finished up that day playing some thre-on-two basketball. Even that was more fun than the game we’d just played. But that was Tim. He was overly competitive, pigheaded, and often wrong but unable to back down.
+ + + +
We were a noisy bunch, as a group of mid-teen, unsupervised boys will be. The exception was Phil. He was a very quiet kid. He seemed withdrawn to me. He wanted to be with us, that was clear. He was there every day. Or maybe he just wanted to be near Carl. When we took breaks, he’d always sit down next to Carl. When we were done for the day, those two would always leave together. Phil didn’t speak much, so getting to know what he thought was just about impossible.
I was going to find out more about him the next day.
Tim was over his sulking by then. I was back to just playing basketball again, which was how I liked it. I didn’t need all the drama of the day before. We were in the middle of a game. Phil, Carl and I against Tim, Roger and Jimmy. We were skins. For some reason, Tim always wanted to be shirts. Which was fine with me because it was always warm in the barn and shirts got soaked with sweat and became uncomfortable. Skins was cooler and definitely better. Whoever was playing with Tim would gripe, but gripes to Tim about anything would always fall on deaf ears. With Tim it tended to be his way or no way. Compromise wasn’t in his vocabulary.
We were getting clobbered, which had been a given from the outset. Paul and Carl were the weakest players, and I was a better team player than scorer, so we knew getting clobbered was the expected outcome. I was in the position Tim had been in the day before, but unlike him, I just continued playing my usual game, feeding my teammates and playing the game right. I didn’t really care if we won or not. I loved the game, playing the game, and the score didn’t matter much at all. The individual plays, being in the right place defensively, seeing what was going to open up offensively just before it did, being ready to pass to the perfect spot, dekeing my defender so the passing lane would be open when it needed to be, getting in position to effectively block out for rebounds—those were the things that mattered, what brought me joy. So, we were getting our ass handed to us. Didn’t bother me at all.
The door from the top of the stairs into the court crashed open. A man was standing there, unshaven, a beer can in his hand, a cigarette hanging from his lips. The game stopped. I had the ball and just let it drop. It rolled to the side of the court and stopped against the wall, unnoticed.
“Dammit, Philip, I told you to get the yard mowed and then we were going. I told you! And here you are with your fairy friends and you’re half naked and the yard isn’t mowed. You get your ass over here. Now! I’ll show you. Don’t pay attention when I tell you something, I’ll show you.”
He sounded drunk to me; some of his words were slurred. He was sort of unsteady on his feet, too. I took a quick look at Phil. He’d gone pale. I could see Carl, too—see him move so he wasn’t just standing right next to Phil but now was a little in front of him.
“NOW!” The man shouted the word, took a drag on his cigarette, then flicked it out onto the court where it lay, a tendril of smoke rising.
Phil took a slow step toward the man who I guessed was his father, then another. Carl hesitated, then came along, advancing with Phil, one step behind. The man watched, his eyes malevolent, then turned, walked through the door and clomped down the stairs. From the corner of my eyes, I saw Roger pull his cellphone from his backpack.
Phil walked through the door, Carl behind him, and I heard them start down. There was a feeling in the air—and tenseness. I wasn’t sure what was going on, but it didn’t feel good, and I knew I needed to go outside, too, and so headed for the stairs after stomping on the cigarette. I heard Roger talking on the phone but didn’t wait to listen.
When I got outside, I was just in time to see the man grab Phil by his arm, yank it hard enough so Phil screamed, yank it again pulling Phil up halfway off his feet, then swing his other arm, his hand in a fist, and hit him in the face. The man let go, and Phil crumpled to the ground, where he curled up.
What happened next came as a complete surprise. Carl screamed, a scream of rage rather than Phil’s scream of pain, and charged at the man, running at him with a look on his face I’d never seen from Carl. The man saw him coming, set his feet, and when Carl tried to tackle him, sidestepped and grabbed his arm as he went by. The man was still unsteady and so Carl’s weight and the fact he was moving almost toppled him. But he stayed upright and made a fist, and I yelled, “Stop!” as loudly as I could.
The man hesitated, looked at me, and the door to Roger’s house opened. A man stepped out, and I knew as soon as I saw him he was Roger’s dad. The resemblance was uncanny. They could have been twins, but a generation apart.
The man was holding a baseball bat. He too shouted at Phil’s dad. “Hold it right there. And let go of that boy.” His words were an order, and there was lots of force behind them. The man walked towards Phil’s dad who was still clinging to Carl’s arm, his fist still raised. “You hit that boy,” Roger’s dad said, “and I’ll break your arm.”
“Fuck you,” Phil’s dad said, then turned back to Carl. He scowled, looked back at Roger’s dad with scorn in his eyes, and then he swung his fist at Carl. Carl saw it coming, ducked and turned away as well as he could. The fist hit him a glancing blow in the back of his head.
Roger’s dad was there by then and didn’t hesitate. He swung the bat, and he swung it hard. The crack it made when it hit the other man’s arm left little doubt he’d accomplished what he’d said he’d do.
Phil’s dad shrieked, let go of Carl, took a step, stumbled over Carl and fell to the ground. He moaned. Phil was moaning, too, and I couldn’t help think that this seemed a family affair.
And then I heard a voice I hadn’t before. I turned and saw a state trooper standing next to his car. I hadn’t heard him pull up; I’d been totally concentrating on what was happening in front of me. Seeing the trooper, however, just that fast, I knew what Roger had been doing; first he’d called his dad, then 911.
The trooper looked over the scene: Roger’s dad standing over Phil’s dad, the baseball bat still in his hand, Phil lying curled up and softly whimpering now, Carl getting up off the ground and rubbing the back of his head, and Phil’s dad also on the ground and making quite a racket, moaning, then pitifully complaining about his arm, then moaning again. It sounded quite theatrical to me.
The trooper spoke again. “What I saw,” he said, his voice entirely calm, “was Dick there holding that boy’s arm—that boy’s name is Carl, isn’t it?—and hitting him, then tripping over that bat that Roger must have left lying in the grass. Dick stumbled, took a step trying to stay on his feet, but he was probably too drunk to remain upright. I saw him fall right on the bat and I’d guess from the sounds he’s making, his arm came down on the bat with all his weight coming down behind it, and what he did was, he broke his arm. Landed hard with all his weight, right on that bat. Is that what you saw, Dan? That’s what it looked like to me. I see you picked up the bat, Dan. Maybe you should lay it back down again, right there near Dick. We don’t want the crime scene being tampered with at all.”
Dan looked at him, smiled, said, “Yeah, that’s about right, more or less. With things happening so fast, it’s easy to be a little confused.”
The trooper smiled. “That’s normal. Happens that way with most witnesses. Three witnesses always have different versions of the same event. Anyway, what happened to Phil? I wasn’t here in time to see that.”
I could tell from what was being said that Roger’s father was named Dan and Phil’s father was Dick, and that the trooper knew most everyone involved. Dan was now on his way to see about Phil, who was still lying on the grass. Carl was on his feet, rubbing the back of his head. Dan stopped and looked back at the trooper. “Maybe you should call for an ambulance. Phil may need one, and I’m pretty sure Dick’ll need transport. Maybe twice: to the hospital and then jail.”
“He jerked Phil’s arm then hit him with a closed fist, right in the face. The fucker needs to be in jail!” Carl told the trooper while still rubbing his head. “He hit me, too. Assault on two minors.”
“Jail is where he’ll be—and it won’t be a brief visit, either,” the trooper said. “He’s on probation for domestic violence, probation after already serving time, and now we have this. He’ll be going away and I doubt he’ll be out before Phil graduates. I’ll call an ambulance, Dan. Does Phil need one, too?”
Dan had come over to look at Phil and was crouching down next to him. “I don’t think so. But I need to get an ice bag on his face right away. I think his arm and shoulder are okay.”
Phil was sitting up now, tentatively wiggling his shoulder. The trooper watched for a moment, then said to the rest of us, “Guess I need to call CPS then. Phil’s mother took off when Dick got out of jail. I don’t know if we can find her or not.”
“No.” Carl stood up and turned to the trooper. “He’ll stay with us. Just like before. I’ll, uh, my mom and I, we’ll see to him. CPS will try to put him who knows where. Don’t call them.”
The trooper stared at Carl, and I saw his lips twitch. He was holding back a smile. “I guess maybe my report could say something about him trying to hit Phil and hitting you instead, Carl. Same penalty for him, and Phil would be ignored. That okay with you?”
Carl grinned and nodded, said, “He hit me pretty hard. I’ll be happy to testify to that,” then walked over to the trooper and high fived him. I was to learn, eventually, that Carl and the trooper were second cousins. This was a small community, and everyone seemed to know or was related to everyone else. The trooper lived right down the road; that’s why he was able to get to Dan’s house so quickly.
Carl went back to help Phil onto his feet. They walked to the house, and Roger was there holding the door open for them. Before they went in, though, Phil turned to the trooper. “Thanks, sir,” he said, speaking so softly I could hardly hear him, and I was only about ten yards away.
I realized I was feeling funny. Adrenaline, I assumed. I never liked violence. Never. I’d never been in a fight. Now, just watching what had happened, just being close to it, this shaky feeling was catching up to me. I sat down and leaned back against the side of the barn. I knew it would take me a few minutes to settle down.
Eventually Roger came out, and Phil and Carl were with him. They came and sat next to me against the barn. We could hear the occasional bounce of the basketball upstairs inside. I guessed Jimmy and Tim were playing a game of horse or one-on-one.
We didn’t talk. My emotions were still all over the place—topsy-turvy, if you will. I was still coming down emotionally from what I’d witnessed. But the quiet of the farmland area, the simple sitting among with three other guys I liked, was reassuring somehow. And I realized something right then. I realized in the calmness that now followed rather than preceded the storm we’d all been part of, that we four sitting quietly with each other, we four could do this; this was right for us. It was a personality think, I believe. Tim and Jimmy, upstairs, this wasn’t who they were. This ability to sit and ponder, quietly without the need to speak, without moving, this was part of us, part of the personalities we all had. And I felt a closeness to them all I hadn’t before.
The other two, they were fundamentally different from us four in this sense.
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