I found out the hard way it was cold enough to become a permanent fixture of a corner street sign. As I stood there, the sensation in my right hand becoming a distant memory, I watched my former friends have a snowball fight. I say former because I refuse to play with them again after what they did to me. I would cry right now, but my dad said only sissies cry, and I’m no sissy, whatever that is; I just know I’m not one. My dad said sissies cry and act like little girls and come from New York and California and I’m a 10 year old boy from Mississippi. So I can’t be a sissy. I wish I was because now I can’t feel my hand and maybe if I cried they would help free me.
“Robby,” I shouted at the group of boys in a pile in the slushy street. “Help me get my hand free. I can’t feel it no more.” Robby, Frank, Billy and Craig looked at me as if they had forgotten I was stuck to the street sign. These northerners are stupid. It hadn’t been 10 minutes since they told me to stick my wet hand to the pole. They wanted to see what would happen, they said, but I think they already knew. When they all started laughing I realized I was right. Robby laughed so hard, snot shot out and dripped down his face. Smiling, he licked his lips.
“I’ll help you country boy,” Robby said as he struggled to his feet with Frank and Billy trying to tackle him and drag him down into the slush.
“Leave him,” shouted Billy.
“Let his hand freeze off,” said Craig as he picked up a handful of slush and let it loose at my head. It hit me square in the eye and I saw stars. My eye was now as frozen as my hand. I won’t cry. I WON’T cry.
“Step off, Craig. I got this! ” Robby stared down Craig who looked away after a few seconds. Craig was strong and looked older than all of us, but everyone was a bit scared of Robby since he set an alley cat on fire. If he could do that to a cat, what else was he capable of?
Robby shook off Billy and Frank and sauntered over. He circled me a few times, considering my situation. He brought his hand to his face, blew a huge gob of snot onto his hand and jammed it into my face. My mouth was open because the cold New York weather kept my nose clogged and it was the only way I could breathe. I naively thought he was going to help me so I was caught off guard. I felt the warm, slimy boogers creep into my mouth and mingle with my own. I pulled away, slipping on the ice. My hand being stuck to the pole kept me from falling on my rear, but it would have been a better fate as the shock of the fall made me inhale forcefully.
I began to cry like a sissy. Now they all laughed. I tried to spit out whatever was left and it made them laugh harder. They joined hands, encircling me and the pole and laughed their black hearts out.
My dad would be so ashamed of me if he were alive. He would have dragged me into the garage and made me put on the boxing gloves to go a few rounds with him. I always ended up bloody, but it was worth it, he would say. He said it would make me into a fighter and a real man. He would say, “Jonathan, you a sissy, but I’ll learn you to fight if it’s the last thing I do.” It wasn’t. The last thing he did was put a gun in his mouth and pull the trigger. I know because I found him. I knew it was him because the headless body I found in our garage had the same steel toed work boots he always wore.
The boys kept circling me, but I stopped noticing them. I was back in the garage in Mississippi. I could smell the motor oil spotting the floor, the gasoline from the lawn mower, and the overwhelming smell of copper. My vision narrowed and I began to shake and hyperventilate. I was having what my mom called a flashback like a soldier who came back from war. She said I was broken but she loved me anyway. Thanks Mom.
When I came to my senses, the boys were still circling me but now they were chanting, “Jonathan’s a faggot! Jonathan’s a faggot! ” I remembered my dad would call me that when he was drunk. I didn’t know what that meant either but I figured it was the same thing as a sissy. I guess I used to cry a lot back then, so he was right, but now I was crying again and they thought I was a sissy too!
“NO! ” I yelled. I righted myself, put my foot on the pole and yanked my hand hard. I didn’t feel anything but I heard a sickening rip. The boys stopped in their tracks and stared at me with their mouths open except for Robby who smiled. When I slapped him with an open bloody palm, his smile disappeared. I followed up the slap with two quick jabs and an uppercut with my bloodied hand. I grimaced from the pain, but when the snow settled, he lay on his back, unmoving with a bloody nose and a couple of teeth missing from his formerly smiling face. Thanks dad. Did that make you proud?
I turned to the rest of them, but they retreated a couple of steps when they saw my face. I walked over to Robby, pulled off his gloves, dipped his dry hands in a slush puddle and began to drag him over to the pole. He was heavy, but I made it. He was moaning so I knew he was waking up, but it was too late. I wrapped his hands around the pole and held fast. When I let go, his hands remained.
“I ain’t no sissy and I ain’t no faggot,” I yelled at his prone body. His eyes fluttered and opened. He looked up at us, but seemed confused. My dad always said, “When you knock a bitch out, ain’t nothing better than watching his sorry ass come too.” Guess he was right. It felt good. He tried to get up but his movements were sluggish and he hadn’t noticed his hands stuck to the pole yet. When he did, he panicked and screamed, “Ahhh! Help me! Get my hand off here. I’m gonna lose my fingers! ”
The other boys stood silently until Craig began to laugh, which freed them to laugh as well. Robby started to cry. I stood there watching silently. Why do I feel bad? I should be happy, right? Craig clapped me on the back hard enough to make my jaw rattle and said, “Guess he’s the faggot after all, not you! ” The boys grabbed hands and circled Robby as he tried to tug his hands free. Craig reached for my hand, but I refused his offer. He shrugged and began the chant, “Robby’s a faggot! Robby’s a faggot! ”
I took that moment to turn and run. I ran the half block to my house as fast as I could. My hand was throbbing and every step brought me closer to passing out. I went through the back door and burst into the kitchen. My mom yelped, startled by my loud entrance and our next door neighbor, Mrs. Valenti, jumped out of her chair. I stood there dripping slush and blood all over my mom’s clean floor. I could see she was about to yell and I prepared myself for a tongue lashing, but her voice caught in her throat when she saw my hand.
“Oh my God! ” she screeched. She grabbed the back of the chair to steady herself. Mrs. Valenti apparently didn’t have my mom’s constitution as she crumpled to the floor with a faint gasp.
We stood there a few moments, me staring at my mom’s paling face and her staring at my bloody palm when I said, “Guess I need a band-aid, huh? ” This snapped my mom out of her shock and she sprung into motion. She ran to the counter, grabbed her keys, took my other hand and dragged me back outside to the car. She threw me in the front seat and slammed the door. She slipped and slid her way around the car and jumped in beside me. I was starting to feel lightheaded and I didn’t hear what she was saying. Huffing, she reached across me and yanked the seat belt and clipped it into place.
She slammed the car in reverse and we skated out onto the street. As we approached the corner and the street pole, I looked out the window to see if Robby was still there. He was! “Mom, stop the car! ”
“What? No, we have to get you to the hospital! ”
“Mom, please, stop the car! ”
“I don’t know what you’ve been up to, but I’m sure it ain’t no good. It’s bad enough we don’t have insurance, so we ain’t waiting till it gets infected. As it is, I’ll be paying the hospital bill for the next 10 years! Now zip it! ” She used the tone of voice that meant the argument was over, so I grabbed the emergency brake between the seats and yanked it. We fishtailed and skidded to a stop inches from a parked car. I popped my seat belt off and got out as fast as I could. I left a bloody smear on the door handle and it made my stomach lurch. I don’t know if it was from the pain or the sight of the blood, but whatever it was, I puked.
I could hear my mom screaming at me to get back in the car but I ignored her and the puke and ran over to the street sign where Robby was curled up in a fetal position whimpering quietly. He had given up. I guess he wasn’t as tough as he pretended to be.
“Robby,” I said as I knelt down beside him. He looked up at me, his eyes a web of red and said, “Please help.” After a moment I nodded and grabbed one of his hands with my good one and I was about to yank when my mom yelled, “STOP! You’ll do to his hands what you did to yours. “
We looked up as she skidded over to us, a bottle of water in her hand. “You have to melt the ice to get his hands off or you’ll rip off his skin. You’d think you’d know that by now! ”
“ Why we moved to this god forsaken frozen hell, I’ll never know,” she muttered to herself as she knelt down beside him.
“But water is what got him stuck in the first place,” I reasoned.
“Cold water. Hot water will melt the ice.” She held up the Dasani water bottle she had grabbed from the car. “It may not be hot, but it is nowhere near freezing. It should work. If not, you can piss on his hands.” Robby’s face went white and I could feel my privates shrivel at the thought of exposing them to this cold. Besides, I was pee shy.
“When I pour the water, you pull his hands off slowly ” she instructed me. She opened the bottle and slowly poured the water. I began to pull and I could feel his hand give. Robby began to yell, “Stop, it hurts!! ” I ignored him and pulled harder. His hand slid off the pole with a satisfying, sticky squelch. The second one came off even easier.
Robby stayed in the fetal position for moment catching his breath. After a moment, he looked up at me and said softly, “thanks, and, uh, sorry.”
“Don’t mention it,” I said. He nodded but I grabbed his bruised face with my bloody hand and repeated, “I mean it, don’t mention it. Ever.” He nodded vigorously as he clamored to his feet. He stood there a moment looking at us before he took off at a gallop down the street. He fell theatrically a few times before he made it to the end of the street and took off out of sight.
“What was that all about,” my mom asked me sternly.
“Nothing. Let’s go to the hospital now. I can feel the germs coursing through my body already.” Nothing alarmed my mom more than germs so I figured this would get her moving and change the subject. We got back in the car and silently began our slippery journey to the hospital. I stared out the window, thinking about my dad. Would he have been proud of me today? I shrugged to myself. I wasn’t a sissy today, dad. I was a man.
I felt my mom’s touch and looked up at her face. She wiped a tear that had fallen, unnoticed by me, down my cheek. I immediately felt ashamed and turned away.
“Jonathan ” she said softly to me. I ignored her. She tried again, “Hey, baby. I’m very proud of you today.” I looked at her, shocked. I didn’t understand. “Proud? Of what? Of me crying like a sissy? ”
“Don’t you dare say that! ” she admonished me. “You’re no sissy, and even if you were, I would love you anyway. Don’t let that crap your dad fed you poison your mind.”
“But I am a sissy. I tried not to cry but after everything those boys did, I couldn’t help it and now I’m crying again! ”
My mom slowed the car and came to a stop. She grabbed me by the chin and looked me in the eyes. “You may think your mom doesn’t know anything, but I know. I know how boys are and I know how your father was. What you did back there, letting that boy go, took more courage than what you did to your hand or to that boy’s face. Only the best kind of man could do that. You showed compassion when it wasn’t deserved. Your dad didn’t get that. He was a bastard. Maybe that’s why he… ” She trailed off, but I knew what she was going to say.
“I am more proud of you today than I ever was of your dad. Do you understand me? Ever.” I nodded, my eyes full of tears. I couldn’t speak so I turned away and looked out the foggy window. So no, my dad wouldn’t be proud of me. Good. That’s good. Sissy, or not, today I became a real man, something he never was.