It’s past dark but the boys are jumping firecrackers on their Schwinns at the end of the cul de sac, where the mint asphalt stops short of a field of weeds and upturned soil. They ride in slow circles around the spot where Matty Spinoza tosses Black Cats, lighting them expertly in one hand with his dad’s Guadalcanal Campaign lighter. Each tries to time his jump so that he is just above as it explodes. Every few passes, someone breaks ranks in the circle to ride against the flow. The better at the game they get, the more dangerous it must become.
“Now you, Billy,” the elder of the Spinoza brothers says. “Your turn, little man.”
Billy Lochner is eight years old and losing baby teeth every month. He wears his father’s crew cut and rides wide-armed on a heavy blue cruiser, still too big for him, but the only kind of bike for sale at Woolworth’s when his family moved in last fall. “What do I do?” he says.
“It’s easy,” Matty says. “Just pull up on the handle-bars and buck forward like you’re on a see-saw.”
“I’ve never ridden a see-saw.”
“Just be a man and do it,” Fred Hoffman hollers. He spits a wad of bubble gum into the air above him.
Billy sucks on a loose tooth and breaks from the circle, looping around wide to build speed. He’s the smallest and youngest of the bunch, his own younger brother at the Mullaneys’ with the babysitter the neighborhood pitched in for, in his pajamas since eight o’clock as instructed. A Black Cat sizzles at the center of the circle.
“He’s going to eat shit,” Hoffman mutters. A couple of the others snicker. The Spinoza boy says nothing.
Billy stands up on the bike, lurching forward with each pump of the pedals like a cowboy on a wounded horse. He yanks up on the bars and manages to clear just a couple of inches with his back tire. The firecracker explodes under his wheel as he lands. The bike wobbles beneath him and he careens at speed over the curb and into the field. He disappears over a burm and the boys hear the flimsy metal crash. Standing on their pedals to see, Billy’s grinning face appears over the dirt, a nasty rugburn forming over his right eye. He asks if he can go again.
The last of the gin swirls like a hula hoop in the bottle when Edna slams it on the card table. No one is sure why she is laughing. Pall Malls and a mosquito candle smolder among their Dixie cups and hands of Hearts. Strings of paper Chinese lanterns crisscross over the Mullaneys’ driveway. The kids are riding their bikes around down the block, out of earshot for talking but near enough to hear the inevitable yelp when one of them gets hurt.
“Your turn, hon,” Bill says to his wife. Edna blinks hard and considers her hand. A tear has formed at the hem of her paper dress; Bill is sure he saw Hoffman sneak a peak at her thigh when he got up to get the last armful of beers. She’s making damned idiot of herself. “Hon,” he says.
“I heard you,” she says, “dear.”
“Bill I hear you’re trading in the Chevy,” Dick Spinoza chirps across the table.
“Yeah. Guess it’s about time,” Bill says. The interruption is welcome. He rubs over the hollow of his eye, where a crystal of pain forms behind the bone on nights like this. The humidity puts a film of sweat on the faces around the card table. Hoffman and Spinoza blot their foreheads with wadded handkerchiefs; their wives fan themselves with plastic plates. Bill checks his watch, and the fingernail-sized scars on his forearms.
“Well, that’s great,” Spinoza says. “Little car like that’s no good for a growing family. What are you aiming to get?”
“Hopefully enough to cover the mortgage this month,” Edna says. “I’ll be driving Bill to work for a while.” She reaches for the bottle. Hoffman raises a corner of his mouth and discards.
“If you wake up in time,” Bill says. “And if the kids don’t find you in the bathroom again with your—”
The bottle shatters on the driveway. She might have dropped it, or it might have teetered off the edge of the table. It doesn’t matter. Bill takes her fiercely by the elbow, up out of the wicker chair that tumbles over behind her, and walks her like a hostage across the cul de sac.
The rest of them exchange glances across the table. Hoffman stubs out a cigarette. “’Bout time,” he says. “They’re getting a late start tonight. We’ll hear them all night now.”
“That was tactless, George,” Mary Spinoza says, rising to leave. Dick sweeps the glass onto a plastic plate and leaves with her.
Billy throttles the Hoffman boy. Nothing is wrong with his mom.
The older boy tumbles backwards over his bike and Billy is on top of him, an unfamiliar violence gushing from him like a kitchen sink backing up. He pummels nose, eyes, anything that will bleed. Someone says stop him, someone says Billy, he didn’t mean it like that. Finally the Spinoza brothers pull them apart. Billy kicks wildly against Matty’s hold before giving and dropping to the grass.
“Slow down, slow down,” Matty tells him. “You all right?”
Billy covers his face and wheezes. It’s just rage stinging his eyes.
“Why’d you do that?” Matty says.
“I don’t know,” Billy says through his hands.
“You must be pretty mad, huh?”
When he takes his hands away, he sees the older boy kneeling on the grass next to him, whose brother and the others are talking down Hoffman. At the bottom of the cul de sac, Mr. Spinoza cleans something off the driveway.
“Come on,” Matty says, showing him a cherry bomb. “It’s your turn.”