By Laura Knapp
It was after the Blizzard of ’79 that the old man taught her a few self-defense moves. What a great bunch of days that was. They let school out early when the blizzard started, and by the time Lisa got home, Dad was already shoveling the front walk — the steel mills had shut down even before the schools.
Big fat flakes had been falling all day. The wind wasn’t blowing yet, so Lisa and her friends ran the block. They dodged through the narrow bank of trees and underbrush that grew wild behind the backyards, a no-man’s land between property lines and Chicago Road. The girls pretended it was the Black Forest and they were fighting the Battle of the Bulge. That game was Lisa’s idea, gotten from the Worlds at War documentary Dad watched on PBS. Lisa and her gal pals, Sheila and Celeste, flashed hand signals at each other and ran intricate maneuvers through the snow-laden trees, trying to get in position to storm a Nazi machine gun nest.
While she hid behind an Osage orange tree, waiting for the other girls to take their positions, Lisa looked across a backyard and saw Crazy Mary watching her from her kitchen window. She had straggling gray hair and a droopy face that made her look either angry, insane or heartbreakingly sad. It was impossible to tell which. Crazy Mary never left her little brick bungalow, and people from her church brought meals every day. It had been like that for as long as Lisa had been alive, and no one ever asked why. At least not that Lisa had ever heard.
Eventually, Crazy Mary receded into the dark recesses of her house, and Lisa felt relieved. That’s when she took a minute to notice her surroundings. The scene melted into her consciousness: first, the scattering of flakes on her face and then the intricate three-dimensional grid of the falling snow across which frosted branches patterned like lace. The plows hadn’t reached Chicago Road yet, and in the quiet, Lisa swore she could hear the hoarse murmur of a million snowflakes landing. Why hadn’t she ever noticed before? She had recognized beauty in movies and National Geographic but never in her own neighborhood. Lisa’s world opened at that moment and the possibilities thrilled her heart.
“Sarj, Nazi colonel 3 o’clock, getting the Panzer ready for attack!”
That was the always-dutiful Celeste, crouching behind a toolshed. Lisa pocketed her revelation for the moment and in character managed to say, “This is a reconnaissance mission now, Corporal. Let’s see what that Nazi’s up to.”
Just beyond the toolshed was a driveway where Mr. Z. was digging out his car. Lisa and her friends both hated and feared Mr. Z. He was a surly older man with a strange accent and a last name no one could pronounce. He always yelled at them when they ran across his lawn. And his son, Paulie, had been arrested the previous year for murdering his drama coach. Lisa remembered Paulie as a quiet teenager always stooped over a cigarette with hair in his eyes. He moved to the city at 18 and had been gone for at least a year when the story broke. The last article in the Chicago Sun Times said Paulie was in a nut house for the criminally insane. The girls often speculated on what Mr. Z. must have done to turn his son into a crazed murderer.
“I bet he kept Paulie chained in the basement at night.”
“I heard he made Paulie kill his puppy.”
“I think he made Paulie eat spiders for breakfast.”
The way Mr. Z. stooped over his steamed breath as he worked his shovel reminded Lisa of his son. She gave her troops the hand signal to halt; she’d have to think this one through before giving any orders. Sheila, the wild card in their trio, looked impatient. Celeste, who Lisa wasn’t convinced even liked this game, cleared fog from her glasses before returning to watch Mr. Z. with worried eyes. Lisa motioned for strategic positioning and Sheila scrambled up a maple branch that hung over the Mr. Z’s garage.
Lisa found a spot behind a snow mound that used to be rose bushes when she noticed Sheila disobeying orders by hopping onto the garage roof. Lisa gestured wildly, trying to signal a retreat. But that was Sheila – a maverick. Suddenly, Mr. Z looked up from his shovel, seeing Sheila, and started yelling in a foreign tongue. Sheila slipped and tumbled down the sloped roof in an avalanche. Due to her layers of clothing and two feet of snow, she landed as on a pile of pillows and ran in Lisa’s direction as Mr. Z. gave chase.
Lisa didn’t have the self-discipline to stay hidden. As soon as Sheila got within five yards of her, Lisa got up and began running too. Fortunately, the girls had too much of a head start, and, in the deep snow, Mr. Z quickly gave up. The girls knew he wouldn’t tell their parents; since Paulie’s news, Mr. Z was persona non grata, as Lisa had heard her mother say.
It wasn’t until Sheila and Lisa were peeling off their wet clothes at Lisa’s house, that a knock on the back screen door reminded them of Celeste.
“You guys left,” she whined once they let her in. “You’re not supposed to leave a soldier behind. What if Mr. Z. got me?
Neither Lisa nor Sheila had an answer to that. The best they could do was to make Celeste hot cocoa with extra marshmallows.
That night the temperature plummeted. And like a tomboy in a white confirmation dress who’s told to sit still, 29 inches of snow forced Chicago into a begrudging quietude. Both school and work were shut down for days, and across the region, kids and their parents were holed up for an unexpected holiday.
After Clue, Kings Corners and Yahtzee, Lisa and her family watched an old John Wayne movie. And that inspired Dad to teach Lisa and her older brother, Brian, how to defend themselves. They stomped down into the basement, and the kids learned how to hold a fist and how to use their forearms for defense. Dad gave them some down-and-dirty tips too:
“Noses are fragile. If someone’s got you cornered and you want to get away, punch them straight on the nose. It’ll hurt and it’ll bleed. And it’ll stop them in their tracks. It might be for just a second, but that’s all you need to get away.”
Thirteen-year-old Brian got bored fast and rolled his eyes whenever Dad wasn’t looking. After a while, he found an excuse to go back upstairs to help Mom in the kitchen. But Lisa stayed down in the basement with Dad for a couple hours, striking at his open hands and learning the choreography of blocking punches.
“Hopefully, you’ll never have to use this to defend yourself — but just in case, you’ll know what you can do,” he said.
She found the whole idea of learning how to fight exciting. Safaris in Africa, backpacking across Europe, climbing Mount Everest — these were just some of what Lisa had planned for herself. And if you want to travel the world, you got to be tough, was what she reasoned.
After her lesson, Lisa continued practicing. She punched her pillow; she boxed her stuffed animals. Mrs. Beasley received particularly harsh punishment — those gigantic blue eyes always staring at her pissed Lisa off. She also practiced on her brother. She punched him in the gut and in the arm. He hit back. Just on her arm, though. “You’re only toughening me up, you know,” Lisa said to him.
By the time school opened again, Lisa felt ready for any bully who annoyed her. Her first opportunity came during lunch recess when the boys in her class organized a kickball game on the plowed blacktop behind the school. At first, they wouldn’t let Lisa and her friends join in. The boys gathered in a pack when they approached: “No girls allowed.” The unoriginality of their reasoning alone was enough to strike a spark in Lisa. She walked right up to Dominic, who held the red rubber ball under his arm. He was a head taller than Lisa, and she had to reach up to pop him on the jaw.
“Ow,” he said, rubbing the spot. He looked like he might cry. Lisa stood, hands on hips, waiting for an answer. “OK — you can play.”
Lisa turned to her girlfriends with a look that said, “That was surprisingly easy”. The other boys accepted the decision and everyone ran to their positions. They only played for five minutes before the bell rang, but Lisa knew she had won.
For the next couple weeks, the three girls played kickball whenever they liked, even though they weren’t very good. Occasionally, the boys complained about Lisa’s lack of catching and throwing skills. But they always backed down, mostly because she was the one who came up with the idea that they were playing in the Kickball World Series. One team was the U.S. and the other was the Soviet Union. Lisa usually managed to be on the U.S. team, though she didn’t mind being on the Soviet team from time to time to practice her Russian accent.
It was during this period that the winter sky seemed fat with promise. Sometimes gray and smelling of more snow; sometimes an icy blue that hurt the eyes; and sometimes lashed with a wind off unseen Lake Michigan. While most people just saw a cold January day, Lisa felt like she was awaiting the arrival of something moored just beyond the horizon.
It was on one of those days when the sky rippled purple and gray that the kickball game was interrupted by a scuffle. Scotty, the boy Lisa secretly liked, was pinned to the ground by a bigger boy. It looked serious, and the recess teacher was preoccupied with sneaking a smoke in a doorway that blocked both the wind and her view of the playground. So Lisa decided to take charge; she ran up and punched the assailant. He covered his nose, and when he stood up, blood oozed through his fingers. Sure enough, like Dad had predicted, Scotty was able to run away. But Lisa knew, as droplets reddened the snow, she had created a big mess.
She had never gotten in trouble before, so it was in a surreal haze that Lisa followed the school secretary to the principal’s office. As soon as Mrs. Silver left and closed the door behind her, Lisa broke down and cried. But Mr. Bolt didn’t yell. He never yelled. He wanted to know why Lisa had hit Michael Gilligan, and she told him.
“You could have broken his nose,” he said quietly. “You’re both lucky it’s only a little sore. Thankfully, those little fists of yours can’t do much damage.”
Lisa bristled at that statement.
Mr. Bolt decided to send a note home to her parents, and Lisa would have to miss recess for a week as punishment.
When the week was up, Lisa ran out to the playground with the jubilance of a puppy. She found both Celeste and Sheila kicking at snow on the edge of the blacktop. She didn’t even stop, just ran past them yelling, “Come on,” and continued to the kickball game just getting organized. Sheila and Celeste, reanimated at the sight of their newly released friend, jogged after her. But they were stopped in their tracks by the stocky, snarling, jean-jacketed-even-in-winter, did-this-boy-ever-have-a-mother, bully-of-bullies, Donny Sikes. He was a grade above them and didn’t usually condescend to play with the younger kids. But here he was, holding the red rubber ball under his arm, Dominic vanquished and nowhere to be seen.
“Get outta here. We’re getting ready to play a game,” he said as the girls approached.
Sheila and Celeste stood silently behind Lisa, who started to feel scared until she saw the contempt in Donny’s eyes. “I just got out of detention for making Michael Gilligan’s nose bleed,” she said.
Donny sneered. “So what? If you don’t get outta here, I’ll make yours gush and no one will want to look at you for a month.”
The other boys snickered and began closing into a tight pack. She could feel Celeste and Sheila getting restless behind her, but Lisa stood her ground, though her heart thudded.
“I said get outta here,” Donny, even taller and thicker than Dominic, shoved her in the shoulder and the unfairness of their size difference made Lisa angry. So she put to use a phrase she had often heard her brother and his friends say when adults weren’t around:
“Fuck you, asshole.”
Donny reared back and beaned the hard rubber ball at Lisa’s face. But she ducked in the nick of time, and it smacked Celeste instead. The poor girl was left with a red welt on her face and broken glasses in the slush. Donny and the other boys laughed. Lisa, steaming now, took advantage of Donny’s distraction and kicked him right where her mother told her she was never allowed to kick her brother. And just like when Michael Gilligan’s nose reddened the snow, Lisa knew she had really done it this time. In a blur she saw Donny double over in pain and the look of indignation on the other boys’ faces. She scooped up Celeste’s glasses and the three of them ran for their lives to the recess teacher, who stood glumly in her usual spot by the door. They hovered around her while the boys watched from the blacktop, their anger apparent even from a distance.
The cold, gray minutes felt like hours until the bell rang. Donny wobbled to the sixth grade doors, and Lisa, Celeste and Sheila lined up with the other fifth graders. Lisa felt relieved when Miss Valentino came out to bring them back to class. But as they filed into the school, one of the kickball crew snuck up behind Lisa and whispered, “Donny’s gonna get you after school.”
Lisa sat all afternoon at her desk with reverberations of “Donny’s gonna get you” ringing in her head. What was she going to do? There was no adult supervision after school. It was a veritable Spaghetti Western out there after the 3:30 bell rang, with no Clint Eastwood to save the day. Poor Celeste’s glasses were already broken. (She declined to tell Miss Valentino how they broke — Celeste was too scared to even utter the name of Donny Sikes by now.) And if a kick to the groin didn’t make Donny back down, Lisa’s little fists sure wouldn’t. She was trapped; maybe she’d have to tell Miss Valentino what happened. But then she’d have to admit to swearing and kicking a boy in that spot. She’d get in trouble, and worse yet, she’d get Donny in trouble and she’d still have to face him after school sooner or later.
Just as the panic began to crescendo, Lisa remembered one of her dad’s favorite movies, “The Great Escape.” Hell yes, escape — like the POWs in World War II. And she wouldn’t even have to dig a tunnel. Donny would expect her to come out the fifth grade door; instead she’d sneak out the front doors. And the school had a ton of doors. She could go out a different one every day for a week, and Donny would never know which one. He’d eventually get bored, or, more likely, get into a fight with someone else and forget all about Lisa. It was a plan brilliant in its simplicity. Lisa sighed with relief.
When the 3:30 bell rang, Lisa knew exactly what to do. The kickball boys would want to hang around to see Donny beat her up, so she would make a dash to her locker out in the hallway and grab her coat and boots while the boys busied themselves with getting into their winter gear. Fortunately, Lisa’s locker was right outside the classroom. “You’re gonna get it,” a boy said to her as they left the classroom. With sidelong glances, Lisa watched to make sure the boys were bent over their boots or otherwise occupied when she slinked down the hall, arms laden with her coat and boots. Just before she disappeared into the front entryway, she dared to peek back at the fifth grade lockers and saw that none of the boys had noticed she was gone.
Lisa put on her boots and coat and walked out the front doors with the kindergartners. No one said a thing to her, not even Mrs. Greer, the kindergarten teacher. Lisa felt as free and easy as a Sunday afternoon when she waltzed out into the frigid air. She began walking down the shoveled sidewalk toward her house when she heard, “There she is,” and looked behind her. A whole pack of boys, including Donny Sikes, stood at the corner of the school, pointing right at her.
They began running, Donny in the lead. Lisa started running too, as fast as her skinny legs could carry her. She didn’t dare look back, but she could hear their feet crunching on the snow, getting steadily closer. Lisa didn’t bother looking both ways before flying into the street, running in front of a car that stopped, blaring its horn. She kept running and the boys were forced to stop as the car passed. Lisa tore down her own street, her open coat whipping behind her and her chest wheezing as it puffed the cold air. She soon heard the pounding feet behind her again, gaining ground. Her house was almost at the other end of the block, and Lisa pumped her feet in desperation.
As though in a dream, she felt like she was moving in slow motion. It was strange the things she noticed as she ran past her neighbors’ houses: the Wilson’s snowman with an arrow through its head like Steve Martin, and Crazy Mary watching from her front door. Lisa thought the look on Crazy Mary’s face was definitely sad today. Not angry. Not insane. Like a sad prisoner. The boys were going to catch her — Lisa was certain of that. She could practically feel Donny Sike’s salami breath on the back of her neck.
She reached her front yard and expected to be tackled in the middle of it. But she glided across the snow unmolested, and when she finally reached the stoop, she practically threw herself against the door. Her mother, a schoolteacher in another district, wasn’t home yet so she pulled out the key that hung around her neck and plunged it into the lock. She opened the door, fell into her house, rolled onto her back and kicked the door shut with her boot. How did they not catch her?
Lisa scrambled to her feet and looked out the living room window from behind the sheers. Donny Sikes and the other boys gathered on the sidewalk just in front of her house. A tall dark figure stood before them and with big sweeping arm motions, shooed them away. When the figure turned around, Lisa gasped. It was Mr. Z. His face looked ugly with anger. He turned back in the direction of the boys and yelled something at them in a deep, imposing voice. Lisa sank down to the living room floor. Mr. Z must have gotten in between Lisa and the boys. She raised herself up on her knees to take another peek and was startled to find Mr. Z on her front stoop. Lisa jumped when he began pounding on her door.
“Little girl, little girl,” he said in a baritone and resumed pounding. “Open the door. I need you to open the door.”
Lisa crawled out of the living room, not wanting Mr. Z to see her through the window. Once she got to the hallway, she stood up and ran to her bedroom. Mr. Z continued hammering on the door, and Lisa grabbed Mrs. Beasley and hid under her bed. She knew she was not to open the door to a stranger, and Mr. Z wasn’t just a stranger – he was a stranger who was the father of a known murderer. Her mom and Brian would be home soon, but even a few minutes was a long time to have a Mr. Z outside her house, pounding to be let in. As Lisa lay under her bed, her face buried in Mrs. Beasley’s plastic blond hair, the day’s events crashed down on her.
In a flashing premonition, she saw before her a life of chaperones and mace and safety in numbers and cautionary tales. And the beauty Lisa had just discovered became veiled by fear, and the world’s doors, which had so recently opened for her, slammed shut, one by one, with the pounding of Mr. Z.’s fists.