Once, when I was in the second grade, Jeff Johnson talked me into saying swear words with him. It was not difficult to convince me. For a second-grader, any second-grader, swear words are mystical incantations, special words of power which, when pronounced to the open air, could summon forth the secret powers that lay hidden behind them.
Like most children, I had learned the basic canon of swear words from listening to my parents and their friends. By paying close attention to how they were used, I had worked out a basic hierarchy of the most common curses. Terms like “crap” and “hell” were hardly treated like swear words at all (the kid up the block once said crap in front of his parents accidentally, and they hadn’t even punished him for it, so he said). “Shit”, “ass”, and “goddammit” seemed to occupy a sort of middle ground. These would get you in trouble, but parents would often use them in front of the kids and not feel too guilty about it.
Something called “fuck” seemed to occupy a place of particular significance. This word was reserved for extreme situations or when the speaker wanted to emphasize a point. I wasn’t entirely sure what a fuck was. In fact, it was difficult to tell, because this word, alone among the words I was aware of, could mean almost anything. One could use it as a verb, as in “he fucked her”. But fucks were also apparently something that could be given or withheld, as the situation required. For example, “nobody gives a fuck about that asshole.” In another context, fuck could function as an adjective and help clarify something in greater detail, like “that was fucking loud”. I was excited to learn more about these strange words, and jumped at the chance to try them out.
We walked out onto the dusty, unused baseball field where we could be safe from the sharp ears and eyes of Mrs. Manna, the lunch lady, who ruled over the midday recess with an iron fist. Then, we said all the swears we could think of from “hell” to “fuck” with great gusto. We challenged one another to combine the words in byzantine permutations ( “yeah and then she craps on his face and shits on his ass.”). This was great fun, and I was getting ready to put together another when Jeff gave me a strange and mischievous look.
“Ok. Now I’m telling on you for saying swears,” he said. He began to jog off the field and make his way toward Mrs. Manna, who was making some kids stand against the wall for something they had done (probably a lesser offense than swearing). I immediately panicked, and began to chase after him. This was my first mistake. Had I simply laughed and told him to go “shit” himself to “hell”, he would have just moved on and tried his little entrapment scheme on some other kid. But Jeff was inherently quick and dominating, whereas I was inherently malleable and slow-witted. I couldn’t match him in terms of fortitude. So, Instead I chased after him and pleaded with him not to tell on me.
I chased him out of the baseball field and across the blacktop. I chased him past the swings and the slide and around the three cottonwood trees. The whole time, mewling in a high-pitched voice.
“Come on, pal. Buddy. Don’t tell. I thought we were friends.”
“Sorry,” he laughed, keeping just out of reach. “I have to tell.”
“No. You don’t have to tell, man. Pal. Aren’t we buddies?”
“Yeah, I’m gonna tell.”
It went on like this for the entire recess. Me chasing him around the playground. He always kiting me, always just out of my grasp. A couple of times, he stopped and told me he had changed his mind. I would sigh in relief and we would both have a good laugh. Then he would make his threat again and take off running and I would dutifully follow him begging and bleating at him. like a little lost lamb.
Looking back, it seems incredibly stupid of me not to figure out what he was doing. Dude!, I want to shout at my second grade self, he isn’t even running toward the lunch lady. What are you, retarded?” But the idea that somebody would mess with me like this simply didn’t exist in my brain. If he said he was going to tell, then he was going to tell. People don’t say one thing and then do something else. That would make the world a horrible place to live in. Even if he was just having fun, what if he told her anyway? It would mean a trip to the principal’s office for sure; it would mean a phone call to my parents, that or a note home. My panic reached a fugal state as I contemplated the multitude of punishments that might lay in store for me.
At one point, I thought I had found a way out. I tried threatening him with mutual retaliation. If he told on me I’d tell on him. “So what?” Jeff laughed. “We’ll both get in trouble. My parents don’t care.” At that point, all my hope faded. He had me over a barrel. What could I do but chase him? I tried every plea that I could think of, which mostly amounted to saying “c’mon buddy.” or “don’t tell pal…buddy?….buddy pal?” But rhetoric fell on deaf ears. He could not be swayed.
Recess was drawing to a close. A few kids were already lingering near the door, getting ready to line up. Jeff grew tired of torturing me, and made straight for for Mrs. Manna, who was giving the wall standers a final harangue. I followed at a distance, completely defeated in body and soul. He sauntered up to her and told her, “Matt said swears,”
“What?” She growled.
“Matt said swear words. I heard him.” This was it. I was down to the wire.
Mrs. Manna made an angry face, but to my surprise she directed it at Jeff. “So what?” she asked him. “I didn’t hear it, and I bet you said them too.”
Jeff had a surprised look on his face, as did I. He started to say, “yeah but-”
“Nobody likes a tattle-tale, kid,” Mrs. Manna grumbled. “Now get in line.” She looked at me for a moment that seemed to stretch a little. “You too,” she told me in no less harsh a tone. Then, she turned back to the wall-standers. “You kids had better shape up or next time I’ll…” But I wasn’t listening. I had been reprieved. I couldn’t believe it. After all the panic, It was simply over. My life could go on as it had done without the specter of punishment.
I got in line. Jeff had already forgotten about the whole incident, He was laughing and joking with some other kids farther up the line. But I felt different. Sadder, yes. But also elevated somehow. I had been keyed up for so long that something had happened to my brain. I felt carefree, like I was floating. The colors of the changing leaves seemed to burst forth in vivid orange and red. The low October sun seemed almost to set the air on fire. In my transcendent state, I followed the line inside feeling older, though not necessarily wiser.