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The Way Things Used To Be, Marble Season

May 4, 2008
A new guy by the name of Barry Bogardus had moved into the neighborhood and he and his friend Kenny Nails would come round, hands in the pockets of their camel's hair overcoats, sneering at us and making fun of the way we looked or dressed.

They were especially critical of Cedric. "Tell your shoes to have a party and invite your pants down," they'd say, or they'd call him 'Seedric,' which they thought was particularly hilarious. They'd dig their hands into their overcoat pockets, press their feet together, bend their knees and rotate their hips side to side like windshield wipers to show how hard they were laughing.

Cedric just stood, mouth half-open, looking stunned. But his mouth was always half-open; he always looked stunned. We'd noticed that and way the expression on his face never changed, but figured it was because he didn't want to make his mother more nervous about him than she already was. We never mentioned it, but it got on Barry Bogardus's nerves, and anything that bothered Bogardus bothered Kenny Nails.

Barry was fourteen and big and strong and had a spike haircut on top and long hair on the sides slicked back into a 'duck's-ass.' None of us had ever seen a haircut like that before, or teen-aged boys in camel's hair overcoats, pegged gray flannel trousers and black loafers with shiny quarters stuck in the straps either. We thought of them as a major new experience for the neighborhood, because we didn't know the Germans were gassing Jews at Auschwitz or that their submarines were sinking our ships off our coast or that they'd launched their attack on Stalingrad.

Kenny Nails had a tough face, spoke without moving his lips, and always had a cigarette dangling from his mouth movie gangster-style. We weren't afraid of him, but Barry's father was a big bookmaker, Barry was on the football team at Horace Mann and had already beaten up two guys from Columbus Avenue. Everybody was afraid of Barry including me.

One day he and Kenny Nails were watching Cedric pick up marbles and stick them into his side pocket and I saw Bogardus whisper something. Kenny Nails nodded and did his windshield wiper laugh.

Bogardus walked over to where Cedric was sitting on the curb and kicked the toe of his black loafer into Cedric's bulging marble pocket. The whole big bulge erupted forth and marbles went bouncing all across 88th Street.

"Hock scramble!" a kid named Red called and the marble shooters ran over to snatch Cedric's marbles. If nobody called "hock scramble" you were supposed to give them back, but once somebody called it you were allowed to keep any you picked up. It was a rule meant for when kids dropped a few marbles accidentally. Nobody had ever intentionally kicked a kid's pocket before and no previous hock scramble had ever been on anything like that scale.

Bogardus and Kenny Nails shoved their hands into their overcoat pockets, bent their knees and shook their hips to laugh at the kids diving for Cedric's marbles, and at the still blank expression on Cedric's face. That made me hate Barry as much as I hated the Japs and Germans. A guy his size and age wasn't supposed to kick the pocket of a kid Cedric's size. But I was afraid to say anything so I just picked up as many as I could and gave them back to Cedric.

He didn't protest; his blank expression didn't change. From then on, he just kept his pocket zipped. He picked up marbles, held them in his tan woolen glove, looked round for Bogardus, Kenny Nails or any other potential pocket-kicker. If the coast was clear, he unzipped his pocket, put in the marbles and zipped it up again.

It reminded me of what Blue Book had said about kids with cigar boxes turning into bankers. I couldn't see Cedric as a banker, but I could see him as the proprietor of a drug store in a bad neighborhood. If he got held up, he wouldn't protest; the expression on his face wouldn't change. He'd just lock the door, and from that time on, open it only for customers he recognized.
About the Author
Herbert Lobsenz studied literature at Heights College, NYU, went into the army during the Korean War and, following Robert Jordan of For Whom The Bell Tolls, became an EOD specialist. His second novel, Vangel Griffin (1961), won the Harper Prize and appeared on the Times best seller list. His latest novel, Succession, will be published in May 2008. Visit Old Time Writer.
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