I awakened slowly, and the first reality that hit me was not the chill in the small bedroom of the cold-water flat, not the dingy surroundings, not the fact that there was no school for the day. I shivered. Reality was my arch tormentor, the boy we called “Shove,” standing in the sunshine of a new day, waiting to tease, pester, and plague me. Charlestown and Shove in 1935, when I was 7, were hard realities. I shivered again. Shove the bully was relentless.
The fire in the kitchen stove was out. It was up to me to fetch the bag of coal from the store. As I popped down the tenement stairs from the second floor, I was aware of the closed-in odors of urine and cabbage leftovers cooking — a smell that met your eyes. There was my father, the robust Marine, often COQ — Charge of Quarters — at his Navy Yard barracks; my mother, the iron of the family; and three children. I was the oldest.
And there was Shove, a looming presence even when not there in the flesh.
In a bouncing gait, I hit the bottom landing and burst out into the Saturday sunshine that was trying to warm the cobblestones of Bunker Hill Avenue. I’d have to dare Shove again this day as all days. There always had to be some kind of display. It had been that way since the beginning.
A crisp, cool, late-October breeze whistled in from the Mystic River. It nipped at my ears. Pennies and nickels jingled in my pocket, the price of the 25-pound bag of coal I’d carry home on my shoulder, lighter than the carbine rifle I’d sling years later in the war in Korea. Soon the stovetop would be mickey-brick red. And I could smell the cocoa my mother would make, and the toast set on the stovetop for mere seconds. Burnt was the way I liked it — well done and filling the air with a singed aroma. Good smells in Charlestown in 1935 had a strong place in the order of things.
For me, a little wiser for my years on this earth than I should have been, Charlestown presented continuous challenges. Perception of things for me began with the three- or four-decker tenements walling up around me and my little haunts, hanging over me sheer as cliffs. Often, they closed in with drab gray paint a few neighbors used to try to spruce things up. Now and then, a corncob yellow or a pale green façade came into being. And passed just as quickly.
A drunk shivered and smelled in the doorway of No. 2 Bunker Hill Avenue. For him, I knew, there was no place to go. Being locked into Charlestown gave you a certain grace for survival or a slow death. But it had no promise of escape. Escape came in the books I read. Escape was over the iron fence of the Navy Yard, high iron, wrist-thick and pointed at its top, like a medieval wall, and the harbor beyond.
Before I turned the corner, I looked up the length of Bunker Hill Avenue, past the cubic blocks of tenements, the Bond Bread factory made of red brick and square as a prison face, and St. Catherine’s Church, as gigantic as could be. I saw Hobie’s little beanery stuck between two triple-deckers, an afterthought, a stall for a pony in a Clydesdales’ barn. The avenue ran uphill and disappeared over the horizon. Out there, the subway ran two ways out of Sullivan Square. One way went deep into downtown. The other headed off on a third-rail run to Everett and places beyond, where trees grew in clusters and fields leaped and the wind sang a different tune.
Here, it shrieked around clapboard corners and up the slim alleys across which neighbors could touch each other.
The chill wind penetrated my thin jacket. Even before I looked, I knew Shove was there near Halsey’s Market on the corner of Chelsea and Ferrin Streets. I would have to run the gauntlet again, pass by him. Taunts would follow, and the small pains he inflicted on me.
Shove was nothing but a bully. A 17-year-old bully, and I was his favorite target. To me, it was surprising he didn’t have a sloped forehead or a bulging jaw or a strange look in his eyes. I never heard he was dropped on his head as a baby. Nothing said anything about him except what he did. And he pushed me around to his sole content.
Hatless, blond, hands stuffed into dungaree pockets, wearing a denim jacket, he leaned against a brick wall like a firecracker ready to go off. Why he picked on me, only he and I knew, a sort of mutual understanding that Shove would get as much of me as he could until the day of revenge came, from me or my father.
Shove thought it would never come. But I knew different. It was in the air.
A jumble of ideas came to me, and I picked a special one: I’d wait until the barrel my family used for ashes was brimming, and then I’d rig it with a tightly lashed cover and roll it to the top of the second floor stairs. I’d lure Shove to my home by throwing rocks at him, getting him to chase me. Then I’d fly up the stairs and give the barrel a well-timed shove. (Seemed fitting.) Gravity and weight would do the rest.
Even the cop who came on the scene investigating the accident smiled once, saw the artistry at work, and called for an ambulance.
Not much in life from that point on kindled a real fear in my soul.
Tom Sheehan is the author of 52 or 53 books and lives in Saugus.