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August 24, 2003  

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Even though my eyes were closed, I remember the whole thing as though I had been looking on from the ceiling, in the farthest corner of the room from the door.

Don had just shut his eyes and danced up the aisle, turned at the desk, and shot right to the doorway. I wasn't very good at most of the games we played, but I didn't see what could be so hard about this. I was eager to try.

I didn't understand Don's dance until sometime after I was in the hospital. I didn't figure that the whirling arms and legs were helping him find where the desks were, and that jumping around like he was doing the boogaloo kept his legs apart and limber, more stable in case he started to trip. Maybe he didn't figure this either -- maybe he just closed his eyes and made it to the door without looking.

I closed my eyes and started out.


None of it might have happened if I could truthfully revise that previous sentence to, "I thought of a plan, closed my eyes, and started out." My plans never worked out -- asking for Christmas presents, capture-the-flag tactics, how to hide the stickers I wasn't supposed to have put on my bedroom door. Maybe this was the first time I hadn't stopped to think; maybe this was when I began to believe that life's results have little to do with rational plans and preparations, but are shaped more by arbitrary chance, the way a group of boys stands around a circle drawn in the dirt, deciding which marble to shoot at first.

Maybe I was just too nervous about screwing up. I can see me there, rigid, arms fixed at my sides, "Indian walking," moving one foot forward, then swinging it back until its heel stopped against the planted foot's toe, then again. My heart was beating fast enough to win a race. Everywhere I felt cold and wet. My arms were clamped to my sides like splints. Panic began to weave a cocoon around me.

Forward, back, stop, plant. Again. I rocked gently from side to side as each foot shuffled forward and came down. I looked like a tightrope walker who wanted to fall.

After a few steps I had no idea where I was. I bent a hand up from the wrist and wiggled my fingers, but there was nothing immediately next to me to feel. How many steps have I taken...five? How many desks are in each aisle? How many steps does it take to pass a desk? How many Indian steps to a regular step?

I was up to 24 steps when I thought I was at the teacher's big glass-topped wooden desk. I stopped, turned, teetered, and tripped. I remember thinking don't quit as I toppled like a pole, and my jaw slammed into the carefully rounded corner of thick plate glass that held samples of good and bad writing, calendars, nwespaper clippings, and prayers for African missionaries captive against Mrs. Weerson's desktop like a microscope slide readied for lab work against ignorance.

Out in the hallway, the sixth grade teacher, Mr. Jenson, was sitting with me on the steps down to the gym.

"...mother will be here in a few minutes. And while we're waiting for her, I want to double-check, and be sure I know just what happened. Now, why did Don push you into Mrs. Weerson's desk?

"No. We had ouh eyeth clothed, and I juth twipped." It hurt a lot, but I had stopped crying from pain the year before. The excitement helped, too. I could stick my tongue out through my lip! There was a lot of bleeding, but I swallowed most of it. I felt courageous, and tough.

"Maybe you just don't remember...why else would you just walk into the desk like that?" Mr. Jenson paused, looked around, put his hand on my knee, and hunched over to look me in the eye. "Look, if you're worried about getting Don in trouble, I want you to know that the truth is the most important thing here. Ok?" I nodded, bloody tongue poking out through my lip.

"Now, didn't Don push you into Mrs. Weerson's desk?" He said it louder now, even though he was closer to me. Kids standing behind us trying to hear what was giong on began to whisper.

My lip was hurting worse; every throb from a heartbeat felt like it was ripping wider apart. I pulled my tongue back into my mouth, and the sudden cooling ewas a hook ripping me open. A little blood dripped to the floor. I had the crazy idea that my pain was somehow blocking Mr. Jenson's ears; a bubble of hurt that deadened everything around it.

"No! He walked to the fwont, and I did, too, but I twipped!" I know I said it, but all that escaped the bubble were sobs. Mr. Jenson asked me again....

After I started crying in the hallway I didn't stop until my mom got me to the hospital. The pain and frustration just weren't worth the tears in this strange, huge place with no one but strange adults in it. I was put on a gurney and rolled away from my mom. An old guy with huge teeth that smiled all the time kept telling me I was going to be all right, banged the gurney through a set of doors into a small white room with a looming Cästle overhead lamp, a squat white metal cabinet, and a short green stool. He waited there with me until two other men came in, and then he left. The two new men just stood and looked at me until my mom came in. The older one started talking, something about how the younger one was an intern here from college, and he'd be doing the stitches, and could he talk with my mom about how this happened out in the hall. The younger man sat on the green stool and turned to me while my mom and the older man left the room.

The intern looked nervous, and kept asking me if I was comfortable, and what did we do in third grade. He fiddled with some stuff inside the cabinet, then swung his arm toward me holding a dripping syringe. I was going to feel a little bee sting, he said, at which point I started crying again, because bee stings made me swell up and have to go to the hospital. The intern tried to get a grip on my quivering lip as he stuck the needle in, slowly injecting an anesthetic to shrink the pain bubble while he sewed me back together. He poked too hard, though, and the needle went all the way through, and the shot squirted down to my stomach. I tried to tell him he'd missed, but he just kept telling me how brave I was while he held my jaw shut with his left hand, and washed my face with some orange stuff in his other hand. Then he picked up a long curving needle threaded with thick black cord, and began to stitch.

When I screamed he realized that I wasn't at all brave or comfortable, and gave me a new injection. After that I couldn't feel the stitching at all, but a few minutes later I got sick to my stomach, and couldn't throw up because everything inside me was asleep, and I had to have my stomach pumped. Then we went home. All the way through town and down the long lakeshore road that took us west to our house I marvelled at how still I was inside, how quiet I could be with the machinery of life asleep under the anesthetic. I've often tried to get that woozy quiet back, but my internal rumblings and pulsings now seem immune to this world's anesthetics.

By my my first day back at school I was just learning how to use my tongue to play with the ends of the stitches that hung in my mouth without choking. Everyone was waiting for the first bell. Rod and Rick came up to me. Rod was all sharp angles, and Rick was slow curves; together they looked like a hook tempting a fish.

"Hey. If that Don tries to trip you again, you just let us know and we'll take care of him. He shouldn't have done that, and if he comes back here, he'll get his."

Rod hitched his jeans up, tapped Rick on the arm, and pointed at me. "We'll show that peppergut where he gets off, just like Monday. If he comes back."

Everybody had something counting against them in grade school. The Veneklaasen twins had a retarded sister who couldn't go to school. Vicky Miller's brother had gotten polio because Mr. Miller thought the Salk vaccine came from the Communists. Judy's dad was a preacher who only had a tent for a church, and her brother carried a knife. Louie's house still had just a dirt floor, and his mom drank and swore a lot. Rick's dad pumped out septic tanks and could never dump all the smell. Rod's dad spent a lot of weekends in jail, then he worked for my dad during the week. I was the boss's kid.

There were two rich kids in school, and I was half of them. Kids' dads in my school either worked for my dad making furniture, or Craig Shell's dad at the cardboard plant, or they were like Rick's dad, and pumped sewers, or worked at the coal dock, or farmed.

Don's dad was American, and his mom was Mexican, and in the caste of the township's soiled blue collar dramatis personnae that made him a peppergut, a beaner, a spic. We were still too young to know that Don's real crime was that his dad hadn't married white, that his family was poisonous, that they survived as well as they did just because no one had looked at them closely enough.

"What happened to Don; why isn't he here?"

"Whaddya mean, what happened to him? He got suspended for a week after he pushed you. Dint'cha know?" Rod looked at me like I'd just said I'd never heard of the moon landing. "They're all in a lot of trouble."

I couldn't believe it. Don was my friend, he was a kid, he hadn't pushed me.... "You guys, he didn't do anything. I just tripped...I was stupid." Rod had beat somebody up once; I wondered what he meant by trouble. I wondered what he meant by "they."

"My dad says no one at the plant is going to let him make rate anymore, and if he can't make rate, your dad'll get rid of him, won't he? And then we won't have 'em around anymore. Right?"

The bell rang, and Rod and Rick went off to reading class. I just stood in the hall, sucking on the four strings of my stitches, feeling that I had betrayed Don somehow, feeling sinking, lost, black. I started to gag on the threads, and had to sit in the office for the first half-hour of school.

We all met, as we always did after school, at the gas station. I bought a candy bar for each of us, and we started off towards Rod's house on our bikes. Rod was fast on a bike, and he'd buzz past us, turn around, and buzz us again. I never knew how he could be so fast. I had a two-speed Schwinn, and he just had an old Ward's with fat tires and rust, but he was always faster. I was trying to ask Rick about what had happened to Don, but Rick wasn't saying much. He seemed nervous about Don, the way we got nervous if we broke a window with a ball or put a hole in a screen door.

Down by Stamm's house Rod buzzed past us, grinning, eating the rushing wind of his speed like a Dairy Queen sundae, and turned down Wolverine street, away from his house.

"Hey! Where ya goin'? Hold on!" Rick and I stood up on our pedals, and started cranking to catch up wih Rod.

"He wants you to see this," Rick said. "His...his dad said we should show you."

By the time we crossed the field behind the volunteer firehouse, I knew we were going to go past Don's place. We cut back to the path behind old man Kuipers' barn, jumped across the sandy ditch onto the road, and settled, three abreast, into a slow pace past the houses.

Don's yard had a pile of coal in it, and a window on the front of the house was broken. The coal was dirty but shiny. Some of it had rolled into the trenches left by the big truck that must have dumped it there. There was a lot of coal. I saw a little black sworl spin up off the ground in a breeze, and then diappear. The lawn was dim with dust, and parts of the white-painted siding were gray.

An orange and yellow curtain fluttered in and out of the broken window. I'd been in the house; that was the kitchen. Looking at the window, with the curtain flicking in and out, made me think of my lip, and talking with Mr. Jenson, and feeling my stomach go numb.

At first we just stared. My bike drifted up to Rick's, and we both sped up and away to avoid the collision. I began to see how the world works; I knew how to answer Mr Jenson's first question: Don had pushed me because that's what everyone said he did.

Rod surged away, turning tight circles down at the corner. We all turned around there and headed back toward the firehouse path. Some rain had started to sprinkle down, and the coal in Don's yard began to glisten under its black surface, like a diseased jewel.

As we passed the house and began to pick up speed for the jump across the ditch, Rod snorted, then whispered in a ten-year old sotto voce: "Pepperguts. See what they did? See what they get? See when they push?"