“Have you ever been in combat, Ricker?” my spiritual advisor asked.
Pelham Bay Wilding
The Molotov cocktail burst against the wall shocking the quiet, suburban night with flames fifty feet high. The bricks of the old gothic school scattered the gas across its surface, scorching the big flat wall where, during the day, children played their games. Almost immediately the sirens of police cars shrieked through the darkness and I was gone. At twelve years old, gravity did not exist. I flew, over fences, through backyards, under hedges, and up the back steps of my house and to my room on the third floor, quietly avoiding being seen by my parents who were entertaining some friends. The doorbell rang. “No, officer Mancuso,” I heard my mother say,” Rick is up in his room doing his homework. Rick honey!” she called. “Yes Ma”, I answered, coming to the next landing where I could see Mancuso with my mother. “Oh, hi officer,” I said. Mancuso looked sick, knowing he was once again defeated by speed and youth. Shaking his head wistfully, he said, “Sorry to bother you Mrs. Winsor.”
Sargent Mancuso and I knew each other well. The hound needs the hare. And cops were kids once too. Mancuso admired me. He was that kind of man. He just hoped things wouldn’t escalate. My flaming red hair made his job easier, but Pelham Manor had a couple of other boys in the same age group with red hair, enough to muddy the trail. Most people knew who it was who lit up the school, took a slingshot to windows, put smoke bombs in letter slots, threw snowballs at passing cars, or set the piles of autumn leaves afire bringing out the fire engines. I had a couple of cohorts who joined me on certain occasions. I told them “What would those fat asses do if it wasn’t for us? Just eat more doughnuts!”
“Rick honey”, my mother said as Mancuso shut the heavy wooden front door, “Come down and say hello to the guests.” Obediently, steeling myself for a performance requiring grace and charm, I descended the stairs. Clockwise around the room I went, shaking the hands of those assembled one by one, looking them in the eye as taught by my mid-western mother and saying “Nice to meet you” as she rattled off their names. These were executives and journalists and their wives from the rapidly expanding medium of television. They had taken the train twenty minutes from Grand Central Station in New York to cultivate their acquaintance with my father by “having some drinks” with the king of daytime serials- soap operas. As I went around the room some of the women said, “How polite he is” and “Look at that red hair. He’s nice looking”. And then my mother said,” That’s fine Rick. You can go back to what you were doing.” “OK Ma,” I answered and headed up the stairs again to my room.
How I loved that room way up there next to the attic on the third floor, a little sanctuary with its own toilet and sink, a small “eyebrow” window on the street side and a set of windows that cranked open on the other side, out to a flat spot on the roof. I could get out there but it was scary, way up high off the ground. Sometimes I went out anyway to feel the evening and to marvel at the monster oak tree that overhung the house. That tree was a town treasure, over three hundred years old. When I crept out on that flat spot, then turned around and placed my hands on asphalt shingles almost to the peak of the roof, I could be close to the branches of the oak reaching out above the house fifty or sixty feet from the trunk. The girth of those branches was bigger than the trunks of average sized oaks.
The company downstairs had gone and from my crow’s nest at the top of the house I could hear my father yelling at my sister Ann. At seventeen she was a special combination of ingredients, most of them trouble. She had that beautiful red hair passed down by our Swedish grandmother and china white skin, fine bones. But she was fat and fat defined her because in those days not so many people were fat. She was fat and she was smart and she was funny. But she hated herself and lied, stole, and stood up to all authority except our father. “Your Goddamed room is like a pig sty” he yelled at her. “Clean it up this instant”. The door slammed making the whole house and all of us shudder. There was silence and then the sound of breaking glass and sobs. I could hear ma’s voice as she opened Ann’s door, “Oh Ann dear,” she said, entering and closing the door. Right then I was on my way down the stairs once again, noiselessly floating down three floors and out the back door and into the night.
Stars sparkled, planets turned, way out in space. Sometimes they seemed just overhead but tonight they were just little pin pricks in the black shroud covering the world. I was not bent on mischief any more, at least not tonight. The neighborhood was quiet with its families settled in, finishing dinner, watching TV. I liked to walk the neighborhood and imagine the lives of the families inside those big old houses. I wondered if any of them were happy and peaceful and kind. I liked to think so. The ones I knew all had problems; fathers who were seldom there, fathers who drank, mothers who were serious alcoholics. There wasn’t a lot of physical violence then, at least any that was known, but there was psychological violence, emotional distance, and loneliness.
Out in the neighborhood at night I felt in control, like it was my world. I knew every passageway through the high hedges, every hole in the fences, every path through the back yards, and the habits of most of the people. I walked, feeling the cool evening breeze and the imagined friendliness of the glowing houses along the streets and felt relief from the troubles in my own family and my inability to do anything about them. I decided tonight not to pass by a window where I had seen an older girl undressing but went home, and after circling the house to take its emotional temperature, silently ascended the back stairs to my room, read for a while, and fell asleep.
“Georgeeeeee”!! “Georgeeeeeee”!! Mrs. Santori yelled from her house next door, her voice slicing the air, bouncing off the neighborhood houses and across the yards. “Georgeeee”!!!….. ‘Marone! ‘, I said to myself. ’I hope he shows up soon,’ but I had a feeling Georgie was nowhere around, hiding probably, and that Alma Santori was just exercising her lungs as an expression of power. “Georgeee”!!!!! Her voice could break glass; make the fillings in your teeth vibrate. “Georgeeeeee!!!!!” the high pitched bellow screamed again. ‘Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!!’ I said to myself.