Land of the Iroquois

Copyright 2013 David Castlewitz

Paulie lowered his bow and dropped his arrows and emerged from the bushes when his mother came to the back door. She waved a dead turtle at him. “I found this in your room.”

            “I’m going to make an Indian rattle. That’s how the Indians made rattles. Out of dead turtles.”   

His mother blinked. “Indians,” she scoffed. “Whatcha think this is, 1853? It ain’t. It’s 1953 . I’m throwing this out. I don’t want no dead animals in the house.”

            “Are you going to tell him?” Paulie asked.

            “I’ll yell when dinner’s ready,” she said, and shut the door. “I won’t tell him,” she added.

            Paulie lifted his bow, notched a homemade arrow and shot at the wooden fence, scoring a direct hit on an enemy scout trying to sneak up on him. He was Walk-in-Woods, the guardian of his Iroquois village. Crouching, he patrolled the perimeter of the backyard, careful not to step in his mom’s flower bed now put to sleep for the coming winter. He trained his eyes on an opening in the forest where there had been an attack last year.

            “Hey, Chief. How!”

            Paulie spun around. An eyeball appeared in a crescent shaped crack in the fence bordering the alley. Paulie recognized the speaker. Hermie Heisser.

            “Back off, Heisser. This is my land.”

            “You stupid dago.”

            Paulie drew the straightest of his homemade arrows from a cardboard quiver. He dropped to one knee. But Hermie was gone. Paulie stood and smiled, imagining that the people of his village would spread the tale far and wide. He had saved them again.

            “Hey, Paulie. Dinner time.” Vince, his stepfather, lumbered into the yard. “Playin’ Indian again? Who’d you’d chase off?”

            “Hermie Heisser.”

            “Whatcha do, make that bow?”         

            “Wanna see?” Paulie had bound willowy branches together with string over a core of flexible steel from an old fishing pole. Taking an archer’s stance, he aimed at a fence post. The arrowhead, a headless nail, hit the post, dangled for an instant, then fell to the ground.

            Vince pulled a snub-nosed revolver from his pants pocket. “This is whatcha want if ya really gotta go after somebody.”

            Paulie longed to touch the gun, but knew better than to try. Even when Vince was in a good mood, it wasn’t wise to touch anything that belonged to him.

“You coming in?” his mother asked. “Both of you. Go downstairs and wash at the cellar sink.”

            “Okay, Madge. Just spending some time with your kid.”

            “And put away that gun. Today wasn’t payday. Watcha doin’ carrying it around on a Thursday?”

            “Mr. Cowes sent us to jigsville again.”

            “You and Brit need a gun? Two big guys like you?” Madge laughed, her square face a mesh of wrinkles.

            “You think those spooks come after ya with their hands? They all got knives. Like the.” Vincent stuffed the gun in his front pocket, where it made an obvious bulge. “Anyway, Brit doesn’t mind packin’ the protection. That’s me. The Protection. They call me that over at the store.” Vince put a heavy arm across Paulie’s boney shoulders and guided him into the house. “You’re okay, kid. You’re gonna be a Peligrino yet. Whatcha think, Madge? Think the boy’s a Peligrino?”

#

The fourth and fifth graders shared the schoolyard at recess. Fifth graders took the outside corners and the far side of the building where some of them could smoke a cigarette or pitch pennies. They also took the fist-ball diamond, where they played a version of baseball.   

Fourth graders congregated at the front of the building. The girls played hopscotch and jumped rope, just like their older counterparts in the grade ahead; the boys played wall-ball, another baseball variation, with hits and runs scored depending on how high the ball struck the wall and whether or not the fielders caught it.

Paulie favored dodge ball. He stood against a grimy brick wall, a dodger, until he was eliminated.

            “Hey, Paulie, I got a message for you.”

            “Yeah? What?” Paulie asked, turning to the kid who had crossed the open area between the two grades. “Whatcha want Josie?”

            “Jose´´. It’s Jose´. And I got a message from Hermie.”        

Paulie looked across the schoolyard and saw Herman Heisser pitching in a game of fist-ball. Tall, with short blonde hair, Hermie was a year older than his classmates. In first grade he’d been unable to understand enough English to keep up, so he was left back. School lore said that his father whipped him with a razor strop for being stupid and he in turn beat up the five toughest kids in school the very first day of the next term.

            “Hermie’s going to beat your dago ass,” Jose´ said.

            “What for? What did I do?”

            Jose´ shrugged. “I’m just delivering the message.”

No one wanted Hermie Heisser as an enemy. But Paulie didn’t show fear. The last time he ran from a fight, his stepdad had been furious. No Peligrino turned chicken, Vince told him.

            After that, Paulie managed to handle himself around the neighborhood. He kept a tally in the back of his composition book: four loses, one win, and two draws.       

“I’m going to get you,” Heisser said as he passed Paulie at the end of recess.

            Paulie replied with his meanest glare.

#

            Daily, Paulie trained in the backyard. He danced and hopped, like the boxers on TV. He practiced his stance: left foot forward, lead with the left fist, right elbow protecting the kidneys, like his stepfather had taught him. He hopped from foot to foot, striking imaginary foes, hitting the air with his tightly clenched fists.

            “Who you getting ready for?”

            Paulie stopped and looked back over his shoulder. His stepfather took a swig of beer from a quart bottle.

            “Nobody. Just bein’ ready.”
            “’cause I don’t want ya running no more. You got that?” Vince sank back against the fence post behind him. “Cowshit Cowes hired one dumb sucker who better watch his black ass if he knows what’s good for him.”

            “Here!” A sweater fell over Paulie’s head. He draped it over his shoulders. His mother stepped into the yard, hugging herself and shivering despite the wooly blue shawl over her housedress.

            “Come here, Madge.” Vince beckoned and she melted against him. “I’ll warm ya.” He threw an arm across her rounded shoulders. She fished a cigarette from her pocket and lit it with a lighter. She and Vince shared it down to the stub.

            “Somethin’ wrong at work?” Madge asked.

            “That spade dropped an oven and nearly broke his foot, then tried to blame it on me, said I let go my end when we were trying to get it on the truck.”

            “Did you?” Madge asked.

            “No spook oughta be working there. And then he goes and complains to Cowshit about it? I tell ya – and you listen to this, Paulie, because this is how the world works – first guy with the story, he’s the guy they believe. Bullshit or not. You just gotta be first.” He pulled his snub-nosed revolver from his pants pocket. “One of these days I’m gonna shoot that damn Washington or whatever he’s called. Cowshit, too.” He waved the pistol over his head, brought it level with Madge and grinned.

#

            “Heisser’s going to beat you up,” the fifth graders warned when Friday came.

            “Tell him I’m waitin’ for him,” Paulie shouted back. “I ain’t afraid.” Paulie assumed his boxer’s stance. He’d trained for the past four days. He could hit the air with a quick one-two; he could bring down invisible opponents with a three-four.

            When Heisser caught up to him after school, it was on a side street leading towards Kensington Avenue. Paulie had taken that route because he knew it was Heisser’s favorite spot for an ambush. And he was ready. When Heisser rushed out from behind a parked Buick, Paulie dropped his schoolbooks and raised his fists.

“What’re you?” Heisser asked. “Some dago boxer or something?”

“Come on, you damn kraut.”

“I’m gonna kill ya for trying to shoot me with that arrow.”

A small crowd formed.

“All you damn wops are cowards.”

“You krauts only know how to fight Jews.”

“Go to hell!”

“I would, but I don’t like your mother’s cooking.”

Paulie dodged Heisser’s fist. But more swings came in quick succession, turning Paulie’s carefully planned defense and counter-attack into pathetic gestures. Soon, Paulie was on his knees, blood streaming from his nose, his lower lip split. An adult chased everyone off. Heisser tried to deliver a final kick, but the adult pushed him away.

“Are you okay?” the adult asked.

Paulie recognized the man as a clerk from the pharmacy near his house. He didn’t remember his name, but the pimply face and rust colored hair were familiar.

“I’m okay.” Paulie stood up. He looked around for his schoolbooks. The clerk retrieved them.

“Want to come over to the drugstore with me? I’ll clean you up, put some iodine on those cuts.”

 “I gotta get home,” Paulie said.

“Have your mom put something on those bruises.”

#

“Did you win?” Vince asked.

Madge fumed. “Who cares? Look at him!”

Vince sat at the table and attacked his supper. Paulie ate slowly, favoring the left side of his mouth. His nose had stopped bleeding, but it still ached. Vince said it wasn’t broken, but his mom wanted him to go to the hospital to be sure. Vince overruled her.

“So you didn’t win,” Vince said.

“But I didn’t run away.”

“Next time, you win,” Vince said.

“I swear,” Madge sighed. “I don’t know what you’re thinkin’ sometimes.”

“Right now I’m thinking of going over to Butch’s to watch the fights,” Vince said.

“You can watch TV here.”

He shook his head and his wavy black hair flopped across his forehead. “Friday night, Madge. Got things to do.” He bounded to his feet. “Whatcha think payday’s for?”

#

All weekend Paulie planned how to even the score with Heisser. He eventually came up with an idea, which required him to follow Heisser after school. The older boy went home, changed, played touch football in the vacant lot near the hospital, close to where the Lehigh gang congregated.

At dusk, Heisser went home in the company of friends. On Thursday night he stopped at Butch’s Bar to get his father. Friday night he spent with his mother and retrieved his father at around ten. Paulie knew this because he followed his own mother when she went for his stepfather. While Madge stayed to have a drink, the elder Heisser, singing songs in German, accompanied his son home.

On Monday, Paulie armed himself for his after-school mission. He carried his bow and three of his best homemade arrows and lay in wait behind a parked car near Kensington and A Street. That first day, Heisser came by with friends. The next, Tuesday, Heisser was alone. Dusk had come, but there was enough light to see clearly. From behind a car, Paulie notched an arrow, aimed, and then loosed it at the approaching Heisser. One shot. Then he fled.

“You bastard!” Heisser screamed after him. “I’ll put this thing up your ass.” He was on his knees, the arrow broken at his feet, a hand to his cheek where blood spurted. With a war whoop, Paulie raced home in triumph.

#

“What is it, Mr. Heisser?”

“I want to talk to the boy’s father.”

Paulie squatted at the top of the stairs, peering down into the living room. He couldn’t see his mother at the door. He didn’t see the elder Heisser. But he could hear him.

“My boy is in hospital. Lucky, they do not have to take his eye, but he is in hospital and your son is responsible.”

“Says who?”

“We have the evidence.”

“So? Whatcha want? Your kid beat Paulie up, you know.”
            “I want to be paid for hospital bills. We are immigrant people. We can’t afford to – ”

“Then go back to where ya belong.”

“All right. I will find your husband. He is probably at the tappie.”

Madge shut the door and stomped upstairs. “Paulie!”

He raced for cover under his bed.

“Paulie. Did you shoot that kid with one of your damn arrows?”

“It was an accident.”

“That Heisser’s looking for Vince. You better go get him and you better have a damn good explanation or he’s gonna strap your ass again.”

“Heisser beat me up. I just got even.”

“Get Vince. Before Heisser gets into a fight and we got more trouble to deal with.”

#

Butch’s Bar sat on a corner two blocks from home, close to where Kensington Avenue met Front Street and its mix of row homes and storefronts. Shoppers thronged the sidewalk; music blared from a penny arcade. Overhead, an elevated train screeched around the curve. Passengers spilled from a stopped trolley car.

Paulie went into Butch’s, using the side door with the glowing “Ladies Entrance” sign. He found Vince at the bar, a beer, a shot glass, several dollar bills and a pack of cigarettes in front of him. On either side, sat his friends from work. They were huge men, bigger than his stepfather, with puffy red faces and bulging eyes. Brit, when he stood up, was shapeless, his belly hanging over his belt, his arms and legs like sausages trussed up in clothes.

“Hey, ain’t that your kid?” Brit asked.

“Madge’s kid,” Vince said. “Look at him. You think a real Peligrino would lose every fight he gets into?”

Vince slipped off the stool.

“I gotta talk to you, Dad.”
            “Dad is it?” Vince laughed. “You must be in trouble. I gotta whip you again? Whatcha do this time?”

“You’re just like my Dad used to be,” someone said, laughing. “Never give a kid a chance to explain anything ’til after you beat him.”

 “Paulie,” Vince slurred, “meet Jake Greene. Finally got rid of that coon at Cowshit’s and hired somebody who can do the work.”

Jake offered his hand. Paulie took it tentatively, his eyes moving from Jake’s wiry red-blonde goatee to the man’s milky blue eyes. Then he turned to his stepfather. “I got into trouble today,” he whispered.

“Hey, Peligrino!” The bartender leaned on two hands on his side of the bar. “No kids. If he’s come to take you home, go the hell home. No kids in here.”

Vince waved him off and downed his shot of whiskey. He gulped the beer chaser.

“Mr. Heisser’s looking for you,” Paulie said.

“What the hell did you do?”

“Is that that damn Kraut?” Brit asked. “Shit, why’d we miss him when we had the chance?” He laughed and turned to Jake. “You’ll like this character. Comes in Friday nights usually.”

“German?” Jake asked.

“One-hundred and ten percent,” Brit said. “I don’t know why the hell we let those damn nazies into this country.”

“That him?” Jake asked, pointing at the barrel-chested Heisser, who’d just entered the bar.

“Smelled him, right?” Vince said. “You’re half-Jew, ain’t ya? Can smell them damn nazies, I bet.”

Jake grinned. “Smelled them on D-Day often enough. They smelled dead.”

“Now that was the place to be,” Vince said. “By the time I got to North Africa, all we had to do was guard them. They’d all surrendered.”

“Mr. Peligrino,” Heisser began.

Paulie hid behind Brit.

“What the hell you want? Here, meet my new friend, Jake Greene. He’s a Jew-boy you missed.”

“Your son shot my boy with an arrow. In the face. He’s in hospital.”

“Did he kill him?”

“No, but my Herman almost his eye to lose.”

“As we say in this country, almost only counts in horseshoes.” Vince laughed.

“You listen to me.” Heisser grabbed Vince by the sleeve.

“Hands off.” Vince pushed hard enough to make Heisser rock back on his heels.

“I will bring you the hospital bill. You will have to pay it.”

“Fuck you. Fuck all you fucking Krauts.”

Someone at the other end of the bar rose up from his stool. “Shut up down there. I’m a kraut. You want to do something about that, you fucking weasel?”

“This ain’t none of your business,” Brit put in, moving away from his stool and seeking the interloper. Jake Greene joined him. They stood like a pair of rooks protecting a knight on the attack. The man at the end of the bar sat down and mumbled something to no one in particular.

            “So, Paulie,” Heisser said. “Are you here to explain? Why you do it?”

            “He beat me up,” Paulie whispered.

            “That’s good enough reason for me,” Vince said.

            “Is that what you teach?” Heisser asked. “Shoot someone because they hit you with their fists?”

            “I’m gonna shoot you in a second if you don’t get the fuck out of here.” Vince drew his revolver from his front pocket.

            “Put that away,” Brit hissed.

            “I told you about bringing that gun in here,” the bartender shouted, and pulled a baseball bat out from under the bar. “Put it away and get out or you ain’t comin’ back.”

            “This fuckin’ nazi insulted me.”

            “Put the gun away,” Jake said.          

            “Ain’t scared, are ya?” Vince said to Heisser. He returned the revolver to his pocket.

            “I seen guns before.”

            “This is a warning, Heisser. Stay away from me, tell your kid not to bother my kid, and you won’t have nothing to worry about.”

            “I will bring you the hospital bill and you will pay it.”

            “Go to hell.” Vince body slammed Heisser, sending him stumbling. Catching his balance, Heisser turned and let loose a roundhouse punch.

            Which missed.

            Vince landed two right jabs on Heisser’s cheek, then hit him with a left and brought blood to his mouth.

            “Not here,” the bartender shouted. “No fighting. I’ll call the cops. Get the hell out of here. Get that kid out of here.”

#

            “Where’s Paulie?” Madge asked, standing at the front door, on the top step.

“Get over here, Paulie,” Vince said

            “You need some coffee,” Madge offered. “And some food. You can deal with Paulie later.”

            “I’m gonna give him a hug. Shot that fucker in the eye. That’s my boy.”

            Paulie rushed to his stepfather, into his arms. He pressed his face into the man’s middle, wallowing in the smell of smoke and whiskey and beer. Happy enough to cry, but knew he shouldn’t. His step-dad wouldn’t understand.

            “What happened?” Madge asked.

            “I want some food,” Vince bellowed.

            “All right. Come inside. Get something to eat.” As Madge shut the door, a police car turned the corner, its red dome light flashing. Paulie froze. The car stopped at the curb and two policeman jumped out.

            “You Peligrino?”

            “Why?”

            “We want to talk to you.”

            Vince took a step backwards to keep behind the invisible line that separated his property from the public street. “Whatcha want? I’m gonna eat dinner.”

            “Can we talk to you? Can we come inside and talk to you?”

            “You got a warrant?” Vince asked.

            “Excuse me, sir,” the other policeman, older than his partner judging by the fringe of white hair above his ears, said. “We got a complaint that you threatened someone with a gun.”

            Madge spoke in a placating voice. “He really needs to get some coffee and food in him. He’s had too much booze tonight. Okay? Nobody got hurt, did they?”

            “No one got hurt,” the older police officer agreed. “But he can’t go around pulling guns on people.”

            “You arrestin’ me? You got a warrant?”

            “Come away from the house. Give us your gun. We’ll talk, then go down to the station to straighten this out. You sober up, you get the gun back.”

            “Drop dead!”

            Paulie quivered. Everything had been perfect, with a genuine hug from his step-dad. Then it got ruined. He covered his face with his hands and ran upstairs to his room. Behind him, his mother screamed and cried, and his step-dad spewed curses. The police tried to calm them, threatening to take them both to the station if they didn’t stop shouting.

            Paulie fished under his bed for his bow and arrows. He’d make the police leave. They’d see him and his bow and notched arrow and they’d laugh at his puny attempt, and their laughter would change everything. Maybe his step-dad would laugh too.

            Racing downstairs, Paulie put an arrow to the bowstring.

            “I ain’t goin’ anywhere!” Vince shouted. “You want me, get a warrant and take me.”

            “We don’t need a warrant, sir.”

            “Get the fuck off my property!”

Paulie squeezed between his mother and Vince. He raised his bow. The police back-stepped into the throng of neighbors, who’d gathered to watch.

“You heard my dad,” Paulie shouted. “Get off our property.” He raised his bow. The younger policeman pulled his revolver from its holster. A shot rang out, and brought instant silence in its wake.

Paulie’s legs gave way. He lost his balance, fell, dropped his bow and arrow.

He lay on the top step, half in and half out of the house. His mother knelt beside him. The police argued with one another. “What the hell you pull your gun for?”

“He had a weapon, damn it!” the young cop said.

“A weapon? A toy bow?” the older cop said.

“Not him. The punk there. He pulled his gun.” The young cop pointed to where Vince Peligrino lay sprawled on the steps, his hand clutching his revolver, blood soaking his coat. He didn’t move.

Paulie pressed his face against his mother. “I ain’t shot, Mom,” he whispered.

“Let me see.” She gently pushed him to arm’s length, inspected him. Then she hugged Paulie and stared past him at her husband. The young cop knelt at Vince’s side and carefully closed the man’s eyes with a pass of his hand.

Madge let go of Paulie and turned to Vince. “Couldn’t keep the gun in your pocket, could you?” She knelt on one knee and touched her husband’s wavy black hair. Standing, she turned back to Paulie. “Let’s go inside,” she said to him.

“I pooped my pants,” Paulie whispered.

The older policeman spoke. “You got a priest or someone we can get for you? A neighbor? We can have someone from your family brought over.”

Madge shook her head. “Don’t have anyone. Just the boy.”

Paulie looked up at his mother. It would be just them again, like before.

The End

Back to The Kensington Stories

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