Monday, September 20th, 2010...9:45 pm
A “So-Long-Summer” Short Story for You
Here’s a short story I produced recently (pretty much, a true story:)
Summer Day, 1975
The chrome chopper parked in the back yard with its fork, longer than a grown man’s leg, and a padded sissy bar tall enough to take a nap on, belonged to George’s Uncle Salvatore. Sal was as tall and fat as any man still walking might come, with a hippie’s wild beard, a studded black leather jacket and chaps, and a faded T-shirt stretched threadbare.
I wasn’t interested in the motorcycle or in getting very close to such a wily giant, so I hung around the alley waiting for my big brother, Chris, and his best friend, George, to emerge. Maybe we’d go across Baltimore Pike where there was a motel that had an Evel Knievel pinball machine, and you could play over and over for free because the little wire that triggered the credit counter could be fingered through a hole underneath. Maybe we’d go climb the train trestle, an activity we’d come to see more like job training than trespassing, ever since George had spun the notion that we might, when we were old enough, petition the borough council for the funds to be employed as trestle painters. “You get a job painting a bridge, and it’s lifetime employment,” he told us with a bit of extra breath mixed in. “By the time you’re done, it’s time to start painting it again. And you can never be fired, because if you don’t keep it painted, it rusts and falls apart.” We would have the borough council over a barrel. For life. And nobody would have a job as fun as ours.
With his long, jet black hair and skin that tanned leathery in the sun, George looked like an Indian to us whiter boys. He wasn’t so reckless, though, to be the first to decide to choose Indian over cowboy. That was Chris, a risk-taker to counter George’s ponderous cool. George chose his words artfully, acting impulsively only in anger or fear.
The spring smacked the back door shut behind George, who was scowling as he kicked off the steps and strode down the narrow dirt path between his little sister’s swing set and his father’s dilapidated 1946 Chevy panel van, stuffed to the roof with mildewed carpet remnants, and axle-deep in dried mud.
“Let’s get outta here,” he said through his teeth, and his eyes checked mine, as they usually would not have done. I hurried to follow him, and we took a straight path between the houses across the alley, and then on across Second Street. “I have to tell you I‘m not his friend any more,” he said. “I hope you and I can still be friends, but I have just had all I can take of that brother of yours. Nothing personal.”
However unpleasant this development was, it clearly opened up opportunities for me. Being two years younger, I was always a bit of an outcast with the small band of boys we hung with. To get on an even level with George and Chris, the leaders, would definitely improve my lot.
He stopped us abruptly in front of the courthouse. “Who is visiting me?”
I didn’t understand.
“Who is the guy with the chopper? What is his name?”
“You mean your Uncle Sal?”
“Exactly. Uncle Salvatore. Tell me, Mark. If I asked you, as a friend to respect my Uncle Salvatore and call him Uncle Salvatore, would you honor my wishes?” I nodded an easy response. “Of course, you would. Because he’s my uncle, and you’re in my house, and if I have to call him Uncle Salvatore, so should you, right?”
“So Chris won’t call him…”
“–No! He calls him Sal. Like he’s a friend of his or something.”
“Wow, yeah. Chris can be a real pain in the ass sometimes.” I was trying to be understanding.
“Then! …He laughs at me!” George was screaming. “I take him in my room to tell him, and he laughs at me! Everything to him is one-big-joke! Now, he’s in there, best friends with my uncle, and I’m out here, like I’m not even related!”
I shook my head. “What a jerk!” I was relating so much, I was getting a little pissed at Chris. George mentioned he might go buy us some sodas, as we headed on down Jackson Street for the train tracks.
In the railroad yard, we found a commuter train with the air conditioning running. As we enjoyed our cans of Tahitian Treat and Parliament cigarettes, the subject of what a jerk Chris was fell out of the conversation. George was talking about the motorcycle, which was a real bore to me. I just kept referring back to the extended fork and how hard the thing must be to steer. “No, not really,” George explained. “When it’s plowing down the highway at sixty miles an hour, it’s real easy to move.”
“How do you know?”
“He took me on a ride and let me steer when he first got it built.” To emphasize how cool that piece of information was, George spit between his two front teeth. The bright red liquid didn’t leave his mouth, though. It stopped a couple inches in flight and came springing back onto his chin.
I kicked a newspaper to between my feet and leaned over. I easily sent a flow of the rubbery red saliva down to the floor, then sipped it back up as rapidly as a lizard might its tongue. George, having wiped his chin on the shoulder of his (red) Jethro Tull T-shirt, now was standing, trying to repeat my feat, but at double the height. We spent the next twenty minutes, in fact, mastering the fine art of touching the floor with the tip of our spit. –So that it was cold by the time it returned. Beautiful. It was a great accomplishment that came out of nowhere, that had no witnesses but the two of us, and which we would never forget.
The sound of the motorman’s shoes kicking up rocks on his trudge up the ballast to the head-out car sent us scrambling out the opposite side of the train. Then, we walked the extra quarter mile to the trestle. We climbed down, threw rocks in the creek, and then climbed back up. There was nothing more invigorating than to be in the sky 200 feet over Ridley Creek, balanced mentally between an understanding of the momentousness of the danger and a certainty of our teenaged strength and agility as we used it to grapple the rusty beams of steel.
We were leaned shoulder-to-shoulder, smoking, now, our legs dangling over the creek that looked from here more like a gutter. The odor of creosote-soaked railroad ties roasting in the sun was wafted regularly away by alpine breezes.
George blew some smoke out. “What would you do, Mark…. –I want to know what you’d do if I just…..” His nose screwed up as he found the words. “If I just, holy shit, slipped and fell all the way down there and landed on my head on those rocks.”
I looked down. I imagined it.
“Just, splat! I’m dead. You know it. Now. What do you do?”
“Wow,” I told him, taking my time, stretching my brow at the incomprehensibility of it. I looked back at his eyes, and in all honesty I told him, “Man. That would be so unbelievably horrible, I think I’d just have to jump in after you. Kill myself.”
George blinked. He blew some smoke, and, as he did, his head turned away, the smoke fanning out. When he finally, slowly, turned his gaze back to me, he said, in a solemn tone, “Hmm. That is really something. I can’t believe you’d do that, Dude. I mean, if it was me, and you fell down there, dead? I think I’d go get the cops or something, you know?”