it builds character.

19 November 2012 § Leave a comment

In the backyard, I hid behind a juniper with rocks in my pockets. My cousin Catherine played alone, fifty feet away, near the maple. I was eight, a professional baseball player, and the stones weighed down the confidence I had in my throwing arm. For want of a challenging target, I chucked a rock in Cat’s direction. I heard the creamy clack of my stone colliding with a landscape of other stones its size.

“Did I hit you?” I yelled after it.

“No,” Cat yelled back. “You better not!”

I waited a minute. Breathed deep. After six or seven exhales I was sure she’d forgotten all about me. I threw again. I listened for my target: the hard knock of stone-on-tree. The wood forgave me and bounced it off. Humans, I learned that day, aren’t quite as sturdy as trees.

I threw five rocks with Catherine as my target. As I did, I bore a self-doubt so intense that I didn’t think I was even able to hurt another person, let alone affect them in a positive way. What hope was there for me, in baseball or in life, if I couldn’t fling my energy in the right direction?

Number five hit skin and bone. It’s the kind of sound that sticks with you through thick and thin. She cried and suffered for a few moments, she ran inside to tell on me. What a fantastic dread. Guilt held my neck like a gangster, fear pouring out of his eyes and into mine.

I could have ran, but I knew that I’d be caught. I would face the judges our mothers, merciless creatures with painted nails. Every atom in my body knew that I wasn’t brave enough to run behind the red truck where the hole in the fence lead out to the street.

Because pleading and bribery were my last hope, I expressed to Cat sorrow and concern for what I’d done, and begged her to not tell. She saw my worry as genuine, but didn’t understand how I could have hit her with a rock and so quickly have a change of heart.

I had no faith in my potential to hit her that I didn’t believe I could, even if I tried. I tried, and succeeded. I made a difference in someone’s life. I was glad that I’d finally something I’d set out to do, but as I thought of this, staring into the corner of wall between the door to the garage and the garbage can, I wondered if it was the kind of difference I wanted to make. I was glad also that I could feel all the feelings around it, and know what it was like to pick the wrong side of right. It felt thrilling and dramatic.

My punishment was to kill the rest of the afternoon standing in the corner to think about what I did. The mothers tended to Catherine’s physical and emotional wounds just loud enough for me to hear the shame in their voices. Not only had I changed Catherine’s day, I’d shifted the energy of the entire household. Everyone went quiet when they would go near me. I wondered what showed on their faces, and lacked the courage to look.

My corner was in the main corridor of the house, between the living room and the kitchen. The adults either wanted to keep an eye on me, or publicly shame me (I’d just learned about flogging in a history book, and found the reality of it quite effective).

In four hours I counted to six hundred seventy-eight, made shadow puppets on the trash bin, and took as much of a nap as I could on two legs. They yelled at me for entertaining myself, poked my back for talking, and someone slapped me in the head for standing on one foot. The other leg had fallen asleep, so I did what I could to take care of myself while following the rules of the punishment.

Of course before we went to bed that night I was forced to tell Cat that I was sorry. I don’t remember the apology. Later she and I worked out a deal where I would play whatever game she wanted for a whole month (without complaining), in exchange for her forgiveness. Oddly, most games she wanted to play resembled chores.

Prepubescent girls take the game of House very seriously. One moment I’d bake cookies in a plastic oven, and then sweep the floor. I didn’t understand how it was a game, but acquiesced for her clemency. The shed in the backyard served as our playhouse, and her father’s gun storage. The man was a cop, and had enough guns to fight a war in the Middle East.

In her parents’ bathroom, an AK-47 leaned against the wall next to the shower. Handguns served as paperweights while Cat’s dad prepared for work, a tendency that for some reason involved setting down his police gear next to the front door while he made himself food. That routine changed the day Cat’s little brother picked up his father’s service weapon, and shot himself in the cheek.

Five-year-old Patrick saved his dad some guilt, and lived. Miraculously, the bullet tore only skin tissue on its way out the back of his neck. The hospital room felt most stoutly our parents’ relief. Anger overshadowed love.

His wounds healed faster than his families’. The incident was soon monikered “well, you know.” Beyond that, no one talked about it. The whole thing seemed to disappear when the bandages came off, and he felt well enough to go back to preschool. When we asked Patrick about it, he said he didn’t remember anything.

Everything went back to normal. There were still as many rifles as Barbie dolls in the playhouse, and suddenly there was a new object of shame in the house. Bullets did more damage than stones. I was in the clear.


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