The dirt at the bottom of a grave smells and tastes vaguely of leather. On your lips it has the sharp, humiliating texture of sandpaper. Press it against your face and count your breaths. Count to 20. Keep counting. Count and do not move.
There are rules for punks armed on October’s final night with a pillowcase full of eggs, four canisters of Barbasol, and a pocketful of aerosol nozzles pulled from your mother’s Aqua Net, your father’s Arrid Extra Dry, your sister’s Sure. At the bottom of the pillowcase, you must, for energy’s sake, carry a thin layer of sucrose: Snickers, $100,000 Bars, Smarties, and—this is key—an apple. An apple taken from the one house on the block you’d avoided in Halloween years past for the very reason that they handed out apples. But now, to have this Macintosh in your bag is to have at least one good weapon of last resort, should you stumble on an enemy with a superior egg arsenal.
I was learning the rules slowly. I was an oversize eighth-grader with an outwardly sunny disposition and a glowering substratum that had found a perfect outlet on the gridiron the autumn before. I was cheerfully violent, thrilled at the act of sending an opponent airborne with a full-force hit whenever the impulse struck, while only once feeling the shame and pain of being hit as hard.
It was at the line of scrimmage that I also learned how physical superiority, aggression, and a small measure of strategy could guarantee success. On Halloween night I carried that arrogance along our unlit, unlined country road with two friends alongside me. We were dressed in the costume du jour for teens with no interest in trick-or-treating: torn clothes, worn tennis shoes, dark knit ski caps. We were bums.
We were looking for an egg ambush, a shaving-cream skirmish with the tenth-grade-criminals-to-be from around the corner. Maybe we’d scare the true punks from the seventh grade into showing their elders a little respect.
Vandalism wasn’t in the plan until I passed Chris Dauer’s house. My old friend Chris Dauer, with excruciatingly normal parents who, I suspected, saw me as a bad influence. I pelted their gray-shingled colonial with a Grade A Extra Large and gave their mailbox a foamy new paint job.
I sprinted away and waited for something to happen. Anything.
Sixty yards later I approached a girl—either Linda Chelednyk or Lauren Whipple, dressed as a bum. I decided it was Linda, a ninth-grader, who’d ridiculed me four years earlier for forgetting my lines in a school play. The way she carried herself hunched and menacing, the way she had concealed herself behind her long hair and beneath the garb of a bum, the way she kept walking right toward me—they were all sure signs she was carrying weapons, and would use them willingly.
Sure enough, as I reached for my Barbasols, she revealed hers.
I gave her some shock and awe, circa ’77. The can in my left hand jammed—a bad nozzle—but the one in my right provided overwhelming force, more so when her nozzle jammed, the shaving cream trickling out in a weak, foot-long arc. I nearly emptied the can on her face before she turned and ran.
I circled around the block with Julian Symonds and John Dowling, waiting for more battles. An hour passed. Nothing but smaller children walked by, and a handful of older kids who appeared unarmed or unwilling to tangle. We passed the time with some target practice on the trunks of naked maples.
We walked back down South Olmstead, house lights starting to flicker off, sidewalks emptying. Not a bum in the shadows, not a bum behind the trees, not a bum in the bushes. Only us.
When I lived there, cars sped down South Olmstead’s lone quarter-mile straightaway a handful of times every night, some reaching 50 mph in this otherwise stroller-friendly neighborhood of unfenced yards and blind driveways. In hindsight, I could justify what I was about to do by saying it was in defense of our neighborhood, when no one else was prepared to do the same.
At South Olmstead’s high-speed point, where speeders must ease off on the gas or face a high-velocity drop-off, there sits a small cemetery containing the remains of the neighborhood’s antebellum settlers, the Seymours, the Benedicts, the Olmsteads. The grass and brush hadn’t been cut or cleared in decades. The dozen or so tombstones—chest-high, marble, mostly—stood leaning or cracked. The graves were caved in. I clambered into one of those 4-foot-deep pits once when I was 10, but the possibility of finding bones was far too real for me to return.
The crumbling stone wall separating the graveyard from South Olmstead provided perfect cover for our assault. I reached into my sack and handed out eggs to Julian and John, rolling the third in my palm.
Headlights came our way—not fast. We crouched behind the wall and lobbed the eggs into the car’s path. Nothing but asphalt.
We were getting low on eggs. I scowled and tapped my fingers on an egg, rapid-fire. Two minutes passed in silence. Then a speeder pulled down the road, five seconds away.
Four. Three. Two.
My friends lobbed their eggs again, but I stood up, reared back and fired mine as hard as I could at the hood of the car from a distance of maybe 10 feet.
The tinny thud was followed instantly by screeching wheels—did he really stop that fast?—and the sound of a car door swinging open.
“You’re DEAD!” he screamed. “YOU’RE F***ING DEAD!”
Julian and John ran in opposite directions through dead leaves. Their telltale crunching, I figured, gave our pursuer an obvious chance. I hopped behind a gravestone as they ran, using their noise for sonic cover.
I waited for him to chase John or Julian, and he did start tracking one of them from the road, but then he stopped. I heard his footsteps circle back toward the cemetery wall. I lowered myself flat against the ground; my face in the dirt, heart full-throttle.
I later heard my pursuer was a 19-year-old gearhead with 15-inch biceps who’d graduated the year before, and who’d recently bought a nearly new, black Firebird with a bright-red bird painted across the hood. This was his baby. His eight-cylinder altar.
I reached inside my bag for my glorious weapon of last resort. I rolled to my side soundlessly and considered this strategy for a moment. I threw it.
The Macintosh landed with a bouncing crunch, 30 yards away, and he sprinted in that direction.
I sat waiting for perhaps three more minutes, but I knew I’d survived. He stepped back to his car, grumbling, then smoked his tires and sped away. I caught my breath and thought for a moment of trying to find my friends, but knew better.
Cheeks burning at my brush with mortality, I walked directly home with the scent of rubber smoke trailing me. I dumped what remained of my weaponry, and with solemn steps, retreated to my room. There, I finished my candy, stuffed my sour-smelling pillowcase into the hamper, and slept the uneasy slumber of one who, like so many other bush bums, didn’t get half of what they deserved.