I retrieved Russell’s bike from our secret spot near the blackberry prickers. The bike is silver and has a small transistor radio tied to the back. When I flipped the switch WJLK 94.3 crackled to life with Paul McCartney singing one of my current favorite songs, "Take it Away". It lacks a little John, George and Ringo but it’s a great bike riding song. Static vibrated into the music until the tires hit the smooth macadam of East School Street.
"...may be listening to yaaaaa. Take it away! Take it away! After hours late in the baaaar, by a daaarkened corner seeeeat..." I sang out and popped my front tire up to cross over the sidewalk, navigating to the dirt path to kill my shadow in the long beige weeds of Howe’s field. It was reborn as I cut across the parking lot of Hanson's factory towards the back of Flynn’s Garage located at 479 Livingston Ave. Hank Flynn came around the corner when I entered the side lot. He gave a startled small wave and began talking as I approached, but I yelled, "…hold on, hold on…" and rode past.
Livingston Avenue wasn’t a hotspot of commerce but it had a few locations of note. McGinn’s shop, across from the garage, was the old train station turned dry goods store, one of my three favorite stores to purchase trading cards and candy. Inky’s and the 7-11 were my other two favorites but the 7-11 wasn’t on Livingston. Populating the rest of this section of Livingston were the Yorston’s Savings & Loan, and the closed Soap-N-Spin Laundromat across the street.
The hill towards the old Soap-N-Spin became somewhat steep but Joan Jett urged me on by singing "Crimson & Clover" over and over until I arrived and saw my reflection in the window. I straightened out the hood of my sweat jacket. My hair was blown back and I tried to pull in my protruding lower lip to fit my teenbeat look. Not bad. A little as if Anson Williams (aka Potsy from "Happy Days") was Hispanic and about ten years younger. It was hard to distinguish anything inside because of the reflection but when I pressed my glasses against the window, the veil lifted and a row of modern Easter Island monuments greeted me - mysterious and powerful machines that I had no idea about when or how they’d gotten here. Well, maybe some idea. The unremarkable-hardly-different-from-Pacman Ms.Pacman was right up front, and there was Tempest, Gorf and Centipede, and the last, before the dark made it impossible to read, was a game called Journey. I wished it were open now. Looking at a room of unplugged video games was as disappointing as nudes in National Geographic. Russell would certainly be happy to hear about the posted sign: "Join us for our grand opening October 1st!" I briefly worried about the effects of his financial status and if he’d ever have the money to join me. Would getting there with him be like our always talked about but never done trip to the Pierson mansion? I suppose I could always spot him the quarters.
The railroad signal started chiming just as I turned to ride back down to Flynn’s. I’d always considered it lucky if it went off when I was nearby. I turned and rode closer to the tracks as the long striped arms lowered and the dueling red lights flashed to block traffic. A disappointing nine cars zoomed past. I enjoyed a train at least thirteen cars long or more, but then I’d be happy if every day could have any kind of spectacular train enhancement. The whistles, the rhythm of the wheels, people and product following regular schedules, and the freedom – yes, the potential for freedom that travel offered – were all so attractive.
I coasted down to the open bay door of Flynn’s. Will's head wavered in rhythm to his raised voice as I entered. His back was to me and his hand with the missing fingers shook above his shoulder as he said, "...no way I’m going to be dealt with like some kind of Raggedy Andy."
"If you’d stop sucking down bottles like they were air," Hank retorted.
"Listen, you can’t be throwing folks out of places just because they look like they’ll fight. I hadn’t even started talking to the motherfucker. I hate that racist Speedway, hate it. Don’t know why I go back there. I’m decorated damn it."
"Why don’t you go to that place over on… Hey, hey there Jukebox," Hank said noticing me, patted Will on the arm and shuffled over. "Where’ve you been hiding? We’ve got some serious piles needing your expertise." He put his hand out to welcome me as if I’d been away from home for a long time. It’d only been thirteen days since I visited last. “Whoops, that’s right, no handshaking for Jukebox.”
I avoided touching others as often as possible. "Hello today Hank, and-and-" I started to get stuck in the verbal response. "…and hello. Today you are sixty-three years and thirty-five days old or twenty-three thousand and fifty-five days old or-"
"Or he’s so old he knew Mr. Clean when he had an afro."
"Okay-okay, and-and I’ll accept that, Will, thank you," I responded, a little nervous from the anger I sensed Will still was trying to suppress.
If my skin could be considered an integer of say two, a coffee-with-extra-cream brown, Will’s would be a Hershey bar eight or nine. At six feet one inch tall he looked a little like the boxing champ Cassius Clay aka Muhammad Ali and I often wondered if their resemblance was why he spent so many hours at the gym and in the ring when he wasn’t working. The mathematical equation I generated to represent our relationship was a balanced one, so I wasn’t that scared of him although at times he's given me reason to be. On many occasions, he shared his "hellhole" Nam experiences, which implied he saw me as a friend since mostly he didn’t want to talk about Vietnam. Two fingers on Will's left hand had been shot off but he could still do everything with it, even play guitar, though not anywhere near as good as Jimi Hendrix who he tried to mimic. When Will played, his eyes opened so wide and looked so bright you wondered if they glowed in the dark.
"You just missed Mi. She went to get us something to eat, probably got plenty if you want to join us."
"No thank you, Will. I will have to… eat something my aunt has prepared."
"Oh hey, listen to this. I got this one just for you. Yo aunt’s sooooo fat she’s thirty-six twenty-four thirty-six!" Will laughed, showing me his wrist, "but that’s her forearm neck and thigh!" and he pointed at me with his mouth open and continued laughing.
I stared in horror at the eleven scars on his arm while he laughed. They unnerved me each time I looked at them.
"There’s no way you’re my son. Anyone related to me would know laughing that hard at your own jokes is in poor taste," Hank said and shook his head.
"Does that mean uh, inches or uh, feet?" I asked Will seriously. Both Hank and Will stopped to think about my question and simultaneously burst out laughing.
"There you go, Juke. There you go. Hey so, you been warned, you know how Mi can be when she wants you to eat. She’ll be back anytime now," Will lit a cigarette and took a long drag.
Hank liked to say, "This ole gal has emphysema", when he talked about the garage and you could see what he meant with a quick glance around, stained yellow and smeared with oil. I felt tough standing amongst it all. There’s nothing like the great smell of the garage. Cigarettes, oil and gasoline. Both Hank and Will smoked Pall Mall’s and it surprised me that they hadn’t burnt the place down with how careless they were leaving lit cigarettes about.
The garage consisted of two bays with one for cars and the other for tools, but the whole place really acted as a big theater. The garage doors were always up when they were open for business and when Will raised them in the mornings, he liked to say things like "Let the show begin!" or "Introducing the glorious and world famous, Noooorth Baaah-runswick!" There’s a stoplight a block down the street and the cars and people on the street who’d stop for it were frequently the entertainment or fodder for commentary. Sometimes it seemed a never-ending battle for who could outwit the other, one wisecrack after the next until exhaustion supervened or a customer stopped in.
"Come on over here," Hank said, waving me along with him to where they kept the boxes of small parts. "We’ve got so many piles, it's getting out of hand. When would you like to make a little extra cash if not today?" Hank lifted the cooler open and pulled two bottles of Pabst Blue Ribbon for us from the frosty fog, cracking off the caps with the opener he’d nailed to the counter.
"Thank you," I said, incredibly happy about Hank’s lack of compunction over giving me beer. I took a big gulp and squeezed the remaining bitter fluid quickly down my throat. I sized up the bottle questioning a second swig but decided I’d been waiting too long for a Pabst Blue Ribbon not to drink it now. The next big gulp forced me to belch.
"Hey what’d I tell you about that?" Will shouted over.
"Excuse me for the one burp."
"No not you Juke, that old fool giving kids beer."
"Didn’t hurt you growing up did it? No wait, scratch that, here Jukebox give me that back," Hank said jokingly reaching for my bottle.
I raised it towards him but he waved at me to forget it.
"So dumb he’d take the Pepsi challenge and choose Jif," Will muttered under his breath.
"I heard that, bonehead," Hank said to Will and looked at me. "So when you want to come by and give us a hand?"
As great as Pabst Blue Ribbon was, I’d decided all beer tasted like a bathroom attendant’s sweat sock. The aftertaste in my mouth stewed but I took another swig, belched again and said, "I could come over uh, after school, 3:40 on Wuh-"
"Did you ask Mom about that Abel?" My cousin Shelly stood in the open bay giving us all a shock.
I looked to Hank, to Will and then back to Shelly. "I-I just got here-“
"I know you didn’t ask about coming here or about that beer you’re burpin’ over and if you don’t want me saying anything you’ll come with me, now."
"Hey it’s not nice blackmailing your little brother," Hank said.
"He’s not my brother and who asked you?"
"Whaaho, listen to little Miss thing," Will added.
Shelly put her hands on her hips. "Let’s go or we’ll miss the beginning."
I handed Hank the rest of my beer. "Thank you and I’ll see you Wednesday."
"Alright but don’t let her get you into trouble now."
"Okay-okay Hank." I followed Shelly to her orange Chevy Impala parked up the street.
Hank branded Shelly a troublemaker because earlier that summer when Pigpie sent her looking for me, a box of Chiclets went missing at the station. He said he knew he’d left them on the counter and when she left they weren’t there anymore. He said any woman that’d steal a man’s Chiclets "couldn't be trusted for anything." Hank loved his Chiclets. It was the only brand of gum he’d chew. I liked them too but mainly because they were candy-coated rectangles that reminded me of teeth.
I reluctantly slid onto the black leather front seat of Shelly’s car, moving my satchel into my lap and clicking my seatbelt around my waist. The day was starting to feel more complicated than I’d prefer and my mind raced for an excuse to get back out.
"You should be thanking me. I’m about to do you a big favor. Plus you shouldn’t really be hanging out with those filthy grease monkeys drinking beer. Don't you have any friends your age?" Shelly pushed the cassette tape into the player and turned up the volume.
"I uh, I forgot about Russell’s bike," I said partly to remind her about Russell being my friend.
Shelly had moved back to North Brunswick with Pigpie a year and a half ago. They’d been living in Washington State in another small town called Kelso, zip code 98626. According to Shelly, post-May 18, 1980 there were no tears shed when the police reported her father dead. He wasn’t among the fifty-seven official deaths from the eruption of Mount St. Helens but was crushed in an ash related accident on Interstate 5. Apparently, they amassed enough capital from his life insurance to do anything Pigpie wanted and she decided to traverse the continent to her hometown, back to dreary North Brunswick.
It is Bud and Mount St. Helens I actually blame for my misfortunes.
Shelly taught me a lot about lying. She explained how the stink in her father’s car was from “too many cigarettes.” Cigarettes smell one way, but when she turned on the air conditioner, this kind of ash scent was like nothing else. Though I must say it’s hard to smell anything over her new air freshener.
With her window down she ground the gears, shifting into second and began, "I was just driving around so pissed because they went to see this movie and Tina tells me she takes the guy Mike from the movie who she says is like one of John Travolta’s friends in Grease, and Stacy says she always liked surfers and took some guy Spicoli, and they ask who I’d take because I said I’d seen it Friday. They are such highpitch bitches because I could tell it was all about rubbing in the fact that they’d gone out without me because they’re jealous because I have Tommy." She lovingly touched the cherry air freshener that hung from the mirror.
"I said it wouldn’t be right for me to pick someone when I had Tommy but they said it was just a game and asked if I’d go for Rat or the science teacher guy. I said no way to Rat and if I had to choose I’d go for the science teacher even though he was old. I guessed about him being old because he’s a teacher but they just laughed anyway and said yeah right and I told them I like what I like and they laughed even harder. I told them that Paul Newman’s old and we all said he was hot when we saw Fort Apache, The Bronx. I hate them. So now I have to go see it before we get to school tomorrow and since Tommy won’t, I saw you in there and thought you can go."
Shelly took the shortcut past the Pierson mansion.
"Russell’s bike. I have to leave it in our spot."
She screeched to a stop at the side of the road. "Shall I let you out here or do you want to forget about the bike already. You’re going to the movies for free, my God, can’t you even thank me."
I looked at the boarded windows of the mansion and back at Shelly’s anger-squinted eyelids. "I always put it ba-"
“I always-,” I started again.
“Goddamn it, we’re going to be late. It’s safe with your greasy friends.” She squealed the wheels and sped away from the curb. “Oooh this is my favorite song,” she started singing along, “so free so right…" and banged to the beat in the air. I was now at Shelly's mercy so I pulled my journal out and wrote down a few conversation calculations from the garage. With the windows down and the warm late day air, I could almost imagine the school year hadn't yet begun.
Shelly stopped us before we got to the booth. With Pigpie for a mother, Shelly would need many years of private polishing school to make her anything close to cultured. She flipped her long feathered brown hair to make it wing and fluff out, pulled her white shirt collar up straight, flipped her hair again so it’d be outside her collar and breathing out said, "Okay I pretty much know this girl. She said hi to Tina once when I was with her I'm pretty sure but don’t mention that or anything because I’m gonna act like I never saw her before unless she says something. Play it cool and don’t ask her any of your dumb questions." She smoothed out the fabric on her boobs just before we got to the window.
On the marquee, it read An Officer and a Gentleman rated R, The Beastmaster rated PG and Fast Times At Ridgemont High with a lowercase r next to it. Shelly looked tough and could usually get what she wanted through intimidation.
Shelly pushed the fee under the glass and said, "Two for Fast Times.” The girl looked over at me and before she could say anything Shelly added, “He only looks young. What person under seventeen can quote Shakespeare?" Shelly looked at me pleadingly. I wasn’t sure if her eyes said: "don't dare say something dumb like you're only twelve" or "goddamn it, give a quote right now".
The ticket girl looked questioningly at me and I said, "Act one scene four. King Lear. Have more than thou showest, Speak less than thou knowest, Lend less than thou owest, Ride more than thou goest, Learn more than thou trowest, Set less than thou throwest; Leave thy drink and thy whore, And keep in-a-door, And thou shalt have more Than two tens to a score." Judging by her face, I'd impressed her.
I still felt nervous when Shelley gave our tickets to the old man who ripped them and let us through. The darkness of the crowded theater helped ease my discomfort, and as we found our seats Shelly harped, "I know she knows me, bitch didn’t even ask how I’d been. God, did you have to say whore? You’re lucky you’re not waiting in the car." She started applying lip-gloss as the previews began.
The theater delivered an aroma somewhat like the geriatric section of the hospital I visited Mom at in Missouri: piss, ammonia, and stale popcorn. I didn’t have to worry about anyone’s head being in my way so I didn’t care about the smell. I’d only ever been to two other movies in a theater. Uncle Ev took me to see Oh God!, and also my first, Logan’s Run.
Shelly grew incredibly restless after the scene where Mr. Vargas, the science teacher, who had a tiny chance of being a hideous distant cousin to Paul Newman, showed up. After Vargas commented about switching to Sanka she leaned over and asked me if I wanted to leave. Unless Descartes' remains were in a parade outside, nothing could pry me from my seat when I’d gotten this far through the movie. Shelly twitched, sighed, and cracked her knuckles until the ending credits started. I wanted to applaud and stay to read them all but Shelly got up. She marched out of the theater with her arms crossed until she snatched her keys from her pocket to open the car door.
The livid steam rising from Shelly's head flowed out the cracked window as we drove. She stayed silent until we arrived home.
"Just let me do the talking," she demanded before we got out.
My watch steadily ticked to 7:04:57 p.m but I didn’t need a watch to know the sunlight had gone. I doubted Shelly mentioned the movie or my going with her. What was I thinking? The thrill I'd felt about seeing an R rated movie quickly left me when I thought of what I faced. The yellow light emanating from the front porch said caution proceed with care so we snuck in through the back. I left my stained sneakers by the laundry machine. The combined smell of Tide and fried chicken filled my mouth with saliva as we walked into the house. I was starving. Edith Bunker's voice rang out from the TV in the other room.
"Hi Mom, I’m home. God, your chicken smells great. When’s dinner going to be ready?" Shelly said playing it cool.
"It was ready two hours ago," Pigpie shouted.
"Oh really? I thought when I left this morning you said we'd eat late tonight?" Shelly continued her unassuming air with great aplomb.
"Now why the hairy hell would I say that? You lie as bad as your father did. Have you seen Abel? He knows he’s supposed to be in by now. Kid can't even read a watch."
"He’s right here with me."
That got her up off the couch and into the kitchen holding her Pringles can. Shelly stood as tall as Pigpie but Shelly’s frame had nothing on Pigpie’s girth.
"Where were you?" she asked, hands planted on her hips.
The answer stuck in my throat.
"I took him to the movies. He never gets to go anywhere and I thought it'd be nice for him."
"The movies, on a Sunday night?" She turned to me "Irregardless of her being nice, you know damn well you’ve got school tomorrow."
I nodded as apologetically as I could and squeezed my satchel tightly in response to the torment her superfluous prefix addition to the word regardless, caused me.
"Shelly, no TV, go to your room and think about the time I wasted cooking your dinner. Abel sit down. There, sit at that chair."
I did as told and she slammed the Pringles next to me.
"But I’m hungry," Shelly whined.
"You’re hungry huh? Okay, okay." Pigpie flung open the refrigerator and took out a lump wrapped in tinfoil. She grabbed a paper plate from the pile on the counter, unwrapped the contents of the tinfoil, dropped it on the plate, and shoved it at Shelly. "Take it and move before I move you!"
"But it’s just the dirty leftover bones." Shelly griped holding the plate as far from her as she could.
"Dirty bones!" Pigpie swelled until she burst. "You think if Carl were alive you'd get away with… You want my sweat? That was dinner!" She smashed the plate to the floor. Shelly ran up the stairs.
I pulled my satchel close to my chest. Pigpie walked over towards the counter by the backdoor and picked up pieces of something. She slammed three sections of the chewed margarine bowl on the table knocking over the Pringles but no chips came out of the tall cylinder.
"What did I tell you about cleaning up that backyard? Next time you’ll come get me before you run off [slapping her thigh] and I’ll inspect and if I find any sign of any kind of crap like this crap [slap]" She swept the chewed bowl pieces onto my chest. "That mutt will be dragging itself around by its front legs because the back ones will be broke. And I even told you. [slap] I said Father Mullens was coming and you embarrass me? I covered for you and for our not going to church this morning but don’t blame me if they come and take you away.” Laughter came from the TV in the other room. She grabbed the Pringles can and started walking towards the TV. “I mean, I could tell he thought I wasn’t doing right by you when he said you were a sign of God’s grace." She halted at the doorway. "Father's trying to make me appreciate you and I even agreed to his bullcrap. You might know stuff but it ain't like you have God's phone number, and I am so nice to you." She turned, walked to my chair, and huffed, glaring at me with something else on her mind." He wanted another freebie but I talked him into going fifty-fifty and I was going to give you some of whatever we made but now you’ll just do it to pay me back for all I do." She kicked at my chair by her feet. "Do you hear me?"
People on the northern border of Russia and China heard her. She never mentioned anything about Father Mullens coming by and it pleased me that I’d missed the smarmy leech but I needed to prove I’d heard her to calm things down.
"Do you hear me?"
"You said-you said, ‘what did I tell you about cleaning up that backyard. Next time you’ll come get me before you run off and I’ll inspect and-‘."
"Oh it's gonna be cute huh? You’re home after sunset, embarrass me, I cook you dinner and-" She grabbed the used tinfoil from the counter. Her piggish huffing talk came full blast. The moisture in her mouth could fill a small fish tank. "For Christ you’ll learn, you can eat the rest. Chew it." She threw the tinfoil at me.
She’d made me do this once before, causing me to vomit, so this time I balled the tinfoil. I put it towards my lips and showed her that it wouldn’t fit in my mouth. She grabbed the ball from me, unraveled it, letting some of the chicken fat drip to the linoleum, ripped off a piece of foil, and shoved it at my mouth.
"Open!" she yelled, and when I did she shoved it in. "Now chew."
I have five silver amalgam fillings in my mouth, lousy thin tooth enamel to match my lousy lip genetics. If you’ve ever rubbed a fork or any metal object against your fillings you’d have a clue what it felt like to chew on Pigpie’s greasy chicken tinfoil. It’s a sensory experience akin to maybe licking a battery. Tears started to fill the edges of my eyes and my gag reflex began.
"Don’t start that bullshit. Don’t you start." She backed up from me and the audience laughter on the TV caught her attention. "Get your ass upstairs before I really lose my shit." She put the rest of the foil on the counter, and started shaking her Pringles can a little to see what remained. She walked away and I ran up the stairs, spitting the foil into my hand on the way, chanting A-hole A-hole A-hole in my head.