by A.N. Block
“Think that hurt?” Dad asked, but I was rubbing my ear so hard, planning revenge, I could barely hear him. “Start one more fight, smart guy, keep getting in trouble in school and you’ll see.”
“How many times do I have to tell you,” I blurted out, “I did not start. It was___”
Then he smacked me so hard my head turned and eyes went blurry.
“Don’t lie,” he said, pointing, “and don’t talk back. Think I’m a moron? All of a sudden, what’re you, the class clown? Think you’re a tough guy?”
Friday, the one supper the three of us all eat together. Half the neighborhood’s lighting candles and saying prayers; my old man here’s pinching my ear off, giving me a whack. Couldn’t wait for him to start hitting the bottle and nod off so I could go down and see who’s around.
By the time me and the guys pull Zeidman off him, Trip’s face is a bloody mess, he’s gasping for air. There’s four of us got Zeidman around the waist by the chain link fence in the corner of Second Street playground, and his arms are pinned but he’s yelling like a wild animal from Ramar of the Jungle, struggling and high stepping till he stomps on Rozzie’s foot.
“Shit!” Rozzie yelled. “Get him down, Sonny!”
So I tried not to hurt him, but I did. We had him pinned till he calmed down.
Lucky for everyone Rozzie’s foot didn’t get broke. He’s our All-Everything prospect, the high scorer. Trip didn’t fare so well.
“It was mostly my fault,” he told me later. “Man, I was just making a comment though, didn’t know he’s so touchy.”
“It’s his family,” I said. “They went through a lot. Before coming over.”
Me and Zeidman we’ve been hanging since second grade, since he moved to Brighton, playing ball and getting in trouble from the time we were eight, we’d kill for each other, but once we hit Lincoln last year things changed. For him and for me. Probably cause we both realized we weren’t going to be that good.
I’m on the squad now strictly for boxing guys out, setting picks for Rozzie and the rest of them. Can’t run with these guys, can’t put the ball in to save myself, not any more. All my best friends, they’re heading to varsity, it’s plain to see. Me? JV’ll be my last stop. In fact, it’s not definite I even make the team again, all depends on who’s coming in as a freshman. Same with Zeidman. And without the practices, going for Cokes later, who knows what’ll happen? I mean, not hanging with the boys, having someplace to be.
An overturned bookshelf, the chotchkies shattered. Hard cover books all over the living room carpet.
“Please,” I kept praying, staring at the mess, “get a divorce already.” I don’t give a shit what people think anymore, I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
Sunday, it’s supposed to be fun day, right? The day with no problems. It actually started out good. It’s me, Benjay, and Rozzie against Gary Ross, Billy Greco and Stevie Elman, our 10 o’clock game. Rozzie’s double teamed, of course, he fed me over his shoulder a couple times and by some miracle, I scored two layups and a few buckets off rebounds. And then this.
Mom sounded so destroyed, on the phone with her new best friend Francey, she must not have heard the front door slam.
I headed straight to the bathroom to clean up, trying to eavesdrop.
“Are you kidding?” she said, loud and clear the second I’m out. “He pursued me. No, I couldn’t find a job anywhere, was fresh out of high school, and Mort’s some salesman when he wants to be. You remember, everyone was down and out, and here’s this grown man after me, making a living, drives his own car. What did I know, it was very flattering. A six footer, you’ve seen him, a real shtarker, but so polite back then, such a sharp dresser, you wouldn’t believe it’s the same person. Us? We had nothing, we’d been on relief since I could remember. I wouldn’t say I was attracted exactly, no. Papa, he should rest in peace, I was the apple of his eye, I think he knew something was a little off, but he would never say a word to contradict my mother, he’d just sit in his chair and read The Forward. Her?” She laughed. “At first, of course, being the smart cookie she is, she said I could do better, she didn’t see what the rush was, but he started bringing flowers, boxes of Barracini chocolate, and he broke down her resistance. ‘So go ahead,’ Mama finally told me, ‘go with him. He’s not Cary Grant? So? You be the good looking one.’ And, after that, it was one two three, he gave me a ring, they shipped him overseas, and that was that. That’s when my nerves first started acting up. But,” and she paused, “I had no idea what I was in for. He came back a changed man.”
I grabbed a clean shirt and headed to the ground floor thinking, holy shit, you believe this? Here’s my own Mom saying no way I’d even exist on Earth if Dad wasn’t such a good bull shitter he won my Grandma over. If! The same Grandma nowadays who turns her head away when he bends to kiss her. If they weren’t so damn poor, if she wasn’t a naive young girl who didn’t know any better. If there wasn’t a war going on. It’s a whole lot of ifs.
In the vestibule I stopped to run my finger over the names in our building’s directory: Abramowitz, Abrams, Adelman, etc. No one splits up, not in this neighborhood. One family out of 72 in all 3250. Maybe two or three tops on our whole block, out of two hundred. It’s unheard of. I asked Grandma about it a while back.
“What are they torturing each other for?”
She just pressed her lips together, shook her head and looked out the window.
Hands down, worst day of the week! Hurrying down the Avenue under the el, past the fruit stands, pizzerias and hardware stores, I get my hopes up, my heart’s racing, even though I know school, if possible, is no better than home. Maybe they’re tied. Plus, I realize, I split without my notebook or gym bag and I overslept so I’m running a little late again.
“Lester,” my home room teacher, Mrs. Karp says, “you are not functioning properly. Not at all! Tardiness will not be tolerated. Next stop for you, if you don’t mend your ways, the Dean of Boys. Come up and take a zero.”
“I’ll take a zero,” I whispered out the side of my mouth. “Right here!”
Zeidman and the other guys are laughing behind their hands.
“What was that?” this dried up old witch asks, giving me the evil eye as I approach her desk.
My luck, I get the nuttiest whack job teacher in all Lincoln, she makes my parents look like the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and for whatever reason she’s got it in for me to the point if anything happens, even the other side of the room, I’m in her cross hairs.
So she’s giving a lesson, some bullshit about Civil Rights, the legacy of the late great JFK, and she stops mid-sentence, rubs her scabby scaly hands together and stares at me. “Lester Horwitz! Are you chewing gum?”
First of all, I asked her nicely, Mrs. Karp please don’t call me Lester. It’s Sonny! Oh, but Sonny is not an appropriate name for an educational environment, she told me.
So I have to admit, I pound the desk top, get up and open my mouth wide. “I don’t got any gum,” I tell her. I pull my empty pockets out of my pants and everyone cracks up.
“You sit down!” she says. “Unless I ask you to stand. And the rest of you keep quiet, this instance. I’m warning you, Lester. One more disruption and you’re going straight downstairs.”
That’s what I have to contend with in High School, this yenta on my case about chewing some imaginary gum.
My luck’s so bad probably due to my parents, the conflicting directions.
“Let him go down and play, Ruthie,” Dad would say when I was a little kid, back when I didn’t disappoint him so much to the extent he might’ve actually liked me. “Stop babying him, will you? Being around the other boys is more important than doing homework.”
“What?” she’d go. “Are you crazy?”
“Crazy? I didn’t do homework,” he’d say, “and, look at me, I’m making a living.”
That was an argument got repeated many times, but really it was any excuse.
Mom, for example, didn’t ever approve of my choice of friends. They were too wild, according to her, but Dad was like, “Oh, let the kid alone. What do you care?”
She would tell me, over and over, “People will judge you by the company you keep.”
Which, by now, tenth grade, “people,” (meaning adults), have no use for me anyways. They made their mind up long ago I was a trouble maker, and most of them warned their precious kindeleh to stay away from that Horwitz, so when I’m not playing hoops I’m hanging more than ever with the Junior Mafia. Which, for obvious reasons, I could never really be in with. But I do have to walk around twice as tough as all of them. For obvious reasons.
So, yeah, lately I’m getting in trouble like every day. Had to miss practice, cause I didn’t bring my stuff, asked Rozzie to tell the Coach I wasn’t feeling good.
“Oh, I forgot,” Mom said, when I got home. “Some little pisher was ringing the doorbell before, he was all excited. Wanted to talk to you. Barry something. Or Larry?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “He was ten years old. I never saw him before.”
I see Trip in World History. His head still has so many lumps, it’s like a potato, but at least he doesn’t need stitches and to his credit he kept his mouth shut, we all did, so by some miracle Zeidman didn’t get suspended. And Doctor Jay says Trip has to miss only one week of practice.
“You and Mikey shake hands yet?” I asked him.
“Zeidman’s still pissed,” he said.
Couldn’t keep my eyes open till this adorable chick Marcy Eisen, who’s on JV Boosters and in my French class, passed me a note about her party Friday night over by Luna Park.
“Bring Michael too,” she says after the bell rang.
“Yeah. Tell him it’ll be fun, he’ll have a good time.” She winked. “You both will, I promise. So come, all right? Please?”
This is the first pretty girl who invited me to a party since I’m in Lincoln and I got all psyched up, but I don’t know. Luna Park? The projects?
They’re getting along so bad, with overturned bookshelves, screaming their lungs out, by the time Dad gets home late, she doesn’t usually even tell him half the shit she threatened to all day, like she used to. She lets me have it herself before supper, but frankly, today I’m in no mood.
“Let me tell you something, Mister, the only thing your father ever did right was at least he used to punish you for being disrespectful. Now, of course, even he’s given up.”
“Is that right?” I say. “Well, you and him should be locked away in some mental institution. Maybe I should too. Me and Eddie, the whole family. What do you think of that?”
“Don’t you talk to your mother that way!” she yells, trying to slap me, but I block her hand. “And don’t bring up your rotten brother’s name.”
“Love you, Ma,” I say, quiet now, because I do feel bad making her cry, “but leave me alone. I just don’t want to be bothered. By nobody.”
“Nobody?” She stares, wipes the tears away and shakes her head. “My God, don’t they teach proper grammar in Lincoln?”
Another shit day, worse even than Wednesday.
This time it’s Mr. Prunella’s turn, my Bio teacher. I called out answers a few times, they happened to be right, but he pointed at me and says, “Horwitz, where do you think you are? Come up to my desk.” Then he goes, “Would you like to take another trip down to the Dean?”
So I’m like, “Where else is there to go? Do I have a choice?”
I didn’t mean it exactly like that, that’s just how it came out, but the whole class broke up.
Then I turned to them, waved and said, “I will return. It’s Mr. Lapidus down there now, and he’s a good guy, he doesn’t keep you all period,” so they all cracked up again.
The verdict: one full week of detention. Another note that my mother has to sign. One more problem and I’m off JV. Officially.
At night I head to the Boardwalk with a bunch of guys from the corner, screwing around, looking at the girls pass by in the short skirts, telling jokes. It’s a mild night, there’s all these old people on the benches singing folk songs, like there always is, so me and the boys head to the Pavillion and, big surprise, the minute we start playing Johnny On The Pony everyone clears out.
“Holy shit!” my buddy Salvi yelled when I started running. “Watch out guys, here comes a full load.”
“This eighth grader in my building,” I tell them, having a few laughs after the game, “he walks like this now, all stooped over from when I landed on his back, he’s so Jewish the kid’s first name is Bernstein,” and they’re all cracking up, slapping fives. Fiore brought a little something and we’re passing it around when who shows up, straight from Mermaid Avenue, but Ralphie the Scumbag. The squeaky voiced punk who sells overpriced firecrackers.
So this schmuck barges right into our circle, he ignores everyone else, walks up to Salvi, elbows him in the gut so he doubles over, then sticks his thumb at me and goes, “Hey! What do you hang around with this for? This useless piece of shit. Didn’t I tell you?”
Without thinking I rear back and punch him on the side of his ugly face so he falls over and almost blanks out.
“Holy shit!” Salvi yells. “What the fuck? He’s just kidding you. Ralphie, you okay, kid?”
The prick is still down, he’s rubbing his jaw, he’s like, “This faggit’s dead, all you guys are dead, just wait, every motherfucker here’s,” but it sounds so blurry and dazed, you almost couldn’t make out what he’s saying.
“Speak up,” I say, “fuck face. Who’s dead? Come on, asshole. You want some more?”
“What’d you say?”
“What did I say?" I turn to Salvi. “All of a sudden this prick don’t understand English. You moron, I said you can kiss my ass. Come on, do something.” And I take a step towards him.
Ralphie scrambles halfways to his feet, still rubbing the jaw, hunched over like Igor in Son of Frankenstein and he starts to slink away. “Wait,” he mumbles. “You guys’ll see, I got each of your faces. Memorized.”
“Holy shit,” Salvi goes again, rubbing his stomach. “Sonny! No way this is cool. Let’s get out of here, I’ve got to go make a phone call. You know who his cousin is, right?”
“I don’t care who he is. Who is he?”
Great, so now on top of everything at home and in school being messed up, I got Vinny Breschia from The Bayshore Victors after me.
I’m so rattled I messed up the World History quiz then ended up cutting French, last period. Me and Zeidman go to Luigi’s for pizza. I could be wrong but it seems like people are staring at me. Inside the building and out.
“Can’t believe school started just two weeks ago,” I said. “I’m already bored of education.”
“Yeah, I’m hip,” he said. “Two down, a million to go. So what’s this big problem I heard you got?”
I explain the situation, how it all went down, Zeidman nods and says, don’t worry about it, he knows a guy who knows a guy.
“Yeah, so? That’s what Salvi said. Everyone knows a guy who knows a guy,” I told him. “Don’t think I’m scared. I just don’t want to mess with this Breschia, from what I heard he got sent to a 600 school for pulling a knife on a teacher once.”
“Cool it, all right? I’m talking about my brother, Richie. You know he’s tight with Sammy Chacon and that crew now, right?”
Richie’s three years older than us, he’s starting to get in with some characters involved in certain things I don’t even want to know about, but I do know they’re activities that if you get caught you could wind up in jail. Which, on top of all the misery they went through, the bad luck they had, would tear his parents Esther and Izzy apart.
“So, you want to come to this party tonight at Marcy Eisen’s? In Luna Park? Come on.”
He gives me a look. “Nice piece,” he says. “What am I going to do though, drink some Pepsi and play Spin the Bottle? Dance the Twist? That’s more your speed. But do yourself a favor, buddy, don’t go anywhere till I tell you I got this straightened out. Lay low, will you? Besides, we got practice tonight, don’t we?”
I took his advice for once. Didn’t go, didn’t hear squat.
At home it was all quiet on the Eastern Front. Some kind of truce.
Hung around the block till early afternoon, then went bowling with Benjay and Buzzy and, I don’t know, something about the sound of the ball hitting the pins calmed me down a little. When I left, Mom said, we’re eating at 5 sharp, make sure you’re home. Her and Dad are actually going out somewhere. Together! So I took a little run, down to Manhattan Beach and back, and when I rounded the corner the clock on the bank said it’s only ten to five, so instead of going straight upstairs I hung out in front of the building, shooting the shit with Junior, the super’s son.
All of a sudden, this like fourth grader from the next building, Little Larry, this cute kid, he comes running over to me, all out of breath, almost in tears, “Hey, Sonny,” he says, rubbing his eyes, “could you help us?”
“Slow down, Larry, what’s the problem?”
“Come with me,” he says, motioning with his arm. “The backyard. There’s some kids bothering Smiley.”
I hear this and bolted down the ramp through the cellar, out back, no questions asked. Smiley’s my pal, he’s the best.
There’s at least ten groups of boys and girls in the block long alleyway behind our apartment house, all ages, playing skelly, playing Chinese, tossing a football and just hanging out, causing a commotion.
“Where is he?”
“America,” Little Larry says, pointing towards the brick wall at the end of the alley with the country’s name painted on it.
Two punks I don’t recognize, not from our block, have Smiley’s cap and they’re playing Saloojee, tossing it back and forth, while he’s trying to run, a big smile on his face, trying to catch it each time it gets passed.
“Woooh,” one of them says, waving the hat right after he caught it, shaking it at Smiley like he’s a toreador, “this retard can’t even hear us, look Butchie, he’s got a hearing aid.”
I bounded over and tackled this motherfucker around the waist, made him drop the hat, so Smiley came over and snatched it, still smiling, and the other kid’s mouth shot open.
“Go over by Little Larry,” I told Smiley, real loud. “Go ahead now.”
Larry had his arms wide open and they hugged each other. Poor kid couldn’t even talk, all he could do is grunt, but how good he is, he has a constant smile on his face.
So I have this one kid by the neck, I’m dragging him forward, motioning for the other one who’s cowering against the wall in the corner. He’s looking around but has nowhere to run.
“Come over here,” I said, “I’m not going to hurt you.”
The kid I’ve got meanwhile starts whimpering, so I let him go. They’re both like big twelve-year-old tough guys, garrison belts and all.
“He was laughing, Mister,” the kid who was walking slowly towards me said. “He was having fun, it was just a game.”
“You shut your mouth now and listen,” I said, pointing at him. Meanwhile a whole crowd of other kids from our block and 7th Street starts to gather around to see what’s going on.
“Kick their ass, Sonny,” someone yelled out at me. “Teach them a lesson.”
“What are your names?” I asked them.
“I’m Irwin,” the kid I’d tackled told me. “And that’s Butchie.”
“All right let me explain something to you, Irwin and Butchie. Taking advantage of someone like Smiley, making fun of them, is something you could go to hell for. Did you know that?”
They looked at each other, a little spooked.
“You don’t want to go to hell, do you?”
Now Irwin started crying and Butchie stood there with his arms folded looking around, trying to act tough but fighting back tears too. Because now they’re surrounded, there must be thirty-five kids all behind me, jeering.
“Quiet down, everyone,” I said.
“We don’t want to go to hell, Mister,” this Butchie said. “We didn’t mean anything by it.”
“First of all, stop calling me Mister,” I said. “I’m only fourteen. Just big for my age. So where you two from?”
“Twelfth Street,” Irwin said, sniffling, wiping his nose on his sleeve. “Near 225.”
“Oh, that explains it,” I said. I reached out my hand to shake both of theirs. “All right, go back to Twelfth Street and don’t come around here starting trouble no more or you and me are going to have a problem. And don’t ever pick on someone who can’t fight back again. You promise?”
“Okay,” they both said together, raising their palms.
“We promise,” Butchie said. “Can we go?”
“One more thing,” I told them. “Go over and shake Smiley’s hand and say you’re sorry.”
Smiley had a bigger grin than usual watching this.
“Shake their hand,” I said to him, real loud.
And he did, and everyone cheered and that was that, they left and everything went back to normal in the backyard.
Except just then I heard my mother calling down from the fourth floor window. “Sonny, where are you, it’s supper time, are you down there?”
“Be right up,” I called. I could see her head leaning out the window.
“I’m calling on you, it’s a half hour!”
“Okay, Ma, I’ll be right up. Five minutes.”
“Now!” she screamed, slamming the window.
“You okay, pal?” I asked Smiley.
His eyes opened wide, he nodded. Very enthusiastic.
“All right, Larry, I’m going to walk Smiley up to his house. You did a good job. Here, take this.” I reached in my pocket and gave him a quarter.
He took the coin, but his mouth flew open.
“Jeez, Sonny, what’s this for?”
“Doing a good job, like I said. If anyone bothers Smiley ever, you come get me, no questions asked. You know my apartment, right?”
“These same two were bothering him Monday, they stoled his money, I think. I rang your bell but your mother didn’t know where you were.”
“All right, Larry, very good, just keep your eye open.”
So I took Smiley upstairs, I told him in the elevator those kids won’t ever bother him again, he nodded, and I rang the bell.
“Hi, Mrs. Orenstein.”
She was in a house dress, with dark glasses, holding a lit cigarette. There was some weird music playing. Jazz.
“Oh, Sonny,” she said. Her voice was hoarse and deep as a man’s. “I haven’t seen you in ages, you’re getting so big. Want a glass of water?”
“No, thank you, Mrs. Orenstein, I just wanted to make sure Smiley, I mean Harold, got home okay.”
“Oh, you can stay for two minutes and have a glass of water, can’t you? Look at you, how big you are. Come in, tell me what you’ve been up to. How your family is. You have a girlfriend now?”
Long story short, two minutes turned into fifteen. Or twenty.
The minute I opened our door, Dad’s standing with his arms folded, like Mr. Clean.
“Hi,” I said. “Sorry I’m late.”
He just nodded, his mouth tight, sizing me up and blocking my path. His eyes weren’t bloodshot though, so I don’t think he’d had a drink yet, although who knows?