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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Heart Does Not Grow Back

A Novel

Fred Venturini




When I was in sixth grade I hated recess. I didn't play sports, which left me alone, choosing to pass the time on a swing or just walking around with my head down and my hands jammed in my pockets. Not that I hated being alone—I actually preferred it, but during recess, everyone could see that you were alone and judged you accordingly.

I was swinging one day when they came to me with a blindfold. There were three of them—Lynn, Amy, and Kara—that cluster of grade-school girls that could never be broken apart, a clique tougher to split than atoms. They explained the rules of the blind-man game.

I can't say I wasn't paralyzed by tits and legs, hair and smiles. I could mention specifics, but really, it doesn't matter what those parts looked like, only that they had them.

"Do you trust me, Dale?" one of them said. I don't remember which one, but it doesn't matter; they were one person back then, one voice meant to draw you into trouble, hypnotic as strippers and capable of the same broken promises.

Of course I didn't trust them, but of course I couldn't turn them down. They put the blindfold on me, touching my neck and face, their fingernails clicking as they tied the knot.

They led me through the playground with a scrap of T-shirt serving as the blindfold, the material so thin I could see everything through a milky-white screen. School was almost out and even in May, the Illinois heat felt strong enough to make stones burst. I soaked the blindfold with sweat fueled by heat and nerves.

We neared the metal post of the jungle gym. I knew they were going to lead me right into it, face-first. And I saw it coming, a metal pole I'd climbed dozens of times, making my hands smell like pennies for the rest of the school day.

Of course I knew that entertainment was the sole purpose of the blind-man game, so what was I supposed to do? Ruin their game and risk them never speaking to me again? I'd waited years for this encounter, and I wasn't going to fuck it up. I took my medicine—hard. I made it more real than they expected, going forehead first, dazing myself, falling down on purpose so I could have their hands upon me again. They bent over, laughing, their hot breath on my face smelling like cafeteria sloppy joes and potato chips and heaven, their long hair dangling against my skin, a wilderness of girls surrounding me as I got to my feet.

With vision limited, my ears were greedy for sound—basketballs dribbling as tennis shoes clopped against blacktop, the skid of gravel and the occasional hollow thud of a kickball game, the voices of squealing kids melded together into a mess of noise, like a chorus of crickets screeching at night, or what God hears when he listens to all the prayers at once.

The swing-set post came next, and I took it on forehead-first. Then the chain-link fence. They tripped me over a teeter-totter with one of the saddles missing. I thought I was entertaining them, that we could do this forever, every recess, maybe even do it before senior graduation, or in the backyard of our house, where I would live with three wives who smiled every time I tripped over the coffee table or ran face-first into the patio door.

After pinballing around long enough, I sensed other kids following us around, enjoying the festivities. Having so many eyes on me gave me a sick comfort, like sitting down on a toilet seat that was delightfully warmed by someone else's dirty ass. They kept leading me along and I loved having their attention, even if it was centered on my torture. Then, the screen of white began to reveal a moving shadow, not a pole. The dribble of a basketball became increasingly louder, along with the cries of sports jargon, such as "Screen!" or "Help!" and hands clapping, hoping to receive a pass. Other shadows joined. We were nearing the main basketball court, where the boys played serious, competitive pickup games during recess periods.

The girls were going to lead me into a squadron of distracted players to interrupt the game and see what would happen. Seeing a pole coming and embracing the blow is one thing, but this would have different consequences. I didn't think having the attention of the elite boys of sixth grade in this fashion was good for my long-term health—but I especially feared Mack Tucker.

Mack "Truck" Tucker was the superstar basketball and baseball player. He had no noticeable intelligence that I could detect from my dark and silent corner of the classroom, but he was the epicenter of the sixth grade because his rugged looks belied his age and his athletic prowess was unmatched, allowing him to meet the two most important criteria in life—the girls fawned over him, and the guys wanted to be him. Guys would practice their asses off with the intention of dethroning him on the court or striking him out in playground games of stickball. These brave souls were perpetually left in his wake on his way to a smooth jumper, or with their hands on their hips, watching Mack trot around makeshift bases, winking at girls, the ball not landing until he was almost to second base. Girls were like a Greek chorus perpetuating his myth, scribbling about him on the cardboard backs of loose-leaf notebooks, enclosing his name in hearts and arrows, putting their own names under his with a plus sign in the middle.

From my silent and insignificant perch, I always thought the guy was a dick. He ignored the glorious affection of girls, and treated the guys as his assistants, aloof from them. He often came to school with bruises on his arms, neck, or cheeks, and he would tell the story of a fight won but never witnessed. I never understood how looking beat-up on a daily basis could win you the reputation of toughness and strength. If he were so fucking strong and tough, wouldn't he avoid the black eyes, the fingerprints on his neck, the band of yellow and black circling his upper arms? Once in a while, sure, a lucky shot would land, but all the time? When it came down to it, I was probably the only one who thought his father hit him. A lot. Probably because my own father whipped my ass a time or two before he disappeared. The lasting memory of my father centers on pancakes. I complained about the pancakes he made one morning, so he grabbed me by the shirt, dragged me into my bedroom, and threw me into the wall, leaving a Dale-sized hole in the sheetrock I spent a whole weekend helping him fix.

If I let those girls throw me into the fray, I was about to shake the beehive of Mack Tucker, who loved an audience and was tempered by his daddy's fists. He often spent time relegated to "The Wall," watching recess with his back against the brick facade of the school, supervised by a teacher who did not allow him to break contact with said Wall, the punishment of choice for students back then. Most kids would eventually sink to their asses, curled up against the base of the Wall, ashamed and disappointed at the sight of other kids at play, prevented by grade-school law to join them. Mack would stand the whole time, his shoulders back and chest out, not caring that the other kids were playing—hell, they were playing without him, so it was a punishment to the whole school, if his body language were to be believed. And he spent plenty of time on the Wall because if you crossed him, if you beat him, if you got his attention, chances were, he was going to take his shirt off and beat the shit out of you. Taking off his shirt was a warning shot, for sure—a habit that he never broke, as if to give his opponents a chance for flight before the fight.

The guys were so engrossed in the game of hoops I don't think they even noticed three of the cutest girls in our class with dork-ass Dale Sampson, blindfolded, in tow. I saw Mack Tucker and knew that the girls were just test-driving me for this, the big one. They were going to use me to get his attention. The strategy was actually kind of brilliant—they couldn't really get into the middle of the game without pissing Mack and the other boys off, but they could toss me in there and see what happened.

I wasn't going to let those girls get me involved with Mack Tucker. And what a bunch of brutal bitches they were—the moment my body hesitated against their guidance, the moment any sort of tightness began to bind my muscles, they shoved me right into the game. I careened forward just as Mack got an entry pass and took a power dribble, knocking his defender aside with a simple turn of his hips. He turned right into me and his shoulder found the center of my chest, drilling me backward with such force that I fell on my shoulder blades and almost kneed myself in the face, folding in half as I crashed onto the pavement. He made me wish for the days of simple poles and fences as dots formed against the white haze of the blindfold. I scrambled to take it off, aware of the laughter all around me despite being stunned by the fall. I figured I would take it off to find Mack standing over me, fuming, perhaps geared up for a punch or kick.

I flicked off the blindfold and Mack wasn't there. The fine dust of the blacktop ground into my palms as I got to my feet. Mack had the basketball pinned against his hip, talking casually to the three girls, who were smiling. I couldn't hear what they were saying through the laughter, chatter, and throbbing in my head—a lump was already forming.

I ignored the catcalls of idiot and dumbass, unable to believe that their ploy had worked—Mack had always resisted them. Sure, I overheard girls gnashing on rumors of steamy overnight tent stays or a make-out session here and there, but no girl could boast that they were going steady with Mack. As long as he kept them in play, I figured I would always have a chance by default, and here I was, manipulated in a game where my anguish entertained them, their inherent viciousness cloaked by silky hair and perfectly applied makeup.

I touched behind my ear and my fingers came away with a light, sticky coating of blood, and I thought to myself, Where the hell is the recess monitor?

Then, a miracle—the smiles of all three girls fell away. They hurried away from Mack, their huddle broken, and he turned around, smiling, looking at me as a whistle blared in the air, signaling the end of recess. Kids scurried to form the line, but Mack and I didn't move. Some of the basketball boys lingered, but he waved them off.

"Get in line, you shitheads," he said, and they obeyed.

"You let those bitches fuckin' blindfold you, man?" he asked.

I thought the answer was fairly obvious, so I didn't say anything.

"They're the Axis of Evil," he added. "Amy is Germany. She is in charge. It was mostly her idea. She also stuffs her bra. Did you know that shit?"

I shook my head.

"Anyway, whenever one of these chicks tells you what to do, always do the opposite."

That sounded rather strange, considering I'd seen my father do the exact opposite of my mother's requests for years before he left—Don't hit Dale, don't hit me, don't get drunk, please get a job.

"They never talk to me. I didn't know what to do."

"Now they're gonna."

"Why's that?"

"I told them you were my buddy and to quit fucking with you."

To my knowledge, Mack had no friends, just subjects.

"Why did you say that? I don't know you."

"I didn't like what they did, that was all." Mack was a showman and a fighter, but it turned out he wasn't a bully. He wasn't like his father. When he came up with all those bullshit stories explaining away his bruises, I think he sensed that I saw right through them, just in the incredulous look I gave him when he had the rest of our grade enraptured in his tales. In a weird way, I think saving me that day was Mack's first act of rebellion against his father's violence, a rehearsal for the stand he'd have to make someday. I was someone quiet and scared, someone he recognized a little too intimately, someone he might have been if he didn't feed that weak part of himself to the Mack "Truck" Tucker furnace that burned hotter every passing day.

"It's not like we're going to be butt buddies or anything," he continued. "Just go back to being your weird, quiet self and shit will be normal. Or you can grow a pair of balls and pick up a basketball once in a while instead of playing on the swing set like a little bitch. You're thirteen, for chrissakes, you still got He-Man toys at home?"

The fact that he was right about my He-Man toys gave me a chill.

"Anyway, you're the smart one, man. Everyone knows that. That's why they don't talk to you. You read me?"

"I guess," I said as we got into line. The Axis of Evil kept looking back at me, and I found myself petrified by the eye contact. But the few glimpses I got were different now, as if Mack had sprinkled fairy dust on me and I suddenly existed.

Mack Tucker was my best friend because he saved me from the desolate silence of sixth grade with his unique brand of chaos. And even though our friendship was a rough ride over the years, and our plans would get smashed and dented at every turn, Mack, chaos, and I got along for a long, long time.

Copyright © 2011, 2014 by Fred Venturini