by Desiree Cooper
Photo: Chuck Huru
When she turned twelve, my big sister Karen decided that I was a pain in the ass. As the baby of the family, I was bewildered at being busted down from Cute Baby Brother to Worthless Gonad by age six. At school, she deserted me on the playground and pushed me against the lockers if I tried to hug her in the hallway.
The day she flopped in a heap because she had to babysit me, our dad, Chief Master Sergeant Michael Wright, threatened to call the Base Commander to put her in the stockade if she didn’t follow orders. That was Dad’s joke. He always called mom the Base Commander.
Karen pouted and complied. But as punishment, she started calling me Weenis (a conflation of “wee” and “penis”), which, every time she said it, cast me into a pit of humiliation. Over time, it was shortened to Ween, which everybody has called me since—even when they toasted me on my wedding day.
I now realize that Karen wasn’t being any crueler than most other pre-adolescents are to their younger, pesky, groveling siblings. In fact, maybe I was a tad weenish, with my pasty skin and splatter of freckles. The point is that when our family moved to Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany in 2006, I was a ten-year-old misfit, reviled by my own big sister, yearning for a place to belong.
That’s when I met Peter Jefferson. He was a stringy fifth grader—a black kid with coltish limbs and giant feet. While the rest of us wore our bodies awkwardly, Peter sported his lankiness like a promise; it was easy to imagine him growing gloriously into himself by senior year. He wore his black hair in a curly nest, untamed, like even his parents couldn’t boss him around. His skin was the color of an oiled catcher’s mitt, and his grin was both easy and puckish.
Peter was an only child, which may be why he played so easily with kids of any age. After school, he rode bikes with us, or played Enduring Freedom in the field across from the NCO housing. That’s actually how I met him, when I joined his squadron. He asked me my name, handed me a plastic grenade, and said, “Sergeant Ween, you take half the men over the ridge,” then punched me in the shoulder. I felt like I’d been deputized.
When school was out for the summer, most of us wandered the base on our bikes or skated or lay in the grass, bored. But on some afternoons around four, Peter would grab his kickball and stride to the field. As soon as we spied him standing on the makeshift mound with a white ball wedged beneath his armpit, we came running—just like he was the Pied Piper.
As soon as enough kids gathered on the field, Peter divided us into two teams: the Sabers (after his dad’s squadron) and the Warthogs (after the A-10 fighter planes based at Spangdahlem). He mixed the little kids with the bigger ones, the athletic with the awkward. Sometimes one of the boys shed furious tears because his team had too many girls, but Peter would smack the back of his head and say, “Shut up, scheisskerl,” and the shithead would suck it up and play.
Peter was the boss not only because he was officially in double digits, but also because his dad out-ranked ours. Chief Master Sgt. Jefferson, had deployed twice during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He was an explosive ordinance disposal specialist, which was how Peter knew all about IEDs. Like they could be detonated with garage door openers. Like drones and radio jammers were only fifty percent effective in detecting the enemy planting IEDs or stopping them from exploding. Like dogs were still the best way to sniff one out.
Because the kickball was his and his dad pulled rank, Peter pitched for both teams. Chawing on a wad of watermelon bubblegum, he was a one-man infield, showing off with a lot of lunging and nose diving into the grass. If anyone missed a kick to the outfield or a base throw, we all yelled “You nut sack!” even at the girls. Peter treated everybody the same.
We usually got through about four innings before the siren blared at five sharp. That’s when we all had to stop whatever we were doing— even Peter in mid-pitch—to observe the daily retreat. We’d stand attention with our hands flat against our hearts while they blared the national anthem across the entire air base. If you didn’t hide indoors before the siren, you had to stand perfectly still during retreat—even the cars on the road had to stop. If you were caught walking during retreat, the MPs would pull up and give you a warning, or even put you in the back of the squad car.
As soon as all of the flags were retired from their masts and the “Star Spangled Banner” was over, the lucky kickball team would start to cheer. That’s because, according to Peter’s rules, the team that was up when retreat sounded got an automatic five points. Just like that, losers could become winners—or bigger losers. “Tough tits,” Peter said. He was always on the winning team.
One sticky August afternoon when the Sabers were up by five games over the Warthogs, Peter kicked me off his team. “Ween! From now on, you play centerfield for the Hogs,” he said, sending me off with a slap on my shoulder. Any other kid would be snot-faced about going to play with the losers, but I was so happy that he’d chosen me to even up the odds. I saluted and took my spot in the field. By the end of the season, every kid had a little whiff of victory.
The Hogs ended the summer two games behind, which felt like a win to us. I started fifth grade that fall not even caring that Karen was now in high school. At school, I gloated whenever Peter, now a sixth grader, hollered at me while changing classes, “’Sup, Ween?” Mom complained that I had grown an inch over the summer and needed all new clothes. But it felt like I’d grown more on the inside than the outside.
It didn’t even faze me when Peter went out for intermural soccer and forgot about us. Well, it would bother me a little when I’d glimpse him running with a pack of sixth graders in blue and white uniforms, swilling Cokes and teasing girls. But watching him didn’t make me feel abandoned, it felt more like I was looking into the future. “When I’m a sixth grader,” I thought, “I’m going to be like Peter.”
Right before Easter, we got the news. Three men from the civil engineer squadron had been killed when an IED exploded beneath a Humvee in Kandahar. Chief Master Sgt. Jefferson had been one of the men in the vehicle. The whole base was shaken. Flags dropped to half-mast.
I cried because Peter’s dad was among the dead, but also because I kept imagining that it was my dad. It felt like fate had moved next door. Mom kept giving Dad strange glances, and finally he took me into his arms and promised me that he would always be coming home from his deployments. He made me suck it up and be brave, because Peter’s dad had died a hero. I tried, especially when I thought about facing Peter. I didn’t want to be wuss when I saw him.
But he never came back to school. I worried that I wouldn’t get to say good-bye before his family shipped stateside for the funeral.
About a week after we got the news, I was walking toward the field after school when I noticed a figure already waiting on the mound. The shoulders were a little slumped, but it was definitely Peter. I wanted to break into a run and give him a bear hug. But I stopped as I got close. All of his wild, curly hair was gone. He now had a military buzz.
“Hey?” I said, half in greeting, half in question.
“Hey, Ween,” he said, punching me in the stomach. Same old Peter.
We had just counted out teams when three older boys walked up. They were thirteen-year-olds just transferred from the states, already in their own pack. They were laughing at something I didn’t hear, but they stopped dead like gunslingers when they saw us.
“Why you playing with babies, Jefferson?” the tallest one edged up to Peter.
“Yeah,” another one chimed in, his face already pocked with acne. Then in a high-pitched mock he said, “We want to play!”
We waited for Peter to say something. He hesitated forever, but then shrugged and said, “Sure, you can play.” Pointing to the tall one and Mr. Pimples, he said, “You guys are Hogs—first up.” Then he pointed to the meatiest one of the three and said, “You’re with us. You got first base.”
That was my favorite position, but I didn’t argue.
“No way,” said the tall one, snatching the kickball from Peter. “We aren’t playing with you pussies.” He and his friends laughed at us, and started to walk away with the ball.
But Peter yelled, “Hey, scheisskerl, that’s my ball! Give it back.”
The kid stopped and faced Peter. “What did you just call me, nigger?”
I stood frozen. Just like that, Peter’s face went from anger to the darkest, deepest loss. His friendly smile vanished, his eyes blacked, and his chest caved, like all the wind had been sucked from his lungs. Like he was dead standing up. That look has haunted me so many times since—that moment when you see everything that someone believes in crumble, but you do nothing. The three boys hooted and the tallest threw the ball at Peter. He didn’t even try to catch it; he just let it bounce off of his arm and roll to the ground.
Just then, the siren went off. My heart pounded as the national anthem blared, and the whole base went still in respect of our country, our soldiers, our dead. It was a chance to freeze the moment, to figure out what to do. But I never got that chance. As we held still for the retreat, Peter started walking. Everyone watched in shock as, across the whole base, Peter was the only thing moving.
As he walked away, I wanted to run after him, but I didn’t move. None of us did. Instead, I kept my eyes directed toward the sound of the anthem, my hand over my heart.
Desiree Cooper is an author, former attorney, and Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist. Her award-winning collection of flash fiction, Know the Mother, was published by Wayne State University Press in March 2016. Her poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in Callaloo, Hypertext Review, The Best Small Fictions 2018, This is the Place, Best African American Fiction 2010, and Tidal Basin Review, among other online and print publications. She is also a founding board member of Cave Canem, a national residency for emerging black poets.