Most of the kids in my neighborhood worked at the brickyard
at one time or another. The proprietor didn't concern himself with pesky child labor laws
so he had an eager work force of street urchins to do his bidding. At twelve and thirteen my buddies and I were too young to get regular jobs so we were glad for the opportunity.
The boss would take the older kids with him on "salvage runs," to collect chunks of wall from recently demolished buildings. He sometimes had permission but most often these missions were done with stealth during the demolition crew's lunch break or over the weekend when the site was abandoned. The younger ones would then chop the concrete and mortar off of the salvaged bricks and stack them neatly on a pallet for resale. He paid us half a penny to clean them and half a penny to palletize them, then sold the bricks back to the builder for thirteen cents apiece.
The work was dangerous and injuries were commonplace. The masonry hammers were ground to a razor's edge so the slightest error could result in a horrific blood letting. A buddy of mine missed the brick on a wild swing of the hammer once and cut a forty stitch gash in his leg. In another moment of carelessness my older brother Billy all but severed his thumb. The salvage runs, however, made the brick cleaning seem like child's play.
They called it "making a run" and meant it literally. The boss would act as lookout leaving his son Kevin to lead the crew. They always returned with tales of brushes with the law or the grim reaper that more often than not included some act of profound stupidity on Kevin's part.
He was a big guy and wasn't shy about using an appeal to force if you disagreed with him. He was uniformly ridiculed behind his back but his physical bulk and relationship with the boss prevented any direct criticism. When he wasn't out on a salvage run he was tormenting the little kids in the brick yard. He’d hide behind a wall and pelt us with rocks or steal our cleaned bricks and put them on his own pallet. If we complained to the boss, he told us to quit if we didn't like it.
One day Kevin was screwing around with us as usual, taking our cleaned bricks and hurling them as far across the yard as he could. He didn’t notice my brother rounding the corner of the building as he pitched the last brick. A couple of us yelled a tardy warning just as it ended its arc on the top of Billy’s head. He crumpled to the ground in a motionless heap and I'm sure that I wasn't the only one who feared the worst.
We hadn't even time to run to his aid before Billy shot to his feet and stood with a disturbing swagger. He looked exactly like a marionette that had been suddenly yanked upright and left to dangle from invisible strings. He wavered on his feet for a long moment, blood streaming over his face and onto his shirt. He tipped his head slowly from side to side and I remember thinking at the time that he was checking for loose screws. As he regained his composure he looked around on the ground near his feet and spotted the brick missile, now broken in two, slightly stained with his blood.
He picked up the two pieces of brick and looked directly across the yard at Kevin. We all stood motionless as he crossed the yard, a half brick in each hand, straight up to the trembling bully. It was apparent from his shifting posture that Kevin was wavering between his fight and flight instincts. I hated Kevin as much as the next guy but I was afraid for him as Billy closed the gap. The brick tore open a flap of scalp from the top of his head down to his ear, which moved in grotesque syncopation as he walked. I could see a terrible clarity in his eyes.
Kevin flinched a little when Billy handed him the pieces of brick. Tiny spittles of blood punctuated every syllable as Billy spoke with unnerving calm.
"It's all fun and games until somebody gets hurt."
I have to admit I felt both relieved and let down. My brother was my hero and I couldn’t understand why he’d let Kevin off so easily. He simply drove himself to the hospital where they sewed his head back together and that was the end if it.
Kevin was overly nice to everybody for about a month after that. As the brick throwing incident faded in memory he began to slip back into his menacing ways. He avoided interaction with Billy and he left me alone by association but he began hassling my friends and the other kids as though nothing had happened. The real trouble started when his father bought him the pellet gun.
He convinced his father that bird leavings were lowering the appeal of the patio brick display and that he could solve the problem. Kevin contented himself with the extermination of birds until there were none left to kill. He moved on to mammals and would proudly announce each new species in his carcass collection. I heard him complain to his father that it took so many of the small caliber pellets to bring down a raccoon that it was hardly worth the effort. This guy was a monster and I thought worse of my brother for not beating him to death while he had the righteous legal defense.
Kevin became bored due to the growing scarcity of wildlife and as might have been predicted started shooting at us. He later claimed he was shooting our pop cans and bicycle tires and never meant to hit us at all. The fact was that he had honed his accuracy to the extent that he believed he could take a cigarette out of someone's mouth from across the yard. He was attempting just that when my buddy Mark ruined his fun by moving slightly and catching the .22 pellet with his face. The shot missed his eyeball by centimeters so his vision was spared but it shattered his eye socket and called for an ambulance ride and emergency surgery.
We didn’t realize at first what caused Mark's swollen face and shriek of pain, we assumed a chip had flown into his eye. As he was loaded into the ambulance he began screaming "I got shot, I got shot!" That's when one of my friends voiced the obvious question, "where's Kevin?". He had been conspicuously absent throughout the entire ordeal and the mention of his name triggered something like a Greek chorus of two dozen voices in unison.
"The pellet gun."
The brickyard office building housed a four story bell tower as its centerpiece. It no longer had a bell but made the perfect sniper’s nest for a bored sociopath. Billy knew just where to find the lone gunman. I swelled with pride as my brother sprinted up the stairs for the showdown.
I never asked Billy what happened in the bell tower that day and he never told me. The rest of the kids and I were waiting quietly at the base of the stairs, straining to hear evidence of the ass whupping but we heard nothing. We shrunk a little when Kevin came down first, still carrying the pellet gun and apparently not yet beaten to a pulp. Billy rounded the corner just behind him and told us we were going to have a company meeting outside.
Kevin was still holding the pellet gun when Billy yanked him up onto the flatbed as though he was a bag of dirty clothes. The rest of the kids and I circled the elevated platform as our hero silently menaced an admission of guilt and tearful apology out of the bastard. When Billy told him to "finish the job," Kevin backed away and cowered like a whipped dog. My brother took a single step toward the beaten bully and he leaped from the truck and ran for the office, where he quietly waited for his arrest after calling the police and confessing.
My brother was "Billy the giant slayer" and my stock among the street urchins rose accordingly. Better still he did it with some kind of pacifist, voodoo Gandhi deal that not one of us even pretended to understand. Kevin did a long stretch in the reformatory for shooting Mark in the face and that was the last we ever saw of him. However long he was inside wasn't long enough and I'm afraid it only delayed his evil.
I presume that by now he has graduated to real prisons and proper beatings.