I had a bad cold. It was just before Thanksgiving. Wearing a heavy brown flannel robe, I sat up against the headboard as Martha Jane settled near me on the bed and sat Indian-stlye. In her hand she had a bottle of green cough syrup, a bottle of cod liver oil, and a bottle of ear drops.
"Okay, hon, time for dessert."
"That's not dessert," I complained.
"This is dessert for sick folks." She shimmied her hips into the mattress to get comfy. "Now, let's see, what does this say...?" She examined the label on the cough medicine. "One tablespoon. Okay!" With a giddy smile she fished for the spoon in the paraphernalia she had gathered in a large dish towel spread on the bed. She held up the spoon. "One tablespoon!" she an- nounced. Seeming to enjoy every minute of it, she unscrewed the cough medicine, held the spoon up as she poured the dark green gunk, and carefully brought the spoon toward my face. "Oookay... a-a-all for you, hon. C'mon. Yumyum. Yumyum."
"Yumyum Yuch!" I pouted.
"Come on now, you don't want to stay up coughing all night like you did last night, do you?"
I frowned at the spoon.
"C'mon. It tastes good."
"I already had some of it and I know it doesn't taste good. It's terrible, it leaves a bad taste in my mouth for hours."
"Well, Speedy, it doesn't taste good because it's medicine. Medicine isn't supposed to taste good."
"Why don't they make it in the first place so it *does* taste good?"
"'Cause if it tasted good in the first place, you'd drink it all the time. You'd live on it, and then it would make you sick."
"If it's medicine, why would it make me sick?"
"Listen, stop bein' so logical. Here. Yumyum. C'mon."
I opened my mouth and she tilted the spoon into it. I swallowed and grimmaced.
"There, I knew you'd like it."
"Now where's the cod liver oil..."
"Yecch!" I growled, as disgustingly as I possibly could, stretching my mouth into a horrific grimace that went from ear to ear. I held the pose as if frozen into it.
"Oh, stop. It can't taste that bad. Here..." She care- fully squeezed an eyedropper of amber oil into a spoon, and then squeezed the juice from half an orange into it. As she did this I sat rigidly against the headboard as if long petrified, my face still frozen in the same gruesome pose.
;Speedy, stop making that ugly face. Now, here...here's your cod liver oil. Come on, stop makin' that face and swallow this."
looked her straight in the eye, with the same face.
;Speedy, that is the ugliest thing I ever saw. Stop, so we can get this over with."
I let my face relax, sighed heavily, and opened my mouth. The orange juice didn't do much to hide the bitter, fishy taste that clung to the inside of my mouth. "Yah!"
"That's a good boy, that's two outta three. Now let's get this off the bed so you can lie down and I can fix those ears." She placed the dish towel of goods on the side table and sat up on her knees on the bed, holding the bottle of ear drops. "Lie down on your side. C'mon, you've had earaches before, you know what to do. At least your ears can't taste this."
"They can too," I insisted.
"Lie down the other way first, hon, facing away from me. That's right. Now, here..." She bent over me and placed the tip of the filled eyedropper into the opening of my ear. The sudden contact of the cold glass tip made me jerk and quiver involuntarily.
"Oh!" She jumped and pulled her hand away. "Oh, Speedy, did I hurt your ear?"
I shook my head no. "It itches!"
"Oh my god, don't do that! You almost gave me a heart attack. I thought I hurt you!"
I coiled up into a ball and feigned a low, pitiful groan, then another.
"Oh, behave. You're not funny. Be still."
I relaxed on my side and then cringed as the cold thin fluid filled my ear with a small roaring noise. "It itches. Eeew, it's so itchy."
"It'll settle in and be okay," she said, stuffing a piece of wadded cotton in my ear. "Now turn over so I can do the other one ..Turn over."
I lay still.
"Speedy, turn over so I can do the other one."
I sat up and pretended I was in a breathless daze. "What? Did you say somethin'? I can't hear. Where am I?"
Holding the ear medicine in one hand and the eyedropper in the other, she started to laugh, resisted it, and closed her eyes patiently. "Speedy, please...you'll make me laugh and spill this stuff all over the bed. Now...please...stop."
I groaned, "Okay," and laboriously rose to turn over on my other side. Already weak, I feigned an even greater weakness, moving slowly and spasmodically, writhing at every turn as if in pain. "Oh...Uh...Mr. Holmes...uh..call Dr. Watson right away... it's the deadly, poisoned ear drops...cgh, cgh."
"Speedy, if you make me spill this..." She started to laugh again, and held it back with clenched teeth. "Stop, or I'm gonna spank your butt 'till it falls off on the floor."
On my side facing her, I lay still.
On her knees, she shuffled closer to me. "Honestly, I never in my life saw anybody go through such agony...Now here, this is the last one."
Once more, the cool fluid rushed into me and greasily leaked over my eardrum. I shivered again with the same itch in my ear as before, and Martha Jane sealed my ear with cotton. Then she sat back and sighed, drooping.
"I am exhausted from this! You're worse than a room full of sick puppies."
I smiled seraphically.
"Don't you smile at me like that, you little devil." She leaned closer to me and half-whispered, scowling. "Hon, you have to get well. We can't fuck while you're sick like this, you're too weak. So there."
She rose from the bed and brought the bottles and table-cloth into the kitchen. While I heard her running water and cleaning I made myself comfortable in the bed, lay on my side, and pulled the covers up to my neck. I shivered as the 'flu coarsed through me, but soon the blanket warmed me and I relaxed.
Martha Jane turned off the lights, except for one small lamp in the living room. Then she came into the bedroom and turned out the ceiling lamp using the switch on the wall by the door, and reached under the bedside lamp to turn off the last light in the room. We were dimly lit by the glow from the small living room lamp.
Martha Jane hiked up the legs of her jeans to make herself more comfortable in bed, and quietly lay down beside me. She put her palm on my head briefly. "You still have a little fever," she whispered. She fiddled with the blankets and straightened my pillow. She felt me tremble. "You still have chills, hon?"
Lying on my side, I nodded slowly.
"Well, don't you worry, they'll go away soon." She stretched and pulled blankets about, soothing out the twists and tangles that were made while we struggled earlier with the medications. "You just stay nice and warm and...take your medicine the way you're supposed to, and...before you know it...you'll be well and gettin' right back into trouble, good as new." She rested on her elbow beside me. "You ready to go to sleep?"
I nodded. At that moment another chill went through me. I clasped my arms closer to fight it off.
"Want me to keep you warm?" she asked.
She moved closer to me and put one arm around my head to slightly lift and cradle me onto her bosom. "There we are," she said, and as soon as I was settled against her she unbuttoned her shirt and pulled it open loosely. Then she pulled her bra up, baring her breasts, and wiggled down so that her left nipple grazed my cheek. I reached up and kissed the brownish pink bud. "There...," she whispered. "Sleep, hon."
The shivers made a brief pass through me as I fell asleep against her softness.
...A week or so later I was standing in Martha Jane's kitchen as her mother, a thin lady who looked much older than my own and who resembled her darker brunette daughter more than her fair, auburn-haired Martha Jane, carefully handed me a large tablespoon filled with dark green syrup. Her mother always spoke slowly and with a slight rasp, having never completely overcome the lung problems that she developed from the long and severe illness following her husband's death in the war.
"There," she told me, "now go in the bedroom and give that to Martha Jane. And be certain she takes every drop of it."
"Yes, ma'am," I said. Holding the filled tablespoon face-high before me, I walked carefully through their living room and into Martha Jane's bedroom. She sat up in bed, a pink wool blanket up to her waist, the place littered with used kleenex and her school- books. Her eyes and nose were swollen and red. In one hand she held a thoroughly used tissue.
I grinned maniacally at the door and chanted, "Yumyum."
She winced. "Don't yumyum me, you--Is it already time for that awful stuff again?"
She called into the kitchen, "Mother, I thought I already took this stuff!"
"It's three times a day, Martha Jane," her mother called back.
"Oh my," she moaned. I had climbed onto the bed and, on my knees, moved cloer to her with one hand holding the spoon and the other cupped guardedly beneath it.
"You were right," she said, sniffing. "That stuff really does taste awful. And you can taste it for a week!"
"Yumyum," I said, moving the spoon closer.
"Oh," she whimpered, wincing again. "Do I have to?"
I nodded. "It hurts me more than it hurts you."
"Right," she muttered, eyeing the spoon with mild terror. "Oh...all right." She opened her mouth and I dipped the spoon inside. Mugging and wincing, she took it all, swallowed, and slithered her tongue around thickly. "Oh, that is so disgusting! This is supposed to be the atomic age. Can't modern science do better than this?"
Her mother came into the room and retrieved the spoon. She stood beside the bed shaking her head.
"Look at this," her mother said, indicating Martha Jane's books and papers all over the bed. "Look, she won't even stop when she's sick as a dog. I don't know what to do with her, Speedy. She was awake half the night studying, and if she wasn't studying she was coughing *and* studying."
"I have to graduate," she muttered petulantly. "On time!"
"But, Martha Jane, you can't learn very well if you don't sleep. You need rest, dear."
"Yes, mother, I know. I know, and you're right." She sighed and played nervously with the kleenex, which she brought back to her nose, and blew into it. "I hate people staring at me when I'm sick. I'm so ugly."
"Alright, I'll go back in the kitchen. Speedy, you visit a while and try to talk some sense into her."
Her mother left and I started to settle on the edge of the bed, but Martha Jane said, "Don't get too close," holding up a hand. She sneezed suddenly, and held out her palm, indicating the box of kleenex near my knees. I gave it to her and she plucked a new tissue. "I hate this."
"I'm sorry," I said, and sat on the bed anyway. I leaned forward to kiss her.
"No," she whispered. "You'll get this same cold again." She held the kleenex to her nose and sniffled. "Well, alright, a little one. Right here--" she indicated her forehead. As she held the kleenex over her nose I leaned forward and gave her a noisy kiss. "Thank you, Speedy. I'm sorry, hon, you're really sweet. Don't pay any attention to me. I'm sick!"
"Is this gonna keep you from school?" I asked.
"No, no, it'll just slow me down. I'll have to work like the devil to keep up. I already worked myself to death, getting in school a year ahead of my age to begin with. I hope it doesn't hurt my grades." She settled against the pillow behind her and gazed out the window. "I have to make those grades. I have to get out of here. I have to get out of the "Lauderdale Courts U.S. Government Housing Project"."
Though I wanted her to get well, the thought that she might soon leave the project was disturbing. Fortunately for her, the Christmas break would soon be underway and she would not miss many of her classes. And I knew she still had the winter and spring to go before graduating. But by this time it was something she mentioned with more frequency than I found comfortable.
Falteringly I tried to think of the questions that would give me more information about what might happen in the near future. "Would you move out as soon as you graduate high school?" I asked.
"Oh no, hon, I still have college to go. You can't get a decent job with just high school, at least a girl can't. Not in good ole Memphis, Tennessee. My poor sister got her diploma and she hardly earns peanuts. She was hoping she'd make more, and she wanted to rent a place for all of us. But she can barely support herself, and she gives mother money to keep us goin'." She sighed again longingly and shook her head. "Why can't she marry some filthy rich man who shows up here in that driveway with sacks of money...? Oh, well, Evelyn wouldn't do that. She wouldn't marry just for money."
"Would you?" I asked, half smiling, half not.
"No," she said directly and firmly. She blew her nose. "But I wouldn't complain if some was included."
I had no idea what to do about her completing high school, going to college, and leaving. But I knew she was unhappy where she was. Heedless of the fact that the forces of time and economic necessity and all the rest of it were far beyond my control, I was determined during the following weeks to please her so well that she might have second thoughts about never seeing me again. Within a few days she recovered from her cold and used the Christmas break to work feverishly on catching up with her studies. Trying to make myself indispensable, I checked with her daily during the holidays to see if she needed anything. If she needed note paper I volunteered and ran to the drug store to get it. I trailed along with her to the library and looked up several of her books.
The weekend after Christmas, Mom had a date and Martha Jane sat with me, but I spent the entire night waiting on her, fixing dinner and washing the dishes, bathing and cleaning up while she studied. I even prepared the bed myself so that by nine o'clock she came into the bedroom to check on me and found everything in place.
"Well!" she said, sliding into bed and hovering over me with a warm smile. "You didn't even need me here tonight, did you? You did everything all by yourself."
"You were busy," I said.
"Yes, I was. And so were you. And I'm glad you let me study, hon, I needed it. And don't think I didn't notice. Now, is there anything I can do for you?"
I didn't answer. But I could see a sultry look in her eyes. More than likely, in the pause that followed while we searched each other's eyes, she saw something similar in my own.
She whispered softly, "I'm all sweaty. I have to clean up a little. You wait right here and don't go anywhere."
She rose, went into the bathroom, and closed the door. I heard the bath water running for about five minutes, and later she opened the door, turned out the bathroom light, and came into the room wearing her wrinkly old bathrobe that she had worn for years. The apartment was, like all the others, not very warm in winter. Her robe didn't fit that well any more, seeming a little short, more like a short sarong than an ankle-length garment. And it was too tight around the shoulders, so that even when she held it closed in front the lapels ventured outward, revealing the soft glimmering swell of her breasts.
She had just started to slide into bed when I got up and scooted down, off the foot of the bed and onto the floor. "Wait a moment, madam," I said, rather elegantly and formally. "The, uh, services of this establishment go beyond cooking dinner and making beds."
"Oh, really?" she asked innocently, batting her eyelashes.
"It includes turning out the lights," I said, walking around the bed and shutting off the bedside lamp. In the dark I con- tinued, "And many other services to insure that you rest peacefully during your stay with us." I removed my underwear.
She asked primly, "And do the services include the manager of the establishment making himself nekkid?"
I answered, "Yes, madam. They also include the management making the guest nekkid, too."
"Oh my," she whispered. "I'm shocked. And pleased."
I reached for her hand with mine, and pulled slightly so that she rose from the bed and stood before me. I noted that we were just about the same height now. She was only slightly taller. In a single motion, but gently, I pulled off her robe and dropped it to the floor. It was, I think, the first time I had undressed her myself. I whispered, "All madam has to do now is lie down."
"And then what happens?" she whispered back.
"I can't wait."
She moved into the bed, going near the other side to give me room, and I followed. I stayed on my knees, watching for a moment as she lay flat on her back, stretching to get comfortable. Her hands were behind her head, her slim body stretched out in the moonlight. She spread her thighs slightly, just enough to show me in the dark that she had begun to moisten and open. I hovered over her, surprised at how, more and more, I should be so deeply affected by the sight of her. Then I settled on my elbows close to her.
She started to put one arm around me, but I whispered, "No. Don't move."
She lay silently and waited. I began to softly, slowly, and wetly kiss her, starting with her nose, her face, her neck. "You don't have to do anything," I whispered. It took me about fif- teen minutes to move my lips from her neck to her toes, and up her thighs again. By then she was trembling and sighing. When- ever she tried to help, I would tell her to lie still. One time she asked me, "Don't you want me to do anything for you?" I answered simply, "You are." From that point on she gave herself to my mouth and hands.
Finally I lay betwen her thighs, my mouth nipping at the sensitive skin along the tendons and muscles there. She gave a series of small gasps as she felt my lips licking toward her cunt. Watching her from below, I shortened each lick as I moved upward, closer. I have no idea how these techniques ever got into my young head. I simply learned from her responses. I could see the tension in her tightened fists as I neared her center. I knew that when she held her breath she would be completely ready for the touch of my mouth directly on her. Soon this happened. She lay tense and unbreathing, her thighs and tummy stiffened expectantly. I removed my lips from her completely for only a second or two, then lowered my tongue to nestle directly and lightly on her clit. She exhaled and whimpered, and her hips swiveled once. I removed my lips again for another brief pause, then curled my mouth into her slit, took her clit in my lips, and gently sucked. Surprising even me, she whimpered helplessly, and started cumming immediately. This was sooner than I had planned, but I was not one to interrupt. Still sucking, I arched my tongue rhythmically and slowly along her nub. She stiffened, and her hips rose slightly off the bed. Her head rolled languidly to one side. She uttered a strange sound that I can describe only as the sound of a beautiful young woman cumming deep and hard, and I could feel her tummy and taut thighs quiver around me through most of it. Soon her hips fell back to the bed and she let out a long, breathy "Oh! God!". I continued my gentle suck, waiting for the subtle sensations that told me her hot clit had stopped swelling, and soon her thighs jerked once and I knew she was returning to earth.
I unmouthed her as she regained her breath and I licked her cunt petals lightly, smelling the cum and the remains of the bathroom soap on her, nipping at her thighs again, and rose to lie fully on top of her. For a moment I kissed her neck and her nipples. Then, rising on my elbows, I aimed my cock by sight and slowly and fully entered her.
"Oh hon," she gushed, though she still could hardly breathe. "God, that feels so good!" I didn't move. I could feel her clasp me inside, once for several seconds, then two or three contractions around my shaft that waned in strength.
I rose on my elbows. Slowly, the new young animal in me rising gradually and fully until I found myself unexpectedly breathing through clenched teeth, I looked down at where we were so deliciously joined, and wordlessly and with a deliberate and unchanging rhythm, I fucked her until she came again. I said nothing until she gave a final quake and went entirely rigid, and as she lay suspended and frozen in pleasure I moved my lips near her face and breathed "Cum...cum..." again and again, waivering only when I felt that odd tickle in my cock sliding inside her, and the soft writhing of fledgling tubes in my lower gut that I could not resist told me with a startling jolt of pleasure that a drop of me was oozing into her.
By the time she relaxed we were both overcome. Neither of us could move. Eyes closed, she lay stroking the back of my neck. Finally she whispered. "You are such a wonderful fuck." To which I could only mutter into her bosom, "I had help."
With her cheek resting on my head I felt her face form a wide smile. Without seeing her, I could envision her teeth gleeming in the dark.
"Flatterer," she purred, sounding sinfully pleased.
Two technicalities that didn't particularly plague me at that time were: whatever happened to Martha Jane's virginity? And what did she use for birth control?
I assumed that my early sexual equipment had not yet developed to the size required for breaking hymens. This seemed reasonable, though I was not that small in those days and from what I had seen and heard from other boys my age, I was above average in that department. At the swimming pool in the project and at Malone Pool, a municipal public swimming pool nearby, plenty of kids showed up who didn't hesitate to drop drawers in public and hop into their swim trunks. From all I saw, I was a definite contender. From Martha Jane's testimony, of course, I was the best in the business.
Birth control was a different matter. I did my own research, at considerable consternation to the librarian who fetched dozens of medical references out of the library stacks. The best information I could gather and decipher led me to conclude that it was medically possible for me to do some damage--though I doubted I'd find a urologist who would dare confirm it.
In addition to official references I garnered more information from every young boy's ultimate source: the first-hand tales of that worldliest of peers, the local 12-year-old womanizer. I don't remember this kid's name, but he frequented the big grassy lawn that stretched before my building. It was a ritual about once a month for this nice-looking, hefty redheaded kid to pontificate on the handling and seduction of young girls before a group of enthralled listeners age 4 to 14 or so. At about that time I decided to hang around for some of these sessions, during which I heard the usual rumors about virginity often passing without pain or bloodletting, or via other means (sports, et al). He had his own lurid stories to relate, and often did so with amazing clinical detail which, through my experi- ence with Martha Jane, convinced me that at least some of his reports seemed authentic.
I decided Martha Jane's hymen had probably been taken by me-- exactly when, I couldn't say--and that its inconvenience had been masked by ardour and passion.
My scouring about the world was not limited to what I could find in a boring book. I did consort with peers now and then, especially on the school playground at lunch and recess. I developed no close or frequent friends that I recall. The one buddy I did take up with was Stepper.
I spent about a year kicking around with him. He was a black boy my own age. We didn't see each other regularly because he lived on the other side of the downtown area, near my Aunt Frances' home.
I met Stepper on one of my expeditions into the downtown business district. Having been packed off to my godmother's place for a week- end, I had spent the morning sitting around their restaurant near busy Union Station. The usual procedure when I spent weekends with my godparents or my father's parents was to spent evenings in their home; but since they had no sitter for me and everyone in the family manned the business during the day, they would drag me downtown with them when they opened the Tremont Cafe in the morning. I spent half my time gobbling down ice cream and Cokes and whatever was on the menu, and the other half exploring the nearby railroad yards, playing Army games near the grounds of the mammoth post office building next door, or poring over comic books and sipping milk shakes. I had exhausted my supply of comics that day and sat around looking bored, so my godmother (who was also my great-Aunt Frances) handed me two bucks for more comics.
Searching the newsstands nearby in Union Station and Central Station uncovered nothing new. So in my usual (i.e., unpredictable) way I wandered into the thick of downtown Memphis until I discovered a new and gigantic supply of comics in a hotel near Beale Street. In 1949 two dollars would buy a sackful of comics, and a sackful is what I held under my arm as I started back toward Aunt Frances' place.
Just beyond the corner of Beale and Main I heard a jazz band. Following the sound, I found a small crowd listening to the three- piece band on a block on Beale Street. This was an event in Memphis, there being ordinances against such things. All three players in the band were blacks, with a drummer and a bass player, and a trumpeter in a straw hat with a bright yellow feather. The fourth member was Stepper, a gangly black kid in loose clothing who was shuffling and tap dancing. The kid's style caught my eye. He seemed very smooth and adept; I had seen enough Fred Astaire flicks at the Suzore's to recognize fancy footwork.
After he performed a couple of numbers he took a big bow from the crowd and leaned against the wall of the building for a break while the band started a number without him. That's when I walked over to him and, too shy to know how to start a conversation with a person who seemed so accomplished, I shuffled around without a word until he happened to notice the corner of a comic book cover that had crept up over the edge of the paper bag I held.
"Say," he said, pointing to the bag, "you got Plastic Man in there!"
"Yeah. You know about Plastic Man?"
"Do I? My favorite. Got them funny glasses, and goes stretchin' his neck all the way around buildin's an' everything. Yeah, it's funny, it's really weird artwork, the way they draw that guy."
We established an immediate rapport. I found it odd that a kid who performed with such alacrity and precision could have such a sleepy, lazy manner of speaking. There was much about Stepper that I found intriguing: he had a flair for dance and a sense for music that has never been matched by any kid I knew before or since. He had practical and apparently hard-earned "street smarts" that I envied. At the same time there was something about him that was even more childlike than his 8 or 9 years. I kept seeing him as a youngish Pied Piper.
Before I left that day I offered him my copy of Plastic Man. He thanked me but said he wouldn't have time to read it on the spot.
But I held the book out to him and said, "No, keep it. It's yours. I'll get another one."
The kid beamed a big, surprised smile at me and said thanks. He asked if I hung around there much, and I said I'd try to get back on a weekend. As I was leaving he said, "Hey, you ever get back here, look for me. Ask for Stepper. That's me."
A few weeks later I again saw Stepper dancing with the street band. When I talked with him during his break I was surprised when he reached into a wrinkled paper sack, pulled out the Plastic Man comic and handed it to me. He said he hoped it wasn't too damaged, he had given it to his smaller brother Junior. And even his 5-year-old sister Truluv had read it.
I asked, "Really? You have a sister named 'True Love'?"
"Yeah, Truluv," he said, and he spelled it for me. "That was my Aunt Harriet's idea. She got a lot o' goofy ideas."
When Stepper was finished for the day he gave me a brief tour of Beale Street, which had not changed very much since its heydey at the turn of the century. This street was "downtown" for blacks who lived in that area, although many of the businesses had since been bought out by whites.
Stepper told me his real name was Franklin, which he didn't like. He insisted on being called by his nickname, Stepper. He was amused when I told him I had the opposite problem and that I hated my nickname. Stepper lived in a small house near Beale Street with his mother, an uncle, his sister Truluv and his baby brother Junior, and their dog Agnes. It turned out that his home was in the same neigh- borhood as my Aunt Frances and her next-door neighbor, my Aunt Josephine Sansone. Stepper said he was familiar with those names. He told me he had an older uncle, Robert, who was a handyman and junk collector in the neighborhood. He cruised the area with his mule and wagon and made part of his living making deliveries or picking up used tires, refrigerators, sinks, or whatever refuse could be sold or rebuilt. The local shopping area had a small supermarket, a liquor store, a cleaners, and a restaurant and beer hall on the corner of Linden Street. My relatives owned that property and ran the businesses. The area was a decaying part of Memphis built in the 1890's. The old two-story houses that were still standing were populated by whites, many of them either closely or distantly related to me. The other side of the area was literally a shantytown populated by poor negro families who lived in houses little better than shacks.
Stepper became my indispensable guide to many of the dangers I had somehow avoided downtown. Standing on a street corner one day he pointed out a very large lady shopper who was crossing the street, walking in our direction.
"Lookit that lady," he murmured, pointing to her. "See, she got two shoppin' bags she's holdin' in one arm, and that other bag she got down at her left side. Lookit dem two bags she's holdin' in her right arm. See dat? It wouldn't take nothin' to bump up aside her a little bit, and dem bags come tumblin' down all over the side- walk. You could grab three or four, maybe five things outta that bag and run like the devil, she'd wouldn't know it 'till too late to catch you."
He showed me how several shoppers left themselves vulnerable and how he could make a getaway unscathed.
I asked him how he knew these tricks.
"My brother, he's 19 years old and he has this friend, name is Joel. Joel brung me down here one time and showed me all them tricks. Said he wanted me to do it with him. But I wouldn't do it."
"Have you ever done anything like that?"
"Nope. Not me. And I'm glad I didn't. 'Cause Joel, he's in jail for it right now. And I'm not. But I hope I never get to the point where I have to steal like that."
"Why would you have to steal?"
"'Cause you get hungry. You don't have no home. Then you got to. Ain't no other way."
Stepper guided me to many of the secret places in unlikely parts of the city. Like me, he was inveterately curious. We saw each other every few weeks or so and explored areas that had not been touched or seen by anyone in years. We crept through the dank, silent warehouses of the old cotton shipping district, unused at that time for dozens of years, and found remnants of an entire railroad network that connected the shipping docks. We followed the railroad itself through an old part of town, onto the bluffs along the waterfront, across the Mississippi RIver on the old Harriman bridge and into Arkansas on other shore. Traversing the old railroad bridge was scary: there was no walkway and only a thin metal cable for a handrail, and therefore there was no escape from oncom- ing trains, short of diving into the river. The heavily rusted tracks told us that the bridge had been unused for years. Still, we played it safe and walked back to town over the DeSoto Bridge, which had a pedestrian walkway.
It took over an hour to return to Memphis. Along the way, Stepper entertained me by forming his fingers tightly around his lips and showing me how to "trumpet" a blues number with his hands.
When it came to adventuring with people, however, we didn't fare so well.
One hot, sticky June day I brought Stepper into my back yard and told him to wait while I went inside to get us some lemonade. Mom was making a pitcher of it when she noticed Stepper waiting out there near the edge of the access driveway.
"That little boy out there..is he with you, Speedy?"
"Yeah, that's Stepper. Can he have some, too?"
"Well," she began, looking at him irritably. She turned and pulled two tall glasses down from the pantry on the wall, and started clunking ice cubes into them. "All right, but listen to me..." She bent down close to my face and in a stern whisper, so Stepper wouldn't hear, she warned me, "...I'll give him some this time, because I don't think I ever mentioned this to you before. But don't you bring any black boys around again. Hear?"
Confused, I looked out through the rear screen door at Stepper, who stood unknowing with his back to us and looked about at the goings on around him. I turned back to Mom and asked, "Why not?"
"Because we don't socialize with them."
"But why not?"
"Because he's--" she lowered her whisper to a barely audible level--"black."
"But why don't we--?"
"Because we just don't. Now you mind yourself, Speedy, and don't ask me why not, just don't do it anymore."
She gave me two glasses of lemonade and went about cleaning up, doing little to hide her displeasure.
Perplexed at the harshness of such rules and her unflinching insistence, I walked outside and handed Stepper the lemonade. He took a quick drink and yelled toward my mother in the kitchen, "Thank you, ma'am. This is real good. You make it really good!"
My mother brought her face to the screen door and smiled with stiff politeness. "I'm glad you like it." Then she went back to work.
Stepper drank the lemonade in one long, noisy series of gulps and wiped his lips. Without changing his casual manner he said quietly to me, "Hurry up and finish yours, and let's go."
"Where we goin'?" I asked.
"You in trouble about this, I can tell. Ain't you?"
I shrugged and sipped my lemonade.
"You in trouble, huh?" he asked again.
I drank deeply and paused. "What makes you think so?"
"I can tell," he said.
Conspiratorially, we both behaved offhandedly as I finished my lemonade and returned the glasses to the kitchen. "Thanks, ma," I said nonchalantly as I walked out.
"You be back here at six," she warned.
Stepper and I decided that from then on we would meet in a part of the project where my mother wouldn't see us--which would be any- where except in my tiny back yard.
Shortly thereafter I was similarly approached by my Aunt Frances. One Sunday morning as she was cleaning up the breakfast dishes before leaving to work at the restaurant, she called me inside. I had been playing in the her back yard with Stepper and his little sister Truluv, throwing a ball for their dog Agnes to fetch.
Aunt Frances stood in her kitchen with her hands on her very wide hips, her big face frowning. "You don't let any of them kids come in this house when we leave you alone here, do you?"
"No, ma'am," I said--lying, of course, since Stepper and I had already explored the unlived-in, unfurnished second floor of their big old Victorian house.
"Hm-hm," she muttered to herself, displaying her usual distrust. "You watch out who you play with around here. Those kids belong in niggertown, over there on Linden Street. They don't have no business around here."
"Yes, ma'am, " I said dutifully.
Naturally, I disobeyed. On weekends when I stayed with Aunt Frances and they were home, I met Stepper behind their house. Their back yard had a wooden one-car garage, and a vine-covered wire fence that ran along the gravel alleyway separating shantytown from the homes on Aunt Frances' block. Right behind the garage was our favorite spot.
I was waiting there one day eating a cookie out of a big batch Aunt Frances was making for the restaurant. Stepper came around the corner of the alley before I finished.
"That looks good, " he said. "What kinda cookie?"
"Oatmeal," I said. "Wait. I'll get you one."
"That's okay, I don't want one that bad. Don't get in no trouble."
"I won't," I said. "Just wait." I went through the yard and paused at the rear door, quickly swallowing the last cookie bite, and walked into the kitchen. Aunt Frances stood in a white chef's apron at the big center table, rolling out cookie dough. I asked for another cookie.
"I just gave you one. You ate that already?"
"Well...all right, but this is the last one. Don't you spoil your lunch."
"Thank you," I said obediently, and once outside I dashed behind the garage. Stepper's little sister TruLuv stood shyly beside him. I gave the cookie to Stepper and said, "Now she doesn't have one."
"She can have some o' mine," Stepper said.
"No," I said. "Wait here." I dashed again to the back door, paused to settle down, and strolled casually into the kitchen.
"Can I have another one?"
My Aunt Frances looked down at me in disbelief. "What? I just gave you another one!"
"I ate it."
"You ate that big cookie already? Don't you chew?"
My Uncle Johnny sat in the living room reading the paper. He called out in his soft, wheezy voice. "What's the matter, Francis?"
Aunt Frances called back in her shrill voice, "Your nephew eats cookies faster than I can make 'em."
"Well, give 'im another one."
"He's had two already."
"He's a kid, they eat all day. Won't hurt anything."
Aunt Frances gave me another cookie, with a strong warning: "Now this is the last one. Don't eat so many cookies, they're not good for you when you eat so many."
"Yes, ma'am. Thank you."
I ran outside. Behind the garage, Stepper and Truluv had been joined by their baby brother Junior and Agnes the dog.
I handed Truluv the cookie. "Wait," I said.
Back to the kitchen door. I paused a longer time, hoping it was enough to cover the consumption of another cookie. Then I went into the kitchen.
Aunt Frances balked and scowled. "Don't tell me you want another one!"
"How do you eat so fast?"
My Uncle Johnny called, "What's the matter now, Frances?"
"Your nephew already ate that other cookie!"
Uncle Johnny gave his usual laugh, an ironic, tired little wheeze. "Hell, I'm not surprised. What's he want now?"
"What do you think he wants? He wants another one."
"Give him one, Frances, what the hell..."
"Here!" Aunt Frances said, posing another big cookie in my face. "Now, that's the last one!"
"Yes, ma'am. Thank you."
I ran back to the garage and behind it, and gave Junior his cookie.
"What about you?" Stepper said, munching. "Now you ain't got one."
"Aw," I said, "I get cookies outta her all the time."
Stepper grinned, his teeth covered with crumbs. "You some- thin' else, boy."
This resulted in my being introduced to Stepper's Uncle Robert, the junk man, a tall, portly, silver-haired elder who reminded me of cheerful Uncle Remus, whose Walt Disney movie I'd recently seen. Along with Stepper and Truluv, we went riding on Uncle Robert's junk wagon up and down Linden and Lauderdale Streets all that weekend. I spent one Sunday at Robert's own shanty, where he made a batch of the warmest, crunchiest, greasiest, tastiest Southern fried chicken I ever ate. He called me "Mister Speedy, suh" and showed me how he collected the junk and cleaned it up.
It was a few weeks following the February cookie incident that I was on Robert's mule-powered junkwagon with Stepper and Truluv and Agnes. We sang and joked our way merrily down Lauderdale in front of my Aunt Frances' home when we passed my beautiful cousin Josephine Louise, who was walking toward her mother's home next door to my Aunt Frances.
We kids waved and screamed hello. Josephine Louise at first didn't hear, but when she did she turned to us and her face lit up. Josephine Louise was a creature of magical beauty. Her wide red sensuous mouth and huge doe-like eyes were almost as hypnotic to me as Martha Jane's basic, tender charm. She smiled and waved.
"Hi, Speedy. Y'all havin' a good time?"
"Yep," I yelled back, proud of myself as a veteran rider of wagons and expert on the back end of mules.
"Stay outta trouble now," she called, and winked her sexy wink.
As the wagon clattered by with its tin cans rattling and its mule clopping along, I watched Josephine Louise's sultry slinkiness turn and walk up the front path to her home. If ever I had been crudely horny as a very young boy, Josephine Louise was the cause of it.
It was on that day that the proverbial excrement first hit the proverbial fan concerning Stepper...
The following day, a Sunday, I snuck around the garage behind Aunt Frances' house and met Stepper in the alley. We began walking through the shantytown toward his house when we were met by his Uncle Robert. We both expected his usual, toothy grin and good cheer. Instead, he had a long and serious face.
"Stepper, you come hyah," he called somberly from a few yards away. He stopped to wait for Stepper to go to him. Both of us could tell by his cheerless tone that something unpleasant was brewing.
Stepper looked back at me as he went to his uncle. "Wait here, Speedy, Uncle Robert's got somethin' to tell me. I'll be back."
But as soon as Stepper joined his uncle, Robert took the boy's hand and held him still. He straightened up and looked down at Stepper sternly. "Stepper, child, I got somethin' ta tell ya. This is serious, now. You got to pay attention and you got to mind what I say."
"What is it, Uncle Robert?"
Robert paused, and began again with a strained voice and face. "You chillun cain't be playin' around here together no mo'. I done got the word on it from yo' brother Steve, and from Miz Sansone across the street. She call me on my phone at home, and when Miz Josephine Sansone calls me at home, I know it's ser'ous. She seen us all on the wagon yestiddy, and she say...she don' wonna see no more of it with you and Mister Speedy."
"Now, I told you, child, please mind me." He looked up and took a step toward me. "Mister Speedy, I sho don't like this. But I got to do what Miz Sansone say."
I looked into his sad eyes and said, "Uncle Robert, you don't have to call me mister. I'm supposed to call *you* mister."
"I appreciate that and I know what you mean, but...Miss Josephine, and yo' Aunt Lucille and Aunt Frances is all in a big uproar, and... I ain't got no choice in this."
I asked, "But who told you we were out on the wagon? Was it Josephine Louise?"
"No suh, now, yo' cousin Miss Josephine Louise, she didn't have nothin' to do with this. So don't you go blamin' her. She's the sweetest lady I know, and she wouldn't do nothin' like that. Now... it don't make no difference who said what and who done what. The end of it is, yo' Aunt Josephine and Aunt Lucille and Aunt Frances don't want you and Stepper together 'round hyah. And they ask me to tell you they don't think it's safe, you runnin' round in shantytown."
Stepper broke in excitedly, "Speedy, I'll meet you up by Saint Patrick's church from now on, won't nobody--"
"Now, Stepper!" Uncle Robert said firmly. "Please, child. You heard what I said." Uncle Robert turned to me. "I'm really sorry, Mister Speedy."
I said, feeling very staunch and grownup, "I know how they are, Uncle Robert. I understand."
"Well, I know you is a smart boy, and a good boy, and I know you see what's going on. I wish it could be dif'ernt, and I ain't sayin' it's right, but--"
"I *know* it ain't right!" I said defiantly. "It's not fair!"
"Mister Speedy, please. We all know what's going on hyah, so let's don't dwell on that 'cause they ain't nothin' we can do about it. Miz Sansone and them is yo' people, yo' family, and you got to do what they say. So don't be makin' trouble for yuhself. I confess I did see yo' cousin Miss Josephine Louise at the grocery sto' this morning when she come to work, and she say she knew what was happenin', too, and she was sorry. So I know how you and her feel about dis, but..." Uncle Robert grabbed Stepper's hand again and straightened up. "But I makes my livin' from Miz Sansone and other folks round hyah, and...well...we got to do what we got to do. Come on, Stepper. Let's go see 'bout some lunch."
Silently I watched them go, torn between pity and affection for Stepper and Uncle Robert, and my growing dislike for what seemed to be a mounting tide of opposing forces from adults, mean kids, the possibility of Martha Jane leaving after high school, aunts who hated giving cookies, and moms who gave no reason for banishing my friends. As Stepper and Robert walked away, Stepper turned and gave me a lost look that tugged at my heart. But out of view of Robert he winked, pointing at himself and then at me, and the message I got was that he would find a way to come to me. I nodded. When they disappeared into Stepper's slanted wooden house down the driveway, I turned and trudged back toward my aunt's house with dragging feet. I was in no mood to give up an afternoon of Stepper and Uncle Robert for one with grownups I increasingly resented and could not fathom.
This wasn't the end of it with Stepper. A few weeks later at the end of March, he met me in the Lauderdale Courts project. He'd brought with him his pride and joy--a leatherette bag of genuine cat's-eyes marbles given him for his birthday by his Aunt Harriett. I knew this to be a prize, as an entire bag of 24 cat's-eyes cost more than many poor black families earned in a week.
We gathered with several other kids in a patch of orange dust a few yards west of my building, near a thick grove of hedges. This was safe from my mother's view and within sight of most of the other kids who lived nearby. We called this grassless patch of worn ground the Marble Court. It was the perfect surface for hand- shooting marbles. The common belief was that only sissies played marbles on smooth surfaces; shooting and rolling in fine dust re- quired great skill.
About five boys my age, and Stepper and I, and a number of young boys and some girls were gathered at the Marble Court as Stepper amazed everyone with his expertise at marbles. I was almost tempted to take bets on the little tyke, as I had seen Leo Gorcey do with Huntz Hall in a Bowery Boys movie.
The sun was lowering toward the rooftops near dinner time, and kids were wrapping up their final marble shots, when four older boys strolled hurriedly across the lawn toward us. Looking over my shoulder, I recognized two of them as a couple of tough kids that had been in fistfights in the area.
One of the boys standing near me saw them as well, and he leaned close to me. "Hey, Ricci," he said, calling me by my last name, "here come some of them guys from the big buildings on the hill."
I murmured back, "Maybe we oughtta stop the game and spread out. They're always lookin' for trouble."
"Naw, they look like they're goin' somewhere in a hurry. They might not stop here. Make like we don't see 'em."
The other kids, not noticing the quartet, were on the ground, anxiously hunched around a boy who was making a critical shot. As I tried to appear unaffected, I heard with a chill the footfalls of the boys walking swiftly through the grass near my back. With a sigh of relief I heard them approach and then pass, appearing to be on their way into the project without noticing us.
But then one of the four yelled, "Hey, Herschell, look at this!" He suddenly appeared in front of me, headed deliberately toward the kids hovering around the game.
One of the other four yelled, "Hey, JB, what the hell 're you doin'?"
"Just a minute," the hefty boy named JB yelled back, "Lemme see somethin'."
"Oh, what the hell!" swore one of the toughs. "You're wastin' my time, JB. You're always wastin' my time!"
JB stepped roughly into the group playing marbles. The kids stood and scattered immediately. Only another boy and Stepper were left on the ground.
"Hey, nigger, what you got down there?"
Stepper remained still, staring up at him warily with wide, white yes.
"You got cat's-eyes, nigger? Hey, Herschell, this nigger's got some cat's-eyes. Got a nice set, too."
"Are you kiddin' me?" Herschell yelled back. "C'mon, man, we ain't got time for that. We're gonna miss tickets for the game tonight. Cut the crap and get movin'. C'mon!"
JB stood with his hands on his hips, looking down at Stepper with a mean smile. "Them your cat's-eyes, boy? Huh? They belong to you?"
"Yeah," Stepper said politely, starting to get up. "They's mine."
"Well, they ain't yours no more," JB said, and he reached down and scooped up a handful of cat's-eyes. Stepper had no choice; JB was twice his size, and almost twice mine. All the other kids began spreading out, away from the Marble Court.
The other three toughs were still walking on their way. "C'mon, JB," one of them yelled. "We ain't waitin', man!"
JB eyed Stepper with a menacing false friendliness, as Stepper carefully moved away from him. "Thanks, nigger," JB said, grinning, spilling the marbles loudly from one hand to the other.
I was a few yards away from JB. I calculated that if I broke into a quick run, I could pretend to have just arived on the scene and could brush against his hands, knocking the marbles away. If the goods were spilled everywhere and his friends were urging him to leave, he might just forget the whole thing and move off. I was desperate that Stepper should not lose those marbles and that the rest of us would not be intimidated. Before I knew it I was rushing across the front of JB's view, headfirst.
I struck his hands with my right shoulder and arm. Marbles flew everywhere. Quickly I jerked to a stop and said, "Oh, 'scuse me, mister! I didn't see ya." I bent down, retrieving marbles, most of which had fallen in the nearby grass.
"Hey, Herschell," I heard JB yell over my head as I bent. "You see what that little shit did to me?" He gave a rough laugh. I didn't know what he would do next. I could not see him from my bent-over position. But I knew I was terrified. I could see my hands quiver as I fished for one marble at a time. I had no idea what would happen next.
I didn't have to wait long to find out.
I heard and felt a violent, dull thud on the left side of my face. My head snapped to the right, straining my neck, and the rest of me followed into the dirt. I don't remember falling, so I must have gone down instantly. I hit the ground tummy-first with a single bounce, my mouth and nostrils filled with sticky, choking brown powder. One of the little girls behind me screamed. To my left I heard feet pounding from the direction of the other three toughs. I was numbed by a growing hum of sickening fear. Were all four of them going at me? What a stupid thing I'd done!
One of the toughs had run to us and hissed angrily, "JB, goddammit, get yer butt movin. You wanna see this game, stop fuckin' around and let's go!"
"Okay, man, okay," JB said, swaggering over to me. "You see what this nigger-lover did to me? Like I wouldn't know what he was up to. Hey, boy! You think I'm stupid or somethin'?"
I didn't answer. I didn't think I could speak anyway. I lay flat in the dirt. Maybe he'd think I was knocked out.
The second tough walked away. "SCrew it, man, I'm tired of your foolishness. Hey, Herschell, keep movin', this stupid motherfucker's gonna stay here and play. So long, JB!"
"I'm comin', man, I'm comin'," I heard JB say absently. From the corner of my left eye I could see his shoes approach me slowly. Then the shoes moved so quickly they were a blur, and I shifted two or three feet to the right as a fierce blow crashed into my left side and ribs. This time I got a good face-full of ground and felt my forearms scraping roughly into it. I then realized the left side of my face was swelling from the earlier blow, and the rapidly spreading mixture of numbness and stinging pain in my left side meant that I had been kicked hard. I lay frozen and nauseous, waiting for more.
But more didn't come. JB scoffed, "Nigger lover," and out of my right eye I saw him walking off. "Okay, fellas, I'm comin"," JB yelled.
My worst fears gone, the ability to move returned to my limbs. I saw drops of blood in front of me on the ground, and my nose itched maddeningly. Rapidly, fear was displaced by rage--so much so, I felt I might go out of control. I trembled more from anger than from pain. I rose to my elbows and knees, a throbbing ache spreading through my head and face. I wondered if the bastard had broken my nose, or a cheekbone, or a rib. More blood dripped off the tip of my nose into small red blots in the dust.
Stepper and two other kids were onto me right away.
"Hey, Ricci! Ricci!" one of them pleaded. "You okay?"
I heard someone sniffling and crying just over my head. I opened my eyes and saw Stepper's shoes.
"Speedy," Stepper sobbed. "Say somethin'. You alright?"
"I'm okay," I mumbled, surprised that my mouth could move, but not surprised that it hurt my nose and jaw.
"He's okay!" one of the kids screeched. "C'mon, let's get 'im up."
I let out a powerful, growling scream. "Don't touch me! Nobody touch me! Leave me alone!"
I sensed the others were startled and that they began moving away cautiously. All but Stepper. He was still crouched near me, his hand on my back.
"Speedy, please tell me you okay," he sobbed.
I was up on my knees now, and settled back on my haunches. I nodded. "It's okay, Stepper. I'm bleedin, I guess, but I'm all here."
"This my fault, man."
"To hell with that," I breathed. "I don't wanna hear that."
He sobbed, "He got you in the face, man, and kicked you good. He didn't have to do that."
"Well," I said angrily, "he didn't have to, but he sure did, didn't he?" I tried to laugh. My left side burned. I leaned forward on my hands and let the blood drip from my face. I hissed, "I'll kill the son of a bitch. I'll kill 'im."
"No, Speedy, you take it easy. We gotta find somebody to help you. We gotta find somebody."
"No. Stop it," I gruffed in a dull monotone. I felt something wildly irrational sweeping through me, starting in my gut and spread- ing into my arms. It was a rage from my dreams about being beaten, trapped, powerless.
Wobbling, I struggled to stand. Stepper helped me. At first he tried grabbing me round the waist, but I winced and yelled.
"I'm sorry, Speedy, I forgot."
"It's okay," I mumbled, sounding drunk and unable to find an equilibrium. I finally stood but swayed, my movements muddled. Stepper was still trying to help me. I gently pushed him away.
"No," I groaned roughly. "Stepper, no. Move away. Please. Gimme room."
"I'm gonna be alright," I slurred, not really sure about it. I tried to turn and walk to my right, but stumbled. In case anyone might be thinking of rushing in to steady me I yelled, "Stay away!"
To my left I saw a very young girl in a light blue dress, so small she seemed puppet-like, rushing as fast as her little feet could carry her toward the corner of my building a few hundred yards away. The front screen door of the apartment on that end of the building opened--it was Martha Jane's door--and the girl and two other kids were animatedly talking to her and pointing toward me. Other kids were rushing in from across the lawn, toward the Marble Court where I stood caked with tan dust, lightly dripping blood down my green plaid flannel shirt.
My rage swelled, ignited, exploded. Not only had someone beat the hell out of me, but now every kid and mother and everyone else in sight was going to see me stumbling and bleeding. My eyes clouded with dust, I saw Martha Jane go to the little girl, take her hand, and start running toward me. Her mother's face appeared at the screen door and peered out at us anxiously. I was enraged at being doubly mortified, at being beaten and being seen beaten.
It was too late for anyone to squelch the primal force that overtook me so quickly. I stumbled toward the grove of hedges and began tearing away at one of the shrubs, ripping it apart, looking for a club, a stick, anything with which to strike at anything else. I heard myself scream incoherently, a long, throat-scalding yell. I grasped at the shrubs, throwing ripped-off leaves and twigs everywhere. I encircled one shrub in a superhuman effort to pull it from the ground. Of course it was impossible, but I tried anyway. The hard edges of the branches dug into my arms and torso. I grunted and again screamed, trying to uproot the plant that was taller and wider than I was.
I heard Martha Jane plead behind me, "Speedy, what are you doing? Stop it! Please stop!"
And poor Stepper, pleading and begging, "No, miss! Leave 'im alone. Pleeease! He'll be okay. I seen 'im do this before! Please, miss, don't! He won't even know who you are!"
"God, what's he doing?"
"He'll be okay! Please!"
After that I was aware of precious little except my own blind fury. I jerked at the shrub until I my arms could no longer grasp it, then trampled randomly into the grove of hedges and found an old four foot limb on the ground, a dead limb fallen months or years ago from the giant black oak nearby. I picked it up and charged toward the tree. I was dimly aware of faces watching in shock as I raised over my shoulder a dead black limb whose height and size nearly equalled mine. Crying, screaming, bleeding, I smacked the old wood against the trunk of the oak. The faces of four toughs loomed before me, and the faces of those who lied, cheated, stole, killed, maimed. I let into the tree with savage vehemence and loud whacking sounds. Each effort tore along my injured side. I didn't care. Again and again I struck. With each blow, splinters and chunks of black dead bark flew every- where. Soon one end of the limb was frayed, yellow shards spewing in all directions. When too weak to hold the log I let it drop; then after a huge gasp of new air I picked it up again, raised it overhead, and hurled it lengthwise at the tree with a furious scream. The broken log bounced back toward me. Stumbling, I grasped it with sore hands and tried to raise the log over my head again.
I faltered, drained and feeling barely conscious. My legs gave out first, the weight of the log pulling me to my knees. The screaming gave way to sobs and heaves. I was out of breath with the effort. I settled backward onto my ankles.
A soft voice, tremulous, wary, a young woman's voice, was just behind my shoulder.
"Speedy? Can I touch you, hon? I won't try to hold you down. I just want to take care of you, hon. Can you hear me?"
"Why won't they let me fight?" I sobbed, choking.
"Can you hear me, hon?"
The limb lay across my thighs. I let it go and it rolled away. I slumped. I was too tired to move. I felt like falling asleep. Martha Jane's hand was on my left shoulder. When I didn't resist, her other hand touched my other shoulder.
A tall long-legged woman in a print house-dress stood near my left. I could barely see her. She stared at me with a horrified grimace.
"Is he alright? Lord, what's wrong with that poor child?"
"I don't know," Martha Jane said. "But he's alright now. Speedy? Can I touch you, hon?"
"Oh, lord," the woman above me groaned, her voice thick with disgust at the sight of my face.
"Please, Miss Ferguson." Martha Jane said firmly. "I'll take care of him. Don't just stand there staring at him."
"Well!" the woman said, and turned and walked away.
Martha Jane sat behind me on the ground and tried gently to steady me by my shoulders. I felt her put her face to my cheek from behind, one hand holding my forehead. "Lie back, hon. Come on, lie back against me. I'm holding you. Lie back."
I drooped, emptied, and fell back against her. She cradled me into her bosom, which became dotted with blood. Holding me with one arm around my shoulders as I slumped against her, she stroked my forehead with her other hand. "Let your head fall back, baby. Let it fall back on my shoulder. That's right. That's right. Shh. Rest now."
Stepper had stopped crying. He was on the ground in front of me. "He done this before," he told Martha Jane. "Some kids at High Street Park, they stole this girl's bicycle and pushed her around some, and we showed up a minute later, like, the guy's was just takin' off. They got away. Speedy got so mad, he tore up a garbage can. He said he mad, he wanted to fight back. So he took it out on this big drum can. He threw it on the ground over and over till the bottom came off and it jus' fell apart. Then he was okay."
"I see," Martha Jane said. "Shh. You doin' better now, hon?"
I was too bombed out to respond. Stepper said, "He's alright now, lady. He just had to let it all out."
I fought to stay alert. I knew the right side of my face had swollen and was closing my right eye. Looking down, I saw my blood on Martha Jane's pale green bodice. I tried in vain to pick at it, not knowing what to do.
"Don't worry about that. You just rest."
I looked into her eyes. They were bright, piercing green, wide with concern and fear.
"I want to fight," I whimpered.
"I know, hon. Listen to me. I know. But you're hurt and you have to rest." She called the little girl who had run to summon her. "Margaret! Margaret, go tell my mother, at that front door over there, tell her to get Speedy's mom. Go tell her, sweetheart. That's a good girl."
I moaned, "I have to sit up."
She helped me sit up on my knees.
Stepper knelt in front of me. "Yo' Mama's gonna be comin', Speedy. You don't need no more trouble from me. This is the third time I got you in trouble." He put the bag of marbles in my shirt pocket. He clasped one of my hands in his two, tightly. Then quickly he got up and started running across the lawn.
"Stepper," I tried to shout, but I could only croak. "Stepper!"
Martha Jane said, "Let him go, hon."
"But he'll never come back! I know he won't!"
"Speedy...let him go. You have to let him go."
My mother and little Margaret came rushing toward us. Mom was hysterical, screaming, flailing her arms. "Oh my boy! What happened to my son? What did they do to my boy?"
All I could say to myself was, "Oh, no. Shit." Now relatives would be converging from everywhere. As if getting beat up hadn't been enough!
Martha Jane and my mother helped walk me into our apartment, where they settled me on the sofa and placed a wet rag over my face. Mom called our closest relatives, my Grandma Rose Ricci, to hurry over in their car and get me to nearby St. Joseph's Hospital. But Grandma Rose was too distraught to drive and she called my Aunt Frances, who in turn was so distraught she called my Aunt Josephine, who in turn was also so distraught she called her neice, my cousin Josephine Louise, whom they all knew drove like the wind at all times.
Within 30 minutes Josephine Louise arrived in Aunt Frances' black 1947 Dodge, the car packed to the hilt with relatives like clowns in a circus act. They rushed into our little apartment and shook the walls with their hysteria. Martha Jane, stroking my forehead and cheek with the cool wet cloth, watched calmly with me as yet another car drove up and Grandma Rose and the Ricci's and Gagliano's got out. Soon the place was so full, no one could walk.
"My God," Martha Jane whispered incredulously. "How many more of them are there?"
"No one knows," I said dryly.
Amid the moaning and wailing and my Aunt Frances swooning into a chair, her husband, my Uncle Johnny, cooly and sanely brought the crowd to attention. "You all remember why we're here," he said, gesturing toward me with his hat. "We gonna take him to the hospital, or we gonna stand around and faint?"
They all gaped at each other momentarily, then everyone started issuing different instructions at once. My mother and Josephine Louise edged their way through the panic and calmly lifted me into Josephine Louise's arms.
"Come on, Speedy," she said, carrying me with one arm around the back of my neck and the other under my knees. "While they work this out, we'll go to St. Joseph's. Follow me, Betty," she said to my still distraught mother, and she wiggled her way through the crowd, through the kitchen, and out to her car. My mom and Martha Jane followed, with Uncle Johnny almost casually in the rear, hat in hand. The last I heard from the others, they were still screaming at each other in my living room.
At St. Joseph's I was cleaned, poked, wrapped, injected, xray'd, gowned and wheeled up to a bed with a window overlooking the project a few blocks away. A doctor who looked and sounded like Joel McCrea with a Southern accent told everyone I was a sturdy kid and no great damage was done--although I would have to keep my arm in a sling for a day or two to keep from stretching torn muscles around my left rib cage, and I'd have a fat cheek for a while, and I'd have to wear a thick pad on my side for a few weeks to restrain movement there, and I was warned to not strain myself by attacking any more trees.
I was in St. Joseph's for two days, strapped tightly in a corset to keep my torso immobile, and continually monitored by a nonstop parade of Italian aunts, uncles, godparents, great-aunts and uncles, great-grandmother Nifa and her two morbid sisters, cousins, near cousins, and a number of people I never saw before who claimed they were related. Nurses groaned and complained, shuffling people in and out of the waiting room and forced to keep count of how many people were in my room at one time. I was kissed on the cheek by innumerable elderly aunts, most of whom appeared grieved as if I were dead and laid out in my coffin instead of propped up in bed.
I was obliged to "be nice" and appreciative and, as Josephine Louise whispered to me with her luscious, red, magnificently sexy mouth close to my ear at one point, "Look as if you're in mortal pain, Speedy. These old Victorians just thrive on melodrama."
Martha Jane visited me each day, but we were hardly able to have a few words between ourselves. On the second day she had enough time alone with me. While the others were out getting coffee, we had a brief chat.
"I'll bet you just love all this attention," she said.
"Martha Jane, you know I feel so creepy around them. I get the same questions: Hi, Speedy, how are you? How old are you now, Speedy? How are you doing in school? What do you want to be when you grow up? Did it hurt bad? Was your--?"
She interrupted, touching my hand. "Now, hon. You should be grateful all these people care so much for you. Your Grandma Rose has been so nice, they could have just sent you straight home two days ago, but your Grandma Rose is footing the whole bill so you could be more comfortable here."
"But nothing, Speedy. You have to admit, that was very generous."
Guiltily, I conceded, "Well, I do like my Grandma Rose, she's the only one I like."
"And your poor Aunt Frances and Uncle Johnny--"
I groaned and slapped my forehead. "No, not Aunt Frances."
"Stop that, hon, I know she's hysterical and a lifetime of criticism every five minutes, but she means well."
"No, no, not Aunt Frances..." I groaned in mock dismay.
"Stop, it squirt," she reprimanded gently. "They all love you, and you know it. You devil, you're just eating all this up. It's more attention than you or anybody else gets in a lifetime."
"Okay," I pouted.
"Don't say okay unless you mean it."
"I gotta go study, hon." She rose and gathered her sweater over her shoulders. Leaning down to me, she looked back at the door to see if anyone might be listening. She whispered, "You get well. Hear me?"
"Because..." She licked my ear. "...I miss us."
I smiled, blushing. "Me too."
With a peck on the cheek she was gone. And just in time for the return of Aunt Frances, Uncle Johnny, Grandma Rose, Aunt Josephine, Aunt Lucille, Aunt Mary, Uncle Louie, Mom, my sister, Aunt Catherine, my *other* Aunt Catherine, Aunt Yiya, Aunt Theresa, Grandpa Joe, another Aunt Josephine, Uncle Vito, Uncle Lawrence, Aunt Cecilia...
By the end of the second day I felt well enough to start getting unbearably bored again. Whenever I shifted restlessly my injured side ached and cramped. Except for visits to the restroom and the coffee shop, Aunt Frances and Uncle Johnny were a permanent fixture in the room, Uncle Johnny sighing restlessly and winking at me now and then, recognizing our mutual discomfort. The worst part of the day was when Aunt Frances began cajoling my mother into moving out of the project.
"But I want my children and I to have our privacy," my mother objected, trying to be as nice as she could about it. "And where would we stay? I wouldn't want to take rent money from all my relatives. I just can't live that way."
"But, Betty," my Aunt Frances pleaded. "You and Speedy could live with *us*."
On hearing that, I raised my eyes to Heaven. Please, Jesus. Not that.
My mother said no, it just wouldn't work. She thanked Aunt Frances. She told her she had a good relationship with my stepdad-to-be, it looked as if they were steady now, and perhaps they would marry in a year or two. I was grateful for her persistence. Not only would I not be able to bear seven days a week of Aunt Frances, but leaving the project meant leaving Martha Jane. Aunt Frances didn't let up all day, but Mom didn't give in and didn't even appear to be tempted--for which I was deeply grateful. Maybe there really was a God.
In a spare moment, when no one was looking, I found myself unable to resist the urge to stick out my tongue at Aunt Frances. I did so, mildly, about half an inch of it. And just as I did, Aunt Frances looked at me.
I withdrew my tongue immediately, but already her big round eyes had widened and her eyebrows rode halfway up her forehead.
She turned to Uncle Johnny, beside her. "Johnny, did you see what he did?"
"What'd he do, Frances?" asked Uncle Johnny, trying to keep awake.
"He stuck his tongue out at me."
Uncle Johnny's repressed laugh started out as a smirk, then he deftly transformed it into a wheeze, and then a mild cough. "Forget it, Frances. The boy don't feel well."
Three or four weeks later, when Martha Jane was with me again, my cheek had cleared but I was still wearing the heavy restraining pad at my left side, held in place by thick layers of gauze around my middle. Martha Jane turned the lights out early. I had already got into bed and was lying on my back when she turned out the last light and walked over to the bed. In her jeans and white shirt she lay down beside me and began taking off my clothes in the dark. When my shirt came off she traced the bandage with her finger.
"That's horrible what that little rat did to you."
"I can take it," I said stoically.
"Sur-r-re, you can, cowboy." she said. "You sure threw a fit. I knew you had a temper, but...I had no idea it was that much of a temper."
I sat up while she removed my shirt. She unbuckled my belt and unzipped me, shoving my pants to my knees. She stood up, pulling my pants off past my feet by its legs.
"I hope you never get so mad at me that you direct that awful rage at me, Speedy."
"I can't hurt people," I said.
"What do you mean, you can't hurt people?"
"I can't hurt people. Only things. I can't hurt them, even if I hate them."
"Why not, hon? You had every right to take that tough kid and beat the--" She stopped herself, and continued removing my socks. "I'm sorry. I don't mean that. You had every right to, but you wouldn't have done it. Because you're sweet, hon. Even though you don't like your Aunt Frances and all those other people, you wouldn't hurt them. You're a very brave boy. It takes courage to be sweet."
"He had me so angry," I said. "Why do people have to take from others like that? Poor Stepper, he's so poor and he doesn't have anything. And he can't help it if he's black. Why does the world do that?"
"I don't know, hon. I wish I had the answer." She had removed my socks, and now she grabbed the sides of my underwear. "Lift," she said. I did, she pulled, and I was naked.
She stood looking down at me in the dark. Silently she unbut- toned her shirt, looking at me with a gently intent gaze. All the buttons undone, she shifted her shoulders back and the shirt seemed to simply breathe off her. Then her bra. The moon glowed along one side of the swell of each gently sloped breast. She unbuckled the belt at her jeans, twisted the top button open, pulled the zipper down.
"That horrible, violent day is all over now," she whispered. She pulled down her jeans, dropped them on the floor, and slipped her thin panties down her long, perfect legs. Her auburn tuft glowed like a softly lighted powder puff in the moonlight. I was getting hard watching her. My cock weakly stirred and straightened. A slab of moonlight fell directly on it. It rose, slightly. Martha Jane looked at it and bent down and slowly, one finger at a time, she put her hand around it and held it so that only the tip stood out above her gentle fist.
"I don't know why people have such meanness," she went on, almost absently, watching my cock. "I don't know why they have to hurt each other. When they could give themselves pleasure and affection."
"I would never hurt you, Martha Jane," I whispered.
"I know you wouldn't, hon. And I hope I never hurt you." She leaned down and licked the part of my cock that protruded above her fingers, then lightly sucked it. "He's so sweet."
I gulped, and my cock stirred. She felt it and grinned. "He can almost talk," she said.
She lay down beside me near the window and our arms went around each other. Propped on one elbow, she caressed my chest. I lightly squeezed a nipple.
"No more meanness," she whispered. "No more hurt. No more hate. Wouldn't it be wonderful if that could happen?"
"It happens here," I offered, "when I'm with you."
"What a beautiful thing for you to say, Speedy," she breathed, surprised, her eyes glowing. "What a lovely thing to say." She held my face in her hands and pressed her cheek to mine. Her lips at my ear, she whispered, "How can I make you feel good? We have to be careful with that thing on you. You can't move very much."
"I don't know," I pondered. "I wanna make you feel good, too."
"I know what," she said, and got onto her knees beside me and bent over my chest and held her face over mine. "I know what we can do."
She kissed my nose. She kissed my right eyelid. She kissed my lips. "You just wait..."
"What?" I asked again.
Her voice was a langorous, barely audible whisper, mildly taunting, motherly, lecherous, all at once.
She bagan softly, "The management of this establishment is establishing new management."
She kissed my ear.
She raised her face above mine again and touched a finger to my lips.
"Don't talk," she whispered.
She was so quiet, I heard the "k" in the last word linger in the air for several seconds.
She nipped at my throat, around the side of my neck to my other ear. One of her nipples grazed one of mine. She put her lips onto my ear.
She kissed my neck, licked my neck, trailed kisses slowly across my chest with tiny, almost unheard little puffs and lickings. She kissed not with her lips, but with the inside of her lips. She put her lips on my left nipple and softly opened them, made a tiny pool of the inner lining of her lips around my nipple, and gently sucked. My cock got very hard. She used the tip of her tongue, only the tip, to move down my chest until she got to the bandage. Then she looked down.
"You're hard," she observed aloud, under her breath. "How nice."
It was so quiet and still in the room I could feel the moonlight on my stiffened, upright cock. My eyes were closed. Now I knew why she swallowed so much when I did this sort of thing to her. It was something to replace speech, for there were no words for the pleasure she was giving me.
Watching my cock intently, she moved as if in slow motion, and still on her knees she stretched her neck elegantly forward in the dim light and poised her head straight over my erection. She opened her mouth. She lowered her head, straight down, slowly and cau- tiously, hardly touching my cock with her mouth. When her head was all the way down, and her lips grazed my pubic fuzz, she closed her mouth around me fully, sucked, and drew up. She did this four times, wetly. Soon I throbbed and felt a drop of my nascent cum being siphoned up my shaft into her mouth. Apparently she tasted it. She came off me, licked the inside her mouth.
Then she turned to face me, hovered over me. She lifted one leg over me, her knee settling into the bed on my other side.
"Careful," she whispered. "Don't let me hurt you."
"It's okay," I whispered back. It always seemed so sacrilegious to talk aloud at such moments with her. Like shouting in church.
Her face over mine, her knees on each side of me, her back raised so we didn't touch below the waist, she looked down and positioned each of her nipples over each of mine, then pressed into me.
"Does it hurt your side if I press my titties on you like that?"
"No." I mouthed the word, rather than speak it. I was speechless, enchanted, amazed.
"I'm not really sure how to do this," she whispered with a nervous little laugh. "I never did it before. Let's see..." Closing her eyes and rising on her arms, she bit her lower lip in deep concentration, and down below she slowly and tentatively hunted in small movements with her wet cunt, searching for my standing cock. Her outer lips found my tip, circled two or three times, wetting me, then lowered. With a long sigh she took me all the way into her. She looked down.
"That okay?" she asked.
"That feels so good!"
"Yes, it does...verrry good."
For a while she experimented, sometimes moving up and down on me; sometimes circling just my tip with her warm slithery outer petals; sometimes taking me all the way and grinding her clit against my shaft, which she seemed to enjoy the most; sometimes taking me in only halfway and pumping rhythmically for a while. Several times she asked me if my side was okay, and I told her it was. She searched and discovered patiently and ardently, often breathing her pleasure in my ear with the most obscenely graphic phrases she could think of. In time she became less careful, gradually more swept up in her heightening pleasure. Soon her wet channel became more snug around me and then began contracting irreg- ularly, at which point she would stop and pant over me for a moment. Then she would start again, growing tighter around me, her grinding more urgent and more intuitive. As her breathing grew more ragged, she began sighing and whimpering. Gradually she assumed more often the position of settling tightly all the way down, squeezing me, rotating subtly on my shaft. And eventually she stiffened, her straightened arms quivering. Her grinding became so intense she rocked the bed, and I knew she would be unable to stop this time around.
She began to chant, "oh hon...oh hon...", and then she began to sing, "oh hon...!" and finally she groaned loudly, "Oh, yes!" and her head snapped forward and she writhed her clit furiously against my shaft, holding her breath, and I circled my hips in the opposite direction against her, and she answered with a low groan, "Yes...", and her cunt clamped on me madly for a long moment. Then she passed her peak, her head fell back and then forward, and she slackened, holding still, gasping deeply and loudly and quickly, her hips and back softened and I saw her breasts had swollen against me and were hot, a vein on one side of her neck throbbed and I reached up and sucked it and her hips jerked once, making the bed squeak, and her neck was hot and salty with sweat and I stroked her hair as if strewing balm on her agonizing pleasure, and she rested, still sucking me inside now and then, and I felt her hot cuntlips drain wet around the root of my shaft. Twice my cock had felt the long moment of sweet tickling inside her as she moved on me, twice I had felt some of me seep into her, and I was content with both her pleasure and mine.