Though I was only five and a half, now that I had a bike, I enjoyed increased respect among the kids on Spaulding Avenue. The older girls like Eleanor played jump rope or hopscotch or jacks on our concrete front walk or our front porch, both painted a deep red and grooved to imitate flagstones. If they weren’t riding their bikes, the boys mostly played marbles. I was learning to play hopscotch and jacks, but I much preferred marbles. For a little girl, I was pretty good at it and could sometimes beat the younger boys, especially after I got a special shooter called a steelie.
I’ve never told a single soul the story of how I got that steelie. Just thinking about it now makes me squirm. But since there’s no longer any chance of my being punished for my childhood misdeeds, I’ll tell it just the way it happened.
The older of two brothers who lived across the street—he was probably around eight or nine, and no, I don’t remember his name—wouldn’t tell if I did—had three steelies. They were the most coveted of marbles, so of course I wanted one too. I really, really wanted one. First, I offered to buy one of his steelies for a dime. When he turned that down, I offered a quarter, but still he refused. Then I offered him three comic books. He wouldn’t go for any it.
Then one Sunday afternoon that boy told me he’d give me one of his steelies if I did a very naughty thing: go with him and his younger brother into their garden shed, take down my pants, and show them my bare bottom. “Why?” I asked, although I already suspected the answer. Because I didn’t have a brother, I’d never seen what a boy looked like under his pants; and since they didn’t have a sister, they were probably curious too. I thought briefly about trying for a reciprocal arrangement, but I was much more interested in getting my hands on one of his steelies.
He ignored my question. “Do you want a steelie or not?”
I thought about it a while longer, weighing the possible consequences. I knew what he was asking me to do was probably wrong. Why else would I have to wear long pants under my dress at school just so I could hang upside down on the monkey bars if it wasn’t to keep boys from seeing even my underpants, let alone my bare bottom? On the other hand, if we were ever caught, he and his brother would get in just as much trouble as I would, maybe even more, so I was pretty sure they’d never tell.
“Okay, but you have to give me the steelie first. And you have to promise not to laugh or anything.”
“Sure, I’ll give you the steelie first, but only after we’re inside the shed.”
I followed the boys across the street and down their driveway to the very back corner of the fenced lot, where leafy trees shaded the rough, unpainted shed. The older boy pushed open the door, and I followed him in, the younger brother bringing up the rear. I looked around. In the dimness, I could barely see the hoe, shovel, and rake hanging from nails on the wall, or the battered, rusty lawnmower shoved into one corner. There was no light other than what filtered in through a single dirty window pane, its top half covered with spider webs. A spider was silhouetted there—at least an inch across—waiting for a fly or a bug.
“Here’s your steelie,” the older boy said, holding out his hand.
I grabbed it and shoved it deep in my pocket, then just stood there.
“Well, go ahead, take down your pants!”
I kept my eyes riveted on the spider. My cheeks felt hot, but my fingers were cold as I pulled the straps of my overalls down over my shoulders and, with one quick motion, pushed everything down to my ankles. The boys circled me and stared. When he was right in front of me, the younger one squatted down for a closer look, then scrunched a few inches closer, like a crab. He clapped his hand over his mouth to suppress his giggles.
That wasn’t part of the bargain! I reached down, yanked up my underpants and my overalls, turned and raced out the door and back toward Spaulding Avenue, pausing just long enough to pull my straps up over my shoulders. Once across the street, I headed straight for our backyard gate, where I knew Rusty would be waiting inside the fence. He wagged his tail and licked my neck as I hugged him tight and buried my face in his fur for a long time before reaching into my pocket to make sure the steelie was still there. I stayed in the backyard all afternoon, until Mommy called us for dinner.
The heavier steelie gave me a big advantage in knocking an opponent’s marble out of the chalk circle on the sidewalk, and then, if we were playing “keepsies,” I got to keep it. Soon I had enough marbles to fill a red leatherette pouch with a drawstring, which I put under my pillow at night, where Rusty couldn’t get at it and chew it to pieces.
I remember one day I was winning and had taken most of a boy’s marbles when he got mad and grabbed my steelie and ran off down the street with it. Knowing perfectly well that crying or complaining wouldn’t get me anywhere, I chased the culprit and caught him and knocked him down and punched him in the face until he gave me back my steelie. I thought that was the end of it, but somehow the story got back to Mommy, not about showing my bottom but about punching the boy who took my steelie. Mommy sat me down at the kitchen table and started in.
“Patricia, that was a very, very bad thing you did. You shouldn’t ever hit anyone, no matter what. How would you feel if someone punched you in the face?”
“But he took my steelie,” I wailed, “and he was never going to give it back.”
“I don’t care if he took your steelie. I don’t care if he took all your marbles. You promise me you’ll never do it again. If you don’t, I’ll take your marbles away and you’ll never get any of them back. Maybe you shouldn’t be playing marbles with the boys anyway.”
“I promise I won’t ever do it again,” I said. But deep down inside, I didn’t really mean it. I knew that if any sorry loser ever again took my steelie or my bike or anything else, whether it was a boy or a girl, I’d run after them and catch them and knock them down and punch them in the face until they gave it back.
Later that evening, while Eleanor and I were doing the dinner dishes in the kitchen, I overheard Mommy telling Daddy what I had done. I froze, certain he was going to get out the pledge paddle and give me a lesson I’d never forget. But he didn’t. Instead, he started to laugh.
“That kid can certainly take care of herself,” he said.