Cherry Bombs, Hot Rods, and the Intrusion of Grace


"The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rains from heaven."

-The Merchant of Venice

 


Phillip Neilsen lay in a coma for a month before he suddenly opened his eyes and asked for a peanut butter and sugar sandwich. His Danish mother was there waiting, her kind hands together at the palms, her hair braided and coiled on the top of her head. In my memory Mrs. Neilsen stands in her kitchen plump as a dumpling, flower up to her elbows. She baked around the clock, wonderful Danish pastries and cookies, but the mainstay at the Neilsen house was peanut butter. They must've bought it by the 55-gallon drum. When we got off the school bus, pyramidal heaps of peanut butter and sugar sandwiches were waiting for us. She also sewed for us wonderful enongated denim book bags with slits to load books in each end and hurl like a bolas to trip nurds.

I envied the Neilsen kids. Their parents were anxious to Americanize, so any behavior the Neilsen kids could convince their parents was tipically American got parental blessings. That's how David was allow to have a hot rod before his 15th birthday. They also had a whole footlocker of firecrackers, including cherry bombs. You could flush a cherry bomb down a rest room toilet and blow it clean off the wall.

Phillip, nicknamed Elephant, was the youngest of three siblings. The other kids, David and Miriam, were bucktoothed and hay-headed like Phillip, but Phillip lay at the bottom of the Neilsen food chain where the leftovers went. He was large boned like David and Miriam, but also fat. He ran in jerky movements, his marbled meat jogging and rocking.

The Neilsen boys were famous for headlocks. Most of us could beat up Phillip or outrun him unless he got us in a headlock. He'd throw a haymaker, sweeping a long arm our necks, angle our heads in his nutcracker elbow, and crush our temples until we screamed, "I give!" When the Neilsen boys first move down from Omaha and started applying their famous headlocks, we thought they were collecting for the United Way. "Do you give?"

"I give!"

But David soon tired of headlocks. He became inflamed by the idea of automobiles.

Miriam at sixteen was solidly pretty and her overbite made her lisp. We used to hide in the shrubbery to watch her undress, and I dreamed of french kissing her roomy mouth, but Phillip was by far the most bucktoothed of the siblings. His lips couldn't seal unless he puckered hard enough to make his cheeks hollow. When he saw, smelled, or thought about food, saliva leaked down his recessed chin.

Consequently, he wasn't welcome when we huddled behind the gym to pass around cigarettes, called fags. He wet-lipped the Pall Malls halfway to the hotbox--the elongated red ash that formed when eight or nine boys passed a cigarette around. We smoked it fast, passing it quickly, like musical chairs. Nobody wanted to be the one holding the fag when Coach Fowler rounded the corner. And they got hot. Sparks would pop off with each drag. "Don't hot-box it," we'd scold. "Hey, you're hot-boxing it!" The only way Phillip could close his mouth around a cigarette or anything else was to pucker his lips until his cheeks sunk in. "Don't wet-lip it, Elephant. Hey, you're wet-lipping the fag." The boys behind the gym encouraged Phillip to carry his own cigarettes, which was all right. He told his mother American kids smoked so she bought his fags for him. And his cherry bombs.

*

The Friday Phillip entered his coma, he'd thrown a cherry bomb through the boys' bathroom window, causing a spasm of wee-wee to wet the principal's, Mr. Robins's, shirt, tie, the front of his britches, spattering also his Wingtips.

*

Phillip's father was a thin, diligent Dane who wore a shiny three-piece gray suit and a felt hat. I don't remember seeing much of him except walking along Highway 19. He picked up discarded bottles to redeem the deposit, until he bought a black 1950 Buick Roadmaster from my daddy's car lot. My old man used to say that the only two cars he ever let leave the lot without a down payment went to the Methodist minister Frederick Wilson and Mr. Neilsen. I guess the Pop's charity had something to do with the Neilsens being displaced, but none of the Neilsens could drive except David, who was fourteen. The Neilsen's solvency must have been negatively compounded by car payments, petroleum prices, and a decline in the number of bottles picked up from ditches when the Danes quit walking, but they must have made payments because they kept the Buick.

*

"I give!" I mumbled into the roll of fat above Phillip's hip. You could buck and lift other boys who had you in a head lock, but Phillip was ponderous and immobile. "Let me go, Elephant. I give! I got to pee." The busses were lined up, ready to take us home.

Phillip waited until I'd climbed the school steps, entered the boys' rest room, and begun my business. He'd planned sneak around the back wall beneath the bathroom window, lob a cheery bomb, and catch me with my tallywacker out, but his timing was off. I finished up and was washing my hands when Mr. Robins, the principal, came in. He studied himself in the mirror, unzipped, addressed the urinal, and tilted his head back, resting his neck, shoulder blades, closing his eyes as he relieved himself of a full bladder and a full week of junior high kids.

I was tip-toeing through the swinging door when the cheery bomb arched through the window. Spewing sparks and trailing white smoke, it bounced and wobbled to a stop behind Mr. Robins. The fuse spinning it once. Oh, shit! In my mind I hit the hall running, bounced down the steps four at time, and burst into the afternoon sunlight. Mentally, I scrambled on the bus behind Phillip the moment the cheery bomb exploded. My mind got on the bus, but my body stood right there, petrified.

The noise cherry bombs make in a tile lined rest room is unbelievable. It doesn't stop with a single BOOOOM, but reverberates within that enclosure with a deafening, soul-shattering blast which is the last thing you'll hear for three of four days.

*

I guess Hitler flushed the Neilsen parents out of the Old Country. Cherry bombs was maybe little fish to her, but Mrs. Neilsen was leery of authority. Once Phillip and Jerry Lindsey tried to derail a freight train by driving a railroad spike into a switch connection. When the railroad cops arrived at the front door to investigate, Mrs. Neilsen slapped together a peanut butter sandwich, lateralled it to Phillip, and told him to hide out in the woods behind their house. "Head for the hills, son," she advised him, "and lay low." Of course, there were no hills in Albany, but part of the Neilsen's Americanization had come from T.V. Westerns. The RR gestapo waited forty-five minutes for the peanut butter to wear off and caught Phillip being led home by his stomach.

*

But Phillip didn't get knocked into a coma by railroad cop. He fell off the family Roadmaster on Radium Springs somewhere between the corner of Redbud and Radium and Four Points Grocery, where the Neilsen's went every Friday afternoon, piling in the Buick, except Phillip, who'd stand on the back bumper until they hit the pavement. Redbud was red clay and the two lanes were separated by an elevated strip with pecan trees. David would snatch the Buick into L, floor it, and the Dinaflow transmission would WHOOOOOOOO down Redbud trailing a cyclone of red dust. That old Buick was fast. David could get it up to eighty in the half mile of dirt road.

The G's would flatten Miriam's plump breasts and push Mrs. Neilsen's jowls back until David hit the brakes and slammed Neilsens into the dash and into the back of the front seat as the Buick skidded to the intersection of Redbud Lane and Radium Springs Road. Then Phillip would get in and they'd head out to Four Points to buy cigarettes and peanut butter.

This Friday, though, they forgot to let Phillip in, and by the time somebody remembered him, he'd disappeared.

They rode back and forth along Radium Springs Road looking for him. They figured they'd find him in the ditch along Radium Springs Road, but they couldn't see into the ditch from the road because the chain gang hadn't been by lately to sling blade the right-of-way. Mrs. Neilsen made Miriam walk the ditch to look for Phillip while the car crept along blocking traffic. Mrs. Neilsen sat in the car wringing her hands. "Watch for coachwhips," she warned her daughter. Coachwhips were reputed to tie you up with their tails and beat you to death.

David and Miriam figured Phillip jumped off the bumper and was hiding in the woods laughing at them, and they were pissed. David kept blowing the horn and cussing. Miriam found some drink bottles they could return for the deposit and two hub caps that were in good enough shape to sell to Mullen's Junk Yard, but they didn't find Phillip, at least not right away.

Just before sundown Miriam parted a sheaf of goldenrod and found her brother, laid out on his back in the bottom of the ditch like a chinless corpse under a blanket of yellow flowers. They took him to Phoebe Putney hospital and put pajamas on him. The principal of Albany Junior High waited three weeks for him to wake up, tapping a number two pencil on his desk blotter until the good news broke that Phillip and long last had emerged from the coma, looking more like an elephant than he ever had before. Three solid weeks without a peanut butter and sugar sandwich had made his loose skin hang in layers. When Mr. Robins got finished with Phillip, the Neilsens realized that Europe wasn't the only place that boasted tyrants. Phillip stayed in detention until the Danes moved back to Omaha.

*

But the most important aspect of the Neilsen's Americanization was David's infatuation with the internal combustion engine. The Roadmaster wasn't fast enough for him, so he built his own hot-rod from a '49 Ford V-8 engine, which he lowered from a pecan tree limb with a chain horse into a Model A coup. David's contraption had no air cleaner and no hood. Once during the assembly David had to clean out the beginnings of a bird nest from the throat of the carburetor. It had no seats or floorboards except for a sheet of plywood he laid across the frame to keep himself from falling through and getting run over by his back wheels, if he ever got the engine started. I spent a lot of time watching David out the kitchen window while Phillip ate peanut butter and sugar sandwiches and I tried to close in on Miriam, whose role in life was to help her mother bake cookies.

"Twue Fwends," Mrs. Neilsen said of Phillip's and my perpetual companionship. Miriam, kneeding dough, never looked at me once.

*

A coat hanger wire ran through a small hole drilled in the dashboard and firewall. It was hooked into the linkage of his carburetor--David's accelerator. Of course no return spring was involved. David pulled the wire out to rev up the engine and pushed it back through to decelerate. It worked O.K., although sometimes he'd have to jiggle to get the wire to slide back in. There was no exhaust pipe, no muffler, no tailpipe. Noxious explosions belched from the manifold.

I'll never forget the maiden voyage of David's hot rod. All the Neilsens, even the illusive father, stood in the front yard along with a dozen or so kids from Diana Apartments, where the Neilsens lived before they bought, without a down payment, their little brick house on Redbud. David attached jumper cables to the coup's corroded battery while Phillip revved the Buick fiendishly. Errrr, Err, Err went the starter. Then, Pow, the transplanted engine fired, not so loud as a cheery bomb, but loud enough to make Miriam gasp, covering her voluptuous overbite with her fingers. A perfect fireball issued from the mouth of the carburetor, followed by a moiling black smoke ring. We cheered! If a car would fire, we reasoned, it would eventually run. Mrs. Neilsen stood proud as punch in the center of the lawn rinsing her hands in her apron. "Davit vill be a gweat engineer in America."

Miriam picked up a clothes basked, holding it on her hip like somebody biblical. I drifted close enough to smell her, hoping she wouldn't notice.

David leaned over the fender yanking the linkage, jabbing the starter with a screw driver, turning the engine over until it finally rumbled into life. He basked in the attention of his neighborhood audience and the pride of his family as he opened the backwards door and climbed in. The idling cams rocked the whole car. With a determined jaw, he gripped the steering wheel. David yanked out the coat hanger and popped the clutch.

In a god-awful explosion of red dirt the back wheels spun. David tried to decelerate by pushing the wire back in but the coat hanger bent, holding the engine at full throttle. When the back wheels caught, the hot rod took off like an aircraft catapulted from a carrier, the thrust wrenching David from the steering wheel and rolling him backwards into the trunk.

The unmanned hot rod lurched to the end of the driveway, far too fast to round the corner onto Redbud even if somebody had been driving. It tilted on two wheels and hit the elevated median, narrowly missing a pecan tree, bull-frogging high into the air.

Then something happened that edified my faith in a Deity active in human folly. Without the resistance of the earth's friction against the tires, the unmuffled engine wound up to 50,000 RPM's. The coupe should have tumbled or rolled in mid air, but the spinning wheels acted gyroscopically to stabilize the airborne vehicle. If it landed at that speed, it would have killed Mr. Kinnett, who was mowing his lawn, and wiped out a row of identical ranch style homes.

But it didn't. The instant David's hot rod reached the zenith of its hop, the engine coughed, dry heaved, farted, and quit while still in the air. The car crashed to the ground in a squat, banging the rocker panels and flattening the tires. David crawled out, limped straight to his room picking plywood splinters. I later surmised that the miracle that caused the engine to stop cold came from heaven in the form of accumulated rainwater into open throat of David's uncovered carburetor. David never got the hot rod cranked again.

When the Neilsens left Albany and migrated north to re-discover another corner of the American dream, Mrs. Neilsen wept. Phillip, grinning buck toothed, heaved me a lumpy denum book bag, like a pod with a slit in the side. Miriam pressed her hand against the glass of the Buick's back window in an indifferent gesture of goodbye as David snatched the Roadmaster into low obscuring the Neilsens in a cloud of billowing pink dust. I peeked into the slit and saw that the contents were deep red like the pith of a gigantic pomegranate, bright globes the size of gum balls. There they were. Enough cheery bombs to blow all the bridges of my youth.

(end)

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