One Year On Meade Street
To Pammy who was always, always there. Thanks to Trish Munroe who counseled me about "voice". She taught; I listened and benefitted. As always, I must include my dear friend Cherilyn DeAguerro, classmate, buddy, and faithful cheerleader throughout every draft. I would be remiss if I didn't thank all my Bookrix friends who cheered Skip, Jimmy, and Mickey in all their adventures during that momentous year, especially Chris Clarke who said, "THIS is your book, Patrick." Chris, you're special! Finally, a special thanks to Joss at Canstock for the great cover image.
BookRix GmbH & Co. KG
It is near dawn, March 21st, and I haven't slept. I've been staring at a spot on the wall half the night—a particular spot, that when the moonlight is just so, lights up the picture I hung there many years ago. A small photograph in a simple wooden frame. I turn my head slightly to see if I can find it and make it come alive by the strength of my will alone, by changing my perspective, but it is hopelessly lost in the dimness of the room.
Outside, the gray dawn slowly climbs the arc of nighttime sky, pushing the moon gently along before it. Soft shadows awakened force their way through the frosted glaze of glass, across the bedroom walls in search of the picture. I turn and follow the weak light back out the window for a moment. I can see the dusty fingers of smoke from a fireplace chimney somewhere nearby curling without effort, skyward, waiting patiently to be absorbed high above me, out of reach. It reminds me of what happens to love, really, in the end. Absorbed into other worlds…taken far away from us because of laws that now I know we simply cannot comprehend.
The photograph of Jimmy and Carol is with me here in my old room, but they are gone.
They are only part of the shadows, now, kneeling in a brown and ochre field of leaves, caught forever, captured, with their arms thrust upward. The leaves they'd just thrown are still in jumbled, carefree movement, ever frozen in that moment. They were laughing.
The Claw and Dennis the Menace
There we were again.
We were standing between the old rock and a hard place. Up a creek without a paddle—not even a boat. Jimmy had started another fire, which wasn’t so bad, except it was in some girl’s hair at the old Comet Theater in our neighborhood. He’d done this before—not torched a girl’s head, just started a fire that got out of control. It wasn’t so much that he was criminal with matches, only that something deep down inside him was thrilled in a way I couldn’t understand with anything burning. I guess that’s pretty much a sign of a pyromaniac? It isn’t like he did screwy things like that everyday though. Only at the worst times, and with the most predictable and damaging results. So far we—yes, I was always there with him—hadn’t gotten busted.
I wasn’t so sure this time. At some point I knew our luck just had to run out. It finally did, though not for reasons you might think. The real bolt of lightning would strike a little later.
It was a gorgeous April afternoon. Sunny and shirtsleeve-warm. No soot-covered snow lingering on the north sides of the buildings in my hometown of Denver. Neighborhood dogs cavorting with their tongues hanging out. Kids on bicycles everywhere. Shoppers without overcoats out visiting the local stores.
Jimmy, Mickey, and I had gone to the theater that day to see a new movie called, “The Claw”. It was so stupid it was brilliant. An atomic chicken monster had come to Earth somehow from deep outer space. When it got here it was hungry from the long trip, and was expecting a baby, because before it went off to eat, it laid a huge egg in a cave. I won’t go into the details. The point is, every kid in the neighborhood had packed into the movie house that afternoon to see the movie. That was the beginning of the problem, because among them were Inky Minkle and his gang, and they took their seats in the balcony not fifteen feet away from us. They didn’t see us, and they didn’t see Jimmy shoot the stick match over the railing, but I know they saw us hightail it out of Dodge after the thing landed in the girl’s hair.
After that, things got more complicated. It went something like this.
“Jesus Christ, Jimmy!”
That was Mickey Fumo yelling after we raced past the theater manager who was on his way in to find out what the hell all the screaming was about, and we were running lickety-spit toward the glass doors, because we knew. I was dead certain he’d seen us.
Dear Mother Mary…
Me praying in situations like this. I knew moms always listened and helped out whenever they could, and Mary was a very important mom in my young life.
“Shut the fuck up and run.”
Jimmy cussing. He was older than me by a year, and nearly two years older than the third part of us, Mickey. Jimmy’s voice hadn’t changed yet. It was kind of on the high side, and when he gave that command it sounded like a 45 record playing at 78 speed. He was tall and lanky still at thirteen, and in no time flat was ahead of us by miles. Well, when you think about it, it was his ass more than mine or Mickey’s that would pay the biggest price for what he’d done. Me and Mickey had just been “accessories after the fact”. That afternoon Jimmy was super-fast. Dumb jerk.
Honestly though, I loved the guy, devoted to trouble though he was.
We got away. We stopped three blocks down to take a breather in the local library parking lot, and after we’d slunk back against the brick wall we relaxed. Mickey changed his tune suddenly.
“That was cool!” He was referring to the little clothespin matchgun Jimmy had made, but which neither Mickey nor me knew anything about before Jimmy pulled it out of his pocket in the balcony at the Comet. “You’re a genius, McGuire.”
In a way Mickey was right. Jimmy was a miserable failure in school when it came to English and History, but brilliant with starting fires and things like that. Science things. Those kinds of things he understood, like he was Albert Einstein. Applied science, that is—which I’ll tell you a lot about as we go.
So he’d made this gun out of a wood clothespin, the ones with the springs that open and close when you pinch the ends. I don’t know how he did it, but it worked great. All you had to do was pull back the wire spring that he’d somehow flipped over, until it caught in a slot in the wood. Then you would shove a stick match in headfirst, aim it, and then release the spring. Instant fire missile. Mickey was right. It was cool. I know for a fact that that girl didn’t think so though.
We sat there admiring it, shooting some matches into the weeds beneath this big billboard across the alley in a vacant lot—solid wood and dry as a dead tree, just begging to go up in flames—when we were interrupted by this little craphead of a kid.
He’d been watching us the whole time from his yard on the far side of the parking lot we were in, and he commented to us that he thought it’d be neat to take the thing to school. To the gym or the auditorium. “Ta’ scare girls with,” he said.
Jimmy gave him a dirty look, and told him that if he ever mentioned seeing the three of us and our matchgun to anyone we'd come back and string him up by his little balls. The kid looked to be about eight or nine, and he had this intense look on his face that said to me he might be able to describe the three of us pretty damn well, and that for the time being he could care less about his balls or anybody else’s. By then I was beginning to feel a little like a genuine criminal, a little paranoid. But the kid offered a solution.
"I won't breathe a word of what I just seen to nobody. Promise…if you let me have that thing."
We all knew what the word for that was, but what we didn’t realize was that that’s when we lost our paddles. The boat, too, if we’d had one to begin with. If we didn't give the evidence away the little blabbermouth would for sure run through the neighborhood telling everyone who'd listen all about us. If we did give it to him, he'd most likely burn down Barnum Public School—and then tell the cops and everyone who’d listen all about the three older kids who gave him the gun, and even showed him how to use it. We were screwed.
Jimmy walked over to him.
"Lemme say it again. You say anythin’ about what you just saw here and I swear I'll personally come back and bust your ass good. You got that?"
"Yep," the kid said as he stuck his hand over the fence, palm up. Jimmy stood very still for a second or two sizing up the situation. Finally he took the matchgun and slapped it into the kid's waiting hand.
"Remember what I just told ya’, ya’ little snot. You tell anyone…and DON'T go pointin’ that thing at me! Make a target or somethin’ out of an old box. Don't shoot no one. Got it? Crap…are you fuckin’ dumb or what?"
I had a feeling that Jimmy's instructions were falling on deaf ears. The kid took his other hand and shoved it over the fence.
"I'll need some of them matches."
"Goddam’!…" Jimmy started to cuss.
"Let's get out of here," I said. "Don't give him shit."
"I'll go right in and ask my mom to give me some, then. Bet she'll wanna’ know what for. I'll have to tell her they're for this thing you gave me."
Jimmy reached over the fence to grab hold of the little brat's throat, but the kid was as slick as snot. He shot back a few feet into his yard, stopped, and then demanded matches again. What could Jimmy do short of hopping the fence and beating the daylights out of him? If he could even catch him. He shoved his hand into his pocket and pulled out a handful.
"Here, ya’ little asshole." He threw them at the kid. "You get into any trouble with these and I'll personally come back down here and whup your ass good. You got that, you little…"
The boy jumped forward, bent down, and snatched up a few of the sticks. He paid no attention to Jimmy at first as he tried to figure out how to make his new toy work. Jimmy cussed at him some more, and then turned back to Mickey and me. He shook his head sideways, and shrugged his shoulders. Beat by a lousy eight year-old. "Let's get outta’ here."
We started to ease away from this little rat, who now had the lantern in Mrs. O’Leary’s barn, Lex Luther's smarts, and, I somehow knew, an aching desire to burn down the entire city of Denver.
The kid yelled at us. "Hey! How do you cock the trigger? Come back here and show me!"
Jimmy raised his middle finger over his head and we took off, back out onto First Avenue.
"Hey! Come back here! Hey, Mom, look what three guys gave me! Hey…"
So we were running again. We hadn’t heard or seen the last of that snotty little rat.
We got to Meade Street, which was about half a mile west of the Comet. Jimmy and Mick must have forgotten about everything that had happened because they were carrying on about what a freaky movie The Claw was. Jimmy was doing his imitation of the pissed off bird, flying around eating battleships and airplanes. Jesus, I could have found something better to eat than steel boats and aluminum airplanes. So did it, finally, when it discovered people. Between eating people and the fact that it ate military equipment, the Army got involved. Well, so did the Air Force and the Navy. But that didn’t do much good. This bird just got more pissed off when they shot machine guns and missiles at it. It took some smart scientist to figure out you’ve got to fight fire with fire—I shouldn’t bring fire back up. But anyway, him and this girl invented an anti-matter gun. Thing. None of us understood the science part of it, except maybe Jimmy, but finally they killed it. I guess. We were long gone by then, like I said.
So Jimmy is jumping up and down, and Mick is laughing and pulling these invisible puppet strings, like he’s directing Jimmy’s moves, because that’s what the people who made the movie did with the bird. Only in the movie we actually saw the strings.
I’m a little way behind them, worrying about the burned up girl and that kid we gave the matchgun to. At school, Sister Mary Dolorine told us back in fifth grade the story about Nero. How he loved playing his violin and burning stuff up, and that he went so far as to torch Rome, which of course you know he was the emperor of. He blamed it on the Christians, and then started feeding my ancestors to the lions in the Coliseum. It went okay until Constantine told everybody who wasn’t Christian the real story of what happened. The Senators stuck Nero in jail, and then later fed him to the lions. That’s when Rome became Catholic and elected Peter as the first Pope. I think that’s how it went.
That’s what was going to happen to us I was certain. Except they don’t feed pyromaniacs to lions anymore. Maybe just hang them.
I’m thinking about all this, when out of the corner of my eye I see this girl standing on her front porch, about halfway up the street. She’s got this ballet tutu thing on, and she’s dancing away. She was really pretty and looked to be about my age, and I could kind of hear some symphony song playing in the background, inside her house. Of course I stopped, and I forgot all about going to jail or getting hanged on the county courthouse steps.
I think she saw me, too, because she stopped dancing and looked over at me. All I could do was smile, and wish I had the guts to march across the sidewalk and her front lawn and tell her my name, and that I thought she danced really well—and that I thought she was the prettiest girl I’d ever seen.
I instantly memorized the lines of her face without thinking, smiled at her again as my cheeks flushed, then I turned and caught back up with my friends. I looked back every now and then to see if she would continue on with whatever she'd been practicing when I interrupted her, but each time I did I caught her just staring back at me. Or maybe it was at the back of Mickey’s head.
We approached Ellsworth Avenue, the street running east and west intersecting Meade Street. Mickey’s house was a big two story brick home sitting on the corner at the top of the hill. It made the hair on the back of my Irish mother's neck bristle whenever she saw it. Mickey's mother never drew the drapes open for reasons all her own, and that made Mom very suspicious. What, she always asked if the subject of the Fumo family came up, was the woman hiding?
"She has to have the lights on inside that place all the time, for God's sake. How else can a person see with drapes that thick covering all those windows?"
Good question, maybe, but not one I ever asked Mickey about. I'd never been inside his house, elegant palace that it looked to be, but that was most likely because he was always inside mine or Jimmy's. Why his mother kept the curtains drawn tight was her business, though. Mom thought it was snobbery, the sin of the rich looking down their noses at us poor folks. I wasn't so sure of that, and I really didn't care anyway.
Mick turned at the corner and left us. "Well, I'll see you guys later," he said as he smacked Jimmy one last time and headed up the grade.
"Where you goin’?" Jimmy asked him. "It's only three-thirty. There's plenty of daylight left."
"I have to mow the lawn. Promised Dad I'd do it after I got out of the movie. I'll come down later."
"Mow the lawn? It's still all brown, for cryin' out loud! It ain't even growin’ yet. Why's your dad makin’ you mow dead grass?" Jimmy went on and on as Mickey climbed the hill. I saw Mickey shake his head, and he finally turned when he'd gotten about half way up the street.
"You blind? Dad took this huge torch last Fall and burned all the dead grass away—doesn’t hurt the roots, he said. And then he threw fertilizer on it in January. It's growing like gangbusters already. I'll come down when I'm done. Later."
"Burned it up?" Jimmy said to me.
"Hey Mick! What kinda torch?" he yelled, but Mick was too far away to hear, and he didn’t answer.
Jimmy was already thinking. I was seeing the hedge in front of his house, the tall Elm tree—all of it going up in smoke.
"I think Mickey was pulling your leg, but I don't think you have to worry about cutting your grass anyway," I answered. "You got a couple of months yet before…what the heck?"
I saw them first—the woman running in our direction on the sidewalk halfway up the block, and then turning up the driveway into Jimmy's yard. My mom was right behind her, headed in from the opposite direction. I looked over at Jimmy. He lit out again, this time faster than he had thirty minutes ago back at the theater. Not half a minute later we reached his house and saw the reason for the commotion in his yard. Mrs. McGuire lay sprawled out behind the low hedge on her front lawn, a bottle of whiskey still clutched in her right hand.
Jimmy rushed up to her and knelt down. He was cussing softly, shaking his head. I suffered some of the embarrassment right along with him, but thank God it was only Mrs. Baumgartner from two doors up and my mom who must have seen Mrs. McGuire fall down drunk. It wasn't the first time she’d made a fool of herself in public, and God knows it wouldn't be the last.
"Help me get her inside, Skip. Goddam’ her."
I rushed to the other side of his mother and took half of her deadweight into both hands. Mom and Mrs. Baumgartner skirted around Jimmy and me like two old hens, advising us how to get Mrs. McGuire out of there without hurting her. Like she was a newborn baby and not just a hunk of pickled meat. Mrs. Baumgartner reached down and picked up the bottle that Mrs. McGuire had finally let go of, and looked around to see if anyone else was looking. She brushed the speckles of earth and dead grass clippings off its mouth very carefully, then tucked it close under her arm beside her huge right breast.
"Hurry up, boys, before the bus comes by," Mom whispered. "We don't want no one to see her like this. Hurry up now."
I groaned under that half of the weight I carried, looked over at Jimmy whose face was fixed tight and emotionless. A tear had already begun to run down his cheek.
Much later that afternoon I entered the dining room of our house on Meade Street, the image of Mrs. McGuire lying on her front lawn clutching the half-empty bottle in a death grip still spinning in and out of my head. I don’t recall if I felt sorry for her as much as simply feeling ashamed for Jimmy’s sake. Pop was seated with is back to me at the old parlor piano at the far end of the room that shared the wall dividing the kitchen from the more or less formal eating area. He hadn’t heard me enter.
I stopped under the archway near the front door and watched him bring his long, thick fingers up to the keyboard, then place them gently down. He spread them out. His gaze was fixed straight ahead at the music sheet stand, but of course there was nothing on it. A cigarette dangled out of the corner of his mouth, hidden to me; a blue-gray stream of smoke drifting toward the ceiling. My dad was thinking of notes, or tempo, or something I didn’t have the power to imagine myself. He was composing.
Suddenly, as though God had whispered, “Go!”, his shoulders shot forward. His head lifted slightly, and then what looked like twenty-five fingers began striking the keys all at once. The sudden flurry of hurricane-speed notes made me jump. His playing always did that to me, even when I knew what was coming on the heels of his stone-like hesitation. Pop’s arms and hands were a blur, racing up and down the keyboard.
Pop was self-taught, he always admitted modestly whenever someone asked how he was able to play like a concert pianist, unable to read a note—and the music he made was marvelous, even if it wasn’t what I liked. I don’t think Mom ever told me that much about his early life, how he had come to be so accomplished at the keyboard, or why he’d chosen to upholster furniture and stay poor instead of trying to make it as a classical composer or concert pianist. I do know he was born the same year Mark Twain died, and that he grew up in a flea-sized town north of Denver called Longmont. The same town that Mom was born in, except she arrived on the planet the year the first shots of World War I were fired, instead of on the tail of a comet. That might explain the sometimes polar difference in their dispositions, and, maybe, the stellar power of his imagination.
I listened for a while, until the furious pace slowed. His head dropped, then, as though his eyes were searching through the keys themselves, to the very soul of the instrument for something more. I knew without seeing his face that his eyes were closed, that he was somewhere far away, and that he was happy.
“LaVerne, it’s time for dinner.”
Mom’s voice brought the curtain down, so to speak—ushered Pop back to earth filled with its grinding sameness. His fingers curled closed a little, he leaned back, and then he stared straight ahead again. Mom poked her head through the doorway opening, a large steaming bowl in her pot-holdered hands next to her stomach.
“Skip, wake your father up. Let’s eat, dear.” She abruptly left the opening after saying that and carried the bowl away into the small eating area off the kitchen. Pop turned when he heard my name. He grabbed onto the curved, corbelled end of the keyboard with his right hand, surprised, I think, that he had had an audience. He re-entered our house with the blink of his eyes, then smiled.
“Pop.” I nodded.
“Did you like it? It’s brand new, you know. I think I can write an entire concerto. Working on it, anyway.”
“Yeah, Pop. Really good. It sounded great.” I wondered what the word concerto meant. I’d heard it many times over the years, standing there at the end of the piano, watching him in his world so distant and huge. So far away from our small house.
“A concerto is pretty long, isn’t it?”
“Sometimes.” He pushed the piano bench back, stood up, then looked back down at the keys for a minute. I don’t know what he was thinking, but he was that statue again.
“C’mon’, you two. It’s stew,” Mom called out.
I left the dining room first, and made my way without another word into the eating nook to the left of the kitchen. It took several more minutes before Pop finally arrived and took his place across from me.
Saturday evening was Mulligan stew night—and Lawrence Welk night. Mom and Pop loved the man, maybe because they loved to dance, and related on some weird level to the spectacle of ever-smiling men and women dressed in lederhosen whirling around the stage in a blizzard of bubbles. In those days I neither danced (although I had nothing against it), nor could I see anything particularly interesting in a TV program that in my mind mimicked a washing machine gone crazy, with insanely happy Germans frolicking around it. Also, I failed to see any connection between Mr. Welk’s music and the music my father wrote and played. So, after filling up on the stew and whistling through the dishes as fast as I possibly could, I figured I’d rush next door to have my friend entertain me. If he wasn’t in a deep pit of anger and disgust over his mom.
Jimmy had no interest in Lawrence Welk either, but for very different reasons than mine. He’d explained that the host was either a communist spy—he didn’t explain why or how that would be, or a space alien who’d come to earth and taken over the guy’s body. The Body Snatchers had invaded our planet, Jimmy said. Not giant anti-matter chickens, but real, nasty creatures who needed host bodies.
Lawrence Welk wore his pants up to his chest, but people loved him anyway. And so, being a trustworthy American, one that everyone over forty seemed to go ga-ga over, the creatures must have found him irresistible. I questioned whether or not an intelligent species, no matter how nasty, would choose someone so out of it as a host.
I’d usually find Jimmy in his bedroom reading Mad magazines, or throwing darts at a picture of Alfred E. Neuman pasted on the wall, maybe drawing pictures of some crazy new invention he’d dreamt up. I wasn’t sure about that night after the mess of his mother in the front yard, though. I thought twice about going over the back fence to his house.
The Morley clan, now seated, bowed our heads, said Grace, and then began to eat. Of course the main topic of discussion fell immediately to the sad condition of Ruth McGuire.
“Poor old gal. She’s a mess…pass the salt and pepper, Skippy,” Pop said. I did.
“Yessiree to that. She ain’t been worth a good goddam’ since that no-good Fred lit out on her and Jimmy, if you ask me,” Mom said, motioning for Pop to hand her the salt. She waved off the pepper.
Pop seemed to agree. He shook his head and added, “You’re right, Rosie. The woman’s traded one louse for another one. I don’t know which of the two is worse, either. That whiskey’s gonna’ kill her if she doesn’t quit throwin’ it down the way she does. She oughta’ stick to beer.” He emphasized that opinion by shifting his fork from his right hand to the left, then picking up his bottle of beer.
“If she drank beer instead of whiskey the result’d still be the same. She’d just pee a lot more, that’s all,” Mom corrected him. She continued to eat, then shot a quick glance at Pop. “How many is that for you tonight?”
“Oh, I don’t know. A couple. Maybe three,” he answered, as if the question hadn’t been all that important. Maybe it wasn’t.
Then again, maybe it was.
I didn’t say a lot. Just sat there across from Pop sliding the wormy-looking slices of onion out of the way with my fork while they talked about my best friend’s mom. I felt so bad for Jimmy. No father, and a mother who couldn’t say ‘shit’ without slurring it. He lived alone in his house these days, pretty much fending for himself, the victim of some thing that had snatched his mother’s good sense. And yet, I knew way down inside he loved Mrs. McGuire deeply in spite of what she’d become. He didn’t, I didn’t, even Mom and Pop didn’t realize the tenacity of the demon that had taken hold of her; that would keep clawing at her until her brain finally turned to the consistency of Jello.
“I’ll give her five years, best,” Mom said. “Unless someone talks her into goin’ to one of those sanitoriums for the drunken disabled.”
Pop couldn’t see the sense in that statement. “Now how the hell would she do a thing like that, Rosie? What would happen with her job? There isn’t an employer on the face of the earth that’d put up with letting her be off the line for more than a week, especially for something like that.”
“Maybe not, but she can’t go on fallin’ down flat on her face, drunker than a skunk. And what if me and Gracie hadn’t a seen her an drug her inside before the neighbors caught sight of her layin’ there with that bottle in her hand? Good God Almighty.”
“Ah, to hell with the neighbors. Skippy, hand me over the bread, would you?”
I passed the plate of bread to him. “Me and Jimmy got her out of sight, Mom.”
“Well, you know what I mean.”
“Jimmy was pretty…messed up. He didn’t say anything, but I sure could see it in his face,” I said to her.
Mom lifted her eyes and I could see the sadness in them. She shook her head and laid her fork down.
“Skip, I know honey. I know it. Just thank God you got parents that take care not to make fools o’ themselves in front of everyone. I know he was hurt. Clean up that stew, now.”
But when it came down to it, it wasn’t really a question of her making a fool of herself. Not in my mind, or in Jimmy’s.
The colors of the sky outside were weakening in the twilight, bleeding through the bank of windows behind Pop’s head. Ghostly pink-orange stirred into the purple of the clouds hanging over the snow-covered Rockies to the west. It was close to seven, and Lawrence Welk would be on soon. I wasn’t hungry anymore, but looking back and forth between my parents an idea hit me.
“Why don’t we move Jimmy over here and talk Mrs. McGuire into going to one of those sanitoriums? She’d listen to you, Mom. I don’t want to see her die. Do you think the whiskey will really kill her?”
“Fat chance of that—her listenin’ to me, anyway. She don’t think she’ll die, and even if she did, she loves that whiskey more than anything in this world—more even than death,” Mom said.
“Even her own son?” I couldn’t quite understand that. How could a mother love something that made her sick, that made her turn her back on her child? And force her to become such a terrible spectacle on top of everything else?
“It isn’t a question of her loving the booze more than Jimmy,” Pop explained. “She loves Jimmy; but the whiskey…well, she loves it, but she hates it at the same time.”
“I see,” I said. But I didn’t. How could you love something and hate it at the same time?
Why, I thought, couldn’t we bring Jimmy over here for a while? Just for a while? At least he’d have decent meals and someone to talk to while he ate. Okay, he’d have to put up with Mom’s sometimes fanatical, often nutty ramblings about the Republicans, the non-Catholics, the anyones who weren’t sitting in the same leaky boat that we were in, but even so, that wasn’t insanity. Yet, I didn’t think Mrs. McGuire was possessed by demons; I was beginning to see her as nuts. Just plain nuts, and a moral weakling, because everyone else thought drunks were just moral weaklings.
“Can he come live with us?” I looked across the table at Pop, his hair graying at the temples, his fork in hand, and his eyes lowered toward his plate. His thoughts must have been mixed. I think he wanted to say yes, but he knew he would have to say no. Mrs. McGuire would get sober by tomorrow, as usual. She wasn’t about to leave her home or her job, and especially not her lover in the dark amber bottle. No way.
Mom rose abruptly, gathered her plate and silverware, and carried them to the sink in the other room without answering.
So, Jimmy was stuck. For all I knew he wouldn’t accept an invitation to live with us anyway. He had his own room. His picture of Alfred E. Neuman with a hundred holes in it. His bed with dirty sheets. His freedom to come and go, to create anarchy whenever he saw fit. He had his own demons, and maybe he was happy in a terribly tragic way.
It was a bad idea. I let it pass and stayed away from Jimmy that night. The Lawrence Welk Show was terrible, as usual, but I looked the man over closely to see if his eyes, maybe, betrayed a hint of alien madness.
Inky and Butch
We got up as usual at five o’clock the next morning, Sunday. Father Stone, the younger of the two priests at Presentation of Our Lady Catholic Church, would say the six o’clock Mass, and us Morleys would be in faithful attendance. Mom and Pop adored the chubby little man, in part because he had gotten so good at getting the Service down to twenty-five or thirty minutes—and that included communion and a short, to the point, no bullshit sermon. Further, he was neither stuffy nor old like our pastor, Father Blinker. He was able to out-cuss my mom if he thought us kids weren’t close by, and if he wasn’t inside the church, of course. And he was a two-fisted drinker at church functions, which made him A-okay in all the men’s eyes.
Naturally, Ruth McGuire wouldn’t be joining us at Mass because of another raging hangover. Not that she often did come along. She wasn’t a strict adherent to the letter of the Church law that said “Thou shalt attend Mass every Sunday. Drunk or sober.” Mom’s version.
When I hopped the back fence in the darkness and tapped on Jimmy’s window at quarter after five, I got no response. Neither of them would be visiting God that day, at least with us. Just so they made their Easter Duty. It was a sin to miss Mass on Sunday, but going an entire year without attending one was grounds, Mom pointed out, for excommunication, the very worst word in the Catholic/Irish dictionary. Next month, or surely by May, Mom would go next door and drag Mrs. McGuire out of bed by her ankles if she had to so that the sodden woman could get past that book outside the gates of Heaven. In five years, I supposed.
We arrived and took our usual seats at church, and true to our expectations Father Stone ripped through the Latin prayers, hardly letting the two altar boys have time enough to stumble through their Latin responses. Extine Noye, the Negro kid from our school with jet-black skin and the constant smile of a fat little cherub, had to nearly run with his paten to keep up with Father as the priest put the hosts on everyone’s tongue at the communion rail.
People coughed. Frankie McGregor, the other server, dropped something up on the altar steps that clattered and echoed against the brick walls and the ceiling. That made Father Stone hesitate and look. Four seconds lost. Then came the sermon, a five minute commercial on “the misplaced devotion we Catholics have for brand new automobiles.” I thought, as I sat there looking around me at the parishioners dressed like pretty common poor people, that maybe his comments were a little ridiculous. Then again, maybe it was just a general observation on his part—not applicable to those of us who lived in his parish. Anyway, Mom shook her head and said “Yes” over and over, and then the sermon ended almost as quickly as it had begun.
Father whipped around after it was all done with, blessed the dozen or so in the congregation with an abbreviated sign of the cross, then raced down the marble steps and back into the sacristy, followed by two tired out boys. Mass was officially over in record time.
We left the church. It took Mom the whole of fifteen minutes to say hello to every one of the brave souls outside who’d gotten up at the crack of dawn like we had to hit the six o’clock. Three times longer than Father Stone’s short, strange sermon a few minutes earlier.
Pop drove us home. Mom thanked God on the way in her follow up to Father Stone’s sermon, saying that us Morleys put no particular importance on shiny new automobiles. Our 1949 Hudson with a few scratches on the driver side door where Jimmy and I had gotten too close with our bikes’ handlebars, was plenty good enough for us. She said.
She cooked the usual Sunday fare of bacon, eggs, and French toast. She also sliced an apple into eighths and placed it on a chipped saucer onto the table, of course knowing neither Pop nor I would be interested in it that early in the day. By afternoon the cream-colored fruit would be sitting exactly where she had put it hours earlier, dark tan by then, and all but the pieces she’d eaten would wind up in the trash can next to the rear door before dinner.
“See you guys later,” I said after finishing my breakfast. “I’m going next door to see what Jimmy’s up to.”
Pop was reading the entertainment section of the paper and didn’t hear a word I’d said. Mom sat to my right. She looked at me and just had to say something. It wouldn’t do to simply say, “Okay, sweetheart. Have a wonderful time over there.” No. Mom could be so complex and baffling sometimes.
“When you get in their house, see how many whiskey bottles are layin’ around. See if she’s up. Poor goddam’ woman.”
“What?” I said.
She went back to her garden section of the paper without answering. Maybe she’d already forgotten she’d even made the comment. I got up and left through the back door shaking my head, wondering if she really gave a hoot whether or not the entire house was carpeted in empties. As I pulled the door closed behind me I heard her say something to Pop about needing to get bulbs ready for planting. He didn’t respond, or maybe I just couldn’t hear it against the squeaking of the door hinges.
I drifted across the yard and hopped the fence into Jimmy’s yard. It was half past eight, and I spotted him rummaging through his trashcan out in the alley, making a terrible racket, cussing. It was warm that morning, the kind of beautiful early spring day when Chinook winds came floating into the city and sent the thermometer skyrocketing. A perfect day to tramp the gravel alleys looking for interesting things people had thrown into their trash cans, poke sticks through the fences at snarling dogs. Whatever struck our fancy.
“Whatcha’ doing?” I asked him.
He had his head stuck deep into the fifty-five gallon drum so that when he answered me it had a kind of rumbling quality to it.
“Lookin’ for empty bottles.” He pulled his head out of the trashcan and looked over at me standing inside his yard. “Pop bottles. I told her not to throw ‘em away with all her goddam’ empty whiskey bottles, but she don’t hear shit I say anymore.”
“Why don’t you empty the trash, then? Beat her to the punch?”
He shrugged. “I dunno’. Just don’t.”
Beside him on the ground lay a pile of Coke bottles in good shape, and one with the neck broken in a nasty, jagged line. I don’t know why he’d bothered hauling that one out of the barrel; it wasn’t good for anything, except maybe to use in a fight.
“We going up to Rashure’s for candy?”
“Maybe. I wanna’ get a Coke later. Eight bottles’ll do.” He glanced down at the pile beside him, counting them quickly. “Six. We need a couple more. Go check out Baumgartner’s trash,” he said pointing to the cans across the alley.
I left through the gate attached to his garage, crossed the alley to the trash cans over there, and dove into the drums filled with all kinds of smelly crap. After holding my nose and pushing garbage-stained bags and other stuff around, I found the two that we needed, as well as two more. Sort of a reward I thought, for having gone to Mass, and not causing any trouble there. I figured Jesus was still happy with me, still close by—well, still hanging around in my stomach because I’d gone to communion.
“Here you go.
“How’s your mom?” I inquired.
Jimmy crossed the alley to take the bottles from my hands. “Dunno. Still sleeping it off, I guess.”
“Oh. Did you eat yet?”
“Yeah, I ate. Let’s get these bottles into the yard, then we can work on somethin for a while until Mrs. Rashure opens her store.”
And so we carried the ten empty bottles into his yard and laid them next to the red brick barbecue that his grandpa had made when he built the house for his only daughter—next to the patio, midway between the rear of the red brick house and the back fence. The barbecue had been well constructed by mason grandpa. Would withstand horribly cold winters and a lot of other normal abuse. But it would never be the same, to Mrs. McGuire’s horror (in one of her sober spells), after Jimmy loaded it up with M-80s to test the integrity of its several hundred, tightly mortared bricks. A portion of the stack was missing since last year—since the summer afternoon when Jimmy satisfied himself that the firebox was as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar, having loaded it up with the explosives. The stack hadn’t been so lucky when he decided to test its soundness.
“Let’s go in and watch TV,” he said after laying the bottles down.
Here was my chance to answer Mom’s instructions to check out the number of bottles lying around—as though Mrs. McGuire actually guzzled the stuff like pop, and then pitched the empties wherever she wanted. I followed him across the patio to the rear door. We went in. I counted about six empty bottles of Old Crow stacked like soldiers on the kitchen counter, but the linoleum floor was free of trash, except for a few candy bar wrappers, which I figured had held Jimmy’s breakfast.
He led the way through the opening into the living room and went directly to the TV that sat against the wall next to his mother’s bedroom. In a few minutes the picture began to appear, along with the sound of preacher Oral Roberts’ voice whining for something, a call for faith and healing, I guess—and his pleas for money. Jimmy turned the volume up full. It didn’t take long for Mrs. McGuire’s whinier voice to break in.
“Jimmy! Godammit! Turn that thing down. I’m sick!”
Jimmy turned to me and snickered, but left the volume where it was.
“She needs some o’ this.
“Heal!” he yelled.
Mrs. McGuire was in no shape to come out of her room—probably in no shape to even get out of her bed—and so she went on for a few more minutes in a voice that sounded like that of a witch being burned at the stake with a gag stuffed in her mouth, and then Mrs. McGuire went silent. This seemed to satisfy Jimmy, kind of like the dynamite test on the barbecue had, and so he turned down the volume. He grinned at me, and then turned the channel to something worth watching. Bugs Bunny cartoons, I think it was.
We watched Bugs and Elmer for a little while, then wandered back outside to his garage, leaving the TV on. Jimmy wanted to experiment with a pipe rocket he was thinking about making. One that would shoot a broomstick missile into the stratosphere if he could figure out exactly how much gunpowder to pack into the pipe without blowing us to kingdom come. The big question mark in the design still on the drawing board.
“If I don’t get enough powder into the bottom of the tube, the rocket’ll peter out at forty or fifty feet up. If I get too much, it’ll blow the fuckin’ pipe into a million pieces, like a hand grenade,” he said.
I would watch, that’s all. When it came time to test his launcher, though, I promised myself I’d be long gone, and I’d be saying a prayer to whoever was the patron saint of…what? Coal miners?
We farted around the rest of the morning, chopping up Lady Fingers and Inch and a Halfers, separating the powder into little piles, checking out different sized pipes to make a good guess as to which would work best, without disintegrating into deadly shrapnel after HE lit the fuse.
“How will you know how much powder to stuff into the pipe?” I asked him.
“Trial and error. We’ll make an educated guess or two,” he answered seriously.
I couldn’t see that. No way.
I stepped outside the overhead door of the garage and looked over at the chimney stack of the barbecue. I wondered if the destruction there had followed one of his educated guesses?
“Let’s leave this till later. I’m getting thirsty. Rashure’s should be open by now,” I said to him.
“Yeah, okay. We can finish up after we get a cold pop. Goddam’ it’s hot, ain’t it”
Mrs. Rashure was most likely some kind of Protestant—one of those who saw no wrong in opening her business doors on Sunday if she wanted. I suppose we shouldn’t have gone there on that first, holy day of the week, but I shrugged off that unwritten commandment, and off we went, bottles in hand, down the long driveway onto the sidewalk leading south to the corner where the old lady’s store stood.
We made the short trek without a care in the world, still talking about the hilarious shock of weedy hair on the chicken monster from outer space, wondering if by our experiments we could invent a super-weapon more powerful than plain old gunpowder that would blast through its force field. When we crossed the street, I saw them standing outside the store on the porch, leaning against the white painted columns holding up the small gabled roof.
The Minkle brothers—Inky and Butch.
Butch was the shorter of the two. Stocky, and ugly as a basket of rotten apples. But Inky—he was tall, athletically built, and good-looking. He must have spent hours each morning in front of the bathroom mirror with a jar of Brylcreem and a comb getting every strand of hair in that jet-black pompadour just perfect. I admired him for that, but trembled at the thought of stumbling into his path without Jimmy, Mickey, and every other kid I knew beside me. The hairdo alone would have made me sink to my knees and pray for mercy.
Inky stood on one side, at the top of the wooden steps, Butch across from him with his thumbs inside the waistband of his jeans. Both of them had a lit cigarette dangling out of their mouths, and a pack rolled up in their white tee-shirts at the shoulder, common for hoods and delinquents. Butch looked stupidly at us, mostly because, I figured, he was stupid…but Inky sneered with his head-devil smarts as we stepped between them, single file. We didn't want any trouble, just a cold bottle of pop. I even tried not to think back on the teepees we'd built in the vacant lot across the street from our houses last summer, and which I knew positively they'd smashed to the ground on one of their midnight raids down onto our block. Now, here they were, ready to smash us to the ground.
"Where you buttholes goin’?" Butch greeted us when we passed by, mangling the words out of the side of his mouth opposite the cigarette.
Inky didn't say a word. Neither did Jimmy or me. We continued on into the store, with its glass-faced display cases standing on either side of the main aisle, without a peep. The Coke box stood at the far end near the doorway entrance to Mrs. Rashure's living area at the rear. We were in, but we were trapped. I knew we weren't going to get back out of that place without a fight, unless we ran like scared chickens. Thinking about the alternative to having our faces used as punching bags, I was all for the chicken idea. Worse, I’d heard about Butch’s devotion to switchblades. I sure didn't want a knife stuck into my belly on that or any other morning.
Mrs. Rashure shuffled out of her apartment when she heard the little bell above the screen door ding, and I saw the look on her face when she saw the load of bottles we'd lugged in. She was a widow, stooped over, wearing an ankle length, dark blue polka dot dress, and she was for sure a hundred fifty years old if she was a day. Her thin face looked like a potato left out in the sun for a month. Her scraggily arms and hands could have been the shoots that’d withered and died after having sprouted from it, screaming for water that wasn’t there.
"I don't want no more bottles, boys. I got too many already. They're all over the place back there," she said in her faltering voice, pointing back at her living quarters.
"But you get money for 'em," Jimmy complained. "We just want a cold Coke. We even got an extra couple we'll let you have. That's four cents profit."
That seemed to move her. Four cents wasn't much, but it was better than nothing, I guess she thought. She turned up her nose, but she opened the cash register drawer and slipped a dime and a nickel out for us.
"Actually, that's five cents profit," Jimmy told her as he took the two coins. "It's all yours, and we thank you, don't we Skip?"
I looked behind me as Jimmy went to the machine and lifted the top. Inky hadn't moved a muscle, but Butch had slithered across the porch, and was standing just outside the dusty screen looking in at us. Mrs. Rashure noticed him, too, and she went for him like a shot.
"You hoodlums take those cigarettes and get on outta’ here before I call the police. G'won," she said wagging a finger at them, "you ain't hangin’ around my store like two banty roosters. Get on up the street!"
Butch turned up his boxer’s flat nose and sneered out of the free side of his mouth. He turned slowly, and with an air of arrogance retook his position at the column a few feet back, staring in at me, blowing out a slow puff of smoke. Inky didn't budge.
I turned my head to Mrs. Rashure, and without daring to ask her, used my eyes to inquire whether Butch’s retreat might not have been far enough—which I was sure it wasn't. She must have thought otherwise because she turned and shuffled back toward her living quarters.
"Don't bring no more of them bottles in here, boys. I got too many of 'em already. They're all over the place back here." She disappeared without another word through the doorway, leaving Jimmy and me to face certain annihilation in another couple of seconds—and without the benefit of a cop, or even an old lady, to referee the slaughter.
I looked to Jimmy, who didn't seem to be all that frightened, and mouthed the question, "Now what?" He gave me a little smile, snapped the cap off of the Coke at the opener attached to the side of the bright red case, then led the way back out. We had our ratty old Keds sneakers on—Inky and Butch were sporting their engineer boots with rock-hard toes. I could feel the pain in my shin bones already. Why did we have to go and get thirsty when we did? Well, the remorse was useless, so I said a little prayer for help under breath.
Dearest Virgin Mary, I know you don't want to see us get our rear-ends kicked. I just know it. Can you maybe give us a hand here? Ah, please! We don't have much time, so you're gonna’ have to be quick! Sorry.
I followed Jimmy outside to the firing line, not having a great deal of faith in that too-short prayer. A current of warm air hit us as we stepped onto the porch. Jimmy stopped directly in front of Inky, who wasn't much taller than my best friend, even though he was three years older than Jimmy, and held out the bottle to him.
"You an yer goofy lookin’ brother want a sip?" he asked Inky.
He could have said anything, anything but that. I watched with terror as Butch quickly pushed himself away from the column with the foot he’d planted against it. I instinctively clenched my fists. Inky stayed locked against his column and didn't offer any response, or even twitch a muscle for a few seconds. Finally he lifted one hand and extended it toward Jimmy.
"Yeah, I'll take a swig. Butch don't like Coke much, though, do you Butch?"
Butch stopped dead. He must have been trying to think about his brother's question—maybe that he did like Coke? I watched his eyes crashing against the corners of their sockets, and his mouth open and close rapidly. Yep, he was trying to come up with the correct wrong answer. And then he replied to his older brother's question like the obedient little dog he was. "Nah. I hate the stuff. I think I'd like to kick this sissy's ass, though."
That sissy would be me, and that would be the correct answer. Inky grinned.
This was not good. Jimmy was making friends with Inky while I was preparing to get knifed. Where the hell was my miracle, I wondered? I kept glancing at Butch, waiting for him to pull the switchblade, and then over at Inky, hoping he'd say "Heel" to his brother.
Inky grabbed hold of the Coke Jimmy offered him, brought it to his lips without shifting his dark eyes off Jimmy, and then slowly emptied it. That kind of made me nervous. After that, he burped very loud…and very long. When he'd finished with the entire insult he handed the bottle back to Jimmy, who took it without a complaint. Butch let out a roar of approval. For sure he would never have been able to think of something as clever as that himself. I waited with growing apprehension.
Jimmy lifted the empty bottle and looked it over, and then tossed it past Butch's nose into the small, weed-infested garden beyond the porch. Butch stood totally upright at that, pulled his shoulders back, and raised his clenched fists. I moved a step closer to Jimmy waiting for the shit to hit the fan. Strangely, Inky didn't flinch. Neither did Jimmy.
As Butch began to strut around like a boxer waiting for the bell sounding the beginning of Round One to clang, Jimmy calmly walked off the porch. I wasted no time following him.
"You owe me one, Inky," he said without looking back.
Inky responded, deadpan, "Yeah, I'll bring it by as soon as you kiss my ass." He burped again, and Butch began to howl louder.
Jimmy and I walked across the gravel toward the sidewalk at the corner. We were forced to stop when the number 75 bus rumbled up and the doors opened with a loud hiss. Half of the people in the neighborhood must have been on that bus and decided to jump off at the very same stop. Providence? An answer to my prayer, at least, because Butch had decided to follow me off Mrs. Rashure's porch. The appearance of the people getting off stopped him cold.
Clifford Childers, a dumpy little ten year-old who lived three doors down from me, tumbled out of the bus first with his mother and another woman, both of them with feathered hats on their heads and shopping bags dangling from their arms. They were followed by an old woman and someone I took to be her husband of more than just a few years. She stepped down, firmly planting both feet on each step before going on to the next, and then when she'd reached the sidewalk, she turned and fussed over her husband as though he was helpless in the face of the two steps he must get down. He managed pretty well—that is to say he didn't fall. A bunch of other passengers patiently waited their turn to get off the bus. When they were all safely out and standing on the sidewalk, the driver closed the doors and prepared to pull away. Suddenly, as if on some unspoken cue, the entire group in front of us seemed to sense a coming battle. They stopped dead and stared at Jimmy, the Minkle brothers, and me. I heard the soles of Butch's boots scuffle to a stop behind me in the gravel. The bus pulled away with a roar.
How could I not help but see the next vision? In the frozen second when everyone waited for the boots to fall, I beheld her radiant face in the rear window of the bus. The girl. The dancer. Beside her sat the drip of the neighborhood, Allen Jung, his mouth screwed up in some word he must have been trying to get out, and that would make sense. The sun twinkled for an instant off the thick lenses of his Buddy Holly glasses. She seemed almost like she didn’t give a hoot, as though whatever he was blabbing about actually irritated her—and she looked straight out at me.
I bit my lip, hoping she wouldn't see what was going to happen in the coming seconds. Hoping the driver of the bus could whisk her and Allen far enough away so that my beating wouldn’t be observed. Then I turned my head quickly to find out where Butch was. He’d backtracked a few steps, hands shoved into his rear pockets again, waiting, I think, for the crowd to break up and go away. Or maybe reaching for his knife.
Jimmy had already sidestepped the crowd and had hustled into the street. He turned about halfway across and did what I should have expected, and what made me cringe with terror. What sent the ladies in the nervous crowd straight into cardiac arrest—and what forever made the two of us state enemies of Inky. Jimmy bent over in the middle of the empty street, dropped his jeans, and told Inky and his idiot brother exactly what he thought of them with his bare ass.
"Kiss this!" he said pointing at his lily-white cheeks with both hands.
When I saw that, I excused myself immediately and made a beeline for the safety of my house. Jimmy was right behind me, laughing like he'd just K.O.'d every one of the world heavyweight champs from John L. Sullivan on.
Really, I don't know if the Minkle brothers bothered to follow us—I didn't hear their footsteps over the shouts of disgust from the rest of the crowd—but I suspected our days of semi-peaceful co-existence with them were now numbered. Numbered zero, to be exact. Jimmy laughed like he had no sense at all, all the way home. He might think it was funny, but I knew differently. They'd be down to pay us a real glad-to-have-met-you visit, and to thank Jimmy for his parting thoughts very soon.
At the far end of the block the bus had stopped again. The dancer hopped off, followed by Allen right on her heels. He waved his arms and spoke as though she really might be interested in whatever it was he'd been blabbering to her about. I just knew she wasn’t. She walked away from him, but before she got too far, she turned and glanced back at Jimmy and me just as we hit the front fence of my yard. I wondered as I crossed the top bar what her name might be. Sandra Dee or Elizabeth Taylor, maybe. I found the image of her exciting, even knowing I would sure enough die within seconds if Inky and Butch caught up to us.
World War II-1/2
I could never figure this one out.
Pop didn’t have a sister that I’d ever heard of. Mom had three or four. So I had three or four aunts. Only that wasn’t true. I had five or six. The extra two came from Pop’s side of the family, but like I said, he didn’t have any sisters. I wondered about that sometimes, but never enough to ask him to explain the existence of the extra aunts.
They came down to drink a beer and visit one afternoon a couple of weeks after Jimmy committed the mortal sin against Inky and Butch up at Rashure’s store. I’d kind of put worrying about the two of them on the back burner—not too far back, though. They’d come visiting, too, eventually.
I wasn’t thinking about them that day—wasn’t even thinking about my “aunts”. Oh, Aunt Corey was the older of the two. Aunt Sylvie was her daughter. That should have made Aunt Sylvie my cousin, except that Aunt Corey wasn’t Pop’s sister. I think someone screwed up somewhere, or else someone was lying to me.
Well, anyway. Like as happened to Ruth McGuire, Aunt Sylvie’s husband had flown the coup for reasons that were never explained to me, and so she lived with her mom, my aunt, four or five blocks away from us.
Their big thing in life was collecting salt and pepper shakers, and every time they got their hands on a new pair of them, they’d come visiting, or else I’d be dragged along up to ...