Read Chapter 1 of Fred Skolnik’s Novella DEFEAT

Fred Skolnik



Neither first in nor last out, neither out far nor in deep, he held the middle ground in the games boys played. When they chose up sides, Eddie picked Chris and Tommy picked Jay, then Billy, then Jimmy, then Paul, then Ray. When he heard his name it was with a feeling of relief. Relegated to some inconspicuous spot, shunted aside while the true stars took things in hand and shone with their special light, he was nonetheless glad to have played at all and went home dreaming of better days. This consoled him, but it wasn’t easy to be himself. Sometimes, when he thought he had something interesting or important to say he’d raise his voice to get people’s attention, but no one really listened, and sometimes, sulking and wishing to make his presence felt, at least by his absence, he’d fall behind his friends and linger in the street, but no one really noticed. The only time he really felt a part of things was when they were teasing the wino who sometimes showed up on the block. He knew it was wrong but went along.

John lived in a narrow house with rooms like railroad cars and a little yard in the back blocked off by a slatted wooden fence where his father barbecued steaks from time to time. His father was a factory hand but somehow managed to meet the mortgage payments and the installment payments and the doctor bills and the grocery bills, while his mother kept house in a lackadaisical sort of way, seeming to daydream as she drifted through the rooms, though John could not imagine what she dreamed about. His father, on the other hand, had both feet on the ground and did things with gusto. He ate his meat and potatoes with gusto and drank his beer with gusto and once in a while swatted John with gusto when the boy was out of line. John looked up to his father, thinking he was a real man, and dreamed of being just like him one day.

John had a room upstairs next to his sister’s. He was always teasing her and when she ran at him in the narrow hall dodged her artfully as he would have liked to dodge tacklers on a football field. But the moves that worked on her fooled no one at the line of scrimmage. Sometimes, when they were on good terms, he dressed her up in his football helmet and shoulder pads and had her run at him in earnest, calling off signals in a deep-throated, professional way. “On three,” he’d say to her, and then: “Down, set, uh-one, uh-two …”

When they got their first TV they watched wrestling mostly and argued about whether it was real or not. Then the baseball games came on and he and his father watched them intently and silently in their small, dark living room. Sometimes a plane coming over their house with its distant drone high up in the summer sky would come over the ballpark too and the camera would pick it up and he would wonder at this unexpected unity and coincidence of things tying him to a larger world. In those years John grew at an average rate. No one could complain about him. He didn’t curse much, was polite to his elders and kept his room reasonably clean. But when his parents went out they had a girl babysit and then John got wild, trying to get her to notice him. He was not yet ten but he was already starting to think about girls in an innocent way. He imagined himself being watched from far away. It was that Captain Video thing. There’d be this machine that got into people’s houses and you’d be observed in your secret, solitary moments on a screen. So John played for a while at being watched when he was alone. He moved with a certain heaviness as though great things were on his mind, he tried to look grave and pensive, he rubbed his chin and took to carrying a toy gun. He imagined that all the girls in his class were watching him.

Once his father took them to the beach and he watched a girl daintily eating an ice cream pop. First she nibbled off the chocolate coating and then she worked the ice cream into a perfect oval shape. John wanted it but his mother told him he would have to do his own, and he almost cried because he knew he couldn’t. Afterwards he looked out at the sea and dreamed about sailing beyond the horizon to some enchanted isle.

His best friend, Jimmy Foyle, lived down the block in a house just like his. Sometimes they would sit on Jimmy’s stoop, sometimes on John’s, guessing the makes of the cars that came by, or flipping cards on the sidewalk, or shooting marbles in the street. John kept his marbles in a cigar box which he didn’t let his sister touch. He kept his baseball cards in the drawer where he kept his more personal things: a pocketknife, a rabbit’s foot, a few dollars he’d saved. He used the money mostly to buy the packages of gum that contained the cards, so that he was able to maintain a satisfying balance between income and outgo as it were. Aside from buying baseball cards he used his allowance to go to the movies on Saturdays with Jimmy and some of the other kids. For ten cents you’d get three features, a serial or two and maybe twenty cartoons, not to mention the coming attractions. There too he’d sometimes get wild; but that was rare. Usually he sat perfectly still, enthralled by the exciting world revealing itself on the screen: swashbucklers and ladies in distress, cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, shining knights doing daring deeds and passing tests to win their true loves’ hands. He’d leave these shows in an afterglow.

Jimmy said one day, “When I grow up I’m gonna be rich,” and John said, philosophically, “There’s lots more important things than being rich,” because he’d heard an uncle say it once.

“Like what?” Jimmy said.

John was not prepared with an answer, but he thought and said, “Like being good.”

“Like being good?” Jimmy said incredulously. “Boy, you’re crazy.”

John in fact didn’t know what he meant exactly but only in a vague way envisaged some ideal of behavior that corresponded to the gallantry of his movie heroes. It meant standing up for the weak and the poor, fighting injustice, never taking advantage of defenseless women, sacrificing personal interests for a higher good. Thus inspired, John once let his sister keep all of the candy bar their grandmother had brought on a visit, but the thing gnawed at him and in the end he asked her for a piece and they got into the usual fight.

At school John got average marks, but not without an effort. He made the effort because he was afraid of his father, mostly. Recess was his favorite subject, he told one and all, aware that he was making a kind of joke. Nevertheless he knew his multiplication table and when his mother had trouble adding up a bill he’d step in and take charge, the scholar of the house, and she’d give him a hug, which puffed him up with pride, though he’d say, “Aw, Mom, come on,” just like the kids on TV. In truth, he was more his father’s son. He didn’t understand exactly what his father did down there at the plant but imagined it was manly, honorable work and so he found it easy to tell his friends that his father “built things” for a living, which struck him as more important than driving a cab like Jimmy’s father or operating an elevator like Ray’s. Besides, his father had fought in the War and had a German bayonet in his own secret place, which was not so secret after all. There John found his father’s sergeant stripes, discharge papers, German money, cartridge shells and an effort to keep a diary in which the words “she was lovely” emblazoned themselves in his mind. Occasionally his father told the family his war stories. They had liberated a concentration camp and found the Jews there like skeletons, half-dead. “It’s too bad they didn’t finish the job,” John’s father said in a low, hard, angry voice. “Niggers” too aroused his ire. There were Negroes and Jews in John’s school. As John was afraid of the Negroes, he found it easier to pick on the Jews, who seldom hit back. When he daydreamed now of performing his heroic deeds it was mostly of protecting girls from Negroes and Jews. But it was also true that some of John’s prettiest teachers were Jews and then he would daydream about protecting them from the Negroes, so that he was himself assailed by confusion and doubt and had to improvise strange rationalizations to harmonize his secret thoughts. Once, in the park, in a real fight, one of these Negroes knocked a friend of his down and held him on the ground. John came over and stood close by, not sure what to do. When his friend said, “Jump him,” John could not and stood there paralyzed.

John sometimes wondered about deeper things: Did God exist? What happened when you died? Dying worried him. The idea that he would die one day was hard to get around, even if he thought of himself as invincible for the time being. He did not envisage an early death. He knew no one who had died. His grandparents were hale and hearty. His father’s father ran a saloon and worked out in a gym. Both his grandmothers dyed their hair and played cards all day. Nonetheless he asked his mother if they, his grandparents, were going to die. His mother said, “Not that I know of.” John said, “Will they go to heaven?” His mother said, “Search me.” Whether or not by design, his mother, in her dry way, often came across as something of a wiseacre, or “tough cookie,” as his father called her when he was in one of his rare affectionate moods. At any rate, it was impossible to get a straight answer out of her about anything, assuming she had one to give, so John stopped asking her deep questions.

In junior high school, when he was not yet thirteen, he awoke fully to the opposite sex and he and his friends made a game of touching girls in intimate places with Mrs. Sussman’s blackboard pointer in the homeroom class. This got him slapped more than once, but the girls really didn’t seem to mind and he would remember that year of awakening as one of the happiest of his life. One evening he and his friends went to see a striptease show. It made him hot and sticky but afterwards he saw one of the girls outside fully and demurely dressed, going home, and the image stayed in his mind the way the plane coming over the baseball stadium had, unfathomable in its incongruous way.

There began a phase now of peeping into women’s windows or even surprising his sister. He and Jimmy and a few of the others knew all the places where women undressed carelessly and spent long evenings in patient vigils. A woman preparing herself for bed would make his heart start pumping but best of all was a woman coming out of the shower, pink and scrubbed, and letting her bathrobe or towel fall open. When they were not yet fourteen they all went to the neighborhood whore. The whore lived in a smelly little apartment and when his turn came he couldn’t get it up. It was that sticky feeling all over again. She worked on him a little and he came in her hand, not even hard. It was kind of humiliating but it didn’t stop him from going back, because he wanted to get it right and have the thing chalked up. Going back like that told him something about himself. Spunk or moxie was what he thought he had. These were the intangible qualities that sometimes made up for whatever else it was you lacked. There were ballplayers who had it and were up there in the majors though it was said they couldn’t hit or field or run.

Having gotten the knack of it, he banged the ugly whore a few more times and was also glad to go along with his friends when they half-raped the retarded girl who lived in a basement down the street. You couldn’t tell if she wanted it or not. All she did was whimper while he touched her. He was experienced now and could control himself, so he took his time.

John was beginning to think of himself as a man. He had dark hair on his chest and smooth, well-rounded biceps which he admired endlessly in the mirror. John still played ball, but it was less important than before, not the center of a boy’s life but marginal to the real concerns of a maturing young man, so that he could laugh off his ineptitude like one of his uncles missing an easy catch in their backyard when they threw a ball around. His real concern was hanging out and trying to pick up girls. John was not especially successful at that either but it was what you did. Of course there was a certain high society from which he was excluded where the best girls went to the best boys: the ballplayers, the streetfighters, the smooth Jews who got the A’s and cultivated the social arts. That was the other world. There was a black boy called Moses and a white boy called Alfred the Great and they were the kings of the schoolyard, they had the aura and the presence. He had an idea once of what it might be like when he ran six balls in a game of pool with inexplicable ease.

In the poolroom you got these real lowlife types along with the kids. The working stiffs came in to place their bets at the back of the room. The bums just hung around. A few were married and sometimes their wives would storm into the place and make a scene. Some were real lookers too and you had to wonder what was wrong with these guys, throwing it away. Maybe something was missing in some crucial place. John couldn’t figure it.

In the meanwhile there were other girls, even if there was a line outside their doors, and there were parties too where everyone started drinking and things got mixed up and out of hand and you found yourself in some corner pawing a girl you hardly knew and then throwing her down on a pile of coats. These conquests boosted his self-confidence. He thought of himself now as conquering not girls but women. In the summers he worked at a resort and occasionally there were indeed women who made themselves available to him and he was able to assert himself without Jimmy and the others there to steel his nerve. Some were kind of old and he learned to help himself to their purses when it was over without the least of qualms. This was not yet stealing. He stole only a couple of times that year: once from the parents of a girl who invited him to her room, a hundred dollar bill from among many in a half-open drawer; once from an open cash register in one of the shops.

John was restless but he stuck things out and finished high school. The family went out to dinner and John and his father drank to one another’s health while his sister drank soda from a straw and looked put out and his mother stared vacantly around the room. His sister was sixteen and starting to get into trouble, as his mother put it. John tried to take her under his wing in a big-brotherly way.

“Still got your cherry?” he asked her one evening in her room.

She looked at him outraged. “That’s none of your goddamned business.”

“Just trying to be friendly.”

“Like fun you are.”

“Honest. I know that Willie. They call him Willie Fingers. You know what I mean?”

“Shut up.”

As much as he felt obliged to protect her, or at least to appear to be protecting her, the effort quickly degenerated into the old teasing.

“Him and his friends probably sit around talking about what a good lay you are.”

She got up and threw her pillow at him. John laughed and they pushed each other around a little. He liked to give her breasts a little tweak now and then just to get her dander up. It was all in fun, though, and they usually lived in peace. They should have been closer maybe, but it didn’t work out.

Jimmy had a steady girlfriend now. John continued to play the field. Sometimes he thought they might be drifting apart, for a certain sobriety was beginning to creep into Jimmy’s manner. John’s mother noticed it. “He’s gotten so mature,” she said. For one thing he wouldn’t talk about sex. For another, he worked after school and helped out at home, where there was a whole bunch of kids and they barely made ends meet. His favorite phrase was, “It’s a matter of principle.” John liked to kid him. “What if you ain’t got none?” he’d say.

John spent another summer at the resort. He had access to a great deal of money now and had worked out surefire ways of stealing it, so that when the summer was over he had a real nest egg stashed away. Stealing was nothing to be ashamed of. There was a consensus about that among the staff. Everyone did it.

But this was just a phase, in truth. While he was not ashamed of stealing, he knew deep down that it was wrong and did not intend to make a habit of it, let alone a career.  After all, he had his principles too, when all was said and done. John thought of himself, on the whole, as honest. He liked the sobriquet: “Honest John.” It gave him a feeling of heft. It was fixed in his mind now that he would be that man of substance known as Honest John, someone you could rely on, someone who always did what was right. But that was for another day.

Read the rest in the full issue.

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