I couldn’t see over the tall green school bus seat except when we hit a pothole and I bounced up in the air like a Pop-Tart jumping out of a toaster. Nobody at Saint Augie’s could believe I was allowed to go. My first school picnic ever. I was good from the day I handed in my pink permission slip all the way until now. Two whole weeks! Staying out of trouble for such a long time was harder than scoring a touchdown against the Steel Curtain.
I almost made it last year when I was in the fifth grade, but I put Itchy Davenport in one of my patented headlocks and he blacked out. “You’re in trouble now, Ringer,” somebody said while a bunch of kids crossed themselves because they thought Itchy was lying there dead under his desk in the middle of silent reading time. Sister Kelly said it didn’t matter one single bit if he’d hit me first.
My little brother Jaggerbush sat beside me staring out the bus window like he was on the lookout for an alien invasion. Sister Kelly must’ve caught a case of amnesia about the time she banned Jaggerbush from field trips and school picnics for all eternity. His “museum incident” happened way back, four years ago when he was in the first grade. Sister Kelly’s round glasses still fogged up if she busted you talking about it. But my brother didn’t care about picnics and trips. Jaggerbush could have more fun playing in a mud puddle than you could playing quarterback in the Super Bowl.
Kennywood Park was all the way on the other side of Pittsburgh. It looked super fun on the TV commercials. People got soaking wet on the Log Jammer and screamed their lungs out on the roller coasters and slurped Italian Ices bigger than duck-pin bowling balls. Then there was the greatest ride in the history of the universe. The Laser Loop.
It was a roller coaster, sort of. Its track was made out of steel instead of wood like the Thunderbolt or the Jackrabbit. The cars shot out of the gate faster than a nuclear missile and flew around a loop completely upside down, just like the ones we made with our orange Matchbox tracks. Then it went around the same loop again, backwards!
I couldn’t wait to ride that thing. I told everyone I’d keep my hands up the whole time. The eighth-graders said its brakes locked up sometimes. And once, it got stuck at the top of the loop. All those people hung upside down like vampire bats with every ounce of blood rushing to their heads, crying like they’re brains were going to explode. Some of them even upchucked. I wish I was lucky enough to be riding it when that happened. But I never had that kind of luck. I may’ve been born with all the super strength and speed in our family, but Jaggerbush got all the luck. Dad was always sitting him down at the kitchen table when Mom was watching her stories and asking if he dreamt about any numbers he could play on the lottery.
I stuck my head out into the aisle and looked behind us to see who got punched. The eighth-graders in the back of the bus laughed like a pack of monkeys while Ding Dong stood there rubbing his jawbone.
“And tell your mother to use a bigger bowl next time she cuts your hair,” one of them said, but I couldn’t see who.
I didn’t like seeing Ding Dong walk down the aisle looking for a place to sit like a sad sack and nobody scooting over to make room for him to sit down. Kids were always calling him crumb bum and dirt bag and hobo. Yeah, sometimes he wore the same shirt two days in a row, okay three, but it wasn’t like everybody else was sparkling clean or something. Who didn’t have grass stains on their knees? Sissies, that’s who. And girls. I squeezed closer to Jaggerbush so Ding Dong could sit with us, and I didn’t care if the eight-graders saw me or not.
“How much money did you bring, Ringer?” Ding Dong asked me.
“Almost four bucks.”
“How about you, Jaggerbush?” Ding Dong said.
“Who needs money? It’s only paper,” he said, staring out the window.
The only money Jaggerbush ever had on him was a two-tailed quarter and the counterfeit Spanish Doubloon he kept in his Pro-Ked in case pirates sailed down the Allegheny River hunting for new recruits.
“Four dollars isn’t enough,” Ding Dong said. “Father Morgan the Organ’s paying our admission, but we have to fend for ourselves for ride tickets.”
“How many tickets do you need to ride the Laser Loop?” I said.
He scribbled in his blue plastic checkbook, the kind old ladies carry around in their purses. It didn’t have any checks, but it had the pages where you did the math. Ding Dong was a businessman. He delivered newspapers, shoveled snow, junk-picked, and sold sticks of gum on the school playground. He squirted little dots of Elmer’s Glue on his palm in church. When the Ushers passed around the collection basket, Ding Dong would hold his empty fist over it then open it real wide like he was dropping money in and snag a few coins with the glue on his palm. Ding Dong wasn’t too good with soap and water, but he was great with money.
We called him Ding Dong because Jaggerbush captured him once when we were playing Mutually Assured Destruction in the woods and stuck a metal bucket on his head and whacked it a million times with a stick like he was on The Gong Show. But Ding Dong didn’t hold it against him. War was war.
Father Morgan the Organ walked up the aisle of the bus passing out strips of ride tickets. He gave some kids whole stacks and just a few strips to others. It was never even-steven with him. He walked right past our seat like we were using a Klingon cloaking device.
“You forgot us, Father,” Ding Dong said.
He looked down at us the same way Dad looked in the toilet after Jaggerbush forgot to flush.
“I forgive, but I never forget.”
“But I’m not one of them?” Ding Dong pointed his dirty thumb at us.
Father Morgan the Organ stared at Jaggerbush and made Ding Dong give him one good reason he deserved even a single ticket. He made him say please and thank you, all for one lousy strip of six tickets.
“Let’s go there!” Jaggerbush jumped up on our seat and stuck his arm out the window pointing at a steel mill down along the river.
Father Morgan the Organ shook his big square head and kept walking. He didn’t even yell at Jaggerbush to sit down.
The steel mill wasn’t as tall as Three Rivers Stadium, but it was bigger, more spread-out. It looked louder than a gargantuan racecar engine. Gray exhaust poured into the air and clouds of white explosion smoke drifted around. Fire shot out of its smokestacks like flamethrowers. Parts of it glowed the same way flying saucers did when their hatch doors opened and leaked radiation into the atmosphere. Man, it’d be fun running around inside its catacombs with a gas mask and a fireman’s axe battling mutant Minotaurs and dragons and firedrakes.
Gravel crunched under our tires when the bus pulled into Kennywood’s giant parking lot. It was bigger than twenty football fields. The second Jaggerbush stepped off the bus, Sister Kelly slapped her hand around his wrist like a handcuff. She thought she was big and bad because she was wearing her safari hat and hiking boots.
“You boys go ahead,” she said. “Jaggerbush is going to teach me how to play a few carnival games.”
I gave my brother a look that asked if he wanted me to cause a commotion so he could break free and make a run for it in the confusion.
“Those rides are going to crash and slaughter every last one us!” he yelled, wrenching his skinny arm around in her grip. “Drop me off back at the steel mill!”
He corkscrewed his arm so bad you couldn’t tell if his elbow bent backwards or his shoulder popped out of socket.
“He’ll be fine,” I told Ding Dong. I could tell Jaggerbush wasn’t really trying to escape. He was just having fun.
“Maybe Sister Kelly will pay for his games,” Ding Dong said.
“Let’s go grab a seat in the lead car!” I said.
We floored it across the park, juking through the crowd, stutter-stepping past overflowed garbage cans, and hurdling oil slicks searching for the Laser Loop. Kennywood Park didn’t look anything like it did on TV. Not even close. The paint on all the rides was peeling off, and it stunk like burning car tires. The Italian Ices were barely the size of tennis balls.
Finally, we found it. The Laser Loop! It was ten times as tall as a telephone pole. It was clean and white like it was built by an advanced civilization in the future and time-traveled back to 1981.
“Hey! There’s a line, retardoes.”
I spun around to see who said it. The line was longer than the line at the Unemployment Office at the bottom of Federal Street. I couldn’t see the end of it. I asked a man wearing a Pirates baseball cap and a Terry Bradshaw jersey how long he’d been waiting. Over an hour and a half! And he still had a whole maze of banisters to weave through.
“They’ll be loading our butts back on the bus by the time we wait in this damn line,” I said.
“I say we win some stuffed animals, then trade them for a place in the front of the line.”
Ding Dong was good at coming up with plans, too. We peeled out and ran around the park in search of the carnival games.
“Think you can knock those milk bottles over, Ringer?” Ding Dong asked me.
“With my pinpoint aim? Easy.”
The guy in charge of the booth wore one of those flat-topped cardboard hats with a red band around it, the kind people punched their fists through in old movies. Ding Dong talked him into letting me have one free practice shot. The baseball felt lighter than the ones we used back on the North Side. I knocked over four out of the six bottles. This was going to be a cinch. The stuffed panda bears hanging from the ceiling of the booth were as good as ours. Laser Loop, here we come! I handed over one of my dollars.
No matter how hard I threw those balls, one of the bottles always survived somehow. Next thing I knew, my pockets were empty.
“You’re almost there,” the guy with the stupid hat said.
I didn’t want to dig into the top-secret emergency money I kept stashed in my Pro-Ked. Not yet.
“Your pal will spot you some money,” he said, juggling three of the baseballs, the showoff.
“Oh, no, he won’t,” Ding Dong said. “I’m on a budget.”
“Quitters never win,” the man said, juggling the balls without even looking at them.
“Who you calling quitter?”
“Shoe fits,” he said.
I put my hands flat on the wooden counter so I could leapfrog it and tell him to call me a quitter to my face.
It was Jaggerbush. He was eating a giant glob of cotton candy and giving a humongous stuffed pink elephant a piggyback ride. It was ten times bigger than his head, and it had little baby wings sticking out of its ribs.
“This game is rigged,” Jaggerbush said.
“Shut up, kid,” the man stopped juggling.
“How’d you win that elephant?” Ding Dong said.
“I tossed a ring around the right bottleneck. I won twice in a row.”
“Let’s go back,” Ding Dong said. “You can win two more, and we’ll trade them for spots in the Laser Loop line.”
“I’m not allowed to play anymore. They said I cheated.”
Jaggerbush shrugged, “I never read rules.”
“If you won twice,” Ding Dong said, “where’s the other elephant?”
“I gave it to Sister Kelly.”
“What?” I said.
“It was the only way she’d let me out of her sight.”
“Everybody has their price,” Ding Dong said.
Jaggerbush let us have dibs on his cotton candy while we walked around. We tried to think up another plan to ride the Laser Loop, but we couldn’t come up any ideas that weren’t against the law. The people way up in the air riding in the Aerial Tram cars looked down on us. I bet we looked like ants to them.
“Kennywood stinks!” I said. “I stayed out of trouble for two whole weeks for this?”
We walked past a little Goofy Golf Course. Ding Dong read the rules and did some calculations in his plastic checkbook.
“You guys have any cash at all?” he said. “This is the best deal we’re going to get.”
Jaggerbush held out his cotton candy offering it for trade. I yanked my Pro-Ked off and paid his way with my top-secret stash.
I never played any kind of golf before, goofy or not. Pudgy old men in clown pants played on TV every weekend. How hard could it be?
A rickety windmill’s wings swung in front of the first hole. I sunk it with one shot. Ding Dong missed it by a mile. Jaggerbush handed me his cotton candy, put down his pink elephant, and wound up like a lumberjack.
He blasted his ball. It flew through the sky, ricocheted off the Teeter Totter, bounced across the roof of the Funnel Cake hut, and hit a baby stroller before it stopped. He jumped the wooden fence that surrounded the Goofy Golf course and headed for his ball. Me and Ding Dong set our balls up and did the same thing.
Man, it was fun yelling “Fore!” and smashing that golf ball with all my might. They bounced all over Kennywood like they were inside a gigantic pinball machine and we were the flippers. Jaggerbush’s ball knocked some guy’s corndog out of his hand right when he was about to take a bite. The guy picked it up and brushed if off and ate it anyway.
“God made dirt and dirt don’t hurt,” Ding Dong said.
I’d been chased enough to know when footsteps were headed for me. Two blubber-bellied security guards in blue uniforms stampeded toward us.
“Gestapo!” I yelled, and laid tire.
Ding Dong dropped his golf club and reached for the sky, stick-up style. Jaggerbush stood there eating his cotton candy with his elephant on his shoulders. The fat security guards tackled them both like they forgot to call fair-catch on a short punt. Cheap-shot artists.
The tall fat guard dragged them away by their collars.
“Hey, I paid for eighteen holes,” Ding Dong said.
The hippo jerked them around so hard their heads bounced around like birthday balloons.
The short fat guard came after me. I could’ve outrun him with ease, but I couldn’t abandon my brother and friend, so I let him catch me. He smacked into me with his Sumo stomach and almost knocked me over.
“Just take me in,” I held my arm out so he could grab it.
Fat boy dug his fingernails into the underside of my arm like a girl and hauled me away. Jaggerbush’s pink cotton candy laid on the ground covered in dirt and twigs.
The security guards shoved us into a room with fake wooden paneling on the walls and shut the door behind them. There weren’t any windows, and it stunk like a pile of dirty play clothes. Three rectangular fluorescent lights buzzed over our heads. Jaggerbush dragged his pink elephant along the floor by the trunk.
A different door swung open. Another security guard walked in sipping out of red plastic cup. He was so skinny there was a bunch of space between his neck and his collar even though the top button of his shirt was buttoned. He had big, bulgy blue veins in the sides of his neck. It was weird because he looked strong even though he was skinny as a rail.
He handed his red cup to the tall hungry hippo. He took a gulp and winced then handed it to his partner.
“It’s strong,” he said.
“It’s perfect,” Bulgy Veins said, then he looked at us. “You boys are in a world of trouble. You’re looking at malicious intent, property damage, assault and battery.”
“I’m going to sue you for security-guard brutality,” Ding Dong said.
The hungry hippos laughed with their giant mouths. But they quit when Bulgy Veins gave them the eye. He looked like he wouldn’t laugh if you tied him up and tickled him.
“What’re your names?” he said.
I wanted to say we were from the North Side of Pittsburgh and it would take more than them to scare us, and if they had some little brothers or cousins, then we could fight them and settle this once and for all.
“You owe us a rebate,” Ding Dong said.
“Which group are you here with?” Bulgy Veins said.
Ding Dong stuck his dirty finger in the air like he was about to make a speech, but Jaggerbush beat him to it.
“The Rebel Alliance.”
“I promise you, you won’t think this is funny if you keep it up. Now, tell me where you boys are from.”
“Parts unknown,” Jaggerbush said.
One of the hippos must’ve flicked the switch on a radio. Loud screechy electric guitars bounced off the fake wooden walls.
“You’re the ringleader,” Bulgy Veins said to me. “It’s in your best interest to tell me the truth.”
People were always saying stuff like that. Just because I was the fastest, strongest, toughest, sixth-grader from the Red Brick Alley didn’t make me the ringleader. I sucked my lips inside my mouth so he’d know I was keeping quiet. Bulgy Veins turned toward his troops, “Did you search them?”
They shook their heads and their chins wobbled.
“We’ll do them one at a time in the back room,” Bulgy Veins said.
“That’s against the Geneva Convention,” Ding Dong said.
“We’ll start with you,” he reached for Ding Dong.
I hooked my arm through Ding Dong’s elbow and swung him behind me. Jaggerbush stepped up alongside me dragging his pink elephant. Bulgy Veins’ boney face crunched up like he was gnawing on a Jawbreaker. He bent over and got in my face. His breath smelled like something you clean the kitchen floor with. The tip of his nose touched mine. Ever since I punched out Kurt Brecker in front of Saint Augie’s Convent back in the first grade I tried not tothrow the first punch, really I did. But my back teeth clinched all by themselves and my hands turned into fists.
“Ok, flunk-outs,” Jaggerbush said, “this is your last chance to surrender.”
Bulgy Veins swung his open hand at my brother. I jumped in front of him. His hand caught me in the ear and knocked me across the floor. The tall hippo stood over me so I couldn’t get up. We should’ve never let them lock us up in that room.
Broken fluorescent lights and the pink elephant fell from the ceiling. The long light tubes shattered against the floor like cluster bombs. The security guards covered their eyes, the sissies. One explosion was never enough for Jaggerbush. He swung his pink elephant around with both hands and flung it up at another ceiling light. Glass shrapnel sprayed everywhere. White dust filled the air like poison gas. Jaggerbush launched his elephant at the ceiling again and again. He shattered every light in the room.
The door burst open. A man in a brown suit and tie yelled, “What the hell!”
Bulgy Veins snatched the pink elephant away from Jaggerbush.
“They tried to strip search us,” Ding Dong said.
The man in the brown suit and Bulgy Veins whispered to each other like a pitcher and catcher on the mound with bases loaded.
“I demand a refund,” Ding Dong said.
“Escort these street urchins off the premises,” the man in the brown suit said.
The two hungry hippos marched us to a secret exit on the far edge of the park behind a condemned haunted house. The door in the chain-link fence opened onto an empty gravel parking lot surrounded by thick woods. One of the security guards shoved me from behind so hard that I fell right on my face. I jumped up and faced them. I didn’t care how big they were. My temper was long gone.
“Make your move, shrimp,” the tall one said.
I pretended to stare him down while I kept an eye on his partner’s knees. One solid hit with my shoulder and he’d need a stretcher. It’d be worth getting beat up for.
My brother laid his hand on my shoulder, “Forget these guys, Ringer.”
I shrugged his hand away. He grabbed my wrist, but not tight or anything.
“Forget them,” he said, and tugged me away from them.
I let him.
Both security guards called us and our mothers a bunch of curse words while we walked away.
“Let’s sneak back in and get your elephant,” I said.
“That stupid thing?” Jaggerbush said.
“But you earned it fair and square,” Ding Dong said.
“Did you hear about these woods?” Jaggerbush said. “There was a Big Foot sighting out here.”
“Really?” Ding Dong said.
“Yeah, don’t you read those newspapers you deliver?”
“The bounty on a Big Foot has to be a million dollars,” Ding Dong said.
“There’s a whole clan of them camped out here,” Jaggerbush said.
“We’re coming for you, Sasquatches!” Ding Dong yelled.
“Keep it down,” Jaggerbush said. “We need the element of surprise.”
We found some sticks we could use as wooden swords, and we followed Jaggerbush into the strange woods in search of Big Foot.
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