Cruel, bizarre, dangerous, creepy, perverted—these are the words I’d use to describe the boys I knew when I was six. We walked to elementary school together. Every afternoon we came home for a snack and then left the house and ran wild. Sometimes those boys ran wild at my expense.
Start with bizarre. Also dangerous: D. He collected butterflies—pinned hundreds to a black velvet background. Maybe his father helped. (I never once saw his father.) D. had unremarkable brown hair in that 50s cut: short on the sides with slanting bangs parted on the left side. Clark Kent glasses. He knew a lot about science so I tolerated him. D.’s mother was afraid of him—whatever he wanted for lunch he got. I was afraid of him at times, too. Once he ran after me with a pitchfork. I ran ahead of him through the dusty barn while he chased me. He was naked—skinny, skim-milk-colored—and shrieking, “Get out! Get out!” I had walked in on him while he was doing… what? I don’t know.
Then there was the red-haired boy. I’ve deliberately forgotten his name. His parents owned our house, and he came over when his dad collected the rent. He was older than me, so maybe he was eight the day he lounged on our front steps, curled his lip, and told me that Santa Claus was a hoax. The truth struck me like hard rap to the head. I ran into the house, his laughter following me. I hate him to this day.
I was the oldest of four then, soon to be five. Desperate to escape the house, my mother resorted to hiring a neighborhood boy to babysit. She thought my brothers would prefer to have a boy take care of them. I knew it was creepy that W. wanted to give me a bath. I could bathe myself. He followed me up the stairs, asking me to just take off my shirt or something. I told my mother he acted weird and she said, “Stop imagining things.” But then he let my two little brothers make fluffernutter sandwiches. Peanut butter and marshmallow fluff still covered the kitchen when she got home and W. never babysat again.
The worst were the C. boys next door. Muddy paths crisscrossed the thicket behind our houses and my friend, G., and I played back there. One day, two of those C. brothers ambushed me and ordered me to pull down my underpants for a nickel. They were bigger than me—maybe nine and ten—and, while I was scornful of their stupid ways, I was scared of them, too. They threw the nickel at me and it landed in the ooze. I didn’t bother to look for it. Their older brother was even more perverted but that’s a story for another time.
I sometimes wonder how those boys on Stevens Avenue shaped my adult feelings about men. I mean, am I right to be suspicious of them and their predatory instincts?