written by: Jim Bates
I was playing a serious game of marbles we called ‘keepers’ with my friends Jay and Tim and Jack when my older brother raced up the driveway on his bike, skidded to a stop, and jumped off, letting his prized red and white Schwinn crash to the ground. He cherished his bike and to treat it like that meant something serious was on his mind.
“Guys,” he ran up to us. “We’ve got big trouble.”
My brother’s name was Darren but everyone called him Duke which is the way he wanted it since Duke Snyder was his favorite baseball player.
I sighted my shooter in on a particularly favorite orange and blue flame, one of the few of my best friend Tim’s marbles left in the ring and flicked my thumb. My shooter missed by a good three inches.
“Damn!” I swore at my brother. “See what you made me do?”
I jumped to my feet and faced him. He took a step forward and pushed me. I stumbled backward and bumped into Tim who had stood to join me. Jay and Jack scrambled to their feet, too.
Duke laughed. “What? You guys all going to gang up on me?” At twelve, he was two years older, half a head taller, and out-weighed each of us by fifty pounds. Plus, he wasn’t afraid of us. We generally all got along, but it’d been a long, hot summer and none of our families had air conditioning, our homes equipped with maybe one weakly oscillating fan that barely moved the hot, humid air around. No one was sleeping very well, and everyone’s nerves were shot. Especially mine.
I went to shove him back and he grabbed my arms. “Save it, little Bro,” he said. “We’ve got bigger problems.”
Bigger problems than losing my chance at Tim’s flame? I doubted it, but asked anyway. “What? What could possibly be such a big problem?”
He puffed up his chest, his freckled face serious. He was wearing cutoff jeans like all of us and had on a sleeveless tee-shirt showing off his rippling muscles, the result of hours spent in the basement lifting weights. He was formidable-looking, and we always paid attention to anything he had to say. “It’s those idiots over on Willow,” he pointed behind him.
Willow Street was three blocks over. For some reason, the kids on that block didn’t like us. They were a little older and, frankly, tougher. One or two of them even smoked. We tried to steer clear of them. What could my brother possibly be talking about?
“What’s up?” I asked.
“I challenged them to a fight.”
My knees went weak. I was stunned. “What? Are you insane?”
Tim chimed in with, “Or nuts?”
Jay added, “Yeah, or crazy?”
Jack didn’t say anything. He was the quiet one in our group.
I asked again, “Why fight those guys? What’d they do, pee on your bike tire again?”
We all snickered.
“Not funny, little Bro,” Duke remarked, threatening me with just his voice.
“Sorry,” I said, stepping back out of the range of his fists.
The incident occurred earlier in the summer when he’d left his bike near the lake on the outskirts of town. The Willow Street boys found it and peed all over his precious Schwinn, much to his disgust. I admit, it was disgusting, but, privately between me and Tim and Jay and Jack, it was also kind of funny.
“So, with the Willow Street boys,” I said, scrambling to change the subject, “what’s up?”
“Yeah,” Tim said, “I’m not sure I want to get into a fight with them.”
Frankly, none of us did.
Duke was quiet for a minute, building the tension, and then said, “They dissed Superman. Called him a pansy.”
“What!” All four of us exploded.
I spoke first. “They can’t do that!”
Duke looked at me deadly serious, “Yeah, but they did. They surrounded me when I was riding home from Jones’s.” Duke cut their grass. They lived about a mile away. “Yeah, they got in my face and were giving me a hard time. Then they told me Superman was a pansy because of Kryptonite and it made him lose his powers and all.”
“Yeah, but he’s from the planet Krypton,” I said. “He can’t help it.”
“I like him because he has to prove himself, sometimes,” Tim added.
“Plus, he can fly and has a cool cape and outfit,” Jay said.
Ever the non-blabbermouth, Jack said, “Yeah!”
So, with all of that in mind, no wonder we were going to fight. Superman was our favorite superhero. No one dissed him and got away with it.
“When and where?” I asked, the adrenalin pumping through my wiry body, the body most people would call thin. Or skinny.
“Over at the park. At the ball diamond. Second base.” He checked his wristwatch, Superman-themed, of course. “It’s three now. I told them we’d meet them there at four. We’ve got an hour.”
“Sounds good to me.” I looked at my friends. “You guys want to play another game of keepers?” We weren’t known for having long attention spans.
We played marbles while Duke paced around muttering to himself and saying things like, “Pee on my bike, will they?” And, “No one makes fun of Superman when I’m around, not if I can help it.” And “I’ll teach them a lesson.” It was clear he not only had a lot on his mind but was very determined about getting revenge.
Finally, after checking his watch for about the hundredth time he said, “Okay, we’ve got fifteen minutes. Let’s ride over there.”
Which we did.
The ball diamond was in the middle of the city park. It was the heat of the day when we got there and must have been nearly a hundred degrees out. The air was so thick with humidity we could barely breathe, and we were sweating buckets when we got there, our tee-shirts drenched. There was a water fountain behind the backstop of the ball diamond. We rode to it and drank thirstily.
After I guzzled my fill, I wiped my mouth on my arm and looked around. It was so hot the place was deserted. No kids playing on the swings. No families having a picnic. And no Willow Street boys.
“Where do you think those jerks are?” I asked, trying to keep my voice steady.
I had to admit, I was nervous. Looking at Tim and Jay and Jack, I could tell they were, too. Normally we’d all be talking a mile a mile, yip-yapping away, messing around, pushing and shoving, and acting goofy. But this afternoon we weren’t. We were deathly quiet, our nervousness getting the better of us. Those Willow Street boys were big and mean. No matter how tough we talked, the outcome was inevitable: we were going to end up beaten and bloody and hurt.
As we waited, on the horizon to the west a line of clouds began building, billowing and climbing high in the sky, the light from the sun backlighting them and making them look ominous. I pointed, “Hey, guys, look at that. Looks like a storm is coming.”
Duke said, “They’ll be a storm all right. From me. When those Willow Street boys show up.”
Jay laughed a little. Mostly out of nervousness was my guess.
Tim said, looking around, “Where are they, anyway?”
Perched on our bikes near second base we were not only exposed but could see most of the park. It was kind of creepy it was so empty.
“Maybe they won’t come,” Jack said, which coming from him was profound. He spoke like ten words a day. But he was fun to be with. He laughed at almost everything we said.
Duke cupped his hands to his mouth and yelled. “Hey, you suckers! Where are you? Come on out and fight. What? Are you afraid? You’re nothing but a bunch of dumb cowards.”
Fighting words if we’d ever heard them. But there was no response. We listened. Nothing.
Nothing but the wind picking up ahead of the storm. In a matter of moments, it gusted hard through the trees, scattering leaves and bending branches. Dust devils blew across the ball diamond peppering our faces with sand so badly we had to turn away. The temperature dropped ten degrees in a matter of a minute. A paper bag flew past and then a flock of blackbirds, racing for safety. Then we could smell it. Water in the air. The storm was coming. It was coming fast.
“Duke,” I said, “We should get going. If it starts lightning with us standing out here it could be dangerous.”
Just then, as if on cue, a bolt of lightning flashed across the sky, jagged and mean looking. It looked like something out of one of our Superman comics and was followed a few seconds later by rolling, rumbling thunder.
“Cool,” Jay said.
“Maybe, but we should get going before the rain hits.” I turned to Duke, “You coming?”
He stared at me, “Not on your life. I’m not chicken. I’m waiting.” Just then the sky opened up and rain started pouring down in sheets.
“I’m out of here,” Jay said, brushing water from his eyes. “Come on, guys.”
“Yeah,” Tim said to me. “Let go.”
Normally, I’d listen to Tim and do the prudent thing, run for safety from the storm. Instead, I looked at Duke. Rain ran down his face as he valiantly stood his ground and waited. Waited for the Willow Street boys. The sky had turned dark purple, like a bruise, and lightning was flashing non-stop. Thunder was booming like a cannon.
My big brother looked at me and yelled above the wind and the rain and the lighting and the thunder, “Go on, little bro. It probably is dangerous out here.” He looked at me like only brothers can look at each other, and added, “But I’m staying. I’m not backing down from those guys anymore.”
I looked back at him, and I knew what I had to do. I turned to my friends and said, “You guys go on. I’m staying with Duke.”
“You’re crazy,” Tim yelled above the wind. Then stepped closer and asked, “Are you sure?”
“Yeah, you sure?” Jay added.
Jack just looked at me.
I looked at my friends. “Yeah, I’m sure.” I turned to Duke. He was a tough guy, but I could tell he was touched because he smiled. Rainwater ran off his hair and down his face and all.
I watched as Tim looked at Jay, who looked at Jack, and then they all nodded a silent agreement. Tim put his hand around my shoulder in a show of solidarity and said, “Okay, we’ll stay, too.”
And we did.
We were soaking wet and cold by the time five o’clock rolled around. By then the rain had quit and the sun was starting to come out. We’d spent the hour in that downpour pretending it wasn’t happening. We talked about baseball, mostly, and marbles and bikes. Oh, and Superman, of course. We talked about our hero, Superman. A lot.
The Willow Street boys never showed up to the ball diamond that day. But the weirdest thing happened. They quit bothering us after that. To this day, in the back of my mind, I always wonder if maybe they checked out the park and saw us waiting for them in the rain and downpour of that massive summer thunderstorm and thought to themselves, those guys are too crazy to mess with.
But I’m glad we did it. After all, we were friends, and friends stuck together. Right? Right. And I didn’t need a superhero to tell me that. Not even Superman.
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