My boyhood dream was to build a cart powered by an internal combustion engine. Most every boy in our neighborhood had his own leg-driven one, cobbled out of orange crates, baby buggy wheels, and guided by clothesline reins . . . or else a rudimentary mechanism operated by a bonafide steering wheel.
We’d gather with our rides in the schoolyard over summer days and nights. We blustered about the capabilities of our crafts, all of which were embellished with iconic decals.
Except one thing was painfully evident. If we tooled about in go-carts that required pushing or pulling like red wagons—we were still kids.
I’d recently moved to the neighborhood from one where young males joined the Boy Scouts each summer, picnicked with their mother and aunts, went to daily Bible School, and played ball in the sandlot across from my house. Not me. I spent most of my days in our cellar developing pictures or experimenting with a chemistry set I’d received for Christmas. When we moved to the less buttoned-down, working-class side of town, I became acquainted with boys who owned dreams bigger than their fathers’. They also cussed a lot.
One of my new pals was Sam Calucca. Same age as I but smaller and weedy. Kids called him Shifidagears Sammy. When his morbidly obese father went for a drive, he’d have Sam accompany him and shift the gears in their 1936 Buick sedan. Mr. Calucca sat far from the steering wheel—nearly in the rear seat—and upon depressing the floor clutch he’d cry out, “Shifidagears Sammy!”
I salvaged a gasoline engine from my aunt’s old tub washer that she replaced with a shiny new plug-in, and one Saturday morning Sammy and I were bent over my cart in the cellar. We were having difficulty attaching the Maytag motor to my cart when, exasperated, he stood up and cried, “Your cart’s a fucking douchebag!”
I’d no idea what he meant.
“When are we gonna grow up?” he yelled. “If we ain’t dreamin’ ’bout motors on our crates . . . we bedeviled ’bout poontang. That’s what boys do. Let’s stop this shit and start thinkin’ like men.”
When I told him to sit down, he lit into me.
“I thought you were different, Ethan. But you’re a douchebag, just like the rest of ’em.”
“What’s a douchebag?” I asked.
He hadn’t the foggiest.
“Look, we’re wastin’ our time with your aunt’s dipshit motor.”
“OK, Shifidagears, what’s your big fucking idea?” I surprised myself for having uttered the “F” word—first time ever.
“You think you’re ready?” he dared.
“We’re going motorin’ after dark.”
“A six-cylinder Century trunkback sedan—my pa’s Buick.”
I knew if I refused Sammy would make me the laughing stock in the schoolyard. I’d be back in the basement darkroom or concocting a potion for poison ivy.
“They don’t give 12-year-olds driving licenses,” I shot back.
“Pussy-whipped, huh?” He grabbed his crotch “Where’s your coglioni, Ethan?”
We never talked like this in my old neighborhood.
“Look, tonight when my old man’s lyin’ in bed wheezin’, you and me will do a dry run in his Century. Come to my place after dark. Shifidagears Sammy!” he yelled, rushing out my cellar door.
That evening we met in his unlit garage. I slid in behind the Buick’s wheel with Sammy alongside straddling the floor-mounted gearshift. I could hardly reach the pedals, and—when I did—I couldn’t see out of the windshield.
“No fuckin’ problem,” he said. “It’s what I do with Pa. You just have to steer . . . I’ll do the rest.”
Sammy had me sit on an encyclopedia he’d filched from the library. He hunched on the floorboards, ready to work the clutch, brake, and gas pedals, as required.
“Trust me, Ethan.”
* * *
Our maiden journey was scheduled for Sunday night. Mother would be attending evening church services. God only knew about my father. Whatever would transpire, it was important that Sammy and his buddies thought well of me.
“Where are we headed?” I asked, taking my place behind the Bakelite wheel.
Sammy flashed his rictus grin. “It’s why I like you, Ethan. You’re an intellectual dreamer. Me, I only dream of pussy . . . but you read and think about places I’ll never visit. So tonight when we motor out, and I’m workin’ the pedals in the dark, you make up what I might be missin’. Like a tour guide, ya dig? Make up shit. Make it a trip we’ll remember for the rest of our measly lives.”
Mr. Calucca had indoctrinated my friend in fatalism. One day Sammy, too, might be lying on his back huffing for air, praying for sleep. Or worse.
“Are you ready?” he asked.
“Oh, and one more thing.”
“The guys at the Mozillo’s gas station . . .”
It’s where Sammy picked up his slang. Half a dozen or so of the neighborhood toughs heckled each other inside the place, where the cash register sat on top an old candy case. Its glass so grease-encrusted one could scarcely see the decoy box of Old Henry bars that contained rubber jimmies.
“Your buddies,” I said.
“Yeah, well, I told them what we were up to. ‘No fuckin’ shit?’ they cried, and began pattin’ me on the back. ‘What’s your fairy accomplice gonna do?’ they asked.”
I stared at Sammy, stricken. “They called me that? Really?”
“They won’t after what we pull off tonight. Better than callin’ you a cock . . .”
I crawled out of the Buick.
“Oh, Ethel, get in here.” He grabbed my arm. “Guys wanted to toast our trip. Dom Mozillo passed out paper cups and began pourin’ some shit outta a liquor bottle into ’em.”
“Looked like crank case oil to me.”
I started to laugh.
“Honest to Christ.”
“Whaddid they call it?”
“Johnny Trots. Like Jack Daniels, ya know?”
“How much you down?”
Sammy spread his thumb and index finger as wide as he could.
With that, he loosened the emergency brake and we drifted out of the garage onto the street. Sammy depressed the starter peddle and shifted into low, hollering for me to steer out past the gas station and onto Youngstown Road, a two lane affair that took us deep into the countryside.
I white-knuckled the steering wheel, while he moved the vehicle from low, into second, then into high like a veteran. I could hear him snickering to himself. “Next time we’ll have skank in the backseat. Fuck the Maytag!”
The closest Sammy had ever got to a real live girl was standing behind one at recess. Yet it didn’t seem to matter. He wanted to accelerate into manhood badly.
“Ok, Captain,” he yelled. “Tell me what you see.”
“The Statue of Liberty by Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi,” I enunciated in a deep voice. “Twenty-men tall, with a 17-foot head and 4½ foot nose, all dressed up in a copper toga in the middle of New York Harbor.”
“The Lady’s holding a torch igniting the night sky. Folks are waving to us out of the 25 windows in her crown. And, Sammy, she’s greener than the zucchini in your old man’s garden.”
“Jesus, yes. Go on, Ethan.”
“You can even climb up inside her,” I said.
“And see her cooch?”
Rolling smoothly through the night now. Farmland on every side.
“Wish we’d of brought some smokes,” Sammy muttered, still hunkered on the floor, straddling the gearshift.
“And there’s the Empire State Building!”
“With King Kong on top? Is a chippy screaming?”
“Say your bedroom sat at that very pinnacle, Sammy? It’d take you 1860 fucking steps to climb into bed at night.”
“Plus a day to get down. What else?”
“We’re passing through Greenwich Village now—where men make love to men.”
“Don’t linger,” he shuddered.
We were out in the dark countryside now, climbing up a very steep grade. I prayed we wouldn’t encounter any oncoming vehicles. But it was all rather pleasant . . . a full moon and Mr. Calucca’s windows wide open.
“When Pa is layin’ in bed each night, gaspin’ for air, Ethan, d’ya suppose he has a picture show runnin’ in his head, too? I mean starin’ at our cracked ceiling and eyein’ Rita Hayworth. Betty Grable. Dorothy Lamour. Momma’s been gone so long—I can’t even remember her face.”
A note of melancholy I was unaccustomed to hearing from my friend.
“Say, you got somethin’ more interestin’ than the size of Lady Liberty’s beak? Maybe you can motor Pa’s old beauty through the quartiere a luci rosse.”
“Red light district where hookers punch the clock. The notcheries.”
“Rub parlors. You know?”
“Oh, don’t be such a candy ass, Ethan. Look out the damn window and describe some cooter.”
“The bearded clam. Cunt, clit, gash. For chrissake, snatch. Give me a little aroma, huh? It’s fucking hot down here under the dashboard.”
What was I going to tell him?
“I ain’t ever seen a naked woman, Sammy, let alone whiff one.”
I wasn’t about to say.
“Then goddamnit, use your fuckin’ dickhead intelligence,” he cursed.
“Outside the windows now,” I faintheartedly ventured. “Far as the eye can see…freshly tilled earth. A sweet, intoxicating odor . . . mother nature releasing her scent so the farmer will seed her come daylight.”
“You learn that in Bible School?” he spat. “Next trip, you get down here and I’ll grab the wheel, treatin’ you to a smokin’ real tour guide spiel.”
“We’re headed down Broadway now,” I muttered. “Oh, Jesus, look at that!”
“A billboard in the sky with a monstrous head smoking a Camel. He’s puffin’ smoke clouds over the Big Apple. Movie houses like ginned-up cathedrals lining Broadway with yellow bulbs blinking off and on and huge posters: Jimmy Cagney, Al Jolson—and there’s one of Judy Garland! Music swelling from the orchestra pits of these Temples of Celluloid.
“Can you hear it?
“And Checker cabs like yellow jackets—Hear ‘em honking?—swarming the Statler Hotel. Your namesake, Sammy Kaye, performing nightly with his ‘Swing and Sway’ band on top of its Starlight roof. If only we’d a radio. . . ”
But then I stopped.
“Go on, Ethan,” he pressed. “No chicks . . . but better than a cabbagehead knockin’ up Mother Nature.”
“Forget it,” I said. “We’re just jerking ourselves off on the outskirts of this dipshit burg.”
I wanted to turn back. Sure, we were driving like real grownups. But we were still knee-scrapers with nothing more to fuel us but store-bought dreams, based on what? What the hell did I know about Gotham except what I’d read? And if it was so great, why weren’t Sammy and I growing up there?
“Shifidafugginggears,” I barked.
It was then I realized we were in low gear. The climb up was longer than I realized and I’d no idea what lay on the other side.
“Can’t go any lower,” he said.
“Jesus,” I said. “We’re about to roll down the Keystone State’s steepest-ass hillside. Test the brakes.”
“You gotta use the emergency,” he said.
And then I saw out the windshield that we were looking over the entire Lawrence County countryside. Christ, it was as if we were about to roll down a Swiss mountain with miniature villages at the bottom. Sammy shifted into high.
The Buick picked up speed . . . fast.
“Sammy,” I cried, “Shifidagears!”
“I can’t,” he said.
“Why?” I hollered, panicking.
“Stop the car!” he bawled.
“I gotta shit! I got to shit badly!”
Oh, fuck me, I thought.
“It’s that Johnny Toots oil I drank!”
And now we were barreling down the hill faster than if we’d been in the Cyclone roller coaster to hell. I’d yanked on the emergency stick and it’d gone limp.
Sammy was under the dashboard, screaming:
“I’m gonna shit my pants. I’m too old to shit my pants. OH CHRIST, ARE WE GONNA DIE? Whaddaya see, Ethan? Whaddaya see?”
“Niagrara Falls,” I bawled.
I’d lost complete control of the car except to try to keep it on the road and from clipping trees on the way down. Fucking Ethan Frome. We were on a toboggan ride to death, Shifidagears and me.
Zooming towards the windshield loomed a barn side, crowing in giant letters “CHEW MAIL POUCH TOBACCO”… and one elbow-sharp bend in the macadam.
I couldn’t bear to look. So I hunkered down with my friend while yanking the steering wheel with all my might. The car screeched and wildly careened to one side, pitching us under the glove box.
By some miracle we missed the barn but skinned its silo and, accompanied by a mellifluous stuck-horn requiem, lurched deep into a cornfield where Pasquale Calucca’s Buick Century sputtered and died.
And Sammy’d shit his pants.
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