What Would Joey Do?

Joey Pigza (Volume 3)

Jack Gantos

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

What Would Joey Do?
1
SPARKS
About three weeks ago Dad suddenly showed up in town and started buzzing us on his motorcycle at all hours of the day and night. At first I was afraid because I thought he had come to get me, but I was wrong. He was much more interested in Mom. I lost track of how many times he roared down our street and ran the corner traffic light past Quips Pub, where Mom lounged in the leather window seat sipping a mixed drink with her new boyfriend while making plans for her future. Dad must have spotted her there during one of his rounds. He didn't say anything, but he'd look at her in the window like she was something he wanted. Then, he'd blast off. If it was dark out, I could look through my back bedroom window and between the lines of damp laundry catch his single jittery headlight brightly striking the white marbletombstones lined up like crooked teeth behind our yard as he cut through St. Mary's Cemetery and raced out and around the neighborhood making a crazy eight before he looped back down Plum Street and past our house again. He must have been watching her closely because sometimes he'd show up the minute she got home from work. Then, her face would go red and I'd watch her run out to the front porch and yell at him as he raced by, but the louder she yelled the louder he revved the engine.
"I'm losing my patience with that man," Mom would say when she came back inside, pacing wildly up the hall, swinging around and down again, past the furniture and me and Pablo and Grandma, as if she too were on a motorcycle that was darting past us.
"If you didn't yell at him I bet he'd get bored and go home," I said once while trying to be helpful.
"He'd better return to the hole he lives in," she said, "or I'll send him into the next kingdom."
"Just ignore him," I advised. "It'll drive him nuts."
"And I'll go nuts if I don't yell at him," she replied.
I knew Dad. Yelling at him was only going to make him want to yell back twice as loud. The only way Mom could be louder than him was to be quiet. He couldn't stand to be ignored and Mom couldn't stand to be quiet, so I knew something bad was on the way. I could feel it coming, just as I could hear his motorcycle circling.
And then it finally happened. We were out on the front porch late one afternoon. I was squatted down behind a wooden railing, holding my dog Pablo and peeking out between the slats, while Mom was on the top step hollering at Dad. The muffler on his motorcycle was dragging across the asphalt and a steady stream of sparks trailed behind him like the lighted fuse on a bomb that was headed right at our house. He looked like a giant black bat in his studded leather biker outfit with his hands raised up in the air on his chopper handlebars and his shiny blue-eyed wraparound sunglasses clamped tight against his bony face. He had already circled our block about ten times in a row and each time he got a little closer to the house, as if he were zeroing in on a target. He was really flying and when he reached our yard he jerked up on his handlebars and lifted his front wheel over the stone curb. When his back wheel hit the curb the rear of the chopper bounced up and almost catapulted him forward. Still, he hung on and landed with a smack back in his seat as he fishtailed across the sidewalk and headed straight for the porch.
But Mom was waiting for him, and she was ready for a fight. As soon as he jumped the curb she sprang forward and bolted down the porch stairs with a broom held up over her head as if she would swat him like a biker vampire who had come to suck our blood. But when she reached the bottom stair andleaped forward he stuck out his leg with a huge, nasty boot on the end of it and without flinching knocked her back on her butt as he turned and roared across our rutted dirt yard and toward the street. She bounced just once and flattened out like something heavy dropped from the roof as he laughed, or cursed, or announced his return--I couldn't tell which because of the engine noise, and with Mom's yelling and Pablo's yapping in my ear, I couldn't hear anything clearly. Then, as he flew off the yard, his muffler hit the curb and suddenly there was an explosion of sparks like a comet smashing into the earth, only it was his muffler flipping into the air and spinning like a pinwheel, showering the street with sparks. Instantly the engine noise was a hundred times louder and I had to drop Pablo to cover my ears as Dad snarled down to the end of the block where he turned right and I could hear him open the throttle along the straightaway and rattle the windows across the neighborhood, across all of Lancaster, maybe the whole state of Pennsylvania.
And then Mom scrambled to her feet and raised her fist in the air. "So you want to play dirty?" she hollered. "I'll show you what dirty is!" She charged up the porch stairs two at a time. "Outta my way," she panted, and rushed past me with her broom held forward like a witch about to launch herself.
"Are you okay?" I asked. "Are you hurt?"
"This time I'm gonna kill that creep," she promised with a murderous look on her face that made her words seem real to me. "I should've done it years ago and put him out of my misery."
I followed her into the house.
"I don't think you should kill him," I said, and held on to the back end of the broom. "He's just a nut."
"A dangerous pain-in-the-butt nut," she replied, and yanked the broom away. "He can't scare me, but I'm gonna make him pay for messing with you."
"Don't do it because of me," I said. "Just leave him alone and he'll go away."
"No, this time he has to pay."
"But he doesn't owe me anything," I pleaded. "Just lock the door and call the police."
"Hey, I'm doing this for you!" she replied, and gave me an exasperated look as if I didn't appreciate her protection.
"But you don't have to," I said.
"Fine! Fine!" she snapped. "Fine!"
And because it looked like she might blow a gasket I stood up on my tiptoes and imitated her by saying "Fine! Fine!" right back, just like a mirror she might see herself in and calm down, and then we would call the cops and they would scare Dad away and all of this would be over with.
But my little act didn't work.
Instead, her eyes bugged out and she was definitely not calm. "If you won't help just stay out of my way," she said, glaring at me. Then she pointed to the carpet and gave me an intense, squinty look. "Don't you dare move from this spot." Her finger stabbed the air over the dark stain where Pablo had made a little doggy mess after we left him behind while we did our ten-mile walkathon against lung cancer that almost killed us. Her new boyfriend--who has a name that sounds like Tooth Decay but is really Booth Duprey--took us. He's very enthusiastic.
"I can't promise that I won't move," I said. "What if I have to scratch my nose or go to the bathroom or faint?"
She grabbed me by the neck of my shirt and yanked my face toward hers. "Look into my eyes!" she demanded. "Look! Can't you see I'm half nuts right now? That I'm at my wit's end and the last thing I need is you playing games with me?"
"Sorry," I said in a tiny voice the size of a talking ant. "Soooooo sorry."
Then she let me go and ran out the back door hollering, "You are a dead man, Carter Pigza!" She sprinted across the yard and out the metal gate and into the cemetery behind our house. She was going to ambush him from behind the big silver statue ofJesus, who had his arms stretched out from side to side like someone trying to stop a fight.
"What in the blazes is going on?" Grandma growled from her curtained-off corner of the living room.
Grandma was living with us again. When I was little she took care of me. Then Mom returned and they bumped heads over how to raise me so Grandma moved in with Dad. But Dad drove his own mom crazy too. When she came back at the end of the summer there wasn't an empty bedroom for her, so Mom pushed the couch into a corner of the living room for a bed, then rigged up a plastic shower curtain that pulled to and fro and gave her a bit of privacy. But nothing gave us privacy from her.
I pulled the shower curtain to one side and covered my eyes. Sometimes she wasn't fully dressed, and with her clothes off and teeth out it was like lifting the lid on a coffin.
But she was sitting up with a cutting board across her lap that she used as a desk. She had taken a job earning money at home by folding junk-mail advertisements and stuffing them into envelopes. She had a lot of paper cuts on her tongue which only made her meaner.
"I said, what in the blazes is going on out there? You bring home a jackhammer?" She started coughing so loudly I didn't think she could hear me replythat Dad was buzzing us again and Mom had snapped and was running with a broom from the front yard to the cemetery.
But Grandma had heard everything I said, and once she sucked a few deep breaths out of the tube from her oxygen tank, she swelled up and blurted out, "This is exactly how it was before you were hatched. Always flirtin'. Always this kind of fightin' back and forth so that you never knew if he wanted to kiss her or kill her, and she is just dumb enough to play his little dating game. I've seen this before when he left her pregnant, then returned and made up, and then they had a big blowout and you were born, and the next thing you know he swings by and she runs off with him and leaves you to me. I didn't see much of her until she walked in the door last year and started treating me like an old shoe."
"She's not interested in Dad. She already has Booth," I said. "They're in love."
Grandma's laugh sounded like flames crackling. "Not for long," she predicted. "Once he gets wind of these antics he'll pack up his heart and be long gone and hard to find."
In the distance I could hear Dad slow down in order to slip through the narrow back gate in the cemetery fence, and I knew he had one more short straightaway before he'd reach the corner of our street and wouldsoon be ripping past our house and I didn't want to miss him. "Relax," I said to Grandma.
"Relax?" she said. "Impossible. I'm back here because when you left me at your father's I knew I had made a big mistake leaving you in the first place. Oh no, I won't relax until I'm running this show again."
Suddenly Mom staggered through the back door. She bent over with her hands on her knees and took a few deep breaths. "Darn it," she growled, then stood up. "I missed him and he kicked me on my can again." Once she got her breath back she ran out the front door and squatted down behind the busted porch swing that was hanging lopsided from me dancing on it until the chain on one end pulled out of the ceiling.
"Don't you have anything else to do besides sit around here and watch this catfight?" Grandma asked.
"Not right now," I said.
"Then come here," she whispered. I leaned forward and she reached out and grabbed my ears as she hoisted herself from the couch with a grunt.
"Ouch," I cried. Her old bony fingers were like monkey claws.
"Don't you have some friends you need to visit?"
"No," I said, and wrestled away from her. I wantedto get to the front porch. I hadn't seen my parents together very much and I had missed all their fireworks. Every other kid gets to see their parents fight, so watching mine actually made me feel kind of normal.
"You know, Joey," Grandma said, "you gotta make some friends."
"I have Pablo," I said.
"Pablo is a dog," she replied.
"He's more than a dog," I cut in. "When I rub his belly a genie pops out his mouth and grants me wishes."
"I don't care if he does card tricks, he's still a dog," she shot back. "Just a dog. Face it. Nothing but a dog--and not much of one at that. So don't tell me what he is or isn't. What you need is a person friend your own age. Not a genie, or a wind-up toy, or a robot. Pablo should go play with other dogs and you should go make a friend."
"I almost have a friend," I said.
"Who?" she spit back. "That mean blind girl who makes you cry?"
I never should have told Grandma that Olivia Lapp made me cry.
"She hates you," Grandma continued. "You said so yourself."
"Well, I'm working on her," I said. "You'll see."
"Yeah," Grandma scoffed, "I'll believe it when I see it."
Just then I heard Dad downshift, turn the corner, and start tearing up our street.
"Excuse me," I said to Grandma and skipped away. "I don't want to miss this."
I reached the porch just as Dad was making his first move. He launched his chopper up over the curb as Mom dashed down the stairs with the broom held out like a bayonet. When he saw her he smiled and stuck out his boot again, but this time she thrust the handle toward his front wheel. There was a snapping sound as the handle jammed into the spokes and the bike flipped through the air. Dad shot forward yowling like a cat blasted out of a cannon. Where our yard stopped and the neighbor's began stood a dead apple tree with gray branches sticking out like dry old bolts of lightning, and he went sprawling into it and something cracked and then he just hung there with his legs kicking as the tree vibrated.
The motorcycle tumbled head-over-heels behind him, hit the trunk of the tree, and choked to a stop. Suddenly it was very quiet. Then Dad cried out, "Help me, I'm speared on a branch!"
And Mom screamed, "Oh my God, I killed him!"
"He's not dead yet," I said. "He's still talking."
"Who's dead?" Grandma asked as she shuffled onto the porch, then broke into a phlegmy cough. Every time she spoke it sounded like me sucking milk spit through a straw.
"Dad," I blurted out. "He's stuck on a tree branch, but he's alive."
"Unless that branch pierced his heart he'll be fine," she said. "He's part vampire."
"That's just what I thought," I said.
"Well, it's about time you realize we are alike," she confirmed. "You and me, we're cut from the same cloth. Now run inside and call an ambulance before his howling attracts every cat in the neighborhood."
I ran inside for the phone and tried to dial 911 but I was so worked up I couldn't get the numbers right and I kept jabbing at the dial like a hyper woodpecker until by luck I got directory assistance and I just told the lady to give me 911. When the emergency operator answered I was breathing as hard as Grandma. "We've had a motorcycle accident," I said. "Send an ambulance." I fired out the address, then hung up and ran back to the porch.
"Hold on, Dad!" I yelled. "I called the ambulance." Just then the branch snapped and he fell to the ground like a rotten apple. He moaned loudly, and I could see a piece of bloody branch sticking through a gap between his leather jacket and his pants.
Mom knelt down beside him with one hand on his head and the other on the branch that came out of his back around the outside of his ribs. "Don't worry," she said. "Don't worry. It's just a little branch. It won't kill you."
It wasn't killing him, but he was bleeding, and complaining and squirming around like when you step on a snake. "Dang it, I'm going to have the cops put you in jail for attempted murder."
"Quiet," she said. "Just relax."
"You'll spend the rest of your life in prison," he threatened. Then he let out a desperate yowl because at that moment Mom grabbed the piece of branch and gave it a good shake.
"I said be quiet," she growled. "And don't threaten me or else you won't be around to see the police arrest you for assault. What I did was self-defense."
If he was dying, he was doing it loudly. "You always wanted to kill me and now you have. I was just trying to have a little fun and as usual you have to go and ruin it."
"Shut up, you big baby," she said, and wiggled the branch as if she were shifting gears.
"Ow.w.w," he moaned. "Don't hurt me."
"What's it matter now that you're dying?"
I started to run toward them but Grandma snatched my shirt from behind. "Joey, you stay up here on the porch and leave those two fools alone."
"But I want to help," I pleaded.
"You can't," she replied. "They don't want help. They're just gluttons for punishment. Either they're givin' a beating or gettin' one."
I must have figured she was right because I stoppedin my tracks and stayed by her side. She jerked me around behind her as if she were protecting me from a fire. "Listen," she said. "I can hear a siren."
And in a minute an ambulance pulled up and a couple of paramedics jumped out and ran over to Dad. One of them slowly started to feel his arms and legs for broken bones while the other one took a pair of shears and cut his jacket so he could look at the branch. "Just relax, mister," he kept saying."It's not as bad as it looks. Just calm down and breathe normal."
"Hell's bells," Dad replied. "How can I calm down when I have a piece of tree running through my body and you've cut up my leathers?"
"It's just a flesh wound," the medic said. "It's only gone through the fat on the outside of your ribs."
"I'm dyin'," he said. "I'm bleeding to death."
"Settle down," the medic said, "and you won't bleed as much."
"He can't settle down," Mom said. "He's permanently jerky."
Dad started to say something but the other medic put a big foam collar around his neck that pushed his chin up so he couldn't talk anymore. Then they shifted him sideways onto a wooden stretcher and I could see right away that even though he was slick with blood the piece of branch that was poking through him was only about as big around as a cue stick.
Mom climbed into the ambulance after him, and just before the driver closed the door I could see her reach for Dad's hand and hold it tight.
Grandma saw it too. "What'd I tell you," she said bitterly after they sped off. "They're a couple of sick love-puppies who deserve each other."
As soon as the ambulance was out of sight, a police car slowly rolled up to our house and two cops got out. One of them had a clipboard and the other one had a walkie-talkie that squawked like an angry parrot trapped in a box. I knew I should have been upset about what had happened, really off the wall and pulling my hair out in clumps, but somehow I wasn't. I just stood there and breathed as deeply as I could and then let all the air leak out until I felt empty inside, as if my breath were a visitor who entered me, looked around, found nothing of special interest, and left.
Grandma turned and stared down at me with a harsh look on her lined face. "Go get lost," she said, wheezing like a broken accordion.
"What are you going to tell them?" I asked.
"Nothing," Grandma replied, and reached down the back of my shirt and peeled off my med patch that kept me from being too hyper. Sometimes we shared medication. The doctor wouldn't give her a patch for being hyper, because he said at her age hyper was good. "Let me borrow this for a few minutes while thecops are here," she said, and slapped it on the side of her neck as if she were covering up a vampire bite.
"Why can't I stay and tell them what I saw?"
"Because you might tell the truth, and as far as I'm concerned, who can say between the two of those nuts which one is criminally insane and which one is mentally ill? Let the cops figure it out on their own. Now, skedaddle."
"Okay," I said, and shrugged. "See you later." Then I scooped Pablo up, grabbed the leash that was hanging over the doorknob, and zipped out the back door.
Copyright © 2002 by Jack Gantos