Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Clifton Swim Club (another chapter in my novel, "Paint it Red"



We come here to look at girls the way a horse in the desert goes to water to drink, hot sun scalding our faces as we march up to Main Street from the bus stop on Lakeview, hearing the pools advertising mantra in our heads: “the short without the travel, this same pool called “Rentschler’s Pool” when my uncles came here in the Great Depression, clutching nickels for the ticket to let them in, before the war that sent Dave’s dad to Europe, my uncles hiking the whole way up Crooks Avenue from Gordon and the house my grandfather had to live in because he’d built it and couldn’t sell, my uncles walking because in those days, they didn’t have money for bus fair and the pool the way Dave and I do today, that pool the same pool as this pool is now, only the girls are different, with Dave wanting one girl in particular he knows will be here, too, though she won’t be glad to see him or me, she never is, both of us trying not to think too much about that other girl who drowned here in a graduation after party last June.
That last dance haunts everybody from school even fools like us, the comic duo, the Abbot and Costello, Batman and Robin most of the cool kids hate and most jocks can’t catch to beat up.
Main Street buzzes with cars, trucks, buses as the crowds fill the sidewalk outside the gate. We can’t see in through the cyclone fence with the strips of green metal that provides privacy to this public place. The American flags flap over the ticket book where the fence opens in the middle, three windows to accommodate the people seeking to get in, and we buy our ticket as if we are going to a movie, and maybe we are, filled with pool side movie stars who strut around the pool side as if a stage.
Dave stands high over the crowd, his six foot something making him look older than he is, left back twice, yet not old enough even for high school, looking for that girl in the crowd he hopes he won’t see, desperate for her to see him, while I shuffle my feet beside him, wondering why I came, thinking of no girl here I want to see when I want to see them all, half naked in broad daylight, exposed as I am exposed.
The crowd moves so slowly I think we’ll never get in, the sounds rising and falling from the rabble just beyond the cyclone fence, people and tables and umbrellas like ghosts behind the privacy slats, so all we hear are the voices of the cool people drinking cold drinks and slowly getting drunk – and rowdy.
Kids screech in front of us in the line, anxious, bored, complaining at their parents about how long it takes to get through the gate, we all in the same sad boat, clutching our dollar bills the way my uncles did their nickels, clutching deck chairs, bottles of sun tan lotion, blankets, towels, things neither me nor Dave thought to bring: we wear our bathing suits under our jeans and if we brave the water will let the blistering sun dry us, and try not to get embarrassed when Dave sticks to shallow water, a legitimate landlubber despite his size.
When we get to the window the woman behind the glass takes our money and hands us wrists bands with the number of our lockers on it, blue for boys, pink for girls, she doesn’t even look us in the eye, too many of us, sometimes thousands on a Saturday, piling in shoulder to shoulder the unlucky masses who could not take the trip to the shore.
Then inside, we pass through the space where the big shots sit, round metal tables with perforated tops and ringed benches around them and multi-colored umbrellas sticking up from out of their middle, a rare reprieve the constant assault of sunlight on this mostly concrete existence, this a social club filled with people that look to dip, but never dip, whose life is sip and chat, sitting the way the cool kids sit in the cafeteria, there to show the rest of us how hip they are, sipping but never dipping until they are so snockered they can’t do either.
Above and beyond the fence to the right as we come in, jealous kids stare down from the second floor of the brick apartment building, kids younger than we are, kids who watch the waves of people flow through the gate and into the pool complex the way waves at the beach flow over sand, the scent of grilling food from the snack bar and wet bar flowing over this whole section, sizzling hamburgers and hot dogs, we can’t afford, but long for, just as we long for something else here neither of us can have.
She won’t be in this part, I tell Dave, meaning the girl who lives next door to be, sweet Sue Dave is so sweet on it hurts.
People bump into him because he stops just inside the gate to stare at the red faces around the round tables, or clustered under the awning to our left, the name of the club stretched across its front along the narrow edge of the roof.
I nudge him in that direction, to the doors leading to ramps that take us into the building where the men’s and women’s locker rooms are, dark and dank with the flicker of florescent lights overhead, casting an unnatural glow over this danker concrete landscape, painted blue and white, just as the pool and the concrete around it is painted blue and white. But outside in the sunlight, the colors seem sterile and clean; here the air smells of mildew, sweat and chorine, air so thick I can barely breathe, and so crowed nobody has privacy, taking off and putting on clothing along low benches that run between rows of lockers in front of everybody else.
We take off our pants and shirts and stuff them into the locker assigned to us with our entry tickets, the key dangling from the wrist band as we make our way up yet another ramp outside to the pool.
We are young, and we ache to be noticed by the near naked girls around the pool, Dave aching more for one than the others, though none of the girls we see see us, girls clustered around the elevated seats where the lifeguards sit, clucking at them like chickens, nearly fainting when one takes notice of them.
 So we climb down into the water, playing odd games that splash the people seated on the bend along the long end on one side of the pool. The lifeguards, stirred from their celebrity by the complaints, growl at us to behave, girls giggling. We splash each other and move and get more stern warnings and eventually the ultimatum to quit the antics or get put out.
We stay near the shallow side -- not the kiddie’s corner, near where the stairs come down into the pool near the snack bar where the drunken people can keep a close eye on the kids so they don’t accidentally drown – we come down the other stairs nearer the ramps to the locker rooms.
I tell Dave she will be near the deep end if she’s hear at all – the far side just shy of the fence and the trees that grow beyond it, near where the two diving boards are, and slick kids do tricks and dive deep into the water.
Dave won’t let me go there, more scared of her than of the deep water which really, really scares him, yet he can’t stop staring in that direction, studying each face along that side of the pool, those in the water and out, trying to make out her shape against the backdrop of mostly near naked people, the cool kids she likes to hang around, who she wants to think well of her, who always laugh at people like even and laugh now at us, even though we don’t know exactly what they are saying.
Still, I edge away into deeper water, egging Dave to follow, and after enough abuse, he does, feeling each inch ahead of him with the tip of his toes, the slick blue-painted bottom slowly slanting down so as to make the increased depth deceptive, like the crabs or lobsters my uncles cook each time we go to my grandfather’s bungalow in Toms River, getting cooked as the temperature gradually rises to a boil, but not aware of how deep the trouble is until over our heads, and me, thinking of the girl from the dance, who came here that night, laughing with the cool kids the way Sue always does, diving from the high board to plunge deeper than either me or Dave will ever go, and the teachers at the funeral later telling everybody how much promise she showed and how great she might have been, when the police report testified to just how drunk she likely was when she hit the water.
And me thinking of how my uncles and aunt and mother came here, clutching their nickels, and how it wasn’t here that my mother nearly got drowned, but off the coast near the bungalow that summer just after the war when she was about the same age as the girl who drowned and how shocked everybody was when they saw her crawling out of the water, her head bloated three times the size it should have been, something the doctors later never could explain and me wondering if that had anything to do with the madness that later sent her to the institution, and if she had collected the voices she hears from something she found in the depths of the water, and now, we edging deeper and deeper into the deep end of the pool, risking a similar fate, drunk of something we carry inside of us, scared me we might catch something from the water we don’t intend to collect, the laughter of the cool kids filling the air, along with the giggles of the girls near the life guards, along with the shrill sheiks of the kids near the kiddy pool where drunk parent pretend they can’t hear or see anything, and listen mostly to themselves talk.
And I keep thinking about the life guards distracted from the attention the giggling girls to hear one drunken girl desperately treading water in the pool, their panicked leaps from their ivory painted towers into the deep water to rescue her, yanking out, pounding on her chest to get the water out, her bubbling breath emitting liquid but no longer air, unable to bring back to life what the water has stolen, she hearing maybe the same angelic voices my mother hears, needing death to accomplish what my mother managed to drag back with her to shore, and Dave aching beside me to reach deep water, to reach the deep end just to show he can, to show her he’s not as scared as he really is, to survive the way the girl after the dance had not, moving inch by desperate inch, water to his waste, then his chest and finally his chin, standing on the tips of his toes to keep his mouth above the surface where I am treading water to stay afloat, sunlight stark and blinding on the surface, so scorching me and Dave will go home as red as boiled lobsters, unable to cure the pain no matter how much ointment we apply, then yet another inch, the blue bottom so clear we can see the divers sink and rise like dolphins immune, more fish than human, then another inch and another inch, Dave staring up at the life guard who does not look at us at all, whose ever utterance brings a flutter of giggles from girls to whom we are utterly invisible, not even important enough to laugh at, or save when we finally reach that point in the pool when we are over our heads, not nearly as pretty as the blonde-haired life guards, and still Dave takes another step, and another, until he is forced to float, a too-scared Jolly Green Giant with a face green not from the reflected bottom and sides of the pool, green from imagining breathing water the way that girl after the dance did, thinking no one will leap in after him if he suddenly starts to sink, aching the whole time for the shallow water, wishing his shrieks are the sheiks of spoiled little kids trying to raise the attention of the drunken parents that are the previous generations cool kids only at the other side of the pool, instead of shrieks that girl did after the dance, needing to get back to a place where he and I can stand on our own two feet, where his six foot something has real meaning even if mocked, where here in the deep water it means nothing, when the water tells us we need to be eight or ten or twelve feet tall to survive, he, clinging to me like he might a life preserver, threatening to make me sink, too, we both bobbing in water we have no business being in, my lungs filling up with deep water even though I do know how to swim, and imagine with each bob the bubbling water coming out of me the way it did that girl that day in June, and me, wondering will I survive, will I like my mother crawl out onto the concrete with my head bloated three times its natural size, dragging imaginary voices behind me like seaweed.
I tell Dave we need to get to the side before we both drown, and he gets scared and say he thought I knew how to swim, and I tell him, I can, just not for two of us, and so as slow as sea turtles might on land, we crawl though the high water to the pool side where the wide concrete is filled with a forest of tables and umbrellas and near naked girls lying flat on large beach towels.
We clutch the slick side of the painted pool with both hands, the surge of the water behind us, lulling us back with the mistaken belief we might survive another bout, the blond-headed, blue-eyed muscle-thick life guards glancing at us the way they might two soggy old fish.
We are fish, gasping not or water but for air.
And then she sees Dave, not the she who drowned in the pool in June, but the she in whom he drowns, over his head in a pool so deep nobody can see its bottom, adoring the girl that abhors him, she looking down at both of us with mockery in her eyes.
If the sun hasn’t made his face fire red, this does, painting him as vivid red as the pool is blue. We sink down into the warm water until only our eyes and finger tips show over the pool lip, spy guys in an alien landscape, peering out a periscope at enemies we despise, surprised at being surprised that they despise us, too.
All I can think of is that girl after the dance who had come here in the dark on the edge of the rest of her life, and how my uncles and my mother, and how the water had consumed her, and how someone had tried to bring her back to life, making her cough up that substance of which we are all made, yet cannot breathe, and I think of us, two clowns keeping low over the illusions of love, and how twisted hopes can be when we ache for what we cannot have, and cause love to cross over into hate, and I keep thinking of how scared we both are, two eyes above the rim of a pool, aching inside and out, from what we don’t know we want and from a sun that exposed just who we are and for anybody to see, and I keep thinking how much Dave must hurt, and how lucky I am, and how like my uncles who clutched nickels in their hands for a chance to be here, and how lucky I am just to be alive.




Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Snowden Factor




The Snowden Factor


This is the first two thirds of a new novel I'm just finishing. I need an agent or a publisher

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The River (from the novel, Paint It Red





 Dave is too tall to feel like I do inside this cardboard box that is to me almost as big as a house, the boxes my grandfather and uncles unpack outboard motors from then leave in the yard as trash, eyeholes where the handholds are, boxes that serve me as spaceship, submarine, coffin, cave, me and Little Dave when I was as small as Little Dave is now, rolling around in them, as if inside a log, or some monster from outer space that launched us into outer space, or some whale that has swallowed us whole.
I’m still small enough to pretend; Dave – even being more than a year younger than I am – can’t, his feet or head sticks out the open top no matter how we turn it and all he wants is for us to find something real we can believe in.
He wants something we can climb a mountain with or go deep into the sea in, something that won’t buckle in the morning dew or wither when it rains.
I don’t blame him, and so go along when he proposes we buy a rowboat from my uncles and sail down the river to the sea, a foolish notion since we don’t have the money except what I can steal, and since I steal from my uncles, they might get a bit suspicious if I can offer to buy the row boat they have displayed in the front of the store, even though nobody else offers to buy it.
We love the river, not just where it crosses at the bottom of Crooks Avenue; everywhere it goes, curving around the top of Paterson from where it tumbles over the Great Falls to the flat place in Fairlawn my uncles once said was clean enough for them to swim in and eat the fish they caught.
Mostly we wander on the banks near the foot of the highway bridge where the river widens and banks of reeds hide geese that sail in each fall and spring, and love where the river narrows again at the Dundee Dam and the Dundee Falls – not great falls, not high, just all ours, where the fish leap and seagulls swim and junk gets stuck, and we crawl out along the ledge to collect it.

When we find the raft, I get it into my head we can still sail to the sea – it is not a raft, Dave says, it’s the top of a crate, and I tell him it could be a raft if we want it to be, and I won’t have to steal much of my uncle’s money trying to buy a boat they can’t sell.
All we need are poles, and food to fill our backpacks, and a little help getting the crate top loose from the top of the falls, and we get Little Dave and Dennis to help us, though we won’t let them come along with us on the trip, too dangerous, too many things might go wrong, my head filled with visions of pirates and Russians, while Dave tells me he’s scared of sharks, not the small kind like the dead one he said he found once down stream near the rail road bridge, the kind with sharp teeth and lust for blood, then I get scared too, and want even more to get started.
In the dead of night, I lift enough from my uncle’s pant to buy the stuff we need for the trip, unloading it later at Weiss’s Foodtown, the neighborhood supermarket located at Second Street and Lakeview where we routinely buy stick matches, but not the peas for our peashooter, to which my grandmother frequently sent me for something my uncles forgot when she sent them there to shop – with me still searching for the ten dollar bill I once dropped during one of those trips as if after all the previous searches it would suddenly and magically appear, a place where I am as well-known to the clerks as I am to the local police, dropping down on the grocery checkout our collection of supplies the way Lewis or Clark must have at the start of their adventure more than a century ago, the clerk frowning over each piece because these goods are so different from the goods my family usually purchases, too many loaves of white bread, too many jars of peanut butter and jelly, a large bottle of grape juice, along with matches, batteries for flash lights and pocket radio, and more, finally packing each into paper bags, me, Big Dave, Little Dave and Dennis carried away in a caravan to the street and down the hill, in a direction away from where we lived, to add to the other supplies we each snuck out of our houses, extra socks, extra underwear, and thicker clothing we will need when we eventually reach climes where the temperatures drop.
Dave brings a flash light, compass, pocket knife and canteen, he lifted out of his father’s locker in the upstairs closet where all the war stuff is stored, claiming we might need the compass to keep from getting lost, something I argue isn’t possible since we’re be following the river most of the way, though even I have a hazy vision of what might happen when we actually reach the sea, Little Dave and Dennis waving at us as we sail off into the middle of the shallow water at the foot of the Dundee Falls, shouting after us as to when we think we might come back, Dave shouting back, “never,” if things work out the way we’ve planned, me wondering what my uncles will say when I don’t get back by curfew, thinking about the rowboat we can’t have, and the boxes out of which Big Dave’s feet always stick, for the first time trying to imagine what we really might find when the crate top that is not a raft takes us out of sight of where we live, homesick already, but I don’t tell Dave, wondering if it is possible to sail all the way to California, the place I really want to see, can’t imaging, even when I was still small enough to find in the cardboard box comfortably.
We watch the shore shrink, at Little Dave and Dennis growing smaller, as small as we used to be, and then vanish, and we pushing poles to keep from getting stuck on stone, or sailing into the backwater from which we can never get out, then we sail under the rain road bridge, passed places my uncles sometimes talked about when they were as old as we are now: paper mills their aunts and uncles worked in, factories that shut their doors before my uncles would work there, too, then around other curves, under other bridges, near where the smokes stacks of still other factories rise, then open land on one side and houses on the other, near where the river seems to run straight for a while.
Dave wants to know how far the sea is; I can’t tell him. Dave wants to know if we’ll reach it before dark; I don’t know that either. Dave wants to know if we’ll run out of food, or drown or get eaten by sharks neither of us has actually ever seen.


The brown water is deep, if not wide, framed by rippled walls of metal, like crumpled typewriter ribbon stretched out with brown or tan rust marks to indicate how high the river has risen at times, lower now that it has been, yet deep enough so that we see nothing when we look down into it. We no longer need the poles to propel us as the water is too deep and the current catches us and drives us on wherever it wants, we merely using the poles to push pieces of things out of our way, branches or bottles or even a few dead animals the water has warped so we can only guess what the animal was before the river twisted it into something else.
Dave asks if our families will miss us by which me means he already misses them, though we both know Dennis well tell them all, and Dave’s mom will call the police just as she has each time we have tried to run away before, the last time the police finding us in the quarry in the midst of a blizzard and me wondering how they can find us now if we really reach the sea, and we might have done better, gone faster, in the road boat nobody else wanted but us to buy, and then Dave tells me we are sinking.
Not fast, not like a real boat might, inch by inch, the water feeling the pores of the crate lid that is not really a raft, so everything gets heavy, soggy, and instead of floating over the water, the wood glides about an inch under it, our feet already wet, our backpacks saturated and held down only by the weight of what they contain.
Then Dave tells me, he can’t swim.
We are dead center in the middle of fast water with poles that can’t reach the bottom or to either side, traveling slower and slower as the raft that is not a raft slowly sinks, and water that was just over our toes before is now over our ankles and nobody anywhere we can see to call for help, except for some cars to the west speeding along the road there, and I don’t know what to tell Dave, so we both start to yell.
 When we can’t yell anymore I tell Dave I will teach him how to swim, remembering when my uncle taught me by throwing me into a part of Greenwood Lake ten times over my head, only I can’t throw Dave anywhere; I just push him in when he least expects and dive into the water after him as the crate top that is not a raft goes by, a little higher in the water than it was because we’re not on it any more.

Dave gurgles between screams, even after I swim over to where he splashes and show him out to tread water; his gurgling ceases, but not his screams, or his cursing me and my fate and his father for ever being born, promising to kill me if he ever survives my drowning him, clutching me like he would one of those round life preservers we see in the movies on the sides of ships and which my uncle sells, but I never thought to steal, and with him still clutching me, I start a slow, painful swim towards shore, his weight dragging me down the way our weight did the raft, just as I drag him down with all of my schemes, the oily water worse than the lack of air, its taste cling to my tongue so I gag; I will never be rid of it.

When Dave runs out of breath, he stops cursing; we reach the rusted metal wall. He clings to it instead of me, a six-foot two-inch infant unable to find his mother’s tit to suck, his chest and my chest heaving, his breath and my breath mingling as we both gasp for air, his face and my face covered with the oily slick the water leaves, dripping down off our brows like sweat, his fingers and mine finding the tiny crevices by which we might rise out of the water, inch by inch, a baptism neither of us intended, a rebirth neither of us expected, lost yet not lost, not lost in a way we thought we would be, inch by inch, dripping that oily water from all of our pores, fingers finally finding the top where the helpful hands of the cops haul us up, shaken yet not completely sad. Dave’s question still resonates in my head: will they miss us when we’re gone, and the answer: they already have.



Saturday, October 15, 2016

Comic art (another chapter from "Paint it Red"




I don’t think it’s funny; I just can’t stop laughing, Dave’s idea or mine, it still sounds stupid each time we play back the tape, the sound of the furnace on and off behind us because we can’t do this anywhere else but in Dave’s cellar, me, Dave and Dennis taking turns talking into the tiny mic, each of us making up stuff inspired by each other, which one of us thinking up the idea of doing a news cast, I can’t say, or the idea that there is no news with Dave acting as the news anchor who has to make stuff up, or report scores with no names of teams or even some event we don’t know where or what exactly.
It’s not funny, yet tears roll out of my eyes each time he plays it back.
Dave says he’s going to play it for somebody to see if that person thinks ifs funny enough for us to send it to TV.
I tell him he’s crazy and he looks a little hurt. I tell him I don’t know anything about stuff like this, and the hurt goes away.
I want to sake we smoked something or drank something to explain why we sound like we do, me and Dennis anyway, Dave seems so serious he might believe every word is true, his laugh isn’t like our laughs, his eyes glow, proud of giving done something he thinks of as important.
I want to shake him, bring him back to the Dave I know, tell him we’ll all be somebody important someday. I’m too scared to say anything with his father drunk upstairs.
Dave clicks on the tape recorder again, asks me a question, I say anything and we all laugh again, until after a while I start thinking the whole thing is funny, too, and go home thinking may if the guy Dave plays the tape for likes it, we might all be famous.
“Don’t lose that tape,” I tell him over the walkie talkie when I get home.
I can’t sleep thinking about it; I just can’t remember enough of it to laugh, and wish I can listen to it again before Dave plays it for a stranger.
I wait for Dave at the bus stop before school. He doesn’t come. Dennis doesn’t know where he is either. So I search for him at school only to find out from my first period teacher Dave called in sick from school.
I imagine him home, hurt, having listened to the tape in a more sober moment and come to thee same conclusion I have that it isn’t fund and at the same time hearing his father’s drunken snores from the couch.
After school, I meet Dennis in front of their apartment building. Dennis goes up to look for Dave while I wait at the bottom of the stairs, then returns to tell me Dave’s not there and nobody knows where he is.
At home, I press the speaker of the walkie talkie to my ear to hear when Dave comes on or when he makes his calls to the truckers who can barely hear him for all of the static, a voice that does not come on, and I fall asleep and wake to a dead battery in the morning.
And still no Dave at school or after or on the radio that night, and so I sit and watch TV.
Three of my uncles grumble about some variety show they think of as “too liberal” but still watch when a skit comes on, our skit, word for word, right down to sports scores without teams and news that is not news.
I don’t even wait for the commercial. I charge out of the house, heart pumping the whole block down to Dave’s apartment building, my pebbles against his window finally bringing him out.
I ask him where he’s been; he won’t say. I ask him if he played the tape for the man; he says he wanted to play it; he never got the chance. I say the man must have heard it because I just saw the whole thing on TV. Dave says nobody could have heard it because he still has the tape.
I make him get it; I make him play it just one more time.
It isn’t funny; but I can’t stop laughing.
Dave doesn’t laugh; his eyes look sad.
Dennis tells me later Dave went away for two days to some aunt’s house in Paterson after his father quit snoring and beat the crap out of him.
This isn’t funny either.
Nobody is laughing about that.




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.



Thursday, October 6, 2016

Clinging to the edge of autumn





Thursday, October 06, 2016

I see my breath this morning, the first real sign of the change of season two or three weeks expired.
Dr. Mollenkott once said I would change my mind about loving autumn when I reached her age and came to realize just what it signified in our lives.
She was wrong. I still love fall in a way I can never love spring, even though I crave the coming of warmth after so long living with the deep freeze, just as I craved it that winter in 1977 when I felt lost and depressed, and wandered out into the last winter storm and saw the rain freezing on the tips of branches, and saw the first subtle signs of a budding new season.
Fall always means change to me, always suggests that what we live with now won’t last, good or bad, part of that All Things Must Pass, George Harrison sang about so long ago, a slow steady change from intense heat, usually coming with a week or so of desperately needed rain, washing away the dust from our lives, before carrying us off into the chill.
I see my breath in the air and realize I am still alive, and kicking, and ready to face the next winter of my life, even if as with so many of my family members at my age, it could be my last.
Someone stopped me on the train a few days ago, noticing me when I was scribbling in my notebooks, asking me if I was a writer, and what it is I write about, and how I was transcribing old type written pages, and I could only answer that I was preserving people’s lives, the description I gave far too inadequate to describe the almost religious experience.
“This is what I do,” I said, not expecting this woman or anybody else to fully understand that desperate need to keep alive memories, some of which aren’t even my own, clinging to the edge of autumn for as long as possible before giving up and accepting what is inevitable.