And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
Tap…tap, clang… Tap…tap, clang…
My voice was cautious as I called into the darkness. It wasn’t my house and I had no business being down in that cellar. By the look of the boards on the windows upstairs, and the weeds that strangled the front yard, it hadn’t been anyone’s house for a long time. But still, even at ten, I knew in my bones that I’d made the biggest mistake of my life.
One of the windows was busted at the corner, and the cold wind whipped and whistled at the breach. Outside, a loose metal trash can rolled and rattled and knocked about with each new gust. It made a soft, distant sound.
Tap…tap, clang… Tap…tap, clang…
The only light was an old Coleman lantern that I found there. It lay at my feet, the mantle fading and sputtering. Beyond the meager glow that lit no more than my boot-tops, it gave me the terrifying certainty that someone was here, or close by, and would soon –
Was that a sound? I held my breath and listened carefully, trying hard to dismiss the pounding pulse that thrummed in my ears. Was that a shuffling sound, maybe feet moving and scraping across loose dirt?
“Hello…? Anyone here…?”
I squinted hard but it was useless. The darkness was unyielding and oddly thick with the smell of freshly turned earth. Someone had been digging down here.
Tap…tap, clang… Tap…tap, clang…
Running into the house to hide from the police was my only option. The place should have been empty, long abandoned. But it wasn’t, and I knew now that I had to get out. I turned to leave, to run; then I heard it, a word from the darkness. It was whispered and pitiful and – it was my name. Someone in the darkness called my name.
“Who’s there?” I called out.
“I…I…didn’t d-do nothing wr-wrong, Billy.”
Both the voice and its stutter were familiar. Just hearing it made my guts twist.
Tap…tap, clang… Tap…tap, clang…
I snatched up the lantern at my feet, recalled my scout training, and worked the pump to pressurize the kerosene. The lantern’s mantle hissed a bit, burned a little brighter, and pushed back the darkness.
The light washed over a young boy. Like me, he was just ten, and I knew his name.
It came out like a question, but it wasn’t. Tommy Schneider lived next door to me and was part of our snowball fight just a few hours before.
When the light touched him, Tommy flinched and turned his shoulder, as if anticipating a blow. He shivered and folded his arms across his chest, hands tucked in his armpits. He paced and shuffled his feet in a small circle, as if his bladder was painfully full, and he whined and muttered; half to himself, half to me.
“It w-wasn’t m-my fault, Billy. I…I just w-wanted to play.” His eyes were swollen and red, and the tears ran streaks through the dirt on his freckled face.
Tap…tap, clang… Tap…tap, clang…
“Tommy, what the hell are you doing down here?”
“I..I…I’m sorry, b-but I d-didn’t do nothing wrong, Billy. I’m s-sorry.” He kept his hands tucked under his armpits, but motioned with his chin. And that’s when I saw it, just a few feet from where I stood.
Naked and half buried in a pile of loose earth lay the dead body of a boy that appeared to be our own age.
“Jesus Christ…what the hell, Tommy.”
“No….” His whining grew and fresh tears were coming.
“What the hell did you do?”
“Nooo…” he whined more and covered his ears. “I didn’t do nothing wrong.”
Frantic now, I held out the fading lantern, quickly looking around. We were still alone. The scene before me was unfathomable.
In the half-shadows of the cellar where the lantern struggled to reach, there was a pile of fresh, moist earth and broken shards of concrete. I saw some tools – a sledgehammer and a shovel, and I think a pickax, too. A few brown sacks of cement mix were piled against the wall. And there was a large hole; a gaping wound in the cellar floor that reached beneath the foundation of the house, a hole that led down into a place where the lantern’s light could not touch. Nearby, a stray boot lay in the dirt, just beyond it a gym sock, and another lay close by my feet. A faded, wadded up pair of jeans was perched at the edge of the hole.
Tap…tap, clang… Tap…tap, clang…
I shivered, despite my layers of clothing and new winter coat. Tommy was freezing. He wore only jeans and a t-shirt pulled over a long-sleeved sweatshirt. His breath, like mine, fogged in the January air, and his jaw waggled helplessly from his shivering.
“Who’s that?” I asked, pointing to the body.
At first, Tommy’s eyes followed my finger, but then he just moaned and cried some more, and turned away.
I couldn’t tell if the boy on the ground was from our immediate neighborhood, or my school, or Boy Scout troop, or baseball team. It was difficult to discern much about him at all. He lay on his belly in a pile of dirt, and the loose earth covering his face and parts of his torso were, it seemed, tossed on him carelessly by whoever dug the hole. The backs of his pale white thighs glowed in the lantern’s light. The only stitch of clothing left on him was a pair of white Fruit of the Loom jockeys tangled around one ankle.
I picked up one of the gym socks from the ground, pinched it into a ball and held it with the tips of my fingers. Kneeling beside the dead boy’s head, I held the lantern close with one hand and used the sock to brush the dirt from his face with the other. Like a fossil being unearthed by an archeologist, the truth came slowly. As the seconds passed, the light and each stroke of my hand brought broken, bloodied and indecipherable features into sharp focus. But the crushed and jellied eyeball put me over the edge.
I jerked back from the body.
“Oh, God! Tommy, what – ” My stomach lurched.
I dropped the lantern and fell backward onto the ground. Turning and scrambling away on hands and knees, I found a corner and began to wretch. My back arched and my body convulsed uncontrollably. It was the Coney Island Cyclone all over again, but this time nothing came up, only thin strands of bile dripped from my mouth and down my lips.
In time, the convulsions faded. I finally rolled over and just sat there, looking at Tommy, wiping the spittle from my lips with the back of a shaky hand. My head throbbed and my mind was fuzzy. No words would come.
The wind howled through the broken cellar window again. Outside, the passing cars made a distant shushing sound as they crept along Woodlawn Avenue, tires rolling through the snow and slush. My heaving, stinking breath clouded in the cold air, and Tommy just cried.
Clang, clang… Clang, clang…
I was ten years old and had just seen my very first real dead body – still and soulless, and battered beyond recognition – lying on the floor of a cold, dark cellar of an abandoned house. What the hell did I get myself into?
Clang, clang… Clang, clang…
Staggering to my feet, I picked up the lantern and held it out.
“Tommy… who did this?” My throat was dry and pained.
Just as the words passed my lips, something in my mind and in my ears opened up – popped open, really, like in the cabin of an airliner during descent. That sound…
Clang, clang… Clang, clang…
It was different. It was continuous. It wasn’t the rattling trash can anymore. The sound came from a distance but it was there, and it was distinctive. I knew exactly who was standing impatiently, hip cocked and jaw set, banging on the lip of a dinner bell with her soup ladle.
Clang, clang… Clang, clang…
Tommy looked at me. He heard it too and knew what it meant.
“Your Ma’s calling, Billy.”
“I…I…didn’t d-do nothing wr-wrong, Billy,” Tommy whined. “I just w-wanted to play.”
“It was ol’ George,” he finally said. “He did it. Stay away from ol’ George.” And then he started to cry again, whimpering. “I just wanted to play,” he mumbled through the tears. ” …just wanted to play…”
Clang, clang… Clang, clang… Clang, clang…
The wind is picking up and the scattered flakes are swirling. Tonight’s storm is just beginning. It’s not much now, but CNN is forecasting a nor’easter. They say it should reach full strength by midnight, maybe one o’clock.
Sally dreads the snow. She’s not looking forward to an ugly morning commute, or worse, the thought of working from home; not when she’s trying to close a deal and needs face time with her client. But our boys have a different perspective. Stephen, nine, and Peter, eight, are giddy with anticipation. Not even Christmas morning holds this much excitement for them. They’re hoping for the kind of deep snow that rolls over the neighborhood in soft waves and makes everything seem clean and new and ripe for rediscovery. Above all, they look forward to a day free from the routine of school; from classes, tests and handing in homework; a day free from responsibility and accountability. Before they go to bed tonight, they will pray for a snow day.
I used to share their enthusiasm, but not anymore; not since that day when I was ten. Dr. Jeffreys keeps probing for more details, but I’ve been reluctant to share until now.
My iPhone just chimed.
The weather app has sent me a notification. It says: “Winter Warning in Effect…”
I don’t need to read the rest of the text, nor do I have to watch CNN or WNBC for storm coverage. I have my own internal barometer. You see, every time the snow falls late in the evening before a school day, the dreams begin again.
They are always the same – there’s a dark tunnel, and there’s blood, lots of blood, and someone is screaming.
God, I hate snow days.
Tommy smiled and giggled as he made snow angels with the little kids.
Bobby thought it was weird; so did I. Most kids thought Tommy was a little weird, and on that day Bobby had no patience for it.
“Tommy, what are you doing? You’re supposed to be helping us make snowballs.”
But Tommy didn’t pay Bobby any mind, or he pretended not to hear. More likely, he was lost in his own head, something I noticed Tommy did from time to time. He just lay on his back in a patch of virgin snow and continued to wave his arms, and open and close his legs, pushing aside the snow to form the impression of an angel. He had company. On either side of him were my little brother Rudy and his best buddy, Freddy Carlson, doing the same thing and giggling as well. We thought it was baby stuff. Rudy and Freddy were only six, so the snow angel thing was understandable. But Tommy was ten, like us, so we thought it was a bit strange. But then, Tommy always seemed to play better with the little kids.
Tommy was a slight boy with red hair and a freckled complexion. His close-cropped hair set off his ears and one of them, his right, seemed oddly shrunken. It made me think about my cousin with the extra toe and I remembered my mother’s admonition about such things: Never stare.
My buddy Bobby always had a bit of a short fuse, and now Tommy was about to light it.
“Hey, Tommy b–”
“Tommy, you shouldn’t do that,” Lucy said, cutting Bobby short. “You’re getting wet. You’re going to get sick. Why don’t you come help us?” Lucy always knew how to defuse Bobby’s frustrations and yet still appear to take his side. She had a way with people.
“Yeah, man,” Bobby said. “You don’t even have a coat on. That’s stupid. Quit with the baby stuff.”
“Hey, Tommy?” Lucy said. “You don’t want me to ask my Mom if we have an extra coat, do you?” She was sincere, if a little reluctant to get too entangled with the kid my brother Frank used to call “the mental case.”
Tommy said nothing, still in his own head, but Bobby snorted. “Yeah, I think pink’s his color,” and then he laughed. “That would suit him just fine. What a dork. Such a Potsie.”
Lucy gave him a shove and Bobby took the hint.
“S-sit on it and rotate, B-bobby,” Tommy said in a girlish voice, and then giggled a girlish giggle.
“Th- th- that’s all, folks,” Bobby mocked, and then tossed a handful of snow at Tommy, who simply brushed it away.
Nobody thought Tommy was really retarded or anything, despite his stutter. He went to the same public school as Jimmy Barnes, and Jimmy said he was in the same grade as me and my friends, even if he was in some of the slower classes. We just thought he was odd. Like, here it was, January, over a foot of snow on the ground, and we were all bundled head to toe in coats, scarves, snow pants, hats, hoods, gloves, earmuffs, and boots. You name it, we wore it. Our bodies were thick with it, but not Tommy. He came out to play in the snow with just his father’s oversized boots, the same threadbare jeans he wore most of the year, a red long-sleeved sweatshirt, and pulled over on top of that, a free Police Athletic League t-shirt he got at the Blackwater Founder’s Day Fair. It was his favorite, I guess. He always wore it, and typically wiped his running nose with the shirt tail or a sleeve. It was white, or used to be, with big black letters that read BLACKWATER P.A.L.
Tommy would come up to me, point to the filthy shirt and say, “Hey, look, Billy. I’m your pal,” and then he would laugh, always alone.
“Come on,” Bobby said. “The big kids are going to be back soon. We need to get ready. The big battle’s coming.”
This was our first major snowfall of the year and it wiped everything else away. Our parents worried about things like OPEC pushing oil prices ever higher; President Ford investigating the CIA; and guilty verdicts in the Watergate scandal. But we were oblivious to all of it.
We woke in the morning to discover deep, rolling mounds of snow covering the little town of Blackwater, New Jersey. The sky was a hazy white-gray, and as it reached down to meet the horizon line, heaven and earth were covered by the same cold blanket, broken only by the occasional barren gable, or smoking chimney, or the rare car that slowly made its way down the road in the distance.
WWDJ Radio, the inspirational station that my mother listened to, confirmed it for us. St. Mary’s Catholic Elementary School was closed and we had a snow day. We were kids; this was Nirvana.
We spent the day in drifts that nearly came to our knees; first building a teetering fortress of ice, then waging mortal combat with hard packed balls of snow until our wool gloves were soaked through and the cold needled into our fingers. There were eight of us plus Tommy when the day started.
The big kids – my brother Frank and his friends – didn’t mind competing in the icy melee with Bobby, Lucy and me. They were fourteen and we were just ten, but Frank figured it was fair enough. They didn’t even mind letting the little kids in on the fun. Rudy and Freddy were only six, but Frank confessed that the little kids always made the best targets when the snowballs began to fly.
Luckily, my friends and I were spared that little kids label, but it stayed with Rudy and Freddy for years. Rudy carries it still. I guess some shit just sticks with you forever.
And then, of course, there was Tommy.
“Why do we always get stuck with the little kids, and him?” Bobby said.
Tommy and the little kids ignored him. They gingerly sat up and stepped out of their snow angels, taking care not to spoil their work.
“Don’t worry about them,” Lucy said. Some strands of her blonde hair had escaped her toboggan cap and framed her face. She was pretty even then. “Just keep making snowballs.”
There was a lull in the action when Frank and his friends ran around to the other side of the block. They hoped to draw us out, to get us to follow them, but we were too smart for that. We knew that if we stayed in my backyard where we had built our snow fort, we’d be safe. As bad as it got for us in these snowball fights, there was always my mother, occasionally peeking out the kitchen window to make sure things didn’t get out of hand. On the other side of the block, out of sight from any parental gaze, the big kids could kick our asses by throwing sharp chunks of ice, or by sticking our faces in the ground and making us eat yellow snow. No thanks, we weren’t going to give up our air cover so easily. Instead, we used the opportunity to stockpile ammunition for the coming battle.
“Hey, maybe we can use the little kids for cannon fodder,” I said. “You know, put them up front like shields and stuff.”
“Quit it,” Lucy said, and tossed some snow at me.
She was one of the few who stood up for the little kids. When we were younger, Lucy would play school with them on her front porch. She pretended to be a teacher, reviewing their ABCs with them and putting them down for a nap during their pretend recess. But that was in the past. She wasn’t their playmate anymore, though she remained their defender when the price wasn’t too high. Tommy was a different story. She didn’t know how to deal with him and he made her a little uncomfortable.
“They aren’t much use to us otherwise,” Bobby said. “Jeez, their throws can’t even reach the fence.” He was talking about the fence that lined our yard along the sidewalk on Persimmons Avenue and typically gave the big kids cover.
Just then, a loose ball of snow splashed against Bobby’s navy parka, catching him by surprise. “What the hell?”
Rudy laughed. “Gotcha, you’re dead,” he said, shining his buck-toothed grin.
“Jerk-wad.” Bobby threw his snowball hard at Rudy’s head, but missed when my little brother ducked.
Lucy stepped between them. “Leave them alone, Bobby.”
“Come on,” I said. “We need to keep making more snowballs.”
“Come here.” Lucy pulled Rudy and Freddy aside. Tommy stood apart, making his own snowballs, pretending not to listen to Lucy and the little kids.
She bent over, hands on knees, to look them in the eye when she spoke to them. Even at ten, Bobby would steal looks at Lucy’s ass and that moment was no exception. I made a note to bust his chops about it later. Bobby and Lucy sittin’ in a tree…
“We need you guys for an important job,” Lucy said. She pulled Freddy’s coat closed and zipped it while she spoke, then used the corner of his scarf to wipe his running nose. “We need your help to make more snowballs before the big kids come back and murder us. Think you guys can do that?”
Lucy wasn’t kidding about getting murdered. Frank and Lucy’s older brother Carl were pretty big, even for fourteen. Together, with their buddy Jimmy Barnes from down the street, they led some nasty attacks against our fortified position between the three-foot wall of snow we built in an L shape – our fort – and the side of my garage.
Bobby and I packed snowballs and kept watch in the direction of Persimmons, while Lucy helped the little kids make more snowballs.
Then I heard it; the snake-like hiss of an irregularly shaped snowball, wet and packed hard, as it cut through the air like a missile. Bobby took one square in the back.
Carl had maneuvered around behind us and was attacking from the yard next door – the yard belonging to Tommy’s parents. We were exposed back there. Lucy, Bobby and I turned our attention to Carl and returned fire.
“Ouch!” A snowball exploded on top of Lucy’s head. It didn’t come from Carl. We looked around; another struck me on the top of my shoulder, a glancing blow. I looked up and saw him. It was crazy Jimmy Barnes. He stood right above us, on the sloped and snowy roof of our garage, firing snowballs from the armful he cradled against his chest. He must have climbed up the tree in the Carlsons’ backyard, which had branches that leaned over our garage. From there he could step onto the roof and attack from above.
They had us from two angles so now our fort offered no cover. Then Frank showed up and things got worse. Jimmy and Carl threw hard but Frank had a cannon for an arm. Everyone knew it and everyone feared it.
My brother Frank was a sports fiend – baseball, basketball, wrestling, you name it, but baseball especially. He had a nasty fastball that he mixed up with a scary lollipop curve. In fact, he was called up out of Little League to play with the older kids in the Babe Ruth League a year earlier than the rules permitted.
Baseball was one of the few things Frank and I had in common, though we never played ball together. While Frank was pitching in the Babe Ruth League and played for the American Legion team, I was still down in Little League, making my way as a weak-hitting catcher on the team sponsored by Charles Alliots Plumbing.
Our coach – Mr. Deluca to the kids, Uncle Nick to his nephew Andrew, our shortstop – was an interesting character. He was the first and only Little League coach I ever knew who wore a business suit to practice. He sported a salt-and-pepper beard trimmed to a Van Dyke and wore three-piece suits, always black, and he carried a cane with a brass handle in the shape of a horse’s head. He also smoked a lot, like a chimney.
Mr. Deluca always came to practices and games with a friend. We never knew his name, but he wore dark glasses and drove Mr. Deluca everywhere, so we just called him The Driver. He was a barrel-chested man, maybe an ex-football player, with a crew cut, who always wore a sport coat, even on the hottest days. It was usually a tacky plaid sport coat that reminded me of Lindsey Nelson, the New York Mets broadcaster renowned for his bad taste in apparel. The driver would chauffer Mr. Deluca to every practice and then stand just behind the backstop, silent and watchful.
Frank said the whole thing – wearing suits and sport coats to baseball practice – was gay. Frank figured that unless you were a cool NFL head coach like Tom Landry or Hank Stram then you had no business wearing a suit on a ball field, especially a baseball diamond. But it never bothered me. If Mr. Deluca didn’t care that my batting average was well below the Mendoza line, then I wasn’t going to care about how he dressed.
At each practice Mr. Deluca had a routine. He hit ground balls to an infielder while still balancing a cigarette between his fingers or dangling it from his lips. The kid scooped up the ball and threw it to first, then it came home to me, where I fed it back to Mr. Deluca and the drill would start all over again with the next fielder. When the ball came in to me from Johnny Bennetti, our hard-throwing first baseman, the ball would zip through the air on a rope and land in my catcher’s mitt with a hisssss-pop sound. I thought Johnny had a gun for an arm until I saw Frank fire the ball. Johnny made the ball hiss like a little snake. Frank? His throws hissed like a monster cobra, and man, did they bite.
Frank’s first snowball hit my left ear with an explosion of pain, sending snow and ice into the up-turned hood of my coat and down my back. The impact put me on the ground hard where I could feel the corner of the tin Sucrets box in my back pocket digging painfully into my rear end.
I jumped up and returned fire, missing Frank by a mile. He laughed. Not only was I a lousy hitter, but this catcher had a glass arm as well.
Snowballs buzzed in the air like angry insects, the laughter was contagious and we were making great memories. At least we were, until Jimmy Barnes fell off the garage roof.
Crazy Jimmy, another kid who was lightly dressed for the January snow, didn’t have snow boots. He had on a pair of old canvas Keds with worn soles and he lost his footing pretty easily on the snowy shingled roof. Jimmy shouted, when his feet slipped out from under him.
What happened next took place in seconds, but for those of us who watched and recalled it later, the sight played out like an old Super-8 movie running through a bad projector. The action slowed and flickered and stuttered, and still does in our memories.
There was an immediate and incredulous cease-fire when Jimmy shouted. We watched, mouths agape, as he fell on his tail and began sliding down the inclined roof. He rolled over, writhing and clawing at the icy slope. In a last futile attempt to avoid the precipitous fall ahead, Jimmy grabbed the rain gutter. Screws creaked and screeched as they were yanked clean out of the wood frame. Small pieces of shingle, wood and tin flew into the air like confetti. As Jimmy sailed through the air, gutter in hand, Lucy let out a gasp. Finally, crazy Jimmy and the gutter landed in our yard, right in the middle of our snow fort. For the few terrifying seconds that followed, we just stared, wide-eyed and silent, wondering if he would get up.
Lucky for Jimmy, his fall was softened in part by our stockpile of snowballs, now reduced to a scattered heap of snow. He staggered to his feet a little stunned, the tangled scrap of metal that was once our rain gutter still clutched in his hand. He tossed it aside, thought about it for a moment, and started to laugh.
Just then, a soft packed snowball splashed against Jimmy’s chest. Shocked, I turned to see who threw it. It wasn’t Lucy or Bobby, and it certainly wasn’t me. I wouldn’t have had the balls to do it, not after what I’d just seen. No, it was Tommy Schneider. He had an idiotic smile on his face and he was giggling.
Jimmy seemed surprised at first, and a little confused. Then he saw who did it, and his eyes slowly narrowed. “Hey, mental case,” he said, a big grin spreading across his face. “You just opened up a whole can of ass-whoop.”
Tommy reached for another snowball.
I shouted: “Tommy, no, run!”
Then I heard it – the cobra-like hiss of a Frank Stone snowball. It came from behind me, sailed right over my shoulder and nailed Tommy smack in the head. The snowball exploded on impact, splashing into fragments, but leaving a dollop of slush on his temple.
Stunned, Tommy reeled backward, red-faced, eyes clenched tight in pain. His slowed reflexes left him exposed. Without pause, Jimmy, Carl and Frank unleashed a rain of icy projectiles on him.
Smack! Smack, smack, smack!
The rest of us were surprised. It happened so fast we could only watch. And, well, it was funny, so we laughed. We all laughed.
Tommy backpedaled and held up his arms, hoping to deflect the snowballs, but his Blackwater P.A.L. t-shirt and faded jeans were peppered with wet slushy impact points. He lost his footing and became an ice skater about to fall, wind-milling his arms and shuffling his feet. His oversized boots formed erratic trails across his snow angel, scarring the holy impression. He scuffled about and finally fell on his seat in the middle of the ruined angel. And still the snowballs rained down on him, stabbing at him like giant insects with icy barbed stingers. Frank and his friends didn’t let up. They gave no quarter, took no prisoners. That was their way. In his eagerness to be accepted, to be like the rest of the kids in the neighborhood, Tommy had unwittingly crossed an invisible line and brought a wave of pain down on himself. The big kids felt obligated to teach him a lesson and the rest of us just enjoyed the show.
We all laughed and smiled and had a good time at Tommy’s expense until the crying began. When the barrage of snowballs finally stopped, Tommy lay on his back in the snow; silent, red-faced and open-mouthed. He was crying so hard that no sound would come out. Then there was a hitch in his chest as he caught his breath and the wailing began in earnest. His cries were piercing and easily carried across our small neighborhood. It would only be seconds before someone’s mother opened a door or a window to determine the source.
Like roaches escaping from the light, we scattered. Over fences, through hedges, we ran as if the devil himself were biting at our heels. No one wanted to be standing next to a wailing Tommy Schneider, especially when his mother emerged from her kitchen onto her back porch, a vantage point which overlooked my own backyard where the battle had been fought and, where Tommy was concerned, lost.
Rudy and Freddy ran inside our garage to hide. Carl disappeared into the neighboring Carlson backyard, while Frank and Jimmy jumped the fence on the far side of the yard and ran south down Persimmons Avenue. Lucy slipped away cat-like, squeezing through a small space between the garage and the back fence. Too big to follow her, Bobby and I went in another direction, running down the narrow pathway between my house and the neighboring Schneider house. We ran past the line of trash cans and stayed low and close to a row of tall hedges that separated the two properties, so no one who might be looking out the Schneiders’ side windows would see us pass. There were no first floor windows on that side of my house, so I knew my mother wouldn’t spot us.
After we cleared the hedges, Bobby and I cut right and hurried down East Glendale Avenue until we reached the far corner of our block where East Glendale met Route 5, a busy two-lane road frequented by commuters and delivery trucks making their way to Route 46, the George Washington Bridge and the five boroughs. We eased from a hell-bent run to a winded trot, and finally stopped for a breather as we turned the corner and were well concealed by some shrubs.
After a few seconds bent over, hands on thighs and sucking wind, we looked at each other. And then we laughed. We laughed until we were nearly ready to piss our Wranglers.
Just the thought of Delilah Schneider, Tommy’s five-foot six, 250 pound mother, busting out of the back door on to her porch like a raging rhino, was too much. We’d seen it before and we could picture it now like a Hollywood Technicolor movie, as clear as Shelley Winters on screen in The Poseidon Adventure at the Park Lane Theater over in Palisades Park. She would be wearing a faded one-piece house dress, worn and dirty slippers, a Virginia Slim dangling from the corner of her mouth, her breath fogging in the cold air, and Tommy’s baby sister, Claire, would be tucked into the crook of one arm. Delilah would be angry, yell at Tommy, and chase him into the house.
She was always angry, even more now since her husband closed up his barbershop down the street one day and just disappeared, leaving her with a young son, another child on the way, and no means to pay the bills.
The voice came from the Schneiders’ kitchen window. It sounded like a farmer calling pigs. From our hiding place behind some shrubs three houses away, her voice was distant, but still clear, and it made us laugh even harder. Bobby rolled on the snowy ground, holding his belly in pain, his face red from the gales of laughter that shook him. I laughed, too, and accidentally snorted like a pig, which made Bobby laugh even harder.
We knew that voice, of course. It was Delilah, and we laughed even more when she continued to bellow loud enough for her voice to carry across the entire neighborhood and several blocks beyond. But the laughter didn’t last for long.
The Schneiders’ back door swung open with a CRASH!
“Get your God damned ass in this house, now!” Delilah screamed. The baby in her arms started to wail as loud as Tommy.
“How many times have I told you to stay away from those God damned kids?”
That’s when the beating began. Bobby and I peered through some shrubs to get a partial view. The Schneiders’ back porch was three houses away and obscured a bit by hedges and shrubs, but we could still see and hear the blows as she slapped her open hand against his shoulders and the side of his head. Each slap punctuated a word.
How! Many! Times! Have! I! Told! You…
The rusty storm door on the back porch, which she had propped open with her hip, creaked and rattled with each blow.
Tommy wasn’t just crying now, he was screaming: “Noooo! No! I didn’t do nothing wrong. No! Stop! I just wanted to play!’
“Get in here, God damn it!”
Delilah balanced the infant in one hand and pulled on Tommy’s arm with the other. He resisted, leaning back with the entire weight of his slim frame, to his heels, trying to pull away. Finally, the massive woman yanked him back to his feet and when she did she started beating him ferociously. She was determined to teach him the price of defiance.
Then Tommy did something that shocked us. He screamed. He screamed like we’d never hear a kid scream before.
“Fuck you, you fat cow!”
The slap Delilah planted across Tommy’s face in return was so vicious, and its crack so loud and piercing, that, even three houses away, it stung us and we flinched.
“Oh, my God.” Bobby whispered.
The blow sent Tommy stumbling back. He tumbled down the few stairs to the snow at the foot of the porch. Still crying, he crawled a bit and then staggered to his feet.
“Get back here, damn it! Get in this house, now!”
But once Tommy gained his feet, he ran, turned the corner of his house, and was gone. Delilah mumbled something we couldn’t quite make out, and then she finally retreated and slammed the kitchen door.
There was no more laughing.
Bobby and I just stood there for a moment, silent. Fat Delilah was always a mean woman, but she’d become worse – much worse – after her husband disappeared. Yet still, we’d never seen her hit Tommy before. I mean, we knew she probably did. All our parents hit us at one time or another, usually because we had it coming, but never in public. They called it discipline, but it came with rules, unspoken as they were. Rule number one: you didn’t hit your kids in public, but behind closed doors you could beat the living shit out of them with a leather belt or a wooden kitchen spoon if your kids had it coming, if the punishment was well bought and paid for.
But for Delilah, it was different. The parental rule book went in the trash beside her wedding album. Tommy, his father’s son and a constant reminder of Delilah’s shitty circumstances, was going to get it whether he deserved it or not.
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