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BILLY GOAT HILLa novel
By Mark Stanleigh Morris
Multnomah PublishersCopyright © 2004 Mark Stanleigh Morris
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNortheast Los Angeles
He's not breathing! Mom! Dad! Help! Matthew's not breathing! I scoop my baby brother up from his crib, his cold cheek pressing against my neck, and I run, and I run, and I run ... tumbling headfirst into the treacherous deep of the Crippler.
Whee-e-e-e-chug-chug ... Varoom!
I awake in a startle as the distinct ignition signature of Carl's 1955 Chevy Bel Air pummels the night calm. I gasp for air, my heart pounding, as the cracked windowpane next to my bed rattles like a snare drum from the percussion of badly corroded mufflers. I wipe away tears and whisper in the darkness, "I'm sorry, Matthew. Please forgive me."
Trembling, I sit up in bed and peer out the window as Carl puts the poor Chevy in gear. The transmission clanks and the car lumbers away from the curb. A trail of smoke lags behind the sickly sloth. The window by my bed hums louder, then gradually falls silent as I track the red glow of one working taillight until it fades into the night. This is the way it is, Carl rescuing me nearly every night.
The firing up of the Chevy means it is midnight, plus or minus one minute. Our next door neighbor, Carl, is a baker married to the night shift and the most punctual alcoholic I'll ever know. He isn't very keen on the virtues of preventive maintenance. His Chevy is not yet three years off the assembly line, and it already looks and sounds as decrepit as Betsy, our embarrassing-to-be-seen-in '40 Ford.
In the bed next to mine, my brother Luke sleeps on, snoring softly under his blanket. He is oblivious to the commotion of Carl's routine departure. Through the narrow dimness that separates our beds, I can just make out the top of Luke's red fuzzy head poking out from under his blanket.
Luke is something else, able to fall asleep at the snap of a finger and remain there in peaceful slumber until it's time to get up. He's like a light switch-off or on, awake or asleep, nothing in-between. I envy him. He doesn't lie awake worrying about things like I do.
I shiver, visualizing the Crippler as I listen to Carl drive off down the hill. Absently, I anticipate the screech of brake pad rivets scraping against pitted and scarred metal drums. I hear fingernails on a chalkboard and feel it in my teeth when Carl halts for the stop sign at the bottom of the hill.
Luke stirs not, and except for his rhythmic wheezing, the night reclaims its calm, which ushers the return of my worried state of mind. Irritated, lonely, I flip my pillow over to the cool side and lay my head back down. I close my eyes knowing there isn't enough time left to go back to sleep. Tossing and turning, listening to the quiet, I struggle in vain not to think about the Crippler. My mind swirls, searching for options that do not exist. I have to go through with it. I have to be a man and not back down.
But a larger dread, one bigger and far heavier than my immediate dilemma, has left me as weakened and tired as a fish slowly being starved of oxygen. Keep swimming or you'll sink to the bottom and never come up. Things will get better, I keep telling myself. But I feel like I am being tricked or duped by something I can't see, a dark and dangerous foe-one who follows no rules, observes no code, intends me great harm, and takes pleasure in my suffering. Playing upon my fears, the invisible darkness is slowly sapping my essence. It is a bad way to live, looking over your shoulder all the time.
I wish I had someone to talk to. I have questions, lots of questions ...
Who am I?
Why am I here?
Can you hear me?
Please, I need answers.
I can't stand it any longer. Distracted, I get up and dress as quietly as possible, not daring to wake our mother, Lucinda, whom we regard with careful unease even when she is awake on account of her being sad or angry ever since our baby brother, Matthew, died.
Some nights I awaken to hear Lucinda crying in her room. I lie there and listen until my heart hurts so bad for her I tiptoe down the hall to her room and tap on her door. She never lets me in. "Go back to bed," is all she ever says, and I feel my dangerous foe pull me a little farther into the darkness.
Fully dressed, I am ready, but it is still too early to head out. For a while I just sit on my bed and watch Luke sleep. I do that a lot, just watch him sleep; hearing him breathing comforts me. Over and over I tell myself ... he won't stop breathing.
The waiting gets to me, and I reach over and gently shake Luke's arm. "I'm already awake, you big donkey," he says grinning, and I feel a thousand percent better.
"Come on, Luke, hurry up!"
"Keep your shirt on. I can't find my other tennis shoe."
With one leg already hanging out of the bedroom window, I wave for him to follow. "Mac probably got your shoe again. Come on. I bet we'll find it in the garage."
Mac is asleep at the foot of my bed. His ears twitch at the mention of his name, and he lifts his head. He's mildly annoyed that we are once again stealing out into the night. It's two o'clock in the morning. Mac knows better than to bark, though. We do this kind of stealthy night crawling all the time.
Depending on his mood, Mac sometimes joins us on our nocturnal adventures. On this particular night, he opts to break the triad. Mac is very smart-he understands the concepts of culpability, accessory, and accomplice better than I do. I think he knows when we are up to no good. Besides, he manages to get himself into plenty of trouble without tagging along with us.
Luke complains while he hops across the dew covered lawn on one shoe. "Darn grass is wet."
I love him and all, in fact he is my best friend, but sometimes Luke can be a royal pain in the rump. I tell myself all little brothers are annoying sometimes.
Opening the side door to the garage, I pull up as hard as I can on the doorknob to silence the squeaky hinges. Garage smells wafting in the blackness-grease and turpentine mixed with the fragrance of fermenting grass on the old push mower-fill my nose as I step through the doorway.
I flick on my Flash Gordon flashlight and scan the oil-stained floor, then smile when I spot Luke's shoe lying next to Betsy's front wheel. "Like I told you, Red, there it is."
Luke balks, begrudging my intuitive powers. "You think you're so darn smart, Wade; how come you're not on Ed Sullivan?"
I am convinced Luke must be half myna bird. The way he mimics Lucinda can sometimes drive me up the wall.
"Maybe I'll be on TV someday." I jerk his brand-new Los Angeles Dodgers cap down over his eyes, and he swings at me in the dark, missing as usual. I pick up his errant sneaker, pooch out my mouth, plant my free hand on my hip, and try my best to sound like Ed Sullivan. "Tonight, ladies and gentlemen-we have a really, really, really big shoe."
"You don't even sound like him."
I toss him his sneaker. "Put your darn shoe on and let's get going. They're probably already waiting for us."
Luke methodically makes a bow with an over-long lace as I train the flashlight beam on his foot. He is only six years old and has yet to fully master the art of shoe tying. I wait patiently for him to finish. I have learned not to rush or bad-mouth his handiwork unless I am up for contending with his prickly temper. The opposite of me (the blond, blue-eyed, reserved older brother), Luke isn't the least bit shy about expressing himself. He is a redheaded firecracker and making him mad is not a good idea at this moment. If he makes a ruckus, we're sure to be discovered.
Back in the yard, we both jump when Mac materializes in front of us. He whines a little, as if to warn us not to go, then disappears into the inky black behind the garage.
"Darn dog! He's just going to do his duty."
"Shush, Luke. You wake up Lucinda and I'll tan you good, right after she tans the both of us."
He swings at me again.
Luke is quick to make judgmental or disparaging remarks about Mac. It is his way of clarifying his own position in the pecking order. I understand. But the fact is Mac, being the beneficiary of the best genes of the German shepherd and Doberman pinscher breeds, can make a snack out of little Luke anytime he cares to. Fortunately for Luke and me, Mac loves us more than ... well, more than almost anything.
We're risking the skin off our behinds this night because I ran my mouth off, an unusual behavior for me.
I suppose it's not a bad thing to make bold and daring statements to an audience of admiring fellow daredevils, but it's not a good idea to do it in the middle of a crowded schoolyard when Guerrmo Francisco Torres Smith, Gooey for short, is standing right in front of you. Gooey is nine, a year older than me, and does not like the fact that I am a better cardboard slider than he is. He also carries a grudge against me for letting him take the blame for the green dye that mysteriously ended up in the Highland Park public pool last summer.
It wasn't enough for me to be the humble champion cardboard slider of Billy Goat Hill. No, I had to be prideful and brag that I could take the Crippler from top to bottom- IN THE DARK!
"Is that so?" Gooey had chided, challenging my outlandish claim.
Instantly I knew that I had messed up. Clamps of unease gripped my shoulders and I cleared my throat. "Yes, that is so, Gooey."
He grinned. "Well now-let me get this straight. You are actually claiming you can run the Crippler in the dark?"
"You heard me." I gave him a look that implored him not to push it any further. That was all he needed to drop the hammer.
He flashed a meaner grin. "So, for all these witnesses to hear...you are promising to run the Crippler in the dark. Is that right?"
"Well then, Wade Parker, Mr. Big Shot fancy pants champion cardboard slider-how about tonight then, say at about 2:15 or so? It should be quite a show. Maybe we can sell some tickets."
Sensing the brewing of something big, more kids had quickly gathered around us. Some of them were Billy Goat Hill regulars. And just like that, the cards were on the table. It was not possible for me to back down.
"My old man's out of town again ..." I said with a measure of thespian couth. "... 2:15 shouldn't be any problem at all."
"You are poco loco, man."
My own words had pricked at a raw corner of my heart. Despite his many faults, I sorely miss Earl, our antisocial, often drunk father. Soon it will be my birthday, and I know all the luck in the world won't help him remember it. The thought makes me angry. My eyes lock on Gooey and I spend an overdraft of gratuitous nonchalance.
"See you tonight then." I feel a new pain in my gut.
Like old west townsmen roused by talk of a showdown, the crowd stirs and murmurs with excitement. With controlled desperation, I scan the onlooker's faces, seeking their devotion, their genuflection in the presence of their champion. But I find no loyalty in their eyes, only the lust to be entertained, to be thrilled. I have somehow created a circus and they want to see the lions eat the trainer, the fall of the trapeze artist, the fatal crash of the champion of Billy Goat Hill. Their aggrandized hero has learned a painful lesson-Life is tough at the top.
I do however spot one friendly soul in the shifting crowd. Luke, his freckly face beaming with adoration, his chest swollen with pride, gives me the strength I need to endure Gooey's relentless grin.
Cardboard sliding is a poor kid's version of bobsledding. Our modest bobsleds are nothing more than sturdy chunks of cardboard cut from the large boxes used for shipping new appliances, and our snow is the thick dry weeds and grasses native to the hilly surroundings of Los Angeles.
Unlike real bobsleds, our cardboard bobsleds have no runners, no brakes and no steering mechanism. Directional control is minimal. You can shift the weight of your body by leaning left or right, or you can alternately drag your left or right foot, using them as rudimentary rudders-but only if you wear boots or at least hi-tops, lest you lose the meat off your ankles. Neither procedure does much to help steer. Mostly there is only one direction-down. And once you start down, with no brakes, there is no stopping. The most important objective is to stay on the cardboard while keeping the cardboard on the run. I have developed and perfected my technique, but the truth is, cardboard sliding is far more art than science.
The Crippler is the longest, steepest, most dangerous run on Billy Goat Hill. Many of the kids refuse to try it at all. It got its name when an out of town boy foolishly made a headfirst run and ended up on a permanent wheelchair ride. The Crippler runs a course of about 350 feet with a total vertical drop of nearly 200 feet. What makes it dangerous are the jagged rocks, century plants, prickly pear cactus, tree stumps, rustedout car bodies and assorted other debris that have been dumped down the incline by people too lazy or too cheap to haul their discards to the city dump. It's a sharply tilted minefield of natural and man-made hazards, any one of which holds disaster for the slider unfortunate enough to veer off course. The Crippler is the best of the myriad runs that mark the variant slopes of Billy Goat Hill. You couldn't design a better ride if you tried-the perfect dare for young boys bucking for manhood.
It is almost 2:30 when Luke and I make it to the top of Billy Goat Hill. Luke plops down on a rock next to me, catching his breath. "We should have brought Mac with us to help tow the box up the hill."
Luke often comes up with good ideas after the fact. I don't say anything.
With a razor knife I have indefinitely borrowed from Sal's, our neighborhood liquor store, I trim up the water heater box to form a bottom, two sides, and a front. It looks like a square-nosed canoe with its back end cut off. I am not planning to use my feet as rudders, if I can help it.
Luke and I drag the canoe over to the top of the Crippler and find a good spot to sit and wait for the other kids to show up. I am surprised that none of them are here yet, especially Gooey, although it is common knowledge that his mom often has to throw cold water on him to wake him up for school. I try not to think about the reckless stunt awaiting me.
The low clouds hanging over the City of Angels this night are a disappointment-no stars to tickle my imagination, no Dippers to trace, no moon to make faces at. It is almost cool enough for long sleeves, but we are sweating after lugging the water heater box up the hill. We take our jackets off and let the night air cool us down. I look at Luke in his sneakers, blue jeans, and horizontal striped T-shirt, and realize that except for his red hair and my blond hair, he is the spitting image of me. We are a couple of matching goslings astray from the goose. I tug his Dodgers cap down over his eyes again. He swings and misses again.
We are still buzzing from the excitement of seeing our first big league baseball game, the first game of the Los Angeles, by way of Brooklyn, Dodgers. Seeing the game hadn't been easy. Without Lucinda's permission and with no tickets in hand, Luke and I, a pair of pikers with a plan, ventured across Los Angeles by city bus and stole like rats up a gangplank into the Coliseum. Rattis Gangplankis. It has a nice ring to it. That or something like it is probably what my teacher, Mrs. Barr, would call us. She aspires to be a Professor of Latin at UCLA and often practices her gobbledygook on our class. Even the Catholic kids who are used to hearing Latin at mass think she is weird. I like her, though.
Luke has been jabbering about the game all day. "Man, I've never seen so many people in one place before. That Coliseum is huge, huh?"
"Yeah, it's colossal. It sure was lucky Davenport forgot to touch third base, because when Mays knocked in Kirkland the game would have been tied up."
Luke rolls his eyes. "What a pity for the Giants."
"Yeah, the Dodgers rule."
Luke nods and yawns. "I used to like the Chicago Cubs best, but now we have our own team. Who's your favorite player?"
"Come on, Luke, you know the answer to that one-the one and only Duke Snider, the greatest player in the game today."
"I like Charlie Neal the best. When I grow up I want to play second base just like Charlie Neal."
The conversation is helping keep my mind off the Crippler.
Excerpted from BILLY GOAT HILL by Mark Stanleigh Morris Copyright © 2004 by Mark Stanleigh Morris. Excerpted by permission.
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