Every time we moved into a new house my mother did the same scam. She convinced the landlord to buy her a few gallons of paint, a couple of brushes and a roller, and she would paint the entire house if he would give her a cut on the first month’s rent.
When we moved into Kings’ territory, she worked this out, and for a few days before moving day, she came to paint. I was in kindergarten, half days, and she brought me along.
Too shy to talk to the group of kids who populated the neighborhood, I simply sat on the stairs and watched as they played marbles and cussed. They were my age but had been set free by parents who were locked into houses, sitting in front of air conditioner units, fighting back the heat of the summer day and the humidity the area was famous for.
While these kids played, I listened carefully. I laughed as they made jokes and cussed. I tried to figure out which of them would be my friends, and I looked at the girls, trying to imagine myself with any of them. I knew very little about girls. I was ignorant to what I was supposed to do with them, but as long as I can remember, I had a girlfriend. When the girls looked over at me, I blushed. When the boys stared at me, I felt a thread of fear inside my body being slowly pulled through my heart as if from a rusted needle.
They were gathered around each other forming a circle, crouched down or on their knees, working hard at some game. Shouts and groans, more cursing and laughing. I had no idea what they were doing, but I wanted to know. I walked over to them and looked at them all crowded around a hole in the dirt. They each had a bag full of glass balls with strange swirls inside. They looked up at me, and the biggest, meanest of them scowled.
“What do you want, new boy?” he asked.
My heart stopped and I shook my head. “What are you guys doing?” was all I could manage.
“Playing marbles, you got any?” he snapped.
“What are marbles?”
They all laughed and the big one looked at me and shook his head in disgust. “Get the fuck out of here before I beat your ass,” he said.
“Your skinny ass will be grass, new boy!” another said. They all laughed.
I went back to my stoop, humiliated and ashamed.
The next day when we were headed over to the house, my mother stopped at Ben Franklin’s, and while she grabbed a few cleaning products and a soda, I asked her for marbles. She grinned and I grabbed a mesh bag the size of a man’s fist filled with glass balls. I remember rolling them around in my hands, delighting in the way they glided and churned against each other. This was the key to friends at my new house. This would make me popular. I would be the hit of the neighborhood, and I could not wait to play.
When I got there, no one was there. The streets were empty. I looked at the little hole in the ground and waited. Back on the stoop, and it was about half an hour before the big guy came out of the house next to mine.
“Hey, new boy!” he shouted.
Paralyzed with fear, I could only stare.
“I was just fucking with you yesterday. You want to play?” he said. He shook my hand and smiled. “The name is Cage. What’s yours?”
“Jesse,” I croaked. He still scared me, but at least he was not yelling at me. “I got marbles.”
He grinned. This would soon become the best friend of my childhood. We would fight together, bleed together. We tried over and over again to become blood brothers, but could never work up the nerve to cut ourselves. We would face the perils of this neighborhood together, and weather the horrors of home alongside one another, but when he grinned at me that day, I saw a darkness in him.
“Let’s play,” he said. He ran to his house, grabbed his bag, and we crouched over the hole. He looked up at me and licked his lips. “You ever played before?” He knew the answer, but asked the question anyway.
“Never. Will you teach me?”
“Sure. I drop in my big marble. Then you flick in one of your smalls. If your marble touches my marble, then I get to keep your marble. If it doesn’t, then it is my turn.” He smiled at me again. It was a greasy smile, a smile only the crafty and the criminal share.
Soon after flicking my marbles in the hole, I realized this was an impossible game. The hole was dug in such a way that every small marble I dropped in tapped his. He picked them out one at a time, dropping them into his bag and chuckling. Every time I heard the slight click of glass on glass, my heart broke a little. When I had only my big marble left, he nodded.
“OK, now you drop that one in and I drop two. If they both touch your big guy, then I get to keep it.”
Miserable, I dropped it in, and when he had won it, he dropped it into his bag and smiled at me. “That was fun. If you want to buy more marbles, we can play again. I gotta go. Good to meet you.” Then with a chuckle and a wink, Cage was gone.
I walked back to the house and went to my mother. She had a transistor radio and was listening to Patsy Cline. Her pure voice as she sang mixed with Patsy’s to blend into happiness for me, and I sat against a wall she had finished the day before, pulled my knees to my chin, and waited for her to be done.
Soon she turned, lifted an eyebrow and cocked her head. “What do you want?”
I wanted more marbles, wanted a chance to win mine back, but I knew it impossible. “Nothing.”
Over the sound of the whirling fan and Patsy’s Crazy, my mother sighed. “Go play with your marbles.”
“I lost them.”
“Dammit, Jesse, I just bought them for you. Where did you put them?”
“No, I lost them in the game.”
When I told her about Cage’s rules, she gripped my arm and snarled. She dragged me down the stairs and up the lawn of Cage’s house. She stomped me up his stairs, to his screen, and she pounded on it.
Cage’s mom answered the door with a snarl, and my mother stomped her foot and pointed her finger.
“Your fucking son is a thief!” she snapped. “He stole my boy’s marbles and I want them back.” Mom was short, thin, and could have been broken in half by this much bigger woman. She did not know how to fight and could never have defended herself, but rage belonged to my mother. Within her was housed the rage of an abusive childhood and a disappointing series of loves. She had been shit on all her life, and she had slowly begun to climb out of it over the last few years. She had come stomping out of the fog of disappointment and darkness, and she stood now, her finger stabbed out, her lip curled. In the face of that rage, Cage’s mother yelled for him.
I don’t remember the look on his face while she was screaming at him. I don’t remember if he was scared of his mother, mine, or of me. I don’t recall if he hated me in that moment or if he just wanted away, but his mother made him give me all his marbles, and mine dragged me away.
Fifteen minutes later, Cage’s older sister, Meek, came over and politely knocked on our door.
My mother turned, her fist on her hip, a dripping paint brush in her other hand. “What?” she said.
“My mother wants to know if you went to 76th,” Meek said.
Mom looked at her before her brow furrowed. “How does she know that?”
“Are you Mary Mocking?” the girl said. “Is that your name?”
“What is your mother’s name?” Mom said. “Why does she know me?”
“Can you come over to talk to my mom?” Meek asked. “She just wants to talk.”
My mother grabbed a small baseball bat and nodded. We walked to Cage’s house and my mother stopped at the door. Cage’s mom came to the door and grinned at the bat. “Come on in,” she said. “You want some coffee?”
They had gone to school together. Cage’s mom ran with a rough crowd and had spent a week bullying my mother.
Finally, in a fit of desperation, my mother had stomped to her with her stabbing finger and screamed that they were going to fight. Had told her after school at the flag pole or else.
Cage’s mom had never showed. She admitted to be more afraid of Mary Mocking than any other person on Earth. She wanted to be friends.
It’s been thirty-six years since that day. My mother is still friends with that woman. They talk often over the phone. My mother will soothe, as his mother weeps of the fate of Cage and the horrors he lives.