It had been a very mean summer. Mom hung wet bed sheets in the open doorway to try to subdue the oppressive east coast heat. The sky was white with haze and the air smelled of busses. My three siblings and I slept fitfully next to open windows wearing only cotton underpants. My grandparents' upstairs apartment became unlivable by two in the afternoon. They sat out back under the mimosa tree sipping lemonade and wine till sundown the way they did in the old country. My grandmother sewed or gossiped over the fence with Mrs. Pantolino. My grandfather read Il Progresso. Listened to the Italian station on the transistor radio, filled the damp stagnant air with La Boheme and Carmen.
It was 1966. There were race riots downtown. The cops were shooting looters and the violence had reached our neighborhood. We watched a bunch of guys walk into the Gianetti's house and walk out with their television. Dad got a gun from my uncle John. An Italian-made rifle. Same kind as the one used to kill Kennedy, I heard him say.
He showed my mother how it worked. Told her to shoot first and ask questions later. She told him she'd never shoot it. There were kids around. And we were always around. Underfoot. Making messes. It was hot to keep us inside all day, so we went out and created our own chaos.
In the heat and inescapable sweat, the chaos of Vietnam and the civil rights protests, drugs and hippie culture, a seven-year old boy is dragging the rear quarter of a four-point buck up the Lambert Street hill between Bedford and Franklin. It's happening here in the suburbs of New York city. A place where it's only quiet between car horns and jet airplane flyovers. Where the neighbors' argument in their kitchen drowns out the Ed Sullivan show in your living room. A place with a curfew. A place that hasn't seen a deer since Squanto took the beads for Manhattan.
It's near dark on one of the last free nights of summer vacation before real school starts. First grade. Entry to a lifetime of learning for the kid who's yanking on a bloody loop of hardware store clothesline, dragging with all the might his four-foot four, fifty four pounds can summon.
He's leaving a thin line of blood and marrow as the carcass scrapes along the asphalt. It weighs more than he does so he's got to drag it backward to get his big muscles into the hauling. It moves two feet each time the kid pulls on the clothesline Mr. Sisock tied around the hoof.
I can still feel the rope in my hands.
"Your granmudder cook the venison Italian style?" he asked me. Me and Nicky Sisock were in his basement staring in awe at the kill. The Mr. had just come back from hunting in Pennsylvania and there were sections of deer hanging from the ceiling on wires looped over the plumbing.
I told him she did. I had no idea what venison was. I had no idea deer were so big. Wasn't Bambi just a little bigger than a cartoon rabbit?
"A present," he said, unhooking the limb from the ceiling. "Tell your fudder it comes from me." And he tied a section of clothesline to a chunk of deer and laughed as I struggled to pull it up the concrete cellar stairs, first into his back yard, then into the street.
It was a treasure of supreme yet unknown value. I was absolutely certain no other boy in Rahway was bringing home sixty pounds of deer meat that evening. My mother and grandmother could react with nothing less than ecstatic glee. Everyone could be as happy as I was that Nicky and I were off our fight.
In those days, in that neighborhood, every boy who was old enough to walk was either in or off a fight with another boy. We didn't know why. It just existed.
There's an ancient aspect of all humans, borne deep in the DNA. Millions of years of creation locked in every soul. In women, it has to do with nothing less than the physical connection of the body to the rhythms of the universe. It's understood and accepted by everyone that women are star creatures, ruled by nothing less than the sun and the moon, linked to nothing less than the veldt of stars from which life itself emerges.
About men, it has to do with the earth. It has to do with nothing less than the physical need to modify the world. It's understood and accepted that men are creatures of the mud, bound to nothing less than the magnetic fields and gravity of the planet, ruled by the constant urge to change the physics of the planet's surface. Construct. Mold. Model. Then destroy to make room to construct again. It is a primal energy forged in the same furnace from which the stars themselves emerged.
Imbued with this energy a schoolyard full of boys of any age will inevitably erupt into random violence. As adults we can identify the bullies. We know the shapes of their bodies, the look in the eye, the temperament. We recognize them by the way they treat pain with apathy. They quest for it. They deal it out.
Yet, what is more poorly understood is that given enough time and heat any boy will invent microcosms of aggression as a way to entertain himself in the long and ill-endured ennui of summer vacation. Even good boys and gentle students will strike out against thin air when there's nothing else to do.
And so every summer fights erupted in my neighborhood. They happened for reasons as substantial as a misplaced footstep. A misunderstood joke. A poorly aimed dirt bomb or a comment about someone's sister.
In the summer boys would be playing baseball one moment, beating each other senseless the next. In the morning, fresh from breakfast a group of boys might be sitting on a curb chucking rocks at passing cars and cracking sticks over their knees. By lunch the group would have turned on one of its own and pummeled his eyes black. By dinner the same group would be sitting on the curb, licking paper cones full of syrupy slush dealt out by the guy on the Italian ice truck.
There is a phase in the life of every man where to sleep well he needs an ache in his arm, a sharp pain in his calf, or a throbbing jaw. He needs his body to remind him he has plowed his field, tended his cattle, welded his iron girders and brought home the buffalo hide. By the time I needed physical injury to stay whole, fighting was well out of the question, and I took to crashing mountain bikes to get my dose of earth. I was late to accept the reins of senseless violence into which I was born. As I kid I abhorred pain and fighting. I avoided it. I was a frightened rabbit. And it was not true for my friends.
So I was the target. It would start with one of the bigger kids chucking rocks at another of the bigger kids. And then they'd get bored taunting each other, and they'd start in on the smaller kids. Most of them would fight back to some degree, and they'd start hitting me. I'd flail and try to get away. Eventually, I'd wind up held down and kicked, or held with my arms behind my back while each guy took a swing. Or I'd find myself encircled while one of them decided it was time to fight.
I rarely fought back. I simply defended until I couldn't think and my mouth started tasting metal. When I screamed loud enough I was released to run home crying, taunted by the likes of the Noone boys, the Sisocks, the Albertos, the Pintos, the Carminellis and the Rendinos.
I'd spend the rest of the day inside, and then sit in something between terror and the resignation of the condemned waiting for my father to come home from work.
In those days my dad and I saw eye-to-eye on nothing. I preferred reading to any sport at all. I wanted to know the names of the stars, and knew why lunar eclipses happened. He'd just finished his tour in the army and had got a menial job working as an office clerk. Ten years later he'd run that company, but success was yet to be seen and he was still smarting from the near court marshal that got him out of the army honorably, but on his ear. He'd lost his slot at officer candidate school for getting into a brawl with a group of four officers, taking out two second lieutenants who didn't like Sicilians before the other two managed to get the MPs to subdue and lock up the old man. Somebody had mercy on him and kept him out of Leavenworth. So at twenty-six he found himself a civilian instead of under a couple silver bars.
He hated to come home to a stifling two-family house to find the heir to his legacy beaten like a stray cat.
"A sewer rat. You're no son of mine." My mother and I would flinch at every door -- every cabinet he slammed. Eventually he'd come out of his bedroom in his casual clothes and have his say. The back of his hand would come out by surprise, and while seeing stars he'd stand me up and try to whack me again while I struggled to get my bearings and run away.
"You don't come home beat up again. You come home beat up the other guys better be in the hospital or I'm going to beat you worse."
No dinner. Go to bed.
That summer I got smashed by the neighborhood kids once every two weeks or so. I'd go home, get whacked by the old man and grounded. Then I'd stay inside and read the stacks of library books we'd haul in once per week. I spent my days with Issac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. Old issues of Boy's Life that described how to build model planes and boats with real motors. Rockets with gunpowder engines that could go higher than you could see.
After a day he'd give me advice before he left for work and released me from house arrest. The advice was always the same.
"When there's more than one of them, you need the element of surprise. Find the smallest one and hit him as hard as you can. Pick up a stick or a rock. A broken bottle. Anything you can find and hit him in the eyes and blind the bastard." He'd demonstrate the move in slow motion. "Or hit him here. Or here." He'd considered becoming a drill instructor at one point in his military career and had the moves down. And he tried in vain to pass on the art of killing a man with one's own hands.
It was as much science fiction to me as robots and mutants. I could imagine flying in a space craft to Mars, but I could not imagine a world in which I had to inflict damage to survive. That was my dad's reality and I didn't want any of it.
"Look at me. This is no joke. They're really going hurt you one of these days," he'd say. Then describe the moves again.
My father's world was full of cast off two-by-fours, lead pipes, and baseball bats with nails through them. Once in a bar he had to use his ingenuity at weapons improvisation by picking up a heavy glass ashtray and cracking it against the temple of a guy who was trying to deck him with a pool que.
"Worked for David," Dad always said. "But this is real life. Not a book."
So the next time they ganged up on me, I was to pick up the two-by-four and crack open Flip Alberto's skull. While his brothers tried to put his brains back in his head, I'd run.
Or I was to try to send Michael Rosetti's kneecaps over the second baseman's head with a piece of steel conduit.
If there were no sticks or rocks, I was to ram the heel of my palm up Bobby Noone's nose. This would drive the bone into his prefrontal lobe and kill him.
Or, I was to form my hands into cups and slap Vincent Pinto on both ears, busting his eardrums, sending him into shock. While he convulsed and spit white foam, I could get away.
Create a distraction that would send one kid to a hospital or a grave, and I could get out of there safely without a single punch landing upon me.
He told me to do these things in earnest, demonstrating every move several times and then making me mimic his movement. My mother would stand at a distance, her arms folded, taking deep breaths. She'd ask what he was going to say when the parents of the dead kid brought the police to our house to take their son away.
He said he'd tell the cops that all he saw was twenty kids beating up on his boy. His kid did what he had to. In my dad's world, everyone understood vicious self defense.
In my world, one only need to defend against the physics of deep space or an occasional misunderstood mutant. His lessons bounced off like a spauldeen from teflon.
Toward the end of the summer vacation a new fight began to brew. We were out playing war with cap guns and rocks, shooting each other and arguing about who was supposed to be acting dead and who was still alive when Ronnie Alberto told Nicky Sisock his mother was a cow and all the kids were sucking her tits for lunch. I happened to be standing next to Ronnie when he said it. Because I was the easy kill, Nicky Sisock decided to pick his fight with me rather than Ronnie Alberto who was a year older and twenty pounds heavier.
Nicky balled up his fists while the guys encircled us and taunted Nicky to have at it. After all, I was a sissy. He could beat up a sissy.
It would be poetic to say that something snapped in me. Like the movies and books, the weak kid has enough of the bullying and finds a superman within himself. It didn't happen like that. It wasn't my father's backhand or my self image. I don't even remember why I took the first punch except that I did.
There was still rock in my palm, and I balled my hand around it and I pretended his head wasn't there. I had to pretend he wasn't there just to get my arm to move. When it moved, my fist simply went from a point in the thin air front of me, to a point in the thin air behind his head.
I felt something crack. His head snapped backward. He fell to his side holding his face. His nose began to bleed.
His big brother pushed my shoulder and faced off. "Look what you did to my brother you jerk." He balled up a fist, but never got the chance to swing.
I hit him in the stomach with the rock in my fist. It surprised him more than hurt him, but it made him bend over slightly and by the time he realized I'd hit him, I'd shoved my thumbnail into his eye and he went down. Then I kicked him in the face as hard as I could. He started screaming that I was fighting dirty.
I turned to the other guys, but they were backing off. Some were laughing. The rest just went home. I didn't know what to say. Were they still my friends?
My stomach hollowed out. I felt awful.
Nicky and Donny wouldn't let me help them. I apologized thirty times but they pushed me away. Called me names. Walked down the hill to Bedford Street.
There was calm in my house. My mom was making dinner. Steam and the smell of pork chops came from the kitchen while I sat on the sofa in front of the television, completely numb. The ramifications of the fight were starting to dawn on me. Tomorrow they'd be waiting to take their revenge. I'd never be safe anywhere in the neighborhood again.
When my dad came home he asked me what was wrong.
"I got in a fight."
He slammed his fork. All of us jumped.
"And?" he glared at me, tensing his arm.
"I beat up Nicky and Donnie Sisock."
He was incredulous. He thought I was lying. He was going to hit me anyway.
I said what was most important to me at the time. "Now they're not my friends anymore."
He still didn't believe me. He sent me to my room without dessert. But I wasn't inside more than five minutes when the doorbell rang and my mother summoned my father. I could hear him talking to someone outside. A man and a woman. The woman was in near hysterics while the man spoke in even tones. The voices were muffled, and when the door finally closed I saw Mr. and Mrs. Sisock walking down our front steps toward home.
For the first time in his life, my father knocked on my bedroom door instead of bursting in. He opened it and sat down on my bed next to me.
"Mr. Sisock says Nicky's nose is broken and Donny's eye is scratched. He has to keep it covered for a week."
"I told them I was sorry."
"You probably shouldn't have hit them so hard," he said. "And it's my fault. I should have told you that once a guy is down he's off limits. That's why they came up here. You can't kick a man when he's down. Ok? No more of that."
And I'm pretty sure at that point I started crying. Nothing was ever going to work right in my life again. When I lost the fights, I lost. When I won, I lost.
He put his arm around me, squeezed my shoulder. "They hurt you at all?"
I shook my head.
"Then what are you crying for?"
"Because they were my friends."
When my dad was calm he thought about things. And I suspect he tried very hard to understand that winning fights wasn't important to me. But he couldn't. It wasn't him.
"You got two of them," he said. "And Donny's bigger than you, too." He shook me a little. Told me to stop crying. "Man who takes down two guys doesn't cry. Go get your ice cream." He patted me on the back, then pushed me toward the door.
I had my dessert that night. And the next day, my worst fears did not materialize. The other boys came around to play the way they always did. And when the Sisock's came up from Bedford street, Donny made a crack about my kicking him when he was down, but the other kids spotted me the shot as Donny was bigger.
And when everyone started making fun of the tape on Nicky's nose and black eyes, I did too for a while till his eyes began to tear up. Then I stopped. After that, whenever the scuffles would break out I'd simply take a swing at someone's arm, and it would end. When I got hit in the face, I'd slap back, and the whole thing would die.
Nicky and I stayed friends, and that's how I came to be in his basement when his dad came home with the slaughtered deer, and how I wound up dragging the haunch up Lambert Street, leaving a trail of blood and bone marrow from the Sisock's driveway all the way to my living room.
My mother did not scream for joy when she saw me drag sixty pounds of fresh kill onto the living room carpet. Neither did my grandmother claim to know how to fix anything made of venison. I was commanded to dispose of the leg immediately.
Now it was dark. I dragged it back to the Sisock's house, but there were no lights on. So I pulled it into the woods at the end of Bedford street, and ran home.
My dad was home when I got there, and watching my mother try to clean blood from the living room carpet put him in a bad mood until I mentioned that Mr. Sisock had sent the deer leg with his compliments.
My father went into the hallway closet, found a flashlight, and told me to lead him to the leg.
He got impatient when I couldn't spot it right away. Everything seemed to shift in the night. But eventually he found it and carried it back up to our house where he threw it into a corner of the garage. The women argued. The leg would attract flies. There'd be maggots.
He ordered them not to touch it. Anyone who touched it would answer to him.
On Saturday morning he summoned me to the garage. We cut a rectangle the size of a hardcover book out of a piece of thick board with the rip saw, and then he used the router to bevel the edges. With a hole-cutting bit he made a bulls-eye pattern in the center of the wood. He showed me how to paint the wood with furniture stain.
Then he hack sawed the hoof off the leg just above the bottom joint. He drilled a big woodscrew through the board and into the bone in the leg, so that the hoof was mounted. We hung it on a nail over the doorway to my bedroom, and invited my mother to come in and admire his handiwork.
"Looks like a deer put its foot through the wall," she said, because it did.
My father palmed my head and rubbed it, a futile attempt to mess up my summertime crew cut.
"That's yours," he said. And that was it.
For as long as I lived in my parent's house the hoof remained above the doorway to my bedroom. Eventually, I got married and moved away.
Time passed, and as DNA would tend to dictate, my father and I began to grow more alike. He grew more interested in reading books and identifying constellations, and I started cursing at people and suspecting them of hidden misdeeds.
We grew to be good friends. After beating up Nicky and Donny Sisock at seven years old, I was lucky enough to have never gotten in another fight. My father became an avid golfer with a scratch handicap to prove he spent time thinking of little else. After many false starts, a company he started went public and he exited the working life with enough resources to play golf all over the world.
We enjoyed taunting each other at family gatherings, and occasionally at dinner I'd remind him of how he taught me to kill other children on the playground by collapsing their windpipes and inducing cardiac arrest with swift kicks to the solar plexus.
"I never did that," he'd say while blushing. "Watch what you're saying. You'll give people the wrong idea."
And if my brother was around he'd pipe in about the time he was four and hit Stanley Koberski in the head with a big red brick like Dad had shown him.
"Well he was a lot bigger than you. That brick weighted as much as you did," Dad would say, laughing. And mom would remind him that Stanley wound up in the hospital with a crack in his skull and a concussion, which my father felt an eight-year old deserved for picking on a 32-pound skin-and-bones four-year old like my brother.
My father lived to be sixty. He died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1998.
After my father's death my mother went through the attic and the basement of her house and piled up all the memorabilia she could find and sent it back to each of her children.
When my box arrived it was full of pictures. Old report cards from grammar school. Mother's day cards I'd drawn as a child. Birthday gifts I'd fashioned from cardboard and tempera paint.
And the hoof mounted to the board the size of a book.
Attached to it was a note from my mom.
"After you left I tried to throw this away three times. It kept turning up. Then I realized he kept taking it out of the garbage. I don't know why."
But I do.