BY LARRY BROWN
This story was featured in Larry’s story collection Talk (Oberon Press). Copyright is held by the author.
AFTERNOON CRASHES into the 3:20 bell.
Neither looking nor listening back, though he can’t help but do both, the swarm fattening behind him, Ned arrives so soon at the park. Down the hill he sinks. A backstop slouches. He lets his arm bump the backstop as he goes by, if he ran he couldn’t run far enough. He quits walking. Stands on the infield about where a wrong-way facing pitcher would stand. Way off, where park ends, hydro towers shoot wires to one another.
He puts his hand in his pocket. Fingers the sharp point hidden inside.
He turns around. Kids charge, hurl themselves at the backstop, scramble up it for a better view, the backstop ringing like a bunch of those little cymbals. That girl from his class climbs too. All day long she sneaks cough drops, shiny bits stuck between her teeth. He is sorry for calling her Scurvy, even if he hasn’t said the name to anyone but himself, but before God thinking is doing so he has done it hasn’t he? Then on the backstop a boy slips and the boy below wears him on his head and the two boys become one large strange one.
Ned could laugh. He could laugh his way home, his face and clothes fine, no marks no rips, his hand free of his pocket. He could ride the footstool, supper cooking in the oven. Gravy Boat. He could laugh at that name.
But loud hyped up kids keep piling into the park. They want to get close but not dirty. They want to be scared happy. They trample the weeds to surround Ned, they steal his light and air. Someone blows a gum bubble. Juice from the hydro towers seems to crackle and snarl in Ned’s stomach and legs.
There is not much he can be forced to say anymore. The harder the force, the deeper his quiet.
The crowd splits open. Ned must look. In the split, slowly unbuttoning his shirt, is Tick Baylor. His buffalo grin says nobody knows like I know.
Tick’s shirt falls from his shoulders. Across his bare chest thick dark pen ink spells out TICK. His shirt hangs behind him, a piece still tucked in his jeans.
The grin drains from his face. You, he says.
Ned doesn’t ask why. As every Tick and his fists at every new school tells him, he, Ned, from morning till night, is why, why, and more why. Tick is the most steady and honest kid here, he never fakes it, never acts as if Ned can be anything but Ned, Ned can count on Tick. He almost tells Tick thanks.
Instead, he pulls the geometry set compass from his pocket. It pricks his leg on the way out.
Me, he says.
Now he laughs. The laugh catches, smears his throat. Tick comes at him. But Ned strikes first, quietly driving the compass point into his own cheek.