Enough rope: a short story

Imported from my XBlog on Livejournal, to find a home here on my regular blog:

A short story, a piece of fictobiography, about kids and gyms and shower rooms. Nothing of linguistic interest. Nothing XXX-rated. Not even any jockstraps. Full text below the line. (Original version from 1991, posted to Livejournal on 8/17/2010.)

Enough rope

“Ok, guys, enough shooting baskets. Today we’re going to try something new: rope-climbing.”

Oh, please, no!  Shooting baskets is the only thing in this class I can sort of sometimes do. And why does Brad always sound so fucking reasonable when he’s introducing a new torture?

We are herded across the gym floor to where a thick brown rope hangs, swaying slightly, poising to strike. This is a noose, and it has my name on it. I raise my hand hesitantly, get no response, wave it, with increasing energy.

Brad finally takes notice, “What’s your problem, Zwicky?” Contemptuous of the sissy-kid.

Arnold: “I’m not supposed to do this.” The appeal to authority. “I have trouble with heights.” The appeal to reason. All true, all true.

Brad: “I didn’t see anything on your goddam medical form about that.”

This is the YMCA,  and officially it is forbidden to curse and swear. But in fact there is this unspoken contract by which the instructors show us how to do it right and we promise not to tell.

He turns away to organize boys into a line. I melt into it, calculate the chances that a meteorite will make a direct hit on this particular building in Reading, Pennsylvania.

The line inches forward. Under Brad’s tutelage, boys shinny up into the stratosphere, reverse, and return to earth. Nicholas — a boy I admire, bear some sort of love for — does it so smoothly and sweetly that I understand why someone might climb up a rope, other than to prove that they’re not afraid to die.

Eventually I’m up.

Arnold: “Please…”  I play for time, waiting for the King’s riders to gallop in — filling the gym with their fierce cries, the clatter of their horses’ hooves, the reek of leather and horses pressed hard and men sweating to finish their mission — and stop the execution.

Brad: “C’mon,  fraidy-cat!” The left hand of shame. “You can do it!” The right hand of encouragement. The two hands clap together, making a racket that drives me up the rope.

Brad talks me along towards the mark, so far above my head. First put one hand over the other, stretching my body out until I’m flat against the rope, then slide my legs up to clasp a new position with my knees. My thin ass humps out as the meter of my progress for the watchers below. The rope is the scratchy stubble of an angry and unforgiving father. It smells like twine, vinegar, creosoted lumber. I work my way up, a good little soldier. There is nothing else in the world but me and that goddam rope.

Brad’s voice is far away and also everywhere around me: “One more pull!” And I am there, left hand on the mark, the roof not far above me. “Way to go!”

I know that if I look straight out of the windows on the 18th floor of the Berks County Courthouse (where I am learning Morse code on Thursday nights), and if I don’t get too close to them, I can avoid the certainty that the wall is going to collapse away from me, the conviction that I am going to fall, be pushed, jump out of the windows. But Brad calls out “Way to go!” and I look down to accept the prize of approval from his eyes.  And I see the varnished hardwood floor, vertiginously far below me, and the ragged line of boys standing on it, and I know, know, that my hands will slip, be pulled, release themselves from the rope.

I am dizzy, queasy, hot with sweat and shivering with prickly cold at the same time. I clutch that rope with every muscle in my skinny 10-year-old body. I hug it, surround it, burrow into its scratchiness, become a rope-boy.

Brad’s voice reaches me from a great distance, urging me to get on with it, to come down. “I ca-a-a-n’t”, I shriek in terror, “I ca-a-a-n’t”.

Brad, under his breath: “Oh shit, the little bastard’s gotten himself frozen up there.” He knows enough to give up on words alone and sets off to rescue me. I feel the rope sway purposefully beneath me as Brad climbs up to fetch me down. He appears opposite me. One of his hands pushes my chest away from the rope as it finds a purchase, then the other gets a hold above my hands and the first one joins it. Brad is now facing me, with his hands above me and his knees below me.

His sweat and breath are metallic; he smells like a man who resents having his day screwed up. My limited field of vision covers little more than one of his muscular forearms, covered with light brown hair, and his powerful neck. For the four or five thousandth time in my life (figuring between once and twice a day since I was around 3), I am stunned that there is a real possibility that some day I will be like this. (How old could he have been? 18? 20?)

He frees one of his hands, hangs by the other, and puts his free arm around me. He tries to convince me to release one hand and put it around his neck, and then to follow suit with the other hand, so that he can carry me down monkey-baby-fashion.

The idea is appalling. I am quite sure that if I let go with one hand, he will simply push me off the rope, get rid of me, send me to a quick bloody death on the hardwood below. He is my tormentor and my enemy; he is not to be trusted. Anyway, it would be completely humiliating to be carried down clinging like a baby.

Brad sees my big wild eyes, knows that this too is a lost cause. “Jesus Christ!” he mutters — the ultimate non-YMCA profanity, quite a trophy, really — and works his way down again.

For some minutes I am in the eye of the storm, glued to the top of my rope, floating calmly above the activity below. The other boys are sent, grumbling, off to the showers (“Aw, just when it was getting INteresting!”) — except for the most responsible one of the lot, Nicholas of course, who is dispatched to find the janitor who has the key to the storeroom where the really giant ladder is kept, while Brad stands guard below.

What for? Does he think he’s going to catch me if I let go? For one awful moment I imagine he is going to try to shake me loose from the rope. The thought passes, while Brad fumes below.

The janitor is located, the ladder is produced, it is set up next to the rope. Dependable, resourceful Nicholas is asked to hold the ladder.

In a perfect world this job would have gone to one of the guys who didn’t really know me and didn’t much care. Not to Nicholas, the one guy whose good opinion I would like to earn. At least it’s not one of the Evil Trio, who call me a fairy because I’m an athletic idiot and generally taunt and rag me and make me want to cry, but I never do.

Brad mounts the ladder, stands next to me. Once again puts his arm around me, bringing me and my rope over the ladder’s steps, positioning my feet so that they are resting on one step.

“Just stand up, just stand up on the step, Arnold”, Brad coaches. I do this. “Now let go, and I’ll pick you up.”

“NO!”  I am filled with despair. “No, just help me onto the ladder. I’LL CLIMB DOWN BY MYSELF!  I WILL!”Oh God, make this son-of-a-bitch let me alone!Startled, he leans back, makes the ladder sway a bit. Vigilant Nicholas counterbalances.

Thank you, Nicholas. Fuck off, Brad.

Balked one more time, he gives up and does what I ask. Climbs a few steps below me. I start down the ladder: left foot down, right hand down, left hand down, right foot down, left hand down, right hand down, and on and on, steadily, firmly, slowly. Looking straight ahead. Teeth clenched, eyes dry. I feel suddenly light-headed, happy even. I CAN DO THIS.

Brad is off the ladder; I can tell because I no longer feel the jerky waves in the ladder set off by his descent. Now everything that happens is something I make happen.

I think ahead to the end game, determine that I AM NOT GOING TO LOOK DOWN EVER, that I’ll just have to stumble onto the floor when I get there.  But then I feel Nicholas’s hand on my arm, hear him telling me I’m one step away. So I am given the gift of an easy landing. I let go of the ladder, turn, and walk off resolutely towards the showers. I am never, ever going to cry about this.

“Hey, buddy, you ok?” This from Brad.

If only he’d treated me like a buddy in trouble in the first place, instead of like a whining little kid, then maybe we wouldn’t  ever have gotten into this fix.

I nod, plow on.

It is a deeply unfair world. What I get for this episode of bad behavior is the chance to take a long shower alone with Nicholas (everyone else having long since finished and gone off to crafts), fashioning our soapy hair into preposterous shapes and making silly noises that echo satisfyingly in that big empty tiled room.


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