By Frederick Alimonti
Chapter 1 – Igor
Thanks to Sam and her “reverse dare,” I was about to step into “Cemetery Alley” at night. We must be crazy, this place creeps me out in broad daylight; no one ever goes here at night, I thought to myself. Yet there we were, about to follow “Igor” into the tangle of brambles that marked the entrance to Cemetery Alley and whatever secret business brought Igor there night after night.
One thing for sure, Igor was the least likely candidate to hold the keys to an alternate reality, and Whitestone, Queens, New York City, may be the last place you would ever expect to find anything remotely interesting, let alone extraordinary. Whitestone’s only claim to fame was the massive “Bronx-Whitestone” Bridge that stretches across the East River and connects Queens to the Bronx. Few have reason to stop in the small town on the Queens side. Flushing (yes, I know what you’re thinking, but that’s its name), just next door, got all the glory as the home to the Mets and the site of a World’s Fair some years back.
Igor was the most despised tenant of the Whitestone Garden Apartments. None of us kids knew his real name. No one cared. He was mean. He was strange. He was alone. And all he ever did was yell at us. Call him a legend, an institution, whatever. He had been there at least as long as the courtyard grass - worn down by play to almost nothing. He walked hunched-over and with a limp, wearing the same tattered overcoat, winter or summer, so, naturally, he became Igor. No one remembers when.
He lived in a first floor apartment. Other than his continuous muttering to himself, he spoke to no one, other than to yell at us. Some said he had a family, once. If so, I had never seen them. He had no friends. Not a soul ever went to his door, let alone inside his apartment – just him and his cats - dozens of them would come and go.
If we played too loud or too late, he would bellow at us from his first-floor window, sometimes clacking a wooden spoon or spatula against the window shudder. “Beat it you delinquents; I’m calling the cops!” Reminding us that we were on “Private Property” was his favorite taunt – whatever that meant.
We would mock him and yell back, “shut up you old fart!” or simply, “EEEEEGORRRR, EEEEEGORRRR!” He would rant and rave a bit more; shake his fist at us, and then finally slam his window shut in apparent disgust.
But somehow, he always won in the end; he just sort of deflated us. Our game would invariably break up or move elsewhere. Something about the way we were brought up about respecting and even “obeying” our elders resonated in us, and we would just move on.
In 1973, my world extended to about a three block radius from the corner of 20th Avenue and 146th Street. The courtyard at the Garden Apartments was our playground. It was rectangular in shape and edged by a sidewalk that peeled off at intervals to the stoops of the twelve two-story four- apartment building that surrounded it. Each apartment had a “courtyard view.” A park a few blocks further down 20th Avenue marked the far end of our territory.
Samantha Davis, Bobby Laponte, Mike Cerbone, Jessica.”Jessie,” Stratta and I were hanging out by one of the courtyard benches. Only Mike sat on the bench. The rest of us either leaned against it or sprawled out in the grass. My Schwinn Stingray and Mike’s cobbled-together “junk bike” stood nearby on their kickstands. Mike was my next-door neighbor. We were the two outsiders. The kids in the apartments liked to tease us and call us “royalty” because we both lived in a “private house”. The Garden Apartment kids even had their own language. When Sam first told me she had a “Super,” I had visions of some guy with a cape and a red “S” on his chest. I was really disappointed when I met the short, chubby man with the toolbox, the “Superintendent.”
“Why won’t they let me take two languages?” Sam complained. “How am I going to go anywhere knowing just English and either French, Spanish, or Italian? I should be able to a take second foreign language, and seriously, what about something a bit more exotic like Chinese or Hindi? This curriculum is painfully pedestrian.” As she spoke, she sketched out a circle in the dirt with a stick and began carving out little continents inside it. “Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia. I think that’s the proper sequence for my travels,” she said, as she poked at her map.
“Sam, there’s so much to do here in the U.S. Why would you want to be so quick to leave?” I asked.
“Are you kidding, Richie? A plane trip away, and I can walk in the footsteps of Julius Caesar, Heracles, Buddha, or Confucius. That idea just blows me away, that this whole world is so much closer than it ever was. I can meet people who not only look different from us or speak a different language, but who think differently too!” Sam responded enthusiastically. “Won’t that be amazing!?”
“Not really,” Mike replied blandly. “Bad water, contaminated food, malaria, parasites, diarrhea, smelly people, lousy weather, and no English spoken. I’ll pass.”
“Mike, seriously, when exactly did you have a personality-ectomy? Or were you born this way?”
“Sam; I’ve got tons of personality. That’s why I don’t need to travel around like a vagrant for adventure. I get them in my mind.”
“Adventure in your mind. That’s a good one!” Bobby mocked. “It’s a good thing you get your adventures are in your mind. I doubt you’ll ever leave Queens you friggin chicken.”
Mike made no reply.
It had been a short first week at school with no homework for the weekend. We were all a bit overwhelmed with our introduction to middle school at I.S.24. Changing classes and a bewildering array of teachers, by subject, was a far cry from the nearly stationary existence of grammar school. And while just a few months ago, we had reigned supreme as sixth-graders, now we were at the bottom of the heap. Eighth graders who had been in our place just last year seemed to perpetually sneer at us, while the 9th graders sneered at the 8th graders and could not even be bothered to look at us – we weren’t worth the effort. I knew I would be above all of this when my time came to move up. Sam too. We would be far more magnanimous upper-classmen.
It was still summer-warm, and I tried to convince myself that school had not started for real - that the past three days had just been just an interruption of my vacation. “School starts for real on Monday,” I kept telling myself. It was just Saturday morning, yet Monday was already looming large.
Unlike the boring houses where Greg and I lived, the garden apartments offered endless adventures. We spent most of our time in and around the courtyard, but a whole new world awaited just behind. There were curving walkways with dirt paths to the side, leading behind buildings, through bushes, and to places where it seemed no one ever had any business going. The dirt paths had been worn down by us kids to the point where some were as hard as asphalt. And then there were the basements; dark, damp, dripping basements accessible by ancient stairwells along the sides of the buildings– dungeons into which no one dared venture.
Cemetery Alley, as we came to call it, was the path we most feared, yet were oddly most drawn to. It bore no resemblance to a real cemetery. It just creeped us out like one. It cut like a trench through an overgrown area between the backsides of two massive garage buildings. The brick backs of the garages were mostly hidden by ancient bushes and tangles of vines. Many of the bushes to the side of the trail stood taller than us, and in some places their topmost branches arched over our heads, creating a tunnel.
The Alley had its own personality. It frightened us, yet, at the same time, beckoned us to enter. It was a tease. I can’t recall ever seeing a ray of sunshine in Cemetery Alley. It excluded light and warmth. All my memories of Cemetery Alley are cold memories. As the day grew late and darkness descended – that could be as early 4:00 on a winters day – just before we all went home, we would try to slowly walk the length of the Alley. Sometimes we would lock arms abreast, but this was hard with all the brush and brambles around. Sam and I were always close.
One November evening, just after some touch football, and as the sun was fading just above the buildings, we made our way to the Alley. It was an unspoken agreement. No one said, “hey, it’s time to walk the Alley.” We just naturally and quietly made our way there. We proceeded down to the driveway and behind the garages. Bobby, Mike, and Jessie led the way. Sam and I brought up the rear. Just barely down the trail, the real world faded away. The swish of cars from nearby Parson’s Boulevard vanished, blocked out as if walled off. A few yards in, and we were alone. It was colder, damper.
“What’s that?!” Bobby asked, as he stopped and stooped to look beneath a dying bush to the right of the trail.
We all gathered around. The skeleton of some long dead animal lay in the brush. Two empty eye-sockets from the fist-sized skull stared back at me. Someone in our group let out a whaling moan. The moan grew loud and shrill until, finally, it was a full blown scream. And then, as if on cue, we all sprinted the full length of the Alley, screaming our lungs out until we squeezed our way out in the gap between two garages at the far end. As we ran, each of us conjured up our demon of choice and did our best to outrun it. We emerged in the small parking lot just off of 20th Avenue. Civilization, the traffic on 20th Avenue, the noise, the rows of friendly houses, and the last glow of daylight pushed back our fear and welcomed us back to the real world.
The skull was unusual. It could be the crack of a twig, branches rubbing and whining in the wind, the chatter of the clotheslines that ran above our heads. No matter the source, we dared fear to find us, and it always did. Our snail’s pace accelerated to the same wild banshee sprint through the gap and into the parking lot. Then we would all laugh, call someone or another “chicken!” and call it a day.
It was always the same. And always with the last streaks of daylight in the sky. Never at night. No one dared venture into Cemetery Alley at night. Not yet, anyway.
Chapter 2 – A Game of Monopoly
The rain streamed down Sam’s living room window, and the courtyard blurred and melted like a surreal painting on the other side of the glass. All the green in the trees and grass somehow faded to gray. There was no lightning or thunder, just a heavy, steady driving rain. Branches from the bush outside the window scraped and squeaked against the glass in the breeze.
“You’re doomed, Richie” Sam proudly announced, as she planted bright red hotels on Boardwalk and Park Place. My airplane token sat on my measly Marvin Gardens with a single house on it – one of my few holdings that had not been mortgaged. Monopoly could be a cruel game.
“I give up. You win. Let’s do something else.”
“No way,” Sam declared. I’ve got you where I want you, and I will not be denied my victory and your inevitable agonizing death.”
“Awe come on.”
“Roll the dice.”
“Come on Sam, I forfeit.”
“Roll. . . the . . .dice,” she calmly repeated, while she picked them up between her fingers and awaited my upheld palm. I rolled and moved.
“Park Place with a hotel. That will finish you.” Sam declared.
“Like I’ve told you a million times Richie, you just don’t have a head for business. Whatever you end up doing, I suggest you stick to the creative side, and leave the business end to someone like me.”
“Well, if you two can take a break from buying up the world, I have some hot chocolate for you.” Sam’s mom came in from the kitchen with two steaming mugs on a tray. She wore her usual pink terrycloth bathrobe with matching fuzzy slippers. Her hair was in a towel, turban style. “It’s a bit off-season, but it somehow seemed like a hot chocolate kind of day.”
“Actually mom, I already own the world, but so far I’ve decided to let Richie live in it a little longer. Technically, that would make him a squatter, but I’ll put up with him.”
“Well, that’s very magnanimous of you my land baron child”
“Funny Mom. Thanks for the cocoa.” Sam’s mom put the tray on the coffee table and tapped a kiss on Sam’s cheek while she was bending over.
“Thanks Mrs. D!” I added.
“And don’t be a sore winner; it’s very ungracious,” Mrs. D. added as she left the room.
We put the game away and sipped our drinks.
“Do you ever wonder about Igor?” Sam asked somewhat randomly.
“Not really,” I replied.
“Think about it Richie, in his own strange way, he is kind of a legend – at least the closest thing to a legend we have around here. We all make up stories about him. He scares us. But what do we know about him? Nothing. Some say he used to be ‘normal,’ that he had a wife, a family. Do you even know his real name? It’s on his mailbox. His name is Douglas Campbell. Quite an ordinary name, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, I suppose so.”
“Well, the other night I saw something strange. I woke up around midnight feeling a little restless. I heated myself up some milk in the kitchen. I shut off the lights and sipped it right here on this couch looking out the window and across the courtyard. I saw Igor come out of his building. He walked off the courtyard, turned on a flashlight and continued back toward the garages. I tried to stay awake until he got back, but I didn’t make it. Interesting, don’t you think?”
“Kind of, I guess.”
“Awe come on, think about it! This mysterious man who scares the heck out of us sneaks out his apartment in the middle of the night with a flashlight. What is he doing? Where does he go? We have to investigate!” she implored.
“Why we? Why us?” I asked.
“Come on. He doesn’t have a car, and he took a flashlight. He must be going somewhere close. We have to follow him.”
“Sure. I’ll just tell my mom:
Me: Mom, can I stay out all night to follow some creepy guy behind the garden apartments?”
Mom: Sure Richie, but that sounds a little dangerous. I’ll feel much better if you take a flashlight AND A PISTOL FOR DEFENSE!
“Oh Richie, why do you have to be such a jerk? We’ll have to sneak out. There’s no way we ever get permission for this.”
“It sounds like a sure grounding to me, or worse,” I replied.
Sam sipped her hot chocolate, twirled her hair around, and stared at the ceiling. “Ohh Kaaayy,” she half sang, “Let’s talk it over with the others. We need to come up with a plan.”
Chapter 3 – Andy and Steve
I never saw Andy or Steve without the other; they were a matched set. They were both sixteen years-old, and they were downright mean. Steve was the smart one, and Andy was the big one. Steve wore an olive drab army jacket; Andy wore a bomber jacket. Steve did nearly all of the talking, more often taunting actually, while Andy just echoed a few of Steve’s choice words. Steve was wiry, while Andy was a brooding hulk of a guy. They both drank, and I don’t mean Pepsi. Steve was what you would call a mean drunk, but meaner might be more accurate, given that his usual disposition was far from sunny.
If we were mean to Igor. They were downright cruel. We only reacted to Igor. They targeted him. When they caught Igor outside, they would bounce alongside him, and get in his face – one on each side. Steve would threaten to drown a cat or tie and M-80 to its tail. I didn’t think Steve would ever make good on his threats, but the threat was awful enough.
When we were playing touch football, they would often take over the game - that is if they just didn’t kick us off the field outright. They would declare themselves “team captains,” and we either played along with it, or got booted. It was easier for us just to let them play, except for Bobby. Bobby did not surrender so easily.
Bobby lived alone with his mother, and his father used to beat him, often. Finally, his mother divorced the son-of-a-bitch, and he moved away. At least that’s what Bobby told us. He could have been in jail, or dead as far as we knew. Bobby didn’t talk much about it. But he wore scars on his arms and chest like badges of honor. If one of us got a cut or a bruise, he would roll up his sleeve and proclaim, “That’s nothing. Look what a brass belt buckle can do.” He called his father “the old man,” never “my old man.” I guess once you know you can take the worst a bully can dish out, they never quite phase you the same way again, and, as far as I could tell, Bobby feared nothing. He had no problem telling Andy and Steve where to stick it, and to hell with the consequences. To do doing anything less wouldn’t be “honorable,” he told us.
Once, just after we had chosen sides, Andy and Steve rose up from the steps that led from the courtyard down to the driveway. Since there were five of us, Bobby, who had the best arm, was “designated quarterback” for both teams. He threw a practice pass to Sam, who caught it easily.
“Hey Sam, over here!” Steve shouted, making a cradle for the ball with his arms about chest-high.
“No Sam, throw to me,” Bobby countermanded.
Reflexively, Sam threw the ball back to Bobby “Come on Bobby, show me whatcha got. Bring it in right here.” Steve held his hands out again, this time above his head. Bobby held the ball casually in one hand and turned his back to Steve without saying a word.
“Find your own damn game.” Bobby called out over his shoulder.
“Oh yeah, I forgot, you’re the tough guy,” Steve sneered. “We’ll just see about that.”
Andy and Steve rushed at Bobby. Bobby dodged both of them. Then he tossed the ball to me. I caught it. Andy and Steve rushed at me. But Bobby was already about ten feet to my side. I lateraled the ball back him. Andy and Steve shifted toward him. Bobby lateraled to Sam, and Sam to Mike. This went on for about a minute. Andy and Steve never came close to getting the ball, so they just went after Bobby, and Bobby couldn’t dodge them forever. Finally, Andy grabbed hold of Bobby. He held Bobby’s arms back, and Steve gut punched him. Bobby hunched over. He couldn’t speak, just wheeze, and I saw tears well up in his eyes.
“Are you happy now?” I asked.
Andy let Bobby loose, and Bobby doubled over clutching his stomach.
Steve shoved me hard in the shoulder, “you wanna be next?”
“Why can’t you guys just leave us alone?”
“Why would we do that? We like you kids?” Steve replied as he pinched my cheek. “This was more fun than football anyway.” Andy and Steve exchanged “High Fives,” and walked away. Before they exited the courtyard. Steve turned around. “This isn’t over Bobby. You need a reminder on respecting your elders!?
“Yeah, respect your elders,” Andy echoed, chuckling to himself.
A few days later, Bobby showed up with a major black eye. None of us asked, but we all knew it had to be them. If you pissed off older kids, you caught a beating. It was that simple, and right and wrong had nothing to do with it.
We would get even with them eventually - and in a manner so grand and final that we dared not even imagine it.
Chapter 4 –“Pow Wow”
With all the commotion from Andy and Steve, our meeting about Igor had to wait a day.
Mike had a tool shed in his backyard. There were never many tools in it, and his parents eventually let him claim it as a clubhouse. It had some sort of fake red brick on the outside made of tar paper and a peaked shingled roof. It had one door, one window, and a bench built into one wall. I doubt an adult could have lied down in it without his head and feet touching opposite sides, but it worked for us. It was ours. Mike forbade his little sister Lisa to ever go in it – she was not part of the club. He padlocked the door when the clubhouse was not in use.
Sam had called the meeting.
“Okay, here’s the story,” she announced. “It’s about Igor. We have to follow him.”
“Yeah, that sounds like a blast,” Mike replied. “I’m sure that would be sooooo interesting. Who knows, maybe we can even adopt a kitten.”
Mike was not known for his enthusiasm.
“Seriously Mike, can you not be a complete ass for just a minute and listen,” Sam replied.
“Yeah, let’s hear her out,” Bobby added.
Sam told the whole story –the restless night, Igor’s appearance with the flashlight, and his disappearing around the back.
Jessie twirled her blonde ponytail and harped in, “I really don’t see the point. I mean it’s kind of odd, but is it worth sneaking out at night in the blind. How do we know he’ll even come out? Sure, you saw him that one night, but that might be the end of it. It could have been a fluke.”
Jessie was the voice of reason in our group. Sam was quickest to rush in. Mike seldom wanted to do anything, and Bobby was always up for something risky. Jessie had balance. She was not negative, but she tended to think things through and offer good suggestions, even if she wasn’t particularly encouraging at times.
“You have a point,” Sam conceded. “We need more information.”
Sam and Bobby lived in apartments that had a view of Igor’s apartment. They agreed to take turns observing Igor’s late night habits. If the strange walks continued, following him would be “Plan B.” For now, Plan “A” was basic reconnaissance.