Just Another Fish Story

     Tried fishing once. Went with an old Army buddy named Rick. Drove all day, almost, upstate, then down a long dirt road till we came to a river out in the middle of friggin' nowhere. Told me this river was teeming with fish just begging to be caught. "So many fish they jump out of the water into your arms," he said. "No fishing rod needed," he claimed. "Sounds like a fish story to me," I tell him. But I went anyway, just to get out of the house. Found it a waste of time, just standing around in the river all day, wet, cold. Luckily we'd brought beer. Only thing I caught was my thumb.

     The next day, after much yelling and many threats, my wife makes me go food shopping with her. Usually I manage to weasel my way out by faking the sudden onset of some exotic tropical disease . . . or a promise to clean the gutters. But this particular Saturday she's pissed-off about something. Who knows what. So I find myself driving her down to the local shopping center, just off Route 2. 

     When we get to the Stop & Shop, she drops me off in the produce section and tells me to pick out some fruit. "Make sure you get prunes," she says as she heads off with her binder-load of coupons. "You need more fiber." What I need is less aggravation, I say under my breath.

     I cruise the produce section, taking my sweet time, sampling the many varieties of grapes and berries. I pass by the packaged prunes. When I've had my fill, I look for the little old lady handing out samples of what Stop & Shop calls hors d'oeuvres. She usually sets up her little table by the deli section. I walk over and chat her up, sampling her wares until I wear out my welcome – and she runs out of samples.  

     I continue trolling. Sometimes the bakery hands out pastry samples. But not today. I find myself in the rear of the store where, much to my surprise, I discover this Stop & Shop sells fish! They're just lying there, on ice, already skinned and gutted, patiently waiting for a fry pan or broiler. 

     Never went fishing again. The next time my buddy asks if I want to go fishing, I inform him that, number one, they sell fish at the local Stop & Shop, and number two, if fishing is just an excuse to get away from his wife and drink beer, there's a bar with a large TV just down the road from his house – and I know for a fact they have ESPN. 

     I have to confess, though, that that wasn't the first time I'd been on a fishing trip. There was another trip, long ago and far away. I was in an armed convoy, on a bridge, trying to cross a river. We were on our way to an exotic place where the locals patiently waited, hoping to kill me and a couple hundred buddies of mine.

     I was sitting on the deck of a track – an M-113A1 Armored Personnel Carrier, the Army calls it - waiting. I'm hot, hungry, and pissed off - I'd missed morning chow. I stood up, wiped a filthy brow with an equally filthy arm and yelled - to no one in particular - "What's the friggin' holdup?" At the time it didn't occur to me that perhaps it was better we take our time getting to that exotic place where those locals patiently waited. Looking back, years later, I chalk it up to youthful impetuosity.

     So I'm sitting there, hot, hungry, and pissed off when I notice two kids on the bank of the river, fishing with small nets. An old lady squats nearby, collecting their meager catch in a basket. One kid looks my way, smiles and waves. I wave back. I reach into the cargo hold of our track and pick out a couple of C-Ration accessory packs from an open case and toss both into the river. The two kids quickly swim out, collect the packs, swim back and smile - I smile back hoping they're related to the angry locals I know are waiting for us on the far side of the river.

     Just ahead, I catch sight of a G.I. tossing something else into the river, something that looks suspiciously like a grenade - I'm hoping those two kids don't swim out thinking it's another accessory pack. 

     There's a splash, followed a few seconds later by a 'whump' that throws up a fountain of brown-green water. The G.I. and his buddy laugh. The two kids standing on the bank of the river hesitate, then dive in and dog paddle out to retrieve the stunned and dead fish that float to the surface.

     "What the fuck you doin'?" I yell to the G.I. fisherman. 

     "What the fuck's it look like? I'm fishin'," he yells back, laughing. Then his buddy pulls the pin on another grenade and tosses it out into the river. There’s another 'whump', followed by another fountain of brown-green water. The two grenade-tossing idiots laugh. I'm thinking this must be why the locals call us dien cai dau, local lingo for 'crazy.'

     More fish float to the surface. The two kids swim out again and retrieve the fish. And once again they give their catch to the old lady standing nearby. 

     Now, I've done this myself, this tossing of grenades into a river. But the tossing was done at night while guarding another bridge. The grenades were meant to discourage underwater sappers from planting charges that would blow up the bridge we're guarding – and standing on. But these two idiots – the idiots in the track just ahead - aren’t guarding any bridge. They're in a convoy like me, waiting to get to that exotic place where those locals patiently wait.

     At one end of the bridge I notice a dusty, concrete and sandbagged bunker, manned by two equally bored ARVN’s who pay no attention to these two dien cai dau Americans. One reads a dog-eared magazine while the other just stares off into space. They’d probably seen it all before, no doubt. 

     When I see one of the two G.I.'s toss back and finish a can of beer, crush it, laugh, then toss the crumpled empty into the river, I understand. These two idiots aren't bored, they're shit-faced. 

     Just as I'm about to climb down and walk to the front of our convoy to check on the holdup, one of the two idiots heaves a large white rectangular bundle – a bundle that looks suspiciously like several blocks of C-4 taped together  - into the river, this time a little farther out. C-4 is a VERY high explosive used to move any obstacle foolish enough to get in our way. The local fish are in for a very rough day, I'm thinking. 

     Anyway, the large white bundle hits the water with a splash, sinks, and after a few seconds, goes off with a thundering 'whump' this time, sending a big-ass column of brown-green water high into the sky. The concussion hits me like a punch to the chest, knocking me off my feet. I'm momentarily stunned. 

     The blast also startles the locals crossing the bridge. They're used to explosions, I'm sure, but maybe not so close. They scream, thinking they're being mortared. The blast knocks over the locals standing on the bank of this river.

     Knowing this would be one hell of a 'boom,' the two idiots who'd tossed the C-4 duck down into the cargo hold of their track. After the blast, the two emerge with a "Fuck, yeah!" look on their faces, then break out laughing. "Thanks, asshole," I yell over the idling engines. 

     Well, what goes up must come down - I think that’s some law of physics or gravity or whatever. The towering column of water sent up by the C-4 comes down like a torrential monsoon rain, soaking everyone and everything within a fifty-yard radius - could of been more. 

     Mixed in with the brown-green rain are fish. Shitloads of fish. I mean it's raining fish. There must have been a million of 'em - could have been more.

     One large fish lands on the bridge next to an old man knocked down in the rush to escape the blast. He wipes brown-green river water from his eyes, blinks, spots the fish lying next to him and yells something in the local lingo - probably something like, 'Holy shit! Look what I found!'  He runs away waving what will probably be his lunch. Other locals scramble around, collecting the monsoon of fish that fall on the bridge.

     Unfortunately, this large blast catches the attention of some fat captain further up the column who comes waddling back to investigate. The fat captain stops at the track just ahead of mine, the one with the two grenade and C-4 tossing idiots. 

     It could have been the suspicious "I didn’t hear nothin'" and "I didn't do nothin'" look on their stupid faces that makes this fat captain pick these two out from all the other hot, tired, and pissed-off faces in our column. Then again, it could also have been the slurred words, the blood-shot eyes, booze burn, and beer breath that gives them away.

     Anyway, when the fat captain spots the half-empty beer cooler and an open case of C-4 in the cargo hold of their track, the fat captain's suspicions are confirmed. It's then that these two idiots realize they're in very deep shit. Army shit. The worst kind of shit.

     The fat captain turns and yells at a fat and sweaty master sergeant who'd followed him down the column. I know what the fat master sergeant is thinking. He's thinking, "I don't need this shit." The fat and sweaty master sergeant yells, "Yes sir," then turns and yells at these two idiots. He looks like he wants to plant a boot up both their skinny asses for making him sweat even more. 

     It was hard to hear over the idling diesel engines, but I think I hear the fat and sweaty master sergeant yell something like, "I'll deal with you two idiots later." I'm sure the sweaty and pissed-off master sergeant later came up with a suitable punishment – like making these two idiots fill sandbags for the rest of their military lives or dig many, very deep latrines. 

     The two kids who'd been standing on the bank of the river jump back in and swim around, frantically collecting this unexpected windfall, this plethora of fish. Once back on the bank, the two fill the basket held by the old lady to the brim. One of the kids waves a fish over his head and smiles at me. I smile and wave back. 

     Still hungry and pissed off at missing morning chow, I reach into that open case of C's in our cargo hold, hoping I'll find a can of peaches. Instead I find a fish. A big fat fish. Still alive and flopping around. I pick up the fish and wave it at the two kids standing on the bank of the river. They smile and wave back.

     Many years later, after an afternoon drinking many beers with my fishing buddy Rick – at that bar just down the road from his house - I tell this story to my wife. She shoots me one of her "Yeah, right" looks and continues thumbing through the TV Guide searching for a rom-com chick-flick. 

     I don't talk about the war much, especially about the many times the locals tried to kill me and my buddies. So I'm pissed she thinks I'm telling some bullshit war story. She probably thinks this is just an Army version of a 'fish story,' you know, one of those stories where the fish gets bigger in the telling as the years go by.  Well, maybe she's right. Maybe there weren't a million fish.

     "What's for supper," I ask, hoping she'll fry us up a couple of steaks.

      "There was a sale on fish at Stop & Shop today," she says.

About the Author: Michail Mulvey is a retired educator who taught for over four decades at all levels, from kindergarten to college. He holds an MFA in creative writing and has had short stories published in literary magazines and journals in the US, the UK, and Ireland. In 2013 he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He lost, of course, but he did take first prize in the 2007 Southern Connecticut State University Fiction Contest. He also earned a couple of Honorary Mentions from the Glimmer Train sisters, Susan and Linda. His work has appeared in such publications as Johnny America, Scholars and Rogues, The Umbrella Factory, Prole, Poydras, The Front Porch Review, Roadside Fiction, Crack the Spine, Literary Orphans, and War, Literature and the Arts.

Caution: The Consumption of Ginger Ale and Beer Nuts Could Be Hazardous to Your Health

     “Ya know, I only vaguely remember the face of the first girl I kissed — I think it was my cousin, what’s-her-name — or the name of my first grade teacher. And since my parents divorced when I was, I don’t know, three maybe, I have no memories of the three of us ever living together in a happy home ... like the Ricardos or the Nelsons ... you know, Ozzie and Harriet? From what my grandmother told me, my parent’s married life was more like the Cramden’s — he was one funny son of a bitch, that Ralph. ‘One a dese days, Alice! One a dese days! Bang, zoom! Straight to the Moon!’ I loved that show, you know, The Jackie Gleason Show? Once, I laughed so hard, I shot hot chocolate out my friggin’ nose. I always wondered, though, what Alice saw in Ralph. She was a babe. And Ralph had this double chin and a beer belly like my Uncle Bob and oily black hair like my Uncle Johnny. Anyway, after my parents divorced, my mother and me moved in with my grandparents.”

     “But some memories from long ago are sharp, like a movie filmed in Panavision and Technicolor. I can see the faces, hear the voices, and almost smell the people and places. Memories of my first barfight — not as a participant, but as a wide-eyed five year-old with a ringside seat — are like that, vivid, like it happened just yesterday.”

    “I’d seen other barfights before, but only on TV. Cowboys wearing clean white hats and bad guys wearing dusty black hats would punch the shit out of each other until the sheriff came in and dragged the bad guy off to jail.  And sometimes my grandfather let me stay up late and we’d watch the Gillette Friday Night Fights on Channel 4. When the two fighters really started to mix it up my grandfather would be on the edge of the sofa, bobbing and weaving, yelling, ‘Knock the bum out, for Christ’s sake!’  Usually the two fighters were evenly matched — unless Rocky Marciano was fighting. By the third round, most of his opponents found themselves flat on their backs, staring up at the ceiling, wondering what the fuck hit ‘em.”

     “Anyway, this particular fight took place in the Skipper, a friendly and convenient neighborhood bar at 548 Main Street. To say it was convenient would be an understatement; we lived just upstairs, in the apartment right over the bar. On busy nights you could hear the voices of the people down below through the floor of our living room. The laughter from the Skipper mixed with the laughter coming from our TV when we watched I Love Lucy or The Honeymooners.”

     “I spent a lot of time in the Skipper — with my grandparents and my mother, of course — so I was a familiar face to George, the owner, and Dan the bartender. My mother and my grandparents went down just about every Friday and Saturday night, most Sunday afternoons, sometimes on a week night or two after shopping at the A&P, or whatever, or when Uncle Bob and Aunt Mary came over on a Saturday afternoon, or when my Uncle Johnny and his girlfriend Nancy dropped in. Sometimes my other grandfather would drive in from the city — New York City — and we’d all go down for drinks. So I was on a first name basis with most of the regulars. To me, the Skipper was like a roomful of uncles. On slow afternoons, Tony the cook would sometimes give me a slice of Italian bread with butter. If he was in a really good mood or it was a really slow day, he might make me a cheese sandwich.”

     “To keep me entertained while she drank and joked with her friends, my mother would dump me in front of the Skipper’s big black and white TV, give me a ginger ale and a bag of beer nuts, and tell me to stay put. One night, when my Aunt Mary wasn’t looking, I finished one of her drinks, the one with the cherry in it. I got dizzy and fell asleep. Uncle Bob had to carry me upstairs to bed. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was my very first drink.”

     “Anyway, my mother made a lot of friends in the Skipper. Guys bought her drinks and made her laugh. Once in awhile some guy would piss her off, though, and she’d tell him to get lost. One night Uncle Bob almost got into a fight with a guy who wouldn’t leave my mother alone, you know, wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, but the two of them backed down when Dan yelled over and told them both to ‘Knock it off!’”

     “Uncle Bob and Aunt Mary sometimes argued, usually after they’d had too many beers, but they never hit each other. Uncle Johnny and his girlfriend fought too, but they’d make up in a corner booth where they thought nobody could see them.”    

     “The Skipper’s large black and white TV sat high on a shelf at the back of the bar, in between the men’s room and the back door that led out to the alley where the beer trucks made their deliveries – sometimes I thought the TV was a little too close to the men’s room, if you know what I mean, especially on summer afternoons.”

“Anyway, only Dan was allowed to change the channel on the TV. He was a big guy with arms like he coulda lifted a beer truck with one hand — I think my uncle said Dan was in the Marines during the war. Dan was a friendly guy, for the most part ...  as long as you behaved yourself. One day a guy at the bar complained a little too loud about having to watch the Dodgers on TV — the Yanks must have been out of town. Dan gave the guy a ‘Shut yer yap and drink your beer’ kind of look, and the guy clammed up.”

“I remember Dan always wore a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a white apron — to keep beer off his pants, I guess. The place always smelled of old beer so maybe he didn’t want to bring the smell home with him. Sometimes my mother smelled of old beer the day after a long night at the Skipper.”

“Anyway, I remember it was a warm Saturday afternoon — the day I witnessed my first barfight. My mother and grandmother were out shopping for shoes or something and my grandfather must have been working overtime, so I was home alone. Bored, I went downstairs, walked into the Skipper, ordered a ginger ale and a bag of beer nuts, and sat in my usual booth in the back — Dan must have thought my mother was in the other room or something.”

     “I remember the big fan over the back door hummed as it sucked out the smoky air and smell of old beer. The usual afternoon crowd, the regulars, sat at the bar sipping their beers — ‘nursing’ their beers my grandfather called it. Some watched TV, others traded small talk with the guy sitting next to them. Some just stared out the front window, watching the cars go by out on Main Street. My grandfather used to joke that some of the regulars looked like they didn’t have two nickels to rub together.”

     “Anyway, there I sat, minding my own business, nursing my ginger ale, munching from a bag of beer nuts, watching the Yanks on WPIX — they were at home, playing ... I don’t remember who, but it didn’t matter, the only question was how many runs the Yanks would win by. Didn’t seem fair, with the Yankees line-up and all — I mean, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Hank Bauer, Whitey Ford, and Phil Rizzuto? The other team shoulda stayed in bed.”

     “Anyway, like I said, I was sitting there minding my own business when the sound of a door banging open made me jump. I almost dropped a beer nut in my soda. I turned around just in time to see a big, Ralph Cramden-looking guy, wearing dark trousers and a dirty white shirt with the sleeves rolled up, march in, yank a skinny, Ed Norton-looking, bookkeeper-type of guy wearing a light-blue suit off his barstool, yell something about a wife, and punch the Ed Norton-looking guy in the face, sending him flying across the room into the Wurlitzer. When Ed hit the Wurlitzer, the needle skipped to the end.”

    “Ralph picked Ed up off the floor, cocked his big arm, and was about to send the little guy on another trip across the room when he stopped, mid-punch, apparently mesmerized by the changing of the record. But when the needle arm came down and Chuck Berry began to sing ‘Maybellene, why can’t you be true ...’ Ralph remembered why he was there and punched Ed once more, sending him across the room again, this time into the wall.”

     “Anyway, the big guy repeated the punch-Ed-around-the-bar routine at least four times that I remember. After the first punch, Ed made no effort to defend himself. Blood dripped from his lower lip on to his white dress shirt and tie. He was limp and glassy-eyed — like some guys looked when they had too many glasses of beer.”     

     “The regulars sitting at the bar just watched - holding on to their glasses of beer, of course,  in case Ed went flying into the bar itself. Nobody moved to help Ed or stop the fight. Either they didn’t care or were used to watching barfights. I wondered why Dan didn’t stop the fight, though. He could have taken either one of them out with one punch. Maybe he didn’t want to get any blood on his white apron. Or maybe he thought that’s what cops are for, you know, breaking up barfights.”

     “After Ed’s second trip across the room, I remember putting down my soda and holding up my little fists like I was ringside at the fights, cheering on Sugar Ray Robinson or Rocky Marciano. ‘Knock the bum out for Christ’s sake!’ I yelled.”

     “In the middle of the fight, the guy at the end of the bar said he couldn’t hear the game over the racket and was gonna turn up the volume, but before he was even halfway off his barstool, Dan shot the guy a hard look and he sat back down.”

     “Anyway, George must have called the cops because out of nowhere, three big bruisers in blue rushed in and pulled the big guy off Ed, who was about to take another trip across the room. The cops dragged Ralph, struggling and shouting, “Lemme go! I’m gonna kill the bastard!” into a waiting squad car and drove away.”

     “Funny, although Ralph struggled all the way to the squad car, I noticed the cop’s hats never fell off their heads. How do they do that, I wondered? Was that something they learned at the Police Academy? Shoot a .38, swing a Billy-club, and keep your hat on while breaking up a barfight?”

     “Anyway, Ed, bloodied and woozy, got up, straightened his jacket, calmly brushed off one sleeve, fixed his tie, wiped the blood off his face with the bar towel Dan tossed him, sat back down on his bar stool, and ordered another bottle of Rhinegold like nothing happened. Ed held the ice-cold bottle to his purple and puffy eye — which was starting to look really ugly. In their struggle to get Ralph into the squad car, though, the cops forgot all about Ed. Or maybe somebody told them Ed hadn’t started it. He was just sittin’ there minding his own business when the big guy came in and beat the snot out of him.”

    “’Didn’t seem fair,” I heard one guy say, one of the regulars sitting at the other end of the bar. “’The big guy must have outweighed the little guy by a hunnerd pounds. It was like watching the Yanks and ... I don’t know, any other team in the American league.’”

    “’Sometimes it just ain’t your day,’ said the guy sitting next to him.”

    “’Sometimes you’re the fly, sometimes you’re the swatter,’ said Dan, wiping down the bar.”

    “’He probably shoulda stayed in bed,’” said another regular.”

    “’Yeah, his own!” said the guy sitting next to him, laughing. They all had a good laugh at Ed’s expense, but Ed said nothing. Just held that bottle of Rheingold to his eye. At the time I didn’t think it was all that funny, one guy beating the shit out of another, a guy who was just having a beer, minding his own business. Know what I mean? ”

    “Anyway, I asked Dan where they were taking the big guy. ‘To jail,’ he said with a forced frown. ‘And if I ever hear you swear again, that’s where you’ll be going.’ I was hurt by Dan’s comment. I always behaved myself.  Never got into fights ... at least not back then ... never once spilled my soda. And if I dropped a beer nut on the floor, I picked it up and put it back in the bag.”

    “I walked back to my booth, sat down, took a sip of my ginger ale and resumed watching the game. I was worried about what Dan said, but only for a moment. Mickey Mantle was walking up to the plate — that other team was fucked.”  

    “Later that night, over supper, when I told my mother about the fight — swinging my arms and punching an imaginary Ed for emphasis — she almost had a friggin’ cow. My grandmother sat there, stunned, mouth open, fork halfway to her lips - my grandfather was working a late shift at the loading dock, I think. I was sure he’d seen a barfight or two in his day and wouldn’t have reacted like these two. Women, huh?"

    “’I thought I told you to stay inside when we have to go out!’ my mother yelled. My grandmother, who had resumed eating, added that a bar was not a fit place for little boys. ‘There are strange men there ... and liquor,’ she said. ‘Then why do you spend so much time there?’ I asked. My answer was a hard look and the threat of a slap.”

“At the time I didn’t understand what their friggin’ problem was. I behaved myself. I sat in my usual booth in the back, watched TV, drank my ginger ale, ate my beer nuts. It was the adults who got out of hand, for Christ’s sake. The Skipper was my favorite hangout. I had friends there who gave me quarters to put in the jukebox. And I was the shuffleboard champ. I was a regular, just like my mother and my grandparents ... and Aunt Mary and Uncle Bob and Uncle Johnny and his girlfriend Nancy — and my grandfather who sometimes drove in from the City. George, the owner, didn’t give a rat’s ass if I sat in the back and watched TV ... or maybe he just didn’t notice me, the little kid in the back booth. Anyway, all I wanted ... all I ever wanted was to mind my own business, watch the Yanks on TV, nurse my drink and munch on beer nuts, know what I mean? But sometimes people get a hair across their ass for no reason and ... well, things sometimes get out of hand, know what I mean?”

    “Anyway, after that I was only allowed in the Skipper with my parents or some other adult, which still added up to, I don’t know ... three or four times a week. Sometimes more. These days, I can go as often as I want, anywhere I want ... and drink whatever and as much as I want.”

     “Wallace!”

     “Gotta go. Good talking to ya.”

     “Yeah, same here.”

 

“Docket number 257606. The charges are drunken disorderly and aggravated assault, your honor.”

     “How do you plead?”

     “Not guilty.”

 

 

 

About the Author: Mike Mulvey teaches American Literature, has an MFA in CW, and has had over two dozen short stories published. In 2013 he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He lost.

Tony's Book by Michail Mulvey

     Every morning on our way to school, me and my buddies stopped off at Tony’s, a small grocery just around the corner from the projects. Robbie usually bought Tootsie Rolls, Georgie, a box of Good and Plenty, and Mickey a Chunky or Turkish Taffy bar. My favorite candy was red licorice. I spent most of my lunch money – if I had any – on these long strands of twisted pleasure.

     One morning, however, I came up short. I frantically searched my pockets but found nothing but lint and an old Ludens cough drop. So I decided to take a chance and help myself to some licorice – just this once. While Tony was busy counting the change laid out on the counter by Robbie, Georgie, and Mickey, I grabbed a handful of licorice, shoved them in my jacket and calmly walked out. 

      As we ran down the street, my buddies and I all had a good laugh. “That was easy,” I said as I munched on a piece of licorice. I found this piece especially tasty, maybe because it was free.     

     If you don’t count the occasional dime I took from my mother’s purse in the morning while she slept, or that quarter I took off my grandmother's dresser one afternoon, or the loose change I found under the cushions of my Aunt Rose’s sofa, I was no thief.  Well, occasionally, engrossed in the latest Superman or Fantastic Four comic, I might "accidentally" walk out of Tony's or one of the other two grocery stores in our neighborhood without paying.

     Later that week, overconfident, greedy, and once again broke – and thinking Tony was too stupid to notice – I stuffed the pockets of my jacket with red licorice, Tootsie Migees, Atomic Fire Balls, and wads of Bazooka Bubble Gum. But as I walked by the register, a piece of licorice fell out of my jacket onto the floor. I froze. Tony calmly came out from behind the counter and held out his hand.                 

     As I pulled licorice, candy, and bubble gum from my pockets and handed them back, my face flushed and my knees began to quiver. I wanted to run, but my legs wouldn’t work. I looked to my buddies, but they were long gone. 

     To my surprise, Tony just took back the licorice and other candy I’d lifted and told me to get along to school. I was shocked and relieved at the same time. But I was at a loss to explain why he’d let me go. I was sure Tony would kick my ass then call the cops. Or worse. I was afraid my Aunt Rose would find out. But Tony didn’t call the cops and my Aunt Rose never learned of my short-lived life of crime.

     I spent a lot of time with my Aunt Rose and Uncle Jimmy. With my step-father gone and my mother waitressing five nights a week at The Brass Rail on South Main, my Aunt Rose fed me just about every evening. But there was always a price to pay for the free meals. All through supper she’d flip through the New York Daily News and our local paper, The Advocate, looking for further proof that the world was a cesspool of sin and degradation.

     “See,” she’d shout, pointing to a picture of a guy being led away to prison. Then she’d point to a picture on her religious wall, next to the crucifix and a portrait of Pope John. In the center of this picture was a black, heart-shaped object surrounded by flames and wrapped in thorns. “And that’s what your soul will look like if you break even one of the Commandments,” she’d add, her eyes bugging out like she’d had too many cups of coffee. My Uncle Jimmy would poke at his dinner, squirm in his seat, then yell, “Rose, shut up and eat!” I hunched over my plate and worked at my meat loaf, avoiding her eyes.  

     After supper my uncle and I would retreat to the living room and watch TV while Aunt Rose did the dishes. If it was a Thursday night, we'd watch The Untouchables. Every week G-Man Eliot Ness fought Big Al Capone over large vats of beer hidden in some Chicago warehouse. The high point of just about every show was a car chase and a gun battle between the Feds and Big Al’s "associates." Under a hail of Federal gunfire, bad guys grabbed their chests, winced, spun around, and, arms flailing in agony, fell to the ground, dead. Occasionally, one of the good guys, an Untouchable, got winged. 

     “Just a flesh wound,” the wounded G-man would say as he clutched his shoulder, blood oozing from between his fingers.

     On The Untouchables I’d seen what Big Al did to anyone who crossed him. And over dinner, Aunt Rose showed me pictures in The Daily News of guys who tried to stiff the mob. Their bodies were being fished out of the East River by the harbor police. Or they lay face down on the sidewalk, covered with a blood-stained sheet after "accidentally’"falling out a tenth-floor window before they could testify before some grand jury. “Flying lessons,” Uncle Jimmy joked. I often wondered how he knew about such things.        

     After the incident with Tony and the candy, me and my buddies got our morning sugar fix at one of the other small, family-owned grocery stores in our neighborhood – there was one right across the street from Tony's and another just down the block, owned by an eagle-eyed old witch named Mrs. Reilly, who looked like she just fell off her broomstick – face first. 

     It wasn't until the following summer that I took a chance and stopped by Tony's again. I knew I probably wasn’t the only kid from the projects trying to heist his candy, so I was sure Tony had forgotten about all me. While thumbing through a Spiderman comic one Saturday afternoon, Tony came up and asked if I wanted to work for him.

     “I could use some help around the store,” he said. "Couple of afternoons during the week, Saturday, and maybe a half day Sunday." For a moment I didn’t know what to say. I wasn’t sure if he’d forgotten about the incident with the candy, but when I saw no hint of recognition in his eyes, I said “Sure.”

     Tony said the job involved stocking the shelves, filling the cooler with milk, soda, eggs, packages of cheese and bologna, filling the comic book and magazine rack, sweeping and mopping the floor, washing the windows, stacking the empty milk containers, breaking up empty boxes, and taking out the garbage. I wasn’t allowed near the register, though.

     Tony’s grocery wasn’t very big and there wasn’t much stock on the shelves, and what stock there was had a thick layer of dust on top. I wondered how he stayed in business with that grocery store just across the street and the other just down the block, the one owned by Mrs. Reilly. But I figured working at Tony’s was easy money, a lot easier than dragging around heavy golf bags for eighteen holes at the municipal golf course every weekend. I started working for Tony the following Monday afternoon. 

     Tony was short, bald, and wore glasses. He looked harmless in that white grocery store apron he wore to protect his white shirt and gray pants, but he had hairy, muscular arms and could have easily crushed my head with one of his hands if he ever caught me trying to heist his candy again. 

     We exchanged little small talk, Tony and me. In fact, when there weren't any customers in the store, the only sounds you heard were the hum of the cooler and the buzz of the neon light fixtures. Tony quietly went about the business of running a small grocery while I quietly went about the business of sweeping, stacking, and stocking - and occasionally helping an old lady out the door with her groceries.  

     I didn't even know Tony's last name, where he lived, or if he was married.  I knew he was probably Italian, though. Sometimes he spoke in Italian to the few customers who shopped at his store. And he always spoke Italian to the guys in suits who stopped by but bought no groceries. For the most part, Tony was a mystery.

     As I worked for Tony that fall and into the winter, I noticed that some customers would lay down a buck or half dollar on the counter, but bought no groceries. Tony would pull a large gray ledger book out from under the counter, the customer would say something in a low voice I couldn’t always hear, then Tony would jot something down in the ledger book with that stubby Number 2 pencil he kept behind his ear. Then he would put the ledger book back under the counter and deposit the coins or bills in his pants pocket, not the register. 

     One afternoon, while Tony was busy in the basement, I stole a look into that big gray ledger book. I found page after page filled with long columns of three digit numbers, nothing else. No names, no dates, no nothing, just numbers. Later, when I asked my Uncle Jimmy what this ledger book was all about, he gave me a long look then put his hand on my shoulder. 

     “Tony’s a bookie. I thought you knew that,” he said, leaning close and keeping his voice down so Aunt Rose, who was in the living room watching the news, couldn’t hear. 

     “A bookie?” I replied, almost whispering. I’d heard the word before but wasn’t exactly sure what it involved. 

     “These so-called customers are placing bets on the number that comes up that day.”

     “What number?” I asked. My uncle gave me this look then turned to see if Aunt Rose was still watching the news.

     “It’s the last dollar digit of the daily total of the win, place and show bets at the track.”

     “Oh ... so ... I’m working for ... the mob?” 

     My uncle looked at me for a long minute, then said, “Maybe it’s better you don’t ask any more questions. And don’t ask Tony. Your ignorance is your bullet-proof vest.” He winked, gave me a soft dope slap to the side of the head and went into the living room to watch the news with Aunt Rose. 

     On my way home from school the next day I realized that working for Tony meant that any day could turn into an episode of The Untouchables, with raids and gunfire and all. Now I understood why there was so little merchandise on Tony’s shelves and how he managed to stay in business in a neighborhood that already had two other grocery stores. 

     More importantly, I understood why Tony had hired me, of all people, the kid he’d caught trying to heist his candy. He'd probably looked into my soul and saw that black, heart-shaped object in that picture on my Aunt Rose's religious wall.  Maybe after a suitable probation period – sweeping the floor and stacking shelves – he’d let me take bets and enter three digit numbers into the large gray ledger book.

     One Sunday a family friend, Eddie Hogan, stopped by our apartment. Eddie and my mother were knew each other from high school, but Eddie was also a cop, a sergeant on the vice squad. He had a local establishment under surveillance, I heard him tell my mother over coffee in the kitchen. I wondered if he was watching Tony’s. Did he know I worked for Tony? Is that why he’d stopped by? 

     I was worried. If I continued working for Tony there was a chance I could be arrested and taken away in cuffs when Sergeant Hogan and his squad raided Tony’s so-called "grocery." I’d be charged as an accomplice even though Tony never allowed me anywhere near his gray ledger book. 

     If Sergeant Hogan and his "Untouchables" come crashing through Tony’s front door – Elliot Ness-like – with Tommy guns blazing, there was a chance I could take a slug in the gut, or, if I was lucky, only get winged. If I survived, I’d be hauled into some Federal courthouse in cuffs, flashbulbs popping all around me. 

     Later, after being found guilty of racketeering and sentenced to a long stretch in the state pen, the reporters would yell, “Why’d ya do it, kid?” as I was thrown into a paddy wagon and taken to the train station for the long ride upstate. 

     I took a chance and continued to work for Tony anyway. I needed the job. But I was not happy. At the end of my first week, Tony paid me in cash, all singles. When I counted the stack of one-dollar bills in my hand, I did the math and quickly realized I was making less than minimum wage – $1.25 an hour. I looked at Tony, but his face betrayed no emotion. Was he paying me less because I was just a kid? Or did he feel I owed him for the licorice and other candy he caught me trying to heist?  

     Still, I felt I was being robbed. If I was one of them now – working for a guy who worked for the mob – wasn’t I due my fair cut of the take? I took Tony’s money, but every payday the resentment built. I needed the cash, so I kept my mouth shut. What good would it do to complain anyway? Secretly, I hoped Eddie Hogan would raid the place. I’d show them where Tony hid his ledger book. Maybe not. That’d make me a rat. And I saw in The Daily News what happened to cheese eaters.

     I worked for Tony all that winter and into the spring. Every Saturday at five, he paid me – in cash, all singles, at less than minimum wage. Fed up, one day I just stopped showing up for work. I wanted to tell Tony to take his job and shove it. Better yet, I wanted to fill my pockets with candy and walk out, but I was afraid he might catch me – again.    

     One Sunday morning, as me and my buddies sat around watching cartoons and reading the funny pages, I told them about being short-changed by Tony – robbed was more like it – and how I just up and quit. Mickey, who I'd told about the gray ledger book, looked over at me. “Nobody quits the mob,” he said. “The mob quits you." 

     “Yeah,” Robbie added. “Tony’s 'employers' might just pay one of his former employees a visit late one night and teach this former employee how to fly. Know what I mean?” I knew exactly what he meant. I lived on the sixth floor, a long way down to the concrete sidewalk below. I knew too much about Tony’s operation and the gray ledger book. And if they found out I knew Eddie Hogan, I’d have to go into hiding. 

     Fearing Tony and his "employers," I kept a low profile. Whenever Aunt Rose sent me out for milk and bread, I went to one of the other grocery stores in our neighborhood, the one owned by Mrs. Reilly. And I went by night, slipping from shadow to shadow, the collar of my jacket pulled up high. 

     But I was still pissed off about my lost wages. Tony owed me. I worked in his lousy, two-bit store and never once did he slap me on the back and say “Good job” like Big Al did when one of his "associates" took care of some "business." I still thought of ratting him out to Sergeant Hogan, but then there was still the problem of Tony’s "employers." I worried that if they found out, one morning Aunt Rose would open The Daily News and see a picture of my bullet-riddled body slumped over the steering wheel of a Buick. I didn’t have my license – and we didn’t own a car – but they’d fill me full of holes and prop me up in the front seat of some other car just to make an example of me.

     My resentment simmered until one afternoon when I decided to get even. Me and my buddies put our heads together and came up with a plan that would allow me to recoup my lost wages, or at least part of what Tony owed me. It was a brilliant plan, one that involved brains not brawn. No baseball bats or Tommy guns involved.

     When empty, the plastic one-gallon milk containers would net a twenty-five cent deposit each. The plan was for Georgie to bring back four empty containers to Tony’s, who would then pay him the dollar deposit. As usual, Tony would stack the empty containers in the rear of the store, by the back door with all the other empties. I knew that during the day Tony never locked the back door, in fact, on warm days, he left the back door wide open. He was in and out with cardboard boxes and other trash all the time, a job I used to do – for less than minimum wage. 

     After Tony stacked the empty containers at the rear of the store, I’d quietly slip in the back door, reclaim these very same containers and pass them along to one of my buddies who would then bring these same four containers to Tony for the one dollar deposit. My buddies and I would have a revolving door going, bringing back the same four containers over and over for the one dollar deposit. We’d quit when I had recouped my lost wages ... or when Tony began to wonder why his collection of empty milk containers at the back of his store wasn’t getting any bigger ... or when he realized that the same three kids were bringing back the same four containers.  For a moment I even thought of sneaking in and stealing Tony’s big gray ledger book from under the counter. But if he caught me, there would be no call to the police. One evening my Aunt Rose would find that picture of me in The Daily News.

     Before we could put our plan into operation, however, Mickey brought some unexpected news. "I stopped by Tony's. The lights are out and the door is locked. I looked in the front window and the place is a mess."

     "What happened?" I asked.

     "Don't know. When I asked that old bitch, Mrs. Reilly, she just smiled and said, 'Tony got what he deserved. This was a good neighborhood until him and his kind showed up ... and you kids with your quick hands. I know youse punks from the projects have been stealing from me. I wish you'd all disappear one night.'" 

     I wondered what she meant. Did Sergeant Hogan and his Untouchables raid Tony's store one night, find the big gray ledger book, and haul Tony away in cuffs? We went to see for ourselves. When we got to Tony's, it was closed, like Mickey said. We looked around for any signs of a raid, but there were none to be found. There was a large dark stain on the ground by the back door, though. Maybe it was just an old oil stain left by a delivery truck. For a second it reminded me of that black, heart-shaped object on my Aunt Rose's religious wall. 

     No, if there was a raid, it would have been in the papers and Aunt Rose would have told me about it over dinner, her eyes bugging out. Maybe Tony was just quietly taken away by Eddie Hogan and his store locked up by Eddie's Untouchables.

     "Maybe it wasn't the cops," said Robbie. "Maybe Tony's 'employers' checked the ledger book ..." 

     " ... and Tony came up short ... " said Mickey,

     " ... so they took him for a ride ... " said Georgie.

     I wondered about the big gray ledger book filled with three digit numbers. Was it confiscated by Sergeant Hogan, to be used later at Tony's trial?  Or did Tony's "employers" take it with them after going over the numbers, like Robbie said. Either way, Tony and his big gray ledger book were gone.

     We looked at each other, then at the dark stain on the ground. We shoved our hands deep into our pockets, hunched down in our jackets, and quietly headed off to school. The plan to recoup my lost wages was forgotten.    

     A couple of days later, as usual, Aunt Rose searched the pages of The Daily News during dinner looking for further proof that the world was a cesspool of sin and degradation. On page two she found a picture of the harbor police fishing a body out of the water. The guy they’d fished out wore a white shirt and gray pants. The accompanying article said he was reputed to be in the numbers racket. The police could not release the name of the deceased until the next of kin had been notified, however. My uncle stared at the picture. 

     "Wages of sin, kid. Wages of sin," my uncle said as he got up to get another beer. I hunched over my plate and worked at my macaroni and cheese.

     After dinner my uncle and I retreated to the living room while my aunt did the dishes.

     “What’s today, Thursday?” my uncle asked, turning on the TV. The Untouchables is on tonight.” 

     I thought about Tony, the picture in The Daily News, and the stain on the ground behind Tony's store. “Can we watch Red Skelton instead?” 

 

About the Author: Mike Mulvey, the illegitimate offspring of a gin-addled Dorothy Parker and a Guinness-stained Brendan Behan, is an instructor of English at Central Connecticut State University. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing and has had over two dozen stories published in literary magazines, journals, and anthologies, print and electronic, based in the US, the UK, and Ireland, some of which you’ve probably never heard of and a couple that are now belly up. But in 2013 he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He lost.

Gulftane, Shalimar, and Testosterone by Michail Mulvey

     On Saturday afternoons, especially in the summer, I’ve been known to cruise classic car shows. I’m hoping to find a 1956 Chevy Bel Air. A ’55 will do, but not a ’54. The body style is not the same. There’s usually a classic car show on the town green in Colchester, the next town over from Hebron, where I live. You can probably find a classic car show on every town green in America. We are a country obsessed with automobiles, old and new.

     When I find a ’56 or ’55 Chevy Bel Air, I’m sixteen again. The sight of those classic lines takes me back to that seemingly simpler time when my world consisted of only two things: cars and girls. When the owner of one of those Bel Airs fires up his V8, just a whiff of exhaust, tinged with a hint of burning 10W40, evokes memories of my first car and my first true love.

     These days I see a car as just a means of getting from point A to point B. Don’t get me wrong, my 2014 Honda is fun to drive and has many fascinating features: keyless entry and ignition, automatic climate control, rear-view camera, right-side blind-spot camera, lane departure warning, touch-screen interface display, iPod USB interface, Pandora audio streaming, Sirius Satellite Radio capability, Aha compatibility (whatever that is), Bluetooth connectivity, satellite-linked navigation system with voice recognition, seven speakers, CD player, HDMI interface (to hook up a flatscreen TV?) and lots of other features I’ve yet to figure out. Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock would feel right at home in my Honda. I’m sure there’s a control somewhere on my dashboard or console or touch-screen interface that would allow me to shoot Photon torpedoes at SUV’s driven by those Klingons who cut me off on I-84.

     My Honda may be loaded with a veritable cornucopia of twenty-first century technological features – it even talks to me! – but my Honda has no soul. It’s all micro-chips and electronic gadgetry. It even smells of the twenty-first century. More importantly, my Honda has no memories.

      When I was fifteen, I couldn’t wait to turn sixteen, get my license, buy a car, and go out on car dates. Like most teenagers, I was passionate about cars and girls, twin passions fueled by gasoline and testosterone, a highly volatile mixture that propelled many a boy into manhood.

      To understand these twin obsessions, you have to understand the culture of 1960’s America, especially the early 60’s, before Vietnam. Life seemed simpler back then. I say ‘seemed’ because, as Marcel Proust once said, “Remembrance of things past is not necessarily the remembrance of things as they were.” Looking back over a half century, though, - if you ignored the threat of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union - life ‘seemed’ to consist of stupid parents, stupid teachers, fast cars and pretty girls.

      When I was in high school not as many guys had cars as today, so if you had wheels, you were a chick magnet – even if you had a face like Richard Nixon and a body like Nikita Khrushchev. With a car I could take girls to the Starlite Drive-In and Cummings Beach, and if I had the cash, I could even take a date to New York City. Back in 1964, when I-95 wasn’t so congested, the bright lights of Manhattan were just a half-hour drive from Stamford, my home town. And with a car, I could escape the city housing projects where I lived.

      To save up for my first car, I stacked shelves at Tony’s Grocery every day after school – for $1 an hour. Later I added a night job at the Ferguson Public Library shelving books for $1.25 an hour – minimum wage at the time. On weekends – when the weather allowed – I caddied at Hubbard Heights Municipal Golf Course. I saved money by working in the school cafeteria during my lunch period in exchange for the free meal.

      I turned sixteen the summer of ‘63. Two weeks after my birthday, I went to the DMV, took the test, passed, and got my driver’s license. I had my passport to other worlds. But I still needed a means of transportation. I counted my savings and came up short. The cars listed in the automotive section of The Stamford Advocate were out of reach.

      My automotive future – and social life – looked dim, indeed. Until my Uncle Norman, a mechanic, came to the rescue. I’d told him I was on the lookout for a used car – a cheap used car – so he offered to keep an eye out for me. One Saturday afternoon he called and said he’d found a car – and that it was cheap.

      “How cheap,” I asked.

      “Just come look at it,” he answered. I hitched a ride to Norwalk where my uncle lived with his new wife, my Aunt Jane. Parked in front of their house was a four-door, two-tone green 1956 Chevy Bel-Air.

      “It’s yours,” he said, smiling and tossing me the keys.

      “How much do I owe you?” I asked, hoping I had enough to pay him back.

      “Don’t worry about it. Use the money you’ve saved to pay for your insurance.”

Belaire

      I stood there for a long moment, admiring my car.

     “There’s a dent in the rear bumper and rust behind the headlights, but just use some Bondo, sand it down and paint it,” my uncle said. “And it burns oil. You’ll probably have to throw in a quart of oil once a week, and maybe a can of STP.”

     I didn’t care if there was a dent in the bumper or rust behind the headlights. I didn’t care if it burned oil. I didn’t care if there was a dead body in the trunk. It had wheels!

     I thanked my uncle, hugged my aunt and drove off. Even though it was a chilly day, I rolled down the window and hung out my elbow. I turned on my radio, tuned to 770 AM, WABC New York, and cranked up the volume. The DJ must have heard I had wheels now and was on the loose: “Baby I Need Your Loving,” “I Get Around,” and “Pretty Woman,” blasted from the radio. My radio. My car radio.

     I smiled and waved to the pedestrians I passed on my drive home:

     “Yeah, I’m driving. That’s right, I’m driving my car. Check it out,” I said to anyone who looked my way.

     When I got back to the projects, I sat in my Chevy for a while playing the radio and revving the engine, hoping everyone in the neighborhood – especially the girls – would notice. They did. My Bel Air burned more oil than expected. In fact, it wasn’t long before I filled our courtyard parking lot with white smoke. Later that week, as my uncle had warned, when I stopped off for gas – Gulftane at 28 cents a gallon – I had to add a quart of oil.

     But I didn’t care. It was mine, a 1956 Chevy Bel Air, two-tone green (Sherwood green and Pinecrest green), front and rear chrome bumpers (like an empress dowager covered in jewels, my Bel Air was festooned with chrome), four doors (with hand-cranked windows), eight cylinders (a 265 cubic inch, 165 horse power V-8 that got 16 mpg), three-speed manual transmission, shift on the steering column (three on the tree), push-button AM radio with one speaker in the dashboard (Murray the K, Herb Oscar Anderson, and Cousin Brucie were my favorite DJ’s), long, cloth and vinyl bench seats (no seatbelts), not to mention enough room in the trunk to fit at least three bodies – I snuck my friend Marty and his girlfriend into the drive-in on a double-date many a night. Air-conditioning consisted of two hand-cranked, side-vent windows that allowed you to regulate the air flow in the front.

     As predicted, now that I had a car, I became a chick magnet – sort of. Two girls asked me to our high school homecoming dance. I took a girl I met at a party in Greenwich instead. Jean was nothing like the loud, gum-snapping queens in tight skirts and heavily-hairsprayed beehive hairdos who ruled the halls of Stamford High. She had reddish-brown hair and blue-green eyes. Jean was quiet, thoughtful and very bright – what she saw in me is still a mystery. It had to be my car.

     We were an unlikely couple, this girl from Greenwich and the kid from the projects, but we hit it off right away. After the party Jean let me drive her home. And for the next year or so, I drove her to the Starlite Drive-In and Cummings Beach and Bruce Park and Sherwood Isle and Playland and the 1964 World’s Fair. And one magical night, to a fancy restaurant in Manhattan.

     And with a car, me and my buddies could go cruising after school. We’d all pile into my Bel Air and slowly patrol downtown Stamford, radio blasting, checking out the girls. We’d head for Tony’s in Shippan where we’d wolf down scalding-hot onion rings and greasy French fries, then sooth our burned tongues with ice-cold Cherry Cokes. We’d hop onto I-95, I’d floor it – put the pedal to the metal - and hit 65 mph back when the speed limit was 55. We were rebels. We were cool. James Dean and Marlon Brando had nothing on us. Life was good. I had wheels. I was in love. To quote my Uncle Bob, I had life by the short and curlies.

     When I left for the Army in the summer of 1965 I loaned my Chevy to my mother, expecting to get it back when I came home on leave. “Make sure to add a quart of oil every time you get gas,” I said as I reluctantly handed her the keys. “And throw in an oil additive every once in awhile. STP.”

     Six months later my mother wrote, “The Chevy died.” I’m sure I cried when I read her letter. It was towed to the junk yard and crushed, then sold to Japan, no doubt, where it was melted down and probably made into a 1966 Honda. As my Chevy was about to be crushed, I’m sure it cried out, “Wait, I have stories to tell!”

     I got out of the Army three years later, in the summer of 1968. In the fall I’d be heading off to college – a small teacher factory in Danbury called Western Connecticut State. In need of a car, I combed the automotive section of The Stamford Advocate and found a 1955 Chevy Bel Air for sale. Call it Karma or whatever, but it was the twin of my ‘56 Chevy: two-tone green, four doors, eight cylinders, and, of course, high mileage.

     I should have known better, but I didn’t care. I had to have this car. Maybe I hoped this ‘55 Chevy Bel Air would magically transport me back in time, a time before Vietnam. Having drifted apart those three years, I also hoped Jean and I could pick up where we’d left off. But it was not to be. I’d been to war and Jean had been away at college for two years. We were not the same two people who’d said heartfelt goodbyes back in the summer of ’65.

     Jean, an English major at UCONN, later mailed me a quote from one of her literature texts:

“ … in the orbit of the world you are the North Pole, I am the South – so much in balance, in agreement – and yet … the whole world lies between.”

     I reluctantly drove off to college that fall in my 1955 Chevy Bel Air.

But like my dream of picking up where we’d left off in 1965, a few days short of Thanksgiving, my Chevy also died. Before it was hauled away, the tow truck driver told me that the ’55 Bel Air had a critical design error in its engine oiling system. Both my Bel Airs, it seemed, had died from a dearth of 10W40.

     In dire need of transportation, I bought another car – a 1963 VW Beetle. Eventually, I also found another girlfriend – her name was Christine. But she was no Jean.

     That summer of 1968 I learned the hard way what Thomas Wolfe wrote long ago:

“You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love … back home to lyricism, to singing just for singing's sake … away from all the strife and conflict of the world … back home to someone who can help you, save you, ease the burden for you, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting …”

     On the rare occasion when an owner lets me sit in the driver’s seat of a ’56 Chevy Bel Air at a car show, I’m back at the Starlite Drive-In or Cummings Beach or Bruce Park or Sherwood Isle or cruising downtown Stamford with my buddies. I run my hand along the bench seat and instinctively look to my right, thinking I might find Jean next to me – hoping I’ll find Jean next to me.

     If I close my eyes, I swear I can smell Jean’s freshly-washed hair and the scent of her perfume – Shalimar was her favorite. I feel the warmth of the Starlite Drive-In’s in-car heater at my feet – even though I know I’m at a car show and it’s only the sun streaming through the side window. I can almost taste the stale concession-stand popcorn and the cardboard-like concession-stand pizza.

     I sense the warmth of Jean’s body next to mine as we huddled on those cool nights at Cummings Beach – again it’s just the warmth of the sun reflected off the vinyl seat.

     I run my hand along the seat, a bench seat as long and smooth as a three-cushion sofa, a bench seat that allowed your girlfriend to slide over and sit so close she was almost in your lap.

     My Honda sometimes speaks to me – it’s a woman’s voice – “In one hundred yards turn right onto North Main Street” – but it doesn’t speak to me like Jean spoke to me those nights at Cummings Beach when we gazed out over Long Island sound and listened to soft rock on the radio. Every night Murray the K on 1010 WINS greeted the lovers parked at the beach with, “Hello all you submarine race watchers out there.”

     Those spring and summer nights were a feast for the senses – and an assault on restraints and inhibitions: the fragrance of Jean’s perfume, the taste of her lips, the soft touch of her hand on my face, the salt air from Long Island Sound, the twinkling lights from the opposite shore and the constellations above, the whisper of waves caressing the sand, the soft music from car radios tuned to stations that played love ballads just for us –“A Summer Song” by Chad and Jeremy was one of our favorites. Sometimes you’d hear giggles or even laughter coming from the surrounding cars. If you listened carefully, you might catch the sound of softly-whispered promises.

     This woman’s voice that occasionally speaks to me while I drive my Honda from point A to point B probably comes from a computer chip hidden somewhere behind the touch-screen interface or under the dashboard. Is it still called a dashboard?

     I don’t know this woman in my Honda. I don’t recognize the voice. But I know it’s not Jean. And though this woman may recognize my voice, does she really know me? How can she? We’re complete strangers. And I know this woman in my Honda isn’t really there. I look but there’s nobody in the seat next to me.

     I can’t touch this woman’s fingers, hold her hand in mine, caress her arm, her neck. I can’t smell her hair or breathe in her cologne. I can’t look into this woman’s eyes.

     I can’t feel her breath on my neck. She can’t run her fingers through my hair or caress my face. She can’t speak to me with her eyes.

     I can talk back to this woman in my Honda, but does she really hearme? Does she hear me? If I said, “I love you,” what would she say? I’m sorry. I don’t understand.

     There are many gray heads in the crowd at these auto shows, old men lost in thought as they stand next to those classic cars – Mustang, GTO, Barracuda, Bel Air, Corvette, T-Bird, Camaro – old cars that take these old men back to that summer when they were sixteen and all that seemed to matter were cars and girls. They’re back to that time when Gulftane, Shalimar and testosterone fueled their world. They all have stories to tell, these old men and these old cars.

     “We can’t turn back the days that have gone. We can’t turn life back to the hours when our lungs were sound, our blood hot, our bodies young,” said Thomas Wolfe.

     Thomas Wolfe was wrong. I’m sixteen again. We’re all sixteen again.

 

 

About the Author: Mike Mulvey is an instructor of English at Central Connecticut State University. He holds degrees in English and an MFA in Creative Writing. He’s had over twenty short stories published in well over a dozen literary magazines and journals, print and electronic, in the US and the UK, some dubious, some noteworthy, some you’ve probably never heard of, and a couple that are now belly up. But last year he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He lost.

Single Family Home on a One-Acre Lot by Michail Mulvey

     It was 1961 and I was fourteen. John Kennedy lived with his wife Jackie and their two kids in government housing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. I lived with my mother, step-father, and half-sister in city housing at 42 Merrell Avenue.

     With nothing to do one damp October night, I wandered the brick and concrete canyons of our housing project, kicking cans and banging on signs with a stick. I usually ran with a pack of kids from the projects, but my buddies had all gone home; it was cold, late, and a school night. Truth be told, I was avoiding my mother and step-father, who, when they weren’t drinking and arguing about some stupid shit, sat simmering in front of the TV, one beer away from another battle.

     Chilled through and bored, I was about to head home when I noticed a trailer, the rear end of an eighteen-wheel tractor trailer, just like the one my Uncle Bob drove. It was parked on Edison Street, a side street behind Building B. It caught my eye because it was out of place, sitting there in our neighborhood, a long way from any supermarket or department store.

     I walked over and checked it out, wondering who this trailer might belong to and what it was doing here, in this part of town. There were no markings on the side and no lock on the rear doors, so, curious, I opened them. They were heavy and made a creepy creaking sound. When I saw the contents of this trailer, I knew that some very stupid person had made one very big mistake.

     Before me were eggs. Cartons and cartons of eggs. There must have been a billion cartons, filling this trailer from front to rear, floor to ceiling, almost. For a minute I just stood there, staring at all these eggs left in a trailer on a dark side street.

     I reached up into the trailer and grabbed one of the cartons: ‘Grade A Extra Large’ it read. I opened the carton and took out an egg. I wondered if there was a baby chick in there, knowing there probably wasn’t, but remembering a TV show I’d seen one Sunday morning about chickens and other farm animals. But if there was a chick in there, he must have be cold and alone, even though he was sitting in a carton with eleven of his friends, all lined up in two neat rows.

     But, on the other hand, he’s safe inside that shell. I wondered, though, how he breathes in there. I cracked the egg open on the edge of the trailer. Just as I had suspected, there was no chick inside, just runny egg snot and a round yellow yolk.

     Eager to share my discovery, I ran back into our courtyard, a parking lot for the families that lived in buildings A, B and C. All together there were a total of nine, six-story apartment buildings in our city housing development, lettered A thru J—for some reason the city planners left out the letter ‘I’—twenty-four families per building, each having, on average, at least two kids, sometimes three or four. I made some quick calculations in my head: nine buildings, times twenty-four families each, times two, divided into a billion cartons of eggs. I wasn’t all that good at math, but even I knew the possibilities for mischief were infinite. With that many kids and all those eggs, we could cover half the city in runny egg snot and yellow yolk.

     But I would share my discovery with only a select few: Mickey, Georgie, and Robbie, my buddies.

     “Come see what I found,” I whispered to each when they came to their doors. Mickey complained he was in the middle of an episode of
Ozzie and Harriet.

     “Shut up and put your shoes on,” I told him.

     “I gotta watch my sisters,” said Georgie, whose mother worked the night shift at some factory in the south end. His two little sisters, Maria and Teresita, stood behind him at the door. Curiosity got the better of him, however, so he turned on cartoons—
The Jetsons—sat the two girls on the couch in front of the TV, gave them a bowl of M&M’s, and came anyway. Alone and bored, Robbie just grabbed his jacket and followed us.

     When they had all gathered at the rear of the trailer, I opened the doors and watched their faces.

     “Holy shit,” said Mickey, “look at all the friggin’ eggs!”

     Georgie reached out and gently touched one of the cartons. Robbie just stood there, mouth hanging open in disbelief. We looked at each other and smiled knowing smiles. We reached into the trailer, gathered as many cartons as we could hold in our arms and proceeded to look for targets.

     We started with the trailer, figuring anyone stupid enough to leave a whole trailer-load of eggs in our neighborhood deserved to have their property egged. We each tossed about a half dozen. Our arms warmed up, we turned and pegged the rear of Building B until some old guy opened one of the egged windows and yelled, “Hey, what the hell are you kids doin’? Dolores, call the cops!” We laughed and ran off.

     We headed for Building F, peppering the rear of buildings D and E along the way—just for shits and giggles, as my Uncle Bob would say. We searched for one particular window on the fourth floor of Building F, the bedroom window of a girl named Margaret—we called her Large Marge—who some of us knew to be a tease. To fourteen year-old boys, that was a capital offense. We weren’t sure which window belonged to Marge, so we egged about a half dozen on her floor. Robbie would have loved to egg Marge herself, covering her with yolk, but he didn’t have the nerve to call her out. Large Marge would have kicked his ass.

     We left the projects and headed for Stillwater Avenue, up the hill from Building G and around the corner. Stillwater was a boundary of sorts between an old Italian neighborhood—a mix of old single family homes on tiny lots and triple-deckers—and the upper middle-class suburbs of the west side. The projects were the rotten meat in a sandwich made with two slices of angry white bread: Wops and WASP’s.

     We stopped across the street from Tony’s Grocery. Tony didn’t like us kids from the projects and kept a close eye on us whenever we dropped in for a cold soda on a warm day. One afternoon he came up to us as we stood around his magazine rack. Hands on hips, he told us some punks had broken in the night before, heisted some soda, candy, and comics, and tried to pry open the register. By the look on his face, we were his number one suspects. Tony snatched the Spiderman comic out of Robbie’s hand and told us all to take a hike.

     It was late, so Tony’s was closed, but a faint glow from the milk cooler acted as a kind of night light. It also illuminated the contents of the cooler which included milk, eggs, and cheese: an omelet.

     “How do ya want your eggs, shithead?” yelled Robbie as he hurled an egg at Tony’s store-front window. “Hope you like ‘em scrambled.”

     “Breakfast is served,” yelled Mickey, aiming for Tony’s door.

     “Take that, asshole!” yelled Georgie firing egg after egg. Georgie hated Tony as much as Tony hated us. Tony threw Georgie – whose real name was Jorge – out of his store one Saturday afternoon, complaining Georgie was spending too much time hanging around the magazine rack—Georgie later confessed to me that Tony caught him trying to cop a peek at Miss April’s jugs.

     Each of us emptied the contents of at least one carton, then stood and admired our work. Yolk ran down Tony’s window in rivulets. Shell fragments and yolk littered the sidewalk in front of his store. We knew we’d probably be at the top of Tony’s list of suspects the next day, but we didn’t give a rat’s furry fart. “Boy, is he gonna be pissed,” laughed Georgie.

     Satisfied, we jogged up Stillwater Avenue, joking and tossing eggs along the way. We egged Lupinacci’s Liquors, a STOP sign, signs that said NO PARKING, a traffic light—and each other. I took an egg in the side of the head, Mickey took one in the crotch, Robbie ducked, Georgie took one in the back.

     We hung a right at the light, heading back to the projects. Up to the roof of Building J we flew, passing the elevator, taking the stairs two at a time. The door to the roof was locked but Mickey pried it open with a knife. Below us lay Merrell Avenue.

     We let several cars pass by, then rose up and pegged about a half dozen. Anyone looking up into the night sky would have thought it was raining eggs. Most cars just slowed and honked their horns in anger, but one stopped. The driver got out, looked around and yelled, “I’ll get you little bastards!”

     He was looking around, however, not up, so he had no clue where the eggs came from. He yelled something else, but we couldn’t make out his words; we were down, hugging the roof, giggling, our faces pressed into the cold tar and peastone. We waited until we heard him speed off—burning rubber all the way to the traffic light at the end of the street—before peering over the edge. The street below was covered in egg yolk and shell fragments. Slimy egg white glistened in the street light. Empty egg cartons littered the roof of Building J.

     Out of ammo, we took the stairs back down to the street and headed for the trailer— watching for any egged cars that may have circled back hoping to catch ‘the little bastards.’ Each of us collected a couple more cartons of eggs. Not as many as before, though, just enough to egg the rest of our world.

     Figuring we should probably work another area, though, we left the projects and jogged one block north to Broad Street, a busy thoroughfare on the west side, a mostly suburban part of town, a part of town on which the city had dumped a city housing project … filled with little bastards like us.

     Halfway up the block, Mickey yelled, “Watch out,” and jumped into the bushes, pulling Robbie along with him. Georgie and me followed. A police car drove by.

     “Maybe we should head back,” whispered Robbie, a nervous edge to his voice.

     “He didn’t have his siren or flashing lights on,” said Mickey. “So he’s probably just patrolling his beat …”

     “Looking for little bastards like us,” I said, chuckling.

     Checking up and down the street first, we climbed out of the hedge and continued on.

     We knew we’d find a better make of car on Broad Street. Newer cars. Expensive cars filled with guys who wore suits and ties. Cars filled with couples who lived in homes on multi-acre estates farther west or north of Merrell Avenue. Homes filled with people who played bridge and drank Martinis. Our fathers carried lunch pails to work and drank Ballantine Ale.

     I was hoping the owner of that upscale shop owner on Bedford Street who chased us out of his store thinking we might heist a pair of socks or a tie would drive by—like I’d even wear a tie. Or the skinny, hawk-eyed old bitch in the school cafeteria who thought we might stick a sandwich down our pants; or the librarians who kept an eye on us thinking we might steal a book or something. Yeah, right, a book.

     We hid behind the hedges of a house, laid out our cartons of eggs, and waited for the first Cadillac or Lincoln or Chrysler New Yorker that came our way. We let the Chevys and Fords pass by, unmolested.

     A Cadillac Coupe de Ville came into view. “They’re probably on their way home from Bloomingdales,” I whispered.

     “Or they just picked out a new sofa at Silberman’s,” said Mickey.

     “Or a new Caddy … ” said Georgie, his voice trailing off.

     Hunkered down on the cool, damp lawn, we waited until the Caddy got within range, then rose as one and pummeled it, firing volley after volley, aiming for the windshield and driver’s side window, hoping it was open, even a little. The driver slammed on the brakes, got out and charged toward us, shaking his fist and yelling. “I’m gonna kill you, you little …”

     Before he could finish his sentence, though, an egg caught right in the forehead. His head jerked back from the hit, then he just stood there, dazed, egg running down his face onto his shirt. Another egg hit him square in the chest, ruining his tie, no doubt. Another hit him in the knee.

     Despite his threat, we didn’t run. Not this time. We stood our ground and egged him and his fancy friggin’ suit real good. Our arms were like windmills, hurling eggs as fast as we could get them out of the carton. Arms flailing, the driver tried to bat away the eggs, but in no time he was covered in yolk from head to toe, almost.

     “Fuck you,” yelled Mickey, whose father was out of work.

     “Yeah, fuck you, asshole,” said Robbie, whose mother, a waitress, worked the four to midnight shift at some shit-hole restaurant on South Atlantic Street.

     Georgie yelled something in Spanish. Probably a swear.

     In my anger, I grabbed one egg so hard it broke in my hand.

     From inside the car, a woman screamed, “For God’s sake, Ralph, get back in the car! Get back in the car before they kill you!” In his fury, Georgie stepped over the hedge and stood on the sidewalk, heaving egg after egg with all his might. He was a big, easy-going kid who smiled and joked a lot, but tonight he was one pissed-off Puerto Rican.

     Realizing he was outnumbered, the man in the fancy suit—now covered in yolk—shook his fist at us one last time, tried to bat away one last egg—missed and took it in the head—then quickly retreated to his car, shouting something at his wife as he got back in. He sped away, his wipers working to clear the egg off his windshield.

     We were sweaty and winded, our labored breath visible in the cool night air. Robbie wiped his nose on his sleeve. I wiped my hands on my pants. Georgie stood on the sidewalk, empty egg carton in one hand, egg in the other, hoping the driver would turn around and come back. But the Coup de Ville disappeared around a bend.

     “Let’s egg Mr. Cleary’s house,” I said, having no idea where he lived. Mr. Cleary was a much-hated math teacher who’d once slapped my cousin, Donnie, across the face for some smart-assed remark Donnie’d allegedly made in class.

     “Let’s go to my mother’s restaurant and egg the owner,” said Robbie, who’d told us the bald-headed old pervert wouldn’t leave his mother alone.

     “Let’s go egg the crap out of the club house at Hubbard Heights,” said Mickey who’d once told us about some old duffer who’d given him the up and down at the caddy shack one Sunday morning last summer before picking the kid
without the stained shirt and the scruffy US Keds.

     But we were out of ammo. Empty egg cartons littered the lawn of this house on Broad Street, this comfy, single-family home with a porch, neatly trimmed hedges and a two-car garage, sitting on a tidy, manicured lot. The porch light was on but the garage was empty and the front parlor was dark. Nobody was home, it seemed.

     We walked one block east and took a right on Shelburne Road, heading back to Edison Street and the trailer. Checking to see if we were being followed, I turned and looked back up Shelburne. Single-family homes, all with two-car garages, all sitting on tidy, manicured lots, lined either side. Almost identical in shape and color. Like…

     “I hear sirens,” said Mickey, looking back in the direction of Broad Street. “Maybe we should call it a night,”

     “Yeah, maybe we should,” said Robbie, rubbing his hands together, trying to warm them in the cool night air.

     “I gotta go check on my sisters,” said Georgie, looking up as the night mist turned to a slow drizzle.

     Mickey was probably right. Why push our luck. Besides, we were spent, our arms were heavy, it was late and a school night. “Yeah, that’s enough,” I said to myself, looking back up Shelburne Road.

     We stood in the street, smiling, sweaty and yolk-stained. Robbie’s jacket was ripped, Georgie’s pants were grass-stained and muddy—“My mother’s gonna kill me,” he said—and I had egg in my hair. Mickey held a shoe in one hand and a carton of eggs in the other.

     “Breakfast,” he said, holding up the carton.

     We had made a counter-clockwise journey, egging just about everything along the way, ending our night back where it began, on Edison Street, behind Building B. The trailer stood there, filled with eggs from front to rear, floor to ceiling, waiting. But it was time to head home.

     “See ya,” said Mickey with a smirk on his dirty face as he turned and headed back to apartment C-12.

     “Yeah, tomorrow,” I called back, watching him limp away, still holding one shoe and a carton of eggs.

     Georgie smiled, punched me playfully in the chest, turned and left, hoping his two sisters had stayed put in front of the TV.

     Robbie just waved and ambled off, back to apartment B-14, where he would turn on the TV and wait up for his mother.

     I looked up, wondering if this drizzle would turn to rain and wash away evidence of our night’s activities. Part of me hoped it wouldn’t. I looked over at the trailer and wondered if it would still be there tomorrow after school.

     I took the elevator up to apartment A-63, slipped in and quietly passed by the living room where my mother and stepfather watched TV. I headed straight for the bathroom, eased the door shut, locked it and tossed my egg-stained clothes in the hamper.

     I filled the bathtub and climbed in. I washed dried yolk out of my hair, then leaned back and lay in the warm, soapy water, soaking, my head resting on the back edge of the white tub. I closed my eyes. A loud knock at the bathroom door and a, “Where have you been?” sent me sliding under, my head and face completely below the surface. The rapping on the door was muffled now, my mother’s voice a distant, almost inaudible mumble. Immersed in the warm water, listening to the beating of my heart, I wondered how long I could hold my breath.



About the Author:
Mike Mulvey is old, teaches English, has an MFA, and has been published in twenty or so lit mags and journals, print and electronic, in the US and the UK, some of which you've probably never heard of and a couple that are now defunct. But he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize last year by The Umbrella Factory Magazine.