Ever hear that expression “the Good ol’ Days”? I’ve heard it and I don’t like it. But unlike other fellas who just complain, I will tell ya why.
While the quaint recollections of the “old days” helped to sate farts like us in rocking chairs and afghans, little of those yarns are true. Sure, kids ran the streets, families lived close together, supermarkets weren’t invented yet, and clothing hung from lines in yards or from sill to sill — that much was true. The rest of the details got lost or were changed. And why not? What old crank wants to think about broken glass and dead rats? Not a one. So they drag out old photos; photos that tell part of a story but can have a better one applied. Then instead of the before and the after — with whatever mundane or awful event that happened — you get the “story”. And you listen, enchanted, wondering what it would have been like. Everyone sounds roughly classic; everyone looks dated and beautiful in their own ways. You almost start to look at your era as cheap. Yet, you forget, we all do, about the rest of the time. That time. Their time.
Nobody gets glassy talking about Fitzman and how he nearly took his wife’s head off when he came from work sauced up. Ya see, he mistook her brother for some heehaw trying to get his jollies in another man’s home.
Or you don’t see a nostalgic tear gather for Ms. Santora and her little back lot yard. Ms. Santora — who finally grew tired of kids filching her garden — put a borrowed bear trap behind the chicken wire fence. Lord knows where she got the damn thing, but Christ Almighty did Johnny Welker bleed out. It was a long time before someone did it again. In her case, a damned week.
That’s just two out of dozens upon dozens of tales I could recall. Fitzman? Santora? They weren’t neighborhood legends or modern folk heroes… they were just people like the rest of us. We all had stories like theirs. None of them revered or worthy of a proud recollection. They are the stories of animals who caged themselves into boxes divided by streets. Just because we had numbers on our doors or flowers in the front didn’t mean we had come that far.
Now, this aint exactly a story too worth telling, but you asked, and I remember it well enough, so here it is.
In the South of town was where he grew up. Unforgiving, orange worn, and endlessly foul. His story was not unlike many others written in that neighborhood during that era. If I were trying to be quaint, I might remark and say telling this story is like going home. It is in a way, but I would never call it quaint.
A bi-product of street fights, late-mornings and the division of two parents who should have never crossed paths in the first place, Charles Roddin was primed for a rotten life from day number one. There used to be a “Mc” before his name that was cropped out by a grandfather he never met years ago. Word was they wanted to hide their heritage when they landed in Ellis Island before heading West. They didn’t make it far. Chucky’s grandfather had a couple friends that had made it good in Ohio, and as their luck had it, the former McRoddins made roots in Cleveland.
In the model of the family at the time, fathers worked, mothers cooked and cleaned. If there were kids who survived, they made their ways between home and school, provided they still went. Naturally, between those two places, a great length of influence could shape them; and did. Walking the streets and alleys of our neighborhoods shaped us all.
More often than not, the model was broken in one place or another. As it was, following suit with his own father, Chucky’s dad left early on. Two kids with Ellen and that was enough. He left Cleveland, the dilapidated one-story, and the three people who looked to him as head of that house. Someone said he went to Kansas.
Ellen worked as a typist during the day and took a second shift job doing laundry in order to keep the house. This of course left Chucky and Peter, the older of the two, to their own devices. Peter carried the round nose and squat form of his father; a “spark plug”, some would call him. Chucky was every bit from his mother’s blood — thin, fair, with a rash of perpetual freckles. Both boys possessed the flash-point fire temper their father was said to have in his day. The difference between them being that Peter could act upon it whereas Chucky could only seethe from the sideline.
Fighting was an inevitability each boy knew. Peter, despite his size, tried to stay on the edge of it all, hoping to find factory work after dropping out of school. In so many words, that boy kept his head down. Chucky, leery of joining the workforce, kept to school, or at least attending it, where his size could carry him a bit. With a mouth bigger than anything else of his, he used it to no end. Sometimes he could talk his target down. Sometimes he could worm his way out. Sometimes, he hoped to find Peter walking home from work.
It was not a constant thing Peter helping Chucky, but he no doubt disliked being dragged into a defensive scrap or scuffle. In fact, he hated having to fight in such a manner. Defending his brother in a true problem was one thing, but that was never the case. Chucky liked to rile his enemies up, an annoying, sneering flame under their own tempers. When and if the rolling boil became too great, Chucky looked to Peter for help. If he obliged, the enemy was usually made sorry. What would make matters worse was that Chucky always took to jeering and spitting defiantly as his brother closed the issue.
Peter though, he was an ok kid. Some of us felt bad what happened to him. I think even Ms. Santora sent zucchini over to his mother the same night.
Frankly, I never thought much of Chucky. Sure, having your old man leave is easy on nobody, but it don’t give you any extra rights. You could see him parading to and from home, half-cocked like he could do something about it. The false assurance of a little prick with a big weapon. I suppose he eventually got what was coming to him.
Chucky “led” a small group of kids almost half his age. They were the only ones who bought the crap he sold. One boy, Frederico Meretti, could have been a protégé of Chucky’s had he not despised the little Italian so much. And likely, that was the reason why — Chucky didn’t want a replacement. To make this point abundantly clear, he decided to flex the little bit of muscle he actually possessed.
Returning from a petty theft one afternoon, Chucky waited until they were mere houses from his own doorstep. Frederico lived a few porches away, but they were closer still to Chucky’s. HIs choice in where stage the fight was deliberate —Peter would be walking home from work. It was the warped hope of Chucky that Peter might see him fighting, and in a way, taking care of himself.
He began to bully the boy. Making fun of him, threatening to take his share of the candy they moments before managed to steal, and so on. Having the same biting spark as Chucky, Frederico angered quick and flung himself at Chucky. He managed to push him back off and, to his surprise, swung a solid punch into the little Italian’s face. The group of boys crowed “Ohhhh!” which only riled Frederico further. He rushed again. This time, Chucky brought his leg up, knocking the wind out of Frederico. Chucky looked around. No sign of Peter. Still, the boy looked surprised and proud of his “work”. He walked around the injured boy who still muttered insults from behind his wet face. In response, he began to harass Frederico once more. As the boy gasped, still finding air, Chucky pushed him over, laughing. The boy eventually got up and ran home crying. This elicited a large cackle of laughter, led the loudest by Chucky.
The small group retired to Chucky’s front stoop, where he was already recalling his fight with much more intensity. He still hoped Peter would come home soon so he could tell him about it, especially while it was still fresh in his mind. From beyond the house’s front bushes, heavier footsteps could be heard quickening. Chucky grew excited, expecting to see his brother.
Instead, a boy that looked like Frederico only five times his size came striding up. Behind him, the actual Frederico stood whimpering with a scowl. All he had to do was point. The behemoth related to Frederico grabbed Chucky by his striped shirt and lifted him up from the stone steps. Chucky kicked frantically and began to swear. The other boys shrieked and yelled, no one intelligible from the other, no clear side to be taken, they just pipped at the excitement.
First a backhand that felt more like a board’s broadside. The strike brought tears and more pathetic yells from Chucky. The second slap was as bad and worse because it matched the first. Chucky flailed and clawed at what was essentially a ham hock hoisting him up. The third hit would have split his lip square if not for his brother.
Peter hollered from the doorway, having come home earlier that day. He watched the scene escalate, hoping not to have to intervene. He knew the older boy. Luke Meretti was a dropout like him but a few years ahead. He worked at a machine shop near to Peter’s. The two boys knew little of one another aside from that one knew how to fight and the other genuinely loved it. Past their moment of recognition, there was little to be done in stopping either from going at it. Chucky was tossed against the steps while the rest of the boys, Frederico included, parted the way while Peter and Luke squared off.
There was something ugly in the way Luke fought. He was older, and not nearly as spry as Peter. The hits he sustained came quickly and abundant, but when he struck, there was much more purpose. Each balled fist landed with a focused impact, almost cruelly. The affair was broadcast angrily by Chucky, bellowing away.
A fight in those days, most of them, was merely a fist fight; a game of sport. Draw some blood, earn some cheers, clean up and go home. For Peter, it was something to avoid, something to protect yourself with, nothing more. But to watch Luke fight, a deeper well was being tapped, a meaner one. For every three hits that struck him, a single, more calculated blow was returned. Peter held his ground, his brother being of no help. Chucky’s taunts and empty threats towards Luke began to even irritate the other boys around him. Still, the fight continued.
A shot on Luke’s shoulder, deflected. A clip on his cheek. A grazed fist into chin’s left side. Fine hits all. Now his retort. With a recoil slow enough to read, but not slow enough to dodge entirely, he swung. Peter moved his face fast enough, but Luke was barreling through. Shoulder to elbow to fist plowed by Peter’s ear, burying deep in his collarbone. Dull as the crack was, the gang about them could here it splinter. Each one watched as this last strike brought Peter crumpling to his knees.
This fight was “over!” they would all cry, Chucky especially. Luke stood breathing heavily. The adrenaline swimming in his veins crashed against the rocks of his compassion. Peter winced, clutching the mashed space between his neck and chest. His eyes only met his Luke’s when a fistful of his hair upturned his gaze.
The crowd, somewhere behind him as well as a million miles away, seethed in protest. Once again, he reeled his fist back. When it landed squarely, it’s target acquired, the crowd sobered to an appalled silence. No one spoke. Especially Chucky.