What happened in the back lot behind Havermeyer's Hardware was all our fault, but the blame mostly belonged to Bobby, Joanne and me. It all took place right after my twelfth birthday party, on a sweltering late August day before we were to enter junior high.
That morning my mother, who was always a spur-of-the-moment type, had me call up all of my friends to invite them over. She went to Waldbaum's and brought home brown bags full of half gallons of Breyers, marshmallows, cookies, M&M's, sprinkles, soda, potato chips and Cheez Doodles, Hershey's Syrup and half a dozen cans of ReddiWip.
We unfolded our aluminum picnic table and she covered it with plastic. Right before the kids arrived, she set all the stuff out. Some kids actually brought wrapped gifts, though I really thought they were giving away things they didn't want any more.
My mom took me aside and said, "Listen, Richie. You be careful with the syrup and the whipped cream. I don't want any food fights turning the backyard into a zoo." Until then, that was the furthest thing from my mind.
About fifteen kids showed up. Dennis and his brother Eddie and Angie from down the block; Big Pete and L'il Pete, who looked like twins though they weren't related; Joey, Kathleen and her cousin Sandi; and Jimmy, Paulie, Henry, Toby and his sister Heidi, all from around the block.
Whoever thought mint chocolate chip could go with anything? Whoever thought our super concoctions could be so delicious? Whoever thought brain freeze could feel so bad and so good? Just as the party was starting to get out of hand - some of the guys were spraying whipped cream at each other and wiping chocolate syrup all over - Mom was, indeed, a fortune-teller - she came out and quietly started cleaning up. "Tell them, Richie," she whispered, and I cleared my throat and announced, "I want to thank everyone for coming. I hope you all had a great time." Some cheered, a couple clapped, and Jimmy and Henry, troublemakers as always, booed.
I started to help but Mom said, "Go on with your friends. I can finish up." We all headed out and stood around on the corner for a while. I felt revved up, itching to do something. A bunch of us headed off to the back lot behind Havermeyer's, where we sometimes hung out when the store was closed.
We snuck through a couple of backyards, and then jumped the brook behind Roosevelt High. We all laughed when Angie didn't make it. Girls - what can you expect? We got to Havermeyer's and shimmied under the chainlink fence, where it had already been pried up. We figured it was okay; if they really wanted to keep us out, then they would've fixed the fence.
There were rusty refrigerators, washing machines and stoves in the lot, broken tools, piles of scrap wood, buckets of paint, old boxes, crates, and shards of glass all over. In a corner were four or five black steel drums with POISON and a skull and crossbones painted on them.
"Hey ... I always wondered," I said, pointing at the drums.
"You jerk. Can't ya read?" said Bobby. He was acting strange; most of the time, he was the one double-daring us, egging us on.
"Whatsa matter, Bobby? You scared or something?" Joanne, always the tease.
"I'm gonna look for a pry bar or a hammer or something." I started searching around, turning over ends of shingles, flipping aside broken window frames, tearing open rotted cardboard boxes. In a box on the bottom - "always the last place you look" as my father put it - I found a yellow-handled screwdriver with its long blade sharpened into a point.
"Hey guys! Look what I found!" I yelled. I went over to a drum leaning against the fence and started poking the top. The others came over and stood around watching, but Bobby started whining. "You better not. You're gonna get in trouble."
Joanne chimed in, "Oh, Bobby. You're such a baby." That's all he had to hear. He cursed at Joanne and then charged at me. He slammed me against the drum, which crashed against another drum before it got knocked over. The drum rolled on its side and burst open. Out spilled a greenish yellow liquid. It smelled worse than Mom's ammonia. My eyes started to burn. When I pushed myself up, my hands and fingers felt like they were on fire. Joanne was screaming where the liquid splattered her legs. Some had gotten on Bobby's face. He was moaning as he scraped at his skin.
I had to wash it off. I ran to the opening under the fence, and the others followed. My new shirt ripped open where it snagged on the fence but I didn't care. I got up and raced to the brook. I jumped in and splashed water all over myself. Joanne and Bobby were doing the same. All the others were rinsing their faces and eyes. The burning stopped but my skin started itching real bad.
I caught my breath and my heart slowed down when I sat down on the bank. Paulie came over and asked, "Hey, man ... you okay?"
"I don't know. My fingers ... oh my God, look at these blisters!" I started to cry.
Jimmy knelt down and put his arm around me and said, "You'll be all right" though how could he possibly know?
Henry and a few others examined the blotches on Joanne's legs. Bobby sat sobbing and quivering.
I got up, went over to him and said, "Boy ... that was some party, wasn't it?"
Rev 5 / April 5, 2010
April, 2010 Copyright © 2010, Lloyd B. Abrams