|Oct/Nov 2015 Fiction|
Image courtesy of NASA and the University of Arizona
How the Hell did Jaggerbush get himself up there? He was clawing his way up into the open window above the Science class door like a real-life gargoyle. The blockhead of a wooden mallet stuck out of the back of his Toughskins where his butt crack was. He wore three sets of the scuba mask goggles they made you wear to keep your eyeballs from boiling out of your skull in case there was an explosion in class. He wore one over his eyes like a normal human being and one around his neck and one on top of his head so his brown hair stuck up all around it like weeds in the cracks of the sidewalks. Just one of anything was never enough for my little brother. I didn't know what he was up to; he never revealed his secret plans to anybody, not even me. He just hatched them. Then I'd have to swoop in to the rescue, as usual. Jaggerbush slithered through the window and was gone. I stood guard under the window waiting to catch him in case he fell during his escape. That's what brothers were for.
Who was yelling my name now? The voice was deep like a full-grown Wookie's. I turned around. Aw, Hell, it was Craig Barley.
Every kid in the hallway swerved out of Craig's way like he was surrounded by an invisible force field. He stomped toward me with his chest sticking out. His arms hung away from his sides gunslinger-style.
I wasn't about to run away like some sissy, even if Craig Barley was the baddest eighth-grader at Saint Augie's. And that made him the baddest school-wide. One time, he punched a hole straight through a car window and didn't even go to the hospital to get stitches. He just let his arm gush blood till it stopped.
He squared off in front of me and pushed his black hair back away from his eyes and looked down on me. It was parted down the middle and flipped behind his ears. I think they called it feathered. He had a mess of hair on his upper lip. Even his blue flannel shirt looked tougher than the terry cloth one I was wearing. I shifted my right foot behind me and stood my ground.
"I'm fighting J.D. Wheeler after school," Craig said. "Soon as I start beating his face in, no doubt his kid brother will jump in. What's his name?"
"He's in sixth grade with you, right?"
"I don't have any little brothers or cousins, so when Denny piles on, I want you to jump in on my side."
Whoa! Big, bad Craig Barley versus J.D. Wheeler in a battle royale, and Craig wanted me to back him up. He wasn't as stupid as Jaggerbush said he was.
J.D. was real hard. He played middle linebacker for the football team. He was always spearing players on the other team in their head with his helmet. He crushed one kid so hard they drove an ambulance right onto the field and carted him off on one of those hospital beds with shopping-cart wheels. If anybody could give Craig Barley a fight, it was J.D. Wheeler.
"Not afraid are you?" Craig said.
Craig's laugh sounded Wookie, too. Something ka-boomed on the floor behind me. I looked.
Jaggerbush was down, flat on his back.
"Nice catch," he said.
Craig whacked me in the shoulder like I was one of his buddies. I did my best not to budge when he did it.
"Be at the bottom of the Legion Street city steps after school today."
I watched all the kids sidestep out of Craig's way when he walked down the hallway. Then I went to help Jaggerbush up, but he had already disappeared.
I sat in Sister Anna Banana's class wishing my telekinetic powers would kick in so I could make the clock hands move faster. I had a fight to get to! Sister Anna Banana drew maps of the Soviet Empire and America on the black chalkboard then drew a bunch of rainbow-shaped dotted lines between the two super duper powers with little mushroom clouds where the pots of gold should've been.
"Of course, Pittsburgh will be a target because of our steel mills," she said. "So, unless you want to perish in a fiery nuclear exchange, pray for peace. And say a special prayer for our new president, Ronald Reagan."
I didn't like hearing about thermal nuclear war and my skin melting and the planet exploding every day in Religion class, especially since I had my own battle plans to think about.
Some people at school may've thought Denny was the toughest sixth-grader. But I'll tell you what, if Denny Wheeler thought he could beat me because he lifted weights and was on the football team, he'd better think again. I didn't like to brag, but I could whip him any day of the week and twice on Sunday. But I wasn't one for starting fights, even though I wound up in them all the time. When kids from other neighborhoods invaded the Red Brick Alley while we were playing Murderball or Kill Quasimodo or Human Missile Command or Spinal Cord Snapper, I was always the one who had to stand up to them.
I wasn't sure if I was on the right side this time. It wasn't like America verses the pinko commies. Craig never messed with me or Jaggerbush, but he picked on Fantastic Freddie and Ding Dong and Antonio and our other friends. And I didn't really have anything against J.D. or Denny Wheeler. But they did think they were better than everybody, their whole family did, even their turned-up nose sister, Emily, and she was only in the second grade. I was just glad to be on somebody else's side for a change. Maybe if me and Craig became buddies, I wouldn't have to be the first one into battle every single time, and I wouldn't always be in the principal's office listening to Sister Kelly scream about turning the other cheek and asking me how'd I feel if I ever did permanent damage to one of my classmates.
The dismissal bell rang over the PA, and I peeled out and gunned it down the slippy hallway steps. Sister Kelly's voice screeched off the walls. I slammed on the brakes, my Pro-Keds skidded across the stone floor, and I eased around the corner nice and slow.
Sister Kelly had a death-grip on my little brother's wrist. Jaggerbush wasn't even trying to bust loose, but she still held his skinny arm like it was a leash and he was a wild dog she couldn't tame.
"If you didn't turn all those classroom crucifixes upside down, then who did?" she jerked his arm like she was trying to start a lawnmower. She was already having one of her asthma attacks.
"Devil's Night is coming," Jaggerbush said. "Maybe it was Dark Lord Lucifer."
"Please refrain from uttering that horrid name inside the walls of this school," she gasped for air.
Why didn't she buy herself an inhaler? Such a cheapskate.
Jaggerbush said, "Maybe this place is turning into another Amityville whore."
"The word is horror! Horr-or! Two syllables!" If she kept sucking wind like a pufferfish, Nurse Hatcher would have to jab a hole in her throat and ram a straw in there. Jaggerbush looked at me and laughed.
I always told Jaggerbush about my fights in case I got ganged up on. I was a year older than him, so I was still his big brother even if he was taller than me. We didn't have any big, big brother to fight our battles. It was just the two of us. But not this time. I spun around and laid tire for the door. It looked like Jaggerbush had to stay after school anyway.
A bunch of kids were already jammed up into a big circle at the bottom of the Legion Street city steps. I pushed my way through the thick huddle until I spotted Craig. I tugged on the back of his flannel. He spun around ready to hit whoever did it. But then he saw it was me.
"Ringer! Ready to kick some ass?"
He cocked his right arm back to punch me. My fists popped up in front of my face the same way your leg kicks when the doctor clonks your knee with that toy hammer.
"That a boy," Craig laughed.
He rolled up his sleeves. His scar zigzagged like a lie-detector test all the way from the front of his fist to the meat of his forearm. It was deep and pink and ugly and looked like it still hurt. He'd have it for the rest of his life.
All the kids in the circle were yelling like they were on the sidelines of a Steelers playoff game. There was even a gang of girls from the cheerleading squad chanting, "K-I-L-L, Kill! Kill!" The only thing missing was the Terrible Towels. It seemed pretty even between the kids rooting for J.D. and the kids rooting Craig.
I looked across the circle. Denny Wheeler stood there staring dead at me. He looked exactly like his brother, only smaller. Same blond hair, same blue eyes, same tall forehead. All the Wheelers looked like German G.I. Joe action figures with their stiff backs and square shoulders and perfect haircuts.
Craig and J.D. walked to the center of the circle like pit fighters from back in Conan the Barbarian's time. They cursed at each other and said a bunch of nasty stuff about each other's mothers and grandmothers and great grandmas. I never understood the deal with all the name-calling, especially the stuff about mothers. It wasn't a talking contest. If they wanted to fight, they should square up and get to it.
Denny was still staring me down. He may've been one of Saint Augie's starting running backs, but he never played football with us in the Red Brick Alley. We played tackle in the street if it snowed or not. We didn't need fancy helmets or shoulder pads or that dumb pad they made you wear on the top of your butt. He started pacing back and forth like he was the undisputed sixth-grade champ of the North Side of Pittsburgh.
A bugle sounded inside my head and I was the only one who heard it. I peeled out across the center of the circle. Craig and J.D. both jumped back when I rocketed between them. Denny stood there on his heels looking at me like I was nothing. I put my head down and hit him dead in the heart with my shoulder.
He flew backwards before I could wrap my arms around him and landed flat on his back. He sounded like a bundle of Sunday newspapers hitting the sidewalk when the driver threw them off the back of the truck. I pounced.
I landed sitting on his chest. He didn't even fight back, he was too busy making that squealing noise people make when they get every ounce of wind knocked out of their lungs. I reared back my fist to go clobbering time on him.
"I give," Denny squeaked.
"I give, I give."
I stood up and backed away in case he was playing possum. But he laid there breathing all funny. The crowd went quiet. I walked back across the inside of the circle toward my side. Everyone was staring at me like I threw a rock through a stained-glass window. Uh, oh. J.D. was making his way toward me. Craig just stood there watching. He was supposed to back me up. What the Hell was he waiting for?
J.D. walked right by me. He didn't even bump me with his shoulder or anything.
"Stand up," J.D. shoved his brother in the butt with the side of his Pro-Ked. "You're an embarrassment," he said and walked away. Denny staggered to his feet and limped along behind him.
"That why they call you Ringer?" Craig said.
"Sort of. It all started in the first grade."
He basketball-palmed the top of my head and shook it like I just scored the winning touchdown.
The circle of kids disintegrated, and everyone headed home. Some of the cheerleaders looked angrier than J.D. Wheeler.
Craig pulled a pouch of tobacco out of his back pocket and stuck a brown wad in the corner of his mouth. He offered me the pouch. It smelled sour and sweet at the same time, like poison.
I shook my head. I never chewed tobacco or took a single puff of a cigarette in my whole entire life. I ate my Wheaties, I even ate Jaggerbush's vegetables when Mom wasn't looking. He for sure wasn't about to eat them.
"It's cool. I'll show you how some other time," he headed toward the city steps with his four tall buddies.
"Hey, Craig," I said.
His friends looked at me like I opened their fridge and drank their Kool-Aid without asking, but Craig walked back toward me.
"Make up your mind, little bro, you want a pinch of chew or not?"
"What're you doing for Halloween?"
"This and that."
"How about you be Batman and I'll be Robin."
"We can patrol the streets, and if we catch the criminal element snatching little kids' bags, we'll put a stop to it."
"Sure, we'll be the Dynamic Duo," he tapped me on the chin with his scarred fist, then caught up with his friends. I watched them march up the rickety wooden city steps like they were headed to the locker room after a victory. I wanted to go with them, but I ran home instead. I had work to do.
If I was fighting crime Halloween night, I needed a real costume, not one of those cheapo ones that came in a cardboard box with the see-through plastic in the lid. I promised Mom I'd stay out of trouble and help around the house, so she gave me a hand with my Robin uniform. She said she was thrilled I wasn't dressing up as a soldier or anything else that carried a gun or samurai sword or war hammer or nunchucks or any other deadly lethal weapon.
The Goodwill smelled so dingy and dusty, it made the inside of my nose itchy. We found a yellow curtain for a cape and a red vest and black mask that covered just my eyes. Mom said she would even show me how to sew a letter "R" over my heart.
"Sewing's for girls," I told her.
"You show me the comic book where Batman and Robin's mothers sew their uniforms for them, and I'll be your seamstress."
"Bruce Wayne and Dick Grayson are both orphans."
"What can I tell you, kiddo, you weren't born that lucky."
I didn't know how to tell Jaggerbush I wasn't trick-or-treating with him since me and Craig were going to be the Caped Crusaders, so I worked on my costume next to the furnace down in the cellar like it was the Batcave underneath Wayne Manor. I must've stabbed myself a billion times with that damn sewing needle.
Everyone wore their costumes to school on Halloween day. But I didn't. Craig told me we shouldn't reveal our secret identities.
At recess, I sat with the other Red Brick Alley boys on the stone wall that ran along the border of the school playground. Ding Dong dressed up as a millionaire and wore a suit and top hat like the guy on the Monopoly board. But he still looked filthy dirty. Antonio was a rooster with big fake red feathers. His mom made his costume for him. She was always spoiling him. Fantastic Freddie was a big fat Ninja, just like every year. Jaggerbush changed into his Satan costume right there on the playground. Sister Kelly banned all devil and demon costumes last Halloween after Jaggerbush declared war on the kids who dressed like angels and saints. It was a massacre. He smashed Chris Cutler's halo with the pitchfork he made out of an old mop handle and duck tape. He ripped Becky O'Leary's wings off and jumped up and down on them. And Skinny Scotty had no business dressing up as Samson; he got choked half to death with his own wig. Sister Kelly screamed so loud I thought those round glasses of hers were going to shatter.
Jaggerbush's defense: "God started it."
Ding Dong asked me where my costume was. I said it wasn't ready yet, which wasn't a complete lie. I felt kind of dumb sitting there in my regular school clothes with everyone else in costume. But I wouldn't feel dumb once nighttime fell on the city, and me and Craig kept the streets safe from the forces of evil.
"Let's meet in the Red Brick Alley as soon as it gets dark," Fantastic Freddie said.
"We should start on the right side of Marshall Avenue," Ding Dong said. "The houses are bigger there, odds are they pass out more expensive candy."
"Cock-a-doodle-doo!" Antonio said, and popped a Candy Corn into his beak.
Jaggerbush aimed his claws at the kids running around the playground and mumbled to himself like he was casting spells on them. It sounded like the Latin parts of Mass. I kept my lip zipped. I didn't want it to slip that I wouldn't be there.
Whoa, only one man could holler that loud. Father Morgan the Organ. He was wearing a green army costume and black combat boots with the longest laces of all time, and he had a rifle slung over his shoulder.
"Get your ass over here!" he yelled.
I ran toward him. What did he want this time? I couldn't afford to get in any trouble. I had to protect the streets of Gotham later.
"Did you beat up Denny Wheeler?" Morgan the Organ said.
"Don't dare lie to me."
I didn't throw a single punch at Denny. All I did was level him with a human torpedo Donnie Shell hit. Morgan the Organ tilted his helmet back and looked at me the same way Dad looked at the tires on our car before we went on a long drive.
"Why don't you join the football team instead of wasting your time playing grab-ass? Your school could use your help."
I shrugged. I never signed up because practice was after school and that's when I did stuff in the Red Brick Alley with my friends. And now that I was going to be hanging out with Craig Barley, I definitely wouldn't have time for practice.
"Not afraid, are you?" Morgan the Organ said.
"Hel— uh, heck no."
"Then what's stopping you, son?"
"Where'd you steal that Colonel Klink costume?" Jaggerbush said.
"It's no costume," Morgan the Organ said. "It's my uniform from when I was in the Corps. Still fits."
"You headed back to the Viet Congo?" I said.
"Nam! Viet-nam! Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, who teaches you geography?"
"Did you win?" Jaggerbush said.
"The war…" Father Morgan looked down at the black asphalt. "...ended."
Jaggerbush pointed at him and laughed, "Losers!"
Father Morgan the Organ unslung his rifle and checked to see if it was loaded. We all scattered, except for Jaggerbush. Morgan aimed right at my brother's heart. He tilted his big head behind the sight even though he was at point blank range.
Somebody yelled, "He's going to execute Jaggerbush!"
Jaggerbush stuck his pointer finger into the barrel of the rifle and held his red pitchfork over his head like Poseidon's trident and said, "I've got you outnumbered, one to one."
Father Morgan plucked his rifle off Jaggerbush's finger and slung it back over his shoulder. He pulled his helmet down so low over his big square face, you couldn't see his eyes.
"Semper Fi, boys," he said, and walked away.
I sat on the concrete floor under the bare light bulb hanging from the rafters, trying to attach a little sack of marbles to my utility belt.
I didn't want to answer.
"Darkness is here," Jaggerbush said, walking down our cellar steps in his red devil costume.
"Go ahead. I'll catch up."
"Don't try to outlie the emperor of lies."
Jaggerbush was right. When it came to lying, he was invincible.
"I'm meeting Craig Barley," I said. "He's going to be Batman."
"What about us?"
"I'm getting too old to be trick-or-treating with you guys."
His eyebrows crinkled up like he was looking at a tough math problem on a chalkboard.
"You're no Robin," he said.
"Yes, I am. I'm small and acrobatic and tough and fast. We even have the same short black hair. I'm the best Robin ever."
"He's a stupid sidekick."
I jumped up, "He's a Batman-in-training!"
He pointed his pitchfork at me, "Robin, the Boy Blunder?"
I swatted the pitchfork out of his hand. I wanted to break it over his skull.
"And Barley's no Batman." He picked up his pitchfork. "He's a Bozo."
I went to stomp the pitchfork out of his hand. But his grip was too tight. It snapped in half. I didn't mean to do that, really I didn't. But my mouth was still revved up.
"Serves you right," I said.
Jaggerbush looked at me the same way people were always looking at him, like what he'd just done broke the laws of nature. Then his face shape-shifted. He just stared me in the eye, not angry like he was going to punch me, or sad like he was going to cry. It was weird. I'd never seen that look before. But it made the inside of my ribcage feel crappy. He left his broken pitchfork on the floor and walked back up the cellar steps, his red cape dragging behind him.
The Legion Street city steps leaned sideways like they were made out of an Erector Set whose nuts and bolts weren't tight enough. Craig Barley's house was at the top. I kept an eye out for missing steps, but it was hard because someone busted the streetlight. The wood creaked as I climbed up. There must've been hundreds of steps, half so rotted out they were soft under my feet.
I made it to the top without falling through. I knocked on Craig's screen door. They didn't have any decorations up, and their porch light wasn't on.
"We ain't giving out any sweets this year," Craig's Grandmother called from inside.
"I'm friends with Craig."
She opened the wooden door a few inches without undoing the chain. Orange light from the TV glowed behind her like radiation. I could barely see her face.
"What an adorable costume! Who're you supposed to be, Gorgeous George?"
"I'm Robin, the Boy Wonder."
"Just look at that pretty yellow cape."
I almost said there was nothing pretty about it, but I caught myself. I didn't want to be disrespectful.
"I'm looking for Craig."
"He's bound to be up on the avenue by now. You shouldn't be roaming around all alone, as little as you are, honey."
"I can take care of myself."
I ran up Legion Street toward Perrysville Avenue. Five older kids came walking in the opposite direction with white pillowcases full of candy slung over their shoulders. Their costumes were so sad, they were barely even costumes. One wore a construction hardhat, one wore a cowboy hat, and one wore a red handkerchief tied in a triangle on top of his head. One guy wore a paper bag on his head with three holes in it like the Unknown Comic. The one at the head of the pack walked with his chest sticking out and his arms out wide like he was all big and bad, but he looked like a goof. He had on the dumbest clown makeup ever.
I didn't want to run straight through the whole gang of them, so I cut into the street and ran alongside the parked cars.
I stopped. The big clown turned toward me and plucked the red ball off his nose. What the Hell? Craig Barley!
"Cool costume. Your mom make it for you?" he said.
"You're not Batman."
"But you said..."
"Where's your candy bag?"
I didn't have a candy bag. We were supposed to fight crime. What a punk! Him and his dumb friends were stupid idiots, the morons. I should've never backed him up against the Wheeler brothers. I felt like cursing up a storm. I was so God damn mad, I almost kicked dents in both his shins. I didn't care if he did beat me up.
His friends laughed at me. And he laughed, too. I reached for my utility belt.
"Come on, little bro," Craig said. "Tag along with us."
I whipped a handful of marbles at them. I threw sidearm and let them roll off my fingers so the marbles would fling scatter-shot and hit every one of them in their stupid heads. I heard one bing against the hardhat. I peeled out at full speed. They swore like crazy, but they were laughing, too. They didn't chase me. They must've known they couldn't catch me.
I didn't know where I was going, I just ran and ran and ran. I ran down dark alleys I'd never been to before. What good was Robin without Batman? I wanted to rip my stupid cape off, but I was in top gear and couldn't stop my legs from running. People on the sidewalks yelled at me.
"Look, it's Robin, the Boy Hostage."
"Run home to Alfred, you little sissy."
"Batman finally leave you for Catwoman?"
"I hope the Joker poisons your candy."
I was tempted to turn into Bizarro Evil Robin and break all their faces and take their candy and throw it in the street. But I just kept running though the dark.
I ran out of gas somewhere past Riverview Park. Nobody knew who I was all the way out there. I ripped my mask off and wiped my eyes with my cape, then untied it and let it fall on the sidewalk. I wasn't crying. My eyes were watering because my mask wasn't built for sprinting at top speed. Bozo Barley! I didn't care if I had to wait until I was all the way in high school, I was going to pay him back. I ripped my red vest open, and the buttons shot into the street. The inside of my ribcage felt strange. It wasn't sore like my engine was overheated, it felt like my battery died. My body shivered even though I was usually impervious to the cold. I crushed my mask like an empty milk carton and dropped it in the gutter and walked home.
Back in the Red Brick Alley, Jaggerbush and Ding Dong and Fantastic Freddie and Antonio sat in a circle underneath a streetlight swapping candy. They all sat Indian style except Jaggerbush, he knelt on one knee like the men who shot dice in the doorways down on Charles Street. None of them spotted me in the dark.
"Give me two Zagnuts for one Clark Bar," Jaggerbush said.
"No way, that's a rip-off," Ding Dong said.
"Fine. Give me three Zagnuts for one Clark Bar."
"How many times do I have to tell you how to negotiate? You're supposed sweeten the deal, so I take it."
"Who goes there?" Fantastic Freddie yelled, holding up a Japanese throwing star.
I stepped under the glow dome of the streetlight. Nobody said a word. They all looked at me like they didn't recognize me, except for Jaggerbush. He didn't take his eyes off Ding Dong's sack of candy. I didn't know what to say. I stood there for such a long time, it felt like I didn't belong there. But not like before when I felt like I belonged somewhere else. Now I didn't belong anywhere.
Jaggerbush shoved Fantastic Freddie over and made a gap in the circle, "Give my brother some room."
I sat down in the circle. Jaggerbush dumped his pillowcase of candy out between me and him. Antonio tried to snatch one of his Peppermint Patties. I slapped his hand quicker than a cobra strike.
"Serves you right," Jaggerbush said.
He made a Karate-chop fist and sawed his mound of candy in half and pushed a pile in front of me.
"Last chance, Ding Dong," he said. "Fork over four Zagnuts for a Clark Bar."
"That's not the way it works!" Ding Dong said.
"Who died and made you king rule-maker?" Jaggerbush said.
"They're not my rules."
"Whose are they?"
"Everybody's," Ding Dong said. "Civilization's."
"This ain't civilization," Jaggerbush said. "This is the Red Brick Alley."