Luke v. Susan Ratner, and the Fumblerooski

The four of us played every day.  It started in first grade and went until the end of fourth grade when the Robson boys moved to Pennsylvania.  It was me and my kid brother Luke, and Clive and Fred Robson.  Fred was Luke’s age and Clive was a year behind me.

Mom, Dad, Luke, and I lived in a brownstone that we moved into right before Luke was born.  It was narrow and tall with a classic fire-placed parlor and creaky wooden bannisters.  In summer, the hallways would swelter between the air conditioned bedrooms.  The Robsons lived four doors down from us, in a similar brownstone that they moved into when I was five.  Theirs was cool all over but not as nice and had a funny smell.  I liked it there all the same and never accepted our new neighbors when the Robsons moved away.

Our Moms and Dads worked until dinner time, so we would insist on playing until both sets of parents had returned.  It was thus that our two families’ meal times became synchronized, and the work habits of father Shapiro dictated the gastronomic routine of father Robson, and vice-versa.  During summer, when it was light out late and we didn’t have school in the morning, dinner was just a dash inside before play could resume under the fading dusk and orange street lights.

Luke and Clive were the closest friends of the four of us, and I suppose their friendship must have been the backbone of our whole crew.  Luke was a fireball of a kid.  Not a trouble maker in the threatening sense, but energetic and mischievous for the kid with the privileged and tame upbringing that he was.  Clive balanced him out with calm and reason when he needed it, and advice when he didn’t ask for it, and that made them a good pair.  I tried to do the same, but I was his brother, so it didn’t work as well.

Of any combination of the four of us, Fred and I were the farthest apart in age, so our rapport became something of a sibling-hood, but without the rivalry, so more like what I imagine a sister-brother relationship would be.

Anyway, none of that really mattered, because we were a crew and the four of us stuck together.  We had a reputation to keep; we were the kids who played on Tompkins Place – usually football but sometimes cops and robbers or SPUD, and if it was a week day after school, you could find us there no matter what.

Our classmates’ parents knew our parents and thought we were the greatest things on the planet. Those kids playing outside all the time, no video games, with so much joy and energy.  The old Brooklyn people – they knew my dad from being in the neighborhood for a couple decades – they thought we were just spoiled yuppy kids and yelled at us for setting off car alarms all the time.  But even though they yelled, I think those salty Brooklynites actually appreciated us too; maybe even more than those PTA folk, come to think of it, because they weren’t so concerned with whether or not we would get into better colleges than their kids.  Whatever, I really don’t mean to ne negative and I really do believe they were all good neighbors.

Kids came from nearby blocks to plays with us from time to time.  They usually came in groups like ours from nearby blocks, and when one of us had a friend over, he knew exactly how the afternoon would be spent and looked forward to it.  Arab kids came once or twice, throwing rocks and yelling about Saddam Hussein.  I guess they came because we were easy to find and because Arabs finally had a hero to look up to.  Years later, I’d think back and decide that was pretty cool even though I was scared at the time.

There were other kids on the block, too, but all them were too young, too lazy, or too female to quite fit in with what we had going on.

The one who came the closest to meeting our criteria was Jeremy Ratner.  He was the kid who had five pitches but they all looked the same and he couldn’t throw any of them for a strike.

What he did throw quite well was tantrums.  And even though he had a lot of good reasons to tantrum, he still came off a total terror with each one. You see, Jeremy’s parents were divorced and his mother re-married to a man twenty-one years younger than her.  Every misunderstanding turned into screaming in the Ratner house, and his little sister was a total brat.  But, like I said, it was hard to conceive of an amount of abuse that could justify tantrums as bad as Jeremy’s.  He needed his way, all the time, with everything, and the burden fell unduly on the people around him to accommodate his needs or suffer the consequences.  The tantrums and his insistence on trying to catch footballs with his thumbs pointing directly at the spiraling leather oval were the primary reasons he wasn’t in our inner circle.  The catching form was a problem because it caused his fingers to jam, which, in turn, brought about dramatic, ear-piercing shrieks of pain and otherwise unnecessary pauses in the game.  But sometimes he got to play.

I don’t remember all of the details about our playing days on Tompkins, but I remember we played as close to every day as we could have and that we were always completely content doing it.  I remember the feel of sweat on my temples during late summer night game of cops and robbers and the smell of crisp fall air between downs of a football game.  It’s a misconception, by the way, about the city, that the air’s no good.  I remember sneezing from pollen during springtime whiffle ball games and denying my freezing limbs during neighborhood-wide snowball wars.

The fact that I can’t recall ever doing any homework during our time paired up with the Robsons either means we were younger than I have recounted to you, or school wasn’t such a pain, after all.  Either way, we played every day, and I am fairly certain I was eleven on the day I will describe to you now.

On this particular Spring day, Luke, Clive, Fred, and I were having a particularly good go of it with a game of touch.  Maybe not our most competitive game, but every play seemed to result in hilarity of some kind or another.  First Luke tipped a pass right into Fred’s hands, who then ran into the wrong end zone.  Then I threw a perfect pass to Fred, who caught the ball and decided to run in for the score while bouncing the ball on his head like a seal.  Things got really silly when Luke and Clive ran their patented triple reverse three times in a row and somehow used it to score on the final try.

It was right after that score, when we were all doubled over laughing, that Jeremy walked up with his Nerf Whistler football.  For those of you who don’t know, or don’t remember the Nerf Whistler football, the Nerf Whistler football was a mini football, made by Nerf, with a tail that helped it fly further.  It also had little air holes that made it whistle when thrown.  They threw well but didn’t catch the same and were obviously not used by any middle schools, high schools, colleges, or pros.  They were sort of controversial in our set.  To be clear, a Nerf Whistler is not a football, but Jeremy saw we were playing football, and brought it out nonetheless.

Anyway, we ignored Jeremy and his Nerf Whistler “football” until he said something, which is pretty standard conduct amongst kids, and more and more I realize, amongst adults, too.

“Hey guys, can I play?”

Clive looked back at us with an “I guess we have to” expression.  Luke didn’t look so eager to surrender, but Clive’s expression must have killed him, cause even Luke with his bullhead knew Clive was always right in these sorts of situations.  One time Jeremy had come over with a big cookie and refused to share but said he had one more at home.  Clive was the one to step back and say it was Ok, someone else could have cookie.  Luke knew Clive would make the right call.

“Sure,” Clive said to Jeremy, “you can come in after the next point.”

Then he leaned in for a huddle with the four of us.

“Don’t score,” he said.

I guess I forgot to mention something about that time with the cookie; when Jeremy came back from getting the second one from his house, he put it right in Clive’s hand.

Our faces lit up with the play call.  Jeremy wouldn’t play until the next point.  No matter how long it took to get there.

On the first set of downs, Fred and I drove all the way to the opposite end zone before I heaved a pass onto the sidewalk, turning it over.  Clive made a similar mistake on the ensuing drive, only the ball landed right in Fred’s arms.  Jeremy looked on, tossing his Nerf Whistler to himself.

We failed to deliver a touchdown pass again and I could see Jeremy was at the breaking point as Luke and Clive made their way down our concrete field for the second time.  Jeremy’s mom approached just as they were readying their fourth down try at the end zone.  Afraid of a parental confrontation, I thought about whispering at them to score, but there wasn’t time.

Clive yelled hike and dropped back three steps.  Luke ran fifteen feet and turned hard right.  It was one of the better passes of the day and for a second, I thought Luke wasn’t going to be able to resist making the perfect catch on it.  But I underestimated his desire to set the world right with Jeremy.  With a crisp volleyball set, he tipped the ball right to me.  Instinctively, I caught it, and Clive tagged me to down the play.

“What!?”  Came the instantaneous shriek of protest from Jeremy.

We gave half-hearted shrugs of confusion at his outrage.

“What’s going on?”  Barked Susan Rattner, who was now upon us.  Even when preparing to defend her son, as she was then, Susan still sounded like she was about to give Jeremy a good smack.

“They’re losing on purpose to keep me from playing!”  He had already begun storming back to the house.

“Losing on purpose?  Well who would want to be friends with rotten kids who’d do that!?”  It really sounded like they were angry at each other, and of course Jeremy, master victim, had tears in his voice.  Years later, I’d think maybe those tears were genuine and what we had done that day was pretty rotten.  Then I’d remember what happened next, and I’d think, maybe we got it right.

As Jeremy slammed the white door to his house and disappeared inside, Susan squared to us.  Her face was flushed and her hands were shaking.  It was not what an adult should look like when talking to children.

Now, if Susan had said, “Guys, Jeremy is your friend, you probably really hurt his feelings by leaving him out like that,” then she would have been right, and we would have felt pretty bad and probably would have filed into the house to apologize and bring him out for a proper game.

But if she were a person with the sense to say something like that, then Jeremy wouldn’t have been such a brat in the first place and none of this would have every happened to begin with.  And so instead she went with, “What’s wrong with you brats!?  Didn’t your parents teach you any manners?  It’s no wonder you just play with each other all day; none of the other kids like you!”

Clive, Fred and I all exchanged fearful glances, but Luke’s eyes were nowhere to be found.  He was already facing forward and inching closer to Ms. Rattner.  I almost reached out to pull him back but I was too shocked to move.

Luke looked her right in the eyes, thick wrists and soft fists balled up tight at his sides.  “You’re horrible.”  Susan looked confused.  “It’s the you in Jeremy that we don’t like,” he went on.  I didn’t know where to look or what to do.  This wasn’t like a hold up – I had never imagined what I might do if something like this happened.

To this day I have not forgotten how Susan’s eyes widened and how her held tilted back, as if she were absorbing a shock wave in slow motion.  I could only see the side of my brother’s face, but his posture was strong and steady.  He looked old.  He looked older than me.  And he certainly looked older than Susan.  And he wasn’t done, either.

“We don’t wanna play with Jeremy cause he’s a brat and it’s your fault he’s a brat.  It’s not our fault, so why should we have to deal with your mess?  Jeremy’s a jerk and he’s just gonna grow up to be a bigger jerk and he’s never going to stop being a brat, even when he’s grown up and he’ll never be a good friend to any of us and all of that’s your fault.  So don’t yell at us like we did something wrong.  Why would we want to play with someone like Jeremy?  We can play with who we want to play with – it’s our right.”

The three of us had backed away but Luke stood his ground, his little fists still resting firmly by his little hips, looking solid despite their miniature size.  Our backing away was pointless, there was no surviving this – this was the apocalypse.

Finally Susan replied.

“Well, you are just the rudest little brat on the planet.  You guys enjoy your little game cause I’ll be talking to all of your parents tonight and it will be the last time you guys play out here for a long time.”  She emphasized her final sentence with a pointed glare at each of us before stomping up her stoop and into the house.

When we all faced each other, I saw that the fire was still in Luke’s eyes, only calm and maybe a little disorientation had entered as well, like a victorious boxer after a trying match.

Fred ran up and shook Luke by the shoulders.  “I can’t believe you said that!”  He shouted.  “Haha!!”  Luke just looked placidly past Fred’s glowing face.

“You shouldn’t have mouthed off like that, Luke, she’s gonna tell mom and dad.”  I said with very mild conviction.

I knew like Susan did, that Luke was dead right.  The years that passed only further confirmed the veracity of his statements that evening, and the satisfaction that we all gleaned from staring down an evil adult like her was more than worth the stern talking to he received from mom and dad that night.

Plus, I think they were kind of proud when they heard what he had said to Susan Rattner.  I was proud too.

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