Her brothers are rough-and-tumble types roaming the streets after Mother and Father go to bed. They are expert at sneaking out, know every creaky floorboard, every groan in the front door hinge. Robbie greased their window sash. Willie blazed the perfect trail down the ancient oak. They say it’s important in any escapade to have a perfect plan. They learned this from Saturday afternoon movies, Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, The Dead End Kids. They want to be tough. Too old to run around with tin-can tommy-guns anymore, they drink, they smoke, they swear. She wishes she could be tough too, a torch singer, a reporter, or a runaway heiress like Claudette Colbert. Her friends are tame, boring, all wishing to be Shirley Temple on the Good Ship Lollipop.
In bed at night, in the room next door to her brothers, she listens to the scuffles and grunts and titters as they make their great escape. The oak is their favored route, and she often watches them leap from the tree and scamper down the darkened street. Boys have all the luck and all the fun. She does not like it one little bit, so a plan begins to form as the moon shines through her frilly curtains.
She steals Willie’s striped T-shirt and baggy pants from the laundry, sneaks Robbie’s leather jacket out of the downstairs closet. Stashes her loot beneath her bed.
The next night, she listens for her brothers’ muttering. They always mutter, lucky for them mom and dad are down the hall. She quickly, quietly, dresses in their clothes, hides her hair under Willie’s baseball cap, and, slipping through her window, she shimmies down the oak the minute she sees them turn the corner. She races down the middle of the street, elation shivering through her, the cold night air feeling like freedom against her cheeks.
Several boys congregate in the darkest corner of the city park, her brothers, their pals, and a few she doesn’t know. Now that she’s here, squatting behind a shrub, she’s not sure what to do. She watches them pass around a bottle filled with yellow-brown liquid, taking sips, running their coat sleeves across their mouths. They smoke cigarettes. They talk in voices sometimes deep, sometimes squeaky. They fake-punch each other, left hook to stomach, fist to shoulder. Tease and taunt and laugh. They learned this, of course, at the Bijou, this daring, easy comradery.
The air grows cold, her legs begin to cramp. She straightens up. She wants to join them. She wonders how to do it. Curses heaven that she hadn’t been born a boy. They seem so comfortable, independent, daring. No stupid lollipops for them.
If her brothers weren’t here, maybe she could pull it off, but there they are, all blustery and loud. She stays in her hiding place until her toes feel frozen and her nose begins to drip. Reluctantly she turns her back on the boys. Snaps a twig.
“Who’s there?” one of them asks, then stands and looks around.
She’s off, running fast, like she’s the sail of a ship, down the middle of Main Street, the Spanish Main, she thinks and grins, wind battering her chest, her hair a banner flying out behind her, glancing back as they begin to slow behind her, one by one, giving up.
She runs until she can’t run anymore and sprawls onto Mrs. Halloway’s front lawn.
She’s exhilarated, laughing, flat on her back, smelling grass, dirt, and her own sweet sweat. She rolls over, grabs a hefty stick, sits up, and shoves it deep into the soft spring turf and claims it in the name of herself. A girl, a pirate, on a daring new ship called, not Lollipop, but Her.
Gay Degani has received nominations and honors for her work including Pushcart consideration, Best of the Net, and Best Small Fictions, and won the 11th Annual Glass Woman Prize. Her story “Scablands” placed fourth in the 2023 Saturday Evening Post‘s Great American Fiction Contest. She’s published a full-length collection, Rattle of Want, (Pure Slush Press, 2015), and a suspense novel, What Came Before (Truth Serum Press, 2016). She occasionally blogs at Words in Place.
Cover Design by Karen Rile