THE GOLD LINED CLOUD by TOM MCDADE
Mike Scully, a skinny blond headed kid, didn’t look his fourteen years. Dean Ferguson called him, “Rail". Mike liked that. He thought it made him sound tough. A lot better nickname than the “Undernourished” tag some kids used. Dean Ferguson became Mike’s idol in sixth grade. Dean was tough, didn’t take shit from anyone. He lived in the best section of town and his father was a big shot real estate developer. Dean was an All-Star pitcher. His lightning fastball also danced. He gave one of his Pony League trophies to Mike. Most of all, Dean acknowledged his existence. Mike’s mother, who was raising him alone, bluntly suggested that instead of searching for the father figure he didn’t need, he should just study the Goddamn schoolbooks. She went on to describe what a worthless heathen article fathered him. Mike was deaf to her taunting. A kid from Prospect Heights Housing recognized by a new house guy was difficult to ignore.
Mike could never understand why Dean stole cars. When he’d asked him, the answer came in a question. “Have you ever been able to get a bicycle over 100 MPH? “ Joyrides in stolen cars with Dean put Mike’s neck hair at attention and he once bruised his right knee squeezing it during the tension and excitement. Dean’s bicycle comparison was right on the dime. Speeding past the farm on Pig Street without getting a whiff of the garbage was quite a feat. Dean handled a car like a seasoned driver at Seekonk Speedway. When Mike tried his hand at car theft, the T-Bird clunker he chose almost got him drowned in the Ten-Mile River. Dean got a good chuckle telling Mike he had a respectable set of balls. Dean wore shirts that had creases like the Marine’s khaki type. At St. Teresa’s, boys had to wear white shirts with a green tie that had STS embroidered on a shield.
May’s Variety was Mike’s first stop after school for a 16 oz. Royal Crown Cola. Next was the end of the beautiful Anna’s Project block where he hoped he could get a glance at her. He wished he went to public school so he’d get out at 2:30 and never wear a necktie. There was no sign of her. While fantasizing about simply talking to her, just Goddamn saying hi, two older guys, Mel Baker and Al Tomasso, showed up to pitch dimes against the wall.
They punctuated their game with chatter about the easiest girls in the Heights. When Mike heard Mel say Anna would lie down like a well-trained dog that knew all the tricks except playing dead, he attacked. Mel and Al beat the living shit out of him. He got in one lucky shot that bloodied Mel’s nose that he called a victory. One of Mike’s eyes closed as tightly as one of the fists that smacked it. The inside of his mouth felt as though he’d been chewing fishhooks, lips fat quivering night crawlers. After he slid down the wall to the ground, they kicked him like a hundred points after touchdown. Before limping away, he grabbed the dimes they’d been pitching. He thought broken leg and smashed ribs.
Heading for the cave, he was a hunchback resting at the end of each block. Then, after moving as his condition allowed, he fell on Jacques Dunnell’s Pond sand hoping to muster enough energy to go on. He fancied himself a boxer, Marine or Anna’s boyfriend. There wasn’t much reality to base the last fiction. At the Pond, he’d swum by her, underwater, and touched her leg. At the quarry mud pit after she’d sunk to her waist, she’d asked Mike to help her. With her legs hidden, it struck him he was rescuing a mermaid. The white one-piece bathing suit was too big. He saw a fantastic flash of her breasts. Some goofy look on his face must have sparked her laugh. At a summer dance at the Project assembly hall, he’d mustered the courage to ask her to dance. He froze when she accepted. She led him to the dance floor like a mother coaxing a shy child. The song was “Put Your Head On My Shoulder” but she did not.
Matter of fact, she kept him at a distance. When he opened his eyes to peek at her face, she winked at him. It was a muggy night and the one fan was useless. She wore a white blouse and a blue skirt that like the bathing suit was baggy. Strands of hair stuck to her face with sweat. His was at peace. She nudged him when the tune was finished. There was a slight roll of eyes. Walking away, she shook her head. Mike envisioned escorting her home but that was too massive a dream ever to swing to earth. If only he had the money to buy her an expensive wardrobe like the new house girls. Then he abandoned apparel all together, pictured swimming naked with her at the Pond or dancing that way in the quarry mud, surrendering to the cool ooze.
Mike crawled into the cave like a sick animal looking for a familiar place to die. He managed to get all of him on the legendary mattress except his legs. Even before the assault, Mike imagined spending the rest of his life cave-bound. Whenever feeling sorry for himself, he’d wish he were a bat or a rat. His record stay was ten hours after he’d tattooed himself. His mother chased him out of the apartment swinging a flat iron by its cord after spotting the raggedy snake and half-assed dagger on his forearm.
After a nap or some version of it, his old wits slowly returned but running or walking felt like long ago motions. Baker and Tomasso had nearly killed him or maybe he was dead. He considered swiping a switchblade, confronting them, shouting it was two on two now. Somewhere in his mind’s alley, he saw Dean Ferguson kicking their asses in revenge. Mike recalled summer days when the Pond water was draining into the cave. He’d collapse in the half foot of water when he knew Anna was swimming and imagine the water rippling over him that had touched her body. Now he prayed for a freak flood to drown him and his misery. Suddenly it occurred to him he’d been a fool to hide in the cave. His mother would hear about the beating and surely call the cops. It was where they’d caught Fernando Costello when he escaped from reform school. Mike could never ditch the law in his condition.
If they searched the cave walls, they might find the useless Goddamn Oxford weave white shirts he’d stolen from the Kenmore Laundry. He’d been excited as hell because they were the same kind Dean wore until he noticed the sons-a-bitches monogrammed on the cuffs. More than that, he’d hidden five boxes of cigars he’d lifted from a salesman’s car and cookies he’d robbed from a Sunshine Biscuits boxcar. If only he’d skipped his May’s routine, shoplifted a quart of milk from the I.G.A. instead. He’d be enjoying his Chip-A-Roos, be on top of the world instead of being half in the casket. Would he ever be able to chew right? What the hell, maybe his stature would grow in Anna’s eyes because he’d taken a beating for her or would she laugh her sweet ass off?
Starting to drift off, Mike heard noise. Somewhere he found the strength to stand. He strained to move to a wall to work himself into a deep crevice shaped like an alcove where statues lived in churches. He’d designated that spot for such an occasion. When he about settled, he saw bright candlelight. Craning his neck, he was able to focus with his good eye. Swallowing hard, he hoped his sight was deceiving him. Anna and Dean came into view. She wasted no time undressing. How could this be? All the evil talk about Anna hit a thousand penny nail heads. If not so banged up, he would have attacked Dean, stoned the bastard to death. He thought about tossing a couple of rocks to scare them off but disappointment and rage paralyzed him. What the hell kind of friend was Dean anyway? Mention the girl you love and look what happens. Dean was standing stooped shouldered at the foot of the mattress. Anna’s legs spread like an Olympic gymnast.
“Don’t you new house guys know anything?” she said angrily.
Mike almost shouted, “You’re sure as hell right on that they don’t know pigeon shit,” but caught himself. He searched his mind for some reason behind this. Yeah, she was making a fool out of a new house kid, that’s it. What the hell: why shouldn’t he cut Dean some slack? He declared a mental truce. After all, Dean treated him A-OK. She’d never lie down for jerks like Baker or Tomasso. Dean dropped his drawers as if to take a crap. He finally eased himself down on her. Mike thought it was over too quick. Is he all talk, does he know how to do it or not? Back on his knees in a wink, he was kneeling as if at an altar awaiting a host. Scrambling to his feet, he yanked up his trousers and staggered to the cave entrance. Mike could see his snow-white shirt dancing as if on a nighttime clothesline. Anna was on all fours, staring after him like a cat. There was a loud “ouch.” Mike figured Dean must have hit his head; Jesus, cool Dean gone cartoon goofy. Anna laughed as she picked up Dean’s wallet. That’s it, she lured him here to pick his pocket!
She sat down, reached for her blouse, took a pack of cigarettes from the pocket. After lighting up, she picked up pebbles that she held in her opened palm and studied. A little girl in a sandbox, Mike thought. Her cigarette half done, she threw it at the wall where Mike was hiding. Crossing her arms as if chilled, she cried. She sobbed so deeply her entire body shook.
Mike painfully reached for some loose rocks above him, knocked them to the ground. Her sobs didn’t hide the noise. She dressed quicker than she’d disrobed. Mike rolled out of the crevice but wasn’t able to stay on his feet. Landing on an arm, he let out a cry. Anna tripped trying to run away.
“Anna, Anna,” he shouted. She looked back in horror. She started backing on hands and knees.
“Anna, it’s me, Mike Scully, help.” She made her way to him like a suspicious calico.
“What the hell are you doing here?” she demanded.
“I didn’t know where else to go.” She picked up the candle lodged in sand up to his face. Mike thought she replace it reverently as if they were in church.
“My God, what happened to you,” she stammered, putting her free hand to her mouth.
“You’re not going to faint, are you?”
“How long have you been here?” she asked, sharply.
“A couple of minutes,” he lied. That big chunk out of the wall leads to a hole near the mulberry tree,” he added, telling a bigger whopper.
“Oh,” she said, lost in thought.
Finally, she helped him to the mattress nearly knocking over the tall candle. Her arm around him lifted Mike to cloud ten thousand. He could smell her shampoo. “Put Your Head On My Shoulder” whirled in his head. She tried to ease him down but he fell heavily. After the crevice, the damp old mattress felt like a cloud.
“Goddamn,” she cursed. “Mike, tell me who did this to you.”
“I can’t tell. You know that.”
“That’s bullshit. We better get you to the accident room.”
“No. I’ll be able to get home in a couple of hours.”
“Shit, do you have any cigs?” she asked.
“No, I’ve got something better,” he answered, directing her to the cigars.
“Never have and never will,” she said, returning.
“I could use one,” said Mike, although the last time he tried he nearly choked to death.
Selecting one from the box, she slowly peeled the cellophane. “Aren’t you supposed to lick it?” she asked.
“I think so but I never do.”
She quickly put each end of the cigar halfway into her mouth before shoving it past Mike’s teeth as if she were a mean nurse and it was a thermometer. He figured this spit contact was the closest he’d ever get to a kiss. As she lit it, Mike studied her face, wished she’d smile so he could see her full dimples. She pulled her cheeks back as if she’d seen a sign of fever when the match came close to burning her fingers. “You sure have white teeth,” he said.
“I use Clorox for mouthwash…Let me have a drag.” She drew in cautiously, let the smoke drift out her nose. “Not too bad.”
“They cost seventy-five cents each.”
“You could buy a couple of packs of cigs for that. Where’d you get them?”
“I robbed a salesman’s car while he was making a call at the Blue Star.”
“You little rascal,” she said, smiling then removing another cigar from the box she went through the moistening ritual and lit up. “We’ve got to get you to the hospital. Your eye looks like my left tit.”
Jeez, her left tit, thought Mike.
“In a few, want to see some other treasures?”
“Sure,” she said, taking a strong drag that lit up the cigar like a flashlight.
“Go next to where you got the cigars, big box of cookies to the left.”
“Cigars and cookies – that’s some combination.
“Anything goes in here,” he said and hoped he hadn’t hinted at what he’d seen.
“Not bad for being stored in a cave,” she said, while cautiously munching a couple of the Chip-A-Roos. “Did you rob Sunshine Biscuits?”
“I busted into a boxcar.”
“I never broke into one but hooked a long train with Mary Shepherd the other night. We got a chase, almost caught. They were probably looking for bandits like you.”
“I’m too slick. I like to hook trains too, like to be alone on the boxcar, pretend I’m an old time hobo who won’t have to jump off and hitch the hell back to the Heights.”
“Sometimes you sound like someone on a TV screen,” she said. “What’s in that other box? It looks like laundry.”
“You win,” said Mike. “Open it.”
Clenching the cigar in her teeth, she ripped it open, removed the five Oxford weaves, sparkling white.
“I went the trouble of breaking into the Kenmore Laundry and the damned things have initials on the pockets and cuffs, stupid bastard can’t remember his name, has to look at his cuffs for hints. I guess they’d be okay under sweaters.”
Anna laughed. Mike couldn’t recall a happier time.
“I’m going to have monograms on every piece of my wardrobe someday, that’s class,” she said.
“I looked in the “T” section in the phonebook, couldn’t find any names with JFT, not even one middle initial F.”
“Silly, F’s the last name.
“Shit.” Taking a long drag on his cigar, it hit him like the Baker and Tomasso beating: John T. Ferguson! “Jesus Christ, Anna. That guy who steals cars, Ferguson, new house kid. I bet these belonged to his father! You must have seen that name on billboards. He builds malls and luxury apartments.” Mike bit his damaged lip for running his mouth.
“Yeah, billboards,” she said haltingly. “You’re crazy Mike, know that?” She knocked off ashes onto the shirts.”
“Reckon I am.”
“Nice crazy though,” she added, touching his shoulder.
“More cookies?” she offered, retrieving another box. “Let’s have them straight this time.” She took his cigar and stuck both of them in the sand.
“Okay! I love the way cave storage makes them mushy!
“I prefer crunch myself,” said Anna.
“I stole a car once,” garbled Mike.”
“I can’t understand my little brother with his mouth full either.”
Mike quickly swallowed. “It’s not really full, can’t get much in with my trap beat up.”
“Sorry,” she said, touching his wrist.
“It was a T-Bird.”
“Was it a convertible? I’ve always wanted to ride in a red one.”
“Yup, a ragtop but black – it did have a red interior. It ended up in the Ten-Mile River.”
“Holy shit a mile!”
“I was being cool, snapping my fingers to ‘At the Hop.’ Good thing it was a convertible. I’d have been a goner. If you want to know, my life didn’t pass me by when I thought I was drowning.”
“You sure like to live dangerously.” She got two new cigars going.
Mike took a long drag, held it longer than usual and got lightheaded. “Those Chip-A-Roos are the best,” he said.
“Nah, Oreos all the way but I do like a frosted oatmeal cookie once in a while.”
“You’re the best,” he stuttered.
“Bet you say that to all the girls,” she joked.
“Not in this life.”
“What about the girls at your school.” She took a comb from her jeans, half-heartedly combed her hair.
“They don’t want to know anyone from the Heights. I wish I could go to public school.”
“Why don’t you tell me who beat you up, Mike? You think I’d run to the cops?”
“No, it has to do with the tattoo on my arm.”
Leaving the comb in her hair, she asked which arm then slowly rolled up his right sleeve. She did her candle routine, studied the snake and dagger. She had a difficult time decoding the HONOR under it.
“Mike, I don’t much like tattoos. The do-it-yourself kinds are the worst. Maybe someday you’ll get a tiger to cover it. I don’t think the animal who beat you knows anything about honor.”
“It was two of them.”
“Okay to be scarred for life as long as two punks that did it?”
“I’m just telling you what happened. I didn’t mean to make you mad.”
“I’m not mad. I just wish we could be regular kids, something like in a TV family. I wish I didn’t smoke. I wish I didn’t bleach my hair. I wish I weren’t a...” She suddenly went silent.
“I think your hair is beautiful.”
“There’s probably no gal in America who’d look better smoking a cigar.”
“Teach you a lot of lines at Catholic school, huh?”
“I speak nothing but the truth, so help me God,” said Mike, raising his hand.
“Oh, by the way, Ricky Carson is claiming he broke into the laundry.”
“You see the evidence; hope the cops get a chance to believe him!” He tried to laugh but pain nipped it in the bud.
“That jackass will probably confess a murder someday,” said Anna, laughing.
“The shirts are yours if you want, you can probably find a way to sew a change on the monograms. I’ve seen you wearing guy’s shirts, tail hanging up, sleeves rolled up.” What the shit was he doing, bringing Goddamn JFT shirts into the picture again? Wait…she did.
“Well, thank you, early Christmas.”
“You know, it was real nice of you to dance with me. When I think of it, I can smell your shampoo.”
“All you’d get now is cigar smoke,” she said smiling.
“May I test?” asked Mike, full of hope. She dropped her head. “Nope, shampoo, like one of those flower gardens the Polish people grow down Bishop Bend.”
“You are something.” She handed him her comb. It hurt his shoulder to run it though her hair. She bounced her cigar off the wall.
“I’ve never seen a firefly but those sparks made me think of them,” he said.
“This is all pretty silly, Mike. Being here is adding to a hospital stay.”
“There’s sillier stuff.”
“You dance better than most guys,” she said after a moment’s silence.
“That’s because I’m going to be a prizefighter. Dance is in my blood.”
“I hope you do better than today. Listen Mike, just be you, okay?”
“Remember the TV kids you were talking about?” he asked.
“I sure do.”
“They’re all wishing they were us.”
“Not in a zillion years.”
Moving closer, she took the comb, looked into his good eye. She dragged on his cigar then kissed him on the cheek. He didn’t know what to say or do. Flinging his cigar at a wall, he said, “Another squadron of fireflies,” before his seventy-five-center fell short. His broad, hurting smile collapsed when she started crying. She maneuvered Mike’s head to her lap, stroked gently. He felt better than a hundred miles an hour on Pig Street. He silently called the beating a gold lined cloud. He came close to sleep and the cave became a boxcar stacked with Chip-A-Roos and Sunshine Biscuits’ answer to Oreos. Her tears fell on his battered cheek like icing on the oatmeal cookies he’d add to his cave cupboard for her: even if it meant busting into the IGA.