When you’re happy, you’re willing to take risks, right? Humph. I was still nervous when I rang her bell, but at least I had something to do with my hands. After a month, I’d finally worked up the courage to bring Tamara some flowers. Her expression was pure gold when she saw them.
“Oh John! Thank you!” she gushed, taking them out of my hands and beckoning me in. Tamara continued to make glowing compliments as she tracked down a vase and got them firmly ensconced as the dining table centerpiece.
“Thank you!” she said again, standing back from the table. Then her face fell. She turned to me, very serious.
“Billy came home crying. He won’t tell me or his grandmother why.”
I let out a deep breath. “He’s in his room?”
She nodded. I steeled myself and headed down the hall.
I knocked and quickly called out “Hey, Billy! It’s John. Can I come in?”
“No!” was the resounding reply through the door.
“Aw, C’mon! Dinner’s not ready and I want to spend some time with my buddy!” I emphasized the last word a little, which seemed to do the trick. The door opened and Billy looked up at me, his eyes red and swollen. I pushed the door open further as he trooped over to his bed. I saw one of his MechWarriors in pieces on the floor. I scooped up the biggest part of the wreck and sat down next to Billy. I turned it slowly in my hands, looking at the damage.
“Hmmm,” I said, he looks hurt.”
“Jesse smashed him!”
“Because he’s mean!” The tears started again. “He’s mean! He and Frank took him and smashed him!”
I reached down and scooped some more pieces up.
“We can fix him,” I soothed.
“No we can’t! See!”
He pointed to a plastic part that was snapped. More than minor surgery was going to be needed to bring this warrior back to his feet. I continued turning it in my hands.
“Sure we can,” I said. “We just need to get some new parts.”
Billy’s sniffles started to slow.
“Mom won’t let me!”
“Did you ask her?”
“She said no more Warriors last time we were at the store.”
“Well,” I said, “this might be different. Why don’t you ask her?”
“Frank said I was a baby if I went to my mommy!”
“Frank and Jesse! They said that only babies played with Warriors! Then they took him and smashed him! They said I was a baby that would go crying to my mommy!” He was starting to cry again.
“I’m not a baby!” he repeated.
I reached out and put an arm around him and he turned and started hugging me, crying into my shirt. I held him and just let him cry.
“No, you’re not a baby,” I reassured, when his sobs had again faded. “You’re not a baby for playing with Warriors or a baby for talking to your mom,” I continued.
I felt him stiffen.
“I’m not a baby, am I?” I continued, “and I play with Warriors.” He pulled back and looked at me. “We play together, remember?”
“And I talk to your mom all the time.”
“But she’s not your mom,” he challenged.
“True,” I replied, “but I talk to my mom a lot too.” Okay, not quite true, but I didn’t want to confuse the kid.
“Besides,” I continued, “you can talk to me.”
That seemed to calm him down.
“Tell you what,” I offered, “I’ll bring you a new Warrior next week.”
“Sure! How can we have a good battle if we don’t get a replacement for this guy?”
I got up and, using exaggerated care, placed the Warrior on Billy’s desk. I straightened him out, getting him as near to lying in state as I could. Billy came over and looked at him.
“He’s a fallen comrade,” I said solemnly.
Billy and I looked at him in silence.
“Dinner’s ready,” came from behind us. Tamara was at the door. We obediently followed her to the table.
The meal was a quiet affair. Billy mostly just ate and watched as Tamara and I had adult conversation. I’d gotten more at ease telling her about my week and asking about her classes. Since it had been a dull week for both of us, there were long pauses of silence. They were less uncomfortable than those I was used to in the past, but I still wondered if I should fill them. After dinner, Tamara and I adjourned to the couch as Billy started doing the dishes.
“So what was wrong?” she asked.
“Some kids at school were teasing him, calling him a baby who would run home crying to mommy.”
“Oh.” She looked troubled, then resigned.
“They also broke one of his MechWarriors. I said I’d bring him a new one next week.”
“Ah. Umm. There might be a problem with that. I’m going to work a long weekend next week, including Thursday. Midterms are over and I could use the money.”
“Oh.” There was a huge sinking feeling in my stomach. I didn’t want to think about it.
“What’s wrong, John?” Tamara asked.
“Nothing,” I lied. Then I realized she’d catch me at it. “I just wanted to give Billy his Warrior next week.”
“You can still do that. Billy will be at my mom’s. I’ll give you the address.”
“I really don’t want to have dinner with your mom.”
Tamara stared at me for just a moment--enough for me to know she’d caught on that there was more beneath the surface of my response.
“Why don’t I just drop it off?” I suggested before she could say anything.
“Sure,” she said with a nod.
Billy appeared in the door just then, announcing the dishes were done. I suggested a game and escaped from the room before I could think much more about Tamara and Tamara’s job.
That Saturday I headed out for some toy shopping. Billy’s MechWarrior turned out to be more difficult to find than I’d thought. I did eventually get one, but in the third store I discovered something else I thought he’d like: a Robin Hood bow and arrow.
True, it was just plastic and didn’t have much pull, but I talked the sales lady into letting me try it anyway. It must have been a slow day because she didn’t hesitate too long before letting me untie it. The suction cups at the end of the arrows didn’t stick, but it shot straight enough for me to be convinced that Billy would love it.
Which he did. I hadn’t wanted to stay for dinner at his grandmother’s place that Thursday, but Billy’s exuberance kept us shooting at targets in her backyard until it was dark and then some. Dinner itself was stilted with me unsuccessfully trying to hide my discomfort until I finally stopped trying to be polite to Grandma and just talked to Billy. She actually seemed relieved. After dinner, Billy wanted to shoot some more but his grandmother refused to let him shoot in the house and it had grown dark outside. I promised him we’d practice some more the following week at his mom’s.
When I showed up the following Thursday, Tamara greeted me at the door with a hug and a kiss on the cheek.
“Thank you,” she whispered in my ear, right after the kiss. “Billy’s been happy all week. He even checked out some books from the library on Robin Hood.”
Before she could quite release our clench, Billy was in the doorway.
“John! John! Let’s go practice!” He already had his bow in his hand and somewhere along the line had acquired a pointed green felt hat.
“Sure thing Robin!”
With that we were pell mell out the front door. We picked a tree down by the curb and took turns emptying the plastic quiver at it and then running up to it to find the wayward arrows. Despite being three times his age and theoretically better physically coordinated, Billy was hitting the mark as often as I was. We laughed when one actually stuck to a nearby parked car, but I hastily pulled it off in case unseen owners noticed. I kept calling Billy ‘Robin’ and soon he was calling me ‘Little John.’ We then began picking other targets in the yard and street and daring each other to shoot further and at smaller targets. We usually missed, but the laughter at the occasional strike was wide and loud. Eventually I noticed Tamara, sitting on the porch, watching us, smiling.
The following Thursday was more of the same. Billy wanted to play Robin Hood before I was even in the door. He had obviously been practicing during the week as he easily outshot me with target after target. Once again, Tamara gave me a big hug and a kiss on the cheek when I arrived, with just enough extra to make me wonder if the toy bow had been a better present than the flowers a few weeks before.
Later, as Billy did the dishes, Tamara confirmed my guess by sitting next to me and leaning in. I hesitated a moment before wrapping my arm around her in a gentle hug.
“Thanks, John. Billy is so happy. It’s really nice to see.”
“He’s a great kid,” I replied.
“Yeah, he’s my life. When things get rough for me, seeing him happy cheers me up.”
“Have things been rough?”
She sighed. “School’s been tough this semester. I’m passing, but I’m not getting A’s. Also, money’s a little tighter than I’d like.”
“Are you going to have to work another weekend?” I blurted out before I could stop.
She didn’t notice my tension.
“Maybe. I don’t know when though. I have a paper due next week so this weekend doesn’t work. The weekend after that is the Halloween party…”
Tamara pulled back up to sitting straight. “John,” she began, “One of the other non-traditional students in my class is throwing a Halloween party and families are invited. Billy wants to go and be Robin Hood. Would you be willing to come with us?”
“You want me to come to a party with your friends?” I finally uttered. I was stunned at the suggestion.
“Classmates,” she corrected. “And yes, it would be good for you to spend some time socially with women other than me. Besides, Billy would love it if you came as Little John.”
Ugly John, really. Trying to impress a bunch of strange women who’d be trying to run away from me.
“What are you going as?” I asked.
“Well, if you are Little John and Billy’s Robin Hood, I’d better be Maid Marion. I think I have a dress that will work and isn’t too revealing.”
She smirked and my imagination began to run a little wild.
“So will you come?” she asked.
I struggled with my answer for a while. On the one hand, I was terrified of what she was suggesting. My gut was already in turmoil. On the other hand, I knew Billy would like it, and I suspected I’d like Tamara in her costume. I began wondering where I’d find a Little John costume in time. That made me realize I’d already decided.
“Sure,” I said.
Which resulted in me knocking on Tamara’s door nine days later, my hands firmly wrapped around a second toy bow to be part of my costume. The costume itself was inside—Tamara had graciously agreed to do some tailoring after seeing how poorly the off-the-shelf shirt and vest had fit. She opened the door and dropped to a curtsey.
“Greetings Little John, and welcome!” she said.
She was already in her dress and the angle gave me a great view straight down her cleavage. She caught me staring and I blushed. Tamara grinned saucily but didn’t say anything. Billy bounded into the hallway in full regalia and we were soon off to the party.
The drive over found me drumming my fingers on my thigh again. I should have offered to drive, I realized, as Tamara focused on the road and Billy played by himself in the back seat. Being a passenger gave me too much time to think.
She didn’t mind me looking down her dress but she wouldn’t do more than kiss my cheek. I’d had sex with her, but she didn’t treat me as anything more than a friend. Even when I’d brought her the flowers. Now she was taking me to a party to meet other women. I wasn’t sure I wanted to.
I didn’t get any choice. Billy sprinted off to the backyard where the other kids were while Tamara dragged me around to meet the other partygoers. We seemed to have the longest conversations with the single women. I tried to just fade back and watch, but Tamara would constantly pull me in with little hooks like “What do you think, John?” or “Billy just loved the bow and arrow John got him, didn’t he?” I’d have to smile and murmur a few polite words as the woman strained to smile herself. Most of them avoided looking at me. I kept looking around the room. There weren’t many single guys here—several sets of married couples and some women that seemed to be the hostess’s friends. My surveys kept getting interrupted by Tamara saying hello to another guest and bringing me into another round of small talk. Finally I couldn’t handle it anymore and fled to the restroom. On the way back, I doubled into the kitchen so as to avoid Tamara. I figured I could claim I was looking for a drink.
Unfortunately, the kitchen wasn’t quite empty. A short mousy woman in a long red cape was standing at the sink, watching the kids in the backyard through the small window. She turned when she heard me enter. She gave me a half smile.
“Hi,” she said.
“Hi,” I replied.
We stood there for a minute.
“Robin Hood?” she asked.
“No, he’s in the back yard. I’m Little John.”
“I’m Little Red Riding Hood.”
“Nice to meet you Ms. Hood.” I smiled.
She looked nervous.
I must look like a wolf. Or a monster.
An awkward silence fell.
“So how do you know Amy?” she asked. Amy was our host.
“I don’t. I’m here with a friend, who’s one of Amy’s classmates.”
“Oh. So am I.”
We hit another pause. Dammit, I was supposed to start becoming comfortable around women! I racked my brain for small talk topics and then remembered Tamara’s words from our first evening: ask something I actually wanted to know the answer to.
“So why Little Red Riding Hood?”
She shrugged. “I had the cape. It was easy.”
Another pause. We heard children’s voices being raised and she glanced toward the window.
“Do you have a kid out there?” I asked, trying to keep the conversation going.
“Yes. My daughter Ashley. She’s only six but she wanted to play with the bigger kids.”
I nodded, remembering my own experiences at that age, constantly chasing after older children and other kids my age, who constantly ran away. They’d never let me join their games even though they let me follow them around the neighborhood.
Just then we heard a shriek. We both hurried to the window. Billy was in a shoving match with a boy while a handful of other kids stood off to one side watching. Another boy seemed to be working up the courage to join the kid against Billy. A little blonde girl was sitting on the grass crying. Red Riding Hood turned to dash towards the door. I grabbed her arm.
“No. Let me.”
With that, I strode towards the door ahead of her, but kept it to a walk rather than a run. When I actually emerged in the backyard, Billy had picked up his bow and was holding it in front of him. The second kid had joined in and they were trying to wrest the bow from Billy’s hands.
“Now hold on there!” I loudly commanded.
The kids all froze. Then noticing my costume, the two boys released Billy’s bow and backed up a couple of steps.
“What seems to be going on here?”
“They tried to take my bow!”
“He was shooting arrows at us!”
“Was not! They ran in front my target!”
“Was too! He almost hit me!”
“He almost hit me too!”
“Did too! He aimed at us on purpose!”
“Did not! Their stupid tag game ran through my shooting range!”
“Well it was stupid of you to have a shooting range!”
I realized letting them talk it out wasn’t going to work.
“Okay, okay. One at a time. Who was playing tag? Hands up!”
I scanned the assembled children, making it clear the question was for all of them. Hands went up for all of them except Billy and the little blonde girl.
“And Billy, what were you doing?” I asked, turning to him.
“I was showing Ashley,” he indicated the young blonde girl, “how to shoot.”
“Giving her lessons?” I probed. She was only six, after all.
But Billy shook his head. “No, I was just shooting at that tree and telling her what I was doing.”
The tree was a decent distance away, but well within his range. I could easily see that while he’d picked a target that kept him out of the middle of the yard, it would be easy for the tag game to spill over.
“He shot at me!” the first kid interjected with.
“Really?” I asked. “Did he hit you?”
The kid shook his head.
“Hmmm. Billy’s pretty good. I think he would have hit you if he was shooting at you.”
The kid’s faced scrunched up. I could tell he was thinking that I was trying to pull one over on him.
“Tell you what, Billy will show you.”
I looked around and saw a spot that was twice the distance from the tree than where Billy had been standing. It was still within range though.
“Billy, go stand over there. That’s right. About a foot further back. Now shoot at the tree.”
I motioned for all the kids to get back a bit and Billy took a deep breath after gathering three arrows in front of him.
All three hit the tree. The third one, miracle of miracles, stuck. The other kids started cheering. I turned to the now embarrassed boys.
“He wasn’t shooting at you, just near you.”
They looked over as Billy retrieved his arrows. The other kids started to crowd around him. Then I had an idea.
“Why don’t you ask him to show you how to do it,” I said to the two boys.
They grumbled and looked down at their feet. Obviously they didn’t want to have anything to do with this.
“Tell ya what,” I told them, “If you can hit the tree once, from the same distance that Billy shot from, I’ll give you twenty dollars.”
That caught their attention. The other kids started calling out “Me too!” “Can I shoot?” “I wanna shoot!” Billy was besieged by them. I waved my hand, indicating they were all included, and escaped to the porch where several other adults had gathered to watch. Red Riding Hood was up front, but Tamara wasn’t too far behind.
“Wow,” Red Riding Hood said. “You didn’t yell at them or discipline them, but got them all playing together.”
I blushed a little. “Well, I’ve been in Billy’s shoes. Yelling at them would have just increased his ostracism.”
“So where did you learn that?” Tamara said, having pushed forward.
I shrugged. “I had a gym teacher in elementary school who used techniques like that. Unfortunately, he couldn’t follow me to junior high. When I got to be an adult, I remembered his techniques.”
I didn’t add that my therapist had been instrumental in helping me remember those techniques as part of why elementary school hadn’t been as bad as later years.
“Thanks,” Red Riding Hood said. Her eyes flicked over to the kids where Billy was letting Ashley shoot, while the rest of the kids stood impatiently by.
“I’m Lynn,” Tamara/Lynn said to Red Riding Hood. “My son is Billy—Robin Hood.”
“I’m Angie,” Red Riding Hood replied, “Ashley’s my daughter. I’m here with Barb.”
“Oh yes! Barb’s in one of my classes!” With that, Tamara/Lynn started drawing Angie out about her daughter and her life.
I only partially paid attention—I was too busy keeping an eye on the kids. There was some squabbling about who would get to shoot next but they seemed to be able to sort it out without my intervention. I was still watching when one of the boys that had been in the pushing match with Billy actually hit the tree. A small cheer went up from the kids. I trotted over, pulling my wallet out on the way.
“Here you go!” I said, handing him a bill. A quick glance in my wallet showed that I couldn’t afford more than one or two more successful hits.
“How many haven’t shot?” I asked.
Three hands went up. I backed up behind the watching kids as they took their turn. None of them hit the tree, though one came very close. The kids started clamoring for more chances, and I laughed in agreement. I said I couldn’t afford to pay them if they shot all night. They wheedled and pleaded. In the end, I agreed that I’d pay five dollars for anyone who hit the tree on their second try. This time it cost me fifteen. When the kids started going for round three, I wished them luck and walked back to the gathered grown ups. The clump of children was starting to break up as well, though Billy continued to hold the attention of Ashley and a couple others.
When I returned to the adults, Tamara/Lynn and Angie were starting to step apart, apparently the conversation over. Angie went back inside.
“Nice woman,” Tamara said when I’d rejoined her.
I nodded in assent, but didn’t ask for more details.
“Can I get you a drink?” she asked.
I nodded and Tamara turned and headed into the house. I sat down on the edge of the porch, watching the kids. Slowly the other adults wandered away as well, leaving me alone, watching.
I let out a deep breath. They didn’t realize the risk I’d taken. If one of those boys, bigger and more athletic, had been able to outshoot Billy, the whole gambit would have failed. Instead of being the hero, he once again would have been the chump. I would have added to his pain and humiliation, instead of making it better. Just as had happened to me the second time my elementary school gym teacher had tried the tactic.
My palms were sweaty but I calmed myself. Billy and Tamara’s happiness was worth the risk.