WE SLIDE OUR BACKS DOWN THE CINDERBLOCK FOUNDATION UNTIL WE HIT THE GROUND, OUR ASSES STIRRING CLOUDS OF SAND AND CEMENT DUST. Dean tucks his nose into his collar, dodging the blast. The curl of dirt rolls into my face, fills my eyes with grit. But I wipe the sand out in enough time to watch Nicky double forward and hack up a moth of gray snot. He takes a deep breath then counts as if we’re jackknifing off the Hell Gate Bridge. When he remembers what number comes after two, we crack the Millers. Beer erupts from the mouth-tab and streams down my hand. I slurp the foam off my wrist as Dean rags-on about lobbing the six-packs into the dumpster. Dean toasts the sunset, says, “My boss Lemarco’s a mongoloid. I could swipe the panties off his wife’s ass.” I smile back, all teeth. I should mention how real stock-boys swipe cold beer. Knock him down a few pegs. But then Nicky will defend his brother and we’ll all start scrapping. Why kill the fun?
“What’s the time?” I say.
Nicky catapults his can towards the pile of cinderblocks, says, “Got somewhere to go?”
“Yeah I’m banging your sister tonight.”
“I don’t got a sister.”
“You mean that’s your mother?”
Dean yanks open another beer, tells Nicky to shut it.
Nicky shoves his arm, “You shut it.”
The sky is red and purple, the fading sunlight cutting the angles of the houses and parked cars across the street crisp, as if everything is outlined in marker. We’ve tucked ourselves along the cinderblock wall of an empty townhouse, shielded by stacks of plywood and rebar. About twenty five yards behind us is a weedy field. Our sandy lot is slowly transforming into blocky townhouses with pitched roofs and bay windows. In front of the houses is this gigunda sign, Garden Apartments. But the only garden for eleven square blocks is a lone maple bordering the shopping center across the street. Before the hardhats popped a squat and shit these monstrosities, we’d hang out here. Play stickball and slap-box. Pull ticks off each other’s ears and armpits. Then the construction guys raided our field. They stole our bases, tossed our milk-crates. Now it’s just these houses or concrete slabs gearing up to be one of these houses. But this is still our neighborhood, our block. So fuck ‘em. Hello homeowners, meet your new neighbors.
“Man, I wish I swiped cold beer,” Dean says. He flicks the tab at me, dinging my ear.
“You hit me easy enough,” I say, “too bad I’m not that sign, right?”
Dean clenches his teeth and grabs a fist-sized rock. He hauls back and whips his arm. The rock arcs slow, then plummets into the sandy dirt, kicking up curls of dust, about three feet short of the sign. For two weeks he’s been trying to peg that billboard. It’s only twenty-five yards, but still. He curls his wrist, pretending he tweaked his forearm.
Nicky digs his elbow into Dean’s side, says, “Here it comes.”
I scan the lot for the ugliest rock in all of Howard Beach. Next to my sneaker is a chunk of brick,
Dean still has the can pressed against his lips, mumbling curses into the tab-hole. I could give a rat’s ass he’s mad, but tomorrow he’s bringing me to meet Lemarco for an interview. Yesterday, for no real reason, I quit tenth grade. As my father tossed me a beating around our living-room, he swore that if I didn’t find work by the end of the week, I’m out on my ear. And I believe it. Nothing rings truer than bruises.
I twist a beer out of the plastic and lean the Miller against Dean’s leg, an apology. He drags the beer onto his lap, as if I didn’t offer. “I pulled my arm.” He curls his wrist, flexes his forearm. With his good arm, he cracks open the beer, then toggles the tab until it snaps off. He flicks the sliver towards the pile of cinderblocks. “In couple of days, you’ll see.”
“No big deal.”
The sky has submerged into a darker blue, but the moon shines on the stacks of plywood and cinderblocks. Across the street, the Associated sign flips on, the red lights bleeding into the parking lot. My legs feel limp, separate from me, in that satisfying drunk way. For a while we watch the cars buzz around the shopping center. When the light hits us, I think it’s a pair of high-beams leaving the supermarket, until I hear, “You kids can’t be here.”
I’m blinded until the voice points the flashlight beam towards the sky. The guy swaying in front of us could be my grandfather’s ghost. He has the same halo of white hair, the same thin, ghostly frame. But then I notice the black, security shirt flapping over his belt, his pants hitting three inches too short, flashing his glue-colored ankles. He twists as if he’s about to haul ass, but steps forward, “If my boss sees youse.”
Nicky flicks his beer towards him. It clanks near the old guy’s feet. “Then what happens?”
Instead of answering, Gramps stares at this black Chevelle parked in the shopping center across the street, its grill facing towards the townhouses. Gramps mumbles, “Is that Leo’s car?” As if I know who Leo is, then wishes he could afford glasses.
“Hello?” Dean says, “Who’s your boss, Frankenstein?”
“Your Mummy?” Nicky, says.
Gramps steps closer. He smells like aftershave and whisky. He says, “I don’t want any trouble, but I’m warning youse.” He runs his finger along his mustache, making the hair crawl as if it were a caterpillar flopping across his face. Then he puckers his lips in that same confused face my grandfather would wear. As if he has no idea how he stumbled into this mess, but having seen so many problems, it never surprised him at just how screwed he is.
On weekends, when I was eleven, I’d climb the six-flights of my grandfather’s walkup, heading back from Sheepshead pier with a bucket full of blueclaws, our only dinner option. He’d fill a pot and toss them in, but he was always so blasted that he’d forget to shut the lid. Crabs would escape from the boiling water, stutter-step across the stovetop and parachute off of the counter. And there was my grandfather, blue-claws scaling his toes, reeking like a whiskey parade, wearing that same pathetic look, not having the slightest idea of how this mess got started.
He clicks the torch on and off. “Look, you want to drink, g’head. Too much violence. I don’t want youse to get hurt, s’all.”
Nicky stands, “That a threat?”
“Sounds like one to me,” Dean says.
Gramps steps back, “I don’t want any trouble.”
I press my back into the foundation and heave myself up. “Cut the shit, guys.” I toss Nicky a hard stare until he pretends to see something in the line of weeds behind the houses.
“No problem Gramps, we’re leaving. Sorry for the hassle.”
The Chevelle across the street hits its brights.
“Listen guys that’s Leo’s car. I’m telling youse. Run.”
“What are you talking about?” Dean says.
Gramps points towards the shopping center just as the Chevelle rips through the parking lot and across the street, its guttural engine roaring. The Chevelle’s headlights nod as the car bounces over the curb and tears through the dirt. The gravel crunches underneath its wheels as rocks shoot from its tires. The car fishtails, kicking up clouds of sandy flames. Grit rolls into my eyes. Blinded, I spit on my hand and wipe the dirt out. When I can finally look, I see its headlights staring me down, the engine growling, low. I pin myself against the wall and press my hand awning like into my forehead. But all I see is his shadow filling the whole front seat. Gramps mumbles how we should’ve run. I twist towards Dean. He’s sidestepping along the foundation, towards the weeds. At first I don’t see Nicky and my stomach drops through my ass, but then I hear his nasally moaning. He’s lying belly down on the dirt, gripping his head, covered in sand.
The driver reaches behind the seat, then swings open the door. Painted on the side is a golden anchor with the words Leatherneck Security underneath. Leo grips the windshield and hauls himself out of the car. He’s wearing the same uniform as Gramps. He adjusts the brim of his Marine cap on his bald head, tugs at his sleeve clinging onto his bicep. His chest takes up the space of a garage door, but he’s starting to go fat, his gut pushing his gold buckle forward. He yanks a nightstick off of his belt.
Gramps runs his thumb along his moustache, takes a deep breath, then steps towards him, “It’s okay, Leo. They’re leaving.”
“What we got here? Bunch ‘a trespassers, eh?”
Gramps steps back, his eyes glassy, “Like I said. They’re leaving.”
He swats the air with his nightstick. “Yeah, let ‘em go? So I lose this job? They ain’t goin no place.” Leo taps the stick against his palm, “Cept maybe the hospital.” His face twists into an apelike smile, his lips curling towards his fat nostrils. His front teeth are missing, so all I see is the color of a closed coffin. “No breaks on my watch, guys.” He swats the air again, “Unless it’s bones.”
“Get up Nicky,” I say. Nicky shakes his face into the dirt. Dean hauls him off the ground.
Gramps stand between us, his hands outstretched. “They’re kids. Look at them. Leo, please.”
Leo stabs his stick towards him, “You’re fired. I never should ‘a hired geriatric pansy like you. Waddle your drunken ass outta here.”
“Better hope that’s all you are.”
Gramps turns, whispers, “You guys better run now.”
Dean bolts towards the weeds, dragging Nicky by his shirt. Every reflex tells me I should haul ass, but watching this beast charge, my body locks up. Gramps steps in front of him, hands outstretched. Leo clutches the old guy’s shoulder and flicks him to the side as if he’s made out of paper. He rushes towards me, hunched over, snorting in deep, wheezy breaths. Instinct pushes my back against the wall, as if this is a scrap I could win. He growls, “I got you,” and swings his nightstick. I duck left, sidestepping the blow. The club scrapes down the concrete foundation. It sounds like a phonebook being ripped in half. I pivot and shoot towards the weeds. “Good, run. I like that.” He swats again, the rush of air rippling my t-shirt. “Run. The lion’s coming. I’m gonna bite off your fingers and use ‘em to stir my coffee.”
I hustle along the back of the townhouse, towards the weeds, but as I cut the corner, I boot a rock, trip forward and slam into a stack of rebar. I collapse onto the pile, then roll and hit the ground. My mouth stings. My thigh slices hot with pain, as if someone is fileting the muscle. I poke my finger into the gouge of flesh. My fingers are coated with blood. I smear my hand along the dirt and push onto all fours, trying to get the momentum to haul myself up. But when I put weight onto my leg, my thigh starts to shake. Ten yards in front of me is the line of bushes. Clouds of dirt bloom as I crawl towards the weeds. My leg buckles with each push. Trying to ignore the pain, I focus on a shopping bag that clings onto a branch. I can feel the cooler air of the bushes. I keep moving. Dean and Nicky yell for me to hustle, their voices rolling across the lot. I hear the slap of feet. My gang came back. I twist around.
“Tag, you’re it.”
Before he whips down the nightstick, I roll onto my stomach and lock my hands around my head. The pole slaps me across my back, popping the oxygen out of my mouth. He hits me across my thighs, slaps me across my calves. I bite my lip until I taste blood. I’d rather let him snap my spine than have him hear me beg for mercy. He brings the stick down again across my back, my body arches, tightens, from the shot. With each whack I imagine him finding an opening, splitting my skull. I peek at the dirt around me, searching for a shard of glass or a nail so I can stab him in the leg, but there’s just dirt. He whips the club across my shoulder blades. I clench my fingers around my head, then dig my elbows into the sand and try to slink forward, but I only scrape my face along the dirt. He laughs, slams the stick down on my shoulder. Then he moves lower and whacks my ribs, switching sides, as if he’s searching for the best angle on a crooked nail. He pummels my left side, then my right, the whacks releasing this hollow thump. I fight the instinct to tuck my elbows into my ribs. Leave my head open. With each blow he snorts and gasps. He sounds like the brakes on a bus. My body swells with pain. But I feel numb too. I hear the airplanes roaring towards JFK, the crickets chirping, the shopping carts rattling around the parking lot, and it reminds me of the stories about the bright tunnel, the people waiting for you, helping you glide across the sea of light. That’s when I hear this voice, my grandfather’s voice, say ‘He’s going to kill you Dom. Get up or this is your last memory.’
Leo thwacks the stick across my back, but the chops are slowing, weaker. Like when my father gets tired of tossing me around. When Leo raises his nightstick, I pop onto all fours, then onto my feet and hustle towards the weeds. My thigh pulses, but it takes the stride. Leo screams for me to get back here, his voice echoing off of the townhouses.
I shoot into the line of bushes, my body aching and numb, but working. The weeds smell like pollen and garbage. I inhale as if I’m on some mountaintop, amazed that I’m still alive. I twist around. Leo is hunched over, his hands gripping his knees, huffing. I wait for his heart to explode. When it doesn’t, I fight my way through the bushes, towards the trail we use to sneak beer into the lot. I creep along the path, past Leo’s car, the sign. From here, I have a good line of sight. I spot Gramps sitting on the curb, staring towards the houses.
I wipe my mouth. I have blood on my fingers. I the smear blood onto my jeans, then run my fingers along my side feeling for bowing ribs, bones jutting through the skin. I’m sore as shit, but intact. For a while, I watch the cars drive around the lot and wait for Dean and Nicky to pop out of the bushes. When it feels stupid to keep standing in the bushes, I sneak along the dirt path until I’m out of the weeds. I cross the street and walk towards the shopping center.
A cop is parked in front of Gennaro’s Pizza. He claws the round top of his hat and places it onto the roof of his squad car, next to his paper-plate. He pats his orange hair, slicked so tightly you can see comb lines. He pinches the crust, folds the slice and chomps down. He pops the bite from cheek to cheek. He tosses the pizza on the plate and saws his thumbnail between his front teeth. He points towards his plate, “You wanna bite?”
“You’re waiting there like a stray.” He pinches the edge of the plate. “Well, I can’t eat with you staring. Go, for I tag you for loitering.”
I turn towards Gennaro’s glass door, then pivot around as he takes another bite. My father always rags on about never being a rat. To always take care of your own problems. But the thought of waving at that gnocchi faced bastard stuck in a squad car feels like Christmas Eve. I walk around the grill of the car. “I want make a citizen’s arrest.”
He drops his slice onto the plate, “That right?”
He clenches his jaw, the muscles wriggling in his face. This was a bad idea, but I’m headlong in it now. “I was attacked.”
He knocks on the hood, reminding me of that bastard’s nightstick thumping against my bones. “Look kid, this is my only break for the next twelve hours.” He leans against the car window. “If this is a gag, you’re going to jail.” He points, “And I’m gonna tack on charges. And it’s Friday, so you’ll be stuck there until Monday. Got it? So you better have proof.”
I scan the parking lot, then lift my shirt and spin slowly.
“Your face too?”
I wipe my mouth, shrug.
He nods a couple of times. “When this happen?”
“Couple of minutes ago.”
He sticks his hat underneath his arm. “Where?” I lower my shirt and shrug. “It’s alright kid, where?” I swear I can hear my father’s laughing echo across the parking lot. I point my chin towards the Garden Apartments. He says, “Over there?” I nod. “On private property?”
I say, low, “We were leaving.”
He sticks his thumbs into the sides of his belt, “We huh? So then it was a bunch’a youse trespassing, no? Were you drinking?”
“And why where you leaving?”
I scrape my sneaker along the pavement, “Security.”
“Security chased you, then?” He tosses his hat onto the hood. “Now be honest, kid. You’re there all the time.” I get ready to jet. “C’mon, fess up, now.”
“Before, when it was just a lot.”
He hisses, turns towards his slice. “Then that’s for all the times you didn’t get caught.”
“You’re doing nothing?”
“Yeah, I’m finishing my slice.” He folds his pizza and bites, then spits it out. “It’s freaking cold now.”
“Well, I can bust you for trespassing, if you want?” He slides his plate across the car-roof. “But looks like you learned something, no?” I nod. “Now get outta here.” I backpedal away from him. When I’m cut around the front bumper, hustling towards the pizza store, he yells, “You’re welcome.”
Gennaro stands behind the counter stretching balls of pizza dough. He stares at the transistor he keeps on the window-ledge, the Mets logo stuck across the speaker. He reaches his thumb-less hand into the bucket and sprinkles shredded cheese by wriggling his remaining fingers. When he sees me, he touches his mouth and blabbers on in Italian. But he’s going too fast. That’s my father’s tongue, not mine. As I walk past him, I point towards the bathroom in the back of the store.
I shut the door, slide the lock. The white tile has a greasy film, smeared yellow as a chain-smoker’s teeth. A halo of water pools around the base of the toilet.
I twist towards the mirror. A small gash runs from underneath my nose and into my lip. Blood is smeared across my chin, pinkish and shiny from sweat. Dirt curves along the grooves of my nostrils. I don’t understand this face is mine until my voice says, “Leo did this to you.”
I’ve been knocked around plenty, mostly by my father. One time, he tossed me down a flight of stairs. Broke my thumb as if he was snapping a carrot. I’ve been in tussles over girls. Caught more than a few beatings. And mostly I deserved it. But this was different. We were leaving. I run my finger along the cut and the pain feels sharp, as if being slashed with a razor. “What now?” I nod into the mirror. I’d rather have my balls shaved by a blind man then peek at this disaster, but I was making a pact. I lift my shirt and I’m hit with a wave of sickness. Thick welts, red and purple snakes, slither across my back and ribs. As I twist in front of the mirror, I feel soreness digging into me. In a couple of hours I’ll be unable to tie my sneakers.
I twist on the faucet and pitch my head into the sink. The water stings the open slit, but the shock of cold feels good. I wrap a thick ball of toilet paper around my hand and soak the paper until the water numbs my fingers. I lift up my jean-shorts and dab the gouge in my thigh, then I haul back and pitch the wad into the wall. There’s a loud thump as the ball smacks into the tile. My ribs and back tug with pain, but it’s manageable. I smile at my reflection. I’ll wait for that useless cop to leave then I’ll handle this. “I’m coming you, you sonofabitch.”
When I step out of Gennaro’s Nicky and Dean are shoveling swirl ice-cream into their mutt faces. Dean nods, then elbows Nicky in the ribs. He twists around and smiles, a plastic spoon sticking out of his mouth. Nicky tosses his cup into the lot says, “We’ve been searchin’ for you.”
“I can tell.” I yank the cup from Nicky’s hands. I run my finger around the inside until I have a big glob of ice-cream and stick it into my mouth. It tastes how piss smells. Nicky stares down at his Converse. He’s just the tagalong. It’s Dean. He could’ve doubled back. I want to punch a hole in Dean’s face. But I need them, so I say, “You guys need a rest, right? Searching high and low, right?”
Dean points, “We knew you’d end up here.”
I lob the cup into the parking-lot. The ice-cream hits face-down, a star of melted swirl splatters the asphalt. “Unless I ended up in a ditch, or someplace else.”
Nicky pats my shoulder, “Are you okay?”
I give him a shove, “I’m fucking death warmed over, man. Look at my mouth, huh?” I step back. “Check this out.” I lift up my shirt. It must look worse than before. Nicky jerks his head back and pivots towards the lot. But Dean stares at the bruises, nodding slowly.
“Man, I’m sorry.” Dean says.
I boot Nicky in the pants, “It’s safe to look.”
He jolts, turns. “Maybe we should call the cops?”
“Great idea, Nicky. Then they’ll arrest us for trespassing.”
Dean gnaws on his thumbnail.
“You got no opinion on this Dean?”
“Well let me know how that goes professor.”
“Hey fuck you,” Dean says.
I point, “No fuck you.” Dean shoves his hands into his pockets. “You guys can play grabass. But I’m going back.” I step into the parking lot. About a football field away is Leo’s Chevelle, the door swung open.
Dean stands next to me, bumps my shoulder. “We’re all going back.”
We cut across the shopping center, then arc wide and cross the street. We sneak into the bushes that separate the townhouses from the rest of the lot. Pinned in the bushes are beer cans and bits of garbage. A 747 buzzes over our head, its wheels extended. We cut through the path until we’re behind the sign. Leo’s car is still there. The door hangs open, the ajar bell ringing.
“Maybe he left,” Nicky whispers.
“His car is still there stupid,” Dean says.
“Shut up,” Nicky says.
“Can you both shut up?” I crouch and my body aches. I rub my side, say, “Bunch of third graders. Ever think he’s prowling around the weeds for us?”
“No way,” Nicky says.
“He’s right,” Dean crouches next to me. He swipes the dirt. “What’cha wanna do?”
With the moonlight across his face Dean looks pale. His lip twitches, but he bites his nail, hiding his fear. I imagine lying face in the dirt again and my body vibrates, as if there’s a turbine thrumming inside my guts. Since we formed a gang, I was always the one. The first to throw the sucker-punch. Climb through the window. Scale the fence. If I bailed, at first, Dean and Nicky would be happy, thankful. But after a week or so, they’d remember the scenario differently. Call me a scrub, as if they were willing to cross the finish line. Then there’s explaining these bruises to my father. How I lost, ran. How his son isn’t just a dropout and an unemployed failure, but he’s also a coward. Where would that leave me?
“Fuck it.” I pop up, stomp out of the weeds and march towards the Leo’s car. As I pass the sign I boot something. It’s that brick. I grab it, ignoring the stab of pain, and walk until I’m standing behind the trunk of Leo’s car.
“Hey, you mangled faced bastard,” my voice cracks with anger. The houses are dark, casting shadows everywhere. I yell louder, “C’mon you sucker-punching hump.” Behind me Dean and Nicky start cursing and threatening.
Then I hear “You came back,” in a low, grated voice, as if he has bottle-caps lodged inside his throat. We twist around and Leo is strolling out from behind one of the houses. He swats the stick and my whole body aches, but I grip the brick tighter and stand my ground.
He pushes his hat brim high on his bald head. He smiles, flashing his empty mouth. “Dumb kid actually came back.”
“I’m standing here ain’t I?”
“Good.” He whips down the stick, as if it were a hatchet. Nicky mumbles about jetting. Dean starts to drift. “Good.” Leo reaches behind his back, “Cause now I’m gonna kill you,” and swings around a bayonet. A streak of moonlight runs the length of the blade. Leo grins, his lips curling towards his nostrils. Dean pulls on my shirt. Nicky screams from the sidewalk. Tells me to run. Get out of there. Leo stabs the air with the bayonet. “I’m gonna filet you eyeball to asshole, kid.” He edges towards me, his legs wide, stopping with each step, letting his promise sink in. He swats his nightstick, takes a step. He slashes the air, takes a step.
I tuck the brick deep into my palm, curling my fingers into the chewed concrete. He takes another step. Behind me, I hear the slap of car-doors. The rattle of shopping carts. Everything but my crew. He’s close now. I can see the creases in his forehead, deep slits like cracked dirt. I count about six feet between us. This is it. I growl, “I got a present for you.” I charge three short steps and launch the brick, aiming at his gut. As my arm wheels around, my shoulder pops, goes dead. My fingertips tingle. I clench my arm as the brick cuts through the air, an arrow, a bolt of lightning, hurtling towards him.
Then the magic happens. Instead of sidestepping the rocket, Leo crouches, wrists on his knees, his eggplant head craned forward. His face explodes. Blood and snot spray outward. His neck jerks back, unhinged, as he bellows this animal groan. He collapses onto his knees, then, hands at his sides, tips flat onto his face. He’s sprawled on the ground, a halo of blood orbits his head, syrupy in the moonlight. His left leg twitches in sets of three. The bayonet blade is stuck in the dirt. His fingertips touch the grip of the club.
Dean says he’s dead. And they run. Let them. I circle Leo, far enough so he can’t grab me, then lean towards him. He’s alive. When he breathes, his nose hisses, like when you bleed a radiator. He’s pissed himself. A wet stripe runs down the inside of his pants, curling around his calf. He smells like beefy sweat, a kennel dog. Watching him face down, half-dead in the dirt, there are people, like my grandfather, who despite everything would still feel bad for this maniac. But it feels good. It feels easy. Like I could do it again. I boot him in the ribs. “Didn’t see this coming, heh?” He gurgles something, but the words are slicked with blood, mumbled gibberish. “Thought so.”
I can feel the welts darkening into bruises, poisoning my insides. My left arm feels floppy, limp and useless. I point my toes and punt him in the ribs. There’s a satisfying thud. I kick him again, harder. His body lifts, rolls back. I want to kick him until my leg turns into ice, until the shockwave shatters the windows of the townhouses, until my father feels an unexplained pinch in his side.
But then, from behind me, I hear a voice, Gramps, or maybe my grandfather, whisper, “That’s enough, son.” His hand touches my shoulder, his fingers curling gently into the muscle. Without turning, I shove his hand. But I can still feel the old guy behind me, drunk and ghostly, wearing that confused look, having no idea how this mess got started. He watches me until he can’t stomach anymore, tells me I’m just like the rest. Then he drifts away. And I kick and kick and kick.
John lives in NJ with his wife and family. Some of his other work has appearing in Evening Street Review.
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