Thursday, September 29, 2016

Cream Soda (another chapter from new novel)



It looks like water, tall glass bottle sweating the moment we get it out into the hot air, a taste so sweet, we can’t get enough of it, and so find ways to get back to the liquor store two or three times a day.
We’ve never seen it sold like this any place else, and think because it looks like water it must be pure, life-fulfilling, like the liquid in the tiny bottles my mother gets from Lourdes.
 Dave’s mom sends him for cigarettes and coffee, and instead of buying candy like he used to buy, he goes across the street and gets a bottle of this, and since my first taste from his bottle, I do the same with my uncle’s change, pausing in front of Ollie’s Pharmacy to finish it before making the trek back to the boat store with what my uncles sent me to get, and my uncles, wondering why their coffee is lukewarm when it is still so very hot outside.
I don’t know why we like it so much when most of the other kids in the neighborhood drink coco cola or cherry cola or root beer or one of the strange new brands that taste like grapefruit or nothing at all.
In the heart of summer, the clear liquid somehow manages to sooth something we feel inside, some ache we feel, relieving the boredom we feel living in a neighborhood where most of the other kids hate us, where our families don’t quite fit into the model that people on this side of Crooks Avenue sees as the kind of family that ought to be living here, and we rush through the streets full of rage we inherit from some anger our families felt or that we feel about her families, Dave’s father’s drunken madness haunting him, my mother’s insanity haunting me, a rage that rushes out each time when take out of pea shooters like six guns and carry on like Frank and Jesse James, doing battle in the streets with kids bearing similar weaponry, laying ambush each time we cross some imaginary line onto their turf.
Sometimes, Dave and I just sit on the liquor store stood and sip, letting all that fade, the way a headache fades into the background of lives, the sweet liquid easing down into us, easing out some pain we only vaguely recognize at pain, clear liquid that looks like water but is not water.
Dave says he loves it more than his father loves booze, and lets us buy bottles with the change each time he sends Dave to buy bottles of hard liquor when Dave’s mother is not around. I won’t jinx a good thing by saying anything bad about this, but it reminds me of how often I have to go down to Lee’s Tavern on Saturday nights to talk my drunken Uncle Harry into coming home.
Harry never buys us cream soda; he lets me sip his beer sometimes; it’s not sweet at all.
Each time we go into the liquor store, the man behind the counter knows just what we’ve come for, opening the glass door to the refrigerated display to pull out two glass bottles of the clear liquid, the doors steaming up with frost, but not the bottles.
We’ve lived our lives around these four corners at Vernon and Crooks, coming and going to their stores as messengers for our family, coffee and cigarettes, prescriptions and ointments, booze and cream soda, sometimes not able to get the soda when the liquor store runs out, so we savor it when we get it, trying not to let the neighborhood kids spoil it with their taunts, getting even later for such small slights with our pea shooters when they push us too far. We always have an ample amount of peas to shoot.
We don’t always shoot our peas at the other kids, most days we shoot at the backs of trucks as they make their way up and down Crooks Avenue to and from the highway, many going to the markets on Rail Road Avenue where my father once worked, me, Dave, Little Davy and Dennis, trying to hit the eyes of the painted faces on each truck or some other icon that one of us shouts out to hit, though last week, Little Davy missed the truck and hit the car behind it, a car with its driver’s side window open in the heat so the peas hit a real man’s face, and in a rage, he turned the car around in mid-block, and we ran, fleeing up passed the factory, passed Little Davy’s father’s doctor’s office, passed pretty Sue’s house and mine, and into the boat yard, the car bounding up the drive and squealing to a stop, the big, red-faced man popping out of it like a jack from a box, as we fled down the alley between my uncle’s boat store and Charlie’s gas station where the man would no doubt have killed us if not for the intervention of two of my uncles and three of Charlie’s mechanics, my uncles later making me promise to quit shooting peas at trucks or men, but said nothing about the kids on Vernon Avenue who mock us when we sit on the stoop drinking soda.
We’re always at war with somebody, and sometimes with ourselves, pea shooters better than the zip guns the kids on fourth street use, though sometimes when we get a big pea stuck in the pea shooter tube and we can’t get it out, we use zip guns, too. We tried half peas and soon learned they don’t hurt half as much as the whole peas do, or go half as far, and so when we want to chase the first street kids off Crooks and Lakeview only whole peas will do.
The clerk at the Second Street dele knows what we’re up to when we come in for box after box of whole peas, his store the only store for blocks has enough or is willing to sell as much as he does to us. We’d buy cream soda at his store, too, but he only sells the brown kind, and doesn’t know what we mean when we ask for the kind that isn’t brown. We think the brown doesn’t taste as sweet although it probably does.
Sometimes, we have to fight our way back from Second Street as the First Street gang lays in wait with their pea shooters and their dirt bombs and their water balloons, attacking us if we come to close to that imaginary line that marks the start of their turf, sometimes, we have to go up to Lakeview and completely around to Crooks, or down to Trenton Avenue to get back to our stoop in front of the liquor store, and sometimes, we use up so many peas in our fight to get back, we don’t have any left, and no money left to buy soda just when we have the most thirst for it, too.


Sunday, September 25, 2016

Emerald’s Cave



Emerald’s Cave was not a cave, but a half mile long series of connected water culverts, eight feet high in diameter that collected the remnants of a brook that ran from the foot of the parkway near the town’s dog pound to the foot of School No. 11, a half block west of Lakeview Avenue.
We knew about the brook long before we ever discovered the cave, even though Dave and I for a time went to school together at Number 11.
We frequently hung around the park, preferring the brook side to the squeaky rusted swings or the basketball court generally occupied by kids who did not want us around, despite how tall Dave was. We had an old rope tied to a tree near where the brook divided the park from the Department Public Works and in summer, we swung back and forth over it, leaping from its end with the hope we landed on dry ground instead of in the water which from time to time we sometimes did. When the rope broke, we wandered down stream looking for something else to occupy ourselves with.
The name of the cave comes from one of the local high school gangs who call themselves The Emeralds, part of the cluster of Irish families that still live a few blocks up Lakeview Avenue on Seventh and Eighth Streets, near the Irish Pub and the funeral home. The Emeralds took possession of the brook where it went into the tunnel near the school, writing their name in green over it, the way some high school kids wrote “Hell’s Gate” over a similar tunnel near Weasel Brook on the other side of town.
It was meant to scare of us off, and did.
Our first time there, we found the gang hanging around the front of it, like a flock of geese, bored, tossing stones into the water, waiting for something even they didn’t know.
So I tell Dave to wait. We have time. Sooner or later, I tell Dave, the gang will get too bored to keep guard over the mouth of the cave and when they go, we can take a peek inside.
And then they go away, climbing out of the gully in which brook runs into the mouth of the cave; we wait for the roar of the engines, and see the puff of smoke that rise from in front of the school where they park their cars.
Then, we scurry down to the water, and along it to where the brook bubbles and spreads out as it charges over the last pebbles before reaching the concrete, the echo of the moving water coming out from the darkness of the tunnel, filled with haunting voices that make us stop.
Dave doesn’t want to go in; I’m not so sure I want to either; I won’t let Dave know that and so step from the moist stones to the dry side of the tunnel, where there is nothing flat, just constant curving, with the water running down the center, orange marks along both sides indicating just how high the water runs after a rain storm, too high for anyone to stay dry, or even walk.
Dennis, who suddenly thinks this might be even more fun than swinging on a rope, comes in behind me, his sneakers squeaking, wet still from his earlier plunge. He slips again; I grab his arm to keep him from falling.
We stand in the semi-dark, Dave behind us, a silhouette against the wide opening of the cave, uncertain, his gaze shifting from us inside to the top of the gully, he thinking the gang might suddenly reappear, though we hear no roar of engines, no drunken laughter, just the slightly distant sound of giggling from the park and the steady hum of cars traveling along Lakeview Avenue.
“Are you coming in or what?” I ask, my voice filling the darkness, and echoing down into the depths of the place, stirring up something I think that ought not to be stirred up.
“What if they …?” Dave says and tilts his head up towards the place where the gang disappeared.
“If they come back, we’ll here them,” I say.
The echoes hide my lack of confidence. Dennis moves deeper into the cave, where the tunnel turns and heads in the direction of river, a point where real darkness starts.
“We should have a flashlight,” Dave says.
“I got matches,” Dennis says.
“Where did you get those?” Dave says, peering down at the fist full of red and white tipped wooden matches.
“Momma had them in the kitchen drawer.”
“And what have you been doing with them? Starting fires again?”
“Not big fires.”
“Didn’t momma warn you about that?”
“She said I shouldn’t set the landlord’s trash on fire. She didn’t say anything about small fires.”
“Give them here,” Dave demands; striding forward, entering the dimness of the cave even without being aware of doing so, halting when he realizes what he’s done.
“We all should have some,” I tell Dave. “Just in case.”
Then, our worst fear happened. Gravel fell down into the gully behind us just near where the gang went. Their voices hide our voices. One is complaining to someone else about nobody buying gas.
“Quick,” I whisper made too loud in the echoes around me. “Deeper in.”
“No way,” Dave says.
“You want to get beat up again?” I say.
Dave’s already pale face seems to fade into white. I grab some matches from Dennis and thrust some of these into Dave’s shaking hand.
“Don’t use them until we have to,” I tell him in a whisper even lower than before.
We creep deeper in, around the curve, but not so deep that we can’t see each other, or peer back at the round moon-like circle of the cave’s mouth where we see the shapes of the gang members sliding down.
Dennis moves, his sneakers squeak. Dave looks like he’s ready to faint. One of the gang lights a cigarette – which as the scent of smoke reaches us – turns out not to be a cigarette.
We wait. And watch. The echoes of their ongoing argument over who should have bought gas whirl around us, taking into the midst, as if some political rally in which we are being asked to take a side.
Even that fades away, and eventually, someone shouts, and they call climb out of the gully again.
We don’t move.
We sit in the semi-darkness until real darkness begins outside, and the cave around us seems cold and dank and full of danger, and Dave, scared to come or go, starts walking towards the last of the light at the opening of the tunnel, and we follow him, Dennis’ sneakers squeaking the whole way.

We came back the next day because we couldn’t help ourselves -- but better prepared, carrying boxes of stick matches, and even a flashlight, and a small bag of ash cans we got from the basement stash Dave’s mom bought in Pennsylvania for the Fourth of July.
Dave doesn’t like the fact that Little Dave comes with us this time, telling me that this isn’t something for kids as small as him, but Little Dave insisted, he and Dennis leaping down the embankment into the gully before we can stop them, without looking even to see if any of the older kids are around, and they’re not, and so plunge into the darkness of the tunnel, their voice chirping in echoes as Dave and I climb down more cautiously, listening always for the sound of cars we know means the Emerald gang is back. I can smell the sweet scent floating over towards us from the German bakery on Lakeview, and it stir up hunger and memories of coming down from Crooks to collect bread my grandmother ordered, and how I hugged the loaves the whole way home, feeling the warmth against my chest.
Dave wants to know what the matter is because I’ve stopped half way down, day dreaming or wishing for something I can never get, something I’m not sure I want, or even know what it is I want.
I shrug and tell Dave nothing’s wrong and come down to where he is standing near the water, the echoes of its flowing almost as loud as the giggles of the two younger kids inside.  Dave hisses at them to keep quiet, but they can’t hear him at first, and we both have to go inside to get them to stop, and then they just giggle, Little Davy asking me how far the tunnel goes, and whether we are going to go all the way through, and I tell him don’t be stupid, nobody goes through here – although I’ve heard some people say they have, just the way they say they’ve been through Hell Gate, which goes from behind the supermarket near Weasel Brook all the way down to Clifton Pool.
Emerald’s Cave is different, haunted by something nobody talks about a lot, only in whispers, and hints, having heard the sounds from inside that sound like voices, just not voices of anything human.
Dave tells me to shut up, I’m scaring the kids; they aren’t scared; Dave is, and he looks back at the opening, half expecting to get trapped here again the way we were the other day. No sound comes from outside.
Little Davy says he wants to go farther inside; Big Dave says no.
Dennis complains saying, “then why did we bring the matches and flashlight if we’re just going to hang around here.”
So off Dennis and Little Davy go, jumping from side to side over the water, since nothing is flat here, just constant curves with the water down the middle, and at times, we come upon pieces of debris, old tree branches washed in during heavy rains.
Dennis lights a match, and we are in a bubble of light, showing bits of glass in the water, and leaves, and bottles, and such, and in the darkness something like eyes reflect back the light, Dave shouts for Dennis to put it out. Dave wants to turn back, saying its getting late, and he and Dennis need to do chores.
Dennis and Little Davy beg to go a little farther, and so we all light matches so we don’t slip on the slick and titled sides of the tunnel, at this point, Dennis gives a yelp and rushes ahead, we losing him for a moment in the darkness, only his match showing, and when we catch up, he is standing beside a shopping cart covered with wet grass that looks like sea weed.
“How do you think it got here?” he asks.
“It didn’t come in with the water,” I say, realizing for the first time that people have come deep into this place, the way they have at Hell’s Gate, exploring the interior in ways that make me want to explore it, too, and I tell Dave as much, but Dave tells me we have to turn back or he and Dennis won’t get home in time to have super ready for their mother.
So we turn back, both younger kids squawking the whole time, so I can’t quite listen ahead to make sure the way is clear until we actually arrive, and find nobody at the mouth of the cave.

Each time we returned we challenged ourselves to see how far inside we could go before the rats and perhaps worse things forced us to turn back, the interior clear only for the first few yards before it turned, and once out of sight of the entrance, became a dark twilight world, and the deeper we went, the darker and more littered it became, not just with wood or branches, but old tires, pieces of car, and other things we could not recognize.
Since these things rarely shifted except during some heavy downpour that inflated the brook and flooded the tunnel, they became markers of our passage, instant recognizable symbols of our progress. A few kids claimed they had gone the whole way through to the other side where the tunnel emptied out into the river near Dundee Dam, but could not prove their right of passage and most of us remained skeptical since we all believe the worst part of the journey was the second half, a reason why most f us turned back at the halfway point where our courage withered.
For the most part, we hung out near the opening and the brightest part, fearing our getting caught inside the way we did the first time by the gang of kids, and though armed with stick matches we intended for use during our passage through the dark, we mostly threw these against the sides of the pipe to watch them ignite, leaving tiny streaks of black on the concrete.
While other kids made the pilgrimage with us at times, most often I went with Dave, Dennis and Little Davy, and were always on the hunt for more stick matches, the red ones with white tips that lit the best or the blue ones that didn’t light as well. Cheap as they were, we took care not to raise the suspicions of the local store keepers by purchasing too many too often at the same place, even at the supermarket on Second and Lakeview where all our families shopped and the owner, Mr. Weiss, often tattled on us, if he thought we were up to no good (which we often were). So we took turns buying them, and divided the proceeds before we went to the cave so that we all had enough to explore a little and snap them against the walls when we got bored.
This explains why Dave and I had full pockets of matches that one day when headed to the cave, and explains our impatience at wanted to light them, but whether it was Dave’s idea or mine (Or both I’m still uncertain) to stop half way across the Parkway Bridge on Lakeview Avenue to see what a lighted match might look like falling down into the three lanes of traffic below. At some point between the striking of the match and its falling, a cloud burst on us with a torrent of rain and a cop car pulled up to the cub, driver curling his forefinger at us to come over to him, Dave first, leaving me time to flee and as I fled, dumping matches out on to the ground until my pockets were empty, at which point Dave yelled at me, telling me the cop needed to talk to me, too, a skeptical cop who already knew my name, where I lived, and that the scheme to toss the match off the bridge was mine, Dave standing back, pretending to be innocent, pretending that he had just given me up to the cop, but since his pockets were still filled with matches, I feigned innocence of my own and tried to explain to the cop how the match lit itself, and pointing to the ground covered now with the wet remains of red tipped stick matches, I told him that we were simply strolling along and kicked at them, and ignited one, which just happened to fall off the bridge and down into traffic. I said this all with a straight face, even as the rain dripped off the tip of my nose and chin, a river of wet washing away the remains of my crime, matches that could not have lit themselves in their condition, even if the tale I told had been remotely true.
The cop, laughing through most of my outrageous tale, eventually let us go, struggling to sound stern with his warning about his not catching us pulling any of that crap again, reminding us that he knew where we both lived, and who my uncles were, although he did later repeat the tale to them, shaking his head at my audacity, while my uncles grew livid and later issued me the appropriate punishment.

Luck runs out eventually. You can’t keep testing fate before it betrays you. So a short time later we are hanging out at the mouth of the cave when the gang – in a roar of hotrods spewing exhaust shows up on the street above us.
Some of the other kids, led by a kid named Tim, give up right away, surrendering themselves to the beating required as punishment for violating Emerald’s turf, me, the two Daves and Dennis flee into the cave instead, taking refuge in the darkness just around the curve inside.
“Come out, come out, wherever you are,” some of the gang members yell, imitating the old hide and seek game we all played when we were younger, “Come out and take your lumps.”
They warn us if we didn’t we will get much worse later when they catch us, and promise that they will wait all night if they have to until we come out.
Big Dave, used to the bullies at school, wants to go out right away, get it over with, less now than more later, he says.  But Dennis only stares at his brother, looking disappointed, and angry, hating the idea of giving in, wanting to go out to, but not to take his lumps but to fight, an idea I said was insane since even one of those thugs could beat up the lot of his without breathing hard.
Little Davy says his father the doctor would worry if he doesn’t show up before dark, and will call the police, the last thing I need with so much punishment hanging over my head already, and this time, I figure the cops won’t be laughing about us. I suggest we go down the tunnel to the river, an idea the other three wholeheartedly oppose.
“We don’t have enough matches for that long a trip,” Dave says.
A quick count proves his right, though I point out if we only light one match, rather than one for each of us, we might stretch them out for the whole trip.
At this point, some of the more impatient members of the gang decide to push the issue and start into the mouth of the tunnel. We should see this as a hopeful sign, showing how some of them don’t want to waste all day waiting for us, and if we keep our heads and move a little farther into the tunnel, they might eventually give up and go away. But we panic, and flee headlong into the darkness, yelping each time we bang a shin or splash into some unexpected puddle or trip over a slimy log.
The panicked echoes only inspires the gang and has some of them coming even deeper into the tunnel, calling out, describing in detail what they will do to us when they finally get their hands on us. This inspires us and keeps us running long after the sound of pursuit ceases.
Dave refuses to believe they stopped, and is convinced they are waiting in silence for us to turn back.
So we keep going, passed the old pickup bumpers with faded stickers from when Nixon was vice president, passed the shopping cart, passed even the splintered remains of some shed most kids agree marks the half way point to the river.
By the time we finally stop, we know we are in uncharted territory. Ill luck also plays us another dirty trick. In our panicked run, we dropped most if not all the matches we started with – and this forces us to choose between pushing ahead towards the river with at least some light to guide us for some of the way, or to turn back, knowing we won’t have enough light to make it.
We push on.
Things scurry ahead of us in the dark, whether rats or some other things born of darkness, we cannot tell.
We have light while the matches last, illuminating spaces nobody our age had seen, exposing other as yet undiscovered icons we know will become part of our mythology: a refrigerator, a dresser, a row boat, even a car – a rusted antique my grandfather might recognize, slicked over with green streamers of still growing, wet grass or seaweed.
If there is a light at the end of this tunnel, we cannot see it.
Even as the matches expire, we push on, having no choice, feeling our way through the tunnel, sensing the pieces of things that have come here on the tide from the river to become permanent fixtures in this underworld.
If we are scared, we have to forgo it, too bent on what we might find next in the deepest of darkness, our eyes become like the eyes of fish too long in the depths of the sea. We begin to see what we could not if we still had light to guide us, perhaps even things not really there, things clinging to our peripheral vision, things we later tell no one else about, not even each other.
When we hear running water again, we know the river is near. The air changes, the stench of rotting giving way to the scent of living, and we stumble ahead, sniffing out our route until we come to a curve and then to an opening so much like the one we entered at the other end, we believe for a moment we have turned ourselves around in the dark and come back rather than forward. But the river lapping at our toes tells us differently, tells us we have made it through to the other side.
Big Dave and I come to this part of the river a lot, wandering its shores, crossing over the dam along its narrow ledge to reach Service Diner on the Garfield side. But neither of us recognize the place at first, and even when we do, it seems different, too.
Later, Big Dave and I, armed with ash can and cherry bombs, go back to the inland opening of Emerald Cave, where we hide in the bushes and wait for the gang to come, watching them slide down to the embankment to where they gathered at the mouth, and where they smoke and joke and sometimes fight. When they are all down, we toss the first ash can into the water near them, on this side, so that when they jump, they jump towards the tunnel, not away, the second ash can forces them to go inside, and then we keep throwing them, one after another, driving them deeper and deeper into the tunnel the way fear of them drove us, the explosions echoing deep under ground, and then, when we run out of matches to light the fuse, we go home, knowing we have no need to return to this place. We have seen it all, perhaps too much, maybe even more than there is to see.








Saturday, September 24, 2016

Camp Out (another chapter from my new novel)



We set the pup tent up in my back yard and pretend like we’re camping out some place else.
Dave doesn’t go to Boy Scout camp with me, but wants to. I want to camp out in Garret Mountain, but this as far as my uncles trust me to go after all the trouble I’ve caused lately.
Dave is so tall his feel make the back of the tent bulge, so I make him turn around so that his feet poke out the flap, not cold or wet, this time of year, still he complains saying, “This is stupid.”
And it is. We can’t make noise or set off the fireworks Dave brought up from his basement and planned for the trip. One of my uncles or even my grandmother pokes a head out the back window expecting us not to be here, which I wouldn’t be if I could figure out a way to pack up everything up and get it out of the yard before they found out.
I have big plans, like I had back in the third grade when I stole my uncle’s money and stored it in a shoe box my grandfather made for my mother just after the family moved into the big house after the war, plans then for a giant tree house where I could bring my mother after I managed to buy her out of the asylum where my grandfather, grandmother and uncles put her, burning the drawings I made and even some of the money when my uncle found the money missing and naturally figured I was the one who took it.
This time, I  want to tell Dave, I won’t get caught, no tree house, no box in the back of my closet with the cash, no elaborate drawings I’ll need to burn to keep secret.
I keep the money the money in my pockets and my plans in my head – only I can’t keep it secret from everybody, needing to tell Dave to see if he want to come along with me when I go to California since he’s nearly as unhappy at his home as I am in mine.
But I can’t get a word in with all his bitching about how cold his toes feel sticking out the flap of the ten and how all he wants is a new CB radio he can’t afford so he can talk to the truckers on the highway.
His mother brings his father home once a month so he can sign over his veterans’ check, a ritual so predictable Dave makes a point of not being home if he can help it, not running away like I do, just not being there, hiding in the basement with the old paint cans and the stench of heating oil with his little brother, Dennis, sneaking down to bring him fool scrounged from the refrigerator, miraculously to reappear once his mother left to bring his father back to the Veterans’ hospital, hidden away out of shame, neither of us daring to stare too long into the fact of madness for fear we might go mad as well (though Dennis tells me on the sly that sometimes Dave will sneak to meet his father when his mother is absent, and to bring him cigarettes and booze from the liquor store Dave’s mother forbids his father to have.)
Maybe that’s what connects us, his father and my mother, his coming to camp out with me his perfect excuse this time although his mother believes I steer him in a direction she does not approve of, he standing too tall too often when in my company, the way I sometimes do with my uncles even at the threat of being beaten, taking back a bit of the life she stole from him on the excuse she cannot raise a family without his help, and so Dave or his brother, cook, clean, do laundry and such, while she does nothing.
But Dave hates having his toes feel cold, preferring the leftovers his brother snuck to the cellar to the chips I share in the tent, and the illusion we are somewhere we could be but aren’t, and the constant check from the house, and the voices calling to me, “Are you still there,” and me saying back; “where else would I be,” when we all know where I might got if only they check a little less often.
All Dave wants is a CB radio so he can hear the voices of the truckers coming and going to and from New York on the almost fully open highway a mile north of where we live, friends who are not really friends who keep him company late at night when his mother stares at her new Sony TV the veterans’ checks allowed her to buy.
He knows all the handles and all the handles know him, voices as vague over his cheap walkie-talkie as the voices my mother hears in the dead of night, all he want is to hear they clearly and have them hear him clearly, too.
And all I want is for him to hear me and to join me, not for an overnight indulgence in my back yard, but for a trip to a place where nobody can find us, where neither of us has to worry when and if mother or father comes home or is gone, or live with the constant scent of heating oil we both get when hiding in the cellar.
“I have a plan,” I tell him, when darkness has fallen finally filling the yard and my uncles or grandmother have shut off the back porch light, leaving us with the illusion of nobody watching.
Dave wants to know what kind of plan, having heard so many of my plans before, big and little plans, I come up with in the midst of night when sleep escapes me, moving his legs suggesting that his toes really hurt, when we linger on the edge of summer, and the chill outside is hardly a chill at all, the kind of weather we might need a sheet for, not a blanket.
I whisper the word “California,” and he moans. I ask if he’ll come with me if I go.
He has heard some variation on this so many time before he knows just what to say to bring me back to reality, saying we don’t have money for a trip like that, reminding me the last time I tried and how I had only two cents in my pockets when the Little Falls police picked me up and brought me home.
“I got money,” I tell Dave.
“More than two cents, I hope.”
“I got a lot more than that,” I say, touching my pocket and the roll of bills.
“You always say you have money when you don’t.”
“I always come up with it when I say I can get it. But this time I already have it.”
“Show me.”
I ease the bundle of bills out of my pocket, as gentle with it as I would a bird’s egg, and yet cannot help but squeeze, half believing it might blow away with a sudden gust.
Dave’s long face goes green, shaded by the glow of the bathroom light out the window at the back of the house through the wall of the tent. He’s never see so many bills in one place, except may be at the bank when his mother made the teller cash his father’s veteran’s check in small bills to make the amount seem greater than it was.
“Are they all 20s?” he asks, his voice hushed, knowing as well as I did I did not come up with the money honestly, and that at any moment someone might come out the back of the house and snatch it back.
“Not all, but enough,” I tell him. “Enough to get us on the road west. I’m sure we can come up with more once we’re on our way.”
Just where and from whom I can not say, assuming the road to the coast is paved with gold and all we need to do is pick up nuggets as we go along.
I’m not going to make the same mistake I made last time. Older now, I realize that an asylum is not a jail, and I cannot bail my mother out no matter how many veterans checks I collect, or how many wallets I slip cash out of, and she, as made as she is will knot know where she is or who she is with and will keep trying to end it all just as she does each time someone gets her out.
We need to go where Dave’s radio voices go, out beyond the boundaries of the city, taking the same long road to the same distant destinations, following the dotted line on the service station road map that says this road goes to that particular place, places I dream of nightly and all we need to do is put on feet on that road and go west.
The bathroom light goes out. The glow that illuminates Dave’s face fades, and he seems at that moment as distant and ghostly as the voices of the truckers he follows on his walkie talkie.
We don’t talk much after that. The night grows around us, at first silent as the all too familiar traffic along Crooks Avenue fades away, and then it fills with more disturbing sounds we do not normally allow ourselves to hear at other times, the movement in the branches of the cherry tree, the wrestling of raccoons along its trunk, the chatter of crickets and other voices, mysterious and unnervingly loud in their own right with the sense that our being out in their world somehow alters their way of life.
Sleep escapes me; I put the bundle of bills back in my pocket, like I might an egg, thinking that in the morning it might hatch into something grand, grow wings, and left me into the air in a flight away from here and the life I live.
Dave has no trouble sleeping, the sound of his snoring filling the interior of the tent like a counter beat the those beyond us in the night, comforting in its own right, creating a wall of sound against the darkness we can hide behind until dawn arrives.
I don’t recall falling asleep; I just stir out of it with the arrival of dawn. Dave is gone. The flap out of which his toes stuck is open so I can see the yard, the fence, and a portion of my neighbor’s house. I think Dave must have woken in the middle of the night, and window me to comfort him, he panicked and fled for home. I see only the impression he’s left on the blanket next to mine, like the trail of a snake, long, narrow, uncertain, marking his slithering passage out, telling me with his absence that he does not intend to share my dream and I will once again have to make the trek west on the highway on my own.
When I feel for the egg in my pocket; it’s gone.
It is not in the blanket or in the grass outside, or anywhere near the tent I demolish as a grope, the panicked image of my uncle coming out in the middle of the night flashing in my head, finding it, taking it away and waiting now in the kitchen for me to come in where he plans to confront me.
Inside the dusty old kitchen, around the table littered with half empty coffee cups and ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts, my uncles sit, struggling more with the aftermath of sleep than any petty crime I might have committed. The comment sourly about my night in the yard and how foolish I am for being so uncomfortable when I have a perfectly good bed in my third floor bedroom unoccupied.
Then, I think of Dave, and how he must have found the buddle, and taken it to keep it safe. I can’t call him to ask. His mother’s phone got shut off for lack of payment, and even when it works,  his mother is always the one who answers, the one who always asks what I want in a tone suggesting I am looking to get Dave in trouble – again.
Dave and I sometimes talk through the walkie talkies we brought in the cheap shop in downtown Paterson. But the signal is so weak we can barely hear each other above the static and I have to shout; this is not something I want to shot about and be overheard.
Still I try, and hear only static, if Dave made I reply, I can’t even hear the ghost of it.  So I have to go down to his house. I just can’t escape until I’ve done all the chores my uncles have assigned me, a few extra thrown in for their having let me camp out in the yard.
Dave lives slightly more than a block from my house, down Crooks and beyond Vernon, in an apartment above a jewelry store that once was an A&P, next to a liquor store where Dave buys his father booze and we buy cream sodas, and on a hot summer day, the smells of booze and the meat grinder from the old A&P waft up into Dave’s apartment.
When I get to the door downstairs, I find it locked, a rare occurrence, since the other tenant in the building, our former post man, lost his key.
I ring Dave’s bell, and hear its ring at the window three windows down from where I stand at the door. No feet respond, pounding down the inside stairs the way they usually do. The place is quiet like the night was quiet, still, yet not still, filled with secrets whispering back at me, I do not understand. So ring the bell again, and again, get a void as a response.
I can’t imagine where he’s gone off to, or his mother, or his little brother and sister, a sister too small to walk on her own. I go back around the corner to Vernon where Dave’s mother usually parks her beat up station wagon, Dave’s father bought before his illness. The space is vacant except for the glittering of fresh oil from its leaking engine.
I go home, taking refuge in my room, hovering over the plastic walkie talkie into which I speak from time to time, calling out Dave’s name into the airways nobody but me can hear.
Hours later, I hear Dave’s voice calling back, not full of static, loud, potent, floating above all the other ghosts we sometimes hear when the truckers pass by.
I call back. He speaks again, not to me, to the ghosts, who in turn can now hear him and speak back, finally about to reach him in his brand new CB radio.




Truckers (another chapter from my new novel)



Dave sits in the front window of his second floor apartment near Vernon and Crooks like a Buddha, long fingers wrapped around one of the two plastic walkie talkies we bought downtown in the cheap electronic store where the Rivoli Theater used to stand.
Click, click, he flicks the switch, asking if anyone can hear him, trucks rolling by on their way towards Lakeview Avenue and the hill down Crooks Avenue that takes them back to the highway and beyond.
At the best of times, I barely hear him from my third floor bedroom in my house at the top of the hill, a desperate voice lost in a sea of static to which I can barely reply.
Dave needs to catch the truckers before they get over the hill. So he sits in wait, watching for the trucks when they cross Trenton Avenue a block down from him and calls to them until they pass out of reach. If they hear him they honk, the way they used to before Dave got his small radio, when we stood on the corner and jerked our arms at their approach, imitating how the truckers pull down on the cord inside their cabs to set off the air horn.
Dave loves truckers more than he loves anyone, even his family, mother, brother, sister, father, and yells loudly when one of the truckers actually calls him back, the voice of a god rippling through the plastic grill of his cheap radio.
This doesn’t happen often, but the truckers all seem to know who he is when they come into the neighborhood, that kid with the cheap radio reaching out to them from someplace near and yet remote, someplace maybe they were when they were his age, a lost soul beyond a dashboard thick with cigarette burns and spilled coffee.

Dave dreams of a day when he can be out there like they are, moving along highways from one remote place to another, away from the remote place where he is currently trapped, that cheap plastic radio his only connection to an unreal world he hopes someday to make real.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Devil’s Crack (another chapter in my new book)



We come down from the mountain on that third path to a flat land that was once a railroad, thick now with fireweed and tall grass, walking our bicycles where the wheels roll over stones we dare not ride on.
We walk side by side even after the land gets even, this place that once ran rails all the way the Hudson River, the slant of its remains leading to an abandoned rail road station my family once used, splinters and rust now, and heavy layers of dust on signs saying Scranton or Hoboken, places we barely know exist.
Dave doesn’t love this place the way I do, no trains to watch, he says.
I see the train with their plumes of ghostly smoke rolling out over Paterson’s roof tops as ghostly trains roll by.
We drag out bikes over the gravel and the last of the rails to the flatter land slanting down towards where the work crews construct the new highway, a road Dave tells me will touch both coasts at either end, and bring tractor trailers from places so far away he can barely imagine, and drivers he can speak to over his CB in the middle of the night.
Dave loves the road more than he loves trains, and comes down to where the work men have their trailers, asking as he has asked before, just when they think they will finish so he can ask the truck drivers to talk to him, and the worker, who know us by this time, laugh and say, they may never get done.
And as we usually do, we beg them for water they issue us in cone-like paper cups with water out of a large silver cooler, pushing the lever down to let the ice water flow, we feel through the paper straight into the palms of our hands.
And then, we roll on, Devil’s Crack above us as we move west on those lanes already complete, but not yet open to traffic, our wheels the first wheels other than those of the workmen to roll over, as it turns through the gap that makes way for the Passaic River to pass, and Devil’s Crack a gap in the flat face of stone on one side of that gap, filled with ice in winter and dripping streams from the mountain above this time of year with the turn of flat land the rail road once rode over, some of which the highway absconded with, workmen ignoring the flat face of the mountain and its widening crack up which kids like us often try to climb, the way he climb up and down the walls of the quarry a mile south; this face a terrible face from which kids like us often fall, against which the town puts up fences, kids like us always tear down, and warning signs kids like us ignore, more an invitation, a challenge we must take, and so, we do, me, Dave and tag-a-long Dennis, who has about as much business being with us as Little Davy would, we fitting our fingers and toes into the tiny fissures past blasting for the railroad made, feeling the sharp edges bite into our palms the way the workmen’s ice water does, rising, inch by inch, crevice by crevice, to this ledge and the next, not looking back to the widening crack we can’t see close up, too large for our imagination when all we can see in the next place to fit our fingers or our toes and keep from falling.
Some kids, when standing below, say they see eyes here, staring down from above the wide crack we climb. Other times, we think we’ve seen them, too. Not now.
The highway workers watch and laugh as they always do when kids try this, making bets among themselves as to how high we will get before we lose courage and turn back, telling us later how we look like pathetic spiders clinging to webs nobody can see, and they gasping when Dennis, who is behind me and I’m behind Dave, loses his grip and falls, not far, not all the way down, just to a ledge with stones so loose, he had to cling to one of the protruding rocks to keep from sliding off like many of the stones do.
Above me, with his long arms still reaching high into the dark crevice, Dave looks back and cries for his brother he assumes he will lose, while below, the highway workers rush to the guard rail shouting for one of us to save him.
Since I’m closer, I go down first, inch by inch, told hold by toe hold, clinging to stones I hoped my fingers will not pull loose, cringing each time my toes send pebbles falling down onto the ledge to which Dennis clings, and ducking again the shower Dave’s decent from above sends down on me.
Inch by inch, two spiders gripping places we think we cannot grip, non-existing cracks in the face of the crack we find in our desperation.
We do not come down onto the ledge where Dennis clings. We go to either side of it, Dave to his right, me to the left, telling Dennis the whole time to stay calm, urging him finally to make his way in my direction since my side seems to have better places to grip than Dave’s.
Inch by inch, Dennis moves towards me, each movement causing an avalanche of pebbles off the ledge beneath his feet, dragging his feet down with it, forcing him to cling all the more with his fingers to a ledge of stone none of us know will hold.
Inch by inch, he comes closer to the ledge’s end and the supposed better footing where I am, inch by inch until he comes close enough for me to grab his hand, holding it, putting his weight on me long enough for him to make the transition from the ledge of sliding stone to a foot hold on the flat face of rock.
Then, as spiders, we three make our way the rest of the way down, to the pile of loose stone slanted against the bottom of Devil’s Crack, and from this we scurry down to the more solid ground near the guard rail and the watching highway workers, who pat our backs and give us cups of water, telling us how brave we are.
We are not brave, least of all Dave, who vows never to try this again, or even chance the walls of the quarry which we know has more to hold on to, even if no less high. He says he intends to keep horizontal not vertical, by which he means his route will follow the same route the truckers take, and so he falls even deeper in love with the road, and makes up get back on our bikes for a ride out the completed section, not west, but east, waving at the workmen as we travel towards that part of the highway just beyond the border of Paterson and beyond where the it crosses over the Passaic River again, to where the guard rail crosses over all six lanes, and traffic rushes towards us from the far east where it starts at the George Washington Bridge, veering suddenly north rather than straight, the three of us, sitting on our bicycles as the cars charge straight, and turn, as if we are defying them, standing guard over sacred ground even Dave believes sacred, aware that when the highway is finished and the guard rails come down, our world will be altered forever into something even we cannot predict.






Saturday, September 10, 2016

Up the Suez creek without a paddle



Saturday, September 10, 2016

We got another threat to turn off our water from the recently renamed Suez water company in Hackensack.
Suez had an evil reputation under its former name since it is largely water services that have been privatized, and so the public appears to have fewer options when it comes to complaints.
This changes from town to town, depending on whether the government maintains a municipal utilities authority to provide over sight.
In our case, moving from Jersey City to Union City apparently stripped us of our ability to control this water company’s bad habits – even though both cities use the company.
We never meant to get a contract with the company, but had purchased our house prior to the privatization of the services in Jersey City so we automatically got a contract. For nearly 20 years we had only minor issues such as when they insisted on coming into our house to install a new water meter and so we lost work hours because the company maintained a strict 9 to 5 work schedule of its own.
But this is typical of utilities, such as phone and cable where you have to take off work in order to accommodate their needs.
Sometimes, the water company supposedly just shows up at your door and in our move, turned off our water in Union City without prior notice, and then for two days we had to negotiate a convenient time for them to come back and restore it.
The issue was the contract, which did not automatically transfer over to us with the purchase of the house as it had under a MUA regulated system like Jersey City.
While Suez claims you can go on line and set up an account, this proved not to be the case in our situation. After four attempts and finally getting accepted on line, the water company didn’t actually give us the contract. When I called them up, the representative basically said it doesn’t really work.
It appears that Suez operating in cities with an MUA doesn’t line up with cities that don’t, and so your old contract is useless, and more to the point, to get a new contract, you have to leave a hefty deposit with Suez.
Also in some cases, there is a fee to turn the water back on once Suez decides you are unworthy of having water – and since it takes 24 to 48 hours to accomplish this (if you take off work to wait for the worker to come to do it between 9 and 5) you wind up with issues such not being able to flush the toilet, brush your teeth or shower. God help you if you have kids.
Since the only notice we got about the company turning off our water came when they left a note on our door handle as to how to turn the water back on after they turned it off, we had no warning or way to prevent it.
Understand, we never changed our phone number and so the company could have called us any time and left a message if we were not at home.
When finally, I negotiated to get the water turned back on, I gave them even more ways to contact us, such as my cell phone and work number.
So knowing that they are capable of turning off water at very inconvenient times such as a Friday when their business offices are closed over the weekend, we took quite seriously the letter delivered (again on Friday) telling us because we did not let the contractor into our house to change the meter, the company would once more turn off our water.
The fact no contractor actually contacted us, unless they happened to knock on our door during the work day when nobody was home and if they did, they left no notice that we should contact them.
This idea that the water company can create a health hazard without any over sight except by going to the state Board of Public Utility is very disturbing. Of course, the contractor as with Suez could not be contacted over the weekend so we live with the threat of losing water. Suez doesn’t even put a contact number of its own business offices on the threatening letter, but gives the phone for the contractor, where the best we could do is leave a message.
When posting a comment on Suez’s facebook page, they did respond. They said they would email me. They never did. But they did remove my comment from their facebook page. I suppose that is something.



Friday, September 9, 2016

Memorial Day (another chapter from my new novel)



We sweep into Weasel Brook Park at full speed, sometimes playing Robin Hood, other times Tonto and the Lone Ranger, or Frank and Jesse James.
But today being Memorial Day, we both play soldiers or spies, Dave wearing a tattered American flag like a bandana; I wear the soft army hat my eldest uncle wore on his last trip back from his war in Korea.
Dave’s dad doesn’t come home from the veteran’s hospital often or for long; he drinks when he does and won’t talk about his time in the war.
My uncle – my mother’s oldest sibling – doesn’t talk about it either, a tough man, who likes to lecture me at night, refused to kill people and so went to war with a first aid kit instead of a carbine, fixing those who he could fix, trying not to let the soldiers in his care lose too many toes and fingers to the cold when he could do nothing to fix the bullets imbedded in them, even when he got trapped in a cave behind enemy lines for three days, running out of medicine and hope, living with the cold and moans, racing between the stretchers of the dying,  feeling like the grim reaper rather than a military healer, coming home later not to drink the way Dave’s Dad did, but not to sleep either, refusing to use a bed, stretching out on the floor as if retribution for those he could not save, and now, on this Memorial Day, I play soldier while my favorite of my uncles, the youngest of my mother’s siblings, fights in Vietnam, and I wear a hat that doesn’t quite fit, and ride by bicycle up the lonely streets where nearly all the house bear flags, and we, having come up Clifton Avenue from a parade where everybody cheered, the remnants of the parade filling side streets in its aftermath like retreating army.
Dave loves playing soldier, carrying around on his bicycle with him imaginary armies in which to beat back communism. But the Weasel Brook Park we come to now is the wrong Weasel Brook Park for that, too grand and open, filled with trees and light and pure wart that paints war too gloriously for me, we always reserving the other Weasel Brook Park for mission so that sort, the dark park near Lexington Avenue and Passaic where the brook rises up into a park mostly made of concrete, where green hardly exists except at the tips of branches of each dying tree, the trunks of which are imprisoned in concrete, and the brook – this same brook – travels in a concrete viaduct this with detritus: old shopping carts, rusted bicycles, broken bottles and trash.
The street gangs from across the border in Passaic go there at night, so we don’t, though sometimes, I get off the bus to Passaic early and search for the park entrance, tucked between two brick apartment buildings, an entrance no wider than a store front to a park barely wider than that inside, and stroll along the asphalt paths and cracked concrete and splintered benches occupied by old people and pigeons, searching for something there I can never find in this the park’s pretty twin sister ten blocks farther west, searching for something real, feeling a little like my older uncle felt when refusing to lie down in a comfortable bed after he had seen some many men dead.
The radio is filled with reports of the new war where my younger uncle is, not a cold war like Korean or even a sane war like the one Dave’s Dad fought, but hot and moist, the way the air feels here in the pretty Weasel Brook Park, with water somehow made clean by its ten block journey underground, bubbling up into channels that have concrete banks down which we ride, through the water and up the other side, giggling and west, cold tears on our pants and cheeks on a hot day that is not yet summer, our holiday still three weeks ahead when school finally will set us free.
This park is bigger than four football fields with the brook winding through its middle, broadening out briefly into a lake before narrowing again, winding under several small wooden footbridge, past trees so large families hold whole picnics beneath them when it rains, passed park benches and cooking grills, and near asphalt path that weave their own way up and down grassy knolls we might ride over, too – playing solider with imaginary armies and imaginary death, winning wars against imaginary enemies in reality we cannot possibly imagine.
Dave pauses at one of the large family picnics to bed for a drink, and the family filled with kids and kites and a few men in uniform asks us in, handing up paper plate with potato salad, hot dogs and hamburgers, giving us cold soda instead of water, laughing loudly as if no war waged on around us, but we see the war, especially in the eyes of those men in uniform who have come home on this Memorial Day for one more pass before they go to where my uncle is, and they think they might not come back.
And maybe, they see something in our eyes, too, the shadow of a war Dave’s dad went to and only partly returned from, and the restless, painful nights in a cold cave in Korea where my uncle still paces in his dream, still doing guard duty not against the threat of a visible enemy, but with a more devious enemy that continues to haunt him long after he has come home.

Then as with the parade earlier, the family dissipates and we true soldiers volunteer to help clean up, inheriting blocks of dry ice we soon discover turn to fog when dumped into the brook, fog that floats over the water and under the footbridge and across Paulison Avenue to the dairy with a fake cow on its front lawn and two real sheep along its side, a fog rising up over us and the park, covering over its beauty like a shroud, disguising the twisted paths and wandering brook as if to hide something, we do not know what, even in the bright sunlight on this next to last day in May.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Sweet water (chapter from my new novel)


 
We heard about the sweet water in the mountain long before either of us ever tasted it, a rumor, an Indian legend, a tall tale my mother told, Dave got in his head one day to find out more about.
No strangers to the mountain, we often drove our bicycles there, even walked, mostly always taking the same route, passed the same icons of our lives, up Crooks from our homes near Lakeview and Vernon, across Trenton and passed the sweet shop near Curry and over the tracks to the less familiar landscape near Getty Avenue – hotdog grill and pizza parlor, gas station and diner, and then on farther passed the lines of houses that served as home for kids we would not meet until we attended junior high to Hazel Road, and the house my school mate from St. Brendan’s lived in with the American Legion Post sign on its lawn and the World War I cannon aimed straight down Crooks Ave.
We knew this route so well, we could have navigated it in a blizzard, as we did one Christmas Eve when my grandfather lay dying, and Dave’s father was drunk again at home.
We mostly went to the mountain in the summer when we had time, when we did not need to be home in time for bed so we could get up early for school, this journey one of distance and endurance, even for Dave whose long legs could take his bicycle places mine struggled to go.
As well as we knew the route, we did not know the landscape, the people who populated it, the school for nuns, the hotdog stand we stopped at for soda half way to Grove Street where the funeral home that had helped bury by grandfather sat like a grave stone marker pointing the way up towards the mountain peak we could clearly see by that time, and the castle on its side, and the tower at its top, grand visions that had long attracted us even when we’d seen them more remotely from the top floor of my house, a real castle, brought stone by stone to Paterson from Scotland, but a silk baron who wanted his workers to look up from the mills and admire him the way surfs admired their lords long ago.
Most other times, we turn up Grove and head for the main gate, to lay siege on the castle where the old man had lived until the 1913 mill strikes broke his heart and left him a recluse to live looking down on a city he used to own, still rich, but not happy, growing gray and sad inside a kingdom that had shrunk to no bigger than the walls he’d brought from Scotland.
We took turns being Richard or Henry or even Robin Hood, until the county people who took control of the castle after the old man’s death chased us away, telling us to play up near the tower at the top of the mountain where the old man in the height of his wealth and power sometimes went to survey all he owned, most of which the county eventually turned into a park, not long climb, but steep, especially with bicycles, passed the stone outhouse the county had installed along with water fountains where the asphalt path stopped and the stairs started, and then the stairs ceased at the start of a long, dirt twisted path with a wooden rail along where the land fell away and the park rangers feared kids like us might fall.
This path ended at the stone wall beyond which the tall tower stood atop pieces of volcanic rock, stone stuck to stone with round window like cannon spouts looking out at intervals where the winding stairs inside rose to the top, stairs we climbed until the county locked gate at the bottom, and after a fire had gutted the wooden frame below where the concession stand sold us soda and candy.
And though I thought Dave would steer us there again, he bypassed the main gate, yelling back at me that we would take the long hill up, the back road up from Valley Road that snaked its way along the side of the park, a road so steep even cars had to creep up it, and us, on bicycles, churned as our legs turned to butter and we did all we could to keep from falling back – Dave alone with his long legs able to advance, yelling for us to keep up when we could not.
Trees rose with the rising mountain to our right, while to the left where the land fell, we rose above the tips of these trees, seeing the expansion of the valley below, and the peaked roofs of houses that seemed like sharp edges of stone as they spread out towards the horizon and the haze of a city skyline we could just barely make out, Dave striding ahead with me behind, and still farther behind with his even shorter legs, Dave’s brother, Dennis, yelling for both of us to wait up, something Dave only did when the road leveled at the top, and the trees to the right parted making way for the entrance to the park and a park road leading to parts of the park behind and slightly below the tower.
We had come this way before, of course, scouring ever inch of the many acres that made up the place, from woodland to swamp, from cliff to valley, in search of new things we might find, a crevice no one else had seen before, a place we might call our own, knowing that we continued to follow in the footsteps of generations before us, Dave’s father had played here, as had my uncles, and my mother had brought me here often on what she called picnics, though she really only wanted to find any place where she didn’t hear her voices.
“In here,” Dave said, pointing into the park, passed the large one-way sign, do not enter, as we steered the wrong way down a paved but ulcerated road only the most hearty of cars might take, and those we saw, coming at us from down below and around a long, sloping curve and the lake beyond, and the gravel lot where hikers and fishermen and picnickers parked, the smoke from the grills filling the air with the flavor of sizzled meat.
We could see the south end of the lake through the trees, green scum spread across the dead water where only turtles and frogs thrived, a stench as odious as a cesspool, reaching us even where we paused. We all knew where people said the sweet water was, but this wasn’t it, and I told Dave as much, and he told me he already knew, but still turned the wrong way, north not south, towards the soggy path along the lake’s eastern shore, passed one of the two gazebos that stood as sentinels near the mouth of the path, sad, decaying, gazebos with leaky roofs and loose stone walls, in which we sometimes took refuge from rain, coming out nearly as soaked as if we hadn’t.
“If you know, why are you going to wrong way?” I asked, pointing back south, towards the flat roofed stone building that had held the toilets and concession stand, built when the gazebos were, of the same rough stone but with better roofs and square windows that glinted a little in the sunlight.
Somewhere beyond it, up one of the dirt paths we had frequently taken in one of our fantastic adventures as Daniel Boone or Davy Crocket, a small grotto stood, into which, people said, sweet water ran.
“Because,” was all Dave said, and then with a swift kick on his bike pedals launched down the path north, passed the place where the gravel ceased and the rutted muddy path began, hoof prints and dropping of horses we never saw, made immortal in the dried mud over which our bicycles ran, shaking so hard I had to hold on with both hands, not merely a road less traveled, but one trekked at our own risk, Dave ahead of me, Dennis behind, a caravan on a pilgrimage I still did not understand.
Much later – though not by way of anything Dave said – I realized Dave went this way not to delay our finding the spring out of which the sweet water sprang, but to stir up a greater thirst so that when we did finally reach it, the water would taste that much sweeter.
We could have reached the spring straight from the gazebos, passed the concession stand and up the dusty path that rose again from the depression in which the lake sat, climbing into the rocky ridges of the park’s south eastern corner, following the trail of tears the city women took, carrying buckets and plastic milk jugs to fill and bring home, sipping sweet water from cupped palms.
But Dave wanted us to earn it first, leading us along a path that circled the lake, first through the muddy track and gullies the rain water took draining down from the heights where the tower stood, then over a decaying wooden bridge to more solid ground, rough with points of stone, and then smoother yet riddled with tree roots, and finally, near the north west corner, wide open grass land where the geese fed and a thin sheet of water washed up onto the shore.
We rolled across another wooden foot bridge, newer, boards still bright, rumbling under our wheels and then we dipped into yet more bog, soggy soil thick with reeds and fire weed, rising up around us and under us, so that we shoved the branches away with one hand while keeping the wheels straight with the other, muck sucking at the spokes as our wheels sank, a wilderness rising up around the western most portion of the lake, trees so thick we could not see the water beyond, only the wet that washed up around the tree trunks and through the low laying branches of the brush, Daniel Boone would have struggled to navigate; few kids did; dark things stirred in its depths, turtles and frogs, skunks and raccoons, opossums and foxes, and worse, things that stared out from the close branches at we passed, not rabbits or chipmunks, not squirrels or owls, though they occupied this space as well, larger things, rumored things, inappropriate beasts that had come here and stayed here, such as the alligator Dave said people had seen floating in the water not far in, a creature someone had collected as a pet when very small, brought north and then abandoned when the bowl, sink and finally tub could no longer contain it, abandoned here to live in the ooze. I saw toads, turtles, even an egret once, but never the alligator, though I remained on constant watch each time we came. Dave, convinced the story was true, would pause to look now or ever, pumping his legs as hard as he could to make his wheels work better in the thick track of mud, until we rose out of it again, coming to a part of the trail where it turned the last corner of the lake and started up onto large, flat pieces of stone, chunks of mountain soil could not cover, on which cormorants sometimes dried their wings along with the ducks, where seasoned fishermen spread out nets near the edge of the water, collecting boots and bottles along with bait for bigger fish.
The stone rose and grew into large cliffs along the western side, notched at intervals, where birds built nests, and we climbed along the track to one side of it, eventually coming to the top where Dave finally paused, looking less like the Green Hornet or Man from Uncle, we both pretended to be back in the city, but the Lone Ranger, his long limbs straddling his bicycle as he sat the peak staring out across the lake, at the layers of trees on the far side, and beyond, up the rising hills to the top of the mountain where the old tower stood, he, now, looking like the old Silk Baron on a pinnacle of stone looking over an unspoiled world, seeing and being seen, majestic and yet also humble, as common as any of the mill workers that had occupied Paterson in the days of its greatness, raised from that same stock with the poorest of roots, searching for something in the world pure and unspoiled, when nothing in the life he knew at home was.
He stared out, yet not high enough to see any of the city that lay beyond the lip of mountain on which the tower stood (one reason he loved this place more than he loved the castle or tower), we standing in a fold of land that made all that invisible, stripping from us the troubles of our lives, allowing us to see the world as the Native Americans might have, streams running down the sides of hill, deer darting between trunks of trees, men carrying fish rods on their way to or from the lakeside, we, going back in time, before the time of smog and dirty rivers, before the black smoke spewing from the stacks of factories, and Dave, who almost never smiles, looked back at me and did, and bolstered by thirst that was more than just thirst, he peddled down the stone again to the path, heading finally towards the south end of the lake, beyond which the grotto and the spring waited, passed the gazebos and the snack stand, and up the stony path on which the pilgrims struggled towards the glen which people said pure water spouted.
Now he went fast, with me and Dennis struggling  to keep up with how well his long legs worked those wheels, his bike kicking up dust we had to eat, bounding over stone and root, the speed bumps nature threw across our path, reckless, desperate, the scent of spoiled water around us from a part of the lake long surrendered to the green scum, we riding over gravel, then on the grass where the geese fed, they fluttering up at the threat of our hurried wheels, to resettled in our wake and feed again as if we never existed, just as the patrons at the snack bar did when we roared through the open air building, then up the rutted dusty path passed pilgrims carrying buckets and plastic milk jugs strung along the side, poor people from the foot of the mountain who made the climb to this place and would climb back down again once they accomplished their mission, a dusty mass of sad faces as humble as the land they lived in, related, but not too closely to us and our, all having come out of the same basic stock, despite my uncles’ denials, and Dave’s mother’s outrage, and her desperate need to feel superior. His mother never came here, but mine had, making the same long trek these people made, up from where the bus left her at the mountain’s foot, coming the way so many other mothers had on the rumor of faith, a poor person’s trip of Lourdes and hope that the sweet water they found here might cure some ailment each felt in their lives.
Dave’s mother had no such belief; so Dave lacked it as well, coming here not out of faith or hope, but desperation, seeking one place where he might feel welcomed when he felt unwelcome everywhere else.
And even though my mother believed she might find a blessing here, I did not, coming only because Dave came or perhaps because it was some place to go when we had been everywhere else and found nothing.
Dave skidded to a stop where the paths converged, our path rising from the lake meeting with another from the road, and still another from the deep woods to the west, dry dirt
Rising up and around Dave like smoke, dry earth from a dry season with large chunks of granite poking up between the arms of each path like walls built by nature to define the boundaries of the dry grotto – and yet, we heard the soft trickle of water we might not have heard without the silence, a few trees with exposed roots clinging to the stone, delving into the dry soil to catch the sweet water where it returned underground.
We left the bikes against the side of stone and eased down into a crack in the earth to where the trickle sounded loudest.
Soil gave way to stone, a crevice slick, with a whisper of water running out from a tiny pipe someone had hammered into the stone, long, long before, water pooling into a worn basin, then over its lip at the other side to sink back into the earth from which it had sprung.
A plump Spanish woman kneeled beside the spring, her white paints and blue flowered shirt moist from the effort of filling up three plastic milk jugs, now lined up on the rock beside her. She did not move or drink, just stared down at where the water tricked out of the tiny pipe, looking the way my mother looked at times at church, hearing and seeing things I could not hear or see, feeling something I could not feel.
She did not seem to notice us; this agitated Dave, who wanted to get down and taste the sweet water before the others with their bottles and buckets came; we could hear the stir of their feet on the trail behind us, and see the dust rising in the air ahead of them, an army of pilgrim just like this one, who came to collect and take home the sweet water we merely came here to taste.
With his face contorted with anxiety, Dave shifted his large feet, disturbing dust and sending small pebbles down into the grotto where the woman kneeled, plopping into the pool beside her. But she would not move or notice us, and the more Dave shifted, the less she seemed to see, staring down into the bubbling pool near where the water fell, clear water, decorated with bright sunlight. We could see the slick stone beneath, worn from the years of movement across it, the dribble of time, the flow of water we believed would to on until it wore through the stone itself and the water sank back into the depths of the mountain too quickly for anyone to catch.
Behind us, the other pilgrims appeared, lining up at Dave’s back to wait their turn, sad, dusty faces, mostly Latino, some black, but a few like us, all lost souls from other parts of Paterson who had heard tale of the sweet water and had come here to get their share.
When the woman finally moved, she moved the way a turtle might, slow limbs lifting her as if she had a heavy shell on her back, taking up her bottles, and then in a Herculean effort, staggered up out of the ravine to where we waited, looking nowhere, at no one or perhaps at the after image of some vision she had seen below, the way she might have had she stared into a bright light for too long.
Dave rushed passed her before she had fully risen and somehow, with his long limbs spread this way and that, thrust his face into the chilly pool of water.
He stayed prone for so long I thought he’d drowned – except for the sound of his drinking, not gulping the way a man struggling to an oasis might out of a desert, but softly, slowly; with reverence more like a kiss than a sip.
And he stayed like that long enough to make the women behind us grumble, his arms embracing that place, as if to make it his alone.
I nudged him; he told me to go away.
I told him the other waited.
He said he didn’t care.
I said I was leaving, and this, after yet another long moment caused a stir, his limbs stiffening to life him away from the surface of the water.
When he finally stood, the scars of the water showed on his face and chest; dirt covered his knees and elbows.
Yet some deeper scar showed in his eyes. He looked different, changed, older, the way the old Latina had looked a moment earlier.
He climbed out of the grotto.
I said we should go.
“Don’t you want to taste the sweet water?” he asked.
I shook my head.
His gaze narrowed as he studied my face.
The women behind me scrambled into the gully with their buckets and bottles.
We went back to our bikes, then back down the path to the concession stand, then skirted the lake to the road, riding it the right way until we reached the crossroads and the steep decline we gook down without once using our brakes.
Dave’s seriousness faded as our speed increased; by the time we reached the bottom he became his old self again; I’d never seen him so serious again.
We went back to the spring again many times; I drank for the basin, too, but never felt the way Dave did, perhaps, I never will.