The Unwritten Code
At the end of the corridor, where concrete gives way
to the grassy expanse of playground, the afternoon
pours in harsh and flat, and I’m eleven again, I’m always
eleven when I return to this moment, rendered speechless
once more as I discover the school bully, a 6th grader,
whose fists I once witnessed as they rose and fell
into my best friend’s face, which swelled and bled
as he stared wide-eyed into the horror of it, unmoving,
just as bewildered as the rest of us, the same way
I stand with a hall pass in hand now, while Yolanda spins
that bully in circles, her egg-shaped body easy to recognize
in silhouette, already adult-sized and growing, her hands
deep in the dome of his hair, locked in, pulling so hard
he runs as if chasing his own head, the only sound
the soles of his shoes slapping at the concrete until Yolanda
drives his head into the porcelain faucet bolted to the wall.
It’s something like this when we’re sitting in the bleachers.
Drinking from wax paper cups. Telling each other stories
from way back when. And then that sound. That quick intake
of breath, as 30,000 or more in attendance stop mid-sentence,
heads on a swivel, eyes locked in as the batter spins, falls, and yes,
there will be fines, of course, suspensions maybe, ejections
from the game, sure, that’s a given, as relief pitchers sprint in
from the outfield grass—because the rules of the game have fallen away,
and the unwritten code demands a response—someone must be drilled
with the ball, and that will bring Rodriguez or Ventura or Arenado
out of the box, helmet off and swinging wildly in the air, the announcer
saying, “Oh, a takedown by Farnsworth, and a couple of haymakers landed,”
and this is how the game is played, this is how we’re taught to play it,
though it’s never made sense to me, even when I stood at 3rd, the relay
cut off, no play at the bag, my glove on my thigh as the runner
slid cleats up into me to knock me off my feet, the benches clearing,
all of us in the adult league playing on a hardpan infield in Fresno,
at Roosevelt H.S., off Huntington, my leg bleeding through the uniform.
And I’ve often wondered over the years—what was it
that made him so outright mean, sliding over the bag to send me
airborne, the world upended, the bottom of the inning split open in anger?
I think it must have been boredom. That’s something I can understand.
That emptiness that just weighs the air down heavy sometimes,
the ice chests filled with cans of beer just not enough, their bored
girlfriends fanning themselves in the shade, their bored pit bulls
panting in the dirt. Same as it ever was. That boredom. That need
to somehow feel alive, to somehow make the moment mean something.
Or maybe it’s shame. Some deep embarrassment that leads us
to inflict pain, pointless and cruel, from way back. That kind of shame.
Maybe that’s what makes it happen. Maybe that’s why.