[img_assist|nid=902|title=Ink, Joe Blake © 2006|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=150|height=194]
The polluted breeze blowing off the Frankford Creek smelled like melting tar and felt just as hot. I sat with Bill and Rufus at the end of my block under a shadeless, wilted cherry tree. Almond Street was wedged between two chemical plants, an arsenal, and a funeral home, where everybody who lived on the street expected to end up sooner or later. Chemicals in the air ruined the paint jobs of nearly every house and car on the block. Outsiders claimed the air smelled like rotten eggs. I never noticed it except when we came back after driving someplace else.
While I pounded a baseball into my beat up glove, I watched waves of heat shimmer up from the cracked asphalt street. Behind us, Allied Chemical’s smokestacks belched steam into the sky, where it hovered, occasionally blocking the sun but never shielding us from its heat.
“Hey, you want me to get my magnifying glass so we can fry some ants?” Rufus asked. He was always coming up with stuff like that for us to do. He was short and dumpy with lips so red, it looked like he’d just finished eating a cherry water ice.
“We could go under the fireplug, only,” Bill said, pointing to the legal sprinkler head on the open hydrant about thirty feet from us. It squirted a thin stream of water into the air. When the water landed just right and mixed with the oil and gas stains in the gutter, it hissed and a little rainbow popped up.
“That stupid shower is for little kids,” I said.
The three of us had spent most of our summer together, not because we liked each other so much, but because we couldn’t do any better. Rufus had a sadistic side. He was also a bit of a mama’s boy because his father had died before he was born, and he was scared to death of girls. Bill was horny and not afraid to talk to girls but a face full of zits and a mouth full of wire scared them off. As for me, I hadn’t yet grown into my two front teeth. I wore coke-bottle glasses and was branded a braniac and potential queer because I went to Central High, an all boys’ school for the academically talented.
By this point of the summer, I was starting to feel superior to my friends. They seemed to accept being nerds. I, on the other hand, had a plan to escape that fate. The first part involved changing my build from thin to Atlas-like. I’d been working out faithfully every day for a good month now, posing for hours in my room, convinced I could actually see my arms growing if I stared hard enough. Once I had a great build, nobody would pick on me. The only thing holding back my progress was, as usual, my parents. My mom wouldn’t let me eat as much meat as I needed to build my muscles to their max. That’s because my dad was on strike and we weren’t, as she put it, made of money.
The key to the second part of my plan was about to show up in five minutes, if my calculations were correct.
“Let’s have a catch,” I said.
Rufus groaned but got up. Bill and I had been working on his arm all summer but he still threw like a girl. He’d double and triple clutch, then heave one twenty feet or so at best. His throws were so soft you could catch them with your bare hand.
It didn’t take long for me to stop throwing to Rufus because I was backing up out of his range with each throw. Soon I was right in front of the Kallman’s house. That was where phase two of my plan was supposed to begin.
Like clockwork, Lorie Kallman came out of her house with her younger sister Tracy and her older cousin Cheryl. They were wearing bikini tops and shorts and carrying lounge chairs, ready to work on their tans.
Part two of my plan was to get Lorie to go out with me. I didn’t like her just because she had a nice tan and a great chest. What I liked most about her was the way she fit in with everybody. She never seemed to be out of place. If I went out with her, some of that would rub off on me too. Everyone wouldn’t think of me as just some nerd anymore.
I tried to get her attention by posing when I threw the ball back so my slightly larger bicep bulged. I held the ball by my ear just as I was about to release it so my bicep had no choice but to curl. Besides, I was getting close enough to overhear what the girls were saying. It seemed Lorie wasn’t satisfied with the tan line on her thighs. She insisted that it was too low. So she proceeded to roll her shorts up in stages, recuffing them each time before saying that they needed to be even higher. When I was sure she couldn’t roll them any higher, she tried to raise them yet again. When I turned to get a better look, Bill hit me in the side of the head with the goddamn baseball. It knocked the right lens out of my heavily taped glasses. I’d been begging my mom for new glasses or, better yet, contact lenses but she said we couldn’t because we didn’t have any benefits while Dad was on strike. The girls giggled and I muttered an F-bomb, which I thought would sound cool. That made them laugh even harder.
Frustrated, I went back under the cherry tree to fix my glasses. Bill kept asking me why I’d turned my head. Rufus said he had a pair of tweezers that were perfect for the job and if they weren’t he knew they were also great for tearing wings off flies. I told them to shut up so I could concentrate but that only made them babble more.
“Which one of the babes is the hottest, only?” Bill asked. He was always adding “only” to the end of his sentences for no apparent reason. It was really starting to bug me.
“If I don’t get my glasses fixed, my ass is going to be on fire. You know, you should have to pay for them if I can’t, Bill. You threw the ball.”
“You weren’t paying attention, only. Besides, they were ruined before that anyway. I’m doing you a favor, only. If they’re broke, your parents will have to get you new ones. I’ve gotten two new pairs already this year.”
“That’s different,” I said. His dad worked for Honeywell and never went on strike.
“It looks like you could use new sneakers too,” Rufus added.
I could feel the heat coming off my face. I peeked at the holes in the bottoms of my PF Flyers. Then I stood up so no one else would see them.
“It doesn’t matter which is the hottest anyway. We have no shot with any of them,” Rufus said.
I was about to tell him that maybe they had no shot but I had a shot, and a pretty good one at that. I decided they’d find out for themselves, soon enough.
“Here comes trouble, only,” Bill said. He pointed at a gang in tank tops and cut off jean shorts. Jay was their leader. He’d become something of a cult hero because he’d served time for robbing graves.
I got my lens back in just as the gang surrounded Kallman’s stoop. They flirted with the girls while tossing a few loud barbs our way. They called Bill pizza face and zit zombie. Rufus was a red-lipped bitch. They threatened to drag me to Pat’s Hardware where they’d duct tape me and my glasses together once and for all.
Then, strangely, there was a lull. We weren’t saying anything on our side of the street and they weren’t saying a word on the other side. Everybody seemed to notice it. Everybody seemed to expect somebody else to break the silence. Then the wind kicked up, stirring wrappers and dust, making everyone hotter and dirtier.
Jay started to cross the street. I thought he was coming over for one of us and apparently so did Rufus, who began climbing the cherry tree until a branch snapped and he fell, which caused full-scale laughter to break out across the street. Jay then veered away from us and towards the fireplug. Seemingly out of nowhere he produced a wrench, and in no time he had the cap off and the water gushing out full blast.
Ray Bruner, a leathery old man who lived directly across the street from the fireplug, leaned out his front door, raised a fist in the air and yelled, “You’re flooding my goddamn basement, you bastards.”
“Fuck you Ray,” Jay yelled. Then he went behind the fireplug, cupped his hands under the stream coming out, and launched a gusher into Ray’s yard, which sent him scurrying back inside.
At first I wanted to take off my shirt and show off my new torso, but then I remembered my farmer’s tan, so I figured I’d just roll up my sleeves to reveal more of my upper arms.
“Geez, you’re shoulders are as white as Space Ghost, only,” Bill remarked.
I couldn’t figure out what to do with my glasses. The water would knock them off my face. If I put them down, the Big Kids might steal them or somebody might step on them. I decided the best thing to do would be to hold them in my hand.
The force of the water pushed me forward when it hit my back. Somebody yelled that one of the girls’ tops had fallen down and I was trying to get a look when I realized my glasses had fallen out of my hand and were being swept up in the current in the gutter. I chased them down the street, barely intercepting them before they went down the sewer.
On my way back, I looked for Lorie. The time I had spent under the plug, and the breeze, made me shiver a bit. I couldn’t see her but I did see a familiar spindly-legged figure in a green bathing suit coming at me— my old man. I wanted to run but there was nowhere to hide.
“I thought I’d join in on the fun,” he said, smacking me on the shoulder. “Come on under. I’ll dunk you like I used to at the Rec,” he said.
“I’ve had enough,” I said, praying that a giant sinkhole would form and swallow me up.
“Suit yourself.” As he walked away, I noticed that he was holding something in his hand. I couldn’t quite make out what it was but I assumed it was a beer, since he had almost never been without one since he’d gone on strike.
I figured I would head home but then Lorie came out of her house wrapped in a beach towel. She looked even colder than I was. She sat on the sidewalk, dangling her feet in the water as it flowed in the gutter.
I stood in the street across from her with my back to the hydrant. I kept saying the word “Now,” in my head; convinced each time I said it that I would say something, anything to Lorie. In the meantime, I could only stare at the orange nail polish on her toes as she patted her feet in and out of the water.
Then she said my name— Joe. I was shocked, thrilled that she noticed me. I didn’t hear anything else she said after that. I watched her orange nails come out of the water and move forward until they stopped right in front of me.
“What’s the matter, Joe? You guys can’t afford the water bill?”
“Hi,” I said, proud I was finally able to respond to her calling my name. The string of “Nows,” in my head ended too.
“Turn around,” she said. She grabbed me by the shoulders and turned me around. Her fingers sent tiny electric currents rippling through my body.
Then I saw what she saw and what everybody was watching too. Dad, alone under the hydrant, lathering his underarms with a bar of soap. He was taking a goddamn shower in front of the whole block, including Lorie, for chrissake.
I laughed and shook my head like everybody else. I thought it would make them stop teasing me. You know, laugh along with the criticism and watch it disappear. In real time, it was probably only another minute or two until the cops came and everybody scattered but it felt like hours to me.
Dad stopped to talk to Ray Bruner. He told me to tell mom he‘d be home in a minute.
I ran into the house. My mother was in the kitchen working on dinner. “Not hot dogs again tonight,” I said, looking at the empty wrappers on the counter. Then I heard the front door open, and I ran up to my room.
I tore the stupid covers with the NFL team helmets on them that I’d had since I was seven off my bed and tossed them on the floor. I looked out the window. Dirt and cement yards stretched as far as I could see. In one of them, Lorie smiled and leaned against the gate to her back yard. I was sure she was still laughing at me until I saw Joey Hunter, one of Jay’s gang, reach across that same gate to kiss her. Then she went into her house. Nothing had changed. I hadn’t figured a way out of my house, or away from this neighborhood, or from being a nerd. I fell down on my bed, pulled a pillow over my head, and tried to drown out my mother’s voice as she called me to dinner.
Joe Lombo is a graduate student in the Creative Writing Program at Rowan. The essay and poems that appear in this issue are the first items he has published. He was born and raised in Northeast Philly and currently resides in Turnersville, New Jersey.