Wednesday, 2 October 2013

The Word-a-day Writing Challenge

Day Nine: Circumspect

Arnold Weiner was a gangly, buck-toothed boy with tortoise shell glasses and ill-fitting hand-me-downs that smelled like they'd been dry cleaned in Kraft Dinner and sour milk somewhere behind the meat department at Save-Easy. For the duration of his elementary school career, he was, quite obviously, punished without mercy. Even new children that moved to the neighbourhood got off easy. We already had the lowest man on our totem pole, and he wasn't going anywhere. If it had been up us, he would have stayed in grade four forever—a perpetually circumspect kick-bag cowering before our muddy and malnourished angst. Of which there was plenty. Blame it on the nuns, or the labyrinthian social structure of low-income housing, or older brothers, or the early 80s—we were a ramshackle bunch, and Arnie Weiner bore the brunt of our misfortune.

By grade six, just before we were shipped off to various middle school alternatives, hormones and tensions were at a high. Boys and girls no longer co-mingled, fights broke out regularly, and the overall social atmosphere was a hostile one. We were scrambling to find a foothold on ground we were about to lose. For those of us with older siblings, the prospect of moving schools was terrifying and intriguing by turns; but for all of us it was unnerving.

I don't remember the details of it now. Arnie had said something during class. Sneering feebly, pressing the center of his thick glasses back against that greasy forehead. Then at recess, Mitch Bastarache shouldered up to me in the street hockey pit. You gonna fight 'im? It had never occurred to me to fight anyone, ever, but this was more than a question. This was an offering. I was a girl, after all—something I was not particularly good at it—and Mitch Bastarache believed in me enough to suggest I could beat up someone, even if it was only Weiner. Probably he made some comment to Arnie—After school, you're dead, man—and gave the head's up to all the boys in sixth grade.

Great leaping strides tore loose Arnie's tucked-in cowboy shirt, exposing his pale, scrawny back as we sprinted down the hill and into the street. A sudden grace overtook him and he leapt like a gazelle over the fence he’d jumped a hundred times. In flashes of heat and breath, toes barely touching the pavement, I swung over the cold steel rail. Chips of rust and paint crumbled off under the weight of my palm as my other hand hooked onto Arnie's shoulder. We twisted and lurched with a symmetry that felt almost choreographed.

He didn't throw a single punch. His writhing stomach, his scrambling face. Not one. A pair of stingey forearms retreated to protect his glasses, but my fists, my fists that had never punched anything, nor felt the slippery resistance of bone beneath flesh, would not stop for him. Not for his squirming, not for his glasses, not for his whimpering cries.

Can’t kick ‘im while he’s down, man. Mitch’s warm and steady hand on my back. You’re okay. C’mon. Sweat and spit pooled inside my bottom lip. My knuckles burned as I stumbled back against the cold steel rail of the garden fence. Arnold Weiner crumpled over himself, and caught the red flood of his face in trembling hands.

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