Too Pretty to Be a Boy

by John Warren Lewis

My oldest step-sister Effie had paid me a dollar to take off my dress and act a boy. I took the dollar and went back to my room, but changed into my faded red short-shorts with cuffs way up my thighs. I slipped on my pink girls' undershirt, too. Leaving the apartment, I had only to dodge Effie, since Momma was at the laundromat. So I climbed out the bedroom window instead of going out the front door. I had stole my girls' clothes out of a storage box in a garage in a neighborhood over from ours. Since we had only moved into this apartment building a few weeks before, nobody knew me much. Besides, if you didn't know I was a boy, you couldn't tell me from a girl when I dressed as one. I was nearly ten and skinny and tall for my age. I was brown as a biscuit and it was summer and my hair was long, needing to be cut. Momma had been after Daddy to take me to have it cut, but he never seemed to get around to it, and I was glad. Momma and my step-sisters – Leigh, the other one – told each other in front of me that my fine dark brown hair with its auburn highlights, big brown eyes, dark eyelashes I'd bat, and my long legs and narrow feet were all wasted on me. They said I was too pretty to be a boy. I knew I was pretty. I didn't want to be a boy anyway. I had to be made to act like that.

It was early Saturday evening and I knew there was a baseball game going on at Legion Field. The lights from behind home plate would be shining bright as the setting sun over center field made long shadows of the players. The roller skating rink was about to open and a few workers whirled around in red t-shirts and black pants to Elvis singing his new song about a hound dog. The Ferris wheel of the carnival over in Mayor's Lot was just lit and turning, and the pipe organ played on the carousel.

I had decided I was either going to the skating rink or the carnival. I had not made up my mind which. But I was also thinking of going to the baseball game. There, if I was careful, I could maybe play hide-and-go-seek, tag, jump rope, or do something else with the girls who always accompanied their parents...their dads playing, their moms watching, keeping an eye on the children. Most of the boys, seemed like, sat with their moms and watched the game. But I wasn't like most boys. I knew that, and I think my daddy did too. He knew I wore girls' clothes, but he hadn't been home much recently and it had been a while since he had caught me in them. Wearing the shorts and top made me worry that he might see me dressed that way, but I knew I'd be out till after dark, and he would not be home until much later.

I was excited. I had decided to go to the roller rink and I took off running barefoot toward it through a field full of tall and thick green grass. Then, of a sudden, I saw a toe on my right foot flopping and dark blood gushing. I had stepped on a chunk of broken milk bottle. The toe flopped back on the top of my foot. There was no pain, and I had to look a second time at the nearly cut-off toe lying there on the top of my foot. I was surprised that I felt no pain as I returned home, my bloody toe flopping, to tell Momma.

I hobbled out of the grass and on across the brown bare front yard to our apartment. I opened the door to Momma and Effie sitting on the couch in the living room folding clean laundry. I stepped in and a patch of blood quickly spread on the little braided rag rug by the door.

Momma yelled, "Don't slam the door." She didn't look to see who it was.

Effie said, "Momma! Johnnie was outside with those girls' clothes on!"

Momma said, "Just look at him! Young man, if I've told you once I've told you a hundred times—"

"Look, Momma!" Effie said. "His foot's bleeding!"

Momma jumped up, hurried over to me, and said, "What have you been into? How did you do that? And I told you to not wear those outside! Didn't I?"

She slapped me.

"Hahhah stastaepped honehah honenhah hahhah...mahmamilk babbabottle, Mahmahomma! Hahahhah wahwahas rahrahunning!"

She started to pull the pink undershirt over my head, but said, "Oh, what's the use!" She pulled it back down and told Effie, "Go round to Jackie's and get Will." She muttered, "He better not be too drunk to drive."

Momma stooped down by me and took my toe from the top of my foot where it had flopped, still attached by thin skin, and put it on the rug, in between the big toe and the third. She said, "Stand there, sweetheart. Don't move." She went to the couch for a clean dishtowel.

As I stood there I wondered again why there was no pain. It seemed strange to me to see all that blood and the toe cut near clear through and it not hurt.

She came back with the dishtowel, and said, "Stand back some on your heel if you can, Johnnie." She slid the towel under my foot and wrapped it up tight and tied the ends in a knot. "Come on, son. Let's get you in the car. You'll have to walk. I can't carry you." She draped my arm around her shoulder, and hers around my waist.

We were about to the car when Daddy came running around the corner of the Tastee Sandwich Shop, a beer joint, where he worked as a grill cook and bartender. Jackie Cargill owned both the Sandwich Shop and our apartment building. Most of Daddy's pay went to rent. Momma said that much of the rest of it went to beer and whiskey.

"What's happened? What's he doing dressed like that! I told him what would happen if I caught him like that again! I'll beat his goddamned ass—"

"Oh shut up, Will! He's cut his toe nearly off. It's only hanging by the skin. You're taking him to Doctor Rush's, across from the unemployment office on Mero."

"Yeah, I know where it is."

She shoved me through the back door of the car. I slid onto the seat.

Daddy got in and started the car.

Momma said, "I'm going to Jackie's to call Dr. Rush and tell him to meet y'all at his office." She hurried off.

Effie stood fretting as Daddy drove away.

All the way, Daddy kept looking at me in the mirror.

I avoided his eyes.

He breathed whiskey and cigarette smoke, and every time he started to say something, he'd mumble, "Shut up, Will."

He had started drinking again when he began working at the grill where he could drink on the job, and I knew it would not be long before he left us to go live with his Maw in Craw. He'd do that. He'd sober up, come home, go to his AA meetings, bring speakers to AA meetings at the Veterans Hospital over near Lexington or the state penitentiary over at LaGrange. Sober, he'd come home after getting regular work making good money in one building trade or another, and very much ignore me and read a Zane Grey book, listen to a radio show, or sit at the kitchen table and talk to Momma. He'd been behaving like this ever since I could remember. Daddy was here today and gone tomorrow. Watching him watching me in the rear view, I thought about the boys sitting with their mothers at the ball game, watching their fathers play.

Daddy carried me into the doctor's office.

Old fat Doctor Rush, Momma's new doctor who I'd never been to before, sat in his swivel chair waiting for us, chewing on a cigar, looking like a balding bulldog with age spots all over his head. He pointed at an open doorway.

Daddy sat me on the padded table with steel stirrups at the foot and a raised cushion on the other end.

Dr. Rush said, "Nearly cut your toe off, huh?"

I nodded. There was still no pain. I wondered about that.

Daddy introduced himself, "I'm Will Redding, Doctor."

"Yes, Will, nice to know you. Mrs. Redding called, said y'all were coming. I was home getting ready to turn the Redlegs on."

With a big pair of silver shears, Dr. Rush cut Momma's towel off and let it drop it on the floor. He looked at Daddy and said, "I thought Mrs. Redding said you were bringing me a...Uh, never mind...I'm getting old and don't hear quite right anymore." He pointed with the shears at the little trashcan in the corner. "Will, you'll have to be my nurse, if you don't mind."

"No, Dr. Rush. Anything I can do to help." Daddy brought the trashcan over, picked up the bloody towel, and dropped it in. He held the can under my foot. Daddy could be helpful like that. He'd even help Momma around the house when he was sober.

Dr. Rush took my foot in his hand. By now it only dripped a little blood on the towel in the trashcan. "The toe's been cut through the nerve and the joint. That's why there's no pain. And why you're not screaming your head off." He looked at me. "I'm not going to stitch it. The bone'll re-attach itself. It'll never bend again. But it don't need anything done to it except a little soaking in Betadine and wrapped up. It's bled real good. It'll be just fine."

He poured a black-reddish liquid in a pan he'd filled halfway with water. "Johnnie...that's your name, is it?"

I nodded.

"Stand in this with that foot for a minute." He looked at Daddy, and said, "You'll have to help her off the table." He chewed on his cigar and turned to a cabinet.

Daddy lifted me off the table, but wouldn't look at me as I looked at him. I knew he was thinking about the doctor calling me "her." I put my foot in the pan.

Daddy knew I wore girls' clothes. This was no secret to him. When he was home, I avoided him the best I could, wearing girls' clothes or not. Drunk or sober, he always saw something in me he did not like. I knew part of it was the clothes, but there was something else, too. He thought Momma was too easy on me for wearing them. He told her once that she was a poor excuse for a mother, letting her son grow up a sissy. He'd yell at her, "You're raising a little faggot. Don't you even know?" He'd tell her, "That boy is in a world of hurt. He dresses like that when he's older, taller, his pipsqueak of a voice changes...somebody's going to beat the goddamned hell out of him. You better straighten him up and I mean now." Momma'd tell him to stay home, stop drinking and running around like he was single, and help her raise me right.

Dr. Rush returned with bandaging and we all looked down at my foot as it soaked. He put a towel on the floor. "Here, Johnnie," he said, "stand on this." He took the edges of the towel and dried my foot, then patted the table and looked at Daddy.

Daddy put his hands under my armpits and lifted me back onto the table.

Dr. Rush stuck pads of gauze between the toes on either side of the cut one. He slipped a U-shaped piece of metal over the cut toe that went back on my foot a ways, and tightly wrapped my toes and half my foot. He wound tape around the gauze. "Don't get it wet and stay off it for a week." He looked at Daddy. "But I know she won't stay off it. Looks to be a pretty active sort." He chewed on his cigar, and said to me, "Just don't get it wet. You hear?"

I nodded.

He looked at Daddy, and said, "The girl'll be just fine."

They caught each other's eyes.

Daddy turned to me, but still wouldn't look at me.

I knew he wanted to say I was not a girl, but couldn't. He was ashamed of me, and of himself for having a boy like me.

Dr. Rush went to the cabinet and took out a syringe, then to the little refrigerator and took out a little bottle, and before I knew it, he'd wiped my arm with alcohol and jabbed the short needle into my arm. It was like he'd hit me with his fist. I felt faint and began to fall off the table.

Daddy caught me and laid me out on the table.

Dr. Rush stepped over to the sink to wash his hands. Looking at me in the big mirror that covered half of that wall, he scrubbed his hands with a little brush. He took a washcloth from the cabinet, held it under the water, wrung it out, and said, "Here, Will, wipe her face with this."

Daddy stared at my forehead and wiped my face, neck, and hair gently. He smoothed back my hair. He looked into my eyes.

I saw the flicker of a smile. I knew he was glad I was all right.

He folded the cloth and laid it across my forehead.

Dr. Rush shook out a blanket, white as snow, folded it in half, and put it over me. I loved the weight of it and the wonderful smell of bleach and washing detergent. He then folded another one and slipped it under my knees. He tucked me in all around, and said, "Just lay there for a few minutes. You'll be okay." To Daddy, he said, "Will, notice you got a drink. Let's have one."

"Yeah, Doc." He pulled the small brown paper sack out of his back pocket.

Going into the other room, Dr. Rush turned off the ceiling light in the room where I lay.

I watched as they tipped back the whiskey bottle wrapped in the paper sack and drank and wiped their mouths.

Next thing I knew, the room swirled in darkness, then bright light. I closed my eyes and saw the whirling skaters, the Ferris wheel, the carousel, the baseball players crazily running bases. Shortly, the swirling stopped. Warm, dazed, comfortable, I lay there on the table feeling as though I was inside a warm cocoon. Through the window by me I saw it was now dark outside and the cicadas and night birds had started.

Sitting in the other room, Dr. Rush puffed his cigar, Daddy a cigarette. I heard their murmuring and smelled the nice aroma of the whiskey and tobacco smoke wafting into the room, pulled by the draft made by the open window.

Louder, Dr. Rush said, "She's going to be all right, Will."

"Yeah, I know. Thanks, Doc, for seeing h… for seeing us on a Saturday evening."

"Think nothing of it, Will. So, your girl's a tomboy, huh?"

Daddy turned to look at me through the open door. His shoulders trembled.

Dr. Rush reached over to Daddy and rubbed his shoulder. "She'll be fine. Don't you worry none, Will. She'll be fine… "

BIO: John Warren Lewis, 71, was born to lower working-class parents in rural Central Kentucky. He grew up in a place and time where a sensitive, acutely curious, effeminate boy with a stutter was both target and beneficiary of people, terrain, and culture that were as brutal as they were beautiful and sweet. Too Pretty to be a Girl is John’s first published fiction. However, he has published two nonfiction titles: Till Every Battle’s Won, a short history of the role of women in the victorious 1973-4 United Mine Workers Union coalminers strike in Harlan County, KY; and Indian Education for All in Montana State Parks: Lesson Plans and Teacher's Guide, a place-based curriculum for teaching American Indian culture and history in Montana PreK-12 schools. In 1968, while a soldier in the US Army at Fort Knox, KY, John was a founding publisher of and a writer for the anti-Vietnam War journal, Fun, Travel, Adventure – FTA (Fuck the Army); refused orders to the Vietnam War (refused to “shoot, then cry”); and spent time in military prison. John has worked as a VISTA Volunteer (1966-7), a teacher in high school, university, and community venues; a Montana State Parks Interpretative Park Ranger; a Montana History Consultant to the American Indian Education Division of the Montana State Office of Public Instruction; and as a factory worker and union organizer in Virginia. He is a retired Meatcutter and Member of Local 400 of the United Food & Commercial Workers Union. He currently lives in the Bronx, NY.