At times a neighborhood feels like a beehive. Everyone does something for the good of the order. Dad drives off to work. Mom goes to the store to buy groceries. The kids are ushered off to school when they aren’t suffering from summer boredom. Sounds like utopia, where nothing could possibly go wrong, keeping Mr. Murphy under your boot. Things at the house seemed to be going well, too. Sister Jane broke out the vacuum on a Saturday morning, forgoing cartoons with her three younger brothers, all of them in her mind, brats, and a waste of her mother’s eggs and father’s seed. She felt responsibility for all the other chores, where sticky soda held stiff to the carpet.
Jane’s dog spent little time being a pleasure for her parents. Cedric the Pekingese held court in front of the TV, while the boys clamored over what cartoons they should watch. The Justice League should be a good example for them; instead, Jane chased them out of the house with a big growl of the Kirby vacuum, which she moved like a lawn mower, back and forth as she kept the pattern just right, even and straight, to mark where she left off with each swipe. God forbid the deep-down dust might escape on tiny legs.
Jared, 11, wanted to watch Mighty Mouse, but since he was the youngest, he was voted down. Jesse, a year older, suffering from middle-kid syndrome among the boys, drifted off into fantasy, triggered by Wonder Woman flying off in her invisible plane. He was caught in her lasso of truth, afraid to admit he was happy to be in her clutches. He wasn’t thinking of the drawing on the screen, but the live version in which Lynda Carter bounced around in a low-cut Star-Spangled corset.
Jeff yelled out, “he’s got a boner,” watching Jared dig his hips into the carpet.
“Get out of here,” Jane said, switching off the vacuum.
She flipped the kill switch on the TV, peeling off yellow cleaning gloves, waving them at the boys. Jeff walked out of the garage door with his two younger brothers in tow. Jane continued to run the noisy machine, while the boys filed out. Jeff, at 14, not wanting to have anything to do with the younger two, grabbed the basketball on the floor next to the raised door. It was flat, and he groaned. Jesse hopped on a raggedy purple bicycle barely held together by an assortment of bolts borrowed from the skeletons of other bicycles. He told Jared to get on the back of the banana seat, and they were off, leaving Jeff to shoot baskets at an iron hoop. Only a few strands of a net remained. The semi-flat ball plummeted straight down, sticking to the cement driveway. Rummaging through the garage, he found the rusty pump, but no needle. Next to it, his skateboard, but no back wheels. A tub full of sports equipment also held a football, a bat, a few grass-stained baseballs and a badminton set. His younger brothers were gone for the moment, but when they returned, he thought about making them target practice. He’d drill a few spirals into their chests and watch them try not to cry.
The house was off-limits for the moment. Jane, although she was done making things sparkle and shine, got on the phone to her boyfriend and perched herself on the garage steps cooing into the receiver. Being asked to come over and make out, she complained, “I’m watching the brats ’til mom gets home.”
With her pointy nose and big round eyes covered by glasses, Jeff wondered who could like her but he knew her boyfriend Chet had said in gym class that she had big melons, and he liked feeling her up. Jeff grabbed a baseball and glove, deciding to practice catching flies in the backyard. Scotty, a neighbor friend, saw the ball going up from the yard, a dot on the middle of a vibrant blue sky, as he was walking down the alley from his house at the end of the block. Getting to the corner of the yard, he waited. Maybe, he thought, Jeff didn’t know he was there. Moving forward and back, and sidestepping, Jeff in worn Tough Skins jeans spread the webbing of his glove just above his face.
“Don’t miss it!” yelled Scotty. The ball thumped Jeff on the shoulder and fell to ground.
“Asshole,” Jeff said, picking the ball off the ground for another try. “What are you guys doing today?” Scotty asked.
“What’s it look like?” asked Jeff, this time catching the ball, hearing the satisfying popping noise, that told him it landed perfectly. The sweet spot. He rifled the ball into the air again, this time as it descended, Scotty turned the red Husker hat he was wearing backward on his head, like a catcher, took a few quick steps, then reached out his bare hand to the descending ball, before Jeff could close his glove.
“Fucker,” Jeff smiled, pushing Scotty back, and grabbing the ball.
“They still digging along the highway?” he asked. Scotty nodded.
Pushing his Yankees jersey back, Jeff grabbed at his arm pit for moisture. “Let’s get a game going! Scotty nodded, then tugged at his visor, letting out a high-pitched whistle by sticking two forefingers into his mouth.
“It’s just gonna be batting practice.”
Back at Scotty’s house, his older brother Ryan, heard the whistle and got up from his lawn chair. Sunning himself in cutoffs and Nike running shoes, he grabbed his tank top off the shed door and headed down the alley.
“Bring your glove,” Scotty shouted, both hands surrounding his mouth like a megaphone.
The three boys caught up to Jared and Jeff, who reappeared on the street in front of the house. They were taking turns popping wheelies drawing a line on the street for who could go the furthest. “C’mon you pussies,” Jeff said. “We’re going down to the diamond.”
The field was a mere block away. It wouldn’t be long before more boys would show, if the word got out. Jane told her boyfriend where the brothers were headed, then made some excuse for getting off the phone, like his mom was giving him the stink eye for being on too long.
“Fine, be that way,” Jane yelled over the phone, and slammed the receiver back on the hook. She gave Jeff the finger, and he muttered in return, “I’m not the one who told him.”
As fast as they could get to the field, Ryan was slinging fastballs over the plate. They had a few cracked wooden bats, taking turns at being Reggie Jackson, ‘Mr. October,’ though none of the boys could hit it out of the infield. Then Jesse got up on the mound and grooved a few pitches. Ryan could hit, and it was “cool” to watch the balls sail over the fence, all of 375 feet straight out over center field. He preferred wood over aluminum – a giant thwack was the real sound of baseball. As the few practice balls headed over the fence courtesy of Ryan, the boys ran out and hopped the fence to collect them.
It was late afternoon. Mom would be home with the groceries and it was a few hours before dad would rumble home in the truck. They could hear the gears grind as a warning. Across the smaller diamonds, the workers knocked off early. A caterpillar backhoe built up mounds of dirt next to the highway where the museum decided it was going to erect an old sod house, as part of a display of settlers’ homes from the late 1800s. Ryan started to throw dirt clods at the passing trucks. Jeff joined him, waiting to see if his throw was harder, judging by the size of the splat. Jesse and Jared stood back on the smaller field behind the older boys. Drizzle started to fall, and the clods turned to mud. Ryan concluded the baseball practice was all but finished. Scotty admired his brother’s throwing prowess, not worried about hitting the trucks square on the side panel, blotting out the giant ‘S’ in Safeway.
“Think you can do better?” he smiled at Jeff, as he got up to take his turn and let fly a spinning clod into the tail light of the trailer.
Small shards of red glass hit the pavement, and the truck hit its air brake. The whooshing sound and the idle of the diesel engine gave the boys pause. Jared and Jesse hit the deck, while the older boys did as well, stretching their bodies across the fresh hole dug up by the backhoe. The hauler rested about 60-yards away. The trucker checked his rear view deciding nothing was wrong, he revved the engine and shifted it into gear, guiding his rig into town. Another truck came their way and the boys reloaded. Getting ready for the next volley, Jared and Jesse yelled, “Oh shit, here he comes!”
The trucker whose back-tail light was broken by Scotty double backed and came up on a road behind the older boys. The younger boys scattered, making a beeline for their house, hopping over fences along the backyards. Scotty went the opposite direction across the highway but then made his way back, while Ryan and Jeff decided to run down main street and zigzag back and forth. Out of breath, Jeff could feel his lungs burning. The older boy Ryan could have run all day it seemed, as he turned back to see if Jeff was keeping up. They stopped so he could catch his breath and jogged a few more blocks to Gardner Park. He held his wrist up to check his Micky Mouse watch. It was almost three-thirty. Mom, he was sure, was back from Safeway, wondering who was going to help her unload the station wagon.
Jeff thought about getting bawled out but this was worse. This wasn’t getting in trouble at school and being called in by the principal for throwing rocks. This was real. He and Ryan sat on a picnic bench in silence. He popped out a pack of Red Man’s chew from the back pocket of his cutoffs and handed Jeff a pinch. He sucked on the wet tobacco for a few minutes, getting light-headed, and feeling like throwing up, but he kept the wad in for fear he’d look weak.
Finally, Jeff asked, “What do you think we should do?” He let a brown wad of spittle hit the ground in front of us.
“Let’s just go back to your house like it’s nothing.”
“Yeah,” Jeff said, “nobody really saw us, right?”
“Yeah, even if they did, your brothers know not to tattle. They might be the only ones who know we were there.”
“And we didn’t break the light, Scotty did.”
Ryan shrugged and got up from the picnic table, “Yeah, I think that one’s on all of us.”
By the time the two got back to Jeff’s house, Ryan cast his eyes in the direction of the police car parked on the street just behind the grandstand. He was far enough away from the house, giving Scotty and Jeff’s two younger brothers an earful. Then, he brought them up to the doorway where the boys’ mother stood with her hands on her hip. Her black curly hair was on fire and her eyes were throwing darts at the older boys as they walked up the front yard.
“Were you there?” she demanded, grabbing Jeff by the shoulder.
“Nah, mom! Jeff pretended. “What’s going on?”
She let Jeff and Scotty pass as the boys filed into the living room, while Jane snickered in the kitchen.
“What’s wrong with you?” she pulled at the ears of Jared and Jesse. “You especially!”
She held onto Jesse’s ear until he bowed out of it. Scotty looked down at the floor with his arms folded.
“I called your mom, she’s coming over right now.”
The cop held the screen door. It was the boys’ second cousin, but he wasn’t showing any favor. “There was some damage, Carmen,” said the badge-bearing relative. “The truck driver said, if you’re willing to pay, he’s OK with it. He knows boys get into trouble and he let them know the next guy might not be so nice.”
“Alright,” she said, shaking and flustered about the whole affair until Scotty’s mom poked her head through the door.
“What happened,” she said. “I can’t leave you guys alone? You’re teenagers and should know better. When your dad gets home…”
Scotty’s mom, Patty, pulled Ryan out into the front yard, letting the awkward cousin pass by like a Barney Fife. She railed at him, then pushed him back to the front door and into the living room. There the boys stood in a line-up while she announced how “this would be the end of the Howards and the Muellers forever until the end of time.”
Mrs. Mueller, wearing her light blue windbreaker, went out the door first. Her round innocent face twisted by anger, as red as the peeling paint on her fingernails. Ryan stood a full head above her, looking less like a homerun hero.
Scotty turned back and told Jeff, “See you at school in a few weeks.”
Mrs. Mueller’s hand landed across the back of his head.
“Can’t stop us from going to school,” he said, rubbing his noggin. Then Carmen surprised the boys, agreeing with the ridiculous terms.
“You are to stay away from the Muellers. Do you hear me? When your father gets home, you tell him everything.”
Jeff muttered, “Yeah mom.”
“And you got Jane’s chores until further notice.”
Jeff sat back in the recliner with the remote in his hand. “And no TV!” his mother yelled. Cedric looked up at him and whined, “Yeah, that means you too boy, and you didn’t even do anything.”
The doorbell rang. Jared answered it. Jane’s boyfriend Chet was there.
“It’s for you lover girl,” Jared said, yelling back to the kitchen. Stepping in the doorway in his cleats and baseball cap, Chet asked, “Man, I went to the field and saw your stuff on the ground.” His hands were full, with the bats, gloves and balls. “Where’d you guys go anyway?”