The Race

Growing Up in Westbury

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"But there's a whole line of trucks coming, look!" Jake protests. "Look at 'em!"

He's right, five or six tractor trailers, both lanes. That makes me want to spit too, but I hold it in and tell him again, we have to get going.

We get on our bikes and Jake's not saying anything until we're a half-mile down Dead Rat Road, where it's straight and flat and the tar is marked with skid marks from all the drag races, and I hear him counting, "twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three ... look at this one, with his guts all hanging out. He's a new one."

Jake stops his bike to take a closer look, and now I see him looking for a stick so he can poke at it some. I finally stop and yell back at him, we have to get to Zimmy's, he'll be waiting for us. I look up the road and down, a half mile each direction, before it dog legs off at each end. We're right in the middle of where the big guys will race.

"You wanna see the cars tonight, don't ya?"

Jake looks up the road toward me, I'm maybe 10 or 15 dead rats ahead of him, and he says, "Yeah, the cars. Butch and Cruiser. Let's get Zimmy, and then we'll ride to the station and see 'em."

"That's what I'm telling you. C'mon, let's ride."

That gets Jake going again, but pretty soon he's huffing and puffing and his bike is zigzagging this way and that and I have to go slower, but we keep moving, past the line of shanties where the farm workers are sitting on their porches and cooking ribs and corn on barbecues and little kids are running around in the dirt drives. Some of them wave as we ride by and we wave back.

Sometimes, usually on Friday or Saturday night, the older guys drive by the little village and yell stuff at the Negroes and Puerto Ricans who live in the shacks, then when someone comes out they lay rubber and laugh and peel out. Zimmy gets p.o.'d when he hears about that because some of those people work on his dad's farm and he's friends with them. You never want to say "nigger" or "spic" around Zimmy, because it gets him real p.o.'d. In fact, it's about the only thing that will make him fight. Jake and I, we just wave, and they wave back, and we keep riding.

We pass a stretch of woods and then it all opens up and you can really smell the pig farms now, so we're getting near Zimmy's. The road curves and then there's Zimmy's place, a big farmhouse with white clapboards and a fenced in yard to the side where they keep a couple of horses. They have nice cars, too, and in the driveway is his mom's white '62 Lincoln next to his dad's red GMC pickup with mudflaps and whitewalls.

Zimmy is still eating when he meets us at the front door. He always eats with his mouth open but I guess if you live on a pig farm your parents don't get after you about manners and all. When he tells me he'll just be a minute, I can see he's been eating mashed potatoes and peas, or maybe lima beans.

"Meet me out back," he says, wiping his mouth with his sleeve. Now if I lived here, I know where my liver would wind up, right in one of those sheds behind the farmhouse where the pigs would scarf it right up.

I'll bet I could throw a hunk of liver from the kitchen table right into one of those pigpens, I'm thinking, as I practice a couple of pitches next to Zimmy's back door.

Jake's still huffing and puffing. "Chee-yoo, it stinks here," he says. "I hope the fogger's still running when we get back."

I can see Zimmy's already tied his sleeping back on his bike. His mom hands him two dollars as he walks out the door and kisses him.

"Yous boys be good. And Jimmy, you be home by ten o'clock in the morning, you hear?" she says. He says yup and starts pedaling out his driveway. You have to be careful because it's all crushed white clam shells and if you fall, they hurt.

Without wasting any time, we head back to Westbury, two miles away. Past the woods and shanties where the garbage trucks roll. Zimmy's a good biker and can stay between the yellow lines and talk at the same time, but he and I have to go kind of slow so Jake can keep up. I count 55 dead rats by the time we make it to the turnpike bridge, but Zimmy claims he saw 59. Jake catches up and leans over the rail and hawks out a big lunger I guess he's been saving up and lets it fly. It hits a truck's windshield.

"Ten!" yells Zimmy. "You got a ten, big Zakey boy, your first try!"

I see a challenge and hawk one, waiting for the next 18-wheeler to roll by. I could have hit the trailers easy, but that's only one point, so I just wait. A big Mack comes along in the slow lane and I draw a bead on him, but the spit just misses the windshield and gets the cab.

"'s only a five, Mickeroo, you outa practice?" taunts Zimmy. He stopped calling me Mike when we heard about the Rolling Stones, then all of a sudden he starts calling me Mick like the singer, like I never had a name before. Besides, it goes with my last name, McGeehan. I don't mind it.

Now it's Zimmy's turn. He's the master because he gets to spit all he wants around the farm, where everybody's always spitting. He hawks up a big load, sniffs a couple of times and waits while a single truck passes, then a couple of cars, another truck. He watches the highway intently until two tractor-trailers come barreling along, one behind the other.

"K-fow, k-fow." They come out like bullets from a deer rifle, and splat on one windshield, then another, for an opening score of 20. He looks up and smiles with pride. "Wanna keep spitting or do we head to the Flying A?" he says.

That was too much for Jake. He was on his bike and headed toward East Street. Zimmy and I caught up with him in no time and we were soon past the old cemetery, dark and dingy with huge old pine trees shading everything, past a line of tract houses and to the crossroads. On one side, there's the Flying A station, and across from it, the Sinclair station, with the big green dinosaur on the sign.

The stations are a kind of holy-special place for big guys, who gather around and watch while the guys with the hottest cars in town work on their machines. They don't like younger kids like us around and cuss us out and flick cigarette butts at us most of the time, but if you're cool, and just drift in to get a Coke from the machine and cuss with the big guys, they let you hang around for a while. Zimmy's good at that. But we're not so sure tonight, because we know they're getting ready for the big race.

On Dead Rat Road.

At midnight.

We stop our bikes and decide to go to the Flying A, because Zimmy's brother Jack used to go out with Cruiser Crowley's sister Tammy.

"Zest follow me," says Zimmy. "And cuss a lot, yous guys got it?"

Zimmy rides up to the gas pumps and hops off his bike, and we follow and meet at the Coke machine. He puts in 15 cents and a Coke bottle drops down. Zimmy pops the cap off and gives the bottle to Jake. He pops in another nickel and dime and hands me the next bottle. Then he puts in a quarter and waits for the dime to drop down and make a clink before he takes the final bottle for himself.

Cruiser's inside one of the bays, which he gets to use because he works part-time at the station pumping gas and changing oil. He's leaning over the front fender of his 1949 Pontiac working on the engine, a cigarette dangling down from his lips, almost touching his chin, smoke curling up around his flat-top haircut.

The other teen-agers, maybe five or six of them, are watching and talking about cars and girls and stuff, cussing a lot and puffing on cigarettes too. They're all wearing blue jeans and white t-shirts, except Cruiser, who's all in black, black chinos, a black t-shirt with cut-off sleeves and black loafers.

"Hey, punks," says one of the boys. "What're yous doin' here? Get lost."

"Get bent," says Zimmy. "I'm a friend of Cruiser's."

"What's your name, Fart Face?" says another boy, who shoots a shot of spit between his front two teeth to the garage floor. "Hey, it smells like garbage in here. What you got on those sneakers, farmer?" Jake and I take long pulls on our Cokes.

The insults don't bother Zimmy, who takes a couple of steps toward Cruiser's 1949 Pontiac Deluxe Streamliner Eight. It's a two-door fastback coupe, candy-apple red, with orange and yellow flames streaking the bloated fender behind the front tires. The wing vents are brightly chromed, as is the front grille, which gives the car the look of a hungry predator with a row of shiny vertical teeth. Silver, parallel streaks lining the center of the open hood streak like an open airstrip toward the front, where a chrome Indian chief stares sternly upward, as if ready for takeoff.

The steel body tapers off toward the rear fender, where skirts hide the wheels and extra chrome molding decorates the gravel guards. The steering wheel has a fuzzy, pink covering and a pair of baby booties hangs from the rearview behind the split windshield. And the name of the car is painted in black, trimmed in pink, on the side door, in a curly script neater than one of our nuns could have done it: "Cherry Buster."

"Hey chump, don't get too close to the merchandise," says Cruiser.

"Zeesus, it's cool," Zimmy says. "What you got in it?" He knows how to talk about cars.

"Two forty-eight cubes, my man, hundred-six horses. Hey, ain't you what's-his-name's brother?" Cruiser asks.

"Zack," says Zimmy.

"Right." Cruiser hasn't removed the cigarette, which has a big, long ash on it. He blows a puff out his nose, turns briefly and spits on the floor.

"Yous gonna race tonight?" asks Zimmy. The other guys all laugh.

"The pope wear a pointy hat?" says one of the guys. "Hey you punks, why don't you go whip your dogs?" They all laugh.

"Shut up," Cruiser orders. "Yeah, we's gonna race. And win." He squashes his cigarette on the greasy floor and pulls a red and white Marlboro box from his t-shirt sleeve and pulls out another smoke. He lights it up and blows a puff of smoke into a neat O. "She's ready."

"Yous gonna watch?" Cruiser asks.

Zimmy looks over to Jake, who's finishing his Coke, and me. We're all smiling and Bobby Rydell's singing "Wild One" on the radio.

"Yeah," Zimmy says. "We're told our moms we're camping out at Zake's, you know, just so we can see it. On Dead Rat Road, Cruiser? Midnight, right?"

"Ain't that past your bedtime, zit weed?" asks one of Cruiser's pals.

"Shut your traps," says Cruiser.

The guys all listen to Cruiser and shut up when he says to because he's the coolest of them all, or at least that's what everybody thinks. His dad works at the shipyard across the river in Philly, and his mom's a waitress or cook or something, I'm not really sure, but neither of the two is hardly ever at home. So Cruiser and the boys hang out at his house a lot and play records and have beer parties on most weekends. The guys think Cruiser's extra boss because he got thrown in jail last summer down the shore in Wildwood after a big rumble.

I still hear the guys in Herbie's talking about it when I serve papers. The girls in Herbie's, they say Cruiser's cute, but bad, and none of their dads will let them go out with him.

Cruiser turns to Zimmy after telling the guys to shut up.

"Yeah, kid. Just put in fresh spark plugs and timed her again. Know what kid? I'm gonna kick ass tonight. The Buster's gonna scream. Now what's your brother's name?"

"Zack." says Zimmy. I can see Cruiser is puzzled, so I chime in. "Jack. Jack Pilnosky."

"Oh yeah," says Cruiser. "We call him Pillnose. Yeah. I gotta get back to work, kid, beat it. Maybe I'll give you and your buds a ride sometime. Hey, yous guys want a cigarette for the road?"

Zimmy looks over to us and Jake just says he, uh, quit smoking, but I figure if I'm going to get a ride in the Cherry Buster sometime, I better be cool and take one. "Sure," I say. "OK," says Zimmy.

He pulls out the pack and flips a cigarette to Zimmy, and then one to me, then spits on the floor again. "Hey, yous guys seen the rubber machine over at the Sinclair?"

The question halts my windup right in the middle of a fake pitch and I nod no, I'm really not too sure about rubbers and all that stuff yet. But Jake's face lights right up and he's not so shy any more.

"Boss! Where's it at, Cruiser, in the men's room, huh? Yo, let's go see, guys."

The big guys all laugh, and one taunts Jake, who's wiping his greasy glasses on his polo shirt as he walks out of the bay.

"What you gonna use the rubbers for, kid? The goddamn thing will fall right offa ya."

"Yeah, needledick the bugfucker," says another. They all roar and slap each other on the back.

Cruiser just kind of half smiles and tells his guys to can it, then winks at us.

"Thanks for the cigarette," I tell Cruiser.

"Shake it easy," he says. "And when you go over and check out the rubber machine, tell Lucky he won't be so Lucky tonight. His ass is grass."

The guys gather around the Pontiac as Cruiser goes back to work under the hood.

Jake's trotting to his bike as Zimmy and I walk out of the garage.

Zimmy tucks his cigarette behind his ear, but I stick mine in my pocket, just in case my dad drives by or something.

"Let's go," says Jake. "The Sinclair. C'mon."

We ride our bikes across the intersection and hop up the curb, under the big white sign with the green dinosaur silhouette on it and stop our bikes by the gas pump. Jake darts into the office and asks for the men's room key, but the guy tells him its already unlocked. The guy must have thought Jake really had to go because when Jake runs out he trips right over one of those new tires in a stand and falls over. He picks himself up and runs to the side of the station and pushes the metal door open. Zimmy and I are still walking into the station when we hear Jake: "Whoa! Guys, come check it out."

Zimmy asks the guy in the station if Lucky's around, and the guy is telling him, "Yeah. In the back," when Jake calls out again, "Guys!"

Zimmy and I walk to the men's room and he pushes the metal door open. Jake is fishing around in his pockets for change, but all he's finding is a pen knife, washers, a couple of bottle caps and some sweat-soaked, bent up baseball cards.

"Here," says Zimmy, who reaches into what seems like a bottomless pocket of change in his jeans. "Get a pack of three."

Jake's eyes are fixed on the rubber machine, mounted next to a cracked mirror on the dingy wall that's covered with really bad words. The machine looks like new and there are big words like "protection" and scary words like "disease" and "prophylactic" printed on it, but no drawings or girls or anything so it's not as cool as I expected.

Jake pumps in two shiny quarters and a packet pops out of the dispenser.

"Yeah," says Jake, who's smiling a mile wide. "Lemme have one of them."

Zimmy divvies the rubbers up and we each get one. I feel kind of dirty and bad, but at the same time kind of older and cool, as I slip mine into my back pocket. Zimmy is nonchalant as he drops his into his shirt pocket. "C'mon, let's go see Lucky," he says, leading us out the door and behind the station, where a kind of makeshift wooden garage is added onto the station. Jake is kind of skipping along as he stares at the packet.

It smells like oil and gas and tires and it's kind of dark and shadowy in there, except for under the hood of a 1941 Packard Clipper, where a lone light bulb glows under the open hood. Lucky LeClerc is hunched over, chewing on a toothpick as he works on the engine, long strands of greasy black hair dangling in his face.

Dark as it is, you can see the car is shiny and can almost smell the mint-green paint on the body, trimmed with puffy lines of icy blue around the front wheel wells, along a bulge of metal along the chassis and back to the tapered rear fenders.

The horizontal herring-tooth front grille gleams and sparkles in a kind of smug smile as Lucky's head bumps the light bulb. He grunts something and keeps working.

The rear tires are covered by wide, blue skirts, which are adorned with fancy, silver letters spelling out the name of Lucky's car: "French Tickler."

"Shit," Lucky says, before mumbling a few more words I don't understand.

"Hey, gimme that can there, kid. Yeah, I'm talking to you. That red can there." I hand him an oil can from the workbench behind me and Lucky thrusts a metal spout into the top.

Lucky's alone, just like always. Even though he has one of the coolest cars in town, he doesn't have a gang always hanging around him like Cruiser. Lucky's been a loner ever since he came to town a couple of years ago.

His real name is Laurent and he says his last name like "lah-CLAIR," but everybody in town just says "luh-CLERK." But nobody, I mean nobody, calls him Laurent, because if they do he'll punch them in the mouth.

Lucky moved to town from somewhere way up in New England, Maine, I think, where they play ice hockey all the time and people speak French. Some guys say Lucky can speak French just like a foreigner without even stopping to think of the words. And I have a feeling it's true because he has a kind of accent, and that's almost proof positive you gotta be from somewhere.

Anyhow, Lucky and him mom moved down to New Jersey just before Lucky's sophomore year. His first year at Westbury he got right on the varsity football team, which hardly ever happens, even if your dad played on the team when he was a kid. But the coaches could see Lucky was strong as an ox, fast as a deer and knew how to hit real hard from all those years playing hockey as a kid. He was an all-conference halfback his first year at Westbury, and seemed like he was on his way to all-state his junior year because he scored like a jillion times. So what happens? Lucky quits halfway through the season. He wasn't flunking and didn't give any reason for quitting, but some people say he didn't like his teammates and others say Lucky didn't like the way the announcers at the game said his name over the loudspeaker: "A seven-yard game for, luh-CLERK."

The coaches were real p.o.'d and his mom cried, but Lucky decided he wouldn't go back on the team. Now, he works on his car all the time when he's not in school.

For a while, all we hear is the clicking of a wrench and we don't talk because we don't want to get Lucky p.o.'d. We just want to see his car.

He pulls his head out from under the hood and looks at us.

"What you looking at?" he asks.

"Boss wheels," says Zimmy, trying to start a conversation. "Can you beat Cruiser tonight?"

"You think airplanes, they're fast?" Lucky says with his accent.

"Yeah," says Jake. "I don't see no wings on this though."

"Shut up, Zake," said Zimmy. It's quiet for a minute.

"Think this will take off like a plane?" he says with a wry smile, wiping his black hair back with his wrist.

"Like a plane?" I ask.

Lucky moves his toothpick to the other side of his mouth.

"What kind of car you think this is, kid?" he asks.

"Well, it says Packard, right? So it's a Packard I guess," I answer.

"Half right, chief. She's a '41 Packard Clipper on the outside, yeah, but Hudson in the inside, know what I mean? The engine's from a '53 Hudson Hornet Big Six, 308 cubes, all balls, got it, kid? Zero to 60 in 29 seconds."

"Zee-sus," says Zimmy, his eyes widening. Jake's still looking at his rubber pack and I'm on my toes trying to get a look at the motor.

"Know what Hudson made engines for, kid? Helldiver planes they used in the war. And Invader engines they used for those landing craft in the war. All Hudson," says Lucky.

"Helldiver planes? Really? Hey, how'd you know?" I ask.

Lucky's quiet for a moment, then says, kind of under his breath, "My pop."

He turns and picks up a couple of tools then goes back to work on the engine.

He looks like he doesn't want to talk any more, but I ask him anyway.

So you're gonna win tonight?"

"Like I said, kid, zero to 60 in 29 seconds."

The gas station bell rings three, four times, and the attendant runs out to the gas pumps, which are making long shadows on the tar because the sun's going down. One of the garbage haulers, an old Ford, is next to a pump and one of the Negroes, a big guy with bulging muscles, gets out while the attendant starts pumping gas.

There's about three other guys in the front seat and a whole bunch of others, Puerto Ricans and Negroes, all dressed in bright shirts and Chinos, sitting on the sides of the back. They've all got big smiles on their faces and you can see the gold from their teeth glinting from what's left of the sun.

Zimmy knows them all because they work on his farm. His dad lets them use the big truck when they all go into town for the night, as long as they hose out the back first and fill up the truck at the Sinclair because gas is cheap there, 24 point nine cents a gallon.

Zimmy calls over to the big guy, "Hey Zon," which must mean John, and asks where they're going.

"Jus' downtown for a little wine and a good time," John says. "Me and the boys, we've been working hard this week."

Zimmy smiles and John winks back as the little gongs on the pump stop dinging. John hands the attendant a five dollar bill for the gas and is just starting to get back in the truck when the yelling starts.

It's Cruiser's boys from the Flying A.

"Hey jungle bunny! Jigaboo! Hey, you niggers ain't gonna score with the ladies in a rolling garbage dump!"

The guys in the Flying A burst into guffaws and slap each other on the backs. Then they yell some more.

"Hey, why don't you float them Porter Rickans back home in that garbage can?" one of Cruiser's boys shouts. "And you black niggers don't have to come back neither!"

Now they're hooting and shouting all kinds of things from the Flying A as they walk from the open bay toward the street, a whole gang of them. Cruiser is standing behind them, but he's not yelling anything.

John, the big black guy, is just staring back, but I can see he's mad as hell because his fists are all clenched up. The guys in the back of the truck are now just kind of half-smiling, I think because they don't understand all the words being hurled at them. But one of them, he's wearing a straw hat, he gets up and pulls a knife from his back pocket and in an instant, a shiny blade zings out. He's saying something in Spanish.

By now, Lucky's walked out of the garage and stops on the tar, wiping grease from his hands onto a rag. He stops, doesn't say a word, and just watches.

I hear one of Cruiser's boys saying, "Hey, what's the Porter Rickan got there, a Boy Scout knife?" And more laughs. "What you gonna about it, Luh-Clerk?" taunts another. Lucky doesn't move, just keeps wiping.

Big John now takes a couple of steps toward the street, but Zimmy jumps in front of him.

"Yous gotta go, Zon," Zimmy says. "Them guys ain't no good. Can't fight, neither. You'll kill 'em Zon, then what? Hey, Zon, look, they zus' got big mouths, you know? Take the truck and go Zon."

A long minute passes and the shouts die down, but Big John is still staring.

"For me, Zon, a favor for me, zus go. See yous at the farm tomorrow," says Zimmy.

Big John takes a step back, turns around and gets into the truck. He tries to start it up but it stalls a couple of times, prompting one last jeer from across the street: "Hey, nigger, that thing need a tuneup?"

Finally, the motor fires to life and with a grinding sound it lurches into gear, which knocks the guy with the straw hat off his feet. The truck turns and heads downtown. Lucky turns and heads back to his car to get it ready for the race.

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© By Buzz Adams