Jaws of the Wolf

From beyond the bend a train whistle moans.

The sound uncoils over shimmering tracks, asserting itself like a high stepping drum major. Following in the steps of the moaning whistle a parade featuring the shaking earth, a pulse of hot air, the smell of oil, and a shimmering engine will enter the station.

A dozen faces turn left, mine among them, at the sound of the whistle.

July heat radiates from sticky blacktop, hovering a foot over nearby tracks. Tar clings to the bottoms of shit-kicker boots. All around, shirts and blouses stick to skin, drenched by buckets of heat.

Just out of reach, a swirling ball of gnats vibrates above the platform. Falling sun strikes and then leaps from the storm of tiny wings as bugs parry and lunge within a three foot sphere of fury.

And at 12 years old I don’t assume they’re playing or dancing or making friends.

I assume they’re at war.

I assume violence.

From beyond the spiraling bugs, train tracks pulse as the day’s heat drifts away. Nightshift workers and those heading to the city for an evening of fun join the day’s heat in a gentle drift. Slowly they fold newspapers, stand from benches, smooth skirts, or apply lipstick. They drift forward. There’s no rush. The late afternoon train will deliver plenty of seats. Still, men with lunch boxes and women in hats perched on the sides of heads in defiance of gravity, inch toward the painted yellow line marking the edge of the platform.

Marking the edge of safety.

From the nearest wall of a train station that’s more of a fieldstone booth than a train station, a clock strikes four. Muffled by blanketing heat, the clock’s declaration is dull, listless.

A crackling voice squawks from speakers shaped like trumpet flairs, “4:03 now approaching the station. Serving Hawthorne, Paterson, Clifton, Passaic, Delawanna, Lyndhearst, Kingstand, Secaucus and Hoboken. Stand clear of the yellow line.”

And leaning toward my traveling companion, Jimmy, I try to speak with authority, “Hoboken; that’s us.”

Jutting my chin toward the clock I remind my friend of our itinerary. “We gotta be back by 7 … so I’m not late for dinner, OK?” He nods as I continue, “Mom thinks I’m at soccer practice and if I’m late for dinner my goose is cooked.”

Again, Jimmy nods. “Yeah my mom thinks we’re riding bikes in the woods behind Nabisco.”

We share a smirk, celebrating our collective cleverness.

Like two slender reeds, we sway lazily under a thick summer breeze.

The approaching rumble attracts our attention. From around the bend the locomotive appears from a shadow, shimmering under thumping heat.

The engine looms large.

Jimmy pulls his hands from jean pockets. Though he tells me the jeans are new, it’s clear from the stitched cuffs they’re hand-me-downs. In sweaty palms Jimmy holds $30, two commuter passes and some change. He returns all but two pennies to his pocket.

In three quick steps he’s off the platform and onto the tracks. The train whistle protests as he squats over the nearest rail. From behind, a man yells, “Hey kid, get the hell off the tracks!”

With the train about a football field away, Jimmy places two pennies on the steel rail. As he returns to the platform we turn to eye the man yelling at Jimmy. He’s big so we don’t say anything. The man frowns. Jimmy gives him a shrug. And catching the man’s eye I point to the side of my head and twirl my index finger. I mouth the word, ‘crazy’. The big man shakes his head.

Watching the train fill the left side of the horizon I wonder aloud, “How many times you think we’ve hit the 4:03?”

Jimmy shrugs. “I dunno; a hundred maybe. How should I know?”

I nod. “Let’s look for rock marks. And broken windows. I guaran-fucking-tee you we’ve put a few rocks through those windows.”

Staring at his pennies, Jimmy does not respond.

To our left, railroad crossing lights flash red as wooden barriers fall into place, calling traffic to a stop. One by one, cars stack up in a line as they wait for the 4:03 to pass. Heat shimmers from the hoods of idling vehicles.

Yawning, I stretch hands toward the tracks. Skinny fingers wiggle. Between uncountable brown freckles, sunlight leaps from beads of sweat.

All around the air pulses, pregnant with anticipation of the train’s arrival.

Steel wheels protest. At the end of the platform a woman in a long blue dress covers her ears.

The ground vibrates as tiny pebbles dance.

My chest pounds as the train’s nearly on top of us.

And inching toward the edge of the platform I assume a position on the painted line separating platform from tracks. I squeeze eyes tight. A blast of hot air and the scent of oil lead the train into the station. The air shoves me and I’m forced to steady myself. The billow of air is thick and meaty as it strikes against my neck, the side of my face, and freckled arms. Specs of dust cling to me. My breathing quickens and arms tingle as I imagine the train grinding me into the platform.

With the train upon me, I shudder. Growing dizzy I sway and bend but do not break. And swaying back and forth my mind drifts under the spell of violence.

As the heat, the scent of metal, and the vibrating platform envelop me I recall a childhood beating in the basement of an apartment building in the Bronx.

I shiver.

The train horn howls, slicing through the memory of a beating. My heart throbs behind a heaving ribcage. Jimmy grabs the shoulder of my Mr. Mets t-shirt and yanks me back from the platform’s edge. “Dude, not so close.”

And safely returned from the memory of a 1966 morning in the Bronx I find myself disoriented, standing on a platform at 4:03PM in the midst of a 1974 heat wave. Eyes dart as the present asserts itself with a blast of heat. I blink away tears concocted from a mix of heat and memory.

Pulling my shirt up to my face I wipe away evidence of weakness. Jimmy’s too preoccupied with the transformation of his pennies to notice. Safely behind the yellow line, he bends down, searching for his flattened coins. Steel wheels screech at the application of brake pads.

The scent of burning rubber joins the parade.

And with a sudden jerk, the train comes to a stop.

At the edge of the platform Jimmy and I stand directly before the center of one of a half dozen passenger cars. My friend looks to and fro before scooting under the idling carriage to retrieve the pennies. He grabs one, then the other, “Ouch! They’re scorch’n hot, man!” Standing tall, he flips them from hand to hand. Leaning toward my companion I check out his treasure.

“Totally cool, man. Totally.”

Jimmy nods and pockets a penny. He hands me the second of the two coins.

The flattened copper is warm and comforting in my hand. Transformed under a crushing weight it can no longer be hurt. Before tucking the elongated coin into my pocket I smell it. The heat and the scent of change comfort me.

I begin inspecting the train for rock marks and am quickly disappointed.

I stamp my foot, “Nothing!”

Scanning the train’s windows Jimmy ignores me. Four feet above our perch on the platform, a line of tinted and scratched windows frame evening commuters. Through tinted glass commuters appear like still-life paintings; each subject engrossed in a book, a newspaper, a conversation or a daydream. 20 feet to our left a window sports a spider web crack over which silver tape runs its course. I jut my chin toward the spider web, “Good one, huh? Maybe we busted it.” Jimmy squints toward the window. He frowns and then shrugs.

I think he likes throwing rocks at trains a lot less than I do.

Directly above, an elderly woman with neatly combed hair and a tiny hat perched on top of a silver head peers past me and my friend. She appears to monitor the comings and goings of those on the platform.

Face tilted upward, I stare at her and wonder if she’ll notice me. I imagine startling her by reaching through the steel wall of the passenger car to grab her ankle. Ignoring me, she continues to scan the platform. She rests her forehead on the glass before biting her lower lip. She tucks a string of hair behind her ear.

Slowly, I begin a count to five.

“One one thousand, two one thousand…”

And concluding my count I return to my spot upon the yellow line. I give the old bird in the window one last chance to notice me but no; she continues to scan the platform. Confirming the distance to the passenger car, I place my hand on the side of the train. I’m surprised at the coolness of the metal against my palm. It feels good.

Withdrawing my hand I spread feet wide. I draw my head back as far as it will go and turn to Jimmy. “Head-butt!”

Before my friend can protest I close my eyes and hurl my head forward. The center of my forehead cracks against the side of the train. Blackness and uncoiling white fireworks fill the inside of my head as the impact sends me staggering. Instinctively, I grab my head with both hands, reeling. And looking up through a kaleidoscope of floating white dots I spy the elderly woman gaping at me.

My head throbs. I finger my forehead in search of blood. And satisfied I haven’t cut myself against the side of the train I turn to Jimmy, his hand clutching my shoulder, his mouth wide. “Oh man, that fucking hurt! I mean, that thing is hard!”

My friend frowns, “It’s a train, you moron. Of course it’s hard.”

At the far end of the train, a door swings open. Three steps flip down in search of the platform. Immediately thereafter a heavy set conductor sporting a blue uniform and a conductor’s hat leans out from the opening. Waiving a yellow flashlight he scans the platform. He yells to no one in particular, “All aboard to Ho-bokennn.” He stretches the last word to the length of a flattened penny.

We run toward the door. Stomping up the three steps we jostle the conductor. Having taken the time to collect flattened treasure and to head butt the train, we are the last to enter the vehicle. Once inside the carriage, we’re blasted with air-conditioned air. Behind us the train door slams shut.

Jimmy and I exchange shocked glances at the coolness of the car.

I extend arms and watch beads of sweat vibrate under the tender strokes of cool air.

“Whoa,” is all I can muster.

“Whoa,” Jimmy repeats.

From outside a lazy bell clinks and clanks.

I poke my chin forward. “Come on, Jimbo. This way.”

From the center of the car the old woman with silver hair gives me the stink eye.

And not wanting to get too near her stink eye, I grab the first pair of available seats.

Turning away from the other passengers Jimmy and I press young faces against tinted glass.

“Smell ya later, Glen Rock!”

“Yea, smell ya!”

From the end of the passenger car the conductor yells, “Tickets. Show your tickets.”

Panicked, I turn to Jimmy, “You still got our tickets right?”

Withdrawing two commuter passes from his hand-me-down jeans, Jimmy smiles. “My pop’s and my brother’s; right here. They’re off this week so I snatched ‘em.”

“Totally awesome, man.”

The conductor slows as he approaches our seats. Dressed in his blue uniform and a flattop hat with a thin black brim, he is round and wobbly. Like the train, his scent precedes his arrival. Unlike the train, he smells of Aqua Velva. A bulbous nose hangs patiently over boxer’s lips. Thick lips are chapped; dry and nasty. Above blotchy cheeks squinting eyes take our measure. His eyebrows are bushy and black. Shards of dark hair stab out from the edge of his hat. I’m guessing he’s Italian. His neck protrudes from a too-tight collar. And on the right of his neck sits a giant boil, red and angry. The boil seems to pulse.

Despite air conditioning the conductor sweats profusely.

He clears his throat. As he does his fleshy neck shakes. His boil seethes.

“Tickets, boys?”

Jimmy reaches out with his two passes. Sausage-like fingers close tightly around the passes. The conductor looks from us to the passes and back to us. “A little young to be on the train unaccompanied, aren’t we boys?”

I shrug. Jimmy shrugs too. He holds out his hand, waiting for the return of the passes.

The conductor stands above us, holding the passes tight. His eyes narrow. He steps closer, leaning against the armrest of my seat. He’s so close I can see brass buttons with little anchors strain against his stomach, now inches from my face. In addition to Aqua Velva he smelled of sweat. And body odor.

“How old are you two?”

Jimmy sits straight, “12.”

The conductor looks to me, “And you?”

“Same.”

“And what are two 12 year olds doing going to Hoboken – or more likely the city – this late in the day?”

And because providing an honest answer of ‘we’re going to Times Square to buy fireworks so we can blow up toilets in our school’ won’t fly, we lie to the man in blue.

Looking past his swaying stomach and angry boil, I fake a smile. “We’re going to see my dad. He works at Con Ed by Times Square.” I tilt my head before concluding, “That’s in New York.”

The conductor frowns. “Really? Well, thanks for the geography lesson, young man.”

Absentmindedly, the conductor taps the passes against Fred Flintstone stubble covering his chin. Jimmy withdraws his extended hand.

“Con Ed, huh? And does your mother know you’re going to see good ‘ol dad in New York City on a Wednesday evening?”

Leaning toward his large stomach I stretch my skinny neck high. I’m so close, my chin nearly touches his smelly belly. Like the locomotive, our interrogator radiates heat. I blink slowly before staring into the conductor’s squinting eyes.

His chin drops to his chest. “Well?”

I hold his gaze. “She’s dead.”

Silence.

“Excuse me?”

“My mom; she’s dead.”

He steps back, eyes wide. Jimmy hangs his head low, expertly muffling laughter. To the conductor, my companion appears to be crying. Jimmy’s shoulders bob rhythmically. Working to control himself, Jimmy looks up, eyes moist with leaking laughter.

‘Man, he really does look like he’s crying,’ I think. My friend nods once before averting the conductor’s gaze. Jimmy’s a pro, a real pro.

And hiding his face within the crook of his left arm, Jimmy extends his right hand toward the conductor. Reflexively, the round man places the two passes in Jimmy’s palm.

The conductor looks from me to Jimmy and back to me. He places his hand on my shoulder. “I…, I…, I’m so sorry son. So sorry.”

Holding his gaze, I nod solemnly. “And if my dad dies, I have to live in an orphanage.”

The conductor stares, stunned at the turn of events.

Silence fills the air conditioned space between man and boys. Gently, I tap the side of my neck, “You have something on your neck, Mister.”

Stammering, he turns bright red and leaves us.

He walks down the aisle past the silver haired lady as he finds his way toward the next group of passengers. Every few steps he stops and turns, looking over his shoulder. When our eyes meet I give him a weak wave.

He clears his throat and yells down the aisle, “Tickets? Tickets?”

Placing elbows on knees I lean forward and cover my face with both palms. Jimmy does the same. Our heads nearly touch. Other than Jimmy no one can hear my muffled laughter. My shoulders heave. From far away I might appear to be sobbing.

Jimmy leans forward and grabs my arm. His face is as red as the conductor’s. “Jesus,” he snorts. “When you said that thing about his boil. Oh man!” Slender shoulders heave as my travel mate struggles to contain himself.

For the rest of our trip to Hoboken the train gently rocks us. We stare out the window at a dirty corridor marking the path of the commuter rail.

We see abandoned cars, mangled shopping carts, graffiti, oil drums resting on their sides, and unending mounds of garbage. Twice we see boys like us stoning the train. In both instances we pound tinted glass with clenched fists.

The lady at the center of the car frowns when we do so.

Periodically, the whistle sings its warning. And every now and then we stop. Steps tumble toward a platform. Some folks get off. Some get on. In general, more get on. Thereafter, a lazy bell clinks and clanks.

When the silence is too much to bear, Jimmy and I whisper to each other, “She’s dead.”

Followed by, “You got something on your neck, Mister.”

Each time the words are whispered, we tumble forward in silent laughter.

And each time we fall upon ourselves, the old lady at the center of the passenger car frowns.

After a series of long whistle warnings, the train begins to slow. The vehicle rocks from side to side as those around us begin to collect belongings.

“Hoboken!” hollers the conductor. “Last stop. Hoboken.”

He catches my eye. I wave before hanging my head. As fellow passengers stand and line up at the end of the carriage the conductor approaches. He returns his hand to my shoulder. His hand is heavy. “You boys all right?”

I nod solemnly. Jimmy snorts, a large snot bubble appearing and then vanishing under his nose. The conductor bends down to better speak to us, “Listen boys. To get to Time Square you get off this train and go downstairs to the subway. Take the 33rd Street Path. When you get to 33rd Street you can take the subway to Times Square. It’s one more stop and it’s pretty easy, OK?”

I nod. “OK, Mister. Thanks.”

He squeezes my shoulder. “And I’ll say a Hail Mary for your mom.” He turns and walks away, leaving behind his scent of Aqua Velva and body odor.

Exiting the commuter train Jimmy and I run down Hoboken Station’s long platform. We follow the flow of the milling crowd but, within a minute, we’re hopelessly confused. It’s nearly rush hour and the platform is swarmed by men in suits, rushing students and aggravated construction workers. I grow nervous before recalling my mom’s long ago suggestion, ‘If you’re ever lost or you’re in trouble find a mom – someone with kids – and ask her for help. Remember, mom’s help and don’t hurt.’

Standing at the center of the platform, we’re buffeted about like badminton birdies. Craning my neck in search of a mom-like figure I spot a woman walking briskly toward our location. She’s wearing a green polka dot dress and accompanied by two little girls, each in a pink dress and each grasping an extended adult hand. Like me, the girls seem overwhelmed. I rush forward and, squaring myself in front of the lady, I block her path. “Excuse me lady, can you please tell me where the train to Time Square is?” I shrug before continuing, “I gotta see my dad in New York.”

Next to me Jimmy nods dramatically.

The mom looks over our shoulders before frowning. Bright red lips move slowly, “You two are heading into the city by yourselves?”

“Please?” I beg. “I don’t wanna get mugged.”

“Or raped,” volunteers Jimmy.

The woman blanches as I glare at Jimmy.

She checks her watch. “Fine.” She looks to her girls. “Girls, come. We’ve got four minutes to help these boys find their way to Sodom and Gomorrah. Boys, follow me.”

I look at Jimmy and shrug.

Quickly the woman turns on her heal and walks toward an escalator. As instructed, we follow in her footsteps. Every few feet she looks over her shoulder to monitor our progress. Her pace is brisk, her strides long. The little girls drag behind.

She leads us downstairs to the ticket booth. And leaning forward, the lady with the two girls asks for two Path tokens. She steps aside, “And if you think I’m paying your way to the city then you can go scam someone else.” Feigning a look of horror I step forward and slide a crumbled five dollar bill under the thick glass window. The glass is scratched and burned and covered in black graffiti. In return I receive two tokens and some change.

Pocketing the change I face the woman. She stands cross armed. “Thanks, lady.” I turn to the girls. “Your mom’s nice.”

The girls squirm. One sneaks behind a polka dotted hip.

And tokens in hand, Jimmy and I scramble toward the turnstile. She calls after us, “Get off at 33rd Street and ask which train to take. Your stop’s the stop after 23rd Street. Remember that; the one after 23rd. And be careful!”

Without turning around I wave my hand. Next to the turnstile a homeless man staggers, arm extended in search of a gift. Buttons are torn from his shirt. And with his shirt wide open, I can see his ribs and crisscrossing scratches, red and angry. I’m reminded of the broken window on the commuter train. The beggar reeks of urine. His outstretched hand displays an open wound. I bump Jimmy and nod toward the man, “Hey look; just like Jesus.” Jimmy shutters and continues forward.

And sidestepping the groping beggar I place one token in the turnstile. Jimmy looks for cops before sneaking under the turnstile arm. I rush through as we save a token. And turning back in search of cops I see our helping mom place hands on hips. She wags a finger before spinning on a heel to leave with her daughters.

Jimmy and I squeeze into a packed subway car. Like the beggar, the train smells of urine. And vomit. And sweat. And, hot dogs I think. Cushionless seats are filled with perspiring adults. Above agitated commuters graffiti covers the inside of the carriage. It’s everywhere; on the walls, on the windows, across the ads, on the ceiling, and even on the floor. Newspapers shuffle and snap as the Path train prepares to leave the station. Two men roam the car, one playing a tambourine, the other singing and holding a hat. When the duo passes I steal a peek into the hat. The bottom’s filled with tokens and coins and a couple of dollars. I consider adding my flattened penny but decide to keep the treasure.

With a shutter the train leaves the station and begins accelerating down a gentle slope. Lights flicker as we’re plunged into the darkness of the tunnel below the Hudson River. As we pick up speed Jimmy and I push and shove our way to the end of the subway car. We squeeze between a large man and his wife (I’m guessing it’s his wife ‘cause they’re holding hands) and, once behind the couple we press faces against the window of the carriage’s rear door. Through worn away spray paint we watch the people in the next car rock back and forth. Those holding straps sway gently in time with the train. From above, a garbled noise squawks through unseen speakers.

I grab the handle on the door leading to the open air passage between the two subway cars. “Here, help me.”

Together, Jimmy and I yank the door open. The wailing sound of train wheels and the hiss of a violated tunnel fill the car as I hold the door open. The couple turns to watch us disappear though the door. When the door slams shut they turn away from two 12 year olds standing between subway cars. I watch as the wife leans toward the man and whispers in his ear. Slowly he nods his head. His head is as big as a pumpkin.

Jimmy and I complete the trip holding our position between the rocking cars. Rushing air and screeching steel fill our ears as we take turns “surfing”; standing without holding the rusted chains hanging limply between the carriages.

I scream over the howling train, “So fucking cool!”

“What?”

“Cool! So fucking cool!”

“What?”

I wave him off as we take turns balancing and raising our heads to better scream at the red tunnel lights flying past us. Periodically, a passenger hears a scream and places hands against the glass. And seeing two kids playing between cars they turn away.

At each subway station the train stops. Passengers squeeze in and out of the cars.

I bump Jimmy’s shoulder before nodding toward the packed subway car, “Good thing we’re out here. It’s a freak show in there.” Jimmy and I watch as men and women crawl over each other. There are no smiles; just a collective resignation.

The train comes to a stop and through the jostling crowd I read the subway station sign; “23rd Street.” Under the sign someone has painted the words “Tricky Dick” along with what appears to be a drawing of a limp dick. I point to the sign. “Next stop’s ours, Jimbo. And look; a dick!”

Jimmy nods as the train leaves the station.

Upon entering the 33rd Street station we yank open the door and shove past the whispering husband and wife. Our rudeness and fear of missing our stop causes the man to momentarily lose his balance. His wife grabs his arm as he calls after us, “Assholes.”

We squeeze through the car and exit the train. The door slams shut behind us. The train hisses a warning before rushing away.

The 33rd Street station reeks of body odor and urine.

Black soot clings to spray-painted walls.

From every direction men and woman plow past each other in a rush to or from a train. Jimmy and I jam through the stream of commuters to make our way toward the tiled wall. We join a tributary of commuters as they inch forward. I have no idea where we’re going.

Again, we grow confused.

And growing fearful, I again look for a mom. A few feet ahead I see a woman holding a boy’s hand. The boy’s a bit younger than me. I push forward and catch up to the pair. From behind I tap the small of the woman’s back. Her white blouse sticks to her skin when I touch her.

Looking over her shoulder she spies me. She stops, interrupting the flow of people. They pour around us as we stand against the wall. “Can you tell us how to get to Time Square?”

She cocks her head, as if surprised I can speak. She has a long black ponytail and gold loop earrings. Her skin is dark and I can’t tell if she’s black or white with a tan or maybe even an Indian. One thing’s for sure; she’s pretty. She wears a long flowing skirt that nearly touches the dirty platform floor. When I ask the mom for help, the boy gives her a nod, urging her to accept. His eyes shine bright. His hair is jet black.

She leans toward me and Jimmy. “You gotta walk to the next station and take the N train.”

I stare blankly. “The 10 train?”

She sighs. “Do you have tokens?”

I shake my head no. From her purse she hands me two tokens. From my pocket I offer two crumbled dollars. She refuses my exchange. “You may need it later.”

Like the lady in pink she fulfills the universal role of mom. She walks us to the correct station and waits with us. It’s farther than I thought it’d be. And louder.

‘I never would have found this place,’ I tell myself. It takes her five minutes but she gets us to the correct station. At the turnstiles she asks an elderly woman to make sure we get off at Times Square.

“Thank you.” The boy and I share a wave before the pair disappears into the crowd.

The old lady does her job and shoves us off the train at Times Square. “You boys be careful,” she warns. I give her a nod as the train leaves us behind.

We work our way toward the exit. Hot air rolls down the stairs, shoving us back from whence we came. From the street, the scent of roasted peanuts bravely plunges into the subway to wage war against the stench of the underworld.

I hold the handrail tight as we fight our way up the stairs to Times Square. And removing my hand from the railing I find a viscous gob of green snot clinging to my index finger. “Oh, gross!” I try to shake it off but fail. Upon accessing the street I find a lamp post and wipe my hand on warm metal. Finishing the job I rub my hand on a pant leg.

It’s hotter here than in New Jersey. Heat pours from the sky to pound us into submission. Jimmy grabs my arm, “Come on. This way.”

We walk past porn shops and junkies and meandering vacant-eyed kids our age or younger toward the siren song of blinking lights. The heat is thick, like water. We make slow progress as we walk through drifting scents of urine, dog feces and garbage. I look around for roasted peanuts but find none.

Above us, neon signs flash words like “PEEP SHOW”, “XXX” “# 1 Adult Movie: Deep Throat”. Lazy barkers call from darkened doors. “Any money boys? Spend it here and see some titties.” I slow but Jimmy tugs me forward. A bald black man calls after me. “First shows on me, little man.”

Up and down the sidewalk big breasted women wearing nothing but underwear many sizes too small grab at us, “We’re ya goin’ sugar?” And though the sight of half-naked women should send two 12 year olds into a frenzy, their pawing hands and missing teeth terrify us. We rush past the parade of prostitutes. From red brick walls, junkies extend arms, hoping to snag a child. A boy with bloodshot eyes blocks my path. “Looking for weed, my man?” I shake my head and push past him. He yells over his shoulder, “Pussy!”

We make it half a block before Jimmy stops and nods toward a Chinese man leaning against a telephone pole. I’m guessing he’s Chinese; I have no idea. A halo of smoke swirls about his head. Jet black hair is slicked back, gleaming with grease. Or sweat. A crisp grey business suit sets him apart from the rest of the crowd. Standing in the center of the sidewalk we stare at the man in the suit. And idling where we should not be idling, we’re shoved and jerked about by the pulsing crowd.

“I bet he has fireworks,” suggests Jimmy.

“Ya think so?”

Jimmy nods, “Come on.” I follow Jimmy as we approach the man in the suit.

Seemingly without a care, the guy pulls on his cigarette. We’re close enough that I can see his hair is greased, not sweaty. He looks like a spy. He eyes us; two 12 year olds edging toward his hip.

Jimmy sidles up next to the man. Bravely, my companion clears his throat. The man, however, ignores us. Again, Jimmy clears his throat. Looking straight ahead, the man carefully withdraws the cigarette from his mouth. He turns and blows two perfect smoke rings above our heads. He stares at us and smiles. “Two little angels, come to chat with me?”

My skin tingles as Jimmy speaks. “Hey Mister, you got any fireworks for sale?”

“What?”

“Fireworks. You got fireworks?”

The man glowers at Jimmy, “You think everyone from Asia sells fireworks?” Jimmy steps back, bumping into me. “No, I … mean…”

The man yells, “Get the fuck outa my face before I shove a Roman Candle up your white ass you little piece of shit.” We stand frozen. The man lurches toward us and stamps his foot. “Beat it!”

We turn and run. My heart pounds as we retreat down the block. Behind us the man is soon swallowed by the crowd.

I find an empty space along a brick wall. Chest heaving I stand under a “Girls Girls Girls” sign.

“Fucking-A, I thought he was gonna smack me!” gasps Jimmy. Like me, Jimmy’s rattled. “What an asshole.”

We stand with our backs to the wall, chests rising and falling as we grope for next steps.

A minute slips by as the parade of 1974 Times Square pours past.

And from the parade a slight man, short and balding with kinky brown hair poking out in all directions steps forward. He stops and stands before us. Taking our measure he fingers a cigarette. Though he’s a grownup he’s not much taller than me. His shoulders are slender and sloped; like a girl’s. And on top of sagging shoulders rests an oval head. A thick black mustache spreads across the center of his face. His upper lip is hidden. His lower lip is thin and white. A thick red scar marks the center of his chin. With cheeks ruddy and pockmarked by acne his face is a moonscape. In his large aviator sunglasses I catch the reflection of me and my friend pressed against a wall.

We are red faced and sweaty. We look scared.

We are scared.

The stranger’s head lolls back and forth. Given our experience with the Chinese guy neither Jimmy nor I say a word.

From somewhere far away a clock chimes.

Then, slowly, maliciously, a smirk creeps across the stranger’s face. The man reaches into the front pocket of his denim jacket to retrieve a pack of Camels. He extends his arm. “Smoke?”

I shake my head but Jimmy takes a cigarette and places it between his lips. His hand quivers as he does so. The man follows quickly with a shiny silver lighter, holding it low so Jimmy has to lean in to catch the dancing orange flame. I watch the man bend forward. And as Jimmy cups the lighter with both hands the man draws a deep breath, seemingly drinking in the scent of my friend.

I shiver.

Jimmy nods, “Thanks.” He suppresses a cough.

Smiling, the man returns the nod. He moves in closer as the passing crowd shoves past. “What’re you two doing in a place like this?” He leans in before whispering, “Runaways?”

In unison Jimmy and I shake our heads in the negative.

The man raises eyebrows. They drift up past the rims of his aviators. His eyebrows are thick and black, like those of the conductor. “No huh? Well, you look way too fresh for city kid so I’m guess’n maybe we’re looking for a bit of tail. It that it boys?”

Jimmy and I stare blankly.

The man laughs before continuing. “I’m talk’n about grade A ass. You guys looking to get laid or something? Maybe a quick blowjob?”

Again I shake my head.

He looks to Jimmy. Jimmy too shakes his head.

The man takes a step back. “Well, looks like we got ourselves a mystery, then boys?” he extends his hand, “Oh, I’m Tommy by the way.”

We stand frozen.

“And you?”

We tell Tommy our names. He nods as if digesting important information.

Jimmy and I take turns shaking Tommy’s hand. He pulls me forward and squeezes my fingers. I squeeze back. Releasing my hand he juts his chin, “Nice grip there, sport.”

Jimmy clears his throat before risking a second upbraiding. “We’re looking for fireworks.”

“Fireworks? Is that it? Well, shit, mother fucker, today’s you’re lucky day ‘cause I got tons of fireworks.” Tommy looks from left to right before leaning in. “So tell me, what, in particular, are we look’n for?”

Gaining confidence, Jimmy stands straight. “M-80s and Pocket Rockets and, you know, strips of those little Chinese firecrackers.”

Seeing Tommy cock an eyebrow I weigh in, “And Cherry Bombs. You know, to blow up toilets.”

“Blow’n up toilets huh? Cool.” Again he looks around. This time he takes his time to look over his shoulders. Streams of faceless people pour past as Tommy scans the crowd.

“So tell me boys, we’re ya from?”

“New Jersey.”

“Fucking Jersey. I love Jersey. Especially Seaside Heights. That’s where you can find some serious tail and…” He stops himself midsentence as if considering an idea.

Tommy rubs his chin before gently placing a hand on Jimmy’s shoulder. The back of his hand is scared and scraped.

He steps closer. He’s so close I can smell his breath. It smells of cigarettes and sour milk. In a hushed voice he queries us, “Hey, do your parents know you’re here?” He answers his own question, “I’m guess’n not.” He bangs Jimmy’s shoulder with a hard slap. Jimmy winces under the weight of the unanticipated blow. “Looks like we got ourselves a couple of Jersey outlaws right here in Times fucking Square.”

Tommy nods a satisfied nod. “Outstanding boys. Outstanding.”

Jimmy shrugs. And so do I.

“You guys got money?”

I step forward. “I got $15.” My voice cracks.

“I got $30,” suggests Jimmy.

“Well, all right then. Let’s get down to business boys.” He pulls his denim collar high before turning around and pointing across the street. “You two outlaws see that alley over there? Where the sun’s reflecting off the window?”

Jimmy and I step on tip toes to look over the crowd. “Yea,” I nod.

“Well, I want you to wait here and count to 100 and then, when you’re done counting, cross the street and meet me at the back of that alley. I’ll be waiting, OK? And by the time you get there I’ll have all the fireworks you’ll ever need.” He shakes his head as if in confirmation of his own words. “So tell me boys, do we got ourselves a deal?”

I look to Jimmy. He nods crisply. “OK.”

Tommy turns and leaves, quickly disappearing into the crowd. We begin to count. Two prostitutes – each in torn underwear and showing breasts rippled by stretch marks – interrupt our count. Greedy hands try to force their way into our front pockets in search of money.

“No!” I yell. “Get away.”

“And we don’t have money,” adds Jimmy.

They retreat, melting into the crowd.

I turn to Jimmy, “You count and I’ll stand guard.”

Jimmy starts from 50 and chips away at the tally.

From above Times Square the sun pours down on us.

Shimmering heat floats up from the sidewalk and street.

“…98, 99, 100.” Jimmy turns to me, “Let’s go.”

Before Jimmy can scoot forward I grab his arm, “Dude, listen. Something feels weird about that guy, ya know? I mean, I don’t trust this Tommy guy, if that’s really his name.”

Jimmy rolls his eyes as I continue, “And if he tries to rip us off or if anything seems weird then, as soon as one of us – you or me, it doesn’t matter – yells ‘run’, we both bolt to the train.” I point to the entrance to the subway. “OK?”

Jimmy frowns. “Dude, nothing’s gonna happen except we’re gonna get enough fireworks to blow up every toilet in the fucking school. So don’t be such a big pussy, alright?” Jimmy shakes his head dismissively. He takes a steps forward, but seeing me stand firm, he stops. He returns to reclaim his spot next to me. “You coming?”

Subtly the crowd parts. Voices hush as a cop saunters through the heat. Jimmy and I grow quiet as massive man in blue strolls down the sidewalk. Spinning a long brown nightstick on the end of a leather strap he scans his perimeter. He eyes us but does not stop.

I return my attention to Jimmy, “Yes or no? If things go crazy then either of us can say ‘run’ and we both run, deal?”

“Fine, deal. If you say run, I’ll run. But you better not. Now come on, you big pussy.”

Darting through rush hour traffic Jimmy and I cross Broadway. Reflecting from a second story window a thick beam of sunlight falls into the entrance of the alley. We stop at the mouth of the slender space between two porn shops. On each side of the alley windowless brick walls rise four stories. The space is packed with dumpsters, bags of garbage, and stacks of folded cardboard boxes. Oil stained puddles dot the alley floor.

A swirling cloud of flies captures my attention. Pounding sun leaps from the ball of black and green wings hovering above a torn bag of garbage.

From beyond the swirling bugs, covered garbage cans unleash July heat.

The smell of decay pours over us.

Across the street a woman spews out an unbroken stream of curse words. A deep voice returns the salvo. The argument sends a shiver down my spine.

I search for the cop but he’s gone.

To my left I hear a clock strike. Smothered by the blanketing heat, the chime is dull, listless. I look but can’t find the source of the chime.

The ground vibrates as tiny pebbles dance in response to what I assume is a subway train passing under the streets of Time Square.

Stepping past rippling puddles I inch into the alley. And standing on the edge of a shadow I peer into the long slender pathway. At the far end, darkness takes root. And from the darkness Tommy waves us forward. Gingerly, he yells to me and Jimmy, “Guys, down here.” Again he waves. “Come on, hurry.”

Stepping over puddles and broken glass and dog shit and bags of garbage Jimmy and I make our way to the back of the alley. A dust filled shaft of light pierces the edge of darkness.

We walk maybe 50 feet to the far end of the alley. It’s a dead end. I stop five feet from Tommy. Jimmy steps forward a couple more steps. Tommy smiles as he opens a brutally beaten metal door. And stealing a look into the doorway I see a dark stairway leading to a basement below a porn shop. My heart quickens as Tommy sing-songs, “Guys, I got all the fireworks you’ll ever dream of down here.” He points to the stairs. “The cops can’t see us in there so it’s cool.” Tommy glances toward the street. He cranes his neck. “Come on, I don’t want flat foots finding my stash.”

Moving forward I bump a shoulder against Jimmy. I consider yelling but hold my tongue, fearful of being labeled a pussy.

Like two slender reeds, Jimmy and I sway lazily under a thick summer breeze before the entrance to a blackened basement at the end of an alley.

Tommy smirks before bowing dramatically. “After you.”

Again, the ground rumbles. From the open basement door a blast of hot air shoves me and I’m forced to steady myself. The billow of air is thick and meaty as it strikes against my neck, the side of my face, and freckled arms. Specs of dust cling to me.

And as the heat, the scent of danger, and the vibrating sidewalk envelop me I recall a childhood beating at the hands of a stranger in the cellar of an apartment in the Bronx.

***

From our second floor apartment I peer through the living room window, watching kids in the street run through the spray of an open fire hydrant. Shirtless, they run and squeal, leaping through a hissing stream of water.

“Brave,” I whisper. And though only four years old I think, ‘maybe, if I’m down there and take my shirt off they’ll let me play too.’

The clock ticks as I wait for mom to leave the living room. And after many ticks she leaves to enter the little kitchen. Cabinets open and close before she begins to chop something.

From the living from I listen as she works herself into a rhythm.

“Chop, chop, chop,” she sings.

“Chop, chop, chop,” I whisper.

And with mom in the kitchen I hold my breath before leaving my perch at the window. Slowly I creep to the front door. Exhaling, I turn the knob. Without a sound the door opens. Stepping back I pull the giant door open. I gasp, startled at the weight of the door. “I’m strong,” I whisper.

Before exiting I listen to mom’s lazy song. Then, gathering my bravery, I step out the front door and into the second floor hallway.

My nose crinkles at the hallway’s musty smell. Specs of dust spin and dance in a shaft of light plunging from the window at the end of the hall. I stand captivated watching the dancing specs. The hallway’s as hot and steamy as our apartment. I feel my chest pound; it’s scary out here. I take one step and stop, turning to see if mom will appear at the open door behind me.

‘Should I close it?’ I wonder.

Answering my own question I shake my head no.

Alone, I wait; blood surging at the thought of discovery.

And with the world quiet I tentatively step forward to place my hand on the plaster wall on the other side of the hall. I’m surprised at the coolness of the wall against my palm. Up and down the wall, green paint peels and chips. Waiting to see if mom might find me I pick at a chip of paint. And peeling it off the wall I touch it to my tongue.

“Yuck!”

‘Too loud,’ I tell myself. I cover a tiny mouth with both hands.

Eyes dart left and right before discovering what I’m looking forward.

“The stairs,” I whisper.

On tip toes I move toward the stairwell. Stepping down one step I stop and look over my shoulder. From the top step, I stand still, staring at the still open apartment door and wondering if mom will step into the hall to find me.

I soothe myself, “If mommy sees me she’ll know how big I am, standing on the stairs like a grown-up.” I imagine startling her by waiving from the top step.

I hold fingers high and count to three. “One banana, two banana, three banana.”

And unable to count any further I turn and make my way down the stairs. They are large and unending.

It’s far to the street outside.

The steps are so big I have to hold the railing with both hands. I stare at my hands as they slide down smooth wood. Unaware of my surroundings I make my way to the landing between the first and second floor where I nearly bump into a stranger. I gasp at seeing someone so big they block the sun. Sporting reflective glasses and a long black coat the stranger turns to face me.

I’m confused. I can’t tell if the stranger’s a mommy or daddy. Red lipstick circles a puckered mouth. There’s so much lipstick she looks like a clown.

‘A mommy,’ I tell myself. In the stranger’s glasses I watch my reflection squint in confusion. Above the her head cigarette smoke drifts upward in an unending coil. Craning my neck I watch the smoke come to life as it drifts through beams of light.

“Ooooooy…” I coo.

I’m startled when the stranger speaks. “And what do we have here?” Her red lips twist and contort as she speaks. “Such a brave little boy.”

And stubbing the cigarette on the windowsill the strange mommy bends to greet me. I stand frozen, fearful of being punished for leaving our apartment.

Reaching out, the stranger touches my cheek with a crooked finger. Her finger smells like soap. “Don’t be scared sugar plum. I’m your friend, OK?” She has red stuff all over her teeth. And even though she’s a mommy her chin is dark and rough.

“OK,” I squeak.

“You talk, huh?”

I nod as the stranger leans in toward me, “If you promise not to make a sound I’ll let you play with my toys. If you like toys that is. What do you say, my brave little boy. Would you like that?” Her voice is gentle and soft; a sing-song. Her eyebrows float upward in anticipation of my answer.

‘Toys?’ the voice inside my head repeats. I nod in agreement.

“OK then. Follow me.” And taking my hand in hers, the stranger leads me downstairs to the door leading to the basement of our building.

“They’re so magical I keep them hidden down here. In the basement.”

Again, I nod.

With an extended arm she opens the door. From the open basement door a blast of hot air shoves me and I’m forced to steady myself. The billow of air is thick and meaty as it strikes against my neck, the side of my face, and freckled arms. Specs of dust cling to me.

The basement is dark. And quiet. The air’s different; I feel it on my arms and cheeks as we make our way down the cellar stairs.

My nose crinkles; it smells like metal down here. And something burning.

At the bottom of the stairs the stranger reaches up and tugs at a string. A lone lightbulb comes to life. “There we so,” she purrs.

And hopping from the last stair onto the cement floor the stranger stands at the base of the stairs. She scans a long line of storage lockers, each one accessible via a lock securing a chain link door.

I remember this place. Mommy and me came to get my winter snowsuit from our locker down here. And my sled.

“I’ve been here,” I volunteer. Eager to please, I continue, “My sled’s down here!”

The stranger rubs the top of my head with a heavy hand before leading me forward. She shares a smile as I wait for her to unlock the chain link door. I’m surprised when the ground rumbles underfoot. And seeing me step back and stare at the floor the stranger smirks, “It’s just the subway, sugar plumb. It’s under the street outside.”

As I gawk at the floor the stranger swings open her locker door. Specs of dust take flight, some clinging to bare arms and rosy cheeks. Goosebumps march up my arms.

The stranger smirks before bowing dramatically. “After you.”

And once inside the storage closet she shuts the door behind us. Light passes through the chain link to brighten the dusty cubby. Folded clothing, and cleaning equipment and toys, and boxes with words and glass jars pack the shelves at the end of the narrow locker.

The stranger steps forward to search among a shelf of toys. She rummages before selecting a wooden car the size of my head. It’s painted white but it’s scratched and scuffed.

“Play with it,” she demands. Her voice is different now; it’s a mad voice.

And seeing me hesitate the stranger hisses, “Get on the ground and play. Like a baby.”

She extends her arm but I step back, fearful of taking the car.

Unable to speak I shake my head no.

My chest pounds as the stranger draws near. I retreat backward, confused by the change in the approaching stranger. And seeing me angling for a path toward the locker’s only door the stranger lunges forward and cuffs me mightily on the side of the head. The blow is swift and brutal.

I fall backward, crashing into the locker’s rear shelves. Glassware rattles.

I scream.

“No one can hear you down here, sugar plumb.”

I try to yell but words tangle in my throat. They pile up as the stranger moves quickly to strike me again.

And again.

Blackness and uncoiling white fireworks fill the inside my head as the force of impact sends me staggering.

I’m buffeted about the locker as a flurry of fists rain down upon me. Reeling, I grab my head with both hands. I try to look past a kaleidoscope of darting white dots in search of escape.

I fall to the floor as the onslaught continues.

Then, as quickly as it started, it stops.

Arms limp at her side the stranger stands still, gasping.

Her wheezing breaths join my sobs to fill the locker.

Her reflective glasses are askew, showing bushy black eyebrows and a swollen red eye. Holding my hands up I’m huddled on the floor.

She’s drooling. Red lipstick drips down her chin.

“Get up!” she demands.

I shake my head no.

She places hands on hips before taking a step forward. “I said get up.” Her voice is slow and deliberate. “It’s OK, sugar plumb. Hurting time’s over.”

She extends a hand but I recoil. “Get up,” she cajoles. “You don’t want me to get mad again, do you?”

And fearful of a second onslaught, I claw the rear shelves to pull myself up.

The stranger smirks when she notices I’ve peed my pants.

“Ha!” She arches her back, looking to the ceiling. “We got ourselves a whizzer!”

She throws her head forward and locks me in a stare. Then, stamping the floor with her foot, she feigns a second attack. She cackles as I throw myself backward. In doing so, I dislodge the shelves at the rear of the locker. The sound of breaking glass fills the basement as I inadvertently send a shelf packed with boxes and glass jars to the floor.

Paralyzed by the sound I stare at the stranger.

She stands frozen, mouth agape.

She begins to stammer, her mouth opening and closing in an unending loop.

She screams savagely, “My teeth! Look what you’ve done to my baby’s teeth!” She throws herself to the locker floor, her hands inches from my feet. Squeezing into a corner, I pull myself away, terrified she’ll grab me.

But she’s forgotten I’m here.

On hands and knees she plucks tiny teeth from among shards of glass.

“Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God.” She’s groping and clawing at scattered teeth. “My teeth! My precious teeth!”

The stranger lurches from tooth to tooth, greedily collecting tiny yellow teeth in her hand. Then, as if suddenly remembering she’s not alone in the locker, the stranger looks to me from all fours. She seethes with fury.

“YOU!” she screams, “Give me your goddamned teeth!”

Glass crinkles as she crawls over broken glass toward me. “Jesus!” she howls. And looking down she discovers a bloody knee. “I’m bleeding!” The stranger inspects her leg and, as she does, I lunge toward the door. She grabs at my feet as I rush past her.

Eyes filled with tears, I’m unable to see where I’m going. as I careen past the prone stranger and plow into a shelf. More items fall to the floor.

Behind me, she collapses to the cement, wailing.

And crashing open the chain link door, I stumble. Kicking away from the locker I turn to see if she’s in pursuit. For a moment, our eyes meet, our heads hovering inches above the floor.

From a crouching position the stranger roars. I scramble to my feet and run from the basement. I can’t breathe. I try to yell but can’t. And climbing the entire flight of stairs I find myself lost on the building’s top floor. Yanking on doors I discover an unlocked closest filled with brooms and buckets and cans of paint. I throw myself inside, crawling being a collection of mops.

My head throbs. Wheezing and shaking violently, I reach for the side of my face in search of blood. And though I found no blood, I begin to cry in earnest.

Like a baby.

***

At the end of the alley, I shiver.

My nose crinkles; it smells like metal down here. And something burning.

Tommy hisses, “Let’s go guys. Get down there. Now!”

We stand frozen as I try to gather the strength to yell.

Tommy lunges forward and grabs Jimmy by the collar, seeking to pull him through the open door. I grab Jimmy’s arm. “Run!” I scream. “Run!”

Jimmy’s knees buckle and he falls to the alley floor. And losing his grip on my friend’s collar, Tommy tries to grab him by the hair. Jimmy wails as I rush forward to kick the stranger as hard as I can in the shins.

Reeling, Tommy howls, “You mother fucker!” Hobbling backward, he falls against the metal door before losing his balance and tumbling over a bag of garbage.

“RUN!” I scream.

Jimmy scrambles to his feet, wide-eyed and gasping.

We flee blindly; two jackrabbits falling from the jaws of the wolf.

Bolting from the mouth of the alley, we run between parked cars into Broadway. Taxis skid to a halt as horns blare and drivers tilt out windows to curse at two morons rushing into traffic.

“Stupid shits!”

“Dumb ass motherfuckers!”

“The subway!” I gasp, “Find the subway!”

We flee, running down the block blindly. Eyes wide, we lance through an unending stream of commuters. And juking left and right I grow disoriented. Fearful I’ve run the wrong way I lurch to a halt. Jimmy slams into me from behind. He’s wheezing.

My heart pounds against 12 year old ribs.

In Times Square there are no moms to help.

Jimmy grabs my arm, pointing directly ahead. There, 100 feet away, is the subway entrance.

The stairwell is clogged with commuters, beggars and prostitutes. Turning sideways I jam into the crowd and wedge open a path. Behind me Jimmy gasps, “Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God.”

We slice our way down the subway stairs, bumping adults to the side. At the bottom of the stairs I knock a homeless man backward. He screams after me, “You fucking….” His voice is swallowed by the swirling crowd as I leave him behind. And cutting the line of people we dart under turnstiles, not caring if we’re caught.

We run to the center of the platform before slowing to a brisk walk. We continue forward, seeking to lose ourselves in the crowd. And looking over my shoulder I turn to find a sea of faces – all shapes and colors and sizes – monitoring us; wondering what we’ve done to deserve such fear.

One by one the faces turn away, satisfied the show is over.

At the end of the platform Jimmy and I push backs against the subway wall. I press palms against cool tiles in an effort to steady myself. My chest heaves as I try to catch my breath. Next to me, Jimmy squeezes his head with both hands. He rocks to and fro, his face red. Eyes wide, he mumbles toward the dirty floor, “That guy; that fucking guy was gonna kill us.”

Jimmy lurches forward. And with hands on his knees he vomits.

Around us, adults step back, repulsed.

Drool extends from my friend’s mouth to the floor. He wipes his face with a slender arm. Then, without a sound, Jimmy begins to cry.

I lean forward to comfort my friend.

Silently, I too begin to cry.

Our heads nearly touch. Other than Jimmy no one can hear my muffled sobs. My shoulders heave. From far away I might appear to be laughing.

The subway platform begins to vibrate.

Terrified, I scan the platform in search of a man called Tommy.

From beyond the bend a train whistle moans.

 

 

 

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