Camaro incident aside, I enjoyed a very typical childhood. My father managed a small hardware store outside of Richmond, which did a brisk business in the days before Home Depot. My mother worked as lunch lady at our school, which gave her summers off and allowed her the freedom to see my brother Marty and I on and of the bus every day.
Marty and I were constantly at war, the way in which only truly devoted siblings can be. I saran-wrapped the toilet seats in the boys locker room and pinned the blame on him. He set loose a flock of monarch butterflies, which my fourth grade class had been studying, and pointed the finger at me. I was punished for both offenses because no one believed a lowly second grader could pull off either stunt without being caught.
Of course, if anyone else ever messed with my bratty little brother they invoked my wrath. When Marty was in fourth grade he had a series of run-ins with a bully, a dour-faced fifth grader named Dexter, who stole the little kids’ lunch money to buy dirty magazines and cigarettes at his uncle’s convenience store. Understandably, Marty didn’t want to involve Mom in the mix because Mom’s stern finger shaking lectures to the other kids were a source of torment to both of us. And of course, she knew if he didn’t buy lunch since she was front and center for the check out line every stinking day. So, after several weeks of lending him my allowance, I took it upon myself to thwart the fiend. Since I didn’t want Marty to be known as the kid whose sister had to fight his battles, I traded my purple Pegasus My Little Pony for a favor from Ruthie.
“Hey, Dexter!” Ruthie confronted the bully during second lunch. We had each taken bathroom passes from our teachers and sneaked down to the blacktopped courtyard which served as a playground. Dexter stood beneath one of the two net less basketball hoops, surrounded by his group of cronies who had do you want fries with that imprinted on their DNA.
From my hiding spot behind the trash can, I watched Dexter turn pale as he faced Toothy Ruthie. No prepubescent boy wanted to be seen with Ruthie. Her record for the most wedgies given in a school year still stands. Nothing can shatter a fragile male ego like being beaten up by a girl, especially a butt-ugly girl.
Ruthie stopped in front of Dexter and stared him down through her lank brown hair. “I hear you’ve been collecting money from some of the other kids. Good job.”
Dexter squinted at her, his expression wary. He had the presence of mind to ignore her compliment. Ruthie could take him in point five seconds and he knew it, so he kept his mouth shut. She looped her arm around his neck and I saw him wince as he discovered that Ruthie’s mom didn’t believe in wasting her pole-dancing money on deodorant.
“I admire your initiative, Dexter, but you see this here is my turf. Now maybe if I take a liking to you I’ll leave you my empire when I move on to Junior High, but for now I need to enforce a few taxes.”
“Taxes?” Dexter’s Adam’s apple bobbed in his turkey neck.
“Yup, ya see Dexter, this here’s my school yard and I’m entritled to forty two percent of whatever you collect.”
Other than Ruthie’s word confusion over entitled, she was putting on an Oscar worthy performance. Dexter shuffled his feet and even from my perch behind the garbage can, I could sense his nervousness. It was obvious he didn’t want to lose face in front of his pockmarked posse, but he didn’t want to tangle with Ruthie either.
“Who died and made you Darth Vader?” he asked in a last attempt at bravado.
Ruthie, who could smell weakness like a dog could smell a ham bone, went in for the kill. “I guess I could cut you a break if you gave me a kiss.”
All the color drained from Dexter’s already sallow complexion.
“Come on, you know you want to.” Ruthie’s sing song tone and the age old challenge of peer pressure spurred Dexter to react.
“I’d rather kiss the lunch lady than your crusty face, toothy Ruthie!”
Since the lunch lady was my mom, I couldn’t say I blamed him.
Ruthie curled her lip, exposing the buck teeth which had inspired her nickname. Dexter’s bravado melted under her black scowl.
“Then I’ll see you at the corner of Oak Summit drive and Fifth at three.”
There was a subtle change in the air pressure as Dexter’s gang sucked in a collective breath. The corner of Oak Summit and Fifth was our elementary school version of Thunder Road. Every now and then, some stupid fool would try to usurp the queen of crap and Ruthie would challenge the offender. Instead of street racing though, Ruthie beat the snot out of whoever was on her shit list that week. It was a very successful way to maintain the balance of power.
Dexter’s face crumbled. His older brother Mark had once had a run in with Ruthie, who towered over every boy in the elementary school. Ruthie’s power lay in the fact that she was a girl and as mean as a rabid badger. She gleefully abused the notion that the boys were reluctant to hit her and went for the family jewels.
Dexter pulled out a crumpled wad of bills and held it out to Ruthie.
“Nice doing business with you, Dexter.” Ruthie stalked off to the lunchroom, the tatters of Dexter’s pride bouncing across the blacktop in her wake.
Rules of the school yard, Dexter was never taken seriously after that. He’d been had by Toothy Ruthie. Marty was inexplicably grateful, and promised he would save up his allowance to buy me a new Pegasus, but then he got into baseball cards so that was the end of it. I didn’t mind, he was my brother, and besides I stole Pegasus back from Ruthie at the next sleepover after she ran my underpants up the neighbor’s flag pole. I wasn’t afraid to hit her.