Ham on Rye

Chapter Twenty


There were times when Frank and I were friendly with Chuck, Eddie and Gene. But something would always happen (usually I caused it) and then I would be out, and Frank would be partly out because he was my friend. It was good hanging out with Frank. We hitch-hiked everywhere. One of our favorite places was this movie studio. We crawled under a fence surrounded by tall weeds to get in. We saw the huge wall and steps they used in the King Kong movie. We saw the fake streets and the fake buildings. The buildings were just fronts with nothing behind them. We walked all over that movie lot many times until the guard would chase us out. We hitch-hiked down to the beach to the Fun House. We would stay in the Fun House three or four hours. We memorized that place. It really wasn't that good. People shit and pissed in there and the place was littered with empty bottles. And there were rubbers in the crapper, hardened and wrinkled. Bums slept in the Fun House after it closed. There really wasn't anything funny about the Fun House. The House of Mirrors was good at first. We stayed in there until we had memorized how to walk through the maze of mirrors and then it wasn't any good any more. Frank and I never got into fights. We were curious about things. There was a movie featuring a Caesarean operation on the pier and we went in and saw it. It was bloody. Each time they cut into the woman blood squirted out, gushers of it, and then they pulled out the baby. We went fishing off the pier and when we caught something we would sell it to the old Jewish ladies who sat on the benches. I got some beatings from my father for running off with Frank but I figured I was going to get the beatings anyhow so I might as well have the fun.

But I continued to have trouble with the other kids in the neighborhood. My father didn't help. For example he bought me an Indian suit and a bow and arrow when all the other kids had cowboy outfits. It was the same then as in the schoolyard—-I was ganged-up on. They'd circle me with their cowboy outfits and their guns, but when it got bad I'd just put an arrow into the bow, pull it back and wait. That always moved them off. I never wore that Indian suit unless my father made me put it on.

I kept falling out with Chuck, Eddie and Gene and then we'd get back together and then we'd fall out all over again.

One afternoon I was just standing around. I wasn't exactly in good or in bad with the gang, I was just waiting around for them to forget the last thing I had done that had made them angry. There wasn't anything else to do. Just white air and waiting. I got tired of standing around and decided to walk up the hill to Washington Boulevard, east to the movie house and then back down to West Adams Boulevard. Maybe I'd walk past the church. I started walking. Then I heard Eddie:

"Hey, Henry, come here!"

The guys were standing in a driveway between two houses. Eddie, Frank, Chuck and Gene. They were watching something. They were bent over a large bush watching something.

"Come here, Henry!"

"What is it?"

I walked up to where they were bending over.

"It's a spider getting ready to eat a fly!" said Eddie.

I looked. The spider had spun a web between the branches of a bush and a fly had gotten caught in there. The spider was very excited. The fly shook the whole web as it tried to pull free. It was buzzing wildly and helplessly as the spider wound the fly's wings and body in more and more spider web. The spider went around and around, webbing the fly completely as it buzzed. The spider was very big and ugly.

"It's going to close in now!" yelled Chuck. "It's going to sink its fangs ! "

I pushed in between the guys, kicked out and knocked the spider and the fly out of the web with my foot.

"What the hell have you done?" asked Chuck.

"You son-of-a-bitch!" yelled Eddie. "You've spoiled it!"

I backed off. Even Frank stared at me strangely.

"Let's get his ass!" yelled Gene.

They were between me and the street. I ran down the driveway into the backyard of a strange house. They were after me. I ran through the backyard and behind the garage. There was a six-foot lattice fence covered with vines. I went straight up the fence and over the top. I ran through the next backyard and up the driveway and as I ran up the driveway I looked back and saw Chuck just reaching the top of the fence. Then he slipped and fell into the yard landing on his back. "Shit!" he said. I took a right and kept running. I ran for seven or eight blocks and then sat down on somebody's lawn and rested. There was nobody around. I wondered if Frank would forgive me. I wondered if the others would forgive me. I decided to stay out of sight for a week or so . . .

And so they forgot. Not much happened for a while. There were many days of nothing. Then Frank's father committed suicide. Nobody knew why. Frank told me he and his mother would have to move to a smaller place in another neighborhood. He said he would write. And he did. Only we didn't write. We drew cartoons. About cannibals. His cartoons were about troubles with cannibals and then I'd continue the cartoon story where his left off, about the troubles with the cannibals. My mother found one of Frank's cartoons and showed it to my father and our letter writing was over.

5th grade became 6th grade and I began to think about running away from home but I decided that if most of our fathers couldn't get jobs how in the hell could a guy under five feet tall get one? John Dillinger was everybody's hero, adults and kids alike. He took the money from the banks. And there was Pretty Boy Floyd and Ma Barker and Machine Gun Kelly.

People began going to vacant lots where weeds grew. They had learned that some of the weeds could be cooked and eaten. There were fist fights between men in the vacant lots and on street corners. Everybody was angry. The men smoked Bull Durham and didn't take any shit from anybody. They let the little round Bull Durham tags hang out of their front shirt pockets and they could all roll a cigarette with one hand. When you saw a man with a Bull Durham tag dangling, that meant look out. People went around talking about 2nd and 3rd mortgages. My father came home one night with a broken arm and two black eyes. My mother had a low paying job somewhere. And each boy in the neighborhood had one pair of Sunday pants and one pair of daily pants. When shoes wore out there weren't any new ones. The depart-ment stores had soles and heels they sold for 15 or 20 cents along with the glue, and these were glued to the bottoms of the worn out shoes. Gene's parents had one rooster and some chickens in their backyard, and if some chicken didn't lay enough eggs they ate it.

As for me, it was the same—at school, and with Chuck, Gene and Eddie. Not only did the grownups get mean, the kids got mean, and even the animals got mean. It was like they took their cue from the people.

One day I was standing around, waiting as usual, not friendly with the gang, no longer really wanting to be, when Gene rushed up to me, "Hey, Henry, come on!"

"What is it?"

"COME ON!"

Gene started running and I ran after him. We ran down the driveway and into the Gibsons' backyard. The Gibsons had a large brick wall all around their backyard.

"LOOK! HE'S GOT THE CAT CORNERED! HE'S GOING TO KILL IT!"

There was a small white cat backed into a corner of the wall. It couldn't go up and it couldn't go in one direction or the other. Its back was arched and it was spitting, its claws ready. But it was very small and Chuck's bulldog, Barney, was growling and moving closer and closer. I got the feeling that the cat had been put there by the guys and then the bulldog had been brought in. I felt it strongly because of the way Chuck and Eddie and Gene were watching: they had a guilty look.

"You guys did this," I said.

"No," said Chuck, "it's the cat's fault. It came in here. Let it fight its way out."

"I hate you bastards," I said.

"Barney's going to kill that cat," said Gene.

"Barney will rip it to pieces," said Eddie. "He's afraid of the claws but when he moves in it will be all over."

Barney was a large brown bulldog with slobbering jaws. He was dumb and fat with senseless brown eyes. His growl was steady and he kept inching forward, the hairs standing up on his neck and along his back. I felt like kicking him in his stupid ass but I figured he would rip my leg off. He was entirely intent upon the kill. The white cat wasn't even fully grown. It hissed and waited, pressed against the wall, a beautiful creature, so clean.

The dog moved slowly forward. Why did the guys need this? This wasn't a matter of courage, it was just dirty play. Where were the grownups? Where were the authorities? They were always around accusing me. Now where were they?

I thought of rushing in, grabbing the cat and running, but I didn't have the nerve. I was afraid that the bulldog would attack me. The knowledge that I didn't have the courage to do what was necessary made me feel terrible. I began to feel physically sick. I was weak. I didn't want it to happen yet I couldn't think of any way to stop it.

"Chuck," I said, "let the cat go, please. Call your dog off."

Chuck didn't answer. He just kept watching.

Then he said, "Barney, go get him! Get that cat!"

Barney moved forward and suddenly the cat leaped. It was a furious blur of white and hissing, claws and teeth. Barney backed off and the cat retreated to the wall again.

"Go get him, Barney," Chuck said again.

"God damn you, shut up!" I told him.

"Don't talk to me that way," Chuck said.

Barney began to move in again.

"You guys set this up," I said.

I heard a slight sound behind us and looked around. I saw old Mr. Gibson watching from behind his bedroom window. He wanted the cat to get killed too, just like the guys. Why?

Old Mr. Gibson was our mailman with the false teeth. He had a wife who stayed in the house all the time. she only came out to empty the garbage. Mrs. Gibson always wore a net over her hair and she was always dressed in a nightgown, bathrobe and slippers.

Then as I watched, Mrs. Gibson, dressed as always came and stood next to her husband, waiting for the kill. Old Mr. Gibson was one of the few men in the neighborhood with a job but he still needed to see the cat killed. Gibson was just like Chuck, Eddie and Gene.

There were too many of them.

The bulldog moved closer. I couldn't watch the kill. I felt a great shame at leaving the cat like that. There was always the chance that the cat might try to escape, but I knew that they would prevent it. That cat wasn't only facing the bulldog, it was facing Humanity.

I turned and walked away, out of the yard, up the driveway and to the sidewalk. I walked along the sidewalk toward where I lived and there in the front yard of his home, my father stood waiting.

"Where have you been?" he asked.

I didn't answer.

"Get inside," he said, "and stop looking so unhappy or I'll give you something that will really make you unhappy!"

Excerpts from Ham on Rye Copyright 1982 by Charles Bukowski and reprinted with the permission of Black Sparrow Press.
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