a chapter from my boyhood autobiography ONLY: Growing Up Alone (available on Amazon for Kindles and other readers)
UNCLE FRED AND THE DEATH OF DANNY FINK
I think I’ve mentioned the name of Danny Fink a couple times already and you're probably saying to yourself "Who's this Danny Fink? I mean, is he important, or am I ever going to meet him?" so I can tell you that no, he isn't important‑‑but yeah, you're going to meet him, I guess‑‑but he did have a pretty big effect on me when I was growing up, especially since I didn't have a big brother or anybody to help me with him, but I did have Uncle Fred. Anyway, Danny Fink‑‑DANNY FINK‑‑was, well, he was a pain in the ass, and a real puke, and the toughest kid in the world, or at least, worst than the biggest goblin in my bedroom. And he came back into my life in seventh grade, as if Miss Hoffman wasn't enough to keep me up nights.
That year, down in Whitney Junior High, every seventh‑grader had study hall, even if we had nothing to study. Oh, we had plenty of stuff to do at home, but studying in the middle of an auditorium that smelled like an Esso gas station wasn't my idea of a good place to add to my education, and it wasn't very easy to study, even if you had something to do, because these dumpy‑looking teachers, who you never saw before or after study hall (honest, I don't know where they came from or who'd got them to proctor study hall) took at least the first half of the period calling roll and taking attendance, so you never really could concentrate, especially if you had one of those dumb math problems.
You know, like "If a man from New York gets on a plane for Chicago going 400 miles per hour, with a 20 mile‑per‑hour tailwind, and you are in Chicago, and get on a plane for New York, with a speed of 350 miles per hour, with no tailwind, and if the distance between the two cities is 650 miles, who will land first?"
First of all, I never cared; honest, I mean if I really wanted to know that, I would've gotten out of my seat‑‑once the "seat belts" sign went off‑‑and I would've gone up to the cockpit (why do they call it that?) and I would've asked the captain, or at least the navigator, "When are we getting into New York?" In fact, I wrote that for an answer one time, but my math teacher--the woman who looked like Robert Mitchum--didn't think it was acceptable (she thought I was being a wiseguy) so I got an F on that particular test, if you're wondering.
Secondly, it never sounded right to me when those questions said "...a plane for Chicago going 400 miles an hour." I mean, didn't that mean that Chicago was going 400 miles per hour? That's what the question said; it didn't say "...a plane going 400 miles per hour, heading for Chicago..." Of course, my math teachers never really cared about the grammar in their stupid math books, but still, it never sounded right to me. I think if I ever become a teacher, I'd better stick to English or something like that, because math never really was my strong subject‑‑it still isn't‑‑and I never really had any respect for math teachers because they didn't care whether they used English correctly or not.
Anyway, on a really windy, cold, and rainy Wednesday, I was sitting in study hall, where I wasn't studying (and it wasn't a hall), when about five or ten minutes into the period, the back door of the auditorium banged open, like a clap of thunder‑‑well, not really, because the sound was more like "thuddonnnnng!"‑‑but anyway, of course, everybody turned and looked, and through the open doorway came this shape, walking really slow.
I could tell it was a guy, and I could also tell that he wanted to make some kind of great, big‑deal kind of entrance, a real statement, you know, and as he got closer, I realized who it was, and I got that Drano‑in‑the guts feeling again, and I almost died; actually, I think I really did want to die, because as the shadow turned into a real person, I realized who it was, and I was sure he'd come for me. Again.
Oh, God, Danny Fink; it was Danny Fink all right, dressed in his official leather greaseball jacket (with the fifteen million zippers and the collar turned up) over a plain white T‑shirt and worn black pants and engineer boots; his greased Brylcreem hair hung down like a big brown wave over his forehead and his pinched‑together‑looking rat-face.
His eyes‑‑I'll always remember his beady dark eyes‑‑those eyes swept back and forth across the auditorium like a snake's that's looking for a mouse to eat for a snack. And he came sauntering down the aisle closest to my side of the auditorium, and his boots, with the metal taps on the bottom, made a hollow "tap‑tap‑scrape‑tap" as the sounds echoed around the big room.
I just kind of tried to shrink down in my seat and squeeze my head down inside the collar of my cowboy shirt when he got close; he passed my row without seeing me, and walked up to the man teacher who had been watching Danny make his lazy way down to the front of the study hall.
Since they stuck us in alphabetical order (which took an entire period on the first day of school, I recall), I could hear the whole conversation between Danny and the teacher.
"Yes, young man, what are you doing here?"
"Goin' to school," came Danny's wiseguy answer.
"Are you being a smart‑aleck, son?" the teacher snapped.
"I ain't your son! Here's my admit slip and my schedule. Where you want me to sit?" Danny spat back, looking straight at the teacher until the teacher lost the staring contest and snatched the slips from Danny Fink's hand.
"Uh, just find a seat in the back and no talking. This is a study hall, so starting tomorrow, bring something to work on in here or you'll find yourself in trouble with me, understand?" the teacher said, although he didn't sound as tough as he was trying to sound.
Danny just stood there, looking at the man, with this sort of smirk on his pimply face; it was then that I noticed that Danny Fink already had a beard; well, I don't mean a beard, but just a bunch of black stubby nubs sticking out all over his face and I knew he must've had to shave at least once or twice a week, although it didn't look like he had recently. Maybe he was afraid of tearing or slicing open his pimples, because he had some pretty good big, purple ones down toward his chin and under his chin, on his neck, you know.
"Did you hear me, young man?" the teacher repeated, aware that everyone in the auditorium had been listening and was still watching the whole thing.
"Yeah, I heard you."
"Well, go take a seat and be quiet or you'll get yourself detention."
"Gee, I'm really scared!" Danny snapped over his right shoulder as he started back up my aisle.
"What did you say? Hey, you, what did you say?" the teacher called out, but Danny just ignored him with this curved‑lip expression on his puss and then, as I looked up from under my lower eyebrows and right into Danny Fink's eyes, I realized that he was looking right at me through the kids in the two rows in front of me, and when he got even with my row, he just turned that lizardy neck and head toward me and smiled, but it wasn't a nice‑guy smile, it was kind of like the smile the Nazis in the movies always had when they were about to torture some prisoner. And the Drano started working down in my underwear zone again.
Maybe I ought to tell you why I was sweating it so much.
You see, back in fifth grade‑‑not in fifth grade but the year I had fifth grade‑‑I was out on the school ballfield one Saturday, playing "three flies you're up" with some other guys, and I was out in the field, trying to be the first to get three so I could whack some good ones out to show everyone that I was a pretty good slugger, even if I was small, and Dougie hit a pretty high shot out toward me.
"Yours, Eddie!" cried Bobby, and I took off, racing toward my right and knowing that if I was going to catch it, I was really going to have to dig and use all the speed my old Sears sneakers had left in them. The baseball and I were just coming into line with each other when the sky disappeared, the ground came up fast and my right hand, with the glove on it (I'm a lefty) and my face hit grass and dirt at the same time.
I don't remember the exact order of it all, but I remember that this sharp pain shot up from my right wrist and my nose had that really lousy feeling of being punched in it and there was this kind of throbbing feeling in my right ankle, and then I realized that I hadn't tripped and I hadn't hit a hole in the outfield—somebody had tripped me! That's where the throb in my ankle came from.
"Hey, you jerk, whadja do that for!?" I yelled as I hopped back to my feet and came face‑to‑face with some kid I'd never seen before. I mean, I'd thought one of the other guys in the outfield had done it, but there was this other kid, at least a foot taller than me, standing there, just laughing. Then he kicked my glove about ten feet through the air.
By this time, most of the other guys had trotted over.
"Cut it out, you jerk, leave my glove alone!" I shouted, and not too intelligently (I never could keep my mouth shut‑‑if there was one kid you could hear a mile away when we were playing, it was me; just ask my parents; they were always telling me that!)
"You wanna do somethin' about it?" the guy said, balling up his hands into fists and giving me this "I'm gonna kick your ass" look.
"Hey, leave 'im alone," I heard Bobby say behind me as I walked over to pick up my Sears bargain mitt and knocked the dust off it.
"You wanna do somethin' about it, huh?" the kid said again, like a broken record.
"Why'n’t you just get off the field and there won't be any trouble," Bobby said; he and this guy were just about the same size, but Bobby had some pretty good‑looking muscles in his arms already because he was lifting weights at home, and I could tell this other guy liked tripping guys my size a lot more than Bobby‑sized ones, so he just gave Bobby this stare and said,
"This ain't your field, you don't own it. I can walk on it if I want to."
"Well, why don't you go walk on some other part of it?" someone yelled, and then I realized that it had come out of my big mouth.
Well, this guy, who I'm sure you realize by now was Danny Fink, just turned to look at me as if I was some kind of rodent, and said,
"You got a big mouth, little boy, does your daddy know you're out alone?" he said, saying it like he was talking to a baby or something.
"Do you even know who your father is?" came back out of that same big mouth.
Well, Danny Fink just kind of looked like he'd been hit by lightning or something, because first his mouth dropped open, and then his face got all red‑like, and then he reached into one of his leather jacket pockets and whipped out this knife.
It was a long skinny knife, almost like a straight razor, with red plastic handles and a silver button on one side, and he started waving it in my face and then he snarled, "You can't talk to me like that! I've killed for less than that!"
Then the brown stuff (you know) really hit the fan, because, even with that knife‑‑and I knew it was a "switchblade" although I'd never seen one before, except in Rebel Without a Cause‑‑ waving in my face and me feeling like I had to go to the bathroom, I recognized that stupid line about “killing for less that that” from an old George Raft or James Cagney movie and I just exploded and started laughing.
That didn't make things any better, because Danny Fink just got madder; then he got closer, and he yelled, right in my face, "You wanna say that again before I cut your heart out and eat it?" and that got the rest of the guys laughing because even though he looked pretty mad and pretty mean, especially with the leather jacket and a knife in his hand, I don't think any of us felt that scared, especially since none of us believed he had done or could do any of that stuff that he was talking about.
And all of us laughing and sort of holding our hands over our mouths and looking at each other got him really steamed, so he just held that hand out with the knife in it and his thumb with a dirty fingernail kind of snaked out from the rest of his hand and pushed that silver‑looking button on the handle of the knife.
I guess since that switchblade was right there in my face, that's why I can remember everything that happened next. Almost in slow motion, from between those two red plastic handles, a thin silvery blade swung out toward my eyes, and just as the blade was swinging into place, in line with the rest of the knife, I heard this "twinnng‑snapp!" and the next thing I knew, the blade had gone right past where it was supposed to stop and then it was just hanging down, swinging back and forth a little, sort of like a pendulum, you know?
I looked up at Danny Fink and he had this dumb look on his face, like he was saying "What the hell? Duh? Huh?" in a cartoon bubble over his head, and looking down at the knife in his hand, that looked like it had died, and I guess it had, or at least, whatever spring or piece of metal or something that made the knife work had broken. That must've been where the "twinnng‑snapp" had come from. I mean, that switchblade really looked stupid, like a dead "L" in his hand, with the blade still swinging a little, like it was slowly dying, along with the rest of the knife.
Well, I did something else that was really stupid: I laughed some more. I had to laugh, we all did! I mean, we'd stopped laughing all right, for about ten seconds maybe, when he'd pushed that knife's button, but we were all back at it. Then he reached out and grabbed some of my hair and started to yank me closer to him, but I swung my Sears mitt at him and it hit him on the side of his face and he let go, long enough for me to run, anyway.
We all ran, straight for our bikes and when I risked a look back after I'd hopped on my bike, Danny Fink was running toward us, stopping every five or ten steps to reach down and grab a rock and throw it at us, but he threw really lousy, almost like a girl; I wondered if he'd ever thrown rocks at cars and windows like other delinquents. We just yelled stuff at him and he cursed at us, you know, stuff about our mothers which we all knew wasn't true, and he kept throwing rocks until we were over the hill and he couldn't see us anymore.
"Let's go to The Oasis and get a soda or A‑creams!" I remember Bobby yelling over the wind in my ears from pedaling fast, but I didn't have any money and I didn't know where Danny Fink was going to go next, and it had been me that he'd tried to have all his fun with, so I yelled back,
"I don't have any money! Let's just get outta here, Bob."
"Yeah," Dougie shouted, "No money, either, and I'm already in enough trouble 'cause we left my brother Billy's baseball back there in the outfield."
Bobby, who'd been in the lead, pulled his bike over to the curb and poked around in his pocket and counted his dough and said, "Look, I'll buy ya all a nickel Coke and then we'll sneak back along Maywood Road and we'll go get Dougie's brother's ball, okay?" "And anyway," he added, "we got a bat if that kid tries anything, okay?"
Well, I didn't feel too safe about hanging around or going back there, either, but my mouth was really dry and you just don't turn down free Cokes every day, so Dougie and me and the couple other guys with us just kind of nodded and mumbled "Yeah" and we went to get our Cokes.
As we were spinning around on the stools in front of the soda fountain and slurping our Cokes through straws whose wrappers we had launched neatly into the air when Mr. Pappas wasn't looking, I remember Dougie asking if anyone knew who the kid with the knife was.
"That's Danny Fink," said Mike, one of the other guys who lived on the other side of the school and who wasn’t in my class. "He lives on my street. He goes to Holy Immaculate now."
"Whaddaya mean, now?" I asked. "He wasn't ever at our school, was he?"
"Naah, I don't think so; he used to go to Our Mother of the Divine Sacred Heart, but he got thrown out for somethin'. We heard he got caught stealin' or cheatin' or cursin'‑‑maybe all three, I don't know. You just better watch out for him. He kicked all the spokes outta my brother's bike last summer and then threw it in the street in front of a Good Humor truck. Boy, was my old man mad when he got home and heard about it!"
"What happened?" someone asked.
"Well, my dad went over to the Finks' house and had a talk with Mr. Fink, who's not a bad guy, really, but he's a little skinny guy and Danny's already bigger than his old man, so he just does what he wants to, I think, that's why they keep sending him to Catholic school, I guess hoping those nuns'll fix him, but it ain't working, at least it don't look that way," Mike explained.
"Yeah, but what happened about your brother's bike?" Bobby still wanted to know.
"Oh, Mr. Fink told my dad to have it fixed and he'd pay for it."
"Did he?" I asked.
"Yeah, it cost a lot, too, 'cause the whole frame had gotten bent by the ice‑cream truck and it needed two new wheels, but old man Fink paid my father."
"Whadd'he do to Danny?" Dougie wanted to know.
"Who?" Mike asked.
"His father. Whaddid Mr. Fink do to Danny?"
"Nothin' 'sfar as I know. ‘Cause Danny was out, hittin' other kids and pushin' littler kids around all summer long, so you'd better keep your mouth shut around him, Eddie," he said, turning to look at me,"'cause I heard my father say that Danny was gonna end up in reform school or prison some day, and I believe it. I mean, you saw that knife, didn't you?"
"Some knife!" my mouth blurted out. (I mean, don't get me wrong, I wasn't trying to be tough or anything, it was just that I still had the picture of that dead knife in my head yet.)
"Shut up, Eddie," Bobby said, "he'd'a kicked the crap outta you if we hadn't all been there. Anyway, if he could get hold of a knife like that, he could probably get a hold of a zip gun or a real gun next."
Well, that thought shut me up, really tight, because I could pretty easily picture Danny Fink whipping out a gun and drilling me, and that didn't seem so funny, so I just kept my big mouth shut and went back to finishing Bobby's free nickel Coke. (If you're wondering, yeah, I said "thank you" to Bobby, just like my grandmothers taught me to.)
Well, we sneaked back along the street behind the school and there wasn't any sign of Danny Fink, so Bobby rode out on the outfield grass and found Dougie's brother's baseball and then we all just kind of split up and went home.
That was the first time I ever saw Danny Fink. I saw him a couple times after that, along the street or over by The Oasis, but I'd always ride my bike on the other side of the street or go somewhere else until I knew Danny Fink wasn't there anymore. Oh, he always saw me, and he'd shoot his middle finger up in the air at me and stuff like that, or yell what he was going to do to me if he caught me, but I'd just stay out of range and well, that's all, really. Until that day in seventh-grade study hall.
For a couple of weeks after the switchblade incident, I didn't see Danny Fink; we'd heard he'd gotten kicked out of another Catholic school and Mike'd heard in his neighborhood that no other school would take him and that he'd gotten caught shoplifting in Rumson's Sporting Goods Store, trying to swipe a hunting knife (oh, great!) and was on some kind of juvenile parole or probation, something like that.
Well, one day in junior high, I was eating lunch with Dick and Mike and some other school friends, and I was telling some pretty good jokes, I guess, because everyone was laughing really hard, when I heard, "You think you're real funny, don't you? How's your mother? She get outta jail for being a prostitute yet?"
I looked up, but I'd known who it was, and it was. And he was just standing there, with that beardy‑pimply face, smiling at me. Well, I could feel Dick's and Mike's eyes on me and I knew I had to say something; otherwise, they'd think I was scared of him (which I was), so I just sorta gulped, I remember, and then said, "You shut up about my mother! At least I got one."
"Oh, you can say stuff about mine, but I can't say nothin' about yours, huh?" he snarled, kind of. I knew he really probably didn't even care about his mother, from what Mike had said about the way he talked back to his father; I knew he was just trying to push me.
"You started it," was all I could think of saying back, so I did.
"You wanna finish it?" he asked, and being stupid, I didn't realize what he'd meant; I mean, I thought he was asking if I wanted to end the conversation, so I said, "Yeah!"
Well, he just flashed that smirky smile again, like he'd just caught his mouse, and said, "Good! See you behind Caulfield Elementary today at four, and you better be there, or I'll come find you this time!" and then he walked away, with that "tap‑tap‑scrape" of him and his motorcycle boots.
Then I realized what he'd meant and what I had waiting for me at four o'clock back behind old Caulfield Elementary School and I've already told you about what a great boxer or fighter I'm not, but there wasn't much I could do, because Mike and Dick had heard the whole thing and about all there was left for me to do was either meet him and get beat up or be called a "chicken" by the whole world. I just felt like going to the bathroom, so I did, but nothing but gas came out.
While I was sitting there, though, I had lots of pictures of blood and guts coming out of me by about 4:05 that afternoon.
This part of the story is kind of embarrassing and painful to remember, much less write about; just take my word for it that I showed up (without my bike, because I still remember the story Mike had told about Danny Fink and Mike's brother's bike) and Danny pushed me and punched me and kicked me when I was rolling around on the ground (which they never did in the movies; I mean, even the bad guys never did that‑‑they just waited for the other guy to get up before they tried to knock him down again) and then he said some more stuff about my mother, which got me mad and I charged him and he tripped me and then kneeled on me and hit and kicked me a few more times…I don’t remember how many.
Anyway, I said I don't want to get too detailed about this; I got a bloody nose and a cut lip and some sore ribs and nice big scrapes on both elbows, and went limping home, crying and sniffling because it was bad enough that Danny had beat me up, but Dick had been there and had seen it all. Oh, he walked me home to Presto, even though it was out of his way, and kept telling how I'd put up a good fight and how no one could call me "chicken," which might've made Dick feel better, but it didn't help me much. It just hurt and it was embarrassing, even though nobody would've bet money on me winning.
But I guess the worst part was getting home, because Uncle Fred was there that day.
You see, Uncle Fred is my father's older brother, and he's really huge, I mean, he's about 6'6" and must've weighed about 250 pounds back then. He's a truck driver and owns his own business, even though he'd never gotten past eighth grade. And he's a bachelor, so he always has lots of money and girlfriends. When I was a little guy, maybe three or four or five, he used to pay me a quarter to scrub his great big, freckled back when he took a bath, and later, when I was maybe ten or eleven, I guess, when he'd come to visit, he'd give me a buck or two for washing his car, which he never bothered to wash. I remember my father always giving him a hard time about that, because Uncle Fred always had really good cars, like Oldsmobiles and big Chryslers (we had Chevys or a couple of DeSoto models), and then he'd get on Uncle Fred about paying me.
"What're you giving him money for? He doesn't need that much money and anyway, you're usin' my water, so you oughta be payin' me!" my father would say, even though it was my old man who was always yelling at Uncle Fred about how he never washed his cars or waxed them and how he had better cars than my father but didn't take care of them and all, but Uncle Fred would just kind of ignore him and pay me anyway; one time, he just told my old man to “shut the hell up!” I really liked that. Of course, I'd have to give the money to my father or mother, "for safe keeping," and if I was really good, they might give me some of it to buy candy or a soda with it, sometimes.
Anyway, if my old man was around, he'd always slip me a dollar or sometimes five and once even a ten‑dollar bill, and he'd always say "Don't tell your old man" or "Don't tell anybody" although I never really understood why it was bad for him to give me money.
Uncle Fred has always been like a hero to me, maybe because he's so big; three of my fingers were like one of his; he could put my whole fist inside of his and you wouldn't even see any part of my hand at all. I don't think my mother liked him much, because she was always saying stuff like "If you don't straighten up your room, you're going to turn out just like your uncle" or "If you don't like to study, you can wind up like Uncle Fred," which didn't sound so bad to me.
Once, when she'd said, "You're going to turn out like your uncle!" I'd said, "That's good," which got me a good, hard slap across the face--the only time my mother's ever really smacked me--so I didn't say I wanted to be like him anymore, but I still thought about it, you know.
Uncle Fred's always looked like John Wayne to me, even though he doesn't sound like him…or have much hair. Actually, he only looks like John Wayne from the eyebrows down, because Uncle Fred lost most of his red hair by the time he was twenty, but all the guys who know him still call him "Red." Like I said, Uncle Fred is pretty much of a hero to me...even now.
Well, I came limping and snuffling home alone that afternoon after Dick left, and I saw his big box-like delivery truck parked in the street in front of our house, and I didn't want him to see me, so I tried to sneak around the back, but he must've seen me in his side‑view mirror, because I remember him saying,
"Hey, nephew, don't you say hello to your old uncle anymore?"
He stepped out of the truck, with one of his Chesterfields hanging out of the side of his mouth, and then I guess he saw me, I mean he saw what I looked like because of the fight, because he said,
"Jeez‑us H. Christ! What the hell happened to you?" And he looked so sad‑‑I'd never seen him look like that before; he always was laughing or joking‑‑that I just started crying and burbling and he was there with his great big hands, holding me by the shoulders, and telling me to calm down and stop crying, but I couldn't, so he just picked me up around the waist and carried me around to the back of the house and turned on the hose and made me wash my face, which hurt because I hadn't realized until then that my lip was cut because the rest of me had felt so lousy, inside and out.
"Here, blow your nose," he'd said, handing me his handkerchief, one of those big red‑and‑blue ones that always looked like the neckerchiefs that Gene Autry wore. So I honked into his handkerchief and slowly stopped huffing and puffing and then he led me back to his truck and opened up the passenger door and just lifted me up into the cab as if I was a tissue or something, that's how easily he did it.
"Tell me what happened," he said, still with that sad look on his face. So I told him, and every time I started to get embarrassed about getting beat up and started to get teary, Uncle Fred would hold up his hand and tell me to take deep breaths, and I'd slow back down until I finally got the whole story out. Then I looked up.
"What'd the other guy look like?" he asked next. Well, I started to tell him what Danny Fink looked like, like about his hair and leather jacket and all.
"No, Eddie, what did he look like today? Did he look like he was in a fight, or are you the only one who looks like that?"
Well, having my uncle, my hero, say it like that made me lose it all over again, at least for a minute, and then I just blurted out stuff about how much older and bigger Danny Fink was than the rest of us in seventh grade and told him about the knife thing two years before in fifth grade and so on.
"Get outta the truck and come over here," Uncle Fred said, getting down from his side. I went around in front of his truck, the one that said "Fred's Express" on the doors--the truck he drove six days a week to make the money he gave me--and went to stand next to my giant relative. As he reached behind his seat, I heard him say,
"If you're gonna get in a fight with someone that big, an’ you ain’t got a chance of winnin’, you gotta have an equalizer. Otherwise, you're gonna get the crap beat out of you every time!"
Well, I had no idea what he meant about an "equalizer," so I stammered, "What's an equalizer?"
His great big freckled arm came back out from behind the truck seat and at the end of that great big arm was one of his great big, freckled hands, holding half of a great big Louisville Slugger, although it didn't look so big in his hand. (For those of you who don't play baseball or you women out there, a Louisville Slugger is just about the best and only baseball bat to buy in the whole world, a lot better than a bat from Sears, at least. I mean, nobody on the Giants or Dodgers would be caught dead using a Sears bat.)
Anyway, I just kept staring at that half‑bat, because Uncle Fred was waving it slowly in front of my face, more or less the way Danny had waved that knife, but it wasn't the same, because I was with Uncle Fred, you know.
The end of the bat stopped right after the label, and in the middle of the wood was a round circle of something gray.
"See that gray stuff at the end?" Uncle Fred asked. "That's lead. I had a guy drill out the end of the bat for me and then he poured hot lead in there and let it get hard. This, Eddie, is an equalizer."
"What do you do with it?" I wanted to know.
"Nothing, hopefully, but when I'm driving down in the bad part of Newark, some guys'll try to steal your truck when you're stopped at a light, or they try to yank you outta the truck and grab your wallet, so I keep this on the seat, just in case."
Well, I couldn't picture my uncle ever needing to use a bat with hands and arms like he had.
"Did you ever really hafta use that thing, Uncle Fred?" I wondered.
"Yeah," was all he'd say. "Listen, Eddie, next time you're gonna get in a fight you got no chance of winnin’, stay out of it or take a bat or look for something big and hard for an equalizer and use it if you hafta," he said. "I just don't wanna see you comin' home lookin' like this again. And don't say anything about this to your old man or your mother, or I'll never hear the end of it, you hear?"
"But Uncle Fred, Dad'd kill me if I hit someone with a bat!" I argued.
"You wanna get beat up again, nephew?" he asked.
"--Then take an equalizer or stay outta fights, but if you come home like this again and I see you, I'm gonna kill you, and you won't have to worry about your ol’ man. Just don't tell them I told you to do it. Just beat the other guy up and keep your mouth shut!"
Well, I wasn't going to argue with Uncle Fred, and anyway, the thought of winning a fight was better than getting killed by my uncle (or my father), so I just stayed quiet.
"What are you gonna tell them when they see your mouth and nose? You get in trouble in school or anything like that?"
Well, I explained that school had nothing to do with the fight and said that I thought maybe I'd say I fell on my bike.
"Yeah, do that; that way, your old man won't have to worry about his kid not being `a good soldier' and biting the bullet." Then he really started to chuckle, although I still don't know what was so funny to him. Maybe it had something to do with my father and him being brothers and when they were younger or something; I don't know. I mean, I don't know because Uncle Fred never said, plus I also don't have a brother.
Well, my parents believed the bike accident story, and after Dad checked the bike to make sure it hadn't been damaged ("bikes don't grow on trees," you know), he just said "You'll live!" and that ended it, at least that part of it.
Uncle Fred stayed for dinner (that's why he'd shown up that afternoon) and lied and told my mother that dinner was "wonderful" and gave me this really serious look all during dinner, but when he left, when we were standing out by his truck, he just shook my hand and slipped two folded dollar bills into it and said, "Remember: take an equalizer and don't tell anybody I gave you money. Enjoy yourself. Keep it hangin'." (I never understood that last part..not then, anyway.)
And then he hauled himself up into the cab, groaning something about "...learning to cook like Ma" and then he drove off into the night, the dull red glow of the taillights and his truck rattling on off over the hill.
Well, I spent the two bucks eventually, mostly on vanilla A‑creams and licorice, I guess, and forgot about the equalizer part until later that spring, when I had that feeling, you know, the one where you think you've been someplace or said something or done the same thing before, sometime. I forget what it's called; it was on a vocabulary test last year, some French words is all I remember. Anyway, you know what I'm talking about because everybody's had that feeling. Anyway, that's when it happened, again.
A couple weeks after Danny Fink had shown up in that study hall, I was out on that same school ballfield, playing the same game, only I was the one hitting the ball out to the other guys that time, and I was smacking them out pretty well and feeling good about watching Davey and Bobby and the other guys, Dougie, too, scampering all over the outfield. I wasn't feeling small at all, because those flies were really sailing over their heads.
It's great when you toss that baseball up into the air and get that bat to whistle around your head and hit the ball just right and there's that "thock" and you know you've nailed it just right and the ball just kind of disappears up into the blue sky and the clouds and everything.
Anyway, there I was, watching Davey chasing a rolling ball through the grass behind him, and I looked a little to the left and saw the leather jacket and the slicked‑back hair and Danny Fink; my hands got all sweaty and I could actually feel my lip and nose start to throb, as if lips and noses had memories, too. And he just kept coming across the field, looking right at me, and getting that stupid grin on his hairy face again.
I guess the other guys saw him, too, because they started walking in toward me, Bobby walking faster than Davey or Dougie, and then I could hear Danny Fink's voice come across the infield.
"Uh‑oh, here come your big brothers, I better run away before they get me."
I remember thinking, "Yeah, well, if I had big brothers, they'd kill you!" but I didn't say much else to myself because I was really starting to worry about getting kicked around again, and I knew that's what he had in mind, too.
Then I started to figure that since he hadn't done anything to me back in fifth grade, because there'd been too many of us, that maybe he wouldn't try anything this time, either. Well, by the time I'd finished doing all that figuring, there he was, standing right in front of me.
He still needed a shave and a good acid treatment for his pimples; I noticed that he'd picked up another habit, because there was a pack of Camels in the pocket of his T‑shirt and he really smelled like one of my father's ashtrays. I mean, maybe it wasn't a new habit, because guys like him, they probably had started sucking smoke out of cigarettes when the rest of us were still sucking our thumbs, you know?
Then I was down, on the ground, with absolutely no idea how I'd gotten there. There was Danny Fink, like a dark tree above me; I remember the smells of the grass and dirt and leather and cigarettes, but there was this really deep blue sky with those mashed‑potato clouds floating along on either side of him, as if they had no idea what was happening to me, down there on the ground.
"Leave 'im alone, Fink!" I heard Bobby, just as if I was reliving part of my life.
"This is just between him and me; he said dirty stuff about my mother at school yesterday," he lied, "and I'm gonna take care of him."
"You're a stinkin' liar!" I yelled as I got back up to my feet, backing up at the same time, "I didn't say anything about you or anybody and you know it!"
"Did I hear you callin' me a liar?" (Was he deaf?)
"Just leave me alone, 'cause you know I didn't say anything about you. Go pick on somebody your own size!" I yelled some more.
"Yeah," I heard Davey say, "why don't you leave him alone?"
"You wanna fight, big shot?" Danny said, looking at Davey.
Davey didn't say anything after that, not that I blame him, because he was just about the worst fighter of us all, other than me.
Meanwhile, just as much as I was backing away from him, Danny was still coming toward me.
"Come on, chicken, here chick-chick-chick, just say you're sorry about what you said about my mother and maybe I won't kick the shit outta you. Just get down on your knees and say you're sorry."
I actually thought about doing that for about a second or two, and then I remembered what Uncle Fred had said about killing me if I let Danny Fink do it to me again, and believe me, I believed my uncle Fred, I really did, so I just opened my big mouth all over again.
"I'm not getting on my knees for you, you pimple‑faced puke! Why don't you go cut somebody's heart out and eat it?!" Then I heard Bobby start to laugh because I knew he remembered the last time, two years before.
Danny just got red in his pimply face all over again, just like before, and kept coming.
"Leave me alone! I mean it, leave me alone, or‑‑"
"Or what? What're you gonna do, bleed on me?" Danny sneered and then there he was, right in front of me, with his hands reaching out for my shirt.
Honest to God, I'd completely forgotten that I still had Bobby's Louisville Slugger (Duke Snider model) in my hand‑‑I'd had it the whole time; honest, I didn't even realize it, but the next thing I knew, Danny was on the ground, holding his right leg in his hands and screaming, really screaming up a storm, and I was standing there, not understanding why he was on the ground and I was still up, looking down at him.
In between the screams, I can still remember him howling, "My leg's broke, oww! You broke my fugging leg, you shit, I'll kill you, you little bag of shit!" And then Danny Fink actually started crying, not loud or anything, but he was.
I looked down at Bobby's bat in my hand and dropped it, as if it was a murder weapon or something, and the next thing I knew, I was halfway home on my bike, waiting for the sounds of police sirens behind me and wondering what reform school was going to be like. Then I realized, just before I got to Silverman’s Hotel (the old, abandoned one) that I didn't know what to do. I mean, it was the middle of the afternoon of a beautiful spring day‑‑what would I tell my parents? They'd go into cardiac arrest if I just came home voluntarily in the middle of a Saturday, and I sure couldn't tell them what had sent me home.
So I rode my bike up the old dirt driveway of the hotel and hid out in the woods, back where our tree fort used to be, where the vines and stuff grew really thick, like a tent.
I just sat in there for about two days or a couple hours, trying to cry and trying to think and wondering whether I should run away, maybe to my grandmother's farm in Freehold and sleep in her barn, like I'd seen some kid do in a movie, and wondering how long it would take me and the bike to get there, when I heard bush sounds in the woods, and the sounds were mixed with whispering and more thrashing about and I peeked out, trying to catch the blue of police uniforms and the glint of sunlight off their badges and buttons‑‑and guns.
"Boo! Ha, ha, ha-ha!"
I must've jumped a hundred feet out of my underwear and sneakers and there were Bobby and Davey, sitting on top of my big granite rock that rose behind the vine wigwam I'd been hiding in.
“What the heck're you doin' in there, Eddie?" Bobby said, all the time laughing at how his "boo" had made me jump.
"Shut up, stupid!" I whispered, "you wanna get me caught?"
"Caught by who? Who's gonna catch ya?" Davey asked. (What was he, stupid, too? Hadn't he ever seen the movies?)
"Why you think I'm hiding in here? Danny Fink's gonna get the cops after me and you guys're gonna lead them right to me! You probably broke a million twigs and stuff gettin' here, so you're gonna lead them right to me!" I whispered angrily.
"You've been watching too many cowboy movies, you dope!" Bobby said, still laughing. "Whaddayou think, the cops got Indians to track you down or something? Jeez, what an imagination."
"Just go away and leave me alone, or you're gonna get in trouble, too," I pleaded with them.
"Listen, Eddie, nothin's gonna happen to you," Davey insisted. "That Danny kid got what he asked for and we'll all swear to it if anything happens."
"Yeah, it was self‑defense," Bobby said, just like they did in the movies. "We're all witnesses. He attacked you and you protected yourself. That's all. Come on, let's go play in the woods…an’ get your stupid bike outta those weeds."
"What bike?" I asked, because I had camouflaged it really well with some branches and leaves.
"The bright blue bike we could see for about a mile, you know, the one over there under the leaves and branches," Bobby said, laughing some more. So much for camouflage.
Well, we played hide‑and‑seek in the woods for the rest of the afternoon, but when I was hiding, and alone inside my thoughts, I never could get over the queasy feeling that when I left the woods (with my bike) and went back home, that there'd be two or three police squad cars out front, waiting for me, waiting to take me away to reform school.
There were no squad cars on our street when I crept out of the woods after it had started to get dark. Of course, I really caught it again for being late for dinner and because my mother had had to go out in the street, screaming "Edddddiee!" and getting no response, which always got my father really burned up; I guess hearing your wife howling all over the neighborhood could be pretty embarrassing, probably because they both knew I'd come home eventually and so did the rest of the neighborhood. I mean, I always came home, at least up till then. Where else could I go?
Well, I was pretty worried about getting to school the next day. I was sure that Danny Fink had gotten a hold of a gun overnight and was going to jump me in the boy's room, so I never took a pee the whole day, because I just knew if I did, that would be the bathroom he'd be waiting in, so by the time I got home, my bladder was about ready to explode. But nothing happened, and nobody had seen Danny the whole day, so then I was sure he was being interviewed by the police, and that they'd all be there‑‑Danny Fink and the cops‑‑in front of our house when I got home from school that day.
As I walked slowly over the rise in the road that led down to our house that afternoon, my knees got really weak and I almost started to cry and run back down the hill, but as I said before, where else could I go, so I just got to the top and looked down at the police cars that weren't there.
I bet I had a smile on my face for about an hour after I got home, and for the whole time we went out to the field behind Silverman’s and played catch. I was starting to believe Bobby and Davey, that nothing was going to happen to me, and anyway, they said they'd be witnesses at my trial.
I even made sure I got home early for dinner that night, and helped my mother set the table (for all three of us) just to try to get back on their "our son's okay" list that I always imagined them having locked up somewhere, along with the one that said "our son's a criminal" at the top, with dates of things I'd done wrong, since they could always quote the day and minute and year of everything I'd ever done to make them sad or disappointed, you know.
I didn't even mind the cream-of-celery soup and the stewed tomatoes we had for dinner, because I was starting to feel relieved, finally. Then the phone rang.
You might be saying "So the phone rang. Big deal," but it didn't ring all that much in our house, I don't know why, but it rang, right in the middle of the hot, soggy tomatoes and rubbery fried chicken. With a tired groan, my father got up and answered it, picking the receiver off the phone on the little table next to the door to the living room.
"Hello?...Buhrer, not Brewer...Yes, I have. Why?...Yes, that's his name...Uh‑huh...What?!...He did wha‑‑!...Yes...Yes...I understand, but no, I won't tell him....No…yes, I understand what you're saying, but I'm not going to tell him that...Yes,I understand, thank you...That's very understanding of you and I'm sorry this happened. It will not happen again, you can be sure of that...No, fine...Thank you. Goodbye." (click)
Well, I knew my time had come, because the whole time my father had been on the phone, the entire time he'd been talking to the police, he'd been looking at me, and those green eyes of his had been getting narrower and narrower and by the time he hung up the phone, those eyes had eaten a hole right through me.
"You know who that was, Edward? (Edward--uh-oh!) he asked.
"The police!? What the h...what's the matter with you? That was a man named Fink. Do you know anyone named Danny Fink, and don't lie to me, because I'll see it in your eyes!"
"Did you break his leg with a baseball bat Sunday?"
"No, it was Saturday," I said, as I watched my father's eyes change from green to red.
"Jesus, Mary and Joseph! Do you know what could've happened to you and to me and your mother? Do you have any idea? Do you?"
"I could go to reform school?" I offered, not knowing anything about what could happen to them; I mean, Danny Fink never did anything to them that I knew of, and I didn't think they'd ever done anything to Danny, because if they had, he wouldn't have been around to get me.
"Reform school! Oh my God! If Mr. Fink felt like it, he could sue us for everything we have and we'd all be out on the street, living in cardboard boxes and eating acorns! Do you know what he said, do you?" (Dad wasn't really looking for an answer to this one.) "He told me to tell you that what you did was okay and that if his son ever bothered you again, you should break his other leg. That's what he told me! What do you think about that?!"
Well, I guess I had the wrong expression on my face, because I said "Great!" and then they both started yelling about lawsuits and the legal responsibilities of parents and how they could go to jail or lose our house and I didn't know what I was supposed to think, what with Danny's father saying it was okay to whack him but my father saying it was wrong, so I just started crying and without meaning to, I babbled out something about an "equalizer."
Honest to God, I didn't mean to say anything. But they both just shut up completely, as if someone'd flipped a switch and then they turned and stared at me.
"Equalizer? What equalizer? What are you talking about?" my old man yelled.
"Nothing," I tried, but it was too late; maybe he'd recognized the term, I don't know.
"Don't tell me `nothing.' What equalizer?"
"I didn't mean to break his leg, I didn't! He’s a big kid and a bully an’ just came at me and tried to beat me up again like he did two years ago, and I had Bobby's bat and I didn't mean to do it but I guess I swung it like Uncle Fred‑‑"
"Oohhh, Uncle Fred!" my mother shrieked, "Uncle Fred again! No wonder! Oh my God! Fred! Oh‑my‑God!" And she went off and on like that for about ten minutes, about how "he" was going to ruin her only child and how she didn't bring him (me, she meant) into the world to have "your brother" (looking at my father, this time, instead of up at the ceiling) ruin me and so on.
Of course, this just got my father even more angry with me and, well, you can figure the rest out by now. It wasn't a happy night, put it that way.
Well, Danny Fink never came back to Whitney Junior High; I don't know what happened to him. We'd heard some rumor that he got caught trying to rob a liquor store, but I remember seeing him coming out of the Capri Pizzeria on crutches with two older guys a couple weeks after that, so I figured the rumor had been just a rumor. We also heard that his parents had sent him to live with relatives who must've been some kind of lunatics in some other city or state; Mike said he hadn't seen Danny around his street, so that was probably closer to the truth than the liquor‑store story.
I tried to start a rumor that he didn't come back to school because he was afraid of somebody (hoping they'd all figure out that the "somebody" was me) but that rumor didn't last more than an hour or two. All I know is that a lot of the littler kids in the school got to spend their lunch money on lunch after that, instead of on Danny Fink's Camels. And I still don’t know how Mr. Fink got my name. Maybe from Mike.
The next time I saw Uncle Fred was when we went down the shore to see my grandmother (my father's and Uncle Fred's mother) in Keansburg and Gran sent me out to wake him up to tell him we were there. She knew I liked waking Uncle Fred up, because the first thing he'd always say was, "Get me a beer, nephew," and I'd dig a Shaefer or Rheingold out of his rusty old refrigerator in the bungalow he lived in out back and he'd always let me have a sip or two.
I loved the smell and taste of his beer‑‑it was kind of yeasty and cold and bubbly, all at the same time. Then he'd grab the can of beer back and tell me not to tell my parents he'd let me have some. And I never did.
But that day, I really didn't want to go wake him up because I'd heard my father on the phone to Uncle Fred the same night Danny Fink's father had called, and they'd kind of had an argument, at least from what I could tell, and I just knew that Uncle Fred was really mad at me, because if he ever said one thing to me, it was always "Don't tell your ol’ man this or that" or "Don't tell your mother I told you this or that," and I had‑‑I'd told and I knew he hated me for telling, too. But my grandmother had told me to wake him up and I had to do what she told me, so I crept out to his bungalow and went in kind of slow, and just as I was letting the screen door close as quietly as I could, I heard him growl,
"Get me a beer, nephew, and this time, don't tell your mother I let you have any, awright?"
That's when I knew it was going to be all right, that Uncle Fred didn't hate me. I don't think I could've lived with that. And beer will always taste good to me, maybe because it'll always remind me of Uncle Fred. I love you, Uncle Fred.