Jacob was writing shit, piss, and damn on slips of paper and leaving them all over the house in an attempt to get me busted for swearing–a trail of profane breadcrumbs sprinkled in our mother’s jewelry box and by the instant coffee and inside my clothes hamper. This was after I took a dirty magazine from him and told him if he tried to retrieve it from my closet I’d whack him with a tennis racket. So, his revenge scheme was to frame me, and when I tossed these slips of paper on his bed he called me a faggot, so I turned his TV off and stood in front of it so the remote wouldn’t work when he tried to turn it back on.
I wasn’t going to take being called a faggot by my 9-year-old brother. It was bad enough I heard it so often at school I’d begun to answer to it. Faggot Gladden, at your service.
I left Jacob’s room and walked to the foyer to check for dark figures in the driveway. It was almost 5 o’clock, and my mother was going to be home late because she stopped every night after work to make dinner for our grandmother before bringing us fast food in oily paper bags and collapsing on the couch without even kicking off her flats or changing out of her pantyhose.
My brother and I were home alone, and soon an 8th grader named Chuck, who was so big people called him “Chuck Wagon,” would appear at my front door and toss me around as easily as a wet newspaper until I was just that—pulp. Someone in my homeroom told Chuck Wagon that I said he was illiterate and a jackass, which sounded like something I would say.
I did say. I said it.
People were gossiping that Chuck Wagon touched my best friend Becky Porterfield’s tits, and I said that Chuck Wagon was illiterate and a jackass, not to counter a false claim, but as a supplemental statement of fact. I might have tried to defend Becky (with words; I use words), except that she told me herself that she took her top off behind the sports equipment shed and let Chuck jiggle her boobs with his enormous hands.
I didn’t know why I said what I said. I said a lot of things I shouldn’t have, mostly because the things I really needed to say would have gotten me killed. When Becky said, “And then he touched my nipple,” what I wanted to ask was whether it felt good, but instead I told her she was going to end up pregnant before high school. And then later I said what I said about Chuck, in front of my entire homeroom, and someone told him, and I received a note in my locker before last period that informed me he was going to stop by my house that evening and knock out a few of my teeth.
Becky had taken up with Chuck Wagon two weeks earlier, and the physical aspect of their relationship seemed to escalate by the hour. When she told me stories about how rough a kisser he was, I did my best to seem passively interested, but the truth was my imagination replaced her lips with mine in every story, and the more dirt she gave me, the more developed my pretend romance became. As much as I disapproved of Becky’s slide into wantonness, I was more eager to know what wantonness felt like and what it felt like to be wanted.
Chuck Wagon’s knock was so loud the door rattled in the frame, as if it was nervous. Through the three small diagonal windows in door I could see three angry pieces of my classmate: a pulsing temple as he tried to peer inside, a shoulder like a bowling ball, and a hand that rolled open and closed as he waited.
“This is stupid!” I shouted through the three-inch slab of wood.
“I’m here because you haven’t learned when to shut up calling things stupid, or haven’t you figured that out?”
“Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it that way. It was a joke.”
“Just open the door, Gladden,” he said, “And talk to me in the yard.”
So, I opened the door, and in my bare feet I stepped out onto cold planks, and then down the steps. “I didn’t mean what I said,” I told him, and he looked at me like he would just as soon use my face to clean the dirt off his shoes as accept my apology, and I began to cry, because a feeling welled up in me worse than the feeling of approaching violence. It felt like Chuck was breaking up with me.
He grabbed my shirt. I felt it come untucked as he yanked me forward and slung me to the ground. I landed on my tailbone and turned over and began to crawl, expecting him at any moment to plant his foot squarely on my back and flatten me.
Instead, I heard the creak of hinges and turned my head to see Jacob sliding an aluminum bat between Chuck’s legs and swinging it upward with all his might. Jacob screamed the way kids do when they don’t have enough focus to make words, and as Chuck put his hands over his crotch and moaned, Jacob swung the bat around again and connected with Chuck’s knee.
I stood and ran to Jacob, and I grabbed his bat in one hand and placed the other against his back, and we ran inside. Through our front room window I saw a stunned Chuck take three lumbering steps toward me, then stop. I imagined how small I must have looked to him, backlit by a floor lamp, behind glass. I don’t know how long he stared at me or how long he stared back, but eventually I was staring at the back of him, and then he was gone.
I could hear the slack-mouthed whisper of Jacob’s breath behind me. There was dirt on my hands, and the collar of my shirt was stretched and crooked. I had stopped crying but could still feel the burn in the corners of my eyes, where I imagined moisture might still be sitting, and as Jacob looked up at me I could think of little else except the way I looked to him then–vulnerable, puny. I drew back my hand and belted him close-fisted across the cheek.
The bat fell from Jacob’s hand and rattled to the floor, then rolled into a corner. Jacob lay near it, his knees at odd angles, and he said nothing, not even “faggot.”
As I walked away I heard him stand, then heard his bedroom door slam shut. I picked up another slip of swears where Jacob had planted it near my mother’s copy of Soap Opera Digest.
Then I set it down again.