Suddenly Richie Davis wanted to be my friend. He was the neighborhood bully, at once my nightmare and my secret idol. Bigger and tougher than any other kid at Blackstone Elementary, every child in the neighborhood feared Richie — and wanted to be just like him. He had punched me and bitten me, he had spat on me, pulled my pants down, shoved me into a puddle, pushed me into a snow bank. He had pelted me with ice balls, tripped me, commandeered my scooter and broken it, ridiculed my clothes, my haircut, my name. He had turned a hose on me, swiped my Popsicle, stolen my lunch. And he had called me a dirty Jew and a Christ killer.
Now he wanted to be my buddy.
I was seven and I knew something strange was going on, something was wrong if Richie was being nice to me. But I also knew that if Richie was my friend, nobody else would bother me. Harold Kaufmann and the other guys who worshipped Richie would stop picking on me. Better to be Richie's friend, I reasoned, than his enemy.
"Let's be buddies," Richie said, resting a forearm on my shoulder.
"Buddies?" I responded.
"Friends. You and me."
Mom had always said to avoid Richie, but if I refused now, he’d surely punch me in the face. Or worse.
"Okay, buddies," I said.
"Good!" he said, smiling. We shook hands, and I turned to go. It wouldn't do to have Mom look out the window and see me with Richie.
"Hey, I've got a nickel to spend at the store," he said, and held out his hand to show me. "You like ice cream?"
Ice cream! I loved ice cream, but Mom gave it to us only on birthdays and special occasions. It was a warm summer day; suddenly I was almost crazed with ice cream lust.
"How about an Eskimo Pie?" offered Richie. "Vanilla ice cream with chocolate outside."
"Okay," I said, marveling at my good fortune.
"Where'd you get that cane?" asked Richie as we walked toward the store.
"My uncle gave it to me," I said.
There were two canes, gifts from Mom’s favorite sibling. Uncle Duke was a furrier. He had a factory in the State and Lake Building downtown and lived in a big house in the suburbs. Every summer, when business was slow, he took Aunt Marge on vacation. This year they brought us souvenirs wooden canes from Mexico: one for me and one for Freyda, my big sister. Each was carved with pictures of wild animals — monkeys, lions, camels, and elephants — but her cane, longer and thicker, was bright red, yellow, and green. Mine was of dark wood, more delicate. Richie took it from me, whipped his arm and wrist, smiting air, listening to the swoosh.
"I need a cane like this," said Richie.
"You could have that one," I said.
"I want the other one," Richie said. "The colored one."
Freyda and I were playing with our canes on the stoop earlier, before Richie stopped to talk to me.
"That belongs to my sister."
"I want that one," Richie said. "I don't want this brown one."
Surely no kid in our neighborhood had ever seen anything so beautiful, so different and exotic as Freyda's cane.
"I'll ask her," I said. Maybe Freyda would swap with me. I started thinking of reasons that I could give her, but it was hard to concentrate. All I could think about was ice cream, the delicious cold on my tongue.
"Don't be all day," said Richie, scowling. "Or I'll give the ice cream to someone else."
I found Freyda in the kitchen with Mom, peeling carrots and potatoes. She had just celebrated her tenth birthday and Mom said that she could start learning how to cook. I wanted to help, too, but Mom said I was still too young.
"You know those canes that Uncle Duke gave us?" I began.
"What about them?" snapped Freyda, instantly on guard.
"Would you trade with me?"
"Because," I started, and stopped. I couldn't tell her that Richie wanted the cane. I couldn't say that he’d promised me ice cream if I gave it to him. Freyda would have demanded the ice cream or told Mom that I was hanging around with Richie.
"You have your own cane, why do you need mine?" Freyda asked.
"I want to trade. This one is brown, like your hair," I said, lamely. "Anyway, this is a girl's cane," I asserted, holding it aloft to show her how slender and curvy it was.
"You keep yours, I'll keep mine."
I went downstairs and told Richie that he couldn't have Freyda's cane.
"Are we buddies?" he asked, his hand again on my shoulder.
"Do you want that ice cream?"
"Then get me the other cane," he said.
I went back upstairs and tried to read a library book, but all I could think about was ice cream. Then Ila, the baby, needed her diaper changed, while Teddy, who was three, was ready for his nap in the room we shared. Mom sent Freyda to the store while she fussed over the babies. I crept into Freyda's room, found her cane, tiptoed out the door and down the stairs. I hid behind the building, my heart thumping wildly, until Freyda came out of the store with a grocery bag. When she was in the stairwell, I dashed across the street and into the store where Richie waited.
Richie took the cane and I selected a chocolate-dipped delicacy from the freezer case. He gave the grocer a nickel. Outside on the sidewalk, I took a tiny bite.
Richie snatched the bar away. "Ain't ya gonna share your ice cream with your buddy?" he said, and took a big bite.
"Okay," I said, and he took another bite. Then another. And another.
"That's my ice cream!" I protested.
"Sure," he returned. "We're buddies now, and I'm sharing." Gnawing greedily, Richie walked away, threw the stick into the street and ran off, twirling the cane.
The enormity of my crimes washed over me. My heart sank. I had sold my friendship. I had stolen my sister's property. I had given it to someone whom Mom had forbidden me to associate with. Dad would whip me with his leather belt.
I hid under the back stairs, contemplating one wild idea after another. I would run away, find a job. I would break into Richie's house and steal the cane.
I would — I would wait until Dad got home, and face the music, as he liked to put it. I would sleep on my tummy that night, if I slept at all.
The sun was warm and my throat was dry. I didn’t want more ice cream. I wanted water and then I wanted the earth to swallow me.
When I came through the door, Freyda pointed an accusing finger and wailed about her cane. Mom swatted me, twice.
"Wait until your father gets home!" she shrieked. Go to your room!"
Dad never threatened. He just removed his belt and told me how many times he was going to hit me. He made me take my pants down and counted the strokes aloud. Waiting for the next blow was nearly as bad as getting hit.
And so I waited, knowing that I was very bad, that Dad would be very angry and hit me very hard.
Time slowed. Half an hour became an eternity.
Eventually Dad came in. "Did you take your sister's cane?" he said.
"I'm sorry," I said.
"Was it right to take that cane? Is that what I've taught you?"
"No," I sobbed. Dad gave me five strokes, each more painful than the last.
"This hurts me almost as much as it hurts you," he said. When I stopped crying, he asked why I took Freyda’s cane. I told him about Richie and the ice cream and that I got only one bite before he snatched it away.
"Richie should return the cane," he said. "Let's go see Mr. Davis."
Mr. Davis was a big man who spent most days in a tavern. He was even meaner than Richie. If Dad talked to him, I was sure Richie would beat me up.
"But Daddy, if you tell Mr. Davis that Richie has to give the cane back, won't he get mad at you?"
"Then let him be mad. He has to know how his boy took that cane from you. And that it was wrong."
The rancid odor of boiled cabbage oozed through the doorway as Mrs. Davis opened up. "He ain’t here," she said, in reply to Dad’s question.
"What about Richie?"
"Both’r down the corner, maybe."
There was a saloon on the corner. Richie liked to loiter on the sidewalk in front, pitching pennies and sneaking cigarettes.
Dad walked me to our building and told me to go upstairs.
"Where are you going?" I asked.
"To find Mr. Davis," he said, gently pushing me inside.
An hour later he came back with the cane.
It had been snapped in two; the wood on either side of the break was jagged. Mom shot Dad an inquiring look, and he shook his head and said something in Yiddish that I didn't understand.
"What did you learn from this, Mordechai Yankel?" he asked me.
"That I shouldn't steal from Freyda."
"You shouldn't steal from anyone. And about Richie, what did you learn?"
"That he's a bad boy and I should stay away from him."
Dad hugged me and I saw the ugly, purpling welt on the side of his neck where Mr. Davis had broken Freyda's cane.
"Does it hurt?" I asked, gently touching the spot. He flinched.
"It was in a good cause: I learned something."
"When Richie acts like a bully, he’s imitating his father. When he grows up, he'll probably be just like Mr. Davis. Too bad."
With tiny screws, a little glue and paint, Dad made Freyda's cane seem almost new. It took a while before our sibling relationship was similarly mended. Long before my sister forgave me, however, I came to important decisions: If Richie was destined to grow into another Mr. Davis, then he could never be my friend. I still feared him, but my admiration had vanished as quickly as he’d eaten my ice cream bar.
And when I grew up I would not become a bully and a drunk like Mr. Davis. I would be brave and honest like my father.
© 2001 Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. I'll be posting weekly. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.