Except today, with that bat in his hands, at Piggy on a Bounce. Frank hit for, musta been, forty-five minutes straight! It was like magic, like he could hit any pitch, any way, anywhere he chose. He could see the ball just sittin' there for him -- then he'd cream it. It was like he imagined Joe always felt....Jesus -- Joe!
Frank had forgotten about Joe sitting there. Frank turned around now. But Joe was gone.
That was the year they'd gotten so close. Frank and Joe had always been friends, but since that past September, they'd spent just about every day together. What happened was, they got to Galileo High School, and that's where their string ran out.
They were hopeless from the day they walked in the door. They'd sit in class, and it was like the rest of the kids had grown up in some other country. "Who knows this?" the teacher would say, and everybody else would stand up, waving their hands with the answer. Joe would look at Frank, Frank would look back at Joe: What the hell's going on here?
They'd never taken a book home. But they'd always got through with passing grades -- they made no trouble. The only thing they cared about was sports. But at Galileo, they didn't even get into gym class: they got put into ROTC, the fuckin' army class! As if Joe was gonna march around with a stick on his shoulder, like a stronzo. Forget it!
And then, Italian class! The teacher was Mr. Zuberti, a stuck-up Florentine or Genoese -- from up North somewhere, where they thought Sicilians were scum. He'd pick 'em out. Conjugate this verb! (What the hell's a verb?)...One morning, Zuberti threw Joe out of class. Joe didn't say a word. Just stood at his desk and walked out, while everybody stared at him. His face was burning red. Joe heard the giggles behind him, as Zuberti sang a little song, in Italian, to Frank: "Oh, YOU'LL be the next to go..."
And that was the end. Later that day, in Mrs. Cullen's English class, Joe was sitting next to Tony Santora, and he muttered: "I won't be here this afternoon."
"Why not, Joe?"
"My father comes in with the boat about one. If I don't help clean up, I don't eat tonight."
Of course, that was bullshit. Joe missed most days at Fisherman's Wharf. But this much was true: he didn't come back to school -- that day, the next day, or any day thereafter. Frank started playing hooky, too.
They had the same routine. They'd get up in the morning, get ready for school. They'd have some bread, milk with a little coffee, walk out the door and turn down the sidewalk toward Galileo High...then they'd wander off to the park.
They'd hang around Marina Park all morning, watching the older guys with their "tops" -- a monte game, where the aces and deuces show up, and you bet against the come. The older guys were always trying to take some young sucker for a buck or two. Joe and Frank would take lunch along, or figure out some way to eat. They could never go near the Wharf: someone would see. The playground was out: they'd be spotted for sure. Sometimes, they'd spend a nickel for the ferry and ride all the way across the Bay -- mostly in silence. They were just killing time, like a lot of guys. In that winter, the turn of the 1930s, a couple of young men with time on their hands was nothing to draw a stare. One day, outside the Simmons Bedding plant at Bay and Powell, Frank counted fifty men on the corner. Nobody had anywhere to go.
About three o'clock, Joe would have to check in at home. That was the rule in his family, and Joe obeyed rules. He'd bang the door like he was coming home from school, say hello, make sure no one knew anything. Frank had no one to check in with at home. He'd go to the playground, to see if he could get into a game for a while, before they had to go sell papers.
Copyright © 2000 by Richard Ben Cramer
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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