Little Gangsters



chapter twenty

(When Girls of Gold and Porcelain Fall from the Sky)

Donny had a large family. I know he had three brothers, but to this day I don't know how many sisters Donny had. See, Donny's parents really believed in having lots of kids. When their youngest was born, the oldest was graduating high school.

It was crazy.

Donny's family lived in a big house over on 6th Avenue, and this particular breed of house was called a 'three and a half storey' - the half storey being the attic where the oldest girls lived. The sleeping arrangements in Donny's house were assigned by age and sex. Everybody shared a room and the younger you were, the closer you slept to mom and dad. I guess it makes sense - as kids get older and lose their dependency and cuteness, parents start to push them away to prepare them for independence or maybe they just get sick of them when they become teenagers. So when you were a little Gabler, you slept in the bedroom next to mom and dad's, and by the time you were finishing high school you were bunking in the attic if you were a girl or the basement if you were a boy.

One day, Donny and I were watching television in their sunroom. Like Grandma's house, their sunroom was a converted porch and was the place the younger kids went to play when the weather was too crappy outside or if it was nighttime and mom and dad didn't want them underfoot. The place was littered with toys except for the pathway from the front door to the living room. The television itself was a cabinet style with big screw-on legs and rabbit ears on top and it was the only piece of furniture in the room. Donny's parents didn't watch it, so it was left out in the sunroom for the kids so when you watched television, you just sat on the floor and leaned against the wall.

What I didn't know at the time was that above the ceiling of the sunroom was a dead-space created by the hip roof over the first floor of the house. A lot of old fashioned houses had them, and some people used them as storage spaces. Like the one in Donny's house, most of these storage spaces didn't have floors, just open floor joists. The ceilings under them were just cedar strip lath and plaster and if you looked at them from above you'd see the strips of cedar with running globs of dried plaster pushed up from below when it was still wet. These plaster and lath treatments were just so you could have a ceiling underneath, they had no structural integrity at all.

So, as Donny and I were watching television, we could hear three of Donny's sisters playing upstairs. It didn't occur to us at all that they were playing in the dead-space right above us.

All of a sudden the ceiling exploded, raining down split cedar strips and plaster and down comes Donny's little sister Carrie in a cloud of plaster dust and - whammo - she hits the edge of the television knocking it sideways and then hits the floor hard. She'd tried walking on the plaster and lath ceiling and broke through it like thin ice on a pond. I guess she was used to walking on it when she was little - not that she was overly big then - but the few pounds she'd put on tipped her weight past the threshold of what the bone dry plaster and lath could bear.

"Holy shit!" Donny lets rip and we hear Donny's dad bellowing about 'the goddamned kids playing in the goddamned storage space after I goddamned told them not to goddamn play in there' as he comes stomping out of the kitchen in the back of the house.

Carrie was nine years old at the time and she sat there looking scared and hurt and bewildered. When our eyes met I felt a tug inside my chest and I had the urge to wrap her up and hold her. Instead I got up and knelt down beside her.

"Are you okay?" I asked and realized how stupid a question that was - she'd just fallen through a nine-foot high ceiling and hit a television set for Christ's sake. People always ask that question, though. I swear, you could have a railway spike sticking out of your skull and some asshole would ask if you were okay.

Carrie just looked at me all wide-eyes and slowly shook her head - it was as if she didn't want to move or talk much because she was holding the broken pieces of herself together and if she moved too much she might shatter and fall apart. She was holding her right arm up and when I looked at it I could tell it was broken between the elbow and the wrist - it kind of had an extra bend in it. It was already swelling and her hand was hanging limp at her wrist like a sock on a bedpost.

Carrie must have seen something in my expression because she turned and looked at her arm. I put my hand on her back and told her it was going to be okay as gently as I could. I saw her throat working as she stared at her arm, then she threw up into the lap of her baby blue shorts. I ignored the vomit in her lap and kept stroking her sweaty back, wishing I knew what to do to help her, but I was just a kid too.

Dad and mom and a couple older siblings arrived on the scene at that point so I was usurped of any caregiving duties I might have offered - not that I could have done much for her - so I sort of faded into the background and went back to Grandma's house as they bundled her up and took her to the hospital.

Two days later right after breakfast I went back to Donny's house and his mom told me that she'd just sent him to Louie's and he'd be back in a few minutes so I could wait inside for him. I asked her how Carrie was and instead of just telling me, she hollered for Carrie to come down because I was asking after her. I cringed and felt like hiding - it reminded me of old movies when young men would arrive at a girl's house with freshly-picked flowers and puppy dog eyes as they came 'a callin'.

Looking back now, it seems like a nice thing that a boy was concerned about a girl who'd gotten hurt, but back then when I was twelve I blushed and felt like a total idiot. I heard Carrie come bounding down from upstairs. She was such a tomboy it sounded like someone pushed a wooden crate full of bricks down the staircase. But there she was, smiling and sporting a thick white cast on her right arm from just above her elbow to her hand. There was a hole for her thumb and a bigger one for her fingers. Someone had been drawing little pictures on it and there were hand printed names of her family all over it.

"I got a cast." she said proudly in case I missed it.

"Yes you did." I answered.

"Will you sign it?"

"I guess."

"Will you draw something on it?" she asked hopefully and I saw that she had a brand new box of pencil crayons in her left hand. They had been purchased solely for the decoration of her cast.

"Sure." I said and we went out to the front steps where the light was good. I didn't mind at all because I was a pretty good artist even then.

When we were sitting on the front steps in the morning sunshine, I asked Carrie what she'd like me to draw and hoped it wouldn't be a horse - I hadn't mastered horses yet. She looked around and saw the roses her mom had in the front yard.

"Can you draw me a rose?" she asked.

It just so happened that I'd practiced drawing roses from a 'how to' book I'd taken out of the school library the year before. I liked how you started with a centre and just drew the scalloped petals around it making them bigger and bigger until you were happy with it then added a couple dark green leaves to finish it off. I was planning to get a tattoo one day of a bloody rose and the words 'Born to Lose' under it. I thought that would be totally badass, and in my later years was glad that it was against the law for kids to get tattoos because that tattoo would have been complete lunacy.

"Yeah," I said, "I can draw you a rose. What colour?"

"Red, silly." she said and I dug out the reds and an orange and a couple greens from the box.

Carrie plunked her casted right arm on my knee and sat in rapt attention as I found a blank spot right in the middle and composed her rose from the centre outward. I found out later that Carrie had reserved that centre spot for me when her family signed her cast and I wouldn't know the significance of that for ten more years.

I carefully drew each petal and added in orange highlights on the tips and used the deeper reds where they disappeared into the heart of the flower. When it looked finished I added the green leaves around it and printed my name in small letters curving them around one of the leaves.

When I lifted my head and looked at her in that moment, a magic bloomed around us - it was breathtaking and ethereal. She was looking down at her rose with eyes the colour of pale cornflowers, a winsome smile on her face, the corners of her mouth curling upward like delicate sideways question marks. I could see her eyes moving as she studied every part of the rose, every curve, every petal, and every leaf.

While I had been drawing it, I had become aware of the scent of her - the faint smell of the milk and cereal she'd had for breakfast, the soft earthiness of sweat from her hair when she leaned closer to watch me work, and over it all the clean smell clothes get when you dry them outdoors. And in that moment the morning sun was strong behind her and her hair was as fine as a spider's web and lit up golden like a halo. Her skin was pale and luminous, the morning light making her nose and eyelids look like she was made of fine porcelain. I felt like crying, she was that beautiful.

Carrie lifted her eyes then and looked at me and I saw the purity of something rare and precious in her gaze that would never fade from my memory. If I close my eyes today, I can still see those cornflower blue eyes and the tender innocence in their depths. Unaware that I was doing it until it was done, I leaned forward and gently kissed her on one pale cheek. Her eyes twinkled and her smile widened.

"Thank you." she said in a whisper as soft as the stirring of air through an open window on a fine spring morning.

I wouldn't realize it until years later that I had fallen deeply in love with her in that singular moment of magic, and it was a love I would carry in my heart for the rest of my days.


chapter twenty-one

(Going Too Far)

We saw the cop car parked in front of Kevin's house the morning after the baseball mitt caper, and Kevin didn't appear on the street for two days after that. I was in the back lot of Longo's garage looking for another axel for the Goddess of Speed when I saw Kevin in the distance walking down Commercial. Three of his fingers and his thumb were wrapped in bright white bandages.

I left what I was doing and ran down to Frankie's and found him practicing wheelies on his bike in front of his house.

When I told Frankie that Kevin had re-emerged with his bandaged fingers, he got all excited and told me to grab his spare bike and we cruised the blocks between 7th and Broadway along Commercial Drive on for over half an hour until we saw Kevin walking alone back down Commercial from the Buy Rite Market carrying a paper bag full of groceries. Frankie laughed out loud when he saw Kevin's fat bandaged fingers. Then he got that thousand-yard stare as we watched Kevin walking toward 8th Avenue. Frankie was out for a solid minute before he slowly pulled up out of the deep thoughts he was having.

"Come on, Denny." he said, standing up on his pedals to get his bike moving, "This is going to take some tricky timing."

"What is?"

"You'll see. Follow me." and off I went, following Frankie down Commercial and up the alley that ran between 7th and 8th Avenues.

"You know Butch?" Frankie asked as we pedaled hard up the alley.

"Errol's dog?"

"Yeah. That's the one. I love that dog."

The Peterlichans lived on 8th Avenue halfway between Kevin's house and Commercial and had one of the coolest dogs in East Vancouver. Butch was part Spitz, part Husky, part god's-own-mystery. And let me tell you; Butch was the mob boss of the dog world in that neighbourhood. No statistician would be able to calculate how many pups he'd sired because whenever there was a bitch in heat, Butch was first in line. The other male dogs would part like the Red Sea when he trotted up and they would keep their distance and quietly wait their turn while Butch claimed his latest bride. None of them messed with Butch.

Butch would sneak off to the alley behind the Buy Rite Market once in awhile and peer through the loading dock door waiting for his opportunity. When he saw the butcher go into the walk-in cooler, Butch would bolt into the store past the cooler and steal a roast or a porterhouse steak out of the meat display cabinet and tear for home. Errol's mom would get a phone call from the butcher telling her that Butch was at it again and sure as hell she'd look out in the backyard and see Butch polishing off a pretty expensive piece of meat and she'd tell the butcher to put it on her bill.

Once, when Errol was eight years old, he was walking home from a friend's house when a neighbour's dog - a boxer - got out and attacked him. Butch came running and scared the boxer off and escorted Errol home. Errol wasn't hurt, just pretty scared from the boxer knocking him down and ripping at his clothes. As soon as Errol was safely back home in his mom's arms, Butch took off and didn't come home that night. Errol was worried sick about his dog and hardly slept all night. In the morning, Errol went into the backyard and found Butch sleeping under his favourite tree, the thick fur of his bib caked with blood. Errol screamed for his mom and together they carefully washed Butch's fur clean of the blood, but they didn't find any wounds. The blood wasn't his.

Some neighbourhood kids found the boxer in the grassy field of the 7th Avenue Park. His throat had been ripped out. The boxer's owner found the pickets on his backyard gate chewed through and the gate half off its hinges. There must have been one hell of a struggle to mess up a gate that bad. Errol told me that when he saw the pickets all chewed up he knew it was Butch, because his dad had to replace their picket fence with a wrought iron one to keep Butch in. He'd always chew through the pickets when he wanted to take himself for a walk or commit his particular crimes of choice. Near as anyone could figure it, Butch waited until late at night and went down there and dragged the boxer out of his yard and killed him for messing with his kid.

Given Butch's talents as a thief and assassin plus his appreciation for vengeance, it was no wonder that Frankie loved that dog.

Frankie skidded to a stop behind Errol's house and was off his bike before the wheels stopped spinning. I was hard pressed to keep up with him as he hopped Errol's back fence and scooted around the side of the house. Butch was out in the front yard, keeping an eye on his neighbourhood through the wrought iron fence when Frankie and I arrived. Butch looked at us and decided we were friends and went back to scrutinizing his domain from inside his prison. Frankie motioned for me to crouch down and we both crawled on our knees and hid behind the bushes by the latched front gate where Butch stood. Frankie wrapped his arm around Butch's shoulders and gave him a hug. Butch wagged his tail, his tongue lolling out the side of his mouth.

"Hey, Butchie boy." Frankie whispered, "You hungry for a snack?" then to me: "Denny - where's Kevin."

I pressed my face close to the wrought iron gate and saw Kevin walking toward us on the other side of the street. "About three houses away - on the other side." I reported

With his other hand, Frankie unlatched the wrought iron gate, but held it closed. Butch went on alert then; his ears forward, his tongue back inside his mouth, his tail curled over his butt - he knew how gates worked and sweet freedom from that unchewable fence was inches from his nose. You could see that he was aching to be outside of that gate, his eyes fixed on Frankie's hand holding the gate shut. It was eerie the way Butch was in tune with Frankie - it was like a couple of hoodlums in sync with each other, waiting to pull a job. Butch couldn't have known the caper, but he was totally willing to participate in whatever Frankie had in mind if it meant he could have even a few moments of freedom. The tension was killing me as I peeked out every few seconds to report Kevin's progress to Frankie. That's when we heard Errol's front door open and Beau, Errol's greaser older brother, came out in his tight cuffed jeans, his Dayton boots, and white t-shirt with a pack of smokes rolled into the left sleeve.

Frankie turned and shushed Beau by pressing a finger to his lips. Beau looked down at us and Butch, then across the street at Kevin approaching with his big bag of groceries and his fat bandaged fingers. Beau looked back at Frankie.

"You're such an asshole, Marrone." Beau said smirking, then hooked his thumbs in his belt loops and leaned against one of the posts on the front porch to watch the show.

Frankie could see Kevin now, lumbering up the sidewalk on the other side of 8th Avenue. Frankie was giving Butch a play-by-play;

"That's the mug, see him Butch? See that bag he's got? That's from Buy Rite, yer favourite joint. Here's the deal, Butchie boy, in a few seconds, I'm going to open the gate and you can make your move, see?"

I swear to god that Butch understood him. I could feel Butch tensing, lifting and setting his front feet, getting ready, and leaning forward. The scene reminded me of the horses in the starting gate at Hastings Park racetrack, simply known as the track'.

Besides being a degenerate drunk, my dad was also a degenerate gambler. And because my mom drove cab all day, it left my dad free to go to the track for the afternoon races on Saturdays, but he had to take me. I was a track-rat, one of the twenty or so offspring of gamblers who went to the track on a regular basis and brought their kids with them. My dad would give me a couple of bucks and I ran with the track-rat bunch. We'd pick up discarded tickets and compare them with the tote board. Once in awhile we'd find a winning ticket that some careless drunk dropped or threw away and share out the winnings. I spent hours at the track. I still recall the smells of the horseshit and the frying onions and French fries. And when I close my eyes I can still hear the announcer, calling out; "They're at the post." - meaning that all of the horses had been spurred into the starting gate. That's when a hush would fall over the crowd and heads would turn to watch. An alarm bell would ring and the gates would all crash open at once and the horses would bolt outward with the announcer calling; "And there they go!"

I expected a bell to ring when Frankie pushed open that gate and Butch leapt out onto the sidewalk and across the road. Butch was like a missile aimed right at Kevin, his four feet kicking up dust as he accelerated in a perfect straight line growling and barking at that ginger haired bastard. If his feet had been made of rubber they would have screeched as Butch accelerated toward his target. Kevin screamed and dropped his bag of groceries and jumped over a neighbour's fence. Butch skidded to a stop and buried his face shoulder deep in the overturned bag of groceries and came out with a long string of wieners that he brought right back through the gate and scooted around into the backyard, not willing to share with anyone.

Frankie pulled the gate closed then he and I rolled behind the bushes and tried to muffle our laughter by clamping our hands over our mouths. We could hear Kevin cursing as he picked up his groceries and walked toward us. We couldn't see Kevin and I'm sure he couldn't see us. But we could see Beau, who lit a cigarette and stared down at Kevin standing outside his front gate.

"Your dog took my wieners." Kevin complained.

"Yeah?" Beau answered.


"Well, I think he's in the backyard." Beau said and smiled, "Why don't you go get 'em back, Tinkerbell?"

"Fuck you!" Kevin screamed and stomped off.

"Don't get fresh, kid."

"I'm telling my dad."

"You do that, kid. He can come by for his ass-whipping anytime."

"Fuck you."

"You wish, Tinkerbell."

Beau watched Kevin disappear down the block, then looked down at us.

"You're still an asshole, Marrone." Beau said with a grin as he flicked his cigarette butt out over the front fence and turned to go back into the house, "But that was pretty slick."

Frankie and I could have ended it at that. We'd smashed Kevin's windows, cut his fingers, and I found out that Frankie had smashed a quart jar of dog shit on Kevin's front porch one night when I wasn't with him, and now we'd had Butch mug him for his dinner. We could have called it a day and ended the revenge campaign against Kevin. We had - after all - caused far more damage to him than he had done to the Goddess of Speed. But we were young and hadn't learned restraint yet - we were on a roll and that was a heady feeling. We wanted it to last all summer, so we kept returning to the well of vengeance not knowing that the waters would soon sour in our mouths.

The last caper we pulled on Kevin was planned for a Sunday afternoon when the local merchants held a fair in the 7th Avenue park. There was a pony ride, sack races, fried hot dogs and hamburgers, music, all sorts of stuff. It wasn't the Pacific National Exhibition, but it drew a lot of people from the neighbourhood including Kevin and his family.

Frankie had shoplifted a handful of paper matchbooks from the smoke shop down Commercial Drive and as most of the neighbourhood was enjoying the little fair, Frankie and I snuck down the alley to Kevin's family's garage. The sagging garage door was stuck in the up position and probably had been for years. Along one wall of the garage someone had built wooden shelves and on them bundles of old newspapers were stacked from floor to ceiling. People used to save up old newspapers back then for the Scouts who had paper and bottle drives to raise money. But this looked like the mother lode of newspapers, so I was thinking that Kevin's dad must be a miserly prick who hoarded his old newspapers just so the Scouts wouldn't get them. The fruit doesn't fall far from the tree - like father like son, I guess.

Frankie picked up Kevin's bike from the other side of the garage and leaned it against the stacks of newspapers. I figured out why and put the cardboard box with Kevin's football, roller skates, and other crap he played with on top of one of the shorter stacks. Then I had a flash of clarity; we were going to get pinched for this one. We'd skated through our campaign of revenge that far without the slightest thought of getting caught, but this felt like it was going too far.

"You sure about this? I asked Frankie.

"Sure as shit." Frankie replied, and I didn't think he was using that expression like it was supposed to be used, but I let it slide.

Frankie tore the covers off all the matchbooks except two and stuck them in between the newspapers so only the heads showed. Then we lit them on fire, starting low on the piles and watching the flames lick upward, flaring as each cluster of match heads caught. The fire jumped up the outside of the piles until we had a good wall of flame going. Most of the newspapers had been baking in there for more summers than I could figure, so they were dry as a bone and once they caught, the fire got big and hot really fast. I remember being shocked by the wall of heat coming off those newspapers and the sudden violence of it. Frankie felt it too and stepped back, his eyes getting wide and wild. We shared a look, both of us arriving at the same conclusion; this was too big; too far.

We bolted and ran around the alley and looped onto 7th avenue to arrive at the fair acting as innocent as baby Jesus in a nativity scene at Christmas. As we walked through the crowd we could see the smoke start to boil up from behind Kevin's house through the corners of our eyes. The smoke got thicker and darker as more than paper caught on fire. Then we heard the loud 'pop' as something inside the garage burst from the heat and saw heads turn toward the garage.

When we heard the shouts and saw adults in the crowd around us turning to look at Kevin's garage, we pretended to be spectators. Frankie and I followed the crowd and watched as neighbours hooked up garden hoses and started fighting the fire. In the distance we heard the wail of the fire trucks start as they were dispatched from the Grandview Fire Hall.

We watched the neighbourhood men fighting the fire and saw the smoke turn to steam and the heard the hiss as the water hit the wall of fire we'd made, I felt strangely detached from the scene - it was too big and too violent for me to wrap my head around. That we had done that felt surreal. It was as though I truly was a spectator and not responsible for the fire. But through that detachment, the premonition that we were going to get caught for this one came on stronger and so real I could have touched it if I'd reached out. There was no way out of it and I knew it - this one was too big. We were doomed. When Frankie and I looked at each other, I saw him try to smile, but he was feeling the same as me. He told me later that it was at that moment that he knew the jig was up. We would take the fall for this.

The neighbourhood men had the fire out by the time the fire trucks arrived, so all the firemen had to do was pull the piles of smoldering paper down and wet them completely with hoses until they were satisfied that there were no hot spots that might flare the fire up again. While the firemen dragged the charred steel tubes that used to be Kevin's bike and the charcoal coffin that was once his sports equipment out into the alley, the cops showed up in a black and white. They talked to people from the neighbourhood and took notes, then they started door knocking. Frankie and I slipped away and went our separate ways. I went back to Grandma's house and set to work on the Goddess of Speed. Frankie walked by himself down to the train tracks and squished pennies, but told me later he found no joy in it. As I worked on the Goddess of Speed I thought of all those windows on the backs of all those houses facing the alley that we ran down. All it would take was one person who didn't go to the fair to be looking out one of those windows as Frankie and I ran from our arson job and to answer the door when one of the cops knocked. The bottom dropped out of my stomach when I saw that play out in my mind's eye.

The Fire Chief arrived at my Grandma's house two days later. I had walked to Louie's to buy a couple of pops for Grandma and I to have with lunch and when I rounded the corner of Commercial and 7th Avenue, I saw the gleaming red and white sedan with the Vancouver Fire Department seal on the door parked in front of Grandma's house. I walked up to the front porch under a dark cloud of gloom, knowing my goose was cooked. All those god-damned windows facing that god-damned alley.

I can't recall many details about that meeting, other than the general mood. The Fire Chief was stern and his voice was quiet thunder. He did most of the talking. I recall that I fessed up to lighting the fire on my own and I remember my face feeling hot as he and Grandma waited for me to answer why I had lit it. I don't recall what I finally said, but I know it wasn't the truth. I never told him that I did it to avenge what Kevin had done to us and to the Goddess of Speed and I've often wondered what the Fire Chief's reaction would have been had I told him that saga.

He told me that someone had seen me run from Kevin's garage, and that now everyone in the neighbourhood knew and would be watching me. He said I should behave myself and not add to my bad reputation.

In the end he made me swear I would never light another fire and he told Grandma to make sure 'I was kept away from matches or lighters'. He said that sometimes when kids like me get a taste of it, they become 'firebugs'. I wanted to kill him for that. I felt like he was saying I was diseased.

Once he was gone I begged Grandma not to tell my parents. I swore that it was just me messing around and I didn't know how bad it would get and I learned my lesson and would never do anything against the law again.

I must have been a pretty good bullshit artist, because Grandma agreed to never speak of it again. But later, as I sat on the floor of the sunroom and Grandma folded some guy's laundry she said an odd thing to me;

"You know that you can't unring a bell, don't you?"

"What do you mean, Grandma?"

Grandma sat in silence for a few moments then sighed - a lifetime of weariness packed into such a soft sound.

"You'll see, Denny. You'll see."

That statement felt ominous to me - I puzzled it out and took it to mean that once something was done it couldn't be undone. Frankie and I couldn't take back the fire no more than I could retrieve the sound a bell made after I rang it. It was out there like the peal of a bell in a church steeple; Frankie and I had proven to the neighbourhood that we were firebugs.

The only shred of pride I had about the whole sordid affair was that I didn't rat Frankie out. I found out later that he had done the same for me - he said he was by himself when he lit the fire. Frankie was true to his word; he'd take the fall for anything we did together. I guess it was in that moment of courageous gallantry that we truly solidified our partnership as criminals.

Copyright © 2018 Aaron D McClelland
Summerland, British Columbia


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