Mom pulled our Rambler to the curb on a rainy fall afternoon. I sat in the passenger seat, feeling queasy.
“You see your friends?” she asked.
“Under the awning.”
Mom peered through wipers pumping back and forth. “Where are the girls?”
“Richard said to get here early so we could buy the tickets before they show up.”
“Sounds like Richard’s quite the little man,” Mom said, smiling.
Staring grimly at the movie theater, I didn’t smile.
“You all right?” Mom said.
I got out of the car without answering and ran across the sidewalk to Richard and Arthur. Thirteen years old, we’d just started the eighth grade. Tall with blonde hair, Richard already had muscles. Arthur was chubby, but beginning to fill out. I was the shortest, skinniest boy in our class.
The date was Richard’s idea. He wanted to take Marcia to a movie, but his mom wouldn’t allow it unless other kids went with them. Richard asked Arthur to be his sidekick. Arthur and I were best friends, so he invited me. I didn’t want to go because I was afraid of girls, but Arthur roped me into it by getting his girlfriend, Gerry, to set me up with her friend, Ann, the only girl in the eighth grade shorter than me. I couldn’t back out without looking like a hopeless nerd.
When I joined Richard and Arthur under the movie theater’s awning that afternoon, they were huddled together, talking in hushed tones. “Girls act like they don’t like it,” Richard said, “because they don’t want boys to think they’re bad, but secretly they want it.”
“Marcia tell you that?” Arthur said, looking worried.
“No, you idiot. You can’t talk to girls about sex. My brother told me. He said the key is to get to first base. After that, girls get so excited they’ll let you do anything. That’s why I picked this movie.” Richard pointed at the poster on the wall behind us.
I blanched when I saw it. “PSYCHO,” it blared in yellow letters under a picture of a pretty blonde woman sitting on a bed wearing nothing but her underwear.
“That woman gets stabbed in the shower,” Richard said. “It’ll scare the crap out of the girls. Gerry will probably jump in your lap. Even a doofus like you ought to make it to first base after that.”
What’s first base, I wondered just as the girls got out of Marcia’s mom’s car and ran over to us. Marcia and Gerry looked excited. Ann looked like she wanted to cry.
“Hi,” I said in a small voice. Ann mumbled something without looking at me.
Inside the theater, Ann sat to my right, staring straight ahead, her lips pinched into a tight line, her knees pressed together, her hands clenched in her lap. Arthur and Gerry sat next to her. Then Richard and Marcia.
I tried to focus on the movie to calm my nerves. The blonde woman stole some money from her job. Making her get-away on a stormy night, she stopped at a motel run by a creepy guy who lived with his mother in a spooky house on a hilltop.
I looked over at Richard. He had draped his arm over the back of Marcia’s chair. His hand rested on her shoulder. A couple minutes later Arthur lifted his arm up on the back of Gerry’s chair.
By the time the woman went to her room and started to undress, Richard’s hand was inching down the front of Marcia’s shirt; Arthur had put his hand on Gerry’s shoulder; and I hadn’t moved.
In my head, I saw all the boys in the eighth grade massed up at my homeroom desk, pointing at me, laughing, and shouting, “Doofus!”
If I put my arm up on the back of Ann’s chair, I thought, it might be enough to save face. I didn’t have the guts to touch her shoulder, but I could lie about that part. Scared witless, I took a deep breath and lifted my arm onto the chair-back. Ann flinched, sucked in her breath, and teared up, but at least she didn’t bolt out of the theater, screaming bloody murder.
Speaking of bloody murder, the blonde woman was standing in the shower by then. A shadowy figure suddenly pulled back the shower curtain and stabbed her repeatedly with a butcher knife. She screamed while shrill music bleated like an air-raid siren.
Marcia jumped into Richard’s arms. Gerry put her hands over her face. Arthur patted her on the shoulder gently and seemed to be trying to comfort her. Ann didn’t move a muscle. Neither did I.
The woman’s blood was circling the bathtub drain when a dull ache began to creep down my arm to my shoulder. It slowly got worse. By the time the shadowy figure stabbed a private detective, my arm was killing me.
I realized too late what was wrong. The movie chairs were designed for adults. Being short, I had to raise my arm above my shoulder to reach the high back. All the blood was draining out of my arm. Worse yet, I was trapped in that position. If I took my arm off the chair, Richard would tell everyone, and I’d never live it down.
I had no choice but to tough it out. I gritted my teeth as the pain increased in intensity. Be a man, I told myself, fighting back tears.
I don’t remember anything about the rest of the movie except that it lasted sixteen hours. Somewhere near the end, my arm stopped hurting. That scared me more than the excruciating pain. Gangrene had set in, I figured. They’d have to amputate.
When the movie ended and we walked out of the theater, my arm hung off my shoulder like a piece of dead meat.
Out on the street, Ann broke the world record in the fifty-yard-dash sprinting to her mom’s car.
Marcia walked away slowly, her head downcast. At her car door, she turned and glared at Richard. It was only then I noticed the red welt on his cheek.
Gerry lingered beside Arthur. Suddenly, she pecked him on the lips and ran out to her mom’s car, leaving him with a dazed smile on his face.
Cradling my right arm with my left, I crossed the sidewalk and got in our Rambler.
“How was your date?” Mom asked, smiling.
“Okay,” I muttered.
Her smile fell. “What’s wrong?” she said. “Why are you rubbing your arm?”
“Trying to get the blood to come back,” I said under my breath, clenching and unclenching my fist.
The blood came back; they didn’t have to amputate, and Ann and I avoided each other for the rest of the eighth grade.
Postscript: In The Princess of Sugar Valley’s opening scene, Riley Snyder, a skinny little boy in Gracie Sandridge’s seventh-grade class, asks her to meet him at a football game. Early in the game, he puts his arm up on her seat’s backrest. As the game progresses, she notices he seems to be in pain and guesses why. In an act of mercy, she lifts his hand over her head and drops it in his lap.
“Why’d you do that?” he says, looking stricken.
“You ought to thank me for it,” she says. “Once gangrene sets in, they have to amputate.”
The scene is autobiographical, except for the act of mercy.
Today Psycho is rated R, but the MMPA movie rating system didn’t come along until 1968. It has spawned many enthusiastic detractors. I’m not one of them. If it had existed in 1960, it would have protected an innocent thirteen-year-old boy from almost losing his right arm.