It could have been worse, a lot worse.
That afternoon, I was walking home from school with my friend, book bag slung over my shoulder. Jimmy and I would soon part ways at the stoplight on the cross street, where he would take a left turn to his house. I would go straight.
I was only ten, a scrawny kid. I knew others snickered behind my back. Well, it was everybody but Jimmy. He was my best friend. My only friend.
My mama, she got up early every day to work at the diner. She worked the early shift, breakfast through lunch, so she could be done before I got out from school.
As we trudged home, I could see the steam rising from the sweltering black asphalt road. I wanted to escape the oppressive heat and humidity.
"Hey Al," said Jimmy, squinting his eyes at the sun casting its harsh rays on us. "Figure we’d go swimming some time?"
"Shucks," I said, wiping away sweat on my glistening forehead. I shrugged, mumbling about doing my chores. "My old man finds out, he’s gonna whip my ass."
"Dude, I'm sorry." Jimmy threw a sympathetic glance.
We reached the stop sign. I shuffled my feet and re-balanced my book bag, shifting it around. Neither of us was in a big hurry to get a move on.
Growing up, my old man would yell at me daily, "Make yourself useful!" He threatened to hang a "for sale" sign around my neck. "I ain't gonna feed an extra mouth if it’s gonna go to waste."
I wanted to shake some sense into him, You’re wrong, I’m worthy! It's you who's gotta feed me, clothe me, put a roof over my head. He wasted the little bit of money we had on booze. He’d come home in a drunken stupor, stumbling and slurring his speech. Some days, he couldn't even make it to his bed, just crashed on the floor.
Jimmy lived in a fine house all painted white, like the pictures I'd seen in magazines. I was invited to his home for his tenth birthday party. A white picket fence, pink and red rose bushes and a manicured lawn. His dad dressed in a tie and suit, his mom a checkerboard gingham dress.
I thought of little Jimmy sleeping on a soft fluffy pillow at night, tucked in by his parents. Maybe his mom read him a bedtime story. Maybe she kissed him goodnight. He had a little sister too. Her name was Alice. I remembered her, clutching her Raggedy Ann doll. She was only five. Still sucking her thumb. I didn't say nothin' on account of being polite. I knew this much from my mama.
That day, I brought a special birthday present for Jimmy, somethin' I made myself. He loved watching westerns, pretending to be a cowboy riding his horse. I guessed right. Jimmy loved my carved wood horse. It cemented our friendship.
Re-shuffling my bag again, I yanked the strap slipping off my shoulder. I nodded to Jimmy. "Gotta go home." The run-down shack where I lived.
I whistled down the road; my feet picked up the pace. It was a beautiful day. Clouds with the rounded puffy tops like cotton balls floated across the clear blue sky. Cumulus. I had just learned about these in school.
I didn't see the motorcycle as I stepped out to cross the road. Knocked to the ground, the gravel scraped my knee and leg, skin shearing off, blood streaming.
I saw the puff from the disappearing tailpipe as he kept on going. I stared at my blood. It was dark red. I thought, What's wrong with me, why isn't it bright red?
"Kid, don't move!" I heard a man’s deep voice, as someone rushed to my side.
The rag was smudged. I remember staring at it, then peeking up at the man. Clumps of thick dark hair swung over his face as he bent over my leg, tying the cloth around my knee to stop the bleeding.
He turned to look at me, brows raised and frowning. "I think your leg ain’t broke, but you got you a mighty ugly gash."
I kept my mouth closed, stifling winces of pain. I wanted to be brave. Tears spilled onto my cheeks, but I didn't cry out.
"Where you live, boy?" he said softly.
I pointed to the ramshackle house across the street. The one with the peeling paint, sagging front porch, and torn screen door.
I caught sight of his arm muscles as he picked me up. I felt safe, being carried.
My mama cried out when she saw me, the streaks of blood on my leg. She grabbed some fresh towels, filled a pan with warm water, and cleaned my leg the best she could.
"It’s gonna sting some," said Mama, grabbing a bottle and pouring a big dose of iodine tincture.
I flinched when the drops of dark brown liquid splashed into my wounds, like sharp assaults on my torn flesh.
"He'll be alright, ma'am," said the man, watching as she bandaged my knee.
"Oh, where are my manners," said my mama, flustered. Holding out her hand, she said her name. "Sally."
He wiped his palm, streaked with black motor grease, and then he shook hers. "Ma’am, you can call me Mark."
She flashed a grateful smile. "Thank you for what you did for my boy."
"Ma’am, I was close by."
She threw him a quizzical look. "Where were you?"
"Across the road, working at the auto shop." The man named Mark pointed in the direction.
He described to her what happened. They shook hands some more. It seemed to me Mark didn't let go of mama’s hand right away.
My mama giggled, like a young girl. I hadn't heard her do that before. She bustled and fussed over me. I got some soda. She made Mark tea. He drank all of it. Even thanked her.
Six months later she was gone. I came home from school and found a note on my pillow. Said she loved me. I never saw her or Mark again.
After she left, my old man took his anger out on me. I came to expect it on days when he was drunk, which was most days. He'd act remorseful after he beat me. But then he’d drink again and go back to his old ways. He wanted me to be afraid of him, but I didn’t cry out. I refused to give him the satisfaction.
I shot up several inches when I turned thirteen. I took up wrestling in middle school, worked out, gained muscles and bulk. I tried boxing some years later. My mind often wandered back to the day when Mark carried me home. I would trace the tattooed markings on my asphalt-skinned knee, preparing for the day when my old man would bellow, crazy drunk, and come charging to kill me.
My tongue flickers, feeling the mouthpiece. Gear in place, someone holds the robe out, and my arms slip into the satin sleeves. I glance at my knee, still carrying the scars from twenty years ago. I'm ready. I walk out, towards the bright lights.
I see Jimmy sitting in the front row. A part of me wishes my old man was here, but he’s resting six feet under.
I stand tall in the middle of the boxing ring, ready to defend my championship title. I raise my arms high, fists clenched. The thunderous roar of the crowd is all around me. They go mad, stomping, jumping. I’m the champ. I ain't afraid of nothin’.