[This is a chapter from an unpublished novel I’m currently working on. I think it works pretty well as a short story. The scene takes place in the early 1960’s in suburban Detroit. I’ll publish a few more of the Frank & Rudy stories here before the novel’s publication. This scene is more Leave-it-to-Beaver than most of my writing, though the novel isn’t at all Leave-it-to-Beaver. But this is one of the first chapters I wrote to show the main characters in their youth. — A.S.]
For his tenth birthday, Rudy got an A-frame tent. He started begging Mom to let us sleep out in the yard. He wasn’t getting along well with her at that period in his life. His fault. He argued with her about everything, drove her up the wall. The last day of school, he comes home with straight A’s. How could she deny him?
I’d run into Tony Bertola on the way home from school. He was selling firecrackers. Dixie Boys. 25¢ a pack. Dixie Boys were your standard Japanese firecrackers, sixteen to a pack, braided together with a length of wick. Tony’s brother, Nick, made regular runs from Detroit down to Toledo throughout May and June to buy them. Nick would fill the trunk of his rusted out old Studebaker with Dixie Boys, Yankee Boys, hammer heads, cherry bombs and bottle rockets, sell them all with a big mark-up in Detroit within a few days, and make another run to Ohio. Dixie Boys were loud and dependable, tightly packed, not too many fizzlers.
When I got home to find Rudy in the backyard, pounding stakes into the grass to put up his tent, it was a perfect set-up. Late that night, when all you could hear were the crickets and the occasional 18-wheeler hissing and rumbling in the distance on Seven Mile, when we were huddled into our sleeping bags, reading comic books by the light of my Coleman lantern, that’s when I’d pull out the Dixie Boys. I spent the afternoon plotting and revising the terms of the bet.
Rudy was wound up that night. Maybe the best night all year, better than Christmas, better than any birthday, is the first night of summer vacation. He was trying to convince me that before the summer was over, we should run away from home. There was nothing truly bad about our home life, not like what you’d expect from a kid who was seriously considering running away. And he was dead serious.
“We’ll come back, Franco,” he said. “We won’t even miss any school. We’ll take stuff from the fruit cellar—some cans of Spam, raisins, Fig Newtons…”
Right, Rudy. And where do we sleep every night? And where do we take a shit? I didn’t bring up any arguments, just let him go on. I was just biding my time, waiting for the right moment to spring the Dixie Boys.
We were lying on our backs with our heads outside the front flaps of the tent, watching the clouds blow by the moon. I asked him what time it was.
He looked at his watch. “Almost one,” he said.
“You want to scare Mrs. Radovitch?”
“Scare her how?” He turned his head to me, his cheek resting on the grass.
I pulled out the pack of Dixie Boys. Cool. Self-composed.
He grabbed them from me excitedly.
“Nick?” he guessed.
“I got them from Tony,” I said. “Nick made a Toledo run yesterday.”
“You got matches?”
He thought for a moment. “Dad would kill us,” he said.
“How would he find out?”
He thought about it. “Too dangerous, Frank,” he said.
“Not if you delay the wick,” I said.
He made no response.
“You would have to do a minute delay,” I said. “At least a minute.”
We watched the moon for awhile.
“I knew you’d forget how to delay the wick,” I said.
“I didn’t forget. There’s nothing to it.”
“Then why are you chicken? I’ll bet you can’t do a one-minute delay any more.”
“How much?” he asked.
This was the crucial moment. The stakes. The terms. The handshake.
“If you can delay the wick for one full minute,” I said, “and you light them off right under old lady Radovitch’s window, I’ll get you ten cherry bombs. Tony has them right now. If you fail, you get me one cherry bomb. That’s ten-to-one odds in your favor.”
“Why do I have to light them off under her window? Why can’t I do it tomorrow in the day time?”
“I’m giving you ten-to-one,” I said. “You have to prove you can work under pressure.”
“One minute or more,” he specified. “It doesn’t have to be exactly one minute. One minute or more.”
“Of course,” I said.
“And I want five cherry bombs and five M-80s.”
“Tony didn’t have any M-80s.”
“He always gets them,” he said. “You pay up on the cherry bombs tomorrow, and the M-80s as soon as Tony gets some. And you have to come with me to her yard.”
“Of course I’ll come with you. I’m gonna time it so you don’t cheat. Is it a deal?”
“C’mon,” he said, rolling over and crawling out onto the grass.
I followed him, setting the Coleman lantern on the grass outside the tent flaps.
Mrs. Radovitch lived alone about five houses down from us, the last house on our block. Her front yard was all flowers, surrounded by a useless, foot-tall, white picket fence. Every other house on the block had a front lawn; she had a flower garden. As long as there was no snow on the ground, she’d be out there every day. Never cracked a smile. Always wore a shawl and a babushka. The hottest day of the year, 103 degrees and humid as hell, and she’d be wrapped up like it was mid-winter.
In her back yard, she had three apple trees. I don’t think she ever picked an apple. By Fall, her whole back yard was one big mess of rotten apples. Fruit flies all over. But God help any kid she caught sneaking into her yard to filch a Macintosh from the tree. She’d come running out with her garden rake, shaking it like a spear, yelling in her thick Polish accent, “Out! Out! I call the police!”
My mother defended her. “Leave her be. She’s had a hard life.” We didn’t care if she’d had a hard life. She acted like a witch. Rudy had a different theory. “The only fun she has in her whole life is chasing kids out of her apple trees. She uses those apples for bait.”
We made a plan to take the alley. We’d have to be quiet going past the Caskeys. If Blackie started barking, we were dead. I’d load up on apples, and Rudy would light off the Dixie Boys before we left. The apples weren’t ripe. We knew that. What apples there were were like marbles, but we could throw them at the street lights later. The important thing was that Rudy had to delay the wick on the Dixie Boys so that we could be back in our yard before they went off.
Rudy took his watch off and handed it to me. I held the flashlight beam against the dial so the hands would glow in the dark. “You get the apples,” he said. “I’ll handle the explosives.”
He unfolded one end of the long wick that braided the Dixie Boys together, flattening it in his fingers and rubbing out the gun powder. If you got most of the powder out, the wick would take a full minute to burn down to the firecrackers. Tony had taught us how to delay wicks. He’d taught us everything we knew about firecrackers. How you could break open the duds and fizzle them. How you could stomp on the fizzlers and make them even louder than the regular firecrackers. How you could sell them to little kids for up to a quarter each.
Delaying the wick was an art. If you took too much powder out, the flame would die. Too little, and the wick would burn too fast. Rudy had developed an uncanny expertise at wick delaying the previous summer. He perfected a ten-second delay, a thirty-second delay and a one-minute delay. The longer the delay, the more difficult it was to do. The fire would die. Even Tony was impressed with Rudy’s one-minute delay.
Rudy finished rerolling the depowdered wick and held up the firecrackers for my approval. “One full minute,” he said. “Or more. I’m out of practice.”
We left our back gate ajar to facilitate our reentry. My stomach was churning. I stopped Rudy outside the gate. “Do you think she’ll have a heart attack?” I asked.
“She’ll probably call the National Guard.”
Blackie was not in his backyard, which was good. It was a sure bet all the windows in the Caskeys’ house were open, though, so we still had to move silently through the alley. Mrs. Radovitch’s back gate was latched, but it was an easy open. I handed a pack of matches to Rudy.
“I’ll get the apples,” I said.
I watched him cross her yard quickly, kneeling down beneath one of her back windows. There were not many apples within easy reach, not without climbing either the chain-link fence or one of the trees. The moon was behind a cloud, and it was almost impossible to see the tiny apples. I found one low branch that was filled with small green Macintoshes. I plucked them as soundlessly as possible, stuffing them into one of the front pockets of my jeans. I really didn’t care anything about the apples, and I wasn’t going to rustle a branch just to get a few more. Rudy was doing the important work.
I froze when I saw the match flare. I looked at the watch. 1:12.
A second later, Rudy was running silently past me like an apparition. I followed him out the back gate, and we hurried down the alley, exhilarated with the feeling of triumph. When we reached our yard, he turned to me with a wide grin.
“Mission accomplished,” he said.
It had gone smoothly. I had a bulging pocketful of golf-ball-sized apples, excellent for throwing. It would have been perfect except for one detail.
He was standing there at the tent opening in his robe and slippers. I knew I shouldn’t have set the lantern outside the tent like that. That must have been what tipped him off.
“You guys going somewhere?” he said.
Rudy walked a few steps into the yard. I followed.
Any moment now…
“We were just taking a leak,” Rudy said. “We didn’t want to wake you and Mom up.” He was always so quick in a crisis.
Dad turned on his flashlight, the big one he kept in the hall closet for emergencies. He threw the beam on Rudy for a few seconds, then me.
“What have you got in your pocket, Frank?”
I guessed that by now a minute had passed. Maybe close to two. Perhaps, if there was a God, just this once, Rudy had failed. Please, God, let the wick have burned out.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out one of the apples. “Apples,” I said.
“Get over here, both of you,” he said.
We did as we were told.
Please, God. Please, God.
“Get into the tent,” he said.
He clipped each of us on the backs of our heads as we ducked past him to crawl into the tent. I was expecting much worse as soon as those Dixie Boys blew.
Dad got down on his haunches and faced us through the open canvas flaps, his flashlight aimed into the tent. We sat facing him.
“The rule was no leaving the yard,” he said.
We looked at our sneakers. Please, God. Please, God.
“What are you going to do with those apples, Frank?”
“You can’t eat them. Why’d you take them?”
“I don’t know,” I mumbled.
“Mrs. Radovitch would have a heart attack if she heard you rustling around in her yard at this time of night.”
A small sound escaped from Rudy’s nose.
“You think this is funny, Rudy?” Dad said.
“No, sir,” Rudy answered. But you could hear it in his voice. No proper sense of fear.
The wick must have burned out. I was starting to breathe more easily. A good three minutes must have passed. Never in history had a wick been delayed this long.
“She hasn’t had an easy life,” Dad went on.
We’d have to keep quiet for this.
“She lost her family in the war,” he said. “In Poland. You have no idea what she went through—”
That’s when the firecrackers blew.
The sixteen Dixie Boy salute.
How long did it go on? A few seconds at most, but it seemed like it would never end. At one a.m., five seconds of Dixie Boys is an eternity.
Blackie went crazy. Every dog within a mile was howling, barking. Dad was frozen. He still had not figured out what had happened.
“Just remember, Dad,” Rudy said calmly, “I got straight A’s.”