Aunt Sally always loved a good hatch. Said so herself. That’s what we called taking her down to the booby hatch after a nervous breakdown. Her first was kind of a rip-off. She waved a sock out the bedroom window round midnight, drove over the San Mateo Bridge, and parked her AMC Levi’s Edition Blue Jeans Gremlin on some stranger’s front lawn. Nobody even saw her go nuts.
Social Services picked up her kids in the morning. They stayed with Ma and me until Sally was released from the hospital, saw a judge about reckless driving and endangering minors, then completed a stint in a halfway house. Grandpa paid for the new grass. The whole shebang took about a month, start to finish.
She had the car on account of being married to a Teamster. Truckers made goddamn good money. Lloyd stole her off in the dead of night to elope in Reno, then haul-assed that freightliner and sixteen-year-old bride straight to his mama’s house in Ohio. Nobody had seen her since. When he caught her screwing the neighbor fourteen years later, Sally drove that denim nightmare all the way cross country from Toledo back home to the East Bay. A week later, she grabbed a sock and went for another ride. Hell, I’d never even met my cousins before that.
The next hatch happened New Year’s Eve, 1979. Donny and Karen, Sally’s kids, stayed with us again. But the second breakdown was worse than the first. Months went by. And when my Ma caught Donny stuffing toilet paper in his underwear and then Karen got sent home from school for rubbing her turkey lurkey on the monkey bars, she had enough and turned them over to the State.
I was outside playing baseball when it went down. Ma drove them up to the cottage without even telling me. That’s where they sent messed-up kids—the ones that poisoned cats because they were burned with cigarettes or molested. Ma said she did it for my protection but I knew it was some cold-blooded shit between the two sisters that went way back before Donny, Karen, and me.
Most of our family and friends had moved out of our respective East Oakland hellholes a year or two earlier and into the new low-income apartment complexes in San Leandro: Eden House, The Sandpiper, Riviera Gardens, The Kentwood—all of which were built on one single street. The blue-collar Portuguese who owned homes nearby called it Cheezer Row, on account of free government-welfare cheese. They worried darkies would come over from Oakland, so the Housing Authority rented only to whites and light-skinned Vietnamese boat people for the first few years to keep the peace.
Our parents partied like they had nothing to look forward to, little to lose, and a lot to forget. You don’t know a goddamn thing about partying unless you’ve done it in an apartment house that accepts Section 8. And if you’re thinking that means dustbowl hillbilly shit-kickin’ and foot-stompin’ with squeaky fiddles, dirty overalls, and corn mash, then think again Jack. You got it all wrong. Cheezers got down with Coors Banquet Beer, sloe gin, Panama Red, and The Doobie Brothers on vinyl.
Ma always said New Year’s Eve was the only holiday for adults. The other parents agreed. That meant nobody was gonna make sure we had a balanced dinner or gave a shit if we were bored. We knew where the fridge was. It was the only night we could walk over to the Little Store without sneaking, even though it was run by Moonies and on a highrider street.
Highriders lived in real houses, the kind with backyards and fences. Their dads were the Portagee working stiffs who didn’t want us around. You could tell a highrider kid by his Huffy bike. They rode in packs and chased our asses back to The Row any time we wandered off. Chickenshits don’t like a fair fight.
The name was borrowed from their older brothers, who jacked up the ass-end of their Camaros and Firebirds to distinguish themselves from Mexican lowriders when cruising East 14th. And when I overheard the new fancy pants principal at school say how “you could just see the Moor influence in their complexions” and that “the world still needed ditch-diggers,” I figured it out without even looking in a dictionary: Portagees weren’t shit, either. That’s why they were so mad about us being there. We belonged together and they knew it.
If we didn’t wanna end up brainwashed by Moonies or shot by highrider BB guns at the Little Store, we could walk all the way down The Row to Quick Stop. That meant getting past Robbie the Retard, who liked to pull kids into the bushes and show his boner. Punching a real retard, even in self-defense, was bad luck. The rest of the year, we couldn’t go outside the apartments after dark. The only rule on New Year’s Eve was to stay outta their hair. We were on our own for the night.
What we really wanted to do was run refills for the grown-ups. You could catch a nice little buzz drinking backwash beer from the empties, and cop a serious contact high from all that smoke. Sometimes we’d forget to rattle the beer can first and get a mouthful of ash. It was enough to send any twelve-year-old to bed for the night. Party over, lightweight. Sorry, Charlie. See your ass in 1980.
Parties were always at my other cousin Maggie’s place, Apartment 141. We went back to the playpen together on account of our moms being best friends since they were little girls. But that’s not why we were cousins. Our fathers were brothers. And even though neither of us had ever met our real dads it still counted.
Maggie’s stepfather Big Lee owned a hundred record albums and a Panasonic stereo with Thruster speakers so loud the cops would come if he turned the volume above six. Plus, Maggie’s mom Patty had bad knees from being heavyset and liked to sit in her own chair. That’s why we partied at their place.
Anybody invited to Big Lee’s had to hold their shit. Someone who kept it together was welcome anywhere on The Row. It meant no matter what, you weren’t gonna lose it and crap yourself or get pulled over on the way home. Nobody had to worry around you. People could be themselves and have a good time.
Lightweights had no tolerance, drank too quickly or had medical problems. They got fucked-up easily and either passed out or said I love you guys over and over while weeping. But you rarely found them naked on the bathroom floor long after the lights went out. Lotta good people were lightweights who knew it and never blew it.
Narcs and mooches couldn’t be trusted. A narc wasn’t necessarily a snitch, just somebody who ran their mouth too much. When the whole apartment house finds out you got a lid of sensimillia and starts dropping by unannounced, some narc ran their mouth. Not good. Couldn’t say shit around a narc. And if you can’t let it all hang out without worry, why bother getting fucked-up?
Mooches never showed up with smoke or drink or chipped in. Only took a couple of mooches to throw the delicate party supply and demand balance out of whack. A houseful of halfway drunk people out of beer, weed, and cash turns mean fast. That’s why a strict ass, gas, or grass rule was in effect at Big Lee’s. Nobody partied for free. Except us kids, but we were not without our own risks.
The worst were the blow-its. A blow-it was unpredictable. Anything could happen. Might hit on your old lady and punch holes in the wall, fall through the coffee table or smash windows. Might even pull a knife and gut you like a fish for no good reason. A blow-it became a completely different person when drunk or high. Problem was, you never knew who was a blow-it till they blew it. And by then it was too late.
Donny went down for the count on his first can. Swallowed a Marlboro Red butt whole and puked his guts out all over the kitchen floor. Goddamn lightweight was always puking on things. He even ran upstairs without asking and crashed on Big Lee and Patty’s waterbed. Didn’t even offer to clean his mess. That was more than being a lightweight. It was a total junior league half-ass blow-it move.
Ma was sitting in Big Lee’s recliner next to Patty’s chair when it happened. Big no-no. Lee didn’t like people touching his shit, especially when it was my Ma sitting in his chair. Lucky for her he was busy playing Bullshit in the dining room. That’s what we called Liar’s Dice—Bullshit.
When Donny ran by and went upstairs without asking, Patty figured there was a mess to clean somewhere and rubbed her knees to warm them up before standing.
“Last casualty of 1979,” she said to Ma, nodding in the direction Donny ran towards. It was a good guess. One hour to midnight and everybody was holding their shit, except Donny. Maggie and I saw him puke. We egged him on to take a swig, but nobody said pour it down your goddamn throat without checking the can. Mags was already mopping it up.
The mop job turned into a game of gross-out hockey using the puked-up cigarette butt as a puck. Maggie had the sponge mop, which gave her a big advantage over my broom. The butt kept sticking to the bristles and messing up my shots. Plus, Maggie was dunking the mop back in the bucket for extra water to splash me.
Hitting your opponent with the butt below the belt was good for a point. Above the waistline was two points and a headshot was an instant win. Maggie scored three one pointers by hitting me in the ankles. I pegged her hard in the left tit with a lucky slap shot.
“Double points for boobs!”
“You want me to aim for your dingleberries? Fine.” And she rifled the butt right in my nuts, with enough bucket water behind it to make it look like I peed my pants.
That made it four points to two and Jackie Shelby, who was seventeen and dropped out to sell weed for his uncle Tiny, started taking action on the game.
“First to ten points wins. I’ll cover all bets Maggie takes it, odds are one to two, less juice. Wagers up to five bucks, one buck minimum. Food stamps, alcohol, and weed are good as cash. No open containers or roaches accepted.”
Even some of the adults were taking those odds. Jack knew how to hustle. Maggie got her name in the paper for hitting a grand slam home run in the round robin tournament. That’s why she was considered a sure thing.
“Now hurry your little asses up,” Jackie told us, “before that butt dries out.”
Just then, I heard my Ma’s voice yelling from the living room:
“No! Sit back down!”
Maggie saw her opening, stole the butt, and smacked a screamer at my head.
“We have a winner!” Jackie declared, “Pay up, chumps.”
In all the confusion and laughter caused by Ma yelling and the puke butt sticking to my forehead, nobody noticed Jackie slipped out the front door without paying out.
“No!” Ma shouted from the living room a second time. Patty’s knees were warmed up and she had started to stand, still unaware Maggie had already mopped.
“It’s her mess to clean!” Ma shouted, without bothering to take the cigarette from between her lips, which made her sound funny like a black-and-white movie gangster.
“Let her do it.” And she pointed right at Sally, who was rub-dancing with this guy named Larry she met at the halfway house.
“Take care of your kids!”
Sally and Ma were calling each other every damn name in the book and were so loud Big Lee got up in the middle of a winning hand to find out who the fuck was yelling in his house.
“Pigs show up it’s both your asses.”
Sally made a snotty face. Ma knew better and sat her ass down, remembered it was Big Lee’s recliner, and tried to stand back up. He was already mad enough about them yelling. All those rum and Cokes must have thrown her balance off cuz she fell right back into the seat. She looked up at Lee and just knew he was gonna say get the fuck out my house, you gawdamn blow-it.
Except Big Lee was having a good night. New Year’s Eve was his holiday. He was cleaning up at Bullshit. Plus, the dude in Apartment 165 just got out from a ninety day at Santa Rita, where he learned how to do tattoos with India ink and a guitar string. Before the dice game, Lee finally got Patty’s name inked on his right shoulder inside a big heart. He popped Ludes for the tatt and was still feeling no pain. I shit you not, he rolled his eyes at my Ma and, instead of telling her to get out, said the funniest thing anybody heard him say:
“Right on, Maude.”
Quaaludes were some powerful shit. Even my Ma laughed.
Sally went back to dancing nasty with Larry, the guy from the halfway house. We’d never seen him before. They came in separate cars because Sally’s kids weren’t supposed to know they were together.
“Humping!” I whispered to Maggie, nodding towards Sally and Larry. “They’re humping!”
“That’s not humping. It’s called The Bump.”
“Looks like humping to me.”
Maggie knew a lot about dancing. She watched Solid Gold, Soul Train, and American Bandstand every week. She could do The Hustle, Funky Chicken, The YMCA, and that pointing shit from Saturday Night Fever. My only dance moves were copying karate kicks from movies and humping the air. Because of Patty’s knees, Maggie learned how to shop, vacuum, cook, and a lotta other things long before the rest of us. That’s why she was always having to explain things to me.
Popeye Shelby, Jackie’s mom, was playing dice and doing shots of sloe gin with the guys, and held her shit better than most of them. We called her Popeye on account of her looking like the cartoon. Her chin jutted out, she had big forearms and squinted one eye while bugging out the other. All she needed was the pipe. Big Lee gave her a toy corncob bubble blower once for Christmas as a joke, and she laughed so hard a fart slipped out.
Before moving to The Row, Popeye fought off the Archuletta family down in Jingletown. Her old man ran a tranny repair shop. Two of the Archuletta boys held them up at closing time. They expected to be handed the cash without any problems. Nobody messed with cholos in JT. Didn’t even show up with a gun or knife, just a baseball bat. When Mr. Shelby reached for a pistol under the register, Chuy Archuletta split his head open with the Louisville Slugger and let him bleed out on the floor.
Popeye was standing next to her old man when Chuy swung. She grabbed the gun from under the register, shot him in the neck then pistol-whipped Ray Ray into a coma. Only reason she didn’t shoot both was the gun jammed. Then the Archulettas had to deal with Popeye’s brother, Tiny.
He rode up and down Lisbon Ave in the dead of night, shooting out windows from his shovelhead cowboy-style with a revolver for a month straight. Whole lotta vatos disappeared. Nobody knows if they went back home or ended up in Tilden Park. The ones who didn’t disappear were scared shitless. All you gotta know is, any chick who could put both Chuy and Ray Ray Archuletta in Highland Hospital on life support sure as shit could kick your punkass. Dudes were lowriders.
Tiny hung out in front of Arlen’s bike shop on East 14th. He gave Jackie a pedal-start moped in case the cops showed up, and could watch him deal across the street in front of Colonel Sanders from Arlen’s while shooting the shit with the guys.
Tiny didn’t wear colors. Nobody knew who he rode with, or if he was on his own. All we knew for sure was, whenever Jack cleaned Tiny’s rings he had to soak them in bleach and hot water for hours to get all the blood, hair, and flesh out. Whoever Tiny was, he was one bad motherfucker.
Like I said, Popeye was playing Bullshit with the guys and, unlike Big Lee, not having much luck. She took her gambling goddamn seriously. When her cash wad was shot, she went to get her purse from the living room. Food stamps were good as real dollars.
Her purse was on the couch. It was Popeye’s usual spot—and right by where Sally and Larry were bumping, humping, or whatever the hell it was called. Popeye lived next door in Apartment 142. Every morning, she came over for coffee with Patty and watched Phil Donahue. Didn’t even knock anymore and it was cool.
Earlier, Larry had tossed off his army jacket so he could get down. Popeye was good and goddamn mad finding the jacket laying on her purse. And a whole lot madder when she couldn’t find the food stamps.
“Patty, you see anybody mess with my purse?”
She checked her own apartment just in case. No luck. Somebody took her shit. We all knew Popeye and the story about the Archulettas. Nobody would’ve touched her purse, let alone steal her food stamps—except Sally or Larry, neither of whom had ever been to Apartment 141 or met Popeye before.
“You touch my purse?”
Sally had this stuck-up way about her that brought out the worst in people. Ma said as a girl she was always playing princess around the house, wanting to be waited on and shit. Instead of answering, Sally rolled her eyes and kept bumping.
Where I come from, worst thing one woman could do to another is roll her eyes. It’s what the fat cat bitches did at the doctor’s office when you paid with government welfare medical stickers. Meant you were lower than shit; some loser welfare whore who couldn’t even keep a man.
“Don’t roll your eyes at me, bitch. You touch my shit?”
“Bitch? Bitch? I didn’t touch your purse, you silly little bull dyke. Now go back to pretending to be a man with the other deadbeats.”
Popeye turned bright red and moved forward. None of us thought she would start any real shit in Big Lee and Patty’s house. She wasn’t a blow-it, narc, mooch, or a lightweight. But she damn well was gonna get in Sally’s face and chew her ass out.
“Think about your kids, Sharon,” Patty said, calling Popeye by her real name. “It’s not worth it.”
When Popeye stuck her finger in Sally’s face, all we saw was her spin round on a heel and fall. Her left leg was twitching and the rest of her body couldn’t move. Larry threw one of those stiff, straight-forward Army man punches with his wrist bent upwards. Judo shit. Like a blur. All we saw was bent upward wrist, spin, fall, and slump.
Larry started alibiing straight away.
“She ran into my hand! Ran right into it!”
We knew it was bullshit. Popeye would’ve had to been running a hundred miles an hour. She was still on the ground, mouth bloodied, one leg twitching, missing two front choppers, and cussing up a storm with a lisp, on account of all the swelling and knocked-out teeth.
“Futhing puthy. You hitha womuh? You futhing puthy.”
“You ran into my hand.”
“Futh you. Futhing puthy. Gimme my food thamps, futhing thief.”
Problem was, if Popeye couldn’t take Larry neither could anybody else. Big Lee did something we’d never seen him do before or after: took his Buck knife out of its leather belt case, flicked it open, and wielded it sharp-side up.
Lee liked to play king of the castle and tell people where they could sit and shit, but he wasn’t a violent dude. As one of the few men living in the apartment complex, he rarely had to do more than raise his voice. Most of The Row was women and kids.
Big Lee was out of his element, but something had to be done. Calling the cops meant risking eviction when the Housing Authority found out. Losing the fight meant being on the ground with Popeye.
“Get the fuck out my house.”
Larry grabbed Maggie’s Mickey Mouse stuffed animal doll she got from Disneyland and bit off its head, just like Alice Cooper, and covered himself with the stuffing.
“You can’t even see me, fatboy.”
Lee was speechless. And scared. We all were. We gathered behind him—men, women, and us kids. There was no choice except dog pile on Larry and eighty-six his ass. He saw how it would play out and leapt up onto an end table, then hopped over to the couch and spring-boarded himself all the way over to the front door. Kung Fu Spiderman shit.
Big Lee was quick on his feet, even at damn near three hundred pounds. He was shadow on your ass close when Larry slammed the door behind him, catching Lee face-first. He fell straight backward, knocked out stone cold on the floor. Lucky the Buck knife didn’t land in his heart or gut.
“Maggie, lock the door.”
Popeye was still flat on her back, too. Nobody knew what to do, or who to check on. Patty got up quick as she could, even though it killed her knees, and got a bag of frozen corn for Lee’s head. With all those Ludes in his system, plus weed and beer, he might be out for a long time.
“You two,” Patty said to Mags and me, “check the house.”
We knew exactly what she meant. She had to call the ambulance and they might send the cops too. We shoved all the roaches down the garbage disposal, hid the Zig-Zags, pipes, and water bongs in the freezer, and took all empty beer cans and bottles to the dumpster. Cops find weed, holes in the wall, a couple bloody bodies, stoned adults, and a bunch of kids, and everybody would get hauled off. The grown-ups would go to Santa Rita. We kids would end up at The Cottage. And we’d all get evicted whenever we got back.
The paramedics strapped Popeye down to a long surf board and carried her out. Big Lee was coming to, but didn’t respond to any questions so they took him as well. He avoided the police, even if it meant going to the hospital. Plus, the ER usually gave out pain pills. Patty went with Lee and Popeye. She left Ma in charge. The cops had showed up by then, and somebody had to talk to them.
You might think Ma would cook up a story about how they were horsing around or something and not be a snitch. Instead, she told them exactly what happened. Larry wasn’t one of us. There was no reason to protect his ass. Plus, he sure as shit deserved to go to jail.
The cops were Portagees. Officers Faria and Pinto. The whole San Leandro Police Department was back then, and most of the town was a Faria or Pinto. Faria had two stripes on his arm and did the talking, while Pinto wrote down everybody’s names in a little notebook. Straight away, Faria lit off into Ma’s ass about bad parenthood and minors, then pointed at my crotch.
“That poor kid’s so scared he wet himself, ma’am. And he’s got ashes on his forehead. These people burning you with cigarettes, son? Touching you where they shouldn’t?”
I was headed straight for The Cottage.
“I did it,” Maggie cut in. “We were having a water fight.”
“And the ashes?”
“We were playing church. Ash Wednesday.”
“I bet you’re not even Catholic.”
“That’s why we were playing. We don’t get to do it for real.”
“Gotcha.” The cop nodded at Maggie, then turned to Ma. “Water fight in the dead of winter? Profaning the sacred sacraments of the Church? Take care of your kids, lady, or we will.”
Maggie always got me into shit, but she damn well got me out of it too.
Because it could only make a bad situation worse, and that’s exactly what a blow-it does, Donny suddenly stomped down the stairs and blew by the cops looking like a zombie, wearing Big Lee’s work overalls backwards. He bolted straight past Officer Faria with his eyes squinted shut—the way people do when sleepwalking, drunk, devil possessed, or faking blindness.
Maybe he was sick from the cigarette butt, but he’d have a hell of a time saying one swig of backwash beer got him drunk. Especially since he puked it all up. Donny collapsed on the couch and let out a long, anguished groan followed by a longer, more anguished fart.
“What’s wrong with him?” Officer Faria asked Mags, assuming she was the only responsible person present. “That kid been drinking?”
Faria and Pinto wanted details Maggie couldn’t provide about Larry. Sally had locked herself in the bathroom and was howling the theme music from Star Trek like a deranged opera singer.
Faria cop-knocked on the bathroom door.
“Open the door please, ma’am. We need to ask you some questions about your friend Larry.”
Sally kept howling. She was even making up words to the Star Trek theme.
Faria looked at Maggie for an explanation. She could only shrug her shoulders. Even Mags couldn’t fast talk this one.
“Ma’am, open the door please.”
Faria explained to Maggie that if she didn’t open the door, he would have to kick it down.
“I can butter knife it.”
“Go ahead, kid. We gotta lotta calls. It’s New Year’s Eve. We can’t be here all night.”
Maggie worked the bathroom door lock with the butter knife. Sally called out, “No weapon formed against me shall prosper, O my Lord.” I didn’t even know she knew the Bible. She only talked about it during a hatch, but it sure seemed like she knew her shit.
Just as the door was nearly jimmied open, she flung it wide and shouted, “In the name of Jesus Christ my Lord and Savior and the Galactic Federation, I rebuke thee.”
Sally had covered herself in long strips of toilet paper, fashioning a sort of garment, replete with a jaunty belt tied around the waist.
“I am clothed in righteousness and ready to be beamed up, sir!”
Faria again turned to Maggie to make sense of it.
“Lemme guess, it was her idea to play church?” Maggie nodded yes. Wasn’t true and Faria probably knew it. He needed the story to be believable enough to let us work out our Cheezer chaos while he got back to real police work—which, in San Leandro, meant pulling over spearchuckers from Oakland.
“That’s Charmin, lady.” Faria could barely contain his laughter, “I’ll let you squeeze it and call me Mr. Whipple if you talk to me. We just wanna ask you a few questions and get out of here.”
While Officer Faria tried to question Sally, Pinto noticed the army jacket on the couch. The name patch was still over the right front breast pocket: Vochatzer. Pinto checked his notebook, where he had written down the names of everybody at the party.
“Hey kid, whose jacket is this?”
“Mind if I use your phone?”
Officer Pinto dialed.
“Pinto here. Need to run a name. No, we’re not at that call yet. This is the blow-it on Cheezer Row.”
Pinto was on the horn a long time. They ran the name. The two officers went outside and talked. When they finally came back, Officer Faria sat down in Patty’s chair and took off his hat.
“Vochatzer, Lawrence. AKA Larry. AKA Crazy Larry. The guy’s loony tunes. We picked him up about a year ago after he beat up a Jack in the Box drive-thru clown. Booked him on a 5150 and sent him to a halfway house to clean up his act. Oakland Police busted him about a month ago for breaking and entering Fairyland in the middle of the night. Stuck a K-bar in Humpty Dumpty’s head. They got a bench warrant out for failure to appear.”
“What’s a K-bar?”
“Big knife, kid. Army man knife. Must’ve brought it back from Nam.”
“He bit the head off my Mickey Mouse.”
“Fits the profile. He’s cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, kid. When the desk sergeant booked him for the Jack in the Box incident, he mentioned driving a tank in Vietnam. Showed the sarge a Polaroid. They had stuffed animals glued all over the turret. Couldn’t even see the tank. Bugs Bunny, Donald Duck. That kinda thing. Said it was ‘real camouflage.’ Sarge said he remembered thinking there was some connection between the tank and the Jack in the Box assault, because he attacked the clown. Fits the Humpty Dumpty incident too. Fairytales, cartoons. That sorta thing. Only thing we can’t figure is why he attacked…”
Faria snapped his fingers at Pinto for the name.
“Sharon Shelby. No known aliases.”
“What’s an alias?”
“Nickname, kid. She got any?
I started to speak and Mags elbowed my ribs.
“Nope. Just Shirley.”
Telling Faria wouldn’t help them find Larry. Plus it didn’t matter, anyway. Tiny would find him, and his ass would be grass. Bodies were never found in Tilden Park.
Faria took my Ma aside.
“We got two choices with your sister. We can haul her in on a 5150, let her get evaluated in the morning then sent over to Fairmont Hospital. Or, we can wrap this up, leave, and you can drive her up there yourself. If we take her, we’re gonna have to call in a social worker. I gotta hunch that retarded kid over on the sofa is hers.”
“I’ll drive her.”
“Good girl. Don’t let me get another call to come back here because you didn’t take her.”
Ma had to figure out how to get Sally out of the bathroom, into the car, and to the booby hatch.
“I can’t go outside. Lloyd is out there. He’s been piping gas into my house. I saw his truck following me on the way over here. I see that truck everywhere.”
“Look,” Ma said, grabbing Sally’s shoulders and shaking her. “We gotta take you to the hatch or the cops are gonna come get the kids. My kid ends up at The Cottage and I’ll wring your little neck.”
“The hatch? The hatch? Why didn’t you say so? I’ve always loved a good hatch. Let His lamp light our feet and His word guide us and make a joyful noise unto Him for our protection while we make our way through the hatch he hath provided! Let us be shielded and well-seasoned!”
Sally only talked about the Bible during a nervous breakdown. It was the only time she ever mentioned it. I don’t think she even owned a Bible. And yet, when she was hatching, she sounded like an expert.
Unfortunately, her expertise translated to covering ourselves in toilet paper and shining a flashlight on our feet, while Sally carried a king-sized Bible and figured out how to wake-up Donny so he could—I shit you not—lead us all in a three-part harmony of Row Row Row Your Boat as we walked through the valley of evil between Apartment 141 and Ma’s car. Who knew what the hell well-seasoned meant.
“Donny must lead us in a three-part harmony. He’s such a good musician.”
I found a Halloween pumpkin flashlight in Maggie’s toy box to light our feet. We covered ourselves like mummies with Charmin, and even tied the belt in a big bow like Sally’s.
“Not as big as hers,” Ma warned us. “She’s gotta have the biggest bow.”
Mag had one of those tiny pocket Gideon New Testaments, but Sally said it wasn’t big enough and had to include the Old.
“Run over to Mrs. Miller’s,” Ma told me, handing me a five-dollar bill from her purse. “Give her this. Tell her your Ma said it is to borrow her Bible. Family emergency. The one with the gilded pages.”
I ran over to Apartment 268. Old Lady Miller had one of those huge fat cat jobs with gold pages and a built-in bookmark. It was kept on a wooden stand. Waking up an old lady at midnight ain’t easy. Lucky it was New Year’s and nobody would complain about noise. The neighbors were all having their own parties or down at Bill’s The Eagle bar. Any other night, I woulda got bitched out and told to get my little ass home. All I knew was, we had to get Sally to the hatch no matter what. Finally, after pounding, kicking, and calling out forever, I heard her squeaky voice from behind the door.
“Gottlieb? Is that you?”
Gottlieb was her ancestor. His name was stamped on the big Bible we wanted to borrow. It had been passed down through the generations. In her old age, she started talking to him, even though he died in like 1798 and they never even met. Ma said her mind had gone senile, which is why she thought I was him and Maggie was his wife, Sarah. Probably thought a lot of other kids were Gottlieb and Sarah, too. It was kinda creepy, but we hardly ever saw her, and usually ran the other way whenever we did. At that moment, however, it was gonna keep my ass out of The Cottage.
“Yes, it is I, Gottlieb,” I said, in a spooky ghost voice. “Sarah got the plague. Real bad. Fetch me my big Bible. The one with the gold pages. She wants to read from it one last time. I command thee go get it.”
“Oh, Gottlieb, I’m so saddened to hear of dear Sarah’s illness.” I could hear her crying real tears behind the door.
“I’ll get it right away.”
“And the doctor says we should give her candy. Dost thou have Now-or-Laters?”
I thought for sure she would look at me, realize I wasn’t Gottlieb after all, and slam the door. But as I was covered in toilet paper and used a ghost voice, maybe she’d buy it. If she didn’t, I’d offer Ma’s money.
She handed me the book, a bag of old Brach’s peppermint candies, and made me promise to convey her best wishes to my dear wife, her great-great-great-great grandmother, Sarah.
“I must return now to a galaxy far, far away. I’ll bring it back tomorrow when she’s cured.”
It was a goddamn good ghost voice. Back at Apartment 141, I handed Ma the Bible.
“She take the five bucks?”
“Yup. Said bring five more when I take it back.”
And that is how you make ten bucks on The Row.
The Bible was big enough, we were toilet-paper shielded, and we had a way to light our feet.
“Donny isn’t making a joyful noise leading us in Row Row Row Your Boat. And we aren’t well-seasoned.”
Sally was getting on Ma’s last nerve. Ma fired up a smoke and left it between her lips.
“Well the hell does well-seasoned mean? Are we talking salt-and-pepper? Do we have to wait for spring?
Would Shake-and-Bake work?”
“Garlic,” Sally replied, in that holier-than-thou way of hers, “for so many reasons.”
Nearest we could find was garlic powder. Ma wasn’t even asking anymore and dumped it all over Sally, herself, and us.
“Don’t forget Donny.”
Ma went over to the couch, kneeled down, and used her nice voice.
“Wake up, Donny. Your mom is sick and we have to take her to the hospital. She wants you to sing so she’ll feel safe.”
Nothing. She clapped her hands loudly by his hears. Still nothing. He was good at playing dead. She even lifted up his eyelids, and all we saw were the whites of his eyes.
“Little shitass,” she grumbled under her breath, cig still in her mouth. Mag and me knew what that meant, and if Donny knew he woulda jumped to attention there and then.
“Get your ass up!” Ma grabbed him by the belt and levitated his ass. It looked like he was floating up off the couch, like what happens in when you play Bloody Mary. She yanked him straight to his feet and put her finger right in his face.
“Wrap yourself in ass wipe, season your head, and start singing right goddamn now!”
Donny looked at her ask if he’d been awake the whole time and the joke was on her.
“You didn’t say what key to sing in.”
She slapped him square across the mush.
“Do you know now?”
Lucky for us all, Maggie interrupted the standoff by mentioning something nobody else had noticed:
I dunno how long Maggie had been waiting to use that, but her timing was perfect. I hadn’t seen her all night and didn’t even realize it. We searched Apartment 141, even looking under the sinks and beds. Only thing we found was puke and a cold, dry turdlet on Big Lee and Patty’s king size waterbed. It was a fuck you turd. The kind you have to push real hard to get out.
Ma sent us outside to find Karen. The complex had a few playgrounds and a lot of places to hide or just walk around. We shouted her name. Nothing. When we heard Donny start the first part of Row Row Row Your Boat and saw Ma in the distance bending over to shine the flashlight on their feet, I figured they were heading to the hatch and leaving us to find Karen. Eventually, we made our way to the street and walked up and down The Row calling out her name.
“Maybe she went over to Little Store. Go check.”
Maggie wanted me to run down the dark alley between Cheezer Row and the Little Store.
“You’re hella faster than me anyway. Plus, I know you kept that five-dollar bill. Get some Now-Or-Laters.”
It was true. I was faster. I had kept the five. But the reason Maggie wanted me to go was on account of her phobias. When we were younger, it was helicopters and blimps—either of which would send her running for the house. Back when the A’s were winning the World Series every year, the Goodyear blimp was always in the sky. This was before Big Lee, when they lived with her grandma up on the 73rd Ave hill.
The blimp would appear out of nowhere over the hillside, directly above us, with that low buzzing hum on its way down to the Coliseum. It was creepy, considering we were five or six at the time, and would send Maggie all the way down her grandma’s long backyard hill, into the house, and under a bed. She wouldn’t come out till I promised it was gone.
Now that we were twelve, blimps didn’t bother her as much as the fear of being child snatched and felt up by some pervert. No way was she going down that pitch black alley and ending up on a milk carton. I didn’t even bother arguing. Plus, if it wasn’t for her talking to the cops, I’d probably be up at The Cottage at that very moment. I tied up my K-mart Traxx runners tight as possible, pulled up my socks, and did a proper track start. Mags counted me off.
“Ready… set… smoke a cigarette.”
Never ran so fast in my life and came to a loud, screeching stop in front of the Moonie’s store—which was closed for the night and being watched over by three older guys on Huffy bikes. Highriders.
“Look! It’s a Cheezer!”
“Forget to flush?”
They laughed like hell because I was still clothed in righteousness.
“I told you Cheezers don’t even know how to wipe their asses.”
“Yeah?” I said. “Heard your mom’s on the rag and was leaking period juice all over the street again.”
I usually didn’t talk much. Not because I didn’t have anything to say. I saved it all up for when it counted.
“What’d you say?”
“Fuck you, Cheeze.”
“Say it again. I dare you.”
“I said fuck you Moor assholes,” turned tail and ran for The Row, with long strips peeling off behind me, leaving a two-ply debris trail.
They had no clue what Moor meant. Probably thought I said fuck you more, assholes—as a reply, like how some people say love you more. It worked that way, too. And it reminded me they weren’t shit, either. Sometimes you gotta remember that to beat the pricks to the other side.
If they caught me, my pockets would be searched for candy or money. But they’d have to be willing to lose as much of that precious Portuguese blood as I could spill to get it from me. The rat-tail comb in my back pocket was sharp as an ice pick.
Easy come, easy go was for suckers. Nothing came easy, and it sure as shit wasn’t going easily either. I began shouting halfway down the alley so Maggie could get a head start. If they caught her, she might get felt up—well-seasoned or no.
They wouldn’t follow us into the apartment complex. Too many Cheezers there. All we had to do was make it across the street and up the apartment complex walkway and into the maze of buildings. But those assholes had Huffies and were on our heels. We ran so hard, we didn’t hear Jackie’s moped come up The Row until he did a burnout in front of us. When I turned around, comb in hand, the highriders were gone. Chickenshits. They knew Jack carried a switchblade.
“You guys playing mummy doorbell ditch, eh? Scaring the shit outta the old folks at home? Good one.”
Tiny had fitted the moped with a big banana seat and long sissy bar. And I’ll be goddamned if Karen wasn’t riding bitch with hickies all over her neck.
“Hey,” Jackie said to me. “Tell my mom I’ll put her food stamps back in her purse in the morning with an extra five dollars. Had to stake the game with something in case you actually won.”
I didn’t know what to say and shook my head no.
“Dude, don’t be a sissy. Just tell her for me. We got places to be and people to see. Right, babe?” Karen nodded in agreement, as if they had known each other for years and were out for a pre-planned night on the town.
“Jackie,” Maggie piped in, “they got in a fight over the food stamps. Your mom’s in the hospital.”
Jackie rocked back and forth on the moped real fast, like one of those kids who has to wear headgear. He was spazzing out.
“My mom? She okay?”
“She got her lights punched out. The ambulance took her out on a surfboard.”
He peddled the moped to start it up. The extra weight from Karen kept it from starting. You had to really pedal those old mopeds to get them going.
“Get your ass off my bike.” Jackie was beyond spazzing and on his way to a full wig out. Karen put her arms round Jack’s waist and said something about him needing her now.
“I gotta find Tiny. Was it the Archulettas?”
“Some guy named Larry.”
“The dude in the army jacket? He asked me to find him some angel dust. That’s why I’ve been driving around all night. Dude was freebasing it in the bathroom.”
“Karen, your mom’s in the hospital too.”
“That asshole hit her too? Wait till Tiny hears this shit.”
Karen looked down and climbed off the moped.
We headed back to Apartment 141. Jack was off to find Tiny. It was a long, dark walk. We didn’t say much. Billy Rankin, whose mom never cared what time he came in, rode up to us on his bicycle.
“You guys hear Popeye Shelby got shanked by Chuy Archuletta’s old lady with a broken bottle?”
We were too tired to talk.
“I heard they took her out in a helicopter and she died on the operating room table.”
“Sit and spin, narc.”
“I ain’t no narc. Just saying what I heard. Hey do they pass out trick-or-treats on New Year’s too? That why you’re dressed up as ghosts?”
Maggie nodded yes.
“Aw, man. Lucky bummers. I missed it?”
We draped what remained of our toilet paper shielding on Billy and sent him off to trick-or-treat after midnight on New Year’s Eve. He was gonna get chewed out, but good. Goddamn narc had it coming. When we finally got back to 141, the apartment was empty. The mess from getting Sally to hatch could wait till later. It was the first time we’d been left on our own in the middle of the night. Patty and Big Lee got home just before daybreak. We had never stayed up all the way to sunrise before.
Big Lee was banged up, but otherwise fine. He had a bandage around his head like the drummer guy in those Revolutionary War paintings. The Housing Authority wouldn’t find out anything because nobody got arrested. We wouldn’t end up in The Cottage because Sally had been hatched. Only Popeye would be forever changed.
“Sharon got the feeling back in her legs. She was walking around looking for her cigarettes when we left. Got herself a limp now. Spinal cord compression from the fall. Looks like it’s permanent.”
Patty stopped speaking, look around like she was guilty, then whispered, “Poor thing looks even more like Popeye now.”
Lee went upstairs to get some rest. Karen helped herself to Maggie’s bed without asking, fell asleep, and snored so loud we could hear her downstairs.
“Guess I shouldn’t have said last casualty of 1979,” Patty laughed. We told her about Sally’s hatch, Gottlieb, the Angel Dust, Billy’s narc story, the highriders, and Karen’s monkey bites.
“You guys smell something?”
“Don’t look at me,” I said.
“No, not that. You… You guys smell… garlic?”
We laughed the way you do when dog-tired and can’t stop; when no more noise comes out and your gut feels like it’s gonna bust. Only thing that stopped us was hearing Big Lee’s surprised shout from upstairs.
“Who shit the bed?”
Patty rubbed her knees and winked at us.
“Same shit, different decade.”
“The Blow-It On Cheezer Row” by Celestin d’Olanie appeared in Issue 37 of Berkeley Fiction Review.
Born in Oakland on the day Governor Reagan sent helicopters to gas students at Cal and the Panthers shot up the Oakland police station, Celestin d’Olanie has managed to fake his way into and out of an impressive string of corporate nightmares and has a serious problem with authority. His family arrived in Oakland in 1853. His great-great-grandmother drank with Jack London. His great-grandfather and his brothers founded the metal lampposts that adorn Lake Merritt.