The knobby-kneed boys in my neighborhood ran loose all summer long. The complex of apartments and townhouses where I grew up was mostly populated with the new phenomenon that was the single mother. There were also blue-collar workers and an occasional Black family. It was Minnesota in the early eighties, a time of extremes: the Moral Majority and MTV, hulking automobiles and the USSR. The restless, unsupervised boys could be found chopping worms in half, chasing salamanders into window wells, and teasing little girls as they rode their bikes through a maze of sidewalks.
I was one of those girls, an only child with a single mom. Our townhouse had an upstairs, downstairs, and basement with an old wringer-washer. My mom hung our laundry to dry on the communal clothesline that stood in the middle of what I liked to think of as our backyard. It was a backyard, but it was one that we shared with the other families near us: two more single moms and a family with two sons, Kenny and Keith. Their father always smelled of stale cigarette smoke and was rumored to have stacks of Playboy in the living room within easy reach of his adolescent sons. Their mother was a kind, overweight woman whose kitchen was always littered with empty Pabst cans.
Late on a summer evening when the mosquitoes swarmed and the sky turned purple, these boys might be found playing a sadistic game that involved throwing a switchblade into the grass at a player's feet. I would watch them from my back steps as they stood in a tight circle, the thud of the knife interrupted only by unfamiliar curse words. They rarely paid any attention to me and my dolls—until the day that they did.
As I wobbled down the sidewalk, finally without training wheels, concentrating only on the five feet of concrete in front of me, Kenny was suddenly there, blocking my wavering path. He was the younger brother but still at least four or five years older than me with pale skin and dirty blonde curls in actual ringlets. He was tall and angular and wore a threadbare t-shirt.
“I have a crush on you,” he said.
They were the scariest words anyone had ever said to me.