for Amy Knox Brown
Ralph ran his hand through his hair, briefly flattening it before some freak combination of wind and static electricity blew it straight up again into a real-life fright wig.
We were standing at the edge of the blacktop at Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Grade School, as far away from the recess monitor as we could get. It was 1978, and we were in eighth grade — though Ralph would have been in high school already if he hadn’t failed both the third and the fifth grades. He was nearly a foot taller than the rest of us, and every few weeks new sprigs of whiskers popped out along his cheeks and chin, scaring the girls and prompting the principal, Mr. Santoro, to drop into our homeroom unexpectedly and deliver speeches about personal hygiene.
“Boys,” Mr. Santoro would intone, “some of you are starting to look like hoodlums.” He’d address his insult to all the boys, but everyone knew he meant Ralph.
Today, in the schoolyard, Ralph pulled a fat Sears catalog out of a grocery sack and shook it at me, saying, “Get a load of this.” The catalog was rumpled and fatter than it should have been, as if someone had dropped it into a swamp and left it there to rot. The date on the cover was 1974. Ralph licked two fingers and began turning pages, smearing photos and words each time he touched them. “I’ll show you Patty O’Dell.”
“You found it?” I said.
Rumor was that Patty O’Dell had modeled panties for Sears when she was seven or eight, and for the past two years Ralph had diligently combed through old catalogs. If there existed somewhere on this planet a photo of Patty O’Dell in nothing but her panties, Ralph was going to find it.
“Aha!” he said. “Here she is.” Reluctantly, he handed me the mildewed catalog. “Careful with it,” he said.
“Sure,” I said, “why wouldn’t I be?”
Ralph stood beside me, arms crossed, guarding his treasure. His hair was still standing on end, as if he had stuck the two fingers he had licked into an electrical socket. I peeked up at him, but he just nodded for me to keep my eyes on the catalog.
I had no idea why Ralph and I were friends. I was a B-plus student, a model citizen, whereas Ralph already had a criminal record: a string of shoplifting charges all along Chicago’s southwest side. He kept mug shots of himself in his wallet. We were friends, I suppose, because he had walked up to me one day three years ago and asked if he could bum a smoke. I was nine. Rather than tell Ralph I didn’t smoke, I’d said, “Sorry, smoked the last one at recess.”
The photo in the catalog was of a girl wearing only panties. She was holding her shoulders, her arms crisscrossed over her chest, and I was starting to feel the first tremors of a boner, though the girl in the photo was not Patty O’Dell. Not even close. After two years of fruitless searching, Ralph was clearly getting desperate and beginning to clutch at straws.
“That’s not her,” I said.
“Of course it’s her,” he insisted.
“You’re crazy,” I said.
“Give it to me,” Ralph said. He snatched the catalog out of my hands.
“Ralph, get real,” I said. “All you need to do is look at Patty, then look at the girl in the picture. They look nothing alike.”
Ralph and I scanned the blacktop, searching for Patty O’Dell. It was Halloween, and, not finding Patty, I began instead to look for girls dressed up as cats. I couldn’t help myself. All year I would dream about girls coming to school as cats: Mary Pulaski zipped up inside a one-piece cat costume, purring, meowing, licking her paws while her stiff, curled tail vibrated behind her with each step she took; or Gina Morales, actually down on all fours, crawling along the scuffed tile floor of our classroom, up one aisle and down the next, brushing against our legs and letting us pet her. The very thought of it now took my breath away. But only the younger kids dressed up anymore, and all I could see on the blacktop today were Star Wars clones — Darth Vaders and Chewbaccas, C3-POs and R2-D2s — along with the occasional Snoopy.
The seventh- and eighth-graders were slouching and yawning, already tired of Halloween, waiting for the school day to come to an end. Among us, only Wes Papadakis wore a costume, a rubber Creature from the Black Lagoon mask that covered his entire head. Standing next to him was Pete Elmazi, who wore his dad’s Vietnam army jacket to school every day, no matter the season, and whose older brother was locked up in a home for juvenile delinquents because he’d beaten another kid to death with a baseball bat. Fred Lesniewski stood all alone, an outcast for winning the science fair eight years in a row, when everyone knew his father worked at Argonne National Laboratory — where genetically altered white deer loped behind hurricane-wire fences, and tomatoes grew to the size of pumpkins — and that it was Fred’s father, and not Fred, who was responsible for such award-winning projects as “How to Split an Atom in Your Own Kitchen” and “The Zero-Gravity Chamber: Step Inside!”
All of these losers, plus a few hundred more, were out on the blacktop — but no Patty. Then Ralph slapped my shoulder and pointed, a sea of people parted, and I saw her: Patty O’Dell. We stared at her, speechless, imagining the Patty of panty ads, a nearly naked Patty O’Dell letting a stranger snap photos of her while she stood there under the hot lights in her bare feet. It was a thought so unfathomable, complex, and mysterious I might as well have been trying to conjure up a picture of infinity.
“You’re right,” Ralph said, shaking his head. “It’s not her.” He tossed the catalog off to the side of the blacktop like a fish too small to keep. “Damn, Hank,” he said, and shook his head sadly. “I thought we had her.”
Ralph had told me to be ready at eight, that his cousin Norm was going to pick us up in front of my house and take us to a Halloween party. Norm had been dating Jennifer O’Dell — Patty’s older sister — and Ralph and I hoped, with Norm’s help, to get to the bottom of the panty ads, maybe even score a couple of mint-condition catalogs from Jennifer.
“You got a costume?” Ralph had asked me.
“Of course I do,” I’d lied. “I’ve got all sorts of costumes. Hundreds.”
In fact, I didn’t own a single costume. I’d had no plans to dress up this year. But now I was trapped into scrounging up whatever I could, piecing together a costume from scratch.
My sister, Kelly, though openly disgusted by my choice, expertly applied the makeup.
“Of all the people to choose,” she said.
“What’s wrong with Gene Simmons? What’s wrong with KISS?” I asked.
“One day,” she said, smearing greasepaint from my eye to my ear and back, “you’ll look back on this moment, and consider shooting yourself.”
“Right,” I said. “Whatever.”
“Just let me know when you reach that point,” Kelly said, “and I’ll supply the gun.”
In the back of my parents’ closet I found hidden a stiff black wig atop a styrofoam ball; although I had never seen anyone wear it before, it smelled like the top of somebody’s head. Then I snuck a dinner roll out to the garage, spray-painted it black, and pinned it to the top of the wig, where I hoped it would look like the bun Gene Simmons wore in his hair. My parents didn’t own any leather outfits, but I found a black naugahyde jacket, and combined it with a pair of black polyester slacks I wore to church. For the final touch, my sister gave me her clogs to approximate his platform shoes. She was two years older than I was, and her feet were exactly my size.
In the living room, by the shifting light of the color TV, my parents stared at me with profound sadness, as if all their efforts on my behalf had proven futile. My mother looked for a moment as though she might speak, then turned back to the final minutes of M*A*S*H.
I met Ralph outside. As far as I could tell, his entire costume consisted of a cape, a long black cape. One look at Ralph, and suddenly I felt the weight of what I’d done to myself.
“What’re you supposed to be?” Ralph said. “A transvestite?”
“I’m Gene Simmons,” I said. “From KISS.”
“Jesus,” Ralph said. He reached up and touched the dinner roll on top of my head.
“It’s a bun,” I said.
“I can see that,” Ralph said. “But why would you put a hamburger bun on top of your head? And why would you paint it black?”
“It’s not that kind of bun,” I said. “Anyway, at least I’m wearing a costume. Where’s yours? All you’ve got on is a cape.”
Ralph smiled and pulled his left hand from under his cape. Butter knives were attached to each of his fingers, including his thumb.
“Holy smoke!” I said. It was the most impressive thing I’d ever seen.
“I’m an Etruscan,” he said, pronouncing the word carefully while he rattled his knives in front of my face.
“An Etruscan,” Ralph said. “I’ve been reading a lot of history lately.”
This was news to me; Ralph hated school. “History?” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, “stuff about the Romans.”
I knew a little something about the Romans myself; I’d written my very first research paper in sixth grade on Julius Caesar, though all I remembered now were bits and pieces: the Gallic War, the Ides of March, Brutus stabbing Caesar to death. The idea of Ralph picking up a book and actually reading it was so preposterous, I decided to lob a few slow ones to him, to test what little he knew against what little I knew.
“So,” I said, “what do you think of Caesar?”
“A great man,” he said. “He brought a lot of people together.”
“Really? How’d he do that?”
“Violence,” Ralph said. I expected him to smile, but he didn’t. His eyes, I noticed, were closer together than I had thought, and his eyebrows were connected by a swatch of fuzz. Ralph glared at me, as if he were thinking about punching me to illustrate what he’d just said. “Etruscans were the original gladiators,” he said. “Crazy fuckers, but smart; geniuses, actually. Very artistic.”
“How’d you get the knives to stick to your fingers?” I asked.
“Krazy Glue,” Ralph said.
I nodded appreciatively. I had always feared Krazy Glue, scared I’d accidentally glue myself to someone else, or to a lamppost. I’d seen such accidents on the news — men and women rushed to the hospital, their fingers permanently attached to their foreheads.
“What if they don’t come off?” I asked.
“I thought of that,” Ralph said. “That’s why I glued them to my fingernails. My fingernails will grow out, see, and then I can clip them.”
“You’re a genius,” I said.
“Of course,” he said. “I’m an Etruscan: very brilliant, but violent.”
Just then, Ralph’s cousin Norm pulled up in his Chevy Impala and motioned with his head for us to get in. He was twenty-five and ghoulishly thin, and the veins in his arms bulged out to the point where you’d think they were going to explode right there: a spooky guy with spooky, veiny arms. He worked at the Tootsie Roll factory on Cicero Avenue, along with Ralph’s other two cousins, and he gave Ralph bags of Tootsie Pops each month, which partly made up for the spookiness.
I took the back seat; Ralph rode shotgun. Norm said nothing about our costumes. I reached up and checked that the bun on top of my wig was still there. Norm gunned the engine, then floored it. Blurry strings of ghosts, clowns, and pirates appeared and disappeared along the sidewalk. Pumpkins beamed at us from front stoops.
A mile or two later, Ralph said, “Where’re we going, Norm?”
“I’ve got some business to take care of first.”
“What kind of business?”
“I’ve got a trunk full of goods I need to unload.”
Ralph cocked his head. If he had been a dog, his ears would have stiffened. He loved the prospect of anything criminal. “Goods,” Ralph repeated. “Are they stolen?”
“What do you think?” Norm said.
Ralph turned around and smiled at me. “What kind of goods?” he asked his cousin.
Norm lifted his veiny arm and pointed a finger at Ralph. “None of your business,” he said. “The less you know, the better.”
Ralph nodded; Norm was the only person who could talk to Ralph like that and get away with it.
A few minutes later, Norm pulled into a White Hen Pantry parking lot. “I need some smokes,” he said, and left us in the car with the engine running.
Ralph turned around in his seat. “So . . . ,” he said.
“So, what do you think’s in the trunk?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Drugs,” Ralph said. “That’s my guess. Stolen drugs.” He turned back to the White Hen to watch for his cousin. Then he rested the hand with the knives on the dashboard and began drumming them quickly. “Maybe guns,” Ralph said. “A trunkload of semiautomatics.”
Norm returned to the car, sucking on a cigarette so hard the tip turned bright orange and whistled. Filling the entire car with smoke, he said, “I ran into a little trouble two nights ago. Serious trouble. I’ll admit, I fucked up. But, hey, everyone fucks up now and then, right? Huh? Am I right?”
“Right,” Ralph said.
“Right on,” I said, and lifted my fist into the air as a symbol of brotherhood, but nobody paid any attention.
“I had to get on the ball,” Norm said, “think fast and figure out a way to come up with some money, pronto.”
“What happened?” Ralph asked.
Norm looked at Ralph, then down at the butter knives, as if he hadn’t noticed them until this very second. He turned and squinted at me, raising his cigarette to his lips for another deep puff. Finally, he said, “Just what the hell are you guys supposed to be, anyway?”
Ralph said, “I’m an Etruscan.”
“And I’m Gene Simmons,” I said. “From KISS.”
“The Etruscans?” Norm said. “I never heard of those guys. They must be new. But KISS —” he snorted — “that’s sissy shit. You should’ve gone as Robert Plant, or Jimmy Page, or somebody from Blue Öyster Cult. Now, that I’d have respected.”
Norm put the car in drive and peeled out.
The longer we rode, the more I thought of Patty O’Dell wearing nothing but panties; and the more I thought of Patty O’Dell, the more I had to cross and uncross my legs.
Norm wheeled quickly into the parking lot of a ratty apartment complex called Royal Chateau and said, “Give me a few minutes, guys. If the deal goes through, we’ll party. If not, I’m fucked. Big time.” He got out and slammed the door so hard my ears popped.
Ralph turned around and said, “How’s it going back there?”
I gave him a thumbs up.
Ralph said, “Let’s take a look at what he’s got in the trunk.”
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea,” I said.
“C’mon,” Ralph insisted. “Pretend you’re Gene Simmons. What would he do in a situation like this?”
I leaned my head back and stuck my tongue all the way out, a Gene Simmons trademark, but in the middle of my impression the bun on top of my wig flopped over onto the back of my head. Apparently, a pin had fallen out.
“I got the Krazy Glue with me,” Ralph said. “You want me to glue it down?”
“I’m fine,” I said.
Then, without further discussion, Ralph reached over, turned off the car, and jerked the keys from the ignition.
“Hey,” I said, “what’re you doing?” But Ralph was already on his way to the back of the car, leaving me no choice but to get out, too. By the time I reached the trunk, he had already inserted the key into the lock.
“Ready?” he asked. He turned the key and opened the trunk slowly, as if opening a treasure chest after a long, brutal seafaring journey, to see if the trip had been worth it.
“Holy shit!” Ralph said. “Would you look at that?”
“Jesus,” I said.
I’d never seen anything like it: an entire trunk packed full of bite-sized Tootsie Rolls. There must have been thousands. I dipped my hand in and ran my fingers through them. Ralph scraped his knives gently, even reverently, across the heap.
“He’s a class act,” Ralph said. “He knows when to steal and when not to. I mean, when’s the only time people start thinking bulk Tootsie Rolls? Halloween, man!”
“But Halloween’s almost over,” I said.
Ralph aimed a butter knife at me and said, “That’s the point exactly: people are running out of candy, getting desperate. And that’s where Norm comes in. Bingo!”
“We’d better shut the trunk,” I said.
“Not yet,” Ralph said. “I’m hungry. Give me a hand.” And he began stuffing candy into his pockets.
I scooped up handfuls of Tootsie Rolls and dumped them into Ralph’s cape pocket while he shoved as many as he could into his jeans. Twice he accidentally poked my head with a butter knife.
“Watch it!” I said. “You’re gonna put my eye out.”
“Count yourself lucky,” Ralph said. “An Etruscan would’ve chopped off your head or thrown you to a lion by now.”
We shut the trunk and leaned back on it to wait for Norm. Using only his teeth and his right hand, Ralph unwrapped Tootsie Roll after Tootsie Roll, cramming one after the other into his mouth until his cheeks bulged and chocolate juice dribbled down his chin. He was talking, but his mouth was so full I couldn’t understand a word he said, so I answered, “Uh-huh. . . . Oh, yeah? . . . Really? . . . No kidding. . . . Is that so?”
When he finally swallowed the boulder of chocolate, he said, “What’s your problem? You’re not making any sense.”
Out of the corner of my eye I spotted Norm, so I nudged Ralph. Norm was walking toward us beside a fat guy decked out in a red-white-and-blue sweat suit. The man’s hair was sticking up on one side and lying flat on the other, as if Norm had awakened him.
When Norm saw us, he shot us a look and said, “Get off the trunk, you punks.” To the man, he said, “Just a second while I get the keys.”
“I’ve got ’em,” Ralph said. “Here.” And he tossed them to Norm.
Norm glared at Ralph — an expression that said, We’ll talk about this later.
“Didn’t want to waste gas,” Ralph said.
“I ain’t got all fucking night,” the fat guy said. “Let’s take a look.”
Norm nodded and popped the trunk.
The once even mound of Tootsie Rolls now had an obvious trench. I didn’t realize we’d taken that many. I looked at Ralph, but he just pulled a Tootsie Roll from his cape pocket and unrolled it using his teeth.
The fat guy said, “These are the small ones. I thought you were talking about the long ones.”
“They’re the same thing,” Norm said. “One’s just smaller than the other.”
The fat guy shook his head. “Look, Slick, I got to sell a hundred of these for every twenty of the big ones. You see what I’m saying? Kids want the ones they can stick in their mouths like a big cigar.”
“That’s true,” Ralph whispered to me.
“OK,” Norm said. “All right. You want to haggle? Fine. I respect that.”
But the fat guy was already walking back to his Royal Chateau, saying, “No can do, Slick. No business tonight.”
As the man rounded the corner, I looked up at Norm, afraid he was going to yell at us, but instead he was holding two fistfuls of his own hair and yanking on them. “I’m fucked,” he said. “Do you hear me? I. Am. Fucked.”
Ralph made a move to offer Norm a few Tootsie Rolls, but I grabbed his arm, and he thought better of it, slipping the stolen goods back into his own pocket, and out of Norm’s sight.
For an hour we rode in Norm’s car and said nothing. Ralph started running his butter knives through his hair, giving himself a scalp massage. “Hey, Norm,” Ralph finally said, “what do you know about Patty O’Dell posing naked for a Sears catalog?”
Norm said, “Would you mind just shutting up a minute and letting me think?”
“Sure,” Ralph said. Then he turned to me and said, “Hey, Hank, quit talking. Let the man think.”
“Did I say anything?” I asked.
“Both of you,” Norm said, “shut the fuck up!”
Norm drove in circles — from Seventy-ninth and Harlem to Eighty-seventh and Harlem, then over to Eighty-seventh and Cicero, north to Seventy-ninth and Cicero, and eventually back to where we’d started. Seventy-ninth and Harlem was a corner Ralph and I knew well because it was home to the Haunted Trails miniature-golf course (where we liked to chip golf balls over the fence and into heavy traffic). Behind Haunted Trails was the Sheridan Drive-In, where we would sneak through a chopped-out hole in the fence and watch women take off their clothes on a screen the size of a battleship. My favorites were the martial-arts movies, though Ralph preferred the ones about women in prison. We never heard any of the dialogue — we were too far away from the rows of metal speakers on poles — so Ralph would pass the night speculating about what was going on: “See that chick?” he’d say. “She probably killed her old man. That’s why the warden wants to see her titties.”
When Norm started the loop for the seventh time, I gave up any hope of ever making it to a party. I expected Ralph to register a complaint with Norm — we’d been unfairly duped, victims of a bait-and-switch — but Ralph just sat up front and stuffed his face with Tootsie Rolls.
Finally, Norm deviated, continuing straight on Harlem instead of turning off on Eighty-seventh. After a few more blocks, he jerked a quick right into Guidish Park Mobile Homes. He stopped the car, killed the lights, and turned around to look at me.
“I need a favor,” he said.
It was so dark I couldn’t even see his face. “What?” I said.
“I want you to take something to Number 47, about half a block up that way, and I want you to give it to whoever answers the door and tell them I’ll get the rest of the money tomorrow, OK?”
I didn’t want to do it — my bowels felt on the verge of collapsing — but I was awful at standing up for myself, unable to say no to an adult, if only because my parents had trained me too well. So I told Norm OK.
When I stepped out of the car, he rolled down his window and handed me a cardboard cylinder about a foot long. On my way to Number 47, I shook it, but couldn’t hear anything inside. Only when I passed under a street lamp did I see what I was holding: a giant Tootsie Roll bank. It had a removable tin cap with a slit for depositing coins. I’d had one myself until my dog, Tex, had gotten hold of it and chewed it into a ball of wet, sticky mush. I shook this bank again, but heard no coins.
At Number 47, I knocked lightly on the door, two taps with a single knuckle. I was about to give up and walk back to Norm’s car when the door creaked open and a man poked his head out. He narrowed his eyes and inspected my costume. Without looking away, he reached off to the side and asked, “You like Butterfingers or Milk Duds?”
“Milk Duds,” I said, “but actually I’ve got something for you. It’s from Norm.”
Before I could surrender the giant Tootsie Roll, I was yanked inside the trailer by the scruff of my naugahyde jacket. The man shut the door behind us and said, “Who are you?”
“His cousin,” I lied.
“Uh-huh,” he said, nodding. “So you’re the famous Ralph I’ve heard so much about.”
“I guess so,” I said.
“My name’s Bob. Can you remember to tell that to Norm? Bob.”
“Sure,” I said.
“I’m Jennifer’s brother,” Bob said.
“Jennifer . . . O’Dell?” I asked.
“So you must be Patty’s brother, too.” I glanced quickly around the room for catalogs. Bob eyed me for a moment, then squeezed the giant Tootsie Roll, as if it were my neck, until the lid popped off. He emptied the contents onto a card table. The best I could tell, there were three tens and a twenty, along with a note folded into a tight triangle, like the ones we used in homeroom to play paper football.
“Maybe I should go,” I said.
But Bob put his hand out like a traffic cop and said, “Not yet. Follow me.” We walked down a short, narrow hallway to a door at the far end. Bob opened the door, and motioned for me to follow him into the room.
It was dark, almost too dark to see, the only light coming from the other end of the hall. Two women were lying in bed, and at first I wanted to laugh, because one of the women was wearing a Creature from the Black Lagoon mask, just like Wes Papadakis’s, and the thought of a grown woman lying in bed in the dark wearing a stupid rubber mask struck just the right chord with me that night: Bob was trying to scare me with his very own Halloween prank, but I wasn’t falling for it. I had started to snicker when Bob suddenly flipped on the light and I saw it wasn’t a mask at all. It was her face. I wanted to look away, but it kept drawing me in, like a pinwheel: eyes so puffy she could barely see out . . . lips cracked and swollen . . . the zigzag of stitches along her nostril.
The other woman wasn’t a woman at all, at least not yet. It was Patty O’Dell. When I realized it was her, I quit breathing. She was wearing a long white T-shirt that she kept pulling down over her knees, to hide herself from me. I knew it was the wrong time to think about it, I knew it shouldn’t even have crossed my mind, but I wanted to believe that she was naked underneath that T-shirt. I tried imagining Patty lifting the shirt up and over her head, taking it off, lying completely naked on the bed. But each time I got to that part, I would glance over at her sister — I’d figured that’s who it was by now — and the naked Patty in my head would dissolve into something dark and grainy.
Finally, I gave up and said, “Hi, Patty,” but she just turned and stared at the wall.
“How much did he bring?” Jennifer asked her brother.
Bob huffed. “Fifty bucks,” he said.
“Figures,” she said.
“Oh, yeah, there’s a note, too.” Bob unfolded the triangle and read it, then said, “Oh, this is classic: he spelled your name wrong. He doesn’t even know how to spell your name. Big surprise, the man’s illiterate.” Bob laughed and shook his head. “Says here he’ll try to get you the rest of the money tomorrow.”
“Sure he will,” Jennifer said.
Bob crumpled the note and said, “So what should we tell Gene Simmons here? We can’t keep an important man like him tied up all night.”
“Tell him to tell Norm it’s too late. He had his chance. That was the agreement: a thousand dollars, or I’d call the police and file a complaint.”
Bob looked at me. “You got that?”
“Good,” Bob said. “Tell him to expect the police at his door in, oh, let’s say an hour, two at the most. Maybe that’ll teach the son of a bitch not to hit a woman.”
My clogs clopped hollowly against the asphalt all the way back to the car. My stomach felt cramped up, as if it had been punctured. I was angry at Norm, certainly: angry at Norm for beating up Jennifer; angry at Norm for acting like it was just a mistake anyone could make. But most of all I was angry at Norm for how Patty had looked at me, then looked away; angry because I’d been close to something — I wasn’t sure what — but each time I’d come within reach, I’d looked over at Jennifer’s face, and it had all disappeared. Norm had ruined it for me, whatever it was. For that I wanted to wound Norm myself, but the closer I got to him, the more unlikely that seemed: I was twelve; Norm was twenty-five.
Nearing the Impala, I could hear someone gagging, trying to catch his breath. I dashed around the car and found Ralph bent over, a pool of vomit on the ground below. His door was open, and the dome light inside the car lit up half his face. Norm was slumped down in the driver’s seat, his hand draped over the steering wheel, a cigarette smoldering between two fingers. The radio was on low. Ralph’s metal fingers clanked together, and I thought of Brutus, his knife plunging into Caesar again and again.
“What did he do to you?” I whispered to Ralph. “Punch you in the stomach?”
“Who?” Ralph asked, still bent over, not looking at me.
“Norm,” I said.
Ralph peeked up now, fangs of vomit dripping from his mouth. “Why would Norm punch me in the stomach?”
“You’re throwing up, aren’t you?” I said.
“Yeah, I ate too many Tootsie Rolls,” Ralph said. “It’s a Roman ritual: eat till you puke. I wanted to see if I could do it. You should congratulate me.”
“Congratulations,” I said.
After Ralph had cleaned himself off with handfuls of loose dirt and the inside of his cape, we slid back into the car. Ralph proclaimed, “The first vomitorium on the south side of Chicago! Right here! People will come here from miles around to puke their brains out.”
Norm revved the engine. “So?” he said to me. “What did she say?”
“She wants to talk to you,” I lied.
“She wants you to go home,” I said, imagining the police at his door, knocking with their billy clubs. “She said she’ll be there in an hour.”
“Really?” Norm said, sticking the cigarette in the corner of his mouth and pounding the steering wheel with his palm. “What do you know about that? She’s forgiven me.”
“You bet,” I said.
Norm shook his head in disbelief and threw the car into reverse. Back on Harlem Avenue, he said, “So where do you boys want to go?”
“Home,” I said.
“Home it is!” Norm said, as if it were an exotic place, like Liechtenstein or the Bermuda Triangle.
We rode in silence for a few miles. Then Norm said, “You think I should buy her some roses?”
“Nah,” I said, “no sense wasting your money.”
I could see Norm’s eyes watching me in the rearview mirror, but I couldn’t tell if he knew that I was lying. At a stoplight he turned around and said, “Gene Simmons, huh?”
“Gene Simmons,” I said.
“From KISS,” Ralph added.
“When I was in high school,” Norm said, “I went to a costume party dressed as Jim Croce. I glued on this big, hairy-ass mustache and walked around with a cigar and sang ‘Operator.’ Chicks dug it.” He smiled at the memory until people behind us started honking: the light had turned green. “All right!” he yelled. “Shut the fuck up! I’m going already!”
Another dozen blocks down, not far from the junior college, a pack of men and women wearing togas trudged along the sidewalk, hooting and raising liquor bottles over their heads. “Would you look at that,” Norm said.
Ralph cranked down the window, leaned out of it, and said, “Stop the car.”
“What?” Norm said.
“Stop the car.”
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Those are my people,” Ralph said, peering at the throng of bedsheets and olive wreaths. “I need to join them.”
“What people?” Norm asked, pulling over to the curb.
Ralph got out of the car and yelled to the passing crowd, “Greetings!” He raised his hand with the butter knives in salutation, and the Romans went wild. They beckoned Ralph over, and he loped across the street.
Norm shook his head, amazed. “He’s something else, ain’t he? Half the time, I forget we’re related.”
While he was watching Ralph, I studied Norm for clues, but found no trace of what I was looking for, so I decided to ask him outright, to see what he’d say.
“Why’d you do it?” I asked.
Norm’s gaze moved slowly from Ralph to me, his pupils refocusing, adjusting to the difference in light. His brow furrowed, and he looked for a moment as if he really wanted to answer me, as if the reason was somewhere on the tip of his tongue. “Hell, I don’t know,” he said. “You lose control sometimes.” He rubbed his hand up over his head, and his hair stood on end, the way Ralph’s often did — a family gene, I suspected, a whole genetic legacy of screwed-up things inside him that he didn’t understand, never would understand — and I thought, Of course Norm doesn’t know. Of course. Not that this answer was any comfort to me. Just the opposite, in fact.
Slowly, we drove off. A block away, as the last goblin of the night floated beside us, I turned and looked out the back window one last time.
The Romans were holding Ralph aloft, over their heads, and chanting his name. Floating above them, Ralph looked so content, so pleased, you could almost be fooled into believing he was leading his people into Chicago, as Caesar had gone into Gaul, in violent triumph, to bring us all, by way of murder and pillage, together as one people, one tribe.
A revised version of this story appears in John McNally’s novel The Book of Ralph.