Home Field Advantage
by Robert Roman

“Come on, Ringer. Let’s get a game up,” First Round said, spinning his leather football on his finger like he was a Harlem Globetrotter of the gridiron.

I kept my butt right there on the curb, rubbing my finger in the super small gravel between the red bricks the alley was made of. I made it through the school day and walked all the way home without getting in any trouble. If I could keep my nose clean until dinnertime I might just make it through one whole day. I couldn’t remember the last time that happened.

Nobody in all of Pittsburgh believes me, but I don’t go around looking for trouble. It’s like trouble is always playing hide-and-seek with me, and he keeps peeking while I’m hiding. If I had to glue my butt to the curb and not play football with First Round and Antonio, then that was the way it had to be. I wasn’t letting trouble nab me today. I was sick of not eating dessert and not being allowed to watch TV and listening to Mom ask me “What sort of lunatic are you?” How was I supposed to know? I was only in the sixth grade.

“There’s only three of us,” I said. “We need an even number.”

“Where’s that crazy brother of yours?” First Round lofted his spinning football up in the air with his finger and bounced it off the top of his moppy yellow head.

“Last I saw him, Sister Kelly was dragging him to the office by his foot.”

“When have you ever seen Jaggerbush throw a football or dribble a basketball or swing a bat? He’s too busy living in fantasyland,” Antonio said, shoveling handfuls of Cap’n Crunch out of the box and into his mouth like popcorn. “And, you know dang well they keep that boy after school every day.”

My little brother may not be any good at sports like I was, but he was the undisputed king of a whole mess of other stuff, and holding the record at Saint Augie’s for staying after school the most days in a row was one of his crowning achievements. And he was only in the fifth grade.

Jaggerbush was never ever ever not in trouble. The difference between him and me, besides him being tall and skinny and me being short and strong, was I tried to stay out of trouble, I really did. But Jaggerbush and rules couldn’t be in the same room together without a fight breaking out, and when it did, he always figured out a way to snatch the thrill of victory from the agony of defeat. There wasn’t a punishment on Earth that could get the best of Jaggerbush.

“Ringer, you play all-time quarterback, and me and First Round will play salt versus pepper,” Antonio said with orange crumbs all over his face. He even had some in his afro.

First Round threw a tight spiral at me. The football’s skin gripped my fingers, the leather smell snuck into my nose. He tucked his black Mel Blount jersey into his jeans. Antonio set his cereal box on the sidewalk and wiped his hands on his blue school shirt.

I hated being steady quarterback. I wanted to catch long bombs, not throw them. Ever since Lynn Swann single-handedly made those showboaters, the Dallas Cowboys, cry their eyes out at Super Bowl X back when we were little, pulling off acrobatic grabs was a huge claim to fame. And I was the best circus-catch maker from the Red Brick Alley. I even saved up and bought a pair of gold wristbands like Swann’s.

But maybe playing steady QB was a good way for me to stay out of trouble since I wouldn’t be on one side or the other. When was the last time a quarterback hurt anybody? I stood up and told Antonio to go receive the kick off.

“That there ball comes on my property, you won’t be getting it back!” Old Lady Tully came clunking out her front door hunched over her cane like a damaged three-legged Imperial Walker from Empire Strikes Back. She was from somewhere way down south and she always wore hippo-sized dresses that looked like baby clothes for old people. She’d sit on her porch and chug bottles of beer and holler at us and burp. I never heard anyone burp so loud, especially a thousand-year-old woman. It sounded like Mack-Truck gears grinding in her throat. I kept my mouth shut, I didn’t want to give her an excuse to call my Mom.

“How’re you going to take my ball, Fatso?” First Round said. “You can’t even walk.”

“Hush your mouth, sass box!”

“You shut up, Boss Hoggie!” First Round said.

“Never in my life have I seen such disrespectful little ragamuffins run loose in the streets. Keep it up, and I’ll call the squire on you.”

“What the heck’s a squire?” First Round laughed.

“It’s like a knight in training,” I said. “I think those guys are extinct, Mrs. Tully.”

“Another word out of you, Ringer, and I’ll call your mother again.”

All I was trying to do was help the old bitty and she goes and threatens to call my mom. I told First Round to leave her be and hike the ball. Even though her porch was a good ten yards out of bounds, every time I threw a pass down the alley, Old Lady Tully would lean back in her chair and shield her puffy face with her cane as if the ball were dive-bombing directly for her. Then she’d burp.

Horns honked and tires skidded down on Perrysville Avenue.

“Here comes Jaggerbush,” First Round said.

My little brother walked right through the middle of traffic like the cars wouldn’t dare run him over. His brown hair pointed in every direction like he squirted Elmer’s Glue in it then messed it up and let it dry. Combs didn’t work on Jaggerbush.

“Now we can play two-on-two,” First Round said.

“Jaggerbush can’t throw, he can’t catch, he doesn’t even know how to play,” Antonio said.

Jaggerbush scooped Antonio’s cereal box up off the sidewalk, his string-bean arms were so long he barely had to bend over to do it. He smashed a handful of Cap’n Crunch in his fist and licked the orange powder out of his hand.

“What’d they keep you after school for?” First Round said.

“He stuck a “Just Married” sign on the back of Father Morgan the Organ’s Cadillac,” Antonio said.

“That was yesterday,” Jaggerbush said. His tongue was orange.

“They didn’t find your experiment in the boiler room, did they?” I asked.

“They heard me saying morning prayer.”

“Oh, no.”

“Let’s hear it,” First Round said.

“No!” Antonio said. “My mom told me if any of you started praying to the devil, I’m supposed to hold my ears and run home.”

Jaggerbush smashed another handful of Cap’n Crunch and poured it into an old sandwich baggie and stuck it in his tube sock.

“Mighty Loki who art in Asgard, Halloween be thy name, thy evil kingdom come, thy will be done on Midgard as in the land of trolls. Give us this day our daily recommended allowance of mead and allow us to render our enemies from limb to limb before they slaughter us. Lead us not into Ragnarok, but deliver us from one-eyed Odin’s wrath. Hail Loki!”

Antonio pulled his fingers out of his ears and said, “You’re going to Hell.”

“Where’s that?” Jaggerbush said.

Maybe I should’ve never read those Viking myths to him. But it wouldn’t have mattered, he had a million fake prayers based on comic books and cartoons and movies and other stuff he straight-up pulled out of his butt.

“Let’s hear another one,” First Round said.

“No!” Antonio stuck his fingers back in his ears and smashed his eyes closed.

“Hail Mary, full of pecker, the Oscar Meyer Weiner is with thee, blessed are thou among sausages, and blessed is the ding-a-ling of thy womb…”

“Directly to Hell. All of you,” Antonio said, shaking his head.

“You up for some football, Jaggerbush?” First Round said.

“How many times do I have to tell you?” Antonio said. “The boy can’t throw, can’t catch…”

“You playing tackle?” Jaggerbush said.

“No tackle today,” I said, “One hand below the belt.”

We used to play tackle when we got bored with playing tab until I sacked Billy Boy McCaffrey so hard he shattered his elbow then was dumb enough to tell his mother how it happened. If someone else got hurt, I’d get blamed for sure. No more tackle football in the Red Brick Alley, at least until it snowed, all because Billy Boy’s bones were made in China.

“Is that you Jaggerbush? These eyes of mine aren’t what they used to be,” Old Lady Tully said. “Child, come give me a hug.”

“Can I play with my Matchbox cars in your yard?”

“Heavens, yes. Anything to keep you from playing with those hooligans.”

“Fatoholic!” First Round said, pumping his football like he was going throw it at her.

“And that awful brother of yours is the worst of the bunch,” she said.

“What did I do, now? If it wasn’t for me these guys would shatter all your windows and lob enough firecrackers in your house to make a mushroom cloud.”

“Because you know better, Ringer,” she said. “Be mindful of my water pipes, Jaggerbush.”

Her stupid pipes were already dug-up where Jaggerbush played behind her hedges. He’d built a mini mountain range back there and carved canyons and smoothed out a whole bunch of roads for his Matchbox cars. He even filled little moats with water from the spigot she banned us from touching, even if we were dying of thirst.

First Round and Antonio swapped a few touchdowns. First Round was better than Antonio, he was better than everyone except me, but unless he picked off one of my pinpoint passes, which he wouldn’t, the score would seesaw back and forth for eternity. I could hear Jaggerbush beeping pretend horns and making crashing noises and fake screaming behind the bushes. Old Lady Tully fell asleep in her porch chair with an Iron City bottle in her hand. She snored almost as loud as she burped.

Three long-haired guys were loafing down on the avenue. They all wore flannel lumberjack shirts and giant clodhoppers, the kind with red laces you had to loop through those little triangle fasteners. I didn’t recognize them. They were bigger than us, and one was way bigger. He had to be in the eighth grade at least. They headed our way.

“Little man, let us play,” the biggest one said to me. He had black whiskers on his upper lip.

“We’ll take you boys on,” First Round said.

“They just want to steal your ball,” Antonio said.

Antonio was right, these punks were up to no good, and I was on a mission to stay out of trouble.

“Let them go ahead try,” First Round said.

The three of us were only in the sixth grade, but First Round didn’t have any back-down in him. He didn’t care who you were or how big you were. When grown men chased us for throwing snowballs at their cars, he’d stand his ground like he was fighting the final battle of Armageddon. We’d have to drag him away when we took off running. He was a good athlete, too. There was no way he could beat me, but he was still good. Once after he scored three touchdowns for Saint Augie’s fifth-and-sixth-grade JV team he heard someone’s dad say he was destined to go pro. First Round told that man he’d be drafted in the first round. That’s how his nickname switched from Wheelie to First Round.

“Sorry, man, we already have a game going,” I said.

Baby Mustache snorted then turned his head spit a hawker. He raised his chin toward Jaggerbush making his sound effects in Old Lady Tully’s bushes, “What’s wrong with him?”

“He’s no good at sports,” Antonio said. “Can’t throw…”

“He some sort of water-head?” Baby Mustache laughed.

“There ain’t a thing wrong with him,” my feet stepped toward him all on their own. His jaw was too high for me to punch, I’d have to jump to reach it. I tried to control myself.

“You got yourself a game,” I said.

I told the long-haired bums our rules. One hand below the belt, the telephone poles marked the goal lines, curbs were the sidelines, parked cars were in bounds, first down if you crossed the fireplug, and five Mississippi rush with one blitz every four downs. I could tell the way they eyed us up they weren’t paying attention. I told First Round to kick off so I could get down field with a full head of steam.

We usually tried to keep it clean. I mean, if you left your feet to make a catch, and we had a clean shot, you were getting hit. But, it wasn’t like we were looking to hospitalize anyone. Unless you started it.

Those long-haired boys were out for blood right from the opening whistle. When they jammed you at the line of scrimmage they aimed for your windpipe. They grabbed handfuls of your shirt and tried to toss you on your head, and they blatantly kicked you in the shins with those clodhoppers of theirs. I hadn’t been elbowed and kneed so much since our last King-of-the-Mountain Wrestling Extravaganza.

Neither Antonio or First Round could get open. The other team was so stupid they didn’t understand what pass interference was, and we weren’t about to call penalties and look like a pack of sissies. I told First Round to play quarterback and hit me deep. He uncorked an intercontinental ballistic missile. I flipped my nitro switch. I barely got my hands on the ball, but it stuck like I was wearing stickum. Baby Mustache zeroed in on me. I floored it for the goal line.

“Touchdown!” First Round yelled. “Eat that!”

Baby Mustache jacked me in the back real so hard my legs spun faster than they knew how. Wind hit my face like I was falling, but instead of down, I flew forward like I was tied to the back of a runaway bus. Next thing I knew, a parked AMC Hornet road-blocked me. It was too close to dodge. I hurdled up onto its rusty trunk and my momentum carried me up the back window, over its green roof, and all the way down the front hood. I cleared the whole car.

“Hey, Snidely Whiplash, he was already in the end zone,” First Round ran toward us.

I shook my head at First Round. I didn’t want him starting a fight I’d have to finish. If I could just make it through the game, I’d be home free.

“I thought you girls wanted to play football,” Baby Mustache said, “Not spin the bottle.”

“Check the scoreboard,” Antonio said. “We’re beating your behinds.”

“Shut up, sickle cell.”

I stood between them and said, “Let’s just play.”

First Round’s yellow head reared back and he squinted at me like I was blurry.

“Then kick off and quit crying,” Baby Mustache said.

The game went from dirty to pigsty filthy. Baby Mustache blasted a forearm shiver into my jawbone so hard my ears popped. The cheater covering Antonio head-slapped him in his eye socket. Antonio went down for the count. First Round didn’t hesitate, he punched that cheap-shot artist square in his mouth. Nobody said timeout or break it up or cool it. The game was over.

Antonio and First Round and the two rats they were covering collapsed into a pile of kicking, punching, hair-pulling, head-butting, eye-gouging rock ‘em sock ‘em. I booked toward them. Guess I’d have to give peace a shot some other day. Baby Mustache headed me off at the pass. I wasn’t jumping on top of that pile unless I went through him first.

Pow!

I didn’t see that coming. He clocked me upside my head with a roundhouse that sent me spinning like the Tasmanian Devil. I had to put my hand on the ground to keep from hitting the canvas, which was weird because I’d never been knocked down with one punch before.

We both hauled off and started swinging. His knuckles felt hard as a radiator against my face, and I still couldn’t reach his chin. I put my head down and rhinoed in for a tackle.

Ka-Blam! He Karate kicked me in the forehead with his clodhopper. I hit the bricks hard.

Thwack! He booted me in the solar plexus. He must’ve knocked my distributor cap off because my engine stalled out.

“I’m going to pulverize you,” he said.

I couldn’t budge. Antonio and First Round were getting whooped even worse than me. At least we could say we won the game.

Splat!

Baby Mustache screamed, “I’m blinded!”

A wad of mud the size of a grenade hit him smack in the eye, and stuck. He went to yank it off, then stopped. He was probably scared the suction would rip his eyeball out of his head the same way Silly-Putty pulled comics off the Sunday paper.

Plop!

That one hit him dead in the ear hole. He shrieked and shook his head like a wet dog.

Jaggerbush stood in Old Lady Tully’s yard with a pile of mud balls stacked up in a cannonball pyramid. He turned his aim on the two that were beating up First Round and Antonio. He whistled like a bottle rocket with every throw. I wouldn’t say he threw like a girl. He didn’t throw like a human either. He held his hand up in the air like each mud ball was a magic amulet that would send enemy hordes running at the mere sight of it. Then he’d bend over backwards, way over, and launch his body forward like a catapult. No, wait, not a catapult, more like one of those giant lever thingamajigs, the ones with a rope attached that whipped boulders over fortress walls back in the days of Excalibur. Jaggerbush didn’t miss, and he scored all headshots to boot. They didn’t know what hit them.

You never have more strength than after teetering on the brink of certain death. It was like being bombarded with gamma rays, and if there was one thing everyone on the North Side of Pittsburgh knew, it was how to get your licks in when you could.

I sprung up and punched the mud ball stuck in Baby Mustache’s eye. He fell. I went rapid-fire on his face with both fists. His skull clonked against the bricks.

The rat waling on Antonio charged Jaggerbush’s position. I peeled out to intercept him.

Sploosh!

A mud ball flew inside his mouth. He gurgled and gagged then bent over and hacked and retched, you would’ve thought he accidentally took a swig of battery acid.

He didn’t see me coming, and I didn’t have to jump to reach his chin. I wound up and threw a fastball punch. I saw a chunk of gravel jammed between the thick treads of his clodhoppers when he flew.

I ran up behind the one sitting on First Round’s chest. I looped my hand in his long hair and swung his head into the door of a pumpkin-colored Pinto, bang-bang-bang-bang-bang.

“Ringer! Leave those poor boys alone!” Old Lady Tully yelled.

I let the punk go. He zigzagged toward the Perrysville Avenue like he was dizzy and caught up with the other two cowards. The Pinto’s orange door looked like it caught chickenpox.

“Go back to sleep, tub of lard!” First Round yelled.

“I warned you, Ringer,” she rocked herself back and forth in her chair until she had enough momentum to stand up, “I’m calling your mother this instant.”

She clunked back inside on her cane. I didn’t argue with her. It was no use. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t stay out of trouble.

First Round screamed at our enemies down on the avenue. He promised to torture and kill them and then use their dead bodies as tackling dummies if they ever came back. Antonio whined about the butt-whipping he was sure to catch from his mother because his school shirt was all tore up.

Blap!

A mud ball hit Antonio right in the butt.

“Ow! Hold your fire. I’m on your side.”

“You ever going to say I can’t throw again?” Jaggerbush said, holding a mud ball over his head.

Antonio ran and balled himself up behind our first-down fireplug.

I went to tell Jaggerbush to leave him be, Antonio was beat-up bad enough for one day. But Jaggerbush was back behind Old Lady Tully’s hedges making engine-revving sound effects and talking to himself in different voices while he pushed his Matchbox cars around in the dirt.

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