It is 1962, and I’m eleven years old and in the fifth grade. I live with my grandmother because my mother Marie cannot take care of me. Granma says Marie is not responsible. Marie is always moving and comes to visit only when her husband lets her. One time, Marie and her husband surprised me by picking me up after school and taking me for ice cream, but she’s no longer allowed to do that. The principal and all the teachers know that I’m not allowed to leave with Marie or her husband because sometimes she has blue bruises on her arms. This is too bad because I’d love to show her the big rocks at school and have her meet the boy who climbs them every day.
Behind the school are three huge rocks stacked one on top of the other, like a child’s blocks or huge steps made for a giant or King Kong. These rocks are three different sizes: Papa Bear, Mama Bear, Baby Bear. One on top of the other. My teacher, Mr. Dittman, says the drop from Baby Bear must be twenty feet or more. Some of the fifth-grade boys have made it to the top of the first rock, Papa Bear, but the teachers put a stop to that. Now no one, under any circumstance, is allowed to climb those rocks.
Of course, Johnny Conner is the exception—not because they let him climb but because Johnny Conner does whatever Johnny Conner wants to do. He is one of those boys who is always moving and can’t settle down. There’s a group of them, maybe four or five. And in my head, I call them The Crazy Boys, because of the stupid things they come up with, like hiding all the chalk and taking a bite out of the sandwiches in people’s lunches.
But Johnny Conner is the craziest one of all. He always has a smile plastered across his face, no matter how much trouble he gets into. It’s almost like Johnny Conner thinks it’s his job to get into trouble, to cause mischief. Because I am a rule follower, it’s my job to steer clear of him. I told Marie about him once when she was visiting, and she laughed and said, “Oh, well. Boys will be boys.” That’s when I realized she would have to meet him to understand.
You would think Johnny Conner would be the leader of The Crazy Boys because he is taller and older—he was left back a grade—but he’s not. They don’t want to be friends with him, but they do want to egg him on when he’s about to do something wrong. It’s the crazy look in his eyes that separates him from the others. They look into those bright blue eyes, the ever-smiling face, the way his body juts and jolts when he walks, and they silently tell each other, I don’t like him, but I want to be there when he messes up.
No sooner are the teachers’ backs turned during recess than Johnny has scampered up the first rock, then the second, then the third. His worn-out white Converse high tops grip every nook and cranny as if the rocks were made for him to climb. The rocks are dark gray like the feathers of dirty pigeons. And Johnny Conner is right at home with the rocks because he’s the kind of boy who would pick up a pigeon if he could and take it right home with him. Climbing is the one thing he’s good at. Johnny isn’t good at schoolwork. It’s not that he forgets to bring his homework to school; he doesn’t even take it home.
Most days, he forgets his glasses, the ones the school nurse arranged for him to get through the county. And as the school year goes on, the teacher asks him to read less and less, until she doesn’t call on him at all, and it’s as if he isn’t even in the class.
In fact, I’d pretty much forgotten he was there until one day, in social studies, when we were supposed to be doing silent reading. I glanced over at the very last seat in the far corner of the room and Johnny was busily cutting and sawing something back and forth. I was used to him by then—we all were—and I figured that since whatever he was cutting had nothing to do with me, I was going to ignore it and turn away. But then I saw his surprised look as he held up his finger and backed away from the puddle of blood gathering on his desk. He held what looked like a silver pen with a sharp pointy edge. It turned out he had stolen the X-acto knife from the art teacher’s desk before lunch. Watching him watch his own dripping blood was one of the few times I’d seen him scared. The way he held his hand on the way out of the classroom reminded me of the way Marie held her wrist sometimes, when her eyes were far away and she said her heart was beating fast.
So, day after day at recess, there goes Johnny, dashing up the side of the rocks. The teachers seem to have given up on him, but I wonder, isn’t there something they could do—keep him in the principal’s office during recess or call his parents to talk some sense into him? Punish him in some way that would make him behave? What would that be? I don’t know. Punishing me would be easy; just take my books and pencils away. But Johnny is a different bird altogether. Maybe it is useless. Maybe his parents and the principal have already done these things and know that Johnny would just come to school at night or on the weekends to climb. According to him, that’s exactly what he does.
But there is another side to Johnny Conner that maybe only I know about.
Last year, in fourth grade, Johnny walked me home from school every day. When we were together, he was nice and sweet, not like the boy who was so wild he wouldn’t get off the rocks. Not like a boy who would risk his own life for something stupid like climbing. Johnny knew all kinds of shortcuts and we started taking those, going past interesting places like the train tracks and the big factory where they made Clark candy bars. One time, Johnny ran to the loading dock really quick, popped open a cardboard box, took a candy bar, and gave it to me without taking one for himself. As I ate it, forgetting to offer him some, he gave me a big smile and said, “Is it good?” and looked so happy when I told him yes.
It seemed to take us longer and longer to get home, until my grandmother got mad and demanded that I come straight home from school. She said I had to tell Johnny I couldn’t walk home with him anymore. But I couldn’t do that. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. Instead, I didn’t wait for him like I always did. I hurried up and ran home every day, and then I felt guilty about it. I couldn’t look him in the eye anymore, and after a while, we avoided each other.
But one day, months later, I was home sick for several days. Marie had just gone back to her house again, back to her husband who hit her. As I was lying there in my bed trying to decide whether to read my book or watch TV, trying to figure out why my mother would want to live with her mean husband instead of us, I heard someone call my name.
I went to the window and there was Johnny standing in the courtyard in front of my house. It had snowed hard that day. The snow was about six inches high, almost covering the tops of his white Converse sneakers, the laces of which were worn and dirty. Johnny had rolled a neat carpet of snow into three huge balls, one bigger than the other, and stacked them one on top of each other, like the rocks at school. He had made me a snowman.
He wasn’t wearing a winter jacket or gloves, even though the weatherman said it was only eighteen degrees, and when he finished building the snowman, he took off his bright red scarf, wrapped it around the snowman’s neck, and tied it under the snowman’s chin gently, as if it were a person he was trying to keep warm. I knew that scarf. When I saw it up close at school, I could tell that it was handmade, not like the store-bought scarves my grandmother always gave me. It was a pretty shade of red, like strawberries or the color of a fire truck. And I wanted it, or I wanted one like it. Mostly, I wanted someone to make me a scarf like that, and I felt glad that someone (his grandmother?) loved Johnny enough to make him one.
On the night of the snowstorm, Grandma didn’t realize that Johnny was the boy who took so long to walk me home.
“Don’t you recognize me?” he called up to me the day it snowed so hard. “It’s me, Johnny Conner, the little boy who knows all the ways home.”
Oh, God, I thought, he is ridiculous. Who calls himself a little boy, even though that’s what he is?
He smiled up at me and yelled, “Hey, babe, I made this for you. Because I love you.”
Babe!? Love!? I hoped nobody would hear him.
Granma smiled and thought it was so charming. She said, “What a sweet boy. What a nice thing to do when you’re sick. The poor thing—he’s not dressed for this weather.”
My bronchitis turned into pneumonia, and I didn’t see Johnny until we went back to school after the holidays. Because he had built me the snowman, I thought we would be friends again. Like we used to be. But then I kept thinking about the way he said he loved me. I didn’t like it. It seemed so wrong, so adult of him. And he called himself a little boy. He was so weird.
So, when we went back to school in January, after the holidays, I hurried up when school was over and went home without him again. I joined a group of girls who lived on my street. We clutched our books to our chests and headed home together. Sometimes, I’d look back and see Johnny, walking home alone, often picking up small stones and throwing them into the street like he was skipping rocks on a pond. When he looked at me, I would look away.
I thought he’d take up with some of the Crazy Boys, but they seemed to lose interest in him. This is when I realized that maybe I was Johnny’s only friend. By February, it was as if Johnny wasn’t a nice boy anymore, the boy who walked me home and made me a snowman. All he wanted to do now was climb the rocks behind the school.
I knew something about people who changed. My mother changed. She used to live with my grandmother and me, and now she lived with a man who beat her, a man who wouldn’t let her go when she said she wanted to come home to visit. No matter how many times she told us she was coming back home to live with us, she didn’t come home. The most we got was a visit and, if we were lucky, she stayed a few nights before going back to him. Even after she came home with blue bruises on her arms, she still went back to him. When she and I were alone together, I could tell she loved me. She would look into my eyes and when I looked back, I knew I’d known her forever and ever. She would braid my hair and give me backrubs and tell me she loved me. But when it was time to go back to him, when he would come for her in his old, beat-up car, she would just go with him.
Yes, I know something about change. And I know something about crazy. Because my grandmother says the reason my mother stays with her husband is that he has made her crazy. I wonder what has made Johnny crazy.
Every day at recess, I see Johnny Conner climb those rocks, and every day my stomach clenches worse than it does when I’m asked to talk in class or read out loud. The teachers tell him to stop but nobody really does anything. And now, we’ve made it to May. School is almost over, and Johnny hasn’t fallen. All year, it has been as if everybody was waiting for him to just get it over with and fall. But it’s spring now, and it feels like we can all stop holding our breath. Our year together is almost over. He won’t fall.
Except that one day, right before the end of the school year, he does. He falls. He falls from the very top rock—Baby Bear—onto the cement pavement below and he doesn’t move. The blood seeps out from underneath him, like chocolate syrup leaking from a can. I’ve never seen so much blood, not even the time Everett Robinson leaned back in his chair, even though the teacher told him not to, and cracked his head open on a radiator.
When Johnny Conner falls and doesn’t move, one of the teachers runs inside the school to call an ambulance. In an instant, she is running. She has been preparing for this day and knows exactly what to do. I look away and move as far back as I can, but then I take another look and Johnny is still not moving, and when I think of what this might mean, I don’t want to look at him again.
Mr. Dittman kneels next to Johnny and yells at us all to get away. Two other teachers usher us back into the school. Some of The Crazy Boys yell, “Wow, look at all that blood!” As if they’re envious. They try to keep up their excitement, but when he still doesn’t move, they’re not as happy and huddle together and rub their arms as if they hurt.
We can hear sirens get closer and closer, and now the police and an ambulance are here. My mother says that when she and her husband fight, they’re so loud the neighbors call the police. She can hear the sirens coming from far away and she thinks this means they’ll help her, but the police always take her husband’s side. When he tells the officers that she is crazy, they say not to worry, that some of their wives are crazy, too.
Once we’re back inside the school, I go right to my desk and start my homework. Some kids stand near the windows to see what’s happening, but I will not watch. I can’t bear to. After the police and the ambulance leave, Mr. Dittman comes back into our room, wiping his hands on a handkerchief he has taken from his pocket, a white handkerchief that is now bright, bright red. He notices us watching him, then pushes the bloody handkerchief into his pocket like a boy hiding a toy he’s not supposed to have. He stops by my desk and asks me if I’m all right. I nod my head and keep working.
I notice Mr. Dittman watching me the rest of the day, and I remember Everett Robinson again—how hurt he was when his head hit the radiator, how much he cried even though he had always been a brave boy, and how that teacher also asked me if I was okay and ignored Everett. She didn’t even walk him down to the principal’s office to get help. She just made him go there by himself. He was gone from school for two days and came back with his hair shaved off and a jagged row of stitches etched across the back of his head. And he seemed okay when he came back. The same old Everett.
Johnny Conner missed the last three weeks of school. Gradually, we forgot about him again—it seemed we were always forgetting about him—until Mr. Dittman or one of the other teachers told us how he was doing. He’s in the hospital, he’s out, something happened, and he had to have another operation. Unless they told us another story, Johnny Conner was no longer there for us.
We don’t see him outside playing in the summer. Soon, it becomes known that Johnny has been in and out of the hospital since May. By the time he is finally able to come back to school, we’re in sixth grade. The first day of school, he tells everyone that he has more than a hundred stitches in his stomach. No one believes him until he lifts his shirt. He looks like a doll some child has stitched up in all different directions with thick black thread. It looks awful and scary, and I have to look away. The Crazy Boys cheer. They envy him. They want stitches too.
After a day or two, kids aren’t interested in Johnny’s stitches anymore. The Crazy Boys are onto something else. The girls no longer feel sorry for him. But he still wants everyone’s attention. I can tell he misses it by the way he talks so fast and so quick, licking his lips before he starts to speak as if he’s desperate. He starts saying to kids, “Please don’t hit me; don’t mess up my stitches.”
I don’t want him to say that. I want to tell him he’s asking for trouble. You don’t ask crazy people not to hit you. Knowing things that the other kids don’t know makes me feel old, so old. I shouldn’t be old enough to know that a bad thing is going to happen And yet I know. I can feel it.
That day, I walk home the usual way after school, the same path a lot of us kids take back to our part of the neighborhood. I’m by myself and see Johnny up ahead. I slow down so I can avoid him. I don’t want him to pull up his shirt and show me his stitches. As I’m walking down the alleyway behind the print shop, I see three of the Crazy Boys standing in a doorway, whispering. What are they up to now? As Johnny passes them, they jump him and beat him up, kicking him in his stomach over and over. He’s lying on the ground, holding his stomach, rolling from side to side, holding himself as if he is trying to keep something precious inside.
I see them do it and as quickly as it begins, it’s done, and they and all the kids who have gathered around to watch the beating run off. The boys who hit him have done their damage.
When Johnny sees me, he stops moving. I am about to go to him, to stand at his side and figure out what to do. I will talk to him so he knows he’s all right and then I will find an adult and get help. But then he cries out to me, Lady! Lady, can you help me? Please, lady. Please help me, lady.
But I am not a lady. I’m only a little girl. I’m a girl he knows. I’m surprised he doesn’t realize this. He is looking right at me, but why doesn’t he know me?
I wait for him to realize it’s me and not some woman who has stumbled upon him. He holds out a hand to me, motioning for me to come toward him. And the way he has done this and the way his voice is—like a man’s, not a boy’s—makes me feel as if we’re both in a play, that he is just acting. Yes, he is acting, and I am his audience. Just like the audience he had at school when he told his stories about being in the hospital, about having one surgery and then another. It was the way he got attention, the way he proved to all of us that he was important.
He had been nice to me, but all I know is that I must get away. I stand there holding my books for what seems like a long time and then I walk around him as if he isn’t even there. And I keep walking. By the time I get home, I wipe my mind so clean of what I’d seen, it is as if it never happened. It is almost as if Johnny himself has never existed. There was no little boy. There was no alleyway. There was no gang of three boys. It was as if none of it, none of it, had ever happened.
When I get home, I don’t say anything to my grandmother. As she cooks dinner, I see her stirring the stew in the pot, doing all the usual things she does at dinnertime, and I wonder what she would think of me, that I saw what happened to Johnny and did nothing. I will never tell her.
The first thing Monday morning, the principal calls all the students into the auditorium. He tells us that Johnny was beaten and is back in the hospital. The secretaries from the printing company found him behind their building, unconscious. The principal wants to know, Did anybody see anything? Why didn’t anyone help him? How could anyone do this?
No one is talking.
I think about how I saw Johnny rolling from side to side on the ground. I’ve hardly thought about him since I got home from school on Friday, and this shocks me. I wonder how I could do that so easily, how I could erase him as if he never existed. I remember now how he said, My stitches, my stitches. They broke them open. My guts are falling out. I’m going to die. I’m going to die.
I blamed Johnny for what those boys did to him. I was so mad at him. If only he hadn’t told them what he didn’t want them to do. If only he hadn’t opened his blue flannel shirt and shown everyone his stitches.
I thought of the kids I saw in the alleyway, circling around Johnny as he lay on the ground. I thought about how they hit him as if it were their duty, how they took off when they were done. How my mother always went back to her husband, how she told him, If you hit me again, I will leave you.
Image Source: Mark Byzewski / Flickr Creative Commons