We’d buried our Comet in the Square Hole, under rocks, bits of broken concrete and clumps of grass ripped from the surrounding field. We pulled the wheels and Suzie pried off the silver Comet emblem that had managed to survive all the damage we’d done. Billy added a snowglobe to the grave, stashing the others into the sack he’d made from a coat he’d found. Everything else went in the wagon so we could take it all back to our fort. Then we just stood and looked at the mound, silently, as though honoring a fallen comrade.
“I wonder if someone will dig that up in a thousand years and ask why it was given a burial? Maybe they’ll think it was some kind of primitive robot that we loved enough to bury in a grave.” I had thought about saying something inspirational, something like what the last person says at the end of those films we watch in school, but all I could think of was how we might be pranking future archaeologists.
Originally, it wasn’t a Comet but just some boards we’d taken from a construction site and wheels we’d swiped from whatever rolled. Our intention was to ride it as fast as we could down the steep descent of Balboa Avenue, the street that fed our neighborhood into Main Street and so, the rest of the town. We were aware that our plan, to race our go-cart blindly across the busiest street in town, might need some work.
“That’s crazy,” Mr. Todd grumbled, “you’ll get hit by car. You’ll get killed.”
“We was kine’a fraid a that,” Billy replied, nervously turning a snow globe in his hands, like he was polishing a bowling ball. “We thought maybe when traffic wasn’t bad and we could have kine’a spotter at the bottom of the road an maybe racin’ flags.”
I told Mr. Todd our flag signaling system, adding, “I know it’s not perfect but neither are our brakes. Right now, it’s just a stick nailed into the side, so that you pull and the stick drags on the pavement. The sticks break but don’t brake, if you get what I’m saying.”
Considering for a moment, Mr. Todd responded, “I see your point. You kids’ll break your arms or, worse yet, get em’ torn off. Besides, making it stop is just as important as making it go… unless you want to go into forever.”
I imagined the bloody stump of what would be left of my arm, blood shooting all over a driver-side window right before full impact. Mr. Todd was right, we’d go into forever, one way or another, if we couldn’t figure out how to brake. The problem started consuming me, pushing out the ineffable dread that Mr. Todd provoked, like some indescribable horror hiding in a basement.
Since the beginning of time, Mr. Todd had been the scary old man who chased us out of the junk yard surrounding three sides of his haunted mansion. In front, a wrought iron fence held in wild blackberry bushes growing thick under the shade of two ancient Eucalyptus trees, the house completely hidden by wood and berries. To get an accurate view of how really huge the thing was required sneaking up from the back, from within the mountains of junk stored on his land. We had done it many times: occasionally to peek in his garage (a bleached-out Edsel between stacks of wooden boxes; another stall locked and inscrutable), sometimes to play with the three old dogs he kept, always only on a dare. His house could have held all our houses combined, easily. From what we could see, every floor’s window was blocked with piles of junk, even the dormers in the attic. Stacks of books and newspapers, piles of clothes, boxes and crates, furniture tipped and tilted to provide a barrier against the world outside, his entire house overstuffed with things we devoted countless hours to imagining. I was positive that he kept mummies in there, not the walking around kind but desiccated corpses, like the dead outlaw cowboy at the county carnival. Suzie and Billy believed large amounts of cash and jewelry were within, probably guarded by lethal traps. What we all agreed on was that, if he ever caught us, we’d be dead for sure.
Risky trips to the house aside, our adventures mostly kept us out among the junk, picking out things we needed or inexplicably desired. Our fort, treehouse, all our bedrooms were homes to treasures we’d looted from Mr. Todd’s yard – along with many things our parents made us throw out. On days when Mr. Todd didn’t stalk us, we could fill Suzie’s little brother’s red wagon with things we’d taken; if he came after us, we were limited to what we could carry and would not impede our flight. Propelling himself up the hillside on a large walking stick, he could make good time and had managed to scare us enough times so that we’d learned to hunt like rabbits, one watching while the others foraged.
The go-cart’s seat was from Mr. Todd’s junk yard; one of four matching stools, the seat popped right off from where it had once swiveled. The snowglobes were also from there, all found in the bottom drawer of a dresser that was split at the top, as though someone had taken a hatchet to it. “They heavy n’ if we put em’ up front, it will make us go faster. Y’know, gravity!”
“Yes, put fragile glass balls up front to really add some fun,” Suzie scoffed, “Brilliant! I bet no one’s knocking down your door for you to design cars.”
Still, Billy insisted on taking the snowglobes, for reasons only he will ever know. I was happy with the chair piece as it kind of looked like an actual digger-car seat, while Suzy had collected chrome strips from some of the tireless cars lined up near the garage. “I pulled this off a car,” holding up a Comet emblem, cursive letters right-tilted and blocked with muscular corners. “It popped right off! I tried to grab the other one but it was already snapped into pieces. But a comet is fast, yeah?”
“You mean the thing in the sky or the car?” I asked, unsarcastically.
“Couldn’t you at least find a Bel-Air or Seville or Corvette?” Billy’s question more a cavil, an attempt to show Suzie girls don’t know cars. “Found. On. Road. Dead. Junk. Not even a Mustang’s a match for anything gee emmmm…”
“A Comet’s a Mercury, dummy,” Suzie responded, banging Billy on the ear.
My vote with Suzie shut Billy up, which was fine with me. Although we got our front wheels from his dad’s lawnmower (that was never used) it was Suzie who brought our rear tires, cannibalized from her little brother’s trike, along with a coffee can full of nails, nuts, bolts, hooks, and other things we used to pound parts onto our car, and it was my idea to build it (actually, the idea came from an old “Boy’s Life” magazine I’d read in the Dentist’s waiting room). I located the wood, spelled out the plan and determined we were going to roar towards the ocean from the top of steepest road in town. As such, it was locked into my head that I’d be the Craig Breedlove or John Glenn of our venture. Billy’s loss put me a step closer to being our official first driver down Balboa.
Since none of our parents would allow us to build our go-cart close to their house, our Skunkworks was an area we called the Square Hole, a brick and mortar foundation from a house long lifted from the land. In a lot covered with tall grass, right where Clark (Mr. Todd’s street) elbowed up the hill to where Billy lived on Las Tunas, the Square Hole not only provided us workspace but access to a street that had almost no traffic. It was there that we took the chrome strips and seat and snowglobes and emblem, to hammer more on our creation before taking another test run down Clark’s languorous slope.
With Suzie in the driver’s seat, Billy and I gave our Comet a push then watched it shimmy down the street, its wheels clattering like pennies in a dryer. As soon as we let go of Suzie, still bent from the push, we stood to see that Mr. Todd had walked out his front gate and onto the street, standing directly before us.
Suzie continued on down the road, looking back at Billy and me with a horrified grimace, more concerned with us than her fate in a vehicle travelling slower than she could run. As Mr. Todd walked towards us, my stomach felt like I’d swallowed a dead whale whose corpse was dropping towards the bottom of the ocean. Billy’s face was all mouth and eyes, “uh… uh… uh…,” dribbling out of his mouth, the sound of spinning gears.
“You kids look to build yourselves a car,” Mr. Todd said with a voice like the creaking of a door opened ever so slowly. “Looks like a pretty good job. You and that girl driving it.”
“Ye- yes sir,” I blurted, my insides gurgling, absolutely unaware of what I was supposed to do or say. It’s about the seat, I was thinking. He’s mad about the seat. And the snowglobes.
“Fine work,” he added firmly. “Some of the parts you took from my yard?”
Here it is, I thought, and now we’re going to be tied up and gagged. But we’re fast. But maybe he has a gun. But he’s old and I bet his eyes are bad. But if he’s a killer, he’s probably good with a gun, could shoot us blindfolded…
Instead, Mr. Todd just kept looking at the go-cart and nodding, um-humming, watching without ever looking at either of us. “Looks like that seat is from a bar set I picked up a few months back, an eviction if I remember right, someone’s stuff out on the street. I’m glad you got some use out of em’,” and then turned to us, smiling, not looking at all as though punishment was on his mind.
“You still have three of them chairs,” Billy muttered, timorous with the hunch he might get hit. “We wasn’t gonna’ take nothin’ else.”
Instinctively, I blurted out where the different pieces of our cart had come from, emphasizing the varied geographical origins of our creation, describing how we hammered, cut, screwed, bolted and jury-rigged what we could. When I finished talking, I realized that everything had been said within the span of about two seconds.
Billy jumped in, feeding into my energy, as if he’d just slammed an entire glass of Kool-Aid. “We gone take it down Balboa,” he blurted, all motion and gestures. “Right across Main Street and into them dunes on the other side. We could do it if we could block traffic.”
“Why'nt’ya’ bring it in? To my garage. Go help your friend bring it up.”
Billy and I looked at each other and shrugged, lucky to still be breathing but nevertheless wondering if our near future involved being shish ka-bobbed. We then looked back at Mr. Todd who nodded his head towards Suzie, a gesture that sped us her way.
We arrived to a tempest of desperate whispers. “What did you guys do?!? What’s that creepy old man doing out in the street? Why’d he come out? Are we in trouble? Did you guys do something to make him come out? Did he say if I was in trouble? Was I not supposed to ride the go-cart in front of his house? Are we – “
“Jesus, Suzie, shut up!” Billy hissed. He almost never swore; he got smacked for it, plenty. He was as scared and anxious as I was.
“Let’s go,” I said in a normal voice, then added in a whisper, “I have no idea what he wants. He says to help with the go-cart. He wants all of us but I think one of us should go and tell our parents where we’re going.”
Taking off fast, Suzie shouted, “I’ll do it!” and shot home with a burst. “Tell him I’ll be back!”
Heads down, Billy and I towed the go-cart back up the hill, like two condemned men. “Kine’a thought my life would be longer,” Billy whispered, tilting his face to shift words my way. “Kine’a thought it’d end with me jumpin’ cars on a motorcycle or saving my family from a fire. Never figured bein’ eaten by some crazy old man.”
“Shut up, Billy,” I spat, wound tight, afraid and angry. I’d peed myself a little when Mr. Todd jumped out on us like a waiting assassin. My patience was thin and battered, a baseball card in bike spokes, Billy and everything else conspiring against me having a head clear enough to get us out of this.
“C’mon ya’ kids,” Mr. Todd called to us, “no reason to be afraid. I’m not going to eat ya’!”
Billy looked at me as if that was the worst thing ever that Mr. Todd could’ve said.
Mr. Todd led us through a gate and up his driveway, turning his head back to us as he talked. “Been chasin’ ya’ kids off my property cuz I didn’t want ya’ getting’ hurt out there in that trash. Getting cut or somethin’ fallin’ on ya’ or one of them rats take a chunk outta ya’. But I seen ya’ been buildin’ a car and not just fartin’ around out there. I like that, I like gumption. So, I thought to let ya’ decide what ya’ needed for your roadster.” The dogs were there to greet us, tails wagging, tongues lolling, jumping up to get petted as Mr. Todd continued on towards the back of the house, past an archaic International flatbed overflowing with his garbage, wooden side panels bowed out and dribbling rubbish to the ground around the truck. At the garage, Mr. Told pulled a large ring of keys from his belt, like the school janitor, and opened the big padlock we’d always wondered about.
I’ve never seen so many bikes, bike parts, wheels, handlebars, frames, gears, sprockets, tires, tubes or trikes in one place. Hundreds of frames and entire bikes hung like sides of beef in a slaughterhouse, the rafters above packed so tightly that it was impossible to see the roof.
“Wow!” Billy astonished, arms out wide as though he had to embrace that moment with all of him. “Can I make myself a new bike? Like a custom-made one, like a dragster?”
“If ya’ want,” Mr. Todd replied, looking around like he was taking inventory. “Ya’ don’t have a bicycle?”
“I do but it’s old and junky. Someone at my dad’s work gave it to him to give to me. It’s kind of a little kid’s bike, isn’t it, Timmy?”
My thoughts were everywhere in that garage but mostly on Mr. Todd, wondering what he was planning for us, if our skeletons were destined to hang with the bikes.
Mr. Todd turned and looked right at me, into my eyes, as though aware that I’d been thinking about him. “You can have whatever ya’ need,” he said with a voice I believed masked malice and diabolical intentions. “Not much use to me, any of it. Guess I thought I’d build some and sell em’ but, well, life ultimately calls all the shots on what happens. But ya’ get that car of yours up and running, the way ya’ wannit to run, before ya’ start buildin’ any bikes. One thing at a time.”
Billy lifted the go-cart’s front end, a board that flopped down and hit his hand. “OW! Damn! Um, Dang! Hey! Mr. Todd, you think we could put a steering wheel on it? And paint racing stripes, a number?”
“Let’s get it runnin’ and see how she responds,” Mr. Todd mused as he examined our handiwork. The front wheels were held in with a number of nails, all bent to hold the wheel to the wood. It was dubious handiwork that often resulted in a wheel tearing through the flat head of a nail and flying free, the go-cart sent into an immediate tailspin as it pivoted on splintered timber. It was good my dad didn’t miss his power tools because we were routing out new axles at a ridiculous rate. “All this needs to go but I got sumpin’ better. Be right back.”
He returned with his arms cradling wood, metal, wheels, tools, a bike pump, dumping the load on a high, pine table. After drawing a line lengthways down the center of a sturdy piece of pine, Mr. Todd made quick work with a chisel, creating a concave channel about a half-inch deep in which he laid a steel rod. Repeating his work with a 2x4 of equal length, Mr. Todd hammered the boards together then placed two 10-inch spoked wheels on the rod ends and fastened them with cotter pins. “Got that rod off an old yard cart,” he explained, while I wondered if he’d beat someone to death with it. “We’re gonna’ do the same to the back of your cart but with bigger wheels and tires. Only thing that kept ya’ kids alive on them fallin’ off wheels is that ya’ didn’t go very fast.”
What I thought was the shriek of a dive-bombing no-see-um turned out to be Suzie calling Billy and Me. “Go see what she wants,” Billy bossed, having appointed himself Mr. Todd’s official tool-hander, go-getter, this-holder. I ran as fast as I could, figuring Billy had practically invited himself to be Mr. Todd’s meal. As soon as I turned the corner of the house, I could see Suzie standing just outside the gate, still hollering as I continued her way, dogs limping and lopping along until they were too tired to follow.
“You’re mom says you need to get home right now. Where’s Billy?”
“Still working on the go-cart with Mr. Todd. The wheels are gonna’ be a lot better, now.”
“Well, we need to get back, you and me. I told my mom and she called your mom. Your mom said to grab you and for you to come right home. My mom said to grab Billy, too, but I’m not going in there to get him.”
“I don’t want to go, either. Did his dad say he had to go home?”
“No, no one’s home. My mom just said to grab him.”
“You should go get him,” I said, not feeling very super-heroic at the moment. “Introduce yourself to Mr. Todd. He’s, um, ok, I promise. I’m tired and, like you said, my mom wants me to go right home.”
“Well, I’m not going in there unless you go with me!”
“But my mom wants me, you said…”
“C’mon, scaredy pants. You introduce us…”
As Suzie ran up past the dogs, I contemplated blazing home and leaving the fate of Suzie’s skull to being just another one on the pile. Therefore, taking off after her felt like everything pulled up inside me, silencing misgivings as I headed back towards certain death. With dogs delaying her, I was able to catch up for a discreet debriefing.
“He doesn’t act like we thought he’d act but he’s still super weird, if you ask me,” a rushed whisper, my hand pushing hers to slow her pace. “He’s already made the go-cart 100-percent better but I think that’s part of his trap.”
“Maybe he really is nice and you’re the weird one. You and your warped imagination,” she sang as she skipped ahead toward the garage.
“Well, hello young lady,” Mr. Todd greeted Suzie, tipping his hat in sort of movie cowboy way, “nice to finally meet you. You got away but, as you can see, we’ve been busy in your absence.”
Suzie curtsied although she wasn’t wearing a dress (and almost never wore one) and immediately went all ga-ga over the bike shop, babbling about ten-rider tandems and Top Fuel Dragsters. Then, awed by the new go-cart front, with spoked wheels and an actual axle, Suzie insinuated herself into Mr. Todd’s work, elbowing out Billy as general help. It took all my might to redirect her, reminding her constantly that our mothers were waiting for us.
“C’mon Billy,” Suzie called after I managed to nudge her out of the garage. “My mom wants you, too.”
“Why?” Billy whined, certain no one had called for him.
“Because if you don’t come with me, I’m going to be in trouble and if I’m in trouble because of you, you’re double-d dead.” Suzie was not somebody who you wanted to know if you put her in the doghouse at home.
Mr. Todd came out with Billy in tow. “You’d better go with them, Master Billy,” Mr. Todd said, the shadow of his hat brim making his face dark and flat. “If you’d like, I can finish the wheels and maybe do a couple little things? If you kids are fine with that…”
“Sure!” Suzie shot back, excited by her vision of the Comet. “Will we come get it from you tomorrow? You could take it back to the Square Hole so we don’t have to bother you.”
“We keep it at the Square Hole,” Billy continued. “That’s what we call that place at the end of your street, where it bends, where that house used to be. That big hole with concrete walls and a floor. You can’t hardly see it from the street, for the weeds an a bunch a dirt.”
“My father’s store was there.” Mr. Todd’s face turned towards Billy, looking like a big rock hanging off the side of a cliff, ready to fall. “It’s still my property, all the property along the highway fence is mine. Where the highway is now was once mine, my family’s. California bought it and put that bridge in over Main Street. Brought in all that rock for the bridge and built that berm that blocks what used to be my magnificent view of the bay and the rest of town. That was long before any of you were born. There was such beautiful light here. Now, it’s mostly shadow, a constant roar of cars and trucks.”
That was really sad, I had to admit, because his house really was shadowed on both sides, east and west, by the coastal hills and the “improvement” to the PCH. The rest of us lived high enough up the hill to see the bay, the sun setting on the ocean. Imagining what it must have been like before the highway berm, I could see how getting his ocean-view blocked by a noisy wall of rock and ice plant might be seriously depressing. For a moment, my fears of being fileted and fed to the worms dissipated as I started to view Mr. Todd sympathetically.
My friends continued up the hill to Suzie’s as I mounted my bike and rode towards home, my feelings jumbled. My mom was on the phone when I walked in, the curled cord twisted in her fingers, a cigarette smoldering in the ashtray. As soon as she saw me, she snapped her fingers and pointed, indicating I needed to set the table for dinner.
“What else could he be, Dot?” she asked Suzie’s mom, on the other end of the call. “I’m glad Bob is talking to him and I’m sure his impression will be correct. The guy’s just an old loner? Who’s taken an interest in our kids? But why is he interested in them? Don’t you think he’s,” and I could tell she was whispering through her cupped hand into the mouthpiece, “…different? Not into, you know, what normal people like? Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Well, there’s a lot of em’ here in California.”
Laying down napkins at everyone’s place, it wasn’t exactly clear to me what my mom suspected or what different meant. My own fears were clouded by what had happened earlier, all of it incongruent and unexpected.
During dinner, my mom made it clear that if Suzie’s dad said so, it would be ok to for Mr. Todd to help us, but only if we were all together, never alone, and some parent had to know we were there. That, and everyone was dead set against our plan to take the go-cart down Balboa.
“That’s a suicide run,” my dad said while chewing on his stringy Salisbury steak. “There’s all kinds of streets on this hill that are almost as steep and ten times safer. Anyway, I need to take a look at this contraption before anybody rides it down any street.”
Later that night, my dread returned in a nightmare, with the specter of Mr. Todd trapping me in the junkyard. In the dream, Billy and Suzie were with me in some hidden corner of the yard, treasure hunting on a day like one on an Easter card. We were standing within canyon walls of derelict refrigerators, ovens, tubs, cars, TVs, chairs and sofas, searching through caves and channels. Billy had a bucket and Suzie was shielding herself like a Roman soldier with an old sled, both watching me take an egg carton from an icebox. Inside the carton, within one of the cups, a small piece of raw meat throbbed, no larger than a morsel you’d pull from your teeth, bloodless and fresh. We all looked at it with wonder before suddenly realizing that it was the flesh of some child, one like us, probably buried somewhere close. Suzie and Billy fled, howling in horror, but I couldn’t move much less cry out, my body all goo, paralyzed where an Easter Sun smiled on Mr. Todd’s yard of charnel horrors. Screaming and pleading, I awoke with my heart pounding, my feet kicking sheets and blankets.
Memory of the dream lingered well through the next day. Out at the Square Hole, my friends were standing over the go-cart, beaming as though they’d just struck gold. Relieved to see it was just them and Mr. Todd nowhere to be seen, I wondered if I should tell them about my dream. It occurred to me that meat in an egg carton could be about the go-cart and not the weird, old man. After all, flying down Balboa with nothing but a stick and some rope for control would probably result in someone reduced to red meat slivers. Still, the sense in the dream (that my dream friends all seemed to share) was that we’d encountered a small chunk of evidence in a homicide and were destined to be new meat on Mr. Todd’s table.
“Lookit!” Suzie called out as I rode up. “Mr. Todd put brakes on it! Real brakes!”
Aside from galactically-improved wheels, all that was apparent to me was a metal bar attached at the front of the frame and heavy wires running along our recently-applied trim. Looking closer, I could see calipers pinching the rims, attached and screwed through a metal plate to the frame. I examined everything closely, checking if Mr. Todd hadn’t hidden some kind of mind-control device or bomb; naturally, everything was kosher and I had to admit that the old man had done sturdy, meticulous work. I sat in the seat and pushed the bar with my foot; it moved with ease and the calipers clamped the rims firmly.
A few winning rounds of rock-paper-scissors got me first shot, Billy and Suzie sending me flying down Clark with a running push. The ride was amazing, so much smoother than the hard rubber we’d been riding on and ten-times faster. Tapping the brakes, I felt the Comet slow significantly. By pulling the steering rope hard to one side on the front axle while locking the rear wheels, I spun the cart out to a complete stop.
“Mr. Todd!” I heard Suzie calling, “It’s fantastic! It’s fast, it stops on a dime! It’s like a whole new Comet!”
I watched my friends crowd Mr. Todd in the street as I towed the Comet back up the hill. Although heavier, it was much easier to pull, wheels turning freely rather than fighting against a knot of nails. As I pulled, I thought back to meat in an egg carton and the horrific realization that Mr. Todd was behind it. The pocket knife my grampa had given me was in my pocket and I wasn’t afraid to use it.
Arriving with my head down, a little miffed that I’d pulled the cart by myself, I could hear my kith slobbering, slurring their words around butterscotch candies Mr. Todd had poisoned them with.
“No, thank you!” I declared when Mr. Todd offered me one, committed to being the only kid there not drugged or dead.
“Well enough,” he said, providing a wan smile. “If you’d like, I just made some lemonade. Fresh lemons from down south. I’m thirsty and it’s hot out here, if you’d care to come inside.”
The chattering monkeys froze at his suggestion, uncertain of what we were supposed to do. We were all together but nothing had been said about going in his house. Billy looked to me and I looked at Suzie who, with a look of command, replied, “That would be splendid.”
We walked through a yard of shoulder-high wheat grass towards a veranda tangled with scrub oak and overflowing with debris. Within that tohubohu, the house’s main entrance was a hidden crack, like an outlaw’s lair. Sliding in, we saw that whatever grandeur the house once had was buried under things stacked, piled, tumbling down, flowing out of boxes and sacks. Although the ceilings were very high, like a museum’s, everything seemed cramped and claustrophobic, piles of stuff moving out of the walls and closing in on whatever space remained.
“Wait, here,” Mr. Todd demanded, turning and leaving us in a room not quite as cluttered as the others we’d seen or navigated through. “I’ll fetch our drinks.”
The room where we stood had a single wall void of anything stacked. Instead, it was covered with pictures, most with the kind of fancy frames you only see in old people’s houses. Families, couples, serious-looking people with funny clothes, everything dim and fuzzy. On one side, pictures had more modest frames and looked more like shots from an instamatic than one of those old-time exploding studio cameras. In those, the same man was in all them, different men with him and always just two in the frame; standing on a beach, laughing in chairs, holding up drinks.
“That was my former life, before I came back here to be with my parents,” Mr. Todd said when he returned with a tray of glasses and a pitcher of poison, seeing us looking at his wall. “I thought my life was set. It wasn’t.
“You didn’t have no kids? No wife?” Billy asked, seeing that Mr. Todd’s photo wall was unlike the ones Suzie and I had in our homes, where some wedding photos were surrounded by a swarm of family portraits, baby pictures, the jack-o-lantern grins of school-picture day.
“Nope, not in God’s plan, I guess. As long as I can remember, I couldn’t figure out what that plan was because I was, hmmm, different. I thought to be happy, that was the plan. Happy with who I was, different. Which had to be His plan, right?”
None of answered because frankly, none of us knew what he was talking about. As far as we were concerned, we were all different, like snowflakes. Billy almost never cried when he fell, while Suzie never cried; I almost always cried. We were all different.
“There’s some stew, if you’re hungry,” Mr. Todd picking the mood back up, signaling farther back into the house.
“Sure!” Billy shouted, his entire face a sudden gaping maw of avarice. “I’m starving!”
“I’m fine, thank you,” completely honest, my stomach lurching with fear, afraid I was going to launch my lunch all over Mr. Todd’s littered floor.
Suzie skipped ahead, “I’ll try some! I’m hungry, too!”
In his kitchen, glass-paned cabinet doors stood wide open like the wings of flies, the shelves stuffed full and spilling their contents onto cascading countertops, a steady stream of things from the ceiling to the floor. Filling one of dozens of bowls he had to choose from, Mr. Todd passed some of his stew to Billy, then the rest of us, before taking some for himself and launching our meal with a jaunty flourish of his spoon. Billy took no time in emptying his bowl, “Man. That was delicious! What’s in it?”
The flesh of hitchhiking hippie kids, I thought, shooting a pained glance at a bowl of steaming, creamy goodness, the aroma gripping at my stomach and soundly kicking it. It looked very unlike what I’d expected a cannibal stew to be – no bones or tell-tale jewelry.
“The beef comes from a ranch out near Atascadero, friend of my father brings me a side about once a year. Carrots, onions, radishes, peppers and sweet potatoes from my garden. King and bull snakes keep out gophers and most of my other raiders. Another reason I chase ya’ kids outta’ my yard – ya’ take my snakes.”
Indeed, we had walked out of there with snakes: three wily, wriggly Kings (all getting away before we even got out of the junkyard) and a fat bull snake, about six-foot long, that Suzie coiled up in a garbage can lid and took into a Tupperware party, sending an entire room of her mom’s friends screaming into the back rooms of the house.
While my friends devoured their stews, my bowl sat untouched, steaming and delicious smelling, me waiting and watching for one of my friends to keel over, foam at the mouth and spazz out. Mr. Todd could see I wasn’t touching either the lemonade (my friends had drained the pitcher) or the stew but said nothing. Shifting my legs, I reached into my pocket and unhitched the blade of my pocketknife.
“You gonna’ ride in the Comet?” Billy asked, chin brown from stew dribbles.
“Oh no,” Mr. Todd laughed, startling me a bit. “I’ll watch you kids, that’s good enough for me. If I get in, I might never get out.”
“And that’s all you want?” My suspicions thrust out to him.
“That’s enough,” he replied, enlivened. “Watching you kids work on that thing and ride it down the hill – there’s nothing I’d rather see than the looks on your faces as ya’ go fast and see the world the way it’s meant to be seen. Life’s well too short for not taking chances and testing the limits. Ya’ built your car and ya’ need to take it for a ride.”
Afterwards, it was impossible to listen to the chatter as we walked our bikes up the hill, somewhat crestfallen that nobody had expired or even choked. “Did you ever consider that it could have been the meat from murdered kids in that stew?” I finally blurted out, interrupting discussion about steering wheels. “Weren’t you guys afraid he would poison us?”
“Not afraid,” Suzie’s voice trilling out some sing-song smarty-pants response, “and pretty sure it’s easier to get cow meat than kid meat.”
Different, I thought, sorting through thoughts on my pillow, unable to sleep. It sounds bad, depending on who says it.
The next morning, Suzie and Billy were pounding on my door with news.
“We was watchin’ star track when I seen lights,” Billy said, spinning with his hyper dance. “In the window, flashing. I knew it was cops! So we went down and my daddy, he knows all those guys, and they said he died! They tole daddy they couldn’t for sure say what happin’ but Daddy say Mr. Todd prolly just got so old his heart gave out.”
“Man,” I sighed, unbelieving. Like his life was still going on, as far as I was concerned, as though all lives would be eternal if I didn’t think them dead.
“We also went down there to see,” Suzy protested, unwilling to give the entire story to Billy. “My dad said it’s going to be months or years before they go through all his stuff. Either that or they’ll find his relatives and make them clean out all that junk now.”
“No!” Billy was genuinely horrified, looking as though someone was taking all his toys. “Where they gonna’ take it? How we spose t’get more stuff for forts and things? They’re juss gonna’ bury it or throw it in the ocean for one of them junk islands!”
“Well, my dad said if Mr. Todd had no relatives, that junk could sit there for years but, if there’s family, they’ll just sell and haul everything away.”
Someone must have sold because within a week, men and trucks invaded Mr. Todd’s property, two vans for house things, countless flatbeds and dump trucks to haul away the alleys and dens of our Gotham. For what seemed like eons, we watched the decimation of Mr. Todd’s former realm, one truckload at a time. By the time school started, nothing was left but an expanse of rocks and dirt, prickled with pickets that had yellow or red ribbons tacked to their tops. A sad monument for what the place had once been.
What’s sadder is that Mr. Todd never lived to see us live our dream of taking our Comet to the top of Balboa and riding down as fast as we could go.
It was my mom who let us know that Balboa was ready to be ridden. Well, it wasn’t like she told us to go over there, she was just letting me know that Main was closed for some reason and she couldn’t go to Thrifty Drug. At the time, we were taking our comet down Downing and crashing it into the cyclone fence that ran along the PCH. Cutting across a grassy slope that continued down to the highway, the fence sat about 15 yards from where Downing elbowed right, leaving a short patch of dirt and grass to slow our descent. To further cushion our chain-link net, mattresses from a stack in Mr. Todd’s yard had been placed against the fence. With a track of only about 50 yards, the run was tame compared to what we thought Balboa would be and it appeared our opportunity to find out had arrived.
We’d avoided Clark since the trucks started working on Mr. Todd’s place but everything was at a standstill when we rode past on our bikes. At Balboa’s end, on both sides of the intersection, cops directed traffic away from where a semi had flipped, just inside the PCH bridge, junk cars spilled everywhere. A flatbed loaded with nine junkers, stacked with everything strapped and chained but with a foot’s less clearance than they needed for the bridge, scattered Mr. Todd’s scrap cars all over main street, the trailer stretched diagonally across Main.
“You kids got plenty’a room to ride your bikes, today,” a cop told us, “prolly got it all day afor they get this mess cleaned up. And once they do, they still need the state to come out and look-see if they didn’t do nothin’ to screw up that bridge. Damn ijits.”
In fact, it took several days before the state allowed traffic back under the bridge but we managed to destroy the go-cart well before we could take full advantage of a free Balboa. By nightfall of the second day, we were looking at the splintered heap of wood and metal we decided we needed to bury. Although we’d patched it back together, after rims bent or the frame snapped, even using our own bike tires to squeeze a few more spins out, it was clear that our Comet had crashed its last.
No one spoke in the Square Hole, each of us lost in thought about where our Comet had taken us. The gathering momentum and acceleration, the vibrations of speed and power, the world blurring with the rushing wind whistling past, the sense of control along with the fear that the slightest mistake could send everything spinning into oblivion, all happening in the seat of a little go-cart zooming down the town’s steepest street, a brief moment of sheer terror and ecstatic glee. All at once, no consideration of bailing or chickening-out, pure sensation driving out all thought except the one about what’s at the bottom and the end and then, there, across Main and flying, all wheels off the ground with only gravity in control, the world more real in that instant than it ever was during the rest of life. Then, the end in sand and dune grass, tires just fat enough to keep it from stopping dead and flipping over, the rest of the world catching up at the stop and snapping back in place. A world that demanded dragging it back up to the top for another run.
Billy finally broke the silence, “You think Mr. Todd’s in heaven watching us?”
“I think,” I sneered, “if he’s in heaven he has a lot better things to do than watch a bunch of dumb kids ride a go-cart.”
“I dunno,” Suzie’s voice took its slow arc upwards that signified she had a good answer. “Helping us made him happy. Heaven is supposed to be the happiest place ever, right? So if he was happy helping us, I think he would be really happy watching us have fun with what he helped make. I mean, if you can’t do what makes you happy in heaven, what’s the point?”
Turning my handlebars home, I put my weight to the pedal and pushed on. If Suzie was right, heaven would be what I’d felt when I was in the go-cart, with time standing still because everything else goes by so fast.