Denny and I could spend hours duking it out. Pick a game. We did it with ping-pong, Parcheesi, and especially with Donkey Kong. Then there was the infamous Revolutionary War playset that Denny got in the mail. We broke it out one balmy March afternoon. Denny had been yapping about it for weeks. I told him he was a doofus for wasting a perfectly good X-men comic, splicing the ad from the back page, not to mention the fact that he paid for the shipping and handling in nickels and dimes, but he kept insisting it was coming.
I was gobsmacked when it arrived. Of course the figures were a crummy batch of plastic patriots, a couple steps below the army men you’d get at Woolworth, but we were excited to put the American Revolution into practice since we were studying it in school. To spice things up, we used the weapons from Crossbows and Catapults, an anachronism to be sure, but it showed how resourceful or clever we were. We even used the Knights and the Orcs as reserves. Whenever I landed a potent shot, I’d pump my fist and shout, “Way to go Georgie Boy.” (When I was the Americans). If I had the redcoats, I shouted “Way to go Corny!” (for General Cornwallis). Either way this drove Denny nuts.
We barbed wherever we could, but I preferred playing at Denny’s place since he had a house, and a huge front lawn, his backyard dwarfed my Little League outfield. Inside the house, we had to be careful not to destroy the precious vases, stony figurines or the Louis XV style furniture. Sometimes I think I had the upper hand playing at Denny’s because he seemed cautious about his surroundings. Sometimes he was a savage.
Denny was a wizard at catapulting. He had a built-in protractor in his noggin, coupled with the feel of a first-rate pool shark. I took the battering ram approach. There was actually a battering ram in the arsenal, but I preferred my crossbows. For me, they packed a bigger wallop, and they were easier to use. I was a maven of destruction whereas Denny was a dogged tactician, to his own detriment. Funny how much a stupid kid’s game can teach you, if you’re willing to probe.
We had an ambush set up on his carpeted staircase. Denny was really in the zone, everything he launched was a bull’s eye. A couple of times, by pure accident, my elbow got in the way of his shot. These things happened. Denny didn’t blow a gasket or accuse me of playing dirty. He remained cool, focused on the task at hand, coiled into a catapulting machine. He had me right where he wanted. My crossbows were practically deadweight on the staircase, and the carpeting took away all their inherent zing. I had no other choice but to make do with the catapults.
I kept mulling over the fact that General Washington beat Cornwallis, not by brute force, but by a delicate series of retreats. It was a lot for a ten-year-old to swallow, but it was worth a shot. I needed a chance to redeem my good name since Denny had been on a hot streak. I kept up the smack talk and let Denny take riskier shots. After a series of my own retreats, Denny sabotaged a good chunk of his men with his big fat knee when he was regrouping on the stairs. Not the prettiest way to win, but hey. We took a snack break.
Denny was always stocked to the gills with candy, chips, cakes, and sodas. By my math, he never had less than a dozen bottles. They’d loaf by the bar across from the Steinway, and the bust of Beethoven. Most were half-empty and flat. Besides fizz-less Pepsi, my compadre was forever pushing his grandmother’s meringue on me. It always looked so pitiful, Smurf hats made of chalk, and tasted like it too. I never grabbed any unless his mom happened to be checking up on us. She filled my plate with so much junk: cookies, candy, and cakes, she was either the greatest host for a ten-year-old twerp or she was getting kickbacks from Dr. Derkasch (Denny and I had the same dentist). Personally, I think she was tired of the meringue and was trying to unload it.
That balmy March afternoon Denny’s mom plunked herself down beside us and played hostess. She was equally adept at delegating and made Denny refill my Waterford glass to the brim. He took exquisite delight in watching me suffer because he knew how much I hated flat Pepsi. I had to practically swandive to the lip of my glass before the cola stained their embroidered family heirloom, a hand-woven tablecloth from some village in eastern Transylvania.
Mrs. P and Denny argued in their family tongue, and I could see my pal was milking the situation because he probably wasn’t nearly as cavalier without company present. A foreign language made a family spat so much edgier. Because I was trying my best to be well-behaved, Denny decided to let loose a stinkbomb. Of course he blamed me, but his mom was familiar with his unique scent.
Denny told his mom I didn’t drink flat soda. She seemed unperturbed, for the moment. Mainly, the term flat didn’t register since English was only her second, no, make that her third language. Denny stayed the course and insisted that I didn’t drink bubbleless Pepsi. This struck a chord with Mrs. P.
“What happened to the bubbles?” she asked.
“They’re gone,” Denny reminded her, “They’re old bottles.”
I emphasize the exclamation point in lieu of a question mark since this is how it sounded plus the look on Mrs. P’s face screamed insult. A hostess, of her caliber, didn’t serve old cola. She held her jaw tight for a good eight seconds then she dropped her signature “puh”.
“That good for nothing father of yours,” Mrs. P said. “He’s a chip off the old bark.”
I knew better than to laugh, but Denny seized the chance to rib his mom, correcting her idiomatic flub. I tried to change the subject and even complimented her poofy hair, my fingers crossed under the table. She eked out what could pass for a smirk then told her son to open a fresh bottle. Denny didn’t miss a beat, informing his mother, bubbling with giddiness, that none of the bottles were new. She got up right then and inspected each one only to learn, much to her abundant chagrin, that Denny was right.
“Look at all this wasted soda,” she said.
She could’ve been chastising me directly. I was the cause of at least five freshly-cracked Pepsis. Mrs. P raised her finger and began yelling. First, in Romanian, then in English. Her consistent, catchy refrain, “Good for nothing,” still echoing as she stormed out of the room.
Denny proceed to tell me that his Pops was the critical nugget of his mom’s agida. As if I didn’t know. It seemed that Mr. P would buy, without fail, twice as much stuff as they could ever consume without going bad. Unlike his wife, who had been born with money, he grew up a dirt-poor peasant, the oldest of five children. He became the family breadwinner at age fourteen. Denny told me his father would freak out if he heard anybody’s grumbling belly, would rush out to stock up on eggs, milk, and Scooter pies. It drove Mrs. P bonkers, but he kept his family fed.
She’d been gone for a while, and I’d been hankering to duck out without anybody seeing me. I wasn’t exactly sure where Mrs. P had gone and I didn’t want to be rude, lest it get back to my folks and have hell to pay. Mrs. P did return, a bit harried with flush cheeks and a sweaty brow, a dusty two-liter bottle of Pepsi in her hand. Some feeble attempt had been made to wipe clean the shoulders. A caramel-like gob of gunk slithered down the neck of the bottle. Maybe it was rubber cement or caramelized cola. The bottom of the bottle looked as if it had swooped down a chimney. There may have been a cobweb, dangling from the side, but Mrs. P flicked it off, whatever it was, before I had a chance to get a better squint.
More than anything, I wanted to get out of there, but I was stuck like an amber-doused insect. Pepsi spurt all over when Mrs. P whisked open the bottle. She licked some off her knuckles. Rather than retreat, I sat there and had my old Pepsi which was beyond syrupy. It did have bubbles. Caveat emptor. Mrs. P may well have dug up the relic from somewhere in the basement or possibly even from the backyard by the begonias. I grabbed my chalice and slurped a bit off the rim then slugged back the ancient cola. Mrs. P seemed very proud of herself, and poured me another round.
I nursed the second one, sat back and tried to tune out the bickering. With each sip, the flavors and my sentiment kept evolving. The syrupy sensation turned medicinal. I’m not sure if that was the old cola or the family fracas, but while they argued in Romanian, I drank my Pepsi both glad and a bit glum I didn’t exactly know what they were saying, the whole while pretending I was swigging a cold glass of tap water.