Racing September - Excerpt

Chapter 1

"The Accident," changed everything.

It was supposed to have been just like every other summer except that his parents were in Cuba and Danny Cerutti was staying with the Tyler’s.

Staying with the Tyler’s was no big deal. His father's business had, from time to time, taken Mr. and Mrs. Cerutti away for short periods of time. This time the period was four months.

The Tyler’s were almost like family, if that is, your family bore a strong resemblance to the Clamperts. Mrs. Tyler and Danny's mother were close friends and he and Bobby Tyler had hung out since second grade. Mr. Tyler was a fireman, which had been of enormous importance when Bobby and he were kids and wanted to ride the hook and ladder in the Memorial Day parade. There was also Bets Tyler, Bobby's older sister Elizabeth, who unnoticed by either of them had grown from an annoyingly stringy adolescent into a very pretty college girl with strawberry blonde hair and a trim figure.

If it hadn't been for "The Accident", he'd never have ended up working in the city, never have met Kitty, never have hitched to California, never—you get the idea.

"The Accident," happened a week after he'd started his summer job at Superior Etching. He worked in the etching room. He'd worked there the summer before, starting out in dusting and moving through printing, shipping and stamping, each job more boring and repetitious than its predecessor. The etching room, where "The Accident" happened was the best work in the entire factory. Etching was the only job that wasn't mind numbingly dull, but even so, most of the men wouldn't consider it because it was extremely dangerous.

At seventeen, mortality is never an issue so minor considerations like death and dismemberment never clouded his judgment.

Superior Etching was a one story, cement block building, covering about a half acre just north of Route #4 at the southern end of town. It was on a street that housed a number of like buildings, all built just before the war, all dedicated to light manufacturing.

The fronts of all the buildings were well kept, with nicely manicured lawns and neat concrete sidewalks that bisected clumps of well-trimmed shrubs. The fronts looked like a set for a Frank Capra movie. The backs were another story.

One walked through the main entrance of Superior Etching to find oneself in a modest, neatly kept lobby whose only decoration was a wall sized trophy case that held the reasons for Danny's summer employment.

J. Barton Millian, owner of Superior Etching, he of the Caddy convertible, snakeskin cowboy boots and brief, unsatisfying, minor league baseball career spent his summers lusting after the Northern New Jersey Industrial Softball League, title—all his summers.

Because of J. Bart’s passion, Superior Etching with only sixty-four male employees was able to compete successfully every summer with the likes of Ford, GM, Pfizer Chemical and Standard Oil. This was because every year, J. Bart scoured the Bergen County high school baseball scene for the best five or six ballplayers he could semi-bribe into working at his factory. These overpaid young studs when added to a nucleus of top players that were highly paid, full time employees, made Superior Etching an annual contender.

Make no mistake; the jobs were real. They were tough and dangerous but they paid better than any other summer jobs in the county. In a time when work at the super market, the lumberyard and the golf course were paying thirty bucks a week, you could make sixty at Superior Etching.

The money was great, but the job itself, even before, "The Accident," had already started to make waves. The waves would get worse.

Jack Poole ran the etching room. Jack was six three and two forty. He had dark hair, a ready smile, a zaftig wife and three huge kids; all younger than ten. Jack was strong as an ox and smarter by half than the rest of the guys who worked in etching which was why he was the foreman.

There were five other regular workers in the etching room all of whom were huge and powerful and then there was Willy Ralphs who was short and round but like the rest of them, tough as iron. Willy was the catcher on the softball team, a three sixty hitter and the union shop steward.

The etching room was a huge space, over a hundred feet long lined with four by eight by three foot high wooden vats. These vats were filled alternately with water, acids, and neutralizers.

A man would dunk a wooden rack filled with asphalt printed steel plates into a vat of iron perchloride where the uncovered steel would be eaten away. Then he would transfer the rack into a vat of neutralizer to stop the action of the acid. Next it would go into a vat of water to rinse the neutralizer and any left over acid. The racks weighed up to fifty pounds going dry, into the acid. They weighed over twice as much coming out. A day of this kind of lifting and you knew why it was important to have muscles in the etching room.

The effect of this work on the environment was nothing short of disastrous. There were forty vats in the room, half of them filled with acids and solvents, everything from the aforementioned iron perchloride, to sulfuric, muriatic and perhaps a half dozen other, long forgotten mixtures.

With use, of course, these dilutions weakened and wore out. When that happened they were trashed and new batches brewed. Once a week they would hook a big fire hose up to each vat and empty the contents into the area in back of the factory.

Once that area had been a swamp, part of a rather large wetland that extended from the down side of the Palisades, north to Englewood, west to Hackensack and south through what is now called The Meadowlands.

Common wisdom held swamps to be useless, so they built a highway through it, created an industrial park on it, and dumped everything nobody wanted, into it.

The weekly flushing created a gloriously hued dead zone of gurgling, smoking, stinking toxins, soaking into the ground, killing everything they touched but leaving room in the vacated vats for new and powerful mixtures that would do the work of the plant. After all, the weakened chemicals had to go somewhere. Why not the swamp? No one was planting a lawn out there.

Everything was going smoothly. The team had played its first game, the etching room was pumping out production and all of a sudden—"The Accident."

One of the materials they etched on at Superior was glass. The work was done with a dilution of highly volatile hydrofluoric acid.

Harry Ready was the glass etcher. Harry was slow and meticulous, a careful man working with extremely dangerous material. Because the hydrofluoric acid with which he etched was so dangerous and so highly volatile Harry worked behind a Plexiglas safety screen. The screen was three feet high and ran along the top of his workbench for about five feet and while it provided scant protection, out in Nevada, troops were standing around in sunglasses while they exploded atomic bombs in front of them so it was no big deal that Harry sat there in a tee shirt and Levi's and wore his regular prescription eye glasses as his only protection.

It happened on a Thursday afternoon. The kid who'd been hired to replace the vacationing janitor was a hell of a right fielder but something of a dim bulb. Any number of people, had told him any number of times, to keep his ass out of the etching room, but it was a lot easier to use the long water hoses coiled next to the etching room, than to haul ass all the way to the men’s room when he needed to refill his mop bucket.

The entire floor of the etching room was covered with duckboards so the workers didn't have to slosh through the mixture of acids and solvents that invariably spilled out of the vats. All the regular etching room workers wore heavy treaded, skid proof boots that kept them from falling on the wet, slippery, duckboard surface but this kid had on sneakers and when he hit the slick boards his feet went out and a newly filled bucket of water went up.

One of the basic principles of diluting acid is that you put acid into water but not water into acid. Superior Etching was about to test that principle and find it valid.

Danny was just on the other side of the safety screen when he saw the bucket rise into the air. Afterwards he'd say it had seemed to be in slow motion. For a second he just watched as it hit the peak of its arc and started down. It was kind of funny, he thought, like a Ritz Brothers movie bit. Then he realized its destination. It was dropping directly into a one gallon beaker of hydrofluoric acid that was sitting on a work table about two feet from Harry Ready's elbow. The hydrofluoric was full strength and when the water landed the acid exploded with a wet whoosh!

A split second later a soggy, green cloud had smacked Harry Ready directly in the face and was spreading rapidly across the room. Danny had turned away from the initial explosion and when he looked back he saw Harry Ready's face start to wash off.

Suddenly, Jack Poole was behind Danny, grabbing him under the arms and throwing him head first into a freshly poured vat of water. He surfaced, sputtering and choking into a green cloud that burned his throat and scalded his eyes.

Across the table he could see Harry Ready, lying unconscious, his skin bubbling under the green slime. Jack Poole had disappeared and it didn't take a genius to know that if someone didn't help him, Harry Ready was going to die. He scrambled out of the vat, reached across the flattened Plexiglas screen, grabbed the unconscious Harry by an arm and pulled him across the table into the water. The green cloud was settling fast. Danny took a quick, burning, half breath and ducked under, dragging Harry with him.

He crouched under the water, holding the unconscious etcher, wondering what to do, knowing that above them the acid was spreading a poison cloud that would kill them a lot quicker than drowning, but realizing that his burning lungs couldn't hold out much longer. The choking green fog had prevented him from taking a deep breath and the small amount of tainted air he'd managed to inhale was now threatening to make him cough. His mind raced, even as his chest constricted, but panic blocked a solution.

Suddenly a massive hand plunged into the water, grabbed him by the collar and dragged him up. He broke the surface, lungs screaming for air but before he could suck in the deadly fog an oxygen mask was slapped across his face and he looked through the plastic lenses of another mask, into the grim eyes of Willy Ralphs.

Willy helped him stagger out of the room as the big overhead fans began to dissipate the gas. A moment later Jack Poole and another etcher came out carrying Harry Ready. He was dead. And so, pretty much, was Superior Etching.

J. Bart took care of everybody's medical expenses, buried Harry Ready and settled an allowance on his family. He kept paying all the regular employees while the plant was shut down but some lady in the shipping department had a brother who chased ambulances and pretty soon the litigation started.

The shipping department lady claimed that the fumes had drifted into her section and ruined her health. One thing led to another and soon there was a class action suit for pain and suffering and not long after that the insurance company passed it's limit and handed the rest of the claims over to J. Bart. He paid what he could but it was just too much. He went bankrupt and the business went south.

Danny got a nice check about four years later. It helped pay the bills his senior year in college. What it didn't do was bring Harry Ready back to life or find new jobs for the former employees of Superior Etching.

Danny spent a couple of days, after "The Accident" in the hospital. He'd acquired a number of acid burns on his back and shoulders and a forty-stitch gash on his leg where Willy had dragged him over the edge of the water vat. They released him just in time to attend services for Harry Ready.

He hadn't known Harry very well but he felt an obligation to go to his funeral. He'd read someplace, probably in one of the pulp westerns he was addicted to, that if you saved a life you were forever responsible for it. He hadn't saved Harry but he'd tried and since Harry was dead, forever wasn't going to last very long, so he figured he should, at least, go to the funeral.

It took place at the Englewood cemetery a couple of blocks from the Cerutti’s house. The Englewood Cemetery is a truly beautiful place, intimate and cozy with old moss covered mausoleums, ancient oaks and large clumps of spring blooming rhododendron. He'd always loved the cemetery. He spent a lot of time there, lying on the mossy stream bank and listening to the uninterrupted gurgle of the water. It had never seemed like a place for dead people or sorrow, just a pleasant park where as he got older he could come to read or study without interruption of family or friends.

Now he sat on a high bank, overlooking the Ready plot and watched as the funeral cortege arrived and set about the task of saying good-bye to Harry Ready. He could see J. Bart and Mrs. J. Bart and Jack Poole and Willy, along with a number of others from the plant. They stood on the edges of a large family gathering that surrounded the widow Ready and her three kids in kind of a protective phalanx.

For the first time in his life Danny started to realize what it meant to die. Of course there'd been deaths in his family. It was a large family and there had been quite a few. All his grandparents were dead and most of their generation, but they had been old, not like Harry Ready. They’d finished with their obligations. Their children were raised and schooled and had gone on to have families of their own. Who was going to take care of Harry's obligations? Who was going to look after his wife and kids?

And Danny began to understand for the first time that the tragedy in death was not the end of a life, which is, after all, the natural progression of life having started, but the effect death had on those it left behind. He thought that was pretty profound, but then he was only seventeen.

He watched the service from his spot on the hill and after it was over Jack Poole and Willy walked over to where he was sitting. He'd never seen either of them in anything remotely resembling a suit so they both looked a little funny.

"How's the back?" Jack asked.

"The back's okay, but the leg hurts like hell," he complained, pulling up his trouser to show the bandage.

Jack smiled, shrugged, and sat down next to him.

"The plant's gonna be closed at least a month." He said. "Maybe more, probably more. J. Bart's gonna cover wages for the regular workers but the summer help is on its own. Even if we start up again it'd be so slow they probably wouldn't hire you back. You should look for something else."

Danny nodded. He understood how it worked. The summer guys were just kids. The regulars had families.

He looked down at the gravesite. It was almost deserted. The family was getting into their cars out by the road.

Jack got up, dusted off his pants and smiled down at the boy.

"Good luck kid," he said, his head bobbing up and down in a silent nod as he turned to go. Willy stepped in front of the boy and stuck out his hand. Danny took it and Willy pulled him to his feet.

"Me too, Danny. Good luck."

They both turned away and started carefully down the hill. Danny stood watching them as they passed the giant rose/purple rhododendrons. He could smell their sweet aroma. Usually he loved that smell but this day it didn't seem so great. All of a sudden he was very depressed.

He cried that night. For the first time since he was ten. He was sitting on the back steps of the Tyler's house and all of a sudden he started to cry. Not anything dramatic, no wracking sobs, just tears rolling down his cheeks. He sat there for a long time until Bets Tyler came out, sat next to him and handed him her handkerchief.

"You okay?"

He nodded.

"You went to that man's funeral today, didn't you?"

He nodded again.

"It's okay, " she said. "Everything will work out."

"How's it gonna work out?" He asked. "Who's gonna feed his family?"

"I don't know," she shrugged, "somebody will."

And she put her arms around him and drew his wet face down on her shoulder. It didn't make it okay but it was nice.

Because of Bobby being his best friend, he'd grown up in fairly close proximity to Bets but until a couple of weeks before he'd never really been aware of her.

She'd entered his consciousness as the result of a fractured love affair.

It had been the beginning of May, when his parents left for Cuba and he'd moved in with the Tyler’s. At the time, he'd been going steady with Barbara Meehan. Barbara had soft, light brown hair, smooth pink skin, a little turned up nose and a decided overbite. He was absolutely, positively, unqualifiedly in love with Barbara. To make matters worse it was a pure love, untarnished by any stain of lust. That is not to say he was a virgin. The previous summer had afforded him opportunities to alleviate that embarrassing condition, putting him in the enviable position of no longer having to lie to his buddies.

He had by the end of his junior year, engaged in more or less complete sexual union with two young women, one of them twice.

He was, therefore, by all contemporary Catholic high school yardsticks a man of quite some experience.

With Barbara it had been different. Barbara was a "good girl". His girls of summer had been "wild girls". Besides he was in love with Barbara and that love engendered respect. Everybody knew you didn't mess with girls you respected. It was a quaint convention of the era.

Respect, of course, did not rule out innocent foreplay. They spent hours in the front seat of his car or the back seats of others, hugging, kissing, talking, giggling—ad nauseam.

He wanted more, desperately, but he loved Barbara and thought of himself as too much a gentleman to go beyond what he perceived to be, the acceptable limits of respect.

Then his parents were gone, leaving behind an empty house to which he had the key. Two nights after the plane carrying Mr. and Mrs. Cerutti left Idlewild Airport, He and Barbara were on the couch in his parent’s living room. They kissed and hugged and talked and giggled and hugged and kissed and at one point he realized that his hand was resting firmly on her breast. He had dreamed about that breast, fantasized about it, wanted desperately to feel what he imagined to be it's velvety texture and here he was, her hand over his, separated from that fantasy by nothing more than a sweater, blouse, slip and bra.

He was trapped between heaven and hell. But he was righteous and brute stupid and with a superhuman effort he extracted his hand and gently, tenderly, kissed his precious darling on the cheek. He felt ten feet tall. He had triumphed over his basest instincts.

The next day Barbara dumped him

St. Cecilia was a small school. It took exactly one class period for everyone in school to know that Barbara and Danny were no longer an item. That was on Monday. By Wednesday she was already dating a senior named Albert Triolo.

The next day in the lunchroom, Tommy Grossman, not one of Danny's favorite people, commented, comically, on the breakup and Barbara's subsequent involvement. It was a monumental mistake.

Danny was still in love and not particularly rational so he used the opportunity to release a great deal of frustration, all of it on, around and against the head and body of the unfortunate but truly deserving Tommy Grossman. Of course that meant that Tommy's brother, John, had to come looking for Danny. John was six three and two thirty. They went at it in the parking lot after school.

It was recorded in the annals of schoolyard legend as a classic encounter. Danny didn't remember too much except that John kept hitting him and he kept getting up.

Coach Marion "The Earthmover" Marconetti finally broke it up. Danny knew that if he'd been winning the coach would have let them fight to the death. The coach wasn't as dumb as he led people to believe. John was graduating and Danny still had another year of eligibility.

Mrs. Tyler had the normal reaction to his face. She threw herself against the refrigerator, collapsed into a chair and emitted the traditional spiel on how his mother would be crushed if she knew her only son had been fighting. By dinner the storm had all but blown itself out. Except of course he looked like he'd lost an argument with a Buick.

Bobby was ecstatic. He'd hated John Grossman for years. Been the butt of John's cruel jokes and the recipient of uncounted nuggies, barbers itches and punched biceps. After years of dreaming, he had finally seen blood on John's face. He refused to accept that most of it had been Danny's.

It was because of the Grossman wars, that Bobby decided Danny was definitely a hero and as such, deserved a hero's reward.

The Tyler house was a big old ramshackle Victorian, full of strange corners and unexplained niches. The third floor was a storage attic that seemed to be accessible only from a main stair that went right up the center of the building.

Danny knew something was up when Bobby suggested they leave their shoes in the bedroom. He knew it was something that could get them in trouble when Bobby kept shushing him as they crept up to the attic. Bobby led him through the clutter of trunks and boxes to the far end of the dusty storage area, stepping slowly, moving carefully, avoiding any board that might creak. Finally, he slid aside a stack of boxes to reveal an old fashioned tongue and groove half door.

Danny watched as he opened the door with agonizing slowness. Every couple of inches it would start to squeak and Bobby would stop, wait and begin again. Finally it was open and they stepped through it to find a set of narrow, winding stairs that seemed to lead back down toward the basement.

They didn't go far, just one flight, just to the second floor. Danny could hear water running and knew they were next to the bathroom they shared with Bets. Bobby raised a finger to his lasciviously grinning lips and motioned to a small square of wood set low in the wall. Kneeling next to it, he moved the wood, which swung from a single nail and revealed a hole no bigger than a half inch across from which came a splash of light and the sound of running water.

Danny had never paid much attention to Bets who was three years older and a sophomore at nearby Farleigh Dickenson College. If he had thought about her it would have been to picture a pleasant looking studious girl who lived almost exclusively in Levi's and baggy sweatshirts. He would never think of her that way again.

At Bobby's urging he put his eye to the peephole and felt his heart skip. At least he thought it was his heart. Bets Tyler was completely naked, bending over the tub, testing the water. He was presented with a spectacular view of perfectly shaped, creamy white cheeks and a tuft of reddish blonde hair. Further up her torso he could see one breast, plump and white, its pink tip pointing into the tub as she turned to twirl her fingers under the running faucet.

Satisfied with the water temperature, Bets straightened, turned and stepped across the room to the sink located directly above the peephole. Naked and full front she was almost too much for a teenage boy to bear. She stood at the sink, rummaging for something in the medicine cabinet, her red gold triangle a scant fifteen inches from his eyeball. He must have gasped because suddenly Bobby's hand was over his mouth and Bets had frozen. They remained that way for an eternity as his legs cramped and sweat ran down his forehead and into his eyes.

Discovery was unthinkable. What could he possibly say to Mr. and Mrs. Tyler? That he’d rewarded their generosity by spying on their naked daughter? His father would kill him. A hundred unsupportable excuses thundered through his mind and were quickly discarded. He reached for more but before he could conjure them she broke from the sink, crossed back to the tub and stepped into the water.

A second later she had slipped down out of sight and all he could see was the top of her head. He wanted to stay at the peephole until she emerged but Bobby tugged insistently at his arm and they made their way back up the stairs.

The next day at breakfast, he'd spent the entire time staring at Bets’ breasts and imagining them the way he'd seen them the night before. She must have noticed something, because she gave him a mysterious grin as she went out the door to her car.

He dreamed of Bets through all six periods that day, but somehow every once in a while her body appeared with Barbara's head. When that happened the body would turn and walk away, it's ass twitching provocatively and Barbara's head would glance back over Bets' shoulder and give him a look that said—schmuck!

After school that day, he'd gone, as usual, to The Wagon Wheel the local hangout where burgers and fries and soda and ice cream vied with gossip and the unfulfilled promise of sex as the principal attractions.

He'd just wheedled his decrepit Chevy to a stop when Bets' pulled her Hillman up next to him. He stared as she got out and waved. She was wearing dungarees with turned up cuffs and a loose sweatshirt. He'd seen her in that outfit a thousand times and never registered that it held a live girl, but today that sweatshirt was the sexiest garment he 'd ever laid eyes on. She was walking toward him, her breasts moving just a touch and all of a sudden he could feel those breasts in the palms of his hands. He stared at them, mesmerized as Bets stopped in front of him and shook her finger in his face.

"You were a bad boy last night."

His attention snapped from her breasts to her eyes.

"You were playing at the peephole. You and Bobby."

He was shocked, humiliated that this recently gorgeous creature knew about his shameful behavior.

"Did you play with anything else?"

He couldn't believe what he was hearing. He struggled for an answer.

"How did you know?"

She shook her head at his stupidity.

"Bobby's been doing it for years."

"And you let him?"

She smiled at the poor dumb animal.

"It's no big deal. Course, I didn't think he was going to invite the neighborhood."

"No." He stuttered. "Just me. Nobody else."

She smiled again. This time it was pity. "

I heard about you and Barbara," she said. "Too bad."

He shrugged.

"What can you do," he shrugged, relieved to be changing the subject.

She laughed, a little tingling bell.

"You better stop looking through the peephole or I'm going to tell my father."

"No more, " he pledged. "I promise. But I'm not sorry."

This got the desired laugh.

"Okay," she said. "You're forgiven. Come on. Buy me a coke. I used my last dollar for gas.

Bets and Danny became pretty good friends after that. But it wasn't until a couple of years later when he was home on vacation from college that he got the real scoop on the peephole. He ran into her, half stewed at the Green Lantern, a bar, just across the New York border in Tappan.

She’d broken up with her fiancée a couple of months before and had been in an alcoholic stupor ever since.

The fiancé’s name was Carl Atherton. They'd gone steady and been a cliché in high school. He was tall, blonde and handsome and the star of the football team and she was a cheerleader. It had been a rocky romance from the start, filled with fights, smashed cars and sobbing reunions. After high school he'd gone off to Amherst to be a hero and she had stayed home and gone to Fairly Ridiculous.

She'd met another guy, a nice solid business major and they were just starting to get serious when Carl flunked out of college and drifted back to Englewood to pursue serious failure.

Somehow, in a fit of blind stupidity she'd let him back into her life and they'd ended up engaged. After three years they were still engaged and no wedding in sight. She wanted to get married but he always had a reason why the time wasn't right. Then one night she walked into his apartment and one of those reasons came stumbling out of his bed and it was a guy.

After that she spent her nights drinking and wallowing in self- pity, which is what she was doing when Danny walked up to the bar that Friday night in December.

He was home for the holidays, indulging in that most revered college vacation tradition, revisiting ones old hangouts. She was indulging in a revered tradition herself. It was called getting ossified over a fractured romance. They sat together and drank to tradition.

Somewhere around the tenth Seven and Seven she aimed a, none too steady finger at him and began giggling hysterically.

"You didn't have a clue, did you?" She slurred. " Not a clue. Not a clue! What you had was a nice little pecker."

He wasn't sure he liked having his pecker referred to as little but he decided to put up with it to find out where she got her frame of reference.

"He thought he had this big secret spying place but it was no secret. I used it more than he did. I watched him and you and all your friends. Mary Harper thought you had an adorable pecker. "

Bets was so drunk she was almost falling off the stool and he was holding her up with one arm and trying to remember who Mary Harper was and how he could get her re-interested in his pecker again before he went back to school.

"I used to watch Bobby every night. " Her voice had dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. 'He'd go in there with girlie magazines and jerk off." She giggled again. "I bet Carl jerks off a lot. He's a jerk and jerks jerk, don't they?" She'd turned her back to the bar and was beginning to slide off the stool.

"He probably uses those muscle magazines." It had started as a whisper but ended as a wail. Just then her knees gave way and she started toward the floor. He grabbed her in his arms and looked around for help. It came from two Teaneck grads he had played against years before. They helped him get her out to his car.

Just two good Samaritans, he thought, until one of them looked down at Bets stretched across his back seat, her skirt up around her neck and commented wistfully on how it would be a crime to waste such a prime opportunity.

Danny got very indignant and self defiantly righteous and they left mumbling about gift horses, but looking down at her naked legs and black panties, those old memories of the peephole came back and he almost weakened.