When I get off the train at Fourth and Vine. I come up on Mike and Maggie joking on the corner by the street light as usual.
“I don’t need one!” He quips, “I live off this rich Poodle from uptown!”
“Oh? An who’s dat be?” Maggie gives him a quick jab to the ribs and we each laugh. Michelle hates the ‘all Dogs are rich stereotype. She says they don’t all run with pigs, But from down here they sure look like they do. Anyone not locked in the ghetto seems suspect to us.
We’re pokin’ at each other when I hear the voice of an angel drift up from behind me.
“Ya gonna speak to me Joe Punk’n’ or ain’t I yer girl?”
I turn around and for a minute she takes my breath away like it’s the first time I seen her or something. She’s smiling at me with those big pumpkin teeth, dressed all in purple from head to toe like some priceless doll. I grab her by the waste and hoist her up.
“You’ll always be my gal”, I say and plant a big wet one right on her lips.
“Took you long enough”, She says when I finally let her down.
“What is it with everybody telling’ me I’m late today?”, I wonder aloud, “Fine Vel, I luv Ya, I luv ya, I luuuuuuuvvvvvv yaaaaaa!!!!!!!!!!!”, She’s not really mad but I drop to my knees anyway. Then I pop to my feet and throw my collar up just as quick. As I walk away they all follow.
“That’s a right rad dress you got on there Vel!”, Mike says,
“Thanks for noticing Mikey!”, I didn’t need that one underlined, “I got it at the Ben for twenty-three cents” she says,
“That’s a right deal, ultra-rad!”, Maggie adds,
“To the Abb of course!”, I reply, where else do Punk’n’s go. The Abb our spot on a ten foot high brick wall that surrounds the ghetto. It over looks the drive-in and the forest to the North and to the East respectively. We sit up there on top of it and watch whatever movie the richies uptown got playing. Drinking warm beers and smoking cigs till it’s time to head in. Can’t be out too late or the squares’ll bust ya for breaking curfew. First things first we gotta snag us some booze from the drugstore.
“My eyes glow bright tonight”, Mike says. Making his best Jack-face. We keep our heads up for Vines. The Vines are a bunch of greasy punks that run the alleys between Fourth Street and..well Vine.
“Ha! Mike, you ain’t no trouble maker!” Maggie jibes. We all know better though. No Vine could whoop me and Mikey together. Ad we’re always together. Ma says we’re joined at the stem. She says it’s as if she has two boys. I flash my eyes back at him and put my arm around Vel. As we head into the drug store. Maggie stops at the counter and chat’s up the pooch working late. He knows what we’re up to but once Maggie bats her puppy dog eyes his tail starts wagging and he don’t seem to notice me and Mike stuffing beers into our pockets. Vel watches the aisles in case anyones in the back. The whole while helping herself to lipsticks and candies. We get enough for everybody then signal to Vel. We run out the door together laughing as the counter jockey tries to grab after us. He falls on his stupid mutt face trying to hop the counter. We let out a few hoops and hollers exchanging high fives and Jack-Faces.
We reach the Abb just in time for the nightly vids. The Abb is our home away from home. It’s where all us punk’n’heads go to hangout and throw rocks down at the “good citizens”. We watch our favorite super-hero “Gastrol- Intestinal Man” I must have seen all his vids by now. My dad used to take me down here when Pumpkins could sit up front. We’d laugh and through corn at the screen and howl all night. Then I’d fall asleep and he’d carry me home. Now there’s a wall and a world between us. A huge ditch separates us from the gentlemen Giraffes and snotty little Poodles. The stench from their perfumes still rise up and burn our noses. The squares cruise by and make sure none of us ghetto dregs are getting too close to the furry bastards. Can’t get too near the good citizenry our ugly mugs and trouble making may make their wallets uncomfortable.
I hold Velveeta in my arms as we laugh at the vids. Sometimes things don’t seem so bad. When I’m here with her on the Abb, laughing, the city seems so peaceful. Tonight however our bliss will be interrupted. Had I known then what I know no, I would have just skipped the Abb this night. Things were going great till some Raptor decides to settle a score with a Vine. Now normally the Abb is off-limits. Nobody fights there cause it’s the only place any of us can go to chill. But some bone headed Raptor got his feathers ruffled and pulled out a zip gun. He fired off a few shots and everybody scattered. Everybody that is except Vel. Velveeta been who she is lay a few well placed kicks on the punk and takes him down. His zip gun flies in the air and she catches it just as the squares roll up. The Squares being squares shoot first and don’t bother asking questions. I grab Vel by the wrist and pull her over the Abb. We all hit the ground running. There’s no need to yell anything Mikey and Maggie know what to do. We all split into twos and run like hell. The Squares aren’t even over the wall and we’re a half a block away. I’m dragging Vel like a rag doll and praying she’s not hit. I swear to the Almighty that if we make it through this one I’ll marry her by the Fall.
“I’ll be alright Vel, just keep running!”, I say, she doesn’t answer back and now I’m terrified. My hearts beating out my jacket and I get confused for a minute. Long enough to make a wrong turn and end up back on Vine. I hear the sirens getting closer so I gotta think fast. I drop a fire escape ladder and look back at Vel. Her lights are out and her knees are scraped and bleeding. I start crying automatically. I toss her over my shoulders and jump up on the ladder. The zip gun drops out her hand and I gotta pick it up. If the squares push by and find it they’ll match her prints and finger her for the shooting. I hesitate for too long and A square comes around the corner. I pulls up the ladder and scamper up to the roof top with Vel still passed out on my shoulders.
I try to say a little prayer but get interrupted by the sound of the squares trying to pull the ladder back down. I got one choice to make it so I grab hold of Vel’s ankles with one hand and the other I wrap around her neck and make a run for it. I leap from one roof top to the next. There’s no time to waste so I go straight for the next one. Then another until I’m back where I need to be. I got one more roof top to jump and in mid-air Vel comes to and throws me off-balance. The two of us hit the roof just barely. We tumble-down and roll right up to the feet of Proud Mary Dupont. A former opera singer, now she’s just plain crazy. She’s about three hundred pounds of gibbering nonsense. And for the first time ever I’m actually happy to see the old bird.
“Hootie Who!”, she cackles grinning over us like the mad ole’ owl she is. “Follow me!”, She says helping us up.
We limp behind her into a dusty old shanty in the center of the roof top. It’s dark, dank, and smells of bird shit. I always thought she lived in the abandon church near Wart’s. That’s where she is everyday, muttering curses to the Man, and anybody who happens to walk by. This must be where she really lives though. It was weird to not see her ranting in rhyme and spouting dirty limericks. She pushes us into the shanty and closes the rickety door behind us. For a moment we’re in the pitch dark but we’re safe from the squares. I can hear the sirens all around us. For some reason I trust the smelly old bird. I don’t know how badly Velveeta is hurt, I just grab her head and hold her tight to my stem. She wraps her arms around me as Proud Mary scuttles about lighting candles. Then without warning she bust out the door squawking and crowing. For a moment my heart sinks.
I can hear a couple of squares out side and Proud Mary making the biggest fuss I ever heard her make. I hold onto Vel and say another prayer After about ten minutes of Proud Mary making a racket I can hear the squares run off. Then Mary bust back in and motions for us to keep quite. Then she pushes us to the side and before I can get angry she bends over and opens a tiny trap door in the floor of the shack. It leads to a set of stairs and she points for us to go down. Gently I help Vel down into the darkness and follow right behind her. Proud Mary scuttles down behind us and then takes the lead. Holding a candle up high to guide us through the dark hallway, we go into a room. Who would have thought this old washed-up, crazy, opera singer would be squatting in our neighborhood.
Once inside she flicks a switch and turns on the lights. Her apartment is huge, it looks nothing like you’d expect the furniture is clean and expensive to boot. There’s a gold chandelier hanging over top of a huge dining table. The walls are covered in framed pictures of Proud Mary in her hey day. Pictures of her with Politicians and celebrities and then I see one with my father and I look back at her and she just smiles.
“Now lets have a look at those wounds of yours little girl.” she says. Sitting Vel down on a enormous golden couch.
“I’m okay…”, Vel says, “..I just scrapped my knee.”
“No daughter of mine is gonna be crying over scraped knees.” Mary says like she’s really Vel’s mother. Vel just looks at her like she was, well, mad.
“That’s more than scraped knees, dear, I’m afraid you’ve been shot.” She says, “Not bad though, the bullet just grazed your leg. Let Mary fix you right up.” She tells me to go an fetch her kit out of the bathroom and I rush to do as she says. M heart is beating straight through my jacket. I run back and hand her the white box and she carefully cleans Velveeta’s wound and wraps up her leg. I hold Vel’s hand as she does her work.
“Now why you dragging this child down alleys and over these roof tops, boy? You bring squares to old Marys door you got some explaining to do.” , Mary says so matter of fact. I sit back with Vel in my arms and explaining the whole story to her. She nods and tells us we’ll have to stay there for the night. She says the squares will be out looking for us all night and even in the morning it still won’t be safe.
“You should have listen to me rhyme Joe Pumpk’n’head. Instead of cracking jokes o ole’ Mary. Always with the Jack-Faces.”, I don’t know what to say. She gives us blankets and hot milk. We thank her and then I got a few questions of my own. Who would have thought that after seeing this loon out on the street my whole life she’d have known my dad back in the day. So I point out the picture and ask her how she knew him.
“Oh, me and your father go way back. I too am a member of the resistance. You think I’m mad , but I’m just mad at them. But that’s for another time boy, you get some sleep.”, She says and then turns the lights off on us. I can hear her old feet shuffling down the hallway n the darkness, as she hums a little tune to her self. I close my eyes and try not to worry about how the hell we’re going to get out of this one.
While we slept safely at Proud Mary’s Mike and Maggie weren’t so lucky. The Abb is five blocks from our tenement and where we were supposed to meet up with them. With squares on the street though those five block would be impossible. There was one other option Kimberley Park. It was a straight shot, but the park was dangerous enough any night of the week. Vines and Raptors were nothing compared to the rats that lurked in the park after dark. Drugged out of their minds and hungry they would rape and eat anything that tried to cross through. There were tales of a girl once being raped in brood daylight in Kimberly Park. But it was a straight shot and Mike knew it was the one place even the squares wouldn’t go. The problem is if the rats didn’t get you the old cripple bears left hanging around after the mattresses started burning would.
The only thing worse than a grizzly bear is a cripple bear. They say a bear can slice a pumpkin in half with one paw. Mike decided it was the only way though. Me and him had crossed the park once a few years back. But we were younger and faster and carried zip guns. This time it was different we have given up guns after that night and as kick ass as Maggie was she wasn’t me. I still don’t like to talk about that night. So hand in hand he and Maggie made a run for it. Through the trash and filth, jumping over rusted out merry-go-rounds and dodging broken swings. Through the overgrown weeds and hanging trees. Maggie could see the yellow eyes of vicious rats in the darkness. They stuck to the center of the park far enough from the bushes to see anything coming out at them.
All they had to do was reach the Great Oak. Years ago as children we would run around the big tree yelling “Ollie-Ollie-Oxen-Free!” Now if they made it to the tree they would be truly be free. The rats won’t go near the tree for some reason. They sped up the wet garbage slipping underneath their sneakers. Sweat pouring down their brows. All they had to do was make it to the oak. Mike could see the glow of the street lights as he felt Maggie gripping his hand tighter. Only a few minutes now.
They were halfway across the park past the sandbox filled with rat shit, almost to the tall grass just before the fence, when the rats came out. Three big ones races behind them on all fours like savages. Maggie let out a scream, and Mike yelled at her to keep quite, if they made it to the fence they still had to worry about the squares. The rats were gaining though and fear was slowing Maggie’s legs down. They thought they were goners then just as the lead rat was about to pounce a bear jumped out of nowhere and swatted the beast back.
They looked back to see the big black monster being jumped by the other two. His massive paws ripping apart their filthy hides and blood flying through the air. As the hit the fence the could see other rats coming out and dragging the cripple bear down. He looked Mike in the eyes as they hit the sidewalk. While me and Vel were being saved by a loon on the roof tops Mike and Maggie were rescued by of all things a bear. Two miracles in one night. What are the odds?
It wasn’t over yet though. They had to cross the alley way at Walnut to make it over to Apple Street where we lived. Before they could reach the end of the alley Mike saw the squares cruiser. He knew they were caught. He told Maggie to hide in a garbage bin as he walked out calmly with his hands in the air.
In the morning me and Velveeta woke up and Proud Mary fed us some eggs and sent us on our way. Before we left though she gave me a message that would really set this whole journey into motion. She said “ You got your fathers looks but without his jacket, you’ll never stop the burning mattress.” When I asked her what she meant she just smiled and said. “I see things and soon so will you, go out land is what must do.” Then she closed the door behind us and we had to feel our way through the darkened hallway out to the street.
The streets were eerily empty for the morning time. I knew in my gut something was wrong when we turned the corner onto Apple Street and saw Maggie on the stoop with her head in her hands. Fast Freddy was with her and Mike was nowhere to be seen. My heart dropped again when she recounted their run across Kimberly Park. She couldn’t stop crying as we took her up to my place. My mom was already at work but my little sister was still home getting ready for school.