The King and Queen of 417


A short story

“Frankie? That you? Finally. Hey, I don’t have much time. You know how much these calls cost from in here.”

“Gotcha babe. I hear ya. It’s for sure today, right? You’re getting out, right?

“Yeah, that’s what the butch CO said, the one who UA-ed me. She told me it’s for sure. Yeah.”

“Okay, good. Get the bus or hitch. Meet me at the shack.”

“You’ll have something for me?”

“Yeah, babe. At the shack.”

After 48 hours in Greene County Hotel, I needed a bump. The first day, the doc in the Ding Wing said she would get me some kinda come-down ticky tac but she disappeared. The guards gobbled at me.

Cold turkey.


My two cellies were no help. The buzz-cut bitch had some hooch just riped up, ready that same day, but they wouldn’t share. They laughed at me, said I looked like a Siamese cat and called me Itchy and Scratchy. I couldn’t stop picking at the sore on my left arm.

I needed Frankie. He always had a connection. We always had a blast. We always laughed. We always sang and shook.

I really needed to get to the shack.

The bus got me as far as the connection with the Farm Road as the sun burned up the clouds, settling in behind the coal plant. It was still warm enough to carry my hoodie and I scared myself silly when I looked down at my arm.  It was red, bright red. Infected? It took half a sec but I realized it was the sunset.

Frankie would tease me when I told him. He would laugh.

Man, I couldn’t choke down those hotel beans. I was starved.

One good bump would help with that. Frankie would help with that. Just sitting with Frankie in those old recliners would help with everything. He called them our “thrones.” He talked like he was the King and I was the Queen, “The King and Queen of the 417.” He was funny like that. I missed him when he was stuck in his side of the hotel or me stuck in with those crazy bitches.

Man, I was tired, and startin’ to shiver, even with the T-shirt and my hoodie — on now and pulled tight over my head. I could see the shack in the distance, past the leaning barn with no roof. But the shack looked scarier than last time.

That night in the snow, me and Frankie danced our way down this path but today I kept tripping on the ruts. As the red sun went down, a rabbit made me jump. I fell sideways and used my arm to catch myself. It was the sore one so I screamed. Maybe Frankie heard. Maybe he’d come out and check. No, prolly noddin’.

He was inside, though. I could see the light in our throne room. The king and queen would have themselves a ball.

Hurrying now, I chased that light along the widest rut in the path. I looked behind me again and, when I turned back around the shack was dark. No light. Just like that. Gone.

I called out for Frankie. No answer.

Moving slowly, feeling my way with my feet, I pulled my hoodie closer. Really jittery now, I didn’t want to keep looking back but I couldn’t help myself. Dark, but at least a slice of moon. The path turned to grass. I tried to jog.

Sweat tickled the skin on my sides under my T-shirt. I hated when I sweat when I was cold. I reached the kitchen door. It was stuck. I was too skinny, not strong enough. I called for Frankie louder.

Head achin’. Stomach hurtin’. Arm bleedin’.

Mad now, I put my whole body against the door and pushed. I got in but saw only a sliver of moon leaking through that big window. At least there were matches. On the window sill. I Iit one and there sat our big yellow Eveready, the one we found in the summer floating in the pond, still lit. Oh, we laughed that day. But today it wouldn’t turn on.



Like Frankie.

He was slouched in his throne.

I tried to cry but couldn’t. I reached out to touch his cheek. Cold. Blue. I fell to my knees. I put my head in his lap, my eyes settling on the pipe in his hand. Some glass left. Must’ve been savin’ it for me.

After the hits, I sang. I pretended he was still with me. I danced, holding his limp arms.

We slept together side-by-side in our throne room one last night.

The shack wasn’t so scary after all.

Read before you judge: As a kid, I killed small creatures

IMG_1779Not everyone who slaughtered small animals as a boy ended up a serial killer.
Some of us city boys had no outlet for our natural hunter instincts, so we resorted to searching for something to kill wherever we could find it.
The backyard. The crawl space under the house. Aunt Max’s basement.
To be clear, I’m not disputing that some of us needed more parental guidance. We were probably not the best bunch to be left on our own to find prey. Regardless, I don’t think my early days of hunting showed any sort of predilection toward homicide.
I was just trying to get better at throwing.
See a robin, scare it away with that marble. Crab apple in hand? Why not try to whack a pigeon?Wow, a rabbit! And a nice flat rock nearby. Send it flying like you’re trying to make it skip across water. The whistling of the wrinkled thrown stone scares the bunny but — aha! — it flees along the same path as the stone spins and sails and dips for 20 feet, then farther, then more, then, as the animal darts right, the rock curves just … no way!
The impact sends the rabbit somersaulting — its last act.

Impossible throw.

Impossible result.
I remember feeling somewhat bad while burying the bunny, but excited at the same time. If this kill had happened 75 years earlier, my tribe would have honored me with the exalted Eye of the Eagle sling or given me a cool name, like “Throws to Kill” or “Slays with Stone.”
It was the second best throw of my life.
If you’re ever at a party and you get tired of hearing the guests talking about the weather, their workout routines or the St. Louis Cardinals, ask this question:
“What was your best throw?”
Folks might look at you a little strange until you explain, and some will undoubtedly excuse themselves to head back over to the potato chip bowl, but don’t give up. I’ve done this a couple times and, after some prodding, the memories flow. I think it’s primal. You just cannot forget that time when the stars aligned — like the bunny’s temple and the sharp edge of the rock.
Many people will talk about their most memorable sports moment, say a basketball goal, or a throw from the outfield, but that’s OK.
Don’t fret. They usually have good cause to recollect those moments; there’s often a neat backstory. Maybe the base runner thrown out at third by the right fielder had just stolen the outfielder’s girl or guy. Maybe that improbable long shot, the game-winning basket, put some smart aleck on the other team in his place. Or, maybe the touchdown pass went to the chubby kid always picked last.
The best of the stories, though, involve activities that aren’t traditional sports. I’ve heard some good ones about hatchets perfectly tossed; a steel-tipped dart finding, say, the floating eyeball on the back of the $1 bill taped on the board for a bet; a snowball putting the neighborhood bully in his place, and on and on.
Boomers have better stories. We played lots of games than have now gone by the wayside as too dangerous.  “Prisoner Release,” which was basically fighting not to get dragged into a “prison” set off by lines on the concrete. “Buck Buck,” made popular by Bill Cosby’s monologue, involved jumping in the air to come down on other players’ backs to try to make them fall. “Hide the Belt,” which essentially involved finding a belt and hitting everyone around you with it.


In my neighborhood, one of our more more sane games was a relatively non-violent one that regardless has not survived passage of time and political correctness. Wasteful and environmentally noxious, the neighborhood “egg battle” admittedly involved throwing food around the streets.

eggs at the supermarket
We’d make up teams, grab a couple dozen of Grade A ammunition, set some rules, and run the neighborhood arguing over who had been “killed” and who was still “alive.”
Of course we didn’t clean up the splatter left behind — we didn’t even realize how bad eggs stunk when left to dry on a sidewalk — and we gave utterly no thought to the kids in Africa who could have subsisted on those eggs for, at least according to our Catholic nuns, a couple lifetimes.
Nope, this was just a cool way to pass the time, with some strategy, skill and an element of pure surprise: the eggs’ unpredictability. They were tricky to throw because of their insides. I’m sure a physics professor could explain this using words like torque, inertia and mass. All we knew was the eggs danced through the air en route to targets, never following a straight line like a baseball or football.
The best players could get a feel for how they could corkscrew through the air. In setting up a team, you needed to know who those players were.
Also important was matching your teammates’ skills with their role in the game, kinda like putting your biggest guy on the line in football. I prided myself on being nimble enough to sneak up to the other team and still dodge a couple eggs fired at my head.
It was dodge ball with hard projectiles that could hurt. It was paintball before paintball. With no goggles and lots less accuracy.
Add to all this the chance of getting ratted out by one or more of the neighborhood snitches and you had quite a thrilling way to spend part of a hot summer afternoon, or night. Of course, this activity had no parental sanction.
One particular night, almost everyone was eliminated as dusk settled in. Playing under the streetlights added another challenge, so I wanted to win quickly and get on to the boasting part of the ritual.
But, I had to call time as a group of passersby approached. We set the eggs behind bushes or hid them in pockets, at least until we learned who was coming, friend or foe.
Three of them got closer but two turned down a side street. That left a chubby boy approaching alone. Once close enough, I saw his dark curly hair, big belly and distinctive waddle of a walk and I realized it was Danny P. from up the hill, a sissy, a bigmouth and a rat.
He shouted something like: “What are you guys doin?”
We ignored him.
“Prisoner release? Can I play?”
“No,” I said. “Just hanging out.”
“Up here? Why way up here?” His grating voice was naturally aggravating but also just too damn loud, all the time. It had to bounce around his belly to build up speed before getting out his fat mouth, like gas escaping a constipated clown. Something to do with inertia and mass, I’m sure.
He burped out more: “You’re usually down by your house. Hey, why’re yins sweatin’?”
We stayed silent and started walking away but he followed, struggling to keep up. He didn’t see a smashed egg on the sidewalk and slipped, chortling as he realized what we were doing.
“Ha, an egg battle. Didn’t you get in trouble for that last week. Ha! You were trying to hide it. Ha! An egg battle so close to Mrs. Pack’s house? Oh boy. Ha! She’d call the cops if she saw an egg battle.”
“Be quiet you idiot,” I sneered. “You know she sits on her back porch.”
“Whaddya gonna do about it?” he taunted, even though he knew full well I had already beat him up twice. He seemed ready to make it three.
But, he was Italian with a big family and I wasn’t quite sure how angry his cousins could get.
He would not shut up. I took an egg from my front pants pocket and held it up for him to see, hoping the unspoken threat would shut him up. He backed away but slipped again on the same broken egg. This time, he fell in it.

eggsAngry now, he stood and shouted: “Mrs. Pack!”
I ran at him. He continued to call for her but backpedaled, so I ran at him some more, giving the other players time to slip away. At the corner, now out of the hearing of the infamous Mrs. Pack, I had to make him pay.
Only about a pitcher’s mound away, I had him in my sights. I fired an egg with full force sidearm at his torso. He tried an awkward dodge — he wasn’t athletic — but I scored a direct hit. Bouncing off the softest part of his belly, though, the egg fell intact onto the soft grass near the curb. He picked it up, eyes now wide and nostrils flaring. He saw I was out of ammo.
No way I was running, though. Not from this goofball.
I stood my ground, figuring my chances were good. He threw about as awkwardly as he ran. Trying to throw the egg like a fastball, he held it too loosely. It slipped upward, lobbing toward me. Ha! I could not only catch it but fire it back again, this time at his fat head.
I needed one long step backward to get under it. But now it was my turn to slip on a slithery yolk. I looked down long enough to catch my balance then looked back up. Splatt-t-t-t, the airborne egg fell into me forehead and Joey let loose with a belly laugh. With his physique, he did that well.
I considered chasing him, but I remembered we had stashed other eggs. By the time I ran back for one, though, he’d have time to hustle up Anthony Street, a long steep hill, and get closer to his house.
I risked it.
single eggJoey ran like he was trying to catch the ice cream truck. When I returned with my ammo, he was almost a block away, in the shadows and very close to a couple nice parked cars.
It was more than a long shot, uphill, and what seemed like a football field away, but …
I remembered thinking how I had to keep my footing, like our baseball coach taught me when trying to throw out a runner tagging for third base … I would have to throw high, higher than the streetlamps.
The arc took the egg above the light, out of sight.
Hopeful but not confident, all I could do was stare at the oval silhouette that was Joey’s round body and the rounder silhouette that was his head.
The egg landed with no sound. I was too far away. But a streetlamp further up the hill helped me realize I had made a throw like the one that killed the rabbit. Much different ammo. Much slower prey. Same body part.
The head.

The insides of that egg exploded off Joey’s curly noggin like fireworks, that uphill streetlamp giving the spray the bright, gelatinous glory it deserved.

My only regret was that no one was there to see it. Maybe that’s why I’ve etched it so dramatically in my memory. Well, that, and, of course, it was the best throw in the entire history of egg battles.
The No. 1 throw of my life, bar none.
Joey P., of course, probably still says the same thing about the throw right before mine.

Nah, his was luck. Mine was pure skill, just plain beautiful. And, best of all, I didn’t have to carry that lug away to bury him.