Anna Chamberlin

I owed Mike seven more than I was good for. 

“And if you don’t pay me next week? No. Now.” 

We’d begun betting a few months ago, when the sweat of summer labor cooled and our fathers left for one of two places after working the fields: the bars, or the races. None of us were ever brought along, probably to save face when they lost a buck, but we always knew what had gone down by the fury that returned home. A ten-dollars-richer man is a happy one, I had learned. Any the poorer, it’s best not to find out. Most of us bet against our fathers so we’d cut a win either way the coin flipped.

“I just told you, I don’t got it.” 

If only that damned stallion hadn’t cowed to pressure, last minute. Usually we’d hash this all out over chips, but things changed. All the boys had become cheap. They wanted their debts paid, and they wanted them at recess. There were three of us. Mike, Pig, and me, Bird. 

Michael was the lucky kind of beautiful. Tall, ginger, and freckled. He played every sport at Fresno Middle School—soccer, football, and sometimes hockey—so he was all bruised everywhere, all the time. You’d have to think those injuries damaged past the skull. His habits made him a little sticky, like he’d woken up late and was just getting to wherever he was supposed to be, spitting into his palm to smooth down his hair. His bones gnarled, at a few junctures, but it inexplicably made him more charming and got me red it was so unfair. 

None of his clothes fit his bulk, and he was too poor to ever size up so the leather of his shoes stretched at each of the toes and his pants cut off at the ankles. His left ear stuck out, the other tucked below his cowlicks. He had a short neck. When he smiled, his lips would thin too much. Nothing about him was exceptional except in its totality, like a piano with all its keys. His father was a carpenter, his mother cleaned houses, and he did nothing. It was all he was good for. 

“What if I pay three now, and then another next week, and we call the last one even?” I haggled, “Let’s play this cool.” 

Pig wanted to help. He came from a legacy of negotiators, mostly Spanish-speaking devils, my father intuited. With black curls and dirty fingernails, Pig never convinced anyone of his intentions. His family arrived at Ellis Island, cut the line, came out West, and never stopped swindling after. My mother called his mother a tart. I thought her sweet. 

Pig tried to mediate. “Pay half now, and he’ll give you a two-dollar discount. You can pay him back in G.I. Joe collector’s editions.” 

“That works.” I chimed, eyeing Mike to see if he bought it. 


“What if I gave you my cap gun and paid you five next week?” 


“And I threw in a Rubik’s?”

“I’ll kill you.” 

“Try it.” 

“Go fuck yourself.”

Mike lived a few houses down, in a smaller place. Shabby, my mother would say, so sad. We are so lucky, just so lucky, aren’t we, Henry? And my father would grunt. Our family wasn’t much better off than Mike’s but we were richer in our minds, it gave us peace. My father hated Mike because he was better than me. I just couldn’t make any of the teams, even when I slaved over weights, weeks before tryouts. I didn’t have it in me. Sometimes my father would see Mike playing flag football on our block, or just kicking around with the high school kids, and opened our window, enraged.


Then, to me, 


After the Depression my father had taken to philosophizing ethnicity, as a way of explaining the whole thing, my mother told me. Why he lost his work in the mines. How dust managed to coat the insides of closets, unopened cereal boxes, cans of tuna or sardines, eggs they cracked at breakfast. Why he moved to California, restarted without his family, broke. Why he married my mother and not a lady. My father wanted me to know that All Things Happen This Way and there wasn’t much to do about it, but wait the curse out. The good would return eventually. Us People always got the good, in the end. By that point in the sermon he would buzz into sleep on the couch. 

If he saw me with the boys he’d make sure to remind me how shit they were, how shit I was. He liked to mention Mike’s stink, a key characteristic of the Polish, he said. Mike was too brown and too red and too hairy. Mike was big-boned and that gave him an advantage in sports, it was so unfair. Mike had no clue. I was ashamed of my father and his jealousy. I knew Mike was made of something, whereas I was cheap and plastic. Everyone knew it.

Mike shoved me. 

“Yeah? I can push too, fatass!” 

Now I’d gotten him. 

“Take it back,” he said, stepping closer.

His hair and face blended in one. The big ear grew, it quivered. It became big and purple and throbbed with fury. I knew I didn’t look much in comparison. I was too small. Impish skin, dimples, and little hands. What wasn’t a lovely shade of pink on my body was just sparrow brown. Like sapling wood, my mother told me. Like pigeon crap, my father would say.

“I won’t. Suck my cock, pol–” 

Mike shoved me. “I AIN’T Polish!” 

“My ass you ain’t.” 

“Guys please, please,” begged Pig, “we can’t solve this before Science, just leave it for after school!” 

I spat on him. Mike followed. We didn’t give a shit, we were ready to really problem solve. Pig sat with his fingernails in his mouth. He didn’t want trouble, he didn’t want me or Mike. He was afraid and I wanted to sock it out of him.

I raised a fist. “Quit thumb-sucking!” 

“I’m not sucking my thumb…” said Pig. 

“I’m watching you!” 

“Oh yeah? How about I thumb you?” 

Pig was thick, with a gut and whiskers at ten years old, I knew I couldn’t take him. I was worried. I was sad. The guys had never gotten this bad. 

I lunged at him. “I’ll smash your skull in! I’ll jerk you! I’ll bitch you!” 

I went to swing but Mike held me back. Jared from the class above, walked over. 

“Hey, hey! Alright! Bird, Pig, quit it!”

Jared’s shoes had no laces and were four sizes too big because they were hand-me-downs from his father, as were his glasses, pants, shirt, and socks. Jared would tie his shoe-laces into a rope-belt that fell every time we played Cowboys and Indians. When he got pantsed we’d titter after where he got his underwear, but that he wouldn’t admit to. He had moles splattered across his chin which he told us grew hair, and meant he was the first to grow a beard. Jared was the son of a veteran and desperately wanted to kill Africans someday. Or the entire country of Japan. Jared was smart and would probably go to college instead. 

He wanted us to reason through the thing: “One talks first, while the other holds his breath, and then he can respond once the first is done. NO interruptions! NO insults.” 

“But what if the first one’s wrong?” I prompted. 

“You wait.” 

“And if he’s stupid?” Mike asked. 

“You gotta prove it. Otherwise you’d just fight again. It’s called de-escalation.” He reminded us his father had been in the army, and had taught Jared about conflict resolution. I told him his daddy had taken it up the ass in that case, and the whole crowd fell to the floor. 

“Cock-sucker!” he yelled, oblivious, as he moved towards me

Now Mike was with me. We escaped, Pig was left behind. The sacrifices we make in battle are the scars we carry, Jared’s dad would’ve reflected. Jared was screeching too loud to care for our dash to the slide. 

We laid flat on our guts, underneath the spout, which must’ve been the position Jared’s father took in the trenches. 

“Ywant?” Mike offered gum. 


“Whabout this?” 

I watched, my mouth slotted open, as Mike pulled out treasure.


“My dad’s lazy. Leaves these Newports and naked women all over the house. My mom hates him.” 

“Do they work?”

“Yeah, you can eat it. Does the same thing as smoking.” 

“No shot. You got a light?” 

He reached back down, into his pants, and into his underwear. His fingers dallied and I got suspicious until he pulled out just an empty hand. 

“I ran out.” 


“It’s O.K., we can smoke later. If you want.” 

“Yeah, maybe.” 

A truce. 


We heard vulgarities, the horrid cries of eighth graders. We were really in for it: their recess had overlapped with ours. Jared was cheap shit now. 

“I won’t look,” Mike said, turning to me. “You first.” 

I couldn’t refuse. Being the second coward, that’s always worse than being the first. “O.K.” 

I let my fingers creep out. We were hiding at the base of the slide, at the lip, and I could fit my head just underneath it to peek. God, they were animals. Big and thick, even the girls. Everyone was hairy. Everyone was monstrous. I liked the short skirts girls wore, with pink and pretty pantylines, but really they were a freakshow all the same and I couldn’t appreciate it. I  could vaguely figure a hoard of them squealing. Next to the monkey bars, in leaves and grit, two squirrels screwed. 

“Mikey, I dunno what we’ll do. It’s them.” 

He turned to me and craned his neck to disfigure his forehead on the steel. We both knew what’d happened to the boy who’d knocked his head sliding down and ended up in a hospital, later a home for imbeciles. It was better to take risks you cared for. I turned too. 

“If we give it up, they’ll take us. If we hide, they’ll sniff us. There’s no game here.” 

The end of the world was approaching, and I was in tatters. 

“Bird, this isn’t about the guys. It’s about honor.” 

Well, he didn’t have to go and do that

“What if I don’t have it in me to die?” . 

“You know it’s coming, might as well make it a big bang.” 

I tallied all the noble reasons I had to remain among the living. Playboy. Horses. Smokes. 

“But, my show comes on in an hour,” 

“And?” Mike rolled his eyes. 

“And my mom might make apple pie if I ask her…” 


“So I’ll have my apple pie and I’ll watch Popeye and things might be good again.”

 “My father told me to never get soft. He said dysfunction decapitates you later in life.” Mike was getting angry, his big ear grew.

“Your head falls off?” 



“What the hell are you talking about?” 

The end was nearer, now. Shouts, cheap earrings glinting in the yellow afternoon like bullets. I saw a Mary Jane skip past my fingernails and shuddered. 

“Forget it.” 

Our noses touched and we tried not to blush at the femininity of doom. We were men with brave faces. 

“We have to go out,” he said. 

“Face them?” I shivered. 




Mike and I got along fine, mostly. I wondered why he wouldn’t settle the bet, earlier, why he always pitched fights with me. I had to ask if he knew it was my father who threw bottles, who’d gotten Mike demoted from class president because of his “egregious commitments elsewhere,” who’d rumored at the watering hole that Mike’s family stank like their sausages. I wanted to say I didn’t know much about that, but I’d exchange a comic book for dinner with meat, and that I was sorry. I didn’t take my chance. I wanted freedom. 

“Alright. Let’s shoot.”

“Get ready.”

We bent our knees into crouches. 



“Can we call it even?”

The bell rang. Saved by a cunthair.