Jun 29, 2005


He stood on his side of the street, pretending not to look at me looking at him. I stood on my side of the street watching him focusing his full attention on looking idle and uninterested, kicking at the gravel rocks.

Hey, I said. How old are you?

Karl was 8. I was 7. His dad drove a jacked-up Toyota and drank O’Dools. Karl was a small kid from somewhere tougher than here and his hair was all buzzed down to a rat tail that hung down his neck.

He was 8 and I was 7, so we were friends by default of age and he’d come across the street and Steve and Mark next door would come over the split-rail fence and my brother and I would come out and we’d play gang-of-boys games. King of the hill. Guns. War. Water guns. Hide and go seek.. Baseball. Horse. Football. Lots and lots of hand ball. One time we even tried golf but it was pretty boring, and then I broke a window.

Karl was fast. He was the fastest kid we knew. My brother decided he needed to grow a rat tail so he could be that fast, but my parents wouldn’t let him.

One time we were playing touch football in the yard, with the fence and the driveway as end zones and two saplings as obstacles. There was a kid from down the street who’d come by on his bike and decided to play. We were running our non-plays and screaming and trying to team catch Karl when he’d double fake around the trees. Then suddenly Karl’s yelling that we cheated and there’s a turmoil of rules and details debated and we’re all standing there on the edge of the driveway trying to come to something that’ll make the game fun again.

No way, Karl said. you didn’t touch me. I went like this and you were like, here, and then I made it in. We reenacted it two or three times and decided what must’ave happened was that Karl just didn’t feel it and that a two-hand touch still counts even if you don’t feel it. Karl started yelling - cheaters, liars - and quit. Faggot, said the kid from down the street, which was the first time I’d ever heard the word.

Now we didn’t know what to do, so we’re standing there feeling like shit and then Karl comes out his house followed by his mother screaming at him. He must not be a son of hers. Is he a coward? How come he doesn’t just go over and kick our asses? No son of hers was a quitter, would walk away. Her son would be a man and would be over there across the street punching our stupid faces. And so on like this. Karl pretended we weren’t all staring at his mother, this crazy screaming women who wanted us to brawl over touch football.

I think that was the beginning of the feud. Officially it was later, when Karl spent the day killing slugs with slug poison and then he and Mark and Steve told my brother they were going to get him with it and my brother hit Mark in the head with a hammer. Mark was the logical choice. He was closer to my brother in age and so the betrayal was more nasty. And he was the pretty kid, the angelic blond boy doing modeling for kid’s clothing. So my brother chunked the hammer at his forehead and left a big and beautifully ugly purple bruise on his face. They were forbidden to play with us. We were forbidden to play with them. Our own personal Cold War set in.

The three of them threw rocks at our house for months. They began a doorbell ditching campaign and mastered an array of dirty looks. We played in the back yard. They ran up big support-our-troops-and-get-that-dirty-Saddam American flags and talked about bombs. Dad was a Democrat and a pacifist who told us the war was about oil and that bombs were killing Iraqi kids.. Rumors went around among the kids at the park and people stopped playing with us. Someone told me that Karl’s friends were coming and when they got here they were gonna beat me up.

And then, one day, it looked like they’d come. We were in the park and saw Karl and 15 or so boys with bikes in synchronized karate practice out by the monkey bars, shouting Bruce Lee grunts in unison. The kid from down the street was there and started talking tough and desperate, started talking like this was Armageddon or the Alamo. His dad was a cop, he knew about these things. He found three rusty little razor blades on the bike path and showed them to me. When they come, he said. He looked at me and waited. My sister looked at me and my brother looked at me and it was me they were coming for so it was my job to get us out.

Put them back where you found them, I said, thinking I didn’t want to cut myself with a stupid and dull little blade covered in corroded-colored rust and die of lockjaw. Besides, they knew karate.

When they came, they swarmed over the hillock peddling like hell and it looked like there were more’n 15. Twenty, at least. We heard them behind us, turned, and were surrounded. They straddled their bikes, sneered, and talked to each other about how shit out of luck we were.

’K Karl, said the oldest one with the really cool black BMX bike. The mob shut up so he could talk. You said you were gonna beat him up. Go ‘head.

I looked at Karl. I had expected something more like a comic book swirl of dust and limbs, with explosions of BAM and POW while I had my head stomped into the ground. But it was just Karl, here to show me, and the big kid with the bike going let’s you and him fight. The mob looked at Karl, waiting, wondering what was taking him so long. He looked at the ground, pretending he didn’t know we were all looking at him.

I turned my back, and walked away. C’mon, I said to my sister and brother and the kid from down the street. We walked out of the circle, the bikes parting, wobbly turning aside to let us pass.

You’re just gonna let him walk away? I heard the big one say. You a pussy? Someone went ba-ba-bawk-baawwwk and the crowd started up again, hissing sisss-sy and pus-sy. I didn’t turn to look, but I imagined them closing in on him.

I’d been in fights before. I lost one when I was 4 to a kid who was 8. One time after church the parents had had to pull me off the pastor’s kid who had laughed when he tripped me. I wasn’t walking away because I didn’t want to fight, or for any of the pacifist reasons my dad preached. I didn’t walk away so I could be one of Jesus’ blessed peacemakers. I walked away because it would be a devastating victory, because I was kicking the shit out of his ego, going BAM and POW to the face of his reputation.