Walking the rail

920 words

It’s been a minute. Class + new job + oh, other things. But look! I’m here! …And very out of practice.

This one was the result of being tired after a long commute home. It came pretty easily, but I don’t think it’s very good. So there’s that.

Charles could do it, he knew it. He’d seen it on YouTube a hundred—no, FIVE hundred times. It just took confidence, that’s what he’d said, the cool teenager with the Santa Cruz hat and large, colorful sneakers. Well… and balance. And practice. Lots of practice. But where was Charles supposed to practice? He didn’t have a skate park like that guy in the videos. Plus, even if he did, he didn’t want to go to the skate park without a board and look like a dork.

But he had a rail at home. He stood next to it; it came up to his abdomen. If he were to pull up his Star Wars t-shirt, one could count his ribs; he was thin for his age and often called “straw” by the other fifth-grade boys. That made him mad, but he tried not to show it. Instead, he pulled his cap down tighter and clamped his lips together and strode away. He wanted them to think he hadn’t heard, but he knew they knew. And really, if “straw” was the worst thing they’d come up with he’d gotten off easy. They saved their meanest—and objectively, the most creative—insults for the more vulnerable classmates. Those with who looked different or had less money. “Straw” he could bear.

He tried to eat all of the food his mom put in front of him, but it was always too much and too rich. Milkshakes dense with whole-milk ice cream and thick peanut butter were pushed toward him after he’d already managed to choke down the baked potato soggy with sour cream and butter. But he couldn’t do it. Full to the point of pain, he’d pour the remainder of his shake into his eager dog’s bowl, told his mom how good it was, and dragged his swollen belly up the stairs and into his bedroom. He wanted to tell her the food wasn’t making him fatter, just sicker and unhappier, but he didn’t want to hurt his mom’s feelings.

His mom had a way of looking at Charles that made him want to protect her. He’d had the same feeling about his little brother when he was tiny. Now, with his helpless wails evolving into shrieks of fury and “I WANT,” Charles had lost most of his impulse to shield his brother from harm. He would, of course, but the feeling was much less strong. His mom, however, was different. And Charles’ way of protecting her was not to repel the gangsters or robbers which would undoubtedly attack the house any day now; he protected her by keeping what happened at school to himself.

Whenever she asked about his day, he’d force a smile and say, “Pretty good.” He’d then tell her an anecdote (sometimes made up, sometimes not) about something funny that happened. Kelsey misread “badger” as “booger” out loud in class. A dog ran onto the field during PE. Mrs. Tenney broke into song. He started telling the stories as a way to make his mother’s face smooth out. He’d noticed that if he just said, “Fine,” and left it at that, her face would scrunch up, she’d give his slight body a once-over, and maybe an extra helping of pasta would appear on his plate. Likewise, an answer of “Great!” was received with suspicion. In the end, “Pretty good” plus a story got the best results.

Charles wasn’t sure how he’d found the videos. He was probably looking for soccer tips when he came across a video of sleek, muscular teenagers effortlessly springing from rooftops, turning mid-air somersaults, and throwing themselves down stairs without injury. He was mesmerized. Under the guise of doing research for school projects, he spent hours watching the videos, headphones throbbing with their bass-heavy soundtracks. He studied how they launched themselves and how the landed. How they moved their feet and arms. And how effortlessly cool they were.

Now, standing on the second-story balcony eyeing the rail, Charles thought, “How hard could it be?” He turned to face the French doors leading into his parents’ bedroom and placed the heels of his hands on the red-stained wood. He remembered his dad refinishing the balcony last summer; cans dripping with coppery stain lined the garage. Charles imagined it was blood, but knew it wasn’t. Blood didn’t come in cans.

Lowering himself into a squatting position, he gave a little hop and heaved his butt onto the railing. He sat there for a few moments, looking into the bedroom. There was the jewelry box which kept generations of baubles. There was the steam trunk at the end of the bed storing linens and towels. There were the pictures of him and his brother and his grandmother and grandfather. Taking a deep breath, he brought his right foot, then his left foot onto the rail, but both hands still clutched the wood, his knuckles blanching. His knees were pulled up to his chin, and he looked as if he was readying himself to dive into a pool. With shaking legs, he removed his hands from the rail, and slowly straightened his legs. He smiled. He was standing on the rail.

His mother entered the bedroom and moved to draw the curtains. He watched as the look on her face went from placid to confused to terrified. He took a step and jumped.