In the old days, I would waffle a tight blue racquetball off the high slate shingles of the Methodist Church and just stand there at the hunk of foundation we used as home plate. Watching her fly: like Babe Ruth. Or Dave Kingman. There was usually 6 or 7 of us. Maybe a steady pitcher if we had to and the field was slanted on the exact land where my Mom had gone to high school decades before. Where she had once dated jock-ish guys who were fat now. Probably angry inside, some of them. Where did the time go? How the fuck did this happen?
I never thought of those things then like I do now. You don’t care when you’re young. You don’t think about who your mom was back when she was in school when you are 12 or 13 and you have microwave oven little mozzarella stick boy boobs but you can still smack long/high home runs down at the field that hang there in the sky like doves right after you shoot them full of shotgun pellets.
Racquetball Dove. So freshly killed it doesn’t even know it’s dead yet. Frozen. Still. Floating. Gliding. Like a UFO. Like a silvery mylar birthday balloon pinging sun streaks at the street from the sky. New dead bird: undecided and uncommitted for what seems like an eternity of the kind of strange sudden reckoning that comes with getting murdered, I guess. I like it. I don’t care if that’s wrong. I like it. I like moments like that. I dig the subtle nip of American violence slipping across the whole town once again when it happens/ when something shocking happens with the quickness/ bad car crashes or heart attacks at the Little League field. Then it’s like woodsmoke spreading out in the country/ or like gunfighters on TV. Shot through the heart right there in front of the saloon. Watch him standing there. Everybody watching.
You poor sonofabitch.
And he does.
Just like those homers always did in the end. Rolling down that steep church roof towards the earth again.
Then I’d run the bases real slow, imitating the greats. Shuffling my feet to make sure I hit the bags that weren’t there. The dirt spot bags. In my head I was Johnny Bench. Bob Horner. Gary Carter. Joe Morgan.
Then, every once in a full moon, as I was rounding second base, I would look up from my ridiculous aluminum bat and racquetball home run trot (always ever so humbly/ so affected/ so Game of the Week/ Inside Baseball) and I would see him.
Tommy, the Druggie, walking up Fayette Street.
Strutting up Fayette Street.
Strutting like no one I had ever seen before or since.
Strutting, I have to say, like a fucking God.
Tommy was a druggie.
And by that I simply mean: he was unknowable to me and scared me like a wild animal would if I opened the kitchen cabinet and there it was. In the lexicon of late 1970’s/ early 1980’s suburban Philadelphia, a druggie was simply someone labeled that by someone else who didn’t know jack shit about what they were talking about. Some druggies used drugs, sure. Sometimes the label hit the nail on the head and the kid who smoked a lot of weed or the ones buying acid from their older brothers and then selling it to their 11th grade friends in the weeks after The Grateful Dead had done three shows at the Spectrum, sometimes they got tagged as a ‘druggie’ and it was all good.
It didn’t have to stick forever.
It just was what it was for now.
But other people, the ones who were seen putting out lit butts with dark heavy boot heels while lingering near the vine-y overgrown edges of old cemeteries: those people were also labeled as druggies, not because there was any proof that they did in fact use any kind of illicit substances, but rather because their entire aura/ their entire presence before our soft kid eyes/ somehow felt to us the same as it felt whenever one of us spotted a used syringe in a dugout or a dirty rubber by the entrance to the gaping echoey pipe tunnels down by the crick.
Druggies were, it turns out, simply slapped with that moniker by people like me because it instantly identified them as potentially darker/ moodier/ stranger/ more mysterious/ more Iron Maiden/ or more AC/DC/ or even just plain true-to-life cooler than anyone we had ever really come across before.
To see a druggie — or even a coven of druggies — from a safe distance was something that unnerved me, yet also grabbed me somewhere down deep. I didn’t know it then, but I think I saw the druggies much the same way I see Civil War soldiers now. Mythical. Hardcore legends gone from this life and yet: there they are: standing in the untouchable mists of my own mind. Standing on the bleachers by the Babe Ruth field, drinking a bottle of Tahitian Treat, bright red rings around my lips lightly spackled with Dorito dust, I would sometimes spot them far off across the wide open land. Like outlaws, like deer, creeping along the edge of the monkey ball trees/ moving slowly and silently/ a single swift leap from the darkness of the woods.
What did they do?
And why did they scare me so much?
Football players didn’t seem to mess with them. No one seemed to mess with them. They appeared touched by shadow. They were definitively enigmatic.
Far away, they were tiny puffs of cigarette smoke/ regimental flags flipping the bird at death in the thick of battle.
Up close they reeked of Marlboro Reds and had horrifying purplish scars on their forearms. Places where stitches would have closed the gap once upon a time, but never did, because there were no stitches.
And no one can figure it out.
The way Tommy appeared then, on the already set stages of the theater of the Conshy of my youth/ was that he showed up suddenly/ moving along on his way to God knows where/ coming out from behind these houses, disappearing up the block behind those houses: man, it sticks with me. Even all these years later I still cannot quite understand the impression his presence made on me. I was just a kid, just an ice cream eating baseball player with no star qualities and no real girl potential and I liked Springsteen and Huey Lewis and The Stones and Alabama.
I wasn’t prepared for druggies. I wasn’t set up for being in the presence of warlords roaming the wilderness like this. I mean, no one had ever simply walked down the street and scared me like that before. And he scared the shit out of me.
He really did.
Without ever once ever threatening me with words or even fucking seeing me if we’re being honest.
This guy Tommy, he didn’t walk.
Not strut like some idiot farm lane peacock or some nervous wild turkey trying to get laid. It was way, way more than that. This was like overkill Hollywood strut except he made it work. He made it his own, this walk, this chest out, white shirt, gold chain with a fat cross laying on his chest like he was daring you to fucking come try to take it so he could grab you by the head and bash your skull into someone else’s skull…probably your friend who was next to you, or maybe even a cop’s skull, or a whole bunch of cops/ one after another/ popping your head off of their heads until your head (my head) just gave in like a ripe peach.
Tommy smoked cigarettes and he wore blue jeans along with his t-shirt and his big shit-kicker boots. Get this, too. He rolled his cig pack up in his one sleeve, so that it was always bulging out up there. Like he was in The Outsiders. Jesus Christ. I remember seeing that the first time he strutted by me out in the town somewhere. It was mesmerizing.
Smokes rolled up in a t-shirt sleeve.
Who does that?
What kind of massive gorilla balls do you have to have to believe in yourself that much to think you can pull that off.
And yet, there he was. Pulling it off as if he was born with smokes up his sleeve. Looking at old church ladies/ nodding his head and strutting by them to whatever song he must’ve always had playing up in his mind.
Snarling and strutting to Bark at the Moon as if it were a church hymn lifting him higher. Conquering down 8th Avenue on his way to do bad things. Flicking burning cigarette butts at the 7-11 door just before he opened it to go in to buy more cigarettes. Not being carded. Never being asked to prove anything at all. I swear to god I think back on watching him strutting down the street and I think that I probably would have followed him into battle anytime, anywhere.
Is that weird?
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Serge Bielanko lives in small-town Pennsylvania with an amazing wife who’s out of his league and a passel of exceptional kids who still love him even when he’s a lot. Every week, he shares his thoughts on life, relationships, parenting, baseball, music, mental health, the Civil War and whatever else is rattlling around his noggin. Once in a blue Muskie Moon, he backs away from the computer, straps on a guitar and plays some rock ’n’ roll with his brother Dave and their bandmates in Marah.