Isaiah seemed more serious than usual when he returned. He slid his lanky frame into his chair and nodded at us. It had only been a few days, but everyone was happy to have him back. “Working in small groups” was always more fun when Isaiah was there. I remained quiet, hoping to be ignored. As one of only a handful of white kids in the whole school, I knew that one wrong word could lead to an onslaught of “cracker” and “honky” comments. I squinted at the huge green chalkboard in the distance and tried to make sense of the white slashes Mrs. McMillan had made across the landscape. There were too many erasure clouds.

“Where’ve you been?” Montrell asked Isaiah, punching him in the arm. High-strung even for an 11-year-old, Montrell’s eyes were practically bugging out of his head.

Isaiah, who was two years older than the rest of us, smiled coolly and folded his arms across his chest: “Man, you guys don’t even want to know.”

“What’re you sick or something?” Montrell slid his chair back with alarm: “Shit, you probably got crabs!” But he was only kidding. We were all were terrified of crabs. I wasn’t really sure what “crabs” meant in this context, but I knew it was something awful. Like cooties, it seemed to me — girls were often accused of having them — but much, much worse.

Hell no!” Isaiah said, pushing his desk at Montrell, who was laughing uncontrollably at his own joke. Isaiah wasn’t interested in horsing around. He lowered his voice and addressed the group — me, Montrell and three other boys. “I’m not sick. But I did go to the hospital on Sunday. I’m not supposed to tell anyone what happened. It was some really bad shit and I’m not supposed to talk about it. The doctors didn’t even know what to do.”

Montrell’s eyes retreated back into their sockets. We all grew very quiet. He had our total attention.

“What happened?” We all wanted to know.

“You guys can’t tell this to anyone. I’m not even supposed to talk about it. I had to go to the hospital because … I coughed up a nut.”

Montrell and the other boys gaped at him. I felt confused — and embarrassed because I didn’t understand.

“Because I’ve been fucking the babysitter too much,” Isaiah said, lowering his voice. “Every time she comes over, we get busy. My mom’s been going out a lot lately, so the babysitter keeps coming over, and every time, she wants to bone. But if you do it too much, that’s what happens. You can cough up a nut.”

“What! Man, you can’t do it too much,” Montrell objected. He had a weird look on his face, like he couldn’t tell if he was supposed to be laughing or what.

“Trust me, you can.” Isaiah looked incredibly serious. “That’s what happens. I coughed up one of my nuts, and I held it there in my hand, bleeding — I could see the veins and everything. That shit was pulsing. It had a heartbeat.”

“You … held … your … nut … in … your …hand?”

Isaiah nodded gravely.

I had a limited understanding of anatomy, and only the vaguest ideas about sex, but still, this didn’t seem possible. Suddenly, there were a thousand questions flying at once.

“You coughed it up?”

“Your nut?”

“It had a heartbeat?”

“The babysitter?”

Montrell looked really upset. “But they’re connected to the rest of your body,” he said. “There’s like a cord there. Some string or some shit.” He groped around at his own crotch, alarmed. “They can’t come out!”

“Listen,” Isaiah said calmly: “You guys are virgins anyway. You don’t even know how to nut.” He looked at me. “Have you ever even nutted in your life?”

In fact, I hadn’t ever “nutted” in my life. It sounded scary. The other guys were always boasting about “busting” their nuts. I didn’t understand what they meant. I knew you could “bust a nut” over and over again — apparently they all loved it — so the busted nuts had to grow back. Or maybe they didn’t bust entirely. I had no idea. In any case, it sounded horrible. I kept quiet and looked down at my hands. The back of my neck felt hot.

I’m not a virgin!” Montrell said defensively. “And at least I don’t need a babysitter. My mom knows I can take care of myself.”

“Yes, you are.” Isaiah smirked at him. “You all are. Besides, she’s not my babysitter. She babysits my little brother. I’m just there when she comes over. He watches TV and we go in the back and get busy. Except we were doing it too much.” He shrugged. “Someday you guys will see. If you ever do get a girl, you might cough up a nut.”

“Yeah right. So what happened to your nut then, huh? Now you only got one?” Montrell looked at Isaiah incredulously.

“Hell no! The doctor put it back in. You think I’d come back to school with only one nut? That’d be some pussy shit.”