Ronny Huff carried his Sugar Hill Gang record in a brown grocery bag to protect it from the May sun, already hot, but not yet cruel. It was a long walk from the Huff's little ranch house, tucked under some cottonwoods about a mile from the Yuma city limits, to Parnell Islay's house on Twenty Fifth Street. He knew better than to cut through Armstrong's lettuce fields, although it shortened the distance nearly in half; he learned that in remedial math by drawing lines on graph paper. But lines don't have to walk through rows of fertilized dirt, get chased by dogs, ruin the only sneakers they have for school and baseball, get screamed at by an old man with Beechnut dripping down his beard, and lines don't get their butts tanned by their dad's belt. That much Ronny knew.
When Ronny left the house, his dad was under the Ford changing the brake calipers, Merle Haggard on the transistor radio, can of Coors within reach. His mother and little sister were tending to the bird coops. They had agreed Ronny could go to Parnell's birthday party since the rest of his little league team would be there, but they would not shuttle him around like some superstar.
The footing was better on the canal bank, although the route was less direct. Walking west, he could see Yuma spread across the mesa to the bridge and the silhouette of the old territorial prison where his great grandfather once did a year for stabbing a man in the gizzard during a card game in Bisbee. He reached Pacific Avenue and started uphill, passing the Yuma City Limits sign, muttering lyrics to himself as he walked—to the boogie to the boogie say up jump the boogie— pacing his steps with them.
On that long stretch of asphalt with no sidewalk but a thin footpath in the sand, Ronny allowed a scene to play out in his mind. He imagined himself in the middle of a circle of kids, deftly reciting Wonder Mike's part, then passing a microphone to Parnell, who flowed seamlessly into Master Gee's rap. It was a starkly different scene than the seventh grade orientation dance in the gym the previous year. Mrs. Johnson had organized a dance train for the kids, featuring Michael Jackson's Off The Wall record, boys on one side and girls on the other. When Ronny got to the end of the line he found himself matched up with Nellie Montano. He had seized the moment, swinging his hips and waving his arms over his head like the dancers on Soul Train, until Nellie covered her face and ran through the line in exaggerated embarrassment. It was a dance train malfunction that would be reenacted for weeks.
At the overpass, Ronny veered from the pavement toward the railroad tracks, scrambled up the cut bank, felt hot sand seep into his shoes, and waited for the Sothern Pacific to pass. As the train rattled down the rails, a figure watched him from the shade of the Salt Cedars. Rock it out, baby-bubba..., he whispered nervously. When the train finally passed, he jogged to Twenty-Fifth Street.
Mr. Islay was in the carport adjusting the carburetor of his Chevy, Budweiser in hand, when Ronny arrived. The Islays were the first black family to move into that neighborhood, relocating from Los Angeles in the late '70s, and had been there for nearly five years. Ronny had played Little League with Parnell since grade school.
"Hi Mr. Islay. I'm here for the party. Name's Ronny."
"Think I don't know you, boy? I've seen you smack the hide off that ball one or two times."
Ronny grinned and cocked his shoulders back a bit.
"Go on in 'fore you miss out on the hotdogs."
Ronny joined his teammates in the living room as the pop-locking contest was underway. None of the boys said hello to him as their attention was fixed to the center of the room. Mrs. Islay brought him a hotdog and cool aid; he thanked her and devoured both without sitting down. Against the wall, a new stereo with a turn-table, cassette player, and two large speakers blared Zapp and Roger's as Petie McMillan and big Johnny Gomez moved side-by-side in half steps, locked, pivoted and tilted their ball caps in synch with the reverberated lyrics, more bounce to the ounce. Parnell and Manny Gutierrez responded, running in slow motion, inching backward, popping on each beat, rolling a wave through their midsections. In a well orchestrated climax they drifted apart, faced each other, Parnell assuming a batters stance as Manny—with a wind-up as cool as it was funky—pitched him an invisible baseball that he knocked out of the stadium the living room had become. The group of boys erupted in a collective cheer. Ronny blended into it exuberantly, drawing a couple glances of acknowledgement.
The tape ended and the boys decided there should be an individual contest. From the corner, Scott Lucas, shoulder length red hair sprouting from under his ball cap, demanded they play his Rush cassette but was denied on the grounds that it was a stupid choice for a pop-locking contest. Ronny offered his dejected teammate a high five as a condolence. Scott obliged. A few of the boys huddled around the stereo shuffling through records and cassette tapes. Ronny slid the Rapper's Delight album from the bag like an ace from his sleeve. Scott looked up at him and Ronny winked back, grinning.
"Right on, Ronny," Scott said.
Mrs. Islay's voice chimed from the kitchen, "If y'all don't decide I'll guess we can listen to my Roberta Flack for the rest of the day."
Manny quickly suggested Kool and the Gang, but Ronny lunged forward with the record, yelling. "Rapper's Delight, man, long version!" Parnell shook his head.
"Dude, it's 1982," Johnny said.
"So," Ronny said. "Better'n Kool and the Gang."
"Might as well play Curtis Blow, fool," Petie offered.
Mrs. Islay appeared in the doorway. "Play the boy's record and we'll have cake."
Petie set it on the turntable and lowered the needle. Big Johnny began doing the robot satirically. The other boys laughed. Petie jumped to center, shook the invisible dice, froze, then threw it to Danny Connolly who did his best Re-run, dropping to the floor and hopping his own leg, then pointed at Ronny. Ronny lunged into the center like Pete Rose stealing home on a wild pitch. He tried to follow Big Bank Hank's part, rapping incoherently despite all of his mental rehearsal, hopping wildly, yelling, "Bang-bang boogie, say Up Jump the Boogie!" The boys looked on with an awkward fascination. There it was again, the circle of smirking faces around him. Then, the unkindest smirk of all, the one with red hair sprouting around it, muttered, "Yea, dirty Ronny, up-jump that boogie," and a chorus of laughter followed.
Without thought, Ronny teed off at that face with an over-hand right. Fortunately, Johnny Gomez was standing next to Scott Lucas, and leaned in just enough to deflect it with his shoulder. Ronny's fist grazed the target, knocking Scott's hat from his head. The red-headed boy swung back maniacally, but couldn't connect as Parnell grabbed him. In a second, half the boys were in a pile on the carpet. Rapper's Delight continued on the turntable. Ronny felt a large body, bigger than Johnny Gomez, pluck him from the pile where he was still trying to claw his way toward his heckler, feeling his body leave the ground. Floating through the kitchen, blind with rage, Ronny could hear the lyrics in the background: I don't mean to boast, but we're like hot butter on a breakfast toast...
On the back porch, the two boys received a military-style butt chewing from Mr. Islay before being told to shake hands as a condition of rejoining the party, which they did. Mrs. Islay stopped Ronny in the kitchen as he reentered but let Scott Lucas pass.
"Ronny, come help me cut the cake."
"I know all the words," he said, still breathing deeply.
"I know, honey."
Ronny was tired. He had another cup of cool aid and listened as the other boys listened to a second playing of the long version, rapping along to the parts they knew. Before it was over, he cut the cake for Ms. Islay in a grid of nearly perfect straight lines, whispering the lyrics without missing a beat.
BIO: Doug McGlothlin is a high school English teacher, wrestling coach and freelance writer who lives in Flagstaff, Arizona with his family. His work has appeared in Arizona Highways, Flagstaff Live, The Nashua Telegraph, and has been staged at Theatrikos Theater Company.