a virtual chapbook of poetry and prose
AND A WORK IN GRAPHIC PROGRESS
AND A WORK IN GRAPHIC PROGRESS
When I picked up Anna, my three-year-old daughter, at the Montessori school on Homewood, it seemed like any other day. And even though it was bitterly cold out -- it felt more like the bone chilling cold of my Nebraska childhood than the fairly mild southwestern Ohio winters I'd grown accustomed to -- I brought the stroller. I'd brought a blanket, too, the soft, frizzy, blue cotton one that I kept on the couch for evenings before the tube.
Anna was ready as soon as I arrived. The minute she saw me she immediately began putting away her brushes and paints. She and her friend Katie had been doing watercolors at the easel by the window. I got her hat and coat off the hooks in the hall.
"Bye, Katie," Anna said to her friend as I helped her into her coat.
"Bye, Anna," Katie responded, grabbing Anna, giving her a hug.
Katie walked us to the front door where I'd parked the stroller.
"Bye bye, Anna," Katie said, and this time Anna gave her a little huggy-poo. I was charmed, these two lovely little three-year-olds being so caring and sensitive to each other. It was real love, too, and felt so grown up, only the way they hugged -- they leaned their chests together, put their arms around each other, and squeezed -- it reminded me of a couple of proper but loving British matrons you might see in some BBC production on PBS bidding each other their affectionate adieus.
"See ya, Katie," I said.
"Bye, Denny," Katie said to me.
Anna and I stepped into the cold. I lifted her and stood her in the stroller. I wrapped the blanket around her two and a half times, swaddling her from head to foot, leaving just enough at her head and shoulders for a makeshift hood, which I flipped up. She looked like a miniature monk in a blue cowl.
She nodded and tried to sit down, but she was too thick for the seat. Her feet were swaddled, too, so instead of a pair of feet to straddle the strap-harness gizmo that ran between her legs, she had a single fish-like flipper.
I helped her squeeze into her seat, lifted her legs, and softly karate chopped the blanket between her feet, trying to create a pair of feet. There was plenty of blanket and in a moment we had enough space and blanket between her feet so she could slide a foot on either side of that center strap.
"There," I said, "all set?"
"All set," she said, and we moved out, my darling looking like an Inuit child bundled in caribou blue.
It was bitter cold, so we really motored. I jogged up Homewood Avenue, heading for Richmond, about three and a half blocks away.
"Zoom zoom zooooom," I sang, running us up the hill to the nuns' house right at the corner of Rockwood and Homewood. They taught at Corpus Christi School from whom the Montessori school rented space. Their house and yard was neat and prim. "Zoom zoom," I crooned as we stopped at the curb, looking both ways.
"Soom soom soom," Anna warbled happily.
I reared the stroller back onto its hind legs, rolled us down the curb and into the street, and then zoomed across.
"Fast, Daddy, fast!" Anna sang out as I zipped us across the street. I screeched to a stop at the curb, I was doing the sound effects, tilted the stroller so the front wheels reached the curb, lifted us up and on, and then raced on up the block. We were on level ground now, making good time. I swerved to avoid any crack or hole in the pavement -- "Step on a crack, break your mother's back, step in a hole, break your mother's sugar bowl," I thought, but didn't say -- it sounded so brutal; as did a million things now that I was a daddy and was living part of my life inside the incredibly sensitive x-ray vision laser accurate sensibility of my only child.
"Errrrrrrrrhht," I squeaked as we swerved around a hole in the sidewalk, our tires squealing.
"Berrrrrrooohhhmmmmmm, vrooooooohhhhmmmm!" I was an engine revving, picking up speed. I sprinted half a block before I was winded.
"I've got to slow down, hon," I explained breathlessly, slowing down to a fast walk, taking a moment to catch my breath.
"Let's go, Daddy!" Anna demanded, not the least bit interested in slowing down.
"Okee-doakee," I said, and, "Zoom zoom," we were off and running again.
We were having a blast with me running and pushing and Anna bouncing beneath me, squealing with delight. I had tears running down my face, it was that cold.
"Errrrrrrhhhht," I screeched as we rounded the corner at Richmond. At Kenwood, one block up, we'd hang a left, take it to Bellevue, hang a right, and then take the alley home.
"Hi ho, Silver, away!" I cried, breaking into a run. A car whooshed past us, almost blowing us off the sidewalk. A gritty gust of icy wind bopped me from behind, actually affecting my balance.
"Whoa, there, Big Fella," I said to myself, making horse sounds, too, sniggering and whinnying as best I could, struggling to keep us on the sidewalk.
Anna whooped and lost her cowl to the rushing after-draft from the passing car. I stopped to whip it back up. This was when we heard it for the first time: the crying, howling, cheering, jeering pack of children's voices flung to the heavens. There was a hysterical, out of control, bloodlust quality to the shouts that gave me pause. I cocked my ear. A fight, I thought.
There was a quickening in my blood as I set out again, heading for that sound.
We ran a bit longer, a bit farther, than normally we would have, than normally I could have, pushing even when I needed to stop to catch my breath. I was eager to see it, the fight.
We turned onto Kenwood, saw the gang of kids, and I immediately noticed the boy in blue. He was swinging, wild, wind-milling thrusts, several in rapid succession. There was a pause. A new cheer went up followed by several more wild, wind-milling thrusts.
"What is it, Daddy?" Anna asked.
"A fight, hon. They're having a fight."
I had already decided -- in fact, I had decided the minute I heard them and suspected it was a fight -- I was going to intervene.
An old man stood at the corner, watching, his cane before him, both hands at rest on its shiny silver crown. Will he? I wondered. Is he about to...?
As we neared the intersection with all the kids, I spotted Helen, a thirteen-year-old I knew, a lovely wisp of a girl. Long- legged. Long-armed. A student of ballet. Her mom was the assistant teacher in Anna's Montessori class.
She and another girl were on the porch of the house at the corner. They were seeking help, yammering away at the woman who was holding the storm door half open to them: "Will you help? See? A fight! Help, okay? Right here, see? Can you help? No!?"
The woman shook her head, no.
Helen was frantic, desperate to get someone to help, when she spied me. Anna and I were just across the street from her. We were twenty feet from the intersection filled with this mob of screaming school-aged children.
"It's Helen," I said to Anna as Helen left the woman at her storm door.
Helen leapt off the porch, calling back over her shoulder to her friend as she came, "I think I'll go over here. Someone I know." She waved to us as she came down off that porch.
"Hi," I said.
"Hi. I---" she started as an icy wind whipped into us. I dipped my chin. She clutched the front of her ski jacket, pulling it close to her throat.
There was a winter wind smell in the air, it was in my face, and the grey sky was close, very close.
"I--- I haven't been in school," she said, looking quickly from me to the cheering, screaming gang of kids barely twenty feet away. Still clutching her ski jacket to her throat she said, "It's co-ohhhhh-old."
"Yeah," I agreed, looking now to that crowd convulsing at the corner. "What's happening here?"
We both looked while my daughter gawked up at Helen, awestruck. It was a mobile, circus ring of delirious children, three and four children deep in spots, ranging in age from six to fifteen. This circus ring of children responded as if it were a skin, leaning in to each charge, ooohing and ahhing with every threat, flapping back with each retreat, as intense as the combatants in this very real and very deadly fight. Back and forth went the two fighting boys; back and forth went the frenzied crowd.
"They're in my class," Helen said, shivering. "They're older than me, though," she added as if this were critically important. "They're both fourteen. I'm only---"
"I know, thirteen," I said.
I couldn't believe how cold it was, it was never this cold Dayton -- or it hadn't been the six winters I'd been here, anyway. It was very cold.
Helen looked from me to the gang of kids and back to me.
Anna was snug below us, still gawking at the beautiful, freckle-faced teenager towering over her.
I saw the awe in my little friend's face -- I called my daughter that, my little friend, doing it on purpose all these three years of her young life, fully intending to not only be her father, her provider, her protector, her teacher, her mentor, and whatever else I could and needed to be to give her a fighting chance in this great gamble and game called Life, but also to work at being her friend as well; and I was, as she was mine -- and the awe I saw in her face as she gazed up at Helen was one of the great surprises and delights of this friendship: Anna had always been avidly interested in every other child she'd ever met, and showed great respect, and was in awe of any kid older than she, teenagers especially. If that teenager was an ace as was this doe-like, freckle-faced Helen, and if that teenager responded to this adoration with a sweetness and tenderness of her own, as did this ballet studying Helen, then it was simply a wonder to behold: the love, rich and free, and as thick as a fog in old London town.
"Well," I said to no one in particular, parking my three-year-old. Then, without thinking, I stepped into the street. Helen immediately took charge of my daughter.
"Well, let's see here," I said as I walked into the very midst of this little mob of children. Once in, I looked about, trying to get my bearings. I was basically as big as anyone in here, as tall as anyone, too. That was a relief: my size, that was something.
I did not feel afraid. The fear was here, though, upon the air, everywhere palpably about. It simply had not registered with me yet.
I noticed as I stood here, in the very midst of this jostling, cheering, undulating mob of children, that there were three or four kids who were bigger than me, kids who were bulkier than me, kids who were stronger and healthier-looking than me. I looked at them, these strong, young specimens, their faces shining, and I was struck by how they all appeared to be devoid of any judgment: they were simply here, watching disinterestedly, occasionally amused.
A little girl, six, maybe seven, excitedly thrust her handsome brushed suede face up to me.
"That one," she said, pointing to the boy in blue, "the one in blue. . ."
"Nobody likes him."
She was so matter of fact, her face and voice free of malice. She was simply reporting, letting me know the facts. No one was taking this personally.
Cheers and shouts lifted all about me and I didn't know where they were coming from.
What? I was disoriented.
I was in the middle of this mess, in the middle of this mob, and I was wondering: Where did those cheers come from? Here I was, standing right out here in the middle of this damn thing and yet I couldn't, at least for the moment, figure out where the shouts were coming from.
Then the boy in blue charged ferociously. He was like a young bull with blood in its eye, a being possessed intending to do harm.
"Okay," I said to myself.
I stepped between the two boys. I faced the boy in blue.
"Come on, come on. Let it go, huh? I know you want to kill him, huh? Let it go, c'mon. . . ."
He looked right past me, right through me. He did not see me at all. It was the oddest sensation. I was close enough to kiss him, my hands gripping his shoulders, and he did not see me at all. I was invisible.
Suddenly I was wondering: is it safe in here? Am I safe in here? I said it aloud:
"Is it safe in here?"
The boy in blue was adamant, his concentration total: he would not be deterred. He slipped around me, determined to get his man.
I walked out of the circle, surprised, and suddenly afraid.
He was so adamant, so driven, this boy in blue.
But it was not violent. It was not hostile in any direction but one, and I realized, as I stood outside this moving circle of children, that I had expected the boy to turn his hostility toward me, that I had expected him to be right in my face. And he hadn't. Instead, he had simply shaken me off, shooing me away as a cow might a fly with a mindless flick of its tail.
I took stock.
This was dangerous. The boy in blue meant to do harm. He was deadly serious, chasing after the other boy, the thin one, going after him with his wild swings, kicking at him. Kicking and really trying to connect; short, tight kicks; savage kicks you might aim at a dog you hated, a dog you loathed, a dog you wished to see dead -- those kind of kicks.
The other boy, the thin one, backpeddled and danced away, always just out of reach of these mad wind-milling thrusts and these savage kicks. His hair was very dark, oil slick black, and lay straight about his head and face. He had freckles high upon his cheeks, right up under his eyes, spraying up across the shelves of his cheekbones. He was a pale-faced young man, his skin terror-white. This poor boy, I decided, could not run away. He had to stand and fight. Which he did, which he was doing.
I wondered, was he frightened?
And it came to me, not so much a thought as a revelation: Yes, of course, he was frightened, even as he did not look particularly frightened. I had been in his face not a minute earlier, standing between the two of them, our clothes brushing we had been so close, and I hadn't seen any fear in his face then. And he hadn't thrown a punch yet -- hanging in there now a good ten minutes now, and not one punch has he thrown.
The boy in blue was on the attack, again meaning to do damage. Those kicks, those low, mean-spirited kicks.
I stepped back into the melee.
The thin one I judged a bright one, an A-track kid in school -- you know, how they lump kids according to their opinion of a kid's penchant for abstract thinking? The boy in blue, I opined, was C track.
I was scared this time. The boy in blue was kicking, really kicking, as the crowd of children closed like wolves to the kill, circling, closing, the viciousness of it all, it was compelling, magnetic Ð No. There was no viciousness in this crowd.
So what was it? What was pulling them in, what force was operating here that so compelled us all? And I knew even as I asked myself: it was the terrible life and death intensity of this struggle, this adolescent battle, a battle, apparently, to the death.
I worked my way back in, wanting to believe it was not the smell of blood that was so compelling to these children, not the smell of blood that so delighted them. I mean, they were gleeful, they really were.
I was dead center now. I grabbed the boy in blue. Gently. Firmly. I pulled him away. He resisted toward his enemy. He did not strike out at me, which again surprised me. I had expected him to swing at me and I realized this anew only as he did not. I was tremendously relieved.
God, what a fool I was being.
"I have to," he said, and I missed the verb accompanying his "I have to."
You have to what?
He pulled at me, trying to get away. I could not hold him by myself. He was too charged up -- the kid was in overdrive -- and I saw that he, too, was compelled, that there was some code of honor at stake here, some code he was living by, living up to, the code too big and too powerful for me to overcome.
Two black boys were suddenly helping me. They were two of the kids I had spied earlier, two of the kids who were bigger than me, stronger than me, healthier, and more muscular than me.
Two black kids helping this old white dude break up a fight between two white kids, damn.
It struck me deep.
They took over. The lighter-skinned one was very handsome, his face a sculpture, his cheekbones sharp and flat. There was something noble in his face, in how he held his head. The other boy was darker, a deeper chocolate, and wore a herringbone cap atop his head. The crinkled edges of a plastic home permanent head-covering peeked out from the edges of his cap. Neither boy could have been more than fifteen.
They assisted me. The lighter-skinned one came between the boy in blue and his opponent, gently and skillfully tapping that boy with his index finger, that finger playful but definite upon the chest of the boy in blue.
We four, the boy in blue, my two black saviors, and I, we backed away and slipped out of the circle of frantic children.
I took a hold of the boy in blue by the arm, but it was no go. He snaked out of his jacket, skipped around me, and again, with no malice toward me, he repeated:
"I have to. I have to get him."
He spun away leaving his jacket behind him.
This was more difficult than I thought it would be.
"Let them! Let them!" came the shouts, and kids were clamoring all about me now.
I could not quite make it out, what they were yelling at me. It was too chaotic, but two or three of the children, dashing around the periphery of this moving, changing, screaming circle shouted up to me, "He deserves it. He deserves it."
Who? Which one?
I thought they meant the boy in blue, but I was not sure. It didn't make sense: he was the one who was winning. He was the one who was most determined to kill. He was the one, who, should this fray be left to its own machinations, would triumph. The thin one had still not thrown a punch.
I was lost. I wandered about the edge of the group, which was moving away from me when suddenly there was a new aggressive, a new assault, and another roar lifted up.
I must try again.
I turned and saw Helen, my ballet-studying friend attending to my child, squatting before her, chatting away, occupying my little girl, distracting her, I thought, from this awful thing going on right here in the street hardly two blocks from her own front door.
Anna looked up, stretching, rubbernecking to see me. She spotted me and saw instantly that I was not coming back, not just yet. I saw that she was okay -- she was in good hands -- as she turned her attention back to Helen.
I was at the edge of the crowd now.
"Can't someone help me break this up?" I pleaded over the heads of this swaying mob. No one seemed to notice me or my plea. No! The two black boys, they saw, they heard, both of them catching my eye as I pleaded, but then they moved off with the flow of the mob, apparently unconcerned.
There! That kid. A white kid. I knew him.
He had the basketball hoop on his garage, in the alley, up to the corner -- I remembered when he and his Dad had been putting it up -- he was trying to get my attention, he was motioning with his head: "C'mon," he seemed to be saying, nodding to the center of the ring, "c'mon, I'll help."
Why, he was the thin one's older brother, the terror-white one, the one who hadn't thrown a punch -- it was his older brother.
The older brother moved directly into the fracas and went directly to the dancing, sparring combatants. He grabbed the boy in blue, the one who was not his brother, and held him off.
I quickly stepped back in, slipping between the two fighting boys.
"Okay, okay, let's give it up. It's over, okay?" I said.
But now the thin one closed in, moving in as if to attack, as if he was not ready to quit.
What? He who had not thrown a punch?
He was so close now that he was pressing against me.
"Oh, yeah!" the boy in blue challenged. "Now you come in!" and he lunged, but the big brother held him at bay, motioning with his head for his little brother to git.
The lack of malice struck me again. Now it was the big brother holding at bay the boy who wanted to murder his little brother, and he was holding that boy at bay as if it was an academic exercise, calmly, matter-of-factly, completely without malice. I was amazed. This whole bloodthirsty event, it was without malice. No one was getting in any free licks. No one was throwing free punches from the outside. It was as if there were some unwritten rules, some code that could not and would not be violated here.
Yet these kids circled the pair of combatants like wolves to the kill. They were bloodthirsty in their cheers and shouts and huzzahs. But that, too, was innocent, free of malice, nothing more than a spontaneous response to the excitement of a new thrust, a blow landed, a particular verbal insult hurled. Even these children's' bloodthirsty response did not feel particularly malevolent. It was not mean. It was not nasty.
I stood in this circle, this war zone, and felt no wickedness. Even the boy in blue, he who seemed to want kill the thin one if only he could, he was a boy free of wickedness.
I didn't understand it. I marveled at it, found it extraordinary, but I didn't understand it.
I stood there, in the eye of the storm.
The circle closed on the four of us, that circle of children apparently greedy for the kill, but here in the center it was perfectly still.
Suddenly the boy in blue flung his arms up and out, freeing himself from the thin boy's older brother. The older brother let him go and did not try to strong-arm him Ð he could have, too, I see that. He had forty pounds on this kid. Six inches in height, too. But he simply released the boy, raising his hands, his palms facing out in a sign of peace and resignation.
The boy in blue skated out and around, came back into the circle from behind us, and started the fight all over again. The center I had just now occupied dissolved and reformed behind me, around the two combatants. They were at it again.
I despaired. I felt I'd never be able to stop this---
The tawny-faced black boy, the one with the handsome, sculptured face, he had the boy in blue now. His friend in the herringbone cap was offering his help, too, the two of them at the boy in blue, jibing him in a friendly it's-cool-let-it-go sort of way, the two of them trying to convince the boy in blue to give it up.
"C'mon, give it up," the tawny-faced one actually said.
"Give it up, boy," his friend in the cap said.
And, boom, it was over. They'd done it.
The older brother saw this, too, and hurried his little brother up the street.
I applauded the two black boys' efforts, lifting my gloved hands, nodding to them. I wanted them to know I was very proud of them, that I thought they'd done a good job, a good deed.
"Yes, yes," I said as I popped my hands together. "Yes, yes," but my voice was lost in the roar of the shouting, cheering children still clamoring everywhere about.
The two black boys stared at me, bewildered, as they held the boy in blue: What? their faces said, what?
And then they released him. They let him go, the handsome tawny-faced one telling his friend, I could read his lips:
"The man says yes. Let him go," and shrugging to each other, they did, they let him go.
"No! No! No!" I shouted.
The boy in blue tore ass up the sidewalk after the thin one.
I was now amazed at these two boys' willingness to comply, at their willingness to do what I asked.
An adult asks and they comply.
I was the only adult in this entire circus -- not paid too terribly much attention, for sure, but neither had I been driven off, ridiculed, or reviled. No, in fact, I had been allowed in, allowed to try to do my bit; and allowed with an assist from these two black boys and this one white boy, the thin one's brother; and the three of them had come forward when I had asked for help, and then they had really helped. And the boy in blue had seemed to really respect the two black boys, much more than he respected me.
In fact, they were the ones who had actually broken this thing up. I could not have done it without them.
"No, no," I repeated, "I didn't mean that," I said as I rushed to the two black boys at the curb. They immediately understood and raced after the boy in blue who was charging up the sidewalk after his prey, going for the kill one last time.
The thin one heard him coming, threw his brother off and turned once again to stand and fight. The big brother understood this imperative, this unwritten code, and with a grimace -- he didn't like it, but he understood it, he accepted it -- he let his little brother go.
The two fighting boys squared off.
But my two black friends were right there this time. They grabbed the boy in blue and hauled him away, intense in their chatter to the boy, looking like a pair of championship coaches cooling out their superstar, coaxing him in off the field of battle, and they took him away to safety.
Now it was over. Now it was truly over.
The crowd of children knew this before I did and dispersed immediately, scattering and splintering off in three hundred different directions simultaneously. In a flash they were simply, suddenly, all gone.
The older brother led the little brother, the thin one, up the sidewalk. They were on their way home, the two of them hurriedly scampering away.
I bumped into the two black boys as they brought the boy in blue back to the intersection, bringing him away from the final fracas. They were in charge here. They had really done the work here. They had really broken up this fight. They who had been so cool throughout. I was deeply moved, deeply grateful for a very fine piece of work: Blessed are the.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you," I gushed, making faces, guffawing at our misunderstanding of a moment before.
"Yeah, yeah," they said, stopping me dead in my tracks with a pair of smiles just this side of Paradise. Still smiling they turned to the boy in blue and let him go.
"Let's go," the boy in the herringbone cap said.
His handsome friend nodded and they skedaddled, the two of them disappearing in a matter of seconds.
I was in awe. This once cluttered, explosive intersection
was now completely abandoned, totally empty; lonely even.
I returned to my child. Helen came up out of her crouch as I approached. She moved swiftly, with a lovely, long-legged agility, into the street to greet me, her movements clean and joyful. She knew it is over, knew I was returning to my little charge, knew her responsibility to care for my child was done.
"Thank you," I said.
"Thank you," she said, and then she was gone, too.
"OK, kiddo," I said to Anna as I scooted around behind her stroller, "let's head on out."
We shoved off, and as I wheeled my little friend home, the
icy wind stinging my face, I simply marveled.
The Motion in Motive
© 2007 Jimmy Chesire, all rights reserved
appears here by permission