All day it had been the same thing.
Jimmy Larson with his alpha-male-entitlement-because-a-growth-spurt-hit-before-these-other-two-soon-to-be-ninth-graders-so-I’ll-be-a-raging-douche-all-day-long attitude. So what if he got a hand job at the Martin’s bonfire the weekend of the Fourth? Six months ago, none of them even knew what a hand job was.
All damn day.
Every other blast fired from his loose cannon mouth had something to do with Derek Jordan not being man enough to talk to one of the like bazillion girls that were walking around the park. The unsupervised, unchaperoned, unassuming girls who were blossoming into ripe young women right before their very eyes. Jimmy was cat-calling left and right. Anderson, too, but only when invigorated by Jimmy’s unbridled chauvinism. Anderson Williams didn’t need to live up to anything for Jimmy. He had a girlfriend. Since the 2nd of May, he’d been getting handies on the regular.
The meat of the day now nearly spoiled, the trio stopped at the fence surrounding the wave pool. Anderson retreated to the bathroom. He’d spent half of the ten bucks his mom had given him on loaded nachos. Jimmy took the opportunity to once more lay into Derek.
“Let’s take a moment to look back at what we’ve learned today,” he sneered. “You sir, have no balls. Zero. Nada. John Kruk minus one.”
Sensing the onset of yet another tirade, Derek’s eyes found a girl toweling off by one of the chase lounges. The wave pool’s water, chemically laden as it is, cannot possibly keep up with the amount of grimy humanity that displacing it daily. Nevertheless, the girl looked clean and shiny.
“Looking doesn’t count, Jordan,” Jimmy sneered after following the trajectory of Derek’s gaze. “It’s not going to make her talk to you.” He spit a wad of sunflower seed shells through the spires of the fence and into the mulch on the other side.
Derek didn’t speak.
“Right,” Jimmy said, “no balls.”
Anderson joined the two, having just emerged from the can, a cinderblock arena of grit and dampness.
“All better?” Jimmy asked him without taking his eyes off the chaise lounges.
“Time will tell,” Anderson said. “The floors are so bad I had to take my shorts completely off so they wouldn’t droop in the puddles.”
Derek turned to him. “You hung them on the hook?”
“No, I wrapped them around my head. ‘Course I hung them on the hook,” Anderson said.
The girl was now sitting on the towel she’d spread over the chair, feet on the hot concrete, her back to the boys.
“The hell are you guys gawking at?” Anderson said.
Jimmy jut a chin toward the girl’s chair. “Been trying to get old Mr. Jordan here to go introduce himself to the blonde in the black two-piece. She’s my final pick of the day of the since he passed on every other suggestion I’ve had.”
Anderson stepped up to Derek’s side and put his hand on the fence. “I don’t know, dude, you think she’s even our age? She doesn’t look a whole lot younger than our moms.”
“She doesn’t look a whole lot younger than your mom, Williams, but not many do,” Jimmy said. He dumped a small heap of seeds into his hand and clapped them into his mouth.
A brief decade and a half stood between Anderson and his mom, so he naturally took the brunt of his peers’ maternally-aimed jokes. He was a pro at brushing them off. “What’re you going to say to her?” Anderson said, nudging his shoulder into Derek’s.
“Maybe I go over there and ask her if she wants to hang out with your mom,” Derek said, deflecting.
Anderson socked Derek on the arm. “You’re the last person should be making cracks about my mom. At least I’ve got one.”
It is the god-awful truth behind their verbal blows that make banter between adolescent boys a necessary element of their socialization. Builds a sense of mistrust for anyone not as blunt as their junior high buddies. Rewards them for speaking without thinking, much like the adult world. Batter the ego good and hard during essential developmental stages and you’ll keep weight rooms and MBA programs full until the sun burns out.
“Looks like the ship’s about to sail, Jordan,” Jimmy said as a man wearing a neon yellow tank top and chest hair walked over to the girl. He held two bottles of water in one hand and a toddler in blue board shorts cradled in his other arm. Clearly, his flag was planted some time ago.
“Well then. That settles that,” Anderson said, mildly astonished.
“We’re hitting Wrath once more before my old man gets here to pick us up,” Jimmy commanded. He pushed off the fence and started in the direction of the coaster.
Anderson patted Derek’s shoulder sarcastically before he turned away.
Derek Jordan was still looking at the girl on the chair, the last of the wetness trickling off the rope of a ponytail down onto her back. The man in the tank top had his hand on the chair just behind her butt. The little boy stomped the thin puddles at his mother’s feet.
Spite made him do it, but in the shotgun spray sense where one acts without thought, knowing they’ll wound more than just the target. Jimmy’s taunts and Anderson’s truth had to be silenced, for he knew they’d replay the loop of his inaction in his mind long after he’d been dropped off at his barren house. Kicking out the prop of cowardice, Derek walked to the end of the fence and stepped up to the side of the chair. His hands tingled as he shoved himself away the dock of his conscience, which he’d later learn, given the social circumstance, is the only way to survive. He cleared his throat.
The couple looked up at him. The sun behind his face made them squint. Derek opened his mouth to speak.
Jimmy and Anderson turned back to the fence just in time to see the man in the tank top land a level punch square on the bridge of Derek Jordan’s nose, knocking him to the ground. Before the boys could more than turn to each other to collaborate a reaction, the man scooped the little boy in his arm, grabbed the girl by the wrist, and ushered them past the fence toward the park’s exit. Over the sound of summer footwear slapping the soles of her feet, Jimmy and Anderson heard the girl utter with baffled breath, “What in God’s name is a ‘milf?’”
Derek reached for the abandoned towel on the chair to quell his gushing nose. The voice of their little league umpire grunted from behind an internalized home plate: Two balls. In willful contradiction to the jagged pain in his face and the footfalls of his reemerging conscience, he pressed his grin into the cotton fabric.