Ann Hutton

Author, essayist, journalist, poet

Swings and Misses

There were boys in the neighborhood that would occasionally come around to play with a girl. They wore tee shirts with horizontal stripes and scruffy leather shoes and sometimes sneakers, which were just coming into the fashion scene—not as fashion, rather as practical footwear for kids. I wasn’t enthralled with these boys, not like I was with a dark-haired, dreamy-eyed Italian kid named Mike who lived on a corner around the block. He never gave me a second glance. These playful boys, one the older brother of a friend, all had phlegmy voices from drinking too much milk. They were loud and silly, and already manipulative in their ways. Our play consisted of taunting each other and maybe ganging up on somebody else, some poor kid who was chosen to be that day’s target for ridicule.

One August day as my mother lay dying in our downstairs bedroom, Jeff and Steve were in my yard, and we were playing “Bomb’s Away.” They were behind some short bushes and I was fifteen feet away, protected by a bunch of zinnias. We lobbed toys at each other and ducked whenever a missile came close to hitting its mark. They missed me every time. Suddenly I let fly with a metal fire truck that landed on Steve’s forehead near one eye. He yowled and reached up to feel blood gushing out of his head. As he held his hand over the wound he went running back home, yelling “You’re gonna get it now, Shirley! You’re gonna get it now!”

I don’t remember what happened that night—whether Steve’s dad came around to confront my parents, one of whom had only two months to live, the other who would have gladly gotten into a fistfight on our front lawn with anyone who challenged him, especially if he’d had a few beers in him—I didn’t get into trouble anyway. But when school started in September, I was afraid of meeting up with Steve on my long walk to the schoolhouse. I would leave home early to avoid seeing him or risking him seeing me. When we happened to be heading out at the same time, a coincidence I was sure he’d planned so as to terrify me further, he would walk across the street and—I imagined—follow me. His feet were splayed outward, and his face was round and flat. He looked like a kid thug in an old forties movie, one in which guys punched first and didn’t bother to ask questions later. Walking the six blocks to Frances Willard Elementary filled me with dread.

When my mother died, I moved out of the neighborhood for a few months. Then I was back and more petrified than ever of getting attacked by Steve. My feisty, often drunk father was no longer around to defend me, if in fact he had done so before. My foster mother made her teenaged son walk me to school, a task he clearly hated.

Later I was adopted and whisked away to another neighborhood and a different school, one in which the boys weren’t quite as grubby and menacing. One spring day in 4th grade I was outside with my new dad. Dwight—skinny, big-eyed, always breathed through his mouth because he had a clogged nose—went sailing by on his Schwinn. He waved to me and yelled “Hiya Hooksie Baby!” My father snorted out an astonished laugh. I was embarrassed, but still caught this friendly missile for what it was: a gesture of well-being and innocence. My new friends, including the ones for whom I harbored secret crushes, roamed these safer streets in groups. We danced at “boy-girl” parties and mooned over what would happen when we got to Junior High. I was never again threatened by a boy or a man. But I was afraid of them for years.