Hell’s Apples

by

01/27/2001

boro park ny

Neighborhood: Boro Park, Brooklyn

So such of my life then was seasonal. As kids we had yo-yos, marbles, water pistols, pea shooters and box scooters, and appeared in the street with whatever the change of weather called for. Now it was carpet gun time. I was the best carpet gun maker on the block — in the whole neighborhood — except maybe for Frank Turco, who once made a carpet Gatling gun that could shoot twelve pieces of carpet, one right after the other, without reloading. (Back then, “carpet” meant linoleum.) My carpet guns were light, fast and accurate.

“Did you remember the rubber bands?” I asked my cousin, Danny, when he came out his door. “And the clothespins? The hammer? And the nails?”

He showed me the assortment. “But I couldn’t get the hammer,” he said. “My mother told me I have to wait for my father to come home from work.”

Danny was four years younger than me, and I gave him credit for very little beyond being a baby. He was small and dark, with eyes like olives. The adults always made a fuss about how cute he was and I hated that.

“We can use a rock,” I said. “Let me see the clothespins. I hope you didn’t bring the wrong ones. Clothespins are the most important part in a carpet gun.” I picked the newer clothespin and tossed him the other.

We both trotted up the block to the vacant lot. I smacked my behind as I ran, like cowboys in the movies smacked their horses, and cut boldly into the lot across the edge of Mr. Lotito’s property, or Mr. Hell, as we called him. He wasn’t on his porch to yell at us the way he usually did. If we were playing stickball and a Spaldeen happened to land in his yard, he’d keep it, or cut it in half with the pocket knife that he carried before he threw it back.

The lot had once been a house. Now the foundation was filled in and it was overgrown with weeds and hedges, except where our baseball bases were cleared away. It belonged to us.

“Follow me,” I ordered.

We ducked through a tunnel of high weeds and rested in a clearing. I sat on the bag of hardened cement someone had dumped in the lot and picked up the two pieces of wood I had hidden there earlier.

“Mine’s the big one,” I said and threw Danny the other piece. He missed and it clunked him on the head. “Can’t you even catch?” I asked him.

Suddenly there were tears in his eyes. Danny could cry in a second.

“Give me the nails and the rubber bands and go get the egger.” The egger was a rock that we used as a shot-put or a bowling ball or a hammer. Danny dropped the things in a tangle and pushed through the weeds. When he came back he was fumbling with the egger. “I hurt my finger on the rock.” He sucked his knuckle and showed me.

“Don’t worry about it. Now pay attention and I’ll show you how to make a carpet gun.” I poked through the nails and picked a thin one without a head.

“Make sure you get a straight one. Then hit it in the end like this.” I pounded the nail into the edge of the wood. It went half way in and bent.

“You bent it, Joseph,” he pointed out.

“That’s okay. You have to bend it anyway.” I picked three rubber bands from the pile, the three thickest ones, and looped them into a chain. “Three is just the right amount for good snap.” I pulled it back to tighten the knots. “Now catch one end on the nail and finish bending it like this.”

With a few more bangs from the egger, the rubberbands were attached to the wood by the nail. I waited for him to catch up.

“The clothespin is the hard part. You have to put it far enough back to give you power. And it has to go on tight.” I lashed my clothespin onto the wood with some more rubber bands looped over the hinge part of the clip. I tested the spring action with my thumb.

“How’s this?” He held his up for me to see.

“A little sloppy, but it’ll work.” I pulled back the rubberband and fit it between the tip of the clothespin. It was cocked like a crossbow. I pressed the end of the clip and the rubber band snapped with a thwong.

We stormed a part of the lot known as Cotton Hill, ducking and shooting and making battle noises.

“Carpet,” I said, and uncovered a roll of linoleum someone had left behind. I pulled off a chunk and broke it into smaller pieces.

Soon we had two big piles. I took an almost perfect square and threaded it through the taut rubber band. When I fired, the carpet zipped out quickly in a streak that curved up and took off over the lot and across the street into Mrs. Plyer’s front yard.

“Wow! Did you see that go?” Danny asked amazed.

I nodded casually, trying to be cool, but I was surprised myself at how far it flew. It was a record. “Now you try,” I said.

“I’ll try for the garage,” he said, and loaded his gun. When he pressed, the rubber band snapped and broke, and the carpet whipped back and hit him on the cheek.

“You broke it,” I said unsympathetically. I fired mine again and the carpet hit the far wall of a garage and made a metallic ping.

Danny felt his cheek. There was a red mark. Tears came to his eyes again.

“Don’t cry. I’ll fix it for you,” I said. When I was finished, I gave it back to him, fully-loaded, and said, “If you don’t hit that garage this time, you really stink.”

He was reluctant to take the gun, but I shoved it in his hands so hard he didn’t have a choice. He fired without aiming and the carpet pinged off the garage.

“Attack!” I yelled and we fired a barrage. We ran and ducked and crawled through the grass. When we were tired of shooting the garage, we shot straight up into the air.

Then we heard a voice.

“What are you kids doing back there? You want to break my windows?” It was Mr. Hell yelling from his back yard. Some of the carpet had hit his house. “Go play where you live,” he said, “before I call the cops!”

“It’s a free country!” I called back, more for Danny’s benefit. Then I picked up a stone and threw it at the garage. It hit with a clatter that sent bits of rust showering down.

“Get the hell out of here!” Mr. Hell screamed.

“Charge!” I screamed back. We ran past Mr. Hell, who had come down his driveway to the front of his house.

We dodged behind trees and garbage cans as we ran back along the block. When we got to the front of my stoop, we crouched together and waited for Mr. Hell to drive his DeSoto out of the driveway and down the street.

“It’s a free country!” Danny called when he passed us in the car.

I waited for it to turn the corner, then jumped my feet and headed back to the lot. “Stay close to the bushes and follow me. I’ll show you something really special.”

We inched along the sidewalk and into the lot, then crawled on our hands and knees until we were in Mr. Hell’s backyard. It was like all the others in the neighborhood: a small garden with tomatoes and corn, flowers planted in a border and a cluster of roses. There was also a huge apple tree.

“Look,” I said, standing and pointing at the prize. The high branches were covered with fruit.

“They don’t look like apples to me,” Danny said. “They’re green.”

“Of course they’re green.” I loaded my carpet gun, took careful aim and shot at the branches. “And now they’re ours.”

On my second shot the carpet cut through some leaves and they fluttered down. Danny stared firing, too. Before long, the yard was littered with carpet chips. Pieces flitted through the sunbeams like insects.

“I got one! I got one! I knocked one down!” Danny yelled. He ran to pick it up.

“It’s just a little one,” I said, unable to conceal my disappointment at not getting one first.

He examined the treasure turning it over in his hand. “Feels kinda hard.” He stuck it in his pocket.

Soon I had one, too. I went to retrieve it, but froze when I heard a car coming up the driveway.

“Come on!” We picked up the apples and dove into the hedges.

Mr. Hell got out of the car. “I’m calling the police now,” he shouted. “Do you hear me, thieves? They’re coming to arrest you.”

We were out of breath when we made it through the reeds and reached the clearing. Danny was moving so fast he tripped over the bag of hardened cement.

“I lost my carpet gun,” he said when he got up.

“You can have mine. Now let’s get to a secret place to eat the apples, in case he comes after us.”

I blazed a new trail through the reeds. We settled into the bushes. Insects buzzed around our ears. I held my apple and Danny dug his from his pocket. I opened my pocket knife and cut both apples into equal halves. It was difficult because my father had dulled the blade on his grindstone so I wouldn’t hurt myself.

“Let’s eat the little one first,” I said.

Danny tested his half of the apple with his side teeth. Most of the front ones were loose or gone. He bit into it and made a face. “It isn’t sweet.”

“Of course not. They’re supposed to be sour. That’s what makes them so good.” I chewed mine to show him, spitting out the pieces of core.

We finished the first one and had started on the second when we were hit by a cold spray of water.

“I’m gonna teach you,” Mr. Hell called from his yard, drenching the hedges with the garden hose.

The water arced over the reeds, right into our hiding place, but Mr. Hell couldn’t see us. We leaned back in the bushes. The water rained down. I smiled at Danny and we bit into the apples.

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