Blood and Bones
By: Walter Geirsbach
The devil must've laughed the day Tony come up Mulberry from Canal, dirty and grinning like he'd won the World Series. "I walked the tunnels," he shouted, still three doors away. "Went two stops. Cool!" Old ladies turned to squint in a neighborhood where your business is everybody's business.
It was already 90 on the thermometer at Giordano's, soot rolling down the street, a dull sun shining like the end of the world. The day stretched timeless beyond a hazy horizon of emptiness until Tony got there. I needed to hear more because Tony was always two steps ahead of our gang Vinnie, my cousin Sal, Richie, sometimes Franco.
"How cool?" I asked. Sweat was dripping down Tony's face and off his nose.
"You never seen stuff like this. It's so dark, the smell of dead things everywhere. It's a crypt down there." When Sal and Franco and some others arrived, he told his adventure all over again.
We had all the time in the world. Classes were over until I went to high school in September. St. Anthony's was a month away and paradise was right here. Last winter was memories of Father Joseph telling our catechism class about the ninth level of purgatory I loved that lake of frozen blood and guilt. But, for now the days in Little Italy boogied by in joy. Our gang had our rooftop beach, where we'd drink beer Vinnie swiped from his old man. At night, Mary Elizabeth Bracco might lie in my arms and forget she was going to be a nun. We felt the wind in our teeth riding the bumpers of Second Avenue buses. And we had war when our Elizabeth Street team played basketball against the guys from the projects.
Tony's discovery of the tunnels added mystery. That Tony, what a character.
Next day, we had to check out his story, not because we didn't believe there was another world under the street, but because it was a novelty. Something alien.
Tony told Sal to distract the token seller while the rest of us jumped the turnstile and took off running. At the end of the platform we jumped onto the dark tracks, following Tony's white T shirt. My brain started to go crazy with excitement in this underworld. We passed abandoned stations, threw rocks against ghost cars everybody'd forgotten about, heard zombie people shuffling in the dark. I sniffed the stinky air, recognizing the smell that came up to our world through the sidewalk grates. But Tony didn't tell us what to do when we heard a train whistle, then saw its light like the bright eye of the devil behind us. He never said what it was like to have a train shoot down the tunnel pushing a hurricane of wind at you. I almost pissed my pants as I tried to disappear into the wall.
Crazy how my friends challenged death. They spit in death's eye, even when Mr. Mancini later that day explained you gotta stay off the third rail and watch out for the rail shoes that come in contact with the trains.
"Eight hundred volts of electric in the third rail," he said as we huddled on the street under the streetlight. "You'll be fried if even your little toe touches it." Mancini gave us a weird smile. "Bam!" His fist smacked his open palm. "You light up like a Christmas tree and your guts explode. You kids having fun yet?"
Mancini was one of the Moustache Petes who play dominos on Duane Street. "And watch out for alligators," he warned.
"Ain't no fuckin' alligators," Tony shot back, paying him no respect.
Mancini called Tony a wise guy. "When people come back from Coney Island, they got little gators. Crocodilos. Then, someone's Mama says, ‘No gator in my house!' She flushes it down the toilet. The toilet goes into the subway. So, the subway's filled with gators."
I never saw anything but rats, but I knew the red and white striped signs could kill if the third rail didn't get you kill you faster than an alligator. I seen those signs every time I looked out the train window. They warn subway workers there's no clearance there when that train shoots down the track pushing its windstorm ahead of it, horn blaring, evil headlight shining on the worker. Those signs were blood-and-bones warnings.
We walked the tunnels the next day and the next. But going back had to wait when a basketball game was set up. There wasn't nothing better than a good game. Nothing in the world like sinking a three-pointer in the playground and your buddies high five you. Then I'd look to make sure Mary Elizabeth was watching and make believe I was on the Knicks. After the game, I'd dig two bits out of my pocket for an egg cream or bottle of Dr. Brown's soda at Giordano's maybe two bottles if Mary Elizabeth was there.
The big games were played in the park by the East River. They were the best because the Puerto Rican kids from the big, red-brick Baruch Houses usually lost. We went into each game knowing we were kings. This time the score ended 52 to 37. I shouted "Losers!" and the rest of our team chimed in.
"Why'd you call them losers?" Mary Elizabeth asked.
I stuck my nose in the air. "PRs are different than me and you. They got city housing while my old man and yours pay rent out of their own pockets. We ain't welfare clients."
"Maybe you're all losers. You just don't know it." Then she walked off with her girlfriends, acting like she was the queen of Elizabeth Street.
"Now you gotta pay," Tony crowed at the Spanish kids. "Losers gotta walk the tunnel."
See, you gotta understand that, being Italian, we had honor. They had to pay us respect. Tony was a real character figuring how to get respect.
"No big thing," a PR kid said. "I done it a million times."
"Yeah," Tony comes back, "but you gotta walk the A train line from Broadway over to High Street in Brooklyn. We'll meet you there." Then he lied. "I figger our best time was five and a half minutes. That's so's to be sure there ain't no trains but you better duck when a train comes watch for the sign of blood and bones."
The kids punched each other in the shoulders. Pussies, all of them.
"Let's go losers," Tony called. He led our team off to the subway on Canal. "You comin' or are you chicken?"
The guys from the projects followed, but I could see they weren't happy with Tony telling them what to do. Not happy doing the tunnel.
We got off at Broadway-Nassau and Tony pointed. The tunnel looked like the mouth of Hell, yawning like an alligator. Tony might've been Father Joseph pointing that guy Dante on the road to Purgatory. Worse, there was no sound except our voices. It was Sunday afternoon a weekend train schedule and the platform was deserted. Weekends, you have to wait forever for a train. The guys from the projects jumped down on the tracks after our train left. Tony and us all shouted, "Get your ass in there!" and "You got five minutes!" and "You're dead meat if you don't run."
They were sucked up by the darkness and everything got quiet again. Tony said, "Share a cab over to Brooklyn and wait for me. I'm going after the bums. Scare the crap out of them."
He showed us one of those aerosol cans you blow at football games to celebrate a touchdown or something. That was so funny. We couldn't believe Tony planned so far ahead and got one of those air horns. What a character.
We were still laughing when we left the cab in Brooklyn, slapping each other and punching the air.
The kids came out maybe ten minutes later. Nobody said nothing till this skinny kid pipes up, "So we made it, you cabrón! We made it!"
The others chimed in "Yeah, yeah." Then they ran for the street instead of crossing the platform to catch the next train north.
And we waited. Twenty minutes later still no Tony.
"Whaddya think?" my cousin Sal asked me.
"I think trouble." I knew it was trouble. Tony should've been 30 seconds behind them.
"I gotta go home," Vinnie piped up. "My Ma's gonna kill me if I'm late."
"Me too," a couple others agreed. They were hopping from one foot to the other like they hadda piss.
"You ain't gonna wait for Tony?" I demanded. "After all he done for you?"
"He's the one who always gets us in trouble," Sal muttered, the little prick. I always thought my cousin was a coward.
"I'm going up the track," I said.
"See ya later," Vinnie said, and the others muttered, "Later, man."
I walked in the dark for maybe ten minutes smelling rotten, wet things and believing old man Mancini's gators might be real. Instead, a train came through. I ducked into a hidey hole to let it screech by, blasting soot into my eyes as I flattened myself and said a Hail Mary.
The red light of the train got smaller as I ran down the track, letting it lead me out of the darkness. My foot suddenly caught on something and I fell forward, knees and elbows getting cut up in the gravel. I reached out my hand and my fingers felt Tony's eyes and nose. He was curled up in the center of the tracks, lying in a pool of rainwater. His T shirt was almost black from the soot and the burns and the train that had passed over him. He wasn't the Tony I knew anymore. This was Tony the zombie.
I held his cold head in my hands, feeling the grease and water he'd been lying in. I didn't think I could do any good breathing in his mouth and thumping his chest, like on TV. Nobody really dies on TV. Then I let the tears come because no one could see me cry.
Mothers shouldn't have to bury their sons. That's why I felt sorry for Mrs. DiBernardo, Tony's mother. When me and my folks went to the funeral parlor to pay our respects nobody could stop her wailing, "Mi bambino!" I felt ashamed for lying, telling her I didn't know why he did such a stupid thing. And I felt sorry for Tony, that nobody would really know what happened to get him fried like a potato chip. I was sorry for everybody in the world.
Tony was my friend leastwise the only kid who stood up for me on the playground or shared his bottle of beer. And when a friend dies, you have to find out why. I said that to Sal out in the street and he told me to shut up.
"Nothing matters when someone's dead," he told me. "You just gotta make sure it ain't you dyin'." My cousin Sal can be a real coward prick.
For two or three days I hung around the projects on Grand Street. Finally, I saw the skinny kid the one who called me a cabrón come running out the door and down the steps two at a time.
I grabbed his shirt collar and yanked him around. "What'd you do to my friend Tony? You guys killed him, you little bastard."
The kid didn't act like a smartass now, shrinking down, afraid I was going to hit him.
"I didn't do nothing," he said. "Your friend came outta the dark screaming and blowing the air horn. We ran. Man, did we run. Then Pepe or Julio turned and swung at him. Your friend stepped back, onto the third rail."
I let go of him. I didn't know what to say next. Something in my head told me you gotta love people even if you don't like them. I knew what being scared is like. I'd been in the tunnels.
"Cojones," the PR said. "He had a set of cojones too big for his own good."
"I don't talk Spanish. What's that mean?"
"Balls. We heard your friend's horn, that hijo de puta. We were runnin' like everything 'cause we thought a train was comin'. An invisible ghost train." The kid chewed his lip, turned his back and sat down on a bench.
"One minute everybody's shouting and next thing the air's full of electricity," he said. "I never seen a dead person before."
"Me neither." I sat at the other end of his bench. "That Tony was a real character."
What else was I supposed to do? What was the honorable thing? Light a goddamn candle and forget this horror show happened? I asked the kid his name.
"Arturo," he said. He still couldn't look me in the eye.
"Well, Artie," I said, "we might be forming a new team if you want to meet me at the park tomorrow."
"It's okay?" he asked.
"We can make it okay."