A Man's Life: The Boys of Summer
by Bret Anthony Johnston
November 26, 2008
In the summer of 1984, I spent my afternoons with a crew of young men whose stringy hair was bleached from sun and saltwater. This was in Corpus Christi, Texas, on the Gulf Coast, and the boys went surfing in the mornings and then returned in the afternoons to play football on my parents’ lawn. I was 13; the boys were older. They smoked cigarettes, drove VW Beetles with loud mufflers, and often had bloodshot eyes; when they took off their shirts for our games, their chests and arms were hard with sinewy muscle that came from paddling out into the ocean before dawn.
The girls at school had fawned over them all year, and that summer I idolized them, too. I’ve forgotten all but one of their names, Barry, though maybe another was called Todd. Always, among such groups of boys, one is named Todd.
My father didn’t like the boys smoking around me, he didn’t like their long hair, and he didn’t like things he’d heard about them, things he wouldn’t tell me. One or two of them had been arrested, I knew that, and Barry had been expelled from a school across town for selling drugs. But my father also wanted me to spend more time outside, and he must have figured that if the games took place in our front yard, the shadow of our house would protect me from their influence.
Earlier that year he had taught me to throw a football, and by summer I could pass the length of two, sometimes three, lawns. These were high, arching throws that should not have come from the small arm of a boy who preferred books to ballgames. Every time I heaved the football, I expected it to wobble off course and crash into a window or fall under the tire of a moving car, but instead it almost always went where I wanted it to, into that pocket of my father’s chest and arms.
"Beautiful," he’d say. "Right in the numbers."
And that was also the year my father taught me to fight. He stressed I should never throw the first punch, but once it’s thrown, I shouldn’t hold back. My father had fought a lot—in his youth, in the Navy, and once in a pool hall after a man made a vulgar comment to my mother. He taught me how to shadowbox and how to hit someone, how to twist my fist just as it made impact so that it tore the skin. He encouraged me to bite, scratch, and pull hair, to use sticks or kick whoever had started the fight in the shins or between the legs, or to stomp the bridges of his feet.
I nodded as my father told me these things, but I knew if the time came, I would just curl into a ball like an armadillo and hope the punishment would end soon. In the pool hall, my father had hit the man in the knee with a pool cue, and when I asked him if it had broken, he said, "The cue or his knee?"
And yet, I see now that the reason I wanted so badly for Barry and Todd and the boys to accept me was because each of them seemed more like the young man my father had been than I did. Probably that’s why my father worried about my time with them, and why he taught me how to fight. He thought the boys would bully me, take advantage of my adoration, and he knew I wouldn’t snitch on them. I would suffer their insults and abuse because I feared bringing trouble to anyone, and he saw that these boys thrived on trouble, as probably he had.
But that summer the boys tolerated me because of my quarterback abilities and my parents’ long, even lawn. The target of their harassment was a boy named Robert, though they called him Roberta. They called him Roberta because of his high voice and the feminine lightness in his stride, which was something like a prance. That year, he was staying with his grandmother, a woman who lived across the street from my family and fed stray cats in the neighborhood. Robert always left on his bicycle in the mornings and returned in the afternoon, when we were scrimmaging in my yard. When he rode past, the boys acted as if they were going to bean him with the football. They never actually threw it, but every time one of them dropped back and took aim with the ball, Robert flinched. Sometimes he fell off the bicycle. If his grandmother tottered outside, the boys waved at her and mockingly asked Robert if he wanted to join the game. He never did, which always relieved me.
I felt sorry for Robert. I hated to see him turn the corner on his bicycle because I knew Barry and Todd would start insulting him. He made an easy target, and for all of their muscle and mouthing off, for all of their bragging and bravado, they were weak, insecure boys. I knew that even then. But I never interfered with their impressions of his prance or tried to silence the cruel jokes; I just waited for the game to resume. As much as I wanted them to lay off of Robert, I was grateful that the insults weren’t being leveled at me.
Then, on a hot August afternoon, something shifted. I don’t know what changed that day; maybe they’d finally pushed him too far, or maybe he’d been planning it all summer. Maybe he’d been scouting our games like a coach from an opposing team, looking for weaknesses, trying to zero in on the player who would fumble or fall most easily. Or maybe what happened was as much of a shock to Robert as it was to us. But that afternoon when Barry and Todd started in on him, he didn’t retreat. Instead of sulking away, he stood flat-footed in his grandmother’s driveway. Then, just when I thought he was about to start crying and run inside, he started insulting me. He called me a jerk and douche bag and much, much worse. I can still hear his high voice coming from across the street, across all of these years.
I hoped the boys would rush to my defense, but as Robert marched into my yard, they only laughed. My knees trembled, and my stomach knotted, went all panicky. With everything Robert said, the boys cackled louder. He fed off their laughter, his words growing louder and harsher, and soon the boys were egging him on, rallying behind him. They listened to him as a football team listens to its quarterback.
That afternoon when he gathered the courage to insult me, I did the one thing that would have disappointed my father: I threw the first punch. I whipped a hard, perfect spiral into Robert’s face. Then as he brought up his hands, I exploded across the yard and barreled into his chest, knocking him to the ground. Barry and Todd and the boys closed in around us, yelling and hooting and laughing. Robert and I grappled with each other—he was much stronger than I would have anticipated—then I managed to straddle his chest. Aside from an awkward, frantic slap that bloodied my nose, I owned the fight. My fists flurried on his face, and his pale, freckled flesh tore between my knuckles and his cheekbones.
Soon my father was breaking through the boys around us and pulling me off of Robert. Because he never learned the truth about the fight—Robert, like me, would never tell—I knew he was proud of me.
I was humiliated, though. The truth is, while I’ve grown to resemble my father in many ways—his stubborn optimism, his broad, round shoulders, and his inclination to protect those he loves—on that day in the yard, I was the weak one.
I think Robert understood this. He saw me as an outsider in the group, someone who would never quite fit in, and he knew the boys would turn on me.
I don’t know what became of Barry and his crew—nothing good, I suspect—but years later I saw Robert in a grocery store. He was with a boy I assumed was his son, and they looked happy. He seemed a world away from the boy he’d been that summer, the boy I’d beaten more out of fear than anger.
I wish I could say that I did the right thing and walked over to him and apologized, but we never spoke. I don’t even know if he ever saw me. I had the same feeling all those years ago, when I was wailing on him in my yard and his eyes were clenched shut. If he would’ve opened them, he would have seen that I winced with each strike, that I was as scared and ashamed and in as much pain as he was. It was as if I were shadowboxing, throwing blows at my own image, and with each swing, I came that much closer to connecting.
Bret Anthony Johnston is the author of Corpus Christi: Stories, and editor of Naming the World: And Other Exercises for the Creative Writer. His work has appeared in The Paris Review, The New York Times Magazine, Esquire, and Slate.com, and he is a regular contributor to NPR’s All Things Considered. A skateboarder for almost20 years, Johnston is currently the Director of Creative Writing at Harvard.