In the afternoon, when the nurse pulls tight the sheer curtains, Benton puts me in his dreams. It’s me and his son Ronny outdoors, always outdoors, watched over by Benton as we slam against each other in a game we invented when we were new friends. Ronny and me, and Benton somehow there, shoplifting videos from the rental place down the street, handing tapes hidden in rolled-up windbreakers around the sensor towers, before scurrying across the parking lot, barely dodging the backs of cars rolling out of stalls.
We’re out there on the school playground, after lunch, out there even though the settled snow comes up and wets our pale denim to a deep blue-black, almost up to our knees. The paved playing fields, for hopscotch and kickball and dodgeball, are the only cleared areas, but most of us ignore them, running into suddenly deep fields off to the side of the school. Ronny and I wander down the hill, where a sheet of ice has covered a large depression in the pavement down there, forming an imperfect rink. Girls in pink shuffle inside of it, pretending to skate, and Ronny joins them. I stand off to the side, watching. After a few moments, three boys, stepping into the deep holes our boots punched into the hillside, make their way to us.
The three of them, led by Matthew Koumann, had already separated themselves from the rest of us through athletics. Even at nine. Even when none of us had muscles, even when we all still gracelessly hacked at hockey pucks and slung basketball shots from our rib cages, we’d already stratified. Money was part of it. Parental involvement. No one signed up Ronny and I for the Kiwanis league, so we mostly wandered in the woods after school, one of our entrances just a few yards from the makeshift ice rink.
Koumann made his way to the edge of the ice and settled his eyes on Ronny and asked his friends, “Why’s that faggot out there with all the girls?” But before anyone could say anything, Ronny put his hands up and said, “Because I’m a lady. I’m a beautiful lady.” He pointed his chin to the air and motioned his hands as if to gently prop the ends of his long hair across his shoulders, a motion that clearly communicated “older woman” to the rest of us, and we all laughed. The girls, me, even Koumann.
Later that same day, when a snowball fight broke out, it would be upon this same patch of ice that the arriving disciplinarian, our gym teacher Mrs. Donovan, would slip and fall, her head hitting the ground and sending shards of ice up into the air around her, all of us so startled by the sight of those tiny knives spiraling in the air, that we wouldn’t react. Eventually, while some of the other children ran and banged on the big, blue steel school doors to get help, Ronny would crawl out onto the ice and remove his mittens. Mrs. Donovan’s wig had fallen off, and as Ronny tried to place it softly back on her strangely balding head, her hair wispy like a baby’s, she hollered and slapped at his hands, trying to right her gray wig and fight him off from doing the same.
And it would be Mrs. Donovan, two years later, in her role as health teacher, who would have to tell us about Ronny’s disease, the way it evaporated his bone marrow, how he’d stopped growing while the rest of us continued on our natural course. She chose her words carefully, but they were still peculiar; too educational.
“Illness has nothing to teach us in the abstract,” she told us. “It’s only when we see it that we understand what suffering and sadness is. I know you feel like you’re suffering and you’re sad. But try to remember that Ronny is, too.”
And it would be years later, long after his funeral brought out adults whom I’d never seen before, drawn to the small white home as if loss were a beacon—the way people want to take on a certain kind of pain as their own—that I would remember Ronny as mostly a wintertime kid. All of those puffy layers around him. And I know that when Benton dreams, he’s out there on the edge of the woods, at our entrance, watching as his son, on his hands and knees, removes his mittens and fingers the rough mesh of the wig, struggles to place it on Mrs. Donovan’s papery skin, and in a frightened whisper, says to her, “I don’t know how to do it, but let me just try.”