Fred had taken point as we pedaled our bikes past some people unloading a pickup truck full of furniture. He had finally finished his new candy apple blue paint job on his beloved stingray on Friday and wanted to show off. He deserved front stage as the bike glittered in the shine of the Arizona sun.
“Looks like you got a new neighbor,” Gary shouted through the wind.
I turned my head slightly to him and nodded.
The red brick house directly across from my house had been empty for a long time. The old lady that use to live there either died or took off to live in another home. We never bothered her or talked to her. She had a cane and cane’s in those days were deadly weapons to us. We steered clear of her at all costs.
Later that night after The Stingrays were done patrolling and causing concerns around the neighborhood I was just closing the water heater room door after putting the Huffy away. Mom came out the back door to start the clothes’ washer.
“Looks like you might have another Stingray across the street.”
“Whaddya mean?” I asked.
“I was noticing the new neighbors across the street and there was this nice looking young man helping unload their belongings. He your age for sure.”
“Did you talk to them?”
“Well of course silly. That’s just being a good neighbor. I took them over some cookies and met them. Their last name is Coffin.”
“Like coughin’?” I said holding my hand over my mouth as I coughed.”
“No like what people are put into when they die so they can be buried. Pronounce your words clearly. Only Hobos leave out the ‘g’ when they speak. Do you want to be a Hobo?”
“No! But that is grossamatic, Mom! Who would be named that!”
“Don’t you say anything about their last name,” she said discerningly, “You be polite. You understand?” Now her finger was pointing at me. I nodded a big yes. “I want you to go across the street and meet the young man. He looks like a very nice boy. Might be a new addition to the Stingrays.” Mom dried the last glass from the sink and put the towel down on the counter. “Go ahead Billy. Be nice and go see if he wants to play.” She waved her hand for me to leave.
I slammed the front doors’ screen as Mom said, “And don’t slam. . .” Too late as usual. I smirked as I walked across the lawn of bullhead stickers Dad called our yard and did a scissor high jump over the two foot high split rail fence bordering it. Four Chinaberry trees stood somewhat in each quarter.
Time was nearing for the berries to drop and the yard would become an organic ‘Slip and Slide’ if you walked over them. Dad swore he was going to cut them down but he never did. The ammo producing trees never failed us and some years they would produce millions of the yellow slingshot projectiles.
Way better than wasting our other popular ammo because if we had to pay for it, we’d eat it, the Jaw Buster or Jaw Breaker. Came in every size imaginable. Cost? Ten for five pennies. Outrageous! The Chinaberry tree’s berries would prove the best and it was free by the millions.
It wasn’t until the late 70’s when the Gobstopper became famous and my first thought when I bought the first box was, “Perfect slingshot ammo.” But I was married by that time and the Wifey would most certainly have thought I was being a child. Might be right again. Lemonheads and Red Hots would have been stingers on an opponent’s back for sure.
I didn’t have to knock, my new friend-to-be was standing under the house’s car port of his dirt driveway. “Hey,” I said.
I stood there saying nothing as Chris picked up a stone on the side and tossed it at the evergreen bush in Dowdie’s yard. I watched as he picked up another and felt it in his hand for size.
“What’s your name?” I finally broke the ice.
“Chris. What’s yours?”
Chris threw the rock and it disappeared in the bush.
“There’s hornets in there. Don’t want to get them mad.”
“I’m not afraid of hornets or wasps,” Chris countered.
“I am. They stung the holy begeesus out of me last year playing flag football in that yard.” I pointed at the Dowdie’s front yard. “Like I was attacked by a million bullhead sticker my Dad grows in ours.”
“Hmmm. Did it hurt?”
“Ya ever fell of the seat of your bike and crush your nuts on the bar?”
Chris tossed the next rock aside.
I couldn’t help myself. “What’s your last name?”
“Like coughin’?” I said holding my hand over my mouth as I coughed.”
“No like what people are put into when they die so they can be buried. “
“Is your Dad a Hobo?”
“No, he owns a bar on Grand Avenue called ‘Jay’s’.
“That’s cool. We lived on Grand Avenue behind the Blakley Station. That’s a cool street. I have a couple of Blakley glasses my Mom gave me. You want one?”
Several days or even weeks later Chris had met all of the Stingrays one time or another but was not a member of the gang because he had no bike. He said his Dad promised one for him.
One afternoon, my dog, Ringo was bitten by a German Shepard and both eyes were popped out of their sockets. The gang happened to be playing marbles when the clown-face pup came running up looking at the ground although his head was held high. His little eyeballs looked exactly like the treasured yet cheap marble I had tried so hard to win from Chris.
Chris was a master at marbles. Currently to date, Chris owned my Alley, three of my Aggies, and every one of my hard to hit PeeWees. He always used a steely too. A ball-bearing the size of a dog’s eyeball.
I carried Ringo back to the house where Mom freaked out running out the back door while Dad, using his utmost calmness while wrapping a wetted towel around the poor eyeball loosened animal.
His urgency only showed as the Chrysler squealed around the end of the block. I heard sirens I think.
The marble shoot went on pause and stupidly I called, “No Quitsies.” My Aggies were safe for now but needed to get back my last Duck he took which was my prized Alabaster.
Not too long and all of us were staring at the shivering dog with his eyes popped back in. They always stuck out a bit but they seemed just like normal.
“Wow, it looks like Ringo,” Fred fired off.
Dad looked at Fred with the ‘you can’t be that stupid’, look and calmly said, “Fred, you look like you need to go home. Do you need to go home?”
I said ‘Yes‘ for him because the next line was ‘Go home‘. Fred had heard it before. He was a very slow learner.
The next day and the ‘No Quitsies‘, circle was etched into the dust of Chris’ dirt driveway and the sting of the Mother of all Steelies was echoing in the neighborhood.
Roger leaned over on his knees to me and whispered as Chris knuckled down. “You know Billy, he’s Stingray material.”
“Fudge!” I screamed as Chris’ small finger knuckle touched the line. He backed up and knuckled down again. The unwritten rule of only one redo after a fudge was in effect. I prayed, ‘fudge‘.
I shrugged off Roger’s comment as I watched the metal-balled bully took another one of my dear favorites.
Dan raised up off the dirt after Chris fired the kill shot. “Hey guys, did Chris show you what he can do?”
Some shook their head, others said, “Uh, uh.” I wiped away the loosing tear.
“Show them,” Dan urged. Chris nodded no. “Come on, show them. They’re gonna think it’s so cool that you might make Stingray.”
Chris now had hope even with him not owning a banana seat with a sissy bar.
“Okay, but you sure I can be a Stingray?”
All of us who stared in anticipation smiled. Dan solidified the question with a, “Hell yeah.”
Chris got up with his marble bag in hand and walked across the street to my house’s front yard and plucked a bunch of hardened China Berries from the front tree.
As he walked back to us I thought to myself, ‘No way Jose. He’s gonna take the rest of my bag with Chinaberry tree berries?’
Chris got up too us and set his marble bag to the side of the driveway up against the house, stood back up straight with the hardened fruit in one hand and pulled off five or six yellow seeds.
He then turned around with his back facing all of us. Dan whispered aloud, “This is so cool.”
Our expectations soared until Chris unbuttoned his pants and pulled down both the pants and his white underwear and then bent over so we could all see what we didn’t want to see. The barrel was in plain view.
He slowly pressed each berry into his butt with precision. No sounds came from him. Dan was silent. Someone in the crowd said, “What?”
Seconds after the last insertion Chris fired the first shot. Seconds later a berry whizzed by my ear. The third shot struck Roger squarely in the forehead. Fred was already running in fear toward the alley behind Chris’s red-brick house. Gary picked up a fist-full of dirt and threw it at the yellow bullet as it passed by.
Pidgeons erupted from the adjacent house’s roof. Little Ronnie fires back, “It’s a Gattling butt!”
Chris reacted to the voice and swayed toward the sound’s direction taking aim. I had just finished verifying the fifth projectile when the final round went off and struck my last Aggie, named Sugar Baby, in the circle moving the large precious smoothed Agate to a new owner.
Dan rejoiced, “Was that not the coolest thing you’ve ever seen? Plus he took Sugar. He took Sugar Baby with his butt!”
I looked at Roger, “That’s it. I’m out!”
“No quitsies!” someone from the crowd yelled.
“I’m out! That was my last one.” I shook my bag upside down as I scuffed at the circle with my Keds then walked between Dan and Chris as he was buttoning up his jeans.
“Come on Rog.”
Roger got up and hurried to my side. “Did you see that!” He paused. “He put them in his butt and shot Sugar Baby like a dead duck. Do I have a mark? He hit me right here.” Roger pointed at his forehead.
I inspected the wound but could not see anything that would prove it. “He may have taken Sugar Baby but he’ll never be able to win the best prize of them all.”
“You said you was out?”
“If you’re out, you said he’ll never win the best one. Which prize are you talking about.?
“Being a Stingray.”
“The best part of life starts at the top of the stretch.” The WiseGuy