From The Kenyon Review, New Series, Fall 1982, Vol. IV, No. 4
Gilchrist Avenue was a sort of semirespectable street, bordering on the town’s Little Africa, with mostly one-family and two-family houses. Our end of it also had a few rooming houses, the fancier ones catering to jockeys and trainers during the track season in the summer. In the less high-class house next-door to us, the roomers seemed to be mostly house painters and restaurant workers, coming and going in spattered white pants and shirts, with a darkly male air of whiskey, rough language, and turpentine.
They gave Mother fuel for sarcasm toward the neighborhood where we lived “temporarily” as she said, pronouncing the quotation marks, for thirteen years, renting the downstairs of number thirty-six from Mr Mintser, who lived in Newark. He was the kind of man who tried to get rid of the dust-colored pigeons who shat and cooed on our roof by catching a few and releasing them with one wing crippled, on the theory that their agony would scare away the whole tribe.
The next-door painters, their occasional flare-ups of drunken noise or disorder, stood in Mother’s mind for my father’s male callousness toward his family. While his partner, Wayne, owned a house in a slightly better part of town, my father—the stubbornly naive victim of Wayne’s sharp dealing, in her view—lodged us “temporarily” in the shadow of a flophouse.
Yet it was through her, and even through her emphasis on taste and cultivation, that we sometimes got involved with neighborhood oddballs—like Eddie Roy, who lived a while in the painter house, and was also a painter in the other sense, having for example decorated the borders of the big mirrors of the Sanitary Barber Shop with a greeny romantic fringe of reeds, trunks, and foliage.
She had a gift for confusing things by subtly changing their shapes and proportions through the words she welded on to them. These words had a sort of italicizing effect on the realities behind them: we had acquired, by paying the moving costs, a baby grand, an Aeolian piano with a cracked sounding board. This instrument, intended to give me an advantage, had belonged to a rich woman who kept it in the studio on her estate, where it was no longer wanted. It had an excellent movement, and ivory in fairly good condition. In color, it was pea green. Eddie Roy was supposed to antique it with white lead and raw umber.
So for a time Eddie became the object of Mother’s skepticism and hope, her compassionate satire. Often drunk, he had come back from the war with a plate in his head, an accident I imagined luridly as he stood in our living room, in his whites and nervous mustache, consulting with her over illustrations of Rose Motif borders and corner ornaments, in a book from the public library. In the end, he quit, or drank the paint money, or something of the kind, without ever finishing. From a vague process of argument, hectic family jokes, and negotiations there did emerge—as if by itself, with no actual application of pigment—a piano of off-white, with shadowy yellow streaks and highlights. There were no roses. The skin of paint held for years without chipping or peeling. It looked like the surfaces of certain store displays. We settled into the attitude, established by Mother, that the color was far from satisfactory, but good enough to show our superiority over the people who had painted it green.
The final settlement with Eddie Roy was handled by my father. A believer in cutting his losses, he mistrusted hopefulness about painters and free pianos. He might have known Eddie as a customer of the Broadway Tavern, my grandfather’s bar, in my father’s days as the owner’s son, a nice-looking high school boy helping out behind the bar, years before going into business with Wayne. It’s even conceivable that Eddie had been a still earlier customer of my grandfather’s—my “tough” grandfather, as I distinguished him from my other, more housebroken one—in the time of my father’s childhood, when the bottles were sold clandestinely, with plausible labels printed on the sly and pasted on at the last minute.
In the name of old associations, and on the principle of cutting losses, Eddie was let off easy, without having to return money or to do more work. He had a weepy hard-luck story, and maudlin apologies. For some time afterwards, before drifting out of the neighborhood for good, Eddie would at times recognize me among my friends and embarrass me with some special, sentimental greeting.
“You’ve got wonderful folks,” he would tell me, staring and nodding a little, “wonderful folks.” He said it almost in a way that implied I might contradict him—as, in a way, I might inwardly have done.
My mother thought he had been let off too easy. Her husband, she said, was willing to give fifteen dollars away to anybody who knew how to cry a little. In this way, she transferred the responsibility for Eddie to him. If Wayne ever decided to make boo-hoo, she said, there would be no food on our table, and so forth.
But it was Mr Mintser who became weirdly and doubly associated with the idea of crying. Mutilated pigeons were not all that I held against him. Outwardly, he was much like the painters, but with maybe even more of a drink-pickled quality to his voice and skin. His nose, in particular, impressed me horribly, with its amazing color and contrasting network of distinct yellowish pores—so that for many years I surprised people by declining strawberries, because secretly I felt unable to keep from thinking of them as old men’s noses.
The way he addressed me, if I answered the doorbell, as “’Bud” or “Skip” identified him beyond doubt as a particularly dangerous and hypocritical grownup. Entirely aside from knowing my own nature as an un-Budlike or Skiplike boy, I had enough sense to recognize something like a potential physical threat in the shuffling, almost ashamed insincerity of the Mintser style: “Uh, is your Pop home, Skip?” The mawkish greetings of somebody like Eddie Roy, similar in their twitchy sham, were of another order. The different, uglier note would have been perfectly clear even if Mintser had never insulted me with a casual and appalling remark about Jews, not too long before we got the piano.
He had a mother once. We knew that when she died she left him our house and the one next-door, on the other side from the painters, which he sold to a widow called Mrs Henry. Mrs Henry represented a certain gentility, for me, with her tidy garden, dark green shutters, soberly striped canvas awnings. There seemed to be something wellborn, too, about having a first name for a surname. She rented rooms to quiet single men including, in the season, one or two well-dressed, second-rank jockeys. Mrs Henry, for some reason, let Mintser sleep in a kind of toolshed or playhouse behind her garage. Like the garage and her house, this shed was ribbed with tidy white siding, but it was no bigger than a large closet, with barely room for Mintser’s cot, a kerosene stove, and a shelf. Through the tiny window, if I leaned on a low parapet surrounding the flat roof of our house’s garage, I could see the pint bottle of Seagram’s Seven Crown on Mr Mintser’s shelf, next to a theatrically sinister straight razor.
In theory, there might have been a Mrs Mintser keeping house back home in Newark, but it was morally clear that he was as solitary as Polyphemus. My friend Richie Dyott used to collaborate with me in wild deadpan constructions, alleviating boredom with flat, colorless narrative assertions of danger and calamity. Mr Mintser often came into these lurid, emotionless plots:
“Say there’s a hurricane coming in tomorrow night.”
“And it’s going to be bigger than Hazel.”
“Yeah, and all the telephone lines and power lines are down, and the cop cars get stranded.”
“And that’s when Mintser goes crazy, right?”
“Yeah, and say we break the lock on that trunk he keeps in your cellar .”
“Right, and so we find a dead body in it, and he killed his mother, and Mintser goes down there and sees the broken lock, and so he knows we know it.”
“Yeah, right. And half the town is on fire, and our houses are on fire too, and he’s like chasing us around in the fire.”
“Yeah, but listen, he’s waving his razor, that he used on the pigeons, and he’s coming right at us. But see, he doesn’t see the other pigeons, and they’re mad at him, they recognize him . . .”
“Right . . .”
We got up onto the garage roof by using a big, unpruned pear tree as a ladder. Too hot in the summer, the roof was a pleasant spot on cool, sunny days, with its low wall and a view beyond Mr Mintser’s playhouse of the wooded lot between two streets: protected, warm, superior. Up there with Richie—small but rugged, a genuine poor kid in a wiry Irish way that made me by comparison a mere plausible imitation—it was possible to feel luxuriously hard and invulnerable.
The time Mr Mintser’s remark outraged my vulnerability I was younger, so young that he may have thought dimly that I was too small for an insult to penetrate. Mrs Henry, who was always nice to me when she met me with my mother or father (though unlike Eddie Roy she never seemed to recognize me among a gang of boys), was Mr Mintser’s accomplice, though she didn’t know it, I hope.
I was outside by myself on a Saturday morning in spring, sitting on the front steps watching Mr Mintser, in his undershirt and soiled white pants, as he painfully turned over the earth in our little front yard with a long-handled spade. I suppose it could be said for him that he was trying hard, sweating to get some grass growing in that stoney, acid soil, and that he must have been grunting painfully, a paunchy, flushed alcoholic, tricked by a muddled respectability into working hard in the sun to make a lawn for his tenants.
I sat watching, hypnotized a little by the mild weather and the attractive freshness of the dirt. Dark and porous, exposed in humid clots, it had the clean uniformity of unfinished wood. Mr Mintser was in some ways a stylized figure from a children’s book: suspenders and sleeveless undershirt, pink face with its remarkable strawberry, and even—the Farmer in the Dell—a large, patterned handkerchief that he wiped over his grizzled neck and his forehead as Mrs Henry came down the sidewalk on her way home from the A&P.
“Good morning,” she said to him.
“Good morning there, Missus.”
“Working pretty hard today?”
Mr Mintser answered by sighing and miming, with a little perfunctory headshake, his sour disbelief or rebellion at the hard work he was doing today. Mrs Henry nodded brightly in my direction.
“You ought to get him to help you.”
This was a little joke, of course. Mr Mintser answered it in a way that took me totally by surprise, his grievances with the world turning him unexpectedly, like one of the Three Stooges turning with a plank on his shoulder to hit somebody flat in the face. He sighed again.
“Ahh, you can’t get no work out of a Jew.”
The really dumbfounding thing was that Mrs Henry beamed and laughed politely before heading along home. She either didn’t make out what he said, or felt too shy and embarrassed to do anything else. What else could she do anyway?
Still, her complicity in a personal attack on me played a big part in tapping the buckets of tears I found myself producing. These were partly histrionic, like the way I slammed the door as I streamed inside to announce my woe. I wept partly at my weeping: it seemed sad to me that Mr Mintser could make me, a little boy, cry—with his false accusation that we were some kind of sissies—just because we were Jewish. I think that’s how I took it. Was he crazy? Didn’t he know that my father was a clean-cut local athlete, once described as “the back-court Adonis” by the Long Branch Daily Record? Didn’t he know that my grandfather was an eminent ex-bootlegger, a former boxer with a broken nose and a manner gruffer than Mintser’s own? Mr Mintser had struck at my just-blooming male conceit. It somehow restored that conceit, now, to howl with self-righteous energy, renewed a little by noticing Woody Alessi, our upstairs neighbor, who had come down into our apartment, and was watching me with grave attention.
If I could have known that Mr Mintser, with his liver hard as a walnut and his pickled brain cells, was not thinking about me, or much of anything, when he made his remark, the knowledge would have made no difference at all. The point was that he could dare ignore me—and that anybody stupider than us, less attractive, an old bastard my father could beat up (as I hoped he would do) with laughable ease, had dared say in a word who we were, who I was. And that a silly, smiling woman could understand what he meant, regardless of whether she actually heard him, or happened not to agree with him.
The war hadn’t been over all that long: maybe that was part of the gratifying attention I was getting from Woody as he stood and frowned, blue-jawed and stocky. Then he went out the front door, to where Mr Mintser was still digging. I thought Woody might knock him down, and though I liked the idea very much I felt torn, worried that Woody would preempt my father.
Without believing it, I fantasized my father and Woody putting two and two together and exposing a whimpering Mr Mintser as—Adolf Hitler, who in the late forties was still believed to be in hiding somewhere. My mother sometimes playfully pinched some of her long dark hair between two fingers, holding it up against her husband’s upper lip:
“Everybody’s looking for Hitler, and here he is, on Gilchrist Avenue.”
Woody didn’t hit Mr Mintser, and neither did my father. Later that day my father brought Mintser, nose looking like a railroad flare, to our front door. My mother’s voice was loud while the two men mumbled inaudibly.
“Don’t bring that drunk into this house!”
“I don’t care! I don’t want him stinking up my house!”
Mumble. Two voices.
“You tell him not to Ma’am me! Get off my steps!”
“No, you take it easy! Let him apologize to you, if you like him so much! I don’t give a good goddamn who’s sorry, just get that stinking old bum away from here! You’re the one who wants to live here so much, you talk to him! Tell him to keep away from my child!”
From Mr Mintser’s viewpoint, this must have been a fairly awful penance to pay for one ill-judged remark. For me, it was unsatisfying. I had noticed before that my mother and father could bleach the emotional meaning out of something I wanted or felt worried about, by making it into an argument between themselves. By some mysterious power, their teasing fights, alternately comic and vicious, could disconnect my own emotional machinery. The adult world couldn’t alter my feelings by direct persuasion. But when my mother and father chewed and worried some concern of mine between them—arguing at the front door about the roof he had given her in exchange for her girlhood, while Mr Mintser and I listened sullenly—a sleepy indifference came over me, and my own caring was suspended.
My grievance against Mr Mintser entered the log of these dreamy, supplanted ghost-cares. If I could have sent away to a box number in a comic book for muscles of steel and had knocked him down in the mud (“How’s that for work, you old bum?”), my happiness would have the flattened though melodramatic quality of events in the comic books themselves. Sometimes, prolonged attention could retrieve an object or incident from the emotional zombie-izing of adult arguments, the way I gradually made the piano mine by tirelessly perfecting the sounds I could get from it.
By the time I was thirteen, the old insult was just one more card in my growing deck of fantasies and memories, no more important than the card of Mr Mintser’s futile cruelty to pigeons and no less stylized than the picture of myself someday as a jazz musician—a brilliant, self-destructive figure with the standard rumpled tuxedo and pensive cigarette.
With Richie Dyott and a clownish fat boy called Gussie Acerra, I puffed at our first pack of Kools, lounging on the garage roof. It was October, with pretty cumulus clouds and a milky blue afternoon moon. After a day in school, it was an enormous pleasure to sit on the warm tar paper, concentrating on not coughing or getting sick, while Gussie did his smoking impressions: a woman in the supermarket; Dean Martin; a “hoody” kid acting tough; an inept, outcast boy named Buckner; Gussie’s grandfather, with a black cigar bobbing in the middle of his mouth. We smothered the butts in a coffee can full of dirt and handed around Clorets to kill the smell.
On Halloween—a special one because it fell on a Friday—our plan was to go out late, as a unit, with all equipment stripped down to the minimum for action. The only costumes acceptable were rigidly traditional, unhampering and anonymous, with no childish excesses of gear or identifying marks. I took the safest, most conservative choice, the basic hobo, with a little cork soot on my face and some old, oversize clothes. Richie was going to do the same, but then a hooded sheet his mother had sewn for one of his brothers the year before turned up, so he settled on the classic ghost get-up. The important thing was to wear sneakers and to avoid anything that could slow you down running or climbing if you got caught while up to any troublemaking.
The trouble we were up to probably wouldn’t amount to any more than some harmless soaping of windows. But if somebody crossed us, or violated the code of the night as we saw it, there might be dumped garbage cans or even broken glass. A couple of years ago, in a prank famous for its wit, some older boys had wedged a huge “No Dumping” sign into the hedge of Simpson’s messy yard. Mother, with her unpredictable anarchic streak, had thought this funny.
Because he was fat, and officially “crazy,” Gussie had a license for the potentially slowing choice of dressing up as a woman. But he wore sneakers, along with sausagey tights and a short, pleated skirt, with brassiere packed tight and high for speedy getaways. He carried a big flowered shopping bag. Rolling down the street with a solemn, aggressive expression under his rouge and his big lipstick leer, he knew how to underplay for laughs, letting his body be funny on its own.
“Hey Gus, somebody hit you in the face with an axe?”
“Gussie! Are you sucking a potato, or is that your nose?”
He did a slow look and planted a tiny kiss on one finger, leaning his head forward and fluttering his eyelids as he blew the kiss on its way.
We went along soaping car windows here and there, doing it only lightly on a block where people seemed to be generous with the candy, a little more and more obscenely when somebody struck us as chintzy or unfriendly. When a young couple invited us in for cider and doughnuts, we spared a whole block in their honor, doing the same with self-righteous piety when a man explained that his wife had been pretty sick, so they hadn’t been able to buy any candy. We adopted a kind of polite-hoodlum manner that seemed to please people, putting a little half-tamed animal quality into the “thank you,” a slight note of thuggish parody into the “trick or treat.”
Weaving through blocks toward Broadway, we reached downtown to find the store windows mostly scrawled with soap already. The night seemed about to take off in some inspired way, or else to sag into half-hearted kid stuff.
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s go to my grandfather’s place.”
It took some nerve to make this suggestion—the bar was an unpredictable place, if not quite off-limits; and my grandfather was a tricky man to deal with, pleased by toughness and independence in people, especially boys, but ready to lose his temper if the non-sissy behavior he liked happened to cross or inconvenience him. He and my mother were in a sense enemies; her condescending air and underlying stubbornness on certain occasions drove him to memorable rages. And he often seemed to find in me signs that my mother and her snobbish pretensions were ruining me.
“Piano?” he had said, “Piano? Buy him a fiddle and save money on haircuts. She wants to make a little fruitcake out of him.”
A friend of his, an old minor Mobs associate called Jewel Giordano, once came into my father’s office to ask if there were any bad debts my father would like collected. That is, for half of what he collected, Jewel—several inches under six feet, he weighed almost three hundred pounds—would terrorize or beat up the people, mostly black, who owed my father money for their eyeglasses.
“No, Jewel, I want to handle that myself.”
“Whatever you say, Milford. But if you get some real bad ones, just give me a list, you know?”
“Could you use a loan, Jewel?”
“No no, Milford, don’t do that.”
“Well, take fifty, just in case.”
“No no, get out of here, Mil.”
“Don’t be silly, take it for a while.”
“Come on, don’t be silly.”
“You tell me when you want a favor, Milford, you know?” Though Jewel was older, and more a connection of my grandfather’s, they knew one another as, each in his time, high school athletes. Most of the cops and Mobs people in town had drunk in the bar, or gone to the track with my grandfather. The police chief, years before going onto the force, had been a colleague in the liquor-importing business during Prohibition; according to legend, Grandpa Dave had once saved him from getting hurt by showing up at his boat with a gun. This story gave me an immense feeling of pride and security.
“Would Jewel have hurt those people?” I asked my father.
“Probably not. Mainly just scare them, I guess.”
“Could Jewel beat you up?”
“He’d have to catch me, first.”
“Are you afraid of him?”
“He’s okay. I wouldn’t like to get him mad.”
“Was he in the Mobs with Grandpa Dave?”
“What Mobs? No—you know, in a way. Not really . . .”
“Was that fifty bucks protection money?”
My father laughed out loud. His easy responses to questions of courage and violence fascinated me. If he wasn’t afraid of Jewel Giordano, how could he be afraid of my mother—as he clearly was? (The way she kicked him and Mr Mintser off the front steps was only one bit of evidence that he feared her.) Even Grandpa Dave, if not exactly afraid of her, seemed to resist only by keeping his guard up at all times. In that sense, he might at any time find me and my nice manners threatening.
Probably, it was only Gussie Acerra’s relentless manic energy that made me confident enough to lead the way into the dark, sweet-smelling bar, with its pre-television shuffleboard and old-style pleated-paper displays.
It couldn’t have gone better. There were seven or eight men in the place, plus two couples, the women laughing as soon as we shuffled in with our nervous, subdued “trick or treat.” Richie, with his hood up over his head and face, actually bumped into Gussie, which drew a little more laughter. They must have been pretty bored. I don’t think we expected what happened next—more likely, we meant just to get a rise out of them and then leave—but before we knew what we were doing we had gone into the begging business, people putting quarters and half-dollars into our pillow cases and Gussie’s shopping bag.
“Thank you, “ he said in a kind of boy scout or Catholic way that made his tits and make-up seem even funnier, waddling around in his mother’s tights—“Thank you, sir.”
To my surprise, my grandfather didn’t do anything to make the ritual presentation (“Oh my God, Dave, don’t tell me this is your grandson, for Christ’s sake”) that sometimes went with a visit to the bar. This would have embarrassed me, though I missed it a little, too. I liked surprising the male and female drinkers at the Broadway Tavern. I could sense that they marveled, not merely that Dave had a grandchild my size, but that I had the interesting, nice manners and articulate air inculcated by my mother. When I said “Pleased to meet you” with just enough intelligent diffidence, it was as if I had played Rhapsody in Blue for them. I also liked the bar because my mother’s contempt for its vulgarity, and her respect for its prosperity and swagger, gave it glamor in my eyes. Details like the name of a drink—“Tom Collins”—had an ineffable excitement.
My grandfather, instead of acknowledging me in any visible way, motioned me over to the bar with his head, pushed “No Sale” onto the register, and handed me three dollar bills.
The size of our take knocked us out. Back in the street, Richie swung along with his hood back, imitating Gussie imitating Dean Martin—
“When . . . the . . . moon hits-a you eye like a bigga pizza pie . . . that’s Amore!”
We felt unexpectedly rich, on the delicious profits not of hard work, but of daring and charm. TISH, Gussie soaped across a windshield, with a backwards S, and his mistake seemed like the funniest thing in the world.
We tried the same thing at the Silver Dollar, bolder this time, hamming it up a little, and made a few more dollars, including fifty cents each from the cash register. It was as if we had discovered electricity, though the bartender at the third place, Cammarano’s, turned us away.
“Hey, get the hell out of here. Don’t you know it’s against the goddamn law to come in here?”
“But bartender,” said Richie, putting his arm around Gussie, “this is my mother.”
“Get the fuck out of here before I kick your little goolies off.”
Everything we did seemed witty and secretly profitable to us, illuminated by the magical discovery that kids could get half-dollars by going into bars on Halloween. Back on the roof, we decided that we would start early the next year, do bars only, and make a hundred dollars. Maybe I would play something on the piano in the Silver Dollar. Gussie would sing “Amore.”
“No telling anybody about this.”
“Right!—or I kick your little goolies off!”
Counting the money up there in the moonlight, we decided to have another round of Kools before calling it a night. Gussie was sitting on the parapet, going through his shopping bag.
“Apples! Pukey apples. Who wants pukey apples?”
He bit an apple, then tossed it over his shoulder, against Mrs Henry’s playhouse, then, still sputtering bits of the first one, he bit another, threw it away, then a third. The waste and euphoric anarchy of it looked like fun.
I took a bite of an apple. It was mushy, a cheap Halloween special. “Blaah.” I threw it over the wall. “Pukey apple!”
“Pukey apple,” said Richie, tearing a bite out of one in the same motion as throwing it away. We got goofy, raining them down for a few seconds before the violent, terrifying sound of broken glass. An apple had gone through the playhouse window.
“No chipseys”—Gussie uttered the essentially meaningless playground and ballfield formula for no liability: no chipping-in on broken glass. It was a kind of portable joke, calling no chipseys on somebody’s teeth before a fight, and so forth. Gussie called it and slid over the wall and down the tree, trotting with his shopping bag down our driveway and into the street.
I suppose that Richie and I were laughing, and getting ready to follow him, when Mr Mintser turned on the kerosene lantern in the playhouse.
Looking back at me in fear, both of us motionless, Richie seemed both incredibly remote, and as if he was saying something right into my face: it was a serious, attentive look, as if after the outburst of pleasure over the apples he had run miles away, but left that expression on his face behind as a warning. I don’t think I focused consciously on the razor, but I did have a little mental picture, almost like the diagram of a football play with X’s and O’s, of Mr Minster coming up the tree and us jumping off the roof on the other side. It was a jump I had made many times but liked to avoid because it was easy to sprain an ankle unless you took it by dangling off the top of the parapet and letting yourself drop.
Mr Mintser groaned. He was moving around, out on the little miniature porch now, saying something.
“Oh Jesus Christ,” he said. “Oh Jesus Christ.”
Richie made a little spasmodic gesture with both fists up near his chin. He still had that concentrating, alone look on his face. His face had changed somehow, as though our fear of Mr Mintser were unmasking us, and I had never seen what Richie looked like before. And yet the mysterious giggling of kids hiding was already beginning to stir a little, and part of me was quite interested to note actual goosebumps on my arms and legs. I kept studying the picture or diagram of Mr Mintser coming up the tree, us jumping and running away, trying to see if I had overlooked anything.
“Oh Jesus Christ,” came his voice. “Oh, no. What are you trying to do to me? Oh please, for Christ’s sakes, what are you doing to me?”
Who did he mean by “you”?—Not us, not Jesus. It was more as if somebody was down there having a talk with him. There was also a bizarre noise of some kind, familiar, but unidentified for a moment.
“Oh, for Christ’s sakes, please, what are you doing to me?” Richie looked at me and stretched his eyes wider still. More or less both at the same time, we had recognized the strange noise as the sound of Mr Mintser crying, snuffling and sobbing large, dramatic sobs as he asked someone, some invisible person he knew, what they were trying to do to him.
This absence of control made things even more terrifying. Certainly I didn’t have time for the thought that by (in a way) making him cry I had settled with Mr Mintser for his cruelty of five years earlier—not while we crouched there on the roof, gradually collecting ourselves and taking in the idea of his spectacular tears. Later, talking to Richie on his front porch, there was an ambiguous—not entirely pleasant—sense of victory: a sense of evidence that Mr Mintser’s dirty, callous, nasty-mouthed life was inferior to mine, which was (despite the piggish side of the evening) full of principles and hopes, the high-class rebellion of my mother. It was a little like a classic scene in a silent movie: the scorned boy now grown up, beautifully dressed, surrounded by admirers, his latest concert announced on a poster; the derelict figure of his former enemy huddled watching from the harsh, unforgiving snowfall of oblivion.
But I didn’t think anything until Mr Mintser—moaning and gasping in alcoholic self-pity—made his way back inside his miniature parody of a house. Forcing myself to look, cautiously, I got a glimpse of old-fashioned long, gray underwear through the shattered window, in the yellow light of the kerosene lantern.
With our cash in our pockets, we left the candy and the Kools strewn on the garage roof and jumped down on the far side without using the tree, running—my oversize bum’s coat streaming capelike behind me—all the way to Richie’s porch. Sitting on rockers there, keeping our voices down because his father was sleeping just inside the porch windows, we went over our adventures like old soldiers, or actors after an opening night, tired but keyed up. Finally, I decided to go home. By that time, we were all boldness and suppressed laughter and challenging whispers.
“Are you scared that Mintser’s going to get you on the way home?”
“He’s not going to do anything.”
And it was true: not Mr Mintser, but something more general and indefinite, made me hurry with my head down through the lachrymose, house-crowded streets on my way home.