The Race

Growing Up in Westbury

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As soon as the truck drives off Zimmy runs to his bike and Jake and I follow him. He's heading to the street by the time Jake and I get to our bikes and he pops Cruiser's boys the finger, which is pretty ballsy considering they're a lot older than us and could stomp our butts right to China.

Most of them turn around anyway, so they don't see the finger. So, without thinking I yell over at them, "Get bent!" then pedal away real fast. Jake was just catching up to with us when he yelled "Bussa-huh!" I didn't even know he knew the word, but I guess he knows something if he's so fired up about carrying rubbers around with him.

I catch up to Zimmy, who's just looking straight forward, with a look on his face like that Indian chief on Cruiser's hood. We both look back and Jake's catching up, still wearing a big smile. There's no sign of Cruiser's boys.

"We'd better get to Jake's house," I tell Zimmy, who's still dead silent and pedaling real fast. I know he's mad because he just bumps his wheels real hard into the curbs instead of hopping them up like we usually do. The sun is down now the sky is turning from dark blue to purple as we hang a left onto Hester Avenue, Jake's street.

His mom comes out to the front lawn as we pull into the driveway.

"What have yous been doing?" she says, kind of mad like but not really, if you know what I mean.

"Nothing," we all say at once.

"Yous boys better wash up before you go into that tent, but the mosquitoes, they're vicious tonight, so yous can sleep in the cellar if ... "

"That's all right Mrs. Haughey," I say. "The tent's fine. It'll keep the bugs out for sure. We'll wash up now."

That seems like an OK deal to her, so we go in and wash up and say good night to Mr. and Mrs. Haughey. The blue tint of the TV reflects off their faces as they sit on the sofa watching "77 Sunset Strip."

It wasn't true about the tent keeping out mosquitoes because it was full of them, but we were careful not to wash off too much of the bug fogger when we went in to wash up. Zimmy's still mad and he's not talking, so I flip on the flashlight and pull the Playboy out from under my sleeping bag and toss it into his lap. He takes the light and starts flipping through the pages.

Jake turns on his transistor radio, which is already tuned to WIBG in Philly.

"Think they'll put it on tonight?" he asks as tinny notes of "Poison Ivy" dribble out of the miniature speaker.

"Just wait."

Zimmy stays busy with the Playboy for a while, and I use what's left of the light to read "Iron Man." I don' really need that much light because I know most of the words I've read it so many times. Jake goes into the house and gets a pitcher of water and glasses for the Fizzies, along with a big bag of cheese doodles.

So we're just drinking strawberry Fizzies and eating cheese doodles and listening to WIBG and talking about how glad we are school's over, and some of the girls in class and the Phillies and we're glad Martin Creedon didn't come over anyway because he'd chicken out of sneaking away for the race. Zimmy's just kind of half listening, and shows us a good picture from the Playboy every once in a while.

The radio's playing good stuff like the Coasters and Drifters, Chubby Checker, the Supremes, in between wanky old songs like "Teddy" by Connie Francis and "Starbright" by Johnny Mathis. I'm starting to think that maybe it's true, they can't play it any more, but that's when the first words come on to The Song.

"There is ... a house ... in New Orleans," it starts.

"Shut up guys, listen, this is it," I order in one of those shout-whispers.

"They call The Risin' Sun, and it's been the ruin of many a poor boy ... "

By this time, we're dropped our reading material, spilled two glasses of Fizzies and we're almost butting heads to get our ears closer to tiny transistor speaker.

"Don't move the radio, you meathead, or it'll fade," I tell Jake. "Shut up and listen to the words."

Of course, he hasn't said anything and neither has Zimmy, but I go on and tell them it's the Animals, isn't that a cool name for a group? Not like the Four Tops, or Mungo Jerry for Christ's sake. Then they tell me to shut up so they can hear.

" ... spend your life, in sin and misery, in the house of the Risin' Sun." The song finishes with an eerie organ riff and our ears are glued to the speaker by the time the disc jockey Hy Lit comes back on to bring us back to Earth.

"Naw," says Zimmy, his first word since he gave Cruiser the finger. "He never even said whore house. Shit. How do you know it's about a whore house?"

"Shhh," warns Jake. "If my mom hears that's she might faint. Then my dad'll kill me."

"Well what do you think it's about then? Didn't you listen to the words? OK, he doesn't come right out and SAY it, but I'm telling you, that's what it's about," I testify.

"Ah, right, I'm supposed to believe that? They can't play whore house songs on the radio. It's against the law, that's what my brother says, and, zeez, Hy Lit ain't in zail," says Zimmy.

So I provide the ultimate confirmation of the truth.

"You see the Big Dipper, right up there," he whispers. We get a bead on it and finally Jake says, "Right. I see it. It's kind of bluish. Light blue." I agree.

"OK," says Zimmy. "I'm going for that one in the upper left hand corner."

"I swear," I tell Zimmy. "Everybody knows it. I heard the guys talking about it in Herbie's, and they said it was even printed somewhere, in a magazine or something."

"Really," says Zimmy, now plainly convinced.

"Wow," says Jake, clearly fascinated. It's quiet for a minute.

"Hey, did you know you can make a star change colors?" says Zimmy.

Jake and I never heard of that, so we're just shaking our heads no. I thought it might have something to do with one of those rockets they sent into orbit. I thought about the night my Dad took me into the back yard so he could show me the satellite Echo I make its slow path across the sky, like a slow-moving star.

"Ya zust fart right at a star, you gotta aim real good, and if it hits, it changes colors. That ain't no lie. You gotta watch real close and I swear it'll change," Zimmy says.

"B.S.," I tell him. "I never heard of that."

"Y'ever try it?" Zimmy asks. Jake and I shake our heads no.

"My brother done it and it works. If it shines blue, the star'll turn pink. And zust the opposite, vice versa, I swear."

"Aw, how come?" says Jake.

"It's the gas or something, it zust goes through outer space and changes the gas on the star and voom, it makes the color change. Chemicals or atoms or something. Yeah, chemicals."

"Prove it," I demand.

So the three of us crawl out of the tent and Zimmy looks up to the heavens. Then his arm shoots up and he points.

"You see the Big Dipper, right up there," he whispers. We get a bead on it and finally Jake says, "Right. I see it. It's kind of bluish. Light blue." I agree.

"OK," says Zimmy. "I'm going for that one in the upper left hand corner."

So he unzips and drops his jeans down to his knees and bends over, lining up his aim by looking between his legs. We're waiting for the fart and finally a little one comes out, like air coming out of a bike tire.

We look up at the star real fast, but it still looks the same color. I think. Well, maybe it changed just a tad, to a kind of yellow.

"I don't know Zimmy," I whisper. "It still looks pretty much the same to me."

"Wait a minute, it wasn't powerful enough. Lemme try again," he answers. "Maybe I wasn't lined up right."

We wait, and now a good one comes out, kind of like one of my Dad's, and we look up. This time, it looks, well, kind of red.

"Whoa! Maybe you got something there," I tell Zimmy.

I decide to try, then Jake, and we each try maybe two or three more times till we're all out of farts and it seems to work most of the time, maybe when we had real good aims. It must have something to do with science.

We crawl back into the tent and finish off the Fizzies, saving the last few to see who could put the most effervescent little tablets on our tongues at the same time, while they fizz like crazy and kind of burn. Jake wins, with four, before he washes down the whole works with a glass of water, which he spews all over the Playboy.

That got me kind of mad, and Zimmy nails him with a couple of noogies to the head, but not too hard because he doesn't want to cause a ruckus and get Jake's mom and dad out here.

"Shut up!" I tell them, in one of those whisper-shouts. I take the flashlight and point the beam to my wrist. "Lookit, it's 10:30. Let's shut up for a half hour, 45 minutes, and we sneak out. But we gotta be real quiet for a while so they think we're asleep like good Boy Scouts."

Jake turns the radio down real low so you can only hear some faint fuzz, and the three of us just lay there on our sleeping bags with our eyes just kind of half-shut, smacking a skeeter every once in a while. None of us wants to take a chance of actually falling asleep because we don't want to miss the race. Midnight sharp. Dead Rat Road.

It's real quiet, except for the chirping of the crickets, an occasional car driving down the street and some faint noise from the transistor. Then I hear eleven bongs from the bell tower downtown, a little faint but there, just like always. A few minutes pass and I hear the 11:05 freight rolling toward town from across the woods. My eyes are still closed, and I'm thinking of all those pennies we used to put on the tracks to flatten them out. Sometimes I wish I had 'em all back, I'd be a millionaire then, and could buy a car of my own. Faster than the Cherry Buster and French Tickler combined.

I grab the flashlight and shine it on Jake. He's asleep but he's still clutching the transistor radio as it hisses out tinny static. I stick my head out of the tent and look toward the street. A few door lights are still shining, then one blinks off. Then another. I peek around toward Jake's house and the lights are all off, except the bathroom light. I wait a little bit, and that one blinks off too.

I crawl back in and Zimmy's sitting up.

"Are we ready?" he whispers. "Zake. Zake! Wake up, zerko!"

Jake kind of mumbles and I put my hand over his mouth so he doesn't yell or something and wake the whole town up. He rolls his head and says something under my hand, like "leffmego lemmealone gittaway." When I see his eyes open I slowly take my hand away and tell him to shut up and listen.

"OK guys," I order. "We crawl out on our bellies like lizards, you know? When we get near the woods get up and just follow me. You OK Jake?" He shakes his head in the affirmative and wipes his greasy glasses on his shirt.

"One last thing. If I say 'hit the dirt,' it means the cops or someone's going by, so drop down to the ground so they don't see us, OK?" Zimmy's nodding and Jake gives a big smile and whispers, "Yeah, hit the dirt!"

"Let's go!" I stick my head out again, look around and the coast is clear.

We start crawling like lizards, but that's no fun and nobody's looking anyway, so I just start sprinting toward the woods right behind Jake's yard. Zimmy follows and Jake, after a couple of more lizard crawls, finally sees we're gone and looks up. Zimmy and I wave our hands and he finally sees us, gets up and lumbers toward us.

"What, yous guys trying to lose me?" he says. He's mad.

"Zus stick with us, Zakey," says Zimmy. He looks toward the street. "Look out, a cop. Hit the dirt!"

Zimmy and I drop right down, and it takes Jake another second or two because he just kind of kneels down first then lays his stomach to the ground.

"Is he coming? What do we do?" Jake asks in a panic.

"Zust kidding," says Zimmy. "It's zust a practice drill. You gotta be faster, Zake-o. Try it again."

Jake is not amused and shoves Zimmy, but Zimmy's bigger and just laughs.

I tell them to shut up and follow me, because I know the trail best.

It winds down past big red oaks, scrubby pines and tall elders toward a little creek that has no name, everybody just calls it "the crick," as in Westbury crick. It's still pretty swampy this time of the year and kind of foul smelling like sewage, but not as bad as liver.

I lead the guys to an iron pipe, about a foot in diameter, that comes out of the ground where the woods drop off. You can barely see it because it's so dark, but I've crossed it a bunch of times so I lead the way. I look back and tell them in a loud whisper, "Careful. You don't want to fall into this muck. It's quicksand. It'll suck you right down."

I hear Jake whimper and Zimmy takes the cigarette Cruiser gave him and lights it up. I start walking on the pipe, which follows a straight line for about 100 feet before it doglegs off for about 200 more feet and finally goes back into the ground where the ground rises again. But in the middle, that pipe must be 20 feet above the swamp.

When I'm several steps out I turn around and see that Zimmy's right behind because of the orange glow from the cigarette between his lips. I call back, "Jake, you OK?" and Zimmy says Zakey's right behind him.

"Just put one foot in front of the other, and make sure it's right on top of the pipe!" I tell them as I keep creeping along. We're all pretty quiet as the swamp keeps dropping father and farther below the pipe. The crickets are really chirping loud now and you can start to hear the cars whizzing by on the turnpike. I'm taking each step real slow, one foot right in front of the other, like I said, and except for once when my sneaker hit a wet spot and it slipped away, I'm doing fine.

So I stop and when Zimmy catches up I tell him to wait, and ask where's Jake. Zimmy flings the cigarette butt to the swamp below and we look back. All we can see are some faint horizontal stripes from Jake's shirt. It almost looks like he stopped but we wait longer and sure enough, he's getting closer. Zimmy turns sideways and says he's got to drain his main vein, and I decide I have to go too. So we're just finishing up when Jake finally catches up to us.

"You OK, Zakey?" Zimmy asks as he's finishing up.

"Yeah, guys, this is cool," he says. "How much longer? My legs are tired."

"Five, ten minutes," I tell him as I balance myself on the pipe. "C'mon."

Just then, a light flashes across the woods, like a spotlight, or maybe a car turning. "Hit it!" I whisper. Zimmy and me, we just stoop down, but Jake loses his balance and starts to teeter off to the side, almost like slow motion as we watch. "Whoa, whoa," he's saying as he keeps keeling to the side.

"Grab the pipe, hold on to the pipe!" says Zimmy. He stands up to help Jake, but by now Jake's on his way to the muck below. We listen with horror to the plop as Jake hits the stinky goo, and Zimmy asks what do we do now?

"Oh, shit, am I gonna get sucked down?" Jake calls out. I can tell he's almost crying, so I tell him to shut up as I'm climbing down a support under the turn in the pipe. It's easy to climb down because it's all crisscrossed iron bars right to the concrete base. It's really stinky down there as I'm standing on the block. I take off my shirt and wave it around a couple of times to get his attention and toss an end toward Jake, but it doesn't come close. Yeah, he crying now and says he's stuck up to his knees and, sshew, does it stink. So I kind of dip my feet from the concrete base just to feel if there's a stick or something I can grab to hold out to Jake.

Yeah, something hard, maybe a tree limb, so I kind of loosen it from the muck with my toe and then lean over as far as I can to grab hold. Jake's sniffing and sucking in deep breaths like you do when you're trying not to cry, and I tell him to shut up as a yank up an old exhaust pipe from the mud. It kinds of makes a sucking sound as I pull it out.

"Here, grab hold," I tell him as I sit on the base and grasp the end of the pipe. Jake grabs hold and I can feel a hard tug as he struggles to pull a foot out.

"I can't, I can't!" he says.

"You wearing high tops?" I ask in a loud whisper.


"Your sneaks. Are they high tops?"

"Uh, no."

"Good. Look, just pull your foot right out of your sneak and you'll get it out."


"If you don't, the quicksand will suck you down in about a minute," I tell him.

Just then, I hear a long sucking sound, then a br-app, like one my Dad's long farts, and his foot comes loose. This cracks Zimmy up and I tell him to keep it down, and then I hear another one of those fart noises, which makes me glad because Jake got his feet free. Now the kid's crying has turned into laughing but I tell him to keep moving or he'll get sucked down again, only faster this time, and hold on to the pipe.

I keep pulling the pipe toward me and finally Jake plops onto the concrete pad where I'm sitting and he stinks like shit. He puts a sweaty arm around my neck.

"You saved my life," he says.

"Yeah. Let's get going or we're gonna miss the race."

"But my sneaks," he says.

"They're sucked halfway to China by now," I tell him. "Forget 'em. C'mon on, follow me."

We climb up the iron support and shinny back on to the pipe. I tell Jake to chuck his socks because they'll make him slip again and next time he might not be so lucky.

I take the lead again and we aren't very far before Jake says, "Hey, this is a lot easier in bare feet."

"Double noogies on you when we get offa here," says Zimmy.

We keep creeping our way along the pipe and you can smell Jake the whole way, his stink just following us like a ghost, but at least he's not whimpering any more. The sound from the turnpike is getting louder and the moon is brighter because there aren't so many trees as we get near the end of the pipe.

As the pipe angles back into the ground I tell the guys to keep low and look out for cars and if we see any headlights to hit the dirt. Zimmy makes good on his threat and gives Jake a couple of noogies.

"Can you walk OK without your sneaks?" I ask Jake.

"Oh yeah, my sneaks. What'll I tell my mom?"

"We'll think of something, but we got to get over to Dead Rat Road. You OK? Can you walk OK?"

"Yeah, I still got my socks. I stuck 'em in my pocket when you said to chuck 'em."

We creep up the gravel embankment from the swamp and find ourselves in someone's back yard. We're bent over low, almost squatting, and taking each step real slow so we don't make any noise. I whisper that we'll keep cutting across back yards until we get to East Street, so just keep your traps shut and follow me and no more noogies because that'll wake the whole town up and we'll be in jail. The guys nod OK.

In the second yard, Jake trips over some kid's bike and I can hear a thump as he hits the ground, but he doesn't say anything.

"Good going," I whisper, and Jake just smiles.

Next yard, there's a wire fence, so I whisper that we have to go around the back of it, so we keep creeping along, still real slow. We're maybe halfway past the yard when, out of nowhere, this collie dog appears and is barking like a crazy devil at us, his big white teeth glistening in the dark just inches away, looking like he'd like to take a leg off of each of us.

I get so startled I freeze for a second, but then bolt and get past two, three more yards before I realize what happened. Zimmy's right behind me the whole way, but no Jake, so I say, "Hit the dirt!"

We both go down and wait. The dog's still barking and soon Jake shows up and plops down beside us, all huffing and puffing and out of breath and smelling like swamp muck, and something else.

"Jeez," says Jake, "he scared me so bad, I peed my pants."

Zimmy told him he should have been wearing his rubber and we all laugh for a second, but then I tell the guys we gotta move out fast before somebody calls the cops or something. I tell them to keep real low and we start moving again. We cut through a yard and sneak up somebody's driveway and are now on the street where Bickerstaffer's store is, which means we're getting close to East Street.

Jake's still out of breath when we get to Bickerstaffer's, the little grocery store where everybody buys baseball cards and candy and the big guys from this side of town buy sodas and hang around after school. It's all dark inside, and the only light still on is over the back door. We stay in the shadows at the side of the store and wait while Jake catches his breath.

"How's your feet, Zakey?" Zimmy asks.

"OK," he says. "My socks are wearing out, but I'm OK. We gonna miss the race?"

"We gotta hurry," I say. "I'll bet the guys are getting there now."

Zimmy goes over to the cigarette machine and reaches into his pocket, which is still jingling with change. He pulls out a quarter and nickel, drops them into the slot and tanks the big lever for a pack of Camels. The pack comes out with a pack of matches, and two pennies tucked into the cellophane wrapper. He opens it up, pulls out a cigarette and lights it, then offers one to Jake.

"It'll calm down your nerves," he says.

Jake says no, he's rather have his stinky sneakers back than a smelly old cigarette, but I take one and light it up on the first match then tell the guys we gotta move on.

I'm feeling a little lightheaded as we start out, so I just take another couple of puffs without trying to inhale before I squash out the Camel. By this time, we're getting near East Street.

Zimmy's the first one to see a set of headlights heading out East toward Dead Rat Road and tells us to hit the dirt. The three of us jump behind a bush, flat on our bellies, and wait for the car to pass.

"Shee-yew, Zake, you still smell like the swamp," complains Zimmy. He gives Jake another noogie and Jake shoves him back and I tell them both to shut up.

"We're running out of time, we're gonna miss the race," I tell them. "Let's run for Dead Rat Road!"

Before they can answer, I'm on my feet. I'm cutting across a yard toward East Street before I turn around, just in time to see Jake passing by Zimmy. So I keep running and they finally catch up to me on the turnpike bridge. We all stop to catch our breath.

A car passes, an old '54 Chevy Bel-Air that's loaded with teen-agers. Then another car, a black and red Buick Super with four portholes on the fender, follows. We look down the road see red tail lights, making the curve to where Dead Rat Road straightens out. They're going to the race.

"It's gonna start!" says Jake. "Let's go!"

Now, Jake's running in the lead, and I'm thinking he must run better with no sneaks and just socks as I'm trying to catch up with him. Just as Zimmy pulls up beside me I hear a low, rumbling sound of a motor and I'm thinking it's the cops, but when I turn to look I see it's the Cherry Buster. Cruiser slows down as he spots us and revs the engine two or three times and one of the guys opens the window and yells "Bussa-huh!" before the car peels out and disappears.

We just start running faster because now we know the race will start soon.

A couple of more cars pass, a Nash Metropolitan and an old Plymouth woodie that I've seen parked outside Herbie's on my paper route. We stop and walk a minute to catch our breath again and that's when I hear another car behind us. As soon as I look around I can see it's Lucky LeClerc's French Tickler. Only instead of passing right by us, he slows down, stops, and then backs up.

"What? Yous guys think you're going to the race?" Lucky asks.

"Well, yous still gonna have it?" I ask. I can hear the town clock, starting to chime midnight.

"Get in," he says, while flicking the door handle and kicking it open with his foot. "Don't get my car dirty," he orders. "You, sit in the front, yous guys in the back."

The doors slam shut and Lucky peels out. Starting where the road curves, a cars are parked along the side of the road and kids are leaning on fenders and sitting on hoods, smoking cigarettes and waiting for the race. Lucky slows down a bit as he glides down the straightaway.

"Man, something smells like a stinking sewer plant back there," he says.

"One of you cut one in my car?"

"No," we all say it once.

"Zake, he fell in the muck," Zimmy explains.

Lucky keeps going, then slows down where another bunch of cars are parked. Someone's painted a white stripe across the road.

"End of the ride. Get out," says Lucky as he opens the car door.

The big guys don't seem to notice us much as they gather around Cruiser and Lucky. A big guy with a flat-top who's wearing W sweat shirt walks up and takes charge.

"OK, flip for the right lane," he says. "Cruiser, call it in the air."

"Tails," he says with a smirk.

The big guy holds the quarter in front of a headlight so everybody can see.

"It's heads. Lucky, which lane?"

Lucky spits the toothpick from his mouth and says, "Right."

"OK, let's go," says Cruiser. "It won't take long to kick ass."

The two get in their cars and line them up, front wheels on the white line, Cherry Buster in the left lane, French Tickler in the right.

We follow the crowd of teen-agers to the side of the road and the big guy with the W sweat shirt stands on the yellow line between the cars, holding his hands up over his head. The engines rev and the big guy waits, 15, maybe 20 seconds, then drops both arms to his sides. Tires squeal, engines roar, and a smelly cloud of burning rubber surrounds us, almost as if we were behind the fogger.

My heart is pumping with excitement. This is it, I'm thinking as I see the tail lights, four of them, side by side, shooting down the road. The Race!

Then something wrong happens, and it happens too fast. I know it's wrong when I hear some of the girls gasp and the big guy with the W say, "Oh, SHIT!"

A set of headlights appears in the left lane, Cruiser's lane, headed right for him. The crowd moves in a wave, at first slowly, then running, up the road. "Look out! Cruiser!" someone yells.

But, like I say, it's all happening so fast nobody can do anything.

Then you hear it, a screech of tires and a crash, almost like an explosion, then a scary sound -- a horn that just keeps beeping and beeping, on and on. Now the crowd's running full-tilt toward the wreck and kids are screaming and crying. I forget about Zimmy and Jake and I'm real scared and feel like crying too. We get closer and I see Cruiser's Cherry Buster, it's on its roof and the tires are bent all which way. The garbage truck, the one from Zimmy's farm that was filling up at the Sinclair, it's all smashed up in the front and stopped kind of sideways in the left lane.

"Head-on," I hear one of the boys saying as Big John stumbles out of the cab and falls to his knees, dazed. The headlights on Cruiser's car are still on and I can see blood trailing down Big John's face. Some of the Negro and Puerto Rican guys who were riding in the back have been thrown right out of the truck and are helping each other off the ground, shaking their heads. One guy is lying still and that scares me real bad. I'm wishing we hadn't come and am about to cry when Zimmy finds me.

People are panicking and running around and some are getting in their cars to drive off. I see one of Cruiser's buddies, in tears just like a little kid, sobbing away. The big guy with the W sweat shirt yells that they gotta get Cruiser out of his car, it's gonna blow, it's gonna blow. He bends down and looks inside but then staggers away, kicking his feet in the broken glass and holding his hand over his mouth. The stink of burning rubber and raw gasoline mixes with smell of the swampy fields on the sides of the road.

Three, four, five guys get to one side and look in and call Cruiser's name but there's no answer.

By this time, Lucky has stopped his car and backed it down to the horrified crowd. He wipes his face on his t-shirt sleeve and all I hear him say is, "Oh God damn."

"We gotta lift it up," says Lucky. The guys try but the car won't budge and smoke is still pouring out of the engine. Then I see Big John, he stands up and walks over toward the car and spits.

"You need more," he says. "Get more of those white boys over here or this boy, he gonna die."

The white boys, Cruiser's buddies, look up for a second, but then John orders, "Now. Git 'em!"

Big John walks over to the Puerto Ricans and talks quietly to them, and then six of them walk over to the smoking wreck of Cruiser's car. Just then, five white boys appear at the side of the car.

They don't talk, they just kind of look at each other, and then Big John tells them, "Don't stand there. Git down and lift this car up. There's a dyin' boy in there, if he ain't dead already." One of the white boys sniffs, like he's crying.

All the guys line up and start lifting. You can see the car move a little, but not nearly enough to get Cruiser out.

"Ag'in," orders Big John. "Ya got to do this together or the boy ain't gonna make it. Ready, one, two, lift!"

This time Big John helps to lift and the car comes up a foot or two, but the boys can't hold it up for much longer than four or five seconds and they let it down. There's a groan inside the demolished Cherry Buster.

"More boys, some of you boys stop your crying like babies and get your white asses over here," says Big John, blood still trickling down his face.

Three, then four, and finally five more boys walk over.

"Now," says Big John, "on three. One, two, three." His voice breaks into a pained groan on the last word as John helps lift the smashed car.

"Can you hold? Can you hold it?" he asks.

"We got it. Get him out," says one of the white boys.

Big John stoops and tries to open the door, but it's all bent up and won't budge. He reaches in with both of his giant hands and tugs, and there's a creak. He stops, takes a deep breath and tries again. With a piercing screech, the door swings out, maybe a foot or two, but wide enough for John to pull Cruiser out.

While the boys are all holding the wreck up, Big John stoops low and grabs Cruiser under the shoulders, then pulls him out and drags the boy's broken, mangled body across the road. The girls there, they all gasp and sob. Cruiser's face is covered with blood, and I can see his eye twitch for a second or two, revealing for a split second a glint of white. The boys lower the car and Big John tells them to get away, she's gonna blow.

A power line that's been sparking ever since the truck clipped it finally falls into the road. Someone yells "Look out!" and the crowd moves back in a wave. The wire hits a little pool of gasoline that's leaked out and, in an instant follows it to Cruiser's car. In a horrifying flash, the wreck explodes, and in minutes the Cherry Buster is all but consumed in the inferno.

By this time all sorts of cops and two fire engines and an ambulance are there. The cops are asking the teen-agers all sorts of questions and the nurses are strapping Cruiser to a stretcher and loading him in the Cadillac ambulance. Jake has found us by now and the three of us just stand there, as if watching a weird dream. The cops, they don't seem so interested in us even though it's nearly one o'clock in the morning.

The ambulance drives off with Cruiser inside, its siren screaming. Big John's still bleeding, but the ambulance didn't take him. Lucky goes over and offers him a ride to the hospital, but just then one of Cruiser's buddies comes over and offers to take him instead. Then, he hugs Big John. I can see his back heaving as he sobs.


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© By Buzz Adams