Just the word made my ass curl. It was like some alien mystery code, foisted on innocent children in order to permanently befuddle them with the cockeyed notion that letters are the same as numbers. The fact that most teachers of this Black Art were chain smoking disciplinarians only served to confirm my hunch that the entire Algebraic Edifice had crash landed on this planet after exile from someplace that had prudently wised up to its perfidy. Geometry? No problemo, you could visualize that and Chemistry, well, it had its uses, like dissecting the components of a smoke bomb procured in Evanston so they could be mass produced and unleashed on the hallways in a preemptory strike against last period, which just so happened to be Miss Ziegler’s Infernal Algebra class.
Just as I was about to grab the cussed Algebra book from the top shelf in the dank recesses of my locker, WHAM, the door slammed shut with a metal clang and the immediately expected slap on the back of my head signaled another episode of dealing with Vic.
“Sabe you fat tard, another fight at Walt’s after school. I’m really going to kick Hal’s dumb Irish ass but good this time. He’ll be sucking his thumb for mommy. The usual time asshole, don’t be late or I’ll make you the last round.”
Vic and Hal bare-knuckling at Walts Gas Station, what could be better? It was a regular thing these days. Even though they were the best of friends, jocks with easy athletic abilities and mutual berserker natures, they simply could not avoid fighting like two Beta Males contending for the Alpha spot coming down the pike. A crowd of kids would mass on the corner and the fists would fly until Walt came running out of the station with his Fire Extinguisher to hose down the combatants before the cops got there. As Walt cussed us out again while the cash register jingled, we bought some Cheats and Orange Soda for the run home. We always shot off down Mountain Road to reconvene at Vic’s house for a telephone call to Hal whereupon post-fight statistics would be reviewed. Later that night, Vic and Hal would be found watching television at one of their houses like nothing whatsoever had a chance of coming between them. Sure, we had all the organized sports we needed at school but Vic and Hal bare-knuckling at Walt’s was the preferred venue. Once, after having had enough, I came to blows with some other kid at football practice and we fought like a couple fairy drunks as Vic and Hal officiated. Afterwards, as I was cleaning up in the bathroom, Vic and Hal came in and presented a comedy recap of the affair before Hal said I should stick to art class and Vic got so pissed at this, he punched Hal out cold like Graziano. Vic was a true friend, terrorizing me relentlessly but loyal as a Marine. I was the Jerry Lewis to his Dean Martin. He was that part of friendship which allows a person to live vicariously on the kind of energy jag that they would ordinarily avoid. Vic was like no-holds gunplay, fast and loud.
Rubbing the back of my smacked head, I looked at Vic as he ran off up the hallway grinning and just as I started to say that I’d bring a couple gym towels to wipe up the mess afterwards, I saw Gabe up the hall, glaring my way with a look that said this day’s bout at Walt’s might just have to be missed. He was walking with his knockout girlfriend Veronica but giving me the high sign. I re-opened my locker, grabbed the clammy Algebra book and started up the crowded hallway toward Gabe. As we passed, his arm around Veronica’s sweet shoulders, he observed the established protocol and kept straight to the facts.
“Something’s happening man, meet me behind Albertsons after school, we got some serious business to take care of, I think we’re close Sabe, two of the balloons went all the way down last night”
I understood immediately that our long conjured plan was about to pay big and without displaying even a hint of emotion, I walked on and just nodded.
“Cool Gabe…. later man”
Sitting down in the back of the class, I watched my other friends file in but didn’t display an iota of my excitement at what Gabe had just told me. The big news would come soon enough and in order to keep the entire plan from being blown by loose talk, mum was the word. Miss Ziegler entered the room like a Doberman and slapped her purse down on the desk hard and turning to the board, she started baying those insufferable polynomials while scratching equations on the blackboard like an abstract expressionist. Quickly lost in her furious clouds of flaying chalk dust, my mind drifted off to the cedar chest of best-laid plans.
As soon as the bell rung, I was out the door running, trying to avoid any talk of the afternoon’s bout at Walt’s. I jammed the Algebra book in my locker, grabbed my jacket and was off down the hall in a hurry. Out the doors in a trot, past the Highland Junior High sign at a run and over the chain link fence across the street, I kept to the back lots on the way to Albertsons. In no time I was there and looking at the dumpster. All I saw was a bunch of cardboard and some scattered heads of wilted lettuce.
“Gabe, hey, you here man?”
He jumped out from behind the dumpster.
“Sabe…. you won’t believe it man, the balloons man, they’ve been going up straight away, just like the book said man and then this morning, my mom came down with some blankets in her arms as I was about to leave…”
Shocked at this news, I blurted in,
“No man, don’t tell me she found us out man, no, not after all this work man”
Gabe smiled and continued.
“Nah man, I intercepted her and told her I’d put the blankets away which was probably a bad idea cuz she looked at me like I musta grown another head but she just told me not to be late for school and went back up stairs. I went to the chest man, and opened it up and seven of the balloons on the bottles had started to go down with one of them really limp man like you know…. well but anyway, I picked up the bottle with the most limp balloon and pulled it all the way off and man! You wouldn’t believe it man, the smell man, kinda like cough syrup man, strong!”
My eyes bugged out and we grabbed each other’s arms and started jumping up and down in the cardboard piles and lettuce chunks and screaming “we’re rich man, rich, ………this is going to be the biggest blow out in the history of Highland Junior High ”
Just then, the geek who bags groceries came out the back service door with a bucket of water and saw us and asked us what we was doin there and we calmed down and told him to bug off and ran around the corner with one destination in mind: Command Central of the Biggest Party In Ogden History: The Gabe and Sabe Brothers Homemade Hooch Winery.
The plan had hatched with an absent minded beauty. We were down in Gabe’s basement listening to the Kinks and Gabe brought out one of his mother’s mason jars of preserves. We looked it over and held it up to the window and admired its colorful sweet glow.
“Ice Cream Gabe…now man, before F Troop starts”
He was off up the stairs to the kitchen and while he was rooting in the freezer, I flipped on the television before glancing into the laundry room where the preserves were. The afternoon light was streaming in the basement window and illuminating the shelves lining the walls above the washer and dryer. The multi-colored jars sparkled in a candy colored rainbow of peach, cherry, raspberry, pear and plum brilliance. I couldn’t help but be drawn into the room and stood there staring, amazed at what these Mormon woman manage to do for the benefit of the tribe. Even without a proper bomb shelter, the Relief Society advised the faithful that they are to stock up on ample preserves for the coming days of tribulation. But in the meantime, we could eat them on ice cream as long as we didn’t do it too often.
Gabe shoved a bowl of preserves and vanilla ice cream in my hands and told me that the show was about to start and that he called dibs on the Bean Bag, the chair his dad would sit on in the dark and listen to opera, with the headphones on. He would hold a single finger up in the air as a warning if we stumbled in on him and so we would turn the lights back off and tip toe into Gabe’s bedroom next to the family room.
“Ok Gabe, but I can’t believe these preserves, they’re amazing, where does your mom get all the fruit man? ”
Just then, as Corporal Agarn slapped his hat on the ground over some idiotic comment by the Chief of the Hekawis, the idea hit me like a flash of divine inspiration. I stood there transfixed at the Technicolor juices and a vision of paradise unfolded itself.
“Gabe, yo, man Gabe!”
He was laughing at the hapless Hekawi Indians on the Television but threw me a curious glance.
“Sabe, what are you doing man, you’re missing the Hekawis man, get in here”
I stayed put in front of the preserves, transfixed by my vision.
“Gabe, this stuff would be perfect for making wine man. I mean really man, what is wine but fermented grapes and here you have all these fruits in bottles and you are never going to eat them all and so what if we….”
Gabe poked his head in the door and shot me a look like I was doomed.
“You’re nuts man”
I looked at him and smiled and he saw I was serious and so stood there next to me, looking at the preserves, then looking back at me, and then looking back at the preserves. He took another mouthful of ice cream and preserves and slurped it down before licking the spoon.
“Sabe, these are my Mom’s preserves man, these are like the family treasure man, and this is God’s Work man, a solemn family duty to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints”
I thought about it for a minute and pondered the prohibition of spirituous liquors by the Saints and Brigham Young’s inspired leadership of a discipline-ready pioneer people and all the great history of a tradition laden, well-oiled social order but the idea of a sterling business venture seemed more compelling. Gabe read my silence as surrender to his good sense. Thinking he had head off another of my many boondoggles, he went back into watch F Troop. Not missing a beat, I marched out to stand between Gabe and the Television and started in on him with “the pitch”.
“Look, Gabe, I know about your mother’s preserves and the requirements of your church and how all this is about as important as it gets but jaysus Gabe, this is a windfall made for us to pick just like you picked those sweet cherries last summer. Think about it Gabe, we siphon off some liquid from each jar into some bottles and find out how to ferment it and then we have a big party and a bonfire up in the Stone Fort and charge everybody five bucks for refreshments. We’ll be the richest and most popular 9th graders in history man…I can’t believe we never thought of this before man…its brilliant…everybody can get cocked and we’ll have money for movies and chicks forever”.
He looked up at me like I had really lost it this time. Taking another bite of ice cream, he paused over the sweet taste of the fruit and I thought I had him but it became clear he was not quite on board. Just like Perry Mason, he presented his best case.
“You know, when we sold those stale cookies you found in the dumpsters behind Albertsons door to door, I was right with you, even when Mrs. Jenkins found mouse turds in em and when we put chalk mixed with green tempera powder all over Mr. Lunt’s front yard with a fertilizer spreader because you let the grass die while you were taking care of it and it rained and stained his driveway…I was always there to take the heat with you even though Mr. Lunt is our Bishop and his wife is my mom’s Relief Society Chairwoman. I’m your best friend man; we roll together man but this time…. my mom’s preservatives? You are out of your mind slug. I don’t bug you about not being Mormon and you are not supposed to bug me over being Mormon…that’s the rules and you’re crazy man. Anyway, these bottles can’t just be opened and closed back up, they’ll spoil man, that’s why they’re called preserves man, we’ll kill somebody with bochli… ehhh botchlizm. ”
“Botulism man, it is something that gets into spoiled food man and eats out your insides and you puke yer guts up and crap like a monkey till you croak”
Undeterred by such a vision, I bore down harder. This hooch jackpot could be epic.
“Look Gabe, think about it, how many people show up at the Gibson Brothers keggars down at the gravel pits? 75…maybe a hundred people…and the chicks man, they love a party. We get half that many people…Dan, Tommy, Yatahey, Brian, your girlfriend and all her friends, before you know it, we got easily 50 people and probably a lot more and at $5 bucks a head, we got three hundred bucks in no time…not to mention the make-out session we’d have. Man, this is like the biggest possible thing we could ever do. Lance Hanson and his Class President campaign can kiss our ass man, we’d be like Capone and Meyer Lansky man”
“Look, it don’t matter, what matters is we have the makings of writing our own ticket into the big dogs at High School next year man, nobody can top this. ”
“What if we get caught Sabe?”
“Caught? How? look, we can go down to Danny’s house, his mother cans enough preserves to feed the whole State. Danny will let us borrow some to replace the ones we use to make our hooch and nobody will ever know”
“Look, ok, so we give Danny a discount if he smuggles em to us”
There was a long silence as Gabe took all this in and the theme song to F Troop came on the television. I stared at him like a dog wanting to play fetch and he looked back in silence, pondering the many taboos he would be flirting with this time and then, he gave his last plea.
“So okay, suppose we do this, suppose we actually can do this, exactly how do you make preserves into wine man?”
The ride to the Weber County Library always seemed to take a lot longer when my brother Slats took us. The entire way he would laugh at us and call us a couple nerds for going to the library and he’d cackle and drive the 62 Bel Aire like a lunatic while blasting Hot Tuna on the eight track. He dropped us off in front and said, “so long Einstein’s” before screeching off toward 24th street. We had already decided that we were not going to tell anybody about what we were up to until we knew it was a go. Then we could announce the party at school the day it was going to happen. That way ain’t nobody would spill the beans or blow our cover. I explained to Gabe what a Speakeasy was and how there was a Bootleggers Code of Silence and how my uncle Mate had even said President Kennedy’s dad made a ton of dough running rum during Prohibition. Gabe was no babe in the woods, like the Amish, a lot of Mormon kids sow their wild oats before hauling up alongside the ship of disciplined conformity called the Pearls of Wisdom. But this bootlegging thing was something new and he was being a real sport.
We skulked into the library and checked the encyclopedias first and then the cooking section and then Gabe suggested we check the card catalog and nothing was turning up. We thought there would be some kind of manual for home brew but nothing was coming easy. The plan was going south quick and then Gabe thought of checking the microfilm for periodicals and newspapers. It seemed like hours sitting there scrolling through the blurry print until my eyes ached and all of a sudden, we hit paydirt.
“Sabe, here it is, Ladies Home Journal, “Plum Wine For a Late Summer Treat””.
I slid my chair in next to his, keeping a look-out to see if anybody would come by and find us reading the Ladies Home Journal and get suspicious. I handed Gabe a pencil and paper and told him to write it down.
He set to work and it didn’t take long.
“Wineries must make a ton of money Sabe, this don’t seem to take much at all. Bottles, a little yeast, the fruit provides the sugar, a dark cool place and some balloons and open sesame, you got wine”
“Yea, Balloons Sabe, its how you control the fermenting. You dilute the sugary syrup a little with water, add the yeast to the syrup and put the balloons over the lids and the yeast makes the balloons blow up and when they go down, you got party time. This lady used big wine bottles but my Dad loves seven-up and so we got those. ”
“Where we gonna hide it Gabe? We can’t haul them to my hut; somebody would see us taking the bottles down the street. What about the shed next to the retaining wall in your back yard man?”
“Naw, too visible, we got to stick inside and keep a watch for my brother and sisters. I got the perfect place, man–my mom’s heirloom Cedar Chest in my bedroom. She just took all the blankets out to get dry-cleaned for the winter and she usually doesn’t get them for a while and lets see here… uhhh … yea, this recipe says it only takes a few weeks to ferment into a delicious aperitif”
“What’s an aperitif”?
“Hooch man, high proof, cold cash hooch, just like you said”
We were finishing jotting down the salient points when all of a sudden my brother Slats slides up behind, grabs us both by the neck, glances at the screen and says
“Ladies Home Journal? Man, you two really are a couple Einstein Homos”.
People nearby shifted and murmured and the Librarian hissed “Boys! SHHHH!” and Gabe flipped the switch so Slats wouldn’t see what we were looking at.
Slats turned to go and whispered, “Time to go girls, I gotta go to work…Ladies Home Journal…hooboy, wait till I tell Jughead about this one”
We dutifully stashed the evidence and followed him out to the car.
It had been several weeks since we secretly filled the bottles with the fruit elixir and added the yeast and topped it all off with balloons. We would go down everyday after school and open the cedar chest and pull off the plastic cover and stare at the Seven-Up bottles snug in the cedar chest. There our private stock lay, little red, yellow and pink balloons breathing in the fermentation gases. Sometimes one of Gabe’s brothers or sisters almost caught us in the act but we managed to maintain the code of Omerta throughout.
We had decided on the party site up in the old rock formation above ninth street on the bench of the Wasatch Mountains. We called it “The Stone Fort” because that is exactly what it looked like up there just below Ben Lomond High’s big-whitewashed “B. L.”. It was kind of a mythical place where I had found a broken black obsidian arrowhead on one of our field excursions into the spectacular stony ramparts lining Ogden’s eastern side. Almost a perfect circle of craggy rock outcrops about 200′ across, you could see it from the top of ninth and it kind of looked like an old Celtic fort. We built a couple fire circles with stones, collected firewood from some neighborhood building sites, selected a fail-safe point of admission for collecting the fees and stashed some high power flash lights so we could have them if things went bad for a run up into the canyon and away from whoever might try and crash the affair. Nobody knew a thing about it. That was the beauty of the mountains as an all-purpose excuse for being up to no good. Any question about where we were going would be answered with “We’re going hiking and hunting for arrowheads”.
Gabe’s mother would always smile and say “Just look at you two Boy Scouts, you’ll earn more merit badges than your brothers did”.
As soon as we were out of hearing range, we’d bust out laughing and warble “yea…. we’ll be the first Boy Scouts to Get a Bootlegging Badge”.
Running up Ninth Street to Gabe’s house from Albertsons seemed a breeze this time. We took the long way around Walt’s so we wouldn’t be obliged to join in the spectacle of Vic and Hal pounding each other to a bloody mess. With the Balloons going down, the party would be any day now and after we looked at the bottles ensconced in the chest, more balloons were going down and Gabe pulled one up for me to take a sniff. Peeling the balloon off, the full seductive smell filled my nose. I looked at him wide-eyed and nodded my head.
“Gabe lets take a sip to see what it tastes like”
“I don’t know man, what if it’s poisonous or sumpthin”
“Come-on Gabe, its home-brew dessert wine, just like the Lady’s Home Journal says”
I lifted the bottle to my lips and took a small gulp, and then a bigger gulp and grinned like a boy with his first baseball mitt. Gabe looked on excitedly.
“Well, what does it taste like Sabe…come-on, is it booze yet?”
I handed the bottle to him with a triumphant flourish and pronounced it of serious Vintage.
“I don’t know what its supposed to taste like Gabe but it tastes good and I know it’s real live hooch man, because it burns just like the leftover drinks burn as they go down when me and my brothers sneak up to see what was left in the glasses from my Mom and Dads Bridge Party”.
Gabe took a little sip and then a bigger sip and then he giggled and took a big slug so I grabbed it and told him to slow down. As he slurped it and licked his lips, I put the balloon back on the top and slid it down into the Cedar Chest.
“Don’t take liberties with the merchandise Gabe, this might be fun but its all business from here on out”
Gabe heartily agreed and as we took one last look at the inventory of Ladies Home Journal Vineyards, Gabe pointed at one of the bottles and I noticed how its balloon was bigger than all the rest. About eight of the twenty-four bottles had bigger balloons attached and they looked to be still fermenting. The rest seemed set to go and given it was Tuesday, we thought that come this Friday, weather permitting, the news would go out and that night, in the Stone Fort, we would enter the annals of Highland Junior High as her most illustrious entrepreneurial vintners. We would also make out like champions, in more ways than mere money.
Gabe sniffed the air.
“Wow man, it smells a little ripe in here”.
Just then, we heard Gabe’s mom come singing down the stairs so Gabe shut the lid on the chest, grabbed his Old Spice and started spraying some in the air to cut the distillery air.
“Well look at you two boys, smells like a flower garden in here, what are you two doing…. going out to court some young Ladies?”
The next day, in Mr. Frissells Art Class, Gabe and I discussed the logistics of announcing the party without blowing our successful cover. We sketched out a chain of invitations that involved cutting a few kids in on the profits in order that they might maintain proper decorum and secrecy while the word went out. Nobody was wise to us yet and we didn’t want some do-gooder loudmouth blowing our cover right when victory was ours. Gabe reported that on his inspection that morning, some of the bigger balloons seemed to finally be going down and that only a few were still fully inflated. The biggest ones actually seemed to be increasing in size and he was worried that they might pop off.
“Sabe, we got to get this done man, the suspense has been killin me man. I can’t believe nobody has found us out and if they ever did, well, that would be the end for me man, straight to Hell, do not pass Go, don’t collect $200 bucks and it’s eternal damnation for me. I’d probably have to move to California”.
“Aw Gabe, come on, it’s only hooch. The State is run by Mormons right?”
“”Well, Utah has State Liquor Stores right?”
“Yea, so what…”
“Well, this proves that the Mormon’s sell alcohol”
Gabe looked at me and shook his head.
“Sabe, I may just squeak by and avoid Hell by the skin of my teeth once I grow up and get married and find a good job and have a family and go straight but you…you are going to check into Hell and stay there, forever and ever and you probably don’t know this but Hell aint much fun, particularly for sinners like you”
“Yea Gabe, me an all the managers of the State Liquor Stores will be burning up with the Bishops who run the State Comptrollers office”
“Straight to Hell Sabe, fast and hard”.
After school, when we were sitting behind the Seven Eleven and eating Slim Jims with Danny, Brian and Tom, we set the final plan into motion by bringing them into the deal. Danny had already known about it because he had “lent” us the replacement Fruit Preserves and Tom couldn’t believe his best friends could keep such a secret. As we described what we had done, their eyes blew up like they were looking at the most cherry 57 Chevy they had ever seen and when we announced that they were going to get a portion of the gate of the biggest blow out in Highland Junior High History as long as they maintained the secret, they all started jumping around like Jack Rabbits hopping the sagebrush in front of pursuing coyotes. There were big slaps on the back and testimonials to our Grand Magnificence and old Gabe and I were treated to the glories attending those of the Made Man. Big Man on Campus was for losers. We were Professionals.
We ran the whole plan down and snuck a look in the newspaper in the Seven- Eleven to check the weather for Friday night. Danny bought Gabe and I a Coke and Tom sprung for the Twinkies and we were treated like royalty. The syndicate walked up Ninth Street like we were staging a Mardi Gras Parade and convened for a while in the Stone Fort on the mountainside where we showed them the planned party layout. We sat there, eating our snacks and pondering the imminent blowout come this Friday night. Grasshoppers were buzzing in the sunflowers and sage and the city spread out below us in the afternoon sunlight with the Great Salt Lake glistening in the distance. Chicago maybe had its Michigan Avenue and New York its Broadway but here in Ogden, Utah we had the Stone Fort at the foot of the quartzite ramparts on the towering Wasatch Range. The last time anything so big had gone down hereabouts was when 700 Trappers and 3,000 Shoshone had camped out down by the Weber River for the biggest Rendezvous of all time. I was Jim Bridger and Gabe was Peter Skene Ogden. We were this town’s newest kingpins, ready to join the pantheon of the greats that have dozed since Jack Dempsey had hung out in the bars on Two-Bit Street and Tommy Dorsey rode in on the rails of the Southern Pacific to direct his Orchestra in the White City Ballroom. Man, we was grand. We may be in Ninth Grade but we were now officially the biggest shots to emerge in this town in a long time.
It was starting to get near dinnertime and even though we were thoroughly enjoying the manifold pleasures of being feted like kings by our normally skeptical friends, we decided it was time to go home. Gabe wanted to check the last inflated balloons and we both had some homework to do.
“See ya Capone”
The next day at school, things still looked tight and the boys were busting with excitement but were observing the Stone Fort Code of Omerta. We huddled at lunch and Gabe told us that it looked like Friday was official and all day long, we were treated like champs.
Even Algebra seemed a breeze and Miss Ziegler was not her usual fire-breathing dragon. After school, Gabe and I met the other guys and we convened for the last pre-celebration run-down and put the finishing touches on tomorrow’s big ceremony of top-secret invitations. We lay on the ground behind the Seven-Eleven and simmered in self-congratulatory revelry. Gabe and I decided to make the last inspection on the Cedar Hooch Cabinet and bid our goodbyes to the soldiers.
Trudging to the top of ninth street, we didn’t have much to say beyond a few remarks about how Suzie had started to show up to school without a bra and how her friend Brenda better not try this because she’s as stacked as Mae West.
Gabe, always the theatrical imitator warbled “Why dontcha come up and see me sometime Big Boy “ and I countered with “I would if I could see ya over them giant jugs” and this carried us laughing into Gabe’s front door, animatedly talking about the girls who might show up tomorrow night.
It was a little dark whenever you first entered the house because Gabe’s mother always had the blinds drawn in the daytime to protect the sofa upholstery from the hard sunlight. We were laughing and shoving as we stumbled inside and as soon as we entered the place, the smell hit us like a sucker punch.
The bark and the smell jolted us upright and into silence. There, on the sofa in the front room was arrayed Gabe’s entire family, somber and somewhat surly like a meeting of the Anti-Saloon League after another bar had opened on Wall Avenue. Something had gone wrong and you could smell the strong odor of our prize hooch and there on the coffee table was one of the Seven -Up bottles with its limp balloon lying next to it. The accursed liquor stood in it like a sordid backwash from the River Styxx.
Gabe’s mother was standing there with the Book of Mormon clutched in her hand and Gabe looked at me, petrified and I looked at Gabe scared witless and like a rat scurrying in the sunlight, I watched to see if Gabe’s ma was going to clock me with that big Book of Mormon with those pictures of woman with biceps the size of Sonny Liston’s and I squeaked “I gotta go Gabe I’ll talk to you later”.
As I fled the premises like a small time crook, I could hear Gabe’s mother grimly tell him to sit down and pay attention before she looked my way and smacked my heels with a final imprecation, Latter Day Saints Style.
“We will deal with you later young Mister Sabin, I am surprised at you and imagine your parents will be most interested in your recent endeavors. May God have mercy on your mischievous and wayward soul.”
I ran out of there at a clip and looked back only long enough to see Gabe sink into the chair placed in the middle of the room like it was Old Sparky. He had a defeated look that screamed terror, shame and approaching damnation all over it. The door slammed with a bang like a crypt and I ran down the hill on Fillmore, past the neatly arrayed ranch houses with their tidy yards to Sunview Drive and into Sunview Circle. Trudging like the Bataan Death March up the drive, I was sure Gabe’s Ma was hot on the phone to mine and that it was going to be Rock Pile and House Arrest for life or at least till I was 21. I opened the door like I was mounting a scaffold and peeked in to hear my mother laughing on the phone with no hint of Judicial Rage. I tip-toed down the hallway and to the stairs and quickly descended toward my lower sanctum. Mom hung up the phone and sweetly trilled after me.
“Hello honey, dinner is in half an hour, start your homework, hope you had a good day at school. Have you made peace with Miss Ziegler?”
I slunk into my bedroom and couldn’t believe it. Mom didn’t have a clue about the Grand Inquisition now underway On Upper Ninth. How could I leave Gabe there and slink off like such a coward? What were we thinking? How could I abandon my best pal in his time of need? What kind of friend was I? I felt about as low as the lowest cur dog and sat down at my desk and opened my Algebra book to begin ample flagellation immediately.
I heard Dad come in and the pleasant murmurings of dinnertime banter and still no sign of the Inquisition reaching my doorstep. This only made me feel worse. My buddy, my best pal hung out to dry, eternally damned and forever shamed in the face of his family and with the Relief Society Mandated Preserves to boot!
I trudged up the stairs slowly and Slats bounded past but gave me a nice wet willy as he went by. Not a cavil out of me and this seemed to surprise him but we all sat down to the evening meal and commenced the standard badinage over victuals. No sign of any terror at all and with this, I sunk further into despondent regret until I couldn’t stand it anymore and blurted out “I’m the worst person ever”.
Everybody stopped in mid bite and looked at me like I had gone crazier than usual.
The old man appraised me with that Drill Sergeant look and Slats and Jughead eyeballed me and laughed and Jughead said “whadya do now Dirty Dick, pee your pants when Miss Ziegler picked you to go the blackboard?”
Jughead was a math whiz and could dunk the basketball and this just permanently torked me off.
Slats replied “worst person ever, Worst person EVER! Ha…. you aint best or worst at nuthin you amateur, what a Homo”.
Mom put her fork down and barked at my big brothers to quiet down while the old man shot the death stare at Jughead and barked, “Cut it”.
Then mom looked at me and said, “come on Honey, what’s wrong? nothing can be that bad”
At that, I blubbered the entire deal, bewailing my abandonment of my best friend and laying out the sullying of Relief Society Preserves and bore my most abject testimony regarding a perfidious reign of illegal bootlegging not seen since the Chinese had operated opium dens connected by tunnels down Two-bit street near the Union Station. After I had whimpered my way into a quivering state of abject remorse and the words petered out, my old man broke in.
“Let me get this straight Dirty Dirk. Gabe’s mother’s Preserves in her prize cedar chest…. 24 bottles of plum wine from a recipe in Lady’s Home Journal, $5 bucks a head and all of this carried out with utmost secrecy. Well, can’t say you don’t come by this rightly, your grandma’s uncle ran that big Healy Hotel down on the corner of 25th and Wall and I understand Prohibition silenced that big shot Mick’s taps for less than an hour. You may have done wrong boy but one has to admit, it was enterprising”.
Slats and Jughead looked at Dad, and looked at me and then looked back at Dad wondering when the brass knuckles would come out and seeing none, they looked at mom like they were missing something and part of what they were missing is my ass-whuppin.
“Bob!” my mother barked.
“Young Man, as soon as we are done here, we are going to call Gabe’s mother and get to the bottom of this and you are grounded buster. Furthermore, we are going to march you straight up there and you are going to apologize to that good family and ask forgiveness for violating their home in such a thoughtless manner”
Slats was encouraged by this improvement in the Family Judicial System and added “What a homo” to which the old man reached across and cuffed him but good.
I ate more slowly than ever, dreading that phone call and wondering what I could possibly do to win back my best friend’s embrace or his parent’s forgiveness.
The next day was the big party day and I didn’t see Gabe at first but when we ate lunch, the table was like a tomb because everyone had enjoyed such high hopes for a world class blow-out. Nobody was as down in the dumps as me but Gabe pulled me out of it in his old journeyman style. When I apologized for abandoning him in his moment of need he smiled and shrugged it off.
“They only grounded me for two weeks and I have to go out and clean horse stalls at my grandmas in Hooper. I was really kind of relieved to tell ya the truth, I was scared somebody was going to get hurt or something and I just didn’t feel right making money on wine made from my ma’s best Preserves.”
“Gabe, you are a real champ ya know? You’re the best friend a guy could ever have and I promise to try and not drag you into such a disaster again”
All eyes were on Gabe and he just smiled and punched me in the arm.
“Sabe, this is what friends are for. We got to stick together in both bad times and good and believe me, some of what we did was a real whopper of a good time. For a little while we was Kings and you my friend, you make life kinda funny and crazy if maybe a little messy. If Capone goes to jail, Lansky will watch his back because we are friends and friends is better than money or being a big shot ”
I looked at Gabe and smiled. With friends like this, you can have a world full of enemies at your back and it don’t matter because your friend is your fortress.
“Gabe, you’re the best man, the champ, I’ll never leave you in a lurch again man”
“Well Sabe, thats good to know but I also learned something else”
“What’s that Gabe?”
“Its my job to make sure you don’t put me in a position to be left in a lurch. Somebody has to smack some sense into your larcenous gentile numbskull and I guess I volunteer. Ma told me that you may have started the Big Idea but it was my job to knock it down to size so it didn’t hurt both of us”
I thought about this for a minute and it finally dawned on me what friends are all about. They may be fun and games and yucks and thrills but most of all, the institution is here to make us better, to let us know that we are responsible for a lot more than just ourselves, we are responsible for our friends. Friendship is bigger than just the people themselves.
Friends are the fruits of responsibility I guess and even after looking at all that fermenting fruit for weeks, I didn’t figure out the truth about friendship until I thought I’d lost it or worse yet, didn’t deserve it.
“You need a hand cleanin’ them horse stalls Gabe?”
“Cripes no Sabe, problem is, sometimes you create more horse shit than I can shovel”.