Monday, October 10, 2016

Battle for Curry Avenue Park (a chapter from my new novel, Paint It Red)

Big Dave tells me he doesn’t want Little Dave coming with us this time.
“This isn’t like the First Street thing,” he says, “this could get serious.”
It is serious, it has been for months, since last winter when the cops chased us after we hit the back of trucks with snowballs, or even when we beat back the gang at Emeralds Cave near School 11.
It has always been serious.
Little Dave’s dad, the doctor, warned us to keep away from him. He’s too young to be hanging out with bigger boys like us, I guess not wanting Little Dave to follow in the foot steps of two bigger brothers and the trouble they got into when they were slightly older than he is now, when about the age me and Bid Dave are.
It is not us staying away from him; Little Dave won’t stop following us no matter what we do to stop him, and so we stop trying and try to keep him from harm as best we can.
Big Dave doesn’t like it; he has never liked it, the son of a prominent doctor tagging along – what if he gets hurt or worse, telling all he knows about what we do, about the pea shooters and water balloons, dirt bombs and nail guns?
“But what about the bazooka?” I ask.
Most times this shuts Big Dave up because he wants the bazooka as much as I do, and Little Dave can get it for us, if he can convince his older brother Louie, who built it during his own wars with the First Street Gang; Little Dave promises to get the secret so we can build one to use in our own wars.
But this time it is different and Big Dave shakes his head.
Curry Park is different and even Big Dave looked more scared than usual.
Maybe if we have the bazooka now, but we don’t, and may never get it no matter how much Little Dave promises, it may not even exist, a rumor, a legend, Little Dave’s big brother made up to impress him, private school or not, access to chemicals in a laboratory where he supposedly cooked up the fuel to make it work.
I don’t even know how we get into messes like this, one gang leading to another until we are over our heads, maybe our chasing the gang away from Emeralds Cave gives us a reputation for being tough when we really aren’t, and other gangs want to prove themselves tough by beating up on us.
“Little Dave stays here,” Big Dave says. “If he gets hurt, he’ll talk, if he gets caught, he’ll give us up.”
So I tell Little Dave he has to stay home, his small eyes staring at me, betrayed, me being his only real friend and now I leave him behind, and yet, even as me and Big Dave packed up -- boxes of nails, and long flat sticks with a clothespin on one end and a large rubber band attached to other, bag of crab apples, small stones, sling shout and the few fire crackers we have left – I know it won’t work, and we get only about a half a block when I spot Little Dave behind us, trailing us like a disappointed puppy, not calling or crying, just following, one small step at a time, Big Dave cursing him and me and the fact that this will draw attention we don’t need, and other gangs between here and Curry Park will notice us: the kids on Vernon, on First Street, and that ragtag group of kids that hang out near the Second Street Deli we spray with peas we buy there every time we see them, this tail behind us just long and sad enough for all of them to see, and keep us busy, using up our dirt bombs and peas we know we will need later at the park.
“We have to lose him,” Big Dave says.
“If we lose him, he might get lost and never get back,” I say.
“That’s not our problem; the Curry Park gang is,” Dave says, then picks up the pace, his long stride making it difficult even more me to keep up, long legs cutting across the pavement like a bulldozer, so when I glance back at the corner, I settle Little Dave running to catch up, his small legs making up in repeated motion for the great strides big Dave makes, we an exaggerated Chinese snake with the head seeking to escape the tail, with me, caught in the middle, turning this way and that so that Big Dave is always on the verge of losing me as well, while Little Dave clings my heals so I cannot lose him, made worse at the Second Street Deli when Big Dave’s little brother, Dennis meets us with his collection of pea shooters and peas, younger than me or Dave but older than Little Dave, suggesting – when he discovers are predicament that we beat up Little Dave until Little Dave goes home, an idea so unsuitable, I warn Big Dave I’ll quit if he takes up his little brother’s suggestion.
Somehow, by some aspect of fate or luck or prayer, we make it to the parkway overpass unmolested with even the dark cave-like space over which the six lanes roar unoccupied by the usual stickball crowd, although the blue painted square shows the continued battering of tennis balls striking it, the rest of these walls covered with the scrawl of competing gangs from both sides of the parkway.
This marks the end of our world, the absolute boundary of where we’ve lived all our lives, the coming and going, the stores we favored, the corners we hung out at or fought over, and though we sometimes wandered to Curry Park and other places in town, we know that every step we take passed this overpass we move into an land alien to us and crossing here now, we cross not merely some geographical border, some shift in neighborhood, but also some important imaginary boundary inside ourselves, and once crossed, we can never go back.
We have all been here before; I came when I was smaller than Little Dave, when my best friend was a boy named Stephen, who lived up the block on 8th Street, when our primary interest in the park were the rusty swings next to the basketball court, and I often walked down the other way, over the Parkway to 8th, then down to Stephen’s house from which we both came here, a different place then because I am different now, not merely older, altered, a new being with a new purpose, pursuing some vision I could never have imagined back then.
The swings hold no interest for me or Big Dave, or even the basketball court; when what we mostly do when we come to this place is slide down dusty parkway embankment near where the dirt road leads to the dog pound, or swing over the wide part of the brook that separates the park from the DPW. These are the things we come here to fight for, just as we fight for the right to hang out near the mouth of Emeralds Cave, and these are the things the Curry Avenue Park gang would deny us, believing we have no business coming down here to play from our part of town.
Two tall kids dribble a basketball on the court to our right, taking lazy shots at the basket, the ball bouncing off the rim and away, leaving one or the other kid to give chase in a lazy amble as lazy at the afternoon is, while a tot moves back and forth on the rusted swings, drawing a painful groan of metal on metal. Beyond these, to the south, a few kids wearing New York Yankee caps pitch and hit, none in too much of a hurry to retrieve the balls that land in the outfield until all the balls they have are expired and they collect them all at once.
We see no sign of the gang we have come here to fight, the kids we threw rocks at the last time we saw them and who throw rocks at us each time they see us, we fleeing trailing their screamed warnings for us to never come back or else, so peeving off Big Dave even he called for us to wage all out war on them, and with them being bigger than all of us except Big Dave, and more numerous, they readily agreed, and yet now, like the spirits I always feel over the graveyard on Lakeview Avenue, they linger hidden, felt, but do not appear.
I know they are there, the way I know when a storm is coming, not so much for the dark clouds as a change in the air, an oppressive air pressing against my chest with both hands, making me breathe hard, even though I walk slow now that Dave’s long strides have eased, with Dennis and Little Dave breathing as hard as me.
The first dirt bomb hits the back of Big Dave’s head with a plop and a spray of dust, giving him a strange halo none of us deserve, followed by more bombs, landing on the sidewalk and street around us, a rain of them against which we have no defense except to run, and run Dave does, not back towards the parkway overpass, he runs, long legs pumping south into the path along the back of the ball field, leaving me and Dennis and Little Dave to option of turning back or going on, an option that evaporated instantly as behind us on the way back, came an army from sixth and seventh and eighth street, the bulk of the Curry Avenue Park Gang waving sticks and tossing dirt bombs, one of which hit me in the shoulder most falling around us like more brown rain, aimed badly with exuberance, then grinning faces filled with outrageous boy, they seeing Bid Dave flee with the next largest, me, more their size and nothing to fear with their number leaving the two youngest and smallest of us out of the equation, a mistake they soon realize as Dennis and Little Dave lift their nail guns and let fly, guns made of flat sticks with pinch type clothes pin tapped to one flat side and a rubber band attacked to the other end by industrial staples, capable of shooting anything from a stone to pellet the way a slight shot might, nails being the most deadly and accurate, which both boys used this time and hit the first two of the approaching kids, one in the air, the other in the leg just below the shorts, both sticking into flesh so as to stop them and those who fall, all realizing at that moment just how serious an encounter this is, and the smallest of our little gang might be the most dangerous.
I Yank the arms of Dennis and Little Dave before they can put someone’s eye out and tell them to run as I take aim with my nail gun, taking aim at the next kid with a pellet of red food dye instead of a nail, this splattering across his chest so that the rest thought I hit him in the heart with a nail and he is ding, the dye looking so much like blood.
Basketball and baseball players stop, even the rusty squeaky swing ceases, emphasizes the loudness of our crunching feet on the gravel path Big Dave has taken, we following in his giant footsteps in a breathless panic surging through our lungs instead of air. We do not see Big Dave so much as his long shadow, cast back at us like a marker along the path, slicing away from the park towards the bank of the brook where it finally turns east and into the gully where Big Dave takes cover.
Big Dave is so big he can’t duck down and keep his feet from touching the water and still keep his head out of sight, we settling in on either side of him, nail guns point5ed back the way we’ve come, we waiting for the gang to appear, Dennis and Little Dave reloaded with nails I no longer want them to use, the memory of nail in flesh still fresh in my head, the next time real red running from real wounds and someone ending up dead.
Big Dave looks scared, his gaze searching the ball field and beyond for some way out, though he says, we’re trapped here, and he’s right. The highway buzzes behind us with heavy traffic, a relentless surge we can’t charge through unscathed.
“We can follow the brook,” I tell him. “We can get out at Emeralds Cave.”
“Run away?” Dennis says, his bright green eyes looking at me then Big Dave, with a look of intense disappointment. “What about the fight?”
“What fight?” Big Dave says. “Look how many of them there are. They won.”
“No,” Little Dave squeals. “They haven’t won. They can’t win. Didn’t you see how scared they got when we shot them with nails?”
“You actually shot someone?” Big Dave asks, looking shocked, his face pale.
“We both did,” Dennis says. “We hit them, too. I saw blood and I don’t mean that pussy dye either.”
“That’s crazy,” Big Dave moans.
“What did you expect?” Dennis asks. “This is war.”
“I didn’t think anybody would get hurt – I mean like that.”
“They’ll get hurt a lot more if they come after us here,” Little Dave says, his voice meaner even than Dennis’, and Dennis eyes thick with envy that can only come after hearing over and over Louie’s (his big brother) tales of wars with the First Street gang and the bazooka he invented and threatened to use that eventually ended the conflict, the boom of it echoing even now across the years so we could vaguely hear it, with he and Little Dave clutching their sticks determined to put more nails where they will count the most, and all of it scares me.
 “We have to get downstream,” I say.
“I’m not leaving until we win this war,” Little Dave says.
“We won’t win this war if you really did what you said you did,” Big Dave says. “They’re going to come after us. They’re going to call the cops. Somebody probably already did.”
“I’m not leaving,” Little Dave says, glaring at Big Dave, daring him to make him, then looking at me, telling me and Big Dave he’ll use every nail he has on us if we try to make him leave.
“Shush,” Big Dave hisses. “Someone is coming.”
The boy, my height and age, appears out of the haze of the ball field, his blonde hair cut close to his head to suggest he has a soldier for a father, tough looking but not tough inside, easing ahead alone, half lost, but clearly sent this way by others – all having perhaps drawn stars to see which one of them will get the chore as messenger.
Dennis moves to aim his stick at the kid, Big Dave’s long fingers clamp down just as he released the clothespin, the nail striking Big Dave’s hand before bounding off with a plop into the water.
“What did you do that for?” Dennis howls.
“He’s come to talk, not fight,” Big Dave says. “Let’s hear what he has to say.”
Then Big Dave calls out to the boy, asking what he wants, and the boy, voice as frail as a pigeon’s, calls back saying the cops want us to come out – and that his brother got hit by one of the nails and has gone to the hospital.
Dennis says that’s crap, no cop would send a kid in here to tell us that.
“It’s a trap,” Dennis tells Big Dave.
“I believe him,” Big Dave says, his gaze filled with the look a trapped dog gets, his fear so clear I see it, too, his mother’s wrath at two brothers and me, and after a moment, Dennis sees it, too, throws down his stick, tells us he’s sick of the whole thing, tells us he should not have trusted us to see the whole thing through, blaming Bid Dave for running and for me for shooting balls filled with dye instead of nails, and like a bolt of lightning, he leaps up out of the gulley, and into the flow of traffic on the highway behind us, fate, luck or maybe his great aunt’s prayers keeping him from getting hit and allowing him to reach the other side where the cops haven’t gotten to yet, maybe won’t think to ever get to, and I stare after him.
“You’re next,” I tell Big Dave.
He shakes his head. He’s not as quick as Dennis is, even with his long legs, and knows that he won’t make the crossing and neither will I, and we can’t leave Little Dave here to get caught, because he can’t make the crossing at all.
“We have to get Little Dave down stream,” I say, reverting to my original plan.”
“We won’t make it if what this kid says is true,” Dave says. “Especially when he goes back and tells the cops where we are; they’ll come and catch us all.”
“Maybe we can buy some time if we keep him here,” I say, me and Big Dave climbing out of the ditch to grab him and drag him back into the ditch with us.
Little Dave wants to do something mean to the kid.
I say no.
“Big Dave will keep him here until I get you downstream,” I tell Little Dave. “We’ll let him go when I get back, then Big Dave and I will try and cross the highway.”
I don’t know whose idea it is to paint the boy red, maybe mine, maybe Little Dave’s, Big Dave makes our prisoner take off his clothes down to his underpants and I squeeze the dye out of the capsules, red dripping down on his head and shoulders, then down his chest. It looks just like blood. The boy looks dead.
I grab Little Dave and start down stream with him, feet plopping as much in the water as out, the slick stones threatening to trip us at every step.
We do not fall, even when we hear the sires. We hurry and come at last to the concrete water pipe we call Emeralds Cave. I want to crawl inside and hid, knowing I might be safe there.
I think of Dave alone in the ditch with the kid we painted red and know I need to get back to him. I get Little Dave to Lakeview Avenue and point him up the hill towards home.
“Go straight up to Crooks Avenue,” I tell him, and stay until he’s gone a block and then I hurry back alone along the brook to where I last left Big Dave.
He’s not there. But his big foot prints show in the mud and the spilled red dye, each leaving a trail to show him climbing out and heading back in the direction of Curry Avenue Park.
I follow these until the trail fades, by which time I need no more markers to show which way he has gone; I see his tall shape near the park swings, near the side of a police car, surrounded by kids and I see him as he sees me, his long arm rising to point straight at me.

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