Liver. I can smell it a mile away. She's got it in the frying pan now, and that rotten smell's just pouring out of the windows, stinking up the whole yard. I don't even know what liver is, but I think it's some kind of guts of animals or something, and it sure smells like it. How can my mom cook it? And how can anyone eat it?
My bike coasts to a stop and I hop off. She always yells when I lay it down, and even when I lean it against the tree when she's crabby. I walk it into the garage and flip the kickstand down, kind of mad like, just slap it down with the heel of my sneaker. I got the almighty whiff in my nostrils and it'll be there all night, I just know it. Almost nothing can take it away, except maybe a cherry Coke and a couple of Devil Dogs.
I walk up the driveway toward the back door and the big stink-a-rama starts getting all around me again. I was hungry when I got back from my paper route, but that liver's eating all my hunger up. Hacksaw walks up and starts sniffing around my knees and I pat her on the head.
"Don't worry girl, you won't have to eat it," I say kind of quietly. "Here." But already I'm thinking, maybe Hacksaw will get some. She'd probably even like it. You know dogs.
I reach in my jeans and pull out a Zag Nut and peel most of the paper off. Some of it sticks to the candy but Hacksaw doesn't care. She likes Zag Nuts, paper and all, and just chomps the thing right up.
I stand there a minute or two to cool off. School's been out a week but it's already pretty hot, just like the middle of summer. I can't believe I've been promoted to seventh grade, the start of junior high. As I open the door I'm thinking real fast about how I can get out of it. Not seventh grade, but the liver. They always make me eat everything on my plate.
Allergic, that's it. Freddy Duffy is allergic to eggs and milk, his mom even said. Nah, they'll never fall for that. Never did with brussels sprouts or even creamed corn. If I was just five or six years older, 16 or 17, I could get out of it easy, I know, 'cause I could just get in my car and turn on the radio and drive away.
Dad'll eat mine, I'll just slip it on his plate. He loves the crapy stuff and Mom, she'll just look the other way. Ah, yeah right, keep dreamin'. He watches my plate like a hawk.
The sick thing. No, can't do that. Not if I'm going to talk them into letting me camp out tonight. I get to the top step and I have the idea. I think it'll work, not that I like it.
Mom's standing at the stove, flipping over those awful paddies of liver.
"How did your paper route go today, dear? Did you collect from everyone?"
"Yeah, almost everyone. I think that old lady in the haunted ... "
"It's not a haunted house, dear, it's just, well, run-down."
"Yeah, the lady in the run-down house on Curtis Street, yeah, I think she died or something. So I didn't get paid there, not a cent."
"Died? Oh, how sad. How do you know she died?"
"Oh, there was an ambulance, the big new Cadillac one they have now, and a bunch of neighbors around and stuff. She must've died or something, I'm pretty sure. But I couldn't get near the house. Hey, Mom, that smells good. What ya cooking?"
I know it stinks and I know what it is, but maybe, I'm thinking, I can throw her off a bit.
"Oh, your father's favorite tonight. Liver. Liver and onions. Are you hungry?"
"Ho, yeah. Oh boy, liver and onions. Put plenty of onions in there Mom."
"I thought you didn't like ... oh, go wash up. Your dad should be here any time."
What have I gotten myself into? I go into the bathroom and turn on the water to make it sound like I'm washing, but for effect I get my hands a little wet, then wipe them on the bath towel, which gets streaked with gray ink left from the papers. One of those Iron Man comic books had an ad about hypnosis, I'm thinking. Maybe, if I concentrate on it real hard, I can hypnotize myself into not tasting the liver, whose smell is even now starting to fill up the bathroom so it smells worse than when dad leaves it on a Sunday morning.
I go back into the kitchen. Mom's turned the range off and is plopping the slabs of liver into a big plate, one, two, three -- oh no -- four, five and six. The only good thing is lots of fried onions tumble out on top of them, covering up the godawful smell a little.
Dad pulls into the driveway, backwards like he always does, so that wide, gleaming grille of his '58 Nomad can kind of smile down at the sidewalk and street. He revs the motor once, like he always does, shuts it off, gets out, walks across the driveway and opens the back door to the house. I mouth the words as Dad says them: "This mutt been fed today?" He stomps up the stairs and kisses Mom.
"Why, I haven't had liver and onions since ... "
"1948," I say, finishing the sentence for him. I go into a windup like Jim Owen or Art Mahaffey, just an easy one. I do that all the time.
"Where's the paper?" says Dad. He's wearing a short-sleeved white shirt as usual and red cap with white P on it. "Ya save one for us?" He winks as usual. "Who the Phils play tonight?"
Except for the liver thing, Mom and Dad are A-OK. They moved us from the rowhouse in Philly when I was real little and brought my two little sisters and me over to Westbury in New Jersey, to live. I guess it was around 1952 or so. Our house is just like bunches of others up and down our street, brick in front and big, white asbestos shingles the rest of the way around. Dad says asbestos is the best thing around because it can't catch fire. Anyway, our house is pretty much like all the others on the three streets behind us and four streets the other way. There's lots of kids, kids everywhere, and everyone has bikes, and the older guys, they have cars. I'm gonna get a car one of these days, a fast car, I swear, because I'm getting tired of pedaling my Columbia with its coaster brakes and fat tires all over the place.
For one thing, it's not easy hopping your front tire up the curbs and down, up and down, a hundred times a day I bet, while I'm doing my route, especially when there's a sack loaded with 50 or 60 papers on my handlebars. It's especially bad when those metal horns that hold my canvas bag over the fender come flying off and make a godawful clangety-clang-clang you can hear all the way to China I bet, or at least to Hemlock Boulevard. I hate that.
One time, right in front of Herbie's, the place where all the teen-agers go after school for cherry Cokes and french fries, I missed hit the curb too hard and all the papers came flying out. Then the horns flew off to make it worse, clanging away like it was a four-alarm fire. I was some p.o.'d, especially when all the high school kids came out and started laughing. Well, I felt like crying, but instead I thought of the word I heard all the men in the pressroom using all the time. You know, the worst word, the "f" one. I don't think I had used it before even though I thought it a lot, but it sure felt good saying it that time, though I did have to confess it to the priest the next Saturday. So all the guys quit laughing and what do they do? They start clapping. I felt a little better until one of the guys goes, "Bussa-huh?" which I know means something dirty, but I don't know exactly what.
So without even thinking this time, I fire back another thing the pressroom guys tell each other all the time: "Get bent!" This time, a couple of the real big guys, I think they were football players, they come right over. I thought they were going to beat the crap out of me or something, but no, they bend down and help me pick up my papers. I was some relieved, so I guess that sometimes, cussing can be good even if you're not sure what you're saying and have to go to confession for it.
Herbie's is right down Broad Street from Westbury High, maybe three blocks or so. Everything you could ever want is on Broad Street: a couple of five and tens, an A&P, the Sun-Ray drug store, the West Movie Theatre, a couple of hoagie shops, a shoemaker shop and a Chinese laundry, not to mention the clothes and Stride Rite shoe shop where my Mom always took us the week before school. The laundry smells the best of all, except for the candy counter in Sun-Ray and the french fries in Herbie's. When I was a little kid, I used to love to go into the laundry with my dad and smell the starch and stuff from the back room of the tiny laundry while they handed my dad his shirts, always neatly wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. They always wore bright Chinese clothes and little hats and I always felt big because I was about as tall as them even though I was a little kid.
Farther up the street, where the Westbury crick runs under Broad Street, is the old bait shop that somebody's trying to make into a flower shop. Then even farther down where there are more houses and fewer stores, there's the Chevy dealer. My dad always brings me there before the new models come out because the salesman, Mr. DiBartini, always gives him a sneak peek out in the back parking lot next to the railroad tracks before they get washed and go on the showroom floor and front lot.
Right in the middle of town, where Harding and Broad streets cross, is the Court House, made of big brown blocks. It's the tallest building in town. Down at the bottom, its cornerstone has the date 1888 etched in it, which makes it ancient I guess, and way up at the top is a tower, kind of like a church steeple, where the town clock looks like a big bright moon at night. You can see it from just about anywhere in town. The bell under it gongs every hour, day and night, every week, every year. And the time on the clock is always right. Well, almost always. It got stuck one time after it got struck by a lightning bolt, but they got it fixed within a day.
Westbury High is right next door, and at three o'clock the kids just pour out of the place and flood Broad Street, which doesn't make delivering my papers any easier I'll tell you, except a cute chick with big ones passes by every once in a while and that makes it kind of worthwhile. I like it especially when the cheerleaders all go to Herbie's. I usually park my bike, take out a few papers and walk them to my customers' shops around the place and if I have an extra I walk it inside Herbie's, maybe even get a cherry Coke if I have some extra money.
Everybody in town's always talking about the football team, the Colonials, because they're so good. After they win a game, all the teen-agers get in their cars that are all decorated with red, white and blue streamers and signs in the windows that say stuff like, "Clobber Clearfield" or, if they beat Milford, "Maul Milford." They drive all over town and honk their horns and go to Herbie's or out to the bowling alley outside of town.
They hadn't lost one for three years before the 35-34 game against the Northboro Knights. It was the quietest Saturday afternoon in town I remembered and everybody in town was feeling bad. I was feeling pretty rotten myself even though I hardly ever went to games except to see chicks with the bazongas. After I heard the score, I got on my bike and rode around town alone for a while. A few blocks from my house I got on East Street and pedaled out to where there aren't so many houses and the sidewalk ends. I stopped on the bridge where the New Jersey Turnpike runs underneath and stopped for a while to spit on the tractor trailers that go under. You always have to do that, especially when you feel bad.
The overpass, that's where East Street isn't called East Street anymore.
It becomes Dead Rat Road.
I'm pretty sure that's not the real name, but everybody I know calls it that because, well, you can guess by the name. A few miles down the road is where all the pig farms are.
The pig farm trucks come into Westbury every Tuesday morning to collect garbage from cans outside people's back doors. The garbage men hop the fences like ace hurdlers as they go from one yard to the next snatching the slop cans and carrying them to the trucks in the alley until they're filled up.
That gets rid of the garbage all right, but the trucks sure take a toll on the rats that cross the road all the time. It's also where the kids with cars have their drag races. I can hear the tires squealing and the hot cars shifting gears late at night when I'm supposed to be sleeping.
"Finish your liver, son?"
"Almost." I'm still chewing, pretending it's something good, like a cheeseburger or Three Musketeers or something, but that awful taste is sneaking into my nose. I've eaten maybe half of the piece Mom put on my plate, but it's like my stomach is telling me, "No. Don't put it down here!"
Dad looks over to my plate, then down at his, which is empty. He's already gobbled down three slabs of the rotten liver, mixing it all up with mashed potatoes and peas.
"You've been working on that for 20 minutes," he says with a sly look in his eye.
The girls, they lucked out and got Beefaroni. I would have eaten the can itself instead of having to choke down this liver.
"You gonna eat that, boy?" Dad asks. I start to nod no.
Like one of those spear fishermen you see in movies, he impales that piece of meat smack in the middle, and in a flash swoops it over to his plate. In seconds, there's a little trickle of liver juice worming down the edge of Dad's mouth as the meat is being devoured and he just smiles at me and winks. Mom isn't happy but doesn't say a word and turns around to tell the girls to eat their Beefaroni.
"Can I be excused?" I ask.
"Don't you want dessert, dear? I made rice pudding," says Mom. I kind of hate that too, but I don't want to tick her off because I have to ask the big question now. I get a little knot in my stomach. Why wait? I let the question blurt out.
"Mom, can I camp out at Jake Haughey's tonight?"
"Who's going to be there?" she asks. I knew she would.
"Me, Jake, Zimmy Pilnosky and maybe Martin Creedon if his mom says."
Dad gets into it.
"Pilnosky, isn't he from the family out ... "
"Yeah. They have the pig farm. He'll ride his bike in," I say, knowing right well that I intend to ride out to meet him.
"Did Mrs. Haughey give her permission?" asks Mom.
"Who's this Haughey kid?" asks Dad. He doesn't mean any harm but the question puts a bigger knot in my stomach.
"He's in my class, Dad. He's smart."
"If your father says it's all right," Mom says.
I look at Dad, but he's not convinced yet.
"He's an alter boy too," I say, knowing that will do the trick.
"Well, I suppose," says Dad. "You boys stay in the yard, you hear? Don't go wandering around."
"Sure, Dad. Jake's mom says it's OK. You can call and make sure," I say.
"I'll bring my sleeping bag and toothbrush."
Mom tells me to be careful and I go and get my sleeping bag from the closet while Dad sits in the living room and tries to find the Phillies on the TV. There's still plenty of sunlight as I tie the bag on my horns over the front fender. I go back inside and nick some Fizzies from the cupboard while Mom's doing the dishes. Forgot something else. I go back upstairs and grab my flashlight from the closet, and quietly slide a Playboy from its hiding place under the second drawer of my bureau. I'm sweating a little as I stuff the Playboy down my shirt and head for the stairs. I go back up and grab an "Iron Man" comic book and cover the Playboy with it, just to be safe.
"Bye Mom," I say as I head across the kitchen.
"Just a minute," she says. Oh jeez. "Come here."
I walk over and she gives me a big hug. I don't mind it but this is the wrong time.
"What on earth do you have stuffed down your shirt?" she asks.
"Oh, just some comics and stuff."
She waits a couple of seconds, then hugs me again but I'm really sweating now. A few more seconds go by but they seem like an hour.
"Have fun and be good," she says.
"Yep." I turn and I'm out the door.
Now I know I'll see it tonight. The race.
Zimmy Pilnosky says his dad's pig farm is the second or third largest one in Mount Vernon, a little town outside of Westbury. It isn't like Westbury at all, though, because it has no downtown, only a few stores and a gas station or two and a little wooden church with a steeple that has big loudspeakers instead of bells inside it. All the farms are separated by little strips of woods with lots of good buttonwoods and maples for climbing, honeysuckle vines all over the place and patches of wild grapes here and there. Scattered all through the woods are junk cars and old furniture people have chucked. We like to get in the old junkers and pretend we're drag racing, late at night, down Dead Rat Road where the high school guys race.
Zimmy's real name is James, and his family calls him Jimmy. But anytime there's a J on a word, Zimmy says it like a Z sound. If he was talking about a juke box, Zimmy would call it a "zuke" box, or if a car's a junker, a "zhunker," get it? So when I first met him in first grade, he said his name was Zimmy, and the name stuck. He can't say his R's very well either, and some of the kids poke fun at him. I think it's really because he lives on a pig farm, or maybe because he has red hair. But Zimmy and me, we're friends.
I ride out to his place to see the porkers every once in a while, but to tell you the truth not as often as he invites me because the smell is almost as bad as liver. The difference is, you get used to the garbage smell after a while. Besides, you get to see probably a hundred dead rats along the way to Zimmy's. I think that's why he likes to ride his bike to school if the weather's OK.
Even though he's only 12, Zimmy gets to drive this old Ford dump truck with a hood that looks kind of like a pig snout with the two garbage-splattered chrome holes in the front. The truck is encrusted with hard, dried garbage, and Zimmy drives it real slow, up and down the rows between those long, metal-roofed hog houses, stopping every 15 yards or so to slop the porkers. The truck's so old it doesn't even have a license plate and never gets off the farm. I get up from the seat, which is nothing but springs popping up into my butt, and grab a shovel to help him. That's when I bug him, asking Zimmy if I can drive the truck, just once. But he always says no, he only gets to drive it because he's so tall. He's the biggest guy in our class. But Zimmy cheers me up and says we can go look at the naked chick calendar in the barn later instead.
I feel like I just broke out of prison as I finally get out of the house. I want to make a fast break for it and not have to answer a lot of dumb questions so I don't even say good-buy to my sisters. I pat Hacksaw and get on my bike. The sun's still pretty high as I pedal over to Hester Avenue, four blocks away, the last street before the woods.
Jake's in the back yard setting up his tent, an old canvas wall tent his dad got at the Army-Navy store. I hop off my bike in the street and run it up the driveway, flip down the kickstand real fast and run to the yard. Mosquitoes are starting to come out.
"Your transistor working?" I ask him.
Jake looks up as he tightens the last rope to the tent peg. He pushes his glasses up his sweaty nose, but I don't know how he can see out of them anyway. They're always greasy, like he just rubbed them in oleo.
"Did your mom call?" he says.
"She probably will. It's all right, I can stay. She said OK. Got your transistor?"
"Where's your sleeping bag?" he asks.
"On my bike. C'mon, let's get it. Got your ... "
"Yeah. New batteries. Listen." He struggles to pull the transistor radio from his rear jeans pocket, which isn't easy because Jake's got such a fat ass.
"Hey, that sounds good. Maybe they'll play it tonight," I say.
Jake looks toward his house, then back at me.
"Yeah," he says, kind of quietly. Now he whispers. "Is it really about a whore house?"
"Yeah. You gotta listen to the words, real close," I tell him.
I get the sleeping bag, walk it back to the tent and toss it inside, then follow it in. Jake follows me.
I pull the "Iron Man" and Playboy out of my shirt and toss them on the ground. Jake's eyes light up, and he glances in the direction of his house, even though you can't see it from inside the tent.
"I brought some Fizzies too. Got anything to eat?"
"My mom bought some cheese doodles for later."
"Got a flashlight?"
"Yeah. Is Zimmy coming over too?" he asks.
"Yeah. Let's ride over and get him."
Jake rolls his bike out of the garage and calls out to his mom, "we're going to get Zimmy," and we're off without waiting for an answer.
It doesn't really take that long to get to Zimmy's pig farm, if you really hurry, maybe 20 or 25 minutes, unless something cool happens along the way.
We're a block or two from Jake's when he asks if they're really going to race tonight on Dead Rat Road.
"I'm telling you, I heard 'em talking at Herbie's, and they were saying Butch and Cruiser, tonight. Midnight. Holy shit, look!"
It was the fogger. The mosquitoes are so bad this time of the year in New Jersey that the town breaks out the fogger trucks when it starts to get dusky. They go up and down the streets spraying clouds of DDT or something to kill the bugs. My dad's always glad when they come around, but if he's outside he always puts his hand over his beer can so none of the fog stuff gets in. But all the kids love it when the fogger comes. It's kind of like heaven.
The truck is blowing out big, blue-white clouds and makes a turn and starts heading up Heather Lane. Jake and I hop off our bikes and lean them up against a tree. We run over and join the other kids -- I can't tell how many because they're inside the cloud following the fogger.
We all flap our arms around and yip and yell because it's real fun and you can't see anything but that fluffy haze all around you. It smells a little funny, but not bad like liver. We're having a good time, seeing who can get closest to the fog pipe, when the truck stops and the driver gets out and starts cussing and tells us to get lost. This always happens, but that's part of the fun of it. We all scatter all over the place, kids running across yards, vaulting fences like the garbage men, and some them just hide inside the cloud, and pretty soon the truck starts again and they all come back. But Jake and me, we have to get going to Zimmy's.
As we keep riding, you can smell the fogger stuff in our clothes, but I figure it'll keep the mosquitoes away all night. And if we do what we plan to do, it'll be a long night.
We pedal a few more blocks and make the turn at East Street then stop at the turnpike bridge just to rest. Jake leans over the rail and starts spitting, but I tell him to save it for later because we have to get Zimmy.
Then, the race.
On Dead Rat Road.