"My Life Made Up"
"How a Boy Grew Into a Man--Step by Step"
We're going a new way for a while. I'll be publishing my new novel,
"Conflicts of Interest: A Tangled History of America at War"
See if you can follow this.
Jesus! Got to get there! I kin be free! Just a few more miles. No one will miss me—not for a while.
I kilt him! Shouldn’t a been there. Him or me. A boy in blue. Me just tryin’ to hide. Miss Lucy too. We was alone. She took me in. Taught me. I had to leave. It’s my one chance!
I know’d the way. Been here before. I follow the tracks. I’ll get there. Got to stay hid ‘til night. No one can help me—no one to trust.
Here comes the day. I’m hungry. It’s been 2 days. Got to go wide and hide. Find me a place to stay. I’s sure someone seen me. I didn’t mean to! He got inda way. Jist a boy. Now he’s dead! I did it. For sure I got to pay—but not today! Today I’m free! Got to hide. Find some water. Get some food somehow. They stole it all. All I want is what I need. Jist a little bit to survive.
He shouldn’t a hit her! I can’t stop. I gotta git away!
I can make it. They’ll go away. Joe Dog shouldn’t have done it. He was just protecting me. Just like always after my Mister died. No one helped me—only the slaves. We’d grown up together. Now they were all gone. Nothin’ is left. They stole most all the food and ran off with the livestock. Won’t get far.
No one wanted me. I’m too old to kill or keep. It was workin’ out fine until the Union men came. I taught him what needed done—how to read and figure. We were our own little world. No one knew.
Now he’s gone. After all I gave him! We have a child. He’ll be back. He’s too black and so is his daughter. It’ll all blow over. I can do it alone. He’ll come back. We buried him good. No one will know. He shouldn’t have pushed me! Joe Dog did what he had to. Hit him with a shovel. Took his gun. Then left and ran! There was something in his eyes. A look that didn’t see what he had here. Either way, it will be over and he’ll come home—if he ain’t dead.
Mornin’s come. It’s still hot. No one’s chasin’ me. They ain’t done dying. Just stay off the roads. Follow the tracks. Keep ‘em in sight. I know’d where they go.
I’m goin’ where I want! God, I’m free! I’m free for ‘nother day. I don’t miss no one—not yet. Find me some water. I kin see the trees down in the valley. Got to chance it. Stay low. Wish I weren’t so black. Too easy to see. It’s over there. I can hear it now. Waitin’ for me. It’s cool in here.—under the trees.
Water. I made it here. Such a blessing. I can rest. Let me rest. My clothes are rags. I kin take them off. No one to tell me. No one to see. An old nigger shirt. Nothin’ but a seed sack. Pants what were left over from Mister. She gave them to me. Shoes cut down from boots. Blood in the bottom. His and mine.
Now it’s just me—me and the water—my feet on the bottom. Drop down. Let it roll over. Wash my past away. Take the dirt. Take the loss. Wash it all away.
Four days alone. They didn’t find the cold cellar against the hill. We got more’n enough—Sarah and me. That’s where I hid her when they came. Now they’re gone and so is he—my man. I don’t care. He’ll be back.
They torched the house. Set fire to the barns and the coops too. They missed the slave shacks set in the woods. It’s enough for us. Joe Dog—I can care for her—I can care for you. Please come back?
Joe Dogs not right. His name is Joseph. Jed gave him that name after he saw the look in our eyes. I don’t know why? ‘Til this day I don’t know why? It took until after he died, but we both knew it would. We were happy. That was 10 years ago. Now Sarah’s nine and she’s all I got. We’ll stay put. He’ll come back. We can pretend—just like always. No one has to know she’s mime—just like Joseph. She’ll be a good girl. Knows I’m her Mama. I’ll teach her too. She knows to pretend. Joseph will remember. He’ll come back to Sarah and me.
DRAFT-Episode One-242 Prescott Avenue
Some of you may recognize the characters of my story. They are the family and friends that gave me the raw materials of my life. Like all of you, I never considered who anyone was; until they were gone and it was damn near over.
Several years ago I started to outline what was the unique experiece of my year spent in Vietnam with the girl I met in a bar my last week at home. I followed her over and turned the war on it's end to find her.
This is our story.
I've been getting up every morning at 3am to remember and write about how I found her, how we got there, and what happened after we did. I didn't skip a step. This story is our roadmap. It may help you find yours.
Each time I wrote, I went back to what happened before. I found myself returning to those early years to understand it all and started there, at age 13. Growing up in western Pennsylvania in the 50's and 60's was different--real different. The big war was over and the world had been re-set. Nothing would ever be the same.
We were born into that demolished world. What we found were leftovers from the times before. No one wanted to go back, but the way forward was left to us to figure out, for better or for worse. This is how it happened and Pittsburgh was where it happened to me.
I've written the first 18 episodes of 24 that led me to her side, but first, I wrote the first 4 as a screenplay I named "Siagon Bride". There's no other story like it. An excerpt is posted at the end of Episode 3. Read along. I think you'll get hooked. I need your talent, your contacts, and your help to get the word out.
Enjoy--it's on me, Mark
Episode One-242 Prescott Avenue
Maybe this won’t be too good, but Mom said I should give it a try anyway.
We were taking down the wash from the back yard lines. I always wrap up the cords and put the clothes poles back under the porch into the rafters of the outside cellar.
Anyway, it’s my birthday—my 14th birthday and we were talking while she was pulling the pins on the last of the laundry and putting them in her apron, while she captured the billowing bed sheets and folded them smoothly against her body.
I was telling her how I didn’t feel the same anymore. It’s like everything had slowed down and I couldn’t get them started again. I can’t figure what happened. Why, what seemed to matter most, petered out and nothing I do works anymore.
Mom kept gathering and folding the sheets and I continued winding the knotted cotton line around my elbow and through my open palm, being careful not to snag the rope on the graying bandage that wrapped up my right arm. The stitches come off in 12 more days, but more about that later.
She carried the last basket up the back porch steps and sat down at the top. She’s got a look on her face, like she’s me, and can tell what I mean, even when I can’t tell what I mean. After I finished sliding the bent hickory poles into their racks under the porch, I came back around the house and sat down on the bottom step.
I guess if you're not me, or don’t know where I live, you can’t image the place too well and somehow that house is important to who I am and how I feel.
Our house is like a lot of other houses on Prescott Avenue, ‘cause it was built by the coal company and they look like twins, except people like my Grandfather changed them with porches and added-on rooms until you have to study them to see they’re related. It was my Grandfather’s house, he and his second wife’s—Lillian. She wasn’t my mother’s mother. No, Granddad was a Christian Scientist, and my real Grandmother died from something called consumption before she was thirty. Granddad had no other family; so Mom and the youngest boy, Uncle Ben, were put in the Children’s Home. The older boy, Buck, was hired out to local farmers for room and board. Mom stayed in the Home until she was sixteen and her father married Lillian. Mom moved back down here for a few months until Lillian forced her out. Now Mom owns the house and all of Lillian’s good china.
But that doesn’t tell you anything about the house. It’s pretty big. There’s a basement with a laundry area near the furnace and a back cold cellar for storing jelly, bread and butter pickles, and home-made root beer. Dad used to make bathtub gin down there. Then there’s the outside cellar, where the garbage and ash cans sit with a bunch of Mom’s garden stuff. Back inside, in the laundry area, there’s a commode sitting against one wall. No doors, no walls, just sitting there with the wringer washer and rinse tubs. When we were little, that’s the one we’d have to use in the daytime, so we wouldn’t track up the house. Dad still uses it, except at bedtime. And I wish he’d use it then too.
Over on the other side, between the furnace and the coal bin is a shower, stuck out there just like the toilet. I can just now reach the knobs up in the rafters to turn it on. My older brother, John, used to use it when he worked at the fish market, and later when he worked at the steel mills while he went to college. John doesn’t live here anymore. He’s married and lives somewhere in New York; neither do Jan or Jack. Jack’s in the Air Force and Jan lives at the hospital. She’s going to be a nurse.
Now, it’s just Tim and me, and Mom and Dad. Tim’s four years older than me and a pain in the ass. We’re all four years apart. I’ve heard Aunt Babe say it’s because that’s how far it is in between times when Mom and Dad agreed on anything.
The basement floods a couple of times a year. The house was moved back from Mac’s Run when they put in the football field. Mac’s Run is a shit creek; and when it rains and the sewers back up, the drains in the floor just pop up and deliver really nasty stuff. Mucking it out after the water goes down is just about the worst job there is around here.
The problem is, the creek isn’t open where it runs behind our house, or even our whole street. They boxed it in and cover it over to make the high school football field. The high school’s nowhere near around here, but there wasn’t room for a field on top of Academy Hill. Anyway, it’s a big place with a covered wooden grandstand in our corner, and steel bleachers the rest of the way around. All of it is surrounded by a 15 foot tall brick wall. It’s called Moffett Field. The football team plays there on Friday nights when they’re at home.
So just across the alley behind our back fence is the brick wall that goes all the way around Moffett Field, and Moffett Field is built over the shit creek, so that when it rains hard the water can’t get through fast enough and it backs up the sewer and floods Prescott Ave, up to our place anyway.
Our house is halfway up the block. It’s not a long street, only nineteen houses; 10 on one side and 9, plus Globe Lighting, down on the corner of Baird on our side. But that’s getting ahead of myself. I’m gonna make a map, so if anyone reads this, they can make sense of it. Mom says to write it for myself and that when I’m done I’ll know more about what happened. And then she said I should stick it away for a long time and grown up and gone from Prescott Avenue.
Anyway, the house is real tall. See, the basement sticks up out of the ground about four feet. Then there’s the main floor, with the living room, kitchen, dining room, and library. Well it’s called the library. Really the dining room is where we watch TV. We just got it. Dad brought it home from the club when they got a new one. Who cares, at least we got one now, and I don’t have to wait for Billy Carnes to call and ask me if I want to come over and watch cartoons on Saturday morning.
So after we got the TV and stuck it in the dining room, next to the kitchen, Mom moved the dining room furniture into the library. That doesn’t matter either, since there were no books in the library—never has been; just some plants and other stuff. I think when Granddad built it, it was suppose to be a library and the name stuck.
The kitchen is where most things happen. It’s big with a long metal table where we eat. Uncle Ben, my mother’s brother who spent all those years with Mom in the Children’s Home, is a carpenter, just like their father. Anyway, he just finished putting in a big window that looks out on the back porch and over the yard. He moved the backdoor to the other side of the window. Now when you come in the front door and look down the hall, you can see all the way through the house and out the back door. I’ve got a key to that door.
All this remodeling started when Mom won a new Westinghouse refrigerator at Lucky Jack’s. That’s a market at the top of Prescott and down a block across on Pittsboro Street. I think that’s just about the first new thing we’ve ever had, except now Dad’s got a new Ford Victoria, and the car belongs to Dad. See the house belongs to Mom. Granddad left it to her, so to balance things out, the car belongs to Dad. He only uses it to go to church. Dad walks to work, even in the rain. I don’t think he even likes to drive.
So, when Mom won this new refrigerator, she had Uncle Ben do a lot of work to fix up the kitchen, so now it looks pretty new—just like the Ford.
From the kitchen going the other way, you walk down the hall to the front door. On one side at the end is the living room. We don’t use it much, just when we have to say the Rosary. The Victrola’s in there so that’s where we listen to the radio. And at 7 every night, we repeat the rosary.
Dad sits in there a lot when he’s home. In the front, facing Prescott, there’s a big bay window. He’s got a chair in the bay where he does the crossword puzzles. Sometimes he just sits there smoking with the lights out, looking out the window and up the street. We put the Christmas tree in the bay window on the platform Tim & I built to fit.
Then, if you go back out in the hall and turn the other way, there are stairs that go up to the bedrooms. Up at the top of the stairs is a center hall, about 8 feet square. All the bedroom doors and the bathroom are off this hall. In the hall, against the wall between my room and Mom and Dad’s, is a little table that Granddad made. On the table is a doily, and on the doily is a statue of the Blessed Virgin with a big picture of her on the wall behind. There are other little statues they’ve picked up at St. Gregory’s. The last thing on the table is an alarm clock, with numbers that glow in the dark. Every night, Dad winds the alarm clock with a pair of pliers and sets it for me. I’m the first one up after Mom.
On the other side of the hall is a picture of Jesus with light rays shining out of His heart. Dad prays a lot here in the night before bed. He prays out loud, but quiet, and blesses himself over and over with an old scapular he wears around his neck.
Their bedroom, Mom and Dad’s, is the first door on the right at the top of the stairs at the front of the house. Tim and I used to sleep there when John and Jack were still home. I used to dream that there were little people that came out from under the bed at night while I was sleeping. They weren’t a bother; they just ran around on the floor.
The room is big with another bay window above the one in the living room. Mom has her sewing machine to the right of the bay in the little hall that leads to the attic door. That’s the only reason I go in their room anymore. I’ll get to that.
If you stand in the hall, the next door on the right is my room. It’s not much. There’s a black iron bed frame with wire springs that tells every move you make. Besides the bed, there’s a blond-colored desk where I’m writing this. The lamp is a cut out of a squirrel that Tim made in wood shop. When I sit at the desk, I can look out of two windows. The window on the right looks across the driveway to the Handel’s; that comes in, what else—handy sometimes.
If I look to the left I can see over the back porch roof and over the wall around Moffett Field. Beyond Moffett Field is the Lumber mill and behind that are the railroad tracks. When a train comes through at night, they sound their horns and it seems far away. I guess the lumber stacks block a lot of the noise. It’s kinda nice.
I have an old wooden dresser that looks like it goes with a set, but it’s the only piece like it we got. Next to the dresser is a crib. No one’s in it this week. My Mom takes in babies that are up for adoption. They don’t bother me like they do Dad when they cry, and Mom comes right away, anyway. The Sister’s of Charity bring them to the house right after they’re born and Mom takes care of them until they’re placed. Sometimes it’s just a couple of days; sometimes it's months. We miss those kids when they leave, but there’s always another one in a week or two.
On the last wall, the same one with the door, are cabinets for books. It has a set of Collier’s Encyclopedias’, that have answered more questions for me than they’re suppose to, plus a lot of other books, like Lowell Thomas’ ‘Travels in Asia’, and ‘KonTiki’. There are about 200 books. I’ve read most. They belonged to my Granddad. He died when I was two. I remember him pushing my stroller up the cut stone stairs to St. Celeste Park, and that’s all. He went to visit Uncle Buck in California, went to bed the night he arrived, and never woke up. They shipped his body home by train. Now he’s buried in St. Celeste Park. He was a Calvary soldier in the Spanish American war in Cuba. We’ve got his sword. That’s about it for my room.
Next to me is the bathroom. It also looks out the back toward Moffett Field from a pair if high windows. Sitting in there waiting for something to happen; Mom’s not a very good cook, I’ve seen a lot of different things in the linoleum. It’s kinda musty yellow with black splotches all over it. My favorite is the Italian muscleman with a big handle bar moustache. He’s cut off at the waist and looks real pissed, like he’s staring down at who ever cut him off. I’ve searched in that direction, but never come up with anyone else to blame. I’ve spent a lot of time in the bathroom this year, for a lot of different reasons.
On the other side of the bathroom is Tim’s room. His one window looks out back too, but the side window looks out at Shears’ house, about three feet away. You can hear their Grandfather clock strike inside his room. He keeps his door shut, and I’m not allowed in there. I don’t care; he’s a surly SOB. I used to sleep there when I was little, by myself. It’s a spooky room. There a cubby hole up against the ceiling with a drape across it that goes into a space above a little hall that leads into what’s called Jan’s room. I’ve seen that drape move in the middle of the night.
Granddad built it for her; she was the only girl of the five of us kids. It’s built over the library on the front street. I remember hiding under her vanity table when things got rough when I was little. Now it’s called the sewing room too, but like I told you, the sewing machine is still in Mom’s room. I think she’s still waiting to see if Jan comes back. So there’s her bed and all her furniture, and the violin she used to play. I sometimes go in there and just lie down when I need to think.
That only leaves the attic. That’s my most favorite room in the whole house. It’s full of Granddad’s stuff, and it’s different.
Two steps, in the back hall of Mom and Dad’s room and beyond the Singer Sewer, lead up to a door that swings out. So you have to step back down to get it open. It’s dry and it smells good. I suppose it’s the mothballs in the bags that hang across a pole under the eves, or it could be the canvas from the duffel bag and hammock that Granddad used in the war.
It’s just dry. The basement oozes, drips and sometimes gurgles water, but the attic is sunny and dusty dry. It makes you lick your lips.
It’s a big room that covers the whole top of the house. The house has a mansard roof and that’s why all around the edge there’s a tunnel that goes behind the workbench and the walls. Course the walls are just wood studs with wires, heat ducts, and full of rock wool so it isn’t easy getting inside. Granddad was building it went he went away and died. I have to crawl over the tool chest beside the chimney stack to get in there. There are a couple of tiny windows at the end of each row.
Most of his tools are still there, in the drawers under the workbenches and hung on nails along the wall. I say most, because Dad gave a bunch of them away to a drinking buddy without telling Mom. I must have been too little to remember that fight in particular, but it must have been bad. In Mom’s eyes, Granddad was everything. My Dad doesn’t even come close.
But Dad likes the attic. In the football season, he always watches the game from a dormer window facing the field. No matter the weather, he’ll raise up the bottom sash and the pig iron balances clunk against the open frame. He sits there on an old step stool, that Granddad made, with a couple of Iron City’s and watches the game alone. If I was lucky and snuck in with the band, or crawled over the fence behind the bleachers, I can look back and see the cigarette smoke pouring out that window. You can’t see him; he never turns on the lights, just the bottle of Iron City sitting on the window sill and the smoke rising out the window.
There are a lot of windows in the attic. The one Dad sits at to watch the game and the one just like it across the room towards the front street; those plus two each over the workbenches on either side of the chimney. Next to the chimney in the flat part of the roof is a trap door. I remember I used to think that’s how the Easter Bunny got in the house to hide baskets. Dad used to say he was gonna wait up with a shotgun and we’d have rabbit stew for Easter dinner. He didn’t have a gun, so I never worried at dinner time.
The rest of the attic is lined up with old trunks filled with Granddad’s stuff, old furniture and the train platform Tim and I haul down at Christmas. There’s more little things in the drawers and stuffed under the eves, plus his sword. I tried to cut down the center support with it when I was eight, but only nicked it up good. That’s about it. I don’t know why it’s so special and why I can’t wait for everyone to leave, so I can go back up to this “somewhere else” place in the house.
The house sits midway down the street on the left hand side standing looking down from Pittsboro Street. That oughta give you some kind of picture. The rest of the houses and who lived in them should come up as I remember what happened.
Mom told me to think of the last time I felt like myself, when everything was like it should be. I told her it was last year on my birthday—my 13th birthday, that things seemed pretty much like they always had. I was just about to graduate from the eighth grade. Man, was I glad to finally make it into my teens and no one could call me a kid anymore. She said to write it down as I remembered it, just the way it comes to me and that will tell me what’s true—for me.
The day started out like every weekday and Saturday. I woke up at 4:30 to take my papers. Mom got me up. I don’t know when she gets up, but she’s always first and the alarm in the hall mostly never goes off. It’s just before first light. The rain has let up, but the clouds are still low and heavy.
When I got downstairs to the kitchen the lights were all on and it’s bright. You can’t see out the big picture window across the table to the backyard. It’s like a mirror and I watch Mom moving back and forth at the stove behind me making hot chocolate and toast. I eat breakfast when I get back; this is just to get me started.
The rain has cooled things down and Mom’s wearing her long quilted robe. She made it from and old blanket and new yellow material with ivy and little flowers printed on it. I’m just a little taller than Mom, and I’m 5-4. Her hair is almost black, but you can see some brown, and lately some white streaks like she’s wiped her hand through her hair after she’s painted the fence at the bottom of the yard, next to the alley. Mom’s face is clear. She holds her jaw out and her lips are small and tight. She always looks pretty determined, but her eyes are full of smiles; particularly first thing in the morning when no one but me and her are up. After she sets down the coca, and while I’m dunking the toast she asks,
“Are you all set? Do you have enough tickets?”
“I’ve got three dollars’ worth, and Fr. Omar always hands out more once we get there.”
“He’ll not be handin’ out that many to you older boys. It’s up to you to see to yourselves.”
I knew she was right. All this last year, the nuns and priests never let up on their stories about how things are gonna change when we graduate and go across the street to the public high school. It’s only across the street, but the kids there may have just as well come from Mars; or in Sister Maries Claire’s mind, from Hell itself. I knew it wasn’t true and I had three months before it finally happened.
I had friends who went to public school and they were just like me; but when you looked over there at lunch time there were so many big kids—kids in jeans with greasy haircuts. It looks more like a prison yard than school.
“Mark, don’t worry, Tim’s not going and instead of buying you new socks and underwear this year, I’m going to give you the money. You decide if you need the clothes or want to spend it on the picnic.”
With that she took $5 dollars awkwardly out of her change purse and handed it to me with a small smile. Besides the 35 cents I got for washing the kitchen floor every Saturday morning, this is the only cash money she’s ever given me. Dad’s never given me a cent except to run up to Lucky Jacks and buy him cigarettes. Mom would spot me a loan if I needed something for sure and didn’t have the money in my iron bank, but I always paid her back.
“You know I don’t believe in givin’ anyone cash for a present, but you may need it.”
“It’s your birthday and graduation present together. Don’t lose it, and you don’t have to spend it either.”
“Thanks Mom, I’ll never spend eight bucks in one day. I’ll keep yours for somethin’ special.” I said as I jammed the money down into my old jeans.
“I better get going. I want to get there early to get some space to fold my papers.”
“Here, take this umbrella in case it starts raining again.”
“Mom, I can’t carry an umbrella and deliver papers.”
“Don’t take long. We’ve got to be up at the train station by 8:30.”
As I push open the front door, the morning air was sucked in around me. It felt like a fine spray from the hose. Christ, it was good to be out. I jumped down the few steps to the street and ran as fast as I could up to the end of the block to Marie’s Diner. As I rounded the corner, the cars at the red light on top of the hill at Main Street had just gotten the green and took off in pairs charging down Pittsboro towards me. Their wheels shot up water as they swept by.
I continued up Pittsboro Street to Main then went right a couple of blocks to the Tribune-Review building. Really, you have to turn down the block before the paper and cut up the alley between the pool hall and the show to get to the rear door that leads down to the press room where I pick up my papers. My Dad and I both work for the Tribune.
The machine smell of the presses and ink rolls up the long flight of wooden steps that leads down to the half lit cage in bottom of the basement. Getting back up those stairs hauling two canvas bags stuffed with 82 folded papers is the worst part of the whole route. Being watched by a half dozen guys ready to laugh their ass off if you give up and carry one bag at a time, gives you the extra kick to make it.
This is Friday, so the paper’s light — maybe 20 pages and I’m not thinking about anything but getting my papers and making tracks. There’re only three other guys down there, and Lou of course. He’s laid stretched out on the stacks with the radio playing low, trying to catch some sleep. I don’t say too much in case he’s really asleep. Lou can be awful touchy, something happened to him in Korea. I call out my number,
He turns his head in his hands and looks through the wire wall that separates him from us.
“Conroy!” he shouts back with satisfaction.
Jumping down, he checks the back bench and lifts a half stack and slides it across the metal table and under the raised wire window.
“Eighty-two for R-28!”
With that he slaps the second half on the metal folding table and pushes them towards me. Christ, he’s sober and happy both. Sometimes you have to crawl through the gate, count out your own papers, and push them back through, all very quietly so you don’t wake him. Usually the pressmen have a couple of drinks after their shift, if anyone leaves a bottle out, Lou’ll find it.
Not today. When Lou’s happy, he shines with efficiency, like he knows you’re thinking he’s gonna screw up the count. So you know he’s done it in the early morning two or three times before any of these wise-ass kids were awake. Now he’s sure of himself and waits for me to confirm the count. It makes a difference. I pay five point one cents for each one and only make one point nine for myself.
“Eighty-Two Lou, you got it.”
He folds his arms in triumph and leans back on his dwindling bed of news. When he’s wrong on the high side, you keep your mouth shut, maybe take one or two extras for yourself, and slide the others down to the end of the table where he can’t see. If he’s low, you take what you need from the hidden pile. Everybody does the same thing. You never tell Lou he shorted you.
He’s a big man, but it’s not just his size that’s scary. It’s the way he takes it if you tell him he’s wrong. You only do that once. You could be there an extra half hour while he calls you everything in the book and how you’re trying to cheat him and get him fired. Once I even saw him cry. He threw up his hands and walked into the darkness of the alleys between the presses. We waited a while, then decided just to count out our own carefully and get the hell out of there. Next day he was fine.
I need to tell you that Lou lives on Prescott Ave towards the end of the block on the other side at his parents, the Fulton’s. I never see him there, he sleeps through the day.
Today, Lou’s OK, and I decide not to fold my papers there. The rain has picked up, and folded papers would bulge out the bag and the flap can’t cover them all. Some’ll get wet. Laying flat against each other I can take them out one at a time, fold them two or three times, depending on how far they gotta go air express and give them a pitch.
Unlike a lot of the guys, I like the morning. No, I love the morning. So when I climb back up the steps and the spring loaded wooden door slaps shut behind me, I begin the best part of my day; alone, walking up and down the hills of town, watching while things begin again. I can’t tell you how often I see the same people doing the same thing at the same time every day; even days like this, when it’s raining.
I have about a half mile to walk before I make my first delivery, most of the way down Potterman, which is one-way in the other direction from Pittsboro Street, the next block over. I watch for the same cars and delivery trucks to pass me and they do. Today with the heavy clouds and rain it’s still dark enough for them to have their lights on, so it’s hard to pick up on who I’m seeing; but even with the glare off the pavement most of my guesses are right. The guys in the delivery trucks all wave, the guys going to work never do. They’re the same faces, but they never look at me.
Coming across Maple, I’m only a block from St. Celeste Street where my route begins. Only one short block that ends at the steps my Granddad pushed me up. There are a couple of row houses across from The Salvation Army. It’s coming down harder now. A couple of old men are crouching in the doorway at the back, waiting for free coffee and donuts at six. They don’t see me. Sometimes I don’t think they’re looking at me or anything else. Bundled up in their sweaters and overcoats, with stained grey serge pants, they just stare nowhere.
Mrs. Riley’s out on her porch, waiting for me, like most mornings. In her robe with a scarf tying up her hair, she sees me coming and leans over the flower box as I hand up her paper.
“Take this umbrella, but you got to have it back here by eight.”
“Thanks, but I better not.” I reply.
Even if it weren’t a see-thru one with daisies, I wouldn’t take it, even though I will pass by here again on my way up the hill, through the park to school. The train stations’ only a block past the park gate at the top.
I double back onto Potterman again and make my rounds down the side streets; first down one side then back out the other. I go down long blocks that start out with stores and bars, then in and out of small frame houses, one out on the street and more often than not, another, the “1/2” address that sits back against the alley. From there, finally through a maze of tar-paper shingled houses that have grown together and are now cut-up into 3 or 4 apartments where the people who don’t speak English live. I don’t know who reads the paper, but someone does—almost every family gets one.
Back out on Pittsboro Street, I walk over to Myron’s Gulf station on the point. Mike’s a big guy with black wavy hair. He gives me a donut and tells me a dirty joke. At least I think it’s a dirty joke, from the way he laughs. He’s blowing powder sugar out with the words and thru his thick mustache. I don’t understand most of what he says or any of the story. Mike’s station sits at the point, where Pittsboro and Potterman come together and turn into a two-way. I’m almost to the bottom of the hill where Mac’s Run cuts under Pittsboro Street. On either side of the creek—real close to the edge—set two family bars: “Delano’s” and what else—“The Family Bar”. Both places are good for tips on Saturday. When I collect, guys at the bar feed me nickels to slug the juke box. I can get some pickled eggs if I’m hungry. They like me.
But now it’s all uphill. That’s why I don’t use my bike to take papers. To make any time, I have to cross some ditches and railroad tracks and go through a stretch of woods to get to the top. Up there are some nice homes, brick mostly, with round white pillars and lots of lattice covered in vines and flowers. I take a paper to the Mayor’s house. It’s always so quiet in there when I go collecting. They’re nice people, but they don’t say much.
Finally I reach the top, turn around and start back out to Pittsboro Street and head for home. I’ve only got 18-20 papers left, and most of these go to stores in the new shopping center. My biggest customer is the Thorofare Market that takes 8 papers every Thursday when their big ad runs. They tape them on the windows leading to the door. But that’s not today; today’s my birthday and Clyde said he had something for me and not to leave until I found him.
Clyde’s a friend of mine who cleans up the parking lot. He used to help the old lady who lived here when it was called the “cow field”; just a rundown old gray house up in the corner with an fallin’ down barn and some sheds. Us kids use to come here to catch snakes and crayfish in the little stream that ran from a spring near her house. It still pops up through the asphalt after a heavy rain. The old lady died and they built this shopping center; and Clyde stayed on to take care of it too.
I’m walking across the top half stuffing folded papers into the handles of the glass doors when I see Clyde with his wheelbarrow and push broom slowly walking out between Grant’s and the Thorofare. Clyde never hurries and always seems to be done. He dresses the same, clodhoppers laced up and tied double at the top; jeans tucked into his boots, a navy pea coat opened in the summer and closed in the winter with the collar pulled up and a black knit hat stretched over his head. That, a pair of worn gloves and a chew of tobacco, pretty much describes Clyde.
He doesn’t talk much and when he does, he’s quiet. Clyde smiles a lot and most mornings we wave to each other without saying a word. Today he sees me and parks his wheel barrow next to the sidewalk, sits down on the curb and waits for me to catch up.
When I do, I sit next to him. The rain has stopped and there’s some bright yellow patches mixed in with the heavy grey clouds.
“Morning Clyde!’ That’s my usual greeting.
“Mornin’ Mark.” He replies.
We both wait a moment while he fishes in the pocket of his pea coat.
“I got you something.” He says as he hands me a brown sack tied up with string. “It tain’t much, but today’s a real special day for you, boy.”
“Thanks Clyde”, I respond wondering what he means and what’s in the bag; must be a couple of things—the way it lays.
“Go on, open it up.”
With as much respect as I can show, I slip off the brown twine and reach in and pull out a neatly folded paper wrapped packet, about 4 X 4. When I start to open it I see the painted points of different colored feathers that form an Indian war bonnet tipped in white. I’d never seen anything like it. Nobody had ever given me something so new and neat—and perfect.
“Than-n-nks…Clyde.” I stammered.
“No need, when a boy turns thirteen he needs to know it, that’s all. Look what else’s in there”
I reached in and my fingers wrapped around a solid bar of antler and steel.
“That’s the knife what whittled your feather. It’s yours, they’re both yours.”
I looked up at him sitting there next to me with his huge hands draped off his knees and a serious look on his face.
“You’re 13 boy—soon a man. You got everything it takes to make a good one. Hold onto that feather, and when it gits rough it’ll calm you down so’s you can think for yourself. ‘Member that.”
I sat still, what he said sounded important, so I just listened.
“Now git back to your papers; you’re gonna be late for school.”
Clyde stood and lifted the handles of his wheel barrow and started off across the lot. I just stood there looking after him. After he had gone maybe 20 paces, he stopped and glanced back over his shoulder. A big grin broke out on his face. I smiled back and inside, a thrill I had never felt broke over me. I held the feather high over my head, let out a whoop and ran off toward the tunnel under the tracks.
“You need to know it.” I repeated over and over to myself. Know what? I wondered as I emerged from the other end of the tunnel.
“Know what?” I questioned myself again. “Calm me down—Why!?”
I knew I had a lot to learn and nobody seemed in a big hurry to tell me. In fact, it seemed like the rest of the world was playing a game of 20 questions; or with me more like 200, or 2,000. Everyone, my friends, my family and my teachers, were leaving hints for me like a trail of bread crumbs to follow, but I was too dumb to figure it all out. I knew the questions; like girls and hair on other places than my head. How come they looked and acted so different? Why did I get so bothered around them anymore? They were all growing up so fast, everyone it seemed, but me. Maybe 13 will be different for me too?
And money—it always seemed like you needed more than you had. What would happen to me if Mom and Dad died? They had closed the old orphanage where Mom had lived. If they stayed alive, I could stay at home ‘til I got out of school. If nothing occurred to me by then, I could become a priest and that would take care of the other problem too. Priests didn’t seem to worry about girls and nobody bothered them about it. Both John and Jack spent high school at St. Gregory’s Prep. No girls there. I wondered if they felt the same as me way back then.
As I climbed the stairs of the Welty apartments, my last delivery, the sky closed up again and I wondered more about the rest of today. It was Friday, so Dad had to work. He wouldn’t go on a school picnic anyway. Mom and me’d walk up to the school and they’d get a parade of Mick’s organized for the two block march down to the train station. At last, the school picnic at Kennywood would signal the real end of my grade school career, even though we didn’t graduate until next Wednesday.
Leaving the apartment building, I again crossed Pittsboro Street on over to Erania Ave. It ran parallel to Prescott Avenue on the other side of Moffett Field. In a half a block is an alley that borders the third side of the football field and leads back to the backalley behind our house. On this end of the first alley, sits “The Club”. It’s where Dad and his friends hang out. They call it the Sportsman’s Club. I don’t know why my Dad belongs—he doesn’t have a gun and I never heard of him hunting anything. It’s just a place for him to go most nights and all weekend to drink and get drunk. I’d burn the place down if I had the guts, but then he’d just walk a few more blocks up to the Hose House.
Dad used to be a volunteer fireman, but he’s too old now. Dad’s drinking ruins everything, but at least he’s not as bad as Uncle Joe—his younger brother. They live right next door to the Club. Even the Tribune-Review couldn’t put up with Uncle Joe’s drinking. He doesn’t work there anymore and sometimes I see him in the morning sitting on the curb or lying passed out on someone’s lawn nearby on my way home. I go around him. I don’t want him to see me and call me out.
No one sees me today, ‘cause no ones out yet. It’s just a little after seven when I come through our back gate and up the porch steps into the kitchen. It’s still dark from the low thick clouds, but it’s not raining. Please don’t let it rain, not today.
“Hi Mom” I say as I hang my paper bag on the clothes rack.
He grunts a reply in between supping up egg yoke with a piece of toast in one hand and drinking coffee from the big mug Mom got him. One side says “Good Morning Dear”, and the other says, “Good Morning You Old Grouch”. I don’t think either one of them pays attention to which way it faces anymore.
Mom has eaten after I first left and before anyone else got up. Now she stays up from the table and cooks breakfast for everyone else.
“Bacon and eggs?”
“Yeah, smash ‘em. I’ll get my juice.”
I walk over to the refrigerator and pour a cheese jar full of grape juice. We have two sizes of glasses, cheese jars and jelly jars. The good dishes came out of boxes of Duz, the rest were won a carnival. The grape juice feels like a sweet bracing tonic as I sip it slowly between my teeth.
“Close the ice box door!” Dad barks.
I shut it as he finishes wiping up his plate with the bread. I sit on my fathers left with my back to the window. Dad’s not much for talking at the table. He blesses himself with his soiled scapular and gets up from the table. Mom goes down the cellar steps and brings back a paper bag full of his work clothes. Dad reaches up and takes down his well-worn and sweat-stained dress hat off the refrigerator and adjusts it on his head. All this is done silently and it’s done the same way every morning, no matter what had happened the night before.
“Take your umbrella, David.” Mom says.
He unhooks it from the peg inside the cellar door and lights a Pall Mall before he steps back into the kitchen for the departing kiss. Mom and he kiss just two times a day; when he leaves for work, and when he comes home—if he’s on time. Nothing big, but they never seem to forget. Dad and she walk down the hall to the front door. He opens it and walks out into the wet morning and up the street retracing my earlier path to the Tribune.
As Mom shuts the door she turns and leans forward on the newel post and calls upstairs.
“Tim! It’s past seven; you’re going to be late!”
All this time I’ve been finishing making my breakfast. I want to be out the door before Tim gets down. It’s like eating next to a mange old dog with rabies. He just sits at his place at the table with a pained expression on his face and growls at any intrusion. Tim’s a senior and graduates this year. He’s already joined the Air Force, and in a few weeks he’ll be gone. I don’t think I’ll miss him much.
Mom comes back to the kitchen, pours herself some tea, and sits down across for me and smiles.
“Happy Birthday, Mark.”
Her eyes wrinkle at the corners and her lips purse like a teachers, but not with the hesitant expectation of judgment. Her look is all together different. I can tell she’s pleased with me.
“Wait ‘til I show you what Clyde got me!”
I interrupt, lifting myself off the chipped wooden chair. In two steps, I’m back at the clothes rack digging into my paper bag. My hand closes first on the wooden feather; the many coats of shellac make it smooth, almost soft. Without understanding why, I let go of it and instead pull out the cool and gleaming penknife.
“See! The blade’s not longer than the palm of my hand. Can I carry it?”
Mom’s face took on a slightly different cast as her bottom jaw slid slowly out in decision. After a second, I could tell the argument had been decided in my favor.
“Just be careful with it and don’t let it wear a hole in your pants pocket.”
“I won’t, honest.”
“You better get dressed and go see how the Handel’s are coming along. Tell Missus I’ll bring the silverware. I can’t abide those new plastic knives and forks.”
“I will.” I answer as I take the front hall steps three at a time.
At the top I meet Tim, hands in his bathrobe, determinedly launched from his bedroom, his face contorted in the pained recognition of a new day.
“Morning Tim.” It gets to him.
“Uh-h-h.” He grunts and scowls, his hair sticking out in great cowlicks.
Down the stairs he goes, leaving me leaving me behind in contempt. Holding my breath, I plunge into the bathroom and open the casement window wide to air it out. Without taking my next breath, I exit, leaving the door open; turn to the left and escape uncontaminated into my own bedroom. I know it sounds nuts, but I can’t stand my fathers’ smell. Between the cigarette smoke and the other gases he leaves behind, I wanna choke.
In my room, over the kitchen, it’s better. It’s mine. I always leave a window cracked open and in the winter I close off the register so the heat isn’t lost. The register connects to the one in the kitchen, and I’ve often learned my fate lying on the floor with my head pressed against it. Nothing today but the usual breakfast noises.
I strip off my old jeans and sweatshirt and hang them on the inside of the closet doors, awaiting tomorrow. Then I remember the window next to the Handel’s. Ever since last year it’s been the policy of both families to keep the blinds down in the mornings and at night. Hank and I still talk across the driveway out the window, but Kitt’s growing up fast for eleven and that’s why the blind stays down.
Anyway, I reach from the side and pull it down. With no sun, the room really gets dark, and I can hear big fat drops of rain hitting the canvas awning over the back stairs.
“Jezee, it can’t rain today!”
This was gonna be one school picnic when I wouldn’t have to spend my time walking around dodging all the other guys because I’m out of free tickets and don’t have any money to spend. Anyway, Rosemary’s promised to ride with me on the Caterpillar with the roof closed. Thinking of this, my breath catches and my insides churn. It’s over in a second, but I get this way every time I think about being with a girl. It’s the same feeling I have when there’s three men on base and my turn at bat, or when Sister calls on me in class to read poetry.
Back in the vented bathroom, standing in my jockey shorts, I know I’m ready for today. Not like last summer when Billy wrapped the clubhouse in old canvas to make it pitch black inside ‘cause Rosemary said she’d take off all her clothes with me inside if I would too. I remember sitting there praying she’d chicken out. She did, and I always thought if I wished the other way, things would have turned out better. But not today; today I wanted to graduate in more ways than one. Definitely a hug and a rub; maybe a kiss too, lots of them, like Allen Ladd in the movies.
I ran the shower until the steam started to roll out the window, then reached into the back of the linen closet where the Epsom salts and Witch Hazel were kept, until I found the old box marked “Ace Bandages”. I pulled it out and opened the lid. Inside were two Pall Malls, fresh and unwrinkled with some kitchen matches. In the shower was the only place in the house I could smoke and not get caught. Nobody knows I smoke, not even any of the kids. I only smoke when I’m alone, like now, or walking through the park on the way to school.
In the shower, you just put your back to the water so Mom doesn’t hear it hitting the tub and know you’re not in it. You have to keep the hand with the cigarette hanging off the shower rod and your head above the stream. That way you can keep everything pretty dry ‘til you’re done. Then you douse it, wad up the paper and push everything down the drain with your toes.
I finish and pull back the shower curtain to dry off. In the tub, I’m raised 4 to 5 inches off the floor facing the sink and the mirrored medicine cabinet over it. As I dry myself, the steam evaporates from the mirror and I can see my body coming into focus.
I’m like most kids my age except I don’t have any hair—not where it counts, anyway. I keep waiting for it and it better get here before next September and I have to take swimming classes at the high school in the raw. I’m white, not just pale. White with some shades of pink here and there. Even my nipples are white, or almost. I hate it. The guys that are dark can get a tan and look even better. I burn—three or four times in a summer. Then I peel. Then I burn again.
I’m skinny, some muscles, but not a lot. My hair on my head is what some lady called it on my paper route, “strawberry blond”. At least that’s better than the redhead I started out to be.
I’m tall, that’s the biggest thing in my favor. Other guys may have pubic hair, but most of them are shorter than me. My face has some leftover freckles, but they’re starting to fade. No pimples today—that’s good. I don’t often get them, but when I do, they sit out on my nose like a bomb growing and waiting to burst all over someone.
After brushing my teeth and combing my hair into what I call a modified Princeton ‘cause it’s too long to look like a real one, and too wavy anyway, I flush the john before I lift the lid to pee. My Dad spits into the toilet in the morning. My Dad spits everywhere. By the end of the day he’ll have two or three handkerchiefs wadded and glued shut with his hockers. They get washed with his work clothes—alone. Seeing that first thing in the morning can make me sick.
I play a game when I pee. I try to judge how bad I have to go, and then time the second flush so the last drop hits the bowl as the swirling foam makes its exit. It cuts down on the noise and I’m pretty good at it.
In my room I take out the clothes I’ve been saving to wear today. Black pants with a pink and black belt; a real cool green tee shirt with a boat collar, and my Eisenhower jacket. It’s a real one from the war. It fits and it’s the neatest thing I got. The only flaws in the outfit are my shoes. I’ve only got two pairs; my clodhoppers for play and taking my papers, and my dress shoes for school and church. There’s no hope for the clodhoppers. The strings have been busted and retied so many times that they start three holes from the bottom and end two holes from the top.
I choose my dress shoes. If they were only loafers they’d be OK. I wanted to buy some white high top Keds, but they were four dollars and that would have only left me free tickets for the rides. If the stores opened early, I would’ve taken Mom’s five dollars and bought them. They don’t, so I lace up my dress shoes, check my pockets to make sure I’ve got my money. I half slide down the stair carpet on my soles, tipping them forward just enough that carry me like a skier down the rug runner.
“Mom, I’m goin’! I’ll be back when the Handel’s are ready to go.”
Hank is my best friend, but only since last year when they moved in next door. Before that it was Billy Carnes. They’re Catholic and Hank and I are in the same grade, so we see each other all day. Their house is a little bigger than ours ‘cause it’s a duplex and they live upstairs, above Pegg’s, with a front porch that goes all the way across the front of the house. Our steps are half as wide, but in the summer—after dinner, the grown-ups all gather there and talk while we kids play games under the street lights.
I rap on the front door. There are little diamond windows in the door that step up from one side to the other with a curtain across them. Pooch barks and then I hear my knock returned from the other side. I look up to the highest window to see who I know will be there, Mr. H. He’s looking down at me and wearing one of his crazy faces with a cigarette clenched tightly in his teeth and his lips pulled back in a wild grin.
“Paddy, me boy!” He greets me as he opens the door. He thinks I look Irish, so I’m Paddy to him.
The dogs, Pooch and Babe, jump up on my legs to get their pets. Once administered, Babe backs down, turns, and leads Pooch up the stairs to the kitchen. Mr. Handel has withdrawn the cigarette and stands by me blowing the smoke high into the ceiling off his lower lip. I take off my shoes—no shoes are worn by us kids inside the Handel house. Sometimes, in the winter, the inside hall looks like a rummage sale with all the boots, shoes, coats, and gloves heaped high on and against the clothes rack.
“Do you think it’s gonna rain?” He asks as he claps me on the shoulder and leads me down the hall, kneading my neck all the while.
“Of course it’s not going to rain, Dad.” Answers his wife Dorothy, “It wouldn’t dare rain on a Catholic School picnic.”
“Naw!” I back her up. “It always looks like this in the morning. It’ll clear by the time we get there. Anyway, I’ll bet it’s not even cloudy in Pittsburgh.”
“I’m not wearin’ my rubbers to the picnic, Mom.”
Hank resolves the decision he knows his Mom will pose. He and Kitt and Mary and Mike are still eating breakfast. They all go to St. Benedicts, so they’re all going to the picnic.
“Well I’m going to pack them just the same. Mark, sit down and have some cereal.”
“Thanks Mrs. H. I’ve already eaten. Mom sent me over to see when you’d be ready.”
“Tell her by 7:30, but sit down and have some coca at least.”
Now coca is a different story than cereal. Since all six of them are still eating at the table, I take my coca into the den which is the same size as the kitchen and connected by a big doorway. I take a seat on the maple couch and watch as they eat. There’s no light on in the den and it’s still dark outside, so the fly-specked painted chandelier is on in the kitchen. It reminds me of watching a play at school and sitting a ways off in the dark.
Mr. H sells grease and oil to the factories around Pittsburgh and into West Virginia. Sometimes he stays overnight on the road, and when he does he takes the next day or two off and spends it at home tending his guinea pigs. The chandelier is a barometer of how bad the fly’s are. She got it at a church rummage sale and it looked like brass, but when she tried to polish it up, all the tarnish spots got bigger instead of smaller. Not one to give up, she decided to paint it the same color as the kitchen walls—pale green. No one really likes it but the flies. They love it, and since it’s high up over the kitchen table, the problem’s always getting worse.
Not much gets washed on a regular basis at the Handel’s. Mrs. H has terrible headaches that make her faint. We’ll be playing or reading comic books and she’ll walk into the room and weakly announce she’s gonna go. The closest one grabs her as she starts to sink and lowers her to the floor so she doesn’t hit anything.
Once, when no one else was home, she fell between the sink and the refrigerator. They had a time getting her out. Most times though, she’ll float down to the floor and lay there for awhile ‘til she comes around. No one gets upset ‘cause it happens all the time. When Mr. H is feeling ornery, he’ll get some water and pat her head and face and try to make her laugh. She says she can hear every thing that’s going on when she’s out, she just can’t move.
The doctors say it low sugar; so Mister bought her a case of Juju-Bees to take like medicine. There are Juju-Bees all over the house. Anyway, these fainting spells are the reason the housework doesn’t get done too regular.
The girls, Bridgett, who they called Kitten when she was little, but now she’s shortened to Kitt by herself, at 11; and Mary, 9 are supposed to help take up the slack. I guess they do, but the tide against them is pretty high and wide. They keep up with the dishes mostly. But doin’ the wash they just pick the family favorites out of all the piles and leave the rest. Some of the clothes in the laundry pile on the cellar floor have been buried so long they probably don’t fit anyone anymore.
As I watch the show at the kitchen table, I notice Kitt’s really not the same dumpy oversized kid she’d always seemed to me. Under her sweatshirts and blouses I can pick out two points where they weren’t before. Right away, with that thought in my head, my heart pounds a few quick solid beats. She smells different too; like fresh washed hair all the time.
Mary’s a sweet kid. I think she has a crush on me. She’s always watching me and giggling. She’s smart too, always bringing home prizes from the nuns at school; you know, like rosary beads and white missals for doin’ her work so well,
Mike is the youngest. He’s about five with the biggest head I’ve ever seen on a kid. And that head is full of all kinds of crazy ideas. Mike plays make believe, all day—every day. You can hear him all over the house talking with his make believe buddies who are always involved in daring escapes and attacks with pirates or army men. Davy Crockett’s his main man these days and Mike wears a coonskin cap everywhere but to church, where he carries it.
That leaves Hank—my buddy. Hank is hunched over his cereal, his head damn near in the bowl. He’s a little bit like Tim in the morning, but he gets over it a lot quicker. When he’s fully awake, he’s like—well, like my real brother. We get along even when we’re fighting. Both of us know it’ll be over soon and we’ll be best friends again.
Like last winter, when we were sliding down the hill on our backs next to Rt. 30. We were out hiking a couple of miles east of town, so we didn’t have our sleds with us. There was this hill where they had cut the road thru and the slope down to the pavement was steep, just like a ski slope and covered in fresh snow. At the bottom, the snowplow had pushed up a bank of snow that would stop you when you hit it, instead of you sliding out onto the road in front of the cars. So, we’d pull our hoods up over our heads and fall backwards and slide down the hill. We did that a couple of times and had a pretty fast groove packed into the snow. It was my turn and Hank had stayed at the bottom. I think he’s gotten tired of this and wants to move on. I pushed off the top for one last fast slide. While I’m headed down backwards, Hank puts this chunk of packed snow and ice the plow had kicked up, at the end of the run.
SMACK! I hit the iceberg with the back of my head. I laid there dazed, but I could hear him hooting over me at a safe distance. I lay still with my eyes closed. It’s not too hard to pretend I’m hurt. Slowly his laughter spreads out until I can hear the doubt in it. He sneaks up on me, curiously throwing loose snow in my face. Its freezing and I groan. He takes a few cautious steps forward and then something happens neither of us had counted on. A car stopped on the other side of the road. The driver gets out and hollers,
“What’s the matter?! He get hit!?”
Hank is desperate. He throws himself down at my side and grabs my shoulders, shaking them.
“C’mon Mark, get up! You’re OK. Get up! C’mon, we gotta get outta here!”
I wait until his face is directly over mine then scoop up some snow in my hand laying outstretched at my side.
“Hank?” I whisper.
And I stuff a handful down the back of his shirt and pull him over on his back. An idiotic laugh burst through his shock. Then a second and third car stopped. We both look up suddenly and realize the trouble that is scrambling our way from across the road. One look at each other and we’re both on our feet, churning up the slope as the drivers call after us.
Winded at the top, we both stagger on through the high snow until we reach the tree line. I turn around a few yards beyond the edge and look back. Sinking to our knees, we both silently watch for heads to pop over the ridge. A minute to two later our breath has returned. No one has followed.
As I wait tensely silent, Hank grabs the back of my collar and I feel the stinging surprise of the snow rammed down my back and sliding to my beltline. I whirl with both hands scooping snow in his direction. He has already jumped back laughing like a hyena. I chase him calling out threats. Like always, he stays out in front of me until I tire. I never get the satisfaction of delivering the last blow. Hank always wins and he is always the one to sue for peace.
“Friends?” He calls out to me walking away backwards.
I really don’t have a choice, I’ll never catch him. With the expectation of a future sneak attack brewing in my head I relent.
We go on walking in through the black and white woods spotting a particular stump or tree knot hole for bombardment by snowball. The first direct hit wins. I’m a better pitcher than him, so I score more points. It evens out, I guess.
Mike shouts as he grabs me around the throat lifting his feet off the floor and jerking my head over the back of the couch. I break his grip and pull him up and over the back and put him across my lap ready to lay on some frontier justice to his rear end. I’ve got his arms pinned, but that doesn’t stop him from spinning his knees and the heels of his Buster Browns in place. A couple of well placed kicks and the war is over. I must have turned colors rocking back and forth on the couch, my lips sucking air between my teeth. Mike stands back in awe at the effect his escape has had on one of the “big kids”.
“What’d I do?” He asks with great curiosity and no regret.
“Girls, take Mike, and go make your beds.” Mrs. H’s hollow voice penetrates my capsule of pure pain.
“Mom?” says Mary. “Why’s Mark look so sick?”
“C’mon, Mary.” Kitt snickers, as she leads Mary down the hall.
“You too, Geronimo.”
She pushes Mike in front of them. He has been standing in the doorway, mouth open and totally engrossed in why I haven’t chased him out the front door like usual.
“Mark is pretending to be wounded.” Kitt adds. “In the worst way.”
As they head upstairs, the first wave of pain has passed, and I slowly let a hiss of breath out through my clenched teeth.
“Hurry up girls. I’m leaving. Get your school things together! You OK, Mark?” Mrs. H asks.
I tilt my head forward, then back.
“It’s best if you can get up and walk around, you know.” Mr. H offers.
My head stops inclined to his inquiring grin. Unable to speak, I plead my reply with watery eyes.
“Dads right.” Hank confirms by lifting me up under my arms. “Let’s walk it off.”
He laughs at his little joke and leads me, legs locked, down the hall.
“You sure you’ll be alright?!” Shouts Mrs. H as we reach the front door. I hum my reply. Outside I crumble to the ground and release my anguish.
“Holy Mother!! Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!”
I repeat over and over in a chant, as I roll from side to side. The pain recedes with each breath. Finally, still lying on my back, I wonder?
“I thought that only happened on bike crossbars.”
“Naw,” Hank answers. “Anytime you get smacked in the family jewels, its pass out time. I got caught on the bedpost last week.”
“Huh?” I inquire, trying to assemble that scene in my head.
“Didn’t quite clear it diving into bed.”
“Jesus, I hope sex doesn’t feel anything like this.”
Hank considers this.
“I don’t think so, but I heard two cats goin’ at it and it didn’t sound like much fun. They were in the hedges by Carnes’ coal shoot; locked together and screaming somethin’ fierce.”
“Yeah.” I commented quietly, recovering. “I wonder?”
“C’mon, we’re gonna be late for Mass.”
This was one morning not to be late. Not that any morning was good, but today you couldn’t just slip in before the Gospel for it to count. You had to be in your seat before the bells rang or it was no school picnic for you.
Hank and I cut behind the Sowash garage across Pittsboro Street, through the parking lot at the Atlantic station, up the alley and through the stone rubble of the foundation of the glass shop that had burned down on Potterman; then over the high wood fence that blocks it off from the sidewalk. We broke into a run to beat the cars released from the light at Arch Street, then down the narrow walkway between two apartment buildings, across the alley behind St. Celeste Park and come out near where the park movies are shown.
St. Celeste Park used to be a cemetery from old wars, but now has only a few ancient head stones and half buried plaques with the initials G.A.R. left. There’s a playground and an outdoor theater, plus lots of trees and squirrels. In a minute we’ve cut across and come out on Maple at one end of the railroad bridge.
Heights scare me. I stay away from the thin rod railing between me and the abyss over looking the tracks below as coolly as I can. The high school kids have a tradition of clamping their locker locks onto the rods at the end of each year. It’s a sight until the railroad people finally get around to cuttin’ them off.
Across the bridge, we cut behind the art museum and out by the Jewish Temple that has the stone eye staring out and watching you from a triangle in the wall. Next door is the parish rectory where the priests live from the Blessed Sacrament Cathedral.
The big bells are ringing and slowing to ever weakening peels just before we slide into our seats at the back of the church under the disapproving gaze of Sister Angus Claire.
Eight years of living under her iron rule was about to end, but everyone knew you weren’t safe from a sever cheek pinch or a ruler across the knuckles until you were permanently over the boarder to the high school side of the street. Even then, if you had a kid brother or sister being held hostage, you were still the perfect Catholic kid when under her gaze.
As eighth graders, our seats in the church had finally completed their migration from the front pews as first graders’, steadily back through the middle section, to finally under the overhang of the choir loft above in the final few rows. You’d think that would give you some slack, but they’d thought of that, the very last row was stacked with a solid black row of leftover “crows”. That was our name for the nuns when they were out of earshot.
I stood at my seat, a row in front of Hank, because he was an ‘H’ and I was a “C”, thumbing through the tissue thin pages of my missal. My missal was finally right up there with the best of them. After years of tattered school models, Jack had given me a two inch thick, leather bound, ribbon draped, version from his years as a scholasticate at St. Gregory prep school, before he crapped out and joined the Air Force. This was a Cadillac; thousands of pages and special sections with indented finger-finders like a dictionary with tassels and colored ribbons for quick flipping to the appropriate Epistle or Gospel, or hundreds of other places that were still a mystery to me. Even if you stayed up the night before setting it up for tomorrows Mass, by the time the priest was at the Offertory, mine was a shamble of twisted confusion trying to keep up.
Usually I flipped back and forth randomly, moving my lips in a simulation of devotion, while rotating up and down from my knees, to my feet, to my seat. It worked, I was considered a “Good Catholic Boy”; and thought of myself the same way. After all, I had just missed the Legionnaire’s Award to John Jacobs. The only reason I got beat out was John served about eight Masses a day, and twelve on Sunday, while I never got past being an Acolyte.
Hilda Quinn pounded out the recessional hymn on the organ above us and I woke from my daydream. We filed out onto the playground between the church and the school into the orderly alphabetical rowsthat had sorted us out years ago. Sister Marie Claire mangled the boys’ shoulders as we passed by reminding us that this wasn’t recess. Soon we were all out and lined up. Some of our families stood around the edges and shortly we settled down in an appropriate mood for a forced march. We were going to walk the few short blocks down the hill to the train station. They were expecting to join up with their kids and swarm down in a happy carefree crowd. Little did they know that this would be a Catholic School military movement.
“Alright everybody, listen up!” Father Omar spoke from the side of the formation. “I want everybody to have a good time today.”
“But having a good time doesn’t mean forgetting who you are, or where you’re from and misbehaving in any way.”
Now the kicker.
“I’m counting on you older children to set the example. And if I hear of any rowdiness, just remember graduation isn’t until Wednesday.”
“Sister?!” He stepped back and turned over command to his Top Kick.
“Listen to the good Father. I’ll be on the lookout for those of you who can’t be trusted—you know who you are.”
Every boy and half the girls in the formation cast their eyes down as Sister swept the throng with her most withering glare.
“Starting with the first grade on the left, follow the crossing guards and no talking!”
Immediately a low excited buzz was born in the ranks at the rear as the entire school, two by two, paraded down the sidewalk for the two blocks to the train station. Bewildered parents and families tagged along in disarray, dragging blankets and picnic baskets. They hadn’t considered the precision and speed of a march led by Sister Marie Claire when they’d packed up.
I looked forward down the line trying to spot Rosemary somewhere mixed in the seventh grade. She wasn’t allowed to walk to school, so I hadn’t seen her since yesterday sitting on the cut stone wall that edged their driveway, where she had coyly agreed to a ride with me on the Caterpillar. That and the eight dollars in my pocket were going to make this one special birthday.
As tall as I am, I couldn’t pick her hair out of the line of bobbing heads that snaked along the sidewalk. The front of the line was already out of sight before we even moved. The day was still overcast, but the clouds had ceased rumbling and settled into a brooding gray slate that hung low over our heads. When we arrived, the railroad cars were roughly divided into grades and the families who were there and already waiting, had sorted themselves out. It was no problem for Mom and the Handel’s. They waited at the steps at the bottom of the last car. The orderly line of kids passed through a final checkpoint manned by Father Omar on one side and you-know-who on the other.
Father Omar was passing out free books of ride tickets to each kid. Everybody got one. The poorer you were, the more books you got. I usually got three or four. Today I only rated two; he knew I had a paper route.
Once you passed the checkpoint, you were free to find your family and board the train. This was the only train I had ever ridden and every year it still rated as the best ride of the day. In a few minutes everybody was loaded and we found seats together; two rows facing each other. Even the grownups were excited and joined in the cheer when the train took up its slack and jolted to a start. Soon the whining and screaming of the spinning engine wheels was replaced by the steady click-clack of gathering speed.
At first there was conversation. That settled quickly as everyone looked fascinated out the windows onto to the passing vision of their world receding into the trough of parted hills you didn’t recognize from the inside. Suddenly the spell was broken as kids excitedly picked out landmarks and shouted out their names.
“There’s Rathdabs’ Dairy!” Where the little half-pints of chocolate milk came from on First Friday’s.
“And the cemetery!” The Catholic one, where most families visited long gone “Bubba’s” and Uncles lost in the war on Sundays in the summer.
Soon the familiar faded and the contrasts of the coal fields took their place. Great piles of slag, dumped evenly, stretched out from the coke ovens that looked like half-finished dams. Rusting machines with peeled letters were scattered along low brick buildings with rows of small painted widows, where a lot of the fathers worked.
On the outskirts of the factories and their coal yards, would be a couple of dirt streets lined with rows of identical houses that marched away from the railroad up or down the low hills. Each roof would take a pointed step away from its neighbor until they disappeared in a maze of fences and sheds. Along the streets and in the yards, mothers and young kids would be working and playing; the mothers in a variation of dark print dresses overlaid with some kind of apron and the kids, usually little ones in overalls and hand-me-down loose shirts, with no shoes, would wave to the train. We would quietly wave back. If you were watching you could tell who on the train came from which little coal town of Pishke, or Plum, or Grapeville. They would go quiet and sit back in their seats; especially the older ones, until their neighborhood faded away.
In an hour we were there—Kennywood. It had its own train station. The kids rushed down the aisles until they ran into a nun standing guard at the door to the steps.
“Wait until the train stops completely!” And the issue was ended. “No one goes anywhere until I’m out and give you permission, hear?”
A groan of “Yes Sister”, returned. There was no alternative.
“One at a time.”
She motioned until the swarm overwhelmed her orders and jumped off from both ends of every car and ran directly into the tangle of carnival noises and spinning machines. Behind came the parents with picnic baskets and armloads of food and tubs of watermelons. Hank and I helped carry our things to a picnic table over by the little lake bounded by a cement curb. Everyone was ahead of us now. The lines, already long, were swelling with the new arrivals. With an anxious look we pleaded our case.
Mrs. H looked at her. Mom smiled and called after us as we exploded into flight.
“Be back by lunch!”
Once beyond the reach of their call we slowed to a walk. The first part of the plan had worked. We were on our own—no little kids tagging along. The transformation was nearly complete. The Ike jacket was carelessly unbuttoned and our shirt tails pulled out. That much we could risk. Sister Marie Claire wouldn’t venture out of the picnic area, but woe to the kid captured and returned to her by Fr. Omar for smoking or any other major sin.
The crowds were thicker than you’d expect, mostly because the pool was still closed on account of the rain. Really, there were a couple of different crowds blended together, but they were easy to tell apart. There were the little kids, the kids who were with adults; kids like us still in grade school but left on our own; then the big kids in high school but not with girls; and finally the big kids with girls. There wasn’t a lot of mixing and where there was contact, it was done with a shove and a “Beat it, kid”.
Hank and I were in the most endangered group; big enough to be on our own, but too little to put up much of a fight if we were picked on, which was the primary sport of the big kids without girls. You had to learn how to travel.
We knew to stay close to strange grownups who would still react if someone started something and out from behind the stands and from under the roller coasters—and definitely out of the penny arcade with the peep shows on the high-view machines where you could crank out a short film strip of near-naked ladies. Not only was this the preferred hangout of the lone big kids, but the perimeter was regularly patrolled by Father Omar.
“Someday,” I vowed to Hank. “I’m going to get past the SkeeBall and take a look for myself.”
“When you’re an old man!” he challenged.
“Oh yeah?! How about today?” An answer I regretted as the words slipped through my lips.
“You’re on!!” Hank gladly sealed my fate.
We both looked nervously down the long line of bowlers tossing grapefruit-sized balls up the alley to the raised lip where they took flight then fell back into the smaller and smaller circles that registered your score. Beyond the bowlers was a narrow band of no-man’s-land populated by more expensive machines like the Penny Luck Horseshoe Press. For a quarter you got to engrave your first name on a silver horse shoe that surrounded a brand new penny. Guys always made one for their girls.
The noise of the arcade died out beyond that point and was replaced by heavy clouds of smoke, every bit as thick as the rain clouds outside. The guys who stood around in there had their arms propped on top of pinball machines, holding up heads of shiny hair with spit curls dangling over their foreheads. These guys were the stars of all my waking nightmares. They were there when I walked through the park at night, or behind the grandstands at the football games and as I walked uptown for a Klondike on a Saturday night. Next September would be soon enough to be stuck in the same room with them.
“Hey, Hank,” I said. “There’s going to be plenty of inside time, let’s go ride the Jack Rabbit before it starts to rain.”
That took almost as much courage to say as; “Hey, let’s go punch out a couple of these punks!” I had never been on the Jack Rabbit—“The King” of all roller coasters at Kennywood. Always before, I could claim lack of funds. It took five tickets. But today the sacrifice had to be made as a diversion. Hank once again upped the ante.
“Only if we sit in the first car.”
I could feel my stomach start to climb up outta my throat looking for an escape. Swallowing hard I managed a weak
“C’mon,” he shouted racing out into the crowds. “We gotta get there before it starts to lightning and they shut it down!”
“Yeah?” The hope glistened in my eyes as I released a quick prayer to Heaven, where I would be a likely newcomer after hitting the bottom of the Devils Plunge.
The line was much too short for me. Most of the sane people were stretched out in a line along the fence to the Big Dipper, my previous high in roller coasters. As we edged toward the gate and the ticket taker; I regretted my height and gladly would have traded places in line with a hairy midget. I towered over the mark that warned;
“You have to be taller than Howdy Doody to ride the Jack Rabbit.”
Howdy came up to my armpits. A girl I recognized from the seventh grade squealed with glee behind us.
“See Dad, I’m tall enough.”
Her Dad was shuffling along beside her, his eyes glazed over in fatherly obligation. The line surged forward. I began muttering prayerful indulgences to myself when the ticket taker thumped me across the chest and drew the chain in front of me.
“Thank you, Lord.” I thought with relief until Hank shattered my reprieve.
“Now we’ll be first for sure! No one can beat us to the first car!”
The fate of my brief young life was sealed. Either I would be killed outright after being ejected on a curve, or I’d share the fate of Kevin Olshefsky, and end up wearin’ my breakfast down the front of my shirt the rest of the day. There were no other choices.
Everyone piled in, the chicken-bars were locked down across their laps by the hired goons employed to intimidate even the most reckless greaser. A stringy guy in a Polish t-shirt and a pork-pie hat shifted his available weight against the large white lever anchored to the floor. It was enough. Slowly the cars clanked forward down a straight-a-way, then up, up, up disappearing from sight under the platform roof.
Silence—long pause. I stopped breathing to concentrate on the preview of my fate. There it was. A few isolated screams, then a rising pitch of agony that collapsed into a wail of terror mixed with the tortured sound of speeding metal.
That did it! I was officially sick. The taste in my mouth was the same as when I used to stick my finger down my throat to throw up a choked down meal of liver and lima beans. My eyes unfocused, so did my ears. Things were receding from my view, getting smaller and smaller. Voices had an echo, like they were talking to me on an extension phone. I guess I just stood there not showing the depth of my distress, ‘cause the next thing I knew I was being pushed up the wooden ramp as the previous passengers of the doom train were staggering out at the other end.
Terror has its advantages I learned that day. I was frozen—a Zombie as I approached the lead car and sat down on the shiny brown seats at the head of the hell train. No sounds, no thoughts could break through the mystical haze that surrounded me. This must be how the Saints felt just before they were tossed to the lions. Maybe I was going to be raised-up and alive, straight to Heaven.
‘Fraid not. One of the hairy apes posing as a park flunky suddenly slammed down the chicken bar across my lap where my folded hands rested in sublime submission and cracked my elbow at the crazy bone.
“Son-of-a-Bitch!” I screamed and snapped back into the mortal world.
“What’d you say, you little Mick?” The greaser turned and snarled at me.
“What’d I say?” I repeated as he reached in and grabbed my collar.
Just then the car caught the hook that towed it out off the loading platform. The guy hung on, twisting me in my seat while he strolled beside the car and lectured me on the many ways to disembowel a “rich, homo, Mickey fag”. At last, the platform ran out and with a final shove he tossed me back in my seat.
“What did you do that for?” Hank was great at pointing out my weak points.
“Me?!” I sputtered as I massaged my bony arm, forgetting for a second where I was and where I was going in a big hurry. Suddenly the car paused, lurched, then nosed up in the direction of the brooding gray sky.
“Oh-h-h-h shit!” I moaned as I realized we were half way up the slope that led to the drop off—down into Devil’s Plunge.
“Don’t worry?” he said, “You’ll forget all about your crazy bone on the ride.”
His words were already seconds behind my brain’s instinctive call to the barricades. Juices I never knew were there, shot out in all directions through my body, locking me as rigid as an ironing board wedged tightly against any available hard surfaces. My fingers were coiled tightly around the chicken-bar, my toes equally curled and dug into the front of my good shoes. I wish I had bought the high-top gym shoes. At least my body would have the completely heroic, while tragic, repose of a “with-it” kind of guy. But the school dress shoes would give me away and I’d be shipped back to Greenbridge as a dork, while the rest of the park crowd resumed its fun-filled day.
The sky opened at the same time the laddered hill in front of us disappeared. For a coupla of heartbeats we hovered and then the balance tipped against us. A driving rain pelted my face obscuring the ground so far below. Through the gagging downpour, I could make out little people scurrying and disappearing under shelters below. We would die alone, our splattered bodies washed clean by a torrent of absolution. But first there was some dying to do.
Unbelievably, I was lifted out of my seat! The slow clank-clank was replaced by the swelling roar and vibration of riding a tin can canoe going over Niagara Falls! I shut my eyes against the driving rain, hitting my hands and face, that felt like little sharp pins being driven deep into my skin. Through clenched teeth I sucked a deep breath as we continued our free fall to the rocks below. I can’t take it! I’m going to let go and drift up out of the car and watch from above as our trainload crashed into a monument of twisted metal!
Before the idea had a chance to be argued, my body was shoved violently down into my seat. Like an accordion, each piece of me collapsed into the one below, until it felt like my head was buried deep between my shoulders, with my chin poking out of my sunken chest.
This condition was gaining reality when we were both whipped to the right, body parts now telescoping beyond their design limits. My left arm wrestled with a death grip on the chicken-bar to keep me from being ejected out over the Merry-Go-Round and falling to my death onto a painted wooden pony. Hank had slid across the seat and was actually using his hip to shove me out of the car. I struggled fiercely—near the breaking point, as he relentlessly applied pressure to force my body through the narrow slot in the side of the car. Each vibration shook me a little closer to ejection. With all my might I bent my face towards his and defied his treachery.
It worked! First there was the immediate relief from the building pressure, then for a long moment, we both went airborne until we were flung back down into his corner of the car. Now the terror was in his eyes, except for the maniacal howl he let loose. I wasn’t sure of its meaning, but I was no fair weather friend who would let him slip out into the void.
Heroically, I applied the same effort to save my friend, who moments before was quite willing to squeeze me out the side like a sausage. But the seats were slippery and the force irresistible. No matter how hard I tried, my body continued to press harder against Hanks’. At the last moment came the same sensation of relief as we rose lightly again in our seats.
A new problem was developing that threatened the see-saw balance of terror and reprieve. Breakfast!
We shot through a series of low hills whipping left and right! With every compression either way my throat felt the bile rising closer to expulsion. Chances were that my 20 or 30 loyal followers, tagging along behind us, would soon be wearing a skim coat of oatmeal and eggs. I imagined all the likely consequences of throwing up mid-air at 50 MPH. All were too terrible to consider. If I could only get out from under that chicken-bar and lean over the front of the car before I cut loose, or crawl under the seat and puke on Hank’s shoes, I would gladly tap dance down the rails when we stopped.
Instead, the bile bubbling at the back of my throat was contained only by constant closed-mouth swallows. I felt like a bottle of Coke that had been shaken then dropped. I was dizzy, hot, and felt like my life juices, along with every other semi-liquid substance of my body, were going to shoot out of my mouth and leave me burst like a water balloon! The fight was lost and I was on the brink, when the car leveled off and coasted down the straight away into the station. My eyes widened with the hope of escape.
We slowly passed the point where the chicken-bar was tripped and automatically released. I bolted from my seat only to be jerked back down by the same understanding soul who had given me the short course in park policies.
“Everyone stays in their seats until the cars come to a complete stop!! Understand!? That means Mickey fags too!”
I might have grown fond of my new nickname, but couldn’t express my agreement through the hard-swallowing exercises. His past experience must have stumbled into the pinball bumper in his brain that lit up his eyes. He jerked me back and out of my seat in a single motion and sent me stumbling towards the exit.
“Go on! Get outta here. I ain’t gonna clean up no Friday fish guts!”
Gratefully, I spun over the rail and hit the ground on all fours; scrambling as far back under the platform before making the overdue delivery of my “fish guts”. Kneeling in the dirt, I gave thanks to JMJ that’d I made it. Coughing and spitting, I heard Hank’s voice behind me.
“Hey, whadda’d you do that for?”
I pivoted my head around and looked back at him in disbelief.
“Looking for lost change, whadda’ you think?”
He believed me.
“I’ll lend you some money; you ain’t gonna find enough under there to take another ride.”
Slowly I backed out of my shadowed refuge, pulled myself up straight, brushed off my clothes, and stared silently at Hank.
“What’s za matter?”
I felt like a ghost, a vapor of my old self, but at least that was over.
“Nothin’. I’m just kinda hungry all of a sudden.”
“Forget about your stomach, dummy. It’s already 10:30, and you’re supposed to meet Rosemary over at the Caterpillar right now!”
I flushed instantly from death gray to bright red at the thought of cruising through a darkened tunnel—alone with Rosemary.
“Yeah.” I agreed.
“Fix yourself up. You look lousy.”
I felt lousy, but with a hint of hope tingling in my gut.
“Maybe you’d better go find her and tell her I’ll be right there, OK?”
I started to back away from him in the direction of the restrooms.
“Well, hurry up! I’m not goin’ to babysit your stupid girlfriend all day for ya!”
“Just ask her to wait a minute…Ok? I hafta make sure my hair is combed.”
I spun on my heel and trotted off. What I really had to do was relieve myself so I wouldn’t be squirmin’ around sitting in the seat next to her.
That meant going into the park’s public restroom, another place infested with greasers dedicated to the downfall of the Western World. The sagging stockade-style shack squatted in a lake of puddles left by the rain. Sickly rose vines clung desperately to a bent and rotted lattice that screened the entrance. Those roses leaned as far away from the slapping, peeled, white entrance door as their roots would allow. You could imagine them straining and waiting for their rescue, like puppies in the pound.
The closer you got, the faster the roaming crowds thinned out. The smell from the cesspool reached out and could choke you at 30 feet. I stood on the border of fun and foul, calculating the possibility of holding my breath long enough to dash in, do my business and retreat at a pace slow enough to maintain my cool. It could be done; after all, I held the underwater breath holding record on the block, accurately judged in Carnes’ wading pool after Billy got a watch with a second hand. One minute and 15 seconds.
Turning back to my goal, I gulped several deep breathes of fresh air, spun around and marched quick-step but casual towards the latrine. As I approached the narrow breezeway shaped by the rose trellis, a guy as big as a garbage truck, wheeled out of the door and hung a left, headed straight towards me. I flattened myself into the thicket of rose thorns as he rolled by without even noticing me. Safe, but the delay cost me a precious portion of my air supply. I reached for the grimy door handle and pulled myself thru it into the pit.
The scene just about took all the rest of my air reserve. It was a mother’s worse nightmare. About sixty guys, who looked like they lived nearby and had squatters’ rights, headed in the general direction of the back wall. An equal sized crowd shuffled forward in the opposite direction, weaving themselves through each other and aiming for the single exit door. None of them gave way. It looked like a slow stampede of restless bulls daring each other to part.
I queued up behind the biggest member of the herd that I could find and looked straight down. Slowly, we all slopped ahead through the puddled floor of stomped ooze on the stained concrete floor. Crushed butts of all brands floated by my feet headed for the trough that outlined the walls. Above, a solid, yellow cloud hung in the rafters, fed by dozens of smoky trails expelled upwards by the crowd.
I was just about outta breath and still ten feet from my destination. The crowd had filled in behind me so there was no way out. Slowly I let out the balance of my breath. I knew I could gulp in a new supply through my mouth and bypass my nose. I knew it, but I didn’t do it—not at first. The first few inches of breath passed through my nostrils before I realized my mistake. I choked, coughing into the shoulder blades of the fullback I’d followed; a guy about seven foot tall who turned his head over his shoulder and looked down at me like I was what he intended to flush.
“Sorry.” I gagged.
The stench was awful. Mac’s Run at low tide was a lily pond by comparison. We inched forward. I couldn’t see how much further there was to go. I did notice a funny thing; the closer we got to the wall, the quieter it got. Now there was no talking and the only sound was like rain on a tin roof. We were all in this together, shuffling along like a chain gang. I stared down at my dress shoes, glad they weren’t my fantasy white high tops.
All of a sudden there were no feet ahead of mine. I raised up my eyes, looking up and over a tin trough that ran by me at about belt height. That wasn’t the worst of it. Staring back at me—was me. A huge full length mirror ran the entire length of the gutter. I broke out in a sweat. I couldn’t go left or right without looking like a pervert, so I fixed my stare on my own eyes and about a dozen others lined up behind me waiting their turn.
I had to go through with it. I unzipped my pants, dug deep inside, and withdrew my very reluctant peter. By tipping forward and slightly up on my toes; then arching my hips forward, I could just barely clear the top of the gutter. I stood there holding this position and waited.
Nothin’! This had never happened before. I looked down, barely able to see the tip of the problem against a torrent of yellow foam and cigarette butts racing by below. Nothing! I panicked. What was I gonna do? I closed my eyes and urged him on silently.
“C’mon!” I thought.
Frozen in that balanced position on my toes, I probably would have stayed there ‘til the park closed or my knees buckled; except someone called my name and followed with a slap on my back.
I fell forward on my tip toes and my arm shot out instinctively to keep me from crashing into the mirror. The spell was broken. I looked left; directly into the multi-colored eyes of J.J. Mahoney.
J.J. liked me, which was good, him being the toughest guy in my class. Besides his size and weight, about the same as Sister’s and maybe an inch or two under Father Omar, J.J. had two different colored eyes—one blue and one green. You could never look at him steady. You always had to look from one eye to the other, fascinated, which was bad. J.J. was sensitive about his eyes when he caught you staring. He’d start to badger you like a lawyer, which his dad was.
“Whadda you lookin’ at—BOY?” Was a favorite starter, followed quickly by a full body press and a few shoves in the direction of the nearest wall.
“Hi J.J.!” I answered, returning my worthless member into my pants and turning to go.
“Wait up Conroy. Let’s you and me go watch the girls over at the pool.”
For some reason J.J. considered me to be his friend. Not a bosom pal, but a direct line wired into the polite world. It was hard to discourage J.J.’s friendship. Truthfully, he provided me with an invisible shield against other guys who prowled around the perimeter of the playground looking for easy prey.
“I’ll meet you outside.” I called back, just wanting to make it out of the bullpen as fast as I could.
I marched in good order out the grimy door, past the desperate roses, and beyond the moat of puddles to the high ground. A brief thought skittered across my brain.
“Make a break for it! Run! Disappear into the crowd!” With any luck, I could make it through the day without coming eye to eye with J.J.. Then came visions of the eventual reckoning. It wouldn’t be pretty. He would make a campaign of finding me if I split. That’s the way he worked.
“Shit!” I was overdue to meet Rosemary, and I still had to pee. I had to somehow lead him away from my final goal and relieve myself in the next 10 minutes—or I’d lose my one chance with her today— and wet myself too. No one would believe that the saddle stain was just the rain.
One problem at a time—J.J. came first. I could get him over to the pool fence ogling some girls, make some excuses about family duties and just drift away into the bushes surrounding the parking lot to finally find relief.
As I pictured the unfolding progress of my plan in my head, I caught a glimpse of J.J. charging through the shithouse door. At the end of the trellis, he stopped and scanned the horizon. You could almost imagine him snorting through the scents trying to pick up my trail. He looked almost disappointed when he saw me docilely, just standing there waiting for him. Then he broke out in a self-satisfied smile, tossed his head back and paraded toward me like Attila the Hun approaching a minor tribe, unfortunate in their location directly in his path.
“You waited up!?”
“Sure J.J., don’t you want to go over to the pool?”
“Yeah. You bet! Now the rains over, the babes’ll all be out sunnin’ themselves. C’mon Conroy, let’s go check ‘em out.” He cackled as he hooked an arm over my shoulder and around my neck. He never missed a step as he dragged me into motion.
“You know, I didn’t think you were gonna wait for me Conroy.” J.J. reflected as I stumbled along beside him never quite regaining my balance.
“You asked me to. Didn’t ya?”
“Yeah, but a lot of guys would have taken off when they had the chance. That’s why I like you Conroy, I can count on you.”
“A lot of guys are smarter and braver than me.” I thought to myself.
“Yeah, maybe they had other things planned, you know, family stuff. Watch their kid sister or somethin’ like that.”
“A kid sister that you ain’t got, huh Conroy?”
“Oh yeah?” I wondered aloud as an element of my pre-laid plan evaporated with the wet remains of the morning.
J.J. was right. The sun had brought out plenty of smooth pink flesh to sunbathe on the concrete apron around the pool. High school girls ringed the edge like so many leggy Amazons you saw in the comic books that told you there was more to girls than skinny arms and white socks.
My head and his hand hit the fence at the same time. J.J. and I stood there hanging onto the ten foot high chain link fence that surrounded the pool the size of a small lake. Beyond the concrete, on three sides, were wide steps of grass, kinda like at the drive-in; sloped where you could park—separated by a flat lawn where you could cruise. Little kids and families occupied the first few bands, then kids my age in the middle, and finally the higher you got couples who were older and never got wet.
There they were, almost grown-ups, just a year, or two, or maybe three, older than me. Guys together with girls, girls who had everything a guy could ask for. Close together—like it was nothing!! How did it happen? How would it happen to me? It seemed to me that every day older I got, the more stupid and clumsy I got. I used to be able to talk to girls. Anymore it was all I could do to remember to breathe around them.
J.J. and I just stood there in respectful silence while the diamond pattern of the fence embedded itself into our foreheads; our fingers hooked pitifully through the mesh above us.
“I gotta go.” I muttered listlessly, my eyes following a well-defined senior girl.
“How could ya? We just came from the john.”
With that reminder, another urgent feeling edged out the first one, both centered between my legs. I crossed one over the other and tried to squeeze the life out of both of them. It didn’t work.
“How much money you got, Conroy?” J.J.’s usual shakedown brought me back.
“A couple of bucks. Why?” I refused to believe I was gonna have to pay to pee.
“Cause it’s gonna cost us three bucks to get in there and rent suits, unless you got one on under your pants. You got that much?”
“Hey, I can’t go swimming J.J.!” my original plans scheming to return. “I gotta get back to my family for lunch—ya know?”
“It ain’t even 11 o’clock. No one’s gonna expect you ‘til noon. We can go in, take a look around, go for a swim and have little Markey back in his mother’s arms for lunch.”
“You go ahead J.J., really, I promised to meet someone earlier.”
“You don’t like hangin’ out with me? Is that it?”
“A girl J.J.—I promised to meet a girl—at The Tunnel of Love.” I adjusted my goal just to be more convincing.
He stood there looking at me, first with his blue eye, then with the green one. This was the test of truthfulness; to see if I could stand there and take the stare without flinching. Suddenly he broke out laughing.
“And I gotta meet the Pope for tea. That’s a good one, Conroy! C’mon, if you really wanna meet some girls—real girls, with hardly nothin’ on, this here’s the place.”
I wanted to run and couldn’t. Rosemary was a long-shot anyway.
C-R-A-C-K!!! It sounded like someone had lifted a crowbar under a tight board that suddenly broke free. Then a long slow rumble bore down from above and shattered in a blast against the buildings in the park, shaking the ground under J.J. and me.
A torrent of fat drops fell hard against the asphalt like you had a hose aimed straight up to the sky, and the water had climbed to the top. then collapsed straight down on your head. Girls screamed and everyone ran in any direction that led to shelter. I took off for the refreshment stand outside the pool. J.J. beat it in the other direction.
The rain fell in continuous straight lines so thick it was hard to make out what you were watching. The drops hit the pavement and bounced back up. The sound beating on every flat surface combined into a roar, like a waterfall that swept over everyone. We all stood there silently wondering.
“When’s it gonna stop? Where is everybody? What am I gonna do?’ There were no answers but to wait.
It kept up for a long time; seemed like an hour. No let up, just waves of rain coming from every direction and running into each other. It formed puddles, then pools, then streams that finally joined together in rivers that ran down pathways and parted between the buildings and rides.
The pool was set low, just the other side of the picnic area and parking lots, and all the water was coming our way. Everyone moved up closer to stay dry. Soon we were bunched in tight rows against the building's walls fighting to stay out from under the sheets of water coming off the roof. Kids my age were sacrificed and pushed forward to the outside edge of survival. I was soaked anyway, so decided this was the best time to pee. No one would ever notice another tiny trickle. As relief spread through my waterworks, it stopped. From a deluge to a few fat drops in a second—then nothing.
I wasn’t done. I was sure the warm yellow stream would be noticed. Another survival plan betrayed. I stepped forward under the last cascade of water off the roof and was pushed out further by those behind me who were splattered by the spray hitting me.
“Dumb, stupid kid!” Were the kinder comments that followed me out.
The water raced by over my feet, then hesitated, lost its speed and began to part. From a flood it settled back into flat puddles. I looked across the pool that now looked more like a brimming fountain spilling over its edge, carrying towels and toys around in heaps of colorful islands.
For a time it was quiet and empty everywhere, then car doors started to open with cautious adults testing the pause. Finally kids started to squeeze out from the back seats. Just like the rain, the noise built up with squeals and shouts until it broke into a storm of liberation. Everyone drifted out from under their shelters trying to sort out what to do next. Most everybody started to look for their groups or families. That took most of us in the direction of the picnic area next to the parking lot on the other side of the pool.
Nobody traveled in packs now. Everyone had separated when the storm broke and now we were all out on our own.
Me too! J.J. was gone. Hank was nowhere, and Rosemary was a memory. I tried to sort out the way back to the trees and tables where I had left them all. It took a while of winding down stone paths circling huge puddled ponds. Then I saw the school banner, with the embroidered Chalice and Host above it, radiating rays of light stretched between two trees. “Blessed Sacrament Cathedral School” it beckoned its welcome.
I started seeing familiar faces. Sister Marie Claire was already organizing the grades for a headcount. Father Omar was busy traveling in spreading circles, directing kids and parents alike into the growing assembly.
I saw Mom and Mrs. H sorting tins, boxes, and baskets on the tables. Most were soaked, but some had been packed with thoughts of the weather.
“Son!” Mom’s eyes found me ten yards out.
“I need you to carry these wet things over to the trash.”
That was a relief. From her tone I knew there was already a plan to put things right, and in a hurry. Best of all, from the salvaged food spread out on the edge of the table, the plan included feeding us as soon as possible. I trotted over to her and she took my arm.
“You’re soaked.” More of a statement of fact than an accusation. “Well, there’re no extra clothes, so stay busy and out in the sun until you dry. Find a dry towel in the basket and dry yourself off as best you can.”
“Soon as everyone is found.”
“No more rides?”
“Park’s closed. Too much rain and worry of more to come.”
“Ahhhhh!” I whined even though I knew there was no way they could get things together enough to start over.
“Just pick up that trash and put it in those cans over there. I’ll have a sandwich ready for you when you’re done. We’re back on the train by two.”
The train didn’t load for another hour. We had found everyone who was left. Lots of kids without grownups had rides with families who had driven to the picnic. So there weren’t so many of us. All the rides were closed and all the other people, besides those who came on the train, were gone. We were led over to the Pavilion where they had dances at night to wait. It was dry.
The rain had picked up again and pulsed on the roof high over our heads. They said we would leave when they had clearance on the tracks, but would load up the next time it let up.
“Be ready!” Sister insisted in her strange new get-up.
None of us had ever seen her like this. Sister’s long black habit, that usually swept the floor and made her look like she moved on wheels, had been pulled between her legs and tucked up under the braided cord that usually hung loose like a holster with rosary beads dangling off at her side. She had legs. Two narrow tapers in black stockings that poked out of the pleats below her knees and ended in high button black boots that looked like clodhoppers for girls. This was nothing less than revealed truth! You didn’t want to be caught in a stare with your mouth hangin’ open. No one looked at her below her waist. There were still two more days of school, erasing marks out of your books while Sister sat up front grading tests and filling out report cards. It was tense wondering if something would go wrong at the last minute and you’d be left behind for another year. The condition of your books could make the difference.
Each book was carefully stripped of its brown book cover with a picture of the Bank stamped in blue on it. If it was new that year, you were to reverse it with the fresh side out. Each page of every book was examined and packed neatly in a box for next year’s class. God help you if she found any marks, ink or pencil; or “anything else” on any page. That would cost you at least a half a grade. If it was decided that the book had been “damaged” in any way by you, your grade went down and your parents were billed for the book. That could ruin a whole summer.
Once I had dropped my book bag in the snow to join my buddies making a slide path in the falling snow down the steep sidewalk alongside Doris’ house. I must had been there two hours and when I picked it up to go, I saw the top edge of my geography book had slid out from under the canvas flap and laid in what had been snow, but was now slush. The cover was swelled and most of the inside pages were soaked half way up.
I used that book the rest of the year—unnoticed; ironing the pages flat and trying to color in the salt bleached cloth cover. Doomsday came at the end of the year. I could tell Sister knew the whole story just from looking at the evidence.
“What should we do about this, Mark?”
“Anything you want S-s-sister, just don’t tell my Dad.” I stammered. Sister had never met my Father, that I knew, but somehow she understood that the news wouldn’t be met with reason or patience.
“Mark, I’m going to be needing your help over the summer at the library at Seton Hill. We’ve got to move quite a few books from storage in the basement to their new home in the remodeled attic. Could you help me for a few hours each Saturday?”
“But I collect from my paper route in the mornings until lunch.”
“You can eat your lunch up there and then you give us an hour or two to take the books upstairs. I’m sure your geography book would agree that would cover the cost of its early retirement.”
So every Saturday I “volunteered” for two hours packing books on a dumb waiter in the basement, pulling the double metal doors together, then hitting the switch that started the pulley grinding the elevator box up the shaft for four stories to the attic. I would race up the wide wooden steps that surrounded the shaft on all four sides. I could never beat that box. It would always bump to a stop and be waiting for me at the top.
Sister would meet me at the dining hall and lead me through the line. I could have whatever I wanted, just so long as I finished my plate. I would sit in a corner of the room and eat while the nuns ate in silence and listened to one of their own read to them. Mostly they were “Contemplations” that I never would have ever thought of. They were strange, but powerful and pure—all at the same time and would end with a prayer asking for guidance and strength.
The nuns weren’t so rigid and stern as I knew them at school. They spoke softly, smiled a lot at me and moved quietly.
Sister Marie Claire would always wait for me in the basement after lunch. She would tell me which shelves had to be packed and moved today then leave me to my work until we met me at the top after I had sent up the first load. There, she would tell me what table to stack with this week’s batch. Last week’s loads were now arranged neatly and orderly on the new shelves. There was always a box of old worn out books with their spines shiny-smooth, and their pages brittle with age. They’d be sitting in one of the recently emptied boxes, ready to be dispatched on the return trip to the basement. There they would be loaded onto a cart and rolled down the cobbled path that led to the incinerator to be burned. That would be my last duty of the day; pushing the cart out of the building and through the gardens to the boiler room that heated the library and sat out on the edge of the hill.
I wasn’t allowed to open the furnace door and throw them in, but I was allowed to sort through the box and take any I wanted. Sometimes, because it was hot in there, I would choose one or two out of the box and carry them back out of the dark stifling interior and over to the foundation wall that extended from the building and looked over Greenbridge far away at the bottom of the hill. I would climb over to the other side of the wall and sit at the base against the rough cut stone and read for the rest of the afternoon. Sometimes I would tuck a book into my belt behind my back and carry it home.
I wouldn’t see Sister the rest of the day. It only took me an hour or two including lunch to get my work done, but most Saturdays I had to run to get home for dinner at five. No one bothered me. I worked alone, and I missed it when the summer was over and the basement shelves were emptied.
Sister never mentioned my Geography book to anyone.
“BOARD!” The conductor shouted and we were loaded onto the cars.
We had waited for over two hours crowded into and along the walls outside the station. It was nearly four o’clock when the cars were jerked, in turn, into motion. One after the other they ground forward until the complete train moved smoothly out to the main line headed east.
It was still raining—steady with no let up under a slate sky that hung low over the hills. We wound silently along the riverside just above the water bouncing against the rocks and dropping slickly over low falls and spreading out into the corn fields on both sides of the tracks. You could see sign boards and tree limbs gathered up against the raised dam of the roadbed until they found a tunnel to shoot through to the other side. We were going slow. The clack of the tracks was steady like a grandfather clock ticking off the retreating day.
Another hour and we pulled into the station at Greenbridge—home. The rain had slowed from a downpour to a steady heavy drizzle. You could walk in it, but soon the water was running steady through your hair, down your face, and under your collar soaking both you and your clothes from the inside out. We walked the four blocks from the station out Pennsylvania Avenue, up Pittsboro Street, across Main, and down past the “Y” to Prescott. As soon as we turned the corner at Gloria’s Coffee Shop, you could see the water turning slow circles and covering the bottom of the street below our place all the way across Baird into Roy’s field where they held the Circus every summer.
There, across the ditch where Mac’s Run used to go, the water gathered after it had poured out of the tunnel under Moffett Field and quickly slowed as it spread out in every direction. It was like when Mom would unhook the hose from the rinse tub and dropped it on the floor. The dirty water would shoot out the end for a few feet, spread out on the floor then dawdle until it reversed course and fell back into the floor drain. Except this time there was no drain. It spread out of the ditch and kept going, rising up to the shacks that lined the banks on the other side. Brandanio’s lived down the far bank; “Pus-ee Kebolski” “Scabby” Closimo, and the Smeal’s too. This was Coal Town, kinda the last stop; or maybe just the first rung, on the social ladder in our town. The old folks there didn’t speak English and the tiny old Grandma’s in black dresses, with sagging sweaters and socks sat on unpainted porches and looked after lots of babies swarming up and down the single dirt street. It was only a block away, but it coulda been a mile. We stayed on one side of the bridge and they had the other. They were tough kids.
Mom turned us in at Riazza’s, just the other side of the alley above our block.
“You kids stay in Pete’s garage until we can see what’s going on at the house. Stay here and don’t go near the water, you hear?”
“Mom, I can help!?” I complained.
“By staying right here until Tim comes back to get you.”
I couldn’t stand being left behind with the little kids; and the girls and near Rosemary. She lived with her Mom and Dad above the garage at the bottom of the lot that Pete’s Mom and Dad had their house on. It sat facing Pittsboro Street and was a huge yellow brick mansion. We were only allowed on the front porch. Rosemary had been picked up by her Granddad and gone inside already.
Pete’s Dad owned the candy store across Main Street next to all 3 movie houses; the Grand, the Strand, and the Manos. All on one block between the Courthouse and the Tribune-Review.
I could see Billy across the street from our house, just above the waterline. Our place was on the other side of Prescott and just far enough down so the water covered our bottom step. He spotted me and came running up.
“You shoulda seen the crick down by Roy’s. Your Dad was down there when the tunnel broke free. Man, did he make tracks!”
“What happened? Where is he?” I started walking down the street towards home.
“Things got stuck inside the tunnel and backed the water up into Moffett Field; deep, just like a swimming pool. Finally, WHAMM! It busted free and water poured through like mad.”
We edged up to the high water line.
“Ran like hell! Made it back up the street just ahead of the water. I think he went in the house to try and keep the floor drain closed. Not much chance of that. I could see the water comin’ out from around the coal-shute door.”
I looked over and saw the pale thin brownish water that was squirting out the sides of the hatch where they dumped the coal into our cellar. I ran up the four steps onto out porch and in the front door. No water. I turned down the hall and pivoted into the landing of the stairs that led down to the basement. Dad was sitting there on the top step drinking a beer and watching bottles and boards drift by at his feet, two steps below. He didn’t look back or say anything to me.
He tossed his empty bottle into the scum layered water at the edge of the steps.
“Tell your Mother I’ll be back after the water goes down. Nothin’ to be done here but wait. Just came up too fast.”
With that, he stood and I backed up out of his way. Without looking at me, he walked into the kitchen, lit a cigarette, put on his hat and walked out the back door and down the steps. The water just touched the concrete walkway that ran through our yard. It was just now starting to recede. He opened the gate under the rose trellis, pulled it shut behind him, and headed up the alley to the Club.
I knew where he was going and so did Mom, who was now standing behind me at the back door. She set her jaw, then stepped outside. I watched her eyes follow him. Her face was firm and fixed. Tim came up the hall behind us.
“Mark, I need your help. Tim—get things you can reach out of the cellar and onto the lawn. It will go down fast now and we need to clean things up before they dry out.”
I looked back at her, then Dad and wondered if he’d turn back if she called out. She didn’t and he wouldn’t, I don’t suppose. It would always be that way.
The rest of the afternoon and into the night I chased odds and ends across our basement lake, hooking them and pulling them towards me. Then I’d take them out the back cellar door to Tim who hosed them down and set them on the clean side of the lawn that was left above the high water line. Mom would towel off the best stuff and take them up the steps onto the covered back porch. They would serve again, and the other pile would be set out at the curb and collected by the city in a few days.
After everything was out and the last of the liquid had gurgled down the floor drain, I slid the old coal shovel across the floor and emptied the brown ooze into a bucket that I took out to Tim who emptied it into the middle of the alley. There it would be shoveled onto trucks by city crews who took it a block down to the banks of the crick and dumped it back in.
Everyone knew the routine. It happened most every year, at least once. By nightfall Tim was hosing down the walls and floors and the drains were running free again. We worked as long as it took and before it turned dry. Once the mud dried everything got twice as hard.
Mrs. Shear and the Mattinger’s came over soon after we started with sandwiches and ice tea. Those up at the dry end of the block worked just as hard to push back the mud and debris from the high water mark. Men wheeled the mud into the streets and down to the parking lot of Globe Lighting and dumped it where the city would take over and load it to put it back where it belonged. There was no one in charge; everyone just worked and did what they could.
By ten that night it was done. People gathered on their porches like most nights and talked about the day. I watched Dad sway down the back alley on his return trip. Everyone else was out front. He always came home by nine if it was a work day in the morning, except when he didn’t, and went up to their “hunting” camp. Then we never knew when he’d come back.
Everything was done in silence. Mom didn’t talk to Dad, or even yell at him. Dad would climb the stairs after the news and disappear into their bedroom where they would sleep together. I guess things were different before I was around. John, Jan, and Jack would always talk about all the fun they had with Dad. But all that had worn away over the years and maybe something happened that none of us kids knew about. Anyway we all settled into a silent routine.
He was at work, the Club, or asleep most times. Once in awhile, if I broke the routine and came in for dinner late, or talked too much at the table, or “moped” around the house, he would explode. Not often, but you had to be on your toes and alert for the signs; a real hard look on his face was followed by a stuttered warning with no real words. If he stood up it was all over.
It always happened in a couple of seconds, and even though I knew what was happening, I couldn’t move. He’d grab my arm and raise it up over my head until I was standing on my tip-toes, then lead me passed the refrigerator where he pick up the short oak board with the carved handle. His eyes were fierce and his face set for revenge and I was forced down the cellar steps. He never hit me anywhere but the top of my legs and my rear. There were never any words, just a seething growl of purpose. 1-2-3 smacks with me twisting at the end of his extended arm. Then he’d let me go. I’d run crashing out of the back cellar door, up the steps and as far away as I could get; down the alley and up alongside the wall on Laird to the tracks behind the lumber mill and on out to the main line.
He’d do the same except up the alley on the other side of the field leading to the Club. I’d come home by eight; him by nine. I’d be in bed by then. Nothing was ever said. The next day was mostly the same. I wanted him gone and he tried to drive me away, but I never knew why.
Joey and I were going to launch our boat at Bluestone this afternoon. Now that school was over we had finally finished putting on the new bottom that had rotted out because it had leaked and the painter who sold it to us had drilled holes in the bottom to get the water out. That’s why it was so cheap.
Joe and I both had paper routes and we had started a lawn mowing service. Becky, his Aunt, had spotted us $25 dollars to buy a used gas mower. Now she took us and the lawn mower up to the Underwood neighborhood every Saturday to mow lawns and pull weeds. Joe got the mower and I got the weeds. That and our paper routes let us save up the $45 dollars for the boat and all the supplies we needed to finish it. It was up on saw horses in our outside cellar. Mom wouldn’t let us take it out until we had paid Becky back and it had a new bottom and was waterproof.
Joe and Dortha, his twin sister, had lived next door at the Shear’s since we were little. Then last year they had moved out of town into the new house their father had built in the country near Jeanette, about five miles away. Still his Mom always brought them into town on most weekends. She and their Dad didn’t get along all that good. When I hiked out there and we slept out in the old chicken coop. Mrs. Baker most times slept out on the couch in the living room. I’d see her folding blankets when we came in for breakfast.
Mister had converted the chicken house into a workshop and built a small cabin onto it where he slept while he was building the main house. He worked in Pittsburgh as an architect and spent most nights out there until it was finished and they moved in.
Joe and I grew up next door to each other. Our whole gang would play there together because his Grandma would look after us and feed us if our parents needed some time to shop or get us out of their hair. When we were little, Mrs. Shear would have tea parties for us out on the lawn. She’d serve us milk and sugar cookies and teach us how to be “proper”. We ran through their lawn sprinkler from the time we could walk. Joe and I fought like brothers. One time, I remember Dad telling Joe he was going to pull out all of his teeth with a pair of pliers because he had bit my arm and left marks in two sharp crescents halfway up from my wrist. Joey squealed and ran home.
Now me, Joe, and Bud; Hank’s friend from where he lived before, were going to take the boat out for the first time since we had finished putting on the new bottom and painting it. Joe and I owned the boat. Hank and Bud had helped us put it together. Becky, Joe’s mom’s sister, was taking us and the boat out to Bluestone in, or rather on, her big new 1958 Dodge.
We put a couple of blankets up on the roof and the three of us loaded the boat and tied it down good. The sail his Grandma had sewed up and the mast pole were strapped up there too. Hank was gone today. The Handles were visiting her Mom in Ohio and everyone was required to go, even when nobody liked her. Mr. H said it was easier to go there than have her come to their place and give it the white glove test. They didn’t get along too good either.
We all piled into Becky’s car with Joe up front.
Joe and I had finished takin’ swimming lessons up at the “Y”. Now that we had the boat, both our Mom’s said we had to learn how before we could go out on it. So every Wednesday, someone would go down and bring Joe back into town after dinner and we’d go up to the “Y” for lessons. The “Y” was only two blocks up Pittsboro Street towards town, so nobody had to take us. All we needed was a towel. Swimming naked was mandatory—no suits allowed. Because we were both 13, we swam with the adults. There were four or five of us kids just learning how to swim at the shallow end of the pool by some muscled high school kid.
Class started at 6:15, but you had to be there by six to undress, take a shower, walk through the yellowed water in the disinfectant basin, and be in your seats in the bottom row of the tiled gallery that ran along one side of the pool. Everything was tiled; the walls, the floor, the ceiling, and the seats. Every word echoed across the length of the room. You could sit on your towel, but you weren’t allowed to wrap it around your waist and nobody wanted to talk much.
We tried to get there a little early, before the mob of incredibly ugly, hairy guys came dangling out of the showers in shapes that defied belief.
Just about everyone else had hair growing from every corner and crevice of their bodies, except us and more me. I was Irish with sandy red hair on my head and only on my head. Yeah, my arms had some too, but it was so light you had to rub it the wrong way to get it to stand up and be seen. Joe was darker and starting to fill in and it showed. Some of these other guys had hair on their face, on their shoulders, down their front and backs, with bushes growing between their legs that hung down the inside like a muskrat pelt when they were wet.
You didn’t want to be caught lookin’—but they were hard to miss pulling themselves out of the water and walking towards you on a three foot wide walkway. I couldn’t wait to get into the water and away from the zoo.
“Listen up!” Our instructor commanded. “Tonight we’re going to get used to being wet—all wet, all the time, in water over your heads! No one ever learned how to swim that was afraid of the water! Tonight we stay in the deep end of the pool and only the deep end! Everyone lines up on this side and gets to the other side anyway you can. I don’t care if you dive in, jump in and push off, swim on top of the water or under the water! You can dog paddle, back stroke, or sink to the bottom and walk! I don’t care; just get to the other side. Oh yeah and here’s why! The last guy to get to the other side gets to perform for the rest of us. Anyone want to guess how!?”
No one did.
“We’ll, that lucky individual gets to climb to the top of the dive tower and jump! And no one else gets to get back into the water until he does. GOT IT?!”
The tower was more like a tall metal ladder drilled into the sidewall that led straight up to a small steel grated platform with rails on both sides. It hung suspended from the back wall to the right side of the low dive. You had to grab onto the ladder side rails bolted into the wall and haul yourself straight up, then step backwards across empty space then let go and grab on to the platform railing and spin around to face forward on the 3 X 3 metal grate on top. It looked like it was at least 20 feet above the water and a tall guy up there could reach up and touch the ceiling.
I’d never climbed up and never intended to. When anyone ever did, everyone else stopped what they were doing and followed him with their eyes. Only one guy was allowed on the tower at a time. In bare feet, they reached hand over hand and pulled themselves up each step, one after another until they made it to the top. You didn’t want to stop. Some did their first time and froze there, hanging on with their arms wrapped around the ladder until they got the nerve to either keep going or lower their legs step by step to and come back down to a silent crowd of men and boys who didn’t look or speak to them the rest of the night. All this while naked and on display from every angle.
I froze. I couldn’t swim. I didn’t open my eyes under water. Hell, I didn’t even put my head under water if I could help it. Now I had to beat everyone else across the pool or end up hanging off that ladder until the end of class and everyone else was gone; ‘cause I was never going to the top and jump off.
I had never even dove off the side of the pool. I just jumped in near the edge with one hand tucked under my balls. I’d hit the bottom with one foot before my head went under and pushed off until my hand found the gutter. Now we were in the deep end. Would I go down the whole way before my foot found the bottom; then what?
“Spread out your arms until you can touch fingers with the guys on either side of you. When I can see you’re ready, I’ll whistle. Take a ‘go’ position and next time I whistle—you go! Understand?!”
There was no way out. I slid my feet along the wet walkway as the line spread out fingertip to fingertip. I was still over the deep end when the whistle blew. I dropped my arms and crouched as low as I could go. My plan was to hit the water like I fell on the ice; hands stretched out to brake the fall and skid as far as I could go on top of the water and hope it was enough to reach the other side.
Most guys launched from the edge; some jumped, some fell; and some even dove like frogs off a lily pad. That was me, arms stretched out but not together and legs bent and spread wide with my head held high as possible.
I hit the water flat. My chest stung like someone had slapped me open palm after a day in the sun. But that was nothing compared to how it hurt between my legs. I thought I was going to throw-up. Like before, with “Davy Crockett”, I couldn’t believe the consuming pain that shot past my fear of drowning. This time I couldn’t grab myself, curl into a ball and cry. I’d just sink to the bottom and drown. Then my hand hit the gutter. I was across! Now the sheer wonder of making it and not losing, pulled me back into the moment. Through glassy eyes and grimacing lips I found myself floating and bobbing with four other guys on the far side watching two others who had jumped in. They were splashing around in panic, not knowing where they were going; just realizing that they’d never, ever get there. I knew that feeling real well.
The instructor dove in like a snake and came up pushing the first kid up out of the water and onto the deck on the near side. He turned, pushed off and shot forward grabbing the other one under his arms turning him face up. In two strokes lifted he him up and out of the water, coughing and spitting on the side next to me.
“I thought that would be you, Conroy!”
He threw his head over his shoulder at the kid, then he turned back and stared down into my face and started to laugh.
“Got more than you expected out of that belly-flop, didn’t you?”
The pain between my legs was settling into shorter repeated throbs that were massaged by the currents in the water. I nodded my head—‘cause I knew—I knew I could swim!
Now, laying flat on my stomach, holding on and looking across the deck of KonTiki, swamped and barely out of the water, I had the same sense of conflict.
When we got to Bluestone the sky was bright with a couple of clouds drifting in from the South. We were going to launch our boat from the real boat launch, down from the swimming beach. Becky backed the car down the ramp—pretty close to the water. We could still stand behind the trunk and ease it off the roof, down the blanket thrown over the back window, and finally flat onto the trunk lid.
You could play ping pong on that Dodge’s trunk lid. The rear end of the boat hung upside down off the back, still about three feet from the ground. Joe and I were on either side, but could barely reach in to get a good grip. Bud stood at the back.
The plan was to edge the boat across the trunk to a tipping point. Bud would hold it until Joe and I could come around to his end and the three of us would lower it slowly to the ground. Once the rear end had bit into the concrete grooves of the ramp, we would stand it up and lower the front end down. Then it would be right side up and facing the water.
What happened was; as soon as we tried to twist the boat from side to side to move it down the back of the trunk, it wouldn’t budge. The blanket was caught in the shut back doors where we had trapped it for the trip out. We told Bud to brace himself against the back bumper and hold the boat steady while we popped open both back doors at the same time to turn it loose.
You guessed it. As soon as it was free, the blanket, with the boat riding on top of it, slid down the trunk like a polishing cloth. No one had to tell Bud to get out of the way. He dropped down and both the blanket and the boat slid over his head, tipped down and crashed into the ground ending up like a lean-to against the back of the car with Bud crouched underneath. Joe and I ran back.
“You Ok Bud!?”
“I’m Ok. What happened?”
“We didn’t allow that the blanket would slide instead of the boat.”
“Now what are we gonna do?” Bud asked reasonably.
“Let me think—maybe we can scoot the back end along the ground until the top gets clear of the car—then set it down.”
Joe and I tugged at the bottom of the boat wedged against the traction grooves cast in the concrete.
“No good. Too tight.” Joe concluded. “Plus, we’d still haft to turn it around and flip it over.”
Becky stepped out of her car and saw the problem.
“Look—I’ll pull the car forward while you three hold up the boat. Once I’m clear you can set it down.”
It seemed like the easiest idea.
Joe and I took positions on either side of the car and reached in to grab the sides of the boat.
“No good either. The boat’s four feet wide and the cars more like eight. There’s no leverage, and we can’t get hold of it.”
Bud had the solution.
“Ok, maybe all three of us get under the boat and lift up and get it off the car, then Becky pulls forward, and we walk the boat upright, then go to the other side and lower it down. Huh?”
Seemed logical. We had tipped and lifted the boat onto the car— this was just the reverse.
“Ok! I’ll get under the boat in the middle. You two take both sides."
We all face the water once it’s up. "You guys go around to the other side and hold it steady until I can come around, then we lower it slowly, Ok?” I outlined the plan.
Seemed logical again. The boat was already at a 45 degree angle. It wouldn’t be as heavy as lifting it straight up. Then Becky spoke up.
“I’m not moving the car with you three behind me on this steep hill. Why don’t all three of you try to lift the end of the boat off the car? I’ll stay put in case you drop it. I don’t want to have it come down on Mark’s head.”
Might work. I sure liked the idea better than getting squashed.
“OK. Let’s see if we can do it.”
I crawled under the middle of the car, put my hands on the bumper, and lifted up with my back. Bud and Joe pushed up on either side.
The boat was lighter than any of us expected. It went straight up to the vertical, paused, then tipped over towards the water.
“Hold it!!” I screamed.
Too late! Both Joe and Bud stepped in the direction of the list to steady it. I felt the boat coming back my way and pushed hard to keep it from falling back on the car. Too hard! The bottom edge that was wedged into a groove in the pavement broke free and started grinding forward down the incline waving the top end my way again.
I pushed as hard as I could to overcome the downhill momentum and keep it from falling back on me. The boat agreed and tipped forward. Then it did a little dance balanced on the back end before pitching forward and falling flat on the ramp and rode some loose gravel down into the water.
We all stood at the top of the ramp stunned and watched to see what would happen next.
“Ok! Ok! You got it in the water. Now get out of the way! I don’t have all day to watch you clowns put on a show!”
The guy waiting behind us to launch his fishing boat, on a trailer, broke the spell.
“Mark, get the sail! Bud, grab the rudder!”
Joe stepped onto the boat and it floated forward. It floated! I couldn’t believe it. He rocked from foot to foot as the Tiki skidded in any direction he stepped.
“The centerboard! Get me the centerboard!”
Bud waded in and lifted the flat board, with a handle on top, onto the deck. Joe balanced on two legs and one arm and pulled the centerboard across the deck.
“Steady it, Mark. Grab the side and hold it still.”
I woke up and splashed in on the other side. The boat steadied a bit and Joe slipped the 2 X 3 flat centerboard into the slot at the middle of the boat.
“Ok! Ok! Now fix the rudder.”
Bud pushed himself back up the ramp and grabbed the rudder and threw it my way. Joe was on his hands and knees and crawled towards the back of the boat. I heaved the rudder in his direction. It smacked the water and slid into the back of the boat. Joe grabbed it and shoved the two pivot pins into the eye bolts at the back. The boat dipped down under his weight and Joe slid off head first into the water. The boat bobbed up and glided in the opposite direction.
“Grab it before it gets away!”
I threw myself at the boat and managed to grab the stick that steered the rudder trailing after the escaping boat. I could still stand, so I walked the boat back in towards shore.
Now there were a bunch of people gathered at the top of the ramp watching. The ladies looked worried and gave out little cries with each piece of the action. The guys were laughing their asses off.
“Hey!! Do it again! I wanna see the part where the boat walks itself into the water. Better than the Three Stooges any day!”
The three of us stood soaked in the water up to out waist, each holding on to a side of the boat.
“Just pass down the sail and we’ll get outta here so you don’t split your gut!” Joe answered.
Becky pushed forward through the crowd dragging the sail wrapped tight around an eight foot aluminum pole.
“Give it to Bud?” He asked his Aunt.
Bud waded in to take it from her and passed it back to me. I laid it up on the center of the deck.
“OK Bud, get on the right side and hold it steady.” Joe ordered. “I’ll go left. Mark, steady it from the back!”
We all took our positions.
“I’ll count three. And Bud and I will roll onto the deck at the same time. Stay low, I don’t want it to tip over.”
Joe and Bud rolled onto the deck like they did it everyday. I held onto the rudder and the boat settled down in the water under their weight.
“Ok Mark, pull us back tight towards shore, then crawl on slowly and stay centered.”
I did as I was told until the centerboard dragged against the bottom and popped up slightly. I started to put one knee up on the deck.
“No! No!” Joe hollered. “You can’t rock it, we’re too low. Turn around and put both hands on the deck, lean back and push off the bottom.”
I turned and put some of my weight on the edge of the deck and it sank into the water.
“Wait! Wait! Bud, you and I have to crawl to the other end.”
They did and the boat leveled.
“Ready?! Do it fast! We’ll grab you when you hit the deck.”
Looking back at the ramp and the crowd, I said a little prayer, closed my eyes and sprang backwards. My butt hit the deck and the boat shot forward deep in the water.
“Your hand. Give us your hands.”
I threw my arms back over my head and was pulled forward on my back by Bud and Joe. The boat leveled off and slowed down. The crowd on the beach hooted and hollered.
“Way to go Dummy! You made it! My money was against you!” Someone commented from shore.
“C’mon.” Joe said. “Let’s get outta here.”
He and Bud turned over on their stomachs and paddled with their free arm and we slowly glided away—at an angle. Joe was stronger than Bud, so we began a wide circle that would take us back to shore.
“Mark, the tiller! Use the tiller to keep us straight!”
I sat up slowly and hauled in the rudder. Soon I found the angle of correction and we were on our way. We slowly pulled from the shore and headed out to the middle of the lake. It wasn’t that far, but far enough to get away from the crowd and be on our own.
“Anyone want to let out the sail?” I asked.
“Yeah, sure, let’s get out in the middle and steady it up; then we’ll really take it for a real ride.”
Bud wasn’t so sure.
“Let’s get away from the power boats. We don’t want any wakes washing over us.”
He was right. The Tiki was sitting with only about two of its eight inch depth out of the water.
“Maybe we shouldn’t all be on board.” Bud suggested. “I don’t think it’s a three man boat.”
Too late now.
“It’s Ok. We’ll take her up to the cove and back, just a shake down cruise. Then we’ll head back and take her out one at a time.”
“Yeah. One at a time, as long as you’re first.” Bud echoed.
“Ok, I’ll be first—chicken.” Joe taunted and rolled to the middle. Bud’s side dipped down into the water, just low enough to get him wet.
“Wait! Wait! Go back!”
“Nah, you come my way Bud. I gotta stand up and let out the sail.”
“It’s the only way we’re gonna get anywhere—even back to shore.”
Bud slowly crabbed his way to the center and Tiki slow to a halt and settled down flat.
“Hold on to the mast and stay still. I’m gonna pull myself up and untie the sail. You grab the boom when it comes down and throw the rope to Mark. Mark, pull it straight back until it’s tight and lined up with the side of the boat.”
Joe pulled himself into a crouched position and raised straight up along side the mast. Tiki rocked some. He reached up to where the boom was tied against the mast and undid the knot. The boom fell straight down carried by the weight of the sail and clipped Bud alongside his head knocking his glasses off onto the deck.
“I can’t see!”
“Bud! The rope! Toss me the rope!”
“My Mom’s gonna kill me! I just got those glasses!”
The sail ruffled in the wind and pivoted away from Bud and spun in a circle dragging the rope. Joe dropped down under the boom as it passed by.
“The rope! Grab the rope!”
I leaned to the side as the boom came around and swung over my head.
The rope dangled off the end of the boom just out of reach. I laid myself out on the deck and reached to my right. Not enough. I turned loose of the tiller and stretched back and pinched it between my rotating fingers.
“Got it!” I cried.
I sat back up and gripped it in my closed fist and pulled it taunt. Good move—bad move. The sail billowed and pulled the boat in a quick right circle. I loosened my grip on the line and reached back with my left hand and grabbed the tiller which arrested our spin— good move. The sail emptied, so I pulled on the rope again—bad move. The sail filled again and rotated the boom smack into Bud’s head as he knelt at the side reaching for his glasses.
It was enough to tip him head first into the water. Relieved of his weight, KonTiki rocked up and Joe slid smoothly off the other side. The boat righted to the left and the bow rose up with me as the ballast at the rear. Now it was just me sitting with the stern under water. I could hear air hissing out of the front seams and see bubbles escaping from both sides.
Slowly, as I struggled to crawl forward, the stern settled deeper under water. I could see where this was headed. I turned on my side and slid like an eel silently into the water. Now all three of us surrounded our submerged craft with only the mast and drooping sail above the water.
“Shouldn’t have waxed the deck.” Joe commented.
“Shouldn’t be here at all!” Bud agonized.
“Well, at least, even full of water—it floats.” From me.
We were far from the beach and probably beyond inspection of anyone on shore. They’d just see the sail. We were all hanging onto the sides with the deck steady at about an inch under water.
“Listen, let’s move to the back and kick for the cove. We’ll put it in the trees off shore. No way we can get it out with all this water weight inside.”
We looked at each other and knew what this meant. All we could do was scuttle the Tiki, and call it a day.
“Over there!” Joe motioned. “Under those trees. Bud, move to the back! You’re a better swimmer. Mark, take his place.”
We kicked hard until we felt the bottom below our feet. It wasn’t sandy and smooth like the other side, more muddy and filled with broken branches.
“We’ll push it hard and beach it as far in as we can. Then Mark and I will steady it while you edge up and get some footing.”
We all settled our feet in the ooze and leaned into the back end, hands spaced across the deck.
“On three! 1-2-3!!”
We churned our legs and pushed our feet against the muddy bottom. We still had on sneakers so we got some traction. Joe and I pushed hard on either side. The bow lifted and it move forward fast; too fast for Bud.
He pitched spread eagle on his face as the boat left his grip and his feet stayed stuck in the mud. Joe and I kept going and the boat bit into the limbs piled against the shore. Joe and I turned. Bud was sputtering and his arms were flailing to keep his head above water.
“Roll over on your butt!”
We splashed back to him and each took hold of an arm.
“Ok. Push with your feet.”
Bud turned awkwardly in the water and finally broke free of the muck. We hauled him back to the sunken end of the boat.
“Ok! Ok. Just stand up.”
All three of us stood in place and everything else came to rest. It got real quiet for the first time since we’d launched the boat. Water lapped our legs and the submerged end of the boat. Across the water, where we had come from, you could see people swimming and playing inside the line of buoys. Further down the shore and up on the road that surrounded the lake you could see cars lined up bumper to bumper.
We all saw her at once. She was talking to a Park Ranger and pointing out our way. Of course, from where she was, she had watched the whole thing; probably everyone had.
“Whadda we do?!” Bud asked.
“Not much we can do. The boat’s swamped and full of water. Even if we could get it on shore, we can’t carry it through this brush and all the way back up to the road.”
We all turned and looked at the Tiki.
“Let’s salvage the mast and the sail,” I said, “Maybe we can build a better one later.”
“C’mon—let’s do it.”
Joe pulled himself up on the deck while we steadied her and wrapped the sail around the mast and pulled it up out of its hole. His weight was forcing the Tiki down lower in the water and bubbles were streaming up from everywhere along the deck seam.
“Throw the mast up on shore while we still got you steadied,” I said.
Joe pitched it up and it clanged against the trees and settled on the rocks. His push off took the boat out of our hands and it sank further into the brush and mud.
“Let’s give her a decent burial.”
We moved around to the bow and gave her a shove with all we had. The Tiki moved slowly in two directions—out and down. Soon only the tip of the bow showed above the water line. We crawled up on shore and sat with Joe and watched her final moments as she slipped below the surface. Just like the war movies, she breathed her last and disappeared with a straight line of bubbles tracing her path further and further out from the shore.
“Hey you kids!! Everybody OK?!”
We all turned our heads and heard the Ranger pushing through the woods and brush up the hill from us.
“Yeah, we’re OK!” I shouted back.
“C’mon up here and let me see you. Your Aunt’s crazy with worry about you. What happened?!”
“Ahhh—nothin’. We—we must of hit a log or something. More like it hit us. Or maybe we hit each other!” I was confused about how these things happened.
“Well, they’re out there for sure. Most likely one broke loose from the bottom last night. We try to keep them cleaned out, but they didn’t pull all the stumps before they started filling the lake.”
The Ranger filled in all the necessary details to our cover story. No one was gonna laugh about how we built a boat that leaked like a sieve, or us overloading it like stupid kids.
“We’ll put out some boats and find her. Damn things are water logged and can lay just under the surface.”
“We sure didn’t see it?” Bud puzzled.
Even he bought the story.
“My Mom won’t be so mad, now that it was an accident”
“Huh?” The Ranger questioned.
“Nothin’, he just lost his glasses when it hit him. Us, I mean, the log did hit us you know?”
“Never find them down there; it’s 70 feet to the bottom. Glad you guys got to shore.”
“Me too.” I agreed.
We climbed the bank; passing the sail up ahead to each other. We never did explain how it we got it up on shore. At the top I looked back over the lake. Everything looked normal, just like it should. Like nothing happened and I guess it really hadn’t.
It was mid-July, and everybody was planning our last hurrah of the summer, Scout Camp. Right after dinner people started showing up around our front stoop. They always called it a meeting of the “Steps Club”.
Just about every night in good weather, when Dad went out for a smoke after dinner, the adults would come by one at a time and take a seat on our steps. We had about the smallest front porch on the street, but Dad could be counted on to take up his position first after dinner, because we ate first at 4:15—never fail. And as silent and sour as he was inside the house, was as social and talkative as he could be outside of it.
The men would show up first after fleeing the dinner table, leaving mother’s to put up with cranky kids that were required to finish their plates. Then some of the mother’s would turn up after they finished cleaning up everything else. Us kids would hang around the light pole across the street between Carnes’ and Chadwick’s. The little kids would start playing street games between the curbs. Our older brothers and sisters usually had some place to go, but my gang was still stuck at home. We were too old for street games now—mostly. Sometimes we’d still play “Ham-Ham-Chicken-Ham-Bacon”, ‘cause we could outrun the little kids and keep them in the middle until they cried. It was a tradition. The little kids would do it to their younger siblings as soon as we moved on.
Joe, Hank and I were sitting on the curb trying to figure how to come up with the $14 it cost to go to Scout camp, now that the boat had broke us.
“We’ve only got two more weeks. Mr. Ivory says the money has to be in by the 25th.”
“Man, I don’t think I can raise that much by then. I still owe Mom six dollars for the sail”, said Hank.
“Me too. That deal took every cent in my stash.” Joe agreed.
“I know how you can make some money, how we all can make some money, and quick!”
Billy stepped in front of us out on the street.
“Yeah? How?” I asked curiously.
Billy always had access to money from his Grandmother, but usually it came with strings attached—if he was willing to share it at all.
“The Chevy dealer out on my Grandma’s farm needs someone to help him keep his cars clean.”
Washin’ cars didn’t sound so bad.
“They got older guys full time who do that. Why would he need us kids?” Joe questioned.
“No—not the cars on the lot. The cars in the barn!”
His Grandma was a Phail whose family used to own a big farm out off Route 30. Well, it used to be off Route 30, but now 30 went right through it ‘cause they straightened out the road when they widened it.
The State had cut through a hill on one end of the property and dumped all the dirt over the hill into the valley where the farm used to be. Now the edge of the road started at the top of the hill and created the flats on the both sides. This side extended out a couple of hundred more yards into the valley—almost all the way to the pond.
If you stood at that end of the pond and looked up, all you saw was a gigantic wall of loose dirt that climbed up 50-60 feet over your head for a good half mile across the valley. We used to hike out and swim in that pond when we were still kids— little kids.
“Whadda ya mean—‘the cars in the barn’?”
“They store new cars in the old barn that don’t fit out on the lot.”
Alongside Route 30, on the stretch of flat ground made when they pushed it into the valley, there were now three car dealerships lined up in a row. That’s how Billy’s Grandma ended up with all the money. You couldn’t tell she had all that, ‘cause they didn’t move. All they did was buy was a big TV with a rotor antenna. She wore the same clothes. Jimmy, her husband, still worked at the Post Office, but Billy could get just about anything he wanted. She had the money, and she decided who got what when.
“Look, they cover them with tarps, but they still get dirty!”
“I mean real dirty—from the bats!”
“The bats live up in the roof of the barn and when they’re sleepin’ they shit on the cars, and I mean a lot! Some of it gets on the cars and makes a mess, runs down the side and ruins the paint. And it stinks! The stink sticks to the cars so they gotta clean ‘em up and air them out, then put pine scent under the seats so they can sell them.”
“So why don’t they poison them?” Hank reasoned.
“Yeah, or gas ‘em.” Joe agreed.
“They don’t eat in the barn—just sleep and shit there; plus that place is so open you can feel the wind blow straight through the walls. Gas don’t work, they tried.”
“So what do they need us for?”
“They figure us kids can get into the places where they stay and kill them when they’re asleep. They’ll pay a nickel a bat! There are thousands of them!”
A nickel a piece—thousands of bats. We all figured in our heads. One dollar for just 20 bats and thousands of them. Five dollars for 100 bats and thousands of them. We all looked at each other.
“How long you figure it’d take to kill maybe a 1,000 bats? That’s $50 dollars! That’d pay for all three of us to go to camp.” I calculated.
“With four of us workin’; maybe a day, 250 bats each over ten hours; 25 bats an hour’s not much. They’re just be hangin’ there asleep, like hittin’ cherries off a tree.”
We all knew how easy that was from stealing cherries hanging over the fence into the alley at Miss Garrity’s place.
“We gotta get an early start, right after dawn, so we’re sure we got time to kill enough to pay for all of us. No one leaves until we get a 1,000 bats. OK?” Hank struck the bargain.
“Hey, we could camp out by the pond like we used to. Get up first thing. Bet we’ll be done by lunch.” Joe allowed.
“Yeah. We’ll hike out Friday, set up camp, swim a little, and be done by noon the next day. I could get little Billy Edwards to take my papers, but I still gotta collect on Saturday.”
“How do we get paid? I’m not haulin’ a 1,000 bats up that hill unless I know there’s someone up there with 50 bucks waiting to pay us.”
“They don’t want ‘em up there stupid! I’ll tell my Grandpa that we’ll batch them in piles of 50 on the ramp outside the barn—$2.50 a pile. That should be easy to count. That only 20 piles for $50 dollars, and we’re done.”
“Man, that gonna be easy! Why don’t we plan on next Friday night? Then if we need more bats we can stay over.”
“I gotta be at Mass on Sunday,” I said.
“You gotta be at Mass on Sunday.” Billy mimicked.
“Me too.” Said Hank.
“So just kill your share and go home on Saturday. OK?!”
“Sure. OK!” I’m not worried. I’ll get my share!”
“Hey, the title fight’s next Friday!” Joe remembered. “The Spic with the long name and Jersey Joe, right?”
“Yeah, that’s right. I don’t wanna miss that one for sure.”
“Don’t haft to.” said Billy. “I’ll bring my portable radio and we can listen to it out there.”
Like I said, all Billy had to do was ask and he got it—like that portable radio with the handle that turned and the antennae built inside it.
“Great!” Joe confirmed. “Next Friday we eat dinner early and hike out. We’ll be there by six. It’s still light out ‘til nine.”
It was shaping up to be an adventure. A hike, a swim, listening to the fight, sleeping out at the pond, getting’ up the next morning and huntin’ bats in the old barn. Best part was the $50 split four ways, $12.50 each, maybe more.
All that week we were planning the trip. I didn’t have a bathing suit that fit me anymore, so I asked Mom to make me one. Joe thought that was a great idea, so he got his Grandma to make one for him too. Then it was a contest of who would have the neatest custom made swim suit.
Mom got out all her scraps of material and I fished through them looking for something different, and sharp. I found a gauzy yellow thing that looked like cheese cloth. Mom doubled it over and then you couldn’t see through it anymore even though you thought you could. She folded it in half and tacked up the three sides that were open and told me to try it on. I left on my underpants and pulled it up between my legs and held it there tight while Mom pinned it up on each side. It kinda bunched up at the sides, but she cut away the extra.
“This isn’t going to work.” She told herself as she stood back and looked at the job.
“There’s not enough material to make the sides close. It looks like a diaper.”
I couldn’t see myself that far down in the dresser mirror.
“That won’t work.” I agreed as I jumped up and down trying to catch a glimpse.
The whine escaped my mouth and made me mad at myself. Mom wasn’t paying attention to my complaints as she pulled out a card wrapped in white elastic from the drawer of the Singer.
“Just be patient. Pull that back up and let me take a look at you.”
She pawed through another box of scrapes from under her bed and pulled out a piece of black corduroy and wrapped it around my waist.
“OK, take it off and get yourself dressed. There’s still two walls of the living room that need to be rubbed down with wallpaper dough before you go.”
Worse news that I had forgotten all about.
“You go down and finish that, and by the time you’re done, I’ll be finished with your suit.”
“Don’t make me look dumb! Ok?”
“You do your work, and be happy with what you get.”
“Ahh-h-h Mom?” Again, I reverted back to a kid.
“Go on down. Come back when you’re done.”
I picked up my pants and put ‘em on, sure that I was gonna look like a freak out at the pond—a “poor” freak. I shuffled down the steps into the living room where the furniture was pushed into the center. The rugs were rolled up and newspapers were laid down around the edges. We did this every year; just me and Mom this time. Tim was exempt after he got his job over at Moffett Field.
First we’d move the furniture along one wall and pull the tacks that held the rug down about eight inches from the wall. Then we’d roll that up going towards the end with the bay window; lifting the furniture up over the rug as we went. Then we’d pick up the papers spread under the rug last year. They’d be covered with grit and dust, but sometimes you’d find a sheet with old comics you’d forgotten about and read them all over again. That was fun, but it didn’t last long before you had to sweep clean the raw wood floors underneath.
Finally came the worst part of the whole job, rubbing down the wallpaper with cleaning dough. It took five or six cans to do the whole living room. Thank God that was the only wallpapered room in the house. You couldn’t wash it because the pattern would fade, so you had to rub every square inch, sometimes twice. I kinda liked the smell of the stuff. It felt like window putty laced with salt. Anyway, you dig a fistful out of the can and roll it into a lump big enough so your fingernails didn’t drag against the wall, start at the top and pull it hard down in a single swipe. You couldn’t believe the difference. The soot from the coal furnace over the winter left a coating of dark grey you didn’t see until you had rubbed it off. Then it was gone, like magic, until you looked at the wad of cleaning dough. The edge would be black with soot, so you folded it inside and exposed a new clean side, and do it again. After four or five swipes the dough was dingy with soot and the wallpaper was bright with color and clean.
You could fold the dirt into the center of the lump and go another round, but soon it was black inside and out and you dropped it into an old can and scooped out a fresh handful from the new can. I was about halfway down the inside wall when Mom came down the stairs and stepped into the room with a smile on her face.
“You got it!?”
“Well I wouldn’t want anyone to see you wearing it outside in the backyard, but it’s good enough for the pond.”
She held it up in front of her. It was better than OK! It was great!
I swung down off the ladder and she handed it to me. The black corduroy was now a four inch wide belt banded with hidden elastic at the waist. A six inch pouch of the yellow cheesecloth hung in a “V” at the center and spread out across the back. You couldn’t tell that the sides were joined under the black band. It looked like something Flash Gordon would wear to the beach.
“Mom, this is great! Kinda like a Sumo wrestler of the future! Can I try it on?”
“Only in your room. I don’t want to see you in it and I don’t want your Father to see it at all, you hear? It’s strictly to be worn out at the pond.”
“OK, no problem. Thanks Mom, even Billy won’t have anything this sharp!”
“Now put it away and help me finish the wallpaper. I want to get the rug back down by tomorrow.”
I spent the rest of the day finishing the wallpaper. Mom gathered up the old newspapers and swept up the floor.”
“Save the comics, I wanna check them over again.” I asked.
Sometimes we spent lunch reading the old papers. It was like going backwards into ancient history. The photos were yellowed and dusty dry. News and pictures that looked and read like they were from times and places you had visited long ago. People looked out at you that you could barely remember; now were gone for good and pressed down into the garbage can with the other trash.
Up in my room that night, I stripped down for my bath after I had pulled down the blinds. I fished under the spare blanket and brought out about the flashiest thing I had ever owned. I held it up in front of me so I could see it in the mirror. The guys were gonna be impressed for sure. I’d never seen anything like it.
I lowered it to the floor and stepped into the leg holes and pulled it up. It even felt great. The corduroy band fit snug, and so did the pouch around my pecker and balls. This was new.
I looked in the mirror, but was too low to see anything. I got up close, but the mirror was still too high to look down and see me below the waist. I looked around and found the answer. I crawled up on the bed on my hands and knees trying to keep the shaking springs quiet. Then I grabbed the bottom bedrail and knelt up. Still too low. I’d have to stand to get the view I wanted.
This was going to be tricky. The mattress sat on top of the open springs and rolled like the ocean when you moved. I hooked my toes over the edge and between the steel rails while holding onto the cross bar with both of my hands. Once I was in a crouch I waited until everything was steady and quiet; then I rose up holding my hands over my head. Just as I started to rock, my hands hit the ceiling and held me still. When I was sure my feet were locked-in I raised my head to take a look.
WOW! This was cool. I could see everything but my head. It was cut off above the mirror. What I did see, I didn’t recognize. A guy—yeah—a guy and not a kid anymore, standing with his arms up like maybe he was holdin’ barbells over his head. His body was stretched taunt and his legs were spread wide and steady. There were bulges and grooves and some with a little hair that I had never seen before. This was not the pale, skinny, stovepipe kid I knew. This was someone I liked the looks of!
But then, just as I was enjoying this vision, dead center in the yellow crotch below my waist, something moved steadily up and out under the cheesecloth. And when it rubbed against the gauze I got a thrill like I’d never known. It jerked my whole body stiff like a jolt of electricity. I pulled my right hand off the ceiling and pushed it back down. That set off an explosion in my pants and I doubled over with a yelp.
“What’s going on in there?” my Dad called from the hall.
“Nothin’, I got up to raise the window and stepped on a book.”
“You get yourself back to bed and stop roaming around—hear?”
I was panting like I had pulled myself up the climbing rope at the school gym and finally made it to the top. I slumped back down on the bed and tried to figure out what had happened.
I pushed my hand under the corduroy waistband. It was wet, sticky and wet. I traced my finger through a warm pool of stuff lying on my belly. I swiped some up on my finger and held it up to the light. It wasn’t blood, like I thought, but kinda milky and thick.
This had to be “IT”, the stuff that happened with sex. I heard guys talking and laughing about it, but still hadn’t figured it out. I just laughed too and wondered what they were being so idiotic about. Now I knew. This is what happened with a girl that made kids. Had to be. I wondered what it looked like close up in good light. I carefully wiped it all up with a sock in one move.
Could it look like a tiny kid? I’d heard guys planted their seed in a girl where it grew until they could breathe on their own. Had I just wasted a kid? How many did I have in there? I knew families with 8 or 9, or even 10 or 12 kids. Was I down to 10 or 11 now?
I pushed my swimsuit down off my hips and it happened again. Rubbing the cloth down over my pecker brought it back alive. I dragged him back up and a new sweet feeling swept through me. It was like when I climbed the center pole that held up Riazza’s garage, but a lot stronger. I tried climbing that pole again and again to get the same feeling. Sometimes I did and sometimes I didn’t, but nothing like this.
I grabbed him again and pushed back and forth, up and down rubbing the tip against the cheesecloth over and over. Each time getting that jolt of pleasure, better and better. All at once it happened and I grabbed the pillow with my mouth and pumped until it blew! And then he pulsed slower and slower in my hand.
My breathing was fast, my body relaxed and my mind swimming in a pool of pure pleasure. Wow! I could do this over and over again anytime I wanted!
I laid there and tried to figure it out. Maybe I had 15-20 of them bundled in my balls, and now I was just down to 19 or so. I didn’t want too many kids anyway. Mom and Dad had five of us. Most people said two was enough—a boy and a girl. How did you know which one would come out? How about twins? Joe and Dortha were twins, one of each. Did you do it twice in a row and exactly how did you get them in the girl. Why would they let you? For that matter why would they want you to?
I knew I didn’t know much and I didn’t know how to find out without showing I was somehow left out of the conversation. Everybody else knew everything. All the guys and even some of the girls would get all goofy and look at you like you were going to show them something when they talked about it. Still, now I knew my end of the deal. I delivered the seeds that grew into babies and my body was finally growing up.
I started to think about that.
I saw something I had never seen about me before. I was shaping up with muscles and shoulders. Not much of either, but more than I had noticed ever before. Then I thought about Rosemary and Dortha; and Doris and Kitt. They were different to. I didn’t get it, but I knew I’d have to find out before long. Anyway two kids were plenty.
Next morning Mom called from the hall.
“Mark, it’s past time to take your papers”.
“Yeah Mom, I’m up.”
I looked at the clock. I had slept in. I never slept in. I felt different.
Crap! The swimsuit. The sock! I looked down under the covers. I was naked. Nah, I was nude. I’d “slept in the nude”. I’d heard someone say that and now I’d done it. It felt right.
I searched the bottom of the bed under the blanket and my hand found the swimsuit. I pulled it out and held it up in front of the table lamp. Looked OK. It was dry, but the yellow pouch was bunched up and stuck together. I pulled it apart and it kinda crackled as I spread it open. I couldn’t see anything much, just a little crust of what looked like dried snot in an old handkerchief. I didn’t see any little bones or anything. Maybe it was a false alarm—maybe there was more to this that I was still missing.
“Mark! You’re going to be late. People still need their paper before they go to work.”
“Yeah Mom. I’m coming.”
I stretched the suit in every direction and rubbed it against the carpet. Every trace disappeared. The crotch was soft. Just like before. I folded it into a square and stuffed it into my dresser drawer, pulled on my underwear and pants, then headed for the bathroom. The clock on the hall table said 5:20. Sill OK. I could make it to my first delivery on time if I ran.
I peed, went back to my room, finished dressing and slid down the stairs on my socks.
Too late. I was down and there was no going back.
“Here’s your jacket. I put some peanut butter toast and a jar of milk in your bag. Eat it on the way up.”
“Thanks Mom, I’ll be OK. My room’s a mess. I’ll make the bed when I get back. I’ll take care of it. OK?”
“Just get going and get back. We need to finish up with the living room before you leave.”
“Sure—no problem. I’ll start right after breakfast.”
I pulled on my shoes, open the door and ran into the warm moist morning. I swung off the iron railing and hit the sidewalk off the bottom step. It was a sweet morning. The feeling of being free, on my own and in control burst in my chest as I reached Pittsboro Street. Things were different today. Different than every other day—ever!
I settled down as I went through the motions of my route; folding and tossing up one side and down the other. My mind returned to my room and my sock. It had to be there, but I couldn’t remember what I had done with it.
Finally I turned the corner into the alley and through the backyard gate, up the back steps and in the door to the kitchen. My place at the table was set and I could see two bacon strips drying on the stovetop.
“Mom—I’m home!” I called out.
“Make your toast. I’ll be right down to fix the eggs.”
She was upstairs. This was Friday. She didn’t change sheets until Monday. I was OK—I think?
I folded up the sides of the toaster and put two slices of bread on opposite sides. Mom knew I liked to do my own toast. They had to be done just right; brown all over with the crust just so. I hated cold raw crust, or burnt centers.
“Have some juice. I’ll be right down.”
I went over to the fridge; the one that she had won at Lucky Jack’s and pulled out the little juice pitcher and poured out a cheese jar of grape juice. It was a deep dark purple hole on the bright white kitchen table. I tipped it up to my lips and sucked the sweet liquid thru pursed lips, swallowing in small gulps of cold concentration—it almost hurt. Now I was alive to a new piece of the day.
“I don’t know how you can drink that stuff straight down?”
Mom winced as she walked out of the hall.
“It just feels real intense!” I blurted out and wished I hadn’t.
Mom paused and gave me her considered stare; the one that leaves you wondering how much she really knew.
“Sit down. I’ll get your breakfast.”
I pulled Tilly off my chair with no complaints. She liked to lay there next to the window in the sun. If she was in, that’s where she laid. If she was out, she laid on the other side of the glass on the garden table looking in.
“Mind, you have to put down new papers under the rug in the living room and tack it down before you leave. And make sure the paint is dry before you start.”
We had cleaned the walls and the floor, then I painted a band about a foot wide around the entire room anywhere the carpet wouldn’t cover, like the bay window. It was kind of a muddy red that was supposed to look like stained oak.
“Plenty of time. Billy’s out at the old airport flying model planes with his Granddad. We can’t go until after lunch. I’m gonna do most of my collecting before then.”
“Good. Remember, It’s due Monday by four.”
“I know, Mom.”
“Are you packed?”
“Yeah, all I need is my sleeping bag and to pack my food.”
It really wasn’t a sleeping bag, more like a bedroll she had made by sewing Granddad’s old army blanket onto an old tattered regular one; then folded them both in two and stitched shut the bottom and up the other side. It didn’t have a zipper, but the “US Army” insignia made it look real cool; like the Rough Rider it had belonged to Mom’s Dad.
“I’ll put your food in wax paper and leave it in the fridge for you.”
“OK. I better hurry and get back to my route, so’s I have time to tack down the rug before lunch.” I said as I scooped the eggs into my mouth.
“Slow down. They’ll wait for you.”
I finished the last of it by blotting up the egg yolk with the rest of my toast and folded the last bit of bacon into it.
“I’ll be back by ten to finish up!” I called back as I took the steps two at a time. “Gotta get my collection book!”
I pushed open my bedroom door. Oh No!? The bed was made. Mom never made my bed except on Monday’s when she washed the sheets. That was my job. This was her signal. She knew. What she knew I didn’t know—but she knew. She hadn’t said anything. She hadn’t left the crusted sock in the middle of the bed like she had the cigarettes I’d hidden between the box springs and mattress. She knew and by not saying anything and making the bed, she was telling me she knew, but I wasn’t in trouble. I’d guessed I would be in trouble if she found out, but I wasn't; or maybe I wasn’t yet.
Sometimes she’d wait for me to fess up to something I’d done that she’d already found out about. Every hour of her silence was like shifting down the kneelers at Church until it was my turn in the box. I’d never tell her about last night. Not in a million years. I couldn’t—never!
I got home at eleven.
“Sorry Mom, I’ll be ready!” I yelled as I burst through the front door.
The first thing I noticed was that the rug was down and tacked. Everything was done. Even the furniture was back in place.
“Ah Oh?” I thought.
This was bad. I was late and Mom had done my job by herself.
“Tim finished for you.” She said from behind me.
“I…, I had to help Mrs. Troy! Her parakeet got loose and she asked me to help catch him. He kept flying from one end of the house to the other! It took me most of an hour to get a dish towel over him and put back in the cage.”
“I knew you had a reason and your brother was up. He needed to help out around here and it’s his day off.”
Tim would be mad. I knew that. Why? Why’d Mom stick him with finishing my job. I didn’t get it.
“You’ve got just enough time to have a sandwich before Joey comes over to get you. Bring your things down and I’ll pour you some milk, then you’ll be ready.”
Things weren’t adding up. Not at all. I thought I was in trouble for sure, but now I was being treated special and everything was Ok—,even better than Ok?
“You go up and get ready.”
I climbed up the steps and opened my door. Everything was laid out on the bed. My extra underwear and socks, the bathing suit, a couple of t-shirts, and a little bound book—“Family and Marriage-A Guide for Young Men”. “The Book”! I’d heard about “The Book”!
My face flushed as I flipped through the pages with all these drawings of people like you saw in the encyclopedia. They looked like naked dolls. Their faces showed no expression and their arms and legs were held straight down and out at their sides, palms flat and forward. Little curved lines hinted at the good stuff, but you really couldn’t make much out of it.
“Mark!? Joe’s here!”
I slammed the book closed. It was too big to take with me and I wasn’t sure what the guys would think, if I shared it with them.
I looked around and decided to put it in the little cabinet in the corner, near the floor. This is where I kept my story books from when I was a kid. No one ever opened it anymore. I knelt down and pried the catch open. It had been painted over a couple of times but broke free with a pop. Inside were still the story books with worn covers showing B’er Rabbit, Tar Baby, and Mr. Macgregor Garden Patch. I shoved the book way to the back, closed the door and for good measure, shoved the nearby dresser up closer so it couldn’t be opened.
I emptied my pockets of change into the money bag I kept in my dresser drawer and counted out $1.75 in quarters. I’d still have enough to pay my paper bill on Monday and a couple of people still owed me for two weeks, so I’d have some spending money left. I grabbed up the clothes and stuffed them into my canvas book bag and tied the bedroll around my belt so it hung off my backside.
Joe and Mark were down in the kitchen waiting.
“Here, I put your sandwich along with a few cookies, in this bag. Get your milk. You can eat on the way out.”
“We’ll meet Bud over by the tracks, and Billy’s Mom’s gonna drop him off after they get back from the airport.” Joe reported.
“We better get goin’.”
I was anxious to get out of there before Mom said anything more.
She reached up and put her hand on my cheek like it was just the two of us standing there.
“Bye son.” Her eyes touched mine for a second.
“Don’t worry, we’ll bring him back alive.” Hank laughed.
The three of them laughed, but I knew she wasn’t worried. It was something else, something new between us that was complicated.
“Yeah. Let’s get going. Should only take us a couple of hours to get out there.”
I gulped down the rest of my milk.
Out the door, down the steps, and up the street we paraded; laughing and pushing each other. We headed out St. Celeste Street towards the Park, then we crossed through the old cemetery and came out on the main line. There used to be five tracks, now there were only four, so we had plenty of room walking thru the tunnels and over bridges. Bud was waiting, sitting on top of a pile of railroad ties they’d ripped up from the road bed of the fifth set of rails. We cut a curve away from him bending towards the old quarry.
“Last one to the cliffs has to jump!” Hank called out.
We all ran to the nearest point close to the edge of the slope that fell down the hill over the Arch Street tunnel.
“Hey! No fair!” Bud cried as he stumbled forward dragging his pack that bounced along the rocky roadbed.
“You didn’t give me a chance! You cut me off!”
We pulled up at the edge of the quarry, laughing and waited for him to catch up.
“Good thing we’re running late.” said Joe “But you owe us one. Next time you have to jump from the rock ledge.” And he pointed to an out cropping down the trail about 30 feet.
“C’mon, I’ll show ya.”
We all dropped our gear and edged down the footpath in the gravel that angled down the steep slope. I hated the idea. It was Ok to climb the fence at the bottom behind the beer distributor’s warehouse where they made and sold ice. That was flat and led out to the edge where it was only five or six feet to the water. I’d jump in from there, but looking up 90 feet to the “diving” ledge; I knew I’d never take that plunge. Older kids would jump, and some would even dive. They said there were rocks just under water atthe bottom, and if you didn’t get a good take-off from the to—and get out far enough—it was curtains for you.
We crept forward holding on to the branches of the ragged bushes that grew up around the brink of the pit; our feet sliding on the loose stones that spilled down from the roadbed above. Joe broke thru the brush first and walked straight out on top of the rock. Hank followed him. I was next and edged around the bushes until I could see down to the shiny black surface of the water. The quarry was only about 200 feet around, a perfect circle cut straight down thru the stone. They said it went down another 80 feet below the water.
Joe picked up a rock and made a perfect toss near the middle of the mirrored surface. It made a deep swallowing sound,
“Baa-luppp!!!”, that echoed off the stone walls and rippled in circles to the shore.
“You comin’ out?’ He turned and invited the rest of us.
“No way! I’m not gonna be the third idiot out on top of that loose rock. I wanna live!”
“Chicken! Cluck-cluck-cluck!” He mocked.
“Buc-buc-buc!” I called back and started back up the path.
“I’ll tell them you just slipped off when the rock tipped. That’s if they ever find your body. Otherwise you jumped and never came back up!”
Both possibilities now planted themselves in Joe’s brain.
“Hell, it’s too late in the day anyway to take a swim and get dried off.” Joe answered me back.
He turned more cautiously, bent forward and crept back up to the tree line. Hank did the same and all four of us climbed back up the trail without a word. After I had pulled Hank up the last couple of steps over the edge to the tracks, we all congratulated ourselves on the smooth level ground at the top with a few wisecracks and loud laughs.
“I thought you’d puke when you looked over the rim, Dummy!”
“Yeah? Well I saw how really pale you could really get when your foot slid at the bottom coming out of the woods, Conroy!”
“Buc-buc-buc.” Called Hank. “Yeah, next time you go first!
“I ain’t as dumb as you, or as short!” I answered.
“I’ll show you short!”
I took off running and Hank chased me down. We crashed to the ground, him on top as usual.
“Now who’s short?”
“Maybe not so short? Let me up.”
He let go of my wrists and I rolled out from under him and stood back up.
“Not so short—just hollow!” I called back as I ran ahead laughing.
“Better lookin’ than a carrot-topped-skinny-ass-bean-pole like you!”
That about counted us as even, and we walked along throwing rocks and insults at each other. Neither of them meant to hurt, just show how tough we could be. Up ahead, a spur cut off the mainline to the right. Just a single track that dove into the woods that closed narrow between the tall overhanging trees.
“This leads to the cement plant below the Catholic cemetery and comes out on the other side of Route 30 across the Highway from the Phail farm.” explained Hank. “Shortest way to get there.” He added.
I’d passed by this spur before, and others like it, that use to led from the coal mines to the coke ovens. Some went thru tiny villages of company shacks close-in by the rails. People there were different; real poor with dogs chained-up outside next to chicken coops and outhouses out back of the house in the corner of their yards. The kids were wary, looking and watched you when you passed by, like they were considering chasing you down. But there were four of us today and we still had a couple of miles to go, so why not?
“C’mon.” Joe challenged.
Bud stepped out and led the way, taking his glasses off and stuffing then deep in his pockets.
“I’ll bet I can walk the rails faster and further than any of you can!”
With that he stepped up on the left rail, held out his arms, and took off. Damn guy could balance! The rest of us split up. Hank followed Bud, and Joe and I took the right rail. Trick was to catch up and push the guy ahead of you off and pass him up. And, if he fell off, to put as much distance as you could ahead of him. Soon we had all fallen or been pushed off many times, and now it was a free-for-all, running ahead and climbing back on, always taunting each other to keep up.
The shot was fired close by and we hit the ditch on the opposite side of the roadbed.
“What the hell was that!?” I shouted in a whisper.
“Got ‘em!” Someone called out.
Joe edged up the bank and peered over the rails.
“A couple of big kids—‘bout ten yards out comin’ this way—Ridgers.”
He slid back down to the bottom. Ridgers were the name given to anybody who didn’t go to school with you.
“Whadda we do?”
“Can’t run, only way is straight back down the tracks. They’d see us for sure runnin’ away. Stick low, maybe they’ll walk by and won’t see us.”
The crunch of their footfalls decided for us. They were walking abreast straight for us. No way they weren’t gonna see us crouching at the bottom of the bank.
“C’mon, stand up. We can’t let them see us hidin’.”
Hank climbed up the bank and we all followed, trying to make it look like we were just comin’ out of the woods. Now we could see each other plain. There were three of them, each with a rifle folded back over their shoulders and holding gunny sacks in their other hand. They were older than us; a year, maybe two. They stopped. We stopped.
“Who are you!?”
The biggest one stepped forward in the middle of the tracks and lowered his gun across his chest.
“Came out from town, down by the park. Just headed thru to the highway.” I offered.
“This ain’t no way to the highway, hear?” He replied.
“Just takin’ a short cut.”
“This ain’t no shortcut, neither.”
One of the two others stepped around him and walked closer.
“Conroy!?” He screwed up his face in a grin.
“Dinger?!” I called back.
“They’re OK!” He yelled back over his shoulder. “Conroy worked with me at the Hose House. Where you goin?”
“Out to a farm, the Phail farm on the other side of Route 30.”
“Their paying us to kill some bats in the barn—shittin’ all over the cars inside.”
That met with approval and ridicule all around.
“Killin’ bats! Are you crazy?” Laughed the leader. “You can’t ketch no bats.”
“We’ll do it in the daylight, when they can’t see.”
“Stupid kids. You can’t ketch no bat!” He reconfirmed.
The ice was broken. Everybody relaxed. Billy always ran with Ridgers, but he was right about us. We’d worked together. No, he’d gotten me the job at the Hose House on Saturday night’s selling cards and drinks to the Bingo players. He lived on the other side of Pittsboro Street headed up to St. Celeste Park across the street from Sowash’s Auto Supply. His Dad was a fireman when he wasn’t drivin’ a cross-country truck. I met him at the Red Devil fair in the parking lot between their backyard and Lucky Jack’s. I’dfollowed my brother one night and lost all my money playing Chuck-A-La in just two spins. Billy saw me moping around waitin’ on Tim to go home. He said that if I helped him pick up the bottles scattered on the ground and thrown in the trash, we’d split the deposit. I made more than I’d lost that night—filled up three cases and shared $1.44 with Billy. His real name was Billy Deniker, but he liked “Dinger” better.
Billy’s kind nuts in a strange way. He’s hyper most of the time and jumps around like a monkey makin’ strange noises and “actin' a fool”, as Mom would say. Still, I think he’s watchin’ you as much as you’re watchin’ him to see how you react to how he acts.
I found him one morning sitting on the steps next to Marie’s dinner eating her donuts. I was on my way up to get my papers and he was just sitting there eating a cinnamon donut. It was cold, but Billy only had on an old silk shirt with tigers stitched all over it. And he was quiet—real quiet. I got him to go with me on my route and he slowly woke up to his usual self. I think his Dad had thrown him out, or maybe he’d just left in the middle of a big fight. Who knows?
“You ever shoot one of these?” Billy danced in front of me. Go on, take it, and see if you can hit somethin’.”
He pushed the rifle against my chest and let go.
“Never have, huh?”
“Huntin’—fishin’—fishin’—huntin’, they all go together. You do one, you’ll like the other. C’mon!” He circled me. “C’mon—shoot somethin’.”
I really didn’t know how to shoot. Never had shot a real gun, just BB guns, but I knew how to hold it and pull the trigger. I raised it up and turned around to sight down the tracks. Everyone else moved with me to stay out of the way. There was a pile of ties stacked up 20-30 feet away.
“C’mon shoot! See if you can hit it!”
I aimed low so the bullet wouldn’t go over the top.
I was holding it too tight and close. The recoil spun me a quarter turn. My shoulder felt like it had been hit with a hammer. The dirt and rocks kicked up in front of the pile, and the noise echoed away. I lowered the gun. Something was moving in the middle of the ties.
“You hit it! You hit it!”
Hit what? I was puzzled and scared of what I’d find. I trotted forward towards the pile having tossed the rifle back to Billy. When I got there I found a Spatsy flapping in circles, squeaking like a mouse. He tumbled down the ties like falling down stairs, and landed at my feet. Then he spun around in circles like a broken toy.
“I didn’t see him.”
“You got him—good shot!” Billy patted me on the back.
“Got him hell! He kicked up some rocks that hit ‘em. Missed by two feet.” Said the bigger Ridger.
“I didn’t even see him.”
“Well he don’t know that. Go on, put him out of his misery.”
“Stomp him. He’s gonna die any way. No sense leavin’ him to suffer.”
“May I can fix him?”
“Fix him!? Hell, dummy, you killed him!”
With that he raised his foot and slammed it down on the bird. When he lifted it back up, the bird seemed to relax and settle into sleep.
“C’mon Dean, let’s get outta here. These boys’ll probably hold a funeral.” he laughed.
He swung his foot again and kicked the body down the grade. I stood there and watched the feathered remains roll to the bottom. My fault.
“C’mon, let’s get outta here.”
Joe motioned with his head and started back down the tracks. Bud and Hank followed. I stood there a moment longer looking down as the breeze ruffled the grey feathers on his chest and waited for something to happen. I had always waited. I was always quiet. Then it was over. He was gone. Nothing I could do. I’d never killed anything before, meaning to.
“Mark!” Joe called. “C’mon.”
I looked his way then back to the bird. It wasn’t the same. Something had changed inside me.
They waited a bit until I caught up, then we all took off towards the sound of the rock crusher at Bidemillers. After a while the “Crunch-Crunch-Crunch” of its jaws splitting small boulders into tiny rocks that shot out on a long conveyor belt, held us in a trance. We watched the complex of grates and belts sort out the stones into huge piles. The only interruption was the rumble as another truckload was dumped into a tilted tray that fed the jaws. We all approached the chain link fence and watched. The piles grew and then slid down in small smooth avalanches. We filed along the length of the fence watching all the dust covered equipment grind out their work, every minute the same one as the ones before.
“There’s the highway!” Hank yelled.
You could just see the straight edge of the road cut across the horizon.
“Look for the tunnel.” Joe called.
There was a tunnel under the highway. It took the creek that fed the pond under the road, just like Moffett Field, but way smaller. We intersected with the bottom of the grade and looked left and right.
“Which way?” Bud asked.
Joe looked back the way we’d come and pointed out the few trees and a line of brush that formed a ragged procession that led up to the bottom of the road bank.
We cut across the loose gravel that puddled at the bottom until we could see the top corners of a culvert wall. When we got there we saw a small stream leave the green pasture and disappear into a low wide concrete tunnel maybe five foot high and four feet wide. We gathered at the entrance and looked through to the other side where a distant light stared back.
“That’s a long way.” I observed. “I don’t think we can stand up either.”
“There’s no ledge inside, like Mac’s Run.” Bud added.
“And it ain’t no shit crick, like Mac’s Run.” Joe countered.
“Look, do you want to climb up this hill of loose rock, walk across the road, then try to slide all the way back down the other side?”
“Yeah.” Bud agreed.
“No way!” Joe responded.
“Sure.” Hank added.
“Maybe.” I broke both ways.
“Three to one; we go thru it.” Joe decided.
“Huh?” Bud questioned. “I heard a ‘sure’ and a ‘maybe’. That makes it a tie—at best!”
“Have it your way.” Joe readily agreed. “I’m still going thru.”
He stepped off the low bank and into the middle of the steam.
“Who else’s comin’'?”
Hank followed Joe, and I followed him.
“C’mon Bud, we’ll be thru before ya know it.”
Bud jumped in ahead of me.
Once we had stooped over and cleared the entrance any sound echoed like an old hollow oil tank. Joe yelled out.
“HEL-L-O-O-O-O!!” It boomed back at us.
“WH-O-O-O A-R-R-E Y-O-O-O-U-U?!” Hank answered.
Then I pulled off my best Bella Lugosi.
“I V-A-N-T T-O-O D-R-I-N-K Y-O-O-U-R B-L-U-U-D!”
Followed by his deep evil laugh. “W-H-AH-HA-HA!!!”
“Stop it!” Bud complained.
We all laughed and splashed forward in the shin deep water. The square of light was growing at the other end and we knew we were home free. Joe cleared the other side and stood up straight, his feet disappearing and leaving his body and head silhouetted against the bright fields beyond. All you could see was his profile, like in a picture, framed over the tops of trees with fields and hills beyond.
“We made it! We’re there—almost.” He called back.
The tunnel ended in a shallow pool of water backed up into the entrance. Then there was an apron of concrete that spread out at the mouth, where a row of concrete gapped teeth split the water into regular small streams that poured evenly over the spillway. Where there had been stone and gravel with water 14 inches deep, now it was a two foot deep concrete rimmed pool.
“I’ll take a look.” He volunteered.
He handed his pack to me and stepped up on the slanted apron. Just that quick he was flat on his ass in the pool.
“Jesus!” he shouted going down and splashing up the water.
Now he was sitting chest deep in the water on this side of the toothed curb.
“Damn thing is covered with scum!”
In the half light inside the tunnel, you couldn’t see the smooth, green strings of algae that skimmed the concrete floor.
“Whadda we do?”
“I’m goin’ back.” Bud concluded right then and there.
“And do what!? Climb up a 60 degree slope of loose rock on one side and slide, or more like roll, down the other? Let’s stick with this! We’re maybe 20 feet up and 10 feet out from where we wanna go. Hell, I’m wet! I’ll scoot on my butt down over the edge.
Joe pulled himself up on the curb and climbed on the raised caps on top.
“Unpack that sail. We’ll use it like a rope!”
We had brought the old sail from the KonTiki for shade and cover at the pond.
“Give me one end and hold on to the other.”
I unrolled it and grabbed one corner. Joe leaned back and took the other end. He lightly stepped off from the curb and stuck his heels in ahead of himself. That worked for about four feet, until he lost traction and slid down like he was on a bobsled.
“Shit!” He hollered as he leaned back and grabbed the sail with both hands.
I sat down and braced my feet against the curb and held on. Joe snapped to a stop with his heels about two feet from the bottom. He raised his head between his arms and saw the situation with relief and let go of the tarp. Now he was soaked through and through and covered in mud and slime.
“That tweren’t too bad.” He laughed as he peeled scum off his pants.
“I’m not doin’ that!” Said, you can guess who.
“Yeah, Bud—you are! And you’re next!”
“My stuff, our clothes, the food; they’ll all get wet.” He argued.
“Good point.” Joe agreed. “Spread out the sail over the curb on your end and I’ll open it up down here. It’s canvas; maybe we can keep it on top of the water while you roll the packs down to me.”
Hank shrugged and joined me sitting in the water and holding our end open.
“Load ‘em on, Bud!’
Bud hoisted the packs one at a time and swung them out as far as he could into the middle of the tarp. The first one rolled to Joe; so did the second one. The third one stuck.
“Stand up you guys!” called Joe.
Hank and I stood and raised our end. The pack rolled forward and Joe grabbed it off and stacked it with the others on top of the stone teeth at the bottom.
“Last one.” Bud heaved it onto the raised tarp and it rolled fast on past Joe and off the other end.
“Nice shot, Sherlock! That was mine, you nitwit!” Hank cried out.
Joe looked down over the edge at the bottom.
“Well, the good news is—it floats!”
“Heh-Heh. Sorry Hank, I thought it might get stuck.” Bud laughed and apologized.
“For sure—it didn’t. Now what?” Hank asked.
“Now everyone gets wet and ends up lookin’ like me!”
For emphasis Joe pulled another strand of green slime off this head.
“Look Bud. You sit on the tarp and I’ll hold this end up and taunt while you slide forward. You may get wet, but you won’t have to slide through slime. Hank! You and Mark got it!?”
Hank and I looked at each other.
“Yeah. We got it!”
Bud climbed out into the middle of the tarp.
“Grab the edge stupid!” Hank advised.
He was heavier than he should have been. He scooted forward with a jerk.
Too late. The tarp jerked out of my grip and turned Bud sideways.
Hank leaned forward as far as he could but still had to let go as the tarp pulled through his fingers.
“Whoa-a-a-a!!” Bud yelled.
Joe braced against the block cap and laid himself forward on the spillway to brake his slide. Now he was flat on his stomach, the tarp bunched against his head, and Bud’s crotch split between his outstretched arms.
“Nice catch Yogi!”
“Thanks, Joe” Bud offered as he looked down and saw the water streaming over his ears.
“Just bend your knees—‘cause I’m gonna let go!” Joe sputtered.
With that he pushed him and the tarp over to the right and watched Bud spin halfway around—then stop gently against the cap stones.
“OK you clowns—your turn!” Joe repeated.
“Just bunch the tarp between you two and I’ll aim for it. C’mon Mark, grab on!” Hank eased over the edge.
He sat on the top of the curb and reached back for me with one hand. With the other he grabbed the curb and rolled on his back.
“Shit, this is cold! OK lay against the curb and let me down as far as you can.”
I laid flat against the edge, the water backing up behind me, and stretched out as far down as I could.
“Wait! Grab my leg!” I yelled and rolled over the curb face down.
Hank changed his grip from my arm to my pants and hung on to them while I let myself down the apron with a grip on the curb.
“That’s as far as I can go!” I called down. “Let go!”
“We got ya!” Joe reassured him.
Hank let go and slid the last six feet dragging his arms above his head. Joe and Bud laid forward; caught and stopped him between them. Hank sat up and spat out a mouthful of green muck. He looked like he’d crawled out of a sewer.
“The monster from the Green Lagoon!” Bud mocked.
Hank rose up and smacked him in the face with a fistful of slime.
We all broke out laughing.
“OK Conroy, your turn.”
I was still hanging on to the curb with both hands.
“Hank! Stretch out on your side!” Joe directed. “I’ll do the same over here. Bud, you sit down between us and brace your legs against the cap stones! Mark, kick off your shoes! Hank and I will slow you down and Bud’ll stop you!”
Everyone shifted into position.
I thought to myself. “This is weird.” I felt great. The water was washing over me, down inside my sleeves, across my back and chest through my pants and down along my legs. It was steady, wet, and—weird.
I closed my eyes, leaned back, and let go. The green ooze was soft and slick. Some of it pushed up inside my pants and bunched against my crotch where it churned with the water coming from both directions.
“What!?” I wondered before their hands grabbed me on both sides and my bare feet hit the soft support of Bud’s back.
“I’m Ok! Ok?” I called out and they let go of me.
“Get off me!” Bud hollered.
He pushed back against me and I rolled towards Joe and dropped down into the line-up against the cap stones and sat up. The four of us were bunched together in the middle if the spillway with water rolling around both sides. You could see the cow pasture spread outahead with the pond below on the left. The barn was up the hill on the right. We were there, but the stream fell another ten feet down another smooth apron that ended at a pile of big raw boulders. The water rushed evenly down the apron and disappeared into the rocks below; then it came out a little further on, just like the little creek it was on the other side of the road.
“We’re trapped.” Joe observed.
We were in a cage with a low wall on both side of the bottom apron topped with an eight foot chain link fence. It went down oneside of the apron, across the top above us, and down on the other side into the boulders. Between the two ends at the bottom stretched a barb wire fence about four feet high laced with steel pickets that hung from the top to the bottom wire and kept the wires evenly spaced, with no room to squeeze between. Just like the engineers had planned, it was meant to keep fools like us from entering at this end. We fooled them by coming from the other side of the road. Hank’s pack laid in a small pool against the barbed wire fence, with the strap hanging off a rock.
“How do we get outta here?” He asked.
“Only one way that I can see.” Said Joe. “We find a hole under the wire between those rocks.”
“Where? I don’t see any hole.”
“Bud—there’ll be a hole.” Joe assured him.
“First, let’s throw the packs over the fence. No sense dragging them over there with us.”
Joe stood up on the edge and walked across the stone caps to the pile.
“You and Bud go to the other end. Hank and I will take care of getting the packs over this corner of the fence.”
Hank headed left towards Joe and they started throwing the gear up and over the chain link fence. The bundles hit the dirt on the other side and rolled the rest of the way down.
“OK Bud, get over to the fence and hang on to the chain link. It’s dry there—so you won’t slip!”
Bud edged along the cap stones and gripped the diamond chain links. I followed holding one hand on the steel mesh. Hank’s pack was in the middle about 15 feet from both corners.
“Let me get around you.” I motioned to Bud who pushed himself against the wire at the corner.
I stretched out my arms and passed behind him still using the fence to steady myself. I was close by the barb wire and could reach between the points for the first few feet where the apron was dry. The first time my foot touched the water skimmed muck, I lost my balance and sat straight down on my butt pushing my feet against a rock just under the other side of the wire.
“Watch it!” I called back to Joe. “You still can’t stand!”
Joe shook his head and he and Hank lowered themselves to thedeck. Leaning back on their hands, they crab-walked their feet against the closest rocks. I did the same. About eight feet in, Joe called across.
“There’s some room under the wire over here.”
He lowered himself down in a crevice between two boulders. He touched bottom and was still only waist deep in the water with the bottom strand of wire riding only ten inches above his shoulders. He pushed up on the wire and got maybe another three inches of slack.
“Let me try and get my feet further down in this hole!”
He turned his body to the side and leaned back. In an instant he dropped two feet and fell backwards; the top of his head just showing between his thrashing arms.
“Grab him, Hank!!”
Hank jumped into the hole behind him and pulled up. Joe’s head came up out of the water coughing and gasping.
“I got you!” Hank shouted. “Push up, I’ll pull you out!”
“Can’t! Damn foot won’t budge! Just keep holding my head up!”
“Hold on!” I scurried across to the middle where Hank’s pack bobbed, caught on the rock. The water was going somewhere.
“On my way!” he answered.
Bud was on his hands and knees moving towards Hank and Joe.
This wasn’t the Bud I was expecting. He slid himself across the apron, started to slide, but dropped flat in the water and rolled the rest of the way. When he got to them he dropped into the hole on the other side and took hold of Joe’s arm. Joe looked back over his shoulder.
“Damn Bud—where’d you come from?!”
Bud smiled. “Couldn’t just let you drown.”
“I appreciate that.”
“Ok! Ok! Can you work your foot free!?” I hollered.
Joe concentrated straining against the rock and water.
“No good! I can’t move it either way. I’m caught good.” He replied in disgust.
“Hang on. I’m going under the wire and work on your foot from the other side.”
I reached Hank’s pack and saw the water funnel into a narrow gapand drop fast through the bottom to the other side. I hooked the straps of the pack around my shoulders and against my back, leaned forward and grabbed the bottom wire with both hands. The water was pushing me forward from the rear. I laid back into it and it ripped me off the rock. I found myself on the other side of the barbwire. Water was gushing around and over me. I couldn’t see a thing; nothing else I could do but let go! I dropped four or five feet straight down and landed with a splash on my butt in a shallow pool.
The pack hit first and acted like a brake as it settled to the bottom with my head still above water.
“Mark! Mark! You Ok?!”
Surprised at the answer, I called back.
“Yeah. I’m Ok?”
“Get over here then, Joe’s gettin’ heavy!”
I splashed across the pool and climbed the few boulders between us. Joe was hanging into the same kind of slot I had just slid through, but he was chest deep with nothin’ I could see under him.
“Hang on!” I worked my way down the rock and into the pool below him.
It got deeper the closer I got, now just my head and shoulders were out of the water. I had to go under to see what was holding him.
“Which leg?” I yelled up at Joe.
“The right one!”
I got right under him and grabbed onto his right leg.
“I’m goin’ under and see what’s got you!”
I took a deep breath and pulled myself down his leg. As soon as I was under my feet lifted off the bottom and stretched me out flat pulled by the current. My hands moved down his shin and felt the top of his black canvas high tops. My fingers jammed against rocks on bothsides of his foot. I couldn’t see the problem, because I couldn’t “see” anything! My eyes were squeezed shut. I’d never opened them before under water. I pull his foot forward hard and he kicked me with the other one. I let go and twisted away until I hit another bolder on the side. I stood up choking.
“You stuck me worse! My foot felt like it was goin’ into a vise. That can’t be the right way!”
I looked back at him, hanging from Hank and Bud’s grasp.
“I didn’t know. Your foot seems like it’s tipped forward. I thought I could pull it free!”
“Seems or is!?”
“I was fighting the current. I couldn’t push the other way.”
“Damn it Mark! We can’t hold him up much longer. Just get back under there and do somethin’!!!”
I pushed back against the current and wedged myself between him and the rock and reached down—still short of the top of his shoe.
“OK! I’m going back. I’m going between your legs so I can hold myself in place!”
I pushed back down and got my head under his crotch like we were cock fighting riding on each others shoulders. I was pointed straight down and both hands found his shoe. With everything I had I pushed open my eyes. I could see! His leg, his shoes, my hands! It was different, cloudy, but still I could see! The water was bubbling and foaming showing its path rushing over me. His foot was pointed straight down between the rocks on both sides and his heel was trapped under the edge of the concrete apron. He had to go down and forward to get unhooked, but Bud and Hank were holding him up and back to keep his head above water. I saw the laces of his high tops streaming loose at my fingers. Maybe….? I pulled one end and the bow untied. I stuck my finger under the knot and worked it loose. It unraveled. I pulled at the next cross-tie and it loosened. I did the next, and the next. Joe got the idea and turned his foot from side to side in the shoe. I pushed his foot down and hung onto the heel. He wriggled and his foot popped out. I pushed up with all my might as Hank and Bud pulled him off my shoulders. He was free and I was back above water.
“Holy Hell!” I gasped as I lay back against the rocks on my side. I was choking and laughing like a fool. The other three were standing in a row looking down at me in puzzled silence.
“Shoeless Joe!” I called up. “Shoeless Joe Jackson!” I pointed to Joe’s bare foot still held up out of the water.
Joe got it first. He let go of his fear and burst out laughing. Hank and Bud weren’t so sure of the joke.
“Yeah?! And you better find my shoe or I’m gonna be pissed!”
I ducked back under the water and found it still stuck in the crevice. I pushed it down then out—came back out of the water and heaved it at him.
“We deliver—no service too small!” We were both convulsed with relief and success.
“You shitheads!” Hank reacted. Joe turned and draped his arms over him and Bud’s shoulders and pulled their heads together.
“You can’t take a joke?”
“Joke my ass! We were this close to dropping you!” Hank sputtered holding his two fingers tight together.
“Yeah, but you didn’t! You hung on.”
“Next time we might not, and then you wouldn’t be so lucky.” Bud worried.
“No you won’t. You didn’t—and you wouldn’t. There was no luck, knuckleheads! Now hold me steady while I put my shoe back on.”
He let go of Hank and pushed his foot back into his shoe.
“Thanks guys. I owe you.”
“C’mon, I’m still the only one on this side!” I broke the mood.
“It’s easy over there!” I pointed back to my where Hank’s pack had caught. “Just slide down under the wire. There’s a little drop into a pool at the bottom. Keep your legs flexed. It ain’t deep!”
One after another they sat down and rode the chute down into the pool. We were back together, all on the right side. Yeah—and it was different.
This side of the wire was like it used to be before they widened the road; just pastures full of cows where you could turn a circle and find nothin’ but country. Same as it’s been forever.
“Hey, let’s clean up here. The pond water’s all muddy.” Hank advised.
“Yeah, I’ll grab the packs and bring ‘em over.” Bud offered.
“Let’s get outta these gross clothes. I’ve got crap crammed up me into every crevice.”
Joe pulled off his shoes again and dropped his jeans.
“Hold on. Don’t forget the tour bus.”
“Oh yeah, the tour bus!”
The Chestnut Valley bus crossed by on the road the other side of the open field.
“Hey, we’ll give them a thrill!” I laughed.
“They see you and they’ll call an ambulance.” Joe mocked.
“Shit, we almost needed one to take your water-logged ass back to your Mom!”
I countered pushing my pants down and then pushing him back over into the water. He fell over dramatically and splashed water back my way.
“Hey! Toss in my clothes. Yours too! We’ll wash ‘em out and spread them out on the bank.
I rolled up his pants and pushed them off in a hook shot.
Hank caught me mid-delivery from behind and pushed me over towards Joe and jumped in.
“Out of bounds! No point!”
Bud came back hauling our stuff, hesitated, dropped everything, and jumped in with all his clothes still on.
“Can’t get clean dressed up like that. Grab him!” Hank put him in a bear hug and Joe and I each grabbed a leg until we had his pants off and waving over our heads.
“Ok! Ok! Let go. I’ll finish this myself.” Bud slipped under Hank’s grip and came up waving his underwear.
“Get him!” The three of us lead the charge against Hank, stripping him bare and pushing him over.
“You’re all gonna get it now!” Hank threatened as he chased me down.
I dove under the water between Joe’s legs and rose up with him on my shoulders.
“Whose gonna get who, Ke-mo-sabe?”
“C’mon Bud. Let’s finish this fight.” He submerged and Bud crawled up on his shoulders.
Hank and I charged each other while Bud and Joe locked onto each other above.
“Left! Go left!” Joe shouted.
I pivoted left and all of us teetered over slowly and finally crashed over into the water in a pile, sliding apart as we hit and laughing like
“Enough! Enough! A draw, Ok?”
“Yeah. A draw!”
“Let’s rinse out these clothes and spread them out in the sun.”
We each grabbed whatever was floating nearby and dunked them up and down in the water a couple of times, rung them out and tossed them up on the bank. I crawled out first, naked as a Jaybird, and started spreading them on the lone pine that stood between us and the road.
“Tour bus at two o’clock!” Hank shouted.
I dropped to my knees.
Everybody else was laughing. There was no bus.
“Get up here and help me!”
Joe, Bud and Hank all climbed the bank and joined me on the grass.
“It’s gonna be hours ‘til these things dry. We can’t hang out here all day naked. Out of the water—you know. It’ll look queer?”
We all realized then what he meant, and Joe was right. We were too old to play like kids in the sprinkler.
“The suits! Our swimsuits—the ones we made! That’d be Ok?!”
“It’s all we got left.” I motioned as I walked back and opened my pack.
I pulled out my cheesecloth concoction and held it in front of me.
“What the hell?!” Hank questioned as I stepped through the leg holes and pulled it up.
“Captain Idio-o-o, you mean!”
“Hey, let’s see any of you do any better!”
Joe looked around and found his duffel, dropped to his knees, reached in and pulled out a pillow case printed with big leaves.
He guided his feet through the holes cut across where the bottom two corners had been and hiked it up around his waist.
“Jungle Jim?” I questioned.
“No dummy; Long John Silver—South Seas and all that! These are palm leaves.” He pointed out the print.
“OK Long John, but your banana is still stickin’ out!”
Joe reached in and retrieved himself.
“Damn leg holes are cut too loose.”
“I got the answer to that.” Hank was certain. He held up a long strip of brown cloth.
“A table cloth for a 2X4—right!?”
“Yeah—you think, just watch this.”
Hank folded the cloth in half length wise and pushed it between his legs.
“A diaper! A used one!”
He strung a length of rope thru the fold behind him and pulled it tight under the loose flap in front and struck a pose with his hands cupped around his mouth.
“Ahhhhhhh-a-Ahhhhhhhhh-AHHHHH!!!” He yelled. “Tarzan—the Ape-man!”
“More like Cheeeth-ahhhhh-a-AHHHHH! The Dip Shit you mean!” I called back.
Bud hadn’t made a move or joined in on the fun.
“Ok Bud, can you top that?”
“Nah-h-h. My Mom thought the idea was just plain foolishness.”
“So what’d you bring?”
He reached in his waterproof bag and pulled out an old swimsuit.
“Just this.” He whispered and held up a sorry lookin’ pair of trunks that damn near came down to his knees.
“She said the pond mud would ruin anything good. This was Ed’s when he was a kid.”
Ed was Bud’s older brother. Joe looked at the possibilities.
“Ed ain’t gonna miss ‘em, right?”
“No. Ed doesn’t care.”
“Give ‘em here. I got an idea.”
Bud stepped forward and held them out to Joe.
“Just need a little work.”
He grabbed them and put a hand in each pocket and pulled in opposite directions.
“R-i-p-p-p-p!” The pockets tore off.
“Who’s got a knife?”
Hank dug back in his pack and pulled out a Scout knife, opened it and handed it to Joe. Joe pushed the knife into the suit just below the draw strings and pushed down slitting it clear to the bottom.
“What? Whadda you doin’?”
“Just hold on.” Joe answered and did it again and again, all around the suit, leaving the jock strap in place. Then he took the bottom off and left the shreds dangling at differ lengths and angles. He held up the tattered remains and shouted.
“Shipwrecked! Try ‘em on.” He threw them back to Bud.
Bud pulled them up. They were way shorter now and hung free in strips waving in the wind; his crotch covered by the white mesh pocket.
“Rub some mud on that and you’ll look like a torpedoed survivor.”
Bud could see that.
“Yeah! A gunner on a battleship, blown off the bridge!”
“You got it—Gunny!”
Now all four of us had a story to tell.
“C’mon, Gung a Din.” I motioned to Hank.
“Let’s eat! Who’s got somethin’ to eat? We can’t go up on the road lookin’ like this.”
“I got crackers! Anyone got peanut butter?”
“No but I got cheese.”
“How ‘bout something to drink. I’m thirsty.”
“There’s a pump up by the barn. I’ll see if I can find a cup or some jars.”
“Hey! I got a jar of milk and some cookies.” I offered.
“Well pass it around. These crackers are as dry as a popcorn fart!”
We all laughed and dug into the pile of food scattered across the tarp. Soon we were silent finishing off the remains. It was just about five and the sun was still high and bright.
“Man I’m hot and getting’ burnt.” I complained.
“You Irish Lily. You’re as red as a beet! This tree isn’t much shade, but we could tie the tarp off at the top and prop some sticks under it at the ends. Should give us enough to sleep under tonight.”
“Sounds good,” I said. “I’ll help Joe set up the lean-to; you guys go find some wood. We’re gonna need a fire to dry out our clothes for tomorrow.”
“HEY! Hey you kids!”
It was gettin’ late and Billy hadn’t showed up yet. We had finished building a fire after deciding to hike out to the road and find some food once our clothes were dry. We looked up the hill towards the barn at the guy yelling down at us.
“Put out that damn fire! Whadda you crazy!?”
He started loping down the hill.
“Who’s that?” Bud asked.
“Beats me.” I replied.
“This is private property. You can’t camp here. Hear!”
Joe called back. “We’re workin’ for Mrs. Carnes—one of the Phial’s.”
“I’m one of the Phials. This here’s my place. She’ my Aunt!”
This was Paul, Billy’s Great Uncle. He lived in the old farm house and took care of the place. He was a drunk.
“You Paul!?” I asked as he came out on the flat towards us.
“Who are you?”
“Mark—Mark Conroy, we’re all neighbors of the Carnes’. Billy’s friends.”
“Where’s Billy then?!” He demanded.
“He’s supposed to be here.”
Paul closed in on us and gave us a double take.
“Why the hell you dressed like that!?”
We did look dumb wearin’ our homemade swimsuits and stumblin’ around in boots and sneakers.
“They’re—they’re swimsuits, kinda?”
“You look like you belong in a circus, kid. Now pack up and get outta here!”
“But our clothes are all wet?” Bud begged.
“I don’t give a damn! Put ‘em on, pack up, and get out!”
“But nothin’! Put out that fire and git! No one told me you’re supposed to be out here, so you ain’t gonna be.”
“Billy’s suppose to…”
Just then a big white Oldsmobile turned off the road headed towards the house.
“There he is!” I hoped.
Paul swung his head around and his eyes narrowed in a stare.
We took off in that direction praying it was Billy and Mr. Carnes.
They pulled past the house and came to a stop the other side of the pond.
“Billy! Hey Billy!” Joe hollered. “Down here!”
Mr. Carnes’ stood up out of the car and Billy started down the hill.
“Paul!? Put out that fire! That’s leased land; they can’t have a fire down there!”
“That’s what I’ve been tellin’ them!”
We stopped halfway and waited on Billy. He looked us over and summed up what we all knew they were thinking.
“Jeez—you look stupid!”
“Our clothes are drying. We took a swim. We’re gonna change! Joe reasoned it out for them firmly.
“Alright. Alright!” Mr. Carnes pulled the conversation together.
“You kids gather up your stuff and bring it up to the road. Paul, put out that fire, Hear!?”
“I didn’t light it!”
“PUT IT OUT! Before it catches anything!”
“We’ll put it out.” Hank apologized.
“Everybody put it out and get up here inside the fence.”
We all went back to the camp and started kickin’ dirt on the fire.
Joe emptied his canteen onto the kindlin’. None of the big stuff had caught yet. I snatched up as many wet clothes as I could carry. Bud got the packs and Hank grabbed the rest. We all filed up the hill towards the car; pearl white with a ton of chrome.
“Not too close, hear?” Mr. Carnes cautioned.
We lined up one by one to take a look in the window. Dead white leather and lots more chrome sparkled back at us from inside.
“Wow! Man, what a car!”
Billy took over and explained.
“My Granddad’s. Picked it up today. That’s where we’ve been.” He pointed to the top of the hill. “Part of the deal. We get a new one every year. This here’s just the first one!”
His Granddad smiled.
“But it ain’t ours to keep; just to use for a year, that’s all.”
“Might as well be.” Billy assured us. “I’m getting’ one as soon as I turn 16.”
“We’ll see Billy. Your Mom and Dad will decide that when it’s time.”
“I’m getting’ it!” He mouthed in our direction.
Mr. Carnes’ pointed over to a cleared section of the old road that now ran straight into the side of the rock hill.
“Over there. Put your things on the other side of the fire pit.”
A 20 foot long piece of red dog covered road was scraped clean with a camp fire pit circle of stones in the center.
“Paul! You gather some wood yet?”
“Yeah, upside the barn.” He admitted.
“Bring some down here.”
Paul narrowed his eyes again and stomped off in that direction.
“You kids go help him. You eaten yet?”
We looked at each other and agreed.
“And Paul, see if you can get these boys some shirts ‘til theirs dry. It’s gonna get cold soon.”
Paul stiffened mid-step without turning.
“My shirts!?” He turned around and questioned.
“Anything you got. Don’t have to be good. Four old shirts, that’s all.”
He spun back and headed resentfully for the old house.
“Go on. Follow him. He’ll take care of you.”
We all looked after Paul and knew how he’d like “to take care of us”.
“Billy, you and I‘ll go up to Lepecky’s and pick up some food.”
“Grandpa, can’t I stay here?”
“I need some help carryin’ the food. I don’t want it spillin’ all over in the car. You’re the only one clean and dry enough.”
“Ahhhhh!?” Billy hissed in complaint. “They got their own food. We’ll all be goin’ in the morning.”
“Be back in ten minutes. Now let’s go!”
Billy’s eyes hardened like Paul’s as he threw himself into the front seat before they drove off. The four of us stood there for a second deciding.
“C’mon. We’ll all get some wood, then Joe and I will go back for the shirts while you two build the fire. ‘K?”
Bud and Hank shrugged and we all ran after Paul who had turned down behind the barn. He was waiting for us when we turned the corner.
“There it is. Grab as much as you can now ‘cause that’s all you’re gettin’. One of you come back right here and no further; and pick upthe clothes. I don’t wanna see anymore of you after that. You stay down by the pond until mornin’. I’ll let you know when you can start work and not before I say so!”
He shot each of us a look that decided it for us.
“No problem. See you in the morning.”
We loaded each other up with chopped wood and took it back to the camp. Billy and his Granddad passed me on my way back and all of us caught up with them as they got out of the car.
“Where’s the shirts?”
“I’m goin’ back for them now.” I answered, spilling my load of lumber.
“Have some food first. I gotta get back home.”
That was fine with me. I was hungry. Mr. Carnes had two long sleeves of white butcher’s paper that he unwrapped on the hood.
“Here. Each of you grab a half submarine. Billy’ll get the drinks.”
Lepecky’s submarines! I’d heard about them, ‘bout the best there was around here. Dennis Lepecky was a year behind me in school. His Mom had been hit by a loose tire that came off a hot rod at the dirt track out near Bennett. Now she was in a wheelchair. So she and Mister opened a food stand out on 30. She made the subs and he served them. They were busy all the time.
“Thanks, Mr. Carnes, these are great!”
We shut up and dug in as we woofed down our food. It was better than they said, and each of us had our own bottle of Coke to wash it down. This was an extra and worth the hassle with Paul. After we finished, he had a good size fire started in the pit with a strand of barb wire strung along in front of it.
“When you get the shirts, hang out your wet things on this wire and get ‘em dry before you turn in, hear? Don’t let ‘em hang there all night. You don’t want ‘em catchin’ fire if you fall asleep.”
“Yeah—Ok” We agreed.
“I’ll go back and pick the shirts up now.” I said.
“Well I’m goin’. Be back after lunch to count up what you killed. Don’t forget to stuff moth balls in every crevice you can find.”
“Yeah. We will!”
“And stay away from Paul and the house. Hear!?”
“Ok.” That was fine with us too.
He climbed in behind the wheel and spun dirt as he pulled away.
“And don’t forget the mothballs.” Billy scoffed and threw the heel of his sandwich in the fire. It was getting dark.
“Whadda you wanna do?” He questioned us.
“Listen to the fight.” Joe replied, “Like you said.”
“I forgot the radio. Wouldn’t work out here anyway. Let’s hike up the hill and check out the cars.”
“We’re soaked, got no clothes, and you want us to leave the fire?!” Bud complained.
“Well I’m not hangin’ around here with nothin’ to do until morning.”
“Wait’ll our clothes are dry, then we’ll decide.” Hank mediated.
“Just ‘til then! That’s all I’ll wait.”
“I’ll go get the shirts; you hang out our clothes.”
“I’ll go with you Mark. We’ll see what Paul’s doin’.”
“He doesn’t want us near him and neither does your Granddad.”
“Chicken shit yourself, you asshole! Paul’s pissed at us as it is. I’m leavin’ him alone!”
I headed towards the house; Billy trailin’ behind.
“Paul’s a pain in the ass, he only lives here ‘cause his Mom’s my Grandma’s sister and no one else will give him a job ‘cause he drinks.”
I let him peter out and didn’t answer. Paul was a pass out drunk. If you left him alone while he was drinkin’ and complainin’, he’d just fall over after a while. I’d seen him passed out on the lawn near the hose house. Piss him off, and everyone understood; he’d fight every time.
“Hey, wait up!” Billy called out as I pulled away.
I turned the corner at the barn and found the shirts thrown on top of the woodpile. They weren’t much. He was tall and skinny, so they didn’t fit me too bad, just long and loose. I picked out a red flannel work shirt and buttoned it up. It hung far enough down to cover my butt and front. I’d put my belt on regular and it wouldn’t look so bad. I collected up the other three and turned to look for Billy. Gone. Nowhere in sight.
“Shit!” I knew just where he was headed.
It was turnin’ dark and the house lights were on. I saw him crawlin’ up the back porch steps towards the add-on kitchen. Then I saw Paul tipping back a beer while he walked through the house towards the front door. At least they were on opposite ends. I cut further down the hill off the back porch and came straight back up beside the back steps.
“Billy! Damn it, get outta there!” I whispered up at him.
“Not before I get us a couple of beers.”
“Don’t go in there. Paul’s just down the hall. He’ll kill you if you steal from him.”
“He won’t miss ‘em, and he won’t catch me neither!”
He sank down behind the window of the kitchen door and pushed it open at the bottom and snuck in on his hands and knees.
Crap! The door slowly swung closed behind him. I wasn’t goin’ in, but I wasn’t about to leave him there either. Just then lights swept up the farm road from the valley floor. Two—no, three pairs of headlights followed each other off the road and across the field towards the house.
“Billy!” I called as loudly as I dared. “Get outta there!” I slipped under and behind the outside stairs.
Nothin’. Paul stepped out on the front porch as two pickups and a coupe slid to a stop at the end of the driveway. Three guys and four girls piled out and greeted Paul like long-lost cousins.
“Hey Paul-li-to! What’s happenin’? You ready to par-ty, Bro-th-er?!” You got enough for eight of us all night long!?”
“I got enough hard stuff for whoever can take it. You better have the rest, Cal.”
“Not to wo-o-or-ry. No sweat!” Calvin pulled the tarp off the pickup bed.
“Four cases, just like we planned. Where do you want ‘em?"
“Back porch. I filled some wash tubs with ice out back. Just drive down alongside the house and I’ll meet you at the back door.”
Paul slipped his arm over the shoulder of one of the girls as Cal jumped back in his truck.
“On my way, Buddy!” He cut the wheel sharp to the left and bounced down the slope. The others piled through the front door; guys laughing and the girls shrieking as they played grab-ass.
I pushed back under the stairs into the shadows of the trellis on both sides.
“He’s gonna get caught.” I said silently to myself. “There’s gonna be trouble.”
No sign of Billy as the crowd pushed down the hall and into the kitchen. Cal was out of the truck and had grabbed two cases of beer, one in each hand, and headed up the stairs above me. Billy was trapped now. Paul came out the back door and pointed to the tubs.
“In‘er. Just empty those two cases in there. I’ll get the other two and stack ‘em out here.” Cal looked over the side rail and asked curiously. “You build that fire out there?”
“Naw. Just some stupid-ass kids. Some friends of my nephew— campin’ out. They won’t bother us. They better not if they know what’s good for them.”
“Hey, why don’t we spook ‘em?”
“Cal, we got bigger plans than to skeer the shit outta some kids.”
“Ye-e-e-ah! You’re right. This is gonna be some night, huh Buddy?”
They popped a couple of caps each and headed back inside to hoots of appreciation.
“Who wants a shot with that!?” Paul offered.
“Just pass it around. Don’t need no shot glasses!” The third guy called back.
“Hey! Hey! It’s near time.” The other one spoke up. “Turn on the radio. I don’t wanna miss a punch. That coon’s goin’ down and goin’ down hard!”
He radio snapped on and filled the valley with the fight.
“And in this corner, wearing the white trunks, from Deee—troit City—the Champ-i-ionnn of the Woorl-l-ld!!! Su-gar Ray-y-y Rob-bin-son!”
The crowd went nuts with equal volumes of boo’s and cheer’s. Our upstairs fans joined in; but only with boos.
“Hey jungle bunny! You’re gonna get your ass whipped tonight! That Spic’s cleaned your clock before!”
“And there’s the bell. Folks, this fight is on!” The announcer shouted over the crowd.
I settled back against the basement door and it swung open into the dark cellar. Now what? Go in? Why? I could hear the shouting above me. The fight went with them, and then against them.
“BODY! GO FOR THE BODY! He’s soft!! He’s soft!”
Their increasing moans translated the action and their disappointment. I pulled myself up and turned around to let my eyes open to the dim light from the high windows along the back wall. Nothin’ but old junk and boxes scattered and stacked everywhere. I could see a seam of light near the ceiling at the other end of the room maybe 25-30 feet away. I waited and heard the fight pitch on above me.
Should I creep down the twisted path that led to the light? Where did it come out? What’s on the other side of what must be a door at the top of some steps? Could I make it across that far and up the steps without knocking something over? Where’s Billy anyway?
No plan came to mind as I debated my choices. Then it was settled for me. The door I came in, now 10 feet behind me, filled with a shadow—a long tall shadow that was headed my way. I turned in beside an old dresser that rolled away from my weight with a squeak. The shadow stiffened and slid down the wall on the open side of the door. I could see his profile now, cut clean in a dark outline on the door.
“Joe?” I whispered low. “Joe!” Louder. “That you?”
Neither of us moved a muscle for a long second. His hand appeared on the door jamb and his face turned into the room; like a black hole against the moonlight outside.
“Yeah, over here. Stay real quiet. There’s eight of them upstairs. four guys—with girls.”
“I didn’t know Paul had four friends; let alone any that could attract four girls. Where’s Bill?”
“Up there.” And I pointed overhead.
“He wanted a beer. Now he’s trapped somewhere up there.”
“Whadda we gonna do?”
“Nothin’ to do but wait it out. That’s as far as I got anyway.”
“Leave him. It’s his problem. And they’re related anyway. C’mon let’s go back. Hank and Bud are over by the barn. We found the clothes outside by the steps. Now they want to see what’s goin’ on.”
Joe had moved next to me and I could see he had on a tattered work shirt with metal snaps. Like mine, but his hung down almost to his knees.
“We don’t need anyone else stuck in here. I’ll wait for Billy. After the fight’s over, maybe they’ll settle down or leave and he can sneak out.”
Joe shook his head.
“You’re right. Hank and Bud will just complicate things, and we’ll all get caught. You wanna leave? Billy got himself in this mess, he can get himself out. These guys are gonna get themselves tanked-up and pissed-off. Listen to them; their guys gettin’ creamed!”
Above the volume of the curses was growing louder with each body blow and knock down.
“Go on, while they’re still distracted. This can’t last much longer. Who knows what they’ll do next?” I said.
Joe crawled for the door. From above we heard.
“AHHHH-H-H SHIT!!! Fuckin’ pretty boy couldn’t punch his way out of a fuckin’ paper bag!”
The guys upstairs were up on their feet as the ref counted out Carmen Brasilio.
Joe stood up at the door, looked around, then ran toward the road. He had just made it when Paul and his friends plowed thru the back door and out onto the porch. Paul was pissed. You could tell this wasn’t what he had planned.
“Hey!” Calvin reassured them by poppin’ another beer. “It’s still early. Fuck the fight! He’s not our problem. C’mon, let’s have some fun like we’d planned.”
“Fun!? You wanna have some fun? I’ll show you fun!” Paul lunged at Cal and pushed him down the steps.
Cal caught himself halfway.
“Don’t take it out on me. I told you he was a pantywaist. That black boy took him apart. Now, I’ll bet you owe Fast Jack a bundle, don’t you?”
Paul launched himself again at Cal, but he was already blasted and lost his balance as Cal stepped aside. He fell the last few steps and landed on his face at the bottom. Cal looked down, then back up the stairs at the rest of their stunned crew.
“C’mon, you guys. Let’s grab our beer and get outta here! We’ll head up to Jake’s huntin’ camp. This asshole can have his booze all to himself.”
All but one of the girls turned and pushed back into the house. The guys cleared out the beer from the ice tub, and packed it back in the cases and followed.
“Babe! You comin’ with us?”
“Naw. I better stick around here ‘til he wakes up. He’ll sleep it off.”
“How you gettin’ home?”
“I’ll call Loretta. She gets off at two.”
I saw her legs from behind as she came down the stairs and looked at Paul curled up on the lawn.
“Christ, Paul! Why do you always end up shit-faced and passed out? Huh? And why do I bother with you at all?”
The pickups fired up and pulled back into on to the road and disappeared across the field. It was quiet. Babe sat down on the bottom step and lit a cigarette. This was my chance. I headed back into the cellar and towards the crack of light under the kitchen door. No one but Billy should be left upstairs. I’d find him and we’d head out the front door and back past the barn to the camp. I pulled myself up the steps and stopped with my head even at the bottom of the shut door. The ribbon of light cut across my face. I followed it with my eyes until I was kneeling on a step, my chin resting against the landing with my arms bent holding my weight upon either side.
I could see the old linoleum floor scattered with rag rugs that led through the kitchen to the back door. No one was there. The radio was still playing an interview with the champ.
“No—he tagged me good a couple of times, but didn’t follow through, just pushed off.” Sugar Ray said,
My eyes swept crossways on the floor. Just mismatched table and chair legs and a couple of beer cans toppled over with beer pooled around them. Couldn’t stay here and get anything done. I stood up, climbed the last step and found the door knob. I twisted it slowly until it stopped. It was time. Nothin’ left to do but open it into the light on the other side. I closed my eyes and gently, slowly, swung the door open. I lowered myself as close to the floor as I could go and crawled through. The light cut across me from top to bottom. I could feel it against my eyes. I opened them up just as the light snapped off and everything went black!
The guy on the radio was the only thing working. Everything else was still. I lay there frozen solid to the floor. Nothin’! I looked back down the cellar steps into pitch darkness. I couldn’t go back that way. I was halfway outta the door up here and nothing was moving anywhere. Only one way to go—so I crawled out the other half.
Then a foot slammed down on my back and pushed me flat on my belly!
“Who the hell are you!?” Her voice followed her foot.
“It’s me! It’s just me! Mark—Billy’s friend. Paul’s nephew!”
“Paul’s nephew? Paul ain’t never said nothin’ about no Mark!?”
“No—Billy’s Uncle is Paul. I’m his friend—Mark!”
“Mark huh? What’re you doin’ up here sneakin’ around?”
“I was comin’ to get Billy!”
“Yeah, I’ll bet you were! That’s why you were crawlin’ across the kitchen floor with the lights out!”
“I didn’t turn ‘em out. I …I thought he was up here. I didn’t want him to get in trouble with Paul.”
“Don’t have to worry ‘bout that fool. He won’t wake up 'til a chicken steps on his head.”
I coughed out a short laugh with that picture in my mind’s eye.
“How old are you?” Her foot eased up on my back.
“Thirteen—thirteen, last month.”
“A kid—you’re just a kid!” Her foot lifted off. “Roll over Mark. Let me see you.”
I pushed off the floor and started to get up. Her foot intervened and rolled me over on my back. “Stay down! Just stay put and let me look at you.”
I was spread eagle on the floor wearing just Paul’s tattered pearl-button red flannel shirt and my muddy yellow gauze swimsuit.
“That’s different! Can’t say I ever seen an outfit quite like that one? Who made it for ya?”
“We made ‘em. My Mom made mine, they’re kinda swimsuits. Paul lent me the shirt! My real clothes got soaked.”
Now my eyes were adjusting to the moonlit room and Babe seemed amused, not mad. She stood right over me, her bare legs on either side of my waist; her arms folded across her chest looking straight down at me. She could tell my attention had shifted from survival—to wide-eyed awe.
“My dog don’t look that sappy when I’m rubbin’ his belly.” She laughed, putting her hands on her hips and tipping back her head.
She was everything I’d ever dreamed up and more. Her legs rose up in widening curves and disappeared high under the short robe, which was tied loosely in front of her and split open enough to show more paths of pink skin leading up and over mounds of unimaginable warmth.
“C’mon. Get up.” She leaned down and offered me her hand while her robe billowed above me. Blonde curls dropped from above her face and dangled loosely down over me—her robe open between them. Inside the shadows were two perfect pillows of wonder.
“Close your mouth and stand up little man.” She reached down to grab both my hands and lifted me up straight in front of her, my hands over my head. I stared into her eyes as the heat from her body reached out and found my tensed body quivering in disbelief.
“Relax!” She laughed, “I’m not going to eat you.” She laughed again at her own private joke and released me.
“Got…, got to find Billy.” I stammered.
“Later, maybe. You hungry?”
I nodded my head up and down.
“C’mon. Paul’s got to have something solid around here worth tasting.”
Another chuckle to herself. She took my hand like no one had ever held it before and turned into the darkened kitchen.
“I’ve got to get back. Billy’s somewhere in here.”
“Oh yeah, well I’m right here—right now. Don’t I count for nothin’?”
“No—no! I like you fine. The guys…”
“The guys’ll wait Mark. You and me are gonna eat somethin’ and get to know each other. Ok?”
“Nobody else here to keep me company. My sister’s supposed to come by in a couple of hours. You keep me company ‘til then!”
“What about Paul?”
“Paul’s a pain. He’ll be down and out ‘til dawn. You ever stay up until dawn?”
“Tried, but always fell asleep before.”
“Well, let’s see if we both can make it this time, K?” She pulled open the refrigerator door. “Christ! This light’s bright!”
The light had burst out and exposed almost all of her under the flowered robe. It was beautiful. She was beautiful. She was taller than me by at least half a foot. Her hair was stacked even higher up on her head with twisted curls alongside her ears. Her face was full, with high cheekbones and bright eyes. Shiny red lips seemed pursed to ask me a question. Her shoulders fell from a long tilted neck and parted into two unbelievable rounded shapes like ripe fruit—a perfect pair. Yeah, like ripe pears that sloped back smoothly up to her shoulders. Something dark tipped forward under her robe, and pushed out against it.
That’s as far as I got. She was watching me with serious interest. She closed the door and turned towards me.
“You new at this?” She asked quietly.
I swallowed and nodded.
I backed up into a chair and sat; most of me, anyway. She straddled the chair and pulled the back of my head firmly her way. My face came to rest buried in the material covering the soft, warm mounds of her breasts. She pulled open the other side and directed my mouth to the middle of the right one. I reached up, but she held my hands away.
“Just your lips—softly.”
I opened my mouth and pressed it over the raised knob of dark skin. My tongue flatted against her and I pushed my lips around it.
“Again.” She breathed deeply.
I fought her grip to pull her towards me. Again she raised my arms straight up and I leaned into her as far as I could, my lips hungry for anything of her I could find. My crotch swelled and struggled against her. The rest of me went along for the ride.
“Whoa-a-a!” She back away and stood up. “Just a taste!”
She let go of my wrists and I fell back into the chair. I couldn’t speak, only gasp for breath. What should I do? What’s next? It couldn’t be over! This couldn’t be all?!
“Settle down. I shouldn’t have grabbed you like that.”
“No! It’s Ok!” I assured her.
“Just relax. You’re too young—way too young for this.”
I shook my head from side to side forcefully.
“I don’t think so!?” I defended myself.
“Let’s just take it easy. We’ll have a snack and talk. It’s early.”
“Shit! Billy!” My brain intruded. “I should find Billy. My friends are waitin’ for us.”
“How many friends are there?”
“Four—three and me.”
“Too many for me.” She giggled again. “Stand up. Here.”
She handed me a pack of three chocolate cupcakes.
“Happy Birthday, Mark! Those are for your friends and this is from me.”
She put her arms over my shoulders.
“Now, put yours around my waist. Move closer.”
I slid forward on my feet.
I raised my head and looked into her eyes.
“Close your eyes.”
I felt her hand circle my shoulders and pull me flat against the length of her body. Then her lips met mine. Gently, her tongue slid along the seam of my closed lips until they parted and relaxed. I met hers with mine, and we circled each other. Then she left.
“There. That’s your French lesson for today.”
I stood there with my eyes closed waiting for more.
“My present—for you to remember me by. Now! No more for you for the next three years—at least!”
“Now, where’s your friend?” She grabbed my hand and led me down the hall.
“This was just between us, our secret; and only ours, understand?”
I nodded and I did—just us.
“You start in the living room. I’ll take the bedrooms. Billy—right?”
“Billy!” She commanded. “Get out here!”
“Hey Bill, you in there?”
I paused in the middle of the living room. We met back in the hall and moved down on opposite sides.
“Billy! Time to go home—you hear?!”
Nothin’. We were back in the kitchen.
“You sure he’s here?”
“Yeah. Pretty sure?”
She opened the pantry door and turned on the light.
A rustling noise came from the door beside the cellar steps. Babe walked directly over to it, wrapping her robe and tying it tight around her. She pulled open the door as I came up behind her.
“That him?” She asked bowing her head towards the floor.
I looked past her to a tight ball of kid curled up on the floor, a couple of empties next to him.
“He a Phail?”
“Yeah, half a one.”
Babe turned back to me. We were together alone in the light.
“Little man, there’s a lot more to it than you think you know, or found out tonight; a whole lot more.”
“I... I guess?”
“No! Don’t guess. Just take your time. Things will happen. Better things than me. Just gotta give ‘em time. Don’t rush! Nowhere you gotta get in a hurry. That only messes it up. Tonight—tonight you were the best thing here for me, not Paul and not the drinkin’ and partyin’. No! You were.”
She paused and gave me a look like no one else had ever seen me before.
“Take your time—that’s all. Just find where you are and who you wanna be. That’ll keep you busy goin’ where you need to get to.”
I musta looked pretty stupid standing there in my flannel nightshirt hanging down over my sagging swimsuit ‘cause she laughed and laughed, really enjoying herself, until I smiled back and started to laugh too.
“Ok Little Man, I’m leavin’, turnin’ out the light and closin’ the door—like I’ve never been here. You wake up the next generation of drunks and go back down the cellar steps and out, like you planned. Nothin’ happened. Ok? Nothin’ happened to anyone but us, and it’s no one’s business but ours.”
She leaned forward and kissed me on the forehead like my Aunt—but better. She smiled, turned, closed the door, and was gone. I stood there waiting for what came next.
It was dark, slow and quiet. It coulda lasted hours. I wished it had. But it didn’t. Billy moaned from the corner of his broom closet hide-a-way. I could barely hear him until he raised up quickly and looked both surprised and sick. Then he barfed all over himself and the floor. I jumped back and woke up.
“Did you hafta do that!?” Billy was back and the center of attention again.
“Fuck! I feel lousy.”
“You’re gonna feel worse when Paul has to clean up this mess!”
“Paul! Where’s Paul?!” The real situation cracked open in his woozy head.
“Outside. Lucky for you. C’mon, let’s get out outta here before he comes inside.”
Billy saw the advantage of that move real quick and headed for the back door in a panic.
“No—down the stairs, stupid.”
He turned and rushed by me looking scared and definitely sick again. He hung on to both hand rails and more slid down the steps, crashing into the boxes and bicycles at the bottom.
“Quiet!” I called down after him. “Wait!?”
He wasn’t waiting. He turned through the basement and out onto the lawn and kept goin’ all the way to the barn. I followed and picked my way across the basement straightening things up as best I could. I got to the door and looked back. Things were pretty much the same as earlier, but then they weren’t either. I wasn’t scared and I realized it with relief; and that was OK. More than OK. Things stretched out in front of me now and I knew that too. For the first time, I knew I could decide for myself, needed to decide, and would.
I passed out the door and was back under the porch. It was late. No, maybe it was early. Paul still laid there, passed out on the lawn at the bottom of the stairs. He wasn’t moving, just breathing in a coarse rhythm that disagreed with the night. I walked away from the house and into the open field.
Lookin' back I found her sitting in silhouette on a darkened second story window sill; a cigarette lighting up her face with each puff. It was like a motel sign repeating for everyone to see—“Vacancy”. She didn’t look for me. I turned back to the dying campfire at the edge of the pond and saw bats darting and tumbling against the night sky.
End of Episode One
Here's some feedback from my first reveal of Episode One. I decided to send it to 100 different Pittsburgh "names" from my generation. I figured they would enjoy it and might have the horsepower to show it to someone who could make a difference. They didn't come thru, so I tried my luck with book clubs and other writers I found online. Here are some of their comments.
"What an absolute delight." "Definitely love to see the whole thing." "I suggest you buy a good grammer book." "There's an audience out there for this story."
"You write well, you're really in the head of a 13-year old." "I laughed. I cried. I raced through parts to find out what happened." "Confusing in spots."
Thanks for the feedback. Most of the comments are coming via e-mail. The blog is a bust so far. I may try and crank it up again and, but stay with the website if you want to follow along. I'm not a webmaster by any stretch, but I'm doing my best to wrestle GoDaddy to the ground.
Enjoy Episode Two.
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Episode Two – Always a Beginning
The bat thing didn’t work out like we’d planned. Turns out bats are different than snakes, or even frogs. They don’t get killed so easy. They’re light sleepers and even in the daylight, they know exactly where you’re at.
We could see them crawlin’ around the beams overhead gettin’ comfortable packed together between and behind the cross bracing; not strung out hanging in neat rows from the bottoms of the rafters like in the movies. All we got was a couple of wild swings before they’d bust outta their cracks straight at you. We stood at the top of the orchard ladders, bats screaming by our heads, swingin’ rakes in every direction. We got 38 bats between us. $1.90 total for 4 hours work split 4 ways between us; 47 cents each, or 10 cents an hour. They gave us $2 bucks apiece.
That’s how I ended up standing alone— outside the entrance to Camp Conestoga. I didn’t tell Mom that I only had 9 of the 14 dollars I needed to get in. Instead, I pretended to miss the bus; and begged Tim to drop me off outside. Anyway, I had already promised Pete Kelley my paper route that week. He needed the money even more than me and I couldn’t just renege on him.
The rest of the Troop had taken the school bus up earlier and been assigned a campsite. There were lots of them; maybe 50 strung out along the lake and on either side of the stream that fed it. More were scattered just inside the wood line at the edge of the sports field in the meadow. Fifty camps with ten tents each, each sleeping four Scouts added up to a maybe 2,000 kids scattered across the 175 acres of Conestoga.
I wouldn’t be noticed, let alone missed, and I wasn’t even expected. I had my nine dollars just in case, but planned to stay outta the way until the week was over and Tim came back for me.
I grabbed my gear out of the trunk and got a parting ultimatum from my brother.
“You’re ready and up on the road by 12 o’clock or I’m gone, you hear?!”
I shook my head, turned through the gate and fell in step with a line of Scouts carryin’ their duffel bags down a trail past the Mess Hall.
According to the signs we were headed towards the lake. ‘Bout 100 yards later I dropped off the tail end of their march and cut up a hill path marked “Cherokee Trail”. At first, there were camps laid out all neat and proper, with tents more or less in a circle facing a clearing with a rocked campfire ring in the center. Farther up was a latrine for all the camps on that trail. Beyond that, the campsites were scattered thinner with more space between ‘em.
Finally, a small narrow trail led down the backside of the hill. There was no glass covered paper slid in the slot that assigned this site to any particular Troop; just a pointed wood post with the number “414” carved in the face and painted white.
I wound down the trail until it arrived at a small camp with only three tents standing and the other seven platforms bare. I checked the first tent and found it crammed with collapsed metal bed frames. The next one was stacked with thin blue-stripped mattresses piled neatly with a tarp draped over them. The last tent had wooden footlockers piled four high and pushed back against the back flap.
I was home. I would stay here for the week. It wasn’t that long. Anyway, I was happy not to be with the rest of the guys; pushed along on a schedule of “classes and activities” meant to teach me somethin’ useful. Most times, whatever was next, was a pain in the ass anyway. I realized I was alone, away from home for the first time and completely on my own. The thought made my skin prickle under my clothes and left me cold and cautious. I’d better get ready for the night.
Looking over what there was to work with, the plan took shape. I dropped my duffel bag in the middle of the third tent with the footlockers and started lifting them from their neat stacks and lined them up along the sides of the tent walls; four down each of the sides and four across the back, all two high. The entrance—looking at the fire ring—I left open. Then I went outside and lifted the tent skirts up above the platform floor and tucked them under the footlockers. No one or nothin’ could get in without me knowin’ it. Next, I got a couple of bed frames and laid them sideways into the opposite corners of the front entrance. They met in the middle at the front tent pole. I tied the right one off to the pole and left the other one loose. Finally I hauled a half a dozen mattresses into the tent and covered the rest of the floor. Wall-to-wall bed; it was my fort.
I unpacked my duffel and put my clothes into one of the top footlockers. I had a light. It wasn’t the Coleman lantern I wanted, just the old black and silver flashlight Mom kept in the T-towel drawer. I’d brought two extra batteries and with luck they’d last the week. I hung it from the line that ran between the center tent poles so I could slide it up and down to shine any place in the middle of the mattresses.
It was gettin’ late and I was hungry and needed to pee. I stepped over the lowered bed frame on the right and went outside. Not bad—nothin’ seemed different or out of place. Anyone walkin’ by might wonder about the skirts being tucked up under on the sides, but from the front everything looked normal.
I had to learn the trail so I could get home at night. First, it was up the hill and straight across from the fire ring. I counted my steps; 38-39-40. That took me to the trail at the crest of the ridge.
Turn right. Now it was downhill to the latrine; 28-29-30. Three forth’s of 40 and I was next to the gravel path that led to the shithouse. I wondered if there were lights inside to guide me.
The place was screened from top to bottom with slatted walls and a simple tin shed roof. There was only a screen door on the front, with another half wall of slats set three feet out to hide the scene inside. I stepped around the wall and up onto a concrete slab. Way better than Kennywood’s; clean, dry, and dress-right-dressed. Three sinks, three culvert pipes capped with toilet seats, and three piss tubes sunk through the floor. Next to the back wall were some benches and hooks between two open showers in opposite corners. High above each was a large garden shower head that dripped. It had two pull chains that hung down and released the tepid water warming in the sun on the roof above. Inside the door frame was an electrical box with a twist switch that turned on the two overhead steel-shaded lights that timed out after you left. I could work with that. I pulled the dial off its stem. A wad of gum would slow down the dial to a crawl, and probably a stop. That would let me get back up the hill to my camp.
“What are you doing?” The voice quizzed me from behind.
“Ahh—someone pulled the dial off and hid it on the 2 X 4 above. I was just puttin’ it back.”
“Terry—I’ll bet! That would be just like him so I couldn’t turn on the lights if I had to go at night.”
“I don’t know Terry, maybe it just fell off, you know?”
“Fell off and landed up on a shelf?”
This kid was too logical for me. Then I noticed the rest of him. Military press to his shirt and shorts, badges and pins stuck in lines and rows all up and down his sleeves, boots shined and laced below socks stretched and rolled up perfectly at the knees.
“Where’re you camped?” I asked curiously.
“Just down the trail at 410, how about you?”
“Four fourteen.” I blurted out just to match his precision. “I’m Pat.” I lied.
“Duane—Duane Forrester, Troop Two-Eleven, Ligonier.”
He already had ‘nough info ‘bout me so I deflected him.
“You goin’ to lunch?”
“Sure, but I gotta take a leak first.”
“I’ll wait on ya.”
He looked at me then to the piss tube.
“Outside—I’ll meet you down by your campsite”. I maneuvered. I needed to pee too.
“OK, give me a couple of minutes and I’ll catch up with you.”
I left and crossed into the woods on the other side and pissed behind a tree ten yards off the trail. He was someone else who didn’t appreciate an audience when exposed. Other guys could stand in a circle and see who could piss the fartherest and the longest. After Kennywood and the mirror, I needed complete privacy. I wondered if I’d ever get over that.
Duane caught up to me as I was coming back up on the trail buttoning up my fly.
“You missed one.” He commented.
I glanced down and found the pucker in my pants.
“I know it’s a tradition and all, but I don’t get why we wear pants with a button up fly.”
“’Cause you don’t want to catch yourself in the teeth of a steel zipper, I guess.” Duane answered.
We both winced at the imagined picture that conjured up.
“Ow-w-w!” I bent over and laughed.
Duane startled, then caught the joke and joined in. The guy needed to loosen up a bit. He looked bigger and older than me; and God knows he probably knew more about Scouting. But after that, all I could find was a kid who seemed uptight and worried ‘bout everything, especially what you thought of him.
It was getting close to two o’clock; so we were late for lunch and way early for dinner. There were a couple of stragglers scattered along the tables next to the chow line. Duane and I picked up our trays and utensils and walked down the metal steam tables.
“Looks like beans & franks”. I commented. “But what’s left ain’t much.”
Dried up muddy red patches of mostly beans stuck to the corners with tiny bits of what used to be hot dogs dotting the piles.
“Anything else?” Duane wondered hopefully.
“Just some salad and pear slices, looks like.”
“I got ‘nother pan of macaroni and cheese, but that’s it.” A grown up guy in a white t-shirt and apron called out from the kitchen door as he pushed thru carrying a pan skimmed with toasted cheese.
“Looks good to me!”
“You gotta get here early if you want what we got. Scouts are hungry 24-7; and we only serve two hours at a time. 6 to 8, noon ‘til 2, and 4 to 6.”
“Sorry we’re late.”
“Well, it’s the first day, so we don’t mind stayin’ open a while longer. But startin’ tomorrow, be on time if you want fresh.”
He sat down the pan in the hot water filled basin and shoveled two heaping portions on both of our plates.
“I just put a new box of chocolate milk in the dispenser. You kin have all you want of that.”
“Thanks!” We both echoed.
Duane moved over to the stainless steel cabinet set up at the end of the line. He grabbed a real tall cup made out of spreckled plastic, and held it under a big ball of shinny steel and lifted up. Out poured a steady smooth stream of velvety chocolate. This was new to me. I moved into place and held my cup under the ball and raised it up. It was heavy, and I could see that it pinched off the end of a white tube that poked out of the bottom of the cabinet.
Duane laughed at my wonder.
“They have those at my school.”
“Not mine. We get a half-pint at our desk, and no refills.”
“Where’s that?” He asked
“No where’s you’d know; just a little school in the foothills.” I ducked his question.
“Well, from what my troop leader told me the Mess Hall’s open from 6 ‘til 6, and you can come and get fruit and milk anytime.”
“I’ll be here!” I laughed.
Duane put down his tray and agreed.
We spent the next ten minutes spooning up macaroni and cheese and washing it down with cup after cup of ice-cold chocolate milk.
“You goin’ to the Pow-Wow tonight?”
“Maybe. When’s it start?”
“They said we’d march down ‘bout seven. It’s supposed to be real neat. A big bonfire with guys in war bonnets and painted up like different Indian tribes dancin’ like a real Indian ceremony of welcome.”
I’d heard about the first night ceremony and planned to skip it; so I didn’t run into anyone I knew.
“Maybe I’ll see you there?” Duane asked hopefully.
“Think we’re supposed to stick with our own troops.” I cautioned.
“Yeah.” He sounded let down.
“Well, maybe we’ll be close by. You’re ‘410’, me ‘414’.”
“Yeah.” He brightened—then dimmed again. “Yeah, but I know I’ll hafta stay with them.” He wasn’t real happy about that.
“Hey, let’s meet back here in the morning. I’m always first up.”
“Ok, see you at 5:30. I’ll hold your place in line.”
Duane lifted his head and hit me with a smile that swamped me.
“You’d do that? You’d wait for me?!”
“Sure, no problem. C’mon, we’d better get back. I’ve got an inspection at four. Then I think we’re goin’ swimmin’.”
“Swimming? You sure? Our Scoutmaster said we didn’t have any free time today.”
“I think so. I’d better get back and find out. But unless we have class, we only have a formation at six, morning and night.” I made up.
“I’m scheduled pretty heavy. They want me to make Eagle Scout this year.”
“My Dad and Mom—kinda.”
I didn’t know what “kinda” kinda meant and wasn’t too interested to find out. I liked the guy, but didn’t want to get too tight with him, trip up and let someone find out I hadn’t paid— and didn’t belong here anyway.
“I gotta get goin’.” I stood up and grabbed my tray.
“See you in the morning, Pat.”
“See ya. I gotta get my schedule from the office.” I lied. “I’ll catch up with you tomorrow!” I think I lied again.
Instead, I walked into the office and gathered up all the mimeographed handouts that were slotted in cubby holes at the end of the counter where you signed up for classes. No one was too interested in one more lost Scout trying to figure out their place on the first day of camp.
As long as you had some kinda uniform on, you were Ok. I had two shirts with all the required insignia and a hat tucked under my belt. It was enough to pass for being anywhere there.
I found what I was looking for; a map of the camp and a daily schedule of activities with the time and place assigned to every troop attending that day.
I just needed to stay out of the way of the Ivory’s; Jack senior—the Dad and Frank and Jack Jr., his sons. They were my Troop leaders, them and Mr. Brewer. The sons were the problem. They knew their stuff. Mr. Brewer was a new volunteer who had just joined up this year. He wasn’t like the Ivory’s in any way. He was fat and awkward and looked outta place in the uniform.
I knew him from my paper route. He, his wife, and two daughters lived in a tiny apartment over Valanno’s bar. Through the week I just opened the door at the bottom of the steps, right off the street, and threw the paper up to a landing they shared with the tenant on the other side. On Saturday’s, I’d haveta go up these stairs to collect. When the door shut behind me and I climbed the narrow creaky steps, the rest of the world hung back and stayed put.
The light faded and the fresh air turned into a soup of sour cabbage smells. It seemed like they always had a pot of simmering “stuff” on the old stove at one end of the living room. It was the only room off the front door; long and narrow, that ran from the back to the single window in the front. It was stuffed full of old couches and tables. No chairs, except two at the tiny Formica table in the corner. They were big people. Being in there with all of them, plus the haze of the boiling stew hanging in the air; made me stay close to the open door. They always invited me in, but I was always late and in a hurry. I couldn’t ever let that door close behind—with me inside.
He wouldn’t be the problem at camp. I knew he’d find a couple of fixed points and plant himself there most of the day.
Frank was my worry. Unlike Jack, who was friendly and easy goin’, Frank was like a wolf cub, wiry and wary—always lookin’ for a weak spot to pry open. Frank was good at everything outdoors or athletic. His mission was to get everyone else up to his peak of perfection, with no exceptions allowed. I worked hardest to keep outta his section when we counted off to divide into groups for training. Frank always took charge of the “ones”, so I always plotted to be a “two” or a “three”.
I found where Troop 14 was camped and memorized their trail to the Mess Hall and most assembly points. I had the schedule, so I could keep track of them. It wouldn’t be too hard to stay outta the way. The Mess Hall would be the worst of it. It was long and narrow with four rows of ten tables, each with twelve seats. I would stay along the outside wall at the far end facing the screened windows that overlooked the path that led in from their camp.
It was getting late and the Mess Hall had reopened for supper. I wasn’t hungry again, so I just swung in and snatched up a banana and a couple of apples to take back. I didn’t want to walk against a tide of scouts headed my way, so I plotted a point to point path back to “414”. The map made it easy.
Most points were close enough to each other so you could pick them out by sight. I found the closest one that led straight away and in-line with my camp. That was thru the archery range. I started off in that direction with the sun over my right shoulder. Looked like about 150 to 200 yards. The woods, while thick with trees, had been stripped bare of bushes and dead branches by boys huntin’ kinlin’ for their campfires all summer long. It was clear and tramped down to just dirt and dust, makin’ it easy to go overland.
I headed up the side of the first hill angling away from the sun. The climb was steep but short, with plenty of hand holds to pull myself along. After a minute or two, I stood on top of the hill dividing the noise of headquarters and permanent party from the silent tangled trails that led to campsites and training areas. You could see the shadowed grooves in the tree tops that mirrored the roads below. I found a pattern that matched up on my map and took the ridgeline to the left that should lead past the parade field where the Pow-Wow was tonight.
I worked my way down the backside of the hill and came out in a wood line skirting the parade field. A couple of huge teepees stood as a backdrop against the low hillside that wrapped around like at the outdoor movies in the park. Between that curve and the teepees, there was a bonfire standing maybe 12 feet tall, waiting for the end of the day and the Indian ceremony to come. Maybe I would come back to see it. I had my bearings so I could get back up the hill I had just left.
At the end of the field, I knew I had to turn right and find the trail that led away through the woods to the open meadow. It was far enough away that wayward arrows would fall short of any accidental targets. It was right where it should be. Signs warned you to stay on the trail until exiting the archery range. I came out in a field of high yellowed grass, dry and laid over by a steady wind. It blew up hill towards a row of rounded hay targets 20 or 30 yards out and in front of a set of low rail fences that ran parallel to them.
Behind the fences, stood a small windowless wooden shed with the door ajar. No one seemed to be around; no people and no noise but the wind. I cut closer to the fence on a second pass and walked by the shed now 20 feet away. Still nothin’. I came back around for a third look and stood in front of the open door.
I could see unstrung bows hanging off the far wall inside; and target arrows in braced racks of ten, stacked neatly in rows along the floor. I looked around behind me again and leaned forward into the doorway putting my hands against the frame. It wasn’t big enough that I couldn’t see everything wall-to-wall. Still, I called out.
“What’s up champ?” Came the reply from behind me.
“Huh!?” I startled. “I didn’t see you!”
“Guess not. Just around back taking a leak.”
“On the other side of that wall.” And he pointed to the walls that were hung with bows.
“Sorry, I wasn’t gonna do anything!”
“That’s too bad—a boy with your height should be able to handle a 60# bow pretty well. Let’s see?”
He stepped past me and took a bow, a little shorter than me, down off the wall.
“Ever string one?”
I nodded “no”.
“Ever shoot one?”
Another nod in the negative.
“Sure.” I agreed.
“C’mon then, grab a brace and let’s see what you can do.”
He breezed back by me and headed for the right of the rail fence. After a confused pause, I stepped up into the shed, picked up a rack of arrows and followed him outside.
“What’s your name?”
“Pat!” I spilled off my new ID.
“Pat McDonald.” I added.
“You signed up for any archery classes?”
Back to nodding “no”.
“Well, let’s take a few shots and see if we can change your mind. I’m Scoutmaster Elliott—Bob Elliott. I teach archery as you might have guessed. Call me Bob.”
“Now—first the hard part. You gotta string your own bow.”
And with that he took the loose end of the leather bowstring, stepped thru between it and the bow, stopped it against the instep of his right foot, leaned in and looped it over the notched end at the top. All in one motion, the bow was strung.
“That’s the secret.” He said. “Make up your mind you’re gonna do it and let the bow know you mean business. Now for the fun part!”
He took an arrow out of the brace, slotted the feather tail against the string, pulled both back from his outstretched arm, and brought the bow up in an arc ‘til the arrow created a sight line to the target.
The arrow flew from the bow in a low curve and stuck the target with a quiet thud and stuck there with a brief quiver. It was beautiful—one motion—quick and sure, and it was done.
“You wanna try?”
“Yeah!” I answered excitedly and meaning it.
“Gotta string it yourself and feel the strength of the bow you’re gonna control.”
With that he reversed his dance with the bow, leaving the string undone and dangling free.
“Now you!” He handed it over. “Slow. Learn how to stand over her.”
I took the bow in my left hand and the rawhide string in my right.
“Put your leg through the middle.”
I did like he said.
“Plant your foot just the other side and lean your hip against the middle of the bow.”
I did just like he told me.
“Now grab outside at the top.”
“Look at where you’re going with that loop.”
I glanced from the bow string to the top of the bow.
“One motion—shift your weight against her and push down hard with your left arm.”
I tried, but nothin’ went anywhere.
“Your hip, break the bow with your hip!”
A second time. Now I could feel the tension in the bow as it bent away from my arms and dug in against my foot, the string still inches from the notch.
“Relax. Maybe you should start with a 40 pound?”
I relaxed and studied the bow in my left hand and looked across to the string in my right.
“When you’re ready.” I took a couple of breathes and surprised us both.
I leaned into the bow and pushed down hard with my arm. I could feel the struggle mount against me, resisting with steady strength. I pushed back with everything I had and inched the string loop up and over the notch: then hung it there locked against her.
“Relax! You did it!”
I slowly uncoiled and realized the bow was taunt but calm and ready in my hands.
“Take a breather. Make sure the loop is completely hooked on both ends.” It was.
I lifted her up and felt the lightness of my touch against the smooth curves of the polished shaped wood. She was primed with expectation and ready to perform; the bow string straining to hold her under control.
“Choose an arrow.”
I looked down at the remaining nine spaced evenly in their brace. Most were pretty beat-up, feathers bent and rough with wear. But one stood out, clean, with bright bands of colors circling the shaft. The unmarked wood ran straight up into the steel tip. I lifted it up outta the rack and had to step on the box to break it free.
“Don’t get in a hurry.” Bob advised. “Bring ‘em both over here to the rail.”
I walked the few steps towards him and held them out.
“Hold onto your bow. You gotta get better acquainted. Grab it around the leather grip and fit your fingers around it until they find a comfortable fit.”
I flexed and coiled my fingers around the molded brown skin of her grip until they were settled.
“Now, raise it up on the end of your outstretched arm and look at it for a moment.”
The bow came up with my arm like it had grown out there and we had always been meant to meet. My view was thrilled by the beauty of this perfectly shaped extension of myself.
“Now pull back the string with your middle two fingers.”
I was surprised by her defiance. The tension between us built from my toes dug into the dirt, up through my thighs and hips, across my stomach and chest, and out my shoulders into my arms and hands; finally ending at my fingertips. We were firmly locked together.
I did and nodded back at him.
“Spread your legs a little.”
I brought the bow back down and shifted my feet to where I’d have better balance.
“Do it again.”
I raised the bow and pulled the string in one motion and we felt tuned-up. It was like the bow and I had found our purpose and only waited for the right moment to make the move.
“Good! Don’t think. You’ll know when its right or you’ll know that it’s not. Now relax and get the arrow.”
I reached down and picked up the skinny shaft.
“Tuck the bow between your legs—don’t let it fall. Now sight down the arrow and make sure you got a good one.”
I held it up to my face and balanced it lightly in both hands.
“Roll it between your fingers.”
“It’s good.” I replied instinctively.
“Ok. Now—just like with the bow, feed the arrow into the string just where it thickens. Relax. Rest the end of the arrow on top of your grip. Again, in one motion—bring ‘em up to your view and draw back the string—elbow high—wrist to your cheek.”
I did, but it felt all wrong and I lowered it back down.
“Didn’t feel good to you?”
“Not yet.” I assured us both that we would.
I adjusted me, all of me, from my feet to my shoulders.
“Again!” He called. “Don’t stiff arm her.”
This time I came up smooth and steady and glided into position.
I repeated the exercise three more times and my muscles found their rhythm.
“Not yet you’re not. Put everything down and come with me.”
Puzzled, I rested the bow against the rails and followed him forward towards the targets.
“This is the other half of the lesson. Have you picked out your target?”
I had and pointed to a stiff yellowed sheet of unblemished black circles surrounding a red bull’s eye.
“Why that one?”
I didn’t know except it was always the one.
“I don’t know—it’s just right, that’s all.”
“No, there’s more to it.”
“Walk up to it and touch it.”
I travelled the last ten yards alone. The target led me on. When I got to it, I reached out and laid my hand on the arch of the golden straw wrapped tightly and bound with twine. It was solid and strong. I let my hand fall down over the face of the target and felt her smooth unbroken skin under my finger tips.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Bob asked as he caught up and stood behind me.
“Yeah.” I murmured.
“The target’s your other half. It will stand out here and catch your arrows. If you’re good, it will call to them, but that’s up to you. Think of your target, ask it for help, and never release unless it tells you to. Got it?”
I knew he was right, I just didn’t know why. I shook my head.
“OK. Let’s see what happens.”
We turned together and walked back to the fence. I picked up the bow and arrow and approached the firing line. I stood there a few seconds and talked with them all. Not out loud; and not with words.
I pulled the bow up and drew back the string and released it when it felt right. Instantly I felt a sudden sharp pain as the bow string scraped a large patch of my forearm raw. The arrow pitched left and fell 15 feet short and buried itself in the dirt. The pain beat the disappointment, but not for long. I dropped the bow and grabbed my arm, but didn’t cry out.
“What happened?!” I complained.
“You got acquainted ‘sall; and you found out you’ve got things to learn. That and maybe you’ve found out that when you try something important to you, it can hurt the first time. It’s the only way to learn. Watch me again. Pay attention to my arm and how I grip the bow.
It was subtle and I almost missed it as he raised the bow and released the arrow in the only way that worked.
“Thunk!” It hit the target and tore through the paper.
“Your wrist was turned out at the grip; mine was turned in.”
“Good catch! Show me.”
I broke an arrow free from the brace and threaded onto the bow string, walked over to the rail, settled my feet, adjusted my wrist, and without hesitation brought them up and fired. My eye followed the shaft up and over the field, then back down to the target.
High and to the right but solid into her.
“Better. Now you know how to get there. All you need is to adjust your aim—and I don’t mean with your eyes.”
I knew what he meant. He meant all of me. At the moment of release I had to already be there—not just the arrow, but all of me. I shook my head and repeated the motion. This time I reached for the target first; felt her adjust my position and tell me to come. I knew we would make it, and we did. I heard a “pop” when the arrow pierced the paper, then a separate “thunk” as it sank surely and deeply into her. My heart raced; then unwound in satisfaction.
Silence. Bob looked at the target; then swept his eyes back to me and stared.
“Good.” He announced quietly. “You got it.”
I turned toward him and held out the bow in both hands.
“Thanks. I think I like archery a lot.”
“My classes are all full and closed, but you come by early before eight, or after four. I’ll still be here to show you some more.”
“Ok. I’d better get back to my troop.”
He took the bow I offered and added.
“First time you felt something like this, something that you did by yourself?”
He didn’t have to explain. I nodded again, turned and headed home. My mind took over my body. No, my mind agreed with my body. We had worked together well. I had succeeded doing something I wanted to do.
“By myself?” No, not by myself.
I listened and I heard. I had listened to Bob, to my bow, and to my target. We had come together and learned. I had learned the most.
My breath came deeper as I inhaled this new idea. My legs took me where I was headed, but this time with more aim. I wanted to feel this way all the time.
It was gettin’ late. Everyone was out and on the trails goin’ to the Pow Wow. I edged deeper into the woods and up hill to a spot to wait them out until dark. I was high and could see the lake and parade fields below. My eyes followed the trail that led back to camp and I paced it out in my head and stopped where I guessed it would be. I worked it back and forth until I had it memorized for later.
Now, I just settled back and thought through what had happened on the archery range and decided I’d catch a quick breakfast and get there tomorrow by 6:30, maybe 7. That’d give me an hour or so to practice. But practice wasn’t the right word anymore, no—train was better. I would train myself to find more, learn more, and know more. I musta dozed, because it was dark when the speakers on the parade field cracked the silence of the night.
“Scouts-s-s-s --- Wel-l-l-com-m-e to-o-o to-o-nights-s-s Indian-n-n Po-o-o-w Wo-o-o-w!!!” It echoed and hissed. “Light-t-t the-e-e Fire-s-s-s of We-e-l-co-o-o-o-m-m-m!!”
An adult dressed as an Indian warrior ran out onto the field with a blazing torch and lit the bonfire below. The flames leapt to life and climbed up every side as he circled the stack. A cheer went up from the kids followed by a hushed gasp of anticipation when they turned off the field lights. Now the shadows thrown by the fire danced over the gathering and the Tom-Toms began a pounding beat. Two lines of painted boys and men spilled out from behind the Teepee’s on either side of the fire, screaming out yelps and cries, while waving bows and spears in the direction of the assembled Scouts.
The “warriors” were fierce, the kids were excited, and the announcer followed his script. It went better than what I expected, but after a while as I watched and waited, nothing more reached up to me.
The noise receded and the scene slowed until it wasn’t there anymore. Things got real small and distant. The speakers sounded like a hollow whisper and everything blended in the darkness like when I had been a kid lying on the floor of our living room, listening to the rosary on the radio and drifting away.
I didn’t know how long it had been over when I woke. I shook it out, stood and moved out on my memorized path back to camp. The night closed around me, but it was easy to push back. I was alone and in control of me. Instead of waiting for direction, now I decided where I was goin’, and headed that way.
I reached camp just where it shoulda been. The empty tent stood waiting. I lifted the flap, reached in and switched on the flashlight hanging from the line strung between the center poles. The beam fell in a tight circle at my feet. I found Mom’s makeshift sleeping bag in the middle of the mattresses that covered the floor. Standing at the open end, I undressed watching my shadows spread out from the small pool of light that climbed up the tent walls. Each move was cast several times in shapes and shades that grew larger but fainter the further they fell from me. They were sharp and clear when they left me, but then faded out softly in all directions.
I dropped my pants and stepped out of my underwear. If you weren’t me, you couldn’t tell that the shadows didn’t belong to a man. I gripped the flashlight and held it at different angles to my body and watched parts of me move in and out of each other, connected, yet distorted. I was aroused but stayed in control. I slid my thumb against the grooved ridges of the switch and instantly disappeared. There were no more shadows larger than life—just me, and it was enough.
I awoke buried in my Granddad’s army blanket, the one that had covered him in Cuba; probably in a tent smaller than this one— and just 19 years old. Where would I be in six years? It was a long time to wait and find out.
I pushed down against the bottom blanket with my butt, and scooted out of the open end and stood up. It was still dark, but I knew exactly what time it was—4:30, same time as every day when I woke up. I was glad to always be up first.
I needed a shower and wasn’t ready to meet up with any of my neighbors just yet. I slipped on my pants, climbed into my empty clodhoppers, and dug a towel and washcloth outta the footlocker behind me. No soap. Damn, I’d forgotten soap!
Shirtless, I pulled up the edge of the tent and stepped out into the night that was colder than I had expected. I pulled the towel over my shoulders and shuffled off in the direction of the latrine. My feet flopped in the empty space where socks should be.
It took me less than three minutes to cover the distance in the moonlight that showed me the building was empty and unlit. I stepped inside and found the black dial that twisted on the lights.
“Christ!” It was bright.
I located my position in the room and turned them back off. I waited while my eyes adjusted and flipped on my flashlight. It was dim and soft. I walked over to the benches set along the far wall between the two showers, picked the one on the left, and hung my clothes off the hooks above. I took my towel and stepped up on the slatted drain board. A shelf extended from the wall, where I found a sliver of soap left from the night before. I hooked my towel at the far end away from the showerhead, pulled down my pants and stepped outta my shoes. I wedged the light in a pocket of the angled wall brace—as close as I dared to the chain that hung down from the ceiling.
There was nothin’ left to do but yank down and see what came out. I pulled hard and jumped back outta the way of the deluge it delivered. Wh-o-o-a-a! It was cold!
I dropped the chain and the water slammed to a sudden stop. I needed more distance; or I needed to be braver. Looking around, my eyes stopped on the washcloth dangling from its nail. I unhooked it and found the small tag stitched across one corner. That would do it. I threaded the end of the chain through the loop and tied it off.
“Better.” I told myself.
I backed off holding the tail end of the washcloth and pulled down again. Another gush of water poured out but missed me. Now only a trickle came down the outstretched wash rag, ran down the underside of my arm and coursed across the ridge of my hip, through the newly grown thicket surrounding my crotch and off the end of my dick.
I laughed, caught in this goofy pose leaning away from the silver shadowed shower of cold water, and stepped into the downpour. Instantly I regretting that! I turned and bent my head, letting the water hit me in the back of my neck and wash down every angle of my shoulders. Slowly the water warmed as it emptied the pipe leading from the black bladder up on the roof and was replaced with the warm water from yesterday’s sun. I looked up and faced full into the waterfall above me. Soaked, I let go and untied the washcloth from the chain, then tried to lather it up with my tiny sliver of soap. It got lost in the folds; so I tucked it in my palm and lathered up my body from the top down.
A lot had changed in just three months. Everything seemed better defined. My face and neck were somehow thinner with new angles. The chords of my neck stretched down like straight lines of rope buried beneath a tight sheet of skin that sloped away below solid rounded shoulders. My chest wasn’t flat anymore. Two tiny nipples stuck out like pale peas that weren’t an after-thought anymore. Now they were mounted near the bottom of a muscled mound that was built out in front of me. My stomach was flat and held a hint of strength outlined under smooth skin. Best of all, was the sudden appearance of shinny tight curls of blond hair that sprung out from above my dick. Still not a lot, but there.
I soaped up a little further down and my dick grew into my grip. This had been the biggest surprise of all. Everything else had come on slowly—but not him. That night with the swimsuit, it just happened, full sized and ready to go. The only difference lately was how hard and how often he called for attention. Anytime and anywhere—with the slightest excuse—he pushed up and out in my pants ‘til it hurt.
In the shower was about the only time I could give him—and me, any relief. We both knew it. At home there was a lock on the bathroom door and I was expected to be naked in the shower. The bedroom was another matter. Lying flat, bare and with nothing to do but think, I was solid in a second. But it was always too quiet and sounds snuck out of the room too easy, especially from the bed springs. Standing up was no answer either. The pounding rhythm of doin’ it seemed to echo off my body and out of my mouth until I couldn’t tell what had escaped.
I was in the shower now and I stiffened instinctively. It wasn’t my shower, and worse yet I was standing out in the open. Even if the only light was from my flashlight, I’d have to finish-off standing alone and holding the evidence. The urge struck like a hammer every time. I’d found out this wasn’t a sometime thing, or limited to a short supply. My worry that I was wasting my future family couldn’t be true. Since that first time, I had counted up to the mid 30’s before I realized this could be endless. Now three months later, I knew it would respond every time with the same urgency and result.
I’d heard hints from adults that it was “bad” somehow and had to be controlled. “The Book” suggested I should save it for marriage, and especially for that special “life partner” that waited in my future. At this point I knew that wouldn’t work. She may be out there, but waiting wasn’t even imaginable.
Like the rest of “The Book”, there was a vague warning about the consequences of self-abuse, which I guess this was; but no advice about how to handle the urge that overwhelmed every other thought in my head—just like now.
I turned my back to the water rushing down over my shoulders and released the chain from my grip. It turned very quiet, with just my breath coming faster and shorter. My hand moved like a piston, speeding up and down my slippery shaft! I could see my pounding shadow spread across the floor seized in a concentrated contortion!! Close! Closer!! Closer!!! NOW!!! My hand felt the pulse race under the skin and up my dick as it exploded and shot streams of cum into my other hand with the burning satisfaction of release.
A light flashed above me on the ceiling, as I heard the screen door swing open. I turned away and reached up for the chain and pulled. A torrent of cold water crashed over my head as I rubbed the warm paste across my chest and rinsed it away.
“Just finishing rinsing up!” I replied.
My dick collapsed at the intrusion.
“Pat?! That you?!”
He turned on the wall switch.
I turned half ways towards him; water running down my head, sheeting across my chest and drizzling off my half raised dick. He looked at me and I could see his eyes scan me up and down—pausing at that point.
“I… I could come back!?” He blurted out.
“No-no. I’m just about done. Water’s a bit cool, but still tolerable.”
I dropped the chain and the water slammed to a stop.
“I didn’t know anyone was in here.” He apologized. “I didn’t see any lights.”
“They’re too bright in this big barn. I used my flashlight.” And nodded in that direction.
“Yeah. Yeah! That’s a good idea.” He flipped off the overheads.
Now we were both in shadows.
“C’mon, your turn. I’m done.”
I waved him over as I stepped aside. “You got your own light?”
“Sure.” He hesitated then turned it on. It was the real deal and shot a single bright beam my way.
“Wait. I can make it bigger.”
He twisted the ring around the lens and the beam spread out encircling my full frame. He held it still a second then swung it down towards the floor.
“Put it up in this crack.”
I motioned as I picked up my light and moved over to the bench where my towel was hanging.
“Sure.” He followed my direction and hesitated again.
“I’ll be outta here in just a second!” I offered.
“No—that’s Ok. Can you wait up?”
He tried to balance his light in the crotch of the wall framing, but it was longer than mine and kept tipping out.
“Here, let me hold that for you.”
He tried again to balance it somewhere on the shelf but gave up and shyly handed it over to me. Duane put his towel on the hook next to mine and started to undress. Unlike me, he was already in full regalia and realized my curiosity.
“The guys in my tent don’t like it much that I get up so early. I don’t like to go back after I shower and just hang around. They always make a big deal about how… how—what a dick I am! They think I’m too up-tight and serious.”
“You are a bit of a straight arrow—but so what? It doesn’t bother me.” I assured him.
He turned away, sat down and undid the laces on both boots. He unrolled each sock, then pulled it straight off the ends of his feet and returned one to each boot.
“You…, you don’t ever seemed bothered by anyone? You don’t worry ‘bout what they think.”
He pulled his shirt out from under his belt completely before starting at the bottom and undoing every button in turn.
“No Duane! I think about what people think about me, even you.”
“I think you’re neat. You know what you’re doin’.”
“Wish that were true Duane, but it’s not.”
Now he bent his shoulders and shook off both sides of his shirt which he folded carefully and laid on top of his boots.
“But you don’t let anybody stop you. You do what you want!”
“What makes you think that?”
Fascinated now, I watched and waited for his next move. That was to grab his t-shirt behind both shoulders and pull it straight up and over his head right side out. Then he held the two shoulder straps and let it fall loose and gathered it into a perfectly folded square to place on top of his shirt.
“Well—like now! You’re up here by yourself.”
“So are you.”
“But everyone knows it. And I’m all dressed up—not you! They know why I’m gone, why I’m here by myself. They think I’m weird.”
Finally he unbuckled his belt and stripped off his pants and underwear by sliding both his hands straight down his hips and stepping backwards out of both.
“Duane, you’re here! They’re back down there. Forget ‘em! Do what you came to do and get on with it.”
He stood there naked and silent. The seriously strak scout had dissolved into a shy and scared kid that had suddenly escaped from his shell.
“So I can’t do it!”
“Yeah,… and… and do what you did.”
We both knew what that was. He started to shake and fumble.
“No… No! I didn’t mean that. I’m not weird?! I… I…”
“Duane, you’re a guy and just like me; and all the rest of us!”
“Whadda you mean?”
“I know next to nothin’, but I do know I’m glad to finally have gotten this far. I’m finally almost grown, even though I can’t figure out what comes next.”
“Look! Somethin’ goes on between guys and girls and it happens ‘cause it has to happen, and it happens to everybody! And we’re the ones that need to make it happen! That’s all I can make of it so far.”
“Need to make it happen?”
“The urge! You get it. I get it. Like we all get it!”
“Yeah! Like, when it’s comin’ and can’t be stopped?”
“Yeah, just like that!”
“I know all about the stuff between men and women.”
“Men and women?!”
“That’s how Dr. Bonder explained it.”
“A doctor told you?! Somethin’ wrong?”
“No—no! My Dad tried to, but finally he just sent me to Bonder.”
“What‘d he say?!”
“A bunch of stuff about sex—you know—penises and vaginas.”
I could feel my face warming.
“He talked to you about it?!”
“Kinda like what happens.”
“Well! What happens?!”
“You know—you get all hard and stuff.”
“Yeah, that part I know!”
“Well, she’s layin’ down—with no clothes on.”
I tried to picture that, my head couldn’t do it, but you know who could. The towel wrapped around me started to lift, and so did Duane.
“Then you lay down on top of her, ‘cause the next picture shows your thing all up inside of he—and you’re on top!”
I tried and succeeded in picturing that in my head, but I couldn’t see who she was.
“How? Where?!” Doesn’t it hurt her?!!”
“I don’t know—it was just a cross section. I couldn’t really see how he got in there.”
It didn’t really matter. Both of us were already really there, in our heads. What mattered was we were both stiff again and had a grip on ourselves.
“Ah-h-h shit! Pat? I didn’t mean to…”
“Duane there’s only one thing we can do, so turn around and do it!”
There wasn’t time to reason why, only time to… He did, and we did, until it was done. He blew first and started to laugh. I caught the bug and dug in ‘til I was done and roaring with relief.
“Duane?!” I howled exhausted. “Duane?! What the hell were you laughing at?!!”
He collapsed on a bench with his legs stretched out in front of him, still winding down from his fit of laughter.
“I… I was just waiting for someone to walk in—then I didn’t care! And it struck me how funny we musta looked and cracked me up!”
“I’m glad you said ‘we’ buddy, ‘cause I didn’t want to think you were laughin’ at me.”
“Hell no—you idiot!! We were both a show for anyone comin’ through that door!”
“Yeah! Yeah, but we better get outta here now before someone does. That would make news around here. Clean up, get dressed—and let’s get outta here!!”
We scrambled around collecting clothes and still high on what had happened.
We were laughing and stumbling over each other as we crashed through the screen door and headed down the trail.
“Hold up a minute. Let’s get organized. We’re Scouts. We gotta act like it.” Duane rewound his image.
We paused, he buttoned up his shirt, and we squared away our pants, then tied up our shoes. With him it was a practiced exercise performed with precision. Layer after layer was pulled up, tucked in, and adjusted into shape a perfect Scout. He looked the part and probably was. Standing up, we glanced over at each other. I reached over and buttoned his shirt pocket. He reached out and grabbed my shirt front at the beltline.
“Look at this Scout!” He demanded.
I glanced down my front and he ran his fingers up my chest, tipped my chin, and flicked my nose with his forefinger, and broke out laughin’ again. I smacked him on the shoulder and we leaned into each other and started down to the Mess Hall still wondering what had happened.
“Let’s talk this out before we get there.” I sobered. “That wasn’t our best idea, you know?”
“Nah, it wasn’t, but I’m glad it happed, you know?”
“I thought I was strange, different than everybody else. But you…”
“But I was just like you, maybe a little hornier.”
“No, nothin’ like that. I just felt disappointed before; you know—like after. Like I couldn’t handle it! Like I was alone again and no one really knew how weak I was.”
“Whadda you mean weak?!” I asked.
“I don’t know Pat. Maybe like I couldn’t handle this or anything else ‘bout growin’ up. I’m not sure I can hack it; and this bad habit just proves it—over and over again! It’s just me. No one knows what I’m doin’. I try every time to tell myself that that’s the last time I’m gonna do it, but real soon—soon as I get alone—I chicken out and go at it again.”
I could have been talkin’ to myself ‘cept that I made more excuses than he did. But back after, in the first few moments before the real world started up again, I always felt empty myself.
“I kinda know what you mean. It’s like being drained dry, even though I knew it would go away and I’d be Ok again.”
“I’m never Ok again! It’s just another way to disappoint my parents if they ever found out.”
“I think they know, Duane.”
“Yeah, I think they do too, but they can’t tell me, and I sure won’t tell them! I can’t admit it and let them down again.”
“Me neither. And I don’t think they wanna know. Whatever happens, I don’t think I can ever tell anyone?”
“I know—and you know ‘bout me! Everyone else seems to know everything else. They must know about this?”
“I guess, but I’m not gonna tell anyone else what happened here—ever!”
“Me neither, but I’m still glad I know.”
“Know what Duane?”
“Know it’s not just me! Know you’re in the same spot as me. Know I’m not really by myself.”
“You’re not Duane. I know you and you’re Ok.”
We walked along in silence; together, but alone again and headed for breakfast. Duane led the way with the perfect pattern of his torch showing our way. It was instinctive with him; like the light, the uniform and all the merit badges. He didn’t think about it much, just followed the careful instructions of his parents and did it without complaint and to be truthful, not much effort. Somehow he always did it right, but it was never enough; not for his friends, his family, or himself.
We pushed our way through the doors, grabbed our trays and loaded them with chow and settled at my chosen table at the back of the near empty room. Duane had gone serious again—all of a sudden. I could see him reloading his worries. Between bite fulls of eggs and toast he started explaining again.
“Mom and Dad want me to do it right, that’s all! They raised me and want me to get everything I can out of what they give me.”
“Uh huh?” I puzzled.
“I’m adopted. My folks are old and they worry ‘bout me. They want me to get in the best schools and succeed, so I can go out on my own and make it before they die.”
“They tell you that?”
“Nah. Not right out. But I can tell what they’re thinkin’.”
“That if I make Eagle Scout next year, It’ll look good on my record.”
I’d had some experience with the deadly “Permanent Record” that you dragged along with you the rest of your life, especially if it was bad. Mine was Ok at the moment, but had already picked up a few dings.
“Sounds like a good plan to me. Why’s it such a problem for you?”
“They can’t die, not yet! Not for a long time—Ok?”
“No—not that I know, anyways.”
“So why are you worried?”
“They’re really old. My friends say their parents can’t believe how old mine are to have a kid my age. That’s why they don’t want to come over. It’s too quiet at my house”
“Why’s that such a problem for your friends?”
“We live out in the country—way out from town. They’re not any real friends anyway. I only see them at meetings and camps.”
“Duane, I’m the youngest of five, and I was a late mistake. My parents are probably older than yours.”
“Well, my Mom had me when she was 42. I’m 13 now, and my Dad’s five years older than my Mom, so he’s 60, or near to it.”
“You’re not worried?”
I didn’t tell him about my worries and the priestly solution.
“Not really. Dad still works—hard and I don’t think he’s goin’ to keel over real soon, though maybe that wouldn’t be so bad.”
“Don’t say that, Pat!”
“Just kiddin’, Duane. C’mon, no one’s gonna die on you today.”
Just like that, he brightened again. It was like watching a serious show-dog turn into a playful puppy in an instant. He asked.
“Were you at the Pow-Wow?”
“I watched for a while, but I was too late coming off the archery range.” I evaded.
“It was neat. Everyone was dressed up and wearing war paint. I wonder if that stuff’s easy to rub off?”
“Bet you nobody shows up with it on today. C’mon, you ready?”
“Yeah. I’m finished. Where do you wanna go? It’s still ‘bout an hour to formation. Can we go back to your camp?”
Ah-oh? This was gonna be awkward.
“Duane, where do you usually go?”
“Here, I guess. Then I just wait around ‘til they start showin’ up and then I leave to go back to camp.”
“Hey, my buddy’s aren’t too keen about getting’ up so early either.”
“I’ll wait for you at the top of the trail, OK?”
“OK—I guess? But then I’m leaving for the archery range to help Mr. Elliott get set up, and then you’re on your own.”
We scraped and stacked our trays and left by the back door into the still dark morning.
“Any girlfriends?” I asked.
“The real ones are still an illusion for as far as I can see.”
“Mom and Dad fixed me up once; to a dance. I took a couple of lessons for a while.
“I learned to dance. Could be fun, I think?”
“The girl, Duane! What about the girl?”
“She was Ok—kinda pushy. Wanted me to show off. I think she was showin’ me off for her friends. I guess I didn’t do so well. Just decided to shut up and smile.”
“Did you dance with her; you know, hold her tight and stuff?”
“She didn’t like to slow dance, and those were the only ones I’d learned. It didn’t work out too good.”
I could tell his memory was not goin’ anywhere, so I changed directions.
“Here’s 414. Wait here and I’ll be right back.”
“Can’t I come along? I’ll wait outside Ok?”
“No, my friends are like yours, cranky in the mornin’.” I thought of Tim.
“How long’ll you be?”
“Five—ten minutes tops! I’m not back by then, you come find me.”
“Ok—ten minutes—no more!”
I left the trail and headed for my place. I’d have to ditch Duane real soon or he’d figure somethin’ wasn’t right; 21-22-23. My light dimmed and finally died with 17 paces to go. I shook it a couple of times and heard the batteries rattle a bit in their tin tube with no result. I raised my eyes back up in the direction of the tent, but still couldn’t see more than a couple of feet beyond where I stood. The trees overhead added another barrier to the hill blocking the dawn. I thought I had been headed the right way. Seventeen paces more, then I’d go 10 left, then 10 right, if nothing turned up. 14-15-16-17-Nothing.
“Ok-Ok, go right.” I murmured to myself. “7-8-9-10.” Still nothin’.
I held my hands out in front of me like a blind man and turned left. “12-13-14-THUMP!
“Damn!” My shin hit the edge of a tent platform. No tent yet, but at least it was a platform and it fit in. I skirted the corner and found a second abandoned one, then another; then a third with a tent standing on it and stuffed with bed frames. Two doors down was me.
Edging around the corner to where the entrance flap must be, I tried to remember where I’d put the extra batteries. Feeling my way over the lowered bed frame blocking the doorway, I lost my balance, tumbled forward and rode it in as it tipped over.
“Shit!” I barked.
This was gettin’ to be a pain in the ass. Now I was mad, and it was even darker inside. I crawled off the open springs and onto my mattress-covered floor.
“Where the hell are the batteries?!” I demanded.
I pulled myself up and took off my shoes. No need to be walkin’ on my bed. Feeling my way along, and holding on to the ridge pole, I moved to the back of the tent and the stack of footlockers. I felt the hard edge of the lid and ran my hand on to the hasp and pulled the stick out of the latch that closed the loop.
Then I heard the sound out front? Just a rustling comin’ up alongside the tent, outside of the thin canvas wall a foot away. It stopped and I could feel its hesitation as it waited for me to move again. Fear crawled up my spine and spread out my neck and shoulders. Slowly it resumed creeping forward outside towards the front. I crouched down on the floor panicked for a plan. I had nothin’! Not even my flashlight to swing. It turned the corner and I could hear breathing before it hissed out a low whisper.
The tension holding my body stiff and ready to flee, broke in two directions. I was ready to kill and limp with relief.
“Fuckin’ Duane!?" I called out.
“Get your ass in here so I can kick it good!!” I swore.
Duane raised the tent fold and flashed his beaming smile all over me again. This time I reached straight out and grabbed the light and yanked him in.
He yelled as he followed my tug and dove forward onto the floor. I straddled him and landed on his back.
“Scared the shit outta me, you asshole!”
He rose up on his knees and bucked me over his head into the footlockers. I scrambled up on my knees and we faced each other like wrestlers. He broke first and started to laugh. I still wanted blood, but it drained away as I watched him relax.
“You shithead!” I tried one more time to be mad. “I told you to wait!”
“Ten minutes you said, ‘Then come find me’.”
“Well here I am!” He laughed again.
“Just like a ‘True Scout’.” I kidded him.
His smile faded.
“No, I mean it that way, Duane! A True Scout! A real friend!”
He brightened again. I punched him in the shoulder.
“Thanks.” I sealed what I meant.
He pushed me back on my heels and looked around.
“Whatcha got here?”
“My own spot. I missed the bus and got here late and just decided I wanted some space by myself and this is it.” I ducked the issue of being broke.
“Down by the lake on the other side.”
“All by yourself?”
“You’re folks—the Scoutmaster?”
“They’re not worried ‘cause no one knows but you.”
He balked, but then climbed over his instincts.
“No—no, I won’t tell. What if you get caught?”
“They’ll send me home. I’ll tell Mom I got sick ‘sall.”
“My Dad wouldn’t care if I never showed up.”
I don’t know what made me say it, but in a flash, I knew it was true. He hadn’t said ten words to me that weren’t in anger since I was four. I didn’t know why, but that’s the way it was.
“Nothin’. My Dad’s not like yours, ‘sall.” I said with an unbidden hitch in my voice.
He was curious. This was new to him.
“He’d be mad—I’ll bet?!”
“Yeah, you’re right there. But it wouldn’t be because it meant anything to him ‘cept another reason to get pissed off and get drunk again.”
“He gets drunk?”
“No—he is a drunk.” I quietly admitted.
“What’s he do?”
“Nothin’, just gets up and leaves, mostly.”
“My Dad’s quiet too, but he doesn’t drink much. He talks to me some, about school and my future and other stuff.”
“That’s good Duane!”
“Kinda, I guess, but it feels more like I’m his project than his son? And I guess I’m not—not really his.”
“Hey! He talks to you, expects things from you, and probably’s real proud of you!”
“I wish he’d tell me… and… and,”
“Touch me. Put his hand on my shoulder-pat me on the back, hell, hit me even! I don’t know?!”
“Well I do! ‘Cept for the hittin’, I can’t remember my Dad ever touchin’ me. And he’s my real Dad—flesh and blood—not that you’d know it!”
We both went silent, tracing the memories of our Fathers in our heads and hearts, and never finding the trail.
“Hey, it’s still early. Let me get dressed and I’ll show you somethin’ before we go to class.”
“Somethin’ different I found when I cut across the hill last night.”
“It’s on our way, you know where 90 foot rock is?”
“Sure, on top of the ridge, right?”
“We’ll still make it to formation?”
“Not if we don’t get outta here soon!”
I shook off my shoes and dropped my pants.
“Hold the light while I find my gutchies and socks.”
“My underwear, country boy!”
He laughed and opened the beam on his light that took in the whole tent.
“This is real neat. Where’d you get all this stuff?”
“Tents down the row. I think they took ‘em down ‘cause they were rotted out. This one’s about to go too.”
I poked my finger through a seam in the sidewall and sat down on the footlocker across from him to pull on my socks and shoes.
“C’mon, let’s go!”
I tucked in my shirt and searched for the extra batteries.
“Let me switch these and we’ll head out.”
“You got anymore?”
“No, but I’ll buy some down at the PX.”
“I got some left over!”
“I’ll bring ‘em by later. I owe ya.”
“I’m good.” I confirmed again as I flipped the switch on and off again.
We straddled the turned-over bed springs, crawled out thru the tent flaps, and started up the trail.
“Let me lead. I know the way, and it’s still dark.”
“Ok, just don’t get outta sight!”
“Just stay close and I won’t lose ya.”
I hadn’t done this in the dark. I could just glimpse the outline of 90 foot rock glowing above dark trees in the first light of a new day.
“I’m turnin’ left off the trail. We’re gonna come out on the backside of the rock. Keep your light on me.”
As we veered further off the trail the sun touched the top of the rock.
“We’re headed straight for it. Watch your footing, it gets rocky.”
“How far ahead?”
“Maybe 50 feet, but you gotta keep lookin’, or we’ll miss it.”
“What!? What’ll we miss?!”
“A crack—a crack in the rock that gives way to a hole.”
“You’ll see a narrow crack up the front of the rock and it leads down behind the brush and into a hole.”
“A cave you mean?”
“Maybe? I don’t know. I could see the crack dive down and widen, but my light was too weak and I couldn’t see in.”
“Somewhere over there.”
I pointed to a shear outcropping of rock that rose straight up into the morning sky.
“See that seam? Follow it down to the ground. It should be right below!”
Duane rushed forward and sharpened his beam and traced it down the crack to the bottom.
“I got it! Over here!”
I pulled myself through the brush and came up beside him. His light dropped into a hole that dug down into the rock, but not to a bottom.
“It’s tight—and real deep.” I told him.
“You think we could maybe squeeze in there?”
“Maybe—maybe not, but for sure, not today. I gotta get over to the range by seven.”
“Classes don’t start ‘til eight?”
“I’m helpin’ out; you know settin’ things up.”
“OK, I guess we can come back sometime real soon. I wanna see what’s down in there.”
“It probably goes in a ways and dead ends.”
“Maybe not! I gotta find out.”
“OK sure. We can come back after dinner some day when it’s still light.”
I was gettin’ weary of Duane tyin’ up my whole day.
“Probably not. Maybe tomorrow?”
“No Duane! I won’t promise, but don’t you head in there by yourself!”
I hated to have given him the idea, but he was acting like a kid.
“You promise you won’t, Ok? OK!!
“Yeah, Ok. I’ll wait for you.”
We backed out of the brush and headed for the assembly area. The closer we got the more we braided ourselves into the line of Scouts headed for the parade field.
“Don’t wait for me!” I called ahead to him. “I’m goin’ straight to the range!”
He nodded with a look of disappointment and headed off into the crowd milling around the Parade Field.
That was Sunday, and now it was Wednesday. I had learned a lot from Mr. Elliott; way more than just archery. The guy barely knew me, but we spent every morning together; him teaching and me learning how to be good at something. Better than good, at taking my time and being deliberate. Nobody had ever told me before how easy it was to be good. Especially when you knew what you were doin’ and trusted yourself. Knowing when to release; knowing when you were called to release. “Be prepared.” It really made sense to me for the first time.
Other than that, and for the rest of the day, I was alone and free to explore whatever I found. I got to the Mess Hall first, usually near five, and they’d let me in. I don’t know if Duane ever came ‘cause I was already gone. I just couldn’t wait around. I’d have some chocolate milk until they dropped the first pan of scrambled eggs and bacon into the steam table. That and a donut was all I needed. I was out the back door before the line ever started. Usually there was near two hours to go before meetin’ up with Bob. No one else was up, so I’d use the showers by the parade field. No chance of meetin’ up there with anyone else there.
After my lesson, I took to finding my way back to 90 foot rock. All the repelling classes were on the other side, but sometimes I’d see Scouts standing up on top looking over the edge while they waited their turn to drop down on a rope. I still wasn’t fond of climbing heights or jumpin’ off! But soon found out—I could get real excited by crawlin’ down deep into caves!
That first morning I didn’t have any rope so’s all I could do was squeeze inside and follow the only open path down ‘til it ended in a room ‘bout 15 feet wide, six feet high, and maybe 40 feet long. I counted four different splits that led off into the rock. Two went up steeply and disappeared, and two dropped down into darkness where my light just petered out in a dim haze against wet walls that fell deeper.
It was damp and cool in there, and dead quiet. Only the small sounds of water dripped irregularly into unseen pools. I could sit and listen with the light turned off for a long time. Long enough so I wondered if I had fallen back asleep.
Like Duane, I wanted to follow where it went, but I wasn’t stupid. I knew I needed a rope to tie off at the top before I went any further down; and today I’d brought one. It had been temporarily liberated from the horse stables. It was an extra, just hangin’ there. Day after day, with all the others, in a perfect loop on the wall of the barn—maybe 50 feet long.
I tied it around a fair size boulder embedded in a hole that wouldn’t let it go, and cinched the other end around my waist. First, I strung it through the loop on my flashlight that would follow behind my hands as I lowered myself down through the first crack in the floor. That led me into my chosen vein. Fifty feet wasn’t that far, but the first time it took me three hours to get in and back out.
I couldn’t believe how it made me feel; scared and driven at the same time. Each foot step was a struggle against tight walls that twisted, turned and ran with water. Every moment, I thought I was either stuck or wondered if I’d to drop thru an opening that had never been found. The rocks smoothed out and got wetter the deeper I went. There was no light. Most of the time, I was flat on my belly, my feet searching for a foothold; while my hands fed the rope out, an arms-length at a time. There was mud, but not like outside; just real fine powered rock that let you slide further in, but supported you when you finally found your foot resting on something solid.
When I reached the end of my rope, I had just entered the top of a narrow slide cut through the stone that carried the water into the next room—I guessed. You could hear water dropping steady into a deep pool where it echoed like a bathtub filling up. The stream was just a little trickle, but it backed up behind me when I started down, then rose over my shoulders and flowed down both sides of me, cold but welcomed by my bare skin. I pulled myself back out and tried it again head first. I could only go about six feet, sliding down on my back. I rolled over and pointed the light ahead of me. The tunnel fell gently at first, but I couldn’t see where the water fell and I wanted to go further.
Not today, I was soaked and out of rope. I pulled against the line and inched my feet and butt back up to where I could turn around.
Tomorrow I’d pick up ‘nother rope and go 50 feet further. The thought gave me a rush that filled my body.
I cleared the entrance and untied the rope, carefully coiling it and stowing it behind the rock. Too wet to go anywhere, I looked for a sunny spot to air dry and found it on a ledge about 20 feet up— facing the sun. A fallen tree angled against a lower shelf that led the rest of the way up to the ledge. I had stuffed an apple and a candy bar that was left behind, in my shirt and climbed up. It was flat and covered with grass and weeds thick enough to be comfortable.
First, I took off my shoes and socks and set them up in a crevice in the full sun. Next off was my shirt. That I draped over a bush. What the hell, I was high enough off the ground and deep enough back on the shelf no one could see me from above, so I took off my pants and stretched them out in front of me. I found a soft spot and sat down with my arms wrapped around my knees and stared out across the treetops. Slowly I could feel the sun bake me dry and warm me inside and out. My mind drifted forward to the days that laid ahead, getting ready and finally crossing over the border for the first time, and walking thru the heavy metal doors of the high school with the crash bars that sounded like they’d never let you back out.
I had heard bells ringing over there all the time. Most times all the students would look up and drift slowly back up the steps. Other times, a gang of guys—and sometimes girls, would cut a trail downtown. Over on our side, Sister would appear at the schools doors, ring her hand bell three times, and stand back while we lined up and marched alphabetically back inside after lunch. Soon, I would heed the electric bell that sounded like a prison break, and I wondered which way I’d run.
When I woke, I was turned on my side with the sun low enough behind the trees to shade me. I had cooled down and my shirt was dry; same with the front side of my pants. I flipped them over and pulled on the shirt. My shorts were still sticky, so I pushed them off and put them on the bush. I turned my shoes and socks around to face the sun again and settled back to take a bite of the apple. I bit in and the juice ran from my lips and dripped off my chin. Something was very right about this place and me in it. I finished the apple and leaned back on my elbows, my shirt open, and stared down the length of my body. I was relaxed and wondering why I felt so good.
For as long as I could remember, I was always covered up, and liked it that way. Until last year, I always wore long sleeve shirts buttoned up to my neck. The nuns made us do it at school and I thought that was just fine. Now I needed to be out of my clothes whenever I could, and outside was best! I laid back and crossed my hands behind my head. Things were changing. I was growing up inside and out. I didn’t know where I was headed, but I was glad to be goin’. I spent ‘nother hour daydreaming about everything, but mostly more about next month in high school.
The following day, Thursday, I went back to the barn and borrowed another length of rope. I took it up to the rock and tied it together with the first one in a perfect square knot; right over left and left under, then left over right, and right under. It was the only knot I could remember that looked like it should when I was done. I didn’t have time to explore. Mr. Elliott wanted me to shoot for a merit badge this morning with the rest of his class, so I had to look sharp.
I’d found out that the ten o’clock group didn’t have anyone I knew on the roster so I told him Ok and joined up with that one.
When I walked outta the woods and looked at the 20 other Scouts I would face off with; my stomach squeeze itself into a new knot. It wasn’t a competition, but everyone would keep score. You shot 15 arrows and had to end up with over 50 points out of a possible 75 to win an embroidered patch. After 50 you were on your own against anyone who was left.
I scanned the class, saw no one I knew, and started to relax as I mingled at the edge. They were kids like me; some older, some taller, some louder; and some ready, and some not. Bob was passing out equipment and filling out the roster of who was shooting. I hadn’t thought about that, and started to swerve away when he called out.
My head swung around and he smiled.
“I got you down. Troop 414, right?”
“Yeah, 414”. I confirmed the lie.
He reached back behind him to the wall of the shed and held out my favorite bow. I called her “Kitt”. Without know why, she reminded me of Hank’s sister.
“Ok! Everybody fall in behind these three fence rails; seven behind each one. It doesn’t matter what order you’re in, everybody is shooting for total score only. There’s no winner in any round! You shoot five rounds of three arrows each. Once you’ve shot, and the range is cleared, go and stand by your target. You’ll be given your score out there! Any disputes are settled before you bring them back and post them on the tally board. Turn your scores sheets in when we’re done. Make sure your name and troop are on each sheet. No name—no score! No troop number—no score! Your score sheets will be checked against the tally board and a final score recorded on my roster. Over 50 and you qualify for your merit badge. Under 50, and we’ll
see you next year—no arguments! You may not make it this year—no disgrace in that! You just work harder next time! Questions!?”
There were none. We were all keyed up for the job ahead. I was fifth in my row at the middle rail.
“You have one minute to string your bow and shoot three arrows. Time begins on my whistle. Time ends on my second whistle. Any arrow that strikes a target after the whistle, is disqualified—no score! You have to release well before the second whistle to be sure your third arrow makes it to the target in time. Your call! No warning—no count down! Is that understood!?”
Nods from everyone.
“Scouts! A-ten-shun! First row post to the rail!”
Three Scouts left the pack and moved into position.
“On my signal—begin!”
A three count.
Everyone was nervous. Even five rows back I was straining with those on the firing line to break each bow and string it on the first try. No one did. You could tell right then who would. Two guys settled down and talked themselves thru it, like they’d been taught. The third Scout threw his weight against the bow like it was a wall to be knocked down, and he did. The bow bent and sprang out of his control. He was strong, but the bow outlasted him and jumped away with each of his forced errors.
“Steady!” Bob called out.
The boy responded and stopped the struggle. He carefully paced each move, and to everyone’s relief, succeeded.
Meantime, the other two had fired off two of their arrows. One each went wild and missed. One arrow from my row hit true inside the second ring. His third arrow hit close by. The last guy fired his first arrow. It fell short, but in-line with the target. The second arrow was high but hit. The third arrow…
Flew and buried itself sweetly in the center—but too late! You could see him tense up and burn. He was pissed at Bob and his whistle.
“Scouts, put down your bows and retire to your targets!”
A smattering of nervous applause and encouragement came from the group. Most were now focused and practicing with themselves; their muscles twitching and their eyes following every planned move they made in their heads.
It got quiet and shook out in a routine of intense purpose. The only thing you heard were Bob’s commands, the full thump of a hit, and the timeout whistle.
It was my second round. I had hit six for six, but nothing in the center. My score was only 15, barely on track to 50, but still good enough to be in contention. I had only hit one four, and no five’s, with nine arrows to go. I knew my problem. I had never shot from the middle. I was always alone before. I liked the right side and the right target. Everyday I had grown more comfortable with the solitude on my right and could isolate the target with no distractions. We worked together; me, Kitt, and the spot.
My first arrow moved right again with my feet.
“THUNK!” Another lousy three.
That was past. Now I had two arrows to shoot in less than 30 seconds. My mind cleared as I slotted the second arrow of this round. I knew I knew what was wrong. I just had to adjust!
I stepped right of center along the rail fence. It was enough. I turned my body and my sight-line a hair to the left. I was alone again with the target. No hint of another anyone nearby. Nothin’ but her and me. I lifted us up smoothly squinting my eyes ‘til the bull’s eye bulged out towards me. I was there and my arrow followed.
I repeated my third shot without a doubt.
I heard the sound of its flight, the tear of the paper, as my last arrow buried itself alongside. Two nickels—28, and I was half way home. I watched Bob bring the whistle up to his lips with a smile.
“T-w-e-e-et! Good work! Let’s see more of it!”
And we did. The leader, Duff, the guy who had wrestled his bow to a draw in the first round was over his nerves too. He was like a machine. Two the 1st round, 12 the 2nd, and 14 this last time—28! We were tied with six arrows to go. He was ahead of me in the rotation and always shot first. Duff was up now.
The guy was built like a swimmer; tapered from top to bottom. Big shoulders hinged long muscled arms that hung over narrow hips, with legs that pointed straight into the dirt. His stance was tall and narrow. Mine was medium and open. He looked like a dancer. I looked like the milkman.
Duff fired off three arrows in quick succession. A five! Then a four! And another five! 14+28=42! “We” were next. I was sweating, but not hot. The drops formed along my forehead and melted down my face. This was new too? I could smell the strength of my concentration dampening my armpits. It raised my senses and tightened my control.
In slow motion, at one speed, I picked up my arrows, registered them across my bow, and sent them home. Three-four-five! Plus 28 equal 40. It was OK. They went where I wanted them. I had led them left to right; bottom to center. They took a path directly to the center. So far the scores were; 1-42, 4-40’s, 3-38’s, and 4-35’s. The rest of the field was out of range. Only twelve of us stood any real chance at a merit badge.
No one dropped out. The last round was relaxed. We all had taken the measure of each other and ourselves. The only pressure was to see who would win.
Nine guys had finished. Three had qualified. Twelve of us were left. The only contender to miss so far, needed a five on his last arrow, but had taken too long to release. When he did, it was perfect, and too late. The whistle blew him out. There was a collective groan, but no plea for mercy.
Now Duff was up again. He was rock solid. Number one was gone in ten seconds—dead on—a five! Number two followed behind in quick order—another five! Both arrows were buried next to each other, not an inch apart.
He paused, lowered his bow and looked back at me. He only needed a four to squeeze me out and win. I smiled back and gave him thumbs up. He looked puzzled as he turned and resettled his feet. It was taking too long. Bob looked down at his stop watch and raised his whistle.
Duff swung up into a perfect stance and fired his last arrow flawlessly. We all watched as it traced a shallow arc into the center of his target.
“TH-r-a-a-p!” The arrow rattled between his first two and crossed them like a crooked “T”.
“Tw-e-e-t! Scouts post to your targets!”
Almost everyone stampeded down range to take a look. I hung back as Bob called out.
“No one touch anything!! Stay back!”
That slowed them down and they let Bob pass by. He reached the target and waved Duff forward. He stiffened and stared as Bob raised his hand and flashed five fingers twice, then tucked his little finger under his thumb.
“Five-Five-and a Three! Total 53!”
We all closed in to take a look. The last arrow had hit the one to the right and skipped over the second—high enough to cross the line separating a three from a four. It was delivered as a five but only counted as a three.
Everyone turned their eyes on me, waiting for some kind of concession.
“Tough one, Duff.” I meant it.
“Good luck for you, you mean, McDonald!” He baited me.
I stared at him as he ripped his arrows out of the target tearing chunks of straw with them.
“Next flight!” Bob announced.
Flight Four went about as expected with Steve and Dan qualifying. That made eight. Finally, Flight Five was up. I was the only one of our group still contending. I waited next to the rail, holding for the whistle, and wondering what I’d do.
But I knew. Somewhere in my chest the decision was made in long steady breathes, and worked its way out until I knew exactly what I’d do. Two quick perfect shots—50! I was in. I stopped and looked back at Duff who turned away. I raised my bow, twisted slightly to the left and fired again. My best shot yet; another bull’s eye—but in the wrong target.
“Misfire! Incorrect target! No score!”
Everyone was silent, then confused, and finished irritated.
“What’d you do that for?!”
“You coulda beat him!”
I unstrung my bow and walked it over to Bob.
“Thanks Mr. Elliott. I learned a lot.”
“I believe you did son, quite a whole lot.”
I turned and walked around the shed and into the tree line, glad to be gone and back on my own. I wasn’t sure why I walked away, but I knew it was right ‘cause I was satisfied with what I got. No win. No merit badge, ‘cause there was no Pat McDonald, and probably no Troop 414. My score was recorded on the first line, and my own name didn’t appear on the second. I was glad to know that was Ok with me.
Two more days and I hadn’t seen Duane since Sunday. Everybody was busy learning and practicing and qualifying; everybody but me, and especially Duane. I wondered how he was makin’ out with his merit badge total. He said he only needed six, but that was just about the most he could do with all the class time, plus doin’ the work it took to demonstrate your skills.
Tomorrow was the end of it—pass or fail. It was his last chance of the year.
I decided to try and catch up with Duane at breakfast, but right now, I wanted to get back to my new love—spelunking. That’s what they called it. Sounded dumb, but it was just about the best kick I’d ever felt; not like the Jack Rabbit, or even the high I got from dancing with my bow and arrows. No, this was different. The target wasn’t down range; it was all around you and you were the arrow. Better yet, you were the bow too! It was all up to you, with no one else in control. At least that’s the way it was for me. Once I was in, I only wanted to go deeper. I would push myself to get closer still to something I wanted—or needed—I could never tell which. That longing pulled me like a magnet.
I rounded the rock at the rear and cut back in at the split. No one was around, so I turned into the darkness. Something was wrong; or worse—something was gone! The rope, or at least most of it, plunged straight down. I saw the loop tied around the boulder, but no coil lay behind.
Someone had found out! Where were they? Who were they?
I watched as the rope around the rock stiffened with strain. It startled me, and I turned to run—but then I heard the muffled cry. Someone was down there, who knows how far, or in how much trouble? I turned back, skirted the rock, and lowered myself to my knees. I called in after the rope that disappeared below.
“You need any help!?”
“Duane?!” I knew—I knew who it was—all along.
“Duane, I know it’s you! Are you Ok?!”
A pause, then stillness, then a choked sob.
“Duane, I’m comin’ down!”
“No! Don’t! Go away!”
“You shoulda come by and got me. We coulda teamed up and gone further down!”
“You musta missed me?”
“I couldn’t find you—ever!”
“Yeah, I’ve been stayin’ to myself some.”
“Why?! Why don’t you want to be my pal?”
“I don’t know, Duane?” I confessed. “It isn’t you. I’ve just never been on my own before. This was my first chance to be alone—you know?”
“I can tell you ‘bout being alone! I’ve always been alone, and now it’s worse!!”
“Worse!? How’s it worse?”
“It doesn’t matter. Not to you! Not to anyone!!”
“Sure it matters, Duane! It matters to me!”
“No Pat, it really doesn’t. That’s the one thing I know for sure!”
“Nobody really cares all that much! They care some; but in the end they don’t really care about me, or anyone, more than themselves!”
That struck me as true. I’d never heard anybody say it so sure, but it was hard to argue against his logic. No one seemed like they could ever muster the concentration to care for anyone else for very long. That’s just the way it was.
“Duane, your parents care.” I tried.
“They wanna care—they try to care, but I don’t think they know how to.”
“Takes two, Duane. Do you care ‘bout them?”
“No. Not like I should. Not like they want.”
“Who do you care for then?!”
“I thought I cared about you, Pat.”
I knew he cared ‘bout me. I felt it in his eyes. No one had ever looked at me like he did, except my Mom, and didn’t like it.
“Duane, sure you like me! We’re friends. You’ve got lotsa friends.”
“No. No, I don’t! You’re way different than them. They don’t even like me! They don’t want to be my friends. You were my friend, not them! Now—maybe not even you.”
“Duane, I am your friend! Friends know it! I know I’m your friend, so you’re mine! Now—what’s up? What does this have to do with you crawlin’ down this hole by yourself?”
“It doesn’t matter, Pat. Nothin’ you can do that would make any difference.”
“Try me Duane. Tell me why we’re having this conversation in the first place?”
“Ok, I’m comin’ down!”
No response this time. I was still dressed in most of a full uniform for the merit badge competition. I took off the dress shirt and put it on the rock. No sense ruinin’ it; and I still had on a t-shirt. At least the rope only would let him in 100 feet. The first 50 I had already covered, so I knew what to expect; plenty of water and tight squeezes.
“Hey! You find any dry spots down there?!”
Still nothing. I moved down and in, a little quicker. I was almost at mid-point when I stopped. This was strange? Neatly piled in a corner of one of the few wide spots, were Duane’s clothes—all of them; neatly stacked in the same approved order as for a footlocker inspection.
“Ok, Duane, I found the clothes. What gives? If you didn’t want to mess them up, you shoulda worn somthin’ old and cruddy.”
“I don’t want them anymore. And I don’t have somethin’ old and cruddy!”
“Ok, but they’re still better than your birthday suit. It’s damn cold down here, and even soaked, some clothes are better than none.”
“Duane, I’m not your mother, so don’t play this game with me!”
I was getting a little pissed at the whole situation.
“C’mon, give me the whole story and cut the shit!”
“Pat, I’m glad you came; but I didn’t ask you to! And this is no game for me!”
“What the hell does that mean?!”
“I’m not comin’ back.”
“Back? Back where? Back home?”
“Back up—out of this cave—ever!”
“Oh yeah you are!”
“Don’t make me Pat!”
“So I just let you stay down here and croak?”
“I… I can’t go back.”
“Tell me why, Duane.”
“Tell me Duane!”
“I hit him! I hit him and it ruined everything!!”
That didn’t sound like Duane at all.
“Ok Duane, who did you hit—and why?”
“Ok, now maybe I understand.” I half humored him.
“No—no you don’t!”
“Duane, I coulda hit Duff after knowin’ him just ten minutes!”
“You don’t understand!”
“Ok, I’ve got the who—so tell me the why.”
“He’s my sponsor—my Eagle Scout sponsor.”
“So, what’d he do? Cheat you on some test scores or somethin’?”
“No, nothin’ like that. He’s a jerk, but he’d never do anything where he could get caught.”
“So what did he do to you?”
“Not to me.”
“Why can’t you tell me straight out Duane, instead of playin’ 20 questions?”
“He… he called you a fag.”
“ME!! Why the hell would he do that?! What’d he say?!”
“He said you were kissin’ up to Mr. Elliott out at the archery range, and he was givin’ you special attention ‘cause… ‘cause you know.”
If Duff had appeared out of the vapor of the cave, I would have smacked him myself—right then and there. That shithead deserved it!
“Duane, Bob’s been a good friend to me! He taught me archery—like a Dad would. No cut corners, no favors, just straight up and tough. Nothin’ more! Shit! Bob has a wife and four kids! That asshole! So you hit him, huh? Duane!”
“Yeah! He said you were a homo and a fucking queer.”
“And you hit him! Duane?”
“You hit him ‘cause we’re friends? Maybe, maybe I didn’t know just how good a friend you really are. Thanks!”
“You’re welcome—I guess. I didn’t think about it or plan it. I just couldn’t let him say that!”
“And now what? That’s what got you down in this hole—for fucking ever?”
“It ruined everything. I got kicked out of the program. I won’t make Eagle, and my parents won’t ever think I can make it. They won’t like that I’ve been fighting, either.”
“Duane, I’ll tell them why you did it! I’ll tell Bob too!! That Duff guy’s a liar and you called him on it—like a man’s supposed to! No one’s gonna blame you when they hear the truth.”
“Maybe nothin’! I’ll tell them I’m lucky to have a friend like you that stands up for him when people lie!”
That did it—and it should have. Duane had done everything right, and better than me. Sayin’ it out loud, was probably the first time he’d ever heard it; or maybe even believed it.
“Ok Nature Boy, crawl on up here where I can thank you proper.” I said.
I felt the rope tighten—like an anchor being lifted—lifted off the chest of my new found friend. Now, instead of the small sounds of a wounded kid, came the large determined grunts of a man’s effort. But this wasn’t the easy slide down to the bottom. This was a struggle back up to the real world that never goes away. It might take everything he had to make it out.
About five minutes later the struggle ended and the line slackened. I could hear his panting; like the lungs of a horse after a race.
“Duane. Are you Ok? Is there somthin’ I can do to help?!”
“Shut UP!!” Came his angry reply.
“That’s easy.” I answered. “I’m just a little bored waitin’ on you to get up here. Will you be much longer?”
His anger cracked and he started a low chuckle that broke out into a rolling rumble of exhausted laughter.
“When I get up there, you know what I’m gonna do?”
“No Duane, let me take a guess—take a bath?!”
“Before the bath!”
“Thank me for all my good advice?”
“Somethin’ like that.”
“Well, then you’re back to being ‘good old Duane’, huh?”
“No! I’ve worked out a permanent cure for ‘good old Duane’!”
“I’m gonna whip your ass, Pat!”
“That ain’t gonna be so easy, Duane.”
“Oh, I’ll find the strength!”
“Well, I’ll be waitin’ right up here—nice and dry. Unless, of course, your climb takes us into dinnertime. Then I don’t know? This is the big party night where they pass out the awards. Don’t wanna miss that! I’m sure Duff’ll be there!”
That was enough to piss him off again and kick in the after-burners! The rope tightened again and a roar of resolve powered his new thrust. I could tell he was getting closer; driving himself with the low growls of muttered oaths.
“Son-of-a-bitch isn’t gonna stop me!”
“Fuckin’ asshole’s gonna get more than one swing!”
“I’ll pound that shithead into the ground!!”
Each expletive was accompanied by a lunge of energy that took the tension out of the rope until the next. I shined my light down the crack and could see movement behind the vibrations of the rope.
“Almost here, buddy!”
He panted back.
“This is tougher than I thought.”
His hesitation sounded out the weary doubt creeping into his muscles.
“Don’t worry Duane. We can get you the rest of the way. What’s it like where you’re at?”
“It gets steeper here! I remember I slid down a narrow chute at the beginning. I don’t think there’re any hand holds?”
“That’s why you got me! I can see that slide drop off about ten feet from where I am. Can you see my light?!”
I waved the flashlight in circles where the rope pressed against the cave walls.
“Yeah! Yeah! I got it! I’m maybe a body length from where it’s hittin’ the corner.”
“Can you make it to that point? I’ll start takin’ up the slack as you move. Don’t worry ‘bout sliding back—‘cause I got you! Just think about your next move forward. K?! Let me get in a better position!”
I braced my feet against the side walls of the tube that dropped down outta sight and passed the rope behind my back. I pulled it through a nearby notch of a rock outcrop to check any backslide.
“Ok! Ready when you are!”
He moved below and I tightened up on the line.
“No! NO! Wait! Let me give you a signal! You pulled me off balance! I can do it! Wait for my Ok, then tighten up!”
I could feel him crawlin’ up and the rope scrapin’ against the floor of the cave.
“OK!!” He yelled.
I pulled up and took up two more feet of slack. Again the rope relaxed.
This time it was three feet. I thought I could see his outstretched fingers looking for a hand hold.
“Four more feet Duane! I can see you!”
“It’s gettin’ steeper.”
“Can you reach the turn? Look for the light!”
I pointed it straight at the corner where the rope dug into the floor.
“Yeah! I got you!”
“Can you make it?”
“I’ll have to turn over on my back. There’s nothin’ to grab! I can push off with my feet!”
“Ok! Do it!”
The rope quivered taunt in my grip.
“I’m going to take up the slack when you give it to me.”
“Yeah! I’m flat on my back now. You’re the one in charge!”
The light was tipped up at an angle that hit the ceiling of the hole, but missed the battle beneath it. Then I saw the fixed grip of his muddy fingers slide up another six inches on the line and hold.
He expelled his strength the length of his body, pushing his feet against the side walls and lifting his shoulders to gain six inches.
“PUSH!! Damn it!!”
He flopped forward on his back and turned his face up towards me.
“I don’t know, Pat?”
“I do Duane! You’re comin’ out—NOW!!”
“Let me rest.”
“No Duane. It’s right now! I don’t care how you do it! Or how long it takes! But we’re gonna do it—NOW!! On my count! 1-2-3!!”
I lowered my knees and grabbed the rope as far down as I could reach and pulled with my back. Duane spun on his stomach and reached hand over hand pulling his dead weight up against my lift.
“Wedge yourself in against the wall!”
He twisted and drew his legs up and pushed them against the narrow frame of the cave walls.
“Rest! One more time and you’re out!!”
His grip relaxed, his hands trembled, and I got a good look at the new born star. The only bright spots were his eyes; clear and centered with two crystals of blue shining out from wet glowing pools of white. The rest of him was molded mud. His chest was heaving and his head tipped back like it was loose and just about to disconnect.
“Duane, we can’t wait any longer. You gotta get the rest of the way up next time! I can’t hold on much longer!”
“Yeah you can.” He reminded me softly. “You can’t give up and you won’t. I can count on that.”
I wasn’t so sure, but his words left me no room to argue. I shook my head up and down and waited for his next try.
“Relax. I’m wedged in tight. Uncoil your hands and take a new grip as far down as you can. Pull—and keep pullin’! I’ll do the rest.”
His steady voice convinced me. I loosened my hands that were frozen around the rope. He stayed still while I flexed my fingers, bent my knees and leaned in towards him. I nodded again.
He rolled on his back. His voice was even but fierce.
“I’m comin’ out this time, no matter what!”
I believed him.
“Hold on to me. I’m lettin’ go!”
I tensed and waited.
With that he did something unreal! In a single move he raised his feet, hit the ceiling, ran against it and flipped himself over—landing his body a full length closer.
“Tie me off!”
I reached down and wrapped a coil of rope around his ankles.
He was off the ground suspended from his stiffened arms that walked him back up with my steady tug. Hand by hand, and no stopping, he came up outta the chute like a bull! His feet hit my chest as I leaned back and took up the rest of the rope. Then he dropped down on top of me.
We both laid there amazed and exhausted that it had worked and was over. He was out! Lying face down at my feet we matched up at the waist. I had my arms locked around his ankles with only a shadowed view of his butt and balls below me.
“Now there’s a picture I coulda waited a lifetime to see. Get off of me!”
“Let go of my feet, dummy!”
My arms released him like the ref had pounded the mat after counting him out.
He rolled slowly off to the right on his elbows and our eyes locked on each other. Now I felt, and returned, the same look he had shown me after we’d met. I cared for him. He wasn’t the overgrown shy kid anymore. Not the one who seemed so annoying with all the advantages, yet still dripping with doubt. He was my friend. I reached out with an open hand and he did the same. Our grips tightened and we pulled each other up. I knew it was all different between us.
“Thanks, Duane. Thanks for stickin’ up for me.”
“Didn’t have a choice. Thank you for the rescue, Pat. I couldn’t have done it by myself.”
I knew “rescue” went beyond this wet cave, but I didn’t know where it ended.
“It’s Mark, Duane. My name’s Mark.”
“It doesn’t matter Mark. We’re still friends.”
All this happened in the half light of my fading flashlight still laying on the rock behind us.
“C’mon, let’s get you dressed and move outta here.”
He stood; our hands stilled locked together, and pulled me up. His muddy face was cut across by a shit-eatin’ grin full of shiny white teeth.
“You’re a wreck!” He realized.
“Oh yeah? Well, you’d send little kids screamin’ into the arms of their mothers.”
We laughed—laughed with a new understanding that was better than words.
“Put on some clothes.”
He looked down at the neatly stacked pile, picked out the t-shirt and shorts, then tossed the rest of them down the hole he had just escaped.
“They stay here, along with the kid that wore them for protection. I don’t need ‘em anymore.”
“Hope you can still stand your briefs and boots ‘cause I can’t imagine us walkin’ across camp lookin’ like this.”
He nodded back.
“That’d give Duff plenty to yak about.”
We both laughed again.
“C’mon, there’s clear water at the top. We’ll clean up and figure it out from there. I’ll lead! I don’t want to walk behind your grimy butt.”
When we could see the daylight filtering thru the entrance crack, there was no sunlight left; but It was still light in contrast to the pitch black of the cave. We found the small pool at the top and I stripped off my pants and shorts.
“You first! I’ll be the look out.”
Duane dropped into the shallow pool, hunkered down and pitched forward until he was completely under. For a second, only the water stirred. Then he rose up like a Baptist convert, water streaming down his head and shoulders with his arms crossed over his chest and his eyes closed. He blew the water off his lips and pushed his hands over his head. I saw him for the first time right then. I choked like a hiccup, except that it sounded like a horses snort. He looked over and gave me a double-take.
“What the hell was that?!”
“Beats me!?” My trance dissolved into a funny memory.
“Your turn. I’ll take the door.”
He stepped out of the water and I repeated what I’d seen him do; submerged myself down under the cold water with arms folded. It surrounded me and pushed into every corner; cold, even, and comforting. I rose up thru the surface into the night air, my skin prickling with sensation. There we stood, new and naked. It was time to leave. Duane was reduced to boots, t-shirt and briefs.
“Well, what’s left?”
I held up my mud caked pants, then threw them back into the cave. What was good enough for him—was good enough for me.
“I’ll pick ‘em up tomorrow.”
“Four Fourteen, I guess? We can cut cross-country.”
“Me too, but gettin’ in and out of the Mess Hall without being noticed might be a problem?”
“Hey the Indians did it! I’ll bet we could too.”
“Worth a shot, I guess, I’ll never make it to breakfast.”
“If we get caught, It’s gonna be bad for you. I don’t care. Added to hittin’ Duff it won’t mean much more.”
“We won’t get caught. We know what we’re doin’—they don’t.”
“Sly, cunning, and alert. Sounds like fun. You first, I’ll follow.”
I looked around and caught my bearings.
He went back into the cave and brought back my flashlight and snapped it on. The light was dim but might be needed.
“Ok. Let’s go.”
Like a pair of pale ghosts we cut around the base of 90 foot rock. Here too, like every where else, the ground had been picked clean of anything that would burn. Our feet fell on beaten dust that puffed up silently as we snuck low and quiet thru the brush and woods. I held up my hand as we closed nearer to the trail and the campsites that ran along the meadow.
“We can’t go out there!” I pointed to the parade field. “We either go thru them towards the Mess Hall, or circle wide around them.”
“I’m real hungry.” Duane smiled.
“Settled then—thru them it is!”
I picked our way closer. The trail ran along the edge of the meadow and the camps sat back under the trees about 30-40 feet. Most of the camps had a fire goin’ in the stone pits, and most of the Scouts were gathered close to the cozy light thrown off by the fire; their shadows scattered against the trees and tents. Nobody would ever see us without breaking free of the circle.
“They can’t likely see us.” Duane estimated.
“Bet?” I answered.
He smiled and stepped ahead of me headed straight for the first camp.
“Shit!” I replied to myself and followed.
He was too pale to walk into the ball of light that lit up the camp and turned left at its edge behind the nearest tent. I went wider, in an arc 20 feet behind him. Duane walked ramrod straight, his head bobbing above the ridge line of tent poles, catching the light one moment and disappearing the next. He was truly enjoying this. With every campsite he turned in nearer until his new playful curiosity got the best of him.
Scouts were gathered close to the fire listening to a Scout leader tell a tale of Indian lore. This one was about “Lone Wolf”, a warrior who was banished from his tribe because he had intervened when the Chiefs’ son had hesitated in battle and lost his nerve. At the last second Lone Wolf had saved him from a hatchet blow by an enemy. Instead of being rewarded, he was accused of stealing the son’s glory, just before he was about to strike. Now Lone Wolf was condemned to never being seen again; but to follow at a distance without ever showing himself to any member of the tribe.
Duane picked up the drift and turned away from the circle and cut loose a tortured howl.
The Scoutmaster stopped mid-sentence and everyone knew from his worried look that this was not a plant to add realism to the story. He looked out into the night, and kept his gaze out there, as he continued.
“And Lone Wolf was never seen again, but his howls of loss and loneliness drove the young Chief crazy and he would fire arrows out into the night screaming against the phantom until none of the other warriors would follow him. He broke down and sobbed his confession and remorse. They left him alone that night and moved their camp. He fall into a deep sleep, exhausted, and close to the fire. When they looked back, as they left, all they could see were the eyes of a wolf reflected in the flames, circling the abandoned Chief. Then came growls and howls of the wolves as they tore him apart.”
On cue, Duane and I took up the calls of a pack of wolves fighting for scraps from both sides of the camp; and ended with a chorus of victorious howls that echoed across the meadow. That drove everybody inside, some in good order, but most scared shitless! I moved over in his direction and called out low.
“Yeah?” He whispered back, his voice full of caution.
“That was somthin’! Where’d you learn to howl like that?”
“That wasn’t all me—didn’t you …?!”
“Well, yeah, I helped out some.”
“That wasn’t you!?”
The skin on my neck chilled and we both looked at each other and back out into the night.
“Let’s get outta here!”
“You still hungry?”
“Not no more!”
“I got some candy back at the tent.”
“Let’s go then!”
The night sky had opened up to a full moon, but thick clouds passed under it as a stiff wind rustled the trees and chilled us inside and out. We cut a trail—straight for home. Finally I found the path off the crest of the hill and hurried down ‘til it ended at the flap of the tent.
“You first.” He motioned.
The crack of a tree limb above us sparked a dive thru the doorway and landed us on the mattresses; waiting for anything else that might show up outside. After a long silent pause, the wind slowed down, and I started to shiver.
“Crap, I’m cold!”
“You got any blankets?”
“Just the sleepin’ bag my Mom made, but it’s not big enough for
both of us.”
“I’m Ok.” Duane bravely volunteered.
“Wait. It unzips flat.” I pulled it out of the footlocker.
“Here—here’s a towel. Get outta those wet skivvies and dry off.”
We both kicked off our boots and pushed down our underwear.
“You got any extras?”
“I got one pair and pants, plus a shirt. All the rest is in the laundry, so I’m ready to go tomorrow. Which one you want?”
I held them up. They were all too small for Duane.
“I guess I’ll take the shirt, Ok?”
“Yeah, you’d never get the pants up. Here take the underwear.”
He tossed the towel to me and pushed himself into the arms of the sleeves. The buttons stayed three inches apart. I grabbed my pants and hustled them on.
“Ok, let’s set two more mattresses on top. It’s getting’ cold.”
We piled them up and spread the open bed roll on top.
We both hesitated. Somethin’ was more than strange about this.
“I’ll get the candy.” I turned and rummaged thru the footlocker tray.
Duane picked up three more mattresses and laid them crossways on top of the other two. Now we had a couch instead of a bed. He sat down on one side and pulled the bedroll up over his knees. I did the same on the other side; and threw a towel over my shoulders.
“Here.” I handed him a Reese’s peanut butter cup from a twin pack.
I bit off the thick rim of chocolate around the edge and lifted up the center cap with my tongue, then minced the peanut butter center with tiny bites of my front teeth.
“That’s weird.” He commented.
“Oh, Yeah? How do you eat ’em?”
He bit his in two, swallowed the first half, then shoved the other half into his mouth and chewed it like a wad of gum ‘til it was gone.
He sucked the tips of his fingers and thumb that had held the treat seconds ago. I screwed up my face in disgust and answered.
“And long gone! You couldn’t have enjoyed it when you gulp it
down that fast?”
“You’re crazy!” He pushed my shoulder with the heel of his hand.
“You should take some time and enjoy somethin’ special that a good friend gives you.”
“Huh hell, Duane! You were hungry right?”
“So your buddy shares somethin’ special—half of what he’s got, and you wolf it down like it was nothin’!”
“It was good. I told you it was delicious—didn’t I?”
“Yeah, but all I felt was you expected it and you were waiting for more.”
“I didn’t mean nothin’, Pat.”
“Mark!” I corrected.
“Ok! Mark, then.”
“Is this how you are at home?”
“Whadda you mean?”
“I mean when your parents do somethin’ for you.”
“Like sending you here. Did you say ‘Thanks’, or anything?!”
“Dad just sent the money in and told me that it was a good opportunity to make Eagle Scout, ‘sall.”
“And what’d you say back?”
“I just thought…” He hesitated.
“C’mon! Tell me what you said!”
“I said—‘Yes sir.’”
“And what’d you think?!”
“I thought it was ‘nother test, just the next way to get me out on my own. Sooner! Faster!”
“Did you think to thank him, Duane?”
“Why? Why would I? I didn’t ask for it! It was just expected of me!”
“Duane, he didn’t haft to! Maybe he thought you expected it from him.”
“Whadda you mean?”
“I mean, since I met you, I’ve always felt like you needed me to give you somethin’—something more you’re expecting from me. Like I gotta get or give you what you’re after. You’re always waiting for me to do somethin’ more for you.”
“Well, what are you thinkin’ now?”
“I don't know. You’re goofy-nuts?!”
“Right now! What’s next? What do you think we’ll do tomorrow?”
“I hafta get some new clothes to wear.”
“’Cause you threw your old ones away. How are you gonna get new ones?”
“Maybe you could go back to “411” and find some of mine?”
“What if I didn’t? What if I got dressed for breakfast and just left?”
“You wouldn’t do that, would ya?”
“No Duane! I wouldn’t. I’ll do what needs to be done—just like your Dad!”
“I don’t get it Mark. You think my Dad’s doin’ stuff for me ‘cause I want him to?”
“I think your Dad’s thinkin’ for you ‘cause you expect him to, and you need him to. You think he’s doin’ all this, just ‘cause he wants you to do—what he wants you to!”
“I still don’t get it?”
“Duane, when you get home tell him thanks—‘Thanks Dad for lettin’ me go to camp.’ That’s all! No! No, one more thing. Touch him! Shake his hand—give him a hug—smack him on his shoulder! Let him know you mean it! Ok?!”
“He’s the only one you got!”
“No. There’s another one somewhere.”
“No Duane. He’s the only one you got! The other one never was your Dad. That one walked away—forget him! Your real Dad stepped in for you.”
Duane paused, thinkin’ about this concept maybe for the first time; chasin’ his ‘lost’ Dad around in his head and finally realizing he wasn’t in there. I could see some panic behind his eyes, then a tear formed and a single sob exploded from his soul. I reached over and laid my hand on his head that bent down on top of his shaking shoulders.
“You’re right, Pat. He’s not there. He’s really not there!”
“Mine neither.” I mumbled, my throat sizing on the words.
“You got a Dad and Mom, not the real ones, but they both want you. I got a real Mom, but a Dad who work—real hard—to not even see me.”
A silence settled over both of us and for a long time as we chased down our memories alone.
“Guess it’s time we both give up what we don’t got.”
I looked over at him and nodded.
“Yeah, time for us to find where we go from here. Pretty much we’re on our own, for good; right now, and maybe forever.”
“Alone?” Duane questioned.
“Sometimes, I guess. Seems so when it’s time to decide which way to go—there’s always someone waitin’ for me to catch up.”
“And like you.”
“Can’t get too bad then.”
“No. We just haft to keep lookin’”
“What are we lookin’ for, Mark?”
“I don’t know, Duane. Maybe for what we find? Let’s get some sleep, I’m bushed.”
We both slid down under the single blanket, so close we touched and instinctively turned away from each other; our backs pressed together, but our heads drifting into tomorrow.
“Duane? Glad we met.”
“Mark, we didn’t meet. I found you.”
“Yeah. Glad you found me.”
Next morning I woke up alone. Duane musta snuck out early so he didn’t have to expect my help. My shirt was folded and laid on top of the footlocker at my head. I laid there awhile and worked out the day in my head.
After breakfast I went down to the archery range and told Bob—Mr. Elliott, about Duane, and what Duff had said. He shook his head and said he’d take care of it. Nobody at home, ever found out, anything.
I picked up my duffel bag and headed for the road. Tim was late, as usual. Things were stringy and still didn’t tie together. But then, it seemed like always—just the beginning.
End of Episode Two
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Episode Three-The Deal
What I found out first was no surprise at all. Kids on the other side of the street were different than me in a lot of ways, but they were scared too. There were lots more of them, and they divided themselves up into a lot more groups than we did. We stuck together, all of us, smart or dumb. Instead of being in one of two classes that sat together at the back of the church each morning, then in the same classroom the rest of the day where two nuns taught us all our subjects; over here we only met in the same room for 15 minutes with the same kids and the same homeroom teacher at the beginning of the day. You were supposed to be in your seats by 8:15, pledge allegiance to the flag and listened to announcements over the PA system before roll was taken. You could slide in anywhere in that time slot and be counted as present. Most kids did just that if they didn’t have that teacher for a real class during the rest of the day.
It was noisy; kids were always up and out of their seats visiting friends. The first few days they tested out the teacher to see if she could handle things. Mine couldn’t. Mrs. Highberger was a small, older lady with a soft hesitant voice, who taught World History the rest of the day. She didn’t say much and I watched her sort thru her duties silently, occasionally calling out a name for confirmation. If there was an answer from anyone, it was enough.
There was supposed to be assigned seating, but eventually we shuffled ourselves to a spot where we fit in best. Kids who wanted a sense of order sat up front, and kids who were restless for their own way went to the back. I sat in the second row and helped shield Mrs. Highberger from the worst of it.
After the bell, everybody broke up and headed for their first class. Kids poured out into the hall, decided what they needed from their nearby lockers; then took off for either the big, old, yellow-bricked, four-story “Jr. High”; or had to run across the short paved playground to the new two-story “Senior High” that stood out on the edges of the street and ran round the whole rest of the block. I was in ninth grade and still considered Jr. High—so most of my classes were in the creaky old dump that would have looked haunted anywhere else but Academy Hill. The cornerstone said “1842”, that was more than a hundred years ago, before the Civil War. I did have my German class in the near corner of the Senior High where we baby boomers leaked across the divide.
Herr Thompson was our teacher and it was an elective, meaning you picked it out of the language courses that ran from “Practical English”, taught by the basketball coach; all the way up to “Classical Latin”, taught by Mrs. Fulton; where we read “Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars”. That was like he was one generation before General Eisenhower’s march across the Rhine. She sat on top of one of the old sled desk on wood runners with her feet on the tipped-up seat, while we read and tried to translate the action. Usually she’d wince and take over if we fell too far off the story line. The look in her eyes seemed like she was remembering more than translating.
Anyway, I took both. I knew a lot of Latin from across the street, and World War II was still news at the movies where we lived.
The real surprise was, that without the nuns prodding my every move and being on a schedule that they enforced, I started drifting away. Paying attention became an effort. My mind went from one daydream to the next. I couldn’t concentrate for more than a few breaths that ended in a sigh of distraction.
What ever was happening at the moment—anywhere—caught my mind from what it had fantizied just a second before, and I would start a new analysis of what I was seeing or hearing. I noticed everything, but not for long.
Half of what I did, was deal with the world around me now. The other half, flitted in and out of speculation about what it might mean to me. I was a little bit of everyone—trying on whatever I thought might fit. I thought about everything for about ten seconds—then the scenery would change again.
Dad had just gotten us our first TV that wasn’t a hand-me-down from the Club and it was a beaut; a Sylvania HaloTube kinda console. The TV fit inside a hollow box that swiveled on top of a gold mesh cloth-covered base. On top was parked a pretty big pair of “rabbit ears” that was my job to adjust to bring in the picture. I also did the vertical and horizontal hold knobs at the back, to keep it from flippin’ so fast you couldn’t make out what you were watching.
There weren’t enough chairs in what was now called the family room that used to be the old dining room that was now pushed one room further back into the Library, where the books were crammed into Aunt Lillian’s stubby box of a buffet. So, I got to lay on the floor stretched out directly in front of the TV to change channels as directed and adjust the rabbit ears to match. It wasn’t too hard ‘cause there were only three channels to watch.
For a while, Dad stayed home a lot of week nights. But after a couple of months and after the Evening News and fall had set in; he’d get up without a word, pull on his coat and fix the soiled rim of the Stetson on his head and leave. It didn’t matter so much now that there was something to do ‘til bedtime. In grade school, I would sit at the kitchen table and do my homework, while Mom ironed or knit us new socks or a winter sweater for Christmas.
Now in high school, I found out I was maybe a year ahead of most of the public school kids in most subjects. I’d put off homework as long as possible to watch TV. Pretty soon, I was doin’ it after my paper route or in homeroom the next morning.
My most favorite class was English, taught by Mrs. Rutledge. It was different. She had all the smart kids, a few of us from St. Benedict’s; but more from different grade schools across town—and a lot from Northmont. That was the new modern neighborhood at the edge of town goin’ out 819 towards the farms. Most of those kids took a bus to school while the rest of us in the city walked.
Our Dad’s worked in the shops and factories along the main highways that led towards Pittsburgh. Their Dad’s dressed in suits and drove cars to work all over the county and even further.
Mrs. Rutledge didn’t care where you came from; she just wanted to know what you could do; mostly sing, act, or dance. I didn’t dance, for sure, but I could sing and who knows, maybe even act. Instead of everyone doin’ the same reading assignment and talkin’ about the story the next day; everybody was given a page and a part to memorize to read out loud. First you were assigned as “narrators”, then after you got over any jitters, she gave you a part. Then you had to stand in front of the room and say your lines while Mrs. Rutledge directed.
You didn’t get away with stuff like “gettin’” or “shoulda”, if it wasn’t that way in the story. Morn’at, you just didn’t read your lines, you had to say them like the people in the story, so you had to practice them ahead of time.
I was Silas Marner, the old skinflint once and managed to get off a pitiful howl of loss when I discovered the treacherous Dunstan Cass had stole all my gold. After a lot of stuttering stage fright, complicated by a voice that hadn’t settled down in a steady tenor or baritone, I was beginning to like it a lot. The other thing was you had to do was talk to girls; girls that you wouldn’t have even looked at before— because they were so beautiful and sometimes stacked beyond belief!
There were two Cheryl’s in my class, Cheryl Blue and Cheryl Moody. No kidding, that’s they’re real names, Blue and Moody; but neither were blue and both were moody. They were friends and lived in Northmont, but right at the edge of the city and close enough they could walk home. Cheryl B. was bright and funny, with an easy laugh that lit up my interest right away. Cheryl M. was 13, but looked like 17, built like 21, and walked like 35. It was hard to look at her. I mean that—literally! It was tough. If you took more than a glance, you’d be struck dumb, with your jaw dropped and your pants poked out, like you had a dagger hiding in there.
English was the seventh period of the day, so when the bell rang you didn’t have to start a countdown to your next class. Usually, I’d drift out to the street on the far side, away from the church and grade school, then head down the hill towards home through St. Celeste Park. Sometimes, Mrs. Rutledge would ask a random few of us to stay behind and talk about our parts for the next day. That’s how I first got to talk to the Cheryl’s—both of them. It was in a group, but standing within arms length, and even close enough to feel the warm glow coming off their skin.
“I wanted to talk to all of you about a project I’d like you to think about before our semester break.” Mrs. Rutledge began.
There were seven of us; me, Cheryl B. and Cheryl M., Carl Stone, Philomena Lampropolis, Ed O’Hallerhan, and Tom Froggett; three girls and four guys. Carl was built like a rock, and a running back on the football team. Ed was smart and a judge’s son, Tom was a talker, smooth and headed for the debate team. As for me, I could whistle and snap my fingers. That qualified me as one of the leads in our class production of, “Standing on the Corner”.
Out of a class of 42, we were chosen to perform. I was a member of the cast; one of four guys who got to flirt with three live girls in front of the whole class. This was going to take a lot of practice, but I was up for it. Way up for it! We had to spend a lot of time together rehearsing. At first we tried it after school in the classroom, but needed a record player to listen to The Four Lads deliver their…,
“Standing on the corner
Watchin’ all the girls go by…”
Just right and all the while movin’ around each other making eyes at them; singing, whistling, and snapping our fingers. Only Carl and I could consistently snap, and only Tom and I could whistle, and Ed could only do one or the other at the same time. So I was key to the action.
It was late October, and we were scheduled to make our debut on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. We decided we needed to practice a lot more after school. Since everyone else lived in or around Northmont, Cheryl B. volunteered her basement rec room as the place to go. She had a piano and a mother who could play it too. So after we got all the moves worked out at school, being directed by Mrs. Rutledge, we would meet at her place Tuesday and Friday nights at 7 for an hour or two. It was kinda late for me, but I found out the other kids didn’t eat ‘til 6; while we sat down at 4:30, as soon as my Dad got home. Their dads didn’t quit until 5 and then most had to drive home anyways.
I went along with the plan and didn’t mention I’d have to walk both ways, ‘cause Dad wouldn’t be in shape to pick me up, even if he took me. Tim still wasn’t allowed to drive at night. It didn’t matter. I would have crawled there on my hands and knees to spend two hours with “my” two Cheryl’s twice a week. So after lunch, I decided to ask Cheryl B. if I could walk her home some day to find out where she lived and tell my brother where to drop me off. She said,
“Sure, how about after school today?”
My heart did a back flip and I answered,
“Yeah …sure. Sounds good.”
“I’ll pick up my books from my locker and meet you back here after class.”
“Yeah,… sure, sounds good.” I repeated awkwardly.
“Ok. I’ll see you then!” She called back over her shoulder.
“Ok, …sure.” I ad-libbed.
I usually walked home with Hank and couldn’t wait to tell him the reason I was skipping out on him today.
“I’ll come with you!” He volunteered.
“Huh?” I panicked.
“Sure. I want to show you somethin’ on the way back. Ok?”
“But..., but what if she’s ask us in?”
“I can’t stay long. And anyway, it’s important you see what I got to show you.”
“You’ll see. I’ll meet you out back on Ridge Road. Won’t take long after we drop Cheryl off. You’ll make it home for supper.”
“Can’t. Gotta get to class! See you then.”
Off he trotted at the acceptable pace that didn’t count as “running in the halls”. That hadn’t been in my plan at all! I was gonna be real casual and smooth. Walk on the outside—like Mom had taught me. Take her books, the heavy ones at least. We’d talk about school—the show—and her.
I started to practice.
“How do you like your classes?”
“Which one is your favorite?”
“Is this your first show?”
No…no. She probably has been in dozens; and what if she asked me the same thing?
Yeah—first time, except for when Rosemary and I played Hansel and Gretel in Billy’s backyard and got thrown into the refrigerator box made up to look like a stove.
I’d look like an idiot.
It was still lunch period for me. I took 12:30 to 1:30, while Hank and Cheryl went from 11:45 to 12:45. There were too many kids to feed all at once ‘cause of the war; well, ‘cause of the baby boom after the war. I didn’t fit into the description, technically, since my Dad wasn’t in the war. He was too old. But since I belonged, I never mentioned it and everybody assumed.
Next year they were talkin’ about doing a split shift with freshmen and sophomores going from 12:30 ‘til 6; 00; and juniors and seniors takin’ from 6:00am ‘til noon. That is, until they built a new high school, somewhere out in the country. They’d never finish it by the time I’d graduate in 1962.
Anyway, that was a long time off, and I had bigger things to worry about. I was gonna walk Cheryl home in just three hours. Another wave of mixed hormones rushed over my body. I think my face turned red, and I knew my joints cramped up with expectation.
“Just as well Hank was comin’.” I thought. He would be a distraction if I couldn’t come up with somethin’ to say.
I was glad to be sitting in the far corner of the cafeteria with the other kids who brought their lunch. Most everyone paid 35 cents and went thru the line and got a coupla hamburgers or toasted cheese sandwiches that were there. That didn’t bother me, but I missed having access to the chocolate milk machine. A buck forty, plus another dollar or two for sodas and snacks was beyond my budget, so Mom still packed my lunch.
Next class was Plane Geometry, then PA History taught by Mr. Mosley, the old football coach; and finally English Lit., now my most favorite class. I finished up my fried egg sandwich and washed it down with a couple of long streams of cold water from the refrigerated water fountain. It was way cooler than the white porcelain fixtures that hung low off the walls across the street. There you had to bend down, stuff your head damn near inside the bowl, and suck up a weak gurgle of warm water that leaked out of the silver spout.
I had another ten minutes to make it back to the yellow castle for Mrs. Seno’s class. There were four or five of us Catholic kids who were way ahead of everyone else, ‘cause the nuns had already taught us a couple of formulas about squares and circles last year. So I day dreamed about later; which was getting to be a habit with me. More and more when I walked alone I could hardly remember getting there; and when I took my seat, all I could do was point my head in the direction of the teacher and drift into a dream of being outside, or imagine what was inside the buttons and cuffs of the blouses that sat so near to me. Sometimes the space between her buttons would pucker out and reveal a tiny tunnel that burrowed into the secret white satin mounds that squeezed out above. You could see the outline of straps and hooks that climbed up her back and disappeared over her soft rounded shoulders before plunging out of sight straight down towards the tips of whatever was below.
“Hey! Asshole! Watch where you’re goin’!!”
My vision disintegrated into the face of a stubble-tipped chin that leaned over me so close I couldn’t make out anything but teeth and nostrils curled up in disgust.
“Pissy fruitcake freshman!” Preceded a hairy forearm that smashed into my shoulder and dislodged the books I was carrying. Three seniors with letter jackets pressed around me and blotted out the sun. I woke up in the middle of the nightmare I had escaped for years.
“Where you headed with your head up your ass, boy?”
“Class?” I mumbled.
The one on the left pulled up on my shirt and yanked it outta my pants.
“You better get yourself together boy and stop runnin’ into people.”
“Yeah!” said the third one. “You don’t wanna get caught goin’ to class lookin’ like a chicken with his head cut off!”
Then he finished that image by pulling the collar of my new zippered jacket up over my head that left my arms raised and dangling forward like a zombie. They all laughed at the freak they’d created. Others had caught up to us from both directions. Some guys stopped and joined in on the fun. Most cut a wide path around us, glad not to be me.
“Whatsa matter kid? You lost from the other side of the street?”
“You ever see someone so scared shitless?”
“Where the hell you’d get that outfit, Bargain Jim’s?”
“Well? What are you gonna do, faggot? Just stand there and take it?”
“C’mon, take a swing or somethin’!”
“Yeah! Defend yourself!”
The three guys, joined by a couple of others started to circle me, pushing me from one to the other. Some girls moved off at a distance and watched.
“Boy’s! Boys! Move along! Get to your classes immediately! I see you there Malloy! One more move, and there’ll be no more football when you’re suspended!”
Mr. Shockley, a math teacher, I think, came straight through the crowd.
“Leave him alone and get yourselves to class—NOW!”
The original three backed off with whispered threats.
“We catch you anywhere near Cheryl, we’ll see you somewhere outside of school. You hear?”
The crowd dissolved and picked up speed as the first bell rang. I worked my shoulders round ‘til I could reach the zipper and pulled it open. I was glad it had half-hidden my face.
“Tuck in your shirt and pick up your books. You’ve got two minutes to be in your seat. Ok?”
I nodded silently and squatted down next to my books and papers that lay split open on the ground.
“Yes Sir.” I whispered.
The heat built in my face as anger overcame fear. Not anger at what had happened; more—it was anger at myself! How I had just stood there and done nothing! I think I wanted to cry, but I knew I wanted more not to. The burning in my head and shoulders flared, stiffened, and then settled into a dull ache.
“It’s done—over! Now get to your class and forget it.”
“Yes Sir.” I knew I never would. I stacked my books, tucked in my shirt, and swept my hands down each arm and across the rest of me.
“I’ll report those kids.”
“No Sir! Please? Just forget it.”
“No harm done? If that’s what you want.”
“Yes Sir, that’s what I want.”
What I wanted was to either run and never come back, or pile them up like kindling after I had beat them unconscious. Both of which I knew was never going to happen. What was going to happen was, I was going to go to class, stick to myself and go home as soon as I could. No Cheryl, no walk, no nothin’ until I figured out where I stood with everyone. Who knew? Who had seen? Who had watched? Who knew it was me? I was sick. I got to the heavy oak doors that sealed off the dusty tall halls that led back inside. The final bell rang. I turned around, then walked away.
Next day nothin’ had changed. No one avoided me. No one mentioned anything. No teasing. Like nothing had happened. No one remembered or cared if it was me—except me. Of course, except Cheryl, who had waited with Hank for me to show. I told them both that lunch had made me sick, spoiled mayonnaise maybe. They both bought it without any suspicion or crooked looks.
And that’s pretty much what happened. I did go home feeling sick, laid down on the couch and fell asleep until was it was way past supper, and after dark. I awoke alone and watched the shadows of the first snowfall drift down through the arched light of the street lamp. It was almost November. The show was only three weeks away.
Hank really did want to show me something, his new house! The Handel’s were movin’ across the tracks. His Mom and Dad had found a place they could buy, instead of renting the top floor next door from Pegg’s. They had bought the whole house on the corner of Center and Park. Well, they didn’t straight out buy it. Instead, they paid Brownie Schwartz a down payment and fixed her a place in the basement to live, which wasn’t so bad ‘cause Park was real steep and you could step right out into the yard on the downhill side.
Brownie was real old, with no one and nothin’ but this house. So the Handel’s promised to take care of her and pay her $55 a month. She signed the house over to them. Everyone made out good but me. They were leaving and the Pegg’s daughter, Jean, was movin’ in with her husband Jessie, and baby daughter Joyce. They all yelled a lot more than the Handel’s and I lost my best friend livin’ next door. It wasn’t really that bad. I just had to walk across St. Celeste Park, then the tracks and go down one block on Center to get there. So—that became the new way I went to school.
Joe and Dortha were both in the band at their new high school in Jeanette and practiced every Saturday, so it was real special for them to stay at Shear’s over the weekend. I was stuck with Billy, but his parents were looking for a new place, to get away from his Grandma and her complaints.
Anyway, it wasn’t the same. Hank and I were still best friends. I’d meet him over at his place, but after supper—with it getting’ so dark early in winter, I pretty much stayed home alone—except for practice nights at Cheryl’s.
At school things were different. I had walked Cheryl home that very next Tuesday, and stayed to practice with the rest of the “cast”. That’s what Mrs. Rutledge called us—her “cast”. We would go over our song and dance for a half period three times a week, and then meet at Cheryl’s after school on Tuesdays and Fridays; most of us anyway. Carl had football practice on Tuesdays and games on Friday nights. Karen’s Dad was a lawyer and spent most Friday nights out with friends and clients. Her Mom didn’t drive either. So most practice nights, I’d walk Cheryl home, then make a dash home to dinner; turn around, go back for practice, and finally leave at nine to go home for good.
Cheryl and I started out with a crowd of kids rushing out the doors at school, everyone pushing to get free. Soon, when we thinned out, she and I would slow down and drift back in the pack ‘til we we’re pretty much alone. I liked her. She was a lot like me, only a girl. She wasn’t stuck-up or shy; and she didn’t get goofy about us being together. She didn’t have a book bag, just carried her stuff loose in her arms. I volunteered to take them from her, but she wouldn’t let me until I let her take my bag. So we split things up, and I took both of our big books, like History and Geography; and she’d carry my bag with all the small stuff and notebooks.
Once we had split up the load we walked slow and stretched out our time together just gabbin’ about everything. When I looked at her I saw her smile and her eyes, and heard the relaxed pleasure in her voice. She didn’t poke out of her clothes like the other Cheryl. Everything about her worked to keep me calm about myself. We were friends, but getting to be more. I could feel the pleasure of seeing her come my way, without the stiffness freezing up my joints and my voice breaking like a little kid.
It was getting colder as we went into November. In the morning on my paper route I’d set a pace that kept me movin’ fast from one brief warm spot to the next. My hands got the worst of it. I couldn’t keep anything on them but some thin black garden gloves that were worn through at the finger tips. Anything heavier and I couldn’t grab and fold the papers fast enough to keep goin’ against the steady cold wind. I would pull the sleeves of my sweater out from inside my coat and bunch them up over my closed fist when there was a ways to go to my next stop.
Mom would help me get dressed before I left. I would put on two pairs of the white wool socks that she knitted extra long, then pull on two pairs of pants. After that I sat down on the edge of the bed while she reached up inside the legs and pull down the first pair and tuck them inside the first pair of socks. Then pull down the second pair that I’d peg tight so I could put on my boots. It worked pretty well until I was about halfway up Jack Street and had to slide down and cross the creek next to the tracks. By then everything had stretched their way loose and the socks had collapsed and crept out into the toes of my boots. I had to wait ‘til I delivered the whole hill and made it back to Engle’s garage where Carl would have a fire built up to an inferno in the pot belly stove so I could sit down and straighten ‘em out.
Carl didn’t talk much, but I think he was glad when I pushed through the heavy wood and glass door that separated the waiting room from the repair bays. I’d dump my paper bag at the bottom of the four steps that led down inside and head straight for the cherry red stove that he had pulsing with a yellow and orange Hell that sucked a cone of wheezing air through the spinner on the front.
“Pretty much, Carl. Thanks for the fire.”
“Git that coat off, so’s you kin warm up fast.”
I struggled at the barrel buttons on my old coat, half shiverin’, and half trustin’ in the glow of the waves of heat that reached out into the darkened corners of the empty garage.
“Gonna be cold this winter. You kin count on it!”
I nodded as I draped the coat over the nail on the painted post that held up the roof.
“Turn yourself ‘round a coupla times. You’ll soon be warm again.”
I pulled off my sweater and backed away from the heat.
“Don’t take long ‘n you’ll be ready to git back out there.”
He was right. The tingling pain of frozen fingers was quickly being replaced by the prickling pain of being scorched. We talked about the just-past football game or the one comin’ up next week.
“Git back now, afore you sit yourself on fa’r!” He laughed.
“Yeah. I gotta get goin’”
I could feel the toasted warmth of my sweatshirt as I pulled it back over my head and swam in its heat.
“So long, Carl.”
“So long, Mark.”
I buttoned up, crossed the two straps that held up my paper bags on my shoulders, wrapped the old red scarf around my neck, pulled up my collar, pulled down the black knit cap over my ears and headed out. It was Friday again, and that thought kept me warm the rest of the day.
Cheryl’s house was a split level; which meant you climbed a lot of stairs wherever you went. It sat on the uphill side of the street, set way back from the curb. You walked in the driveway ‘til you hit the stairs half-way up. There was a post light stuck at the corner about ten steps up, then you turned and heaved yourself up the wrought iron railing that led to another landing. After that, the last four wide steps took you up to the top of the porch. Mrs. Blue always greeted us at the front door and fussed over us until we took off our coats and boots and headed downstairs to the basement rec room.
Unlike ours, with its stone walls chinked with mortar and open wood rafters, Cheryl’s was finished off with a big room that faced the front of the house and ran all the way across to the garage. The big room was the recreation room that had a high brick fireplace against the garage wall and on the other side of the room from the stairs that came down from the kitchen above.
Missus would always be finishing up the dishes, in-between greeting us at the door and showing us down the stairs. Cheryl would take over from there. I don’t ever remember meeting Mr. Blue.
“Hi Mike.” I called out from the stairs.
He and Tom were already there ‘cause they only lived a couple of blocks away. Cheryl Moody, stacked Cheryl, usually came in a few minutes late. Carl and Karen always had their excuses, but we’d fill them in with any changes next time at school.
Cheryl’s Mom played piano, so we waited until she could come down and take her seat. Cheryl M was dropped off by her Dad who guarded her—like us guys her age were the scum of the earth. He couldn’t help himself, and neither could his Cheryl. At 13 she had the poise with the body that struck grown men dumb. Whatever she wore it was never enough to cover that up. He came down the stairs the first time we rehearsed and moved straight for us three and trapped us in a corner. He individually stepped forward and seized our hands in a death grip, while he quizzed us about out names and where we came from. I didn’t pass. None of us did. A couple of handshakes, with a final crushing mangle, left no doubt that sniffing after his daughter wouldn’t be tolerated. No one doubted him.
Mrs. Blue’s arrival, with a couple of claps for attention, brought us all back in a mood to work.
That always succeeded in reminding us of our in-between status.
“Let’s go thru the moves first then we’ll add the music. Places everyone!”
The two Cheryl’s picked up the books that were props, moved over to the far end of the room and started an animated conversation filled with exaggerated gestures, looks and laughter as they moved our way. Us three guys gathered around one of the center support post; picking our nails with pocket knives, or swinging around pole from arm-to-arm, changing directions. I was on one knee tying my shoe laces when I looked up and caught sight of the two girls coming our way. I let loose with a long, slow, and directed wolf whistle,
I trailed off after bringing focus to both sides of the pending situation.
“Good Mark! Good! Girls?”
The two Cheryl’s stopped, turned slightly away from our view, and returned their heads with mischievous smiles as they circled each other, before stepping off in our direction.
One more long and low whistle and I stood up and grabbed onto the pole. We all sang the opening line as we huddled to consider our next move.
“Standin’ on the corner..!”
The girls moved forward and circled around us as we followed them with our song.
“Watchin’ all the girls go by…!”
She sat down at the piano and pounded out the bars for all five verses.
“I don’t know a nicer occupation.
Matter of fact, neither do I…”
“Haven’t got a girl, but I can dream…”
“If you’ve got a rich imagination,
Give it a whirl, give it a try…”
“I take me down to Main Street,
Review the harem parading for me there…”
“You can’t go to jail for what you’re thinkin’
Or for the wild look in your eye…”
No one wanted “woo”, so we changed it to “wild”. Mrs. Blue never noticed.
After three more run-throughs she invited us up for coca and cookies. No one minded being “in-between” then.
“I’ve got a surprise for you all! The Saturday after Thanksgiving you are all invited to an ice skating party at Roadman’s Lake. Mrs. Moody and I will provide transportation and lunch. How’s that sound?!”
It sounded like a death sentence to my slowly budding social life with maybe my first real girlfriend and all the new kids I never knew existed. The same twisted knot of terror grabbed my guts every time my warm day dreams met up with the ice cold facts of my real world and threatened to choked off any new future.
“Sounds like fun!” Cheryl M agreed.
“Yeah!” Tom and Mike chimed in.
“Mark? Can you make it that Saturday?” My Cheryl asked hopefully as she took my hand off my lap and gave it a squeeze. That ended the debate.
“Then it’s a date!” Missus confirmed.
That choice of words whipped me back up to the heights of endless possibility. A date—a date with Cheryl! Me and her skating hand-in-hand, close to her in the cold November air; then alone with her as we skated arm-in-arm to the music.
There were only a couple of hurdles I had to clear to get from here to there. I didn’t know how to skate, and I didn’t have any ice skates. That and Thanksgiving was only a little more that two weeks away.
“What kind of skates do you use?" Tom thoughtfully inquired.
All I knew was Jack had left a pair hanging off a nail in the attic when he went into the service.
“Hockey” I answered.
He had played hockey at St. Gregory’s.
“Me too! Those figure skates are for sissies.”
“Yeah.” I weakly agreed.
“Well, for one thing, you can’t make good turns and skate backwards while you’re dancing.” Mike defended.
“Hockey skates are for speed, not for having fun skating together.” My Cheryl concluded and my mind was made up.
“I’ve been looking at a pair of figure skates. Maybe I can get some by then.” I committed.
“Great!” Said Cheryl. “I can teach you how to turn and dance to those dreamy records they play at Roadman’s.”
“Sure. Yeah! You can teach me!”
“Can’t wait!” And with that she patted my bare arm resting on the table between us. Her mother looked from her to me and back again with a small smile.
“It’s getting late. Cheryl, why don’t you walk Mark down to the curb? I’m sure his ride will be along soon.”
There was a quick beep out front and stacked Cheryl stood up and announced.
“That’s my Dad, nine o’clock sharp. I’ll walk down with you two. Ok?”
We all hurried out into the hall and grabbed our coats and hats off the rack. Tom and Mike finished first and started out the door.
“We’ll tell him you’re on your way!”
“Thanks. Tell him not to blow the horn again.” Stacked Cheryl odered.
Tom and Mike looked at each other in confusion imagining the effect of telling Mr. Moody to “hold his horses”.
“We’ll tell him you’re right behind us.”
And they plunged thru the door not waiting for an answer with more nutty suggestions.
“I’ll tell him Cheryl.” My Cheryl offered.
“He’ll just have to wait for me to get these boots on.”
We drifted over to the front window and Cheryl waved to him as he leaned across the seat and looked out of his open window; nose blowing short impatient snorts of breath.
“See you guys!” Cheryl M. called out.
“Wait. We’ll walk down with you.”
I pulled open the front door and pushed out on the storm door letting both Cheryl’s brush by me. I felt protective, like they were counting on me to clear the way.
Mr. Moody got out and looked up at our parade makin’ its way down the winding steps. You could tell when he decided who was paired off and relaxed. I could feel what that meant, and wondered if the girls could sense it too. Didn’t matter, in 30 seconds Cheryl was bundled up in their car and making a U-turn back to her house.
That quick we were alone. I looked back up the front lawn and saw a shadow walk away from the window. Just to be sure I moved us left and behind the blue spruce and out of the range of the light post up on the landing. Cheryl pulled her coat close around her shoulders and I instinctively raised her collar and framed her face looking up at me.
She nodded and gave me a look I had never seen before outside of the movies. I knew what it meant, but it had never been meant for me before. Her eyes drew me in like we were the only two people in the world and that was all that mattered. She leaned up towards me; her eyelids drifting closed. I put my arms around her as close as I could. Her hand reached up and guided my head to her lips. I never knew anything could be so soft and full of warmth for me. We parted slowly and she looked back at me amazed.
"I think I better get back in?” She questioned herself.
I was still holding her against me and never felt so tall as I looked down in confusion.
“Is it ok?”
She sighed deeply in our embrace; her whole body rising then relaxing in my arms.
“Ok? Ok! It’s way OK! I gotta go!”
She leaned up and took another kiss for herself, smiled, then laughed with a hum, then a satisfied squeal. I opened my arms and she pushed back from me, turned, then took another kiss before breaking off and racing up the steps.
“See you! See you in school Monday!”
“OK!? OK!” I called out to her.
I was fixed to that spot, but stepped out from slowly from behind the spruce in time to see her open the door, turn, and blow me another kiss. I stood still looking up onto the light of the lamppost until I heard the door pulled shut. Slowly I turned and half danced down the steps putting on speed against any loss of this total fever that filled me to the brim. This must be love. This gotta be IT! I had my first taste and it was sweet. She must love me too! Now I knew it from both sides.
All Saturday I played it back in my head. Each move settled firmly into my memory with a warm flush against the cold morning air. That distraction, in the end, was overwhelmed by the panic of remembering I couldn’t skate. As soon as I got back from delivering papers I was going up in the attic to find those skates. I had tried last night, but got home too late. Dad was already blocking up the hall saying his prayers.
I crossed Pittsboro Street on my morning paper route and headed for the near corner of the shopping mall where I carelessly stuffed folded papers behind the metal push plates that you used to get in the stores. I scanned the parking lot looking for Clyde. His wheelbarrow and shovel sat at the corner of Grant’s across from the Thoroughfare market, but he was nowhere in sight.
Chicken Charley’s’—The Wedding Boutique—State Farm— Gatling’s Auto Supply; then I stopped and backed up in my tracks. I had seen them sitting on the floor of the display window towards the back where the toy train tracks circled under the bright aluminum Christmas tree when they were open—black, high top figure skates. Beautiful polished leather mounted over flashing steel blades with notched points below the toes. They looked like lost treasure sitting there leaning against a box that showed a couple skating with arms crossed holding hands. Both of their left legs leaned into a turn with their right legs lifted perfectly parallel together as they looked into each others eyes. All this set against a snowy outdoor scene on a farm pond with black musical notes floating above in a bright blue sky.
These were the skates. I pressed my head against the cold plate glass tilting it at every angle trying to read the price marked on a red and white price tag stuck to the side of the box.
“What’s gotcha so interested, Mark?” Clyde’s question caught me by surprise. “That train sure is pretty, ain’t it?”
“Yeah. Nice train.”
“You lookin’ at the train?”
“No. No, I gotta train, an American flyer that John got when he was a kid.”
“That’s a good heavy train, not like the plastic ones nowadays.”
I glanced back at my skates.
“I hear it’s hard.”
“Nah. They didn’t have them things when I was growin’ up.”
“Gotta girl?” It musta been written across my face.
“Not like that.”
He looked hard over my shoulder.
My head snapped back to today.
“I better get goin’. I gotta eat and come back to collect.”
“Me too. Stores’ll be open at nine.”
Clyde stepped past me spreading salt on patches of ice that led out from the drains that took melted snow off the roof from the day before.
“Gotta git this salt down ‘afor it snows agin. Big storm headed our way they say.”
“Yeah. See ya.”
I finished my route and headed home to count my money and find those skates. I needed at least $10 dollars to buy Christmas presents, more to add a couple of houses and trees to the train set display, and some to have on me when I was with Cheryl. Maybe $15 dollars total. I found the key to my Persian bank. That’s what I called it ‘cause of the desert scenes cast in the sides. It was a bank that Granddad had bought someone and had been passed down ‘til it got to me.
“Four dollars and Eighty-six cents!? That’s all?”
Laid out on my bed were two dollar bills, a coupla quarters, and rows of dimes, nickels, and pennies, each row growing longer as their value decreased. I scraped them together in both hands and dumped them back thru the open door in the overturned bank. Discouraged, I turned back out into the hall and saw that Mom and Dad’s room door was open. Now was as good a time as any to find those skates and learn my fate. There was only two ways it could go, and either way, it was gonna take a miracle.
I pulled myself up the rail of the attic stairs into the bright cold air that hung with dust and smelled of mothballs. It was just the right smell for that place. Looking from post-to-post I finally spotted the tips of the toes and the dull silver blades that stuck out on either side of the “football night” window framed corner.
They were brown; a dull scuffed two-tone pair of shoes with old crinkled and knotted leather laces that dangled down beside stamped steel blades that looked like they had been hammered out of some old pots and pans dug up outta the back cellar. I unhooked them from their nail and brought them out in the light. They were even worse than that out here. Maybe I could shine them up some. I carried them over to the stairs and sat down to try them on. I worked to unknot the laces that were tied together—but they wouldn’t budge. I got an old awl out of one of the Granddad’s tool drawers and pushed it into the middle of the twisted mess and worked it around until it started to spread. I pulled up on the loose end and it broke off, thankfully below the knot. My fingers picked and worked it loose until I could pull the two ends apart. Both laces returned to their crippled shape when I sat them down on the wooden step below me.
I picked up the right one and the left tumbled slowly down two more steps ending up with a shrunken warped sole facing up at me. I matched my foot against the bottom of the blade and saw my toes sticking out at least an inch beyond the rim. With dwindling possibilities, I spread the laces open at the top, pulled out the tongue, and jammed my foot forward into the dark gaping hole I held open between my thumbs. The leather felt like stiff cardboard when I pushed my foot to the bottom. There’s where it stopped, my toes barely touching and my ankles bulging out of the sides. This was hopeless, even more hopeless than finding the money—enough money to pay for whatever the new ones might cost.
I could rub them down with saddle soap. That might loosen them up, but they’d still look like crap and not fit anyway. The only thing to do was find a way to buy the new ones, somehow. I’d never convince Mom to substitute skates for the shirts and pants she always got me for Christmas. Anyway, I’d need them a whole month early and that was never gonna happen. I’d have to work it out somehow on my own.
“I’m goin’ collectin’!” I hollered back down the hall as I swung off the newel post and reached for the door.
“Kinda early isn’t it?” Mom called back.
“Not much. I wanna get home and get done with the kitchen floor.”
That 35 cents wouldn’t help much anyway.
“Me and Hank are gonna meet up over at Lynch Field.”
“I’ll fix your lunch and leave it in the fridge.”
“Ok! See ya.”
I grabbed my collection book off the front hall table and stuffed it in one coat pocket and stuck the money bag in the other. It had enough change to get me started. Maybe everyone would be home and everyone would pay; ‘specially the few who already owed me for a coupla weeks. If I got enough tips I could count on an extra buck or two.
It went like usual. The folks who always paid—paid. Sometimes I’d get two quarters and they’d tell me to keep the change. That was ‘nother eight cents. If they got magazines their bill’d be 57 cents, and I’d get three quarters, but most expected to get at least a dime back which left me with another eight cent tip.
It was too early to expect any Christmas tips. Usually I worked a couple of hours extra after school the week before Christmas goin’ out at night so I’d catch everyone home, ‘cause if you didn’t see them that week, all bets were off and Christmas tipping was over. Just about everybody came up with an extra quarter. Some would pay with a dollar, and tell me to keep the change. A couple folks, at the top of the hill, would give me a card with a fresh new dollar stuck inside, and still pay their bill besides. That could add up to over $30 dollars for 82 papers. I’d have the money after Christmas, but I could sure use it now.
By the time I got to Gatling’s I had cleared enough to pay my bill, but there were just eleven customers left. Even with the extra papers at Thorofare, the best I could expect was just over $5 dollars added to just under $5 dollars I had at home. I probably still wouldn’t have enough to pay for my skates.
I pushed my way through the glass door at Gatling’s Auto and set off the chime behind the counter along the back wall where Bob and Bill Gatling waited on customers. Bob held up one finger and I took his cue by wondering the shelves of stuff while he finished up with a guy buying a battery. I headed straight for the outdoors aisle where the camping and fishing gear was stashed. I was right! At the far end on the bottom shelf, under the twinkling Christmas tree was a stack of blue and red boxes beneath a short shelf that held two pairs of figure skates, one black and one white.
I picked up the black pair. They were heavy and smooth in my hands. The laces were soft and cross-tied all the way to the top. The steel blades were brilliant and sharp, cut perfectly with the name “Sheffield” etched on the runner with a toe that ended in a series of serrated points that half circled the tip. I dipped my nose into the boot and took a deep breath of finished leather, better than a new car smell.
“Somethin’ else, huh?” Bob leaned over my shoulder. “They’re the best! Best leather and best steel. Made in England, don’t cha know?”
“Must cost a lot?”
“How much, Mr. Gatling?”
He picked up the top box and rolled it over in his hands. His eyebrows went up and his face looked real skeptical.
My mouth opened and I would have gagged, but instead I choked out a disbelieving.
“Yep! ‘Fraid so.”
I steadied myself and carefully set them back up on the display shelf.
“We can put ‘em on lay-a-way for ya if you want.”
“You find your size, we put them in the back ‘til they’re paid for, and then they’re yours.”
I wouldn’t have the money until after Christmas, and that still might not be enough.
“Thanks, but I need them three Saturdays from now and I don’t know how to skate yet.”
“That’s a problem then.”
I pulled out my money bag, spread open the drawstrings and looked inside.
“I could give you five now?”
He pulled on his chin and pursed his lips tight together.
“I’d need at least $10 dollars to hold ‘em and another ten to let you take ‘em home. I know you’re good for the rest. You’re a good kid, but I gotta cover my cost before I can let you have them.”
I knew I had $4.86 at home. I could go back tonight and probably collect what I needed to pay my bill on Monday—but that still left the other $10. dollars
“O-Ok?” I shook my head foolishly.
“Now, what’s your size?”
“Nine?” I said.
“Probably gonna wear some heavy socks, right?”
“Well, I got a ten here. You’re still growin; give you ‘nother year or two of use, I guess?”
“Well then, let’s take ‘em back to the counter and write you up.”
“Can I see them?”
“Of course you can. Just like the ones out here but better. Brand new, never been touched since they left England.”
With that he sorted out the boxes ‘til he reached the size ten, cradled it in his left arm, pulled off the lid, and spread open the folded tissue paper.
“Whadda ya think?”
They were beautiful, tucked opposite, side by side, with the blades wrapped and laid along the outside of the box.
“You’ll need to break ‘em in before you use them and polish ‘em up real good so’s no water gets in.”
I couldn’t imagine wearing them. I just wanted to look at them and maybe touch ‘em.
“Need some polish?”
“No. No, I think we got black.”
“Well, check it out. You can still get some when you come back to pick ‘em up.”
With that he put them on the counter and wrote up a slip outlining the deal while I counted out my money—an even $10 dollars. He turned the pad around toward me and said:
“Sign here and I’ll tape this slip with your name on it to the top of the box and put it in the back ‘til you pick ‘em up. Gotta get ‘em in the next 30 days, or I gotta charge you a $2 dollar lay-a-way fee.”
I looked over the figures and saw the “Total Due”.
“It’s more. It’s more than what you said. Almost a dollar more!”
“See what that says?” He pointed his finger near the bottom. “That’s sales tax. Three percent goes to the state. I don’t keep that 69 cents. It goes straight to the Governor. Get use to it.”
I knew what sales tax was, but it never amounted to so much before. This was more that I made delivering papers to six houses for a whole week.
“When do I hafta pay that?”
“When you pick up the skates.”
“So what do I owe to get ‘em?”
“Thirteen dollars and sixty-four cents.”
That was more than I made in two weeks, and I still had to find money to buy presents and have some spending money for the party and everything else.
“Can I pay you the rest over the next couple of weeks; like— maybe three-fifty a week. I need to have them before I can get you the other $14 dollars. I need ‘em to learn how to skate in time.”
“I’m not a Bank, boy! You take your skate’s home and ruin them, or even use them; I can’t sell them for new to anyone else. Maybe you’d even lose them!”
“I’d pay you anyway!”
“You say that now, when they’re still new in the box. I believe you Mark, but I still can’t make an exception. It’s lay-a-way, not give-a-way.”
I looked at the skates, still laying in the box on the counter; still black and shinny new, cushioned in crisp white tissue paper and saw them laced to my feet with my good black school pants pegged tightly inside the tops as I skated arm and arm with Cheryl alone across an endless bowl of silver ice to the throaty melody of saxophones from the loudspeakers on shore.
“You want ‘em or not?!”
“Well, you gotta sign this receipt sayin’ so.”
I picked up his pencil and scrawled out the big loopy “C” I had been practicing down the margins of my school notebook, trying to make my name as special as me.
He counted out the $10 dollars that sat beside the box and deducted it from the total and wrote “$13.64 Due” across the bottom.
“They’ll be waitin’ here for ya the next 30 days. You can bring in any amount—anytime, and I’ll refigure the balance ‘til it’s paid. Then they’re yours.”
I picked up my collection book and almost left.
“You owe me 42 cents Mr. Gatling.”
“So I do. I’ll give you my regular 50 cents, or I kin take it off the bill.”
“I …, I think I’ll need it.”
“Look. I’ll take 64 cents off your bill and call it a business to business discount. That’ll ‘bout cover the tax and make it $13 dollars even you owe.”
I ripped his stub out of my book and laid it up on the counter and waited. He scratched through the old balance and wrote down the new—$13.00 dollars total.
“Nice doin’ business with you, Mark.”
I knew that 64 cents wasn’t real ‘cause it wasn’t in my money bag, but somehow the skates were closer to being mine.
“Thirteen dollars.” I repeated to myself as I pushed thru the door. Where was I gonna come up with $13 dollars in a week or two; no—more like a day or two—if I was gonna learn how to skate before the party.
My Christmas tips should add up to that much, but no one was gonna give it to me a month early. I couldn’t ask Mom. Tim might spot me $5 for a week, but he’d want six back a week later. He’d probably want five, or more, to borrow $13 dollars for a whole month. That’s sayin’ he even had it, or would part with it! I walked past Chicken Charley’s still counting up my chances of clearin’ $13 dollars somehow.
“Whoa-a-a-a!” Someone called after me. “Whadda you day dreamin’ bout?”
Clyde leaned on his shovel behind the wheelbarrow of salt he was spreading on the parking lot.
“Clyde!? Hi! What are you doin’ here so late?”
“Gotta get this ice under control afore it spreads out into the travel lanes.”
I could see the big iron bar with the chiseled blade at the bottom layin’ on top alongside the wheelbarrow handle.
“Takes longer ‘n I got to get done in the mornin’ along with my other work.”
“You need help?”
“Naw, not now. It’s getting’ too crowded to get anything done this late.”
A plan was shapin’ up in my head.
“How ‘bout I help you in the morning?”
“You got your papers Boy.”
“I only got six more deliveries after I leave here. I could come back before I went home and help you out for an hour?”
“Well, I could chip and you could shovel and haul. I could git a lot more done before the cars start showin’ up. I’d pay ya. They give me an xtree $4 dollars a day to git it done. That keeps me here ‘til nine. I’d be outta here by eight if I had some hep.”
“I could work ‘til seven and still get to school on time, maybe?”
“What ‘bout you git here a half-hour early and work ‘til 6:30? That’d give you more time. Anyway I’d like to be gone before daybreak.”
“Sure! That’d work better for me too!”
“You lookin’ to make some xtree Christmas money?”
“How much you need?”
“I won’t need you every day; just days when it gits down into the 20’s and the downspout water freezes harder’n I can git a shovel under.”
“Oh?” My quick answer dissolving under me.
“How quick you need’n it?”
“I …I put it on lay-a-way. I can’t get them ‘til they’re paid for.”
“Some skates—some ice skates. I got invited to an ice skating party over Thanksgiving.”
“And you bought new skates just for that party?”
“I …I don’t have any skates.”
“So’s you need ‘em in two weeks?”
“Well, maybe sooner?”
“I …I don’t know how to skate yet, Clyde.”
“You got two weeks to learn how to skate and you don’t have any skates?”
“I got $10 dollars down on a pair at ‘Gatling’s”. I hooked my thumb over my shoulder.”
“And they cost you $23 dollars?!!”
“Well, yeah, they’re figure skates and they’re from England!”
“There’s a girl in this tale somewhere, ain’t there?”
With that Clyde tipped his head back and howled with glee.
“Yeah—‘kinda’! If that don’t beat all!”
“Well, I kin pay you one dollar an hour on days that it’s freezin’. Prob’ly won’t make it by Thanksgivin’, but I’ll tell you what. I'll give you the $13 dollars, and you go back for your skates right now, so’s you kin practice.”
“You sure Clyde?!”
“I said it, didn’t I? Then you kin work it off an hour at a time, no more ‘til you pay me back!”
“I’ll pay you more!”
His face froze in disgust.
“This ain’t ‘bout money. This here’s ‘bout friendship, you hear? You’re doin’ me a favor, ‘n I’m doin’ you one right back. Money’s got nothin’ to do with it.”
I stood there while Clyde reached back under his pea coat and pulled out an old slab of worn leather that looked like a polished brown clamshell wrapped with a thick red rubber band. He slipped it off and up over his wrist, then lifted one smooth side off the other and split it open. He backed his hands down and out below his waist and narrowed his eyes in concentration as he counted out $13 dollars into my hand; two fives, and three ones.
“Hold on to it. Don’t let the wind ketch it and blow it away.”
I squeezed my hand shut around the bills and jammed them into my coat pocket. I shook his hand and he gave me a little nod and a big grin.
“Go on! Go git your skates, you gotta lot of practicin’ you need to do!”
Two hours later I was still walking in disbelief with my skates tied together and draped off my right shoulder headed for Lynch Field. Mom hadn’t questioned me about the skates. Mr. Gatling had made me a deal to get them, I had signed a paper sayin’ so, and Clyde trusted me to pay him back more’n two day’s pay just because we shook on it. It all happened because everybody believed me, and trusted me like I was worth trusting. That felt good.
It was past three and the sun was hidden behind the high bank of the hill that stretched along the top of the tunnel over Arch Street. It was cold and gray with icicles hung like a perfect necklace strung along the cracked seam of arched concrete that ran from the sidewalk on one side, up over the roadway and back down on the other side. It was all frozen solid. I came out the far side, and rather than follow the paved road that led out into a tangle of turns. I took the graveled dirt path along the ditch to the right and I walked along the base of the hill, below the line of the tracks above, and came out at the old Polo Grounds that backed up against the cinder roadbed. Now it was called Lynch Field. Years ago there were barns and stables built along this path that looked over the wide level polo field that stretched out between Mack’s Run and Route 819 that ran towards old Hannstown. Mack’s run used come into town all clear and clean on this side.
Now Lynch Field was a shallow bowl of pasture filled with large puddles of still water, frozen solid on its way off the road and into the creek. Some shallows were cut clear, but most were edged with brush and filled with fallen hay that poked out of their crusts of ice. It was going to be turned into a sports park with an ice skating rink, a swimming pool, a running track, and a picnic pavilion. That’s why old man Lynch had donated it to the city years back. Soon work was suppose to start, but in the meantime, kids had already made use of it as the best place to skate inside the city.
Ponds were scattered out across the field. The best and biggest ones had clear ice and were used by the adults and families who had some sense and knew how to skate. The next couple were used as shortened hockey fields, with the older guys and young men takin’ the best ones, and boys like me makin’ due with what was left. After that were the small puddle-sized ponds that were linked together by ice trails that overflowed, one into the other. Guys with girls that wanted to be left alone usually skated on them. Finally, there were the brush filled shallows at the edge of the woods all around the field. The ones closest to the creek were deeper but stilled filled with mounds of grass and fallen limbs jutting out from their narrow bumpy trails of thin ice. Sometimes the ice was suspended off the ground below and sometimes tipped and cracked at angles that could trip you up goin’ in any direction.
That’s where I decided to start my lessons. I found a long stretch of pretty flat ice that narrowed as it headed for the creek. It was still light enough to see the bad patches where the ice thinned out and joined the frosted edges of the snow covered field. There were no lights at Lynch field yet; just the street lamps that lined up along 819. Their light pierced the tall band of bare-boned oaks that followed the road and traced the thin lacy shadows of limbs flat out across the fields. The wind blew in a steady stream down the valley over the creek and stung your face when you walked into the dark that led out of town. It went silent and still as you turned and faced the thicker shadows of buildings that rose up the hills towards the lights of the city.
I sat down on a dead tree trunk that had blown over and pitched down disappearing into the ice and dirt. After hanging my skates over the end of the log, I pulled off the mittens that covered the black garden gloves inside. The knot of doubled-up laces had tightened with the weight of the skates bouncing along above my hip when I walked. I picked at the knot—with not much luck—as the breeze chilled my fingertips and the warmth of my butt melted the crushed snow where I sat. So, I used my next trick and stuck the knot in against my pointed canine teeth and dug them into the first groove they found. I ground them in as far as I could go until they met and rocked open a single strand. It worked. I pulled up on one side ‘til I could grab it with my frozen fingers, then took off my other glove and finished the job as fast as I could. I picked up one skate in both hands and swung it forward over the toes of my right foot. It glided over them snugly as I pulled from side to side and tugged it on. It was tight until I reached down and pulled out the tongue gathered up under the laces. With that barrier broken, the skate popped on as my foot squeezed into the fitted heel. My fingers were steadily stiffening. I drew the laces tight at each level of eyelets until they reached the paired hooks up at the top.
“Make sure they’re on tight, and no slop in the laces!”
I heard Hank’s advice in my head. He wanted to come, but was house bound until he finished his science project due on Monday. Hank had his own hockey skates that his Dad taught him how to use.
I repeated the exercise with my left skate, stood and tucked my bare hands inside my coat and up under my armpits. I learned that takin’ papers. It stung for a moment both ways, but real quick, I was warm and ready to go.
My ankles felt funny; like I was balanced on the edge of a board. I crept up along the buried tree until I was standing barely steady at the end, with nowhere else to go but out on the open ice. I let go and stumbled forward until I found myself leaning further forward into an impossible angle. I threw my hands back and tried to paddle the air to straighten up. I did go the other way, but only because my feet shot out from under me. I pitched back and fell flat on my ass!
I knew this would have to happen, but I was surprised at the speed and the bite of the ice. I rolled over on my knees and crawled back to the tree and pulled myself up again.
“Keep your feet together and push sideways and back only on your right. Small push, feet together, glide…, small push, feet together, glide…” I told myself.
It wasn’t glamorous, or fast, but it worked!
“Now push off with your right foot and steady up. Then push off with your left…”
I turned slightly, hooked a clump of dead grass with the left skate, spun in a half circle ‘til my right skate lifted off the ice and I crashed down on my side! Again I shoved myself up off the ice and without thinking stuck my toes straight down against the ice. It worked. I was steady—even if I was flat on my face. I raised a knee and dug in again, pulled the other leg up alongside and balanced on my toes. Then I pushed down with my hands and rose up without any help from the dead tree.
Brushing off the snow, I stood still and steadied myself until the little jerks of balancing stopped.
“Relax. It’s just like sliding on the snow.” I reminded myself.
“Use the toe points to get control. Hands at your side. OK—push off!”
I glided forward.
“Other foot—push off!”
I led with my left foot and leaned left. I followed with my right and leaned right. All of a sudden it was natural. I was skating! Not fast and not far, but I made it to the next ridge of grass and dirt where I pitched into the patchy snow piled up in small drifts. This time, I made the decision, managed my fall and dropped to my knees before I hit.
I looked across the field to the other skaters bending and leaning into corners as they turned and swooped past each other with ease. Some flipped from front to back with a quick twist with their arms rising and falling in a natural rhythm of balance. I had a long way to go. It was already getting dark with a full moon laying on the treetops casting more dark shadows on the ice and up and over the banks of the creek.
Not ready to join the others on the bigger ponds, all I needed was more room to go straight and get steadied for a turn instead of getting tripped-up in the weeds. I looked over at the creek bed rolling smoothly and curving back and forth between its banks like a bright white road between the trees. No one was over there. It was back off the road and far away from everyone else. Still, I decided to head that way and check it out.
I skated the few strides I could cover on each short puddle of run off that wondered over that way. At the edge, I hopped up on the low bank and walked on my blades the rest of the way ‘til the next one. Halfway there I looked back remembering my forgotten shoes left behind. I spotted the tree trunk tipped up against the night sky, maybe 40-50 feet away, then look back and saw the low wide bank of a turn in the creek now only 20 or 30 feet in the other direction.
My ankles were beginning to weaken from all the walking, but there was only a little ways to go. I was so close to where I wanted to be! Twenty minutes—five more to get there—ten to skate, and ten to get back. Ok, maybe thirty. Then another 30 to get home. I’d be there by 7-7:30. I needed to know and couldn’t just keep skating in 15 foot fits and falls. I needed to learn how to turn. I looked back at the frozen flat creek from bank to bank, covered over only with a skim coat of swirling snow drifting against the far bank.
That made up my mind. I cut a straight path overland to my goal ignoring the winding chain of frozen puddles that hop-scotched in that direction. I arrived on a barren bank of gravel that tilted gently towards the ice; picked up a rock about the size of a loaf of bread, and heaved it as far as I could out onto the ice. It hit with a hollow thud and skidded a few feet further turning around and facing back my way. Looked solid. There was enough clear space on the shallow side to get in 10 or 12 smooth even thrusts before the creek narrowed and took off straight again.
I stepped off the rocks and slowly crept out on the ice. Five feet, ten feet—far enough. I relaxed and moved back to the center of my new speedway and pushed off. Just like I had hoped, smooth sailing. Back and forth in even strokes I pushed left then right, extending my glides and speed with every thrust. Now everything was right and getting better. I could skate, I had skates, and two weeks from now I’d be at Roadman’s with Cheryl and all my new friends from Northmont. I was ready to try some turns. I couldn’t skate forever in a slow wide circle. Sooner or later someone would have to get out of the way before we crashed.
“OK. Push left. Push right. Left again.”
I had enough speed to give it a try. I put out my left leg and dragged the toe against the ice ever so lightly and slowly turned a wide arc to the left. Too slow and too wide. I pushed harder against the ice and dug in. That quick, I finished the turn too fast! I threw out my arms and pitched over; my shoulder hitting first and leading my skid through the rest of the turn. Laying there, my knit cap pressed against the ice, I could hear the water running below. Then a sharp “ping” of a crack reached out to the shore. I looked up and saw it end at the root of a huge oak reaching down the high bank and into the water not ten feet away. I turned to the outside and rolled towards the wide side of the gentle curve. My shoes were over there, and real far away now.
Another “snap” and I felt the ice sheet dip down ever so slightly and watched a thin, clear line of liquid seep out along the crack dissolving the dusty snow laying on top.
I pushed up and rose on one knee. Mistake! The noise was like a .22 rifle report, short and sharp! This time it didn’t stop with one! I pitched myself back in the direction of the shallow side and landed flat in the middle. The cracks followed me and my hips sank an inch or two as the water rose up my legs. I was gonna get wet!! That was for sure, but maybe not all of me. I forced myself up on my arms and drew my feet up under me and tried to stand. It wasn’t deep, but damn it was cold! My skates slid down at awkward angles in the rock bed below and my momentum carried me over with my butt crashing thru the ice. The broken edge lifted my jacket and raked my backside like it had caught on a nail. My legs and hips above my beltline were soaked! The rest of me was dry but stunned. I got myself up and charged to the far shore; my feet were numb but responded with a driven instinct to survive; 3-4-5 stumbling steps and I was out! My pants were dragged down by the weight of the draining water. I pulled off the coat as I continued on to the leaning log and my shoes. I wasn’t hurt, not that I could tell, just cold—so cold I couldn’t tell! All I could feel was a concentrated sharp pain that circled me around at the boarder of wet and dry. This wasn’t good I knew. All I could do was keep going and get out of there to somewhere warm and dry—real quick!
I saw the laces and watched my fingers hang over them pawing clumsily for the loose end of the bow that held them tight. It was like looking at a kite sailing on the end of a string; you held your end but didn’t really control anything else. Nothin’ I did could get them to grab on and pull. I clamped one end in between both stumps of my hands and raised it up to my mouth. Leaning over I just got one loose end up to my teeth and pulled back with my head. It unwound the bow and a final jerk undid the knot. Now I aimed my hands above the open end of the skate and steadied it while I pulled out the pale white block of my foot. The soaked socks stayed behind and collapsed into the bottom. I had to get out of these pants or the water would drain back down into my still dry boots. I could feel it running down the inside of my pants leg, finding its way thru the wet folds that weren’t stuck against my skin. I had to get them off or they’d freeze in place.
Shit! The other skate! I kicked open the dry end of my coat, loosened my belt buckle and pushed my drenched trousers down and off my free foot then sat back down. My hands were just about useless. Still I managed to draw the skate on my other foot up close enough to my mouth to repeat chewing the other knot free. At last, I pushed off that skate. I was free but stripped from my waist down. I rolled to one side and slid my boots together at the edge of my coat, stood, and jammed in one foot, then the other, down into the dry soles. All I could feel now was the weight of my hands and feet. The lip of pain moved steadily up my arms and legs. I was scared stiff.
Looking across the field I could only see a couple of skaters shadowed against the distant trees. Most had already gone and left the rest of the night to the kids. They were a good 200 feet away. The other way I saw the dirt road below the highway that led past the remains of the old stables, maybe 75 feet up a low slope that left all the ice and water behind. That was my new goal. I had to get there!
All of me was cold, but now I needed my legs and feet to work. I pulled the old field jacket up around my waist, tied the sleeves together and somehow hooked a couple of barrel buttons together. I draped my stiffening pants over one arm, stacked the skates on top, and staggered away. I only felt the shock of my footsteps up in my hips. My feet and legs didn’t seem to have anything to do with it. My arms folded out in front of me were a little better, but ended in two closed fists that were beginning to burn from the inside out.
I was getting close to the back end of what musta been the stone basement of the nearest stable. The stall gates were stuck under the old barn floor above. There was no light and no movement— anywhere; just black holes beyond the broken gates. I looked into the closest one. No horse had been in there for a long time; now it was just smooth pounded dirt stacked with some rusted tools and gear that were too old to move somewhere new. Further back against the foundation walls were the sleeping stalls. Old thick brown boards ran along three sides topped with an almost chewed-thru top rail. There an old horse blanket, tattered and soiled but neatly folded, hung at the back. It looked like my mothers arms welcoming me home. I dropped my wet load and lifted it up from the outside, but couldn’t get a grip in it. It slipped off the rail and fell into the next stall. I couldn’t climb over, but I had to have it right now and pushed against a broken slat near the bottom and tumbled over into a bed of straw banked against the inside corner. The blanket laid on top. I didn’t need any more coaching. I pulled open each rutted fold until I had it open all the way. I left a layer on the straw and refolded the rest in two and laid them on top and crawled in between. It was heavy and crusty and even colder at first. Then I started to shiver. My teeth chattered together like Howdy Doody, but slowly I could feel the warm blood feeding my hands and feet, and the sting of feeling returned to my fingers and toes.
I couldn’t move for a long time, just laid there at the back of the stall and shook. No one knew where I was, and no one would ever look for me here. I couldn’t stay very long. I had to get up and go home. Soon Mom would wonder where I was, even though she was used to me comin’ home late; even missing dinner. All of a sudden it was OK for me to show up late. Somehow high school made a difference. Dad didn’t seem to care anymore and we spoke even less—hardly at all. I still wondered why. Was this a truce, or had he given up? Or did I matter at all to him? Why was I thinking about this now? I could die here!
The rumbling sound in my ear rose and fell like a soft machine, humming a comforting rhythm of rest. It was warm curled up under the blanket. Listening to soothing repetitions I returned to the dream of skating expertly along with both Cheryl’s, each holding one hand and smiling up at me dressed in the billowing white silk shirt embroidered with pagodas and the lacey limbs of cheery trees draped over paths that led up to a tall mountain. Jack had sent it to me from Japan.
They drew apart, dropped my hands, and watched me glide out of sight and over the edge of the ice. I jerked myself awake before I hit the bottom. The purring cat tucked in next to my head stopped, and I opened my eyes in silence to watch the real world take shape.
I was damp, but warm, huddled under the heavy mat of horse hair lying on a bed of straw that stopped the cold air leaking up from the dirt floor under me. I turned my head and looked up into the cautious golden-green eyes of an orange barn cat. As soon as I made a move to reach out from under the blanket, she bolted and ran low under the bottom rail of our shared stall. I was awake now. The memory of my situation was still screaming for a plan to get me warm and dry again. I was back on this side of soaked and frozen, to just wet and cold, but couldn’t get any farther just lying still. I had to get up and get home.
My pants hadn’t made it in under the blanket and were bunched up in a stiff pile on the floor with my boots and socks. My coat still covered my legs and bare feet. I needed to get goin’. It was only gonna get colder. I needed to get warm real soon. The blanket was all that I had and it needed to go with me. I didn’t want anyone to see me like this and find out what had happened. It had saved me before and I had nothin’ else to help.
I stood , gathered up the blanket, and wrapped it around me up under my armpits. It almost hit the floor. I stripped the belt out of my pants and cinched it tight around us both above my hips. It stayed up in place. Bare feet in thin boots would be the worst of it. Straw was the only thing left. It was old and course, but it was dry. I grabbed up a handful and shredded it above my boots. Not small enough! I dumped it back out and rolled it between my palms. Now it fell down like cut grass outta the backside of a mower; tiny and dry. In two minutes I had both boots lined at the bottom to the depth of socks. I spread open the tops and pulled them up over my toes. My feet worked themselves down into the prickly dust. Nothin’ got wet again. This was gonna work.
I pulled out the tongues and jammed in as much straw as I could down the sides, crisscrossed and hooked the laces at the top. That was the best I could do. I had to leave right now and get movin’ again. I pulled on the field jacket, raised the hood over my head and tugged the drawstring closed. It pinched around my face over my eyes, and bit into my chin above my lips. There was nothin’ left to do but go.
The blanket was heavy and stiff and scraped against my knees and thighs when I stepped off as fast as I could; my arms closed over the wet bundle of pants and skates pressed against my chest. I knew what I looked like—the old guys that lived in the park near the Salvation Army behind the screen where they showed movies in the summer. No one would bother me. They never bother with them.
I didn’t see much as I plodded down the darkened road; my head and eyes bent down, captured in the tight tunnel of my hood. My feet kicked out against the bottom of the blanket with each step pounding out a beat through the tunnel, down the quarry road that cut through to Wilson Avenue, across the point behind Myron’s gas station, and alongside Perfection Photo to the alley that followed the high brick wall to Gate Two, then the alley that led home. No one saw me or cared if they did.
It was dark and long after supper when I found the latch on the back gate. I could see Mom clearing off the dishes and Dad outlined in the moody shadows of the TV, his cigarette smoke blowing back against the light of the halo tube. I didn’t go down the sidewalk towards the back steps, but stuck up against the hedges that blocked off the alley, then turned right between us and Pegg’s. Suddenly the starter motor on the Ford ground out a steady growl trying to kick over the cold motor. I dropped down and rolled under the branches of the border hedges, just as it caught and sparked the headlights that flooded the backyard with light. I hid until I heard the gears shift and felt the lights swing away. Looking up, I saw Tim twist himself around in the seat and hook his right arm over the passenger’s side while his head guided him backing out onto the street. The light rose and fell as the wheels dropped over the curb, then swung around sweeping the foundation under the kitchen window. Tim was driving at night; that could only mean he was sent out to look for me. Dad never drove at night.
My knees were stuck to the blanket and pinned me down to the ground. I couldn’t stand up without letting it go; so that’s what I did. I dropped my bundle, undid the belt and crawled out naked below the waist into the night. No stopping now, so I abandoned the bundle and finished up next to the concrete pier that held up the corner of the back porch. Again, I was a single, solid column of cold. I couldn’t feel anything but a shell of pain climbing up my bare legs burning like they’d been set on fire. Stiffly I dropped one leg after the other down the outside steps; like a puppet dancing from the end of strings.
The key was hidden high above me on top of the foundation wall between the porch rafters. I scraped my cupped hand along the unseen shelf and it fell off in front of me. I tried helplessly to trap it against the wall, but it hit the concrete floor and sounded out a few crisp pings. I followed it down and captured it in my grip between finger tips. When I stood up, I open my fist and pushed it between my thumb and forefinger, managing to stick it straight into the lock. I knew exactly where it needed to go. It was a simple skeleton key that fell loosely into the slotted keyhole and stayed there. I twisted with two hands and a half-turn later the latch snapped loose from the steel box mounted on the opposite wall. I grabbed the polished black stone knob and turned it left with everything I had left, and leaned into the last barrier between me and home. It swung forward and scraped the sound of my arrival against the concrete floor.
I heard Mom’s footsteps above me as she crossed the kitchen floor and opened the door at the top of the steps.
“Mark!? Is that you down there?”
“Yeah Mom, it’s just me! My clothes are all frozen and filled with snow. I need to take ‘em off and hang them out down here!
“You need anything!?”
“Could you throw down some dry socks and underwear? Maybe my long johns, I need to get warm.”
“Why don’t you take a hot shower? That’ll warm you up quick.”
“Yeah—sounds good. Maybe I will.”
“I’ll bring down some towels.”
“No—no! Just leave them on the top of the steps. I’m already out of my clothes.”
“Alright! Just hang out your wet clothes on the line, and I’ll bring you your things.”
“OK! Thanks Mom!”
I was surprised at how sure and steady I sounded; when I was standing there naked next to the door of the coal furnace blazing behind me. Heat hit me full in front, toasting my blue veined white skin into a sun-kissed pink. It hurt like hell and felt like heaven. I’d made it and it was over!
I heard Mom walking up the steps above those that led down into the cellar. She was going up to get towels and stuff out of the closet. This would be my last chance to clear the yard and get all my clothes back in where they belonged and hung up before she made her next inspection at first light. Nothin’ to do but get it done—and fast.
I looked around for anything to cover me, but like always, everything was put away like it should be. Here goes. I pulled open the door and bounded up the steps bare-footed out onto the blanket of snow that covered the yard. At first, whatever I felt, was overwhelmed by my fear of being discovered. By the time I reached the remains of my misadventure, I felt the power of the cold naked truth of having overcome it and survived. It was done and whatever happens, I knew I had survived—alone—by myself! I picked up the pile, crossed back to the steps and ducked under the porch floor to the inside. Mom opened the cellar door again and called down.
“I can bring them halfway!?”
“That’s OK Mom, just set them inside the door. I’ll come up and get them!”
“There’re some towels and a wash cloth on top; and a bar of Ivory soap on the drain board of the sink.”
“OK—thanks! I’ll come up as soon as you’re gone.”
I couldn’t remember being naked in the basement since I was four or five; taking off my muddy swimsuit after a romp in the sprinkler at Shears. Now I was about to crawl up the cellar steps on all fours, as bare as a Billy goat. Only this time, there was a lot more of me than my Mother’d never seen.
“I’m shutting the door!”
“I’m comin’! Thanks, Mom!”
I went up and picked them off the landing, then heard Dad’s voice on the other side.
“Shoulda been home three hours ago! Draggin’ in here anytime he wants. I won’t have it!”
“David, the boy needs his space. He does his work and pays his way. He just needs room to decide more for himself.”
“He’s only got the room we give him!”
“Just let him be. If he makes a mistake, that’s the time to correct him. He told me he was goning to go skating, and it’s a ways over to Lynch Field. He doesn’t have a watch. It turned dark and he came home—like he should.”
“He’s not to fill his plate after the kitchens been cleared!”
“He’ll make it himself, and clean up after himself. He always does.”
“Mind you, this is the last time!”
The argument closed there. The “This is the last time” statement told you he had nothin’ left to say. I turned and carried the bundle back down the stairs, the heat from inside me matching to the dose of cold I got from outside. I didn’t want my Mother to defend me. I could talk for myself! If he has a problem with me, he can damn well tell me! I was shaking again, this time with the tension of still not being able to tell him so. I was pissed at him; but even more with me. I stomped around gathering up the soap, putting the towel and washcloth on the window sill next to the shower. I kicked the old braided door matt over the drain and reached up into the rafters for the valves, not realizing right away that I could reach them for the first time.
My fingers closed over both brass handles that had last been touched by John. Tim never used this shower and it was too high for Dad; but now it wasn’t too high for me. With pleasure, I turned both knobs and felt the sudden shower rain down on my head. First the jolt of cold, then the building warmth to engulfing hot.
John used this shower after work up at Hire’s Fish Market in high school; then after work at the steel mills in college—and even when he came home after he got married. He’d made it! He’d stood here, just like me when he started high school. It meant the world to know that.
I heard the door close at the top of the stairs with a bang and heavy footsteps pound down the steps until they stopped at the landing that turned towards me. I looked over the top of the clothes line into the shadows of the single bulb that hung over my old man. With out thinking, or turning off the water, I stepped out from behind my coat hanging off the line between us.
We stood there, face to face; him holding his belt, and me astride my new-found balls. The light was behind him, casting his rounded shoulders and bare arms out across the floor, until they met at my feet. He was short, heavy, and balding; with a 3-day growth of gray stubble that framed a reddened and blotted face centered with hard-set watery eyes. His right hand held the belt that twitched along the side of his stained surge pants. We stood there fixed, seeing each other as we really were for the first time since I was a baby.
I turned my back and stepped back into the shower and waited for something to happen. Then I heard him take the first wooden step up to the kitchen. When his head cleared the top of the clothesline, we caught each others eyes until his head disappeared above the floor of the hall. It was settled.
I heard the click of the light switch and the basement was pitched into complete darkness except for the warm glow of the furnace that leaked light thru the door of the coal fed fire. Against the window above me, the shadows of snowflakes, lit by the street light, blew softly by, landed, and melted against the window pane.
We didn’t speak again, at least not for a long time, and that was just for me to say—“Hello, Dad”.
The next coupla days went like they should. Sunday, I spent most all day skating on the bigger ponds and puddles at Lynch Field. Monday morning it was 22 degrees out, so I left a little early and made it over to Clyde’s by 6:30. It was blowin’ a bit and he’d already started on the ice.
“Set your papers down. We gotta git over to the corner by 7:30!”
I nodded and picked up the coal shovel that leaned against the back of the wheelbarrow between the handles.
“Don’t fill it more’n half full; then take it behind Grant’s and dump it off the parkin’ lot curb into the ditch.”
He wrapped his scarf back over his mouth and nose and started back at the edge of the ice that had come out of the hole in the curb as a liquid and ran down the pavement about 15 feet before it froze up. Then that was covered up by a new coat that did the same thing on top. It looked like a milky white lava flow spaced every 20 feet along the top of the parking lot.
Clyde would start at the bottom; liftin’ up the digger bar and bringing it down solid a foot or two up from the leading edge. If he was lucky, after three or four shots, a big chunk would break off clean and slide downhill where he’d bust it into smaller pieces. He’d already finished two patches by the time I got there with eight more to go.
I started on the first one; sliding the shovel uphill under the loose chunks ‘til the shovel was full, then lifted it over the side of the wheelbarrow and dumped it inside. I learned quick that I could barely lift a full shovel without dumpin’ half of it before I could get it over the rim. Once I got that worked out, I found I could get seven shovelfuls into the wheelbarrow and still lift it. It took three trips to clear one patch.
I was travelin’ crossways on the down slope side of the lot headed for the alleyway between Grant’s and the coffee shop. It was hard to stay steady and guide the single wheel over the half frozen slush that was trying to refreeze from the salt that Clyde had spread out yesterday.
The guy opening up inside the coffee shop brought me a cup of coca on my fifth trip and called out against the wind to Clyde.
“Coffee’s ready when you are!”
Clyde half turned and gave him a wave back. He was at the top of the fourth flow when he stopped, trotted over and walked me inside. We both pushed thru the glass door and were greeted by a billow of heat and light.
“Thanks, Dean!” Clyde hailed him as he unwound his scarf and pulled off his gloves.
“No problem Clyde, glad you got a helper.”
“This here’s Mark, Dean. Delivers the papers ‘round here.”
“Don’t know him. My customers get theirs outta the machine out front.”
He was right. The Tribune-Review driver loaded both the morning and evening editions into paper machines out front of places like Deans and people paid a dime apiece to get one out.
“Thanks for the coca Mr. …?”
“Mr. Nothin’— just Dean kid.”
“Hey! You earned it helpin’ Clyde out and getting’ rid of those patches of lousy ice. Bad enough tryin’ to park this high on the lot in the mornin’ and spinnin’ on those things.”
“Drink up boy, we’re only just halfway done, and you gotta git goin’ to make it to school on time.”
I cupped both hands around the coca and drank it down. The liquid burned as it dropped down my throat, almost too hot to swallow. I could feel it drain thru me and spread new warmth in my core. I looked up at the big white clock at the end of the counter and the second hand that didn’t tick. It smoothly circled the numbers around the dial that said 7:05.
“Ten minutes more and you gotta go!”
“But that’s only 45 minutes Clyde! I gotta give you ‘n hour!”
“You worked faster’n you needed. I got an hour’s worth of work, or I will, after you take two more loads out back.”
“I said it, didn’t I? Now let’s git finished!”
We pressed back out the door into a stronger wind.
“It always kicks up at dawn!” He explained.
I turned my back into the gusts and dragged the wheelbarrow backwards to the next pile, loaded it as high as I dared and wheeled straight to the back and dumped it over the curb.
“I gotta get that last load.” I thought to myself. “A deals a deal.”
This time I pushed the empty wheelbarrow at a run bouncin’ up and over the jagged lines of frozen tire tracks. Back at the last patch, I shoved the shovel into the downhill edge of the cracked ice and lifted it full into the bottom of the barrow. Two more shovelfuls like that and I was loaded. I scrapped the leftovers together in a pile and pushed it up against the curb and finished.
Clyde waved to me and motioned that I should leave it there and get goin’.
“No!” I shook my head and lifted up on the handles. Maybe this was more’n I could make it with. It was downhill to the turn and I made that Ok, but just a little too fast. When I tipped it some to go left, it took me, rather than the other way around. I couldn’t make the turn tight enough and the wheel headed straight into the curb in front of the coffee shop! The wheelbarrow hit it hard and stopped real sudden, but the load didn’t. It shot forward and skidded to a stop up against Dean’s front door. The heavy chunks of ice hit so hard it sounded like a car crash.
“Oh Shit! I hollered.
Somehow the glass didn’t break. I stumbled forward and fell on my knees and started pulling at the pile. Dean came around the corner of the counter and tried to push open his door. He couldn’t. Clyde came up behind me.
“Git up and git back!”
I looked back up at him and knew he meant it.
“Straighten up that wheelbarrow!”
I turned and gripped the handles that stuck up in the air and lifted until I could grab the other and turn them both level with the ground.
“Hold it steady.”
I locked my hands around the grips while he shoveled the ice back in. When it was half full he stopped.
“Now take it where it goes!”
I lifted up on the handles and turned them away from the curb and down the side alley to the back lot. The wind was gaining and beginning to howl. Minutes later I was back and Clyde had the rest of the load waiting.
“Sit it down and listen.”
I lowered the handles ‘til the bent steel legs bit into the snow.
“This here’s my job—not yours. Your job is to do what I tell ya. Nothin’ more ‘n nothin’ less. You hear!?”
“Yeah Clyde. I’m sorry.”
“Sorry’s no good to me. Now git home and go to school. That’s your job.”
“I’ll finish up and take this load.”
“What’d I say, boy!? Get your papers and git!”
Clyde was serious. I walked across the alley and under the overhang at Grant’s and gathered up my paper bag. Clyde didn’t move. He just leaned on the shovel as I walked back by him. When I had passed about ten feet further he called after me.
“Git here by 6:30 tomorrow and be ready to work!”
I turned and thought I saw him smoother a smile.
“You bet—6:30! I’ll be here Clyde!”
“I know you will. Now git goin’!”
I knew I would, and I’d listen too.
That was Monday and today was Tuesday, our practice day. Just a week and a day left before the show. I wanted to buy a new shirt; and not just another white one. All my good shirts were white. At least no one could tell I only had three of them that Mom washed out and ironed on Wednesday so’s I had a clean one on everyday. It worked out at St. Benedict’s ‘cause that was the only color you were allowed to wear, with a solid red tie. Now I wanted a blue one that had white thread stitching that looked more like a work shirt with double pockets and button-down flaps. The other guys wore them with blue jeans. I knew I’d never be allowed to wear blue jeans to school, but a blue shirt would work with my brown pants. Shirts were cheaper than pants, and I’d been beggin’ Mom not to buy me any more white shirts for Christmas.
She heard me. When I got home, on my bed, folded up, pinned, and wrapped in plastic was just the shirt I wanted.
“Save it for the show.” She said from behind me.
“I’ll press it off and hang it up, but I wanted you to see it like it came from the store, so you’d know it was new.”
“This is great Mom!”
“You’ll look good in it, Mark. I want you to enjoy that show and know you look like the part you’re playin’. Now lift it up.”
I reached down and picked up the shirt. Underneath laid cross ways was a pair of argyle socks; socks with alternating diamonds of brown and blue edged in thin white thread lines.
“They’ll match up with your trousers and shirt.”
“And not black?”
“And not black!”
“Put them away ‘til next Wednesday so they’re new and fresh.”
“Can I try ‘em on?”
“O-o-oh, I guess?”
I spun around and sat down on the bed, pushed off my clodhoppers and stripped off my white knit socks. That was strange? My left foot felt like it was half asleep. Musta tied it too tight. I stretched the sock over my toes and pulled it up my leg. It didn’t stop above my ankle. Instead it unwound way up over my calf and looked like a million bucks!
“They’re high-tops! Like business men wear.”
“They’re great Mom! Thanks!”
“Ok. Get them off and get dressed. You’re going to be late for school!”
I put my arms around her and gave her a hug and realized just then that I was looking down into her eyes for the first time. I was bigger than her.
“Thanks Mom, you knew just what I wanted.”
“Take care of them. They have to last a long time—you know.”
She backed up out of my hug and looked up at me.
“You’re getting tall. Growing up. Soon you’ll be as tall as Jack probably.”
“He shot up just like you. Only a little later, if I remember right.”
Jack was 6-4. Man, I wanted to be 6-4!
I sat back down and pulled off both socks; the new one, and the old. I stood and undid my belt, then stopped and waited.
“I’m going. Give me the shirt and I’ll iron it out for you.”
I reached around too fast and lost my balance for a second.
“Thanks Mom. You’re the best!”
I finished dressing and headed out the door. If only I coulda worn the new stuff—but it would wait a week.
School dragged all day ‘til seventh period. Mrs. Rutledge had chalked a message on the board and everybody was comin’ out as soon as they walked in.
"Class will meet in the school auditorium."
“Wonder what that’s all about?” I motioned as I smiled into the eyes of my Cheryl.
“I hear there’s going to be an assembly.”
“They didn’t announce it over the intercom?”
“No Mark, not today. An assembly next Wednesday.”
I reached out and laced my fingers in hers as we turned and hurried up the hall.
“Cheryl said we were going to sing for the whole school! That’s ‘why’.”
I slowed and she spun around to face me.
“The whole school!?”
“That’s what Cheryl said! She said all Miss Rutledge’s classes were going to put on skits during the lunch hour—for anyone who wanted to come. Then school would be dismissed for the holiday.”
“The whole school—at lunchtime?!”
“That’s what she said. C’mon, we’ll be late!”
She pulled me along ‘til we pushed through the double doors that looked down over the sea of seats that wrapped around the huge room and flowed down to the raised stage at the front.
“Hurry everyone! We only have forty minutes left to practice!”
Mrs. Rutledge called out into the shadowed room from the lit stage below.
Up on the open platform, with the curtain raised, were about thirty kids with all our hand made props strung out from side to side. Ours was last on the far right; a lamp post, with a street sign on the corner of a Drugstore. The Drugstore was only a couple of cardboard boxes painted up to look like a window with “Pharmacy” scrawled out on it.
“We have to move quickly!” She commanded, clapping her hands together several times.
“Line up behind your props!”
We all shuffled past each other and sorted ourselves out as she went on.
“I know this is a surprise—but a good surprise! You’re going to sing and act for the whole school next Wednesday; not tomorrow, but next week. Just like we practiced but with some extra songs added as a finale. At the end we’ll join together and sing a medley of Christmas songs. That’s what we’re here together to learn today."
"From left to right, everyone line up; boy-girl, boy-girl all the way across!”
The crowd slowly strung itself out in a wavy line that meandered across the stage until Mrs. Rutledge started sorting us out to her liking; guiding us into place with both hands on our shoulders.
“Straight line! Look at your feet! Boy-Girl-Boy-Girl; and join hands!”
I got to hold hands with both Cheryl’s; my Cheryl on the right and stacked Cheryl on the left. My Cheryl was soft and warm. Stacked Cheryl was different, almost like her hand was made of rubber. I couldn’t feel any warmth.
“Alright, drop your hands! Boys take one step forward and line up again! You will sing the 1st verse; then step back. Girls will step forward two steps and sing the 2nd verse. Third verse, the girls make one step to the left in front of the boys, all sing. Fourth verse, boys will step forward behind the girls and all will sing again. It’s simple and it’s elegant! Ready? On my signal, begin!”
She sat down at the rolling piano set on a raised steel frame with casters at each corner and started to bang out “There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays”. The words were chalked up on a blackboard in front of us.
“Oh there’s no place like home for the holidays,--
‘Cause no matter how far away you roam,”
“Boys back! Girls forward! And second verse!”
“I met a man who lives in Tennessee,--
From Atlantic to Pacific the traffic is terrific.”
“Girls step left! Third verse and everyone!”
“If you want to be happy in a million ways,
It was like my left foot was glued to the floor and didn’t hear her right away. My right foot assumed it had, and followed thru like it should. When I realized I might go over, my arms shot out, and I caught myself on stacked Cheryl’s shoulders. She startled slightly, then turned her head and gave me a surprised smile.
“I like it! Boys, put your hands lightly—lightly I said, on the girls shoulders’ and all together final verse!”
“For the holidays you can’t beat home sweet home!”
“Good! Good! Starting positions, please. And again, from the top!”
When we linked hands again, my Cheryl just held out her hand flat and looked straight ahead. Stacked Cheryl gave me a squeeze and looked up curiously at my face. We sang the song again and everything went real smooth this time. I stuck out my arms at the 4th verse and my foot agreed to come along.
We finished strong. Afterwards, my Cheryl turned fast and headed out the back door without me; or the other Cheryl? I followed confused.
She pulled her hood up over her head and gripped her books out front like they were trying to get away.
“You want me to carry those for you?”
She and her books turned sharply away from my direction.
“What’s wrong?” I still didn’t get it.
“Don’t follow me!”
I was stopped for a second frozen by the winter in those words.
“I’m not following you!? We’re just wakin’ home.”
“Then you’re lost, because you don’t live this way!”
“I …I always walk you down at least to Arch Street before I turn.”
“Well, why don’t you just wait for Cheryl, then and you can walk her home.”
“Why …why would I do that?”
She turned and looked back at me like I was worse than dirt.
“You could put your arms around her shoulders all you want, just like all the boys want! Just like my Dad said you would!!”
“I didn’t mean to! I …I just lost my balance—that’s all! I was gonna fall.”
“Right into my best friend!”
A tear appeared in the corner of her eye.
“No! It wasn’t like that! Your Dad’s wrong! I like you! Not her!”
That tear did something to me as I watched it brim out of her eye, run over her high cheek, and fall off her crumpled chin. Then her shoulders shook. I stepped in close, and without thinking put both arms around her, and pulled her against me. Just like before, only one foot caught up with me and I fell forward backing her into a tall pine bush at the edge of the sidewalk. She thought it was a “move”. I decided to go with it. I took her face in both hands and lifted it to my lips.
“I love you Cheryl—not her.”
Before she could speak I closed my lips on hers and held us there as our bodies adjusted themselves to a real embrace. Finally she broke it off and smiled up at me with a new but different look; tears still falling down her face.
“Mark?” She whispered. “I can’t. I’m not allowed. Someone might see. I better …”
I backed out of the bushes and looked up and down the street.
“No one’s coming. No one saw.”
Cheryl followed me back onto the sidewalk and took a look for herself.
“You better go.”
“I’m late. I better get home.”
“Can walk you down to Arch, like always?”
“No. You better go right now.