Mickey Caselli lived across the street from me. He was the only child of a meek and abused English teacher and a sadistic, alcoholic father. I never saw either of them. I was in high school before I ever laid eyes on Mrs. Caselli, after 15 years as her neighbor. I knew her story, and she mine, we both kept them to our selves. She and Mickey were perpetually injured, something everyone just became accustomed to, devastating in retrospect.
Mickey was six years my senior. He had a basketball hoop in front of his house, an otherwise dismal place. I would come over, sheepishly, cookies in-hand, hopeful I would earn my keep if I bore gifts. A sleeve of flower shaped, fudge filled cookies would be my entrance to his company. Mickey told me that I didn’t need to come over with cookies and that if people only wanted to be my friend because of what I had to offer, they were, in fact, no friend at all. He always stood by that theory. He never made me feel like a pest or unwanted in any way, but we always ate the cookies, me sitting on the curb, him shooting baskets.
Mickey taught me how to box when I was seven years old. He said with a smart mouth like mine I’d be using my right hook as often as any Golden-glover.
“Ok, you little smartass, let’s see if you’ve got anything to back up that mouth! Move your feet! Get your hands up!”
He’d swat at me until I took a legit swing at him.
“There she is! That’s what I want to see!”
He’d laugh, with a broad, genuine smile, proud of himself, and, me. He was a regular kid, filled with joy, until the fender of his father’s white Impala turned the corner. Time would freeze for him in front of my very eyes. I didn’t understand the abrupt daily death of my sage trainer but it was palpable. I couldn’t comprehend the cruelty that lived in his house but I watched it arrive, everyday at 5:30.
Mickey was a great athlete, never good enough for his father, but the kids in town worshiped him. There were rumors among the kids that his father would show up at his baseball games drunk and beat him in the parking lot after the game, win or lose. His spirit never seemed to break, unlike his bones.
One mischief night, the brain trust, consisting of Walter, Edward and I, decided to ring doorbells, soap windows and string toilet paper from trees. We were an original and creative group. After toilet papering Mrs. Silverfarbs’ house and ringing the doorbell, we ran. We jumped through the bushes that lined my house, which, by the way, was directly across from Mrs. Silverfarb’s house. Walter, overly confident in his physical abilities, jumped headfirst. Hopeful of a graceful, MacGyver type roll, only to get stuck, head first in the thicket. He screamed and flailed. Edward and I laughed so hard we were rendered helpless. We tried to assist him but we were unsuccessful at extracting him before Mickey came out and saw what we had done.
As it turns out Mrs. Silverfarb spent 8 months a year in Boca and would not have seen our handy work until mid-May. Mickey said he was disappointed, that we should be nicer to the old bags. In exchange for his silence we had to agree to shovel all of the old ladies driveways for the whole winter, for free. We did and he supervised every snowstorm.
Several years after my extensive training in pugilism, I had an actual fight, not my first, but my first with an audience. I was in my front yard, pre-fight, playing whiffle ball. I had just hit a line drive over Mrs. Pulaski’s hedges. I made my way to second base as my sparring partner pulled up on his bike: a boy, two years my senior.
Initially, I ignored his uninspired taunts.
“You gonna cry, fat ass?”
“Do I look like I’m gonna cry, loser?”
“You calling me a loser, fat ass?”
“You are the only loser I see.”
Ah, the “f” word, only broken out for special occasions. At that young age it still came with a hefty punishment. I knew we were going to fight. It was far from my first altercation and I knew how to expedite the process.
I would be lying if I didn’t admit the enjoyment I experienced the moment I knew I had gotten under someone’s skin to the brink of madness, a skill perfected early on at the expense of the nuns. I also knew that calling a boy a faggot was fighting words. He dropped his bike to the ground and came at me. Our brief exchange had caught the eye of Edward’s dad, who sat on his front porch, beer in hand. An instant later, every kid in the neighborhood stood as spectators.
“You want to fight, fat ass?”
“Well, I don’t want to dance, faggot.”
He took a step at me. Mickey intervened.
“Whoa. You can’t hit a girl. You’re twice her size. You wanna fight? Fight me.”
That wasn’t going to happen. Mickey was a tough kid and we all knew he had the capacity for violence. Brian, my opponent, took another step closer.
“What’s the matter? You can’t fight your own battles, fat ass?”
“Don’t pay any attention to him. I think you should be able to hit girls, especially one as ugly as you.”
Brian was enraged. He came at me like an animal, near tears from embarrassment and fury. I took the first swing, just as I had been instructed to. “Don’t wait to get hit, Erin.” Words to live by. My fist connected with his jaw and laid him out flat. I straddled him and beat him with every ounce of fat ass ferocity I possessed. Bleeding and hysterical, Brian tried to escape my wrath unsuccessfully. My mother saved his life.
“What the hell is going on? Erin! Stop! Look what you are doing!”
“He called her a fat ass. Well, then she called him a faggot.”
My mother’s jaw dropped in shock. I shrugged. I knew I couldn’t count on Walter for muscle but he was loyal, even if a bit too honest. The information changed things a bit for my mother, I could tell. Her hesitation in yanking me off Brian solidified my confidence that I wouldn’t get in as much trouble for fighting, this time.
“Ok, everyone go back to what you were doing. Fight’s over. Maybe next time you’ll think before you call someone a fat ass.”
Brian got on his bike and never came to my yard again. My mother was angry. She turned to Edward’s dad, still on his front porch, ringside.
“Ed, why didn’t you break it up?"
“He called her a fat ass! She was winning!”
My mother shook her head in disgust as she dragged me into the house to face my punishment. The crowd had dispersed except for Mickey. He stood in the street in front of my house, bursting with pride. We made eye contact. His jaw set, he nodded at me and mouthed “good girl”.
I never became the “boxer” Mickey would have liked, but I did know to defend myself, by just hauling off and cracking someone. No grace or finesse, as he would of preferred, but effective nonetheless.
Several years ago my father called to say that Mickey had called him. Fran had not seen or heard from Mickey in at least 15 years and he had moved twice. Mickey tracked him down through Edward’s parents. He was in need a few hundred dollars. He said he had been in trouble with drugs and a bad crowd and was going to use the money to “right a wrong”. Fran said he either gave Mickey $500.00 to straighten out, or paid $500.00 to never hear from him again.
Mickey used the money her borrowed to take his estranged wife and little girl to a carnival. He bought them dinner and took his daughter on rides. They had their picture taken on the back of a camel.
Mickey dropped his family at home, rented a room at a local hotel and hung himself.