I met Ronny Hopkins the summer he turned thirteen. He stood a half-head taller than his friends did, and before he filled out, thinner than most of them. He wore a crew cut—butch wax on the front cowlicks—when other kids wore Beatle haircuts. I was in my mid-twenties. Sophie and I had split up.
Ronny knew the windows of my apartment uptown. Three of them in a row, smudged gray from the dust raised by F Street traffic, just above a liquor store whose sidewalk bulged and cracked—a hell of an easy place for a kid to spill a bike. He didn’t know anything about me except for the fantastic stories the senior high greasers told him. Straddling their bikes, Ronny and his buddies would watch me come down my flight of wooden steps, out that faded blue door onto the sidewalk. I always had a cigar in my mouth. I’d pace, waiting to see Alice get across the street okay after school on the way to my old house—her mother’s house. Of course, Ronny didn’t know that.
Across from the liquor store sat a bar that seemed to be sold every three years. Each time a sign reading “Under New Management” would hang in the window. It was called John’s Office Bar—the JOB. Most of the men who drank there were black. The place had front windows on either side of the door, and sometimes during the afternoon, old eyes squinted out at the street.
One day Ronny’s bunch pulled their bikes up, pointed at the window, called out a racial slur and skedaddled.
A young black man in tight pants, rayon shirt and featherweights threw the door open. “You muthafuckers better go home to your mommas!”
At that time if you lived close to the railroad tracks that bordered the town along its southwest corner, chances were you weren’t rich or white.
If Ronny or his friends were interested in getting a little something for a dance coming up at St. Catherine’s, they came to me. The first time I met him he asked me for a half-pint of Southern Comfort.
“Your last name’s Hopkins, isn’t it?” I said.
“Yeah.” He may as well have added “asshole” from his tone.
“Your father’s Peter Hopkins. Go on,” I waved a hand, “get the hell out of here. You should know better.”
Ronny wanted to break through the layers. Didn’t matter if it was his old man, the principal at school, or the local cops. Of course, the older he got, the more layers he found.
Ronny smiled, gave me the finger, and rode away.
The second time his friend Rotten Kid spoke up and asked for the same purchase. I knew Rotten Kid spoke for Ronny because he ordered that half-pint of Southern Comfort. Everybody else ordered a quart or two of Carling Black Label or Miller.
I remember squinting at the glare coming off chrome and windshield of a bright, white Lincoln Continental behind Rotten Kid and thinking, take that boat back to the Terrace or North Lake Drive. I had a hangover, and I told Rotten Kid I’d pick up their beer and booze for a fifty percent tip to get rid of them. Ronny came from around the corner.
“Fifty percent’s okay,” he said.
I had them park their bikes behind the building in a weedy yard and took them up the back steps to my apartment. I gave them Slim Jims, and I played them some records they said sucked. After I got tired of listening to them talk about who had big tits and what cars were boss, I asked for my money. Ronny handed me two twenties for six quarts of Miller and his Southern Comfort.
“Thanks. Keep the change.
“Did your father give you this?”
“No way. My grandpa.”
“What did you do to get it?”
“Asked him for it,” he smiled.
At fourteen Ronny and a friend named David Roscoe shot a swan with an arrow. It went all the way through the swan’s neck and stuck there. The picture blazed across the front page of the Asbury Park Press. The bird didn’t die—that was the amazing part. People from all over wrote letters saying things like this typifies the serious moral decay of our youth. How dare these boys attack a helpless creature that fosters beauty and a sense of community pride?
The result? The town council president at the time—Peter Hopkins—built wooden shelters on Silver Lake’s island. The actual shooter was never revealed. Who killed Bobby Franks, Leopold, or Loeb? Roscoe said Ronny shot the arrow, and Ronny claimed Roscoe did it. Next time I saw Ronny I asked him.
“Which one of you shot that arrow?”
He laughed, “Take a guess.”
Up until a few years ago, I enjoyed hanging around bars with younger men. Sometimes that caused trouble. One summer night I banged into people at the Tropical Pub, talking loud, telling stories. A cigar ash flicked the wrong leg, an arm knocked hard into ribs once too often. Comments came quicker until a path cleared between this big-ass Avon lifeguard and me. He gave me the finger, and then waved for me to come on.
I set my drink down on a table, balanced my cigar across its rim, and straightened up with a hearty, “Fuck you.”
“Better leave it alone, Jimmy,” Ronny cautioned. His Mercer Ave crew was there.
I said, “Hot shot,” and followed the guy up outside through the side, exit-only door. Everybody hooted. He turned around and smiled, drawing it out as if he was on his way to be crowned king. We got outside. Then the ground rumbled up.
Ronny found me kneeling on the grass. My shoulders were bunched and in a shadow, and my legs were in a slant of porch light streaming from a backyard across the way.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d swear you were praying,” Ronny said.
I heard cop sirens coming down the street. Ronny’s crew took exception because they knew me, and all hell had broken loose in the bar.
Flashlights walked around. Out front in the street, car doors slammed, engines turned over. The flashlight beams shot down our little alley, then turned around as if they didn’t want to find anything.
“My floating rib is sunk,” I rolled onto my back.
A few days later, Ronny made sure that Avon guard sucked his meals through a straw for the next six weeks.
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