I’m still not sure what the boy’s name means. It comes up every now and again and caused a fight with my Wife when we were pregnant. I was rubbing her feet and saying beautiful, sexy, married people stuff to her, then she asked for the baby name book. “I wonder if there are any good boy names that begin with “O”? Hand me the book, babe”. Immediately my heart rushed to a heavy thumping miss timed jumble of thoughts, grade school fights and a memory of the day that Otha and his older brothers came rushing toward me and my little brother from an alley. Even as a third grade kid that boy was strange and hit-a-tree ugly. Seriously, we were in grade school and this boy had acne and bad teeth that grew into fangs across the front of his mouth. I had never told her about his fanged ass, but I knew, as fate is the most hateful declaration in the life of a man with a secret, she would turn straight to “Otha” and declare it the most beautiful name she’d ever heard. So, I got up from rubbing her feet lovingly; found the book on her side table in the bedroom, then threw the book out of the open apartment window.
In Third Grade, my Teacher, Miss Ruth Henderson loved me like a Mama. Because I could already read the simple word-calling books that she had to teach from, she often let me show the other kids how easy it was to say the words and use the pictures to make it all make sense. “James Chris is going to read for the class. Go ahead James Chris” she would say when the bell was about to ring and she needed to waste a few minutes before releasing us to lunch or recess. Soon the bell would ring and the circle of kids would push back our chairs and line up at the door to twenty minutes of freedom outside.
Once outside we were bound by the Hurricane Fence that demarked the school ground in the Oak Cliff section of our town. The name was right on point as beyond the fence line was a cliff-like descent of the ground into an oak tree-lined area that fell into a series of creeks and water run-offs for the neighborhood. Nearest the school was a lush grounds used as play and picnic areas by the residents as it flattened out before becoming a rock-strewn bank and creek. For us kids, wild with play on our hearts, the only rule that Miss Ruth Henderson gave was to keep the balls inside the fence.
That Otha boy had older brothers who taught him things that the rest of us wouldn’t learn until puberty or prison. On the playground he was a hard case and used football moves during dodge ball games when the rest of the boys were just trying to have fun. He had already been blocked from playing for doing a clothesline move on Gary Brown and throwing a body block on another kid. So, when Miss Ruth Henderson blew the whistle for the class to line up and go back to class, Otha saw the unattended red freckled dodge ball and kicked it as hard as he could. Everybody turned around from the line and watched it lift just over the four foot high fence towards the creek.
Miss Ruth Henderson waddled over to Otha and pinched his ear with one of her death twist-pinches that she only used on him. “Boy! What is wrong with you?”, she hissed. Turning to me she said, “James Chris, take this fool and go find that ball!”, then pushed Otha into action. I ran. Otha ran. At the fence I stopped and put my toe into the diamond, but Otha jumped and summer-saulted the fence. I was still putting my other foot on top of the rail when Otha landed, hop-skipped and vaulted back into the air without stumbling on the declining earth. When I landed on the other side of the fence I watched as he sped like a demon into the line of trees where he assumed the ball had settled. From the top of the decline I spotted the familiar red ball wedged in the crook of a low hanging branch.
I walked the few yards over to the branch and jumped until I swatted it free, then yelled to Otha that I had found it. He didn’t come right away so I walked back up to the fence and showed the ball to the Class, who Miss Ruth Henderson then guided back inside, saying, “Get that boy and come inside”. When I looked back for Otha he was just a few steps away and reaching for the ball sneering, “I found it! Give it here!”, then threw a straight punch into my right eye. I had moved the ball away from him in a reflex, so when he hit me, the ball fell over the fence on the school’s side. Now, the two of us were immediately throwing punches. I knew how to fight big boys from when they messed with my older sisters. Otha knew how to fight from his older brothers. I was bigger. Otha was quicker. From behind us Miss Ruth Henderson cursed and screamed for us to “stop”. Otha hit me seven times in the same eye before she and another grown up reached us. I managed two hard punches into Otha’s breadbasket. He stopped hitting me and fell to his knees. I saw that with my left eye.
In the Assistant Principal’s Office Otha’s lie about finding the ball and me taking it from him easily fell apart. The whole Class had seen me show it and him nowhere in sight. I was sent to Nurse’s office across the hall for an ice pack and soon heard Otha’s punishment being meted out. Mr. Petrie used a wooden paddle in those days and smacked out six hard “Get Rights”. Otha did not scream out. Otha did not cry a single tear. As he left the Office, Otha came across the hall and found me staring one-eyed at the opened Nurse’s door, and put a fist against his eye. Mr. Petrie saw him and meted out three more “Get Rights”.
It would take three weeks, but Otha and his brothers came for me. They waited in the alley of the street a block ahead of my home street. It was a long way from school and the watchful eye of the older kids who were Crossing Guards and broke up the afterschool fights. I hadn’t forgotten Otha’s threat and I could tell that he hadn’t forgotten those two big boy punches. My little brother was a grade below me, so I picked him up in his classroom at the end of school and we walked home. When Otha and his three brothers came out of the shadows I saw them notice that I was not alone. I told my brother to go ahead and wait for me at the stop sign, but he took a few steps and turned back saying, “Mom said don’t cross the street by myself. Come on, Junior”. Otha laughed and started bouncing on the balls of his feet in front of me.
Other kids stopped and formed a raggedy fight circle when Otha made his move. They watched his brothers move into place, but the remaining brother turned back into the alley. My brother was blocked from view with the closing crowd, but Otha’s brothers didn’t seem interested in hurting him. I dropped my book bag to my side by the strap and picked the brother to hit with a swing, then waited for Otha’s rambling hype-up to end and him to charge with a punch. It never came. Otha’s, “Yeah..Yea..Yeah” was interrupted by the circle of kids breaking open and his other brother pushing a small kid in front of him wearing a feather laced headdress. The kid was probably my brother’s age, but I had never seen him before with Otha. The crowd moved further aside as the kid stumbled forward, lost his balance and was caught by the older boy from behind. As the kid reached up to grab his headdress a blue feather dislodged and floated on the air. It landed on my shoe.
Without thinking about Otha and the other boys taking advantage, I reached and plucked the blue feather off my shoe and stepped over to the young boy. He had already begun to stretch his face into the start of a cry. “Its’ okay little man. I got it for you”, I said and put the blue feather back inside his headdress. The older boy stared at me for a moment, still holding the smaller boy who suddenly said, “Thank you”, then, “Look at my Indian hat, Bobby”. I looked at the older boy and watched him locking eyes with his brothers. He lifted his little brother into his arms and said, “He’ll stop if you hit him once next time”, then turned and walked back toward the alley again. The other boys and Otha followed without another word.
As the kids turned out the fight circle I saw my brother again. He had been standing off to my blind side and saw the feather part, but missed the three boys with balled fists and bad intentions. “Why did you give him that feather back? You got scared of fighting that big boy…didn’t you?, he said and mocked me putting the feather in place. “You a scaredy cat but you fight me all the time”. We made it to the STOP sign and waited for a clear crossing.
I pushed the window closed in our bedroom and was adjusting the curtain when my wife said, “Why’d you throw the baby name book out the window?” I didn’t turn around before answering. I just slid on my shoes and said that it slipped out of my hand when I was trying to close the window and I would be right back.