Story and art by Daniel Strohmeier
My father was a used car salesman by day, and by night and weekend he was a lousy, yet enthusiastic, do-it-yourself home repair man. There is a picture, somewhere, that my sister took of my father in the backyard. He has a water hose in a gopher hole, and is standing there in a pair of bright, lime-green, zebra-printed baggy sweat pants, holding a crowbar and waiting for the gopher to pop its head out of it’s flooded hole so my father can smite it with a crowbar, thus putting an end to the numerous gopher holes that dotted our back lawn. In the background of the picture you could see our fence. Twice, almost three-times, as high as the rest of the fences in the neighborhood. Slightly lopsided and missing a chunk from the top where my father accidentally dropped a dead tree he was removing on it, the fence served to block our yard and house from the view of the two-story apartment complex that had been built directly behind us.
My father had run out of nails when making the fence, and on the far left side at the bottom a board was fastened by only one nail making it easy to swing it over a bit and squeeze my frame through the fence. Between our fence and the apartment complex there was a tiny trickle of a stream, easily hopped over, and then a low fence that bordered the driveway of the apartment complex. I liked to sneak behind the fence, hop over the narrow little rivulet, duck behind their fence and watch the occupants of the building behind us. From there you had an unobstructed view of the entire front of the building. Mostly it was quiet. People watched TV, or stood outside smoking, but there was one occupant in particular I would search for.
Johnny. In his circle of friends Johnny was the king. He was the tallest and the coolest and my sisters would giggle from behind the window blinds every time he walked up our street and past our house. I could only have been about eight at the time, he couldn’t have been any more than 12. I found him so exciting. He skateboarded and popped wheelies on his bicycle and ran around in long baggy jean shorts with his boxers showing topped by a white “wife-beater”. Fascinated by Johnny’s clothes, I told my mother I wanted to start wearing tank-tops. This led to her buying several unfortunate cotton tank tops in bright teal green, blue and purple which I wore neatly tucked into matching short shorts with an elastic waistband that, in my mind, were just slightly more stylish versions of Johnny’s outfits.
Johnny’s mom was single and worked during the day, leaving Johnny free to roam about the neighborhood all summer. She had Tuesday’s off and on that day Johnny would hang out within shouting distance of the apartment, which made them the best days for spying on Johnny. He’d practice jumping his bike on a small mound of dirt left by a construction crew in an empty field next to the apartment complex and, if it wasn’t too hot, shoot a few hoops in the dusty parking lot.
Early one morning, outfitted in my finest aqua colored tank top and matching shorts I slipped through the fence, hopped barefoot over the little gully, and put my eye to an opening between slats in the fence. I could hear the television on in Johnny’s apartment. I tried to listen to what program was playing. Sometimes Johnny would spend all day inside watching wrestling, but I detected the theme music from “Days of Our Lives”, the same soap my grandma watched, which meant Johnny must be inside watching the television. Nobody was outside, the afternoon sun baked the front of the apartment complex, but tucked in the shade of the two fences the gully was still quiet and cool.
“Hey” a voice said behind me suddenly. I almost yelped in surprise and scrambled around. There, standing across the rivulet in a mound of grass clippings and twigs my father found more convenient to throw over the fence then to haul to the dump, was Johnny. Forbidden from associating with the neighborhood kids I had never been so close to him. Never even talked to him. His scraggly blond hair had gotten longer over the summer and he had it tied back in a ponytail. “What are you doing back here?” he asked. I opened my mouth. Let it hang there for a minute, then “I like your bicycle?” I offered lamely. Johnny looked at me out of the corner of his eyes for a second. I scratched my shoulder. “Where do you live?” he asked and jumped over the rivulet, landing about ten feet from me and looking down. “Behind there.” I say, pointing toward the lopsided fence. I try to be cool, but my voice comes out high and defensive and my pointing is like an awkward flailing of my limb.
I stand up. He asks me a question. I think he’s asking me what else I like, but he uses words that are unfamiliar to me, and I feel slow and stupid. Johnny is looking at me like he expects an answer and I chirp out “Ummmm…I, uh, I like wrestling?”
I didn’t. I still don’t. I’d never even really seen it. In my mind boxing and wrestling were the same thing.
“Oh, yeah?” He responded. “You like to wrassle?”
“Razzle?” I frown, now I’m really confused. Razzle, as in, like, Razzle-Dazzle?
“Yeah, you like wrassling, like this…” he said, and pushes me, knocking me over onto my butt.
I’m a little stunned. I scramble back up to my feet, my cheeks burning, embarrassed that he was so easily able to knock me off my feet. He moves forward to knock me over again and I try to brace myself but I fall backwards again. Arms flailing this time I reach out to grab something and get a hold of his shorts, pulling him down with me. He lands on his knees next to me and is reaching over to pin me down. I realize that “wrassle” is “wrestle”. I bring my legs up between him and I and roll. I succeed in only rolling myself over. He still has a grip on my wrists only they’re crossed now around me and he’s kneeling over me. My face scrapes a rock. Johnny smells awful, like sweat and clothes that were left to mildew in the washing machine. It’s the most thrilling thing that’s ever happened to me.
I wriggle my way out from under him and we thrash about in a clump of poison oak. I’m flushed and begin to get physically excited, too young to really be aware of what’s happening. Johnny, however is not. He pins me again and I hit him in the stomach and scramble up and then he notices the little tent I’ve pitched in my shorts.
“You’re sick” he says.
“What?” I giggle, not understanding. The giggle seemed to enrage him and he pushes me back down and sits on my stomach, further exciting me. I wriggle my hips to try to escape and Johnny gives me a funny look. He gets off my stomach and we both stand up. I’m sweating and panting.
“You’re sick” he says, again, and then before I know it, his fist connects with the side of my face and I stumble backward for the third time, except this time I slip and topple into the mud of the little rivulet. I’m slightly dazed and by the time I look up, Johnny has disappeared. The side of my face doesn’t hurt, just feels like it will in a few minutes. I’m covered in scratches, my back is slippery with mud and I’m absolutely and completely furious that some guy just knocked me over for the third time and only then do I really realize what the little boner in the shorts of my matching ensemble means.
Back on my side of the fence I hunch over, calculating the damage. A scratch on my cheek, perhaps a bruise, mud all over my clothes. I decide to tell my mother I fell off my bike…into a pile of mud…in the middle of summer…naturally. My legs itch from the poison oak. I’m secretly planning on watching The Next Karate Kid (the one with Hilary Swank) and learning how to beat people up when my thoughts are interrupted.
“Johnny!” I suddenly hear his mother calling from across the fence. “Johnny, where are you? Come on in and eat lunch.”
Feeling resentful for getting knocked around I yell back “Yeah, Johnny! Go back in!”
There is a pause. Neither of us hears Johnny reply.
“Johnny! Is that you?” his mother asks. “Johnny?”
Another short wait brings no response.
“Johnny!!” she calls, her voice bearing the edge of a threat. “Johnny, you come in right now!”
“NO!” I holler “You can’t make me.”
“What did you just say boy? You get in here RIGHT NOW!”
“I don’t want to!”
“Johnny, I swear to god if you don’t get in here right now…!”
“Come and find me, first!”
There is a brief silence. The air positively shimmers with the heat and her anger. This is almost better then wrestling with Johnny. I’ve never spoken back to an adult and now and the thrill of it is physically exciting me again.
“Johnny, I’m going to count to ten and if you don’t get in here RIGHT NOW…!”
“I don’t feel like it and you can’t make me!”
“ONE! TWO! THREE! JOHNNY, I’M NOT JOKING! FOUR! FIVE!”
“Neener-neener-neener! You can’t make me!”
“JOHNNY! YOU GET OVER HERE RIGHT NOW BEFORE I COME OUT THERE AND TEACH YOU A LESSON!”
“Oh, yeah?” I holler. “You wanna WRASSLE?”
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