“Taking the Lead” by June Sylvester Saraceno

Dare and I finished our tomato sandwiches and iced tea in quick gulps and hurried back into the bright heat of that summer day. We had decided to build an Olympic stadium in the yard and hold our own Olympic games. Dare went around to the garage and climbed up on the freezer to lift the bamboo poles down from the racks while I fished through Daddy’s toolbox for a hammer and some nails.

“We gotta find two trees close enough together to fit one of these poles across for the high jump,” he said springing down from the freezer. “The others will be javelins.”

The two trees were easy enough to find and I was ready to start hammering, but Dare was more precise, as usual, and had to get the measuring tape out.

“They have to match up right or it won’t work. First, we’ll mark off some easy jumps,” he said, scoring the first tree with his pocketknife. “Then we’ll raise them higher and higher.”

He went about measuring both trees and scoring where the nails should go in while I rooted around for four leaf clovers. Then he started to hammer in a nail.

“HEY! Wait a minute! I wanted to hammer!” I jumped up irked that he was taking over everything.

“Okay, Okay. Don’t make such a big deal out of it. You can hammer the next nail.”

In fact, I got to hammer the next seven nails while he surveyed areas for the long jump, javelin throw and shot put. The sound of my arrhythmic pounding carried into that summer afternoon, seeming to provoke an escalating screech from the jays.

We placed an old bedspread in the back yard for the gymnastics competition, its surface made pimply by the grass beneath it. We marked off long distance and short distance runs, found the soft ball that would serve for the shot put, gathered pine needles for the high jump landing.

It was nearly suppertime before we had the Olympic field set up, but finally we could start competing. Dare won five gold medals; I won one. He was older, faster and stronger. But his long legs, such an advantage in the foot races and long jumps, worked against him on the high jump. We raised the bar six times together, but on the seventh bar, his heel trailed and knocked the pole off the carefully set nails. I cleared it. It was exactly like winning gold to beat him at something.

The Olympics continued after supper until Mother called us in for the night. We huddled in his room, towels rolled around our necks like we’d seen athletes on TV do, making plans to open the Olympics to everyone in the neighborhood. He’d ride his bike one direction down the road telling kids and I’d ride the other way. Everyone would be invited. We’d divide everyone into countries and Dare and I would be America. It was our yard, after all.

Dare strategized. “We’ll make a point system and write down how many points each team gets. We might have to have one person be the official score keeper and add everything up. The team with the most points at the end will be the champions!”

“Should we make medals?” I was considering the locket I got for my birthday. Nobody could take it home, of course, but maybe winners could wear it for awhile.

“We’ll make podiums, a high one and two lower ones, and the winners can stand on them and be saluted for individual events.”

“Three winners?”

“First, second and third, Stupid, just like the Olympics. We’re going to sweep it! We’ll be the champions!”

I decided to ignore the ‘stupid’ since he clearly wanted me on his team. I didn’t brag out loud but I could run and jump faster and further than any of the girls and most of the boys in our neighborhood. I basked in the victory that would be ours tomorrow.

That fall we waited for the school bus stomping our feet with cold and blowing out clouds of cornflake breath. As we stood at the end of the driveway, we’d choose bird egg-sized rocks and see who could throw them over the highest telephone wires that looped as far as the eye could see down the road. He cleared the highest one almost every time; mine went somewhere into the middle wires. It wasn’t until the next winter that I could hurl a stone over the highest wires, but by then things had changed. We had different games and Dare tossed rocks in an offhand manner, without effort or thought. He would skim rocks on water the same way, haphazardly, without really noticing the rock or the water.

Chores were also occasions for competitions and contests. One Saturday in late fall, when it was time to carry firewood from the back woods to the garage in front of the house, we continued our log-carrying contest. The goal was to see who could carry the most and the heaviest logs from the woods to the garage without stopping or dropping any along the way. The trick was to get them piled up in your arms and still be able to see over them so you didn’t trip. There was a technique to loading. Resting a couple of logs in the crook of the left arm, you could reach down with the right to add more, but a squat was more effective than a bend. Balance was key.

That day, I got four huge logs loaded in my arms, instead of my usual three, and could just see over the top by holding them a little lower than normal. Daddy’s ax hammering into pine rounds seemed to echo in my chest. Dare noticed my feat.

“Hey, look!” in his excitement he yelled over to Daddy, even though the contests were out of the parental sphere, “She got four logs up!”

Daddy’s ax didn’t pause. Who knows whether he heard or looked up. Dare ran up beside me. “BUT, can you make it all the way?” He was still yelling even though he was right by me, and falling into step with my unsteady course towards the garage. He hadn’t even bothered to grab any firewood. I sensed he was pulling for me and wouldn’t try to trip me. The obstacle that stopped me, I never saw coming.

Mother. As I gained the back yard, clearly on track to make a successful finish, her voice sliced out of the kitchen window.

“Wilhelmina Mae Miller!” Nothing good ever comes from the full name. A million thoughts flew through my head—Mrs. Gaylord called about the playground fight… but no, not on Saturday. She found the grass stains on my school clothes she’d warned me to change out of before playing… she…

“You drop them heavy logs right now!” She was coming out of the back door now and looking mad.

“Right now, I said.”

I dropped the logs; Dare started fading back behind me, clearly not wanting to share whatever trouble was about to boil over.

“Drop them and come in the house this instant.”

I looked down at the already dropped logs, swallowed hard and slowly walked toward the back door to find out what I’d done.

She went in ahead of me muttering loud enough for me to hear the disjointed phrases “…no business carrying all that…being a girl…could damage your female parts…your father ought to know better…” none of it made any sense.

The steady thud of the ax continued in the background. Dare was gone. I wondered what Daddy would think when I didn’t come back for another load. I hoped he’d be mad and tell Mother I needed to get back out there. It won’t count if I don’t make it all the way to the garage, that’s the rule. And I was so close.
“There’s plenty for you to do inside the house,” she was saying, “and you can start by stripping the sheets off all the beds.”

Inside work. I wanted to cry but was afraid Dare might find out. I still didn’t know what I had done to deserve this punishment.

After supper that night I heard her talking to Daddy in the living room in the voice she mainly used for us.

“She’s not a boy! You seem to forget sometimes she’s a girl…”

I wasn’t sure what that had to do with carrying logs, but nobody seemed able to forget I was a girl after that. Even I couldn’t seem to get it out of my head.

Winter brought us closer to Christmas. Dare and I spat orange seeds to see who could get them in the fireplace from farther away. We flicked the juice that rolled down our fingers at each other. The fire crackled into shades of orange, red, blue. He wanted a gun and so did I.

On Christmas morning, one of us got his wish. He got a shotgun and boxes of shells. I got a new doll, a tea set and the usual amount of new clothes. On top of everything else, Dare and Daddy went out into the woods to test out his shotgun. Mother was adamant – I wasn’t going. Dare averted his eyes and wouldn’t even join in pleading for me. She relented only to the point that I could go outside in the backyard, but NOT to the woods. It was better than nothing, but not by much.

I stamped around in the yard with stinging eyes. All of my presents were inside toys. I kicked at a lacing of frost around some old puddles, then I jumped on an old branch that hadn’t yet been cleared out of the yard, finding some satisfaction in the splintering sound of it breaking like frail bones.

Dare was so excited when he came back from the woods that he was babbling. “Man, this thing kicks. Nothing like a BB gun. KaBlam, I mean it is loud. You heard it, right?” After awhile he seemed to notice I hadn’t said anything. He sprinted to the garage and came back still holding his shotgun but with his old BB gun in his other hand.

“Here. You can shoot this. Practice aiming with it.” It was always a big deal when he let me shoot it, so I knew this was his way of making up for me not getting a gun for Christmas when he did. I knew it but my throat was burning and felt too tight to for talking.

“Look,” he said, “soon as I shoot something for real, I’ll bring it back for you to see. You can watch me skin it.”

I took the BB gun.

“Look,” he started again this time in a low whisper, “as soon as Daddy lets me go out on my own, we can meet by the old fort. I’ll let you come with me.”

Just then Daddy came back out carrying his gun rags and oil.

“Got a couple more things to show you, son,” he said. And Dare fell in behind him without even looking back.

I was left again. I pumped the arm of the old Daisy furiously. From beside the back steps I pulled a Coke bottle out of the wooden crate they were stored in until we took them back to the store for the deposit money.

I set the bottle on the fence by the garden, stepping backwards and away from it in slow steady paces. My throat still burned and my eyes felt raw. I shot at that hourglass shape until I was out of ammo. It was impervious to the tinging BBs. I wanted to blast it to smithereens. I dropped the gun and grabbed the bottle by the neck, smashing it against a half a brick that was edging the garden until it shattered and I got scared. I looked towards the house wondering if Mother had seen, but knew she would be busy with Christmas dinner. I used one of the larger, sharper shards to scrap a small gash into the almost frozen ground where I buried the broken glass. Bitch. I said the cuss word out loud and felt my face get hot and my blood race.

I tore back to the house on that adrenaline, knowing I’d be expected to set the table before long and I’d better wash my hands good before anyone saw or questioned how I’d gotten so dirty.

June Sylvester Saraceno is author of Altars of Ordinary Light, a collection of poems [Plain View Press], as well as a chapbook of prose poems, Mean Girl Trips [Pudding House Publications]. Her work has appeared in various journals including American Journal of Nursing, California Quarterly, Common Ground, Ginosko, The Haight Ashbury Literary Journal, Moonshine Ink, The Pedestal, Poetry Motel, Quicksilver, The Rebel, Silk Road, Smartish Pace, Sunspinner, Tar River Poetry, and The Rambler; as well as two anthologies: Intimate Kisses: the poetry of sexual pleasure and Passionate Hearts: the poetry of sexual love, now in a second printing. She is a professor and English Program Chair at Sierra Nevada College, Lake Tahoe and founding editor of the Sierra Nevada Review.