Leo was both glad and sorry that fourth grade was over. It was a long and tough year. It was made hard not only by the taunts of Paul and Louie who called him a kike and Christ-killer but also by being accosted and threatened by Jackie Zeller on his way home.
Thank goodness his mom and dad had demanded a conference with the principal and Miss McKinley, whom he loved and already missed. Right after, the bullying stopped. But with Jackie, who lived in a ramshackle house on the corner of Maple and Raynor, you never knew what to expect.
On the Monday after July 4, Leo rode his bicycle to the Main Street School to sign up for the town’s recreation program. There was another elementary school opening in September but he didn’t want to think about it; he knew he’d be having to take the bus there. He had attended the Main Street School since first grade, when his family moved out from Brooklyn. His father and two partners had bought a Rexall drug store in town and Leo loved walking or riding his bike over to the store to visit his dad. “Hey Leo … what’s up?” they’d ask or, “How’re ya doin’ kid?” A free Mounds bar or several packs of Topps baseball cards were, of course, always nice to take home.
When Leo’s dad was to work late, Leo ate breakfast with him on the screened-in porch. While his dad read the news section of the Times, Leo studied the sports pages and box scores – especially how well Mickey Mantle, his idol, was doing. That summer the papers were already saying that Number 7 – The Mick – his Mick – was en route to baseball’s triple crown.
After he finished his Cheerios, he’d slide his glove onto the handlebars, back his bicycle out of the garage and head off to the rec program to make a leather belt or a wallet, a potholder or a lanyard, but mainly to play ball with his friends.
There was never enough baseball. Late in the afternoon the neighborhood boys would meet up on the lawn of the mansion alongside Teller’s Lake that they called Cusack’s. They rarely saw Mr. Cusack or his family, and the caretaker never seemed to mind their being there.
They played baseball on an area bounded by the two driveways and tall pines and maple trees. As the sun moved into the west, a grass-stained ball hit in the air was hard to see, let alone a ball hit into the trees. Leo and his friends would run under the overhanging limbs, with their gloves open atop their heads, in the hopes of catching a ball before it hit the ground – or hit one of them. Their game would end when their mothers started calling for them to come home. Leo’s mother’s yell was particularly shrill. She always sounded so irritable and annoyed that Leo was teased: “Oh, your mother’s gonna kill you.” At home, he got yelled and cursed at a lot but almost never got hit.
Along the far side of the south driveway was a dense thicket of tall bushes eighty feet or so in diameter. An S-shaped path meandered through. Someone in the center could not be seen from either end. That place became the boys’ sanctuary. It was the place where Leo smoked his first stolen Camel cigarette. The place where he had his first taste of whiskey. The place where he first played with another boy’s privates and diddled his rear end.
Late August’s earlier sunsets also meant that the beginning of fifth grade in a new school was approaching. Too fast, Leo thought. Mickey Mantle was on a roller-coaster ride. Earlier in the month, The Mick hit eight homers in eleven games, then slumped at 3-f0r-31, then went 16-for-32 with five home runs.
The boys were playing two-against-two toss-up-and-hit at Cusack’s one hot and humid afternoon when four boys rode up the driveway. It was Jackie and Paul, along with Frank and Louie. Leo felt sick and wanted to run home. But he had to save face. Still ... why did those bastards have to come here … to our field?
“Hey … can we play?” It was Jackie, leading the three others forward. Leo, on high alert, felt dread in the way his request sounded like a demand. Gary, with bat in hand, asked, “You got gloves?” though they could plainly see their mitts hanging from their handlebars.
“Sure do,” and the boys grabbed their gloves, stepped off their bikes, and dropped them onto the bed of needles under a tree.
Leo stood off to the side as Neal and Artie pointed to the bases, explained the ground rules of which there were few, and then Gary said, with what Leo thought was unbelievable courage, “Don’t worry … you’ll catch on.” And then, “But we’re the home team so you guys’re up first.”
Leo’s team laughed when Jackie’s team ran under the trees to try to nab fly balls. They played for several hours until a couple of mothers started calling. Leo’s mother hollered, “Leo! It’s time for dinner. You better get home now!”
Jackie said, “Boy, your mom sounds mean.”
“No, she’s not … really. It’s just that sometimes …”
“I kinda know how you feel. In my house it’s pretty bad.”
Leo was feeling less uncomfortable though he was still wary. Jackie Zeller was someone who could never be trusted.
“You mind if we come back sometime and play?”
“Uh, not really,” Leo said, though he wished they wouldn’t. He wanted to keep things simple. He wanted things to stay the way they were. He wanted Mickey to win the triple crown. He wanted the Yankees to win the World Series. He wanted his parents to stop their bickering and their screaming and their spitefulness.
He didn’t want the summer to end. He didn’t want to take the bus. He didn’t want any teacher but Miss McKinley. He didn’t want the jew-haters to start in with him. He didn’t want to be scared every day at school.
But he so desperately wanted to repeat those illicit moments in the center of his sanctuary, the center of his furtive excitement, the center of his awakening desire.
Rev 2 / July 12, 2014
July 2014 Copyright © 2014 Lloyd B. Abrams