The Lesson


Dad caught me as I was going out the door. “What’s behind your back, Son?”

“School stuff.”

“Like what?”

“Uh, marbles.”

“Since when are marbles considered school stuff?” Dad asked, holding his hand out toward me.

Reluctantly I handed him a worn leather pouch tightly packed with marbles. The drawstring was tied into a large bow that threatened to unravel at any second from the pressure of the marbles crammed inside. Bulging from the top of the bag was my favorite shooter, a green speckled moonglow with a chip out of one side.

“Why carry so many?” Dad asked. “If you plan on winning, you’d better leave a little room for the take. Right?”

I shrugged and stared at the floor. I knew Dad wanted me to agree with him, but he didn’t understand. I needed all my marbles so I’d look as impressive as possible on my first day at the new school—a city school. At the Pine Bluff country school the kid with the most marbles had always been a big shot. After hundreds of marble games I had become that kid. By the time our family moved to the city, nobody would even play me. Now if these city kids saw how many marbles I was carrying, they would realize I was somebody special.

Dad began to chew his lower lip as he stared down at me. Whenever he was going to tell me something “for your own good,” he would chew his lip. “I’ll make you a deal,” he said. “Mom’s been wanting some marbles to put in her aquarium. Give her a few of yours, and you can take the rest to school.”

Even after I gave him twelve of my scroungiest, beat-up marbles, my leather pouch still swelled magnificently. As I was leaving, Dad told me things might be different in the city, but I figured school was school, and playing marbles was playing marbles. What could be different about that?

A couple of blocks from home I saw a kid carrying a brown shoe box. I heard the unmistakable clackity-clack of marbles jostling against each other. Walking up behind him, I faked a loud cough and started to rummage through my marble bag.

The kid stopped walking. He turned, and I saw a round face covered with splotches of freckles. His glasses had lenses thick enough to stop bullets. His red hair was oiled and combed into a tall bump above his forehead. Eyeing my bag of marbles, he set his shoe box down. “Play you a game,” he said.

I pulled out my green moonglow. “Where do we play?” I asked.

“Right here,” he said, pointing to the ground beneath our feet.

“How can we play here? It’s all grass and cement.”

“Where do you want to play, man, up a tree?”

I couldn’t believe how dumb this guy was. “We have to play someplace where there’s dirt, or we can’t draw the circle.”

“Circle?”

“Yeah, circle. Can’t play marbles without a circle.”

The kid gave me a strange look, then suddenly he laughed.

“What’s so funny?” I asked him.

“Nobody plays marbles in a circle anymore,” he replied with a smirk, “except sissies. Maybe we’d better forget the whole thing.”

“Everybody uses a circle in Pine Bluff,” I told him.

“Pine Bluff!” He laughed. “No wonder you don’t know anything. Pine Bluff School is a school for turkeys.”

“No, it’s not!” I yelled.

“Then how come they play marbles in a circle?”

My face was burning as the kid reached down to pick up the shoe box. “Show me how they play marbles here,” I said, grabbing his arm.

“Nah,” he said. “I don’t have time.”

“You’re scared to play me.”

“Sure I am,” he said in mock fright. “Scared to death.”

“Then show me.”

“It would take too long, and there are too many rules.”

“Forget the rules,” I pleaded. “Just show me what I have to do to win.”

The kid squinted at his watch. “All right! I have time for one game before school. Let’s play sixty-six, with anything goes.”

“How do we start?” I asked, rubbing the green moonglow between my palms for good luck.

“First, count out thirty-three marbles,” he said.

“Thirty-three!”

“Yeah, that’s why it’s called sixty-six, because both of us put thirty-three marbles on the line. ’Course if you’re afraid, we could always play dolls or hopscotch.”

“I’m not afraid of you or your dumb game,” I said, grabbing a handful of marbles from my pouch. “Just keep explaining.”

“It’s easy—one of us throws out his shooter, and the other guy tries to hit it. First one to make a hit gets all the marbles.”

It sounded simple enough. I counted out thirty-three marbles. The redheaded kid shaped his marbles into a V. “What’s that for?” I asked.

“Victory,” he said with a cocky grin. Quickly I formed a B with mine. “What’s that for?” he asked.

“Baloney!”

The formalities were over. I agreed to go first and rolled my green moonglow down the sidewalk about thirty feet, feeling confident I was out of range. Then the kid walked right over to my marble without tossing his own! “Eye drops,” he said nonchalantly.

“What in the world is ‘eye drops’?” I demanded.

“I’ll show you,” he said.

I watched as he planted himself directly over my moonglow, one foot on either side. With great deliberation, he lifted his shooter until it rested against his left nostril just below his eye. Slowly he spread his thumb and index finger, allowing the marble to land squarely on top of mine.

“That isn’t fair!” I yelled. “I didn’t know anything about eye drops.”

The redheaded kid walked over to my B and began dismantling it. “You’re the one who wasn’t worried about learning the rules,” he reminded me.

I was determined to get the best of this guy. “Play me again,” I challenged.

“Count out thirty-three more marbles,” he said.

I insisted he go first. As soon as his marble quit rolling, I called out, “Eye drops,” and positioned myself the same way the freckle-faced kid had done previously.

But just as I prepared to drop my shooter, he yelled, “Covers!”

“Now what?”

“A simple defensive maneuver,” he explained, cupping his hands over his marble until it was completely hidden.

“That’s cheating!” I protested.

The redheaded kid squinted up at me. “It’s legal,” he said.

“Oh, yeah? Well, maybe I’m starting to figure out this crazy game.” I gave my marble a casual flip into the front yard of a brown stucco house. “You chase me awhile,” I said.

Immediately he called, “Eye drops.”

I countered with “Covers.”

He hit me with “Substitutes.”

“Substitutes?”

“That’s what I said!”

Somehow I knew I was in trouble as I watched the kid walk back to his shoe box and drop his marble inside. Then he pulled out the biggest steel shooter I ever saw in my life! It was the size of a small apple. “This is my ‘cover breaker,’” he said. “Never saw a marble stay covered when this baby cuts loose.”

He had to be bluffing. He wouldn’t cripple a guy for a few crummy marbles. I kept my moonglow covered.

The redheaded kid raised the big steelie high above his head. “Move ’em or lose ’em,” he threatened.

Bent over at his feet, I felt like a human sacrifice about to be offered up to a freckle-faced marble king.

“I’m counting to three,” the kid said. “One.” I saw him grit his teeth. “Two.” I was beginning to take him seriously. “Three!” he yelled, going up on his tiptoes to gain every available ounce of power.

Deciding I would rather lose thirty-three marbles than my fingers, I rolled sideways in sheer panic. Facedown in the grass, I waited for the sound of the big steelie smashing my moonglow to green dust. Instead, I heard laughter. The redheaded kid no longer held the big steelie over his head.

“Guess I fooled you,” he said, taking the now-familiar eye-drops position.

Realizing my mistake, I crawled frantically toward my exposed shooter, but the big steelie fell, and I was poorer by another thirty-three marbles. My moonglow was smashed!

As the redheaded kid plodded down the sidewalk toward school, his shoe box was considerably heavier, and my leather pouch looked like a collapsed lung.

Dad was sitting on the porch steps when I got home after school. He stared at my depleted marble bag. “How’d it go today, Son?” he asked.

“OK.” I wanted to tell him everything, but I was too ashamed.

“Glad to hear it.”

I was relieved that he didn’t press the issue any further, and yet I was disappointed too. He had to know something was wrong.

Until I was ready for bed, nothing more was said. Then I heard Dad coming up the stairs. He walked into my room and sat down on the bed. He was chewing his lower lip. “Learn anything today, Son?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“Like what?” Dad asked.

There was a lump in my throat that wouldn’t swallow away. “I learned I had better listen to you sometimes,” I told him.

For a second I saw a strange look come over his face. He blinked a couple of times, then he reached into his pocket and pulled out a dozen wet marbles. “Might as well take these back,” he said. “Your mother says they make the fishbowl look junky. Maybe when you get that bag filled up again, you can give her some better ones.”

[illustrations] Illustrated by Dale Kilbourn