Thursday, June 12, 2008

Dodo, Chapter Five, The Manchester Pals

The last time I ever saw Willy Blanefield III, he was sprinting down the middle of Negley Avenue, trying to overtake a runaway bowling ball.
     Willy was the sort of kid you either wanted to hug, or slug in the face, it all depended what side of his personality you were greeted with. To his credit, he hadn't been the one to liberate the bowling ball, that was Iceman's doing. Iceman was a roly-poly giant of a boy, with coke-bottle glasses and a laugh like a donkey. He'd hidden the ball under his full-length winter coat, walking right by the manager of the bowling alley and out onto the double yellow lines of the busy street. Iceman and Willy were part of the little gang I ran with in the early 1980s, during the years I spent dodging responsibility in Pittsburgh. This was before I met F and we eventually moved back to Ohio.
     There were five of us, inseparable to the end: Willy, me, Iceman, Caligula Carl and Meat. We called ourselves The Manchester Pals, the quaint-sounding “pals” to us having a more sinister definition, one rooted in the world of cheesy gangster movies.
     Manchester was a neighborhood of historic red brick buildings and oak-filled parks, just to the northwest of the industrial city's triangular downtown. If you continued walking through the stately old homes and businesses you'd end up on the east bank of the Ohio River, amongst rail cars and barrels of chemicals and barbed wire fences. It was not far from here that the Pals first came together. Though I was a good two years older than the others, I looked nearly as young as Willy, the baby of the gang. A lanky young man, only three years out of high school, I had about as much sense of direction as that bowling ball racing down Negley.

I'd followed Helmut to the steel city, encouraged by his tales of easy girls and fun to be had any direction you chose. He'd moved there the year before, ignoring mother's pleas that he “find a steady job in Cuyahoga, save some money, and then think about living in a big city”. He'd borrowed a hundred dollars from father, who was living away from home at the time, on one of his many prolonged “episodes”.
     Jumping a train east, Helmut had met a shady older rider who secured him work cleaning an adult theater, a night job that offered him plenty of opportunities to familiarize himself with Pittsburgh's seedy underbelly.
     He was still working there (a personal record for Mr. Impatience) when I showed up on the steps of the building he was living in. This was on the Northside, only a short jog from Manchester, in another Victorian-era district known as the Mexican War Streets, named for the neighborhood's planner and essential founder, General William Robinson, Jr., who, upon returning from the Mexican-American War in 1848, set about to designating the area with its distinctive character, labeling streets after the war's major battles.
     Helmut's residence was a decrepit brick tower of gothic solemnity that sat at the very end of Palo Alto Street, some eight floors of flint-cheap apartments and boarding rooms. The hallways were usually filled with occupied sleeping bags, looking like worms on the sidewalk after a heavy rain. Navigating these were punk brats and their pregnant girlfriends, alongside old ladies with sharp, defensive eyes, clutching plastic shopping bags to themselves like soldiers rising from a bunker, and dark, European-looking men in oily jackets who paced before suspect doorways.

I'd gotten friendly with a girl on the Trailways bus from Ohio. Her name was Bettina. She had short, shorn-off auburn hair and big, grey-blue eyes. As we said goodbye at the downtown station she handed me a small piece of card. I didn't look at it until after I'd watched her disappear into the midday crowd, mesmerized by the pendulous sway of her wide hips, wishing I had Helmut's nerve when it came to girls. Scrawled across the back, of what turned out to be an expired temporary library card from the Toledo Public Library, was an address, followed by her name. I'll never forget her handwriting, how the two t's in Bettina locked together, as if they were waves on the sea (ironically, I later learned she was AWOL from the Navy). Bettina was every bit as much the rambler as my brother. I was no match for a girl like her, I'd fitted my own leash the first time I locked onto those liquid eyes. It didn't take long to lead me into the crazy world of Willy Blanefield III and The Manchester Pals.

Helmut insisted I spend my first night in Pittsburgh with him, helping slop a smelly, disinfectant-soaked mop across linoleum floors stained with a day's worth of spit, urine, come, and other substances I was terrified to even ponder. Right from the start we'd argued over the perils of my traipsing about an unfamiliar place, a debate that continued as we made our way towards the large doorway of the once-grand old vaudevillian theater, now emblazoned with a red and gold neon marquee that promised HOT ADULT ACTION!
     “Pittsburgh's not half as bad as
Cleveland,” I moaned, turning to the city that glowed behind us, a warm summer night giving it an allure I found impossible to resist.
     “You go runnin' around out there and you'll end up sorry, Totty,” he replied, pushing me inside the great copper and glass doors. “Did you catch those brothers on the corner back there? You'll get yourself mugged or knifed.”
     I snickered. “Yeah – right. What could
really happen?”
     “Your balls could end up hangin' from some motherfucka's necklace –
that's what!”
     This comment elicited a hoarse laugh from somewhere behind the thick-glassed ticket window at the far side of the wide lobby. I looked to see a ruddy face appear in the narrow light coming from an illuminated sign that read ADULTS ONLY! This was the sort of business where everything was deemed worthy of an exclamation point.
     “Got my kid brother with me tonight, Louis, hope you don't mind,” Helmut explained, giving a dismissive nod in my direction.
     “Watch he doesn't jack off on the carpets, just had 'em vacc'd!” snorted the older man, holding a thick, hairy arm out from under the glass window.
     Helmut grabbed a big set of keys from Louis's hand. “No worries about that,” he snickered.   “The little pussy's been whackin' it all the way here from Cuyahoga Falls! Ain't ya, Totty?”
     I scowled, wishing I'd never even mentioned Bettina.
     Turning my attention to a showcase featuring a garishly-colored poster for a film titled
Flesh Sacrifice!, I fingered the small card in my pocket, deciding then and there that I wasn't going to spend the whole night in that musty old theater.

“You don't
sound like you were born in Ohio,” declared the skinny kid sitting on the railing of the big steps outside the apartment building that matched the address Bettina had given me. He was wearing a cap on his head, the sort a pilot or bus driver would wear. It all but covered his eyes, but couldn't hide the big smirk plastered across his face. His clothes were a jumbled assortment of mismatched layers, an outfit he wore most every time I ever saw him.
     “I wasn't,” I replied, searching for his eyes in the shade of the brim. “I was born in Worms, it's a...”
     “WURMS?” he shrieked, almost pitching backwards over the railing. “What was your mom doing in a bucket of
     “Worms is a city in Western 
Germany, dumbass – don't you know anything?” came a familiar voice, floating down from the open window above us.
     I looked up to see Bettina, smiling my way, as she leaned through the window frame. I found it hard not to stare at the way her hip spilled over the sill. “Glad you found us, Tot! We were about to head out to check out a really cool band - you wanna come?”
     I grinned. Of course I did.
     I was smitten, there was no denying it. I'd follow her practically anywhere, even if it meant splitting on Helmut while he was cleaning out the projection booth, stealing off into the night streets of a city I hardly knew. I was going to fetch hell for that later, but right then I didn't care, not one bit, not as long as Bettina was nearby.

“So – your dad's a
drunk, huh?”
     I tensed at the remark, feeling my face harden. I gave Willy a harsh squint, watching him fiddle with the buttons of the boom box he held perched on his shoulder. I silently cursed myself, knowing I'd spilled too much to Bettina during our bus ride. I've always had the habit of rambling on when I'm with an attractive woman, I think that might be a German trait, or maybe it's just from mother's side, the “jawful” as father always used to say, one of his odd conversions of the English language.
     “SHUT UP, DICKHEAD,” the tall, muscular, dark-haired guy trailing Willy suddenly warned, reaching out to give Willy a quick push, making him stumble. This was Meat. Apparently he was Bettina's boyfriend, I never quite knew for sure. They all seemed more like a family of circumstance than friends, a clan that came with its own pecking order. Bettina was clearly in charge, with Meat as a reliable echo, backing her up with a stern look or shove, most of it going Willy's way.
     “I don't care, not a big deal,” I replied, catching Bettina's eye, hoping to see a look of apology, or even sympathy, but she quickly turned away.
     “Feel free to belt the little snot next time he bothers you,” offered Meat, in a friendly manner.
     Willy, having recovered his footing, cut in front of me. “Check
this out!” he exclaimed, his boom box now blaring out a horrible, tuneless noise, followed by an angry voice singing something that sounded like “I'm a snow man, baby”. He grinned my way, now light in his step. “IT'S – MY – LATEST – RECORDING!” he shouted over the din, far more than was necessary. “WHAT – DO – YA – THINK? HUH?”
     Meat reached out and grabbed the box, this time causing Willy to spin about, almost falling over. “The little jerk's always playing that shit to everyone he meets – I guess he
wants his face punched in on a regular basis,” Meat offered, jabbing the STOP button and opening the cassette deck. He pulled out the tape and stuffed it into the pocket of his jean jacket.
     “GIVE IT
BACK!” squealed Willy, lunging for the tape. “IT'S MY ONLY COPY!”
     “Too bad, dickhead,” Meat grinned, catching my eye. “You'll get it
later – don't sweat it, retard.”
     Bettina just laughed. “You'll
like the music we're going to check out, Tot, don't worry,” she said, meeting my eye again. “The Vacuum Bags are practically Jesus Christ.”
     Meat nodded his agreement. “Wait until you catch Iceman,” he enthused. “The dude's totally APESHIT on the drums!”

Turns out he was totally apeshit on
     Even before we reached our destination, an all-ages club located in a weathered, white concrete building that used to house a hardware store, we heard a great roar and then a car horn sounding and then a round of cheering and laughter. “Sounds like Iceman's wrestling! I bet Carl's challenged him again! COME
ON!” declared Bettina, rushing on ahead, her boots slapping hard on the pavement as she zipped past rows of listing brick townhouses, making her way towards the river.
     “Yoo-HOO!” Willy yelled, quickly following, one hand holding his big boom box (which Meat had happily relented), the other his cap.
     I turned to Meat. “Wrestling?” I inquired, a bit confused.
     The big kid grinned, his slightly-misshapen mouth curling upwards, revealing a missing front tooth. “You'll see when we get there,” he replied, showing no signs of hurrying after the others. “Looks like it's going to be a pretty good night.”

     I had such a good time I didn't mind the riot act Helmut read me the next morning, when he caught me trying to sneak into his tiny apartment. I just grinned, looking away, elated at having found new friends so quickly.
     Not even the broken finger I endured when he threw my dictionary at me could dissuade me from joining them again the next night. Though that wasn't the only broken thing I suffered.
A few weeks later, I awoke from my couch bed to see Bettina standing in the kitchen area, fixing breakfast, wearing Helmut's old football jersey and a pair of socks.
     I moved my stuff to the basement of Iceman's building that same afternoon.
     I couldn't tell Helmut exactly why.
     I chose to suffer alone, never telling anyone of my feelings for Bettina.
     It's just the way I am. No one would have understood anyway. The only person who might was suffering herself, back in Cuyahoga, waiting to hear a key in the back door.