Free Ride by Ronald K. Myers

Free Ride

(Ronald K. Myers)

Free Ride



With a grime-coated light bulb bathing him in an unearthly glow, Breed leaned through the open door of the Horseshoe Lounge and watched in hushed astonishment.  The loud ringing of a filthy phone interrupted the partying atmosphere of the dimly lit bar.  The bartender lifted the phone.  Before he could speak, mill workers with the suffering look of people condemned to a mental institution stopped guzzling Pabst out of ice-frosted bottles and stared straight ahead.  As if it were a ritual, they inclined their heads toward the bartender, and yelled, “I’m not here!”

Breed laughed and the men at the bar laughed, too.

After the bartender slammed the phone down, laughter subsided, and a man with an unshaven face and slobber running from the side of his contorted mouth turned toward Breed.  “Hey!  Creep!” the man shrieked in a voice that was surprisingly high-pitched.  “What you laughin’ at?”

Wincing at the degradation of being called a creep by a man who didn’t have enough brains to be unhappy, Breed quit laughing but managed a wisp of a smile.  Just to be defiant, he replied, “The circus is in town.  Are you having a family reunion at the sideshow?”

As the man stared at him in total incomprehension, Breed realized that the comparison of the man’s family to freaks of a sideshow hadn’t registered in the man’s beer-brained mind.

When the comparison finally entered the man’s mind, he jerked back from the bar so fast, the bar stool tipped over and banged on the floor.  With his mouth curled into a vehement sneer, he came charging after Breed.  “You makin’ fun of my family?” he screeched.  “I’ll kick your creep ass all the way back to Shitsplat.”

In a panicked gasp, Breed reached for the door knob, grabbed it, and slammed the door right in the advancing man’s face.  Before the man could recover from the unexpected door in the face, as a final gesture, Breed mimicked the man’s high-pitched voice and yelled though the door, “I’ll kick your creep ass!”

Being reminded that he lived in a grimy neighborhood, caused Breed to feel ashamed, but he didn’t have time to be ashamed.  When the man opened the door, he would be on Breed and in a flash.

But Breed was in luck.

The man was too angry or too drunk to turn the doorknob.  While he kicked at the door, Breed dashed away.  Under a smoked smeared sky, he sprinted toward a place sure to be teeming with more degradation.

With ear-piercing steel mill whistles screaming above the cacophony of rumbling trucks, metallic clanging, and a deep base pounding of diesel locomotives, the battered and villainous hard cases of the bar who had had enough of an enjoyable evening that would provide them with material to brightened their uneventful lives staggered home to the cries of unhappy wives and resentful children.  Then air-blown molten iron, in open-hearth furnaces, blazed orange and belched heavy crimson smoke out tops of towering masses of steel stacks, where it jutted into a gloomy sky and created smoky shadows that resembled limbs of death slithering out from under dilapidated shacks, creeping over rubble that was scarcely shaded with black limbs of defoliated trees.

But the spatter of land hadn’t always been like that.

In better times, dazzling sunlight had glanced off crystal-clear streams, bordered with lush hillsides, rich with green vegetation, and tops of tall trees had reached into a bluebird sky and immersed their thirsty roots into pure water.  Then pie-faced people with dreams of a better life toppled the trees, slapped together a hodgepodge of wood, tin, stone, and junk, and built shacks to live in.  Years of various repairs and additions transformed most of those shacks into fairly decent homes.

On the hillside, west of the Shenango River, little could be called refinement.  Dirt-filled smoke constantly wafted from the steel mills and smothered shacks that had sprung up on debris that retained an irreducible grime.  Open sewers, running into the once willow-shaded banks of once pristine streams that ran cool and clear over pebbly beds, contributed to the decay of those shacks.  The rotting window frames, and tar patches on tin roofs, not only caused the shacks to become a hopeless blotch on the dark land that broadcasted the stench of poverty, but also had earned the west side of town the moniker “Shitsplat”.

It was here that a lone ray of morning sun poked through a ragged cloud of purple smoke and beamed on the unpainted shack with the dirty-white picket fence where Breed lay on his raggedy bed, hoping he wouldn’t have to fight off more degradation.

Downstairs, staggering to keep her drunken balance, Breed’s mother flung an empty beer bottle into the rust-stained sink.  The sound of it breaking, crashed through the morning’s silence.

Breed’s eyes flew wide open.  He jerked awake, sat up, faced the window, and stared into the purple distance.  Even though he told himself he was long past caring about his parent’s psychotic behaviors, every night he had gone through a series of appalling nightmares, and every morning brought some kind of threat.  This lingering atmosphere of despair should have made him want to cry with weakness and frustration, but he gritted his teeth and wondered what kind of pain would be inflicted on him today.  Using it as protection, he pulled his thin blanket up around his chest and listened.

There was a great scraping of his stepfather’s heavy work shoes coming up the worn stairs.  “You might as well break all the bottles,” he roared.  “They’re all empty.”  The scraping trailed off into the other room.  After another night of drinking, he was finally going to bed.

Relieved, Breed lay back on his raggedy blanket, closed his eyes, and returned to the sublime narcosis of sleep.

Wham!  Like the surprising bang of a firecracker, the sound smacked into Breed’s chest.  His eyes flew open.  At the bottom of the stairs, his mother had slammed the door.  With his body begging for sleep, he hoped the slam was the final epilogue of the night.  In an attempt to insulate himself from the anguish, he plowed his head under his pillow and held it tight to his ears.  But the deliberate pock-pock of high heels striking the wood stairs told him it was not over.

To agitate his stepfather, his mother stood halfway up the stairs, leaned drunkenly against the wall, and bellowed, "If you think you’re going to drink all night and sleep all day. . .”  She stomped down the stairs and stopped at the bottom.  Bang!  She slammed the door.  “You got another thing coming."

Feeling like a trapped animal fighting to make the last moments of its life bearable, Breed jammed the pillow tighter against his ears.  But the noise came through.  His mother and stepfather had fought all night.  Breed had just shut his bloodshot eyes, and now they were open, again.

When he had gone to bed and the last rays of the orange setting sun had smiled through the open window and darkness surrounded him, he thought he would sleep until the morning sunbeams found his face and filled it with yellow warmth.  But that didn’t happen.  The sunless night had been filled with the same cut down arguments of the past.  His mother had gone through the counterattacks and insults, then dredged up things that happened years ago.  And his stepfather had answered with smart remarks.  When stars faded from the predawn sky, Breed hoped his mother would run out of things that would add fire to the arguments.  But she didn’t.

If he could just get a few more minutes of sleep, he might be able to emerge from the, twisting horror-filled corridors of frustration and do something special today.

Finally, after the noise downstairs stopped, Breed gave up the pillow and rolled to his stomach.  Lying on the lumpy mattress of his bed in front of the open window, he flared his elbows and propped his head on his hands.  As a morning breeze stirred the faded curtain, he looked down over the rust-colored slate of the front porch roof.  The green maple leaves on the branches of the big tree in the front yard of his shack were beginning to turn yellow.  When a soft sigh of wind caused them to gracefully move in the cool autumn air, they resembled sad hands waving goodbye to the warm times of summer.

Muffled shouts and one gunshot, followed by dogs barking, came from somewhere down the street.  Some of the mills were on strike, again.  Where a couple of shacks looked so dilapidated that they would fall over in the next wind, loud and obnoxious arguments added to the woe of the rundown neighborhood.  Breed understood he wasn’t like the rich schoolboys with decent parents and television sets.  Although those things were only dreams, he had sometimes mistaken for living, he planned to make them come true.

Exhausted, he let his head drop to the worn mattress and began to doze off.  Bam!  A door on the house next door slammed.  He ignored it.  But rumblings from a train, rattled the window and caused him to return drowsily to consciousness.  Through half-open eyes, he lifted his head, peeked over the worn wooden headboard of his bed, and peered out the window.  Outside was void of activity, but like an imprisoned kid in some kind of a controlled trance, from under the snugness of his blanket, he stared out the window and wished he were someplace else.

The sound of a car engine gearing down and backfiring grew louder.  When the sound neared, the caved-in trunk and a gaping hole in the roof of a pink 1957 Ford could be seen chugging up the street.  The bad-smelling kid with the wart on his pockmarked face who had hit Breed in the head with a brick, sat behind the steering wheel, tilting a bottle of beer to his lips.  His fingernails were always wedged with dirt, and his hair was always oily.  He was one of the many older kids who believed Breed and his friends were dumb-looking hoodlums who wandered the streets breaking street lights.  To get revenge from the brick incident and other senseless beatings, Breed and his friends had not only crossed the spark plug wires in the kid’s car, they had hooked one end of a chain around the axle of the Ford and the other end around an old, dead tree.  After they got the kid angry enough to just about lose his mind, he floored the Ford and took off.  When the chain went taut, the tree broke and crashed down on the Ford.  Not only did the tree cave the trunk in, a broken branch poked a hole in the roof on the driver’s side.

While the misfiring of the crossed-plug wires caused the engine to cough and struggled to get up the street, the kid deliberately swerved off to the side of the road, spun the tires in the gravel, and threw an empty beer bottle at Breed.  As the bottle hit the porch roof and harmlessly rolled down the slate, pieces of dirty gravel shot from the spinning tires and showered the dirty white picket fence.  The kid laughed and sped away in a great cloud of gray dust.  Breed hoped he would never have to fight him.

With his head bent down and thinking, God knows what, freckle-faced Flick suddenly stood on the wooden footbridge that crossed over the sewage ditch in front of Breed’s shack.  With the back of his hand, Flick whipped the dust from the front of his loose flapping shirt that had ragged sleeves torn off at the elbows.  Although he lived on the street where limbs of dead, dusty trees hung over broken bottles and cigarette butts, next to abandoned railroad tracks, in a tiny downtrodden shack with pictures covering up cracks in the plaster and a front yard covered with rubble and slag, he was tougher than the rest of Breed’s friends, was a little wilder, and had the qualities of leadership with which a rare few are gifted.  He usually had a twinkle in his eyes and an irresistible wiry grin, but today his grin had been replaced with an angry snarl.

Walking over the bridge, he jammed his hands deep into the pockets of his baggy pants.  At the end of the bridge, he looked down and shuffled his clodhopper-shoed feet in the coal furnace ashes.  Glaring with disapproval, he put a hand up to shade his green eyes and squinted toward Breed.  “Goddamn dogshit,” he moaned in self-pity and scraped the thick edge of his shoe along the ashes.  After he walked in a circle with a pained expression on his face, he jerked his red hair to the side and whistled a slow, secret whistle.  Then with one hand slicking his long, red hair back, he used his other hand to flash the usual obscene gesture at Breed.

The obscene gesture was a signal for Breed to come down, but Breed didn’t want to hear about anybody’s problems.  He had just had had a whole night of problems, and didn’t know when the shack would be quiet again.  While he had the chance, he wanted to get some much-needed sleep.  As if he were sleeping, he closed his eyes into slits and didn’t acknowledge Flick’s gesture.

Flick stepped out of the ashes, looked toward the big maple tree in front of the shack, and whistled again.

Flick wouldn’t quit whistling until Breed came down.  Disgusted, he let his eyes fly wide open and bent out the window.

With a questioning slant to one eye, Flick called up, “You comin’ down?”

Breed swung his feet to the floor, stood up, and stared irritably to where the all-night noise had been coming from.  He needed to get away from what was always happening here.  But he didn’t want to go through the shack and cause the all-night argument to continue and grow into an-all-day marathon.  So he jumped into his ragged clothes, rolled out the window, and onto the porch roof, where he slid down the slippery slate and stopped at the edge.  Then he swung his legs over and wrapped his ankle around the porch post.  After he slid down it, he placed his feet onto the skinny top of the dirty-white picket fence.

While he balanced on the fence, Flick walked up to him.  “You still goin’ to the Rat House?”

Breed jumped off the fence.  His foot landed on the only tuft of grass in the yard and mashed it flat.  The Rat House was actually the Gable Theater, but had earned the Rat House moniker because of the many rats that ran around inside the battered building.  He bent over, brushed his dusty hands on his pants, and looked up.  “Heck yeah!”  He straightened up.  “Buddy Holly was a regular kid who made it big.”

Looking worried, Flick walked onto the wooden footbridge and stopped next to the gravel road.  Attempting to hide his worried look, he looked to Breed.  “You think it'll be any good?”

Wondering what was bothering Flick, Breed stepped next to him and pretended he hadn’t noticed.  “You kiddin’?  The Buddy Holly Story’s gonna be the best movie of 1959.”

For a moment the worried look fell from Flick’s Face.  “Buddy made some really good songs,” he said, “but I think they killed him.”

Breed furrowed his brow.  “What do you mean, killed him?  He died in a plane crash.  Richie Valens and the Big Bopper did, too."

“They can set those things up.”

Over the years, the people of Shitsplat had pulled many awful things on Breed and his slum neighborhood friends.  The way he saw it, the people living in any place but Shitsplat were different.  “Those guys in show business aren’t like Shitsplat assholes,” he said.  “They ain’t rotten enough to kill somebody who could sing a song as good as ‘True Love Ways’.”

“I don’t know,” Flick shook his head.  “A lot of movie stars are getting killed in so-called accidents.”

“The movie should tell what happened.”

As if Flick didn’t believe him, he looked Breed in the eye.  “The good guys always get killed or something happens.”  He noticed Breed’s torn shirt sleeve flap around his wrist.  “You can't go dressed like that.  They’ll know you snuck in.”

Although an occasional whiff of sewage odor from the ditch wafted into Breed’s face, a clean bright sun was shining in his heart.  “I ain’t going like this.”  Glad he wouldn’t have to feel the shame of wearing his usual ragged clothes, he puffed up with self-importance.  “Today, I got new clothes to wear.”

Flick stepped off the bridge and onto the road.  “New clothes might help you look like somebody that paid, but you could still get your ass kicked out.”

Breed stepped onto the road and hooked his thumbs under the front of his paint-spattered belt.  Then as if he were a rich man who wasn’t a problem of protocol and didn’t have to watch long noses sniff at his shame until their faces stiffened, he leaned back on his heels.  “I ain’t sneakin' in today.”

Flick’s eyes brightened.  “If you're the big man payin’, you’ll have to crack the side door and let us sneak in.”

Breed’s stomach growled.  It was reminding him that he hadn’t eaten since yesterday morning.  If he snuck in, he could use the last of his money and buy a good piece of meat.  He could carry it into the woods, gather up dry sticks, and build a little fire.  With a little branch he cut from a tree, he could spear it through the meat, and hold it over the fire until it was perfect.  And he could have it all to himself.  Maybe it would stop that constant hungry feeling in his stomach.  It was almost autumn.  After he ate, he could walk to an open field of soft yellow hay and lie down.  Without the constant banging of doors, he could take a nap in the warm sun.  Maybe he could be like that boxer in the Jack London story about a piece of steak.  But he wasn’t going to box anyone.  He was only going to a movie, and anyway, he had already made up his mind.  It didn’t matter if he were going to be hungry.  He had been hungry many times before.  For once in his life he was going to see a movie without being afraid the usher would check to see if he had a ticket stub.  But before he could do that, he would have to sneak down the aisle and crack open the side door.  There was no way around it.  The gang had done it for him, many times.  At the right exact moment, he would open the door.  If he got caught, it wouldn’t matter that he had paid to get in.  He would be kicked out.  If he didn’t get caught, then he could stay in one seat and show any suspicious usher his ticket stub.  He dropped his hands to his sides.  “Yeah, I’ll do it,” he said and tried to get out of opening the door.  “But I never opened that door before.  Just as soon as I open it, the ushers will see the light from outside.”

“There ain’t nothin’ to it,” Flick said and leaned on a stick he had broken off the maple tree.  “Just don’t open the door until the screen turns bright.”

“Then what?”

“Then just get out the way.  That bright light only blinds the usher for a few seconds.  Before he sees us, we’ll slip in.”

Breed thought about getting caught.  He shook his head with apprehension.  “That usher with that purple bellhop cap is the one to watch out for.”

Flick lifted his hand and hooded his eyes.  “Sometimes when the screen goes bright, that skinny runt covers his eyes, but he’s still a sour-faced creep who acts like he’s got a corn cob stuck up his ass.”

As if he felt a pain in his side, Breed cringed.  “That’s the kid that kicked Hog in the ribs.”

“Did Hog tell you what he did to that kid?”

Although Hog sometimes had an academic air about him, he was a belligerent, muscular kid who had a malicious streak of a court jester.  Being a kid who would not readily or agreeably give in to the desires of others, he usually smiled with an insolent grin, and his curly black hair was as unruly as his tendency to question authority.  He lived in an unpainted ramshackle house sadly in need of repair.  Even though he lived in a dismal place, where people were branded as poor and ignorant, there were few situations where he could not summon a smart-ass remark.  As a means of agitation, many times he would use words that were above other’s intellectual level.  When his agitating morphed into shouting bitterness, he was most happy.  Whatever he did wouldn’t surprise Breed.  “What did he do this time?”

“He wouldn’t tell me, just said he didn’t want to appear facetious, whatever that means.  And kept on laughing.”

Flick reached across his chest and held his hand on the side of his ribs.  “Hog might-ah got caught, but we ain’t gonna.”

Breed shot Flick a quick hard look.  “I hope you’re right.”  He stepped a pace off to the right.  “Just as soon as you guys get in, split up.”

“We know that,” Flick said.  “If that usher wants to find us, he’ll have to look in every seat.”

Breed imagined how the usher wouldn't be able to keep track of them all.  If they wanted, they could keep him busy all day.  They could make a game of it.  Then that rotten usher wouldn’t have a chance to kick anybody in the ribs.  It would only take a fraction of a second to open that door, so Breed was pretty sure he wouldn’t get caught.  He told himself that it wasn’t going to be a big deal and tilted his shoulders toward Flick.  “I might even buy a bag of popcorn and pass it around to make it look like you guys paid.”

Flick blew air out of his mouth and let out a low whistle.  “You’ll have to buy two, one to eat, and to keep the rats off your lap, you’ll have to drop one on the floor.”

As if he were swishing off an invisible rat, Breed brushed the top of his thigh with the back of his hand.  “That ain’t no lie.  I’ve watched those big gray rats come up from the sewers in the riverbank.  It’s like their bodies are rubber.  They slip right through the cracks in the walls.”

Flick stepped away and pointed the stick at Breed.  “If you hold still, those rats will eat the popcorn right out of your hand.”

Breed felt the crow's feet form above the high cheekbones of his face, but remembering the constant gleam of laughter and mischief in Screwball’s eyes, he ignored the sleep-begging call from his tired body and asked, “Is Screwball going?”

"If you get your ass in gear and quit standing there like a chicken with a broken wing, he’s going.”

“What’s the rush?  We got a lotta time.”

“They’re setting up the crane to knock down the Jones’s house.  Before we go to the show, we could watch ‘em knock it down.  Maybe make a little money.”

The city had been saying they were going to tear down that house for years.  Breed wanted to see how many whacks it would take the wrecking ball to knock the house down, but he really wanted to know how they could make some money doing it.  He nodded.  “I’d like to see that.  But how are we going to make money?”

Encouraging Breed to hurry up, Flick jerked his thumb toward Breed’s house.  “After you change your clothes, I’ll tell you on the way.”