When it wasn't enough to watch Superfly Snuka soar from the top rope, or watch Mad Dog Vachon slap a sleeper hold on a dazed and disoriented patsy, we created our own neighborhood wrestling league on our little piece of Long Island. We'd play the whole bit of acting out scripts, designing costumes complete with masks and championship belts, always practicing new maneuvers. We even made a wrestling ring in my backyard out of taut white rope and picnic benches.
Not one of us wanted to wrestle Bob. He was just too strong. He used his fists like hammers, and we ended up either running away or submitting before the match even started. We liked to make the excuse that he was a few years older than the rest of us, or that we had hurt ourselves during a grueling match earlier, but the truth was that we were all wimps. The only real fights we were ever involved in were one or two punch affairs, with the result being nothing more than an exchange of weak insults about the other guy's mother and dirty clothes from rolling around on the ground. Bob was a fighter, and he beat the crap out of more than one smartass who thought he was tougher. Bob was way out of our social league.
We all breathed easier when Bob didn't participate in our simulated ass-kicking sessions in my backyard. Either he was taking apart the engine of his over-achieving rustbucket of a Camaro, again, or he was having sex with Melissa, or Michelle, or Danielle, or whoever paid him a visit on that particular day. When we got tired of sleeper holds and figure-four leglocks, or if someone got hurt, we'd go over to see if we could spy on Bob and his girl du jour, trying to catch him in the act of doing what he always told us he did: making the girls scream his name for about fifteen minutes. I think he knew it, too, because every time we thought we caught him with a girl, we'd only be able to see his bare white ass going up and down. The four of us would stand with our faces pressed to the windows, and we'd strain our eyes to swallow every detail of what was going on inside.
"He knows we're watching," Bob's brother Eddie would say.
"Then why doesn't he turn to the side, or let her get on top?" My brother would always have suggestions like these. Always one step ahead of the rest of us. He was always thinking.
Of course, just about when it was getting good, my father always came home. It didn't matter how good a day I'd been having, or what I'd done, I'd invariably get a stiff chill through my body and a light queasiness in my stomach whenever the old man pulled into our driveway.
"Hey," he'd call to us from across the street, "get your asses home, now."
"Shit," My brother and I would say in unison. We'd run down our friends' driveway, toward the road, with an echoing "Bob" chasing us all the way.
In the tradition of most middle-aged Italian men on Long Island, my father had to have a tomato garden, and as the years went by, he worked in it less and less. Every morning there was a list of household chores written in my father's scribbled cursive, and I could always discern his state of mind, or the tone of the letter, by how long and narrow his words were. I want to talk to you when I get home could mean a few things. It all depended on his handwriting. The notes frightened me before I even read them.
Without fail, "weed garden" was always one of the written commands of my father. It was frequently included in a varying list of tasks: pick up dogshit (dog-dirt if he was feeling particularly amiable), clean rooms, sweep pool, etc. I hated weeding that freaking garden. Mostly we just picked up the dogshit in the yard, because it was a pragmatic task for us: we needed a clean surface for wrestling, and we needed an obstacle-free wiffleball field. In an attempt to outsmart our father, we would scratch little check marks next to each task the old man wanted us to do.
"What'd you two turkeys do all day?" he'd ask us.
"Here's the list," my brother would say, "all checked off." He didn't actually lie. All he told him was that the list had been checked off.
In order to go to Eddie's party that night, we had to actually do the rest of the items on the list. My father checked all of our work, and ten minutes later, my brother and I would be standing in front of him with our heads cocked upwards, receiving the barrage of expletives and accusations, among other things.
"You lying to me?" He'd ask us, grinding his teeth to scare the shit out of us the more. The answer was crucial. If we said yes, we'd be certain to get what my father called "the strap." Mostly he'd portend a beating by unfastening his giant Winchester Rifle belt buckle and begin pulling it slowly from the loops of his stinking jeans until we decided to grovel and plead. If we shook our heads, we'd be dragged to the spot of the infraction and proven liars, then actually get the strap. Not sure which was better. I do know that I was the luckier one of the two of us in one aspect of the torture: my giant glasses stopped all of the disgusting little white shots of spittle that inevitably came out of my father's raging mouth. My brother had perfect vision.
When we're in the garden it's always the same: I'm squatting down like a catcher, stopping every thirty seconds to clear the dirt from under my fingernails, and my brother's sitting on his knees, digging every weed out of the earth with swift efficiency.
"It's his garden. Why doesn't he take care of it?" I say.
"He's watching us from the kitchen window," my brother tells me.
I stand up and brush myself off. Since I have a captivated audience for my poor-me performance, I press my hands to my lower back and arch slightly, as if I'm some poor slave on a Carolina plantation, letting the sun rejuvenate my weary bones. My father's buying none of it.
"Stop your bullshit and get it done," he yells from the window.
About a half-hour later, I'm done with a couple of plants. My brother's got a whole row done and he asks me:
"You ever had sex?"
"Sex? What do you think?" I say, being intentionally cryptic.
"You hear about Zach Camillo?" he asks me. "Got caught jerking off at a sleepover last weekend. Calling him Zach the Whack now."
"Yeah, well, who'd be stupid enough to get caught at a sleepover?"
"So you've done it?" he asks me. Of course I've done it I want to scream at him. A lot. I've done it a lot. There's nothing wrong with it, little brother I want to say, but I don't. I want to tell him that I have a rotation of girls I think about every night--that he wouldn't believe the girls I think about when I do it. I want to, but there's too much at stake to tell him.
"C'mon, let's hurry up and get this done," I say to him.
Eddie's party was thrown together last minute, and it didn't take long for the little bastard to render himself inebriated by a dusty bottle of tequila we dug out of his father's basement.
"What the hell is Eddie doing, Billy?" I ask my brother.
"He's just lying there, I guess"
"Is he going to be sick?"
"What do you think? He's only had an entire bottle of tequila."
"This is a whole lot of fun. Want to go home?"
"No. Remember last time I went home in the middle of the night? Dad beat the shit out of me."
My father was like that, and Billy was right to think that about him. He was very precise about where we were and at what time we were supposed to be there. There wasn't any room to deviate from the plan my father always considered buried in stone. I remember the time my father bought space at the San Gennaro Feast in Manhattan to sell his roses made of wood-shavings. Billy and I would want to explore as soon as we finished setting up.
"Don't get lost, turkeys," my Dad said. "Check back in an hour."
We both said okay and stayed together for the first fifteen minutes, making fun of fat people, then we each went our own way.
An hour later to the second, I checked back, "Checking in, Dad." I didn't want to piss him off. Wasn't sure if he'd sold anything.
"Where the hell's your brother?"
I didn't have any idea where he was, and when I checked back in the second and third time, Billy still hadn't been to see my father.
He took in a stream of air through his flaring nostrils and gritted his teeth, "I want you to find your goddamn brother and get his ass back here." I wasn't sure what to make of him at that point. It was a strange melding of rage and fear. "You understand me?"
I found my brother working at a carnival game booth where you had to throw a dart and pop a balloon for a prize. He had a megaphone in his hand squawking at the Italian passers-by as they stuffed their faces with calzones or sausage and pepper heroes, dropping half of their precious food on the ground. My brother was a freaking carny for chrissakes.
"Billy, Jesus Christ, Dad wants you."
"This guy's paying me twenty-five dollars to work tonight." He was always the ambitious one. But after he saw the look on my face he took off this stupid looking visor he was wearing that put a strange green tint over his face, and jumped over the side of the trailer. He followed me back toward where my father was making no money at all. Billy never got his money that night, either.
"Is he pissed?" I knew goddamn well my father was pissed, but I wanted to help my brother the best I could.
"I don't know," I said to him. No matter what it was: waiting for my father to come home from another lousy day at work; report card day; or my mother saying she told our father what we'd said to her that day, anticipation was always the worst part of it. If we had punishment coming, we'd wanted to get it over with. The worst part was having to think about it the whole goddamn day. So I didn't tell my brother that I knew he was in big trouble.
"Come with me, mister." My father grabbed Billy by the collar and dragged him behind a cotton candy trailer. Billy kept tripping over the cobblestones, and I thought then that each time he stumbled it made my father angrier.
He beat the shit out of Billy to the point that it made my father cry and tell him he loved him later that night. My father hardly ever told us that he loved us. We never changed plans on my father as long as we both lived after that.
Back at the party, I'm watching Eddie writhe on an inflatable crab, though he's practically unconscious. Billy and I are trying to talk him through it, but he's not responding. It's a completely helpless feeling when there isn't anything you can do for a guy.
"He's going to be sick," I say.
"Who cares? I'm tired, let's go to sleep."
"Billy, look at him. Remember how Bon Scott died? Choked on his own vomit because he slept on his back." That's all I'm imagining in my brain, some obscure reference to a dead hero of mine.
"Well what do you want me to do? I'm tired, and Eddie's not a rock star."
"Look around you. Where are you going to lie down? We're not sleeping tonight. I'm rolling him over."
I kneel beside my friend and push him over. Eddie vomits all over the filthy basement floor, and the smell of his insides are giving me the hot saliva. I gag for a second.
This party wasn't a good idea anymore, and I should've gotten the hint earlier in the night when Michael got behind one of the Doberman pinschers they own and wrapped his right hand around its penis. Before he did it he tells us, "Hey guys, watch this," like it's a parlor trick he's done before. The poor freaking dog is sitting there confused, looking back at Michael with his tongue lolling out of his mouth. Michael looking at us like we were going to cheer him on.
"Billy, Eddie's crying," I say.
"I'm afraid to leave him alone."
"Well, get Bob then. I'm not going near him. He's freaking disgusting."
I'm thinking about it for a second, looking at Eddie hunched over on the crab, and I'm making a mental note to stay away from that crab when I see it floating in the pool. I'm watching the dog lick the puddle of bile and tequila off of the floor, and I decide to go upstairs to get Bob.
I do my best to climb the basement stairs quietly, but there isn't a doubt in my mind that the floor creaks the loudest when you don't want it to. It's like the floor knows you're trying to tiptoe and it wants to annoy the shit out of you. I've been in this house before, so I know where Bob's bedroom is: two rights away. It's so dark in this house that it's taking me a long time to make my way to Bob's room. I'm afraid I'll hit my head on an open cabinet door, knock a glass bowl off the kitchen counter, or kick a dog dish filled with water, something like that. I'm thinking I could've gone to 7-11 and back in the time it's taking me to get to Bob's room.
After catching my hand on a few nail heads sticking out of the paneled walls, I make it to Bob's room. His door is open a crack, and I'm relieved to see the flickering blue light, which means he's sitting up watching television or something. My eyes are trying to adjust to the new setting, so it's taking me a while to find Bob in the room. My eyes find the end of the bed, and I'm standing there with my mouth open, concentrating on the bed.
I'm hearing a squeaking like it's some rickety cartoon hay baler, or pie maker, I used to watch on television every Saturday morning when I was younger, so I think it's the television making all that noise. I'm not paying attention to the fact that Bob's blankets are undulating in a steady, concentrated rhythm. I mean there was no reason for me to believe that Bob had his palm and fingers wrapped around his penis, not when I saw it inside of some girl a few hours earlier that afternoon.
It's taking me a while to realize what's going on, and at the exact second I realize that Bob is masturbating, his face shoots to the crack of the door, where my eyes stare in witness to the entire thing.
I've kept the secret with me ever since. Probably out of a strange gratitude towards Bob. He did a lot for me that night, showing me that I wasn't a pervert for most of the things I thought about and did at fourteen. Catching Bob made me realize that I was human after all.
So I went down and cleaned Eddie's vomit off the floor that night, and I probably ended up riding that inflatable crab in his pool later on. During the summers, after three hours of wiffleball, I'd walk to the front of the house to drink a gallon of water from the garden hose, and I'd see Bob working on his Camaro across the street. I'd call to him, and he'd always look over and raise his hand. In school, once, he introduced me to one of his friends. And when it came time for me and Bob to fight in the wrestling ring, six or seven guys looking on, he'd say he had a lot of shit to do and go home.