It was my cousins and my brother and me and the kids from the farm down the road. They all said they were going to play some basketball.
We had a hoop nailed to the outside of our barn. They split off into teams. I said I wasn’t going to play.
“He’s a pussy,” my cousin Morris said. “A little pussy.”
It didn’t feel good to be thought of that way but it was the way I was understanding it needed to be.
I sat on an overturned pail to watch them play.
Before long elbows were being thrown. There was lots of traveling and double-dribbling and kids being pushed to the ground. There were lots of fouls, uncalled or somehow screamed into temporary resolutions. It was all a giant shitshow so far as any semblance of real basketball was concerned.
The team with my brother on it took the lead. The other team really started bellyaching about all the dirty play.
“We need a referee,” Timmy from down the road said to me.
Timmy Allen had once held me down and spit in my face while his brothers stood around and laughed.
I shook my head no.
“He’s too good for us,” his brother Donnie said.
I sat on my bucket, hoping my brother or cousins would step in if any of the Allens made a move. But that was dicey since the Allens could be vicious. It was understandable that anybody would be cautious of tangling with that feral pack of siblings.
Donnie motioned to me. “C’mon, Pussy. If you’re too tender to play, you can at least be the ref.”
They’d pulled me into their bullshit of being referee once before, after I’d decided I didn’t wanna play their game. I’d been elbowed in the nose and purposely shotted in the balls and tripped and pushed to the ground enough times to know I didn’t want any of it. I’d been double-dribbled on and watched kids travel for 6 feet and still get their basket counted. That’s when I said I wasn’t gonna play anymore. That was when they conned me into being the ref.
“Okay, Pussy. Too much of a wimp to even be ref,” somebody said.
I shook my head yes. My heart seized in shame. I felt miserable and weak.
Everybody laughed and mocked, even my brother. But I understood.
I tried being the referee once but they’d done shit like slap me in the head, drawing my attention so one kid would trip another. Or give me a “flat tire” but stepping on the back of my shoe and doing whatever short of shit they wanted while I was making the repair. There’d be screaming and pushing and fighting and there I was, supposed to be the referee – supposed to be the one in charge – the one in control. Of course, hardly anybody liked my calls so they made fun of me with names like queerbait. I tried enforcing some rules but realized quickly I was in over my head. After that, I gave up. I just sat on the bucket, accepting my fate as Little Pussy.
My brother’s team pulled further ahead. All in all, his team was taller and older. So the Allen team started getting rougher but it wasn’t a good tactic. They were, after all, smaller. I could see it all unfolding from my bucket – the rising tension, more screaming and pushing, more and more rulebreaking,
The reason I didn’t wanna referee anymore is cause I’d wizened up that they didn’t really want a referee. They just wanted another character for their shitshow. They didn’t want rules. They didn’t want to play fair. They wanted their shitshow so I allowed them that, without interference – just a little pussy sitting courtside on a bucket watching it all.
I sat there long enough to see the same old thing unfolding as it always unfolded so I got off my bucket and walked to the house for my fishing pole. We used to keep our poles and tackle boxes in the barn until we learned we had to keep anything of value locked up since the Allen’s were so prone to steal.
I went down to the cellar and grabbed my pole and tackle box and dug around in my bucket of nightcrawlers. They stayed nice and cool down in the cellar. They stayed lively in my mix of topsoil, coffee grounds and torn up newspapers. I dug into the soil, pulling about a dozen out gently and dropping them in a waxed cottage cheese carton.
I walked down to the pond where I went around for a few hours catching bluegills. I came home with a stringer of about a dozen. I might have had more if I’d had redworms but redworms are harder to come by naturally than nightcrawlers. They’re smaller and harder for bluegills to peck off the hook than fat nightcrawlers that they pick and suck at, leaving you with nothing but a ring of nightcrawler skin dangling from your #8 hook.
As I walked back to the house, I didn’t hear the other kids playing basketball anymore.
I hung the stringer on the porch and went up to our room. My brother was in there. His face was all red and I could tell when he was angry. I knew he’d had the hell beaten out of him.
“The Allens beat you up?”
I was about to be upset since our cousins had been there too and should have at least stood up for him.
“Nah,” he said. “Dad.”
My brother was sitting at our desk by the window. He lifted his leg. His knee popped out of the perfect horizontal tear in his jeans.
“Donnie pushed me down,” he said. “Then Dad tore into me when I came in.”
“Your new pants,” I said. “Who’s gonna fix ’em?”
“Maybe grandma,” he said. “Maybe Sunday. But Dad’s mad as hell.”
“You didn’t try hiding it?”
“Nah,” he said. “He was gonna find out. Might as well take my licks.”
“DId you tell him it was Donnie’s fault? That he pushed you down?”
“Did you fight with Donnie? He might as well have taken a whuppin’ if you were gonna get one.”
“Dad shouldn’t beat us the way he does,” I said.
“Yeah,” my brother said. “But ours aren’t nearly as bad as the beatings the Allen boys get.”
Dennis Allen’s father beat him so bad for stealing our rake that it didn’t seem Dennis was ever gonna come around us again, even though his stealing and the beating had nothing to do with us.
I told my brother I had some fish outside.
“Bluegills,” I said. “Real nice ones.”
“Guess I shoulda gone fishing,” he said.
“Yeah, but it’s muddy down by the pond. You’d have had to change clothes.”
“You wanna help clean them?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said and followed me outside.