My neighbors were staring at two large black men from across the street. They were the ones carrying Helene’s body. Both were two of the biggest people I ever seen. They came down the stairs and looked no different than movers with a coffee table. As if it weren’t bad enough everybody was standing around to watch her get carted away, I also saw her hair fall out from the way it was tucked under that blanket. Those men didn’t stop. They continued on as her hair nearly swept the pavement.
I’d seen her hair only once before.
It was one of the hottest days I can remember, so hot that every house on our block had their air conditioners on all day. I should say mostly every house had it turned on. We weren’t so lucky to have it in our house. The heat made nearly everyone stay inside for most of the day. At least they did until after the sun went down. Then some of the older ladies always pulled their chairs out onto their porches to gossip with one another.
It weren’t much past noon. My friends and I were taking turns under the fire-hydrant. We took turns giving a free wash to the few cars that let us. The water from the hydrant was coming out so fast that it pushed us onto the road each time we dared to duck in front of it. Some of our parents joked that Emery Street turned into Wildwood in August. The water fizzled near the middle of the street and ran back towards the curb. Some of the younger kids played in the soapy water that formed there. Ookie squatted and straddled the hydrant. I knew better than to get too close to him. My Mom had told me he spent most of his childhood bouncing between foster homes and detention centers and that he was born with a defect of mean spiritedness. She said he was luckier than heck that Mrs. Beattie ever took him in but that he sure never acted like it.
He was laughing and snorting up a storm while sitting behind the hydrant. Then he clenched up his chubby fists into a ball and forced them into the hydrant’s mouth and if you closed your eyes just then you would have sworn he had made it rain.
After a while I quit the hydrant and decided to grab my first basemen’s mitt and toss a ball against the pizza shop wall. I did this quite a bit and the sound of thud, clump…clump was heard by my neighbors nearly every night in the summer. They said it was as recognizable to them as the sound of my own voice. I threw against the wall each and every day, sometimes until I could hardly see the ball bouncing back to me. I’d been practicing like this most of the summer. Interest in baseball seemed to be at an all time low so over and over again I found myself having a catch with the same stucco partner.
The hydrant blasted into its second full hour. Most of the older kids took up a game of suicide while Ookie stood by to dictate which little one could go next.
“Not you,” he said. “You had a turn. Now back of the line.”
“But Ookie,” the kid pleaded.
“Back of the line, Squirt!” Ookie shouted. They all followed Ookie’s demands and he’d even go as far as to give tasks to those waiting a turn.
“Benji,” he said, picking on the undersized, pale boy on our block, “You’re gonna stick your head under that thing and we’re gonna see if it might just fly right off.”
Sure enough Benji stuck his head into the eye of the hydrant but to Ookie and his gangs’ disappointment it remained intact. It was a shame how they looked up to him but I was happy he clung to them and not me. Oookie went from boy to boy, sucking his finger before sticking it into an unsuspecting ear. I tried ignoring him and just kept on throwing my ball off the wall. I made up games like that people’s lives were at stake if I missed the ball. That kept it interesting.
I fielded a nice one going to my right and I turned and flicked the ball towards the wall in one sweet motion. “Double play!” I shouted. I didn’t realize I had said that out loud and saw smirks from Ookie and his gang.
A patrol car turned down our street going the wrong way. Ookie quickly grabbed his wrench and slid it under his Phillies towel. The patrolman pulled his car into the parking lot near the hydrant. He walked over with his own wrench and turned at its top until the wave turned into a drip.
“Sorry kids, hate to do it on such a hot day.” He pulled an orange cover from his car and locked it in place, mounting it to the hydrant’s opening, “But you can play under the hydrant as long as you like now.”
The officer turned it back on and it drizzled onto their heads. As he drove off Ookie puffed up his chest and went over and turned it off again. He wrinkled his eyebrows at the younger kids, hollering and pointing, “Youse are better off gettin’ outta here – This thing ain’t worth a piss to us now.”
Helene’s house was only a few feet from where we played. It was buried between an abandoned pizza shop and roofing company. Her house sat about ten feet behind the other buildings with a giant barbed wire fence in front. We’d always see her curtains pulled aside when she was watching us play. The smaller kids just kind of lingered before dividing into groups and heading to their own blocks. I was one of the few who stayed out, throwing my ball against the wall.
Ookie trotted over to me and pushed me off of my feet. I hit the ground glove first and popped up just as quickly.
“What’s that about?”
“Come on China, you played enough bouncie-off-the-wall for one day.”
“What’d ya want?”
“I got somethin’ that’ll teach that old baggy-ass battle axe from calling the police on us every damned day.”
Helene’s blinds were closed and I could clearly see an “S” shaped crack that zigzagged from the top of her window. Her cats were climbing over one another to get a spot on her window sill. Helene was coming out. Ookie told me to distract her somehow.
“But I wouldn’t know what to say.”
“Say what the fuck comes in your head. What do I know?”
“I don’t know…”
Ookie grabbed me by the sleeve and pulled me to within an inch of his face.
“Stop being a pussy.”
Helene walked from her home with her bike in hand. I could see she was struggling to remove the chains from her fence. Finally she opened the gate and walked her bike down the street a few feet and leaned it against the pizza shop wall before returning to lock up again.
“Let’s go, China,” Ookie whispered, nudging me towards her.
“Helene,” I said, “Can I help you with that chain?”
She looked at me and smiled and she said, “Oh yes, thank you.” I started to pull the chain tightly around her fence. I could hardly believe how heavy it felt in my hands. I could feel it clicking harder with each tug. It sounded like my grandfather’s old lawn sprinkler, the way it would click…click…click on its way from one end of the lawn to the other. I reached for the last of the chain, then I heard the words “got it” and turned and saw Ookie running away from Helene after pulling the wig from her head. She was silent at first and then she cried, putting her hands on her bobby-pinned scalp. She cried again and again and Ookie wouldn’t quit. He danced in the street as his crowd of misfits circled around him. He swung her hair above his head. She was quiet. I was still holding a piece of her chain in my hand. Ookie danced his way through and around the crowd. They were cheering his name and laughing. Helene kept trying to cover her head.
“Why would you do this to me?” She moaned and cried as the neighborhood had come outside to see what happened. Eventually the crowd and Ookie trotted off down the street and I watched as he tossed her hair aside like it were an empty bag of Cheetohs.
Helene looked at me. Her cheeks mottled red and white. I was left standing in the same place holding the last piece of her chain in my hands. Her eyes were painted with tears and mascara, and her hands had dropped from the top of her head. I looked at her hair. It was white and shiny as she pulled those pins from her scalp. She turned and looked in my direction but I couldn’t take my eyes off the pavement. She grabbed her bicycle from the side of the pizza shop and headed back towards her home. I took the chains off and opened her gate. Helene walked past me, grabbing the chains from my hands. She put her bicycle against the wall and pulled the gate tightly closed. She pulled the chain over and over again until finally she clamped the lock in place. I looked once more at her from behind. I couldn’t believe how white her hair was. I decided to quit throwing my ball a little early and headed across the street to my home.
The older ladies rocked back and forth on their porches, murmuring about how long she had been dead. They asked one another who had found her that way, and whether her daughter had heard. One cried out what a shame it would be for her to hear it on the news. “The poor thing,” the other said.
Ookie and his gang ignored the excitement. They were too caught up in a game of fast-pitch stickball to pay her any attention. Ookie was pitching from across the street. His wind-up was always dramatic, lifting his hands high above his head before pulling them back to his waist. He twisted himself almost completely around and slung his arm forward with each pitch. The batter cocked his hands back and swung away, fouling off Ookie’s fastball.
“Oh damn,” Ookie said dancing on the mound, “Nolan Ryan is cookin’ today.” The ball trickled from the wall and skipped through a puddle before landing back into Ookie’s hands. Ookie twisted himself back into his wind-up and delivered the next pitch. The batter didn’t swing. The ball left a mark on the wall behind him inside the taped up strike-zone.
“That’s two for me and notta-chance in hell for you!” Ookie danced again as the ball bounced to the middle of the street.
An unfamiliar boy laughed while bicycling through the neighborhood.
“Hey,” he shouted from a distance, “Wiggy finally bit it.” He laughed again, racing away.
A handful of Ookie’s fielders started laughing too. The batter stepped out from his imaginary box and bowed his head. He grabbed his cross from his chest and looked to be saying a silent prayer.
Ookie waited a moment, then picked up the ball from the pavement and threw it in his general direction, missing his head by just a few inches.
The men wheeled the stretcher to the back of their large black car. They opened the door and with a tug lifted and pushed her body into the back of it. The entire process of removing her body seemed to last an hour, but in reality it was no longer than a few minutes. The car pulled away and my neighbors quietly went their own way. After a little bit I was the only one left looking at her house.
The coroners left her gate wide open – her large chain dangling from the fence. I walked to Helene’s yard and lifted the chain into my hands. The brown rust smeared my palm. I pushed with all of my might to get the gate closed. Like I seen her do it a million times, I locked one end of the chain in place and listened as it rattled through my fingers.