(click here to read chapter one)
“Hey!” Joey drops my bike on the ground and starts toward Rob but stops short at his stare, daring Joey to come closer.
If I hadn’t known the minimum age of fifteen for boxing classes, it still would’ve been easy to see that Rob is at least a few years older than us by his solid squared shoulders and the assured jut of his chin. Instead of swarming the younger boys with his fists he stares down at them with as much authority as any adult I’ve ever seen. “Get outta here,” is all he says and Danny’s façade of cockiness, by way of trash talking and mouthing off, is betrayed by his immediate obedience.
The boys make a ruckus as they leave. They pick up a large stick and a chain and hit the side of the dumpster, trying to provoke Rob to come at them again but he doesn’t. He observes their little tantrum with a cool smile and says nothing, but waves while they walk backwards out of the alley taunting him all the while.
“That kid is an idiot.” Rob says when they’re gone.
“Yeah.” I agree.
“I’ll walk you home so they don’t bug you again.”
“Oh that’s ok, I’ll be fine.”
“I live right next to you. So I have to walk that way anyway.” He doesn’t wait for me to answer, just starts walking and says over his shoulder “Come on.”
I pick up my bike and take a couple of quick steps to catch up, my admiration and elation dampened by embarrassment. Not only did I chicken out when it came to punching Danny, but Rob witnessed it and had to step in to save me. He unravels his right hand wrap as we walk, rolling it neatly.
“How did you do that?”
“Punch him that hard and that fast. I don’t think I could ever punch like that. It’s like you came out of nowhere.”
“I don’t know. Practice I guess.”
It’s strange talking to him after watching him all this time. Well, not watching him exactly but watching his boxing class. When he and his father first moved into the other side of our little two-family house three months ago I thought he was going to be like Danny. He walked with his head up and didn’t seem afraid of anything. Like the boys at school who think they’re so great and purposely trip poor Edwin Courtney because he knows all the answers in class. But if I wasn’t certain before, I’m sure now that Rob’s nothing like Danny. I recall him smiling and waving to the boys while they armed themselves and backed out of the alley as if they couldn’t afford to let him out of their sight. It’s no wonder that no one in our neighborhood picks on him, he can make anyone look stupid without trying. I wish I could do that.
“Aren’t you supposed to be reading magazines and talking on the phone or something?” He interrupts my thoughts.
“Why are you watching boxing classes instead of doing whatever it is girls do?” He spits to his left and sets to work on his left hand wrap.
“Me and my friend Bailey always do girl stuff.” I dodge his question. How can I say that I was trying to learn to fight when he literally just watched me stare dumbly at Danny when I should’ve hit him?
As if reading my thoughts, “You wanted to hit him didn’t you.”
“Is that why you’ve been watching our class? You want to fight?”
More like have to, I think. Just when my embarrassment was starting to recede it swells again. “No, no I couldn’t do that.” Then I realize that if I’m not watching the class because I want to fight then he’ll assume like Bailey that it’s because I like him and that’s even more embarrassing. “Well yes I wanted to learn to fight, but I don’t think I can. I’m not cut out for it.”
“No one starts off cut out for it.”
“No way, it’s hard work. And you have a lot of time to build up your stamina. You’re only what, eleven?”
“Twelve.” We step out into the street and a car has to swerve out of the way to avoid hitting us. The driver yells out their window and Rob replies by holding up his middle finger.
“Only twelve. See? That’s tons of time to learn.” Something about the way he says only twelve makes me stand a little taller.
“I guess. As long as I can avoid Danny.” I pull self consciously at the plastic bracelets on my wrist.
Rob falls quiet and thinks about this. “True,” he says after awhile and by then we’re at the front stoop of the house. I walk into the door on the right and step back out, realizing my rudeness. “Hey Rob,” I call. His door is about to swing shut but stops though he doesn’t open it or poke his head around. “Thanks a lot.” I say to the door.
“No problem.” It slowly shuts with a click.
“How was your day?” Mom asks as she steps out of her car, her trusty brown leather purse slung over her shoulder.
“Fine.” I answer.
“How was the boxing class?” She detours from her path to the back door and sits beside me on the porch swing, examining my face. “What’s wrong?”
“I went there but I’m never going again.” I fill her in on everything that happened, even my stupid shadow boxing in the alley and failure to hit Danny. Mom tightens her brightly painted lips and they disappear as they always do when I mention his name. She hates him as much as I do, even though she doesn’t say it. And what’s worse is that his cow of a mother never answers the door when my mother knocks. Maybe mom should come watch the boxing classes too. She might like to use those moves when Mrs. Cow finally comes to the door. I tell her all about Rob and she fights a smile when I get to the part about him decking Danny.
“I’m sorry honey,” She sighs when I finish. “You did the right thing by trying to walk away from Danny. Punching him wasn’t the answer.”
“Of course it was the answer. I’ve walked away from him a million times, it’s never helped. At least this time he was the one to walk away.”
“Violence shouldn’t be an option. That’s not how I raised you.” The absence of conviction in her voice and glint in her eye tells me all I need to know.
“Maybe that’s not how you raised me but you’re glad someone hit him.”
“Of course not!”
“Admit it. See? You’re laughing!”
“Fine!” She throws her arm around me and kisses the top of my head. “I’m glad our new neighbor punched the snot out of that boy.”
She grabs my hand and pulls me from the swing. “Get up. Help me make some burgers and hotdogs on the grill. Better yet, go invite Rob and his father over for dinner. It’s the least we can do.”
“No one does that stuff anymore mom. People don’t welcome other people to the neighborhood with plates of cookies or invite them over for dinner when they beat up their daughter’s arch enemy.”
“Would you rather I friend them on the Facebook?” She smirks and knows she’s won.
“Then go. I’ll get the grill lit.” I skip down the back steps. “And for your information they loved my cookies!” She yells after me.
I thank God that Rob’s father answers the door when I knock. He accepts the invitation with a smile and shows up fifteen minutes later in a different shirt, clean shaven, with Rob trailing behind him.
“Charles, so glad you came.” Mom smiles and he extends half a gallon of mint chocolate chip ice cream. “Perfect! I forgot about dessert.” Mom takes the ice cream and sweeps back into the house to put it in the freezer. It’s the first time I get the hint of a feeling that one day her consistent cheerfulness might annoy me, but for now I can deal.
Charles smoothes his shirt absently and looks a little lost so I gesture to the set of white plastic chairs opposite the porch swing and tell him that he and Rob can sit there. Rob nods at me and sits and I wonder if his dad forced him to come or if he came willingly. We regard each other quietly, I can’t think of much to say so it’s a relief when mom comes back out onto the porch with a plate of hotdogs in one hand, a plate of burger patties balancing on her forearm, her other arm loaded with spices and cups of lemonade for our guests.
The spill happens in slow motion. The plate of burgers teeters to one side, she overcompensates by leaning to the left and two of the dogs roll off the side of their plate. Reflexively, she tries to catch the dogs and drops the spices along with one of the cups of lemonade while the plate of burgers tumbles to the floor of the porch. The remaining hotdogs land beside the hamburger meat with two light thuds before Charles can reach them. He stands there, half out of his chair staring at my mom who still holds an empty plate in her right hand with one salvaged glass of lemonade pressed securely between her left arm and ribs but the liquid has sloshed all over her shirt.
I would die. I would just die. But since it’s not me, I do what anyone else would do and shriek with laughter until my mom looks at me and dissolves into one of her giggle fits that could last indefinitely. Charles and Rob look from my mother to me and back again before they too can’t hold it in and the four of us are howling loud enough for the nosy old lady in the house next door to peek through her blinds at all the fuss. When we’ve caught our breaths Charles and my mom both bend down to pick up the damaged food.
“Pizza?” Charles suggests and the giggles start again. “No really, I’m hungry.”
Mom stands, her cheeks rosy, lifts her chin and turns toward the house with the plates of dirty meat in her hands. “Only if you’re buying.” She says over her shoulder with a smirk.“I’d be glad to.” He says almost to himself.