Wednesday, March 23
Maud Seward sat in a canvas camp chair, her knitting in her lap, a ball of yarn in a basket beside her, like a French market woman seated beside the guillotine. “No, no, Matches,” she shouted. “At a distance, hold the knife like a hammer. Close in, hold it like an ice pick.” She illustrated the proper technique with her knitting needle.
Matches was a twelve-year-old girl who lit fires when the tension at home became unbearable. She was registered at Roosevelt Middle School as Vala Daunt.
“That’s it, dear,” Maud said. “Chin, either commit or run like hell. Don’t dance around like Mohammed Ali. Cripple or kill, that’s the point of a knife fight.” She chuckled. “No pun intended.”
Chin was Edee Lempert to his parents, an eleven-year-old boy who idolized UFC champ Georges St-Pierre. He dreamed of fighting in the UFC but had a glass jaw.
“Strike first and strike hard. Don’t allow your opponent a second strike,” Maud encouraged. “And Bugsy, keep your left arm up. Use it defend your vital organs. Expect to get hurt. This is a knife fight. It’s dirty and bloody and someone will probably get killed. Make sure it isn’t you.”
Bugsy was one of the oldest members of the Hammertoes, the gang that cribbed in the Old Cannery. He was Hardball’s lieutenant, the son of an immigrant family from Argentina. Christened Tiro Badrian, he claimed to be the grandson of a Waffen SS Standartenführer who fled to Argentina after the war. His family were Jewish tailors. Bugsy clicked his heels which made no sound in sneakers and snapped a straight arm salute.
“And if you ever do that to me again,” Maud said, laying her knitting needles in her lap and leaning forward, her voice thin as a straight-edged razor, “I’ll snap your arm off at the shoulder and shove it so far down your throat your fingers will be cupping your balls.”
The other students in Maud Sleeward’s Street Fighting School for Kids snickered. Bugsy looked at them like he’d just been struck in the gut but when he could straighten upright again, he’d make them all feel his pain. The humor died abruptly.
The Hammertoes weren’t a dangerous gang. Mostly they rode skateboards and tagged old buildings and boxcars and talked tough. They were kids that didn’t belong anywhere else. The gang gave them a sense of self, another skin to replace the one abraded by a rough life. Maud was teaching them to be dangerous.
Sprout Lebowski was sitting on a piece of broken concrete watching the gang practice with knives and fists, sticks and stones and whatever they could find at hand. It was instructive. His own training as a wrestler hadn’t prepared him for the deadly inventiveness of street fighting. He also wondered why Maud Seward hadn’t been locked up for the last 40 years.
Hardball appeared beside him. “You’re very stealthy,” Sprout said.
“Years of practice sneaking out of the house,” Hardball said.
Together they watched the gang practice.
“I heard something,” Hardball said, “from the Bog.” Hardball had no affection for the man schtupping his mother when his father was away from home. He referred to him as Big Bog, sometimes just the Bog. “The bedroom walls are thin. Some of the shit that man says….”
“As much as I’m interested in the peccadillos of Big Bob Reingold, unless it’s something useful…” Sprout shrugged.
“I heard him talking with my mom. The man loves to talk politics after sex. I think it gets his rocks off more than my mother.”
“Again…” Sprout began but Hardball interrupted.
“Said the city’s going to sell the land to developers, build condos.”
“Condos? Aren’t they the least concerned about building on an Indian graveyard? Didn’t they learn anything from Poltergeist?” Sprout said.
“Says it will drive up the price. Increase the mystique, whatever the hell that is,” Hardball said.
“So that’s the reason for cleaning up Shantytown,” Sprout said. “Gentrification. And I’m sure Big Bob will make a hefty profit.”
“Isn’t that the reason for everything?” Hardball said. “Money?”
Sprout looked at Hardball more closely. “Surprising insight from someone so young.”
“Not that young. Almost 16,” Hardball said.
“You’re almost 15.”
“How do you know?”
“Due diligence,” Sprout said.
“You think you’ll be able to take him down?” Hardball said.
“Big Bob?” Sprout said. “We don’t need to take him down, just take a few inches off. This will help. If we know what’s important to him, we know what to deny him.”
“I want to take him down,” Hardball said. “I want to mash his face in the dirt. I want to kick him in the balls.”
“Maybe you should attend Maud’s class more often,” Sprout said. “I think she has an entire lesson plan on kicking people in the balls.” Sprout nodded toward a girl standing alone in the shadow of the far wall, black hair and black clothes and skin pale as a fish belly. “Who’s that girl? The goth?”
“Don’t know. Never saw her,” Hardball said.
Sprout worked his way around the class toward the girl in the shadows. She vanished before he reached her. “That’s a useful skill,” he said to himself. “Invisibility.”
“Fubar,” he heard Maud shout as he left the ruined building. Fubar was another of Hardball’s dispossessed adolescents. “Get your thumb out of your fist. You’ll break it that way.”
Sprout walked back to the beach on his way to Shantytown. A crowd had gathered on the shore surrounding a tow truck with flashing yellow lights. The truck’s winch cable was stretched across the sand and vanished into the water.
“What’s going on?” Sprout asked a fisherman. The man wore a hand knit cabled sweater that had grown thin and stained with hard wear.
“That idiot tour guide lost his truck in 15 feet of water,” the fisherman said.
“What tour guide?”
The fisherman nodded in the direction of Sandy Crab, dressed in blue flowered pajamas, standing at the water’s edge, talking to a uniformed policeman. “Holy shit,” Sprout said. “Qwackers sank?”
“Yeah, that’s what they called it,” the fisherman said. “Stupid name. Stupid idea. Trucks ain’t seaworthy.”
A diver surfaced just offshore. He made a circle with thumb and forefinger held above his head. The tow truck driver began reeling in the cable. The winch groaned and the cable snapped tight, throwing bits of kelp and drops of water into the air.
Sprout worked his way to the front of the crowd so he could watch Qwackers emerge from the bay like a Baptist at a camp meeting. It rose stern first, draped in seaweed and slime, draining water from its scuppers. The headless ducks painted on its side backed out of the water one by one, ass in the air, smallest first.
“And the first shall be last,” Sprout said to himself.
Sandy Crab looked disconsolate. Sprout gloated. “How do you like the view now, asshole?” he shouted.
Crab turned to look. When he saw Sprout his face transformed with rage. “You…you…you.…” He charged across the sand separating them. Crab closed at a dead run, slowed only slightly by the sand. There was just time enough for those standing beside Sprout to distance themselves.
Sprout reflexively adopted the wrestler’s stance, knees bent, feet braced, then Crab was on him, reaching for his throat.
He grabbed Crab’s right arm and fell back onto the sand. It was called a Japanese arm grab, something he learned in the lucha libre. Crab cartwheeled around Sprout’s anchored arm. Carried by his momentum, Crab landed heavily on his back.
Still holding Crab’s arm, Sprout pivoted in the sand like a cartoon character and flipped Crab on his belly, twisting Crab’s arm behind his back. With his free hand, he compressed several points at the top of Crab’s shoulder. Crab struggled for a few moments and then lost consciousness, his face planted in the sand.
“Was that a Vulcan death grip?” the officer said, looking down at Sprout.
“It’s called a shoulder claw,” Sprout said, looking up.
“Maybe you should turn him over before he suffocates.”
Sprout flopped Crab onto his back and stood to the applause of the crowd. He brushed the sand off his clothes.
“You must be the dangerous dwarf,” the officer said.
In mythology, the hero descends to the underworld. What happens when the underworld ascends? Whistlepig, a serialized fiction. Table of contents.
@ Copyright 2018 Charles Thrasher All rights reserved.