by Jono Walker
Rumor had it Jimmy Brusco went to reform school for hitting a cop with a two by four in broad daylight on Main Street. I have my doubts about that. Most of the folklore that circulated about Jimmy in those days couldn’t possibly have been true. All I can say for certain is that he was the scariest greaser in town and that for one long summer back when my cousin Bud and I were around twelve years old he was also a pretty good friend. Of course, I can see now that the crush he had on our older cousin Kelly had a lot to do with that. Why else would he have hung out with a pair of little squirts like us? Although we were too young to actually realize it at the time, unless my memory has totally failed at this late date, I can assure you that Kelly was a stunningly voluptuous 14 year old, which explains a lot.
It all began when Bud and I were riding our bikes down Mayfair Lane, the long private drive of what my Uncle Toppy dubbed the “Wassell Arboretum,” an eight acre enclave with housing lots Bud’s grandfather, YiYi, had set aside for each of his children. A sizeable part of the estate was eventually turned into the three-hole golf course that we remember from those years—that golden decade not long after three of YiYi’s sons who were meant to build their houses in the big field were killed in the war. In spite of its tragic history, Bud’s neighborhood was an idyllic spot to grow up—a protective cocoon with only one occasionally worrisome drawback. We were uncomfortably close to Narrow Rocks Road, a heavily wooded tunnel leading to some neighborhoods of much smaller houses that adjoined the railroad bridge with its splintery walkway and rusted railing that served as a gateway to the nexus of the real danger: Saugatuck, the part of town where the greasers lived, the kids with rolled-up sleeves for cigarette packs, pointy black boots, slicked hair, and sinister sounding surnames like Izzo, Kondub, Shipple and Slez.
At the end of Mayfair Lane there was a traffic island with a patch of grass lined with Belgian bricks and a big maple tree, and as Bud and I got closer it was evident that some kids were hiding behind it. Bud, who had stronger territorial instincts than me, sniffed his disapproval and pedaled a little faster while I, feeling more cautious and sensing danger, was content to coast. Something wasn’t right. Sure enough, first out from behind the tree were the Sendecke brothers, Al and Joe, and hissing out from behind them came that nightmare of nightmares, Jimmy Brusco. He was short for his age, but built like a bantam boxer, with skintight black Levis and a plain white t-shirt, icy cold blue eyes and distinct signs of stubble along his handsomely chiseled jaw.
“This is private property,” Bud announced with an air of authority as we neared the big tree, leaving me thinking he had lost his mind. Couldn’t he see who we were dealing with? We could get killed and he was worrying about property lines? Alas, there was no time to sound the alarm. We were already too close to turn around when the Sendecke brothers sprang into the lane and grabbed hold of our handlebars. In an instant, Al had me in a crushing half nelson and all tangled up in my bike just as Jimmy got up in Bud’s face, launching into a string of taunts that was solely intended to escalate matters into an all-out melee.
From beyond the sounds of my own gasps for breath I could hear Jimmy’s tirade—half of which I could only dimly comprehend—and I was now thinking okay Bud, do the right thing. Politely agree to everything he says about the rinky-dink golf course and our sexual preferences. Just tell him “Yes sir! … Yes Sir! … Yes SIR!!” but for reasons I can’t possibly begin to explain Bud took a more combative approach. I suppose his ill-advised comeback could have worked if it hadn’t been for his tone of voice which was so sarcastic and snotty I knew immediately we were toast. With just a single word our fate was set:
“So!” he said, and the punches flew.
Bud succeeded in fending off the opening flurry of blows and managed somehow to stand up on the pedals of his bike, pressing down with his full weight to get some momentum going. It looked for a moment like he may even escape (which, by the way, would have left me in a world of hurt) but as he leaned down for a second mighty heave on the pedals, the mechanical failure every boy fears most when riding a two wheeler occurred: the chain slipped off the crank set and sure enough, down Bud crashed with his crotch hitting the crossbar with such force I swear I heard a “pop” and half expected to see his family ornaments bounding onto the macadam.
The poor kid slumped onto the crossbar while slowly rolling away in debilitating cross-eyed pain. His bike wobbled along with a mind of its own which happened to be down the gentle incline off the side of the lane and into the big green hedge. The best friend I would ever have in my life remained upright for a second staring mutely into the prickly branches of the hedge before he and his trusty Huffy Flyer—now fused between his knees—went down together like a felled tree.
I got a clear view of all of this through the pungent strands of Al’s hairy armpit, and when Bud went over like he did, all four of us—Al, Joe, Jimmy and I—said “whoa” in unison. It was an accident breathtaking to behold. Before anyone could fill the awkward silence that began building over the moans emanating from beneath the hedge, I feigned one of those laughs that come sputtering out like a cough, and before I knew it I was released from the headlock and found Jimmy, Al and Joe laughing right along with me. Sure, we were having a hoot at poor Bud’s expense, but I did all I could to encourage the sudden surge of merriment that seemed to be miraculously clearing danger from the air.
By the time we caught our breath, Bud was sitting up. He was going to live. Jimmy and his henchmen were wiping tears from their eyes, and I realized the moment had arrived for some audacious diplomacy; something ventured that just might change the subject and avoid any further bloodshed. “You guys want to come for a swim in the pool?” I asked as casually as my pounding heart would allow. After shooting quick glances around at one another, the trio of the meanest looking greasers I had ever seen shrugged their shoulders and to my profound relief Jimmy replied in his best tough guy accent, “Sure, what da fuck?”
We made our way slowly up the lane towards the distant sounds of kids playing in the pool. Jimmy gently nudged Bud aside and took up his bike with its drooping chain. This touching act of kindness allowed Bud to limp gingerly along behind us, nursing the ache between his legs. The Wassell’s in-ground swimming pool was a magnet for the entire neighborhood in those days so when we rounded the pool house and saw the usual swarm of kids jumping and splashing around the sheer chaotic volume of the scene made the three of them pause. They seemed suddenly shy and I think would have bolted had it not been for my Aunt Betsy who was just then walking down from the house. She looked over at us with one of her winning smiles and waved us in without a moment’s hesitation or a single question about the disabled bike or the lingering greenness around Bud’s gills.
Our new friends stood poolside wondering what to do. Behind them their shit-kicker black boots were lined in a neat row beneath the fence where they had hung their T-shirts. I demonstrated for them a simple feet-first jump into the deep end and they tentatively followed suit. Jimmy, Joe and Al were awkward swimmers at best, handicapped all the more by the weight of their long jeans. I wondered how guys who just minutes ago could look so menacing could now look so harmless—vulnerable really—as schools of well-tanned little kids darted to and fro like dolphins beneath their pale and pimply backs. That’s when Kelly stepped up to the diving board in her emerald green two piece bathing suit.
Jimmy was off to the side treading water when she made her dive, intently scanning the surface in anticipation of her return for air. I might have been only 12 years old that summer, but when Kelly came up and blinked the water from her eyes, I could tell she was conscious of Jimmy’s stare and was keeping him in her periphery as she calmly breast-stroked towards the aluminum ladder. And in that moment I received my first inkling of just how far away those houses at the other end of Narrow Rocks Road actually were. When I turned back to Jimmy, who was still sputtering in place, I knew he knew much more about that distance than I could understand and saw for the first time the look of someone hopelessly surrendered to love at first sight.
Jono Walker is a writer and book review blogger who moonlights as an advertising executive and marketing consultant. He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife Julia, their big weedy garden, a couple of poorly behaved dogs, and his trusty fly rod. Visit his blog at http://www.jonosbookreviews.com/