Programming Note: There are themes and language in this story that might be offensive to some. Consider it PG-13
The Spruce Street lemonade war had been going on for about two weeks. On one end of the block was Tommy Bradshaw, a pudgy pie-faced eleven-year-old, whose hook had been overly sweet lemonade made with simple syrup. His competition, two blocks south was Howie Patterson, whose approach had a much harder lemon bite with a touch of lime.
The pair had spent the last fortnight building sturdier stands, painting brighter signs and cutting prices to the point where no profit was possible. They stuck out tongues and shook fists at one another from their respective curbside locations. After several days of decreased prices and increased hostility, things took an ugly turn.
The Lumpkin twins, Lana and Tanya, were at Tommy’s place. They had a notorious sweet tooth and his brand of lemony sugar-water hit their spot. Tommy knew he could count on the twins for a regular sale, but he needed to hedge his bet.
“You know, I hear that Howie Patterson mixes cat pee into his lemonade,” offered Tommy as he wiped out a glass.
“EE-uuuh!” the twins moaned in a creepy unison.
“It’s true,” Tommy buttressed.“You’re a liar,” answered Tanya.
“I’m just tellin’ you what I heard,” said Tommy, now wiping down the counter. Tommy had picked the twins as the vessel for this tidbit, because everybody in the neighborhood knew the Lumpkin sisters couldn’t keep a secret to save their lives. As such, it didn’t take long for the cat-pee lemonade story to make it back to Howie Patterson. His reaction was predictably explosive. Had it been anybody other than Tommy Bradshaw, Howie would have given them a fat knuckle cocktail, but Tommy, being who he was, got a different rise. Tommy Bradshaw, roly-poly demeanor aside, was a big kid. He was a year older than Howie and a head taller. He had a reputation for scrappiness and Howie knew his own limits.
“That turd-faced, lard-butt,” Howie screamed, “I’ll show him!”
Howie stomped around, vexed by the prospect of taking a beating instead of giving one. He drummed his fingers, rubbed his brow and stewed about his rotund nemesis.
As the anger passed, resolution set in for Howie, “He needs a good butt-whippin’, but I can’t do that… I guess I’m just gonna have get him another way, but how?”
Howie thought about all aspects of his business. He pondered a bigger sign. Maybe even free refills, but nothing seemed to hit home.
“Maybe it’s the recipe,” he thought, “they like that sweet crap he sells, just maybe I can go one better.”
Howie went straight to his mother’s stack of Better Homes and Gardens recipe books. The thin volumes graced the shelves of every suburban kitchen in America. In them were all manner of culinary delights and palette straining dubious concoctions. Faced with names like “Dee’s Delightful Summer Punch” and “Orange Cooler-ific” Howie’s inspiration dimmed. He looked in cookbook after cookbook, but nothing helped. Finally, he turned to his mother’s recipe box. Laden with brown-tinged and food-stained index cards, the box looked promising.
“At least people have actually made some of this stuff,” Howie thought.
This too, proved fruitless. Unless he wanted spice cake or a Jell-O mold, Howie found no inspiration. He was stymied, but not one to give up, he took his problems to his father.
“Dad, all the kids are buying Tommy’s lemonade because he said mine has cat pee in it,” Howie told the plume of pipe smoke wafting over the Barcalounger.
Carl Patterson wasn’t sure he had heard correctly, “What? Cat pee?”
“Yep, cat pee.”
“I may have to have a talk with Marty Bradshaw about that,” said Carl over his now-folded newspaper.
“No-o-o,” recoiled Howie, “You can’t do that. I’d look like a sissy!”
“Well, what then?” quizzed Carl.
“I dunno. I just thought maybe I could make better lemonade or something. Our stands look about the same and we got the same prices.”
Better lemonade was not something Carl Patterson immediately had ideas about. He had spent most of his life as a cultural anthropologist wandering around South America studying the various indigenous peoples. For Carl, the very idea that Howie thought about things like “better lemonade” was perhaps a sign that he had been left alone with his mother too long. Trying his best to at least seem interested, he attempted to summon up something useful.
“You know son, the Yuamni people of northern Columbia make a drink out of leaves, flowers and insects. They believe anyone who drinks it can contact the spirit world,” Carl offered.
Finally, thought Howie, the old man had something. “So, what’s in it?”
“Why? You gonna make some up for the neighborhood kiddies?” Carl asked with a chuckle.
“Naw, just wondering… sounds kinda nuts,” Howie mumbled.
“Well, if you’re really interested,” said Carl, fishing a tattered notebook out of his desk, “looks like it was made with sap from something like a rubber tree, wings from a really big beetle, some kind of poison tree frog and a pink orchid that none of us had ever seen before.
Anyway, all that gets cooked up in a stump with water from a sacred river and they have this ceremony… ah, then… well… things get pretty weird from there… you get the gist of it.”
At that point, Carl’s silence lapsed into a memory of wild hallucinations and unfettered dancing with naked native people.
“Uh, thanks, dad,” said Howie not quite sure how to act on all this information.
“Sure thing, sport,” said Carl, oblivious to the forest fire he’d just set.
Howie racked his brain for a way to apply all this new knowledge. He didn’t have any of that stuff. So, he’d just use what he had on hand. He spent the next few hours gathering leaves from his mother’s potted plants, catching a variety of insects, corralling a couple of wayward toads and filching a bottle of Sprite from the pantry.
Wary of his mother’s eye, Howie sneaked the old green Coleman camp stove out of the garage. He didn’t have a stump but did find a large empty Maxwell House coffee can. Collecting the various components, Howie slipped behind his dad’s workshop. Within minutes he had the stove lit and was busily boiling insects, toads and philodendron leaves.
“This smells worse than poop,” he said with a scrunched-up nose and tightened throat, “I hope nobody comes back here.”
Every few minutes he checked around the side of the shop. The wind was still, and no one seemed interested. The horrible goop eventually boiled down to a greenish slurry. When the smell became almost vomit inducing, Howie decided it was done. While the vile liquid cooled, he made a very strong batch of fresh lemonade. He knew that the repugnant odor of his potion would need heavy masking. Likewise, he didn’t really want to poison anybody… except for Tommy Bradshaw.
With the lemonade chilling, Howie took an eyedropper, filled it with the green stuff and squirted it into the pitcher. It turned the lemonade the palest, wispy green.
“Hmm,” he said looking askance at the pitcher, “guess I’ll just have to say it’s the limes.”
Howie took his new flavor out to the curb. Tommy Bradshaw had come down the street on his bicycle to do some reconnaissance.
“Hadn’t seen you out here. I thought you had given up on selling the cat pee,” taunted Tommy.
“Blow it out your ear, fat boy,” challenged Howie with newfound courage, “I got magic lemonade now.”
“We’ll just see who blows what, Mr. Pee-ade, anyway Ihave a customer waiting,” said Tommy pedaling off.
Howie didn’t care. He tore down his old sign and put up a new one proclaiming “Magic Lemonade: New Color, New Taste.”
The lemonade-buying public was intrigued. Almost immediately a dozen neighborhood children had lined up for the pale green concoction.
“A dime please,” Howie instructed.
“A dime? Tommy’s is only a nickel,” a freckled seven-year-old protested.
“Yeah, but his ain’t magic,” Howie shot back.
“What’s so magic about yours?” asked Lana Lumpkin.
“It’s got special ingredients,” said Howie.
“Probably just food coloring,” mumbled Tanya Lumpkin.
“No. It isn’t just food coloring, Miss Smarty-pants,” rebuffed Howie, “Anyway, your dimes, please.”
The crowd gathered more tightly around the stand. They greedily stuck out their cups amid whiney stabs of, “Me first. Me first.”
Howie filled each of the paper cups with a cool splash of the pale green elixir. They quickly swallowed the contents of their cups. Silently, the throng stood there, eyes darting, waiting for something to happen.
After a few seconds Lana Lumpkin spoke up, “See I knew it was just food coloring.” “Yeah, you liar!” fussed the freckled kid.
“Yeah, we want our money back,” carped Tanya Lumpkin.
“Well, uh, just give it a minute,” assured Howie.
“Baloney!” cried the freckled kid, “Gimme back my dime.”
“Money! We want our money,” the crowd demanded.
Howie saw no other choice. He fished a handful of dimes out of his jeans pocket. His chin sank as he watched the disappointed crowd disperse.
“I’ll bet it was cat pee,” Howie heard from the distance. A less determined ten-year-old might have cried at that point, but Howie just sat, head in his hands, on the curb.
The Lumpkin sisters had retired to their front yard four houses down. They along with another of the dissatisfied customers were engaged in a rousing jump rope chorus of, “Cinderella, dressed in yellow, went to the ball to fetch a fellow…”
Then it hit. In the same annoying tandem which marked all other Lumpkin sister emanations, Tanya and Lana’s bowels loudly opened. Shrieks erupted from the twins as they dove to nearby grass and began wildly rolling as if engulfed in flame.
Half a block to the south, the freckled boy flung off his pants and ran down the street amid a foam of nightmarish profanity.
Further still, faint cries of, “Snakes! Snakes! Get the snakes off me!” and “Rutabaga, Rutabaga… YEEEE-AHHHH!” echoed outward.
Children howled, laughed, cried and dragged their bottoms like scratching dogs.
A black-haired boy in a Jughead cap began ferociously humping a street lamp. Others swept back through the neighborhood in various stages of undress, belching, flatulent and violently ripping up shrubs as they went. Hell itself opened to unleash a gale of Banshees with dysentery, or so it seemed.
As quickly as the violence erupted, it subsided. The lemonade delirium waned into sweaty slumber. Dropping where they stood, the afflicted lapsed into to fetid pools of their own creation.
Several silent minutes passed. From his place along the curb, Howie had borne full witness to the clamor. Likewise, Tommy Bradshaw had taken careful note.
Astride his Schwinn, Tommy coasted over, “Christ, Patterson, what the hell did you do to those people?”
“Nothin’,” Howie replied.
“Nothin’, my ass!” rebuffed Tommy, “you really must’ve put cat pee in your lemonade.” “Nope,” said Howie, still staring out over the carnage.
“Magic Lemonade? There’s somethin’ in there, Patterson. Give it up.” balked Tommy. “Yep. It ain’t cat pee though,” answered Howie still looking.
“What?” asked Tommy.
“It’s a secret,” mocked Howie.
“It won’t be for long,” said Tommy, pointing toward the stirring bodies around them.
Their slumber short-lived, Howie’s customers began shaking off the trance. The world into which they awoke was far different from the one they left. The mystic grip of lemon-flavored madness had given way to the reality of loose bowels, torn clothing and skinned knees.
Again, the air was filled with the cacophony of children yelling, but these tones came from a different place, a place where fear and confusion begged for a mother’s comfort.
Parents, already curious about the first outburst dashed outdoors to see what terror had befallen their children.
Carl Patterson rushed over to Howie, “Son, what the hell’s happening here? Why is everybody going crazy?”
“Don’t know,” Howie replied as a gingham-checked screamer wailed past.
Still waiting for an answer, Tommy Bradshaw saw an opportunity, “Man you must’ve really put it to them,” he said to Howie.
“What’s he mean, Howie, ‘put it too them’?” asked Carl Patterson.
“Well, you see… I, uh…” said Howie.
“Read the sign, Carl. He put the magic lemonade whammy on them!” tattled Tommy. “You bitch!” Howie squawked at the betrayal.
“Howie!!!” growled his father, dragging the boy ear-first into the house.
There was no amount of explaining that could have made a difference. That afternoon,
Howie received that which is commonly known as ‘the beating of a lifetime.’
As corollary punishment, Carl Patterson got to do some explaining of his own. His wife, Ruthie, had always harbored a not so subtle resentment about Carl’s profession. She saw this as further evidence that he loved the ‘dirty jungle people’ more than his own family.
“If you had been around here more and in that damn swamp less, things like this wouldn’t happen, Carl,” the slender brunette sharply admonished with a wag of a burning cigarette.
“But, Ruthie, all I did was answer the boy’s question. How was I supposed to…” pleaded Carl.
“Don’t you, ‘but Ruthie,’ me, mister, I’ll…” growled Ruthie, as the telephone rang, “Hello, oh, Mrs. Lumpkin, let me give Carl the phone. He’ll be able to explain it to you.”
“Mrs. Lumpkin, Carl Patterson, here. How are you?” asked Carl, poorly feigning polite calmness.
The ear piece of the black telephone receiver seemed awfully hot as an excited mother of twins described her personal nightmare.
“Uh, huh… Uh, huh… Oh, I’ll pay for that… Oh, yes, that, too… Yes, I’m quite sure matching outfits are expensive… Oh, I’m so sorry… No, no, I didn’t know a house cat could be made to do that… Okay, the vet, the dry cleaners, painters … Really, really, just send whatever bills…,” Carl listened, apologized, listened and apologized some more.
The walls of the Patterson home absorbed variations of this same conversation several more times that evening. Carl mopped his brow, atoned and promised restitution while Ruthie watched, lit cigarettes and tapped the toe of her low-rise pump on the linoleum. By ten o’clock, Ruthie’s ashtray was a graveyard of lipstick-ringed filters.
Carl looked up from the kitchen table, “You know, Ruthie, you really shouldn’t smoke those things.”
“Yeah, and you shouldn’t encourage your son to make voodoo coolers for the neighborhood children,” Ruthie barked through a gray cloud.
“Strictly speaking, it’s not voodoo,” Carl observed before realizing the grave error of his correction.
“Strictly speaking, your son tried to poison a dozen children after you told him how to do it,” flared Ruthie, “I’ll never be able to face the bridge club again.”
While the elder Pattersons debated the implications of his actions, Howie, now banished to his room, sorted out his own social problems. While privately pleased with the results, Howie knew that this was a seminal moment in his neighborhood status. From here forward, it could go one of two ways: Either the playground would part for him like the Red Sea for Moses; or he would become that creepy kid who tried to kill everybody.
Like it or not, Howie knew Tommy Bradshaw would be key in the equation. Tommy, for all his fleas, had status. Despite his pudginess, he played pee-wee football with considerable skill. He had a nice bicycle. His mom was pretty and his dad was tall. Kids liked Tommy, even if their affection had a tinge of fear about it. Howie recognized this and knew that Tommy Bradshaw could sway popular opinion.
The media spin was in full swing by the time Howie was released from a three-day bedroom lockdown. Tommy and the others had speculated, hypothesized and theorized wildly as to the contents of ‘Howie’s Potion.’ In early polling, the cat pee conjecture had been supplanted by bug spray as the probable active ingredient. The public was anxious for a definitive answer.
Howie knew this was his chance to win over Tommy and those in his realm. As a condition of his release, Howie had to immediately disassemble the magic lemonade stand. Tommy Bradshaw, ever vigilant, took note. Howie knew he would.
The red Schwinn rolled up, “Outta’ the lemonade business?” “Yep,” Howie said trying to be nonchalant.
“So, if you ain’t gonna sell any more of that stuff, what’s in it?” Tommy asked. Howie worked his angle, “I don’t know. It’s kinda secret.”
“Well, me and the kids been talkin’. We figure we know anyway,” coaxed Tommy. “You don’t,” cautioned Howie, “anyway, suppose I tell you, what’s in it for me?” “You can ride my bike,” offered Tommy.
“I got a bike,” answered Howie.
“You can have some of my baseball cards.”
“Nope,” Howie again rebuffed.
“What then?” asked Tommy.
Howie knew that his opening offer would dictate all that followed, “First, you’re gonna make sure everybody knows that I wasn’t tryin’ to kill anybody. The ingredients are magic. You just have to be ready for it. Those kids weren’t. They just drank too much. Second, whenever we pick sides in phys-ed, you always gotta pick me first and you can’t say why; and, if you act like it’s a big deal gettin’ me first, I’ll give you what I got left of the batch.”
Tommy thought about the proposition. Howie was at best marginal in all playground sports. In kickball, Howie just plain sucked, but this was a rare opportunity.
“Jesus Christ, is there anything else you want? How about I just go piss on the principal’s desk instead?” carped an incredulous Tommy.
“Nope. Just that. You want my stuff, or not? So, we got a deal?” pressed Howie. “Yeah, Okay. Deal,” agreed Tommy.
Howie carefully retrieved the coffee can from its hiding place and gave it to Tommy. “Smells like dog crap,” Tommy said.
“Yeah, I know,” answered Howie, “Be careful. I put one eyedropper of this stuff in about a gallon of lemonade and you saw what happened.”
“Priceless,” said Tommy.
“You better remember the deal,” admonished Howie.
“Don’t worry, you just became the star kicker,” assured Tommy sniffing the can. Things weren’t quite as amicable inside the Patterson house. Carl Patterson had gone limp explaining, apologizing and reimbursing for the damage his son had caused. Underneath the shame of it all, the beleaguered anthropologist quietly planned his escape back to the friendly people south of the equator. Ruthie Patterson took her refuge in a twice daily pack of Carltons and a couple fingers of scotch.
Things weren’t quite the same in the Bradshaw household either. While the elder Bradshaws, Marty and Christine, blithely went about their daily routines, Tommy was quietly engaged in the Manhattan Project of juvenile pranks. Slowly the neighborhood birds learned to stay away from birdbaths. And even the most avaricious alley cat debated the merit of scraps near the Bradshaw family’s trashcans.
Tommy, for all his typically boorish and plodding manners, was precise in his observations of Howie’s magic goop and its effects on the local fauna. Tommy spent weeks pensively watching as his unsavory experiments unfolded. When the moment came, he would be ready.
Tommy’s mother, Christine Bradshaw, was a slender and beautiful woman. She had been a cheerleader in high school and still exuded that sort of homey sweet, yet plasticine charm. This comely visage had propelled her up through the ranks of the Junior League, the Garden Club and the neighborhood bridge group. It was this last association which she found the most challenging. She liked the bridge club trappings: the little tables, the neatly trimmed sandwiches and the partnered gossip, but she loathed all the thinking that actually went into playing bridge.
As one might anticipate, Marty Bradshaw wasn’t a big bridge man. He thought it a bit too girly for a big strapping man’s man such as himself, but for the sake of domestic tranquility he submitted.
Bridge night wasn’t much better for the youngest Bradshaw, either. Tommy typically spent bridge night banished to somebody’s back bedroom in the forced company of the Lumpkin sisters or some other equally dismal bridge orphans. In short, nobody named Bradshaw really liked bridge night, but by God, they were all gonna act like they did, or else.
Howie and Carl Patterson also held membership in the bridge night endurance club. Ruthie Patterson didn’t sympathize.
“Christ, what’s with you two?” she’d ask pointedly, “Every time bridge night comes up, you two act like we’re going to a funeral.”
The male faction of the Patterson family knew better than to respond. They just stood there digging their toes into the carpet and looking down.
“After all that’s happened around here this summer, you’d think that the two of would want to do anything you could to get us back in good graces with the neighbors. I’m still surprised they let us play,” Ruthie chastised.
Carl and Howie looked at each other through thin sidelong slits. Again, no response was required, or wise.
As Ruthie Patterson tromped off to get her lipstick, Carl and Howie both let out their breath.
“Look, son,” Carl began, “I don’t like this anymore than you do, but it’s important to your mother. So, we’ve got to play along… um, so to speak.”
“Yeah, I s’pose, but why do I always have to go?” Howie protested.
“The same reason I have to,” quietly answered Carl as Ruthie brushed back into the room.
“You, boys ready to go?” Ruthie asked as she blotted her lipstick and tucked a round compact into her clutch bag.
The pair still didn’t say anything, choosing instead to turn off lights, look for house keys and move very slowly toward the door.
Ruthie sensed a delay tactic unfolding, “Come on! We are not going to be late.”
A similar scene was taking place a few doors down as Christine Bradshaw made ready for the impending arrival of her guests.
“Tommy, I told you to stay out of the food,” the middle-aged cheerleader barked at her pretzel filching son.
Tommy paused only momentarily. He knew his chance to dwell among the finger sandwiches was limited at best. Marty Bradshaw on the other hand, knew better, or at least he was better at waiting until Christine was out of the room.
“Son, you better watch out, that woman will beat your hide if you eat one of those little pretties,” Marty admonished.
Soon Christine’s attentions were diverted. The doorbell rang; and the Pattersons were welcomed. They were shortly followed by the Andersons, Holcotts, Robinsons and finally, the Lumpkins. Tommy was somewhat pleased to see this particular set of arrivals because the Lumpkin twins were the only interlopers apart from Howie Patterson. Howie, he could deal with; and at least the Lumpkin sisters weren’t somebody’s two-year old toddler that would require active babysitting.
“Tommy, why don’t you take the other children back to your room,” Christine suggested loudly.
To this, Tommy instinctively balked, but he knew it was no use. He should just quietly lead the little parade to his room whereupon he could figure out how to ditch the Double-Mint girls.
Tommy’s room was a predictably brown and hostile boy’s bedroom. There were trophies for a variety of juvenile sporting feats, a mass of athletic equipment and a plethora of toys themed to one act of killing or another. The Lumpkins looked about as though they smelled something unpleasant. Howie felt like he was about to be held down and smothered with somebody’s dirty jock strap.
The Lumpkins came prepared for just such an eventuality. They fished into the brightly colored canvas totes which they were carrying.
“Tommy why don’t you get out some of your soldiers and they can play with our dollies?” Lana suggested, while holding up a pink-clad plastic figure with long blonde braids.
“I got a better idea,” started Tommy, “why don’t the two of you stay here and be creepy, while Howie and I go outside?”
Tommy grabbed Howie by the sleeve and maneuvered him toward the exit, “One more thing, ladies, touch any of my stuff and your dollies go home without heads.”
Safely outside, Tommy and Howie were free to deal with bigger issues. “So, Patterson, I been working with your goop,” Tommy revealed. “Yeah?” Howie asked sheepishly.
“Lots of stuff. Mostly, I been croakin’ birds and stuff, but I been playing with some bigger game too.”
“Bigger game?” Howie looked worried.
“Yeah, lots bigger. I got the dose figured out pretty good. A little bit in the old man’s coffee cup and he won’t go crazy. He just wanders off for a while. When he comes back, he’s all sweaty and confused. Same way with Mom. A speck in the herbal tea and she just sits there blank as a fart for two or three hours,” Tommy coolly explained.
“Good God, Tommy! You’re giving that stuff to your parents? What’s the matter with you? If they find out, you be grounded for life or sent to military school!” Howie shrieked.
“Keep your bloomers on, Lois. They ain’t that smart. Anyway, I’m real careful with the dose… never enough to pull that stunt of yours… just enough to make ‘em kind of confused,” Tommy reassured.
“I don’t know. I think you’re gonna get creamed,” Howie cautioned.
“Anyway, that don’t matter now,” Tommy rebuffed, “that’s why I brought you out here.”
“What?” Howie asked.
“In there,” said Tommy pointing to the picture window of his parents living room.
“In there, what?” asked Howie.
“In there, are twelve people drinking out of cocktail glasses that have each been wiped with a speck of your little potion,” bragged Tommy.
Howie couldn’t speak. He just sat there with his eyes fixed on the six couples, ignorantly bidding, passing and sipping their Manhattans. Howie thought that he might die waiting for the inevitable.
“Geeze, Patterson, take a breath. It ain’t like they’re gonna start rippin’ up the place. Like I said, I just put enough to make ‘em all a little dopey.”
“You sure, Tommy? I mean are you really, really sure?” asked Howie almost in tears.
“Christ, Patterson, if I knew you were gonna go all girlie on me, I woulda left you in there with the Lumpkins,” mocked Tommy. “Yes, I’m sure. Look,” Tommy said pointing to the window, “It’s already taking hold. Frank Anderson looks like he’s about to flop over.”
Howie looked up aghast at the sight of Frank Anderson in his argyle golf sweater starting to swoon. Tommy snickered with a snort. Tommy was right. The potion was starting to work its magic. The bridge club was about to fall under his spell. Unfortunately, Tommy in all his eleven-year-old wisdom and trickery had failed to account for one key variable: Marty Bradshaw tending bar.
Marty liked to show his guests a good time. That, and he needed a stiff one just to make the whole evening tolerable. As a consequence, when Marty Bradshaw mixed Manhattans, the stock price for the makers of Old Overholt Rye Whiskey usually went up a point.
If Tommy had failed to account for the increased amount of alcohol, the green goop had accounted doubly on its own. The aged rye romanced and magnified all the goop had to offer. It mixed with the thin paint of green slurry, embracing it, asking it to dance, inviting it inside the stomachs and central nervous systems of the Bradshaw bridge night.
The slurry was at first reluctant to do more than its small dose was designed, but the alcohol kept arguing its point. Slowly, the potion relented.
Christine was the first to articulate her inner dialog, “Marty, I think you made these drinks a bit too strong.”
Terri Holcott, a pert redhead, agreed, “Yeah, look at Frank. He’s had just one and he’s tanked.”
Frank Anderson brashly responded to hearing his name, “Me, tanked? Bullshit! I played for the Dodgers!”
“Dear! Watch your language!” cried Margie Anderson in horrified embarrassment.
“Oh, leave him alone. Isn’t it enough that he’s a washed-up minor-league hack?” Bill Lumpkin butted in.
“Bill, don’t be so rude!” Trudie Lumpkin barked at her husband.
“What do you know… You’re frigid as a polar bear’s balls,” Bill shot back.
At this revelation, the Robinson family came alive.
“How dare you talk to my wife that way… oh, wait, she’s your wife. Never mind,” said Curt Robinson sitting back down.
Tommy and Howie had continued watching from outside and even though they could not fully hear, they could tell that the bridge game was quickly changing tenor.
“What’s happening in there?” Howie asked.
“I dunno, looks hot in there? They sure as hell stopped playing cards,” Tommy responded.
The pair inched closer to the picture window in hopes of hearing more clearly. In the course of his less than stealthy footwork, Tommy managed to make a shrub scrape against the window sill.
This attracted the attention of Marty Bradshaw, “What the hell was that? Probably your damn cat again, Robinson! He’s always knocking over my trash. Why I ought to go out there right now and stomp the life out of it!”
Curt Robinson pushed over a card table in his haste to defend his cat and stop Marty Bradshaw. Regrettably, Louise Robinson was closer.
“I’ll teach you to threaten Mr. Cuddles, you big jock strap!” cursed Louise as she hurled a cucumber sandwich at and then leapt on top of Marty Bradshaw.
Louise Robinson’s tasteful, salmon-colored A-line skirt hiked itself up around her waist as she throttled Marty Bradshaw. Angered by what she interpreted as an obvious sexual overture, Christine Bradshaw came to her mate’s “rescue” by yanking Louise back by the collar of her matching salmon jacket.
Naturally, this just served to refocus Louise’s attack. It also served to spur other random hostilities among the onlookers. Those who had heretofore been unengaged, took the moment to reflect and act upon any petty grievance or vague uncertainty that had gone otherwise unmentioned. Property lines, ugly paint choices, suspected infidelities, missed PTA meetings, bad potluck dinner contributions, all became grist for the mill.
Howie and Tommy could only watch in horror as the melee ran its course. They witnessed neighbor against neighbor, spouse against spouse, the men against the women and nearly every other possible combination of combatants. Had there been any neighbors available to call, surely the police would have also attended. Finally, after almost an hour of furniture throwing, dress ripping and name calling, the bridge game came to a sleepy close.
Soon after, Howie came to the painful realization that the Lumpkin sisters must have also come from Tommy’s room and witnessed the donnybrook. Not that he had any particular affection for them, just that he knew their tattle-tale nature wouldn’t work in his favor.
“Forget about it,” Tommy reassured, “Before we came out, I stuck a wedge under my door. The twins didn’t see nothing. Like I’d let those two roam around loose… gimme a break.”
Howie felt a little better, but still, there was the pile of sweaty, bruised, half-naked bodies in the Bradshaw living room. Despite the blocked door, they had to tell the Lumpkin sisters something.
“I say we tell them that everybody got real bad food poisoning,” Howie offered.
For once, Tommy liked Howie’s idea.
“Pretty good, Patterson. There may be hope for you yet,” said Tommy.
The pair went to check on the Lumpkin girls and plant the food poisoning story. To make them stay put, they told them that it was not only food poisoning, but that it was contagious. Being nine years old, they bought it.
With the Lumpkins secure, they still had the first minor issue with which to deal.
“I think we ought to try and wake them all up,” Howie proposed.
With this suggestion Howie moved back into the minus column.
“And then what? You don’t know if they’re still gonna be nuts,” countered Tommy, “I don’t know about you, but I’m going back to my room with the twins and I’m staying there until somebody comes to get me.”
Howie agreed and the boys went back to Tommy’s room. As the evening wore on, the four children fell asleep where they sat. They stayed there until the morning brought a soft knock on Tommy’s door.
“Tommy, honey, are you awake?” asked Christine Bradshaw.
“Yeah, Mom, I’m awake,” said Tommy answering the door. He was greeted by an aging cheerleader who looked as though the football team had kicked her downfield.
“Um, sweetie, about last night… did you and the other children see… well, what I mean is, do you know what happened last night?” Christine asked in thinly veiled embarrassment.
“Oh, you mean when you guys all got sick from the bad clam dip and told us to just stay back here. No, we didn’t see anything,” Tommy said as he looked back for Howie’s verification.
“Yes, Mrs. Bradshaw. We heard you guys, uh… coughing and stuff, but we just stayed back here with Lana and Tanya. Like you told us…” added Howie.
Christine looked relieved – bedraggled and road worn, but relieved.
“Well, you kids just stay back here a little while longer and then you can all go home,” she haltingly coaxed.
Nobody really wanted to play bridge any more after that night. Nobody really wanted to do much in the way of neighborhood activities for a very long time. The Andersons quietly sold their house and moved back East. Likewise, the Holcotts and Robinsons also departed shortly.
Among those who were left, Carl Patterson tried to focus more on golf and less on jungles. Ruthie Patterson quit smoking and took up yoga. The Bradshaws remodeled their living room… and still do, about once every two years. The Lumpkins sisters grew up and reached their intellectual and professional potential by modeling for Penthouse.
Perhaps the most interesting catalyst from the bridge party was the bond it forged between Howie and Tommy. Like two soldiers thrown into combat, the intensity cemented something between them. Détente became friendship. The friendship sent them to the same college. Howie got Tommy through chemistry; and Tommy introduced Howie to Rita.
The pair continued together into pharmaceutical school; and into a jointly owned pharmacy — where, amidst all things apothecary sat a now rusted and not quite empty Maxwell House coffee can.