Kate Ayers, Author
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The Crosstown Gang
 

It was the best kind of gang to be in for a kid in the Sixties. We called ourselves the Crosstown Gang, because we ran all across Rosetown, but I guess it wasn't really much of a gang. Pretty much just my neighbor Andy and me. Sometimes one or two of the other kids from the neighborhood would go along, but usually it was just the two of us.

It wasn’t really much of a neighborhood, either. Just four houses on a dirt lane. Still, it was our neighborhood. It even had a creek that ran alongside the road. Not much of a creek, but it was big enough to wade in and catch frogs. Sometimes we’d find salamanders, too, what we called water dogs. It was a good thing none of those creepy crawlies were poisonous, because we’d catch pretty much whatever moved. Even garter snakes. Andy and I were still tomboys then. Girly stuff was far in our futures – at least, far in mine. Climbing rocks, splashing through puddles and making faces at boys was more our style than clomping around in Mom’s high heels and playing with her rouge.

 

It was a great time to be eleven. On those mornings I didn’t have to go to school, Mom would shove me outside to play, and I don’t think she wanted to see me again until dinnertime. She knew we’d be safe. No one worried about bad people snatching kids or drug dealers selling illegal stuff. The biggest fear was getting hit by a car. But we were always careful and looked both ways before crossing the street.

 

If it wasn’t raining, Mom would say, “Run on outside now, Joyce. Go see what Andrea’s up to.”

 

Of course, I’d make some lame attempt at arguing, like, “But I want to watch Captain Kangaroo,” or, “Andy’s washing her hair.”

 

“Okay, here are your choices: You can go outside and play or stay in and clean your room.”

 

“Mom!”

 

“It’s too nice a day for you to just sit and watch television. Go climb some trees.”

 

Even though we hadn’t had the color TV for very long, I secretly preferred Crosstown Gang stuff to what they showed on the screen. Frankly, it was pretty small if you compared it to the Roxy Theater’s screen. But I couldn’t give in too easily.

 

“Aw, crap.”

 

“Joyce!”

 

Andy had started using “crap” a lot. I thought it sounded pretty grown up. Apparently Mom thought so too.

 

“Young ladies don’t use words like that.”

 

I always pretended to be sorry. And just so I didn’t leave with Mom frowning after me, I’d ask, “What are we having for dinner?”

 

If she said, “Pork chops and gravy,” she could be sure I’d be home on time. Pork chops and gravy was my favorite. Mom even let Dad and I smear gravy on a couple pieces of white bread and lumpy mashed potatoes. She made us eat some peas, too, but it was worth it.

 

I’d run off, hoping the time would pass quickly until dinner. By the time I got to Andy’s, though, a whole bunch of ideas about what to do all day had popped into my head. I can tell you Andy and me made the most of our days, too. Sometimes we’d go to the corner store for gum, or get a root beer float at the soda fountain all the way downtown. What we called downtown anyway. It was really just five blocks in one direction and four in the other, but it had that soda fountain, plus a theater, a Sears & Roebuck (where I bought shoes and Simplicity sewing patterns), and a little donut shop that made the greatest maple bars in the world.

 

There were always lots of kids at the soda fountain or the donut shop; even Petey Baum, who once said he had a crush on me. I almost puked. Besides being a boy, which was bad enough, he had red hair, which I hated, and really crooked teeth. If I saw him before he saw me, I’d grab Andy and we’d run away real fast.

 

We usually took Oak Street, but now and then we went down Lake Boulevard. It wasn’t really a boulevard; it was just a wide two-lane road with big shoulders. That’s what dad called the space by the roadside: shoulders. Anyway, Lake Boulevard went by the Rose Lanes Bowling Emporium, which was a big fancy name for a dumpy little place. I liked looking in the bowling alley though. Andy and I would cup our hands against the window and watch people wearing funny shoes, smoking a lot and drinking out of cups. Then they'd throw the ball and jump up and down.

 

Anyway, just across the street from the Rose Lanes Bowling Emporium was the skating rink. I’d count the coins in my pocket to see If I had enough money to rent skates for an hour.

 

“You got an extra dime?” I’d ask, if I was ten cents short. Then the conversation would go something like this:

 

“Why?”

 

“’Cause I’ve only got seventy-five cents. If you’ve got a dime, I can skate for an hour.”

 

Andy would wrinkle her nose and shrug. “I don’t know…”

 

“Come on. Please?” If she still didn’t fork over that dime, I’d use my trump card. “I saw Linda Wilkins go in just a second ago.”

 

Of course, her eyes would bulge at that. Linda was sort of the coolest girl in Andy’s class and Andy wanted to be part of her clique. “Well…”

 

“And she was alone.” I knew that would cinch it. If Linda was alone, she might even talk to Andy.

 

So she’d sit close to where Linda was and cheer me on as I rolled around the rink in a circle with my ankles wobbling and sagging. Andy never learned how to skate, but she did get invited to Linda’s pool party that summer.

 

Every Saturday, we went to a matinee. It cost only a quarter for the feature film at noon, and it came with two cartoons and a newsreel. It wasn’t much of a theater; real small, but it had a balcony and a decent snack bar, which was important. They sold Junior Mints, Good ‘n Plenty and popcorn. They also sold Jujubes, Sugar Babies or Milk Duds but I never could see the point of those, except that Andy liked the Milk Duds.

 

My favorite movies were the sci-fi ones, where warty aliens from outer space invaded some city or flying saucers landed in a cornfield someplace. One Saturday, they were showing Mysterious Island and a bunch of the little kids in the audience (including Petey Baum) screamed so much that the camera guy changed reels and put on some mushy love story. I didn’t think that was fair. I liked the scary stuff. So did Andy; that’s why we were in the Crosstown Gang together.

 

We hung out a lot at the river, too. The summer of 1962 was a hot one in Rosetown and the Echo River was low, my dad said, because of all the heat. He was real smart about stuff like that. The river had lots of rocks, but more of them stuck out that summer than usual. That was the year Petey Baum was found floating just down from Linda Wilkins’ place. It was funny, too, because Stinky Baum lived up by Andy and me. He even tried to be in our Crosstown Gang, but we wouldn’t let him. We called him “Stinky” mostly because he smelled real bad, but also because we thought it was funny when we called him Stinky Baum. Get it? Like an explosion of bad odors. Well, we thought it was funny.

 

Anyway, Petey Baum hadn’t been at school for three or four days, but nobody thought anything of it, since the school year had just started. To be honest, nobody thought of Petey Baum much at any time. He never played tetherball at recess or climbed on the Jungle Jim. He didn’t use the swings or the monkey bars. At lunch, he sat off by himself. Only thing I remember about Petey besides his bad teeth and red hair was that dumb green sweatshirt he wore. It was two sizes too big, as if his parents didn’t want to be bothered buying him a new one every time he grew a little bit. And it had a huge gold “O” on the back, like the shirts high school football jocks wore.

 

One Friday, I saw Petey’s mom come out of the principal’s office with Officer Mel, a policeman. A little later, he came to our classroom. It was about 3:30. I checked the clock because it was almost time to go home. I could see the buses all lined up outside the windows, waiting for the bell to ring and let us out. Officer Mel talked to my class about Petey, wondering if any of us had  talked to him, but no one had. I even asked Andy that evening if she’d seen Petey around. (Sometimes she went places without me.) But she couldn’t even think what he looked like. He was hard to forget, really, with that hair and all those zits on his face.  And that awful green sweatshirt.

 

The next Tuesday, Miss Bergenfeld, the school counselor, came in and whispered something to our teacher, and her face was all red like she was upset. She didn’t smile either.  Miss Snedecker – we called her Miss Snake-Eater, but not to her face -- sat down behind her desk.

 

Miss Bergenfeld stood in front of us and chewed on her lip. She kept glancing over at Miss Snake-Eater. I wished she’d hurry up because we were right in the middle of reading period, and the book we were working on, Charlotte’s Web, was really good. It’s about a spider and a pig, a sort of sci-fi story only not really. Anyway, I wanted to get back to it before the bell rang.

 

Finally, Miss Bergenfeld cleared her throat, took her glasses off and wiped her eyes. Then she pushed her glasses back on her nose before she spoke. “Class, I have some bad news. You remember when Officer Mel was here last week?”

 

We all nodded.

 

“He was asking about Petey Baum?” She cleared her throat again. “Um, Petey has had an accident.”

 

She seemed to be having trouble talking, so I asked, “What kind of accident?” I hoped maybe this would help her to focus and get the words out.

 

“Petey had a swimming accident. They think he might have drowned.”

 

I prayed he wasn’t found at the swimming hole up by the fish dam. That was Andy’s and my favorite place. If Petey drowned there, Mom would never let me swim there again. So I asked, “Where did they find him?”

 

Miss Bergenfeld frowned, and I thought she might be trying to remember what she had heard, but now I think maybe she didn’t like me asking questions.

 

Miss Snake-Eater came to her rescue. “We will all miss Petey Baum. If any of you would like to talk about this tragedy, you can see me after class. And Miss Bergenfeld will also be available to help you through this. We’ll be dismissing you early today.”

 

For some reason, the teachers seemed more upset by Petey Baum’s accident than us kids. That surprised me because I didn’t even think they knew him that well. I didn’t think anybody knew him that well. Anyway, I didn’t have any desire to talk about his “tragedy”. I just wanted to go home, so I stored my Pee-Chee, pencils and books inside my desk and then sat on the edge of my seat until we were dismissed.

 

I wondered if Andy’s class would get out early, too. The Crosstown Gang had been working on a little variety show, kind of like Ed Sullivan had on Saturday nights, out behind Andy’s garage and we needed more practice before our big performance that weekend. We planned to invite our parents, of course, and the other people on the lane, even Jenny LaSalle’s brother, although he was always pretty busy with his girlfriend. Anyway, the show area had to be cleaned up and we still had to make our costumes. I was glad we hadn’t let Petey Baum join the gang, especially since he went and got himself drowned. That would have really messed our variety show up.

 

When Mom came to pick me up that day, she looked at me hard, like she was trying to memorize my face.

 

“What?” Her stare was creeping me out because I didn’t think I’d done anything wrong.

 

“Just thinking about how much I love you.”

 

Ew. “Um, thanks,” I said. I figured she’d heard about Petey too by now. That’s why she was acting so weird. She reached over and smoothed my hair. At least she wasn’t crying or anything. Still, I hate it when grown-ups get all googly eyed. She does that with Greens, our pet bunny, and even rubs his nose with hers. I don’t, because Greens bites. A lot. (We should have named him Grumps.)

 

“Joyce?”

 

“Yeah, mom?”

 

“You know better than to get in a car with strangers, right?”

 

“Uh, yeah.” I rolled my eyes. “You’ve only told me like a thousand times.”

 

“Right. And you know not to let anybody touch you,” she hesitated, “in a private place?”

 

“Uh-huh.” I could tell she had more on her mind but I didn’t want to hear it. I rolled the wind wing out a couple inches and stuck my fingers through it and wiggled them like mad. “Can we go now?”

 

Mom looked at me a little longer, and then she checked the mirror and we started off for home. Only we didn’t get very far before she pulled over again. I knew this was going to take awhile because she put the gearshift into “Park”, then turned toward me. She swung her right leg up onto the seat. I fiddled with the barrettes in my hair.

 

She was quiet for a couple minutes and then she said, “No one has ever, you know, touched you, you know, there?”

 

I was pretty sure I knew what she meant, but I couldn’t imagine why she was so worried. Actually, I couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to touch me, you know, there. I shook my head. “Can we go home now?”

 

My mom has a way of sighing that almost sounds as though she’s singing. I like it when she does that. I smiled at her, my sweetest, most innocent smile. I’m not sure she bought my act, though. She’s pretty smart, like my dad. Then she smiled but it looked kind of sad. “Sure, we can go home.” She faced forward and then stopped and sighed again. “Joyce, what did your teachers tell you about Petey Baum?”

 

I shrugged. “Just that he drowned or something.”

 

Her eyes got all big and her mouth dropped open. “Drowned or something?”

 

“Uh-huh.” It seemed like she didn’t believe me. I looked around, wanting Mom to quit talking like this. Luckily, I saw Andy kicking rocks along the path that borders the schoolyard. “Hey, there’s Andy. Can we give her a ride? Please?”

 

Mom had obviously not finished what she was saying, but I squeezed my eyes shut real tight like I do when I’m in church. She can never resist that. “Sure.”

 

I was really glad I had seen Andy at that point. When Mom gets started on something, she sort of rambles on and on. She knows lots of big words that sound smart, but I have trouble understanding them all. It’s probably because she was a lawyer before I was born. Lawyers use words that most of the rest of us haven’t ever heard. Mom does that when she gets nervous. And I could tell she was pretty nervous.

 

I yelled to Andy, “Hey, Andy, want a ride?”

 

Andy turned and saw us, then grinned in that way that makes her dimples really deep. She ran over to our car, her black hair flying behind her. I always wanted hair like hers. It was so shiny and thick. Mine was kind of a plain brown, and real curly. At least it was long. She jerked open the back door and scrambled in, careful not to let her underpants show. Mom was a real stickler about young ladies in dresses. It was very important to be modest, she said. I checked to be sure my skirt wasn’t bunched up. Everything seemed to be in order. I hated wearing a dress. So did Andy. At least until recently. She had started to pay more attention to her hair and I noticed that she painted her fingernails. Not long ago, I saw her holding hands with Nat Nelson, a seventh grader. Ew. Pretty soon, she’d be asking if Nat could join the Crosstown Gang. I sure didn’t want that.

 

Mom said hi and Andy said hi back. Then mom asked her whether she needed to talk about what happened to Petey Baum. Andy said, “No.” Petey Baum was a fourth grader, and Andy was in sixth. She was way too cool to even say hi to Petey.

 

Mom eased the car away from the curb. Finally. Then she asked a funny question. “Andrea, you had Mr. Thomas for fourth grade math, didn’t you?” Our school divided the upper classes into regular math and advanced math. You would go to Mr. Thomas’s room for regular math when you were in fourth grade while the advanced math kids went over to Miss Snake-Eater’s room. Andy was cool, but not as smart as me. I never had Mr. Thomas for math because I was in the advanced class.  I was sorry about that, too, because I liked Mr. Thomas. He had a really neat sports car. All shiny silver.

 

“Uh-huh,” she answered.

 

“Did he ever ask you to stay after school?”

 

“No.”

 

“How about any of the other kids?”

 

Andy thought for a minute. “Just a couple of the boys. He said he wanted help cleaning the blackboards.”

 

“Can you remember who any of them were, Andrea?”

 

“Yeah, Jeff Haggerty and Franklin Pearse.” Andy giggled. “Franklin was really cute. I was sorry that his parents made him move away.”

 

“How about Petey Baum; was he in Mr. Thomas’s class?”

 

Andy said she didn’t know. I did, but I didn’t want to talk about Petey Baum anymore. “Mom.” We were never going to get home at this rate.

 

“Okay, Joyce.”

 

I started discussing the backyard show. I was getting really excited. My idea for a costume made me sure everyone would love my act. I told Andy I’d change out of that stupid dress and come over as soon as we got home. I looked back at her and crossed my fingers that she didn’t say she had plans with Nat. She didn’t.

 

Mom just wouldn’t let up, though. “Andrea, did you ever talk to Jeff or Franklin after they helped Mr. Thomas?”

 

I crossed my arms as dramatically as I could and stared out the passenger window. Andy was my friend, not Mom’s. Why was she hogging her? Mom didn’t seem to notice. I counted billboards. It was something to do to keep from exploding. There were lots of cigarette ads. I vowed never to smoke. Mr. Thomas smoked and you could smell it on him. His fingers were yellow too. Still, I liked him.

 

“Yes,” Andy said, real quiet like.

 

“What did they tell you, dear?” Mom’s blue eyes glanced from the road to the mirror, watching Andy in the backseat, who had begun to squirm. She didn’t look so cool right then.

 

“It’s all right, Andrea. It’s all right to tell me.” She sounded like the lawyers on Perry Mason did when they were in a courtroom with a judge.

 

“It was kinda funny. Franklin told me Mr. Thomas wanted him to call him Terry, like a close friend. Franklin didn’t want to. He said it felt weird. But Mr. Thomas put his arm around him, like he was proving to Franklin he was his buddy.”

 

“Anything else?”

 

 “He said Terry – he started calling Mr. Thomas that – said that he should take off his jeans and they could run around in their underpants.”

 

I snickered, but mom looked at me like she was angry. I sank lower into my seat. After a little while, I dared to peek at Andy. She was studying her hands in her lap.

 

Mom stopped for a red light and reached over the seat back to take Andy’s hand. She gave it a little squeeze.

 

“He made me promise not to tell anybody.”

 

“It’s all right, dear. You did the right thing.”

 

About a week later, we heard that Mr. Thomas had been arrested. I guess Officer Mel talked to Franklin Pearse and Jeff Haggerty. I overheard him telling Mom some things that Mr. Thomas had done to the boys. I didn’t understand what they were, but it made Mom cry.

 

As for Petey Baum, that’s still the big mystery in Rosetown. I didn’t want to tell them what I thought happened, but I’m sure I saw Petey going into the school after dark the night Mom and Dad took me out for Chinese to celebrate the first day of fourth grade. On our way home, we passed by the school. There was Petey, just opening the door to the front hall. That big gold “O” was hard to miss in the streetlight. I remember being envious, because Mr. Thomas’s silver sports car was parked on the street. I could put two and two together. Mr. Thomas must have singled Petey out for special treatment. I couldn’t understand why; I was way better at math than Petey. I could have told them all that, but I was too upset that I wasn’t chosen. I mean, it should have been me who got that special treatment.

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