Stephen Rodrick's family portrait with Theresa, Bargara, Stephen and father, Peter (1972), from 'The Magical Stranger.'
Credit: Courtesy Stephen Rodrick
When I am six or seven, Mom takes me to see a child psychiatrist at NAS Alameda, where my father is stationed. We talk about Dad and what he does for a living. We talk about school and how boring it is. We talk about me getting along with Mom. After an hour, he pats me on the head, and Mom leaves the hospital with a bottle filled with white tablets.

It's Ritalin. I take one in the morning and then one from the school nurse around lunchtime. I can't tell you if they help or not. Probably not, because my elementary school comes up with a new idea: I'll spend half the day with my regular class and half the day with special-ed kids.

This is a disaster. I spend afternoons with retarded boys and girls a half foot taller than me who outweigh me by 60 or 70 pounds. I cry, and they cry, too, but their tears come with rage. One day, a kid with a crew cut throws a Chinese checkers game at my head, marbles and all. I hide in a closet.

What does Dad say? Not much. He's gone from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. when he's not off on a carrier somewhere.

One Saturday, Mom says she needs a break. She takes Terry shopping. Dad is in the garage working on his MG. He's wearing a white T-shirt and stained khakis. We live at the top of a hill in a new subdivision; I'm a little bit up the street riding my new blue bicycle. Well, riding it is a big fat lie. I still can't exist without training wheels. A couple of neighbor kids surround me. One boy starts in.

"You can't really ride that bike."

"Yes, I can."

"No, you're a baby. You need training wheels."

"Can, too."

And then I'm off. Did I jump or was I pushed? Doesn't matter. I'm flying down the pavement, picking up speed. I've never gone this fast in my life. And I'm not tipping over! But then I start heading left. This isn't surprising. I do everything to the left. I'm heading straight for the car, actually a yellow pickup truck. I try to steer to the right, but I can't do anything to the right. I lean hard; maybe I'll miss it.


How long have I been lying here? Where did the kids go? My bike's front fender is twisted in. I see a small, sharp dent in the truck's grill. Mom isn't going to be happy. There are splashes of red on the handlebars. I put my hand to my mouth and touch teeth where there should be skin.

Only then does it hit me. My face is ripped open below my lip. Still, I feel calm. I slowly walk my bike back up the hill. The bent front wheel scrapes and wheezes every time it turns. My red shirt is a darker crimson by the time I get home. I walk into the garage and put my bike where it's supposed to go. Dad is bent over with a wrench. I pull on his belt loop, and he turns around.

"Dad? Don't be mad."

"Jesus Christ."

It's the first and last time I hear Dad swear. He picks me up and carries me inside. He wraps ice in a towel and holds it to my chin. For a second, he panics. I see an opening.

"Dad, I just want to stay here and watch Sesame Street. Just one show."

That snaps him out of it. We're in his MG, and the top is down. We pull up to the base hospital, and he half carries, half walks me through the doors. Someone comes in and gives me a shot. I look up at Dad. He brushes the hair out of my eyes. I'm about to get nine stitches inside my mouth and nine more on the outside to close the wreck that is now my chin. And yet I'm smiling, so much that I can feel the crusted blood cracking on my face. I'm here with Dad, and it's just the two of us. So what if I had to lose a pint of blood for it to happen? Doesn't matter. It happened. I drift away to sleep. I am happy.