They pressed their faces tight against the window with their hands shading the sides of their eyes. It was a big window with the reflections of all the stores across 75th Street and the sun shimmering off the glass.
Jack and Willy had seen her going into Ray’s Pizzeria from about a block away. There was no mistaking her even from that distance.
They couldn’t see much without smooching up the glass. It probably made them look a little goofy inside. But that didn’t matter. She was in there. And they wanted a good look.
“Gee, there she is.”
“Yeah, but she’s sittin’ with some guy.”
The object of their efforts was a girl named Marie.
Neither one of them ever said a word to her. They probably never would. Jack and Willy were twelve, almost thirteen, and she was fourteen. That alone made her practically unapproachable.
Besides she was kind of hoody. The kind of girl that went out with guys that smoked, guys with initials carved into heavy black belts. That made her a little scary. And indescribably exciting.
She was a sultry goddess. They got glimpses of her at school last semester. They’d both crane their necks if she passed in the hall and then turn away, nervously laughing and snorting, afraid those dark eyes might just look right into theirs.
They’d talk about seeing her at recess. About her black hair done in a French twist. The bangs over her big, velvety eyes. Round cheeks with powder and pink stuff on them. Big red lips. And the straight skirts she wore.
Now they wouldn’t see her anymore. She was in high school.
“Man, oh, man, is she beautiful,” Willy said, pulling his face from the window.
“Yeah, there ain’t another girl that comes close.”
“Yeah, an’ you should see her legs.”
Willy was referring to the claim he’d seen her once in her gymsuit playing dodgeball. The sight was unforgettable, because he described it in detail every time her name was mentioned.
“Ya wanna hang aroun’ an’ see when she leaves?”
Just then this tough-looking guy rushed out the door. He was looking straight at them. It took a second for them to realize what was happening, but it was the guy who was sitting with her. And he didn’t look happy.
“Hey, ya little jerks, whatcha think you’re doin’ there?”
He charged right up to Jack. It was the way hoody guys do things, without giving you a chance to think about what was going on. He was still talking when he shoved Jack so hard, he almost fell backwards on the sidewalk. He only caught his balance with a lot of panicky arm-waving.
Jack and Willy didn’t need to say a word to each other. They both knew instinctively what to do. They turned and ran as fast as they could.
That surprised him a little. So they got a head start. But as they rounded the corner to Coles Avenue, Jack could see the guy take off after them. He was yelling something at them.
They turned off Coles into the alley behind the stores. Then into a gangway behind some apartments. They hit one set of back-porch stairs flying, racing up the wooden stairs, two or three at a time, until they got to the third floor. Then they collapsed on the porch, breathing hard, hearts pounding.
At first, all Jack could think about was how stupid he looked, getting shoved around like that and running away like a rabbit. In front of her. But the thought of how much stupider he’d look on the sidewalk with a bloody nose made him feel better.
They raised their heads just enough to look down between the edge of the porch and the bottom of the banister. They had a clear view down into the alley from up there. But almost right away they ducked back down against the rough, gray boards. He was there, looking around for them.
“We better jus’ stay here a while. Maybe he won’t go lookin’ up here,” Jack breathed the words, trying to whisper and pant at the same time.
“Yeah, even if he thinks of the porches, he don’t know what one we’re on. For all he knows, we live aroun’ here, an’ we’re already home.
“But what if he comes up?”
“We’ll jus’ both kick at him comin’ up the stairs. He won’t be able to get up here with both of us kickin’ at his face.”
That thought was reassuring. They were really scared, but they weren’t helpless. There was something they could do. They were actually pretty safe up there. They used to hide like this, playing cowboys and Indians, on back porches all over the neighborhood. All that practice was coming in handy now.
“What if he’s got a switchblade?”
Jack hadn’t thought of that. He sure looked like he could have one. Greased-back hair and a sneery look on his face. Just wearing a tight undershirt. And the thick black belt and engineering boots every hoody guy strutted around in.
“I don’t know.” Jack looked around a little, scraping his cheek on the wood. Just like on all the back porches of all the old apartment buildings, there was a big garbage can standing in one corner, the kind made out of gray, ribbed steel with handles on the sides.
“We’ll throw the garbage can on him. An’ there’s a couple of pop bottles over by the door. We could throw those, too.”
“Yeah, good idea.” Willy whispered. “If we hear him on the steps, we better get the garbage can ready to throw ‘fore he gets up.”
“Yeah, he sees us up here with that, there’s no way he’s comin’ up.”
They stayed there, still, except for their breathing, listening for any sounds on the stairs. After fifteen minutes or so and several nervous peeks under the banister, they figured it was safe.
They crept down slowly, crouching as they went, hoping to see a little farther ahead to the next landing, grabbing both banisters tightly with each step. Just like in cowboys and Indians, he could be there, waiting for you to come down the stairs.
Their sneakers didn’t make a sound. But here and there an old board creaked.
“If ya see him, jus’ run back up an’ get ready to kick him. Aim for his face,” Jack whispered.
But he was gone. By the time they got back out into the alley, they were feeling pretty good.
“Which way ya wanna go?”
“Let’s go the same way we were.”
They left the alley and turned back up toward 75th Street. When they got near the corner, just as a precaution, they flattened themselves against the wall of the building. Willy peeked around the corner.
“Not a sign. Let’s go.”
They raced away from the pizzeria. But pretty soon they slowed down and stopped looking over their shoulders. They got back to the way they usually walked. Arms and legs swinging carefree. Pants cuffs and laces flapping around. Sneakers scraping the sidewalk when they pushed each other or stopped to look in some of the stores. Laughing at just about anything.
As they came up to Exchange Avenue, several girls came out of the Coronet Restaurant on the corner ahead. They started across the street toward them.
You could tell from out in the street they were older. Some of them had makeup and straight skirts. High-school girls. Probably fourteen or fifteen. They were laughing and talking, turning their heads back and forth with their hair swinging around, as they walked all bunched together almost like a group picture for a yearbook.
Jack and Willy elbowed each other and laughed when they first saw them. As they got closer, the boys straightened up and the laughs changed to little whispered comments through lips that hardly moved. When the girls got really close, Jack and Willy were quiet. Just plain stiff and nervous actually.
As they passed, one girl’s voice and then another said “Hello, boys.” Kind of slow and silly. Then there was a chorus of giggles and laughs.
Jack and Willy didn’t say a thing. They just looked straight ahead and walked like they were afraid of tripping on their shoelaces. But when the girls were a safe distance away, they suddenly stopped and turned around.
“Man, did ya hear that? Did ya hear that?” Jack bent over like the wind was knocked out of him. “They were talkin’ to us!”
Willy shouted, “Ya, man, an’ that blond with the ponytail, what a dream! I couldn’t believe she was real.”
“Aw, did ya see the one with red hair? Man, was she sharp-lookin’!”
“Sharper than Marie?”
“Ya know, when ya think about it, Marie really ain’t all that great. I mean, she’s pretty nice, but she don’t compare to what we jus’ saw.”
Jack and Willy watched the girls till the last of their bouncing hair and swaying skirts disappeared around the corner where 75th Street turned a little. Then they started walking again, weaving back and forth along the sidewalk, laughing and snorting, pushing and elbowing. Willy was telling Jack about what kind of legs the blond girl probably had.